16 November 2011

Closer to Fine

IF SPIRITUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHIES disgust or madden or bore you, then you'll want to visit here another time. I usually don't read them, so I understand. It's well-nigh narcissistic to think others would want to read these kinds of details about one's own life.

Life. Nice segue. I'm trying to tell you something about my life / Maybe give me insight between black and white.

During that angst-ridden era of flannels, Camels, and Reality Bites, I found myself barely hanging on to some semblance of spirituality. This guy Jesus really existed a long time ago, but we couldn't be much surer about anything else. It took a few years after my "conversion experience" to get to this place, but it had been moving in that direction since the very night I wept at the end of the aisle. (The reason being, overemphasis on the experience of conversion by nature sets people up for failure—unless you're on the road to Damascus, I suppose.)

If I could put my finger on one particular moment I began noticeably to unravel, it was after saturating myself with the Renaissance humanists. Or, rather, it was after misconstruing the entire movement that we now call Christian humanism. In short, my puerile understanding and attempt to put into practice the ideals of this movement quickly devolved: the Christian part fell by the wayside and I was left with the humanist part alone. But the wages of humanism is death. (In a moment of perfect confluence, "Imagine" just came on the radio as I write this.)

Literature and music. Both play a key role in my spiritual development, which gets me to the point of this post.

During my early-to-mid 20s, the liner notes to Moby's Everything Is Wrong (Mute, 1995) became my manifesto. It had all the right mix of disdain for the Christian Right, support for environmentalist causes, social justice (for the poor and hungry), universalism, and syndicalism. This was the kind of stuff that preached to me. I rarely rolled out of bed on the Lord's Day. Music and literature, especially that which employed biblical allusions, remained my primary source of inspiration and discipleship.

Enter the Indigo Girls. While I haven't kept up with them that much since, nor did I rush out to buy everything they ever produced at the time, one particular album remained my daily bread in the mid 90s: the self-titled Indigo Girls (Epic Records, 1989).

Each track, in some way or another, seemed to describe my journey: "Secure Yourself"—choose your identity wisely, this world is dark, and the journey is long; "Kid Fears"—the juxtaposition of normal childhood fears versus those tragedies we sometimes hear about on the news; "Prince of Darkness"—a testament to family, friends and support systems in the face of diabolical forces that threaten to pull you under; "Blood and Fire"—all about the obsessive-compulsive, and thus dangerous, kind of love; "Tried to Be True"—faithfulness and compromise in the little choices you make everyday; "Love's Recovery"—the redemptive power of selfless love; "Land of Canaan"—the shame and pain and loneliness of unrequited love; "Center Stage"—through several allusions to historic nursery rhymes, we are given the exhortation to make our actions sure and to accept the consequences; and "History of Us"—a double entendre: make certain your story tells the tale of one who was present in every moment, who entered into the often pain-filled messiness of other's lives, who answered the call of the living God, before time makes history of you.

How did they do it? How did they sound so naturally a part of my world? Come to find out later that Amy Ray graduated Emory with a degree in English and religion, and Emily Saliers, who also went to Emory, is the daughter of Don Saliers, professor emeritus of theology and worship at Candler School.

My favorite was the album's opening song, "Closer to Fine" (read the lyrics). It struck all the right chords. It also became a favorite cover for the folk band I started (as a ploy to get my now wife to fall in love with me). In the first line (quoted in the second paragraph above), the singer sets the tone: seeing the world in blacks and whites alone avoids the issue. She needs help to see all the shades of gray (in order to realize that the answer lies in the seeking), and coming to grips with this leads "me [to] take my life less seriously" because "it's only life after all." In other words, relax. You're not expected to find all the answers.

Analyzing every lyric from this tune would turn this already long blog post into an unbearably long one. But at its core, this song sings of gaining stability through the awareness of instability—becoming "closer to fine"—in the face of the vertigo-like symptoms that result from the apparent relativity and confusion of life that appears in response to the search for something definitive, something black and white, from one source. Add to this the realization that that search is couched in an everyday life clearly dependent on its social construction, and seeking "solace in a bottle or possibly a friend" sounds about right.

These days, I've learned to be more critical—less gullible—when listening or reading. And I've certainly learned to cling to God's Word (enfleshed and spoken/written/tasted in the bread and wine and passed through in the waters of baptism) and thus seek more from this "source for some definitive." Nevertheless, I'm still a recovering progressive; I'm still a humanist ever-seeking for the Christian to gain ground. I'm still walking that "crooked line."

09 November 2011

God Is Against Us, After All

[This is part five in what I'm thinking will be an eight-part series.]

God is indeed against us. And how could it be other? In the face of genocide in Europe, Russia, Africa, the Balkans, or the south side of Chicago (for that matter), of child prostitution in southeast Asia, of the killing of untold millions on various battlefields of this earth — just in the last century, one cannot forever presume upon the kindness and mercy of God (once again, see Rom. 2:4).

One hardly needs to make the case that God is holy and just, that is, perfect and fair. His holiness is incomparable—no other gods even come close (Ex. 15:11). His throne room occupies the highest penthouse one can imagine (Isa. 57:15). And just like anything else that can be said about God, he doesn’t simply act holy or just, he is himself holy and just (Deut. 32:4). Given all this, surely he couldn’t be considered perfect and fair if he turned a blind eye to all the atrocities mentioned above. His faithfulness depends on it.

But it’s all too easy to point the finger at the likes of Auschwitz or Hiroshima. We’d do well to remember that we’ve all added to this mess. From the time of the disobedience and fall of Adam and Eve, sinfulness has been bequeathed to all their heirs (however that was done), and all their heirs have contributed their own share to it (Rom. 5:12). None of us escape this problem, at least not on our own.

We all reenact the same sin of the first pair too. In the garden, an open, honest and loving relationship with the creator was rejected for the supposed pleasure of making their own rules. It was a failed grasp at autonomy, to do things according to their own agenda, not God’s. In so doing, Adam and Eve betrayed their confusion: they thought they were God himself, rulers and sustainers of all that is. Being the pinnacle of God’s creation, they clung to that status and, indeed, became intoxicated with it.

We all do the same.

The result of this fall was that God cursed the serpent who deceived them (Gen. 3:14–15). He then cursed Eve, and thus all women, to suffer during childbirth (which childbirth, ironically, paved the way for the history of God’s unfolding plan of redemption) and to become profoundly alienated from her husband, especially through tedious power struggles in their relationship. Adam, of course, also receives these curses, along with every man related to him and who acts like him; there is indeed a cosmic significance attached to his sin (see, for example, Rom. 5:15–19). The earth, too, faced God’s judgment (Gen. 3:17–19):
You listened to your wife and ate the fruit which I told you not to eat. Because of what you have done, the ground will be under a curse. You will have to work hard all your life to make it produce enough food for you. It will produce weeds and thorns, and you will have to eat wild plants. You will have to work hard and sweat to make the soil produce anything, until you go back to the soil from which you were formed. You were made from soil, and you will become soil again.
And finally, they were both kicked out of Paradise (Gen. 3:23–24). God’s temple-garden had to be cleansed, protected—both acts that Adam failed to do. Upon seeing that old dragon he should’ve throttled it and wrestled it out of the garden. But in that crucial moment, he sat back, all lazy and careless like we men are wont to do.

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