Shuck and Jive

Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!

Happy 2008, everyone!

Happy New Year to all who subscribe to S&J, who read but don't comment, who read but send private e-mails, who agree, who disagree, who blog, who are members of my church and are amused by the whole thing and who wonder, "What the heck is he doing!?!?!"

Thanks to all of my regular and semi-regular comment makers (and those who just can't seem to get regular--there are medications). You have made this blog worthwhile! This means you...

Mystical Seeker, Flycandler, Jodie, Rob, Bobby, Dr. Monkey, Onesmallstep, Snad, both Pastors Bob, Drew, Grace, TN420, Viola and the consistory (Toby, Dave, Chris, John, Bill, & Will), Bill42, Olympiada, Rachel, Scott, Twain, Alan, Aric, Doug, Heather, Rebecca, Gordbrown, Eileen, Madpriest, Sara, John McN, Iwasjustthinking, Alex, Jim J., and that was just December! Thanks to you, if you have commented and I failed to name you. The angels know.

I wish you ALL a meaningful, joyful, peaceful, 2008!

Take Care and Take Risks,

Philip Pullman's Theology

I have been spending my New Year's with Philip Pullman's books, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. These are the books that the Vatican has condemned. Al Mohler of the Southern Baptist Convention is "concerned" about these heresies as well. Even a couple of members of "the consistory"--Viola and the Bayou Man--are aghast at what ideas might be allowed to float through the minds of the children. You can always count on the Magisterium's faithful to be lovingly concerned (for the children, of course).

I finished The Golden Compass last night and I am about three-quarters the way through The Subtle Knife. They are great books. Hard to put down. You can find reviews of them all over I am sure. I don't pay too much attention to fantasy, but since the true believers have been making such a stink about the film, "In this movie the children are killing God!" I thought I would check them out.

Pullman unfolds the theology as the books progress. The basic issue, as I understand it, is how to understand the story of Adam and Eve and what it means to be human. We know the traditional Christian interpretation that Adam and Eve disobeyed God and in so doing received the punishment of mortality. Adam and Eve brought sin into the world.

Here is how Paul says it:

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. (Romans 5:12-13)

The church decided to interpret the Adam and Eve story through the lens of Paul. Pullman, like many thinkers, including Christian thinkers, ask, "What if Paul was wrong?" Rabbi Harold Kushner does a wonderful job in his book How Good Do We Have to Be? with the Adam and Eve story. He sees it as a myth of humanity coming of age, developing consciousness, moving from an age of animal instinct to one of decision.

Dr. Patricia Williams in her book, Doing Without Adam and Eve: Sociobiology and Original Sin, argues that it is time to rethink this interpretation. From the book's description:

Focusing on the Genesis 2 and 3 account, Williams shows how its “historical” interpretation in early Christianity not only misread the text but derived an idea of being human profoundly at odds with experience and contemporary science. After gauging Christianity’s several competing notions of human nature—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox—against contemporary biology, Williams turns to sociobiological accounts of the evolution of human dispositions toward reciprocity and limited cooperation as a source of human good and evil. From this vantage point, she offers new interpretations of the problem of evil, original sin, and the Christian doctrine of atonement.

Frank in its assessment of traditional misunderstandings, Williams’s work challenges theologians and all Christians to reassess this linchpin doctrine and its implications for Christian theology.

My point here is that the issue of original sin is not as airtight as many Christians would have us assume.
  1. When Adam and Eve cease to become literal people,
  2. when we do not think of death as punishment but simply a part of life,
  3. when we don't think of ourselves as living in a fallen world but in an evolving one,
the idea of original sin, at least to me, and apparently to Pullman as well, makes little sense. That is the scandal of Pullman's books, as I see it. It appears to me that his books can provoke thoughtful conversation on what it means to be human.

Folks in the church can respond to Pullman's books in a couple of ways. They can
  1. Condemn them as heresy ( ho hum) or
  2. Encourage conversation on what it means to be human.
I choose door number two.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Bible Cover to Cover in 2008

We have begun our quest to read the Bible Cover to Cover in 2008 at First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton. Here is how it works:

Visit my new weblog just for this, Bible and Jive!

You will need a Bible. Preferably a New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha. You can either buy a nice one with notes or get a cheap paperback. Make sure you get the one with the apocrypha.

We are also encouraging children and parents to read together the Family Story Bible. You will find a workbook with a schedule and quizzes for the entire year.

On the second and fourth Tuesdays, I will host a Bible Lunch Time, in which I will present background materials for the readings and we can discuss them. I will be preaching throughout the year from the texts assigned for that month.

I have done this at my two previous congregations with great success. This will be the first time that the on-line community can participate as well!

Peak Oil: From The Blues to Hope

I thought as the year ends, I would bring up the topic mainstream press does not mention--but most of us realize lies at the root of our panic--Peak Oil. Don't tell me you haven't heard of this. If not, get your reality check here.

Once that finally settles in you will go through several months of panic and depression. I did. After all, you thought things were simply going to get better and better. It sucks when your whole worldview crashes. Peak Oil puts a damper in those plans for a 30 year mortgage on that big house in the suburbs, doesn't it?

I have passed through the depression phase. You can read some of my depressing posts about Peak Oil here, here, here, here, and here.

If you are still in doubt, just google, dogpile, yahoo, or whatever "peak oil" and read.

I am no longer depressed. In fact, I am now in my happy phase. Peak Oil is good for us ladies and gentlemen. Something good is going to come from all of this.

If humanity survives the next 50-100 years, we are going to be in good shape. This does not mean there will not be a great deal of suffering and pain in the next 50 to 100 years. We are in for a great deal of that. But, if we make it through without losing our heads, our descendants are headed for an awesome, evolutionary, post-carbon future.

We all have our parts to play in preparing for this future. As a religious cleric, I have a role to play. A major part of that role is to criticize religious fundamentalists and their fantasy-based, Armageddon-oriented, porno-violent superstition.

We need wisdom, folks, not superstition.
We need creativity, not crapola.

We need clear thinking, scientific endeavor, cooperation, spiritual humility, collaboration, and a new global consciousness. We are citizens of Earth--one Earth--our home. We need to embrace our human story, our planet's story, our universe's story--the story of evolution--and form a new wisdom from the best that our religious, spiritual, and humanistic traditions have offered.

We are on the verge of great change.

This next year I am going to be blogging about some people who I think are preparing us for this change.

There is no more exciting time to be alive than today.

We have a quest.
A hero's quest.
A quest for a new future.
Our children,
born and not yet born,
are counting on us.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

God is a Concept By Which We Measure Our Pain

I was a Freshman in college when John Lennon was shot. Lennon knew the spirituality of deconstruction. He was only 40 when he died. I am already 46. It is amazing how some people can live so much in such a short time.

Here are the lyrics:

God is a Concept by which
we measure our pain
I'll say it again
God is a Concept by which
we measure our pain
I don't believe in magic
I don't believe in I-ching
I don't believe in Bible
I don't believe in Tarot
I don't believe in Hitler
I don't believe in Jesus
I don't believe in Kennedy
I don't believe in Buddha
I don't believe in Mantra
I don't believe in Gita
I don't believe in Yoga
I don't believe in Kings
I don't believe in Elvis
I don't believe in Zimmerman
I don't believe in Beatles
I just believe in me
Yoko and me
That's reality

The dream is over
What can I say?
the Dream is Over
I was the Dreamweaver
But now I'm reborn
I was the Walrus
But now I'm John
and so dear friends
you'll just have to carry on
The Dream is over

H/T SocietyVS

Light in the Darkness: A Christmas Eve Reflection

Here is my Christmas Eve reflection:

Light in the Darkness
Christmas Eve 2007
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

It makes sense why the church chose the Winter Solstice to celebrate the birth of Christ. At the darkest time of the year the light shines. Only when it is the darkest are we open to see the light.

At Christmas, many folks go all out with huge Christmas displays with lights and lights and lights. It is fun, colorful, and celebratory. Some homes, businesses, and Christmas theme parks are so lit up that it feels like daytime.

But I think that the light that shines in the darkness that we hear announced in the gospels is light of a different sort.

The light that shines in the darkness is not an overwhelming light. It is not a ten thousand megawatt super spotlight that obliterates the darkness. The light that shines in the darkness is more like the faint glimmer of a single candle. It is a light so tiny that it can be noticed only in the darkest times. It needs the darkness in order to be seen.

Christianity has struggled with power throughout its history. Often it has thought that bearing witness to the light was to be a big light itself. If it was successful, bright, and in control, it would shine with the light of Christ, who conquered the world.

Yet the church has been reminded by its prophets that the big powerful light is not the way Christ reveals the Divine presence. The narratives of the birth of Jesus show us a very small light. This light is revealed to a young woman in the middle of nowhere who is shocked that God would choose her. This light is presented to subsistence living shepherds who cannot fathom that they would be the ones to tell the story.

It is a light in the eyes of an infant asleep in a feeding trough for livestock. The Christmas story is a humble story. The light comes to those who have nothing to offer, or so they think. The light is not overbearing. It is a glimmer of promise in a dark time.

Matthew’s gospel is the story of a narrow escape. It is the story of the foiling of Herod which is a retelling of the story of the foiling of Pharoah. It could be summed up with this headline:

Evildoer Kills All Male Children Two Years and Under: Chosen Child Escapes

(Thanks to Borg and Crossan, The First Christmas)

Luke’s gospel is the story of a reversal. Augustus Caesar, the ruler of the known world, considered to be the Son of God, uses his muscle to push people around. He likes to throw parties for himself. Luke’s story could be summed up with this headline:

The Ruler of the World Plans a Big Celebration: God Parties with Shepherds Instead

In these birth stories of Jesus we find the light in the places that the Herods and the Caesars and the powerful and the successful and the bright and the beautiful do not look. As we know if we are honest, it is only in the darkest moments, only when we have hit the bottom, only when we realize we cannot do it on our own, that we can see the true light that is the light of the world. It is the light of a single candle. And it is all we need.

I am going to share a story with you that I read in the newspaper the other day. It is a great story and it gave me a sense of hope for our world. When we turn on the television, radio, or computer to get the news, we discover that the international situation is desperate as usual.

We wonder what is going to happen. What is this world coming to? We may wonder if anyone is paying attention. We wonder what we can do at all. You may think this story I am about to share is sentimental, or of little account. This little light is far too small for the dark world whose situation is desperate as usual.

I find this story important because it shows people overcoming their cynicism, overcoming their own feeling of powerlessness, and overcoming their self-evaluation as not very creative. These folks surprised themselves.

It is the story of a church. The Federated Church of Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Their minister, Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton came up with a sinister scheme. This sinister minister decided to give each member of his congregation $50. It is a pretty good-sized church, about 1700 members.

Apparently, several anonymous folks had loaned a total of $40,000 to the church for this plan. Each member was given $50 and each child received $10. On the day the sinister minister passed out the cash, he preached a sermon on the parable of the talents. In this parable, a landowner entrusts three servants to a sum of money different for each. One who is given five talents makes five more. One who is given two talents makes two more and one who is given one buries it and returns the one. The landowner praises the two who made more money with their talents he has harsher words for the one who buries his talent.

Those who have ears let them hear.

So Rev. Throckmorton decided to put this parable into action. Everyone received $50 with the instruction to use their talents, skill, and creativity to double that amount within seven weeks with the proceeds to go for church mission projects. There was an out. Folks could return the money if they didn’t want to play.

There was grumbling and uncertainty at first.

In her regular pew at the back of the church, where she had listened to sermons fro 40 years, 73- year old Barbara Gates gasped. What kind of kooky nonsense is this, she thought.

“Sheer madness,” sniffed retired accountant Wayne Albers, 85, to his wife, Marnie, who hushed him as he whispered loudly. “Why can’t the church just collect money the old-fashioned way?”

Folks were doubtful, thinking they were being pushed a little too hard. But as the time went on, a few found some ideas.

A retired Navy pilot, Hal, enjoys flying his four-seater Cessna. He used his $50 to rent air time from the airport and charge $30 for half-hour rides. Church members eagerly signed up. Hal raised $700 and got in some flying time.

Hal’s girlfriend, Kathy, was tempted to give the money back. What talents do I have, she thought, dejectedly. But she found an old family recipe for tomato soup, one she hadn’t made in 19 years. She remembered how much she had enjoyed the chopping and the cooking and the canning and the smells. She dug out her pots. She bought three pecks of tomatoes. Suddenly she was chopping and cooking and canning again. At $5 a jar, she made $180.

“I just never imagined people would pay money for the things I made,” she exclaimed.

Others surprised themselves as well. Barbara Gates, the 73-year old who thought the idea was kooky nonsense, raised $450 crafting pendants from beads and sea glass.

But it wasn’t just money. It was something else. For the seven weeks the church members felt an almost magical sense of excitement and energy and carmaraderie.

Eighty-one year old Shirley Culbertson said she felt a joyful sense of purpose that she had rarely experienced since her husband passed away two years ago. She knitted eight-inch stuffed dolls with button noses and floppy hats and raised $90.

One member offered twelve-mile rides on his Harley Davidson Road King. The first person to sign up was Florence Cross, who is in her mid-80s. She had never been on a bike. Her friends now call her Harley Girl.

There was one story after another of people finding some skills they never thought they had. One woman turned her kitchen into an applesauce factory. Another woman took old flip-flops and with beads and yarn made dozens of funky, fluffy footware that were a huge hit with teens. She raised over $550 dollars and is still taking orders. She is thinking of starting a business. Her children call her the flib-flop lady.

Others made birdfeeders, some stenciled portraits, shawls were knit, hot-air balloon rides were auctioned.

When the seven weeks had arrived, on the designated service, people brought their proceeds into baskets and offered testimonials about what living the parable meant to them.

The next week he reported the news that the initial take was over $38,000 with more to come. The final sum will be divided between three projects: one-third will go to a school library in South Africa where the church is involved in and AIDS mission; one-third will go to micro-loan organizations that provide seed money for small business is developing countries; one-third will help the Interfaith Hospitality Network in Cleveland, Ohio, specifically programs for homeless women.

But perhaps more important than even the money was the new friendships that were made, the creativity expressed, and the sense of accomplishment felt by those who did something that they didn’t think they could. What will save us? I don’t think it will be the big accomplishments and the big victories. It will be the small things done by the many, following the light of creativity

The international situation is desperate as usual. But I have hope for human beings. I know that there is latent creativity within each of us, waiting for the time in which it will be needed. There is a kindness deep within us that is stronger than our fear. Creativity and kindness are gifts of God, the light of the world, and they will be our guide through the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness. And the darkness did not overcome it.

Penn & Teller Creationism Bullshit

Check this out. This is an episode of Penn and Teller's show, Bullshit.

If you are curious, here is the outcome of the Cobb County school board decision.

Hat tip to Debunking Christianity.

By the way, have you signed on to Evolution Sunday yet?

Celebrate with us on February 10th!

In Perspective...

Thanks to Bothwell's blog for this:

Friday, December 28, 2007

Of Cars and Christmas

I shouldn't play favorites, but if I had to pick a local columnist it would be a toss-up between First Presby's own, Helen Collins, who writes for the Elizabethton Star and James Brooks of the Johnson City Press.

I enjoyed James' column today, The Wild Life. James writes:

As traffic builds up on area roads and I spend more time at traffic lights, there are times when I don’t need to dial calls on my cell phone. That’s when I catch up on my reading.
In traffic that’s pretty well limited to reading bumper stickers. I’ve never been tempted to try making sense of the novels of Marcel Proust at traffic lights, although if they take much longer to cycle through I may be tempted....

....Even stranger than bragging about pets and children are the in memoriums with names and dates of birth and death I see on the back windows of cars. Sometimes when I’m in the midst of traffic I feel like I’m in a moving cemetery.
Folks in Tennessee are not into vanity plates, but we do love bumper stickers. So what is on your car?

Helen's most recent column was about her dangerous journey into her basement and the meaning of Christmas:
Several years ago someone recorded a song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," and I concur: It really is. When you plug up your tree, hang wreaths, play your favorite Christmas music, go to the parade, attend the wonderful musical presentations in our community, you catch that specialness of this yearly Celebration.
I even made my yearly foray into The Wal-Mart last week and the thing that struck me most clearly was that most everybody I passed smiled at me, old and young, and they know and I know what that smile means. It's pretty much universal, a sort of collective smile, and it's in the busyness of crowded stores, and on the streets of a town that you see it most often. I like it.

We probably shop and buy and rush and maybe get weary, but as long as we are giving gifts to people, adopting angels from Christmas trees, remembering those who are homebound, visiting nursing homes, baking cookies for the grandchildren -- and smiling at strangers in busy stores, we're probably going to have a Merry Christmas.
Helen always has a smile for me after worship, too.

Happy New Year Helen and James. Thanks for writing about things, that when we notice, bring us a smile.

We Have Killed God

God is toast. We killed the old fart today after watching the Golden Compass. Do what you want kids! Total freedom. Don't need to brush your teeth, obey your parents, or change your socks! Hoo Rah!

I thought the movie was great, even better the second time. I was so impressed, I decided to read the book. I ended up buying all three books, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, which are part of the His Dark Materials trilogy. The checkout mistress of Barnes and Noble looked at me a little warily.

"Did you see the movie?" she asked.
"Yes, I did. I am going to see it again today."
"You haven't read the books yet?" she asked, punching in my B&N discount.
"The movie is a diluted version of the book. I wouldn't recommend the books," she said as she rang up my purchase.

I thought it was an odd conversation to have with a bookseller. Sometimes I have had little chitchats with the cashiers regarding my purchases, but I have never had a cashier suggest I not buy a book. But we are in the Bible Belt and even Barnes and Noble employees know what books are good for you and which are not.

After my purchase, I saw the movie with the youth group. They thought it was pretty cool as far as I can tell. I have heard the books are more explicit about the evils of the church.

I hope so. Maybe it is time to kill that grumpy old man in the sky and let his henchmen rot.

Speaking of grumpy old men, here is a review of the Golden Compass from the pope of the Southern Baptist Convention, Albert Mohler. Mohler writes:

Philip Pullman has an agenda, but so do we. Our agenda is the Gospel of Christ -- a message infinitely more powerful than that of The Golden Compass. Pullman's worldview of unrestricted human autonomy would be nightmarish if ever achieved. His story promises liberation but would enslave human beings to themselves and destroy all transcendent value.

The biblical story of the Fall is true, after all, and our only rescue is through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The curse of sin was not reversed by adolescents playing at sex in a garden, but by the Son of God shedding His blood on a cross.

Ed McNulty of Presbyterians Today offered this review. Here is a portion:

Given the controversy over whether Philip Pullman’s novels — and this film — promote atheism, how should Christian viewers approach The Golden Compass? First, read the original novels, especially if you enjoy fantasy literature. You will discover that Pullman opposes what any thoughtful Christians would also oppose: abuse of power by the church, and a view of God as a tyrannical ruler.

Is Pullman taking down a tyrannical god that no thoughtful Christian would believe in anyway, or is he criticizing original sin, which is for some Christians a central doctrine of Christianity?

I hope that he is attacking the barbaric notion of original sin, substitutionary atonement, church authority, special revelation, and all the rest of those outdated fundamentals. It is about time to revisit those things and if it takes children's fantasy books to do it, then all the better.

Hat tip to Viola.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas in Fallujah

Billy Joel recorded a song for the troops. This is from CBS News:

It's called "Christmas in Fallujah," and is sung by 21-year-old newcomer Cass Dillion. It's a blunt and mostly bleak, song about the plight of U.S. troops in Iraq.

"We came with the crusaders to save the holy land. It's Christmas in Fallujah. And no one gives a damn," he sings.

Joel told CBS News anchor Katie Couric: "The events over there seem to have slipped from the headlines because of what's happening with the surge, but you know, what they conveyed to me was, "well tell that to the guys on the front lines. We're still there."

Joel says the song was inspired by letters he's gotten from soldiers overseas.

"I think a lot of people who where are … there feel detached from the home front, that people may not care or people have forgotten about them," he said.

Noticably absent are the two instruments the 58-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is most famous for - his piano and his voice.

"When I wrote this song, and I heard a 58 year-old man singing it, in my voice, I said, 'that doesn't sound right to me. I think it should be somebody of that age, the age of a soldier or a Marine,'" he said.

Hat tip to Tennessee Guerrilla Women

Vatican Condemns Golden Compass

Well, I am going to take innocent First Presby children to see the Golden Compass tomorrow. God save us all. The Vatican (also known as the Magisterium) condemned the film. Here is the article in Reuters. And another in E! News.

This is a comment from the Vatican's editorial:

"In Pullman's world, hope simply does not exist, because there is no salvation but only personal, individualistic capacity to control the situation and dominate events..."
The Vatican's condemnation of the film is the icing on the cake. Their critique is so off-base that they make the very point Pullman makes. Christianity is spiraling downward into self-parody.

I saw the film a couple of weeks ago. First of all, it was mild. You had to search for any references to religion. It is not a complex philosophical or theological cinematic event. For what philosophy there was, I thought it was quite hopeful. It was about freedom of thought and being courageous. It is about standing up to bullies.

This film is critical, certainly. It is critical of those who confuse truth with power.

If the Vatican has trouble with this little film, then the film exposes the Vatican for what it is.

Welcoming New Members

We are excited at First Presbyterian of Elizabethton to welcome new members on January 6th. We will also ordain and install new elders and new deacons. People wonder what it takes to be a member of First Pres.

Rather than tell you, I will show you.

Here is a video of the last new members' reception.

Meet My Daemon (If You Dare!)

The First Presby Church Family is headed to the movies tomorrow. We are going to see The Golden Compass. Here are the details of the outing.

On the film's web page, you can find out who your daemon is and you can let others transform it! What a risky enterprise. But not one to shy away from a challenge, here is my daemon.

Her name is Elpis:

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Thanks to Sharon for this. I played it last night for our Christmas Eve service.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Work of Christmas

Merry Christmas, Friends!

I leave you with the words of Howard Thurman:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among others,

To make music in the heart.

It's Christmas Eve! Where's Santa?

You can find out Santa's exact location and learn more about the places he visits by checking the NORAD Santa Tracker!

This is pretty cool. Here is a video of Santa arriving in Sidney, Australia.

If you are in East Tennessee come visit us at First Presbyterian of Elizabethton. We will have our Christmas candlelight service at ten p.m.

Yesterday was a great day in worship. Charlie and Jennifer Hann brought their llamas to worship to promote the Heifer Project. Here are some more pics.

Plus check out pics on the website from last week's Christmas Dinner!

Merrily brought to you by First Pres., Elizabethton, the little Christmas church in the woods.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Spirituality of Deconstruction

The questions raised in the comments of my last post are worth another post. I have used the word deconstruction. What is that? You could look it up in the dictionary or read books about it (which I recommend). I will give you my understanding. In a simple sentence, deconstruction is the task of exposing the subjectivity of narratives previously considered objective.

Deconstruction demonstrates that what has been presented as absolute truth is a human construct. An example in politics was the movement from the Divine Right of Kings toward democracy. This is beautifully illustrated in Monty Python's In Search of the Holy Grail. Check out this scene. My favorite line is from the snarky peasant to King Arthur: "You cannot claim absolute power because some watery tart throws a sword at you!"

In literature, particularly sacred literature, deconstruction shows how the narratives reveal the author's subjectivity, context, and prejudices. Think of the critiques of the Qur'an. The Qur'an is viewed by most Muslims as the revealed word of God through Muhammed. Deconstruction demonstrates that these narratives are re-tellings of other narratives or they reflect the political or philosophical situation of Muhammed or his time period.

We use deconstruction in evaluating another person's assertions. My father often says, "consider the source." Rather than take something that someone says as objective truth at face value, we deconstruct what they have said based on their background, prejudices, and so forth. Even as we deconstruct or evaluate others, we, too, have a background and prejudices that we often do not see.

Deconstruction is a continual process. We cannot live without deconstruction. We do it all of the time. It is the foundation of learning. Of course, we are often more skilled at deconstructing the truths of others rather than our own truths. Because others see things about us or our truths that we do not, we have blind spots. No one is immune from this. No one has an all-seeing eye. The best we can do is to put ourselves in conversation.

It is disconcerting to be deconstructed! We resist having our own prejudices exposed. We resist having our beliefs relativized. When this happens, usually, after a period of denial, we come to accept that what we once thought was Truth is not as absolute as we once thought it was. It is difficult to live without truths, so we construct another truth (or think that we have discovered another truth).

Because deconstruction is painful, there is a temptation to construct something quickly just to calm this anxiety. I think of college students or seminary students (including myself, of course) who go through the painful process of learning that what they thought was absolute is relative. Some despair and quit altogether. Some try to shore up the old constructs. Some let go, experience the anxiety, and see what happens.

Pain is not the final word for deconstruction. Liberation is the last word. I titled this post the spirituality of deconstruction because deconstruction is a spiritual path. It is also called the via negativa or the way of letting go. It is the letting go of our constructs. Another way of putting it is that we let go of God in order to find God. Once we name God, that name becomes a construct subject to deconstruction.

One image of spirituality is a ladder that we climb or a building we ascend. The spiritual image for deconstruction might be a free-fall. The constructs on which we stand crumble and we fall only to land on another construct. We stay there for a while, experiencing this truth and then free-fall again. As the climb up the ladder leads ultimately to God, so the free-fall ultimately leads to God. Rather than climb to God, we fall to God.

One of the constructs of Christianity that has been crumbling is the claim that its sacred texts and creeds are objectively real or true. They were considered true because they could be verified historically or objectively. The texts or the creeds described how the world is or so we thought. Copernicus (cosmology), Darwin (origin of species), and D. F. Strauss (biblical criticism) are some of the pioneers in deconstructing the Christian narrative, even though they didn't necessarily set out to do that.

The stories of the birth of Jesus, for instance, were considered to be true because they happened. They were thought to be historical or real in the objective sense of the word. This is the construct that is crumbling. Of course many are in denial and attempt to shore up this construct. Ultimately, we are in free fall. The reason we know this is that we are debating it. Not only is the debate in the circles of higher learning, it is on the lips and in the ears of the populace. The days of the historical objectivity of the Christian narrative are numbered.

Once the historicity or the objectivity of the narratives (say the infancy narratives) crumbles with what are we left? Where do we land? Some feel it is the duty of the scholar or the clergyperson to build a construct for us. I have often heard my colleagues say something to this effect: "Don't take something away without giving them something." Don't, in other words, deconstruct the text (or a belief) without providing a construct for the text (or another belief).

I think that is too tall an order. No clergyperson or scholar can build a construct for us. We are on our own. That is the liberation of deconstruction. I, as a clergyperson, cannot tell you what a text means, what belief you should have, or how to construct your faith. I can only tell you where I have been and what I see. I can also point to others who have gone through a similar process. I can say that wherever I land, this landing will also eventually crumble. And that is a good thing. We are continually in the process of deconstructing our idols.

Landing on a construct is not in itself a bad thing any more than climbing to a higher rung on the ladder is a bad thing. Both are true for the moment. The key is that our experience of the new construct feels like discovery not invention. It is invention, but we think it is discovery. The new construct upon which we have landed is experienced as something that is true and not a construct. It is only after we have been there for a while, that we recognize that it is a construct. Then we are ready to deconstruct it and free-fall toward God again.

If you are finding yourself in a free-fall, you don't have to despair. If the foundations upon which your beliefs have been built are crumbling and you are falling, consider that spiritual awareness. You will land on something that will be even better and more liberating. Others on the path of spiritual deconstruction can be your guides. They may provide temporary places to land. Enjoy the landings too.

Specifics. Given what I have already said that everything I will say is a construct even though I do not yet recognize it, where am I at this point with the infancy stories?

1) Because they draw from other myths, legends, and archetypes, that is their strength. They touch on larger themes of what it means to be human. The child, the virgin, the son of god, the angel heralds, the magi, following the star, are deep symbols for journey towards authentic humanity.

2) I think at this time for Americans in our flirtation with Empire, they speak powerfully and prophetically to that temptation for absolute power and control (ie. Herod and Caesar). God rescues and guides the hero in the nick of time. The poor, the despised, and the powerless are the anointed in God's kingdom.

3) The incarnation is that the Divine is born within us. God dwells with us, or in that wonderful phrase, "pitches a tent" with us. In the song by Joan Osborne, the Sacred becomes "...just a slob like one of us, a stranger on the bus." That which we have considered to be the slob, the stranger, the filthy is Divine. The filthy manger is God's throne. When we think we are too filthy for God, God becomes that filth so we can see that we are in God's image. As it says in another sacred text: Christ is not ashamed to be our brother.

These narratives are filled with powerful images and prophetic messages. Take your pick. Plunge into them. Allow their life to embrace you.

That is where I am at this point, until I become deconstructed once again and fall further into the depths of God.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas

The new book by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan,
The First Christmas, is a helpful one for understanding the infancy stories in Matthew and Luke.

Borg and Crossan refer to them as parables about Jesus.
Jesus told parables. We know that when we read or hear the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, that the point is not whether or not there was a Samaritan who actually helped some guy in a ditch.

We know it is a story and to debate its historicity would miss the point. Instead we focus on what the story means.
Borg and Crossan suggest that the infancy narratives ought to be treated in the same way. They are parables about Jesus, not accounts of his actual birth. We miss the point by debating their historicity. The important question is "What do these parables of his birth mean?" "What do they say about Jesus and the world in which he participated?"

Fundamentalists get hung up that somehow the gospels would not be credible if these stories were not true historically. I have heard again and again even preachers say: "If Jesus wasn't born of a Virgin, then why be a Christian?" Often this odd way of thinking is put more forcefully:

"Unless you believe in the Virgin Birth, you are not a Christian!"

To that I say, "Please."

Frankly, I really don't care what people think. If it is important to you to think that nary a sperm fertilized Mary's egg, then go ahead.
I cannot insist that the infancy narratives are legends beyond all possible doubt. Of course, they could be true.

I often find my ministry to those people who have been brought up thinking that you have to believe that legends are history in order to be Christian. They think that way because they have been told that ad nauseum by fundamentalist preachers.
They are so relieved to know that there is another way.

But then they have to deal with their literalist friends and family members. Here is an argument put forth by those who think we should credulously assent to every legend in the Gospels:

Couldn't God do it if God wanted to do so? Could not God make Mary pregnant? Could not God cause a star to hover over a house? Who are you Mr. Smarty Pants Child of the Enlightenment to doubt the wonder-working power of God?

What do you say to that? I just nod and smile.

I have been tempted to suggest that there are more stories that we need to believe, such as the
Infancy Gospel of Thomas. These are stories regarding the childhood of Jesus. Jesus was handy to have around:

(1) Since his father was a carpenter, he was making plows and yokes in that season.

(2) An order for a bed was given to him from a rich man, but one of the boards, the one called the crossbeam, was shorter than the other. And since Joseph had no idea what to do, the child Jesus said to his father Joseph, "Put the two pieces of wood down and line up the ends."

(3) And Joseph did just as the child told him. Then, Jesus stood at the other end and grasped the shorter piece of wood and stretching it, he made it equal with the other.

(4) And his father Joseph saw and was amazed and, taking the child, he kissed him, saying, "I am blessed because God gave me this child."

Is that a legend or is it historically accurate? One could say: If Jesus didn't stretch this board then why be a Christian!?

Or one could say: Jesus could have done that, right? He was the Son of God. He turned water into wine. He could make a board longer. Who are you to doubt the wonder-working power of our child lord?

It is the same argument that kids who are struggling with Santa offer to their deconstructionist friends.

Nasty Deconstructionist: How can you believe that Santa goes to every house in one night and eats all of those cookies? There are six billion people in the world. There isn't enough time in one night!

Sweet Confused Child: Santa is magic. He can do it if he wants.

Of course we side with the Sweet Confused Child against the Nasty Deconstructionist. But in the end, the Nasty Deconstructionist is correct. We grow up. We realize that the reality of Santa is within and we become Santa for our children and hope they hold on to the magic of giving and joy as long as they can.

But there is something disturbing about the child who will not grow up, who holds on to Santa in a literal way a little too long. Likewise, there is something disturbing about those Christians who hold on to outdated, incredible creeds. You just want to say, "It is time to grow up, now."

This growing up means that the story comes alive within us. We no longer need to believe it externally, but we need to incorporate it into our lives.

We become Santa.

We allow the Christ to be born within us.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Of the Fed, By the Fed, and For the Fed

Rachel has been challenging some of my assumptions about life in America.

(I have updated this initial post to be clear that these are the views of the film, not mine):

She has invited Shuck and Jivers to view America: From Freedom to Fascism. It is produced by film director, Aaron Russo (
Trading Places, The Rose, Teachers).

The film is one hour 51 minutes, but it is fast-paced. Here is a 37 minute interview with Russo about the film.

According to the film:

1) Our government is controlled by the Federal Reserve, which is not an arm of government, but a collection of private banks.

2) The Internal Revenue Service, responsible for collecting income taxes, does not do so lawfully. Meaning there is no law requiring Americans to file a 1040.

For a critique of the film particularly laws regarding income tax, go here. It is important to read this before you decide not to file your taxes.

There is a great deal more in this film which I found to be very disturbing. The film does have a paranoid/conspiratorial feel to it. But as the crazy man said: "Just because you are paranoid, it doesn't mean they are not after you."

I think it is worth a watch, regardless of your politics. At the least it will encourage you to research more on your own. Check it out!

Evolution Sunday: February 8-10, 2008

The first thing to mark on that new calendar you have just received is Evolution Weekend, February 8-10, 2008. It has expanded from just one Sunday to a whole weekend of evolutionary fun. This will be the third year for celebration at First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton. Here is the website to find a congregation near you or to get your congregation on the list.

Also you will find a handy selection of scientists (real ones--not the ones with the fake ID) who can help clergy and congregations understand the technical aspects. At First Presbyterian we will be planning a trip to the Gray Fossil Site as well as celebrate Evolution in worship.

Here are some resources regarding evolution and its conversation with religion.

I have signed the following letter. Maybe you would like to sign as well:

Within the community of Christian believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.