September 16, 2013

Old Man In the Library: When Knowledge Is Rendered Pointless

Late sixties or early seventies I'd guess, capped with a hat my younger brother would buy from a thrift store and dressed in a shirt and blue jeans he has probably owned for years, his big, hairy hands were frenzying about stacking and re-stacking numerous audio books he had picked out for himself atop the shelf, as if organizing them into some system only he knew. I was curiously browsing the rows, nonchalantly.

I glanced at his stack, hoping the direction of my eyes remained unnoticed by him, wondering what in the world this old man was after. War history, economics, politics, science, his interest ran broad. Toward the bottom of his stack I recognized Christopher Hitchens' Mortality and decided to comment since I had been listening to Hitchens' memoir Hitch-22 in my car that week and since he seemed inclined toward conversation.

The exact comment I made I do not recall. What I do remember is he bounced into conversation with me, as though he had been eagerly desiring it, as though he could hardly wait to tell me about his great stack of audio books. In a bewildering flurry, words and stories flew from his mouth.

He is a Vietnam veteran and a retired chemical engineer and completely obsessed with learning - that stack was all his! He told me he agreed with Hitchens. Religion poisons. I slipped in that I was a christian, which, in retrospect, I suppose was my way of informing him that I wasn't going to be hostile or argumentative (particularly since I, too, think some religion poisons quite resolutely). He wasn't phased, though I thought he might think it strange I would read Hitchens, being a popular fundamentalist atheist while he was alive.

This man reminded me of my friends Jeremy Strain and Ben Prindle and also myself, though my friends could actually hold a mature conversation. He continued talking, passionately commenting on Richard Dawkins - of course! - and having heard him lecture twice, somewhere in the area, Oliver Sacks, whose Hallucinations he recommended to me, being open to the truth, which I told him was a passion and concern of mine as well, and a variety of other topics he deemed suitable to bring up in this crash-coarse "conversation" I had been sucked into.

There was no break between his words and hardly time for taking a breath. Apparently, there was just too much to say to ease up and actually be present with another person, to receive what someone else might have to offer, however simple, however profound. Anything I wanted to say had to be coerced through his near impenetrable sentences.

His insatiable appetite for knowledge, and at his age, though at first was inspiring, quickly became, for me in that moment at least, his downfall. Once, I came close to stopping him mid-sentence - there was no other way - and offering him advice on how to actually converse with a stranger, or anyone for that matter, if he cared. Does he talk like this to everyone? My god! To me, knowledge about social and political issues, historical events, or ancient metaphysics amounts to nothing - as in who cares! - if that person is unable to hold a normal conversation with another human being.

I'm not saying this man sucks or I hate him. Nothing of the sort. If anything, I'm glad I encountered him. I just find the acquisition of facts or truth or reality coupled with the inability to shut your yapper and listen backwards. Wisdom is quick to listen, slow to speak, I'm nearly certain.

Eventually, I had to cut him off because it was time for me to leave the library and meet up with some friends who were by now surely waiting for me. I never got his name but I shook his burly hand and told him to enjoy his audio books. He assured me he would, though for some reason now I doubt he will.

Inside my mind or my heart or both there is a pitcher, sometimes empty, sometimes full, sometimes partly filled. And for a reason I am unaware and outside my control when people talk to me and for long periods of time, for me, my pitcher fills up quick. After this I begin to wane and need to pour out. But if someone talks with me, when they pour and I receive and then I pour and they receive I am energized and strengthened like little else.

This dance, this flow, this art - why, I don't know - has become a rare gift, possibly even among those in our society we should expect to find it. Like words and sacrifice emptied of love, knowledge and a searching for truth doesn't mean wisdom and maturity is the soil from which such a pursuit should flower up. It's a shame.

photo credit: Dietmar Temps via photopin cc / photo credit: ohhector via photopin cc

September 2, 2013

Thinking on Christopher Rollston a Year Later

I've written about Christopher Rollston before, former professor of Old Testament and Semitic Studies at what is now called Emmanuel Christian Seminary, formerly Emmanuel School of Religion. Like I've previously said, my friend Ben and I became interested onlookers to the situation as it began to unravel a year ago (If you haven't already, it will be a good idea to read at least the few beginning paragraphs of my previous post).

This situation, I think I can speak for both of us, intrigued us, at least partially because we had learned together about Peter Enns, once an Old Testament professor, as well, at Westminster Theological Seminary before falling prey to it. Upon the release of his book Inspiration and Incarnation in 2005, in which he writes honestly about difficult Old Testament issues, criticism stirred regarding whether or not the conclusions he made fit within the doctrinal commitments of Westminster. Long story short: they didn't. He transitioned out, became an independent scholar, and, like a boss, continued writing important books, like The Evolution of Adam in 2012.

Ever since learning about Peter Enns I've been more empathetic toward Christian academics employed at Christian universities and somewhat interested in academic freedom, admits often strict doctrinal statements, and the possibility of a "Christian" institution.

Well, Christopher Rollston has reflected upon the last year of his life via his website, Rollston Epigraphy, a couple days ago, putting his situation in some much-needed context, context that honestly brought tears to my eyes as I read, trying to grasp the layers of grief and turmoil brewing underneath the surface of his dramatic removal from Emmanuel Christian Seminary as a loyal and inspiring teacher. I've never met Rollston, and doubt I ever will, but my heart felt for him albeit in a very small way.

Back when I first learned about it, I think my interest in Rollston's situation was made immediately compelling because of my interest in Thom Stark, a former student of Rollston's. My respect for Stark was and is huge, first because of his personal blog that, at the time, challenged some of my taken-for-granted beliefs about Jesus and other doctrines students of Scripture should find naturally alluring and second because of his important book The Human Faces of God.

Some books are entertaining and you're glad you read them, though they quickly slip into the realm of forgotten things. Others offer an affirming pat on the back: "You already believe all the right things." But every so often there's a book that will leave you stunned and even wounded, beyond repair, in the best possible way. Stark's book is this and more. It's a loaded canon purposely pointed at the doctrine of biblical inerrancy as most evangelicals have come to know it, consciously or not, which is important to me since I was taught this, more or less, at college and was the general consensus among the student body and faculty. The provocative honestly and rich substance of Thom's book satisfied me deeply. From then on I've kept an eye on Stark and his work and obviously became very interested if and when he ever mentioned his teachers. Who do people I respect respect?

During his beloved professor's controversy, Thom advocated for Rollston fervently and masterfully combated some shallow opposition to Rollston's Huffington Post article, which he obviously defended because it was true, on Religion at the Margins.

I say all this about Thom because if I respect him as I do then I should at least pause for a moment to offer my mental respects to Rollston, his teacher. If you want to know how well a teacher teaches, watch, listen, and engage his or her students. This doesn't mean that the brilliance of a teacher always trickles on down to inspire the minds of students, but it will some of the time. It's obvious after reading through many "Open Letters" from Rollston's students that his brilliance was translatable more often than not.

They wrote over and over about how Rollston taught them, inspired them with his intellectual honesty and faithful scholarship, opened up Scripture to them in a deep and profoundly impacting way, and nourished the skeleton bones of weak, unthinking Christian faith.

This stirs me up inside because I, too, have had such teachers. I recall Charles Lee, as a freshman, sophomore, and junior reflecting on his own life, faith, and doubt in ways that left me bare and astonished. He challenged us to take faith seriously, to ask the hard questions, to grow up and stop acting like pansy-ass Christians and actually follow Jesus. Or, who could forget the varsity theology couch Jim Adams with his stripped sweaters? I am indebted to his realness, his work, his life.

And it was these kinds of teachers that, for me, that had the greatest impact. It was never the ones that affirmed everything I believed nor never called me out for flimsy theology. Real teachers leave you shocked, annoyed, and often with a wounded faith, but only because the faith that was there before was impoverished or needed to be shot. Real teachers know that there's a time for building and a time for ruining. Rollston seemed to have this figured out. This is why I write about this now. We need teachers like him more than ever when institutions seek donors and their donations more than the reason they were established in the first place: to teach.

... I wasn't planning on writing a full-blown post. My plan was to simply share Rollston's reflections on this last year. Even if you're only vaguely familiar, or not at all, it could be a good read. It was for me.

August 28, 2013

Do I Like Her?

The guy in this old, blurry photograph looks like he could be asking this question. "She's pretty, but she sure don't dance like my mama taught me!"

Romantic relationships are baffling. I mean really people, how in the hell?!

I complicated things, as if potential relationships weren’t complicated enough, and always before they ever began. Thus I decided, and successfully managed I might add, to steer clear of them my entire adolescence and beyond, until now, at the dawning of my twenty-seventh year. How I was able to sustain such a lifestyle, for some, is incomprehensible.

The deep ruts of my single habits began to level-out not long after meeting her (which, I am fully aware, is a distasteful flaunting-of-a-sentence to any even mildly pessimistic single person!). But don’t get me wrong; I still overthought it all.

The big obstacle in the beginning was figuring out if I liked her, which was something I, as the man, had to conclude, and fast, according to the advice of friends, pastors, and other voices from within the evangelical blogosphere.

Yet, no matter how many times I heard this, that the guy has to get his shit together and decide if he likes her, as to not play with her heart, I had difficulty stomaching it.

Not wanting to “lead her on” and other Christian dating failures, I started obsessing about these questions: “Am I interested?” “Do I like her?” “Am I intrigued?”

Bla, bla, bla, whatever!

These questions were about as helpful as a fork in a sugar bowl. They fell flat and left an eerie echo in my head. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why the hell I would want to base my decision to “pursue” this girl on an answer to a question that was ultimately about me.

Granted I can’t just extract myself from the equation. I am a part of this potential relationship. But there’s no way I was going to be satisfied grounding my decision solely on how I felt. And yet I was stumped. I couldn’t think of anything better.

I started asking co-workers, if given a chance, about what they thought were good reasons to start a romantic relationship. Wow, lots of interesting answers came in, which left me all the more baffled, until a better question finally arrived at me.

Where did it come from? I don’t know. All that matters is that its simplicity graced the contours of my thoughts and whose answer gave me the confidence to, finally, move forward - and thank God I did.

Instead of those self-centered questions - whose answers, I hope you realize, have no substantial consequences for the girl - what about this: Would I sacrifice my life for her?

Hear me out. I’m not talking about taking a bullet for her, although that may not be a bad question to ask either. It’s more subtle. Would I lay down my life - habits, space, time, meritocracy, even dreams - to be with her?

For some it might be too early to tell. For me: lightbulb!

I was lucky. I had been getting to know this girl via email for nearly six months before I learned to ask this question. I knew her well. And what I knew I loved. I loved her dreams to help broken, hurting people, to contribute to people’s good. I loved her passion for listening to other’s stories and being compelled to weave the thread of God’s grace across hearts once broken. I loved her excitement for travel, books, and ideas. I loved her past, though grossly painful at points, her present, and where she saw herself down the road.

Did I like her? Definitely. But more importantly, I realized I was, and am, willing to support her story and hopes and dreams to the point of laying my life down, that she might flourish and live her dreams.

It was that question and that answer that turned things on for me, that made clear what was before muddied.

Yes, I want to be with her.

July 25, 2013

Death of a Salesman: Freedom and Death

“Oh, the ludicrousy of it all! The supreme senselessness!”

These words seem all too appropriate as she stands stunned, possibly trembling, her ill countenance toward the earth her once-living husband now lays beneath, the man she loved to, and beyond, death. On the last page of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, widowed Linda stutters to herself, informing her dead husband, “I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home...” And in penetrating ambiguity announces, “We’re free and clear... We’re free... We’re free...”

There in the margin I wrote, “Freedom and Death”... Linda's peculiar "We're free" lodged itself in my thinking.

In regards to Linda, what was she saying there by the grave? What kind of freedom was this? Was it not hugely ironic? I suppose on the one hand, Linda is “free” from her relentless mortgage payments, the bills that landed monthly in the mailbox. She is “free” to enjoy her home without the pulsing anxiety that this time next month the same amount is due, again. A “freedom” many Americans would die for - pun intended.

And yet, what is freedom without the one you love? Is she now “free” to be alone, in some house she once called home, though she would gladly choose life for her husband above all else? Is she “free” from Willy, even as she longs for him?

And what about Willy? What kind of freedom is he offered? Is he free to enjoy the peace of having paid off his house, to take up time of leisure and plant a garden, read a book, mow the grass, clean the kitchen? Or did his freedom show up as the end of life itself, the end of memory, romance, and faith? What kind of freedom, if any, lies in death?

So: Does death bring freedom? If yes, what kind? And, more urgently, could it be obtained while one still lives? Is there freedom in life? This is the question haunting me at the moment.

See, because I don’t want freedom after I’m dead - I’m not so sure there is such a thing. Freedom, if anything, must be a category of the living, for death would be the end to freedom itself.

July 23, 2013

Death of a Salesman

At times I was almost stunned by Arthur Miller’s pen, his gift for inking his imagination and making fiction so believable. The American playwright wrote Death of a Salesman in 1949, a story, it would seem to me, of/for today as much as it was then.

Daniel Mullen, a faraway friend in the state of Virginia, recommended I read it some weeks ago. I told him later, after devouring Act 1, I was caught off guard by how it resonated with me, how it played me like an instrument, the simplicity of the story, the depth of the characters (even if I didn’t realize it at first), the tumultuous family dynamics.

A tragedy to be sure, Death of a Salesman captures the absurdity, the insistence, of the American Dream, the zealous and hazardous optimism of mid-twentieth-century middle class.

After working his ass off his entire life for the same company, Willy Loman, a salesman and delusionally optimistic, now late in age and strapped for cash ironically, finds himself estranged from what actually matters at the end of the day: family and himself. Arguably, at the worse possible time Willy dies.

Biff, the eldest of Willy’s two sons, who had anything but a straightforward, healthy relationship with his father, in graveside honesty, wraps up, “He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong.” The younger son, Happy, passionately retorts, “Don’t say that!”

Biff responds, “He never knew who he was.”

In one line, one puff, Willy’s life is rendered vanity. Not just a bitter, insensitive conclusion from a critical son, I imagine this was the source of Biff’s inspiration - a man, according to Willy who had been perpetually caught in "finding himself" - to move beyond his father’s petty dream, a dream that rose out of a false-self, an exaggerated, untrue version of who he was. A distorted self, a distorted dream.

I finished Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama in two sittings. I recommend you do the same.

June 21, 2013

The Stories Jesus Told: The Parable of the Pounds pt.1

Kenneth E. Bailey, Th.D., scholar and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies, through his fascinating book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, has been teaching me about Jesus’ parables. I’ve been enjoying this book slowing, using it mainly as a resource for my sermon series on the parables, which is just underway. If the teenagers scattered along the couches at youth group find it equally as interesting I will sleep soundly.

My preparation for next week has me reading the chapter on (what my Bible calls) “The Parable of the Ten Minas.” Professor Bailey renders it “The Parable of the Pounds.” The cultural insights available in his book inspire me to share the goodness within.

Luke explains that Jesus tells this parable to the gathered crowd because they supposed the kingdom of God was about to come, like, immediately; no doubt, in part, because Jesus tells Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house.” In the imaginations of Jesus’ hearers “salvation” and “the kingdom of God” go hand in hand. If the kingdom had come to Zacchaeus’ house, surely it’s here for the nation! But that just isn’t the plan. Thus the story.

A nobleman, so the story goes, gathers ten servants and tells them, “Hey, I’m traveling to a country far away to receive a kingdom, but I am coming back don’t worry. Take this $5,000 - a gift for you - and open up shops downtown and spend your time conducting business there in my name. Though there’s much uncertainty, I will return.” In times of such transition, Bailey explains, anything can happen. Herod the Great, in 40 B.C., set out for Rome seeking Roman appointment as king. He returned as king. The same cannot be said of his son Archelaus B.C. He was banished.

But the potential opposition doesn’t end there. In the parable, the citizens hated the nobleman and sent out a delegation, in hopes of stopping him, whether that meant undermining his mission or worse. Bailey’s literal translation here (of verse 14) reveals something interesting:

But his citizens hated him and sent an embassy after him, saying, “We do not want this…to reign over us.”

This what? It doesn’t say, the word/phrase is omitted. This is a deleted expletive. Basically, fill in your preferred profanity.

The nobleman’s servants are more than aware of the presence of the nobleman’s enemies. The servants could easily have wondered what would happen if the enemies overcame their master. What would happen to them? What would happen to their business? Activities like this are dangerous in such a heated climate of hated opposition. It might be smarter to wait it out, to see what happens, hold onto the money, keep it safe. It might not be worth the risk. The enemies could rob the shop, revile them, and worse.

Bailey writes,

No one knows how such a perilous journey will end. The nobleman wants to know, “Are you willing to take the risk and openly declare yourselves to be my loyal servants (during my absence) in a world where many oppose me and my rule? … Once I return, having received kingly power, it will be easy to declare yourself publicly to be my loyal servants. I am more interested in how you conduct yourselves when I am absent and you have to pay a high price to openly identify yourself with me.”

The nobleman indeed receives kingly power in spite of attempts of the opposite. Reasonably, he wants to know what diepragmateusanto. This Greek word is not used again in the New Testament. Primarily, it means “How much business has been transacted” and secondly as “How much has been gained by trading.”

The difference is critical. If the master wants to find out what has been gained by trading, he will ask some form of “Show me the money.” But if he is asking, “How much business have you transacted?” he is seeking to discover the extent to which they have openly and publicly declared their loyalty to him during the risky period of his absence.

Let’s experiment. If the master is after profits, the money, then the “faithful” servants are rewarded because they made the master richer. The higher the profit the more faithful the servant is. Too, the “wicked” servant is the one who didn’t make the master richer. “You didn’t open up shop, nor even invested?! You fool! Give me my money back!” But, “faithful” and “wicked” seem odd in this context, no? Particularly if the nobleman in the parable is Jesus, which Bailey affirms.

Though if the master is concerned with how much business the servants conducted in - how much they publicly risked themselves in the master’s absence inspite of opposition - and not primarily with the extra cash in his pocket, “faithful” and “wicked” are rendered quite differently. The question is not how much money but how much business. Essentially, quantity not quality. Thus the most “faithful” is the servant who conducted the most business and “wicked” is the servant who didn’t at all.

This parable can easily be interpreted about money, particularly if we fail to consider Bailey’s insight about the word diepragmateusanto. But in light of this word, the minas the servants gained should be seen as how much business they conducted in. Because it’s not hard to imagine that first servant getting lucky one day and selling to a rich man. Perhaps he made ten minas all in one transaction while the second servant made only five minas but conducting business over many weeks. In this case, the latter servant - the one who only made five minas but conducted more overall business - is more “faithful.” If diepragmateusanto is to be interpreted as Bailey suggests, the minas should then represent business conducted.

But why did the “wicked” servant make such difficult accusations toward his master, calling him, essentially, a thief? This question is more troubling if we assume the master is Christ. With professor Bailey’s help, to that question (and more) I will turn to next.

May 6, 2013

Take Heart: Preaching to Ten

Tonight all I was given were looks of boredom. Granted it may have been unintentional, just the uncomfortable facial expressions of teenagers sitting in a muggy room. And I know how torturous that can be (especially when it’s amazing sunny out). Like trying to crank out math problems - or anything with a fair amount of mental strain - in a stuffy room. My palms are sweaty just thinking of it.

So, if I am to perfect this art, this calling, called preaching I need not be easily influenced by looks that say to me, “Ugh, why are you talking?” or “I’m bored, entertain me!” or “You just keep repeating yourself” - yawn. These are only my interpretations, though some may be right. But let’s be optimistic for a moment. Who me?

What if even one teenager out of those ten, sitting in the shape of a horseshoe in front of me, experienced something profound? Wait, is that too optimistic? Ok, what if one teenager learned one thing that’s going to stick with her for the next week? (God, at least one week!) Or what if just one is convicted and experiences grace, or freedom or some other divine gift that opens him up to love God more properly? I mean, who knows what could be going on underneath those crimpled faces, in the dark unknown of their souls, that in the moment test everything I am made of.

Driving home I had an idea to take a bunch of close-up photos of people’s bored and tired faces, print them out and pin them up somewhere, maybe on the wall of my room and practice preaching to them throughout the week to hopefully someday overcome the feelings these faces stir within me. I feel this could actually help.

I’d rather stand in front of a hundred people or a thousand. I’m not just saying that. A few years ago I preached during chapel at college on fearing God from Job 29. A couple hundred were present. Times like this the individuals coalesce and I only see a hunk of bodies, a giant mass. It’s as if their gazes are lost on me. But when there’s twenty or fifteen or ten the dynamic shifts dramatically with eyes afire acutely penetrating all I am.

Preaching has always assumed courage. Just getting up there can be daunting, especially following that awkward silence after the last worship song. But this is it. The call to preach is a call to courage, to heart, to stiffness of character. We pray and hope and believe that somehow the Holy Spirit embeds conviction, encouragement and freedom in our shaky words that die when fallen upon tender soil to usher new life, something that wasn’t there before, something which at first is remarkably small.

April 20, 2013

On (Not) Understanding My Own Way

"A man's steps are directed by the Lord; how then can anyone understand his own way?" - Proverbs 20:24

You want to know something crazy?

Last summer, as a part of an internship I routinely questioned (to myself) my involvement in, I was a jr. high cabin leader at a Foursquare summer camp. Under my care, for better or worse, was an eclectic collection of boys, some of which my heart broke for. Why? Because of where and to whom they were going home to after camp was complete. I remember reminiscing on God's justice and shalom, and how these might flow again to bring life to broken family skeletons, callous and heart-broken communities, and the other crooked people and twisted systems that raised these kids. After the week was done all I could think was, “God, be with them.”

Now for the crazy part.

Throughout the summer I kept telling people my plans for after the internship: teach english abroad. I still remember, late in the summer, using the church's behemoth copy machine to make doubles of important background check info and finger-printing docs for preparation to get hired overseas. This wasn't just some whimsical dream. But, the youth pastor ache lurked in the shadows. Eventually, it was too overwhelming to calm with a pill or chill with an icepack. I gave up my search for a school in a foreign place and looked for youth pastor jobs.

Alas, I couldn't find crap. Clarification: I found some, but none found me. After several months, I came to loathe phone calls to pastors I've never met, disorderly application packets, sending emails with no reply, and, oh ya, getting told, albeit nicely and with blessing, no.

So, once again, I gave up. I even thought about taking up my old search again, to teach my native language to the world, a noble cause I urged myself.

Then, one day while I was lying down on the couch in my parents' living room, home alone, trying to get some quick shut-eye in, my phone vibrated on the coffee table. Urked, I looked to see who. The name of the youth pastor I'd been serving under flashed along my screen. He tells me, in my half-awake state, that a pastor in Auburn is looking for a youth pastor. “Can I give him your name?” I've learned not to get my hopes up, but I told him yes, of coarse.

Come to find out, yes, things work out. I'm going to be a youth pastor. But that's not all. The current youth pastor I already know. He was at the same jr. high camp I was, teaching one of the break-out sessions on city involvement and outreach. Small world. But the world is smaller still. The boys that were in my cabin that week, yes, the ones that raised hell for me (I should clarify that it was only some, not all), are from this guy's youth group. These kids are going to be mine.

Sure, a bit of panic set in remembering how insane that week at camp was, but I realized that youth group is only once a week.

Usually I'm the guy dismissing coincidences other people find in their lives, but I started to do the same and defaulted back to the days when I believed God orchestrated everything in my life. Regardless, I'm stunned at the current circumstances, at how my hand could have never brought this about. And it's a strange thing looking back on a chunk of life you didn't understand in the moment now with, essentially, eyes to see. It turns out understanding isn't a prerequisite for direction.

February 12, 2013

The Beckoning of Lent: Note to Self

Dear Self,

I’ve been watching you lately and - I hope you don’t mind me being so frank - think it might be best if you take a little break. You know, kick your feet up, be free from “to-do” lists and remember why. And, if you’re feeling up to it, maybe you could follow the dry wind to where the concrete turns to grass, and then beyond that to the sand, to the desert. But only for a short while.

The desert gets me everytime. I always get thirsty. But that’s why we go, right? To discover, again for the first time, that we’re thirsty. And oh, how painful the thirst really is - well, when we rid ourselves of those other drinks. Those other liquids don’t quench diddly. Gosh, we forget don’t we?

And though others might not hear from you and they’ll be waiting. Let it be. The desert is important, but like I said, only for a bit, not forever. Deserts are only as good to the degree that one returns. So go, go on! And remember. Remember why it is we thirst, and all the pain involved. Remember who you are and why you’re here. Shut everything down and seek the sand. Remember the story we both know so well, when he goes and feels the pain and hears his words and triumphs and returns.

He returned and you will too.

January 28, 2013

The Logic of Trauma: James K. A. Smith and Body Hysteria

The last couple months an interest in trauma studies has been slowly brewing in me. It all started to stir about when, this past summer, someone told me I had a trauma imprint in my brain. Huh, me?… Come to find out, this wasn't some unwanted wrinkle or strange brain blemish. It was a psychological scar from a moment in my past my brain associated with embarrassment and trepidation. Ever since, I've been somewhat intrigued with how, specifically, the body handles and reacts to situations that remind the brain of a past traumatic experience.

Going to sleep is usually the time my brain chooses to turn-on. And so, while laying on the ground in my sleeping bag at my friend's house, I had this thought.

What does trauma have to do with James K. A. Smith? For instance, could trauma count as an example for Smith's argument in Desiring the Kingdom? (Don't bounce 'cause you ain't familiar. Give me a second to explain.) Smith wants to prioritize the body in matters of education, and faith as well. He claims that education, and Christian education at that, should be less about filling the head with information than forming a kind of people, by the heart, through the body. Education shouldn't limit the body to passively sitting in a chair. The body then could be the key to "learning" (he's working with a broad definition of education), to being formed for a way of life, for the Kingdom and for love. He talks along these lines because, he argues, humans are fundamentally animals of desire. We are lovers at our core.

So, what does this have to do with trauma? Yes, good question. I'm not convinced it has anything to do with trauma. I'm only speculating, playing with my thoughts. I'm wondering: If Smith is right in critiquing modernity's emphasis on the head--"I think therefore I am"--and thus taking serious the body's role in faith and education (and life!), then I wonder if trauma could be a good conversation partner.

Traumatic experiences have a wide range. But it seems, no matter what the origin of a traumatic event is or how it came about, an "imprint" is made in the brain. When situations, afterward, arise that remind the brain of this prior traumatic event, the body reacts, usually hysterically: sweaty palms, stomach aches, twitching, trembling, fainting, etc. What is so interesting, to me, in the moment a traumatic imprint flares up and the body reacts is often the person is caught totally off guard by the "intrusion" of the body's hysteria. The body reacts without any regard for reasonableness, rationality, or logic. For instance, the person, in such a moment, can offer him/herself the following thoughts, "Hey, this is no big deal. Everything is fine. This is simple. Calm down." Alas, nothing. The body does not falter nor acquiesce to the rational. It overrides it, overwhelms it. All willpower is, at once, lost.

Though, it would seem, logic falls short in such a situation, is it possible that trauma and body hysteria have a "logic" all their own? What would it mean that the mind, though it offers rightfully corrective thinking (i.e. "It's ok, this is perfectly safe", etc.), is overridden, overruled, and overwhelmed by the pre-rational currents of the body?

If I believed we were fundamentally thinking things, or even believing things, I would be tempted to be optimistic of the mind's abilities to calm the body down. If humans ruled from the head, then, wouldn't trauma be a failure to correct the body's hysteria via willpower and/or cognitive reasoning? Now, I'm not suggesting the mind, corrective thinking, etc., have no part in the healing process, only they can't be the sole target/methodology/approach. This begs the question: What part does/should the body play in the counseling process/healing procedures of trauma patients?

So, does the body hysteria of trauma victims work well with Smith's thesis? It's hard to say since Smith is working this philosophical anthropology out for Christian educational purposes (see his Desiring the Kingdom, which I've mentioned before), and for a theology of culture (see his second book in the trilogy Imagining the Kingdom). I have my doubts. Regardless, if he's right, the implications are far-reaching, thus this connection to trauma. If anyone would like to dialogue about this or has/knows of corresponding resources I would love to be contacted. Thought-experiments need multiple pairs of ears!

By Kennedy Space Center [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

January 25, 2013

Political Theology Musings: Amos Yong's Cosmopolitical Liturgics of Resistance

That's what he calls it anyway.

Looking closely at passages like Acts 12:3-5 and 16:25, where early Christians respond to imprisonment and persecution with prayer and praise, Professor Amos Yong, in his book In the Days of Caesar, draws some interesting conclusions for the Church's liturgical practices today, and he does so with his pentecostal sensibilities fully engaged. He writes, "For starters, the prayers, songs, scriptural recitations, and sacramental modalities of the liturgy are formative of human habits, character, and agency", which means liturgy shapes both ethical and political agents (this makes me wonder whether Christians who are disengaged, for whatever reason, from the political consequences of Christian faith are being shaped by liturgy. Perhaps, using Yong's language, some liturgical practices are not "dense" enough?) (155). Also, liturgies are memorial and anticipatory. Anticipatory in the sense of "enacting the promises of Scripture with regard to how the world should be" (156). Basically, singing songs of praise and praying in corporate worship shape the body, and individuals, for political engagement and are in and of themselves proper political responses.

Yong's perspective is that worship, prayer and exorcism--did I fail to mention he is working towards a distinctly pentecostal political theology?--are not apolitical, but actually robust alternative political practices. This may ruin any "clean" Christian's understanding, who's goal is to remain unscathed by the whirlwinds of our world's political affairs. But if Yong is right, "worshipping God" and singing those Sunday morning hymns is, and has always been, thoroughly political in nature.

"Praise is the distinctive liturgical moment where believers adore God, extol God's majesty, and glorify God's name" and, quoting William Stringfellow, "'exposes the scandal of emperors deemed divine, or principalities treated idolatrously, of national vanity displacing God, of death extolled.' In this light, all of Christian praise enthrones God above every other power. Simultaneously, praise de-absolutizes the historical, the national, and the mundane; praise dethrones the powers, or at least identifies their creational status and place under the lordship of God; and praise exposes the idols of our lives" (157). Adoring God above all can sometimes seem empty of the denouncing-of-false-gods aspect, but it is always there. When I open my mouth and my lips announce the Lordship of Jesus, all "Caesars" of the day take a knee alongside me.

So, if worship is not, then, "a private act accomplished by isolated religious persons, but a public celebration that is lived out as a communal form of life" as an alternative political practice, how would prayer be situated within its political dimensions? I mean sure, sometimes church leaders--the Christian Right is famous for this--will pray explicitly political prayers for the purification of the state or the obedience of our leaders to God's will and so forth. But Yong wants to look pass these moments into the more subversive political nature of prayer.

"On the one hand, prayer reflects our casting aside our own schemes, plans, efforts, power, etc., and our reliance upon the power of God; in other words, prayer acknowledges our weakness and dependence on God. But on the other hand, prayer recognizes that our opponents are, scandalously, not only other human beings and institutions, but the principalities and powers, and that therefore the most effective weapons, even in the domains of the social, economics, and political, are spiritual" (157). Prayer, it would seem, as suggested by Yong, has a life outside church walls. Implications? Indeed...

But there is one last element to Yong's (tri) politico-liturgical exposition: exorcism. Though the word may inspire cringing, Yong wants to redeem it (word and practice), carefully coming against Western churches' "disregard of the important ritual function of banishing the powers of darkness" (159). While keeping in mind that for the first 1,000 years of Christian faith a "renunciation of the devil, and in some cases an elaborate rite of exorcism, was part of the liturgy of holy week", Yong offers a dose of imagination stretching. He might ask: "Where have the angels gone?" Following Eric Peterson's lead, Yong wants to attune the church's liturgical imagination to the songs of angels, and help us realize that our worship is never alone, or a merely human affair (Rev. 4 and 5, and Isa. 6). Our worship is participation with angelic songs. "[B]ecause the angels are related to the politico-religious world in heaven, they imbue the liturgy of the Church with a relation to the political realm" (159). And if the angels are watching, then perhaps, also, the principalities and powers.

In addition to opening time and space for rituals of exorcism and saturating our imaginations in the heavenlies, Yong suggests that exorcism can serve the wider public square, having in mind the burning of pagan books in Ephesus (Acts 19:19), Jesus' cleansing of the temple, and "the Catholic Worker Movement in inner-city Philadelphia in response to church and school closings, and by the New York and Northern New Jersey conferences of the United Methodist Church confronting the spirit(s) of Apartheid at the South African consulate in New York City" (160). Obviously, Yong is working with a much broader view of exorcism than some will be used to.

Being a pentecostal, I am finding immense energy in Amos Yong's work toward a constructive pentecostal political theology. I'm only halfway--and I'm reading slowly--so I'll do my best to continue to summarize his unique contributions in each chapter until the end.

January 21, 2013

"My First Contact with the Theory of Nonviolent Resistance"

Reading The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. this month has helped me to appreciate this holiday more than I have in the past. It has been fascinating discovering the early intellectual influences on King's moral vigor. As a fifteen year old, on September 20, 1944 King began his freshman year at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia where he would receive a bachelor of arts degree in sociology on June 8, 1948. It was there King was introduced to Henry David Thoreau and his profoundly impacting essay "On Civil Disobedience".

Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.

I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.

I am perturbed by the question of what this means today, to not cooperate with evil. And yet wherever the answers lead I find inspiration in this man's life. Today we celebrate his 84th birthday.

photo credit: Mike Licht, via photopin cc

January 15, 2013

Town to City

I like to hide. But this is because I don't like attention. Certain kinds of attention, not unlike other people I suppose, freak me out.

Last weekend I travelled to a place I've never been and met people I never thought I would, all for the possibility of work. I'd rather not give much away, since the whole thing, whether I'm being offered the job or not, is still up in the air. I'll say this, though. The town was small, smaller than what I'm used to lately. I have my fair share of years growing up in the boonies, where your closest companions are trees and occasionally wandering animals, but the last several years I've gotten used to concrete and steel, streets and neighborhoods, places where trees are planted every twenty yards in squares of dirt in sidewalks and animals are on leashes. Now, granted, where I went isn't the boonies per se. It's more like a small rodeo town in the middle of nowhere, where long roads connect places over vast land.

I remember thinking to myself immediately while getting off the highway and entering the town, "I don't know if I can do this." It's hard to say for sure what caused my initial fright, but I got ahold of myself and was soon enveloped in my stay. I met some great people, ate Mexican food, where my host knew half the people we saw, introduced myself several times, was asked loads of interesting and surprising questions and delved into fun and constructive conversations. I enjoyed my stay in this small town, and tried to imagine living there for a time.

After eating pizza and conversing for a bit at lunch, I soon realized time had flown by. It was time to say good-bye, possibly not for good. I gathered my things, gave hugs, shook hands, placed my bags in my car and soon left. I had done it. I had done what I set out to do, and with triumph.

On my way back I had a brilliant idea to see a friend who lived three hours from where I was. It was on the way. But the place she situated herself was of significant difference to where I was coming from. After driving alongside slushy snow alongside icy water, my lonely road transformed into a busy concentration of red and white lights, mimicking my veins and blood cells. I felt a rush of excitement and opportunity. I was in the city.

The building was lit, as I could tell from the open windows, as I drove up the parking lot. An Episcopal church is where I was meeting my friend, it's where she goes. Immediately, I thought, "No, no no no, this isn't right." I knew this was the place, but the "Episcopal" I read on the illuminated sign out front didn't correspond to what I was hearing. It was the lyrics and melody of the pop worship song "Give Me Faith." This was surely no typical Episcopal service, if it was one at all. It wasn't, come to find out. My friend's church community only meets there. I walked in and was slammed by this feeling. Shoot, what was it?

I stood at the back of this beautiful sanctuary, the long A-frame kind. Wood, pews, city-dwellers my age. Ah wow! I took a deep breath. The last song was sung and I looked for my friend during the meet-someone-new time. Surprised, I spotted her in the wake of shifting bodies and seemingly-shifty pews. We hugged and she introduced me to her friend. At last, I made it.

This community felt good and right, healthy and real. The preacher got up. He had glasses and wore and blazer. I was seated too far back to make out his facial features. I found myself shallowed up in an exposition of a passage in Hosea of all places. Gosh, I hadn't heard anything from Hosea in years, when a pastor preached in our college chapel reenacting Hosea's life in first person narrative. This word would be almost as memorable as that one.

Later I ate the dinner saved under foil for me. After service and dinner I stood in a hallway and talked poetry with the guy my friend introduced me to. They had worked together. He was thoroughly Portland. Long hair under faded beanie, scruff, scarf and painted nails. He's studying music I think. After, we drove him home and got milkshakes. This trip from small town to big city has highlighted something about myself I hadn't really known before. I like the city. Now, this isn't to say I don't like small towns or the one I came from, only that there is something about a city that, for me, is alluring, something beyond all the interesting people, shops, fashions, flash and ideas. Not like in a small town, in a city I can escape. Dreams of "Making It Big" drawn all kinds of people to cities. Money. Fame. Status. For me, I'd go there to hide.

January 7, 2013

My World in Words in 2012: Year One

A week into 2013 and I thought a flashback, for the purpose of pondering past posts, would prove enjoyable, possibly insightful. One year is the longest I have consistently blogged--and written--so a celebration is in order I do declare. Please come!

Homework, graduation, Kenya, internship and confusing months of wandering, working odd jobs while applying for and being rejected from the ones I wanted all characterized parts of the time allotted 2012. Written from diverse places, here are the ten most read posts (as calculated by my blog) from last year, in order ending with the most read:

Number ten is Share a Meal, Share Your Life: Eating as Bridging, a reflection on eating together. What is it about sharing a meal that is so sacred, so human?

A Writer's Curse was my articulation of writing as pain-in-the-ass. And oh how this was the case here.

Post-Kenya Notebook: What About These Kids? was the third post in a series about my trip to Kenya back in May. There were always a ton of kids during our outdoor ministry meetings, yet it seemed everyone was keen on neglecting them.

I wrote I Know You: An Ethic of Meeting pt. 1 after reflecting on how absurd it is to think you know who someone is even before meeting them.

After getting home from summer camp, I sat down to write about all the mayhem. Oh, there was much! This post, At Camp: Friendship, Innocence and a Moment's Peace, surprised me, and remains one of my favorites from last year.

Another fun one is My Beef with Identity: Abstract Language and Youth Ministry. This was a pain to write. I had mental constipation as these concepts had been swirling around my mind for quite some time after hearing a sermon at a local youth group. And the plan was to write a second part, what should be done when engaging identity, but I never followed through.

Post-Kenya Notebook: Kenyan Pentecostals Put Us to Shame was my first reflection on Kenya after our return to the States. And you thought we were charismatic?

Honestly, I am confused as to why this post was so read. Don't get me wrong, I think this story is very interesting, but I would not have thought it'd pique others' interest: Thinking on Christopher Rollston

The Big Rush: A About Educational Trailblazing was a discovery of my thoughts on friends and peers trucking through higher education, and the second most read.

The most read post of 2012 is absolutely perplexing. Dave the Dishwasher I wrote one night back at school when my friend Ben and I decided, honestly for no good reason, to stay up all night. We did so outside in our school's gazebo. This post was a product of our moon-bathing.

I don't know why some of these posts were so heavily read. So, I'll add a few more of my personal favorites here:

All I could think about while watching the fireworks on July 4th were words to capture such a sight. A couple days later I wrote this: Fire in the Sky

I wish A Medical Clinic and Unclean Exegesis had got more hits. This day at the medical clinic, particularly the conversation with Doctor, was so memorable to me.

Mainly, I just really like the picture in I Know You: An Ethic of Meeting pt. 2. Click to see... and read.

I am appreciative to all who regularly, or occasionally, read the whirling, swirling thoughts I pin down to this blog. Here's to one year of (more or less consistent) blogging and many more to come.