Locality and Tragedy

Author Barbara Kingsolver says that seeing death on the television in the news – a plane down here, a bomb there, a war over there – bombards our senses, alternatively numbing us or overwhelming us, but almost always with the sense that we can’t do anything about it. Because news is primarily visual outside of print and radio media, the images the news feeds us has to be driven visually. Presented as a random sampling of ‘what’s going on in the world today’, these images add to the sense of powerlessness in the face of enormous amounts of death. But they are not a random sampling of what is happening in the world. They are the worst of the worst – they are the images that get people to watch the news. It becomes, she asserts, a peculiarly unbalanced diet for the human psyche – one that does not reflect the day to day real world that most people live in, if they will actually live in it, rather than stare at the screen.

And so here’s what she does. In the summer, they move into a farm house whose ancient wiring is incapable of sustaining a TV. And the only media she partakes is the local newspaper, County News, comprised largely of farm forecasts and obituaries. And she bakes casseroles. Instead of being pommeled by visual accounts of catastrophic death she can do little about, or a politician’s or celebrity’s tragedies far away from her, she responds to each death in that local community. “On the matter of individual tragic deaths, I believe that those in my own neighborhood are the ones I need to attend to first, by means of casseroles or whatever else I can offer. I believe… it’s possible to be so overtaken and stupefied by the tragedies of the world,” she writes, “that we don’t have any time or energy left for those closer to home, the hurts we should take as our own.” Paying attention to the local deaths, she says, “is a healthy exercise. It helps me remember what death really is, and helps me feel less useless in the face of it.”

Kingsolver is not saying to hide in small communities and ignore the large-scale tragedies or injustices going on in the world. In fact, she writes quite a lot about those things. What she is saying is that a broadcast-news-only diet warps our view of the world, giving bad news and death a larger slice of the pie than they are in the actual realities of the world around us. In reality, when we step away from that screen, there are birds singing, sun shining, wind moving the leaves, birds migrating, gardens growing, birthdays being celebrated for first graders. There are mountains, quilts being sewn, marriages, cats purring, friends at the post office, suppers being cooked and enjoyed, “and a trillion other things outside the notice of CNN.” If we take our view of the world overmuch from the news feed, we get a narrower slice than reality, and it can have negative, dysfunctional, depressive results in our view of things. Saint Paul, no stranger to the darker side of pain and evil in our world, advised, in regards to seeking to live a life of joy, “fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and noble, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”

Again, not a call to hide away and ignore the pain and suffering in our world, but a call to get a realistic slice of it within the larger picture of the creation all around us, rather than the narrowly disasterous, and psychologically destructive, view that comes from too much time on the newsfeed. Without a larger view of the good in creation and life all around us, we may be so worn down by the newsfeed that we find ourselves drained of energy to help in local situations where we actually can.

(Kingsolver, Small Wonder: Essays; Perenniel, 2002)

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N.T. Wright on Mark 4:26-34

World renowned New Testament theologian N.T. Wright makes the following comments on Jesus’ seed parables in Mark 4.

“When you audition for a choir, often the conductor will ask you to pick notes out of a chord. Here is a chord of three, four or five notes; you can hear it all together, but can you hear the notes individually, and sing each in turn? It’s often quite a test.

We can all see the surface meaning of the story: in this case, the secret growth of a seed, or the small seed that produces a big bush. But can you see the individual notes that go to make up these chords?

Answer: the seed is laid in the earth and then arises. The word for ‘get up’ is one of the regular words for the resurrection. And the resurrection, by this stage in Jewish thinking, wasn’t about how individuals would find ‘life after death’. It was about how God would dramatically restore Israel’s fortunes, even raising the saints of old to share in the new blessing.

Jesus asks: What shall we say God’s kingdom is like? What picture shall we give of it? In one of the best-known passages in the Jewish Bible, the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, the prophet asks a very similar question about God himself: To what will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him (Isaiah 40.18)? It’s not just an accidental echo. The passage is all about a fresh vision of God, the creator, coming to rescue his people, coming to restore Israel after her time of devastation.

…the other note in the chord, comes at the end of the story: the birds of the air make their nests in its shade. Ezekiel and Daniel both use this as an image of a great kingdom, growing like a tree until those around can shelter under it (Ezekiel 17.23; 31.6; Daniel 4.12, 21). Don’t worry, Jesus is saying. Remember who your God is and what he’s promised. Realize that this small beginning is the start of God’s intended kingdom – the kingdom that will eventually offer shade to the whole world. Jesus’ hearers, of course, probably knew their scriptures better than most of us do. They might be able to pick out the notes in the chord and at least begin to make some sense of it all. The challenge for us, as readers of Jesus’ parables in a very different world, is to think out what we have to do to be kingdom-workers, kingdom-explainers, in our own day. How can we strike fresh chords so that people will be teased into picking out the notes, and perhaps even into joining in the song?”

Wright, Tom (2001-01-19). Mark for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone) (pgs. 47- 50). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Friday November 13: One of the best nights I have ever lived

This past Friday was one of the greatest nights of my life. I married my oldest daughter to her hometown sweetheart, a noble and heroic young man in the best and oldest senses of the words. The celebration afterwards, full of family and dear friends and dancing and a beautiful venue, was perfect, and I will forever treasure the conversation I had as I danced the father-daughter dance with my daughter, including when she asked me ‘do you remember when I was 8 years old and you told me we should dance to this song at my wedding?’ and I was able to know the very moment, and say ‘yes, I was kneeling at your bed at bedtime, praying and kissing you goodnight.’ As I danced with my wife afterwards, our hearts and conversation were full of contented joy at how happy our daughter is and what a wonderful experience our life with her has been. Speaking of dancing, my 72 year old mother, with purse on wrist and clasping two applesauce cups balanced on a small box between fingers, came out and danced a variety of the Twist with me (which she loved as a girl) and never lost the applesauce cups! She was beaming. (I come from a tradition that frowned pretty comprehensively on dancing in the past; though today I don’t know any Nazarene pastors who would refuse to dance with their daughter at her wedding; how dear it was to see couples married 25, 35 and 50 years, clasp one another tightly, her head on his chest, and dance slowly  and tenderly together during the ‘anniversary’ dance).

Only three months before, we had the same kind of day when our oldest son married his college sweetheart. Like our daughter and son-in-law, they are perfect for each other, it was a  joy-filled, incredible day, and we are delighted for them. In both cases, the families are huge, the all-inclusive family photos are fabulous, something a tenth century BC Jewish family could resonate with. (Later, we learned of the deep sorrow and suffering that had descended on many other families, in the events that unfolded in Paris during those very moments we were celebrating our daughter’s marriage.)

In the Scriptures, family is one of the central blessings of Yahweh on his people. What we call the Old Testament is full of reflection on what shalom means on a family. The New Testament picks up this construct and takes it in new directions with the new family now formed around Jesus (‘who are my mother and brothers?’/ ‘you are grafted in’ / 12 disciples; 12 tribes/ etc) and what God’s Kingdom looks like in terms of the family now breaking out of Jewish lineage, and embracing the nations.

In fact, because what God is doing in the world came through a family – Abraham’s – in the Bible, family is a central theological subject. Our dispersed family arrangements in the Western world (a family where one son lives in Indianapolis, one in Seattle, a daughter in Florida, etc), have caused us to largely forget how to think theologically about family, pared it down to mere reproductive biology, and to a significant extent we’ve dropped the subject from our theological imaginations, now only discussed in the realm of family dynamics, a la James Dobson, et al. I cannot think of a single serious theological work written on the subject in my tradition during my adult lifetime. We could use someone to do for the subject ‘family’ what Wendell Berry has done for the subjects ‘farming’ and ‘food’ theologically and culturally. Or what Anne Dillard did theologically with ‘nature’ back in her first foray Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

The un-Gospel

To hear many evangelicals today, the Gospel goes something like this: “For God so hated the world that, in his white-hot fury, he sent his only Son to save a relatively few lucky souls out of it (the lucky mice who find Jesus the cheese in the maze), and then, when the oil runs out in the Middle East, Jesus is coming back with our grandmothers who already went to heaven. Up in heaven, our grandmas have developed quite a violent streak while spending time with Jesus, plus learned the arts of war, and Jesus will be done with all that talk of forgiving your enemies, so He is returning with our grandmothers to kill everyone who hasn’t figured it all out yet, probably starting with the Muslims, but maybe also the Soviets. Once the battlefield is six feet deep in his enemies’ blood, God will burn everything He ever created on this planet to a cinder, including everyone and every place and everything you’ve ever loved. You see, even God himself can’t fix his world without resorting to the same kind of violence used by Rome against his Son, and used by IS in Syria today. And all those people who didn’t hear about Jesus or figure out the truth about which religion was right are going to have their lives sustained over trillions of years while they burn on fire. But those of us in heaven won’t mind, because we will forget anything sad about Earth. The End.”

It’s stunning we’ve had the audacity to actually call this “good news” when in fact it’s bad news for almost every person God ever created, and terrible news for all the living beings in all the world. This isn’t the Gospel, it’s the un-Gospel. And it’s what tons of people in church in America actually think the Bible teaches.

It’s no wonder people in our culture today, both modern and postmodern, hear a story told like that and say “I want nothing to do with something as sick, toxic, and twisted as that. I want to be a better person than I am right now. And do good in the world. I want to believe a beautiful story, not a dark and awful one. I will go check out Buddhism.”

I’m so glad that’s not the gospel, although for many years I thought it was. Most of historic Christianity has not believed this dark, terrible tale. The Bible tells a much better story than this, we just need to take off the 19th-20th century American evangelical glasses and learn to read the Bible for what it says. God, it turns out, has a long range project going on to heal and restore and redeem the world. He is not going to burn it to a cinder, our translation of 2 Peter is terrible, check most commentaries. As is made clear across Scripture, God plans to rescue all creation, the planet Earth itself, as all creation longs for the day of its liberation. See John Wesley’s comments on Romans 8: 19-22. We have every reason to be optimistic about the future, because God is at work in the world, and Jesus has triumphed over sin, death, and hell. Everything: economic systems and governments, societal justice and the environment, individuals and nations, is called to be transformed under the Lordship of Jesus.

That’s the Gospel.