Sunday, February 27, 2011

Preserving Words

If you are not familiar with how fundamentalism grew in America, or even if you are, or if you know of a young person who has not lived through the history, an excellent overview is included in “God Laughs and Plays” by David James Duncan. The chapter is titled “What Fundamentalists Need for Their Salvation” in 7 parts. I’ll quote extensively from the part 7. He starts that final section with,

“There is one precious Earth, and she is finite.”

He goes on to discuss wounds that have been put on that Earth; wounds that are visible and those that are given by words. He lists some of the words that have been abused; “soul”, “sacrifice”, “salvation”, “grace”, and notes that many people have sidestepped the damage by rejecting the terminology. He suggests the harm that has been done to words is undone “when we work to reopen each word’s true history, nuance and depth. Holy words need stewardship as surely as do gardens, orchards, or ecosystems.”

David James Duncan is well read, and has written two bestselling novels, “The River Why” and “The Brothers K”. So when he says,

“If Americans of European descent are to understand and honor the legacy of Celtic, European, Middle Eastern, and other Christian traditions and pass our literature, music, art, monasticism, and mysticism on intact, the right-wing hijacking of Christianity must be defined as the reductionist rip-off that it is. To allow televangelists or pulpit neocons to claim exclusive ownership of Jesus is to hand that incomparable lover of enemies, prostitutes, foreigners, children, and fishermen over to those who evince no such love.”

I think it is worthy of consideration. David James Duncan writes beautiful prose about rivers and fly-fishing that honor the Earth. Rather than honor it, some claim that its end is near, and many ignore the danger. The claims of right-wing fundamentalism are based on a few Bible verses, and selectively ignore most others. But if we don’t know what those words are we hand the hen house over to the weasels. So, David James Duncan believes that contemporary fundamentalists need artists, agnostics, organic gardeners, gay restaurateurs, pagan preachers, heartbroken Muslims and peace marchers. Without them, much of Christian culture will be consigned to perdition and will take much of our literature and culture along with it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Rethinking The Fall

I heard a great interview with John Shelby Spong recently and it got me thinking.

John Shelby Spong is a former Bishop, raised in a fundamentalist Southern United States community. When confronted with an associate in the church who was homosexual he had to resolve how this respected member of his church could hold such a view. He contacted psychologists and studied the issue and determined he had been wrong about it. He has since written many books, explaining to lay people how the Bible was written, what the contradictions and inconsistencies are and how seminary schools have been teaching them for decades. He believes it is necessary to bring these things to light to save the church that he still admires. Through it all, he has never abandoned his love for Jesus Christ.

To reconcile these seemingly inconsistent beliefs he has had to reinterpret many of the basic stories in the Bible. In a recent interview, as part of a series of interviews under the banner of “Evolutionary Christianity”, he had some interesting comments on the creation story. I find this one of the most strange and allegorical stories, and as it is a basis for many others, merits a lot of attention.

If you haven’t read your Bible lately, a quick review; God creates everything, it is all good, a paradise. He creates man in his image, then woman out of the man. Even in paradise, there are rules and the big one is thou shalt not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Long story short, they do. God kicks them out of the garden and punishes them with things that we know as part of life, like tilling the land and having babies. This is sometimes called “The Fall” and is where the idea of “Original Sin” comes from.

To help his understanding of this, John Shelby Spong studied life. He took trips to the Galapagos and other destinations. He discovered the common thread that all life is geared around survival. Nothing too surprising there. As humans, we are separated from plants and most animals by our self consciousness of our desire to survive. In fact, we can get quite self-centered about it. Many people would give their own life for the life of their children or their mate and some do that for their country. But even those acts are abstractions of the survival instinct. When it comes to making sacrifices for complete strangers, our empathy drops off quickly. Some feelings of shame may accompany that, but the drive to survive is much stronger.

Jack Spong sees a parallel with these feelings and the story that some people very long ago were trying to tell. We don’t know just where that story came from or how much it was changed before it got to the King James Bible. We know that they couldn’t have understood synaptic brain activity or the history of stars and planets. They thought that burning a goat and sending those ashes into the sky was a way to communicate with the heavens. And who am I to say that it is not?

But that is not the question that I think will help move us into a world where there are no weapons targeting my country, mass destruction or otherwise. The question is no longer how can we be rescued from our sinful nature. The question is how do we live with these selfish instincts and grow into people that are civil and caring for each other? How do we care about our next door neighbor and the person 3,000 miles away who grew the lettuce we eat in January. How do we get past letting the survival instinct dominate our lives?

One place to look is retelling our creation story with the new knowledge we have of where we came from and what is up there past the planets. Spong has a wonderful sense of this. He thinks of those first humans at the dawn of consciousness and imagines that they must have had a deep sense of separation. With that understanding he sees why every religion he has studied has a doctrine of atonement. We want to be back in tune with the flow of time and nature and do things that will bring us into harmony with all of it, so we can survive without having to harm others.

At least I hope that’s what we want.

Discussion about the interview and many more links and references.

Audio of the interview, you may need to register.