Friday, December 04, 2009

Rudolph, the Red-Nose Savior

About sixteen years ago, when I was teaching English at Cradle of Life Christian School in Haiti, a co-worker of mine regaled us one lunchtime with the frustrations of that morning's lesson.

Ruth, who like me was a first-year teacher at the school, had been going over classic Christmas carols with her students and trying to get them to appreciate the wealth of doctrine contained in their lyrics, especially once you get past the first verse. "O Come Let Us Adore Him," for instance, talks about the divine nature of Christ, the virgin birth, and Christ's eternal pre-existence. It sounded like a compelling and thought-provoking lesson, I thought.

Alas, Ruth taught middle school students.

"Look at this line," she had told them as they stared blankly at the lyrics sheet to "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." "'Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.' What do you think he's talking about?"

One almost imagines the angels leaning in with anticipation. Spiritual regeneration, the "born again" experience, is foundational to Christianity. Would the students see the connection?

"Reincarnation?" suggested one particularly penetrating student, and a thousand angels wept.

The other middle school teachers and I listened sympathetically. We taught these kids too. I'd had to explain something on the order of thirty-seven times to Georges al Reyes that a sentence that goes on for 93 words counts as a run-on sentence. He had remedied the problem by writing one even longer.

"Maybe," I suggested, "you're setting your sights too high. Why not pick a Christmas carol they're more familiar with? Something like 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.'"

"Really," said Ruth. She was already amused, and probably wondering where I could take this impromptu suggestion. I'm sure she knew I hadn't thought it out any further than picking a title at random.

"Well, you have to understand that it's written in code," I said as I stalled for time. "It was written at a time of intense persecution."

"Go on," she said.

And go on I did. I have a bachelor of arts in English language and literature, but I'm pretty sure that on that day, I earned a B.S. as well. The reindeer in the opening lines, I argued, clearly represent the saints and other heroes of the faith. But the writer reminds us that they are not the cause celebre, as he moves on to ask if we remember that "most famous reindeer of all." This is an oblique reference to the heart and soul of Christianity, he reminds us. Do we remember?

The song goes on to share how Jesus (Rudolph) was tormented and reviled, persecuted by his fellows, as prophesied in Isaiah 53 (being denied his rightful place in the reindeer games), but then God (Santa, who also is artistically depicted as an old man with a beard) came and asked, "Rudolph, with your nose so bright" -- my voice rose in crescendo, and students at nearby tables turned to see what I was up to now -- "won't you guide us through the spiritual fog that has enveloped the world?" After this, Jesus (Rudolph) sees his vindication as the reindeer love him, and he goes down in history.

"Interesting," Ruth said when I had finished, her mood lifted by the bizarre conversation we had all had. "And what do you make of 'Frosty the Snowman?'"

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, November 01, 2009


I started reading the book of Habakkuk this past week in preparation for the church's next sermon series, and I have to say I'm liking this book a lot.

Habakkuk is found among the minor prophets, or in the Nevi'im if you prefer the Hebrew term for the prophetic writings, and it's not one of the most familiar books. It lacks the easy narrative of Jonah, it comes after the really neat stories of Daniel, and no one's really sure how to pronounce his name. We don't know anything about the prophet, except that he was an early contemporary of Jeremiah.

But I'm really digging this guy, if for nothing else than for his honesty.

The first chapter of Habbakuk starts out with a complaint: Things stink, and there is no justice in the land. The wealthy exploit the poor; the proud and the mighty oppress the weak. Every time Habakkuk complains to God, his complaint is that absolutely nothing is happening to change the situation. His complaint essentially boils down to this: "Is anybody paying attention up there? Lord, have you fallen asleep at the wheel? Wake up and do something!"

This makes him rather unique among the Hebrew prophets, who typically saw vindication coming in the distance. But check out God's response to Habbakuk's complaint. He essentially says, "Oh yeah, don't worry about it. I've got it all under control. You know the Babylonians? I'm going to send them in to Judah, and they'll destroy all your cities, they'll kill a bunch of the men, they're going to burn your crops, and they're going to scatter the Jewish people all over the world.."

One can almost imagine Habakkuk's confusion. The situation is depressing as it is, and this is your answer? I'm objecting to the untrammeled greed and lust for power of the elites, and your answer is that you're going to dechouke every major population center -- you're going to pull them up by their roots -- and destroy our nation? Please pardon me while I jump for joy. (This isn't much of an exaggeration. Habakkuk's response immediately following God's answer to his prayer is to ask, "O God, aren't you Lord from everlasting? 'Cause it sure doesn't seem like it to me."

It's long been a point of frustration for me with other Christians when they try to sugarcoat bad situations by saying that God is in control, and he'll get us through them. "Just keep up the faith," they say. "Chin up. It looks bad, but give it 18 months, and you'll be amazed how much better things'll be. Look at it from God's perspective."

The message Habakkuk gets from God is completely different: "Sure, things are bad now, but just wait a few years. These will look like the good old days before I'm finished." Long-term perspective? The Temple will be destroyed, Judah will be a vassal state of Babylon, the Jewish people will be scattered across the Middle East from Egypt, throughout the Arabian peninsula and into Persia, and the House of David will to all intents and purposes be lost.

Sure, six hundred years or so from now, Judah's situation will be much better. It'll be a vassal state of Rome, subject to unbelievably high levels of taxation and relentless oppression. Having narrowly escaped eradication under the Seleucids in the first century B.C.E., the Jewish state will be dealt a severe blow in 70 C.E. under Titus Vespasian and then again a hundred years later under Marcus Aurelius, by which time it'll be annihilated for some 1,800 years.

It does so help to keep an eye on the big picture, doesn't it?

Admittedly, I'm being a little facetious here. As a Christian I'd have to add that the Diaspora created pockets of monotheism throughout the ancient world, leading to the presence of many God-fearing Gentiles who believed not so much in Plato's doting grandfather sort of God, known for his disinterested love, but in the Jewish sort of God who was relentlessly involved in human history as an active expression of love. These Jews, and the Gentiles who believed with them, would be eagerly awaiting a messiah; and while not all of them accepted Paul's proclamations about Yeshua ha Mashiach, ben David, a good many of them did. This in turn allowed Christianity to become a major force for justice and for mercy in the ancient world and in the centuries since.

But none of this was clear to Habbakuk. All he had to go on was a promise from God that things were going to get worse, a lot worse; and his faith that in the final analysis, God would still be worth following.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Light a candle

I spent a wet and cold morning this Wednesday outside the high school, doing what every person should do at least once in her life. I was taking a stand for basic decency.

This Wednesday, members of Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based hate group, came to Nova Bastille in a bid to get attention. This is the group that protests at the funerals of American soldiers, and that carries signs that say "God Hates America" and "God Hates Fags" and (more recently) "Jews Killed Jesus." So nice of them to drop by the neighborhood.

I hate to give people like this the attention they're after, but on the other hand, I hate to let their hatred pass without comment. So when I heard that they were coming, I asked the girls if they would like to attend a counterdemonstration. Evangeline decided she wanted to attend; Rachel decided she didn't.

So Wednesday morning as rain fell, I talked with Evangeline about why we were going there. It's not, I said, about the Westboro people, but about the people they hate. It's necessary to show the community that we stand with those who are being hated and reviled, and not with the people doing the hatred. So, I said, there is no need for us to talk to them, no need to heckle them, nor even any need to show that we're aware that they're there, beyond our own presence and the signs we were holding.

She did so well, I was so proud of her. While some of the other counterprotesters heckled the Westboro people and hurtled insults at them, Evangeline quietly stood her ground, standing up for her Jewish friends, and showed a higher way than the Westboro people know. Born just before the new millennium, she sang "We Shall Overcome," verse after verse, with a passion that would have been perfectly in place in Selma, Ala., forty years ago.

The thing about Fred Phelps and his crew is that they're given over to ugly, and they bring out the ugly in the people they encounter. A christocentric faith -- the kind I fail every day to attain -- demands not giving in to that impulse, but learning instead to see the same Imago Dei in others that we see in ourselves, and seeing the same stain in ourselves that we see in others.

I've read the first five chapters of "Addicted to Hate," and I can honestly say I feel nothing but deep pity for Phelps and the children and grandchildren he has poisoned with his hatred. All I can do is pray that someone will have and will seize the opportunity to show them the higher road that they've never even imagined, as Rabbi Weisser once did for Larry Trapp.

When I woke up Wednesday morning and got dressed, I had thought I was going out to demonstrate on behalf of people whom Westboro has marked for hatred: friends like Jennifer McCandless, who has been my best friend for the past 20 years and who became a woman about two years ago; friends like Indigo, who has survived the harrowing experience of being outed to her family, as a teenager; and other friends and co-workers like Myron, Heather Boerner, Bill Hawley, Joe Dee, and Eric Schwarz, and the others I've worked with who never told me that they were gay.

I thought I was doing this for them, and to be sure, I was. But I realize now I was doing it for somebody else also: my daughters. They were born into a world with a lot of ugliness and a lot of hatred, and there will be times that ugliness and that hatred will seem overwhelming, whether it's directed at them or at somebody else. Much as I want to, I can't spare them that.

But I can give them something. I can give them the example and the courage to stand up against something that is wrong; the conviction to speak up for others; and most importantly, a faith that they can light against the darkness until they have driven it away.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, August 31, 2009

My neighbor, the alien

This is the way I remember it.

The traffic circle at the end of the taptap route from Port-au-Prince to Pétionville is a bustling place. If you don't mind dealing with fast-talking money traders, you can pull out your U.S. dollars and argue for a few minutes about the exchange rate you'd like to get, although if you have white skin, you're better off going to the back room of the One Stop Market on Route de Delmas, where it's just you and the Lebanese businessmen who run the business.

If it's shoes you're looking for, you can find them on the sidewalk. A local machann sells them in a display that runs about ten yards and three or four feet deep along the sidewalk. God only knows where the shoes come from, or the housewares being hawked thirty feet away, next to the store that will copy your keys if there is electricity, or if they can fire up the delko. The merchandise is decent quality, though you'd better be prepared to argue about the price. There are no price tags on anything, and if the machann agrees to your offer too quickly, you can bet your bottom dollar that you just let yourself be fleeced.

There are places to eat here, too. Back in 1993 at least, you could buy a plate of spaghetti for $1, if you didn't mind streetside dining while Haitians stopped to watch the blan eating like they did; or you could buy hot, fresh laboul for two gourdes if you were feeling adventurous, or if your stomach already had grown accustomed to the local bugs and parasites.

But if you leave the circle, walking away from the vendors who sell soap outside the business that got dechouke'ed when Baby Doc lost power, and you start down Route de John Brown, on the lefthand side of the road is a small hole-in-the-wall diner called Ti Luc's.

Ti Luc's was a restaurant frequented by the taptap drivers. The owner had a few employees working in the kitchen for him, making hot rice and beans and serving it up for $1 a plate to hungry drivers, and selling cold glasses of Coke with ice made from water that had been certified potable and safe to drink by Camep. (At least it met U.N. standards for potable water when it left the water plant.) My friend Ibrahim had discovered the place, and he shared his discovery with me.

Now there are rules about being a missionary in Haiti, and while no one will acknowledge these rules, we all know that they're there. Most of them pertain to how well you integrate into the Haitian culture, and they essentially boil down to this: Don't. Don't learn the language, don't buy stuff from street vendors when you can buy it at a store, don't take public transportation when you can have your own vehicle, and don't get to know the nationals. Not too well, anyway.

That's an unfair characterization, especially to the career missionaries who have lived there for years, and even moreso to those who live outside the capital. But it's not unfair to admit that at least when I was living in Pétionville fifteen years ago, there was a strong community of missionaries, primarily expatriates of the United States, and we didn't mix with the Haitian nationals nearly as much as we should have. The ex-pats had their own church and two schools, and even had an English-language bookstore that catered to their needs until it went out of business in 1991.

So I was a big hit whenever I showed up at Ti Luc's to get some lunch. Because while missionaries and other American nationals did go out to eat at restaurants from time to time, they usually went somewhere with a fancy-sounding French name, like Les Cascades or Le Belle Epoque, or they went to one of the American-style pizzerias. They didn't go to a hole in the wall like Ti Luc's.

I'd like to say I got to know the owner on a first-name basis, or that I got to know some of the regulars particularly well, but I didn't eat there often enough for that. But I did make a big splash in my own way, one day, when I overheard one of the taptap drivers wondering aloud what I was doing there.

"Mwen grangou," I said. "É manjé-a bon, non?" (I'm hungry, and the food is good, you know?")

He quite literally jumped out of the chair he had been sitting in, and into one at another table. He grinned widely, and laughed as he said, "Gadé! Blan-an palé Kreyol!" ("Look out! The white guy speaks Creole!")

This event, sixteen years past and two thousand miles away, came back to mind this Saturday night. I was at the charter school, waiting to lock up after the moving crew finished unloading the truck into our new rental space on Elizabeth Street. It was about nine o'clock, and the crew had been working for about five hours. I'd got them a pitcher of cold water to drink, but I wanted to let them know that I appreciated their efforts on our behalf. It's only the decent thing to do, to talk to people who have been breaking their backs working for you.

"Mucho gracias, señores," I said to two of the crew while their chief talked on his cell phone with their supervisor.

"¿Habla usted español?" one of them asked me. He seemed shocked, and I suppose he might have been wondering if I had been listening in on the conversations he and his co-workers had been having.

"Un poco solamente," I said, and he smiled. "Yo no estoy fluido." (Just a little. I'm not fluent.)

"¿Es usted un americano?" he asked, then, a little more hesittantly, in English. "You were born here?"

"Sí, señor, yo soy de los Estados Unidos," I said.

He acted surprised, as though he couldn't believe that an American could speak Spanish at all, and he asked me twice if my parents had been born in the United States. Presumably, I suppose he was thinking, if one or both of them had come from somewhere else, that might explain how it was that I could speak Spanish at all.

"No," I said. "Ellos son de los Estados Unidos tambien, de Pennsylvania. Yo tengo amigos y amigas quienes hablan español, y ellos son mis maestros." (My parents are both from Pennsylvania. I just have friends who speak Spanish, and I've been learning from them.) He looked unconvinced, as if he considered this unlikely, but his co-worker took my side and pointed out that there really are a lot of Hispanics in the area.

So I simply pointed out to him what seems obvious to me: "Sí usted puede a hablar ingles, yo necessito a hablar español." If you can speak English, then I need to speak Spanish.

I know some people have taken the attitude that immigrants need to learn English, and to be fair, I suppose they should, because English is the de facto language of the nation. But this attitude often gets taken too far, and we consider the task of integration to be their responsibility alone. This is all wrong.

In the eyes of God, we are not here-firsts, and johnny-come-latelys. That's a childish mindset that we try to see our children move past by the time they start kindergarten. What we are, instead, is communities of neighbors; and neither community has the right to make demands of the other, but only of ourselves. While I hope that my Hispanic neighbors, including the day-laborers as well as professionals, will take the time and make the effort to learn English so they can walk more easily in our world, I hope that we can make the same effort so that we can walk through theirs.

As we make that effort together, we can discover much that is new, and learn not only about our neighbors, but about ourselves as well. It's a frustratingly slow process to learn a second language, but with each time that I cross the language barrier and connect with someone who didn't expect it, I'm reminded just how much it's worth it.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Sola Gratia

We often take grace for granted, or think of it only in terms of wiping the slate clean for forgiveness, but there is more to it than that. Grace often gets overshadowed in our endless declamations over morality and right-vs-wrong, but in the end grace is the only thing that matters.

It's easier to appeal to the stark nature of Law and Morality than it is to walk through the treacherously gray footing life gives us, but when all is said and done, grace is the only guide worth having. And it's more comfortable to talk about Right and Wrong than it is to extend grace to people whose actions, whose choices, and whose lives put us ill at ease, but in the end, grace is our only hope.

One last thing about grace: Once you've received it, you have no choice but to extend it.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Thoughts on Wandering

Gordon Atkinson is writing a series on the history of his San Antonio, Texas, congregation over at High Calling. The strength of his writing, as always, is in the stories he tells and the thoughts that they stir in the souls of his readers.

As someone who spent his share of time in exodus, looking for something deeper, something more real, or something simply more home, I found this comment of his to be especially thought-provoking:
God is not opposed to his children wandering for periods of time. The Children of Israel wandered. Jesus wandered through the desert and on mountains. Even Paul wandered around Arabia in the years after his conversion -- his great dark period for which no scholar can account. If you think you know where the Creator of the Universe is leading you, there is a good chance that you will be wrong. And even if you are right about your ultimate destination, you’ll likely be surprised by the wandering route that God has in mind.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

A load of dolumbs

A couple months ago, a friend of mine and I noticed that the word verification mechanism at Blogger increasingly was using strings of characters that either were really words, or at least came close.

One of the more interesting logisms was "dolumbs." I say this primarily because my friend noted that dolumbs looks like a word, but means nothing. But as I contended, it's easy to deduce the meaning of such a logism in context, and trotted out several possible uses:
  1. The crew was overcome by a severe case of dolumbs.
  2. It was a difficult operation, but fortunately the patient had come to a state-of-the-art hospital where doctors had all the necessary equipment, even a set of dolumbs.
  3. The salad bar was full of everything Freddie would need for his meal. There were plump red cherry tomatoes and mounds of grated cheese, the bins were heaped with mounds of croutons and delicious bacon bits. But when Freddie saw the dolumbs, he knew he truly had found the holy grail of salad bars.
  4. "Whoa!" Pete cried, elbowing Vern in the chest. "Check out the dolumbs on that babe!"
  5. The gym teacher was furious. He'd seen some useless students in his day, but this class had to be the biggest set of dolumbs he had ever come across in 36 years of public education.
  6. "I might be a dolumb," thought Melvin, "but at least I'm no rathro like Kevin."
In each of those examples, the supposed meaning is fairly obvious and easy to determine. As used, dolumbs means boredom or perhaps an illness; a piece of surgical equipment; something eaten with a salad; some aspect of a woman, presumably one that makes her attractive, although it could be something else, like jewelry or an article of clothing; an unimpressive or uninspiring student; and lastly, some undesirable appellation, like "loser" or "dork." Interestingly, one could argue that the word refers to the same thing in all six sentences, though I have no idea what possibly could fit such a wide range of uses.

The truth of the matter, naturally, is that dolumbs is essentially meaningless because it is not a word. We can run it up one flagpole or another and assume a meaning from the way it flutters in the breeze, but a shift in the wind or the use of a different flagpole is all that it would take to wrench it away from that assumed meaning and send it blowing away.

It lacks the weight of a thousand years of usage to shape its definition; the force of the mass consent that defines the words contained in the English lexicon, the experience of hearing it and speaking it; and the vast tomes of poetry, drama, essays and other literature that give words meaning in any language. In short, it lacks the necessary context to be a real word, and not just a neologism.

I don't mean to belabor the point, but it's an important one. In the third example, Freddie recognized the eatery as the holy grail of salad bars. The Holy Grail refers to the legendary cup that Christ drank from at the Last Supper.

A thousand years or so of English and Continental literature have established the Grail as the most sacred of relics, capable of bestowing immortality or other great treasures on anyone worthy enough to find it. The weight of that literary, cultural, and historical context allows us to use the phrase "holy grail" in a metaphorical sense; i.e., this is the salad bar before all other salad bars. For the afficianado of salads, there is no better place to be than the restaurant with this salad bar.

The word even holds up to being used as a verb. Were I to write "Stephen has gone a'holy-grailing," most English speakers will grasp the sense immediately. Conversely, the meaning of "Holy Grail" is so fixed in our minds that a sentence like "Frank took his Holy Grail for a walk" is just nonsense. I might use "Holy Grail" in place of the word "dog," just as a salesman might refer to mattresses as "dog kennels," but the misuse of the term throws the meaning of the sentence into doubt and imbues the discussion with a surreal, Pythonesque feel.

If this is true of words we speak, it is even truer of the stories we fashion from them. We understand stories firstly from the context of our own experience. In the case of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," I've encountered people whose reactions ranged from the intended enthusiasm for Scrooge's redemption to scoffing at the story for empty-headed sentimentalism, to disapproval at its liberal message that Scrooge should pay Bob Cratchitt any more than what he is contracted to pay him. The strangest take on it I ever heard was a psychosexual one: that Scrooge didn't need the spirits of Christmas to change him, he just needed to have sex. (No, I'm not making that up.)

I imagine a swineherder in a remote South American tribe would have no reaction at all; if he had no knowledge of Victorian England and Christmas, or if his ghost lore allows no room for helpful spirits, the story is likely to be completely meaningless to him. So meaningless, in fact, that it would be impossible to translate it directly.

It's possible for us to derive some meaning from our own context, and if we're close enough to the source of the story, we might even get a semblance of the meaning, but the further we are from the philological, historical and cultural roots of the story, the more likely we are to get it wrong.

One dramatic example of this is recounted in the missions biography "Peace Child." In this story, author and missionary Don Richardson explains that among the Sawi people whom he was living with, treachery was seen as an admirable behavior. Someone who could act like your friend and then destroy you, was hailed as a hero by his clan.

Thus, when Richardson presented the story of Jesus to the Sawi people, the man they admired wasn't Jesus. It was the traitor Judas Iscariot, hardly the hero Richardson had hoped they would embrace. Richardson eventually discovered a meaningful cultural context among the Sawi that enabled him to reinterpret the story to them so that they perceived the same inherent meaning that he did.

The Sawi case presents an extreme and obvious example of missed contextual clues, but if we're willing to admit it, the truth is that we ourselves often misunderstand the stories and misconstrue the message of the Bible ourselves. We do not speak the languages the Bible was written in, we lack the premodern mindset of its authors, and we do not share the cultural mores that they took for granted.

Nor, ultimately, do we possess a knowledge of the extrabiblical literature that helped to shape the mindset of the Bible writers, such as the histories of the kings of Judah. When we do possess such literature, we rarely avail ourselves of it. Relatively few American Christians bother to read the book of Enoch, even though the author of Jude found it important enough to quote from it by name.

One of the greatest problems the American church has in terms of biblical literacy is our assumed familiarity with the text. We all know how Moses came to Pharaoh and demanded that he free the Israelites, and when Pharaoh refused, how God struck him with a series of plagues. Many Americans would be surprised to discover the significant role that Aaron has in this story, just as they might be surprised to discover that Pharaoh would have been Moses' uncle and not his brother.

It goes on from there. Aside from the many ways Hollywood has mined the rich vein of Bible stories, there are many stories that have been told and retold so frequently that they have been reduced to children's tales, with the result that religious folk feel we know not only the story but the moral we're supposed to draw from it.

Why were Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego saved from the furnace? Because God rescues people who are true to him. Why was Joseph treating his brothers so harshly when they came to Egypt to buy grain? Because he wanted to test them to see if they had become as mature as he had always been. Who is the Parable of the Prodigal Son about? Clearly, it's about the son who squanders his inheritance in a faroff land and then comes to his senses and comes home.

In each of those three stories, those lessons I have just shared are commonly taught, but it's fairly clear from the actual biblical passages that none of those is the main point.

Perhaps the biggest loser in this too-familiar approach to hermeneutics is Jesus himself. Among evangelicals in particular, the message of Jesus has been reduced to a simple conversion appeal that is shocking in its absence from the actual teachings of Christ found in the gospels.

The repent/confess/believe message has been preached so widely and so thoroughly in America that we often miss the heart of his message, which was a call to a much deeper spiritual revolution than one of simply changing where we go to church and which label we affix to our set of religious beliefs.

Reading the gospels in their proper context reveals a dramatic call that Jesus makes upon us to change how we live here and now, not so that we will experience the Kingdom of God at some far-off date, but so that we might experience it here and now.

There are thorny teachings on the surface, like when Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell everything he has and give it all to the poor; but there are even thornier lessons in the way Jesus taught. The Parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, took a familiar story in which a virtuous Pharisee saved a wounded countryman on the road to Jericho, and turned it upside-down by making the hero of one of the most reviled people imaginable. It would be as if Jesus told the story in church today and made the hero – the one who receives eternal life – a Muslim, or a homosexual.

What we need -- all of us -- is to return to a sound basis for Bible study. Christianity has bigger PR problems than the Exxon Valdez because of the boorishness of many of our appointed representatives, but we also have bigger credibility problems than a town hall of politicians in no small part because we've forgotten how to read a text intelligently.

That was fairly evident not many weeks ago, as the scientific community took time to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. There was scarcely a news article without a snark about the creationists who insist on reading Genesis 1-3 as a scientific treatise on the origin of species and the formation of planets.

That text is beautiful, affirming the transcendent qualities of God and declaring the value of the life of each ecosystem, from the smallest vernal pool to the deeps of the ocean, but let's remember what it is. It's a myth, doing what all great myths do: explaining the relationships among humanity, the world, and the creator of both. The text continues to relate the moral dimension of God, that he approves of certain behaviors and not of others, and it warns that walking out of faith with God can have disastrous consequences.

These are, in all probability, not stories that originated with the Hebrews, although the Hebrew Scriptures reinterprets each one in a manner that is positively revolutionary. The ancient Sumerians told a story virtually identical to the Noah tale found in Genesis, but there the Deluge was brought about by the vagaries of a god who was tired of the noise people made while he was trying to sleep.

The Babylonians told the story of the world's creation as the result of a conflict between Tiamat and Marduk. Only in the Hebrew Scriptures is there a depiction of a God outside the world, who calls it into being by his own authority, and who regards the people he has put there with affection rather than with a tolerance that often borders on annoyance.

There's a lot about the Bible that can be understood just by reading it casually, and I wish many more Christians would do at least that much. But any responsible reading is going to involve a fair amount of study. To know what the authors were saying, we need to study more ourselves about their values, their beliefs, and their other literature. It may take our faith to places we never imagined we would go, but in the end it's all worth it.

Otherwise, we might as well just be reading a page full of dolumbs.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Chicken in Capernaum

Teenage boys are known for doing things that they think will look impressive but that everybody else agrees actually look stupid.

Chicken, the game where two drivers head straight for one another in the firm conviction that the other will veer off first, is one of them. Playing the game requires a lot of stupidity, a lot of alcohol, and an absolute certainty that you will emerge from the game unscathed.

Jesus plays this game all the time.

Look at John 6:22-66. When the passage starts out, crowds of people literally are chasing Jesus across the Sea of Galilee. He's just miraculously fed 5,000 people with a small boy's lunch, and the crowd is begging for more.

Now I'm not much of an evangelist, but when you have hundreds if not thousands of people canceling their plans, breaking off social engagements, and shuttering their business for an unannounced holiday, just to hear what you have to say, it seems to me that this would be a good time to share your message.

Come on, Jesus. This is a premade audience, ready to buy what you're selling. Talk to them plainly, tell them what you want, and you'll have a committed following doing what you're calling everyone to do.

That's not what Jesus does, though. What he does is to play a game of Chicken with them.

First he insults them. You can almost see the people flinch when he says that they've only come because they want something more to eat. He's climbed onto his motorcycle and put on his sunglasses, but everybody figures he doesn't really mean it. No one leaves. So Jesus revs up his bike so loud that the pine trees echo the roar, and he begins moving toward them.

In a moment, the crowd, which only that morning had been so eager to see Jesus that they begged, borrowed and bought their way aboard boats to get across the Sea of Galilee, is tensed up and a little anxious. He talks to them about the Bread from Heaven, and then they decide he isn't really going to run into them. It's just a test. “Give us this bread!” they say, thinking, “Surely that's the right answer! Isn't he going to back off now?”

But if there's one thing Jesus doesn't know how to do, it's to back off. Instead, he calls himself the bread of life, claiming that it's not just what he says and what he does that matter, but that he himself is important. He is coming on fast. His motorcycle is large and loud and intimidating, and everyone realizes there's going to be an awful wreck if someone doesn't veer off.

“This is the carpenter's son!” someone mutters. “Didn't his father fix Uncle Paul's chair when it needed mending? He isn't anybody special.” Jesus is still 30 or 40 feet away, but these people already have decided not to take any chances. They're getting out of his way, their arms twitching and their legs shaking with barely concealed agitation.

But a lot of other people still won't change course. They're close enough that they can see Jesus gripping the handlebars on his own motorcycle, and they can see the sunlight shining on his James Dean leather jacket. He's 25 feet away, and they know he's not really going to plow into them. It's just a test of their faith.

Except now he's taken a perfectly lovely day and he's ruined it by talking about cannibalism. Would-be followers of Jesus are hitting the brakes in disgust, and spinning out in the dust. Some of them are turning down other roads, looking for a messiah who makes more sense, one who doesn't talk and act so crazy.

And the worst part is that Jesus acts like it's their fault, like there's something wrong with them for chickening out. Following him was supposed to make things easier, and provide answers. Instead, he's throwing what answers they do have into doubt and he's making things harder.

“Does this offend you?” he asks. He's close enough that people can see the look on his face, and they're wondering what they ever saw in this uneducated crazy man from Nazareth. “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit, and they are life.”

When Jesus started his little game, there was a huge crowd. By this point, most of the people have scattered. The miracles were nice, and everyone loved the way he showed up the religious leaders and always seemed to make a place for the common people, but somehow they never realized he could be this difficult. A few people remain: his twelve disciples and a handful of others, but that's it. They know what's coming, but they're not going to get out of the way.

When no one backs down in a game of Chicken, there's a nasty collision when the motorcycles hit each other head-on. You fly off your bikes, you ram into one another, and you smear yourself down the road, scraping flesh, blood and bone across gravel and asphalt. Even with protective gear on, it's not unheard-of for players to be Life-Flighted to the hospital, where surgeons race the clock to save them from the fruits of their own stupidity.

It must have been something like that in Capernaum when Jesus got off his bike and looked around at the carnage. Bodies lying all around, limbs twisted at strange and painful angles, blood pouring from open wounds, because these people knew that Jesus wouldn't turn off and yet still wouldn't get out of his way.

“Are you going to leave too?” he asks them quietly.

It's Peter – broken, battered, bruised and badly beaten – who answers. “Where else can we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.”

A statement of faith like that doesn't come easily. It's born in that soul-crashing tangle of faith and pain, that point when the questions you have can't be answered and the answers you do have just don't make sense anymore. It's born in that awful collision when what Jesus always has been, meets what you've always believed him to be. It's born in that awful moment when he tells you to let go, and you have to decide whether to do as he asks, or to hold on tighter and demand that he bless you first.

It's when we reach that point, that we finally can start to discover the purpose behind Jesus' love of Chicken. It's when we reach that point, that both we and he know beyond a doubt that we really do belong to him, and it's at that point that the real journey of faith begins.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Political changes in evangelicalism

Michael Spencer has an interesting article at Internet Monk on recent reports of the trend of younger evangelicals to self-identify as politically liberal. He makes several interesting points, one of which is that there have been progressive Christians around all the time, if people were willing to look for us.

He is correct — both voices have been there all along, for those who knew where to look. But following the victories of the Religious Left in the 1960s, the Religious Right rose to ascendancy in the 1970s by politics about “values” (usually morality) rather than about social justice. In my own experience at least, a concern with social ills often was dismissed in evangelical circles as following a “social gospel,” which somehow was less sacred or True than the spiritual gospel being pushed instead. The Religious Left didn’t disappear during all this, but it did fade, and as is often the case, the crowd of moderates gradually shifted toward the voices on the Right that were dominating.

It’s not entirely fair to say that “the media” anointed the leaders and speakers for evangelicals. Most were chosen by evangelicals who listened to their programs, distributed their material, and made the phone calls that they were asked to. It’s not reasonable to fault the media for noting who the political power-brokers were in Christian circles; the fault lies with us for ever elevating them to that level.

I am curious to see how the leftward shift plays itself out in terms of evangelicalism. It’s been made clear to me by a good number of evangelicals that the tent isn’t big enough for me because of my political viewpoints — even though my religious views fall squarely within orthodoxy. That sort of political bellicosity, combined with an eagerness to define evangelicalism along narrower and narrower doctrinal lines, led me several years ago to ditch the evangelical label. I’m happy now to be known as “post-evangelical” or, more simply, “not evangelical.”

From what I’ve read, my experience is hardly unique. Some people, like Gary Olson, are trying to reclaim the evangelical label for the inclusivity it once represented, but from what I can tell, that hasn’t been happening. If the strident voices on the Right politically continue to push away those who don’t toe the party line, how long will this new generation of politically liberal Christians be willing to identify themselves with a movement that’s become known for not wanting them?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Slippery slope

The air around me is alive with the scrape and din of rocks striking one another as as I slide down the slope.

I'm no longer trying to get back to the plateau where I once comfortably stood with my fellows. I'm not even sure how far up the hill it is. I've had to accept that it's too far behind and too far above for me to go back. Even if I could measure the distance, I couldn't make the return journey. The entire side of the hill where I am is a mass of shifting stones and sand that makes it impossible to get traction.

There's no going back, but at this point that's not a problem. I don't want to.

I was told that if I ever stepped off the plateau that I would find myself on a slippery slope with no firm surface to plant my feet, and I've found those words to be oddly prophetic. I haven't raced pell-mell toward destruction, but I've never been able to fully arrest my slide either. I've slowed sometimes, and once or twice I've gained a measure of respite atop an especially large rock, but it never holds for long. I manage to catch my breath, and then something in the mass of rocks shifts, and my slide starts again.

It's terrifying. It's exhilarating. It's freedom.

Others are shocked or even alarmed to see me going down like this, but this is where I'm most comfortable. It's where I belong.

I started out on the plateau when I was 18 and had just awoken to the wonders of God. Like others who discovered something they had missed seeing as children, I took my lead from those who been awake a while longer. What I saw was that the Bible was taken seriously, because it was the Word of God. And because it was the Word of God, you had to believe what it said.

I had never encountered this level of regard for the Bible before, growing up in a mainline church. There, we regarded it as sacred, and we read short passages from it every Sunday, but I personally couldn't have said why. We just did.

Among the believers I now found myself with, disagreeing with the Bible would be like disagreeing with God, because it was his Word, plain and simple. And treating the biblical narrative as anything less than a literal record of what it reported was tantamount to disagreeing with what it said. It was about as close to heresy as you could come without actually falling into it.

If 2 Kings 20 said that God made a shadow go ten steps backward as a sign for Hezekiah, then he really did. If the book of Jonah said a great fish swallowed the prophet, then that's what happened. There were allowances made for figures of speech, like Joshua stopping the sun, but everything contained in the Bible was true and factual and authoritative, because God had said it. It was his Word.

And if we started taking some parts of the Bible at less than face value, then where would we be? On a slippery slope, headed toward destruction.

So, although there were times that I would walk to the edge of the plateau with a question in mind and watch the pebbles at my feet come loose and begin to roll downhill, for years I kept myself safely on the plateau.

And then one day, I discovered that the plateau had become a cage.

Some people see doubt as an enemy of faith, a highwayman who stands in the road and assails her with any weapon he can find, and so they try to outfit faith with clever arguments, with safe company and familiar routines, and even with sheer denial. And so, for them, the plateau is a welcome place to be, and so they stay there, along with other people who have their own reasons for living there.

I like to think of faith and doubt as old friends who, when they meet each other on the road, take one another's hand and abandon well-trod paths for unfamiliar ones that they can explore and enjoy together. And so, one day I gave voice to questions I had deferred for years. I opened the cage, walked to the edge of the plateau, and took a step into the empty space above the slippery slope.

Does it really matter if Jonah didn't ride in the belly of the whale? I asked, and decided, no, it didn't. What if Moses didn't really write the Pentateuch? What if the book of Esther is a piece of fiction? What if the book of Job is? What if the book of Genesis is a collection of myth, legend and folklore? What if the Bible is only as inspired as "Les Misérables," and no more or less?

With each new step I took, more of the rocks came loose and slid away, carrying me farther down the side of the hill, so that before long I was caught in the the roar and clatter of a massive landslide. I know some people who have gone this way and been crushed to death beneath the avalanche, and God knows how my hands and knees are scraped and bruised and I've got a goose egg or two from the times I lost my balance.

But this is a journey that can't be stopped once it's begun in earnest. I've known a few people to insist that God dictated the writing of the Bible, word for word. It doesn't matter if we're talking about the poor grammar of Mark's gospel or the more refined Greek of the Johannine epistles. God wrote it, and he can write any way he wants.

For most of the rest of us, it was more of a given that God had done it "somehow," that he had inspired these writers, and they produced the works he wanted, colored by their personalities and experiences, yet still infallibly expressing his will and intent without error. It's as though God temporarily switched off Paul's capacity for sin while he wrote his letters, or completely overcame Jeremiah's sense of self as he wrote his scrolls.

I'm afraid I'm too far down the slope to be entirely satisfied with the vagueness of that explanation either.

Here where the stones rattle and shift as I slide another ten feet, I can't see the single, unifying vision that I would expect to find running the length of Scripture with that manner of inspiration. The Bible contains a broad polyphany of voices, often in harmony with one another, and often in opposition.

At times it exudes the narrow xenophobia of men like Ezra, who regarded the presence of Gentile wives among the Israelites as a stain to be removed no matter what suffering it caused the sundered families. Other times the voice is as comforting as fresh cookies and a glass of milk, like the book of Ruth, which celebrates the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant. In the Torah you see the same essential conflict: allowances to exploit foreigners, and orders to treat them with great kindness.

I batter my hands and kick with my feet to find some way to steer my descent, but the gravel and the broken stones don't give me much control. Earlier biblical authors clearly saw God as a tribal deity who gave his people moral laws to follow but who unmistakably had a preference for his people. By the time of Isaiah he had grown in their understanding to a transcendent deity who cares for all the nations and desires to draw them all close to him.

The Bible seems less a consistent stream of unchanging revelation than the writings of a people who were seeking to know and understand God at the same time that he was seeking to know them. Their understanding, which had begun to bloom by the book of Isaiah, reached its full flower in the person and teachings of Christ.

It's a flower that grows here amid the rocks where I have been scuffed and bruised, battered and beaten, torn and scraped, on a downward slide I began close to three years ago. The flower refreshes me, soothes my aches, heals my scrapes and bruises, and assures me that I will make it alive to a place I once thought was only ruin.

I once was taught to think that the Bible had talismanic qualities, that it was a special book, above reproach and free of any error or blemish. I don't know if I can say that any more, personally, though I may one day find a way to say it again in light of new understanding.

For now, while the greater problem lies in our interpretation, I accept that the Bible also has errors in its science and in its history, that there are areas where its morality is downright appalling to me, and that there are other parts where its theology just makes no sense, no matter how often I read it.

For now, from where I sit on this slippery slope, I have to accept that the Bible is inspired in the sense that all great literature is inspired, and perhaps a bit more. It's written and edited by people who were seeking something deeper than what they knew. These were people who set out with the intent to write Scripture and pursued God and his wisdom with everything that they had in them. For all their faults, they hungered for God, and wrote what they did because they wanted to share what they had found.

For all their differences, those voices are united in their passion for God. What brings all those voices into focus, what gives them all unity, is the revelation of Jesus.

Thank God he's there. I don't think I could stand this trip down the mountain without him.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A living hell

Hell is a blanket that will not keep you warm.

Hell is unrequited self-love. It echoes like an empty mailbox on Valentine's Day.

Hell is winning the first baseball game of the season, and the last baseball game of the season, and every game in between. It is being rejected when you didn't even know you had applied.

Hell is always thinking about the life you wish you had, the life you hope to have, the life you will never have, and never about the life you do have. It is having everything you ever wanted.

Hell is knowing you are wrong; it is knowing you are right. It is absolute certainty with no room for doubt, for learning, or for growth.

In hell, the damned know themselves as they are, but are unable to change. The dream of heaven is so strong that they can reach out and touch it, but they lack the faith to do so.

When you are in hell, you always get your way.

Hell is a land where the sun never sets and the stars never show their face. It is a land where there is no rest from toil and labor. No one dances in hell. No one laughs. They do have sex in hell, or something like it; but it is a sad and lonely act of desperation as the lost strive for something that they know is beyond them, and it only leaves them feeling empty.

There are no schools in hell, no books. In hell, there is nothing left to learn, nothing left to accomplish. There is nothing left to look forward to.

Hell is the distance between yourself and other people.

The way to hell is paved with no intentions at all; we simply lay it one brick at a time, unthinking, on a long, steady, lonely slope that we tread our entire lives.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.