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"Why should music be 'original?' The object of art is to stretch out to ultimate realities through the medium of beauty.  The duty of the composer is to find the mot juste.  It does not matter if this word has been said a thousand times before as long as it is the right thing to say at that moment.  If it is not the right thing to say, however unheard of it may be, it is of no artistic value.  Music which is unoriginal is so, not simply because it has been said before, but because the composer has not taken the trouble to make sure that this was the right thing to say at the right moment."

--Ralph Vaughan Williams

 
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Welcome to the Godmusic blog page #1
This is where I get to pontificate (hmm, interesting word origin there, I bet) about matters spiritual and musical, usually by way of lengthy blogs posted about once a month. The page fills up until I decide it is way too long and start another one. The index of blogs is in the left hand blue column a couple of inches down. Most people access this page by starting at Godmusic, which also contains an index, seeing something that interests or enrages them and coming here to be set straight. (just kidding, but how would you know? Neither humility nor humor travel well on a page and both tend to be missing from religious discussions on too many occasions.) But I pontificate! That is the purpose of the contents below:
 

first posted Aug 1, 2008

What it’s really all about…

 

picture of church sign saying: get your doctrine straight before entering!
 

The Methodist church down the street has one of those standard issue church signs out front. The latest content, which has been up for some time, reads: "It’s not about belonging, it’s about forgiveness." I’m a Methodist. I work at a church across town, but I’ve not had a very cozy relationship with this particular sign. It seems to me that too often it succumbs to the temptation to host smug and/or cutesy sayings that are designed to look like the church is trying to minister to people outside its walls (by getting them to come inside) but in reality winds up alienating them further. At least, that’s what it looks like to me. So you’ll understand where I’m coming from when I discuss my reactions to the latest minor assault by church sign:

The average person probably won’t have any idea what this battle is about, but as a person just shy of forty, I could hear some generational discontent in it. I happen to know that this particular church is mainly comprised of people over 60, and is shrinking. In this respect it is similar to a majority of Methodist churches in this country. People from this generation have very different pre-occupations than do persons who are younger, and often these people feel that theirs are superior to the ones held by succeeding generations. Being human beings, this is perfectly natural. This would explain why there are two apparently viable options on this board, and one is being upheld at the expense of the other. If you grew up in mid-century, when Billy Graham Crusades were popular, this is how you were supposed to think. It can’t be about both forgiveness and belonging. It has to be either/or. So let’s examine both of these options and see what happens:

The first is belonging. If you or I are walking past that church, feeling lonely, confused, hurt, not sure who to believe or what is right or where you fit, the idea of belonging would seem pretty attractive. And you don’t need to be a scared adolescent to feel that way. On some level, at some time in our lives, everybody looks for someplace to belong. This seems so natural that it hardly needs to be put into words. The kittens at the pet store sleep in heaps because it is safe and natural and welcoming to have companionship. No degree in theology or animal behavior is required for that one to make sense.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, seems like more of a religious concept. In order to understand why forgiveness is such a good thing, you need to know something about sin, especially as the people of this church probably understand it. You need to feel that you have sinned, or are sinning, and need to be absolved. Forgiven. Because otherwise, you are in a whole world of theological hurt. Your soul is in trouble. You need forgiveness, and you’d better ask for it. Otherwise, you aren’t acceptable to God. This is roughly the doctrine as it has been understood by Christians for a long time. Some have emphasized it more than others, and even have understood it quite differently than I’ve summarized it, which would be a great shock to older American conservative Christians who often tend to assume that true Christians have basically agreed on all the important doctrines down through the ages and there have been no fights over what to believe and how to believe it. For much of Christian history, in fact, people have argued quite strongly (when they weren’t torturing or killing each other) about the proper way to understand these doctrines. Mostly, it was the intellectuals, or the ones trying to be intellectuals, who did the debating. For the nature of a doctrine is to be a theoretical abstraction. We can posit that it will have very real consequences in the next world, but right here and right now, it doesn’t seem to manifest as anything obvious to the senses. People don’t turn colors as a result of having unconfessed sin in their heart. In practice a doctrine can be as compassionate and warm as it practitioners, but for some of us, a doctrine is just something you have to believe before people will let you in their building. Even if it seems pretty simple: somebody does something bad to you and you forgive them for it. It might be something you were taught to do in Sunday school (if you attended), whether you feel like it or not. Forgiveness doesn’t have the immediacy of belonging because it seems to suggest that there are requirements necessary before you are allowed to have any of the privileges.

Exactly right, say the high moderns, those who came of age mid-century and are anxiously trying to save the church from the directions it appears to be going courtesy of those rebellious succeeding generations. Belonging is too easy. It doesn’t demand anything. It coddles to the gimme society. It is about what I can get from the church rather than what I give it. Belonging isn’t even a recognized church doctrine. Paul doesn’t address it anywhere (not in the popular verses, anyhow). It is just some kind of touchy-feely watered-down good-vibes concept that doesn’t require a belief statement or any particular shape to our religious experience at all. It’s just too ill-defined. Perfect for all those people who like to be "spiritual" without the discipline to practice any of the constraints of particular religions. New-agers who like to feel a reassuring connection with all things without the need for the blessed assurance that comes from realizing you are washed in the blood of the lamb and now it is time to get down on your knees and thank Jesus. Forgiveness is a teaching of Jesus. Belonging is just cardboard.

Fast forward a generation. Not only has technology changed the way we think, the rhetoric is completely different. Far less often is something a question of either/or. Evangelists in mid-century were fond of saying that Jesus’s claims to be the Messiah meant he had to be either had to be the son of God or a lunatic. No middle ground. You are either born again or you are going to hell. No in between. And if you are saved, you know it by golly, and if you have doubts, you aren’t saved. That is still a rather popular way to think in some segments of the church, and even among some young people. But I have the sense that this way of thinking is largely on its way out among people under fifty. Things are allowed to be a little bit more complicated than that. Some doctrines, or ways of thinking about God, are still more important than others, but that doesn’t mean there is one thing that is supreme and the rest should be completely rejected, or fought off at all costs. This kind of combat may, in fact, be completely missing the point. In other words, making sure we correct somebody else’s thinking (so it squares with our own, which is obviously how God sees it, too) before we even extend the hand of friendship doesn’t seem as moral as it used to. Maybe what it means is people are allowed to grow in their faith rather than sign a contract and just show up every Sunday.

As threatening as that sounds to some people, all it really means is the way we think about things is changing, not that the things themselves (which are too big to be pinned down in words) are changing. If the people of that church with the sign in front of it really thought about it, they’d realize that belonging was pretty important to them, too. Otherwise, what are they doing belonging to the same church for 40 years? I’ve been around enough older church members to know that belonging is pretty important to them. They even give awards to those who have been part of the body for a number of years. I have yet to see anybody get an award for forgiveness.

But when it came to the rhetoric to put on the sign, somebody couldn’t help themselves. Pure doctrine had to be defended from the world, it seems. It had to be either/or. And so, instead of reaching out to the community in friendship, telling them that they belong, and then telling them that however messed up they think their lives are they can be forgiven by both God and the members of a caring church, the sign reads It IS about forgiveness, It is NOT about belonging. As in, don’t even think that! You have to have your sins washed away first and then maybe you can think about coming in here. Maybe the people who put up the sign don’t read it that way. But I have a feeling that the people inside the church will resonate with the sign’s message, while the rest of the (unchurched) community won’t. Does that automatically make it the fault of the community?

I heard somebody recently complain about allowing the people who know the least about our faith to determine how we do things. I think they’ve got a point. A good point. But remember, this sign is outside the building. It isn’t for the initiates. It is for the people who aren’t inside yet.

So would I turn that sign around to read "It’s not about forgiveness, it’s about belonging?" No. That’s no better than the other way around. Doctrinally it’s worse. But anybody who is not steeped in Christian doctrine, who hasn’t grown up in a Methodist Church, who is just walking by that sign and noticing that church building for the first time is going to have to be invited in if the church is ever going to minister to them. They have to feel they belong first. If they didn’t grow up on Billy Graham crusades and Sinner’s Prayers and emotional comings to Christ they are probably going to assume that this church is trying to make them feel guilty for something they’ve heard the church gets preoccupied with: sin. And that, on some level, that church thinks that the people on the inside are always the ones that need to do the forgiving because somehow you’ve sinned against them. And they aren’t really going to forgive you for it, not all the way, because you wouldn’t really need them anymore.

Sound twisted? The older you are, and the longer you’ve been in the church, the weirder that last paragraph sounds. But we live in a college town, and the majority of the people passing that sign are likely to be young, and from a wide variety of backgrounds, most of which are not Methodist. They are ‘outsiders’. And it seems to me that that sign requires just a little too much familiarity with Christian doctrine to seem friendly, or cogent. Worse, it underscores the fact that the people inside are not on the same wavelength as the people outside and either have no idea, or believe it is their mission to convince the young heathens just how wrong they are. I don’t like either option.

So while the sign may be just what you need to hear if you are familiar with Christian tenets and are at least 50, it is likely to be a big "keep out" sign to the rest of us. That might be the way folks like it. The sign used to change every so often, but this one’s been up for nearly a year, so it might mean they’re proud of it. And they are going to get their way, most likely. But someday, that sign won’t be around anymore to correct the wrongheaded passersby of their "incorrect" worldviews. And neither will that church!


p.s. after I posted this I noticed the sign had been changed finally. hmmm...


This article was actually written in 2003, when I served two churches in Baltimore. I found it among my old writings when I was consolidating my archives and realized I had never posted it. Maybe it still has something to say...

"Can they Do that?"
posted Oct 8, 2008

There's a quote I can't get out of my head lately. A philosopher whose name I can't recall said that "Religion is the mechanism whereby society worships itself." The reason the quote won't go away is that the more I think about it, the truer it seems.

We have a long tradition in this country of something we like to call "freedom of religion." This phenomenon means that from the earliest days of colonial America, different religious groups, persecuted in their own country for worshipping in their own manner, set up shop in America and promptly began persecuting others who didn't worship their way! This really didn't originate with Americans, though. For as long as there have been Christians there have been arguments over the right way to worship, with a lot of ink, and blood, spilled over the disagreement. One of the fascinating things about the Bible is that it not only records the emergence of new ideas about God, it also records the violent disagreements about those ideas. So, for example, when Paul wrote that Jesus came to save everybody, and it didn't matter whether you observed Jewish customs or not, Peter, who had gone to a lot of trouble observing those difficult customs which Paul considered unnecessary, was not too pleased with him. We can read about it in several places in the New Testament. There is an incident in the Gospel of Luke, a Gospel probably influenced by Paul, in which Jesus himself causes a riot in the Synagogue by telling the people that they are stubborn and won't listen and that therefore he will preach his message to non-Jews. His message didn't square with their notions of how things were supposed to work; worse yet, I suspect, he was expressing an interest in other cultures, and they didn't like it.

For some reason we tend to ignore things like that and focus only on the doctrines that were, eventually, accepted as the way God always intended things to happen, bypassing the messy process. This causes, I think, a pretty big disconnect between what we see as the way God's plan has unfolded throughout history and what is happening in our own time and place, since anybody who has grown up in a church has seen folks argue bitterly over something--often a detail that doesn't seem to have much importance in the grand scheme, such as the color of the new carpet or the sanctuary chairs. I don't have a problem with people expressing their opinions over these things--recently Kristen and I had to make some decisions about our wedding gift registry and despite the relative triviality of something like the pattern on our china plates I kept thinking "Ok, what pattern do you want to look at for the rest of your life?" Under those circumstances even a minor detail can become pretty important. But there comes a time when it is obvious to everyone that the parties concerned are willing to sacrifice peace, harmony, and the unity of the believers--everything, in fact, so they can get their way. The fundamental, non-negotiable core of one's religion comes to the surface in time of such conflict, when everything else may have to be sacrificed in order to preserve the most important thing. And that, with a depressing frequency, seems to be about style.

At a church session I attended a few years ago intended to provide feedback about the music program, I asked the moderator about what sorts of comments she was getting so far from other participants (there were several such meetings); whether any of them had anything to do with the theology expressed in the music. "No" she said, seeming to read my thoughts, "they're mostly about the style of the music."

So a couple of months ago, when a substitute at one of my churches saw in the bulletin what I was playing as a Prelude at the other, she said to the Pastor, amazed, "Can they do that?" She said this because I had chosen something that was not based on a hymn tune or published by a Christian publishing house; something that might be referred to as a piece of classical music. "Secular "classical music.

The people at my churches seem to get by this with surprising ease, possibly because it pleases their ears so they don't much care were it came from. To some it is part of their philosophy. A woman I was talking to last week said as a matter of course "God likes all music." (I think this may be going a bit too far in the other direction, but I like her attitude of toleration) But to some people this obviously presents a stylistic hurdle that they simply can't, or don't want to, get their minds around.

One such fellow wrote an essay that I came across on the internet. It is called "The Music God Likes" and it makes no bones about telling you exactly which style of music God prefers. I'll save you the suspense. It is Southern Gospel Music. That God prefers it is obvious from the fact that he has "blessed" some of its chief practitioners by making their albums sell into the millions, he argues. I imagine he wouldn't apply that typical fundamentalist argument when it came to somebody like Brittany Spears, who is "obviously" much more pleasing to God because her records sell at about ten times the rates of Bill Gaither! Yet somehow, large churches and wannabe large churches think that popularity means God is smiling down on them. I wouldn't assume that because they are big they can't be of service to God, but I don't think the opposite is necessarily true, either. Maybe it's even less likely. It's easier to be popular when you don't ask much of people. Like living the gospel.

Many churches employ what they consider "classical" music in their services, although that word means for most people anything that is not contemporary, and sounds well-behaved. It is code for the "good music"--the stuff that isn't loud or threatening, but bland and pleasing to those who want to use it to meditate. We can safely draw boundaries around this sort of music and assume that it isn't going to do anything we haven't anticipated. Probably we have heard the tunes hundreds of times; we like what we know, and we know this music very well. There's no worry that we might not like it because we aren't venturing into the unknown. It's our music. Our culture. Our symbol.

I can't remember a single time in scripture that God came to people in a way they were expecting. In fact, it happens so often it gets thoroughly predictable. Throughout the Old Testament God always picks the second son instead of the firstborn to do his work, upsetting social convention; you'd think people would have figured that out after a while. He is constantly telling barren women that they will have children. And when he comes to Elijah, he doesn't come in the earthquake or the flood--we'd expect him to do that, of course. Instead, the still small voice is a surprise. But, centuries later, we think that is the only way God's going to show up.

Well, some of us do. Down the street there is a congregation that likes their music loud and boisterous every Sunday. To them, this tame music of ours is a sign of weak faith. We might counter that they are mistaking an emotional high for the presence of God. We're probably both right.

There are people who think that everything has to have a drumbeat; then there are those who consider drums in church an abomination. Some folks won't have anything written after 1950 in their congregation, and others disdain anything written before last Tuesday. Or not in the top 40 (Christian, of course).

What's common to all these approaches is that it involves a formula. It allows people to relax and enjoy the music they like without having to sit through something they night not. If they find themselves doing that, they might pick the church down the street next Sunday, and if they "like the music" they might stay. I wonder how many people think to themselves, I hate the music, but they seem faithful to God, so I'll stick around.

I bring that up mostly because I wonder if anyone at my churches have ever considered whether I might or might not like the musical offerings each week. I'm responsible for choosing most of the hymns, and many people probably assume that I like them; that everything I pick is my kind of music. Which makes me chuckle, because a lot of it isn't. Not even remotely. Sometimes I choose sappy, ill-rendered tunes because the words illustrate the scripture in a way that is important, sometimes I choose a style that I really don't care for because the hymn is beloved by many people in the congregation (provided it is appropriate in the context of that particular service; this isn't request hour). People who are used to bullying for their own way, or refuse to celebrate anyone else's vision of good music are unlikely to consider that someone else may be compromising on their behalf, but I assure you, it has happened often, though I do it quietly.

I remember getting a back-handed compliment once after a service in which I played mainly "old hymn"-based organ pieces from a woman who said that it was so nice and that it finally felt like church. I had, of course, been playing other types of music in previous weeks (and using the piano in some cases!) which probably meant that the poor old woman had been suffering through church for some time!

Part of my strategy is to offer a wide variety. Even the most single-generational, set-in-their-ways churches have members who don't agree on what constitutes the "good music", but it isn't just to try to please a diversity of ears that I do that. For one thing, that simply doesn't work. Play a variety and some people just get mad. One week recently I got a suggestion from a woman that we do some old hymns. I asked as politely as I could if "Blessed Assurance" and "Standing on the Promises" qualified as old hymns, since we had sung both of them during the service that morning (they did). We had also sung a couple of more contemporary songs, and I'm afraid that that woman was so unhappy about the inclusion of some pieces she didn't like that she forgot about the ones she did.

But there is a much more important reason for such diversity of music. It is an echo of the diversity of life. People aren't all the same. We can't insist on our own way all the time if we want there to be any community. We can't tell them God wants it this way, or God wants it that way because we aren't God. Paul tells us to consider that some other people may be fed by what we ourselves don't consider important, and to take the whole community into consideration, not just our own opinion. In that passage that everybody reads at weddings (1 Corinthians 13) but was in fact written to a church community that was having trouble with internal squabbles, Paul says that love "does not insist on its own way."

Music sometimes presents a challenge to people. We tend to like what we know, but if you've ever seen some of the things that live at the bottom of the ocean you know that the Creator of this world delights in doing some things that seem pretty strange to our small selves. The world is filled with an enormous, prodigious variety. And we need to get some kind of grip on this or else heaven is going to wind up being a lot like Harford road [the road in Baltimore where my previous church was located—there were at least a dozen churches within a mile of ours], with a lot of separate rooms so we can all worship in our separate little congregations the way we like it. I don't suspect we'll be able to make much noise that way.

I've been challenging myself recently to branch out and play some things during the service that I'm not used to; exposing myself to music ancient and modern that I'm not even sure I like at first but which reflects a fascinating story of men's communications with their God, and perhaps some of that God's message to us. If we will hear it. It isn't always a pleasant, easy to digest message. You can't always go out the door whistling the tunes and feeling so good about life that it doesn't feel like you need to be in service to anybody because everything's fine the way it is.

There are a variety of opinions about this, and some people like, or dislike, my offerings every week. I don't think we can point to a theology that suggests that this is supposed to matter one way or the other; except, quite possibly, for the position that Paul takes when trying pacify some of the churches he founded, churches which set an example for the ones to come by quarreling about everything they could think of, apparently. Paul suggests that we do what we can so that other members of the community not "stumble" in the faith--not insist on our own way at the expense of everybody else.

Which presents an interesting conundrum. Suppose a church had been doing things the same way--singing the same 10 hymns, listening to the same 20 choir anthems, only organ music, of course, reading the same few dozen passages of scripture--and some crazy music director comes in there and starts messing with it. Isn't that "causing people to stumble?"

Only if that's were their faith resides. If it's all about the culture and the atmosphere then he would be tampering with a sacred cow. And we all know that any time that happens folks are going to get upset. And we know that one could easily turn that argument around and say "well, now, isn't that crazy music director insisting on his own way? Shouldn't he only play stuff that the people like because that will strengthen their faith?"

I wish it would. But I think that too often the tried and familiar is just a way of avoiding growth. Jesus didn't tell people that their neighbor was the guy in the next pew who likes the same hymns they do. He deliberately chose a foreigner from the wrong part of town to be the hero in his parable of the good Samaritan; he didn't eat with good Jewish folks who upheld the law of Moses all the time, he ate with Roman tax-collectors, with the "un-approved" people in society. He got in plenty of trouble over it.

Paul did pretty much the same thing. In his scheme of things, you didn’t have to observe all the Jewish laws and traditions first and then come to Christ on top of it, because Jesus was a new way, not an add-on to an already long list of regulations, and the sole possession of one ethnic group. Paul helped spread Christianity all over the known world as a result. If Peter, who declared Jesus was only for the Jews, or that Christians had better in effect become Jews first, and then Christians—if Peter had gotten his way, Christianity might have become an exclusive club that would have died out in the 1st century.

There are obviously considerations to take into account. I don't play pieces randomly because I feel like it; I try to choose pieces that complement the scripture readings for that morning. They might be familiar pieces everybody knows, or they might be from a different culture and new to everyone, including myself. One morning I played some Greek music. Paul was preaching to the Athenians in our New Testament reading. It also happened to be Greek Orthodox Easter, but that was a lucky accident. (although, ask the people who put together the lectionary; maybe it wasn't) Some folks liked the music, some probably did not, but as I said, I don't think that is supposed to be the point. The music spoke in a voice we hadn't heard; it wasn't a style I was used to playing in, so it stretched me right along with everyone else, but I think it may have, in some small way, led us to God, and to an appreciation of part of His creation. Maybe it didn’t speak to everyone. That’s alright, since I don’t think my part of the service need be an oracle from God (not every week, anyway!) Besides, there is also a sermon, a scripture, some hymns, even coffee and donut time after the service. Maybe, for somebody, God shows up during donuts. How do I know? I won’t presume to tell Him he can’t, that it has to be during an old hymn because that’s how we like it. Or during a challenging offertory either.

I find it really odd that, in worshipping the God who is said to have created absolutely everything we have such narrow confines about how we should worship this God. We are dealing with huge issues in a very small manner. I've never managed to get my mind around this conflict, no matter how tortured my logic.

Unless that philosopher is right. Then it makes perfect sense. If it is our culture, even our specially created church culture, that is the object of our devotion we will resist anything that is not a part of it. We will fight tooth and nail for the way things were, or the way they are, or the way we think they oughtta be, and we won't allow any deviation from this narrow path; any variety, any difference of opinion, any plurality of approaches. There is another dirty little secret about singing the same five hymns every Sunday and only using the pipe organ; or the praise band (yes, contemporary folks can be just as narrow about what they will accept in the church as the traditional ones). We don't have to think about it much if it is always the same way. We can just show up for an hour on Sunday, go home feeling good, and forget about it until the following week. It's much more comfortable that way, and, judging from the abundance of entertainment options that offer strict, no-surprises formats in our society, that's the way most people prefer things. But is that the point?

 

 

Jesus for Messiah '08
posted Oct. 8, 2008

It’s probably a good thing Jesus isn’t running for election in the United States this year. I don’t think he’d do too well. For one thing, have you heard about some of his associates? There’s this one fellow I’m thinking about in particular who said some things about his country and the people who ran it that just weren’t very nice. I can see the negative ads right now:

[cue scary music]

Narrator: Jesus of Nazareth calls himself a compassionate leader who will usher in a new era of peace and security...

Jesus: Come unto me, all of you that are weary, and I will give you rest…

Narrator: ...but what Jesus doesn’t tell you is how he spent years associating with John the Baptist, a man who is plotting against his country and his temple.

John (in the background, on endless loop): you brood of vipers! Who told you you could flee the coming wrath?!?

Narrator: Do we really need a man who was baptized by a man who calls us all a brood of vipers?

 

You get the idea. There would be several more ads as the months went by. Particularly when they found out that Jesus himself said "I have come not to bring peace but a sword." Never mind how he meant the comment. The commercial would tell us he was plotting revolt and we wouldn’t feel too good about voting for a guy who wanted to bring THAT kind of change.

 

Now don’t get the idea that I’m about to compare one of our political leaders to the Messiah. I’m not. That isn’t the point. The point here is, what do you really know about this Jesus character and if you did, would you really want to be his follower?

If Jesus were running for leader of this country he’d need to get himself a running mate. Who do you suppose that would be? Peter?

Come ‘on, are you kidding? The guy was a fisherman. He has absolutely no experience running anything, never mind the holy catholic and apostolic church. And don’t tell me he could see a road that led to Rome from his front window. What does that decision tell us about Jesus’ decision-making ability anyway? A fellow like Peter a heartbeat away from taking over the running of the church?

Actually, we know what happened on that score and it did take Peter awhile to get his act together. He managed eventually, with moderate success and more floundering. Meanwhile, though, if it hadn’t been for a guy who had never met Jesus proselytizing a large part of the known world, things might not have managed to get off the ground.

As if that weren’t enough, Jesus spent way too much time associating with all the wrong kinds of people. The Pharisees kept warning him about it, but he ignored them. He trampled on some of their favorite rules, which he said were not of divine origin, except for the part in Matthew were he says he has come to fulfill the whole law, every jot and tittle (5:17-20). He also says blessed are the peacemakers (this is before the sword rhetoric).

Can’t this guy get his story straight? The four gospel writers apparently can’t. If he’s telling us one minute that his gospel is going to be spread abroad since it isn’t being received at home (Luke 4) (that’s some ambitious foreign policy!) and the next minute warning his disciples not to visit any towns outside of Israel (Matt 10:5), or displaying his ignorance of fiscal policy by telling people to give to those who can’t pay them back (Luke 6:34) (Hey! Isn’t that what’s responsible for this economic mess we’re in?) while in a story of his a servant gets punished for failure to invest the money he was given (Matt 25:26)

Maybe in a debate Jesus could explain to us how all that fits together, or what was taken out of context. Some of our politicians have tried things like that, but it takes work to reconcile apparently conflicting positions--work on the part of the audience. It’s easier to hear a slogan or a sound bite and go away mad. Besides, I’m not sure myself if all these writers were listening to the same Jesus. Maybe he didn’t say some of it (like the bit about snake handling from the tail end of the Gospel of Mark—now that’s over the top! Maybe one of his zealous operatives put that one in there.)

So in the face of all those conflicting facts, what do we look for? What are Jesus’ actual policy positions? Is there a preponderance of evidence one way or another?

There seems to be, and you might not like it. Some of his followers didn’t like it either, and they left (John 6, etc) The leadership didn’t like it even more, and killed him. The church doesn’t seem to care for it much, and they ignore it. But it’s there. It’s been written down. It’s in the Bible, a book that a whole lot of religious folks in America haven’t read much, if at all. They don’t seem to think they need too. Jesus was just this nice guy who told us to believe in him and we’d go to heaven. 'Nuff said. There are no challenges, no sacrifices, nothing that might get in the way of the rest of life, nothing to puzzle over. It’s easy. Like advertisers, we stress the benefits to the consumer and don’t mention whether there might be a cost. Maybe a particularly nasty one.

Unless you try reading the gospels. I think you’ll find them interesting, whether or not you are a Christian. Some of it is confusing, so you’ll want to find some commentary (several versions, please!)—this happened 20 centuries ago in a far off land, and customs were different, which means breaking with them was different too. But I guarantee there is more there than your kindergarten Sunday school teacher’s pleading with you that "Jesus wants you to stop hitting your sister." Or the way later teachers moralized everything with the same line "trust God and everything will be OK."

Read the fine print. Most bibles are in pretty small type, but the good news is that it is all the same size. Jesus’ unpopular sayings are the same size as the popular ones. It’s a pretty serious challenge this election year to be confronted with the closest written record we’ll have to the real Jesus of Nazareth, but when you finish (which is truly never) you’ll know who you are following. Or if you still want to…


A Letter to Martin Luther
Posted November 8, 2008

To: Martin Luther, the afterlife, in whatever region or realm he may be found, definitely not purgatory!

From: Michael Hammer, a protestant from five centuries later, from one of those troublesome splinter groups called Methodism, an impetuous thinker who insists on cleaving to the incubus called independent thought; an impudent questioner of his great forbear’s outlook and decision making, a spiritual descendant and 100th generation or so heir to the movement of which you are known as the founder, beneficiary of the blessings, sufferer of the consequences

Sir: I have been reading about your meeting in 1529 with the Swiss Protestants. It appears that at that meeting you passed up a golden opportunity to recognize and respect those whose doctrinal positions were slightly different from your own, and thus to make a sort of truce. I realize, of course, that such a compromise was not in your nature, nor was it a fashionable idea in anyone’s mind in your long, bloody, intolerant century, but I think you might have spared Europe many years of killing and destruction if you had in fact allowed in practice what you preached in theory: that individuals might make up their own minds about such matters. Doctrines are sufficiently abstract items that they do not often affect the health or welfare of those who hold them, except that people who believe in predestination or have an obsession with the idea of damnation may be very depressed and afraid, spending their lives in fear that they cannot hope to please their holy and exacting Father. It is thus possible for those with different opinions about spiritual matters to live next to each other in this world without negative effect, as we have found in those parts of the world that do indeed allow religious tolerance. Some of us may, of course, be wrong about certain matters, but allowing us the freedom to hold those views also allows our neighbors time to persuade us with arguments from scripture and with a loving example. Segregating people into religious districts where they are forced to accept a whole slate of beliefs which they can barely understand and which they may not examine for themselves only shows a low opinion of mankind generally, and by your logic, condemns certain portions of it to hell simply because of their geography.

In the end, I think Christ would get far less worked up about the specifics of these matters than yourself, as doubtless you have already discovered. What seemed to bother him particularly was the application of these doctrines in a way that caused people to suffer. Not being allowed to heal on the Sabbath, for example, because there was doctrine against it. The doctrine may have gotten its start in a commandment of God, but it had since grown details, and become a way to oppress rather then renew. It had become a rule taught by men. Even the power of God was not supposed to get in its way. (i.e., God was not allowed to interfere with good doctrine) Jesus got very angry about such things.

To the subject at hand: My understanding is that at your meeting, you insisted that the Swiss delegation accept a 16-point statement of beliefs, not one of which was open to any interpretation but your own, and did not include a line-item veto: the Swiss could not agree to 15 of those points and still be considered brothers in the faith. This is a pretty rigid standard.

Among those beliefs was the idea of consubstantiation at communion: the idea that Christ is present literally in the bread at communion. This is not to be confused with transubstantiation, of course, which you define as a priestly magic trick—it is not by invitation, or by order, of the priest, but rather by Christ’s own volition, that he enters the bread. As violently as you opposed the Catholic doctrine, it does not have occurred to you that such a presence might in fact be symbolic. Your Swiss brethren (if I may use the offending term brethren to describe those whom you held in such contempt) could not see their way to thinking that symbolism or promise was nothing but a poor substitute for material possession of their God as flesh and blood. Which was why you wrote, in chalk on the table, the phrase "This is my body", a direct quote from scripture, with which, like many a good Christian before and after you, you assumed to close your case, sharing the common weakness to make an idol out of one’s own logic.

Had I been present at your meeting, there are two points I should liked to have addressed regarding your defiant graffiti. The first is that this sentence you have scribbled is most probably a metaphor. While it looks like a declarative sentence, this is unlikely. It is an unfortunate grammatical trick that metaphors often masquerade as declarative sentences and it is this tragedy that allows literal-minded persons like yourself to miss their meaning altogether.

The reason for my observation is this: Christ often used metaphors such as this one. When he said "I am the vine, you are the branches" he did not literally mean that he was a vine and that his disciples where branches. When he said "I am the sheepfold gate" he did not accomplish a miracle and turn himself into a gate on the spot for the disciple’s wonderment.

It is true that he also used similes, or that some of his expressions have been translated into similes, which makes them easier to detect. Thus, the kingdom of heaven is LIKE a mustard seed, or LIKE a bit of leaven in a lump of dough. But Jesus seemed to trust his audiences to note the difference between actual statements of fact and statements describing things which cannot be described in ordinary prose. Perhaps he ought to have been less optimistic, for when he told his disciples to "beware the yeast of the Pharisees" they thought he was angry with them for not bringing bread for the journey across the sea of Galilee. Jesus must have soon realized that even the twelve had slower minds than his and tended to see what was before them in the present rather than the possibility for what might await them, indeed the whole world, in the future. Visionaries continually confront this problem.

Still Jesus persisted in mixing dry fact and imaginative fiction. He was continually telling stories which he did not trouble to ground in historical happening. Suppose he had. What might the parable of the two brothers have sounded like if Jesus were taking it entirely out of personal observation rather than making up a story in order to make a point, a story whose details were there simply to get attention before driving the thesis home?

THE TRUE STORY OF THE BROTHERS

And Jesus said to them, " One fine spring day in the summer of 6…no we had an especially hot spring and summer that year, must have been 07. That was the year that Roman soldier taxed us the extra bushel of wheat and my uncle got killed for not paying it…no, that wasn’t it. It must have been in 06, right after we had that big rainstorm. Anyway, we had a vineyard up the road, and this man lived with his two sons. Apparently he needed them to help with the cultivating or something. Unless it was the harvest, but that wouldn’t put it until two months later…we never had any grapes, couldn’t afford them, didn’t have the land. Dad was too busy with carpentry anyway. But I think that’s about the right chronology. And if I remember, migrant workers were kind of scarce that year, so he probably would have needed all the help he could get. So anyhow, he asks the older son for help and the fellow says "sure, dad, I’ll help" and the next thing you know he’s gotten up a game of marbles with some of the boys from our neighborhood until one of the big marbles, you know, the shooter, gets lost in a ravine somewhere and then we were playing blind ma’s bluff until evening. Boy, that sure was fun."

It was getting late, and the disciples were hungry, so Peter asked him, "Lord, was there a point to this story?"

Jesus said, "Did you like to play that game as a boy?"

 

This is not Jesus the wise teacher son-of-God, this is Jesus trying to be Mark Twain—with moderate success. But like Mr. Twain, I have digressed from the path. Forgive us our digressions.

The point is that statements of fact, if that is your main concern, do not necessarily point to anything beyond themselves. As stories, they can become cluttered, confused, and complex, as life is. A storyteller can select just those details which will make the message come through—which is already a kind of filtering. But a metaphor doesn’t even have time for that. It is so compact that it must make its point immediately. Even one that can’t be easily understood by those who can only think of what they know, which, necessarily, does not include the fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven, whether in paradise or on earth.

You said that you would change your positions if any of your arguments could be refuted on the basis of scripture. It is too bad that it is too late for this. If it were not, I would ask you to mull over the myriad of statements like "you are the salt of the earth" or "I am the light of the world" (which is a wonderful way to describe the way Jesus "shines" truth on the world, but if it is not a symbolic light, would make him the sun, which literally provides light to this world, thus going outside on a bright day would have to be a sacrament equal to communion!) When you get to the end you will find that Jesus practically never makes a statement that can be taken as a descriptor of literal (earthbound) fact anytime in his ministry!

I have belabored this point because there are so many today who also cannot wrap their minds around symbols or metaphor and, when it suits them, take literally the words of the Bible. When it does not suit them, they ignore those passages. They stir up a great deal of strife and vituperation, and, frankly, make it a difficult thing for thoughtful, compassionate persons to want to be Christians.

You will pardon me if I make my other point quickly before I go. It is designed to appeal to the literal-minded among us. To my mind it is closer to legalistic quibbling, but I think it will speak to you more than my other observation. When Jesus said "This is my body, broken for you" he was sharing dinner with his disciples. He had not yet given his body to be broken for us. Thus, the broken bread that the disciples were eating could only be a foreshadowing of the actual sacrifice, and could not have been the actual broken body of Christ, who was still standing among them. In fact, it was he who broke the bread, which would have make him, if his presence were literally to enter the bread, both the bread, and the one breaking the bread. I’m sure an omnipotent God could pull that one off, but I don’t think that kind of legerdemain would appeal to a parochial outlook such as yours.

Instead, you chose to insist that you had the only true and proper understanding of the way in which the communion works. It is reported that you refused to shake hands with the leader of the Swiss delegation, and that one of your companions marveled at how they could describe yourselves as "brethren" since they did not agree with your doctrine. Have you considered that Jesus might even wish us to love those with doctrinal differences? Or is that really going too far? Enemies, perhaps, Jesus would have us love. People who are ethnically mixed, like Samaritans (whom the Jews of his time hated beyond all reason). But people with different ideas about church doctrine: never!

Like many religious minds you seem to have felt that allowing diversity of opinion on such matters would lead to chaos, or perhaps to uncertainty on some points, which, once they had entered your consciousness, nagged to be neatly resolved. I fear that in doing so you succumbed to another error which does not get much treatment by theologians. By believing that you had the proper interpretation of what is surely a divine mystery and could accurately distinguish proper from improper, right from wrong, you showed us that you share greatly in the inheritance of those who partook of that forbidden fruit so long ago. How wonderful, thought Eve, to be able to distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, and thus to be just like God. It seems she was prodded into this decision by one snake, who prophesied the results of her decision in the most rose-colored terms.

Her disaster, it seems, was in believing that the snake was telling the truth. As was yours. And your contemporaries’. Many people killed each other over such certainties. From this distance, and as a man who has lived up till now a peaceful life, I cannot fathom how one would make war over something that seems so little connected to the essence of living. And I believe Jesus was similarly frustrated over such things when he warned the Pharisees that they "lived by rules taught by men" and not God. Nonetheless, I am willing to consider where I may not be perfect in my knowledge, and to offer my hand in courtesy from a distant posterity. Will you refuse to shake it also?

You must have a lot of eternity on your hands these days. If you would, please pray for my soul. Your doctrines have taught me to understand that there is no point in praying for yours. Nonetheless, I wish you peace.

M Hammer

 

Not to Be Rude, But...
posted December 10, 2008

I was reading an article in the newspaper on mystery writer Patricia Cornwell when a bomb went off. Not a physical bomb, but a psychological one. I had a strong reaction to something she said, and, in the age of blogs I naturally marched off to my computer and began to pound out this little ditty.

I happen to know somebody who reads every book she can from this best-selling author so while I was flipping through the paper at lunch I thought I'd read a little bit about her. She doesn't like to share details about her private life, which is understandable, because who wants everybody in the world discussing your private life? This isn't about that.

One of the things I learned about her is that she is gay. This was not the bomb. Many persons who consider themselves religious find it impossible to treat homosexual persons like they are actual human beings, and some believe they have good reasons for it. I think she is rather brave for saying so, even late in 2008, and I imagine she is getting a large volume of hate mail right about now. I wish her luck and a thick hide. And more compassion than some of those letter writers have.

Another thing I learned about her is that she had a very difficult childhood. This really isn't all that surprising. Many of the most successful people in our world had, for one reason or another, to scramble for their existence early in life, and it caused them to work harder than the rest of us.

I learned that she was grateful, during those early years, for help from a neighbor. This neighbor was named Ruth Graham. She is the wife of the popular revivalist Billy Graham. Don't you find that a little interesting? Who would have thought about evangelist Ruth Graham and mystery-novelist Patricia Cornwell crossing paths in a significant way? That takes a little imagination from whoever is writing the script for this movie.

But here is how Cornwell summed up their relationship, and this IS the bomb. Ready?

"It was about kindness. It had nothing to do with religion."

You can't tell, because it is inert, in newsprint, without a tone or a gesture to tell how she meant that, but it caused me to wonder. Did she just toss that observation off causally, backed by assumptions that she hadn't thought about much recently, or is there a firm conviction behind those words? Does she assume that religion is, by nature, exclusive and hate-filled, or at least narrow of mind, and that the kindness her neighbor exhibited went beyond that, or was in spite of that? Did she assume that since her neighbor wasn't trying to get her baptized that her kind gesture couldn't have anything to do with her religious outlook? Maybe Graham would interpret things a bit differently. But we all know people who are regular saints who don't advertise their religious affiliation on their sleeves. Maybe they don't have any. And there are plenty of holy SOBs on this earth, too.

So here is the question of the day! Does religion have anything to do with kindness?

For many of us, religion is chiefly concerned with ceremony and/or doctrine. In other words, going to church and believing the right stuff. Kindness is sometimes thrown into the mix somewhere, so long as it does not interfere with the first two. Most churches have some kind of outreach or mission program, though it is frequently treated like an afterthought. So it is hard to give Cornwell too much grief for assuming the two aren't connected somehow. The article didn't say whether she had had much involvement with religious institutions or people connected with them besides Graham. She might be assuming a lot of brutishness and hypocrisy from a distance and want nothing to do with any of us 'religious types,' which is a bit unfair, and an ugly stereotype. On the other hand, she would have more than enough examples of real life religious idiocy if she wandered into some churches that it would merely confirm those ideas, not to mention the hate mail. If there were a way to be sympathetic to all this while issuing a challenge to get more involved and see if her assumptions aren't called into question at times in the same sentence I would do it. Will that last sentence answer?

But there isn't much point in blasting Cornwell for her ideas about a religion which does not imply any compassion. Better to check for the logs in our own eyes first. There is a long tradition of persons critical of the practice of religion that is separate from decent human behavior: a series of laws, ceremonies, customs, doctrines, empty rhetoric, and the like, without bothering with justice and mercy and love. If we were getting it right the prophets of old wouldn't have had much to write about.

Consider this gem from 1 Samuel:

"Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord?"

Or the ever popular Micah passage: (6:8)

"What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

Jesus couldn't resist quoting Micah a couple of times. It is an either/or passage. "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" it reads. In other words, God would much rather you show love to your neighbor than show up for church. You can do both, I imagine, but that passage doesn't seem to suggest it. Maybe Micah had gotten so sick of religious people who embodied the worst characteristics of humanity, getting the ceremony right and ignoring the needs of the people (and probably exploiting them) that he wasn't even prepared to temper his remarks a little.

You can see why Jesus had had his fill of such people. When he tried to heal somebody on the Sabbath he fell afoul of a rule that said you can't do any work on that holy day of rest. Not even to improve somebody's life by an act of compassion. Because it's against procedure. "But" he protested "you have a loophole that allows you to get an animal out of a hole if he's fallen in. You rich guys get to protect your assets even on the Sabbath, but you don't give a rat's tail end about actual people!" He didn't use the term 'rat's tail end,' but I suspect he employed rather strong language. Some of the language that did make the gospels, like calling the Pharisees "whitewashed tombs" doesn't sound very harsh now but was actually a pretty strong insult.

There are thousands of such passages in the bible, even if they aren't the most popular. Meanwhile, churches are busy trying to get more members to join their club and show how their understanding of God is superior to the guys down the street. Acting compassionately toward your neighbor is too much of a risk. Besides, What if that neighbor turns out to be somebody like Ms. Cornwell who doesn't assume that your compassion springs from your particular brand of Christianity and doesn't just want to run out and get baptized? Your kindness toward your neighbor may just wind up being that, and stop short of an act of salesmanship into the bargain. At that rate, your church--maybe even THE church, will never take over the world! Zounds!

I do have one self-serving request to make of Ms. Cornwell, though. If her difficult experiences have taught her to work for justice and to have compassion on her fellow humans, I hope she joins our cause in some way. It doesn't have to include showing up for church on Sunday. I say this, not because it will save her soul, but because it will mean we have become a more charitable and forgiving and just church by one more person. Somebody who, despite the shocks and indignation some of those on the "inside" might feel having a gay murder novelist among them, might be a lot closer to the kingdom of heaven then they are, because she is closer to understanding the most important commandments as Jesus pointed them out, which have nothing to do with religion as it is popularly understood by so many both on the inside and the outside: "Love the Lord your God....AND, love your neighbor..."

Is that really so hard?

 

The God-Sellers
posted January 7, 2009

A few weeks ago I was approached by some salesmen. The first sued for my friendship while I was out mowing the yard. This, I soon realized, can be a hazardous occupation.

The product for sale was a 50-dollar jug of a solution that was intended to get stains off my driveway. I will mention this up front because if you are like me that is the essence of the situation and you want to know it immediately. I only found this out after a good deal of questions and a lot of listening.

My saleslady was in high gear, making jokes, attempting to get me to laugh, flattering me on the exquisite condition of my lawn, trying to know me in 30 seconds so she could comment favorably on all the choices I have made in life, perplexed that I was not laughing uproariously at her jokes, and a bit slow to respond to her rosy assessment of my journey through life. I was still overcoming an illness, and my head was thick with viscosity, but even through the fog I managed to get down to the bare facts. Of course, the bare facts were not what my friendly assailant was interested in, and she begged me not to be interested in them either. I was supposed to buy the solution in order to help her get off the street. Suds not drugs, she kept saying. Anyhow, my wife wouldn’t want to see those stains, she’d make me do something about them, and do you know how much the average homeowner spends every year trying to make the driveway stain-free? $200, that’s what, so look what you are saving! She rushed me through a demonstration which made it appear the product would not work anyway, flashed her colorful brochure which appeared to belong to someone else’s company and had been altered with a magic marker, insisted I needed to buy now rather than considering it and getting back to her or calling the number on the brochure because it wouldn’t get her the sale, and, when finally I told her I really wasn’t interested, told me she was sorry I was passing up such an opportunity. It’s not likely I’ll see her again. Oh, did I mention the neighbors bought some? It must be a good product if the neighbors bought it.

The next day a couple of college kids showed up at my door selling a more heavenly product. Not that they announced this right away, no. They were doing a religious survey. Doing a survey is a time-honored technique that allows you to zero in on a customer’s demographic before you give out your sales pitch. In fairness to the kids, it wasn’t going to change much anyway.

The kids found out I was raised a Presbyterian and became a Methodist. I didn’t volunteer that I’m the church organist; I assumed they would be trying to get me to join their church. I found out they were Lutherans because I thought it was only fair (or courteous) to ask about them (I wasn’t doing a survey or anything), and that they had come from a church in Texas which had a strong emphasis on evangelism. I suspect they aren’t very happy with their current church’s (non-aggressive?) approach to theology and decided to take matters into their own hands. But that’s just a guess. I wonder how enthused their church is about sending them out. But who knows. I’ve never been there. Then I got my first ‘toughie.’ The girl wanted to know if I thought I was going to heaven and how I knew. I figured my answer wasn’t going to impress them, but I knew what theirs was going to be and I am not a big fan of the game they were playing. I said something about God’s mercy and made it sound like I was hopeful but not certain I would get it. (If this answer sounds really strange to you you might want to look up the part were Jesus tells the Pharisees that because they think they see they are actually blind, which sounds a lot like "don’t be too sure of yourselves, guys!")

Then it was time for the pitch, the one I could see coming a mile away. They pulled out their favorite verse of the bible (which is John 3:16 for certain brands of evangelists everywhere; a few, who like to stress sin and your need for forgiveness pull out the verse from Romans: "for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God"; John 3:16 is the favorite single verse out of the millions in the Bible on which to hang your thesis if you are selling salvation—obviously nobody is going to choose "Benaniah…went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion" [note: actual Bible verse! 1 Chronicles 11:22] They read the verse to me, with additions.

It turns out John 3:16 didn’t have enough doctrine in it so they had to amplify it to include things like how Jesus suffered and died for my sins. They made sure to include my name everywhere it was possible to substitute it so I could see how personal this was. This is one of the reasons I began my account with the incident with the other saleslady—the two encounters had much in common. One of them was to let me feel the personal concern for my situation and emotional intimacy that only comes from 30 seconds of asking questions of a total stranger.

I remain civil during these encounters but I find the approach repugnant: being friendly and appearing to do courtesies for the other party just so you can rush ahead to the part where you sell them something and not having the decency to be more subtle about it, probably because you are in too much of a hurry to sell to other customers to really take the time on the front end. Both sales pitches were rushed, in other words.

Now these kids weren’t selling Jesus so much as the assurance that I was going to heaven when I died. This bothers me a little because it assumes the whole point of my relationship with God is supposed to be about making sure I get my own butt into heaven. And if I believe properly I don’t have to worry about it. Let’s say I arrive at the pearly gates and Jesus looks at me and says, "I’m afraid not" I can just whip out my Bible to John 3:16 and say "On the contrary: you promised. I believe. I’m in. Nothing you can do about it!"

It’s so nice to have a legal contract in such cases, binding the parties to action. You know, just in case one party wants to back out. Just in case Jesus wants to know if I love my neighbor or something inconvenient like whether I followed any of his teaching (Matt 7:24) which is a lot harder than just ‘believing’ (whatever that means)

Now when the girl explained to me that she was sure she was going to heaven because Jesus had died for her sins I simply shrugged and told her that she was talking about the doctrine of atonement and nodded to suggest this was certainly one valid way of looking at things, at which point her partner checked off a box on his clipboard, as if to signal "mission accomplished" or "ok, he passes" and the "survey" was over. Something told me that, at this time, on this day, there wasn’t much point in getting into a discussion about how there might, in fact, be a whole lot of theological ground she was missing, and how, if she was really all that concerned about people’s salvation she might consider entering into actual dialogues with them instead of assuming salvation was some kind of instant process, just add water.

But I was reminded of a parable. Some of you may be wondering at this point where I am getting my crazy (or heretical) ideas, and I’ll tell you. From the bible. Jesus tells a story which appears to be about final judgment. It isn’t the only place he talks about heaven or hell, but it is the only place I can think of where he describes two groups of people, and divides them into the ones bound for his kingdom and the rest, who are going to the "outer darkness." It is found in Matthew 25, where it is commonly known as the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus places people on his left and on his right and passes judgment on each of them as he reveals their ultimate destination. He tells the group bound for hell that "I was hungry and you did not feed me. I was naked and you did not clothe me. I was sick and in prison and you did not visit me." What he does not ask is if any of them have a personal relationship with their lord and savior Jesus Christ, or whether they believe in his name. He wants to know what they have actually done for each other. The hellbound group is mystified by the criterion. They certainly didn’t expect this. They probably thought they were bound for heaven.

It is a very disconcerting parable in a gospel filled with such uncomfortable pronouncements. Matthew has Jesus telling us that even people who claimed to have cast out demons in his name might not be enter the kingdom (Matt 7:21) or that trying to save your life is actually the best way to lose it.

Which is what brings me around to the kicker. It isn’t just the hellbound group that doesn’t recognize how they were going to be judged. The group that Jesus exalts doesn’t understand it either. After Jesus tells them that when he was hungry they fed him, and when naked he was clothed, and how they visited him when he was sick or in prison, they asked "Lord, when did we see you [in these situations, and do these things for you]?" Then Jesus delivers the punch line. I was all of those people, he says. When you did it for them, you did it for me. What is surprising to me is that he has to spell it out for them. They don’t seem to have had any assurance that they were going to heaven. They don’t nod their heads and say, but of course! We believed the right doctrines and we just knew we were going to heaven. After that it was just a matter of saving souls and marking time. They have to ask him why they got on the ‘good list.’ It’s almost as if they were just busy loving God and loving their neighbor (the two most important commandments according to Jesus in three of the Gospels) that they either didn’t have time to worry about whether or not they had salvation locked up, or, in harmony with several other sayings in the gospels, (see above) their uncertainty actually worked in their favor (maybe because it didn’t make them arrogant or complacent).

In any case, I wish these young people well, and I hope they grow spiritually as they age. I haven’t seen them since, and I don’t expect to. I hope they begin to conceive of spirituality as more of a relationship and less of a sale pitch. I hope they are as willing to listen as they are to present. In a world hungry for quick answers and no maintenance I know they’ll always find some buyers, people who just want to be assured that everything is going to be ok so they can go on with whatever seems like fun at the time and not worry about it. But I hope that they’ll be willing to dig deeper than that and find some really good questions along with the ready-made answers, doubts and uncertainties that open up new possibilities that they can share with other people on similar and not-so-similar journeys. The way is difficult sometimes. If they are in doubt about this, they should read up on what happened to their CEO.

 

The Imitation of Thomas a Kempis
posted April 19, 2009

Continuing my habit of ‘getting into it’ with eminent personages of the past, I would now like to pick a small bone with Mr. Thomas a Kempis. It will be done in the form of a rebuttal to the opening section of his classic ‘The Imitation of Christ’ which I have begun to read, and it will, like many articles written by critics of literature, have the last word, Mr. a Kempis being too safely dead to do anything about it.

On the plus side, I have found many things to admire in his writing, which I hope amounts to giving him a fair say (in addition to the text of the entire book, which you may read at Christian Classics Ethereal Library). A new form of literature has sprung up among us, in which one pastes the text of someone else in paragraph form, and interlards these with his or her reactions to it, point by point, civil or uncivil. I didn’t want to be left out of this innovation; on the contrary, I should like to be in the forefront of this new literary movement. Forthwith, and without the slightest dose of humility, onward I proceed:

The first thing I wish to note about Mr. a Kempis’s work is what appears to be its topic sentence, which, derived from the book’s title, I judge to have something to do with the subject matter at hand:

"The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who has His spirit will find in it a hidden manna. Now, there are many who hear the Gospel often but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ. Yet whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ."

Great. Then we are going to discuss the life and teachings of Christ and what it means to imitate them. At least, to my dull brain that is how it seemed. So far, however, and I admit I have only read the first section, there have been proverbs, a bit of Ecclesiastes and plenty of admonitions to humility and the shunning of worldly things like knowledge and reputation, but very little from the gospels directly. Perhaps our author is only warming up. I suspect he is also, in some regard, justifying his own lifestyle, which I’ve read was that of a mystic. Living only for books and quiet contemplation, he naturally prefers these, and imagines that we would all be better off if we did likewise. It would be uncharitable to disagree. Nevertheless, I don’t recall Christ himself professing anything similar, and I wonder whether he’ll find Our Lord a suitable witness for his case, when and if he gets around to it. I hope 'hidden manna' is not code for imitating behavior and teachings that have nothing to do with what we have on record of Christ himself, but some other proclivities altogether, which more befit a mystic nature.

If he does get around to it, I could suggest some scriptures that he might have to stretch a little to the purpose, but no more than the early apostles did. I understand he was expert in his knowledge of scripture, however, which suggests it would be impudent to make this offer. I retract it and pause for a moment in bowed silence.

Being a more double-minded individual than most Christian writers think is good for the soul, I will defend my good author. Were I in the appropriate mood I should no doubt find these a wonderful series of meditations on the joys of detachment from the distracted world and all of its perilous pursuits. A calm would fill my soul like a sustained pedal note and I would have no need of vanities like attending to the subject matter promised, or treating matters not touching on the forsaking of all that hectic foolishness we moderns like to call society. There must certainly be a large market for these reflections, these devotionals, as there have been in all ages, calls to escape the rat-race of life and retreat to quietude and a feel that by simple contemplation of one thing (the idea of Christ without the teachings of same) we can save ourselves the trouble of trying to smelt truth out of our surroundings like ore out of a rock. It is just too hard to ‘work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling.’ It is much more gratifying to think that his ‘yoke is easy.’ I understand the pull toward that stillness, that putting down of our burdens. I also think it is dangerous when all of Christian thinking begins to resemble that one desire, suggesting that it is merely an antidote to the anxiety of what we necessarily think of as ‘real life’—and one we don’t take very seriously, else we wouldn’t have to keep talking about it. The grass of still contemplation is greener than our experience of mundane (worldly) life, but we keep gazing over the fence. Lucky Thomas, he is there. Rash Thomas, he must depend on others to mow his lawn and no doubt will disavow their work.

Though he has nothing to say about manual labor, he, like many, discusses mental labor, and finds it wanting. Didn’t Paul suggest that if he had all knowledge but had not love he would be nothing but noise? Yes, but he did not on that account suggest that one should be ignorant. He did not contrast the two and use one to bully the other. But many writers since have done this. No surprise that its note is sounded here. Should we love humility and love more than learning? It would change the world. But should we therefore despise learning? Careful, my long-dead friend, when you, like so many Christian writers, write as though only one thing is needful and the rest must be thrown away. It is rhetoric, it could not stand in reality—if you had not considered learning valuable I could not be reading your words because you could not have written them.

"What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it." Ah, but Thomas, how can you feel contrition if you don’t know what it is? Perhaps our common ground is in the difference between knowledge and being able to express that knowledge. Inarticulate contrition may still be counted contrition. But contempt for persons who know the word is ignorance envying erudition. A person may know its definition and be able to live its meaning. Or he may not. It seems to me, on rereading several of these passages, that they are more fair in this regard then I had supposed, and I less so. But you keep after it so that I suspect you are less kind to learning than you would seem. Even though we agree that learning can quickly become pedantry, and a means to uncharitable power, it does seem by sheer repetition you are suggesting something less conciliatory. And while we are being fair, you suggest that those who pursue knowledge pass away, and are not remembered. Doesn't the same thing happen to those who pursue love and servanthood? Eventually all our sandcastles will crumble, of whatever sort they are made. Isn't it fair simply to ask whether they were worth building in the first place? (more unfortunate for your argument, perhaps, is that some wise philosophers and intellects have cast quite a shadow on history as well. It may be vanity to pursue these things, but our notion of their worth should not stand on the idea that they are impossible to acquire.)

"This is the greatest wisdom—to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world." At the risk of sounding like Pilate here, ‘what is the world?’ Is it all knowledge, all wisdom, anything that does not produce the calm joy of what you believe to be Christ? I don’t wish to demolish your idea of Christ, but to add to it. Christ engaged the world, even if some passages in the Gospel of John warn about too much attachment to it.

"Shun too great a desire for knowledge, for in it there is much fretting and delusion. Intellectuals like to appear learned and to be called wise. Yet there are many things the knowledge of which does little or no good to the soul, and he who concerns himself about other things than those which lead to salvation is very unwise."

Too great a desire—now, that sounds reasonable. We want to balance things. There is the fretting, of course, but that tends to happen when you want something that has not happened. One could just as easily fret over the coming of the kingdom of God, unless we are too rapt in contemplation to want something so lofty. Delusions, there are plenty of. I see them everywhere. Especially when we think we are the ones not being deluded, because we see, while those around us are blind. There is another symptom of the disease of knowledge gathering that he does not mention here but concerns him often—the proud arrogance that comes with it, inseparably, in the minds of those who don’t have such knowledge. We must be humble, even if that in itself leads us into a contest of ultimate humility. But if we are being reasonable, we must admit that knowledge can be an excuse to think very highly of oneself. Are we not likely to be led into the opposite error? To assume our ignorance is automatically more Godly? If I want to make Christianity accessible to large numbers of people, will it not be more attractive if I tell them that Christ scorns the pursuit of anything that seems like it would require effort?

"The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged, unless your life is also the more holy. Do not be proud, therefore, because of your learning or skill. Rather, fear because of the talent given you. If you think you know many things and understand them well enough, realize at the same time that there is much you do not know. Hence, do not affect wisdom, but admit your ignorance. Why prefer yourself to anyone else when many are more learned, more cultured than you?"

I like this passage, it seems admirably balanced, and it is reason for fear. It makes me uncomfortable, which is why it is to be commended. I have thought about the burdens of talent long enough, and the hazards of acquiring skill. It is too bad he had to test the edges of this kernel; in the ground it would have grown into a tree. But he will not let it lie there.

"Truly to know and despise self is the best and most perfect counsel. To think of oneself as nothing, and always to think well and highly of others is the best and most perfect wisdom. Wherefore, if you see another sin openly or commit a serious crime, do not consider yourself better, for you do not know how long you can remain in good estate. All men are frail, but you must admit that none is more frail than yourself."

It is not enough to be humble, I must be nothing, the lowest and most frail of men. Is there not a sort of reverse pride in this sort of thing? Have not monks and saints continually prostrated themselves as low as they could think to go hoping to gain a better seat on the heavenly plane? This is not done with any regard to others at all, but to appear large in one’s own eyes in a reverse way. Would you have us engage in such a perverse sport under the gaze of our Heavenly Father? I suppose even your hammer is smaller than mine. All men are frail, and I am certainly among them, but am I to take seriously the notion that I must be the most frail of all of them when so far there are a host of sins I have yet to accomplish? And should I always think well of everyone, including those who are harming others whom I ought to think well of? Truly, it is easier if I post everyone’s pictures on my refrigerator, whether or not they want to eradicate each other.

Love, too, is a much simpler thing on paper, this is true. We can love all men in the abstract, which I suppose is the reasoning behind this bit from the eighth chapter: "We ought to have charity for all men but familiarity with all is not expedient." If we knew these people it would be harder to love them, wouldn't it? And this is difficult for me to write for I too love solitude.

Forgive me, for I have gone on too long, and I note that you prefer short chapters. And short sayings. Many are very wise and very profound. I particularly cite the ninth chapter on 'obedience and subjection' which is filled with interesting observations, and perhaps, at its outset, sees its subject from two angles, a rarity, it appears, in your style.

 I will note before I go that I have begun to prefer the later chapters to the earlier; that I am warming to your observations and wisdom, and your humility. And here and there I have noticed things which might indirectly pertain to teachings of Christ. As one example :"Many people try to escape temptations, only to fall more deeply. We cannot conquer simply by fleeing, but by patience and true humility we become stronger than all our enemies. The man who only shuns temptations outwardly and does not uproot them will make little progress; indeed they will quickly return, more violent than before. (ch. 13)" Indeed, the evil spirit will find the house swept and empty on his return and will bring with him seven more of his friends! (Mt 12:43-45)

But the heart of the book is about letting go--attaining peace (not a sword).

"If you rely more upon your intelligence or industry than upon the virtue of submission to Jesus Christ, you will hardly, and in any case slowly, become an enlightened man. God wants us to be completely subject to Him and, through ardent love, to rise above all human wisdom."

It is a beautiful thought, but dangerous. Perhaps I protest it too much because I value intelligence too much. But perhaps also, the church has used thoughts such as yours down through the ages to ensure that people are passive and submissive to their leaders, surrendering their power of independent though, which makes them easier to manage when their leaders do something questionable. Before I conclude, let me step away for a paragraph to summarize my review:

There is much wisdom in The Imitation of Christ; there is much to be smelted away. This is the writing of a mystic who would rather reject a complicated society and a messy creation and dwell on the unchanging light of what he thinks of as Christ, whose life and teachings he may know well, though they do not touch on his central concerns, which are renunciation of the struggles of society and the intellect. He would rather see things in stark terms, and as such he gives us many wonderful aphorisms which are worth contemplation, even if their practice is more hazardous. And truly, I will not gain much picking a fight with such a revered personage, who does not seem to have ever had an unkind word for anyone. It is vanity, but then reckoning with humanity often seems like vanity, and yet, our theologians tell us that God himself never tires of it. He did once or twice, but has thought better of it each time. We call them the flood and the exile.

I will continue reading, sir, testing everything, ‘hanging on to what is good’—and you must have the patience to deal with my impetuous humors. For there is much humor in the foregoing, whether it seems to be there or not. It is hard for me to find any in your style, either, to tell the truth. But I misjudged you once. I assumed that, like many, you had had a tempestuous youth and grew weary with the race to acquire reputation and learning, and had renounced both, and, like many a good convert, became passionate about these ideas. I did not notice how great the mystic air all around you was, and how early you were entranced by its spell. I see that you were a quiet recluse all of your life. Forgive my disturbing you.



Could it be…Satan?

posted May 16, 2009

As the world spins on its axis it is sometimes tempting to simply ignore the cable news for a few days of peace, and let the day’s trivia fade in the light of eternal issues, but since those darned current events won’t go away, except to be replaced by others perhaps just as trivial, and since it is easy to write about something when it annoys you at the present moment, when it is seemingly and deceptively at the cross roads of the now and the forever (and easier still when it annoys the heck out of you) I’m giving Thomas a Kempis break to comment on the activities of the latest warrior for the cause she believes is dear to God’s heart. She is known as Miss California USA and she’s getting a taste of the joys of limelight, American style, now that her opinions on the subject of gay marriage (solicited) have become known, as well as her belief that she is now paying the price for boldly standing up for something that only half the country believes. Speculating on the basis of her recent actions, television and radio interviews and various public appearances she must be under the impression that God is using her to shed light on his people and get his opinion out on this contentious issue. Not having a blog He is resorting to a spokesqueen.

True, a beauty queen seems like an odd choice, in the company of tent makers, fisherman, recluses of all sorts, and endless butchers of infidels. But there she was on the news, doing God’s will in a bikini, which seemed a little odd the day after a school principal in Tennessee defended his punishment of a student who attended another school’s prom (against school rules) by reminding us that being in an atmosphere of girls in dresses could give a fella ‘thoughts’ of an impure kind. The media chose to post the picture to go along with the story, of course, because they wanted to get our attention and it is more FCC friendly than the ones released last week.

She has been interviewed by a prominent very-conservative (mostly fundamentalist?) religious fellow with a radio show and, when asked about ‘the question’—the famous question about her feelings on gay marriage, which she answered with a decided ‘no thanks’ and which got her into the middle of controversy when she said the answer cost her the crown—she said when asked the question she felt she was being ‘tempted by Satan.’

First of all, I want to assure my liberal friends out there not to worry. She went on to amplify her remarks so that those of us who believe that gay marriage will not destroy America and raise God’s ire (in that order of priority) need not feel so hated. It isn’t that you liberals ARE Satan, it is just that Satan is using you to tempt good (fundamentalist) Conservatives like her. Feel better now?

No? I was afraid of that. In that case, I shall have to define for you how to know with comfortable certainty that you are either being tempted by Satan or are in fact Satan’s instrument. If you had voted Republican and believe that gay marriage and abortion are the two things God hates the most you wouldn’t be having this problem, but I am going to extend some compassion to you and help you to understand what the good half of the country already knows. I am pretty sure that extending compassion to liberals is one of the things that makes Satan the happiest so you should know that I am taking a serious risk in telling you these things.

It may not appear so, but I do not like to broad brush even though it is difficult to avoid when you are trying to squeeze a contentious topic into a short blog. I was going to address my remarks to persons I would refer to as ‘ultra-conservative’ Christians. However, I do not know Miss Prejean’s political or religious beliefs in detail, even if it seems that I can smell them. What she seems to assume is that whenever her personal righteousness is challenged in any way it must be the work of the devil. Perhaps she was playing to the show’s audience or perhaps she honestly believes that in which case there are two problems that emerge. One is an unhealthy interest in the devil; the other is the assumption that people on the other side of the issue are not only wrong but that they are evil. While this is not a political view in itself, it does seem to take up residence with people who are politically very conservative. Liberals, though just as likely to cry martyrdom when their views are challenged, do not generally bring the devil into the equation, perhaps because they do not have a strong belief in him (being too busy believing in Conservatives). Conservatives, on the other hand, of the more fundamentalist, or radical variety, tend to see him around every corner, and assume that since they have unfiltered access to the mind of God, any debate must be directly with Satan, or his minions, and cannot possibly be useful as a potential growth experience, especially as growth or evolution are dirty words. Now, with that more purposeful digression out of the way, we will return to our discussion, defining citizens of similar mind, at least as much for good natured fun as to make an acerbic point, as ‘religious pinheads.’ This leaves some room, let us hope, for persons who are politically conservative and yet manage to hold reasonable thoughts in their heads, as well as a bit of humility, and it keeps liberals from having too much of a good time poking fun at all the idiots who don't think like they do; in other words let us approach our subject with just a touch of nuance and empathy; before going on to call idiocy and dangerous theology what it is it is wise to narrow the target a little. Now, if you are wondering whether you might be such a pinhead, I have devised several dimensions of compatibility:

if you believe that anyone who ever voted for a Democrat cannot possibly be a Christian

if you believe that God wanted you to vote Republican in the last presidential campaign and that, frankly the Republican candidate wasn’t Republican enough either, and you hated him with all the foam in your mouth and all the outrage in your heart, you might be a pinhead.

if ‘outraged’ is one of your favorite words, and you wish God had used it more in the Old Testament, or

if you are convinced that all those liberals are acting out of a hate-filled agenda and conservatives are just trying to defend themselves from unprovoked attacks, (note to liberals: try replacing the term ‘liberal’ with ‘conservative’ in that last sentence and see how ideologically blinded you are while we’re at it)

if you believe with all your heart that the country is headed right for Socialism courtesy of the current crop of disciples of Karl Marx (the current administration included), who said ‘to each according to his need’ not realizing that he actually stole that quote from the Bible where it describes the behavior of early Christians (Acts 2:44-5), if you believe Jesus’s use of the phrase ‘the poor you will always have with you’ means it is ok to ignore them, and that condemning homosexuality, a subject which gets a whole handful of verses in the Bible, is far more important than addressing economic injustice (which gets thousands), you might be religious pinhead.

if you spend a lot of time each day getting angry about the world and those awful people in it, frustrated about the direction of the country (and oblivious to the direction of the rest of the world) and fearful that you are going to lose all your freedom, yet at the same time you know that God is in charge and has a wonderful eternity waiting just for you, that his law demands that other people not be free to be who they believe they were created to be while you bask in the glow of his unconditional love which coincidentally allows pretty much all but your most destructive (self-diagnosed) behavior, without ever wondering how you can believe all that at the same time, you might be a redn—sorry. You might be a religious pinhead.

Got our terms down? Good. Oh, and if you hate my guts right about now, that counts, too.

Now, if you are a liberal, that makes you the Ginger Rogers in all this. You will have to apply everything backwards and in high heels. I shall be writing from the ultra-conservative and/or pinhead point of view, which is the correct one:

If something makes you uncomfortable, Satan is lurking. Since you are assured of salvation, assured of God’s protection every minute of the day, assured that you and your group have inside access to God’s will that gives you an excellent position from which to start. And stay there. As long as you remain on Christ The Solid Rock and don’t move, you will be fine. Feelings of contentment and apathy are a sign that God is raining his grace down upon you. If you are challenged in any of this, it must be Satan, because, by definition, you already know everything you need to know about God, and therefore you are already perfected and are just waiting for the credits to roll on this thing so you can get out of here. Even though God is seen in the Bible working his will through persons who are not always on his side, this is too confusing a belief to hold in your head, and you must assume that the person across the aisle, or the table, is working for evil since you are entirely good and believing otherwise would require too much humility.

Being asked to stand up for what you believe is the same as being persecuted for it. Anyone who does not believe what you do is persecuting you as well. Anyone who asks you to think about your position and consider that you may be wrong is persecuting you. Anything bad that happens to you, such as not winning thousands of dollars and becoming a national spokesperson, is because Satan just has it in for you. God would never allow you to compete if he planned to let somebody else get the prize.

When it comes to temptation, these three things remain: discomfort with your current situation, challenge from without, and growth or evolution. And the most abominable is all three. So long as you are uncertain you are in transit. You may or may not be serving God as He would like. His way may not be yours. It is ok to preach sermons with this idea in it occasionally, but allowing it into your consciousness may force you to walk humbly with your God (which is in that Old Testament again!) as you consider whether or not you are really as in-with-God as you think you are. Even worse is the possibility that you may change your mind, or grow to understand issues a little differently, which is painful and suggests that you had not yet achieved perfection.

When Miss Prejean was asked what she thinks about gay marriage (which seems unfairly substantive for a pageant question), I am sure she had a moment when she did not want to answer the question because of the controversy it would cause (either way she answered it). I applaud her for not taking the easy way out and for saying what she thinks. I do not applaud her assuming thinking that her position is the correct one and that God ordains what came out of her mouth. If she believes that not being crowned nationally is religious persecution, she might want to consider whether the millions of people who are gay have a little more to deal with in their lives, trying to understand their role in it, and how to fend off the revulsion of millions of people who are supposed to love their enemies but who don’t seem to be able to get to step two (step one: identify who your enemies are and make sure they know it. Step two: love them as condescendingly as you know how).

It is not surprising that none of these models is particularly appealing to persons of her mindset. Growth, change, evolution, uncertainty—these are all things that people try their best to fend off through the mechanism of religion. People say that God is in charge but they don’t really buy it. It would require them to surrender some of their control. It would require Miss Prejean to get out and talk to some of the people involved. (Do you suppose she knows any gay people, or has she just heard of them, with their horns and their claws to snatch away all of our liberty?) And then to wonder whether Satan was really using them to get at her, or if it was the other way around. Or if it was both ways. Or neither. (Almost as if, nobody exactly has God’s position down perfectly yet.) And then not to worry about it to the point of paralyzing fear because maybe that’s on a need-to-know basis.

I haven’t been able to check on Miss Prejean’s age as I write this because my internet is down. I presume she is well under thirty. Which is a lot of years to be tempted, or to lose your compass. That must be hard to swallow. I might consider that it is a lot of years to grow wiser and shed the hurt teenager I saw in front the the microphone complaining she was being ‘punished’ for speaking her mind. She may not want to grow up. She’d lose a lot of publicity if she does, as we have a habit of giving adolescent political speech the most attention. But somewhere along the way she might learn something about compassion.

Unless that’s just another of Satan’s tricks.

 

 

 

By the way, I thought about asking you to spare me any hate-filled screeds by way of email. But then I realized that everybody is just passionately defending their position from unfair attacks from me and everyone else and that cleared things right up!





Salt of the Earth
posted May 29, 2009

Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth. If the salt loses its saltiness, can it become salty again?" The disciples put their golden harps down to have a listen.

Peter said, "We’ve already heard that one, Lord. I remember the first time you told us that, 2,000 years ago, on that hillside in Galilee. Boy, those were good times." He sighed.

Thaddeus said, "Say, Lord, what did you really mean by that—salt of the earth? I was reading one of earth’s papers the other day and it said that restaurants are making meals with way too much salt in them, up to three of four days what the people who know about these sorts of things say you should put in your body in a given day. Did you know about that when you were with us in Israel?"

John (the disciple whom Jesus loved) gave him a good slap. "Of course he knew about it, he’s divine. He foreknows everything. Why dost thou wish to givest our Lord a hard time, anyway?"

Thaddeus rubbed his head. "I just thought maybe it wasn’t the best choice of a metaphor, you know."

James, son of Alpheus, chimed in, "Hey, at least he knows what a metaphor is now. Took him like 2,000 years to figure it out."

Jesus sighed. "You guys always were a little slow."

Pressing the point, Thaddeus went on. "I’ve been reading that too much salt can give you all kinds of medical problems, and maybe cause an early death. The doctors and medical people are all up in arms about it. Metaphorically."

Andrew scowled. "First of all, you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the paper, and second, you shouldn’t even read the paper. The news is always bad anyway. And there’s that liberal bias thing."

Phillip shot him a look of amusement. "You don’t even know what that means. You’re just trying to show off your knowledge of earthly current events."

"He’s the show-off. He should have better things to do with his time anyway," quoth Andrew.

"Just because you were a fisherman doesn’t mean other people can’t cultivate a life of the mind" cut in Matthew. Simon the Zealot made one of those obvious coughing sounds into his sleeve that he had learned from 21st century American culture. It is possible that the word "sellout" or perhaps "traitor" was buried in all of that demonstrative flem.

"There’s a thing I was reading about" said James, the son of Alpheus, "It’s called NoSalt. Apparently it tastes just like the real thing but it’s healthier."

"Oh that’s great. You are the NoSalt of the earth," harrumphed his brother John.

"I think you could make a case that a lot of Christians are like that. They try to act like the real thing, but in reality they are just in it for themselves. They want to look good to their neighbors or feel good about themselves, but they don’t do anything Jesus tells them to do, and they aren’t that loving toward their neighbor half the time anyway." Nathaniel felt pretty pleased with himself for delivering this sermon.

"I mean, show me the place in the gospels were it says that to be a disciple of Jesus you just have to mow your lawn regularly and keep your nose clean." John seemed interested.

"Well, it’s better than those zealous crackpots who rain down judgment on their neighbors over some point of doctrine that they don’t understand themselves or because their church lets people bring those funny new lyres into the sanctuary or something."

"They’re called guitars" offered Thaddeus.

"Whatever."

"I don’t know which is worse. To be too hot or too cold" said Judas, hoping to get under John’s skin.

"How did you get in here?" asked several voices.

"Oh, I’m just here to drive the religiously narrow crazy. I mean, seriously, Judas gets into heaven. Next they’re letting Hitler in. What good is being a member of the club if they have no standards?"

"He did say tax collectors and prostitutes would get in ahead of the religious leaders" put in Matthew.

"I did say that" Jesus had clearly lost control of the conversation. "Don’t worry, Lord" assured James, son of thunder, "We’ll edit this part out of the transcript."

"Tax collectors in heaven" continued Matthew.

"And prostitutes" reminded Andrew. "The most notorious sinners anybody could think of."

"That really got the Pharisees crazy. I remember the looks on those guy’s faces" recalled Bartholomew, grinning. "They looked like they were ready to have conniptions."

"Too much salt will raise your blood pressure like that."

"So what did those restaurants have to say for themselves? That sounds really irresponsible," intoned Phillip.

"Oh, it was the usual twaddle about giving consumers a choice, and offering healthy options as well. Of course, they didn’t actually tell their customers how much salt was in those meals, so it wasn’t much of a choice. How can you eat healthy when you don’t have any information?"

"You can guess" put in Lucifer, who had wandered up to see what had become of Judas. "If you want to be safe, just order a salad. Anyway, Jesus can’t say anything because his dad is the one who tricked Adam and Eve into eating that fruit from the tree in the garden."

"Didn’t your serpent have something to do with that?" said Matthew.

Lucifer ignored him and went on, waxing eloquent. "Not that tree," he says. Then he puts it right there in the middle. Front and center. Don’t eat it, but here it is, and it looks good. Best looking tree in the garden. Biggest and roundest fruit, too, and you didn’t have to spray it. I mean, he could have put it off to the side."

"Well, after all, he did tell them they would die if they ate it. In advance. The restaurant owners didn’t do that. Once they’d gotten caught they offered their self-justifications. Oh, yes. Free will. Blame it all on the unknowing customer. It’s your choice if you want to eat a meal that has 4 times the recommended amount of an entire day’s salt in it. Or you can have something that doesn’t taste like Lot’s wife—we just won’t tell you which meals are which. Happy hunting. Not our problem if your blood pressure shoots through the roof. Not our customer’s keepers, after all. In fact, we really don’t much care about putting good food into your bodies, we just want you to keep coming back and we know you will if we put a ton of salt in it." Nathaniel was on another roll.

"Salt really is tasty, isn’t it?" observed Peter, who knew something about ingesting salt water.

"Yes, what is with that?" asked Bartholomew. "Once you have some, you keep craving more. But it winds up being harmful. That doesn’t seem right."

"Is this one of your growth metaphors, Lord?" asked Thomas. "You give the world some good old Christian salt and it just keeps wanting more?"

Judas laughed. "And you see what good it did for it, too! Crusades, inquisitions, mean-spirited hypocrites in all ages, wars, pestilence, ignorance and persecutions, brother against brother over a trifle, and the bitterest debates throughout the land, particularly in 'God’s new chosen land', that festering Republic down there with their imperialism, their environmental destruction, their exploitation of the rest of the world and each other, and oh, did I mention, a while back they nearly wiped mankind off the face of the earth?"

"Wouldn’t be the first time" sneered Lucifer.

"If you ask me, all of this Christian salt is giving humanity and the planet earth a heart attack!"

There was an uncomfortable silence as the disciples looked at each other’s sandals, and considered whether they ought to take up their harps again and just ignore Judas, hoping he would eventually give up and go away.

 

"Well, I’ll just go back to being slowly roasted for eternity" said Judas. "See ya!"

When Judas was safely out of range, John said "That guy really makes my blood boil."

Phillip said, "Have you been watching your salt intake?

 

 

 

You Who Are Evil
posted August 5, 2009

I was reading an article in the paper at lunch a few weeks ago and a phrase of Jesus popped into my mind. It kept hovering the whole time I was reading and when I was finished it still wouldn’t go away. It’s taken out of context, in a way, but that doesn’t really matter here because the way Jesus used it wasn’t really part of the point he was making. You might say he just sort of dropped it in there as a kind of aside, an assumption about people that he figured was so obvious he didn’t need to elaborate.

He was telling people that they shouldn’t be afraid to ask God for his good gifts. "If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" In some translations, the part about us being evil is made into a dependant clause, as in "if you, being evil, know…" Basically, I take this to mean "If you, who are quite obviously evil, I mean, duh, who doesn’t know that, know who to give good gifts to your children…"

Wait a minute! We’re evil? I mean, sinners yes. Anybody who has been on the receiving end of any church rhetoric knows that. We’re bad, and we need help from God. Got it. But evil? Isn’t that something that gets reserved for people like Hitler? I mean…

Nope. Everybody in Jesus’ audience got a free pass to evilburg on that occasion. And I doubt very much he would have let the rest of us off the hook, as much as Christians like to play the old ‘they didn’t get it then but we get it now’ game. Nope, and he just sort of sneaks it in there while he’s on another subject.

I hadn’t thought about that phrase much before, and what was interesting was how it just came percolating to the surface unexpectedly while I was reading an article about firefighters in New Haven. Maybe you’ve heard how the city of New Haven, Connecticut gave a test to their firefighters who wanted to get promoted. On the basis of those results they decided that not enough minorities were going to get promoted, so they scrapped the test. They didn’t want to get sued for discrimination. So they wound up getting sued for discrimination. Not by the ACLU or the NAACP, but by the white guys who had aced the test and were feeling, uh, discriminated against.

I suppose the reason the phrase popped to the surface was that I was at least subconsciously trying to figure out whose side to be on. The city’s familiar line was that the test wasn’t really fair and that they were just trying to address a long history of discrimination by not adding to it. We’ve heard that sort of thing from civil rights attorneys for a long time. In the other corner, the white firefighters complained that the test was fair and they had studied their butts off to ace it and it wasn’t their problem that some of their minority colleagues hadn't done as well. We’re also pretty familiar with that argument (the old ‘reverse discrimination’ cry). By the way, a few minorities had done well on the test, and weren’t happy about the test being dismissed either. The chief plaintiff in the case said he had dyslexia and had to try harder than everybody else just to break even, which is a concept plenty of women and minorities would be familiar with.

Could we see the test please? No, we couldn’t. It wasn’t being released. That meant that the almighty reader was not going to be able to judge for themselves, which is how we like to do things in America, and it meant I would have to fall back on some general preconceived ideas for support. Has there been plenty of racial discrimination in this county? You bet. Does that mean anytime a minority doesn’t get what he wants it is because of racial unfairness? No. Is it possible for a minority to discriminate against a white person? Yes. Discrimination is discrimination. It is not ‘reverse discrimination’, it is simply discrimination. If somebody is being treated unfairly because of their race, no matter what race, that counts. Do people who cry reverse discrimination always have honorable motives? No. Sometimes they are even racists in disguise. They might have a point, but they are using that trace of truth to hide a whole lot of poison. That is often how adults argue. Some truth, a lot of fiction.

Well, that didn’t help. Basically all I know about this case is that either side could have a point, and it was going to be up to the judges to figure things out and I hope they get it right. Which is pretty much how things should be, since in the absence of facts the paper was resorting to a favorite mode of covering the fact that there was a fight without really filling us in on the how and the why with the kind of thoroughness we’d need if we wanted to do something besides have knee-jerk reactions.

But that phrase seemed to sum it up. "You who are evil…" meaning everyone concerned. Which meant that nobody really had an unimpeachable position. One thing both sides had in common was that they were looking out for themselves. Our justice system is built on this principle. People do not by nature seek truth, whatever it is, they seek justification. So one fellow argues vociferously for the prosecution, and another for the defense, and some person or persons try to sort out the theatrics from the evidence (maybe) and render a decision. It is as close as we can get to impartiality, and we all know that certain judges (and juries) are more likely to decide with one side or the other because they have a philosophy of life which tends to assume the inherent truthiness of one side or the other. If that weren’t the case we’d have a system were everybody concerned worked together to come up with the fairest possible solution and agree to it. If you are laughing right now at the picture of naivete I’ve presented that shows how alien it is to our nature. So we choose up sides and, often, the strongest side wins. For a while, it wasn’t minorities. Now, even sometimes when they shouldn’t win, it is. Which is why the city knew they would get sued if they didn’t scrap the test. And then they did anyway.

Was it because some folks have a chip on their shoulder about minority hirings? Or was it because they think fair is fair, and they jumped through the proper hoops and want the reward that comes with it? Or both?

There may well be a right answer here, and I don’t mean to suggest that justice might not be on one side or the other in this case. Muddying the waters can be just as harmful to justice as acting when you don’t have the facts or don’t care to have them. If I were the judge in this case I’d hear the evidence as it was presented, and then I’d try to render the best decision I knew how, in light of my own prejudices.

But I know one thing. In a larger sense, we’ve already lost. And we keep losing. People communicating through lawsuits instead of dialogue says a lot about us. The history of people exploiting one another, and then, when the tables are turned, the slaves become the masters and don’t treat their fellows any better. People striving for a cause, fighting the good fight with bitter recriminations and lines drawn in the sand, mobs of attorneys and media attention, and, once the case has been won and a line drawn, try to see how much further they can push that line. In the beginning it was the pursuit of fairness, but it quickly becomes the pursuit of power. Religious groups, once bitterly persecuted, win their freedom and promptly begin doing it to everyone else. Ethnicities fight their way up the pecking order and, when given the chance, begin to peck at everyone below. Ideologies have room for everybody except their enemies. Don’t worry; they’ll lose the election sooner or later and have done to them what they did to the other.

Which might be why Jesus thought it was a good idea to reconcile ahead of time; you never know which way the judicial winds are going to blow
(Luke 12:58). Paul went him one better, writing to the stubborn, fractious Corinthian church "The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already." (1 Cor 6:7) Both urged on their followers the principle of working things out on their own, rather than fighting it out in court.  But our founders didn’t think we’d take much stock in those assessments. I have to hand it to them, they were smart fellas.

So we can only hope that the fairest decision is rendered in this case, then wait for the appeal, and hope that justice is served there, too. In each and every case. Not because it is a national referendum on race (it is to most of us) or because it will set precedent (it will, probably) but because the right thing to do is actually the right thing to do. But whoever wins, and for whatever reason, the political football won’t stop there. The winners will keep on pushing because some of them don’t know when to stop. It’s a zero sum game, and they want it all. We wouldn’t be any different. Because power, once gained, is rarely used for the right reasons--and then usually with mixed motives. Because justice is too nebulous, but justification is glorious.

Because you are evil.

 

Me too, by the way.



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