Category Archives: religion

Leviticus – Fairness, Separateness, and Cleanliness

Leviticus is that book that I always have to just get through. Long lists of laws and regulations that are ancient, taken wildly out of context, and profoundly Other, despite their relative familiarity next to, say, the Code of Hammurabi. Not that there isn’t some really valuable stuff in there (see my notes on the Year of Jubilee – totally brilliant provision for economic equality), but it’s nearly impossible to feel like I have the whole picture when there are also strict regulations for the buying and selling of slaves, preparing animals for sacrifice, and all the things I’m not allowed to touch if I’m on my period. I feel like the image of life Leviticus paints is fragmented and distorted, not because it was that way originally, but because I am so far removed from its original context, I can’t see the pieces as a whole, I can only see them in individual bits, some of them bright and clear, and others cloudy or muddled. With Leviticus I get a mosaic but not a picture. I’m sure someone with more imagination/a graduate degree in ancient Israeli culture/experience in a traditional Orthodox community would have a different experience with this book, but that’s where I’m at.

For whatever reason, I didn’t feel moved to take notes on Leviticus until Chapter 14, so that’s where we begin:

Chapter 14 is so tactile. Lots of smearing and sprinkling and dipping of blood and oil.

Chapter 15: regulations for a bleeding woman. All this washing and refraining from touching sounds like the kind of precautions you take with an infectious disease outbreak or hazmat spill. While I’m a little miffed that my natural body processes were considered so suspect, as a general practice, it would have made the Israelites more endurable during plagues.

Chapter 16: The Day of Atonement is so very solemn. Double sacrifice, first for the priest’s  personal sin (a bull no less) just to be able to approach to offer the sin offering for Israel. And the other two men involved in transporting the animal parts have to wash their clothes before they can reenter the community. And during all this solemn sacrificing and cleansing, the Israelites are to be fasting and observing full Sabbath restrictions. Created an atmosphere where everyone would be hyper-aware of what was going on spiritually in the community. Not a holiday you could brush off or take casually. I believe to this day, Yom Kippur is the most serious of the Jewish holidays.

Ch 21: The high priest must marry a virgin, not a widow or a prostitute. Exactly the opposite of what God asked of Hosea (a prophet, not a priest).

Ch. 22: Women really were only counted based on who was responsible for them. An unmarried priest’s daughter may eat a priest’s holy food, but if she marries a nonpriest, she’s no longer allowed. She has no priestly status of her own, only in relation to her father or husband.

Ch. 25: The Year of Jubilee. Radical redistribution of property every 50 years. It wasn’t redistributed randomly – every family was given an original inheritance, and in the Year of Jubilee, all plots were to be restored to the families who had original ownership. 50 years was a span of time that would mean that if you were lazy or otherwise irresponsible, you became poor for much of your lifetime, but your children wouldn’t be permanently disadvantaged. If you were greedy, you couldn’t accumulate property indefinitely. A countering to the inertia of privilege and income inequality

v. 35-37 – “If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you…you must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit.” – What a very different dynamic from the culture of predatory creditors and anti-food stamps.

Ch. 26 v. 9-13: One of the few places where God’s warmth and fondness come through – “I really really want to be friends with you, I just really need you to not be evil.” (Revised Meghan Version).

In reviewing my notes, apparently I did not feel particularly moved to make any notations on the most famous and contentious of Levitical passages today, the ones concerning a man lying with a man. I’ve written about this in personal notes to friends and somewhat over at Soulation, but here I think I’ll just link you to some other people who have said it more eloquently than I.

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Fundiementals 5: Back to Truth

So, this whole series on fundamentalism started with a conversation I had with a Very Concerned Relative over the meaning and importance of truth. To recap:

“But the Bible DOES tell us what will happen in the end times. How can you not care? It says right here,” she flips frantically to John 4:23, “that Jehovah wants worshipers who will worship in spirit and in truth, IN TRUTH, so how can you not be concerned with the truths of the Bible?!”

To my Very Concerned Relative, the “truths” that would be most important to Jehovah God were about understanding doctrine correctly, having the correct answers to theological questions, or even about having the right translation of scripture correctly memorized. To her, truth is an exercise in intellectual prowess, and dwells within very narrow parameters – every question has an answer, and every answer is either right or wrong.

Love Naked Pastor

Obviously, I disagree with her. But if “truth” in the spiritual sense isn’t about intellectual prowess, what is it about?

I would like to make the case that in spirituality, truth is about relationship.

Yup. Naked Pastor.

That’s an obscure statement, so let me expand. Since I dwell in the Christian tradition, I will use mostly Bible verses to illustrate, although I’ll include secular references where I’m aware of them.

Truth = Absence of Deception:
Shortly after the initial conversation with my Very Concerned Relative, I did a concordance search for “truth” in the Bible. Do you know where the word “truth” makes its first appearance? In Genesis 42:16:

Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth.

Are you telling me the truth? Or are you lying? Thus asked my mother one fateful day when I had been torturing my baby sister out of sight, and then glibly pretended I had no idea why she might be crying. It is my earliest memory of the idea of justice, my first remembered prick of conscience, and my first awareness that it is wrong to use words to paint a picture that doesn’t match up with reality. At its most basic, truth-telling is about absence of deceit, manipulation, and spin. And truth-telling is harder than it sounds, especially in a culture like ours that is dedicated to success. Ask anyone in a 12-step group. A rigorous adherence to reality requires a willingness (a courage) to face life and self in all their horrifying imperfections and terrifying glory. I am a human being. I love fiercely. I make mistakes. I am beautifully and wonderfully made. I make promises I can’t keep. I have capacity for great joy. I can be resentful. I am occasionally a good listener. I have, on occasion, been mean to small children. I try to inspire people. I waste more than I should. I work really hard. I benefit from white privilege. My life has importance and dignity. I participate in corrupt consumer systems. Etc., etc., etc. Justice, fairness, and authentic relationship cannot happen without this most basic loyalty to the truth.

Truth = Transparency

Closely related – transparency, or the commitment not to lie by omission. The willingness to bring things into the open. The willingness not to hide. In the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve have sinned, the first thing they do is hide. They withhold themselves, withdraw intimacy, mask the truth of their nakedness with the trees and bushes. Just to be clear, I’m not advocating total openness with every stranger; not all people are safe, and there are perfectly appropriate boundaries to be drawn between new acquaintances. People earn the right to see your truth. But Adam and Eve had already been dwelling perfectly naked, in perfect safety, with God. Their hiding was a soft kind of lie, a pretending at invisibility, aimed at what they perceived to be their advantage – not getting caught, not getting in trouble, not being seen. It was a form of manipulation. How often do we withhold ourselves from others out of anger, shame, resentment, fear, or spite? It helps us feel powerful, it helps us perceive an advantage to ourselves (to keep us safe, to make us loved, to keep us in control, etc.). Such forms of lying and manipulation are a part of codependency. There are good reasons why Steps 4 and 5 in Codependents Anonymous read “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves; admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.” Honesty with self and others is essential for healthy relational functioning.

Transparency is an important standard of truth in organizations and institutions as well. The prophet Hosea says:

“Ephraim has surrounded me with lies, Israel with deceit….Ephraim feeds on the wind; he pursues the east wind all day and multiplies lies and violence. He makes a treaty with Assyria and sends olive oil to Egypt.” – Hosea 11:12, 12:1

Have you ever been in a work situation where you knew you weren’t being told everything? How did that work out for you? How about in politics? What if you actually knew who was paying your Congressman, and how much? Or your church? (I know many churches keep open books. Many do not.) Can you imagine a world in which WikiLeaks wasn’t considered a threat? Where whistleblowers were celebrated or even unnecessary because everything was already in the open? Can you imagine what kinds of atrocities might be prevented if institutional actions were always public and accountable? What would happen if governments and corporations couldn’t make two-faced deals behind closed doors in order to maneuver for leverage and advantage? Truth is a prerequisite for equality.

I think I’m going to split this and put the rest in a second blog post or it’s going to be way too long. So – coming up: authenticity, vulnerability, wholeness and integrity. (Not necessarily in that order).

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Thoughts on Exodus (Part 2)

Ok, my bad. We got back from Taiwan and I immediately had a meltdown over having our first anniversary at home with nothing planned, so we made a last-minute trip to the woods and spent last week blissfully wifi-free, and I forgot to schedule stuff to pre-post, so that’s where that lag came from. And this past Monday I was going to post the final installment of Fundiementals, but I spent all day formatting the second draft of my play for my beta readers (Space. Space. Tab. Indent. Space. Space. Tab. Indent. Repeat. Etc. For Eight. Freaking. Hours. – “Her Story in Blood” – coming soon!), so I apologize that blog upkeep has gotten a little away from me.

Fundiementals 5 WILL be returning THIS Monday, I PROMISE, and here are the rest of my thoughts on Exodus in the meantime:

Matzah. Yum. Click thru for explanation of Passover.

Chapter 12 – During the final plague in Egypt, the Israelites are instructed to make bread without yeast and basically eat as if they’ll have to drop everything at any moment and run. Eating in haste like this is in stark contrast to the advice I got from my last church which was to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry.” But this just demonstrates that there is a time for all things: a time to eliminate hurry and a time to practice haste lest the moment get away from you.

And what do you do after passing supernaturally through a sea? Naturally, you dance! And sing! The arts mark special occasions.

Chapter 18 – I hope to always have a Jethro in my life who will sit down with me and say “Stop! Why are you killing yourself with all this unnecessary work? Break it down and delegate!”

The commitment to remember God first and also the commandments to honor your father and mother remind me of the principle in God Revised (which I reviewed here) where he was talking about the utter dependence of everything on everything else. I that’s what these two commandments are about for me. Remembering that your initial existence owes nothing to your own efforts, and your continued existence only relies on your own efforts in combination with an extraordinary chain of happy circumstances – the continued seasonal cycles, crops that grow, rain that falls, rivers that don’t dry up, etc. Remembering that God is your source for everything and remembering that he chose to make you further dependent on those around you too; you could not exist without the explicit cooperation of your parents. Even if you have really terrible parents (and I’m not saying that if you’re parents were abusive or neglectful or whatever that you can’t be angry and set good boundaries), to remember that your existence, up to a point, entirely rested upon their good graces. Helps keep me rooted in gratitude and helps keep my hands open because it reminds me how little I ultimately have control over.

Chapters 25, 26, and 27 are all about building the tabernacle, and when I first started reading them they remind me of iKEA directions without the benefit of the diagrams.

Credit to collegehumor.com

Credit to thechive.wordpress.com

There are a ton of these. Google “IKEA instructions funny.” Or at least click through here to see “Litsabbur.”

I have trouble visualizing it in my head, and it’s about as exciting to read as you would expect iKEA directions to be, and I imagine it was kind of a nightmare to build without the diagrams. (Although, as a  side note, it occurs to me that there may have originally been diagrams, because it says a couple of times “Do this how I showed you on the mountain,” so maybe God drew diagrams for Moses? I don’t know.) But then I also started thinking this is not really like an iKEA piece of furniture – it’s more like the 9/11 memorial. And you know when you go to visit the 9/11 memorial, there’s going to be a whole section that will detail every step of the process – the designers, materials, techniques, and people involved – so it’s really more like that. It’s detailing this very, very important, momentous project that these people took on, at the very beginning of their freedom, a project which must have helped define them as a people in those nascent days. I think of how bonded I always got with theater casts – everyone gets so close, and you feel so affectionate for all these people that you didn’t even know six weeks ago, and you have all these shared stories and inside jokes and complaints that have glued you together as a community because of how many freakin’ hours you’ve sacrificed to this project for the last two months of your life. I imagine it was like that, and all these detailed instructions, repeated several times, are sort of like the theater cast sitting around re-hashing, in loving detail, every last rehearsal moment, every instant of inspiration, every stroke of paint that made strangers into a family.

At the end of chapter 27, I like how it says that Aaron and his sons are to keep the lamps burning before the Lord from evening to morning. There was always light in the darkness at the tabernacle.

Chapter 29 – any unused meat after a sacrifice was to be burned, not stored, eaten, or re-distributed. I wonder if this had partly to do with trust, like the injunction to not hoard manna 6 days of the week. If the meat had to be eaten daily or burned, it would have engendered trust in the idea “I have enough.” It would have practically prohibited unholy gain by re-selling the meat to anyone who might have thought it lucky or possessing magical powers, or kept as security; the security would always be in the Lord.

Ch. 30 – All that talk of incense made me want some. Burnt some jasmine for the first time in more than a year, and it was lovely.

Ch. 31 – I love how the artists responsible for making the tabernacle were named and praised in the scripture itself – their service was deemed important enough to record.

Chapter 32 – The Golden Calf. I always wondered – why a calf? It always seemed so random to me as a child. Why on earth would you worship a cow? I mean, they’re cute and all, but powerful? C’mon. It would have made more sense if they had built a golden lamb, seeing as how that was the means by which the last plague passed over them in Egypt. I would understand mistaking the means and symbol of salvation (the lamb’s blood) for the source (God). Maybe (probably?) it had something to do with the Egyptian collection of animal gods, but I’m not educated enough in ancient Near Eastern religions to be able to comment intelligently on this.

Weird negotiation between Moses and God, where Moses convinces God not to destroy the Israelites by asking “What would Egypt think?” Maybe WWET bracelets will be the next new thing…

I always laugh at Aaron’s response when Moses confronts him about the Golden Calf (which Aaron is responsible for making) –

“I don’t know, I just put the gold in the fire, and out came this calf!”

Again, I am reminded of teaching –

“I don’t know how Susie’s chocolate bar ended up in my mouth, I just found it there and started chewing!”

The bloody purge recorded here is distressing, and I don’t know what to do with it. Moses comes off looking much more compassionate than God, which doesn’t really make any sense theologically. Although, honestly, I find that I’m relating to God’s wrath here more than I anticipated – I’ve certainly wanted to annihilate a class or two that was running wild, despite my careful and thorough and deliberate and persistent and exhausting attempts to bring them to heel. (I’m sorry, was I not supposed to admit that? I forgot. Teachers all love all children wholly and unconditionally and with perfect patience at all times and in all circumstances. Even when they’re mean cretins).

Chapter 33 (vs. 15) – I say this prayer all the time – God, please don’t send me unless you’ll be with me.

That whole story with God putting Moses in a cleft in the rock and passing by – deeply creepy, and I feel like there’s so much meaning hidden in the imagery, but it’s opaque to me.

Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk – repeated several times. (Repeated more times, in fact, once you count Deuteronomy, than the Levitical injunction for a man not to lay with a man. We throw out kosher law, but we keep the heteronormative sexual assumption? But that’s a conversation for another time….)

All kinds of ways to eat more consciously. Click through for more.

Back to goats- a way of remembering the earth around you and treating all creation with respect. Also the beginning of food activism and justice. Roots here not just for kosher thought, but also vegetarianism, and other aspects of conscious eating. Thinking about what your food means, what it says about your compassion and values. Thinking about the feelings (so to speak) of the baby goat. And really, what is a cheeseburger but a mother or baby cow fried up in its own breastmilk? Kinda nasty when you look at it that way. And I am, regretfully, a great lover of cheeseburgers.

Ew. Good article, though, on food sustainability, if you click through.

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Bricks without Straw: A Reflection on Teaching.

Fundiementals returns on Monday. Continuing now with my Bible notes – Exodus Chapter 5 reminds me so much of teaching it’s scary. Deserves its own post.

Pharaoh Myers

“And Pharoah/Principal/Superintendent/Chancellor Myers said, “Your funds have been cut, and you shall have more children in each class, and each of you will have less help because there is no money for teacher’s aides. Yet you will be punished if your children do not succeed at the same rate as before.”

And the teachers cried out, “But how can we teach as effectively as before when we have more children and less help?”

And Pharoah Myers replied, “Nevertheless, you shall be punished if your students do not maintain and even increase their standardized test scores. And there will be no more free breakfast, for the city has decided that these freeloaders cannot take the well-earned money of the producers of society. And there will furthermore be no more Head Start program, for the same reason.”

And the teachers cried out, “But how can our students learn if they are fasting every day? And how can we make up the difference in our students’ knowledge base without the help of additional programming, when we are already teaching with more children and less help?

And Pharaoh Myers replied, “Nevertheless, you shall be punished if your students do not maintain and even increase their standardized test scores. You will lose funding, and there shall be no art class or music program or sports teams because we must concentrate on testing skills. And there shall be no recess because we must not waste time on play. Yet you must maintain the same level of order in your classrooms and increase your student’s test scores.”

Your students have only improved by 50%! You have brought shame on all of us! More paperwork for you!

And the teachers cried out, “But how can five year olds, who are developmentally, biologically programmed to learn through play, learn in this way that forces them to sit as adults for six hours at a time with no break? And how are they to learn how to manage social skills if they never get to interact with one another freely? Don’t we already have an epidemic of violence and bullying in our schools?”

And Principal Myers replied, “Nevertheless, there is no time for anything except reading and math and test scores. They will improve, you will improve them, or you will be punished.”

And the teachers replied, “But how can the children understand anything that they are reading about if they have had no exposure to anything in the books? How can we teach children to understand books that are about art and music and games and places and experiences that they have never, ever experienced? How can we accomplish this without enrichment programs and field trips?”

And Principal Myers replied, “Nevertheless, you will raise your student’s test scores and not make measly excuses. You will be punished when you fail.”

And the teachers replied, “May we at least use the lessons that we have practiced and perfected over our careers to help us raise our students’ scores?

And Pharaoh Myers replied, “No, you must use this new mandated curriculum, and your students’ scores will increase.”

And the teachers replied, “But we do not know this new curriculum. Wouldn’t our time be better spent individualizing our own methods to each of the many children in our classes, especially now that we have more children with less help and no enrichment?”

And Pharoah Myers replied, “No, you will use the mandated curriculum and learn it, and implement it without mistake, because it is teacher-proof, and the program will raise your students’ test scores. And if your students’ test scores are not raised by the program, you will be punished. The fault will be yours, not the program’s. And you will do this while I increase your paperwork load by 500% as you input ongoing test scores for data-driven instruction and monthly reports and flawless bulletin boards for when my inspectors come around to make sure that you are following all our instructions and increasing students’ test scores. ”

And the teachers replied, “But why must we spend valuable classroom time administering weekly tests to kindergarteners, who can barely hold their pencils yet, and whose learning at this stage in brain development is not linear as with an older child?”

Pharaoh Myers replied, “Nevertheless, you will do this, and if you fail to bring up your students’ test scores, you will be punished.”

Yes, it was really that monotonous. And, at times, insane. And heartbreaking. And hopeless-feeling. For me, anyway. I actually didn’t realize how strongly I still felt about this, how overwhelmed and angry and embittered toward the ed system, until I read this passage on the same day that I had a meeting with a friend about some social justice work. And I broke down crying at the memory of the time when I used to care so much about helping children who needed a boost, who weren’t born with a head start, and how painful it was to go back into battle every single day against all these forces that were in place to make your job nigh-on impossible.

I’m not sure I ever really let myself feel the defeat before. It feels so dark and hopeless to know that any little light that you can give a child on any given day has only a slim chance of surviving the onslaught of crap that the child will face for the rest of the day, and you’re going to be starting from scratch again tomorrow, and nothing is ever going to get better, and you’ll always, at best, only be half a step ahead of the darkness threatening to bring you down. That’s how I felt anyway. A suburban teacher in a well-funded school with aides and a regularly renewed library and parents with ample time to volunteer might have a very different experience. Or not. At any rate, our public schools are not all created equal.

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Fundiementals 4 – Spiritual Abuse

So. Spiritual abuse. I take a deep breath before plunging into this one.

The definition of “abuse” is misuse, especially with the effect or intention of harm. For example – physical abuse is the misuse of strength. Strength is not a bad thing in itself; it can be used to protect, defend, build, help, and serve, but in the case of abuse it is meant to inflict pain and to control another person. Verbal abuse is the misuse of words. Words by themselves are not bad; they can be used to reveal, to bond, to encourage, to inspire, to illuminate, to make clear, to edify, etc. In the case of abuse, words are used to demean, punish, control, and inflict pain on another person. Emotional abuse is the misuse of the emotional bond between two people. Normally, and optimally, bonding is a gift, an enrichment of life, satisfying and fulfilling, the food and water of our social and emotional lives. In cases of emotional abuse, the emotional bond, and the threat of its removal or withholding, is used to punish, manipulate, and control people. So it goes with all kinds of abuse, including spiritual abuse.

Whereas spirituality, or your framework for the Big Questions, is meant to widen and deepen your life, set you free from the unhealthy patterns of your family and society, help you mourn your losses and mark your major transitions appropriately, and offer you meaning, spiritual abuse is the misuse of these systems of belief to control, manipulate, punish, and exclude other people.

Spiritual abuse has slippery definitions. There are those who attempt to confine it to particular systems of belief, like the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, or as I once heard Chris Stedman refer to them, the “totalitarian religions.” I get what he was saying, and I believe that the structures for abuse are more immediately in place in these religious systems, but I myself have experienced spiritual abuse in an atheist context, and a friend of mine has experienced it in a yoga context. I really do not believe that there is a system of belief or spiritual practice that is immune from the dynamic.

But it does cause problems of definition, because you can’t just say “the misuse of God’s name and interpretation of His authority to punish, control, and exclude people,” although that certainly does happen, and certainly does qualify as spiritual abuse. But it excludes atheists, yogis, buddhists, and others who do not subscribe to a monotheistic, authoritative God, but who are still vulnerable to spiritual abuse.

So I guess my working definition would be any situation in which there is an appeal to a higher authority that is used to demean, control, punish, or exclude a person. The higher authority can be God, or it can be Reason, or a particular human leader, or it can be a certain prescribed set of practices. The thing that makes it spiritual abuse is that the higher authority is taken to be flawless, and the person or community appealing to the higher authority is taken to be the nearly-flawless mouthpiece of this perfect authority, and any deviance that you show from their interpretation of spiritual or intellectual perfection is grounds for you to be demeaned, excluded, punished, controlled, etc.

These spokespeople for the higher authority may admit to very minor flaws. For example, a small group leader at a church might confess to not spending as much time in the Word as he feels he ought, but he would never confess to doubting the validity or consistency of scripture, beating his wife, harboring gay fantasies, or whatever else is considered across the line of acceptability. And if, God forbid, you confess to something across the line, or are caught engaging in something unsanctioned, there will be strong efforts by the leader and the community to demean, discount, discipline, sanction, control, and/or exclude you, and it will be done in the name of love, in the name of God, out of concern for your spiritual well-being. In my case, the (atheist) abuser in question would give lip service to being a flawed human, but in practice, any opinion that deviated from his was “irrational,” wrong, threatening, “primitive,” “uncivilized,” and/or just did not adhere to the rigors of Reason (a standard which he alone, apparently, was able to navigate). And if you weren’t going to be governed by the laws of Reason, then you were no better than an animal; human trash, excluded from the ranks of “real” people, deserving of “tough love” (discipline, exclusion) so that you could learn just how wrong you had been.

The common thread here, from my vantage point, is the fundie pre-occupation with being Right. It comes back to that idea that the Whole Truth is singular, obvious, and small enough for a single person to perceive in its entirety. There is no room for dissent or debate, no allowance for the possibility of partial and incomplete truths, different paths around the truth – people who evolve into different ideas or have contrary experiences are dismissed as “fallen” in some way; they are immediately perceived as “less-than” or infected, and so everything they say is suspect. So people in these systems (and when I say “systems” I mean things as small as a family or marriage unit and as large as a major religious sect) find themselves in a catch-22. They can continue to toe the party line in order to gain the respect of their peers, but they lose themselves. Or they can be honest (truthful) about their perceptions and experiences, knowing that they will immediately be treated as a second-class citizen (best case scenario) or an outright devil/traitor/threat (worst case scenario), and be kicked out entirely.

You can find a lot more on spiritual abuse in other places. These are all specific to Christianity, where it is rampant:

http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/kristen-rosser-spiritual-abuse

http://www.soulation.org/freeatlast/

http://www.marydemuth.com/spiritual-abuse-10-ways-to-spot-it/

http://www.micsem.org/pubs/counselor/frames/spiritabuse.htm

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THIS. Naughty Thoughts. (On Church). A Book Review.

THIS is the book I’ve been waiting to read. I just didn’t know it. “Naughty Thoughts: On Church, and Why I Think We Need to Change,” by South African author Johan van der Merwe, addresses every doubt and internal conflict I’ve had about church attendance for the past two years. In fact, his central question is “Do I have to belong to a local church?” There are some for whom this question is satisfactorily settled, on either side, and you may not be interested in the question, and that’s fine. Neither van der Merwe nor I is interested in digging people out of a way of practicing Christianity that is working for them. Van der Merwe makes clear on several occasions that if you are finding life in a traditional church of any denomination, he has no quarrel with you continuing to love and serve God in that context. I do not fall into this camp. I have been struggling with questions of church for quite some time because, while I understand the nature of the gospel to be communal, and I don’t know how to experience that communal relationship outside of church, at the same time, I don’t feel that church is really enabling that experience, either.  For people who share this longing and dissonance, this book might be very compelling for you. I personally experienced such a huge paradigm shift while reading this book that it’s hard for me to write this review because I don’t have enough distance yet from the shift to be able to articulate it.  All I can say it that it was foundationally liberating to hear someone acknowledge, articulate, and honor all my subconscious questions and conflicts.

“Thinking Naughty Thoughts” is van der Merwe’s somewhat lengthy reflection on why the church as the institution we have come to know, is, per se, a fundamentally flawed and perhaps even toxic vehicle for trying to communicate the gospel of Christ. Not because the church is corrupt, although it is sometimes, and not because it needs some reforms, although it often does, but because the very principles that help institutions to exist conflict in some central ways to the gospel. Van der Merwe points out repeatedly that the primary metaphors used to describe the church in the first century all revolved around families, meals, bodies, and households – very natural, organic, fellowship-oriented concepts. And while we pay lip service to those metaphors today, our weekly church experience doesn’t actually practice them, whether you are Catholic or Protestant. Or if your church makes a special effort to foster familial relating among its members, it does that over and above and separately from its standard Sunday event – Sunday service and fellowship and community service, when van der Merwe points out that in the first century church, church basically was fellowship and service.

Van der Merwe takes a critical look at several basic elements endemic to institutional church, including tithing, liturgy, the role of the pastor, the Sunday sermon, church buildings, the Eucharist (yes, the Eucharist), and Sunday worship.

I’ll take one example to illustrate the dynamics that “Naughty Thoughts” is taking a look at – the role of the pastor. Van der Merwe spends several pages at the beginning of the chapter explaining that he does not mean to speak against any particular pastors, and neither do I. He (and I) are acquainted with many wonderful, hard-working, Christ-loving, long-serving pastors who do wonderful work, and his critique is not meant as personal slander – he is critiquing the institutional office of pastor, and what it has become, rather than any individual people who serve in that office. Despite this disclaimer, it is still a difficult critique to make precisely because van der Merwe is arguing that the existence of a professional pastor (or priest) per se is not only unnecessary but sort of contrary to some of the primary values of the gospel.

Van der Merwe makes a detailed case that Christ came to found, not a great religion, but a family of equals. I won’t go into that case in detail, but considering that Christ disrupted first century Jews’ understanding of their own religion, radically moved the boundary line that decided who was included, and left precious few instructions on how to proceed, and that first-century Christians shared everything in common, etc., you can probably see where he is going with that without me giving you the full exposition. Anyway, he goes on to point out that if Christianity is to be a family of equals, and yet every Sunday our way of coming to God is to sit and listen to the same person monologue at length about what we are to take from the Bible and the tradition, rather than engaging with our neighbors, dialoguing, and taking turns offering illumination of varying kinds, then the message (Christianity is a family of equals) is in tension with the delivery of that message (one man delivering all your wisdom from a place of authority). Even when churches go out of their way to foster community outside of Sunday services (small groups, home groups, fellowship groups, service projects), the primary, standard event that unifies the church community still falls back on this model, and the message the model sends is still in conflict with the message it is trying to deliver. This is an oversimplification of both van der Merwe’s point and the fully expressed dynamics of the situation, but hopefully you can see the point.

The entire book is laid out in that basic format – examine the central principle of the gospel, examine the institutional adaptation we have adopted (he goes into church history quite a bit), and ask the question – in what ways are our practices in conflict with our message? I LOVED, loved, loved, loved, loved this book. The only thing I could possibly say in critique is that the style feels a little to informal at times, and I wished for a little more structure in the editing. There were times when the book felt very much like a long string of blog posts, and I felt that the informality distracted from the brilliance of the ideas contained therein.

So, in sum – if you are quite happy with your church situation, then you don’t need this book, and I (and I think van der Merwe) are very happy for you. If you, like me, are finding church to be a bit thin, and your experience of the gospel more rich in other contexts, this book might help lay bare some of the values and principles involved.

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Fundiementals 3: Stories as Truth

So in this ongoing monologue I’m having with myself about the nature of truth, I think we need a separate post about storytelling. Every major religion in the world involves storytelling. Even atheists tell themselves stories to make meaning, although not all of them see it that way. Storytelling seems to be foundational to humanity. We tell stories to pass the time, we tell stories to pass on information, we tell stories to explain things, we tell stories to scare ourselves and others, we tell stories to laugh, we tell stories to connect. We tell stories on Sundays behind pulpits, we tell stories on pages in coded black lines, we tell stories around campfires, we tell stories over bottles of wine. We have whole industries built around telling stories in images cast across giant screens, in words on paper, in ones and zeroes. We sing stories across the airwaves, especially on county-western stations. We compress stories into 30-second bits between SuperBowl downs. We pay commentators to turn the SuperBowl downs themselves into narratives with protagonists and antagonists, victory and defeat, comedy and tragedy.

So what is a story? It’s a compression and interpretation of reality. A story is a lot like origami (shout out to Yoon Ha Lee for this metaphor) – we take the full onslaught of reality and we fold in the less important details so that the important details are prominent and give it a meaningful shape.

Think about the most boring storyteller you know. His stories are probably boring because they include way too many details. Her story about being at a convenience store while it was being held up would include a discussion about which items were on special, and the new stain on the linoleum in front of the freezer. You never need all of reality in a story – if you don’t fold enough details in, the story doesn’t take shape, and it becomes meaningless.

But, as anyone who does origami knows, any square can be folded in different ways to bring out a multitude of shapes. So it goes with storytelling. Five people watching the same convenience-store hold-up will tell five different stories. They will be similar in certain basic details (one hopes), but the folds will be different enough to be notable. They will emphasize different things. They will choose different details to include. Depending on how different the perspectives are between the storytellers (remember the discussion of perspective in Fundiementals 1?), the folds might be wildly different, almost to the point of unrecognizability.

Furthermore, some stories fold in more details than others. Stories told about recent, personal events tend to have the fewest folds – they are the origami equivalent of a kite. Pretty, simple, clear.

As the story lingers, separates from its origins, we start to emphasize certain points more strongly, sometimes to the point of exaggeration, and we start leaving more tangential details out. It becomes something of a tall tale (but if it’s still being told after all this time, it’s probably a good story, either because of its entertainment value, or because of its significance in our life). It becomes the origami equivalent of a boat.

The best stories are the ones that have been folded so many times that you can’t even guess what their origins were, you can only wonder at the beauty, mystery, and form of the final result.

Let’s go back to that quote from Richard Rohr:

“Pure literalism in fact avoids the real impact, the real message. Literalism is the lowest and least level of meaning in a spiritual text. Willful people use Scripture literally when it serves their purposes, and they use it ‘figuratively’ when it gets in the way of their cultural biases; willing people let the Scriptures change them instead of using them to change others.”

Pure literalism is saying of the picture above: “It’s a bird. It is exactly no more and no less than a bird, and it tells us everything we need to know about the nature of birds.” But it’s not a bird. It’s a piece of paper with a hundred hidden folded corners, shaped to resemble a bird. It tells us something of birds, of their essence, but it neither breathes nor eats nor flies, and so cannot tell us literally about birds. It is less than a bird. But it is also not accurate to say that it is merely a piece of paper. It has a meaning, a name, a description, and a symbolic representation in our minds that goes far beyond “piece of paper.” So it is less than a bird but more than a piece of paper. Origami is an in-between kind of thing.

So with stories. Stories are sculptures of words that tell of people and their actions and the events that changed them. Stories are not the people, the actions, or the events. They are less than reality. But they are more than mere words – they capture something of the essence of the human story. They are more than lists, more than schedules, more than exposition or description. Stories, especially the good ones, have hundreds of hidden, folded pockets of insight, meaning, snapshots of life and love, humor, grief, shame, and triumph. Stories are not the answer to the meaning of life, but they point to it in millions of moments of brilliance. Stories capture metaphysical questions and then pass them onto us dressed as ordinary things.

Our job with stories is not to evaluate them based on their literal meaning, (“It was realistic. I liked it.” “It was accurate. It held up to scrutiny.”) but to engage with them as a child, or an explorer, and let ourselves discover their inner pockets, play with their hidden corners, and allow them to change us (“It was inspiring.” “It made me cry.” “It made me realize….” “It made me wonder….”).

The more ancient and sacred the text, the more this is true. This is my belief, anyway. Sacred stories are not meant to illuminate the physical, literal world, and need not be judged on their ability to do so. Trying to judge sacred stories in this way is a common mistake of secular fundies. Nor should stories be contorted so that it appears that they do illuminate the physical, literal world.  Trying to twist stories into relevance in this way is a common mistake of religious fundies. Ancient, sacred stories don’t need to be literally true to be relevant – their relevance is demonstrated by their continued ability to inspire, across thousands of years and a multiplicity of cultures.

Another pitfall here, though, is assuming that ancient, sacred stories provide clear prescriptions for specific ethical situations that are unique to the modern world. The more ancient the text, the more  pockets of context, culture, values, and assumptions have been folded into them and then lost over the millennia; we will never be able to unfold them, or reverse-engineer them, and see the reality from which they sprang in all its gorgeous and heartbreaking complexity, and so trying to draw linear analogies is problematic.

And returning to the over-arching theme of this series, this is exactly why we should be extremely slow to judge those who engage the same stories and arrive at different interpretations. The very fact that the story can still be engaged and interpreted millennia after its creation is evidence enough of its depth, “truth,” and universality. The very fact that different people and cultures can interpret it in vastly different ways is evidence of our limited perspective.

And when we try to force others to comply with our interpretations, we wander into the realm of spiritual abuse, which the next Fundiementals post is devoted to.

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