Saturday, May 23, 2009

Reading the Bible in 20 Months: summary

It's time to summarize my impressions of reading the Bible straight through over a 20-month period. My comments will focus on the Old Testament, as that book was a challenge to read. In fact, I discovered that there were parts of the OT I had never read, which surprised me a bit.

First, method. I deliberately read "naively." That may seem like an oxymoron but what I mean is that I tried as much as possible to set aside what I know of Biblical scholarship and historicity in order to read outside of that context and simply meet the immediacy of the text as it is. It's not entirely possible--although I'm aided by the fact that my knowledge of Biblical scholarship is, at best, crude--but clearly some knowledge informed my reading. I'm also not naive enough to think we find information "in" the text alone, but I was attempting, all the same, to do something akin to a New Critical reading in the sense of consciously excluding reliance on secondary source material.

There are several reasons for this. One, as we know, our Biblical scholarship is ever-changing, and how we interpret secondary sources and the light they shed on the Bible is filtered through the lens of our culture and our unconscious prejudices. I have seen too many people in my time over-rely on secondary sources to the point of distorting the Scriptures. For example, I've watched people treat Crossan's conclusions about the "historical Jesus," which he qualifies as very much his own opinions, as truth. More broadly, reading the Jesus Creed blog has brought home to me how until recent years (say, the last 60) often unconscious anti-semitism led Western Biblical scholars to read the New Testament through the lens of Greek thought, missing the obvious connections with Judaism. So I wonder what distortions we "read in" these days when we become overly reliant on the latest in scholarly thought.

Second, the Quakers would not have had the benefits of modern scholarship, and I wanted to read as an early Quaker would have, conscious, of course, of the very different cultural context I live in, but trusting that the leadings of the Holy Spirit are the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. I wanted this to be more of a lectio divina reading than a "two lines and four pages of footnotes" approach. This feeds into what I alluded to above, which is my sense that many people don't wrestle with the raw material of the Bible enough, but tend to fall back far too quickly on received authority, which dilutes the power of the word itself. I've found that's there a great deal to be mined just by reading the text in an engaged and active way.

I also understood that reading this way--which I call a "flat" way and visualize as a sort of Grandma Moses tableau, introduces its own distortions. So be it. I wanted to be smacked with the immediacy of the text itself.

In the next post, I will get to the text! My question is: How do you read the Bible? How much do you rely on scholarship, what scholars have the most credibility to you and how much do you rely on the text?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Still a Jesus Creeder

I am happy to be staying with Jesus Creed, a wonderful site. Beliefnet has resolved some of the technical issues that made life at that “café” challenging early on. Jesus Creed continues to be a great blog for keeping up with current thinking and scholarship in the Christian world. I’m writing this entry because I happened to google "Jesus Creed" yesterday morning, and to my amazement, fifth on the list was my blog, declaring that I was leaving Jesus Creed.

The lesson is that blogs are forever.( And that people read them.) The current fact, however, is that I am still a loyal Jesus Creeder. Please suggest to your friends to click on this blog entry so that this pronouncement can displace the earlier blog thread. (Disclaimer: I get nothing material from this whatsoever, so click away freely.)

Dan Brown: Has he measured the pulse of the times?

The quote below is from Ross Douthat’s op-ed piece, “Dan Brown’s America,” in the New York Times, 5/18/09:

“In the Brownian [this is Dan Brown, author of the Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons] worldview, all religions — even Roman Catholicism — have the potential to be wonderful, so long as we can get over the idea that any one of them might be particularly true. It’s a message perfectly tailored for 21st-century America, where the most important religious trend is neither swelling unbelief nor rising fundamentalism, but the emergence of a generalized “religiousness” detached from the claims of any specific faith tradition.”

What do you think? Is Douthat right about how Americans increasingly view religion? Do you see any pitfalls in a “generalized “religiousness” detached from the claims of any specific faith tradition”? (Anyone who knows me knows that I do!) I believe the claim in favor of a generalized faith experience is so that we can all "get along without fighting." Or that all religions are "the different paths up the same mountain?" (Think about that one: doesn't the path you take form who you are and what you are going to see at the top of that mythical mountain we all share?) But surely I am in need of enlightenment. Go to it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Entrance to Suffering

Peggy (the Abbess's) commented yesterday on complaint-free living and the Western disinclination to enter into suffering. She has me pondering Thomas Kelly's "A Testament of Devotion."

I am hundreds of miles from my home bookshelf, and hence more than usual flying from memory, but in one chapter of "A Testament of Devotion," Kelly, a mid-twentieth century Quaker, talks about "fruits of the Spirit" we gain when we center in the Divine Spirit and respond to the nudges of the "Hound from Heaven" (Jesus/the Holy Spirit).

Kelly talks about --now I'm challenged to remember--but I believe it is peace and joy as two fruits of the spirit. (It may be peace and love or love and joy). The third fruit he discusses is "entrance into suffering."

The first two made perfect sense to me. Who doesn't want peace and joy or peace and love? But entrance into suffering? How is that a fruit? Isn't that exactly what we want to avoid?

But as I thought about this, I realized that Kelly is exactly right. As we grow into spiritual maturity, we begin to shed the carmal self and are able to look at suffering more directly. We no longer always avert out gaze. We are no longer like the New York ad rep I worked with once who always took a taxi places because she couldn't bear the ugliness she saw riding the subway--the man with no legs begging for money outside the subway station, the people with mental illness shouting things in the train or talking to themselves, the homeless people. Now, at least sometimes, we walk straight up to these people and enter into their experience because we are no longer so filled with fear. Love, has in part, removed our fear. In my case, I was able to go into a prison and participate in worship sharing with prisoners. Before my spiritual awakening, I would have been too afraid of going, and it would have seemed "too depressing." Then, I mostly tried to ignore the existence of prisons or rationalize the prisoners as people completely "other," completely unlike me.

Yet when I entered the prison, I was given a great gift or fruit: learning that the prisoners were in fact just like me and that often they had more to offer me than I had to offer them. I always came away feeling I had gotten more than I gave. I didn't do the ministry for that reason, as I never expected to have that experience. So it was wholly a gift. But I am now more aware that the more we can embrace or sit with suffering, the more wholly human we become. Most importantly--as I'm convinced this experience was not meant to be primarily about individual "good feeling"--my views of prison changed, I sought out more information on prisons and became more sensitized and supportive of the need for prison reform.

How does this relate to a complaint-free world? Have you entered into suffering?

MInd the Heavenly Treasure: Sing in the Darkness

Entry for Fifth month, day 13 (May 13) from "Mind the Heavenly Treasure," a devotional of quotes from George Fox:

"In the night his song shall be with me." (Psalm 42:8)

Sing and rejoice, ye children of the day, and of the light; for the Lord is at work in this thick night of darkness that may be felt. And truth doth flourish as the rose, and the lilies do grow among the thorns, and the plants atop of the hills, and upon them the lambs do skip and play."

In light of yesterday's discussion of complaining, I think Fox does a good job here of balancing a fact--the darkness of the world-- with "complaint free" uplifting words noting the good in the world. What do you think?

Also, his images here remind me of WIlliam Blake. This probably has everything to do with the sources and themes they're both drawing from rather than Quakerism, but has anyone heard of a Quaker connection to William Blake? Another thing to Google ...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Complaint Free world

My friend Jean is wearing a purple complaint-free world bracelet. "Complaint free world" ( you can google it and find their web site) is a movement to curtail complaining. The idea as I understand it, is to become conscious of how often you complain by moving your purple bracelet from one wrist to the other every time you complain (Any bracelet or wrist twine will do. You don't need the official purple bracelet). The goal is to be complaint-free for 21 days. This includes not gossiping.

A complaint has to be verbal to "count." Your thoughts don't count.

Statements of facts are not complaints if stated neutrally. According to the Web site, saying to a waiter, "my soup is cold," is a fact; however, saying, "How dare you serve me cold soup" is a complaint. Saying we are in a recession is a fact (it doesn't make us a nation of whiners) but saying, "I can't believe we keep having these awful recessions" does. By stating facts, we are free to speak truth to power.

The value of not complaining, according to the Web site, comes from the reduction of "negative energy" generated by complaints and the increase in positive energy. The concept was started by a Christian pastor, so this is not supposed to be New Age mumbo jumbo. It's more, from what I can gather, a variant of Norman Vincent Peale's power of positive thinking. Another idea behind the movement is to realize that much of what we complain about is completely trivial and that we have more to be grateful for than we often acknowledge.

I'm intrigued with the challenge, seemingly almost impossible, of not complaining for 21 days. I know I complain too much. I also know that people who are always negative or always complaining can drag others down.

On the other hand, complaining is often a form of social exchange, an icebreaker that says, "I'm like you; I'm not above it all." Complaining about the weather, the President, the woes of the world, can a be a way for people to draw together and feel safe with one another. The freedom to complain implies a certain degree of intimacy (you wouldn't, for example, complain on a job interview).

Jean commented that people at her workplace have noticed her almost Pollyanna-ish cheeriness and have not necessarily liked it. Being consistently positive carries the risk of being irritating. It's a tricky business, this no complaining.

Finally, not complaining is not going to solve the world's problems all by itself. But it might make problems seem more solvable.

What do you think? Is "complaint free world" something you would be willing to embrace?

Followers of the Lamb

Entry for Fifth month, day 13 (May 13) from "Mind the Heavenly Treasure," a devotional of quotes from George Fox:

"These are they which follow the Lamb," (Revelation 14:4)

"So be meek and low, then ye follow the example of Christ, and come to bear the image of the Just, who suffered by the unjust ... yet cried, 'Father, forgive them.' Here he kept his dominion, though a sufferer, who had the victory, which the followers of the Lamb do (in measure) attain to."

Followers of the Lamb

Saturday, May 9, 2009


What is "home" to you?

I'm thinking about home right now. Maybe that's because I'm going "home" to Maryland tomorrow. So I wonder, where is my home? I live in Ohio now, but I refer to Maryland as "home."

The irony is, for the last, let's say, 13 years in Maryland, I didn't feel at home. Of course, in one sense I felt at home, because I was in a place where I'd lived all my life. Yet at a certain point it had ceased to feel comfortable, ceased to feel like home. It became, to use the German term, unheimlich.

I spent probably too much time pondering whether or not a sense of "being home" is an internal or external state. Would my problem be solved by moving somewhere else? Was it the house? Was it the neighborhood? Was it the community? Would I be more at home in the city? In the country? Can a place really make such a difference?

Or is the issue internal? Something "not at home" in my soul? Did I have to change myself? Would moving somewhere else be a kind of cosmetic change, like a nose job, that would alter the surface without addressing any of the underlying issues? Was my desire to move like the man who wants a new wife--and as the saying goes, he can get away from his wife, but he can't get away from himself?

During this period, I was much inpressed with Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, which was a selection in my reading group. In that book, a man's life is changed, much for the better, when he literally returns to his family home. Could that be real, I wondered? Or is just a fairytale? I also spent time pondering Jesus' statement that his father's house is a mansion with many rooms. I do understand metaphor, but it was powerful to me that Jesus used the metaphor of home to describe the kingdom of heaven. And since he is the one person I can trust, that statement carried enormous weight with me.

Anyway, I talked about home to a tiresome degree to anybody who would listen, longed to move, constantly looked at other houses, and finally decided that my issues were probably internal. My children loved our house and community, nobody but me wanted to move, and I had to agree that, objectively speaking, it was a nice place to live. What was my problem?

Then, last year, many ways opened and we ended up moving here to Barnesville. And oddly, after only nine months, I feel more at home here than I felt for the prior 12 years in Maryland. (However, I do miss my friends at home.) I also feel that if I were "normal," I would miss my bigger, nicer suburban house and all the amenities that come with living in one of the most affluent suburbs in the country. And sometimes I do. You can't get sushi in Barnesville. This is defintely a poorer area, trailers are not uncommon and I imagine you'd have to go to Pittsburgh to find a Nordstroms. But someone, none of that seems to matter much. I like it here.

I love the rolling hills, the pond, the wildflowers, the geese with their goslings, the school ... all of that ... and yet this sense of "heimlich" goes deeper than any of that.

So anyway, my questions are: What makes us feel "at home?" Is it internal or external or a combination of both? Why would we stop feeling at home in a place? What makes you feel at home in a place? Have you felt not at home in a place? And finally, what does Jesus mean, do you think, when he says our father's house is a mansion with many rooms?

What is home?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Fallingwater: ego or genius?

OK, soon I will moving from my foray into poetry and architecture back into religion ... but aren't poetry and architecture the stuff of ... well, never mind.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, I went with John Karsemeyer last fall to Fallingwater, probably Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous residence. John supplied the following reflection on Fallingwater. To Wright purists, he has blasphemed. What do you think?

"Fallingwater is now a well-run conservancy, a magical museum. The setting is stunning, the architecture brilliant. But it seems to me to be a revealing mistake, and directly contradictions Wright's professed love of nature. The Kaufmans themselves wanted the house under the fall, with a view to it. ...

"Wright--perhaps pathologically unable to allow nature to display itself with the delight that a small-but-very-beautiful waterfall effortlessly presents, places his design right on top of it! Symbolically dominating it. It is a conspicuously obscene display of ego. Rather than harmonize or blend, Wright seems to have needed to dominate his patrons, as well as nature itself

"... Wright was mistaken. The Kaufmans were correct.

"The house should not be where it is, and should be beside and below the fall, not perched triumphantly over it like an asymmetrical architectural predator subduing its helpless prey!"

So ... what do you think?