Faith


St. Benedict reading a bookBooks can be holy objects, and reading is a spiritual discipline. I thought I would here present some thoughts from the Christian ascetic and monastic tradition on books and reading.

1. Antony was so attentive at the reading of the Scripture lessons that nothing escaped him: he retained everything and so his memory served him in place of books. (Life of Antony)

2. The books read at vigils should have divine authority: the Old and New Testaments and explanations of them given by recognized and orthodox fathers. (Rule of St. Benedict)

3. During Lent, they should each receive a book from the library that they are to read straight through to the end. (Rule of St. Benedict)

4. On Sundays, all should devote themselves to reading, except those who are assigned to special duties. (Rule of St. Benedict)

5. Reading is bound to silence. … Constant and attentive reading done devoutly purifies our inner self. (Peter of Celle, The School of the Cloister)

6. I consider a room without reading to be a hell without consolation, an instrument of torture without relief, a prison without light, a tomb without ventilation, a ditch swarming with worms, a strangling noose, the empty house of which the Gospel speaks. (Peter of Celle, On Affliction and Reading)

7. Reading is the food, light, lamp, refuge, solace of the soul, the spice of all spiritual flavors. (Peter of Celle, On Affliction and Reading)

and finally…

8. Study is hard work. It is so much easier to find something else to do in its place than to stay at the grind of it. We have excuses aplenty for avoiding the dull, hard, daily attempt to learn. There is always something so much more important to do than reading. There is always some excuse for not stretching our souls with new ideas and insights now or yet or ever. (Sister Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict)

dobson.jpg Unnnnnnggggggggggghhh.

I have not really been a fan of Dobson or the organization Focus on the Family for some time, but I do respect his concern for families and believe that his concern is genuine, even if I personally cannot subscribe to his overall program. But this takes it to new lows, as far as I’m concerned. In an election where so many people of religion, and specifically evangelicals, Dobson’s (former?) support base, are seeing as the beginning of a sense that our politics can be a politics of hope in the biblical, prophetic sense, rather than a partisan, stuck-in-the-mud politics of fear and alienation, Dobson is desperately trying to toss the wet-blanket of Reaganism onto the whole kit and kaboodle. Dobson is distressed that there are no conservatives this time around, which is apparently a lot more important than having candidates who inspire hope and change on both sides. Some “gems” from the statement:

“I am convinced Sen. McCain is not a conservative, and in fact, has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are.”

[W]hat a sad and melancholy decision this is for me and many other conservatives. Should Sen. McCain capture the nomination as many assume, I believe this general election will offer the worst choices for president in my lifetime.”

Come again? That’s quite a statement. What most people in the nation see as being the most hopeful options in some time, Dobson sees as the worst, no matter who wins the nominations. More…

I certainly can’t vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama based on their virulently anti-family policy positions. If these are the nominees in November, I simply will not cast a ballot for president for the first time in my life.”

Virulently anti-family policy positions?! Look, I’m not much of a Hillary fan either, but this is a bit extreme, and Obama is as much a family man as I am. Dobson simply cannot see that there is more to “family policy” than simply the old strawman issues that have been the rallying cry for evangelicals and Republicans in general for the last 30 years or so.

Come to think of it, Dobson’s statement looks a bit like the voter scorecard I commented on a few weeks ago. If you break it down, Dobson’s big issues come out to 1) low/cut taxes 2) defining marriage 3) getting rid of stem-cell research-which wasn’t one of the issues in the scorecard, but still a single definition of “life” 4) limiting the powers of the constitution and 5) no cussin’.

So, Jim, since you are threatening to not vote in November, does this mean you ARE voting in the primary? Who’s it going to be?

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.

scaffolding.jpgFamily of four looking for church home that meets a majority of the following: 1) Church should willingly and unashamedly call itself a “Christian” church, meaning (2) it follows a local theology that its leaders and board members affirm as thoroughly Trinitarian and which (3) finds its central identity in the biblical concept of a called community that (4) engages the world, rather than insulates itself against it, is (5) committed to biblical and prophetic justice, and which (6) contests “the powers” of state, bureaucracy and empire with prophetic voice and action and which (7) maintains active and aggressive vigilance against its own potential complicity with those powers. Church should be (8) Gospel- and missional-centered, (9) unafraid to name sin for what it is and (10) promote and teach the contents of Scripture as the Church’s “norming norm” even while recognizing the (11) necessity of critical reason, ecclesiastical tradition, personal impact, and interpretive flexibility among other churches throughout history and throughout the world in different circumstances from its own. Prospective church’s worship services should be (12) highly liturgical, with preference given to (13) weekly celebration of the Eucharist/Communion/Lord’s Supper and (14) worship in a building that actually looks like it has a sacred history and participates in the holy. Preference given to prospective applicants who demonstrate willingness to (15) ordain both men and women to ministry but which does not do so out of bureaucratic convenience or as political statements; applicants who refrain from ordinations entirely also considered. Churches claiming to have all the answers, or which lead members and attenders to think that they have all such answers, need not apply. To apply, email Aedificium Librarian at link provided on this page, or leave a comment below.

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.

bible_1.jpgThose of us who are engaged as students and scholars of religion and who are also engaged as cultural critics are familiar with the notion of “Idolatry of the Bible” or “Bibliolatry.” This is the perception that the Bible itself, as a physical book and especially as “information” is revered and respected to degrees that mirror idol-worship as described in the Bible itself. But there is another aspect here that isn’t talked about as much, but which is probably as prevalent. This is the recognition that the Bible does function as an idol and object of worship for “those guys” and, as such, worthy of iconoclastic attack.

What is mentioned even less, though, is that for the most part the same criteria is used to justify “Bibliolatry” and “Biblioclasm,” and I’d like to introduce this with another neologism: Historidolatry, or “Idolatry of History.” It’s an obsession with forcing the Bible to conform with our own criteria of historical veracity; the former put history to use in order to justify everything from literal, historical 6 day creation, suns standing still to prolong a battle, and Exodus and conquest stories to Noah’s Flood or the historical facticity of Job’s narrative. The Biblioclasts, on the other hand, put history to work precisely to argue that too much of the Bible’s contents are patently unhistorical. The assumption is the same; the Bible stands or falls on whether or not the Bible is “historically true.”

Now, obviously, a knowledge of the history, culture, and so on of both the events the Bible relates, as well as the historical and cultural events during the composition of the individual books, pericopes, and what-have-you, is critical. Not only that, but the Bible itself iners or even insists that certain things, in order for them to have value, had to have occured in historical time or they are worthless (as Paul insists about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15). But this is completely different than saying that the whole thing stands on this assumption, and in fact, is complicated by the fact that the Bible often gives several different versions of the same events! What the Bible is great at is recognizing that an event happened and that the event is important for community identity, and it is particularly good at preserving how different people (in different historical time, as well) remembered and represented those events. It is not especially good at giving us the event itself. We reduce the Bible to our own terms, either in defense of it, or in criticism of it, when we apply the criteria of history as the biblical standard of truth. Instead, the Bible is the testimony of a variety of witnesses, all of whom testify to the reality of God in the lives of individuals and communities.

I suggest a different tack. Since the tasks of neither history nor of the study of religion is to “prove” or “disprove” the Bible or faith, we need to employ history and the study of religion (at least, for those of us involved in “biblical religions”) to better understand and especially appreciate what it actually is that Bible (and other scriptures) is testifying to and proclaiming. Here, the so-called Bibliolatrists are on the right track; let’s put history and the study of religion to work as an aid to understanding and appreciating biblical religion, rather than as a wrecking-ball. But on the other hand, the Biblioclasts have something to offer as well, which is it recognizes the various degrees of biblical testimony and can provide people of faith, and scholars as well, with better contextual accounting for these variations.

The bottom line is that the Bible isn’t a history textbook, and despite well-meaning apologetic education and more mean-spirited critical projects, treating it as a textbook, rather than a collection of testimonies to the reality of God in ancient communities, produces shallow faith on the one hand and critical fundamentalism on the other. Biblical revelation, and its representations in the Bible itself, is conditioned by historical context, and we do ourselves enormous favors by paying attention to these contexts, but revelation cannot, and should not, be reduced to modernist criteria that negates and replaces “faith in things unseen.”

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.

cross_crescent.jpgIn the July 8 issue of the Boston Globe, a fascinating piece on “What it means to be a Christian after George W. Bush” dominated the “most e-mailed” category of the paper’s website for a number of weeks. In like fashion, but seemingly flying much lower under the radar, the July 30 issue of Newsweek featured a special report on “Islam in America” that seeks to at least raise the question of how Muslims citizens of the United States can be true to both their faith and to their country to public consciousness. Despite different approaches and examples (the Globe focuses on Christian responses to the Gulf war, while Newsweek turns on Muslim experience in the US since 9/11), both articles address the same critical issue, which is how can observant and committed Christians and Muslims be faithful to their religious and spiritual heritage and be responsible citizens of the US?

The implicit argument of both articles is that the experience of living through the Bush II administration somehow changes what it means to be a Christian or a Muslim in the United States. It is true that the elections of 2000 and 2004, which brought conservative and evangelical Christians out of the woodwork and into the voting box to elect the candidate ordained by national evangelical leaders, and the support of an unreal 87% of evangelicals who supported Bush’s Iraq War in 2003 have absolutely affected public perception of the role Christians play (or ought to play, or should not play) in the governance of the country (as well as in the election of its leaders) and in our involvement overseas. Neither can there any doubt that the trauma of 9/11 has thrust the nearly 2.35 million Muslims into the national limelight in an unprecedented degree, and the continued announcements of alleged terrorist plots being thwarted does nothing to dissuade millions of others from erroneous and potentially deadly misconceptions about our brothers and sisters of our sibling faith.

At the same time, though, the question itself, that of how to be a good and responsible citizen of our country and yet be true to our faith tradition, is hardly new. It is, in fact, at least as old as the biblical prophets in the Hebrew tradition, and it is upon this tradition that Jesus and Muhammad both drew for their own particular responses and to whom Christians and Muslims today look to for their respective archetypal ethical examples. Likewise it was St. Paul and, still later, St. Augustine who formulated this problem for Christians in the Roman Empire in theoretical and theo-political terms. While the specific examples of being Muslim or being Christian in the age of George W. Bush might be new, the problem is not.

Positively, the whole Administration has called attention to the religious elephant that has always been in the political room. While we certainly may wish that the circumstances were different, there can be no question today that religion, and in particular Christianity and Islam in the United States, is political, and politics is fundamentally religious. It is ironic, therefore, that as the neocon Republican Bush administration prepares its exeunt, the Rebublican candidates have spoken little of the impact of faith in politics (which has left evangelical leaders scrambling for a suitable candidate, and even a dismayed Jim Dobson himself threatening to not vote in 2008!), the traditionally “secular” Democratic Party has itself “gotten religion,” demonstrated first by the election of Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) as the nation’s first Muslim Congressman and then by the recent and powerful declarations of the importance and significance of the role of faith and religion in national politics by candidates Obama, Clinton, and Edwards. What is becoming clear is that we don’t have to “be” Christian or “be” Muslims necessarily any different than we are, but we do need to change perceptions of “being” of the faith really means vis-a-vis responsible citizenship.

In both traditions, Jesus and Muhammad call on their respective followers to be prophetic witnesses to peace and justice in the world. Nowhere in either the Qur’an or the Christian Bible are the people of God commanded to internalize their faith to such a degree that it is solely and completely private and detached from affairs of this world, which include our politics, civic engagements and responsibilities, and so forth. The prophetic call is a call to engage issues of injustice where we are, and to exercise compassion and mercy in so doing. Our militant versions of our faiths (Islamic extremism in the case of my Muslim friends, and Christian fundamentalism in my own tradition) may very well believe they are acting on behalf of divine justice, but they fail to act on their own mandates of mercy and compassion in their scriptural traditions.

Thus to respond to the challenge raised by Newsweek and the Globe, we, as brothers and sisters in the service of God, can indeed engage our civic and political issues for the betterment of our country without resorting to quasi-pseudo theocracy on the one hand or extremism on the other. Inshallah.

foundryhillfinal1w180h142.jpg Dilapidated Barns: A Sermon for Proper 13/Ordinary Time 18
Hosea 11.1-11; Colossians 3.1-11; Luke 12.13-21; Psalm 107

One of the most common scenes when you drive through rural New England, particularly in Vermont and New Hampshire, is the old, run-down, partially flattened, crooked, caved in or otherwise dilapidated barn. Some of us perhaps don’t need to even go very far to see one or two; I have to look at ours pretty much every day of the week in the summer when we’re here in New Hampshire. Most of us, perhaps, look at them and think nostalgically back to days when beautiful barns stood proudly in a field of carefully tilled soil, like a symbol of good, hard work, provision, care, and extended family. Others drive by these collapsed structures and perhaps think to themselves “For heaven’s sakes, that thing is an eyesore! Why don’t they just knock it down and build something new and better, something that will hold old all their stuff, or at least make the yard look better?” Where the former observer might feel a sense of sadness, the latter is more disgusted.

Our dilapidated barns are indeed good symbols of our society today. Our society is littered with storehouses of various types that are old and run-down and decrepit, signs of what is always, invariably, the final result of investing so much into a close-to-suicidal consumerist economy that places such a premium on cheap-junky stuff that surpasses our needs and instead satisfies our whimsical desires, as well as our real needs, at the cheapest price possible. Worse still, our participation in this state of affairs fattens the bank rolls of the very people who confidently tell us that participation in their system is all to our benefit. “Soul, store up, hoard, and consume for many years, and you will be happy, taken care of, and provided for.”

Regardless of where we find ourselves here, the Scriptures from today’s lection do not permit us the luxury or thinking along the lines of the world today, and for that, I think, we should be grateful. Hosea 11.1-11, today’s first lection, reads:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2The more I* called them,
the more they went from me;*
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.

3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my* arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
4I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.*
I bent down to them and fed them.

5They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
6The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
7My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.*

8How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
9I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.*

10They shall go after the Lord,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
11They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

What I want for you to see here in this passage is the heavy dose of Exodus imagery that appears all over this passage, and I also want you to see how important the theme of idolatry is here as well. Both themes are two of the central elements in the story of Israel and, I submit, of God’s chosen generally, whether Jews or Christians or anyone else. There is also the theme and threat of exile sounded in verse 5. We also see God portrayed here as a nurturing mother in one of the most moving descriptions of God’s tenderness in all of Scripture in verses 1-4 and 8-9. We need to unpack this a bit.

In Egypt, Israel built up storehouses for their Egyptian rulers and overlords. They were caught and stuck in a system that created profound need for those with little while simultaneously creating-and attempting to satisfy-want and desire for those with much. By introducing the theme of Egyptian slavery and building the Egyptian storehouses, the writer of Hosea sounds a note that was profoundly sensitive to his 8th century hearers. For Israel had spent 400 years in Egypt, the world’s most powerful nation, a nation who wrung their bread from the sweat of Hebrew faces. And yet God, in his tender mercy and fierce justice, heard their cries for help, justice, salvation, and deliverance from Egypt even while they continued to build the barns and storehouses to preserve and store up the things of earth.

In antiquity, these storehouses and barns were the equivalent of today’s stocks and investment accounts. People believed that a full barn or storehouse was their security for a future of eating, drinking, and making merry all the days of their lives. But Hosea reminds us that the lesson of Egypt is that our storehouses, no matter where we put them, are no guarantee of security, and indeed, they could prove to be a profound security risk and liability, just as they are today. Ancient empires were founded on their ability to consume the resources of other nations, especially successful ones, and the result was always the same cycle of conquest and reconquest to determine control of the barns and coffers of rival and successful states. The story of Egypt reminds us that not even putting faith in carefully planned provisioning will provide security and safety from the justice of God, as the 10 plagues show, and Hosea warns his contemporaries from 2800 years ago that Israel, who has similarly placed her faith in places where it ought not be placed, is about to suffer the same fate as the might Egyptian empire did at the hands of the Assyrians (v. 5-6). As the storehouses of the Egyptians ultimately proved to be their undoing – twice! – so Israel’s faith in gods other than yhwh would be theirs.

Hosea pleads with Israel to abandon her dependency on things that do not satisfy. He begs Israel to cease making sacrifices to Baals and idols, reminding Israel that it is the LORD who nurtured and loved her, who called her out of Egypt, to taught her to walk and who took her in her arms, who healed them and who led her with kindness like a mother who lifts her babies to her cheeks and who bent down and fed (nursed?) them. We see here the agony of God, whose heart recoils within him as he struggles to uphold justice against his wayward child even while nurturing his warm and tender compassion (v.8). Our provision comes from the LORD himself, who loves us with a mother’s love, but who also disciplines us as a father might; desist from counting on our plans, our barns, our accounts, to be there for us in our hours of greatest need, for this is the world’s way, not the way of the heart of the LORD.

Like Hosea, the apostle Paul warns us against putting our faith in the world and in the world’s “solutions”.

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your* life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.* 7These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.* 8But now you must get rid of all such things-anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive* language from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11In that renewal* there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

(more…)

Seraph“Cypher, the Matrix isn’t real!”

“Oh, I disagree, Trinity; I think the Matrix can be more real than this world.”

Lately, I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading in memory and social theory, and I’ve been working my way through Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality. The thoughts here are inspired by Berger and Luckmann’s work from 40 years ago, but I’ve taken the liberty of combining them with some of my recent work on the book of Revelation and with the Wachowski Brothers’ trilogy of Matrix films.

Berger and Luckmann argued that practically from birth, what we understand to be “real” is a social construction that is imposed on us through a variety of instruments of the dominant culture of the world that we find ourselves in. When that dominant culture ultimately has the power to impose its cultural perspective (or worldview) on other ones, and proceeds to do so, the result is a programmatic presentation of “the real” that says “our” reality, whatever it is, is the ultimate one, and this by necessity must replace any alternative ones. In other words, once a culture establishes a hegemony over others that would not normally be inclined to share, appreciate, or employ the instruments that the culture uses to construct reality at home, it is in a position to say to everyone else that the way we are is the way everyone should be. This kind of imperialism doesn’t have to be through military force or violence against earth, air, and flesh (although it can be, and often is); more pervasive and dangerous is the seductive nature of the instruments of cultural imperialism. Violence and seduction are, and have always been, two of the most potent agents of social control and the imposition of “reality.”

To viewers of the Matrix, this should sound familiar, and one wonders whether the Wachowski Brothers had a copy of Social Construction of Reality around when they produced the films. The entire trilogy turns on the questions of What is Real, and What is the Matrix? In the trilogy, we learn that the Matrix is the reality constructed by the dominant Machine World that, through violence and seduction, is imposed on the world of human beings in order for the Machine World to maintain its hegemony and its control of human life. Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne, recognizes that there are at least these two realities, and he challenges Neo (Keanu Reeves) to recognize that he has to choose which reality he is going to accept, since both are Real. In Berger and Luckmann’s terms, the Machine World is able to force its worldview, its reality, onto the Human through the instrumentality of the Matrix. For those living in the Machine World, the majority of humans do not realize that their reality is artificial and constructed and have no need for or interest in knowing otherwise. The dominant culture of technocracy, as it were, has defined what is real and literally constructed the instruments to make sure that things stay the way they are. Theirs is the “ultimate reality,” as Tillich might express it.

In any event, the story of the Matrix is that the reality imposed by the dominant Machine World is not the only reality, and in fact needs to be challenged because the human race is not destined to be batteries and puppets that empower the force of empire and its artificial instruments of violence and seduction to keep control over those who resist.

And if this sounds like a familiar story, you’re right. This is exactly the story of the book of Revelation. Revelation is a call to see the Matrix for what it is and an invitation to look behind the screen to see the ugliness of the reality of its version of the Machine World, that is to say, the Empire, the violence of the Beast and the seductions of the Whore that are the instruments of imperial worldviews of reality. For the author of Revelation, the Roman Empire is the latest version of the Matrix, an artificially constructed reality that had plagued Israel in a number of x.0 versions since the days of Egyptian bondage. But as with the theatrical Matrix, Revelation recognizes the reality of the Empire/Machine world every bit as much as it recognizes the world of the Saints/Zion. Both realities exist and coexist and join together through complex processes of mimicry and symbiosis and are locked in a struggle that simultaneously defends and destroys the other. The Matrix and the Empire are paragons of the power and order of the Machine World and the dominant force of Imperialism in all its forms. The heroes of Zion and the persevering Saints of first century Asia, on the other hand, recognize the reality of the Matrix of Empire, but refuse to accommodate themselves to imperial control; for Morpheus, Neo, Trinity, John of Patmos, Christ, and the embattled saints of Asia, imperial reality is a Beast operating the machine mainframe, a reality that ultimately will lead to nothing but the utter destruction and annihilation of this world as well as the other. Revelation and The Matrix thus show that these competing worlds exist in symbiotic opposition to each other, but are not condemned to eternal conflict. As the Oracle tells Neo, “One way or another, Neo, the war is going to end.”

The story, of course, continues now. The Matrix of Empire is a constructed instrument of persuasion designed to convince others that the pax romana and pax americana is the ordained and one legitimate ultimate reality. But Revelation and the Matrix show us that, confronted with the reality of imperial pax, we who were called out of Egypt now need to be called out of Babylon, out of the power fields of the Machine world. And here in the Matrix, there are too many who know that something is seriously wrong with the seductive doings of empire, who know that we ourselves are complicit in the violence done to the earth and to each other in the name of maintaining things “as it was was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever more.” We feel the splinter in the mind and its driving us mad. And if we are truly to come out of Babylon, as the Seer of Revelation cries out to us that we must, we have to take the plunge, and find the courage to take the Red Pill, and hack into the Matrix.

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