Touch My Scars: Why Matter Matters

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Touch My Scars: Why Matter Matters

As I reflect on the white evangelical community I grew up in, I think about how eerily similar our understanding and articulation of the gospel was to European colonialism.

We marketed salvation as "free," by which we meant "no strings attached." The prize was eternal salvation in heaven, an everlasting (if immaterial) home that had been purchased by Jesus' blood. All we had to do was accept this gift – to receive the salvation promised to us.

The receipt of this gift was formalized through a single ritual in which we each individually asked God's forgiveness. Our sin, we understood, had disqualified us from receiving this gift of heaven, but once we begged forgiveness, the deed of heaven had been signed over to us. There was nothing we could do (besides that initial Sinner's Prayer) to gain or lose this salvation. We simply grasped the salvation that had been offered by God.

Parts of this message were, in theory, not as problematic as European colonialism. Heaven, after all, wasn't already populated with people who would be annihilated, displaced, or assimilated as we flocked to inhabit the New Jerusalem. We conceived of heaven more like an empty city or house with no inhabitants apart from God, the angels, and the saints who had gone before us.

At the same time, the "no strings attached" philosophy we espoused is deeply troubling to me now because it's evidence of a deeper problem: our resistance to the innate dynamism of the world and our subsequent reticence to engage it (or take responsibility for the detrimental ways we've engaged it). Instead of embracing our bodied, relational existence, we've fought tooth and nail to be abstract, absolute, and decontextual. If that doesn't reek of Western imperialism, I don't know what does.

By believing salvation was either ours or it wasn't – and that there was nothing we could do to qualify or disqualify ourselves from it – we gave up responsibility for how our actions affected the world. What we did didn't really matter because our end was sealed.

Everyone wanted to be good, of course – and there were plenty of exhortations from the pulpit to flee sin and not to use our salvation status and God's grace as an excuse to sin. But like the Europeans who "discovered" America and took it as their own even though it was already inhabited by native peoples, we felt that we did not have to worry about history. Columbus and the other colonists could conceive of America as a New World not simply because it was new to them, but because they thought it was theirs – their world, their land, new for them to take, inhabit, and shape. 

In a similar way, when we prayed the Sinner's Prayer, we had entered New Life, but not just because it was new to us, but because it seemed to us a clean slate, no strings attached. The past was the past, and the present was ours. The colonists were able to believe themselves justified in erasing the history of the native peoples (which ultimately entailed trying to completely wipe out the natives). And we as newly-saved Christians were able to believe our own histories did not matter. Who were were, where we had been, what we had done – the Old Man, so to speak – was inconsequential. Jesus had wiped the slate clean.

On the outset, a clean slate (for individuals – I don't mean the colonialists) sounds good. No regrets, no harboring guilt for years and years. Freedom from the past.

But along with this presumed erasure of the past came an unrealistic and destructive sense of timelessness. We focused at first on the fact that we were new people with a new status – no longer sinners, but saints. But as time wore on, we began to realize that our new status – our new label – didn't mean the things we'd done or the people we'd been had entirely gone away. We are not blank slates after all, but dynamic bodies that change and interact with the world around us. We affect our world and are affected by it – we have power.

But we did not want that kind of power – the kind that comes with responsibility. We did not want timed power, but timeless power. We did not want to be changeable and moving, dynamic and growing. We did not want the responsibility, the complexity, of sharing a world with the Other, of collaboration. A world of matter colliding with matter to catalyze change.

We wished for a world we could control –  a solid, monochromatic world without so many moving parts – instead of a world of shared power where everyone had to work with others rather than for or against others. We didn't want a world of color.  We wanted a world that was black and white. Well, really, just white.

Don't get me wrong: I don't think anyone I knew harbored any hatred or dislike of people of color. But that's why systemic racism is so tricky and hard to see if you're not the ones directly suffering because of it. You don't have to hate people or wish them ill to harbor beliefs and stories that reinforce and advance the systems that oppress them. You don't have to be a white supremacist to internalize and propagate the myths of white supremacy.

Our reticence to recognize our location, our bodies in historical and social context, was part of our European Enlightenment legacy. Our truth was God's truth. God's truth was universal, not contextual, and hence our truth was universal. We became functional gnostics, scorning the locality of the body and longing for the universality of the spiritual.

We did not like bodies, so we pretended we did not have them. We could be "colorblind" because we were body-blind. We did not like the idea of bodies, and so we acted like we lived a disembodied existence, that our white bodies in the context of Western imperialism didn't have implications for our interactions with bodies of color.

But a disembodied existence wasn't our lot. The world is a complex web of interrelationships. We are spatial, we are bodies. We are living.

This dynamism of the world didn't sit well with our sinner/saint polarities. We were either good or evil, guilty or innocent, dirty or clean, redeemed or damned. And as time wore on, we sensed that the myth of our own sainthood couldn't be sustained. We felt more and more inwardly guilty and all the while tried to look more and more outwardly pure. Our dynamism haunted us. Instead of coming to grips with our contexts – our relationships, our social and political locations, our bodied existence – we felt guilty for not being timeless, for not  being bearers of absolute truth, for being contextual.

Not even the Westerners could be sufficiently Western.

We hoped more and more for our vision of a disembodied heaven where we could just lead a pure, unchanging existence. So getting to heaven – and getting others there – became the most important thing: "filling the bleachers of heaven." What we would do when we got there (apart from singing hymns) was anybody's guess.

So we peddled the horrible good news of a salvation that didn't care about this present world. We did not learn to cultivate or plant or create. We did not learn how to invest in or nourish our world. We thought ourselves spiritual refugees, displaced in this world and longing for our true home in the clouds. We did not take responsibility for the power our white bodies gave us over bodies of color.

I remember taking a course on Christian missions in high school that used a term called "felt needs." Felt needs were things like food, clothing, and shelter – the physical needs that missionaries might need to help address in their mission field. This was separated from spiritual needs, which of course meant salvation from sin and reconciliation to God.

Felt needs weren't to be neglected, but they were secondary. Meeting felt needs was a stepping stone to open people up to understanding their spiritual need. Meeting a felt need was never an end in itself. The goal was salvation, as if building someone a house was somehow less meaningful than promising them a blissful home in heaven for all time. As if God does not want to meet us in matter – in the particular, in the present, right now.

This was the Christianity I grew up with, and I am grateful for the people who somehow managed to resist being entirely swallowed up by visions of heaven. We couldn't ultimately escape our humanity (thank heaven!) and so we lived in a strange tension where our speech was heavily spiritualized and heaven-centered, but our fingers still longed to touch and create tangible things.

It was my science, drama, and literature teachers (strained and squashed as we were by trying to fit into some kind of pure mold or inflexible system of ideas) that first showed me the beauties of bodied life. There were borders we could not transgress – ideas we could not consider and things we could not do or experience – but we pressed against those borders as much as we possibly could. I spite of so many thorns and thistles, some of us still managed to sprout and grow.

Still, I feel increasingly troubled by this way of talking about Christianity that is so far away from, even antithetical to, the gospel as articulated in Jesus' incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Think of what the incarnation means. God becomes flesh. God as matter. Not God in matter. Not God pretending to be matter or becoming matter for a little while.

God as matter.

And not just as matter, but redeemed matter, contingent matter, growing matter. After his resurrection, Jesus ate with his disciples to show them that he wasn't a ghost, but flesh and blood (Luke 24:39-43). Jesus' resurrected body wasn't released from the dependence, the mutability of human life. He ate. His body still bore its scars from his crucifixion, though healed. The past was not erased, but transformed.

What does this say for the present world of matter? For its future?

It screams that matter matters. Our bodies matter. The world and its intricate ecosystems, cultures and subcultures, webs – all this matters.

Your life is not a stepping stone to the next world. You matter now. Your body matters. This fragile, resilient body of cells is not a suit you will shed, but a dynamic living organism that will die and rise and experience transformation. Change. Contingency.

"Christ is contingency."

Poet Christian Wiman wrote those words in a rare work of prose, My Bright Abyss. Wiman has an incurable (and often unpredictable) cancer of the blood, and his meditations reflect a heightened sense of his own contingency. He writes:

Contingency. Meaning subject to chance, not absolute. Meaning uncertain, as reality, right down to the molecular level, is uncertain. All of human life is uncertain. I suppose that to think of God in these terms might seem for some people deeply troubling (not to mention heretical), but I find it a comfort. It is akin to the notion of God entering and understanding – or understanding that there could be no understand (My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?) – human suffering. If Christianity is going to mean anything at all for us now, then the humanity of God cannot be a half measure. He can't float over the chaos of pain and particles in which we're mired, and we can't think of him gliding among our ancestors like some shiny, sinless superhero...No, God is given over to matter, the ultimate Uncertainty Principle. There's no release from reality, no "outside" or "beyond" from which some transforming touch might come. But what a relief it can be to befriend contingency, to meet God right here in the havoc of chance, to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck. (pp. 16-17)

You matter. You-in-the-world matters. We matter. All of us together. Wherever we are, whatever bodies we exist as, whatever local part we play in the web of the world. We are not stamped as "saved" or "condemned" and left to twiddle our thumbs and think about our (possible) salvation with fear and trembling. We work. We build. We grow. We create. We transform.

We are born into a world of horrors and wonders, triumphs and tragedies. We are deep wells of pangs and longings, desires that can only be met in the confluence of matter with matter. We hunger and thirst for the rightness of bodies colliding with bodies, where we encounter the Other and are not threatened by its weight. A world where we take responsibility for the structures we create and inhabit, aware of the generative and destructive power we wield.

When you are tempted to think you do not matter, that your contingent existence is somehow an argument for its illegitimacy, remember: that's some weird fusion of gnostic heresy, Western imperialism, and white supremacy.

 

You are the light of the world.

You are not

a luminary hidden beneath a basket,

a glow dimming through membrane,

a radiance pressed back by cloud or veil.

You are fire

licking across the bark of the bush,

surface

unconsumed.

 

 

 

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Ogling and Othering: My Love-Hate Relationship with Biblical Studies

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Ogling and Othering: My Love-Hate Relationship with Biblical Studies

The terms "Middle East" and "ancient Near East" assume a Eurocentric view of the world, and these monikers sum up why I so often feel conflicted about the moorings of my training in biblical studies.

As many of you know, the literature and art of the so called "ancient Near East" (ANE) has provided invaluable insights into the cultural backdrop of the Hebrew Bible. It has heavily influenced my own academic research and creative writings. But the study of the ANE didn’t just emerge at the height of British colonization, but as an extension of it. The whole enterprise grew out of this context and the current discourse carries with it the language and baggage of a Western gaze.

I suppose it makes sense, then, that my favorite scholar on Assyro-Babylonian art is Iraqi scholar Zainab Bahrani. She was educated in Western contexts, but is native to one of the regions (Iraq) that was home to ancient Mesopotamia. (We use "ancient Near East" as a drip-pan phrase to refer to any or all of the ancient peoples and civilizations that lived in these regions over the span of several millennia--talk about generalization! For a breakdown of the modern names, see Wikipedia.)

Because Bahrani is native to Iraq, she has a vested interest in de- and re-constructing the discourse on Assyro-Babylonian art. Much of her work goes into explaining why/how this art has been misinterpreted/seen as inferior because of a Western gaze that exoticizes the East and/or views it as the antithesis of "superior" Western rationalism.

When I reflect on it, I realize that my own interest in writing about Mesopotamian cult images is becoming more and more about truth-telling. As long as the West maintains that it is synonymous with the spread of Christianity and continues to interpret the Bible in this way, it will continue to think of the biblical stories of Abraham and Israel as equivalent to Western rational monotheism. The story then becomes the (Westernized) Abraham/Israel pitted against the otherness of Mesopotamian polytheistic religions, which the Western gaze then uses as its lens to read all Eastern forms of religion as inferior.

All of these are false constructs. The biblical stories about Abraham and Israel are far removed from Western rationalism, as are the literature and art of the many polytheistic religions of Mesopotamia. Even bundling them together under the label "polytheistic" is an unhelpful conflation of distinct histories and religious practices.

I am interested in understanding (as much as any Westerner can) both the Bible and Assyro-Babylonian art and literature as Eastern works that really do challenge many Western assumptions about the nature of religion, politics, spirituality, community, and a host of other things.

When many of these texts were first discovered, they were understood as foils to the Hebrew Bible--their value was in how they would illuminate the world of the Bible. This focus has shifted somewhat to study these texts as valuable in their own right, but the framework of the discipline still carries the Eurocentric baggage.

I am not sure--given the initial ideological moorings of the study--if it's possible to escape them (nor is any reading of history without ideology). But I do believe that the more we are able to see the histories of Mesopotamia as worth studying simply to tell a true story--and not as the "other" to "our" (Westernized) Bible--the more we will understand not only the landscape of ancient of Mesopotamia (in all its myriad, diverse details), but also ourselves and the texts of the Bible.

As a Western Christian (and as a Western human being) it seems important to me to realize that if I think of ancient Mesopotamia as an inferior other, then the logical step is to also understand the texts my Christian faith holds as sacred in the same way, understanding them as equally strange and inferior to contemporary Western ears. But this is not what Western Christians have done. Instead, we have dressed up the Bible to masquerade it as a Western text so that it would support our own ideology instead of challenging it, while at the same time using the Bible as an excuse to read other Eastern texts as inferior.

I want to be honest about the inherent conflict in this gaze, and try as much as possible to relinquish my stranglehold on history. To let go of my gaze of dominance and let history challenge me. If these texts appear strange to me as a Western reader, I need to take them as challenges to my own modern Western sensibilities rather than a sign of their inferiority. These ancient words and images have things to teach us, but so long as we insist on ogling them, we won't be able to hear a word they say.

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"I'm Not Political, But..."

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"I'm Not Political, But..."

I'm a little hesitant to post anything not related to politics on social media these days. I don't have much faith in social media to renew the soul, but I think it can be a really great tool for activists and community organizers. It's useful for networking and disseminating information quickly. So I try to use it mostly for that (and promoting my author page).

Mostly. Sometimes I post other things, but it feels a little schizophrenic given the current climate. I mean: is the apocalypse nigh or are we just so excited about these cutesy cat videos and this triple-thick-gooey-delight chocolate cake recipe? 

Probably both. The world is ending and we lust after that Smitten Kitchen cake of fudge-y goodness. In every age the world has been ending, and this is worth holding in perspective. War, sickness, and poverty are a part of every age.

At the same time, however, this does not make all ages or communities equal. Just because the world is always coming to an end does not mean the fallout is the same for everyone. I don't think anyone is safe under Trump's unchecked authority, but I am among the people least unsafe. I am white. I am straight. I am highly educated. I am (lower) middle class. I have massive school debt, but no other debt thanks to well-endowed relatives. I am not wealthy or financially stable, but I am not in danger of being without a home or unable to pay my bills. I have healthcare benefits through work. I am not in danger of having my house of worship burned down or experience a hate crime because of my skin color. As a woman, I experience many of the negative effects of patriarchy, but still benefit from whiteness. My experience of patriarchy is not analogous to the experiences of women of color.

We are all in this together in some sense, but we're not all equally threatened by Trump's rule. I think all post-evangelicals and many other communities (religious or otherwise) are experiencing trauma because of Trump's ascent--I don't discredit or minimize that. When one part of the body is wounded, it can threaten the whole body. However, people (both individuals and communities) experience traumatic events differently because of their social and historical location. As a white woman, I belong to the group that's always been on top. Historically, I am part of the oppressors and continue to benefit from the privileges of a country structured around the needs of white people (more specifically white men, but the structure still has benefits available to me that perpetuate oppression for people of color). I've written about this a little already (you can read some half-baked reflections here).

I am experiencing trauma, but it not the same in kind as the trauma experienced by people of color or others directly affected by Trump's actions. I should also say that the trauma experienced by people and communities of color will be unique depending on the specific histories. The trauma wrought by the attempted genocide of Native Americans will not be identical to the trauma caused by the African slave trade in America, and naturally individuals and families within each community will have their own unique stories. However, all experience the trauma of the oppressed, which is very different from the trauma of being the oppressor.

My trauma--and I'd venture to say that of many white people--is evidenced either by flat out denial or a mixture of disbelief and horror at what we've done (accompanied by a sense of betrayal). I feel betrayed by the white evangelical community of my youth because I believed that it was mostly good and right about things, and has turned out, in its ignorance, to perpetuate systemic evil. (It's not just white evangelicalism that's the problem, it's whiteness in general, but white evangelicalism turned out to be rich soil for seeds of whiteness to grow.) I feel angry at my own complicity and yet not always sure what to do about it.  I'm still thinking through how best to channel that anger and turn it into something useful, something that can help heal the damage done by white supremacy.

This type of trauma is easy to ignore (though it has and will continue to catch up to us, hopefully before judgment day). Oppressors are allowed the luxury of forgetting. In fact, forgetting is integral to perpetuating oppression. In order to justify oppression, we engage in selective memory. There's a big difference between "The Civil War" and the "War of Northern Aggression." The same war, but remembered very differently. In order to justify genocide of Native Americans, our white ancestors "forgot" that the Native peoples were people, calling them "savages" in order to absolve whites of guilt. The same logic justified slavery in America. Our ancestors remembered only a racialized narrative that distinguished between types of human beings and deemed that only the white human lives mattered. These narratives are still alive today, evident in atrocities like mass incarceration, but white people have forgotten that these narratives exist. We have lost our ability to distinguish them as narratives, and false ones at that, because they support our existence and status in society. For us, these false racialized narratives are just "normal life."

That is the forgetful privilege of being white, why we can blithely say "all lives matter" without remembering the historical context, that historically only white lives have mattered, and that "black lives matter" is calling us out on this. By saying "all lives matter," we fail to acknowledge that "all lives" has historically been shorthand for "white lives," and in so doing reassert that only white lives matter.

I heard one woman say  during the election that, while she didn't like Trump at all, she was glad Trump's candidacy has brought a lot of America's issues to the surface. She's right in one sense. As I heard Mark Charles say at a talk last year, Trump is forcing America to decide whether it wants its racial bias to remain implicit or become explicit. But I wanted to say to her (and probably should have): "These issues were already at the surface. It's us, it's white folks who didn't notice. Everyone else knew we had problems because our "normal" meant their oppression." Now the white man even gets credit for raising awareness of racism--how colonialist is that?

What does all this have to do with recipes and cat videos?

I grew up in an environment that made it hard to distinguish between ages, both on a personal level and on a broader plane. Because God was "in control" that meant that anything we experienced was a divine appointment, so it couldn't really be bad (ultimately). This was how we viewed sin, too. Since Jesus wiped all our sins away, that meant we never had to confess or deal with anything we did that damaged the world. A blank slate. A carte blanche.

These are slight exaggerations, but not much--my evangelical community suffered from a really bad case of functional gnosticism. It made it really hard to make a judgment call on anything or know what we were supposed to feel. How could we ever be comfortable feeling sad or angry or anything but happy and grateful if God was in charge of our lot and God was good? By pinning everything on God, we abdicated our responsibility to act in the world, and take responsibility for the effects of our actions. We became timeless, unable to distinguish between times, to see cause and effects in history. A communal case of Alzheimer's. The complex legacy of white supremacy found in evangelicalism a space to grow because it already believed in itself as timeless and absolute, abstractly true, good, and beautiful, instead of time-bound and relative.

I'm not suggesting we stop posting cat videos or that our newsfeed must always swirl with head-splitting news and political posts. I think more than anything else we can accomplish via social media, we need people engaged on the ground, for the long haul. But I'm also keenly aware that one demographic of my Facebook (i.e., the white one) is primarily posting Pinterest-y stuff or apolitical humor, and the other part (mainly people of color and LGBTQ+ friends) are following and commenting on every detail of the current political climate. This concerns me not because Facebook actually matters, but because it feels indicative of a larger problem of forgetfulness. I hope that tons of white people are having great conversations off of social media with people of color (the face to face is better anyway), but I'm concerned that the social media silence is indicative of white forgetting. I'm afraid it really means we just don't care about the political havoc because we're the least negatively affected by it on the surface.

When we claim that we are "not political" we are not being apolitical at all. Instead, we are tapping into that privilege that white people in this country have always experienced--the luxury of thinking we are timeless, apolitical, without beginning or end in the broader sweep of history. In truth, we are and have been active and complicit in oppression. The very fact that we say we are apolitical is a political (and, for Christians, a theological) statement. We are saying very clearly that we are comfortable forgetting our whiteness and how it benefits us and disadvantages everyone else. We are once again pretending that we can remove ourselves from the world--away from history, away from cause and effect, away from the dire consequences of white supremacy.

Christians should view this as a bastardization of the Gospel of Jesus. Jesus had no interest in quitting the world or rescuing us out of it, but rather rescues us into it. In Jesus, God chose to become human, time-bound, local, specific, political. His life, death, and resurrection runs counter to a gnostic Gospel message that views the material world and human action (culture, creation, etc.) as irredeemable. Instead, he becomes flesh and affirms materiality, not to whisk his followers away to another world, but to usher in God's kingdom on earth. A kingdom of justice and equity. A kingdom of liberation for the oppressed, freedom from sin and all its effects, including relational ills on all levels: personal, corporate, and systemic.

This gospel challenges us to lean into the present and act in ways that will build up the world. Our hope is not in any of the current political systems or parties, and our allegiance is not to our country's president or government. But let's not forget that our allegiance is to the king whose kingdom may not be from this world, but is still in and for this world. The kingdom from God is no less than a human kingdom, ushered in by a human king.

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (4)

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (4)

Part 4 of a 4-part post. Here are parts 12, and 3.

I am not sure where I’m going with all this. When my friend asked why I am still a Christian, I actually started writing the story/explanation below about why I haven’t gone the “spiritual but not religious route.” But then I stopped and wondered if I was really getting to the issues that frustrated me so much about my experience of Christianity. By relying so heavily on my own interaction with scripture as the basis for why I considered myself a Christian, wasn’t I once again pull out the evangelical stops? What if I was just reverting to the old, gutted belief that beliefs themselves are what make a Christian? Am I again engaging in the very bibliocentrism that I’ve tried so hard to get away from?

Maybe so. Still, this seems to be what I have. Here I am: Pope Rebekah. Me and my exegetical tools and my imagination. I offer you what may in fact be a contradiction to the story I have told above.

This is the story that makes sense to me.

God's Missing Body

A friend asks me why I am still a Christian.

Maybe I shouldn't be. There might be any number of compelling reasons not to be. Couldn't I just be "spiritual, but not religious"? Active, thoughtful, not tied to religion?

I don't begrudge those who go that route. It might even be necessary for some folks. Sometimes religious trauma can only be dealt with by leaving the structures that housed the abuse. And maybe stepping away from evangelicalism (even if not from Christianity as whole) is a similar kind of divorce.

But that's not where I am. The Bible education that has proven so toxic for many young Christians (I know this from many, many conversations with peers who graduated with a Bible degree) has been my lifeblood.

If I hadn’t been so textually-oriented from the beginning, things might have been different. But I’ve loved words and interacting with stories ever since I was a little girl. My mother encouraged me from a young age not only to write, but to engage life creatively, generatively. Words have been my life.

My mother’s creative bend laid the groundwork for the handful of college professors (some of whom were later ousted from their teaching positions–go figure) who opened my eyes to the dynamism of Judaeo-Christian scripture and its history of interpretation. The Bible was not a static, monolithic body of text or monologue, but a constant dialogue back and forth.

And gradually, the girl who used to bunker down and wait for the world to end caught sight of the world outside her dugout and stepped out into. God grew bigger, and the earth did, too.

But the bigness of God was only one side of it. The scope of my world, my self, my God–all this grew in relation to God's smallness. And it still does.

I keep coming back to the story of a God who has legs, skin, hands, eyes, teeth. The story of Jesus' incarnation–God becoming human in a specific person–is what takes me beyond the god of the apocalypse. God's body, God as organic matter, is the definitive affirmation of this-worldly existence, hinted at from the beginning of Hebrew scripture and climaxing in Jesus.

You can read the stories of the Bible different ways, and the fact that it's stuffed the gills with lots of different metaphors and stories is an open invitation to do so. (It's the classic problem of trying to write a comprehensive biblical theology–there are so many themes and so many threads, you can't just pick one and say it's the central theme.)

The story that's always stuck with me, though (if I took it into my head to attempt a biblical theology) is the story of God's missing (or hidden) body. It's this story that fuels my passion to live, to create, to build the world we long to inhabit.

You can feel God's absent body hovering everywhere in Hebrew scripture, a sharp breath from an unknown deep rippling across its surface.

The writers of Hebrew scripture have always been a bit squeamish when it comes when it comes to depicting their god (Yahweh by name) in corporeal terms. They engage in a deliberate and difficult dance between talking about Yahweh using pictures and metaphors from human life, while at the same time insisting that Yahweh is not reducible to these verbal images. And while verbal anthropomorphisms abound, visual depiction, specifically the making of cult images of Yahweh, is strictly forbidden.

The peoples of the ancient Near East had no such reservations when it came to depicting deities whether it was in literature or visual representation. The faces of gods could be seen all across the ancient world, from the sacrosanct cult images that lay hidden in the great temples most of the year, to the statues sitting in the shrines that dotted the hills, to the small images of household shrines. Gods had arms and legs and heads like humans and beasts, sometimes wings or claws or talons. Gods ate and drank and had sex.

But did Yahweh, too, have a body?

“The mouth of Yahweh has spoken.”

“His hands formed the dry land.”

“The eyes of Yahweh search the whole earth.”

“May Yahweh make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you.”

Mouth, hands, eyes, face–if Yahweh’s body could be envisaged in verbal form, why this resistance to visual depiction?

We could spend years and volumes trying to answer that question (many have). But let's just approach it through one doorway, one theme: creation.

In both ANE literature and the Hebrew Bible, creation is linked to rulership. The god who creates the world is enthroned over it and determines its destiny. But we also see this rulership delegated in various ways. In ANE literature, the "image" of a god is tasked to be the god's reigning presence–an extension of the god, not just the god's legal authority, but its real presence (scholars debate on how exactly to tease this out). In the ANE, sometimes the king is referred to as the "image of god," and other times "image of god" refers to the god's cult image housed in its temple. In Genesis, however, the divine image is not cult statue of wood or stone nor is it the king. The image of god is humankind.

The Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Isaiah, sees the “image of god” as a statement not just about the god and its image, but the fate of Israel (and ultimately the cosmos). Through a series of polemics against the making of Babylonian cult images (Isa. 40:18-25; 41:6-7; 44:9-20; 46:1-7), the writer of Isaiah 40-55 insists that making cult images is an attempt to supplant both humans and Yahweh, thereby subverting or denying the power of both to act and change the course of history.

The human craftsmen (who, in the context of Isaiah, appear to typify both the other nations and Israel itself) try to make an image that resembles a god, but they actually end up making an image that resembles a human being. The very humans that are themselves the image of Yahweh, tasked to advance the destiny of the cosmos, use their creativity to make their own replacement image to rule instead. The cult image, in turn, ends up being conflated with a god, and receives the worship due to Yahweh. In reality, the prophet insists, these other gods don't have the power of the Creator and thus cannot act in Israel's history or save them. Yahweh, by contrast, is the god who formed Israel and can rescue her from her oppressors.

This is one way of looking at the mystery of God's missing body. It isn't so much missing as it is hidden in plain sight. We are God's body. Humanity is God's image, God's "son." Just as Adam fathered a son in his own image and likeness (Gen. 5:4), so God "fathered" humankind in his image and likeness. The image has the power to create, to shape the world.

This power comes with a responsibility. The image must emulate the the Creator's own generous spirit, for God shaped the earth, filled it with creatures, and provided food for all. "Multiply, fill the earth, subdue it." Don't let an obsession with militarism distract you from the richness of these words in their context. What we have in Genesis 1 and 2 is actually two creation stories juxtaposed to one another, which have two kinds of language to talk about humanity.

First, we have the regal view in Genesis 1: humans as monarchs, exercising dominion and spreading throughout the world. (In this first story, humans and God are both regal: God creates the world by speaking, by giving commands like a divine king: "Let there be light!" and the cosmos obeys.) In Genesis 2, we see humans as people of earth, tenders of the garden: "Cultivate and keep." (God, too, gets dirty: he doesn't create humans by speaking, but by forming and breathing into them. This God is a gardener more than a king.)

By placing these two stories together, Genesis qualifies the kind of kingdom to be advanced by and through humankind: not a rule of plunder and pillage and scorched earth, but of tending, tilling, and cultivating.

If you've read the rest of the stories of the Hebrew Bible, you know that the images of God struggle to embody this kind of generative rule. Genesis 3 shows us the images of God staging a mutiny, trying to usurp the place of the very deity who made them. They are sent into exile outside the garden of God, away from Yahweh's presence.

God's body goes wandering, estranged from the Creator that formed and animated it.

That's not the end of the story, of course. God keeps reaching down, searching for images who want to embrace their divine resemblance, lean into it, to be the gods he formed them to be. He appeared to Abraham and proffered a similar gift: land, descendants, and blessing. The land itself wasn't cosmic in scope, but the reach of it's influence was meant to be: God told Abraham that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed. And Abraham, unlike Adam and Eve, believed God would make good on his promise, and it was counted to him as righteousness.

The Hebrew scriptures are full of stories of God reaching down and humans reaching up. Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in many ways. Through the prophet Moses and the giving of the Law. Through Elijah and Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. Through the prophets whose names have been obscured or forgotten.

But in these last days, God has spoken to us in his son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world. This son is the radiance of the glory of God, the spitting image of his nature.

In Jesus, the mystery of God's missing body reaches its zenith, collapses, and rises again. At the very point in time where God is reunited with his estranged image–the moment of power when the image flawlessly embodies its Creator–he surrenders his body, gives it over to death. By leaning into death, Jesus fulfills humanity’s generative destiny.

By participating in humanity’s corporate fate of death (brought on by humanity’s rebellion) despite his own individual innocence, he simultaneously inhabits the corporate body and prophesies against it. Instead of insisting on his rights as God’s faithful heir to forgo the suffering brought on by the human rebellion, he suffers with humanity and so embodies the kind of self-offering righteous rule that God desires. At Jesus’ resurrection, the body of God that has gone into hiding emerges from behind the veil.

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (3)

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (3)

Part 3 of a 4-part post. Here are parts 1, 2, and 4.

The fundamentals and the markers of Christian identity are perpetually elusive. We have the historic creeds of the church, of course, but these raise the same issues raised by bibliocentrism. No unmediated access, revised understandings of the text to incorporate new data, and what constitutes participation. And the perennial problem that assenting to “right doctrine” cannot be equated with living, dynamic faith.

We know from church history that not even the church can entirely agree on what constitutes it. The church has split on various occasions (first the Eastern and Western churches, and then later when Protestantism broke from the Western Catholic church). It’s not outside of church tradition to splinter off and start a new structure. And even before this, we have in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple writings abundant evidence of debates about what it means to be the “real Israel.” (Just, for example, read the Esther and Nehemiah. Both have very different ideas of what it means to be a Jew. Esther–a Jewess living in Babylon–has no qualms about marrying a pagan king. In Nehemiah, intermarried with non-Jews is verboten: you can be a proper Yahwist if you are married to foreigners. Both are Jews in different physical and social locations, and both have different ideas of what being a “true Jew” entails.)

The issue of identity markers brings us again to the problem of the larger body and the individuals within it, and what is a Christian. So we have prophets who constantly tell us to return to the early teachings, be they of the early church, Jesus, or the historic creeds–individuals calling the body back to its true self. But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that “being true to the true body” means embodying the teachings of Jesus or emulating life of Jesus (as many Christians would say it is). What are we to do with those people of other faiths or no faith at all who actual do embody this spirit and who do the kinds of things with their body that Jesus did. They are not within the Christian markers of identity, not baptized, not confirmed, do not profess Jesus with their lips. Are they part of the true body even though they live outside the very True Body where God is supposed to be most fully present?

So what is a Christian? Who is a Christian? Am I a Christian?

I continue to think of myself as a Christian, but thinking is not the same as existing, moving, as a body within a larger body. I interact with people, some Christians and others not, in a wide variety of contexts. I try to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God.

I’ve gotten all my cards punched. I’ve prayed the Sinner’s Prayer. I’ve been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I have three higher degrees in Bible and theology. But more than that (because we all know you can have three Bible degrees and still be an asshole): I’ve tried really hard to be a Christian. I’ve tried to love people and do what I think will help usher in the kingdom of God on earth. I’ve never expected being a Christian to be easy. Life in itself is difficult. Living with an awareness of bodies and being committed to redeeming or re-creating the structures that have proved toxic is hard no matter who you are. But I think I always expected the hardest pressures to come from outside the church body. I was not prepared for the resistance within.

Here, naturally, my sacramental theology kicks in, but this exacerbates the sense of God’s missing body. God is supposed to be present in the eucharist, the priest, and the faces of the people kneeling beside you taking communion. Communion–that food you can’t get outside of church. That covenant meal that might feel less awkward and less funerary if everyone at the table lived like they actually gave a shit about the world Jesus came to save.

Communion and participation in the sacraments was less of a conundrum for me when I was an evangelical than it is for me now that I’ve turned to liturgical strains of Christianity. In an evangelical context, participating in the body meant trying to have meaningful relationships with other Christians. Since the church was “the people” not the physical architecture or the liturgical structure of the Sunday service, you could “do church” anywhere. Having coffee with a friend could be church (as long as you did some praying and ‘fessing up). Church was less the ritual of the Sunday service or the sacraments and more about the relationships.

If I were still an evangelical, I would have no intellectual qualms about stepping away from traditional church structures, away from the weekly rituals and sacraments. I mean: isn’t that how we grew up? Who among evangelicals or post-evangelicals doesn’t have the odd house church in their history started by some unordained white man in a Hawaiian shirt who thought God would be most fully present in his living room? If that’s what being a Christian is, can’t I just grab the nearest bunch of likeminded Christians and pitch a new tent?

The Sacramental Body

Because there wasn’t much sense of tradition to retain in an evangelical context, we felt okay doing pretty much whatever we wanted as long as it didn’t conflict with the morality system we’d created. Now that I have a keener sense of tradition, I’m less comfortable leaving the sacraments behind, even if I’ve lived most of my life devoid of many of them. I grew up without many aspects of church that I think are important to maintaining a sense of Christian identity: confession, regular communion, reciting of the creeds. I crave these, not because I think it’s the only way to “do church” or for God to be present, but because they are dramatic performances that aim to help us embody stories of re-creation. These rituals (in theory) are supposed to keep grounding us in the traditions about God’s presence in the world, helping us to be God-in-the-world.

Writing this makes me sigh with the weight of the missing body. What if God isn’t here in this eucharist and in these performances? What if we don’t take God from the church to the world? What if God has wandered out into the world, and we keep running after him to pull him back inside?

My desire for the grit of liturgy only highlights a problem with church I’ve had for as long as I can remember. My closest and most meaningful relationships have never existed in connection with the body that met on Sundays. Many of these relationships have been with Christians, but always in other contexts like school or work. The only time I’ve felt the actual weekly gathering of Christians felt life-giving for a sustained period of time was during my year in Oxford, where most aspects of my life converged. I was living with other Christian students and many of these went to the same liturgical church. I found the liturgy profound and life-giving, but I was also learning a lot in my academic courses at Oxford from a variety of teachers from different persuasions and faiths.

Maybe my question isn’t really what/who is a Christian, but why do I continue to identify as a Christian. Should I? The tensions between the larger structure and the convictions of the individual exist everywhere–they are not unique to religion. We can’t quit all the worlds we inhabit. I would still be part of a mass, one thread in a great web. My concern is the adaptability of the structures we choose to inhabit (insofar as we can make a conscience choice). It’s clear to me that conservative American evangelicalism has lost any power it once had to speak prophetically into the culture. There may be faithful individuals living and moving in evangelical contexts, but as a body it has a bad habit of spitting out its prophets. But maybe this is nothing new. Maybe prophets were made to be vomited up.

Is a body still malleable, still open to change, still moving? This is an issue that has often troubled me in the twenty-two years as a Christian. I have known individuals open to growth and change in various ways, but the majority of gestures I have witnessed from churches were gestures of self-preservation rather than growth or openness to change. Even my Christian university experiences were like that (though some were more open than others). Even in the educational context that taught me to think and question, there were still places we were intellectually not allowed to go, at least not publically. There is a very real fear of otherness that rears its ugly head in various ways.

Maybe this is not particular to Christianity. Maybe institutions and large bodies are just resistant to change (just look at America’s (in)justice system). But when is it time to quit the body and how do you decide if it’s redeemable? Or, even if it is redeemable, if you’re really the one most suited to help redeem it? You don’t quit a marriage at the first sign of trouble, but you also don’t want to cling on for years and years and years hoping your spouse will change.

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (2)

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (2)

Part 2 of a 4-part post. Here are parts 13, and 4.

Being True to the Body 

Being "true" to a body may mean adherence to the explicitly held beliefs and practices, but it can also mean the implicit values that are inherent to the structure itself. And sometimes (often) we experience tension between our individual convictions (or lived experience) that seem irreconcilable to the larger body. Within the context of the church, departure from orthodox teachings and practices of the church is often viewed negatively.

At the same time, however, Jewish and Christian tradition both have a long history of individual dissent within the body (I’m not saying this is necessarily unique to Judeo-Christian tradition). The Israelite prophets depicted in the Hebrew Bible are some of the earliest evidences of this strain–speaking and performing words against the practices and beliefs of larger bodies, whether the bodies are other nations or Israel itself.

Every prophet views herself as either hearkening back to some earlier teaching or upholding and/or advancing the real heart of the body. It is not understood as a revolt against the body so much as a call to the body to come back to its origins, to its “true self.” A contemporary example of this would be those evangelicals who consider the embrace of Trump to be contrary to the values of the Bible in general (and more specifically the teachings of Jesus). The true structure, they maintain, the real heart of Christianity, has been lost and replaced with a terrifying specter, a false image.

However, as a cradle Protestant, I know how elusive agreement on what constitutes the “true body” (and “trueness to the true body”) can be. To what image do these prophets call the body back?

One of the key features of the Protestant Reformation was of course a call to return to the text of scripture and use this to measure church tradition, teachings, and practices. In the evangelical community of my youth, there was again this odd divorce between what thought and said we were doing, and what we were really doing. On the one hand, we espoused the text of the Bible as primary. On the other hand, the majority of us (even our pastors) didn’t have a lot of education in biblical exegesis and interpretation. We were able to live with the impression that we were under the direct authority of scripture without a Pope or authority to interpret for us. We had a direct line to and from God. We thought we had unmediated access to God’s word. In actuality, we had (as everyone does) presuppositions, traditions, ways of reading that we all brought to the text without knowing it.

None of these mediators–whether they were individual Bible readers, church leaders, the Pope, or Bible scholars– could function as a univocal, definitive authority on how to understand God’s word without the whole system collapsing. We presupposed that presuppositions were inherently bad, that we had to check our theology, our minds, our everything at the door and come to the Bible as a clean slate. But presuppositions are not only not-bad (how’s that for a sweeping endorsement?) but inevitable. Presuppositions can become bad when they are considered normative and the system closed, the body refusing to be challenged by other voices (whether they come from within the body or outside).

If that idea is raising your hackles, I suspect it’s because you (like me) were raised with a closed view of scripture. The idea that scripture speaks univocally is demonstrably false. That’s just not the scripture we have. Such a view taken to its logical conclusion would have to exclude the possibility of Jesus as a new, inbreaking revelation of Yahweh, for in order to understand Jesus’ identity, the New Testament authors simultaneously invoke Jewish scripture and go beyond its original authorial intent.

The Bible (both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) was composed by many authors speaking in various times and places. This doesn’t mean there is never any agreement between the voices of the Bible or that what we have is a bag of completely divergent voices. On the contrary, there are common themes, metaphors, patterns of thought that keep cropping up. Newer texts engage in dialogue with older texts.  

One point of basic unanimity between the books of the Hebrew Bible is monolatry: worship of one God. (Unlike monotheism, which holds that only one God exists, monolatry allows for the existence of other deities, but maintains that only worship of one particular God is acceptable.) The Hebrew Bible is unapologetically monolatrous. Yahweh and Israel have entered into a covenantal relationship, and thus worship of other gods constitutes infidelity to the covenant. At the same time, within these “orthodox” texts, we have evidence Yahwistic Israelite faith that does not always adhere to monolatrous orthodoxy. An example would be the Israelite worshipper portrayed in Judges 17-18 who does not appear to be familiar with “orthodox” thinking on making cult images (more on images below). Another example would be the cases of religious syncretism in Israel, say, when King Solomon erects cult centers to other gods (1 Kings 11). These are portrayed negatively in the biblical texts. Solomon loses the kingdom for this offense. It is considered a breach of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh. Yet at the same time, these breaches do not disqualify Solomon (or the worshipper in Judges 17-18 for that matter) from the covenant community. They are still Yahwists and still Israelites.

These points of agreement in the biblical text do not negate the idea that the Bible is polyvocal. The Hebrew Bible’s unapologetic monolatry is a actually a very good example of the dynamism of the biblical texts because Jesus’ entrance into the scene redefines monolatry and monotheism  in a way that runs counter to Jewish monotheism. The Bible is not not a closed system. Christianity holds that Jesus is the same God of the Old Testament. That one God exists in three co-eternal person: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a new idea. This is unorthodox.

Viewing the Bible as a closed system is contrary the Bible’s own polyvocal witness. There cannot be one defining voice. The Word of the Lord, if it is really to speak to us “at many times and in many ways” to different peoples and contexts, must meet us as the words of the Lord–in the smallness, in the lowercase, in the plural. I think you can argue plausibly that this is what God did in the incarnation of Jesus (more on that below).

In short: when I studied biblical exegesis (and a smidge of church history), I realized that the quest to make the Bible the locus of faith is not only wrongheaded, it was impossible. There we were–just me and my Bible. I had all my exegetical tools, my linguistic knowledge and backgrounds knowledge, and all the knowledge that was to be had in the Western intellectual tradition. At last, I could really be my own pope.

But there were three related problems here, as any Bible scholar with an ounce of self-awareness will tell you. First, having better tools with which to study the Bible still didn’t give me unmediated access to the text–I still brought to it all the other structures I inhabited. My social location still influenced how I read the Bible. My whiteness, my economic status, my gender, etc.–I didn’t get rid of any of these coming to the text. The second problem was that being able to elicit more historically-informed readings of the text did not constitute participation in the church, the alleged True Body. Being part of a body isn’t just giving assent to doctrines or even the stories you tell (though this is part of any body, not just religious), but a space you inhabit (whether willingly or unwillingly). Whatever “true participation” means, Bible study alone wasn’t it. The third problem was the just the old issue of what constitutes true participation (we’re back where we started).

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (1)

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (1)

Part 1 of a 4-part post. Here are parts 2, 3, and 4.

A demagogue rises to power in my country and begins to quash freedom of the press, and all I can think about is how my science textbooks told me global warming was a myth.

An odd patch of memory on which to fixate. I have other, more pleasant (or at least more interesting) memories of my science education: the warm, enthused faces of my science teachers (moms and dads from my homeschool group), the unnerving dissection of a frog, the thrill of doing research and experiments for a biology project on smell and emotional memory.

Global warming. Our textbooks–I can't remember if they were put out by Bob Jones University Press or A Beka–took great pains to remind us of a fact we already knew: global warming was a myth. Like evolution, there was no real science to back it up, it was nothing but a meaningless speculation. The fact that there was consensus among most scientists about the reality of global warming meant nothing: most scientists did not know God.

There is nothing–I surmise in retrospect–inherently contradictory about these two statements:

  1. God is real.

  2. Global warming is real.

Nor is there any innate philosophical tension between these:

  1. God created the world.

  2. The world was created through the process of evolution.

The first is a statement of origins, the second is one of process. They are not mutually exclusive.

And yet global warming and evolution were both seen as threats to Christian faith by the evangelical community of my youth. If embraced, they would poke holes in a very intricate, locked system of how we read the Bible. Because we equated true faith with adherence to that system, if the system fell, faith would, too.

So we bunkered down and waited for the apocalypse. For some, apocalypse was quite literally imminent, and they literally bunkered down. For others, the bunkering mentality manifested itself as a refusal to engage with any ideas or people outside our circle unless it was for the express purpose of "witnessing" to them to convert them and bring them into the fold. And that kind of interaction isn't real engagement, isn’t a posture of turning, seeing, and knowing–it's a posture of control.

Accepting global warming was dangerous–a concession to the atheist scientists who crafted their godless theories of evolution to prove that God was dead.

I write about these memories knowing that people and movements are complex, and North American evangelicalism is no different in that respect.  But it's the very complexity, and the ease with which we all became subsumed into the monolith of ideas that makes me angry. We can perpetuate lies simply by inhabiting systems and never challenging them. 

Anger at institutions–religious, political, collegiate or otherwise–is a tangled mess to unravel because you know there are individuals within this broader body who both represent the body and at the same time rail against it. Their very presence within the body is like new wine in old wine skins. They threaten to make the whole thing burst, collapse.

I know many thoughtful evangelicals, both leaders and lay folks, who speak out and prophesy against untruth and injustice. People who denounce the demagogue and urge those who worship him to turn their eyes from this idol.

And I know that even some of the less thoughtful folks are more than this terrifying spectacle.

But the problem of the monolith remains: the great mass that was instrumental in Trump's ascent.

I am livid. White-hot rage. Blood-spitting anger.

I don’t know why people are surprised by evangelical support of Trump’s ascent. "We threw a bunch of gold in the fire, and out came this graven image!"

No, Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. Trump was waiting to happen. It was only a matter of time before a god of glittering gold arose, a god we shaped to look like us, to embody our values, to show our true hand.

A friend asks me why I am still a Christian. This question leads to so many more. What is a Christian? And whatever that is, am I still that? If it means inhabiting a corporate religious body, can I justify being a Christian?

What is a Christian?

The catechetical answer to what is a Christian might go something like this: anyone baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is part of the covenant community of the church. (The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches might view the other major branches of Christendom as “brothers in error,” but still kin in the faith.) Most Christian traditions have a public affirmation following baptism when a person comes to a certain age, something that expresses that person’s willing commitment to continue participating in the covenant community into which they were initiated through baptism.

In liturgical traditions, this is called “confirmation,” a sealing of the covenant that was created in holy baptism. In anti-liturgical traditions like the ones I grew up in, the public affirmation is often the baptism itself (“believers’ baptism”), sometimes accompanied by a verbal testimony of how the believer came to faith.

These practices recognize and try to remedy an inherent tension in any body, be it social, religious or political (or a mix–it’s always a mix, isn’t it?): the individual’s participation in (and conflict with) the larger structure. We live and move in relation to social bodies, but also exist as individuals, distinct persons, and cannot be reduced to the bodies we inhabit. Individuals participate in systems, but are not always true to them (I’ll talk a little more about what being “true” means below). Confirmation and other public affirmations of the faith attempt to express the individual’s willingness to try to be true to the communal body which they have entered, whether that entry was by choice (believer’s baptism) or by the choice of your family (infant baptism).

This tension between the individual and the larger frame of the corporate body was present even in the evangelical tradition in which I was raised. We railed against the externals of the Catholics (who we believed were trying to work their way to God), but at the same time had our own sets of external motions that were needed to verify and legitimize “true faith.” We all knew individuals, Christians who “talked the talk” without “walking the walk,” and viewed this as a divergence from true faith as defined by the values of the corporate body. One side of our rhetoric denied the necessity of individual action, while another side of our rhetoric created its own web of moral hoops through which to jump to achieve true faith. You didn’t need to dress a certain way, refrain from using curse words or watching certain movies to please God–God would accept you. But if you wanted the church body to accept you, you most certainly did.

God was weirdly wed to his body and estranged from it all at once. We could create our own body and rules for it without explicitly pinning its creation on God, but still wield the rules as divine authority since it was through us–in our communal body–that God was to be found in the world. God would still love you if you were outside the body, but if you wanted to encounter God, you had to get past us, jump through all our hoops. If you wanted to experience God, you needed to go to the True Body, and to get there, you had to be true to that body.

This was the conundrum of God’s body. I couldn’t meet with God apart from his body. But I’ve always been at a loss as to where exactly God’s body is to be found.

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Stop the Platitudes

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Stop the Platitudes

At the risk of adding to the noise and fear, I do feel the need to say a brief word to address the discrepancy of reactions to the election outcome in my news feed. From my friends of color, I hear a lot of anxiety, frustration, and hurt. From most of the white people in my news feed, I hear "God is in control" platitudes. Even if God is sovereign, this does not negate the very real, very damaging consequences of human action. When a person or community is suffering, reminding them that God is in control can effectively dismiss their pain and and truncate their legitimate expressions of grief and anger. When Jesus cried out on the cross because he felt abandoned by God, the Father wasn't like, "Woah, calm down, son. I got this." The Hebrew Bible, too, is filled with expression of lament, anger, and all manner of human responses to calamity--God's sovereignty is never, ever an excuse to ignore the role humans play in re-creating or de-creating the world, and does not negate our responsibility to work toward justice in this world.

I also realize that as a white, Christian woman, whatever the fallout of a Trump presidency is, I will not be affected anywhere near as much as people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ folks, and people of different faiths. Trump's misogyny has affected and will affect women across the spectrum, but this seems "small" compared to the racist sensibilities that Trump's rhetoric stoked this past year. It utterly inappropriate for the white community to tell communities of color to "calm down, God's in control." I realize that many of the folks saying things like this mean well, but if I've learned anything from this past year, it's that good intentions without knowledge can do a lot of damage. I say this as someone who has been ignorant for most of my life about the hardships and discrimination people of color in this country face. I probably can't even begin to know what my ignorance has cost my brothers and sisters of color. 

Over the past year, I've lived in a strange middle space. On the one hand, I hear bewilderment at best and hostility at worst from the white conservative community I grew up in when it comes to issues of racism. On the other hand, I hear my very tired, very legitimately frustrated friends of color exhausted by having always having to justify their narrative/experience to their white sisters and brothers. I understand the bewilderment because I've experienced it--growing up in white skin made my largely oblivious to the experiences of people of color. But since we've lived so long in this blissful ignorance, we must now work that much harder to embrace the folly of wisdom, of awareness. And while we are trying to wake up, we must stop patronizing people of color by dismissing their pain and perspectives with platitudes.

And remember that the Lord's prayer for the "kingdom" is NOT "Your kingdom come to take us away from earth into heaven where your will is done." It is "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The Kingdom of God is not an otherworldly hope, but a this-worldly one. Our hope for a future kingdom characterized by God's justice and mercy begins now, in the present. As we look at the injustice in this world, we can hope and long for the day when God's rule (which is, in fact, human rule, cf. Gen. 1-2) will be fully realized. But we cannot us this as an excuse to ignore injustice in the present, to turn a blind eye to the very real affects of human choices. The only way to embrace the future is to lean in to the present.

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Donald Trump, Apocalyptic Theology, and Evangelicalism

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Donald Trump, Apocalyptic Theology, and Evangelicalism

After watching this video by John Oliver on the RNC, it made me think again about why Trump appeals widely to white evangelicals in America.

Trump's appeal is not so surprising when you think about how American evangelicalism was shaped by the Great Awakenings, its emphasis on salvation as an individual decision or moment (read: emotional experience), and its focus on personal piety/inward purity as taking precedent over social justice issues or outward works/actions.

I remember experiencing a lot of angst as a teenager about God's disposition toward me because mainstream evangelicalism is all about being inwardly pure and having devotional feeling towards God. I knew that I was a sinner (y'know, stuff like pride, getting mad at my siblings not sharing my stuff), but I had no dramatic testimony and so I was at a loss as to know what I should be *doing* other than trying to feel right towards God and cut down on the pride and not annoy my little sister.

I had essentially no framework to do or be good because I knew from a tender age that it was all about what Jesus did on the cross, and I couldn't add anything to that. And since the whole point was Jesus saving my individual soul, the only "good" thing I could even do was evangelize to people so that Jesus could whisk them out of the world, too. I felt I had no power to affect change in the world, nor any sense that "saving the world" meant anything more than God redeeming peoples' hearts. It was all very apocalyptic in a narrow sense.

It's this apocalyptic theology that Donald Trump appeals to. His message is: "America was once great, but now it's not (because of all the Muslims, Mexicans, woman, and black people), so let's take back America by kicking out folks who don't belong." His message is completely antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that began in Genesis. 

I know many people have said this before, but we need to begin our Gospel story in Genesis 1 and see it through to the present day and beyond. The story begins with God creating the heavens and the earth and filling it with all forms of life. After forming each aspect of the world, God declares it good--and by the end of it, he sits back in his throne, looks at it all and declares it "very good"--exceedingly, overwhelming good. He creates the humans in his image (in the ancient Near East, a regal role--the humans are monarchs of the earth, appointed to manage, tend, and care for the earth and its creatures). He gives the humans and animals food to eat.

The humans have but two tasks: eat and cultivate the earth (so that all may eat). God blesses them and the other animals to multiple throughout the earth, and as they do, they are to eat and tend. But then a serpent draws the humans' attention to the one fruit that God had told them not to eat. They began to believe that God was withholding something good from them, that he was not to be trusted, that in fact eating the forbidden fruit would make them like gods (ironically, they are already like gods by virtue of their status as God's images).

Instead of eating the good food of their creator and basking in the delights of the garden, they fixate on this other fruit and end up breaking their creator's trust. And when the humans began to distrust the goodness of the world their creator had made, they actually started to live that way. They could not trust God. They could not trust each other. And people have been warring with each other ever since, and the whole earth has felt its effects. Because we believed the world was evil, we actually began to make it evil.

But since then, God has been calling human beings to start listening again to his voice and making the earth good again--not by ridding the land of people we perceive as threatening, but by loving the world, caring for it, and feeding it. And indeed, much of the earth's goodness still remains, though we still have much to do. In Jesus, we know what it looks like for a human to believe in God and work this out--not just a pious feeling, but embodied action. God becoming human in the person of Jesus is the affirmation of this good creation. If we are in need of an apocalypse, we have it right there: Jesus dying the death of the world and then rising from the dead to show that even the earth in its broken state can't keep humans and God from partnering together to fix it, to make it yield life.

Trump does not believe the earth is good. He doesn't believe it is worth saving. His message is not salvation, but purging. In Trump's world, only certain kinds of humans deserve to eat. The gospel of Trump is not "cultivate and keep," but stockpile and batten down the hatches. And Trump may try to convince people that he's got great food that will make us like gods, but don't be fooled: that fruit's rotten to the core.

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Alton Sterling

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Alton Sterling

When Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown and the Ferguson riots began, I was about two weeks into motherhood. As a white woman raised and homeschooled in the suburbs of North Jersey, I didn't know what to make of it all. I grew up with a very simplistic and skewed view of how our justice system works in North America. The police were the goodies who put away the baddies. If you weren't a baddie, there was nothing to fear. Race didn't even factor into the equation.

I knew racism existed. I knew that when my mother visited the deep south, she saw confederate flags still waving and houses with window signs that said: THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN. But those were racist individuals, weird people stuck in the past.

Then Ferguson happened. And slowly (perhaps too slowly), cautiously, I began to read more, to listen to different voices than the ones I'd been hearing most of my life. I started to see that the shootings of unarmed black men like Michael Brown were not isolated one-off events, but part of a disturbing pattern of violence rooted in systemic racism. Men and boys--boys like 12-year-old Tamir Rice--the victims of police brutality and murder because of the belief (whether conscious or subconscious) that the lives of people of color are not only unequal to white lives, but insignificant. Because of the lie that black lives, black bodies, are an inherent threat to white lives and must therefore be contained, controlled, annihilated.

If you're not tracking with me (and even if you are), I invite you to read. Read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. Naomi Murakawa's The First Civil Right. Cornel West's Race Matters. James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Drew G. I. Hart's Trouble I've Seen. Watch this talk by Soong-Chan Rah. That's just to get you started. And, hopefully, you'll begin to see that what happened to Michael Brown and now Alton Sterling (and hundreds before and between) are not isolated cases.

We cannot be silent. We cannot remain unaware.

The more I study the Bible, the more I see how the individualistic focus of Protestantism (particularly the North American evangelical variety) makes us easily blind to systemic problems in our justice system and communities. This is not a new critique of contemporary Protestantism, but I am seeing more and more how the focus on individual and inward purity has become a distraction from the very real and urgent need to look outside ourselves and love our neighbors as ourselves. Think about it: the idea "as long as I myself am not a racist, I'm okay" is insular and concerned only with inward purity alone, and has little to do with the embodied, outward act of loving your neighbor's black skin as much as you love your own white flesh. 

This focus on individual sinlessness/purity is antithetical to the corporate understanding of ethics in the covenant community of God found both in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This isn't to say that individuals weren't personally culpable for their own sin, but there was the understanding that their own sin affected the whole community. In turn, the community itself could be guilty of corporate sins and injustice. 

In fact, when you step back and look at the sweep of the Mosaic Law, the gist of the entire law is: here's how you approach God (the just law-giver) through ritual performance and purification, and here's how you live in peace with your neighbor. Jesus said as much when asked asked what the greatest command in the law was: "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Much of North American evangelicalism has lost that horizontal aspect, thinking that we can actually realize the vertical aspect of loving God without loving our neighbors. Thinking that if we abstain from certain things or keep our minds and hands pure, that we don't have to worry about problems of justice that are bigger than us as individuals. If I've learned anything over the past two years, it's that I am not just responsible for my own individual behavior, but those of my community past and present. 

As a white American woman, I am culpable for the African slave trade in America and all the other atrocities committed by white people against people of color, even the slaughter of Native Americans that happened long before I was born. It doesn't matter if I wasn't there. I'm responsible for the havoc my ancestors have caused, along with the ways in which I perpetuate the cycles of injustice today.

If you are a Christian and believe the Bible has any kind of claim on your life and doings, I challenge you to delve deeper into it. Know that its stories are deeply rooted in this sense of communal responsibility from generation to generation. A simple, but poignant example is found in the beginning of Deuteronomy, where the prophet Moses begins a series of four speeches to the Israelites as they are about to enter the promised land.

Some years ago, the previous generation of Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt, but God rescued them from Egypt and brought them to Mt Sinai (also called Horeb). On the mountain, God spoke with them and revealed his presence through thunder, earthquake, and fire. At the mountain, God and Israel made a covenant, a particular relationship sworn with solemn oaths. God gave them the Law, and Israel swore to keep it, casting their lot with this God who had rescued them and promised to bring them safely to a land of their own. But many of the Israelites of that generation broke the covenant by committing idolatry and died in the wilderness before they entered the land. 

As Moses speaks to this new generation about to enter the land, he starts with a history lesson. He reminds them of their history with God: how he brought them out of Egypt and revealed himself and his Law to them at Sinai/Horeb, and how they broke the covenant. The point here is that this history Moses remembers is their history despite the fact that technically it was their ancestors, the previous generation, who experienced all these things. Moses speaks with them directly in the second person about the revelation of God at Horeb and exhorts them, saying:

Watch yourselves, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest they depart from our heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children's children—how on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb...And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Words, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. (Deut. 4:9-13)

Moses speaks to the people as if they were there, as if they themselves saw the presence of God atop the mountain. As if they themselves had sworn to uphold the covenant and keep the laws, even though it was their ancestors who had done so. And with this memory comes a warning: don't forget what your eyes saw. Your eyes. Don't forget how God revealed himself and his covenant. Don't forget that when he rescued your ancestors from Egypt, he rescued you, too. Just because you weren't there, doesn't mean this salvation and this covenant isn't yours. Don't forget the covenant like your ancestors did and commit idolatry. Don't forget.

If you're like I was two years ago, you may be white and bewildered (I'm still white, but only slightly less bewildered). Bewildered because we have grown up with a different memory, a different consciousness than people of color in America. While we have been permitted the unholy privilege of forgetting the atrocities of slavery committed by our ancestors, people of color don't have this luxury because the fallout from these initial injustices never went away. It still plagues their lives, rearing its ugly head in many different forms--macro- and microagressions--and most heinously in the continued slaughter of innocent men and women at the hands of those who have sworn to "protect and serve." 

We are dealing with fundamentally different memories of how our common history has unfolded. In my white-washed memory, there's no way a cop would pull over or assault another human being because of their skin. In my white-washed consciousness, slavery is a thing of the past--done, dealt with and gone. I don't see what it's like to be abused for my skin because I've only ever lived as a white body. And so my white-washed reaction is that the discrimination doesn't exist. The brutality isn't there. I need more facts. But this is the sight of privilege, the toxic permission to forget.

We--white Americans--have forgotten what our eyes saw. Now, with the use of body cams and social media, our eyes see what they have forgotten. We are starting to wake from our amnesia. But the gut reaction to the horror of our own making is suppression of the memory. We don't want to believe that we are capable of such monstrosities. That we have done these things and continue to do them. We can't believe that the blood of Alton Sterling is on our hands. We can't believe what we've done. But we need to. If we do not face and lament our sins against our neighbors, there can be no healing for anyone. There can be no restoration. There can be no change. 

We need to start listening to different stories. We need to tell different stories. Black lives depend on it. All lives depend on it. We are one body, and when one member is killing the others, it's only a matter of time before the whole blessed, beautiful body dies.

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No, You're Not Losing Your Faith: A Letter to Introverted Moms

No, You're Not Losing Your Faith: A Letter to Introverted Moms

Do you remember that quiet space?

I suspect you do. I think your body remembers it well, and feels its absence. You remember the days when you had access to that much needed alone time--when you could sit, read, pray, or just sip your coffee and stare at the couch.

Now? In those rare moments when you are able to get alone, you can't seem to settle your brain. Your mind is racing, screaming, "What do I do? How should I use this precious bit of time? Don't waste it. DON'T WASTE IT, WOMAN." In your brain, you've already spent the time on five different activities. You've taken a hot bath and read a chapter of the next Wheel of Time book and made coffee and written in your journal and exercised and mediated and read your Bible.

I won't tell you it's okay that you don't have any alone time, because it's not. You need it. But you don't need to feel guilty about wanting your alone time back. You're not a bad mom. You don't love your kids any less.

And don't worry: you're not losing your faith.

You might feel claustrophobic--like you don't have time to be spiritual, to cultivate the inner life. And that's probably true. You fight to get that quiet time, that quiet space, but sometimes you're tired of fighting and just want to sink.

That doesn't mean God is moving away or that you're moving away. It means you're in a different life stage.

There will come a time when you're able to sit more, to rest more, to calm your soul. There will come a time when you'll be able to do more--to do the creative things that make you feel alive. And chances are, as time goes on and you get to know yourself better, you'll learn how to carve out small spaces even in the midst of mommying. You'll find your rhythm.

But for now, just do what you can. Grab any quiet moments you can, and don't feel guilty or afraid. You're still you. And God is still God. No one's going anywhere.

Let Them Pee

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Let Them Pee

If you've read my blog in the past, you know I try to steer clear of controversial topics on the internet because most people are bad at having good conversations on the internet. Avoiding heated issues doesn't get much traffic to my blog, but it saves me from the angst of having to deal with angry (or even just poorly-worded) comments and trolls. That said: please keep the comment section kind.

Let's get down the the nitty gritty. Some say that allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their understanding of their gender identity will expose women and girls to sexual predators. This fear is largely unfounded. If a male predator wants to dress in women's clothing and enter a the ladies' bathroom, he can do so easily already. Given the right clothing (and let's add a wig and sunglasses for kicks), even a buff, stereotypically masculine man could easily enter a ladies' restroom without looking suspicious.

While sexual assaults do happen in public places, children are more often abused by someone in their immediate sphere of influence. It's easier to look for a sexual predator in the "otherness" of a stranger (be they a sexual predator or just a transgender person emptying their bladder), but the fact is that child abusers are more likely to be found in the people we think we know: a neighbor, a boyfriend, a soccer coach, a teacher.

It is probably also worth saying that requiring transgender men to use the ladies' restroom will likely be more confusing/shocking to others in the restroom than if they were simply allowed to use the men's bathroom. A transgender man will be dressed like, well, a man--and women and girls are more likely to be unnerved by this than by a transgender woman in the ladies' room.

I hope it goes without saying (though perhaps for some it doesn't) that non-trans women and girls will not be endangered by the presence of transgender women in their bathroom. They are there to pee like everyone else, not prey on children.

There is a simple solution for parents who are afraid that pedophiles will try to get into the ladies' restroom and assault little girls: let your daughter know that it is always okay to leave a bathroom or solicit help when she feels uncomfortable. 

When I was a child, my parents were very clear about how I was to deal with strangers. I was not to talk to strangers if a parent wasn't present, and if someone made me uncomfortable, I was to quit the scene immediately and find the nearest trusted adult. The only people allowed to see me in my underwear were my mother and my doctor (and only in the presence of my mother). Girls should know that if they feel uncomfortable in any circumstance, they are allowed to run, to cry out, to put up a stink. 

The burden doesn't have to be on a little girl to determine whether the person they see in the restroom is a legit transgender woman minding her own business or a predator in disguise. Your daughter is allowed to leave to restroom. If you feel uncomfortable, accompany her to the bathroom, or if you're a dad, enlist a female employee to go with her. Or use the family restroom (not always available, but often).

All this to say: I'm sure some people are concerned about the safety of their little girls (even if their fears are unfounded), but that's not primarily what this is about. This is about fear of transgender people. This kind of fear has no legitimate place in the life of a Christian.

I don't care if you're egalitarian, complementarian, LGBT-affirming or non-affirming (or somewhere on the spectrum). If you have issues (be they biblical, theological, or otherwise) with the way someone comes to terms with and expresses their sexuality, those are conversations to have when you are in a close personal relationship with them, not a pre-requisite for letting them pee.

You know what you do when you love someone? You invite them to the table. You share a meal. You feed them. You talk. You give them coffee. Lots of coffee. And maybe a glass of wine. And when they are so full of liquids that they can barely walk, you say, "Please, use the restroom. Be my guest." 

Sexuality and gender are complicated topics and I, for one, would prefer to discuss them with a full stomach and an empty bladder. Let's afford our LBGT+ neighbors the same courtesy.

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Why Here?

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Why Here?

You know me and my erratic blogging habits. A burst of creativity–a month or two of weekly or even bi-weekly blogging and then…silence. The occasional spat of posts here and there. An update. A thought.

I’ve been away from the blog, but I’ve been writing like a lunatic, as you'll know if you happen to be one of the five people who follow the excerpts I post on Facebook periodically. Each Saturday, I catch the 7am bus to Chestnut Hill Coffee and scribble in a cheap composition book until my hand cramps or my brain curls up, whichever happens first.

If customers’ shoes are an indication of economic status, I wager I’m the least affluent person in the shop–minus that guy who disembarks from the same bus I do whose pale belly is always peeking out from the bottom of his t-shirt. But for $2.11 apiece, the baristas at Chestnut Hill will make us both monarchs for a day. With $2.11, I can get a cup of more-than-decent coffee and three hours of quiet at a table by a many-paned window that looks out onto a cobblestone street. Now that’s luxury.

When I get home from writing, we have lunch and then Josh descends to the basement to work on his piano curriculum. Marshall fuddles about the kitchen while I do the dishes and make tea. If he hasn’t had a nap yet, I’ll put him to bed. Otherwise, I’ll settle in the blue recliner we hauled from the trash and try to read while Marshall brings me blocks and puzzle pieces and tries to convince me that he should be squirming in my lap.

The work week is pretty busy. Up at 5:30am–exercise, shower, feed Marshall bananas, cheerios, and eggs. Out the door by 6:40. Home at 6pm three days a week; home at 3pm for the other two. Sweeping, cooking, cleaning, laundry. And dishes and more dishes. Always dishes. Marshall hanging onto my pants and begging me with his baby signs for cheerios as I do more dishes. Marshall stopping and glancing quizzically at the door when he hears the bark of our new neighbor’s golden retriever.

“Doggy?” he asks, pointing.

“Yes, doggy. What sound does a doggy make?”

“Woof woof.”

And Marshall bumping his head or stubbing his toe; Mama or Dada holding him while great big crocodile tears roll down his cheeks. Marshall climbing up on the kitchen table and me pulling him down for the millionth time. Marshall splashing his hand in the toilet water if I forget to close the bathroom door.

And Josh cooking a fancy-ish supper on Friday nights. Playing Carcassonne or Dominion after Marshall goes to bed. Drinking our homemade pour over and dreaming and scheming about that mystical far off day when our school debt will be gone and we can afford a Friday-night babysitter.

Then there’s Sunday. We sleep in until 7am (yes, with a toddler, that’s sleeping in). Josh descends again to prepare for piano lessons later in the day and I cook a leisurely breakfast.  And then–after a diaper change–we’re off to church, one of the few churches that doesn’t make us perpetually wrack our brains to figure out why we go.

Still, I spend the service wondering why we’re here. I’m just a chronic brain-wracker, I guess. Why here and not at a book club? Why here and not at a soup kitchen? Why here and not at home making love? Why here and not at a desk exegeting Hebrew? Why here and not in my neighbor’s kitchen? Why here and not at a social justice protest? Why here and not at a poetry slam? Why here and instead of in a lab doing research?

I know the answer, of course–the answer I would give anyone who asked me about going to church. No doubt I would say something about confession and communion, those things you can’t do alone or anywhere else but church. I would say something about how the liturgy reorients us to the divine and reminds us that this sacred day of rest echoes and celebrates the seventh day of creation when God rested–that is, took up his throne. I would say something about the day reminding us that Jesus is king,  not just of this day, but of history, of the whole world.

I would probably say something like that.

Still–as I get up from the rail, Body and Blood still stinging my tongue, and glance at the stained-glass Jesus above me breaking bread with the two travelers he met on the road to Emmaus–I wonder, “Why here?”

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Stories First

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Stories First

Stories come before theology.

I know it's ironic to begin this post with a propositional statement instead of a narrative, but that's the dogma that's been running through my brain these days as our life has been plunged into upheaval over the past month.

In case you missed the memo: Josh, Marshall, and I gave away most of our furniture and threw the rest of our worldly goods into a UHaul and moved from Chicago to Philadelphia so that I could start my new job at Red Letter Christians. Our life is still packed away in boxes since we won't be moving into a more permanent apartment until the beginning of October. When I packed most of my books, I accidentally packed away my writing pad, too. I see that boxed notepad as a metaphor for my humanity, which has gone into hibernation for a spell. There’s just no time or space to devote to book writing at the moment, and in the absence of my craft, I feel stymied (though writing this blog helps me to breathe a little).

But back to my propositional pontificating on stories.

It's not that stories should come first (though this is probably also true), but stories do come first. Of course, there isn't always a clean line between story and theology, but I think of theology as reflection–the ordering or explanation–that takes place after the dust settles. We had the experience, but missed the meaning. The reflection helps us to make sense of the experience–to explicate its meaning. Our past experiences collide with the present ones, and our theology is what comes when we begin to sort that out. So theology is important, but it doesn't come first.

I used to think that we start (or should start) with theology and view our experiences through those lenses. Now I realize that we begin with stories, plunged from birth into a world of sensations and relationships that we try to make sense of as time passes.

When it comes to the stories of the Bible, we may want to come with a clean slate, but this is not how relationships work, nor does it reflect the reality of Jesus' incarnation. We come with our stories, our histories, our interpretations. As we read the Bible–or encounter the stories of Israel and Jesus through a friend–we begin to see how these collide with our story, and how our story collides with them. They do not erase our story, nor does our story erase the story of Jesus embodied in scripture and the history of God's people. Jesus' story interrupts ours, and our story interrupts his.

I now work as an assistant to man who is, among other things, a professional story-teller. He travels and speaks, and often begins his messages with stories. And as I hear him speak, I realize that what makes him such a good speaker is that the stories he tells are not illustrations for theology. The stories are the message, whether they are stories from scripture or stories from his life or the lives of those around him (often a mix of both). The theology becomes an explication of those stories, an unpacking of the meaning. The stories are not a stepping stone to the theology, but the root of it.

If God had wanted an uninterrupted story or set of unchangeable propositions–a monolithic narrative or unmalleable theology–he would not have made us creative creatures that make decisions and shape the course of history. If he wanted an uninterrupted story, he would have made us machines that work but have no freedom, or he would have made us free and left us to our own devices. He does neither. He insists that this is not just his story nor is it just ours. He creates the human world and enters it–first through creation, then through his dealings with Israel and then–most intimately–through Jesus, God made flesh.

Stories come first. The Gospel–the ‘announcement’ or ‘proclamation’–of Jesus the Christ (‘the Messiah’) is the height of a series of stories that began long ago. The four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) contain some of the earliest traditions about how Jesus’ story collided with the story of Israel and how the experiences of Jesus’ followers collided with Jesus. Although the letters of the Apostle Paul were in circulation before the four Gospels were written, these Gospels are based largely on stories that people were already telling in the community about Jesus. Paul takes the stories of Jesus and begins to unpack them for the new faith communities that are springing up across the Mediterranean world, explaining the narrative and theological significance of Jesus’ life–significance that had only just started coming to light.

Stories come first. Stories should not compete with theology, but be the basis of theological reflection–and then that reflection, in turn, begins to shape and re-shape our stories as the stories are told again and again in new ways and in new communities. Stories are not (primarily) illustrations for theology, but the soil where the seed of experience begins to be nourished by the water and sun of reflection.

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On Writer's Block

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On Writer's Block

I woke up at 3 AM this morning, put the kettle on for tea, and sat down at my roll top desk to write.

Nothing came. Nothing helpful, anyway.

I already have a 60,000 word manuscript. I am working through it carefully now, rewriting, rearranging, and discarding. I began to read the second chapter this morning and was not only repulsed by the writing, but wasn't sure how to rework it or how it related thematically to the previous chapter I'd just gone through.

People have different ways of dealing with writer's block. I usually deal with it by hurling myself into the depths of despair. I become frustrated with myself and start feeling as though all my efforts have been for naught. This writing is no good. It says nothing. It does not speak to the human condition. It tells you nothing real about the world. Shallow, it’s too shallow. The world you have made is small, very small indeed. (And not that small-town, down-to-earth, rich and inviting kind of small where the people have big hearts and colorful worlds. Yours is a narrow world, dull and colorless.)

I felt that way this morning. But rather than let myself be thrown into the chaos of the pit or try to work in the midst of this frustration, I put my manuscript away, finished my tea, and then went back to bed.

When I awoke, I decided it was time to make this a reading day–no trying to write, no trying to force my way through writer’s block. When Marshall went down for a nap, I turned to the place I'd left off in Buber's essay, "The Holy Way."

As I read, parts of my manuscript began to come together in my mind like Ezekiel’s dry, scattered bones. I began to get a sense of what should come next, and to realize that the way my manuscript was ordered just wasn't helpful to the reader. There was material near the back of the book that needed to come earlier, and the section I was working on should really appear later. The bones began to look more like full skeletons.

That's how this morning’s writer's block started to go away. As I said, people have different ways of dealing with writer's block, but here are a few principles I find useful:

1. Maintain your designated time and space to write even if you don't write anything. I finished my tea because I wanted to complete my ritual of getting up at a particular time to work. Establishing a regular time and place to write is important if you want to make it a habit.
2. Don't let writer's block make you think you're doing something wrong or have nothing to offer. It's just part of the process, and it doesn't mean you are no good at writing.
3. Don't force yourself to write. Sometimes, trying to write will only frustrate you. Take a deep breath and go read something. Reading can help get the juices flowing.
4. Force yourself to write. Sometimes, making yourself write something, anything, can help you feel your way to what you actually want to write. Sometimes, when nothing comes, I try to sit down and write about my goals for this particular piece of writing (and jot some thoughts down). What am I trying to express? How can I show that in this particular section? What you write may not make it into the finished product, but it can help you to think more lucidly about what you want your writing to do.

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Do We Have Control Over What We Believe?

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Do We Have Control Over What We Believe?

How much control does a person have over what she believes? Can she choose to believe in God? To believe in no God?

I am not thinking of the tiresome debates about predestination and free will (though the close connections between these questions are obvious). I am thinking of the nature of belief and the frequent tensions between cognitive (and verbal) assent and what a person actually thinks (and how this influences her life in the world). In short: there is usually a disparity between what we say or think we believe and what we actually believe. One can give verbal and mental assent to all manner of orthodox doctrines and remain a functional heretic. I acknowledge the reality of the Triune God, but what does it mean to live Trinitarianly and to what extent can this be done?

Our beliefs are always based in experience even when those experiences are what might rightly be called 'revelation.' (One could argue that all right belief is a result of revelation.) What we believe is based on our encounter with the world and consists of what we have, in those encounters perceived to be true or real (even allowing for the locality of some kinds of knowledge). We may pay lip-service to all manner of belief -- that God is love, distant, all-powerful, ineffectual, non-existent or what have you -- but does this cohere with our experience of reality?

As Protestants, we like to think "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so," but is this really how we knew the love of the incarnate Son of God? I don't doubt that some (perhaps many) experience God's love directly through the reading of scripture. But when I reflect on my own experience, I realize it was probably the love of my parents (in particular, my mother) that first communicated God's love to me, not the Bible. Mom was the face of God to us. In many ways, my belief still operates this way. I believe in God's love because I have people who love me and whom I love.

The difficulty, as anyone who has suffered beneath the sun knows, is that we can just as easily (perhaps more easily) believe in God's unlove because of how we have encountered unlove through others. These people (if God, in fact, is love) are false images, images that do not embody the person of God.

Still, how much do we control what we believe? I don't mean to imply that we are simply sponges that absorb whatever realities we encounter. This is, I think, even impossible, since we daily encounter (what seem to be at least) competing realities, conflicting voices that vie for our attention, and we cannot absorb it all. (Or: perhaps we do. Perhaps we hold in ourselves more tension and conflict and reality than we can ever know or bear to know, the whole world warring within us, waiting to be born.) We experience both love and hate, both mercy and cruelty. And we also find ourselves capable of both great love and great cruelty.

We do not just absorb, however. We interact. We weigh our experiences in the balance and respond, shape, act, believe.

Where am I going with all this? (Perhaps that is the real question, a question of location and movement instead of stillness and immobile being.)

What we think we believe and what we really believe do not always cohere. You can say (and even think) the orthodox creeds of Christianity but live a functionally godless life. I suppose I am intrigued (and perhaps unwittingly believe?) in the kind of Christian universalism depicted in Lewis' Last Battle, where some who did not know Aslan by name actually honored him in how they lived their lives. 

If God is the creator of the world and committed to re-creating it through his Son, Jesus Christ, are all who re-create (those who facilitate the renewal of life) in some way serving God, albeit unwittingly? Perhaps they do not believe in God. But if they live as though God is in the world (and in some sense become God in the world), do they believe even when they do not believe, their bodies working against every cognitive objection to the presence of God?

I am not saying this is what I believe, though my own declarations of belief may bear only a distant resemblance to what I believe. I am speaking in order to get to my belief, to plot how I've experienced the world and what I've encountered as true.

These reflections are (of course) evoked by experience: the fact that many of my friends and acquaintances from Bible college no longer identify as Christians  (most are athiests or agnostics). And, no, these are not people who "fell into a life of sin" and became distant from God. These are honest, questioning friends who have serious doubts about the form (and content) of the faith bequeathed to them from their parents or Church community. Their questions are not unlike many of my own, and their critiques of Christianity are (often) valid.

All this makes me wonder about the nature of belief. Why is it that I say I "believe" in the God revealed in Jesus Christ and his Church, as witnessed through Judeo-Christian scripture and the testimony of the saints throughout history? Why do I (if I do) actually believe? In what or whom do I believe? What (perhaps more importantly) should or do my husband and I communicate to our son about belief in God? Faith, like any living, breathing relationship, must evolve or die. What shape does my faith take now and what shape ought it to take in this transitory life? And how much control do I have over its shape?

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Divine and Human Space: Shall I Say It Again?

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Divine and Human Space: Shall I Say It Again?

It's three weeks until the comprehensive exams, so I imagine I'll spend much of the coming week (Spring break) studying, but I wanted to take this weekend to type up the rest of the handwritten and hand-edited portions of the second draft of my book. It turns out that I've managed to get through roughly two-thirds of this second draft even with all the busyness of school and motherhood, editing out approximately ten thousand words and adding about the same.

The following is the very last section of the book's most recent iteration. I am not sure if I will end up keeping it (it may be a bit too "obvious" for the rest of the book's tenor). I'm not even sure if I agree with all the theology in it. Nonetheless, I'm glad I wrote it, as it is helpful for me to keep the book focused on what I want it to be about.  So, for those of you who asked what the book is about, this is it. Enjoy.

Divine and Human Space

As I near the end of this small book of fragmented narratives, I find Eliot’s refrain from The Four Quartets turning over in my mind: You will say I am repeating / Something I have said before / I shall say it again / Shall I say it again?  To say it again, however, I must determine what I said.  What did I mean to say?  And what have I actually said?  To determine what I meant to say, I must go back to the beginning.

You thought I began with my lineage: the space bequeathed to me by Christianity and Judaism, the religious legacy of my parents.  And so I did.  That is what I said.  But what did I mean?

I meant: if I were to trace my origins, the place of my birth, I would have to go back to my Creator, the divine being who came to earth as a human being.  I was born on his land, in his home.  He is my father, my mother, my resting place.  The God who set up shop in this world is the same God who will renovate it in the end: Jesus.  The earth is God’s temple, but Jesus is his temple, too.

God did not wish to demolish his temple, though it had become a wasteland because of human sin.  So, instead, he tore down Jesus, all the while planning to raise him up again so that the whole world could live in him.

Jesus is where I begin.

But what precisely, what really, have I said?

My point–my life, my hope, my joy–is the simple yet baffling reality that God has built his house among humans.  The Eastern Orthodox Christians have a turn of phrase that sums up the incarnation nicely: “God became man so that man might become God.”

Now, of course, when they say “man might become God,” they don’t mean that humans become the ontological equivalent of the Creator God or that they supplant his unique divine status.  They mean that humans become “deified” in the sense that Adam and Even were meant to be “like God” in Eden–being and doing in small what God is and does in large.  If we put this in spatial terms, we might say: “God lived in human space so that humans could live in divine space.”  Jesus left his Father’s house in heaven to come be with us.

When I was a girl, I thought the story of my life with Jesus was all about sin.  In some sense, it was, but this was not the beginning nor the heart of the matter.  The beginning of the story was not my sin, but God’s act of love in building the world for his creatures to enjoy, a divine house–a temple–where humans could work and dance before the divine.  And there was hope of immortality in God’s good land through the Tree of Life that God planted in the garden of Eden.

And you know the story after that–how our spiritual ancestors were told they didn’t need God in order to inhabit divine space, that they could be gods of their own temple instead of images in Yahweh’s temple. 

And so I was born into the world thinking, like my ancestors, that I could be queen of my own space, the center of my own little world.  I was not beholden to those who came before me or those who would come after me.  I had no obligation to share space with my neighbor or any deep sense that everything I owned had been given to me by someone else–that there was no “my land,” “my house,” “my space,” only God’s space.

But God looked at me–looked at us–shook his head, and said, Not good.  I will show them what it looks like to share space.  I will visit them again.  Though they sought to exile me from this land, to shove me back into heaven, I will come to them.  I will teach them how to live in divine space, how to be at peace in the world again.

And so for years and years he came to us in many different ways.  He spoke to Cain and Noah and Abraham.  He even appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre, Yahweh announcing to the patriarch his promise of a son.  He showed his face to Jacob as they wrestled by the River Jabbok.  God showed himself to Moses on Mt Sinai and disclosed his words to Israel through the giving of the law.  His presence came upon the tabernacle, his glory filled the Israelite temple.  He spoke to us through the words and visions of prophets.

Then, in the fullness of time, he came to us in his son, Jesus.

As I write this, my son dozes beside me in his stroller, his tiny lids fluttering open now and then only to once again close in deep sleep.  How little he knows about the world he has entered.  For nine months, he has known only the compact, comforting space of my womb, where he was always fed, always secure.

For nine months, I shared my body with him, though he knew it only as his own space.  But now he must relearn his dependence on me and learn to participate.  I will feed him, but he must also learn to eat.  Day by day, he will grow bigger and develop a sense of independence from me–that we are two separate human beings sharing divine space.

My mother used to write to us in little notebooks when we were young, hoping to give us a sense of our infancy when we were older.  I carry on this tradition, every so often jotting down short notes in Marshall’s notebook, telling him about himself and sharing with him my hopes and dreams for his life.

I tell him that I want him to be able to pursue the activities that intrigue him the most, knowing that God loves it when we cultivate his good gift of creation and human activity.  I tell him that a full life is a thankful life, a life lived in gratitude to God for coming to live with us.

Most of all, my dear, sweet boy, I want you to know Christ and the re-creative power of his resurrection.  I want you to know the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, in his broken body.  We are dying already, you know–me, you, Dad, everyone.  We will suffer no matter what.  We will die one day, whether that happens tomorrow or one hundred years from now.  But when God came to live with us, he came to die with us, too.  And he promised that if we would suffer and die with him, that we would also be raised from the dead in order to live with him forever on this earth.  This, my Marshall–my love, my life–is my prayer for you.  Christ became like you–may you become like him.

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But Love Troubles My Head

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But Love Troubles My Head

In my last post, I wrote that love doesn’t trouble my head much anymore. But it does.

My freshman year of college, I met my first boyfriend – his name was Biblical Studies. I hadn’t been particularly studious as a high school student. We were homeschooled and school was what we did all the time (it was nothing to get too excited about). But just a few weeks into my Bible classes, I was enamored of it all – the primary texts, the commentaries, the discussion of probing questions that charmed and vexed the soul.

For the first time in my life, I’d found something more thrilling than a boy. Here was a quest for which I would gladly forego meals. (I see now my obsession with Biblical Studies was worse than love – I would never have forsaken food for love of a boy.) The following summer, I took a series of summer classes back-to-back. I got into the habit of going from my (4-5 hr) morning class straight to the library and studying until supper. My stomach would knot with hunger, but my elation was so visceral that I barely felt the knots.

This kind of love still troubles my head from time to time. When I met Josh, the old, troublesome sort of love began to show its true colors. Over time, I began to see that what I had understood to be romantic interest or physical attraction (I never dared to call anything “love”) had less to do with interest in a particular person or subject and more to do with my need for distraction. Of course, it’s never that simple – most of what we do is a complex mixture of real interest and the need for distraction. But mostly it was distraction.

This is why love still troubles my head from time to time – because it isn’t about romance or attraction or sex. It’s a quest to keep our ghosts at bay, to distract us from our raw, wounded insides. This troubles me, but I’ve gotten better at resisting it, refusing to let it rob me of real interest, real love. The source of every human love is God, and when someone loves us as we are, that gives us the confidence to face who we are. We no longer need to be distracted from ourselves. (Josh’s love helps a lot.)

I think of distraction as a kind of gluttony. It keeps you from really focusing on what’s in front of you and loving it. Instead of encountering the gift before you, you’re always searching for more, not because you’re interested in genuine knowledge, but because you’re interested in acquiring, possessing.

As I reflect on my undergraduate education, I see that in many ways, I was not taught to love knowledge. I had to learn that on my own. I was taught to be thrilled with knowledge, and this carried me for a time. But the leisure of four years of full-time study has a way of encouraging gluttony – a swift love affair with books and the meaning of life. It fattens you up with knowledge, but does not give you the tools to pursue knowledge when you no longer have the leisure to do so. And you begin to starve.

At the end of this affair, you are unsatisfied. You have not learned to live with knowledge, only to gorge on it. You are unable to maintain the vigor you once had now that the pressures of work and family life make it difficult to devote many hours to study. You learned to love knowledge in one context: the classroom. You did not learn to talk about the questions when you sit at home and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you get up.

Since knowledge was just a distraction, an erotic pang in your love-sick gut, you feel justified in leaving it behind. Fantasies are quickly exhausted, and you need to move on to something new.

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When Love Doesn't Trouble My Head

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When Love Doesn't Trouble My Head

Love doesn't trouble my head these days, but it used to -- a lot. I've been married for well-nigh five years now, and I forget how harrowing life seemed back then in those days before I met Josh.

Before Josh, there was always someone I fancied, whether or not the lad reciprocated my affections (most often not). There was always the flutter, the highs and lows of he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not, the anxious but excited wondering, the hope at an unexpected conversation, the despair of absence or uncertainty.

And, of course, the butterflies that I have always called butterflies because we had no language to talk about sexual attraction.

Then I met Josh. And not one butterfly.

I bumped into him on the steps leading to the college chapel. He told me about his upcoming senior recital. I mentioned that I was writing a novel. He said he'd like to see it when I was done.

He looked older than when I'd last seen him two years ago.

Those early sightings had been fleeting, certainly. He spent most of his time in the bowels of the music building, and I only ever saw him briefly in the cafeteria or on the sidewalk on his way to the music building. I remembered a young man with enthusiastic hand gestures whose shirts and khakis had clearly been purchased in the 90s. And he wore sneakers with those khakis, sneakers laced super-tight for good ankle support.

He'd grown a beard since then and his eyes looked older, sadder, wiser. 

And I thought, "He seems to have shaped up nicely. I wonder if he's still with that Amanda-girl. I hope he is with someone who deserves him."

It was an innocent thought. You may not believe me, but I had no thought of him for myself. Because there were no butterflies.

Instead of butterflies and drama and confused, angst-ridden prayers, all I felt was an almost startling ease. We talked often in those next few weeks, and every time we met, I felt more and more like my real self.

This was not how love was supposed to work. I was supposed to be intimidated, happily anxious.

I emailed him a draft of my novel, but we didn't talk over the summer. In August, when we came back to school, we got together for tea. And it was at that tea, that I was certain of what I had suspected over the summer -- this was the man I was to marry.

This was not how love was supposed to go for me. I had always been suspicious of the stories people told and how they "knew" when they first met that they would fall in love. You can't know, I thought. You can't know after only having known someone such a short time. You can't be sure of someone's character so soon.

Yet here I was, so sure that Josh and I were meant to be together. And I wasn't even in love. I have not been certain about many things in my life, but I knew that Josh and I fit. For the first time in my life, I wasn't worried about being in love. Love didn't trouble my head.

I wasn't worried about butterflies (or the lack thereof). I knew they would come when they needed to come.

And they did.

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Do We Control What We Believe?

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Do We Control What We Believe?

How much control does a person have over what she believes? Can she choose to believe in God? To believe in no God?

I am not thinking of the tiresome debates about predestination and free will (though the close connections between these questions are obvious). I am thinking of the nature of belief and the frequent tensions between cognitive (and verbal) assent and what a person actually thinks (and how this influences her life in the world). In short: there is usually a disparity between what we say or think we believe and what we actually believe. One can give verbal and mental assent to all manner of orthodox doctrines and remain a functional heretic. I acknowledge the reality of the Triune God, but what does it mean to live Trinitarianly and to what extent can this be done?

Our beliefs are always based in experience even when those experiences are what might rightly be called 'revelation.' (One could argue that all right belief is a result of revelation.) What we believe is based on our encounter with the world and consists of what we have, in those encounters perceived to be true or real (even allowing for the locality of some kinds of knowledge). We may pay lip-service to all manner of belief -- that God is love, distant, all-powerful, ineffectual, non-existent or what have you -- but does this cohere with our experience of reality?

As Protestants, we like to think "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so," but is this really how we knew the love of the incarnate Son of God? I don't doubt that some (perhaps many) experience God's love directly through the reading of scripture. But when I reflect on my own experience, I realize it was probably the love of my parents (in particular, my mother) that first communicated God's love to me, not the Bible. Mom was the face of God to us. In many ways, my belief still operates this way. I believe in God's love because I have people who love me and whom I love.

The difficulty, as anyone who has suffered beneath the sun knows, is that we can just as easily (perhaps more easily) believe in God's unlove because of how we have encountered unlove through others. These people (if God, in fact, is love) are false images, images that do not embody the person of God.

Still, how much do we control what we believe? I don't mean to imply that we are simply sponges that absorb whatever realities we encounter. This is, I think, even impossible, since we daily encounter (what seem to be at least) competing realities, conflicting voices that vie for our attention, and we cannot absorb it all. (Or: perhaps we do. Perhaps we hold in ourselves more tension and conflict and reality than we can ever know or bear to know, the whole world warring within us, waiting to be born.) We experience both love and hate, both mercy and cruelty. And we also find ourselves capable of both great love and great cruelty.

We do not just absorb, however. We interact. We weigh our experiences in the balance and respond, shape, act, believe.

Where am I going with all this? (Perhaps that is the real question, a question of location and movement instead of stillness and immobile being.)

What we think we believe and what we really believe do not always cohere. You can say (and even think) the orthodox creeds of Christianity but live a functionally godless life. I suppose I am intrigued (and perhaps unwittingly believe?) in the kind of Christian universalism depicted in Lewis' Last Battle, where some who did not know Aslan by name actually honored him in how they lived their lives. 

If God is the creator of the world and committed to re-creating it through his Son, Jesus Christ, are all who re-create (those who facilitate the renewal of life) in some way serving God, albeit unwittingly? Perhaps they do not believe in God. But if they live as though God is in the world (and in some sense become God in the world), do they believe even when they do not believe, their bodies working against every cognitive objection to the presence of God?

I am not saying this is what I believe, though my own declarations of belief may bear only a distant resemblance to what I believe. I am speaking in order to get to my belief, to plot how I've experienced the world and what I've encountered as true.

These reflections are (of course) evoked by experience: the fact that many of my friends and acquaintances from Bible college no longer identify as Christians  (most are atheists or agnostics). And, no, these are not people who "fell into a life of sin" and became distant from God. These are honest, questioning friends who have serious doubts about the form (and content) of the faith bequeathed to them from their parents or Church community. Their questions are not unlike many of my own, and their critiques of Christianity are (often) valid.

All this makes me wonder about the nature of belief. Why is it that I say I "believe" in the God revealed in Jesus Christ and his Church, as witnessed through Judeo-Christian scripture and the testimony of the saints throughout history? Why do I (if I do) actually believe? In what or whom do I believe? What (perhaps more importantly) should or do my husband and I communicate to our son about belief in God? Faith, like any living, breathing relationship, must evolve or die. What shape does my faith take now and what shape ought it to take in this transitory life? And how much control do I have over its shape?

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