Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The DaVinci Cold

I am getting to the point where I sneeze and cough every time I hear "Da Vinci"... allergies begin with overexposure, I am told.

Still, this needs to be said: the only upsetting thing about Dan Brown's beach-reading page-turner is that it is upsetting anyone. False teaching? Well, maybe. More like nonsense to anyone with a rudimentary understanding of the New Testament and early Christianity. But nonsense is a staple of fiction--believable enough to be interesting, but not believable enough to be unsettling. And to those who want to believe the Church is evil, well, this proves it, huh? But only to those predisposed.

But isn't Dan Brown in a great position? He can fire-off whatever half-baked criticisms he has and if anyone challenges him he says, "Hey, it's a novel!" Nice.

Oh, and I understand he read thirty-nine books while researching. THIRTY-NINE... why, that hardly makes a good freshman theme, much less a scholarly credential.

I do think it interesting the similarity between The Da Vinci Code and The Left Behind Series: that there are secrets which a few know, but only a few, lest someone reveal them to you. That, my friends, is classic Gnosticism (see the most The Christian Century for more on this withering insight).

On Faith and Language

Further reflections on the Writing as Pastoral and Spiritual Practice seminar:

I survived my time of scrutiny, but barely. Actually, it went much better than it might have given the tone and tenor of comments made there throughout the week. I speak the language of Zion, and around me are many who while retaining their orders and their pulpits are not themselves, so far as I can see, nourished by the worship life of the church or the liturgy or even the gospel. I have heard Gary Wills say something to the effect that much professional theological scholarship is a clever attempt to say Jesus didn’t really mean it. He, meaning Wills, encouraged us to read the text as is. Having said that, of course, he went on to dismiss the doctrine of Hell in the same way we have dismissed the supposed biblical justifications for slavery which were ascendant in the 17th and 18th centuries. Or, though he did not mention it, the exclusion from ordination of women based on the gender-valued patriarchy of the scriptures.

I would say that some of what is going on here is the same… a clever, erudite, sophisticated attempt to reinvent or reimagine or reconfigure the language in such a way that it does not mean anymore what it says. Or something. I have gone to lengths this week to argue, and especially with Tracey and Rochelle, that just because the application of a text is bad, that does not mean the text itself is bad. Just because patriarchy has been used against women does not mean that “Father” is immaterial to the New Testament understanding of God.

I finally said today, “I understand and well that there are times when invoking God as Father may be problematic or oppressive; I guess I want to know if there is ever a time when that term does more than make you quit listening.” I did not say it that harshly and I do not think they took offense. It is a genuine problem.

Rochelle was more nettlesome, though not so much to me. She actually blessed my prose in places, though she took issue with the abundance of biblical and scriptural words with which I salt my writing. She was fairly condescending, though, to one of our colleagues who was writing about the various historical Atonement theories, dismissing him with the wave of a hand: “It would help you to read Proverbs of Ashes which explores how traditional theories of the Atonement are irrelevant at best and oppressive at worst…” (and wherein, I must say, "sacrifice" and "victimization" are hopelessly and uncritically confused and admittedly tragic personal experience always trumps the various traditions and best understandings of doctrine). "It would help you to read…” As if he is unschooled or unaware. Maybe he and I are just the ignorant old bald guys in the group, the Neanderthals, the symbols of what is wrong with the church.

But what is interesting is that in the name of inclusion those of us in the “center” and not on the edge are marginalized as the edge becomes the center. I guess this theological solstice helps me to understand a bit better how these and other women have felt for a very long time, and also some of the battles to be heard they have had to fight through the years. I think, though, that the abiding irony escapes them—there is a sense in which they are now the power-brokers, the magisterium, the truth-tellers and guys like Michael and I are consequently silenced.

I am sure that is an overstatement and unfair.

I did manage to speak a word to the wonder of John Baillie’s prayer language--which is also featured in my writing here and there, to many as unintelligible as glossolalia and to me just as miraculous, which saved my life, in fact. I said all of that when another participant opined that my prose seemed forced and affected and stilted with Elizabethan biblicisms. The word Byzantine was used in there somewhere, too. I told the group that it was the power of the rhetoric itself which helped me think of something old in a different way, that helped me learn to pray. Lauren said that for the last ten years the mode of spiritual memoir has been that of a fellow pilgrim, but that she felt like we needed someone at least to teach us, at least sometimes. I am sure she was not talking about me, of course, but I felt a bit of vindication.

I heard Michael Wyatt again, and managed to have some conversation with him afterwards for almost half an hour. I really like him. He is the priest who presided at Tuesday morning Eucharist. Anyway, we talked about the conference, my frustration with the segregated nature of it and the fact that we are not really talking about spiritual practice or formation but only about craft and publishing (important, of course, but there should be some room for the other given the fact that that is what it is called!). I told him I could see a program built around Writing as Prayer: Writing as Confession, as Praise, as Intercession, as Petition and Thanksgiving. He seemed to like the idea a lot and thought that he might mention to Bill our doing something along that line in the next couple of days. I told him of my book, he was interested and so I gave him one of the sample chapters (in which I today found three typos!). I also gave a copy to all my colleagues, for better or worse.

I do need to explore this sense of not fitting. I did not fit as a Baptist--was in many ways too liberal and liturgical. Now, I do not seem to fit as a United Methodist--am in many ways too conservative and too biblical, too evangelical (it coule be argued that Wesley himself would no longer fit in our church, but that may be self-congratulatory). I only mean that I do not seem to fit with, nor can I echo, the prevailing voices of the church right now, or at least the voices that prevail around the table in our seminar. I am too emotional, too pious, too churcy, too Byzantine, whatever. I don’t seem to fit anywhere. I only hope I am fit for the kingdom.

At dinner the last night, Lauren said that the hour when my material was considered was the most uncomfortable hour in the week as far as she was concerned. I suggested the irony that in the name of inclusivisity Michael and I had been excluded because of our traditional understandings and appreciations of the faith. I suggested that while there were many at the table who were running as hard as they could away from the language and heritage of faith, I was one who was trying to learn more of it and immerse myself more deeply in it. I told her that I was the only one, as near as I could tell, who was told their writing was off-putting--and that from a writer who said she had the "beauty of the whole universe flowing in her heart"!

Anyway, that conversation proved quite cathartic—I had to leave the table, crying—but I also mentioned how powerful Evensong was for me just before dinner, when the Gospel reading said, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this evil and adulterous generation, of them will I also be ashamed.” I am not ashamed of the word Father, or Lord, or King or kingdom, because those are Jesus’ words! I do not want to be condescending or elitist, but I am not ashamed of the traditional language. I am not ashamed of Jesus or his words in this confused and "tolerant" (!) generation. Luther started a Reformation not because he hated the church but because he loved it, felt it was in error. That is different, I think, than saying the church is erroneous.

Evensong, dinner, where Lauren told me she had agreed to blurb my first book. She is also very interested in my second book, and I think her comments tonight will help me frame my proposal. After dinner we had an informal conversation in one of the lounges where Lauren took on one of the women who had been unkind to me. I do not think she did it for any reason—she wasn’t trying to hold my hand or anything—but she did say earlier that she had been more in agreement with me than with my critics and I think she just wanted to stake-out her own territory.

In Memoriam: Kathy Stephenson

I just heard from Jacob that Kathy Stephenson died this morning about two. God rest her weary, weary soul. God raise her up on the Last Day. God bless Rick and Karmen and Kandace. God bless Jacob, my poor son, in his grief. God bless Pam and Stephanie Huggins. God bless Jimmy and the youth group. God bless MUMC and Cam and all who are touched by her passing, as indeed all of us are touched by every passing whether we realize it or not.

Jacob sent me an email: don’t be alarmed, but of course I was. I am fine, he said, but of course he wasn’t. He is torn up. Mom is fine, everything is fine (he didn’t mention Bethany and so naturally my mind went there immediately, but he was panicked, grief-stricken, broken hearted and unable to reach me as I had left my phone in the room). I was getting ready to send this e-diary to him and Jo and Bethany when I got his brief, urgent, cryptic: I need to talk to you right now. I ran to the room, got the phone, called, heard his tears and his plea. “They really want you to do the funeral,” he said. Might there be a way for me to leave early, for him and Jo to come get me, because “Saturday is too late for the funeral.”

I know that Jacob, too, really wants me to do this funeral, but I cannot—and honestly do not want to—leave this conference early. That is not selfishness on my part, I do not believe; just the acknowledgment that I need to be here right now, doing this thing that I feel called right now to do—this thing that seems such a gift from God to me—and that I may never have this time, this opportunity, again. I remember that when the sisters sent word to Jesus to come, that Lazarus was sick and dying, he did not go right away. He went, but later. I will go, too—though I be helpless before Kathy’s dying—and some may be aggrieved at my tardiness, fuss at me a little. I hope not. I don’t really think they will.

Still, it is the abiding paradox: how to care for oneself and others, how to love your neighbor as yourself, but love yourself enough to be able to love and not resent the needs of your neighbor. I loved Kathy, wrote about her in my book. I grieve her passing. I could be there if I would, I guess, but for the next few days this is my place. This is my call and my work. This is my job and my joy.

May Kathy and I both rest in peace. And Jacob. Rick, Karmen and Kandace, too.

ediary: Writing as Spiritual Practice

Recently I attended a writing conference in Washington. It was clear very early on that there were many agendas around the table, many angry or rebellious voices, and folk who one way or the other are “past” church or doctrines or creeds, running as hard they can away from, working hard as they can to get out of the tradition, while I, and perhaps a few others, are seeking to go deeper, get closer.

One woman, Dean of an Episcopal Cathedral, went to great lengths to talk about how she is excising sections of the Gospel she finds offensive, is changing the Palm and Passion Sunday liturgy because it is anti-Semitic, she says, and because she considers it all too Triumphalist. I understand what she means but on the second night at supper, after about another 15 minutes of her condescending justifications, I took a chance and questioned her as to why it is that all other religious traditions are encouraged to tell their story in all its particularity and even its ugliness--calling out names as they go with regard to crusades and missionaries and such--but we Christians are shushed in corresponding proportion.

It actually led to decent discussion and I was gratified that Lauren Winner more or less agreed with me. She did say that she thought it important to repudiate, and immediately, how such scriptures have been used to foster anti-Semitism, etc., but she agreed with me (I think) that to excise portions of canon is presumptuous at the very least, and also that to name Caiaphas or Annas or THAT council at that time is not the same thing as saying ALL Jews are Christ-killers or anything heinous and ugly as that.

We have to be free to tell our story, too, it seems to me, or we cease to be a people of the Story.

Between the afternoon session and dinner I went to the Cathedral proper, into the Great Choir, for Evensong. I was absolutely amazed, blessed, astounded, humbled. The men’s choir of the Cathedral sang and chanted. Very gothic. Very cool in the enormous vaulted granite worship area, and yet in the Great Choir it almost felt cozy. We sat in rows facing each other across the terrazzo. It felt like heaven to me, really, or what I can imagine heaven might for someone like me be (perhaps that image is not such a blessing to everyone): those measured, melodic, harmonic voices singing ancient praise to God, a slight echo off the High Altar whose gold cross was draped entirely with purple something. All the crosses in the Cathedral were draped just so.

I was in tears much of the time. The windows, the architecture—I think I must have lived in the medieval period in another life. There is something about all of that that just speaks to me.
(The College, too, is so interesting in its architecture—is it Gothic? Baroque?—and its accouterments: all these famous Anglcan divines with their huge collars, prominent chins and tiny hands. All the people who work here, all the pictures on the wall, are so easily recognized as Anglican. Tall, sophisticated, noble in carriage, erudite.)

The organist for Evensong was, as you would expect, extraordinary—but very restrained. That is an important word here, or at least important to me as I reflect on this experience and my context—restrained. Liturgy restrains and writing restrains and faith restrains—they all liberate, of course, and amazingly so, but they also restrain.

That is a blessing, I am convinced, for God too is restrained and so some measure of restraint takes a part in the nature of God. Who could stand God’s unmitigated presence?

I found myself praying, once again, as John Chrysostom prayed,

“Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us, granting us in this world knowledge of your truth and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.”

Eucharist in Bethlehem Chapel. We got off to an inauspicious beginning when somebody unseen from somewhere behind the altar dropped something BIG—something aluminum, maybe, which clattered till it sizzled, like an unending cymbal. Even during the service there was clatter, footsteps, hammering, maybe, a staccato interlude now and then throughout. And still…

It was amazing. Michael Wyatt, who is Canon Theologian of the Cathedral, was the celebrant. Watching him as he performed the Eucharistic Rite was almost enough to make me want to be Episcopalian. It was beautiful to watch. Just beautiful. But I was already impressed. In his brief meditation he spoke about two of the “healing” stories in John, the first that of the lame man at the pool of Bethzatha (John 5) and the second the healing of the man born blind (John 9). Of the first, he said, while it is a healing it is simultaneously a picture of each of us who are forever ready to abdicate responsibility for ourselves. “Do you want to be well?” Jesus asks the lame man. “I have no one to put me in the water,” the man replies. Jesus heals him, tells him to take up his mat and go his way. When the Jewish leaders confront him about carrying his mat on the Sabbath, the man replies, “The man who made me well told me to do it.” When they ask him who, he said, “I don’t know.” And then, later, when he discovered Jesus’ name, he went and told the Jewish authorities, betraying his healing, unable to claim the implicit invitation, never taking responsibility. God’s grace is deeper even that that, Canon Wyatt said, even when we abdicate, when we choose to remain ignorant, when we curse our blessing (not his words, but close).

The man born blind, on the other hand, knows himself: I was blind and now I see. He knows it so well he can claim his new identity on account of Christ and testify to it. People around him are not sure whether he is, still, who they thought he was—even his parents are paralyzed and confused—but he speaks for himself and teaches the teachers of the law. They say, “This man was born in utter sin.” The man says, “Well here is something unknown from the foundations of the world, a sinner who restores sight to the blind.” Claiming his healing, his identity in Christ, gives him courage and wisdom, light and life, sight and sense. The whole homily lasted maybe five minutes. It was wonderful!

And then he did the Eucharistic Prayer. It was beautiful, a holy dance, full of gesture and symbol and meaning. I just wanted to watch him do it again. Upon leaving Bethlehem chapel I saw robins flying around the tops of the columns. That, last night’s Evensong, this morning’s Eucharistic prayer and meditation, and wonder of this week made me think immediately of Psalm 84:

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
My heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for her young,
At your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.Happy are those whose strength is in you…

Thomas--that is my name

I was recently in Washington for a writers' conference. There is much to say about that, and I will share a couple of insights... but first, this: I was in Lauren Winner's small group and she had us do an exercise, ten minutes, on our names. For better or worse, this is what Iwrote:

Thomas—for the doubter, twin sons of different mothers, different times. My grandfather was a Tom, too, a railroad engineer, always between places, with a powerful engine beneath him but governed by uncompromising tracks. A boozer, probably; a philanderer, I’ve heard. Made his peace with Jesus before he died, the cancer an open sore and putrid, a sweet aroma to God.

Ray—for my dad. Just Ray. Thank God not Lassister, which was his given name and pronounced Lassiter, but even at that not his legal name. Born at home, his mother, Mama Steagald, sent the neighbor girl with news of his birth to the courthouse, there to register her newborn pup, the last of the litter, sixth of six. The girl wrote “Raymond Ovis” on the birth certificate, after her boyfriend at the time. Dad never knew who he was, not till he was drafted into WWII. The Army pulled him aside: “Raymond Ovis?” strong-armed him when he didn’t answer to what he didn’t know was on his paper. He had to pay, hire and lawyer and pay, hire a lawyer and go to court and pay to have it put back right.

Steagald—it is pronounced STEE-gald, and when people get it wrong, the telemarketers and parishioners, my students and my bishop, I feel wrong. Like they know better than I. Like I don’t know who I am. Like I don’t know what to believe. Like Thomas. Like Ray. Like all the Steagalds.