Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Turn Your Face Towards the Sun

I wanted to expand a bit on my last post, about Neil Gaiman's "American Gods" and our Americanized versions (read: idols) of Jesus. 

My daughter's new obsession is the Home soundtrack.  Frozen used to be the bomb diggedy, but now it's the Home soundtrack.  And I'm afraid that I might have to turn in my membership card to Music Snobs Elite, because I am actually finding most of the songs on it to be very enjoyable.  Particularly beautiful to me is a song by Rihanna (gasp - I know:  I really do need to turn in my membership card), where she sets to music what turns out to be an old Māori proverb:

Turn your face toward the sun and the shadows will fall behind you.

I want to think for a moment about this proverb and see how it connects to much of (most of?) Christian theology out there (in my opinion, erroneously - and I will explain why).

It's a beautiful sentiment, and the song itself is haunting - in a good way.  And I wouldn't just reject the sentiment outright - I do think that oftentimes, weary travelers need to leave their battles behind and move on.  Sometimes we need to find rest, and sometimes we need inspiration.  So in a way - as I hope you will find by the time this post is over - I am going to be affirming this proverb at the same time that I reject it.

I think that if we take this proverb literally, it expresses a sentiment that runs counter to the message of Jesus, and unfortunately is all too popular within Christian theology.  Think about this message: the idea is that we must turn toward some sacred object outside of ourselves
that provides illumination we would otherwise have no access to, and we must turn away from the problems of the world in order to do so - leave them all behind.  But if we're supposed to leave the problems of the world behind, then why does this attitude looks so unlike Jesus, who came right into the problems of this world and was astonishingly present to the people that the religious system of his day treated like "the shadows" in this proverb?

"The sun" is the sacred object in the song.  If we would turn towards it - and it is obvious what object is the sun (no one disagrees about that - it's the brightest object in the sky!) - we will find illumination.  But think about this for just one moment: have you ever actually explored Christian theology?  I don't mean to ask if you've read all the approved authors of your chosen denomination.  I mean: have you read authors from other denominations and other perspectives?  Have you examined the various debates?  And when I ask this, I mean, have you explored the various perspectives surrounding those debates?  Because if you had, I am sure you will find: no one agrees about anything!  Least of all, which object is "the sun".  Everyone has a different definition of what object is "the sun", what its (supposedly obvious) characteristics are, and how we are to "turn your face toward" it.  And every theological camp out there is pointing at all the others and saying that they are obviously "the shadows" that we are supposed to turn away from in this model.  

Why is that?  And why is it that this sentiment sounds so much like the Garden of Eden - if we would just turn towards the sacred object (the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), all our troubles (wait, I didn't know I had troubles before this!  But now that you mention it, yes, I am incomplete without this object!) will go away!  

(Does this remind you of "Super Jesus/Magic Jesus" from my last post?  If we just believe in him, he'll fix everything for us while we sit on our La-Z-Boy....)

I'd like to suggest that Jesus presents a model of theology that runs counter to this Māori proverb - and to summarize what I think it is, before arguing why, I will state this model like so:

You are all stars (see John 14:12) - turn towards the shadows and let your light shine (see Matthew 5:16).

Now this might sound strange to you if you've grown up in a different theological paradigm that stresses other parts of the Bible over the ones I have highlighted above.  So let me bring out a few more passages for you to consider.

Let's start by considering how, for the writer of I John, if we wish to know God, we must be "born of love" (I John 4:7).  By the way: does this phrase - "born of love" - remind you of the phrase "born again", coming from John 3:3, which is used in evangelical circles so often without any attempt beyond magic to explain what it means?  It does for me.

The writer of I John goes on to say that "whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love." (I John 4:8)  I have lived for many years in Christian circles which seek very much to downplay that phrase: "God is love" (after getting into one argument with one of my old friends, I wrote an argument in defense of it).  Throughout the rest of the passage, the writer of I John really wants to drive his point home - he says that "since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another" (I John 4:11 - this presents a problem for the protestant desire to de-emphasize works and stress that faith - interpreted so often as having all the right ideas - is what saves us).  He says that "if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us" (I John 4:12).  And then he restates once again, in case you missed it or didn't think it was important, the statement he made before, and sums up everything that came in between:

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
(I John 4:16)
The Sun is Within
Now contrast this with the ideas of the Māori proverb - the sun is not some distant object outside of ourselves that we must turn towards and worship.  The sun is within - it is our love, and by turning our hearts away from the egotistical attitude that is always seeking to fill ourselves by grasping at objects outside of ourselves, and inverting this by turning ourselves into outwardly focused people who are always seeking the best of others (which is what love is), we are embodiments of the light itself.

Consider for a moment the Eucharist - I think that the philosopher Peter Rollins does a marvelous job of capturing what is so often missed about this sacrament in his book, "The Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith".  In this book, he compares the Eucharist to the three stages of a magic trick: the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige.  To understand how the Eucharist is like a magic trick, we must first understand how these three stages work in a normal magic trick, so Rollins explains how he used to perform a certain coin trick. 

For the Pledge, Rollins would show his audience a coin - just like any coin.  He would explain that he is going to make the object disappear - hence the name: the Pledge.

Then comes the Turn.  In this stage, Rollins would use a distracting motion of his hands to make them believe that he had kept the coin in his left hand, while he really had it in his right.  He would lift his right hand - with the coin - over his shoulder and drop the coin down his shirt while he pretended to rub the coin into his elbow with the left.  He then shows the audience his left hand, which does not contain a coin.

In the movie "The Prestige", Cutter draws out the nuance of this stage of the trick:

The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled.
Then comes the final stage - the Prestige.  Cutter explains why this stage is necessary:
Making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back.
For Rollins' trick, he would walk over to a table where he had placed another coin underneath a glass of water before the show, lift the glass, and present the other coin - which was presumed by the audience to be the same coin he had "rubbed into his elbow", but which was, in reality, hiding inside of his shirt.

Rollins compares the Eucharist to these three stages in the same way - and it is interesting to note that the oft used magic words "hocus pocus" were most likely a lampoon of the Latin phrase (which was interpreted quite literally by Catholics for centuries): hoc est corpus meum ("this is my body").  When Jesus presents the bread, representing his body, Rollins contends that this is the Pledge.  Jesus then breaks the body - for us - and this is the Turn.  But as Cutter explained in the movie, for this to be a proper magic trick, the magician must take the ordinary something and make it do something extraordinary.  Breaking "the body" - while being extraordinary in the way that Jesus gives his body willingly - is not quite what we're looking for.  So Jesus must bring back it back in the Prestige stage of the trick.

But as we know from the way the coin trick works, what comes back is never the same as what was made to disappear in the Turn.  And yet so much of theology reduces the Resurrection to a resuscitation - the same matter that goes into the tomb comes out again.

But if this is the purpose of the Eucharist, then why does Paul say in I Corinthians 12:27:

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (emphasis mine)
(See also Rom. 12:5.)

What if the point of the Eucharist was much bigger?  When we consume the bread of Jesus - turning the life of Jesus into nourishment for our souls which, when digested, becomes the material making up our cells - and then live out the commandments of Jesus (see John 14:15 and 23), we become the living embodiment of Jesus - and thus we become the incarnation of God, as I John 4:7-21 points towards!  And that is something truly extraordinary - something magical!

How Does the Sun Illuminate and Cast Out Shadows?
So if the sun we are supposed to turn towards in the model Jesus gives us is not some object outside of ourselves, but is unconditional love itself, and thus resides within - the next question we must ask is: how does the sun illuminate and cast out shadows?  Are we supposed to designate certain portions of humanity as "shadow" and turn away from them, as so much religion does?

To really explore how Jesus contradicts that idea, I want to explore Matthew 6:22–23 - particularly a very interesting translation of this passages provided by the scholar William Barclay in his commentary on Matthew:

The light of the body is the eye. So then, if your eye is generous, the whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is grudging, your whole body will be in the dark. If, then, the light which is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
You might note - as I did when I first read this - that most translations do not say "if your eye is generous", but "if your eye is healthy" or "if your eyes are good".  Barclay defends his translation like so:
HERE, Jesus speaks of one special virtue which fills the eye with light, and one special fault which fills the eye with darkness. The Authorized Version speaks here about the eye being single and the eye being evil. Certainly that is the literal meaning of the Greek, but the words single and evil are here used in a special way which is common enough in the Greek in which Scripture is written.

The word for single is haplous, and its corresponding noun is haplotēs. Regularly in the Greek of the Bible, these words mean generous and generosity. James speaks of God who gives generously (James 1:5), and the adverb he uses is haplōs.

Similarly in Romans 12:8, Paul urges his friends to give generously (haplōs). Paul reminds the Corinthian church of the generosity (haplotēs) of the churches in Macedonia, and talks about their own generosity to all (2 Corinthians 9:11). It is the generous eye which Jesus is commending.

The word which is translated in the Authorized Version as evil is ponēros. Certainly that is the normal meaning of the word; but both in the New Testament and in the Septuagint, ponēros regularly means niggardly or grudging.
The whole point of Matthew 6:22–23 is that if we want to see clearly, we must be generous - which is really love in action (and thus, a manifestation of God).  Jesus is saying that if we are not generous - but are always accusing each other and seeking to blame everyone else for the problems of this world (a theme I return to again and again in my series: Satan: Lifting the Veil) - we will have a distorted view of life and of people.  Thus, when we love others, we are not only being incarnational (we are the embodiments of "the sun"), but we are also able to see more clearly - we are casting out the shadows through our love!  And perhaps this helps to explain why the Gospel of Thomas has the Golden Rule:
Love your brother like your soul, guard him like the pupil of your eye.

Through understanding generosity as the key to seeing clearly, we see that loving others is the key to clear sight, and when we love our brother, we will discover our soul.

One final Biblical picture may help to clear this up.  In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells a story that presents a big problem for what often seems to be the Protestant theology of faith without works (if you have all the right ideas, you are magically saved) - this story is commonly referred to as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.  In the story, the King is separating the sheep from the goats (Jesus is mixing his metaphors a bit here - turning the King into a shepherd).  And what is problematic for much common theology out there is the fact that the defining characteristic between the sheep and the goats has nothing to do with saying the right words or having the right ideas - indeed, when the goats are sent away, they call the King "Lord", demonstrating that they have the right ideas and can say the right words! 

But, rather, the defining characteristic that separates sheep and goats is how they treat the people who most need to be shown love!  If they treat these with kindness, they are sheep - thus, Jesus demonstrates the prevailing theme of his ministry: you will know the disciples of Jesus by their love! (See John 13:35.)

But before we take this to mean that if we see people who are unloving, we can proceed to treat them as condemned individuals beyond hope - consider the irony of the situation: once the goats (who were presumably rich and well off individuals) are cast out from the kingdom, do they not become the very same "least of these" whom so desperately need to be shown love?  And if God were not willing to show these individuals mercy, would he not be acting like a goat Himself?

Often I have heard Christians justify their hatred of certain individuals with the phrase Paul quotes in Romans 9:13 (originally from Malachi 1:2-3):

I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.
To take this as an excuse to bear a grudge that is never let go ignores so much of the Bible - especially when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, and then tells us that God does this perfectly (see Matthew 5:43-48).  But it also ignores the connection between the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats and the end of the story of Jacob and Esau - for when Jacob and Esau reconcile, Jacob sees the face of God through his former enemy (who was always his brother): Esau!  (See Genesis 33:10.) 

It is when we love unconditionally that we experience the presence of God - and not only this, but we embody the presence of God to others. 

And so I reword the
Māori proverb as:
We are all stars, and if we turn towards the shadows and let our love shine, the world will be filled with light, and there will be no more shadow.

Monday, April 6, 2015

"American Gods" and our Zombie Jesuses

I've been reading Neil Gaiman's novel, "American Gods", and I'm finding it to be quite an effective muse.  "American Gods" is about the nature of American belief.  The protagonist of the story finds himself in league with an old one-eyed man who turns out to be Odin.  But there is a problem for Odin - as he describes it:
When the people came to America they brought us with them. They brought me, and Loki and Thor, Anansi and the Lion-God, Leprechauns and Kobolds and Banshees, Kubera and Frau Holle and Ashtaroth, and they brought you. We rode here in their minds, and we took root. We traveled with the settlers to the new lands across the ocean. 
Each of the gods in the story have not only been brought over the oceans by migrant Americans, but over time they have become largely unrecognizable - as they slowly morph by way of the mixing of cultural ideas.  And they slowly became old and mostly powerless, as people stopped worshiping them.

Furthermore, these old, aging gods have new competition - as Odin later outlines in the same speech:

[T]here are new gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon. Proud gods, fat and foolish creatures, puffed up with their own newness and importance.
Throughout the book, Gaiman presents fascinating pictures of these new American gods.  In one graphic and disturbing scene, a man is swallowed whole by the lady parts of what must be a manifestation of an American sex goddess. 

In another scene, Lucille Ball talks to the protagonist through the television screen, and we find out that this is a manifestation of a television god.  When asked what kinds of sacrifices people make to the TV god, Lucy replies: "Their time, mostly.  Sometimes each other."

It's really a fascinating portrayal of how beliefs shape America - consciously or unconsciously.  As the protagonist puts it at one point:

It's what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.
The ideas of the book have me thinking about how many bastardized versions of Jesus are alive and working in American culture today - and how they are all impotent against the cultural gods Gaiman imaginatively portrays (such as the sex goddess, the gods of credit, and television).

Here in America, we have:

I'm your worst nightmare....
Macho Jesus - as Mark Driscoll puts it: "Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up." This Jesus does nothing to challenge our American addiction to violence, and the myth that violence solves everything.

Spirit Jesus - so many Americans still believe that Jesus was only concerned with saving our souls.  He didn't care about our physical conditions, or the socio-political environments that imprison so many.  As Joe Hill's famous 1911 lampoon of "In the Sweet By and By" puts it:

Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right
But when asked how 'bout something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet
You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You'll get pie in the sky when you die
And kind of a mix of "Spirit Jesus" and "Macho Jesus" we have:
It's a bird, it's a plane, it's...Jesus!
Superhero Jesus/Magic Jesus - so much theology seems to be absolutely certain that if you'll just pray, if you'll just "accept Jesus into your heart", if you'll just do whatever symbolic magical act is the fad, all your problems will be solved.  Forget going to the doctor and getting medical attention - we'll pray and your knees will magically be healed!  (And oh, by the way, whatever you do, don't read any literature about the placebo effect....)  All too often, this kind of theology makes people lazy and unable to diagnose the real sources of problems - because why would you try to get to the bottom of a problem and then work to solve it when all we have to do is say some magic wordies and everything magically gets better?  I've heard preachers criticize Liberals for - in their minds - doing the same thing Thomas Jefferson did with his Bible, but it seems to me that far too many Christians focus so heavily on miracles that they completely miss their point, as well as missing everything Jesus said.  And in the process, they turn God into a cosmic genie - or even worse, a vending machine.

Money Grubbing Jesus - the "Prosperity Gospel" is so successful today that oftentimes, people who criticize it don't even realize they've bought into its lies.  Because while they criticize it, they run "Financial Peace Universities", based on Dave Ramsey's advice - Dave Ramsey, who believes that if you're poor, it's your own lazy fault.  But, as Rachel Held Evans put so well in her critique of Ramseyism,

When medical bills are the biggest cause of bankruptcy in the United States, [...] when people working 40-hour weeks at minimum wage jobs still can’t earn enough to support their families, [...] when approximately 1% of Americans hold 40% of the nation’s wealth, [...] when the black unemployment rate has consistently been twice as high as the white unemployment rate for the past 50 years, there are systemic injustices at work.
Puritan Jesus - this Jesus is so concerned with what everyone else is doing in bed, that it almost seems that he is just as addicted to sex as all the people actually having it.  What else would explain his obsession with getting angry about how everyone else does it?

All too often, Christians seem so concerned with afterlife that they are useless when it comes to improving this life.  But how can we expect afterlife to be so fulfilling when we can't even figure out how to live in a way that is healthy in this life?  Do we really think that all our bad habits will simply magically disappear as part of an after-death reward given out based on whether we said a prayer when we were 7 years old?  Is this really what Jesus' mission was about?

It's really no wonder that Atheists poke fun at Zombie Jesus, when so much of our theology about this man is so badly thought out, and so impotent to resolve any of our present issues.

What other Jesuses have you run into?

Suggested further reading (if you want to see an alternative way of seeing Jesus):
Jesus and the Domination System

Jesus and Violence
Leave the Shire