I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!
I have become convinced that people in my line of work have a lot in common with rappers. You see, I am a pastor. I have discovered that much like rappers, pastors often face a societal expectation to be some sort of one dimensional character. Perhaps this is true for all religious folks. Perhaps it is true for people in general, regardless of race, religious creed or profession. Perhaps we all have a hard time seeing outside of our own narrow cultural context and even narrower inner world of personal experience. We often encounter the “other” on a superficial level. We have a difficult time trying to seeing the world through the other’s eyes or feeling the world with another’s heart.
I recently fielded some “constructive criticism” from well meaning family and friends who complained of me writing about Hip Hop here on this blog and posting Hip Hop videos on my Facebook timeline. Their “concern” was that it seemed “inappropriate for a pastor to listen to that kind of music.” I get this a lot actually. My conservative Christian friends often complain that Hip Hop is too full of colorful language, braggadocios egos and explicit references to sex for them to engage or take very seriously. My more progressive religious friends often lament Hip Hop’s long standing reputation as a medium for expressing (and sometimes even defending) misogyny and homophobia. Their complaints sound an awful lot like Donald Miller in his book “Blue Like Jazz.” Miller writes,
“If you believe something, passionately, people will follow you. People hardly care what you believe, as long as you believe something. If you are passionate about something, people will follow you because they think you know something they don’t, some clue to the meaning of the universe. Passion is tricky, though, because it can point to nothing as easily as it points to something. If a rapper is passionately rapping about how great his rap is, his passion is pointing to nothing. He isn’t helping anything. His beliefs are self-serving and shallow. If a rapper, however, is rapping about his community, about oppression and injustice, then he is passionate about a message, something outside himself.”
I make no denial that there is some validity to Millers claims and those of my friends. A lot of Hip Hop is overly vulgar, sexist, homophobic, etc. But that is certainly not the all there is to Hip Hop. I think part of the problem is that there is a lot of snobbery these days about what really counts as true art. It seems popular music in general, gets a bum rap and perhaps Hip Hop gets the worst of it. People will sit down with a Novel or a movie with plenty of disturbing parts and take the good with the bad in their entertainment. In many religious circles, and especially in the Reformed tradition, which I am a part of, people almost make a sport of looking for the redeeming qualities of Catcher in the Rye or the latest Wes Anderson film. But people treat popular music – and especially Hip Hop – like it doesn’t tell the same stories of broken lives, shattered dreams and redemption. But it does. Oh it certainly does.
We just have to be willing to listen. We have to know how to listen. And we have to treat rappers/emcees like real artists, more importantly real human beings and not one dimensional characters or worse caricatures. In contrast to Miller, rapper Jay Z invites us to think of the rapper as an authentic “other” a real human being. In his book decoded, he writes,
“So many people can’t see that every great rapper is not just a documentarian, but a trickster—that every great rapper has a little bit of Chuck and a little bit of Flav in them—but that’s not our problem, it’s their failure: the failure, or unwillingness, to treat rap like art, instead of acting like it’s just a bunch of n***as reading out of their diaries. Art elevates and refines and transforms experience. And sometimes it just f***s with you for the fun of it.”
Jay points us to the humanity of the Hip Hop artist. To the human being who loves and hates, cries and gets angry, and sometimes just wants to have a little fun. He continues,
“But this is one of the things that makes rap at its best so human. It doesn’t force you to pretend to be only one thing or another, to be a saint or a sinner. It recognizes that you can be true to yourself and still have unexpected dimensions and opposing ideas. Having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other is the most common thing in the world. The real bulls**t is when you act like you don’t have contradictions inside you.”
I say Amen! But I would add a very important caveat. Acknowledging and to some degree, even accepting that we all have our inherent contradictions does not necessarily mean glorify or fully embrace our flaws. We all think. We all feel. We all love. We all hurt. We all have hopes, dreams and disappointments. We all have our own deep flaws and enormous potential to say and do things that are damaging to others. And we are all trying to find our way in the world. The easiest way to get lost in our own selves and never see the “other;” the easiest way to never change for the better, the easiest way to become and remain toxic and damaging to our neighbor and ourselves is to be insular and consumed with own image and self-portrayal.
This is equally true for a rapper trying to portray a criminal image, exposed as a family man as it is for the religious and community leaders and self proclaimed family-men exposed in our news headlines each day as criminals.
Until next time,
I got my first job in a grocery store in 1994. It was my senior year of high school. I was 17. My job was bagging groceries. Once I turned 18 I moved up to cashier. The summer after graduation I moved over to the largest Michigan based super -center. Except for a year off during my undergraduate studies at Calvin College for educational leave during an intense period in my studies and and the four years I was in seminary, I have pretty much worked my whole adult life in retail.
I graduated Seminary in May 2011. I already had my first interview with a church lined up for the June after graduation. I was hopeful that my candidating for ministry process was going to move along quite rapidly. But by that summer’s end it became obvious that such was not going to be the case. It was no longer feasible for candidating for ministry to be my full time job. It became apparent that scouring the web for vacant churches, calling churches, sending emails to churches and doing interviews with churches was going to have to slow down. When I began applying for “other work” I looked everywhere, for anything but a position in retail. I interned as a chaplain for a senior citizens’ home during seminary. So I began applying for jobs with seniors: everything from maintenance to resident assistant to chaplains and even nurses. I applied to stock and drive at UPS. I applied to be a Batista at all of the big chains as well as several mom and pops shops. I applied for a stocking position in a warehouse. But alas, In January 2012 the only place willing to offer me a job was the big-box retail store I worked at for a decade before seminary. It was not so easy to go back for half the pay I had worked my way up to after a decade, no seniority and no real acknowledgement of the time I had put in with the company. But we do what we have to do.
I don’t want to bore anybody with the most mundane of details. But I have actually quit and went back once again since then. Last May a church that seemed very interested in me as a candidate for senior pastor paid for my wife and I to fly from MI to NJ. We had a fantastic weekend stay. I had a great interview with the search committee. We really thought this had to be it! Shortly after returning home, we were informed we had to be out of the house we were renting in June. With no where else to go and sure that this church was going to extend me a call by the end of the summer, we moved in with my wife’s parents some 30 miles away from said retail chain. No use driving to the city for a minimum wage job. Someone needed to stay home with the kids for the summer. Sure that something better was waiting for us, I quit… again. But summer dragged on and it was a few days before Christmas when the church finally called to inform me they were going with a different candidate. So a few more months of applying for every odd job under the sun and…
February 2012 I became a cashier again. Same company. Same story. I even lost the 15 ¢ raise I had got in 2012. Back where I started. You come to observe a lot about human nature when you work in retail for 1/3 of your life. The late American novelist, David Foster Wallace had this to say in a commencement address he gave Kenyon College in 2005:
The traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
I believe that Wallace is spot on in pointing out our self-obsession and narcissism. The Christian tradition has a number of ways for talking about what he calls our “default setting”: a fallen or broken state, sin, life East of Eden, or one of the Apostle Paul’s favorite phrases: life in Adam. Too often we do see our neighbor as cow-like and dead-eyed as Wallace puts it. I believe that often we see ourselves as cow-like and dead-eyed, or nonhuman or ugly, deformed physically, mentally or morally defective. You see, self-concern even to the point of idolatry does not mean we truly love the demigods we have made of ourselves. Our endless efforts at self-preservation, expose our fear of being seen and betray that we ourselves often do not like the person we see when we look into the mirror. When we don’t love ourselves it becomes extremely difficult to love others around us. But Wallace continues
Most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer… If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
The Christian tradition also has a distinct way of talking about this sort of consciousness. In contrast to “life in Adam” – the primordial figurehead for all human beings – the Apostle Paul calls the new way, Life in Christ or Life in the Spirit: Paul’s descriptions of new life “in Christ” are quite radical and have far reaching implications for all of our interactions in the world. It is a life in which everything old in us has passed away and become new! A new life that gives us the mind of Christ. A new life in which we are buried with Christ by baptism so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, so we too might walk in newness of life. Newness of life now! This is the true “good life.” In contrast to the vision of wealth, pleasure and might cast by societal elites (of the first century or of our time) this is good news that has the power to transform how people conduct all of there affairs in the world: a slave owner is expected to receive his former slave as a beloved brother in the flesh because they are brothers in Lord! In this new community there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all who are in Christ. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit,” writes Paul in 2 Corinthians 3.
In fact, Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” 165 times and the similar phrase “in the Spirit” about 20 times. The vision of this new life is so great that some of the Church Fathers and still today our sister and brothers in the Eastern Orthodox church call this ongoing newness of life theosis (roughly meaning to become like God). They use this term to indicate that “life in Christ” is a radical life in which the participants are being transformed daily into the image of Christ. This is radical stuff! The Church Father Athanasius said it this way in a meditation he wrote called On the Incarnation, “Christ indeed assumed humanity that we might become God.” Historically, Reformed Christians have preferred to use terms like growing in “union” with God to avoid confusion or making misstatements about becoming God or demigods. Still the concept is quite the same.
Sadly, I wonder sometimes if a lot of the richness of Paul’s language for talking about theses mysteries is lost on us today, especially in the Western church. We have developed our own analytic, linear and compartmentalized way for talking about These mysteries: Salvation has become something that happened in the past when we said a prayer, were baptized or came to accept a set of beliefs (depending upon the tradition). Glorification, if we talk about it at all is something that will happen in the future, usually in another sort of otherworldly place. And the Christian life here and now – to whatever degree we talk about it – is about sanctification, which usually involves us talking about “being imitators of Christ Jesus” a Pauline phrase if ever there was one. But for Paul this is not so much divided up into little neat compartments but all part of an ongoing process of life in Christ. But that tradition is not completely lost on us in the West. It shows up from time to time. This is what CS Lewis had to say about the implications of new life in Christ and what is becoming of women and men being remade into the image and likeness of Christ:
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor…. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
How often do we take time to truly even see our neighbors, let alone see them as potential gods or goddesses as Lewis or Athanasius or as I believe Paul is suggesting? Do we see the potential god or goddess when we look at our loved ones? Our Co-workers? Our enemies or those we are not so fond of? What about when we look in the mirror? Now we often think of ourselves to be sure, but not as women and men being transformed into the very likeness of God but perhaps as gods. But again, I think it bear repeating, self-concern even to the point of idolatry does not necessarily mean we truly love the demigods we have made of ourselves. It just means we are preoccupied with our self-preservation and trying to hide our true selves. But what if the dead eyed cow is not our true self? What if we could learn to give ourselves the same empathy that Wallace challenges us to extend to our neighbor in the grocery store checkout? Better yet, what if we could learn to see ourselves as God sees us: First and foremost created in the very image of God with our own capacity to create, bless, love to build up or yes tear down. Of course we are also broken vessels that use and abuse our capacity to tear down and destroy and we are in desperate need of redemption, in need of being made over once again in the very image of God, even as all of creation is being reconstituted in Christ.
This is what life in Christ offers: seeing ourselves as we were meant to be, as we are flaws and all, and as we can be! If we see our neighbor as cow-like and dead-eyed, we most likely see ourselves that way too. We need a new way to see!!! We need to trade in our broken mirrors for God’s mirror. Because there we can truly see. We see that “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
It is a beautiful place or space that we are daily called to inhabit. By place I do not just mean “Heaven” at least not in some detached from the body, other worldly only relevant after we die kind of Heaven. But we are daily being called to inhabit the Kingdom of Heaven, the reign of God that Jesus declared was at hand. Of course this all has meaning for the life of the world to come. But it has meaning for you and I and the people in front of us in line at the grocery store today! God is calling us to a spacious place, full of grace, a place of Freedom! ” It is the space that Jesus inhabited in his earthly ministry and still does by the Power of the Spirit. For the Spirit that was with him as he grew in favor with God and humanity, the Spirit that descended at his baptism and the Spirit that encompassed his radiant presence on the Mount of Transfiguration, the Spirit that was with him as he set his face towards Jerusalem, the Spirit that raised him from the dead that is the Spirit that communicates new life in Christ to us!
To truly love God and neighbor and to truly be able to see the whole world “on fire with the same force that made the stars” requires – it absolutely requires – that we find this new way to see ourselves as we are and as we are becoming! The way God sees us! While I see it better some days than others, this vision of who we are and whose we are is the only thing that helps me get through each day of a life that sometimes feels like a failure. Each time I clock in for another 8 hours of standing at a checkout lane serving people – many of whom see each other and me as a means to an end or worse, obstacles in their way – I try to remember Paul, CS Lewis and David Foster Wallace. I try to pray for the person that curses me out because his grocery bags are too heavy or too light. And some days I am able to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30).
I have sat in a lot of “men’s Bible Studies” or small groups where guys – taking verse 28 about lust and adultery very literally – pour their hearts out in confession and bitter tears. I have heard of marriages becoming very rocky or even being destroyed because a husband or sometimes a wife feels the compulsion to confess to their partner every time they notice someone else and have an erotic thought. The thought pattern is ‘I would surely confess an affair to my partner so I should confess this. Jesus said I am already guilty of adultery.’ Yet, the same folks rarely insist that we should gouge out our eyes or cut off our hands if we sin with them in some way. Expanding outward to the broader context of the passage, I have never sat in a Bible study and heard someone repent in tears and ashes and say they were afraid of going to hell because they got mad and called someone they love a fool (5:22).
We recognize hyperbole in one verse and not the next. The same with metaphor when it comes to passages like the creation and fall accounts in Genesis. Some folks would insist on a young earth or on making grand theological points out of the order of creation (like male leadership because Adam was made before Eve). Yet if we read the whole account in such a “literal” or “straight forward” fashion we might come up with some pretty funny interpretations. Should we have a discussion about the part of the story where God brought every animal of the field and every bird of the air before Adam in God’s first attempt to make for Adam a helper and life partner? Did God really consider that k-9’s might really be man’s best friend? If so shouldn’t we discuss the serious implications for all Christian ethics regarding relationships and sexuality. Not to mention God’s sovereignty. You mean God didn’t know that a tiger or goldfish might not make a good partner for Adam?
One of the many problems with biblical literalism is that it is always selective and rarely conscious because we are just reading the text the way we were taught to read it and rarely (if ever) question the reading we grew up with. When this is coupled with an understanding of inspiration (how God moved or inspired the biblical authors) that is a lot like dictation, the results can be disastrous! ‘Jesus wants me to divorce my wife she confessed a lustful thought and Jesus equated that with adultery and Jesus said that was the only acceptable reason for divorce. I might be sinning not to get one.’ Or ‘God said let there be light and there was day and night before God made the sun and stars so God must have put some sort of temporary lamp in the sky or maybe lit up the world with God’s love.’ Do you think I am making this stuff up? And we certainly can’t accept the insights of science because they seem to ‘contradict the plain sense of the text.’
Ironically, the same sort of literalism that lies behind some funny interpretations from well meaning Christians also lies behind a lot of modern rejection of the Bible by skeptics, agnostics and atheist. I have heard so many times something to this effect from my secular humanist friends: ‘The Bible declares in many ways that God is all powerful, all knowing and that God is love. Yet in this spot right here God is seen as learning or changing his mind or worse inciting or ordering violence.’ In other words, we are so steeped in biblical literalism that people would rather reject the Bible wholesale then read it any other way than as a divinely dictated book.
But there are multiple problems with this. First, the Bible is not a book, but a library of books. The authors of scripture were involved in the same wrestling with God that we still are today. They represent faith communities spanning thousands of years from the time of Abraham to the time of Jesus. They came from roughly one central location, divided into two kingdoms, with various schools of religious thought within, who later in the New Testament were disseminated to the known ends of the earth. Furthermore they employed didactic theological instructions, poetry, history and theological myth or metaphor. To complicate things further the writers of scripture had far less of a problem than we do combining such categories to make a point. When we try to impose categories on them that arise out of our context and our commitment to notions of truth shaped by the methods science and enlightenment we do the biblical authors and ourselves a grave disservice.
Please do not misconstrue me as saying that we should interpret the whole of the biblical text as metaphor and allegory and reduce it’s message to a few good abstract moral principals. That would be just as lazy and offer a reading just as flat and non-compelling as 20th Century fundamentalism. But I am saying don’t just read it this way because your mother or father or pastor and even your Grandma or her pastor read it this way. Let’s ask how the first recipients read this ancient mix of stories, history and sometimes very personal letters that the authors never imagined we would be reading today! How did the Church Mothers and Fathers read this library of books we cal the Bible. How did Calvin or Luther read them? John Wesley? How did they differ? How are Christians in other cultures receiving them today? And yes, what does the best of today’s critical scholarship have to say? I am not interested in “mere Christianity.” I don’t mean the book (but maybe?). If it is a Christianity that is not in conversation with the church at all times and in all places then I am simply not interested.
Yes there is a lot of violence, especially violence towards women, in our ancient texts. But they are our texts! At least those of us who call ourselves Christians. Yes there are differing streams of tradition. But these are our traditions and they comment upon and offer further elucidation upon each other. There are differing notions of wisdom (compare Proverbs and Ecclesiastes for crying out loud). But taken as a whole the wisdom therein is inexhaustible. There are multiple and somewhat conflicting explanations for the problem of pain and suffering. But more importantly, at its center, is the story of what God is doing about those problems in the person and work of Christ. Christians used to understand that the Bible was the Word of God – as in metaphorically and only taken as a whole – it points to God’s vision for the world. Now we too often mistakenly take it for the words of God, as in each word comes from the mouth of God. It gets accepted or rejected on those grounds.
But the Bible contains the slow revelation of people grasping to come to terms with a benevolent God. They did bad stuff in God’s name then just as now. When it is thought to be the words of God any old violent passage can be used to justify whatever violence or vitriol speech we feel so impassioned to put forth. And then of course beyond the various contradictions there is the problem of genre and mixing genres. One of the places it gets most sticky is when history gets mythologized. Did Abraham really live 175 years? Did so much of Jesus’ life really mirror that of Moses’ life as Matthew records it? I don’t know! Yet I do believe there is historical residue all over the place. I am starting to think that one of the wonders of the Incarnation is that God not only submits God’s self to a world of flesh and blood, dirt, spit and mud but God also allows God self to enter into the language humans chiefly employ to talk about the divine, namely myth. And then God allows God’s people – a people fully immersed in a particular culture, scarred by sin yet marked by God’s redemptive purposes – to write about it. As people scarred by the same sin yet marked by God’s same redemptive purposes, living in a markedly different culture, nay people living in a global society and swimming within the streams of multiple cultures and worldviews overlapping and sometimes colliding, let us do a better job at interpreting these sacred texts together!
Until next time,
"The Potato Eaters" by Vincent Van Gogh
It is Good Friday, a day haunted by the dark shadows of misunderstanding, indifference, betrayal, mockery and the worst sort of treachery humanity can dish out.
We began Holy Week with a wonderful post from Peter on Palm Sunday, exploring the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death. He called into question that which unfortunately is all too often put forth as the only explanation for Jesus’ death in Reformed circles and indeed in much of Western Christianity: i.e.