Always we begin again


I miss blogging, and miss the critical jump-start it gave me in my work when I was studying for comps, writing my prospectus, and getting going with the dissertation outlining. Now I find myself in a position to actually start writing again, hopefully somewhat regularly. The diss is done, at least until further committee notice, and I have no job at the moment. Hopefully that will change in the very near future. Until then, though, I’m looking forward to getting back into the blog.

One of the things I’m going to do is add a section for short book reviews. I may actually create an entirely new blog for this, but as “Aedificium” <i>does</i> mean “library,” I’d like to have it here somehow. As always, the blog is a work in progress.

Look for something new in the coming hours. I have that series on religions I want to get back to, and I will, but right now the interesting and hot-button topic is a favorite: Darwin, Creation, Science, Bible, and Rhetoric. Look for something tonight.

Caught between…Well, I did it. I went. Feeling spiritually downcast these days, I went to one of the local Southern Baptist mini-megachurches in the area for an evening service tonight. I just needed to do it. I sucked it up, decided that I didn’t have to have a “high-church” experience tonight, or traditional baptist hymnology on an organ, but wanted to be with people who genuinely love their image of God and Christ. Most of all, I just wanted to sing contemporary praise music. I can’t explain why, and even if I could, it would be in forced academicese.

I ended up sitting next to the Associate Pastor, who I actually know a little bit. When I arrived, about 5 minutes after the start of the service, and joined in with the singing. We shortly broke into small prayer groups.

All I really want to note is how contemplative this was. I don’t believe that I have experienced such a moving spirit of prayer since I was at Glastonbury Abbey.

Being a practicing Christian, or of any other faith tradition, and a professional academic scholar of religion really is to be caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, especially when one’s family doesn’t really see what the fuss is about, as much as they might try. It can get pretty lonely between the stone and the wall.

It was a good night. A good, good night.

Christ raising Lazarus, from 3rd Century CatacombIn my recent reading of writing by and about early Christians I started thinking (again) of connections to the modern state of affairs within Christianity. This time it’s over the sheer number of variations on Christianity. This is, of course, the case today; we have the Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the SBC, ABC, UMC, and on and on and on. What strikes me, though, is that we define ourselves as Christian, but we also define ourselves in the terms of the type of institutional Christianity to which we belong. “I’m a Methodist!” We also define others in similar terms, as if it’s obvious that we are Christians anyway, so that doesn’t need to be said when identifying another: “You’re Methodist? I had always thought you were Catholic!” (I get this a LOT, by the way.) What is interesting to me is the identification we have with the denominational institution of “the church.”

Backing up 1800-1900 years or so, however, there was every bit as much diversity then as there is now, and possibly more. But the really interesting thing is that there was no real institutional “church” by which to define Christians. Christian identity was far less tied to institutions and their requirements for memberships, like belief, creeds, and so on (these did in fact come, of course, but not in the 2nd and 3rd centuries) than it is now. I’m tempted to say they were lucky that way.

The modern and postmodern church can learn from this. Forget the institution for a minute, forget the dogma and doctrines, forget the “rules” for “being Christian” as established for the last 250 years. Focus instead on the gift of its diversity. Focus instead on the fact that every ekklesia was a local community nourished by its understanding of the gospel messages in their own situation in the Empire, without being concerned with whether or not their understanding fit in with the authoritative, universal party line. Focus instead on praxis, on practice, on people being far more concerned with living their lives in imitatio Christi within that community and less concerned with whether or not their lives conformed with political positions or Churchly standards of conduct.

Sigh. Recovering the memories of this is a task worth undertaking, but it sure is exciting.

http://img.timeinc.net/southern/events/news/images/ThanksgivingFeast.jpgThis time of the year evokes a lot of emotions and feelings within us. For some of us there is a sense of nostalgia for being close to family. For others, we might feel the almost magical warmth of Christmas events and the coming of the New Year. For others, we start feeling the excitement of the beginning of college hoops, football bowl games, the merciful end of the Orange’s football season, and so on. We feel the closing of once cycle and the new beginnings of another with the annual celebration of Harvesting and of sharing the abundance that God has given us with others, as in Thanksgiving meals and the giving of gifts during Christmas. With this time of year, one season of our lives comes to a close, and another begins.

We celebrate Thanksgiving this week, and with the Thanksgiving season we also enter a few others as well. We enter, for example, the Christmas season; I would imagine that, if you’re like me and my family, you’ll be starting to decorate your house, pull out the greenery, and finally succumb to turning your radio dial to Sunny 102.5 for non-stop, 24/7 Christmas and holiday music.

Related to this is, of course, the “holiday shopping” season, which in reality starts now around Columbus Day rather than Black Friday. And it is fitting that, with this being a seasonal crossing between the old and the new, the Holiday Shopping season participates in this cycle in that there is no other time of year when we are in the full-fledged mode of “Out with the old, and in with the new!” With the Holiday Shopping season, we are absolutely bombarded with advertising assuring us that we really do need NEW and IMPROVED! “this-that-and-the-other-thing.” We’re sucked into the idea that we have to have to get rid of something that might be perfectly good and replace it with a new item. The whole season can awaken the cynic in us that not only starts questioning whether our new and improved lives and gadgets are really any better than we had it a year ago. The omnipresence of advertising and of commercial icons (Nike “swoosh,” Coke, Pepsi, etc) dulls our ability to recognize that which is truly new from the simply repackaged, and when the truly new does finally arrive, we often fail to recognize it, and be thankful and grateful for it. We would feel much better, I think, if the truly new would really advertise itself as such in such a way to shock us into recognizing it, so that we CAN respond appropriately with blessing and thanksgiving.

We’re in luck. Today’s lections from Isaiah and Luke, in particular, give us God’s advertising, and they are so counter-cultural and contrary to our most deeply-seeded common sense that we find it hard to take them seriously. The evangelist reports Jesus’ apocalyptic words in Luke 21 to us on the pretext of prophesying the destruction of the Jewish Temple; he uses vivid imagery the does not, in fact, describe anything in a satisfying, “feel-good” way. Unless we have an apocalyptic fetish, neither should we think of any of these images as anything to look forward to; certainly the earliest Christians did not.

What I want to suggest here is that, far from advertising anything “new,” no matter how bleak and destructive, Jesus here is advertising in no uncertain terms the eternal state of affairs in the world. Really, how can “wars and insurrections,” “nations rising against nations,” empires taking arms against empires, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and other “dreadful signs” from heaven be advertising anything new? Are arrests and persecutions and betrayals of Christians for religious or political reasons anything new?

Advertisements specialize in imagery and depend on our familiarity with their logos, slogans, and products in order to have any effect. In this they function like icons and have tremendous staying power. In Luke today, Jesus employs the truth of these icons to advertise for all those who have eyes to see and ears to hear the way the world is today. He refuses to sugarcoat the first century, much like the ancient prophets refused to sugarcoat the state of the world in which Israel and God’s called ones found themselves in. As prophecy from the mouth of Jesus and in the context of his pronouncements on the Kingdom of God, Luke’s description of the world carries the force of the “always already” and “to come” at the same time.

So much for one kind of God’s advertising; small wonder that these things would either be glorified out of all proportion to the rest of Christ’s and the Prophets’ discourses on the Kingdom of God, or these messages are systematically and institutionally suppressed or ignored out of not wanting to appear offensive or pessimistic about the state of the world (this, of course, is the classic liberal, “progressive” heritage). But I should like to remind us all that this is not at all the only advertisement we find; instead, I want to remind us that this season of the old coming to a close and the new day dawning, both in commercial Christmas and Thanksgiving, the season of Advent is even now on our doorstep waiting to disrupt the state of the everyday.

What advertisements do we have to represent and “sell” God’s newness during the season about to break upon upon us? How will God shock us and upset us? We have seen that Jesus’ advertising strategy sells us nothing new, but more of the old; it awakens, evokes, our desire for the New.

The passage of Isaiah is one of the most outrageous advertisements of God’s Newness, a newness that, like Jesus’ Kingdom of God, is always already and to come if we but know where to look, put faith where it belongs, and do what we are commanded to do. And here we see the other element of advertising; the idea that what is being presented is so outrageous, so out of touch with our reality, so absurd to our financial sensibilities that we cannot help ourselves but desire what the advertisement is trying to tell us we want more than anything else. And the most effective ads even cause us to contemplate doing anything, even sacrificing whatever we have or who we believe we are, in order to have what it wants us to have.

What is God’s ad here? Let this sink in, and let it inform our Holiday sensibility here, especially with Thanksgiving, and Advent, and Christmas. There will be a new earth, a new Jerusalem. Not a repackaging in better boxes of what is already there; but utter newness of the earth and the heart of the people of God’s calling. There will no longer be the sound of weeping or tears of sadness. There won’t be any homeless, nor will there be those oppressed or terrorized by life today to cry out for still more deliverance. There will be rejoicing and thanksgiving, because in God’s new world there will not be any infant mortality or elderly men and women outliving their lives or widows or young men who die in war, for there will no longer be wars fought. There will be rejoicing and thanksgiving because there will no longer be the outrage of eminent domain or foreclosures on homes, and those who build will live; those who plant will reap, and those who harvest will eat and have abundance. The big will no longer consume the small, and all will live under their own vine and fig tree.

Is the Advertisement of God’s newness in Isaiah, the Advent of abundance, blessing, thanksgiving, and gratitude, too much to hope for? Isn’t it worth selling ourselves out to God’s newness, to be seduced by this advertisement, to make this an Always Already and speed up the To Come?

Advent and Thanksgiving are both upon us. May we share our abundance in the spirit of newness, and may our Thanksgiving be an advertisement to that which we, as people of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, have always already, and may our expectation of his coming stir in us and in those who know us, a new season of Hope. And Life. And faithful abundance.

handsdirt1.jpg26 August 2007
First Baptist Church of Exeter

To Pluck and to Plant

 

A few years back in our neighborhood, another family of about our own age was faced with a difficult decision. The home where they lived, roughly 1 tenth of a mile from us, had been part of Joe’s family for generations, and now he was married with a small child. But the house itself, while a much-loved part of his family’s memory and heritage, was in a really bad state. It was decaying and rotting, sinking in places, with bulging sidewalls and sagging roof, poor and dangerous electrical system, and contaminated water pipes. Entire rooms were without heat and unusable.

It would have been so easy for him to try to convince himself that he could just patch a few things here, replace a few wires there, buy some electric space heaters, and so on, and the place would be as good as new, just like it used to be, just like it had always been, just like it was in his memory from when he was a child. But the reality was that the house would never be able to survive extensive gutting, and it was not in the least a cost effective solution. And so Joe and his wife made a very painful decision; to raze their ancestral home to the ground, and build a new one for their new and future life in that place.

The prophet Jeremiah could relate to Joe’s decision to tear down and destroy an old and decrepit structure like his house in order to plant and to build a new one. Only in the prophet’s case, he was summoned by God not to pluck up actual buildings and trees and so on, but the ancestral structures of order and conventional wisdoms of his day that his people loved and cherished and believed would be their salvation and protection against a very uncertain immediate future. You see, Jeremiah’s call was to look his people and his community in the eye and unflinchingly challenge the conventional wisdom of the leading political and religious authorities of the late 7th and early 6th centuries BCE. During these days, the mighty Assyrian empire was in its final years, and the international power scene was shifting in the favor of the mighty Babylonian Empire. The King of Jerusalem and his advisors remembered that formerly Assyria was unable to capture the Holy City of Jerusalem, and they attributed this failure to their belief that God was on their side (as he was apparently not, some hundred and thirty years earlier, on the side of Israel and Samaria, which was captured by Assyria as punishment for failing to adhere to the Law of Moses and for setting up houses of worship outside of the “official” House of Jerusalem). The Temple of the Lord protected us once, and it will do so again! Babylon will never overtake us, and the Lord of Hosts will fight for those who know that God is on their side. We adhere to the Law of Moses; we are the heirs to the throne of David; we worship the right way and in the right place. Babylon will break upon the walls of Jerusalem like water on a rock!

But the entire book of Jeremiah is a prophetic witness against this exact attitude. The prophet warns his people, whom he dearly loves, that Judah’s and Jerusalem’s shortcomings and infidelity to the Lord are now too great, and that no amount of right worship, no force of “legitimacy” to the throne of David, God’s own anointed, no claims to the right and only Temple/Church or ability to do all the right things and obey all the right laws and keep the right morality or thinking the right way will be enough to stem the tide of God’s justice and newness, for which he is now using Babylon as his agent of power. Jeremiah’s message is “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, and to build and to plant.” It is a message specifically to “our people,” the people whom I love, who claim to be on God’s side, who think that “our” way is “God’s way.” But Jeremiah warns that our interest in doing thing’s “God’s way” may in fact really be getting “in God’s way!” Numerous times Jeremiah pleaded with the people and with the religious leaders and political authorities to stop putting their faith in the Temple (Church?), the Law, (morality?) the office of the King (president?) and turn and repent. But he fails repeatedly. And so when it is too late, Jeremiah counsels the leaders not to resist, but to stay in the Land or to go to Babylon as God exerts his justice on the people. But the leaders and the people refuse even this, and continue to believe that if they kept doing Temple/Church and listen to their spiritual talking heads and political leaders (evangelical leaders?) God will see our godliness even in our distress and we’ll be OK.

Jeremiah’s message is a painful one, and his summons and call to be a prophetic witness to God’s work in the world is devastatingly difficult. And indeed, he doesn’t want to do it! Despite his initial (and continuous) protests, Jeremiah ultimately cannot resist his calling to speak to his people, to call them out as part of his work of plucking up and pulling down, of destroying and overthrowing, the conventional wisdoms and accepted beliefs and practices of the community his is part of and of its political and religious leadership: Believing that our Church and our Evangelical or Liberal heritage, morality, practices, and so forth, and our God-ordained political leadership will protect us, and, when that fails, to flee and avoid all responsibility, is “God’s way” for us.

Having done his job (and mostly failing at it), Jeremiah returns home, but his actions symbolize the aspect of his calling that was yet-to-come, and which, in fact, he never saw the fruits of during his lifetime. Later on in the book we find Jeremiah, having given his messages, on his small farm, planting and sowing for himself, and for the future of Israel. In the words of the poet Wendell Berry, Jeremiah, in the face of catastrophe, stood in his field / sowing clover.

Lest we become over depressed at this state of affairs, let us turn to the Gospel, the good news; surely the work of Jesus has something more cheerful to hear and experience than the prophetic witness of Jeremiah? Alas, this is not the case, and indeed, Jesus’ own prophetic witness is much the same as the embattled prophet from 600 years before! Like Jeremiah, Jesus’ actions in this incident in Luke is as much a challenge to “the establishment” as Jeremiah’s was, only with a far more dramatic – and physical! — element. Healing was the prerogative of God, and only those who were “legitimately” plugged into God, via proper interpretation of the law, following the morals of the local religious leaders, attending synagogue and “playing by God’s rules” while they were there, and going to the “right” house of worship, and so forth. And what healing did was not simply to restore a person’s physical well-being, but to restore him or her in “our people” even when those who claim to be the final arbiters of that position declare otherwise. Our Lord had no patience for people who screwed over those who were disadvantaged, different, “unclean,” or who thought different from us, who were “liberal” or “conservative” or “postmodern” or who “we” had marked as being outside of “us,” who had to conform to “our” rules in order to regulate who has access to the Lord!

The ruler of the synagogue in this passage, probably a Pharisee, was more concerned about upholding the letter of the Sabbath Law than he was about the pain and plight of the woman. After all, how could Messiah ever come if the people of Israel were flagrantly violating the Law like this upstart country bumpkin Jesus? Enough of this! Messiah is never going to come unless all the people stop sinning, so you, Jesus, knock it off and let the real religious people handle this kind of stuff. Jesus’ response is a stinging rebuke, and of course the Gospel tells us that the Messiah is already here! The blind see, and the lame walk, and the dead rise! And if your godly piety gets in the way of prophetic witness to the kingdom of God and God’s new and present action on earth, then you, whoever you are, are on the side of the enemy.

The witness of Jeremiah and the ministry of Jesus both testify to the presence of the Kingdom of God among us, a presence that will not be hemmed in by our orthodoxies and prevailing wisdoms of the day. But more than that, the Kingdom breaks in; it tears down and destroys; it plucks up and pulls down, and above all, it builds and plants.

Our challenge as Christians and as citizens of the kingdom of God is to live in imitation of Christ, as Thomas a Kempis says, and in prophetic witness to the work of God and the Kingdom as both Jesus and Jeremiah did. Our challenge is to look our piety, our conventional wisdom in the eye and see whether it is really God’s Way, or whether it is In His Way. We are summoned, as Jeremiah was summoned, to be a prophetic witness. And today, there are may evangelicals and progressives and other Christians who are bucking the conventional wisdom of “their people” to be that witness; people like Richard Cizik in his Kingdom work of promoting environmental concerns in the churches. Men like Greg Boyd, who challenges the church to look beyond the old issues of morality in trying to promote an authentic Christian ethic of life; or Tony Campolo, who has been tirelessly working to dismantle categories of “conservative” and “liberal;” or Brian McLaren, who work to challenge the way evangelicals think of our modern world and help build bridges to the postmodern era; or Jim Wallis, who seeks to engage evangelicals in the political issues in ways that are not wedded to one particular party. Others could be named; but these are examples of contemporary evangelical leaders who are acting as prophetic witnesses by taking long, seriously hard looks at our stock answers to the world as we see it today.

My neighbor Joe was faced with the difficult job of plucking up his home in order to allow the seeds of a new life be planted. May we, like Jeremiah and Jesus, not be afraid to answer the difficult summons to pluck up … and to plant.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., in 1999.

It is now just over 7 hours since the death of the Reverend Jerry Falwell. While I certainly am not capable of offering anything like a eulogy for this man, I can’t help but feel something like a twinge of … disappointment? Relief? Hope? Not too many people can stir up the kinds of mixed emotions that I suspect the news of Falwell’s passing will awaken in thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans.

The fact is that today the United States lost one of its most controversial and yet influential figures of recent history. The Thomas Road Baptist church lost its founder, shepherd, and senior pastor. Liberty University lost its founder and president. The remnants of the Moral Majority lost its founder, and many in the Religious Right looked to Falwell for moral guidance in developing a Christian response to politics with some clout. Regardless of what we think–thought–of Falwell’s ideas and of the type of leadership he represented, it is still true that American politics and its relationship to the churches was transformed, perhaps permanently. Whatever the state of affairs vis a vis the separation of the State and the Church (by which I only mean Institutional Religion, not simply Christian churches), that relationship is not likely to ever be the same. History will help us decide whether or not that is a good thing.

I myself owe a considerable debt to Jerry Falwell, although he never knew it. His deeply offensive comments about Muhammad and of those who practice alternative lifestyles provoked in me such anger, not simply over his remarks, but over the fact that his comments were likely to be taken as representative of all Christians, that I decided that I could not sit back while Christianity went on an offensive of hate and intolerance to those “not us.” For me, that entailed returning to school, first to seminary and ultimately on for my doctorate in Religion.

And despite the fact that Rev. Falwell’s beliefs did not speak for many, or even most, of those who profess to be Christians (including myself, obviously), I have to admit that he had the stones to actually believe in something and he believed that he was right. There was simply no room for gray areas or wishywashiness in Falwell’s psyche or his religious belief system. I think that he was dead wrong on a lot. So did a lot of people. But it is easy to find critics. It’s not so easy, I’m discovering, to find churchgoers who believe in anything other than Falwell’s “wrongness,” but they nothing to replace that wrong with. It was easy to make Falwell the scapegoat for intransigent, stubborn, judgmental fundamentalism across the Christian board. But the work of putting together something (an alternative “Christian” worldview, perhaps?) to replace the legend that passed today is something else altogether. I am hopeful that this can still be done, despite the fact that there are plenty of other Jerry Falwells that are more than ready to carry on his vision. “Fundy-bashing” is in vogue, but the act of building and planting something that we believe in, other than the wrong-headedness of “them,” has barely begun. Perhaps with Rev. Falwell’s passing, we can get past some of the vilification and reach out to each other for reconciliation. I guess that may be asking too much, but part of being hopeful is having hope even in the absence of much optimism.

Brother Falwell, I’ll meet you on / God’s Golden Shores.

View of Crater LakeRecently I have been reflecting on what it means to try to live a real life in a world that strikes me as becoming increasingly unreal. Our world aspires now to unrealistic expectations of “progress” on the one hand or to the imminent advent of a salvific messiah to bring us to an eternal utopia on the other. Beauty is commodified and objectivized, to the point that we can no longer tell the difference between what is authentically beautiful and intrinsically good and what is a commercialized copy to serve ends that are anything but good. Seems like we have somehow exchanged genuine love for the beautiful and the good for a crass faith in fakes, as Umberto Eco puts it. Even when an occasional prophet comes along to expose the idols we have constructed, we typically have no idea how to restore, or re-create, an original beauty that can deconstruct our original sin.

In a recent post, Audrey (of saintsophia.wordpress.com) expresses her desire to be able to recreate in a way that gets her away from the pains and horror of the ugliness of real life, what Merton would call the “dread of emptiness, the lack of authenticity, the quest for fidelity” that results in the “experience of boredom and of spiritual disorientation” (Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, p. 25). I have been feeling exactly the same, and the recent events in Blacksburg, Virginia, as well as the student’s self-proclaimed justifications for his actions, demonstrate how much the faith in fakes has taken over. Like Audrey, I also seek to recreate and to develop a spirituality and consciousness of beauty and goodness and ingenuity that can combat the faith in fakes wherever we find it (and this includes, let it be said right now, our churches and communities of faith). How do we live a real life in an unreal world? How do we life a life that seeks creation and recreation, that consecrates the beautiful and cherishes the good, that names the holy and recognizes the sacred?

 

Diane Ackerman, “The Work of the Poet is to Name What is Holy”

The work of the poet
is to name what is holy:

the spring snow
that hides unevenness
but also records
a dog walked at lunchtime,
the hieroglyphs of birds,
pawprints of a life
tiny but resolute;

how, like Russian dolls,
we nest in previous selves;

the lustrous itch
that compels and oyster
to forge a pearl,
or a poet a verse;

the drawing on of evening
belted at the waist;

snowfields of diamond dust;

the cozy monotony
of our days, in which
love appears with a holler;

the way a man’s body
has its own geography –
cliffs, aqueducts, pumice fields,
but a woman’s is the jungle,
hot, steamy, full of song;

the brain’s curiosity shop
filled with quaint mementos
and shadowy antiques
hidden away in drawers;

the plain geometry
of you, me, and art –
our angles at rest
among shifting forms.

The work of the poet
is to name what is holy,

and not to mind so much
the pinch of words
to cope with memories
weak as falling buildings,

or render loss, love,
and the penitentiary
of worry where we live.

The work of the poet
is to name what is holy,
a task fit for eternity,
or the small Eden of this hour.

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