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.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Repo man

About seventeen years ago, I was living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where I was a resident missionary with STEM Ministries.

STEM is a missions organization with a focus on the North American church. By providing groups from the United States and Canada with short-term experiences in third world nations in the Caribbean and South America, it hopes to awaken the church in two of the wealthiest nations on Earth to the global scale of God's work.

In other words, it might seem really pressing to build a state-of-the-art nursery with a cappuccino bar for the workers, but there are Christians in the Dominican Republic where they'd be grateful for a corrugated tin roof to keep the rain and sun out.

It's a pretty straightforward proposition: Show American Christians what the rest of the world is like, and let God challenge their preconceptions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you forget right away, sometimes your experiences in the third world stay with you for the rest of your life.

While I was there, one of the nationals we worked with came to the ministry with a problem. He needed money, or the bank would take the land he and his family had been living on. Seventeen years is a long time, so I don't remember all the details. What I mostly remember is Steve Schmidt, our base director, mentioned that another missionary he knew would categorize this fellow's problems as the wealthy ignoring the plight of the poor, if not outright taking advantage of them.

Steve dismissed that as nonsense, since as he (correctly) pointed out, the fellow in question did have the money for the bank payment, or at least he used to. Like many people, he had used the money for other things, including things that he hadn't needed.

That's actually a common situation in Haiti, I'm afraid. A boujwa will come and buy a piece of property from someone for a handsome price, and tell him that he's going to build a house there in 10 years or so. Ten years will come and go, and then the boujwa will start building his house.

The former owner of the land, sadly, will still be on the property and will no longer have the handsome sum, which he theoretically could have used to buy land elsewhere, buy some goats or pigs to start a business and raise his family out of poverty, or something of the sort. Sadly, the owner usually will have done none of those things, and now has nothing left to show for the money he once was paid. It's all gone, and soon they are not only out of the money, they are out of the place they have lived for years.

There's no denying that the fellow who sold his home and then frittered away the money -- aside from any money that was put to a good use, like sending the kids to school -- made some really stupid decisions with his money, and in the end has to shoulder responsibility for his plight. On the other hand, it's a pretty cold thing to throw a family out of their homes, and leave them to fend for themselves.

Steve isn't that cold. He gave our national colleague some of the ministry's designated mercy money -- not enough to cover the whole payment, but a good chunk of it. The idea was that he would have to earn the rest of the money somehow, and make some adjustments, rather than us encouraging dependency on the "rich white missionaries."

Still, the story has stuck with me for the past 17 years because I can't shake the fundamental wrongness of evicting people from their homes. That feeling has stayed with me, and in recent months has grown still stronger, as banks that essentially preyed upon people by offering them mortgages that they couldn't afford, all in the name of making a buck. And while those homeowners have been thrown out onto the street, figuratively or literally, the executives responsible for the mess have been raking in huge bonuses even as the economy comes crashing down around the ears of the rest of us.

One fellow I know -- a dyed-in-the-wool God-is-a-Republican sort of Christian -- insists that capitalism is biblical. I'm not sure entirely how he justifies that, but there you have it. American-style capitalism unquestionably grew out of the Protestant work ethic practiced by groups like the Puritans and the Moravians, but it's quite a stretch to my mind to see Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" as being in sync with a text that never really got into particulars of economic theory beyond things like stressing the value of honest weights. At best, I can say that it is an extrabiblical economic system that can be shaped by biblical values of compassion (as opposed to the greed that drives the market most times).

But you know, home ownership is one area where capitalism keeps running afoul of biblical values, I think. In the U.S. economy, if I default on my mortgage, the bank theoretically has the legal right to foreclose on the mortgage and kick me, my wife, and our children, out onto the street.It doesn't matter if I've lost my job because of what the financial giants have done to the economy, it doesn't matter if they sold me a predatory mortgage for a market price that is three times the house's actual worth. If they have my signature on that mortgage contract, theoretically they have the legal right to kick me out of the house and try to sell it to recoup their losses.

There's something else at work here, though. While the hardcore apologists of a free market will expound on the virtues of tough love and making people take the consequences of their bad choices like parents disciplining an unruly child, it's not hard to find public sympathy for homeowners who are falling prey to economic forces that they have no control over.

There is something fundamentally unjust about evicting people from their homes. Not just unfair, but unjust. There is a fundamental connection between people and the homes they live in that we violate at our peril and to our shame.

The Bible backs me up on that. In ancient Israel, where my friend sees evidence of capitalism at work, that relationship was inviolate. An Israelite could buy the land of another Israelite, it's true, but only for seven years. Levitical law requires that when that seven-year period ended, the land had to be returned to its previous owner. The Torah also instituted the Jubilee, a period that came once every 50 years, where all debts were canceled, all slaves were set free, and all property rights were restored.

And therein lies a challenge for the American church as we stand on the cusp of what may blossom into the Second Great Depression. As we move forward, we must be mindful that we do have neither the right nor the authority to dictate to the rest of society how it should function.

But we should -- we must -- champion justice, and we have an obligation to advance alternatives to what our society practices, alternatives that respect and safeguard the basic dignity of everyone, especially those whose lives so often are chewed up in the cogs and gears of the systems that make our society work.

Some countercultural groups like The Jesus People in Chicago, or A Simple Way in Philadelphia, have explored the power and strength of communal living in contemporary society. Clearly that's not for everyone, but the alternatives are limited only by our faith and our imagination.

In the name of the one we claim to follow, we have a calling to do better.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.