It’s Mardi Gras. Carnival. The days of embodied celebration before Lent. And beyond a few announcements of church pancake suppers tonight, I’ve heard not a word about either from within the church world this year. Oh, I’ve heard people in professional ministry talk (complain really) about planning their Lenten observances for weeks, but as far as I can tell the period between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday is not a time of celebration but merely a prep period for Lent.
Mardi Gras and Carnival are the embarrassing uncle of the church year. The one’s we don’t like to talk about. Those strange grafted-on “pagan” celebrations that root us firmly in this world and don’t let us pretend that we truly are just souls having a temporary bodily experience. In the Western church, it’s fine to focus on ways we can deny our bodies for the sake of spirituality during Lent, but the mere mention of celebrating bodies is suspect. A fest of the flesh just reeks too much of sin to be embraced. Sex and bodies must always be seen as corrupt and evil, not places of joy or truth. And so the age old dualism that separates mind and body remains.
Even those who call for liberation from structures that oppress get uncomfortable when the bodies they advocate freedom for do, well, bodily things. I recently read this great quote from Marcella Althaus-Reid on the ways feminist and liberation theologians still adhere to this view that incarnate flesh is sinful -
If the shanty townspeople go in procession carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary and demanding jobs, they seem to become God’s option for the poor. However, when the same shanty townspeople mount a carnival centered on a transvestite Christ accompanied by a Drag Queen Mary Magdalene kissing his wounds, singing songs of political criticism, they are not anymore God’s option for the poor. Carnivals in Latin America are the Christmas of the indecent, and yet they are invisible in theological discourse.
Catherine Keller refers to this as our fear of incarnate or incarnal love. Love and religious practice have become disconnected from the body except for the habit of denying the body. We have lost the ability to celebrate and express joy in our body and not feel guilty about it. Mardi gras and Carnival are reminders that some have not lost that gift and bought into our Western dualistic disparagement of the body. Perhaps it is time to stop rushing past them or ignoring them in shame and embrace the wholistic worship that we are so desperately lacking in the Western church.
Following the Emergence Christianity gathering a few weeks ago, there have been numerous conversations on blogs, podcasts, and Facebook around the nature of the conversation and who exactly gets to define it. I don’t want to rehash the arguments here nor do I have time for the ill-informed “the emerging church is dead” comments. The world has changed and the church (whether it likes it or not) is changing with it as it has always done. Yes, there were those who claimed the label “emerging” because it was the latest fad and there are those still trying to apply it like a veneer to a dying institution, but what is happening around the world is far larger than any one manifestation of the phenomenon.
But responding to change is never easy. When it is obvious that the way things have been done are no longer working one has the option of simply staking one’s claim in the past or adapting to the new situation. Yet to adapt implies the uncertainty of change and that can lead to fear. Fear of the unknown, yes, but also fear that in making changes we will just be repeating the same mistakes that have come before.
In the midst of all these discussions on emergence, I came across this passage in Anselm Min’s The Solidarity of Others in a Divided World that helped clarify the situation for me -
William James once spoke of two attitudes toward truth and error. One attitude is that of the sceptic, who is driven by an obsessive fear of falling into error and does not want to believe in anything except of sufficient evidence. The other is the attitude of the pragmatist, who is more driven by the hope of finding truth than by the fear of falling into error and is therefore willing to risk even believing in error in order to find truth. Deconstruction is more like the sceptic than the pragmatist. It is fundamentally fearful of all determinate embodiments of human sociality in history because of the terror of the same. It may offer prayers and tears for the coming of the wholly other and its messianic justice, but it does not want to dirty its hands by working at establishing determinate institutions of religion and politics. In the name of differance it flees, in neognostic fashion, from the historical determinacy of matter, body, senses, objectivity, and sociality; from the world of presence, identity, and totality; and takes refuge in the dream of the impossible. (44)
While I would not be so quick to dismiss the need for deconstruction, I see the danger of getting caught up in its cycle of fear. It is one thing to diagnose the problems in the church and its disconnect from the realities of the world, but while voicing such might be a necessary part of a healing process or the claiming of permission to seek freedom, it can be easy to let fear confine us to the refuge of this dream of the impossible.
We have seen the pain and the problems in the church and we want something better. Yet the idea of imperfect people imperfectly trying to put flesh to the idea of moving forward in hope is scary. They will mess things up, they will create broken systems, and they will fail in their attempts to embody the dreams and ideals of the emerging ethos. Inevitably, structures and institutions will develop as the pragmatists seek to build rather than just dream. And because such things have terrorized in the past they in and of themselves are feared. It then becomes easier to attack those who try to actually do something than it is to take that step into the unknown.
I like to dream and to deconstruct, but I need to have hope. I need to have some solid ground upon which to place my feet as I journey towards that hope. I need to see ideas assume flesh and exist in social actualities. I’m not all that good at making it happen, but at heart I am a pragmatist. I cannot just say that a better world is possible, I need to live it. Even if that means I might fail or (what’s even scarier) never stop journeying towards hope always in the process of deconstructing and building.
I am emerging not just out of something but into something. I am done with talk for the sake of talk (or even for the sake of hearing if my voice resonates with others); I need to do something that affirms hope. That is how I am moving forward these days.
There has, of course, in the past couple of days been much talk about Obama’s inauguration speech (and just about as much talk about Michelle Obama’s haircut and dress, but that’s a whole different issue). It is difficult to even begin to comment on the speech because as soon as you say anything supportive or positive you get labeled as an Obama-worshiping fanatic. So just to be clear – I have some serious issues with Obama, especially with his record of violence and for sometimes being too weak to stand up to bullies and just get stuff done already.
That said, I was fascinated with the tone of his inaugural speech.
I honestly could care less that he used the language of the right to promote leftist (actually, more like centrist) ideas. What I loved was the language of action and hope.
As I was watching the inauguration I cringed a bit as I heard the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir start to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The triumphalist eschatological imagery of “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on” isn’t exactly the sort of Christianity (even in a civil religion guise) that I want to see on display, especially at an event like this. Then I was reminded that this was an abolitionist hymn. The coming of the Lord was in fact the Union soldiers trampling the South. In its odd postmillennial theology this hymn teaches that the crushing of the South was in fact part of a much larger series of events—the very Second Coming of Christ and the realization of God's kingdom on earth. The hope is that we, with our own actions, can bring about the realization of the full and complete reign of God on earth.
But barely a decade after writing those lyrics Julia Ward Howe had changed her tune. She had witnessed a bloody war and the detestation it wrought. No longer was she advocating violence as the means of bringing about the reign of God, but instead was a proponent of peace. For anyone with open enough eyes to see the realities of war and the pain in the world, it is hard to hold onto such a vision of hope through military conquest.
As I heard that song sung at the inauguration I could not help but be reminded of the final song from Les Miserables –
Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise
They will live again in freedom in the garden of the lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!
While in stage productions of the musical this song is sung by the entire cast, the recent movie had it sung on the barricades by those who had died. That disturbed me. Here are the miserable of the earth, those who suffer under the system that cares little for their needs, and the message of hope is that someday after death in the garden of the lord the chains of oppression will be broken and all will have their reward. After seeing Cosette and Marius have their “hey look we are rich and happy now” wedding this message that someday the miserable will escape and find comfort did not play well. It doesn’t matter if we hear the people sing or dream of a world beyond the barricade (much less work to make it a reality) if all that matters is that reward comes in heaven someday after we die.
This message is just the flip side of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Hope – the realization of the Kingdom of God – in these views must be fully here and now or only in the world to come.
The problem is that neither view is actually hopeful and both are a bit dangerous. Either one assumes responsibility for saving the world (which is never our responsibility to bear) and becomes discouraged and disillusioned when it doesn’t fully happen or one doesn’t see the need to work for change in the present since what matters most is the life to come. Meanwhile the poor are always with us and the miserable remain.
So it was with these thoughts about the failings of such eschatology that assumes either an already or not yet view of the Kingdom that I listened to Obama’s speech and found in his words a balance of these extremes. That is not to say that I liked everything he said or that I think Obama or politics is our only hope (so don’t even go there). What I liked was that he modeled a way of talking about hope that admits to the realities of suffering in the here and now and that doing what we can for those who suffer is a neverending process. There were no promises of a perfect world or guarantees that we can eradicate poverty, hunger, or prejudice in our time, but instead a reminder that our job is to join in on the ongoing struggle to put into effect our values. We are following that guiding star, Obama noted, just like those before us did at Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall. Working on the side of hope is never something that we ever finish doing or something we can put off for another day, but the essence of our very day to day journey.
That, sadly, is a message that many in the church seem to have forgotten. Hope can be present here and now, but it is also always something to be seeking as well. God’s Kingdom is both to come and made present now when we live in its ways.
I applaud the President’s speech for highlighting that reality. But I also wonder, why does it take a Presidential address for this message to be stated? Why isn’t the church the one known for speaking of hope in such ways?
And now for the disability post.
During the Q&A time with Phyllis Tickle at the Emergence Christianity gathering a woman who uses a wheelchair asked what I thought was one of the most important and telling questions of the event. She commented that even though emergence Christians talk about LGBT folks being the last great “Other” that the church needs to accept, in reality it is people with disabilities who are still otherized the most by the church and asked Phyllis what can be done about that.
I applauded her question.
That’s the thing to do in these sorts of gatherings. When someone dares to bring up the elephants in the room or be a voice for unrepresented voices one applauds if one cares.
I was the only one in a cathedral full of people who applauded her question. It was literally just the sound of one hand clapping.
Phyllis responded that disability is not a truly otherizing or controversial concern for the church because it doesn’t challenge the conception of sola scriptura, next question. I think Phyllis is spot on with her theory that the issues that challenge the church the most are those that shake up our perceived understanding of scripture. If we cling to sola scriptura and our interpretation of that scripture is that slavery is okay, women cannot teach in church, or that same-sex relationships are a sin then to accept those things is to disrupt our entire conception of the scripture. Given the philosophical framework of most Protestants and the lingering predominance of sola scriptura, I fully agree with her description of why such issues caused such turmoil for the church.
What I don’t agree with is that disability is not a challenge to sola scriptura.
I would argue that people with disabilities are in fact the most otherized group of people in the church. Whether it is dealt with well or not, most Christians would agree that racism is wrong and that we should love people of all colors of skin. Many churches would also say that sexism is evil and quite a few even allow women to serve as pastors. It’s trendy to engage in interreligious dialogue and LGBT advocacy is the undisputed cause of the moment. Not so much when it comes to welcoming and showing support for the differently abled.
Basically, we are not and never will be cool. While I fully acknowledge the damaging effect positive stereotypes can have – there is something to be said for the hip factor of Queer folk in advancing their cause. But no one brags about their cool disabled friend they go shopping with. We don’t have Pride parades that end up being the most fun event of the season. There are no sitcoms about witty and fabulous disabled people. Not that this is a competition, just the facts that we are hard to like. We are the awkward ones. We are the ones who are so used to the stares and the pointing fingers and the laughter that we’ve learned to brace ourselves as we enter most social situations knowing that we make other people uncomfortable. For better or worse we have never had the option of a closet to hide in to escape the taunts of the world. We are the freaks and it will never, ever, be trendy to advocate for us much less see us as something other than Other.
Secondly, standing in solidarity with us is costly, literally. If a church starts talking about offering programs for the disabled or even putting in an access ramp they quickly encounter the hard data of the cash it will cost them. Most decide that it is more fiscally responsible to just ignore us. Yes, I get that churches that chose to be welcoming and inclusive of the LGBT community know that there might possibly be a financial cost to that decision. But as members leave and take their tithes with them, the blow is softened by knowing that the loss of income came because the church chose the moral high ground over bigotry. It is easier to accept potential cost than swallow the price tag up front.
But beyond those factors, what I have discovered regarding why disability advocacy is not a cause emergence Christianity (or any form of Christianity really) cares about is that the traditional biblical notions about disability have not yet been challenged the way ideas about slavery, women, and Queers have. Instead of seeing people with disabilities as whole people to be equally welcomed in the body of Christ, there is still a ruling belief in the church that we are broken people in need of healing. We are people to be served and changed, not people to be included and fought for.
Think about the songs we sing (even last week at the Emergence Christianity gathering). The lyrics are all about the poor and the blind being made whole or about rejoicing that “I once was blind but now I see.” If we were singing “I once was gay but now I’m straight” or “I once was Native but now I’m civilized” there would be an uproar, but no one sees any issue in singing such about the differently abled. It is still permissible to assume an absolute normative and cast anyone who appears different as the incomplete other that must be healed and made whole before they can be accepted like everyone else.
The church still repeats the cultural mores of the biblical worlds. Those with imperfections of the body were barred from serving in the Tabernacle and the Temple. Even animals with defects could not be offered up to God in sacrifice. Only those who appeared normative, unblemished, could be accepted as pure and holy sacrifices to God. People with disabilities could not even enter the Temple to worship, but had to remain in the courtyard of the women and the Gentiles. The imperfection of our body made us unacceptable to God. Over time Gentiles, women, and slaves came to be seen as whole persons made in the image of God and therefore worthy of service, but the stigma of incompleteness remains on those with disability.
Phyllis was partially right in her response. Disability isn’t an issue challenging sola scriptura. But that’s because there has yet to be a vocal and vibrant call within the church to challenge ancient cultural assumptions that continue to cast us as Other. And honestly, I don’t know if there ever will be given how “uncool” we are and how costly it is to welcome us fully. That one could even state that how the church conceives of disability isn’t an issue is quite telling of how little attention is given to us at all.
It’s uncomfortable to be the sole person clapping for this cause in a room full of people who generally seem committed to being as welcoming and inclusive as possible. And it’s indicative of how far we still have to go.
See also J.C. Mitchell's response.
Last week I was able to attend the Emergence Christianity Gathering in Memphis, TN. In truth, I went mostly to see old friends and to get the fix that comes from surrounding myself (for a few days at least) with people who ask the same sorts of questions I ask. Not that we all think the same, but sometimes I just need that freedom to be myself for a few days. So on that level, the Gathering was amazing. I had some great conversations, heard some good Blues bands, and ate enough barbeque to last a lifetime.
And for the most part, I enjoyed the content of the conference. Yes, there was a serious lack of diversity on stage and amidst attendees. Yes, meeting in a cathedral makes for a very uncomfortable venue. But for what this event was (a celebration of Phyllis Tickle’s life and work), I was prepared to deal with those.
And then came the final session.
There’s no denying that the final session was just weird. Even those who weren’t offended by what was said there thought it was a very odd way to end a conference. I’ve had both people who were there and who were following along on Twitter asking me what the hell happened. I can’t really explain why it happened, but I want to spend some time responding.
A big part of the problem was that people coming to an emergence Christianity event, especially to hear such an intelligent woman as Phyllis, were not expecting to disagree with her much less hear her say such confusing and hurful things about women, people with disabilities (more on this one another day), and African-Americans. From what I gathered, people came there hopeful for what is emerging in the church and left feeing bewildered. They expected to perhaps disagree with some speakers, but Phyllis is beloved and so the disconnect was far more jarring. I’ve heard Phyllis give versions of these lectures before, but never draw the conclusions she did at this event, so even to me, it was unsettling.
The main content of the gathering was Phyllis doing her whole overview of church history to explain where the church is today and how we got here. It’s a fantastic, albeit cursory, survey of church history which far too few Christians have any knowledge whatsoever about. In her talks, she is always one to make snarky comments or sex jokes that no one but a woman pushing 80 can get away with, but the unsettling pattern in her storytelling this time was to blame women for the demise of Christendom. In the final session Phyllis described the rise and fall of Constantinian Christianity and pointed to the emancipation of women in the 20th century as a catalyst for that decline. While most of us there would agree that the fall of Christendom is a very good thing and that women’s liberation significantly changed our culture, it was where Phyllis went with from there that caused the discomfort.
Phyllis described the freedoms working outside the home in WW2 and the ability to control our cycles the Pill brought women and argued that such things led to the destruction of the nuclear family and therefore the foundation of the civil religion of Christendom. While it is a narrow assessment of causality, I can agree with the descriptive observation that such things changed our culture. But then she jumped from these changes as that which brought an end to Christendom to describing how such changes led to the destruction of the ways the faith is passed on to new generations which thereby resulted in a biblically illiterate society. As she described it, when mom is not at home weaving the stories of scripture and the church calendar into her day to day activities in front of her children, they do not receive the basics of the faith. One cannot apparently have a sacred family meal over Papa John’s pizza picked up on the way home from work the same way that one can if one is baking bread, doing family crafts, and eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Phyllis ended the session by encouraging us to discover ways to be back in the kitchen with our children and finding crafty ways to import the rhythms of the church year to them. Essentially to focus on the family and all that. That is the great emergence. The end.
You can see why people left bewildered.
The story as she told it made sense – constructed narratives work that way – women are to blame for the post-Christian era and if we just got back in the home the faith could thrive again. But it is important to note that in her narrative instead of focusing on what has emerged that brings hope in this world, she was telling the story of why things have changed – which are two vastly different perspectives. At some point in telling the story of change it is hard not to get nostalgic about one point or another and hold a sugar-coated vision of that time up as the period we must all try to harken back towards. The problem with such an approach is that it ignores the underside of said period and it imposes guilt upon those who find hope outside that period’s restrictions.
In making the argument that religion was far stronger when the nuclear family (as defined by a working father and stay at home mother) reigned one not only limits the definition of who gets to represent proper religion but also romanticizes a system that was far more broken than is often realized. The truth is, not all Christian families had the luxury of living such a white middle-class, middle-America lifestyle. Even ignoring the patterns of faith outside the Western world, it is only a small demographic of people who ever had a mother at home teaching the children the church year as she cooked their supper. To hold such up as a goal for contemporary Christians to return to privileges white, middle-class, liturgical faith as the only true or acceptable way to be a faithful Christian. While there is nothing wrong with living in such ways, it is not nor never has been the only way to live one’s faith or impart it to one’s children.
To lament that our culture ever changed from such a family structure (even though only a few ever lived it to begin with) also ignores the ills of that very structure. The shift in the Reformation period that empowered women by making them the spiritual leader in the home has over time not only ostracized men from spiritual practices (because such things are “just” for women) but also restricted women’s service to God to just within the household. This way of thinking does a disservice to men, women, and the Kingdom of God. Perpetuating the notion that it is the role of women to care for the spiritual development of their family in their home ignores the fact that it was causing problems for the faith long before the practice began to decline.
Similarly, upholding this family structure ignores that the development of the modern nuclear family wasn’t exactly a healthy historical development. Prior to the Victorian era’s turn to individualized nuclear family dwellings, people lived far more communally. Multiple generations lived together and villages functioned as extended family. There was no such thing as a woman keeping house herself. No one ever had to cook, clean, manage the house, watch the kids, and educate the kids on her own. Younger teens helped around the house. Kids could wander the village knowing that most people there would take care of them and that they too were expected to help others as needed. Crying babies were watched by the tween girls or elderly women while the women devoted themselves to other tasks. The development of the nuclear family took all of those support structures away from women. Those who were not rich enough to afford servants to help them were expected for the first time in history to bear the burden of all the household tasks alone. A few enlightened men in recent decades have begun to lend a hand, but it is rare that extended families much less the community (including the church) feel any need to help women with these tasks – expecting her instead to be some sort of supermom who can do it all. At the same time the turn toward isolated nuclear families took away the safety that being in community provides. When generations live together and everyone in the village knows each other’s business it is a lot harder for abuse of women and children to be hidden. Not that it didn’t happen or that women weren’t treated as property during those periods, but the façade of the nuclear family hid many ills that a nostalgic romanticized view ignores. It was not a sustainable system, and it is no surprise that by the mid-twentieth century women were both “running for the shelter of mother’s little helper” and seeking freedom from such unrealistic expectations.
But just because the story can be told in such a way that explains why things have changed in a regretful fashion doesn’t mean that is the only way the story must be told. Allowing women to lead family devotions was a huge hopeful step forward in empowering women once upon a time. The freedom that working outside the home and the Pill brought women gave them hope of being fully themselves and the ability to stand on their own two feet apart from abusive and controlling husbands and fathers. I think many of us at the Emergence Christianity Gathering were shocked that such stories of hope were ignored in favor of one that piled on the same stale guilt that we have come to expect from traditional religion. I’m not saying that Phyllis Tickle can’t believe whatever she wants about the role and place of women or tell the story of history through her own particular biases, but what dawned on many of us during this final session was that she was no longer telling a story of emergence. The end of the story as she told it was not one of hope and promise, but one of restrictions and guilt that we are already well acquainted with. It hurt to hear that from her, and many couldn’t bring themselves to admit that they had problems with how she told the story – just that it felt like a really weird ending to the conference. It is like we were waiting for permission to disagree, to state that was not the only way to tell the story.
So here I go – as much as I am grateful for Phyllis and admire much of her work, she does not possess the only truth regarding what is emerging. It is okay to tell the story of where we have been as a story of hope and liberation instead of merely one of regrettable change. We are still figuring out how to live within this emerging world and what were once whispered ideas and conversations are now unquestioned facts about the evolution of our culture. Not knowing where we came from is dangerous, but so is staking our claim in a misunderstood past. We are constantly negotiating what it means to witness with hope within this present moment without simply re-iterating the past. How we tell our story determines the shape of that witness.
So my question for Emergence Christians is – how can we use this awkward moment to push us to start telling this story of hope?
Usually at the end of the year I post a list of the books I read that year. I'm a tad late this year, but this is mostly for my own benefit anyway. But it's always fun to post the list and see if others have read the same books or have suggestions that this list might spark.
As for favorites, I very much enjoyed diving into books on Theopoetics and Social Trinitarianism. Both were topics I needed to research for writing projects and the ideas have captured my imagination. Those approaches to theology (which overlap quite a bit) make sense to me and will be frameworks I will be returning to. As for the fiction I read my favorite this year was Deborah Harkness' A Discovery of Witches. It is one of those books that so thoroughly draws you into its narrative that it takes a moment to reorient yourself to reality once you look up from its pages. Maybe it's because her career started as an academic or because it is her first novel (and firsts are always the most well written, but obvious reasons), but it was one of the most well-written works of popular fiction I have read in a long time. I am currently devouring its sequel and eagerly await the announcement of the third book's publication date. For similar (but opposite) reasons, I wouldn't recommend the Hendees' Noble Dead series. The first two books were okay for that genre (fantasy/vampire hunter), but obviously once they got the contract for the multiple book series the writing quality plummeted. I know that writers once they are expected to pump out that book a year don't have the time to construct as engaging of a novel as they did to first catch an agents's/publisher's eye, but sometimes it is just far too obviously bad.
But enough complaining, here's the list. I would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations!
- The Poetics of Imagining by Richard Kearney
- Theopoetic by Amos Wilder
- Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation by Ivone Gebara
- Standing by Words: Essays by Wendell Berry
- Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life by William Dyrness
- On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process by Catherine Keller
- The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event by John Caputo
- After the Death of God by John Caputo and Gianni Vattimo
- Anatheism: Returning to God After God by Richard Kearney
- The Way of Transfiguration: Religious Imagination As Theopoiesis by Stanley Hopper
- The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei by Stanley Grenz
- God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life by Catherine Mowry LaCugna
- After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity by Miroslav Volf
- The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and "Women's Work" by Kathleen Norris
- Hearing and Knowing: Theological Reflections on Christianity in Africa by Mercy Amba Oduyoye
- Aspergirls: Empowering Females with Asperger Syndrome by Rudy Simone
- Ethics of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann
- The Trinity and the Kingdom by Jurgen Moltman
- Writing in the Dust: After September 11 by Rowan Williams
- Wealth as Peril and Obligation: The New Testament on Possessions by Sondra Wheeler
- Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard
- Adam and Eve: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender Ed. Kristen Kvam
- Heaven and Hell in Narrative Perspective by Andrew Perriman
- Spiritual Landscapes: Images of the Spiritual Life in the Gospel of Luke by James Resseguie
- The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
- Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed by Bruce Epperly
- Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology by Monica Coleman
- Unladylike: Resisting the Injustice of Inequality in the Church by Pam Hogeweide
- A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
- Dark Currents: Agent of Hel by Jaqueline Carey
- Gabriel's Inferno by Sylvain Reynard
- Gabriel's Rapture by Sylvain Reynard
- Fifty Shades of Gray by E.L. James
- Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James
- Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James
- Dhampir by Barb & J.C. Hendee
- Thief of Lives by Barb & J.C. Hendee
- Sister of the Dead by Barb & J.C. Hendee
- Traitor to the Blood by Barb & J.C. Hendee
- Rebel Fay by Barb & J.C. Hendee
- Child of a Dead God by Barb & J.C. Hendee
- Saints Astray by Jacqueline Carey
- Insurgent Veronica Roth
- Bridge of Dreams Anne Bishop
“O Come All Ye Faithful
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him,
Born the King of Angels;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.”
I heard this carol play on the radio recently and found myself cringing at the lyrics. Truimphalist religion has ravaged the world and the image of God in the world. For the faithful to claim to be triumphant is heard as the chains of oppression by many. Christ the Lord has very little to do with the triumphal attitude of the church throughout history. This is not a hymn I could sing honestly anymore.
Then I wondered, what if instead of assuming that “joyful and triumphant” are modifiers of faithful, I saw them as three distinct references. The faithful, the joyful, and the triumphant are all invited to come behold and adore the one born in Bethlehem. While at times the faithful might be joyful or triumphant, it does not necessarily follow that they will always be such things. Often to be faithful one must embrace the darkness and dwell in that dark night of the soul. While there might be a form of contentment there, it is rarely what one would describe as joyful. And those that faithfully follow the way of Christ where the last are put first and the first last and the humble uplifted and the mighty brought down from their thrones, are not the ones reveling in triumph. There are the faithful, the joyful, and the triumphant – but they are not always one in the same.
Even so, they are all invited to come adore Christ the Lord. All are welcome – those already full of joy, those who believe they triumph over others, and those who remain faithful despite (or because of) the darkness that surrounds them.
This is a helpful reminder as I wrap up my Advent reflections on embracing the darkness. So often in our churches, especially this time of year, it is only the joyful and the triumphant who seem to be invited. The image that is projected is that one must be joyful (it’s the most wonderful time of the year) and participate in triumphalist religion (Jesus is the reason for the season or else) in order to belong as part of the communal body that claims to be adoring the Christ.
But the darkness abounds. Sometimes it can be a peaceful and needful return to listening to God, at other times it is the weight of all the horrors of the world. Many of the faithful find themselves in this darkness without joy or (thankfully) delusions of triumphalism. They too are invited to come and adore, but all too often they are expected to discard the darkness before they are allowed into the institutions that lay claim to the right to direct that adoration.
But there are days when many of us cannot be joyful, and many of us fear any hint of triumphalism. But we are still faithful and come and adore in the midst of the darkness. It can just be difficult to hear that invitation from within the church anymore.
“If it wasn't for the night
So cold this time of year
The stars would never shine so bright
So beautiful and clear”
- David Wilcox “If it Wasn’t for the Night”
The night isn’t just the in between time. It isn’t just the period of space where one is simply waiting for the day to return. We need the night, that time of darkness where it seems like all hope is lost to learn how to see the beauty that is already there. The stars can only be seen at night and we can miss that if we fear the darkness.
I want to affirm those treasures in times of darkness. That there are truths to be revealed, hopes to be discovered, and peace to be found even when we are not surrounded by the comforting presence of the light.
And then Connecticut happens.
Even as I struggle to find peace in the darkness, I can’t even pretend to find hope in that. I know some can conjure up platitudes of “God has a plan” or “All things work for the good” but even the most shallow and saccharine of Christians know such to be lies we tell ourselves so that we don’t actually have to face the horrors of the darkness.
What are we waiting for, eagerly expecting in light of this?
I had a teacher once who had a countdown calendar to the end of the school year. Each day she would cross off a box on the calendar until she reached much anticipated the end of the school year. On that last day, the day the school year ended, her teenage daughter was killed in a car crash. All the teacher could think was that she had been counting down, eagerly anticipating the day of her daughter’s death.
Are we prepared to wait in the darkness? For the darkness?
If it wasn’t for the night – what? Yes, the stars shine bright, but they are still cold, distant, and unfathomable. Are we prepared to wait in a place we don’t understand, for something we will not comprehend, and let the pain of that place shape us without us trying to shape it into a manageable fragment of itself?
Darkness is real. We need it, but we most certainly can’t deny it. It is there inviting us to wrestle with what it holds in its depths. It is there waiting to break our hip as we demand it answer our questions. We are fools to think we can understand it but even greater fools to ignore it. It is in this darkness that we find God – sometimes offering possibility and beauty, but more often than not simply residing there in solidarity with those suffering in its midst.
I find no hope in events like this school shooting. I find no hope in thinking that it is part of God’s plan or that God can acquire glory from it. Those lies are ultimately hopeless. All I can do is know that God is in that darkness suffering there too. I cannot anticipate a coming Advent, but I can wait in the darkness – sit in communion in the place God already dwells. It is more a waiting with God in the darkness that a waiting for God to skip over the darkness that is the reality of so many of our lives.
Advent used to be a period of repentance and fasting like Lent. With the Church’s decision to celebrate the Mass of the birth of Christ at the same time as the established observance of the solstice, Advent therefore came to correspond with the days of increasing darkness (since Christianity was still a Northern hemisphere religion at the time). In pre-modern times, people found more meaning in the turning of the seasons. While we might be aware that the days are growing shorter in our contemporary world, it is not something that concerns us too greatly given that we have wired houses and glowing screens to chase away the darkness that encroaches.
But when the lengthening of the nights brought the darkness ever closer, it had to be faced for what it was. Without the distractions of the light which provide the space to keep hands and minds busy with work and play, one has to be alone with the parts of life many of us would often rather avoid. Without light to distract us, there is nothing to silence the reminders of grief or the inevitability of death. The questions that haunt us, the memories we fear, and the reminders of the pain surrounding us come creeping in with the darkness.
And for much of human history, this period of opportunity to face the darkness was embraced.
Rituals were devised to help one face the darkness and to even grapple with the darkness within oneself. The period of Advent, mirroring the cultural habits of the season, similarly became a period of repentance and fasting as Christians found the time in the longer periods of darkness to look inward and face the questions that often get brushed aside in the everyday busyness of life. It was a time of vulnerability, a time when it was okay to mourn, to admit to doubts, and to do the hard work of recognizing the parts of oneself that needed to be healed or changed.
To protect themselves in their period of vulnerability and introspection, people in European cultures would hang evergreen branches around the openings of their homes. These symbols of hope that life survives the darkness were thought to keep evil spirits from entering and taking advantage of the vulnerable rituals of the darkness. But the protections were not against the darkness as people knew that the darkness was a natural part of the rhythm of life. The protections were only against that which would take advantage of people as they tried to open themselves up to wrestling with the scary parts of life that must be faced in order for one to grow.
Embracing the approaching darkness was not merely about awaiting the return of the light. The light was celebrated once it returned, but the period of darkness was not just survived but embraced as a necessary part of what shaped the development of the holistic person.
Too often in Advent we rush towards the light. We make it all about preparing for the event of the Christ child without taking the time to be in the darkness. We look forward to a light to distract us without wrestling with the meaning of the darkness. Perhaps we should return to the habit of embracing the darkness instead.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing façade are all being rolled away—
- T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”
We’ve grown comfortable with the façade. The pretty backdrop of our lives, the rote stories that prop up our faith, the habits that keep us so distracted that we forget that there is anything more than the construct of life we skim across.
We rush toward Christmas, letting the familiarity of the stories lull us into a contentment with our knowledge of the event. We speak of the return of the light or of the light breaking into the darkness, but often those words are just platitudes we use to pretend that there is some meaning to our experience – that the busyness and the trappings of the season are for a purpose, even if we can’t fully articulate what it is. Even if all we can do is insist on restating the story as we know it to be.
Even the period of anticipation and expectation has become a front for casting judgment on those who display a different façade. Advent often is not about experiencing God in the waiting, but ensuring that the waiting is done properly. If anyone dares mention a Christmas carol, put up a Christmas tree, or (God forbid) use the wrong color candle in an Advent wreath they are resoundingly condemned for not observing the rituals properly.
We are so comfortable with our façades that we miss that there is a deeper story to tell, a drama yet to unfold, a mystery to encounter beyond the constructs we have grown accustomed to. If we will only settle down, let the lights go out, and wait for the imposing façade to be rolled away then perhaps there will be space for the drama to commence.
But turning off the lights is scary. The light distracts us, allows us to only see the façades that we find safe and comforting. Even if they are hollow, they are known. Darkness is unsettling; we don’t know what it might hold, what might by moving within its unseen corners. We would rather embrace the known even if that means that we never encounter where God might be moving than risk having the worlds we have built for ourselves challenged.
Yet, when the darkness surrounds us so does possibility. The potential for God to move and entice us toward encountering mystery enters in with that expectant darkness. The Spirit can hover and in its rumble of wings stir up new ways of being in this world – new stories to tell and depths to explore.
But that is only when we allow the lights to be extinguished and the darkness blanket our imaginations. When we stop simply reiterating the expectations of the season, the words we know by rote, the images we let glaze over our eyes and sit in that darkness, then we might find some meaning in the waiting.
We must sit in that darkness so that we can anticipate not just a preconceived or tired idea of Advent, but the actual advent of God appearing mysteriously and wonderfully in our midst.
To wait implies that no matter how much it might frighten us, we actually expect God to show up.
I’ve always been fond of those illusion pictures (like the old woman or young lady image). There is always an image that one sees first and it takes time and training to see the other perspective – but once one does it is impossible to not see both. That shift in part describes my experience with Christian art after having encountered Rita Brock’s work.
I’ve heard Rita speak and have read some of Saving Paradise. In her work, she explores the ways early Christian art focused less on the crucifixion of Christ and instead on the ways Christ redeems and baptizes the world. While later Christian art is full of crucifixion images and accompanied a theology that saw this world as an evil from which we must escape, earlier art presented Christ in his glory using baptism as an entry point into the paradise of this world. This baptized world is not perfect of course, but it is a place to struggle together in the process of becoming more like God. As Brock suggests, this early art — which included images of water flowing from Christ over the earth — conveys the theology that everlasting life begins at baptism (not when we die and escape) and invites us to live as Christ lived even in the present.
Brock points out that most commentaries on Christian art ignore these images of baptism and the theology they imply. But after seeing her point out in images the presence of water flowing from Christ, it is hard now not to see it. And it is exactly what I encountered when I was in Los Angeles recently and had the opportunity to visit the Heaven, Hell, and Dying Well: Images of Death in the Middle Ages exhibit at the Getty Museum.
My experience of the exhibit began as I was walking in and overheard a child asking her father what the title of the exhibit meant. His response was that the church used to use the idea of hell to frighten people into doing what they wanted and that these were some of the images they used to do so. I cringed at his explanation, but then encountered basically the same idea in the commentaries posted by each image. Each one seemed to be explained as “Christ sending sinners into everlasting punishment in hell. Used to convince people to obey the church so that they could avoid such when they died.”
The problem is that is not what I was seeing in those images. I was seeing the baptismal waters of Christ. Even as people were being pulled into the torment of hell by death, the baptismal waters were still covering them and in some it was obvious Christ was rescuing them (see my rather blurry examples). I found it fascinating that these aspects were not mentioned in the commentaries, but that the narrative of Christ punishing bad people by sending them to hell has so infiltrated our cultural imaginations that it is near impossible to admit to alternative narratives. We in our retributive and manipulative culture seem to relish the idea of the wicked getting what they deserve and those who follow the “right” set of rules being rewarded. But, I wonder, how much more poignant (in the full heart-wrenching sense of that term) is the idea of Christ redeeming the world and inviting all into abundant life beginning now?
Forgiveness and mercy aren’t cheap or easy. The wicked are never let off the hook when they are redeemed. If we ignore life in this world and focus on just the punishment or reward of some afterlife, we miss the struggle that walking in the way of Christ involves. If baptism invites us to enter into the earthly paradise where although evil is yet present, we still can struggle along together toward our mutual spiritual flourishing, we are not in for an easy journey. Living in the way of Christ instead of the greedy consuming ways of the world is the hardest path we can ever follow. Punishment is easy because we can remain our selfish selves as we are cast out; mercy is hard because it forces us to change. Not getting what we deserve is truly the most devastating yet beautiful thing that could ever happen to us.
There is a fantastic scene near the end of the Doctor Who episode Last of the Time Lords that illustrates this devastating baptism of mercy perfectly. After the character The Master attempts to take over the universe and nearly destroys the earth in the process, the Doctor yet again saves the day. At one point the Doctor is filled with the glory of all space and time and appears transfigured in all his power before the Master to confront him with his deeds. The Master first tries to attack the Doctor and yet his attacks are futile. He then cowers in a corner as the Doctor hovers above him with a look of infinite sorrow on his face and they have this exchange –
The Doctor: I'm sorry. I'm so sorry…
The Master: You can't do this! YOU CAN'T DO THIS! IT'S NOT FAIR!
The Doctor: Then you know what happens now.
The Master: [scared] No! NO! NO! NO!
The Doctor: [serious] You wouldn't listen…
The Master: [cowering] NO!
The Doctor: [serious] 'Cause you know what I'm gonna say.
The Master: [terrified] No!
[the Doctor touches down, the glow of light vanishes, the Doctor kneels next to the Master and puts his arms around him]
The Doctor: I forgive you.
The Master is heartbroken to unfairly receive mercy and an invitation to live differently with the Doctor – healing instead of dominating worlds. As I watched that episode recently, that scene reminded me of that exhibit at the Getty where the obvious in art is ignored because we simply do not want to accept that perhaps it is mercy and invitation instead of death and punishment that Christ is actually offering. We are terrified to think that perhaps this life does matter, that we must choose a much harder path than merely assuming we chose the right religion. Accepting the baptism of this life is devastating, so we ignore it in our art, label it heresy in our churches, and go on living exactly as we wish. Yet, Christ is there baptizing us anyway, saying “I’m sorry, I am so sorry. I forgive you.”