Posts by jstambaugh

Reading, writing, but not arithmetic.

Sermon: Proper 5, The Third Sunday after Pentecost (RCL Year C, Track 2)

Preached 9 June 2013, Episcopal Cathedral of St. John, Albuquerque

You may have heard the variation of that old joke about the wife who is trying to get her husband out of bed on Sunday morning.  He’s says, “I don’t want to go church this morning.”  And the wife says, “I really think you should.”  And the husband says, “Why” And the wife says, “Because I really think you need to hear the sermon this morning.” The husband says, “How do you know?” And she says, “You left it open on the computer when you finished writing it last night.”

I can assure you Deborah didn’t have any trouble getting me out of bed this morning.  I am excited to be here, but after reading it over again this morning I realize this sermon is definitely something I need to hear.

When hearing these lessons, the thing that my mind goes to right away is the pain that these mothers, these widows must have felt at the death of the children.  In the reading from 1 Kings, we have a widow, who in the passage just previous to ours was preparing a final meal for her and her son, expecting that after that last meal they would die of starvation.  Elijah comes along, asks her to make him some food. When she does, her supplies are miraculously multiplied and she and her son are saved from starvation.  And, then, just like that, her son dies.  And she turns to Elijah and says, “Is this some cruel joke?  Did God save my son from starvation just to have him die?

As a father of one, with another child on the way, as someone who in the past has felt the pain of miscarriage, as someone who has stood by as people very close to me have dealt with infertility, I can only just begin to understand the devastation of losing a child, or of not being able to have children.  It is a devastation that I couldn’t adequately put into words even if I wanted to.  But it is an important aspect of our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning.  The biblical writers only hint at the agony these mothers, these two widows, must have felt at the death of their children.

These two readings remind me of another story, found in 2 Kings, in which Elijah’s protégé, Elisha, encounters another woman who extends hospitality toward him, and when he finds out that she and her husband cannot have children, he prays and she conceives and gives birth to a son, only to have that son die several years later.  And there again is that heart-rending question, why?  Why God did you give me this gift only to take it away?  In fact the Bible is full of these stories, having to do with children, of couples who have trouble conceiving, of children nearly dying, or dying, of sometimes getting raised back to life, and sometimes not.  There are literally dozens of stories like this in both the old and new testaments.  What does all this say about us, about children, and about God?

As mentioned earlier, my wife and I are expecting our second child, so I have been brooding about these questions for some time before I began preparing this sermon.  I have been experiencing what is hopefully a normal phenomena; I call it world-nesting, where I not only want to make a place for my unborn daughter in our home, I want to make a place for her in the world, meaning I feel compelled to solve all the world’s problems for her, make everything perfect; you know real quick, I’ll just figure out a way to end violence in our schools in between painting the nursery and buying a new crib.  Ask Deborah, when she is pregnant, I become the recycling Nazi, because I don’t want the world my little girl grows up in to be a dump.  The morning paper becomes my to-do list for things in the world that need fixing before it is safe to bring my daughter into it.  And of course I can’t get past the first headline.  And then a few weeks ago, I ran across an interview with the theologian, Stanley Hauerwas.  Dr. Hauerwas was asked about radical Christianity, radical in the sense of counter the culture of this world, radical in the sense of living into the strange and revolutionary ways of the Kingdom of God.  He was asked, what was the most radical thing a Christian could do?  Here was his answer:

“One of the most radical things that being Christian commits you to is the willingness to have the patience to have children.  It’s very radical.  What it means to have a child is to learn to live without control.  And to learn to live out of control.  We try to become very good at controlling the world, to make the world safe for children.  And as soon as you try to make sure that your children are not at risk, because you want to make sure they can get out of life alive, then you do them a disservice.  This is a dangerous world.  And by being a Christian, it makes it more dangerous.”

The willingness to have the patience to have children, it just hit me like a ton of bricks.  As much as I like to be in control, or more accurately, as much as I enjoy the quaint illusion that I are in control, I cannot hold onto that as a parent, and we cannot hold on to that as followers of Jesus.  We are not in control.  That is the first message of the stories of the two widows who lost their sons.  The world is a dangerous place, and none of us, and none of our loved ones can make it out of life alive.

So why, why does God give us children, why does God give us anyone to love, why does God give us a caring community, only for it all to go away?  It is easy to give in to fear, to become pessimistic, or nihilistic.  It’s easy to wonder what the point of it all is. But then we come to the second message of our two readings. I like how Hauerwas puts it:

“Christians have children, in great part, in order to be able to tell our children the story. Fortunately for us, children love stories. It is our baptismal responsibility to tell this story to our young, to live it before them, to take time to be parents in a world that (although intent on blowing itself to bits) is God’s creation (a fact we could not know without this story). We have children as a witness that the future is not left up to us and that life, even in a threatening world, is worth living—and not because ‘Children are the hope of the future,” but because God is the hope of the future.

Christians do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of hope, in spite of the considerable evidence to the contrary, that God has not abandoned this world.  Because we have confidence in God, we find the confidence in ourselves to bring new life into this world.”

That is why children were the most important people to Jesus.  Why he had compassion on the widow and raised her son from the dead. That is why we must have the faith of a child to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.  That is why our most important job as Christians is to be patient and caring toward our children, and not just our own children, but the children in our church and our wider community.  In fact, it is why we must be patient and caring toward all those who do not have anything to offer in return, because that act bears witness to the grace and compassion of a God who, in our weakness, came among us, became weak with us, and showed us a better way, a way of redemption and reconciliation and peace for all.  When Jesus raised the widow’s son from the dead, the people exclaimed, “God has visited his people.”  God has not abandoned the world, quite to the contrary, Christ on the cross abandoned himself to the world, and for the world.

And so we must be patient.  And that after all is what ordinary time is about.  If Easter is about Resurrection, about Christ conquering death, if Pentecost is about the coming of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the church, then Ordinary Time, the time after Pentecost, is about patience.  Patience means trusting in the promise of Easter in the face of everyday life, both its mundane parts, and its incredibly painful parts.  Patience belongs to the ones who accept that they are not in control, the ones who know that through patient caring for one another, for the weak and for the vulnerable, we can live into what we are destined to be as the church: a sign that God has not abandoned the world.  Amen.

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Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost

james

For audio of this sermon go here: The Cathedral Church of St. John’s Sermon Archive  and look for October 2, 2011

Our Old Testament reading this week is curious.  In it the prophet Isaiah says, “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard.”  He describes the vineyard, but then informs us that instead of the expected harvest of grapes, the vineyard has yielded wild grapes.  Because of this, God—the beloved Isaiah speaks of—breaks down the hedge and tears down the wall and lets his vineyard get ruined.  Furthermore, God says, “I will make it a waste…I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” Now I’m not a musical expert, but it doesn’t seem this love song has a much of a chance at the Billboard top 40.

Verse 7 makes sure that the metaphor will not be misunderstood:

“For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; He expected justice but saw bloodshed; righteousness but heard a cry!” 

What a chilling statement.  In Hebrew, it’s a play on words, but even that doesn’t make it less scary.  The Hebrew word for justice here is mishpat while the word for bloodshed is mishpah; the word for righteousness is tsedeqah, the word for cry is tseaqah.   Bloodshed then is a subtle pervsion of justice, and a cry of despair is what happens when righteousness is perverted.

These wild grapes that God is so upset about, then, are precisely these perversions of justice: turning justice into bloodshed and righteousness into a cry of suffering. That Yahweh, the Lord of Hosts is preeminently concerned about justice, and is really, really upset about the perversion of justice is a primary theme for the prophet Isaiah as it is for most of the Old Testament prophets.

Isaiah 5:16 tells us that:

“The LORD of Hosts is exalted by justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness.”

Throughout the book the children of Israel are condemned for their unjust deeds and exhorted to make them right, like in chapter 1:

 “I have had enough of your burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts. I do not delight in the blood of bulls or of lambs, or of goats…

Rather, God says further in that same chapter:

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

In chapter 10 verses 1-2 we find this:

“Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that the widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!  What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away?”  

Just another verse of that love song.

Turning to the rest of the Old Testament we find passage after passage, injunction after injunction, statement after statement about God’s concern for justice: the Psalmist says,

“He loves justice and righteousness; the earth is full of the loving-kindness of the LORD.” And “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.” Moses tells the Israelites, “Justice and only justice, you shall pursue that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.” Amos says, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24); In chapter 22 of Jeremiah, King Jehoiakim is reminded that doing justice and righteousness, and rightly judging the cause of the needy is what it means to know God.

But as we see in our passage and many others, it did not go well for the people of Israel when they did not do justice.  The Old Testament paints a picture of God’s dealings with the ancient Israelites as a cycle: God tells the Israelites they must do justice, and worship only Him.  They fail to do these two things, he sends prophets to warn the people and get them to repent.  They don’t.  God judges them, and bad things happen.  Then the people repent.  Then God rescues and restores them, tells them to do justice and worship only Him and the cycle begins again.  This is the story that Isaiah calls a love song.

Then Jesus comes along, and he tells the parable we heard this morning, clearly evoking the passage about the vineyard in Isaiah 5.  But in this telling, there are tenants—which represent the religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees and priests of Israel, some of whom just happened to be present as he tells the story.

Jesus tells how when the servants of the landowner, came to the tenants to ask for the fruit owed to the landowner, they were beaten and thrown out.  These servants represent the prophets like Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and Amos. And so it becomes pretty clear that this parable is describing this long cyclical story, the history of God’s dealings with His people.  And then Jesus does something brave.  He inserts himself into the narrative: the Son, who is sent by the patient landowner as a last ditch effort to reconcile the unruly tenants to Himself.  Jesus is unabashedly calling himself the son of God.  But the Son is thrown out of the vineyard and killed.  Rejection, betrayal, murder; the building blocks of all good love songs.

There are at least two exceptional things about this story that I want to point out.

First, is that Jesus takes the focus from the vineyard as a whole being unruly, producing wild grapes, etc., and puts it on the religious leaders of his day.  For Jesus, the blame is on them.  He was a prophetic voice in the very truest sense, calling these guys out and telling them who they were, and forcing them to pass judgment on themselves.  Notice they are the ones who suggest that the landowner come back and destroy the tenants, and then they realize that they are the tenants. Did they also see the irony in their reaction to finding out that Jesus was talking about them, that they immediately wished to arrest and kill him, the Son?

Second, Jesus inserts himself not just into this little story, but into the cosmic narrative of how God is saving His people; Jesus places himself in the context of this cycle of Israel being told by God to do justice and worship him alone—or as Jesus puts it, “To love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Justice begins and ends with neighbor-love.

But Jesus is not just another in a long line prophets who come to warn the Israelites of impending doom.  He is also the solution, the cycle-breaker. He is the stone the builder’s rejected which has become the cornerstone; God’s final answer to the problem of injustice, bloodshed and the disobedience of His people.  The Gospel writers tells us that Isaiah is prophesying about Jesus when he says:

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  He will not cry of lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.  He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”

Injustice is not an endless cycle, it has an end, and that end lies with Jesus.  But it is a surprising end.  Because Jesus did not come in the form of the wrath of God to destroy the unjust, he did not kill those who killed the prophets or those who had a big hand in getting him killed.  Jesus’ solution to injustice is much crazier and disturbing than that.  His solution to the injustice of the people is to offer himself over to that injustice.  To suffer.  To die.  And through his death to conquer death.  The cycle of injustice and bloodshed was only, can only be broken through love, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice.  Salvation, freedom, justice, and righteousness can only be acquired through love, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice.

And so it is because of Jesus and his ultimate and surprising solution to injustice, that we can look back at Isaiah 5 through the lens of the Gospel and say, yeah, that is a love song.  The whole narrative arc of Scripture, when it is seen through the interpretive lens of Christ, is nothing less than the greatest love song ever written, a love song of a God who yearns to reconcile all His people, all creation in fact to himself.

Through his life, teachings, death, and resurrection Christ has inaugurated the reign of God on earth, and it is a reign of justice and of peace.  As Isaiah prophesies again:

“His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.  He will establish and uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore.  The zeal of the LORD of Hosts shall do this.”

And yet this kingdom remains not fully consummated.  There is still much injustice and bloodshed in this world.  All of creation still groans for the day when this justice and righteousness and peace and love of God will flow like an ever-flowing stream.

It’s as if the Son, Jesus, has gone off to a distant place and has left tenants in his vineyard until his return.  We, Christ’s followers, are the signs and the symbols, the first-fruits, the representatives of that now-but-not-yet Kingdom.  We are the tenants in the vineyard of the Kingdom of God.  Our task today then is the same as it was in Isaiah’s day: to worship only God, and to tend to the vines of justice and righteousness, to bring about the fruit of love and reconciliation in our little corner of the vineyard, in our community, and our families and our church, so that with hope and joy in our hearts, we can all anxiously await the arrival of the landowner’s Son.  Amen.

Live at Radio City by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Part 2 [Theological Liner Notes]

james

Read Part 1

“Don’t Drink the Water,” a song which evokes images of both the South African apartheid and the persecution of Native Americans, is Matthews’ moving indictment of oppression and empire.  The song is narrated by the oppressor who possesses the other’s land with confidence:

“I have no time to justify to you/ fool you’re blind / move aside for me.” 

Toward the end, Matthews breaks into the first verse of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and then ends the song, still singing as the oppressor, who now explains how it really is with a disturbing clarity that deserves to be quoted at length:

“This land was made/ And I’ll build heaven and call it home/ And I’ll live with my justice, and I’ll live with my greed in me/ live with no mercy/ and I live with my friends at feet/ and I live with my hatred/ and live with my jealousy/ oh I live with the notion I don’t need anyone but me/ Don’t drink the water / There’s blood in the water”

These lyrics expose the poverty of the oppressor himself, who drives away, and crushes, and burns all others, so that he is finally consigned to a kind of hell—living with himself alone.

Implicitly, this song critiques wide swathes of Christianity that are historically responsible for going along with, and in many cases providing the ideological backbone for, oppression, and imperialism.  The condemnation is complete whether we are talking about the Dutch Reformed church of apartheid, the pietistic Protestants behind American expansionism, Catholic “missionary” activity among the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, or Anglicanism which “held the coat” for the British rape of several continents.  It is a crushing indictment of all those who believe they can build heaven on the backs of the poor and the dispossessed.

But the song is not without a subtle note of hope.  “Don’t the water/ There’s blood in the water” is surely a reference to the terrible slaughter of innocents that was the result of South African and North American apartheid.  These lyrics also make the historically accurate point that through brutality, the oppressor poisons the resources he fights so hard to take. However, I believe there is a biblical allusion in these lyrics.  Blood in the water references the Exodus narrative when God plagues Egypt for refusing to end the oppression of the Israelites.  So, Matthews evokes—perhaps inadvertently—that great story of liberation, how God freed the Israelites from slavery, how through Christ God “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” [Luke 1:52] and how, in the final shakedown, God will vindicate the oppressed and the downtrodden.

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As a self-identifying agnostic who writes lyrics replete with Christian and biblical themes, you would expect Matthews to insert a healthy dose of skepticism to his songs, and he indeed does.  In “Eh Hee,” in addition to that faith in love mentioned in part 1, we a find a deep suspicion of religious leaders and teachers:

“Be wary of those who want to try to convince you/ that they know answer no matter the question / Be wary of those who believe in a neat little world/ Cause’ it’s just fucking crazy, you know that it is.”

Could you ask for a more succinct and devastating critique of the Truth Project?  These lyrics comprise the warning label that every postmodern would put on the products of modernity, especially the Christian products of modernity.  These are the lyrics that keep Dinesh D’Souza up at night.

Of course, Christianity does not have to be that way.  Making truth claims, as the Church most certainly does, doesn’t mean you have to be an ass about it as some in the Church most certainly are.  It doesn’t mean we have truth completely figured out, nor does it mean that we’re the only ones who posses truth in our faith tradition.

“Praise God who has many names…” 

There is such a thing as absolute truth, but there are also truths that bend, truths that are not always true for everyone at all times (There, Baby Boomer generation of Christians, that wasn’t so hard, was it?).  Matthews lyrics call us, the Church, to stop focusing on being right and start focusing on overcoming evil with good (love).

Continuing with songs where Matthews directly engages with Christianity, we come to the “Save Me.”  In an imaginative retelling of Christ’s temptation in the desert, Matthews casts himself as encountering a man in the desert (Jesus), and becomes his “tempter;” he offers Jesus food and drink—a perfectly humanitarian thing to do, but he refuses:

“No, my faith is all I need.” 

To which Matthews replies,

“Then save me/ Mr. walking man/ If you can.”

As the song progresses, Matthews role as the Adversary who dares Christ to save him morphs to a humble person who wants to believe, who wants to be saved, but can’t figure out how, and wonders if it even still possible:

 “You don’t need to prove a thing to me/ Just give me faith, make me believe/…Save me, Save me/ Stranger if you please/ Or am I too far gone/ to get back on?”

Expressed in these lyrics is a real sense of longing, of wanting to find faith in God, but coming up short.  In the video recording of the Live at Town Hall concert, a totally hammered Matthews introduces the song in an interesting way: “This song is a comedy…song.  Maybe, no, maybe it’s tongue in cheek.  I don’t know, maybe it’s a plea for help from the heavens.  I don’t know. You decide.”

By the end of the song a third voice enters,

“You might try saving yourself.”

In this fractured soteriology, then, we have a God who doesn’t have time for sinners such as Matthews, we have a satan who cries to God for faith, and we have a Pelagian who tells the penitent to save himself.

There is a danger in the Church to write off such people as the narrator of this song.  Sometimes the attitude is that if you don’t simply have faith in God, if it doesn’t come easy, then there is no room for you in the Church.  But faith doesn’t always come easy.  Who hasn’t felt abandoned by God?  It’s not that Matthews didn’t have faith before.  He asks if it’s too late to get back on.  Matthews the agnostic and many like him are having an extended (permanent?) Dark Night of the Soul. The Church should not only welcome these folks, and encourage them, but we should also welcome their voices and opinions, and let them challenge our own over-confidence, our own self-assuredness.  Maybe we are afraid of them because they threaten to expose our own doubts and frailties to the members of our community and to ourselves.

Part 3 (coming soon, including some notes on the song, “Bartender”)

Live at Radio City by Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds, Part 1 [Theological Liner Notes]

james

I am pioneering a new sub-genre of theological writing, here.  Maybe Tony Hunt would care to follow suit with some of his hipster indie music, or even Shawn Wamsley with some his angry music (if he can find some that isn’t of the devil).

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At first glance Dave Matthews may seem like an unlikely source for discourse on Christian spirituality.  He grew up a Quaker, but in a 1998 interview Matthews spoke of how the death of his sister led to the losing of his faith, “I’m glad some people have that faith.  I don’t have that faith.  If there is a God, a caring God, then we have to figure he’s done an extraordinary job of making a very cruel world.” In 2001, he indentified himself as an agnostic.  However, in some ways he and his music are natural places to turn.  His songs are filled with theological references and biblical allusions; he is undoubtedly the heir to a long, venerable folk-rock songwriting tradition, which includes Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and others, and which is deeply conversant in Christian scripture, theology and spirituality.

Focusing on songs from his seminal 2007 RCA release Live at Radio City which Matthews recorded with long time collaborator, Tim Reynolds, I want to explore some themes in the lyrics of Dave Matthews’ music which speak about Christian faith and practice, and to experiencing—or more accurately, confronting—God in surprising and authentic ways.  Some of these themes are bluntly critical of certain aspects of Christianity, while others seem to document an authentic search for God, who appears in the music almost as an unrequited lover to agnostic Matthews.

Don’t expect to find anything systematic about theology a la Dave Matthews.  We’ll be relying on two sometimes-competing hermeneutical principles.  Sometimes Matthews makes overt references to God and the Church, several of his songs are directed at God specifically as agnostic prayers.  These we will interpret in a straightforward way, relying on authorial intent.  Other songs, however, allude to scripture or use theological language to speak about human relationships and experience without trying to say anything about Christianity or the divine.  In these cases, we veer toward a hermeneutic of audience created meaning, reading God and the Church in where Matthews probably did not intend.  If this methodology irks you, you should be reading Justice Scalia opinions, not this.

As an example of these two hermeneutical methods being used together in a single song, I will briefly look at one of my favorite songs on the album, “Two Step.”  The song itself is about two lovers celebrating life in all its bitter-sweetness.  The chorus offers this:

“Celebrate/ Celebrate we will / ‘Cause life is short, but sweet for certain/ Hey, we climb on two by two/ to be sure these days continue.”

“We climb on two-by-two” references the animals boarding Noah’s ark. By alluding to Noah’s mission of repopulating the earth after the flood, Matthews seems to be suggesting that it is our God-given duty to live, and enjoy life, and make babies.  So we arrive at a two-liner theology of sex that isn’t too far away from where Matthews intended to go.

Within the same song we find these lines:

“Hey, my love/ You came to me like wine/ Comes to the mouth/ Grown tired of water all the time/ You quench my heart…”

Here, Matthews is obviously making no allusion to God or the Divine at all, but that doesn’t mean I am not free to rip it from its context and find in it a wonderful bit of Eucharistic poetry. Doesn’t Christ come to us, like wine in our mouth?  I certainly grow weary of the blandness of a watered-down, purely symbolic understanding of Communion, and I certainly find my heart sated in taking the Eucharist.  It’s a completely unintended interpretation—Matthews would probably be appaled by it—but still provides an accurate and poignant theological reference point.

So, you’ve been warned.  I will play loose and free with lyrics.

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It is almost cliché to say that much of Matthews’ music is about love and sex (almost as cliché as it is to say that much of Matthews’ concerts are about pot).  Many songs are very simply rhapsodies in praise of having sex with beautiful women (i.e. “Two Step” above).  While some might find these conjugal hymns shocking, there is, with a few notable exceptions, nothing in the lyrics that explicitly denies biblical sexuality.  In fact, they are a site of resistance, an oasis of refreshment for those of us who have grown up dealing with the puritanical, and quite simply repressive body-hatred of certain parts of Evangelical church culture.

On the whole, love for Matthews is a keystone thematic principle that transcends sex.  Love is the only sure thing; the bedrock of life.  For example, “When the World Ends” is a song about two lovers who will endure the end of the world in each other’s arms.  Typical lyrics include:

“When the world ends/ Passion rising from the ashes,”

and

“When the world ends/ We’ll just be beginning.”

Matthews makes a bold claim here that love transcends catastrophe, even apocalypse.  In the song “Oh,” we find a similar theme, but this song is written not about lovers but Matthews’ grandfather:

“The world is blowing up/ The world is caving in/ The world has lost her way again/ But you are here with me/ But you are here with me/ It makes it okay.”

Love makes anything bearable; disaster and suffering lose their finality in the presence of a beloved one.

In a third song from the album, “Eh Hee”, Matthews makes the claim that, “with the love that my mother gave me/ I’m gonna drop the devil to the floor.”  Here love is martial.  Love does not simply make evil bearable, love destroys evil.  Back in the chorus of “Oh,” we discover that this love is intense, unstoppable, and gratuitous:

“I love you oh so well/ Like a kid loves candy and fresh snow/ I love you oh so well/ Enough to fill up heaven/ Overflow and fill hell.”

All three of these songs are speaking of human relationships with lovers, grandfathers and mothers; yet in each, Matthews’ images of love are couched in eschatological and theological language, leaving an opening for us to apply these ecstatic visions of love to God and to Divine love.  When St. John writes that God is love, and when St. Paul writes that nothing can separate us from the love of God, did they mean to go as far as Matthews goes?  Can the imagination of the Church keep up with Matthews’ imagination when trying to understand the unfathomable love of God?  Does God’s love for all of us “fill up heaven, overflow and fill hell?”  Some Christians’ definition of hell is precisely that place where God and his love end.  And yet Matthews’ love for his grandfather transcends that boundary, as did St. Paul’s love for his kinsmen (Romans 8).  If God is God, can his love for his children be any less?

When applied to love that God’s children are commanded to have for each other and the world, Matthews’ vision of love certainly stands in contrast to some prevailing notions in the Church.  Whereas, like St. Paul’s, Matthews’ concept of love overcomes evil, some in Christianity at least appear to believe that love is optional and that hateful rhetoric, militarism and the tea party will somehow conquer evil and end suffering in the world.  Can Matthews’ lyrics call the Church back to a place where indefatigable love for all people is truly our bedrock; where we stop striving with the weapons of this world and rely on the self-sacrificing love of Christ to transfigure everything with which it comes into contact?

Part 2 (coming soon, with reflections on “Don’t Drink the Water,” “Save Me,” “Eh Hee” & more!)

Science Fiction as Prophetic Witness or Scientific Gospel?

james

On iTunes University (in the MIT Arts section) there is a lecture/moderated discussion given by Joe Haldeman entitled “The Craft of Science Fiction.”  In it, Mr. Haldeman briefly discusses Hugo Gernsback, one of the great early Science Fiction (hitherto: SF) pioneers, and founder of the first SF magazine, Amazing Stories.  Gernsback saw SF as a tool to popularize and advocate for science and technology.  Riffing off of that idea, Haldeman proposes that today SF–and especially hard SF:

“is a tool against religion…a tool for rationalism, and a rational approach to solving life’s problems.”  

Ironically, Joe Haldeman’s best known work, The Forever War, could easily be construed as a story about how technology isolates us and makes us less human; hardly a tool for the rational approach to solving life’s problems, but then again we each bring our own biases to the table when we pick up a novel (or any other book).

In any event, it got me thinking: what ideological purposes does/should SF have?  Should a SF story be a gospel narrative about the good news of science?  Or should it be a prophetic voice calling out in the wilderness of of unbridled, post-industrial science-run-amok?

I realized most of my favorites in the genre do not advocate for faith in science or “rationality” as Haldeman would prefer, nor do they (often) completely discount science or technology.  So briefly, I want to mention two books, easily some of the best in the genre, that explore science’s limits and possibilities, and at the same time have things to say about religion and spirituality.  Each of these books deserve multi-thousand word reviews, but this is supposed to be a short post so please don’t let brevity undermine your understanding of these book’s quality or import.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Lem, one of the world’s best and probably Europe’s best practitioner of SF, wrote Solaris in Polish in 1961.  It was translated into English from a French translation in 1970, and a direct Polish to English translation was only just published as an audio book a few months ago with an ebook soon to follow.  There are also two film adaptations which deviate somewhat from the novel.

Solaris is a planet with one giant, conscious organism.  The human characters in the book, all scientists, discover through a certain kind of interaction with this alien organism that science cannot answer all questions, and that the most problematic and disturbing of these unanswered questions are about themselves.  This is one of the great philosophical novels of the 20th century.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller

By my estimation, this is the greatest post-apocalyptic story of all time (and the cover, above, is totally sweet).  After a nuclear holocaust, a remote Catholic monastery keeps human learning and the cultural memory of the past alive.  It is deeply moving novel which–with no lack of irony–simultaneously warns us of the dangers and evils of science without conscience, and commends to us the indomitable curiosity that is one of the noblest and best aspects of humanity and is the basis of all science.

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Part of a (Long) Series of (Short) Posts about Science and Technology

The Tragic Irony of Technology  Coltan, cellphones and being connected

Singularity, Progress, and Darwinian Common Sense  Artificial Intelligence and Sciencism

Middleduction A post that would have made a nice introduction

Science Fiction as Prophetic Witness or Scientific Gospel? 

Technology and Language  u r n 4 a gr8 time, lol (coming soon)

Creating the Problem in Order to Fix It (coming soon)

More on Sciencism (coming soon)

Kierkegaardian Dread (coming soon)

At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time by Sarah Arthur — A Review

james

   

At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time

by Sarah Arthur

Paraclete Press, 2011

$16.99

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According to the infallible internet, Flannery O’Connor once wrote that,

“When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God.  He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others.  I think that for a writer to worry is to take over God’s business.”  

She was of course speaking of her own books, but the same could be said about both Sarah Arthur‘s writing, and that of the poets and authors she anthologizes in her new book, At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time, published last month by Paraclete Press (and also available here).

In what might be seen as a devotional for Christian English majors, Arthur has skillfully chosen poems and fragments of fiction that “sneak up” on her readers and cause them to drift (or tumble) into meditation, contemplation and prayer.  For each of the 29 weeks of Ordinary Time (the season of the church calendar between Pentecost and Advent), Arthur has provided us with a theme, an opening and closing prayer (usually a snippet of verse), a psalm and Scripture readings, and between 3 and 6 selections of literature, mainly from English and American authors (with a couple of predictable Russians, and a Pole).  The Scripture readings seem to show some relation to the Revised Common Lectionary, but Arthur states in her introduction that her 29 weekly sections are not arranged according to any lectionary and can theoretically be read in any order.  The lack of concrete connection with the lectionary is one of only two things about this book that annoy me, but I’ve been accused of being a liturgy snob before.

Her goal in selecting the readings is not to assault the reader with over-powering thematic overtures that tie neatly into the cut-and-dry, therapeutic Scripture readings.  This is no resource for those looking for poems to go along with their tidy, little 3-point sermons.  In her introduction she describes her chosen authors as those:

“…who have known the things of God, but speak in metaphor…In not stating out loud what they know, they have left much to our imaginations–which is a way of saying they have trusted the Holy Spirit.”

Arthur has found authors who were willing to give their books up to God to be used in unexpected, and maybe even frightening ways.

Arthur is up-front with the fact that even attentive and astute readers may not always immediately (or ever) understand the relevance that a particular selection has to the Scripture readings, or to the sometimes vague weekly themes.  All of this is refreshing for me.  If I wanted straight forward and overt, I’d be reading Oswald Chambers.  If I wanted pat answers, and black-and-white interpretations, I’d be reading John MacArthur (and subsequently stabbing myself in the eye).  I’d take reading Sarah Arthur’s eclectic band of poets and novelists over 99% of what passes for Christian devotional literature these days.

Which leads me to the selections themselves…which then leads me to air the second of my two complaints:  Where in the name of peafowl and horn-rimmed glasses is Flannery O’Connor?  Hot tar and molasses!  Of all the authors to overlook, why did it have to be that foxy Catholic lady from Georgia?

Other than that lacuna, Arthur does a pretty good job.  Having a Wheaton background, she can’t resist a healthy dose of C.S. Lewis, but she doesn’t over do it.  Perhaps because of her Presbyterian background, she favors George MacDonald.  Overall, she seems to be a raging anglophile (the teapot calling the teacup porcelain, I suppose) and consequently George Hebert, John Donne, John Keble, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Oscar Wilde, Evelyn Waugh, and an entire murmuration of English Romantics dominate.

As I alluded to before, she includes some obligatory Tolstoy and Dostoevsky passages, one of which is that beautiful section of The Brothers Karamozov where Aloyosha has a vision of the recently deceased Zossima.  My homeboy, Garrison Keillor, makes a populist/Lutheran offering, and on the Roman Catholic side of things we get G.K. Chesterton, Anne Rice, as well as SS. Francis, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross et al.

In a “Further Reading” section she includes some runners-up that I wish had made the cut (but no Ms. O’Connor, even here!)  These include  Grahame Greene (RCC), Frederick Buechner (Presbyterian), Charles Williams (Anglican), Wendell Berry (Baptist), and Chaim Potok (Jewish).  Oh well. I guess it’s always good to keep back some A-listers, just in case there’s a sequel.

Maybe what I have most to thank Arthur for is the introduction to several contemporary poets of whom I had never heard, and who deeply impressed me; Robert Siegel and Elizabeth B. Rooney, especially.  Here’s one of the a latter’s:

I saw the world end yesterday!

A flight of angels tore

Its cover off and Heaven lay

Where earth had been before

I walked about the countryside

And saw a cricket pass

Then, bending closer, I espied

An ecstasy of grass.

All in all, At the Still Point is outstanding; a veritable cornucopia of literary spirituality.  Arthur’s introduction is helpful, light, and intimate, and despite the afore-mentioned Flannerylessness, she is an expert at choosing passages that delight and surprise.  As I re-read this book throughout Ordinary Time, I trust and pray that the Holy Spirit will use some of these passages to save my soul, and to try it; or–to paraphrase old Clive Staples–I hope the God uses these passages to baptize my imagination, immersing it in the surprising vision of His Kingdom. Lord knows all of us who call ourselves followers of Christ could use a little more of that sacrament.

Middleduction (Belated Introduction)

james

“But what about earth and all the people on it?”

“Tut, tut.  We can’t let mere sentiment intrude.  This is Science.”    K.W. Jeter Infernal Devices

I do not hate science or technology.  I am not a Luddite (hell, the Luddites weren’t even Luddites according to the contemporary usage of the word).  While I am attracted to the “no-shiny-object” policy of some members of the anabaptist tradition, I utterly fail at that discipline.  Despite what some of my friends and family may say (e.g. “You’re the youngest 87 year old I know”  “Why don’t you join the 21st century” ,etc.), I am a product of my generation.  The point of the preceding and proceeding posts is not, then, to utterly denounce science and technology, but rather to show in various circuitous ways that science and technological advancement have lost their anchoring in the seafloor of wisdom–that is culture, history, literature, and religion–and are floating about looking for some place to safely moor.  Some of these posts will be more serious than others, but none are meant to be exhaustive.  They are more like little flash-rants; too short to be called essays, too long to be written on a cardboard sign for a doomsday prophet to hold while standing on the street-corner.

It should be noted that during the course of the history of western civilization guardians of certain areas of wisdom have acted rather unseemly both toward science and to their own fields of study.  Burning or even threatening to burn scientists at the stake is not usually the way to win friends or influence people.  And, getting lost in the cobweb-filled labyrinth of 20th century literary theory, has not exactly given the study of literature the credibility and stature it needs in order to properly temper the more lucrative practical sciences.

So we find ourselves in a world where the academic study of humanities is all but dead.  Art, music and literature programs are the first to be cut from public schools.  Scientific and technological progress have either become ends to themselves, or they are the means of much more insidious and destructive forces, which seek to harness these advances for the purposes of greed and power-lust. And yet science and technology already do much to decrease suffering, and make the lives of all humans better.  The potential to advance in this capacity is great, but science and technology cannot and will not do it alone.

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Part of a (Long) Series of (Short) Posts about Science and Technology

The Tragic Irony of Technology  Coltan, cellphones and being connected

Singularity, Progress, and Darwinian Common Sense  Artificial Intelligence and Sciencism

Middleduction A post that would have made a nice introduction

Science Fiction as Prophetic Witness or Scientific Gospel?  (coming soon)

Technology and Language  u r n 4 a gr8 time, lol (coming soon)

Creating the Problem in order to Fix It (coming soon)

More on Sciencism (coming soon)

Kierkegaardian Dread (coming soon)