“Perversion is a failure of the imagination,” part one

To further explicate the point I’ve tried to make in the last couple posts, allow me to quote from a couple of authors who first planted these ideas in my head. To sum up the point beforehand, I’m trying to explore what the consequences are of allowing ourselves to pervert others who we think are not like us, those we try to reduce to simple categories while ranting about the “gobs of ’em” around us, and setting that against the idea that Man is made in the image of God and the command we have been given of doing nothing less than loving our neighbors as ourselves.

In the chapter Spot the Pervert: Questioning our Passions in his new book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, David Dark writes,

Pervert is a verb, and we do it all the time. To pervert is to degrade, to cut down to size – and we do it to people in our minds. We devalue them. We reduce them to the limitations of our appetites, of our sense of what might prove useful to us, of our sense of what strikes us as appropriate. We often only file them away – these living and breathing human beings – into separate files of crazy-making issues-talk. When we think of a person primarily as a problem, a potential buyer, a VIP, a celebrity, or an undocumented worker, we’re reducing them to the tiny sphere of our stunted attention span. This is how perversion works. Perversion is a failure of the imagination, a failure to pay adequate attention.
While perversion appears to be the modus operandi of governments and the transnational corporations they serve – and the language both speak in their broadcasts – the reductionism implicit in perversion doesn’t ultimately work. It doesn’t do justice to the fullness of what we are. We, the people, are always more than our use value. Like the God in whose image people are made, people are irreducible. There’s always more to a person – more stories, more life, more complexities – than we know. The human person, when viewed properly, is unfathomable, incalculable, and dear. Perversion always says otherwise. Perversion is a way of managing, getting down to business, getting a handle on people as if they were things. A person reduced to a thing has been, in the mind of the perverter, dispensed with, taken care of, filed away. Perversion is pigeonholing…
I tried to share some of this with my high school students, and a fellow who’s always quick with an encouraging, conspiratorial smile walked up after class (always a rewarding experience) and said, “So we’re all perverts then.”
“Yep,” I said. “But we aren’t only perverts. We certainly underestimate each other, misperceiving and misrepresenting other people from one moment to the next. But we also get it right sometimes. We aren’t just perverts. In fact, if we say of someone that he or she is a pervert and nothing but a pervert, we’re being perverts speaking perversely as perverts do.” Here I had to pause to take a breath. “Like calling someone a fool or an idiot. It’s one of those things Jesus tells us to never ever do. Calling someone a pervert without acknowledging our own inner pervert might lead to the destruction – or at least the perversion – of our own soul. We become perverts in our determination to catch a pervert.”

Part two will be posted tomorrow.

David McCullough

Tonight, some friends and I went to hear a lecture by author David McCullough, sometimes called America’s preeminent social historian, given at Belmont University. He talked a bit about his biographies of Harry S. Truman and John Adams, but the main portion of his talk focused on teachers and on reading. “We are shaped by what we read more than we realize,” he said, and, reiterating an idea I’ve heard expressed before, reminded us that “we think with the language of what we read.” I thought of a scene in Steven Soderbergh’s Che, the four-hour Spanish-language film I saw recently at the Belcourt , where Che refuses to promote an illiterate soldier until he learns to read, saying, “A country that cannot read or write is easily deceived.”

Throughout the evening, McCullough repeated the idea that we cannot know who we are until we know our history, where we came from and how we’ve arrived here. I’ve said before that I think it is impossible to be both a Fundamentalist and an historian. For example, taking in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 Swedish film The Seventh Seal may provide a much-needed antidote for those caught up in the end-times hysteria promoted by the Left Behind empire, websites like RaptureReady.com, and self-proclaimed “prophecy experts.”
Looking at the past, we see not only some examples to follow and others to avoid at all costs, we see firmly held beliefs – from those we respect, no less – in ideas we now consider profoundly wrong and even unjust, and, if we listen to the whispers of grace, we will come to hold our own ideas with a little looser hand, a greater awareness of our own fallibility and a willingness to extend grace to those who do not find themselves in complete agreement with us.

Will You Sign My Bible?

After the guest speaker finished his sermon, I would wait impatiently, along with the rest of the kids in my church youth group, for the song leader to finish leading us in the five, or twenty, verses of “Just As I Am”, and to hear the weekly announcements read, along with all the decisions from the alter call and any other church business that needed taken care of. And when the last Amen was said, I bolted from my pew, my black leather King James Bible – the Rice reference edition – in hand, and headed for the platform. I wanted to be first in line to get the autograph of the special speaker in the front of my bible. And because I grew up in one of the larger churches in the Independent Baptist movement, I heard most of the big speakers of the day and have their signatures to prove it.

biblesignatures1 When I pick up my old bible today and flip through it, a flood of memories come back to me. It is, first of all, the first study bible I owned. It was given to me by my parents when I was ten years old, after I read through the bible cover-to-cover for the first time, with study notes / editorial comments by my Great Grandfather, John R. Rice. Several of my great uncles served as assistant editors, as well as other professors I knew growing up. And then there are the signatures. When I read through them, I remember points or illustrations from their sermons, or what the last thing was that I heard about them. I think of one preacher/missionary who was one of my favorite speakers to hear, a regular at our church. And who, about a year ago, now in his 70’s, was picked up in a police sting at a public park for soliciting gay sex. Or the pastor from Florida who unfortunately died last year before the 20+ boys and girls who accused him of sexual molestation in the christian school his church ran were able to face him in court. I remember another speaker, a lawyer by profession, who was (and still is) considered one of the great orators of the Fundamentalist movement, and who I thought always had the best stories. To this day, I remember with clarity one of his stories in particular that I found hilarious at the time, and, along with everyone around me, burst out laughing at the punch-line. And whenever it comes to mind today, I’m filled with both a revulsion for my response and a sense of amazement that something so hateful and bigoted would get the response it did from a church.

Reading over the signatures now, the first question that comes to mind is an old one: Does Christianity make one a better person? The answer must be, I think, a resounding “no.” It’s good to remember that Christ never said it would; the verse “come, follow Me so you can be better than your neighbors, so you can look down on everyone around you” isn’t actually found in the Scriptures.

“Thar’s “gobs of ’em'”

You know how you do dumb things when you’re a kid? Here’s one stupid thing I did: had a congressman sign my Bible. Actually, he wasn’t a congressman yet, he was running his first campaign (on the promise he would serve a maximum of six terms-he’s now on his eighth), and he was the special guest a couple of times at a pancake breakfast for the kids and fathers of my homeschool group. He is now, unfortunately, running for governor, and was interviewed on MSNBC a couple weeks ago about Obama’s health care plan. Besides showing a fundamental lack of understanding about the argument over whether health care is a privilege or a right – he said “Listen, health care a privilege…For some people it’s a right, but for everyone, frankly, it’s not necessarily a right…” – he ranted about the “gobs” of illegal immigrants “getting our health care.” Here’s hoping he doesn’t make it past the primary and that we don’t have to hear much more from him. And I wish he had used a pencil when he signed “Zah Wap” in the front pages of my Bible.

Best song lyric of 2009

I’m in the middle of reading David Dark’s newest, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, along with Peter Rollins’ How (Not) to Speak of God, and I just discovered a line on the new U2 CD that goes along with both of the books. I’ve had No Line on the Horizon on repeat since the day it came out, listening to it several times a day, my favorite song varying depending on the day. But for the last week, all I’ve been able to do is hit repeat on Stand Up Comedy, over and over and over. It’s a damn good rock song with great lyrics. Here’s the second verse:

Stand up, this is comedy,
The DNA lottery may have left you smart.
But can you stand up to beauty, dictator of the heart?
I can stand up for hope, faith, love,
But while I’m getting over certainty
Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady.

I have a couple posts coming soon explaining more about where I’m coming from in my love for that line, and should also have a review of David’s book up sometime before it hits stores in April. In the meantime, go buy the U2 CD, if for some reason you don’t have it yet.

My favorite definition of “the Church”

“The Church is one cat in one ditch and one nobody of a son of a bitch trying to pull her out.”

For some reason, I find myself about once a week or so trying to explain why I go to the church I do and what I think the church is supposed to be. I hear sermons that talk about how we in the church are somehow better, are “special,” and it’s easy to come away with the impression that those you find involved in the local expression of the body of Christ have it all together, and that is what sets them apart. I don’t think that is the case at all. One of the books I’m currently reading is Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly which I picked up after reading several quotes from it in David Dark’s The Gospel According to America. Campbell relates a parable told to him by his friend P.D. East, an agnostic newspaper editor.

He referred to the Church as “the Easter chicken.” Each time I saw him he would ask, “And what’s the state of the Easter chicken, Preacher Will?” I knew he was trying to goad me into some kind of an argument and decided to wait him out. One day he explained.
“You know, Preacher Will, that Church of yours and Mr. Jesus is like an Easter chicken my little Karen got one time. Man, it was a pretty thing. Dyed a deep purple. Bought it at the grocery store.”
I interrupted that white was the liturgical color for Easter but he ignored me. “And it served a real useful purpose. Karen loved it. It made her happy. And that made me and her Mamma happy. Okay?”
I said, “Okay.”
“But pretty soon that baby chicken started feathering out. You know, sprouting little pin feathers. Wings and tail and all that. And you know what? Them new feathers weren’t purple. No sirree bob, that damn chicken wasn’t really purple at all. That damn chicken was a Rhode Island Red. And when all them little red feathers started growing out from under that purple it was one hell of a sight. All of a sudden Karen couldn’t stand that chicken any more.”
“I think I see what you’re driving at, P. D.”
“No, hell no, Preacher Will. You don’t understand any such thing for I haven’t got to my point yet.”
“Okay. I’m sorry. Rave on.”
“Well, we took that half-purple and half-red thing out to her Grandma’s house and threw it in the chicken yard with all the other chickens. It was still different, you understand. That little chicken. And the other chickens knew it was different. And they resisted it like hell. Pecked it, chased it all over the yard. Wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Wouldn’t even let it get on the roost with them. And that little chicken knew it was different too. It didn’t bother any of the others. Wouldn’t fight back or anything. Just stayed by itself. Really suffered too. But little by little, day by day, that chicken came around. Pretty soon, even before all the purple grew off it, while it was still just a little bit different, that damn thing was behaving just about like the rest of them chickens. Man, it would fight back, peck the hell out of the ones littler than it was, knock them down to catch a bug if it got to it in time. Yes sirree bob, the chicken world turned that Easter chicken around. And now you can’t tell one chicken from another. They’re all just alike. The Easter chicken is just one more chicken. There ain’t a damn thing different about it.”
I knew he wanted to argue and I didn’t want to disappoint him. “Well, P. D., the Easter chicken is still useful. It lays eggs, doesn’t it?”
It was what he wanted me to say. “Yea, Preacher Will. It lays eggs. But they all lay eggs. Who needs an Easter chicken for that? And the Rotary Club serves coffee. And the 4-H Club says prayers. The Red Cross takes up offerings for hurricane victims. Mental Health does counseling, and the Boy Scouts have youth programs.

No argument from me there. I’ve seen a lot of churches that are “just one more chicken,” where “there ain’t a damn thing different about it.” So what should the church be? Campbell tells a story later on in his book about his friendship with another preacher, Thad Garner. One day, they were headed back from some meeting when Thad “bellowed above the noise of the motor, “Do you know what the Church of Jesus Christ is?” I said I sort of thought that I did. “Well, I’m going to tell you anyway. The Church is one cat in one ditch and one nobody of a son of a bitch trying to pull her out.'”

Sounds like a good working definition to me.

RR: Tell Stories

I have a new post up at the Rabbit Room, quoting Peter Rollins, Walter Wangerin, and Frederick Buechner. I’ve been re-reading and thinking about the excerpt from Wangerin’s essay on preaching that takes up most of that post for the last week, and have found it good food for thought. Wangerin writes,

“The God who is met in doctrines, who is apprehended in the catechesis, who is true so long as our statements about him are truly stated, who is communicated in propositions, premise-premise-conclusion, who leaps not from the streets, nor even from scriptural texts, but from the interpretation of the scriptural texts – that God is an abstract, has been abstracted from the rest of the Christian experience.”

Read the rest of the post here.

The Gospel Hankie Card

“Look great and share your zeal for soul winning with these witness ties and handkerchief.”

So reads the headline at the top of the full-page ad in the current issue of the Sword of the Lord newspaper, the biweekly publication started by my Great-Grandfather back in 1934.

“There is a new witnessing tool that is available this year. It is the perfect gift.
When you find it difficult to find that right gift for that special someone, give the Gospel Handkerchief Card. You will not only be giving a gift, you will be giving a witness at the same time. That is why we say, “Don’t just give a gift, give a witness.”
Gentlemen, dress up your suit with a little color, the four colors of the Gospel on the Gospel Handkerchief Card.
Our Gospel Handkerchief Card can be a great witnessing tool to that family member or person that you thought you could never give a witness to about your Saviour, Jesus Christ. You don’t have to say a word – let the card speak for you and see why we call them “wordless.”

Don’t have the time or desire to live out your faith? Take the easy road: “Give a witness.”

Why Music Matters

A friend of mine, a Grammy-nominated arranger that I work with, recently forwarded me a speech he’d come across given by Karl Paulnack to incoming freshmen at the Boston Conservatory. In it, Paulnack argues that musicians are as important as doctors and firefighters, that they are “a sort of therapist for the human soul.” Given my chosen field of work, I do, not surprisingly, agree. He tells one story about the power of music – instrumental music – to resurrect forgotten memories, the reason for the music being written somehow connecting with the memory without the listener knowing the story of the piece.

The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier-even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

Read his full speech here.

And on a related note, Suzanne Vega has an op-ed in the New York Times this week, What’s a Melody For? Here are a couple excerpts.

“Melody is its own idea, like sculpture. You don’t look at a piece of sculpture to see what is resting on top of it. A great melody has its own design, a beautiful combination of intervals and rhythms usually expressing the emotion of the song. Somehow a melody is connected, like the sense of smell, to memory, so when you hear a song it connects you in a flood of emotions to the time and place of that song. I am sure there are reasons in the brain for this, but as a songwriter I don’t need to know how the brain does it, only that it does.”

“Just think of a world without art, without song — how would we celebrate? What would we dream of? What would set our imaginations free? How could we express our emotions for our husbands and wives and children? Celebrate a birthday? A melody is for expressing emotions: delight, passion, sadness. It reminds us of what we have felt and experienced before, in our own personal code of emotion and history. Priceless!”

“Our stories are all stories of searching…”

In his book The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections, Frederick Buechner includes a letter he wrote for the birth of his grandson, to be read on his twenty-first birthday. Since today, March 8th, is the day I add another candle to the coconut birthday cake, the start of a new year in my life, I pulled Buechner’s book off my bookshelf to re-read his letter. The summation of his words of wisdom is one of the better in-a-nutshell descriptions I’ve heard about the human story.

“Our stories are all stories of searching. We search for a good self to be and for good work to do. We search to become human in a world that tempts us always to be less than human or looks to us to be more. We search to love and to be loved. And in a world where it is often hard to believe in much of anything, we search to believe in something holy and beautiful and life-transcending that will give meaning and purpose to the lives we live.”

In an essay further into the book, “The Journey Toward Wholeness,” Buechner writes, “Like the majority of humankind I don’t know much about wholeness at first hand… I like to believe that in a disorganized way it is what I am journeying toward, but the most I have to show for my pains is an occasional glimpse of it in certain people…” He goes on to describe the ways we allow ourselves to fragmentize the world we see around us, the ways we become nothing more than reactors. “Sinners are made in the image of God no less than saints,” he writes, and it is a hope of mine that in this next year I will grow closer to seeing the world that way, that somehow, with God’s help, “compassionate love [will] begin to change from a moral exercise into a joyous, spontaneous, self-forgetting response to the most real aspect of all reality.” That I will, in fits and starts, little by little, become whole.

“The world floods in on all us us. The world can be kind, and it can be cruel. It can be beautiful, and it can be appalling. It can give us good reason to hope and good reason to give up all hope. It can strengthen our faith in a loving God, and it can decimate our faith. In our lives in the world, the temptation is always to go where the world takes us, to drift with whatever current happens to be running strongest. When good things happen, we rise to heaven; when bad things happen, we descend to hell. When the world strikes out at us, we strike back, and when one way or another the world blesses us, our spirits soar. I know this to be true of no one as well as I know it to be true of myself. I know just how the weather can affect my whole state of mind for good or ill, how just getting stuck in a traffic jam can ruin an afternoon that in every other way is so beautiful that it dazzles the heart. We are in constant danger of being not actors in the drama of our own lives but reactors. The fragmentary nature of our experience shatters us into fragments. Instead of being whole, most of the time we are in pieces, and we see the world in pieces, full of darkness at one moment and full of light the next.”

“Sinners are made in the image of God no less than saints. Even a sparrow fallen dead by the roadside is transparent to holiness. To be whole, I believe, is to see the world like that. To see the world like that, as Jesus saw it, is to be whole. And sometimes I believe that even people like you and me see it like that. Sometimes even in the midst of our confused and broken relationships with ourselves, with each other, with God, we catch glimpses of that holiness and wholeness which, no matter how buried and unrecognized, are still part of who we are.”

“It is our business, as we journey, to keep our hearts open to the bright-winged presence of the Holy Ghost within us and the Kingdom of God among us until little by little compassionate love begins to change from a moral exercise, from a matter of gritting our teeth and doing our good deed for the day, into a joyous, spontaneous, self-forgetting response to the most real aspect of all reality, which is that the world is holy because God made it and so is every one of us as well. To live as though that reality does not exist is to be a stranger in a world of strangers. To live out of and toward that reality is little by little to become whole.”