Monday, December 17, 2018

Why #WisdomRemixed

You may have noticed me posting a lot recently on social media about a collection of shirts and hoodies called #WisdomRemixed. That's a little thing my friend and I started as an opportunity to do something creative together. What follows is the rationale behind it. I hope you like it!

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"What you have learned,
you must unlearn."
- Yoda, #WisdomRemixed

Something magical happens every now and then. Some artful, imaginative, deep soul will string a few words together, all the necessary elements of insight align, and a little bit of timeless, transcendent wisdom emerges. And the world is better for it.

But before too long, nuggets of wisdom get passed around so much that they become stale. A cliché is, essentially, timeless truth corroded by time. We start to lose sight of the essential insight of our insights. And so even when found in possession of wisdom, we are gradually, insidiously becoming less wise.

TWEET THIS: A cliché is, essentially, timeless truth corroded by time. #wisdomremixed

#Wisdomremixed is an attempt to stop the steady slide into cliche that so many great insights fall victim to. These graphic reinterpretations of classic quotes, shuffled and flipped in fresh ways, remind us of the brilliance behind them and invite us to reconsider how they might change our way of seeing ourselves, each other, and the world we live in. We unlearn, we relearn, and we reclaim the wisdom of those who came before us.

TWEET THIS: We unlearn, we relearn, and we reclaim the wisdom of those who came before us.

Wear #wisdomremixed with pride! Post photos of you out and about in these shirts and hoodies! Send us your own remixed wisdom! As the great Ferris Bueller once (sort of) said:

“If you don’t stop
and look around
once in a while,
life moves pretty fast.”
#WisdomRemixed

Check out the catalog of offerings at https://wisdom-remixed.myshopify.com/. More items to come!

Friday, December 07, 2018

Middling 2.2: Whenever Possible, I Go Vinyl

Have you heard about the woman whose full name includes the command prefixes of two AI devices on the market? Alexa Seary says her life has become “a waking nightmare” since Apple and later Amazon introduced their virtual assistants.

At least now, I suppose, her friends are ordering her around using her first name instead of her last name. Ha ha very funny. We opened our home to artificial intelligence this year when Kara’s sister gave us two Amazon Echo Dots. So far we use them mostly for weather reports, sci-fi humor (“Tea. Earl grey. Hot.” Ha ha very funny), and music.

Here’s the problem: Your virtual assistant is more loyal to her corporate creator than to you. So Alexa will not link to our iTunes account; she will only access our Amazon account. That means I can listen to all the music I’ve bought Kara’s mom through Amazon, but none of the music I've bought for myself through iTunes. (Not to mention none of the music Kara's mom has bought for me. And she and I . . . well, we have different musical tastes.)

That’s okay, because I am still, by and large, stubborn about owning music in physical form. Whenever possible, I go vinyl. So for Christmas I also got two brand new records: If All I Was Was Black by the great Mavis Staples, and Fifteen by the Wailin’ Jennys.

Let me quickly say that even a “bad” Mavis Staples album still prominently features Mavis Staples: earnest, soulful, wise, fully committed. I read an interview with her years ago where she revealed that Bob Dylan had wanted to marry her. She told him he needed to get right with God first. I like that and I like Mavis. In recent years she’s collaborated with Chicago legend and Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy, which in theory should work: Both are great artists who don’t do anything halfway. But I found this album a little too quaint.

I wonder if Tweedy is star struck: I know that I get a little deferential when I’m editing a legend. I wonder if Mavis exists in his imagination more as an icon than a person. I wonder if she’s just getting tired after nearly seventy years of singing and nearly eighty years of fighting the good fight. Or maybe they’ve gone as far as they can go together. Whatever the case may be, in the end it’s still an American treasure singing, so maybe it will grow on me. Tracks of note include “Little Bit” and “Try Harder.” But also check out her collaborations with Arcade Fire: “I Give You Power” and the Talking Heads track “Slippery People.” Powerful and prophetic—classic Mavis.

The Wailin’ Jennys is, I suppose, technically a “super group.” Three women, each doing just fine as a solo act, decided to get together. Their voices are heavenly together. They broke up a while ago but reunited for their fifteenth anniversary, with a new album of favorite covers and a tour to support it. They actually came to Colorado Springs while I was out of town. Sigh.

Fifteen came out the year Tom Petty died, so a cover of his “Wildflowers” was perhaps inevitable. But it’s amazing. I could listen to it over and over and over. Also of note is the cover of “The Valley” by K. D. Lang, a song I’d heard but never really noticed, a sad and knowing piece with a hopeful chorus. That and “Keep Me in Your Heart,” which Warren Zevon wrote from his death bed, are now shortlisted for my own funeral playlist.

I also, kind of as a joke, got the new Taylor Swift CD, Reputation, for Christmas. It’s pretty good, although whoever started the “Old Taylor is dead” thing (spoiler alert: it was Taylor herself) needs to take a second pass. 1989 was her Great Leap Forward; this is just her natural next step.

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This post is excerpted from the Spring 2018 issue of Middling, an occasional e-newsletter I send out, focused on music, books, and life in middle age. Let me know if you'd like to get it.

Postscript: The Mavis Staples album has indeed grown on me. You should get it.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Middling 2.1: Beyond the Glitter to the Light

Some jokes are wasted on the young. Case in point: “Electric Boogaloo,” the subtitle to the sequel of the movie Breakin’, which I first saw at a theater in Neillsville, Wisconsin, with my cousins when we were young. That’s how I remember it, at least. Breakin’ was a theatrical attempt to capitalize on white suburban fascination with hip hop dance. It certainly worked on us.

At the end of the credits for that first film we were told to keep an eye out for the second, but by the time Electric Boogaloo hit the theaters I had moved on to other interests—hair metal, maybe. (The time bleeds together.) I still to this day have never seen the sequel, but I love the cadence of the title, and I find myself throwing back to it every time I reference the second in a sequence of something. Millennials rarely get the joke.

Such is the travail of the middle-aged life. I am reminded almost daily of the ephemerality of our preoccupations. The things that fascinate us, the things that shock us, the things that seem so earth-shatteringly important will one day seem cute and immaterial, the way old people seem to young people. One day I myself will be that old and cute and immaterial artifact. It’s only a matter of time.

I’m writing this the day after the birthday of the late great Thomas Merton, a mid-twentieth century monk whose writings have been significant for me. He died fifty years ago this year; he was five years older than I will be this year when he died. Among his later writings is the fantastic book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which covers a lot of ground but ends with a refreshingly nondualistic reflection on the ephemera of every age:

There is the hope, there is the world
that remakes itself at God's command
without consulting us. . . .
The glitter is false?
Well, the light is true.
The glitter has ceased to matter.
It is even beautiful.

It occurs to me that the middling age is the opportunity to look beyond the glitter to the light. At first that can feel like a great giving up, even like a rapid succession of great givings up, with no assurance on the far end that we’ll have anything left. But from the angle Merton describes, this looking beyond is a gift, a truer seeing of everything.

Kara and I rewatched Breakin’ a year or so ago. It was huge for her, apparently, when she was a kid. It was cheesy, but fun. You should check it out.

***

This is an excerpt from an occasional e-newsletter I send out, focused on books, music, and life in middle age. This excerpt is from the spring 2018 issue. Let me know if you'd like to be on the distribution list.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Two Ladders, No Heaven: Stan Lee, Yoko Ono, and the Universes They Imagined

When Stan Lee was a student, he was clowning around with friends in the classroom office of the school paper when he spotted a ladder. "“So I climbed up and wrote Stan Lee Is God on the ceiling, which was one of the earliest evidences of my overpowering inferiority complex.” He was joking, of course: Stan Lee was a lot of things, but he was not dealing with an inferiority complex.

Joining the comic book industry in its infancy, Stan Lee, who died this week at the age of 95, worked like a horse for decades, seeing the fortunes of his chosen media rise and fall in the process. By the time he found himself working for Marvel Comics, the superhero genre was running on fumes, a caricature of its former greatness. It was all monsters all the time for Marvel. And then Stan and Jack Kirby came up with the Fantastic Four, a highly dysfunctional family of superheroes made powerful by exposure to radiation. There was even a monster among them--the Thing, a man whose body had been mutated into orange rock.

And Stan saw what he had made, and it was very good. And so a universe was born, and in a sense Stan's scribbling at the top of the ladder was proven prophetic.

I've always been a Marvel guy. I was buying countless back issues of The Avengers before Chris Hemsworth was born. My first book was an ode to comic books, which tells you something about my nerd cred. I've idolized Stan Lee for most of my life. But as I step back from Stan Lee I see not so much the man as the mindset: What happens at the top of a ladder is generally telling.

Stan Lee and all his contemporaries at the dawn of the superhero age were preoccupied with power, and rightly so. Many of the founders of the industry were Jewish, and they were creating characters and crafting tales while hearing stories of the criminalization of Judaism in Germany during the build-up to World War II. Closer to home, they were feeling the ongoing effects of the Great Depression. Is it any wonder that the fantasies of the day were caught up in deliverance: powerful men and women saving the helpless from every trouble and dispensing justice to those who would harm others. Captain America was introduced to the world in a drawing: He was punching Adolf Hitler in the face.

How do we get the power to be heroes? In many cases, we manufacture it. Captain America was cooked up in a laboratory; the original Human Torch was a robot; Batman had deep pockets. Stan Lee came into his own in an industry that glorified power and sought to harness it. For his generation, the first impressions of the nuclear bomb were good: It had the power to bring whole wars to an end. And even a couple of decades later, after "fallout" became a thing and nuclear power lost some of its luster, there was still the hope that good things come from those who harness it: The Fantastic Four were fantastic, after all, and while the Hulk was terrifying, he was also cool. Radioactive material made Matt Murdock blind, but it also made him Daredevil; a radioactive spider turned Peter Parker into Spider-Man. "With great power comes great responsibility," Peter learned the hard way from his uncle Ben. But before you get the responsibility, first you get the power.

YOKO ONO was born ten years and some change after Stan Lee in Tokyo, Japan. She was twelve and a half when Hiroshima and then Nagasaki were obliterated by nuclear bombs. Somewhere between 130,000 and 226,000 Japanese people died as a result of those two bombings. Imagine coming of age in full view of the most devastating military action of all time. Imagine that the power harnessed through the technologies of warfare--atom splitting and bomb making--were symbols not of deliverance and victory but the utter devastation of your homeland. I had a professor who wanted to reset our calendars so that August 6, 1945, when the US government killed Hiroshima, Japan, would henceforth be counted as the beginning of time, the start of the nuclear age. Every future decision of ethical import would have to take into consideration the fact that we had it within our power to destroy the planet.

Yoko Ono has her own ladder story. In 1966 she was exhibiting her art in London when John Lennon walked in. Lennon, the goofball anarchist of The Beatles, explored the exhibit, which included a white ladder that reached all the way to the ceiling. At the top was a magnifying glass, and on the ceiling were three little letters, so small you might miss them. "You feel like a fool," John told an interviewer years later, "you could fall any minute - and you look through it and it just says 'YES.'" Yoko was doing her own thing, markedly different from the art of her day: "all anti-, anti-, anti-," as John recalled. The two quickly became a bonded pair, and together they began to imagine the world as a place of possibility, with power being not something you harness so much as something that simply exists within you and without you, something you simply embrace. "War is over!" they shouted from the rooftops of Times Square in New York City. "(If you want it)" was the whisper to the shout.

"Imagine there's no heaven," John wrote, and we imagine Yoko sitting next to him at the piano as he wrote. "Above us only sky." I follow Yoko on Twitter and to this day she's still imagining such lofty, implausible things: Imagine that you are mystically joined to every other thing in the universe, such that your inner peace can manufacture world peace. Ten years and a world apart from Stan Lee, Yoko sees the universe differently, and she gives a little time each day to shaping it from her little corner of it. The two of them, Stan Lee and Yoko Ono, strike me as competing visions for how the universe works: Do we seize power, shape it and set it loose on the world? Or do we breathe power in and out, and so hold it loosely as we share it with the world? Yoko and Stan answered that question; the rest of us have to as well.

***

There's a third ladder story, this one in the Bible. Jacob the deceiver is on the run from a brother who wants to kill him. He carries with him the blessing of his father, who himself carried with him the promise of God that he and his children would be a blessing to the nations. Jacob has a vision on the road of a ladder to heaven, with angels ascending and descending. This, then, is the biblical view of the universe: Power is something invested in the world by a God who created it and loves it. We come by power as an accident of being. We may harness it, we may hold it, we may share it, we may hoard it. But it doesn't originate with us; it doesn't come into being by sheer force of our will or imagination. "Whatcha gonna do," Kanye West wrote, "with all that power?" It's an ethical question, and God already gave us the answer: Use it to bless.

Friday, November 02, 2018

The Triumph of Sisyphus: A Parable

“There’s room at the top, they are telling you still.
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill.”
—John Lennon, “Working Class Hero”

Every day was the same, for as long as he bothered to remember. He would strain at the rock, pushing and pushing, feeling it in his arms, his shoulders, his back, his feet. Every inch of ground he gained on the hill made the work that much harder, the climb that much steeper. And then he would reach the peak, and after a moment of rest and satisfaction, he would watch the boulder roll down the hill. He would follow it down, and begin again.

Then one day, he looked around. Just for a moment. That’s when he saw the others. Person upon person, pushing boulder after boulder. He’d never noticed before. And then he had an idea: Maybe the rut of another boulder would make his pushing easier. He steered his path toward his nearest neighbor, and wouldn’t you know it, the uphill climb became easier—only negligibly so, but after what seemed an eternity of pushing, every little bit helps.

When he reached the peak, he took a moment to celebrate. In the second between his boulder’s summiting and its plummeting, he took another look around. There he noticed more people—different people. People without rocks of their own. People whispering among themselves and gesturing toward him.

Then his rock rolled away, and he chased after it. But he kept thinking about the day’s strange turn of events.

At the base of the hill he took his position behind his rock and made ready to push. He took note of where the other pushers were and picked a target to follow, and again he found the slightest bit of relief in the day’s ascent. There was still the rock, still the climb, but he noticed the faintest of smiles trying to break out on his face. He reached the top and looked around, and he noticed that some of the other rock pushers had already begun their descent.

And then he had the strangest thought. I wonder if I could hit one of them with my rock.

The rock was already slipping away from him, but he reached out and gave it a little push—barely enough to alter its course just a little bit. He watched as the rock rolled toward one of the pushers downhill from him. He noticed the disappointment that flashed over him as the rock rolled by, grazing the pusher’s leg.

Then he looked around and caught the eye of one of the rockless people, who smiled and nodded toward him before turning away.

Sisyphus made his way down the hill, but he was no longer trudging. He felt a vague sense of accomplishment, a faint tingle of delight. He liked the feeling, he decided. He actually hurried.

Then he took his place behind the rock and began his ascent. He settled in behind another pusher and found himself annoyed. Why is this pusher so slow? he muttered under breath. Even so, he eventually summited, took quick note of the location of the other pushers, made a brief mental calculation, and leaned hard on the side of his rock before it broke loose from him.

The rock rolled down the hill. Sisyphus noticed that he was breathing fast. An unsuspecting pusher continued to make her way downhill, ignorant of the boulder gaining on her, pressing down on her.

The boulder made contact; the pusher collapsed under its weight and momentum. The rock kept rolling. The pusher didn’t get back up. Sisyphus let out a gasp, or was it a laugh? He looked around. Some of the rockless observers were pointing, laughing. Others were shaking their heads. One seemed to sigh and even suppress a tear.

Sisyphus made his way down the hill. He was smiling as he went.

Then he took his place behind his rock and began pushing.

This pattern continued for some time. Sisyphus’s rock didn’t always make contact with another pusher, but he always aimed it, and when his boulder crushed a pusher he would seek the eye of one of the rockless observers. He would smile at them, and they would smile at him.

He reveled in his superiority over the other pushers, who lacked vision and displayed no freedom of thought. He had come to take pride in his work.

Then one day, Sisyphus summited. He aimed his boulder and sent it rolling down the hill. He pointed and laughed as the boulder struck one and then another pusher on its way down. And then he sighed as he watched the boulder come to rest at the base of the hill.

But this time, Sisyphus lingered.

The other pushers were long gone. He stood and watched, and he wondered at his indecisiveness. Why was he not heading downhill? Why was he just standing there? What would happen to his rock?

He waited. And watched. And before too long, he saw a new pusher step toward his rock—the rock he had been pushing and chasing for all eternity past—and begin to push his rock up the hill.

And Sisyphus bowed his head, sighed, took his place alongside the watchers, and continued to watch.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Middling 1.3: Books

I was excited recently to read a novel called Meddling Kids. (That title, I'm now realizing, might be what put the word middling in my head.) I was sold on the elevator pitch: What if Scooby Doo and the gang were all grown up and had to return to the scene of their greatest mystery? This fan fiction premise evolved into something different enough to avoid a lawsuit, but I'm not so Gen X that I'm impervious to appeals to my sense of nostalgia. So I ran out and bought it.

The author, Edgar Cantero, does a great job of maintaining humor and developing character throughout. He was particularly effective at solving the Dog Problem: not only how does the dog talk (he doesn't ... or does he?!?) but also, um, how is the dog still alive fifteen years later?!? (It's the grand-dog of the original.) There's a real sense of urgency in this book that makes its length legitimate, and there are some spectacular descriptions of hair, of all things. But I was not prepared for the darkness—necromancy and other aspects of the occult play a central role. I'm no prude, but I don't read a lot of stuff involving the Dark Arts, and frankly, Harry Potter this ain't. Creeped me out a LOT. Also a little conveniently of-the-moment in some character decisions, even though the book is set in the early 90s.

The other book I ran to get recently was When the English Fall by David Williams. Again, credit the elevator pitch: Apocalyptic Amish—a celestial event fries the electrical grid, sending Western civilization into chaos. Nearly all the calamitous fallout takes place offstage in this found journal of an Amish carpenter. The gentleness and complexity of the simple life is evident throughout, and the costly moral imperative of loving your neighbor is on full display. I was regularly moved by this book, and while it can rightly be called a quick read, I read it slow.

Beyond leisure reading, I've edited a bunch of books recently. A couple of personal high points:

Whole, by Steve Wiens. Steve is a fabulous writer, and Whole is a heartfelt book about Shalom as a lifestyle and brokenness as a collective sigh.

When the Soul Listens, by Jan Johnson. This book was first released more than twenty years ago, when contemplative prayer still scared the bejeezus out of evangelicals. Jan's now thoroughly revised it, and it's a lovely primer on a way of praying that's life- and faith-giving.

Drawn In Bible Studies. I also had the opportunity this year to develop a set of Bible studies, featuring the text of The Message (the Bible my company publishes) and art for coloring. They're adorable!

You can get these titles at www.navpress.com or wherever you like to buy books. #shoplocal #saynotodrones

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Every three or four months I send out a long missive to friends and family members. (If you'd like to get these missives, give me a shout.) I thought I'd post portions of those newsletters here. The theme of the newsletter is life in middle age, with a focus on what I'm reading, what I'm listening to, and how I'm living. This post is from last fall's newsletter. I hope you enjoyed it.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Middling 1.2: Music

I don't know how or why, but apparently central Iowa is a draw for some pretty cool music acts. Exhibit A is a recent show put on by Lucy Wainwright Roche with Suzzy Roche. My aunt Jeannine caught the show with her sisters, and because my aunt is the bestest (and maybe because I had recently referenced the artist online, having swapped songs on social media with a very young colleague), she bought me TWO of their records. She even had them signed for me: on one of them, Lucy simply wrote, "Dave!!!"

Lucy Wainwright Roche's music is, I will quickly aver, most likely an acquired taste. I acquired that taste thanks to Paste magazine, which way back in the day sent a CD sampler of music in the mail with each issue. Those were kinder, more tactile times. On one of those CDs was Lucy's (I'll call her Lucy now, since she calls me Dave) song "Chicago," which made me a little weepy even when I lived there and holds up nicely after a decade or so. Lucy's voice is simple and vulnerable; one might be tempted to dismiss her as overrated, privileged by her impressive musical pedigree (Suzzy is her mother and member of the great vocal group the Roches; her father is a Grammy-winning folk singer), but one should not so dismiss her. Her music does tend to be a little uniform, but so does the music of the Lumineers, and I got tired of them almost immediately, whereas I keep listening to Lucy.

Once you accept the relatively closed musical universe the songs operate within (and if you think that's a critique, listen to the blues for a day and get back to me), you notice the range of her interests. Echoes of early Simon and Garfunkel abound, but with a feminine sensibility that made me realize how masculine Paul Simon is (if you think that's a critique of either Lucy or S&G, you really need to relax). My earlier exposure to Lucy had her square in the hipster/twee column for me (see "Chicago," her cover of "Call Your Girlfriend" and "Seek and Hide," a duet with Colin Meloy of the Decemberists), but these two records make her seem older, more seasoned and sage. Maybe it's the collaboration with her mother.

The collaboration may also explain the cover songs, which were more mainstream than I would have expected: "Desperado," "Rhythm of the Rain" and "Landslide" all seem awfully popular (if you think that's a criticism, you really need to do some inner work). But Lucy is a great interpreter if other people's songs, particularly as showcased on the Beatles' (relatively) deep track "For No One" (on Fairytale and Myth) and Joni Mitchell's "Clouds" (on Mud and Apples). I tend to think you have to earn the right to perform "Clouds" (a song on my funeral playlist, for future reference), and as young as she is, I think Lucy has earned that right.

Anyway, that's the latest on music from me. If you like vulnerable, literary singer-songwriter types, you should look Lucy up.

***

Every three or four months I send out a long missive to friends and family members. I've taken to posting portions of those newsletters here. The theme of the newsletter is life in middle age, with a focus on what I'm reading, what I'm listening to, and how I'm living. This post is from last fall's newsletter. I hope you enjoyed it.

***

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Middling 1.1: Old Friends

I've recently taken up newslettering. Every three or four months I send out a long missive to friends and family members who are unlikely to send me a cease-and-desist letter. (If you'd like to get these missives, give me a shout.) I thought I'd post portions of those newsletters here. The theme of the newsletter is life in middle age, with a focus on what I'm reading, what I'm listening to, and how I'm living. What follows is a story from last fall. I hope you enjoy it.

***

These days I spend a chunk of my time in airports. My work involves a decent amount of travel, lately including trips to California, Oklahoma and, fairly frequently, Illinois. On my most recent trip there I got to steal some time with one of my oldest friends, Chris. He was significant to my faith journey and best man at my wedding, but our lives stopped overlapping years ago, so finding time to see one another has been tough. Chris is better at keeping in touch than I am, but I think we both had resigned ourselves to an essentially virtual relationship.

But this time I had some down time that happened to overlap with some of Chris's discretionary time, and so even though I was landlocked in an extreme northern suburb, and even though Chris lives in the city and had errands in the western suburbs, he did me the kindness of powering through the Chicago sprawl to come see me live and in person.

Chris is "middling" too. We first got to know one another as idiot college freshmen—once even hitching a ride in a trunk together to get to the mall just so we could purchase the new U2 album (Rattle & Hum) and a bottle of Drakkar Noir cologne. (In our defense, that was for the ladies.) But now we're older—so much older. Chris has three daughters, only one of whom is still at home. One is now a college freshman herself, another even older than that.

I don't think relationships are deeper in this season of life than in young adulthood, but I do think there's an attunement to poignancy that settles in over the course of decades. We walked the grounds of the retreat center where I was staying and talked and prayed together for a couple of hours, and even our prayers were older than they used to be. I thought I would be sad when he left, but I wasn't. Instead I felt a kind of satisfaction: This relationship, like so many others, can endure time and distance, in part because of the character of my friends (thank you, friends) and in part because friendship itself has a quality of perseverance that ages well.

We can subvert that quality, I'm sure—dramatizing and even fetishizing our relationships till they can't bear the weight of our idolatry. But to receive friendship with thankfulness and to let our friends be and become who they are and were meant to be, I think, is to experience relationship and even humanity at its most basic and natural. It is to see good, and to enjoy the goodness.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The One-Percent Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2, Abridged (with Notes)

I recently took on the audacious task of editing the Bible for the One Percent. What follows is the second chapter of Matthew without all the riff-raff. (To see what's been removed, click here. I've left the explanatory notes for context.) Care to join me in this adventure? Pick a chapter of the Bible and read it with an eye toward what might "afflict the comfortable," and strip it out! Use the hashtag #onepercentbible so I can find it and show it off.

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Chapter 2

Now after Jesus was born in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this,* assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,**
from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And they departed to their own country by another way.

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother*** to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”****

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.

***

Notes

* Why would a king be troubled by the birth of a child? This assertion undercuts the inherent virtue and serenity of people in whom God has invested earthly authority and, more to the point, might encourage readers to treat those in authority with suspicion rather than trust and deference.

** Of course Bethlehem is not least among the rulers of Judah—it’s the birthplace of Jesus! It’s reasonable to assume that Bethlehem was as regal a place as befits a Messiah and Lord of the universe. So passages that insinuate that Bethlehem is something less are an unhelpful distraction.

*** Again, there being no reason to fear or resist those in whom God has invested earthly authority, the suggestions in this passage that Jesus' king would do him harm are offensive and imprudent.

**** Such an act of aggression by a king would only ever be undertaken with the best interests of the kingdom in mind; meanwhile, the insinuation that such an act even happened, regardless of the king's motives, would threaten societal cohesion. Hence its omission here.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The One-Percent Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2

I recently took on the audacious task of editing the Bible for the One Percent. (You're welcome! Can I borrow some money?) What follows is the second chapter of Matthew, mercifully stripped of anything that might disturb the status quo.

Care to join me? Pick a chapter of the Bible and read it with an eye toward what might "afflict the comfortable," and strip it out! Use the hashtag #onepercentbible so I can find it and show it off.

***

Chapter 2

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and* assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for
** from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee*** to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
****

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.

***

Notes

* Why would a king be troubled by the birth of a child? This assertion undercuts the inherent virtue and serenity of people in whom God has invested earthly authority and, more to the point, might encourage readers to treat those in authority with suspicion rather than trust and deference.

** Of course Bethlehem is not least among the rulers of Judah—it’s the birthplace of Jesus! It’s reasonable to assume that Bethlehem was as regal a place as befits a Messiah and Lord of the universe. So passages that insinuate that Bethlehem is something less are an unhelpful distraction.

*** Again, there being no reason to fear or resist those in whom God has invested earthly authority, the suggestions in this passage that Jesus' king would do him harm are offensive and imprudent.

**** Such an act of aggression by a king would only ever be undertaken with the best interests of the kingdom in mind; meanwhile, the insinuation that such an act even happened, regardless of the king's motives, would threaten societal cohesion. Hence its omission here.

Monday, April 09, 2018

The One-Percent Gospel of Matthew, Chapter One, Abridged (with Notes)

In case you missed it, I recently undertook the very special challenge of editing the Bible. What follows is the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (ESV) without all those cumbersome bits. The notes that follow offer a rationale for what's been edited out. Be blessed!

(For a look at the unabridged, unedited version, go here.)

***

Chapter One

The book of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.*

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. his mother Mary** was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man*** considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,****

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

* The historical context of Jesus' birth might be mildly interesting, but it is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that Jesus was, not where he was and through what ethnic lineage he came.
** It's imprudent to offer readers a means of legitimizing parenting out of wedlock, so the details of Jesus' parentage are omitted here.
*** These scandalous details of Jesus' earthly parentage are, similarly, omitted in order to eliminate any insinuation of his illegitimacy.
**** "God with us" is an assurance that is difficult to square with facts on the ground for most of the people in the world; furthermore, confidence that God is with us here, on this plane, in the midst of difficult circumstances, might encourage social disruption as less fortunate people consider that a society inhospitable to people whom God is with might be a fundamentally unjust society.

***

Coming soon: chapter two of Matthew's Gospel, in which we meet Israel's king. You're gonna love it!

Friday, March 23, 2018

The One-Percent Gospel of Matthew, Chapter One

You may have heard of it: US President Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, had a personalized Bible, one that he had stripped of (to his mind) obviously errant material - those miracles and otherworldly accounts that couldn't possibly have happened. The resulting Bible would have been much thinner, and the God it chronicled would have been similarly far less robust. Talk about a declaration of independence!

At least Jefferson was intellectually honest. It's hard to imagine anyone who hasn't edited the Bible in one way or another. Some people go so far as to add to the Scriptures, whether with more colloquial proverbs and truisms ("God helps those who help themselves") or full narratives that imagine whole new scenes and settings. But more common by far is the editing out, the removal of commands and assertions that offend our sensibilities or trouble our status quos. We may as well be intellectually honest about it.

TWEET THIS: It's hard to imagine anyone who hasn't edited the Bible in one way or another.

For example, me. From a global perspective, I'm firmly entrenched among the 1 percent of the world's wealthiest people. In my own national context, I'm historically and materially privileged by virtue of my gender and skin color. I'm a DINK - double-income household with no kids in it - and so compared to many of my neighbors I'm sitting relatively pretty. What am I to do with some nagging passages from the inspired Word of God?

I'll tell you what I'm to do with them: In the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, I'm to cut them out.

What follows is an annotated One Percent Gospel of Matthew. You'll find it much more amenable to the good life, I promise. The values of law and order and the free market, for example, are firmly ensconced. Good news for me and my tribe. As for the rest of it, everything is on the table. As for the rest of you, God help you.

TWEET THIS: Good news for me and my tribe. As for the rest of it, everything is on the table. As for the rest of you, God help you.

(Text of the Gospel of Matthew is from the English Standard Version.)

***

Chapter One

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram,[a] and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.

So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.*

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she** was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he*** considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us).
**** When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

* The historical context of Jesus' birth might be mildly interesting, but it is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that Jesus was, not where he was and through what ethnic lineage he came.
** It's imprudent to offer readers a means of legitimizing parenting out of wedlock, so the details of Jesus' parentage are omitted here.
*** These scandalous details of Jesus' earthly parentage are, similarly, omitted in order to eliminate any insinuation of his illegitimacy.
**** "God with us" is an assurance that is difficult to square with facts on the ground for most of the people in the world; furthermore, confidence that God is with us here, on this plane, in the midst of difficult circumstances, might encourage social disruption as less fortunate people consider that a society inhospitable to people whom God is with might be a fundamentally unjust society.