An Advent of Doubt and Struggle
by Debra Dean Murphy, special contributor
Advent is my kind of season.
No, not the pseudo-Advent of most Christian piety with liturgically-correct hymns and texts on the Sundays of the season and full-on Christmas hoopla all the other days, but this one: the ancient, autumnal interval of darkness and foreboding with its achy uncertainty blanketing landscapes both inner and outer. This Advent offers room for doubt and struggle. It grants permission to rest in — rather than to resolve — the tensions and paradoxes, the sometimes maddening contradictions that shape the life of discipleship.
We read the appointed texts for the Sundays of Advent and they are startling in their bleakness, their familiarity inuring us to meanings inscrutable, ominous, perilous. (Unless we subscribe to the Left Behind school of hermeneutics, in which liturgical Advent doesn’t exist and these texts are never bad news for us).
What the season reveals in its hymns, poems, texts, and traditions is that we begin the Christian year not by embarking on a straightforward path to nativity joy but by acknowledging the gaping chasm that exists, as Rowan Williams has put it, between “our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God.”
Prophetic oracle is a fitting literary companion for traversing such a divide. While the lectionary texts for Advent are rooted in a time and place that have everything to do with their significance for our own time and place, it’s the apocalyptic form itself that provides strange comfort to those of us with less than sunny spiritualities. We are not very sure of ourselves, theologically and otherwise. Our questions often consume us, overwhelm us. More than anything, sentimental Christianity makes us want to run away from church and never come back.
But the Advent rantings of John the Baptizer and the little apocalypse of Mark’s gospel intrigue us and are part of the reason we stay. There’s something interesting going on here, something that even an accommodated church can’t quite tame, obscure, or ignore. The God spoken of in these ancient texts is saving a people and redeeming all of creation. In this work we sense, with Flannery O’Connor, that “grace must wound before it heals.”
And we also sense that the three-fold coming (adventus) of Christ — as baby refugee, as word and sacrament, as glorious Lamb of God — is more political than personal: He comes to "shake the powers in the heavens" that justice at long last might be established, that the politics of fear and the economics of scarcity might be exposed as the fraudulent scams they are. In Jesus is abundance — life and health and joy for all. For the brooding skeptics and cynics among us, indeed for all Advent people, He is the apocalyptic thief who breaks in not to rob us but to give us the goods.
Maybe a domesticated church — even one that observes pseudo-Advent — can hear this good news with new ears.
Photo by Stuart Anthony/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0.
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
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The reality emerging out of the Exodus is not just a new religion or a new religious idea or a vision of freedom but the emergence of a new social community in history, a community that has historical body, that had to devise laws, patterns of governance and order, norms of right and wrong, and sanctions of accountability. The participants in the Exodus found themselves, undoubtedly surprisingly to them, involved in the intentional formation of a new social community to match the vision of God’s freedom.
—Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination
Facing Our Darkness on Halloween Night
by Caroline Oakes, guest contributor
Photo by Susy Morris/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
Like most people, since I was a child, Halloween brings a heady rush of excitement that definitely goes beyond costumes, jack-o-lanterns, and even trick-or-treating for good chocolate.
Year after year, exhilaration sets in as children and parents begin their animated zig-zagging through neighborhoods in the deep dark of night, dressed as something or someone they aren’t really, knocking on the doors of perfect strangers, coming face-to-face with the unknown and unseen.
Now, I am aware that some parents and a number of churches are less than enthusiastic about the traditions of this liminal night, and are going so far as to pull their children out of Halloween activities entirely, or are offering “Godly” alternatives. (Heard yet about “Jesus Ween”?)
While some people’s claims that Halloween should be assailed as inherently “evil” or “of the devil” and not consistent with Christian values are questionable — both theologically and historically — the real regret here is the opportunity that is lost by missing the point of Halloween.
In pre-Christian, Christian, and now post-Christian times, October 31st has traditionally been a night to name and face our fears, a time to face “the dark” — the dark outside of us, and the dark inside of us.
When we give our children the freedom to take those first steps out into the dark of Halloween night, we are allowing them to learn, first-hand, that the foreboding darkness that will envelop them will not, in fact, consume them.
They learn on their own that, even if they wear a mask of something they think is really scary, they don’t actually become that scary thing. In the act of putting on the mask, the scary thing loses much of its power, and the child’s own sense of inner power, inner light, and identity is affirmed.
As Halloween comes and goes each year, children slowly and safely wander farther from home, becoming more secure in their growing knowledge that what looks (at first) like something deep, dark, and foreboding can also be full of surprise, delight, and even joy.
The subliminal messages here are positive and healthy ones for our children and for our planet. The world around us, even the world inside each one of us, is neither all evil nor all good, neither all light nor all dark. There is always more than meets the eye.
So, parents banning Halloween night? There is real irony here. Parents forbidding their children (and themselves) this chance to face their fears, telling them instead that they cannot dress up, they cannot go outside in the dark, they cannot trick-or-treat, may actually be promoting fearful messages — that the world is a terrifying place, no one is safe, and we have no power over the inner and outer demons of our lives.
These are messages that perpetuate the dangerously dualistic, black and white, uncompromising way of seeing the world that is polarizing our society today.
But when we shed some light on the dark complexities of Halloween night, even the simple exchange of trick-or-treating can carry an important subtext: at every open door on Halloween night, children and their parents are enacting the universal (and spiritual) principle of giving — namely, that it is good (indeed it is a sign of our inner humanity) that we can willingly open our doors and give generously to complete strangers, even to those who wear masks, making them unrecognizable and frightening to us. There is always more than meets the eye.
Halloween can be as grace-filled as it is black-dark, a night to discover, year after year, that when we venture out into the darkness of the unknown, the night can be beautiful. Others are kind. Evil is actually a lot like a monster mask, and after an exhilarating few hours of exploring the dark, we can always return to the light of home, safe and sound.
And sometimes with a boatload of pretty darn good chocolate.
Caroline Oakes is a writer with a degree in ascetical theology from The General Theological Seminary. You can read her “Mind and Spirit” column in The Bucks County Herald. She lives in in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
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Happy Birthday to Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel
by Chris Heagle, technical director
Mahalia Jackson would have been 100 years old
today on October 26th. To celebrate, here’s one of her best-loved interpretations, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”
She recorded over two dozen albums in her lifetime, won five Grammy awards, and was honored from nearly every direction — from gracing a 32-cent stamp to being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She appeared in a few films, most memorably perhaps in Imitation of Life and was a smash at the Newport Jazz Festival. Hers was the chosen voice for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral. Though she was often courted by other artists to crossover and sing jazz or blues, she never did, saying famously, “When you sing gospel you have a feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong.”
Editor’s note (10.16.2011 1:53pm): Thanks to an astute reader, we made a factual error in this post. Mahalia Jackson’s birthday occurs ten days from the date of this posting, on October 26th. We apologize for the error and got a little too excited about sharing this great gospel hymn and remembering this wonderful singer.
Later, when I learned more about history, it became more evident how it is all based on Christian values, like how there are a lot of squares across C, G, and F chords — I’m not saying it’s bad, but I wanted the musicology to be more based on nature. It’s like how kids are told, ‘If you train many hours a day for 10 years, you might get VIP access to this elite world.’ But not everybody wants to be a performer in a symphony orchestra, and kids are not encouraged to write songs and find their own style. That age is perfect for making things because you don’t have inhibitions; if you start developing your own musical language at 10, imagine how great it would be 20 years later.
Is a Machine Gun Preacher What We Wanted?
by Martin Marty, guest contributor from Sightings
Reverend Sam Childers poses with SPLA soldiers. (photo courtesy of Machine Gun Preacher)
Preachers, pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams number in the hundreds of thousands in the United States. They minister at the borders between what get tabbed “sacred” and “secular” realms, and as such cannot go unnoticed in public media.
Some critics in the culture wars complain that they too often do get unnoticed. But most representations of them in movies and on television evoke, in the minds of those who have positive regard for clergy, George Bernard Shaw’s often paraphrased saying that there are two tragedies in life: not getting what we want, and getting what we want. “Not getting what ‘we’ want,” whoever “we” are, used to be represented in comments that ministers, especially Protestants, usually came across as namby-pamby and culturally marginal types as if labeled “Handle with Care.” They often appeared begowned and silver-coiffed, viewed over the groom’s shoulder, saying, “I now pronounce you… You may kiss the bride.”
Everyone who knew, or was, a full-of-life cleric, resented that cultural posture. In today’s world, however, most clergy representatives on film are not suave mainline clerics, beloved Irish-American priests, or wan and thin play-it-safe rabbis. Today, with the rise of presumably Protestant born-again studs, manipulators of people, and takers-of-the-law-into-their-own-hands types, we see images of law-breakers with macho swagger. Those observations are background comments to this week’s version of the sometimes robed swashbucklers, in a film called Machine Gun Preacher. It was hard to evade reviews last weekend; two which found me were in our local Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune.
We don’t need to review the reviews or condense all details of the plot. The regular run of characters surrounds the Reverend Sam Childers: his ex-stripper wife, here “stuck with platitudes such as ‘God gave you a purpose, Sam Childers.’” The movie is based on a book which is based on a (presumably) true life story of a convict who gets violently born-again, thoroughly baptized, and self-licensed to pick up a gun and fight in defense of children in Sudan. Childers built an orphanage there, we are told and shown, and evidently does some good things for the kids. But that’s not what the movie is about. To compete today, it has to be violent, and is.
Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune deals with the scene in Sudan, personalizing it along the way. Here is how he voices the Gospel: “Staring down an enemy, he seethes: ‘The Lord I serve is the living lord Jesus. And to show you he’s alive, I’m going to send you to meet him right now!’ Blam! Another enemy, smote.” What does the viewer get to see in a plot plotted for today’s American market? Roger Ebert in the Sun-Times, on the reverend gun-slinger: he “is nothing but a one-dimensional rage machine.” So the preacher and the film-maker “can’t wait to get to the ass-whipping part of this inspirational story, [which] lacks any real sense of how Childers underwent his staggering transformation.” Well, “he isn’t the first to go to war in the name of the Lord— He’s born again, yes, but he seems otherwise relatively unchanged — He seems fueled more by anger than by spirituality.”
Until next week’s violence-in-religion movie comes along, Machine Gun Preacher invites some pondering: Is this preacher what we wanted? And, if so, who are “we”?
About the embedded image: Gerard Butler stars as Reverend Sam Childers in Machine Gun Preacher.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He’s authored many books, including Pilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end.
—Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.
Tuesday Evening Melody: “Going to a Town” by Rufus Wainwright
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Rufus Wainwright performs in KEXP’s studios in 2007. (photo: Laura Musselman)
What do you do on a 16-hour family road trip to Montana with two sons under five and a wife riding shotgun? Play a lot of music — and sing badly. But, there are certain songs, certain performers that bring on the quiet. And this live performance from Rufus Wainwright is one of them.
Fumbling around my pickup’s floorboard pickup while cruising down I-94, my fingers serendipitously happened upon an unlabeled compilation CD I had burned in 2007. Etched with grit and gravel, it actually started playing. The opening track: Rufus Wainwright’s live version of “Going to a Town” that he performed at KEXP’s studios in Seattle while promoting Release the Stars.
Trying to conjure up meanings of the song’s lyrics would require too much exegesis, if you will, for this humble post, but Wainwright’s melodic challenging of America and its brokenness is valid four years later. Through this song, he forces us to remember what we once were as a nation — even if it’s a dream — who we’ve become, and what kind of people we might aspire to be again.
When I hear a ”Daddy, daddy. Play it again!,” I know he’s the right notes.