Ecclesial Longings

On a Way Toward an Ecclesial and Trinitarian Exploration of Sexuality and Gender

Since writing this post I’ve written three more posts moving toward an ecclesial and trinitarian understanding of sexuality and gender:

An excursus on Tradition

The Peculiar Household of God an interpretation of the first 14 verses of the Epistle to the Ephesians

Continued thoughts on the Peculiar Household of God

Rowan Williams, in his essay The Body’s Grace , proposes a way forward in thinking about human sexuality that can both hold to the Tradition of the Church and at the same time be open to and affirming of the diversity of human sexuality and gender expression and identity. As I read The Body’s Grace, Williams sees desire and human sexual intimacy as rooted in God’s own desire: “ God’s desire for God” and God’s desire for humanity and creation.  Our sexulaity and our sexual intimacy , or how we view and conduct ourselves as sexual embodied beings, is key to our spiritual development as persons (It is important to note here that celibacy is seen by Williams as a way of being sexual and having sexual intimacy, thus we don’t need to be “sexualy active” to be fully living into our sexual embodiedness.) What I take away from The Body’s Grace  (and this doesn’t exhaust the essay) is that human sexuality and gender expression and identity are bound up in God as Trinity, the Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, and the actuality of the Ecclesia.

 

In the connection of sexuality to ecclesiology (God’s desire for and being espoused to God’s people) Williams and Traditionalists are making a similar point.  In my own theological reflections on human sexuality and gender identity and inclusion of LGBTQ I’ve generally avoided thinking along the lines of ecclesiology and Trinitarian theology as being directly related to sexuality.  It dawned on me as I read Williams that part of the objection of Traditionalists is their sense that the views of acceptance of LGBTQ abandon the ecclesiological and trinitarian dimensions that can be found in the traditionalist position on marriage.  Another way to say this is that traditionalists often react to a denial that who God is and has revealed God’s self to be has consequences for the meaning of our sexuality and gender.  Further more ,traditionalists also are concerned that we who seek to be open to and affirming of LGBTQ tend to shy away from Trinitarian language (and the specific Name, Father Son and Holy Spirit) and high Christology.

 

Thus the downside of The Body’s Grace is that, although thinking in terms of Trinity, Christology and Ecclesiology, Williams avoids specifically trinitarian language and names. For instances he says “God’s desire for God” rather than the more directly trinitarian (and Johannine) “The Father’s desire for the Son.”  While Williams is clearly aiming at many of the same things traditionalists are aiming at he consistently stops short of explicitly invoking the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the Incarnation.  Though, it is clear to me that the essay is thoroughly grounded in the Trinity and high Christology and high ecclesiology.  Or if the essay isn’t so grounded I find it to be quite solipsistic in its view of God and otherwise nonsensical.

 

However, whether or not I’ve correctly discerned Williams’ intent, through The Body’s Grace I came to see Trinitarian theology, Christology and ecclesiology as rich soil in which to be open to and affirm a diversity of human sexuality and gender expression.  So, I’m seeking to set out from The  Body’s Grace taking up this traditional language and ecclesial way of speaking about our human sexuality, beginning with the marriage of a man to a woman and its use as imaging God’s desire for God’s people and humanity, and move that into a broader understanding of the diversity of human sexuality.

 

Some might object that doing so is too risky. The risk is that taking this all very seriously will simply reinscribe the same patriarchal and heterosexist place in which we’ve already found ourselves.  For others the risk may be in bringing current conceptions of human sexulaity and gender into these orthodox spaces I will have already begun down a path that has departed from the Faith.  I do not deny these risks. However, in embarking on this risky endeavor I’m enacting another aspect of The Body’s Grace, the riskiness of sexual intimacy and true human and divine encounter.  If one believes God is Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit,  that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnation of the Son, The Word of God and that the Church is the locus (though not the full extent ) of God’s liberating transforming work then this must be risked. And I do trust in and rest in all of the above.  After reading The Body’s Grace I feel I can’t but risk this path.

 

I will begin with a reading of Ephesians along these lines. In doing so I will be looking squarely into (without discarding) “…and God created them male and female…” as well as the gendered and heterosexual images of God’s desire for God’s people.  However, I suggest our starting point be in this regard Paul’s understanding of the mystery of  “ …And for this reason a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  What is this mystery why is the marriage of a man and a woman as sacrament? The mystery isn’t’ the union of the two people rather the mystery is what is revealed of Christ and the Church.  But do note that I’m saying this is the beginning.  This is risky and difficult because traditionalists assert it is the beginning, the ending, and the whole story.  I wish to take Paul on his own terms and accept that as revelation and let this trust guide the exploration. This beginning point is to say our sexuality, and sexual and gender identity is an ecclesiological question and thus it is also a christological and Trinitarian question.  So beginning here while accepting the diversity of sexuality and gender identity and expressed as part of our humanity, is then to approach that diversity formed by Orthodox affirmations of God as Father Son and Holy Spirit and of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnation of the Son.  If you choose to follow this thread this will be a focus for the coming months in Ecclesial Longings.

 

I hope you my readers will engage this journey.  I do not have the end already sketched out, .  You who read this are seeing this exploration in process.  At the beginning of this risky endeavor I have some questions for you my reader:

 

What frightens you about this exploration? What in this exploration is risky for you?

 

What in the above sketch of our journey excites you or pulls at your heart?
Do you have suggestions of books and authors I should be reading and consulting?  Who should be our companions on this way?  I’m especially looking for voices that may be from the margins as well as mainstream voices.  Also, are there commentators on the book of Ephesians that I should be consulting as I take us on this journey?

God Forever Physical: Mystery of the Feast of the Ascension of Christ

Today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, into heaven.  As this feast is on a Thursday, it is at times transferred to the 7th Sunday of Easter or passed over altogether. This feast may also seem superfluous, or merely a marking of one last event in the Gospel of Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles.  Many of us pass this feast by and don’t give it much thought, I know I did this for much of my Christian life even after seminary.

Part of a reason to pass it over is that given our current cosmology it seems a little embarrassing. Space is up not heaven.  The spatial ascension, which would have confirmed some ancient (not all mind you) cosmologies, and would be all this was about if all we have on this day is a description of Christ going from earth to heaven. The crude (and false) interpretation of this feast is that we celebrate how Jesus got back to heaven.  This isn’t what this is all about as a careful reading of say the Gospel of John shows.  Jesus Christ wasn’t walking around for 40 days waiting to return to heaven, he was already there.

Then what is this all about?  If Jesus Christ didn’t need the conveyance of clouds and slowly lifting up into the air to get to heaven then what is this spectacle all about?  Well first we should recognize that yes this is spectacle!  None of the descriptions of Jesus’ ascension are necessary, rather they are all symbolic, visual cues and clues to the meaning of the incarnation, Christ’s death and Resurrection.  Without this symbol of ascension and its spectacle, that transfixed the Apostles and disciples gaze, we miss a very important point, if Jesus just one day disappeared in a poof, like his appearances to the disciples or his disappearance with the two disciples in Emmaus, then we loose an important assertion about Jesus’ and thus God’s physicality after the incarnation.

The physicality of the spectacle is important.  Jesus of Nazareth is a real and physical human being.  Granted something extraordinary is happening with this physical body of the Christ, but after the Resurrection Jesus’ body does strange things and has strange properties (walks through doors and walls, has wounds that can still be touched but aren’t’ a problem for the body) but it is still physical Jesus eats food, touches people, breaks bread.  The spectacle of the ascension tells us that  Jesus Christ as a body is in heaven with God.  To go up, is symbolic, one ascends to a throne, heaven is the throne of God.  Up represents transcendence, divinity as beyond the physical plane.  Yet in this beyond there is now and forever a physical body.

In short: the Ascension of Christ through spectacle and symbol tell us that the incarnation is a permanent reality.  God in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is permanently human, with the wounds of the Cross, and forever united with creation and the physical universe.  God and matter are forever united. This is the ultimate meaning of the Gospel, and our salvation, it is the means by which all is made whole and the world is transformed. Now, forever, God is part of creation and the universe, in and through the body Jesus of Nazareth.  We can be united with God because God has united God’s self to us in our humanity and in our physicality.

The House and the Smoothie: John the Revelator and The Liturgist

This is the third post in what seems to be the beginning of series of posts on Liturgy and Worship. The first in this series can be found here, the second is mentioned in the first paragraph below. LEK 3/13/05.

In my previous post on liturgy and the Liturgists and Phil Kline, I was feeling my way towards something.  I was following a path that I could barely make out, but I think I’ve come upon a clearing.

In this clearing I see The Liturgists as taking pieces from various sources within Christianity and offering up a blended and recombined liturgies to be used in worship or meditation, as may strike one(this description is in part taken from Facebook exchange with Mike McHargue).  The liturgist are offering up a meal or a smoothie: One could enjoy it on the go, or sitting down with friends.  One may cook something up yourself using the same ingredients and following their recipe.  Kline’s approach in the John the Revelator Mass is more holistic, in terms of  the liturgical tradition, he takes up the Mass as a whole. ( granted the reason for this is he was commissioned to write a setting of the Mass) Kline takes the Mass as a place to set camp.  He then invites disparate elements often totally unrelated to the tradition of the Mass into the encampment, and invites us to live there, or at least allow ourselves to be guests inhabiting the liturgical tradition of the mass for at least a time.

Both are forms of hospitality and gift.  But very different.  Kline offers up a hospitality of space and clearing, invites us, and the disparate elements of music, his own composition style, poetry and folk hymns into the space of a tradition.  The Liturgists want to feed you, give you the various flavor of things they’ve tasted on their travels, they’ll mix it up for you, cook it up, and/or give you the recipe for you to cook up your own liturgical meal or smoothie.  You don’t have to stop and live in their space, Just come in pick up the smoothie – enjoy and be fed and then be on your way.

In the John the Revelator mass the liturgical tradition is the space into which disparate elements are gathered into a whole and are transformed into something else as they are brought together in the house of the Mass.  For the Liturgists and their liturgies it is the tradition that is transformed as they mix blend and recombine various elements to offer up something to the passer by, content that people are nourished by the flavors and the sustenance found in various fruit and vegetable they’ve picked from the gardens and habitations of other Christians.

Kline’s Mass affirms that to inhabit the Tradition is a potentially a deeply creative space.  There’s a lot of room to be in this space even as that space will, if you live there, form one into something else, rather than one transforming pieces into something else to live in one’s own encampment.

Kline’s Mass is significant for me because it demonstrates what I hope the Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconciler (Facebook Page)  and the Community of the Holy Trinity (Facebook page) offer is a space to inhabit, or rather I want these to be an invitation into a habitation, away of being.

Phil Kline, Gungor, the Liturgists, and the Revelator

This post is turning out to be the second post in a larger line of thinking that began with Cultural Identity and Expression in Worship and, another post on Phil Kline and The Liturgists, The House and the Smoothie: John the Revelator and The Liturgists. LEK, 3/13/15

Gungor and the Liturgists at first glance speak my language.  When I read the Liturgists manifesto I feel my self saying right on.  Gungor’s and the Liturgists’ talk about liturgy and beauty I get and love .  My problem – Gungor’s music never really spoke to me (a song here and there I may like but just not my thing).  The Liturgists liturgies either feel like modules that  plug into some other contraption  I don’t own, or are nonsense, I don’t know which.  Each time I’ve attempted to engage the work of Gungor and the Liturgists I’d see something that in terms general outline and broad brushstrokes I should get, and yet there is always only frustration.  I certainly don’t deny that  their work is worshipful or meditative, but it remains a puzzle and entirely inaccessible to me.

Then, I came across Phil Kline’s John the Revelator Mass and the first hearing blew me away.  From the first listen I knew I needed to find away to use the mass as an actual liturgy (which this review found difficult to imagine, I have no difficulty imagining it).  My response to Phil Kline’s mass only deepened my puzzlement over my lack of enthusiasm for what Gungor and the  Liturgists are doing.  Phil Kline while having been raised Lutheran doesn’t make any claim to be a Christian, though a spiritual person, writes a mass that not only I like musically but that is comprehensible to me liturgically as worship, such that I intend to use it as an actually liturgy on the feast of St John the Evangelist (hopefully this year).  While the Liturgists’ liturgies to me are just nice art pieces that I can appreciate or critique, and may grab me as private meditative pieces (but I don’t particularly need a liturgy to meditate, nor do feel the need for group meditation) but can’t imagine how one would use them as actual liturgies with physical actions and movement within a worship service.

Some clarity came as I read Phil Kline’s description of his approach to the mass .  When he was commissioned to write the mass he began with the Blues song John the Revelator (thus the name of the mass as opposed Mass of St John the Evangelist).  But this didn’t lead him to create a Blues mass ( and that makes all the sense in the world to me) Kline stuck with the basic structure of the mass, the ordinary, including choosing to use the Latin and vocals without instrumentation, chanted, but not Gregorian. Kline then chose to see the variable portions of the structure of the mass, that is the propers that change with the day or season,  as the place of greatest interpretation- in the propers he uses voice and strings, and draws on texts from not only Scripture but Samuel Becket and David Shapiro. and two shape note hymns Northport and Wondrous Love.  In the John the Revelator Mass, Kline was able to see it’s spiritual structure and it’s creative elasticity found in living in the traditional mass by having the tradition as a whole be in dialogue with American and modernist music and poetry.

This is striking difference to what Gungor and the Liturgists seem to be doing. Liturgy and ritual are form them a generic category of worship and spirituality, and not a specific thing or tradition .  So, they seek to mine what Christians in the past and current Christians do in their liturgies.  The purpose of using litugy and mining liturgical traditions is to bring a cognizance of liturgy and ritual to evangelical worship and liturgy.  So the larger tradition of the Church is utilized to offer and create “evangelical” liturgies.  Gungor and the Liturgists aren’t looking at the liturgical tradition of the church as something to live in and find the creative and expansive place within  its structures and patterns, rather those things are examples of what can be done.  As such, they may bring pieces of that tradition into what they create or find inspiration from that tradition, but they have no interest in living there or  adopting as their own that tradition.  They don’t seek to inhabit liturgy (or liturgies), as Kline did, to find it’s creative possibilities.

My own Faith journey has come to lose interest in the possibilities of Christianity in general, or relgion in general, really anything in general.  My own experience of evangelicalism (which was actually Lutheran Pietism and not American Fundamentalist or Revivalist) sent me into the catholic tradition of the church as found in Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy, and among the Anglicans.  I’m not interested in forming the tradition to my sense of what contemporary Christianity needs or what a particular segment of American Protestant Christianity might learn from the tradition. Rather, I’m interested in being formed by the Tradition and finding the creative and inventive space of dialogue and invention within in it.  This is what I think Kline did in the John the Revelator mass and it is what seems to be either uninteresting to the Liturgists or something they haven’t conceived of as possible. Either way, I’m looking for liturgies like John the Revelator and not Garden or Oh Light.

Cultural Identity and Expression in Worship

My Covenant Colleague Josef Rasheed‘s recent post about worship and cultural identity beautifully and gracefully articulates the role cultural expression plays in worship as well as its dynamic complexity.  However, I am aware a white pastor saying some of the same things would come off very differently (this isn’t a complaint, there are very legitimate reasons why Whites can’t speak in exactly this way about heritage and cultural identity and worship).  But I wish here to reflect on cultural identity, worship, and contemporaneity in dialogue with Rasheed’s post looking for that place of meeting he articulates so well in his conclusion, which I’d argue is beyond cultural identity or worship as expression, but union in Christ and the Body, the church.

Rasheed’s post has me asking what is my heritage (this is my word not Rasheed’s), what is my cultural identity?  As White this question is full of pitfalls, traps, and possible wrong turns.  Where as Rasheed’s cultural identity and heritage may be labyrinthine (he says it has taken many turns, and he has found it in unexpected moments) as White, for me to speak of cultural identity is mazelike.  Taking a turn may not lead to the way out, can lead to dead ends.  As White I can get lost in this talk of heritage and cultural identity.   Claiming my cultural identify as Swedish or German can simply fall into the realm of facade and kitsch, or worse kitsch as hyper identity. Even this hand wringing over what is my cultural identity is one of those pitfalls: cultural identity, heritage, and the like are what those exotic others have, I’m just White, the default, the measure.  In this pitfall we, who are without “cultural identity”, borrow, appreciate, and identify with what isn’t ours (this can happen in worship in multicultural congregations and worship).  The flip side of that is to attempt to guard against all that isn’t White, to bewail the loss of this or that, that the youth are into other people’s music or culture, etc.

All of this is of course bound up in failing to recognize, at the outset, that part of the heritage of White and European is the oppression of people of color in the process of creating White identity.  It should not be surprising that some of us take refuge in either the worship styles of “contemporary” or “traditional”(really what is familiar from our childhood).

What leads down some of these winding dead ends for Whites is to limit conversation of worship to that one hour (and for Whites it usually is exactly an hour) of worship on a Sunday morning.  When Rasheed talks about worship expressions outside of the Sunday worship service, his example is the funeral.  This resonates with me yet,  I remember in seminary we were taught that we may need to insist to our (White) congregations that funerals were worship.  If it is difficult to talk about worship and cultural identity as whites its in part because everything is so contained, things don’t bleed into each other.  Either worship is an isolated thing with it’s own sets of rules and music and “culture” or it must be seamless with the current culture of the individuals who show up to the worship service.

Through my goth identity I have opted for what is contemporaneous, a cultural identity without heritage. Though Goth now has a history, and may be forming a tradition of sorts. I’ve never been one who felt the need for this my pop culture identity to be expressed in worship.

In college I often spent time with an Armenian friend’s family at Easter.  There was food Middle Eastern and Mediterranean, a wonderful feast, and there was music.  Armenian Apostolic services are chanted and there is no instrumentation, the music sung outside of church and the chant are quite different. Yet in the family celebration was continuous with the Divine Liturgy. The two celebrations were one, yet neither reflected nor reproduced the other.  This resonated with me because I remembered such seamless but differentiated celebrations on the feast days in the Swedish Evangelical Covenant Church of my childhood. By the time I was in college that cultural expression of worship (of the congregation in which I, my mother, and grandfather had all been raised) was a memory.  In the several thousand member church with multiple services and a contemporary worship service with rock band, worship was just another discrete thing I did in a week .  Neither “traditional ” nor “contemporary” worship appealed to a “sub-culture” an identity I was forming around alternative and goth music. Whether we sang traditional hymns or the latest worship song neither were current expressions of my identity.

I have long been drawn to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worship.  This began when at 8 and 9 when I encountered the Cathedrals of Europe as places of mystery and awe.  Part of the draw is some worshipful connection to my Swedish and German cultural identity. Yet it is a bit complex, as it also alienates me from that cultural identity since most directly that identity is Lutheran and not Catholic.  In some sense often what draws me in worship is a sense of deep historical and cultural connection, liturgies and songs passed down through European Christianity from the Mediterranean. Chant Gregorian and Eastern also relate to childhood encounter of the European cathedral.  Though, I have difficulty except in a most vague and abstract way accounting for chant as an expression of my cultural identity.  To some degree connecting to this ancient worship expression fits with family stories of immigration that also seek to keep some historical and familial memory of Sweden or Germany alive in the foreign context of the U.S.

Where does this meandering in the midst of worship, expression and cultural identity lead?  In part Rasheed and I are talking about recognition and reception. Rasheed recognizes the Body of Chirst  in people singing a hymn in the Bahamas in worship in the Congo: the recognition comes both in discovering something familiar in what was initially thought to be unfamiliar and in finding one’s place in what was simply unknown.  In  the cathedrals in Europe, in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worship I too find familiarity in what seem unfamiliar and my place in what is unknown.  Our recognitions are bound up in our cultural identities but not entirely accounted for by them: As Rasheed concluded “I was no longer American. They were no longer African. It is moments like these where the cultural expressions which are embedded in the soul of my people say Yes! We are God’s children, privileged to worship Him in Spirit and in Truth.”

In these various worship expressions reflective of various cultures we encounter more than our own or others cultural identity in recognizing and receiving that which forms us into the Body of Christ. One may say that another cultural identity is to be formed out of these cultural expressions.  It is then possible that we may discern what forms us and does this work of formation, of knitting us into the living Temple, Christ’s body.

Here I’m brought back to all the pitfalls of saying these things as a White person. Whites have tended to assume that our way of doing things was God’s.  Through White ideology Europeans ceased to be those gathered with others from other nations and people but those to whom others were gathered.  When this heresy goes unrecognized it distorts the ability to recognize and receive, it undermines our ability to come to know the forms of the Body of Christ.

This is turning into the first in series of posts exploring worship, liturgy, culture and the roles of formation and expression in worship that forms us into the Body of Christ. There are two more posts in this unexpected and emerging series: here and here. The connection to these three posts isn’t at the moment self evident.  In part the series is about linking these up. LEK 3/13/15

The Remnants of Christendom among Revivalists and Pietists

Recently it has come to light that Holly Hobby Lobby who posed in a photo with automatic riffle in one hand and the bible in the other, proclaiming her love of God, country, guns, and “family values,” had an adulterous affair with a video editor fo the Tea Party News.  hollyfisherI’m not surprised.  Not because I think all Tea Party members and conservatives are hypocrites but because this person’s Christianity is a remnant of common sort of Christianity in Christendom.

More to the point, I’m not surprised because Holly Hobby Lobby’s Christianity, at the height of Christendom, would have been seen by many (including my forebears) at most as a place to begin the call to conversion and repentance. We don’t often talk about how Christendom functioned to keep people in the orbit  of the Church and Gospel (granted with other less positive effects).  Without Christendom revivalist and pietist call to conversion would have been meaningless.

Excursus: “Church” is a tricky term, and discussions of this sort often fail to define the term.  For the purposes of this post I’m combining a sacramental and pietist understanding of Church. Thus Church is both an entity, the Body of Christ, that transcends time and space and made up of the baptized as the body of Christ, and this body of Christ is best identified by those who are truly converted by and to Christ.  And while were at it: I see “Christendom” as the cultural, societal and political space where the religion of Christianity is dominant and provides a cultural and political supportive environment for the Church. I see the case of Holly Hobby Lobby as a way to flesh out these two definitions in a time of post-Christendom.

Let me give an account of Church, Christianity and Christendom, from a pietist perspective, and specifically Lutheran pietism.  In Lutheran Christendom, as in most forms of Christendom, the state made Christendom possible through making citizenship and being Christian equivalent. In Lutheran Christendom to be Christian was to be Lutheran. ( I know your hackles are all up, but lets let this be a lesson in history for now.)  Pietists tell the story of the State sponsored Christianity as a dead Christianity.  Pietism is in part a critique of dead dogma, and lifeless faith.  As we tell it, Pietists came along and brought the vitality of the Gospel and encounter with God into dead Lutheran orthodoxy.  What this early negative evaluation of Christendom doesn’t recognize is the ways in which Christendom and Christianity of  Lutheran Orthodoxy and State church brought people into the orbit of conversion and encounter with Christ, which then the Pietists could offer.  Pietism fails to recognize it’s own dependence upon Christendom.  Because of Christendom (and that means also dead orthodoxy)  Pietist didn’t have to explain who Jesus Christ was, nor who the God of Jesus Christ was and is.  In the Lutheran state churches since to be a citizen was to be a Christian, one had to know the catechism, the creed, and Lords Prayer.  We pietists, to use the tired phrase, brought head knowledge into the heart, but without Christendom, and the role of the state in making it’s citizens Christian, there would have been know mere “head” knowledge of the Gospel, God , and Christ.

 Pietist and other revivalist Christian groups in Christendom assumed and made use of the common cultural religious assumptions of being Christian, and called  conversion what was, from one point of view,  simply a deepening the Christian commitment and faith of the Christian citizens of Christendom.

What happens then when the fabric of cultural assumptions of Christendom are in tatters or non-existent, and a certain group of Christians, and Christian leaders, still seek to claim that to truly be a citizen of a particular state, one should claim a Christian heritage?  My answer is you get people like Holly Hobby Lobby, who through their own actions show they haven’t a clue what being a member of the Church is truly about, let alone what it would mean to follow Jesus Christ or to have the Mind of Christ, as we Pietists might say.

Granted in the United States Christendom was perpetuated and created through less overt political means.  In the U.S. Christendom was the result of cooperation between various Christian groups that came to be understood as denominations.  So, we still need to account for how we went from Revivalists and Pietists calling for deep commitment and conversion to Holly Hobby Lobby’s identity without conversion and change of being and mind.holly-fisher From the revivalist and “evangelical” view the culturally established and powerful denominations represented the domain of dead and nominal Christianity, as long as these “dead” denominations, the “mainline”, were willing to do the work of maintaining Christendom (if one wonders what I’m talking about a remnant of this reality is still found in the denominational affiliations of the United States Congress, and that oaths are still made upon the Bible).*  As the dominant mainline denominations began to embrace a more secular and pluralist view of the U.S. slowly abandoning Christendom (most likely unwittingly, or so puzzlement over their loss of relevance indicates) Revivalist and Pietist denominations were gaining ascendancy and began to take up the mantle of preserving Christendom, that is America as a “Christian nation.”  It’s not surprising then, that some members of these denominations would come to assume Christian identity as a heritage, and not as a break with the dead identity of the Christian citizen.

Revivalist and Pietist Christian language has now been put to use in shoring up Christendom.  Strangely then conversion for some results in being passionately patriotic.  Before the mainline abandoned Christendom, the revivalists and pietist could leave aside the question of Christian identity and American identity. We could call to conversion and new life in Christ, and such calls wouldn’t necessarily call into question ones American Citizenship nor even have to challenge patriotism. Christendom benefited from more vibrant faith as long as such a faith wasn’t too radical in questioning of the equivalence of citizen and Christian (we know such groups as the Anabaptist or the radical reformers, Mennonites, the Brethren and Society of Friends (Quakers) were seen as trouble makers.).  However, the pietist faith didn’t need to couch itself in patriotic trappings, since cultural assumptions of the Christendom had that covered.  If conversion led some to take up activism to correct the ills in society, well these reformers were working for a better Christians society that all tacitly agreed was a good thing (not to deny that these pietist and revivalist reformers were at times opposed, often by members and leaders of the “mainline”.)

Back to Holly Hobby Lobby: Such a form of Christianity comes out of a pietist and revivalist faith become guardian of Christendom. However, as such it is no different from the “dead faith” of Lutheran orthodoxy. My forbears would recognized it for what it is, at best the beginning, the spiritual space in which the call to conversion could take hold, at worst it is a dead, useless, and hypocritical faith.  As such Such a Christianity can hardly be called faith, and can’t claim to know much if anything of the Mind of Christ or the Church.

* Also, I can’t recommend highly enough Martin E. Marty’s book Righteous Empire: the Protestant experience in America for one account of this reality before and during the Modernist/Fundamentalist split and before the Mainline abandoned Christendom to support a more pluralist and secularist societal fabric. 

David Bowie Is(n’t) Original

music-david-bowie-is-2At the top of the David Bowie Is exhibition the Yohji Yamomoto black record body suit presents the wild spectacle of David Bowie.  Then one moves to spend time in David Bowie’s early years, or really , the time before “David  Bowie”.  Here I got a sense of him as creative reclusive person, who through mime discovers his whole embodied self can be the basis of art as performance.  David Bowie emerges out of a varied set of influences and a traditional performance art.

(This isn’t a review of David Bowie Is exhibition, but a reflection on Bowie as an artist informed by the traveling exhibit, that had been at the Museum Contemporary Art, Chicago, and closed January 4, 2015.)

“David Bowie” in seeming contradiction to the spectacle isn’t about  authenticity, or originality.  David Bowie isn’t concerned about himself as the origin of his art.  From the start he rejects the Rocker”s refusal of stage make up.  The Rocker rejected make up as inauthentic.  David Bowie picks it up like the early rockers, but doesn’t attempt to make it “authentic” or representing an original author. Rather, make up becomes part of an abyssal persona without originality.  Make up is of course a key component to the Ziggy Stardust era along with wild costumes.  In Ziggy Stardust we, also find the various ways in which Bowie, as a performance artist, borrows from all sorts of sources and in collaboration. He collaborates with designers for the costumes , on  album art, and with studio musicians.  Originality, authenticity is questioned and turned upside down, even as “David Bowie” leaves behind very creative and odd artifacts .

(We should not forget that David Bowie is a staInside+David+Bowie+retrospective+features+rbPiViJ9bRTlge name and persona.  A friend once met David Bowie in a book shop and she approached him and asked are you David Bowie?  As he pulled down his shades, to reveal his eyes, he said to my friend, “Not today, love.”).

A portion of the David Bowie Is exhibit pauses in reflection upon Bowie’s 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live.  Behind the displayed costumes from that performance, in large lettering, a question is emblazoned: “David Bowie Revolutionary or Plagiarist?”  That question raises the dilemma of our understanding of authenticity and originality. bowie-2   It also comes at a point in the exhibition after which Bowie’s originality is troubled by having seen how David Bowie is collaborative, and draws not only inspiration but whole tropes (conceptual and visual) form various works and art forms.  Originality and authenticity is also troubled by Bowie’s system for conjuring of lyrics.  The exhibition has already challenged notions of authorial originality and intention.  So, one is prepared to see the question as a false dilemma.  Yet I also think it articulates how we fail to grasp tradition and how it functions.

As wild as David Bowie is, my experience of him , as presented in David Bowie Is, was as a traditional artist and not avant guarde.  Granted there is much in his performance that challenged convention and the status quo, but he is overtly and intentionally working with what he has received, and what others have abandoned and bringing what has been handed him  into a place of freshness and newness.   Part of what he receives as his career progress is “David Bowie” as a tradition to be mined. His own body of work becomes that which he receives and passes on to himself.

David Bowie fits within a tradition of entertainment, performance, art, and music.  David Bowie is also his own Tradition.

It perhaps is strange to think of Bowie as an unoriginal , inauthentic, and traditional performance artist who has challenged the status quo and created a unique persona and set of personas.  This is strange because we think that challenging the status quo occurs out of a place of authenticity and originality. We see tradition as only a conservative and static impulse.  Yet, if we see tradition as a dynamic moment of receptivity and creativity, then we can begin to look at the self-contradictory aspect of originality and authenticity:

Can any of us claim to be our own origin? can any of us be ourselves without dependence upon or reference to anything nor anyone else?  Don’t we all receive ourselves from others? Authenticity as originating only in the self and through independence consumes itself in an impossibility.

Bowie refuses the obsession with authenticity, embracing artifice and persona.  In so doing he puts himself in a place to receive a tradition of performance art that he then uses to create an astounding body of work.  In the body of work of “David Bowie” one doesn’t find the true authentic artist of an original body of work.  Rather one finds a body of work in conversation with a tradition of music and performance art (mime, fashion, theater, film, music), and a body of work that becomes its own tradition that is received and passed on.

David Bowie’s artistic body of work is overwhelming, shocking, wild, and creative, but it isn’t original.  The career and body of work received under the name “David Bowie” is possibly one of the best illustration of Jesus’ aphorism from the Gospel of Matthew: “The Scribes of the Kingdom are like one who brings out from the treasury what is both old and new.”  Such is what it means to be in a tradition, to have received a treasure out of which one brings both the old and the new.  Such is the body of work of David Bowie.

Granted David Bowie’s tradition isn’t a religious tradition but of performance, art, and music, and of “David Bowie” himself.  In this body of work we find what is both new and old, revolution and plagiarism. What we don’t find is an authentic original author, David Bowie. Such a singular and authentic origin doesn’t exist.  Or rather the origin and authenticity of David Bowie is found in others from whom he received what makes up “David Bowie.”

 

Icon of the Epiphany

EpiphanyBaptism

Yesterday was the feast of the  Epiphany.  In the west this feast is the celebration of the arrival  of the Magi and their adoration of the infant Jesus of Nazareth presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  In the east the Epiphany is the feast of the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan, the above icon is the icon of the Epiphany or Theophany.

The icon is rich.  In the lower portions of the icon in the water are the depictions of spirit manifestations of water, the figure with the wings and wild hair and a beard represents the Jordan river.  on the other side is Leviathan, these are the spirits the personifications of water.  Christ’s hand of blessing is not raised as in of the icons but is in the water, blessing the water.

Jesus stands in a way reminiscent of the crucifixion

Processional cross, Egg Tempera and gold leaf
Processional cross, Egg Tempera and gold leaf

feet and legs together, dressed only in a loin  cloth.

John the Forerunner’s preaching is represented by an ax laying against a bush, “…the ax is at the root…”

It is also, not surprisingly, a Trinitarian icon.  At the top God the Father, un-circumscribed of whom we can’t make any image, unknown but by the Son and the Spirit, is represented by the semi circle of blues and black.  The Spirit represented as the Gospels describe descending on Jesus of Nazareth as it is revealed (epiphany) that this human is God the Son.

And Angels Attend, (indicating Jesus Christ’s temptation in the desert, after which the Gospels say he was attended by angels.).

I painted this icon as a medallion, in part to strengthen the sense that God in Jesus Christ comes for the whole earth and all of creation, represented by the river and its spirit manifestations in the painting.  The extent of the realty hear represented is particular and universal, cosmic.  Salvation, Reconciliation, Liberation, is in this material world, in (re)connecting matter the created world with its source, the very Life of the world.  A great estrangement took place and God the Son, as Jesus of Nazareth comes, and we can see God, and find our true life, the life of the whole cosmos.  God is now forever part of the matter in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

This radical act of God, is the very thing that makes possible the painting of icons.  If God had not become flesh and a human in the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, God would have remained beyond us.

The above icon of the Epiphany/Baptism of Our Lord is available in my Etsy shop, Prietly Goth Icons

Celebrating the Holy Nativity, #StayWoke

A friend of mine in a Facebook post comment thread mentioned that the Christmas story is often told as a children’s story.  I think there are several layers to this characterization.  One the Holy Nativity is often seen as a cute and comforting story, a G movie  safe for the viewing pleasure of the entire family.  Secondly, as a cute, safe and comforting story it takes on the character traits of the Disney fairy tale (in contrast to the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales).  Lastly the Christmas story is often simply kitsch, as most nativity sets for sale in Christmas isles clearly demonstrates. The above is all part of the celebration of Christmas that knows nothing of the season of Advent.

Here, and at the Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconicler, I took up reflecting on the season of Advent as a time to stay woke.  But what now in this twelve day season of Christmas (yes Christmas day is simply the first day of Christmas, we have Christmas all the way until January 5th.)?  The seasons of Advent and Christmas are seasons of the Holy Nativity, God’s revelation in and through a the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  As such can we see the Holy Nativity not as some comfortable story but something that stirs something in us, even something that disturbs us from slumber?

I think so and I think the Icon of the Holy Nativity is more helpful in this than the typical nativity set one can buy on the Christmas shelves in stores.

holynativity

 

Take some time to reflect on this icon and it’s meaning: at its center is Mary and the baby Jesus in the manger.  If you are familiar with iconography, the cave and the manger should remind one of icons of the empty tomb, the manger is a sarcophagus the cave a tomb.  Also, Mary is lying down, she has after all just given birth.  In one corner two midwives are washing the baby Jesus.  These midwives not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, are part of a type of realism, there surely were midwives, but also hearken back to the story of Moses. Midwives are an important part of the story of liberation and salvation.  And Jesus is not only  a second Adam but also a second Moses, come to deliver God’s people.  In the other corner sits Saint Joseph, in conversation with an old shepherd, or is it the shepherd who is attempting to draw Joseph out.  This is a great deal to take in.  Joseph, perhaps has his doubts about what all this means.  How is it that the messiah is born in such rough conditions and greeted by such rough persons.  Does God reveal God’s self in such common rough and uncouth ways? But then Above Joseph are the Magi traveling following the sign in the heavens.  These are men with power and wealth, but they aren’t Isrealites and Children of Abraham.  One may look at this icon and simply see confusion.  The whole story here depicted in form and color may not make much sense.  How is this a holy image.  How in such common place things, midwives at work, a feeding trough and Mary and Joseph silent puzzled without answers, a depiction of a holy and revelatory event.

Can it truly be that this even changes everything.  That God is found not only in this crazy story, but in that little infant born so long ago, Jesus of Nazareth.  Is this how liberation comes?  Does this shock and disturb?  Perhaps it should.  In this infant God dwelt in our midst and is now united with the entire cosmos.

But the story of Christmas and it’s celebration doesn’t end here: the next three days we in Celebrating God’s revelation in coming as a little child, we mark the first martyr, Saint Stephen, remember the Evangelist Saint John the Apostle, and Herod’s massacre of the infants in Bethlehem, the Holy Innocents.  If you haven’t guessed this isn’t a children’s story, nor Disney Fairy tale.  This is a celebration and a story that isn’t afraid to face the worst humanity can offer.  It certainly is a match for facing our countries continuing struggle with the Racism that has been woven into the very fabric of its history and policies. It’s also a story and an icon that can encompass our questions, doubts, confusion and despair, and say at the same time God has come, liberation, justice and revelation have come in the midst of all this horror and confusion.