Christian Dialogue

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(School of Athens, Plato and Aristotle in the center)

 

A few weeks ago after church, Eric and I sat in his office talking. A few days before—while on my early morning walk—I felt this pull to seminary, and I wanted his insight on the matter because I didn’t know if I had been “called” into some type of ministry. He leaned back in his chair, “Do you want the short answer or the long answer?”
“Go ahead and give me the short answer.”
“Yes.”
“Ok. What’s the long answer?” He went on to tell me how he has seen me grow in the last twenty years—especially the last year. Though we have different ideas on faith, I respect Eric’s opinion and friendship.

Religiously speaking, Eric and I disagree down the middle as he takes a more conservative view of Christian practice and the scriptures while I hold a liberal view. But over the years we figured out our disagreements are peripheral because at the core of our issues there is agreement.

One example is Eric is pro-life and I am pro-choice.

We talked about those differing views and he told me he holds to a quality of life view beginning at conception and ending at death. It’s not enough that someone is born, but they also deserve to eat consistently and healthy, a quality education, decent health care, etc. Eric isn’t pro-birth—which is what many pro-life people are—but he is consistently pro-life. As he told me his stance, Eric cited philosophical arguments to support his point of view. I was impressed. “God! Thank you for supporting your pro-life position with a philosophical argument rather than mindlessly quoting Jeremiah and Psalm 139.”
“I do see a place for these ideas in how I read the bible.”
“Right! But you didn’t behave like a lazy parrot, and I appreciate that.”

Where Eric and I disagree is when life begins. I do not think life begins at conception, but there are philosophical and scientific grounds to argue for the beginning of life six days after conception. I also think the longer a pregnancy goes there needs to be stronger arguments made by both pro-life and pro-choice. I also disagree with the Right’s willingness to control women and their reproductive rights, and, as far as I am concerned, if you don’t have a uterus you don’t have a say.

I have friends who have had abortions and from what they have told me, and what I have observed is abortion is the last resort. There is no support system because family and/or a particular religious community shunned these women, and they are put in a desperate position. These women do not have the resources to provide for themselves let alone a baby, and they have to face angry protesters who hold signs and shout rather than adopt her baby. It’s not enough the baby is born, but what kind of life can it have? This is where Eric and I agree. A quality of life is of the upmost importance.

Granted abortion is a hot button issue, and has been since the Moral Majority created the platform to galvanize Conservative Evangelicals in the early 1980s, but abortion is one of many topics where Eric and I fundamentally disagree. How we handle disagreement over the issue serves as an example to the Conservative Evangelicals who go on social media and start imposing their particular doctrine on other people, and use poor argumentation and logical fallacies in the process. When Eric and I debate we do not force the other into a particular narrative so there can be a win. That’s not a debate. That’s a quarrel. We also ask questions and answer honestly.

I think the art of dialogue is lost among modern American Christians—particularly Conservative Evangelical Christians. This group offers nothing but shouting, condescension, and dismissal of those who disagree with their point of view including other Christians. I am of the opinion Conservative Evangelicals, generally speaking, are still at the adolescent stage of development where everything is black and white, and their point of view—though limited in perspective and experience—is the correct view. I also think Conservative Evangelicals are scared children who are insecure about their beliefs.

I understand how what I said can come off pompous, but that is far from the truth. When life is overwhelming and unstable a black and white view of the world grants the illusion of stability. I completely empathize with that because I was the same way in my late adolescence and early twenties. I come from a violent background where “God” was treated like a blunt instrument that bruised me and broke my bones and where my great aunts and great grandmother dehumanized me for not being masculine enough to their liking. They knew my orientation before I did, and hated me for it. This black and white faith I held to granted me something solid in an otherwise chaotic world. But as I wandered across the continental United States, I broke my teeth on the territory and realized the black and white paradigm is a delusion of safety for people too scared to live.

I saw this fear unfold as I watched friends having kids, going through divorce, and watching their fathers die. Life became too real too quick, and they regressed into their adolescent faith. I don’t blame them, and I have nothing but compassion for them, but there is no more relationship because what they espouse and state communicates to me they don’t think I am fit to live. To be fair, though, if I confronted them about their views towards me they would deny any hate, and I would believe them. They’re not contradicting themselves, but trying to find some sense in a life that went from zero to absurd at a break neck speed. This dichotomy, I think is what fuels their insecurity.

I think, on a rational level, my Conservative Evangelical friends understand how their paradigm is immature and cruel in its expectations. These friends are unable to measure up to what their doctrine demands, and lead a life full of guilt, self-loathing, and sometimes hate. Hatred for God is out of the question, but they also think God has a low opinion of them so they fortify with outward appearances and slogans. That’s why the Christians who have the worst behavior are the ones with the Christian bumper stickers, the ones who decorate their desk at work with bible verses and Christian kitsch, and vocally proclaim themselves a person of God. They’re not hypocrites in the strictest sense of the word, but I do think they are dishonest. These friends want a world a certain way, but the world as it is does not coincide with their safe doctrines, and blame themselves instead of their doctrines—and won’t even dare to wrestle with God.

In a sense Conservative Evangelicals need to grow up and face the world as it is, and accepting the world as it is without any judgment. Instead of dismissing people who don’t fit in their narrow view, I think Conservative Evangelicals would do well to put aside their opinions, realize at best they have a good idea like everyone else, and listen to people who do not believe as they do. They don’t have to change their beliefs, but they do need to approach their faith with humility. They also need to approach others with humility. The savage and childish behavior of Conservative Evangelicals—historically and recently—keeps a few of my Atheist friends at bay. They can tell you why they are an Atheist, but they will also go into great detail why they reject the Christianity preached by Conservative Evangelicals. They don’t hate God, but they are angry at arrogant theists who presume their opinions as facts and fiercely impose these presumptions on non-Christians and Christians alike. Jesus was humble and approached people in humility. Conservative Christians would do well if they listened to Jesus instead of their fears.

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Going to Church

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These last two weeks have been a tiring blur. I started my new job at a cigar bar, and I had to work every day except for Sunday. I had no time to recoup and reboot my brain. The last two Sundays were packed with busy activity as Ronnie and I went out looking for more things for the new apartment, or she had to work on a Sunday which meant, I had only three hours of sleep. Wednesdays, I didn’t work at the cigar bar because of my volunteer work at a fair trade store downtown. The reason for the workload was for training. There may be a time when I have to run a shift myself, and I will need to know how to make food on our tiny grill, or make different cocktails. Our grill is small because we are not that kind of a bar where people can fill up on fried food and beer, but, by list of priorities of our customers, we sell a large variety of quality cigars in various sizes, beer, whisky, gin, and rum. When you walk in twenty feet to your left there is a room, a humidor, that takes up half the space of the bar displaying all our cigars. At the back of the bar is a small selection of scotch, bourbon, rye whiskey, Japanese made whiskey, gin, rum, five levers for locally brewed draft beer, and behind the counter there is an assortment of canned and bottle beers that include domestics. The regulars that come in mostly get cigars, but they will also get a beer, a whiskey, a cocktail, coffee, or tea if they’re staying for a while.

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This past Saturday we were slow. All our regulars mentioned they would be at a friend’s home grilling and drinking beer to remember another friend of theirs, who was also a regular, who died three weeks ago from alcohol related issues. There were a few people coming in throughout the night to pick up cigars. Aside from those people we had two who were new to our bar come in for a beer and some pizza, and one regular. Around 6:30 two new guys walked in, and the most vocal of the two asked me for help finding a specific cigar. He couldn’t remember the name of the brand, but the style. The cigar was a Churchill, and had a small green wrapper. That sounded like an Arturo Fuente, and I took him to the Arturo’s, but we were out of the Churchills—the only cigars we had close to that length and gauge was a Hemingway. He thanked me for my help, and said he would look around some more. I went out and sat by the register to be ready for a sale.

He and his friend found a few cigars he liked, and he decided on the Hemingway style cigar. He noticed a tray on our counter with three different sized holes and a lever on the side. “What is that?”
“That’s a cutter for cigars.”
“Really?! I could cut one of these cigars, and sit at one of the tables and smoke.”
“You can. That’s what a lot of our regulars do. They come in, find their cigar, have a drink, save their cigar wrapper, smoke, and cash out when they’re ready to leave.” He looked over the room filled with wine red chairs and couches, but stopped at the large round table surrounded by tall rolling chairs—the kind you see in a CEO’s office. That’s the table many of our regulars will go to, and it’s also the table where people will make new friends—at least a friend for the night. Everyone is welcomed at the table. Most of the topics revolve around home life and work, but will occasionally shift to politics. Most of the time their conversations are about fishing and camping and how they have to sweat and work away the day before they can get some time away in nature. People new to the bar will ask if they can sit at one of the empty chairs, and the regulars will pause their conversation and insist the new people to join. That night one regular sat at the table who was there the night before. After I clocked out, I joined him and two of my friends for an after work cigar and scotch. The cigar I had was a Rocky Patel which paired quite well with a Highland single malt.

When the night is slow, my coworker and I will sit near the customers so if they need a drink we are able to immediately fill their glasses—sometimes we’re included in their conversations while other times I scribble away in my notebook. The new customers decided to include us into their conversation when one of them asked about a nearby church, Kingsway Christian Church. “Do you know what kind of church it is? Are they a cult? That’s what I heard.”
“Nah, they’re Evangelical.” Across the table his friend asked, “Oh, Evangelical like Jimmy Swaggart?”
“No. One of my roomates’ mom worked as a secretary for their school. They’re non-denominational and their ‘theology,’” I did air quotes with my hands, “Came out of the American frontier in the 1830s during the Second Great Awakening. They’re quite conservative.”
“You seem to know a lot about religion.”
“I had to because of my father wouldn’t permit us to blindly accept what came from the pulpit. Informally I’ve spent the last twenty years reading the bible something like fourteen times, that I can remember, reading the church fathers, studying church history, learning Hebrew and Greek so I could be prepared to defend myself in a debate with my father. I went back to school and earned my degree in Literature and Religion where I studied the evolution of Christianity in America from the 1600s til now. I know what I said sounds over the top, but that is the length I went to intellectually defend myself at home.” After I finished, I lit up a small cigar I had just bought, and after I blew out a large puff of smoke, one of the guys looked at me, “So, is there a book that can simplify everything there is about the bible?” I puffed again, and as the smoke drifted towards the ceiling and the whirring ventilator, I answered, “There are couple verses in the bible summarizing everything.” I paraphrased Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and the words of Jesus, “Love God and love other people. Kindness is the only thing that matters. That’s why I don’t care what people believe in just so long as their belief doesn’t make them dicks. Being kind to one another is difficult enough without the added expectations of dogma.”

We talked more throughout the night. They were professional truck drivers who had been all over the country, and we exchanged terrifying road stories. After three and half hours and four Scotches, the two men cashed out so they could go home. They bought more cigars and some empty boxes for the road, and we talked more. They really liked this bar, and they loved the atmosphere. The cigar bar is not a bar where people go to listen to live or loud music and overstimulated with flashing lights and a cacophony of different conversations. Comparatively speaking, we’re low key, and, I would argue, high class. There is a reverent ambiance, and people take their seats as if they were at church. Instead of being preached at, the customers can pull up a chair by themselves or sit with others while puffing away at their cigars until they regain their center. There is real community and friendship here, and Saturday night there was a real sense of church as we all talked about our different religious experiences, and how we have applied what we have learned to be good people—or, at the very least to be better than we were they day before. We’re all walking down similar paths, and when those paths cross we can get a glimpse of God in the other when they speak of grace in their own journey. By any other name, that’s church.

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Slouching Towards…

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This week my sense of equilibrium gave way as I read the news of violence from downtown Portland with Left and Right Wing groups clashing together with weapons and angry words. Last week, two men were killed defending a woman in a Hijab from a white supremacist who spoke of his free speech and right to violence–going so far as to say he hoped his victims died. A couple days later, a similar incident occurred on the MAX with another Right Wing individual screaming for his freedom of speech while beating the conductor. People on the train subdued the man and released him to the cops when they arrived. I understand why the Left responded with violence. I understand that the Right believes they are being marginalized while marginalizing people on the Left. People on the Left have legitimate fear because people on the Right do carry out their hatred. I live in that fear on the Southside of Indianapolis where people such as myself can be accosted in Jesus’ name without any consequence. I grew to hate them. I grew to hate Trump. I grew to hate anyone under the name of Christian and/or Republican because that’s who beat me and ostracize me. I roared. I flashed my education. I humiliated them with my scholarship. I felt powerful as I browbeat my oppressors. For the moment, I felt that warm feeling of catharsis sliding down my bones. The feeling was like the bliss of heroin after the asprin drip in the back of the throat had dissipated, but then there was the rush of pain after the come down. Trump was still in control. Straight, white Christians were still in power, and nothing changed. In my mind, I always had Portland. My return to the northwest is in the works. Nothing soon. A few years, maybe. I want to return because I remember the feelings of peace and acceptance. When I read the news all my illusions were exposed as childish fantasies, and I realized I am in the middle of a W.B. Yeats poem.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

When Yeats penned these words he saw the effects of World War I. The old ways of God and country  mixed with technology unleashed a cruelty never before imagined by anyone. Machine guns ripped apart bodies on smokey European fields, and soldiers doubled over in a fetal position as they wretched their last breath from mustard gas. There was no glory, there was no honor, and if God were there “he” already skipped town because we were too much to handle. In those dangerous days people thought, from their literal understanding of biblical prophecy, that Jesus’ return was imminent. That he would descend upon his white horse to slay the wicked with the sword pouring out his mouth. For Yeats that would have been a double tragedy. Twenty centuries of Christianity brought about The Great War, and now the image of the problem is the solution? That is too much to handle.

Where was the redemption promised? Where was that abundant life Jesus spoke about to his disciples? Almost a century after Yeats, and I can point out the effects of those promises as executed by the political leaders who look to Jesus as their example. Children deprived of education, the poor deprived of food stamps so they can eat, Flint, MI and the contaminated water, attacking Muslims, attacking immigrants of color, attacking LGBT, attacking transgender, oppressing women, Rich men creating wars so the poor can die to increase their bank accounts, and so on and so forth. There are Christians who will say these leaders who promote such ideas are not real Christians, but these people read from the same bible. Doctrine is not about following the example of Jesus but a healthy mixture of money and charisma. What is sad is these examples aren’t new today, nor were they new a century ago. Yes, right now the end of the world feels imminent because Donald Trump and his colleagues seem hell bent on destroying the world so they can be comfortable in the few years they have remaining, and I hear Christians calling out “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” The body of Christ here on earth has already done considerable damage. What improvement would the head bring?

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Though, I feel the same trepidation as Yeats, I am weary. Violence and insults come from both sides hurled towards the other, and I have done more than my fair share contributing to the violence in the world. I have not shown love, but fear, loathing, condescension, and smugness towards those on the Right. In the beginning I had a good reason. While they felt threatened by my presence and my questions, I never struck them or slandered them while justifying myself with God’s grace. Had they never hit me–figuratively and literally–I would not have felt the desire to retaliate. My response is not on them. I made the choice to sneer and belittle, but they are not completely innocent in the matter. While the Right introduced suffering to me from their words and actions, I exacerbated my suffering and theirs when I responded likewise. Though the Right is motivated by their understanding of Jesus, I take that understanding of Jesus and spit upon their faith as savage and childish. An eye for an eye until the whole world is blind. Looking to myself as one example, I see a similar patterns occurring between the Right and the Left in Portland and the rest of the country. No one group is better than the other no matter how they spin their rhetoric. Both sides perpetuate the violence, and somebody, regardless of who, needs to stop and say, “The violence ends with me.”
Is there something new imminent, or will the coming of Jesus only make matters worse? If that is the case, he can stay in Heaven because whatever this is, that he started, isn’t working. The magi crawled under the bright conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter proclaiming the arrival of the messiah to the people of God in Jerusalem. All of Jerusalem shook with fear, and their nerves were calmed with the blood of children Herod slaughtered to protect his throne. Today we don’t have Herod, we have Trump who has the support of Evangelical leaders, Catholic leaders, and more than half of their respective churches. The religious establishment that killed toddlers for political stability had Moses and The Prophets, but today the religious establishment destroys the innocent in the name of Jesus. Something isn’t working. Is it Jesus, is it the church, or is it both? If, indeed, the end is upon us, I shudder to think what will be born. For the time being each one of us, on both sides of the cultural spectrum, can, at the very least, stop responding with hate. We’re wearing ourselves out slouching towards whatever end awaits us.

 

 

Accountability, what’s that?

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(Mike Pence signing the Religious Freedom Act)

Yesterday, I sat down to write a piece on how the lack of accountability within the church has allowed such professing Christians like Donald Trump and Mike Pence to assume leadership and put the world in danger. Mike Pence served as my main example because I went to the church he and his family went to while Pence was governor; but not at the same time. The name of the church is College Park, and I went there when Kimber Kaufman, the founder of the church and senior pastor, lead the church. Kaufman was removed from his position because of his addiction to pain killers, but the addiction had to do with pain. While in college, Kimber played basketball, and his team did a tour of Viet Nam where he contracted a virus from a mosquito causing pain in his scrotum. He told a friend of mine that on a good day the pain felt like pliers crushing his testicles, and the pain killers were a necessity. From the church grapevine the addiction made his behavior erratic and unfit to lead. I do not know if that is true, or if that was said to assuage the conscience of the elders who wanted control of College Park; but what I do know is Mike Pence moved about the sanctuary unchallenged.

College Park did very little to hide their party affiliation when they permitted local and state Republican politicians to speak from the pulpit because they professed Christianity and imposed Evangelical doctrine on a pluralistic populace. College Park, as a whole, is quite conservative in their theology, and they do not see a contradiction with following Jesus while promoting gay conversion therapy, ending food stamps, protesting abortion, protesting sex ed., siding against Muslims and other near eastern immigrants, and legalizing bigotry through Christian exceptionalism in Jesus’ name. Jesus ridiculed and rebuked the religious leaders of his day for the abuse towards women, the poor, and outcasts resembling today’s American Evangelical treatment of those same groups. When Mike Pence created the Religious Freedom Act to let Christian business owners discriminate against the LGBT community none of the leadership at College Park called out Mike Pence, but there were plenty of business owners in the community who did by making public statements that told everyone “ALL are welcome.” Some put up signs with rainbows to let LGBT people know they were accepted and their business appreciated.

Of course, I have been told that what other Christians/churches do are inconsequential because all we can do is worry about ourselves and our walk with God. I have to throw out a flag, and challenge the call. The Christians who have told me that we can’t worry about other Christians/churches also hold to sola scriptura and claim to live their life by every word in the bible. Their complete disregard for the cultural nuances of the bible aside, I do not think they were honest with me. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul is rebuking the Corinthian Church for allowing a son to take his father’s wife, and condoning the action with praise when they should have expelled the son until such a time he repented of his actions. He writes:

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people–not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people (5:9-11).”

Donald Trump fits most of this criteria, but he professed to be a Christian and claimed pro-life, and many Evangelicals did not care that his behavior was and is unbecoming of a Christian. Mike Pence fits the “greedy, slanderer, and swindler” points because he allowed himself to be bought by the Koch Brothers. Pence also illegally tampered with the election process when Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, had been elected as the State Superintendent. She opposed charter schools, state vouchers, and state money used for private schools that only educated 2.9% of Indiana students. He put in how own council to have her removed, and she was dismissed as “just a librarian.” Pence was greedy and unethical, and the elders at College Park did nothing.

This is what a lack of accountability in the church produces, but the core of my anger has little to do with Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and their supporters putting us on the verge of destruction. I went to a church that was an offshoot of College Park called The Dwelling Place located in the Broadripple Village, and the pastor is Shane Fuller who was one of the associate pastors of College Park. His theology was in the process of changing into something that contradicted the theology of College Park as he read books written by Emergent Christian and Radical Authors such as Rob Bell, Shane Clairborne, Brian McLaren, and Tony Jones while throwing in the trendy mix of Celtic spirituality. We were friends until my fiance at the time started cheating on me with the worship leader who was also a mutual friend of Shane’s.

Before he and my fiance consummated their affair, he had been allowed a voice in our relationship. My fiance was a willing party to this and lied to our friends and the church that I was physically abusive. This friend threatened to call the cops and lie about me abusing her. I never did anything like that, and I asked him, “Scott, with all the Christianity you preach at me doesn’t lying go against what the bible teaches?”
“You are a filthy, worthless sinner. How dare you quote the scripture at me?” After that he kept calling me, but I let his calls go to voicemail where he left message after message promising all manner of violence in Jesus’ name—he even had his brother coming after me. I called Shane to tell him what happened and do something about his wayward worship leader. He told me, “Slow work of God, Ron. Grace of God, Ron. You did bring this on yourself because you frustrated him with how you live and the questions you ask. Until Scott calms down, you need to stay away from the church.”
“Why is that? I did nothing wrong. You should kick Scott out of the church.”
“Just stay away, Ron.” Then he hangs up on me, and I find out later he lied to the church that he did not kick me out, but I made the choice to leave.

Obviously, from reading this, I still feel the wounds, and I am not as over it as I would like it to be–this particular pain though comes from the betrayal of friends. That was clear yesterday as I wrote about College Park in great detail, and all those memories saturated my brain while transforming me into a soggy, irrational heap testing Ronnie’s patience. Thankfully, she is trained in psychology and is quite patient with me as I become overwhelmed with old stories. I didn’t think that would happen because I looked at how my mind was in a tense state over global affairs, and I like to locate the origin of the tension so I don’t take it out on people around me. Writing my story for all to read and to possibly glean some helpful insight has been a tremendous help to me, but sometimes–times like yesterday–I find myself dipped into the mix and become a little ball of psycho dipped in chocolate and sprinkles. Getting past those cuts has been a slow and steady process, and, rationally, I do understand that not all Christians/churches are like this. I started attending the church a friend pastors because the church is different, and he is different as well as the senior pastor; but, I think my attendance keeps me in a constant state of anger. Yeah, that’s from years of consistent abuse from various churches, and reading the bible cover to cover fourteen times along with biblical scholarship and criticism. I see so much wrong in my experience and in those I talk to, and I see the solution in what I’ve studied, but the excuses in leadership are rooted in the misappropriation of grace. Grace doesn’t mean people can do what they want and treat people however without consequences.

I know I am drawn to Christianity because I like Jesus and what I read in the gospels, but I stand aloof. Christianity does not feel true to me, and that could be my own disconnect from my heart so I can safely hide in my intellect. While that is a possible thing, I’ve also been around too many Christians/churches who prefer to apply grace rather than confront the issues because the issues don’t affect them directly. This behavior could be something rooted in centuries of traditions going back to the Corinthian Church, and what I’m railing against are issues similar to my intellectual predecessors. The madness is perpetual, and I think the energy I use in fighting against a negative expression of Christianity could be used in drinking tea and healing myself. I would not call myself a Christian, but, to borrow from Anne Lamott, I am Christian-ish. There are days like yesterday where I want nothing to do with the religion or its trappings, and prefer to debunk it with bitterness mixed with a Socratic method of questioning; but that covers a desire to find out what it means to be Christ-like in my own narrative.

Because I feel no truth in Christianity does not mean I do not think the faith false, or people who believe are deluded. I take that into account when I sit down to write pieces such as this so I don’t accidentally insult any person who feels Jesus is true and burns the lean tissue to be more like him. There are genuine Christians out there, I am friends with a few of them, and the last thing I want to do is group them in with those who sexually, physically, emotionally, and mentally abused me in Jesus’ name. What I would like to see are the good ones use their voice to implement 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 so people can live in peace regardless of their beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, or color and not worry about a third world war and nuclear winter.

 

Leaping with Kierkegaard

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Today’s post will be a short one. I met up with my brother last night to discuss the relevance of faith and belief over coffee. It was a good discussion, and his contention is similar to my own: the old answers are no longer good enough. He’s an adult with adult issues, and the childish answers insult his intelligence. Not that he dismisses faith outright, but he’s trying to figure out if the God we were raised with, the supposed God of the bible, is indeed the one true God. I told him the bible is a collection of stories on how a particular culture experienced God, and while people can use those stories as a starting point, they commit an error when those ancient, personal experiences are treated as something current–God must work like this. The same thing is found in the Gospels. The authors believed that Jesus was the messiah, and had come from God, but as the telling increased by the end of the first century, the author of John’s gospel realized that Jesus could have been God in the flesh; and made a strong, mystical argument to support that claim. By the time these writers sat down to pen Jesus’ message to their respective communities they had to translate Jesus into something their audience could understand. Jesus came from a remote part of Judea and made use of rural imagery to tell people about God and the Kingdom of Heaven. The gospels’ audience, however were urban Jews and Greeks, and would not know how to relate to Jesus’ rural imagery. It would be like Jesus coming out of the hills of Kentucky, and explaining his good news to somebody living on 30th & Wells on Chicago’s South Side using rural, Kentucky imagery.

My brother’s current annoyance, though is coming from Norman Geisler, a Christian apologist with a Evangelical bent.  I don’t care too much for Evangelical Christianity generally speaking because I find the thinking quite lazy. That is not my opinion of individual Evangelical Christians–people vary, and I’ve met some Evangelical Christians who care enough about their faith to do some real struggle with the things they don’t understand. My opinion comes out of my study of Evangelical Christianity in America and how the movement evolved from its inception on the American Frontier in the 1830s during the Second Great Awakening. Out of that form of Christianity came a suspicion of scholarship, highly emotional, and completely anti-intellectual. To be fair, these Evangelical leaders felt that Christianity had become too sterile and lost in the ivory tower. Jesus said he came that we might have life and have it more abundantly, and these Evangelicals thought the erudite leaders depleted the fullness Jesus offered. A valid argument, but this group exchanged one extreme for another, and watered down a rich faith–they became just as imbalanced as their intellectual counterparts. Unfortunately, this imbalance did not produce the deep faith Evangelical Christianity desired, but something akin to an adult shaking a rattle at an infant while doing baby talk. My brother wanted to know if God is real, and Norman Geisler said God is real because the bible is real–the very text he is questioning. Shake. Shake. Ga Ga. Goo Goo.

My brother is asking the questions I ask, you ask, or anyone asks who is looking for real answers on faith, and how that faith is expressed in individual lives. He is in a real existential crisis because he fears where his questioning will take him. If this God is nothing more than a mere fairy tale then this familiar story needs to be dropped. Easier said than done. For him, he has tied his identity to this particular expression of faith–it’s his “normal”. He equated this struggle with me coming out as bisexual because I had to be honest with who I am and come to peace with that even though that honesty put me in unknown territory as I navigated through a faith that speaks love to me with words but hate me in their actions. That honesty is a come to Jesus moment. Coming to Jesus without the doctrines, without the preconceived notions, and experiences of other people. In the 14th century, Meister Eckhart prayed, “God, I pray that I am quit of God that I may see God.” He wanted to experience God without the distractions of opinions. The author of the Gospel of John told his audience to “come and see.” A person’s experience is not a good substitute for your own, God is revealed according to an individuals personality, experiences, and paradigm. If what is seen is not liked, or it doesn’t feel true, then it’s ok to move on to something else that does feel true. My understanding from the books I have studied and the papers I have written with regard to what I have gleaned from many readings of the bible, I think God prefers honesty in a person’s path. I don’t think my brother will lose his identity, but find his real identity, and a God that is his and not our father’s.

I bought him a copy of a book that has been beneficial to me when I took Philosophy of Religion at Ivy Tech and Blackburn College. God, edited by Timothy Robinson, and is a collection of excerpts from Agnostics, Atheists, and Christians concerning the existence of God supported by their arguments instead of the bible. My brother’s initial question is philosophical in nature, and these writings could point him in the “right” direction–meaning he may find a perspective that will give him some new insight on matters of God and faith. There is no correct answer, per se, but what feels true. That’s what William James referred to when he wrote about the various kinds of religious experience. He argued that no one comes to any kind of belief based on rational arguments, but believes in something because it feels true. After the person has decided then they make the rational arguments to support their choice. My brother may come out on the other side of his path with a relationship to God that is his own, but he could also come out as an Agnostic or an Atheist. The point is that the faith imposed upon us as children was never our faith but an act of compliance to survive a volatile home life. The wilderness my brother is venturing into is horrifying because it is unknown, but, speaking as one who is currently wandering in the wilderness, the terrain is honest. Regardless of the outcome, my brother will have something that belongs to him.

Christian means “Little Christ”?

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Ronnie and I don’t like shopping at Walmart because the company’s maltreatment of their employees, and the low quality of their product; and a secondary reason is the clientele. We only go to Walmart during emergencies or needing last minute items when we are financially strained. The times we have gone, I say we are committing Walmart to borrow from Henry Rollins because he goes to Walmart under similar circumstances while he’s on tour in America. Last night we had to go because we needed new sheets for our bed to change out the sweat inducing flannel sheets. The closest Walmart to us is off US 31 South on Indianapolis’ Southside. When I came up on Indy’s Eastside, I, like many others in my area, avoided the Southside due to the amount of Rednecks and Hillbillies. There is a real bigotry in the Eastside towards White people from the North and Southside—Northside white people are stuck up and fragile, Southside white people are dull witted with delusions of Confederacy. Unfortunately, there are traces of that bigotry in me, and it’s been a long up road struggle to leave behind that learned behavior. Unfortunately, such sights as giant American Flags and Confederate flags on the sides of trucks—or on flag poles—and Trump bumper stickers and lawn signs do not make my spiritual work any easier. According to people north of Washington Street, the Southside may as well be the backwoods of Kentucky.

When we pulled into the Walmart parking lot the area was filled with waddling people wearing oversized USA t-shirts. I decided to go in with Ronnie because I wanted to look for some more chinos in the women’s section. I enjoy how those pants look on me, and they are great for warm weather. As we walked into the store, Ronnie and I were greeted with angry stares. Ronnie wore her large necklaces made in Tibet, the top of her hair pulled back in such a way she looked like a shield-maiden from Scandinavian sagas, and a sheer shirt pulled over a black tank top. I wore my 0g tunnels in my ears with 10g hoops going through them, and next to them were dangling earrings that are wood carvings of the Bodhi tree. Around my neck are sandalwood mala beads, and on my left wrist Muslim prayer beads. I have on a gray shirt, black chinos, sandals, and a pull over shoulder bag to carry my books and a small bag inside containing my license and bank cards. My appearance notwithstanding, I do not act like a straight white male. I would hope so because I’m a bisexual male who is feminine in many aspects of his personality and wears some women’s clothing for comfort. When I came out last October, I’ve been quite comfortable in my own skin; but tonight, I feared for my safety.

Walking around the store, I saw quite a bit of anti-Islamic and anti-immigration t-shirts; and a few Christian t-shirts. One t-shirt in particular read “ISIS hunting permit,” and the guy who wore it was skinny, 5”7 with a bushy, Yonker beard and close cropped hair. Besides him there were angry people quietly following us throughout the store. After we checked out and walked towards the parking lot, Ronnie took my hand to hold to be a protective beard so I could appear to live up to one point of an arbitrary criteria of masculinity held by this slowly growing mob. The only other time I had been that afraid for my life is when I lived on 10th & Beville on the Near Eastside, and I accidentally ran over a Rottweiler puppy owned by the neighborhood drug dealer. The puppy didn’t die, and it was by chance I got him on the hip with my ’86 Chevy Cavalier. I didn’t know who the puppy belonged to, and I felt terrible. Besides Pit Bulls, I adore Rottweilers, or Rotties as we call them, and I was upset to think I might have killed one. As I went up to the house and offer to pay the vet bill, I found myself staring down the barrel of a 9mm Glock. I was shaking and sweating, mentally praying, “Ah, fuck me!” I was lucky, though because a friend of the drug dealer vouched for me. At Walmart, I was followed by a growing mob of angry white people, and no one to protect me.

Besides their homophobia, there are two points I find confusing: the Southside is mostly, white, but is overwhelmingly Evangelical with some Catholic Churches peppered throughout the area. Generally speaking, they are professing Christians—outspoken followers of Jesus suffering from Christian exceptionalism and a false narrative of persecution. They may not be gunned down or lose their lives and churches by suicide bombings, but they can’t freely oppress people in the name of their religion; and that’s why Jesus suffered and died. Jesus, they believe, is God in the flesh showing his love, mercy, and grace to people, dying on the cross for humanity, and rising from the dead to confirm their salvation. Today is Easter, the day these people celebrate Jesus’ resurrection with egg hunts, cantatas (depending on the Christian denomination), and long sermons shaming people into repentance. Last night, though, Jesus is dead and not paying attention so it’s alright to beat me and/or kill me for being something outside of their infantile hermeneutic. I’ve read the gospels several times, and nowhere did I read about Jesus redeeming those who were deemed social outcasts by beating them or killing them.

Last night’s experience is one of many examples I bring up when I say why I have a difficult time accepting Christianity as true, or believing Jesus to be God incarnate. This example is also why Ronnie and I are preparing to move back to the West coast. She and I shouldn’t live in fear for our lives over being different. If we’re not hurting anyone then who cares? I don’t have an answer for the behavior I witnessed last night, and I know I’m not the only one of my friends who are familiar with the hate shown towards them because of their sexual orientation. The best thing I can do at this point is avoid places like Walmart, and take the necessary steps to move to an area where I can breathe easier. Right now, I find it difficult to extend forgiveness to these people; but I know the first step in getting rid of hate in the world is making no room for hate in my heart.

Going All the Way

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I’m re-reading Dan Wakefield’s Going All the Way because I’m loaning it to the pastor of a church I now attend. Given the content and the assumed stereotypes of pastors, my loaning of this book seems odd. I’ve seen this pastor’s personal library, and he has religiously subversive books like N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, and books by Paul Tillich and the Niebuhr brothers. Suffice it to say, Going All the Way is in his area of interest. He is not a native of Indianapolis, but moved here seven years ago to one of the poorer communities on Indy’s near west side. He wanted to bring a gospel to the poor and struggling instead of a gospel that has been marketed as a brand for bored, complacent, middle class white people. Wakefield’s book came out in 1970, and is set in 1954 Indianapolis; but the culture had not changed in those sixteen years of civil rights, counter culture, and Viet Nam; and Indianapolis culture has not change much in the last forty-seven years—save for a mild interest in the arts. Going All the Way does not focus solely on the criticisms of Indianapolis’ religious, social, and political culture, but also draws attention on a growing counter culture. There is much more to Indianapolis than The Colts, The 500, or giant American flags on both sides of pick-up trucks roaring around I-465. There also exists the voices of the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised—the least of these who are ignored in the name of the Republican Party’s image of Jesus.

There are people in Indianapolis who now pride themselves as a blue city in a red state, but the city is Midwestern blue. That kind of blue means the city is as conservative as their rural counterparts, but they’re ok with LGBT people, people of color, social justice, and the plight of the poor; however, they’re comfortable only with the idea of these groups—when these groups start sitting in their pews it’s a different story. The behavior I have observed in the local conservative and liberal people is what Wakefield observed through his character, Gunner after meeting up with an old friend from high school. Gunner had just returned from being overseas during the Korean War and the friend, whom he and Sonny called Shins, told him he had to go out and get a job—any job. Gunner is thinking about returning to school to get his Masters in philosophy, but Shins dismisses a philosophy degree because it cannot be used outside of the lawyer’s office. Throughout the night Shins tells Gunner he has to settle down, get married, have kids, and so on and so forth, but is quickly irritated with Gunner’s response: “Why?” That’s a question Shins is unable to answer outside of what is expected. Gunner wants more to life than a wife with the two point five kids and a picket fence in the suburbs. When I returned to my old neighborhood at 30th & Shortridge to spend time with some of the people who lived there when I was a boy, I was insulted. I had returned to school two years earlier, and when I went to visit them in June of 2012, I was preparing to transfer to Blackburn College in central Illinois. I had a full beard, and someone decided to tell me I was unemployable and looked like a bum. What does that even mean? Should I be like him and most of the residents of my old neighborhood who are unskilled cogs who think they have it made because they own a house and a truck? They could lose their things at any moment because they are disposable, and can be replaced by someone who is just as unskilled, uneducated, and deluded as them.

Sonny, though, deals with a different set of conflicts from his mother and her religious friends. Sonny is an atheist, and liberal in how he views people. He finds racism absurd, and people should be allowed the freedom to live and be, regardless of their skin color. Upon his arrival to Indianapolis, Sonny’s parents, along with her mother’s friend pick him up in a station wagon owned by his mother’s church where she also works—the company car if you will. Sonny is told that his alma mater, Shortridge High School has become “darker inside” because many African Americans were moving in to the north side and sending their kids to Shortridge. I went through something similar with my aunt in the early 2000s when I told her about going into Broadripple to spend some time with friends and catch an art show. I had been going there for years before the village became a trendy brand, and there are still some good spots for art. “Be careful. It’s gotten dark over there.” I knew exactly what she meant, and told her she was ridiculous—the color of a neighborhood is not a gauge for safety—, and she was a racist for speaking such stupidity. Of course she was offended, and said she wasn’t a racist because who wants to admit they’re a despicable person? Sonny’s mother and friend react the same way as my aunt when he hinted at their racism. They’re good Christian people and good Christian people don’t hate, but their actions say otherwise.

Sonny’s mother overwhelms him with religion in an attempt to bring Sonny back to a belief in God and a follower of Jesus; but not just any follower. Sonny’s mother belongs to a group called MRA which is a right wing, nondenominational Evangelical Christian group who have bought into the doctrine of conformity by the military industrial complex. In this culture, Jesus is white, a capitalist, American, and hates those who disagree with conservative American policies. The liberals are the enemy, and many of them are educators in the universities such as Indiana University where Sonny attended and graduated. What his mother, or her group, fails to see is they are why people are opting for atheism—or at the very least not affiliated with any religion—because their religious practice oppresses people who are not straight, white, or Protestant. Why would anyone, who desires to be a decent person, want to be a part of that kind of religion? Brennan Manning said the single cause for atheism is Christians who profess Jesus with their mouth, but deny him with their actions when they walk out the door. Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys talked about such people in “Moral Majority” as he yelled out, “God is dead if you’re such a fool!” Sonny’s education had nothing to do with his beliefs changing, but rather what he experienced in his own life. The religion his mother practiced was myopic and only good for dealing with surface issues, but does nothing for the deeper rumblings of existence. Atheism was the logical conclusion for Sonny.

The first time I read Going All the Way, I resonated with the portrayal of the political and religious culture of Indianapolis in the 1950s because not much had changed; and up to this point, I still have these views; but the point of the book, for me, is not the criticisms. Regardless of your hometown, you can never go home again once you leave. You can return to the same location, but your high school, friends, and family look different. They haven’t changed, but you have. Sonny lived across the country working behind a desk for the army, and Gunner was wounded in Korea and experienced Zen Buddhism while stationed in Japan. When they both returned their perceptions had changed. Sonny didn’t know what he wanted when he returned home, but he knew he didn’t want the religion and politics of his family. Gunner shared a similar sentiment, but wanted to explore life instead of doing what he was “supposed” to do. For me, I have traveled and lived in various places across the country, and, recently, I lived in Portland, OR surrounded by trees, mountains, and laid back people. Things did not work out according to what I wanted, and I made the long trek east with a year stop in Lincoln, NE. When I arrived to Indianapolis in August of last year, I saw the people in a different light. Most of the people I knew in high school had become dull witted facsimiles of their parents with more kids they can afford, and/or they have become increasingly right wing and attend God’s favorite, wealthy, white Evangelical church. I also noticed the hatred my mother and the rest of my family have towards me—that hatred had always been there, but I didn’t notice the subtlety. Did they change? I don’t think so. I think I outgrew whoever these people were, and found their paradigms asphyxiating. Is that true for all of Indy? No. I still associate with the artistic community while becoming a part of it through my writing. Like Sonny and Gunner, I can either choose to find that other community ignored or demonized by The Indianapolis Star, or I can leave town and never return. At this point, I am opting to stay. There is such artistic potential that has yet to be tapped, and I think the counter cultural community here is vibrant. I haven’t returned home, but I have to make a home in the place where I was born. That’s the message I get from this second reading of Going All the Way.