God and Greatness: Honesty and/or Truth

This is a bit of a puzzler….

Y’see, I’m a fantasy writer. I write fiction. Not, y’know, professionally, because apparently it’s not good enough. Pah. But deep down, that’s who I am. A storyteller. That’s quite apparent to all of you, of course.

And in the course of becoming that, you have to confront the possibility that making up stories is the same thing as lying. In fact, that’s a popular way of describing little children who tell lies — “he’s telling stories again.”

But at the heart of all good art is a lie. Every piece says, “The world is this way.” And the world is not that way. The world is more complex, or uglier or, in some cases, much prettier. Art is not reality — it’s an expression of reality.

And unless you’re growing up in an extremely fundamentalist household (which I wasn’t), it’s pretty easy to realize that our culture recognizes the value of a story as literature. So that little moral qualm quickly passes.

(Note that this hasn’t always been so. You may be aware that theater still has a lingering reputation of being a little skanky, for some reason. There was a time when the Church — and, for reference, this was a time when the phrase “the Church” could only refer to one institution — made it very clear that telling fictional tales was the equivalent of bearing false witness, and pretending to be someone you weren’t was nearly as bad. Morality plays got by, because they were a method of teaching Bible stories to the illiterate masses, but drama was strictly forbidden.)

Anyway, the point I’m getting at is this: from a very early age, I’ve been wrestling with the difference between truth and honesty. And I’ve generally been losing that match, too. When I was in middle school, I told some laughably ludicrous lies about my own past, about who I was. It made sense to me — I had just moved to a new state, and a new school, and none of these people knew my story, so when they started asking about it, why tell them a boring tale? Y’know? So I made up something with some flash and dazzle.

My whole life I’ve lied, to be perfectly honest.

(Yeah, that line made me smile.)

And this post comes from several discussions I’ve had with all of you, and those with Daniel and Toby particularly. There are clearly times when telling not-truth is okay. There are times, at least according to social convention, when it’s actually good. But, clearly, there are times when telling not-truth is quite destructive.

What’s the line? When is honesty right, and when is it just anti-social? Daniel and Toby have both, at some point, come to the conclusion that our society is far too comfortable with untruth — that what we need in our lives is a great deal more honesty. Instinctively and intellectually, I disagree.

There’s a thing I know. I’m not quite sure where or when I learned it, except that it would’ve been sometime before high school. See, the Ten Commandments include that one rule, “Do not murder.” Well, in Aramaic (that’s right, isn’t it?), there are several different verbs for “to kill.” There is a generic word that means to end another person’s life. There is a word that refers to killing in battle, and another that refers to a judicial execution. And, finally, there is the word that we would translate “murder.” It doesn’t necessarily imply specific circumstances, but it states that this killing is socially and legally forbidden, and therefor a criminal act.

The commandment against murdering is precisely that. I know people who are against the death penalty on the grounds that the Ten Commandments forbid killing. That’s what I’m getting at. The commandment specifically doesn’t forbid execution, it forbids the act that the person is getting executed for. (And, since I’m here, I should pretty much state that I don’t think the Ten Commandments should be considered the primary deciding factor in decisions concerning present-day American judicial policy. Just that I know people who do.)

But, back on topic, I wish that I knew the relevant Aramaic to let myself off the hook for the lying thing. That is, I kinda wish I could appeal to some higher source, and get those boundaries of what’s wrong, what’s okay, and what’s right.

I guess since we’re at the Ten Commandments, I’ll glance at them real fast. The phrase there is, “bear false witness,” and I get that the phrase is not just referring to witnesses in criminal proceedings. However, it does imply a certain degree of specificity that I’m comfortable with. Telling a story for entertainment purposes is not the same as claiming, “and because Superman did that, you have to vote Republican.” That is, claiming that the implications of a fictional story impact the hearer’s (or reader’s) life in a compelling way.

Hmm…I think I’m back to Christian Leadership here, in a way. I guess I feel that the difference between a story and a lie is that a lie is forced upon the hearer (or, presented in such a way that it will be taken as forced), whereas a story is presented as an opportunity for the hearer, to take or not at his discretion.

That’s a fairly vague line, though, and it doesn’t cover nearly enough of the ground I need to cover. What about self-image? People have this amazing tendency to become what they believe they are. Tell a child that he’s a genius, and you’ll be surprised how smart he turns out. Tell a child he’s an athlete, and he’ll be incredibly apt. Tell a kid he’s an idiot and a bum, and he will be. There are limits, naturally, but a person’s self-image clearly and consistently guides his future development.

Given that, there is value in telling un-truth for the sake of growth. It’s what our myths are all about. We say, “a man can be like Hercules,” not because anyone ever particularly was like Hercules, but because focusing on that potential encourages us to grow toward it. That’s the beautiful value of ideals. Ideals are not real (and therefore not true). They are better than true. They are honest.

Then again, a dishonest person could use that very line of reasoning to destructively conceal his own failings — to justify a lie, in fact. Sure, I’m an alcoholic (not me — this is just an example), but I don’t want to be an alcoholic, I know I shouldn’t be an alcoholic, and so I will claim not to be in the hopes of growing into that potential. I will sneak and hide what I am, telling a lie for the greater good.

How is that different from telling your child that he’s a genius, in the expectation of him becoming one? To bring it into closer parallel, let’s talk about playing along with someone who’s pretending not to be an alcoholic. Believing that he can become sober, you pretend, with him, that he already is. How is that different from encouraging your child toward a potential he has not yet indicated? How is it, fundamentally, different from saying, “No, honey, that outfit does not make your butt look big”?

Honestly, I don’t know. I recognize that it’s a real problem, because a broken person’s best hope of getting fixed, is in his recognizing the break. However, I also believe that a person’s best chance of becoming something incredible, is in convincing himself that it is perfectly credible.

Hmm…I’ve come to no conclusion here — just raised some issues. Please feel free to carry on the argument. I look forward to the discussion.

God and Government: Christian Leadership

I’ve got two words for you: “oxymoron.”

Now, admittedly, that comment is going to get me a lot of flak (“flack”? whatever) from everyone who read Christian Leadership and thought about those retreats we went to in youth group and the really eloquent speakers you’ve heard at a workshop or lectureship. That’s not really what I’m thinking about here — I’m thinking about Christianity in government — but some of the same ideas apply.

Listen, before Jesus died, he spent a lot of time talking. A lot of people miss out on that, especially because, later, Paul spent a lot of time writing, so he kind of eclipses a lot of what Jesus had to say.

But Jesus had a lot to say about leadership and authority. He said most of it (that is, the most important bit) when he wrapped a towel around his waist, got down on his knees, and washed his apostles’ feet. We all know that story so well, and what it represents, y’know, metaphorically, that we kinda disregard what he was saying there. That is, we focus on the theological aspect of an act that is, first and foremost, a political one. Whereas, in Christ’s teaching, he chose instead to put forth the political lesson, and let us derive the theological.

Hmm…that might sound like I’m saying the same thing. The problem here is that we, as Christians, are reading the New Testament in exactly the same way we get so frustrated at scientists for telling us to read the Old Testament. (That sentence might be grammatically correct….) The thing is, something can be metaphorical or figurative and still hold literal meaning. In fact, a good metaphor ought to be wholly accurate on both levels of perception: the literal and the figurative.

So when Jesus said we ought to wash each other’s feet, and what he meant by that was that we ought to serve one another’s physical comforts, and what he really meant by that was that we ought to serve one another’s spiritual comforts…we follow that line of reasoning, and teach our kids that Christians should look out for each other’s spiritual comfort. And how can you tell? Why, because Jesus himself said that we should look out for each other’s physical comfort.

Now, if you’re one of those trying to rush ahead of what I’m saying, then you’re probably getting annoyed at my choice of passage, because this isn’t a perfect one for what I’m trying to say. It’s an excellent illustration of how we misuse Jesus’ metaphors, though. Now that we’ve seen that, though, let’s focus on another passage. There’s a story in the New Testament where a couple of the apostles (I’m going to take a wild guess and say “James and John,” rather than actually looking it up) ask Jesus if they can be first in the Kingdom of Heaven — following him, of course. Jesus rebukes them, and the other apostles get in on the rebuking because, y’know, they should probably have asked, but Jesus calls them all down. Here’s the passage:

When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that in this world kings are tyrants, and officials lord it over the people beneath them. But among you it should be quite different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must become your slave. For even I, the Son of Man, came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many.”

Okay, we’ve all heard that, and we understand that this means Christians shouldn’t be tyrannical. That’s not the point, though. The point is that Christianity cannot be achieved through authority. It’s earlier in that paragraph that Jesus talks about the Vineyard Workers (a parable I wrote on in an earlier post), and that parable ends with these words:

“And so it is, that many who are first now will be last then; and those who are last now will be first then.”

We also have the passage where some trickster challenges Jesus on paying taxes, and Jesus talks about giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. In that passage, Jesus clearly recognizes the temporal authority structure without participating within it.

And that wasn’t a new attitude, when we saw it there. We’d already seen it in the desert, when the Tempter offered Jesus dominion over all the world. Jesus turned it down.

He turned it down, and then he didn’t go to the politicians, to change the world. When he was brought before Pilate, he answered him in silence. In fact, we have no record of Jesus deliberately seeking out politicians or trying in any way to change world or national politics.

Jesus’ message is one of a personal relationship with God. The lifestyle he teaches is a self-sacrificing one. It is not a message that makes for good government — it’s one that makes for good people. If people were good, we wouldn’t need government. Got it?

I know my dad thinks there ought to be more Christians in government — he’ll vote for one any chance he gets. The problem is, a good Christian has to be ready to forgive every offense against him. A good Christian has to be ready to give more than he is asked for, to respond to violence with submission. These things will make a good person.

But they will only make a good governor when all the rest of the world’s governors are prepared to respect like that. Or, alternately, when every one of the governed is precisely as devoted to the governor’s Christianity as he is. In the first case, none will take advantage of the governor or the state he represents. In the second case, although others will take advantage of his state, the people of the state will accept it, as they accept the same within their personal lives.

Show me a world where all of the powers are Christians, and I will vote for a Christian leader. Show me a state where all of the citizens are Christians, and I will vote for a Christian leader. Otherwise, in any other circumstances, you are either willfully sending sheep among the wolves, without any sort of defender (note that we are talking temporal authority, which Paul claims God has put in place to serve its purposes, even as the Pharaoh who enslaved the Jews served God’s purposes), or you are placing a Christian in a position that will force him to curb his own faith in order to fulfill his job. That is, a good Christian placed in a position of authority must, within that authority, be a worse Christian to properly fulfill his responsibility.

If you, as a Christian, decide to take on a leadership position — perhaps you think that, by acting to protect the weak, you can do enough good to offset the evil of not turning the other cheek, for instance — then you have made that choice for yourself, and power to you. However, I will not (or, to be more accurate, would not) advocate voting for you on the sole grounds that you are a Christian. That is because, inasmuch as you are a good leader, you become less of a good Christian. And inasmuch as you are a good Christian, you become less of a good leader.

Now, to perfectly clarify, I am talking about temporal authority. There are other forms of leadership than temporal authority, clearly. The foremost, with regard to this conversation, being that of a role model. Christ was clearly a leader, and his Christianity made him a better leader, clearly. That’s the whole point of the washing of his apostles’ feet. Jesus was not one to say “Go and do,” and have others obey him on his authority. Rather, he was one who said, “This is what I do.” And others could choose to be like him because they saw the effect Jesus’ actions had in his life and in theirs.

And this all speaks directly to my opinion concerning elders within the church. I flatly stand against the idea of elders who meet, decide what the church should do, state their opinions, and then the church does it. Which is to say: elders.

That is not what eldership has represented for the bulk of human history, and it is not what Christ called for. “Elder” is a name we use (not one the elders themselves use) to indicate someone who, by the evidence of his life, has established himself as a role-model and source of information, who we would like to follow. It is the very heart of Jesus’ method of leadership and it is (this is the most important part) an entirely optional authority. That is, it is one that you can approach and say, “I choose to live like you.” And if you do, so much the better, and if you don’t, it in no way detracts from the leader’s authority.

Ehff. I’ve gone on too long, and I’m onto another topic altogether now, but it shows what I’m getting at. In fact, it highlights it well. The very best I think we could hope for, in electing Christian leaders, would be to achieve something like the elderships we’re all so familiar with. Imagine the board of elders from your congregation as the House and Senate of the U. S. That’s the ideal of that system. That is the best that it could achieve and, honestly, it’s not much different from what we already have. You could probably name nine key political decisions that would be decided, once for all, if that were the case. Other than that, replacing the Senate with your church’s eldership would pretty much be the same as electing a bunch of Republicans.

And, no, that’s not utopia. Honestly, it’s not much better than everyday. It might be more comfortable — that is, your personal opinions on some topics would be more accessible within the community — but you can achieve that with a political action committee. And, if you think about it, that really just means someone down the street is less comfortable.

And none of that sounds like the kind of authority Jesus promoted. No, Jesus’ solution to the world problems takes place inside individual folks, not in halls all made of marble. That’s what it boils down to.

God, Government, and Greatness: Adoption

I have my doubts that I will get across everything that needs gotten, but there is a base concept of Adoption which I really need to establish.

I may have mentioned this to some extent in my earlier posts on Goverment (Monarchy specifically), but I couldn’t find it if so, which means I didn’t go into enough detail.

First, I’d like you to read a passage from Romans 7. It’s verses 13-19, 22-23. The two verses I omitted do not significantly change the meaning of the text, so I’ve cut them for clarity. By all means, feel free to read the entire passage in context — I’m just not quoting it all here.

For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed….

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

This is not, of course, the only place we see reference to God-the-Father or, by extension, the members of the church as his sons and daughters. In the book of Romans, though, Paul is able to draw upon that concept more fully and powerfully because of the Roman cultural practice of Adoption.

Our culture has established its own ideas concerning adoption, specifically the conception of a second-class status for adopted children. It’s silly, it’s an easily-dispelled idea, but it’s one that persists in our culture and, honestly, that’s how we feel in relation to God. When Paul says that we’re the adopted sons and daughters of God, that makes perfect sense to the American mind. We’re not his REAL kids, but he was generous enough to adopt us.

That’s not how Adoption worked in the Roman empire.

(I referenced Goverment in my tagline, and that’s about to come into play, too.)

Y’see, when we think of old-timey inheritance, we generally think of a system called “primogeniture” whereby the first-born son inherits the entire wealth (including titles) of the father. This is one of the huge stumbling blocks of monarchy as we imagine it — that terrible corruption of passing the throne from Louis I down the line to Louis XVI.

The Romans had a system in place to prevent that, to some extent. Adoption. It was the responsibility of a Roman man to choose his own heir. It could be his first-born son, but a first-born son was not actually born with any inheritance rights. In order to pass his estate on to his first-born son, the Roman gentleman would have to adopt his son as his heir. He could just as easily adopt a nephew or a brother-in-law or, more likely, an apprentice or assistant. It was his responsibility to choose an heir who could effectively maintain the estate he would inherit.

Obviously this system was open to abuse of its own. I’m pretty sure most of you are already thinking of Nero and Caligula, and after all, who is going to try to hold an Emperor accountable for living up to his social responsibility? The Emperors did hold their followers responsible, though, and there were dozens (hundreds?) of kings within the Roman empire who were compelled to choose fitting heirs, and bound to that decision by the process of Adoption.

Adoption, then, was not an act of mercy or compassion, but one of investiture. When a Roman adopted a son, he proclaimed to the world, “I approve of this one. He deserves to one day own all the wealth and power that I possess.”

And that is what God has done with us. That’s the entire point of this passage in Romans. God has Adopted us into his sovereignty — not just into the comfort of his home, but into the position of wielding his great might. We have been proclaimed worthy of becoming like God himself.

Here’s the important bit “we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

We have been made Sons of God. We have been given all the power Christ bore when he walked the earth, but more than that. We have been promised the full power of God. This is the confidence he has shown in us. This is his expectation of us. Because adoption is a responsibility as well. We must live like Princes, in training to someday assume the throne. That’s the “sharing in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” bit. And that’s an amazing position to be caught in.

And — this is what irks me — it’s a role that we are not taught! My dad taught me about Roman adoption, and what it means to be a son of God. Other than that, I heard not a word. Have any of you heard of this before, from anyone other than me? We’re taught that every one of us is a foot soldier in God’s army. We’re taught that we’re prey the lion is stalking. We’re taught to think like the Israelites, for whom God provides manna. We’re taught that we’re like the lillies, and God will clothe us in beauty, or that we’re like the birds of the air, and God will fill our needs.

But that’s not even the point of that passage. Jesus cries out, “how much more, then, will he do for you?” We are not just soldiers, we are not just cute little animals and pretty flowers. We’re not even like the trackless Israelites, but like Moses who led them, all radiant from the Glory of God. We’re Princes. We’re Kings and Queens, arrayed before our Emperor. Stand up! Be proud, ye heavenly powers. The armies of angels are our armies.

Remember the parable of the prodigal son? Remember how he went away and sinned, and because he had squandered his wealth, he lived among the pigs, and lived like a pig. That’s what we’re doing, and the whole point of the story was that it was never necessary. Stand up! Go back to the wealth and the power that is your due — not on your own merits, but because you have been adopted by the most powerful benefactor reality has ever known.

Live like it. That’s your responsibility.

God: Christian “Science”

I got this passage from someone else’s blog, which I clicked through to from a blog that makes me entirely furious, every time I glance at it. So, instead of following proper etiquette and linking you to the other blog, I’ll just paste the relevant bit here:

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. [1 Timothy 1.7]”

— Saint Augustine of Hippo, De Genesi ad Litteram Libri Duodecim (The Literal Meaning of Genesis), AD 401-415, translated by John Hammond Taylor
See? That’s a passage from some ancient dude. Credit goes to him, not the chick that brought him up in the first place. If you’d LIKE to read a bunch of people bash on Christians, though, here’s the link to the source blog: http://www.livejournal.com/users/ajhalluk/145379.html

I like the points this Augustine makes, though. I strongly agree with what he’s saying here. Then again, as a Social Constructionist, I’m more readily able to surrender discussions of the nature of reality than many Christians, because I’m basing my faith on something bigger, behind the scenes. Know what I mean?

God: The Lord’s Supper

Quick question, for every single one of you who might possibly have an answer: in what way is What We Do as Communion (and by “We,” there, I mean the group you belong to — Catholic, Methodist, whatever) anything close to the circumstance of the Last Supper?

Consider this very carefully before you completely disregard it: How would our version be any different, if after each of the prayers we injected a single molecule of carbon?

Honestly, I see no other deviation (although a greater degree, but none fundamentally DIFFERENT) from the Biblical account in that extreme than in our own practice.

What is the point? More importantly, why hold up as a fundamental rite something that we have so completely alienated from its origin and stripped of all meaning?

I know those who take comfort from knowing that Christians, everywhere, are doing the same thing at the same time (for a given value of “Christians” and, of course, “same”). I understand that — I understand the value of an inclusive ritual to the maintenance of a distinctive community — however, for that purpose a secret handshake would be exactly as effective.

I suppose a huge portion of what bothers me is…not the name, but implicit in the name. Communion. I ALWAYS thought, growing up, that the name referred to the Communion of the Saints (that inclusivity I just mentioned). It’s the thing that we, as a community, do together. Arguing the topic with friends in college, I discovered for the first time that a lot of people (most of ’em?) think of it as Communion with God. That makes a LOT more sense given our extremely antisocial, library-quiet performance of the rite. It reminds me of a thing we did at church camp one year, when I was younger. “Time Alone With God.” We had fifteen minutes set aside every couple of hours for precisely that purpose. There were no refreshments, though….

Y’see, here’s where it really gets to me. The origin of the ritual is a meal. A highly social meal, where a community forms its inclusive bonds, not through the simple fact of a shared ritual, but through the social experience created by the very acts of the ritual. We use the term “breaking of bread” today to refer to this proper, stylized event, but we get that very wording from a Greek phrase that was practically slang — a very casual phrase meaning, “to get together to eat.” The root of “breaking of bread” practically means “hanging out at Braums.”

I mean, to start, to see the way God operates in his establishing of ritual (at least this particular vein), look at the Passover. It was a family’s dinner. The ritual (that is, the maintenance of the experience beyond the first, actual event) was structured as a conversation the family would have over dinner. “Hey, papa, why are we eating unleavened bread and strangely-cooked lamb?” And his answer incorporated the whole history of the Passover, and God’s redemption of the Israelite slaves.

That exchange became very ritual. The exact wording became important (as far as I understand it), and the whole dinner became something of a script. That’s not a big surprise to me, given what we read in the New Testament of the legalization of the Israelite religion. What does surprise me is that, in our religion based significantly on Jesus’ negative response to that legalization, we have turned our version of the Passover into a more strictly stylized rite than even the Pharisees had done with theirs.

Here are my arguing points: the Lord’s Supper is meant to be a SUPPER. And I’m not focusing on the meal aspect necessarily (on the food, the nourishment), but on the social aspect of eating together. Think of the monthly (or semi-monthly or…occasional) fellowship meals at your church. Think of the socializing. Think of the sense of inclusivity THAT generates.

You’re right. It’s not as poignant as the practice of the rigorous ritual. That’s no surprise to me. That’s WHY we create legalistic rites. It’s to capture as much of the feel of the thing as we can, without having to do the long-term work. We don’t have to build RELATIONSHIPS with all these other Christians, we just have to know that we’re taking the same brand of crackers and the same thimbleful of grape juice at the same time and, boy howdy, we are ONE.

There’s another argument to it. You might point out that Jesus established the Lord’s Supper as a memorial of what he did. He said, “This do in remembrance of me.” You KNOW that’s true, because it’s carved on our…whatever-you-call-it-that’s-not-exactly-an-altar-because-y’know-we’re-protestants. Jesus ESTABLISHED the Lord’s Supper as a ritual to remember him.

But even there…. First of all, in at least one version of that passage, his wording was, “As often as you do this,” which, again, strikes me as more a redirecting of the sentiment of the Passover meal than as the establishment of a new Thing. That aside, he WAS clearly drawing on the basis of the Passover meal (as they were actively participating in the Passover meal when he established his procedure), and the Passover meal was, in the manner of a meal, a memorial. In other words, the memorial was there, within the social experience. It is NOT a private experience, taken concurrently with the rest of a community. It wasn’t in Jewish practice, and there’s no reason to imagine Jesus intended it to be one in Christian practice. We as a COMMUNITY are supposed to share this ritual together, socially, as a reminder of Christ’s gift to us.

As a matter of fact, that’s the whole POINT. The Passover meal, taken in silence, would be nothing other than…gross food. The ritual, the meaning, the POWER of the Passover meal was in the conversation. God established it in that way. It’s the whole point.

Take note. I’ve been accused (and will be forever) of arguing theology toward my own comforts. Y’know, if I’m right about not having to go to church all the time then, hey, I can relax at home during those hours I would’ve had to spend in the grueling environs of a church building. I can’t tell you how much accusations like that offend me, but I don’t generally feel compelled to respond to them. I still won’t.

But look at this one. Reread everything I wrote. The entire point of the Communion, I hold, is to bring us together socially, to bind us in INTERACTION (not observance of the one or two appointed men who speaks a short statement and a prayer). Any one of you who knows me well enough to be reading this, knows how incredibly uncomfortable such a thing would make me.

I’m shuddering at the thought, even now.

But I’m almost certain that’s the whole point of the process. I’m not calling you all to make an ages-old religion more comfortable for me. I’m asking you to look at your Saltine and your Welches and tell me exactly how that process binds you to God. I’m asking you recognize the vast distance between the Communion as we practice it, and the Communion as Christ designed it, and dare to imagine what it COULD be.

God: Trish’s Church and Manufactured Meaning

I’ve PRObably made it clear already that I don’t think Meaning can be manufactured (so the title of this article is intended to be a little tongue-in-cheek). Meaning comes from our encounters with Real Truth, and therefor anything we can Construct must inherently be other than Real Truth and, therefor, not a source of real Meaning.

To recap: the Constructed reality is USEFUL, while unconstructed Real Truth is MEANINGFUL. One is one, the other is the other.

Okay. Now we’re back to Trish’s church which, as I have said, presents me with a challenge.

When I say Trish’s church, I don’t mean her ideal philosophically perfect one. I mean the one here in Tulsa that she decided she liked, and that we both attend. It’s…it’s either Memorial Drive Church of Christ or Memorial Road Church of Christ. Whichever one ISN’T in Edmond.

Anyway. They have, I think, a pretty good example of exactly what I think a church service shouldn’t be. It’s a manufactured experience, a rigorously scripted spectacle of worship. It involves the audience, draws them in, makes them feel like they’ve been in the presence of God (all those things I talked about two posts ago).

It’s not extreme. It’s not an extremely liberal Church of Christ, which means it’s definitely not an extremely liberal Protestant church. I’ve seen worse. There’s nothing particularly unpleasant about Memorial’s service, even to someone who grew up in very conservative churches, as I did.

I’m pretty sure Nicki (and Kris?) and Toby (and Gwyn?) all disliked it for the liberalness of it, mainly. That aspect of it did make me slightly uncomfortable, but not much. What got to me was the….

Well, it’s like this: they have a praise team. That’s a liberal thing, that gets to people. What bothers me about it, though, is not that there are women leading singing or that we’re approaching the sinful idolatry of having a choir…it’s just the scripted aspect. I don’t like for a church service to be manufactured even as much as every single worship service IS, and when you start trying to coordinate eight people just for the song leading, you start manufacturing down to the nitty gritty.

Last Sunday I noticed that three of the four prayers seemed to have been written by the Worship Leader (the Captain of the Praise Team, and coordinator of the rest of the worship service) and handed out to the men saying prayers so that they’d better fit with the theme of the service. That MAY have been a misperception on my part (it’s not like there was a byline in the prayer), but it certainly seemed that way.

Now…the minister is an exception. I have appreciated every word I’ve ever heard Terry preach — and this is not something I can say of any other minister I’ve heard, including my dad. Terry preaches a lot of the things I believe, and I try not to make that a deciding factor when choosing a church, but it does make it easier to sit through a sermon, let me tell you.

Anyway, I have never felt that the sermons were particularly dictated by the themes of the Worship Leader, but rather that the Worship Leader crafted the rest of the service to highlight the sermons.

(I’m rambling a bit, I know, but I need to present the whole cloth before I can start fashioning my final point.)

It’s just this: the worship service is (I think) the defining role of a modern-day church. The worship service is what we DO as a church. It spawns lots of other things (Elderships and missions and youth groups and Bible classes and fellowship dinner), but all of these things develop because, first, we created a building and a congregation to participate together in the worship service.

(That’s WHY if you had two Christians who attended different churches but, say, would go out together to perform good deeds and feed the poor, and support and encourage each other, and all the other social things Christians do, you’d still say they’re members of different congregations. Because they attend different churches to observe the worship service.)

I’m fairly confident a church is defined by its worship service, and (as I said above) the Memorial church’s worship service is exactly what I think it oughtn’t to be — an exquisitely crafted religiouslike experience. And yet (here’s the challenging part), the church community seems to be exactly what I think a church community ought to be. They interact as Christians ought to interact. They are active in the world, apparently deliberately reshaping it to be more like the world God would want for Man, and they BELIEVE in God in a way I have rarely seen, even among my friends (let alone in churches!).

It bothers me. I would REALLY like to say that it’s all because of Terry. The preacher does such a good job saying the right things (remember, I already said he says the things I believe) that the congregation can’t HELP but hear his true meaning, and so they overcome the influence of the crafted worship service to actually experience Real Truth on their own.

I want to believe that, for the sake of the things I believe. I’m not so arrogant as to casually do that, though. It could be the…whaddyacallit…counterproof? Something like that. A test result directly contradicting a proposed hypothesis. It could be that the very existence of Trish’s church proves me completely wrong.

I don’t think that’s the case, either. Rather, Trish’s church seems to me to be an exception. A proof that Man can, in spite of his environment, twist just about anything into the shape he wants it to be. This church just happens to have enough people anxious enough to find Real Truth that they have taken the good and left the bad, and made this church into what they needed it to be, in spite of the inherent aspects of its methods that SHOULD have been obstacles.

I understand exceptions. I’ve told you recently that I’m a fairly pragmatic fellow, and the world constantly throws up exceptions to any good rule (it’s part of my argument for social construction, and against logical naturalism). I’m thinking Trish’s church is more like America — a very successful, very admirable anomaly. That’s no reason to build churches according to the example of Memorial, though, no more than it’s a reason to endorse Democratic Anarchy according to the example of the U.S. It’s just something to wonder at, I think.

I THINK. But, as I said, I recognize that it’s a challenge to my beliefs, and I constantly assail that challenge, rather than simply writing it off as an anomaly. That’s why I bring it up here. I’ll let you see my thought process, see the way I consider and examine.

Ahp! I’ve said a lot, and I think I hit my main points pretty early on and then rambled where I should’ve done follow-through, so maybe this will have been a pretty useless article. I dunno. Comments will tell, I guess.

God: God’s Divine Plan and the Meaning of Life

I’ve already told you the meaning of life (that is, the reason for this temporal existence). It’s an opportunity for us to learn that Man’s way doesn’t work — that striking out on our own is…unpleasant. Even with all the beauty and the love and goodness we DO manage to effect, the sum total of human independence is a life we DON’T want to live.

Life is a chance to learn that.

After all, most of the beauty and the love and the goodness are aspects of God in our lives ANYWAY, so living independently merely reduces the amount of it. And, that reduced amount doesn’t make up for the genocide and the starving babies and etc.

So. Where, then, our interventionist God?

I’ll say this: I don’t believe God has an ultimate plan for the things that will happen in this world. I don’t think he’s in control, and I don’t think he’s trying to be. Oh, he’s CAPABLE of it — he’s shown before and he shows again every day that there’s nothing in this world so real that he can’t bend or twist it to his needs. But, for the most part, he doesn’t have much in the way of needs.

He needs a voice calling out his name, so that others will hear and remember what they already know. He needs a perfect life lived and a payment in blood to forgive on the infinite scale the mistakes made in this finite place. And that’s been done. I think, pretty much, that’s the plan. Oh, yeah! He needs people to be people (and learn why that doesn’t work).

That’s life, right there. That’s God’s divine plan for this world. I don’t think God has a plan that involves where you work, or what color your baby’s eyes are. Life is in OUR hands — he gave us dominion over this world and it goes all the way. And — rain on the just and the unjust — he gave dominion to ALL of us. Not just the good ones.

I’ll say it loud: God is not responsible for the state of this world. People are. People made this world.

God’s not even responsible in an initial kinda way, because he didn’t MAKE people in this world. He starts them out in Eden, and starts them out with a nature that will keep them there, but their own proud curiosity drives them (and, of course, by “them” I mean “us”) out of Eden and into this world, which we then help make more like it is.

This world, the one we live in day to day, is not of God’s making, but it (as a whole) fits within his plan for that other world, Infinity. Life is broken (we broke it), and that simple realization is an opportunity to learn why we should let go of it.

Does this all sound like I’m repeating myself? I’m actually trying to extend the argument to a conclusion. God’s Plan has nothing to do with our day-to-day lives. If God controlled that — if he exerted his dominion over how the world runs, and its general course — then life wouldn’t be able to serve the purpose it serves. It’s not that he’s an uncaring God (as some have said) and certainly not that he’s an absent God. It’s just that this life is doing what it was meant to do — it’s hurting as much as it heals. Which is a reminder that there’s a world that doesn’t hurt at all.

But what about prayer? I can practically hear you shoving each other out of the way to be the first to challenge me with that. Didn’t I say I believed in prayer? Am I shoving God out of the world entirely now?

Not at all. There are two answers here, and the difference between them is kinda subtle. (Also, one of them presumes I’ve done a better job establishing the whole nature of constructed reality than I have, but I’ll ignore that for now.)

First: people are born in Eden, entirely devoted to God’s giving, and only through living learn to try to live outside of Eden, which enters them into this world, which is Man’s dominion, not God’s. By trusting yourself wholly to God, by walking in the light, as it has been said, you begin the process of removing yourself from Man’s world and entering back into God’s. Prayer for THINGS doesn’t qualify as this — asking God to work miracles and bend the reality that we think of as reality, that’s insisting on staying within this reality but wanting it to be a better one.

But committing yourself to God, within this life, removes you mostly from it and entrusts your self to a world where God IS in complete control. That’s what Eden is all about.

That’s the first option. Your frame can be ambling around in the real world, while your spirit rests in God’s dominion.

The other option is one I offered above as a possibility: miracles, powerful prayer, interventionist deity. And I believe in these things, and I think it’s the only possible way to claim that God lets us run our own lives, but still loves us.

Because he’s there as a safety net, as a protector, as a Providence. He gave us full control, but part of that control is the capacity to ask God to help out. He is very much there, and he is very much paying attention — he’s just not running the show. A mother watching her children perform a puppet show, maybe. She’s paying attention and deliberately not interfering, for their sake, but she’s still there in her full capacity as their mother, ready to step in and save them if they get hurt, or to correct them if they take this little play too far into wickedness.

It’s a pleasant metaphor, and it gets a basic idea, but I’m not trusting it too far. Get the gist out of the image and then let it go, because it’s not a whole parallel. Still, God is there, constantly, watching and listening and dearly loving us. He answers prayers, he changes things within this world (perhaps things we could change on our own, through magic or logic or technology, perhaps things we couldn’t), but he doesn’t guide its flow. He doesn’t tell us what our world should be…or, rather, he did, once, and we saw it, and we shrugged, and we said, “Ehh, I could do better.”

And that’s this world. The other one is still there, waiting for us, and God DOES have an active hand in that world — he’s constantly maintaining it as the perfect residence for Man, and constantly inviting us back to it. We get to live in this sandbox of a Life for as long as we need to, to learn, and it’s all ours, but God’s is there, too, just as real, and always open.

God: The Call to Worship

Trish’s church presents me with a real challenge….

Let me say this: the body has cravings. A body needs certain things to survive, and it expresses these needs to the mind as desire. I’m not trying to posit some clever point here, I’m just trying to state something we’ll all agree on, so if you don’t like that wording, rearrange it as necessary.

Sometimes you get hungry. You get hungry because you need nourishment for energy to keep on living. I don’t mean to say “every time you get hungry, that time is because you need nourishment.” What I mean, the reason animals get hungry at all, is because they need nourishment, and that craving is a message from the body to the brain.

Now let me go on to say this: people have a need for God in their lives. Again, I’m not ASSERTING that people have a need for God in their lives, whether they accept it or not, and advocating that we go out and add God to people’s lives because they’re ignorant….

They’re not. That’s exactly as likely as someone being unaware that they need food to go on living. Yes, it’s a condition that occurs in some, but the vast majority of people KNOW when they have a need, whether or not they are able to fill that need in a responsible way.

So it is with God, and worship. Worship of God is something imposed on Man by the majesty of his (Man’s) existence, not by the arrogant will of an egotistical God. We need, for health and happiness, to cry out to God in wonder and humility. We need to experience God’s role in our lives, and actively step into his presence. We need to feel the divine blood coursing through us. There is a thirst in Man to experience such majesty.

And here is my concern with organized religion: it meets that need.

How many sermons have you heard stressing that, “Christianity is not what happens in this building…it’s what happens when you go outside!” Why are all of those sermons necessary? If any of them worked, why would they keep getting preached?

If the need to experience God’s majesty is like hunger, organized worship is like candy. It meets that need, in a most pleasant way. It satisfies your craving AND leaves you feeling good…but without the nutrients you need. Most of the time when you’re hungry, it’s not from lack of sugar and chocolate. It’s from lack of vitamins, nutrients, but you can satisfy the craving without actually healing yourself. And so your Mom reminds you, all the time, “eat some vegetables.” You buckle down and force yourself to eat some healthy food every now and then, because you know you’ve gotta, but when you get hungry, your desire is not for healthy food, but junk food.

Church is junk food. That’s why we have preachers telling us over and over again, “Get out there and eat some vegetables.” Church is a spectacle, crafted majesty. It’s an opportunity to CREATE that feeling of being in God’s presence (by just the right combination of socializing and ritualizing and performance, and DON’T get the mixture wrong or your whole congregation will rip apart). The thing is…that’s a feeling you usually have to WORK for.

In real life, you have to devote yourself, day and night, to consideration of God and his holy message in order to get the kind of insight and understanding a preacher can hand you on Sunday morning. You have to step out of your comfort zone and get dirt on your hands helping strangers, helping the poor and sick and needy, to get the kind of spiritual high that church offers with a well-chosen selection of songs. You have to be prepared with an open heart and mind when you stumble upon the most amazing display of natural beauty, to get the kind of quiet joy that church just POURS into you….

An interesting thing about junk food is that it creates its own cravings. You learn to be hungry, not when your body needs nutrition, but when your body wants more junk food. And you confuse the two, and you begin to realize how hungry you always are, and how much that junk food satisfies your hunger, and suddenly it seems like that junk food is an important part of your diet (more important than the broccoli and sprouts that you’re NEVER hungry for).

Church is like that. You hear people talk about how they couldn’t make it through a week without the energy they get from church on Wednesday night. And I always sigh inside, because they’re admitting their surrender. If they didn’t have church on Wednesday night, they couldn’t make it through the week without being HUNGRY for God.

And, I like to think, when they felt that hunger they’d go out and sate it. Not with some cheap, easy fix. Not with artificial preservatives (I’ll have to do more with that line, sometime…), but tracking down and hunting real spiritual food. Actually loving and forgiving neighbors, actually experiencing God in this life, or understanding God’s plan for the next.

I’ve also heard it said (although I can’t personally attest) that when you really start eating healthy, your body starts to crave healthy food. And, suddenly, junk food isn’t even attractive anymore. You can eat a little bit, but it mostly makes you uncomfortable.

I like that part about craving healthy food. I like it within the metaphor — that if we were somehow driven to earnestly serve God (rather than to meet our own needs in a hall of worship), day in and day out, maybe some day we would learn to do that naturally, easy, to walk constantly in the presence of God. To experience his majesty throughout our life, not just in the individually packaged, Fun Size doses three times a week.

All that said, Trish’s church presents me with a real challenge. I’ll explain how another time.

God and Greatness: Attainable Virtue

It is a very good book, as I said before. It SUCKS, as I said before, but it is a very good book. You all have to read it, on pain of dire disgrace.

I liked this bit:
God had said that it was only the men who could give up their jealous selves, their futile individualities of happiness and sorrow, who would die peacefully and enter the ring. He that would save his life was asked to lose it.

Yet there was something in the old white head which could not accept the godly view. Obviously you might cure a cancer of the womb by not having a womb in the first place. Sweeping and drastic remedies could cut out anything — and life with the cut. Ideal advice, which nobody was built to follow, was no advice at all. Advising heaven to earth was useless.

I love that last paragraph. Not the particular application to which it’s put — I just included that for context — but the central idea. It’s why I’m saying so much of what I’m trying to say — why, even if the church WORKS as it is, we drastically need to revise what we do with it in our lives.

Any religion of Man which makes it evil to BE a Man, is doomed from the start (although, if human history is any example, destined to be quite popular). We can’t HELP being people, we were made that way. It needs to be a starting point, not a destination avoided at all costs! Egads!

Anyway, I’m drained and spent. Stupid, stupid, stupid history! Danged dirty Mordred. If ever anyone needs a punch in the face, it was him. Seriously, this is worse than Gladiator (at least in that, it was Russel Crowe getting the whack). This is…Germanicus. Well…it’s King Arthur. Real tragedy. Damn.

Go pick up a copy. Read it. We can share in the cursing.