Beliefnet
Hear the Gospel

Teaching in parables

Teaching in parables

Articles that attempt to deconstruct, analyze and explain faith and religion in purely scientific terms always remind me of academic studies that attempt to explain why a particular joke is funny. With a joke, you usually either get it or you don’t. Reverse engineering a joke is so detached from the actual experience of humor that it seems like the authors of studies like this are the ones that don’t get it. They can’t see the Mona Lisa for the paint. The studies themselves begin to sound like the better joke.

I think of similar science-based inquiries into religion in much the same way. With the understanding that the terms faith and religion cover a near infinite spectrum of beliefs, you basically either understand the purpose, meaning and experience of faith and religion on a personal level, or you don’t. No amount of psychological, neurological, anthropological or analysis of cultural evolution can bring you to a complete understanding or appreciation of the religious experience or dissuade you from it.
No amount of studying the construct of the inner ear can lead you to a complete understanding and appreciation of Mozart, or diminish the mystery and majesty of his compositions. Music is not disproved as a result of discovering that we hear with our ears. Neither is religion disproved because it’s discovered to meet a basic human need or leverage aspects of human physiology. If anything, music and religion are strengthened by inquiry and seem even more essential as a result.

The importance of narrative

Still, I enjoy reading articles like this. It’s all interesting. Check out: Why Are Some Religions More Popular Than Others? This article reviews a number of scientific studies that suggest, among other things, that successful religions are ones that:

  • Demand some degree of self-sacrifice, and that
  • Include one or two surprising and “non-natural” events in their foundational narratives. That makes them easier to remember and easier to propagate.

According to the article, some religions tend to be more successful than others. Obviously. Religions that require no self-sacrifice or that feature either too few or too many events in their foundation myths, fail to become widely embraced. The author invokes Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus as extreme examples of imaginary (non-natural) beings that failed to develop world religions around them. Really? It’s been my experience that trips to Disney World with young children DO require an enormous amount of self-sacrifice and super-human effort, as does pulling off Christmas at your house for the extended family. I know many people who are enraptured by both Disney and holiday shopping.

Both core observations in this article make sense. This is how things work in this world. Although they may try, I don’t think studies like this effectively discount or argue against the power and validity of the religious experience. And Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus as failed religious idols are false equivalents and cheap straw men.
But what I like about this article are the two papers referenced, presenting research that supports the ideas that a) compelling narratives are a key part of successful religions and b) that they are easier to remember when they include a limited number of extraordinary non-natural events: like a worldwide flood, or a parting of the sea, or walking on water… I seem to be fixated on water here for some reason … or miraculous healing. This is an Interesting observation. And good to know. This is how things work. That’s why powerful narratives are good: they get and hold our attention and we are eager to share them.

Reading scripture aloud

We read scripture aloud because we are immersing ourselves in the narratives contained in the Bible. Narratives are important to us and that may be why the Bible relies on them. We remember them. We experience and relate to the sacrifice of the lives presented in the Bible – some willing, some unwilling – that we are called to emulate or derive cautionary tales from. We encounter events in the Bible that are truly extraordinary and emotionally arresting and worthy of sharing. The fact that non-natural events help make these narratives easier to remember makes perfect sense. We want these events to be remembered so we put them into narratives in an easily digestible way.
The Mona Lisa can’t be dismissed as just paint. The fact that it’s accomplished with just paint makes it the more remarkable and makes it something you must see.

I’ve often wondered why Jesus relied so heavily on parables as a didactic method. Because they are easier to remember than long lists and easier to propagate? The fact that parables are an effective medium of communication in an illiterate society does not undermine the essential truths contained in each parable. It just means they work.
It’s important to hear these narratives read aloud in order to really hear the Gospel. That’s what they are for. That’s how they work. By design. No apologies required.

 

Jesus and discliples

Don’t just talk among yourselves.

A great article by Jonathan Merritt in the New York Times this past Sunday: It’s Getting Harder to Talk About God.  This is the kind of article I really enjoy reading.

After growing  up in his faith and receiving higher education at religious institutions, the author moved to New York City (a detail which I love) to observe and lament the general “decline in our spiritual vocabulary.” He believes people are increasingly uncomfortable talking about spirituality and faith. We seem to have lost both their willingness and ability to do so.

This topic is such a tangled web that you could write a book about it.  And, indeed, Jonathan Merritt has done just that.  Learning to Speak God From Scratch:  Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing – And How We Can Revive Them describes how we lost our ability to speak “God Talk.” He proposes a revival.

I haven’t yet purchased and read the book (it’s only Monday as I write this,) but my take is going to be predictable to anyone who follows this column.  Yup.  It’s definitely a problem, especially among certain influential groups and institutions and in certain geographic regions. I can personally witness that the vocabulary of faith is clearly in disfavor and being abandoned in big business and technology where a narrow definition of rationalism is triumphant. I hope that the author proposes that any revival begin with reading the Gospel aloud.  Nothing will give you back your vocabulary – what the author calls God Talk — more quickly and with more authority.

What’s wrong with us?

I agree that we avoid talking about faith outside of an ever-shrinking geography and demography. We’re losing our ability to speak with confidence and conviction about matters of faith. A few observations of my own:

  • We’re more mindful today of the impact of words and so, wary of giving offense or opening ourselves up to censure, we guard against what are sure to be “trigger words”… AND
  • The words most commonly associated with spirituality and faith have been trivialized and rendered meaningless – or at best banal — by both people of faith and people of no faith. An almost comic book version and understanding of God has been first promoted and then easily attacked by critics and reflexively defended by apologists…AND
  • Words of faith are losing their power. Especially as science and technology substitute for faith. “Data-driven” wields much more power and influence today than “faith-based.” The language of faith is heretical to the new religion of Scientism, WHERE THE JOBS ARE, and has consequently been devalued, debased and made disqualifying…AND
  • As religion today is (and has always been?) highly politicized, the language we use to describe our religious experience has become weaponized. We’ve replaced thoughtful and courageous religious leadership with callow and self-serving politicians to be the advocates for faith in the public square, with disastrous results.

This is serious. The author notes that research has revealed, “…our linguistic landscape both reflects and affects our views…”  A loss of this vocabulary and an ability to speak diminishes our ability to think.

Philosophy isn’t just for college freshmen who aren’t STEM majors

Discussions about religion and philosophy aren’t just snacks to go with late night beers in college.  I was lucky enough to have some early exposure to the study of religion beyond the usual Sunday School instruction. I attended a private school my junior year in high school that offered an elective religious studies course in which Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be, Martin Buber’s I And Thou, and Mircea Eliades’ The Sacred and the Profane were assigned reading. This was followed by a comparative religion course my freshman year in college. I was exposed to a rich vocabulary and critical thinking at a relatively influential age.  That, I think, combined with a continuing recreational interest in the history of religion has given me a respect for faith in general and strengthened my own faith in particular.

I have no problem with anyone challenging any of the particulars of my faith, I’m only mildly annoyed with the parochialism of those challenging my having any faith at all.

It’s fun and invigorating to talk about the spirituality and religion with those who have some understanding of the faith experience – even if no formal education — in an open minded and inquiring way. Not with the Mr. Gradgrinds of the world (facts, facts, nothing but facts.)  The ability to quote and borrow language from the KJV is like the ability to quote Shakespeare or Plato. It transports us to a higher plane of experience and “affects our views.”

God of the kitchen sink

But in today’s increasingly affluent and secular society it’s easy for critics to make a caricature of “defenders of the faith” as defenders of the Christmas holiday shopping season; who see sin as a second piece of chocolate cake; who ask God what color curtains should be put in the kitchen window; where “I’m so blessed” means look what I found on sale; and where God is a minor and highly localized deity that lives in and around the kitchen sink, dutifully helping the faithful solve everyday problems and, like our accountant, magically finding ways to deliver us unto further prosperity. They have recreated God in our own image. The language of God is made small. God Talk becomes small talk like chat consigned religious talk shows.

It’s small wonder that this definition of God Talk – and as collateral damage, all God Talk — is increasingly rejected.

Speaking with distinction and conviction

Read the Bible aloud with others. Put the words in your mouth. It will allow you to access an expansive vocabulary and give you the language to express a depth of experience that transcends our dull daily existence.  Some words will shock you. Some passages will confound you. But they will invite you into a presence of mind and a presence of being that is distinctly bold.

 

The Prophet come into this world

The prophet come into this world

Reading the Gospel of John

‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’

This passage from John 6:1-29 is included in the revised common lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. The text is from the NRSV.

You can hear a recording of this passage here

Reading the Gospel aloud invites the audience to experience human encounters with the divine as revealed in the Bible. We can leave interpretation and meaning to members of the clergy and other scholars. What we are most interested in as lay readers is the human experience found in the narrative.

First Impressions

As you reading through the passage the first time, listen for the voices. Who is speaking?  Who are these people?  Here we have the voices of Jesus and two of his disciples. Jesus ministers to the crowd, but he speaks with and listens to his disciples. Two key relationships stand out in the passage: Jesus to the crowd and Jesus with his disciples.

What is really happening here?

Two separate “miracles” are recounted in this passage. I put miracles in quotes because to those present they are indeed experienced as miraculous. But in this passage, Jesus “…himself knew what he was going to do.” Jesus does not purposefully put on a great show of miracles. What he does is simple, easy and seems natural: what needs to be done. Afterwards, when we see how much food was left over and when the disciples arrive at the shore after wanting to take Jesus into the boat, what just happened seems miraculous. How were those things possible? These are transforming events for those that experience them. The experience of them is key.

They seem miraculous because what happens is entirely unexpected. The disciples are at first baffled as to how they might provide 5,000 people with a Passover meal and later terrified by the appearance of someone walking across the lake. “Do not be afraid. It is I,” Jesus tells them. Jesus is walking on the water and they want to “take him into the boat.”  Clearly, he doesn’t need to be in the boat, in the usual place.

Reacting to what we read

This is where I think humor is to be found in the Gospels. The disciples respond normally to the breathtakingly unexpected. Ask the crowd to sit down? Sure, no problem. Feed 5,000 people? Really? And we have 5 loaves and 2 fish?  Quick, get into the boat!  In retrospect, you have to laugh. I don’t know how he did it. It was truly a miracle! You have to understand what it was like to be with him.

Miracles are intended to impress, and so are recounted in the Gospels. But Jesus seems to resist and turn away from personal recognition. He “went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee” where he “withdrew again to the mountain, by himself.” Yet in turning his attention to the needs of others, he can’t seem to avoid providing evidence that he is indeed the prophet who is come into the world.

Text Analysis

The declaration and proclamation, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world,” is the cornerstone of this reading. All that surrounds is evidence and proofs that this is true.

The many descriptive words in this passage and attention to detail make the accounts real and vivid. There’s a “you are there” quality to the reporting.

  • also called the Sea of Tiberias
  • a large crowd
  • up the mountain
  • There was a boy
  • Simon Peter’s brother
  • Passover, the festival of the Jews
  • was a great deal of grass in the place
  • it was now dark
  • a strong wind was blowing

The sequence of events is also important. They sit down. They give thanks. They serve and share a meal. The disciples go out in the boat, they row for a long time, the weather is forbidding. There is a careful and deliberate unfolding of the evidence.

The voices are between Jesus and his disciples. A behind the scenes look. Again, the focus is on understanding what it was like to be there, to be with him.

 Reading this passage aloud

“This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” has to be read so that everyone, young and old,  hears it and everyone understands it.

The events are truly miraculous, but they are recounted in a clear and calm voice.

There may be a slight desperation in the voices of the disciples. You can almost imagine them thinking, “It ‘s really hard to keep up with all this.”  But Jesus knows what he is going to do. His voice is sure.

This is not a dispassionate reporting, it’s a sharing of experiences in full and careful detail and in a way that communicates the wonder of them. It’s specific and “OMG, I can’t believe this happened”, both at the same time.

Take your time but also convey what happened in what seems, in retrospect, like a rush.

What do you hear in this passage?

 

Herod

Reading the Gospel of Mark 6:14-29

“…and yet he liked to listen to him…”

The reading of Mark 6:14-29 is included in the revised common lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. The text is from the NRSV. You can hear a recording of this passage here.

Reading the Gospel aloud invites the audience to experience human encounters with the divine as revealed in the Bible. We can leave interpretation and meaning to members of the clergy and other scholars. What we are most interested in as lay readers are the human experiences discovered in the narrative.

First Impressions

This passage from Mark is largely a flashback that happens through the mind’s eye of Herod. It seems remarkably contemporary in that way. Herod’s inner thoughts and feelings are revealed and have a dream-like quality in terms of the speed with which the flashback unfolds. These memories are vivid flashes.

The action is rife with political power and intrigue. We’ve moved from the bucolic to the urban; from the active mission work of Jesus and his disciples in the field – in the service of others — to the decadent appetites and tests of absolute power in the court of Herod.

The reading releases a chaotic mashup of dark human passions and emotions. There is grievance. Anger. Resentment. Grudge. Fear. Guilt. Fascination. Sensuality. Desire. Cynicism. Superstition. Revenge. This is a scene of human excess that culminates in reckless promises and wanton cruelty.

Herod is conflicted and has an overwhelming desire to indulge himself — he both fears John the Baptist and is drawn to him at the same time — and to please others in his court. He’s already taken his brother’s wife and now seems to be indulging his daughter in an inexplicably extravagant way… Ultimately, he must save face with a swift and brutal exercise of absolute power over one who is powerless.

Herod and his wife make their child the tool of their separate agendas: he foolishly makes an oath and she manipulates the girl into making a gruesome demand. Herod is forced to give something he never anticipated giving. Would even half his kingdom have been better?

It all comes back to haunt him in a rush.

Finally, the reading foreshadows the murder of Jesus yet to come and the reclaiming of his body by disciples at the tomb. This reading is a vision of past and future political horror.

Text Analysis

Here are some key words and phrases from the reading that offer insight into the subtext and that we want all who listen to hear clearly.

  1. ”Jesus’ name had become known” [to Herod.] Sometimes it’s better to fly under the radar. This has ominous overtones.
  2. “Prophet.” Is the word more sneered than revered? A prophet is the one who told Herod: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
  3. “Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison.”  Even though Herod is reported to have done this “himself”, he in fact sent other men to have John arrested and imprisoned. There is a level of cowardice and detachment in the exercise of institutional violence that is chilling.
  4. Herod’s wife holds “a grudge” against John and “wanted to kill him.” Contrast this murderous desire to (seemingly personally) kill John to Herod’s more passive arrested-by-others.
  5. “Herod on his birthday gave a banquet” Herod is throwing himself a party.
  6. Herod has avoided having John killed, because he both fears John and “he liked to listen to him.” Herod protects John but also seems to regard John as a dangerous amusement, a plaything, a pet prophet he keeps like a lion in a cage.
  7. “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” This is a display for the guests more than a gift to his daughter. The implication is that Herod is empowered to grant WHATEVER someone may wish: with almost God-like authority. This is a claim to absolute power. Was there ever a more narcissistic, ill-considered and fateful oath?
  8. “…the head of John the Baptist on a platter…” This is absolutely ghoulish coming from the mouth of his daughter.
  9. “When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.” This simple action is subdued, dutiful, and reverent.  Again, in stark contrast.

This scene is reminiscent of all of the excesses of the premium television soap operas of today:  Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, The Borgias. It is repulsive, yet fascinating at the same time.

 Reading aloud

Here’s how I would approach reading this passage aloud. That’s not to say that this is the only or the best approach for you. This is what I hear. You may hear other qualities at work. But the reading affords the weaving of a rich vocal tapestry which should not be missed.

It begins with in a rush of whispers and rumors. The inner dialogue of Herod is quiet and ruminative in contrast to the lurid events that will be recounted. The voices over-articulate to be clear, but are sotto voce. At court there’s always the danger that someone is listening.

Then comes the flashback. There is an evocative, dreamlike or séance-type quality to this reading. It’s the retelling of a horror story. It’s about the possible raising of the unjustly dead, not in celebration but in vengeance. The action is swift and brutal.

The announcement of a banquet is expansive and the dignitaries in attendance duly noted.

Herod’s daughter, Herodias, dances. The nature of this dancing is left to the imagination. So we need to allow the imagination to work.

She’s taken advantage of at the same time she is indulged. Herod is performing for his audience. Is there a note of the disingenuous in his voice?

We then witness the impulsiveness of a child – a child who is used to getting what she wants no matter how outrageous the request. She is breathless. Was the platter her mother’s idea or her own perverse twist? Is she herself shocked or amused? There is the slightest pause before “on a platter.”

The collection of the body of John the Baptist is solemn and ghostly.

This peek into Herod’s inner life, family dynamics and his relationship to his people is the antithesis of Jesus. It is the portrait of a shepherd who eats his own flock. Like any horror story, the effect is intended to be shocking.

 What do you hear in this Gospel passage?