Monday, April 27, 2009

Confessions of a Contrarian, Part 4

Yes, last time, I did actually say Jesus is a contrarian.

I realize that might be difficult to swallow, so I'm prepared to defend what may, at first, seem to be a rather extreme position (and therefore in need of contrarian balance) but the evidence is right there in his Book. So let's take a look through and see.

Let's look, for example, at Luke 11:27-28: As Jesus is passing by, a woman in the crowd calls out, "Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you." Now, I don't know about you, but that strikes me as a very nice thing to say. A compliment: Your mom is lucky to have had you as a kid! (No one, thus far, has said anything like that to me.) But Jesus does not say, "Why thank you." or more modestly, "You're very kind to say it." Or something rather gallant, like, "Well, I'm very fortunate to have had her as my mother." Instead, he says in response, "Blessed, rather, are those who hear the word of God and obey it." Now, take Jesus out of the equation for a moment and insert, say, your favorite politician or movie star or, heck, one of your acquaintances. Kinda, well ... contrary. Maybe a little rude. But Jesus is after something else here. Even though He is certainly who she thinks He is, he wants her and all those who heard her to focus not on the "new prophet in town" (scholars tell us that as many as 500 such prophets came and went — mostly to their deaths — in Israel during the troubled times of the long Roman occupation), but on the message He's come to deliver.

How about John 7:21-24? Here, Jesus delivers a good contrarian retort to those who condemn him for healing on the Sabbath, exposing their hypocrisy. First, he offers a bit of balance to their worship of Moses ("Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs) ....") and then he asks, "Now if a child can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing on the Sabbath?" Indeed.

A prime example is the famous exchange between Peter and Jesus at the foot washing in John 13: Peter, always a man of extremes, gets balanced not once, but twice. "You're not going to wash my feet," declares Peter, to which Jesus replies, "If I don't, you'll have no part with me." "Then wash my whole body," Peter exclaims, and he gets a lesson on the difference between salvation from our sin nature (happens once) and cleansing from the pollution of sin (an ongoing necessity and a service we are to perform for one another).

In fact, the act of foot washing was a bit of contrarian theater, if you will. Jesus was not trying to institute a new ritual for the church (most of us actually got that). Foot washing is not widely practiced today because Jesus was making a pointed statement not about religious practice but rather about the nature of leadership. The disciples were, to the hour of his death, convinced that Jesus was a closet Zealot, and would lead them all, somehow, to political victory and cultural autonomy in Roman-dominated Palestine. Jesus did all that he could, in very contrarian fashion, to suggest otherwise.

The foot washing and the mountainside transfiguration that preceded it are, in fact, the bookends in a contrarian teaching strategy. Jesus gives James, John and Peter a glimpse of his Glory on the hillside, then washes their feet like a common slave. Then in John 14, he calls them friends (bullseye -- the balance). Those contrasting images and the tensions they create have always characterized genuine Christian experience.

There's no more compelling example of that tension than the episode of the woman caught in adultery (John 8). The teachers of the law and the Pharisees, the story goes, bring her into the Temple and show her to Jesus. They appeal to the Book: "In the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" Before I go further, it's important to note three things: They were upset and agitated, they were appealing to a recognized authority, they were looking for a fight and trying to set a trap. Now, notice also that Jesus was contrarian at each point. He calmly squats down and begins to write on the ground with his finger (sorry guys, I'm not buying into your game, I won't respond in kind). They keep after him for a while, so he stands up and, as my son would say, he "owns" them with that now famous line, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." After the guys all slink out, he asks the woman, "Where are they? Has no one accused you?" No, sir, she says. "Then neither do I condemn you." he says, but then, contrarian through-and-through, he adds, "Go, now, and leave your life of sin." He doesn't deny what the Law says, he just points out that only those who are sin-free have the right to pass judgment. And the woman gets neither pardon nor permission: She gets grace. She'll not be stoned, but she will be expected to amend her life. And so it is with each of us.

I must point out, before I go any further that if you're thinking that, by contrarian, I mean one who seeks balance in the sense of establishing a middle ground or forging a compromise, I have to say that you've misheard what I said.

Contrarians are not great compromisers. Jesus, the Great Contrarian, if you will, was to the modern mind, in particular, distressingly uncompromising. Consider his answers when questioned about the Jewish Law. In Matt. 18-22, for example, Jesus has just given a mini-sermon on forgiveness and then Peter pipes up and asks him, "Lord, how many times may my brother sin against me and I have to forgive him? Seven times?" Now, the rabbis of the time were in the habit of telling people that you had to forgive someone who has sinned against you — when asked with sincerity — at least three times. But then you were more or less off the hook. So ... Peter's thinking, perhaps, that seven might get him a solid "A" in discipleship class this morning. But no pat on the back is forthcoming. Jesus says to him, "I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy times seven!" And all the scholarly folks tell us that that was a way, numerically, of indicating that there was really no practical limit to forgiveness. We're never off the hook. Ouch, pretty harsh, huh?

Or how about Mark 10:2-5: Some Pharisees came to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to divorce her." But Jesus said to them, "It was because of your hardness of heart that he wrote this command for you. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'That is why a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh." So they are no longer two, but one flesh. For that reason, Jesus says, "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." Back in the house, the disciples asked him about this again. So he said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery." Double ouch!

There's more. During the mountainside discourse we've come to call the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told a society which excluded the physically handicapped from the Temple environs to cut off their own hands or pluck out their own eyes if they cause them to sin, because it was better to enter heaven as a cripple than to be excluded whole. (We're still not sure what to do with that one.) He admonished an ethnic group that had once ruled the Middle East in great wealth under King David and Solomon and longed to reclaim its glory when the Messiah came that they should give no thought to what they should eat or wear but instead seek God's righteousness and let God take care of the rest. (Try quoting that one to the legions of your neighbors who are suffering from our economic follies in 2009.)

Jesus sought at every contrarian turn to impress upon his hearers the radical nature of the kingdom he was initiating by contrasting it in the sharpest possible terms with the kingdom the Messianic myth-makers had imagined for them.

He told Israel and by extension, all who seek salvation, not only that the Law was in full force, but that its provisions were far more demanding and severe than their rabbis had intimated. Such extremity caused Paul to exclaim, in his letter to the Romans, that "there is not one righteous, no not one, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." And those who heard Jesus say it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven asked in horror, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus answers: "With God, anything is possible." Even our salvation.

Jesus' entire life was a contrarian masterpiece. A contrast of extremes to illustrate an almost impossibly complex interweaving of sacred and profane that still defies our poor efforts to codify it into mechanical logic and simple steps on the one hand or magical mysterium on the other: The God born in a stable. The finite human who could die for the infinite sins of the whole world. The teacher who counted a tax collector among his followers but then took a whip to moneychangers in the Temple, who would eat dinner with the Pharisees and with those the Pharisee wouldn't acknowledge in the street. The Jewish rabbi who heaped scorn on Israel's religious elite then healed the daughter of a Roman centurion whose faith he had not seen among his own people. Who appeared after his resurrection first to two women among his followers, putting his appointed apostles second on the list. The One who would say that not one "jot or tittle" of the Law would pass away until all was fulfilled, then at almost every turn, turn the received wisdom inside out so that we could be changed from the inside out by the Spirit because we could not be changed from the outside in by the Law. The God/man, worthy of our worship yet tempted in all our ways and subject to all our weaknesses. The one to whom all power and authority has been given, and yet who was and is fully and ultimately submitted to his Father's will. The Savior who gave up His position and His freedom (he was not captured or detained against his will), so that we could be free. The One who would submit to death, and in so doing, utterly defeat and destroy it.

To be a follower of Christ is to live in the tension of attempting to find the balance between the righteous demands of the Law and reality of our freedom from its curse. Those who camp on one side of the divide inevitably fall into error. That's one reason why Paul insisted on unity in diversity (a contrarian notion if ever there was one). The Church, ideally, a willing assemblage of contrary folk who balance each other out on their common pilgrammage. It's always when that unity/diversity thing breaks down that the church gets into trouble. And as fragmented as it is, these days, it's clearly in big trouble.

Chase out all your contrarians, and your church becomes a cult. Or a monolithic institution run by an elite that slights its poor, or the rich, or the uneducated, or the educated, or its women, or whatever group(s) whose trait(s) do not happen to describe those at the top who make the decisions and wield the authority.

Cults and monoliths have dominated the religious landscape in the last century, and the Church is now hearing, again, from its contrarian children. May She find that ever shifting place somewhere in the radical middle, where saved sinners and sinners who need to be saved can find the acceptance and repentance, compassion and correction, freedom and responsibility, faith and works, exclusivity and inclusivity that are inseparable in the love and grace of Him who faithfully contradicts all we think we know about Him so that we can come to know Him truly.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Susan Boyle

If you haven't heard the name, you're more computer-challenged than I am, and you have my deepest sympathies. I haven't provided the link, but you won't need one. Simply type in "Susan Boyle video," in your browser's search window and hit return. (I'll wait.)

People say the Internet is the Great Leveler. It's Communication for the Common Man. Certainly its the haven for everyone who ever wanted his or her 15 minutes of fame. The online world is positively awash with MySpacing Facebookers who twitter and tweet and text each other incessantly, as they await their moment on YouTube. Talent is not required. This week, however, the Internet proved its worth, again, as a stage for real talent that isn't packaged in pubescent perfection or bought-with-Botox beauty.

Susan Boyle is a 47-year old woman from Scotland. She looks .... well, like most of us. Not Angelina Jolie. Not Brad Pitt. Since she was 15, she says, she's wanted to be a professional singer. Instead, she cared for her ailing mother until she died. Now she lives alone with her cat and, until this week, sang mostly for the smallish crowd at the local pub, with a karaoke machine as her back-up band. Hasn't made a dime. By her own admission, she's "never been kissed."

After a single, seven-minute appearance on Britain's Got Talent six days ago, during which she presumably used up half of her 15 minutes, spunky Ms. Boyle endured chuckles and rolling eyes and earned cheers and a standing ovation, impressing even the almost impossible to please impressario Simon Cowell. Videos of her turn signing "I Dreamed a Dream" (from the stage musical Les Miserables) streamed onto the Internet. More than 25 million hits and counting. A week later, she's famous not only in Great Britain, but all over the world.

Just today, someone turned up a charity CD on which she sang a single song a decade ago. Google "Susan Boyle Cry Me a River," then picture Lena Horne or almost any other famous voice who's sung a similar song in the last 70 years. Oh, my! What a voice.

No money yet, but that will surely follow. Simon Cowell will no doubt see to that, even if she doesn't win the competition. But for now, she's captured the hearts of every plain old nobody whose talents are wrapped in brown paper but still dreams a dream.

Hope she finds that first kiss, too.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Confessions of a Contrarian, Part 3

I've confessed to and defined contrarianism and suggested a general genesis for this under-appreciated tendency, but so far it's been about contrarians as a group. What about me?

Although I remain (necessarily) open to the idea that I'm contrarian in my DNA (yes, my father was one), I suspect he and I became contrarians largely as a result of our religious upbringing. Dad was the preacher's kid, and had all the unhappy experiences a P.K. could have in a small, conservative Mennonite community in South Central Kansas, where everyone knows who you are you and news of anything you do gets back to the church board.

Like my dad, I grew up in the Christian church. Or so I've often said. But recently, I've come to realize, appallingly late, that that is an inaccurate statement for several reasons:
  • First, and most importantly, I did little "growing up" in the church. (I'll have more to say about that another time.)
  • Second, I didn't do this growing up within a fairly narrow, distinctly protestant/rationalist and thorough-goingly American slice of a splintered church that is as variegated, divided and at war with itself as the world it claims to be here to save. We referred to ourselves as evangelical Christians. The rest of the church and the world, especially in the last couple of decades, have suggested other, less complimentary names for us — not entirely without cause.
  • Third, I became associated for a number of years with an organization that claimed to represent The Church but often obscured the real church from view. We self-proclaimed evangelicals were, of course, right, and the rest were wrong and, therefore, we had little real contact with other brands of Christianity.
  • Fourth, the theologies of the evangelical churches (yes, plural — there are many, which tends to blunt each sub-brand's truth claims) with which I was associated were unfortunately malignant mixes of what I still believe are timeless, eternal truths with time-bound, temporal, cultural conservatism tainted by racism and class bigotry, marred by misogyny and despoiled by a surprisingly pervasive undercurrent of unaddressed sexual dysfunction and gender confusion.
Evangelical theologies proved to be true Gordian knots that resisted even the most dedicated contrarians' efforts to untie. If you took another tack or pointed out an alternative, you were "stepping out from under authority" — the "umbrella" of which, we were told, was very small, indeed). If you actively opposed one of the more sacred tenets (by this I mean, something truly critical like, say, you didn't think it was absolutely necessary to have a "quiet time" every day or you were in the habit of not showing up to the "optional" campus chapel service), you could very well be in league with ... you know who. Contrarians weren't welcome.

A Gordian knot, of course, cannot be untied. It seems a truism that those who wish, finally, to grow up in such churches must begin that process (as did a legendary Alexander the Great) by cutting the knot — a decision that it takes a reasonably healthy contrarian to make without plunging headlong into an even more dangerous brew of belief and misbelief or losing faith altogether.

It's a decision one can make only when one finally realizes an obvious and, therefore, almost universally overlooked fact: Jesus is, yes ... a contrarian. (More in Part 4.)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Confessions of a Contrarian, Part 2

Last time, I admitted to being a contrarian and celebrated the contrarian's role in a world too full of those who are too sure they're right and everyone else is wrong. But ... what is a contrarian?

As the term suggests, folks thus afflicted tend to be contrary. Yes, they can be a bit Eeyore-ish, seeing the rain cloud when others are focusing only on the silver lining. They can appear, to those who do not know them, to have a negative attitude toward life. And for that reason, they often are mistaken for curmudgeons or misanthropes.

If those accusations were true, however, they could not be contrarians. Contrarians, in fact, are often hopeful and caring people. They are just as likely to point out the silver lining when others are under a cloud. And they are more likely to take issue with a friend than someone they don't know (or who does not know them), precisely because they are anything but misanthropic.

So, how does one become a contrarian? There's no easy answer to that, because it's a chicken-and-the-egg thing: Which came first? Are we contrarian by nature, and just can't help ourselves? Or have we come into a world owned by the overly sure overlords of rightness, and thus been forced to become contrarians in an attempt to find some kind of balance?

I lean toward the latter option because balance is the contrarian's bottom line. Contrarians aren't argumentative for argument's sake. They aren't trying to win. They seek, instead, a middle ground, a level playing field, a fair airing of a subject's undiscovered complexity, a more thoughtful, less doctrinaire dialogue.

And they will take positions that are quite different from the ones they actually hold, to remind the other that there is always another side to a one-sided discussion. They want the other to leave the scene with a broader perspective, a sense that there may be more to it than they had suspected.

As you might suspect, there is more to this contrarian apologetic. Next time.