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Friday, November 24, 2017

God, Music, Language, Art

Given the notion of a creator God, it can easily be guessed that it--this creator-god--would communicate with its creation, yes? One might imagine a less collaborative deity, I suppose, one that just exists, theistically, and that was the view of many of our own founding fathers. That view, however, seems such a blind alley. A creator without the interplay, the teamwork, of its individual creations, that is just a stifling thought.
So what would this communication be like? Would it be in language, in words, that men use? How could words work to convey the mesh of a creator’s inner-workings? Can language hold that much meaning? Even if so, the best language can do is to hold it within one language at one time. Anyone who has attempted the fool’s errand of translation knows how impossible it is. But I guess it is possible for a creator to speak in one language. Maybe he chose Hebrew, then Greek and Aramaic. But what of the native tribes out there? Where is their Bible? What of the Slav’s and the Chinese (all eight different linguistic groups with their many different dialects), and the Saxon and the German and the Romance languages and the Asian-Tibetan and Viet and African language groups? What is “The Bible” to them?
It gets worse: What is the Bible for the trees? The shrubbery, the grasses? Don’t laugh: a creator would treat all its creation as its children, yes? What is the language meshwork for the fungi and the potato?
Perhaps it isn’t in language at all. Maybe that is a blind alley.
Perhaps it is in music. Listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Opus 135. Is that a communication by our creator? Is the sound of a chord played by a concert symphony the sound of God [Now, I've heard there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord /But you don't really care for music, do you?]? What is this creator-god saying to us? What happens when we attempt to “translate” the joyful sound of a Mahler Symphony into words? Or any music into words?
It is impossible, as absolute music is...absolute. It registers as emotion, not rationality. How many wars would not have been waged had we heard the voice of a creator in music, instead of words? How many acts of terror avoided?
Not to say that this creator wouldn’t have used words as well. But not words as historical artifact, not words as descriptions: that kind of language does not hold enough power. I cannot envision a creator-god of the universe describing the comings and goings of some small group of people.
But language as poetry, with the artful techniques that can be employed by people of genius, that I can envision. That’s possible. I think of works like The Song of Solomon, Psalm 23, the Gospel of John, but also of The Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote, King Lear, Hamlet, and countless individual poems and stories. These are like music; they cannot be translated (at least, they cannot be translated without another genius who creates in that translation another great work of art--an entirely different work of art). They cannot be distilled into some summary of rationality. They are of a whole, indivisible as works of art must be.
The music of art allows us to hear this communication with a creator; we can call it spirit, we can call it any number of things. When you hear it you feel it, and once you feel it, you can know it.
Here is an exercise some might want to entertain: After watching a movie with a wonderful score (I suggest Gladiator, or The Last of the Mohicans), listen to just the score. As you do, don’t you re-track the movie? Don’t you re-examine it, see it, feel it? The weight of the movie’s core is within the score, held in the notes, the melodies, the harmonies. The remaining parts of the film, the plot, the actors, the cinematography, seem excess, seem dross: as the skeleton falls away we hold onto the essence of the movie. The Bible is like that, too. If we could scrape the literalness away, we could feel the essence remaining; we could slough off the silly notions of historicity and literal inerrancy and just feel what remains at the core.

What prevents us from understanding is the literal word. It hinders in its walling off of possible connections, possible meanings, possible...possibles. It is the impossibility of language--its inevitable failure at conveying total communication of any idea--that opens the door to spiritual connectedness. This is what the genius does when he writes great works of art, great poems, great stores. He takes the failure of language, its cracks, its broken pieces, and molds something that conveys great emotional meaning: the lie that language tells gives way to a spiritual truth. The closer language comes to music, in the way it can hold truth and experience closer due to the brokenness of itself, to allowing the music of a truth to fill in the cracks in language,  the closer it becomes possible to see, and feel, what it is we really are.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Museum of the Bible

The new Museum of the Bible  has officially opened in Washington, D.C. It does not proselytize (openly). It does not apparently teach Creationism. It seems to be fairly open about certain narratives that ended up being, shall we say, in disrepute (slavery, ahem). It attempts, in the words of one of the directors, to make the Bible “cool.”

Nice location, right near where the Smithsonian sits, not far from the Mall, so it takes in the gravitas of a serious museum along with a near hand-holding with government. One might be forgiven for thinking the Green’s (the Hobby Lobby family and chief funders of the museum) are acting within the Dominionist ideology, which states that Christians (meaning evangelical Christians, not those of the baser mainstream denominations, thank you very much) must integrate themselves into government. Can you say, “theocracy”?

There is likely not going to be an exhibit showing visitors how the Green family stole artifacts, and was fined $3 million dollars. It seems they bought some Iraqi cuneiform tablets on the cheap, labeled them as “clay samples” with a worth of a couple hundred dollars, when they were actually worth...well, who knows; unquestionably their value was much more than a couple hundred dollars. Maybe the Green family feels the Eighth Commandment to be too communist. No one, except the Green family, knows if their are other stolen artifacts held in their collection.

Now, there has been some mention that the Green family ended up supporting ISIS through their fraudulent purchasing of stolen artifacts, but that isn’t strictly true. The fraud occurred before ISIS formed. However, these acts of purchasing artifacts through the black market do support the further demolition of archaeological sites.

The Museum of the Bible attempts to show the Bible as one narrative. It doesn’t mention the Koran, doesn’t mention The Book of Mormon, even though those books are dependent on the Christian Bible. It doesn’t treat them at all. The Museum of the Bible pretends that there is one view of the Bible, and that view is that of evangelicals such as the Greens. The Bible to them pretty much stopped at The King James Version. It pretends that the scholarship in the 19th and 20th centuries never happened. It pretends that the Bible is entirely without flaw, that scribes copied “The Bible” perfectly down through the ages. It pretends that we have one original Bible. It avoids the deep questions of what is the “original” Bible? I doubt it treats of translation problems at all (though I have not visited the site and cannot say for certain). It pretends that the Bible is the perfect text that they show within the museum and that evangelicals are the authorities on the Bible.

There is an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although there is a plaque that states that their authenticity has not been verified (yet), there is the implication that these are the real deal: Scholars are just about united in stating that they are forgeries. But worse than that, although the Dead Sea Scrolls can be used to show that the Bible is not the concretized uttered Word of God, evangelicals like to pretend that the Bible is inerrant, and that there are no grey areas of textual divergence.  

It would be nice if there was a public catalog of all the 40,000 items held by the Greens. Are they correctly provenanced? Were they legally purchased? Is the black market of archaeological tablets, scrolls, and the like still being supported by the Greens?

The Museum of the Bible is not about truth, it is about propping up a monument to evangelicals. This is the FOX News of Museums, somewhere people can go who have preconceived notions of the Bible, who do not wish to have those notions challenged, and who can feel good about themselves for belonging to the correct religion, and even the correct subset of that religion.

There should be no religion above the truth”--motto of the Theosophical Society. You will not find that motto in the Museum of the Bible, nor will you find that sentiment.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Leonard Cohen's Sufi Mysticism

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I'm gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch be my homeward dove
And dance me to the end of love.--Leonard Cohen

and this made me think that this could easily be a Sufi poem, something like

Suddenly the drunken sweetheart appeared out of my door.

She drank a cup of ruby wine and sat by my side.
Seeing and holding the lockets of her hair
My face became all eyes, and my eyes all hands.--Rumi [Translator: Shahram Shiva]

Mary Blye Howe's book, Sitting With Sufis, instructs us that:
"For the Sufi, Love is the path to God. Rumi tells us that only the person whose garment is'rent by the violence of love' can be be wholly pure from covetousness and sin."
And this love is not the "agape" love that protestants like to portray it as, or rather, it is and it isn't. Agape love is a general term, one that can also include the passion of a lover (it is used in the Septuagint to describe Amnon's love for his half-sister, Tamar (not that Tamar...the other Tamar) who he then rapes.
Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
We're both of us beneath our love, both of us above
And dance me to the end of love. --Leonard Cohen
What wedding is Cohen speaking about here? And what time period does he refer to, dancing very long? And how can we be beneath our love and above it at the same time? Perhaps this no ordinary human love he speaks to.
Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, through every thread is torn
And dance me to the end of love.--Leonard Cohen
"Through the curtains that our kisses have outworn." Doesn't that dovetail nicely with Rumi noting that our garments should be rent by love? And the tent of shelter...a temple?
I don't know enough of Cohen's theology to make him into a Sufi mystic or Kabbalist (the Zohar text of the Kabbala is replete with this sort of language like The Song of Songs) or even a proto-Christian. As a columnist once said, "If he were to be theologically categorized, he could be called a panentheist, in dialogue with a God that lured him onward."
It really doesn't matter what you label him as. Cohen was a man who sought to find the right question more than to find the answer. And that question was filled with an ocean of love.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Mental Health and the American Problem

Emil Kraepelin, who in the 1880s helped cement how the West deals with schizophrenic individuals (he is called the father of biologic psychiatry), eventually came to see psychotic thought not as merely a "nature" problem, but also as a "nurture" issue. He saw culture not as causative, but as contributing, especially in its treatment. Nev Jones, PhD, has begun to delve into the ways in which culture exacerbates the lives of individuals with mental disease. 

Jones, who herself has had schizophrenic episodes, is now the leading advocate for re-thinking how the West must treat these individuals. Rather than simply rounding these people up and locking them away in a padded room, or--not much better--walling them off from friends and family and employers and classmates via society's ostracism, she sees a reinventing of treatment to allow for inclusion of the individual into their current culture. She isn't, as far as I know, an advocate for eliminating pharmacological care, but rather for the allowing of these troubled people to continue living their lives within the culture that they find themselves in, or, even better, of widening their circle of influence within that culture.

Currently our western culture views these people askant, and fearfully. They think of mass shootings and wonder...Will this guy go off and kill indiscriminately? Does he have a trunk full of guns? They think of James Holmes, the "Batman" killer, who gunned down 82 people in a cinema in 2012. James Holmes had tried to get psychological help just a few days before the shooting occurred. If James Holmes had successfully received some help, what would that help have been like? Would it have helped? It is doubtful, since current medical treatment is inadequate. 

As Jones makes clear, a person undergoing a psychotic episode needs to be in contact with their circle of influence, their friends and acquaintances, their culture. And the wider culture needs education on the elements of schizophrenia. It is not a cancer or terminal illness; many undergoing these episodes will revert to normal life. What makes it less likely for these people to live normally is a culture that cuts them off and treats them like prisoners. 

Those with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of crime. They are no more likely to be assailants than those in the wider population. For incidents of mass murder, such as the recent Las Vegas shooting (and we simply don't have enough data currently to make any conclusions as to the motives of the shooter), we should be ramping up our mental health care system, using the latest information concerning the best possible care for the best possible outcomes. (This doesn't obviate the need for common-sense solutions to gun regulation, either; we can do both.) 

Knowledge and action can reduce the incidents of mass shootings. And the lives of those with psychotic disorders can all be improved as well. Society wins; the patient wins. And if we lived in any other first-world nation it might well be possible. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Third Man

We recently hosted a movie crew for five days. Twelve film students from the New York Film Academy  used our house as a film set--and hostel--to complete what was the final project for the year. The director/screenwriter/producer was a vivacious, very intelligent girl from China, who we had hosted a couple of years ago while she matriculated at a local high school.

The project was fascinating to observe. Movies are omnipresent in our culture, but little is known of them outside the industry, as to how they get made, what is involved in their construction. What most people know about movies consists of the actors. Movie buffs will also wax on about this or that director, and you occasionally will hear something about some cinematographer. Nothing about the writers (there are always many, many writers, as in plural, within just one film), or the costume designers, or set designers, or the guy in charge of lighting or sound or editing. These people are anonymous, but nothing goes on within the making of a movie without them.

Indeed, the many different production companies that role down the screen at beginning and end credits seem now to me to be absolutely necessary. It takes an army to make a movie. It takes a company just to feed this army. The final impression this adventure had on me was that what we experience from our entertainments--but really from any and all aspects of life: our businesses, jobs, our friends, our religions, our politics--is but the surface. The Third Man, my favorite film, is not great because of Orson Welles’ performance, nor Alita Valli’s, nor Joseph Cotten’s. Nor any of the amazing supporting actors (I particularly like Ernst Deutsch’s Kurtz, and Erich Ponto’s Dr. Winkel). It isn’t even about Carol Reed’s wonderful direction or the great writing from Graham Greene (who was the sole screenwriter who originally wrote the novel as a prelude to the film). The film is a miracle --all films are miracles of a kind-- of collaboration. If at the end it all works, and if it can be said to be art, you can chalk it up to an amazing symbiosis of talent, opportunity--meaning money--effort, and luck. What you see on the screen is the apex of the effort which bobs on the sea of time (our iceberg in this analogy), and this is true of all our creations, all our connections in life: our connections being our friends, our interests, our experiences.

The “movie” of our own life has this same dichotomy: lived underneath in the algal weeds, the currents flowing here and there, with  the messiness of our exertions, is where the true meaning lies, full of questions upon questions; and on the surface is where the actors play their two-dimensional lives and where we barely notice --but don’t often allow ourselves to ask about -- the deeper questions flowing in the muddied currents.

Everything can be considered entertainment. The show, the theater, but also science, philosophy, history, the arts, the many religions. There is the surface, the show upon which we project our hopes and expectations, our needs, the surface which we accept without questioning too much. The scientists say this or that, and we, not being scientists, accept it all. The religious leaders also propound this or that is true, or this or that is false, and we accept it because we are not divinity students after all. We see the show, and then we genuflect before it.

This is no way to live a life. To accept blindly. To walk in single file hither and yon wherever you are told to go.

Do this go to Hell! Don’t do this...and you go to Hell! Judgment! Fall on your knees! This is the show. This is the surface play. Underneath it is all the mess of texts and historical judgments, cultural ideas that changed with the wind. Asking one question brings this house of cards down, just one simple query, and it is this: Is it true?

There are ten thousand different ways to see the truth. Every truth has its gaffer, its sound technician, its lighting director. The further down you go, the further you see how things work, how things are put together, the more despairing it can all seem. We want one truth, not ten thousand. We want the movie to be about Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton and Alita Valli, not the swirling truths that fly out tangential to all those third man references. Who is the third man? Is he the dead man, the man before the war, the man who used to believe in things, the man who existed behind the scenes, but is now projected high up on a Ferris Wheel, talking of cuckoo clocks, the man Alita Valli loved, then lost? The man of shadows, cast by a lighting guy getting paid a buck-fifty an hour?

Keep going. There must be thousands of others not yet thought up.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Message Bible--A translator's conundrum

“Poems are not perfect crimes. Too often, meaning is reduced to a feat of amateur detection which assumes that a poem is a kind of murder or a jewel theft, with a corpse, a hidden weapon, and a blueprint of the plumbing, all of which can be logically deduced by any Englishman with a large magnifying glass and credentials from Scotland Yard. But poems are not perfect crimes, for all their apparatus of passion, intention, and obsessive ingenuity in transforming fantasy into experience and experience into fantasy. Their procedure is vascular or sonal, rather than rational. They move like snails under a shell, carrying the coiled weight of their language over a sensitive paraphernalia of sticky horns and protoplasm in little bursts and thrusts, leaving the glistening accident of their chemistry behind them. Meaning is the trail of the snail.”--Ben Belitt

“The translation of poetry can never exceed the enigma of it, and be true.” --Ben Belitt

I’d like to discuss The Message Bible, a translation that has become extremely popular. It is written as a kind of “street language,” in a common tongue, easily understood and read. That is its mission, in a sense, to deliver the message of the Bible into thoughts that are easily grasped, and implied, easily propounded. Here is an example, from Galatians 3, The Message in red, NIV in blue:

The Message: Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? 3 Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? 4 Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up!

NIV: I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? 4 Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain?

An important point here is to understand that neither of the above (and one could also include the KJV, ESV, or any other English translation) is actually the Bible. The Bible, always to be regarded as a library of books, not one book, is a result of a kind of “cutting and pasting” from thousands of versions of artefacts collected over hundreds of years. These artifacts are mostly in Greek and Hebrew. They, in order to be read in English, must be translated. Therefore, it is important to have some idea of translation theory as you pick and choose among the variety of Bibles out there.

There are a number of translations that seek a word-for-word style of translation. Is this possible, even? What are words? What is language? These are questions at the very heart of translation theory, at the very heart of humanity itself, for what is it to be human if we do not have the tool of language?

Let’s view words as little Russian nesting dolls, dolls filled with “meaning.” Not just one meaning, since this isn’t mathematics we are talking about. The meaning within even just one doll has within it another doll--these are nesting dolls, remember. Each word has multiple dolls within it, some many, some less. Some are so filled with other dolls that we wonder if we'll ever reach the final doll. In any case, let’s color our dolls red, to indicate Greek. We wish to re-color all these dolls to a blue color, to indicate English. How best to do that? Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message (and please don’t make the mistake that it is not he himself who is the author, not God Itself), reads the Bible as a story, and he himself has told us that he believes that we all as human beings create our stories, that we live our stories--this is how we perform our human lives. This is how we give meaning to life. We. Create. Stories. How wonderful to hear a pastor state that so clearly. And I agree, wholeheartedly. He tells us that every translation is basically a new story, because each language will breathe into the Bible a new outlook with the new language. Again, this is impossible to argue with. Translation is indeed a betrayal. But… Peterson has seemingly forgotten something here regarding translation. Translation is a carrying from one doll to another doll, of meaning, much as if we were to fill a bucket full of water (please excuse my mixing of metaphors) and then to carry that bucket to another, pouring it all into that second bucket. Except we note that some splashes out due to the endeavor to get that bucket over to the other. Some also splashes out as we pour. What we have is less than what we began with. On the other hand, we also note that there were some bits of other materials in the second bucket and it has colored the water. It looks different now...because it is different. It is different and it is less--and it is more--as it has been diminished by the work of carrying it to the second language/bucket.

But Peterson is marvelous in that he understands that to translate is to offer a new language, a new story. (I wonder how many pastors would agree with him on that.) He understands that reading, too, is a type of translation: the reader takes these nesting dolls, pops them open, and attempts to fill new dolls in his own mind...again though, something gets lost in the translation, things are added, too.

Ben Belitt, the brilliant poet and translator, who passed away about ten years ago, realized that you need to do something more than just empty the dolls and carry the water. You had to go to the original and experience the enigma of that original as for the first time. Belitt saw that there wasn’t just the original on the page, the spanish poem by Neruda, say, but the original that the poet, that Neruda himself, experienced as he was writing his spanish poem. Each translation was to be a tapping into the experience of the poet, and so each translation was a new poem, a new “story” as Peterson himself realizes, I think.

So Peterson, I conclude, errs not so much with his theory, but with his execution. I think he just doesn’t have the chops to bring the original experience into play. That isn’t to say he shouldn’t be praised for the effort. But the readings from The Message that I’ve heard do not elevate my spirit, and they do not contain the Spirit. (See those verses from Galatians? They even leave out the Holy Spirit entirely.)

Any serious biblical reader will still need to study a variety of translations, using principally the NIV and NRSV (the latter was composed by the very best scholars attending to meaning and ease of understanding). Though the King James and NKJ versions are the very best for English literature they also happen to be the very worst for scholarly attention. Still, it helped form, along with Chaucer and Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, the English language itself, so that is saying something.

One more word about The Message. There must be hundreds of different translations out there now. The Living Bible became very popular and gave rise to a number of versions that one suspects exist not so much for their perspicacious perspective on The Word, but for their sales figures. Is The Message just another way to line the pockets of the author, and his agent and publisher? I don’t know, but I suspect it is a factor. If The Message served to hook someone on to the Bible and some spiritual journey it would be a good thing; it might however make for a lazy man’s effort to forego the task of looking under the doll’s skirts, to continue my prior metaphor. In other words, if The Message is a beginning on a journey to more adult, more satisfying investigations then it is well worth plunking down a sawbuck or two for it. If it is merely the last effort to bring one into a dull, unsatisfying slog through some alien culture, then it is best to pass it by, since there simply isn’t enough meat there to sustain anyone for very long.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

What is reality?

What is reality
Joining religion to science


Quantum Gravity Research, based in Los Angeles, has created a video uploaded to YouTube here, that attempts to explain Emergence Theory. Emergence Theory is based on the idea that our reality has a foundation of a crystalline “language” of geometric shapes of which our 4-dimensional reality is but the shadow or projection. Time is thought of as illusory, at least they do not see it as a moving arrow into the future.  It is more likely to be like a block of the ultimate crystalline shape: no past, no future. More of a Now. QGR appears to me to think time is still something, something that influences the whole. Here is where I cannot agree, or cannot understand their view, which is to say that time is in flux, but not showing the normal arrow into the future. Yet science does not show the future influencing the past. QGR views reality as information, information as reality: and it is, further, a reality that needs consciousness to “read” it.


QGR does not come out and say it, but obviously God could be that consciousness. They postulate, though, that since theoretically speaking the universe can be itself conscious at some point in the future (though there is no real future, only our perceived future) this universe-consciousness could very well *be* God. Not how we think of God now, not Jehovah God, not Jesus God, but a Consciousness-God. It seems to tend toward the Eastern way of thinking of the Oneness of the Universe. The main tenet of Jesus, too, that of seeing yourself in one’s neighbor, can also be put forward as a link.
[The video also points toward a science that predicts the unity of the quantum world with that of the general relativity world, and in doing so predicts the constants of the universe, namely the speed of light and the golden mean.]


The path forward in science may well reach to religious aims: the experience of the universe and our role in it. We are conscious agents acting as “readers” of the language, influencing the universe by our reading, and being influenced in turn by other elements: all aspects of the universe in the end being of one consciousness, one God-Heaven. The common elements of all the major religions can be understood to be pointing in the same direction as science.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Broken Bible

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is executed on the Day of Preparation for Passover. As lambs went to the slaughter so Jesus went to the Cross. In Mark, he was executed on Passover. Fundamentalists have contorted their minds over this for centuries; all have convinced themselves that no error has been made, and no inconsistency presents itself. Well.

Obviously there is a problem here, but only if you view the Gospels--the entire library of the Bible, really--as history, as recorded moments, verifiable through archaeology, and historical accounts. Something else seems to be going on in the Bible, but here we are in the 21st century and Christians still feel timorous discussing the possibility that the Bible is not history, and that many things contained within it simply did not happen.

These fundamentalists fear that if people knew of the discrepancies held within the pages of the Bible, that people would run hither and yon, away from the preachings of the Good Book. What they fail to grasp is that people are running away due to the anti-intellectualism, the fervent holding on to a truth that is a lie, that this book contains errors and inconsistencies. If you show a child an amphora and tell that child that this is a magical jar which when rubbed will jettison a genie who will then grant three wishes, that child may well believe you, if young enough. But eventually life will show that child that jars do not jettison genies; indeed, life will show the child that genies do not exist. That child will no longer believe in genies. More, that child will no longer believe him or her who told them that genies exist. The child will toss that jar against a rock and smile as it shatters.

Belief in the Bible as God’s letter to mankind, as our little instruction book of life, eventually becomes, as the child’s jar, shattered. It is this way of thinking that makes the Bible fragile; in an of itself it is anything but.

But it need not be.

What if instead of a completely error-free book, a book written by God Himself, we are given a book that artfully shows us what a people believed concerning their world, their God? Of how they saw the universe? What if instead of a diary we are shown a literature?

The writer of the Gospel of John (almost certainly not John the disciple, just to shatter another amphora) wishes for us to share his belief that Jesus is the very Lamb of God gone to the sacrificial slaughter. We don’t expect it to be a literal transcription of events, if we read it correctly. We expect it to be art, and so convey a higher truth, a truth higher than mere journalistic entries might suggest.

Mark too, is written this way. So too Matthew and Luke, Acts, and the letters of Paul, Peter, etc. Genesis, Job, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Solomon, and many others even those that almost made it (Shepherd of Hermas, Didache, Apocalypse of Peter) into the canon, are also made in this same artful manner. When read as literature, when read as if written by poets, they can be seen as among the greatest works of art ever created by mankind--a Christian and Jew (as regards the OT, Mishnah, Talmud) would say the greatest.

When read this way people marvel at it all, in the way that they marvel that a genius such as Shakespeare ever existed, or Cervantes, or Chaucer, or Karamazov, or Tolstoi. Where did that genius come from? How can we ever understand it? When read as history, it becomes acidic, even hateful in parts. It is how the Muslim extremists read the Koran. How White Supremacists read the Bible. Fundamentalists of all stripes tear mystical holiness into the shreds of a simple-minded literal correspondence between this and the other; they lack any sense of doubt, uncertainty, mystery.

Put down the Bible of the fundamentalists, the Bible of dates and times and records and gift it to the dustbin of history. But then pick up the Bible of miracles--not the miracles of a magic God, not the miracles of blindness cured, water to wine, dead men brought to life; pick up the Bible of miraculous art, that shows us with an unknowable genius that this world holds a great and terrible beauty, and holds it within a vessel artfully made.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Processed Church

To process: the performing of a series of actions to change or preserve something.

Michael Pollan’s documentary film series, Cooked, ends with the final episode on Earth, which describes the culinary act of fermentation. The penultimate episode dealt with Air, and mainly featured the baking of bread with an inspection of what process is involved with changing wheat kernels into flour. Previous episodes dealt with Fire and Water.

To watch as food is changed from form to form, by the action of fire, or bacteria or yeast, or simply time, makes you aware of how far we have become separated from original methods of processing food. How we now substitute manufacturing processes in order to produce cheap packaged products that last a very long time on store shelves. We know we lose something for convenience, and for costs.

What is that something?

Maybe we hide something. Or substitute something for another. Is this a kind of game we play, a trick? A pretense?

A loaf of genuine sourdough bread baked in one’s very own oven is not the white bread held in plastic bags stacked neatly on supermarket shelves. We call both bread. One is; the other is something else we merely call bread. The essence in the latter is hidden, to the point of vanishing.

I could make the same point comparing a finely made home-brew to Budweiser. Or a home-made yogurt to Yoplait.

One has been changed, processed out of existence. Bit by bit. To discover the original you have to go back to the very basics, before the manufacturing of profit and loss and indefinite shelf-life.

Modern religion is the processed food of the spirit. To wonder as the first wondered you have to remove yourself from the church, from the dogma and doctrine. You have to eliminate the answers others have penned in, pinned on, and concentrate on the questions.

This is the lesson of the Gospels. Jesus is portrayed in these stories as a man shoving aside the assumptions of the religion of his day. Prior to the doctrines concerning his divinity, the docetism, the christologies, there was the profound question: Who is this man? This man that says these things? When he died, his followers were shocked, I believe. They most likely had been told by him that he was the messiah. That was why he was killed, after all. How could it be he died without achieving the kingdom that he spoke so much about? He had spoken to them, had convinced them that the kingdom of God was at hand. And so they believed...until it wasn’t...and then they didn’t. But then new ideas crept in, new doctrine, and the rest is history.

The process of changing Jesus into God, of a small gathering of disciples into an empire, took many years. Layers of argument formed the concrete of liturgies and theologies. Lasting for almost two thousand years. The process of layering dogma upon dogma protects and hardens against almost all internal dispute. But there are always some who ask what was it like in the beginning, before the rules, before the answers.

Transformation is a change, an alteration from one thing to another. Processed foods are transformed, but we call the natural baking of bread, in its simplest form, a transformation, not a process. This is simply saying that processed things have a negative connotation, and transformation a positive one. Likewise, the fermentation of wine and beer use the natural transformation via yeasts omnipresent in the air and on surfaces to change into alcoholic beverages. The yeasts seated on the ground grain bubble up to breathe within a dark, warm, wet environment and produce sourdough.

Transformation reaches back to the natural beginnings, as we look for the reasons for a change, in order to discover the how’s and why’s. Perhaps that is really where mankind discovered science, in the laboratory of a dish of fermented grapes or grains. The transformation became both religion and science. We wanted to know what was hidden that delivered such a life-giving product to us. Dionysus was worshiped for the amazing properties of the foods and drink which gave us that fermented magic. Later in history that same wonder gave us science, which is really just a tool to answer questions, which then gives us more questions. And all along our history we sat looking, wondering at all the hidden things in life, creating works that showed what we were, how we thought: Art.

It is the question that alters, the question that spurs.

If one were to take a medical text from the 17th century and use it today to train our doctors and researchers we would be in a very bad way. Not only would people die needlessly, we would also be asking the wrong questions, the questions we have learned to ask since that book was written; we’d ask about how the humours influenced us, perhaps about the astrological influences, about the need for bleeding. We are doing precisely that when we go to church and use the Bible for our only spiritual guide. We ask what does the Bible say about homosexuality? What does the Bible say about the role of women in church? About the age of the earth? The Bible should not be tossed aside (nor should we toss aside our 17th century guide) as worthless, but we should learn to use it alongside other guides that we have learned are quite useful and that have taught us much, taught us too about the Bible, what it really is, how it was really put together.

What we should be using are the guides of science, guides that use experiments to test hypothesis, mathematical guides that tell us logically what is possible; and the guide of nature itself, looking at nature, as an artist or scientist, or just in wonderment, and asking questions of it.

Religion has become the hardened answer to what used to be a wonderful question. In science we form a hypothesis and see what turns out to be true, experimentally. “Is this the way things happen?” How? Why? What. Is. This. Really?

Similar to the kingdom of heaven is leaven that a woman, taking, hid in three measures of flour until was leavened all.  --Matthew 13:33

This yeast, is hidden within the flour--and a great deal of flour it was. What Jesus was saying, I think, is not so much an allegorical teaching as a pointing to the essence of ourselves, or at least our spiritual selves. He saw the kingdom of God as a community, a community where everyone saw everyone else as themselves, as members of a whole body, living in common, taking care of each other, a family of God. And as God within nature supports his creation naturally so does God support us. As the leaven, hidden, works its magic until it blossoms as a loaf of living bread.

Jesus was describing the kingdom of God: the hidden --but discoverable!-- source of life. Jesus himself was turned into the very symbol of that life, later worshipped as that source. The eucharist, a marvelous magical symbol, the transformation of the bread to Jesus Christ, delivered a symbol of a symbol of a natural source of God’s goodness: bread.

And then so many words were written to wrap Jesus up and deliver him to the people. In time he was processed like a plastic-wrapped package of Wonder Bread, words that held him like chains, so enwrapped and involved him that he is not even seen through them. So where to sit and try and view him, find him again?

Maybe an orchard, maybe in some baker’s kitchen. Hidden for a short while, but just wait a bit.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Old Church

The church that I belong to seems old. It has lost the ability to grow and it deteriorates with age. But it isn’t old just in the sense of losing its capacity to grow, in its energy; it is old in the sense that it imagines itself as old, and places itself at a time more than one hundred years ago, around the time of 1850 or so.

That was the time when science never heard of natural selection. A time that was still pre-industrial and climate change was far into the future. It was a time when race was solidly understood by the majority of people as a great divide and a biological imperative. It was a time before the age of mass destruction from warfare and mass shootings. It was a time before even the term “homosexual” was known and used, and certainly not other terms such as “trans-sexual,” “queer,” “gay.” It was pre-dispensationalist, and so end times were not given so easily as an excuse for inaction. It was a time before the landmark collection, Essays and Reviews, was published, which for a time destroyed the idea of an inerrant and consistent reading of the Bible (cf especially, H. B. Wilson’s ideas concerning the need for morality to be ascendant over doctrine; and Jowett’s essay On the Interpretation of Scripture), and gave a leg up to modern theological liberalism with its view that reason has received short-shrift in many an evangelical church.

We in the Church/church have walled ourselves off because we use creation science, not the real science, to justify the inerrancy of biblical language. We treat Jonah as really being in the belly of fish/whale; we treat Adam and Eve as being real people (and Moses, and Abraham, and Jacob, and on and on). We think that Noah (real guy, that Noah) built a great big ark (real ark!) so that all the animals would survive a worldwide flood (real flood!). We don’t tend to discuss climate change. We do tend to discuss the coming of Jesus. We spend all our time building a fortress that keeps other, more knowledgeable people, outside of our cult-ish interior.

With age comes many things, wisdom often quoted among them--but not always present--in aged institutions and people. Though there is often, with age, an impulse to divulge, to present openly when before, at a younger age, one tended to wait, to recede in the background, to see how others put forth their arguments, their beliefs. As you age you sometimes get bolder.

But not the church.

You cannot call yourself bold when you are living in the far gone past; 1850 does not allow you to be revolutionary in any mode of thought.

But, some in this old, old church will say, it is better to be right than merely modern. Prevailing opinion isn’t correct just by virtue of it being current.


Yet a church that fails to argue the points is a church that has already failed to convince any to its point of view. The secularists have made their choices. They have walked away. They have largely argued these views individually and come to conclusions that the church disagrees with, and not just those views touched on previously, but spiritual doctrines that many people simply do not believe in anymore.

A church that teaches the same doctrine, views the world through the same eyes, has the same viewpoints that occurred in 1850, is not a church that will survive much longer. Indeed, it is something of a miracle that it has survived this long. Do not expect it to survive beyond this next generation, because this generation has made itself known as one for which progress is important, and which demands that ideas be talked about, and defended. This generation wants, and needs, a church that will be the tip of the spear to thoughtful, progressive ideas and solutions to the problems in a modern world. That is where the energy is deployed. The church, to them, is now more the butt of the shaft, held tight (to the past).

If the church wishes to remain relevant, it needs to speak to relevant topics, in a modern way, with modern ideas (science) not viewed as the enemy of God but as Calvin saw it all, as non-threatening, as merely a part of a revealing nature. And if it does not wish to take part in relevant discussions, does not wish to partake in the controversies that surround us, then why should we care if it lives or dies? Something else will replace it. Jesus said nothing will prevail against his church, but did not say that the church would remain stagnant. As the church changes, it becomes other than what it was. Someday, perhaps very soon, those in the church will find themselves outside what the church currently establishes itself as, and those in the church of 1850 will not recognise it, will not even see it as a church at all. They will be lost in the past, and only history books will speak of them, if they’re even that fortunate.