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Community Orchestra Practice

I’ve been a bad blogger the past week because I was being a good student and writing final papers.  I do have a poem I wrote a couple of months ago to share in honor of Trinity Sunday.

Community Orchestra Practice

 

Sophie, our conductor, lifts her hands,

but we keep on talking

about the traffic, the weather, and our problems.

Sophie points and Ibrahim, who left his parents in Iraq to chase hope for his unborn child

and speaks little English – but trusts music

plays our tuning A on the grand piano,

first softly, then louder and louder,

until finally

we adjust our instruments.

Sophie turns to our composer whom she has always loved –

some foreigner whose name we can’t pronounce

who sits and closes her eyes

eager to hear this symphony she dreamed for us.

Sophie lifts her hands again, and gracefully inaugurates the beat.

Pete and Paul hit each other with their drum mallets,

And giggle while they make their own noise with the cymbals.

Half of us are flat;

the other half are sharp

We all stare at our particular notes – each playing our parts the way we imagined them alone.

Not one of us follows Sophie.

Finally, our composer weeps in disgust, yelling words we understand to be

something

about our utter disregard for music.

She throws her score on the floor and heads for the exit,

her back turned toward all of us.

That shy, awkward boy who has never left the side of his brother and sister surprises all of us.

He follows her.

“Don’t take our music,” he pleads loudly – he does not stutter this time.

We all feel grief we do not understand for this symphony unheard.

Sophie points to Josh, our composer’s beloved son

who sits in First Chair.

Josh plays beauty,

because he keeps his eyes on Sophie

whose ears and heart know music.

In that single moment we hear that

Josh’s simple melody inspired each accent and rest.

Our composer rejoins us,

Her faith restored in music and ours begun.

The youth takes his place with us again – grinning ear to ear.

We lift our instruments and begin to be.

Sophie sings music through us from these splendid pages.

We know and love our composer now.

We are musicians rehearsing our great spring concert.

 

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Late Night Philosophical Musings

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When I was a kid there was a philosophical quandary that would keep me up late at night.  I spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating whether things tasted the same to everyone or if everyone tasted things differently.  For instance, when someone described something as salty and I would taste it and agree that it was salty did it mean that we perceived saltiness the same way?  This really bothered me.  It seemed that while a piece of food might contain the same amount of saltiness, we all either perceived saltiness in a different way or else there must be some inherent quality within us that determined whether or not we liked saltiness.  After all, it was blatantly we obvious to my young self that we didn’t all like the same food.  My mom would assure me that tastes change as one gets older and that I might one day discover that I liked something I did not currently like.  So one’s perception of taste did not even remain constant throughout one’s life.  This of course introduced a fair amount of skepticism into my young brain.  Long before I ever considered whether or not self doubt might be a tragic consequence of sexism or read about the philosophy of David Hume, I was skeptical that our senses could provide us with an accurate picture of reality.  The fact that taste was always the sense that I fixated on probably meant that I was always obsessed with food. 

The taste question continued to bug me throughout my life.  Even when I learned that there were taste buds and that how you tasted things might have something to do with how many of those buds you had in particular parts of your mouth, this didn’t solve the problem for me.  Sure, some people might perceive a stronger sense of saltiness than others and therefore because they had more taste buds on the salty side of their tongue not like as much salt.  It made sense in the same sense that some people are colorblind or deaf in certain frequencies.  But this did not really answer the burning philosophical question that always played in my head.  When we talked about the taste of salt, how could we be sure that we perceived it the same way?  Even if two people had the exact same number of taste buds, it could not be deduced that salty was the exact same sensation to each of them.  How I perceive salty could still be entirely different than how another person perceived it.  Therefore when we described salty, we would not be in essence talking about the same sensation, even though we were describing the same experience.  And even if we add in the complexities of brain chemistry, we are still just adding more layers to the same basic question: do we have the ability to accurately perceive objects as they are? 

I would always come to the conclusion that we could not.  We could have several different people taste the soup pot and come to the conclusion that it was too salty or that it needed salt and we could then enjoy the soup.  But we couldn’t conclude that we all perceived saltiness in the exact same way.  This did not mean that there was no relationship between the reality that our words described and the external reality of saltiness.  There had to be some relationship between what people meant when they said “salty” and what we tasted.  There could even be a fairly common consensus on how much salt tasted good and what things tasted good with the salt.  We could just never be sure that the essence of each person’s experience with salt was the same.  We could experience salt, but we could not actually know the reality of salt.  This did not even mean that there was not an absolute quality of saltiness.  My young brain would conclude that objects had actual qualities, but that human beings could not accurately perceive those qualities or ever be certain that we were.

I was fascinated by the concept of sensory doubt in general.  In high school, I conjured an alien character for a story whose favorite colors were beltekan and uzop – colors he could see that the human eye could not.  I wrote a science fiction story in which the entire Earth was destroyed by Venusians because the Venusians concluded there was no life on Earth since they did not have the same senses we did.  They communicated by a complex language of chemical emissions and because their ecosystem was vastly different, they concluded that Earth was incapable of supporting life.  

When people would say that they had encounters with the demonic I was always curious.  I was both terribly skeptical because I had no such encounters, but always open to the possibility that they could exist and that I just did not have whatever sense perceived them.  When a friend told me she could see auras, my attitude was much the same.  Maybe she could, but I still wasn’t sure I believed in auras.  And when it came to believing in God, it was because I could never imagine away the presence I felt to be God.  Of course it occurred to me that it might be that all the chemicals in my brain are the product of evolution because it was advantageous to believe in God.  I mean, it’s a natural question when you’ve lived your whole life doubting all senses that belong to everyone while simultaneously wondering if there are entire dimensions we can’t perceive.  Yet trying to imagine away God was like trying to ignore the salt in the soup.

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The Heliand

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American Jesus 1.0 wants your undying feelings of loyalty to save you from Ragnarok  the Final Judgment.

If you want to know what it is like to read The Heliand, imagine that Jesus Christ is Gandalf portrayed by Thor and accompanied by a band of twelve noble warrior companions.  For those of you who don’t know, the Heliand is a Saxon version of the gospel story written by an unnamed poet in the ninth century.  The translator of the edition I read assures through footnotes and commentaries that it is a beautiful epic poem full of clever symbolism.  Even though most of that also had to be lost in the act of translation, it is still a beautiful read.  In fact, as a work of literature, it is a better read than the gospel accounts because the writer thoughtfully arranged the stories from the four gospel accounts into one coherent narrative with foreshadowing.  It is also a better read because in many ways it is the form of literature that we’ve inherited in WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic) culture that descended from these Saxons who encountered Christianity.  This is what we expect from our stories to be good stories. 

The Heliand is also a gospel that was written for particular people in a particular context: privileged white men who were facing persecution and a threat to their way of life from the outside.   Like any good writer, the author of the Heliand considered his audience.  His audience was Saxon chieftans, earls, and thanes who were being forced by the invading armies of Charlemagne to be baptized as Christians or be put to death.  They were not feeling very sympathetic towards Mediterranean people in general, so the idea of accepting a religion that was born from Judaism mixed and with Greco-Roman philosophy was problematic to their worldview.  There are many points that the epic makes anti-Semitic remarks and implies the Jews are dishonorable.  

The writer knew that for there to be peace, he had to convince these noble warriors to convert.  To convince them to convert, he had to present a gospel where Jesus was a noble warrior who shared their values.  It was irrelevant what the Serfs or poor people thought, so he wrote this work of literature for the upper classes.  As such he identified with their values.  So for instance in the Christmas story, he mentions the star, the wise men coming to see Jesus, King Herod being afraid of being usurped, the virginity of Mary, and the angel Gabriel, but leaves out the crucial story about there being no room at the Inn.  When Jesus is calling his first disciples there are poor people hanging around who are interested in religion primarily because they are looking for donations from the good thanes who would gladly give it to them.  Jesus is preaching to and calling those thanes, not the poor people who are superfluous extras the writer can’t seem to comprehend.  The Lord’s Prayer – or the secret runes of the Lord’s Prayer contained in the “Instructions on the Mountain” – is changed to ask for the sort of support thanes would receive from their chieftan rather than their daily bread, because asking for daily bread would be beneath them. 

One of the most interesting things about this epic is the way that Germanic cosmology is brought into the story.  Time and fate, the two main Germanic forces have fairly large roles, especially Fate.  It is shown that Jesus, the All-Savior is superior to them.  In a rather dramatic twist, by undergoing the crucifixion, Jesus overcomes Fate’s power over the people and is worthy to be seated at the right hand of God.  The cross was a stumbling block to both Jews and Greeks, but not to Saxons.  They had regular sacrifices of both men and animals on trees to Wotan.  In fact, in the imagery, the poet mixes the Roman crucifixion methods with their own methods of tying their sacrificial victims to trees. Appendix 1 describes the Germanic religious customs and mentions these sacrifices.  There was also a final battle of Ragnarok built strongly into their mythology and a concept of muspille (about which there is another epic poem written) that might be Ragnarok mixed together with the Christian apocalypse.  So their worldview was one in which the world was already fated to be destroyed with a fiery end and this was the dramatic ending they expected. 

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Another important thing to note is the role of one’s individual feelings in this epic.  Despite the fact that at this time all Christians would have been Catholic and a part of the Catholic Church, there is no mention of needing to be part of the greater church.  One loves one’s enemies by having good feelings towards them.  In the story in which Jesus weeps over Lazarus’s death, he is so moved because of the emotion of the beautiful maidens, rather than his own grief to start crying.  There are many times throughout the epic when one has to have the right feelings of loyalty for the great Chieftan/All-Savior to be saved or right.  It is interesting that salvation is not framed in terms of original sin, but in terms of having the right feelings of loyalty to the right chieftan and not switching loyalties.

So let’s recap:  We have privileged white men who in this instance really do face an outside threat to their way of life.  They are warriors and they have a moral ethic that revolves around having feelings of undying loyalty to their leader.  Their entire cosmology is rooted in war and conflict fated to a pessimistic end.  They are the elite of their society and see poor people as easily manipulated leeches waiting for handouts.  They are also anti-Semitic.  I know that all theology is contextual and that in cross cultural communication it gets murky as to when to challenge the status quo and when to preserve it.  There was after all, this whole problem of Charlemagne converting people with the sword and a desire to somehow make peace.  There is after all, the end product of this beautiful work of literature.  Still, in WEIRD societies, I think we can and should deconstruct the worldview of the angry white man and separate it from the gospel. 

 

Source:  The Heliand: the Saxon Gospel.  New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1992.  Translation and Commentary by G. Ronald Murphy, S.J.  ISBN:  019073754.

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Foreshadowing

This is a sermon I preached in chapel today.

I stood in the driveway on a cold, dark morning with tears streaming down my cheeks.  My grandparents had come to visit us for Christmas and now they were leaving.  They were returning home.  I don’t remember the exact words my grandmother said to me in that moment, but I remember they had something to do with not being able to come back if she didn’t leave.   And of looking forward to future visits.  Still, at age three or four, this was one of my most painful experiences.  Even now, I still remember that feel of a broken heart mixed with the taste of salty tears.  Whatever reasons my grandparents had for leaving didn’t seem good enough to soothe the pain.  More than thirty years later, I admit that I still have a terrible time saying goodbye.  Often, no matter how we rationalize them, goodbyes just don’t seem fair.  Even when we know that goodbyes are necessary and even when they are for good reasons and bright futures, goodbyes are still mixed with pain and sadness.  And if we grow to know very many people at all in this world, we will say many goodbyes that seem ill-timed and far too premature.

So perhaps the words of Jesus sound every bit as troublesome to us as they did to his disciples.  Jesus asserts that, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Mother, because the Mother is greater than I.”  Jesus says this after he admonished them not to let their hearts be troubled and not to be afraid.  But really, this is part of a long conversation that Jesus has been having with the disciples.  At the end of chapter thirteen, Jesus stated that he was going somewhere where the disciples couldn’t follow him now, but that they should continue to love one another.  Peter does not want to accept this and declares that he would even lay down his life for Jesus.  Jesus replies with that famous prediction that Peter will deny him three times.  Then Jesus continues on and tells the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled and that he’s going to prepare a place for them.  Jesus assures them that if he’s going to prepare them a place, then surely it means he must be coming back.  Then Jesus says that the disciples know the way to the place where he is going.  At this point Thomas, doubting Thomas says, “Lord we don’t know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  Jesus answers Thomas with those famous words about being the way, the truth, and the life and no one coming to the Father except through him.  Philip then in his frustration, pleads, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”  Jesus then goes on to tell Philip that, “whoever has seen me has seen the Mother.”  Then Jesus continues on, encouraging the disciples to keep his commandments and promises them the Holy Spirit.  Then Jesus assures them that he isn’t leaving them orphans, but will come back.  So then Judas – no not that Judas, asks Jesus why he only reveals himself to the disciples and not to everyone in the world.  And it is the answer to this other Judas’s question that we just heard as our morning gospel.

Is this passage really about Jesus putting limits on how much we can hope?  Is Jesus saying to this other Judas that just maybe his heart for this world is two sizes too big?  Is this the passage in which Jesus says, “well Peter, let’s be honest, we all have good intentions, but intentions only stay intentions.  Well Thomas, I’m the password to Heaven and that’s really what I’m all about.  Didn’t you know that?  And Philip, why are you so anxious to see God when I’ve been here all along?  Hasn’t this been enough?  And Judas, I only love those who love me back.  Furthermore, I don’t understand why y’all are so upset that I’m leaving.  You should be happy for me because I’m going to see God.  The main reason I’m telling you all of this is so that when it comes to pass, you’ll remember that I told you so.” 

 Maybe we don’t all automatically approach this text with such cynicism.  But if some of us do, who can blame us?  We have learned early on in life not to get our hopes up too much.  We have been schooled in the reality that things do not always or even usually turn out as good as we plan.  We brace ourselves that the job market is bleak and that we might not get the career we study so hard for.  We learn that eventually our grandparents have said their last goodbye and that they aren’t coming back.  We’ve learned that sometimes we don’t even get to say goodbye to some beloved friends.  So is it possible that just maybe the disciples’ questions are filled with the fear that they got their hopes up too high when they decided to leave everything and follow Jesus?  Maybe they’re afraid that loving Jesus isn’t going to turn out any better for them than all those other times that they have loved and lost.  After all, such words about having to go away seem unfair and unjust when they come from a young man in the prime of his life.  They sound like the sort of words said in hospital waiting rooms.  This is what Jesus is saying to them after all: He is telling them that he is going to die. 

This conversation continues for another two chapters.  Jesus talks about being the vine and tells the disciples that they must abide in him if they are to bear fruit.  Again, he tells them that must love one another.  Then he states that there is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for one’s friends.  He warns them of persecution and promises this Holy Spirit again.  Jesus then compares their pain about his leaving to the pain of giving birth.  Yes, it is painful, but new and splendid life is coming into this world.  Then Jesus prays to God for the disciples.  And all of this is just before they walk to that garden where Jesus is going to be betrayed.  If today’s scripture were a scene in a movie, it would fall in the middle of the hero’s speech before the final confrontation.  Surely, this is what the disciples are yearning for – that Jesus is helping them gather their strength to confront and overcome and to tell the forces of evil to back off. 

Paradoxically, Jesus has just told Peter that he can’t follow him – yet, while at the same time telling all of those gathered that they know the way to the place where he is going.  They know the way.  And the way is so excruciatingly painful that they cannot bear to see it.  If today’s scripture were a scene in a movie, it would also be that point in which we learned that everything had been so carefully foreshadowed and laid out.  No, not in some boring, trite, or predictable way.  It would be the plot twist that no one saw coming.  It would be the moment we were blown away and had everything about our worldview reshaped.  These words would be in the sort of scene in a clever movie that we would watch a second time, a third time, over and over, trying to pick up on all the well placed cues.  We would fall in love with the characters and see glimpses of their true selves all along as each moment of the film brought them closer to their destiny. 

So Jesus answers this other Judas’s big question about everyone else in the world with this simple statement that those who love him will keep his words.  Then Jesus says, “We will come to them and make our home with them.”  (The “We” being Jesus and God).  There is a famous saying about the humanity of Jesus.  Gregory of Nanzianzus declared, “That which has not been assumed has not been healed.”  In Jesus, God is one of us.  Through Jesus, God understands exactly what it is to be a human being.  And yet, this same Jesus also showed us the face of God.  He says the word we hear from him is not his, but the Mother who sent him.  Somehow, in the mystery of Christ, God and humanity are joined in a way that we can’t satisfactorily understand.  We can only say that Jesus is not less fully than God.  Neither is Jesus less than fully human.  Then we must leave it at that. 

Jesus has told the disciples that he is going to a place that they cannot yet go and that they already know where it is.  And so there are all these words about love and peace throughout.  “Those who love me will keep my word.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Mother, because the Mother is greater than I.” 

So if this were a movie and we were returning to watch in this pivotal scene over and over, we would have the memory of resurrection etched in our hearts.  We would realize that the reality of resurrection was foreshadowed in each healing and the miracle of Jesus.  We would remember that friend of Jesus, Lazarus, the one Jesus raised from the dead a mere three chapters earlier.  We might remember that when “Jesus wept,” those tears were shed for Lazarus.  And we would remember all those things because of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus tells the disciples that the Holy Spirit will teach them everything and remind them of all that he said to them.  John Calvin often said that scripture was the spectacles, the eye glasses, for correcting our vision to come to knowledge of both God and ourselves.  And yet, it is not just enough to read the words in the pages of the Bible.  It is the Holy Spirit who helps us understand these ancient and beautiful words.  Otherwise, it is so terribly easy to read them with all the hurt and disappointment and baggage that we’ve learned to carry.  Even though we stand before this text like a well known movie, we struggle to fully enter in, to follow Jesus down that way he prepares.  The way that seems too painful to see.  We must be reminded that Jesus embraced our humanity to the deepest level on the cross.  We must be reminded that Jesus went to the places that we cannot bear to look.  We must be reminded that Jesus went that scare us the most – and still Jesus promised a peace unlike any the world can give.  And we must be reminded each time that we stand before this holy text, and hear the hopes and longings of fellow human beings just like us, that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  We must be reminded that we live in a post-Easter world.  We must be reminded that in the midst of all our suffering, our weeping, our tears, and our anguish, that glimpses of resurrection are always being foreshadowed.

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Feminist Writing Principles

I will confess that one of the main reasons I have a blog is that like many other writers who have blogs, I am working on longer works that I hope to get published.  Blogging may not make you famous or anything, but I have been to at least one book signing in which the author said his blog got him a publisher. 

One of my works has the working title Cities of Refuge.  It is a novel about atonement.  It is the story of an Alaskan Bush pilot who is going blind, reflecting on the tragedy that led him to give up being a minister and lose his faith in God and move to Alaska.  I lived in Alaska for six years and it’s the sort of place a lot of people move to when they’re running from something and want a fresh start.  There is another portion of the story told from the perspective of his daughter as she finds out about her father’s tragedy from another point of view.  Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead would probably be the best analogy for inspiration in that it’s an older man reflecting on his life and his regrets.  It’s also full of Biblical symbolism.

The other of my works is a coming of age science fiction series about time and space travel…and also atonement.  But then atonement is a popular theme of literature.  The idea for this work began by a question posed at a re-reading Harry Potter book club meeting: What if Harry Potter had been a girl?  Well yes, why can’t the girl be the one who discovers she has superpowers and a destiny and all of that?  And because I relate to science fiction more than fantasy, it’s obvious that my story would be a science fiction story.  The number one challenge I have with characters in that book is that I have two teenage girls and a teenage boy as the clever, smart, play it by the rules Hermione like character.  I also made him African American.  I realize just how much sexism is written into us because, when coming to scenes, it’s just easier to imagine the boy always taking charge, especially since he’s not the dangerous, bad boy type who needs a girl to tame him.  

Both of these works have been on my mind for a couple of years now.  And even though they are different genres, I don’t really see myself as a “genre” writer.  My goal is to produce literature: as in works that address the human condition.  I think literature transcends genre and there are certainly plenty of times when science fiction and fantasy are great means to address the human condition.  And when I say literature, I mean stuff that deals with heavy philosophical and deep existential questions, not simply a light read to be had on the beach.  It is possible that my writing could fail to achieve this because it is a lofty goal.  But nonetheless, that is what I want.  I want to write something that I think could be worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, even if no one else ever thinks so. 

When I write, I try to keep two principles in mind.  The first is the Bechdel test.  If you cannot have a conversation between two women in the book that is not about a man and also significant and plot advancing, then it doesn’t pass this test.  That means that having a conversation in the mall about clothes does not count – not plot advancing, at least not in a story that aims to be about the human condition.  Unless of course, the conversation is about how the clothes were made in a sweat shop and that conversation then leads the protagonist on a transformational journey.  Really, if the book has a female protagonist this should not be hard, but a surprising amount of entertainment fails.  Real women think about ideas and issues that are not centered on men.  Even though most of the recorded thinkers in history have been men, I will leave the caveat that there is a difference in talking about David Hume as a person and in discussing the merits of David Hume’s philosophy and how they apply to our society today. 

The second principle is the Hero’s Journey.  This would be that thing that Luke Skywalker (inspired because George Lucas read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Harry Potter go on.  You know the story where they have a call and have to go on a great journey and encounter a wise guru who guides them into accepting their destiny and then have to face the problem on their own.  They change.  They are not passive receptacles that just let stuff happen to them.  Maybe they start out that way, but then things keep pushing on them to accept their destiny.  Feminism is essentially about girls being the heroes of our own lives rather than passively waiting for someone (who usually happens to be male) to come and rescue us.  I can’t help but think of the heterosexist cliché that women get married to a man hoping that he will change and he doesn’t and men get married to a woman hoping she won’t change and he does.  Literary men change and become what women want; literary women are perfect and ideal and passively wait for the men to change.  

If you’re a writer, change that.  Considering that writers shape culture, our job is not to just regurgitate the same stuff we’ve seen over and over.  Our job is to imagine what life could be and write that story so that through stories, everyone can imagine a better world with us.

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Confronting the book that made me want to quit Christianity

In Let the Nations Be Glad, John Piper said, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”  As a reformed theologian, I couldn’t agree more, though as a reformed feminist theologian, I want to remove the masculine language for God.  His statement is really a co-opting of the answer to the first question on the Westminster Shorter Catechism – “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  Although as a Baptist child, I never said a creed or a confession in church, I had heard that phrase and took it fully to heart when I sang in youth choir and worshipped God.  I imagined that whatever heaven was, it was like one big choir concert with all of creation as the choir and God as the audience.  So as a young woman who felt that God had a calling on my life, I signed up for an Introduction to Missions class when I was at Oklahoma Baptist University (because God only ever calls women to be missionaries).  Piper’s book was our primary textbook.  Instead of making me want to glorify and enjoy God, it made me hate and resent God.  I took to reading Bertrand Russell and decided after a couple of semesters that I was an agnostic.  

John Piper jumps to a conclusion based on inverse logic and then decides to live there: “The chief end of God is to glorify and enjoy God forever.”  He offers several scriptural texts as proof for how much God revels in self glory.  Piper then asserts that because God is God and therefore different than us so the rules don’t apply to God.  We are particular and finite whereas God is infinite.  However, he completely fails to utilize the best philosophical solution orthodox Christian theology has for this quandary: the Trinity.  I’m not saying that John Piper doesn’t believe in the Trinity since he mentions Jesus and the Holy Spirit; I’m saying that he hasn’t through what faith in a Triune God means.  If you’ve ever read The Shack, then you can understand what I’m getting at.  The three mutually indwelling individuals who operate with such love for one another and unity of purpose and character are not a solitary monad sitting up in the sky saying, “I’ve brought my powerful army to destroy your planet to make way for a hyperspace bypass.  You were too busy worrying about the movement of small pieces of paper and thinking yourselves great for making digital watches to actually see that notice and thus make the special evacuation ship that departed five minutes ago?  Well I posted it in a book of archaic poetry I wrote about my awesomeness.  Here, let me read some of it to you before I exterminate you pathetic worms.” 

Except that horrifically, John Piper’s version of God has a worse torture fetish than Adolf Hitler.  Despite the fact that John Calvin only wrote a page on Hell in 1500 pages of the Institutes, the index of Piper’s 255 page book lists 20 pages on the subject but only a paltry 4 about hope.  When Piper does scriptural exegesis or engages with other theologians and writers, he singlehandedly chooses to interpret their words in the most negative and cruel way possible, reducing the beautiful complexity of their fear and trembling before God to a single univocal argument in favor of sadistic tyranny.  The best example of this is a letter in a footnote that he must include in his citations for academic integrity purposes from a conservative evangelical that accuses him of using “proof texts as knock-down arguments when they have alternate interpretations” and being “overly dogmatic.” (Page 120)  One of Piper’s most sickening quotes is that, “the horrors of Hell are intended by God to be an infinite demonstration of the value of the glory of God (page 28 and also page 120).”  My first thought upon picking up the book and reading this quote after 15 years is, “why do you imagine God is an insecure man who needs to prove his manhood by threatening his children with a belt?  The words ‘value of the glory of God’ pour from your open wounds straight onto the pages.”  

God is not the bully standing in some cosmic kitchen yelling, “Make me a sandwich.”  As Jimmy Carter poignantly says, “The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women.  They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.”  The tragedy of John Piper’s philosophical jumping to conclusions about the chief end of God without considering any philosophical implications of God’s triune nature is that in a book on missions, he scarcely mentions the Holy Spirit.  It is after all, basic Calvin and reformed theology that while scripture is the spectacles that help us see God and teach us to worship God correctly, the Holy Spirit is the one who helps us interpret scripture.  

If you want to know how I didn’t completely become an atheist at OBU, it’s because the Holy Spirit convicted me deep down inside that God, Jesus, and the Bible were real and that all of it was true, but that this narrow, destructive way of interpreting them was not.  It’s because somewhere in an “angry God” sermon about suffering on the cross, a still small voice whispered, “but isn’t Jesus God and therefore showing us God’s real character?”  And in my darkest hour, it convicted me that it wasn’t God whose love had conditions. The healing place in the rift between our society’s deep hunger for social justice and the harshest words of scripture is found in a theology of the Holy Spirit.  If we seek illumination from the Spirit, then the “option” to selfishly interpret holy teachings to subjugate anyone will continue its firm and certain trajectory into oblivion. 

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The Voice that Can’t be Silenced

I confess that I have this dream that is probably fairly common for most writers: to have that bestselling work that everyone talks about.  I also confess that I often fantasize that my brilliance will be discovered posthumously.  Two hundred years in the future, a tour group will traipse through the carefully preserved cracker box house with the overgrown lawn in South Austin saying, “This is where Holly Swift wrote her greatest work.  She was far ahead of her time and no one understood her genius back then.  Like Earnest Hemingway’s estate, her house has been turned into a cat preserve.  Of course, it was always a cat preserve when she lived there.”  This is because ever since I was in elementary school I have known that “far ahead of one’s time,” was probably the greatest compliment that anyone could ever have.  It meant that you were brilliant and that you had insights into the human condition that no one else had.  It also meant that you were destined to be misunderstood and either hated or ignored by most of your contemporaries. 

As I get older, I muse upon the philosophical assumptions on which this dream relies.  First of all the fact that I have always believed that “far ahead of her time,” was how I wanted to be remembered means that I have always been a future oriented thinker.  I have always known that the world was less than it should be and had hopes that the future could be much brighter.  I have also always known that I wanted to go down in history as someone who shaped that bright future.  It meant I didn’t believe that progress was inevitable without conscious action and it meant that I didn’t believe we were doomed to die in an apocalypse.  Also crucial to that basic assumption has always been that I should be remembered for my ideas. 

I found a journal I wrote ten years ago.  I said, “I want the whole world talking about what I write.”  I wrote about wanting to walk in a whole of different people’s shoes to see what it was like and concluding that I would come up with even more questions if I knew them better.  Sadly, I was even more cynical at twenty-six than I am at thirty-six because I wrote, “I once defined my ideal job as being one in which I helped people become better people.  But now I don’t think that’s the case, it’s too overly idealistic, even for me.”  I wrote about wanting to question every single foundation in the world, of being arrogant and ambitious, and of not letting popes and presidents off the hook.  I wrote about having no fear of the power of a writer to shake everything with a few well placed words.  I wrote, “I want to speak up for the world.  I want to try everyone’s shoes on.  I want to be the voice that can’t be silenced.” 

But then I came upon this sobering bit in the middle of it all.  “I want to tell you about an unspoken sexism that exists in this world.  I can’t quite place my finger on it, but I think it’s something like this.  If you’re a girl, you’re supposed to settle.  You’re not supposed to want the world and above all, you’re not supposed to expect to go to the top.  And you’re not supposed to believe in yourself.  You’re supposed to make other people happy.  Your self worth is defined in how well you live up to others’ expectations.  You make good grades because it makes your parents happy.  You go school where it makes people happy.  You never tell people they’re wrong.  It’s the unspoken rule – the one no one ever tells you, but you quietly learn.  You ask your questions to someone else, someone insignificant, someone who might just listen, but not the someone who could actually do anything.  I think the unspoken sexism in the world is that no one takes you seriously.  I get the feeling that girls aren’t supposed to have inner voices or deep convictions.  Girls can want to be famous for ice skating, singing, acting, writing romance novels, and even making scientific discoveries.  But girls aren’t supposed to be famous for their ideas or what they think.”  And then I wrote about how women’s dreams were supposed to be just doing what everyone else wants.  

The tragedy in all of this was that I was behind the times.  I thought that my observations on sexism and unspoken rules were deep, insightful, and original.  Perhaps they were deep and insightful, but they were hardly original.  I was merely waking up to the things that the other feminists already know.  The even deeper tragedy is that while I named “it” in that journal, that horrific thing that held me back and kept me from taking risks or actually putting pen to paper, I still continued to listen to it.  The wound is that sometimes I still do. 

Let’s be honest – if my writing is discovered after I die then I can avoid the pain of being called a heretic and told I’m going to hell by people who love me.  I don’t have to read a scathing New York Times book review that shatters my self esteem.  Really, being discovered after I die means that I can remain dysfunctional and safely avoid any situations that remotely resemble conflict.  Except that is not how you change the world.  What is that quote about well behaved women and making history again?  If I could go back in time and say something to myself at twenty-six or younger, I would offer this advice: Risk big and risk everything.  Don’t let people limit your dreams because you’re a girl or because they have been burned by the world and became too cynical.  You may lose everything and you may very well get burned.  But scars from risks not taken hurt far longer than the flames of burning fires.

 

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