Sunday, March 17, 2013

Streams in the Wasteland: An Experiment in Unreading the Bible

My effort to unread the Bible as many around me have portrayed it is at its heart an effort to deconstruct and reconstruct the text. It is an opportunity to give myself permission to read these words free of the framework they'd previously been given and explore them in new ways. In this spirit, there was a passage that recently caught my attention.

"Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland."
Isaiah 43: 18-19

This is a passage that I've encountered many times before. It's not uncommon to find it on a greeting card or note of encouragement in Christian circles. Every time I've heard these verses in my past, they were used in the sense of stating the God would eliminate the wastelands and the deserts in our lives. People clung to these verses to claim that the new place God was creating in our lives were places of beauty and abundance. 

So what does that mean for those of us who live with chronic pain? How are we to envision our lives as places of beauty and abundance - places devoid of deserts? The way people used these verses became problematic for me after my injuries. They were basically claiming that I needed to move on and find my place of abundance. How can this seem true when much of my experience feels like a desert? 

These are the types of claims I sought to avoid in my recovery process. So it seems fitting to confront them in my project of unreading. Once I read these words unattached from the voices of my past I discovered a new dimension. Nowhere in this text does it claim that the deserts and wastelands will be eliminated and turned into places of lush abundance. The wasteland remains, but it will contain a place of a refuge and sustenance. There will be a place where you can be refreshed. Indeed, this is the context given if you only read the next verse in the passage.

"The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen,"
Isaiah 43: 20

These are the things I wish more people heard from churches and Christians in general. Rather than creating situations where people betray their own emotions and put on a happy face because they feel like there isn't room to explore their personal places of grief and desolation, that they are instead assured that in the midst of their pain and emptiness, there will be places of refuge and renewal. For those in the midst of struggles, the latter is an oasis, while the former is a mirage.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Unreading the Bible for Lent

Those of you who've read other posts on this site probably realize that I'm a big fan of the contemplative seasons of the church calendar. Lent is perhaps the best known of these. (Although this knowledge may still be lacking as most would probably identify it as the season of countless fish sandwich commercials and listening to friends frequently proclaim that they can't eat any sweets.) The most obvious way for people to return to Christian contemplative traditions is through prayer and time spent reading Biblical text. I've noticed that in the years since my Evangelical exodus, this is no easy task. I still have a Bible by my bedside and will often pick it up. But as I open the pages, I freeze. It isn't fear or anxiety that paralyze me at that moment....It's the fact that when I read the words within they leave me cold. I struggle to find what is actually there. Thick lenses of Christian culture linger, distorting the beautiful poetry within, twisting and reshaping it into the rigid and impersonal structure of an owner's manual or a to-do list. 

The words ring hollow, devoid of meaning due to the trivial ways they were employed. Worse yet, they violently lash out bringing with them their former usage, intent on shame and self-doubt within those they were used against. Every time the Bible becomes a brick to bludgeon others, more and more of its beauty is locked away, hidden from sight. The longer this continues, the more difficult that beauty becomes to recover. Sometimes I stare at the book within my hands and it seems as though its pages have been covered with mud. How do you remove such filth from paper without destroying it altogether and losing everything? 

That is why in this season of Lent, I cannot make the promise that many others do to spend more time reading my Bible. Such efforts have merely become a propagation of the abuse these words carried in my past. Rather, these 40 days will be those where I finally unread my Bible. A time where I confront the filth and misuse that has enveloped these words for so long, deconstructing what they have been fashioned into in hopes of recovering what they actually are, and in the process catching a glimpse of the beauty they once carried. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Revolving Door of Recommitment

"Maybe you've been a Christian for a while, but recently you've fallen away. You've been doing things you know you shouldn't..." Altar Calls aren't just for unbelievers. If you've spent any length of time in American Evangelical Culture, odds are at some point or another, you've probably recommitted your life to Christ. If not you, everyone has that one Evangelical friend who answers every altar call they attend. In American Evangelical Culture, committing your life to Christ is like New Year's resolutions: everybody makes them. Everybody breaks them. Everybody makes them again. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

For those of you unfamiliar with the process, an altar call generally consists of a pastor inviting people to come to the front of the church, kneel in front of the altar, and give their life to God. After providing an invitation to those who have never done so, they put out a call for anyone who has previously dedicated their life to Christ, but has fallen short of God's standards.

This endless cycle of recommitment leads me to wonder if we have part of this equation wrong. Is the cycle that we've created through this insistence on "committing your life to the Lord" one of devotion or one of shame? It seems to me that the most frequent motivation for people to return to the altar and recommit their lives to Christ isn't devotion, but rather shame and guilt over some shortcoming they have had in their lives. Is this evidence of our view that God's job is to fix our lives? And when we find that our lives still contain some degree of brokenness, we assume we must not have done this right the first time? Perhaps the people we see that answer these calls frequently aren't the ones with the least commitment, aren't those with the most lacking, but those with the largest sense of shame.

That isn't something I readily know how to fit into the gospel. It's a process that saddens me, because I feel that at this point church becomes a place where people try to hid from their pain rather than confront it and start the difficult process of working through it. They seem to be looking for a quick fix. It makes me think that Peter Rollins is onto something when he says the contemporary church reminds him of a crackhouse. As he says,

"In other words, what if the church could be a place where we found a liturgical structure that would not treat God as a product that would make us whole but as the mystery that enables us to live abundantly in the midst of life’s difficulties. A place where we are invited to confront the reality of our humanity, not so that we will despair, but so that we will be free of the despair that already lurks within us, the despair that enslaves us, the despair that we refuse to acknowledge."
I can't help but believe that such a place would not entertain the endless cycle of recommitment. I think such a place would release many from the burden of shame they now struggle to bear.
Video of Peter Rollins speaking on this topic can be found here.