Wednesday, July 28, 2010

In Us God Trusts

My daughter asked me to come along with her for her music lessons, about ten miles away on the interstate. I always love to spend time with her. Emily’s been driving a couple years, has driven several thousand miles already, and is a very good driver with good judgment. So I resist the very parental urge to feel anxious when she’s driving.

One of my own parents--I won’t say which--affirmed me for being a bright kid, which was wonderful, but never seem to realize that I needed to learn things through parental instruction, practice and experience. So this parent overreacted whenever I made, for instance, mistakes while learning to drive. Aargh! This double message made me very anxious and self-doubting. Patience and trust would’ve helped me tremendously.

One of Walter Brueggemann’s older books is In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith (John Knox Press, 1972). Interestingly, he uses commentary about King David to affirm that God trusts us and allows us to live as mature people. Brueggemann argues that significant traditions of Christian theology emphasize human brokenness, spiritual impotence, and need. After all, that is why we need the atonement. Brueggemann himself concludes with uneasiness about this interpretation, which one might say is close to Semi-Pelagian. But in the wisdom traditions about David, Brueggemann finds a life-affirming model of human beings as whole people trusted by God and called to maturity and life-creation.

The author may have changed some of his thoughts by now; I haven’t delved into his large body of work to see. But the idea of God’s trust in us is interesting. We rightly affirm that God guides our steps and saves us from terrible situations, the worst of which of course is our sin and eventual death. We also affirm that God doesn’t negate our free will but mysteriously works within our freedom to accomplish his purposes. But would we proudly say, “God trusts me!” the same way we’d say “God has forgiven me” and “God has saved me”?

Of course we‘d be happy about God‘s trust when we are called to some task which we undertake humbly, reliant upon the Spirit‘s help. But still, “God trusts me” just doesn’t sound right! I suppose it’s because, when we’re honest and confess to God, we know in our hearts and minds that we are not fully trustworthy. Our best is never good enough, and that’s why the forgiveness, freedom and power of Christ are so wonderful.

And yet …we feel empowered by other people (like our parents) when we are trusted. What do you think?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Brueggemann's Journey to the Common Good

I'm working on a curriculum project about faith, community, and the common good. Thus, when I attended a religious conference and saw, among the numerous books for sale, Walter Brueggemann’s new book Journey to the Common Good (Westminster John Knox, 2010), I snatched it right up. (Yes, I also paid for it....)

Brueggemann's arguments are fascinating. Here are just a few, which I'll share in case others are as interested in these ideas. Brueggemann notes that we find two kinds of “social ethic” in the Exodus-Sinai tradition. One is certainly a very radical kind of social ethic that includes the cancellation of the debts of the poor after seven years, thus eliminating a “permanent underclass” (Deut. 15:1-18), no interest on loans to members of the community (Deut. 23:19-20), no collateral on loans to the poor (Deut. 24:10-13), no withholding of wages to the poor (Deut. 24:14-15), hospitality to runaway slaves (Deut. 23:15-16), ongoing provision for the poor and needy (Deut. 24:19-22), and justice for orphans and resident aliens (Deut. 24:17-18) (p. 39-40).
Brueggemann says, “The tradition of Deuteronomy intends to resituate the economy of Israel into the fabric of the neighborhood…the economy is [not] a freestanding autonomous system; it is, rather, checked and measured at every turn by the reality of the neighborhood” (p. 41).
Furthermore (as he echoes philosopher Michael Walzer), God is providing a permanent way out of “Egypt” via these justice-oriented, common good-oriented commandments (p. 43).

But he notes that the other “social ethic” (or rather, counter narrative) in this tradition is that of holiness, which offered “degrees of eligibility” (p. 44) based on purification rites, access to the most sacred places of the Temple, and eventually of the monarchy at Jerusalem and the lack of national justice criticized by the prophets.

Brueggemann says that the triad “wisdom, might, and wealth,” which characterized the reign of Solomon and eventually spelled the downfall of the nation, is characteristic of “the U.S. national security state.” But that triad, he argues, is expressed “as consumer entitlement in which liberals and conservatives together take for granted our privileged status as the world as God’s most recently chosen people” (p. 68). “It remains to be seen how the church can fashion an intentional alternative to the national security state, which is itself a path to death. The critical edge of faith requires us to ask if a national security state can be impinged upon and transformed by strands of neighborly commitment that lie deep in our national history,” he says, citing The Broken Covenant by Robert Bellah et al. (p. 68).

What shape will that neighborly commitment take? I've also been rereading Hauerwas and Willimon's Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Abingdon, 1989) and finding that, in their framework, neighborly commitment would entail Christian truth-telling to the world as well as growth as a people of God through discipleship practices. Their vision seems to be close to the holiness-as-separation traditions of the Bible, where the common good is serviced by the people's faithfulness to the truth. I've also been reading Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change: When the World's Biggest Problems and Jesus' Good News Collide (Thomas Nelson, 2009), which has a broad vision of the possibilities of Christian compassion to address world issues. McLaren's vision is shaped in a way similar to the tradition of a "radical social ethic."

More on this ...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Memory Places

Several miles from my hometown, I pass this uninteresting scene: a sign frame next to a mailbox, and a home along the road. But I know that the frame has been there for at least 42 years; it once held a sign for a veterinarian’s practice in the lower level of the home. In 1968 my parents and I acquired a dachshund puppy, whom we named Baron, and for a few years we patronized that vet for our dog's shots and exams. As I recall, we liked the vet but switched to a practice that opened closer to our hometown. So I don’t know how long the first vet was in practice, but the house is now just a house and only this metal sign frame remains.

I’ve always been fascinated by mundane sights that have significance, or at least a small story, which passers-by would not know. What kind of sign did that frame used to hold? What is the significance of this place, if anything? Near my hometown, on U.S. 40, is an everyday-looking intersection of the main highway and two country roads. But in pioneer days the place was widely known as Twin Pumps. Two pumps served people and horses traveling on the National Road. For many years nothing alerted you to the history of the place.

A few years ago, I read an essay in which the writer expressed curiosity about a large L that he saw in the mosaic at the entrance of an empty building in Queens. He passed the place on the subway. Those attractive mosaic entryways grace business buildings in small towns, too; I noticed one in Richmond, IN outside of what must’ve once been a clothing store. Research and serendipity finally led the author to identify the name of the department store that had existed in the building he saw. Only the mosaic L signified a nearly forgotten history.

Illinois state route 185 is pictured at the beginning of this blog. As I drive 185 along Four Mile Prairie, I think of family stories told as we visited Grandma’s farm. I knew where our family’s peach orchard stood before a 1920s winter killed it; where six sweet apple trees stood beside a fence row, and where the family grew Ben Davis, Maiden Blush, Snowflake, and yellow Early Harvest apple trees; that Grandma set out a group of maple trees during the 1910s. I knew approximately where my uncle found 75 mushrooms one year during the 1910s, beneath a tree across from “the old Frank Crawford place.” I knew where my great-great-grandfather lived during the 1890s, and where cousin Andy Rush’s barns had stood along a certain fence row. All these places were “secret” places, identifiable only by reminiscence.

In fact, just west of the sign in my blog picture, is a roadside tree. Sometime during the 1960s, a young man was killed when he crashed his car into the tree. I wonder who else looks at the otherwise nondescript tree and remembers that; perhaps someone still grieves their loss when they pass by this very common place.

Since moving to St. Louis, I purchased a book about the several U.S. 66 alignments through the city: the original, main, bypass, and city routes. Most of the places depicted in the book are gone. The main route, Lindberg Blvd, now looks nothing like the motel- and and restaurant-lined highway of the 1950s. I imagine people looking at the postcards in the book and saying, “We stayed at that motel during our 1952 vacation to Tulsa!”

Private memories, nostalgia, and highway history converge around a location that has changed.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Memorable 4ths

July 4th happened several days ago. Apart from its historical meaning and significance, the 4th also seems like a quintessential American summer day, an affirmation of life in the middle of summer’s informal beginning (Memorial Day) and end (Labor Day).

Childhood 4ths during the 1960s shine in my memory as loud and hot. Our hometown had an annual fireworks display at the high school football field, but my childhood home sits close to the high school--a five or so minute brisk walk--and we could watch the local fireworks from our front yard: oo, ah! Being hot outdoors or indoors was little difference, since we didn’t have AC, just a fan in the back door and every window open. One year we set up lawn chairs on the front yard and watched the display.

My friends, cousins, and I liked to set off fire crackers. I’m surprised we still have all our digits, although we did try to be careful. One summer we blew a half-dollar-sized hole in my parents’ picnic table with an M-80 fire cracker. M-80s, cherry bombs, Roman candles, bottle rockets, and sparklers were among our favorites.

Store-bought fireworks reminds me of a neighborhood picnic in the 1990s. We enjoyed the gathering until a neighbor set off bottle rockets. I was barefoot and our daughter, who was the youngest child there, became scared---the rockets were flying very wildly, after all--so we went home early.

Like Christmas, July 4th has a “true meaning” that we might neglect. Even when I was little, however, I wanted to fly the flag outside our home. Two of the most meaningful 4ths for my family and I occurred when we visited naturalization ceremonies. In 1985 or 1986, Beth and I attended the ceremony at Monticello. I think we both cried; what a wonderful setting for this amazing occasion in the lives of these new Americans. I forget which year in the early 00s, Beth, Emily, and I visited Put-in-Bay, Ohio on the 4th and witnessed the naturalization ceremony at the War of 1812 memorial there.

The bicentennial 4th was of a different class of all the other 4ths because it was a once-in-a-lifetime observance. I was 19; that day, I cheerfully watched the televised coverage of national events, innocently recorded the coverage on my old reel-to-reel (and never listened to them again), and participated in local festivities. July 4th is kind of like World Communion Sunday, in that you know, cognitively, that people are celebrating the Eucharist that day, but you don’t always feel in your heart the convergence of shared sacrament, just as you don’t always gain a sense of shared pride in our country if you’re only attending your own fireworks displays (or blowing up your parents’ picnic table). In 1976, you couldn't miss the commonality of being American citizens!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Cultural Betrayal?

I listen to all kinds of music, but usually either classical or rock and pop. Yesterday, as I drove home from an errand, Sibelius' Finlandia came on the satellite radio station. I think I was in high school when I first heard the hymn “This is My Song” (also the hymn “Be Still, My Soul”), based on a melody in Finlandia.  I loved the hymn and wanted to hear the original piece, so I looked for an LP.  But Sibelius’ tone poem had more turbulent, rat-a-tat-tat-tat music, and the melody used in the hymn figured less prominently. The beginning sounded to me like music for a cartoon on which one character was sneaking up upon another. I was expecting a peaceful meditation on that melody, similar to Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia or Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants on “Dives and Lazarus.” To this day, I wish Finlandia had been written as an adagio. I’m also amused at myself for thinking this warhorse should’ve been written in a way personally pleasing to me.

As I thought about ways to turn this silly little observation into a blog post, I happened to read the essay “Cultural Betrayal” in Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas (New York: Scribner, 2007), pp. 283-287. I love Klosterman’s writing and used to follow his columns in the Akron Beacon-Journal. He discussed how prevalent and yet how foolish and even scary is the idea that you can feel “betrayed” by culture. His examples: one of his friends who felt betrayed by the marriage of Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in the last episode of Sex and the City. The friend was adamant. Klosterman also found scary the notion of values “winning,” like the words of another writer who was happy “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was on the radio because the writer’s values were now “winning.” “[W]hat I have slowly come to realize,” writes Klosterman, “is that most people think this way all the time. They don’t merely want to hold their values; they want their values to win. And I suspect this is why people so often feel “betrayed” by art and consumerism, and by the way the world works” (p. 285; emphasis in text).

I found Klosterman’s idea of “cultural betrayal” intriguing--and it definitely explains a lot about human nature! It’s one reason why people debate so vigorously over issues like the suitability of the conclusions of The Sopranos and Lost, or whether certain artists like Liz Phair and Amy Grant let their fans down when their styles change or when they don't "top" a superior album.

We church people definitely fall into this kind of thinking. Sometimes we prefer a certain kind of style of music and, because we like it and find it spiritually helpful, we think everyone should. But lots of hurt feelings and divisions have happened in churches because of that. Similarly, some folks attend certain popular spiritual retreats, and when they return to church they perceive that other people aren’t as pumped up spiritually as they feel. So they start to dismiss other Christians as “not spiritual,” and sometimes they leave the church or demand that their values “win” in that congregation.

It’s too bad we’re this way. When my former pastor took another church position, I bought him a farewell gift, a 10-CD set of 1970s popular hits. Other than prog rock I never enjoyed a lot of 70s music, which reminds me of lonely times. I love 80s music. But I’m happy that he’s happy listening to Average White Band, Donna Summer, Jim Croce, Abba, Pure Prairie League, and Firefall, while in my own car I’m cranking up Mr. Mister, Spandau Ballet, Kate Bush, the Bangles, Bananarama, and the Thompson Twins. I'd hate like crazy if either of our tastes “prevailed.”

And yet... I was so excited when Sophie B. Hawkins began to get significant airplay in the mid 1990s; finally the public appreciated music that I liked!.... Human nature strikes again.

“Cultural betrayal” explains a lot about how some people perceive certain social, political and economic questions, too. That’s a whole ‘nother topic to explore!