Chautauqua…

pirsig

 

Currently I am reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Somehow I never got round to it before. I am enjoying it- Prisig has a lovely way with words and a great love of ideas, images, philosophy.

One word he uses a lot is this one- Chautauqua. 

I would like to use the time to talk in some depth about things that seem important. What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua — that´s the only name that I can think of for it — like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, […] an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. ( Pirsig, p.17)

The origin of the words seems to be a movement founded in the 19th C that provided education and entertainment to isolated farming communities via a kind of travelling circus- complete with lectures, discussions and workshops. They fed a hunger for knowledge and self improvement.

Pirsig uses the word whenever he introduces as new concept, a new idea.The Chautauqua becomes the vehicle by which the mind can travel. The fact that this story is happening in the context of a motorcycle journey (with his curious son as a pillion passenger) makes the Chautauguas all the more vital.

I mention this as it made me think again about the way we encounter the words of the Bible. Might it be better to see them as a travelling circus tent full of ideas, concepts, poetry, philosophy? A spiritual Chautauqua. Those of us that visit and engage do so as people eager for the fun of the journey, able to debate, question, laugh, cry, heckle or just listen in awe.

So, rather than academic stuffyness, or unassailable unapproachable holiness. Rather than being ‘The Word of God’, might we see the Bible as Chautauqua?

A tent at the side of the road in which to exchange ideas about who God is…

 

 

In case you thought I have been harsh on the Bible of late…

There has been an awful lot on this blog recently about the Bible- apologies to those of you who are not interested in such debates. But hey, it is MY blog after all, and I think these things are more important now then ever.

How else do we find a rudder in the mess of what we are becoming, unless we ask these deep searching questions?

This is NOT the same thing as trying to hold back time- trying to return us to some faux Victorian world view. We need to be free to re-encounter the words of the Bible, to debate it, to question it and allow ourselves to be questioned by it. My recent posts have been a bit about trying to make some space for this.

I saw this today- Steve Chalke of Oasis kind of saying the same thing;

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/86521708″>Restoring Confidence in the Bible</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user12741304″>Oasis UK</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Tony Campolo on homosexuality…

Over the last few years, a number of people who would previously have been regarded as Evangelical Christian heavyweights appear to have changed their stance on homosexuality significantly. There seems to be a whole wing of Evangelicalism that is ‘coming out’- or do I generalise from the particular?

Is this accommodation with the changing views of culture- albeit lagging behind because of a dragging-anchor theological hermeneutic?  Or is it the fact that Christians are finally catching the scent of freedom and justice on the breeze? Whatever, I celebrate the change.

I will not list the names I am thinking of, as this plays into the hand of the totemic brigade- you know the way it works, the degree to which a person is ‘OK’, ‘Biblical’, ‘Theologically sound’, depends on whether they agree with us on certain totemic issues. I try, but if I am honest I am guilty of a bit of this too…

I was first inspired by listening to Tony Campolo speak back in the early-mid 1980’s. He upset a lot of people at Spring Harvest festival some time around then (I think I was there, but the story might have become more important than fact on this one!) by telling a story something like this;

You know folks, X (can’t remember the exact figure) number of people have starved to death since I started to speak to you tonight.

And you know what is worse? Most of you people here do not give a shit.

And even worse that that, most of you are far more concerned that I just used the word ‘shit’ than the fact that those people have starved to death.

It is hard to convey how genuinely shocking hearing these words from a preacher at Spring Harvest was back then. Campolo has always been rather left field.

However, his stance on homosexuality in books of his I have read went something like this;

It is not the fault of gay people that they were born different, but the Bible is clear that the homosexual act is sin. It is however NOT a sin to be homosexual, as people have no control over their sexual orientation. Therefore to be gay and Christian is to be celibate.

I think he may even have used the old ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ argument. If he did not, others certainly did in his wake.

Contrast this with the clip below. He does not need to talk about the theology- rather he tells a story, which is a very Jesus kind of way of doing theology of course.

The emotional musical soundtrack is a bit naff, but Campolo is always (ahem) Campelling.

 

 

Reading history through objects…

Last year there was a cracking radio series entitled ‘The history of the world in 100 objects’, which concerned itself with objects chosen from the thousands in the British Museum. It was impossible not to be reminded of this as we walked around the museum last week.

What I loved about the series was the way that the presenter (Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum) was able to use each object as a time capsule, or some kind of window into where we came from.

Most people who read the Bible find an extra frisson of fascination around objects that have some connections to Bible history. Two of these objects had me thinking again about the way that we use history not just like a distorted telescope lens, but more like a kaleidoscope. The light we see at such distance is bent by all sorts of assumptions and overlaid constructions- never more so than when the Bible is involved.

The first object (or set of objects to be more accurate) is this one- the Lachish relief.

lachish relief

This relief is from a time of  around 3000 years ago- and this too was a time of war. (It is estimated that there were only around 50 Million people in the world then, but still there was an the urge to fight!) In this instance, the fighting recorded was the great siege of Lachish in Judea, 701 BC by King Senacherib.

Lachish is first mentioned in the Bible as one of the cities taken by force from its existing inhabitants by Joshua. In Joshua 10, it is recorded that the King of Lachish started out as an ally of the Israelites, fighting alongside them, before ‘God gave Lachish to Israel’, who ‘took it in two days and killed everyone’. Despite this, somehow Joshua remains our hero. He was establishing Gods promised holy nation…

Jump forward around 4 centuries or so, to around 1000 BC, the kingdom of Judah had more powerful neighbors in the form of the  Assyrian Empire, stretching Iran to Egypt, and maintained by the all powerful Assyrian war machine.

Good King Hezekiah, who seemed to get all the worship purity stuff right, made some rather bad political decisions and defied the Assyrian King Sennacherib.

In 2 Kings 20 there is a story of one of Sennacheribs men delivering insulting blasphemous words about the lack of power of the Jewish god when faced with the power of the sword. Here Hezekiah cleverly pays off the Assyrians, and eventially God kills first most of their army, then Sennacherib himself gets his comeuppance.

The story from the Assyrian records are rather different;

 “In my third campaign I marched against Hatti. Luli, king of Sidon…fled far overseas and perished…In the continuation of my campaign I besieged Beth-Dagon, Joppa, Banai-Barqa, Azuru, cities belonging to Sidqia who did not bow to my feet quickly (enough); I conquered (them) and carried their spoils away.  The officials, the patricians and the (common) people of Ekron –  who had thrown Padi, their king, into fetters (because he was) loyal to (his) solemn oath (sworn) by the god Ashur, and had handed him over to Hezekiah, the Jew (and ) he (Hezekiah) held him in prison, unlawfully, as if he (Padi) be an enemy-had become agraid and had called (for help) upon the kings of Egypt (and) the bowmen, the chariot(-corps) and the cavalry of the king of Ethiopia, an army beyond counting-and they (actually) had come to their assistance.  In the plain of Eltekeh, their battle lines were drawn up against me and they sharpened their weapons.  Upon a trust (-inspiring) oracle (given) by Ashur, my lord, I fought with them and inflicted a defeat upon them…I assaulted Ekron and killed the officials and patricians who had committed the crime and hung their bodies on poles surrounding the city…I made Padi, their king, come form Jerusalem and set him as their lord on the throne, imposing upon him the tribute (due) to me (as) overlord…As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities, walled forts and to the countless small villages in their vicinity, and conquered (them) by means of well-stamped (earth-)ramps, and battering-rams brought (thus) near (to the walls) (combined with) the attack by foot soldiers, (using) mines, breeches as well as sapper work.  I drove out (of them) 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and considered (them) booty.  Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.  I surrounded him with earthwork in order to molest those who were leaving his city’s gate.  His towns which I had plundered, I took away from his country and gave them (over) to Mitinti, king of Ashdod, Padi, king of Ekron, and Sillibel, king of Gaza.  Thus I reduced his country, but I still increased the tribute and the Katru-presents (due) to me (as his) overlord which I imposed (later) upon him beyond the former tribute, to be delivered annually.  Hezekiah himself, whom the terror-inspiring splendor of my lordship had overwhelmed  and whose irregular and elite troops which he had brought into Jerusalem, his royal residence, in order to strengthen (it), had deserted him, did send me, later, to Nineveh, my lordly city, together with 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, precious stones, antimony, large cuts of red stone, couches (inlaid) w3ith ivory, nimedu-chairs (inlaid) with ivory, elephant-hides, ebony-wood, box-wood (and) all kinds of valuable treasures, his (own) daughters, concubines, male and female musicians.  In order to deliver the tribute and to do obeisance as a slave he sent his (personal) messenger.”

Ancient Near Eastern Texts – Relating to the Old Testament edited by James B. Pritchard, Princeton University Press, New Jersey 1950, quoted here.

The next scene in the relief is the aftermath of battle- people fleeing burning city. This is seen as the first ever depiction of that all-too-familiar modern phenomenon; mass refugees. Why did the Assyrians want to show this in their propaganda? Was it a warning to all those who would challenge the powers of the great king? Note however that the exiles were not all murdered, they travel with their livestock and belongings. The Assyrians showed a degree of humanity that Joshua seems to have lacked.

The great king Sennacherib was assassinated by one of his sons however as described in the Bible- the cycle of war continued.

Cyrus cylinder

One of the other objects I wound myself staring at was this one- the Cyrus Cylinder.

This is one of several such cylinders that have been found in the walls and buildings of ancient Babylonian cities and palaces- it seems that the builders of these places wanted some kind of record to remain in the foundations of what they made.

The text on the Cylinder praises Cyrus, sets out his genealogy and portrays him as a king from a line of kings. The Babylonian king Nabonidus, who was defeated and deposed by Cyrus, is denounced as an impious oppressor of the people of Babylonia and his low-born origins are implicitly contrasted to Cyrus’s kingly heritage. The victorious Cyrus is portrayed as having been chosen by the chief Babylonian godMarduk to restore peace and order to the Babylonians. The text states that Cyrus was welcomed by the people of Babylon as their new ruler and entered the city in peace. It appeals to Marduk to protect and help Cyrus and his son Cambyses. It extols Cyrus as a benefactor of the citizens of Babylonia who improved their lives, repatriated displaced people and restored temples and cult sanctuaries acrossMesopotamia and elsewhere in the region. It concludes with a description of how Cyrus repaired the city wall of Babylon and found a similar inscription placed there by an earlier king.

Again, readers of the Bible will remember Cyrus-

His treatment of the Jews during their exile in Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem is reported in theBible. The Jewish Bible’sKetuvim ends in Second Chronicles with the decree of Cyrus, which returned the exiles to thePromised Land from Babylon along with a commission to rebuild the temple.

‘Thus saith Cyrus, king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth hath Yahweh, the God of heaven, given me; and He hath charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all His people – may Yahweh, his God, be with him – let him go there.’ (2 Chronicles 36:23)

This edict is also fully reproduced in the Book of Ezra.

In the first year of King Cyrus, Cyrus the king issued a decree: ‘Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the temple, the place where sacrifices are offered, be rebuilt and let its foundations be retained, its height being 60 cubits and its width 60 cubits; with three layers of huge stones and one layer of timbers. And let the cost be paid from the royal treasury. Also let the gold and silver utensils of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, be returned and brought to their places in the temple in Jerusalem; and you shall put them in the house of God.’ (Ezra 6:3–5)

As a result of Cyrus’s policies, the Jews honored him as a dignified and righteous king. He is the only Gentile to be designated as Messiah, a divinely appointed leader, in the Tanakh (Isaiah 45:1–6). Isaiah 45:13: “I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says Yahweh Almighty.” As the text suggests, Cyrus did ultimately release the nation of Israel from its exile without compensation or tribute. Traditionally, the entire book of Isaiah is believed to pre-date the rule of Cyrus by about 120 years. These particular passages (Isaiah 40–55, often referred to as Deutero-Isaiah) are believed by most modern critical scholars to have been added by another author toward the end of the Babylonian exile (ca. 536 BC).[90] Whereas Isaiah 1–39 (referred to as Proto-Isaiah) saw the destruction of Israel as imminent, and the restoration in the future, Deutero-Isaiah speaks of the destruction in the past (Isa 42:24–25), and the restoration as imminent (Isa 42:1–9). Notice, for example, the change in temporal perspective from (Isa 39:6–7), where the Babylonian Captivity is cast far in the future, to (Isa 43:14), where the Israelites are spoken of as already in Babylon.[91]

Here we have a king from outside the chosen people, appointed by God, showing the kind of tolerance, respect for human rights and concern for peace that had been a scarce commodity.

And this very object remains as a testimony to who he was.

Human history; the rise of power, or the journey towards love?

I am interested in understanding who we are, why we are, what we are becoming- in the light of the fact that we are more than flesh that just becomes dust- we are people who have been travelling for millenia towards a deeper encounter with God, however we understand this.

I look at all this through my own distorted set of lens- but I do so consciously. So rather than co-opting history to glorify our own slice of empire (which was the origin of the British Museum after all) perhaps we can understand history in the light of who Jesus was.

In this way, small thing, small people, voices from the margins- these things become important. Great powers less so- they come and go, empires rising and falling like epidemics.

In-groups are broken- we are set free from narrow religious/geographical/ethnic boundaries. Now we can look for the marks of grace and love wherever we find them.

And we can learn to value above all the fruits of the Spirit- love, joy, peace, patience, justice, compassion.

Even when looking back.

Scooping them up for the Kingdom…

koder-sharing-bread

Lovely chat tonight out at our pub discussion thingy- talking about the Kingdom of God.

It is an old discussion for many of us, but we were chewing again on all those mysterious stories that Jesus told us- those The Kingdom of God is like… stories. Mustard seeds, fields of weedy wheat, women making bread with yeast, corn falling on random ground etc. It is all rather mixed up and mysterious, particularly as the stories from Matthew’s gospel tend to have the odd bit of smiting and burning in torment, all of which does not fit with fluffy-Jesus very well.

We talked too about our understanding of The Gospel- which for most of us used to be the saving sinners from hell when they die thing, and how this version of the Gospel comes mostly from a reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans backwardly applied to the rest of the Bible, when actually the Gospel that Jesus talked about was this one;

Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

(Or perhaps)

Its time to turn things around, shake things up, take a long hard look at yourself, because there is a deeper, more beautiful way of living that has come to you- the insurgency of God…

Our discussion then turned to what living as an agent/citizen/participant in this Kingdom/Revolutionary movement/Insurgency might mean.

The old understanding of the Gospel made it all simple- saving the lost so that they might go to heaven. Our primary purpose is evangelism. All other tasks are distractions from the Gospel. I find this narrative very difficult on all sorts of levels now, but the mission of the Kingdom is far more challenging, vitalising, engaging- we leave behind the hard in-out legalism and instead have to practice the disciplines of love (Romans 13:10)

This might in the face of it seem rather woolly and directionless, like encouraging one another to go out and be nice. However love is not just a passive thing- it demands action, particularly in the face of desperate need and danger to those who might be regarded as the recipients of our love.

I began to wonder about the old call to ‘save the lost’, usually applied to those who are not like us, so therefore were in danger of roasting in hell.

My friend Pauling put it rather neatly- Love might involve “Scooping a few people up” she said. Some people need scooped. And we might need to do a bit of scoopage.

We laughed- but despite all those old dangers of paternalism/maternalism, sometimes scooping people up- lifting them, holding them, is just what we need to do. The lost and the least, the broken people, the awkward, the lame, the lonely.

We used to call this Salvation, evidenced by conversion. For some this leads to amazing transformation- there is nothing woolly about this kind of love, or this kind of insurgency.

Is it time to reclaim the language of salvation for the Kingdom of God?

We can call it Scoopage if you like.

Imagining a poetry of Christian spirituality…

broken statue

I am still gathering poetry submissions for inclusion in an up and coming poetry collection to be published by Proost– please keep them coming in!

Proost is a company set up by Christians to gather together lots of the creativity coming out of the left field ragged edge of the church here in the UK. In doing this they have been incredibly encouraging to people (like me) whose output is unlikely to find other commercial outlets. The poetry collection was an attempt to broaden out this ethos still further.

In the process of looking at this, I have been forced once again to consider what I might understand as ‘Christian’ poetry, or even ‘spiritual’ poetry.

The tradition of church that I grew up has little time for poetry. The nearest we got to it were the lyrics of songs and hymns- with people like Matt Redman or Graham Kendrick as the most widely known contributors. The subject matter and style chosen for these songs is very limited, and goes something like this;

  • Substitutionary atonement
  • Over use of obvious rhyme structures- face/grace love/above died/justified
  • Over identification with love songs- ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ kind of stuff
  • Substitutionary atonement
  • Lack of room for questions, for uncertainty, for doubt
  • Lack of room for lament
  • Often driven by commercialism- what sells in the American mid west.
  • Substitutionary atonement

These songs became the cultural carriers of our faith- they gave us a proscribed language to describe our understanding of God but this left us only with a set of rather clichéd phrases that we rehashed over and over again- usually strapped to a good tune to make them more palatable.

Hardly surprisingly, those people that wrote poems at all in the churches I went to tended to write poems along these lines too, although this was a marginal practice, as the feeling was that the main forms of expression of faith were preaching the word, evangelising the lost and worshipping through singing.

There is of course a rich tradition of writing poetry in other Christian traditions- Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Asisi, Teresa of Avila, John Donne, Christina Rossetti, Gerard Manley Hopkins, R.S. Thomas, Thomas Merton to name but a few. However, most of us do not know the work of these wonderful poets well, if at all. Some of them we know as people of faith, but the relationship that poetry has to the development of their spiritual understanding is far less clear. It is not something that we are schooled to even ask.

Eastern traditions are much clearer about this relationship. The Sufi tradition of poets like Rumi, Sanai and Attar are all famous because they were poets. The words they made arose from their spiritual journey- they were the very process of engagement with the divine, not an accidental by product. Here is a bit of Rumi to make the point, written around 800 years ago;

Say who I am

I am dust particles in sunlight
I am the round sun.

To the bits of dust I say, stay.
To the sun, keep moving.

I am morning mist,
And the breathing of evening.

I amwind in the top of a grove
and surf on the cliff.

Mast, rudder, helmsman and keel.
I am also the coral reef they founder on.

I am a tree with a trained parot in its branches.
Silence, thought and voice.

The musical air coming through a flute
A spark off a stone, a flickering
in metal. Both candle
and the moth crazy around it.

Rose and the nightingale
lost in the fragrance.

I am all orders of being, the circling galaxy,
the evolutionary intelligence, the lift
and the falling away. What is
and what isn’t.

What makes this poetry so wonderful to us is the freedom that exists in the middle of it- the sense of generosity, wonder and beauty. It opens something up- a window into something deeper. It seems to arise as much from personal experience- revelation even- as from a desire to proselytise or sell a particular idea to us. This is not Christian poetry- but then again, perhaps it is the poetry that we Christians need to be reading.

We often forget that the Bible is a product too of middle eastern mystics, prophets and nomads in their search for God. We forget that around a third of the Bible is written as poetry- not just the obvious bits (Psalms) but we also have searing prophetic rants, apocalyptic weirdness  raunchy love poems, even St Paul seemed to be sneaking lyrics from hymns into his letters.

We needed the Bible to be a legal document, a constitional, foundational tool for life that we could mine for concrete instructional truth- what we got was lots of poetry- although we rarely see it as such. It is an interesting question as to whether reading the Bible as poetry changes how we engage with it.

But back to the point of this piece- which is a search for a new kind of Christian poetry- using language set free from the narrow cliches. An honest kind of poetry- that arises from a deep well of the Spirit within us. Poetry that does not shrink from pain, form ugliness, from doubt, from anger at God even. Poetry that asks questions as much as it answers them. Poetry that holds us to account for our actions- particularly those of us in power. Poetry that is skewed towards the weak, the broken, the poor (as these are the last made first.)

Poetry that can become the songs of the Kingdom of God that is woven into the fabric of our world- in each leaf, each ripple, each stratum, each child, each crack addict.

If you should come across poetry like this, you will recognise it for what it is, even if it disturbs you, discomforts you.

And if you do- send it my way!

Biblical marriage- but not as we know it…

In response to my previous post on gay marriage,  Sam Dawlatly (who has a book of poetry out on Proost soon by the way!) had this to say;

So here’s another point of view: the Bible doesn’t advocate monogamy… David had 8 wives and Solomon had more. Then at some point between then and a time perhaps before Jesus it was decided that marriage was between one man and one woman. Now the Law was given to Moses, so as far as I can make out there are no Laws that state explicitly that marriage is for one man and one woman. I am prepared to be corrected, as I am not a theologian. However monogamous marriage seems to be the norm in the New Testament.

What led to this change? It seems to me that “Christian monogamous marriage” as we accept it to be is not, in fact, biblical, but more cultural. I’m not advocating polygamy, but if the basis of marriage is more cultural then perhaps we shouldn’t use the Bible to define it and criticise those who seek to alter the definition according to modern culture?

He has a point you know. Deuteronomy is the scourge of all fundamentalists, who have to resort to immediate dispensationalist contortions every time. Check out chapter 22 for a case in point.

Or (with tongue in cheek) I offer you this;

marriagechallenge