Thursday, July 17, 2014

Teacher, Guide, Companion Ten Years Later

Ten years ago Teacher,Guide, Companion:  rediscovering Jesus ina secular age came out.  It was my first book, and my first collaboration with the good folks at Skinner House Books.  It seems like a wonderful opportunity to look back at what I thought then and what I'd say now if I were to write it again.  There is a marvelous story about Ralph Waldo Emerson.  In his later life he was sometimes was asked to give readings of one or another of his earlier essays.  It is said that as he did so he would occasionally look up and say, "I no longer believe this."  He would then return to his reading.  As I prepared to reconsider Teacher, Guide, Companion I was hoping I wouldn’t have to say "I no longer believe this" too often.

The good news is – I didn’t.  Thanks in very large part to Ms. Mary Benard, Senior Editor at Skinner House, it’s a very readable book.  The prose is clean, and the ideas flow smoothly.  The structure I used for this "rediscovery" came from a passage in the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus is remembered as asking his disciples, "Who do the people say that I am?"  After his friends answer with what they’ve heard people say, he asks the more pointed question, "But who do you say that I am?"  

Teacher, Guide, Companion follows the same general pattern – beginning with what others have said about Jesus, then sharing my own perspective, and then offering suggestions for the reader’s own explorations.   I don’t think I’d change that.  One of the good things about the book is that it is so readable – I was able to re-read it over the course of one evening.  That does, however, mean that there is a lot that could have been included that wasn’t.  And that’s one of the things that I might change were I to write it again – or create an expanded edition.

The section on the historical Jesus could easily be expanded.  Details could be added to the section looking at what we learn from the study of pre-industrial agrarian societies in general, and the Judeo-Roman world at the time of Jesus in particular.  This work is mentioned, yet there could be more details about what has been learned.  Similarly, there is only a passing reference to the existence of – and questions about – a handful of references to Jesus outside of the New Testament, and there has been done some wonderful work attempting to reconstruct the earliest Christian communities.  Both of these would be worth including.  And the discoveries of Biblical archaeology wasn’t mentioned at all!

So, too, could the chapter on the images of Jesus conveyed in the five Gospels could also stand some expansion.  There are details in the Gospel stories that, if included, would have more fully illuminated each of the author’s depictions and would have helped create even greater contrast among them.  And while it was an intentional choice to limit consideration to Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and Thomas, it would be interesting to take a look at what messages the authors of the other Gospels we have discovered – the so-called apocryphal gospels – had intended to convey.

Missing entirely is any consideration of how Jesus has been viewed (and experienced) throughout history.  This could involve looking at historic figures – Saint Francis of Assisi, say, or Mohandas Ghandi – and examining the way(s) they related to Jesus.  Or it could consider the ways Jesus has been seen in different times and different places.  Many books have been written about the ways Jesus has been depicted in art – both visual and literary – and a work like Edward Blum’s The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America looks not just at how Jesus has been depicted but how that depiction can have very real-world consequences.  (James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree is similarly eye opening.)  The insights of Liberationist and Feminist Christian traditions is missing as well.

Several scholar/theologians were introduced in the chapter about the historical Jesus – Marcus Borg, Stephen J. Patterson,  John Dominic Crossan, John Spong – yet each has, by now, written about their own personal encounter/experience with Jesus, and these are just as important as their more academic works.  And when I wrote Teacher, Guide, Companion I had not yet discovered the works of Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, or Ilia Delio, to name just a few.

The chapter on my own personal perspectives could be expanded to include more about how experiences and view have been influenced by my particular situation as someone who was raised Presbyterian and Methodist, studied and practiced Zen Buddhism for nearly two decades, and now is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister.  More of my wrestling with what this exploration and rediscovery means to me  – which, I will confess, has continued fairly unabated since writing the book – might also be worth including.
And then there’s the section on how the reader might conduct her or his own exploration more fruitfully.  I could imagine including what for want of a better word I’ll call “testimonials” – brief stories from readers about how their searching has unfolded.  These could provide not only more details about the various imaginative techniques that are described but also offer some encouragement and inspiration to readers.

I have to say – I have heard some truly wonderful things over the past decade from people who’ve read this book.   I am grateful to each and every person who has written to me to share what Teacher, Guide, Companion has meant to them, as well as to all the clergy and laity who have seen fit to offer workshops and book study opportunities in their congregations.  If you have questions or comments you would like to share, or suggestions for ways to continue and expand on the conversation this book started, please don’t hesitate to be in touch.

Pax tecum,


Thursday, July 03, 2014

The Challenge of Conviction

"It's hard to have conviction in a relativistic culture."

That phrase has been rattling around in my head for the past several weeks.  It started at the end of May when I read this very frank, very jarring opinion column about gun violence and gun control, "There is no catastrophe so ghastly that America will reform its gun law," by Tim Kreider. At one point he wrote:
If gun laws are ever going to change in this country, it'll have to be because people like me, people who care except not quite enough, quit their bitter impotent griping and actually do something about it. We care in the way that carnivores care about the screaming in slaughterhouses or that pro-war voters care about families accidentally blown apart in Iraq. Which is to say, sorta — just not enough to change our minds or habits or do anything hard or inconvenient.  (Italics mine)
 "We care in the way that carnivores care about the screaming in slaughterhouses ... which is to say, sorta -- just not enough to change our minds or habits or do anything hard or inconvenient."

I've seen Food, Inc., King Corn, Hungry for Change, Dirt!, and a host of other films that quite convincingly show the dangers and the devastation of the standard American diet (which is "SAD" indeed).  There is no doubt that the way the dominant culture encourages us to eat, and the way so many of us have become addicted to eating, is not only unhealthy for our own body systems but also for the planetary system we are a part of.  The link between the choices individuals make around eating and issues of social justice and ecological degradation is undeniable.  Whether you've decided to adopt a diet that's vegetarian, vegan, nutritarian, flexitarian, paleo, or something else, it seems clear to me that we can all agree that the way the majority of us have been taught to eat, and are encouraged to eat, is fundamentally and essentially unhealthy for everyone and everything concerned -- except the bottom line of the food industry.  It's one of the reasons that the Unitarian Universalist Association has an initiative concerning Ethical Eating.

So ... I know all of this.  And I care.  I do care about the environmental and economic devastation that is directly linked to the way -- and I'll get personal here -- the way I eat.  I care about animals, and I care about our waterways, and I care about the way antibiotics are such a part of our diet now that the problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria is exacerbated, and I care about the nutritional gap that mirrors the income and education gap, and I care about the epidemic of obesity and the lowering of life expectancies, and I care about the possible unimagined consequences of genetically modified crops ...   I care about all of this, but if I'm honest I care about it ... sorta -- just not enough to change my mind or my habits or do anything hard or inconvenient.

So I've been thinking about all of this for a while now, and I keep coming back to that phrase:  "It's hard to have conviction in a relativistic culture."

It's easy for folks who see the world in "black & white" to do the hard and inconvenient thing.  Something is right or it is wrong, and if it's wrong it's wrong.  But when you see the world in shades of grey -- or, even more, in technicolor -- then it's not so easy. There's a line in that great Buffalo Springfield song, "For What It's Worth" -- "nobody's right if everybody's wrong."  The reverse is true, of course, too -- if nobody's wrong, then everybody's right.  And when everybody's right -- or, at least, potentially right or right "in a certain sense" -- then it's awfully hard to get motivated to do the hard and inconvenient thing.

Now I'm not saying that "black & white" thinkers can easily do those hard and inconvenient things.  (Okay.  I did say that, but I really meant that it's relatively easier ...)  And I'm not saying that it's impossible for us technicolor dreamers to do the right thing.  I'm just saying that it's a challenge.

And maybe this is just me trying to justify laziness.  That's certainly a possibility.  Yet I do think that there's something in the liberal penchant for trying to see the value in every position that makes it hard for us to take a stand against any of them.  I mean, really take a stand ... to do the hard and inconvenient thing.

This month, while I'm taking both vacation and study leave, I am going to try to change my eating habits to bring them more in line with my values.  See what I did there?  The way I defaulted to the safety of qualifiers?  "I'm going to try to change my eating habits to bring them more in line with my values"  Why not just say it with a strong declarative --  "I'm gong to change my eating habits to bring them in line with my values."  Of course, if I say it so declaratively, I might let myself down ... or let someone else down.

Because this is going to be hard.  I am physically, psychologically, and emotionally addicted to SAD.  I am culturally conditioned to default to convenience rather than conviction.  Virtually everything around me is arrayed to get me to fail and give up.  So it's possible that I will.  Yet I definitely will if I don't try.  Perhaps you might consider joining me?

Pax tecum,