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Rereading Sacred Text, With a Poem

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In my last post I mentioned in passing the feminist interpretation of the Biblical record.  There have been many kinds and layers of this.  I was involved in a number of them.  I attended meetings of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus.  I read Daughters of Sarah and Free Indeed, two periodicals produced by women seeking to reinterpret what they had been taught.  Both survived only for a time, which is typical of small magazines of all kinds. Free Indeed took its name from the passage from John, “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.”  Daughters of Sarah published a few of my poems.

I learned to think for myself through looking at the many different women’s approaches to scripture.  I had gotten through college as a very good student who believed what I read, whether it agreed with my own experience or not.  Amid all the women’s perspectives, it was necessary to make choices, and one of the keys to those choices was “does it fit with my experience” instead of “does it fit with what I’ve been taught.”  This approach was the gift, for me, of feminist interpretation.

There are many stories about women in the Bible.  Some are extensive, some seem to be only fragments.  At one time I concluded, “The named woman is the one who got into trouble.”  Here is a poem I wrote during this period.

Sirens

As I circle stony islands
where ten foot tides turn ledges
into granite waves,
threats to an outboard propeller,
I hear Delilah sing
with Jael and Judith.

On a bluff of ragged rock
these three women, servants
to god and country, sing by turns
of Sisera, Holophernes, Samson,
of tent peg, sword, and scissors.
The song repeats like blues,
like scissors, rock, paper,
break, cover, or cut
to the next story,
the next severed head
served up on a fine platter.

The trays have corroded
on which the tribes they served
once served them empty honors.
Their hungry song blends
with calls of cormorants and gulls.
From such contagious sorrow
I flee to deeper water.

Among other things, this poem is meant to suggest that the situation for women is similar on both sides of the conflict; Delilah was, in the history, an enemy of Jael and Judith, yet I imagine their stories were similar.  I’ve placed them not in the Mediterranean but on the Maine shore, which I know, can describe more vividly, and have used to reflect their mood and situation.

Many of the women whose work I was reading in those days gave up on the patriarchy of Christianity, and Judaism as well, altogether; some became Wiccan.  I stayed in my tradition, but continued to rethink the reading of Scripture.  Now I look at my sacred texts from many points of view.  Some days I take the words quite literally, but I am convinced that, however much inspired, they were written down by people who could only communicate in the language of their time.  Other times I am struck by how much of our God language is, and has to be, metaphor.  Always I find it a rich source of story, language and reflection on the human condition.

“Sirens” was published in Daughters of Sarah in 1990.

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A Pure Beginning: Reflections and Poem

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In the nineteenth century, when John Emerson Roberts was a liberal preacher, there were many people who believed in an original “pure” Christianity, before things got messed up with doctrines and debates and rules.  One such person was Alexander Campbell, whose follower were first called “Campbellites.” They eventually became the denomination Christian Church/Disciples of Christ.  Another case was that of Joseph Smith; he  avoided creating one more denomination among many by developing a whole new Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

In the twentieth century there was another kind of belief in an original Christianity as feminist scholars like Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza gathered together clues of the roles of women in early Church communities, before the bishops made them second class members.

Current scholars recognize plenty of evidence that there was no original “pure” Christianity.  The letters of Paul reflect lots of discord: “You shouldn’t eat that!”  “You shouldn’t do that!”  “My way or the highway!”  In fact, the writer of the Acts of the Apostleswhom we call Luke may have been the first to imagine a state that never existed, one of harmony and agreement among all.

What I imagine in the early church is a stronger fellowship.  But it may be that strong fellowship requires a common danger.  Those who see “true Christianity” as beleaguered in today’s “secular” culture, probably are able to build such fellowship more easily than others.  Here’s my image of then and now:

Twilight

The half-light of half-learned lessons
cuts us off from elders
of the sharp-edged pagan years.
Outlined by evening sky
they walk toward prayer,
leaning over their lamps.
By flickering light they stand
in corners cut in damp earth
holding each other tall.

Old story told once more,
we rise from cushioned pews,
let fall each other, uninstructed
in the catch of shifting weight.
Shadows of wistful wishes wax
in failing light.   The dark
is out there.  Who can teach
the bending into it?

I don’t recall what darkness concerned me when I wrote this poem.  Perhaps I was just discovering that darkness is a part of life, not to be avoided.  I learned through dance that catching one who falls can be taught; we were also taught how to allow ourselves to be caught.  It’s the same with emotional support – we can learn to give and to receive, but it is something we do need to learn.

Thanks to Allen Matlins for returning this poem to the light by posting it on his blog last November.  It was published in Christian Century in 1983.  Rediscovering it has led me to look at other poems I wrote about that time, to ponder how things and people change over time, and to find several which are still “good enough to share.”

Happy Autumn!

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Autumn’s just beginning, but I’m thinking of the tree outside my window at my old house: a small red-leaved maple.  Beside it in the front yard was a small green-leaf maple, so in fall we had a two-toned orange and red carpet across the lawn.

Autumn is my favorite season, though I don’t dislike any of them.  It’s the time when my energy rises and all things seem possible.  “Maybe this is the year I reach my full potential,” my heart sings, even as my head labors to track all the events filling the calendar.  So much of our activity rises and falls with the school schedule, though no one in the household has been in school for many a year.  This is the pattern of society, and I think the weather has more to do with it than we may want to believe.Now, instead of the decades-old maple tree, probably planted when the house was built, I look out my window at a small mesquite tree, just six years old, which I planted myself.  It too will turn color later in the season, though its color will be a rather uninspired yellow.  It and I have settled in together.  It is now growing at a steady pace, and so can I.

On the day I began drafting this post, a roadrunner appeared in our back yard.  This pleased me greatly, because I want our yard, small though it is, to be a wildlife haven.  How he came in I have no idea, but he was finding good things to eat.  He wouldn’t pose for the camera, but here he is enjoying the shade of the small mesquite tree.

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Popular Preacher, Part II: Rhetoric and Religion

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When John Emerson Roberts did his five part series on The Inevitable Surrender of Orthodoxy, he set up a series of parallels, a good rhetorical device.  The second sermon was on “Two Gods” the God of vengeance and the God of mercy.  The third sermon, on “Two Bibles,” contrasted the Bible, valuable as a record of human development, with the natural universe, “the only book God ever wrote.”  The fourth sermon, “Two Plans” he used mostly as an excuse to discuss and dismiss old ideas of the atonement.  “The necessity of an atonement disappears with the old idea of a capricious and changeable God,” he concluded, ignoring his own earlier comments on a God of judgment vs. a God of mercy.  A rhetorical flourish.

Only in the final sermon of this five-sermon set did Roberts turn to more positive thoughts.  It’s another parallel, this time between Jesus and Voltaire.  This idea was not new with Roberts; he borrowed it from Victor Hugo, who had spoken on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Voltaire’s death in 1878.  In fact, a good third of the sermon is straight from Hugo, though Roberts does not admit it.  This is normal for preachers; they are not required to identify their sources.

Voltaire was a popular freethought hero in the United States in the second half of the 19th century.  Born Francois Marie Aroeut in 1694, he was a poet, playwright and philosopher who challenged authority at every turn.  He wrote satires about church and society.  Of his works, one that survives today is Candide – in large part because Leonard Bernstein made an opera out of it.

One hundred years ago Voltaire was much better known:
●  In 1866, Voltairine de Cleyre was named after him.  After enduring education in a convent (her parents thought it was the best education available to a young woman) she became an atheist and an anarchist.
●  In 1879, the Music Hall was built in Chicago partly to provide a platform for David Swing, a liberal preacher who had left the Presbyterian denomination.  Voltaire’s bust was included along with those of Moses, Mozart and other heroes of faith and music.
●  Clarence Darrow, who had admired Voltaire since his youth, found him a profitable lecture topic in the early 20th century.

Roberts begins his discussion of Voltaire with a strong metaphor:  “The plain is habitable because the mountain is beyond,” he says, and continues:

Voltaire was the mountain.  Rugged, defiant, implacable, lightning-scarred, storm-enveloped, immovable, august, sublime, he towered above Europe and the eighteenth century with unspeakable scorn for superstition, secular or sacred, and with unquenchable devotion to reason and light.  Kings exiled him.  Police officers arrested him.  Bastilles and prisons confined him.  Ignorance hated him.  Superstition execrated him.  The priesthood denounced him. . . .

What has this to do with Jesus?

There are of necessity two kinds of prophets.  One shows the way to heaven, that is to moral health, to sanity, to a consisten and reasonable faith and to kindness toward men and reverence toward God
Such was Jesus, and such are all great souls who, from the spirt and genius of the world of matter and of man, imbibe the thought of God.

Voltaire is another kind of prophet, one of those “whose visions disclose the abyss towards which the unreasoning haste.”  Roberts’s argument requires the assumption that religion in Voltaire’s time had reached a very low point.  Voltaire, Roberts says, “rescued it from ecclesiastical asphyxiation and gave it light and air.”

After going at length into the contrast of Jesus and Voltaire as two types of prophet, Roberts brings them back together:

The church in all ages has put dogma first, charity and tolerance last.  Christianity today is dogma plus all the virtues that support the social order.  Jesus reversed that method.  Voltair reversed that method.  Jesus was called in his own day a heretic, and would be called a heretic now.  Voltaire was called a heretic, and would be called a heretic now.  But God sends such heretics among men to sweeten life, to establish justice, to illuminate the true, the beautiful and the good, to plead for humanity and for God and prevent religion from perishing from the earth.

Roberts was carried away by his own rhetoric, and so was his congregation.  He filled a 500 seat sanctuary with his sermons.  It is quite a stretch to call Jesus a heretic, since the Judaism of his time was both varied and non-dogmatic; the charge of heresy requires a single controlling authority.  Roberts is reading back from his own experience and his own era.  There is, however, some truth in his claims.  Christianity has always been at risk of becoming a prop for the status quo: “dogma plus all the virtues that support the social order.”  Roberts seems to be putting his hope in a new Voltaire, rather than a prophet like Jesus.

This post is an expansion of material in John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s ‘Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.

John Emerson Roberts, Popular Preacher: Excerpts from the Biography

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John Emerson Roberts left the Baptist church in 1884 because he no longer believed in hell.  He still believed in God, and he was quickly accepted into the Unitarian fellowship.  Just three years after his rejection by his Baptist congregation, Roberts was back in Kansas City as a Unitarian preacher.  He was even more popular as a Unitarian than as a Baptist, which is interesting because the Unitarians, although much more conservative than in our time, were at the liberal fringe of Christianity.

Roberts still believed in God and could speak eloquently of that belief:

         We cannot get rid of God.  When the last analysis has been made, when we have dissected to the uttermost, when we have said the last wise word about matter, force and motion, then in matter, making it what it is; in force, its final energy, in motion, its unexplained residuum, is that subtle, awful omniscience―there is God.  To eyes that see, no fact should be plainer than this―that nature is everywhere a manifestation of the Infinite; that all things that are, all things everywhere; show forth behind all appearances real, in all mutations, immutable, in all and over all, that the supreme fact of the universe is God.

What sort of God is this?  It is not a personal God, who would be active in the affairs of individuals.  The “final energy” of force is certainly an abstract concept.  Roberts’s congregation loved this kind of language.  So did the news reporters; The Journal reporter wrote:  “This sermon was one of the most eloquent Dr. Roberts has delivered during his pastorate, and at the close he was warmly congratulated by many of the large congregation which listened with closest attention throughout.”

In 1895, Roberts gave a series of five sermons under the title, “The Inevitable Surrender of Orthodoxy”:

The title had been used by Roberts’s colleague, Minot Savage, in 1889 for an article in the North American Review.  For both Roberts and Savage “orthodoxy” meant Calvinism, the stern form of Protestantism which emphasized the fall of man and the freedom of God to choose who would be saved, the rest condemned to a hell made vivid in Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” back in 1743.  Though most churches had loosened up a good deal (many Baptists, for instance, focused on the individual’s choice to accept salvation) these doctrines continued to be expressed and defended.  It was the incongruity of a God of love and an eternity of hellfire which brought many to liberal religion and drove others away from religion altogether.

While Roberts had tried gently to persuade his Baptist congregation of the seriousness of this incongruity in 1884, in 1895 he was speaking to people whose ideas had developed as his own had.  He could really tear into the issue.  Using inequalities of wealth as a parallel, he describes the doctrine of hell as one which “creates a monopoly of happiness, and joy and favor of God for endless ages in the interest of a few and dooms the uncounted millions to a place compared with which a poor-house were a paradise and a penitentiary a palace of delight.”   Is this a reasonable doctrine? He almost explodes in response:

            No!  No! By all the sanctions of reason, no! By all the unsyllabled persuasion of the moral consciousness, no! By all the sanctity of man who bears, though marred, the image of God.  By the pathos of human struggle and the pleading of human hope.  By the eternal justice of the Infinite God, no! no!

This exclamation is in a sermon called “Two Plans.”  Clearly, Roberts doesn’t think the threat of hell has any part in a good God’s plan.  He doesn’t line out a contrary plan, but he is sure of this:  “This world and all the worlds belong to God.”

Another sermon in this five part series gives us information on how Roberts is thinking about Jesus.  I’ll discuss that next.

For more on John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher and how to obtain a copy, see the Books page.

Reflections and Poem: Habit

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Habits: We need them to survive.  There’s no way we could get anything done if we had to make a decision about every step and action of getting up, getting dressed, preparing breakfast, or preparing for sleep.  It was a dental hygienist, instructing me in flossing my teeth, who told me, ‘It takes four months to make something a habit.”  That’s not very long in the grand scheme of things, but it requires constant attention until the habit takes hold.

There are habits of action and habits of thought.  Prophets, I would say, disrupt our habits of thought.  Prophets are not soothsayers, tellers of the future.  They tell us things we might have seen or understood if we had been looking from their perspective.  They asked us to “think outside the box” back when that was not yet a cliché.

There are habits also of attention: stopping to look or listen as we carry on our habitual activities.  I wrote about my interest in William Paley in a blog back in May (May 9).  In his Natural Theology, published in 1802, Paley, an Anglican clergyman and theologian, asked his readers to pay attention to detail, from the smallest features of the eye and ear to the way plants and insects interact on a summer day.  For Paley this was all evidence of God’s good creation.  But such attention to nature is not bound to any particular theology; many religions suggest this approach to the world, as a way of really seeing, of paying attention to what is.  I tried to capture Paley’s approach, which suits my world as well as it does his very different world view, in this poem:

Habit

Alert to the ordinary, caught
by wonder at small creatures,
hidden muscles, as thumb or
toe is wondrous to an
infant, he has no
mantra, no method
to teach this habit of
attention, wonders at
the lack of wonder
in those who cannot stop
to look, who only admire
the new, the bold, sharply
chiseled lines, contrasting
colors that shout most
loudly in the constant press
of seen and sensed that
batters them until
like overbeaten dough
they lose their power
to rise to admiration, to
wonder at the marvels of
the bodies they inhabit.

“Habit” is included in Ascent: Five Southwestern Women Poets (2011).  See more on Books page.

Recommendation: One Earth Project

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One earth?  Of course we all live on one earth, don’t we?  Yet, we don’t acknowledge this is all our actions.  Do we consume more than our share?  Are we depleting resources?  These questions have been around for a long time, without bringing people to new understandings of the place of humans on the earth.  Notice that I speak of “understandings” here, not of actions.  Action follows from belief structures.

Myths and religions grow up together.  Myths may have multiple meanings.  Religious leaders try to narrow them down.

I believe that sacred texts are meant to be encountered anew by each generation, each devout reader.  But we come to them with preconceptions, conditioning.  There’s the conditioning of our upbringing in Sunday School, perhaps.  But an even stronger influence may be the conditioning we have acquired from the society we live in.  Going back to reexamine our sacred text and to rethink meanings which have been handed down is a true spiritual quest.  It is how prophets are made.

Purple Mat

I put here a new picture of the purple mat in my yard.  Notice the curved edge beside it.  That is a 12” round stepping stone that provides a sense of scale for this small plant.  You have to be watching for it to see it.  This is a good metaphor for the voices of prophets in our midst.  You have to be listening for those voices, but they are there.  One such voice can be found on Lee Van Ham’s blog, The One Earth Project.  Lee has rethought some very old stories in Genesis, the story of Eden and of Cain and Abel.  His interpretations give new insight for people trying to relearn what seems in our day almost a lost art: to be one with the created world instead of using and, in some cases, abusing it.  And to stop living as if we had multiple earths to supply our needs.

Click on One Earth Project in the blogroll on the right of this page.  See where Lee’s thinking is taking him now.

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