Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Faith, Text, Tradition, and Community, Part VI: On Why I Am Thankful For Witnesses Like David Plotz

This is the concluding post of our series exploring Christian and Jewish faith, the biblical texts of those communities, the traditions that have grown out of those texted communities, and the communities themselves. Part I addressed Israel's example of having Yahweh alone with whom to do; Part II the non-hagiographical memory of God's people; Part III the necessity of belonging to a reading community; Part IV the mountainous geography (or non-flatness) of Scripture; and Part V the Jewishness of the New Testament (and thus why David Plotz should read it!). We have been exploring these themes through engagement with Plotz, an agnostic Jew who read the entire Hebrew Bible, beginning to end, and emerged equal parts enlightened, informed, angry, and reinforced-agnostic.

Why celebrate such a reading? Shouldn't Christians (or "believers") address such "incorrect" reactions to God's word? How can it be good or worth celebration that a man came to the Bible and left angry and bewildered?

Good questions all. Of course, I hope that in this series I have addressed what I believe to be what Plotz is missing, less insisting that he is "incorrect" than simply encouraging aspects of this series' title that he seems to have ignored or misconstrued. Being a Christian, to some extent by my very nature it is clear each of us views the other as "wrong" -- but then, that is to fall into the trap of viewing the world, not just in terms of black and white, but in terms of "in" and "out," "yes" and "no," "correct" and "incorrect." Indeed the world is gray, but more importantly, the church does not function as the all-knowing capitol-A answer game in town; we are not the local witch doctor and we are not politicians; and we certainly are not God. So when we see someone like Plotz come to the Bible and leave with a reaction we "know" is somehow "wrong," we ought to remember two things:

1) There are no "wrong" reactions to anything, least not the Bible. What Plotz felt in response to the God of the Old Testament were his honest feelings -- sometimes of awe, often of revulsion or confusion. There is nothing to critique here. Nothing.

2) We worship a God who prefers truthfulness to dishonesty at all times. In this sense, it is more pleasing to God -- and thus ought to be more pleasing to us -- that David Plotz "gave it his best shot" and left in sadness, precisely because his sadness was honest.

These two points combine to reveal why Plotz's witness is so powerful and truly ought to be celebrated, and by Christians especially: In a world full of deceit, white lies, petty falsity, dishonest advertising, corrupt politicians, official hypocrisy, international unreality, virtual relationships, ubiquitous B.S., and surface religion, David Plotz practiced the virtue of truthfulness.

Praise God!

Praise God for every truthful act in this world. Praise God for every truthful act directed toward God or toward the important things of life. Praise God for witnesses like David Plotz who model for Christians why and how to engage God truly. Praise God for reminding us through such witnesses that more often than not their struggle is closer to the heart of God and to the "heroes" of the Bible than we are ourselves. Praise God for revealing what a truthful conversation might look like between an agnostic and a believer. Praise God for someone willing to come to the text with an appreciative and open and willing and glad heart, thankful for what he saw that was good and disturbed by what he saw that was evil. Praise God for an alternative voice to the angry atheists who -- though we similarly have much to learn from them, too! -- dominate the airwaves over against calmer, friendlier minds. Praise God that the legacy of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Job, David, Jeremiah, John, Jesus, Peter, James, and Paul lives on today in our midst.

Because here, God, the texted God, is taken on his own terms, met at the Jabbok, wrestled with, strangely defeated, yet whose (penultimate) gift is always woundedness. The text itself is a wounded text, as Peter Ochs reminds us, and we do not do it justice if we do not leave similarly wounded.

So, to David Plotz, I only have one word.

Thanks.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Spiritual Getaway: A Parable

Imagine a spiritual getaway.

Five teenagers of similar age attend this weekend getaway. The first attends mostly in apathy, urged and driven by his parents. The second attends in excitement and relief, a retreat from her difficult family life at home. The third attends in a mixture of anxiety and cautious optimism, desiring God yet unclear about his place in the group. The fourth attends in unhappy obedience to her demanding mother who wants her "involved" and "connected." The fifth attends in deep shyness, new to the area and to the group, having recently moved from another state.

The message of the spiritual getaway is as follows:

"You are here for a reason. God has brought each and every one of you here, and God does not act without purpose. God has a plan. God has a plan for you. God foreordained before all time that you would be here in this place at this very moment. Do not let God's plan pass you by! God loves you and his plan for you is as big as God's own dreams. He will use you to glorify himself, to minister to a hurting world, blessing you so that you might bless others. Live into God's plan for you; have faith that everything happens for a reason. Go out and do mighty things in God's good blessing!"

The first attendant leaves exuberant, apathy cured, ready to conquer in prosperity -- and indeed he does, graduating from seminary, becoming a popular pastor, starting a family, beloved by many.

The second attendant leaves similarly encouraged, poised to live into God's plan for her life -- until one night in college she wakes up to a strange man on top of her, and she is raped.

The third attendant leaves with decreased anxiety and a quietly booming optimism for the future -- and indeed he works his way through a business degree and starts his own company, hailed as a visionary success.

The fourth attendant leaves buoyed by hope in the promise that God her Father is in control -- she does her best, in faith, to succeed, but ultimately finds the doors slammed in her face, the applications rejected, and, dropping out of school to take care of her ailing (ungrateful) mother, she struggles to make ends meet as a single working mother of two.

The fifth attendant leaves satisfied merely to have found a potential community in this new place -- but on the drive home from the getaway, his parents' car swerves on a wet spot in the road and all three die instantaneously on impact with the concrete barrier.

Being the new family in town, nobody notices.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Walter Brueggemann

My wife and I are praying each night through Walter Brueggemann's collection of prayers, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, and the following prayer struck us especially (however suited for a different time of day!). Brueggemann's work is profoundly infused with a welcoming draw toward God's majesty, otherness, and power for newness, and his poetry here (prayer is always poetry!) reflects that awe and trust in the God-who-is-Other.

My own is set in contrast to the patience of dawn and the transforming power of God evoked in Brueggemann's prayer, through the attention- and life-stealing modern force called TV.

- - - - - - -

At the dawn

By Walter Brueggemann

Our first glimpse of reality this day -- everyday -- is your fidelity.
We are dazzled by the ways you remain constant among us,
in season, out of season,
for better, for worse,
in sickness and in health.
You are there in watchfulness as we fall asleep;
You are there in alertness when we awaken ... and we are glad.
Before the day ends, we will have occasion
to flag your absence in indifference...
but not now, not at the dawn.
Before the day ends, we will think more than once
that we need a better deal from you...
but not now, not at the dawn.
Before the day ends, we will look away from you and
relish our own fidelity and our virtue in mercy...
but not now, not at the dawn.
Now, at the dawn, our eyes are fixed on you in gladness.
We ask only that your faithfulness
permeate every troubled place we are able to name,
that your mercy
move against the hurts to make new,
that your steadfastness
hold firmly what is too fragile on its own.
And we begin the day in joy, in hope, and in deep gladness. Amen.

Old Testament theology class, on God's defining adjectives / July 18, 2000

- - - - - - -

Ode to Television

You have made me your dependent
And my eyes, and my words, and my
Love are the worse, shriveled and shrill

You have made me your patron
And my pocket is prophetically,
Persistently open, full in generosity

You have made me your child
And my gait is checked, hip socket
Sick, in edged need of remote smile

You have made me your disciple
And my heart is restless until it finds
Its thirty second clipped rest in you

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Faith, Text, Tradition, and Community, Part V: On Why David Plotz Ought to Read the New Testament

We are nearing the end of our engagement with David Plotz's account of his reading the entire Hebrew Bible from start to finish, and his coming out an enriched, yet also entrenched and angry, agnostic. To review, Part I addressed Israel's example of having Yahweh alone with whom to do; Part II the non-hagiographical memory of God's people; Part III the necessity of belonging to a reading community; and Part IV the mountainous geography (or non-flatness) of Scripture. In this post we turn to Plotz's stance on the New Testament.

Plotz is up front about his not reading the New Testament: "I do give Jesus short shrift, because I wrote about the Hebrew Bible but not the New Testament. That's a fair beef." He felt he could give a "very irreverent, very personal reading" of the Old Testament because he is a Jew, but could not with the New Testament, that "someone who belonged to the group" could treat the life of Jesus fairly, not "some outsider chucking spitballs." In more detail, he says one of the two responses he gets when sharing his dismay over the God found in the Hebrew Bible is from Christians:
Well, yes, but this is all setup for the New Testament. Reading only the Old Testament is like leaving halfway through the movie. I'm missing all the redemption. If I want to find the grace and forgiveness and wonder, I have to read and believe in the story of Jesus Christ, which explains and redeems all. But that doesn't work for me. I'm a Jew. I don't, and can't, believe that Christ died for my sins. And even if he did, I still don't think that would wash away God's crimes in the Old Testament.
As I have sought to do throughout this series, I want to honor the rich generosity Plotz offers toward Christians and the New Testament. He has no interest in lobbing softball criticisms as an outsider against a book over which he really has no "ownership." He wants to stick with "his" book, his people's book, and as a part of that family he can faithfully and even irreverently respond in honesty.

Instead, I want to address three specific aspects of the worldviews in play here: first, that the New Testament is of a different kind than the Old, and thus not open to the same kind of reading; second, that "Jewishness" is incompatible with the New Testament or excludes being a Christian; third, that there is a radical disjuncture between the Old and New Testaments, as well as the type of God and the messages present in each. So here are three propositions.

1. The New Testament is an inherently Jewish document grounded in the life and faith of the people Israel.

It is a terrible and unfortunate misconception today that "Christian" and "Jew" are thought of in the general consciousness as two separate, untranscendable, mostly unrelated descriptions of "religious faith communities," just as you might say "Buddhist and Muslim" or "Sikh and Hindu." How greatly the early Christian communities would object! How profoundly Jesus would object!

Fortunately, the wealth of New Testament scholarship over the last few decades has largely disabused the accepted notion that Jesus or Paul came preaching a "new religion" called "Christianity" in opposition to or in radical rupture with nascent Judaism. Scholars like E.P. Sanders and N.T. Wright have been on the forefront of relocating Jesus and Paul back squarely in their first century Jewish (Pharisaic) context.

Jesus came preaching good news to Israel of God's imminent reign and coming judgment, for repentance and justice and renewed faithfulness to Yahweh. Jesus grew in the language and faith of his people, and came to know and learn in the study of Israel's Scripture ("the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms") and participation in Israel's worship. Jesus was, in all respects, in his entire person and teaching and ministry, a Jew. Whatever critiques or changes Jesus enacted or taught (or planted), they belong to a long line of "in house" criticism found in Israel's prophetic tradition.

The New Testament itself is composed largely, if not entirely, by Jews. Luke is the only general-consensus Gentile to have written anything, and his works are some of the most Old Testament-infused books of the entire NT canon. The single great literary influence on the New Testament is the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Any difference from Jewish practice or belief found in the ekklesia is a difference by relation: no, Yahweh is, or has done, this rather than that; no, the Hebrew Scriptures mean x rather than y. The new thing that these Jewish followers of the Jewish Messiah believe the Jewish God has done involves the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures and of the promises to the Jewish people. That much is certain.

Which raises, though, the obvious question: If it was a Jewish message by and for the Jewish people, what in the world were Gentiles doing in the ekklesia? That leads us to our second proposition.

2. "Christian" is not a separate entity than "Jew," nor is it equivalent to "Gentile"; thus there is no incompatibility between being a Jew and being a Christian.

Gentiles were welcomed into the assemblies of people who called on Jesus as the Messiah of Israel because the early Messianic Jews believed that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Yahweh had acted not only on behalf of Israel but on behalf of the entire cosmos. That is, the salvation offered in Christ for Israel was salvation for the Gentiles as well. Furthermore, one of the things God had accomplished in the cross was the abolition of the dividing wall, the hostility, between Jew and Gentile, such that in the ekklesia the renewed people of God might be constituted by reconciled Jew and Gentile in peaceful fellowship and family with one another. Other social classes were affected, too -- namely gender and economic barriers -- but this difference, that of Jew/non-Jew, was primary, or at least the most important (or unexpected) for those in the first century.

This is where the question of Paul enters the picture. So many throughout the church's history have read Paul's letters as a kind of ongoing outright rejection of all things Jewish. Instead of rehashing the monumental argument in scale, I'll only say two things. First, let us remember (or recognize) that the communities to which Paul writes, especially those composed mostly of Gentile believers, sound strangely familiar with Jewish Scripture and forms of thought. That is, it should strike us as odd that Paul can extensively quote the Old Testament as some sort of authority to Gentiles, as if they either know it already or recognize it as binding on them. In some sense, these Gentiles have become Jews, or Jewish, in their identity, thought processes, holy texts, forms of life -- in a word, in their culture.

Second, however, it is clear the one thing Paul does not intend to do in his preaching and founding ekklesiai across the Empire is to make Jews of Gentiles. His ongoing argument (with fellow Jewish believers in Jesus), rather, is that Gentiles may be welcomed into the covenant community precisely as Gentiles. That is, while every recognizable identity marker of these Gentile Jesus-people seems unmistakably Jewish, the one thing that marks out Jews as Jews cannot be forced upon the Gentiles: Torah. The markers of the Law -- particularly, among other things, circumcision -- cannot in any way, according to Paul, be that which marks out God's Gentile-including people. The one thing, instead, is Jesus the crucified Messiah. The gospel, the good news of this Jesus, is the one thing which calls and makes Gentiles partakers in the promises of Israel. No other thing, including the God-given and good Law, may function in that role.

Regrettably, this Jewish in-house argument quickly became a bludgeon by which to demonize Jews as God-rejected Christ-killers who were ontologically separate from and not (able to be) included in the church. Thus to be "a Jew" became another way of saying "certainly not a Christian." Jews, understandably, similarly took the other fork in the road, marking themselves out in even clearer ways as "not Christian," and two millenia later we find two deeply divided traditions with the greatest possible barriers and differences (and often hostility) between them -- in utter contravention to the situation of the first century. (Not that there wasn't hostility between synagogue and church; only that there was natural go-between, that Jews made up a large portion of the churches, and that dialogue was open and frequent.)

One more problem, already noted in previous posts, is that to be a Jew today, as in the past, is a complicated affair. An atheist who decries synagogue and lives among Gentiles could say he or she is a Jew merely by birth. Similarly, a Jew by birth could remain agnostic yet committed to the cultural forms of life that mark out the Jewish people. Further, a Jew by birth could be orthodox in belief and practice as well as belong to said Jewish cultural forms. Finally, a Gentile by birth may "convert" to Judaism, such that he or she might be able to identify as "Jewish."

In other words, this is complicated stuff. All I want to say is that in response to Plotz ("But that doesn't work for me. I'm a Jew. I don't, and can't, believe that Christ died for my sins."), it is understandable, for all the historical reasons listed above, that, because he is a Jew, he thinks he cannot be a Christian or ought not to read the New Testament. However, even though it is understandable today, the authors and characters of the New Testament would not comprehend such a reason -- in fact, they would say that it is all the more reason to listen to the gospel!

To the third proposition.

3. The God in the Old Testament is the same God in the New Testament.

Here I want to make abundantly clear that, while in some sense Christians do believe that to stop reading before the New Testament is "like leaving halfway through the movie" -- more out of the centrality of Jesus than the supposed "incompleteness" of the Old Testament -- there is no "divine shake up" in the supposed "four hundred years of silence." The Old Testament is not "all setup for the New Testament." The God of the Old Testament is not a vengeful, irrational, archaic deity who gives way to a God of love in the New. The God who created the heavens and the earth, who called Abraham and promised him a people, who brought Israel up out of bondage in Egypt, is the same God who raised Jesus from the dead and poured out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Not only that, we believe that in Jesus of Nazareth, the human being, Yahweh the God of Israel came in flesh and blood and walked the earth. And so we believe that we know most directly, distinctively, and decisively the character and person of Yahweh in the life, teaching, and ministry of this Jesus of Nazareth.

Thus to stop before Jesus, Christians believe, is to stop, not before finally seeing "grace and forgiveness and wonder," though there is that, but to pause mid-step in the story of Yahweh and Israel. This, as N.T. Wright calls it, is the climax of the covenant. I needn't do a second extended rehearsal of what happened in the cross and resurrection, but, briefly: We believe that in the Messiah Jesus all the promises of Yahweh are yes, and that the doors of Israel have been flung open to the nations. This newly reconstituted people of God is called the church. That is the new news of the New Testament writings for Israel.

To go a different route, though, let's look at a story Jesus tells in Luke 16:19-31. (I should give credit beforehand to Dean Gail O'Day, Professor of Preaching and New Testament at Candler, who did a wonderful exegesis of this passage in class a month or so ago.) A rich man in Israel walks past a beggar named Lazarus outside his gate every day; both die, Lazarus going to be with Abraham and the rich man to hell. The rich man calls out to Abraham and they have a conversation in which Abraham explains how the good and evil the rich man and Lazarus experienced in life have now been reversed for all eternity, in an unbridgeable gap so that they may never pass between their two places. The rich man begs Abraham, then, to send Lazarus to his brothers who are still living to warn them so they won't end up in hell with him. Abraham replies, "They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them." The rich man says, "No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent." And Abraham replies, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."

On the one hand, this might sound like just the kind of anti-Jewish story I claimed above doesn't exist in the New Testament. The Jews should have listened to their Scriptures! Not even Jesus' resurrection could convince them! But pause for a moment, and listen to what Jesus is saying.

Jesus seems to be saying, by a great mystery, that the Law and the Prophets witness to the story of the gospel. Or, put another way, Moses and Isaiah preach the good news. Or, a third time, if we cannot come to the heart of the gospel -- about who God is and what God is doing and how God calls us to live -- through the Old Testament, then we won't get it through Jesus, either.

That is a radical claim! Dean O'Day connected this passage to Romans 4:17, where Paul writes of "the God ... who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist." Is Yahweh the God who does these things? Yes! Yahweh speaks, and the cosmos burst into being. Yahweh molds, and human beings stand up on two feet. Yahweh calls, and Abraham answers. Yahweh extends an outstretched arm, and Israel marches out of Egypt. Yahweh breathes, and a valley of dry bones comes to life.

Or one thinks of the short creedal statement of 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures." The phrase "in accordance with the scriptures" is not a proof-texting one-to-one prophecy reference, as if we can find a secret code hidden in the Hebrew Bible that Israel should have known all along. Rather, what God did in the life, death, and resurrection of Messiah Jesus was "in accordance with," in extension of, part of the same story as, the logical climax to, Torah-Nevi'im-Kethuvim.

Thus, neither Jesus nor Paul nor Peter nor James nor John nor Luke nor anyone else in the New Testament, anyone belonging to the ekklesia of God, Jew or Gentile, would have ever imagined dividing Old and New Testaments, much less the God or the messages of either. There is "grace and forgiveness and wonder and redemption" in the Old Testament just as in the New. That is the business God has always been in: it's his calling card. It is difficult to go more than a page or two in the Old Testament without stumbling upon Israel's God forgiving again, waiting again, rescuing again, loving again. It is there; the Jesus Christians confess as Lord is the same Jesus who came to know Israel's God, and to preach that God's coming good reign upon the earth, in the Hebrew Bible.

What is "missing" from the Old Testament, if anything, is Jesus, not a God of love or grace. And in truth nothing is "missing" because, as the New Testament resounds over and over, "the time is fulfilled" or "the time has come." Jesus is God's time for the world, and he was not meant to come any sooner.

Two concluding notes. First, that David Plotz, friendly member of the Jewish people, is welcome to read the New Testament! Preferably not alone, hopefully in connection with a community of Jesus-followers who share life together; but welcome all the same. No ethnicity or race or culture or religion -- much less Jewishness in any of those categories! -- precludes anything of the sort.

Second, that the Christian Bible we have in our hands is the size it is for a reason. The slimmer "New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs" version so often handed out is, as my Old Testament Professor Brent Strawn would say, a Marcionite Bible. Marcion was the 2nd century heretic who argued that the Jewish creator god was an evil and secondary god to the Christian God of love revealed in Jesus and the Christian Scriptures. The church rejected this view, because the same God witnessed to by Israel is the same God found in Jesus. Praise God for such a momentous decision! May we remember to live it today.

[Images courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.]

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In Bad Shape, Yet the Living God: A Sermon on First Samuel 15:35-16:13

Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.

The Lord said to Samuel, "How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king."

But Samuel said, "How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me."

The Lord said, "Take a heifer with you and say, 'I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.' Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate."

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, "Do you come in peace?"

Samuel replied, "Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me." Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, "Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord."

But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things human beings look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."

Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, "The Lord has not chosen this one either." Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, "Nor has the Lord chosen this one." Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, "The Lord has not chosen these." So he asked Jesse, "Are these all the sons you have?"

"There is still the youngest," Jesse answered. "He is tending the sheep."

Samuel said, "Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives."

So he sent and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, "Rise and anoint him; this is the one."

So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came on David in power. Samuel then went to Ramah.

- - - - - - -

Israel is in bad shape.

The family of Father Abraham had been enslaved, beaten down and insulted, by Egypt, but Yahweh the God of Israel had heard their cries. Yahweh delivered them and brought them up out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Yahweh led them through the wilderness like it was a courting period between a husband and wife. Yahweh gave them Torah, the Law, to form and create and sustain a way of life that would set Israel apart from the nations as the people of God’s own choosing. Yahweh gave them a land, flowing with milk and honey, gave them rest from their enemies.

Yahweh had done all this for Israel his people, for whom Yahweh was God, Lord, Creator…and King.

Yet these people, knowing their history, knowing the story of Abraham’s calling and Jacob’s wrestling and Joseph’s faithfulness and Moses’ teaching and Joshua’s conquering and the judges’ delivering, all by the power and wisdom and love of King Yahweh of Israel—these people do the one thing unthinkable: they ask for a king.

In First Samuel chapter 8, Yahweh responds to Samuel’s dismay over this request: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

Yet even as the people break his heart, God provides a king. He chooses Saul, and speaks to him through Samuel, but it is clear that Saul does not have what it takes. Three times he disobeys the word of the Lord; after just the first time, in chapter 13 Samuel tells Saul, “The Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever, but now your kingdom will not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.”

Yet Saul remains king, disobeying twice more. And who is this man after God’s own heart? We are left in suspense. But we know that things are not looking good for Israel.

After the third and final act of disobedience, in chapter 15 Samuel tells Saul, “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.” And again, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. Moreover the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal, that he should change his mind.”

Saul is ultimately and finally and decisively rejected by God as king over Israel. And here we arrive at our text, at our story. This rejection could not have sat well with the king, situated in power and feeling, understandably, the weight of the divine right of the monarchy. We can understand why Samuel and Saul don’t see each other again. The political and religious advisor is not a Yes Man—he is actually almost always a No Man. And things do not end well between the two. The word of rejection is pronounced, but again, nothing happens: Saul remains king; Samuel departs; no mention of this enigmatic Other who will replace Saul.

Israel is in bad shape. Samuel, the great and renowned priest-judge-prophet, has forever separated from the king. The king has received only criticism and negative press from the religious bloc. He’s not getting the job done. He can’t please anybody. And everything Samuel warned the people about regarding the dangers and pitfalls of a human king in place of Yahweh is coming true. Even God is grieved: “And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.” At this critical juncture, in this liminal moment as the seams begin to tear apart: What is Israel’s future? Where is God? Is there hope?

Our world is in bad shape.

Our world wakes up every morning only to more bad news: more plummeting markets; more political unrest; more failed education; more teenage pregnancies; more foreclosures; more violence; more divorce; more religious fundamentalism; more fear, uncertainty, insecurity, sin, chaos, evil, injustice, oppression, death.

For a time we thought we had solved those problems. For a time we thought we were making headway. For a time we thought that the all-mighty Market had addressed our economics, or that the new administration was the answer, or that science held the keys, or that democracy, or family, or sex, or career was the secret solution to all our problems.

But for now, we have been woken up. Our world is in bad shape—and our denial has been shaken out of us like a sleepwalker jarred awake by a stranger. We have not solved violence or money or marriage or children or death. We have not built up high enough walls to hedge in our security, leaving us untouched in our emotional or economic or religious gated communities. We are, and have realized we are, quite simply, mortal. We are finite. We are material and messy and fallen. We are not secure.

And now—just as before, but in newly acquired acute awareness—we know the world is in bad shape. We know it because it hits closer to home than newspaper headlines or talking heads or even bank accounts. We know that the church is not immune. The church in America in particular is suffering—disjointed and disunified, scattered and scarred, much too powerful or utterly powerless. We have lost our voice, and we don’t know if we even want it back. We are losing members here and casting out sinners there, remaining the same yet making nonsensical changes all the while. We do not know who we are or who we ought to be in this place so hostile to us. We sense that Jesus left the building a long time ago.

And we wonder, in this time so tumultuous and dark, with people deep in the trenches of doubt and fear, if the church has anything at all to speak to a world in such bad shape. What is the world’s future? Our future? Where is God? Is there hope?

“The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.’ ”

How long will you grieve over Saul? God himself was just grieving! Yet time has passed, and neither that time, nor political realities, nor human machinations, nor the people’s fear will stymie or suppress the forward-moving vision of the living God for his people Israel. Perhaps we might imagine some faithful Israelites, lamenting the disastrous request for a human king to replace Yahweh, singing with Psalm 20:

“Now I know that the Lord will help his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with mighty victories by his right hand. Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God. They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright. Give victory to the king, O Lord; answer us when we call.”

Perhaps such prayers were heard in Israel in this time; perhaps some recognized that the only true king is Yahweh, that the success of his anointed human king comes only by the mighty hand and outstretched arm of the one true God. Perhaps.

But this text does not speak of any human initiative. None have cried out as in the Exodus; none have wrestled with God like Jacob; none have argued and debated with God like Moses or Abraham. There is only time, and silence, and worsening conditions—and God seemingly nowhere to be found.

Yet the word of the Lord comes to Samuel saying, How long will you grieve over Saul? Israel knows the phrase “How long?” They ask their God how long injustice will fester in the earth, how long the tyrant will reign, how long the godless will triumph. How long, O Lord!

Yet here God himself asks the question to a man: How long? How long will you grieve? How long will you sit on your laurels, lamenting my mistake or inaction or absence as if I am dead? The God of Israel is not the God of the dead but of the living! This God will not see his people perish! This God will not see the kingdom lost! This God will not see a failed and rejected king squash his purposes! This God will set a new course, will right the ship. This God has a plan. And he takes the initiative for the sake of his people.

Samuel obeys, and goes to Bethlehem, and prepares the men to be consecrated for the sacrifice. He meets Jesse and sees his oldest son, and surely this is the Lord’s anointed. Yet Israel’s God is not flattered by the surface: Yahweh looks at the heart. So the sons parade before Samuel, up to the seventh son, the complete Hebrew number. Yet the unnamed king remains to be seen. If he is there, he is outside completion, outside the boundaries, outside Israel’s wildest expectations.

And indeed he is outside—literally! The eighth son is tending the sheep in the field. We wait with the hesitant family, wondering what this political mover-and-shaker is about to do to the youngest, to the boy outside of anyone’s line of sight.

Finally he comes, and the Lord tells Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” And the boy is anointed in the presence of his brothers, this eighth son of Jesse, this mysterious outsider from Bethlehem, this tender of sheep, this man after God’s own heart, this better one than Saul—Samuel anoints him and the Spirit of the Lord rushes upon him in power, and finally—finally—we hear his name.

David.

Nine books into Israel’s Scriptures, more than a fourth of the way through, and until this very moment we have yet to hear the name of David. So important, so vital, so central to Israel and to Israel’s future, we have waited with bated breath and anxious anticipation for this moment, this event, this anointing, the promise of a future for God’s people even in the compromised form of life called monarchy. This David will do great things, conquering enemies and uniting kingdoms and receiving covenant and beginning the great psalmic tradition, loving God with all his heart. This David is Israel’s future and Israel’s hope. This David is God’s gift to his people in a time when hope was waning and memories of the old Exodus God were being held up to the light—the old negatives sent back for reprinting…

Did he really part the waters? Did he really defeat Egypt? Did he really provide the manna? Did he really give the Law? Did he really bring us into this land? Surely not. Surely Saul’s failure is proof enough of that. Surely Samuel’s exile is proof enough of that. Surely this time of silence, of absence, of Israel’s chaotic bad shape is proof enough. Those memories are playing tricks on us. We’ve been remembering wrong all along.

Yet God acts through Samuel to appoint and anoint the man by whom he will bind himself everlastingly to the house of Israel. David is the living God’s initiative for the preservation of his people.

What does this tell us about God?

It tells us that, even in times of insecurity and uncertainty, the God of Israel is sovereign over the nations, working in unexpected and surprising ways for his people.

It tells us that, when the powers of chaos threaten to overwhelm the cosmos, the God of Israel speaks, and behold: there is light.

It tells us that, when the sea stands in the path and there is no way around, the God of Israel parts the waters and the people walk through on dry ground.

It tells us that, when the people’s blasphemous desire for a king other than God becomes the disaster they should’ve known it would be, the God of Israel finds a way.

In the face of no future, no hope, no life, the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” acts in sovereign initiative for the sake of the world and his people. For “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” can separate Israel from the love of Yahweh their God, the one who chooses and anoints David as the promised new king of Israel.

What this text does not say, however, is that everything happens for a reason. It does not say that God has a plan for your life. It does not say that God has foreordained every detail and every moment and every step and every mistake of your life. Nor does it say that God purposed or caused Saul to disobey. In fact, we even have the words that the Lord was sorry that he made Saul king over Israel, that literally he repented of his action.

We are not used to a God who is sorry. We are not used to a God who repents. But Israel’s memory in Scripture is uninterested in what makes us comfortable. Yahweh is a God who gets his hands dirty in the mess and muck of our world, even in the dirty human project of Israel’s politics. Yet even as this God repents, we find him also in the midst of preparing newness and life to burst out of these pangs of childbirth.

So today. That God is sovereign over the nations is part and parcel of our faith. That God’s good will is in no way threatened by the scheming of politicians or politicos, senators or generals, is a central feature of what it means to be a people whose king is the Lord and Creator of all. Yet we must remember that the message we carry and the word we speak to the world cannot be one that lays at God’s feet the mess we made. It is possible that we live under God’s judgment; it is possible this is a great reminder intended to wake us up from our deep slumber.

But it is also possible that, just as Israel wrongly asked for a king and just as Saul wrongly disobeyed yet God acted anew in spite of them, so our bad shape and our chaos stem from our own lack of faith and our own disobedience—and yet God will be faithful once again. God will be faithful once again. We know this. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercy never comes to an end: they are new every morning.” We know this.

If we are in bad shape we have a voice because Israel gives us the words to speak: The God who is sovereign over all has not abandoned us and will not, “for I have provided for myself a king among Jesse’s sons.” Our king has failed and thus our faith falters, but still God speaks into the darkness of chaos, still God parts the waters, and we see the true King exalted above the heavens and our faith is renewed. The sovereign King lives, and even death cannot contain him.

So with Israel, we have one response alone: shouts of praise and deep gladness. There are times to deal with the nitty gritty of life, to point out the exceptions, to cry out against what seems like only absence. But now—now—we wait and watch in patience for the new thing God will do. We live and work in hope and anticipation for the God who raises the dead to bring about new creation in the here and now, to invade our broken and reeling world with the good news of God’s reign, God’s kingship, even in the darkest places, especially in the darkest places. Because that is where God is most likely to be found in times such as these.

I conclude with these words from a prayer by Walter Brueggemann:

“You are there in watchfulness as we fall asleep; You are there in alertness when we awaken…and we are glad. …Now, at the dawn, our eyes are fixed on you in gladness. We ask only that your faithfulness permeate every troubled place we are able to name, that your mercy move against the hurts to make new, that your steadfastness hold firmly what is too fragile on its own. And we begin the day in joy, in hope, and in deep gladness.”

Amen.


[Images courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.]

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Faith, Text, Tradition, and Community, Part IV: On Scripture's Mountainous Geography

What was originally intended to be a brief recommendation and engagement of a column, then a separation of a handful of concisely hewn responses, has ballooned (to no one's surprise) into a series of sprawling posts, much bigger than I planned. I do that, but I constantly forget it. So we will test my ability to write anything under 2,000 words here, because at this point (1) I don't want to be repeating myself listlessly, and (2) neither do I want to write so much that the analysis loses its power.

This series is a happy engagement with David Plotz's account of his reading the entire Hebrew Bible start to finish, uninhibited by rabbi or synagogue, commentary or community. Part I addressed Israel's example of having Yahweh alone with whom to do; Part II the non-hagiographical memory of God's people; and Part III the necessity of belonging to a reading community.

In Part III I partly preempted this post by bringing Walter Brueggemann's work to bear on the conversation. I did so in the context of the subtitle ("Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy") of his magnum opus, Theology of the Old Testament, in which Brueggemann submits the image of the Canon's disparate voices speaking in different tones and cadences, out of various contexts and places, thus contributing to a polyphonic and pluralistic witness in a single collection of writings.

Elsewhere Brueggemann expands on the idea that, in essence, as a community no less present to the text than its original hearers, we must similarly enter into the arena of interpretation, choosing which text or texts define "us," which are our center or grounding vision that aid us in interpreting other more difficult texts. Here is a video of Brueggemann energetically modeling this disputation for us (watch the first five minutes or so, but know there's some language):



Halden Doerge rightly criticizes the potential for this endless cacophony of voices to lead to an anarchy of disjunctive noise drowning out the larger story of Scripture, what he calls a "hermeneutic of disintegration." That is to say, there is an identifiable narrative running through the witness of the Bible -- we needn't be imperialistic or domineering about it, but we must believe it is there if we are to believe there is any coherence to the faith (much less the God!) about which Scripture testifies.

In light of these two tensions, the following are four aspects of Scripture's witness and our reading of it that offer a way through the interpretive agnosticism in which Plotz finds himself at the end of his journey:

1. Scripture is not flat.

The statement is true for both Jews and Christians, but of course the locus around which the peaks and valleys of Scripture gather and find their value will differ. For Jews -- to the extent that I may briefly step my foot forward into a world that is not my own -- the Shema acts as one kind of locus. That is, passages like the Shema or the Decalogue or the creation story or the Exodus or God's self-revelation appropriately serve as a compass or magnet that we might hold next to other passages that sound different or less important.

For Christians, of course, the unambiguous locus is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As Brueggemann declares in the video, "Jesus of Nazareth" offers an alternative narrative than those others offer, such as "I am a shit." The risen Jesus speaks a better word.

And so we do not come to every single verse of Scripture expecting an equally meaningful or important word as the good news that the crucified Jesus is risen. Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection is the lens through which we read all other Scripture; it informs and clarifies what seems discordant or out of place.

2. There are always alternative voices.

And yet! There is always a contrarian voice crying in the wilderness. And that is a difficult truth to accept for many Christians who want the Bible to serve as a single voice in constant, simple agreement with itself. Often it doesn't, but that is okay: it is the beauty of Scripture that we must wrestle with its differing tonalities and perspectives. How boring and unhumanlike would that document be, dropped down right out of heaven!

For Plotz, and for us, this means that, when we are frustrated or put off by one text, while we must allow the tension of that discomfort sit with us, we also know that other texts exist. As a texted people with texted lives, we must indeed enter into the lifelong pursuit of narrating our scripts into God's script as narrated in the life of Jesus Christ. Part of that pursuit is found in the slippery and irascible text called Bible.

(Did I just slip into Hauerwas mode? I apologize. Switch, off.)

3. Context matters.

I only want to offer another reminder that, while as receivers of these texts today as revelation and Scripture offering a word for us in the here and now, these stories were enacted, remembered, retold, written, and retained by another people in another time in another place. That fact needn't smooth out the rough edges of how Israel remembered their God, but it can be a tool to aid us in coming to stories and to a God that have the potential to seem so alien, even ugly.

4. Interpretation is a particular, and not a universal, practice.

As a consequence of context's importance, we also recognize that interpretation (and its children, doctrine and theology) is not a "once for all" activity, discovered or practiced at one point in time and then merely passed down through history untouched and unmarred by new hands of different places and hues and cultures. Rather, interpretation is particular to communities that actually live in time and space, in material bodies and in human cultures, all of which contribute mightily to how "we" receive and hear certain texts. There can be no doubt that the people of Basoga in Uganda hear the stories of Jesus casting out unclean spirits differently than my church in Atlanta. There can be no doubt that African slaves in the 19th century heard the story of the Exodus differently than their white masters.

In either example, is there a "right" interpretation? Certainly some seem closer to an understanding of the truth than others -- i.e., there is a generally identifiable "range" of viable interpretations -- yet even then we must continue simply to hear these peopled stories and strive to embody their message in our own communities. To practice such particular interpretation is, in the end, the ultimate faithful act to the text, and to the texted God.

[Photos courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.]

Monday, March 23, 2009

"All Manner of Things Shall Be Well": Saying Goodbye to Battlestar Galactica

For readers who have yet to be converted, rest assured this will be the final Battlestar Galactica-related post here on the blog ... at least for a while. I just felt I should say a proper goodbye, with Friday evening being Part 2 of the 3-hour series finale that was, appropriately, as epic and character-centered and spiritual and idea-filled as the show's vision has always been. I'm still chewing on it, in fact.

But first, some links.
  • As I mentioned previously, The House Next Door is a treasure trove of Battlestar information and analysis, full of depth and heart. Todd VanDerWerff has been doing a full recap and reflection after every episode since the beginning of the third season. Here are all of his Season 3 recaps, and here are all of Season 4's. I just might go back and read through all of them once I have time enough to revisit the entire series again. Speaking of which, maybe we can get him to retro-recap all of the episodes of Seasons 1 and 2, especially with the knowledge of the end! Now that would be pretty cool. (Just for good measure, here is his spectacular recap of Friday's finale. Thanks to him Todd for allowing me the great pleasure of publishing my piece over there, and thanks to all who read and commented on it. I enjoyed my description as someone who "writes about more than just the title [Resident Theology] including, yes, Battlestar Galactica." What a happy endorsement!)
  • Hercules' AICN post, with armies of Talkbackers dissecting the finale head to toe.
  • The Chicago Tribune's The Watcher has a bunch of content, including an interview with series creator Ronald D. Moore.
  • Discover has a similarly spoiler-filled discussion with Moore about the finale.
  • Salon says goodbye to Battlestar, too.
  • The United Nations hosted Battlestar Galactica! I guess that answers the "relevance" argument.
  • The blog Galactica Sitrep has a host of resources and links, including a farewell letter from Moore to the fans.
There's more out there -- just Google "Battlestar finale" and you'll have enough reading for the day, or week -- but that's what caught my attention. Now for some concluding thoughts, theological and otherwise (spoilers herein!):
  • Who knew it would be so hopeful? Sure, there was carnage, and death, and pessimism, and suicide, and goodbyes, and a big question mark -- but a new earth, lush and prehistoric and ready for technology-less new civilization? Peaceful goodbyes, and hugs, and living in the land "with rest from war on all sides"? Truly, Moore brought us through the fire, through the depths of despair, to earn this.
  • Who knew Anders' character would end up so profoundly beautiful? A potential throwaway love interest for Starbuck, a "hot shot athlete," ends up being not only one of the Final Five, but a heroic and faithful husband and warrior who is ultimately the central factor in the Galactica's rescue mission and the one who carries the seeds of destruction -- technology -- flying into the sun in a kind of cosmic sunset. Wow.
  • Who knew -- do I say "I"? -- the show would conclude on a note so explicitly theological? As Todd mentioned in his recap, for any hardcore science fiction fans fearful of either fantasy elements or spirituality, the finale was no blip on the radar, no deus ex machina dropped out of the rafters ready to inexplicably save the day. The divine has been part and parcel of the show from the beginning, and it was truly brave of the show's writers to allow the spiritual to play such a powerful, central role in the series' conclusion. No explaining away, no bait and switch: this was the real thing. And it worked.
  • So how do we plot the seasons? I continue to marvel at the confusing refrain from a minority of viewers who think the show "plummeted" after Season 2, with the left turn of New Caprica and the show becoming "political," etc. Similarly, so many want to complain about the entire arc of the show -- every plot detail and "big reveal" -- not having been known and planned from the beginning. How could that have even been possible? The current season of Lost is revealing the depths of just how much its creators did plan from the beginning, yet even those writers have admitted to a thousand left turns and changed plans and veers off the path. Why would we ever be interested in demanding from a creative team of artists, in the slow and painstaking fashioning of a beautiful and tragic story, told over the course of five years, that they somehow know everything they will do in advance? These characters and stories take on a life of their own! They wrestle themselves out of the hands of their creators! The path the show took is the only path it could have taken, because it was honest.
  • So how do we map it? The miniseries is obviously the launching pad, and Season 1 continues the steps it began. Season 2 introduces the ensuing anarchy of Adama's assassination attempt, including much of the mythology as well as the now-it's-really-running-full-steam entrance of the Pegasus. By the end, Season 3's full-stop inertia-twist begins in the nuclear explosion, Baltar's win, settling on New Caprica, the Cylons' return and occupation, and the Galactica's exile. Season 3 began the pattern of focusing on individual story lines and intimately exploring characters' lives, as well as beginning the run-up to the end with Kara's death, Baltar's trial, and the mythology of the Final Five. Season 4's first half was consumed in the insanity-inducing desperation of Starbuck in the search for Earth, the resulting issues raised by the "waking up" of the Four, and the civil war between the Cylons and its consequences for the human fleet. (Not to mention the wonderful fruition of Adama and Roslin's love.) Season 4's second half begins in the ashes of Season 3's jubilation-turned-despair, the final dangled carrot snatched before their now-hopeless eyes. The fleet is now truly in the depths of the wilderness: the promised land was a farce. Roslin loses her faith as she lies on her deathbed; Dee commits suicide; Adama starts carrying a flask. (Looking back, the revelation of "the Fifth" was not nearly as big a deal as we thought it would be. We did get a boatload of mythology though!) And then: two of the best hours ever filmed for television arrived almost totally unexpected in the revolution led by Gaeta and Zarek. After that, numerous episodes simply walking with these characters to the end. And the gearing up for the finale ... and then it came.
  • Theologically, is there a message in Battlestar Galactica? Can we expect someone to be releasing shortly a The Gospel According to Battlestar Galactica? Possibly, but I never want to assume there is some sort of "big scale" message, much less a hidden "Christian gospel," in the midst of a show obviously filled with other purposes. There were, however, a remarkable amount of theological themes in play in the finale, which, as I said above, served as a faithful coda to the series.
  • Who is Kara Thrace? To some extent, she is the Christ figure of the story, quite literally dying and coming back to life, the one with the (again, literal) key of salvation, who, upon the accomplishment of her mission, disappears (ascends) on a mountain top. VanDerWerff posited Adama, Starbuck, and Lee walking on the New Earth as a kind of Holy Trinity, although in this case the son is the Spirit and a woman is the Son. Interesting thoughts.
  • If Kara is Christ, and there is a filled-out Trinity, Baltar is the ultimate redeemed sinner. I still cannot believe they found a way to fulfill his character's promise in a wholly fulfilling way. I started to list all of his roles and transformations, and I had to stop myself, the list is so long. His last line ... perfect. Simply magnificent.
  • Do we call Roslin a prophet, the voice crying in the wilderness? Or Moses? Hm.
  • On a macro level, Battlestar models the form of spirituality called apophatic, what theologians call the via negativa. Here God can only be spoken in negatives ("God is not finite, God is not matter, God is not human," etc.), because God is ineffable, unknowable, totally Other. God is mystery and stranger and utterly incomprehensible to mere mortals, and the only way we come to know or see this God is by indirect means. Thus the (now revealed as) angels' discussion, perceived by us as between Baltar and Six, referring to God and correcting with a grin, "You know It doesn't like to be called that." And the real Baltar, even in his apparent revelatory climax, cannot even name who or what the divine is: "God" or "gods" of even "a force of nature." Yet even this unspeakable God, outside of "our" categories of good and evil, implements "Its" will: and in the end all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.
  • How perfect was the fulfillment of the Opera House Vision? I could not have asked for more.
  • There is hope, according to the series' conclusion, in breaking the cycle of "All has happened before and all shall happen again." That may be the great shining light bursting through the still-unsure, open-ended question mark of the final few minutes set in modern day. Somehow the Cylons did not return; somehow humans have not completely self-destructed. Peace -- relative peace -- is a possibility. Humanity still holds within its hands the definitive choice for shalom.
  • The twelve colonies (Israel) rescued out of bondage to death (Egypt) on a journey through space (the wilderness) for the promised land (Canaan) following an aged/dying leader (Moses) do finally arrive in a land flowing with milk and honey! Yet there is no conquest, unless we name the Cylons as Egyptians as well as Canaanites. New Caprica is exile into Babylon, and the rescue mission is a New Exodus, a homecoming for the tribes of God's people. Hm.
  • I have no doubt I will continue my theological dissection into the days and weeks to come, but I will leave it at that. Thank you, Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, for your singular portrayals of two of the most gripping and fascinating characters I have ever come to know through any medium of art. Thank you, every other actor, for your fine performances. Thank you, Bear McCreary, for your breathtaking and gorgeous music. Thank you, VFX team, for your unbelievable work on groundbreaking television special effects. Thank you, set designers and producers and SciFi Channel, for having the chutzpah and faith and skills and work ethic to pull this miracle off. Thank you, writers, for the gravity of your humanity and for the skill of your pen. And finally, thank you, Ronald D. Moore, for your vision and your commitment and your love for this world and these characters and this glorious, triumphant story. It is a work of art, and it stole my heart. And now there will be a hole in my life where these friends and this world and their narrative captured me up into their drama and struggle. I have only gratitude. Thank you.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Rowan Williams

I am slowly working my way through Rowan Williams' poems, and they are a strange kind of reserved beauty. Precise in a way different than Wendell Berry's, yet exact in their language and evocative semantic combinations. I couple his liturgical reflection with a similar worship-centered poem of my own, built on a description of the Eucharist written by St. Ignatius of Antioch on his way to be martyred in Rome.

- - - - - - -

Advent Calendar

By Rowan Williams

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like a child.

- - - - - - -

Communion With Ignatius

Every week is the same
but not: sick and lowly,
holey head and dregs
of heart, beaten down by
the brass knuckles of day
and the swift switchblade of
night, I draw forward, stretched
like Bilbo's buttered bread,
kicking and screaming like
Lewis in his study,
haughty fear of this meal --
my beloved disease
threatened perilously
by the medicine of
immortality, wine
and bread given in trust
of memory, the warm
hospitality of
this stranger, purified.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Battlestar Galactica & The House Next Door, Homelessness & Tragedy, and Wendell Berry on Modern White Society

In celebration of Battlestar Galactica's 2-hour series finale tonight, I wrote up a piece analyzing Juliet Lapidos' column over at Slate, entitled "Chauvinist Pigs in Space: Why Battlestar Galactica Is Not So Frakking Feminist After All." My response is called "Battlestar Galactica, Frakking Feminist: So Say We All!" and is posted over at The House Next Door, a wonderful and oft-updated blog for intelligent, serious, in-depth analysis of television and film. I recently got hooked on Todd VanDerWerff's thorough, essential weekly recaps of Lost and Battlestar, and after the penultimate Battlestar episode he opened up the floor for pitches from readers in light of the series' pending conclusion. I sent him my suggestion and he graciously had me write it up! So be sure to go check that out.

(Also: I started reading The House Next Door a month or two ago per reference by Drew McWeeny in his blog Motion/Captured, only to subscribe to it wholesale soon thereafter, stepping beyond and reading all the contributors' posts. It was then I discovered that, by a happy accident and to my great surprise, some of THND's contributors were writers from one of my favorite cinematic websites, Slant Magazine. Ed Gonzalez is Editor-in-Chief at Slant and has one of the most singular and insightful perspectives I have encountered in film criticism, and others -- Keith Uhlich, Fernando F. Croce, Jeremiah Kipp -- are current and former Slant writers I have similarly enjoyed on numerous occasions. Count me deeply humbled to post cinematic analysis of any kind (even if it is TV!) in the same online ballpark as them.)

- - - - - - -

Upon returning from my the week-long road trip last Saturday, my laptop was working just fine. The next day, it was dead. Took it to the tech guy at Emory, and nothing. Not only was it dead -- the hard drive was zapped. Everything, gone, forever.

The experience reminds me of the summer of 2002, when my car was broken into and all my CDs (100+) were stolen, and about a month later my hard drive was accidentally deleted, with all the music from those CDs along with it. Now as then, it has been a relatively untroubled experience. Technology is technology: we can live without it; it's not a need. I have a backup from a couple months ago, and whatever was lost I can live without.

But, to some extent, of course, I've been feeling a bit sorry for myself. That, however, was until Tuesday night.

Tuesday is my night serving at the homeless shelter with a fellow Candler student. At dinner we ate with a man we'll call Joe, and he shared his story with us.

Just a week before, everything was fine. Then a freak electrical circuit accident in the walls, which started a fire while he wasn't home -- but his wife and daughter were. The house burnt down along with his daughter, who died from smoke inhalation before the flames got to her. He was able to rescue his wife, but not before she was so injured she fell into a coma soon thereafter and died four days later. He wasn't exactly of a "right" mind in the midst of all this, and his employer apparently decided to fire him. And so he found himself at our shelter, homeless (literally and figuratively), having buried his wife and daughter days before. On top of all of this, his wife's family created drama at the funeral over financial matters such that he had to walk out, and the insurance company was refusing to cover costs because people are intentionally burning their houses down so frequently nowadays.

This is where Joe was when we shared a meal with him on Tuesday. As he told his story -- obviously, and understandably, still in a kind of knowing denial -- I was physically overwhelmed to the point that I had to stand up and walk around just so I wouldn't start weeping right there for him. I couldn't believe it. Somehow this man was finding a way through this hell -- self-expressed by faith and hope, walking with God, "just surviving" -- and my thoughts are on a puny IBM Thinkpad hard drive when my wife is safe at home.

Joe does not exist to remind me to be thankful, and his tragedy was not "purposed" "for a reason." The world is a tragic and fallen place where horrific evil, unalterable injustice, and unexplainable accidents continue to happen. To twist them into lessons for sappy bourgeois comfort tales is a wrong so deeply inhumane it is harrowing how much we do it.

But all I can do is tell his story, and live with it. I'll see Joe next week, and while I have and will have nothing of meaning to say, I will come to him welcomed by him into his story, having walked in its knowledge all week. We forget these things happen. And, only because it is the truth, we ought to remember, at all moments, in all events, to be thankful for what we have been given. It is all I can do to honor him. And we must also remember that the church exists -- surely, if for a reason, this is it -- in order to welcome, suffer and mourn with, console, and provide for Joe. If the church is not "there" for Joe, in every sense of the word, we are a joke, a noisy gong and a clanging symbol only. May God continue to provide for Joe through his church. But more importantly, may God continue to suffer with Joe in this unspeakable time of silence and pain, and may Joe know that God is with him.

- - - - - - -

In Wendell Berry's The Hidden Wound, after telling of his life growing up in rural Kentucky and the childhood relationships he formed with two adult African-Americans who worked on his grandfather's farm, in order "[t]o give a background to this relationship," Berry "sketch[es] out ... the dominant traits of the mainstream white society [he] knew as a child." I was profoundly struck by these words on the bus ride home today. His "sketch," as always, is prophetic and pertinent no less today, and I conclude by quoting it in full (pp. 65-67):
1. There had begun to be an urban impetus and orientation reaching all the way to the farms, the older farmers thinking of the city as the place for their sons, the sons following suit. The rural towns I knew as a child were in a sense gathering points in a countrywide migration toward the cities. Farming was looked down upon as a hard and generally unremunerative life -- facts which the white mentality was more prone to flee than to accommodate within an awareness that there were also amenities. The general aim was to go where the money was to be made; the resources of nativeness and of established community were abandoned without a thought.

2. The main social movement being a migration in the direction of money, society was conceived as a pyramid on which the only desirable or honorable or happy position is the top. People not at the top envied those above them, despised those below them, and apologized for themselves.

3. Happiness was conceived as success. The pragmatization of feeling was a fairly explicit social goal. If it won't get you ahead, if you can't sell it, forget it, cover it up, speak as if it did not exist. Such humanizing emotions as pleasure in small profitless things, joy, wonder, ecstasy were removed as by an operation on the brain. The only people I ever saw dancing publicly in the town where I grew up were black.

4. Reality was defined by the desire for success. If you were reasonable, followed the rules, obeyed your superiors, asked only practical questions, all would be well. Mysteries either did not exist or would soon be "solved by science." What he could not account for, a man tended either to destroy or ignore. Thus he remained secure.

5. As the puritan denied himself joy on earth in order to have joy in heaven, so the seeker after success denied himself all intermediate pleasures. He would forego impractical feelings, small satisfactions, leisure; he would work day and night, not for any satisfaction it gave him, not even as a duty, but to get to the top. When he got to the top he would rest and enjoy life -- as if he would know how. Life was simply a fact, not considered. There was no art of living.

6. People had begun to live lives of a purely theoretical reality, daydreams based on the economics of success. It was as if they had risen off the earth into the purely hypothetical air of their ambition and greed. They were rushing around in the clouds, "getting somewhere," while their native ground, the only meaningful destination, if not the only possible one, lay far below them, abandoned and forgotten, colonized by machines.

7. The church saving the souls of pagans of other continents in the gleeful imperialism of self-righteousness, functioned locally as a fashion show, moral painkiller, women's club, soporific. I recall the general panic in a certain central Kentucky Baptist church when two black Africans, converts of the foreign missions program, turned up on the home ground and applied for membership.

8. Knowledge was conceived as a way to get money. This seems to have involved an unconscious wish to streamline the mind, strip it of all knowledge which would not predictably function.

9. There were the local aristocracies of old families which once at least had money. In my experience these have consisted mostly of little bands of widows and derelict wives playing bridge, gossiping, drinking and hiding the bottle, complaining, grieving ostentatiously over each other but really over themselves.

10. We knew and took for granted: marriage without love; sex without joy; drink without conviviality; birth, celebration, and death without adequate ceremony; faith without doubt or trial; belief without deeds; manners without generosity; "good English" without exact speech, without honesty, without literacy.

[Middle photo courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.]