Monday, October 27, 2014

Worlds of Faith

A Review/Reflection of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Devotees of Science Fiction and Fantasy writing understand the importance of world building. With literature of that genre there is an implicate agreement between the reader and the author that the context of the book is not one in which the reader lives in. Gravity will be different, dogs rule the world, all horses speak out of their… ears, the sky is green and the grass is blue, and on and on. The world is going to be different that the ordinary, everyday world that we muggles slough through on a daily basis. Thus there is a degree of world building with these stories. The author has to build the world, and then figure out how to share the rules, the physics, the creatures, and all other aspects that might be different from what the reader normally expects. Whether it be the giant turtle of DiscWorld, or the geography of the Fire and Ice saga, or the difference between Dwarves and Elves of Middle Earth (from Lord of the Rings for the 1% of the country that has never encountered that masterpiece… shame on you), or the role of magic in the realm of Xanth, the reader needs to learn how the world works, what it means to live in that world, and the ways in which the story needs to fit in and will be guided by that world.


            While it is a far cry from Science Fiction or Fantasy writing, I would argue that Betty Smith’s book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn brilliantly does a similar thing – it creates a world. Yet in this case the world in question is Brooklyn in the early 1900s. It would have been interesting and slightly humorous if the book was actually about Gary, Indiana with the title, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but alas, Smith does not carry such humorous sensibilities with her work. Perhaps in person she was a real card and cut-up, but not in writing. Regardless, it is great work speaking to the experience of life in Brooklyn in the first two decades of the 20th century. Or better said, it is a world that is carefully, and painstakingly built for the reader Brooklyn in the early 1900s. We do not get the historical or geographical context in broad strokes, but instead in depth and brilliance of color. World events like World War I or the influenza of 1918 are mentioned in the work, but they are ancillary, secondary to the experience of Brooklyn. We get a dot, a point in the picture, but that point is described with such detail and care that the reader can from there place the life and experience of living in Brooklyn in the larger context of the American experience. It is a thick description (to borrow the term from the late ethnographer and anthropologist Clifford Geertz) of a place and a time that is told with such care and delicacy that it feels like unwrapping a gift one fold of wrapping paper at a time. It is not a plot-driven work, but instead one that is centered on the experience of living and being in a certain point and time. It is over 400 pages of world building and it is beautifully and masterfully done.

Because the work is focused with such detail on the experiences of the main character Francie Nolan and her family, there are many moments that one can call on for comment. For this post I would like to lift up one particular event; when Francie and her family is at a Catholic Mass to remember her recently deceased father. While watching and listening to the singing and the speaking of the Latin Mass, Francie has a revelation:

“Francie believed with all her heart that the altar was Calvary and that again Jesus was offered up as a sacrifice. As she listened to the consecrations, one for His Body and one for His Blood, she believed that the words of the priest were a sword which mystically separated the Blood from the Body. And she knew, without knowing how to explain why, that Jesus was entirely present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the wine in the golden chalice and in the bread on the golden plate.”

            Before I go any further I should speak to the deep sense of sacramentality that is being described here. My Catholic readers (do I have any Catholic readers?) will pick up on this right away perhaps without even realizing it. Those born before Vatican II, who were raised reading and learning the Baltimore Catechism will likely be able to connect with this experience more than those born after 1962. To my Protestant readers who do not have a heightened sensitivity for a sense of mystery in worship (i.e. sacramentiality), try for a moment to suspend all the skepticism and doubt and uncertainty that comes out of your reactionary response to Medieval Catholicism and imagine what it might be like for a 14 year old girl to experience a Latin Mass. It is mysterious. Note what Francie thinks next:

            “‘It’s a beautiful religion,” she mused, “and I wish I understood it more. No. I don’t want to understand it all. It’s beautiful because it’s always a mystery, like God Himself is a mystery. Sometimes I say I don’t believe in God. But I only say that when I’m mad at Him… Because I do! I do! I believe in God and Jesus and Mary.’”

As a life-long Protestant (and a Baptist at that), I would leave out the “Mary” part, but that is not the point. Francie feels the pull between the desire to know and the realization that not knowing deepens the beauty of the moment. “It’s beautiful because it’s always a mystery…” To understand everything is to lose something, but to hold to that place of unknowing is to have a place where the beautiful can enter in. This is a sensibility that Smith brings to the entire work. She offers great detail, great depth, but stops at the moment when the mystery needs to remain and does not explain everything away. For example, Francie loves hearing her father sing as he comes home late at night. We don’t need to know why, just that it is profound and powerful. The reader is called to rest in the mystery and in that find the beauty. The book is replete with moments of beauty and mystery; moments profound and simple.

In many ways faith is about world-building. We are not creating the world we live in, but offering explanations and descriptions for why the world is as it is. We start with certain assumptions and shared beliefs like the belief in the existence of God and that this God is love. Such a assumption shapes our view and experience of the world. From there we try to make sense of our experiences, we try to explain the dissonances, and we try to understand the world in which we dwell based on those assumptions. Augustine almost has a nervous breakdown trying to understand how there can be evil in the world when all is created by God and when God is believed to be good. As a theologian and as a pastor I try to offer an understanding of evil that fits within the world of faith that we have embraced. I try to suggest ways to read scripture that make sense with the particular individual. Churches try to offer ways of seeing and living in the world that conform with a certain understanding of faith. This is world building, but can be taken too far. We all run the risk of explaining too much, of trying to make too much sense in the world, and losing the beauty and the mystery. “It’s beautiful because it’s always a mystery.” One of the lessons that I have pulled from this work is that there is a point when you need to stay in the mystery. We want to have rational and explanation, but only to a point. There comes a point when we need to fall into the mystery of creation, of faith, of hope, and of love. There is a beauty to the mystery in our rituals (like why the sermon takes so stickin’ long), our prayers, our scripture, and our lives. Explaining away the mystery leads to a militant, dogmatic faith that demands that one fully believes every little thing that is said and explained. This is a kind of religion that usually harms people, that fears questions and curiosity, and that has no sense of play in the world. There is no mystery in this kind of faith. A faith that holds the beauty of the mystery is a faith that falls into the space where reason and mystery meet.

One of the great things about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is that the mystery is shown to be in the mundane. The act of making a tin can bank, the purchasing of meat, listening to parents talk late into the night, and many other examples in the book can be seen as small, simple, and ordinary. Yet the way Betty Smith describes them, the world she creates around them, draws the reader into the mystery and the beauty of each moment.


Those moments of mystical beauty in the arena of faith will most likely be ordinary, simple, and mundane. Yet we are again and again called to notice the beauty in those moments and recognize the presence of the divine in the unexplained mystery.

Monday, October 06, 2014

The Most Powerful Book in the Universe!

“If this weapon were to ever get into the wrong hands it could be destruction for us all.”




I love that line. It is one of those lines that you wait to hear whenever you are watching an action, adventure, spy, aliens, kind of move. It is a line that sets up the conflict and the importance of the movie. It is most often a forced and contrived line and I love it when I hear it. I have a dream that in one movie a character holds up something and the camera zooms in. You see the character holding nothing less than the Holy Bible hear him or her say “if this ends up in the wrong hands it could be the end for us all!”

The point is that the Bible can be a very dangerous book. It can be seen by many as a dangerous weapon that in the wrong hands can be destructive to the reader and to many others as history has demonstrated multiple times.

The Bible is at best a tricky book to read. It has been the source of inspiration of bigotry, prejudice, war, greed, racism, oppression, and poor decorating tastes. It is a book that has been used to push segregation, capitalism (for better or worse), socialism (again for better or worse), monarchism, patriarchies, and being just plain mean; known by scholars as “meanism or jerkism.” In the wrong hands, read the wrong way, the Bible can be a book that can lead to sorrow and suffering. In the wrong hands the Bible can be a dangerous book.

Yet it also has the potential to be a powerful book of life, hope, and freedom. Just as many who have used the Scriptures to justify so much pain and sorrow, many more have found justification a foundation for helping people in need, people who are hurting, and people who are at risk of being forgotten. The Bible need not be a negative book.

A large part of the challenge and the difficulty is in how we read the Bible. Many of the negative, dangerous, and oppressive interpretations of scripture comes out of a literal reading of the text, and usually it is the King James Version of the text that is being read in that hyper-literalist way (hooray for the critical-literal method gone awry!). In my humble opinion (hah!), I believe this is a close-minded way of approaching the Bible that is not open to the continued movement of the Holy Spirit. Peter Gomes writes in his work TheGood Book that the Bible is a living, dynamic, alive work pulling us into a faith that has offered life and hope and liberation to multitudes. The Baptist preacher and scholar Ralph Elliot writes that the word of God is a witness to faith. The Bible is a witness to a people encountering and trying to understand their relationship with God. It is alive, dynamic, and needs to be read with an ear for how God is continuing to speak.

I am not saying there is one right way to read the Bible (but there are definitely wrong ways). It is a complex text that cannot be read with a monolithic lens and each person needs to discern they ways to read the Bible that leads them to engage the divine through the text. What I am saying is that the Bible should not be read alone. It is when someone reads the Bible alone that one often comes to dangerous and harmful interpretations. The community can serve as a corrective, as a guide, and as a support to one who is listening for God’s eternal word. That is why we need a faith community and why we all should be going to church. Yup, you should feel a little guilty right now, because outside of the church you do not have the witness of others to lead upon as you strive to engage and understand this complex and often confusing book. Inside a church it is too dark to read (thanks Groucho Marx).

The Bible need not and should not be a weapon. It can and should be a guide, a star, a testimony, and a comfort. But in the wrong hands, read in the wrong way it can be damaging to many. In closing, I would like to offer nine “thesis” of reading the Bible from The Art of Reading Scripture edited by Ellen Davis and Richard B. Hays:

1.     The Bible tells God’s story of creating, judging, and saving the world
2.     The Bible is a coherent dramatic narrative
3.     The Bible requires engagement with the entire narrative
4.     To read the Bible on must use multiple, complex senses just as scripture reflects multiple, complex senses
5.     The Gospels narrate the truth about Jesus
6.     The Bible invites and presupposes participation in the community/church
7.     The “Saints” of the church (the leaders and pillars of the community) provide guidance in interpretation
8.     Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse people outside the church
9.     The Bible calls us to ongoing discernment and a fresh reading again and again in light of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world


I should say that this is not a quoted list, but paraphrased – you get the idea. In case you don’t get the idea, the idea is that the Bible something that pulls us into a faith that is not static, but moving and pulling us to a deeper relationship with God. Read your Bible, but only with others and always open to the movement of God’s inspiration through the Holy Spirit. And remember this simple rule: if your interpretation leads you exclude, hurt, or dismiss others than maybe it is a misguided interpretation.

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Political Devotional



There are a number of things that I try to avoid with church work. On the top of my list are things like craft shows, ice cream socials, and politics. The first two are simply due to a strong and well-reasoned fear of glitter and an intolerance of lactose; I do not have any theological issues or ethical problems with craft shows or ice cream socials. The third, however, is because of the ethical and theological quandary that accompanies any conversation having to do with politics in the context of the church. As a culture we have tried to separate religion and politics. As a pastor I have tried to stay away from the merging and mixing of the two. 
Yet to claim to be devoid of politics in the religious sphere is disingenuous; religion is, by nature, political and speaks to the current political context in one way or another. At one level or another to read scripture, to pray, or to attend and participate in worship is a political act.

First, consider the notion that politics is about the ways in which one relates to people and is about the practice and theory of influencing people on a global, civic, and individual level (thank you Wikipedia). Because of our disestablishment heritage made concrete in the First Amendment, one aspect of the discourse of American politics has moved to a place where politics claims to be devoid of religion, and many wussy religious leaders (myself included) strive to claim that religion is devoid of politics. We claim that religion has no place in politics and politics has no place in religion. Yet religion is about influencing people on a global, civic, and individual level. When I preach I am trying to persuade people to aspire to a certain way of living and a certain way of being in relationships with other people. In Christianity we tend to embrace an ethic that calls us to treat people a certain way (mostly nicely) and to take care of people who are in need (mostly). Such an ethic speaks to an idea of how the world is supposed to be; a place where everyone is mostly nice to each other and were we mostly take care of people in need. It may be watered-down, but this is a political ethic. Perhaps one cannot so easily separate one from the other.

It is not difficult to push a little bit and see those moments when Christianity was overtly political. The roots of Christianity, the purity laws (as well as others) found in the Hebrew Scriptures (or the Old Testament for you close-minded folks) are political in the way they guide people’s lives. The vice and virtue lists in the letters of Paul and in the Pastoral Letters are intended to shape and mold the behaviors and relationships of a nascent community. Kinda political when you think about it. In the Medieval era the church and the state were closely inter-twined leading to the notion of divine mandate suggesting that kings were the spokespersons of God and of Cardinals and Popes wielding real political power. That didn’t go well when some kings believed that their divine mandate empowered them to go against the current teachings of the church and trying to do crazy things like divorce their wives (I’m looking at you, Henry). Others, like John Calvin, Ludwich Zwingli, and folks who came after them (I’m looking at you and your Puritan ilk, John Winthrop) believed that government needed to be led by religious people who were right with God in faith and action. We have a history of a close and at times messy relationship of religion and politics.

But we have tried to pull the two apart. Part of the radical nature of the great experiment of religious liberty (a nod to William Penn and Roger Williams) was to suggest that the government would not have a religious bias. Because of experiences in England and in Colonial America, people here in the United States thought it might be a good idea to try having a government that was guided by reason, rational, and human decency, but not by a specific branch of any faith tradition. Thank goodness for prevalent preaching of secular humanism and the optimistic hope in humanity to undergird such a notion (sarcasm?). People could be trusted to do the right thing because people are generally reasonable even if they are Quakers or Methodists, or dare I suggest, Baptists! In time the notion emerged and took hold that one’s faith need not be a dominant aspect of one’s political life and that it is best to keep God out of politics. An individual piety emerged and a social conscious diminished.

Note: I realize that I am glossing over large swaths of American religious and civic history. The abolitionist movement, the temperance movement, the civil rights movement, the Religious Right of the 1980s are all examples of Christian political action. The point is there has been a thread in our narrative that looks to keep religion and politics separate.

Yet I contend that religion is to a degree political and will continue to be political and there will continue to be a strain and tension between the relationship of religion and politics.

Some say it is important and appropriate for churches to be engaged and involved in political processes. There are times when injustice is so great that to stay silent is in itself a sin. While in a jail cell in Birmingham, Martin Luther King Jr., famously called out many white, Protestant pastors to join in the cause for civil rights, claiming that they could no longer wait in the arms of compliancy and live with fundamentally unjust laws. When H. Richard Niebuhr claimed that it would be wrong for churches to be involved with or advocate for any kind of military action in the 1940s his brother Reinhold responded that his brother was holding an “illusory hope” and to the impossible notion of a society of pure love. There was a need for the church to advocate for the United States to become involved at the global level even if it was an evil, it was a lesser evil compared with inactivity (he then proceeded to give his brother a noogie).

These are only recent examples of times when Christians were called to be directly involved in the political process of our nation. We hear again and again in the New Testament about the “Kingdom of God,” and are given a picture of a utopian society of equality, sharing, and grace. It is a very political idea and if we really believe it then perhaps we should be working to implement it. To be passive could be interpreted as not embracing such an integral part of the Gospel writings.

Yet on the other hand there is the reality of the diversity of moral convictions and faith traditions in our nation. Even within our Christian family there are many different understandings of what is important, of what needs to be a priority for the individual, and of what Christians should be advocating. Can you believe that some Christians actually disagree with others? Can you believe that some Christians may actually disagree with me? Some may say that the greatest problem that the government needs to face is hunger and poverty and others may say that it is actually abortion and what happens in someone’s bedroom (hopefully a lot of sleeping). Both are political claims, and while they are not mutually exclusive, there is a way in which addressing one may undermine the other. Perhaps it would be best if we just stayed out of politics over all and that way no one will ever get upset, just bored.

The reality is that the practice of religious freedom, while messy, has shown to be positive and productive in helping people thrive. Yet politics will necessarily call for a compromise on one level or another and faith is not about compromise. Hence, there is a mess in the mixing of religion and politics.

Thus, speaking about politics in a Christian context is difficult and messy. Yet it must be done. It must be done because:
  1.     It reflects the basic Christian notion that we are called to care about and for other people. As soon as we speak about anything political we are speaking about the lives of others and the ways in which they may or may not interact with our own live. If we recognize that people struggle and suffer and that we need to do something to help them, our next step will in one way or another be political. Even if it is handing out sandwiches it is a political act (albeit very safe and surface)– a redistribution of resources.
  2.   We are called to show compassion to people. Compassion is a resources in rare commodity in politics today. The current method of political discourse is with a great quantity of vitriol and acrimony and the common wisdom is that the louder you shout and the meaner you are the more persuasive your argument. Yet that is not part of the core teachings of Christ. Actually I believe that they are not part of any of the teachings of Christ. Instead, I believe we are to treat other people with charity, compassion, and grace no matter how much we disagree with their policies and beliefs. This is a way of evangelizing our faith through politics, by being radically nice to others even as we disagree with them. Sadly, today this is not an approach that is practiced by many Christians who are politically involved.
  3.   Power and principalities are real. There is power in the world, governments have power over people and often time enact policy that threaten and harm individuals. Institutions often are given power in one way or another and embrace actions that harm the least of society. Again, we are to try to take care of other people, and that means we work to make sure that wherever power is, it acts and moves for the benefit of the poor, orphans, widows, and the like. Kinda like the prophets, Christians can and should be an influencing presence with institutions and governments (powers and principalities).



So get involved, be political, get riled, but do so with a lot of compassion, with a lot of prayer, and with a lot of humility. Think about the least of our society, pray for guidance, hold your nose, and be political. Start with reading your Bible, which can be a very dangerous and political act, and then get your hands messy and pray for forgiveness because whenever we get involved in politics we will most likely need it.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Pain of Growing Up


Growing old, growing up hurts; this is a reality of life.
 Growing up, maturing, going out into the adult world will hurt. 

They don’t tell you this at graduation, the commencement speaker does not add such a statement to the litany of positive affirmations that are so bland and surface that they really mean nothing. Yet I would argue that it is a truth with which we all grapple. Growing old is difficult.  Part of the tragedy of such a reality is that we cannot avoid it; we are all getting older and are growing up in our own ways and there really is not anything we can do to avoid it (except die, which I am not at all advocating!). There are a number of mediums (movies, art forms, books, songs, etc.) that wrestle with this truth of existence. Some deal with this reality with a Pollyannaish kind of optimism telling the audience that it is all going to be ok and there are plenty of rainbows and unicorns to be found in adulthood if you just look hard enough. Life is a giant PEZ dispenser popping out sweet pill goodness. Some people actually believe this crap.  Some tell you that you only have to hold onto your youthful idealism and then you will never have to face the cold, harsh reality of life in its fullest. Keep wearing the hip-hugging jeans, the t-shirts with Hasbro toys on the front, and the ironic 1970s movie references because then you are still holding onto your youth (or at least a very sad dream and illusion). Then there are those works that looks the specter of aging and maturing in the face with all the good and horror that it has to offer and say, “bring it on.” These are people who embrace the truth that growing old is painful and do not run away. I feel that Karen Russell’s book Swamplandia! offers this realistic, macabre look at the travails of becoming an adult and does not run from the reality of the pain of maturing.



Warning, spoilers abound!

What I found great about Russell’s book is that it offers a realistic view of life through very metaphorical, fantastical, and mystical themes. In Swamplandia! we meet a family of alligator wrestlers running a perverse kind of theme park in the Florida Everglades, living a dream and a lie in its greatest fashion complete with security blankets of multiple kinds. It is after the mother of this family dies that the rest have to grow up and start to encounter the pain as well as the wonder of life. One by one each character in Russell’s book has to search, take chances, and try to find their own way in this new, uncharted life. Each one suffers, each one loses something, and each one grows. The brother endures insult and injury working at a rival park experiencing the “real world” like a bucket of ice water poured on top of his head (and he wasn’t even challenged to do so). The older daughter tries to escape to a forgotten time with a ghost who promises love forever only to be left at the altar. The youngest daughter, searching for her sister, joins with a magical “birdman” in an almost Homeric Odyssey until she realizes that her traveling companion is nothing more than a perverted, lost, old man. Each travel, each struggle, and each suffer as they leave the theme park of their youth and enter into the real world.

And there is no happy ending.

This is where I find Russell’s book refreshing and difficult. There isn’t a sad, tragic ending, but things are not brought to a satisfying conclusion. With my first read I found myself looking for the happy conclusion where everyone was able to return to their home, to their comforts, and to their illusions that they once knew. I yearned for a happy ending and was found wanting. It is not a tragic ending. It is not an ending with a body count rivaling many movies today, but it was not a happy, return to glory ending. So I had to sit with the uncomfortable place where Russell leaves the reader.

It is a real ending. It is an ending that fits life. We work, we struggle, we do well, or we fail and then we continue. This is life as the great existentialists, Camus or Sartre, would describe it (without the French accent, beret, and cigarette). Perhaps they would applaud such a realistic work even as it drips with metaphor and symbolism. It is a book that speaks to the difficulty of growing up in a realistic way, and after pondering, musing, and reflecting, I have found the ending refreshing and perhaps instructive.

With each character they had to endure their own journey in their own way. Yet to a degree they held to their roots, to who they were. One saves a girl from drowning due in part, to his training wrestling alligators. Another survives in the Everglade wilderness because of her knowledge in the land, and another escapes danger through an alligator pit because of her training and upbringing. We move on, but we do not leave our childhood. They are our roots. They are in large part who we are for better or worse. Trying to leave is painful and important, yet what we learn, who we are can help us survive the journey and the next stage of life and we never fully leave who we are.

Now for the theological bit: think about conversion. When we hear the word, “conversion” we often think that it is referring to a complete change of the person/thing in question. One converts from one position to another. We would not usually think about conversion in the sense of growing up, yet perhaps we should. I am not suggesting that religious conversion necessarily speaks to a move from adolescence (unbelieving) to adulthood (believing). I have had too many interactions with winey, annoying, immature Christians to make such a statement. What I am suggesting that even though there a change does occur through conversion (religious or otherwise), there is always that aspect of the individual that stays the same. That person still has the memories, the experiences, the values and ideals that influenced the conversion in the first place. Yes, the person has changed, but there still is the sameness that continues in the converted. The characters in Swamplandia! were changed through their experience, but continued to carry and stay connected with their identity as it was shaped in the swamps and with the alligators.

In addition to this, conversion is not easy. Part of the work of conversion is trying to navigate one’s life with a new identity. Now that you believe “x” how will you spend your evenings, your weekends, and eat your pig? Post-conversion, one needs to navigate one’s life in new and different ways. This is not easy but is a reality of moving from one place to another. In evangelical circles conversion is painted as a moment where one experiences a profound experience, has a lightning flash, mountaintop moment, and is a new and changed person. While this experience may happen, it is only a part of one’s conversion. Work is needed to get to that moment and work is needed after that moment. Things will be lost just as they are gained; this is a reality of conversion.

So from a theological perspective we can see how Russell’s book may speak to the experience of conversion. Not the powerful, wonderful, flash-in-a-moment conversion where one minute you are a regular person and the next you are a bundle of nutrients for an alligator, but the slow, deliberate process of moving from one place of belief to another and all of the pain and beauty that such a process takes.


So I encourage all neophyte believers of whatever doctrine, belief, or faith tradition to read Swamplandia! and ask yourself what it is that you are going to have to let go of, what is it that you are going to have to do differently, and where is it going to hurt the most in order to stay true to your newly found convictions of faith.