Monday, November 5, 2012

Remarks Given At My Grandfather's Memorial Service

The below was presented at my grandfather's funerary memorial service on November 5, 2012 in Dowling Park, FL.

Some people follow in the footsteps of their elders. It seems I have somewhat followed in the pulpits of my grandfather, studying theology, preaching, and finally standing at the very pulpit where he collapsed before dying just over 24 hours later.

When I went to college, I practically lived with my grandparents for a while. I remember asking him questions about scripture and theology and when I went off to graduate school, I remember him even coming to me with a few points to discuss. Apropos of that relationship, I think it appropriate for me to share at this funeral-memorial, a scripture with which I struggle. The words are printed in the bulletin, 1 Corinthians 15:55:
"O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"
The victory looks apparent and I know exactly where the sting is. It is in my heart. It is in the first few pews. It is in the hearts and minds of all of us here, all of us who never imagined we had so little time left with him.

In the sermon my grandfather was preaching when he collapsed, he was going to describe this sting-victory problem in an oft-told story about a nonexistent painting. The painting is of a chess match. One of the players has only one piece left, whereas the other, sinister-looking character has the obvious piece-advantage. This fictional painting is entitled, "Checkmate."

But the title of this painting is misleading, because the lone king on the board still has moves left. And I fully believe God's work--love--through my grandfather has not and will not stop at death. The grave has no victory when he lives on in us, in our hearts, our minds, and our memories. The sting is still there, but the grave is robbed of the victory.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

That Sounds Just Like My Grandfather: Reflections on His Death

I got to know my grandfather best when I started college. I knew him before, but as a distant figure. He and his wife moved to Florida when I was young. I have two brief memories of them before they left Maine. In one, I remember being at their house and my great-grandmother was there, sitting in a chair in a corner. She wanted a kiss, but I didn't know her and felt scared.

The second was later, I believe. I think they hadn't moved from Maine yet, but maybe they were just visiting for the summer. We were walking to their apartment one summer day. I was in between them, holding their hands, and we were swinging their arms. When we are at their place, I remember thinking their refrigerator was weird, because it was a side-by-side refrigerator and freezer and I had only ever seen a top-freezer unit.

After that, I remember them coming to visit one summer and I didn't recognize them. Although young, I felt bad for not recognizing them and even worse for not feeling comfortable with them.

As I grew older, I began to remember and I would even expect them in the summers. I appreciated the birthday cards and the money inside. I would write thank you letters and make birthday cards for them.

Then when selecting a college, I looked into Palm Beach Atlantic University, which was about 20-30 minutes from my grandparents home in Jupiter, Florida. I became very well acquainted with my grandparents. I practically lived there for my first semester. Their guest room became "my" bedroom. It was still the guest room, of course, but it was often referred to as "Trevah's room." They lived in Florida for over 20 years, but the Maine accent never went away. It'll fo'evah be paht of his chahm in my mind like it is still paht of Joan's.

Like a college student becoming his own individual, I started making friends my own age. Consequently, I was visiting my grandparents less. I had joined the choir at their church, so I would see them every Sunday. I was struggling with faith at the time and I was uncomfortable with some things in that church. I left the church, so I stopped seeing my grandparents every weekend.

I never stopped thinking about them. I never stopped visiting, but the visits became infrequent. They understood that I was developing, I was becoming my own man. I missed them, but I didn't know how to balance multiple relationships that don't travel in the same circle. I still don't.

I don't keep in touch with my parents or brother enough. I don't keep in touch consistently with many friends who don't live close to me. And if I make new friends who don't travel in the same circles, I don't do well giving my time and attention to both groups.

That imbalance has influenced most of my grief since my grandfather died Monday night. Really, it started Sunday night when I heard he collapsed while preaching.

When I started graduate school, things only became worse. When I made friends in Florida, I brought them to visit my grandparents. They met girlfriends, roommates, and other friends. When my friend and roommate Matt and I graduated, they hosted a cookout in our honor and invited his family. "He made me feel like part of the family," Matt recently wrote me.

And when I moved away for graduate school, that imbalance became worse. I sullied what was a great relationship by barely ever contacting them. They, like my parents, wouldn't initiate contact, because they thought they would bother me. Sure, I'm busy. Sure, I'm terrible at returning calls. But I never think someone's call is burdensome. They would never have been a bother. I loved them. I still do. Both of them.

This past year, I was proud to send my grandfather a card for his 84th birthday on September 20th. Not only did I send the card, but I also sent it before his birthday. Usually I'm late, if I send a card at all. I even included a letter this year. He wrote me back "[w]ithout delay," which he said, "expresses my appreciation."

I'm fortunate to have not recycled the letter just yet. The letter is a good memory.

I had plans to call him or write him another letter, telling him about my recent cruise. When I hadn't done it right away, my parents reminded me that I should call. I put it off. Last weekend I was going to write a letter, but I ended up hiking, going to a haunted house, and grading assignments.

I never imagined I would run out of time.

Sunday night I lay in bed trying to sleep, but only regretting. I lay on my back and the tears slipped from my eyes and began to fill my ears. Why didn't I just call? Why didn't I write and send the letter in a timely fashion? Why didn't I assure that he and Joan know I not only love them, but think of them often? Did he feel again like that distant figure he was when I was a child and didn't recognize him?

Funny how we experience mourning. My grandfather died, left behind a large family, including his wife, and I am worried about how he felt about how I felt. 

I am sad that he is gone, but he went in a "good" way. He never wanted to have a prolonged death. He didn't want to be resuscitated. In fact, back in 2004 or 2005, I was the witness who signed a statement saying he didn't want to be kept alive if his quality of life was or would become significantly worse.

He collapsed while preaching Sunday night. He opened his eyes long enough to say that he was doing fine. That sounds just like my grandfather, using his last words to calm people by saying things are OK. He was revived, but not soon enough to prevent brain damage. He passed away in just over 24 hours, dying around 10pm Monday night. His death wasn't a prolonged process. He died while preaching, something I know made him nervous after such a long sabbatical from the pulpit. But he also enjoyed doing it, being involved again. There are certainly worse ways to die.

And what now?

I would like to say that I have learned about the shortness of life and how I will never again waste time in communicating with loved ones. But let's be realistic. For the next few days, weeks, maybe, I'll try to be honest with people about my feelings. Perhaps I'll even make a few more calls, send a few more letters. But it won't last. As my mourning progresses, I'll forget again about how we are not guaranteed more time together. I'll probably remember, occasionally, this lesson, but it cannot stick.

People die all the time. I am aware of my mortality and the mortality of those around me. We are aware, all of us. It doesn't change enough, not for any of us.
How bad, how good, does it need to get?
How many losses? How much regret?
What chain reaction would cause an effect?
Makes you turn around,
Makes you try to explain,
Makes you forgive and forget,
Makes you change?
I don't know the answer to Tracy Chapman's questions. I suppose the answer is different for all of us. Sometimes I wonder if the answer is only temporary for all of us, just as temporary as life. And even if we change--when we change--there is always more to change in life. There is always more to do to make life better for all. Balancing relationships is just one thing I want to do better. Next, how do I balance passions? How do I balance taking care of myself and taking care of others? How do I balance those cares with relationships and my professional life, my professional lives?

Excuse me for getting a little preachy, but I want my grandfather's death to mean more than just the loss of one great man. I will be asking myself questions about change and balance for weeks and months. But I must ask you, what will it take to make you change? Is your balance what you want? Is it what you would have wanted 10 years ago? Is it what you will be pleased with in 10 years? What other changes can you make?

We can always be better. Always. In his letter to me, my grandfather said  he was "reaching for the stars." The tattoo on my left arm has a tree growing for the stars. I tell people the tree is reaching skyward. Every time a tree grows, it gets closer to the sky--it reaches its destination every time it grows. Yet, it always have farther to grow, because the sky is always higher to a tree.

We are like that tree, like my grandfather "reaching for the stars." Every change we make is what we want, but it always requires more change. Tracy Chapman's question will never be fully answered, even when it is addressed. Like my grandfather said in his letter, "That's probably a little over stated but it sounds good when you can't really observe the facts."

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Three Looks at Re-Thinking a Popular Leadership Quote by Emerson

"Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

It was a dank and chilly Thursday morning. Five of my 25 students arrived to class on time. (I am planning a class day themed around punctuality.) I didn't spend much time planning for that day anyways.

Instead of talking about the differences between "affect" and "effect," I wrote the Emerson quote on the board and gave everyone an opportunity to respond in their Day Book. A few more students trickled in while we wrote.

I had no agenda at first. I planned to have them share what they wrote with others, honing their revision and editing skills. But as I thought about the quote more, I decided to try an exercise in critical thinking and analysis. If it flopped, at least I only had a few students criticizing me that day.


After hearing some initial thoughts, I asked my class what they think of when they imagine a path. We conjured up images of walking or hiking in the woods. When hiking, you are not supposed to stray from the trail for three reasons: (1) you might get lost, (2) you might get hurt, and (3) you are potentially harming the unadulterated nature you want to see while hiking. An ecological view of Emerson's quote changes the warm and fuzzy feelings it may initially conjure.

Paths are paths for a reason. They are proven to be safe. They get the traveler to the desired destination. They prevent aimless, time-consuming wandering. In the 19th century when Emerson lived, a path might help lead you to town or to a doctor when you didn't have time to get lost or run into a marsh. If you have a destination in mind, you should follow a path. If you want to be a doctor, you best go to medical school instead of making your own path. The only trail you leave will be one of lawsuits and sick people.

Beyond getting where you want to go, environmentalists preach low-impact hiking. The Matador Network suggests you follow the path or paths before you: "Especially when mud puddles or photographs are involved, it's sometimes tempting to wander off the trail. The long term effect is to create new paths that carve up formerly pristine areas. Not only does this look ugly, but it can hurt fragile plants and, over time, denude landscapes. Better to get your shoes a little dirty or sacrifice the perfect photo" ("5 Essential Rules for Low-Impact Hiking").

As the Matador Network notes, one of the points of hiking is the hike itself. So it is with life, too. We take paths to our goals and dreams not only to reach the destination, but so we can grow from the experience on the journey. Straying from the path not only ruins the experience for you, but for those behind you. The many shortcuts towards weight loss have resulted in tons of diets that neither last nor leave people healthy, but people still see the new trail and follow it. The beauty of discipline, changing one's diet, and exercising for health are hard to see through the vanity of weight loss and body images. Straying from the path denudes the landscape and the devalues the journey.

Approaching with New Historicism

Of course, sometimes straying from the path is good. If we only followed in the footsteps of others, we would never see progress. Indeed, we need to stray from the paths of the past in order to establish equality in the land.

Emerson is one of the founders and leaders of transcendentalism, a particularly US American philosophy that believed in the self-reliant individual. This emphasis on the individual helped us see injustice, because humans began not only to value themselves, but also other individuals in and for themselves. The value of the minority grew when each individual is as important as the whole. Emerson and others blazed this paradigm shift in Western thought from top down to bottom up.

Of course, Emerson's path may not have been the only one or the best one. We cannot know, because we live in a world where Emerson took the path he did. By telling people to make their own trails, he is asking them to do what he did, to do like he did. Paradoxically, he is telling them to go where there is no path, which is following the path he created. Essentially, he suggests to follow him by following no one.

Post-structuralist Critical Theory

Like good postmoderns and like people who simply want to hold onto something they enjoy, my students pressed my qualms with Emerson.

One student told me she found the quote inspiring. It encouraged her to be herself and not follow the trends society expected of her. A few students spoke about how they wanted to leave a path for a younger sibling to follow. One was even leaving a trail for an older sibling who returned to college when she enrolled.

At this point, my students confounded my agenda to unpack Emerson's metaphor in a way that makes one a little more uneasy about his advice. I wasn't ready to give up, though, because I reflected on my students. They are at a community college in Alabama, all of them required to take 093 Basic English--a class earning them no credits, but one they must pass in order to enter the core curriculum in English--and the majority of them are people of color. Although I cannot know them by these classifiers alone, they have different advantages and disadvantages than I do and than I had at their age.

I grew up in the northeast, and only qualified for one Federal Pell Grant during my time as an undergraduate student. My parents could even afford to send me to study abroad in Europe for a semester. Instead of taking a prereq class, I was in my college's honors program and I earned merit-based scholarships. Furthermore, I am white. I am white when people see me, I am white when people hear me, and I am white when people read what I write. People will always assume I am white, even when they don't see my skin.

I asked my class, "How much do you think privilege and your personal experiences impact how you read this quote?"

Their faces reflected their attempts to understand my question, so I began to explain privilege. I was thinking about the difference in the paths before Emerson, the paths before me, and the paths before my students. When any of my students, regardless of race, talk about leaving a trail for their siblings, I was wondering what the other options were for their siblings. Drugs? Homelessness? Foreclosure? Increased poverty in a world of increased cost of living? Dead end jobs? Gang association? Disease? Family life with a low, mediocre, or high paying job?

Following and Leading

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1:9

The writer of Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) might retract that statement after seeing a cellphone, but Qoheleth is right to assert that we are always following paths set before us, in a sense. Emerson had to follow many philosophical, religious, and economic traditions--paths--in order to come to his ideas of transcendentalism. President Obama might tell Emerson, "You didn't build that," and he would be right. Still, Emerson did found new ground and set a new trail much in the same way technology advances and groundbreaking legislation do.

Like technology and legislation, the trails we leave are not always for the best. Have US Americans emphasized individuality too much? Although the emphasis on the individual helped us recognize the Other, it sometimes helps us ignore the Other so that we can achieve pleasure, like when our clothes and technological devices are made through slave labor. 

One might say we shouldn't follow a path until we have enough time to evaluate the consequences. But we never know where a path truly leads. Robert Frost rightly describes the roads before us in The Road Not Taken. We can see down them only so far (ll. 4-5)--maybe this path leads to being a CEO, a president, or a parent. Then again, so do a multitude of other paths, some not even made yet. Which is best? There is no way to know, because you can only travel one (ll. 11-15). Later we may look back--"Somewhere ages and ages hence" (l. 17) and impose significance and value to the choices we made, the roads we followed, the trails we blazed, but that imposition will be an imposition, not objective truth, which is why Frost describes his imposition in line 20 as being told "with a sigh" (l. 16).

We are left with multiple paths and roads before us. In between, there is some elbow room to blaze our own trails in the sense that we are creating novelty, but not something completely new. Perhaps it isn't a trail we blaze, but rather a unique combination of routes (cf. Frost, l. 14).

Following Emerson's dictum may be good advice, but not for everyone in every situation. For some of us, the paths before us leave a trail that those behind us cannot help but follow, despite how harmful they are (fast food, fundamentalism, hate). Leadership for the sake of leading is not good like Emerson's quote seems to imply. Emerson's quote without context says simply to lead and always lead, not to lead to good results. More important than blazing trails are getting to good destinations and helping others along their journey.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Confession: I Went To A Gay Bar Last Night ...

I went to a gay bar last night. Or maybe it was a club. A private club. You have to become a member in order to get in, which is how the bar can stay open all night here in Birmingham. I guess I went to a gay club last night.

This post is another one of my confessions. But the confession isn't about me going to a gay bar or my sexuality, although I mention the latter part in this post. The confession is about what happened before I even walked into the bar.

As I was standing in line outside of the bar, a man came by asking, "Would anyone like a tract?"

I said nothing. 

The man wasn't speaking to me, anyways. And he wasn't too near me at the time. I did get mad, though. And eventually, the man was standing right next to me, offering tracts on Christianity and salvation. Or that's my educated guess. And I'm going to be a little pretentious in this post, so let's just go ahead and say that I think my educated guess is a pretty good one in this situation.

I knew it wasn't the time or place to share my thoughts on what he was doing. He was "prepared" to address anything anybody said with stock responses he learned by rote, perhaps with a small addition of wit and on-the-spot, original thinking. Perhaps. I knew nothing I said could change his mind, because he wasn't there to respect anyone, but rather to express the wrongness of their lifestyle without knowing anything about them.

I was with three other people he didn't know. Probably he wouldn't approve of any of the four of us going to any bar that night. Maybe he hands out tracts to people going into any bar. Possible? Sure. Doubtful, though. That man was at that bar, because it was a gay bar and he assumed everyone in my party was gay. At the very least he was wrong about me and right about two in my group. The fourth member has never made a definitive statement about his/her sexuality, so I try not to say s/he is straight, although I assume s/he is. That's what those of us with a privileged identity do.

When he stood right next to me, I began to feel sorry for him. Everyone was ignoring him and he put himself in a no-win situation that he thought would please his god. So I said to him, "I think we're good, man."

My pity was just what he wanted, though. It took a few moments before he could either think of a reply or raise the courage to engage someone he (probably) assumed identified as gay.

"It depends on what you mean by good," he retorted.

At that point, I knew it was useless to respond. I felt worse for the guy than I did in the first place. Who really thinks that sort of cheesy response is the lead in to changing someone's mind and converting them to the way you think? Did he think I would banter with him, see his truth, cry, and repent of ... of what? Repent of being a heterosexual going to a gay bar with a few people who identify as gay and bisexual? Repent of respecting and engaging in loving friendships with people who he thinks are sinners on their way to hell?

I wondered how many times he's read the Bible. I probably have him beat there. How much does he knows about biblical history? I probably have him beat there. How much does he knows about Christian history, theology, and what different Christians believe? I probably have him beat there, too. 

I wonder how a "conversation" with him would have looked? I place "conversation" in quotes, because it is obvious that neither of us would have really listened to each other. Instead, we would have been trying to get the upper hand in a boxing match of words. I don't like that sort of back-and-forth, so I ignored him.

But I wonder how such a conversation would have impacted those around me. I consider myself an ally with the GLBTQ community, although I'm not as much of an advocate as I would like to believe. I know discussion was not possible with that man, but I wonder if a discussion/argument with him would have been encouraging or annoying to the people around me. Would I have embarrassed my friends? Would other people have got involved? Would I have been asked to leave for causing a scene? Would I have got frustrated and gone inside for my Jack and diet? Would he have got flustered and left? Would there have been a winner? Would people around me have thought, albeit briefly, that some Christians are worth getting to know? Would anyone have thought I was a Christian? Do I think I am a Christian?

A confession: I went to a gay bar last night. I was offered a tract and all I could say was a circumlocution for "no thanks." I wonder what Jesus would have done. What would you have done? What do you think about what I did?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

I'm Open-Minded & I Vehemently Disagree With You

"Open-minded" is one term in a slew of identifying terms. As with any identifier, the term means many things, probably too many. An excess of meaning is tantamount to a paucity or complete lack of meaning. I am going to parse out what being open-minded means to me, balancing positive descriptions ("it is" statements) with negative ones ("it is not" statements).

When I identify as open-minded, I am doing so, because I perceive my beliefs and philosophies to be open to criticism and construction from within and without. The obvious metaphor here is a door. When an opinion dissents from mine, I keep the door of my mind open to that view.

Just because a visitor arrives, doesn't mean they will stay. Intellectual hospitality necessitates temporariness in some situations. To let any and all differences take residency would result in logical contradictions. Open-mindedness exists within the realm of logic and sense. I am open to listening to your views and I hope my interaction with your position to be mutually beneficial, but I may disagree with you in the beginning and in the end.

Some disagreements are simple matters of taste and opinion. Some disagreements are more significant, but without negative impact on anyone. Broadly speaking, theism and atheism are in this category. Before getting into the various permutations of theism and atheism, neither of these view points necessitate a negative impact on society or a lack of ability to collaborate for mutual growth of individuals, communities, and the environment at large.

Some beliefs hurt people. Anti-semitism is such a view. Racism is such a belief-system. Eurocentric, androcentric, and heterosexist positions are further examples of hurtful biases.

As with any other identifier, it isn't always true. Christians aren't always Christ-like. Libertarians enjoy some areas in which the government is involved. Heterosexuals have crushes on and enjoy physical contact with people of the same sex. People who identify themselves with a cultural definition of "masculine" have "feminine" sides.

Similarly, I am open-minded, but my mind is not open to somethings like anti-semitism, racism, eurocentrism, chauvinism, and heterosexism. I still can benefit from other views people in these groups hold, but I cannot imagine ever accepting their positions on equality. I think I listen to their beliefs, especially since I used to hold some of them. But from everything I've heard, they have nothing new to say. It is just the same old, misguided song and dance. I hear from them what they hear from me and neither of us do a great job at listening to each other.

Not only are they not saying anything new, but also they are hurting people. Just like open-mindedness does not mean being open to a slave trade based on race, sex, or economic status, neither does it mean being open to oppression.

In fact, it is precisely because of my open mind that I am against oppression. My open mind means I am for love, for love and reason brought me to an open mind. It would be outrageous and nonsensical to have an open-mind based on love and reason, but then be OK oppression and oppressive beliefs, to sit idly by while people are being actively hurt and discriminated. It is for this reason that I have dedicated my life (currently) to providing opportunities for college students to open up their minds: to do my part in fighting oppression and discrimination by influencing the development of college students.

I will continue to identify myself as open-minded, because I am. But I am certainly closed off to oppressive ideologies, because that is where the identifier falls apart, where it (self) deconstructs, because open-mindedness is built upon "closedness." (Get ready for my cheesy closing statement.) The open door defined by the closed, operating on the hinges of love and reason.

Monday, July 16, 2012

I Think You're Wrong, But I Don't Know How To Feel About Your Wrongness

I just read a blog post by Rachel Held Evans that conjured an image in my mind of Jesus singing, "Come together, right now, over me." I love the idea of Jesus singing the Beatles. The post challenged me, which is true to my generally ambivalent feelings about Evans. I like her, but I dislike liking her for three reasons:

First, because I didn't expect to like her. Sometimes "moderate" Christians (for lack of a better term) annoy me. I don't have a problem with moderates, per se, but I don't like how well they can blend in. I want them to be easier to spot.

Second, I don't like that Evans is popular. Simply put, I'm jealous.

Third, I don't like how likable she is. First I just read some of her blogs. Then I started following her on the Twitter. Before I knew it, I wanted to be her friend. How did she do that? Of course, she's a popular blogger and a print author, so the chances of me being her friend are slim. Really, the best part of being her friend would be that we could dialogue about her thoughts. Sometimes I don't want to ask questions to somebody's blog, I want to offer a dissenting, contrasting, or similar opinion and see what they think. Questions are more likely to get responses though. Even then, she can't answer every question. And what if I make a stupid typo or, just as likely, a stupid sentence or twenty? I don't want her dismissing me as much as I would dismiss me if I read my own comments.

Nonetheless, I follow her on Twitter and read a bunch of her posts. And I somehow went off on a jocose tangent before I even got started with the topic for this post.

When I read Evans's post about Christians coming together and working together, I had a hard time imagining it working. I have a pretty good imagination and I'm certainly an idealist, but reality got in the way of my imagination this time. The part of reality that got in the way was me.

If I read her correctly, Evans not only wants everyone to get along, but also to remain themselves. In order for Christians to work together, they need to be together. A lot. It would be a commitment as strong as going to church on Sunday. Although Christians could retain their congregating with their sects, I doubt most could collaborate with others while still meeting separately. 

We're talking here about desegregation. Desegregation requires identity loss. Commingling brings about mutual benefit and mutual change. Desegregation of something as radically diverse as Christianity would mean some people couldn't remain being the type of Christian they are. As one example, Landmark Baptists couldn't desegregate, because they strongly disagree that other Christians are Christians.

I would love the desegregation of Christianity, if the resultant change yielded a Christianity that looked a lot more like me.

I hate myself for saying that. Well, maybe hate is a strong word. And the feelings aren't because I said it, they are because I thought it.

I don't know about you, but when I'm honest with myself, I want some Christians to lose their identity. I want them to change. I want their particular brand of Christianity to cease existing.

For example, I believe in equality of the genders and sexuality. Those who do not agree have what I see as hurtful theo/ideologies. Through inter- & intrfaith dialogue, cohesion, and collaboration, I want people who disagree with me on these issues to change their mind. Sure, I want these conversations to be mutually beneficial. Those who don't agree with me on equality have things to offer, but I am about as ready to budge as a fundamentalist on this issue.

But for some Christian sects, they cannot be who they are and believe in gender and sexual equality. Patriarchy and hetero-privilege is so essential to their identity and it is wrapped up in their view of God, God's revelation, the Bible, ethics, and everything. Giving it up is tantamount to no longer being who they are. Christianity can't just come together without change and a lot of it.

How can I come together if I am like the missionary who wants to convert the heathens? As much as I don't like missions, I sometimes want to be that missionary. I've thought, "Maybe I should go back to church. You can't expect something to change if you're not a part of it. Maybe I should work to change it from within." But I'm not working to be transformed with it if I can't let go of myself first. Jesus said you have to lose yourself to find yourself and, according to the story, Jesus lost his life and found it again afterwards.

But how can I walk into intrafaith dialogue with someone who disagrees with gender equality without the desire to change them? How can I walk comfortably away from that dialogue knowing their beliefs are su/oppressing people?

I despise all of these thoughts. What if somebody actually reads my blog and just read about how much I want them to change, how wrong I think they are, how I think they are hurting people? All of these thoughts go against my faith in dialogue. They go against my understanding of deconstruction (I sure hope I am just missing something here, because I love loving deconstruction). I am dancing dangerously close to being a liberal fundamentalist. I can't even say I'm lacking a better term when I say "liberal fundamentalist." I like to tell myself it isn't fundamentalism, it is passion. But  I am just applying a bromide.

I'd love to end this post with a question, something to prompt you to respond. This post was partly confession, but confession with the desire for help. Perhaps that is the point of confession, not for absolution and forgiveness, but for help, for collaboration, for working together.

Even if I could come up with a good question, I would probably continue acting like someone so often identified as a liberal by talking more than I listen.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

An Exercise In Recognizing Privilege: "It's the Bi-ble, Not the Straight-ble," and Other Scenarios

Privilege is something many of us with privilege don't think about enough. I include myself in that category. I'm a white male living in the USA who identifies as Christian and lives above the poverty level. Sure, I could be more privileged, but not much more.

We in privilege often don't realize the oppression and ostracism we insert into the hegemony. I've been thinking recently about how we in privilege would feel if that metaphorical shoe were on the sore foot of the oppressed. Here are some of the scenarios I've imagined we would hear.

"It's the Bi-ble, not the Straight-ble."

Why do some people make their points so ineffectively and rudely? If someone wants to support their beliefs with their religion's traditions and holy texts, they should first make sure they are sharing their beliefs, not arguing. Arguments place everyone involved on the defense and nobody wants to listen to the other person or budge an inch. Arguing makes people believe their beliefs even more than before and without justification. 

This scenario basically is politics today. Democratic and republican politicians "argue" in front of a microphone in front of a ton of people who completely agree with them--the politician is one of the leaders of their party's hegemony--not people who oppose them. The arguments are full of pithy statements like the one I created above and simply make everyone involved believe their argument more, often haughtily looking down on the Other. I presume this is the reason we have bumper stickers and political ads that do nothing other than say something like "Change," "Vote Yes/No on Such and Such," and "Pro-life."

Next, it is important for people in privilege to recognize they understand the world from a point of privilege. Perspective necessarily influences (haunts?), well, perspective. If you've never considered what it is like to be someone else, than you've never truly understood anything.

"It was their choice."

You think being part of the GLBTQ community is a choice? I'm not positive if anyone was born straight or not. What I do know is that nobody chooses their genes or the environment that rears them. I never chose to have a Christian background or to become liberal. I was raised Christian, which included that culture leading me towards a point where I thought I was choosing that religion for myself and so I "asked Jesus into my heart" and, later, was baptized. Did I really choose Jesus, though, or did everything in my rearing convince me that I had chosen him? I still identify as "Christian" today, although I know many Christians won't allow me that term today.

And what about being heterosexual? If everyone is born that way and some people choose something other, when do people make that choice to accept their heterosexuality? I at least feigned a choice with religion, but I never made such a choice concerning my sexuality. Unlike many who think sexuality is a choice, I've actually interacted with people in the GLBTQ community and they don't recall making a choice, either. Instead, I hear stories where individuals simply find themselves sexually attracted to certain people. They simply learn/find out about themselves the same way everyone else does. Heterosexuals find out they especially enjoy people of the same gender, gays and lesbians learn they enjoy the same sex, and bisexual people find out they enjoy both. And often times those who identify heterosexual or gay/lesbian find out they even enjoy some situations involving those who don't fit their general, sexual identification. We are sexual beings first, then we are in a specific sexual community (sometimes).

Finally, if sexuality were a choice, then every heterosexual could choose homosexuality. What heterosexual thinks they can make that choice? That choice includes not only enjoying and preferring sex with the same sex, but also preferring the romantic love and companionship of the same sex over against the opposite. Trying to make that choice is a great exercise in understanding privilege.

"Look at that straight couple holding hands. What they do in the privacy of their bedroom is their own business, but do they have to flaunt it in front of everyone's face?"

What anyone does sexually is their own business, as long as they don't hurt anyone (physically, emotionally, or developmentally), the latter point being why rape and pedophilia are unacceptable. But if one group of lovers can constantly engage in PDA, why not the others? Heterosexual couples are everywhere. They walk down the street and no one looks twice. They're in advertisements and products like condoms and lubricants are even advertised in a way catered to these people's sex life during the day time. Most movies have a heterosexual couple or two prominently featured and anytime a guy sings a song, the person about whom he is singing is assumed to be a woman.

Heterosexuality is everywhere. The GLBTQ community should be able to engage in PDA without people thinking it is "in their face."

"That waitress is so straight. I'm a pretty good straight-tective."

"Gaydar," really? I hope the person who coined that term never felt proud of it. In fact, in the USA today, no one should think they can tell who is GLBTQ by the person's mannerisms or other characteristics and forms of self-expression. Granted, we all make inductive inferences. Stereotypes exist for a reason and, yes, there are certain characteristics that we currently see more often from a gay man than a straight man or a lesbian in comparison to a straight woman. However, even if we haven't personally met people who defy this stereotype, the world, even the media, is ripe with examples of people who destroy this type of induction.

My favorite example is Capt. Stephen Hill. You may remember him from the Republican debate back in September 2011.

This guy fits no GLBTQ stereotype. Just because you correctly infer someone's sexuality a few times or multiple times doesn't mean you have gaydar or, more so, that the GLBTQ community can be correctly stereotyped. At least, no more than any other community. Inductive reasoning's downfall is counterexample.

I would also like to point out that Santorum says sex has no place in the military. That statement is exactly like the previous scenario I imagined, because heterosexuality is in the military everywhere. The men and women in the military can talk about their heterosexual loves all the time. The GLBTQ service members deserve the same freedom. I don't currently believe the military is engaged in fighting for our freedom, but they are available and ready to do so. If people of the GLBTQ community will fight physically for my freedom, then it is our duty to fight for theirs politically.

"I had a straight/white/Christian roommate in college once. It was pretty weird."

As a Student Affairs professional, I feel comfortable saying that the roommate experience is a weird one, regardless of the identification process of your roommate(s). If your roommate is the same gender as you, but part of the GLBTQ community, you should not assume that roommate will want to have sex with you. And even if he or she does, that doesn't mean they are going to act on it or constantly desire it. Lots of heterosexual men have female friends with whom they would have sex or about whom they occasionally fantasize. That's simply how some men are (N.B.: not all men are as horny as many believe they are). However, they don't act on it or necessarily even want it in reality. GLBTQ people are humans, too, and they know when relationships shouldn't involve sex and romance.

I hear a lot of people talk negatively and awkwardly about living with other races and religions, too. Or sometimes they talk about it as if it is the quintessential diversity experience. When someone tells me they had a Muslim friend or roommate, I feel like I'm supposed to be in awe that they managed to navigate living with someone who worships a "different God." Living with a person of color or a person of another religion is really no different than living with a person of the same race, ethnicity, or religion.


Many other things exist to be said about recognizing our privilege and being more sensitive about it. What statements do you hear a lot that display ignorance of a person's or your own privileged status?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Community of Acts 4:32-35: An Inspiration for Equality Today

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.
--Xenophanes (c.570 - c. 475 BCE), in H. Diels and W. Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker.
If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.
--Voltaire (1694-1778), Notebooks

Thousands of years ago Xenophanes recognized Greek religion was humanity writ large. Greek gods were often criticized for being less moral than humanity, which is likely why Xenophanes made his comment, although we don't have the context, since his only extant writings are quoted by others.

Hundreds of years ago Voltaire criticized more modern religions, specifically Christianity for the same reason. When we're honest, we see Hebrew and Christian scriptures reflect their culture and authors just as much as the Greek poetry creating their gods.

The authors of the Bible were most likely men living in an age where patriarchy and misogyny were the norm. There's no hiding that a lot of misogyny permeates through the Bible. People certainly try to hide it, but it is only hidden by those who don't want to see it.

Fortunately, the Bible also houses a lot that uplifts women, placing them on equal footing with men. Unfortunately, many people fail to see these parts. Some of them are hard to miss and others are hard to find.

Acts 2 and 4 both carry short descriptions of an early group that Acts describes as people who believed. It would be anachronistic for us to call these people "Christians," since Christianity as we know it today was not extant. These descriptions are a brief snapshot into gender equality in the Bible. 

Acts 4:32-35

At the very end of Acts 4, the storyteller tells us "the whole group of those who believed" were a community in a way sounding almost like socialism (v. 32). According to these verses, an echo of 2:42-47, none of those who believed--it would be anachronistic to call these people "Christians"--"claimed private ownership" (4:32). Instead, each individual or family unit thought mi casa es su casa, to introduce another anachronism. But it wasn't just their homes, it was also their fields and the crops therein. Since crops involve labor and care, one person's time was another person's time. To add to the oddness of this group, they managed to eradicate poverty in their numbers by selling any excess they had and giving the money to the apostles. (I assume this passage is the basis for the idea of a benevolent fund in today's churches.)

This sort of community stands against its own scriptures. They were Hebrews, but the concept of ownership is decently clear in Hebrew scripture. Even the "big ten" gives an implicit concept of ownership, specifically ownership of one's wife. Exodus 20:17 considers a wife a piece of property that should not be coveted, in the same ranks as another man's ox, servant, or even his ass (although, we're not talking about homosexuality ... yet). And the Ten Commandments aren't the only place making this implicit statement in the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

In Acts, the Israelite believers claim no "private ownership of any possession." "Of any possession" would include a house, wife, servant, ox, ass, or anything else. Personally, I doubt wives were shared with the entire community. Rather, giving up private ownership means wives are no longer possessions. They aren't something you own to complement or balance you in the home or in raising children, rather they are partners and equals--"of one heart and soul," like everyone else in the community (v. 32).

Deciding on Egalitarianism

These verses are simply examples of the contrasting view of the genders in the Bible, views that reflect the individual communities and constructed to be divinely right. Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures experience this contrast within themselves. Both display misogyny that many prefer to construe as complementarianism, the idea that men and women are inherently different in their societal roles, but are best when together in heterosexual marriage (Rachel Held Evans rightly calls it "soft patriarchy" 

The Hebrew and Christian traditions and scriptures are also filled with examples of women who are powerful, holy, and independent of men. Since the scriptures display many sides within the spectrum, any "biblical" theology of manhood and womanhood is a delicate balancing act of what you want to believe. Just as the community described in Acts decided men and women are equal, we, too, must decide. When it comes to religious communities today, the impetus to decide what is godly, just, and right remains with us.

And when we look at the world around us--including the world throughout history--and the world within us, I can't see how our decision could be anything but equality. Women and men everywhere are equals in virtue, leadership, business, art, entrepreneurship, religion, politics, and more, unfortunately including mistakes. The only area in which men and women are complementary is reproduction and balancing prospectives on life that are connected to one's sex. Men cannot fully understand life in relation to the menstrual cycle, child birth, and breast feeding--a perspective one might deem gynocentric or at least largely gyno-influenced--just as women cannot understand a man's necessarily phallocentric or phallo-influenced view on life. Men and women can balance each other and, indeed, need each other, but no more than white people need people of other races to balance them, Christians need people of other religions to balance them, and heterosexual people need the LGBTQ community to balance them. That is how we should understand complementarianism.

In making this decision towards equality, it cannot simply stop at sex and gender either. The community of believers in Acts took a dangerous leap of faith when they banished the concept of ownership from their midst, a decision that is very marginal  even today, especially when it comes to what we consider the continuation of those believers (viz., the Church). We, too, whether people of faith or not, need to take a similarly dangerous leap of faith by continually speaking out for equality of all humanity--equality of sex, gender, religion, race, nationality, gender expression and identity, and sexuality. And we need to work--not fight--for this equality in our personal lives, religious communities, and political communities.

When we make this decision for true egalitarianism--one that includes and goes beyond men and women--then we are honoring and living in the spirit of this community in Acts 4.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Five Things I Want Added to North Carolina's Constitution

Or, Things About Which Christians Should Start Worrying

   1. Definition of the Sabbath

The Sabbath is neither now nor will it ever be Sunday. Stop referring to it as such. The Sabbath begins on sundown Friday and continues through sundown Saturday. That was the definition of the Sabbath when God created the world a few thousand years ago and that is the definition today. Because, you know, definitions don't change. When they "fetched a compass" in the King James' Version of the Bible of Acts 28:13, they had a handheld tool invented in China that nobody used for navigation; church always meant a group of people and the building housing that people, also a group of people meeting for Christian worship, never mind that the Greek "ekklesia" existed before Christians and church buildings, or that few churches look as much like they did in the 1st century CE as some might think they do; and the words "martyr" and "persecution" have always had connotations of events that are not life threatening, like getting made fun of or having people point out bigotry.

   2. Head Coverings

Women who pray need to wear head coverings and men cannot wear them while praying (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). But I'm not really talking hats, I'm talking long hair and something more akin to a veil. And since everyone is to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17), women should always wear veils. Really, this isn't a religious thing, even though I'm supporting my argument with Christian scripture. Everybody, Christian or not, knows men shouldn't cover their heads, because they are reflections of God (1 Cor. 7), but women look more like men than God. Also, because women are made in the image of men, they need to have a symbol of authority on their head (v. 10). Again, although my argument sounds religious, it is common sense. I mean, even the Muslims sorta do this with their hijabs. Plus, this is why we take our hats off as a sign of respect--it is natural, not something derived from the Bible. 

   3. Lord's Name in Vain

This is one of the Big Ten, people, the Decalogue. It isn't right, yet North Carolina continually allows the media to use it: movies, music, radio, books, etc. I know people might make a big fuss about freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, but think of the children. What if a normal, God-fearing, white Christian family sends their kid to a public school where they read books that use the Lord's name in vain? What if--God forbid!--the teacher says it? That family would be powerless to do anything. I mean, the family certainly couldn't simply explain that they have different values (see what NOM had to say about this issue). Christians always get the raw end of the deal when it comes to discrimination. Christians are the minority now, at least, the REAL Christians. And those Christians have a right to not hear people use the Lord's name in vain ... you know, with "empty phrases" or "vain repititions" (Matthew 6:7). We are one nation under God! God bless America and Merry Christmas!

   4. Levirate Marriage

Let's say you're a man. Your brother is also a man. He is childless (likely his wife is barren, because the woman is always the barren one). He dies. You should marry his wife. Not only is this a law given from Moses (I thought God said it, but Matthew 22:24 says Moses), but neither Jesus nor any other New Testament passage ever denies it. Plus, it is a pretty nice thing to do, to become the baron to your brother's barren widow and plant seed where he couldn't. She'll appreciate having you and her veil as a sign of authority over her and her body.

   5. Kisses Should Never Be Considered Sexual Harassment (also, men should kiss, but never with tongue)

The "holy kiss" or "kiss of love" is mentioned five times in the New Testament: Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, and 1 Peter 5:14. Lots of stuff Jesus said isn't even repeated four times in the New Testament (like the command to be "born again," which, by the way, was not a rite of passage for early Christians).

Sure, we all know that although the Bible was written in another time and culture, it gave timeless commands that transcend culture. The early church included it in church services as a sign of peace and peace is good (unless we're at war). And I'm not talking any of this sissy cheek kissing. I'm talking man-on-man lip action. The further back you go in art, you'll see what I mean. This sort of kiss was always seen as one on the smackers, at least until the gays told us we had to get used to their being queer and here.

If you still think your kids need to kiss dating goodbye like Joshua Harris so they can better practice abstinence, I think it safe to say this kiss was only meant to be between men, not men and women. The Greek words commanding--and I do mean commanding, the verb is imperative--are all masculine (take that TNIV and your gender-inclusive language).

I'm tired of being unable to kiss the other men in my work place. Every work place I've been to has seen that sort of fraternizing as "inappropriate," "distracted," and, for some reason, "unwanted." Why wouldn't some dude want my lips on his lips when he first comes into the office? I can get pretty alpha male and by putting my freshly capsticked lips onto his, I'm just saying, "Hey, let's work together instead of trying to dominate the other ... in terms of performance ... work performance." And I know that sentence sounds dirty, which is why it is so much easier to say by locking lips for a few minutes, I mean, moments.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Without History, In What Sense Do We Exist? A Re-flection on Sebastian Barry's "The Secret Scripture"

I walked into my building yesterday and a student was venting about the stress not only of taking finals, but also the stress of what these finals and the subsequent grades might mean about his future. Mostly, I listened. It was an amusing rant, because his friends had just heard it and were laughing, which I took as cue to mostly listen, sometimes joke, and throw out just one or two challenges to his thoughts (like how it isn't the grades that get jobs and grad schools, it is properly using experiences gained and knowledge learned).

During his rant, he talked about his history class. He started off with one of those disclaimers that belie themselves: "I know history is important and you've got to know it." By this admission, I knew he didn't think history was truly important. He thought you need to know history simply so it doesn't repeat itself. Certainly that adage contains some truth, but implies there is some judge who knows which parts of history are "bad" and therefore need not be repeated.

"But nobody wants to know it," he continued. "We've got to be worried about the present and the future." Although I am comforted about what could be the passion of a young idealist, I am disheartened by his idea of history. Perhaps his history professor did fail him in the classroom. Sometimes history isn't just about teaching the facts, but also about "history appreciation," to borrow a common name for art classes in many schools' core curricula.


I just finished reading Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture. The novel's story is told through two different speakers: William Grene, a psychiatrist, and Roseanne Clear McNulty, a 100-year-old patient at the mental hospital where Dr. Grene works. Roseanne's voice is heard as she secretly writes her story, which includes details and her reflections on her past and present with a few mentions of her future. Dr. Grene's journal begins as a professional tool for reflection on the case of Roseanne, but permeates the boundaries between personal and professional as he reflects on Roseanne's past, present and future and his own, although most of the details on his life are the immediate past.

When Roseanne began to recount her story, her history, she began with her father, even in the novel's opening, mystical meditation: "The world begins anew with every birth, my father used to say. He forgot to say, with every death it ends. Or did not think he needed to" (3). As she switches to details about her story, she begins with the life of her father, as if to say her story started before she was alive, as if to say we are all born before we live. When can a birth be said to have occurred? Penetration? Conception, as pro-life advocates are wont to reiterate? When the mother's water breaks? When the contractions start or dilation reaches a certain diameter? When the first body part breaches from the mother's body or when the last part emerges? When the umbilical cord is cut? 

Then, when can Roseanne say the world begins anew? Perhaps the world began/begins once with all personal beginnings, a confluence of all births into one that reverberates Genesis' "In the beginning" with every beginning. Indeed, Roseanne and her father suggest the world is not necessarily the planet Earth, but life as we know it, as the way we interpret the world from our perspective, as one's personal "world." And all of these worlds are interconnected, intwined, perhaps unified and atoned (in the sense of at-one-ment) by narratives, by history(ies) and her-story(ies) and scripture(s).

Even as the novel goes back and forth between past and present, between Roseanne and Dr. Grene, their stories become intwined and even conflated. Roseanne looked first to her father's story to understand herself and, in order to understand himself, Dr. Grene looked into Roseanne's story of herself and stories of Roseanne from others, piecing together yet another story of Roseanne in Dr. Grene's writings.

The novel borders on didactic when it brings the topic of history explicitly into question through Dr. Grene's journal: 
Well, I supposed all these things [about Roseanne and others]. It is not history. But I am beginning to wonder strongly what is the nature of history. Is it only memory in the decent sentences, and if so, how reliable is it? I would suggest, not very. And that therefore most truth and fact offered by these syntactical means is treacherous and unreliable. And yet I recognise [sic] that we live our lives, and even keep our sanity, by the lights of this treachery and this unreliability, just as we build our love of country on these paper worlds of misapprehension and untruth. Perhaps this is our nature, and perhaps unaccountably it is part of our glory as a creature, that we can build our best and most permanent buildings on foundations of utter dust. (293)
Personal history and corporate history of the sort my student disdains are one and the same, as the novel also portrays by continually referring to war, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the like. And history is not just how we maintain a semblance of sanity, as Dr. Grene says, it is who we are. Indeed, some of us cannot maintain sanity in history, as the novel brings into question the veracity or historicity of much history and also the sanity and clarity of the tellers, specifically Roseanne and Dr. Grene. But even as we question their sanity and their stories, we are prodded to consider our own history and sanity. Can we trust everything we've been told by family members? Would public records show something hidden? Where do our individual stories begin? Who could tell the most factual story of who we are, who could tell the most true story of who we are, and would those two stories sound the same? In what sense would we exist without any of these stories?


I didn't share these musings with the student at the beginning of this story. He wanted to express himself, not listen to a lecture about history and identity. But he stirred something inside of me that I, too, wanted to express, something I often quote from Joan Didion's The White Album: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." We exist in narrative, in fiction, in history. By understanding them--the sacred scripture, gospel, and Christ inside each of them--we understand and are saved from and to ourselves as individuals and as an atoned species.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

That Pearl of Great Price: Pluralism and Inter-Faith Dialogue

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:44-36; NRSV)

In both of these parables, the Jesus of Matthew portrays two people selling everything they have to buy something. 

The first is just some person who found a treasure. I imagine the character in this story was wandering, traveling, or working and stumbled upon something precious. This precious thing was unknown (or un/undervalued) by whoever owned the field. The main character wants legal rights to this treasure and therefore needs to own the land.

Either this person was poor or this land must have been expensive (perhaps the owner did know about the treasure). The character "sells all [...] and buys that field." I choose to see this language as hyperbole, exaggeration to prove a point. Would anyone really sell everything and then walk naked and homeless to purchase a field?

But the hyperbole prods the mind to wander: how much did this person sell? Land? Home? Livestock? Clothes? Family heirlooms? Food? Tools? Body? Children?

And what is this treasure? Does the person want the treasure to sell it bit by bit and make money or simply to own it? Treasure is like the cake you can't eat and have at the same time. Treasure is for possessing and to selling, but you can't have it and sell it at the same time. You have to do one or the other. If you have nothing, of course you are going to sell it.

The kingdom of heaven is like something for which you give up virtually everything and then sell so that you can have more stuff than you sold to get it.

Jesus's second comparison is similar, but involves a character with a little more depth: this person is a merchant. Merchants buy things in order to sell them. Certainly, this merchant could have been looking for pearls simply to possess, but then Jesus had no reason to mention this person's vocation. This merchant wanted to make money selling pearls. I feel confident in saying this scenario does picture someone selling everything with the intent of buying it and more back.

The comparison is different in each metaphor. In the first, the kingdom of heaven is like the hidden treasure and in the second, the kingdom of heaven is the merchant. In both, the treasure is valuable, because the person sold so much to get a legitimate claim to owning it. Then the person will become wealthier than before by selling this treasure. We all eventually eat the cake. Unlike cake, after using the hidden treasure, the person gains more treasure.

And the treasures gained are the treasures of others. Their money, their valuables in exchange for your valuables. The characters get the treasure and the pearl and it is mutually beneficial for them and those with whom they barter.

I imagine not only an exchange of valuables, but also an exchange of value; not only mutual benefit of economics, but of ideas and ethics. I see these parables allegorically, exchanging religious, political, social, and philosophical ideas. The kingdom of heaven is not just something you want to own exclusively, but something you want to share. The hidden treasure hoarded is not as valuable as the treasure shared and multiplied.

And the same meaning comes when the merchant is the kingdom of heave, because the kingdom of heaven is not a singularity, but something that gathers from the world, growing in complexity and always changing.

The pearls are like the hidden treasure and the kingdom of heaven makes room for those that are the most compelling, those of the greatest price. But even after giving up some ideas to make room for one, that idea, too, is critiqued and sold for others. The kingdom of heaven is one that is ever changing, ever becoming better, and ever searching the world over for pearls. 

All thought is to be critiqued and even one's most dear beliefs must sometimes be sold for other ones. I'm particularly reminded of Meister Eckhart's prayer: "I pray, God, to rid me of God." Or consider John Cobb, Jr.'s suggestion that christocentric belief is self-defeating, for faith in Christ means displacing Christ as the center. Following Christ means abandoning Christ as the only way, i.e., traditional Christianity, for pluralism and dialogue (both inter-faith and dialogue with those of no faith), which can be seen as no Christianity at all (Christ in a Pluralistic Age).

If you started this blog hoping for an exegesis, you have likely been disappointed. I have read myself into and out of these parables. You might say I have been caught in the net of the text, reading something old and finding something new, that is, finding me (cf. Matthew 13:47-52).

Really, it is no wonder that I see in both of these parables something I purport to do: to have no sacred cows in my ideology, no treasure or pearl that I wouldn't give up if need be. I think we all find bits of ourselves in the Bible and art in general, partly because of eisegesis and partly because the pursuit of God, meaning, or Truth is the pursuit of the self, of identity--of ipseity, which is another process involving the bartering of hidden treasures and pricey pearls.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

In Defense of Sodom (and Gomorrah)

Sodom has quite the reputation these days. Gomorrah does, too, although Sodom seems to be more well-known in English parlance and in the stories of Genesis, too.

According to the story, Abraham is showing some men "on their way," when they "looked toward Sodom," which means they were going in the direction of Sodom (18:16, NRSV). As Abraham is still being hospitable, the men share some divine news with Abraham. They share this news because Abraham has been chosen by God to be great, to "[do] righteousness and justice." Abraham's 'chosenness' and future stand in stark contrast to what the men hear of Sodom and Gomorrah. Apparently the sin is so bad that Yahweh has heard it and has to see it with God's own eyes, so to speak.

Before the men say anything about anyone being destroyed, Abraham asks if everyone will be destroyed for the sins, "the righteous with the wicked." Despite a lack of knowledge of this Yahweh character, Abraham assumes some sort of retributive justice where sin is repaid with destruction, even the destruction of life.

Abraham intuited correctly, it seems, and Abraham and Yahweh "discuss," if that is the proper word, what will happen if at least ten righteous people are found in Sodom. Of course, the discussion could imply specifically ten righteous men as opposed to people, since Hebrew, like popular English, uses masculine terms to imply both male and female.

Since Sodom and Gomorrah both likely included young children, I find it safe to assume Abraham and Yahweh are "arguing" over righteous men and therefore completely ignoring the possibility and probability of righteous women and children living in the area. Or, to be more precise: Yahweh mentions nothing specifically to Abraham about innocent women and/or children.

Of course, after I make my argument about innocent children, the story says the young and old men of Sodom come to Lot, presumably to rape the two messengers ("angels," NRSV, et. al.). Still, "young and old" must have a cut off. Infants, toddlers, and other youngsters must not have been involved.

Females, however, may have been involved. Like in English "man" and "men" could include men and women. In fact, the word translated as "men" in 19:4 most often signifies humans, not men. The original Sodomites might not have been as homosexual as we might think. The incident could have conceivably been in favor of a heterosexual or bisexual orgy to "welcome" the visitors. The KJV might give us a better translation here: "all the people from every quarter" as opposed to the NRSV's "all the people to the last man." Here, the word KJV translates "people" and the NRSV translates "man" is a word even more likely to incorporate a people group as opposed to a gender.

Homosexual or heterosexual, rape is not a great way to welcome newcomers.

But what if the culture of Sodom was one in which sex was hospitable? Certainly, my (post)modern mind always conceives of rape as wrong. However, I can understand a group of people wanting to offer an orgy as a welcome, as a doxological celebration of visitors before a god or gods, even. Such a celebration could cause a lot of people to relocate to Sodom. "Move here and get laid--guaranteed!" Could a bureau of tourism hope for a better motto?

But Genesis tries hard to distinguish the seed of Abraham as culturally different from everyone else in the world. For them, hospitality and worship are not sex. And only men can have multiple sex-partners, not women. Even though Yahweh/Elohim/El spends some time talking with Sarah and Sarah is not always your typically suppressed woman in a patriarchal society, Abraham and his progeny lean heavily towards patriarchy, even into current-day Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Sodom, however, paints a picture in which a large group of people, young and old, men and women come to have a public orgy.

If you take Genesis as a single book (or as a part of a Pentateuch or Hexatuech), the sins of Sodom are not necessarily homosexuality. The "sins" of Sodom are not even necessarily worse than anything later developments of Abrahamic religions call sins. Whereas polygamy was OK and sometimes encouraged by the God-character, it has become wrong to many Christians and Jews today. Either God changed or peoples' understanding of God and history changed. Or both.

Regardless, it is hard for me to see as Sodom as necessarily bad. As far as we know, they may have attempted to be hospitable according to their definition of hospitality. When Lot refused them, they were upset because an outsider wouldn't respect their customs, an outsider wouldn't even give them the chance to offer newcomers the culture of Sodom.

From a pluralistic perspective, maybe the people of Sodom aren't the "bad guys" in this story.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

It's Easter and I am looking back to Good Friday

Every year during Holy Week, I hear and read Tony Campolo's powerful, pertinent "It's Friday, but Sunday's Coming." Apparently I've got it wrong, though. It's Easter Sunday and I am looking back to Good Friday.

Specifically, I'm thinking of one sentence associated with the Passion story, a disputed sentence: Luke 23:34: "Then Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing'" (NRSV).[1] Regardless of who put this sentence in the story and why, it portrays the Jesus of Luke asking for forgiveness of people ignorant of what they are doing. Likely, they lack full knowledge of the significance of what they are doing, since they obviously know they are crucifying a man. But what else are they doing? Perhaps squashing a revolt against Rome that could free, at the least, the Israelites in that area. Perhaps stopping a spiritual and moral awakening that could change society for the better. Perhaps killing a Messiah. Perhaps killing God or a god.

What did this Jesus think they were doing? Apparently something needing forgiveness, something I assume was not the will of God (unless Jesus' God punishes people for things they are meant/forced/divinely coerced to do). They did something wrong, something they may never understand to be wrong. In that moment, Jesus saw their deeds, judged them to be wrong, knew nothing of whether or not they would ever change or repent, and then he wanted their forgiveness.

I hear a lot of Christians talk about people needing to believe in God, "accept" the sacrifice of "his" son, repent, and then and only then will forgiveness and salvation be rewarded. Forgiveness, though, isn't part of a transaction. If a person does their part and God grants something deserved, something due and expected, not forgiveness. Paying a debt or fulfilling criteria equal righting a wrong, not being forgiven. Forgiveness is something done only by the forgiver and not merited by the forgiven. Forgiveness is a gracious act, not part of a deal. It is an act of compassion, to give someone what they don't deserve.

This Easter, I want that forgiveness to be resurrected. I want to look back to Holy Friday and see the goodness that came from Luke's Jesus (or some redactor's Jesus). I want for that forgiveness to be resurrected and be alive in my heart, my mind, and in my very body that forgiveness will be evident in my actions.

But it isn't. And to get preachy, I know few in whom it is alive. As for myself, I'm bitter and unforgiving. I'm enraged by politics, by waste, by economics, by greed, by religion, even by Christians and the Christ of most Christianities I encounter.

Easter will never be enough if we can't first look back and see what needs to be resurrected. It isn't the man, it is the life he lived.


[1] The sentence doesn't appear in a number of ancient manuscripts and may not have been in the original text. Since I don't look on any of the Gospel stories as factual accounts, I'm not too worried about whether or not the historical Jesus said that sentence or if the author of Luke included the sentence in the first place. These questions are important, but they don't hold the key to unlocking truths from this passage. For more on where the sentence appears and doesn't, including how ancient commentators deal with the subject, I recommend Nathan Eubank, "A Disconcerting Prayer: On the Originality of Luke 23:34a," Journal of Biblical Literature 129.3 (2010): 521-36.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Different "Feels" of Christianity & the Delicate Balance of Theology

John Piper recently "conclude[d] that God has given Christianity a masculine feel," citing such biblical images as God the king, God the father, God the son, giving people a masculine name (like in common English where "man" can mean "humanity," the Hebrew and Greek languages use a masculine word to refer to people), the penis-requirement for priests, the twelve apostles were male, and that men are the head in marriage (as Christ is the head of the church [see this post for more on Piper's recent conclusion]).

I, too, want to join this concluision-drawing game.

1. God has given Christianity an anti-contraceptive feel due to the overwhelming times where sex is portrayed as only for children, not for pleasure (think about Onan in Genesis 38).

2. God has given Christianity a gay feel. In the Bible, male homosexual acts are talked about significantly more than female homosexual acts. Plus men are asked to be the bride of Christ and read Song of Songs as if they are the woman and God the man. David, the man after God's own heart, had an interesting relationship with his "friend" Jonathan. Christ is the head of the church just as men are the head in marriage. Christ's relationship is with men and men are to understand it through sexual imagery. Christianity has a gay feel. (John of the Cross got it right in his homoerotic poem about the Dark Night of the Soul.)

3. God has given Christianity a pro-choice feel based on the value God puts on human and animal life. People apparently didn't eat animals in "the beginning" (Genesis 9). After that, God requires all kinds of animals in sacrifices and offerings. Then in Jonah, the King of Nineveh has animals repenting and wearing sackcloth, which pleases God enough to not destroy the place. And yet this whole time, God's eye is on the sparrow (Matthew 10:26). God knows when sparrows fall, but God also wants them offered up for sacrifices. God wants life saved eternally, but doesn't care about life on this earth, which is why we'll always have the poor for us (Matthew 26:11) and why God asked Abraham to offer his son for a sacrifice (Genesis 22), wanted the Hebrew people to commit ethnocide (Joshua), and would kill a man and a woman for lying about money (Acts 5). No wonder so many Christians don't care about the environment. We, like God, should care about souls, not life.

Theology is a delicate balance of searching for God and reality while navel gazing. When men control the reading and writing of the Bible, then of course Christianity is going to have a masculine feel. No wonder Christianity had a very anti-Jewish feel when read and controlled by the Nazis. No wonder Christianity had a very white feel when interpreted by US Americans through the 1960s.

Christianity and God will tend to "feel" less like one thing or another when we read the Bible and reality truly in community, community that includes everyone and does not prefer one over the other. Then in community--as the body of God--we will begin to truly experience God and know God face-to-face in each other, not as if in a mirror (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Myth of Americana in Regina Spektor's "Sailor Song"

The poem/lyrics below contain language not always deemed for use in polite company.
Sailor Song
by Regina Spektor on her album, Soviet Kitsch (2004)

She will kiss ya 'til your lip bleeds
But she will not take her dress off
Americana, Tropicana
All the sailor boys have demons
They sing "Oh Kentucky why did you forsake me
If I was meant to sail the sea
Why did you make me
Should've been another(*1) state
Oh state.."
Cause Mary Anne's a bitch
Mary Anne's a bitch x5

Does it matter that our anchors
Couldn't even reach the bottom
Of a bath tub
And the sails reflect the moon
It's such a strange job
Playing blackjack on the deck
Still, atop this giant puddle, dressed in white
We quietly huddle with our missiles
And we miss the girls back home
Oh home sweet home
Cause Mary Anne's a bitch
Mary Anne's a bitch x5

She will kiss you 'til your lip bleeds
But she will not take her dress off
Americana, Tropicana
Americana, Tropicana
Americana, Americana (*2)

(*1) Many "lyrics" websites have "should've been with the state"
(*2) Especially during these last two words, Regina may be saying "Americano" or "America-no"

At first glance, this song sounds like it has something to do with sailors and some women named Mary Ann(e)/Marianne. I think that idea is meant to be portrayed, but more as an establishing metaphor than a "meaning" of the song.

The song plays with the negative, almost cliché idea of a boat of sailors--hypersexual, US Navy men--on the ocean for long periods of time, longing for heterosexual coitus. The first stanza play on this image, since the main reason Mary Ann is considered a bitch is because "she will not take her dress off." In the second stanza, the sailors are on the boat "huddl[ing] with our missiles and we miss the girls back home," a double entendre implying not only the weapons on the boat, but also masturbation.

Although the hypersexual sailor is an image with which we are familiar today, it wasn't always that way. At least, not in all circles. In many stories of the US, sexuality was downplayed. The Navy and all of the US Armed Forces was a place for brave, virtuous men to go protect their country. While away, they thought of a special girl back home. Both boy and girl were chaste while awaiting the other.

An American folk song captures this thread of tradition. Bob Dylan did a version of the song on his 1973 album Dylan: "Mary Ann." In this piece of Americana, the speaker sings to his beloved Mary Ann before going to sea. He says the crow will "surely turn to white" if chastity be broken by the sailor.

Although a large fan of Dylan, Regina Spektor is not a folk musician. Rather, she is part of what folks are calling "anti-folk." In her "Sailor Song," she is doing just what you would think an anti-folk song would do: it takes Americana and stands it on its head, poking through the holes in the story so that reality can peak through.

In the folk song, Mary Ann is a static image, since the man does all the talking. The sailor claims he will be chaste, but Mary Ann makes no such claims. In this song, Mary Ann is still a silent character, but now she is sexualized by Spektor. She doesn't have sex with any of the other guys, but she's kissing men so much that their lips are bleeding--a skewed idea of chastity. Mary Ann has changed from the folk song's static idea to the image of the tease.

Spektor changes the sailor, too, from the chaste man who fights for his girl back home. Instead, he's jacking off and gambling while "miss[ing] the girls back home"--not just one girl, but multiple girls, girls in general.

These two changes are anti-folk because they change a myth of Americana. We no longer have a gender split between those serving in the military and those "waiting" at home. People aren't always waiting at home, either. Life goes on while the soldiers are away. The soldiers aren't perfect, either. Most Americana pieces don't pay attention to the negatives of US history and culture, like the photos we all saw in the news from the Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. It is not only the fictional Mary Ann who is a bitch, it is the whole concept of Americana, the myths about America, the stories we construct and hold on to in order to hide reality.

This anti-folk message is apropos of the album's title: Soviet Kitsch. Indeed, much Americana can be understood as kitsch--a derogatory term used for art aimed at mimicking something popular in order to be popular. The overuse of the American flag and the ribbons to support our troops images I would consider kitsch--attempts at being tasteful, but more for the purpose of making a buck than an artistic expressing themselves.

And then there is the definition of kitsch by Milan Kundera in The Unberable Lightness of Being. For Kundera, kitsch is a totalitarian myth--it is a denial of reality by those in power. Spektor uses this idea of kitsch to stand against the myth of Americana. Although her album is Soviet Kitsch, a reference not only to her Russian heritage, but also because "Soviet" conjures negative images and communism to the US mind. And yet, her album is not about anything particularly Russian, but rather, US American: "Ode to Divorce," "Ghost of Corporate Future," "Carbon Monoxide," "Sailor Song," "Chemo Limo," "Poor Little Rich Boy." She is emphasizing that which is behind the Americana, dismantling the kitsch and showing reality.

The sailor isn't yearning for Mary Ann and, besides, Mary Ann's a bitch. So much for home, sweet home. So much Americana. The myth of Americana is as cheap as juice (the word "tropicana" also takes some of the sensual imagery often associated with the exotic, the Other--this song sets up the binary of Americana with its exotic, tropical, fictional other and dismantles it).

It seems that which connected us to the myth of Americana was an anchor that "couldn't even reach the bottom of a bath tub." And the myth is barely alive today, although still held onto in some form by many, especially in politics. It is like a boat that was never fully built, like the USS Kentucky.

And thus the song has de-romanticized the USA, war, and the USA at war.