Monthly Archives: August 2014

Social realism

There’s a new ministerium of pastors forming in Columbus to meet monthly to think creatively about various ministry realities, organized by a couple ministers with the Episcopal diocese.  Love those Episcopalians.  Today over lunch we met at the Columbus Museum of Art and were given a tour through the Modern Dialect exhibition, displaying paintings from American artists from the 1920’s to the beginning of World War II.  The question that the presenter was asked to help us think about was “How can our faith communities support prophetic voices?” 

The presenter spoke of the shift from the Enlightenment focus on the exemplum vertutis, the virtuous and exemplary man, to the emphasis on the common man in these paintings.  “Man.”  These paintings often take the perspective of the ones in poverty, or victims of violence or natural disaster.  There is a painting of two women observing the flooded Ohio River at Portsmouth Ohio that resulted in over 300 deaths.  There is a painting of the Herrin massacre, a violent confrontation between Illinois miners on strike and the scabs working in their place.  The presenter noted that the museum made a significant purchase in 2005 of “Social Realism” paintings, something for which they received significant criticism at the time.  In the view of the presenter, the criticism was mainly that people want to look at pretty things, and that the harsh realities of everyday existence fall outside many people’s conception of what is beautiful.

Of course, this is something that gives a group of pastors plenty to talk about.  Good art helps us see in new ways, including the realities that are hard to look at.  It confronts us with an image and makes us a witness.  And, when we are a witness, it gives us a responsibility to that which we have witnessed.  It draws us in.  It gives us new eyes and, if we allow it, moves the heart.  Art can do this in ways that widens our conception of the beautiful, making even crucifixion a scene of potential resurrection. 

How can our faith communities support prophetic voices?  Maybe a first step is recognizing that prophetic voices come in many forms, including those able to use not just words, but images to help us see in new ways.  Not just as individuals, but us as a community, a congregation.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body; so if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light.”  


Six Scriptures

We are nearing the end of our Twelve Scriptures summer worship series.  After this Sunday, focused on the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, we have only one Sunday remaining.  It has been a rich time whose learnings can hopefully keep informing the mission of the congregation long after the series ends. 

If you remember, the Twelve Scriptures was one of two parts of the survey we issued in the spring.  The other part was called the Six Scriptures in which you were invited to name up to six of the most troubling and difficult passages in the Bible.  The idea was that if we are going to hit the highlights, we should also be willing to come to terms with the shadow side of Scripture – the parts which portray God or the life of faith in a way that do not fit with our present convictions.  A number of you have asked about these Scriptures, some with great anticipation, some saying you’re looking forward to these more than the Twelve!

We’ve delayed finalizing the list because there was so little overlap in the results.  Lots of scriptures got chosen, but few got chosen multiple times.  So rather than a clear Six Scriptures, what we ended up with was several themes, represented in various Scriptures.

A clear theme was the treatment/mistreatment/lack of treatment of women in the Bible, including parts of the New Testament.  In a book that starts with the whole created order being pronounced very good, with male AND female equally bearing the Divine image, things go downhill rather quickly and stay that way in this area.  The Scripture getting the most votes overall was Ephesians 5:22-24 which counsels, “wives, be subject to your husbands” (NRSV).

Another clear theme was violence, especially violence initiated or commanded by God, such as genocide against the Canaanites who possessed the “promised land” before the nomadic Hebrews entered it.  There are whole chunks of the Bible in which God not only takes sides, but does so in a violent way.  God’s “wrath” is a dimension that shows up to the very end of the Bible.   

The way the worship calendar is working out this fall, we are dedicating the month of October, four weeks, to look at difficult passages that fall under these themes.   Two for the treatment of women, and two for Divine violence.  The broader question of how to relate to a holy book with such a mixed bag of portrayals of God will also be present.  Another significant theme that arose in the survey was the book of Revelation.  This would make for a good series on its own sometime down the road.

As a pastor, I do not feel that my job is to defend the Bible.  My approach to passages like these is informed by another passage, found in Genesis 32, in which Jacob wrestles with the angel of God and won’t let go until receiving a blessing.  Through this experience he received a new name, Israel, which, roughly translated, means “God wrestler.” So in my mind, one of the ways for us to think about this month of October, when we look at difficult passages together, will be joining Jacob and others who wrestle with God and hold on for dear life, trusting there is a blessing to be received.

The edge of the inside

I came across a new phrase that I especially like while reading some Richard Rohr: “The edge of the inside.”  Rohr, a Franciscan, uses this phrase to talk about his own relationship with the church and religious life, and commends it as a privileged position from which to see and live.

When you’re on the edge of the inside, you’re still inside the institution of the church, still participating in worship and ritual and community life.  But you’re on the edge.  You have a critical distance from the trappings that religion brings with it and you are aware of the shortcomings and hypocrisies of your own tradition.  But even so, you have chosen to stay on the inside.  There is life there.  There is a vibrancy and a gift that one receives by staying in.

Being on the edge of the inside also means you have an empathic relationship with those on the outside, those who have chosen to step out of the structures of religion, or those who were never in it.  When one is on the edge of the inside there is less emphasis on who is in and who is out and an acceptance of commonality that we share as humans across whatever kinds of lines.

One of the things I have come to find about being on the edge of the inside is that when you stay on the inside, you have a greater ability to help define what the inside is all about.  You get to help shape and define what is valuable and important about the tradition.  To use a phrase from one of our Twelve Scriptures, you get to help clarify “which commandment is the first of all” in the community.  On the outside you can be critical, appreciative, whatever, about all this, but your voice doesn’t carry the weight it would if it spoke from the inside. 

Perhaps we could even say that Jesus himself was on the edge of the inside, and, in his lovingly confounding way, made the edge the new center.