“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.