An Agnostic Christmas December 26, 2011Posted by Matt in Christianity, Christmas.
Tags: Christianity, Christmas, church of christ, experience, hopeful agnostic, Jesus, The Episcopal Church
It’s no secret to those who know me or who read this blog that I’ve undergone a period of spiritual change over the past few years. This is most visible in our change in churches, from the Church of Christ to the Episcopal Church, but for me the transformation runs far deeper than the denomination with which we associate. It goes from the morality espoused to the attitudes expressed to the very theological foundations upon which everything is built.
As I’ve said in the past, I came to the realization a long time ago that my idea of God had evolved a great deal and that the classic theistic description was no longer tenable, that I could no longer say I believed in that idea of God. Please note that this doesn’t exclude God altogether, far be it from that, but it does mean that the commonly taught descriptors of God no longer worked, so I was forced to recalibrate, to rethink my personal theology, so earlier this year I decided that the best phrase to describe my current philosophical state was “hopeful agnosticism.” Though I’m pretty unclear and questioning on the theistic version of God, I do wholeheartedly believe in something bigger than myself, working through and embodied by people throughout history. It’s a force of love and compassion, of mercy and radical forgiveness, one that permeates the fabric of reality and dwells in all people and things.
The Christmastime idea of Incarnation bothered me for a while, especially when looking critically at the evidence and coming to the conclusion that it may well be a myth meant to later bolster the claims of Jesus’s followers, because I had trouble accepting it and, truth be told, I still don’t accept it as fact, but I recognize something there in the experience of Christmas, particularly as embodied in our services at St. Timothy’s. There is something quite beautiful about the story of Christmas and, whether it happened or not doesn’t really seem to matter. What matters is the effect the story has on you. I can tell you that sitting in a pew at our church during the Christmas Eve mass is one of the most wonderful and moving experiences I’ve had, and in the end, isn’t that what really matters? Once we get past the sniping at each other over the factual nature of the account, isn’t the real meaning found in the effect it has on you?
That’s what I think at least. You can keep your reams of studies attempting to prove the unprovable, to know the unknowable. I’ll rest on the experience, the mystical knowing beyond knowing.
The Lord’s Army? October 17, 2011Posted by Matt in Christianity.
Tags: Christianity, Islam, Jesus, The Lord's Army, Vacation Bible School songs, violent imagery
Tonight I walked into a room of our house and found my young daughters sitting in the floor, singing a song they no doubt learned in a Vacation Bible School in times past.
I may never march in the infantry.
Ride in the cavalry.
Shoot the artillery.
I may never fly over the enemy
But I’m in the Lord’s Army.
It only took a moment for the imagery of the children’s song to settle with appalling clarity in my mind. Soon, pictures of Constantine’s cross-shaped sword and the atrocities of times past danced through my head.
So, the first thought I had was of the, as my priest would say, “anti-Gospel” idea of spreading the teachings of Jesus by the might of the sword.
Secondly, I thought to myself, “What would the parents teaching these songs to their children think if a Muslim kid sang the same song?”
Parable Pivot October 9, 2011Posted by Matt in church.
Tags: church, interpretation, Jesus, parable, Wedding Feast
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It’s interesting how you can read something numerous times in your life and then suddenly see a new and different aspect that completely changes the meaning.
Today in Sunday School we talked about one of our Lectionary Readings for the week, namely Matthew 22, the parable of the Wedding Feast.
The discussion started off fairly normal, with people talking about the characters in the story and who each of them symbolized, beginning with the classic view that the King is God, who sends his Son, Jesus, to the Jewish people. It’s the version I had long heard and the moral was nearly always the same: do what God says and always be ready or else you’ll go to hell.
Like I said, the conversation started off in an expected direction when it suddenly took a sharp turn. All of a sudden, people were naming off other possibilities (What if the King were Rome?) and we began to really get into some interesting discussion.
Then, seeming from out of nowhere, my friend Barbara drops a theological bomb on the room. What if the wrongly dressed partygoer at the end of the parable (you know, the one who is thrown out to the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth) is actually Jesus.
Suddenly, a stunned silence filled the room as the profundity of that short sentence set in. Wow.
There are an uncountable number of stories in this world, each of them with a multitude of interpretations, and that is what is really amazing.
P.S. For any of my fellow EfM’ers checking out my site, here are a few posts out of the 1,600 or so that may interest you.
I wrote a long series on my spiritual journey a couple of years ago where I really laid out a lot of things that I merely touched on in the spiritual autobiography I gave tonight.
In addition to that, you’ll find numerous pieces detailing my sometimes conflicted thoughts on religion, my love for music of nearly all types, the books I read, and of course, my crazy family life.
On the Importance of Incarnation October 6, 2011Posted by Matt in church.
Tags: empathy, god, incarnation, Jesus
Paraphrase of my priest and good friend, Patrick:
In God’s infinite experience and knowledge there was one thing that God lacked: the experience of being human. So, desiring that experience, God came down as a man and learned what it was like to be tired and hungry, thirsty and horny, and it gave him some sense of empathy for humankind. And, in turn, we learned something about being God.
The Willie Nelson Revival June 10, 2011Posted by Matt in concerts.
Tags: Gospel music, Jamey Johnson, Jesus, revival, Snowden Grove, Southaven, Willie Nelson, Willie Nelson's Country Throwdown
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There are only a handful of true American icons, those who personify that profound spirit pervading the land from sea to shining sea, and perhaps there is no one still living who fits that mold as well as the legendary Willie Nelson. I’ve had the chance to see Willie live several times in the past, but last night’s show was truly wonderful and without a doubt ranks among the best.
I had known about this show for some time, but due to some financial constraints stemming from our upcoming vacation, I knew that it was out of the question to spring for a ticket, so I sadly sat by and watched the concert date approach, wishing that there might be some way that I could make it. Then last week I received a phone call that changed everything. It was around noon and I was sitting in my cubicle, fighting off the doldrums spinning cobwebs around my head when my phone suddenly buzzed with an unknown number. I pressed the green button, gave my customary greeting of “Hello,” and was met with one of the most wonderful sounds imaginable, “Hello,” the unknown female voice on the line said, “You have just won tickets to the Willie Nelson Country Throwdown.”
Suddenly the sun escaped from behind the clouds, breaking the monotony with the force of a sledgehammer. In just a moment’s time, everything turned around for the better.
After calling Diana to express my great, dumbfounded joy, I thought for only a split second about who I should invite to the show before the answer became apparent: my good friend and priest, Patrick. So, I immediately called him at camp, where he was working as a counselor.
Patrick: Matt, how’s it going?
Me: Pretty good, pretty good. Hey, I’ve got a question for you. Do you want to go to Willie Nelson next week?
At this point I’m sure he’s thinking to himself, “You called me at camp for this?” and he proceeded to go through a long, sort of convoluted story about how we wished he could go, but can’t. I let him talk for a minute before breaking in and interrupting him.
Me: Patrick, I’m asking you because I just won tickets.
Patrick: What? No way! Are you serious?! How?!
I told him about the call and he immediately accepted my offer, thus setting us up for the big show.
The festivities for Willie’s Country Throwdown started early in the day – around 3:00pm – but because of work and family responsibilities we made plans to meet at 7:00 and head over, so that we would have plenty of time to see the two main acts of the night: Jamey Johnson and Willie. Upon our arrival at the amphitheater, he and I grabbed a couple of beers and headed over to find a good spot on the lawn. As we moved through the crowd we ran into another good friend of mine, Chris, and his wife, so we stopped for a few minutes and caught up with them. Everything was going well as we found our seats and prepared for the upcoming show.
The first act we saw was Randy Houser, an artist who I had never heard of before but who apparently was at least somewhat well known by the other attendees. His set was decent, but nothing beyond your run-of-the mill country music. As he finished, the sun was completing its daytime run and the temperatures were changing from warm to perfect, setting up the perfect June evening in North Mississippi for a concert.
Jamey Johnson walked onto the stage around 8:30, his long hair and scraggly beard accentuating the old-school, Waylon-esque outlaw persona that perfectly fits his style. He kicked the set off with “High Cost of Living,” then rolled through several cuts from his catalogue like “Cover Your Eyes,” and “The Guitar Song.” He even included a great Willie cover, “Can I Sleep In Your Arms,” as sort of preview and perhaps as a tribute from a new breed of outlaw to those who came before him. The set ended with probably the most beautiful moment of the night when his 7 year old daughter came from backstage and joined him for an incredible, heart-rending version of “In Color.” I’m a sucker for kids singing, so you couldn’t ask for a better way to finish off the set.
Another aspect of the show that intrigued both Patrick and I was that in between the main artists, there were three singer-songwriters who would sit on the stage and each perform a single song. I thought it was a really great idea, both to keep the crowd engaged in between acts and to offer some recognition for these little-known artists. I thought it fit Willie’s station well as an elder statesman who realizes that his time on stage is nearing its end, so he’s giving the younger ones a platform from which to launch their own careers.
Willie hit the stage around 10:00 with his customary opener, “Whiskey River,” and the crowd greeted him with wild applause as the band tore through the well-known standard. Willie was his normal, off-beat singing self, his voice sometimes straying behind the music and sometimes charging ahead, but never quite in line. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to play in his band. I don’t have a full setlist, but Willie ran through several of his biggest songs, “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “On the Road Again,” “Always on my Mind,” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” as well as the medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away / Crazy / Night Life” that has long stood like a pillar of Willie’s past in his shows. His son Lukas Nelson, who played earlier in the day, came out with his guitar and joined his father for a great version of the blues classic “Texas Flood,” and Willie even found time for a three song Hank Williams tribute, running through his renditions of “Jambalaya,” “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Move it On Over.”
To this point the show had been a good one, with Willie playing some of his famous tunes while adding in a few extras to keep things interesting, but it was the grand finale that I thought was particularly poignant. Willie has long had a penchant for throwing in a few gospel standards, but on this particular evening in Southaven, Mississippi, he seemed to take it to a whole new level. It began with the old favorite, “May the Circle Be Unbroken” and soon other performers joined him on stage for the rounding ode to friends and family. Randy Houser stepped back out, as did Jamey Johnson and his young daughter, and all together they sang out loud, “May the circle be unbroken / By and By, Lord, By and By.” But the show wasn’t to end there and soon Willie was in full Gospel evangelist mode, with down home gospel tunes like “I Saw the Light” and “Amazing Grace” ringing through the air as his personal choir grew even larger and everyone joined in the sing-a-long. The redemption ran thick through this big tent meeting-style performance as voices joined together in thankful praise. It was the First Baptist Church of Willie Nelson and fortunately I was there with my own priest in tow.
But, amid the Jesus-y stuff, Willie took another seemingly strange turn off the beaten path, tossing in “Bloody Mary Morning” in between the church tunes. At first thought, it seemed like a strange choice, but the longer I pondered on it, the more ingenious and beautiful it turned. Perhaps this was his ode to the dual nature of humanity, their yearning for redemption against their hunger for pleasure. Maybe this was Willie’s cry in the wilderness, his prophetic message about the human condition.
I don’t know, but whatever it was, it worked. Thank God for Willie Nelson.
We Need a Myth May 12, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, music.
Tags: Christianity, Jesus, Marcus Borg, myth, Okkervil River, We Need a Myth
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Each week I have the habit of perusing the newly released albums on Amazon and downloading one, or occasionally more, of them that interest me. This week’s choice was the latest from Austin indie rock band Okkervil River, a hyper-literate outfit with poetic lyrics and interesting instrumentation that I’ve been a fan of for several years. On this latest download, I was particularly taken with one song that I think fits within the context of my own theological views quite well. It is entitled “We Need a Myth” and the lyrics are as follows:
We need a myth
We need an amethyst bridge
We need a high hanging cliff
Jump, fall and lift
We can make it
We need a myth
We need a path
Through the mist
Like in our beds
We were just kids
Like what was said by our parents
What we’re after is just this
We need a myth
I feel my heart’s like a fist
I want words spilling out
From the blessed lips
Of any prophet or goddess
I need a myth
Brought back to life by a kiss
Scrape away grey cement
Show me the world as it was again
In a myth
A red ribbon to reconnect
The lady’s head to her neck
And to forget that her throat
Was ever slit
What we’re after is just this
And I’m sick
Of all these picture books that try
To steal some reflections for their light
But desperate measures point to desperate times
Which is why
We need a myth
We’re cut adrift
We need a mass uplift
The world is trembling and weeping
And at the point of believing
In a myth
The sun that shines on my head
The moon that lights me to bed
Were two identical twins
In a myth
I heard the voice of a friend
On Lethe’s banks
“Before I forget
We need a myth
As we lean in to kiss
To get two nails
Through the wrist
To get covered in blood
And to get covered in spit
And to forgive.”
And if all we’re taught is a trick
Why would this feeling persist?
And with the truth closing in
I must insist
We need a myth.
Like the band so succinctly puts it, we do need myths. Myths are the stories that power our lives, that give us meaning, that push our thoughts and actions into certain directions. I love the way that Jesus Seminar scholar Marcus Borg put it when I saw him speak several weeks ago:
A myth is a story about the way things never were but always are.
A myth then is something that is profoundly true, but not necessarily factually true. It is a story that carries great weight and meaning without the constraints of historical accuracy. The important thing for us to understand is that there is nothing at all wrong with the term myth, even when used in relation to our religious beliefs. Perhaps we would discover even more meaning in stories like Creation or in Jesus’s miraculous birth if we looked at them in terms of their stories and their meaning, rather than as real, historical events. Our scientific, post-Enlightenment world has a tendency to dismiss the idea as nonfactual and thus meaningless in today’s world, but perhaps it is time we do as the song says and try to “scrape away grey cement / And show the world as it was again.”
We need the mysteries. We need the myths.
The Birth Myth Revisited December 13, 2010Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, Christmas.
Tags: Bible, Christmas, Jesus, mythology, nativity
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Last year I posted a series regarding the nature of mythology as it relates to the stories of the birth of Jesus. I put a good bit of effort into it and, though it caused a bit of controversy in this small corner of the blogosphere, I think it brought about some interesting discussion. In case you missed it then or if you would like to revisit the series, I’ll post the links below.
Reflections on Bishop Spong and Nontheism, Part 3 October 1, 2010Posted by Matt in books, Christianity.
Tags: A New Christianity for a New World, Bishop Spong, gospel as Jewish liturgy, Jesus, Mark, mythology, Nontheism, Q, theism
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So, the question must now be asked: Can we tell the Christ story apart from the concept of a theistic God? According to Bishop Spong, “We can and we must.”
But, in this new paradigm of thought the role of Jesus has surely changed. If the idea of a supernatural being that lives beyond the sky and invades life periodically to accomplish a divine purpose is no longer a possibility for modern people, then, in Spong’s words, we must “acknowledge that Jesus understood as the incarnation of the theistic deity is equally without a future.” Thus, the Jesus stories of a virgin birth and supernatural miracles become an earthly portrait of a theistic God in human form and these theistic claims can be seen as ones that grew over time.
To delve further into this idea, Spong looks into the Christian scriptures in the order in which they were written. Thus, he begins with the writings dated to the mid-1st century, just two decades or so after the time of Jesus, the much theorized about Q document (Spong shares a method for distilling the contents of Q that I’m not going to go into except to say that it comes from the shared sayings found in Matthew and Luke), the embattled Gospel of Thomas, and the letters of Paul.
Upon examining Q and Thomas, neither of which contain the divine birth, death, or miracle narratives, one will find that Jesus was a wise man and great teacher, but not divine. Paul likewise does not make mention of the birth narrative or miracle stories, but he does have references to the resurrection story. (*Note: In my opinion, Spong’s logic in explaining these away is tenuous at best and to my mind amounts to little more than quibbling over details, but this is his book.) Thus, in Paul, we find little of the theistic framework and the imposed supernaturalism present in later writings, yet it is apparent that God was “powerfully present in Christ.” Spong suggests that Paul, who was not familiar with the later developing incarnational and trinitarian language of theism, claimed that Jesus acted as more of a conduit for a God-experience to the people.
The first of the Gospels to be written was Mark (65-75 CE) and by that time the theistic interpretation of God was becoming more widespread. Due to its omission, the miraculous birth story may not have been concocted at this time, but Mark clearly perceived a God-presence, poured on him at his baptism, in the person of Jesus.
His resurrection story is also one that can be confusing when looked at in this light, for, to many scholars, the book’s original ending takes place with the women finding the empty tomb, then fleeing and saying “nothing to anyone.” Spong and other referenced scholars believe that this ending to the book was found to be untenable in a time of supernatural and theistic imagery, so an additional ending was added later to incorporate these ideas.
One of the most interesting ideas to me was Spong’s declaration that “we can detect in Mark the influence of Jewish synagogue worship,” that the events recorded in the book directly correlate with the Jewish liturgical calendar. If we begin with the crucifixion at the end of the book (14:1-15:42), which took place at Passover, and work backwards, we can see how the book seems to conform with the Jewish holidays. For instance, the Transfiguration is placed by Mark in the point of the calendar known as the Festival of Dedication, in which the light of God was restored to the temple – this is especially interesting if one dates Mark after the AD70 destruction of the Temple. Next on the liturgical calendar is the Feast of Tabernacles, the Jewish harvest festival, which coincides with Jesus telling harvest parables and demonstrating power over nature (4:1-42). Following that in our move back is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, at which point in the gospel Jesus is healing the sick, forgiving sins, calling Matthew to discipleship, and talking of fasting. The last stop on the calendar for this purpose is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in which people are called to an expectation that the kingdom of God is at hand and they are urged to repentance, which directly correlates to the message of John the Baptist, who could even be seen as a human shofar, announcing the coming kingdom of God. Thus, Spong makes the case that Mark is a Jewish liturgical text, not a history book or biography.
To sum up, Spong says,
The earliest witnesses to Jesus – Paul, perhaps Q and Thomas, and Mark – portray a Jesus whose life has not yet been squeezed into the theistic mold. Yet it is a Jesus who is seen as a God-presence, a life through whom God is seen. That is the experience we need to embrace. Jesus was a human life through which people experienced the presence of God, and this experience is documentable prior to the time when the later theistic explanations were laid upon him. The theistic explananations can be set aside, as indeed they have been in our generation, but the experience can remain intact.
Interview with the Isolated July 30, 2010Posted by Matt in Christianity.
Tags: Anne Rice, Christianity, Jesus, religion
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Anne Rice, author of Interview with a Vampire and, more recently, books about her spirituality, has announced that she is finished with Christianity.
In explaining herself, Ricke said that she refuses to be “anti-gay,” “anti-feminist,” “anti-science,” and “anti-Democrat.”
She wrote, “For those who care, and i understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious,a nd deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”
Continuing in another post today, she said:
“My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ in infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been or might become.”
Sometimes I understand exactly how she feels…
The Undead Jesus April 3, 2010Posted by Matt in random.
Tags: easter, Jesus, resurrection, undead, vampire, zombie
We learn from the Gospel accounts that Jesus Christ rose from the dead three days after his execution on a cross. This is a generally accepted concept through the branches of Christianity and one which many base their faith on.
But, the question must be asked, if Jesus rose from the dead, becoming, in a sense, undead, what form did he take?
Zombie or Vampire?
There is some evidence for either side, so I will present a few of points and let you form your own opinion.
When it comes to Zombie Jesus, the most important point seems to be his hunger for human flesh and blood, as evidenced by the Lord’s Supper. Though this Supper did take place before his actual crucifixion, the point still stands that the zombie virus may have already been present, just hindered.
The different post-resurrection accounts tell of Jesus conversing with his apostles and others, a trait that would seem more likely to come from an intelligent vampire than from a zombie, whose vocabulary consists of one word, “Braaaiiinnsss!” Secondly, we learn in the accounts that an angel is waiting for Mary Magadalene at the tomb to announce the resurrection and that this angel’s face shown like lightning. Think of it this way: Shown like lightning = sparkly – you got it, the angel was a Twilight vampire. Also, in Luke’s account, Jesus suddenly appears in a room with his followers – a feat that could have been accomplished if Jesus were in bat form.
So, I ask you, zombie or vampire?
Just so you know, this is all in good fun and not meant to be offensive…