Sitting with My Self

In my previous blog entry, I talked about sitting with your sin (or if you prefer, sitting with your shit). I’ve mentioned that I do this as part of meditative prayer, but my entry on meditation was all about getting the body and mind ready to contemplate. Once I get there, what does sitting with my sin look like? If my sin is as much a part of me as my shadow, how do I think about the various parts of my self?

Once I find a place of stillness and balance in prayer, then I can sit with my self, and the attitude I cultivate in these moments is interest. “Isn’t it interesting that I keep repeating the same harmful action, the same self-talk? Isn’t it interesting that I keep having the same negative feelings and attitudes (resentment, self-righteousness, anger, fear, judgmentalness, vindictiveness, selfishness, greed, indifference to others, laziness, vanity, self-justification, schadenfreude)? Isn’t it interesting that I am avoiding certain tasks/activities? Isn’t it interesting that I return to certain painful memories, to the parts that still live within me from when I was 8 years old (or 13 or 35)?” Being interested in parts of your self (and not judgmental) allows you to explore your whole being.

I create a dialogue between the still center I create in meditation and the components of my self. I am in the temporary stillness, but that stillness also sits outside of my self at a distance that allows me to see the interworkings of my life. I am both the observer and the observed. In the calmness of that moment is the clarity that is necessary for change, and that distanced stillness also makes compassion for my own flaws possible.


I’ve worked out an admittedly detailed system for understanding the psychological and spiritual components of my self, but I feel a little sheepish about sharing it. What could be more navel-gazing than to assume my system of navel-gaving might be useful to others? There’s really nothing original here; I’ve cobbled together the parts from many other thinkers. But the measure of a theory for me is its usefulness. My wife has found this discussion useful, so perhaps you might, too.

At the heart of my understanding of the self is the relationship/tension between who I am and what I do.


“Who I am” deals with issues of identity, that which I think is long-term or permanent/unshakable about me (which means that I tend to defend it when these things are being attacked). I am a man, a father, a “nice guy,” a teacher, a husband, a heterosexual, a hard worker, a Christian, an administrator, a liberal, a musician, an American, a Southerner, a Dukie. Borrowing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ and James Baldwin’s phrase, I believe myself to be white. Some of these are my personality/characteristics; some are achievements and experiences; some are roles.


Some of these roles are cast and some are chosen. It feels like I am cast into the role of “man,” where my role as “teacher” is something I chose. Personality and role can interact. My personality gravitates toward niceness, but “nice guy” can also become a role. I can enact that (and am expected to) even when I don’t feel nice. And so roles can become entrapping and confining. They are necessarily less than who I am (I am more than the sum of my roles), and if I spend too much time in a role (even a chosen one) I can become aware of how much of my self is left behind.

Roles can also be performed. Although I’m not hyper-masculine, it’s fun to play at caveman masculinity when I am in bed with my wife. Playing at a role allows you to expand the sense of who you are without having to commit to an identity long-term. This is part of the power of storytelling; it allows us to try on other roles/identities, and this role-occupying can be potentially transformative (particularly if you become a fan invested in a particular text/universe, revisiting it frequently and giving it emotional power). In such a way, trying on roles can feed back into who I am.

“Who I am” doesn’t necessarily refer to a single core of my being. As I noted in my previous blog entry, both light and dark (Jung’s shadow self, Paul’s “thorn in my side”) are part of my identity, and we need to make peace with that. “Who I am” may be best thought of as more than just two sides. Identity also involves the multiple voices in my head, the self-talk and scripts. I am legion, as internal family systems teaches us.

Although we tend to think of “who I am” as our personality, we are more than our personality (though society typically reduces us to our personality). I was listening to Andrew Solomon’s discussion with Krista Tippett on the “On Being” podcast, and they talked about how one of the discoveries from their depression was the sense that there is something that still exists even when depression has pretty much squelched your personal characteristics. That thing that is left over might be called my soul. It is the humanity that carries on even when personality has been nearly extinguished (by depression, advanced aging, or catastrophic illness, for instance). I care for such loved ones not because of what they can do but because of who they are (just as I care for an infant, who has little personality and no effectivity). There’s something holy about caring for a loved one who can’t give you anything tangible back. It’s an acknowledgment of our central unshakable unearned identity, that of “child of God.”

There is often a tension between my sense of who I am and what I do. (For existentialists, we are nothing but our actions. There is no central definition of who we are outside of what we do.) My actions don’t always reflect who I think I am (thus causing the need to confess sin), and so I feel the need to alter one or the other. Either I need to revise my understanding of who I am in light of what I do, or I need to change what I do to bring it more in line with my sense of self.


Shame and guilt are often the reaction to discrepancies between who I am and what I do. I think of guilt as being directed toward the action; we feel that we should change our action to make it more consonant with who we are. Shame tends to be directed toward who we are; I feel shame about some core aspect of who I am. Guilt can be useful in helping us change what we do. Shame is more complicated because it attaches to our identity. On the one hand, shame can be paralyzing; on the other, it opens our self up to accepting and healing the shame of others once you have made peace with the shamed parts of your self. (You may have a different meaning for those words, but that’s how they’re used/defined in my consideration of the self. I’m borrowing from Brene Brown here.)

(Your occupation is both a role and it is what you do. In our utilitarian society, it’s easy to let your occupation to be a provider of your worth (or your lack of paid occupation to lead to a sense that you are worthless.) Part of the Republican mentality is that if you aren’t productive – usually meaning “getting paid for what you do” – you aren’t a full member of society. There’s little discussion of what it owed to someone simply because of their humanity.)


“What we do” has two components: our conscious actions and our habits. Our conscious actions are what we list when someone asks “how was your day?” We talk about the decisions we made and the choices we took in certain situations. It’s very easy to reduce our sense of “what we do” to those actions. Such actions, after all, are what we tell stories about, either the fairly mundane story of our day or the stories of heroes and artists.

You can think of heroes and artists as making two different kinds of conscious choices. We tell stories of heroes who take action in the world (without overt action, there is no hero). We also valorize the artist, who rearranges the world in aesthetically interesting ways that are a reflection of who the artist is. Ordinary people can act as heroes and/or artists in their own lives. We can take an aesthetic pleasure in gardening, for instance, as a reflection of who we are. We can intervene in the world in ways that are an expression of our values. The stories we tell about heroes and artists model for us these ways of being in the world as an action figure, and society loves to tell these stories.

We spend much less time talking about habits, though they occupy a good portion of our time. We leave out habitual behaviors from the story of our day (we don’t talk about the normal drive to work or brushing our teeth, for instance). Habit is vital, however, and it is powerful. Without habits we would have to allocate brain power for mundane tasks, and so putting ourselves on autopilot frees up our cognition for higher level activity.

Our habits are loops that don’t feel quite conscious/chosen. This is true for good habits (like brushing your teeth) and bad ones (like eating out of boredom). Bad habits in particular can feel like possession, as if you’ve been taken over by someone/something else that is in violation of who we conceive ourselves to be. Negotiating the tension between bad habits and your identity can be difficult because bad internal loops can seem like so much a part of you that you can’t intervene cognitively to stop them.

Habits are obviously created by conscious actions that have been internalized and automated, and many bad habits are patterns of action that have outlived their usefulness. In the stories we tell, we often neglect the power of habit because it’s not dramatic to depict. The long hours of training to be a boxer might be summarized in a brief montage on the way to a climactic scene of a championship fight, but that doesn’t give a visceral sense of how important habit-building is to achievement. It makes it seems that achievement is based on our conscious heroic actions when it often has much to do with boring practice and habit-building.

Habits are necessary but they too can be confining. If too much of what you’re doing is by habit, then you don’t have a strong sense that what you’re doing is a consciously chosen expression of who you are. You need to be able to see the heroism and/or artistry in what you do, or habit will swallow up your day and you won’t be able to recognize yourself in your actions.


Less apparent (but still important) components of the self are what I don’t do and who I’m not. Much of an identity definition is often based on who you’re not (to be white is to be not black; to be middle class is to be not poor and not rich. And thus the power of definitions of the Other) or by taking pride in what you don’t do (“I’m a good person: I don’t lie and cheat;” “I’m a good citizen: I’ve never had to go on welfare,” “I’m not a racist: I don’t use slurs”).  Also inaction can be difficult to reconcile with who you think you are (for example, “I think of myself as a good person but I don’t volunteer and give back to the community;” “I think my health is important but I don’t exercise”). Inaction is much less visible than action, but it also is composed of important choices and habits.


The last component of the self is the products of what you do. Here I’m referring to what happens when you put what you do into the outside world. I practiced piano privately, but when I started playing for my church choir, that put my doing into the world (intangibly and impermanently, but still out there). Once your product is in the world, you lose a certain amount of control over it. People can judge it harshly; people can use it in ways you never imagined; or people can ignore it. Each of these is horrible in their own way, particularly since putting your product into the world is an attempt to communicate something about yourself, to connect with others.

(Imagination and connection are important throughout this understanding of the self. Your ability to imagine yourself in new roles feeds into your identity. A certain amount of imagination is required to do any truly chosen action. Imagination is necessary to create products that enter the world. Our desire for connection exists throughout. Sharing an identity (Dukie) or an activity (choir) creates moments when we can connect to others more easily; that’s how community happens. As I said, sending your stuff out into the world is a call for connection. Your roles are obviously a way of being in the world.)

So there’s a hope imbedded in the act of putting your stuff into the world. The difficulty is in not confusing the products of what you do with who you are. It’s very tempting to believe that if your product sucks, then you suck. But you have relatively little control over whether it is perceived to suck; all you can control is the process of what you are doing.

The primary payoff (at last!) for sitting with the self in this manner may be this: to focus on what you are doing, to try to make sure that this is a reflection of who you are, and not to put too much focus on how the products of your actions are evaluated. Take pleasure in and responsibility for what you do as an expression of who you are and try not to tie your products to your identity too strongly (either negatively or positively). I have to trust in the doing and to see that as fulfilling in and of itself, to see that doing as sacred.

Religion happens when I connect my own doing and being with the invisible network of actions and attitudes of the children of God throughout the world and across time. By cleaning the muck out of my life, by more closely aligning what I do with what I am, I am better able to let God’s energy flow through me to the world. Therein lies the promise of purpose in the beloved community.

Thoughts on Sin (part 2)


I will admit that I don’t find most New Testament language about sin, temptation, repentance, and confession very helpful. (Once again, this blog is about language.) Not that the Old Testament rituals of animal sacrifice help me, either. That’s ok; no one religion’s perspectives capture the fullness of an infinite God. We all grab at parts of God as best we can. (I also find the language about “holiness” vague and unhelpful. I had to take a detour into Buddhist understandings of “wholeness” before I could return to Christian holiness with new eyes. To use a metaphor that might apply to my entire blog, sometimes you need to leave your hometown so that you return and can see its advantages.)

Most New Testament advice about repenting of your sin either sounds simple or radical to me. On the one hand, we are told that you can “resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7) A quick “Get thee behind me, Satan!” should take care of things. ‘Nuff said! Reject the devil (the personification of temptation) and that’s that. What could be easier? What’s wrong with you that this isn’t effective?

I am reminded of Flip Wilson’s classic drag character Geraldine, who would say, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” only to have Satan reply, “It looks pretty good from back here, too.” Now that’s MY Tempter, not some weenie who can be dispensed with a few words!

I understand what the New Testament writers are up to here. They want to emphasize that grace, repentance, and forgiveness can’t be earned through our own efforts, that power over our sin comes from God and not from our own human ability. But repentance is more complicated than the word implies (and thus the innumerable sermons that remind us that “repentance” actually means “turning away” from sin).

The ancient injunction to simply “repent” can look an awful lot like what we in the modern world call “repression.” Shove it aside and it will go away. I’m personally very fond of repression, which has its uses, but it’s not a great tool for handling the big stuff. There are many garden variety sins (I was mean to someone today; I didn’t stop and help someone) where a quick prayer of repentance will suffice, but in this blog entry we’ve been focusing on the perpetual sins that don’t go away so easily, the things you can’t just say a few “Hail Marys” to solve. These are the deep temptations that I really didn’t want to go too far away, and so unsurprisingly they don’t. Deep repentance cannot be formulaic, and the church does us a disservice by acting like it can be.

This concept — that we can dispense with temptation with a few words — continues to reverberate today. It’s behind the modern idea that we can “just say no” to addiction. It’s at the heart of the cold-hearted injunction that people with problems should just “get over it.” As I have said elsewhere, the individual decision to change is a necessary part of all personal transformation, but that decision alone is not enough, not when we’re dealing with long-term patterns. When we refuse to empathize with people’s plight and tell them that they need to “get over it,” we are extending the wrong part of Christian language, language that provides an inadequate answer for deep-seated problems.

Paul’s language about his “thorn in the flesh” — about the persistent sin/temptation that he couldn’t get rid of in spite of his best efforts — comes closer to the mark. Instead of confessing his sin publicly, Paul is frustratingly vague and private about what his personal “thorn” is (and this language is way too tied up in his negative attitudes toward the flesh/body). Clearly the thorn is a deep nagging sin that is part of him, and much to his frustration it appears he’s going to have to get used to living with it. (Attaboy, Paul! Now we’re talking about sin!)

The persistent sin doesn’t budge when we try to rebuke it, and it is also resistant to the Gospel’s more radical advice about what to do with sin: if your eye or hand causes you to sin, then pluck it out, cut it off. (What’s up with the Bible’s obsession with chopping off body parts??) My experience with trying to purge truly deep temptation through an effort of will is that it comes back, which is what any modern thinker will tell you happens with repression.

If you chop off a part of you, you may find that that part was intimately connected to things you value. Here’s an example: I always have a musical playlist running through my head, and so I have long been a hummer (meaning “one who hums,” not an oversized land vehicle). My wife found it irritating when I hummed while she was talking, and so she asked me to stop. When I complied with this entirely justifiable request, I overdid it; I stopped humming altogether, much to my wife’s regret. She liked the soundtrack from my mental jukebox and had no intention of silencing it, but I was unable to surgically remove the offending part. It was somehow deeply connected to other things I valued.

Carl Jung’s idea of the shadow has helped me rethink how repentance works (once again, venturing into territory outside Christianity can help you refresh your understanding when Christian concepts have grown stale). Jung believed that our recurrent dark impulses are as much a part of us as our desire to do good; those thoughts are as inseparable from us as our shadow is. In fact, the shadow self should be explored — not lopped off – because it can contain vital energy. Investigating the shadow may unveil buried, highly personal insights into who you are and why you do the things you do. Jung saw the shadow as a gift.

You may not be willing to go that far, to see deep personal patterns of sin as a gift. But this is at least a reminder that the “thorn” may have a purpose: to remind us of our own weakness and helplessness. If we get too cocky with how well this repentance thing is working in our lives, here’s a persistent, humbling reminder that we don’t get it right. Humility is built into the practice of following Christ.

A really deep pattern of sin feels much like an addiction: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15) While it may appear that a recovering alcoholic repressed their drinking, they also have acknowledged its centrality and negotiated an uneasy peace with it. Cutting out drinking doesn’t get rid of the desire for drinking, just as cutting off a diseased limb doesn’t prevent pain from reoccurring (in the form of phantom pain). The openly acknowledged desire to engage in addictive behavior becomes part of their identity (“I am an alcoholic”), and the recovering alcoholic reavows the relationship with the shadow daily and in community. Once again, I think the language and practice of Alcoholics Anonymous can be instructive.

The dominant New Testament language about what do to with sin (rebuking it or cutting it out) has had limited success for me. As an alternative, I have grown used to sitting with my deeply seated sins in meditative prayer. Productive things happen when I sit nonjudgmentally with my addictive patterns instead of shoving them aside (that “judge not” commandment can be awfully handy). Once I sit a while with my own weaknesses, they seem less like boogeymen to me. I am much more able to view them with a merciful heart. I am much closer to real forgiveness.

As with all spiritual matters, your mileage may vary (which is why it’s important for all of us to proclaim the Gospel as we experience it, to open up alternatives for others). Rebuking and chopping may be perfectly sufficient for you. But if you also have found yourself too often in a “repent, lather, repeat” cycle when it comes to the patterns that separate you from the presence of God, may I suggest sitting with your deep sin. Or, as I like to say, “sitting with your shit.” (I find that being a pottymouth can be spiritually useful.) You can’t hide your shit from an omniscient God; you only end up trying to hide it from yourself. You may discover that your shit doesn’t disgust God, that it doesn’t actually cause God’s presence to withdraw. You can learn to sit with your shit in the merciful presence of God.

Thoughts on Sin (part 1)


I’ve actually heard surprisingly few sermons focused on sin during my years in the church. This is partly because my adult religious life has been spent in mainline Protestant churches where we tend to avoid talking too much about sin so that people don’t confuse us with Bible-thumping evangelicals. But even growing up in a small-town evangelical church, I don’t remember a lot of sermons specifically on sin. Sin was like porn for Potter Stewart; you knew it when you saw it. Sin was difficult to handle on our own, but it wasn’t very complicated, so there was no need to talk about it in much detail on the way to the good stuff (forgiveness and salvation).

But what is sin? If you’ve been reading my blog, you won’t be surprised to know that I have a liberal take on the question. I don’t mean “liberal” in the “anything goes” way; I mean it in the “expanding beyond the original” way. I’ve been discussing the (only slightly heretical) “gospel according to Greg,” which includes new commandments (to listen and empathize), new beatitudes (borrowed from Nadia Bolz-Weber), nontraditional modes of prayer, and relatively underemphasized aspects of God (as feminine).

I believe that expansion is built into the very nature of Christianity. Jesus himself expanded on Judaism by emphasizing that serving God involves more than just doing good things and avoiding bad actions; it is also a habit of the heart and mind. Those in the Jewish faith say that we give too much credit to Jesus’ efforts to refocus attention away from obeying laws and toward our internal motivations. After all, the first two of the Ten Commandments are about our thoughts and emotions, about loving God and making God a priority, and daily prayers remind observant Jews of this orientation. But you have to admit that these commandments get a little lost in the 611 other regulations in the Torah. Jesus certainly took these ideas from the Torah, enlarged them into a commandment to “love your enemies,” and made them more central to the faith.

I think it’s also significant that the first issue for the Christian church was whether to expand the religion past its narrow Scriptural confines, whether to interpret Jesus’ teachings broadly and open up to those outside Judaism. The disciples became convinced that you didn’t have to be born to Jewish parents to be part of the chosen people of God. The new faith had seemingly easy entrance requirements: a change of heart and belief and not chopping off the end of your penis (ending these requirements certainly helped make it possible for Christianity to spread more easily throughout the world). By documenting Peter’s struggle to accept a broader vision of Christianity, the Book of Acts gives us a model for what we all should do: to expand our understanding of Scripture and the Kingdom of God.

It is in that spirit that I offer an expanded notion of what sin is as an extension of Jesus’ efforts to do the same. Although we typically think of sin as something you do, it can be something you don’t do. When the religious people ignore the wounded robbery victim in the Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, that is sin, just as it is sin for us to ignore the suffering of others today. Then Jesus seriously upped the spiritual ante on sin in the Sermon on the Mount, saying that thought could be sinful and not just your actions.

It’s possible for this radical ante-upping idea — that thinking about murder/adultery is the spiritual equivalent of committing those acts – to become paralyzingly guilt-inducing.  I know that I will never become so spiritually advanced that I don’t think sinful thoughts. I am a parent, and like all parents I have thought about throttling my child. I certainly have “lusted in my heart” just like Jimmy Carter, and I can’t imagine being so sexually dead that I won’t do so again.

In my college years I considered suicide for a while, and whenever something bad happens to me, those thoughts briefly reappear. Because I lingered over the idea of killing myself when I was younger, I will always be aware that suicide is an option (though it’s an option I have long ago rejected). Because of my history, there will never be a time when such thoughts don’t flit past my consciousness.

I like Martin Luther’s poetic nuance on this idea: “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair.” (I can only hope that he had a tonsure when he said this.)  Luther recognizes that our thoughts are unruly things. He also understands that there’s a difference between thinking of sin and dwelling on it, revisiting it, relishing it. The uncontrollable thoughts that visit our minds are not sin; instead, sin is the dark thoughts that take residence and set up shop inside us. (Thank God for Luther’s updating of this particular Scripture.)

Powerful sinful thoughts are the ones we loop, the self-talk that denigrates ourselves or others, rehearses old hurts, imagines new ones, replays obsessive fantasies. Imagination is one of our greatest gifts from God; it allows us to think beyond our current circumstances and envision new possibilities. It also allows us to populate our internal world with hateful or self-lacerating tormentors. We nurture these tormentors with data that we seek and find in the world around us (and in the extended world that comes to us from self-confirming media feeds). These are the thoughts that separate us from God, from others, and from our core identity.

And thus – finally – my definition of sin: anything that separates us from the presence of God.

Sin is individually tailored. Some things are sinful for everyone, of course: murder, stealing, and so on. But some things are sin for some but not for others. Alcohol is a good example. For many, a drink is no big deal; for an alcoholic, however, a drink can send them down a destructive path. That drink is sin for the alcoholic but not for others.

In my liberal approach, anything can potentially become sin. The Second Commandment reminds us that if we spend too much time focused on something, then that thing/activity can become a god to us, something that must be served instead of adding delight to our lives. Sin has a tendency to distort the good things of the world (“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” according to the quote misattributed to Ben Franklin on many a t-shirt), to transform these gifts into ways of separating ourselves from God.

Football, for instance, is a beautiful thing, a combination of chess and ballet with 300-pound bodies. But if you find yourself watching college football all day Saturday and the pros all day Sunday to the point that you are ignoring your family, you have distorted that beautiful activity into a false god.

Religion itself can become a false god. Volunteering at church or some other nonprofit organization is a way to give back to the world, but I have occasionally seen people for whom volunteering serves as a way to escape the parts of their lives that need attending to. Volunteering (and the good feeling that it brings) can become addictive. Virtue can become an end in itself and not a path toward God. An expanded understanding of sin recognizes that we need to monitor our attitudes, values, and motivations and not just the actions themselves.

The Gospel puts the relationship between motivation and action into the spotlight. Matthew 6 tells us that if the reason we do good deeds is to be admired by others, then those actions are not righteous at all. This apparently sets a high bar for any virtuous action. Any follower of Christ knows full well the warm feeling that accompanies good deeds. It’s hard to imagine any charitable action that isn’t accompanied by at least some feeling of self-congratulation on being a “good person.”

And yet that is the aspiration, part of the impossibly high calling that is following Christ: that we act lovingly in the world not because we are “good people” but because we recognize that God is working through us. One can act morally without involving higher powers. Many fine people do the right thing simply because it’s right – no religion required. But to follow Christ is to see our actions and prayers as being connected to an invisible network, one where our actions begin in God and are magnified and given meaning as they reverberate through the world. In fact, thinking of yourself as a “good person” can actually cause a spiritual problem if it disconnects you from the network, if you begin to see yourself as the sole origin of your righteous actions.

Mother Teresa articulated this desire to stay connected to the source in a prayer that asks God to “penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may only be a radiance of yours. Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel your presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus.” This is one of great paradoxes of following Christ: that by “losing your life” – by loosening your grip on the tempting scripts and self-talk and identities that you call your “self” – you can find a clarity, a transparency that reveals the image of God within you.

Mother Teresa prayed this prayer daily because she never fully got to that point. Neither will I. But just because this is an impossible aspiration doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pursue it, just as we work toward other impossible goals: justice, truth, the eradication of poverty, equality of opportunity.

Although choosing to follow Christ may seem easy on the face of it (“Just give your heart to Jesus! Now available with no penis-chopping!”), it is actually an extraordinarily high calling, one that we all fail at. If you go to church, you’ve probably gotten used to admitting out loud that you’re a sinner, that the things we do and think and don’t do separate us from the presence of God. Sometimes I think that the word “sinner” has become too religious-y familiar. I suggest the word “fuckup,” which has more punch to it. Basically when you walk into church, you are acknowledging that you are one of the fuckups. Thanks be to God.

Sometimes I think the Church took a major wrong turn when individual confession became a private matter between priest and believer. I often think we have a lot to learn from Alcoholics Anonymous, that we should walk into church and say aloud, “My name is Greg, and I’m a fuckup.” (Hi, Greg!) Such an admission is necessarily humbling. It openly recognizes that we are far from being good or nice (“nice” is a particularly strong aspiration/temptation for Southerners. Being nice isn’t necessarily the same as being good).

Corporate worship is an acknowledgment of our fuckedupedness and an embrace from other fuckups like us. As professional smart-aleck Mark Russell puts it, “Maybe the whole purpose of religion, like family, is to make people feel loved and inadequate at the same time.”

(Next time: thoughts on sin and repentance.)

God the Father and Mother


Images of God as Father permeate both Old and New Testaments. God’s fatherhood is baked into Christian theology (in the Trinity) and the language of worship (the Lord’s Prayer ain’t called the “Our Father” for nothin’). This language is so omnipresent that it’s easy to forget that it’s primarily metaphorical; it’s a way of bringing a part of the enormity of God into focus. An infinite God is so incomprehensible that we need ways of anchoring the divine in our human experience.

And so we use language to grasp one aspect of God, and we shift language to take hold of some other characteristic of God. Language is a useful simplification; it allows us to see the many faces of God one after the other. Language doesn’t define or limit God as much as it allows us to interact with God in more familiar ways. (One of Jesus’ crucial and controversial interventions was a tendency to call the God of the universe “Daddy.”) Thinking of God as parent is both useful and comforting, but obviously God does not have a gender.

Referring to God as Father gives me a certain earth-grounded specificity for conversation. Yet I worry about language that makes the face of God masculine. On this Father’s Day weekend, I think about all the sermons being preached about fatherhood. I’ve heard a number of them over the years, and they almost always foreground a normative understanding of what a father is.

I sit in these sermons, and I think about all the people around me whose fathers provided poor examples of parenting. What about children of abusive parents? What good is this father imagery to them? In spite of my family attending church whenever the doors opened, my father (who was the child of an emotionally unavailable father) duplicated the emotional abuse of his upbringing when it came to my older brother. To his great credit, my father changed and became a loving and supportive father to me. To my brother’s great credit, he has made peace with the father who raised him.

All of us now know how much more widespread family abuse was and is (sexual, physical, emotional, substance-related). How many of us have experienced the idealized version of a father who appears in Father’s Day sermons? Or rather, if we are supposed to use our earthly father as a rough draft of a heavenly father, for how many people is that an obstacle rather than an aid? And why don’t we say that out loud in church instead of pretending that fatherhood is a natural good?

I also think about the number of family configurations that do not include a father (single parent families, children of two mothers, children raised by a grandmother, and so on). How is all this talk of God the Father helpful if you don’t have a physically present father to begin with? In such instances, children learn about fathering from popular media. Each generation finds its preferred versions of pop culture fathers: Ward Cleaver, Bill Cosby, Gandalf, Dumbledore. But I worry about a fictionalized depiction of a father being the primary image of God the Father.

Let me be clear: we are all composed of factual and fictional experiences blended together. And fatherhood is both conferred and chosen. You may or may not be given a physically present father; along the way you may find a father (and a family) of choice, and a fictional father of choice has much to recommend him. He often has advantages over a piece-of-crap biological father. But a fictional character is necessarily simpler than a warts-and-all human being, and the changing relationship with a flesh-and-blood parent has advantages in modeling the evolving relationship with God. Just as your view of a parent changes as you age, our understanding of God needs to be reevaluated. Parents are not as frightening or powerful as they may seem when we are young. Similarly, God may present a different face to us as adults (rather than the combination of Santa Claus and traffic cop that can inhabit childhood imagery) if we allow that relationship to grow.

I also worry about putting up unnecessary barriers for people to engage with religion. Why do we expect that women will respond to the idea of a masculine Godhead? Because we have always expected women to accommodate, to perform the mental gymnastics of interpreting a generalized masculine word (as in “all men are created equal”) as really meaning “men or women.” And yet we know now that people don’t hear “he or she” when someone simply says “he.” The actual words are important. What is to be gained (other than linguistic simplicity) by referring to God as “he?”

Referring to God as something other than “Father” is awkward at first to practiced Christians, but that awkwardness is part of the point. It makes you stop and think: why should we automatically think of God as masculine? What new parts of God could we discover by thinking outside of old linguistic patterns? Thinking of God as something other than masculine is a useful exercise in making God new again.

Established Christians are often the ones who oppose such change. The “I like things the old way” attitude is contributing enormously to the decline of mainstream Christian churches. On the contrary, I believe that older Christians should be leading the charge to remake Christianity in ways that open up the faith. After all, well-established Christians aren’t likely to abandon the church after a life of service; we’ll still be there if and when the church changes. We who are committed to the church need to see how the familiar, comforting language and rituals we use can be a hindrance to establishing a relationship with God. Rather than requiring others to change in order to feel comfortable in our religious community, maybe we should change the community interaction to remove unnecessary barriers.

Why shouldn’t we make it easier for women to see themselves in God and to see God in themselves? Many churches have experienced how transformative it is for a woman to be a priest or a pastor. It’s one thing to say that God works through men and women; it’s another thing to see and work with women in positions of spiritual leadership (particularly given the church’s long patriarchal history). And maybe men need to see feminine spiritual authority just as much as women do.

In this blog post I’m advocating for thinking of God as Mother. There’s nothing particularly new in Christianity about a feminine aspect of God. Catholics early on recognized the power of being able to pray to a figure of a woman, and so Mary rose from a relative bit player in the New Testament to a central figure of devotion, earthly comfort, and heavenly advocacy. Ditto with saints, who multiplied the image of the divine. When those early fundamentalists called Protestants decided to throw out the church’s accumulated baggage, Mary and the saints (men and women) were sidelined along with indulgences, incense, and gory crucifixes. But we Protestants lost something along the way: the ability to approach the throne of God with a woman in our minds and hearts.

And so I pray to my Heavenly Father and Mother, and I encourage other followers of Christ to give this a try as well. Seeing God as both mother and father allows me to see the divine as powerful, comforting, authoritative, understanding, demanding, forgiving, and righteous all at the same time. (It’s certainly no more difficult than conceptualizing of God as a Trinity.)

If you need scriptural justification for this, I will point you to Matthew 23:37 where Jesus compares his desire to love people to that of a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings. Is this cherry-picking the Scriptures? Oh yeah! There’s certainly an overwhelming reliance on masculine imagery throughout the Bible. But I’m not going to let the fact that the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture spoil the opportunity for me to know God more broadly and widely.

There’s a temptation to assign qualities to God the Mother and Father along standard gender lines. God the Father becomes the judge, the all-powerful, the keeper of strict standards, while God the Mother comforts and understands us. It’s easier to think of the creating, life-giving aspect of God as feminine. There’s usefulness (always my standard for good spiritual practice) in splitting God along these lines. But yet I’ve grown to blur those lines over the years.

By thinking of God as mother and father at the same time, the boundaries around masculine and feminine have eroded. You can think of God the comforting Father and God the powerful Mother. Again, real life fathers and mothers (of origin and of choice) are useful stand-ins here. Real life parents have different qualities to share with their children, and they rarely adhere so rigidly to our standard gendered assumptions. Thinking of God as both Father and Mother helps me pray. It allows me to access the full range of fathers and mothers I have had in my life. It also gives me a way to rethink what masculinity and femininity are.

If you have liberal-leaning theology, you’ve probably already worked through most of this. Good for you. The next frontier may be to contemplate whether we really need to use a gender lens for God. As we revisit and rework both the legacies and the shortcomings of masculinity and femininity in our society, maybe it becomes useful to think of God as queer.

God is, after all, the queerest imaginable being, the ultimate defier of categories (whether gendered or otherwise). I’ve spent this whole blog entry arguing that God is nonbinary. On the face of it, it makes more sense to think of God as being without gender than it does to assign God a masculine or feminine name.

Maybe. Could be. I leave you with this idea in case it’s useful to you. I’m not there yet, however. As I work on my own understanding of gender, I recognize that those categories of masculine and feminine are still emotionally important to me. Gender is the sea that we all swim in; it’s difficult for me (a cisgendered man) to navigate those waters without some version of masculine and feminine. Addressing God as Father and Mother works for me in ways that gender-neutral terms like “divine Parent” simply don’t.

In a time when we are engaged in a large conversation about gender, it’s certainly fair game to include our language about God in that discussion. I believe that queerness has much to teach us about following Christ; Christianity has been far too “straight” (in every sense) for far too long. Again, I think we need to shut up and listen, to be open to seeing God’s many faces, to find the images of God that connect to our lives and that show us the world afresh.

A New Commandment: Listen and Empathize


 As part of the continuing drive to expand the Gospel, I propose a new commandment: that we listen to and empathize with each other.

Jesus gave a pithy summary of Jewish law in Matthew 7:12: “Do to others what you want them to do to you.” This “Golden Rule” is a foundational moral principle for multiple ethics systems. It guides you to think beyond your narrow self-interest, to envision what it would be like if you were on the receiving end of your own behavior.

The wrinkle in this commandment is that it still places you at the center. You are the measure of things. You are to imagine how you might feel in someone else’s shoes, which might be fine in a society where everyone wears sandals. But what if some people feel very differently from how you think you’d feel in their place? Your life experience has shaped who you are; what if their life experience has given them a perspective that is difficult for you to imagine? The Golden Rule makes it all too easy for us to substitute a version of ourselves for the raw fact of another person’s life. If other people react differently than we would in a situation, then they are alien, wrong, and in need of correction.

This has all kinds of ramifications for do-gooding. This encourages us to substitute our obviously superior understanding for the perspectives expressed by others. We can feel compassion for others without ever really hearing them. We can provide charity with a parental hand, trusting that we know their needs better than they do themselves. We can feel sympathy for them without feeling empathy with them.

The first part of that new commandment is to listen. Through my involvement in an organization called Stephen Ministry, I have grown to understand both how healing it is to be heard and how rare. The preponderance of the training for lay Stephen Ministers involves simply learning how to listen. The training lasts for forty hours, which underlines just how difficult listening is for most of us. Although we are told that we shouldn’t judge, it’s all too easy for us to look at another person’s situation, recognize what we think they should do, and give advice. That feels like we’re helping, but often we’re simply overriding their perspective with ours.

True listening is inefficient (in our speeded up, quick fix society). It takes a long time, but it shows true caring. I have discovered how hungry people are to be heard (rather than being told what to do). There’s no shortage of advice (religious or otherwise) in our society; there’s a shortage of the time-consuming commitment to listen. When we give quick, easy, unasked-for advice, we are belittling the other person’s capacity and effort to deal with their own problems. “Judge not” is the negative version of this commandment; I suggest that the positive version begins with listening.

(You may have noticed that my recommendation to followers of Christ about interacting with others is remarkably similar to my main suggestion about praying: “first, shut up!”  And yes, I recognize that I’m giving advice here, but I think that the suggestion to listen is different. It’s advice to stop advising so quickly.)

The second part of the commandment is to empathize. This is a step beyond the liberal emphasis on “tolerance.” I understand why we liberals no longer talk so much about tolerance. It’s a namby-pamby goal; it’s hard to muster much passion for mere tolerance (I am reminded of Sean Penn’s award acceptance speech: “You tolerate me! You really tolerate me!”). Part of me says that I’d be happy with more tolerance in these divisive times, but another part believes we need a higher goal. And so even though tolerance is in short supply these days, I advocate for empathy.

As a film and television scholar, I have thought a good deal about empathy, since film and television are basically empathy machines. Part of the reason I was attracted to the field was the belief that film and television are ways for us to vividly, powerfully put on someone else’s perspective. I still believe that is true; I also see the both the power and the limitations of that idea. I see how perspective can be commodified and packaged in ways that alter it by making it more palatable, and I understand we can flatter ourselves for how tolerant we are by accepting a commercialized Other in film/TV.

The well-established rules of screenwriting tell us that to make us care about a character, it’s best to establish that the character is a “person like us,” that even though they may appear to be different, we share some basic characteristics “under the skin.” There are many, many cultural assumptions about what qualities are potentially sharable qualities and which aren’t. We are engaging in many interesting narrative experiments today about empathy with characters, and that is doing undeniably important cultural work. However, empathy with characters isn’t quite the same as empathy with real people who haven’t been shaped for public consumption. As important as media are for broadening our understanding of others, they aren’t a substitute for interactions with the raw humanity of someone different from yourself.

Media are empathy technologies, yes; but I neglected to realize that they are also judgment machines. By watching so many films and so much television over the years, we have become expert at calibrating degrees of empathy with characters; we have also become quite good at the judgments required by storytelling.


One of my favorite examples is the first time that Raiders of the Lost Ark shows us Toht, the Nazi. We don’t know anything about the character, but before he even speaks we are immediately expected to read him as a villain based on his beady eyes behind his reflective wire-rim glasses, his thin lips, and his overall smarmy appearance. To get the full rollercoaster pleasure of Raiders, we need to know how to judge bad hombres by their appearances in an instant. We are now very practiced at doing this, and we do it in film, television, social media, politics, walking down the street.

I entered the field of film/television studies with hopes about how media could enlarge our perspectives, and I still believe in that. I also now recognize how good we have become at the counter-tendency: snap judgments. I remain hopeful about empathy, though I wonder if we need a better basis for empathy than discovering that we’re “all the same underneath.” That feels to me a lot like substituting my own experience for others.

If you’re a follower of Christ, maybe the right basis for empathy is the same unearned basis we all have to lay claim to God: that we are all God’s children, not because of our actions or values or experiences. We don’t have to find ways that the other person is like us before we extend our empathy to God’s children. This empathy looks for the God within, even when the person makes choices or says things that are inexplicable to us. God is the measure for empathy, not our limited human experience.

One might say that empathizing with others (the disenfranchised and disempowered) would be a bad idea for anyone trying to create policy for those people. Policymaking requires the ability to make tough decisions, after all. I would assert that listening and empathy are vital to good policy. One may make tough pragmatic decisions, but you have done so after truly hearing other people’s perspective, not mansplaining or Christiansplaining their experiences for them. Empathy may make it more difficult to make policy decisions, but those decisions will be grounded in people’s lives, not simply in narratives of our own choosing.

Empathy is not weakness; it requires bravery and effort, particularly for those in positions of power or authority. This blog post is not focusing on the political side of things, but if I were to give advice to Republicans (yes, unsolicited advice! It is a difficult habit to give up!), I would say that the public perception of your decisionmaking is remarkably lacking in empathy. Empathy is not at odds with “toughness” and “pragmatism.”

As I discuss ways to expand the Gospel today, many of these expansions (such as Nadia Bolz-Weber’s revised Beatitudes) have to do with how to follow Christ in a diverse world. This goes far beyond not judging others (which is difficult enough!) for being different. It goes beyond assuming that others are like you (allowing you to bypass the tedious, frustrating, inefficient task of listening to them). It recognizes that other people’s lives may be so different from your own that it never occurs to you that there can be another way of being-in-the-world. If we need a miracle today, we need God to cure us of our own blindness and deafness to the experiences of those unlike us.

An Affirmation for God’s Children


“I am a child of God.” The first words of this affirmation have their origin in a former minister’s baptism ritual. When Nibs Stroupe baptized an infant at Oakhurst Presbyterian Church, he (like many pastors) would introduce the baby to the congregation by walking through the sanctuary. He might say “This girl will be told that she is valuable when she is attractive to men;” or “This boy will be told that he needs to dominate others in order to feel good about himself;” or “This is a middle class child who will be told that he/she is entitled above others,” and so on. He would conclude: “Our job as the church is to remind her/him of her/his true identity: a child of God.” It was a powerful ritual.

Like any good ritual, this one has variations that reinforce an underlying theme. The world is full of identities that are pre-made for us to occupy, but our status as God’s children is a foundational spiritual birthright. Before we were anything else, before we became linked to our job success or failure, our gender, or our race, we were the recipient of God’s radical grace. We didn’t do anything to deserve being a child of God; no child gets to choose her/his family of birth. And so that unearned identity is unshakable; nothing can separate us from God’s love (just as nothing can truly break the link between parent and child). We need a ritual reminder of that central identity.

We also need to recommit ourselves to the activity of following Christ. As I have noted in the previous blog entry, following Christ is less about what we believe and more about what we do.

And so I offer this affirmation of identity and activity as an alternative to traditional creeds of Christian belief. You may not do all of these things this affirmation says; you may not yet be the person these words describe. But these aspirational words are my gift to you, a reminder of the habits of mind and body that lead us to understand who we truly are: a child of God.

On religious belief


A few times in this blog, I have mentioned that I think Christianity focuses far too much on what you believe. Theological differences in our beliefs have served primarily to divide us into separate denominational tribes. The central activities of following Christ, on the other hand, tend to be a broadly shared heritage that unites. What we do to follow Christ matters more than most theological beliefs.

(Before I get too far into this, I’ll anticipate an objection from readers of the Book of Ephesians, who would remind me that salvation comes from God’s grace and not through any work that we do. (2: 8-9) The activities I’ve been discussing so far in this blog aren’t the kinds of moral “good deeds” that we typically mean when talking about Christian “works.” We are called to love God, to pray, to be grateful, and to engage in Scripturally-connected study. If we don’t do these fundamental activities, then we lose our vital connection to God, and so I argue that these are more life-supporting and spirit-sustaining than many theological “beliefs.”)

In my previous blog entry about what the word of God is and how it works, I left out a pat statement many Christians profess about Scripture:  “I believe the whole Bible.” Frankly, I don’t think anyone does, at least not in any deep form of “belief.” The Bible is too big, too varied, too complex to keep fully in our minds at any given time. For me, if the word “belief” has any spiritual meaning whatsoever, it has to mean more than “I can accept this idea mentally.” Spiritual belief has to mean something more than cognition; it must mean “this idea is so important that I am living by its precepts.” I am unable to do that with the whole Bible; at best I can hold only a subset of its teachings in my little mind. That’s one reason I go to listen to a sermon; I am looking to be reminded of the parts of Scripture I’ve been personally neglecting lately.

All followers of Christ carry with us our own personal version of the word of God, the parts of Scripture that have been most present and important in our lives. If you’ve been paying attention to the tags on my blogs (and I’m sure you have!), you’ll note that the religious blog entries are tagged “the Gospel according to Greg.” That’s not (purely) hubris. I think that all followers of Christ actualize a portion of the word of God and that part of “evangelism” is to share that version with others. Each follower of Christ has put certain personally resonant parts of the Bible into action. That is your “gospel.” Those are your lived spiritual “beliefs.” It’s not simply a matter of being convinced that a belief is right or wrong. It’s not about what beliefs you hold; it’s about what beliefs take hold of you. It’s about revelation, not argumentation.

The process of gaining such deep beliefs cannot be rushed. Let me give an example of someone who modeled the slow careful growth of spiritual beliefs for me. Many years ago I did a months-long group study of the whole Bible entitled Kerygma. One of the members of that group didn’t speak much during the class sessions, but when he did, his participation was always showed deep insight, so I grew to respect him greatly. At the end of the class, the leader asked us what we had learned, and various people (including me) blathered on about all we had discovered. When it came time for this man to speak, he said, “I have learned two things. One: God is.  And two: God is powerful.” That’s it; months of study, and those two short sentences of belief were the only result. But those sentences were spoken with strong conviction; he believed those things in the deepest sense of the word. I respect how careful he was with his mind and heart. Unlike the rest of us loudmouths in the class, he wasn’t about to go further in his words than his convictions.

The church often calls for us to do just that. I attend a creedal church where we regularly recite the Apostles’ Creed, and I start off like everyone else: “I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.” I do believe that. But then my voice trails off from there. There are just too many things in those words that I don’t believe with my whole being, that aren’t central to who I am as a follower of Christ, at least not at this moment. I understand why “born of a virgin” is in the creed, but the Virgin birth just isn’t a vital part of how I practice Christianity (this might be different if I were Catholic, not Protestant). And there are just weird choices made in the Apostles’ Creed. Jesus descending into hell only appears in one gospel account; why is it front and center here? Whose spiritual practice has this as a vital belief?

And so rather than awkwardly blurt out only the phrases that I do believe in (“the forgiveness of sins!”), I keep quiet thereafter. There may come a time when those other ideas (including the Virgin birth) become important to how I follow Christ. Then I will expand the “gospel according to Greg.” In the meantime, I just can’t see how saying things I don’t deeply believe out loud on a regular basis can be good for my soul. I am protective of my soul. You can get by on very few beliefs (for example, “God is” and “God is powerful”). I’d much rather say aloud an aspirational list of what we should do rather than a list of what we should believe. (More on that next time)

You won’t be surprised to hear that my favorite Bible verse comes from the story in Mark about the father who asked Jesus to heal his convulsive son if Jesus could do so. “What do you mean, ‘If I can?’ All things are possible for one who believes.” “Lord, I believe,” the father replied. “Help my unbelief.” (9:24) (That couplet makes a great mantra for meditative prayer when you’re struggling with your faith.) Jesus lowered the bar for those of us who find belief difficult, accepting those whose faith fit the smallest imaginable measure in his day (the size of a mustard seed). Mature faith is capable of admitting its limits as we work to enlarge that faith. Like my friend and the father in Mark’s gospel, we can be confident about the beliefs we truly hold central to our practice, and we can ask for divine help to see a larger vision of God’s kingdom.

The practice of Christianity often involves a complicated cocktail of beliefs and experiences mixed with community and identity. You go to church because that’s part of how you define yourself; you see your friends there, and you mentally agree with the church’s statements on what God is. But I have seen such intellectual beliefs shattered by hard times. “Why are bad things happening to me?” All too often, Christian church communities provide only token support for such struggling people. (Churches can make the mistake of assuming they are naturally warm places. If it’s no one’s job in particular to help those who suffer, then that help usually doesn’t happen.) And when the suffering believer misses church services and no one notices, that sense of community and identity can unravel, and intellectual beliefs about God provide cold comfort.

In this blog I have argued that the habits of regular thanksgiving, prayer, charity, and Scripturally-connected study build a better foundation that is far less vulnerable than any system of theological beliefs, and so I think we should concentrate our efforts there. The Psalms are full of cries to God about how people desert you when the going gets tough. That’s the point; if you have developed habits of intimacy with God, you can reach out to God’s comfort when human structures disappoint. Building that oh-so-peculiar relationship with an infinite, invisible, loving God is the best preparation for hard times. Beliefs that become disconnected to the living presence of the divine can crumble quickly.

How did Christian communities get so focused on what we should believe? I blame the professionals: the theologians and ministers. At the same time, I understand their temptations. In many ways, ministers are like my home tribe: academics. (I am reminded that the university is a direct descendant of the church whenever I don my priestly robes for graduation ceremonies.) Everyone goes to school, but those who choose the teaching profession are the freaky students who become captivated by the subject matter and want to devote their lives to knowing more.

A similar obsession/calling creates ministers and theologians. Just as we academics can become fixated on ever more arcane aspects of our chosen subjects, there’s a natural tendency for those professional Christians to delve into the details of theology, about the Christological differences among the terms “Son of God,” “Son of Man,” and “Messiah,” or about grace versus works (whether someone who undergoes a conversion experience and then continues to lead a deeply sinful life will go to heaven). These make for some fun late-night-undergrad-bull-session debates, but no one thinks that it’s a good idea for a Christian follower to do evil deeds. We all believe that grace is necessary and that righteous action is the correct response to that grace. On a practical level these intellectual distinctions don’t make much difference on the way we follow Christ.

In my own field I have seen academics battle bitterly over tiny issues that couldn’t possibly concern any ordinary person, and theologians are susceptible to the same temptation. (Preachers do have a distinct advantage over academics in airing their arguments, however. When I’m lecturing about film, no one is worried that my positions might affect their mortal soul. I only wish I had that kind of motivating factor to encourage my students to listen!).

A congregation is like a blog; you need to keep feeding it if you want people to come back. When a preacher is expected to say something significant every Sunday, it’s tempting to use your authority to weigh in on a theological debate (about whether God’s infinite knowledge is at odds with the notion of human free will, for instance, or about the existence of a literal hell). Such theological pronouncements have been at the heart of many church splits, with the result that even small communities find themselves with a different church on every other corner.

As I noted in a previous blog entry, my father led a church split in my small town over the issue of whether the church should elect deacons. He believed in a strongly egalitarian version of the “priesthood of the believer” in which no one should be placed in a position of spiritual authority over another, and that belief was enough to divide the church (if there’s anything we know how to do in the South, we know how to secede!). Looking back on this, I think about what a waste of spiritual energy that was.

The history of the Christian church (large and small) is the history of division. Sometimes principles of structural organization/authority are at issue, but usually the schisms are about theological beliefs. A certain minimal amount of belief is necessary for Christianity, but we need to recognize how an overemphasis on beliefs can rip Christian communities apart.

(In the next blog entry, I’ll suggest an action-oriented alternative to Christian creeds about beliefs.)

On Scriptural Study; or Christianity Is Dangerous


The two basic disciplines of the Christian life are prayer and Scripturally-connected study.

For anyone who’s spent any time in church, this is a pretty unsurprising statement, but bear with me: I hope to take this in a more interesting direction. First let me phrase this a bit more aggressively: if you’re not doing both of these disciplines on a fairly regular basis, you’re at incredible risk of not following Christ.

A bit of ground-clearing here so you’ll know where I’m coming from regarding Scripture (ok, a LOT of ground-clearing. My apologies in advance). Do I believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible? No. I greatly prefer the words that the Bible uses to describe itself: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” (2 Tim. 3:16) The whole notion of “literal truth” developed much later than when the Bible was written (Bart Ehrman has made an interesting argument that fundamentalist Christianity is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and its emphasis on objective truth). To ask the Bible to adhere to the standard of “literalness” is to impose a set of values that are external to Scripture. I’d rather stick to what the Bible says about itself.

To be honest, I’ve never quite understood what it means to believe the Bible literally. What would a literal understanding of the poetry of Song of Solomon look like? The Scriptures are full of metaphor, and no one is tempted to take those literally. Does anyone believe that the streets of heaven are paved with element number 79 on the earthly period table? Does anyone expect that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will actually ride horses? “Literalness” applied to poetry and metaphor would fundamentally misunderstand those words.

And what would a “literal” reading of a parable be? Parables are explicitly stories for our edification; no one literally believes there was an actual Prodigal Son. It’s a bit of fabrication that’s meant to yield a deeper truth. (Yes, I guess I did just call Jesus a liar. Another word for that is “storyteller.”) Those stories are designed to prompt our interpretation. Their power is not in their literalness; it’s in the call for us to participate in making sense of them for our lives.

What “literal” means is that you treat parts of the Bible literally; not the metaphor and poetry but the events depicted. But then you’re picking and choosing which portions of the Bible should be understood “literally” (the Creation, the Flood, the Exodus, Satan, and the miracles, not the parables), and so we’re back in the world of interpretation and choosing which portions of Scripture should be our focus and which should not.

We do this all the time in Christianity. We expand the significance of certain scriptures by making them prominent (there’s a lot less about original sin in the Bible than you would expect, given its prominence in doctrine). We ignore virtually all of the behavioral prescriptions in the Old Testament Pentateuch (except for the Ten Commandments, of course) because Jesus has done away the old law.

More pertinent to modern Christians is the way we bypass the Apostle Paul’s anti-women rhetoric, particularly his very explicit statement that women should be silent in church (I Corinthians 14:34). How many churches observe this today? Hopefully not many. Hopefully we use our interpretive powers to see how individual prescriptions in the Bible can be counter to the overall message. Those individual words should be weighed within the whole and interpreted in light of God’s Spirit, not weaponized to silence and harm others.

So there is no alternative to “interpretation;” it’s built into our experience of the Bible at the most basic structural level (and to the process of all reading. If you want my secular thoughts about “reading into” a text, I’ll point you to something I wrote for introductory film/media classes called “It’s Just a Movie”). There aren’t vowels actually written in the Torah; they have to be added by the reader. The familiar structure of chapters and verses was as added later by not-particularly inspired scribes trying to break the text up into more manageable and quotable chunks.

Rabbis interrogate and interpret the Scriptures; the idea of nailing down the “literal” meaning of Scriptures would be utterly foreign to the enterprise that Jesus himself participated in. And of course the Bible is written in Hebrew and Greek, and so translation into another language is necessarily a process of interpretation. Reading Scripture is participatory.

Because of this participation, I believe that the Word of God is a living, breathing process, and that process expands Scripture. Jesus himself magnified a part of the existing Jewish law (on love, on thought/motivation, and against materialism), opened up more intimate access to God, and increased the reach of the gospel outside of sanctimonious people in Israel and Judea (to prostitutes, ethically compromised officials in imperialist governments, and Samaritans).

I believe it is significant that the first major theological struggle documented for early believers is the question of whether Christianity would be a Jewish sect or a religion that extends to Gentiles. The Book of Acts details a conversion story in which Peter has to be convinced that non-Jews can be followers of Christ. That conversion happens (in part) by face-to-face encounters between Peter and Gentile believers. When he is confronted with real human beings who undeniably love and serve Christ, he alters his theology. He discovers that the chosen people of God are no longer a tribal few, even though the vast majority of the written Scriptures say that it is. In the ministry of Jesus and in the earliest interactions of the church, we see the Kingdom of God grow past our narrow Scriptural confines. I do not think this is coincidence; I think this is a demonstration of how we should all interact with Scripture.

I don’t see why the process of revelation should stop with the Book of Revelations (growing up in fundamentalist religion, I was taught that the period of such prophecy was over, though it was never clear to me why that was). Partly I blame mainstream Christian education for this, particularly its Protestant version. We somehow pretend that our church began with Martin Luther’s revolutionary reinterpretation (opening up the doors to the Kingdom further by enlarging the “priesthood” to include all believers), managing to ignore all that Catholic church history beforehand.

We don’t hear much about a series of councils throughout Christianity’s early centuries in which our theology moved from open, contested questions to settled doctrine. The concept of the Trinity and the idea that Jesus was fully human and fully divine at the same time became official church theology through a combination of argumentation and assertion of authority. These core Christian tenets are far from being clear, obvious parts of the faith; believers managed to follow Christ without having these things settled for centuries.

Far from a “the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it” mentality, it took many generations of Christians to arrive at what we now think the Bible “says.” We do a disservice to those generations of followers of Christ to ignore the struggle to make sense out of such a complex book and to pretend that now such questioning is somehow settled. The history of following Christ is a history of struggling to understand and to continue the work of expanding the Kingdom of God.

And so it makes perfect sense to me to expand our understanding of God’s kingdom to include gays and lesbians. The key to expanding our theology is people, not doctrine (just as it was for Peter). When I attended a Methodist church in the Nineties, my minister had what he described as a “conversion experience.” A long-established pillar of the church came out to him as lesbian, and through a series of interactions with her, he altered his understanding of the Kingdom. When confronted by the raw fact of an incontrovertible follower of Christ, he (like Peter) enlarged his theology.

In similar fashion, I am open to the idea that the Kingdom of God includes those who don’t use the J-word or the C-word when they pray. I have met people of undeniable spiritual maturity from faiths other than Christianity. I have no problem seeing God working through them. If we take the world-expanding experiences of Jesus and the early church seriously, then we too need to be open to the call to grow the Kingdom. What if “evangelical” came to mean “opening up our own understanding of the Kingdom to incorporate a wider range of people to participate with us in religion?” (instead of forcing them to “convert” their thinking to ours)

Encounters with other religious traditions can enrich a follower of Christ. If your reading stays entirely within the Christian sphere, you also inherit certain time-honored traditions about what you believe and what you practice. Learning something about other religious practices can help shake the cobwebs off your theology and your spiritual discipline. Buddhism, to my mind, has a much better articulation of what “holiness” is; in Christianity, it’s a word we toss around without really thinking much about what it means. After learning about meditation, my prayer life has changed dramatically from the all-words-all-the-time tradition in which I was raised to a much more quiet, contemplative experience. I’m intrigued by the greater involvement of the body in Buddhist and Muslim prayer; our Christian heritage has given us a fraught relationship with our bodies.

Judeo-Christianity has never stood alone. From its earliest days, it has cross-fertilized and been influenced by Zoroastrianism, wisdom traditions, and Greek philosophy. We do ourselves a disservice by trying to set Christianity entirely apart from other religious traditions. Learning about other religious practices has strengthened my own Christian path. Other religions emphasize other parts of the enormity of God. The altered perspective they provide allow me to see familiar Christian teachings with new eyes. A new perspective is a gift; I welcome it wherever it comes from.

And so you’ll note that I say that one of the central disciplines of following Christ is “Scripturally-connected study” and not simply “reading the Bible.” By the former phrase I mean “engaging in reading and study that enlarges your understanding of the Bible.” Sometimes that means reading the Bible. But as I noted, it’s easy for the cobwebs of Christian tradition to accumulate in our minds; it’s hard to find new perspectives if you’ve been in the church for awhile. Sometimes it’s better to read works that elaborate on Scripture. Sometimes it’s good to study religious perspectives that are foreign and to use those traditions to illuminate the Bible. Such “foreign travel” can help you see your religious “homeland” in a larger way.

For many Christians, the answer to problems is “read your Bible.” (Some people prescribe the Bible like medicine: “read some and you’ll be all better.”) But we also should recognize what a frustrating, confusing, and at times boring book the Bible is.

Let me be clear: the Bible is at the center of Christianity. We (like generations before us) need to keep coming back to that book. I believe that reading works of Buddhism or Islam can enliven your Christian understanding, but if those works become truly central for you, then you’re probably no longer doing something called “Christianity.” One thing that connects millennia of Christ’s followers is that we are all doing the same thing: trying to figure out what purposes can this first century book can serve in our contemporary world. Connecting your study and your life to this annoying, beguiling, and undeniably central book is a key discipline.

As you might guess, I think the two disciplines of prayer and Scriptural study begin to bleed into each other. The Word of God is not just a book; it is a living thing that grows, that exists not only between the covers of the Holy Bible but also in words spoken and written and actions done today. Some may be uncomfortable with how porous the Word of God is for me. Doesn’t this loosey-goosey “expanding the Word of God” stuff make it pretty easy for me to invoke “God’s will” and substitute my own? Isn’t it easy to remake the Bible into your own image, for your own purposes?

Hell yes. That’s a danger.

Let me first note the other danger: using the Bible without prayerful meditation about how God wants you to put those words into action. If your focus is entirely on the Bible, then you are making the Bible into your God. It is possible to violate the “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” commandment by putting a legalistic version of the Bible first. God is larger than the Bible. Biblical study without prayer can become rigid and judgmental.

The opposite danger is prayer/meditation without checking in with the Scriptures. It is easy for such practice to become solipsistic, for you and your own ideas to become your God. As I’ve said, I need to regularly experience voices (in sermons and in reading) that remind me how inadequate my own understanding of God is. We need both disciplines: prayer and Scripturally-centered study. One without the other is deadly.

I’ll go further: if you study and contemplate the Scriptures as a whole and if you regularly listen to the still small voice of God that you hear in prayer/meditation, you should do what that voice says. Over and over again in the Judeo-Christian faith, we have examples of people acting through faith on their revelations of what God wants them to do in the world. We believe that if you’re doing both of the central disciplines, you should act boldly on what you are called to do.

I’ll admit this is scary stuff. This is terrorist stuff, potentially. What if you believe God is calling you to smite your enemies? (There’s an awful lot of smiting that goes on in the Bible, so you can definitely find precedent) How does this faith differ from the justifications that terrorists give?

Let me add to the discussion earlier blog posts in which I argued that the primary job of a follower of Christ is to love God and then to engage in charity and justice. Those are the central calling/activities for following Christ, as I see it. If you love God and work for charity and justice while you pray and study Scripture, then I cannot believe that the still small voice of God will tell you to commit violence. That is not the God I know. I recognize the danger of getting this wrong. Christians have gotten this wrong for centuries (witness the Crusades and the support of slavery). But that is the faith I have in those central beliefs and disciplines.

Christianity is dangerous. Or it should be.

(More on prayer, that other dangerous discipline, next time.)

Christianity’s Two Outward Faces: Charity and Justice


After loving God (see previous blog post), the second job for a follower of Christ is to love others. “Others” covers a lot of ground, but this post focuses on the outward looking face that Christianity is called to present. I believe that outward orientation has two aspects: charity and justice.

In this post I won’t be talking much about caring for those who are within the Christian community. That care is important: in fact, Christ warns about becoming overly focused on the poor and neglecting each other. The church’s mission to the poor is so central that it can be easy to mistake the church for a poverty activism group (which was the disciples’ error in rebuking the woman who anointed Jesus (Matt. 26:6-13)). Followers of Christ are called to be loving to all, including your fellow followers, and that in-network support is crucial for maintaining a strong community. But I recognize that it’s usually easier to take care of those who are “in the club.” There’s nothing distinctively Christian about caring for family and friends. As Jesus said, even Hitler was nice to his family. (wink)

When I was growing up, my family was embedded in just such a Christian community, and my mother was a strong participant in the caring casserole network… at least in one direction. She was glad to extend Christian charity to others, but she did her best not to accept charity from others if at all possible. With all the moral acuity of a smart-ass teenager, I remember pointing this out to Mom, noting that if everyone felt like she did, then there would be no one to accept the charity she offered. (She was not impressed.)

But there is something here about Christians’ inability to admit their own weakness to each other. A strange reverse one-upmanship, a kind of potlatch charity, can arise in a Christian community. It’s one thing to admit that it’s more blessed to give than to receive; it’s another to refuse to receive because it’s a sign of weakness. Receiving charity isn’t an admission that you are weak; it’s a recognition that we all need God’s grace in the form of each other’s caring actions. Philip Yancey says that the church should act more like Alcoholics Anonymous, where people freely admit their powerlessness and their wounds as soon as they walk in the door. As the old saying goes, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. By giving and receiving care, we participate in a spiritual network that recognizes our common humanity and our common need.

But in this post I’m focusing on the outward face of that love. Depending on which version of the Bible you have, the same word may be translated as “love” and “charity.” Love is central to following Christ, and that word “charity” has morphed over time. I will call the outward, face-to-face expression of that love and care “direct charity.”

Here I’m trying to activate a fairly old-fashioned use of the word. “Christian charity” meant doing things for others as a way to serve as God’s hands and feet in this world. What I wish to emphasize is the directness of that touch, modeled on Jesus’s personal actions on earth. Direct charity (as I’m using it) is love in action that is up close, not at a distance. It’s caring for the welfare of others on a one-to-one basis fueled by a higher purpose. It’s a personal interaction between one child of God and another.

By the time we got to the 19th century, people began to doubt the effectiveness of direct charity, particularly to those outside the Christian community. Giving money to a poor immigrant on the streets of America’s growing cities might result in that beggar spending that money in a tavern. Once the population grew past the size that could be monitored, it became clear that direct charity might actually contribute to a life of dissolution. There’s an undeniable racial/ethnic aspect to this moment as immigrants come to America in huge numbers, and those who are different from you seem more innately untrustworthy, more in need of a parental guiding hand.

Also part of the moment is the rise of the modern corporation, which taught us to address social problems in the same way that we organized industrial production: through rational management and large scale. “Charity” began to take on its more modern meaning: an organization that pools financial donations and leverages them in instrumental ways across a large group. I’ll call this form “corporate charity.” And so the two forms of management intermingled: Henry Ford offered a dollar a day to his factory workers, but their lives had to be inspected by managers who insured that the money was spent on morally approved “uplifting” pursuits.

And so foundations emerged as a way to spread the wealth and manage it for good, and this remains the typical understanding of the word “charity” today, with the older, more direct form feeling a bit outdated. And I do believe that the more modern corporate charity has a lot going for it. The liquidity of capital has many advantages; we can now quickly move wealth from where it is to where it’s needed. But I also believe there’s something crucial about the direct form of charity.

Luke’s gospel says in the Sermon on the Plain, “Give to everyone who asks you.” (6:30) Full stop. No qualms. Now certainly there were beggars in Jesus’ era who would take the money and spend it on wine (our modern era didn’t invent addiction), but there’s no mention of that here. There are no added conditions to make the commandment more rational (“give to everyone that you can reasonably expect might not misuse the funds”). Such giving is an act of participation in a radical alternative economy, one where we are accountable for our own generosity and not for what happens after the giving. This economy operates by faith that a very different Invisible Hand is at work to multiply and manage the value of a single act.

Both parties benefit from such exchanges. This keeps your love grounded in reality, because sometimes those in need may not be particularly Christ-like in the way they receive your love. This reminds us that none of us are particularly deserving, that we share with the poor and needy not because of what they do or say but because we recognize the image of God within them. That image can be hard to see sometimes, so extending a physical act of charity can be a terrific reminder that we need not be noble or good in order to receive grace.

I’m articulating these two forms of charity because I think it’s easy to believe that the second form (corporate charity) can take the place of direct charity (or to believe that corporate charity is better because it’s better managed). The second, modern form is certainly easier and cleaner. And yet I cannot find a loophole in the straightforward commandment to give to everyone who asks, a commandment from one of Jesus’ most central sermons (he also says, “If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.” (Luke 6:29) I’m glad no one has tested me on this one.) I’m very aware that I’m writing this as a man and that operating as a woman in an urban environment is a very different thing with different fears. I don’t know what to say about that. I do think that followers of Christ are called to do some form of direct charity (I’m preaching to myself as much as to anyone). I believe that If Christianity operates only at a distance, it loses a crucial personal touch. The call to charity is corporeal first and corporate second.

The other Christian call in dealing with others is justice. If direct charity seeks to repair the body in need, justice intervenes in the body politic to try to prevent harm from happening to more people.

Admittedly, there’s not a lot of language that’s explicitly about political justice in the New Testament. Most of that is in the Old Testament prophets. We tend to think of the word “prophet” as meaning “one who foretells the future,” and Old Testament prophets do that, no doubt. But they spend more time doing the other activity of prophets, which is speaking truth to power. Numerous prophets call on Israel to repent. Nathan confronts King David with charges of infidelity and murder. Continuing that tradition in the New Testament, John the Baptist both foretells the coming Messiah and criticizes King Herod, leading to his imprisonment and death. “Prophecy” isn’t always about seeing the future; it’s about seeing the present clearly and speaking out to those who can make a difference.

One could make the case that Jesus’ ministry explicitly stayed away from explicit political activism/criticism, being careful not to criticize the Roman Empire, certainly a government that didn’t care so much about the rights of others (“render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” is an extremely cagey response. When Jesus did speak truth to power, he attacked the religious establishment, and that thought should give every denomination pause).

And so while I clearly disagree with the idea that an emphasis on social justice is a misrepresentation of Christ’s message, I can see where this assertion comes from. Strangely enough, the Christians who are bothered by the notion of “social justice” are often the same folks who espouse a “I believe the whole Bible” religion, and speaking truth to power is all over the Old Testament, as I said. Even Martin Luther King had to fairly explicitly connect the dots between Old Testament prophecy and New Testament love for Christ’s followers in his time. MLK talked a lot about loving your enemy; he also talked about letting justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24) He understood the limitations of Christian charity, both direct and corporate. One can care for the poor and needy as individuals without changing the social/political conditions that contributed to their plight. Charity has a bias toward the status quo; it is a balm that treats symptoms, not causes.

Mainstream religion is full of middle class citizens who have access to local power through civic organizations (or through the basic familiarity with operating in a bureaucracy that comes with middle class life), and accordingly I believe we have a special responsibility to work for justice. (Again, preaching to myself as much as to anyone) Direct charity is important both for the giver and the receiver; social justice is its Judeo-Christian partner. (Click here for a powerful articulation of social justice in the gospel)

Following Christ is an enormous challenge. It’s humanly impossible to do all that Christianity asks, and so we share the load. One always falls short in some aspect of following Christ, whether it’s the call to individual holiness or the command to care for others. Christianity is an aspiration, a higher calling. Most followers of Christ have a preference in their service, leaning toward serving within the church or reaching out to the unchurched, orienting themselves either toward the healing labor of charity or the activist work of justice. We all naturally gravitate toward some part of the mission, often toward the work that seems easiest to us. This post is a reminder (to myself as much as anyone) that the love of Christ faces outward (often uncomfortably so) toward individuals and structures alike.