Sunday, March 15, 2009

I Can't Get No Dissatisfaction

My wife and I were listening to Sinead O'Connor's album "Theology" today as we drove to the Oregon Coast. Earlier in the day at the grocery store I had heard some Bruce Springsteen song (don't know which one) with a religious theme. It occurred to me that I really like works like this with a religious theme. Too many U2 songs to count would fall in this same category, but most notably "40", and, extending beyond music, the treatment of religion is one of the things I like most in the TV show "House".

Now, you may say to yourself, "So a guy who writes a religious blog likes religious stuff, where's the revelation in that?" The thing is, as a rule, I really dislike "Christian music" -- that is, the stuff that you hear on a Christian radio station. And for that matter I'm not too crazy about a lot of the music that gets sung in non-liturgical Christian churches on a Sunday morning. (I should divulge at this point that I attend a non-liturgical church which I very much love, in spite of the music.)

So, I got to wondering, what is it about Sinead O'Connor and Bruce Springsteen and U2 and "House" that I like so much when they wax religious that I don't like in your average Christian radio station music? Without "House" being in the list, you might attribute it simply to the quality of the musical composition, but "House" was specifically in the list my mind made for me and integral to the pattern my subconscious had identified, so I had to dig a little deeper.

The thing that I came up with is dissatisfaction. The average praise song is generally OK with the state of the world, usually even pretty happy about it. But when Sinead or Bruce Springsteen or U2 sing a religious song, they're generally not satisfied with the way things are, often starting with religion, even their own personal faith. That draws me in. It makes it accessible to me.

The thing is, I think this is profoundly Biblical. The people in the Bible from Abraham to Moses to Jesus(!) in Gethsemane are constantly struggling with God. And if I'm reading it correctly, that's the way God likes it. God doesn't want to be surrounded by yes men.

Now I'm going to take this a step further and go from talking about Christian music to talking about specifically Christian worship. The traditional liturgy begins with "Lord, have mercy" and brings a broken world before God and only then receives it back transformed. Non-liturgical worship tends to begin with, "Let's all stand and sing praise to our mighty God" and stays there. It's got too much "Gloria in Excelsis" and not enough "Kyrie Eleison".

Now if you've read this far, you may have noticed that I've completely muddled the two distinct ideas of dissatisfaction with the state of the world and dissatisfaction with worship and religion. I'm OK with that. I think there's one thing beneath them both, and that's uncertainty.

I need uncertainty to nurture my faith. I am convinced that faith has more to do with doubt than it does with certainty. A religion based on certainty forces me almost immediately into a conflict between that religion and my experience of the world. A religion based on uncertainty leads me almost immediately into engagement with God, even if that engagement is in the form of wrestling.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Man Called Matthew

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him.
-Matthew 9:9
I'm always suspicious of interpretations that rely too heavily on the precise wording of the Bible, but today I was inspired to try one. The text here doesn't say Matthew was a tax collector. It says he was sitting at the tax booth. Of course, he was sitting there because his job was collecting taxes, but the text doesn't define him that way. It describes him simply as "a man called Matthew."

The typical treatment of this story is to say how because Matthew was a tax collector he was basically the scum of the earth in his culture and then to marvel at the fact that Jesus is willing to have him as a disciple anyway. But this treatment (yes, I've sketched it harshly) really involves a judgment of Matthew that Jesus doesn't make. Matthew is a man. He has his faults, and his choice of careers may be one of them, but we don't know what his life has been like and why he made the choices he did.

As I was trying to apply this to my life, I thought about my neighbor. He's the manager of a local strip club. I've never met him, but I have met his wife and his son. They seem nice enough. My daughters are friends with his son. Thinking about this man in the light of this verse in Matthew I think I see what's required for me to see him as a man apart from his occupation.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Foxes and Birds Three Ways

And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."
-Matthew 8:20
This is one of those verses that I normally have no idea what it means, so when it came around as the passage I was going to focus on for the day, I wasn't sure what to expect. As I started to ruminate on it, I drew the expected blank. But I stuck with it. To my surprise, I came up with three possible interpretations. If these are any good, they were inspiration from God. If not, they're all mine.

The first thing I noticed was a connection with verse 18, "Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side." The crowds are gathering. Things are no doubt getting hectic. So Jesus sends his disciples to the other side of the lake so they will have space. But Jesus himself is the attraction. If he goes to the other side, the crowds go too. Jesus gives his followers rest, but he does not rest.

Then I moved on to how it relates to verse 19, "A scribe then approached and said, 'Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.'" The connection here is obvious. The scribe will follow Jesus anywhere, and Jesus appears not to particularly like that. Is there nowhere he can go to get away from this guy? But why does he want to get away from him? Doesn't Jesus want us to follow him wherever he goes?

So here's what I thought about that. When Jesus calls his disciples he says, "Follow me," and they follow. But this guy has called himself. He steps up and say, "I will follow you everywhere." The only problem I can see is that he's trying to be the one in control. The follower needs to take his cues from the one he's following.

There were a couple of ideas, but neither was entirely satisfying. I thought there must be something more there. So I looked closer at verse 20.

"Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests"

What do fox's holes and bird's nests have in common? They aren't homes, like we think of homes. They are places to raise their young and keep them safe until they are mature enough to take care of themselves. And once the young are ready, the whole group moves out and into the world.

But the Son of Man has no such protective place. His children are in the world, like sheep among wolves. This scribe has come to follow Jesus, but Jesus warns him about what that will entail. It won't be easy. It won't be safe.

I think this third interpretation is the best. In particular, it's the one that seems most applicable to my day-to-day life. With this interpretation in hand, I can look at what my life in Christ is like, and it helps me to understand why it goes the way it so often does. I'm not learning to be a Christian in a nursery. I'm learning in the wild.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


I was listening to Radiolab on NPR yesterday. The show (or at least the part of it that I caught) was on emergence (a really old episode, apparently). Specifically, they were talking about how the organized behavior of an ant colony emerges from the random behavior of individual ants.

One of the show's hosts, talking about ant colonies, says, "Buried in the system is a rule, a sense of direction, but how do you see that rule?" Scientist Deborah Gordon responds, "That's the wrong question, and that's what's so uncomfortable. The instructions aren't anywhere. The instructions come out of the way that the colony lives and behaves."

They didn't talk about the idea of the Emergent Church at all, but that was naturally where my mind was going, particularly after the above exchange. Churches seem to like instructions. They want plans for how to do things, and I think that's why it's so hard to find a good emergent church. You can't lay out a plan for replicating the church. If you have a formula that says, "Use candles, provide couches, play this type of music, focus on that type of sermons, etc." then you've already blown it. You imposed the "rule" and tried to get a church to emerge on the blueprint.

But to be emergent, an emergent church needs to arise spontaneously from a rule that is internal. You can't know ahead of time what it's going to look like.

And yet, I think this is obviously the right way to do church. All churches should be "emergent" in this sense, and I would bet that the best products in the history of Christianity have been emergent in this way. The Franciscan movement, for instance, was emergent. It grew up around an internalized "rule" working itself out in the context of 12th century Italy.

Unlike in the case of the ants, we can say what the "rule" is -- not exactly perhaps, at least not in a way that isn't culture-bound, but we can say. The "rule" from which a good church emerges is the Gospel.

One of the great blessings and geniuses of Christianity is that the Church has never codified a single articulation of the Gospel. The Gospel which can be spoken is not the true Gospel. It is a culture-bound artifact of the Gospel. But the Church "knows" what the Gospel is in exactly the same way that an ant colony knows the rule which guides the ant colony. The Gospel is the rule that created the Church. To paraphrase Dr. Gordon, the Gospel comes out of the way that the Church lives and behaves.