Christ Is Risen Indeed!


Alleluia! Happy Easter, everyone! Enjoy these signs of springtime rebirth from the Smith College Bulb Show, and praise God for His great love and creativity.

Our hymn for today, which we sang at the Easter service at St. John’s, celebrates the women who first brought the gospel to the world. Lyrics and music are copyright by Linda Wilberger Egan. Hear an audio clip and read the sheet music at RiteSeries Online.

The first one ever, oh, ever to know
of the birth of Jesus was the Maid Mary,
was Mary the Maid of Galilee,
and blessed is she, is she who believes.
Oh, blessed is she who believes in the Lord,
oh, blessed is she who believes.
She was Mary the Maid of Galilee,
and blessed is she, is she who believes.

The first one ever, oh, ever to know
of Messiah, Jesus, when he said, “I am he,”
was the Samaritan woman who drew from the well,
and blessed is she, is she who perceives.
Oh, blessed is she who perceives the Lord,
oh, blessed is she who perceives.
‘Twas the Samaritan woman who drew from the well,
and blessed is she, is she who perceives.

The first ones ever, oh, ever to know
of the rising of Jesus, his glory to be,
were Mary, Joanna, and Magdalene,
and blessed are they, are they who see.
Oh, blessed are they who see the Lord,
oh blessed are they who see.
They were Mary, Joanna, and Magdalene,
and blessed are they, are they who see.

The Acid Bath of Atonement


“Till on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied…”

These lines from “In Christ Alone“, one of my favorite contemporary Christian songs, sum up the penal substitution theory of the Atonement — what the average person thinks of when you say “Christ died for your sins”. It’s a powerful but troubling formula that connects God’s love with violence.

Liberal Christians sometimes condemn this theory as “divine child abuse”. I feel sympathy for that point of view. And yet, as Experimental Theology’s Richard Beck observes in a recent post about his prison Bible study group, perhaps “doubt is the luxury of the privileged”. Traditional atonement theory seems to resonate most with people who are in extremis. Yes, this story about God is grotesque, terrifying, mysterious — and so are their lives. Richard writes:

The metaphors of penal substitutionary atonement speak to the issue of human guilt. No other suite of metaphors so powerfully addresses this facet of the human experience before a Holy God. Thus, I do think it would be rash to completely do away with penal substitutionary thinking. It performs a task that no other view of atonement can perform.

The problem with the penal substitutionary metaphors is that they are so very strong. Too strong to be deployed on a regular basis. And that is the real problem. It’s not so much that penal substitutionary thinking is wrong, it is rather that it is wrongfully deployed. Penal substitutionary atonement is at its best when deployed rarely and only in the most extreme circumstances. It can’t be everyday fare. The trouble is that it IS everyday fare in many churches. Penal substitutionary atonement is like a very strong acid. It has to be handled with care. And if you handle it as much as we do in our churches, often and carelessly, you end up with chemical burns. Thus many Christians are pulling away from churches in pain.

So when is the proper time to deploy penal substitutionary atonement? Like I said, penal substitutionary thinking is at its best when it speaks to profound human guilt. Specifically, some of us have committed such awful sins that our self-loathing, guilt, and shame destroy the soul. We cannot forgive ourselves. Only a very strong concoction can wash us clean. Penal substitutionary atonement is that chemical bath. It’s strong acid–You deserve death and hell for the life you’ve lived–making it the only thing powerful enough to wash away a guilt that has poisoned the taproot of a human existence. Nothing more mild (e.g., the moral influence views I so love) can speak to this issue.

So, it seems to me, there is a proper time to pull the beaker of penal substitutionary atonement off the theological shelf.

But here’s the trouble. Most of us live bland bourgeoisie lives with bland bourgeoisie sins. Few of us have lived catastrophically immoral lives. Thankfully so. But this creates a bit of a disjoint when a preacher throws penal substitutionary atonement at us. It just doesn’t resonate. The strong acid just burns us. The notion that God demands our death for these slight infractions AND that God will condemn us to an eternal torment of excruciating pain makes God seem, well, rather crazed.

This feeling gets worse when penal substitutionary atonement is thrown at children. In these contexts the deployment of penal substitutionary metaphors can seem obscene and psychologically abusive. Again, the issue for us is the incommensurability between the offenses of the children (not playing nice on the playground) and the penal substitutionary view (for these infractions God will punish you forever in hell). Continuing my chemical metaphor, kids shouldn’t play with acid.

The point I’m trying to make is that penal substitutionary atonement isn’t bad per se. The problem is that penal substitutionary atonement is a victim of its own strength. It has suffered not by being a bad idea, but by being handled too often and too carelessly. Some people do live in such a hell of guilt that only the vision of God’s death sentence, something they feel deep in their bones to be justified and proper, can reach the depth of their self-hatred. So we shouldn’t throw penal substitutionary atonement out the door. We just need to understand its proper function and place.

Christians just need to go to chemistry class.

To expand on Richard’s point, when I first converted, my core issues were guilt and shame. The story of the “cleansing blood” freed me from the crippling compulsion to be perfect. That’s a familiar conversion story for a lot of people. The problem comes when churches try to return people to that place of self-loathing, as if it were the only way to rekindle the emotions of gratitude and love that led us to Jesus. We’re not allowed to actually start living in grace, to see ourselves and our neighbors truly through the eyes of God as the good creations we were meant to be.

At the same time, sin is an ever-present condition. We will feel guilty again, maybe for good reason. Don’t be too proud, too liberal, too smart to rejoice that “it’s still the blood“.

Have a blessed Good Friday.

Sabine Huynh: “In Memory of a Two-Meter-Tall Israeli Buddhist Monk”


Last fall, I posted some poetry by Sabine Huynh, a Vietnamese-born writer, translator, and linguistics scholar who now lives in Israel. This next poem that she kindly shares with us also reflects the intermingling of cultures and faiths, appropriately for a meditation about crossing the boundary from life to death and…whatever happens next. (Note: A Neshama candle is a Yahrzeit memorial candle that Jews light on the anniversary of a person’s death.)

In memory of a two-meter tall Israeli Buddhist monk (U. L., 1959-2009)

If you google his first name, a Hebrew name
that sounds like “Where? Tell,” in French,
and his four-letter last name
which happens to be the town where
I grew up on bitter rice and green cherries,
you’ll find him in the World
Buddhist Directory, Chiangmai, Thailand,
after Phra “monk” – a two-meter tall one –
and before an O-six phone number
ending with thirty eight – our house number then,
the house where the mother smashed her anger
into the daughter’s piano keys,
the father’s dreams, the sons’ games,
the garden where the dog died.
Oh yes, an O-six number and an email address
spammed for eternity. There is a website too,
no longer available to disciples,
even the Internet Archives’ Wayback Machine
– click on “take me back” –
fails to retrieve him from Nirvana.
When in the evening
I hang the Neshama candle
in my kam kwat tree – “gold orange”
in Chinese, I wonder
whether he is washing
his saffron robe in Basho’s old pond.
Sick on a journey, their dreams
wandered over withered grass.
No rebirth and no soul for him, no peace
of mind, no answer but so much
to remember him for.

****

See a photo of Udi on Sabine’s website.

Gay Students at Christian Colleges Seek Wholeness


Hat tip (once again) to Experimental Theology for this NY Times story about gay and lesbian students who are fighting to be open about their sexual identity in a seemingly unlikely venue: conservative Christian colleges.

Decades after the gay rights movement swept the country’s secular schools, more gays and lesbians at Christian colleges are starting to come out of the closet, demanding a right to proclaim their identities and form campus clubs, and rejecting suggestions to seek help in suppressing homosexual desires.

Many of the newly assertive students grew up as Christians and developed a sense of their sexual identities only after starting college, and after years of inner torment. They spring from a new generation of evangelical youths that, over all, holds far less harsh views of homosexuality than its elders.

But in their efforts to assert themselves, whether in campus clubs or more publicly on Facebook, gay students are running up against administrators who defend what they describe as God’s law on sexual morality, and who must also answer to conservative trustees and alumni.

Facing vague prohibitions against “homosexual behavior,” many students worry about what steps — holding hands with a partner, say, or posting a photograph on a gay Web site — could jeopardize scholarships or risk expulsion.

The article suggests their fears are well-founded. Though most Christian colleges officially say that they don’t discipline students for same-sex attractions, only for homosexual “behavior”, in practice, students have been punished simply for saying that they’ve decided to accept their gay identity instead of “struggling” with it.

So why are they going to these schools at all? Well, think about it. How many of us are so sure of our personal identity (on any dimension, not just sexuality) that we can just toss aside our entire support network and the cultural framework in which we were raised? And where would we get the strength to do this when we’ve turned our backs on our Higher Power?

This isn’t a healthy choice for anyone to make, at any age. It actually lends some merit to conservative arguments that gay identity rests on a liberal-modernist illusion of the autonomous self that denies the human and divine sources of its creation (God, community, tradition). But whose fault is that alienation? Gays aren’t forcing people to stop being Christian. We Christians are doing a good enough job of that.

The article addresses this question very well:

Gay students say they are often asked why they are attending Christian colleges at all. But the question, students say, is unfair. Many were raised in intensely Christian homes with an expectation of attending a religious college and long fought their homosexuality. They arrive at school, as one of the Harding Web authors put it, “hoping that college would turn us straight, and then once we realized that this wasn’t happening, there was nothing you could do about it.”

Murder Ballad Monday: Holy Week Edition


Yesterday our church celebrated Palm Sunday, a holiday whose mood swings I find disturbing, as I’m sure I’m meant to do. Some aspects of the traditional service feel like a preview of Easter: the entering procession with the palm fronds, the triumphal and almost martial music. At the same time, a minor chord is struck by the Passion Play and the hymns later in the service that uncomfortably foreground our guilt for Christ’s suffering.

I found myself wanting to arrest my long slide toward liberalism and force myself to dwell on this ancient accusation. What does it mean when I shout “Crucify him”?

Like Peter, surely, I can imagine myself losing my nerve to confess loyalty to Jesus when faced with torture. Hopefully this is an unlikely scenario in America, so there must be more ways I can challenge myself with this passage of Scripture.

Perhaps, like the crowd who would spare the bandit Barabbas over the Messiah, there are times when I rush to condemn someone without knowing enough about them. It’s easy to spread gossip, for instance, or racist stereotypes, because I don’t want to be the only one in the crowd with nothing to say. It’s easy to convince myself that I understand who the heroes and villains are because I read something bad about “those people” on the Internet.

By choosing between Jesus and Barabbas, the crowd gets it half right. No one should be crucified. Their lack of insight is twofold: they play the role of jury in a system that metes out excessive punishments, and on top of that, they condemn Jesus, who is innocent. In what ways am I participating in an unjust system by not seeing beyond its false alternatives? Change could start with something as simple as choosing to contribute to both charities whose flyers show up in my mailbox today, rather than one charity and a new hat. Trivial maybe, but these choices add up.

Though I’m not threatened with physical harm or even job discrimination for my justice work on behalf of the GLBT community, I still often feel deep pain and self-doubt when the opposition is led by fellow Christians whose faith I respect. I complain too much to Jesus about how hard and confusing it is to follow him. “What did you think you were signing up for?” he says. “Be grateful that you have the privilege to choose to enter into this place of shame, when many have no choice.” Then he shows me how it’s done.

And so, our song for today:

Sing along at Oremus Hymnal.

Out of Our Heads, Into Our Hearts?


“Tell me where is fancy bred, Or in the heart or in the head?” asked Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice. A good question to ask about love–or truth, or spiritual understanding, or the source of ethical action. When we go astray, when we aren’t fully present and integrated in our responses to one another, does the problem lie in the head (alienation from our feelings) or the heart (mindless emotional reactivity)?

Framed that way, it seems likely that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. We can deviate from the Golden Rule in either direction. Sensitivity to feelings can comfortably coexist with self-centeredness, while the dominance of reason over subjective impulses can just as easily become an excuse for lack of compassion, especially toward people whose narratives challenge your mental picture of the world.

American pop culture generally votes for heart over head, all the way, as in this Sheryl Crow song that I’ve been replaying a lot lately, from her album Detours. It’s catchy, it’s upbeat, and it sounds so simple. “If we could only get out of our heads, out of our heads and into our hearts…Children of Abraham, lay down your fears, swallow your tears and look to your heart…” (Read the whole thing at AZlyrics.com.)

When I was a teenager, I would still have loved this music but been angry about the lyrics. The problems that I faced, bullying and family instability, looked to me like the result of naively following the heart without the head. Not only children, but the adults who were supposed to protect us, acted on impulse and idolized self-expression regardless of the consequences to others. Though many people make fun of Ayn Rand, I found her work to be a helpful anchor in those years, because she insisted that everyone should be mindful about the values they wanted to live by, instead of being tossed around by unprocessed feelings.

As an adult, I’ve found that rationalism is no safe harbor, however. Bullying can also take the form of doctrinal rigidity that dismisses the human costs as merely rebellious feelings that must be subjected to God’s Word. Sin, like fancy, is bred in the heart and in the head.

Last week I attended a Unity Church spiritual retreat with my best friend who is a prayer chaplain in that denomination. In language that mirrored Sheryl Crow’s, one of the workshop leaders kept saying that in order to hear God’s voice when we pray for one another, we should move our awareness from head to heart. In this formulation, being “in our head” meant thinking and judging instead of listening. It meant remaining separate, holding ourselves back from communion with God.

During the discussion period, though, her co-leader noted that we also don’t want to be responding “from our gut”, enmeshing in the other person’s emotions or reacting against them, instead of allowing the person to have their own feelings and their own relationship to the divine.

Heart, then, could be considered the center where head and gut come together to produce a response that comes from our whole person. This is where language shows its inadequacy. “Heart” in popular parlance has been so identified with emotion that the word potentially misleads us into privileging spontaneous feelings over critical thought and self-mastery, as we are already prone to do in this culture. But what’s the alternative? “Soul” leads us into mind-body opposition, a worse problem for religion, in my opinion, than the reason-emotion issue. Heart is at least a part of the body. It’s also a word that the Old Testament writers used to express the whole nature of a person, the seat of his character, where today we might pick the more anemic “mind” or “soul”.

I’ll close these meandering reflections with a quote from Rabbi Laibl Wolf, a Lubavitcher Orthodox rabbi in Australia, whose writing melds Jewish mysticism and psychology. In his recent e-newsletter article “Living Consciously”, he writes:

How often do we catch ourselves speaking or doing something, only to discover that both mind and heart have gone AWOL? The behaviour is less than conscious. One merely ‘goes through the motions’.

Kabbalah defines varying states of consciousness, each determined by the degree of Kavvannah. Although Kavvanah literally means ‘intention’, in the deeper teachings of Chabad Hassidism, the Alter Rebbe relates it to degrees of consciousness.

In the west, ‘consciousness’ is an inexact term defined variously in psychology and science. Some analyze it in terms of brain and its component parts. Some define it holistically in terms of the total body and its neuro-transmission systems. And others claim it doesn’t exist – a mere mirage of the imagination, the product of some Darwinian joke.

The Alter Rebbe’s ‘text book’ of practical Kabbalah, The Book of Tanya, takes a pragmatic approach. A high order of consciousness employs a level of Kavvanah that arouses profound mind and emotional energy to animate one’s words or behaviours. Middle-order consciousness is purely cerebral in nature, lacking emotional charge – the heart is uninvolved. The action is focused, but lacks feeling. Low-order consciousness results in mechanical non-thinking and emotionless behaviour – the stuff of mechanical habit.

In Kabbalah, consciousness is more than a mere state. It is also ‘value-laden’. Kavvanah may be misguided or downright evil e.g. an act of murder may evoke a highly focused state of mind coupled with a strong emotional thrust – high-order consciousness, yet degrade the holy act of creation. On the other hand, positive Kavvanah elevates the ‘creation sparks’ (Nitzutzot) that are scattered throughout the Cosmos and creates a ‘tikkun’ (repair) for the imperfect world. Even low-order-Kavvanah-consciousness, barely facilitating words or behaviour, can nevertheless elevate the world – retro-actively. This can be achieved by repeating the same words or behaviour with higher Kavvanah on a future occasion, imbuing the new moment with higher consciousness.

To live a conscious life requires training, focus, practice, and profound awareness. Kavvanah has to be ever-present. There are no limits to profundity of consciousness, including higher states of ‘meta-consciousness’, ‘supra consciousness’, and ‘sub-consciousness’. (I haven’t raised these phenomena in this short blog). These higher spiritual states allow soul-consciousness to bypass mind and heart altogether, engaging the cosmos more directly.

The more profound the Kavvanah, the higher the flow of consciousness, and the higher the quality of life.

HuffPost Asks: Is the Bible True?


In a column published earlier this month at the Huffington Post, David Lose (author of Making Sense of Scripture) asks this teasing question in the headline, but then points out that what we typically mean by “true” is based on post-Enlightenment concepts that were alien to the Biblical authors. Narrowly identifying “truth” with “fact”, we have no choice but to line up on one side or the other of the liberal-conservative divide, either contorting ourselves to align the text with the latest scientific and historical discoveries, or assuming that because this can’t be done, the Bible lacks authority. Lose begs to differ:

…Both sides, however, miss the literary nature and intent of the Bible as stated within its own pages. Take for example Luke, who in his introduction acknowledges that he is not an eye-witness to the events he recounts but depends on multiple other stories about Jesus. He writes what he calls “an orderly account” so that his audience may believe and trust the teaching they have received (Luke 1:1-4). Or consider John, who near the end of his gospel comes clean about carefully arranging stories of Jesus so as to persuade his readers that Jesus is the messiah (John 20:30-31). The gospels — and, indeed, all of Scripture — do not seek to prove but to persuade. And so John, convinced that Jesus is “the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (1:29), portrays Jesus as clearing the Temple of money changers at the very outset of his ministry because he, himself, is God’s sacrifice. Similarly, Jesus dies on the Day of Preparation at the exact moment the Passover lambs are slaughtered. John’s aim is thoroughly theological, not historical.

For this reason, the Bible is filled with testimony, witness, confession and even propaganda. Does it contain some reliable historical information? Of that there is little doubt. Yet, whenever we stumble upon “verifiable facts” — a notion largely foreign to ancient writers — we should keep in mind that the biblical authors deployed them not to make a logical argument but rather to persuade their audiences of a larger “truth” that cannot be proved in a laboratory but is finally accepted or not accepted based on its ability to offer a compelling story about the meaning and purpose of the world, God, humanity and everything in between. To attempt to determine whether the Bible is “true” based only on its factual accuracy is therefore to make a profound category mistake, judging its contents by standards its authors were neither cognizant of nor interested in.

By way of illustration, recall for a moment the scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction when the two main characters, Jules and Vincent, argue over how to explain what happened when a drug dealer unloaded his handgun at them at close range but missed them entirely. Vincent (played by John Travolta) believes it’s a freak occurrence. Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson) considers it a miracle. Jules’ defense of his judgment bears closely on our discussion. In response to Vincent’s assertion that what happened didn’t qualify as physically “impossible” and therefore could not be considered miraculous, Jules says, “You’re judging this the wrong way. It’s not about what. It could be God stopped the bullets, he changed Coke into Pepsi, he found my … car keys. You don’t judge shit like this based on merit. Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt God’s touch. God got involved.”

Jules’ sense of the criteria necessary to assess truth is far closer to that of the biblical writers than that of not only Vincent but also both contemporary liberals and conservatives alike, as he asserts that the ultimate criteria of truth isn’t factual accuracy but a compelling, even transformative witness.

This is a nice attempt at a third way between the liberal-conservative impasse. Still, it seems to me that there are some factual claims in the Bible that we simply can’t get around. Did God become man, or not? Did He raise Jesus from the dead, or not?

If you say no, or yes only in the metaphorical sense, your version of Christianity may be good and satisfying for you, but it’s still fundamentally different from the “yes” version. Death and sin are real, historical, scientific, this-worldly facts. A God who enters into the concrete realm where these conditions hold sway, in order to triumph over them, is a different God from one who only inspires us from afar and strengthens us spiritually within.

The facts of the Incarnation and Resurrection haven’t been proven by Enlightenment scientific and historical methods. The Resurrection could even be disproven by them someday. In the meantime, I believe in them because that story offers me the “compelling, transformative witness” Lose describes. But in order for the magic to happen, I have to believe in them as facts.

And that, perhaps, is why attempts to reconcile religion and liberalism never completely succeed. A Christian like myself believes in certain scientific and historical facts on the basis of non-scientific, non-historicist criteria. That necessarily scandalizes the modern mind. Even the postmodern turn away from factuality into narrative, such as in Lose’s article, doesn’t take you all the way there, because some facts (most of all, death) are impervious to anything we say or feel about them. As my husband likes to say, nature gets a vote. But I want to believe God gets a veto.

Murder Ballad Monday: Dick Justice, “Henry Lee”


This is another tale of romantic jealousy turned deadly, which I first heard on a Ralph Stanley album. The version below is performed by Dick Justice. This article from Inside Bluegrass gives the lyrics and some background on the vocabulary. Like most great songs in this genre, it has no redeeming social value, but it’s kind of catchy.



Saturday Random Song: Dolly Parton, “Jesus & Gravity”


Now that’s the story of my life:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gyqjSn-q34&NR=1
(sorry, no embed code)

I’m to the point where it don’t add up
I can’t say I’ve come this far with my guitar on pure dumb luck
That’s not to say I know it all
Cause everytime I get too high up on my horse I fall

Cause I’ve got
Somethin’ lifting me up
Somethin’ holding me down
Somethin’ to give me wings and keep my feet on the ground
I’ve got all I need
Jesus and gravity

But I’m as bad as anyone
Taking all these blessings in my life for granted one by one
When I start to thinkin’ it’s all me
Well somethin’ comes along and knocks me right back on my knees
And I’ve got…

Somethin’ lifting me up
Somethin’ holding me down
Somethin’ to give me wings and keep my feet on the ground
I’ve got all I need, Jesus and gravity

He’s my friend
He’s my light
He’s my wings
He’s my flight

I’ve got somethin’ lifting me up
Somethin’ holding me down
Somethin’ to give me wings and
Somethin’ to keep my feet on the ground
I’ve got all I’m gonna need
I got Jesus, I got Jesus,

I got somethin’ lifting me up
Somethin’ holding me down
Somethin’ to give me wings and keep my feet on the ground
I’ve got all I’ll ever need
Cause I got Jesus and gravity

I got somethin’ lifting me up
Somethin’ holding me down
Somethin’ to give me wings and keep my feet on the ground
I’ve got all I’ll need
Cause I’ve got Jesus and gravity
Jesus, I’ve got Jesus, I’ve got Jesus
He’s my everything
He lifts me up
He gives me wings
He gives me hope
And He gives me strength
And that’s all I’ll ever need

As long as He keeps lifting me up
He is my life
He is my God
He is my wings
He is my flight
Lift me
I’ve got Jesus, I’ve got Jesus
And that’s all I need

Lyrics courtesy of www.cowboylyrics.com

Jim Ferris: “For Crippled Things”


How good was The Hospital Poems, Jim Ferris’ first poetry collection from Main Street Rag? So good that I loaned it to an otherwise responsible friend and I haven’t seen it since. Ferris writes with a biting wit and raw honesty about the experience of disability, fighting to reclaim his dignity from the fix-it authoritarians of the medical establishment. From early childhood, he endured multiple surgeries to correct bone deformities, but even as the doctors labored to make his body more “normal”, the stigma and strangeness of institutional life imposed their own unique twists and scars on his soul.

I’ve just ordered his new collection Slouching Towards Guantanamo, from which the poem below is reprinted by permission. Main Street Rag is a great indie press in Charlotte, NC that publishes poetry and literary prose. Their authors have a fresh contemporary voice and a social conscience. Support MSR by pre-ordering their new releases. Early birds get a discount.

FYI, this poem is a take-off on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty“.

For Crippled Things

    
Once I turned from thee and hid.
        –Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for crippled things —
For minds as sharp as cracked concrete;
For flab that sags, for joints and thoughts that will not come unstuck;
Forgotten lessons, wisdom . . . what? Nothing.
Growths that thrive and work left incomplete;
All legs grow tired, all clocks their hands get stuck.

All things imperfect, asymmetric, strange;
Whatever is transient, moaning, full aware that they’re hamstrung meat;
Lost pieces of walk talk see hear laugh run good luck;
He must love the lame — he made us in so wide a range;
We are his joy, his music all we sing;
Our praise is in our flux.