Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Jesus in a Stable? How We Read the Bible

Obviously this essay comes a little late, as we are now past Christmas entirely.  However, a friend of mine posted this article early in Advent and I think it's worth consideration: Once More Jesus Was Not Born in a Stable.  I do not, though, think it is worth consideration in the same way most others who commented on the article do.  My friend and others thought the article proved a point about Jesus's actual birth arrangements while I said, "Who cares?  The meaning of the story remains the same."  With time to elaborate my position, here's a clarification why I do not think the word and socio-historical study found in the article matters at all.  It is perhaps best that you read the linked article before continuing.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Matthew's version of the good news seems to assume that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem prior to the birth.  In that version of the gospel we have no travel story from Nazareth to Bethlehem and Mary and Joseph are still in Bethlehem a year or two after the birth, when the magi arrive.  Those two pieces of evidence strongly imply that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem and only came to Nazareth after having to flee Herod's wrath.  We're not dealing with Matthew's version here because the word in question is not used in the birth narrative, though it is important to keep in mind the general understanding of the narrative found even in Matthew: the birth of Jesus was not comfortable because his parents became refugees soon after.

Luke's version of the gospel, which does use the word kataluma (traditionally translated 'stable') in the narrative, makes the case of discomfort slightly more pronounced, at least prior to the birth.  While pregnant Mary has to travel quite a ways.  First she visits her cousin and then she travels to Bethlehem.  Often, with the advent of cars, we think of walking sixty to ninety miles as a massive undertaking.  It wasn't then and it isn't now.  Still, even then, there's the obvious understanding in Luke that traveling while pregnant is not exactly ideal.  To then be met with no available room, whether in an inn or in a family's house, would have been no doubt frustrating either way. 

Consider being pregnant near your due date, having traveled to a place just for a census, and then people don't make room for you.  If it's an inn we're talking about, that makes sense: people would have already paid; if it's a family's house we're talking about, it makes no sense, despite the attempt to argue Joseph and Mary surely would have been invited in by family.  Think about how you'd feel if your family, no matter how distant, saw how pregnant your wife is and said, "Oh, sorry, but your cousin Peter already took the guest bed.  You know how it is."  If the socio-historical argument that Joseph and Mary certainly would have been welcomed by family, but the house was already full because others had gotten there first for the census, is considered correct, then that is actually an act of extreme inhospitality for not kicking someone else out to make Mary more comfortable.  The foundations of the argument are actually contradictory.

Besides, the mention of the angels to the shepherds that finding a child lying in a manger will be a sign to them must be considered, too.  Putting a newborn child in a manger must have been surprising.  Otherwise it can't have been a sign.  If something unsurprising were the sign then the shepherds may have searched around the town forever and a day and never found Jesus.  That is especially true when we think again of the socio-historical argument: if everyone's homes were full, then Jesus may not have been the only child lying in a manger.  He may have been the only newborn lying in a manger but he can't possibly have been the only child wrapped snugly in a manger if we're to understand that everyone's homes were bursting due to an excess of hospitality.  Also, if the manger with the animals were inside the house, as Ian Paul argues, then that means the shepherds would have had to look inside every single person's home.  Hospitable society or not that seems a bit strange.  The story's implication is that the shepherds would have easily found the sign.  Essentially the problem is this: the socio-historical argument tries to explain what happened by describing the expected average of society at the time, but the story itself argues that we should dispense with the expected average because it was surprising.  The discomforting surprise is the sign to the shepherds.

(As a footnote, but not knowing how to do footnotes on a blog: Ian Paul, in the article, argues that since animals and therefore mangers were close to or inside the home that "stable" is the wrong translation.  I question that.  There's a reason that the second definition of the Greek word is to 'unloose or untie.'  Whether the word means a place to unloose or untie, or it means a spare room in a private dwelling, either way animals would be there.  In that case, our understanding of the word "stable" as a place where animals are still applies.  The issue, then, is not with the translation but with our understanding of how stables work.  Keeping animals in the stable away from the home is a very recent invention in the ultra-civilized West.  Through the 1800s, as I understand it, "stable" still would have had the appropriate meaning.  The argument is a little strange to me.)

There are further and more serious issues with the socio-historical argument which underpins the interpretation in the word study.  Already I have hinted at a literary contradiction within the story, if and only if the argument in the article is accepted.  That contradiction grows when we consider the wider context of salvation history as found in our scriptures.

Our story must return all the way back to David.  Appropriate, considering both birth narratives make it a point to connect Jesus to David through his geneaology, albeit in different ways.  Actually, our story must go further back into our salvation history but it's all related to David.  It's possible to use more passages as explanation here but I'll focus on the major ones.

In Judges 19, the people of Benjamin, of which Bethlehem is originally a part depending on which passages we use and how we draw the maps, prove more inhospitable than even the people of Sodom.  The people of Sodom threaten anal rape but do not have the opportunity to follow through.  The people of Benjamin, in Judges 19, do have the opportunity, raping and killing a fellow Israelite's concubine and leaving her dead outside.  What's worse about this act of extreme inhospitality is that the man had originally stopped outside Jebus, a non-Israelite town, and decided to continue on his journey for fear of not being welcomed.  Indeed, he wasn't welcome by the people of Gibeah at first either, with no one offering him a place in their home.  It was only when an older man came back from the fields, offered the man and his concubine a place to stay the night, that the people of Gibeah (of Benjamin) felt the need to make sure the man did not feel welcome by raping someone, either him or his property, his concubine.  Interestingly, the man's concubine is from Bethlehem.  The story ends with the man cutting his concubine into twelve pieces, sending it to the twelve tribes, asking, "Has anything like this ever happened since we came out from Egypt?"  Obviously the answer is, "No, how horrible," so the rest of Israel almost wipes out the tribe of Benjamin.

What Judges 19 teaches us is clear and simple: the rest of Israel did not like the tribe of Benjamin because of this act of inhospitality.  Judah is implicated, too, because the story implies that the concubine and her father, from Bethlehem in Judah, proved testy and difficult.  If we read Genesis well we'll know that the character of Judah was probably only marginally accepted by the rest of Israel, as well, because of his sexual encounter with his sister, Tamar.  The dislike that the rest of Israel definitely had for Benjamin and may have had for Judah would only grow with the coming kingdom.

Before the kingdom if Israel comes to fruition, God through the prophet Samuel tells the people quite clearly in 1 Samuel 8 that His chosen people do not need and should not have a king.  Having a king of Israel, God essentially argues, would mean a spiritual failing among the people of Israel.  Of course, God is not entirely surprised, since the episode in Judges 19 is the basically the story immediately prior to Israel's demanding a king.  Despite God's urging, the people of Israel demand a king anyway.  God gives in. 

We should notice, however, that 'the people of Israel' demanding a king may not have applied to the entirety of Israel.  The first two kings of Israel, before kingship is passed along by blood, Saul and David, are Benjaminites.  How strange is that considering what has so recently transpired with Benjamin?  More than that, Saul is said to reign in Gibeah, the offending town in the Judges story, for thirty-eight years.  Interesting.  Then, when David is first crowned king 'of all Israel' in Hebron, only the tribe of Judah is present (2 Samuel 2).  All the other tribes support Saul's son.  Only after Saul's son dies by assassination do the other eleven tribes claim David as king of 'all Israel.'  It should come as no surprise, then, that when Solomon's son Rehoboam comes to power over the kingdom of Israel that the ten tribes other than Judah and Benjamin come, with Jeroboam as their representative, to complain that they are being mistreated by the king, first by Solomon and now by Rehoboam.  Rehoboam rebuffs the people and the kingdom splits with the northern ten tribes taking the name, "Kingdom of Israel," and with Judah and Benjamin taking the name, "Kingdom of Judah."  Reading this story it is hard not to think it entirely possible that the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, the disliked tribes within Israel, are the ones who wrongly demanded a king, which simply added to the division between Judah/Benjamin and the other ten tribes.  Based on the trajectory of the tribal characters it makes sense that Judah and Benjamin would initiate a kingdom so opposed by God and the other tribes and that the other tribes would then need to rebel against the kingdom of Judah and Benjamin. 

One last story we should consider is that of Ruth.  In the Christian Bible, the book of Ruth is placed before the books of Samuel (the story of David) as if to propagandize David's lineage.  In the Hebrew Bible, however, the book of Ruth is placed in the section called Writings.  Many scholars argue that Ruth was written around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah when the prophets were advocating a cleansing of the Israel, meaning that foreigners be kept separate from true Israelites so that Israel could again be holy.  The prophets believed that the dissolution of Israel's character was due, in part, to taking non-Israelites as wives.  By placing the book in Writings, the Jewish people understood that the story is a fictional attempt to counter the prophets' argument--foreign wives, like Ruth, can actually have the character of the people of Israel.  It is the character of Israel most at stake in the book of Ruth.  Ruth's famed loyalty is actually not the point of the story except as one indication of what Israel's character can and should look like.  More importantly to the story's attempt to recapture the true nature of Israel's character, whether embodied by a foreigner like Ruth or not, is Boaz's hospitality shown to Ruth and Naomi.  Note well that Naomi and Ruth come home to... Bethlehem, a town of Judah (and, again, possibly Bethlehem according to a select few).  Bethlehem was known to be David's city, so connecting Ruth to David makes sense; but connecting the call to hospitality to Bethlehem, a town of one of the tribes the rest of Israel had come to know as inhospitable, is far more significant.  The writer of Ruth is arguing that even the two southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin can reclaim the character of Israel, and that doing so is more important than removing foreigners from Israel.

If we are going to understand the birth narrative we should first understand the above.  The issue is what true believers in God, those who want to be righteous according to the law and according to the true character of Israel, think of Benjamin and Judah, the southern kingdom, and David's reign.  Based on the literature of our salvation history written prior to Jesus's birth, it would appear that anyone wanting to be a true Israelite would probably stay away from the tribal lands of Judah and Benjamin and the sites of royalty, including Jerusalem and the temple, even while acknowledging those sites as important.  Perhaps Joseph and Mary, whom we read are both righteous, have purposely left their familial lands--at least according to Luke's version.  Perhaps Mary and Joseph acknowledge that their family's character, at least historically, will not positively influence their relationship with God.

More to the point, we must ask if Mary and Joseph would have been welcome by family, no matter how close, in Bethlehem, in a land in which the people of Israel have made clear in the accounts of our salvation history are not, actually, hospitable.  The assumption, socio-historically, is yes.  Maybe so.  But the assumption of our text in which we learn of our salvation history is probably not.  Indeed, Joseph and Mary may not have wanted to be welcome by a family whose lands they have left.  Whatever Mary and Joseph may have wanted, though, the text of our salvation history affirms Luke and Matthew's perspectives that the birth was probably uncomfortable and, then, the standard interpretation that Mary was more or less alone except for Joseph and some animals may be more appropriate.

A further indication that Mary and Joseph may not have wanted to, or at least may have expected not to, receive hospitality from Bethlehemites is Mary's own declaration of what was happening in her Magnificat.  Praise and glory be to God for looking on the lowliness of her servant and for uplifting the lowly, feeding the hungry, and sending the rich empty away.  The entire gospel according to Luke paints Jesus as comfortable with the lowly, as amongst the lowly (footnote: Take, for instance, the lawful offering noted by Luke in 2:22-24, the alternative offering for the poor), and serving the lowly and poor.  Personally I would also argue that the passages most difficult to read for those who value family are emphasized in Luke's version of the gospel, as in, "my brothers and sisters are the ones who follow my Word," and "you must hate father and mother, brother and sister, etc. to be my disciple."  If I'm right about that, then the other story of Jesus's childhood in Luke's version, that of his being left behind in the temple, fits right in: Jesus himself may consider himself a loner (footnote: Again, personally, I'd argue that Luke emphasizes how often Jesus goes off by himself to pray more than other versions of the gospel.).  We're focusing here more on Luke's version because of its role in the stable debate but if we combine the refugee story in Matthew, again, the picture we get from the narrative is that of lowliness and separateness, perhaps to the point of loneliness, for Jesus's parents and possibly Jesus himself.  What that means is that the story would be arguing for Jesus's birth to occur in near solitude, away from family, because, as Mary herself acknowledges, the child to be born will redeem such humiliations.  According to the story of salvation history, we should assume inhospitality and discomfort before we assume anything else, and not be afraid of such readings because Jesus has taken on that loneliness, discomfort, and disgrace.  At no point does the story support a reading in which Jesus and his parents are welcomed during the birth.

According to my reading, then, it is far more appropriate to still think of Jesus's birth occurring in a stable than not to.  I do not argue that the reason is because Jesus no doubt was born in a stable, whether it's how we currently understand a stable or not, nor do I argue that the reason is because it is easier to accept our traditions as they are.  Rather, I argue that the meaning of the story of Jesus's birth and how the story tells us who Jesus is and will be, as understood by the text itself, is best understood by modern minds by thinking of Jesus as born in a stable.

My reading of the birth narrative clearly depends on a wider, literary reading of the Bible itself, trying to understand the full context of the story in salvation terms as told to us by God Himself through our scripture.  The other reading, in Ian Paul's article, assumes a socio-historical approach: what were the times like, what did this word most often mean and how does it apply to my approach?  The tricky part about interpretation is that we often can't assume one approach is right and the other is wrong.  Without question Ian Paul's word study and socio-historical rendering of the story is interesting.  Interesting, certainly, but to reprise my former and original question, should we care?

The way I see it, Paul's socio-historical approach assumes that historical generalities apply even when something as surprising and shocking as the birth of our Savior occurs.  If we agree with such an assumption, then perhaps we should care about his argument that Jesus was not (despite the contradictions in the argument itself) born in a stable or anything approaching a stable.  My literary approach, however, assumes that God speaks to us about the meaning and means of salvation through scripture.  And in so assuming, I am more concerned with the meaning that the stories have to speak to us (footnote: By the way, part of Paul's defense is that other scholars have been making the argument for a long time.  He goes back to, you guessed it, the time when the socio-historical approach first starting gaining serious tracking.  I bring it up because without knowing it he argues my point, that before that people were less concerned with his approach and more concerned with the overall meaning of the story and of salvation history.).  Paul's general question of whether it is good to challenge assumptions and traditions is absolutely correct.  But to further imply that one's challenge is actually 'right' is not at all correct.  There are different ways of reading the Bible.  Of course, in this particular case I think the socio-historical approach is out of place and fairly weak, especially compared to my literary-contextual approach which takes into account the character and history of the people of Israel through God's lens.  At the end of the day, though, even I have to admit that it is up to each of us individually how to "get it right." 

So who cares whether Jesus was born in a stable or not?  Not I, because with or without that fact I can read quite clearly the meaning of salvation history through Jesus's birth: he comes to live amongst and as the lowly and outcast, the poor and alone, so as to bring salvation to all of God's children.

(And as a tangent added on to this essay: Those most interested in challenging traditions and assumptions through a socio-historical approach and the related word study concerned with Jesus's birth seem, to me, to not know how to read the Bible in other ways.  Not only that, but they seem hell-bent on limiting the surprise, shock, and pure awesomeness of Christmas in an attempt to make it only about what historically is assumed to have happened.  Another example is the recent attack on the song, "Mary, Did You Know?"  Based on a cursory reading of Luke 1, people say, "Yes, of course she knew, so let's stop singing this song which is about the mystery of salvation through Christ."  Other than pointing out that there are questions in that song that Mary almost certainly did not know, it's critical to point out that the meaning of the words/phrases "ponder" and "treasured in her heart" used so frequently in relation to Mary and Joseph before Jesus's adulthood suggest that Mary did not know.  Mary heard, yes, but did not know.  Over and over again Mary seems taken aback by who her child is going to be and is.  Herein lies faith.  Like if someone came and told you that your son will be a famous singer one day because of how he cries in infancy, you may hear that but not fully grasp how it could be possible.  Salvation in hindsight is still too much for us to fully grasp, let alone know; so prophesied salvation through an as-yet unborn child, or an as-yet not adult child, especially when it is your own, would surely be too much to fully grasp.  Taking the text in an historical sense, yes, Mary knew.  But I am sad for those who take such a limited approach.  They are missing the joyful response of faith, that believes even when we don't understand, that hopes even when we don't know, that rejoices even when we don't see, that follows even when the destination is only promised.  Mary did all of that in her faith, not in her knowledge.  We should do the same.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Christmas and Realness

Every year Christians of various stripes try re-claiming the meaning of Christmas.  "Put Christ back into Christmas" we say.  Sometimes the more scholarly of us try finding new or paradigm-shifting ways of reading the birth narratives in the Bible.  Whatever we do, almost all Christians use Advent to complain that Christmas is no longer really Christmas.  I wonder if we're using our time wisely.

One of the major targets of complaint, of course, is consumerism.   We spend too much time, effort, and money advertising and then buying gifts as if the gifts make Christmas.  Certainly that is true.  But then we need to talk about families who are not able to afford gifts of any kind and who are, instead, worrying about how to afford heat and electricity through the winter.  As a pastor, I have received a number of those calls over the years and it's always heart-breaking.  "Please, I want to give my kids a Christmas and I don't know what to do."  I could tell those parents that, actually, Christmas is not about giving or receiving gifts.  I could do that, but I doubt I'd be very helpful.  This year, though, one of my churches has been extremely helpful in providing a Christmas for a handful of families in turmoil and financial stress.  We provided a trunk full of mittens, hats, and scarves to families in need; and another trunk full of gifts to three families who otherwise would not have had any.  Our giving was in coordination with DCF, and when we dropped off our gifts to the case worker, the case worker cried tears of joy; one of the parents, we learned later, also was overcome with tears of joy and exclaimed how amazed she was that a church would be so generous.  It was through our gift-giving on a personal level that showed the case worker and a number of families what Christmas is really about.  We cannot be quite so quick to dismiss consumerism.  An element of consumerism can and does speak Christmas to those in need.

Now, this essay is not about consumerism and Christmas.  Rather, it's perhaps useful to say that our trying to determine the meaning of Christmas for people serves little use. What does it mean, really, when we say we should put Christ back into Christmas? (By the way, as an aside: when people say we should put Christ back into Christmas, I think they are reacting to people's writing or saying, "XMas."  Which is funny because the first letter of Christ's name in Greek, the language of our New Testament, is X--spelled 'Chi,' generally pronounced 'kai.' Throughout early and late Christian history, X stood for Christ.  'Xmas' is, in fact, quite appropriate.)  Or what does it mean when we dig into the birth narratives using our preferred method of interpretation to figure out the real meaning of Christmas?  Next to nothing, I argue.

 To make my point I reference a wonderful movie, Anomalisa, if for no other reason than that you should watch it.  In the film, the main character, Michael, is a successful but hopeless man searching for meaning in his life while away at a hotel for a conference.  Watching the film, you quickly notice that everyone except for Michael has the same voice.  Male or female, every character speaks with the same voice.  Obviously, then, to Michael, life is dreary and he cannot enjoy any interaction or relationship, not even with his wife or son, because everyone is the same person.  Or, put another way, everyone is no one--no person is real except for himself.

Imagine Michael's elation, then, when he hears a different voice from down the hall.  He runs to search for the voice, frantically knocking on doors hoping he'll find the real person.  Michael finds her, Lisa.  She happens to be rooming with a friend, Emily, and both of them are there for the conference because they're big fans of his.  Both of them, then, jump at the chance to have a drink with Michael.  Emily fawns all over Michael, filling the stereotypical role of a beautiful groupy.  But Michael decides not to have easy sex with Emily, who is the same as all other people on the planet, and instead returns to his room with Lisa, who is awkward, not intelligent, and rather erratic.  Michael is quite simply entranced with her voice, with her realness, and wants to spend the night listening to her.  So Michael tells Lisa to tell a story.  While she's talking, Michael initiates a sexual encounter.

There's much more to the movie but this is a good place to take an intermission.  Indeed, my wife, Danielle, and I did take an intermission at this point, and Danielle proceeded to share her anger about Michael.  "Typical man," she said.  I wasn't angry with him and Danielle was surprised.  "You, a pastor, are not angry with a guy who just committed adultery?"  I want to say that it's a movie and I would be upset and disappointed with anyone who commits adultery, though I'd also pray with that person.  The reason I wasn't upset with Michael, though, is worth investigating.

The question is: can you commit adultery if the person you're married to is not a real person?  If everyone in the world is fake except for you and your mistress, is that adultery?  Think of all the fake people as cardboard cutouts.  If I were to slash apart every cardboard cutout in the world, is that murder?  Or is it only murder if I also slash apart another real person?  If both are murder, then do we commit murder every time we flatten a box to put it into recycling?  Is it possible to do harm to a person who isn't even a person, who is more of a something than a someone?  Human traffickers often prioritize convincing victims that they are not a person but are ultimately a thing, and that is evil, but that's not what we're talking about here.  What if everyone had never been a person to begin with?

These questions remind me of Diogenes the Cynic, who is known for having carried around a lantern in broad daylight.  Everyone thought him to be a fool but, in response, Diogenes claimed everyone else was a fool.  "I'm in search of an honest man," Diogenes would say.  A later story about Aesop is similar, in which Aesop claims he's looking for a real, or honest, man.  According to these stories, everyone on earth except for the philosopher himself were, actually, walking around in darkness, despite the sun's being out.  The philosopher thus needed a lantern to walk around in such darkness, that only those in the dark perceived as light, and would find an honest, or real, man because the other real man would either also carry a lantern or be stumbling around as if lost, like Michael in the film.

Believe it or not, our holy writ agrees, in principle, with Diogenes.  The best example comes from Paul's Letter to the Romans.  In that letter, Paul argues that all people, though alive, are actually dead.  If we're reading carefully, I think that we'll find Paul means this literally.  We are all dead.  We may think we are alive but we aren't.  The only way we can be truly alive is if we let go of our death and live through the Holy Spirit.  Only by the power of God's Spirit can we find life, have life, and live.

One of our philosophers, Soren Kierkegaard, also agrees.  All of his writings, his whole life purpose, was dedicated to "that solitary individual," that one other person out there who was stumbling around in the darkness.  Kierkegaard's magazine, The Moment, make his argument clear and plain: you all who claim to be Christian have no idea what Christianity and discipleship actually are; you're not real; you're not alive; you're dead, walking around in darkness calling it light.  To Kierkegaard, following the dictates of the Church did not a Christian make, and so even if a person 'put Christ back into Christmas' via the Church, that person would still be fake, would still be a cardboard cutout.  Christ's Incarnation on Christmas did not occur so that we could say, "I believe in Christ," just like all other cardboard cutouts, and be saved.  Rather, Christ's Incarnation on Christmas occurred so that we could find Christ, truly, in our hearts and lives, and be real.  What being real in Christ means, though, is that we appear to be a man carrying a lantern in broad daylight.

What Christmas is about is being a real person, being a Michael, a Lisa, a Diogenes.  Christ's coming into the world isn't so that we could celebrate the birth of Christ but so that we are not cardboard cutouts.  Prior to Christ's coming into this world as a real person, as really human flesh, religion ruled the day.  Nietzsche is right on this score.

Oftentimes Nietzsche is labeled as the bane of any religious person's existence.  If that were true, then that would mean that Christians are incapable of reflecting on the nature of our faith.  Nietzsche's philosophy is critical, I think, in understanding the meaning of Christianity.  Not the entire philosophical system but some of it.  The most relevant of Nietzsche's ideas is that religion formed around an attempt to codify and perpetuate rules, probably for the sake of creating a system of power.  What perhaps began as a true and charismatic religion becomes a system bent on creating new cardboard cutouts, concerned only with what God told us to do and what God promises to do for us, as told through the powerful priests, rather than concentrating on the nature and existence of God and our existential relationship to that God.  All religions do it, though Nietzsche focused on Judaism and Christianity.  Look at the Buddha and Buddhism.  The Buddha tried escaping a rules-based system, the caste tradition of Hinduism, and didn't want to start a religion.  Instead, the Buddha attempted to tear down the rules and simply find nirvana.  What resulted over time, however, was and is a religion that, though without many rules, still centers around a "how to" rather than a "be/being" system.  Luther, Wesley, and other first movers of new denominations in Christianity have had the same experience.  In trying to delete rules-based religion and return to a charismatic, faith-based "be/being" way of life, rules-based religions and new denominations come into being. 

What Nietzsche well articulates is that spiritual movements meant to revitalize individuals striving toward or finding salvation in real, being ways, meant to aid individuals to find the objective reality of God/Truth/Nirvana in a personal/subjective way, then quickly and inevitably themselves turn into demanding objective realities that eschew the very Spirit behind the revitalization.  So what was once about finding God's grace in our life, being slain in or led by the Spirit, finding oneness with nirvana, etc., becomes about being a good member of a religion or denomination.  Rather than being real people with our own unique voices as we seek and live with the Spirit of God, we become living cardboard cutouts, living the lives we think we "should" based on what a religion or denomination has told us; our inner monologue is no longer our own or one synergistically worked out with God but instead is a script given to us.  In that case we are still living, our hearts are still beating, but our lives are not real.

For our lives to be real, we obviously cannot be a cardboard cutout, and that means putting aside the script given to us by the author of a religion or denomination or nationalism.  It is difficult to do so.  The script and voice of the author (as opposed to The Author) is often compelling.  Almost all men everywhere, pig or not, would have slept with Lisa's friend Emily because she is intelligent, charming, and clearly putting herself in a position for an affair.  Lisa, on the other hand, is awkward, not intelligent, and barely seems to understand what's going on in her own life.  Choosing Lisa over Emily in that situation may sound like the right choice on paper but when put into that situation hardly anyone would do so.  The non-real choices scripted for us by the fake voice and author are always more compelling because we have been scripted/taught to choose them.  Yet choose Lisa we must in order to be real.  Despite all her deformities, and indeed her face is scarred, her strangeness and awkwardness, Lisa is confident in seeking out grace, hope, and her own identity on her own, for herself and by herself.  That is realness, and like Lisa it is one in a million.

In choosing Lisa and realness, however, we must always be on guard against the corruption of charism, the corruption of Spirit.  The kicker in the movie is that, when Michael decides to leave his wife and son and go off to live with Lisa because she is real, her voice starts turning into the same voice as everyone else's.  Lisa even repeats verbatim a statement made by another character earlier in the film.  Michael is left hopeless.  He is the only real person in the world and he is alone.  Yet we must wonder if, after all, Michael is at fault for the sameness of voice he hears.  He is the one who tried controlling Lisa to conform to his plan, his desire, and wanted to correct some of Lisa's idiosyncrasies.  Michael says aloud that he thinks Lisa is being "too controlling," but ultimately it would seem that Michael himself is trying to control Lisa.  Indeed, Michael himself becomes predictable.  What had begun as a unique relationship in which all he wanted was to listen to Lisa speak quickly morphs into a predictable affair.  At the beginning, a thoughtful, genuine seeker of Truth, grace, and Spirit could relate and empathize with Michael, as he appears to be seeking for something real.  Gradually it becomes clear that, rather, Michael actually desires for something real to be given to him; he wants the script, the author, to give him something real.  Thus, when Michael encounters realness, he tries to coopt and corrupt that realness to his understanding of what the script should be not only for himself but now for other people, too.  Michael misunderstands his own personal, subjective search for grace as something that should be given him; and he infringes upon others' ability to embark on the same search.

Michael's failure on his journey and hopelessness as he returns home teaches us a couple lessons: while the path to realness may always be open to us, realness itself is not given to us by a script, whether it be our own script or someone else's; and we cannot at any time compel or corrupt realness, in ourselves or others, to conform to our own desires.  In other words, we do not have the power to decide for Truth, grace, Spirit, whatever we want to call it, how we will find realness or how we will respond to realness.  We only have the power to decide whether we will embark on the journey or not.  What we will find on the journey and who we will become on the journey, well, that will be decided by God's Spirit, nirvana, or whatever else interacting with our own spirit. 

Reflecting on realness in this way, what I said above about Christmas and how most Christians nowadays approach the holiday should now make complete sense.  More than that, it should be said that, indeed, each person is a child of God.  Christ was born in real human flesh so that there could be good news for all people, as if God was truly saying to us, "You are now able and free to truly and genuinely seek me out, to make your journey to realness."  However else we interpret the Christmas stories, one thing remains static: travel.  No one is content in the Christmas story sitting put.  It is not enough to hear about the script.  Those who want to hear the good news do more than hear it.  They seek it out, they journey, they want to be made real and no longer be cardboard cutouts.  To be made real requires a journey, a journey that is impossible to script.  It is a journey only you, the individual, and God/Spirit/Truth/Grace/Nirvana/etc. can know.  It is a journey, though, that Christ's real fleshness opens up to you.  Every step you take, the path rearranges to always be open to and for you.

This Christmas, then, perhaps we dedicate ourselves to contemplation and ask, "What am I doing with my life?  Am I real or scripted?  Is my voice my own, developed between God and me, or is it essentially the same as everyone else's?  Have I corrupted my journey to realness, or someone else's journey, through an non-spiritual form of religion or social contract?"  Spending time in contemplation and asking these questions is not only the possible beginning of a journey to the realness God intends for us, the realness that Christ's birth was and is meant to encourage, but such contemplation is also foundation of the Christmas tradition.

Catholics are perhaps right to honor Mary as they do.  She is the biblical version of Anomalisa's Lisa. Mary does a lot of questioning, pondering and treasuring from conception through the entirety of Jesus's childhood.  Though she has heard the very words of an angel, though she has heard the praises of shepherds who repeat the words of the angel, and though she has heard the words of young Jesus himself, Luke 2:50 quite clearly relates Mary's pondering and treasuring to her not knowing what was being said to her.  In other words, Mary is not content blindly accepting a script, even if that script is full of good news and given to her first by an angel, then by miraculous intervention, then by the Son of God.  Instead, Mary must contemplate, she must ponder, she must process life on her own in her own way and thereby sustain her connection to the Christ and thus, too, her realness.  The letter to/of the Hebrews calls Jesus the "pioneer of our faith," and that is true, but perhaps Mary deserves that title, too.  We cannot ignore Jesus's own pioneering.  In that Luke 2 story of Jesus's childhood, when Jesus stays behind in Jerusalem rather than returning home with his parents, forcing Mary and Joseph to anxiously and angrily look for Jesus after being lost for a couple of days, it is as if Jesus is saying, "Look, I must do what is right for me to be in real relationship with our God, with my God, and I cannot merely follow the script of a son."  Jesus and Mary, then, the holy family, prove to us that the contemplative journey to realness must be done in our way, in our heart and mind, a subjective searching for the objective.  Communities of faith can be and are crucial to our journey as long as they are not scripted or lead us to follow a script.  God, Christ, must be real to us, individually, in order for ourselves to be real.

So however we read the Christmas story, however we understand the Christmas story, now is a time to reflect on our realness and whether Christ is real to us.  Have we been made real, on our own unique journey, by The Real?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Generous Trickle Down Theory and Human Dignity

For someone who thinks mainly in religious terms, it may seem that I write about economics too frequently.  You may think it's not my domain and so I should stay out; I don't know what I'm talking about, so shut up, you may also think.  Having that attitude, though, will of course only perpetuate the status quo.  If we never allow anyone to ask the question, "What is the most Christian form of economy possible?" then we may never approach a more compassionate economy and mode of production.  At the end of the day, for Christians or persons of any faith, an economy of compassion is and should be our main concern.  As long as there are people starving, living in dire conditions, and unable to afford basic necessities through no fault of their own even in the most wealthy countries, our thoughts should turn to how we might improve the well-being of our fellow sisters and brothers.

In a couple of fairly recent posts, I tried detailing what might be a Christian approach to economic questions.  There I argued that the concept of socialism/communism, if not also the practice, best fits discipleship of Christ transposed onto economics.  For many Westerners and Americans particularly, that argument may feel like a betrayal of inherited values.  We are taught, appropriately or not, to hold an aversion to socialism because capitalism works.  In a way, certainly, capitalism does work, and so I'd like to expound on my earlier essay, "It's Not the Economy, Stupid," now from the perspective of capitalism.

To do so, I'd like to refer you to the writings of Kurt Vonnegut.  In a number of short stories and novels, Vonnegut includes dystopian elements of communistic thinking.  Taken to an extreme, communistic thinking would result in the strongest people living life carrying around weights; the smartest people having electronic devices implanted on their brains to zap them whenever they have an intelligent thought; the wealthiest people attacked zealously as the scourge of the earth.  Such a world obviously sounds miserable and backward.  Striving for total equality in all ways would reduce everyone to the lowest common denominator and eliminate the greatness of human creativity and potential.  Vonnegut well argues, through irony and sarcasm, for a capitalistic mindset, a mindset that would allow and continue to encourage human ingenuity, art, and progress. 

It should be said that Vonnegut had a compassionate worldview.  He witnessed the WWII Dresden fire-bombings first-hand and considered most, if not all, war and killing as mindless and senseless.  Overall Vonnegut wanted us to love each other, to see each other as fellow human beings meandering through life, and make way for each person to live life to the fullest.  His was not a conservative worldview by any means.  Vonnegut cannot be faulted for using literature for the same neo-conservative purposes as Ayn Rand.  Indeed, in terms of worldview, Vonnegut was decisively liberal and progressive.  Yet at the same time, by artistically and truthfully showing us a world dominated by socialist principles, Vonnegut masterfully upheld the goodness of free capitalistic tendencies. 

Perhaps nowhere is Vonnegut's pro-capitalist but compassionate worldview at work more than his first novel, Player Piano.  In Player Piano, the country and each community are segregated between the engineers and managers, and the laborers.  The engineers and managers operate the machines, manage production, and constantly invent new and more effective machines.  Automation has become so effective and widespread that labor is hardly necessary any more.  We catch glimpses of large construction crews idling for hours beside a single pothole because if they finish the work too quickly, they won't have anything else to do.  Everyone receives a basic universal income that provides for all their wants and needs, enough to even supply them with the newest models of laundry machine, dishwasher, and stovetop/microwave that so reduce the need for manual labor that there is nothing left to do at home except sit in front of the TV.  Player pianos, even, have become so effective and beautiful that there's no longer any need for musicians.  Orchestras are so rare that the new form of card shark is to memorize what song orchestras are playing on TV simply by watching the hand motions and then challenging newcomers to guess what song is playing with no sound.  Socialism has run amok.  The means of production are effective enough to provide a universal income effective enough that each human life has been reduced to a blob of nothingness.  Human dignity, in the form of work and purpose, has been completely erased. 

The plot of the novel is a member of the engineer/manager class wanting to return to the land, to re-build human dignity by giving humans work to do.  Essentially, the engineer/manager wants to return to a purely capitalist society where a person needs to work hard by the sweat of the brow to earn an income and thus have meaning and purpose in his or her life.  He therefore joins a revolution amongst the laborers on the other side of the river against the engineer/manager class.  The revolution almost instantly fails for three reasons: the revolution was too aimless in purpose; people had become too much of a blob to care to participate in any revolution; the engineer/manager class had become too powerful and pervasive.  The capitalistic, dignified revolution was doomed, and the dystopia of socialist principles was complete.  It doesn't take a genius to conclude that it is better to avoid such a miserable future by strengthening capitalism and continuing to demand that each person work for their worth, to prove her or his capital through labor.

On the other hand, if you have read Player Piano, you'll have taken issue with my summary of the novel to this point.  The issue in the novel isn't so much with capitalist versus socialist worldviews and principles but with automation.  When human life becomes entirely automated, life is no longer human.  Again, Vonnegut sees real beauty in humanity and in what we're capable of.  Handing over every aspect of life to a machine, including art, destroys the essence of humanity.  The society Vonnegut paints in Player Piano doesn't have issues because of a robust universal income but because that universal income is used, to a person, to do nothing--to watch TV, redecorate our homes every few months, and watch machines create art.  Sixty years before Wall-E, Vonnegut showed us the insides of an entirely technological society, using Jacques Ellul's definition for 'technological'--a society that has found the best, most effective way of doing absolutely everything such that there's nothing left for a human life to do.  And, ironically, this is precisely the nightmare capitalism is gleefully driving toward.  If we're not careful, the end result of socialism and capitalism is the same.

Principally, the concept of socialism/communism states that all people should be given the same universal income so that each person can concentrate on pursuing their natural gifts, talents, and pleasures.  It is a concept of compassion, not wanting any person to work themselves to death in a field or job in which they find no pleasure.  In theory, the concept is attained by increasing the effectiveness of production to such a degree that fewer human laborers and human labor hours are required to provide the basic necessities for every person, thus ensuring that each person can focus on other pursuits.  On the other hand, the concept of capitalism states that each person should be given the freedom to find their own work and increase their own capital in whatever means they can.  It is a concept of liberty, asking and demanding that each person find their own way and own means of success.  In theory, those who have capital will seek to gain even more capital for themselves, and to do so will seek to increase production and the effectiveness of production, which before the age of the machine meant that those with capital would trickle down capital to laborers by creating more jobs to produce more and also increase wagers to encourage greater laborer morale.  Before the age of the machine, the trickle down theory at least made sense and was in contrast to the socialist/communist principle.

After the age of the machine and the coming of a truly technological society a reality, the likes of which Vonnegut portrayed for us, in which humans seek the best and most effective means of doing absolutely everything, capitalism is no longer associated with any trickling down.  Rather, capitalism is concerned with better machines and technique.  The end result of such a capitalistic society is the elimination of human work.  We see this already in almost every field.  The greatest threat to factory jobs in the future is not government policy but capitalism: a capitalistic focus will increase automation to the point where only a few engineers/managers will be needed to sit in front of machines and blinking lights.  Even doctors and nurses are being replaced by automation.  It is more 'effective,' apparently, to plug symptoms and data into a machine and then transmit automated advice and treatment to the patient.  Remember the Roomba?  For some, the automated, hands-free cleaning device was and is nothing more than a silly attempt at robot cleaning.  Yet there is no question that we as a society will seek to improve the technique of cleaning, and eventually we will reach the point of complete automation, in which we no longer need to do any cleaning ourselves.  On one hand that seems like a good thing, but it also means the loss of many jobs.  Almost everything we humans do can be automated and, in capitalism, it is our duty to seek out and implement that automation because it is the most effective and productive and profitable.  Capitalism, therefore, by nature seeks to put people out of work.  It is not unreasonable, then, to predict a Vonnegut-like world in which the only people who have any meaningful work to do are the engineers/managers, a class that comprises a small percentage of the population.  Such is the future of capitalism left unchecked.

And if human work is linked to human purpose, as the principle of capitalism argues, then, again, the natural and extreme result of capitalism is the same as the natural and extreme result of socialism.  Both end in the misery of a human life lived without dignity, without meaning, without purpose.  Capitalism seeks more capital, which seeks profitability, which seeks effectiveness, which seeks automation, which puts people out of work, which erases meaning.  There is no escaping a future of human indignity, it seems. 

If a future of human misery and indignity is inevitable, then we may ask what the better of two evils is.  I think it is rather clear that the worse of two evils is a future in which not only are we miserable but most of us are also destitute, starving, and dying.  The socialist dystopia at least cares for the well-being of the person.  Capitalism also, believe it or not, cares of the well-being of the person, but in the age of the machine, the capitalist dystopia naturally cannot care for the well-being of the person. 

Of course, asking which dystopia we choose is rather pessimistic and, hopefully, unnecessary.  Within Vonnegut's reality may be the hints of an alternative.  Again, the issue in the novel is not the universal income but the meaninglessness of life created by such a universal income.  That meaninglessness, however, is avoidable. 

Combining the effectiveness of capitalism, which sees greater and greater profits through automation, with the compassion, generosity, and purpose of socialism could create a future we'd like to live in.  Since the trickle down theory no longer applies in its original form, now being a complete delusion, we can adjust it to fit the reality of automation.  We can say that with each job lost or limited by greater automation, thanks to capitalism, we can distribute the profits from that effectiveness throughout society in the form of a universal income.  This trickled down universal income would not aim at total equality but instead at an easier life for those most impacted by the negative side of capitalism.  Therein lies the generosity, ensuring the necessities of life through capitalism's inherent success and socialism's inherent compassion. 

At the same time, we can emphasize that, indeed, work of some kind does provide meaning and purpose to human life.  A human life with nothing to do is undignified and miserable.  To ensure that our combination of capitalism and socialism works to the good, we then disassociate capitalism from technological progress.  What I mean by that is that we seek to use capitalism advantageously to increase production and economic effectiveness but no longer seek the best, most effective means of doing everything.  Other than producing life's necessities, society passionately fights for the human in other areas--the 'human' being creative, meaningful, and sometimes ineffective.  We do our own doctoring, cleaning, nursing, kid-raising, preaching, painting, acting, beer-making, and on and on, in the way we enjoy to and we find meaningful. 

Take something as silly and painful as potty-training.  My wife and I are currently discussing potty-training our oldest son.  About a year ago now we tried and failed and then decided to give up until our second son were a little older and more manageable.  Now, my wife feels that she has learned what the one, best form of potty-training is.  How couldn't she, with books upon books building off one another, getting closer and closer to the 'one, best' way?  My wife is not alone. Parents everywhere are searching out that one, best way.  Nothing against my wife, of course, or any other parent, but I wonder why we should concern ourselves with the one, best way.  If we do that, then eventually we might as well hand our kid over to an automated potty-training machine programmed in teaching the one, best way, and we'll have skipped right over Vonnegut's dystopia to Wall-E's dystopia which, if you haven't seen the movie, is truly terrifying but accurate.  Our own programming to find the one, best way ignores the joys of living out the vagaries and vicissitudes of life, and we thus find less meaning and purpose in life, even in such a small, mundane, but painful thing like potty-training.  The stakes are more clear in terms of art, where reality has caught up to Vonnegut and a machine has now taken up painting portraits.  It is instead possible to encourage and develop human creativity, ingenuity, and existential potential, and therein find greater meaning and purpose, but we must be willing to endure ineffective techniques, ineffective living, and constant diversity.

Enduring ineffectiveness--"ew, that painting does nothing for me," or "that doctor doesn't know what he's talking about!"--and diversity--where saying, "why in the world do you put the toilet paper roll on the wrong way!" or, "you know, there's a better way to plant a garden," no longer make sense--will require a significant change in attitude.  This change in attitude, however, is the only solution or cure the future we're heading toward.  Disassociating capitalist production from acquiring the best technique in all areas of life is our only hope.  The means by which we secure such a change in attitude, at least partially is by accepting and ascribing to the generosity and dignity that socialism promotes.

At the end of the day, the socialist universal income that Vonnegut portrays for us is actually quite good.  It would promote health, mentally and physically, and give us plenty of time to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.  And the only way we can do that is by strengthening capitalist production without the capitalist worldview.  It would be a generous trickle down theory guaranteeing universal human dignity.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Christian Disciples and National Elections

For the past couple of weeks, before election day, on my way to my church in Waterbury Center, I drove by a sign that read, "Your Vote Is Your Voice."  That sign terribly bothered me and it felt like a thorn in my side every time I drove past.  Why?  Because your voice is your voice; your life is your voice.  And I don't know about you, but if I had to live two consecutive years without speaking, without using my voice, I'd consider myself in a strange type of hell.  So this little essay is one small piece of an attempt to work out how a disciple of Christ is supposed to approach voting and elections to avoid any strange hells.

First of all, I am glad that I decided to wait until after the election to write this essay.  This morning--the morning after the election--I was bombarded, whether I liked it or not, with news coverage about what the election results mean for the next two years.  It was a perfect example of our obsession with the popular mantra, "one man, one vote."  We should add to that mantra to say, "one man, one vote, one day."  Citizens and media of this country, and probably of many countries, pour countless hours of worry and countless torn hairs into making change and voicing themselves for one day, and are then content or discontent with the results of that one day for years to come.  The media coverage this morning implied that the balance of Democrat or Republican (no mention of 'third' parties, of course) decided yesterday, on the national and state level, will create a static political environment for the next two years.  By 'static' I do not mean that having a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives will not lead to different political outcomes than in the previous two years; I mean that, starting with inauguration in January, day after day for the next two years will be the same. 

Residents of Vermont should know that the story we tell of an election determining political outcomes is false.  We elected a Republican governor in 2016, seemingly stamping out any hope anti-gun legislators had of introducing gun restrictions.  Then came the shootings in Parkland and Texas and our own almost-shooting in Fair Haven.  After all that, Phil Scott described himself as "jolted" (the title of what is now a great podcast about the Fair Haven almost-shooting) and encouraged and then signed bills restricting gun use and ownership.  Life happened.  More than that, the March for Our Lives and student school walk-outs happened, as well as mounting and consistent pressure from students, parents, churches, and others on politicians.  What led to the changed political landscape concerning gun laws here in Vermont was, mostly, the activation and use of people's voices.  No election necessary.  Political outcomes need not be static or determined by one day, one vote, or the balance between Democrats and Republicans.

In fact, political outcomes should not and should never be determined by one day or one vote.  'Politics' is and should be defined as the actions taken by a person to care for the 'polis'--a Greek word meaning a community of people.  At the very least Christians, if not all people of every religion, should be political almost all the time.  Christians should be concerned about the community of people around us.  The entire Bible, and especially the prophets and Jesus himself, make very clear that faith cannot be lived in a vacuum.  Rather, our faith must be lived out in concern for the poor, oppressed, and widows, according to the prophets; and according to Jesus and the New Testament letters, our faith must be lived out as disciples, as disciples of our Teacher and Lord, Jesus, who called on us to love others as he has loved us (John); to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, as in sharing the cloak off our back and offering shelter, food, clothing, and refuge to people as if they are Jesus (Matthew); and to share all things in common in love and service as if we are already living in the kingdom of God (Luke-Acts).  James summarizes all of it well: "by my works I will show you my faith."  At no point is faith in Christ meant to be the end of the story.  We are called, as faithful disciples, to care for the polis.  And God forbid if God intended for our faithfulness to be confined to a day of voting.

Discipleship, care for the polis (politics), should be lived daily.  Obviously we are busy providing the necessities for ourselves and families and discipleship, in terms of politics, may be impossible as a daily task.  Certainly, however, discipleship should be lived publicly, and therefore politically, as often as possible.  Perhaps monthly or bi-weekly would be good standards we can all attain.  That would mean that every other week or once a month we use our lives as our voice, by writing or calling our elected officials on the issues that matter to us or by actually addressing the issues that matter to us.  Putting constant pressure on your elected officials can and will change their minds.  Some politicians are, unfortunately, stereotypically hard-hearted, but most of them, in my experience, will listen to the overwhelming majority of opinion.  Even if they do not firmly believe that they are elected to represent you, at least they will believe that they have to do what the majority wants them to if they hope to be re-elected.  At the state and local levels this is especially true.  Your state and local governments can and do make faster and more effective change, anyway, and those elected officials are always far more accessible and flexible.  You can also use your voice to be your voice with non-elected officials, as well.  Town clerks and administrators, at least in the smaller New England towns that have town administrators, make a lot of decisions on behalf of the Selectboard and other elected officials and will hear you out.

If you are tired of the rambling, useless bickering between Republicans and Democrats, and would like actually new voices and real representation, it is at your state and local level you can start to find it.  Participate on those levels and you'll find that often two things are true: 1) that while party-affiliation does define a person, there is far less partisanship; 2) you are far more likely to elect 'third'-party candidates that are more clear about what their platform is than the vaguely broad platforms of the two major parties.

Whatever you do, then, you can make your voice known in many more impactful ways other than voting or ranting on social media.  Voting is a means of making your voice heard, but it is certainly not the way.  Voting can and does lead to change, but if it is the only tool in our belt then we're significantly handcuffing ourselves.  Ranting on social media, even if done wisely and respectfully, is the worst thing one can do.  It's possible to have civil arguments on social media and possibly change people's minds, and I still engage in that activity, but there is a better way to use social media.

Other than using your voice to be your voice, though, discipleship is best lived by using your life as your political voice.  If social media is your soapbox of choice, then why not use it as a means of building teams and coalitions to practically address the issues that matter most to you?  Rather than saying, "Politicians need to...," why not ask, "Who wants to help me...?"  Let's look at what living your voice as a disciple might mean practically. 

Say affordable housing is your issue of choice.  Politicians love to campaign on this one.  Apparently, whether housing is affordable or not is determined by the politicians and one or other political party.  That's what the "you must vote" machine wants you to believe.  But that's hogwash.  Currently, in Jericho, a group of clergy are looking into how our churches might be able to work together to provide affordable housing.  Think of it.  If our congregations pooled funds together, we could build a small complex with five or six housing units as a ministry, sell or rent those units at extremely low cost because we're doing it as a ministry rather than as a profit-scheme, and maintain some type of lease control over the units of it the owners of the units sell, we ensure that they receive a solid profit to buy a new house without bankrupting the new owners.  Or, if half of the members of our congregations, about a hundred-fifty people, decided to personally invest themselves in discipleship through affordable housing as ministry, we could dream bigger and build a communal living center with a shared church/sanctuary space and affordable housing units in which we also lived.  If members of our community other than our churches jumped in, boy.

Or say the opioid and drug addiction crisis is at the top of your list.  In Swanton, a group of concerned citizens decided to tackle the issue by trying to create (since I have moved, I don't know what has become of this effort) and host neighborhood block parties that would evolve into neighborhood support groups, believing that much of what leads to or contributes to addiction and addiction habits are the feelings of shame, isolation, hopelessness, and worthlessness that a community of loving, non-judgmental friends could alleviate.  Further, the team hoped to host events on spotting signs of addition in loved ones and how to help.  Churches in the area purchased DVDs about the opioid crisis in Franklin County to hand out for free.  Indeed, in the film that amounted to the biggest purchase, recovering addicts shared that they wish they had more people looking out for them, supporting them, and loving them beforehand, which the block parties and neighborhood support groups were meant to address.  The team also hoped to launch and sponsor Anonymous groups that were lacking in the area, like Narcotics Anonymous and Al-Anon. 

Or say the cost of health insurance or mental health care is your main issue, or gun violence (if you believe that gun violence is most related to mental health, which I admit I do not).  Addressing these issues apart from engaging with government and our elected officials is certainly difficult but it can be done.  My home church in Hudson, MA launched a health clinic (again, since moving away I don't know what has become of this) for those without health insurance or without the type of quality health insurance that would allow them to go for a check-up guilt-free.  As far as I recall, that clinic was extremely busy.  Obviously, a free health clinic side steps the issues of health costs and does not help if a person still needs to have an operation done, but plenty of research has showed that preemptive health checks can save the system and clients loads of money and time.  Still worthwhile.  And one idea that has been on my mind of late is the possibility of my church, or in combination with other churches, providing free emotional therapy/counseling and psychiatry on the weekends.  Stigma is probably still the number one deterrent to seeking mental health help, but I imagine that for most cost is truthfully the main factor.  If a mental health evaluation costs $100, then it makes little sense to work through the stigma; but if the evaluation and first contact is completely free, and all the sessions are free, then perhaps working through one's shame and fear of stigma might be worthwhile. 

Here I've given three examples of major political issues that have become major fights in our government because we rely on the two political parties to get stuff done, but that need not be major fights because they need not be left only or primarily to the whims of our elected officials determined on one day of voting.  If we took the time to use our lives as our voice, to be disciples of Christ, and built coalitions of like-minded people, then we could make significant inroads in addressing these three issues.  Not only these three issues, though.  Any issue that we think of can be addressed by us, you and me, right here and now and with every day of our lives. 

Relying on our vote rather than our lives, rather than living out our faith and discipleship--or philosophy and willpower, if we are not religious--is the height of laziness and indifference.  If all we do is vote, we may think that we care about the polis, about our brothers and sisters in community, but we don't.  If we truly care, we'd do something before, during, and after an election, with that vote and election as side concerns.  It's also, clearly, lazy, saying to the world, "Oh, someone else can do it.  Let the politicians do it."  In 1 Samuel 8, the Israelites say to God, "We're tired of trying to be holy on our own.  Give us a king so they can do it."  God is not pleased.  The act of discipleship and the life of a disciple should be the individual's responsibility and should not be delegated to one person or a handful of people.  A republic--which is what we have, with representative democracy--can achieve political goals, but the most effective means to achieving political goals is for the polis to take care of itself. 

I'd add that relying on our vote rather than our lives, rather than living out our faith and discipleship, also seems to be a means of state control.  If we are convinced that our vote is the most important aspect of our political life, then we are also convinced that the state and our elected officials are our only hope and that there's no sense doing anything other than state-sponsored forms of politics.  I'm not suggesting a conspiracy of any sort here but I am saying that the worst fear of any state/government is a mobilized polis controlling its own fate apart from the mechanisms of the state.  It makes sense for the state/government to urge its citizens only to vote, but it doesn't make sense for those same citizens to buy the argument.  If George Orwell were to re-write 1984, I believe he'd emphasize the state's insistence that people vote, vote, vote, because that's the only we can change, change, change, blah blah blah.  Again, I'm not suggesting a conspiracy of state-sponsored mind control to make sure we do nothing but vote, but it is certainly in the interests of those in governmental power to make those arguments, and not at all in our interest.  If we really want politicians to be held accountable, the best thing we can do is to vote and then not rely on that vote. 

Essentially, if we are to be true Christians--in other words, if we are to be true disciples, or people who truly care about the fate of our brothers and sisters in community, we cannot ignore the kingdom of God that is coming and is come.  God's kingdom is ruled by Jesus Christ, of whom we disciple.  That means we must vote in ways that we believe might bring us closer to that kingdom, and most importantly we must at all times and in all ways live according to the principles of that kingdom.  Real Christians, then, do not simply interpret the Bible and their faith into election choices, they interpret the Bible into faithful, dedicated, disciple political living.  Such disciple political living is scary, because we must begin saying, "Oh, shoot, I have to go out and do things," rather than mumbling, "Why can't they do things?" but God promises that through Christ and through the Holy Spirit we will have both the grace and power to do what is scary--and right and holy.

Monday, October 22, 2018

On Life as a Dream

Sometimes life feels like a dream.  Surely everyone can relate to the surprise and confusion Neo feels in The Matrix the first time he spots an instance of deja vu.  In Neo's case, there's a good explanation for deja vu--Trinity tells him that, actually, deja vu occurs when the computer-generated matrix world we live in re-programs or re-writes code--but in our life, unless we subscribe to a real-life matrix philosophy, deja vu and other dream-like qualities are simply confusing, perhaps even frightening or joyous, depending on our perspective.  If we believe in a god who has predestined or fated live events, then good dream-like moments may joyously confirm our belief; if we believe that there's no rhyme or reason for intelligent life, then good and bad dream-like moments may blur together as comical and entirely coincidental, not to be investigated; if we believe in a god who grants free-will or that there's some purpose in living well and spiritually, regardless of any god's existence, then good dream-like moments may serve to encourage us and bad dream-like moments may terrify us out of our belief, may convince us that actually there's no point to living well because the forces of evil are indeed in control.  What we do with the strangest moments in our lives will, then, greatly affect our general outlook on life and, by definition, death as well.  Plenty of reason, then, to explore how life can sometimes feel like a dream, why, and how we should approach that feeling.

An entire book could be written, surely, about one person's experiences in both the good and bad dream-like events categories and then how varying life perspectives and beliefs may react to those events.  Here I do not intend to write a book, thank God, but to clarify, using one instance, how and why life and death themselves are wrapped up in our working through our dream-like moments.  This is the case of a bad dream-like moment which, obviously, could and should be termed as a nightmare.

One of my favorite stories to tell, whether the point is good parenting, how my mother is funny, how I was an idiot kid, or how the woods behind my house growing up are really great, is a story about two of my friends and I, around sixth grade, going into the woods behind my neighborhood and getting lost.  We didn't tell anyone we were going up there.  I mean, obviously, we were kids.  We go out there, walk along a trail or two, and then I recognize a trail from this one time my father took me out to see the stream in the woods.  I convinced my friends that we didn't need to re-trace our steps to get home because we were all of two minutes from my house if we continued down this trail.  Now, one of those two friends of mine lived on the street with me and spent much more time in the woods than I did, and he asked, "Are you sure?"  Damn right I was sure.  Fifteen minutes later we wind up at a pond behind an elementary school, not at my house.  I missed a turn somewhere that I didn't know I should have been looking for.  Once we were there, we decided to play at the pond.  A few minutes after that, the father of the friend who didn't live on the street with us came to pick up his son.  Apparently, and thankfully, he knew that the trails behind my house also led to the pond behind the elementary school and he came found us. 

Imagine for a second that you are a father coming to pick up your son who had been, as far as you knew, innocently playing at a friend's house, only to arrive there to learn that, actually, the other parents had no idea where your son was.  You then frantically visit the house of another kid who lives on the street and learn from that set of parents that, maybe, they think, they heard the three boys trudging off into the woods.  You yell out into the woods and you receive no answer.  The time you were supposed to pick up your son was many minutes ago and you know your son isn't that irresponsible that he'd forget.  We haven't even arrived at the nightmare part of this story and already you're freaking out.  So you leave the mother of your son's friend (that's my mother) who has a bad knee clambering up into the woods while you rush off to the pond behind the elementary school.  It's all a mess.  When you find your son and the other two irresponsible kids who were supposed to know what they were doing in their own woods, you're angry, right?

Wrong.  That father, who had every right to be pissed off at everyone, perhaps including his own son, was extremely patient and kind, though firm, in teaching us all the ways we had messed up and how we could do better in the future.  He didn't want us to feel bad but didn't want us to act so irresponsibly again.  I remember this story well, and I tell it again and again, partly because the image of my mother's climbing up the hill in the woods was funny to me (it shouldn't have been) but mostly because the reaction of my friend's dad was so appropriate that I did feel bad and I never wanted to let him down ever again.  I also remember that story because of the last thing my friend's father said to us: "If you're going to play near water, make sure that everyone can swim or that you can rescue people if necessary.  Did you know that [I'm going to call my friend J] J can't swim?" 

Friendship, especially when you're younger, oscillates through stages.  At that particular time in sixth grade, J and I were particularly close, but it only lasted for a few weeks.  We were in the 'really close' stage of friendship where you hang out a lot and have sleepovers for only a few weeks.  Yet in that time we did have a couple of sleepovers.  At one of those sleepovers, which happened either shortly before or after the woods affair, J randomly asked me what I thought I'd be when I grew up.  To be honest, and I told him this, I had never, to that point, ever thought about what I would be when I grew up.  At least not seriously--I may have on occasion thought about being a professional hockey player, but I knew that was silly.  So after admitting to not having given it any thought, I blurted out something like, "But maybe, I guess, I'll be a pastor."  We talked about why--I had no idea why--for a little while, and then talked about how he was asking because he felt pressure to start figuring out his own life trajectory but didn't know where to start, and then we went to sleep and I forgot about the whole evening... until about ten years later when I first started seriously thinking and praying about going to seminary. 

My decision to go to seminary was, in the context of my sleepover with J, perhaps the first time I considered how similar life is to a dream.  In dreams, oftentimes a story is randomly and inexplicably changed by, say, a purple dinosaur rampaging through your house.  The dream may have been about a tea party with historical celebrities and then in comes a purple dinosaur.  Like an Ionesco play.  Then the rest of your dream concerns running away from or stopping the purple dinosaur and you've forgotten all about the tea party and the historical celebrities, unless one of those celebrities was Dr. Grant from Jurassic Park, because now Grant is running the dinosaur rescue effort because somehow the purple dinosaur is now your friend and is drowning.  Dreams are surprisingly orderly and well-written until they are not, until they are dominated by the random.  Studying to become a pastor felt that way, because it was essentially a random remark made to a friend about what I'd be when I grew up that suddenly dominated who I was becoming.  Either it was random, or God or the universe knew all along where I'd end up, but I didn't want to consider that possibility.  I'm a free-will kind of guy.  Now I wonder differently.  Let us continue telling the nightmare story.

Only a few months into my seminary career I got a random call from J.  I say 'random' because around the time of junior or senior year in high school, I distanced myself from our group of friends for a number of good and stupid personal reasons.  J and I had not spoken for any length of time to each other for at least four years, probably five, when he called me.  So long had it been that we had talked that J had to make sure it was still me who used the phone number he had for me in his directory.  He asked me how I was doing and then asked, "Have you heard about Giselle?"  I instantly knew then that 'life is a dream' can also mean it's a nightmare.

Giselle was a friend J and I both had in elementary school.  In elementary school, Giselle was slightly more than a friend to me, though.  She was a kind of goddess to me.  I wanted to be more than friends with her, but I didn't know what that meant, and I was also slightly intimidated by how confident Giselle was.  But she wasn't a jerk.  She was kind-hearted and loving.  After elementary school, I'm not sure I ever saw Giselle again.  I'm sure that we attended the same schools but for some reason I didn't see her and therefore my feelings slowly dwindled and eventually I forgot about her. 

Until seminary.  I received a Facebook friend request from Giselle a couple of months before seminary, which I obviously accepted, and then about a month into seminary her posts started appearing on my Facebook home page.  At first they were posts of relief and freedom, as she shared with the world that she had ended an unhealthy and abusive relationship.  Then her posts turned sour as Giselle shared some fear that she might be in danger.  My first inclination was to send her a message and offer her to come and stay with me at my dorm, hours away and certainly safe.  I decided not to send that message because, I figured, someone else closer would certainly be better suited to helping and protecting her, and surely that someone else would step forward.  It was only a few days after that decision that I got the call from J.  So I knew what he was going to tell me: Giselle had been murdered by her ex-boyfriend. 

Suddenly life was surreal, and not in a good way.  I wondered then as I do know if our brains transform moments that are either too glorious or devastating into surrealism as a survival technique; if our feeling like life is a dream isn't because life is a dream but because we can't handle life's vicissitudes without some power, even if it's our own mind, working to protect us.

Regardless, J knew that I had a strange relationship with Giselle and he didn't want to leave me in shock.  To end the conversation on a better note, he asked me what I was up to.  I told him, and he said, "Oh, that's awesome, so you're really doing what you thought you might be.  That's really cool."  Now the darkness of life's dreaminess combined with the goodness of life's dreaminess, because I couldn't quite believe J would remember from one off-hand remark I didn't even mean or understand at the time that I 'wanted' to be a pastor.  It felt good to me to know that not only did J remember but that his memory proved that I was on the right path for me.  The only other person in my life who has ever said or suggested that I am doing what they always thought I should or would, or reminded me that I myself said I might, I married. 

Fast forward time again, about eight years this time, to the present day, to the next time I hear someone call me and ask if I had heard about a person close to me in the distant past.  Only a couple of weeks ago my mother called, which is strange because I'm usually the one who calls her, and she asked, "Have you heard about J?"  Perhaps you know where this nightmare is going.

J, I learned, got married and was on his honeymoon when he and his new wife were swept up by a flash flood.  His wife was able to swim out and survive but J did not.  "Did you know J can't swim?" 

Of course, being able to swim may not help when caught by a flash flood, especially if you're in a car, as it seems they were.  I'm also, surely, not the only person who was told J couldn't swim and most definitely not the only person mourning his passing.  J was a great guy.  But the nightmare isn't merely about J's unfortunate and tragic death.  The nightmare is how the story has unfolded, how we got to this point and the memories that life, or my mind, or something, has emphasized over time and recently: from J's dad's comments and question, to the sleepover and random question and my random answer, to my strangely following through on my random answer, to J's memory of that answer while also ruining the happy dream by telling me about the Giselle nightmare, and then full circle with my mother's phone call.  In my head, as soon as I hung up after my mother's phone call, the pieces fit together like a dream, like a nightmare, well-ordered yet tragically random at the same time.

You could now be saying to yourself that this essay reads more like a journal entry than a thoughtful essay.  I understand that.  And since I've given myself an opening for a tangent, I'll take it: I want to make clear that I in no way mean to distract from the very real grief that many are experiencing right now about J's passing if you knew him (which I am experiencing, too, and why I am not using his full name or more details about his death).  But from where I'm standing, this nightmare has taught me two things.  Well, more than two, but my wife only allows me a certain amount of time each week to myself for writing and I want to make sure I finish this.

1.  I don't know why other people use the phrase, seriously or not, "life is a dream."  I do not know why we sing, "row, row, row your boat..." or why de la Barca wrote a landmark play, "Life is a Dream," hundreds of years ago.  I do know, however, that, like in de la Barca's play, the phrase sums up well the mystery and strangeness of life.  Even if we believe in a Creator God, which would, seemingly, nullify the idea of life as a dream, we must still reckon with the concept because there's no question our hearts and minds process life itself like we dream.

Psychologists are rather clear on the fact that dreams are our minds' attempts to process our memories and thoughts.  Mystics would agree, I'm sure, though they may add that dreams are also our attempt to process the more grand spiritual forces, especially in terms of prophecy, at work in our lives.  Whatever the case, the fact that our minds are able to weave all of our most and least pressing thoughts and memories into a story that we can make some amount of sense of night after night is truly amazing.  Dreams are memorable not because of what we process but because of how we process.

How we process our thoughts, feelings, and memories at night is also, clearly, how we process when awake, too.  As soon as I hung up the phone with my mother, my mind had drawn a story-line through all of my experiences with J that made sense of his death.  In my story, in my nightmare, it made absolute sense that he would have died in water, on his honeymoon, and that I found out by a random phone call, while I myself am questioning my role as a pastor--and not only am I questioning my role as a pastor but the day after I received the call I also was set to fulfill a requirement on the process toward ordination that I've just started embarking on.  It all made sense to me.  Obviously these things happened, and obviously they happened when and how they did.  My mind had pieced together a dream out of my life and interactions with J.

To say that life is a dream, then, is not an escape from whatever meaning or purpose we may have in life, if we have meaning and purpose, but rather a statement of fact: we literally have no other way of processing and understanding the happiest and worst moments of our life, and everything in between, except as a dream.  If we deny life's dreaminess then we deny life itself, we become walking idiots with no vision and no understanding of who we are.  We only develop those traits through reflection and examination, and if we are reflecting and examining then we must admit that life is a dream.

Of course, life can feel like a dream for the opposite reason, that we do no reflecting or examining, no processing, and we are confounded later in life as to how we ended up in an office at 43 Main Street talking about loans at 3:23 p.m. on a Tuesday with a stranger.  But the queer thing, here, is that those who do spend time in reflection and prayer often try to deny that life is anything like a dream.  Life is a dream.  Life can't be anything but a dream.  Otherwise, we are not a person, because we are not processing.  I guess we could say it's a paradox of sorts: in order for life to have meaning, in order for our specific lives to have meaning to ourselves, we must think of life as a dream, as if we were/are sleeping.

de la Barca wrote his play to grapple with questions that we humans have been grappling with since our minds were opened, whether that happened as an evolutionary, random event or as God breathed His spirit into us.  Those questions are: what are we doing here?  How did we get here?  Are we alone?  Are we actually living?  Are we in a computer program?  In someone else's dream?  If eternal life is real, then is mortal life just a dream?  Are we pieces in a game (I think of the final shot at the end of Men-in-Black)?  What is the difference between real and surreal, if there is any difference at all?  To say that life is a dream does not to answer these questions philosophically but it does answer these questions existentially.

In other words, "life is a dream" should not be a philosophy that applies universally.  We cannot know whether others are living their life as a dream, in a dream, as they should.  All we can know is whether we, I, am living this life as a dream.  Am I processing the random and obvious as a dream?  Am I taking the highly emotional, good and bad, the ball of life's mess and unraveling that ball into a dreamy story so that I can move on?  Am I stuck in the emotions of the past, or stuck in an unreflective present with no sense of the future?  If we live life as a dream we protect ourselves from the worst of life's curveballs, because they'll no longer be curveballs but rather part of the dream's story-arc; if we live life as a dream, we are not stuck in the emotions of the past because we have processed them into our dream; if we live life as a dream, we are not a pinball living in the present with no sense of the future, because we will have reflected our life into a story-line moving into the future; if we live life as a dream, life becomes a steady stream of nothingness that, in who we are and who we are becoming, can become an everythingness because of how we process, of how we dream.  Life lived as a dream can both be a survival technique in a crazy world and a technique of becoming, free from emotional strings, as long as we do not succumb to the seeming meaninglessness and nothingness of life to translate "life is a dream" into "whatever, man."

2.  Or, life's dreaminess could be sinister.  Admitting that life is a dream could be only a survival technique in a world that has no hope and no meaning.

Remember that I interpreted J's memory of my throw-away, random comment that I might be a pastor when I grew up as a happy moment.  At the time I interpreted that happy moment to perhaps be like a dream in the sense that a random event then affected my later life, but all the while I was still in control.  What if I was wrong on all counts?  What if, actually, J's memory was a sign that I couldn't do anything other than be a pastor?  What if my 'random' comment at the sleepover was not random and instead the universe's, or God's, way of saying through me that I had no choice in the matter?

Here is where one's perspective and approach matter a great deal.  I have said to my churches and to others that know me that I "could do no other than be a pastor."  I tried for a couple of years but discovered that, actually, nothing will make me happy or fulfilled other than being a pastor.  I have told this to people in a mostly grateful way: God has given me gifts to be a pastor and so my choice to use them will be a meaningful and gratifying choice, yet always my choice.  As originally, it is a good dream.  Yet what if, in actual fact, I really couldn't do anything other than be a pastor?  What if the matter isn't so much about meaning and fulfillment but predestined fate?  Even if the end result is the same, not having a choice in the matter would be a nightmare.  Just as we seem to have little to no choice in the stories our dreams tell, so, too, we'd have no choice in life, making life only dark.  "Whatever, man," would then be our only defense against being meaningless pawns in a dream.

Everything is about interpretation.  We could go on.  In fact, I will go on with this, pointing out that maybe I didn't have a choice in saving, or not saving, Giselle.  Perhaps I want and wanted to be a good person but that's not in the cards for me.  So when that desire came to the fore, the universe, or God, or the evil forces running our dream, suppressed that desire, not just because I shouldn't save Giselle but because she needed to die, like in Final Destination.  In that movie, a guy has a dream that everyone on the plane they've just boarded will blow up, so he causes a ruckus and he and a bunch of others leave the plane, watching it blow up a few minutes later; then the universe comes to kill them in a whole host of ways, in the same order they would have died on the plane.  What if that movie is on to something?  Whenever I tell the story about Giselle, as I still carry significant guilt around with me, usually the first and often the only thing people to say to me as a means of consolation is, "If you had reached out to her, then maybe her ex-boyfriend would have found her anyway and killed not only her but you, too.  Perhaps would have killed anyone in the dorm on the way.  Maybe God wanted to save you for other purposes."  Friends, that is not consolation, because essentially we are then admitting our choices don't matter, that if someone is meant to die at a certain time then they will die, no matter what we do to save them.  If that is true, then it serves no purpose trying to better our natural instincts, trying to make ourselves or others better, trying to offer succor and security and refuge, because in the end, those who are meant to be murdered or swept away in a flood will be and nothing matters.  This is a way to interpret these dream-like events: yes, it's a dream, concocted by the mind of some higher power, and so we're screwed and we better screw everything except trying to enjoy the good moments that come our way.  As far as I see it, that would be truly a nightmare.

Another interpretation is that I simply screwed up with Giselle.  And, rather than J's death being an exclamation point to the end of a chapter in this dream that I cannot control and have no free-will in, J's death is simply a coincidental, random happening that only calls to attention Giselle and the other moments I've shared here as a means of free-will processing so that I can have greater power and grace to act better in the future.

Essentially, the choice is between being caught up in a dream or writing a dream for the purpose of becoming; between having no choice but to f*** it or making sense of our life in a dream-like way to give us greater power to choose in the future; between a nightmare or a dream that has no objective measure of good or bad. 

We could say that somehow or another I knew things I should not have known in sixth grade, that somehow or another I knew that I'd become a pastor and that I knew J would die in a water accident, and that's why I said what I did and remembered that woods affair the way I did.  We could say that either I or my Facebook or Giselle, or whatever combination of factors, knew that Giselle would need help and that I'd be in a position to help, and that's why her posts started showing up on my page, and why J was the one to call me.  We could say the universe somehow knew that the two times I'd hear about someone I cared for in my distant past would be Giselle and J, so the universe had J be the one to call me about Giselle.  We could say that what I have processed as a dream is actually a sign that we able to connect to a higher understanding of some sort.  We could say that, but I'm not sure it would be helpful because at some point we still need to choose.  We need to choose how we are going to interpret life as a dream--as nightmare or as a means of processing for becoming; either we have no choice or the choice to write our dream story.

Currently, it's hard not to perceive life as nightmare in the wake of J's death, particularly because I am unable to attend his wake or service (for other dream-like reasons).  His passing alone is a nightmare.  Adding to it the book-ending of my memories is not necessary but certainly contributes to the nightmare atmosphere.  But it seems rather depressing to me to understand life as a rolling dream down a stream whose path and origin we do not know.  I simply cannot go there.  I would break as a person if I interpreted life as a nightmare leaving me with no control or choice.  I'd rather feel guilt about Giselle and feel the full force of the tragedy around J's passing than think that it was all pre-ordained. 

And in feeling the guilt and tragedy, I can process and unravel the mystery of life in my dream, I can make sense of it, no matter how wrong or right my dream story is, and thus move on into the future.  I think that's what dreams are meant for.  Not merely processing but preparing--preparing us for the new day to come.