Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

These extended excerpts are a way to share Kiese Laymon’s beyond powerful and beyond devastating book, Heavy: An American Memoir. It is at least formally addressed to his mother (the “you” in the first quotation).

I understood that day why you and Grandmama were so hungry for black wins, regardless of how tiny those wins were. For Grandmama, those wins were always personal. For you, the wins were always political. Both of y’all knew, and showed me, how we didn’t even have to win for white folk to punish us. All we had to do was not lose the way they wanted us to.

p. 53

===================================================

I looked at Grandmama and told her I felt like a nigger, and feeling like a nigger made my heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain feel like they were melting and dripping / out of the ends / of my toenails.

“It ain’t about making white folk feel what you feel,” she said. “It’s about not feeling what they want you to feel. Do you hear me? You better know from whence you came and forget about those folk.”

p. 56

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Before both of us went to sleep, I asked Grandmama if 218 pounds was too fat for twelve years old. “What you weighing yourself for anyway?” she asked me. “Two hundred eighteen pounds is just right, Kie. It’s just heavy enough.”

“Heavy enough for what?”

“Heavy enough for everything you need to be heavy enough for.”

I loved sleeping with Grandmama because that was the only place in the world I slept all the way through the night. But tonight was different.

“Can I ask you one more question before we go to bed?”

“Yes, baby,” Grandmama said, and faced me for the first time since I gave her the notebook.

“What do you think about counting to ten in case of emergencies?”

“Ain’t no emergency God can’t help you forget,” Grandmama told me. “Evil is real, Kie.”

“But what about the emergencies made by folk who say they love you?”

“You forget it all,” she said. “Especially that kind of emergency. Or you go stone crazy. My whole life, it seem like something crazy always happens on Sunday nights in the summer.”

p. 60

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I’d heard Grandmama whimper over the loss of her best friend and her sisters. I’d heard Grandmama yell at Uncle Jimmy for daring to disrespect her in her house. I’d never heard Grandmama scream while begging the Lord to have mercy on her until that night in the hospital…
With one hand in the pockets of my mesh shorts, and one hand holding hers, I told Grandmama it was going to be okay. Grandmama said she had faith in the white doctor who was taking care of her. She kept calling him “the white-man doctor,” though he was really a short, light-complexioned black man with a dry, red Afro.

“The white-man doctor got my best interest at heart,” she said. “Grandmama will be fine directly.”

The black doctor with the dry red Afro asked me to leave the room because they had to do a small procedure. He said the infection was deeper than he thought. It started in the middle of her head and went down the back of her neck. “We’re gonna help her with this pain,” he told me. “The infection is seeping into her bloodstream.”

I walked out of the room but he didn’t close the door behind me. “Lord Jesus,” Grandmama kept saying before she screamed. “Please have mercy. Please have mercy.” I knew, but didn’t want to admit, why Grandmama was screaming, why the black doctor with the dry red Afro didn’t give her enough anesthetic, why he thought cutting a full inch and a half deep into the back of her scalp was for her own good.

Folk always assumed black women would recover but never really cared if black women recovered. I knew Grandmama would act like she recovered before thanking Jesus for keeping her alive. She would never publicly reckon with damage done to her insides and outsides at the hands of people who claimed to have her best interest at heart. She would just thank Jesus for getting through the other side of suffering. Thanking Jesus for getting us through situations we should have never been in was one of our family’s superpowers.

I spent the night in the room sitting in a chair next to Grandmama’s bed and holding her hand. Grandmama didn’t say a word. She just looked out the window of the room, with her cheek pressed into the thin mattress until the sun came up.

pp. 169-170

As you can see, Heavy is a difficult read, likely even re-traumatizing for some readers. That’s part of what the title means. My initial difficulty when finishing the book and attempting to review it was that I worried for its author. I had a similar experience reading Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir last year. A few years before that, it was something by Augusten Burroughs (although this makes me more hopeful). In each of these authors’ works, his or her story has many ups and downs, then things close on an up. In each case, I am left wondering whether this was an editor’s suggestion, whether it was for the purposes of narrative, or whether things really are getting better in some more or less permanent way.

Laymon, who shares his life to the bone and writes like a poet, also reminds me of the confessional poets. This article on that movement names some of its most important figures: John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Silvia Plath, Ann Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass. Of those Berryman, Plath, and Sexton all took their own lives. Lowell (my first favorite poet) was hospitalized multiple times for bipolar disorder. Snodgrass, meanwhile, wrote his first collection out of the experience of being separated from his daughter after his first divorce, and then was married three more times before he died of cancer in 2009. All this frightens me for artists who seem to sweat blood on every page.

It took me two or three days to realize the other piece that unsettles me in Heavy. It’s the same reality I opened with: Is Laymon writing about the 1920s and 1930s or the 1970s and 1980s? Does progress ever come for racial and economic justice? Heavy is not at all a hopeless book, but it makes clear–again back to the meaning of the title–that even to feel hope placed on your shoulders is to bear a heavy load, one which you did not choose, and one which Laymon does not feel free to un-choose.

Read this book, and be disquieted.

Bonus: While you are waiting 38 weeks for your local library hold to bring the book to you, check out this interview with Laymon (beginning at 26:19 with a reading from Heavy) from the always excellent NY Times Book Review Podcast.

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Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament

I do not think I’d ever heard of Peter Enns until Inspiration and Incarnation apparently led to his being purged in 2008 from the faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary. It still took me another ten years to read it. I both can and cannot see the fuss.

To Fuss
Westminster Theological Seminary has always been a fundamentalist institution, in the most literal sense of the word, and WTS still tells its own story in those Evangelical vs. Liberalism terms. As someone whose earliest Christian faith was formed in American evangelicalism, I still had very little contact with the Reformed part of that world. In my experience, even religious historians miss some of the diversity present under the umbrella that is American evangelicalism. I’ve been around and worshiped among evangelical Baptists, evangelical Methodists/Wesleyans, evangelical non-denominational Christians, evangelical Charismatics/Pentecostals, evangelical Stone-Campbell descendants, evangelical Anglicans, evangelical Lutherans, and even a few evangelical Roman Catholics. But I’ve rarely actually been in evangelical Reformed circles, despite the fact that they’ve had a muscular presence in American evangelical thought and especially publishing for over a hundred years. I wasn’t formed by Christians who knew or cared enough to have an opinion about Westminster Presybyterianism vs. Princeton Presbyterianism. But it makes complete sense that an institution that was founded in 1929 order to separate to stay theologically pure would still work to stay theologically pure just 80 years later.

Not to Fuss
The title metaphor and thesis is this: there is a similarity between 1) the nature of the God-man, Jesus, and 2) the divine and human elements which together make Scripture. Enns then details “human” pieces of Scripture, such as similarities between the Old Testament and other Ancient Near Eastern texts (e.g., Utnapishtim‘s flood and Noah’s flood), as well as diversity of both historical (e.g., Samuel-Kings vs. Chronicles) and theological (e.g., Proverbs vs. Ecclesiastes) claims within Scripture. All in all, it seems to me exactly what an evangelical academic Biblical scholar would do, one teacher’s attempt to be honest about difficulties that arise when we read the Bible closely and as unique sacred Scripture, then try to reckon with those difficulties.

Review
The title metaphor is so loose that it’s not helpful. The doctrine of the Incarnation says Jesus is unique in being fully human and fully divine. By the end of his book, Enns has argued that the Bible is neither fully human nor fully divine. What’s more, because of the fallout from this book and because of the trajectory of his follow-up books and career into a comfortably progressive (or post-)evangelical space (complete with effusive blurb circles with Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle), I wonder if this book was Enns’ attempt to reach for a way forward but also stay right where he was. That is, I wanted a more daring book, and this is a cautious book which reads like Enns is pulling his punches. I will not widely recommend this book, but I am interested in at least checking out an audiobook of his work since.

Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation

I thought it worthwhile to begin with this extended quote, representative of the book as a whole, and the most powerfully distilled argument I’ve yet come across while reading. One of Howard Thurman’s seminary professors told him not to waste his time with any book he could read faster than twenty pages in an hour. This one falls into that category for me. My comments follow, so as not to disrupt the momentum Martin builds.

Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox), pp. 49-50 of the paperback:

My goal is not to deny that Paul condemned homosexual acts but to highlight the ideological contexts in which such discussions have taken place. My goal is to dispute appeals to “what the Bible says” as a foundation for Christian ethical arguments. It really is time to cut the Gordian knot of fundamentalism. And do not be fooled: any argument that tries to defend its ethical position by an appeal to “what the Bible says” without explicitly acknowledging the agency and contingency of the interpreter is fundamentalism, whether it comes from a right-wing Southern Baptist or a moderate Presbyterian. We must simply stop giving this kind of argument any credibility. Furthermore, we will not find the answers merely by becoming better historians or exegetes. The test for whether an interpretation is Christian or not does not hang on whether it is historically accurate or exegetically nuanced. The touchstone is not the historically reconstructed meaning in the past, nor is it the fancifully imagined, modernly constructed intentions of the Biblical writers. Nor can any responsible Christian–after the revolutionary change in Christian thought in the past twenty years, much less in the past three hundred–maintain that Christian interpretations are those conforming to Christian tradition. The traditions, all of them, have changed too much and are far too open to cynical manipulation to be taken as foundations for gauging the ethical value of a reading of Scripture.
 
The only recourse in our radical contingency is to accept our contingency and look for guidance within the discourse that we occupy and that forms our very selves. The best place to find criteria for talking about ethics and interpretation will be in Christian discourse itself, which includes Scripture and tradition but not in a “foundational” sense. Nor do I mean that Christian discourse can itself furnish a stable base on which to secure ethical positions; it is merely the context in which those positions are formed and discussed. Conscious of this precarious contingency, and looking for guiding lights within the discourse, I take my stand with a quotation from an impeccably traditioned witness, Augustine, who wrote, “Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and our neighbor does not understand it at all” (Christian Doctrine 1.35.40).
 
By this light, any interpretation of Scripture that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or exegetically respectable. There can be no debate about the fact that the church’s stand on homosexuality has caused oppression, loneliness, self-hatred, violence, sickness, and suicide for millions of people. If the church wishes to continue with its traditional interpretation it must demonstrate, not just claim, that it is more loving to condemn homosexuality than to affirm homosexuals. Can the church show that same-sex loving relationships damage those involved in them? Can the church give compelling reasons to believe that it really would be better for all lesbian and gay Christians to live alone, without the joy of intimate touch, without hearing a lover’s voice when they go to sleep or awake? Is it really better for lesbian and gay teenagers to despise themselves and endlessly pray that their very personalities be reconstructed so that they may experience romance like their straight friends? Is it really more loving for the church to continue its worship of “heterosexual fulfillment” (a “nonbiblical” concept, by the way) while consigning thousands of its members to a life of either celibacy or endless psychological manipulations that masquerade as “healing”?
 
The burden of proof in the last twenty years has shifted. There are too many of us who are not sick, or inverted, or perverted, or even “effeminate,” but who just have a knack for falling in love with people of our own sex. When we have been damaged, it has not been due to our homosexuality but to others’ and our own denial of it. The burden of proof now is not on us, to show that we are not sick, but rather on those who insist that we would be better off going back into the closet. What will “build the double love of God and neighbor”?
 
I have tried to illustrate how all appeals to “what the Bible says” are ideological and problematic. But in the end, all appeals, whether to the Bible or anything else, must submit to the test of love. To people who say this is simplistic, I say, far from it. There are no easy answers. “Love” will not work as a foundation for ethics in a prescriptive or predictable fashion either–as can be seen by all the injustices, imperialisms, and violence committed in the name of love. But rather than expecting the answer to come from a particular method of reading the Bible, we at least push the discussion to where it ought to be: into the realm of debates about Christian love, rather than into either fundamentalism or modern historicism.
 
We ask the question that must be asked: “What is the loving thing to do?

1) Martin’s aim is indeed “not to deny that Paul condemned homosexual acts.” Instead, Martin argues that the way the Church has turned to Scripture as foundational for its ethics is flawed, because (according to him) foundationalism is a flawed and naive way to read any text, including the Scriptures. He himself is a near-complete postmodern, and his guiding lights within postmodern critical theory are (at least at the halfway point of the book) Michel Foucault and reader-response theory. Very briefly, reader-response theory claims that the meaning of the text resides not in the text itself but in the reading community’s experience of the text. Foucauldian analysis names the power and politics at work in the formation of texts, communities, and the discourse within those communities, including the formation of churches, interpretive traditions, individual scholars, and Christian ethics.

2) “explicitly acknowledging the agency and contingency of the interpreter”: While I agree that this is necessary, I’m not as convinced that this is a strong definition of fundamentalism. First, it collapses fundamentalism and foundationalism into one. But while Martin wants to sweep away the (for him) illusion of all foundations, among which Christian fundamentalism is one, the technical term “fundamentalism” when applied to Christianity usually includes groups whose theologies profess the limits and bent-, curved-, or broken-ness of human interpreters and interpretive communities. That is, there already is an explicit (although Martin would likely still argue not explicit enough) acknowledgement of the interpreter’s contingency. The other half–agency–does stand. Martin does a tremendous job outlining how Christians tend to deny their own agency in speaking of texts, not only when we say things like “the Bible says,” but in the publications of highly regarded Biblical scholars and theologians (of which Martin provides many examples) and when seminaries continue to teach preaching as “letting the text speak for itself” or “getting out of the way of the text.”

3) “We must simply stop giving this kind of argument any credibility.” This is much more easily said than done. For instance, at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church that just took place in St. Louis, recognized speakers voiced claims (not just conservative claims) based on “what the Bible says” in the flat, non-nuanced way that Martin is talking about. This understanding of reading the Bible and forming theology and Christian ethics seems to be baked into the Christian cake at this point. What does it take to change a cultural understanding of Scripture which is (at least) as old as Protestantism? I’m hoping that Martin will eventually address this question.

4) The rest of Paragraph 1: Here you can see the full diagnosis of the problem of Biblical interpretation as Martin sees it. The text has no meaning apart from its readers, history is of very limited use in aiding our meaning making, and Christian traditions are compromised in their usefulness because they are corrupted by the lust for power, like every other human institution (and this is a Foucauldian analysis, even though others could make a similar argument based on the doctrine of sin). And so we are set for the opening sentence of Paragraph 2.

5) “our radical contingency”: Yes, we are finite people with finite resources for understanding and meaning making, and even what resources we have are suspect.

6) “guidance within the discourse that we occupy and that forms our very selves”: The problem is that this suddenly makes Christian ethics and Christianity itself very individualistic, and it makes me the individual who matters and judges. I have this little spot of sand on which I stand, there is only water on every side, and when I am gone, my little spot of beach will be washed away too. It’s very possible I misunderstand the claims of reader-response theory, but Martin’s particular reading seems to be a trajectory toward shattering every possibility of community or shared meaning, which places it at odds with every form of historical Christianity. (I don’t believe I’m misreading; rather, I wonder how communities can be larger than one if reader-response theory is applied to saturation.)

7) Paragraph three (“By this light”) is the one that cemented for me that this was the passage to share. The primary reason is that I think every person holding to a conservative position on human sexual and gender identity and expression should face some important realities. Second, I am interested in how a foundational claim has now emerged in the midst of an anti-foundational argument. There is a foundation, and it is something like “Do no harm,” eventually reframed in the next paragraph as “Love.”

8) “demonstrate, not just claim”: This is a tremendous challenge. Sin isn’t a violation against God’s arbitrary rules, but something which does actual harm to actual others. An important caveat: just because I cannot see the harm does not make it not sin. More important caveat: I can see that the church has harmed LGBTQIA people. There are some parts of the church that simply hate their queer siblings, and some of those Christians (and this doesn’t make anyone less culpable) have no sense of the motivations for their doctrine and ethics of human sexuality. And there are many other voices and have been voices since the early church who have lived into community, and who have lived complete and fulfilled lives without ever having a sexual partner. (One could attempt to argue that far fewer lesbian and gay teenagers despise themselves and pray for changed sexual identities, but the truth is that there are still more than plenty of Christian teenagers in that situation, and the reason that there are fewer has had much to do with changing views among Christian churches.)

9) “worship of ‘heterosexual fulfillment'” is very real, and, at least in US Protestantism, celibacy (whether or not it’s chosen or out of a sense of vocation or just because life unfolds in unplanned ways) is viewed as somehow weird. That is, heterosexual marriage is viewed as normal, and any other adult life is viewed as abnormal. (The New Testament and most of the global church throughout history have viewed things differently. There are places, communities, and voices which are currently helping us to change, albeit slowly.)

10) The concluding paragraphs and sentence demonstrate why this book continues to be helpful to my thinking, even as I have shown I disagree fundamentally (sic) with the author on some issues. Martin, a Biblical scholar, is convinced that Biblical debates are the mischosen battleground for forming Christian ethics, so that he comes at it slant rather than repeating unhelpful, entrenched positions. Put simply, he seems less stuck than most of us, and he helps me even when I read some of those more entrenched positions.

Did Jesus Kiss Judas?

I guess I had always pictured Judas slinking up to Jesus with exaggerated warmth–“Rabbi!”–and giving him a quick peck on the cheek. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture has me wondering if I’m just being too Western again. Or too US American:

How magnificent is the endurance of evil by the Lord who even kissed his own traitor, and then spoke words even softer than a kiss! For he did not say, O you abominable one or traitor, is this what you do in return for great kindnesses? He simply says, “Judas,” using his first name. This is in the voice of one commiserating with another or who wished another to come back to him, not the voice of anger.

Dionysius of Alexandria, Quoted in The anCient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Mark, p. 215

I likely would have dismissed this reading of Judas’ kiss as a two-way kiss out of hand, because some of the readings in these volumes are quite…imaginative. But on the next page of the same volume, Ephrem of Syria assumes the same kiss, writing, “Jesus kissed the mouth of him who, by means of it, gave the signal for death to those who apprehended him.”

The Anchor Bible Dictionary has a three page entry for “Kiss” (pp. 89-92 in Volume IV). It disappointingly does not say anything about whether any recent scholars think Jesus kissed Judas back, but it does say that “the holy kiss” (mentioned several times in the New Testament) was a unique practice of early Christians, without precedent in the Greco-Roman or Jewish world. Some scholars even claim that Jesus initiated the practice with his disciples, and the disciples kept up the practice in the early Christian communities. If this is true, as the ABD puts it, Judas’ kiss was “a sign which would convey one message to outsiders but would be the usual form of greeting and hence arouse no suspicions to the inside group” (91). Of course, the whole mob with torches, clubs, and short swords probably would raise suspicion.

But back to Dionysius of Alexandria. As with many of the writers quoted in the ACCoS (many of them relatively minor figures) I had to look him up. During Dionysius’ life, the Church suffered seasons of persecution, in which some Christians denied their faith verbally or in writing and some offered sacrifices to prove they were not Christians, so that they and their families would not be hurt or killed. Seasons of persecution were followed by seasons of tolerance, and as churches reconstituted themselves, Christian leaders were divided about what to do about those who had apostatized and now wanted to return.

Some, led by Novatian, argued that those who had denied Christ and offered sacrifices to idols could not return to receive the sacraments. Such idolatry and faithlessness, he argued, were unforgivable. Others–in what became the Orthodox position set against what eventually became known as the Novatian heresy–said that Christians could repent and be forgiven and restored. Dionysius of Alexandria was one of the great leaders of that Orthodox position, and I see it in his read of Jesus and Judas in the Garden.

Dionysius knew Judas-like folks. Dionysius likely knew people who had been killed due to treachery by other Christians. Even with that life experience he looked to Jesus in the Garden, and he could not imagine a Jesus who would refuse to kiss his disciple when his disciple came to kiss him. The Jesus Dionysius heard in the Gospels would not speak with the condemning voice of Novatian, but always “in the voice of one commiserating with another or who wished another to come back to him, not the voice of anger.”

I want to see, hear, and believe in a Jesus who would kiss Judas back.

(Related public service announcement: Scorsese’s stunning Silence, which deals with faith, apostasy, reconciliation, and grace upon grace upon grace, is streaming on Amazon Prime.)

Living Under What Authority

Particularly in the wake of the United Methodist Church’s 2019 General Conference, I’m working to progress through that stack of books I’ve carried around in various lists and in the back of my head for at least a decade, those books on theologies of human sexuality, theological anthropology, and Biblical hermeneutics that would give me clarity for myself and language to speak to others. I started with Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation, and because I am unable to read one book at a time, I also began N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. Martin is an anti-foundationalist, while Wright is committed to historical criticism, albeit from a broadly evangelical perspective.

Starting with Martin gave me a particular lens for reading Wright. Martin is basically correct when he charges that Wright defends historical-critical questions so strongly that it’s difficult to know what the Church was doing with its Scriptures between the 2nd or 3rd century and the 18th or 19th century. That is, if the historical methods are the right methods, how was the church faithful in its reading of Scripture between the first couple generations–those who could draw on memory and personal testimony–and the post-Enlightenment creation of the historical-critical method?

It’s particularly disappointing that Wright neglects a real engagement with premodern readings, because Wright’s decision erases so much of historical theology, which is itself largely Biblical commentary, and which might give him some stronger foundations for his own method. (Luckily Christopher A. Hall’s Reading the Scriptures with the Church Fathers exists.) Wright likewise dismisses other more recent theological readings of Scripture, offering major figures–John Webster, Karl Barth, all of Radical Orthodoxy, almost all of postmodernism–only a sentence or three. There are plenty of important thinkers he never mentions at all. The only framework he works with is his own, which is framing the story of Scripture as a five act play: Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, the Church. While I think Wright made this decision because he wanted to sharpen his focus on his own way forward, I still believe he should have engaged more deeply with others’ thoughts.

What still brings this up to a 4-5 star book after those critiques is that 1) Wright is writing as a pastor to the Church, and this pastoral emphasis shapes every page, and 2) Wright’s conversation about sources of authority in the church is offered through the lens of Richard Hooker and John Wesley.

As a United Methodist pastor turning to Wright while United Methodism appears to be flying toward schism, his writing about how these sources of authority interact is just terrific. He is especially helpful in speaking about how for Hooker and Wesley (and most of the Christian Tradition) reason is a particular kind of reason—not just the ability to think rationally, but reasoning within the Church, with its Scripture. Reason is thus a traditioned form of theological reasoning with the Scriptures. Experience, meanwhile, insists Wright, is no source of authority at all but rather the end of authority, if we take “experience” to mean that my individual experience determines my theology, rather than that experience is an important shaper and affirmer of our theology from other sources of primary authority.

In Wright’s own words (ellipses at the ends of paragraphs are mine, to shorten this lengthy excerpt, but italics are his, as is the bracketed Scripture reference):

For Wesley himself, scripture remained the primary authority; the “experience” upon which he insisted was the living experience of God’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit, through which what the Bible said was proved true in the life of the believer. It is quite an illegitimate use of all this to see “experience” as a separate source of authority to be played off against scripture itself, though this move is now frequent, almost routine, in many theological circles (“Scripture says…tradition says…reason says…but experience says …and so that’s what we go with”)…

Actually, for a start, “scripture, tradition, and reason” were never the same kind of thing. The image of the stool with three [or four] matching legs is itself misleading. They are not so much like apples, pears, and oranges as like apples, elephants, and screwdrivers. As we have seen, a long line of theologians from Aquinas through Hooker to many writers today would insist that “tradition” is the legacy of what the church has said when reflecting on scripture, and “reason” is the rule of discourse by which such reflection is saved from random nonsense and integrated into a holistic view of God and the world. This too, however, can only be part of the story, and might imply a more solid and fixed form for “tradition” and “reason” than the story of the church warrants…

But there is a more profound problem to be addressed, indeed a logical problem. The “experience” of Christians, and of churches, is itself that over which and in the context of which the reading of scripture exercises its authority. It is precisely because “experience” is fluid and puzzling, and because all human beings including devout Christians are prey to serious and multilayered self deception, including in their traditions and their reasoning (as Jeremiah lamented, the heart is deceitful above all things [17: 9]), that “authority” is needed in the first place. That, too, is one of the main things we discover by “experience”! To speak of “experience” as an authority, then, is to admit that the word “authority” itself is being dismantled, unable now to function either as “court of appeal” in the old wooden sense or, in the more biblical sense, as “that through which God exercises Kingdom-establishing power.” That dismantling— the muzzling of the challenge of God to the idolatrous world— was one of the main (anti-Christian) aims of the Enlightenment, continued in a different mode within postmodernity. If “experience” is itself a source of authority, we can no longer be addressed by a word which comes from beyond ourselves. At this point, theology and Christian living cease to be rooted in God himself, and are rooted instead in our own selves; in other words, they become a form of idolatry in which we exchange the truth about God for a human-made lie. This, or something like it, is what we find with the popular modern varieties of Gnosticism, in which the highest religious good is self-discovery and then being “true” to the self thus discovered. But to elevate that imperative (now radically challenged by postmodernity, though this is not usually noticed in the relevant discussions) to the supreme status now claimed for it is to take a large step away from all known forms of orthodox Christianity…

The positive force of the appeal to “experience” is much better expressed in terms of the context within which we hear scripture. Experience, as the necessary subjective pole of all knowing, is the place where we stand as we hear God’s word, know his love, and understand his wisdom. It is vital that Christians should “experience” the power and love of God in their own lives. This is never simply a mechanical application of “God’s authority,” as though human beings were mere ciphers rather than image-bearers. And, precisely because of the problem of evil within us as well as within the world (the problem which the Enlightenment sought to belittle), we need to be addressed and challenged within that place, that subjectivity, not simply informed that we are all right as we are.

pp. 101-104, Kindle edition.

By the end of this book, it was not that I agreed with every particular of Wright’s argument, but that I knew Wright has provided a set of arguments that are worthy of our engagement. And I greatly appreciated being reminded that the voice of someone, even a bishop, of a different tradition could shed light on the issues affecting the United Methodist Church. Even with some level of breakup on the horizon for the United Methodist Church as we know it, it was an encouraging witness to the mysterious unity that forever marks Christ’s “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” Body.

Love or Squatters’ Rights?

Recent conversations in United Methodist circles about what it is that holds us together as a denomination has me thinking about 30 Rock. (It doesn’t take much to make me think about 30 Rock.)

Season 1, Episode 8, “The Break-Up” finds Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) dealing with on-again, off-again boyfriend, Dennis Duffy. While she knows he is terrible, she keeps falling back into a relationship with him, because she worries that she will never do any better.

Finally, comes the break-up (video here), after Liz comes home to find several extra holes in her living room wall, Dennis’ cousin laid up in her bed, and a Great Dane which Dennis agreed to care for at her apartment for a few weeks:

Liz: Get out. I want you out of here.
Dennis: You can’t kick me out. I love you.
Liz: No. No. Get your stuff and get out. I’m not doing this anymore.
Dennis: You can’t kick me out. I’ve got squatter’s rights.
Liz: Which is it, you love me or you’ve got squatter’s rights?
Dennis: I don’t see how they’re mutually exclusive.

What holds us together in the United Methodist Church? We have to answer that question. Is it a pension (our one united vote at General Conference), a “trust clause,” history, accident, squatters’ rights? Or is it the call of Jesus Christ to go and make disciples? Until we honestly and openly and lovingly (yes, that is possible, despite how we spoke to one another on the floor of General Conference) ask and answer the question of why we’re together, there is zero chance of going forward together.

Conversations in love are happening in local churches and among parish-appointed clergy in my annual conference, and I’m sure the same is happening in many other places. Almost all of us entered into ordained ministry out of love for Jesus who called us and love for all for whom Jesus lived, died, and rose. We all wait to see if this can make a difference at the 35,000 ft. level that will be General Conference 2020.

Our Hope Was Never in General Conference, Part II

In his post-General Conference briefings, my own Bishop Frank Beard urged us to trust in the process–not merely the United Methodist process, but God’s process with us on this discipleship journey, however long and winding and painful it may be. For him that means that we prayed for years for the work of General Conference 2019, so the fact that we might not like its outcome is not a good enough reason to summarily dismiss its conclusions and legislation. To put words in his mouth, “Did we pray or not? Does God answer prayer or not?”

I don’t dismiss General Conference 2019’s work. This was our 2019 step on our journey with God as a global United Methodist Church. It was neither our first nor our last step on our journey with God, even if some of us decide to part ways with this particular institutional form of God’s one Church.

The reason I write this is because you might get the wrong idea from my last post on the relative importance of General Conferences, that I am flippant about the conclusions of church councils. I’m not. Rather, the Christian Tradition itself is what teaches me to receive the Tradition itself critically. That’s how all living traditions work, as wide rivers with many currents rather than tiny capillaries with single currents.

I have known people who claim to aim to be “first five hundred year Christians” (meaning, the stuff the Church agreed about for the first 500 years is what they will name as essential doctrine, and everything that cannot be connected to that is adiaphora). I was once ordained in a denomination which claimed the first seven ecumenical councils were its theological core, but I’ve only ever met one person who I believe actually knows those councils intimately. (She died several years ago and was Roman Catholic, not this other denomination, anyway.) Either of those frameworks seem nice, but what they really are are “fragments [we] have shored against [our] ruin,” our sense that things are falling apart, and we are the ones who must save the Church. Those two examples in particular are entirely modernist attempts to create something stable and lasting in an uncertain world, which is in the end the attempt to create a foundation other than Christ (1 Cor. 3:10-11). (Alternate Old Testament reference: Genesis 11.)

I myself am temperamentally conservative. That is, I want to live a traditioned life. I am convinced that human beings over time have learned to live life well, to ask and to answer important questions well. I am convinced that to ignore those human voices of the past is the definition of foolishness. When I read a book about any topic at all, I want to go back and read the primary sources. When I listen to music, I want to plot where parts of a band’s or a composition’s sound comes from. And when I do theology I want to dig all the way to the tips of the roots. In fact, when doing theology, I am convinced that ignoring human beings and their thoughts and actions and lives over time is not just foolishness. This is truly for one part of the living, eternal body of Christ to say to another, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21).

Conservative in the sense in which I describe myself does not have to do with a particular political party, especially not a US political party. Traditioned in this sense also doesn’t mean I pretend that there is some single Tradition to be formed by. That’s utopia (sentimental nonsense literally meaning “nowhere”). For my greatest interest–the Church–I don’t believe there is some single faithful Methodist, or Protestant, or Western Christian, or universal Christian tradition. Instead I mean that I am always going to be suspicious when a “new” theology seems to have no roots, or makes no claim to roots, or claims to need no roots in the Christian past. The Tradition may be a massive river with many currents, but rivers still have banks.

All that is a long-winded way to say, yes, I believe church councils have proclaimed the Gospel, but I still believe they have erred. Yes, I believe General Conferences have both proclaimed the Gospel and have erred. Finally, no, I don’t dismiss their workings easily. The Tradition I value is what teaches me to question the Tradition and to know it is certainly not infallible.

That’s the real point: the life of faith–whether for global denominations or for the individual Christian–must be lived in uncertainty (“the conviction of things not seen,” says Hebrews 11:1), because faith lives in the world, and the world is uncertain. Faith which is certainty is not faith at all. God keeps speaking through people (councils, conferences), people sometimes faithfully proclaim and sometimes mangle the message we’ve been given, and the Church’s life and our individual lives are lived in that uncertainty and on that journey. We live in our uncertainty, because God is the only one who is certain. We live without the foundations we lust after, because Christ is our one foundation. Thank God that God’s grip on us is infinitely stronger than our ability to grasp God.

Or if you prefer less Kierkegaard and more Wesley in your tea, the church has not yet been perfected in grace, but it is on the way. Even if you find yourself among those United Methodists who believe that in St. Louis you witnessed the death of your beloved denomination, still you must know: best of all, God is with us.