At the risk of self-discovery

As I was driving down to Franklin Friday evening for the Sara Groves / Ben Shive concert, I put in Sara’s CD All Right Here, her first CD that I bought and still, I think, my favorite. And I was reminded of how many great songs are on there, Maybe There’s a Loving God and Remember Surrender being my two favorites. Every Minute is a great song about friendships – Mike Card, when I was talking to him after the show, said it is his favorite song of Sara’s – and I just remembered the blog post I wrote two and a half years ago about that song. Since I still like that post, I thought I’d share it again.


I recently read Anne Lamott’s novel “Crooked Little Heart”, and as I was finishing it I came to the conclusion that all of her writing could be summed up in this way: We are messed up people, living in a messed up world. We screw up all the time, but some of us are able to hide it better than others. And life is still beautiful. We are selfish, caring only about ourselves and our needs. We do whatever it takes to try and make ourselves comfortable, no matter who is hurt by it. We go to great lengths to protect our illusions of perfection. But every once in a while we help a friend, we allow ourselves to be inconvenienced, we put aside our rights. And life is beautiful.

In today’s culture, it is impolite to tell someone if they are doing something wrong. We avoid straight talk at all costs; we even choose our churches by looking for masturbatory teaching. We are afraid to show others who we really are, in part, on the chance that they won’t like us any more or want to be around us. But I think Sara Groves is getting at something in the chorus of her song “Every Minute” when she sings “And at the risk of wearing out my welcome / At the risk of self-discovery / I’ll take every moment / And every minute that you’ll give me.” We are more afraid that we will discover ourselves than we are that others will know who we are. Why else are we afraid of silence? Why else do we surround ourselves with music, T.V., and the radio every minute of the day? If we search our hearts, what will we find?

We need to remember that life is lived in community and growth comes through sharing. In Sara’s song “All Right Here,” she sings “Every heart has so much history / It’s my favorite place to start / Sit down a while and share your narrative with me / I’m not afraid of who you are // I’m all here, and you’re all there / Some of this is unique, and some of it we share / Add it up and start from there / Well, it’s all right here.”

So we have a choice to make. Will we admit that we are not perfect and let others share in this beautiful mess of a life that we live? Will we allow ourselves to love, even though we know it could end in hurt? Or will we pretend that life is perfect, that we have it all together and everything is great, that we need no one else?

Sara Groves ~ Every Minute

I am long on staying
I am slow to leave
Especially when it comes to you my friend
You have taught me to slow down
And to prop up my feet
It’s the fine art of being who I am

And I can’t figure out
Why you want me around
I’m not the smartest person I have ever met
But somehow that doesn’t matter
No it never really mattered to you at all

And at the risk of wearing out my welcome
At the risk of self-discovery
I’ll take every moment
And every minute that you’ll give me

And I can think of time when families all lived together
Four generations in one house
And the table was full of good food
And friends and neighbors
That’s not how we like it now

Cause if you sit at home you’re a loser
Couldn’t you find anything better to do
Well no I couldn’t think of one thing
I would rather waste my time on than sitting here with you

And at the risk of wearing out my welcome
At the risk of self-discovery
I’ll take every moment
And every minute that you’ll give me

And I wish all the people I love the most
Could gather in one place
And know each other and love each other well

And I wish we could all go camping
And lay beneath the stars
And have nothing to do and stories to tell
We’d sit around the campfire
And we’d make each other laugh remembering when
You’re the first one I’m inviting
Always know that you’re my friend

And at the risk of wearing out my welcome
At the risk of self-discovery
I’ll take every moment
And every minute that you’ll give me
Every moment and every minute that you’ll give me

Bono on Easter

The second of Bono’s New York Times op-ed pieces appeared in today’s edition (his first one is here), and this time around, Bono chose to write about Easter.

Then comes the dying and the living that is Easter.

It’s a transcendent moment for me — a rebirth I always seem to need. Never more so than a few years ago, when my father died. I recall the embarrassment and relief of hot tears as I knelt in a chapel in a village in France and repented my prodigal nature — repented for fighting my father for so many years and wasting so many opportunities to know him better. I remember the feeling of “a peace that passes understanding” as a load lifted. Of all the Christian festivals, it is the Easter parade that demands the most faith — pushing you past reverence for creation, through bewilderment at the idea of a virgin birth, and into the far-fetched and far-reaching idea that death is not the end. The cross as crossroads. Whatever your religious or nonreligious views, the chance to begin again is a compelling idea.

The cross as crossroads…the far-fetched and far-reaching idea that death is not the end. Here’s a link to the op-ed.

Imagined Infallibility

After writing the post earlier this week about fundamentalism and intellectual humility, I picked up David Dark’s The Sacredness of Questioning Everything to read another chapter before bed. And, as frequently happens when reading or talking to David, I found a fleshed-out expression of a thought that had been swirling around in my head for a while. This excerpt is under the heading “Imagined Infallibility,” on pages 148-149.

But this call to be merely human – to know that we don’t know much, even as we deeply suspect and fervently believe all kinds of things – isn’t good enough for many of us. I’ll confess that, in my attempts to get taken seriously and feel sufficiently affirmed (I know, it’s a black hole), it very often feels less than satisfying. We’re prone to speak beyond what we know, to overdo it, as if what we have to say and decree is more than interpretation, more than just humans trying to make sense of things. We want to come off as successful and informed. Despite the biblical injunction against oaths and excess verbiage, we lay it on thick. We’re part of the put-on.

We fall into this because the language we know and are immersed in is often the language of the con game. We try to draw people in. We exaggerate. We deny our anxiety, even to ourselves, and we attribute inappropriate weight to the images and stories and ideas we concoct to give sense and meaning to life. We even drag talk of “God’s will” into it. To keep the chaos at bay – a chaos we sense will have its way with us if all we’re doing is interpreting – we develop what Ernst Becker calls “imagined infallibility.” We attribute an absolute infallibility and inerrancy to our interpretations to immunize ourselves against the madness, as a way of vying for immortality and keeping above the fray. Others, we might say, deal in opinions and interpretations, but we have convictions and gut feelings and strong intuitions. We get the job done. We know when we’re right, and we’re right. No doubt. No fear.

But the pretense of certainty comes at a cost. If we think our certainty is what drives success and, in the end, the very (so-called) faith that saves us, our honest confusion will become a source of shame and a sign of weakness. Yet we keep our doubts hidden. This is precisely where the biblical witness urges what I’m tempted to call a mandatory agnosticism. This is where we’re summoned to know that we don’t know. This is where we’re called to confess.

While we’re often rewarded in life for playing at absolute confidence, the pretense and the mind games are corrosive to the possibility of community, friendship, and redeeming love. Imagine letting go of the psychic burden of certainty. Imagine backing down from our imagined infallibility and assuming the mantle of a mere human. Imagine the poetic/prophetic way of relating that would be possible. We might become capable of questioning ourselves out loud. We might let a little air in. In the most life-giving sense, we might get a little religion.

Roger Ebert on God

Film critic Roger Ebert, who updates his journal at the Chicago Sun-Times website quite a bit more than I do my blog, and frequently with lengthy essays, has a new post up about how he believes in God. I can identify with many of the questions Ebert says he has asked, although I, more often than not, have not come to the same conclusion as he has. I do find myself nodding in agreement when I read, “Most of my neighborhood friends were Protestants who were not interested in theories about God, apart from the fact that of course he existed.” I enjoy the Dillard quote he gives when he writes, “I subscribe to Annie Dilliard, who says that in an unfamiliar area, she seeks out the church of the oldest established religion she can find, because it has the most experience in not being struck by lightning.” And I find myself largely in agreement with his statement, “I have no interest in megachurches with jocular millionaire pastors. I think what happens in them is socio-political, not spiritual.”

Here’s a link to the full essay.

Crazy for God, part 4 – Theological Purity

Crazy for God

I started writing a series of posts reviewing Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back a little over a year ago, back when I first read the book, and got sidetracked. Because the book has been on my mind again recently – along with thoughts of why we believe what we believe – I decided to finish the other two or three posts I had begun working on. Here are links to parts one, two, and three.

In Chapter 51, Frank writes about his father’s turn back to the denominational fights that had occupied his attention during the 40’s and 50’s. One casualty of that mindset was Francis’ son-in-law, John Sandri, who had begun giving Bible studies at L’Abri that “some of the more strictly Calvinistic workers,” like Francis’ two other sons-in-law, said bordered on heresy.

John’s “crime” was his interest in how the Bible states things and how you draw meaning from the biblical text. John knew that if you push the so-called Sola Scriptura Calvinist approach and the “inerrancy” ideas to their absurd limit, all real study of the Bible stops. It becomes a magical text. It is no longer open to interpretation. Dogma replaces study, because scholarship can only be meaningful when you are allowed to ask real questions and let the chips fall where they may.

It was decided that John should no longer teach in L’Abri. Dad instigated this anti-John, purity-of-the-visible-church purge. In the case of John – who was by far all of our family’s favorite person and the picture of kindness and Christian love, as well as common sense – the absurdity of trying to demand one-note theological purity became clear…

Dad went so far as to come up with a statement that everyone in L’Abri had to sign if they wanted to remain in the work. It was a McCarthy-type loyalty oath to the “inerrancy of scripture” concept. And of course John, to his credit, didn’t sign. Everyone else, to their discredit, did.

When L’Abri banned John Sandri from teaching, they asked if he would stay on nevertheless and help run the work! … And since John, unlike Dad at that point, didn’t take himself too seriously, he volunteered to help out, rather than let The Work collapse under the weight of an absurd theological fight.

It was a lesson I never forgot. To me, John’s selfless actions came to represent what faith looks like when lived, as opposed to what theological “purity” looks like. And one reason I still bother to struggle to have faith is because of John Sandri’s example. He truly returned good for evil.

As I read this the first time, remembering those in my life whose examples make me “still bother to struggle to have faith,” the lyrics to Andrew Osenga’s High School Band started going through my mind, in particular the third verse which always gives me pause and makes me wonder how I would respond.

// Frank used to pastor the Baptist church / before they tried to run him out. / He said, “Jesus, the righteous one, threw no stones,” / so he wasn’t starting now.//

One of the primary discussions taking place in the church today is on the topic of orthodoxy versus orthpraxy, that is, right doctrine versus right practice. The first thing often mentioned is that it is not a matter of either/or. Correct, in theory. But in practice one side always outweighs the other. Because, growing up, I spent enough time around those who emphasize “correct doctrine” over everything else, those who focus – even too much, perhaps – on how you live, on the practice of faith, is who I want to be around now. That is one reason I like the work of men like Rob Bell, even though I am not in complete theologic agreement with him. It makes me sick now whenever I am around groups that demand one-hundred percent theological agreement (as if there is such a thing) before you can work with, or even be around, them. I hope I’m never again in that kind of small, perverse world.

Fundamentalism and Intellectual Humility

I just published an essay over at the Rabbit Room that I started to write a couple years ago but didn’t finish for some reason. Not long ago, I came across a quote by N.T. Wright that provided a concise summary of the point I wanted to articulate, which prompted the completion of the essay. The title is Intellectual Humility, and in it I am trying to push back against the idea that we alone are possessors of the “correct interpretation” of Scripture, that we are, that I am, the only one reading scripture without preconceptions, the only one who believes the right things about God and the Bible. Rob Bell, in Velvet Elvis, builds one of his arguments around the idea that “God has spoken, and the rest is commentary.” There is no such thing as reading scripture in a vacuum, or “believing just what the Bible says.” We are, all of us, shaped by our environment, by our upbringing, by our culture, etc. As Scot McKnight says in his recent book The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, “Every one of us adopts the Bible and (at the same time) adepts the Bible to our culture. In less appreciated terms, I’ll put it this way: Everyone picks and chooses.”

One book I have that provides a good example of the foundation from which I approached doctrine and certainty growing up is I Am a Fundamentalist, one of the last books written by my great-grandfather, John R. Rice, and published in 1975. In one chapter, he relays a question he received about the doctrine he held about scripture, followed by his reply.

You say, “You confuse a doctrine about the Bible with the Bible itself. You seem to believe that because a man doesn’t believe your theory of inspiration, he doesn’t believe in the Bible at all.”

How wrong you are! In the first place, an honest and friendly approach to the matter would show even a casual observer that I do not pretend to have any theory of my own about the Bible. I accept the Bible itself at face value. The only doctrine I have about the Bible is what the Bible itself teaches about itself.”

So, here is my attempt at pushing back against that kind of approach.

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

Link to part one.

Continuing the thought from yesterday’s post, in his book American Fascists: the Christian Right and the War on America, the ever-provocative Chris Hedges writes about attending a political rally disguised as a Christian crusade, designed to incite the masses to “take back America.” Hedges explores the profoundly anti-Christian sentiments underlying movements such as these, and indeed, of talk radio of every stripe.

A moral obligation, Freud wrote, only increases with our affection for an individual. In this room, the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” is twisted, in ways Freud could understand, to “Love your fellow Christians as yourself.” Loving one’s neighbor presupposes a bond, a shared sense of belonging, but it was a presupposition Freud pointed out was absurd. “If this grandiose commandment had run ‘love thy neighbor as thy neighbor loves thee,’ I should not take exception to it, “he wrote. Loving a stranger, Freud said, was counter to human nature: “If he is a stranger to me…it will be hard for me to love him.” And those outside the Christian community are effectively made strangers. They are no longer worthy of being loved. The distinction creates a world where there are only two types of people. There are godly men and women who advance Christian values, and there are nonbelievers – many of them liberal Christians – who peddle the filth and evil of secular humanism. This dividing line is nothing other than the distinction between human and nonhuman, between the worthy and those unworthy of life, between saved and unsaved, between friend and foe.

In rallies like those in Johnson’s Ohio tour, friends, neighbors, colleagues and family members who do not conform to the ideology are gradually dehumanized. They are tainted with the despised characteristics inherent in the godless. This attack is waged in highly abstract terms, to negate the reality of concrete, specific and unique human characteristics, to deny the possibility of goodness in those who do not conform. Some human beings, the message goes, are no longer human beings. They are types. This new, exclusive community fosters rigidity, conformity and intolerance. In this new binary world segments of the human race are disqualified from moral and ethical consideration. And because fundamentalist followers live in binary universe, they are incapable of seeing others as anything more than inverted reflections of themselves. If they seek to destroy nonbelievers to create a Christian America, then nonbelievers must be seeking to destroy them. This belief system negates the possibility of the ethical life. It fails to grasp that goodness must be sought outside the self and that the best defense against evil is to seek it within. When people come to believe that they are immune from evil, that there is no resemblance between themselves and those they define as the enemy, they will inevitably grow to embody the evil they claim to fight. It is only by grasping our own capacity for evil, our own darkness, that we hold our own capacity for evil at bay. When evil is purely external, then moral purification always entails the eradication of others.

One of my favorite movies of 2008 was Doubt, the big-screen adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s Tony-award winning play, staring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. In the most tragic line in the movie, we hear Streep’s character, Sister Beauvier, coldly say to Father Flynn, played by Hoffman, “I have no sympathy for you. I know you are invulnerable to true regret.” What would happen if we dared to not use that as the starting point from which we look at others, if we decided to make every effort to live peaceably with all men and love our neighbors as ourselves, to see others as made in the image of God? Maybe we would come closer to living as if the Kingdom of God were a present reality, not only a not-yet, but also a now.