Plagued by the Bible

   Fires in California, flooding in Michigan, tornados in the Midwest, oceans rising, the virus pandemic, the rise of white nationalism: the plagues of Egypt keep coming to mind. A new illness is affecting children, as it was affecting the first-born of Egyptians. It is so tempting to take the Bible stories literally. I have no problem deciding who the Pharaoh is in our time, whose heart was hardened by God. I can decide which sins we are being punished for. Plugging Bible stories into my own personal world-view is very satisfying, and a popular pastime for many. I’m not sure that is how it is supposed to work.

    In this time of Time, I’ve been doing some Bible study. So far I’m not actually reading the Bible, I’m reading books ABOUT the Bible to warm myself up. You can’t be too cautious. Raised Catholic, I was challenged to learn about God without the aid of our most basic book about God. It was the province of the clergy to hand out edited Bible stories piecemeal. My time at UCC Ashfield has convinced me it might be a good idea to go to the primary source. 

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evens was a great place to start. The Peacock’s Tail Feathers: Reading the Bible the Celtic Way by Kenneth McIntosh warmed me up. 

    Earlier I had come to understand the Bible as a memoir of a people and their relationship with their God. This made reading it much more interesting. Evans and McIntosh, (one Protestant, the other Catholic) broadens my view even more: as an ancient book of stories which are still alive.” Alive” is the important word, like the flattering and not-so-flattering stories I’ve heard about my parents, grandparents and their parents. Good or bad, they are a part of me. 

    Culturally, the Bible’s stories are alluded to in books, plays, Hallmark cards, everyday conversation. (Batting away black flies yesterday, I told a neighbor it was the seventh plague. She knew what I was talking about.) Our language embraced the Bible even if I had not.

    So how can I read the Bible during this time when our society is tilting – like an earthquake that just keeps going?

    Looking for insight, I wandered the Google wilderness for a bit.  There it was, the article I’d hoped for:  The 10 Plagues, Bible Fun for Kids. I said a silent prayer of thanks to those nuns who did not try to teach us children the Bible.

    How is Exodus playing out right now? Now, the people who have travelled from a foreign land to work at slave wages are languishing in tent hovels below our southern border. The Bible is being written on the Mexican border right now. How many plagues will it take before God softens our hearts to these people? Oh dear, I’m sounding quite Biblical right now. 

    Exodus is a deliverance story, of yet another chance to get it right.

    Exodus does not tell us how the Egyptians dealt with the effects of their plagues. That would have been helpful. Rather, the story is told by the Israelites who follow Moses into a new land, to get it right. They must have been planning how to grow crops, build homes, start over.  Facing the unknown in 2020, I can see how difficult that is. The Israelites got distracted by golden calves, as have we. But we agreed to follow commandments regarding masks, self-quarantine, loving our neighbors via Zoom, and perhaps even garnering a better understanding of our God. 

    In the 16th century, Ignatius Loyola practiced reading the Bible by putting himself into the stories totally. I put myself into the Exodus story, into the wilderness with my family after our life has been overturned by Moses. Where the hell is this new land anyway? What will it look like? What will people be like? How will we live? Thank you for the manna, Moses, but one unemployment check just won’t do it. I am old, and some want to leave me behind so the others can walk faster toward prosperity. When we arrive, will we all arrive together? Who will be missing? Who am I now? No longer Egyptian, or middle class, I am now with people whose new home will be unfamiliar. What will become of us?

    Rather than answers, or words of wisdom, I’m getting something more. The Exodus story is part of the life of Jews in diaspora, of African-Americans in slavery, of Central Americans seeking a new home. Now, in a very small way, I can enter the story. To put a Buddhist spin on it: I can sit and breathe with the other. What a gift this is.

    In The Peacock’s Tail Feathers McIntosh says, “the Celts did not ponder the Bible as isolated individuals (the rare exceptions being occasional hermits) but in community.” Soon, very soon, we will come together to continue the good work, and accompany each other in exodus. 

Post-Christmas: A Season for Parents

Advent and Christmas: we’ve celebrated Mary’s demand for a just world, Joseph’s support for the pregnant woman he’s not married to, their escape from oppression, the refusal of sanctuary, the birth of Jesus.

Now Jesus is born and living in obscurity with his family. It will be 30 years of his doing we know not what. As the average life-expectancy was 35-45 years, he spent most of his life doing “we-know-not-what.” 

In the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” (as opposed to “The Gospel of Thomas,” different guy), Jesus on occasion killed children who made him angry, just by commanding it. When the bereaved parents complained to Joseph, Jesus struck them blind. Uber-bullying. 

“And, seeing what Jesus did, Joseph rose and took hold of his ear and pulled it hard.” (Th 2:5) 

From this account we may be sure that Joseph and Mary worked long and hard to produce the adult who proclaimed the Sermon on the Mount.  Perhaps we can celebrate this post-Christmas season as “The Season of Parenting.” No doubt the influence of his parents influenced his teachings. Were his parents the ones who took the vengefulness part of God and transform it in the open heart of their child? Unlike God God, Jesus had a mother; was that the secret? How did parents who went through all they went through, deal with a child who acts out? Never mind a supernatural, death wielding one? One thing is for sure: they were two tough, loving, patient, people.

“The Infancy Gospel of Thomas” was not included in the canon, and was decried as heresy. If we want to remember the true humanity of our fore-bearers, I think it is worthy of any parent’s canon. To give them hope, and to encourage them; for some to know that they are not alone in the brattiness of their offspring. The parents of children who are bullied can know that Joseph hears their pain.  

21st century American parenting would look terribly strange to Joseph and Mary, but one truth remains: nurturing a child ain’t easy. Happy Parenting Season!

 

 

“Sometimes I Wonder Which Side God is On.”

The title of this post is from “The Longest Day,” a 1962 movie about D-Day from the points of view of the American army and the German army. During the movie each commander on each side says, “Sometimes I wonder whose side God is on.” Back in 1962, this was a lightbulb-flash moment for me. Everyone thinks God is on their side, even the “bad guys.” I was thirteen.

The lectionary readings for the UCC on July 28 brought this up, once again, in 2019. The first reading was from Hosea, and is one that many of us would rather skip over because God is vengeful, cruel, and misogynist. The second reading is from Luke and Jesus describes God as a father who would care for you no matter what. Reading them together is spiritual whiplash.

Our nation, and Christianity is experiencing a fissure. The U.S. has had fissures since the beginning. Now the fissure is wider because it is now so simplistic. Evil is defined by which political party you belong to, which church you go to. In skimming Biblical commentaries I found a “RedState.something” site. Its headline: Jesus was NOT a Refugee or an Immigrant.  A Huff Post column was headed: Guess What: Jesus was a Refugee. Do these people all read the same New Testament?

Which of God’s sides am I on?

Thanksgiving dinners are no longer long heated debates about issues; they are very short: Who did you vote for? Trump or Hillary? Who is a true Christian? Jerry Falwell or Desmond Tutu. Everything after that is a shouting match.

The motto of the United Church of Christ is “God is still talking.” In which case, the Bible is still being written. What will we write? What stories will we hand down? Which images of God will we bring forth?

How will our nation, our Christianity, ever reconcile and heal? Which teachings of our faith will aid in the healing? [By that I do not mean everyone agrees on everything.] Or do we want our side to “win?” 

Miroslav Volf in his book “Exclusion and Embrace” says he was asked about cetniks, the Serbian guerrilla force who was responsible for atrocities in his native country. Someone asked if he could embrace one of these fighters.

He answered, “Can I embrace a četnik—the ultimate other, so to speak, the evil other? What would justify the embrace? Where would I draw the strength for it? What would it do to my identity as a human being and as a Croat? It took me a while to answer, though I immediately knew what I wanted to say. “No, I cannot—but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.” 

Him and me both.

The New New Testament, 3019 C.E.

If, as the United Church of Christ says, “God is still speaking,” it must also be true that the Bible is still being written. What will be in the New New Testament?

The present Bible was started 3,400 years ago (depending on how you count). It was completed around 90 C.E. or 1,900 years ago. So, it was written over a period of 1,500 years. The specifics are debatable, but you get the picture. A long long time.

I’m thinking ahead about 1,000 years. Should humanity have not committed suicide by then, some scholars may wonder what 20th-21st century Christianity looked like.

The Bible Bible is a wondrous book of tales, contradictory rules, questionable history, sex, ponderings about divinity and humanity, poetry, love, crime, conflict, hope, all seen through the lens of a people’s relationship with their God. So will the next one be.

Logically, the New New Testament (NNT) should begin 90 C.E., when the last one ended, but my current number of brain cells can’t cope. I will start using the method I’m most familiar with: off the top of my head.

Let’s go with the obvious first: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, sections of at least one of his books will be included. 

Marvelous tales: Lewis’ friend, J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings stories would fit in with David and Goliath and the Ark stories. As would A Wrinkle in Time.

No doubt the scholars will come across the Left Behind series, which would not show up in my Bible version, but will no doubt end up in some version.

And whose stories will be told? Dorothy Day via columns from the “Catholic Worker;” Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the work of Reconciliation in South Africa; Simone Weil, creepy but popular; Dietrich Bonhoeffer; MLK, Jr. 

In the Psalms section: Gerard Manley Hopkins. He is 19th century, but I love him and it’s my bible. W.H. Auden, Carolyn Forche, Denise Levertov, David Whyte.

I’d wait another 200 years to see whether Joel Osteen’s writing stands the test of time, or that of Tammy Faye Bakker, or Rick Warren, or Oral Roberts. 

My Books of the Bible are shamefully English-language centered, but that’s what lives at the top of my head.

I suspect that the NNT will not be limited to Christians. The search for the divine is not limited; the People of God are no longer a small group, but an encompassing people. 

I encourage you to create a list of Books/ Stories/ People/ Poems for the NNT. It is an exercise in Seeing Biblically. The world we live in is full of “biblical life,” that is, the stories of how people struggle with the idea of the Divine. The Bible is not dead, but passed along in thousand-year chunks. Future people will learn from us, so let’s think about it now.

Leggo My Jesus!

I was meeting a friend at a coffee shop in a very large bookstore which shall remain unnamed. From afar I saw a bright, shining cloud. I was drawn to it as if I were ascended, only horizontally. There, on the shelf of bibles, was one I had never seen before. Glowing, as if barcoded from heaven: the Lego Bible in a box. The penultimate of American Christian art! A reflection of how devout bad taste can be! And the combo set of Old and New Testaments with moveable figures for only $29.95!

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the many bibles available to Christians now {The New Color-Coded Bibles]: the Green Bible, with lines highlighted in green to show us how often dirt is mentioned; the Justice Bible, highlighted to show that God cares about the poor and oppressed “a lot,” and my then-favorite, the American Patriot’s Bible with George Washington on the cover (let the French write their own damned bible).* But this…..
On the cover, I kid you not, DaVinci’s “The Last Supper” with little Lego people. Awestruck, I knelt before it to look closer. I have looked closely at DaVinci’s version, the faces, the expressions, bodies. I’m sorry, but it does not compare to this version: cube heads, blank expressions, little plastic bodies with somewhat moveable arms, primary colors only. So easy on the eye.

Revelations of biblical scenes appeared before me: Jesus knocking all those money-changers off the table onto the floor where the dog can chew them up, a barbie-sized Goliath smiting a teeny tiny David. Are pebbles supplied for stonings? Or do we have to supply our own? I wondered how they would depict Peter cutting off the Roman soldier’s ear since Lego people have no ears.

Turns out, I am years behind the times. The original version came out in 2001. “The Brick Bible,” as it is called, was pulled off the shelves at Toys-R-Us and Sam’s Club because someone noticed the sex scenes. The Brick Bible includes, you guessed it, graphic Lego sex scenes. (This whole blog was worth writing just to be able to use that phrase.)
The creator, Brendan Powell Smith, was astonished at the censorship. The depictions in his bible were nothing compared to the Bible bible’s sex scenes. Why didn’t they ban the original? I’m not sure how his version ended up on the shelves again. Perhaps the graphic Lego sex scenes were removed.

At the unnamed store, my fingers coveted that Brick Holy Book, that igniter of imagination, that simplifier of all things miraculous, the pure Americanism of it, the graphic Lego sex scenes in it, but I resisted. However, Christmas is only eleven months away… (a hint for those who have ears to…. oh, never mind).

>https://religion-sightunseen.com/2011/09/17/the-new-color-coded-bibles-just-for-you/

The Bible is a memoir

“If you want to understand people, ask for their stories. Listen long enough and you learn not only the events of their lives, but their sources of meaning, what they value, what they most want.”

-Sarah van Gelder (Yes! magazine)

In September, Belding Memorial Library (MA) offered a 4 week memoir writing class taught by Jane Roy Brown. Each week six of us, and Jane, sat in the childrens’ section of the library around a knee-high table learning how to write our lives.

Sitting in the library’s childrens’ section helped conjure up some memories. Long ago I sat in a big, puffy red naugahyde chair and started to read the Bible. I don’t remember my age, but my feet did not reach the hassock. That was when I first learned, to my amazement, that Jesus was not a Christian. It took me a few moments to figure out why.

Unlike autobiography (“Just the facts, m’am”), memoir is personal recollection. Fact matters, but story matters more. Writing style matters, but narrator’s voice matters more. Thoreau could have written his autobiography, but instead he wrote “Walden: Or Life in the Woods,” one of the best known and most influential memoirs written.

When I started the class, I assumed I’d write about the exciting parts of my life: checking for a bomb under Betty Williams’ car, rolling under a car to avoid being trampled by mounted police, getting arrested in front of the White House, keeping house at Gampo Abbey, etc. When I sat down to write, the first thing I remembered was how one of my aunts would sleep on a couch in her living room with the television on.  As  I told the story, I watched my family’s interactions, rhythms, oddities. After fifty years, the story still lived in me.

Autobiography: I was arrested with Quakers in 1971 in front of the White House. Memoir: My family is a rich jungle of attitudes, beliefs, history, secrets, love, anger, which somehow led to this particular young woman being arrested in front of the White House.

Autobiographies, says reviewer Jennie Yabroff, “… were useful for students of history, and, occasionally, were even readable.”  Students of history find that using the Bible to track down historical events is somewhat hit-or-miss. Precise geography, accurate time-lines, detailed descriptions are secondary to the main purpose: telling the personal, meaningful stories of the Jewish people and their relationship with God. The Bible is memoir.

Our spiritual ancestors are sharing “not only the events of their lives, but their sources of meaning, what they value, what they most want.”

God’s Opinion on Everything (for Dummies)

 

God has proved himself (herself) very clumsy and a bit vague on what his (her) opinions are, including whether he or she is he or she. On topics as varied as abortion, capitalism, the environment, child-rearing, Occupy Wall Street, women, yoga, apocalypse, same-sex anything, God sends confusing and contradictory rules and regulations.  What kind of God is that?

God (let’s go with “He”) tried to narrow things down with Ten Commandments, but that doesn’t seem to help much. What exactly does “covet” mean anyway? He probably thought “Thou shalt not kill” fairly straightforward. But translations (“kill”? or “murder”?) and a wealth of interpretations (i.e. “Just War Theories”) muddied the issue. I imagine Him banging His head on His desk.

Maybe the problem is the language He chose. What Christians call the Old Testament was written in Hebrew with a little Aramaic thrown in. Other than a few Yiddish phrases, I’m at the mercy of translators. “Oy vey” doesn’t appear often in Scripture.

Leviticus offers a wealth of mysterious commandments. “You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed.” So much for companion planting. Carrots are forbidden to lie with tomatoes. But Leviticus is too easy a target. Any book with instructions on exactly how a man should sell his daughter just isn’t going to hold any father’s respect. Except perhaps when she’s in her teens.

After God’s done banging His head on His desk, I imagine Him calling in His Leviticus scribe, “What the hell were you thinking? Who cares if a coat has two fabrics?” By then it was too late. Humans had already taken it as the word of the God – the God of mysterious ways.

I love that the slogan describing the UCC` faith comes from Gracie Allen: “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.” Those of us struggling to hear God’s voice can take another cue from Gracie when she was channeling God:  “Try to understand me. Nothing is impossible.”

Apocalypse Averted!

Reality check: This is 2013, almost 2014 right? U.S.A., right? Every citizen of a certain age can vote, right? An African-American is governor of our state of Massachusetts.  A man with an African father is President. I’ve worked side by side with African -, Latino-, Asian – Americans over the past decades. All true.

So explain to me how high schools in Georgia had their FIRST integrated senior prom this April. Only because a small (integrated) group of students decided segregation is wrong. Up until April 2013,  they had a “black prom” and a “white prom.” Is Georgia kidding?  This year a number of seniors decided to take matters into their own hands and organized their own integrated senior prom. Georgia governor Nathan Deal refused to endorse it.

Recently I heard Julian Bond say that Barak Obama has had more death threats than any president in U.S. history. I had somehow believed that things had gotten better than when I was a kid.

This is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tracy Chapman’s first album. As I listened to her songs this week I realized that they are as true now as they were a quarter century ago. From her song “Why?”: “Why do the babies starve/ When there’s enough food to feed the world?… Why is a woman still not safe/ When she’s in her home?”  From “Revolution”:  “While they’re standing in the welfare lines / Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation / Wasting time in the unemployment lines … Finally the tables are starting to turn /Talkin’ bout a revolution….” Twenty-five years ago I was so hopeful. But now listening to her songs, I started down the slippery slope to apocalyptic thinking. What happened to that revolution? Humans are on an irreversible downward spiral.

Apocalyptic thinking is popular now, as it was in medieval Europe. The world is so bad, goes the story, it’s got to be destroyed before the Kingdom of God can descend on those who are worthy. What are the signs of the End Time? For conservatives, that means same-sex marriage; for liberals, cutting aid for the poor. Still, the “doomed world” view is the same no matter our political / moral opinions.

Apocalyptic thinking, that is, pessimism and helplessness coupled with an us-them view of humanity, is the poison of faith. And I admit, pessimism often lurks beneath my breast.

Given everything, should I be this discouraged? The Georgia high school seniors received support from Korea, Japan and France. DJ’s offered their services for free; others donated lights for the dance. Their school board stated that in the future all events at the school will be integrated. Tracy Chapman was right all along. They did not stand for injustice.

Teilhard de Chardin,  a Jesuit scientist, concluded that humanity is evolving  along a moral, spiritual path.  I realized this week that my faith is based on that premise, though sometimes events seem to indicate the opposite is true.

Apocalyptic faith is an excuse to not act, but to judge. It takes creating a Kingdom of God out of our hands and delegates action into the hands of a God of destruction.

Alternatively, people are developing de Chardin’s vision of humanity. From the American Teilhard Association:  “…developing fresh perspectives on “Teilhard de Chardin’s remarkable evolutionary vision, often in ways that directly relate to an ecologically and spiritually sustainable Earth community.”

De Chardin said, “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

Reality check: Tracy and Teilhard are right. Thank- you,  Georgia students Quanesha Wallace, Keela Bloodworth,  Mareshia Rucker, Stephanie Sinnot.

Auditions for the Voice of God

In an attempt to help my ESOL students master the pronunciation of the past tense, I explain the difference between “voiced” and “unvoiced” sounds. I put my hand on my throat to show them how to feel for the vibrations. I will carry the looks on their faces forever. I think I can sum up the look  as: “You English speakers are weird.” Which is, of course, true.

.

Which brings me to the Bible. When I was a child I thought God spoke a special God-language, similar to English, but using words like “Thou,” and “Thee” and “Hail” and Shalt,” and that most intriguing of Biblical words: “begot.” Jesus certainly spoke that way. When I was in college, The Good News for Modern Man was published, revealing that Jesus spoke in language as cool as yours and mine. I admit to a vague disappointment.

.

During the “English-Only” in schools debate, Ma Ferguson, governor of Texas, was reputed to have said, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” Which brings up the disturbing audio image of Jesus speaking with a Texas accent. Everyone knows he spoke with a New York accent; I heard it myself every Sunday.

.

Mark Roberts of Beliefnet.com says: …I do think the language of Jesus matters. Knowing which language or languages Jesus spoke helps us understand his teaching with greater accuracy. Moreover, it reminds us of one salient fact that almost everyone affirms: Jesus did not speak English. [Note: almost everyone.]

.

Fine, but what did it sound like?

.

Jews and Hindus regard the sound of words as sacred, or more sacred, than the meaning. The sound of the word is the life of the word. After chanting a Hindi chant, the worshiper apologizes to God for any mispronunciation.

.

Our chance to hear Jesus or Isaiah is long gone. We must make due with the written word. A poor substitute for hearing, but we work with what we’ve got.

.

For audio Bibles, James Earl Jones is by far the most popular God-voice. His voice is deep, rich and resonant, with a Mid-West accent. Cary Grant just wouldn’t cut it. Claire Bloom does the voice-over for the Old Testament for BBC. Her English pronunciation is impeccable, but strangely detached.

.

For other female voices, I vote for either Emma Thompson or Maya Angelou. Should the Bible be read with a crisp, open voice, with subtle intonations and all the t’s distinct, a la Thompson? Or the lower, smoother, melodious voice of Angelou? How differently we would hear the words.

.

Which would you take more seriously:

Jones intoning the King James version: “Thou Shalt Not Kill” or

Thompson reading a modern translation: “Don’t murder anyone” ?

What about, “He maketh me lie down in green pastures…” I’d prefer Thompson with her controlled emotion savoring the poetry…Wait a minute. Am I doing auditions for the voice of God?

.

Did Jesus pronounce his t’s (or the Aramaic equivalent)? Was his voice high or low, smooth or crisp? What were the intonations? Was his voice fire-and-brimstone or gentle, sarcastic or straight-forward? Was he smothering a laugh when he said some things? Did his voice crack with grief? All of the above? How do we know? We don’t.

.

Years ago, my cousin was struggling with mental illness. On his closet door he had a sketch of Jesus with his head thrown back, laughing. Now that’s a laugh I’d like to have heard. I’ll have to settle for listening for it in the laughter I hear around me.

.

For me, the most memorable sentence in the New Testament is, “Jesus wept.” No words spoken, no “Thou” or “Thee” or “Thine,” no Texas or New York accent. Jesus wept.

.

Maybe it’s the coming Christmas season, but if you ask me, God speaks in words of the King James Bible with an 18th century British accent and Handel’s music as score. The voiced sounds of “Messiah” fill us with joy and sorrow and calls for justice. After the last note, we are left in the unvoiced silence of God’s true voice.

Struck by Lightning

creation-museum

This week a headline caught my attention: “Lightning Strikes Creation Museum During Kentucky Storm.” How ironic is that? The American Atheist Convention goes off without a hitch and the Creation Museum gets hit with lightning. Like a comic book made in heaven just for me. “Atheist churches” have opened across the U.S., apparently ignorant of the meaning of the word “church”: originally from kyriakon, Lord’s house.  It’s like they have “Irony” tattooed on their foreheads. “Creationist scientists”  limit science to Genesis 1 – 11, blissfully dissing the “scientific method.” My mind is spinning with the juxtapositions. Like a spiritual whirly-gig. 
Behind my enjoyment is, of course, the conviction that these people, atheists and creationists, are all very peculiar and I am quite normal in my approach to God (or not-God).
An astrophysicist once said, “We can’t really prove that Venus is not carried around the sun on the back of an angel.”  What a refreshingly quirky observation. Einstein said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Fairy tales? How can Einstein insult our intelligence like that? And a physicist admitting he can’t PROVE there are no angels spinning us around in the solar system?  These are two great examples of science and myth walking happily down the road hand-in-hand.
We humans, however, lust after certainty, any certainty. We’ll grab at one like a merry-go-round brass ring. Zen Buddhism is harshly honest about certainty: “Forget about it! Nothing is certain.”  No brass ring. Which sounds decidedly uninviting.
Learning about the world from myth and from science and from literature and from people and from cooking Delicota squash and from the pain in my piriformis muscle, is more confusing and much richer than pinning down the nature of God (or not-God). So where does religion fit in? An atheist recently wrote an article called, “Can atheist churches make unbelievers nicer?” I’m inspired to write one called, “Can churches make believers nicer?”
On August 25th, another headline caught my eye:  “Pope Francis to Atheists: ‘Just Do Good’.” No argument there.