Saturday, November 17, 2007

Am I a Christian? Part 4

Freelance Theologian, Will Annoy and Offend People For Food

“I would do it all again. Lose my way and fall again.
Just so I could call again. On the mercy in you.”
Depeche Mode, ‘Mercy in You’

“Yet, I wanted to live in clean air and say Yes, or No, mean what I said and have it understood and no nonsense. I hate half-things, half-heartedness, stupid false situations, inverted feelings, pumped-up loves and hand-decorated hates. I hate people who stare at themselves in mirrors and smile. I want things straight and clear or at least I want to be able to see when they’re crooked and confused. Anything else is just nasty and so my life is nasty and I am ashamed of it. And I have an albatross around my neck that I didn’t even shoot. I simply don’t know how he got there.”
Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools

I think my view of the Divine could best be described as a Cubist painting. I manage to simultaneously hold in my mind that God is at best indifferent. Is a patient father. A wise teacher. Is a demanding lover/master/mistress. A helpful older sibling. A comforting friend. Unknowable and transcendent. Immanent and revealed. And a few other things, depending on recent events. And I don’t have even a fraction of possible angles.
But here’s the important thing.
I’m not scared.
I don’t lose sleep at night worrying about going to hell. A God who would send me to hell for asking a question isn’t a God who deserves my belief or my devotion.
And this is not because I believe I’m right the majority of the time, or because I think I am somehow privy to the mind of God. I don’t know the mind of God. The mind of God is currently unknowable. The ultimate truth is currently unknowable. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t an ultimate truth, it just means that any human who claims to know what is, is most likely lying to you. I don’t actually know what God thinks about anything.
I’m only working with what I got. Which is 21 years of lived experience. That and having read way, way too much. Ain’t much – I know. But you’ve got to act on something.
The chorus of voices just said to act on the Bible.
But in my experience, the Bible is not the infallible word of God. A word of God – sure. The word of God – no.
The chorus of voices just sung something about the faith of our fathers.
But, I’m not my father.
The chorus just erected a billboard reading “Give it up to God.”
No, actually, I think I’m pretty much on my own. Just because God could pull off a miracle doesn’t mean that God will, not matter how earnestly you pray. Maybe we need a metaphor of God as Heartbreaker. Not the God who “pricks” hearts with feelings of guilt, or whatever word the King James uses. God the Heartbreaker, as in the being who crushes you for no discernable reason, and with no explanation. None of this dualism where tragedy, personal or public, is the work of the devil. None of this crap about the end times and an angry, vengeful God. Just God the Heartbreaker.
Maybe God wants us to develop a bit of independence. Grow up.
I’m going to dive into some Biblical exegesis here. Ever noticed how in the Gospels, J.C. typically isn’t wandering around in sandals upbraiding people for believing incorrectly. No, the majority of the time when Jesus is pissed off, it’s because he’s come head to head with a group of hypocrites. People who didn’t live honestly. And, I don’t limit hypocrite to people who say one thing and then do another. I think people who deny the individual experience they’ve been given for the sake of conformity to a creed as just a hypocritical as anyone else.
Here’s the main article of my faith. God isn’t going to send me to hell for being wrong. No matter what, I’m going to be wrong about something. But if I live earnestly. If I attempt to treat others fairly and justly. If I honestly do my very best to sort out the right from the wrong. If I learn from my mistakes. And pay attention. And listen to wisdom, and pain, and experiences that others offer to share with me. To discern the real in the maze of constructions. To defend what I believe to be the good and the just as best I can possibly determine it, given the limits of what I have to work with.
I don’t need or want an eldership or hierarchy responsible for my soul. I wouldn’t mind a community of fellow travelers, so we could gather at the end of the day, discuss the sights we saw and our impressions thereof, filling in the gaps in our individual knowledge with the experience of our comrades. Maybe take photos for each other when batteries die in cameras. But I have no interest in a safe guided tour, where we all see the same sights and are told what to think of them.
And yeah. I’m going to screw up. But, for the sake of getting a little closer to knowing what is fully unknowable – I’m willing to do it.

Well, I Wouldn't Do It.

But I'm rather impressed by the young woman who was navigating St. Petersburg's icy streets this morning is six inch high heels. Especially given that I nearly fell twice in my combat boots.

And, why on earth is my computer running so slow.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Am I a Christian? Part 3

“Let righteous anger ripen in you,

Prepare your hands for the work to come . . .

or if you cannot – then let boredom

and grief gather and burn in you . . .

but, without more ado, wipe off

the greasepaint mask of this sham life,

and like the timid mole dig down

from light into the earth – lie prone

and still, hating life fiercely,

despising all the world and – though

you cannot see the future clearly –

saying to the present: NO.”

Aleksandr Blok, from “Yes. This is the Call of Inspiration.” trans. Stallworthy and France

(Also. Happy Birthday, Aleksandr Blok. I would go drink at your grave -- but its in the middle of an industrial area, and I don't quite feel like dying.)

I’ve come to a recognition while wandering through various places in Russia. I want to be a monk. Not a nun. Not a bride of Christ. A monk. A holy fool. On the edge of society and the edge of reason. A Lover of God.

Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to serve communion, to lead singing, and to preach. The CofC pays lip service to the protestant idea of a priesthood of all believers. In theory, any Christian can bless the Eucharist. In theory, any Christian can serve communion. In theory, any Christian can fulfill the functions of a priest. In general practice, this means a priesthood of all male-bodied believers.

I read once that Saint Therese, the Little Flower, commented once that it was a blessing that she died young, that God allowed her to die in the year she would have been ordained as a priest if she were a man, so that she wouldn’t suffer. If I were a man, I would be a priest.

But I’m not a man. And I’m so bitter now that I’m the person laughing madly in corner, sneering to hide the fact that I’m waiting for the next blow to fall. I’m much too young for this.

Sure, yes, I see the verses stating that the man is the head of the woman. But I’m not a very good woman, and perhaps not even a woman, depending upon how you want to construct the term. And, what about Mary Magdalene? What about Galatians? Why would the Bible tell me in one place that it’s best to remain unmarried, and then later say that if I want to know anything, I have to ask my husband at home?

But we don’t have ordination. And they start training the boys for the ministry as soon as they can hold a Bible in their hands and read. And maybe it shouldn’t have felt like this, but every service where my male peers or even boys hardly old enough to read served the Eucharist, or led the singing, or read from the Bible, or stammered his way through a short sermon, it was another punch, another hit. It didn’t matter that I was as smart as, as talented as, worked as hard as any of those boys. It didn’t matter that when it came done to it, I was a better speaker than the majority of the guys. I was barred for the pulpit. I was exiled to the girls, who giggled together, and thought I was very odd because I didn’t have a crush on any of the boys. A stranger in a strange land. Caught in between two worlds, and in both I’m considered to be a bit “queer.”

Can I be a Christian when the majority of my experience has taught me that there is no place for me in the Body of Christ? No place for the tomboy.

And no, it doesn’t matter than there are many denominations where I would be welcome. I’ve been attacked by too many people bearing the name Christian. Can the goat driven out to the desert ever easily trust another human?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Nudes to Bibles

I didn’t bring a Bible to Russia with me. This is actually the first extended period that I have been without at least one copy of the Bible hanging about in easy reach. Geek that I am, its not uncommon for me to have two or three different translations; although, lately I’ve been relying heavily upon my beloved and running out of marginal space NOAB. But the KJV sometimes draws me in.

Well, I now have a Russian language New Testament and Psalms thanks to the Gideons in Moscow. Unfortunately, it won’t help me revise this paper, because my Russian just isn’t that good. While writing this (obviously not while posting it) I’m staring at my notes, thinking, well, crap, it would be nice to look up the exact verse I’m referring to. I can paraphrase it pretty well, and I’m fairly certain its in 1 or 2 Corinthians, but being a bit OCD about this things...

Anyway, by the time anyone reads this, I will have BibleGatewayed to my heart’s content, looked for an e-book Bible, and will be muttering something about BibleGateway not having the NRSV.

Incidentally, I would also like for my scribbled in copy of Butler’s Gender Trouble to magically appear in my hands for paper revision purposes.

Addition: I didn't know it would be so difficult to find a free e-version of the Bible. Big business selling bibles is, I reckon.

Breaking from Religions to Discuss Sexy Soviet Nudes

I went to the Russian Museum last Saturday. First things first, should you ever find yourself in Petersburg, set aside a day and go to the Russian Museum. Just do it. Maybe even two days, it’s a bit overwhelming – particularly if one is from an art-poor backwater (I love you Memphis, but...)

So, after salivating over the portion of the icon collection that is on display, the less interesting portraits of dead tsars and Russian nobility, and the absolutely amazing late 19th/early 20th art, I walked through the two temporary displays up at the Russian Museum.

One titled the Soviet Venus, the other a collection of nude works by a Soviet painter whose name I have forgotten. The latter was a rather banal collection of nude females, several of which were allegories for “exotic” countries such as Turkey and India. Yeah...okay, I wasn’t impressed.

The Soviet Venus exhibit had a little more meat for gnawing on. It was a bit of an awkward experience, in part because a very decent percentage of Saint Petersburg was there to see it, and the gallery it was crammed into had very little space to begin with. Then there was the factor that I couldn’t quite decide whether I was looking at Soviet art or Soviet soft porn.

Female athletes losing their clothing while competing – while a young man with a gleeful smile looks on. Bit of an awkward ideology there. The piece doesn’t just assume an audience, but actually supplies the prototype of the ideal audience. Also, not exactly a good piece of art to begin with, but I’m not a fan of Soviet Realism to begin with. I preferred the female machinists in varying degrees of jumpsuitedness, but that could just be me.

Oddly enough, I found that the best art pieces in the exhibit were the ones that were furthest into the boundary zone between art and pornography. There were two photographs from a series titled Romance with the Theater. They were beautifully composed and dramatically lit, with a great sense of tension and plot even. The two figures were a young, artsy, fully clothed young man, and a completely naked woman, depicted as tied up in one of the photos. It was certainly art. Sex was an element. And, yeah, I was slightly disturbed by the photos, but disturbed in same way I would be by a good Chuck Palahniuk novel or David Foster Wallace.

The setting might have had something to do with my indecision. The good photos were surrounded by bland, disembodied breasts, and the like – no where nearly as compelling. Philosophically, I don’t know why allegorical figures are almost always nude females, but at least this one was intriguing rather than the “exotic nations” in the other exhibit.

I’m still processing.

However, it seems that classic art does teach that all heroic acts should be performed in the nude.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Am I a Christian? Part 2

Your Own Personal Jesus

“The vision of Christ that thou dost see,

is mine vision’s greatest enemy.”

William Blake

What was it that one of my professors said in class the other day: When you try to look at reality closely, you lose the ability to describe it.

I’m fond of Jesus. And I’m most certainly culturally a Christian – it’s the symbol set I’m best acquainted with. I can proof-text with all but the best (and give me a crack at the best, and I’ll take up the challenge). Christianity is the main force that shaped the lense through which I view the world. Not feminism, not libertarianism, not even my beloved Dostoevsky – Christianity. I’ll even admit that I’m very strongly marked by the Restoration Movement. Everything went downhill from Constantine on. Augustine – please, must we? Are you really certain you need an ecclesiastic hierarchy? But I’m a bad Church of Christ girl, because I don’t believe the Bible is the full, complete, and inerrant Word of God.

A chorus of voices in my head are asking right now just how I’m going to know Jesus, if not through the Bible. Welcome to my skull.

Is it enough to think that J.C. ain’t a bad example of the Divine incarnated in humanity? (Russian has a word for this: bogochelovechestvo -- Godmanhood/Divine Humanity/the translators are still playing to get the nuances into English.) Can you be a Christian if you happen to believe that even if J.C. is an extremely good example of bogochelovechestvo, he isn’t sufficient on his own? That we need other images the Divine within the human.

I’m also someone who has a tendency to be fond of various Hindu deities and the Buddha. And I’m developing a strong belief that all churches should have icons and lots of them, because one image of divine humanity just isn’t enough. Not even Jesus. My first remembered instance of religious-themed sarcasm was when I giggled to myself at the preacher talking about how J.C. had experienced all possible forms of human suffering. Jesus PMSing and cramping? Yeah. Right. Sure, he got much more acute physical suffering – but was he ever really trapped in his body the way I am? Trapped in a body dubbed the weaker vessel that revolts on a regular basis?

(I’d be a bad Hindu too, by the way. Karma, reincarnation – yes. Dharma – not so much.)

Can I be a Christian and take offerings of fruit to Sarasvatti? Can I be a Christian if I prefer other images of the Divine? If I light candles for Mary of Egypt and ask her to guide me? If I burn incense before an image of Sophia? If my soul has never wanted to dance more than before an image of Vishnu called by the drums and bells? Not to the exclusion of Jesus, but . . . you get the picture. If Christ is in the name, does Christ have to be the main image?

Maybe the reverse is more important. Can I be anything but a Christian when ultimately Christianity is the dominant force that has shaped my thinking?

Perhaps, I’ll start telling people that I’m an Origenist and see how that goes over.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Am I a Christian? Part 1

I’m filling out school applications again! Oh joy! For graduate school. Religious studies. Yes, I will have a lovely cardboard box one of these days. All kinds of fun questions. (Why are male and female the only choices for gender? Can’t we get past that already? Especially at liberal/progressive schools!) And, among them, we have this kicker.

Religious Affiliation: ________________

Okay, Metra, don’t panic. You’re going into academia, not ministry. It isn’t a big deal. Right. You can, after all, be an agnostic or an atheist and be a scholar of religion.

But it’s a good question. How should I describe my religious beliefs? N/A doesn’t quite seem to work. Half-crazed Mystic seems rather pretentious, as does Cosmic Lesbian Relationship with the Divine Sophia. Citizen of the Republic of Heaven – maybe I should save references to children’s novels for later – like, when I have tenure somewhere. Four years ago my mother got mad because I refused to describe myself as a member of the Church of Christ on college applications. I wrote in Christian at the time.

I read somewhere that the Cathars described themselves as Good Christians. This didn’t mean that they weren’t considered heretics.

Since I’m not going into ministry, I decided to write a sermon on the matter. Which I’m breaking up into four parts, because no blog entry should be 2800 words long.

Dear Family Members who have found this blog, although, in all but one case, I’m not sure how – please, don’t panic. And anyone who comments in anyway about my father – well, I’m not sure what I’ll do – but you do not have the right to do so.

Recovering Church of Christ

“That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion.

Trying to keep a few, and I don’t know if I can do it.

Oh no, I’ve said too much. I haven’t said enough.”

R.E.M., ‘Losing My Religion’

“Blessed is the church service makes me nervous.”

Paul Simon

I’m not comfortable with using the word Christian to describe myself. I’m from the buckle of the Bible Belt. Christian is carrying a lot of baggage that I don’t want. And the fundamentalist part of my life has been over for a long time. I don’t want to be associated with the religious right and the Southern Baptist Convention and so on and so forth. Or with that 80 some percent of Tennesseans who voted a year ago to enshrine their homophobia in the state constitution.

Put it this way. I’m not an evangelical. I don’t think Christians, much less the CofC or the SBC, has a monopoly on salvation – however you would like to define it. And if I have to think that to be a Christian – well then, I’m not one. And in the neck of the woods I’m from, the evangelicals have a hegemony of representation.

What is a Christian anyway? There are plenty of people I recognize as Christians who wouldn’t recognize me as such? There are several people who call themselves Christians, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how they are. (James Dobson for instance. Distorting science for the purpose of libel, actively promoting the stripping of basic secular rights from persons – yes, that’s what Jesus was all about!) And no, you don’t need to agree with me on every issue for me to recognize you as a Christian. But I’m happy to tell you that from where I’m standing, your actions are dead wrong.

And maybe I should do more to break the evangelical hegemony of representation. In the real world, that is, not just poking badgers with spoons on the internets. I was silent about too many things too often. Sure I made a feeble effort here and there, questioning the doctrine of baptism as necessary for salvation, refusing to hand out certain pieces of literature, playing devil’s advocate in class. Occasionally, when I think people will get the joke, I’ll respond to an inquiry about my religion with “I’m Satanic.” And by Satanic, I do not refer to black masses, but simply to the role of questioning the authority. Nor is this incompatible with being “Christ-like.” One way or the other, the gospel call is a challenge to the established balance.

But more frequently than doing something, I also failed to do something. Senior of high school, I should have gone to the college girl who was teaching a class to middle/early high school girls with the theme: How to be the Perfect Woman for Your Future Husband, and asked her to reconsider her choice of a topic that denied the ability of women to be complete individuals on their own. If she didn’t listen, I should have gone on up the chain. Heck, I should have taken it to the elders, if it came to it. I wouldn’t even have needed to draw on feminist theory for my argument. Instead, I just told my little sister than was a load of BS, and she shouldn’t believe a word of it. I should have questioned the one youth minister who preached a whole lesson on how he had to accept that his Methodist family members were going to hell in order to be a TRUE Christian. But I just ranted with my little sister. But these are times that I failed. When I didn’t try because I didn’t believe that anything could come of it.

I like the title of Kelly Fryer’s blog: Reclaiming the F Word. I love that Soulforce exists – I’m even more pleased that a CofC college was one of the ones that welcomed them for dialogue. I admire that there are people who are far more optimistic than me, who want to reclaim their religion from the Religious Right. I hear my CofC feminist cousin, trying to encourage me to stay in, to try to change things, saying that my generation. But I can’t. There’s too much anger in me. I don’t have the privilege my father did – I’ve been written off too many times. I wish these people the best, but I can’t do it.