Thursday, August 20, 2015

Miscellaneous: Long Distance Friendship and Dumb Bible Jokes

I no longer live near two of my best friends. We were all volunteers in my parish's youth ministry program. Two of us came out of that program as teenagers. I ended up working there several years later. 

It sucks not having people you care about around. Social media makes it easier and you still pick up when you see each other. When you have a shared history with some folks, new friends can't get all the jokes and references and stylistic flourishes that have to be shelved while you build new meaningful relationships in your life. 

Still, there's always the Internet. 

My buddy Shawn said:

"We should make a fake social media site for ancient theologians and philosophers. "Paul has checked in with Silas - at Eastern Macedonian Correctional Facility.""

After that we all posted a bunch of jokes we all thought would make each other laugh. Theirs were funny (at least to us) and clever and I don't want to co op that so here is just mine. They're all bible references and I thought they were funny. Given that either side of the great religion divide often has a certain sensitivity and seriousness with those issues, please take these the best possible way. 

Full-disclosure: I spent up through graduate school making dumb drawings and metal band logos in my notebooks during heady lectures so that's how I'm calibrated. 

(EDIT: I deleted one because after giving it some thought...and with some added was a little too far)

Saturday, August 15, 2015

HAND-WRINGING OVER MEMES: On Brainwashing and Baptism

I hate memes. They're snarky nonsense substituting as a meaningful conversation and their inherently passive aggressive and passive aggression always makes me feel anxious. So, instead of just leaving it at that, I'm just going to talk about them instead.

Better that than a four paragraph Facebook post that no one reads.

Today is a big feast day in the Catholic calendar: the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary. The dogma wasn't formally defined until Pope Pius XII's encyclical letter Munificentissimus Deus in 1950. The belief is a very early tradition and it's elevation in status marks one of the two times that a Pope has invoked a charism known to most as "papal infallibility". This was to settle the issue and this special charism only holds if the belief is rooted in the ancient tradition of the Church, is theologically sound, and pertains to the traditional domain of the Church's authority: faith and morals. A pope can't declare that the earth is flat or seek to formally combat gravity. When someone flippantly says that Catholics believe their Pope is infallible no matter what, they just need to read a little more. It's about a leader speaking in the context of a tradition that's firmly rooted in the conviction that God has shown himself definitively in the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth. 

5 years ago today, on this feast of the Assumption of Mary, my wife and I arranged to have our first daughter baptized. It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. Though my life is not chock full of overtly religious experiences outside of the faith I carry with me everyday, that day was different. There was a whole convergence of family traditions, my own identifying with the sacrament, the beauty of the ritual, and something that simply felt otherworldly that made that day very special to me.

So it was fitting that this was the first meme I picked out for my weekly hand-wringing.

I don't really need much time to pick it apart. It's an absurd argument, bracketing religious affiliation within the context of brainwashing. It doesn't jibe with the experience of so many people of differently races, religious, ethnicities, cultures, and so on who convert to this tradition themselves every year. In some places these conversions happen en masse. In my experience of people within my own tradition, they are thoughtful and intelligent adults. The earliest Church was made up of primarily adult converts. It's believed that infant baptism occurred in the earliest years of Christianity, and was not the primary model of baptism. Even today, the baptism of adults is still considered normative within the Catholic tradition even though the baptism of infants is still the most widely practiced way of celebrating the Sacrament.

I also don't understand who the author of the meme is trying to blame. Is the the Church? I don't think the author sees how this really plays out in the life of a parish, where baptisms are requested for a myriad of reasons and under a myriad of circumstances. The comment doesn't really respect the reality of it all. So are they placing the blame elsewhere? 

The author seems to overestimate the number of baptized infants who end up as regularly practicing Christians. I suppose it has to start someplace and I certainly believe that baptism matters for a number of reasons. But if the Church was good at translating baptized infants to practicing Catholics than it would look more like magic than the Catholic idea of both the sacraments and the grace conferred in the Sacrament. In short, using classical Thomism as a guide, grace perfects nature. Nature is the raw stuff of our daily existence that emanates out of our shared humanity, including it's weaknesses. It's what we reckon with when we try to better ourselves and it's also what we fight when that process comes up lacking. Grace, which is God's help and God's gift of himself, works within that system. But it won't "take" if it's forced and it's rendered meaningless and hollow if coerced. 

In other words, if statistics are to be believed, Coca-Cola seems to have a better way to building brand loyalty than the practice of baptizing children in America or Western Europe.

So is it the parent's fault? Richard Dawkins once likened the religious upbringing of small children to child abuse. Is it wrong for parents to "force" a religion on their kids?

Again, this is a stupid and hollow argument. Parents force everything on their kids. Almost all of the biggest movies and shows of the last decade have capitalized on the fact that parents force their experience of pop culture on their children: Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Star Wars, Marvel Comics, Full House, and dozens upon dozens of other old media have been re-purposed for small children. There might be another word for it: a shared experience. By virtue of the elements of narrative storytelling, every film and every television show is a value system communicated in a format that is designed to be convicting and alluring. Is that any different than raising your child in a tradition that goes back countless generations? Is it really more offensive that what bound generations of families together over two millennia of all that life can throw at you is communicated to children than, say, the new Fantastic Four movie?

That's not the only way I force things on my kids. Besides bedtimes and the boundaries of personal space, I can also force dietary choices on my child. I do that under the auspices of their own well-being as well as the common good. If anything, I try to have them do better with their food choices than I did in my life and hopefully I've made some better choices than other generations. It's funny how diets have a weird relationship with history: Organic fruit/vegetable pouches are a newer, better snack than Twinkies were. Our diet sucks because of relatively recent developments in factory farming. Organic diets recapture what our diet should be after decades of hyper-processing. Paleo is good because it goes way, way back. Somehow this applies to diets but not familial traditions.

If anything, the argument is self-defeating. The meme was likely authored to shame or humiliate Christians into thinking differently (without actually talking to them) or to embolden the like-minded in a shared experience of mockery. While the former approach is a bully tactic, the latter shares a goal with baptism: group identity and community building. All cultures gravitate towards initiation rituals and will assume vapid practices in the absence of meaningful ones. Which is more meaningful: a "walkabout" or your first R-rated movie? Communion or the first time you got drunk? A traditional Bar Mitzvah or a Sweet Sixteen? Certainly individuals will define their own, but how many modern experiences lack any kind of rootedness outside of vague sentiment?

Writing a meme to shame or humiliate Christians is one way to feel righteous or, even worse, to articulate a half-baked argument so that others won't have to bother in thinking one up themselves. I guess it's a sort of community builder. Baptizing your children is another. The ritual of baptism for infants sees the family as a unit, as the mode in which traditions are passed on and values or communicated. It honors what is best in a family rather than treating a baby as a creature void of context who awaits exercising their autonomy until they can choose something wholly other than their families, whether it's from their parents or from centuries of practice.

Thankfully, the writer of the meme gets to the heart of the harm inflected on religion towards their young: religion as myth. I'm not sure which myth they are referring to. Authors, comedians, musicians and film directors reckon with people who have so strongly identified with their art that it became a manifesto to them. The best know to keep a healthy distance from that kind of deification while others are only too happy to hold court.

The term "myth" is so loaded as to be meaningless. Does it refer to nuanced historical arguments regarding the historicity of the Bible? A field full of specialists in linguistics, history, theology, form and source criticism, and so on? Does it refer to any religion that holds a metaphysical worldview? Arguments that have not been settled even after Aquinas, Scotus, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, until now? Is this heady philosophy or posturing? Are they part of any conversation or is it better to pull up an app, a Getty Image, and the Impact font so most of the work is done for you before unleashing phony intellectualism?

It's hard to know because it is neither conversation or encounter. This isn't dialogue, it's somewhere between writing an ex-girlfriend's phone number in a service area bathroom and the poetry written a few inches above it. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Leonard Cohen and His Coat of Muted Colors

The other night I was with some friends and the topic of Leonard Cohen up. It was enough for me to reach into the back of my car and grab my copy of his Live At The Isle of Wight (I still listen to CDs in the car). The earliest years of me being into music were all about metal. Occasionally non-metal would register and Leonard Cohen was one of the acts to pop through that filter.

I wish it was because someone gave me a copy of Field Commander Cohen or something, but it was just his two songs that were on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack (both songs came from 1992's the Future...Natural Born Killers came out 1994). It wasn't a great introduction but, not too long after, I saw Leonard Cohen's episode of Austin City Limits and the idea of the guy stuck with me.

By the time I was in college I ended up with a copy of 1971's Songs Of Love And Hate and that was that. It's pretty remarkable given the time it came out. It was still another four years before Bob Dylan put out Blood On The Tracks but, while not achieving that albums stark confessional tone, it was a far more confident and realized, unpretentious small feat for a career poet who decided to start writing folk songs in his 30's and wouldn't put out his first album until he was 33.

His music is hard to classify. Spotify lists a fairly obvious set of "related artists". Of course Bob Dylan and Neil Young are mentioned even though there's no real similarity. I don't know how they connected Joni Mitchell to him and Joan Baez is only listed because Bob Dylan. Nick Cave wants to be Leonard Cohen but that's hardly a relation. The rest make no sense and I wonder how these results are aggregated.

And of course Jeff Buckley is listed as a related artist. His cover of Hallelujah has been the soundtrack to tragic video montages and American Idol semi-finals for several years. The irony is that his cover is based not on Cohen but on John Cale's cover of the song (both covers omit the same verse). Despite this, John Cale is not listed as a related artist but Lou Reed is. It's like they skipped a step.

All of his "peers" (it's hard to say that when someone is responsible for much peerless music) lack the fundamental darkness and earned world weariness that Leonard Cohen possesses. My friend pointed out how Godflesh fleeced a lot of their ideas off of Leonard Cohen (and they're brilliant too...translation is an art form in itself). Sisters of Mercy obviously took their name from the track on Cohen's first album (which I'm not that huge of a fan of). I think the only act that was as dark and real as Leonard Cohen was Black Sabbath. Wicked World was far more real and honest than anything Bob Dylan did that wasn't about himself. Early Sabbath were direct in their emotions and economical in verse construction. Cohen is direct in his emotions and paints frescoes with his words.

His later albums are great too and his backing band on the last batch of live albums (released in rapid succession to compensate for the financial excesses of bad management) sound like live Sade playing in front of a cathedral. By the 80's his vocal chords filled up with gravel and his voice dropped at least two octaves. He also felt like he earned the right to adapt adult contemporary conventions at a time when "contemporary" included sleazy keyboards and synthesized bass guitar. It was totally different save his words and those two female backing vocalists who seemed to accompany every album.

Lou Reed had a comparable midlife crisis at approximately the same time though he was 8 years Cohen's junior (perhaps appropriate because he's been dead two years...midlife means "mid-life". Maybe there is some relation between them.

Finally, Leonard Cohen is Jewish and the Jewish and Christian traditions figure heavy in his work. It's almost always subversive but somehow respectful. It's as if he finds in those traditions a language for communicating love and heartbreak that cannot be replicated in more modern forms, and that would include Shakespeare. Hallelujah is a lurid re-telling of the story of David and Bathsheba (though it didn't really require that much creativity to read between those lines). Joan of Arc yearns to recover the beating heart of the French Saint. Story of Isaac reads the story of the binding of Isaac that would've resonated with Kierkegaard.

And of course I find it all insufficient but it's because we speak different languages. Related, yes, but different. I feel kinship in the music because it's as if we know the same people and visited some of the same places. He walked out a Zen Buddhist. I, a Catholic.

But it is beautiful and I return to it often. It shouldn't seem so effortless and I know it isn't but a mark of great art involves hiding the seams.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

On The Waterfront and Shuffling Your Feet on the Way to the Promised Land

There's a couple interesting things about today's readings:

  • I watched On The Waterfront for the first time the other night. I ordered the Elia Kazan collection from eBay ($30 for a metric ton of great films) and just kinda jumped in with the obvious ones.

    The movie is a great story in itself: a dockworker and former prizefighter experiences a crisis of conscience concerning his (unwitting) role in the death of a fellow dockworker who stood up against their corrupt union boss. If you've seen it you dig it. But if you haven't it's rightly considered one of the great moral tales on conscience. It also can shed a really interesting light on today's readings.

    The story is also considered a veiled self-defense by Elia Kazan of his testimony to the House Un-American Activities Commission. He named some colleagues for being communist, forever marring his relationships to many people in the entertainment industry.

  • The first reading today is perhaps the most pivotal moment in the narrative of Exodus through Deuteronomy, save for the exodus from Egypt itself. After approximately a year of travelling through the wilderness after their deliverance from slavery, the people of Israel are on the cusp of the Promised Land. They need only send scouts to survey the land and figure out the next step.

    The year of traveling had not brought the best out of the people of Israel. The narrative up to this point has been filled with rebellion, revolt, and rumors. But if they can stick it out just a little while longer, they would be home free.

    However, this is not what happens. Spies scout the land and bring fruit for the people to taste. The land is exactly as it had been promised to them. It is, however, still occupied. This isn't the first time Israel has had to fight: in Exodus chapter 17 they did battle with the Amalekites and won. From that day they understood that the "Lord will fight for you, and you have only keep still" (Exodus 14:14). Those early experiences with Egypt and the Amalekites were all to prepare them to this moment. The spies come back and all, save a man named Caleb, disenchant the people, convincing them that they cannot enter the land or take over its inhabitants. In fact, the Amalekites, whom they had already defeated, are one of the peoples inhabiting the land (Numbers 13:29). 

    The story of the wandering of the wilderness is a story of how the worst hardships should bind us closer to God in trust, even if the odds are against you. When things get worse, they are only the next bad thing in a line of occasions where God follows through with his promise to deliver. If you do not learn the lesson you only further harden your heart, like the oppressing Pharaoh who held Israel as his slaves (Exodus  7:13, 8:15, 8:19, 8:32, and so on). As Pharaoh's heart would never change in any lasting way, so it will be with you if you do not allow yourself to trust and be moved.

    God's response to the people's rebellion is to bar the people from the Promised Land. Their children will enter but not them. God's puts it to Moses in this way: when God first came to Moses at the very beginning of the story, he is moved to deliver Israel because "the cry of the Israelites has now come to me (בָּ֣אָה אֵלָ֑י ); I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them" (Exo 3:9 NRSV). But now, he tells Moses: "I have heard the complaints of the Israelites, which they complain against me (עָלַ֖י)" (Num 14:27 NRSV). In their need they were oriented towards God in their need. Now they are opposed to him.

    This moment is the turning point for them. Their light will dim as their children's light increases.

  • This got me thinking about On The Waterfront. Marlon Brando plays a man named Terry whose brother Charley is a lawyer for the mob. Charley often convinces Terry to serve as a lackey for his employer, the corrupt union boss. Their whole relationship comes to a head in what is one of the most famous scenes in all of cinema:

  • Terry is almost 30 and his boxing days are behind him. The best he can do now is be a dockworker and to run sketchy errands for his brother and the union boss. On one occasion he threw the match against a boxer named Wilson because his brother told him to. His bosses bet against him and made a lot of money. That proved to be the most pivotal moment in his life. Terry would have won the fight and that fight was the fight that would have opened up a continuous series of opportunities. But because of his trust in his brother and his belief that his brother wanted only what was best for him was enough for him to give up his dream. 

  • Now, nearing 30 and past his prime to be an up and coming prizefighter is over. The world has passed him by, all out of loyalty and love, yes, but also misplaced trust. Leaders have responsibilities to guide those led and Charley, while loving his brother, manipulated him instead at the cost of his brother being who he was made to me.

  • The generation of Israelites after the Exodus were destined for greatness. But while Terry in On The Waterfront gave his loving trust to someone who proved to be untrustworthy, the Israelites withheld their trust from their loving God who was trustworthy. In both cases, their great moment in life was squandered, leaving only ruin. Greatness would be for those who came after them, but not for them.

    But all is not lost. Terry is later given an opportunity to redeem himself and, in a sense, that proved to be the greater moment. Terry's actions completely unravels the injustice that his fellow dockworkers experienced on a daily basis. So it is with the Israelites. They had shuffled their feet on their way to the Promised Land in their rebellions and complaints. But the failure of losing the Promised Land gave way to a new generation and that generation exemplified everything the first generation could not be. Their failures would also come and they would be profound, but the entered the Promised Land strong, faithful, and committed.

    At any rate, if you haven't seen On the Waterfront in the while, it's worth the time.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Potpourri for 8/4/2015

Between now and yesterday:
  • Dealing with stress: At the end of the day, once the kids are in bed, I like to de-stress. Sometimes I get extra stressed by trying to find ways to relax. Lately, movies have been the thing but I got super stressed out trying to pick between Rebel Without a Cause and V for Vendetta. I ended up just playing video games instead.

  • I have a hard time explaining my job to people. When someone asks about work, I might tell them that I have been shooting and editing video, making palatable music to score the videos, teaching adult classes on a faith-related topic (usually on the Bible), planning big programs, teaching children, or whatever. It's never really the same job two weeks in a row.

  • Black Sabbath's Master of Reality is a great anchor for me when I'm having a hard time.

  • Last night I was reviewing old Church documents pertaining to the Eucharist. I'm giving a talk tomorrow night and I'm really not ready for it. On a more conceptual level, it's fascinating how the idea of presence affects behavior. Think of how a classroom full of kids act when a teacher leaves the room or how mood changes when your feeling lonely and a friend unexpectedly shows up. Jesus would tell a story of a man who owned a vineyard but lived off property. His workers began to take charge and assume ownership and whenever he sent a messenger (and eventually his own son), the workers would beat, abused, and, in some cases, kill them. Jesus' posed the question: "what will the owner of the vineyard do when he returns?" For good or ill, presence affects behavior.

    As the early church keyed into understanding that Jesus was present in the Eucharist it affected how they conducted themselves at their celebration of the Lord's Supper, how they lived their lives once they left, and how they treated the "leftovers" for the meal. They would retain some of it to bring to sick people who couldn't gather with the community. That began the practice of housing those remainders in special containers that we now call tabernacles. That continued sense of Presence influenced how they designed those containers and eventually contributed to the developing aesthetics of church architecture. Reservation of the Sacrament also gave new insight to those who would pray before it, deepening their connection with Jesus who felt no further to them that a few feet away.

  • I just watched the 5th in a series of Planned Parenthood sting videos. Prior to that, a friend of mine had posted an anonymous online testimonial from a woman whose mother felt so loved and supported by Planned Parenthood after her miscarriage. The story paints the picture of a hateful, judgmental protesters outside of a clinic and the loving people inside of the clinic.

    The purpose seemed to be to recast the argument, that maybe Planned Parenthood are the good guys and the pro-life masses are, as the testimony said, not pro-life but "pro-birth", caring very little for the real lives of pregnant mothers. In fact, the testimony said that the woman was shouted at and judged and she was not undergoing an abortion, just an extraction after the trauma of a miscarriage.

    I know a lot of people who have spent a lot of time in front of abortion clinics. I can't speak for the people who scream, shame, and insult pregnant woman (I don't know anyone who has done that), but I think I can speak for the people I do know. My friends look to offer alternate counseling or to connect woman to support services in case their concerns are financial. Support services and support for the mother is a primary concern for them. They also pray and I think most often it's silently or quietly. In my town, I think the were not at the entrance of the property but across the street. Again, I can't talk for everyone but that's been my experience with them.

    Instead of recasting the argument with new data and flipflopping who is designated as the good guy and the bad guy, I think it would be better to complicate your image. New data should frustrate bad hypotheses. In this case, this 5th video in the undercover Planned Parenthood videos investigating their approach to fetal tissue donation is severely complicating. If you have a strong stomach and want to consider complicating your hypothesis, give it, and the others, a watch. Even if you feel differently than I do about abortion in general and Planned Parenthood's policies involving tissue donation, I have a feeling that it might complicate your hypothesis as many of you have often complicated mine on other occasions. All respect if you don't agree with people like me, but it would be worth having a conversation about all of this.

Monday, August 3, 2015

When Enough is Enough: Moses Gets Cranky After a Rough Day at Work

Some thoughts on today's Lectionary readings:

  • Often, the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading aren't particularly related. This isn't one of those days.

  • In the reading from Numbers, there is tension between three parties: the people of Israel, Moses, and God. Israel is still in the midst of their wandering in the desert. They are a people in transition...both homeless and yet promised a home.

  • The people revolt: Though Israel has been delivered from 400 years of slavery, have witnessed God's great work, and have been fed by God, they still pine for Egypt, the place of their slavery. Their complaints are patently absurd given their freedom. The complaints echo their complaints from Exodus chapter 16, which prompted God to send them the manna to feed them. This happened before the people reached Mount Sinai in the 3rd month after the Exodus. It is now after the beginning of the first month of the year after the Exodus, 9 or 10 months later. In Exodus chapter 16, God promised to feed them daily. By Numbers chapter 14, that promise is no longer enough.

    How many revolutions begin with people not having enough to eat or enough basic provisions to live on? The people were already amidst a rebellion. Numbers chapter 11 begins with God squashing a revolt and Moses petitioning God to relent. The narrative has already established that the people are never lacking in their needs. They have enough to go on everyday but they are unable to store and save, and are therefore unable to plan. This was to be the last stretch of their wandering but their actions following this will lead to another 40 years of wandering.

    The story of the Exodus is fundamentally a story about memory and trust. The examples are extreme and the consequences are great, but the people's troubles come from either their forgetfulness of the things God had already done (or said he would do) or from their lack of trusting what they've known God to do and say, preferring their own plans to God's.

    It's a fundamental issue for Western Civilization since the Enlightenment. If we do not already deny God's existence outright, we tend to question a dynamic, acting God who speaks personally to his people. Most modern people would consider that kind of understanding of God as foreign to their way of thinking. Yet it's at the crux of biblical religion, standing before almost any other issue. Can people know God? Can God communicate in a meaningful way to people? Does God speak in a way discernible to a whole nation of people? How should we respond to the exclusive claim of God's revelation to Israel? Applying the word "trust" to God means that he is perceived as having done things that are trustworthy. This is an understanding of God that is well beyond the merely conceptual. This radically challenges many commonplace images of God.

  • Reluctant and heroic leadership: The beauty of this reading from Numbers lies in Moses' stark honesty. He is beyond frustrated and he is clearly stuck in his position between God and the people. Moses does not have a lot of leverage in the relationship. He shares both a great intimacy with God (Numbers 12:6-8) and yet he begins his mission as both a murderer and a coward.

    His words to God really cash in whatever good will he may think that he has before God:

    Why do you treat your servant so badly?” Moses asked the LORD.

    “Why are you so displeased with me
    that you burden me with all this people?
    Was it I who conceived all this people? ...
    I cannot carry all this people by myself,
    for they are too heavy for me.
    If this is the way you will deal with me,
    then please do me the favor of killing me at once,
    so that I need no longer face this distress.”

    Moses is one of the great characters of the Bible and, if you were making a case for that claim, this passage could be Exhibit A. Moses possesses no sense of false piety. Imagine being given a mission that would last for 40 years, culminating in your death, and full only of hardship, of being misunderstood, and of conflict. It's almost unbearable and the last moments of Moses' life in Deuteronomy are tragic considering the fact that he is not allowed to enter the land that he guided the people to. We do not encounter any real moment of joy in his life and even his relationship with God involves anger and frustration. I'd like to imagine that there is joy in Deuteronomy when the children of the rebellious first generation after the Exodus pledge themselves to follow the Torah and bind themselves to living justly in God's eyes. At the last moments of his life he finally sees the fruit of his work.

    His complaints are a great challenge for us to be honest before God. God, it seems, has no use for false piety. Piety should bubble joyfully out of the heart. It can't be forced or contrived. It's as natural as blurting out an "I love you" to your beloved in a moment of deep recognition of what you two share. You can't fake it so don't try. Moses surely didn't.

  • And yet...we are given another image of leadership in Jesus. The reading from the 14th chapter of Matthew's Gospel is well known and is recounted a couple of different ways throughout the Gospels. Jesus feeds 5,000 men and their families with five loaves and two fish. There's a lot happening in the story but it's the first few lines that give us a window into Jesus' personality. He's clearly a leader and it's interesting to compare what he does here with what Moses said and did in the last passage.

    We're presented an image of a grieving Jesus who just wants to be alone. The Gospels are written very economically, as though every inch of parchment and every drop of ink mattered. Because of this, you sometimes have to read between the lines to understand those things that aren't simply spelled out for you. John the Baptism figured heavily into the life of Jesus. So much of who Jesus the man was came from John. John saw his role as preparing for the coming Messiah (Matthew 3:11-12) but he wasn't an incidental figure in the Gospels. He provides Jesus with his first followers (John 1:35-37), he baptized Jesus, and he is remembered as a cousin of Jesus (Luke 1:36-45). John was a callback to the Old Testament prophets in his words and actions and it reminded those who witnessed him that the events from their distant past actually happened. His presence would have reawakened a sense of expectation and re-education, almost like an abbreviated prologue at the beginning of a film that catches the view up on things they may have forgotten. There's a reason that so many people thought Jesus was John come back to life (Matthew 14:2 and 16:14). John and Jesus said similar things (Luke 3:3 and Mark 1:15, Matthew 3:8) and even similar insults for detractors (Matthew 3:7, 12:34, and 23:33). While there were clearly differences between the men and their styles (Luke 7:33-34), John and Jesus shared something close. John is remembered as a cousin but it would probably not be too far to say that Jesus lost not only a cousin but a kind of brother and mentor.

    In short, the day John died was not a good day for Jesus and he wanted to deal with his grief by being alone.

    Yet people start flocking to him without any concern for his feelings. Jesus is like Moses in that the rest of his life would be consumed with a difficult (and some could say thankless) mission. One one hand, we can't be surprised that people treated Jesus like the goose that lay the golden eggs. He was always surrounded by people who were hungry or afflicted because of his reputation as a wonder worker. Even today, if a doctor has a reputation for dealing with certain illnesses or successfully performing certain kinds of surgeries, he will find himself sought after and very busy. Jesus' reputation was as someone who could do anything and there was no shortage of people who were suffering without any other hope.

    On the other hand, I can't help but see Jesus as being kind of used here. How do we feel about people who only come after us when they want something? After a while our response to them is cynical or dismissive. If this passage from Matthew's Gospel included the line "and Jesus told them 'can you maybe give me a couple hours to chill out?'", we would certainly understand it. In most circumstances that would probably be the most charitable thing we could muster.

    This is what makes his response to them so moving for me: "his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick". His response involves no words, only compassion. The Gospel lets us know that it was a "vast crowd" and we learn how vast when he ends his time of healing their sick by feeding them all. The curious saw wonders, the hungry ate, and the afflicted were healed.

    What a powerful image of God: so great yet embracing us so deeply as to become one of us. Grieving but not at the expense of consoling others. Tired but working until all are healed and fed. Motivated not by a reputation and seeking nothing but moved by unfathomable compassion.

    Moses began to crack under the pressure, and yet remains the prophet most venerated in the memory of Israel (Deuteronomy 34:10-12). He loses nothing of his greatness in his weaknesses and failures. Yet it speaks volumes when God's only Son goes through the same thing and still shows so much compassion and mercy.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Memory of Marie Antoinette and the Memory of Bread from Heaven

The 2006 film version of the life of Marie Antoinette was not considered a great success. It's director, Sofia Coppola, had eschewed both the standard historical tragedy and the then-popular "biopic" and presented an image of Antoinette that had more in common with the New Wave groups of the early 80's than David O. Selznick's production of A Tale of Two Cities. There influence of Siouxie Sioux and Adam Ant were apparent in both style and soundtrack. Although Marie Antoinette was torn apart in the domestic box office ($15 million dollars made on a $40 million dollar would make its money back overseas) as well as by critics, it also painted a gorgeously horrific picture of invincible ignorance and decadence. 

The film is far kinder to Marie Antoinette than the mob who gathers at Versailles at the end of the film, but there is a tragedy in her (at least in her film incarnation) not coming to terms with life outside of the palace sooner than she did. She is never shown as ever have knowing any better than what the royalty and the aristocracy had allowed her to see. Her aloofness is endearing in the world she lives in. She's set apart for her simplicity and innocence. But that means nothing to a starving, filthy, and oppressed mob and her values mean little in the sight of that. She has seen so little and the truth is in the big picture.

Today's readings in the Lectionary deal with a similar conflict between reality and appearances. The centerpiece of this second set of Sunday readings (in a 5 week cycle) are what's known as Jesus' "Bread of Life" discourse from the 6th chapter of John's Gospel. The Church reads this section of John as his Eucharistic theology par excellence. John's Gospel is quite a bit different than the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all of whom share a certain literary similarity. One major difference involves Jesus' words in instituting the Eucharist. While Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul all recount what Jesus said during the actual meal ("this is my body...this is my blood"), John does not. John's theology of the Eucharist, however, is woven deep within the narrative fabric, from John the Baptist's first recognition of Jesus as the "Lamb of God" to the parallels between the crucifixion and the Passover sacrifice. The Gospel itself is very Eucharistic and the early Christian communities would only have to listen to the words of the weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper to see the allusions.

Today's selection from John's Gospel involves Jesus trying to communicate His role in God's work through a cultural memory familiar to his audience. We're given a window into that memory through the first reading from the book of Exodus. After their deliverance from 400 years of slavery, God's people are wandering in the wilderness. They begin to starve and yearn to return to Egypt, their place of slavery, for want of food. They "grumble" or "murmur" (תּלֻנָּה/t®l¥nnâ) about their plight. When God tells Moses "I have heard the grumblings of the Israelites", he is aware that their ire is directed towards him and not Moses or Aaron.

The "te-lunna" of the people will only lead to trouble for the ancient Israelites because they cannot trust the God who delivered them from slavery and find themselves hostile to his continued guidance. Much later in John's Gospel the people will find themselves feeling similarly towards Jesus. John spells out the parallels between Jesus and Moses, but John is also even more clear about Jesus as God's dwelling among His own people. John chapter 6 is a turning point in the Gospel. The section begins with Jesus' "public approval" rating at an all time high. He worked a miracle where 5,000 people were fed by what began as five loaves of bread and two fish. The crowds are so taken with this experience that, when he leaves them by boat, they are already on the other side of the Sea of Galilee to meet him when he arrives. 

Yet by the end of John chapter 6 Jesus' words have created a crisis among his listeners and many become hostile. What we remember as an almost mystical, contemplative teaching on the Eucharist has led to disputes and complaints. As if to drive the point home, John's Gospel will use the Greek word γογγύζω/gonguzo, a word that is often used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to refer to the Israelite's murmuring in the wilderness at the time of Moses. In the past the Israelites murmured against God in the wilderness despite the good things he had done and it would appear that history has repeated itself.

It is precisely this "murmuring" that provoked God's response in feeding his hungry people with "manna", bread that God rained down from the sky to feed his people. The manna signifies a time of intimacy with God as it marked Israel's complete reliance on God as they left Egypt. They could not provide the food for themselves so, therefore, God had to do it. The image of God feeding his people was of "bread from heaven" and it's on this point that Jesus will connect this manna with himself. Jesus is now the bread that came down from heaven and though he will continue to elucidate this point over the course of this passage, it is clear that Jesus wants his listeners to focus on God and the one whom he had sent...Jesus himself. The source of God's goodness will not be apparent in the one standing before them. 

There is a tension between what we see, what we have seen, and what we hope to see happen. In the Exodus, Israel had witnessed God's work in rescuing them from Egypt and sustaining them in their times of trouble. That experience lived only as a collective cultural memory by the time of Jesus, but in John's Gospel the people still speak with the weight of their collective experience (cf. John 8:33). They speak of God but they haven't seen him. They speak as their ancestors but they didn't see what they saw. The trust their tradition but it is not their experience. The experience of Jesus is a crisis for his listeners because they have now been inserted into the drama of their ancestors. God is now present and they can see him. In fact they can see him far better than Moses who, though God spoke to him "face to face, as one speaks to a friend" (Exodus 33:11) still only managed to see God from the back, obscured because his glory was so great (Exodus 33:21-23). Now they can all see God and what they see is...a man. This very man who they have known from childhood. They are aware of his parents and they know his trade. He appears ordinary and his words make no sense based on appearances.

Yet they have seen loaves and fishes multiplied and the sick healed. They have heard unearthly wisdom and they have heard the testimony of the wise and the holy. They see so little and the truth is in the big picture.

I often find myself returning to this section of the Gospels when I speak to families in my work. It's necessary to return to the reappraisal of the world as we see it and the world as it is. Often, the two concepts are conflated, that the world we can see is the only one there is. We live at a time when we can perceive things at the subatomic level while having the technology to perceive deep space. What can possibly be left? But just as the Israelites could not see beyond their hunger in the wilderness and many of Jesus' listeners could not see beyond the human being standing in front of them, we find ourselves in a tension between sight and hope, between proof and promise, between fact and truth. All of them are valid but we shouldn't mistake dismissal of the problems they pose to actually resolving them.

I also love the image of Jesus coming from Heaven so that we might better experience God. The images he gives are sensual and almost too crude for what we often mistake for spirituality. God came to what I am and what I have so I can better become who He is.

“Amen, amen, I say to you,
it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven;
my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 
For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven
and gives life to the world.”

So they said to him,
“Sir, give us this bread always.” 
Jesus said to them,
“I am the bread of life;
whoever comes to me will never hunger,
and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” 
-John 6:32-35

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Debts, Laws, and Release

A couple of thoughts on today's Scripture readings from the Lectionary:

  •  Today we read from the books of Leviticus, the Psalms, and Matthew's Gospel. Leviticus is much maligned as of late - a reminder that it's best not only to read a line in the context of the book it originates from - or even a book with its series of books - but also to read a text within its fuller context. In this case I'm referring to its historical context and its communal context (whether that is Israelite religion/nascent Judaism or the Church).

  • In the Church we've spent the last week reading from the book of Exodus. The locus point has been the giving of God's Law, which clarified Israel's identity in terms of morality, penal laws, and rituals. For Israel, the giving of the Law begins their self-identity as freed persons. After leaving Egypt they had only what they carried and their identity was a mishmash of vague cultural memories that were then hundreds of years old and, most recently, the experience of Egypt. They were slaves subject to Egypt's laws and worship. The giving of the Law is the beginning of their self-governance, allowing them to embrace their own destiny.
  • The Law is a gift from God that prevents them from social collapse. In the Bible's narrative, forgetting the Law is more serious than just breaking one of those laws. To forget the Law is to forget the Giver of the Law. The Giver of that Law isn't just the lofty conception of God but Yahweh, their own God who delivered them from the bondage of slavery, who protected them from their enemies, who gave them their sustenance in their decades wandering the wilderness, and who gave them a Promised Land to live in. There was a direct correlation between societal harmony and keeping the Law. The Law is considered a law of life. It's still this way for believing Jewish communities which says something of the resiliency of the Jewish culture that has endured far longer than any other.
  • A good window into the goodness of that Law is today's reading from Leviticus. It deals with the Jubilee Year. In a Jubilee Year, all debts were forgiven among the people, slaves were freed, the land was given rest as to not overwork it, and ancestral lands were returned to families. It was a way of restoring order, to allow those families who had lost much to recover what they had and to prevent the exploitation of those in need.

    It was also a tangible reminder of what it means to be set free. We live in a society that takes large debts for granted. On one hand there is the need for personal responsibility and we have a duty to pay our debts. On the other hand, what happens when that debt becomes too much to bear? Does the justice of debt repayment supersede human dignity? The Jubilee Year places a responsibility on both the debt-laden as well as the debtor. It makes forgiveness a principal of society. In this case, forgiveness is not an emotional release but one that is expressed tangibly in society. Those who hold on will let go and all who have lost will regain. It's a reminder that life's situations can change, that those laden with debt may one day have someone indebted to them. Likewise, those who are owed may one day owe. In this case, justice is not about power but peace and the restoration of balance in society. Balance and a clean slate achieves a more lasting justice than a perpetual cycle of debt collection.

    It says something that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all have a similar principal within their traditions with regards to establishing a fair way to reckon with debts or interest and that all have been tempted throughout history to find a way of working around the difficulty of the forgiveness of debts. Temporal debts are often tangled into emotional debts and social debts. When we feel someone owes us something, we become frustrated and angry when we are not repaid. Those kind of existential quandaries eventually work themselves out in ways that are usually terrible and, eventually, regrettable.

    "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those indebted to us" (Luke 11:4).
  • Lastly, this is a great set up for the Gospel reading which is the death of John the Baptist. In short, John the Baptist is in prison after Herod Antipas arrests John for having preached against him for marrying his brother's wife. The Gospels portray Herod as having liked to listen to John but not taking his words to heart. By today's reading, Herod wants John dead but fears the response it will elicit. At a party, his wife's daughter dances and her dance seduces him to promising her anything she asks for. At her mother's prompting she asks for the head of John the Baptist. Ironically, while his fear of the people prevented him from having John executed in the past, now it is the fear of his reputation among his dinner guests that move him to follow through with her wishes. Herod relents and John is beheaded.

    It is a strange image of justice. Herod wants to be a man of integrity in keeping his word and yet proves himself as having no integrity in killing a righteous prophet. He breaks off his duty to his brother Phillip by marrying his wife yet keeps that duty in granting his step-daughter's murderous desire. Instead of making things right, the order of things is radically disrupted.

    The book of Leviticus says this about oaths:

     "...when any of you utter aloud a rash oath for a bad or a good purpose, whatever people utter in an oath, and are unaware of it, when you come to know it, you shall in any of these be guilty" (Leviticus 5:4).

    Both the Book of Judges and the Book of First Samuel illustrates the tragedy of rash oaths when Jephthah's oath leads to the death of his daughter and Samuel's oath curses his son Jonathan.

    Jesus also warned against taking oaths, likely for this very purpose (Matthew 5:33-37). He sees the absurdity of binding your honor to things you cannot possibly control. In all of the above cases, the need to maintain an image of righteousness supersedes actual justice. It upsets the social order and are tragic guideposts that remind us of the vanity involved in maintaining a reputation that ultimately proves one undeserving of a good reputation.

    All in all, today's readings are a great excuse to reflect on the nature of right and wrong and how severing the connection between our personal sense of right and wrong to deeper universal principals is ultimately an exercise in futility. We are not moral vagabonds who are left to contextualize right and wrong based on a radically personal definition of values. We are not tribes of people who organize on either ends of false dichotomies like class, political party, or ideology. We are human and we've always been our best when we reach beyond ourselves. That desire is not a collective mental projection or an imaginary brass ring. It's real and it matters. As the stars and their constellations allowed humanity the ability to navigate and, therefore, to explore and discover beyond the narrowness of our personal life situation so it is with right and wrong.