Fast Food Religion

fast_foodIn the history of Christianity (and probably most other religious traditions, as well), there have been periods when Christian clergy have been among the least educated in society, and periods when they have been among the most educated.  In today’s Christian landscape, in which “the church” has been fractured into almost too many branches to keep track of, the educational level of Christian clergy probably varies considerably.

What I find increasingly exasperating is the way in which clergy (and, in most cases, the flocks they tend) are increasingly identified with the most unsophisticated and uneducated elements of society.  This week, I came across an excerpt from a “Christian” textbook which purported to teach the “science” of creationism as if it were factually established.  But it didn’t stop there.  It had an entry about electricity which it called “mysterious”, and it basically said that we don’t know what electricity is or where it comes from.  I shudder to think what children educated  in “Christian” schools using such textbooks will end up like as adults.

Clergy who pastor the congregations out of which people who create and use such textbooks come have a huge responsibility for this perpetuation of ignorance in the name of religion.  I would like to think that these clergy know better, but I am afraid that they don’t.  I’m afraid that they believe the drivel that is being published dubiously as educational material.  Such clergy have bought into a mindset formed by biblical literalism that has made them into a kind of Christian Taliban:  people who reject the insights of other branches of human knowledge when they seem to conflict with the “plain words of Scripture.”  Such pastors are helping to create a dangerous segment of American society which is anti-intellectual, reactionary, and increasingly separated from the mainstream.  And, in the process, they are helping to marginalize religion in American life.

Yes, there is no shortage of clergy who are happy to rant about creeping secularism as the great enemy of religion in America.  What they fail to see is that their version of Christianity, which receives so much public attention precisely because it appears so bizarre to the mainstream, is probably doing more to help drive people away from “organized religion” more quickly and effectively than anything else.  Their effort to defend an unsophisticated and simplistic caricature of the Christian tradition is digging that tradition’s grave ever deeper.  Especially since American public opinion and perception is so profoundly shaped by the media, whose obsession with caricatured religion is itself rather bizarre.

I came across something else this week that I have been unable to find since.  It was quoting a well-known theologian whose name also has gone out of my head!  But the point of the quote was that we desperately need to abandon this simplistic approach to both the Bible and the Christian tradition, because it is this very approach that is taking the life out of both.  This person sought to make the point that religion should not be easy.  It should require us to struggle with texts, traditions, and meanings, because that very struggle is what moves us forward in our spiritual lives.

Sadly, Americans don’t like to go for complexity or struggle.  We like to make things as quick and easy as possible.  We want churches with the spiritual equivalent of drive up windows that serve up tasty religion that goes down easily and requires little from us.  But, just like fast food, while such a diet may taste good, it provides little in the way of actual nutrition for the soul.

The Sacred Text of Life

191_thLast week, I wrote about the problem of violence in our sacred texts, in particular the Bible.  This week, I want to suggest that there is another sacred text that should be as important to us as the Bible:  and that is the sacred text of our life.

As I have pointed out in the past, for Christians, the most significant expression of the Word of God is Christ himself.  The Bible is a sacred text written by human beings about God and the human experience of God.   But for us, Christ is the sacred text that God personally authored, the One whom God called into being as the most sublime, profound expression of the divine within a human life.  For Christians, there is no more personal a word from God to us than Christ.

At the same time we claim that Christ is this personal word from God to us, we also claim that this word, this Christ, lives in each of us.  As St. Paul wrote, “it is not longer I who live, but Christ lives in me”  (Galatians 2:20).  We have a sense as Christians that the on-going life of the Risen Christ unfolds within us, in the depths of our being, interacting with us as we live our lives.

And it is this truth that makes each of us a kind of sacred text.  In our bodies, hearts, minds, and spirits, God in Christ is “writing” a word within us, a part of the great divine story just as compelling as any story of the Bible.  In essence, all contemplative ways of prayer and meditation are techniques for reading the sacred text of ourselves, of discovering the word that God is writing within each one of us.  That word interacts with all of our joys and sorrows, with the places of our wholeness and the places of our brokenness, with all that we experience,  bestowing on them grace, blessing, forgiveness, and meaning.

Each of us carries within us an awareness of our own story.  Truth be told, we are constantly turning that story over and over, editing, amending, and expanding it.  And none of our stories is accidental.  Each of our stories is a chapter, as it were, in God’s great book of the human story, and each of us has the opportunity to bring God’s story alive in our story.

Of course, while we are always living with our story, we often forget that it is part of God’s great story.  We neglect to bring God alive in our own story, and we can therefore miss the grace, blessing, forgiveness, and meaning that is offered to us.  We make the mistake of thinking that our story is self-contained, without connection to a greater whole.  We often make the assumption that our story is somehow privileged in relation to the stories of others.   And when we do, we lose sight of the relationship between our story and God’s story.

Many people spend long hours poring over the Bible, seeking to discover a word from God that seems addressed to them.  Perhaps we should give equal attention to poring over our own stories, knowing that within those stories, somewhere, there is a word from God to us that is more personal than any word we might find in the Bible.  For while the shared sacred text of our tradition is certainly powerful, the personal sacred text of our lives is where we and God truly live with one another.

Violence & Sacred Texts

KnockoutA few years ago, I made a retreat at a Trappist monastery near Atlanta, Georgia.  One of the things I love about going to a monastery of this kind is the way in which the monks get up at 3:30 in the morning for the first prayer service of the day (I know — it sounds crazy, but there’s something particularly sacred about that time of the day).  At that early morning service, the monks read through the Bible more or less in order, and at the time I was visiting, it just so happened that they were reading through the Book of Judges.

Now, Judges is rather a violent book.  At its heart, it is about a woman who is raped, and the violent revenge that is visited upon the perpetrator’s people by her people (the people of Israel).   It is not easy to hear.  At some point in the course of my visit, one of the more elderly monks apologized to us.  He said, “I’m sorry you’re here when we’re reading Judges.”  He went on to say that he had been telling the abbott for years that the Book of Judges shouldn’t be read in church because of its horrible violence.  He felt there was no spiritual value to it.  “We can’t change the Bible,” he said, “but we can decide what we read from it.”

The monk’s comments touch on two important issues:  the violence that appears in our sacred texts (including, and perhaps most particularly, the violence attributed to or sanctioned by God) and the nature of the texts themselves.

For many people, the Bible seems like a book that fell from heaven, written by God.  After all, we call it “the Word of God”, don’t we?  Yet the truth of the matter is that the Bible arose out of the experiences of two particular groups of human beings – the people of Israel in the case of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and the early Christian community in the case of the New Testament.  The texts that ended up in our Bible are there because people in those groups decided that those texts were sacred.  And in some cases, like the Book of Judges, it’s not always easy to discern why.  When we realize that the ancients exercised some discernment in determining what would be included in the Bible, we should be helped to realize that we have the right – indeed, I would argue, the obligation – to exercise discernment and judgment in determining when, where, and how we read those texts.  And despite what some people may tell you, nobody uses the whole of the Bible in support of their spiritual journey.  True, some people have a practice of reading the entire Bible every year.  But that doesn’t mean they give equal regard to every part of it.  Everyone has their “favorite” verses or passages that are particularly meaningful to them.  In other words, everyone is already exercising some discernment with respect to their Bible reading, even if that discernment is nothing more than “this passage speaks to me” and “this passage doesn’t speak to me.”

When we realize our responsibility with respect to our sacred texts, it becomes a bit easier to deal with the problem of violence in the Bible, and especially God-initiated or -sanctioned violence.  When we realize that the texts arise from human experience, when we realize that the Bible in many ways represents the human struggle to be in relationship with God and to make some sense of that relationship, then we can appreciate how deeply human the biblical texts are.  And that makes them capable not only of revealing to us something of the mystery of God, but also capable of revealing to us something of the truth of our own humanity.  And so the question that we must always ask in relation to any biblical text is this:  is this text telling me about God or is it telling me about myself and my fellow human beings?

There are a number of people who suggest that, when we ask this question in relation to the biblical texts in which either God inflicts violence on others or seems to sanction human violence against other people, we are not so much being told about God as we are being told about ourselves, and about humanity generally.  They suggest that in the Bible, human beings have made our problem with violence God’s problem, so as to make the use of violence seem acceptable.  When you think about it, this is not much of a stretch.  Consider the justifications for using violence that you have heard in your own life.  How many times have you heard political leaders justify the use of violence by implying (or even directly saying) that God is on their/our side?  Is this not an attempt to validate the use of violence by arguing that it has divine sanction?  So it is not so difficult to imagine biblical writers doing the same thing.  It is not hard to imagine that those who wove the history of Israel with the story of Israel’s experiences of God wanted to justify the violent episodes of that history by appealing to divine authority or even divine agency.

What is perhaps remarkable, given the ease with which human beings resort to violence, is how many texts there are in the Bible that oppose violence, and long for a transformation of the human heart that would bring about peace both within and without.  It is these passages, I think, that tell us about God’s dream for us – and that also speak of the deepest longings that are buried within us.

So the next time you read or hear a biblical text that has God wreaking havoc on one’s enemies, ask yourself this critical question:  is this really telling me of God, or is this really a human attempt to justify violence that breaks God’s heart?

Light through the Cracks

Egg-Cracking-with-LightRecently, I came across a quote from the poet, Rumi:

The wound is the place where the Light enters you.

It seems rather appropriate in this season of Epiphany whose founding story is about following the light of a star.  It also connects deeply with a recent experience.

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to witness a number of people speaking about their struggles with their own woundedness, and about their experiences of healing.   For none of them was the healing complete.  They were each at different stages in their healing processes, some further along that path than others.  Each was also deeply aware of their own brokenness.  In fact, it seemed to me that the very thing that enabled any healing to happen at all for them was their willingness to confront that brokenness and to befriend the fact that this brokenness was a part of who they were.  It was not the thing that defined them (though, it seemed, that they had each allowed it to in some way).   They were more than their brokenness, but the brokenness was nevertheless a part of them.

Rumi suggests that it is this brokenness, this woundedness, that becomes the place where the Light of God enters us.  We see the truth of this played out over and over again in the ministry of Jesus, whose own work in healing others was enabled by the consciousness of those who were healed of their own brokenness.  Over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus tells people who come to him seeking to be healed that it is their faith that has made them well.  For years, I have struggled with this idea, because for years I have interpreted it to mean that the healing that Jesus enabled was somehow dependent on the degree of that person’s trust in God.  It is a line of thought that too easily leads to the conclusion that if God hasn’t healed you, then you haven’t believed strongly enough or correctly.

But now I have begun to see the relationship between faith and healing differently.  As I consider the contexts in which Jesus points to this connection, it often seems to me that perhaps what he is pointing to is the ability or willingness of the person seeking healing to befriend his or her own brokenness, to acknowledge it as a part of themselves, to recognize it as the place where the Light can enter them.  And then the light does enter them.

Each of us is wounded, cracked or broken in some way.  For some of us, the brokenness is quite obvious to those around us.  For others, it is kept well hidden from public view – and, sometimes, even from ourselves.  Culturally, we tend to see woundedness as a weakness to be avoided and, if it can’t be avoided, to be covered up.  Yet it seems to be true that it is only by embracing our wounds that the Light can enter us – and, perhaps, it is through our wounds that the Light shines from us to touch the wounds of others.


EpiphanyThis Sunday, January 6, is the feast of the Epiphany.  I’m sure most of you know the story that lies at the heart of this celebration:  three kings (or wise men) “from the East” find their way to the birthplace of Jesus by following a star.   They bear gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And when they stop off to see King Herod about a newly born “king of the Jews”, they make him very nervous – violently so.

The story appears only in Matthew’s Gospel, and is usually interpreted to signify the importance which Jesus has not simply to the Jewish community, but to all humanity, since the wise kings are not Jewish, but represent Gentiles:  that is, everybody else.  The word “epiphany” means “an appearance or manifestation”, especially of someone or something divine.  It also means “a sudden, intuitive perception or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something.”    Within the context of the story, the kings, as they contemplated the stars, had an intuition that something important had happened and, when they arrived to see the baby Jesus, they beheld a manifestation of the divine in the child.

Some will want to insist that Matthew’s story of the three kings is historically true.   Others will want to insist that it cannot be.  But it’s historical veracity is not really the point.  We must always keep in mind when we read the Gospels that their primary purpose is proclamation, and the writers of the Gospels use a variety of stories to do that.  The truth of the Gospels lie not in their historical accuracy from our point of view but, rather, in the content of their proclamation of which stories, like that of the three kings, are a vehicle.

It seems clear to me that in telling this story, Matthew is interested in highlighting the cosmic significance of Jesus (hence the relationship between his birth and the appearance of a particular star).   This cosmic significance leads naturally into an emphasis by Matthew on the universal significance of Jesus – that is, that Jesus is important not just for Jews but also for Gentiles.  Yet, despite the deep significance of Jesus cosmically and among the human family, there are those (represented by Herod) who are threatened by Jesus and all that he represents and respond with violence and evil.

This year, as I contemplate the story of Epiphany, not only do I appreciate the truths that Matthew seeks to proclaim, but I am particularly struck this year with the journey of the three kings themselves.  Their journey is, it seems to me, a pilgrimage, a seeking after meaning, connection, and relationship with the divine.  They observe the signs available to them (represented by the stars) and what they see moves them to set out along a new path in their lives that will lead to someplace and someone deeper.  Their epiphany, their insight, is that they need something more in their lives.

Many of us are on this same journey.  As we observe the signs around us – injustice, violence, human and environmental degradation, broken political and economic systems – we find ourselves drawn into a journey toward deeper meaning, deeper connectedness.  We have an insight that our lives should be about more than what we see around us – that there is a more profound truth and reality that lies beneath all the chaos and dysfunction.  May we have the courage, the heart, to accept the invitation that the signs offer to us.  May we set out each on our own pilgrimage to the particular Bethlehem that calls to us, and may we discover a more sacred way of living and loving.