FearMeneutics

Wasn’t it their Jesus who didn’t care much for this life? Wasn’t it their Jesus who said to love our enemies? Wasn’t it their Jesus who said to give the tunic off your back? What the hell was the parable of the Good Samaritan all about if not endangering one’s own self to help another?

– Ruth (Out from Under the Umbrella)

My good friend Russell, of Russell & Pascal, sent me this YouTube clip last night. As some of you may know, in a previous life I occupied pulpits for a living myself. Before I realized what was required of those, not to mention what was spewing out of those, who stand in that spot.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, Baron Lord Acton told us, and the authority ascribed to evangelical mega-church (and even mini-church) pastors is about as close to absolute power as clergy can get, short of being the Pope. It is also an extended exercise in electioneering: evangelical clergy are hired, not assigned, to fill their pulpits, which means they can also be fired. Which means they get very good at telling congregations exactly what they want to hear, to the point that it becomes difficult to distinguish between sermons and sound bites.

But even more disturbing than what the pastor himself says in this video is the wild applause in the background. My friends, I give you The Lynch Mob, otherwise known as Sunday morning worship. It is emotion running on pure instinct: this is how the same group can applaud Jesus’ admonition to “love your enemies” and their pastor’s support for killing those same enemies dead, all within six minutes’ worth of a YouTube clip.

This is not love, in any sense of the word; it is hate, fueled by fear, encouraged by clerical authority. And it is why I got out when I did–from flag waving to male chauvinism to homophobia, all disguised as God’s love and all justified by way of Scripture, I just couldn’t be That Guy anymore.

But let’s be clear–That Guy isn’t what Christianity is about, not completely. There are many Christians–including many pastors–who believe Ruth’s words, quoted above, and live according to them both in and outside of the church. Lest we forget that, and treat them as the above congregation wants to treat our Islamic brethren, here’s a few quotes that I found yesterday in posts about the Paris attacks, and our national response to them:

Before I knew it I felt the emotions move from my stomach to falling out of my eyes as I prayed for the leaders of this country, our current President, the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces, for the prejudice in my heart, and the hate in my words-the words that I have only spoken to myself.

I prayed for the children sleeping in tents and on the road to safety, I prayed for the families that were destroyed and separated, both in Paris and Syria. I opened that prayer to every family, worldwide, that has been touched by terrorism.

The emotion made me pause as I began to pray for every mother or father boarding or placing a child on a boat in an act of love, making hard decisions, trusting the life of their child to both faith and chance; my pause provoked by both empathy and reality.

— — — — —

Act Justly: when faces of weary, worn and haggard refugees stream across my Facebook feed, I am reminded again and again that these are people. They have needs and desires. They require air to breathe, the same as do I. They have families and loved ones. They have felt love- feel love. Have been loved. Have known love. In justice, I must show love as well, offering what I have. Even though what I have might be small. It might be as small as a prayer. It might be even as faint as a fleeting thought or as fragile as the whisper of an image striking my mind in quiet, speaking to my soul. But to do justice, I must seek for the best for all human beings across this globe.

Acting justly starts small. If I cannot act justly to those I know and care for, how can I act justly for others in far-flung regions? It starts here. It starts now. It starts with me.

Love Mercy: I must cleave to compassion, strive to be kind, urgently aim toward benevolence. If I have, I must give. If I can share, I must allocate. If I can offer, so I must do. In considering others better than myself, I am showing that I love mercy. In placing others needs above my own, I am showing that I love mercy. In offering my life for the betterment of another life, I am showing mercy.

Our lives are not our own. Do we not believe that we have a Father that protects us? Is He not bigger than terror? Are we not held in the hollow of His hand? Whom shall I fear?

Walk Humbly: when we refrain from extending ourselves, there can be issues of pride involved. But so can they become intertwined in our motives when we give. We must continuously contend for humility in all aspects of our life. If we have been chastened, accept and move forward. If we have been convicted, act on our convictions. If we feel strongly, question the motive that has brought about the feeling. If we do not feel strongly, we can then ask ourselves: why not? In humility, we are made more in His image. We are more of what we could be. More of what we should be.

I ask each of us—myself included—when considering what our role is in the unfolding story of world history (whether that be a story told close to home or farther abroad: what would Jesus do?

Let it be what I would do too.

— — — — —

Dare I grieve for the misguided, angry and evil young men who convinced themselves that this was for God’s glory? Dare I grieve for the mothers of these men and wonder if this was their aspiration? Dare I grieve for those who hold their faith as preciously as I hold mine and see themselves disdainfully numbered amongst the criminally insane? I dare.

— — — — —

To be Christian is not, willy-nilly, to embrace hatred and xenophobia, as some who view the above video might want you to believe. That video is one expression (albeit unpleasant) of a wonderfully kaleidoscopic faith that takes in a multiplicity of views and beliefs, many of which are built upon the very teachings of loving action that Pastor Jeffress’ words so effectively undermine. Not all Christians respond to the hermeneutics of fear.

I no longer think of myself as a Christian, but I would be remiss if I failed to defend the many men and women in my acquaintance who still are, and who would be just as horrified as I am to hear Pastor Jeffress’ message of violence and hate. In the hearts of many, God actually is love, and to be a Christian actually means living that love in a way that transcends the legalistic and the literal.

So, before you judge too harshly the whole based upon the part, remember what we’re talking about this week: if it is unfair to turn our backs on the Syrian refugees because of what the very few among them may believe or desire, then it is equally unfair to reject all Christians because of what this congregation has done to the Christian message.

Hatred is a mirror:
the only person you ever see in it is yourself.

I Now Pronounce You…

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Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam… And wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva… So tweasure your wuv.

– The Impressive Clergyman

If you glance at the sidebar of my blog, you’ll notice my “Credentials of Ministry.” A word on that…

Way, way, way back in 2003, before I absconded with an open(er) mind, the church I was working at in Missouri licensed me to “marry and bury,” as the saying goes. Between then and my departure from the ministry, I performed two extremely Christian weddings (cord of three strands, Proverbs 31 woman, husbands love/wives submit, and all that).

Then, having packed my clerical bags, I assumed that was all in the past…

…Until a friend asked me, quite recently, if I would be interested in conducting a secular wedding ceremony for his dad. To my surprise, I found myself actually considering it. And in one week and change, I will be doing it.

However, being unsure as to the continued validity of that first license, I decided to update my status by applying for ordination to the Universal Life Church, a process which took about three minutes and which is accepted, with certain exceptions, in most of the fifty states.

So, now, have license, will travel.

The online approach is unlike me. On one level, I feel like I just shopped for a term paper. On another, though, this feels…important. Formality doesn’t carry as much weight with me now as when I was “Pastor Vance”; after almost seven years of what our families would call “Godless marriage,” I find that two strands, tightly woven, don’t really need a third. If the online ordination offered by the ULC allows me legally to bring  two new strands together, then it’s good enough for me.

It feels important because there are people, like me, who believe that the parties involved are more significant than whatever religious legitimation might be brought to bear on the proceedings. A strong commitment between loving individuals, whatever their gender, trumps commitment to any particular theological or philosophical system. The latter is neither necessary nor sufficient to a long and happy marriage, and sometimes only gets in the way.

Also, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, it seems to me that someone needs to stand for the right–legalized, perhaps, but still not guaranteed–of all people to build a relationship with the person of their choice. I was once told that, if a same-sex couple looks hard enough, they’re sure to find a pastor willing to marry them. To which I reply: No one should have to “look hard” for permission to celebrate their desire for commitment, as if their love were any less valid than anyone else’s. So, look no further: here I am.

This is a feeble attempt to express my feelings on this matter. And I’m definitely not the A-Team. But if you’re looking for affirmation rather than approval; if you’re more interested in your commitment to one another than commitment to any particular faith; if the only legitimation you need is your love for each other; if any of this applies to you, then I’m your guy.

Now…let us eat cake!!!

Bad Moon Rising

Total_lunar_eclipse_-_full_eclipse_(blood_moon)_April_2014(Photo by Anne Dirkse)

Run to the hills
Run for your lives

– Iron Maiden

I know I’ve been on a tear lately, but I wanted to take a brief moment to wish you all a fond farewell. It’s been grand!

But as you all (may) know, the end is nigh. Again.

Tonight, at 9:11 CST (spooky, right?), the fourth in a tetrad of blood moons will unleash upon us the wrath of God’s judgment. Or so I’m told by John Hagee. And a bunch of other experts no one’s ever heard of before.

I know, I know–we’ve heard it all before. This is, after all, why the Seventh Day Adventists call themselves Seventh Day Adventists and not Millerites anymore. Perhaps you remember Harold Camping and his roadside messages of doom? may21billboardOr this little book, which in its day was quite the bestseller, and now stands as a tribute to 41qk+TYekvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_humankind in all our gullible glory? And don’t get me started on the Mayans! How could they do that to John Cusack’s career!?!?

But this time, I assure you, it’s real. I mean, it has to be, right? How else could these folks give us yet another feeble guess with anything approaching a straight face? No, this time…well, I don’t think I’d be remiss in recommending a collective kissing of our asses goodbye.

Tomorrow, if any of us has survived to wander the post-apocalyptic wasteland, feel free to join me here in Waco, and we will feast together on radioactive fish from Lake Waco. (Really, we could do that anyway; everybody knows the fish in Lake Waco are quite possibly radioactive already.)

Duck and cover, my snuggle-bunnies! It’s gonna be a bumpy ride…

Keep Your Words in Your Own Mouth, Please!

churchsign2If you have nothing nice to say,
then don’t say anything at all.

– My mother
(and millions more just like her)

So…I just got back from a conference in Pasadena, CA, at which I presented a paper on social media, and the ways in which they affect our ability to engage one another in meaningful dialogue. One of the topics I discussed, by chance, was the Internet meme. The presentation went rather well, I think, and I was going to write a follow-up post for my bloggy thingy here. And then, I got a forward from my father-in-law, well-meaning spreader of whatever rumor floats his way on the wings of cyberspace, fact-check free:

church sign

Dearborn, Michigan–out to kill us all!!!!! Except…wait a minute…that sign looks a whole lot like this one:

demosign09Exactly like it, in fact! Could it be that someone completely fabricated the “Kill America!” message, and then spread it, knowingly and maliciously, around the Internet as if it were the truth, the whole truth, and…well, you get the idea? Unheard of, right? Who would do such a thing?

After five seconds of research and a very helpful Snopes.com page, followed by a moment of righteous indignation at the intellectual and moral dishonesty of the person who did this…I remembered something. Something I’d seen on the blog of a friend who, supposedly, has taken it upon herself to expose the lies told to the masses by organized religion:

baptist-church-sign

And that looks a hell of a lot like this:

demosign1Before my father-in-law’s forward, I had no idea that “Church Sign Maker” even existed. And, having spent a few years in the church sign business myself, I’ve seen my share of ridiculous messages in front of church buildings. So, I bit. Hard. I even laughed at some that I saw on fellow bloggers’ pages…like this one:

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Which, once again, looks a whole lot like this:

demosign3Now, I know that these last two images are not exactly the same (the one above has a larger foreground, etc.), but they are obviously images of the same sign. And that’s the point: who knows which one, if either, is real? That’s what the meme does, people. It bends the truth, even when based on a partial truth, to the point that it’s no longer distinguishable from the lie.

Now, I should have known, me and my tirades about memes and what they do to our ability to relate to one another. But, you see, I trust the person on whose page I saw these things. Trusted, anyway. Now, how am I supposed to know what is real, what is true, in her ongoing crusade against religious “untruth”? My father always told me: Two wrongs do not make a right. What of that? In fighting a lie, is it acceptable to use a lie?

Because, at the end of the day, that’s what these things are: lies. Inventions. Like the “Dearborn sign,” and equally harmful. We can use memes to put our words into the mouths of anyone we want, anyone we don’t like, in a way that creates an illusion of truth and makes them responsible to the masses for something they never even said. And it cuts every which way. Welcome to the world of digital propaganda! We don’t need to discover evidence and expose the truth. We can simply create the truth out of whole cloth.

It’s amazing how our “enemies” conform to our expectations when we’re the ones crafting their narrative for them…

So, next time you try and tell me, my friend, that Christians are the problem, that they’re the ones obstructing productive dialogue, spreading a harmful false message and preying upon the gullibility of the masses, check yourself.

Who’s obstructing whom?

Ground Rules

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Words, words, words.

Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

As I embark upon this exegetical project of mine, I feel I need to explain my approach, so as to avoid confusion down the line. It may be controversial, but that is the point: as a rule, church leaders are not controversial enough (at least, not in the right way) when “rightly dividing” the word. I say this from experience: too often, preaching is intended to tickle the eardrums, to tell people what they want to hear and send them back out to endure another week in the world. The idea of challenging them to encounter that world and allow that encounter to act as a reverse hermeneutic, itself shaping one’s interaction with scripture, never really comes into play.

What I’m talking about is not the controversy of standing on principle. It is the controversy of questioning the principles upon which we stand. The sacred cows. The pet doctrines. The things we yell about come election time. It is the controversy caused by challenging people to think beyond received wisdom, to see things in a new light.

So, here goes:

1) I will set aside entirely the language of “divine inspiration.” I have no problem with the notion that biblical authors were inspired by a love of God or belief in a certain idea of God, or that as a text it is an inspired work. All texts are inspired by a love of something, from poetry to treatises on computer coding. But this is as far as I will go. Beyond this, there be monsters. Not because I am daunted by supposed divine authority, but because if all people are to benefit from the positive teachings of Jesus (from Christians to Buddhists and back again), the slightest whiff of sectarianism will throw off the whole project. And what is talk of ultimate authority but code for spiritual imperialism?

2) This is not an exercise in demythologization. Myth is not in itself a bad thing. It is the vehicle whereby we interpret our world, meaning handed down through the generations. Myth is not the problem. The problem arises from treating myth as if it were fact. So, when it comes to miracle stories, it is not enough to simply dismiss them as false, because they are not. Of course, they are also not strictly true. Somewhere, nestled between literalism and metaphor, lies meaning. And meaning is what we’re after. Homiletical approaches to miracle stories often suffer not from too much interpretation, but too little. They are either taken at face value (this happened), or rejected at face value (this didn’t happen). This project is aimed at both extremes, in the hopes that their adherents might be encouraged to meet in the middle.

3) I will seek to redefine the doctrine of salvation in terms purely physical. This is one area in which most literalists wax blithely metaphorical. Somehow, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and preaching good news to the poor throw off the shackles of biblical literalism and don the sublime clothing of allegory. Why? Because it’s easier to preach to someone than it is to actually reach out and touch them as people. So, we need a theology that encourages us to save what we can see before moving on to what we cannot. We have no business lyricizing the life beyond while life right here and now falls apart around us. No more fiddling while Rome burns.

4) With certain rare exceptions, I will be sticking to the Gospels (and possibly even some of the extra-canonical teachings of Jesus). I will not touch Revelation with a ten-foot pole: that hobby-horse has been pretty well beaten to death. As for Paul, well, we wouldn’t have most of the problems we have today were it not for him. (The rest of them, of course, were caused by Augustine.)

5) That I am arguing for the good in the New Testament should in no way be construed as a dismissal of the elements which might be more problematic. This is an attempt to offer one interpretation, and interpretation is always an act of dissection, deciding what to keep and what to set aside. To toss out the good because of the bad is unwarranted. This is why authority must be earned rather than assumed: that which is patently unjust must never be accepted as authoritative. And that which passes such things off under the guise of authority should always be set aside.

At the end of the day, this is really about those I’ve left behind. Call it an apology for bailing out before the ship started to sink. I sometimes think that, had I been less exhausted, I might have stayed on board. To these people, I say: there are other ways to live your faith, ways that are contributory rather than retributive, ways that recognize the meaninglessness of “in but not of” as the foundation of a moral code.

Even if you do ascribe to the Bible an authority that I do not, these lessons apply. There are other modes of interpretation that deserve at least a glance, a chance to convey something much more akin to divine love than the image of a jealous God ever could. An approach that allows us to open the door to Jesus without slamming it shut on everyone else.

I am the Toad, perched on a fence post, and this is what I see.

The Bible, as Viewed from a Fence Post

800px-crapaud_st_helier_jerseyOut of a small set of plain speeches by Christ grew a mountain of critical discourse preaching the word of a violently angry God who demanded that He be appeased. Just as in Classical Greece, the more violent, less thoughtful factions came to the fore, and we have lived with the consequences ever since. Long letters to the faithful prescribing aggressive piety have buried Christ’s simple message. Jesus spoke of peace and of contributory ways of being, and the Romans executed him for it. That many of his followers became more Roman than Christian is telling.

– Patrick Finn

They say that if one sees a turtle on a fence post, the only logical conclusion is that a higher purpose (i.e., some dude) placed it there.

I say that that turtle possesses the clearest vision of us all, because only it knows if our conclusion is valid.

So, from my fence post, I feel the time has come to do something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I was, after all, trained in college to interpret the Bible, and I spent almost a decade of my life doing it for a living. Furthermore, I spent the first three decades or so of my life trying to live according to the dictates of divine scripture, and I’ve spent a good deal of time insisting to some of my more strident non-Christian friends that there is good to be found in the Bible, even if one doesn’t assign to it any metaphysical origins.

So, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is.

The first thing I’ll do is dismiss out of hand the entire Old Testament. I know, I know. How very neo-Bultmannian of me. In my case, though, this has nothing to do with dispensations and/or historical relevance, and everything to do with the fact that the Old Testament simply does not do what so many theologians and pastors have gymnastically insisted that it does. It neither “prefigures” Jesus or his teachings, nor does it offer any advice on living one’s religion in a constructive way. It is destructive, divisive, and aggressively political–all of which stands in direct contradiction of even conservative interpretations of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

In other words, mining the Old Testament for lessons on goodness and moral rectitude is not unlike searching for tips on a healthier sex life in the writings of the Marquis de Sade. You might make a little progress…but only if you’re willing to miss the point entirely.

You might point to Pauline “exegesis,” and claim that the later New Testament is all about explaining Jewish misinterpretation of what is, really, a chronicle of divine benevolence, and a foretaste of warm fuzzies to come. But positive interpretations of the Old Testament aren’t just about reformulation; they are an exercise in selective ignorance.

All of the stories from which we glean our “pearls of wisdom” are submerged in so many muddy details that considerable rinsing is required before these jewels can emerge. But once the wash cycle ends, we deny the laundry room’s existence.

Take that most convenient of scapegoats: Noah’s Ark. Beyond mathematical, architectural, and logistical difficulties, one encounters a picture of God based almost entirely on the old “means vs. ends” debate. Look at the pretty rainbow, parcel-post from a fairly petty deity. Try as you might to dig some diamond out of this conceptual muck, it just can’t be done. At least, not with any intellectual integrity.

Here we have, if taken literally, the most drastic bait and switch ever perpetrated upon the human race: Omniscient God creates innocent humans (innocent in the sense that they do not know right from wrong), puts them in a garden full of shiny objects, and tells them not to touch the shiniest one. Which they immediately do. Anyone who’s ever told a child anything could have seen that coming. And God, being omniscient, had to have.

After knowingly creating a hopeless situation and watching it fall apart, God proceeds to hold the innocent humans’ preordained choice against them for all eternity (oh, and by the way, against you and me, as well). What’s more, however many years later, apparently surprised at what he already knew would happen, God places the blame for a deck he himself stacked on the shoulders of the whole human race, and decides to wipe them out for their completely egregious participation in a plan he himself formulated in a way that led inevitably to this conclusion.

Rinse, rinse, rinse.

God loved his creation SOOOOO much, that he saved Noah and his family, and some of the livestock. Sweet dreams, kids!

I could go on, but enough about that. My point is that if one is to find the good in the Christian scriptures, they will do well to jump straight into the New Testament. Because, while there is plenty of detritus through which to sift there as well, there are also many beautiful thoughts that have impacted my life in a positive way and which, were they to become a greater focus within Christian congregations, would represent a game-changer, a whole new way of living Christianity, not just spiritually constructive but socially constructive as well.

I come in the name of the baby so often lost in the bathwater, in the firm belief that there is more to Christianity than the 700 Club might suggest. Beyond the Family Research Councils and the Jerry Falwells we all know and love, there’s this guy named Jesus, who lived and died, and in the meantime taught some wonderful things our religious leaders have worked so hard to make us forget.

I am Toad, perched on a fence post, and this is what I see.