Book Notes: Sara Miles, “Jesus Freak”

Who is Jesus? For liberals, a political role model; for conservatives, the heavenly gatekeeper. But for Sara Miles, author of the new book Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), he’s “the Boyfriend”, a tangible and loving presence who empowers her–and potentially all of us–to embody God’s love through fellowship and service to one another.

Formerly a secular political journalist and restaurant worker, Miles underwent an unexpected conversion at the age of 46, when she took communion at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco and suddenly experienced a mystical awareness that the wafer was really and truly the bread of life, the body of God. She went on to become Director of Ministry at St. Gregory’s and start a food pantry that now serves up to 800 people each week. This story is told in her previous book, Take This Bread. (I would have liked a little more background in Jesus Freak for readers like myself who haven’t read her first book.)

Jesus Freak begins with the radical claim that Jesus empowers us to be Jesus. We have the authority to bring meaning, healing, nourishment and forgiveness to God’s people. The rest of the book shares anecdotes from her ministry: funny, poignant, madcap, heartbreaking stories about what it looks like “to live as if you–and everyone else around you–were Jesus, and filled with his power”.

In Miles’ telling, the Jesus-inspired community looks unconditionally inclusive and egalitarian. People of widely varying beliefs, abilities, and social classes find themselves bound together not merely by mutual tolerance, but by love and cooperation.

In her chapter on “Feeding”, for instance, she questions the divide between churches’ worship space and their community service programs. Why do the soup kitchen and the worship service take place in different locations, at different times, and serve non-overlapping groups of people? I’ve often wondered the same thing. Unlike me, Miles actually did something about it. The weekly food giveaway at St. Gregory’s takes place at the altar and becomes a ritual of sharing that harks back to the communal meals of the first-century church.

When Miles talks about “Healing” and “Raising the Dead”, she isn’t promising medical miracles, though she won’t rule those out, either. We may not always be able to cure physical ills, but we can offer something even more important. We can surround suffering people with an environment that gives their lives dignity, meaning and love.

For instance, toward the end of the book, Miles tells the story of Laura, a middle-aged woman who sought her counsel when dying of lung cancer. Over the last months of her life, Miles helped Laura’s family begin the process of grieving and taking care of one another. In a scene reminiscent of Jesus’ words from the cross in John 19:26-27, Laura arranged for her female companion to become her teenage son’s new mother. Miles was on hand not only to assist with the paperwork but, more crucially, to provide a spiritually meaningful context for the event, so that a sad occasion became in some way a celebration.

Finally, when Laura died, Miles had to help the paramedics hoist her stiffening, obese body onto the gurney from the floor where she’d fallen out of bed. Many another writer might approach this scene with disgust, despair, or pathos. Miles handles Laura’s body, in life and on the page, with tenderness and joy at being able to perform a last service for her. And if there’s a touch of humor, it seems like a joke that the dead woman shares. What is grace, after all, if not the erasing of shame, right here in the flesh from which we’ve been alienated since Adam and Eve first put on their legendary fig leaves?

I found this book to be a balm for the headache that theology often leaves me with nowadays. When doctrinal arguments become political weapons, the social gospel begins to look attractively simple. Visit the prisoners, give a cup of water to the thirsty–surely this is more straightforward, and better for my character, than reviewing yet another book on the “real” meaning of Romans 1:26-27. There’s something about theologizing, one could even say, that is intertwined with class privilege. It can be a diversion of energy away from the more urgent needs of people who don’t have a voice in the conversation.

At the same time, good works become a dry duty, another kind of works-righteousness, without a live connection to God’s love. I’ve bounced back and forth between Episcopal and evangelical churches in search of that encounter with the mysterium tremendum. Philosopher of religion and progressive God-blogger Eric Reitan recently noted that the common liberal dichotomy between Christian belief (bad, fundamentalist, divisive) and Christ-like action (good, crunchy, progressive) doesn’t hold up:

…I suspect that most Christians will agree that “having faith in Jesus” is much more than just believing in a set of propositions. It’s a way of leading one’s life. (Agreement among Christians is likely to break down as soon as we ask what way of life is implied by faith in Jesus.)

But even if faith in Jesus is much more than belief in a set of propositions, the way of life implied by such faith will certainly presuppose a set of beliefs. To have faith is, in part, to live one’s life as if certain things are true. In the broadest terms, having faith in Jesus means living as if Jesus’ life and ministry express the ultimate reality, the divine, in some unique and profound way. And having faith in Jesus as savior means living as if Jesus has secured the redemption of the world; as if the evils that shatter human lives and infect human hearts are never the final word; as if somehow, because of Christ, even the most devastating horrors and malignancies have been stripped of the power to deprive our lives of meaning and value….

Jesus is so real and immediate for Miles that she makes an end-run around theological debates. Perhaps because she wasn’t raised Christian, she doesn’t seem to carry around the baggage of guilt and fear, the need to defend her interpretive authority, or to tear down other interpretations of the Bible. She just goes out and feeds the hungry, and gives the glory to God.

6 comments on “Book Notes: Sara Miles, “Jesus Freak”

  1. Simon says:

    To save me searching endlessly through your blog, how do you feel the doctrine of ‘one flesh’ applies (or not) to gay marriage? Eve was taken out from Adam’s side and in heterosexual marriage the circle is closed as genders are reunited, but how does this work for gay couples? I have concluded that most apparently anti-gay proof texts have been wrongly translated and wrongly interpreted by sincere but mistaken homophobic cultures, but can’t get my head around a gay interpretation of ‘one flesh’. Can you help?

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    Thanks for a really good question. I’ll have to reflect further on it. Some preliminary thoughts:

    I’m generally wary of deriving behavioral rules from metaphors and symbols. The Bible is full of metaphorical imagery because the ineffable God can only be described by imperfect analogy to worldly phenomena. The question is whether to take these images so literally that they become constraints foreclosing other ways of relating to God or our fellow man/woman.

    Thus, while the idea of closing the circle of male and female through marriage has a certain poetic elegance to it, is that symbolic harmony so important that it justifies forbidding same-sex-oriented Christians to enter a similar union of souls? I would say not. Prioritizing people over concepts seems to me what Jesus was all about. It’s not right to lay such heavy burdens on gay couples in order to preserve our preferred conceptual scheme, which after all is only a subjective approximation of reality.

    I’d also suggest that gender differences aren’t the only or the most important barrier that is overcome when the Bible talks about “one flesh”. St. Paul several times refers to Christians as members of one body. He means we should see our separate gifts and backgrounds as less important than the love that brings us together–first of all, the love that Jesus showed us in making us all his brothers and sisters, and second, the love that we can demonstrate toward one another. Gay and straight couples are equally capable of this.

    Similarly, one could read 1 Cor 6:16 in a gender-neutral way. St. Paul says, “Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.'” He’s using a heterosexual example, but what is it that makes them one flesh? It’s the act of intimate association with someone else, not a symbolic union of male and female. He’s asking whether the members of the church are going to be wedded to God (surely not a gendered relationship) or to their unholy cultural milieu.

    We need to be careful not to perpetuate the silencing of GLBT perspectives by pointing to their absence from the text as evidence that that exclusion was justified. As you mentioned, the Bible was written and interpreted in cultures that were mostly homophobic, until quite recently.

    Again, thanks for raising a point that’s not easily resolved. I’ll share your question with some gay Christians who are more Biblically literate than I am, and see if they can weigh in.

  3. Simon says:

    Hi Jendi

    Thanks for spending so much time on my question.

    The church has had 2000 years to develop a theology of heterosexual marriage, based on one-flesh, a man leaving his father and his mother to be joined to his wife, etc, and then the whole imagery of the male Christ with his female church-bride, which marriage is supposed to reflect. And most of our theology of no-sex-before marriage, monogamy, and fidelity (because God wants Holy children) derive from that all-pervasive view of marriage.

    The church has spent about 1% of that time thinking about gay marriage, and the theology simply hasn’t been developed to the same extent. Can the same doctrines of no-sex-before-marriage, monogamy, and fidelity be transposed to a homosexual relationship where there can be no natural children? I don’t know.

    I have asked this one-flesh question of several gay people/organsations, and mostly it flummoxes them: it’s not something they’ve given thought to. Your answer is the best I’ve had so far, engaging with the theological issues. I believe the Archbishop of Canterbury thinks one-flesh can apply to gay relationships. My background is very conservative, and I use conservative theological tools. If I can use those tools to support gay marriage, then I can satisfy my heart (liberal) and my head (conservative) at the same time.

    As a conservative, I am cautious of your comment that the Bible was written in a homophobic culture. I agree it is interpreted in a homophobic culture. But I believe it was written in a supernatural culture of the Holy Spirit, and that what it says is therefore right (in the sense that it means what the Holy Spirit intended it to mean, not necessarily what meaning fundamentalists ascribe to it). Now I’m starting to waffle on… my point is I want to live by Scripture not make excuses for it. If the spirit really did intend to say homosexuality is wrong, then i will stick with that. But my current exercise is to dig and dig deeper until I find out what the Spirit really did intend. And I think my conservative parents didn’t dig deep enough.

    Must stop as I am getting tired and I am nearing your 3000 word limit!

    PS I am 45, married with 7 children. I am a Licensed lay minister (Reader) in the Church of England. I want to preach what is right, not what is politically or culturally expedient for my conservative background or for modern society.

  4. Jendi Reiter says:

    I’m glad you found my blog, Simon. It’s really refreshing to encounter a fellow Christian who’s keeping an open mind and trying to work through this issue with compassion and integrity.

    Pastor Weekly at Gay Christian Fellowship, an open and affirming evangelical website, sent me a response to your question which is too long for the comments box so I will be reprinting it as a separate post.

    I’m still “waffling” myself about what I believe regarding the divine inspiration of Scripture and how it relates to the fallible human element. So, sorry to put words in your mouth concerning “the Bible was written in a homophobic culture” – that’s my POV not yours

    Just one more point I’d like to expand on. You wrote, “Can the same doctrines [of marriage] be transposed to a homosexual relationship where there can be no natural children?” I know you didn’t mean any offense by this. But, what I see as the fetishization of procreation among some Christians causes me personal distress.

    My husband and I are infertile and hoping to create a family through adoption. I don’t see us as being any less “one flesh” than another straight couple who can have their own biological children. My mother’s female partner of 30+ years is my other parent who raised me. I feel like my two moms and I are “one flesh”, unlike my biological father, who never wanted to be involved in our lives. As Jesus said, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

    Thanks for staying in the conversation!

  5. Simon says:

    Hi Jendi

    Sorry I have been away from your blog while you have been putting a lot of effort into my queries.

    And before I start commenting, please accept my apologies for any hurt caused by my comments and the way they impacted on your fertility. I suppose, given my background, I have regarded infertility as a separate issue within the context of traditional marriage. The Lord opens and closes the womb (see the stories of Rachel, Leah, and Sarah) so infertile couples still have potential – on a theological level – to procreate. It’s God’s fault, not the couples, whereas in homosexuality, again given my background, this was seen as a choice of action and therefore our fault not God’s. However, I am learing that whilst my parents gave me a good grounding in ‘salvation by faith’ they screwed me up in most other areas of doctrine and I’m almost having to start from scratch. So, again, sorry if I caused offense.

    Please pass my thanks to Pastor Romell weekly, who has put a lot of effort into his reply. Please tell him that I found it very helpful and will absorb his comments into my theology on this subject. Also Carolyn and particularly Karen have been very helpful.

    Now, what I really need to do, with both infertility and sexuality, is to be less obsessed with the academic theory and more concerned with loving people.

    Thank you once again.


  6. Jendi Reiter says:

    Apology definitely accepted, Simon! I know you meant no offense. It’s easy to overlook or misunderstand alternative ways of family formation unless you’ve had personal experience in this area. I am grateful for your willingness to learn more, and to let your theology be informed and re-formed by hearing about others’ experiences. Generally, gay people do not perceive their orientation as a choice, any more than infertility is a choice. You might be interested in the autobiographical narratives at Beyond Ex-Gay and Truth Wins Out.

    Now I shall try to follow your lead, and focus more on loving people than on theology. Amen!

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