Monday, March 31, 2014

The Church and the Homeless Wanderer

I saw him from my office, right as I was suiting up in my robe and stole.  He was loping into the fellowship hall, long and lean and thickly dreadlocked, tagging along with a couple of church folks who'd put him up the last time he came through town.

He's homeless, and a wanderer, more or less by choice, drifting around the country on a heavily laden bicycle.  He's not entirely coherent all of the time, but also not negative or aggressive, and rather good company in a shamanic sort of way.  Ah, thought I, recalling the last time I'd chatted with him, when we shared soup and a conversation together. That conversation had been spiritual, wild and rambly, but spiritual.   I anticipated--with some pleasure--an interesting and free-ranging conversation at fellowship hour.

By the time I got into the sanctuary, he was there, sitting with the church family that was hosting him for a few days during a spring of snows and icy slop from the sky, a family that included my liturgist for the day.

I wandered over to say hello to him, as the minutes ticked by before the service was to begin.  He remembered me, and we chatted for a bit.  Then the liturgist asked if I would mind, if it would be OK, if it would be alright with me if their guest read the scriptures in worship.

Well, hum.  

I processed for half a second, my cortex running risk assessment and probability subroutines.  It's a Presbyterian compulsion, I suppose.  Likelihood of an awkward fifteen minute pulpit excursus into Rastafarianism and the influence of the Global Illuminati?  Fourteen point two percent.  Nonzero, but also unlikely.

Then I said, "Sure."  I mean, really.  Why not?  Live a little.  If you have a worship in your home, and a guest is willing to participate, why wouldn't you invite them to be a part of it?  Seemed like a no-brainer.  We Presbyterians struggle with no-brainers, but we're working on it.

And so with a minute to go before worship, he and I went up to the pulpit.  I asked if he wanted to use his bible, and he said he'd rather use the big one in the pulpit.  Good thinking, I said.

So I showed him the texts, and where they were.  I explained how we do responsive readings.  He listened intently, and asked questions, and seemed eager to participate in the worship.

So when the time came for the first reading, up came the wanderer, long and lean and thickly dreadlocked.  He took us through the responsive reading of Psalm 23, and then read through the first seventeen verses of John 9.

Then he went back to the pew, and sat.  I gave him a thumbs up, and he smiled.  And that was that.

When I preached on John and the blind beggar and the Pharisees, on the importance of not assuming that any condition of life should be judgmentally attributed to sinfulness or spiritual flaw?  When I said that it was important that we really see and be in encounter with the souls around us?  

It felt like it bore more weight, somehow.

You know, because it was something real.  

Saturday, March 29, 2014

How Christians Go To War

Someone asked me recently what I think about war.  So let me share a story first, one that was shared with me last week.

An old and dear friend recently returned from a trip to Africa, and we sat, and we talked over some Dogfishhead 90 Minute Ales.  

He's a doctor, who juggles time between a practice that pays the bills and volunteering days of his time a week at free clinics in Southeast and in the DC jail system.  

And though he's neither Catholic nor a person of any avowed faith, he has for the last several years provided his services to a Catholic mission hospital in the Sudan.  But this time, it was not just the challenge of being the only hospital for a hundred miles in a desperately poor region that was at play.  One million people.  One hospital.  Total staff: one doctor, and a handful of nurses.  To add a twist, there is something new:

Sudan is at war.  Forces from the Sudan are pressing into the South Sudan, trying to clear out that region, with the stated intent of driving Christians and animists from their land so that Sudan can be fully Islamic.  And by "Islamic," I mean, "under the control of Bashir."

When my friend was there, there were two doctors, for a while.  But it was more than he could bear.  

There were overflights, regularly, by Sudanese Antonovs, and the Sukhoi fighters that Putin has so graciously provided to Bashir's regime.  Midway through procedures, the staff would have to flee to foxholes, as taking out the one hospital providing hope to the region might prove so demoralizing that folks would finally abandon hope.  He'd lie in that foxhole, and think about being a Daddy to his daughters back home, and wonder, why the hell am I here?

So there was that.

And then there was the day he was midway through a biopsy for a local man whose tumors had grown into a vast flesh collar around his neck...and then suddenly trucks roared into the hospital, filled with the dead and dying.  A barrel bomb had been dropped from a Sudanese Antonov right smack into the middle of a marketplace.  There were scores of the critically injured.  There were two doctors.  Both were general practitioners.

But they operated.  And watched teenage boys die, the life heaving out of them.  And tried to remove shrapnel from what was left of the faces of pregnant women.  There were many, many amputations. Blood was everywhere.  There were hours and hours of frantic surgeries, not in an army hospital with logistical support, but in the dust and dirt of a hospital with barely more supplies than your local MinuteClinic. 

Kids. Women. Fruit merchants.  Dead or forever shattered.  My friend took a long drink from his beer.

"I don't care what they say it is.  War?  War?  It's nothing but murder.  No different.  There is no difference."

And therein lies the challenge, I think, for Christians that wish to take up the sword.  We may equivocate, and find elegant ways to justify the territorial squabblings of nations, as if they are somehow more cosmically significant than two neighbors punching it out over where the fence runs between their properties.  

But the reality of shattered bodies and dying breaths, the ruined potential of a life, that is the great and noble reality of war.  That is the reality known by our Creator.  The shining romantic fantasies of nationalism are, in the face of the reality of war, just a form of insanity.

What do I think of what it looks like for a Christian to go to war?

For that, I turn to another story.  This one is from the Bible, a story of my namesake.  It is the story of a great victory, as the forces loyal to King David routed the insurrection of his son Absalom.  

David loved Absalom dearly, and wanted only that they be father and son again.

Although David had given direct orders that Absalom not be slain, his realpolitik-enforcer/thug/general Joab would have none of it.  Joab knew what war was, and when Absalom was found, Joab himself insured he was killed.

David, on hearing of the death of the recalcitrant child who he loved with all of his heart, was shattered.   He wept, overwhelmed with the loss of his beloved son.  Joab, of course, would have none of it.  It ruined the celebration, and demoralized the troops.  He forced David to stop his embarrassing and counterproductive mourning at the loss of a child with whom he hoped to reconcile.  "You show you love the ones who hate you," spat Joab, as he threatened to abandon David.  "That means you hate the ones who love you."  Then Joab bullied him into sitting before the troops as they marched by in triumph.

Joab is the spirit and truth of war.  But David?  

Joab said it best.  "You show you love the ones who hate you."

David's reaction gets us to the truth of what it means for a Christian to take up the sword.  The one you are bombing or sniping is God's child, more deeply loved by God than Absalom was loved by David.  Maybe they are broken. Maybe they are wrong, or in the service of a tyrant. But that does not change the reality of God's love for them.  

If you are a Christian, you must believe this.  If you do not, then you should set aside the illusion that Christ is your Lord.

Can a Christian go to war?  Of course.  

But to be authentically Christian, you must love the one you take up the sword against, as if they are your own baby.  Your own daughter.  Your own son.

And that is hard and terrible.

Because war is real, and that reality is a hard and terrible thing.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Most Dangerous Faith

From my reading of Reza Aslan's peculiar and confounding Zealot, I turned back to reading Tolstoy.  In particular, I turned to reading Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You, his spiritual and theological magnum opus.

It is, in its own way, every bit as challenging as Zealot, but for completely opposite reasons.

Reza Aslan spins out a Jesus who--oddly enough--looks exactly like the zealous warrior-prophet who founded his faith.  Tolstoy presents us with something that could not be more radically different. He goes to the core teachings of Jesus, and says, in a very straightforward way: this is what we are meant to do.

No violence. Resistance to injustice, sure, but it must be nonviolent. No retribution. Selflessness. Love for all creatures, as if they were our own children.


All the energies we pour into arguing about doctrinal issues and power struggles and rooting out heresy?  Pointless distractions.  That energy needs to go into being the human creatures that can legitimately say: we are inhabiting and manifesting the Reign of God.

What he has been casting out, as I have read this book, is the most detailed Christian anarchist manifesto I've ever read.

And it is also the most dangerous.

Oh, it's tempting to look at the Jesus of Reza Aslan, the one who is willing to take up the sword, and say, "Yikes! Threatening! Scary man with a weapon and a furrin' name!"  We want to go to FoxNews, and to instapundit, and to, where we can angrily rant in the comments section about islamofascism and global jihad.

But the armed and violent Jesus is no threat to our way of life.  In fact, Tolstoy would suggest it is no different from our way of life.  Christendom, and any form of Christian faith that vacillates and equivocates about the use of force to coerce others? That form of faith poses no threat at all to the status quo.  It is already the nature of our world.

But the faith that says: I will not seek power over you, even in opposition? I will not take up the sword, no matter what? This is a frightening, dangerous faith.

It is a direct threat to the entire structure of our society, which rests on power. It does not allow us the swelling heart of pride in the power of our nation, when fighters fly low and in formation. If we did as Tolstoy suggests, we'd be vulnerable.  We'd be unprotected.  Anyone could harm us.

And it threatens us, personally. It does not permit us our revenge fantasies. It does not allow us to yield to the sugar-sweet yearnings of our pride and our fear, and to arm ourselves so that we might be able to take the life of any who come against us or our families.  Again, we are asked to set that aside, and we recoil.

I can't do that.  I struggle with it.  Imagining it feels terrifying.

It is the kind of faith that cuts deep into the heart of who we are, as a people, as persons.

And that is how you know it is real.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

We Don't Need No Administration

It's been a hard last couple of days as a parent in the Fairfax County Public Schools.  Oh, my boys struggle along as they always do, showing that they have the academic aptitude of their father.  God help me, I know how my folks must have felt.

It's not about them and their struggles to be studious.  Neither is it their teachers.  They have some wonderful teachers.  Not all, but most.  The teachers meet my expectations.

It's the layers upon layers above, which add no value at all.  None. They show a remarkable obliviousness to the whole point and purpose of public education.  In point of fact, they feel more like an impediment to public education.

Examples:  My older son went on a wonderful trip with his chorus yesterday.  They're going to Nashville, where they're going to sing and experience that city.  But in preparation for that trip, forms and paranoia.  Every bag had to be pre-searched, meaning parents were required to attend a meeting in which bags were gone through, one by one, like our children were freakin' Al Qaeda.  Parents then had to certify that this had happened, and then the bags had to be locked away.

One long suffering teacher, rolling her eyes, reminded the kids that two things were particularly forbidden.  

First, nothing should be in the bags that could, and I'll use her words here, be considered a weapon by "an insane imagination."  If we've reached the point where both parents and teachers know that the expectations of the administration are insane, perhaps there's a problem.

Second, there could be no home-made food sent with our kids.  No sandwiches.  No cookies.  Nothing.  Prepackaged and processed foods were fine.  But anything else would be considered contraband, and confiscated.  Why?  Because drugs.  And Drugs.  Every cookie could be laced with marijuana!

Again, eye-rolling from parents and from teachers, as wild and mindless fear and lawyer-driven liability-o-phrenia create a reality where we aren't even allowed to send a sandwich on a trip with our own child.

And today, I'd volunteered to drive my younger son to a performance.  He and his class are performing Antigone at the Greek consulate, and I'm going to drive some of them in my van.  But having pulled this whole thing together wonderfully, and secured parent volunteers, the teacher was forced to jump through another hoop.

There was the parental permission slip, of course.  But then there was also another form, which I was made to fill out in order to volunteer to drive my own child and his friends.  That form certified that 1) I had a drivers license, 2) that my vehicle was legal for operation in the state of Virginia, and 3) That my vehicle was insured.  Every single form then needed to be signed and approved by the principal of the school.

So this form did what, exactly?  I could not drive without a license.  Presumably, I did not build my van out of cardboard and aluminum tubing in my garage.  Please certify that you are not breaking the law?  What the Sam Hill is the point of such a thing?  The form was a complete and total waste of time and energy.  Requiring it was just another stressor to lay on top of a teacher who's doing an amazing job trying to create opportunities for her students.

The defining purpose of public education, its reason for being, is to teach our children how to be citizens of a free and democratic republic.  

If our schools feel like a paranoid hyper-bureaucratic police state, they cannot accomplish that goal.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Pastors We See

There are pastors, and there are pastors.

Leadership in the church in America tends to take two very distinct forms.  One, we don't see, in the same way we don't see the air around us.  The other is the only thing we see, because it's so very bright and shiny.

What we don't see is the general reality.

Most congregational leadership exists in the small communities that comprise the vast majority of American churches.  These are the little neighborhood churches, the storefronts, and the gatherings that come together in schools and whatever space they can cobble together.

Within these churches, life revolves around community.  It's small, it's quiet, and faith has an intimate quality.  These little congregations aren't necessarily perfect.  Like human beings, some are sweet and beautiful, some are flawed, some are as mean as a rattlesnake.  But when you're talking about where most pastors reside, you're talking the small church.

That means most pastors don't really make much of a living at it.  They tend to be either poor, part-time, or otherwise employed.  If they're full time, they're lucky to live like waitresses or librarians, warehouse workers or cops.  It is humble work.  But if you're called to it, you don't much care.

They pour their heart and soul into their communities.  Some are great, and some, well, not so much.  But they are the norm.  They are the fat part of that pastoral bell curve.  When we think of what it means to teach and preach and care for a community, this is where most folks are.

AmeriChrist does not show us these people.  It does not wish us to understand the life and purpose of a pastor through their journey.

Instead, AmeriChrist, Inc. shows us the shiny ones, the one-percenters.  They aren't representative of the reality of pastoring, any more than being the CEO of Monsanto represents what it means to be a farmer.

Instead, they are those who have succeeded by every standard our society has established.  Within our culturally mediated expectations of what it means to be excellent, they define what it is to be the best, to be the thing to which every person should aspire.

They have grown a church, or taken over a growing church.  That church has gotten huge.  Big.  Vast.  Books have been published, and then pitched.  There is a campus, and a media empire.  It is shiny and glorious and remarkably lucrative.  This is what we are asked to aspire to.  It becomes our norm. In AmeriChrist, Inc., where the values of the marketplace define what a pastor is and does, pastoral leadership has several key features, features that track along an arc that leads to that shiny place.

First, pastors are Entrepreneurs.  Second, pastors are Managers.  Third, the pastor is the Chief Executive Officer.  And finally, the pastor becomes the Personification of the Brand.

So...what does it look like for a pastor to be an Entrepreneur?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Face of Reza Aslan's Jesus

And it was at this point in reading Zealot that I went for a walk, and prayed for a little while.

I was "couch-bitin'-mad," as they used to say in my college fraternity.  Don't ask.  Really.  Don't ask.

Here is the best-selling book in America, making what felt like a full-frontal certain, so sure...on everything that I hold to be most precious and good about the founder of my faith.  I would not follow Jesus if he was the Jesus Zealot describes, and I'd be lying if I said the bizarro-world Jesus presented by Aslan didn't make me feel like Mr. Furious.

But I walked, and prayed, and walked a little more.  And quiet came.

From the quiet, a thought came to me: does Reza Aslan hate Christians and Christianity?  Is this a book filled with hate?  Is intended as an attack on Jesus?

And in truth, it is not.  Reza Aslan loves Christians.  He does, with all of his heart, and not in an abstract way. He is--as a Muslim--trying to find a way to love the Jesus of his Christian wife and her family, who love him just as he is.

Then what is this strange mess of a book trying to do?

This is not a book that serves the purposes of scholarship.  That's a mistaken assumption, the wrong lens through which to consider his writing. If you try to see it that way, it is unreadably terrible.  Nor is it a Christian book, intended to shape Christian faith. This is a book written for love, the love of a man whose wife does not believe quite as he does.

As a Christian pastor with a Jewish wife, I know what that feels like.

Here, I found myself musing on his Muslim faith.  Not in the manner of FoxNews, whose clumsy attempt at rabble rousing at the expense of Islam probably sold more copies of this book than any glowing review ever could.  [Reminder to self if I ever get published by a large imprint: Go on FoxNews. Get attacked.]

Instead, I thought of it in the manner of someone who is open to interfaith relationships, and also realistically aware of the differentials between faith traditions.

I have studied the Quran at great length.  Cover to cover, I've read the whole thing, in a variety of translations.  I've gone searching for Jesus there, hoping to encounter the heart of what I find in the Gospels.  There's a book in that, somewhere in the future.

What strikes me, in reading Reza Aslan's Zealot, is how his Jesus compares with the Jesus I found described in the Quran.

The Jesus of the Quran isn't at all the Jesus he's describing.  Not at all.  The Quran says many things about Jesus, that are actually wildly and surprisingly orthodox.  According to the Quran, Jesus is given the title Messiah (Al Maeda 75, At-Tauba 31).  He's born of the Spirit of God (Al-Anbiya 91), which impregnates the Virgin Mary.  He preaches with the authority of the Spirit (Al Maeda 110).  Heck, it even says he's going to return on the last day (Aal-e-Imran 55).  There are plenty of churches out there that'd take those as perfectly adequate grounds for membership.

But the Quran makes no claims about his being a revolutionary, a zealous warrior for the truth.  None at all.

Then it struck me, with the force of a full Schweitzer: He's not describing Jesus as if he was the Jesus of the Quran.  Neither is he projecting Jesus from his own identity.  I thought for a while about the ways Aslan praises this Jesus he's envisioned.

His Jesus is a man of humble birth.  He lives in a backwater, an area disrespected by the world.  He looks out at the faith around him, and sees corruption.  A vision of God comes, and he is stirred to take up an uncompromising stance against the powers around him.  He takes up the sword, and gathers followers, and stakes his life in a battle against the powers that have corrupted faith.  This Jesus, after his death, passes real authority on through his bloodline, through his family.

This Jesus is a noble and valiant warrior for justice, a fearless zealot in the service of the Creator of the Universe, one willing to put his life on the line to defend the assertion that Aslan puts into the lips of all zealots: Only the Lord is God.  "Someone worth believing in," as the book concludes.

Having read the Quran, I know that guy.

Reza Aslan's Jesus is the Prophet Mohammed.  Peace be Unto Him.

Yeah, I know, Reza doesn't up and say it.  But the whole book suddenly didn't bother me any more.  It suddenly made sense. It's like talking with a Buddhist who says, you know, I see my Buddha in your Jesus.  Or to a Hindu who sees Krishna in Jesus.

Here's a man who tries to describe Jesus, and finds himself instead describing the very best and most worthy person of his entire faith tradition.  It's hard to take offense at that.

To which I might say, you know, there's more.  There's so much more.

But I wouldn't be angry in the saying of it.

This Is Not the Jesus You're Looking For

Few things about Reza Aslan's Zealot are likely to cheese off more Christians than his assertion that Jesus was a failed violent revolutionary.

For two thousand years, the best spirit of our faith has been radically self-sacrificing and nonviolent.  Oh, sure, we've messed that up on frequent occasion.  But the best and greatest souls of our faith have embraced this teaching.  On those occasion when we've lived into that faith, it's done amazing, world-transforming things.  But Reza Aslan rejects that as a fantasy.  To quote, from his conclusion:
Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul's creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history.  The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defined the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history.
For Reza Aslan, the defining story of the Gospels is the story of the temple cleansing.  It comes up again and again.  That event is the lens through which he sees and interprets the identity of Jesus.  Which is hard to hear, because it is also the most consistent sign--in Christian circles--of someone who doesn't totally get the message of Jesus.  It's the proof-text we go to when we're looking for justification for a fight.  It's the story we let become the whole message, so we can lay some whupass on that person we're itching to tear a new one.

It is that story that shapes Reza Aslan's understanding, of a strong Jesus who lays into wrongdoers.  He loses, but he's willing to fight injustice even in the face of that loss.  And by fight, I mean fight.  The Jesus of Zealot is a dangerous mystic bandit, surrounded by armed followers.

The relentlessness of Aslan's rejection of Christian nonviolence is a solid thread throughout his book. The teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain?  G'bye.  Instead, we hear:
There is no reason to consider Jesus's conception of his neighbors and enemies to have been any more or less expansive than that of any other Jew of his time.  His commands to 'love your enemies' and 'turn the other cheek' must be read as being directed exclusively at his fellow Jews and meant as a model of peaceful relations exclusively within the Jewish community. The commands have nothing to do with how to treat foreigners and outsiders..."
In any case, neither the commandment to love one's enemies nor the pile to turn the other cheek is equivalent to a call for nonviolence or nonresistance. Jesus was not a fool. He understood what every other claimant to the mantle of the messiah understood: God's sovereignty could not be established except through force.
Cobbled together from a selective, fabulistic reading of the Gospels, Zealot's Jesus becomes something utterly different, nothing at all like the Jesus whose nonviolent message is written all over the Gospels and the Epistles, and whose message was clearly lived out by his earliest disciples.  It is not the Jesus whose countercultural message resonated throughout the world, or the Jesus known to history.  It is another Jesus entirely.

It is, however, the very particular Jesus that Reza Aslan seems to be eagerly seeking out.

Who is that Jesus he wants to find?  Following Schweitzer, we have to look at the author himself.  What does he believe?  What is important to him?  Why is he writing this?  Honestly, I was starting to get a little angry.

And with my anger very much in place, I thought about it.

Reza Aslan In Bizarro World

The more I get into it, the more peculiar Zealot becomes.

Reza Aslan's approach to the history and texts that form and shape our understanding of the growth of Christianity is a hot mess.  On the one hand, the story he's telling...and this is storytelling, not totally rooted in the kinds of materials you'd encounter in a competent seminary.  He knows the source material, and uses it, but is so radically selective in how he engages in the text that it's baffling.

On the one hand, he out and out rejects story after story from the canonical Gospels as absurd and obviously flawed.  Take, for example, his approach to the stories of Jesus engaging with the synagogue in Nazareth.  "There was no synagogue in Nazareth," says Reza, with total confidence.  It was a small Jewish village of between 1,500 and 2,000 souls, and they were all--every last one of them, according to the book--illiterate.

He also mentions, in passing, that nothing at all remains of the village as it stood in the time of Jesus. Other historical sources tell us much the same thing.  It was a backwater.  One with a reputation for being a welcoming place for holy people, as an inscription mentions.  But now, nothing remains.  So with no evidence at all, he makes a bold and affirmative statement of certainty about a synagogue that may or may not have existed.  Odd.

And on the other hand, he waxes eloquent about how Jesus certainly followed his father Joseph to a large nearby town looking for work, spinning out a story about how he watched the rich Roman oppressors and grew to hate them.  It is utterly imaginary, but he states it with such confidence.

He has beef with the story of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, because that wasn't the practice in the period after 70 CE. was supposed to have happened before that, you might say.  Well, that doesn't matter, he replies.

It gets odder.  Reza says repeatedly that Christian nonviolence--every saying in every Gospel--only stems from the Gospel writers seeking to make Christianity palatable in the Roman Empire after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.   Jesus never said any of those things, he argues. It all got written in after Jerusalem fell.

In making that assertion about nonviolence, he blunders right on past the continuing debate about the dating of Mark, the earliest Gospel, placing it confidently after the fall of Jerusalem.  He also ignores that most of the Q source sayings--on nonviolence--come from a now-lost document that was likely circulating well before the Gospels were written.  And...bizarrely...he forgets that most of Paul's Epistles predate those Gospels, and that the ethos Paul teaches is completely simpatico with the nonviolent spirit.

It gets odder and odder, as he at one point claims that statements about Paul's importance to the early church are just the work of "sycophants" like Luke, and should be viewed as "ahistorical."  Hwaaat?  I know plenty of really excellent scholars who might have a little bit of an issue with that.

Paul, he suggests, was totally at odds and in conflict with the real leaders of the church, who were really led by Peter and James in Jerusalem.   Paul, we hear, was a frustrated failure, whose influence was ultimately negligible and would have been utterly eliminated if it hadn't been for those meddling Romans.  Oh, and James was the real leader of the early church, because authority in religious movements always has to do with kinship.

If you're a serious scholar of the Bible, it's hard not to want to tear your hair out while reading Zealot.
But nothing, nothing made me more personally frustrated with the book than its view of Christian nonviolence.

So to that in more detail, I will go next.

Reza Aslan, Schweitzer, and the History of Jesus History

My encounter with Reza Aslan's Zealot has been shaped by decades of studying the history of the faith, both personally and as part of graduate and undergraduate work.  I do it for a living, every single week.

That journey began in earnest at the University of Virginia, where I received my degree in Religious Studies.  This weren't no two-bit "bible college" in my grandpappy's garage.  This was Mistah Jeffahson's University.

It was and is a remarkably good program, filled with competent and well-known scholars of religion.  It was also not a seminary.  The purpose of the program was not to train pastors, but to study religion using the tools of historical critical and textual analysis.  Period.

I remember much of it, these decades later, because it lit me up and laid the groundwork for my current faith.  For some, particularly those who thought these would be easy classes after years of Sunday School, it was a rude awakening.  The first-year fundamentalists in my classes would protest ferociously, rising up to challenge professors on those first days of class, only to find that the professors--churchgoers and pastors--knew the Bible with a depth they couldn't even begin to match.  Those folks fell away quickly.

But I loved it.  I found that the engagement with the reality of my tradition only enriched my faith.  History and textual analysis gave a richness and reality to my beliefs.  Knowing the context makes for a much richer faith.

But history has its boundaries, as we were reminded in one of my early seminar courses.  Around the turn of the last century, the historical critical method was in full swing.  It dominated Christian intellectual discourse.  And yes, there was such a thing.  I know it seems hard to believe sometimes, but there really was.

In the late 19th century and early 20th, if you were a Christian, there was a formula for producing best-selling books: Write a history of Jesus.  "Discover" some new and amazing insight into who this person actually was, which would then be argued and discussed and debated while you raked in the royalties and the acclaim.

This trend cranked along for a while, until a book was published by Albert Schweitzer entitled The Quest of the Historical Jesus.   Schweitzer was a brilliant man, a theologian/historian/adventurer/doctor who spent much of his life serving in a hospital in Africa as a way of recompensing for what he saw as the dehumanizing blight of European colonialism.  He particularly hated the fusion of colonial power and Christian faith, which he saw as a monstrous betrayal of the Gospel.  To quote:
The name of Jesus has become a curse, and our Christianity--yours and mine--has become a falsehood and a disgrace, if the crimes are not atoned for in the very place where they were instigated.  For every person who committed an atrocity in Jesus' name, someone must step in to help in Jesus' name; for every person who robbed, someone must bring a replacement; for everyone who cursed, someone must bless.
Amazing stuff, from the Buckaroo Banzai of the Jesus world.

Schweitzer noted, in a review of all of the histories, that the scholars who were creating these works tended to come up with exactly the Jesus they wanted to encounter.  That Jesus would share all of their insights, all of their theological predilections, and affirm everything they'd ever written or thought.

Meaning, the Jesus they created from "history" was exactly the Jesus they wanted to see.  It was a brutally revealing insight to late 19th century Christian scholarship, one that took the wind out of the sails of "Jesus histories" for serious historians of the faith.

Those books still sell, of course.  But they are not history.

Reza Aslan appears to have missed that memo.  Or rather, he wants us to imagine that it does not apply to him.  People do this, he says, in a single sentence.  But my history is the best real history.

For Aslan's aspirations, Schweitzer's challenge does apply, radiantly and self-evidently so.  How?

For that, another post.

Vampire Slayer: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

I've read two books over the last week.  Once I finished up Tolstoy's remarkable Anna Karenina, I inhaled my next book in two sessions.

It was a little bit of delicious nothing by Seth Grahame-Smith, the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the same guy who wrote the actually much-more-entertaining-than-the-movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  He does the historical twist mashup better than most souls I know.

The book was entitled Unholy Night, and I was drawn to it by the premise, which was as follows:  The wise men?  They're actually wise guys, three crooks on the lam.  They've stolen gold, frankincense, and myrrh from Herod, and are making their escape.  I mean, what a premise.  How could I resist?

It ended up not quite working, though.  It was well researched, steeped in the history of the region enough to give a sense of place.  And it was well written, punchy, sharp, and playful.  Grahame-Smith has a thoroughly enjoyable way with words.    But it was too jarring, as he tried to respectfully juxtapose the sacred narrative of Christianity with a hack'n'slash bit of brutal pulp action.  With a little magic thrown in for good measure.

If I wanted to see a Jesus-themed bloodbath, I could just stream the Passion of the Christ.

But it was readable, and a little fun, and almost infinitely less annoying than the other work of wild historical speculation that I'm heaving myself through this week.  Because after reading Unholy Night, I got into Reza Aslan's remarkably successful Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Number one on the New York Times Bestseller List, as it so proudly announces on the cover.

As a pastor, I've been asked now about a half-dozen times what I thought of it, and I've said: wait until I've read it.

Well, now I have.

God help me, but it's a terrible book so far.  Terrible.  The sort of book where I'm sitting there next to my wife in the evening while she clacks away on the laptop, and she says, "Honey, can you please stop muttering angrily to yourself.  It's distracting."

It's not badly written, mind you.  He's a smart guy, with a good way with words.  Nor does Reza have a weak grasp of Roman history.  But his "Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" is such a preposterous fabrication that--as a pastor who thoroughly embraces the historical-critical approach to my own sacred texts--it boggles my mind.

When Reza says that Jesus was a zealot, a peasant revolutionary bent on the violent overthrow of the powers that be, he's creating a Jesus out of whole cloth, one that has as much basis in history as the Abraham Lincoln who killed vampires as a sideline to his lawyering.

He presents us with a Jesus who is peculiarly unrelated to any of the narratives of his life and teachings. Not just the canonical gospels of Christianity, mind you. This Jesus looks like nothing at all like any witness of any ancient tradition I've ever encountered in 25 years of undergraduate and graduate study.

It's historical fiction, not history, the work of someone reimagining Jesus in a way that works with his particular worldview.   But what is that worldview?

For that, I'm going to have to blog a little further.

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Letter to Sam Harris about Nonviolence

Dear Sam:

A couple of years ago, I read my way through your Letter to A Christian Nation, that bit of provocative neoatheist polemic that sold so very well.

Although you're a bright guy, it was an impressively shallow bit of writing, one that tried to articulate Christianity through the peculiarly clouded and simplistic lenses of anti-theism.  Provocative and simplistic sells, I suppose.

Nothing good has ever come of Christianity, or so you argued.  Ever. It is terrible and hateful and violent.

In your writing, you anticipated a response: "Well, er, what about Martin Luther King and the whole nonviolent civil rights movement?  That was grounded in the churches, and in Christian faith."

But you had an answer, which you expressed in your book.  That wasn't Christianity.  That was MLK  stealing an idea from Gandhi, who got that idea from the Jains.  You had a bit of a forbidden crush on the radically nonviolent Jains back then, one that eventually got you into trouble with the "all-faith-is-icky-poo-poo" crowd you run with.  

But you confidently presented this thesis: Nonviolence had nothing at all to do with the teachings of Jesus, or with the faith that rose from his teachings.  Having actually bothered to read the Gospels and the Epistles, that felt wrong to the point of being a little bit insane, but gawrsh, you were just so confident.  Let's take a look at what you said, why don't we:
While King undoubtedly considered himself a devout Christian, he acquired his commitment to nonviolence primarily from the writings of Mohandas K. Gandhi.  In 1959, he even traveled to India to learn the principles of nonviolent social protest directly from Gandhi's disciples.  Where did Gandhi, a Hindu, get his doctrine of nonviolence?  He got it from the Jains. (Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 12)
Now, Jains are awesome. I love 'em too. And I loves me some Gandhi. I find common cause with everyone for whom truth and love for others matters.

But I recently came across something that makes your statement seem even more off.  I was reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.  Being a pastor and all, Tolstoy's passionate, heartfelt Christian faith led me to read more Tolstoy.  He wasn't just a novelist.  He was also the founder and leader of Christian anarchosyndicalist communities in Russia, and wrote extensively about abandoning force and power in our relationships with one another.

And in that reading, I came across something interesting.  It's a sequence of letters, part of the very real history of humankind.  Follow this link, and you can read them for yourself.  Gandhi, you see, did learn nonviolence from the Jains.  But he also paid attention to the world around him, and to other faith traditions.  One faith tradition he found remarkably inspiring was Christianity, and so he sought out Tolstoy, one of the most eloquent Christians of his day.

Early in Gandhi's career, he wrote to Leo Tolstoy, asking permission to print up tens of thousands of copies of one of Tolstoy's writings on nonviolence, to be circulated in India.  They corresponded back and forth, and their mutual respect was powerfully evident.  Gandhi, for his part, describes his relationship with Tolstoy as that of "...a humble follower of that great teacher whom I have long looked on as one of my guides."  Gandhi went so far as to create a community, in which he and others lived out the values Tolstoy taught.  It was called a "Tolstoy Farm," on which Hindus and Muslims and Christians worked side by side.

There are other influences on the both of them, of course.  But Christian faith was an influence on Gandhi.  Meaning: your statement about nonviolence, bold as it is, isn't just wrong about Christian faith understood theologically.  It's also materially and provably incorrect as a matter of historical record.

So, a suggestion, should you choose to ever make that argument again in one of the talks you give.  Human history, like the interplay of neurons and the the fabric of our time and space, is a complex and interwoven thing.  When you reduce it to the clumsy binary negation of anti-theism, you are no longer describing the real.

Just be aware of that.  It matters.

Peace and Blessings,


The Five Names of God

In poring through commentaries for my preachin' this week, I wound up with a fascinating little fragment that just didn't fit anywhere.  Pretty much every week, this happens, as the ideas come pouring out.

Oh, sure, I could have shoehorned in a paragraph or two, plugging it in there somewhere even though it had nothing to do with the thrust of the message.  But it didn't really fit, so best to leave it here, where it can stand in its own.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus talks a great deal about what the Reign of God will look like.  It's the point of most of those pesky little parables he insisted on telling us.  In John, the spin is different.  It's a more intimate Gospel, drawing from a separate but harmonious oral tradition, one in which Jesus describes his identity.  I am this, he says.  I am that.

But I'd not noticed, not until I bumbled across it in a commentary, that there are only five direct descriptive statements about God in the New Testament.  Meaning, these are statements that fill in the following:

"God is _________."

Seemed like an interesting little datapoint, and worth attending to, if the Christian witness nature of our Creator is of any relevance to our faith.  So here they are, in no particular order.

1) God is Spirit.  (John 4:24)  That's pneuma, in the Greek used by John.  Like its Hebrew linguistic analog ruach, it can mean "breath," or "wind," or, "spirit."  However you slice it, it is a living and dynamic thing.  It's the stuff of life, a creative energy that isn't just churning and purposeless chaos, but that gives form and shape to being.

2) God is Love. (1 John 4:8)   From the Johannine tradition, we famously hear that God is love.  That doesn't mean wuv, or infatuation, or erotic hunger.  The term used by that tradition is agape, a form of love that involves a radically selfless participation in the other.

3) God is Light.  (1 John 1:5)  Again, from John's tradition, we hear that God is light.  That's phos, in the Greek, and it speaks to both purity and illumination.  It's worth noting here that John's paradoxically complex simplicity weaves the identity of God the Creator up with the identity of Jesus here, as Jesus is also given this name in John 1:7-9.

4) God is a Consuming Fire.  (Hebrews 12:29)  We take a break from John, and get a little blort from the author of Hebrews.  It's a difficult letter for us now, as it attempts to articulate Christian faith through the lenses of sacrificial temple worship.  But in claiming that understanding of God as fire, it plays off of a longstanding sacred tradition.

5) God is Love. (1 John 4:16)  Yeah, I know.  We already did this one.  But it's sorta like New York, as that impossibly cheesy old 70's song goes.  So good they named it twice.  It bears repeating, because it's absolutely core to what we Jesus folk are saying when we speak about God.  

Somewhere, in the dance between all of these elements, is the God that we as Christians proclaim.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Amish Fiction is Apocalyptic Fiction

All Amish literature is apocalyptic literature.

On the face of it, that might seem like an odd thing to say.  We like reading both, if you look at the books out there.  But we don't see them as related.

When you think of apocalyptic stories, they tend to involve craggy, laconic men in tattered leather garb wandering through a blasted wasteland.  There are zombies. And asteroids.  And pandemic plagues.  Or some combination thereof.

When we think of Amish fiction, we do not visualize these things.  We see pastel paperback covers, involving bonnets and beards and buggies.  Inside those covers, we expect chaste romance, and the gentle human drama of a slower and less frenetic life.  Amish fiction, if it had a smell, would smell nothing like the sweat, blood, and hormones of other adult fiction.  It's got the fragrance of warm rhubarb pie and the rich dirt of your garden under your nails.  It's why I'd get a bit of a snicker whenever I'd tell friends and church folk what I was writing.

"What kind of book is it," they'd ask.

"Postapocalyptic Amish fiction," I'd say, because it was true.

And there'd come that smile.  Oh, you crazy pastor.

But if you have a sense of who the Amish are, and why they are, and what the word "apocalypse" means, it becomes a little clearer.

The Amish are primordial Baptists, the Protestant equivalent of one of those strange prehistoric fish they'll find now and again in deep ocean waters.  They get their name from Jakob Ammann, a semi-literate seventeenth century Swiss farmer.  From the few records we have of his life, he appears to have been a fairly hard-nosed human being, who felt that strict adherence to the teachings of the Bible was the only way to live.

Ammann was a big advocate of shunning--meaning not associating with folks who did not do exactly and to the letter what the Bible told them to do.  He favored long, uncut beards, and vigorously opposed any significant engagement with the values of the world.  His followers separated themselves not just from non-Christians, but from other early Baptists and Mennonites.  Those who followed him stuck around in Switzerland for a while, but when religious violence and oppression became too overbearing in the late 18th century, they began immigrating to the United States.

Since arriving in the United States back in the 1860s, the lives of the Old Order Amish have remained remarkably similar.  In most communities, they speak Deitsch, which isn't "Dutch," but a variant of old Swiss German.  Because they've chosen to reject the world and live in simple community, they do not engage with modern technology.

The fabric of daily life for the Amish looks much the same way it did back in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  It's pretty basic, involving family farming and older, manual crafts.  If you spend any time reading Amish fiction, this is the buggies, bonnets, and beards part.  It all feels very much like the world of the Little House books, only peculiarly transposed into our modern era.   No cars, no lights, no motorboats, not a single luxury, as they sang on Gilligans Island.  This is how they have chosen to live, simple, self-sufficient, and independent of our increasingly interconnected and industrial society.

There's variety in Amish communities, of course.  They are as varied among themselves as individual congregations are varied, though we see them all through the same lens.  Communities vary in what they view as their Ordnung, the rule that governs their day to day lives.

But all view themselves as separate from us out here in the mess and rush of the modern world, we who they refer to collectively as the English.  Oh sure, we may be Scottish or French or Guatemalan.  But to their eyes, we are all English.

Amish life is governed by some very different principles.   There is hochmut, which are the things to be avoided.  Hochmut describes the fruits of human pride, arrogance, and selfishness, the sort of thing that populates pretty much every reality television show.   There is demut, which is the opposite.  It describes those things that arise from humility and humbleness.  And there's gelassenheit, which represents a sort of nonviolent spiritual detachment.  You do not grasp, or seek your own advancement.  You maintain a gentle contentment with whatever lot you are given.

The Amish see these principles as living into the way of life taught by Jesus, in a way that does not cloud or compromise it with any of the distractions of our cluttered, greedy world.

Here is where our stories about the Amish and our stories of apocalypse come together.   The word apocalypse does not mean destruction or some final battle.  ἀποκάλυψις means, in the Greek from which we received that word, an "unveiling."  A "revealing."  A "making clear," which someone should have mentioned to John of Patmos when he was writing that crazy book of his.   Apocalyptic literature, as a literary (and biblical) genre, is about the stripping away of all of the fluff and pretense and getting down to what matters.

In a very real way, that is what draws we English to the stories of the Amish.  We sense, somehow, that most of the madness of our lives is unnecessary.  So much of our energy is poured into things that seem irrelevant, or meaningless.  We tell ourselves stories of what it would be like if we had to get back to basics, if all that [stuff] was torn away and we had to survive onslaughts of the shambling dead, or rebuild after that cataclysmic asteroid strike.  Or that massive solar storm.

But the Amish?  That is just how they are.  They never put on the veil of modernity.  They do not fill their lives as we do, with meetings and media, activities and anxieties, distraction and debt.

As so we also tell ourselves stories about the Amish, in which all of the things that crowd our days have been pulled away.

And those stories are, in their own way, gently pastel apocalypses.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Day Fred Met Jesus

It had been dark for a very long time.

There'd been pain, and it was everywhere.  He'd snarled and raged at it, but it was everything he was, and his anger was helpless against it.  It would wear him and wear him hard until he faded back into the dark again.  His thoughts had become scattered fragments, his soul an empty bottle of Thunderbird smashed behind the Highs.  But then the pain stole away, off into nothing, skittering away like a spider before the light.

The light came, golden and alive and bright, and he was himself again.  It had been a very long time since he had been himself.

The light was everywhere, and it took form before him, and looked at him.


The man's voice felt peculiar, like it was not his own.  He could barely feel himself, but it wasn't the strange haze of dream-life.  It was fuller, more real.

"So," spoke the form before him, in a voice that could have been his own.  "How did you do?"

He felt faint, as he tried to reach back into himself for some sense of who he had been.  He remembered anger, rage, a seething near-madness of hatred.  He remembered passions that had surged in him, that as a young man had shattered and reformed him into a broken thing.  He remembered shouting, and signs, and blows delivered by his hand.

He tried to remember the hate, but in the presence of the form and the light, it all felt unreal, a shadow.

"I...don't...really remember."

Between them sprang a book, or at least, he thought it was a book.  It seemed so, but it shifted and danced.  He tried to look at it, but as his eye would light on a word or a phrase, it would open like a window, and the reality it described would be right there before him in all of its wild complexity.

It was too much, more than he could bear, and he looked away.

"There are different ways we can look at this," the figure said, and there was the hint of a growl in its voice.

"You did not mean to feed me.  You did not want to clothe me.  You did not intend to visit me in my imprisonment."

And the figure brightened, and the light warmed, and warmed still brighter, until it was the tropical sun at noonday.  He tried to step back, but there was no back.

"You knew that I am a consuming fire, and yet you did not even try to do these things.  You cursed the oppressed, and cried hatred against the suffering, and danced and sang at the tears of others.  You were a curse to your children, and you made your family a hated thing."

The light grew fiercer still, shifting red, pressing into him, and his fear began to rise.

And then, as it almost reached the point of pain, it dimmed, just a little bit.  And on the lips of the figure, something that might have been a smile, a little wistful.

"But I'm not done.  There are other things you accomplished, with that little flicker of life I gave you.  You didn't make a single convert, not one, to your hatred.  In fact, you made a point of driving people away from that peculiar little church of yours.  So, well, there's that."

The man remembered, remembered that even his children fled, and his throat closed.

"You took the most hateful things people say they believe about me, and made them real.  You took the mask off of hatred, and did so without ever resorting to violence, not once.  You made hate truly hateful, so that no one could lie to themselves about what it was they were really saying.

Wherever you went, with your signs and your curses, people would gather in defense of what is good.  Police and students, soldiers and peace activists, bikers and mothers, the young and the old, people from every walk of life, from every political persuasion, they'd all come together to resist your strange, precise madness.  Everywhere you went, you summoned the best spirit of a nation to stand against you."

The man watched and knew, as images and voices leapt and danced from the book.  People sang, and they stood together.  They honored the dead, and each other.  Then the book showed a courtroom, and judges.  The figure went on.

"You convinced a nation to reaffirm the rights of the unpopular, to allow everyone to have their voice.  You forced them to write freedom more deeply into their laws, to insure that oppression would be just that little bit harder."

"And for those who I made just a little different, your words of hate might have stung, but they did something deeper.  They helped turn a nation's heart away from an ancient hatred.  Your actions, horrible as they were, turned a people towards giving justice to all of my children.   Your actions, insane as they were, helped remind a people of what matters.  Without you, those who love a little bit differently would not be welcomed and accepted as they are now.  You made your tiny little world a better place, though it was the last thing you wanted."

The book whirled, and told the stories of thousands of human beings, surrounded by their families and friends, celebrating and having blessings spoken over their commitment to one another.

The figure laughed, and shook its head.  The thing like a book closed upon itself, and vanished.

"Fred, I don't hate fags.  I can't.  I am Love.  And though you didn't mean to serve me, you did.  You did an amazing, amazing job.  You couldn't have done better if you'd tried."

The figure changed, and shifted, and grew.  "So, as much as it seems strange to me to say this, well done, you poor, broken, and hateful servant."

The light rose, golden and fierce and inescapable.

"Oh, and this might burn a little bit at first.  But it'll get better.  It'll be wonderful.  You'll see.  Welcome home, Fred."

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

God Does Not Care Where We Go Potty

Most every week, I check the messages on the answering machine at my little church.  It's not the best way to be in touch with us, honestly, but it'd be hard to have a church without a phone.  Usually, it's just folks trying to sell us things, and I'll hit delete. Sometimes--rarely, now--it's folks looking for information on the church.  Them I call back.  Then there was the message I listened to today, which I'd somehow missed last week.

It was a recorded message from Maryland Delegate Neil Parrish, or Kneel Parrot, or something like that.  Sound fidelity isn't always that great on our low-budget answering machine.   The message, which I don't doubt was being blasted out to every church in Maryland, had to do with something he was calling "The Bathroom Bill."  He sounded very earnest, as he told me that this bill was just like one they passed in California.  He went on, and I'll quote verbatim:

It would allow men to use the women's bathroom and women to use the men's bathroom based on what sex they happened to feel like at the moment.

Unless the Lord intervenes, he continued, this bill will pass. Pray!

Huh.  I looked it up, and discovered that there had in fact been a bill that cleared the State Senate to protect transgendered folks from discrimination in the state of Maryland this month.  Being a Virginian, I'd not much been paying attention.  Among some circles, it's called "The Bathroom Bill," because among other things it would allow individuals who are genetically male but surgically modified to use the women's room, and vice versa.

Not that the robocall said this.  It also didn't represent what it is to be transgender in anything but the crudest and most insulting of ways.  Neither did it deal with issues of potential misrepresentation in locker rooms, or issues of potential abuse of any legal protections by predators.  Strangely enough for propaganda, it didn't try to push those stranger-danger buttons.

As the bill was described, it was just about where we go wee wee.  Because you know, we Christians are such simple folk.

I had two reactions to the call.  First, well, I was a little put out, and personally offended.  Here, I have a confession to make about myself, one that might come as a shock:

I have--on more than one occasion-- used the women's room.

It doesn't happen often.  But sometimes, the only men's room is occupied for waaay longer than it should be.  Or there's significant urgency, like on a road trip when you pull into a Chipotle with your bladder about to explode, and just as you get to the bathroom a dad and his two toddler sons wander in.   In those times of biological krisis, signage means nothing.  Decisions must be made. What do I "happen to feel like at the moment?"  I happen to feel like I need to go to the bathroom. That's just a guy in a kilt on that sign, as far as I'm concerned.

More often, I've seen that happen for women at sporting events or concerts, as a bold sister in need will just line up with the always-faster-moving man-line. I do not, at such moments, mutter the word "abomination" under my breath. A stall is a stall is a stall, and if you've got the ovaries to buck convention, more power to you.

So that bugged the libertarian part of me that prefers pragmatism to social niceties.

But second, and more significantly:  You think I'm going to take this to the Creator of the Universe in prayer?

I have a strong sense of the reality of my Maker, one that has involved potent and life-transforming moments of presence.  We're talking the I Am That I Am here, the God who is a Consuming Fire, the source and ground of all being, the Numinous One who rides the whirlwind and stands above all time and space.

Human beings out there are suffering and starving, oppressed and struggling, hopeless and alone.

And I'm supposed to pray to my Awesome God about where people go to the bathroom?

Lord have mercy.

In Defense of Privilege

It's the latest buzzword on the left, or so it seems, given the frequency with which I hear it.  The name of the problem is now "privilege."

What it means for a person to have privilege is that they are advantaged in an array of different ways.

I am, for pointed example, "privileged."  I live comfortably, in a way that renders me indistinguishable from much of the culture around me but that would mark my household as radically privileged globally.  I am well educated, and well fed.  I have enough leisure time to recreate, and to think, and to be creative.  I do not live in fear that what I say or do might result in my abduction or torture by an oppressive government.  I do not view my ethnic or gender identity as a radically defining category, because neither has caused me to experience significant repression or societal hostility.

In those very significant senses, I am privileged.  Having traveled to places in the world where the majority of human beings do not live with such privilege, I have no desire to set it aside.

So I am aware of what constitutes my privilege.  What I can't quite get, though, is why any of those things are bad.  Should I be actively oppressed?  Would that make me somehow more authentic as a person?  Must I be hungry to stand in solidarity with the hungry, or poor to desire the well-being of the poor, or oppressed for my sexual identity to understand the difficult cultural place experienced by gays and lesbians?

And here I was assuming that hunger, poverty, racism, and oppression were things we wanted to be rid of.

What I also can't quite get is the peculiar irony of the term, as it is used now.  Concern about "privilege" seems to rise most intensely from those who are educated, well-fed, and living in the Global North.  Meaning, thems who is most excised about privilege are themselves creatures of privilege.

If they weren't privileged, they'd be too busy with the struggle for survival to overthink such things.  African  subsistence  farmers and struggling three-job red-state Americans do not have time to whip off long snarky missives about how being playful and at ease with your life is a sign of white heteronormative privilege.  They do not have time to write academic essays on the structuring logics of privilege.  They have neither the time nor the patience for twitter.

Long and short of it: if you're reading this blog, odds are that you are a net-connected, literate human being with time enough on their hands to do such things.  You are as privileged as I.

The issue, as I see it, is not the state of being free of oppression, or free to do what one wishes.  That is not "privilege."  Assuming that it is fundamentally misses the meaning of the word.

And yes, pomo kids, words have meanings.  That's their purpose.  They point us to a particular state of being.  They are signs.  You know, semeion, the Greek root of the term semiotics.  If we muck around with the very idea of meanings, and say words are social constructs that can mean anything we wish them to mean, then language becomes tuna flavor bit crumpet.  Utterly bit crumpet.

The issue with privilege is not that some are free to live as they choose.  It is that others are not at liberty as I am at liberty.  It is that the fundamental human rights of others are not given play.

If you are a gay man in Nigeria, that you are not able to be as free as I am with your identity offends me.  If you are a black man in America, and you can't walk through a neighborhood without people sketching on you, that troubles me.  If you are female and find yourself paid less for the same work or viewed only through the lenses of marketized sexuality, I see, in your struggles, my own self oppressed.

From that position of strength, what I do not want is more privilege for myself.  I do not want it to be something that gives me advantage over another, whoever that other is.  What I want is for you to be equally blessed.  You should have the same opportunities, and where culture makes that unnecessarily harder, those barriers should be removed.  You should not experience any negative ramifications from your sense of your own identity, to the point where you view it as an interesting part of yourself, but not something that limits you or that must be hidden.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bang, Saith the Lord

The news from the world of science yesterday was exciting.

The observations came from BICEP2, an instrument that measures cosmic background radiation from its chilly vantage point on the South Pole.  What's been detected are "ripples" in that background, echoes of that first great yarp of being.  They affirm an almost impossible expansion of our space and time, as being leapt from singularity into a cosmic vastness in a snap of a finger.

Assuming you could snap your finger in a picosecond.  Which you wouldn't want to, because the energies involved wouldn't just blow your arm off.  They might just blow a nice big hunk out of our arm of the Milky Way.  Oops.

Whichever way, it's a powerful affirmation of the theory that has governed much of scientific cosmology for the last fifty years.  The Big Bang is the way things happened.  We know this the way we know that the earth isn't flat, and that we know the moon isn't cheese.  We can see it, and touch it, and taste it with the new eyes, hands, and tongue of scientific instruments.

This is a big thing, rather obviously.  It means that science is pressing deeper into the nature of things.  As the Washington Post's coverage of the discovery put it:
This is obviously difficult terrain for theorists, as the question of why there is something rather than nothing creeps into realms traditionally governed by theologians.
Yup.  This is our house, alright.  Hello, science!  Welcome!  Take a load off.  Care for something to drink?

But what for me makes this a particularly exciting discovery is that it pushes observational science just a tick closer towards the strain of speculative cosmology that seems most amenable to faith.  If this reinforces inflationary theory, which it does, then it becomes another bit of data that gives coherence to the multiverse as an explanatory model for the nature of all existence.

Again, from the article:
The inflationary model implies that our universe is exceedingly larger than what we currently observe, which is humbling already in its scale.  Moreover, the vacuum energy that drove the inflationary process would presumably imply the existence of a larger cosmos, or "multiverse," of which our universe is but a granular element.
Clearly, we're not there yet.  Multiverse cosmology remains squarely in the realm of speculation.  It's hard to empirically test for things that lie outside of time and space, eh?  But it is informed speculation, both rational and with some legitimate explanatory power, just as the Big Bang theory was when it was first proposed.

For that reason, it makes a bunch of sense for those of us who hang out in "realms traditionally governed by theologians" to be ready to fold that into our conversations about faith.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Money Makes the Church Go Round

Without the sword of the state to force people to experience the love of Jesus--or at least give unbelievers a real and tangible sense of his suffering--the church as an organization faces a conundrum.

How to get people in the doors?  I mean, here Jesus asked us to bring everybody to him, and suddenly they're free to wander off and do as they please.

And we aren't allowed to kill them, not even a little bit.

We could try being relentlessly gracious, merciful, and kind.  We could try caring for the poor, turning ourselves fully to the needs of the hungry and the oppressed.  We could let the power of the Gospel suffuse our souls, changing us into beings who live only for the reconciliation of the world, and whose every word is grace and welcome, to friend and stranger and enemy alike.  We could show the world our flawed but beautiful struggle to live according to a more excellent way.

But that would be haaaaAARD.  Don't make us do that, Jesus.

So we look around for other options. Surely there must be other options.

Around us, our consumer culture shines and sparkles.  It is the market, but not as Jesus would have recognized it.  This is not the agora of the Greco-Roman world, or the small town equivalent.  The little storefronts that once made a modest living for families are withering away, replaced by big boxes with big parking lots, which themselves are fading as the internet box grows bigger and bigger until we're always in a store, all the time.

The values of the marketplace and the ethics of business are ascendant, defining every aspect of our existence.  We celebrate wealth and success.  Our communications with each other are an endless fountain of products, services, and self-promotion.  It is everything we see, and everywhere we are.  Before our eyes are cast images of unattainable perfection, for which we are told to hunger.  When we cannot replicate that unattainable life, we are extended a line of credit at twenty-three and a quarter percent.  When we find ourselves falling apart from the strain of striving for what--by design--cannot ever be attained, we are offered drugs to make the stress and the anxiety go away.

Globalized business straddles national borders, extending itself beyond the reach of any one nation-state's legal jurisdiction or currency.  Disembodied corporate persons that transcend national boundaries drive public policy, and define the way we think about ourselves and our world.  The ethos of profit and growth and organizational expansion defines what is excellent, and tells us what is good.

And just as the church allowed itself to be coopted by culture in the age of Empire, so it now embraces the new power of consumer culture.

It's all in the name of Jesus, of course.  And it works.  Lord, but does it work.  Brings 'em in like gangbusters, as well as the edge of Constantine's sword ever did.

Christendom is dead.  Long live AmeriChrist, Inc.

Yeah, I know.  That's a tich hyperbolic.  Just a little.

But the value set of our marketized culture has unquestionably worked its way into our expectations for how Jesus folk in America understand and share Christian faith.

It shapes our expectations of the leadership in our congregations.  It forms and shapes how we view community, both as we seek a place to encounter God and as we live out our faith within those communities.

And around the message of Jesus, we have built a marketplace that mirrors the economic life of the society we inhabit.  We sell books.  We sell music.   We fret about copyright violations.  We market our films, and our celebrities.  There is Christian tourism, and Christian insurance, and Christian plumbing companies. We export this faith to foreign markets.

And all of this shapes how we understand God, and our relationship to one another.

In the service of this marketplace what we have created there now exists a parallel economy.  Just as the old denominational structures framed their lives together like the structures of the political realms they inhabited, so now postdenominational Christianity has itself on the economy it inhabits.

What does that look like?  If we map out the scope and scale of Christian profit-seeking endeavor, what do we see?

Let's start at the "top," with the C-suite of AmeriChrist, Inc.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Pope Francis, Social Media, and Identity

A recent online article in the hippity-happenin' Christian magazine Relevant celebrated an entire year of Papal Tweeting, as we move into year two of our collective celebrity Pope crush.

Or perhaps that should be #popecrush.

Yeah, I think a #hashtag is in order here.

What struck me in reading the long list of tweets offered up by Pope Francis over the last year were two things.  First, how simple, kind and gracious they all were.  This is how Christianity should sound.  It just is.

Second, how utterly different the tone of those tweets were than the tweets to be found on Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio's twitter feed just one year ago, back when he was George and not Frank.

Twelve months ago, I'd followed the churning social media frenzy around the selection of the new pope.  It was fascinating, particularly watching the reactions on the hyper-instant neural feed that twitter provides.

When the smoke finally puffed out of that little chimney, and the name was announced, I did the natural thing in a social media era.  I went to this new pope's twitter feed, to see what he was sharing with the world.  Who is this guy?  What does he have to say?

I found Cardinal Bergoglio's verified Twitter feed, and scanned back for a year.  I blanched, and sitting in my church office, I said to myself, "Lord have mercy, this guy is going to be the Pope?  God help us."

If what we say represents what matters to us, what mattered to Cardinal Bergoglio was stopping gays and lesbians from adopting children in Argentina.  The feed was almost monomaniacal on the subject.

That was his primary issue as a Cardinal, his defining contribution to the broader conversation on faith.  It was pretty consistent, shrill, and more than just a little bit horrible, to the point where I received the news of his ascension to the Papacy with slightly clenched teeth.

Reserve judgement, I said, a year ago.  Tempting as it was, I would not allow myself to believe that these cruel, Pharisaic tweets represented the wholeness of this person.  Let him prove that he knows what is important.  Do not yield to the desire to attack now.  Give him a chance.

Because I know that social media can do strange things to our identities as persons.  To make a name for ourselves, we need to claim a platform.  We become something other than the complex being we are.  We seek conflict, and places where we can make a name for ourselves.  We can take a stand that makes us stand out, shouting louder and louder that we are signal, dammit, not noise.

It can cause us to surface our darkness, to linger in places of conflict and brokenness, to deepen wounds and hurts.  Social media does not need to be that thing.  But we have made it so.

I'm glad, over the last year, that Pope Francis has proven that he gets that there is a better way.

That year should remind us, thems of us who spend time on social media, to listen to our tone, and know that it matters.

The End of the Sword

For a millennia and a half, the message of Jesus rode on the dark wings of empire.

It was the age of Christendom. The state and the church were one.

That the message of Jesus was a poor match for the aspirations of power meant little.  If you veiled the teachings of Jesus behind church authority and wrapped them up in nationalistic or racist ideology, you could turn them completely on their head.  

Keeping folks illiterate helped, and a little selective reading/editing didn't hurt, either.  "Live by the sword," as Jesus himself said.

This made for a whole bunch more Christians.

"Are you a Christian," asks the man with the gun.  "Sure," you say, looking into the frightened eyes of your wife and children.  "Are you the right sort of Christian," he then asks.  "Whatever that is, I am," you say, because you love your children.

"Do you repent and believe in the Church and all of Her Teachings," says the Inquisitor, hot iron in hand.  "Oh absolutely," you say, because you want the pain to stop.  You'd believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and all His Noodly Appendages if the pain would stop.

"I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," says the priest, casting water on your whip-scarred back as you stumble from the slave ship.  You don't answer, because he's speaking Latin, not Yoruba, and you have no idea what he's saying.  

Welcome to Christendom!  

Underneath that dark flourishing, though, the essence of the message stuck around.  Here and there, it would thrive in monastic communities or in gatherings of believers.  Wherever human beings actually attended to the essence of the Gospel, it changed lives for the better.  It became a reason to show mercy to the enemy, and kindness to the stranger.  If you bothered looking at it for yourself, it seemed to subvert the very power that spread it.  Just be careful about telling anyone that you've noticed, because bad things happened when people spoke up.

That was a painful part of who we were, for nearly 1,500 years.  In some places, it is still the way things are.

But here in America, Christendom is dead.  Oh, the body is still warm, and twitches a bit now and again, but it's a dead thing.  Honestly?  That's a cause for celebration.

You wouldn't know that from some of the yearnings of certain corners of Christianity.  When they see the state's power no longer propping up the faith, they see danger.  We're a Christian nation, they cry! 

These are the folks that assume that the American journey is the same thing as the story of the Gospel.  In that, they embrace Christendom, the fusion of power and faith.  They're like the folks who assumed that the British narrative was the sacred narrative, or the Belgian, or the German, or the Russian.  We are God's People!  Gott Mitt Uns!  It's Manifest Destiny, baby!  If you're planning on subjugating the heathen, forcing them to abandon their ways, and taking control of their very productive and mineral rich land, it helps to believe this.

I'm not so sure how Canadians feel on this front, but if they do think they're God's people, they're probably just too polite to mention it.

While the orders and structures of our society are a blessing, it's important not to fool yourself into believing that a nation can be Christian.  It can't.  Not ever.  In that, Christendom was always a lie.


Ask yourself: what is a nation?  A nation is a people, a society, bounded and knit together first by geography, but more significantly by laws.  These legal structures provide the common ground upon which the collective life of a people are founded.  They establish justice and balance between the competing interests that arise when human beings share space together.  That legal order can be used to oppress and serve the powerful.  But it can also--as the United States Constitution mostly does--provide an equitable foundation for our life together.

Some faith traditions blend the two.  In Torah, Judaism has just such a set of laws, established to govern both the religious and the jurisprudential life of a Jewish nation.  In Sharia, Islam has another set of laws, which do the same thing.

Jesus didn't give us that.  We get no carefully ordered system of governance from the Nazarene.  He told us stories instead.  He did not lay out the regulations for running an orderly society, in a tidy little manual with headings and subheadings.  He only gave us One Law, one intended not for ruling, but for the transformation and liberation of human beings no matter what the political system they inhabit.

As Christianity in the United States and elsewhere has pulled away from the use of coercive power to enforce itself, it's been powerfully and significantly freeing.  That's the whole point of the separation of church and state.  That little stricture, so frustrating to those who just for the integrity of a constitutional republic.  It significantly serves the integrity of faith itself.

Because a coerced faith is not a real faith.  When we use force to compel others to believe as we believe, when we rely on the power of the state to enforce our beliefs, then we are no longer Christian.  Good news can never be shared at the end of a sword.  We serve another power.

So this transition, honestly, has been a good thing for Christians.  It frees our faith to stand--or fall-- legitimately on its own.  Without arm-twisting and fear in the tool box, we can get back to our purpose.  Yay us!  Go Jesus!

But there are other forms of power.