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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.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Beautiful Book

Image result for signsThere is a sense in which you can take any sign whatsoever, whether a tree, a musical note, a word, and find ambiguity, find a space that resonates and echoes until you lose it completely and you wonder, What did that mean?
There is also a sense in which you can take any sign and apply it almost exactly, precisely to a given situation. You have the sense that you know it completely.
Signs are like this, like a jazz composition, that the composer has written down and gives to a few different bands to play. All the bands have the same musical notations, the signs, and they appears exactly the same on the page. Yet all the bands will play a different song, if only slightly different, playing within the ambiguous space of the composer’s signs.
That is language.

Everyone knows what it is; and no one knows what it is.

Nietzsche apparently felt that truth is a “mobile army of metaphors, metonymies and anthropomorphisms...illusions whose illusory nature has been forgotten.” Umberto Eco apparently disagreed. When reading semioticians my mind fogs. But however Eco dismantled Nietzsche, the philosopher caught that sweeping nature of signs, of pointing to an expanding truth, but a truth that is vaporous and that does not have a distinctness to it. You simply cannot draw an outline around the truth and shade it all in, point to it, and say, There! That’s it.

So when I listen and read the evangelical predisposition to absolute truth as written in the inspired Word of God, the Bible, I am predisposed myself to add a rejoinder: Have you never thought about the words? The words themselves? What do you know about them? What can you know about them?

I am going to guess that after studying Eco and all the other great semioticians one would, if even a little like me, still be left a bit askew. It’s a tall task. It is a task that few even seem to know exists: a bit like not noticing that, Ah! Over there is a mountain called Everest. Never noticed it before! How’d I miss that?

Here is a bit, as explanation, of Eco’s formula (taken from an online lecture by Gary Genosko:
Consider, then, the nuts and bolts of Eco’s model. A sender makes reference to presupposed codes (and the circumstances orienting these) and selected subcodes in the formation of a message that flows through channel; this message is a source of information (expression) with contextual and circumstantial settings (settings that are coded according to cultural conventions or remain relatively uncoded or not yet coded such as biological constraints). The addressee receives the message and with reference to his or her own presupposed codes (and the actual circumstances, which may deviate from the presuppositions) and selected subcodes, the selection of which may be indicated by the context and circumstances, interprets the message text (content). Here, Eco adopts from Metz the redefinition of message as text as “the results of the coexistence of many codes (or, at least, many subcodes).” ((A Theory of Semiotics, p. 57.)) The structuralist disconnection of the message-text from authorial intention helps to underline Eco’s sense of the interpretive freedom found in certain kinds of decoding that eludes such a point of reference.

Well, that clears it up.

It must be clear that our texts, and our cultural assignations of that text, and our interpretations of that text, the connotative and denotative meanings, and so forth, render meaning inescapably...fuzzy.

Back to our jazz band. Let’s suppose that the musical score is Genesis (an analogy). Each of our jazz bands takes the notes and interprets them differently, each sees some freedom within the signs and toots out a different tune. Chord changes occur quite apart from the text itself, but one’s interpretation of signs leads to different outcomes. A different song appears, and not just between the three bands, but if allowed to play the tune again, each time it becomes something else.

This is not merely true of music. This is what happens to language.

The Bible is not language embedded in concrete. It is musical. It is interpretive. It is fuzzy. That is just the way it is, you cannot get around it, though many pretend otherwise.

An evangelical fundamentalist reads Genesis and interprets the melody, calculates the rests and time signature, and concludes that the earth is 4500 years old, give or take. He calculates that we came from one man, Adam. He calculates that God walked the earth and gave him fruit to eat but that Adam disobeyed and ate of that one tree he should not have eaten from. He further calculates that evolution is crap and a whole lot of people walked the earth named Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, Moses. And so forth. He closes the canon and declares it Good! (But homosexuality is very bad!)

Such is the result of not knowing much about semiotics, language interpretation, mythic reading, translation theory, or much about anything. This is what ignorance does, propping up mis-readings as idol-worship, as bibliolatry.

There is a cure for this sort of destructive non-interpretive mode of reading the Bible: it is to read it as Art. William Blake thought of the Bible as the Great Code of Art. And so it is, but only if you understand how language works, how the hidden inconsistencies (actually, they are not so hidden but are quite openly declared if you choose to see them) within the Bible show humanity’s grappling with the warring tendencies of life, how life is this and that, at the same time; Job resisting the impulse to curse God but pretty much cursing him anyway; God telling Job who he is talking to...and not telling him anything; psalms of great praise to God and psalms questioning God’s goodness. And that is just the Old Testament. There is a lot here in the Bible; a lot that needs digesting. But don’t think that it actually can be digested, that it can be made sense of. It cannot. You have to hold the warring factions in your head all at once, as if a Zen koan; the Jehovah of death and destruction alongside the Adonai of Jesus. The sound of one hand clapping.

Beautiful things have tension, lack perfect symmetry. They say: A terrible beauty. They emerge, beautiful things do, out of time and space and history, full of noise and terror and cradled softness: it comes and then it goes, born to die. It is not easy, this sort of book, and neither should it be.