Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Counting Blue Cars

I knelt in front of the minister, whom I'd sought out for this very purpose: to be anointed with oil and prayed over in order to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. By this I mean that I wanted to speak in tongues. I grew up very anti-charismatic; in the Church of Christ there were three things we definitely weren't: charismatic, Catholic, or Calvinist. But the theology of my childhood faith seemed flat and sterile compared to those who were experiencing more than just heady assent to doctrine, who were getting some kind of taste of God that I had been denied.

I don't remember if this was before or after my Catholic phase, but it doesn't matter. In that moment, I thought that maybe, just maybe, if I opened my mouth I could let fly with the language of angels. It was, if I can be forgiven the pun, right on the tip of my tongue. If I just gave things the slightest push, if I tried, maybe I could manifest the sign I was looking for.

In the end, it was that push that did me in. I knew that, on some level, I would be making it happen, that I would be having this experience predicated on the fact that I wanted to have this experience. I really think it was possible, but somehow I also knew it wasn't going to be the thing that I was looking for, the thing that I now suspect doesn't exist -- not for people like me.

I wanted something that I couldn't disbelieve, something so overwhelmingly real that it would reorient the rest of my life. Some so real it would make me real. I was, by this time, already starting to doubt my legitimacy as a Christian. I didn't feel the gushy Jesus stuff other people felt. People would tell me things like "I can just see the power of God on you when you lead worship" but I knew in my heart it was a kind of performance, and one that would obtain whether I was leading worship or playing in a bar. I pour myself into the music that I play, even when I don't like the music in question, because that's what we do as musicians. I can couch that in Christianese -- I used to joke that "it's not worship unless you sweat" but I knew it was the music, and this made me feel fake.

The minister reassured me that sometimes it doesn't happen right away, that later down the road, at some random moment, I might be ravished by the Holy Spirit -- that the prayer and the anointing had done their work, and not to worry. I wasn't worried, but I was pretty sure nothing was going to happen. Emily Dickinson famously refused to go forward during a revival at Holyoke, even though most of her peers were caught up in ecstatic frenzy.

Simone Weil, for all practical purposes an atheist, was enamored of the Church but never joined because she felt she belonged outside, if only just. William James, in his famous Varieties of Religious Experience, seems smitten by mystics, recognizing some kind of validity to their experience, which he felt was denied him. Kathleen Norris quotes someone -- Levertov, maybe, or Sexton? -- who said "I love faith, but I have been denied the gift of faith."

I recently had a brief exchange with Cheryl Ensom Dack over at Peter Walker's blog. She too, has been looking for an encounter with God, though she narrates things differently than I do. And with no such encounter forthcoming, she's moved on. She's open to God if he decides to show up, but she's not holding her breath. I've always wondered if Simone Weil's title Waiting for God was an allusion to Beckett's Waiting for Godot, in which the title character never arrives, but I don't know. Either way, I relate to these people, those of us begging for scraps at the existential banqueting table.

But that's not quite right, either. It's more like we're watching other people eat sand, and rave about the gourmet dining, knowing that it's not sand to them, and yet unable to undertake the act of surrender necessary to taste the prime rib ourselves. The wine and bread refuse to transubstantiate, and whether a priest says hoc est corpus meum or a parlor magician says "hocus pocus" it's not going to change anything.

We've got it wrong, our friends say; we want to know so that we might believe but we must, as Augustine said, believe that we might know. We can't have this experience because we won't have this experience. We nod and we smile. We say "I know, I know," and wave our hand dismissively. We might even agree. But we also know that we won't because we can't.

We can't will ourselves to believe just so that we might have a particular kind of experience and still believe the experience the way that others do. We'd always know we made it happen. We'd always know we surrendered to the particular conditions necessary to have a certain kind of experience and that's all it would mean, all it would ever mean.

This is the deal we made, though we didn't know we were making it. This is our Faustian bargain, but at the end there's no devil anymore with whom we might negotiate: no backsies, no do-over, no mulligan.

We wanted to know something. Wanted to see something. We had some kind of insatiable curiosity about systems, about meaning, about language, about human thinking. Something to do with the "linguistic turn" and poststructuralism and Heisenberg and semantic structures and science fiction and religion and God knows what else and we don't even remember when the turning point was, just this never-ending ratchet click, click, click, no turning back we already took the red pill the toothpaste is out of the tube the water is not turning into wine into blood and no, Goddammit you're not going to speak in tongues because you'd just be making it up and you know it.

It feels, at times, a little like madness.

We'll sometimes poke fun at the true believers because of their blindness but at the same time we covet what their blindness gives them. We see people raising their hands in worship, and not just for show but out of some depth of spirit, and we wonder what that's like. We hear people choke up in the middle of a puerile but heartfelt prayer and we wonder what it would take to move us so completely. We hear people talk about their deep, personal relationship with God or Jesus and we think: really? What on earth would that be like? Not just to experience that -- it's not that simple -- but to be the kind of person who can?

But we traded off. We chose something different. We can't go back, and we wouldn't anyway. We didn't get cheated, not really. We got exactly what we were looking for. We all do.

Tell me all your thoughts on God.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Farther Along

So, I'm neck-deep in dissertation stuff. This is my life right now, besides grading papers. I'm taking notes for chapter 3, trying to sort the work of John Howard Yoder into the "five principle topoi" around which I'm organizing the dissertation: ethics, ecclesiology, eschatology, etiology, and economics. Yes, they all begin with 'e'; that's part accident, part serendipity, and part homage to Catherine Albinese's four C's of religious studies -- creed, code, cultus, and community -- only mine are designed to get at the overlap of religion and politics in specific ways. When I landed on that rubric I began to feel like I might actually have something to say.

Yoder is great for this because he basically connects all those dots for me in his own work (in fact, I'm seeing ways in which my approach to this study -- I'm examining the relationship between religion and politics in the postsecular turn through the lens of Christian radicalism, particularly the anarchist implications of a pacifist ethics -- has been shaped by my appreciation of Yoder). His pacifist ethics is made intelligible by his eschatology, and he knows this. His ecclesiology is the sociopolitical expression of this ethics as a sign, a foretaste, and a herald of what is to come. The church is to live out a kingdom ethics in the here and now that will be for the whole world in the time to come. This ethics has a strongly economic component inasmuch as it is also a Jubilee ethics, where debts are forgiven and slaves set free, and Yoder's clearest expression of this is in his 1972 The Politics of Jesus, which is an etiological project in the exact sense that I am using the word.

The church can afford to be pacifist, in Yoder's theology, because the church is not charged with the task of setting things right. This will happen by the hand of God at some later date. Yoder is correct to point out (decades ahead of people like N.T. Wright) that the horizon of expectation, for Jesus and his followers, was not some other-worldly realm but God's action in this one, a time when God would break into history and settle the score. Justice is deferred eschatologically such that those times that turning the other cheek just gets you slapped again and the path of self-giving love leads to crucifixion are redeemed at some future date when all is revealed.

For Jesus and his followers, this meant judgment upon Israel's enemies (Rome in particular) and the vindication of the martyrs. The book of Revelation makes little sense without this assumption. They thought it was coming soon, within a generation, and while Yoder explicitly rejects a hermeneutic in which Jesus' ethical call is intelligible precisely because this was seen as so close (and because the imperial power of Rome disallowed violent resistance as a live option) he does so simply by extending the deferral period indefinitely. God, apparently, is a perpetual grad student who keeps taking classes to avoid paying back his loans.

For a time, I was able to crib a page from the eschatological playbook of my Transmillennial friends, one that says everything's already fulfilled, and read Yoder through that lens. It takes the apocalyptic bookend off one end of the shelf. In such a mashup, then, this is it; the church's nomadic journey in resistance to the powers has been concretized as the very way of Jesus. God has effectively pronounced that there is no reckoning, no guarantee, no promise that everything's going to be okay. This, take it or leave it, is the world created and called "good," and while we're welcome -- perhaps even called -- to contribute to the common good, there is no grand design or plan to make everything correspond to our idea of perfect.

In this theology, one embraces the kenotic, pacifistic way of Jesus not because everything's going to Come Out Okay in the End, but simply because it's The Right Thing to Do. This is what it means to follow Jesus. This is the way of the Cross. I lay down my claims to power, or defense, or vengeance, not secure in the belief that God is going to justify my stance in some tangible way but simply because that is my calling, regardless of what God does or doesn't do.

It's a kind of poststructuralist version of the Calvinist who insists they would praise God even if they were one of the damned. Embracing such a call is what it means to believe in the Resurrection, which becomes, in my way of thinking, less a metaphysical claim about what once happened to some dead guy and more a way of narrating the rightness of the path of the Cross. There's a lot I like about that.

But that center did not hold. Pacifism became the hammer that let me see the whole world as a nail. It quickly became an absolute, an ethical position that takes on all comers. It became a way to win, a way to embrace my skepticism while still being more right than all those other bastards who piss me off by being so right. It was my own secret gnosis, the key to everything, the one ring to rule them all. In the end, it had to be crucified. If following Jesus means anything, it means I don't get to decide what following Jesus is supposed to look like.

I haven't started packing heat or anything. I'm probably 99% pacifist; I just don't want to foreclose on that 1%. It's not because I'd cave under the carefully constructed hypothetical scenarios that opponents of pacifism like to toss at pacifists. Sure, under the right conditions, I'd probably put a cap in somebody's ass (but I'm not buying a Glock on the off chance that such a condition will arise). That's not a good reason to not be a pacifist any more than the fact that I can think of situations I might lie is a good reason to give up on honesty.

No, it's more that pacifism as an absolute isn't really pacifism. An absolute ethical stance is inevitably an ethical shortcut that presumes to know in advance the answer to a call that hasn't come yet. I'm all about preaching pacifism to the privileged; I'm a lot less comfortable preaching it to the oppressed. Not that I'm trafficking with the oppressed a whole lot, mind you. I'm not. And not that violence is very often a clear and present option for anyone, let alone the oppressed. I just can't, as easily as Yoder, dismiss the idea of the strong having responsibility for the weak, up to and including using force in defense of the weak, mostly because I don't share Yoder's metaphysical commitments.

In not believing that God is coming over the next hill to save our sorry asses, I disabuse myself of the luxury of a pacifist ethics. The grand reckoning that Jesus and Paul associated with the apocalypse never happened, and I don't have the metaphysical apparatus to either believe everything was really fulfilled in some way that we can't fully understand or that it is going to be fulfilled at some point in the indeterminate future. But I can still read this as revelatory, as apocalyptic in the sense of an unveiling; it reveals our freedom, our stark, naked, terrifying freedom. The freedom to which Sartre said we were condemned. We are free from any and all apocalyptic scripts. Free from ethical absolutes -- which does not so much free us from the ethical call as it throws us ever more deeply into that call.

This is our salvation.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I Come to the Garden Alone

Labor Day happened to fall on our youngest's birthday. He turned nine. So when he asked for pancakes for breakfast (actually, his stuffed pig -- from Laura Numeroff's If You Give a Pig a Pancake, no less -- did the asking) there was no way I could refuse the request, nor did I want to. One birthday breakfast of piggy pancakes was enjoyed by everyone. Well, not exactly everyone, but I was on an alliterative streak in that last sentence.

Anyway, a bit later, when I headed upstairs to the bedroom to change out of my pajamas after a leisurely morning of web-surfing and pancake-making, the smell of the cooked pancakes had morphed on its way upstairs until it somehow smelled remarkably like my first-grade cafeteria, and this, given the evocative power of smell, instantly gave me a minor anxiety attack. This has happened before -- not just the general experience of having a smell trigger a memory or even some sort of displaced anxiety, but this specific smell of my grade-school cafeteria, and this specific sense of anxiety. Sometimes green beans do it. Do not even begin to look for some connection between green beans and pancakes. I don't have an answer for that.

It is difficult to describe everything going through my head at that moment. My initial thought was to identify the smell, quickly followed by the vague sense of anxiety that I knew was triggered by the smell simply because I hated first grade so much. Then I began to wonder if the smell was really all that similar or my brain was fixated on the memory of grade school for some other reason and the smell was just handy for that purpose, and then I wondered how I might get a blog post out of it because it would be a shame to waste such an interesting moment.

This all happened in the time it took me to find a shirt and put it on along with a pair of jeans, though if I'm honest I'll tell you that I was similarly hyper-aware of the process of finding the shirt and putting it on along with the jeans while at the same time both experiencing and seeking to stave off a minor anxiety attack that I hoped I might be able to milk for a blog post and wondering what that might really say about me, aside from the obvious conclusion that I'm slightly fucked-up but at least, most days, high functioning. Some of you get that. The rest of you probably never will, and that's okay.

I don't remember, of my own accord, why first grade was so traumatic, but the story is familiar to me, told often by my mother. The story is that I taught myself to read at age four, but the school I transferred to in first grade refused to recognize this, apparently assuming my mother's claims to that effect to be just so much maternal hyperbole. Thus I was bored, quite literally to tears, and often tried to convince my mother to let me stay home sick, which sometimes worked. This I remember vaguely. Then one day, as the story goes, I was in the cafeteria line with one of my classmates when he posed some question about the day's lunch offerings, which I answered by reading the menu board to him. This was noticed by a teacher, and thus the school "discovered" I could read. They quickly telephoned my mother, whose response was some rather more polite iteration of "No shit, Sherlock."

So there's the neat package: I hated first grade for the above reasons, and the smell of the pancakes, modulated by its trip to the bedroom, triggered the smell of my first grade cafeteria and prompted a (very minor) anxiety attack which was ameliorated by a couple of deep breaths and relocation to somewhere the smell wasn't. Neat.

Except I don't buy it.

I don't buy it because among everything else running through my head in that moment was the recognition that while I was thinking first grade, I was, inexplicably, seeing fifth grade. Moreover, according to the story, the first grade cafeteria was the scene of my triumph. Why the panic?

By fifth grade I was in my fifth elementary school: one for kindergarten, another for first grade, another for second through the first part of fourth grade, another for the latter part of fourth grade, and then fifth and sixth grades at a Catholic elementary school. We were not Catholic. Nor were we the kind of people who could afford a Catholic school. My grandparents bankrolled it, for reasons I'm still fuzzy on. Something about the school's "great reading program," which was supposed to be helpful to my siblings, particularly my sister, who was behind in almost everything but especially reading skills. I didn't need the help but got to go along for the ride.

Really, the whole elementary school kit and kaboodle was a study in social discomfort for me. I was a supremely nerdy kid, with greasy hair and dark-rimmed glasses, the kind that have become strangely fashionable only 30 years too late. In second grade, I had Mrs. Beverage -- that was really her name, though I insisted on abbreviating it "Mrs. Bev." (I had recently discovered abbreviations). I also insisted on numbering my assignments in Roman numerals (I had recently discovered those, too). I won the spelling contest and went to regionals only to make a rookie mistake on "gangrene" (I knew it instantly but there are no backsies) and get disqualified. I cried and my mom gave me peanut M&M's, which remain a comfort food to this day.

In third grade I had Mrs. Lamb, probably the sweetest little old lady ever to walk the planet. I also had an obsession with dinosaurs, and a crush of sorts on one of the fourth grade teachers, whose name, interestingly, I don't remember. On what I'm guessing was my 9th birthday, one of the other third grade teachers, Mr. Nelson, paddled me in what I'm sure was a good-natured way, but I cried and this made him feel really, really bad, which I think was the whole reason I cried. I can't be sure. I wouldn't put it past me. Mr. Nelson seemed to be intrigued by my intelligence, and sometimes brought in a Simon game (you know, the one with the pattern of lights you're supposed to match) because, apparently, all smart nerdy kids like Simon.

Fourth grade is a blur. We moved halfway through, and I only remember one incident from the new school. My mom was a college student, and a single parent with three kids, so we had no money. She made us flannel pajamas, which were invariably colors like yellow and pink with bunnies or something on them. The homemade elastic waistbands ended up looking kind of frilly. And I wore them under my corduroys like long johns in the cold winter months. You can imagine the hilarity that ensued when I slipped on the ice in the playground one day and my shirt came up and the whole world saw my pink, frilly, bunny-populated pajama bottoms peaking out of the top of my pants.

Which brings me to fifth grade -- why, after all that, is fifth grade so particularly traumatic that it is that cafeteria my mind conjures? I can't say. Is it another trick of the mind, perhaps? I know that in the fifth grade (and sixth, for that matter), we were still rather poor and I wore hand-me down clothes, as a lot of people do. But for some reason, I refused to wear jeans, and for some other reason, the only available alternative involved plaid pants, and for some reason I was totally okay with this. It was 1980 or 81. I think my favorite shirt might have been velour.

All I know is that in fifth grade I felt very alone -- not an outcast, because that implies having been part of something to be cast out of -- but an outsider. I was at a Catholic school and we were not Catholic and while I don't remember anyone making a big deal out of this, it was there. And I think this is right around the age where your sense of self really starts to come on board, and I was thereby coming more and more to terms with being an oddball. I was weird. There's no way around that. I was brainy and skinny and short and wore plaid pants. I would later learn to wear jeans, and to be funny, and to use my intelligence as both tool and weapon. I would learn to craft words, and I would discover a musical talent that opened whole worlds to me.

There are still plenty of embarrassing stories from those later years, but I gradually learned to navigate the social environments I found myself in. I learned a skill that white heterosexual males don't usually have to learn: I learned to pass. What did I learn to pass as? It's a fair question, and the only answer I have is: whatever I needed to be. (Within reason, of course; I could not convincingly pass as a jock, for instance, but that still left a wide range of options.)

While I most certainly don't want to hang everything on this, it appears at least some of it might have to do with being an introvert. "Introverts would rather be entertained by what's going on in their heads than in seeking happiness," writes Laurie Helgo in a Psychology Today article [H/T Bad Alice]. "Their big challenge is not to feel like outsiders in their own culture." She continues:
As a result, introverts are not driven to seek big hits of positive emotional arousal—they'd rather find meaning than bliss—making them relatively immune to the search for happiness that permeates contemporary American culture. In fact, the cultural emphasis on happiness may actually threaten their mental health. As American life becomes increasingly competitive and aggressive, to say nothing of blindingly fast, the pressures to produce on demand, be a team player, and make snap decisions cut introverts off from their inner power source, leaving them stressed and depleted. Introverts today face one overarching challenge—not to feel like misfits in their own culture.
That I'm an introvert is hardly news to me -- for awhile I was a Meyers-Briggs junkie -- but this article goes some places that I find interesting and strangely comforting. And in light of my description of the scent-induced anxiety incident above, I thought this was particularly telling: "Scientists now know that, while introverts have no special advantage in intelligence, they do seem to process more information than others in any given situation."

No shit, Sherlock.

That doesn't tell the whole story, nor does it get me out of the recognition that I was, and am, an odd duck. At a certain level, I felt like an outsider as a kid because I was just weird, and kids are brutal, and there's no need to (irritably?) reach for a more trenchant explanation.

But I admit it kind of has me eagerly anticipating the first chance I get to blurt out: "Why don't you people just leave me the hell alone?"

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Love (Divine, All Loves Excelling) on the Rocks

I am not, as it turns out, going to be a Buddha-killer. Killing the Buddha thanked me for my submissions and respectfully took a pass. I think I can see why, and I'm secret pleased to have already begun collecting the string of rejections that any writer carries around as a rosary. I have every intention of, someday, collecting the best of this blog (plus some other stuff), scrubbing it behind the ears and putting one of my old party dresses on it to see if I can sell it into prostitution. Here's your one chance, Fancy -- don't let me down.

It's not time for that yet. I am, appropriately, in dissertation mode, adding a few thousand words to my draft week by week and hoping against hope that I'm saying something worthwhile -- or at least worth a nod of approval from my committee. And I keep thinking about what I might write later. I still want to write a book about evangelical praise and worship music -- I think -- and I'm kicking around an idea about apocalyptic and science fiction.

In the meantime, my church gig has finally coming to an official close. The new guy is on the scene and this is my last week. I haven't done much. I had one meeting and one rehearsal, but I didn't have to plan anything or follow up on anything or field any questions except those of the new guy trying to get his bearings. Last Sunday was my last as a worship leader (maybe ever?) and we kicked ass and took names, musically speaking. The band was on, the vocals were tight, and everyone knew what to do. I just strummed my guitar and smiled and connected with the congregation. It wasn't even bittersweet. It was just fun.

Which is not to say it wasn't ironic. These are songs I would not and do not like as listening music. Part of me likes them, and I poured myself into them in a way that would seem to defy all my protestations of unbelief, but it was also like watching Three's Company reruns: it's enjoyable, but you'd be embarrassed if the wrong people walked in.

These are also songs the content of which I often cannot affirm. And it's not even that they invoke God so much as they evince a piety I'm pretty sure is disingenuous coming from me. All the stuff I wrote in "Why Remain?" is true, don't get me wrong, but these songs gush in a way that I don't. Ever. At least not about Jesus. I have no trouble waxing theological, at least partially because I don't think we ever escape the theological, but the language of piety is one that I sing but never speak, like a tenor who can't speak a lick of Italian but can bang out a rousing rendition of "La donna รจ mobile."

We've thought about where to go from here, church-wise. We could go back to our old church, a much smaller congregation where we still have friends and which, by virtue of some personnel changes, might be a place worth returning to. They dismissed a senior minister who was neither a good pastor nor a good preacher. One of these can usually be overlooked in lieu of the other, but if you don't have either one you probably need a new line of work. And as strange as this may sound, I'm something of a mentor to their youth minister, who is serving as the interim preacher and might end up in the spot for good. I have, at least, been in a position to offer him counsel and advice from time to time and this seems to work better if I'm not, at the same time, a parishioner.

Ditto another minister friend for whom I'm less a counselor than comic relief and a safe place to vent. He's the one whose church thinks he's too "emergent" -- a fear that is as silly as it is unfounded to begin with -- and while I don't think being a parishioner would be an issue, my friend and his family would be the only people we know, and they're Methodists, by which I only mean that they could get shipped off to parts unknown at a moment's notice, or so it seems to me.

Though I joke that I'm a "Freelance Episcopal," and am geekily in love with the Rite I liturgy, being Episcopal is probably the sort of thing I like the idea of more than anything else. My family would hate it, and I'm not sure I'd feel deeply at home anywhere. Besides, the local parish is Rite II anyway. The infidels.

There's always just staying home, giving up the churchgoing enterprise altogether. But our kids are rather deeply invested; all but the youngest are volunteers in some capacity. Simply not showing up while our kids remain involved would invite questions I don't want to field, and a sense of betrayal I don't want to be responsible for evoking in people that I've gotten along with so well. So we'll probably just stay put.

Me and Jesus, we're on the rocks, but we're sticking it out for the kids.