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.