Monthly Archives: November 2012

Top ten things every Christian should be thankful for

10.  The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  This means that in the U.S., Christians are allowed to worship Jesus Christ, go to church whenever they feel like it, and publish little blogs like this one without any interference – or encouragement – from the government. 

9.  The fact the First Amendment to the United State Constitution also preserves the rights of non-Christians and that many Christians do, in fact, value this.

8.  A two-thousand year history of countless individuals wrestling with the outrageous claims of our faith.  Now, from where I’m sitting, some of them got some things very, very, VERY wrong; for example, the notion of predestination first put forth (to my knowledge) by the father of the Protestant Reformation…Saint Augustine.  But for every point made about our faith over the centuries, there are countless counterpoints and it behooves us to consider the many well-considered alternative views written by people of profound faith and exceptional intelligence.

7.  Theology.  There’s nothing quite like it in any other religion, although Judaism scholars have been dabbling in the enterprise since WWII.  Incarnation, atonement, resurrection, and that pesky Trinity are so unbelievable, and yet so compelling, Christians had to invent a whole liberal arts discipline just to talk about it. 

6.  Three very different Christian traditions:  Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism.  Truly, a little something for everyone.

5.  At least four different Biblical canons:  66 books in the Protestant Bible; 79 books in the Orthodox Bible[i]; 80 books in the Slavonic Bible; and 73 books in the Catholic Bible.[ii] 

4.  Non-Christian people of faith.  These folks have so much to teach Christians.  From Buddhist friends, I’ve learned how to pray without doing all the talking.  From Mormon[iii] friends, I’ve learned the importance of congregational members doing the business of church.  From Wiccan and pagan friends, I’ve learned the significance of sacred space.  From Muslim friends, I’ve been reminded of the value of intimate engagement with sacred text.  From Jewish friends, I’ve be reminded of the value of academic engagement with sacred text.  None of this detracts from my Christian faith one measly iota; on the contrary, I am a better Christian for the fresh perspectives and spiritual gifts that people of other faiths have shared with me.

3.  Agnostics and atheists.  Any person of faith who has no agnostic and atheist friends is in peril of taking his or her religion too seriously, and people who do that are a threat to society and the world.  Maybe even the universe.  Agnostics and atheists routinely raise questions about religion that I believe people of faith are morally bound to ask themselves, but rarely, if ever, do.

2.  Abraham Lincoln.  He freed the slaves, preserved the Union, and set the precedent for Thanksgiving as a national holiday, rather than a day celebrated primarily in the northern states. 

In a Presidential Proclamation on October 3, 1863, Lincoln stated: “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

And the number one thing every Christian should be thankful for:

1.  At least 26 shopping days left until Christmas.  God help us every one.

[i] I’m counting 4 Maccabees as a book, even though my Harper-Collins Study Bible lists it as an appendix.

[ii] Non-Protestant Bibles also contain supplemental material in the books of Esther and Daniel.

[iii] Okay, okay, so Mormons are Christians, but like Anglicans and Lutherans, they don’t fit neatly into any of the other categories.  Because they don’t follow the Pope, Calvin, or Wesley, I’m just not sure what to do with them.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2012


Confusing the facts

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.   – II Timothy 4:2-4

“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that.  All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.  It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.  There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old.  I believe that it was created in six days as we know them.  That’s what the Bible says.”  – Georgia U. S. Representative Paul Broun, October 2012

Christians have been confounded by facts ever since David Hume invented empiricism.

One of the most bizarrely interesting things that evangelicals and atheists appear to share is the notion that Biblical stories must be proven in order to validate the Christian religion.   Many Christian literalists bandy about facts (and, just as frequently as evinced by the good Congressman’s opinion above, comments that sound vaguely fact-like) to prove the Bible “right,” while some earnest areligious use facts to prove the Bible “wrong,”  and in so doing, both sides miss the boat in some important respects.

First, the Bible is the last thing anyone should use as a yardstick to measure the Christian faith.[i]  Almost all Christians in this country own it.  Most have never read it.  Many have never cracked it open at all.  Those who have opened it generally only know the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, and some of the stories kids learn in Sunday school.  Some of these stories, like Noah’s Ark and the conquest of Jericho, cast God’s character in a morally ambiguous light, which, to the casual passerby, doesn’t exactly reflect well on the rest of us.   Non-Christians – please cut us some slack.  Christians – please tread lightly.

Second, I would argue that fact-finding in the name of faith renders faith unnecessary.  I’m not entirely certain where that leaves a book like the Bible if the point is to “prove” it correct per certain Enlightment-era approved empirical arguments.  The Bible is a work of faith intended to be read in faith by people of Abrahamic faiths.  It’s not a science textbook, which does not mean we do not live in a universe that operates according to certain scientific principles which I strongly suspect God knows about.  This is the creation we’ve been given to occupy.  When we hold up scientific facts as some sort of demonic temptation designed to distract us from our relationship with the God who created the heavens, the earth, and the physics that keep both in their places, we’ve entered a fantasy land that God has never meant for us to inhabit.

Third, excessive emphasis on “Biblical authority” allows us ignore the fact that we’ve done a lot to compromise the kingdom of heaven on Earth.  Focusing on fact-finding means we don’t have to wrestle with all those ambiguous mysteries, questions, and doubts that arise when we try to hold competing images of an all-powerful, all-loving God and ourselves as sanctified beings up against a profoundly screwed up world that God and Jesus Christ both commanded us to care for.  Jesus commanded us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the sick and imprisoned.  He didn’t insinuate one damn thing about whether or not the earth was created in six 24-hour days, probably because time tends to draw out for the poor and sick he expects us to look after.

It’s not about the Bible being right, wrong, or factual.  It’s about the lives we live being true and good.  We have on good authority how to do this.  Per Moses:

So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you?  Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments[ii] of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.  – Deuteronomy 10:12-13

 And per Jesus Christ:

‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’  He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”  – Matthew 22:36-39

If our sacred text aren’t helping us live life as God intended – in service to God and to each other – no amount of fact-finding is going to redeem anything.

Several years ago, I realized that I could not take the incarnation of God in Jesus seriously if I tried to understand it rationally.  That discovery seemed like heresy to me at the time.  As a college-educated Christian of at least average intelligence, I believed it was my God-given responsibility to approach the throne of heaven with all the rational faculties with which I’d been gifted.   But I eventually realized that we are creatures of body, emotion, and spirit, as well as intellect.  Trying to apprehend the complexity and mystery of the divine with only one faculty is like trying to eat a steak with one tooth.   You can give it a try, certainly, but ultimately, you’ll probably give up and just move on to jello.

If life is like a box of chocolates, faith is not unlike your Grandma's jello salad...just eat it and get over yourself already.

If life is like a box of chocolates, faith is not unlike your Grandma’s jello salad…just eat it and get over yourself already.

Ultimately, whatever is “true” about God is true regardless of what any of us believe.  There are moments when the presence of the divine overwhelms every rational thought and doubt and I know without equivocation that Jesus Christ is God.  In those moments, what possible difference could rational understanding of the world – e.g. embryology, evolution, the Big Bang theory – make?

The rest of the time, the best I can manage is faith.

[i] I am the religious equivalent of what rabid aficionados of politics refer to as a “wonk.”  I’ve read the Bible through cover-to-cover six times in four different English translations. Since starting seminary, it amazes, and frankly, rather horrifies me to learn how few liberal Protestants – including those studying for the ministry – bother with the Bible.  Okay, okay, so Genesis is full of kinky sex and the wrath of God, Exodus raises the wrath of God to heights worthy of acclaimed movie director Cecile B. Demille, and then you have a couple hundred pages of levitical law to slog through before the account of the Israelite invasion of Canaan and subjugation of the indigenous people.  But then you get to the book of Ruth and that’s really a very sweet story.  Unless you exegete it from a liberation or feminist perspective…

[ii] These would be the Ten Commandments, which have an awful lot to do with being nice to other people.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2012

Crisis of confidence

Good day, good and faithful readers… those three dozen or so of you who stuck around like the handful of Israelites who didn’t go off fawning over the golden calf when Moses evaporated into the mists of Sinai for forty days and forty nights.  Those happy few among the nation of Israel got to watch Moses lose his mind and lob the Ten Commandments into the air and grind up the golden calf, sprinkle it in a big old barrel of water, and make the other Israelites drink it.[1]

Alas, Marian’s no Moses, and I have not spent the last (ahem) eight weeks receiving anything even remotely approaching the Ten Commandments from God’s own index finger.  What I have been doing is engaging in serious seminary education.  I mean, just last week I helped judge the annual Halloween costume contest at school.  First prize went to an Anglican bedecked in black spandex, clerical collar and cape, calling herself Super Priest, which isn’t entirely fair, because everybody knows that Anglicans have more style sense than all other Protestants combined.[2]  And the week before that, I had to self-evaluate my first-ever video-recorded sermon, which was the single most mortifying experience of my entire life.[3]  The only way I could make myself watch it a second time was by dubbing my inexplicable and elaborate hand gestures as follows:  Rock Tumbler, Crazy Mudra, Assault-Proof Bra, and Huge Tracts of Land.[4] (Use your imagination.)

Things weren’t much better this week.  Determined not to make the same demented hand gestures I did two weeks ago, I clung to the pulpit for dear life…and wound up flapping my elbows like a chicken desperate for lift-off.

It has been a two month long voyage of discovery, my friends, during which I’ve experienced a significant crisis of confidence.

Because the more I learn – about theology, Biblical history, pastoral care, and the intrusion of the subconscious on the sympathetic nervous system – the less qualified I feel to weigh in on matters of any import, let alone the matter of rescuing Christianity from banality, militancy, damnation doctrines, irrelevance, and just plain bad manners.

I recently brought this conundrum up with a friend, who gently and sagely said, “Moses was a f**k up, too.  So was Aaron.  And so was David.  Let’s see.  So were Jacob, Samson, Peter, and Paul.  Shall I go on?”

“HEY!  Did you just call me a f**k up?”

Her point was that God never has any prime material to work with.  If God is the potter and we are the clay, we’re not that awesome gooey clay that you get to launch off a wheel going 600 RPM through the nearest window.  We’re also not that bitchin’ cool polymer clay that comes in thousands of colors.  We’re certainly not the ultimate in clay craft – precious metal clay, which looks like gold and cooks up nice just like a Toll House cookie.

We’re not even Play Dough.  Because at least Play Dough is tasty.  (Not as tasty as a Toll House cookie, though.)  No, we’re that gritty poor man’s salt clay[5] that they make you use in Sunday school class.  My mother still owns a crappy clay star that I made when I was five, painted cobalt blue and liberally sprinkled with glitter.  She hangs it on her Christmas tree every year.  Why, I ask, why?

Same reason God molds us, second-rate medium that we are.  It’s got something to do with love.

And love, I continue to learn, is as frequently inelegant as it is enthusiastic.

So, here’s my goal.  Get back to writing one blog per week…well, let’s say 2-3 per month.  And to not be scared of speaking my mind, voicing my truth, and flapping my elbows.  Thank you, constant readers, for your loyalty.  I look forward to writing to you again SOON!

[1] I think this is the best demonstration of pure pique anywhere in the Bible. 

[2] Anglicans don’t consider themselves Protestants, so if my Super Priest friend is reading this…the devil made me say it.

[3] Seriously.  It trumps the day I tried to pick up a guy in a bar and my gum popped out of my mouth and landed right between us.  I don’t know what ultimately doomed the relationship – the gum popping out and landing on the bar or me picking it up and popping it back in my mouth.  (It seemed like bad manners to just leave it there.)

[4] I’m thinking of trotting the video out at my next dinner party and using it as a drinking game.  “Huge Tracts of Land…bottoms up, everyone!”

[5] As a public service to my remaining readers, here’s the recipe for salt clay:

  • 1 c salt
  • 1 c flour
  • Water (enough to make the clay workable – if you can’t figure out what constitutes “workable” clay, perhaps you should consider a different medium)

WARNING!  Do not fashion a golden calf out of this clay!  It will look like total crap.  For crafting idols, I advise using precious metal clay or the lost wax technique.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2012

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