Saturday, August 23, 2008

Postscript to Messianic Failures

It occurs to me, before someone has pointed it out, that if salvation is made evident through the life of different individuals, some (or many) of whom are not even related to Christ-centered beliefs, why is there any need for particularism or Christ-centeredness. It is a good question, and one I have thought about. I have chose the narrative answer.
I can only make sense of those actions that potentially reveal salvific meaning if I have an actualized event that I can relate them to.
The story of Jesus, part of the larger story of YHWH and Israel, or Creation and Creator relationship, lends context to the events that I hear about, observe, or participate in. Jesus is the language of my experience, and the provides the baseline for my understanding of actions or events that pose revelatory value.
Of course, I can become a student of Gandhi, or a student of Buddha, and I can incorporate specific claims made by the followers of Hinduism or Buddhism into my framework of knowledge. Ultimately, however, my immersion in the Christ-centered faith of my original spiritual experiences will act as a filter, and I will generally not do justice to those claims.
If I do fully immerse myself into Hinduism or Buddhism, and become a "professional" so to speak, then I have either began to view the world through a worldview different than that of my original Christ-centered faith, or I have come to further identify with it and have no need for the assistance of other views that may act to distort the Christ-centeredness of my particular narrative.
Of course, I can combine the best aspects of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity (It seems no one ever chooses Islam) and live accordingly, but then this would be a new religion, necessarily rejected by the proponents of each of the original faiths. This is not to suggest that their is anything wrong with new religions (or old ones). It is only to suggest that spiritual or religious intelligibility and integrity must not only allow for the particularity of all religious claims, but must allow them to maintain their particularity and identity over and against mutations that insist upon co-opting the old identity by painting the new religion as the natural evolutionary advance of the old.
Remember, evolution is not (necessarily) an unquestionable improvement. It is an adaptation to an environment. Early followers of Jesus were certainly not out to improve on Palestinian Judaism, and I don't believe they were an adaptation of it. It was a continuation of the Yahwist faith by making a specific claim that was only intelligible within the Yahwism of its time. Messianic claims did not in anyway change the nature of the way God was acting or to act in history, according to Judeans of the first centry. they fully expected God to act, most simply rejected that Jesus was the person the YHWH acted through.
Whatever has happened to the Christ-centered witness over two thousand years, it is the witness that God's desire is fully revealed in the historical Christ, and that those who believe that the life Jesus lived is normative for our understanding of humanity that lends context to our understanding of the world around us. If I understand the world through Jesus, with an assist on the goal from Buddha, then I may be a better person for it, but I am no longer Christ-centered.
there are, of course, several implications for Quakerism in my thinking, but I don't have to spell those out. Blessings to all.

Messianic Failures and the Light of Life

I have not watched any of the Olympics, but I am well aware that they are being held in China. This led me to thinking about the solitary individual that is pictured at the bottom of my blog - the man standing before a line of tanks in order to try and prevent them from moving further into Tienanmen Square. This led me to thinking about Jesus, and messianic actions, and the idea of salvation.
On the one hand, it is very easy to compare Jesus to the man standing in front of the row of tanks. Neither Jesus nor this man changed the way empire did business. Rome and its collaborators executed Jesus for his trouble, and in china, well, I believe our hero has disappeared, and his image banned throughout the country. Despite whatever intentions Jesus and the tank man had, it was business as usual for the oppressors and the oppressed after the event.
On the other hand, it is through the life of Jesus and the tank man that we know what salvation is, and how it is obtained in the midst of apparent hopelessness. It is not the probable death of the Tienanmen Square protester that gives us a sense of worth and dignity, or salvation. And it is not the death of Jesus that gives us a sense of worth and dignity - or salvation. It is the actions of such individuals that show us who we can be, and how we can be whole, by insisting upon the worth of the oppressed and marginalized as the standard of creation, as opposed to the standard of empire that insists upon power as the standard.
"But, they ended up dead, and nothing changed," one might say. Well, Followers of Jesus outlasted Rome, and I have a feeling that the bold actions of that individual who stood before the tanks will have a history that surpasses the government that ordered those tanks into Tienanmen. Stalin one responded to criticism from a Pope by asking, "How many tanks hath the Pope?" Indeed, Pilate asked Jesus, "What is Truth?"
I suggest that glimpses of truth are most evident when tanks are challenged and crosses are suffered by individuals who know what the consequences of such actions will be, but voluntarily challenge the power of tanks and threats of execution because they know that we can ultimately be liberated from such oppressive symbols if we stand up to them and expose them as weaknesses of the power elites.
As power elites are exposed, little by little, by those messianic actors who have the heart to take the stage with a script that has no happy ending, we who witness their actions are empowered to liberate ourselves and communities from the actions of empire that would keep us enslaved.
In the United States and much of the western world, the language of Jesus and the Tienanmen Square protester have been co opted by power elites. George Bush compares America to "the light that shines int he darkness, and darkness could not overcome it."
Yet, it is because of Jesus and others that we do comprehend the "light" of empire as understood by Bush, and we will overcome it. We have been shown the way by Jesus, and Perpetua and Felicitas, by Joan of Arc and by martin Luther King Jr. We have been shown the way by a Tienanmen Square protester who stood his ground. Yet it is not the death of these individuals that shows us what salvation looks like, but their life. Our witness should always be to life, and never death, as the standard of salvation.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

voting for choice?

Is it possible that liberal democracy frees us from an ethic of responsibility? I have been thinking about the abortion issue over the past two days, wondering what it might mean if I were to vote one way or the other according to a candidate’s stance on whether or not a woman can or cannot choose to terminate a pregnancy.

First of all, I want to make it clear that I don’t vote. Not on war, not on taxes, and not on abortion. Morally, I can’t make a decision for a woman who has not voluntarily joined herself to a community that has established an ethic concerning such an issue. Also, I’m not smart enough to know everything there is to know about anything, let alone abortion. But there lays the rub. It seems that there are quite a few people on both sides of the issue who are more concerned about establishing themselves as a morally victorious political force than they are about improving the lives of women.

I will not insist that I know all of the facts, but it is my observation that many middle class and educated women have fought tooth and nail for the issue of reproductive choice without taking an equally passionate stand concerning issues of justice for women who don’t really have such a choice despite the legal status of abortion. Most abortions are obtained by European-American women of some education and financial means. As for the poor, abortion is not in the financial cards. I would be disappointed if any reproductive rights advocate suggested that the answer to poverty pregnancies was state-funded abortions.

As such, while everyone is worried about reproductive rights being eliminated by conservative Supreme Court justices or draconian state laws in the Midwest, hardly anyone is protesting Clinton’s welfare reforms and the fact that those reforms have done more to keep poor women in bondage to wage slavery than the possibility that they might not be able to freely choose a medical procedure they cannot afford anyway. Folks, the Clinton administration took women for a ride, and it did as much damage to the welfare of women as the Bush judicial appointees might in the future.

It also seems as though poor and minority women are being punished by women of means because they choose to give birth over and against the possibility of terminating a pregnancy. Very little effort is spent on defending a woman’s right to spend the first three years of her child’s life establishing a solid parent-child relationship. Along with a right to choose an abortion, let’s demand the right to raise healthy children. And let’s start to help poor people raise healthy children. Many conservatives are willing to take in a pregnant woman who makes a decision to be a parent. How many liberal families are willing to do the same. While rightly working to empower women and make self-determination a reality, are we overlooking the fact that a woman whose ethic insists on giving birth regardless of circumstances needs to be empowered in a manner that celebrates her integrity.

Instead of making abortion rights the issue, perhaps we need to make the issues of patriarchy and the wage-slave status of women throughout the world the major issue. The fact that a 20 year old white college woman can have an abortion does not challenge patriarchy, it entrenches it by once again failing to hold men responsible for their actions, and allowing women to be objectified and then held solely responsible for addressing the results of patriarchy. It often seems as though women have less self-realization in their relationships with often dominating male counterparts than they do over their reproductive health.

The perceived sexual liberation of women is a lie, as the sexual revolution has benefited men. I daresay this has happened without a collateral wealth of orgasmic experience for our liberated mates. Liberation has meant quantity over quality for multiple partner males. Women are sexually exploited more than ever, or as much as ever, and it is done much more publicly than ever. The right to abortion has made that exploitation that much more enjoyable for males, who send their conquests to the clinic as if it is the most reasonable answer to this little problem of pregnancy. Abortion is not an answer to patriarchy, nor is it an answer to women’s economic struggles. It is simply an issue that, while important to many who are invested in elite status on both sides of the issue, overshadows the real issues of many women and families. It is time for a new ethic.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Thoughts on sin and confession

Caffeine and racing thoughts have conspired to bring prayer and blog together. I have been thinking tonight about the concepts of sin and confession, and what they mean to various faith communities and more individualistic Quakers. It is a frustrating endeavor to overcome the terrible moral overkill that fundamentalists or evangelical religionists have placed upon the shoulders of the concept of sin, and it's equally frustrating to speak of such a concept as "sin as estrangement" with Quakers who fail to agree to that something is perhaps very wrong with humanity and "being." Craig, is sin an ontological problem?

As for myself, I find that I am "guilty" of sin, and that I must confess as much if reconciliation is a concept that has any integrity when I am to speak of it. It's not that I believe that I am morally corrupted beyond "worthiness." I do confess, however, that my shrillness tends to be self-serving, and that self-absorption is a major obstacle between myself and wholeness. I believe such self-absorption to be evidence of sin.

Yet, there is blessing in sin. There is blessing because it is evidence of freedom. If the story of the Garden has any meaning for me, it is not that humanity was doomed by a vicious deity because of desire, but that humanity has the joy of choosing relationship with the creator, and with each other. We are not designed as boosts to the cosmic ego, but as free agents who are capable of experiencing love for one another and for God freely. Without the concept of sin, we are stuck in Tillich's state of "dreaming innocence," a state that is not only free from temptation, but from the freedom to experience real relationship. A state of dreaming innocence is a state lacking wholeness, because there is lacking the polarities that give meaning to existence. (And no, I am not a Tillich fan.)

For relationship to happen, I need to confess that I am potentially at odds with an other's concept of wholeness, and that I am perhaps a candidate for reconciliation. This is an integral aspect of freedom. To be a free moral agent is to accept that I am potentially estranged from another agent, and to be in relationship with my neighbor and to love my enemy, I must confess my complicity in such estrangement. Wholeness is not an individual state of being, but a corporate state that witnesses to the importance of relationships as the foundation of human meaning and being.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

an untitled short-story about drugs, alcohol, and god

By R. Scot Miller

His eyes moved from the cracked sidewalk block beneath his feet to the cracked window of the upper flat. There was a sleepy eyelid of space between the window frame and the dingy bedspread that covered the rest of it. A flickering blue light, emanated from a television, and radiated through the eyelid in contrast to the depressing gray of the Detroit neighborhood. That light, the blue light, promised that someone would be home.
He walked quickly, trying not to betray his anxiety or his intentions. Still, the look on his face, his purposeful walk, and of course, his skeletal frame, would have easily telegraphed those intentions. It was getting dark, but a basketball game continued as players moved easily under the glow of a street light, giving more attention to gambling on the next shot and game-points than to the familiar sight of yet another nobody on their way to the second-floor flat. He walked past them, thinking of his own gambles, and guided himself into the shadows of the house.
He pushed open a heavy door and stepped into a darkness that was managed from memory. A step up, then another, 24 steps to the top he remembered - as if it were a password to the second floor. He could hear the sounds of the TV now. The laughter of a game show filtered through a gap between the door and the floor. He knocked loud enough to be heard over the blaring box.
“Who is it?” demanded a voice inside.
“It’s me - like every other night.”
“You think you are the only one that comes knockin?” said the voice of the man inside as he opened the door. A familiar figure wearing thick black-rimmed glasses and a baby-blue golf hat waved him in. There were several teeth missing from his smile, and it would have affected the doorman’s speech further if he were prone to talk more than he did.
His first step into the room brought palpable change with it.. The air was heavy - burdensome to an interior that could have served only to improve first impressions of the rough exterior. It had the properties of a building being slowly demolished by neglect. The space was full of dancing shadows begotten by the only light in the room, the TV, and it made him feel as though he was in some kind of B-grad film. “I’ve become a damned stereotype,” he thought, and it hadn’t taken him long to reach this point.
After promising that he would never find himself in a place like this, he was now a regular visitor. Every night, beginning at first with the allure of a woman made attractive by whiskey and the fact she would say yes, he continued to climb the stairway in the darkness to do business with the man enthralled with game shows. The woman was, incidentally, gone weeks ago.
“You got three?” he mumbled as he pulled crumpled tip money he had earned bussing tables from his pocket. “And I wanna do one of ‘em here.”
“Yeah, you can sit right here nexta me - I likes your company. I like that extra five dollars too.”
He handed the TV man 65 dollars and sat, if not sank, into the mismatched cushion of a second or third-hand couch. He was acutely aware of his hand, shaking as though it belonged to an eighty year-old. The strange idea of sacrament passed through his mind, and he unintentionally muttered a word or two about “communion.” The TV man laughed at this, and dropped three yellow-ivory nuggets into his hand. Next he passed along a short piece of hollow metal snipped from the rabbit-ear antennae that had once served the television. In a few moments, he though, his day would change. It would suddenly seem at once vastly better, depressingly worse, and extraordinarily intense - like some sort of perverse Trinity of reality that would never be easily explained.
He grabbed a lighter from the coffee table in front of the couch. The metal top had been removed and when he lit it, the flame leapt out like a finger, beckoning him to tilt his head closer. Just as he tried to steady himself to take advantage of the flame - it flickered out. The TV man chuckled.
“That’s the last one in the house. I’ve been to busy to walk to the gas station to get another.”
He quietly considered his options. He begrudgingly accepted the fact that that he would have to wait before he went through his evening metamorphosis. He sighed to himself, but said nothing. He simply shoved the nuggets into his pocket, stood up, and walked toward the door.
“We’ll get that light for you tomorrow,” the TV man jibed. “I’m sure we’ll be seein’ you tomorrow.”
He paused for a moment, wanting to answer, but he was unable to manufacture any response. The TV man stood, holding the door to the stairwell open. “See ya,” he said, and almost seemed as though he was empathizing with his customer.
He made his way down the stairs, from memory, and stepped through the entrance onto the sidewalk. It was dark now. The basketball game continued under the street light, but there was little other activity. He remembered a time when the evenings held so much promise. He recalled with a vivid picture in his mind’s eye the intimate times he used to enjoy with friends, with women who loved him.
Everything and everybody had been used up, emotionally drained and abused. Those who hadn’t left him he rejected out of his own sense of shame. All he had left were the three rocks in his pocket. He saw nothing more in his future. In fact - he no longer cared. He no longer had a place to go. An epiphany of paralysis occurred. Immobility struck. A hyper-anxiety erupted out of the self- realization of who he had become. Self-awareness can be a vicious enemy, he thought, and along with his loss of hope he now had to deal with an expanding knowledge of his own culpability. The end was presenting itself to him, and it awaited his authorship. He drew the rocks from his pocket, and released them into the gutter grate. He started home without buying vodka, and he knew, of course, that he had just made everything worse.
He had been squatting at a vacant four apartment building on Fourth Street, a place that none of the other of the neighborhood’s tramps had yet discovered. He felt safe enough when he walked in, hoping he would still think as much when the inevitable suffering began. Throwing away the crack was insane, but it presented him with a reasonable battle. The liquor would be noticeably absent from his system in a few hours, and liquor made demands of its own that would require him to suspend reason, whether he forged ahead or surrendered. “All at once,” he muttered, “I’ll do it all at once.”
Hours into the early morning, he sat up reading by flashlight. The shakes were uncontrollable, he could no longer focus on the book he had stolen from a college student’s backpack. He had been “self-educating” himself for a few years, though it seemed like a pointless endeavor. It had never occurred to him that he might get a formal college education. His thoughts were beginning to race, and strobe-like, his mind flashed images form the text he was reading, and the text itself seemed as though to be speaking. He heard the voices of visitors, yet still, at this point, knew those visitors were the product of the liquor void he was suffering through. Talking textbooks and ghostly visitors gave way to full blown crisis. He perceived himself as trapped, feeling the presences of unwanted authorities and onlookers, of television news-copters, and of the demons who were struggling against exorcism. Terrified, he walked into the next room of the apartment.
His context changed abruptly, as though he had fallen headlong into a dream without the gist of sleep. He found himself in a room, though certainly not the room he had intended to walk into. It occurred to him that he should pay special attention. There were odds and ends of furniture. A chair salvaged from his grandmother’s house. The ever-present picture of the gray haired man praying over his bread was hanging on the wall. A recliner was sitting against another wall, and without testing to make sure, he knew there was a broken spring laying in wait for an unexpecting ass to grab. A braided rug, snagged and snared and coming apart at various seams, lay in the center of the room. It acted magnetically to attract every beige and brown and off-white that stained the walls and mix them into a puddle that resided upon the floor. A sofa, probably two decades old and probably commandeered from some bachelor uncle’s basement, drifted atop of the puddle rug. Phone books may have propped up the couch where a leg was missing. He really didn’t have to look. It was that familiar.
Two men entered the room, and he sat on the couch with them. He could sense that, even though there was a young man on either side of him, one white and the other black, they were somehow one. His experience of them together can only be expressed in terms of him. He was college-aged, and in both embodiments he looked relaxed in blue-jeans and sweatshirts. His gym shoes were canvass, dirty and worn. He thought somehow like there should be music in the background, but there was none. Just the three of them, and this sense of utter familiarity that put an end to his previous sense of urgency.
“Your on the right road,” said the presence on his right. The presence on his left put a hand on his shoulder, a reassuring gesture that heightened the intimacy he felt in the moment. He relaxed, breathing like he knew hope again. He then drifted off, into a state of promise that momentarily assured him of salvation.
Morning came, and afternoon had almost passed before he awoke. The miracle of sleep had ushered him through what should have been the most demanding period of his regeneration. Still, his shaking hands and pounding heart, his aching head and crippled extremities, betrayed the weight of the remaining burden. Working was out of the question, and he really didn’t believe that having money in his pocket would have fit into his plans for the next few days. It’s just like last night, he thought, I still have no place to go. The prospect of being alone, however, terrorized him. He closed his eyes and tried to muster a destination.
There was a church building he knew of. Actually, the neighborhood was filled with churches of all types. It had seemed to him that many of the older churches phallically represented the god of past generations the same way that missiles and skyscrapers served the phallic subconscious of wealthy males. The neighborhood was home to massive Catholic monuments and Presbyterian edifices, magnificent Lutheran complexes that were expanding into a collection of annexes, and an Anglican Church that was even whiter than the rest. He hated the god represented by these buildings, whose white suburban congregations drove into the neighborhood to worship the god of their youth in the churches of their childhoods. The buildings intended to reflect the omnipotence, omniscience, and majesty of their god as they required the space of an entire city block or more. Yet, while these white folks kept coming from twenty miles away to worship in the churches of their fathers, they were oblivious to the obvious – god had left this neighborhood. Shekinah was the lie of the city, yet the white folks insisted upon believing it.
There were the other churches, though - the ones where people were shoehorned into spaces smaller than most of the neighborhood’s liquor stores. On any given Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday night, shouts and singing and preaching and invitation were all present in the air that was drawn into the gravity of worship. Most of these churches were in disrepair. He remembered one night when he was walking through the neighborhood (in his boxer shorts, nothing else) and one of these storefront churches was having a revival. As he walked passed, he asked two doormen if the place was a cover for a blind pig. “This is after-hours for Jesus,” said one of the men. The other was more appropriately disgusted. For whatever reason, he began walking toward that same storefront. He didn’t exactly expect any god to be present, but perhaps hope might still reside there. He reflected for a moment that resources were in short supply in his neighborhood. The storefronts of God seemed to have been emptied of product, looted by the tax-base that believed the Exodus led to the suburbs.
He arrived at his destination. There was no one there, and the doors were locked. He didn’t know if anyone would come by on this Saturday. He really didn’t know if anyone still met there. He felt compelled, however, to wait there, half hoping that a savior would really could arrive and liberate him from his own bondage to self-destruction and self-hatred. He thought of the Exodus story, and he thought of Jesse Jackson. The irony of his source of biblical knowledge was lost upon him. The cry, “Let my people go” was to him the cry of an activist turned presidential candidate. But he knew the slavery story, and he knew the stories of liberation in the context of the twelve-step meetings he had been court-order to attend, and put the two together. Moses would perhaps come to this place. He had a feeling of this, though it was more a feeling of urgency than of hope.
His broken body somehow recalled the necessity of food as he sat waiting by the church doors. There was a gas station across the street on the corner, and he walked over to the two-inch thick window and asked if he could sweep the parking lot in exchange for some food. The cashier, who was working alone and didn’t like the prospect of going outdoors in the expanding darkness to sweep or do anything else, agreed. He received a broom, and a bucket of window wash to do windows and gas tanks. He set about his work, shaking as though he might rattle apart like a ’78 Chevette on the freeway. While he was working, he saw a man unlock the doors of the church, and noticed that several others followed over the time he was sweeping.
He finished his work, though the station hardly looked improved upon. He asked for a large bag of Doritos and a Hostess Apple Pie, and the clerk gave him a Lil’ Hug drink to wash it down. He thought of the Lil’ Hug drink. There were empty miniature clear plastic barrels that littered almost every street of the neighborhood. They cost ten cents apiece, and the kids would by them by the dozen, as would the drunks who chased vodka shots with them. He thought of the vodka, yearned for it for a moment, and then headed for the church across the street.
When he approached the doors, he hesitated to go in. He still didn’t really know why he was there, or what he expected to happen as a result of his visit. He forced himself through the doors. He was driven more by the fear that he would be drinking again in an hour if he didn’t do something, anything, to step into the unknown that held hope for a light at the end of it all. He was walking toward the light so to speak, upon the promise it would be ahead despite the utter despair that was swallowing it.
When he waked in, there was a circle of people sitting in the middle of a room filled with folding chairs. At the head of a room was a folding table covered with a dingy and yellowed cloth, and a wooden cross standing in the center. Behind the table on the wall was another cross, and somewhat startlingly, there were two pictures of Jesus. On the left of the cross was the “traditional” type of paining that presented Jesus as a dirty blond white boy with blue eyes and a crown of thorns. There were drops of blood streaming form the crowned head.
Hanging to the right of the cross was a picture of Jesus, but in this portrait he was black. It was Jesus alright, because he was wearing the robe and had been nailed to crude cross. There was another picture cut from a book or magazine stuck into the bottom corner of the picture frame. It was a photo of a man who was hanging from a tree, the victim of a mid-century southern lynching.
That picture cut his heart, and he silently cursed the fucked-up notion that suffering and death rescued anybody. All these Jesus folks were killing black folks left and right back in the day, at the same time they were praising the god of white supremacy. The cut-out picture showed evidence that at least one person at this church wasn’t buying into that god, who now resided in the suburbs and visited the neighborhood during holidays and weekend service-learning trips. Someone then broke into his thoughts. “Hello young man,” said a graying man, maybe in his fifties. For whatever reason, he guessed this man was a deacon or something, though he didn’t really know what a deacon was. He felt a response welling up within him.
And so he confessed. He accepted an invitation to joins the group sitting in tacircle of ten people, a prayer group that met on Saturday evenings in preparation for Sunday worship services. He was shaking, and felt ill, and was ashamed because he was smelling of sweat. He was covered by the dust of the gas station parking lot, yearning for vodka, distracted by thoughts of crack rocks and prostitutes. He was ashamed because he was sure that if there was a god left in the city, that god would have frowned upon his life,And he confessed.
His words poured out to the prayer group. He talked about his alcoholism and drug addiction. He talked about the family he had driven away. He talked about hating god and God and churches and the Church. Mostly, though, he talked about sin, his own sin, aware of the irony that stemmed from the recently held knowledge that their was no such thing as sin. A night of abstinence proved him wrong bout that. So did the pictures on the wall, who convinced him of his own complicity in sin at a depth he had never realized. He continued confessing. He confessed that he was lonely, and crazy, and wanting to drink now even more than he did an hour ago, or two hours ago, or five hours ago. He was dying for a drink, and he confessed as much. He was hoping for forgiveness, though he wasn’t sure what forgiveness looked like, and wasn’t sure he could ever forgive himself.
An elderly woman rose for her seat in the circle and sat next to him. She placed her hand on his shoulder, a reassuring gesture that heightened the intimacy he felt in the moment. He relaxed, breathing like he knew hope again. The woman offered that the man who looked like a deacon could make a few phone calls, and they could find him a place to stay so that he might not have to drink, and he might not have to be alone. “You need to go to the mission,” she said, “and we can get you in there.” He dreaded the mission. He dreaded the fundamentalism, and the baptisms, and the altar calls. Mostly, he dreaded the rules. He knew, though, that he had to do something.
The woman and the deacon drove him to the mission on Third Avenue. If there was a god, god had a sickening sense of humor. The mission, with its neon sign that brightly suggested that ”Jesus Saves,” was located next door to a pool hall. “oh no,” he thought. He know all about what went on there. “How am I gonna live next to this crap”” he asked the deacon, who replied something to the effect that he had been that crap for the past few years. “A day not drinking don’t make you better than them,” said the deacon, “And a year of not drinking might make you worse to be around.” The man laughed at his own joke, and his passenger who was crap thought to himself that the deacon knew more than he was letting on.
He stepped out of the back seat of the K-car, onto the sidewalk and toward the mission doors. The deacon grabbed his arm and guided him - not gently, but not to aggressively – into the building. There were catcalls from the pool hall next door, and he was sure he knew one of the women who was lingering outside and waved at him. He remembered the Exodus story, and how this did not seem anything like a liberation from bondage. He asked the deacon about the Exodus as they waited for someone to check him into the mission rehab program.
“Well,” started the deacon, “Remember, even after the Hebrew slaves were brought out of the House of Egypt, they kept on a-cryin’ to go back to slavery. Riskin’ the unknown of freedom made bondage seem a lil’ better lookin’. Followin’ the God of the Exodus is risky business man…he sends you everywhere and demands a lot but loves you even more.” He thought about crying to go back. He knew what was next when he took a drink or bought a rock. And if something went wrong, he would just be dead. But a life without such bondage, a life that demanded some semblance of maturity or responsibility, seemed to much of an impossibility in the shadows of getting stoned. Still, he sat, waiting for someone to make another decision for him.
A young man came through a door behind the intake area, which was bounded by an L-shaped remnant of an old bar that once stood in the pool hall next door. He sat down in the chair next to his new client. He did not smile, but looked serious. “We can medically detox you for three days,” said the young man, “You will have your own tiny room, and our nurse will check on you after the doctor checks you out. You have to eat with the rest of the men, and attend Bible study and groups. After you make it through detox, we can talk more about your future over the next few months. My name is Antohony. You’ll be welcomed to stay.” Anthony reached over and put a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s go up to your room,” he said.
As an afterthought, on the way up the stairs toward his room, he asked Anthony a question. “Do live in the suburbs?” he asked. “No, I live in an apartment upstairs in this building, why do you ask?”
“ I was just wondering where you went to church at,” he said. “I have an interest in learning about the Exodus, and I wondered which kind of exodus you were a participant in.
“We’re all part of an exodus,” said Anthony, “and too many of us turn back.
“What’s the point then,” he asked.”
“That God gives us second and third and fourth chances,” said Anthony. “Salvation happens where there’s hope. Hope happens when you trust God to do right by you. If you can’t trust God to guide you into and through the unknown, then there is no salvation. You walk back to Egypt, and bitch about being a slave again, blaming God the whole time. You gotta sacrifice if you want to be liberated, and sacrificing yourself is an act of trust that God is righteous.”
Anthony opened a door to a tiny room that contained a mattress and pillow with blankets folded at the foot of it. There was also chest of drawers with a Bible laying on top, and a cross hanging on the wall. “Do you think Jesus was a white guy or a black guy?” he asked Anthony.
“Jesus is evident in any person who sacrifices for the well-being of another person,” said Anthony. “Jesus is anybody and everybody. Here’s your room, someone will be up to check on you, and then you see the doctor. Until then, get some rest.”
He sat down on the edge of the bed after the door closed behind Anthony. He wanted a drink. He then wanted to be assured that tomorrow would promise relief - liberation from the desire to drink. And then he wanted a drink. And then, for the first time, he prayed. He closed his eyes, and prayed to Jesus, whoever Jesus was. He prayed to Jesus, and he prayed to God. “Please, don’t guide me toward the suburbs,” he thought. “I’m crying out – give me faith so that I can trust somebody,” he prayed. “I don’t want to turn back.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Reading the Bible as a Whole

After reading Peter's Blog about Genesis, particular one of his responses to my own response, I thought I'd write a little about how I view the Bible. I'm not sure about blog etiquette, so I hope it is not out of line to comment on someone else's blog with my own. No harm is intended!

I find it interesting when students of the biblical text - and especially when scholars and professors of biblical studies courses - are critical of those who read the text as a whole. Of course, as a student myself, I am well aware that the text is not one story with numerous chapters. However, I am aware that life is a story with a variety of chapters, and that faith reflects life, and that the text is a text of faith.

If you want to read the text for what it is: a tool that is meant to underwrite a) Israel's claim to the promises made to Abraham and Sarah, and b) Israel's claim to the Land promised to Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants, then you read the text as a whole. As a whole, the text reflects the conflict that existed in the yahwist faith of many centuries Reading the text as a whole does not mean it speaks with one voice, or without conflict, or without ambivalence. It is reflective of a plethora of ideas about YHWH and inheritance and empire, but in the sixth through the first-century, such stories, whether canonical or not, were understood to be reflective of an ongoing, if not somewhat cyclical, story of God and God's people. Otherwise it would have made no sense in terms of faith. In ancient times, history was viewed as cyclical (like the seasons) and not linear, and the ancient literature was firmly rooted, not in a unified concept of how God was working, but a unified concept that God was, is, will be working as god always has, on behalf of Israel.

If you are reading the text without the lenses of faith, than you can read each story separately. There are separate stories in individual books, sometimes two versions of the same story, all with conflicting agendas. This reality may be great for those wanting to study Scripture as ancient literature, but it makes it very hard to discuss issues of faith, or even of life as narrative, if one is trying to separate Ezra from Ruth, or Kings from Chronicles by virtue of their anomalies. Of course they have different agendas, and that is what faith deals with...the conflicts that are inherent in our life of contradictions. But without question, each texts reflects the belief that YHWH rolls up the divine sleeves and reaches into history on behalf of God's people.

As for the text having no meaning without a community of interpretation, if this is bothersome to the intellect of some students, I simply suggest that they try to read any text without their twenty-first century western-world lenses and making honest sense out of any text. Even when fans argue about baseball statistics and and try to make allowances for a the era in which a certain record or accomplishment was reached, there is no unity of meaning. And remember, statistics don't lie!? But we do know that history does lie, and thus, when we read a text, it is always through a variety of lenses which color the original meaning. That is not really a problem with Moby dick, but if you are trying to make a text the center of your life, such as the U.S. Constitution or the Communist Manifesto, it requires that it be given meaning in order to make it relevant. History and texts are living, just as God is, and all living things grow together as part of Creation. Except, perhaps, Moby Dick.

Friday, August 1, 2008

"What the bleep?" Modernity in sheeps clothing

For the first half of What the bleep? I was intrigued, even excited at points about some of what the movie had to say. I saw elements of process theology and various narrative concepts being discussed (at least I though as much), and for a moment interpreted the discussion about intention and context to be closely related to narrative concepts.

I had looked forward to watching the movie (shown in a graduate course at the University I attend) because I have a lot of respect for the professor, and, a friend of mine who was reading Rawls tome on Justice (I don't know if I agree with Rawls, but I am eager to talk with those who at least read him) told me he liked the movie and had a copy of it on his video shelf.

Well, then came the last half of the show, and if I have ever been witness to latent modernity disguised as progressive thinking about religion (or science), I believe I saw as much in What the bleep? I first felt guilty about wondering why none of the contributors to the film were named or credentialed during the movie. I am not all that impressed with lettered people, but at least the letters betray their tendencies to some point. Everyone who spoke with authority in this film, however, seemed reluctant to lend their name to the project on film. (I didn't see the credits, but that's a little late anyway.) I think I know why. Everyone connected with the movie would have had their agenda revealed far prior to the preaching undertaken at the end that not only suggested that followers of religion (explicitly Catholic Christianity) were victims, but that victimization was limiting their spiritual horizons and personal potential. I'll speak more toward victimization later.

Presently, I'd like to clarify why I believe that What the bleep? is more representative of modernity than it would like you to believe. In fact, this film, if it has claim to a status representative of postmodern thinking, reveals the inability of postmodernism to completely deconstruct the Enlightenment project. (Craig will say I've been reading McIntyre again.) The only thing that the movie really does is act to underwrite an individualist perspective of those persons who want to free themselves of the ancient burdens of organized religion, yet know that they will be left yoked to the emptiness of empiricism if they don't create something to fill the spiritual vacuum created by the rejection of ancient stories. Whether it is dressed up as modernism or quantum mechanics, the really Insightful people who have achieved level six of Fowler's stages of faith have an agenda that wants you to not only reject the baggage of Christianity's past (Don't Hindus have any baggage, and why does no one ever speak about Islam - it is relevant isn't it?) but anything that might provide an identity that isn't purchased online from a culture three thousand miles away.

The Enlightenment and modernity, and American individualism, is all about rejecting the past as irrelevant to your future, if not overtly oppressive. what the Enlightenment produced, amongst other things, however, was a rejection of personal culpability for the past, while all the while accepting the benefits of privileged status. And when you are privileged, it is rather easy to peel of perceived or real victim hood in favor of a self-authored identity that, when mixed with quantum mechanics, allows you to manipulate the world and the reality around you.

Liberation theology, and narrative, would have a field day with this perspective. but first, I must say that it is a healthy thing to throw the spirit of victimization away in favor of a new identity in Jesus and those communities that follow him. However, to say that adjusting a reality through the manipulation of individual perceptions is liberation, well, I offer that such liberation is incomplete at best, and serves the oppressor at worst. The reality of the burdens of empire upon conquered peoples is as real as the wall that separates Israel and Palestine, or as real as the atrocities committed by governments an individuals worldwide.

Such atrocities must not only be perceived as real, but whole communities must be willing to change their own lives according to these realities suffered by the other. When I lived in Detroit, no amount of direct thinking, contrary to the statements of the witches of Bleep, are going to stop bullets from entering young flesh, and no amount of prayer without the correlated actions of the Church is going to eliminate torture or genocide - or manipulate the past, as suggested by folks in the movie. That Alice is stuck in the rabbit hole is not the problem. The fact that the genie is out of the bottle is the problem, and very few people are praying, and few churches are acting, in a manner that throws privilege to the wind so that victims may be truly liberated from their yoke to our lifestyle.