Angels and Monsters

Angels and Monsters

 

It’s kind of a joke, but only sort of: I’ll tell my students that if they are ever visited by an angel, they already know exactly what the angel will say, and what they should do. The script is all there in the Bible.

The angel will say two words, I tell them. Guaranteed. And those two words are always the same:

“Fear not.”

And then, I tell the students, their job is to fall flat on the floor in wonder, awe, and holy terror.

The students always laugh. Our generations not being terribly familiar with wonder, awe, and especially holy terror, I suppose they’re laughing at the idea that such an encounter could be so scripted. Or more likely – with the world-wisdom of undergraduates bent on the deconstruction of all myths except the presently-important ones of the market – they are snickering at the idea that such a spiritual and otherworldly encounter could happen at all.

And it is funny, in a way, that the Bible’s angels all seem to have taken the same class in public speaking.  They really do say more or less the same thing. In fact, the phrase “fear not” is firmly attached not just to angels in the New Testament, but also to most of the events where what is “normal” in our world is portrayed as breaking down.

The disciples see Jesus doing what no human being should be able to do: walking to the boat across the storm-tossed water. “Fear not,” he tells them, as the laws of nature are tossed out. The confused women enter the tomb on Easter morning to anoint the dead body of Jesus with oil and perfume and instead of the stink meet a young man who says to them “Fear not.”

Perhaps with all that warning against being afraid, a question that could be asked is “what is there to be afraid OF?” And on that subject, we have plenty to learn.

The Bible uses the phrase “fear not” when there is some kind of theophany….some kind of “appearance of the supernatural”. We have forgotten that the Bible is an alien book, from a foreign, strange and sometimes horrific world. It is full – absolutely full – of a kind of monstrous depiction more reminiscent of a Transformers movie than of an English country garden. There are sea creatures that can swallow a man whole, witches that call up dead prophets, armies of skeletons standing at the ready, hell-rain to destroy cities, plagues, pestilences, and a pillar of cloud and fire scalding the ozone in the wilderness. There are angels and seraphim, magical windstorms and signs in the stars.

The understanding of what constitutes holiness, in the ancient Biblical world, was what was “set apart”. And what was set apart was, almost by definition, considered dangerous. When God is a lifestyle option and Jesus a bobble-headed doll, the idea of a terrible presence is something we have moved off to movies about space invaders and genetic mutations. But for the ancients who wrote the Bible, holiness was not just sacred. It was also scary.

And those who think Christianity is all sweetness and light haven’t looked closely at the two defining moments of their faith: the incarnation and the resurrection.

What could be more bizarre and repugnant than the idea of a holy God taking on flesh? The very term – incarnation – shares its root with something like “chili con carne” (chili with “flesh” or meat), which tells us something about Jesus. He was real (all the Gospels agree on this). He was human, which means he had headaches and ear wax and gas problems. If you cut him he bled. And yet he was, according to Christian teaching, the infinite God, somehow collapsed into a puking, mewling, baby with blood pumping furiously through fragile veins.

Holy miracle, freakish myth or monstrosity: a lot depends on your perspective. Given the unnaturalness of the initial story, it’s no surprise that eventually, there were legends about talking animals (run screaming from the barn) and strange foreign astrologers. In our own day, we have seen a whole slate of movies around Christmas that celebrate the monstrous: The Grinch (a monster), Scrooge (who might as well be), It’s a Wonderful Life, Nightmare before Christmas, One Magic Christmas, and the surreal and very spooky “The Polar Express”, just to name a few.

It’s interesting that the same Tuscany that produced the sweet Botticelli cherubs of the Renaissance also is home to the Etruscan urn reliefs. Many of them carry terrible images of the deceased meeting angels who look suspiciously like the modern conception of angels…except that the Etruscans lived centuries before Christ. The ancients weren’t always happy to meet such angels, and so the reliefs often show them carrying goods on their donkey, or sometimes accompanied by a slave carrying gifts, designed to placate the otherworldy powers.

The Bible unflinchingly looks at the “other” and the unusual, and – here’s the point – names it, quite often, as holy. The Biblical God is no stranger to what is different….God welcomes it. In our world, where there are fewer and fewer babies born with genetic abnormalities, and where the rich and stressed can undertake surgery to “correct” the slightest blemish to nose or ear, breast or chin, where is our reverence for what is strange, and our understanding of the holy “other”?

The Faceless Messiah

The Faceless Messiah

A half-hour by car, north-west of Siena Italy, sits the lovely little hill-top town of Lornano. Meandering the twisty roads in Tuscany leads to all kinds of treasures, architectural, historical and culinary, and Lornano is no exception. If you escape the late afternoon sun to sit under the trees at the one restaurant in town, you may find that despite their delicious home-made pastas and the Chianti for which this region is famous, eventually you are distracted by the church sitting opposite the intersection.
The little sign outside says it was built in the ninth century, and the Romanesque architecture of the building – renovated in the 1770s – seems to confirm it. It’s a working parish, so there are devotional pamphlets and parish announcements stuck on bulletin boards at the back. The chairs sit haphazardly, perhaps from the last meeting or mass.
At the front, above the altar, is a work honouring John the Baptist. The minimal signage says that the fresco is the work of Giuseppe Nicola Nasini, dating from 1731, although there are other paintings in the small church which originate a hundred years earlier with Siennese artist Bernardino Baroni.
Nasini, lying on his back painting his pigments hurriedly into the wet mortar (the word fresco comes from this process of finishing the painting while the underlying stucco is still “fresh”) might have hoped that his work would survive the centuries, as it has. But presumably, he could not have imagined the oddity that has become his Christ: we see John clearly, sitting on a block of Tuscan marble and under a stand of Tuscan cypress, extending his arm to point to Jesus. Equally clear are the two figures on the other side – Peter and John? – who also observe the scene. The fresco is making reference to the passage from the Gospels where the Baptist is made to say: “Behold the Lamb of God!” To reinforce the point, the artist has placed a lamb to the right of the Baptist.
So far so good. But what Nasini could not have imagined is that, for some reason, the focal point of his fresco – the figure of Christ coming out of the water – is missing. Actually, the figure is not missing. There is a white space in the painting, in the clear outline of a human being, muscular, head turned to the side in an almost Roman pose. But it is only an outline. The details, including any face, are missing.
Whatever mysterious circumstances are responsible for deleting the details of the Christ from Nasini’s painting underline a deeper, theological and historical truth: Jesus, by being the man with no face, has become, over the centuries, the man of a thousand faces. Nasini, despite himself (one imagines) has captured this.
If ever there was an “every-person”, it must be Jesus. He was a Jew, born in what the Romans called Palestine, certainly of Semitic background. This much we know. One could, therefore, expect a certain look of this first-century Jew. Yet Jesus has been portrayed, without apology, as Korean, Nordic, African and North American, and dressed up as a peasant, a worker, a businessperson and a sailor. His eyes, depending on the artist, are blue, or black, or green, and his beard (usually he’s portrayed with a beard) has been just about every usual beard colour but red. Not usually an institution known for its openness and liberality, the church, from the beginning, seemed not only willing to see its messiah portrayed with such flexibility, but was the first to do so. Some of the earliest surviving representations of Jesus show him as a young, beardless male looking every inch a Greco-Roman Dionysus.
In the past century and a half, representations of Jesus have become even more varied, with Jesus showing up artistically as a tattooed gay male, a muscular prize-fighter, a tired soldier, a woman, and a laughing hippy.
The four canonical Gospels seem monumentally uninterested in describing Jesus with any of the kinds of details that now we find so interesting and revelatory. Instead, the Christian writings want to talk about some aspect of Jesus’ significance. What colour were his eyes? One can imagine the author of Mark answering: “what difference does it make? He is the Messiah!”
Paul, the earliest Jesus-follower to leave us much of a written record, is not only disinterested in what Jesus looked like, but comes right out and says that it’s not his concern and he doesn’t much care: “for once we knew Jesus from a human point of view,” he writes to his congregation in Corinth, in a phrase oft-quoted among Biblical scholars, “but we know him this way no longer.” Once you are the Messiah, the little details of your life don’t count. End of the subject.
A Jesus who can be “every man and woman” can appeal to every man and woman, and this surely must be one of the reasons why fact-laden Jesus biography was never big on the church’s list of priorities. The changeability of Jesus’ appearance turned out to be a big part of how to translate the message, not only linguistically, but also culturally, to new locations (note that Nasini’s John the Baptist is sitting on Tuscan marble below what appear to be a stand of Tuscan cypress trees). Every church, in every age, has translated the Bible into its cultural and geographical present….for which, to take Renaissance painting as an example, we are forever grateful. But we should remember that the church’s main reason for this flexibility was to aid the spreading of the Christian message. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed, at the last judgment, as sending all humanity off to either heaven or hell with the words: “whatsoever you did to one of the least of these – in whom you should have seen me – you have done to me.” Thus both the church’s apologetics and its social concerns are based, in part, in seeing Jesus somehow embodied in others. Add to these practical rationales for ambiguity the mysticism of Paul, who concentrated on the believer being somehow incorporated “in” Christ, and you have every reason for a “Jesus for all time and all peoples.”
The little church in Lornarno holds a minor piece of art that contains a major theological truth: Jesus is most Jesus-like when he looks like our neighbours. Where do we find Jesus? Not in the Holy Land, but perhaps even right there, across the intersection, on a hot summer’s day.

The Life of Riley

The Life of Riley

This last week I told two people that at 53 years old I am “living the life of Riley.” Neither of them knew the expression, which made me wonder if it’s one of those fragments of my growing up in the west, or, more likely, of my age AND of growing up on the Canadian prairies.

No one has ever defined “living the life of Riley” for me, but I’ve always thought it meant doing what one pleases, and being completely pleased with what one is doing. An example might be Tom Sawyer, floating down the river with Huck Finn on an adventure, or the main character of the movie “Into the Wild,” just enjoying the view as he criss-crosses the United States on his epic adventure: canoeing, reading, working only as needed, and meeting new people all along the way.

Whether the expression originates with an American TV show from the 1950s or from the Irish O’Reilly clan much earlier, the problem with the “life of Riley” as the expression is used now, can be that it means one is doing everything except what one should. In other words, the suspicion is that a person who lives the life of Riley is avoiding responsibilities.

But does it have to mean that? It might never be possible to line up one’s pleasures and one’s responsibilities entirely (some tasks are just chores, no matter how you dress them up), but when you are lucky enough to find jobs to do that you enjoy anyway, it seems to me that you can avoid the kind of drudgery we often associate with what we do.

I’ve been reading a book called “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt. Among the many, many things he says, the author discusses how most jobs – even those we usually consider dead-end or lacking value – can take on meaning when those who do them are allowed a say in setting the parameters and goals of the job, and in working with a team of others in doing it. Haidt calls it “self-direction”. The hospital orderly who does what most consider the menial tasks of cleaning bedpans and lifting patients, he says, if she is made to feel part of the overall team of healers and care-givers (which in fact, she is) and if others in the team are encouraged to see her this way, can have tremendous job satisfaction in knowing and being affirmed that she is doing a noble thing.

Somehow, at this point in my life, I have found myself in this situation. Being a part-time, contract lecturer at the university, I am forced into the position, often, where “my” classes are taken away, and in order to work I am obligated to design new ones. What seems a tremendous and annoying chore to others I’ve described this to, is for me, really a blessing in disguise. By having to design new classes I not only set my own parameters for teaching and for student success (within the overall expectations of the university). I also get a chance to exercise one of the qualities in myself that I value most: creativity. And the department, in turn, values these creative new offerings, so as part of the teaching team my work is then validated.

Likewise in the parish: as a part-time minister I have a flexibility that is simply not there in most positions. If there is a death in the parish or an emergency of some sort, of course I have to respond. But much of my time is open-ended: I can call a family to visit, I can write an article about the parish for a church or Finnish publication, or I can go and clean the office…..it’s entirely up to me.

Of course this kind of life and lifestyle is privileged. Most of the world does not have this chance to choose how they earn a living. The Bangladeshi worker in bare feet on a factory floor or breaking down old ships in inhumane and poisonous conditions, or the many many unfortunates in the world (even, to our shame, in Canada) who live and work in real enslavement dream of the basics of safety and freedom. Fulfillment is an extra. We owe them justice.

But even so I don’t believe that the “life of Reilly” requires a lot of money. And in my case, it only comes in exchange for a certain insecurity (contract-work) as well.

Anyway, I feel very, very fortunate. My time is flexible, I earn much more than enough for the basics, I have traveled the world over giving papers and presentations for the university and the church, and those natural characteristics I value in myself, the things at which I am best – coming up with new ideas, expressing myself, communicating with others, affirming and celebrating social groups, finding wonder in the world – I get to do not only at work, but FOR work! How very blessed it is.

I’m thankful for this ‘life of Riley.’
July 16, 2012

Peopled by the Book

Peopled by the Book

When I was at Wilfred Laurier University for our church’s 2012 Synod Assembly my friend Tim Hegedus handed me an article and said “you have to read this.” I’m so glad he did. It was by our mutual friend, Allen Jorgenson, who is assistant dean of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and a professor of systematic theology there. It turned out to be one of those pieces that are wonderful to spend time with….interesting, provocative, and thoughtful. Like a really good conversation that leaves you thinking and maybe even changed.

Allen believes that scripture is not just something that we can take or leave, assent to or feel guided by, but that the relationship is much more dynamic and – more to the point – much more guided from THAT side (the side of the scriptures) than by THIS side (the side of us readers). Thus his title: “peopled by the book.” As he says “Scripture…cannot be construed as a bill of goods that we accept – or not – rather, it is the communal means by which we are spoken into being by the God of life.”

He also speaks in the article about how we are all “predisposed to relate with those who think like we do”, so perhaps I should admit that some of the reason I liked the article so much is that many of these thoughts are similar (if better expressed) to thoughts I have been turning over and over for years. One of the chapters in my doctoral dissertation was on Ricoeur’s ideas about rhetoric “creating worlds”(based in turn on Gadamer, at least, as well as I understand him) and I tried to bring this view of the creative power of words to bear on Paul’s use of rhetoric in 1 Corinthians. As well, I’ve been especially aware of the specifically creative power of scripture since reading Hans Frei’s “The Eclipse of Biblical Theology,” which makes a similar point to Jorgenson’s article, again however, with much less elegance. Especially Frei-like (in thought, at least) was the phrase in his conclusion: “Not only is this a book that we read, but it is a book that writes us into the book of life by including us in its very plot. Scripture scripts us.” I will be reflecting on that quote for a long time.

There are tons of memorable, well-turned and descriptive phrases here. I love the idea that scripture equals “the visitation in the present of the church catholic” and that “empowerment is at the heart of the redemption that is reading scripture.” And the image of scripture being “rather like a lung” is a jarring and original idea that really helps explain the back and forth of the process he describes.

I was glad that Tim Hegedus (himself a professor of New Testament at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary) passed on this article, and very happy to have spent some time with its thoughts. There’s been some talk at Concordia’s Dept of Theological Studies where I lecture recently about how we have Biblical Studies and we have Theology, but we don’t talk much anymore about Biblical Theology. It seems to me that such an article is really very important for our understanding of Biblical Theology, which is after all, at least in my opinion, what Luther was all about. Perhaps that’s one of the gifts we Lutherans can offer the wider church and academic community both.

Allen G. Jorgenson. “Peopled by the Book,” Word & World. Vol 29, no 4, fall 2009: 325-333.

Chicken to Celebrate Our Birthday on Capital Hill

Chicken to Keep It “Our” Hill

On July 1, for the first time, I celebrated Canada Day at what should be the epicentre of Canada Days: on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on the lawn right in front of Centre Block. Actually, we went to see the fireworks, but in the hours-long wait there was lots of opportunity to participate in the whole evening program put on by the National Capital Commission. As with the tens of thousands of others around me on the grass of the House of Commons, I went with a heart full of maple-leaf pride and absolutely no cynicism, ready to party and just happy to be there. However, like Dorothy in Emerald City, despite my hopes and my naïveté, having made the trek, it didn’t take long for the curtain to slip on the machinery. And what we saw wasn’t pretty.

I thought I went to Ottawa to celebrate a national event. And although I confess that I don’t think often of our Parliament buildings, when I do, I assume that it’s OUR Ottawa, and OUR houses of parliament, no matter what party we vote for. We may be divided on issues from healthcare to tuition fees. But we are Canadians, from coast to coast to coast. Those buildings, that place in Ottawa, are part of our birthright. It’s why, even thousands of kilometres away in Saskatchewan where I grew up, I studied about people in far off Ottawa: John A Macdonald, and Laurier, about odd little Mackenzie King or stuffy Diefenbaker, and why later, my education in things central Canadian continued with Louis Riel and the Scottish train barons and Mulroney and Trudeau. Our Canadian citizenship is why so many of us wore maple leaf flags criss-crossing Europe or travelling around the world in the 1980s and 90s.

Naturally enough, the flag of which we are proud is associated with that place where our government sits. To come to Ottawa, then, is always a bit of a pilgrimage. And I wasn’t alone. That Canada Day I was proud – but not surprised – to see Canadians of every colour and, apparently, creed, dressed in tank tops and saris, burkas and gay-pride rainbow-banners, speaking a dozen different languages at least, all enjoying the sun and waving their little paper flags. If ever there was a place that sits in the Canadian mind as belonging to them, it surely must be the Houses of Parliament.

How naive. The lights dimmed, and there, in front of the thousands of us gathered in the quadrangle, two giant jumbo-tron video screens came to life. It turned out that our celebration of the nation and of our day was introduced by advertisements, for what seemed to be a national poultry marketers’ group, and for President’s Choice grilled meats.

Tacky? Obviously. But even if you can swallow the poor taste of running ads at such a time (similar to having a “sponsored” knife for your son’s Bris, or communion host wafers stamped with the name of a local eatery), the act of running ads before a national celebration on the most public site in Canada raises all kinds of questions.

Firstly, whose hill is it? Are the Parliament buildings public space, or private space? Symbolism is important in space and ceremony, and never more so than at an event like a national holiday. Rulers have known this from the time of the pyramids and as recently as the Brits floating the Queen down the Thames. Certainly the National Capital Commission must also know this. To run ads seconds before wishing us a happy 145th anniversary of our country is to say, on some level, that it is not our country, but belongs to those who have “sponsored” it: the corporations. And to run corporate ads right in the shadow of the House of Commons is inevitably to beg the question of whose interests are being served by those who work within. Whether or not we were all thinking consciously of this, the message was being communicated.

It is the height of hypocrisy for governments of all stripes to bemoan the loss of interest in voting and the declining rate of participation of young people in what used to be called “civics”, and then run ads in the very centre of what has been called “the country’s heart”. The two facts are connected. Why would a 19 year old youth even want to vote for a government that so clearly indicates that it’s not the vote, it’s the money, that counts?

Then there is the need for what, for argument’s sake, we could call “elevated” space. I have used a number of religious metaphors already in this article – Bris, pilgrimage, communion. In our recognition of how we are governed we human beings also seem to need spaces that are set aside from the ordinary (the original definition of “holy” is in fact to be set apart, or consecrated, to a “higher” use). The sombre Vietnam memorial in Washington would never have a mascot in a fur suit handing out yogourt samples….there would be an immediate and vocal reaction. Government buildings and spaces, at their best, also should be inspirational. The architects of Parliament Hill knew this. That is why the quadrangle (the area bordered by the Houses of Parliament) and the Centennial flame are there.

Granted, we Canadians are more circumspect than many of our neighbours and allies: we don’t have the impressive imperial views of Washington’s Mall and of the Lincoln Memorial. We don’t have an Arc de Triomphe nor a Buckingham Palace. We have always been a bit more bourgeois. But in its own, politely provincial Canadian way, Ottawa’s Capital Hill is still a space that one thinks of as set apart, even elevated (Capital Hill) to the use of democracy. We think of it that way because it was designed that way.

And maybe that’s the word that’s been missing so far: democracy. The centre block of the House of Commons is a place where our elected representatives argue out the policies and practices that determine who we are as a people. Those MPs are there because of us, and for no other reason. They did not buy their way into office. They were elected, in the free and fair elections for which our country is generally known. Democracy means that a whole bunch of us “little people” put our MPs there.

Corporations, by their very nature, of course, are not democratic. Nor should they necessarily be. They are, legally, at least, “incorporated”, that is, individuals. And as legal entities they are big – very big, very powerful, individuals. Is our public space for many of us little people who have voted, or for the select few big ones, who do not? Or to put it another way: the question is whether we should have an elevated space, set apart in recognition of the principles of democracy, or whether by our actions we in fact send a signal that the very centre of our national identity is up for sponsorship (and thus, inevitably, control).

To my mind it’s actually good news that the corporate sponsorship of our country’s 145th birthday in Ottawa was so clumsily handled, since it means that the practice has not yet achieved the sheen of a policy that is entrenched. I have nothing against either chicken farmers or grilled meats from Loblaws. It is the National Capital Commission (or those that underfund them) that need to answer for this. The “Occupy” movement, so strong in 2011, seems to be foundering in 2012. But so long as we seem so willing to give up symbols of our nation to interests beyond and against our national, democratic control, there will be backlash from those who are being told, on every screen, that their most cherished institutions and events are being taken away from them.

Scrooge and Lazarus

One of the great modern parables of money is “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens. Everyone knows Scrooge, a man so miserly that his name has become synonymous with greed and small-minded parsimony. The story of Scrooge’s conversion – and it is a conversion – has been told and retold since Dickens first penned it in the fall and winter of 1843. Scrooge is a wonderful character, so richly-painted and fascinating that he has been copied and echoed in stories ever since, such as The Grinch (Dr Seuss), or the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life. But, if characters have origins, what – or whom – was Dickens thinking about when he penned Scrooge? There are many guesses. We know of Dickens’ earlier life in a work where he was profoundly humiliated, as we know of his life-long concern for the poor-houses of industrializing England. Scrooge is read into these circumstances by critics, and seen as representing everything from Dickens’ own father to the season of winter itself, which eventually gives way (is converted) to the joyous celebration which is spring.
Although the book was not initially the commercial success for which Dickens hoped, it is a tale that, according to many, almost single-handedly revived the celebration of Christmas and at the same time secularized and modernized it. We owe much of our modern notion of Christmas to Dickens and his attempts to raise money with his book. Those trained in the philosophy of Gadamer and Ricoeur should take note. Here is a real, living example of the kind of myth-making power of the word that these men describe: Dickens made us nostalgic for a snowy, jolly, Victorian celebration which never was, but which ironically, his story helped create.
The prevailing wisdom is that, while A Christmas Carol is a great story, it isn’t particularly religious. There is almost no explicit reference here to the nativity of Christ (as C.S Lewis points out in “The Decline of Religion”), and the proper celebration of the season which Scrooge discovers has to do with generosity, family gatherings, and good cheer, rather more than prayer, worship, and theology.
But while there may be few explicit references to Christian themes in Dicken’s story (there are one or two), perhaps the critics, as with the New Testament narratives, are missing the point. Perhaps the religious influence on A Christmas Carol doesn’t lie in specific references so much it is exercised in a fashion more subtle and interesting to an author. Perhaps it is rather on the level of Biblical themes, or – and here we perhaps see one master storyteller borrowing from another – in narratives that Dickens’ Carol shows the effects of the Bible.
Jesus, by all accounts another master story-teller, tells a parable that, stripped of the latter’s English waistcoats, stools, fog and shutters, could almost be the mirror image of Dickens’ Carol. “There once was a rich man. A poor man named Lazarus lived at his gate, with nothing to eat. Lazarus died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died (it’s hard not to think of Tiny Tim).
Then follows, in Jesus’ parable, a series of exchanges back and forth between the rich man, who is in torment, and Abraham, who acts as the guardian of paradise. First the rich man asks for his own relief, and then, when that is denied, he says: “I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony.” Abraham replied “They have Moses and the prophets. They must listen to them.” The rich man said, “No Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their hearts and lives.” One can almost hear the chains of Morley’s ghost in the rich man’s pleas.
What would have happened if Father Abraham had said yes? Something very like a first-century version of The Christmas Carol. Was Dickens perhaps dozing off some Sunday in church while the rector droned on, until he wakened with a start dreaming of Scrooge? One can perhaps never know. But it’s an intriguing possibility.