Sunday, September 26, 2010

Honoring the Dead and the Living

My niece is studying algebra in school, she tells me. I'm telling myself that it's because she's precocious, not because she's getting older. I guess I'm not quite ready to accept that.

My niece is precocious, that's for sure. Give her an audience and she's in heaven, raining down drama and hilarity on the just and unjust among us. She likes to put on grand demonstrations--a dance here, a wedding there, a five-act play everywhere--but I think her best work is off the cuff, one-liners that cement themselves in the memory of the hearer and will define her in the minds of her loved ones until only an even better line displaces it. I take credit for that, if I do say so myself: as her godfather and official crazy uncle, I designated her very first catch-phrase ("That's what I'm talking about!") and formally acknowledge each new zinger as soon as I hear it. Last night's entry? "What the heck, lady?" directed at her grandmother.

Precociousness is power, and power always has the capacity to cause pain. Last night my niece discovered a collection of written tributes to my late grandmother (her great-grandmother). She had died before my niece was born, and as the matriarch of a large, precocious family, her death had generated a fair amount of circumspection among her kids and grandkids. At the time I was mailing out a monthly newsletter, of which I devoted an issue to her; my uncles and aunts wrote eulogies and childhood memories; my mother wrote a poem. All these had been collected and curated by my mother and distributed to the whole family, some of whom were gathered last night at my brother's house.

Enter my niece, stage left. Hopped up on ice-cream cake and extroversion, she grabbed the booklet and flipped through it, arriving eventually at my newsletter. "My grandmother was . . ." she began to read, then interrupted herself: "Boooorrrrinnnng!" She then proceeded to "edit" the newsletter entry, which for a child her age amounts to embellishment along the lines of the Amplified Bible ("She lived the bulk of her life on a farm--with chickens, and cows, and hay, and mud . . .") and demonstrative body language: stepping dramatically to the left, then to the right, her hands all along flapping in the air like a penguin ready to take flight.

It was funny at first. As someone who admires moxie, I found it entertaining and rewarded her with laughs. But then she turned to my mom's poem and started up again. My mother, the poet who for years taught the love and power of poetry to kids only a little older now than my niece. My mother, who as a sister of seven can recall a lifetime of the inevitable injuries that come from being always around precocious people. My mother, the daughter who wrote this poem on the occasion of her own mother's death.

My niece never met my grandmother. I wonder how they would have related to one another; both of them witty and sly and lovers of laughter, I can see traces of my grandmother's gleam in the irritated sideways glances my niece occasionally throws my way. And yet their particular precociousness took shape in very different eras, in very different settings. My grandmother, attending to dying relatives on her century farm in an era before computers and cable television and the Sixties' civil disobedience, an era in which people lived closer to death and experienced more fully the cycle of life. My niece, coming into her own during an age of dramatic and rapid change, when every minute of every day has a soundtrack, when every person is a brand to be managed, when new information overwhelms tradition, when the bonds between memory and creativity are frayed and nearly severed. They would have liked each other, I'm sure, but my niece and my grandmother would have struggled to understand each other.

They also would have had very different responsibilities to one another. My grandmother's, to change my niece's diapers and to tell her right from wrong till she could figure it out for herself. My niece's, to listen to my grandmother's stories and remind her that she's not forgotten simply because she's old, to remember her after her death and to respect the legacy that my niece and her siblings and her parents and my mother and I are living out day after day after day just by living. Responsibility is not something that comes naturally, I think; it's something we commit ourselves to, something we have to remember to pass on to those who come after us.

Last night my niece and I danced. A lot. I hate dancing, but I'll do it for her because it's funny and it's a thing that I can share with her, a memory I can keep of her. Her mother shouted from the sidelines, "Someday you'll dance with your uncle Dave at your wedding." That made me sad; I'm not ready to acknowledge that she, like me and my mother and everyone, is getting older. But it also made me happy, because it foreshadows a future in which our lives remain knitted together. There's responsibility embedded in that observation from my sister-in-law, but it's commingled with a promise.

Every year on the anniversary of my niece's baptism I write her a little note. Like my note about my grandmother, it's reflective and circumspect. In it I try to draw lines between my niece's life and the grand story being written by God, and I try to make it easier for her to grow up and accept the challenges and responsibility that are foisted on her as each year passes. Last night I imagined her--no, her children, actually--coming across these letters long after I'm dead, reading the first line, throwing up their arms and shouting "Boooorrrrinnnng!" The thought was a little sad at first, I admit, but I got over it. They'll just be kids, after all, and I think it's their privilege as kids to play with whatever they lay their hands on. Any unintended injury that leads out of it won't have robbed me of anything, won't have undone any of the work the letters were intended to do. It'll be a little sad, but it'll undoubtedly be funny.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Between Churches: A World Without Dee

Dee wasn't what you'd call a friend--although she was infinitely friendly herself, and our interactions were always friendly, and even after I left her church, we remained friends on Facebook. I was in her home twice; as well as I can remember, she was never in mine. We never ate together except during church events. We didn't do the things that you might reasonably expect friends to do together. We didn't have much in common, to be honest. So friend doesn't seem the right word for her.

Dee wasn't what you'd call an elder--at least not in the technical, churchy sense of the word, or at least not during the time that we were involved in the same church. She served on plenty of committees, I'm sure, but she didn't attend meetings of the church's session (I did), and so she didn't have a vote on the issues that were moved and seconded and discussed and resolved there (I did). She was older than me, I guess, but I don't suppose I can, with ecclesial precision, refer to her as my elder.

And yet Dee, it seemed, was always around, mostly because we were both always around the church. We acted in plays together (she got the bigger laughs); we attended the same Sunday school classes; we participated in the same children's ministry; whenever the choir sang, my eye went to her--partly because she was the only woman singing the men's part, partly because she swayed and smiled and emoted more than most. I knew Dee's opinions about most everything, and there were times I was sure I could predict what she would say before she raised her hand and said it.

I've been at a retreat this weekend of people in my industry, and one of the women there reminds me a bit of Dee. And as she shared in a circle what's going on in her personal-professional-spiritual life she gave us language that I think best describes Dee for me: "I'm not an elder in my church," she said; "I guess you'd call me a fixture."

That's what Dee was: a fixture. Larger than life, impossible to ignore, technically on the periphery of power but powerful nonetheless, she was her own thing with her own rules. I've met a lot of fixtures over the years; some of them I refer to always by their full name, as though a less formal attribution wouldn't carry enough weight. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, C________ H________, K________ C________--I would never think of the latter two (I know them; you probably don't) alongside the former three, but when they come up I treat them the same. Fixtures of world history and fixtures of my history--they are rewarded with the same gravitas. But then there are the one-word fixtures--the Napoleons, the Stings, the Bonos, and Dee. More than one word would be gilding the lily, I suppose.

What would the world be like without its fixtures? That's a pointless exercise if I've ever heard one. The world would continue to turn; maybe others with their own expansive personalities would step in from the margins to take their place; maybe civilization would collapse. Who can say? It's enough to acknowledge that they were fixtures and move on. But the question is different when it's not the world but your world. It's our fixtures that are holding things together for us; without them, things fall apart. Not necessarily big things, and not necessarily things that needed desperately to be held together. But they do fall apart, break down, and so consequently we don't often discover how much we depended on the fixtures until after the fact.

Dee ceased to be a regular part of my life nine months ago, when I left the church we attended together. Yesterday I found out that she had died, after a long and painful struggle with all sorts of health problems. How do you say goodbye to a fixture? Who knows. This is how I'm doing it. I'm also praying for her husband, who already knew how much he depended on her, and who will undoubtedly discover things he never noticed that anchored him to her. I'm also praying for her church, which I once called my church; it has lost one of its fixtures, and while it will surely go on, it will not be the same without her.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Gospel According to Biff

I've been reading a satirical novel about the life of Jesus--Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore. I like it; it's randy and funny and syncretistic and oddly reverent. Joshua--the given Hebrew name Biff uses for Jesus--can do little or no wrong, he performs all the miracles attributed to him in the Bible, and he demonstrates superiority to competing theologies of the day, from Judaism to the great religions of the East.

Nevertheless, Moore's Gospel reflects more the moralistic therapeutic deism detailed by sociologist Christian Smith in his book Soul Searching than the Gospel as recorded in the Scriptures. Here's a passage from chapter twenty-eight, where Biff helps Joshua write the Sermon on the Mount:

Here's the gist of almost every sermon I ever heard Joshua give.
You should be nice to people, even creeps.
And if you:
a) believed that Joshua was the Son of God (and)
b) he had come to save you from sin (and)
c) acknowledged the Holy Spirit within you (became as a little child,
he would say) (and)
d) didn't blaspheme the Holy Ghost (see c),
then you would:
e) live forever
f) someplace nice
g) probably heaven.
However, if you:
h) sinned (and/or)
i) were a hypocrite (and/or)
j) valued things over people (and)
k) didn't do a, b, c, and d,
then you were:
l) f***ed.

I'm not necessarily saying this stuff isn't accurate, but it is sterile, and vanilla, and nondescript. Moralistic therapeutic deists, as Smith describes them, worship a grandfather-god who likes people who are nice and enjoys being nice to children, but who otherwise generally stays out of the way; Jesus the Son of the MTDeity did what he did and his relevance ended there. The Holy Spirit is our own spirits super-sized. Heaven is, if nothing else, "someplace nice."

Smith's research was on the religiosity of American adolescents; his book was published five years ago, which means the first official MTDs are now entering the workplace; some of them are considering marriage; some of them are having children, telling those children stories about Jesus the Son of MTD, and dreaming of living happily ever after in someplace nice. It's a nice story, but it's sterile, and vanilla, and nondescript.

Ah well. At least Christopher Moore makes it funny.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Blog a Qur'an Day

I've not read the Qur'an--technically, I'm told, it can only be read in Arabic, although there are English-language commentaries with translated text--but I thought I'd dip my toe in the water today as an act of solidarity with the billion people around the world whose faith is being mocked somewhere in Florida by fifty people with a match. Andrew Jones, I believe, organized this response, which I thought was a good idea. Creating is nearly always better than destroying, I think.

I'm struck by how foolhardy some people can be, actually--how lost they can get in their own conflation of faith and national identity, how senselessly they equate acts of violence with acts of piety. The impulse to burn a Qur'an is similar to the impulse to burn non-KJV Bibles, to bomb abortion clinics, to fly planes into buildings: to hurt people as a supposed act of discipleship.

What follows is found early in the Qur'an, the English translation of which I'm here quoting from Maulana Muhammad Ali's commentary, found here. I thought it seemed germane to the day, and the events inspiring this post. Please note that I'm quoting out of context, not out of disrespect or in an attempt to distort the meaning of the text, but rather to provide a framework for measuring the actions of "Dove World Outreach," and everyone like them who think faith is a matter of righteous violence:

In their hearts is a disease. . . . And when it is said to them, Make not mischief in the land, they say: We are but peacemakers. Now surely they are the mischief-makers, but they perceive not. . . . These are they who buy error for guidance, so their bargain brings no gain, nor are they guided. . . . Their parable is as the parable of one who kindles a fire, but when it illumines all around him, AllÄh takes away their light, and leaves them in darkness--they cannot see. Deaf, dumb, (and) blind, so they return not.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Real Meaning of Relativity

As a willing participant in the sins of the book publishing industry, I feel compelled to warn you: the people who have recently released Stephen Hawking's new book (The Grand Design) are trying to sell you something.

By saying this I mean no disrespect whatsoever for Dr. Hawking. That dude is a straight-up genius, I'm sure. Plus, he's been a leading scientist and cultural icon for decades, and should be given the respect due such a public treasure. Nevertheless, the "big idea" being culled from his new book is, I respectfully submit, no big idea at all. As publishing events go, this emperor has no clothes.

The central idea being promulgated is that, according to Hawking, there's no need to presume that God had anything to do with the origins of the universe. By saying that, Hawking is discounting the people putting forth "intelligent design" as a counterproposal to evolution. And by doing that, Hawking is joining the chorus of any number of his peers who have already sung the same song. An astrophysicist disputing the role of a divine force in the origins of the universe is not news, people; it would be only slightly more newsworthy to report that an astrophysicist had allowed for the possibility of a God bringing the universe into being.

I feel reasonably confident in how the debate will proceed from here--including, no doubt, the release of a handful of books along the lines of The Case for the Grand Designer or Debunking "The Grand Design." That's because this perennial argument across the divide of faith and science sells books. For the next several weeks, every time you see Stephen Hawking showing up in your Twitter trending topics or on your Yahoo breaking news board, it would be helpful to imagine a room full of publishing professionals brainstorming how they're going to move product. Consider that your grain of salt; don't say I never gave you anything.

Meanwhile, I've taken to reading the late great G. K. Chesterton's The Well and the Shallows, a relatively late entry in his corpus, contending with the controversies of his day (which, in case you're unfamiliar, was the first half of the twentieth century). Today's reading took me through a handful of reasons he offers for being inclined to convert to Catholicism--if only he weren't already a Catholic. Tucked in among the follies of state churches in the Protestant tradition and other musings of the modern era is a rant against materialist critiques of theism--the new scientists, taking on old-time religion.

Many scientists contemporary to Chesterton were particularly dismissive of religion, which they saw as an outdated artifact of a less sophisticated era. Chesterton prefaces his critique of such dismissiveness with the provocative phrase "In order theorise, it is sometimes useful to think." The presenting problem for Chesterton was a paper delivered by Dr. David Forsyth, whose "thesis" regarding what eventually came to be called the "non-overlapping magisteria" of science and faith

was essentially this; that science and religion, so far from being reconciled or even reconcilable, were divided by the vital contradiction that science belongs to what he called "reality-thinking," or we call objective truth; while religion belonged to what he called "pleasure-thinking," or what most people call imagination.

But this imagined divide between science and faith has a different source, according to Chesterton: not the intransigence of the Catholic but the "the very common combination of a superiority complex with arrested development."

Scores and hundreds of times I have heard . . . the repetition of that ultimatum: "You must accept the conclusions of science." The new scientists themselves do not ask us to accept the conclusions of science. The new scientists themselves do not accept the conclusions of science. . . . The finest intellects among them repeat, again and again, that science is inconclusive. . . .

The Victorian agnostics waited hopefully for science to give them a working certainty about life. The new physicist philosophers are in no way different, except that they wait hopelessly instead of hopefully. For they know very well the real meaning of relativity; that their own views may pass from being relatively right to being relatively wrong. And meanwhile, as I say, there is such a thing as wanting a working rule as to whether we should pay our debts or murder our enemies. . . . If we want a guide to life, it seems that we must look elsewhere.

Again, no disrespect to Stephen Hawking or any of the other great minds who have developed our understanding of the way the universe works. But regardless of the role of gravity in causing the universe to come into being, or the nagging question of where the law of gravity came from, meanwhile we ourselves are but dust--and to dust we shall return, and we must one day give an account for all we've done and left undone, and fall on the mercy of whoever calls us to account.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Between Churches: The Dance of the Christ-Culture

One of the tricks of looking for a new church is the presumption that this new place will not suffer the shortcomings of the old place, that "different" is somehow inherently equal to "better"--although "too different" is more often thought to be "worse."

Presbyterians with a highly developed sense of personal space, for example, might chafe at the hugging and laying on of hands at a Pentecostal service down the road. Meanwhile megachurchfolk wince at the smells and bells (and scarcity of jumbotrons) at an Anglican communion. "Different" is the order of the day for those of us who find ourselves between churches, but it has to be the right kind of different.

The "right kind of different" has, in fact, been a question plaguing the church for the duration of modernity at least, and maybe, in a sense, for the length of the church's existence. In his 1951 book Christ and Culture Richard Niebuhr identified five postures the church takes toward the culture surrounding it. Examples of all five could be immediately called to mind by Niebuhr's contemporaries, and can still be easily found sixty years later. Is Christ against, of, above, paradoxically related to, or transforming culture? The answer to the question is necessarily historical, because whatever their relation, Christ and culture are the central organizing motifs of history: What has God done in the world, and what has the human race made of the world?

That's what makes the search for a church home so tricky: it's not just a question of where and how a person fits; it's a question of how this potential church home completes, even fulfills, the history of the world--even the history of God. To declare a church "home" is, at least in a sense, to declare to the whole world (even to God) "This is where you belong; what are you doing out there?"

I'm serious: there's an undeniable ego in the mix when you go hunting for a church. It's not entirely conscious, and it's ultimately not as heartfelt as I made it sound above (this is far too vulnerable a quest for sustained pomposity). But to the person on such a quest, the dance of Christ and culture starts to look like a slow song at homecoming, where in the shadows the dance partners look less like two separate beings and more like one indecipherable thing--too close for the onlooker's comfort. A church, to the church-hopper-shopper, looks like a "Christ-culture"--whatever that is.

That's not a bad way to describe a church, I suppose. But whatever a Christ-culture is, we need to remember, it's a bunch of people gathered in one place. Your mind will play tricks on you, trying to convince you that you're looking for the holy grail, the fulfillment of history, the ladder to heaven. You'll be faced with the optical illusion that these people are Jesus, that the Holy Spirit is in the planks and drywall of that building, that God looks like this pastor and likes those ushers best. In reality, however, you're looking at a bunch of people gathered in one place--in good, albeit fickle and faulty faith. Every Christ-culture is like a kid at a school dance, trying not to look ridiculous, trying to remember the steps. Our faith is lived out in such stumbling, but such stumbling is not the object of our faith. The perfect love of God is where our stumbling Christ-cultures are headed, and where we should be headed as well. As theologian Donald Bloesch reminds us in his Crisis of Piety:

God's kingdom is to be associated with a new heaven and a new earth. Moreover it will be manifested in God's time and in His own way. . . . We cannot build the eternal kingdom, but we can pray and hope for its realization. . . .

Since the kingdom of God ultimately lies beyond history the Christian life is one of pilgrimage. We can anticipate and approximate the goal of perfect love, but we can never finally arrive in this life. Ours is a theology of wayfarers.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...