And That’s the Truth, Ruth: Of Moabites and Muslims

There are some ridiculous things in Scripture. Head-scratching things. Make you slap your mama things. But then there are those things that make me wonder how I ever didn’t believe. I mean, really believe. In God, yes. But even deeper than that; believe that there’s a reason why billions of people across space and time keep reading this book. This damn book. This book that makes me cringe and weep; a book that I can’t stop reaching for, a book that keeps revealing things about myself. About who we are as persons. About how we get so much wrong in the pursuit of doing right.

And I’ll be goddamned if the Book of Ruth isn’t laying the smack down on me right now.

Since I rapped at you last week, there’ve been goings on in the macro and micro. We all know about the shit show that is Drumpf; in my ministry world, people are dealing with a tremendous amount of pain and fear. My therapy is unearthing some stuff I didn’t know was there, and I am asking a lot of people to put a lot of trust in me as I attempt to launch The Beloved Community Project of Yellow Springs. I start teaching at Xavier again next week; well, not really. I’ll be in doctoral seminars for the first week, but classes start. So it’s more like

I’ve been living with the second chapter of the Book of Ruth all week, reading it each day, doing the research and study that normally attenuate sermon prep. Faithful Reader knows that I started preaching without a manuscript during Lent and have continued since; the congregation has indicated that with this style they feel more connected to me, and I admit that it forces me to prepare much more thoroughly, and also to rely on the Holy Spirit. I generally go into the service having bullet points in my mind; I craft about three lines in advance that I use as tent poles, and the sermon is built and advanced by my knowing what fifteen minutes feels like, and attempting to end with both an affirmation and a challenge, something that will hopefully stay with people after they leave the sanctuary. That’s the goal. Sometimes I hit the target, sometimes I don’t.

But I’ve been living with the Book of Ruth as a parable. I can’t remember where I read ti first–it might be from The New Interpreters Bible or one of the articles I read by Hebrew scholars–but as soon as I made that connection, it was like I was able to read the book in a whole new way. And, honestly, the Book of Ruth has always been a struggle for me. Many of the interpretations that I encountered in graduate school and seminary left me flat. I just didn’t see how the story was relevant outside of highly spiritualized readings that are anachronistic or ahistorical. But Ruth as parable?

The Moabites have a how you say, interesting history. They arise from Lot’s daughters raping him. Through various time in history, they are both inside and outside of the covenant community. As I wrote about last time, scholars are divided as to when the Book of Ruth was penned, but I am swayed by a later dating from the time of return under Cyrus the Persian. Why does this matter? Because it reflects a time in which the community as a whole is thinking about who is in and who is out, having just experienced for themselves a multi-generational period of diaspora. In the story world, we have Naomi, an Israelite, who has lost all the males in her family. Kinda. In Ruth 2, we learn that Boaz is a kinsman of Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased hubby. And if that is the case, we might expect that Boaz marry Naomi. Maybe. But since she is beyond childbearing years, she has no cultural value and therefore has fallen through the sparsely woven safety net that exists for women. And who does she bring in tow with her? A Moabite foreigner who exists as a threat to good Jewish men whose children would not be legitimate, given that Judaism is a matrilineal religion, were they to bed her. The Moabites were much like the Samaritans: distrusted and seen as dangerous.

And let’s look at the Jewish man who is present. There are some odd details in the story. Scholars point out that Boaz and Naomi both speak in a more ancient and formal Hebrew, perhaps meaning to indicate that they are traditionalists that act in nontraditional ways. Even Boaz’s name is significant, given that he bears the moniker of a pillar in the Temple of Solomon which, if we go with a later dating, has been destroyed by the time of Ruth’s authorship. In the story world, though, Boaz is the pillar upon which these relationships will be built. He seems to push the boundaries of the law, which requires leavings for gleaning, to be more generous and inclusive than strict, literal adherence to the law would permit or facilitate. So, too, does Naomi act beyond tribalism. She refers to Boaz as “our kinsman” to Ruth; her legal obligations to her son’s widow ended with his death. But Ruth’s loyalty, expressed in chapter one in terms that scholars regard as the “first conversion,”results in Naomi ignoring law in favor of relationships.

When you think about this story as a parable, you begin to see that God works in contradictions, but also contradictions that lead to more life.

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I was going to preach a different sermon until I read the story last night of an imam and his assistant being gunned down in the light of day. Granted, there is no evidence yet that this is a hate crime. But the shooting is not just a shooting. Of course, no matter the specific details it is a terribly sad situation. The fact that the victims were Muslim, though, cannot be ignored. We cannot just think of them as two victims of a violent society. We must think of them as Muslims before anything else. Whether good or bad, that is the case. And that’s because we have done a terrible job as Americans equating Islam with positive attributes. We don’t think of Islam as just another religion, even though if you watch the Why We Fight propaganda series during WWII you’ll see that Mohammad is cited as one of the historical influences on democracy. Since 9/11, Muslims has been the other. The Moabite. We don’t see them as Americans or New Yorkers or even men. We think of them as Muslim, and for too many people that automatically makes them suspect.

Sweet Jesus forgive us.

So what are we doing to be Naomi or Boaz? I write this to Christians especially, but to all Americans in general. What are we doing to bring the Ruths of our communities into the fullness of relationship? To do more than just glean on the leavings, but to be inheritors of the crops? What are we doing to listen to the Moabites, the ones about whom we have preconceived notions or improper preconceptions? What are we doing as pillars in our community? As ones who can speak in terms of “we” in order to make that more expansive?

What are we doing?

 

 

 

 

In Which the Book of Ruth Passes the Bechdel Test

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(A Sermon Essay on Ruth 1)

Only two books in the Tanakh bear women’s names: Ruth and Esther. I was in my thirties before I learned that my maternal grandmother, who I had always known as Maxine, was actually named Esther. But that’s another story for another time. We’re gathered here today to talk about the Book of Ruth.

There are two differing hermeneutical schools weighing in on Ruth; one holds that the book was written, possibly by Samuel, during the time of the monarchy. Using rough estimates and the assumption that while the monarchy technically begins with Saul, it really doesn’t start until the reign of David (although the author of the above link disagrees), that means that Ruth was written sometime between 1000 BCE-922 BCE. This argument holds that the purpose of the Book of Ruth is to show the transformation from barrenness, darkness, despair, and brokenness–set during the time of the shofet–into the fecundity, light, hope, and transformation of the monarchy.

I am not swayed by this scholarship for a few reasons (Hebrew usage; influence of Aramaic upon language structure; narrative components and theological composition), but mainly because the alternate theory makes more sense, at least for me as a pastoral theologian with substantial training in biblical exegesis.

This view, which is masterfully argued by Dr. Pieter Venter from the Department of Old Testament Studies at University of Pretoria, South Africa, holds that early Second Temple literature (that is, written after 515 BCE, when the Second Temple was consecrated) has certain hallmark features, and particularly thematic ones at that. And while this is essential in the development of Judaism, which is what must always be given primacy when considering texts from the Tanakh, it is seminal in the development of Christianity. In fact, one might argue that without Ruth Christianity would not exist.

Bible nerds probably chuckled at the last sentence of the paragraph. Or maybe not. It is a quotidian observation to note that Jesus would not exist without Ruth, as Ruth is the great-grandmother of David, who is listed as one of Jesus’ direct forebears in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. (Some Markan scholars, but not me, argue that Davidic lineage is present in the Gospel of Mark as well; but again, that’s for another discussion.) But my joke that’s not really much of a joke is pointing toward something else.

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The Book of Ruth, just like the ministry of Jesus, is about radical inclusivity. Naomi is like a female Job. Calamity has befallen her and she is questioning what she has done to deserve it. Not only has her husband died, but also her sons. In terms of social standing, she is going to fall through the net. She is not of child-bearing age. No one is gonna marry her.  The Levitical laws that seek to protect her–not my type of feminism, but on a historical level we have to acknowledge that the Hebrew law codes did try to provide some manner of cultural protection for women, even if we may find said attempts to be sorely insufficient–are not going to be of use. She encourages her daughters-in-law to return to their homelands, to find some manner of protection or social standing. Naomi is going to return home in bitterness, a fact that she makes plain at the end of the first chapter.

We cannot underestimate what is happening here. Although the Book of Ruth is only four chapters long, it contains one of the longest continuous stories recorded in the Hebrew Bible. And elements of the first chapter will even pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test. Here we have a woman, Ruth, who is a foreigner; in time of chaos and uncertainty, she pledges herself to Naomi in language that is similar to wedding vows. She takes on a new God; she is willing to go to a new land; she will renounce her people and take on a new identity. She forsakes everything that can identify her and protect her.

In many ways, what we see is similar to the covenant renewal ceremony preserved in Joshua 24. But this one is cast in terms of women.

Which is why I introduced you to the prevalent theories regarding when the Book of Ruth was authored; if we go with the latter theory, that is, authorship post-515 BCE, we know that there were ongoing battles regarding what religious observance consisted of. With the destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple (often called Solomon’s Temple), religion began to shift away from being defined by possession of land, the existence of the Temple, and a Davidic king sitting upon the throne. In exile, the religion of the Hebrews morphed into Judaism, a religion of the book. Knowledge and adherence to the Torah, teaching, made one Jewish. The externals of religion must be matched by the internals of faith; circumcised penises matter less than circumcised hearts. With the return of the people under Cyrus the Persian, the most fundamentalist of Jews were living in Jerusalem. They wanted to make the rules. They argued that marriages to foreign spouses made the children illegitimate. A new Temple required around the clock sacrifices, but some argued that rites and rituals were empty if there was not a spirit of the Lord in the place.

And in the midst of that, in the middle of such an argument, about who is in and who is out, comes a story about a Hebrew woman and her Moabite, foreign daughter-in-law. This foreigner, this interloper, this woman sings a song matched only by Hannah and later Mary. She throws down the gauntlet and displays a faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The radical nature of this story cannot escape our minds as we prepare to move to chapter two. We have two women, one who just made marriage-like vows to the other who has returned home only to say, “Y’all best not call me Naomi anymore. My name is Bitter, and you best not get it twisted.” Can you feel their strength? Their defiance? Their willingness to go up against the rules of men if it keeps them out of relationship? With God. With one another. With themselves. And while the rest of the story may bother us (or maybe not), let us remember them as they are now. Standing tall. Chin up. Chest out. Bodies not there for gazing but to be asserted. To announce their presence. Their power is written on the body.

Let us recognize that these two women are badasses.

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Looking for a Job: God’s Nationalism

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I’ve written previously on deciding to move to the Narrative Lectionary, which has included a series on 2 Corinthians and Job. Job is always a tough one; it is a long book, with the most complicated poetry in the Tanakh; there are vast differences in hermeneutical positioning; and it has some unsettling details, such as God and Satan wagering and individual human life seeming not to matter (like how Job’s children are “replaced” at the end with new kids). Job is one of those texts that requires a big commitment from both pastor and congregation if a sermon series is going to work.

There are so many great books and articles about Job that even a half-assed literature review would take months to compile. So, I have given some links above that provide a good starting place for anyone wanting to make a serious go at Jobian theory; personally, I recommend Gustavo Gutierrez‘s seminal work On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of Innocents, which presents the biblical narrative as being the foundation of liberation theology. One of my best memories from early in graduate school–I think I was 24 or so–is of studying the text under the guidance of a Jesuit priest who was instrumental in my coming to Jesus Christ in the wake of my brother’s suicide. Job is a text that I have been wrestling with on and off for about fifteen years. And the recent world events have once again confirmed the contention that God is still speaking through the scriptures.

A little history is necessary, and you’ll forgive me for not providing links to every historical point I make; if anyone questions something or would like some citations, I can provide those in comments or IM. But in the main, being able to make claims about history is why I have accrued these degrees over the years, and seeing that this is a blog and not a dissertation, I’m going to forego the bibliography except to say that this is a great place to start.

If you look at the covenant between God and the people as mediated by Moses, the covenant is not with individuals. It is with a community; a community that will become a theocracy under the leadership of the kings: Saul, David, and Solomon. Scriptures are divided as to the wisdom of a monarchy. Of course, with the death of Solomon in 922 BCE we see a split in the kingdoms, with the Omri and Jehu Dynasties operating up north, and the Davidic line continuing down south. Rival fiefdoms impact subsequent theologies. Nationalism reigns. Then the North falls to the Assyrians around 721 BCE; the South hangs on until the Babylonians destroy the First Jerusalem Temple c.587/6 BCE, which begins the Diaspora, ending the period often known as Classical Judaism.

What faces the people during this time are fundamental questions: Who are we outside of the land, the Temple, and the Davidic line? Who are we when these are taken away? How do we know God? How do we know ourselves? Who are we? The answer that emerges is: We are a People of the Book.

So we have to ask, was it false sense of nationalism that did in the people? Is there anything to suggest that a faulty understanding of community can pollute the individual life? 

Let’s resume the history. The Babylonians are defeated by Cyrus the Persian, who enacts a much more benign and enlightened formed of occupation. Cyrus allows for those in exile to return to their homeland; Cyrus gives them money to build another Temple, and promises religious freedom (pay your taxes; always pay your taxes); but Cyrus reasons that peace will more likely prevail if people are allowed to keep their languages, customs, religions, and traditions. The problem becomes, a lot of people living in exile did not want to return. They have intermarried; converted; have no memories or attachments to Hebrew culture. So those that do return are among the more religious and devout. And in return for his kindness, Cyrus is declared a messiah (anointed one) in Hebrew scripture.

Until this time, individuality didn’t really exist. Certainly not in the way that it exists today. God’s concern was with the survival of the community; and the theology that develops is one in which the community is punished corporately for individual sin. (See, for example, the defeat at Ai as a result of the sin of Achan.) We can see it as a cycle that runs from the Book of Joshua through II Kings. The people turn to other gods; Hashem raises up an enemy; the people cry out, and God takes pity upon them; God raises up a shofet (temporary, charismatic leader or judge) who establishes peace throughout their lifetime; the leader dies, and the cycle repeats.

The human person, therefore, is a microcosm of the macrocosm. How so? Well, what is wrong within our own lives can be explained with the same interpretative lens. Physical or mental disability? Sin. Poverty or poor social standing? Sin. Notice how in the Book of Job, all the comforters essential offer the same advice? “Repent!” And Job remains insistent that he has done no wrong, which we are listener/readers in the story know to be true. God kinda allows God’s self to be pulled into a grotesque wager that has odious consequences for Job and those around him. Job challenges the notion that he deserves punishment because he is without sin, and Job is right.

Generally, I think, it is our instinct to side with Job. We feel his righteous indignation. This God who wagers and seems almost as insecure as a current presidential nominee is not a God with whom I am comfortable being in relationship. Job’s question are our questions. Job’s defiance our defiance. But what if we are being led down the garden path?

Let’s take a step back and really look at what is going on. It is understandable why, but Job is pretty focused on himself. He keeps saying that he does not deserve what is happening to him because he is not a sinner. We can argue all day long about how this can be true, as every person but Jesus (for us Christians) is a sinner, but the narrative is clear: Job is pious in every way. He is God’s pride and joy. So we should take that for what it is meant to be: a statement regarding the relationship between calamity and sin. Maybe the point of the book is not Job’s innocent suffering, but rather it is about our continuing belief that sin and punishment are related. We see the effect, personal disaster or catastrophe, and we assume that it is deserved because of a sinful cause; if we see destruction in our own lives and maintain that we are sinless, we begin to point at others we believe to be deserving of punishment but are left unscathed. This is the foundation of the theodicy question: why do bad things happen to good people. Or, perhaps even more puzzling, why do good things happen to a hate-filled, orange umpaloompa who can’t rub two brain cells together?

Believe me, believe me. It’s puzzling.

What if the Book of Job is about tearing down bad theology? Maybe Job’s piety arises because he believes he is rewarded for it. And maybe the authors of the Job text are setting forth a corrective to theologies that do a great deal to separate people, to make us afraid of one another, that embolden our judgments and mute our compassion. Because if someone deserves what they are getting, are we really motivated to help them in times of need?

In chapter 14, Job cries out that even the cut down tree has a hope of rebirth and resurrection, but the human person does not. The best for which we can hope is Sheol and the soothing darkness of eternal death. A belief in an afterlife and/or bodily or spiritual resurrection has not yet taken root in Judaism at this point; the Book of Job is part of that. Job’s use of imagery is part of a long tradition in Hebrew writings to employ tree metaphors in connection with messianic figures. God will act for the survivial of the corporate body, for the community, for the covenant people. Job demands justice and hope for himself. He argues for the dignity of the individual. And he is criticizing, I think, the nationalism that had overtaken people’s compassion and sense of connectedness.

We will discuss the ending of Job next week, but for right now let us wrestle with this: maybe God promises to stay with communities because we are most fully human when we are in relationship with one another? But God will not support those communities that place their identity into nationalism. And perhaps God is asking us to pull down those structures and systems that keep people out of relationships? Systems that keep people from affirming one another where they are instead of trying to convince them that they deserve their pain. Perhaps when we ask God why there is not justice and equality, God asks us the same thing. Maybe God is saying, I gave you everything you need to understand what is important. What have my prophets said unto you? What outrages have I sublimated out of love for you? Why do you keep hurting each other? Why do you mistake the nation for the community?

We are living at a time in which a politician is promising that he is the only one who can save us. He wants to build walls both literal and metaphorical. He promises that he is our voice. Our redeemer. When Job says, “I know my redeemer lives” we must ask ourselves, what does this mean? If God is our redeemer, how is God operating in our lives? What has God given to use individually that we can contribute to the larger community? What are the fruits of the Spirit that allow us to comprehend the ways in which persons are deemed “others.”

We Christians should be very wary when a person promises to be imbued with the unique ability to save us. Because we kinda already have that covered pretty well. Like, full coverage with zero deductible covered. What comes with that assurance, though, is the responsibility to speak truth to power, to set ourselves against signs and symbols that deny persons their full humanity and dignity. And we should understand that God calls us to be in relationships. We cannot be concerned with ourselves more than we are with others; we are intimately connected. All as part of God’s plan.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

 

American Manicheanism at the RNC

Before Augustine of Hippo acceded to the pleas of his besainted mother Monica and St. Ambrose, he was a Manichean. This religion was a melange of Zoroastrianism, folk traditions, and Buddhism. But above all it was heavily dualistic, visioning the world as a fierce, clear battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. In some ways they were not unlike the Essenes that some scholars believe influenced John the Baptizer. The traces of the Essenes are not seen as heavily on Christian theology as are the large stains of dualism, and much of that has to do with Augustine’s misreadings of Paul’s epistles. While he didn’t create the notion of original sin, he did propagate the term concupiscence which essentially characterizes the human experience as being an ongoing battle between the lower appetites (what Paul calls sarx or flesh) and the soul; in this way the human person is a microcosm of the heavenly macrocosm, which will play itself out in an apocalyptic battle. Hatred of the body can be laid at the feet of Augustine, although not him alone, and by the Middle Ages flagellation and other bodily mortification were prevalent ascetic practices for monks trying to overcome the power of the flesh to elevate the spirit. This was borrowed directly from dualistic traditions of the ancient world. See, for example, the War Scroll of the Qumran community, which foretells the impending clash between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. The scroll depicts graphic scenes in which the enemies (the Sons of Darkness) are laid to waste by the heroes (Sons of Light). As they awaited this war, the members of the community lived under strict conditions and practiced extreme austerity. While this paragraph blurs some lines and loses nuance for the sake of expediency, it is safe to say that Gnostic influences can be found all over the formative years of Christian theology and tradition.

One might think that with the advent of science, philosophy, history, and knowledge over the last two millennia human religion–especially Christianity, which has under its umbrella an estimated 33,000 denominations— would have evolved beyond fantastical visions of an Earth that will be little more than a massive Risk board for God and Satan. One might think, but one would be wrong. Gnosticism is on full display at the Republican National Convention that sadly is being hosted in my beloved home state of Ohio. I thank God I am on the other side of the Heart of it All lest I be attacked.

Gird up your loins and give this a look. Or, if that’s too much read the text below. Or both. Your choice. I pride myself on service.

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Derrick Weston has written a good piece on how this is bad theology; Mark Sandlin has offered how he would have delivered the prayer; and the New York Post has reported that a Muslim-led prayer in the same place was met with screams of derision. I don’t want to rehash what has already been done well, but I do want to offer a new perspective that, perhaps, can add to intelligent conversation.

It seems clear that the GOP has abandoned even extreme Evangelical Christianity  in favor of what I’m calling American Manicheanism, a mix of nationalism, apocalyptic Christianity, and a heavily dualist view of politics, society, religion, and policy. It is evident not only in the prayer offered by Burns–notice all the blame assigned to one side; the descriptors are violent and divisive; and the name of God is invoked in a call to destroy so that peace may come–but also the language of Trump, for whom people are either winners or losers. Seriously. The New York Times ran an article detailing the 239 people Trump has dumped upon. We have seen Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, and a whole host of other people have tried to get back into Trump’s good graces to once again be labeled a winner. Ted Cruz, it seems, did not achieve that with his non-endorsement of the nominee on Wednesday evening. Trump made his displeasure known.

gettyimages-578133654.jpg    Shudder. I keep expecting him to release the flying monkeys. 

These sort of quasi-intellectual posts might be fun, or an opportunity for me to momentarily stop crying over the nearly $150k student loan debt I’ll have by the time I finish the doctorate in early 2018 and show that all this education is not for naught. I can be witty and sarcastic with footnotes! The average person probably does not care that what we are seeing is a repeat of what has happened for millennia when empires begin to teeter. It might make me feel witty to quip that Commodus is about to take over for Marcus Aurelius. Time for guffaws is long over. We are faced with a terrifying situation. Out of fear, the GOP has retreated to their corners to prepare for an epic battle; they believe themselves to be led by a higher power who has charged them with defeating an enemy, one that is sly and difficult to detect. One that is close, familiar, and perhaps was once a friend. They have cast complicated issues as either/or propositions, and depict the world as dark and dire with suffering to come, unless those who are in the right gather together behind a leader and overthrow the demons.And have done so with a buffoon as a candidate who, according to experts, could create chaos in the world.

This is pretty much what messianic expectations have detailed for thousands of years. A time of crisis; fear gripping the land; and the cries to God to send an agent of delivery. Take a look at Burns’ prayer again; look familiar? But gone are the subtleties and finer points; absent are notions of grace, compassion, and love; peace is pitched as occurring only in the wake of destruction. Blessings are bestowed only upon those with the secret knowledge, the proper pedigree, the anointing of the divine. Hope is placed in the idea that the destruction of the many is necessary for the salvation of the few.

And Trump is expected to win the Evangelical vote.

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Street Gospel in C-Sharp Minor

I saw him first out of the corner of my eye as I walked from the church to Speedway for my morning gallon of caffeine. Early 20s, solid build. Astride a lowrider bicycle, one hand was upon the handlebars and the other clutched something against his leg. A bag was slung snugly against his back as he rode aimlessly in between and around the pumps. Clear blue skies and a not-too-warm sun shone down through morning cool air. My first thought was, That’s kinda dangerous. I wonder if I should say something? 

Initially, I meant it in reference to riding amidst gas pumps with distracted people driving and playing Pokemon simultaneously. I just worried he would get hit or someone would start yelling at him (likely a tourist in my mind, but one never knows). But then I realized that I was wanting to say something for another reason. Black kid riding a bike can be a justification for a stop. A questioning. A shooting. And if you had told me a five years ago that I would think this, I would have responded: Outside Y.S. Sure. But not here. Never here. Then Paul was killed. Violent behavior in the YSPD has occurred very recently as well. Of course, there are wonderful officers on the force and I personally speak to the Chief rather frequently, in both support and a taking to task, all to try to make sure that officers and villagers know one another; but that sadly doesn’t matter. Paul was known in the village. The two people recently subjected to excessive (and despite the internal investigation conclusions many believe unjustifiable) force were locals. As Roland Deschain of The Dark Tower says, the world has moved on. This is not the same village it once was, at least in terms of policing. The thought of potential violence was heavy on my mind as I walked into the station to get my ridiculously large cup of Diet Pepsi. I resolved myself to not say anything to him because I didn’t want him to feel unwelcome, and I also didn’t want to appear to be a White person trying to tell an adult Black man what to do. He’s grown, I thought. And knows much better than I what it takes to live while Black. 

I exited and started back to the church. And then I heard him.                                           “Would you like to hear a word?”                                                                                                                 I wheeled around. “A word on what?”                                                                                                       “The only word that matters,” he said. I realized for the first time that he was holding a Bible in the hand not controlling the bike. He opened to a page in Revelation as I sidled up to him and smiled. He read. I closed my eyes. Normally, I am almost repulsed by Revelation, at least the way it is presented and used. I’ll be honest that I like my apocalypses from Daniel and my eschatology from Isaiah. But the selected passage was lovely. About humility. About seeking glory not from riches of the coin but rather wealths of the spirit. A wealth of justice. A wealth of compassion. A wealth of comfort, residing in the bosom of Christ. He finished and I smiled.

“Amen,” I said. I did not move as we smiled at each other.                                                                  “May I tell you something, brother?” I asked. He nodded.                                                                   “I’m pastor of that church right there,” I said, pointing at the stately stone structure of First Presbyterian. His eyes widened. “No way!” he exclaimed. I held out my arms, showing him my many religious tattoos. “Jesus Christ is the foundation of everything I do, everything I am, everything I am called to be.” I could tell that he was starting to think this was a reproach or a haughty rebuke. I caught his eye. “Thank you. Thank you for sharing a word of Scripture with me. You have ministered to me at a moment when I needed it.” I remained silent about my earlier fears and thoughts. I simply existed in the moment. I asked his name, which he told me. And there in the Speedway lot, we held hands and prayed.

He told me that he felt the tug of the Holy Spirit, prompting him to speak. I affirmed that his presence had been a great blessing to me. We laughed and praised God and parted ways. I fell into church work: finishing the bulletin, taking a meeting, completing a paper for the doctoral program, putting together details for the Gospel Fest. When the office manager left I hadn’t looked at the clock in hours. The rumbling in my stomach made it known that food needed to happen or not even a gallon of Diet Pepsi was going to keep me upright. I was about to walk into Tom’s when I saw the young man across the street attempting to proselytize a local (and international) celebrity we all know and love. I’ll call this celebrity Big Homie. For those of us who grew up here, seeing Big Homie is not a big deal but for others it is, so we locals try to be really protective of him. Big Homie was with some locals I know well so I sauntered over and began chatting with the director of the African American Culture Works, which sponsors the Gospel Festival held at First Presbyterian. “Hey, Rev.” Big Homie shot at me. It seemed I had alighted upon a solid theological discussion; the young man had voiced frustration that people were not wanting to listen to the Word.

“You can’t go up to them and use it like an assault weapon,” Big Homie said. “You don’t know their path. You’ve got to show them with how you live.” He got up. “I don’t smoke crack,” he said, walking quickly to the edge of the flower shop and then back toward us like a man on the hustle. “So if somebody comes by whispering offers of crack, I’m not going listen. In fact, I might be hostile. You see, you don’t know if people are interested in your product.” Big Homie had made his way back to the flower show; he leaned up against the edge of the building. “But if you post up and wait, the people who need you are going to come.” I nodded and smiled.

Big Homie is a deep Muslim, yo’.

He kinda nodded at me and I picked up the conversation; we talked about the parable of the sower, and how our responsibility is to sow the seed. “We cannot be responsible for the quality of the soil or where the seed lands. What we have to do is be as gracious and abundant as possible in spreading the seed, confident that in God roots will be developed in fertile soil. Your passion of the ministry is awesome; I love that you are out here sweating and trying to share with people your joy. Christ has changed your life and you want to share that. But know that, as Big Homie said, your call is to people who want to receive what you have to offer. Please come worship with us, brother.” We hugged and I took the picture you see above.

Street Gospel in C-sharp minor.

 

 

 

Define “Religious”

I talk about religion a lot, often because I am asked to or I am asked questions about religion. For a number of years, even after my conversion and after I became serious about practicing the faith, I hesitated to call myself religious. It seemed to have so many negative connotations for others and even for myself. I actually fell, for awhile, for the New Atheist insistence that to be really religious means to be a fundamentalist, which is absolutely not true and perhaps the topic for a future blog post. But in the past five years, and right around the time I started this blog, I have evolved on my position. Yes, I am in fact religious. As the tagline of this page states, “Reasonably Religious, Religiously Reasonable.”

The origins of the English word religion are interesting. It begins with the Classical Latin religare, which means “to bind.” Religare morphs into religio, which adds a connotation of reverence or high regard. Scholars trace the first written use of it to Cicero, who employs the term in connection to strict observance of local cultic practices. Further, we see that by the time Middle English emerges with “religion,” Old French had added to the word ideas of monastic strictures such that the term has been freighted with all sorts of expectations and requirements, yet without the specific details of what expectations must be met. We know what religion means, but what it is remains to be decided.

At its heart, religion seeks to bind us. To God, to ourselves, to one another. Religion is about relationships, and a sense of obligation and commitment to remain in those relationships even through difficulties. Religion might mean a commitment to certain behaviors and moral codes; it might mean the performance of certain rituals or rites; it can be attenuated by sacred scriptures or other written/oral traditions; and a whole host of other features. And defining religion? Well, it depends on your discipline. The legal definition is very different than the one provided by the IRS. Academic definitions can vary widely; and if you ever want to start some static in a room full of intellectuals, ask whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion. Then run. Or get a drink and some popcorn. Either way, something dramatic is going to happen. I used to give the assignment as a final essay to my students, and some of them would hand in the papers with the look of someone who had been crying all night.

I offer all of this because I have spent most of my academic and professional life thinking about and reflecting upon religion. I love having conversations with people in various traditions and disciplines to talk about religion, faith, community, and all the other things that come hand-in-hand with religion. That wonderful yet terrifying creation that has been responsible for some of the most beautiful and more destructive forces in the world. And the more I learn and discover the more I know that I don’t know, and the more that I understand religion can come in ways that are surprising, revolutionary, and unexpected.A religious act can be eating bread in mindfulness, or anointing the body of a person recently deceased. It can be sprinkling water on the forehead of a child, or the passing of an ancestral sword to the next generation. Religion–that which binds us–can be indescribably beautiful.

What it can’t be is the amoral, opportunistic, vapid, insubstantial, self-aggrandizing, Mammon-serving claptrap that Donald Trump displays in his life. He is bound only to himself, to his fragile ego that can only be protected by a worldview that relegates people to being either “terrific” or “losers.” He has never asked forgiveness from God because he does not know how to extend it. Or maybe that should go the other way around. He famously holds grudges for decades, sending quippy notes and emails to rub his perceived success into the face of someone who was inadequately fawning. For him, being religious means winning the Evangelical vote.

If this is not a gut-check time for Evangelical America, I don’t know what is. You’ve been saying to us for years that you vote your values. You have excused horrible treatment of women who seeks abortions, GLBT persons who want to marry, and immigrants who want to have a track to citizenship for years because of your values. And you’re willing to vote for this man, and accept that he calls himself “religious”?

So, I guess I’ve been wrong the past five years. Guess I’m not religious after all.

 

Augustus*/Pilate 2016: The Preferred Ticket of Megachurch Pastors

Listen to this:

If you are anything like me, you are having this reaction:

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So Pastor Robert Jeffress, who once said that trans* friendly businesses were more of a threat than Daesh (no shit), has come out in favor of Donald Trump because he is a strongman. Okay. That’s a stupid thing to want–you’ve got a doctorate, Bob; read a book on the rise of fascism in 20th century Europe–but it is not totally unreasonable. We’ve seen that on all the continents. And while I think it is a ridiculous political desire, I have to admit that it is one that has shaped politics in the past. Generally for the worse, but people do pull the lever for a strongman. Fine

But the asinine contention that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount would not make sense for governance (which is in itself not necessarily a wrongly stated position) because Jesus didn’t claim that it was a governing philosophy shows the danger and limitation of biblical literalism. To wit, Rev. Dr. Strongmanwanter believes that Christians should be against homosexuality because it is in the Bible. Yet Jesus says exactly zero things about homosexuality. But, you might object, there are prohibitions elsewhere. Yes, there are; kinda. But Jeffress argues that the Bible does not say anything about government.

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Yeah, no. Evidence? The Torah. Kiiiiiiinda filled with laws about how the covenant community should be formed and governed. Now, there are a lot of caveats. And Christian fundamentalists most often don’t get that the covenant code is not for us; Jewish fundamentalists often forget that the laws are applicable only in a Jerusalem that contains the Temple. Despite the nuances that most certainly are not being discussed in any real form here, it is safe to say that the Bible is absolutely concerned about how a society is governed.

Reasonable people will hopefully agree that Jesus was Jewish and was interested in helping to reform and rejuvenate the religion. (Marcus Borg’s Jesus, A New Vision, is a great starting point for people wanting to understand this perspective.) He wasn’t a law-maker, but he was a law-interpreter. In the Jewish tradition this is know as midrash. Notice how Jesus often says, “You have heard it said, but say to you…” and then goes on to say something that emphasizes the Spirit of the law over the letter of the law? That’s midrash. It’s kinda a big deal.

See, we Christian pastors need to read more than the Bible because we are charged with midrash. It is what we do with our sermons. We need to read books about the Bible. About history. Archaeology. Sociology. Linguistics. Literature. And the good pastor knows this; he has an impressive education from schools that I might not have chosen to attend, as I am not a Southern Baptist, but that are accredited by reputable services and that is no joke. Seminaries lose accreditation if they do not follow strict guidelines; schools like Liberty University don’t get accreditation or try to create their own agencies to circumvent the standards. All of this to say that Jeffress knows better. He knows that Jesus’ words directly relate to the power dynamics that exist between people and the religious hierarchy; the people and the Romans; the Jewish hierarchy and the Romans; and how they pertain to the people’s relationships between themselves. I find it most probable that Jeffress has read or is familiar with Walter Wink’s work on the roles power plays in Jesus’ vision of the faith. In a nutshell, Jesus is anti-strongman. Jesus’ entire ministry is about the kin-dom of God, which he imagines (according to John Dominic Crossan) as God sitting on the throne of Caesar.

Jesus was inherently political is the Greek sense of the word; politics is that which relates to the people. In many ways, our weekly liturgy (which means “work of the people”) is a form of politics, because it concerns our relationship with God (and one another). For Jeffress to argue that the Bible supports a “strongman” is ludicrous. If God likes a strongman, why does David win? If God likes a strongman, why did Jesus come as a carpenter and submit himself to the cross?

I don’t like to question other people’s faith, but Jeffress’s words make me think he would have made a great campaign manager for the Romans.

aaaaa

*The author is aware that Tiberias was emperor during Jesus’ ministry and execution. But Tiberius/Pilate doesn’t have the same zing 😉