Lenten Reflections: Week 5

This week I read the book of Ruth. It’s a short book–only four chapters.  By publication time I may read something else, and if that happens then I’ll probably have other things to discuss here, but in the mean time I can say a few things about what I read and move on to another topic that has been on my mind a little bit.

First, Ruth.  This book provides a short account of how a foreign woman became integrated into the genealogy of King David.  Ruth was a Moabite, and she married one of the sons of Naomi and her husband (all the men do have names, but they die at the start of the story and they’re not really that important other than for establishing the Ruth feels a familial bond with Naomi despite being an in-law; it’s sort of like the starting scenario on Bunheads but without the dancing and terrible pacing).  Naomi is an Israelite, and when her sons and husband die, she decides to move back home instead of living as an alien widow in another country.  She releases her daughters-in-law from their obligation to her, and one of them chooses to go back to her own family; Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi, putting herself in the position of the alien widow living in another country.  When they return to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown, Naomi instructs Ruth to glean wheat behind the workers of her relative Boaz, presumably because he’s kin and she knows that he won’t have his workers chase Ruth away or beat her for taking part of their harvest.  One thing leads to another, Ruth has a sexual encounter with Boaz, and Boaz goes before the elders of the town to get another cousin of Naomi’s to give up his right to marry Ruth and carry on her first husband’s line.  Ruth marries Boaz, and everyone lives happily ever after.

This is a simple, straightforward story that provides a glimpse of compassion carried out in a social system that could be less than compassionate.  Even before Boaz decides to pursue marrying Ruth he’s depicted as a kind person who gives her and Naomi grain to make bread for themselves rather than letting them glean.  He recognizes that there is an order to things, and someone who’s more closely related to Naomi has right of first refusal to take Ruth as a wife, so he acts in the socially preferred way all the while clearly having a desire to marry Ruth himself, presumably because he has fallen in love with her.  Still, if you subtract the element of romantic love, what we see from Boaz is someone who recognizes when people whom he has limited obligation to are in need and goes beyond what would be mandated to do what is right.  That’s admirable stuff, especially when you remember the context is that Naomi is a widow who has been away from home for a couple decades at least, and Ruth is a foreign woman with no prospects at all.  Boaz gets nothing out of his generosity here (I mean, besides the fact that he clearly finds Ruth attractive), but he understands the right thing to do and does it.

So I like the book of Ruth; it’s short, simple, and straightforward in its message.

The other thing that I’ve been thinking about in the last few days is on the personal nature of God.  In expressing my frustration with the practice of reading the Bible daily last week, someone reached out to me to offer their thoughts on the whole quiet time concept.  One thing they pointed out was that they felt like it was meant to be part of an ongoing conversation between a person and God.  Many of the texts of the Bible purport to reveal the character of God, which is a perfectly valid purpose for any religious text.  What the comment got me thinking about though was about the whole aspect of evangelical Christianity that emphasizes the idea of the “personal relationship” with God and Jesus.  I don’t know if this is a phenomenon that’s peculiar to white evangelicalism.  I can see where it comes from; if you assume that the Bible is divinely inspired, and your definition of divine inspiration is built on the idea that God dictated each word and phrase to the authors of all the Bible’s texts, then it is reasonable to suggest that the Bible acts as a conduit for direct conversation with God.

I totally get that.

The problem is this: what if you don’t understand inspiration in that way?  God is very much a subject of the texts of the Bible, and I think it’s a collection of writing that’s valuable for understanding the traditions that gave rise to early Christianity.  In the sense that the Bible is about God, I think it’s divinely inspired.  You have generations of writers presenting ever refining iterations on what they believe the character of God must be.  I’m just not the kind of Christian who believes that the Bible is a book from God anymore.  The fact that I prefer to describe it as a set of texts rather than as a unified document with a unified, divine author is testament to that.

So with this shift in hermeneutic, I find myself trying to figure out what my new angle is supposed to be.  The model that I’ve actually been drawn back to repeatedly is the one presented in Judaism.  In addition to the Torah, which is treated as scripture, the Jewish tradition also has the Talmud, which is the collected commentary from rabbis about the Torah.  Part of religious engagement in Judaism requires reading Talmud, which (at the risk of probably being overly reductive) is a formalized method of grappling with the theological perspectives of others and learning to position yourself within that ongoing conversation.  Rachael pointed out to me recently that one of the major advantages of this model is that it trains adherents to become comfortable with existing within a tradition with lots of disagreement among fellow practitioners.  The ahistorical, God-wrote-every-book-themselves approach to reading the Bible pushes Christians towards a more isolationist attitude, I think (this is a pitfall of the non-magisterial approach of Protestantism in general).

So when I recalibrate my understanding of what I’m doing when I read the Bible, I think that I need to take into account the reality of conversation within my faith tradition.  If I’m going to continue with quiet times, I think the next logical step for me may be looking for texts outside the Bible to meditate on different aspects of God.  Being reminded that the faith is a communal project that’s been in progress for millennia is a really comforting idea, and one I’d like to pursue more.

Lenten Reflections: Week 4

I have to be honest: I started reading Revelation a week ago, and it has just not been able to hold my attention.  The stuff at the beginning where John offers advice and encouragement to the various churches in the form of words from Christ are kind of nifty, but from there he gets into all of the apocalyptic stuff, and most of it honestly just feels nonsensical.  All the visions and descriptions run together in a mishmash that leaves my head spinning for the most part.

The result of my lack of interest is that my Lent observation has grown relatively slack.  I think I’ve missed a couple days of reading, and the fact that I don’t know for sure underlines the problem that I’m having: so much of this millennia-old writing is just too alien to easily grasp as a layperson.  The common evangelical assertion that reading the Bible as daily practice is useful because it offers practical applications to our daily lives just rings false at this point.  There are some examples of moral behavior that can help inform our decision making, but even those require careful examination and interrogation to try to parse the culturally inflected values that don’t translate to modern society from the universal principles that can serve as a moral foundation.  What’s ironic is that even as I type this and recognize the fallacy of insisting on the Bible’s continued practical relevance, I feel a pang of guilt that comes from naysaying it.  Evangelicalism is so thoroughly built around the need to integrate the Bible with a believer’s day-to-day life that even as someone who only adopted that framework as a young adult before growing into a more mature form of Christianity I still have difficulty acknowledging the worldview’s limitations.  This kind of stuff must be maddening for people who were raised in evangelicalism before getting out, particularly if they retained some form of faith in the process of extricating themselves.

So I’m left with a conundrum of sorts.  The purpose of my Lent project was to return to a spiritual practice that I’ve largely abandoned over the past few years, but nearly two thirds of the way through it, I’m finding that the purpose of the practice is largely missing.  I’m not sure how to proceed; I expected that there would be periods in my reading where I’d likely have no particularly deep thoughts about anything; to expect some profound revelation every time you crack open a text strikes me as more than a little bit unrealistic, and it makes me wonder if that expectation goes back again to the evangelical veneration of the Bible and the belief that if you don’t get something meaningful from each encounter with Scripture then you’re probably the one doing something wrong.  It’s a difficult dissonance to resolve, and in the meantime I’m wondering about the purpose of continuing forward with the project.  Do I keep going because I made a commitment and I want to finish, even though I’m growing more and more frustrated with lack of fruitful reflection, or do I acknowledge that the period in my life where I needed to make this sort of effort at performative spirituality is past and let the project go?  Neither choice is particularly satisfactory, and they each carry with them some sort of frustration to manage.

I suppose I’ll have a better answer to these questions by the time I check in again next week.

Lenten Reflections: Week 3

The thing about doing something for Lent is that you commit to it and the first couple weeks are relatively easy, then you hit that midpoint at the end of week three, and you’re really feeling over it.  Of course, it is a practice that’s built on developing spiritual discipline, so we’ll just keep on keepin’ on until Easter.

I spent most of the last week continuing to read in Jeremiah, but what I found as I got deeper and deeper into it was that I was having a hard time staying invested in the narrative of the exile.  Jeremiah gets heavy into theodicy about the Babylonians conquering Israel and Judah, and it honestly gets kind of repetitive after a certain point.  People were too busy worshiping other gods, God is angry to be ignored, everything that happened to the Israelites is deserved, etc.  There’s hammering a point home, and there’s beating a dead horse, and then there’s the book of Jeremiah.

Fortunately, I’m not bound by any constraints that say I have to stick with Jeremiah during Lent; I just picked it to get a flavor of the prophetic literature from the Old Testament, but at the rate I’m going of reading a few chapters a day, I would have spent several weeks just reading this one text.  So after I got about halfway, I decided to leave Jeremiah behind and look at something else.  I settled on reading John of Patmos’s book of Revelation.

Revelation is a weird coda in the New Testament; much of it is clearly meant to be symbolic, but the significance of the symbolism is largely obscured by time and distance.  I don’t know why there are so many different sets of angels or what’s important about the locusts that have human faces and breastplates like iron breastplates (okay, actually I have some idea of what the deal with the locusts is, but you get my point).  Revelation is dense, and it is opaque.

At this point I’m not terribly certain what I’m hoping to get out of reading this particular text.  I don’t put any stock in Rapture-tinged theology, and I know that I simply don’t have the contextual knowledge necessary to make out a whole lot of the meaning of John’s book.  I think mostly Revelation is on my mind because I know it’s a relatively sharp departure from Jeremiah, even as I recognize that much of it is also intended to be a coded polemic against the injustices perpetrated by the Romans against early Christians.  Maybe it comes down to the fact that our current times feel slightly apocalyptic, and I want to compare that feeling with what’s contained in an actual apocalypse.

Lenten Reflections: Week 2

For my second week of Lent, I decided to throw myself into one of the books of the prophets.  When I look back on my journey from white evangelicalism into more progressive Christianity, aside from the influence of various contemporary people I’ve read, one of the biggest factors was the year I did some more in-depth reading of the books of the minor prophets (they’re only called the “minor” prophets because the texts that are named after them are significantly shorter than the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; the nickname isn’t meant to imply that their messages are of lesser significance).  Rachael and I spent the fall of 2012 hosting a weekly Bible study on the prophets for a group of UGA students who were involved with the campus ministry that we had gone through when we were undergraduates.  That study was a fun experience, but I remember really stressing over how to present ideas that deviated from evangelical orthodoxy; I think 2012 was the year I abandoned inerrancy, and that was a challenging thing to introduce to a bunch of undergrads who had been spiritually raised on it.

My major recollections of the minor prophet study (we called it “Minor League” because puns are the best) mostly revolve around lots of discussion about how the prophets were all upset with people because they weren’t properly worshiping God; it’s kind of a funny thing to remember in hindsight, because there’s so much in the prophets that is more about how frustrated they are with outward shows of piety that overshadow societal problems about which God is more angry.  It’s a messy recollection, and I think that I’d like to revisit the minor prophets soon, assuming I continue my Bible reading after Lent’s concluded.

For the time being, I’m contenting myself with a relatively brisk read-through of the book of Jeremiah.  I’m pretty confident that I’ve read through the entirety of the Bible at least once in the last ten years, but things do get fuzzy after a while.  I picked Jeremiah mostly on a whim; the idea that sticks out most about this book is that Jeremiah engages in a particularly melancholy reflection on the waywardness of Judah.  What I’ve seen in the first quarter of the book reflects that in part, but there are also some things that didn’t really stand out to me in the past.  The first metaphor that Jeremiah explores to describe Judah and Israel’s relationship with God is of a bride who has forsaken her husband; this isn’t an unusual metaphor in the Bible (the book of Hosea is especially famous for using this extended conceit), but it’s a hard one for me to latch on to.  There’s too much of the sense that the relationship is intended to be one between an owner and property, and that description just rubs the wrong way.

Other things that are notable and generally positive include the sections where Jeremiah rips into Judah for not doing enough to care for the marginalized while hiding behind signifiers of extreme piety:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.

“‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury,[a] burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.

Jeremiah 7:3-11

That’s some really good stuff.

Of course, the flip side of this is that you have to think about all the seriously negative talk about other religions that’s going on here.  Jeremiah’s primarily a lament and theodicy of the Babylonian Exile, and the major narrative that all the writers in the Bible who were grappling with that national trauma pushed was that Israel and Judah got too cozy with non-Jewish religions.  This context must be remembered when you come across bits like this: “They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal–something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind” (Jer. 19:5).  We don’t actually have any evidence that most of the other religious groups from the time period were engaging in child sacrifice, so things like this accusation are very likely just part of the propaganda.  This is a hard thing to remember; my evangelical instincts are still primed to assume that there was something wrong with the other non-Jewish religions that Jeremiah complains about.  As I’ve been reading through, I had a thought that the constant refrain of Judah’s unfaithfulness might be somehow tied back to the commandments laid down in the Torah following the Exodus.  The Hebrews established a code of faith that had as a significant part of its structure rules for taking care of people in need, and I was thinking that this communal failure was the infidelity that Jeremiah rails against.  I think that might still be a possibility, but you can’t ignore the historical context of why this and other books of the prophets were written, and I realized recently that I had done just that in my reflections.

Lenten Reflections: Week 1

As I previously mentioned, I’m observing Lent this year by setting aside some time every day to read and reflect on the Bible.  This is a practice that I haven’t done in a couple years, and I’m hoping to rediscover some of the substance of my faith in the process.

To begin my project, I figured I would read through one of the gospels, and since in the past I’ve showed a particular favoritism towards Matthew, I would change it up and spend some time reading the Gospel of John.  I’m about halfway through the book at this point, and the effect it’s having is a really strange one.  My reading this time is done with the understanding that the author of John most likely wrote the account with the intent of emphasizing certain aspects of early Christian practices peculiar to whichever church the author was affiliated with.  Because of that, there are multiple passages where the author of John makes a point of explaining to the reader how things that Jesus is portrayed doing reflect passages from earlier scripture which can be retrofitted to be explicitly about the Messiah.  It’s kind of weird realizing that now when just a few years ago I took a much more face value view of the Bible’s textual origins.  The impact I feel most strongly right now is how much I had been taught to rely on inerrancy as a foundational aspect of my faith; so much of evangelicalism is predicated on a supernaturally inflected view of the world that it really does feel like a house of cards collapsing when you pull the base away.  All that’s left is a skeleton of moral imperatives that you suddenly realize were supposed to be the foundation all along.

These specific observations aren’t really anything new (at least in my mind), but I think this is the first time I’ve confronted how recognizing that paradigm shift changes my interaction with the Bible.

One way where this shift becomes really stark is in how I look at the portrayal of the Jews in John’s gospel.  Christians seem to be in the habit of treating the Pharisees and the Saducees who antagonize Jesus in all the gospel accounts as these cartoonish villains, but they ignore the underlying reality that these groups were also major parts of the Jewish religious order of the day; treating them like villains implicitly paints Jews in a negative light (I recognize that there are a lot of complex factors that play into the perpetration of antisemitism in Western culture, but the part that early Christianity’s sharp rejection of its Jewish roots plays shouldn’t be underestimated).  I’m left wondering how much of the portrait of the Pharisees is manufactured by the gospel authors to establish a distance between Christ’s disciples and their religious contemporaries.  The figure of the hypocritical Pharisee is useful for illustrating the type that we see so commonly these days in conservative Christians (you know, the folks who want to impose their personal, byzantine moral code on others for the sake of establishing “moral purity”), but I can’t help wondering precisely how accurate that depiction is.  I don’t doubt that Jesus was arrested and executed because his teachings were taken as heretical to established Judaism, but I wonder how much of it was a political conflict rather than pure cravenness on the part of the Pharisees.

Observing Lent

On Tuesday I had a conversation with a coworker about what she was going to do for Lent this year.  Lent’s a season of the liturgical calendar leading up to Easter that’s typically observed by Catholics by way of different forms of fasting, most commonly through temporary dietary restrictions.  In recent decades the practice has spilled over into Protestant observance with the twist that participants in Lent fast in a variety of ways that may or may not have to do with diet.  The purpose, broadly speaking, is to go through a season of privation as a means of enhancing one’s spiritual practice.

Anyway, my coworker was discussing what she should “give up” for Lent; it was the end of the day and we were all just decompressing from being with students, so we were being a little silly.  My coworker suggested giving up things like not cursing in front of students or eating Mexican food (she was not excited by the prospect of having Mexican for dinner).  I told her that’s not how Lent works to which she laughed and said that she was glad I was acting as her conscience.

We didn’t really settle the question of what she should give up for Lent before we left work (when it’s time to go, we go), but the conversation got me thinking about my own relationship with Lent.

I’ve observed Lent a handful of times in my life with varying levels of difficulty.  The first time, before I even converted to Christianity, I gave up watching anime.  This was when I was in college and I was really interested in anime; it ended up not being terribly difficult because my interest in the medium had been waning anyway (it’s easy to give up a thing you don’t prioritize in your life already).  The second time was after I converted; I gave up playing video games that time, and I found it to be really difficult.  I was still really immature at that point, and I don’t know that I got much out of the practice beyond being able to say that I had done it.

A few years later, when I was doing my student teaching, I did Lent again, but I put a different spin on it.  I’m one of those people who apparently has a young looking face; I get mistaken for a teenager with some frequency, especially since I work in a high school environment.  One of the ways I manage this problem is that I maintain a perpetual stubble; lots of teenage boys can grow decent facial hair, but not as many as who can’t.  My student teaching year I was really sensitive about being mistaken for a high schooler, and at the time I viewed this sensitivity as a sort of pride that I had to overcome.  So for that year of Lent, I decided to shave every day (I really dislike taking time to shave).  In hindsight, I’m not sure I took anything from that experience either, besides a satisfaction in my commitment to do a thing I didn’t like doing for a set period of time.  I guess it also helped me get over my sensitivity to being viewed as younger, but that’s also been helped simply by my getting older (though I have been mistaken for a student a few times this year at my new school, and those incidents haven’t bothered me nearly as much as they used to).

All that’s just prologue, really.  Since the conversation with my coworker, I spent some time thinking about whether I should give Lent another shot.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog, my faith has felt pretty torn up as of late.  Jumping back into a practice that has a definite period on it seems like a good, small, step towards figuring out what to do about my spiritual life.  Pretty much as soon as the subject of Lent was brought up, I felt an inclination to do it.  I just had to figure out how I’d like to observe it.

I think the most interesting innovation on Lenten observance that I’ve seen is the addition of some kind of task rather than a specific type of fast.  It doesn’t do much for me to give up certain foods or pastimes (most of my free time these days is spent either writing for the blog, knitting, or engaging in small bits of political activism; I feel like I have a very full routine without much that could be considered wasteful or indulgent), so I’ve decided instead that I’m going to spend Lent doing something I haven’t done regularly in a couple of years: read the Bible.

My plan at this point is to set aside fifteen minutes a day to read and reflect.  Ideally I’ll be able to convert my reflections into some kind of blog post, but I’m resolved to not go into this exercise with the intent of mining specifically for topics for discussion.  Lent is supposed to be a time when you devote a greater part of yourself to meditating on God and Christ’s nature and love.

I’ve started with the Gospel of John, and from there I’ll probably flip around a bit (I haven’t figured out a concrete reading plan for the forty days); I’d like to hit some of the prophets and revisit a few of the epistles.  It’ll be interesting to see what comes of this after a prolonged break and a significant shift in worldview.