Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Lion and the Lamb--Poached and Fried? 

The following is a working draft of an article attempting to express my belief that Christianity has less to do with Jesus being God and more to do with real-world actions that destroy or create Zionic conditions. "Zion" is Restoration-speak for what most Christians call the kingdom of God--that climate of relationships that is hinted at in Isaiah when he writes of the Lion and the Lamb laying down together, with a little child to lead them. How many of our actions are metaphorically and literally putting to death that possibility? I really want to ask:

Can there be Zion if the lamb was last-night’s veal and the lion is extinct?
By [Flannel Christian]
Seattle, WA

Undeniably, the need and fundamental call of the Restoration is to create Zionic conditions right now. If there is any common thread throughout our varied, complex, contradictory and often controversial history, it is the committed understanding that Zion must be built in this world by human hands guided by a faith that calls them to more than this world alone can inspire them to be. Our very use of the word “faith” in a Restoration context is not a thing-to-be-had but more fitting the prophetic tradition of loyalty to a principle. Our guiding principle—the object that has held our communal vision and enduring loyalty—has been articulated in the Book of Mormon and Isaiah scripture describing the changed relations of a Christ-like world: enemies become friends, oppressors and oppressed become equal, poverty and exploitation are extinguished, riches are shared by all, and there is even time to rest and enjoy the bounty that is Life. Whether we call it Joy, Hope, Love or Peace, what we’ve been talking about for the last 170 years is Zion, the kingdom of God, this brave, new world or undiscovered country where somehow the divisions and cruelties that plague us have been overcome.

What has changed through the years is our notion of how Zion will come about. It seemed that our rhetoric has always been at odds with our actions. In the early years in Kirtland, Independence and Nauvoo we spoke of Zion being established by God at some future (though imminent) date, but we worked to transform our lives and world right then to create Zionic conditions immediately. Over time, somehow, we began to speak more of this emboldening need to create (not just foster) Zionic conditions in the real world—both immediate and distant—but our individual and collective actions spoke more to the assumption that the work was really God’s to do, and that ultimately our hopes rested in some miraculous (and effortless?) transformation in the future.

As a community, we stepped back from the pressing questions of our time. Until recently, we haven’t engaged in supporting organized labor, resisting war and militarism, advocating for social services, working to limit (or even abolish) exploitation of people or the environment by the rule of profit, looking as a Community to combat the causes (not just the effects) of homelessness, hunger and poverty, explicitly calling out the un-Christian rhetoric of war-making, state-terrorism and the voracious mechanisms that undergird and are fed by it. Somewhere along the line we lost the impatience at the world failing to transform itself, and the gumption to transform it ourselves.

It seems we built the Temple just in time, and before we really realized what we were doing—answering a Call before we truly understood the scope of what we were dedicating ourselves to. But that’s the way God works—Love traps us into loving before we know everything, commits us to caring before we know how taxing that care and commitment will be. Like baptism or marriage or a new job, we commit ourselves and are called to do far more than we bargained for, and that is the true and lasting test of our faith. To what and how much are we willing to be committed?

It is very easy to sing hymns of peace in peace-time. How much more difficult is it to purposefully sing them when all around us are beating the drums of war? It is easy to stand by the right of people to health care when they’re healthy—but how much more difficult and costly is it to uphold that belief when affordable medicine and care is scarce? It is easy to support the environment in abstract—but how much more difficult when we must recognize our consumption demands are nurturing the destruction of our planet and entire nations with resources necessitated by our habits? It is easy to describe someone as evil—but how much more difficult to see how our own actions have contributed to that evil, and how the responsibility for both that someone and that evil rests in great measure with us? It is easy, in short, to smile and sigh at the vision of the Lion and the Lamb sitting together in the idyllic and far-off future—but how much more difficult is it to see our actions today as preventing or even destroying the possibilities of that vision to be realized? No one—least of all Jesus—said building Zion would be easy or convenient. But it is at the point at which it becomes inconvenient that it is supremely essential.

The Passion of Jesus serves this point excellently. It seems to me that the long, tortuous depiction of the terrible suffering of Jesus at the end of his life signals the depth of his commitment. It is difficult to imagine many ways in which his commitment to Peace and Love, and to ending exploitation, poverty and hunger could get less convenient or more uncomfortable at that point. He was humiliated, imprisoned, beaten, tortured, and painfully executed, and he could have ended it at any moment by simply recanting his words. Jesus could have shrugged and given in to the Empire at any second, and he would have been set free immediately. In fact, he wouldn’t even have had to assert anything at all—he could have gotten off with simply denying the accusations of his enemies. He surely knew what was in store for him if he didn’t! And yet, when the tire hit the road, when given the choice between fudging his commitment to really building the kingdom of God on earth and surviving on the one hand and remaining faithful to his vision of the possibility of people to live without fear or hunger or poverty and dying a cruel, prolonged death on the other hand, he still chose the latter.

How tremendously inspiring is that? The man we lift up above all others chose at the time of greatest peril to keep faith with Love and Peace. How empowered ought we feel as followers in that tradition to resist our own nation’s or culture’s or community’s march to war and vengeance and violence (no matter how dressed up in “patriotism” or “liberation” or “defense” it might be)? We truly should be at the forefront of those organizations working for Peace.

I am reminded of ________ who said you don’t realize your freedom until someone takes it away, and the degree to which to resist is the degree to which you were free. We don’t realize our commitment to Zion until the conditions of our world begin to make that commitment difficult, and the degree to which we resist is the degree to which we were working for Zion in the first place.

Everyday we are presented with opportunities—millions of times, often even without our awareness of it—to either resist or acquiesce to systems of violence and exploitation. That’s how they get us—the choices are so small we don’t think twice about making them, and so responsibility and impact is spread out, diffused, camoflauged. Oftentimes it is a choice of convenience or comfort, or the issue is muddied by self-interest or noble rhetoric. (Should I drive to the grocery store or walk? Buy the more-expensive fair-trade coffee or the discount brand? Should I vote for a tax levy for schools that my kids won’t go to? Should I spend my Saturday on a picket line for workers I don’t know?) But I think, for the most part, if we sounded those choices off the foundation that Jesus laid for us, it seems pretty clear which we ought to choose. That isn’t to say it’s easy—who has extra coffee money or a free Saturday—but that the decision is important.

Everyday we can in a thousand ways both subtle and overt contribute to or work against the creation of Zionic conditions. The choice between Zion and damnation isn’t made once-and-for-all, but every moment in a hundred little choices that act as votes and pavement for one or the other. Whether it be the environment, resources, weapons, militarism, war, wages, working conditions, hunger, homelessness, poverty, wealth, the shows we watch (if we watch TV at all) or the toys we buy our children, the choices we are given are small but essential, and ultimately almost all of them impact whether or not we have any lions or lambs left in the world, let alone little children who can lead them.

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Preaching with Scripture in a Post-Modern World 

The following is an article I wrote partly in response to the material provided in the Elder's Temple School course packet, and partly to articulate to others what I have found helpful in writing and presenting my sermons over the past couple of years. It is presently slated to be printed in the March issue of the Herald.

Revolutions of the Word
Preaching with Scripture in a Post-modern World
By [Flannel Christian]

Somebody, somewhere must have been the first one to come up with the “Golden Rule”: treat others the way you want to be treated. Passé now, hearing it for the very first time it must’ve been shocking. To hear something so unexpected, and at the same time so inspiringly common-sensical, must’ve been a tremendous paradigm-shift, one of those memorable moments when one can actually feel their whole world-view change. Today, we call those “aha moments” or “mountaintop experiences,” but we hardly ever feel them in relationship to our scripture stories anymore.

One thing I think we forget about scripture is that when these now-immortal stories and statements were first made they were fresh, surprising and new, and yet held a common-sense quality that transformed and reoriented their listeners. Over the centuries of re-telling, our scripture stories have too often become old, tired and flat—we all know the lessons we’re supposed to get from a given passage; we know the characters and what they represent; we know practically everything there is to know about the story-line. There’s only so many ways to tell the story of Abraham and Isaac or Lot’s Wife or the Sermon on the Mount; only so many times you can hear it before you stop listening.

The richness and texture of those words and ideas have through the years been flattened out to cliché, shallow Sunday-school morals. This doesn’t make the prophets’ or Jesus’ message any less compelling or difficult to emulate—but it does make it less interesting to listen to, and for a speaker in the 21st century there are few curses worse than inattention.

We live, work, play and preach in a post-modern world, so it might seem natural to garner some lessons from our world and time in order to more dynamically engage it, to speak to it more creatively, to be listened to and have our words bear meaning in the minds, hearts and lives of our congregants. I find a lot to be gained by a closer examination of post-modern philosophy and literary analysis—people who are actively employed in developing new, fruitful and fascinating ways of looking at our history, traditions, politics, sexuality, science and scripture.

Jacques Derrida, a contemporary French thinker, coined the word “deconstruction” to describe his method of literary exegesis. Deconstruction examines a text by first considering the motives underlying the telling of the story, by asking questions such as who stands to gain from the telling of the story this way and are there other ways this story might be told. Then deconstructionists look for evidence of these other perspectives within the text, stories within the story, perspectives and ideas hinted at but never fully revealed, elements that become emphasized by their very lack of emphasis.

We see this sort of sophisticated, nuanced look at things even in the recent political climate—when candidates, journalists and ordinary citizens start considering not just what is said but what isn’t said, what is left out or smoothed over, and asking why that is the case; looking at who stands to gain from a lack of emphasis or from our forgetfulness. What facts or whose stories aren’t being told? Our people understand that what is being said tells us a great deal, but what isn’t explicitly expressed may tell us crucially more. Our world is a post-modern world, we’re getting better at reading “between the lines” (and above and below them) and we can use these tools to turn toward our own traditions and texts as well.

Deconstruction is a process of seeking out these stray threads, untold stories, unconsidered perspectives, implications and underlying assumptions, and teasing them out of the text. Through this we find a multitude of unforeseen elements—entire lives and hopes and dreams that were lost in the traditional reading. And although Derrida certainly believes story-telling is always story-creating, I’d argue that part of deconstruction is the ability to see the lie.

Of course, every story is a lie—it selects and omits, emphasizes certain elements and neglects others, chooses a perspective and assumes to some degree that that single perspective is objective. One distinguishing characteristic of post-modern writing—and we see it in contemporary novels all the time—is the narrator’s knowledge of her own perspective as peculiar, particular. We’re turned off by figures that speak as if their understanding is the truth, and admire the humility of someone willing to admit and even explore the limitations of their own experience and reflection. This is even more the case in devotional settings like worship and intimate conversation.

And, of course, saying that stories are lies is itself a lie, too. Stories and statements often express something very true, which is why we listen to them and how we judge them. What powers are served by believing that any story is a lie? What are the underlying assumptions of such a claim? Post-modernism habitually turns its own lens back on itself and finds the answers no less interesting.

Recognizing scripture as lies about some things in order to express truths about others opens up virtually infinite possibilities for what we can find—and challenges us to retell the story from another perspective, search for another meaning to tease, always aware that the final test is one of truth.

A deconstruction of Biblical stories turns them on their heads, shakes them up, mixes them around, and sees what comes up—waits to see if some new, unexpected and fruitful meaning arises from the ashes.

Abraham and Isaac: An Example

An easy way to start this is to take a Bible passage or story that has seemingly absolutely nothing to do with the topic of a sermon and eliminate the traditional conclusion from consideration. Let’s take the story of Abraham and Isaac: traditionally it’s about faith and obedience, particularly Abraham’s faith in God and willingness to do whatever God wanted him to do despite whatever personal or moral reservations he had. So, if we say the story cannot be anything about how good faith and obedience to God are, what is left? What other feelings or emotions or thoughts rise up out of the story?

If nothing comes to mind, another tack is to—just for fun—take the complete opposite position and see if there isn’t anything in the story that would support it. For example, let’s say that the story of Abraham and Isaac is really about how bad faith and obedience to God are. Abraham very nearly kills his son, after all, and if we believe our God is a loving God, that’s not a very good thing to do. We wouldn’t want any of our parents thinking they had to obey some voice in their head that was telling them to kill us—or you parents among us, if you felt God calling you to “sacrifice” your child, would you? Certainly not! There must be something else going on in the story.

Abraham must have misunderstood, but what? God says “I want you to sacrifice your son to me”—seems pretty clear. All of a sudden we start to feel what Abraham felt—confusion, doubt, searching for meaning. Did he misunderstand? What else could that mean? At the same time, there’s this big need to just obey. When we’re told by powerful figures to do something, even if we doubt that it’s the best thing to do, we’re more apt to do it—we believe with power comes knowledge, with information comes wisdom. So despite all our doubts and misgivings we, too, march Isaac into the desert. We tie him up and raise the blade and then…. Flash to God’s perspective now.

Does God want this to happen? Is God seeing this? What is God thinking?

We know God doesn’t want this to happen—we can feel that. And God obviously shows up at the last minute, so we know God is there at least by then. What is God thinking, though? What are we feeling, in God’s shoes? We’re horrified at what we’re seeing! We don’t understand Abraham—he’s going to kill his son! Is he crazy? So we run into the scene and with God’s hand stay Abraham’s arm—what do we say? “You misunderstood.” We can hardly believe it ourselves.

“But you told me to make Isaac’s life a sacrifice,” pleads Abraham, crying.

God says, “I told you to make his life a sacrifice, not to sacrifice his life!” *click!* God continues: “I wanted you and your son to dedicate your lives to me, do my work, love my people, care for my earth—make your living a sacrifice to me. I never wanted you to sacrifice your son’s life! That’s crazy!”

All of a sudden the traditional reading of Abraham is tossed upside-down. What was valuable in the old story is scorned in the new. The old story lifted up obedience; the new lifts up love as the highest value. Instead of a fickle, violent God, we are offered a loving God whose message was misinterpreted as a call to arms. In the instant that it takes to discover a new meaning for an old story, an entire worldview has changed. What’s more, you have a clincher for that sermon. This time people are going to listen.

When Bible stories were first told, they were this engaging, this frightening, this surprising, this transformative. They weren’t meant just to guide people, but to change them, to keep them thinking for days afterward about the story and their own journey through it.

For all the criticism that our contemporary culture receives (much of it deserved) with attention spans shortening and critical thought only palatable when packaged as entertainment, I think these qualities of life in the post-modern world can prove to be our allies, instead of our enemies, in scriptural preaching. We need to be woken up, have our cages rattled, have our hearts and minds opened to new meanings, our eyes opened to new places where the Holy resides.

If we can breathe new life into our tired old stories, we may do more than capture the attention of our congregants. We may discover a new world.

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