Sunday, April 26, 2015

On Grace: A Sermon

Methodist support for North Carolina's 2012 ballot measure banning recognition of all forms of marriage--including domestic partnerships--other than one man and one woman.

There are times I wish I could reverse my baptism.

Yesterday I was out running errands in the Tanasbourne district. I was stopped at the traffic signal at Evergreen and 185th when two sign-wavers caught my eye. One was promoting the opening of a new restaurant. The other was promoting Jesus. I couldn't get a good look at the sign--I think it was something about him dying for sinners, evangelical boilerplate--though I did glimpse the words "Grace Bible Church" on the bottom of the sign. Turning onto 185th, I saw two more sign-wavers on the opposite corner. I couldn't make out what one of the signs said, but the other was clearly visible, and worded so effectively I was able to hold the entire text in my memory until I came to a stop light where I could enter it as a note in my phone:
Man doesn't define marriage
GOD defines marriage
And just like that, I knew what I would be writing the next time I sat down to blog.

I don't know what led these demonstrators to appear in Tanasbourne on a sunny April morning, though with the help of Beaverton Grace Bible Church's website, I have some ideas. There are comments about Oregon's new governor, an out bisexual woman; sermon titles like "The Homosexual Litmus Test" and "The Abomination of Desolation"; and the declaration that the church is "Christ-centered and Bible-driven." Googling the church also brings up news stories about how, after an excommunicated former member had the nerve to blog about her experience, the pastor accused her of libel and sued her for a half a million dollars. He lost.

Clearly, this church defines "grace" differently than I do.

I was taught in seminary that "grace" is the free gift of salvation, regardless of anything I've done or not done, by a loving God whose sole desire is to bring all the prodigals home. This definition is actually implicit in some of what Beaverton Grace Bible Church posts on its website. I suppose the argument could be made that true grace comes from God, which then frees up God's followers to be exclusionary, spiteful, and vindictive.

In other Christian homophobia news, the Sweet Cakes saga continues. The Gresham baker ordered in 2013 to pay a lesbian couple $135,000 for refusing their business has now found itself shunned by GoFundMe, the crowd-sourced charity web site Aaron and Melissa Klein were using to raise the money. GoFundMe, like the state of Oregon, has a non-discrimination policy, and being no more godlike than the state Bureau of Labor and Industries--or Grace Bible Church, for that matter--chose not to extend grace to the Kleins. Next step: call on Franklin Graham, heir to the Billy Graham evangelical dynasty, who is raising money for the Kleins through his charity, the Samaritan's Purse, and its "Persecuted Christians USA" fund.

At this point in the blog, my mind is blazing with thoughts and opinions. I want to go after the "Bible-driven" Christians who project their own bigotry on an ancient book that says nothing--NOTHING--about marriage as we understand it today. I want to wring my hands over the irony of "Christ-centered" Christians who refuse to bake a cake--A CAKE--for a couple celebrating their commitment to each other. I also want to shake my head at that couple, because really, of all the bakeries in Portland, you had to pick that one, and that cake they wouldn't bake is worth $135,000? And seriously, being held accountable for breaking a non-discrimination law is "persecution"? In the words of 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy, "Good God, Lemon!"

There's just too much to write, and while all of it might be good, I've said most of it before, and nobody that needs to read it will, so rather than repeat myself before a non-existent audience, I'm going to go back to grace, which is really the loveliest doctrine in the Christian canon.

It's grace, not love, that means never having to say you're sorry. There's a reason grace is best ascribed to God: we humans have a terrible time extending it. The best witness Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman, the couple owed $135,000 by Sweet Cakes, could make would be to forgive the Kleins their debt. The best way for Grace Bible Church to get some gay people into its pews to hear the gospel is to stick to the first sign ("Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners") and lose the other one ("GOD defines marriage"). The best way for Devon Park United Methodist Church (see the photo at the top of the page) to defend marriage is to focus on the third party in its definition--God--and, in grace, realize that gender is not the same thing as love. And the best way for Franklin Graham's charity to live up to its name is to remember that, in the parable, the Samaritan extends grace to someone who has persecuted him for being different. (Luke 10:25-37)

That's what I'd preach, if I could get all these people together in a church with open hearts and ears. I'd preach grace and forgiveness, qualities I know from personal experience are incredibly hard for humans to manifest, but without which we will continue to spin our conflictual wheels for generations to come over an issue that should be as empty of meaning as a Sweet Cakes confection is of nutritional value. What we do between the sheets is such a small part of who we are (quite literally, in many cases) that, were we to be true to our professions of faith and philosophy, we'd readily admit that what counts most in the eyes of whatever higher power we claim allegiance to is whether we treat each other not with judgment but with grace.

The Bible says, in its very first chapters (Genesis 1-2), that we're made in the image of God, and that it's not good for us to be alone. How much more Christ-centered and Bible-driven could we be than to embrace grace for ourselves and each other?

Can I hear an "Amen"?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Church of the Here and Now

An ancient juniper at Oregon Badlands Wilderness.

This is my third post in a row that has the word "church" in its title.

I've been wrestling with religion for most of my life. Faith never came easily for me--and, as it turned out, it didn't come the hard way, either. I tried for years to follow the advice Peter Boehler, a friend of John Wesley, gave him during one of his own many crises of faith: "Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith." I tried, and failed: the faith that is Methodism and, much more than that, Christianity, simply would not take root in me.

And yet, even as the faith I strained to possess eluded my grasp, I found myself experiencing a gradual warming of the heart from unexpected sources: mountaintops, finish lines, friendships, concerts, novels, workouts, intimate moments. It took me three decades of such epiphanies to put them all together and realize just what I was being told by them: let go of yesterday, let go of tomorrow, just be present in this moment, this place, and let all those other things take care of themselves.

It's a radical call to one as immersed as I was in heilsgeschichte, the thoroughly Judeo-Christian idea that God has been at work throughout the history of the universe, and will continue to work until its end, to bring all things to shalom, the peace that comes from being made whole. When I was first exposed to this idea during my first week of seminary, I was enthused by it. I've always been intrigued by historical trends and efforts to make sense of them, as Isaac Asimov did in his Foundation series. Salvation History posits that God's purpose is working itself out across the generations so that, while we may have glimpses and inklings of what Creation is becoming, we can never know its full wonder. Many of my momentary epiphanies felt to me like sneak peeks at the Kingdom, and I liked feeling a part of the great movement of history toward ultimate apotheosis.

Unfortunately, my overall experience of history, both personally and globally, ran counter to this sense of ultimate meaning. Yes, I could see the gradual expansion of civil rights as an evolution of human consciousness toward a transcendent identity, a full embrace of the divine image in which all people are made; and yet, I could not ignore the prevalence of chaos in every era, the miserable constant of genocide, the sense that every generation has to relearn far too many lessons for progress to be anything more than a shift in perception. Should we find ourselves in another medieval period thanks to some terrible interplay of climate change, population pressures, and depleted resources, much of that progress may simply evaporate. If it does, it'll be far from the first time humanity has risen to some peak of civilization, only to have to relearn all the lessons that got it there.

I've seen this in my own life, especially as I've put it in the context of adult development and, more recently, child development. I've seen that every human has to learn some lessons the hard way, that no amount of teaching by a wise adult can be a shortcut around the school of experience, and that, at every age, we keep going through the same archetypal experiences as our ancestors. My crises of parenting, marriage, and career are of a kind with those of my peers, and I see them being played out all over again by the next generation of parents as their children--my students--reenact everything that my children went through, and that I remember going through myself when I was a child. Everything old is new again, and yet there is nothing new under the sun.

All of this calls into question the whole notion of human progress, whether materialistic or divinely ordained, and of imposing any structure of meaning on history. More than that, it highlights the wisdom of the tao, of being present in this very moment, experiencing the balance of all things, positive and negative, savoring all stimuli, and living a life of successive moments. I've lost a lot of sleep to regrets and worries, railing against the injustices in my past, fretting over what will become of me and the people I love. How much better it is to let oneself be fully present in the experience of resting, breathing, passing from wakefulness to slumber.

Meditating on all those small epiphanies I alluded to earlier, I see that they have one commonality: what made each special was the moment in which it took place. Breathing the sweet pine fragrance of a Cascadian peak, wringing out the last calorie in my system to cross a finish line after more than four hours of running, sensing the full presence of my lover as our eyes lock, savoring a mouthful of tart saison, delighting in the wide-eyed sincerity of a child--all of these are moments the transcend time. Countless humans have shared such moments, countless more will share them in days to come. They gain nothing from being placed in the great continuum of history. They are simply moments when the universe makes sense to an individual in a spectacular, intimate way.

And now, at 54, I realize that this is the religion I have always wanted: just to fully be, without needing to become something else. To be running, not to get somewhere, not to achieve some important goal, but because running itself is an experience to be enjoyed. To arrive at a mountain meadow and to drink it in with all my senses, not (as I did on one memorable hike in the Cascades sixteen years ago) to see all that sublimity through the viewfinder of my camera until I am on my way back down, and realize I've not allowed myself to be in that place as a human being, rather than a picture-taking machine. To rejoice in the flow of conversation at a gathering of siblings, coworkers, friends. To be utterly immersed in improvising at the keyboard, my fingers flying, my mind darting ahead just enough to be sure that the chord changes will happen at the right time, anticipating and simultaneously prompting my fellow improvisers to adjust the songs they are creating so that the entire work we are doing is seamless, fresh, original, complete.

I've railed many times against the excesses of institutional religion, the ways in which it drains life from faith, enforces uniformity on individuals, destroys spontaneity. You might think from what I've written thus far in this post that I'm proposing a religion of utter individualism, a private faith to be practiced by oneself. You wouldn't be entirely wrong: the spirituality I have come into is something I experience, for the most part, in private moments. But there's more to it, much more, and in fact, there is a communal aspect to it without which it becomes a kind of cloistered monasticism.

And I'm not inventing this from whole cloth. The interior life is essential to spiritual well-being. Probably the greatest error of mainline Protestantism has been its drift away from personal spirituality in favor of large worship gatherings. A spirituality that over-stresses the external will ultimately collapse of dry rot. John Wesley's Methodist reforms were a reaction to the sterility of Anglican worship in early 18th century England, and the movement he created was solidly grounded in individual spiritual discipline, supported by small group gatherings. That largely fell away in American Methodism, and despite an attempt to revive the concept of the covenant group in the 1980s, is still mostly absent from the denomination. I can't help but think the same is true of other mainline churches, and probably is a contributing factor to their decline.

But it is far too easy to slide into the opposite extreme, a spirituality that mirrors the hyper-individualism of the American ethic. Human beings are not made to be alone. We need the company of others, and we cannot experience our full humanity in isolation. I say this, again, from experience: as an introvert, I have gone on many solo pilgrimages, and gained much from them; but there always came a point in those journeys at which I found myself longing for company. Sometimes that hunger can be fed by a conversation; at other times, it needs more, sometimes much more.

My most powerful communal worship experience took place at an arena rock concert. The year was 2005, the venue was the Rose Garden (home of the Portland Trail Blazers, now known as the Moda Center), and the band was U2. For their final encore, they sang "40" an obscure song from one of the earlier albums that uses this text from Psalm 40:

I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined and heard my cry.
He brought me right out of the pit,
out of my miry clay.
I will sing a new song,
How long to sing this song?
He set my feet upon a rock,
and made my footsteps heard.
Many will see,
Many will see and fear.
I will sing, sing a new song.
How long to sing this song?

At the end of the song, the audience was encouraged to sing the line "I will sing, sing a new song" over and over again as the members of the band took bows and left the stage. The singing continued, over and over, 40,000 voices joined in a simple refrain, no longer singing with the pop stars they had come to see, but just with each other. It was powerful, moving, and utterly transcendent of any creed. The fact that we many who had come to experience this concert were now joining our voices without them was, itself, a new song, something I had never experienced before and have not since. It was an epiphanic moment, the epitome of what I have been describing, and it could not have happened in isolation. However great the music I may make by myself, without an audience or fellow musicians to share it, it is ultimately unsatisfying, more exercise than art.

I imagine a new kind of church, a church that is not tied to a creed, a faith, a religion in all but the most general sense of the word, a church the spirituality of which is grounded in embracing transcendent moments. It is a gathered community of moment-seekers who understand that what matters most is being present--by themselves, with each other, for each other--and that that presence is itself the highest form of spiritual practice. They worship on trails, across tables, in jazz clubs and concert halls, gymnasiums and racquetball courts, living rooms, school rooms, parks, playgrounds, wherever two or more can come together to create a moment of transcendent presence. Some of those moments will be times of service. Others will be times of self and mutual indulgence. The creed of this church can be summed up in the verb "to be":

Be here, right now. Be here with me, now. Be here for me, now. Let me be here for you, now. Let us be here, now, together, and then let each of us be here, now, alone. By ourselves or together, let us simply be.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Right Church


Well, no, actually, I didn't. But then, I stopped looking, so how could I find it?

Enough with the cryptic rhetorical responses to a cryptic evangelism campaign from the 1970s, already. This is a follow-up to last week's essay on being "done with church," in which I discussed several reasons why I'd rather do almost anything than go to church on a Sunday morning. That post got more views than my typical curmudgeonly rant--40 so far--which is encouraging. It also got something I rarely have: an eloquent response from a reader.

His name is Daryl, and in the late 1970s, we were classmates at Philomath High School. His grandfather had been the pastor of the College Evangelical United Brethren Church until the great merger of 1968, when it became the College United Methodist Church, and the hardline EUBs left to start their own church elsewhere in town. Seven years later, my father became pastor of the College UMC, and baptized me in its immersion baptistry (the only one that can be found in a Methodist church in the Pacific Northwest). So we have more in common than being fellow Warriors. Even so, I haven't had much contact with Daryl since graduation in 1979, except (since 2009, when I started friending fellow alums) on Facebook, which is where he posted his comment.

Daryl read my essay and became concerned for the state of my soul. This led him to take issue with my conclusion that church is not for me, and to insist that I just need to attend the "right church." I'm assuming he means the kind of church he goes to, a church where, in his words, "the gospel is preached, sin has no degree, God is worshiped and God's people bear each other's burdens."
And now comes the hard part.

I'm grateful to Daryl for being so sincerely concerned about my spiritual well-being. I want to stress that point: what Daryl is doing in his comment is a Christian
mitzvah. He read my words about being post-Christian, and became worried that I'd lost whatever it was I "found" when I came to Jesus. He felt the need to respond to Christ's great commission to take the gospel to any who are without it. He felt I had lost my focus, that I needed to be in relationship with God, and the way to do that was to find a church that is right for me.

I appreciate his concern. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for evangelicals, probably because, as liberal as his politics may have been, my father was an evangelical. As a seminarian and pastor, I had many evangelical colleagues, some of them great friends, and I was often humbled by their sincerity and commitment. When they reach out to an unchurched person, I believe they really do have the best interests of that person at heart. They really do want to shelter us from the wrath to come, usher us back into the presence of the redeeming Creator, and encourage us to make the right decision that will save us from all our sins.

Appreciation is not, however, agreement. There are things Daryl doesn't know about me, reasons his plan for my redemption, as heartfelt as it may be, is just not going to work. The first, and foremost, is that we just don't agree on what constitutes the "right church."

In fact, I did find the right church for me, or as close to the right church as has ever existed, and I belonged to it for twelve years. It fit all Daryl's criteria: the gospel was preached, sin was indicted, God was worshiped, and, more than any other faith community I've known, people bore each other's burdens. Mind you, the gospel being preached, while powerfully consistent with scripture (and as a Biblical scholar, I know this to be the case), was almost always radically different from the gospel preached in whatever church it is Daryl wants me to join. It was a gospel of inclusion, liberation, and justice, good news to people marginalized by many a "Bible-believing" church. The sin that was castigated by this gospel was the sin of institutional power, of bigotry against people with same-gender orientation, of wealth and financial prosperity. Worship was at the heart of this community, and it happened every day of the week. And finally, and most significantly for me, this was a church that intentionally supported its members emotionally, physically, and (here's the most radical part) financially. Many a member, including myself, was helped through difficult times by the generous support of the community fund.

The church I'm talking about was the Metanoia Peace Community. It disbanded two years ago, unable to remain a functioning congregation without the leadership of its finally retired pastor, and I'm sorry it's gone. I know there are other communities like it scattered around the United States, though they can be hard to find. I know, too, that there are larger congregations that have many of the attributes that drew me to Metanoia. I attended one in Dallas, Texas, and my last church music job was with a United Church of Christ congregation that met most of my theological and political criteria. In a city like Portland, I'm sure I could find several other churches that would. But I'm not looking: Metanoia was my last church.

Why am I done with this quest? Is it that, as Daryl believes, I've lost my focus, that I've forgotten Christianity is, in his words, "not a religion but a personal relationship with the God of the universe"?

No. I'm sorry, Daryl, but it's not about my personal relationship with God--at least, not as evangelicals present it. It's certainly not losing my focus because, if anything, my criteria have narrowed that focus to such a fine point that there really is no longer a Christian church anywhere that I can call home. Even Metanoia was an imperfect fit. 

My issues with Christianity run far deeper than worship style, musical quality, or preaching skill. They strike at the very heart of the gospel preached by every church last Sunday, because that gospel is constructed on a lie. I'm not talking about the resurrection, by the way. The issue that renders it impossible for me to call myself a Christian is its rejection of its parent religion and, much more than that, its millennia-long persecution of the members of that religion. From the very moment the gospels were written, the church has been engaged in a campaign to discredit, displace, disown, and, ultimately, destroy Judaism, while robbing it of its holiest texts and traditions. It took a Holocaust for the church to finally begin to admit its patricidal tendencies, and yet, even in the most enlightened of congregations, Jews are still blamed for the death of Jesus, a caricature of Judaism is contrasted with the right practices of Christians, and supercessionist doctrines are proclaimed. Some of my first writings in this blog were about these practices, and if you're interested, I encourage you to look at
this one in particular.

I will admit to finding myself far more at home spiritually in a secular Jewish family than I ever felt in my observant Christian family of origin. My father was diligent about table devotions, reading to us from The Upper Room, saying blessings at every meal, but somehow those traditions never quite worked for me. Perhaps the issue, to me, was that the main event was always Sunday morning: our religion was about church. I love that the heart of Jewish practice is the home, and that going to services is an adjunct to that. The most holy of Jewish observances, the Passover seder, is a meal that must be taken in a home for maximum impact. I've hungered for this for a very long time, and I'm sure much of the Metanoia appeal was that it met in a house, rather than a church building--which may also explain why, once that house was no longer available, the community only managed to stay together a year.

I must also say, though, that my issues run far deeper than locating the gospel either in a large community or a small living room. I've spent my entire life on the quest for meaning, the search for a connection with the ground of my being and the end of my becoming, and while there were times during which Christ seemed the answer to that quest, I have long since realized I need something both more awesome and more intimate than I can find in the New Testament--or the Old Testament, for that matter. Buddhist philosophy has informed this quest, as have my encounters with pagan practices. The spirituality I'm coming to is specific, personal, and as highly focused as it can be. I'm practicing it right now with my fingers as this essay flows from my mind onto the screen of my laptop. "Flow" is, in fact, the best word I can use for my spiritual practice. I'm immersed in it when I'm teaching, whether it's 33 rowdy first graders or one 60-year-old piano student. I'm rolling with it when I'm improvising at the piano. I'm cruising with it when I'm running, bicycling, skiing, hiking. It's me being utterly present, whether it's with the ones I love or the place I'm in. And that, Daryl and any other Christian who's concerned about the state of my soul, is when I feel most utterly connected to God. Given how many ways I've just spelled out for that to happen, you should by now be realizing that the state of my soul is as good as it's ever been, and promises to continue improving on a minute-by-minute basis for as long as I'm drawing breath.

The right church for me? Right here, right now.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Done with Church

Just one of the many things I've had enough of: Calvary.

I've had my fill.

Sunday morning was Easter, the day around which the Christian year revolves. In the ancient church, every Sunday was supposed to be a little Easter, and Easter itself was, well, the big Easter. Most churches have allowed the Easter to seep out of the other 51 Sundays, but all of them still make a big deal about the Sunday that is above all other Sundays.

Anyway, I went to church on Sunday, as I have every Easter Sunday of my entire life. I went to sit with my recently widowed mother because, quite understandably, it wasn't easy for her to be their by herself. My father (as you know already if you've spent any time at all reading my previous posts) was a United Methodist minister, so being in church without him was a hard thing for her.

For my part, I'm a former minister myself. I've also been a church musician for more years than I was a minister. When I wasn't preaching, conducting, or playing, I still went to church to be with my faith community on this day of celebration. It was wonderful seeing more faces than are usually in church, many of them unfamiliar, or only present once or twice a year. Everything about the service is bigger and better than usual: the choir performs extra music, the bell choir makes an appearance, their are often brass instruments, and the organist literally pulls out all the stops. The hymns are brighter and more lustily sung. The sermon is about the most reassuring message in the Christian canon: resurrection. All this was true at Lake Oswego UMC, where I was Sunday morning.

And I was so glad when it was over.

Now here's the part where I'm going to rattle some Christian cages. I apologize in advance; but then, nobody's forcing you to read this, so stop you're bellyaching.

The first reason I've had my fill of church, especially on Easter, is--and I know this will sound like heresy to my fellow church musicians--so much of the music is simply, sadly, irredeemably bad. This was true of the choir's "Easter Fanfare" anthem Sunday morning, a bit of pompous dreck I may well have performed with one of my church choirs at some point in the past. I remember visiting Sheet Music Service of Portland to rummage through anthems, trying to find usable music for my choir, and rejecting one after another for using the same tired tropes: modulating up for the final verse, chord progressions using flatted seven and three chords, quoting a familiar hymn tune to make a new setting of the text more palatable, schmaltzandos tailor made to wrench sentiment from the hearts of every older member of the congregation, soft-rock gimmicks to tweak the boomers (and I'm sure the indie equivalents are now appearing for the sake of millennials), and on and on and on. I could spend an entire day at that store, and leave with maybe a half dozen anthems. On no Sunday are all these cliches more obvious than on Easter, but I've heard them on many other Sundays, in many other places, and conducted or accompanied plenty of them.

A quick disclaimer, because it needs to be said: much of the most beautiful music ever written is church music. Some of this sublime stuff is even being written now. Unfortunately, what congregations want, and successful music directors deliver, tends to err on the side of sentiment.

Now for the second reason I'm done with church, something I expect will alienate another drove of former colleagues: preaching.

There was a time when preaching was my favorite part of ministry. My sermons were performance art pieces. I preached without a manuscript from my first formal homiletics class. I'd seen both styles, and there was no question that manuscript-free sermons were far more powerful. At first, I wrote complete texts, reviewed them up at every moment I could until it was time to step forward, then left the manuscript under my chair, stood up, and preached from my heart, with help from my head. Over time, I became more comfortable with improvisation until, toward the end of my career, I stopped writing entirely. I preached mostly in stories--"narrative preaching" is the official term--but even when I was working closely with the text, exegeting it from the pulpit, I did it extemporaneously.

Preaching like this can compensate for all sorts of pastoral failings. People simply love to see and hear a preacher step out of the pulpit and go off book (to borrow a theater improv term). It makes the sermon seem far more personal, informal, relational. Even fellow preachers are impressed by preacher who can deliver a sermon sans manuscript effectively.

Unfortunately, having been such a preacher makes me a lousy congregant.

I heard a competently delivered sermon Sunday morning, one that any preacher in any Methodist church could have felt good about having preached. The minister went off-book a few times, but mostly stuck to his manuscript. And because of that, he lost me. There were other things about the sermon that didn't work for me, but mostly, it was the delivery that left me cold. (Those other things will figure into the third reason I'm done with church, by the way.) Sadly, being a narrative preacher means I've been ruined for ever enjoying a manuscript sermon again. I just can't silence the inner critic.

The third reason I'm done with church is the riskiest one, though there'll be nothing new here for anyone who's followed this blog for any length of time: Easter is, I'm sorry to say, theologically bankrupt; and because the entire Christian year is built around Easter, that means Christianity itself has a hollow core.

Leonard Bernstein's Mass summed it up well in the "Credo," the part of the mass where the church declares what it believes. One of the singers in Bernstein's version sings "You had a choice to die and then become a God again. Well, I'm not gonna buy it!" (Bernstein's Mass is something of an angry gay Jewish rant against much that the church believes, and yet full of gorgeous, foot-tapping music, some of it quite spiritually inspiring.) The Resurrection of Jesus is a cosmic cop-out. It's the deus ex machina to beat all dei ex machinae (and I'm sure I mangled that bit of Latin, but hey, I only know the stuff that's in the mass, so sue me), the sort of thing that renders 99% of what comes out of Hollywood a lie (the works of Joss Whedon being a notable exception), that sets us up to expect, in fact, that no heroic death need be feared, because some higher power will always bring back a beloved character who dies sacrificially. Death is not the price of Christ's witness, not truly, because he is brought back. Yes, his suffering on the one day before he dies is hard to listen to, but considering the United States has held some Iraqi and Afghani citizens prisoner for a decade and a half, and some of them were subjected to water boarding hundreds of time, a single scourging, a painful parade to Calvary, and a few hours on the cross are par for the atrocities course. Oh, he has to spend a couple of days in the ground, but really, the suffering of Jesus, pounded into the heads of confirmands for two thousand years, is a short term ordeal voided by the happy ending.

I remember a Scoutmaster delivering a Sunday devotion during a campout where he said that all the great founders of all the world's religions had graves that could be visited except one, Jesus, because he was resurrected. I think he's wrong on his initial claim, expect he didn't really understand how some of those other religions operate, and have to note that, in fact, the church does claim to know where Jesus's grave is, and has in fact built a church over that very spot. 

Christianity has made the death and resurrection of Jesus into its sine qua non. The teachings of Jesus--arguably, if one takes the gospels seriously, what he himself believed his ministry was all about--are dwarfed by the church's emphasis on the atonement, on Jesus dying to take away our sins, then being resurrected so that we can live again. The church year is one long cycle of guilt and redemption, and because of the emphasis on grace, it rarely--bigoted prohibitions of certain "sins" like homosexuality aside--has much to say about right living.

I would have these theological criticisms at hand for any church service, but they are heightened to an extreme on Easter. Holy Week is a time for wallowing in the suffering of Jesus. After a week of unrelenting guilt, Easter is the great "never mind" that makes it all worthwhile. Of course, as I noted earlier, sanctuaries are fuller on Easter than on any other Sunday, and few, if any, of those coming for this one Sunday a year have been present for any of the garment-rending breast-beating anguish of the week that leads up to it. That's like coming to dinner and being served nothing but dessert--and lots of it. Apart from the sentiment oozing from most of the music and, often, the children's message and sermon, sanctuaries on Easter are frequently decorated with lilies--not necessarily a bad thing--and, in many churches, a flowering cross.

Of all the modern church symbols that turn me off, nothing comes close to the flowering cross. It starts out as a plain wooden cross covered in chicken wire. A procession of children and, sometimes, adults brings forward cut flowers to insert in the chicken wire until the cross is smothered in beauty. I expect the symbolism is supposed to be that of new life from death, but all I see is a prettified torture device. It reminds me of a preacher I heard in the 1980s who claimed that, unlike Catholics, who put an occupied crucifix front and center, Protestants use an empty cross to celebrate the resurrection, rather than the death, of Jesus. It's as if Jesus was plucked from the cross by God and brought back to life on the spot.

In fact, the cross is an ugly reminder that Jesus was executed. The tradition that he lay in the grave for at least two nights and a day (it depends on the gospel you're reading, as well as how you interpret the "after three days" prophecy Jesus himself makes) is there to underline the fact that he was really, truly dead. The creeds emphasize this even more by saying he "descended to hell." The cross represents death, not resurrection, whether or not it has a body attached to it. Covering it in flowers conceals its essential brutality, and furthers the misconception that Christians escape death.

I first encountered the tradition of the flowering cross in the late 1980s, and was appalled by it then. I've been fortunate not to be around too many churches that practiced it. When I have, I've heard many crow with delight at how beautiful the cross is, posing their children with it for pictures after the service. I always have to wonder: what if Jesus had been hanged by the neck, beheaded, electrocuted? Would you be posing your children with a flowering noose, headman's axe, electric chair?

I'm glad this is one tradition that Lake Oswego did not practice, but whether or not it has ever made an appearance there, the theology running rampant in that sanctuary, as in most sanctuaries last Sunday, was of the triumphal resurrection of Jesus and, through him, of all who follow him. I know this belief gives many comfort, hope, reassurance in times of grief and suffering. I don't wish to take that from them. I just have to admit that, after all these Easters, it doesn't work for me anymore, and hasn't for many years.

That's why, on any given Sunday that I'm not otherwise committed or in some way rendered physically incapable, you'll find me somewhere else. I plan to live a long, healthy life, doing all I can to make the world around me a better place, and that starts with keeping myself in condition, physically, intellectually, and spiritually. Church is no longer a place where I can do any of that work. So don't look for me there. Try a trail, a bike path, or a gym. That's where I'll be sweating out my frustrations, letting go of my failures, and transcending my limitations, experiencing the little resurrections that mean much more to me than the one big symbolic one.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Dark Materials

Warning: the following blog post contains spoilers.

That was some read.

I'm referring to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, a "young adult" fantasy epic that, in my opinion as a sci-fi fantasy geek, compares favorably with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Madeline l'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, and C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy and Chronicles of Narnia. It's a multiverse-spanning work that tackles heavy matters of theology, philosophy, and quantum physics, while keeping its focus on two tween-aged characters, Lyra and Will, who are at the center of the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. While it's written for the YA audience, the attention to detail in both the world-building and the philosophizing is flawless, and there's plenty in here to bend the mind of this double-Masters degree reader.

What grabbed me most--and has given this trilogy its notoriety--is Pullman's upending of Christian cosmology. In this multiverse, the being worshiped by the church is called "The Authority," and is an ancient, angelic creature that has ceded its power to a Regent. The Garden of Eden story is taken to be literally true, but also utterly misunderstood: the true hero of the story is the serpent, who helped human beings (and the mulefa, sentient beings in a parallel universe) claim intelligence against the wishes of the Authority. Humans have, in fact, damaged the structure of the multiverse with their scientific explorations, and one in particular, Lyra's father Lord Asriel, is launching a huge rebellion against the Authority. This culminates in a cosmic battle that mostly takes place in the background of the third novel. Will and Lyra witness the death of the Authority--really more of a release, as the ancient being appears to welcome its disintegration--while, in another realm, Lyra's parents sacrifice themselves to defeat the Regent. Will and Lyra fall in love, and their first kiss is the act that begins the healing of all the rifts in space-time that brought about this apocalyptic struggle.

Perhaps the west word for the philosophy of these novels is "anti-theology." It does disservice to the subtlety of Pullman's message to see it as a screed against all things religious. In fact, the author calls himself an agnostic, and what I read in this books was careful to put the blame for the excesses of the Church in Lyra's universe down to the misdeeds of ignorant humans who simply don't understand the nature of existence. The church in Will's universe--our own--is far more reasonable in its dealing with ex-nun Mary Malone, a particle physicist who has, through far less magical tools than those used in Lyra's universe, come to understand that her faith in God was misplaced, and that simply living fully in the present is the highest calling of any conscious being. Mary's story, told to Lyra, of how she lost her faith resonated powerfully with me.

Pullman's use of Christian symbolism as allegory and metaphor felt to me to be completely consistent with other writers who have worked in this realm, most notably Lewis and l'Engle, although both of those writers were Christian believers. In particular, there's a moment in That Hideous Strength, the culmination of Lewis's "Space trilogy," in which the end of the world is averted by a symbolic coupling in a cosmic marriage bed that instantly sprang to mind as I read the passage about Will and Lyra's first kiss. Of course, this being YA fiction, and being about two twelve-year-olds, it would've been inappropriate and icky to go into any more details about their night together (after the kiss, we flash forward to them waking up the next morning); but then, Lewis, writing in 1945, was similarly restrained in his description of what took place in that marriage bed. What strikes me most here is how Pullman's rejection of the anti-materialism of the church is completely compatible with Lewis's embrace of earthy spirituality. I suspect the two writers could've found much to agree on, had they had a chat over a pint or two of ale in that Oxford watering hole where the Inklings met in the 1940s. More than that, Pullman's principled skepticism resonates well with an archetype present in all of Lewis's novels, a character who, despite being agnostic, assists the main character in finding and embracing faith.

Let's step away from this review of novels written fifteen years ago and look at where I'm coming from. I've always believed there was more in heaven and earth than could be dreamt of in any philosophy, whether materialist or theistic, and I've always enjoyed fiction that sought to harmonize science and spirituality. In fact, the science fiction I wrote as a teenager and young adult falls into that category, too. I know that much of what I was writing about, and looking for in the novels I read, was a way to make peace with my inner struggle. The principle that guided me through those years, and ultimately led me to seminary, was that somewhere there had to be a God, because the universe was just too big and wonderful to have come into existence by accident. Pullman's idea--that the being we call God exists, but was not actually the Creator, because no one knows what really brought all things into existence--would've resonated well with me in my youth. Had these books existed then for me to read, I might've avoided the long detour that was seminary and ministry.

In fact, though, I did not, and the skills and knowledge I acquired in those fifteen years have shaped me into the careful thinker I am today. While Pullman doesn't make this explicit--and given his own agnosticism, he may not have been able to understand it, anyway--the character of Mary Malone has, I believe, a far deeper grasp of her metaphysical discoveries because of, rather than in spite of, her former life as a nun. Moving through the spiritual world gave me a sensitivity to the deeper dimensions of reality, an appreciation for the ways in which the beauty of the material word is enhanced by a belief that there is far more to it than I can grasp with my limited senses. I see this understanding coming through in the speculative fiction that continues to work best for me, whether it is fantasy, science fiction, or magical realism, and whether it comes from authors who are Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Buddhist, some other religious tradition, or, yes, agnostic.

You don't have to be a believer in any particular creed to know that this world is a big, beautiful place, and that embracing it makes you a bigger, more beautiful person. And whether you're a devout Christian or a full-on skeptic, I think there's plenty for you to learn from these challenging, elegant fantasies. Give them a read and call me up; I'd love to have a conversation about them with you.