Monthly Archives: November 2012

Reading Marilynne Robinson

Reading Marilynne Robinson’s book of essays When I Was a Child I Read Books, I’m met by someone who is thinking deeply about society and attempting to bridge the chasm between society/science/materialism and faith.  She is not pushing ideologies that must be believed, but is rather creating pathways into conversation, raising questions that people aren’t asking, and populating a renewed community.

Here are some tidbits of her writing. Enjoy.

  • We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. (7)
  • There is at present a dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives. (45)
  • I think of the acts of comfort offered and received within a household as precisely sacramental.  (93)
  • In these two narratives (Christmas, Easter) narrative fractures the continuity of history. . . . At the same time they have created a profound continuity.  (127)
  • There is . . . the urge, driven by righteousness and indignation, to conform reality to theory.  (152)
  • . . . we should cease and desist from reductionist, in effect invidious, characterizations of humankind.  (158)
  • . . . moment by moment, every one of us experiences, along with the whole of the cosmos this great mystery of being, this great unfolding of ineluctable, irreversible time.  (185)
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Travel, Immigration and Exile at SAMLA

Text as Memoir: Tales of Travel, Immigration, and Exile was the theme of the 2012 South Atlantic Modern Language Association.  Memoir and travel, two of my favorite topics, drew me to this conference – a southern hospitality version of the national MLA conference.  As part of this conference, participants were looking to find a place for their work.  They all seemed to know what they are doing and why they are there.  They teach, they write, they are known in this circle of scholars – or know a path they will follow to get known.  Me, I was watching.  Yet, watching in the spirit of the conference.

My first thought was that I was an exile.  Not in the sense that I’ve been driven away from home to live in a foreign land.  This was more of a self-imposed exile.  I wanted to play at being a scholar, but not follow the traditional career path. Throughout the gathering, people affectionately referred to this conference as a single word, samla.  I kept naming the letters, S A M L A.  As I had expected, everyone seemed to be a professor or a grad student on their way to working in the academy. I’m a campus minister; on the campus, but also an outsider. Though the exile may have been mostly in my head, it felt quite real as I walked that halls and overheard people talking about their classes, their research, their writing, their department politics and I saw no way to enter this world.

However, I was also playing the role of immigrant.  I longed to be part of this group, or a similar one, actively engaged with research and the academy.  I wanted to do more than watch.  As I listened to panels on finding religion in post-enlightenment texts and redefining great books for the 21st century, I wanted to jump right into research myself.  My mind thinks about the work I must to do take this immigrant journey – who will be my guide, how will I learn the language of the academy, what do I need to do to start teaching?  I have a partial passport, a Ph.D., but there is more work to do and that path isn’t very clear for someone who hasn’t been playing by the rules of teaching, publishing.

Yet, there were definitely times when I felt like a fellow traveler.  As part of a panel on religious travel in literature, I presented a paper on pilgrimage in Little Women.  In the small group that attended and participated we shared collegial conversations about all the papers presented.  At a lunch I sat down at a table with two other women, one a graduate student.  I was able to hear a bit of her story and share about my work with students in similar places on their doctoral journeys.  She expressed interest in the possibility of integrating faith and scholarship. Something that she hadn’t thought would be possible. In these places I was surprised to find myself a traveler, even though it had a different look than those around me.

Without planning it, at SAMLA I was authoring a new memoir melding the experiences of exile, immigrant, and traveler.  It’s an uneasy place to be – one of those liminal places I refer to so often, but don’t always like to be in.  However in this uncertainty I was slowly defining a place – or at least finding new places to travel even while outside the group.

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Life Together

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!  Psalm 133:1

More than ever I’ve been experiencing dissension around me, especially among Christians.  Pastors can’t, or won’t, reach out to brothers and sisters who hold a different interpretation of a favorite doctrine.  Friends call each other idiots because they support different political parties. Church members shun those who hold a different view of creation. People are standing their grounds – and dividing the world more deeply than ever.

If everyone would believe my way, then there would be unity.  

Really?

What would it be like to lay down our arms, instead of taking them up to defend our positions?  I don’t want to hear arguments anymore.  I want to sit down and talk.  To work to see God’s image in one another.

Dissension was also part of the Gospels – Jesus did not shy away from it.  But neither did he allow it to separate people, unless they chose separation. He brought religious zealots and tax collectors into his inner circle.  Beyond the twelve disciples, pharisees, prostitutes, and other outcasts were regular followers. These individuals did not always get along or have the same vision of God’s Kingdom.  Yet, this was the first inkling of Christian community.  Unlike the religious leaders of their day, the primary commonality among Jesus’ followers was not external practices, rules, or programs.  No, Christ himself was the unifying element.

Nearly two thousand years after this original band came together, I often wonder if the church has forgotten what it means to live in unity.  While part of an underground seminary in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer explored the idea of Christian community in the book, Life Together.  This group did not wait until they could be a thriving church body drawing people in from the streets when all programs and procedures were in order.  They practiced this community in the chaos of the Third Reich.  As Bonhoeffer writes, “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” (30).  In other words, a church is not a church because it has certain external practices, but because Christ is in the midst of her workings.

I have noticed that Christian community often breaks down because of differing expectations of what a church should and should not be.  For some people, it must have the right youth program, worship service, or only include people whose ideas are similar to theirs.  Or, maybe its budget should contain specific items or the carpet be a certain color.  However, as Bonhoeffer warns, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial” (27).  When I read this sentence I knew he was not just talking to those with whom I disagree, but to me as well.  Many times my dreams of what a Christian community could be overpower the reality of how Christ is working.  I need to ask forgiveness.

However, whether it’s a need to ask for forgiveness, to share failings in work or family life, or just to express that one is weak, we are fearful that if we back down from our ‘a-okay’ personas people will walk away.  As Bonhoeffer rightly reminds us, “many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous” (110). How sad. We are all sinners. Jesus came not for a group of perfect humans – but for those who know they are broken and need help.  As we hide our sins from the community, sin has greater control over us.  Only when we are honest before others and God does sin loosen its hold on our lives.

Some of the work that makes this possible runs contrary to how the world says we should conduct ourselves in order to succeed.  Instead of speaking against people behind their backs, we are to hold our tongues.  Instead of claiming one’s rights above another, we are to be meek.  We are to listen, to bear each others’ burdens, and to proclaim God’s Word and truth in love.  An amazing freedom occurs as we practice these actions through Christ.  We allow our brothers and sisters, along with ourselves, to be free to be the image of God, not be constrained by the limiting image we have for them.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.  Galatians 5:1

 

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The Wise Indifference of Daniel

The ultimate story is that of a return home – The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Lord of the Rings.  Protagonists in these stories often leave home in order to protect it and to live out the purpose of their lives.  Even as they meet the challenges along the way, they continue to desire home, and it is this desire that keeps them going.

But how do you live life in a new place when it is one of exile?  When the  journey and trials before you are not bringing you closer to home?  When it’s likely you will never walk the road home again? It’s tempting to give up. To despair of ever returning.

It’s in this place of exile where we meet Daniel in the Hebrew scriptures who has been taken to the court in Babylon as a prize of King Nebuchadnezzar.  However, there is something a bit strange about this man.  In his narrative we don’t see him pining for Israel or fighting against his captors. There is an odd restfulness about his actions in this strange land. One could say that this is an attitude of detachment or indifference.

Ignatius of Loyola speaks of such indifference in his Spiritual Exercises:

It is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than sort life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created. 

So much of our lives in the twenty-first century is built on creating an identity and tying ourselves to it.  If I’m not a graduate who am I?  If I don’t have children?  If I’m not a member of this church?  If my team loses?  We grasp our desires, our identity, our home and hold on at all costs.  We are restless. But as Ignatius tells us and Daniel shows us, there is another way.  Indifference in this view is not apathy or unconcern, but a detachment from things in this world that would keep us from following God first and foremost.

Chapter two of this book takes place a year or two after the narrative leaves Daniel and his three friends in Babylon, having gained recognition in the court of their captors as being wise and God-fearing young men.  They excelled in their education and found a place in this foreign land even while keeping true to their God.  At this point we enter further into this court tale. This story is similar to that of Joseph who was also an exile and rose within the Egyptian.  Yet, there are twists in these biblical stories that make them unique.

The king’s court is now a place of rising tension. In this place of earthly power, King Nebuchadnezzar can not sleep because of a troubling dream. He calls the wise men in his court to reveal and interpret it.  Three times he asks, and three times they declare the impossibility – only the gods could do such a thing and they don’t dwell with humans.  If the king would reveal the dream first, then they would be able to interpret it. Nonetheless, Nebuchadnezzar is determined to hold onto his identity as absolute ruler and the wise men insist that this request is impossible.  At this impasse, anger overtakes the king and he orders all the wise men killed.  There is no path out.

In contrast, when Daniel hears the sentence, he doesn’t just accept it, wonder how the king could be so irrational, or even ask why God brought him here only to die.  He merely asks why the king is so hasty in his decree and then states that he will reveal the dream if given time.  What comes next is not a frantic attempt to shore up his identity as a wise man and solve this enigma on his own.  No, he returns to his friends, shares with them this dilemma, and asks them to join him in praying for God’s mercies.  He turns not to his ability.  He turns, with his friends, to God.

What an amazing response.  In this era of extreme angst about politics, economics, and so much more, what would it be like to have more Daniel’s around us?  To be a Daniel? Remembering that we are in exile as we live in the now and not yet reality of God’s Kingdom.  Having faith in God alone.

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