Charity, Unconditional But Not Unwise

In this post on responding to panhandlers, Internet Monk adds his always-interesting voice to a debate that has preoccupied my Bible study group for some time. Christ calls us to give generously and nonjudgmentally; does that preclude any inquiry into whether the recipient is truly needy, or likely to misuse what we offer? In my opinion, ensuring that our intended “help” is actually skillful and effective should take priority over feeling good about the purity of our generosity. The I-Monk finds scriptural support for this position:

Matthew 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

The Biblical teaching on compassion for the poor, justice and generosity are well-established and crucial for a life of following Jesus.

The establishment of deacons and of guidelines for who is a “widow” indicates that the early church was aware of the issues that arise when Christians must make judgments regarding benevolence. I Timothy 5:3 and 5:16 indicate some are “truly” widows and others are not.

Paul condemns those who refuse to work, yet still seek to eat. The existence of such verses as 2 Thessalonians 3:10 and 3:12 make it clear that the church knew what a freeloader was. Notice Paul’s defense of himself in 2 Thessalonians 3:8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. Consider the ethical background of that statement: It is wrong to receive support as charity when support from work is possible….

Money given to aggressive panhandlers is money that can’t be given to the truly poor. Go to any ministry that deals with people who are truly poor. They will tell you that almost none of those poor people would be on the streets begging in America today because of the dangers, the criminal element and so forth. Addiction, mental illness, con artists and criminal intent are on most of America’s streets. The truly poor will be known to local shelters, ministries, schools and social workers. There are many opportunities to give to families and children who truly need the money and would never be begging on the streets with a story such as we commonly hear from panhandlers.

Every situation of compassion also has elements of wisdom. My son recently asked me for financial assistance to attend a writer’s workshop. I am not going to automatically give him the money in the name of Christian compassion. I am going to be a good steward and a good manager of what God has given me, and ask questions before giving. This is true at every level of giving. I receive hundreds of appeals every year. Dozens of students and missionaries ask for my support. (Many of them make far more than I do!) I am very, very selective about who I give to, and I ask many questions before giving. I believe this is God-honoring, as much as the generosity itself.

Jesus’ words are meant to underline the compassion and freedom of the Christian. Our generosity is an important expression of our discipleship. At times, we need to give with much less than perfect knowledge, and at times we need to obey the Spirit as he gives opportunity. But we are also to know the “streets and highways” where we are, and we are not to volunteer to be robbed as a witness. Aggressive panhandlers like Sundays, and they like Christians. We need to give them a dollar, a coupon and a brochure for the local “Help” office. We need to give to the truly needy a gift that will make a difference in their lives.

The parallelism of verse 42 is important as “beg” and “borrow” relate to one another. The one who borrows is making a promise to use wisely or even to repay. It is the neighbor in need, not the panhandler, that Jesus has in mind, I believe. The poor are our neighbors, but the person actively seeking to abuse another’s charity elicits a different response.

The article includes several useful suggestions on nonmonetary ways to help panhandlers and distinguish between scam artists and the needy. Read the whole thing here.

Notwithstanding all that, I will probably continue to give to some of the street people in my small town, because I feel disrespectful walking past them without acknowledgment. In New York City, where ignoring each other is the height of etiquette (and the beggars are much scarier), maybe I won’t. Another rule of thumb: if I’m spending more time agonizing over a dollar to a panhandler than over my own purchases of mindless crap, it’s time for a soul check.

Chabad Meditations: God in Exile today sent me this “Daily Dose” from the writings of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem M. Schneersohn, as translated by Tzvi Freeman:

They have banished G-d into exile.

They have decreed He is too holy, too transcendent to belong in our world. They have determined He does not belong within the ordinary, in the daily run of things.

And so they have driven Him out of His garden, to the realm of prayer and meditation, to the sanctuaries and the secluded places of hermits. They have sentenced the Creator to exile and His creation they have locked in a dark, cold prison.

And He pleads, “Let me come back to my garden, to the place in which I found delight when it all began.”

Kristofer Koerber: “My Morals” and “Decisions”

My Morals

I smiled to myself
b/c I thought that I was a good person
for driving all that way to the ocean
to deliver those starfish back to their watery world.
I think that at least one other person
would have agreed with me.
But to the lady
and her
three dogs,
two children
and one stroller
parading down the middle of the road
I was a horrible person for driving
over 25 mph
on their road.
She corralled the dogs to the side of the road
Clutched her children close
and threw up her arms.
But I had no time to slow down and apologize
Only enough to put my window down
and give them all the finger.
I was saving lives,
couldn’t they understand?


I’ve got time in my life
to make bad decisions.
I figure I’ve got time
to sing off key
and trip over my feet when I dance.
Some time to skip out on my tab
at skeezy undertoe bars.
I’ve got some time in this life
to practice the art of intoxication,
get a degree in one night hookups
with peach legged women
who giggle between puffs of their cigarettes.
I tell myself I’ve got time
to wrestle with a hundred hangovers
and shake my fist at the stars.
There’s time enough to build my coffin
and time enough to sit in it and laugh to myself

About all the good I’ve done.

      reprinted by permission from

How to be Plump and Happy

This excerpt from Courtney Martin’s new book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body (hat tip to Hugo), got me thinking about how I learned to stop worrying and love the bombe. Fortunately I have never had a full-blown eating disorder, but I wasted a lot of time between ages 11 and 33 feeling uselessly miserable at being a size 12 or 14 in a size 2 world. (I remember the exact day 24 years ago that I looked down from my Collected Dorothy Parker and thought with horror, “What’s this jiggly stuff on my thighs??”) That sort of thing occupies much less of my bandwidth now. Some advice that may set you free:

Practice a spiritual tradition that cures perfectionism.
As Martin’s book and many others like it demonstrate, women enact on their bodies the costs of living in a culture where they are constantly judged by strangers, and where failure to perfect one’s external achievements is the only moral taboo. In gospel terms, this is living under the Law. So is being captive to the expectations and status anxieties of your family. But humans are social beings. We can’t be complete rebels, building our identity without reference to anyone else’s values, no matter what the blue-jeans commercials say. And so it really helps to discover a worldview based on unconditional love and acceptance of human limitations, and find a spiritual community that supports it. Reality is a collective endeavor.

Among the many things that God’s grace in Christ did for me, the very first was to help me disengage from the internalized judgments of others, whether or not they were right. My essential worth as a human being is unshaken by the flaws that others discover in me, because I’ve given up the baseline assumption that I won’t have any. This radically lowers the stakes in self-examination, providing, for the first time, real freedom to change or to trust my (possibly wrong) belief that no change is needed.

Stop reading women’s magazines.
Every issue is the same: “Lose 10 pounds in 3 weeks!” “Yummy desserts your family will love!”

Watch less television.
Advertising-driven media has an interest in making people feel bad about themselves and then shop their way to glory. Many contemporary television dramas foster despair about the possibility of long-term relationships, while idolizing career success. This reinforces women’s fears that others’ acceptance of us is conditional, precarious, and based on externals.

Accept change.
My husband is a Buddhist, and from him I’ve learned that change is natural. Why should I fit into the pants I wore in high school? I had no fashion sense then anyway!

Examine your own prejudices.
What group are you trying to dissociate yourself from by targeting a weight that doesn’t come naturally to you? For some women, it’s their gender, which they may associate with weakness, or with vulnerability to sexual assault and stereotyping. Other women are shy and afraid to take up space. For me, the issue was classism. Fat equalled sloppy, the opposite of aristocratic poise and self-discipline. How does your environment reinforce these anxieties? If you’re the poorest one in your high school class, or the only woman in your workplace, can you find alternative communities where your differences are not so pronounced, as a counterweight if not a replacement? (The church was supposed to be just such a place: see Galatians 3:28.)

Marry someone who believes that self-confidence is more attractive than conformity to a media ideal.
My husband doesn’t watch television either.

Avoid “bonding through bitching”.
Women love to complain to each other about their appearance. Perhaps we maintain relationships by avoiding competition (or masking it), while men do the opposite. This pattern teaches us that it’s not all right to ask for support directly, and even less all right to admit that you’re actually satisfied with your big round butt. Next time your girlfriend says something negative about her weight, a topic she’d probably avoid if she were truly morbidly obese, try responding with something like, “I feel sad when you put yourself down.”

Be mindful of why you eat.
Do I really need Mounds miniatures at every meal? Yes! I do!

Find physical achievements that are based on performance, not appearance.
One can, of course, become obsessive about sports and fitness just as much as dieting, but I’ve found that weight-training has taught me to inhabit my body with power and pride. It’s also made all my shirts too tight (see “change” above).

Be grateful.
For yourself, for your strength, for achieving every goal that comes from your authentic self, for having a body and the food to nourish it.

Archbishop Rowan Williams on Hearing the Bible in Community

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a lecture this week in Toronto entitled “The Bible Today: Hearing and Reading” which argues convincingly that Biblical interpretation must be reconnected to the church’s communal life.

This was also the dominant theme of the Wheaton conference on the ancient church fathers that I attended last week. As in the Archbishop’s lecture, the speakers there, who belonged to Catholic, Orthodox, and a variety of Protestant denominations, agreed that modern Christianity (especially Protestantism) has developed an overly rationalist and individualist approach to the Bible, isolating theological arguments from their real-world proving ground, namely the church’s sacramental worship, mutual care and service to the community. I’ll be blogging about their specific insights over the next few days. Meanwhile, here is the Archbishop, displaying the intellectual sophistication and generosity of vision that I associate with the Anglican tradition at its best. Boldface emphases are my own addition:

Not even the most tradition-bound and hierarchical Christian community has ever seriously argued that the authority of the contemporary hierarchy can wholly displace the reading of Scripture, or that the language of scripture is anything but finally normative in some sense for the community. And even the most ideologically insistent liberal is unlikely to argue that Scripture can be relegated entirely to the level of illustrative historical material about the remote beginnings of the faith (though the last century has seen a repeated swing in that direction, even if it has never quite got to that point of blunt denial). In what follows, I don’t intend to offer a novel theory of inspiration, or a set of tools that will finally settle the current debates over interpretation within and between the churches; my aim is a very modest one, to examine the practice of reading the Bible so as to tease out some of what it tells us about the nature of Christian identity itself. Because some of our present difficulties are, at the very least, compounded by the collision of theologically inept or rootless accounts of Scripture, and it seems imperative to work at a genuine theology of the Bible as the sacred literature of the Church. Popular appeals to the obvious leave us battling in the dark; and the obvious – not surprisingly – looks radically different to different people. For many, it is obvious that a claim to the effect that Scripture is ‘God’s Word written’ implies a particular set of beliefs about the Bible’s inerrancy. For others, it is equally obvious that, if you are not that savage and menacing beast called a ‘fundamentalist’, you are bound to see the Bible as a text of its time, instructive, even sporadically inspiring, but subject to rethinking in the light of our more advanced position. As I hope will become evident, I regard such positions as examples of the rootlessness that afflicts our use of the Bible; and I hope that these reflections may suggest a few ways of reconnecting with a more serious theological grasp of the Church’s relation with Scripture.

To begin with the simplest point: before Scripture is read in private, it is heard in public. Those of us who assume that the normative image of Scripture reading is the solitary individual poring over a bound volume, one of the great icons of classical Protestantism, may need to be reminded that for most Christians throughout the ages and probably most in the world at present, the norm is listening. Very few early or mediaeval Christians could possibly have owned a Bible; not many in the rapidly growing churches of the developing world today are likely to either. And this underlines the fact that the Church’s public use of the Bible represents the Church as defined in some important way by listening: the community when it comes together doesn’t only break bread and reflect together and intercede, it silences itself to hear something. It represents itself in that moment as a community existing in response to a word of summons or invitation, to an act of communication that requires to be heard and answered.

So the Church in reading Scripture publicly says both (i) that it is not a self-generated reality, created simply out of human reflection and ideals, and (ii) that what is read needs to be read as a communicative act, – that is, not as information, not as just instruction, but as a summons to assemble together as a certain sort of community, one that understands itself as called and created ‘out of nothing’. Whatever we do in private with our reading of Scripture, we must do in awareness of this public character. The Church – a familiar enough point – is in the language of the Bible itself an ‘assembly’, a ‘convocation’: an ekklesia. It declares its basic character when it represents itself as listening to the act of ‘convoking’, calling together. From one (crucially important) point of view, the celebration of the Eucharist is that representation, the moment when all are equally and unequivocally designated as guests, responding to invitation. But, since the authoritative and defining patterns of Christian practice never reduce themselves to single and simple models, from another point of view, the hearing of the Bible is that representation. As I hope to suggest later, these two basic ways in which the Church says what it is cast a lot of light on each other….

Two principles emerge very directly from this, though they are not always stated clearly in the Church. The first is that when we are dealing with texts that are grammatically addressed to a specific audience, we are being asked to imagine that historically remote audience as not only continuous with us but in some sense one with us. Just as in Deuteronomy, there is an insistence that the words spoken at Sinai are being spoken ‘not to your forefathers’ but to ‘us’ here present today – to all those in the liturgical assembly at any moment in Israel’s history (Dt 5.2-5), so for the Christian –and the Jewish –believer. We, here and now, are incorporated in the audience. The second principle is that in dealing with texts that are not grammatically directed in this way, we are obliged to ask, ‘What does this text suggest or imply about the changes which reading it or hearing it might bring about?’ The Bible itself gives us a cardinal example of ‘texts’ – oral recitations in this case – clearly intended to effect change: the parables of Jesus. And the sort of change they envisage is the result of being forced to identify yourself within the world of the narrative, to recognise who you are or might be, how your situation is included in what the parable narrates.

These principles need a good deal of further filling out if we are to be able to apply them to some of the hardest interpretative cases, but they are significant and, I’d say, primary implications of the practice of hearing Scripture publicly. Both tell us that the ‘time’ in which we hear Scripture is not like ordinary time. We are contemporary with events remote in history; we are caught up in the time of recitation, when we are to reimagine ourselves. For this moment, we exist simply as listeners, suspending our questions while the question is put to us of how we are to speak afresh about ourselves. We stand at a point of origin, and, as listeners, our primary responsibility is to receive….

Among those skills we need to bring for receptivity is a capacity to think through what the initial relation between text and audience might be. I am not thinking primarily here of the way in which good critical scholarship elucidates such relations, though that is one of the underappreciated gifts of intellectual modernity – the enrichment of sheer historical imagination in ways barely accessible to most premodern readers and hearers. What I have in mind is a more basic matter, the capacity to read/hear enough to sense the directedness of a text. Fragmentary reading is highly risky to the extent that it abstracts from what various hermeneutical theorists (Ricoeur above all) have thought of as the world ‘in front of the text’ – the specific needs that shape the movement and emphasis of the text itself. Elements in that text may be valid and significant, but yet be capable of partial and even distorting use if not seen as part of a rhetorical process or argument. It is always worth asking, ‘What is the text as a full unit trying not to say or to deny?’

Two contentious examples. The first of them is, as we shall see, of more than accidental importance in understanding certain things about Scripture as a whole, but I choose it because of its frequent use in modern debates about relations between faith communities. Jesus says in the Farewell Discourses of John’s Gospel that ‘no-one comes to the Father except by me’. As an isolated text, this is regularly used to insist that salvation depends upon explicit confession of Christ, and so as a refutation of any attempt to create a more ‘in
clusive’ theology of interfaith relations. But the words come at the end of a typically dense and compressed piece of exposition. Jesus has, at the end of ch.13, explained that the disciples cannot follow him now; he goes ahead to prepare a place. Thus, he creates the path to the Father that the disciples must follow; they know the path already in the sense that they know him. And this knowledge of him, expressed in the mutual love that he has made possible (13.34-5), will carry them through the devastation of absence and not-knowing which will follow the crucifixion. Seeing and knowing Jesus as he goes towards his death in the perfection of his ‘love for his own’ is already in some way a knowing of the Father as that goal towards which the self-giving of Jesus in life and death is directed. The Father is not to be known apart from this knowledge of Jesus.

Now this certainly does not suggest in any direct way a more inclusive approach to other faiths. But the point is that the actual question being asked is not about the fate of non-Christians; it is about how the disciples are to understand the death of Jesus as the necessary clearing of the way which they are to walk. If they are devastated and left desolate by his death, they have not grasped that it is itself the opening of a way which would otherwise remain closed to them. Thus it is part of the theology of the cross that is evolving throughout the later chapters of John, the mapping out of a revelation of glory through self-forgetting and self-offering. The text in question indeed states that there is no way to the Father except in virtue of what Jesus does and suffers; but precisely because that defines the way we must then follow, it is (to say the least) paradoxical if it is used as a simple self-affirmation for the exclusive claim of the Christian institution or the Christian system. There is, in other words, a way of affirming the necessity of Christ’s crucified mediation that has the effect of undermining the very way it is supposed to operate. If we ask what the question is that the passage overall poses, or what the change is that needs to be taking place over the time of the passage’s narration, it is about the move from desolation in the face of the cross (Jesus’ cross and the implicit demand for the disciple to carry the cross also) to confidence that the process is the work of love coming from and leading to the Father….

As I have said, this does nothing to settle the exegetical questions fiercely debated at the moment. But I want to stress that what I am trying to define as a strictly theological reading of Scripture, a reading in which the present community is made contemporary with the world in front of the text, is bound to give priority to the question that the text specifically puts and to ask how the movement, the transition, worked for within the text is to be realised in the contemporary reading community. To move too rapidly to the use of the text to make a general point which does not require the reader to be converted is to step outside what I have been calling the time of the text, the process by which it shapes its question. It is to make the text more passive than active, and so to move away from the stance of the listener, from the stance of the Church as trying to be still enough to hear and free enough to respond to God’s summons to be his community….

A written text inevitably has about it a dual character. It comes before the reader/hearer as a finished product, and so as something that can in some ways be treated as an object. If we are not careful its written character can be misused by working with the text as if it were passive. In contrast to the event of a voice speaking, it can be abstracted from the single occasion when the hearer has no control over what comes to her or him from outside. At the same time, a written text requires re-reading; it is never read for the last time, and it continuously generates new events of interpretation. It is fruitful of renewed communication in a way that the spoken word alone cannot be. So to identify a written text as sacred is to claim that the continuous possibility of re-reading, the impossibility of reading for the last time, is a continuous openness to the intention of God to communicate. Just as the text itself contains re-reading, is almost constituted by re-reading, so that it repeatedly recreates a movement towards conversion (towards the cross of Jesus, in Christian terms), so the eternal possibility of ‘reading again’ stands as a warning against ignoring the active ‘restlessness’ of the text in summoning the reader to change. The writtenness of the text is from one point of view risky as a strategy of communication: it risks the appearance of passivity, and the re-readability of the text risks the appearance of indeterminacy. Yet from another point of view it can be seen as inseparable from the risk of the communication it itself describes as well as enacts – a divine communication that is never without human speech and narrative, never just an interruption of the created continuum but a pressure upon it that opens up to the divine by the character of its internal relations and connections, the shifting, penitent perspective of a story enacted in time. The writtenness of the text is like the sheer factuality of the historical past as the vehicle of revelation: it is something irreversibly done, but for that very reason continuously inviting or demanding….

We noted earlier that the celebration of the Eucharist and the reading of the Bible are the most universal ways in which the Church ‘represents’ what it is; and both sow the Church as a community committed to listening afresh to its foundational call. The gathering of the assembly for worship is not simply a human routine, however much it may come to look like that. It is, theologically speaking, a moment in which the present activity of God is assumed and responded to.

But to read Scripture in the context of the Eucharist – which has been from the beginning of the Church the primary place for it – is to say that the Word of God that acts in the Bible is a Word directed towards those changes that bring about the Eucharistic community. The summons to the reader/hearer is to involvement in the Body of Christ, the agent of the Kingdom, as we have seen; and that Body is what is constituted and maintained by the breaking of bread and all that this means. For Paul, exploring it in I Corinthians, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is strictly bound up with the central character of the community: what is shown in the Eucharist is a community of interdependence and penitent self-awareness, discovering the dangers of partisan self-assertion or uncritical reproduction of the relations of power and status that prevail in the society around. So if Scripture is to be heard as summons or invitation before all else, this is what it is a summons to. And the reading and understanding of the text must be pursued in this light. We ask what change is envisaged or required in the ‘time’ of any passage of Scripture; and now we can add that whatever change that is in particular, it must make sense in the context of the formation of this kind of community – the Eucharistic Body.

Take Scripture out of this context of the invitation to sit at table with Jesus and to be incorporated into his labour and suffering for the Kingdom, and you will be treating Scripture as either simply an inspired supernatural guide for individual conduct or a piece of detached historical record – the typical exaggerations of Biblicist and liberal approaches respectively. For the former, the work of the Spirit is more or less restricted to the transformation of the particular believer; for the latter, the life of the community is where the Spirit is primarily to be heard and discerned, with Scripture an illuminating adjunct at certain points. But grasp Scripture as part of the form taken by the divine act of invitation that summons and establishes the co
mmunity around the Lord’s Table, and the Bible becomes coherent at a new level, as a text whose meaning is most centrally to do with the passage from rivalry and self-assertion and the enmity with God that is bound up with these to the community in which each, by the influx of the Spirit, takes responsibility for all, and all for each. The context of the Eucharist, in which everyone present is there simply because they are guests by the free generosity of the host, obliges a reading of Scripture in which what is decisive is always this shared dependence on God’s initiative of welcome which removes pride and fear.

But equally, take Scripture out of the Eucharistic context and the Eucharist itself becomes different. Without this anchorage in the history of God’s creative welcome as slowly and painfully spelled out in the history of Israel and Jesus, the Eucharist can more readily be distorted into a celebration of what the community now senses itself to be or to have achieved. It is robbed of the analogy that makes it contemporary with the founding act – what you might call the ‘Deuteronomic analogy’, thinking back to the text from Deut.5 discussed earlier (‘Not to your forefathers…’),and so does not see itself as formed by a divine communication that is in fact conveyed through human history, through the record of faithful and unfaithful response. If the Eucharist is properly a covenant meal, as the founding text declares, it presupposes a connectedness with the history of the covenant people; it always has (setting aside for a moment the debates over whether the Last Supper was historically a Passover meal) a Passover dimension.

Thus Eucharist and Scripture need to be held together if we are to have an adequate theology of either. The Eucharist is the primary locus of the listening Church, the place where it shows itself to be there in response to the call of God; and the Scripture that embodies that call has to be read as leading to precisely this point, the existence of a community that embodies Christ and does so by reflecting his kenotic act. And as I have hinted already, this must be anchored clearly in a theology of the Spirit, which holds the two themes together. The Spirit, according to John’s gospel, is the remembrancer, the divine agency that makes the words of Christ contemporary. It is the Spirit that incorporates us into one community with the disciples at the Last Supper and indeed with the Deuteronomically imagined people of Israel. It is the Spirit that enables the mutual self-offering that builds up the Body and that unites the members in the prayer of the glorified Christ. It is the Spirit that connects the periods of God’s communicative action towards humanity and thus connects the diverse texts that make up the one manifold text that we call Holy Scripture. The Spirit’s work as ‘breathing’ God’s wisdom into the text of Scripture is not a magical process that removes biblical writing from the realm of actual human writing; it is the work of creating one ‘movement’ out of the diverse historical narratives and textual deposits that represent Israel’s and the Church’s efforts to find words to communicate God’s communication of summons and invitation. The Spirit through the events of God’s initiative stirs up those words and makes sense of them for the reader/hearer in the Spirit-sustained community. As Karl Barth insisted, this leaves no ground for breaking up Scripture into the parts we can ‘approve’ as God-inspired and the parts that are merely human; the whole is human and the whole is offered by God in and through the life of the Body, always shaping and determining the form of that life.

The Spirit in the New Testament, not least in the Johannine tradition, is associated in its fullness with the resurrection of Jesus; and my final point is to note the way in which Eucharist and Scripture alike have to be considered in relation to belief in the resurrection. The Eucharist itself is generally recognised as, among other things, a continuation of Jesus’ meal-fellowship with the marginal and disreputable in Israel; by this fellowship, he declares a new way of being Israel that will not restrict membership to those who can satisfy conditions but will be open to all who are ready to be welcomed by him in the name of Israel’s God. The eucharistic encounter is with the Christ who is still today actively defining the people of God simply by his invitation. Seen like this, the eucharist is not the memorial of past meals with Jesus but the reality of contemporary response to his hospitality – a hospitality once and for all established as indestructible by the cross and the resurrection, so that what was done in the ministry of Jesus in Galilee and Jerusalem is done constantly in the history of the Church.

But to say that Christ’s transforming hospitality is renewed constantly in this history is also to say that Christ continues to speak in and to the community. The community exists because of God’s act of communication, as we have seen repeatedly; the resurrection is the persistence of that act. Without belief in the resurrection, our understanding of Scripture is going to be deficient at best. If it is not the present vehicle of God speaking in the risen Christ, it is a record only of God speaking to others. For it to be an address that works directly upon self and community now, it must be given to us as the continuation of the same act, the re-presenting and re-enacting of the same scriptural reality of invitation and the creation of a people defined by justice, mutual service and the liberty to relate to God as Father and faithful partner.
Read the whole lecture here.

Relevant Magazine on What Makes Art Christian

Relevant Magazine columnist Dawn Xiana Moon lays down a challenge to Christians about relevance, faith and art:

Many contemporary Christians tend to make one of three errors when dealing with art: One, we declare anything that doesn’t explicitly proselytize, anything that depicts brokenness without redemption to be depraved or unworthy of Christian notice. Or two, we decide that the secular world really does have better art, so we copy it, boldly and without apology or thought into our own creativity. Or three, we try so hard to be relevant that we adopt the attitude and worldview of the culture that surrounds us—instead of being the proverbial salt and light, we end up as dust with nothing to offer in the way of hope, because there is only a perfunctory difference between those of us who claim to follow Christ and those who don’t….

Don’t misunderstand—there is a place for explicitly Christian art and age-appropriate material, and many of the masterpieces do focus on biblical themes. But to assume that all art must conform to this model is frustrating to artists who have an allegiance to Christ yet want to produce work that speaks to the entirety of the human experience. And it deadens the critical thinking capacity of people in the Church, deadens their ability to see and experience part of the nature of God. It also leaves many hurting, unable to ask for help or even admit their failings—what they see in the Church is happy music and people with seemingly perfect lives. Once a new creation in Christ, suffering and pain disappear, right? Wrong. Let’s be honest and admit it….

The last position is born out of frustration with the first (and sometimes the second). Tired of being marginalized in the Church and afraid they won’t be accepted in either a secular or religious world, artists disassociate themselves from the label and praxis of Christianity because their work is unacceptable by church standards—and in the mainstream, “Christian art” translates into “bad art.” Few empathize with this position on the fringe of two worlds, so they drift. Cynical from their past experiences with hierarchy and legalism, followers of Christ become reluctant to define their beliefs at all, leaving only spirituality with a vaguely Christian twist. In an effort to sound intelligent in a world that mocks supernatural belief, Christians downplay doctrine and theology….

Thomas Hallstrom writes, “Jesus told stories. Some were good and some were dark. Some ended with redemption and some ended with confusing questions. But He wasn’t afraid to tell stories that might turn people away. Many times people walked away after hearing the story, never to return (the rich young ruler who was told to sell all he owned). Other times, the story led the listener to an experience with the living God.” Art does not need to be didactic to be effective. In fact, as soon as it becomes didactic it often loses its effectiveness. It fails to communicate. The purpose of art is not necessarily to provide the answers—it’s much more powerful to ask the questions and allow an audience to seek the answers themselves. Jesus promised that those who seek will find, and we should trust him. He meant it when he said it.

If our art isn’t relevant to the entirety of our experience, the fullness of our lives—good, bad, scared, profane—then it cannot be relevant to the people around us. It will not be relevant to our culture. We need this art, need it desperately. In expressing our creativity, this piece of us that is also a piece of the character of God, we share in His nature. And that can only draw us closer to the One in whom our hope remains.
I’m reminded of my visit to Wheaton College last week, where the main exhibit at their Billy Graham Museum was a selection of Warner Sallman‘s portraits of Christ. I found them sentimental and crude in a mass-culture, over-processed way, lacking both the subtlety and majesty of fine art and the unsettling individuality of “outsider” or folk art. The exhibit made me feel out of place there; was the church big enough for me and my novel? Reminding myself to be charitable, I reflected that millions of Christians had found Sallman’s work deeply meaningful. Were they wrong — was I the one with a prideful intellect and hardened heart? And still the paintings entirely failed to move me. Their power, perhaps, resides only in this: When you love someone, you cherish any picture of them, even one that doesn’t do them justice. Imagine being surrounded by people who love Christ that much. If only they had better taste…

Book Notes: Jesus Mean and Wild

Christianity Today managing editor Mark Galli’s lively, challenging book Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God explores the many gospel passages where Jesus breaks out of the sentimental “meek and mild” model that we mistake for love. Every era has its characteristic blind spots about Scripture, such as the Victorian missionaries’ connection to an imperialism that clashed with Christian ethics. Ours is believing that love and judgment are opposed. If Jesus is love, we conclude he must have been ever-patient, ever-kind, undemanding, never criticizing sinners. To his credit, Galli recognizes that unskillful shame-based religious leaders and communities bear some of the blame for this over-correction.

In a succession of chapters exploring passages from Mark’s gospel where Jesus is anything but “nice,” Galli shows how the qualities of Jesus’ love that seem so fearsome — impatience, harsh criticism, radical ethical demands — are really the qualities that make his love life-transforming and effective against evil. Galli is a dialectical and dynamic thinker, holding opposite principles in tension rather than exalting one over the other, in a way that seems faithful to the multifaceted nature of Jesus in the Bible. He reasons clearly, while recognizing the inability of theological reasoning alone to show us how to balance competing values in any given situation.

As this book reminds us, an advantage of faith over secular philosophy is that we need not (in fact, should not) solve these problems on our own. We are not adrift between the Scylla of rigid legalism and the Charybdis of ethical chaos. We can ask God for personal guidance in applying the complex messages of the Bible to our lives. Galli writes, “Prayer is a mysterious, unfathomable, intense conversation with the Father, who will not give us formulas and principles but will give us himself.”

In prayer, Jesus discovered how to give of himself more selflessly than most of us can imagine doing, yet also to move on from towns where there were many invalids still to be healed, so that he could follow his call to ministry elsewhere. The Jesus of the gospels is neither heartless nor a doormat, but we might become either one if we turn one polarity of his character into an abstract rule — if we want to be right, for certain and by our own power, rather than to be led by the Spirit.

The discussion of prayer is a small part of Galli’s book, but it made a big impression on me. It helped me see what Christians mean when they talk about letting the Holy Spirit open the words of Scripture to you. I had been reading the Bible as an ordinary book and trying to perceive with my intellect whether it was divinely inspired. In other words, there was only one person in the conversation, me. The only alternative I could see was “believing” the propositions I thought I found there, whether they made sense to me or not. However, this just seemed like another one-sided conversation, only the speaker was the anonymous writer of the Bible pasage. What gave another mortal such authority over my conscience? Now, I’m hoping to discover a third way, one that begins with listening to God, and letting go of some of my fears of “getting it wrong” due to my lack of Christian education. (Of course, I’d have to make time to read the Bible first…how many months do I have left on that New Year’s resolution?)

From the edgy typeface and crown-of-thorns motif on the cover, I suspect that Galli’s book is especially aimed at Christian men (perhaps the same ones who bought John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart) who find the rosy-cheeked blond Jesus of modern devotional art to be just a little too passive, too unheroic, too…girly-man. Is the evangelical anxiety about homosexuality (nearly always male homosexuality, though conservative magazines occasionally run nutty articles about rampant lesbianism among high school soccer players) partly due to Christian men’s feeling that their religion is already dangerously emasculating? Galli has done his male readers a service by depicting a Jesus who uses authority and aggression in the service of love, who is unpredictable, who takes risks and asks us to do the same.

The passage I quote below, from a chapter titled “The Joy of Unfulfilled Desire,” particularly spoke to issues I’m confronting as I write my novel. So much of sexual sin arises from a misplaced desire for transcendence, seeking to exceed or submerge the self in the other. While lust leads to idolatry and commodification when it’s separated from an unselfish commitment to the beloved in her full personhood, the false freedom of promiscuity nonetheless points to the truth that something of the soul’s longing is left over even in the most fulfilling marriages. Without meaning to, I’ve gotten one of my fictional characters into such a predicament that even his boyfriend’s unselfish love can’t save him: he needs the gospel, good and hard. And I, in the so-called real world, am looking for a church where he’ll get it.

But now back to Galli. Reflecting on why Jesus masked his messages in parables, he writes:

The gospel has an element of mystery, no matter who is at the receiving end. For those with hardened hearts, the mystery remains impenetrable. For those who seek out Jesus for an explanation, some of the mystery is removed — and at the same time, more mystery is encountered….(p.103)

That our questions will remain unanswered and our longings unfulfilled is precisely the glorious nature of heaven. We are finite beings who are limited in knowledge, in space, and by time….But here is where we differ from the rest of the created order: God has placed eternity in our hearts (Eccles. 3:11)….(p.104)

This eternity in our hearts often frustrates us to such a degree that we take shortcuts to bridge the gap between our longing and its fulfillment. This is one way to define original sin. Adam and Eve felt they could not live with finite knowledge, and so they reached out for the knowledge of good and evil by eating of the very tree that God forbade. And with that one act, they became aware even more acutely of the gap between the eternity in their hearts and the finiteness of their nature. This in turn made them want all the more to close that gap prematurely….

All sins are in one sense an attempt to fulfill a genuine, righteous longing, but in a way that is inappropriate. Augustine talks about this in his Confessions: “The soul commits fornication when she is turned from thee, and seeks apart from thee what she cannot find pure and untainted until she returns to thee.” He then goes on to ask what the godly thing was he desired when he infamously stole a pear from a farmer’s field. He finally concludes that he was seeking freedom “to rebel against thy law…so that, even as a captive, I might produce a sort of counterfeit liberty.”

As material beings, we want to enjoy the material blessings of this earth. We also long for sexual intimacy. We want to be respected and honored. Most of all, we want to know and be known by our Creator and to please him. But there are inappropriate ways to satisfy righteous longings, and since the time of Moses these inappropriate means have been given names: adultery, coveting, idolatry, and so forth.

But — and this is crucial — it isn’t as if there is a righteous way to find complete fulfillment of any of our holy longings. To be sure, marriage is a wonderful place to attain a degree of sexual intimacy. Honesty and hard work are the divinely appointed means for earning and enjoying material blessings. Authentic worship of the invisible God is the path to a deeper relationship with him. Yes, God will give to those who seek, knock, and ask; he will fulfill our longings for wisdom and love — but only up to a point.

To be human is to be finite and to have eternity placed in our hearts, which means we know that we will forever exist as finite beings, with infinity — that is, perfect fulfillment of all our longings — just out of reach.

There is only one being for whom all longings have been completely fulfilled (so to speak), so much so that we say he is a being who has no needs. We are decidedly not that being, and we never will be. We will always, forever even in the kingdom, long for more.

Yet — and this is also crucial — this is not a frustrated longing, but an infatuated longing. When a young man and woman fall in love, they have found another person who suddenly fascinates them. This woman is the first person I think of when I wake up and the last person I think of before going to sleep. I relish every minute I spend with her. I ask her all sorts of questions about her life, her interests, her passions. The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know, and my fascination becomes even more intense. When we fall out of love — out of this giddy, wonderful period — it’s partly because we run out of energy to be continually fascinated. And we become bored and selfish and a host of other things. But the experience returns now and then throughout marriage, and it is this experience that reflects, I believe, the type of experience we’ll have with God for eternity: an endless falling in love, an endless fascination, an endless pursuing of the mystery of God — and the fact that we are never fully satisfied is precisely one reason we’ll find the kingdom of heaven such a joy. (pp.104-06)

This is good news to me as an artist: I couldn’t enjoy a heaven without creativity, where every satisfaction was already complete. Or a heaven without sadness, perhaps not the horror of depression but the pleasant sadness of a rainy day, the darkness of fear and danger that is the flip side of desire. Christian art would be much better if it were less afraid of what Henry Vaughan called the “deep and dazzling darkness” of God, the absence He gives us so that our hearts will be stirred to seek Him.

Gay Christian Freedom Riders Tour Evangelical Colleges

The Washington Post‘s Hannah Rosin reported in Friday’s newspaper about a bus tour sponsored by the gay Christian organization Soulforce. This group of young people visits evangelical colleges to witness, by their presence, to their conviction that they can be true to both their sexual orientation and their faith:

Even on American highways crowded with giant family cars, buses are still big enough to make a point. For his acid tour in 1964, Ken Kesey had his Merry Pranksters repaint a 1939 school bus in psychedelic colors with brooms. These days buses are plastic-wrapped with their messages, like giant Twinkies on a mission.

The one driving down Route 7 in Virginia yesterday was purplish on one side and orange sunset on the other. In huge letters it said “Social Justice for Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People.” On the highway, fellow drivers either honked and waved or threw Coke cans. In Sioux City, Iowa, someone spray-painted the bus with “Fag, God doesn’t love you.”

…The 25 “equality riders” from a group called Soulforce have roughly followed certain routes of the Freedom Riders who battled Southern segregation in the 1960s.

Instead of bus stations and restaurants, they stop at conservative evangelical colleges they say discriminate against homosexuals. Last week it was Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. Yesterday it was Patrick Henry College, a seven-year-old evangelical institution in Purcellville, Va., with grand political ambitions. It was founded by Michael Farris, a leader in the home-schooling movement.

 A Patrick Henry press release announcing the visit called them a “traveling group of homosexual activists” and “false teachers.” Many of the riders come from evangelical families and attended colleges like the ones they visit. At some point they decided that, despite what their church told them, they could be Christian and gay….

Police cars were parked all along the driveway and across the entrance of the school. About 45 officers made a human barrier. The riders had seen plenty of police presence, but this was “intense,” said Katie Higgins, one of the organizers.

Patrick Henry did not forbid its students to talk to the riders, but strongly encouraged them not to. In a letter to parents, the school’s president called Soulforce’s presence a “rude and offensive disruption” and accused the riders of trying to “manipulate” students.

The riders filed out of the bus and stood in a line. Some held signs: “Open Dialogue” and “All at God’s Table.” They had all taken care to dress professionally, but “professional” is a relative term. At Patrick Henry, boys wear suits to class and girls look like young interns on the Hill. Although the dress code does not mention them, one senses that the riders’ nose rings, arms full of tattoos and pink headbands on males would be frowned upon. Reynolds looked neat, but by Patrick Henry standards boy neat, in a pinstriped button-down shirt and slacks.

Reynolds made a brief statement calling herself a “child of God, a follower of Christ and a lesbian.” Jarrett Lucas and Josh Polycarpe, both 21-year-old African American activists, walked past a “Private Property, No Trespassing” sign. They were politely arrested and driven away.

Afterward, Patrick Henry senior Michael Holcomb was given permission to talk to reporters. When asked why he thought Soulforce had come, Holcomb struggled. “I think they have a certain idea of…a certain view of sexuality…a view of Christianity…sorry, I need to think about this.”

But when asked his own view he had no trouble. “It’s not that we hate them. It’s just that they engage in a behavior that’s against God’s word,” he said. “God instituted marriage as between one man and one woman and He wants people to experience the fullness of that. If not, things are not going to work right.”

Soulforce visits often bring gay students and alumni out of hiding, and this was no exception. Three alumni contacted Reynolds during the visit; she said one told her he was gay and that his time at Patrick Henry had been the “hardest four years of his life.”

David Hazard, a friend of college founder Farris who had edited one of his books, also told Reynolds he was gay. When Farris heard that during an interview in his office, his jaw fell open, and he stared for a long time. “Oh. I’m so sorry for David,” he said. “I think he’s deluded.” The place for someone like that, he added, “is on their knees repenting of their sin.

“But here’s a good reaction for you: I still like him.”
Read the whole story here. To donate to the Soulforce Equality Ride, click here.

Erin McKnight: “Absolution”

Erin McKnight, assistant editor at the literary e-zine The Rose & Thorn, has a beautiful essay in their Spring 2007 issue about her coal-mining ancestors:

I have greedy eyes. They scan photographs hungrily, brown irises flaring while trying to determine whether an unusual color or angle is new. When they realize that what they have found is something they’ve seen before, something that belongs in the picture, they drop back into shallow pools. These eyes don’t look; these eyes search.

When they move across the photo taken on the day of my Christening, they hunt for what they can’t see. They register the flush of youth on my parents’ cheeks, the creased gown shrouding my new body, and the cake with buttery layers promising to announce my entry into the world, but they aren’t finding what matters. Tucked into corners, and folded behind furniture are people in shadow. I suppose it doesn’t matter that I can’t see their faces, because I wouldn’t recognize them if I could. I like to imagine there would be a fuzzy sense of familiarity, but I know better than to believe we’d look alike. For the visitors in this photo all that matters is their sense of purpose, which I know is to claim me.

On this day, they pressed a stain of black into the soft skin on my forehead. I know it now to be an ‘x,’ because there’s nothing else this mark can be. It reminds me of the greasy cross I received each year as a child on Ash Wednesday. This sign transformed me for the duration of its wear and even now, privilege and responsibility smell to me like heavy incense and palm ashes.

The ‘x’ is thick and heavy in its certainty. No delicate lines form my obligation to them. Perhaps the shape lies so deep because its outline was traced numerous times by their dirty fingers. I choose to believe, however, that in death they no longer feared their own hands, and found the confidence to push into my flesh.

They made this ‘x’ with coal––the ink that has stained generations of Scottish bodies––when they smeared their signatures across my head….

Read the whole essay here.

World’s Fattest Cat Wins Prize

Good news: My poem “World’s Fattest Cat Has World’s Fattest Kittens” has just won Second Prize, plus an award for Best Rhyming Poem, in the 2007 Utmost Christian Writers poetry contest.

This Canadian website, which aims at improving the literary quality of work produced by Christians, offers thousands of dollars in prizes (over US$4,100 this year). The deadline is usually February 28. First Prize this year went to Jan Wood for “just as you are in me and i am in you“. Read all the winners here.

World’s Fattest Cat Has World’s Fattest Kittens
–tabloid headline

A man walks into a bar and that’s
how I meet my father. Thirty years’ prelude
to a first date, in the amber mood
of brass and cognac, philosophic chat
spins the barstool back and I could be my mother
making us something intimate and undefined,
making someone you would leave behind.
My job-interview smile like butter
over the Riviera snaps of your daughters,
an alternate normalcy unreeled
by their tan arms, nothing concealed
behind your soft, proud chest but beach and blue waters.
But my awkward sister, dark-eyed – can’t you find
her moon-round face in yours, and yours in mine?

Tapas and wine, and God to take his turn
building the polite fortress of conversation;
two ex-Jews still wedded to disputation
and self-pity. The theatre crowd, as unconcerned
as you with tabloid reunions, disperses
into Manhattan’s blue lure. I say Jesus ended
life for our trespasses, but you’re offended
at this old, barbarous economy of verses.
You glow with gurus, out-of-body flight
and sinless man – convenient to believe
the soul can shed the seeds the body leaves.
And I, lacking the charity not to hate your
smooth life apart from us – who am I to spite
the last lawyer who has faith in human nature?

Dumb girl, ludicrous heredity
making me hang on your kisses like a teen,
then ask, like the boy-father to the child unseen,
who is this one, this virtual life, to me?
True father, tell me now, don’t we both nurse
our entitlements like a spitting-image son,
me judging life’s gift by how it was begun,
you grasping after apples with no curse?
Atonement’s just about dousing a blaze
someone else started. Till then, the wheel and snare
of karmic alleles conspires down the years
to put our eyes in an accusing face.
Tabloids and Genesis agree on that:
fat kittens must have come from fatter cats.