Friday, March 2, 2018

"I drink from a well riddled with misgivings..."

I keep a fair amount of notes on my iPhone, so many so that I regularly scroll through and try to weed out the ones that are no longer necessary, like tearing pages out of a journal. Sometimes the categories make perfect sense: Places to Ride, Beer Log, Song Ideas, Blog Ideas, Good Ideas. Other times the category headline is just the topic in the note: Guarding Sing-Sing by Ted Conover, Evans Scholarship . . . look into it, or I can't stop thinking about this. I've been listening to a fair amount of The Joe Rogan Experience podcast lately. It took me a while to give him a try because I knew he hosted Fear Factor and seemed to be a bona fide meat-head sort of guy, not typically someone I'd imagine I'd enjoy listening to. But when I kept hearing his podcast mentioned by Sam Harris and many of his guests I figured I had to look into it. Obviously I've discovered Rogan is so much more than I allowed him to be. He's eloquent, thoughtful, humble, and most of all, curious as all hell about everything under the sun, which leads to a very wide range of guests and topics covered. His conversations are worth your time.

One of the recurring themes, no matter who his guest is, is that perseverance and discipline will almost always allow you to find the life you want to live. If you've read any of my previous entries here you'll know a recurring theme for me is my longing to find my niche in life. Rogan is always talking about how exploring deeper into the things that interest you and spending time with them will show you what you should be doing. Or as my buddy John says, "do the work and you'll find inspiration."

So I've decided that, though I haven't had an "aha!" moment I'm dying to share with you, I'm going to put some work in on one of my 'blog idea' notes, bear with me. Another bit of wondering on a familiar theme from here:
What exactly do believers mean when they say they know the way, truth, and light? Besides the brass tacks of Jesus being the savior from death, what else? What about how to live and how is that expressed? What happens if you take the resurrection away from the story? What happens if death and resurrection is not the centerpiece of the message?
 And shortly below, a separate but related question:
Is the brutality Jesus withstood essential to the crucifixion story? What if he was simply crucified but without the scorn, beatings, crown of thorns . . . or what if he was given a lethal injection behind closed doors? Is the public torture and execution necessary for him to still be the savior? Is that crucial to our understanding of his experience of human-ness?
As I've pondered around with my dad and some believing-friends on some of these questions we've often come back to one of many absolutely baffling questions: why on Earth did god require the shedding of blood for humanity to 'make right' with god? And moreover, why on Earth did god require public, torturous, blood sacrifice of himself* to be the final blood sacrifice . . . oh goodness here comes the cliff I can't help jumping off . . .

Nearly fifteen years ago while living in St. Louis I saw Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Some time near Easter weekend I sat among friends in a full theatre and watched what unfolded. I wept nearly uncontrollably as I witnessed the brutality on the screen. If you've not seen it, even if you're a devout Christian, I'm not sure I'd recommend it. One of Gibson's goals I assume was to force the viewer to stare directly at the mistreatment Jesus; To unflinchingly portray the techniques of the times but with an extra dose of stank because he, and most, believe it's integral to the story of Jesus that he was treated worse than the others around him for a lesser 'crime,' and so the blood was spilled, the flesh was torn, the bones were broken, and we see all of it.

I remember reading reviews in the years after seeing The Passion that mentioned a then unfamiliar term: torture porn. Sophia Siddique, in Transnational Horror Cinema: Bodies of Excess and Global Grotesque, examining the splintering of horror genres says this about 'torture porn:'
In effect, these films maximize the visceral impact of seeing bodies suffer, punctuating the sequences with special effects whose simulated destruction of the human body seem to be the raison d'etre [purpose] of contemporary horror. . . Despite it's obvious theological earnestness, [The Passion] has been compared to torture porn for its prolonged, voyeuristic sequences of public bloodletting. . .
Last year we took a trek to the Detroit Institute of Art and as we were browsing we came across a Triptych by the Flemish painter Pieter Coecke van Aelst, 1502-1550. The middle of the three images depicts Jesus on the cross with the two other sentenced men, mourning followers at the foot of the cross, and an unusual bare skull laying on the ground bottom-center. What I noticed first is that Jesus is nailed to the cross, both hands and feet, while the other men are simply tied to the cross. I asked a wise friend through text if he was familiar with the idea of Jesus being nailed while the others were tied, he said he wasn't surprised because he's seen or read of other instances where Jesus was naked while the others were clothed, another intentional bit of cruelty and shaming. In talking about depictions of the crucifixion The Passion came into our text conversation and when I mentioned the word 'torture porn' he became perturbed to put it mildly and ended the conversation. 

In a moment, with one mention of a combination of words, our discussion of artists' imagery around the crucifixion hit too close to the heart. The conversation had to end. We've talked about it since that moment and I think came to an understanding. But, like I asked above, even if Gibson's gut-wrenching account is embellished, why is the idea of unreasonable brutality and blood-sacrifice necessary within the Jesus story? Stranger yet, why would such an archaic idea resonate with modern minds?

Part of my hesitation in writing these days is that I fear I'm asking questions I'm no longer convinced are answerable, and rather than write about them I'd be better to spend my time reading what others have said about them. Yet here I am. So, though I've muddied the waters with complications I may not be able to step back from, what has stood out from the many podcast conversations I've listened to recently between people smarter than me, is ponderings around how we should live if we do not subscribe to a particular belief system that has a prescription for how to live. And to wade into even muddier waters, it is arguable that most Christians have allowed the rule of law that is so present in the Old Testament to go by the wayside because it seems inconsistent with the New Testament presentation of Jesus, perhaps making the argument that god's word has incongruence that may be irreconcilable, though I know there's a sea of authors and massive body of work addressing that.**

I asked a faith-filled friend recently what he believes the core message of his Christianity to be, the one thing he wants to impart to his kids, he coyly answered: love recklessly. Though for years we've discussed how gruesomely complicated life can be, he knowing full well my misgivings on faith, I couldn't disagree with his core value. I simply wonder why we can't adopt this intention for its own sake? While I'm well-steeped in the reasons people, my friend included, point to Jesus as the best example of this 'recklessness,' what do we do when these reasons coexist with so many other pieces of the puzzle that do not point in the same direction? Given the murkiness of text inconsistencies, dead languages, errant and still-evolving translations, historical contexts, absolutely polarizing ideas about how the world came to be, how the world is, who we are, and where we go after death, not to mention antiquated and incomprehensible ideas like brutal blood-sacrifice, is there not a better guide for loving recklessly? If not, how do we evolve to extract this best example and let go of the rest? What does this mean for the faith as a whole when a large percent of it is indefensible? And even still, if everything except the idea of Jesus' love is expunged, how do we then grapple with Jesus himself and his inconsistencies? As Tristan Vick on his blog posits:
Christians like to cite that Christ taught, "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44) and will remind us that this shows that not all Christians are intolerant. And that may be true, but Christ also taught, "Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division." (Luke 12:51)
 If somehow you don't know this, I'm a pastor's son, grandson, and nephew, which is why these ideas may literally be in my bones. This is hopefully the first in a working series on ideas that have lost their ability to console me and questions that keep nagging me. I welcome further conversation, let me know how this finds you.


*I'm well aware of the awkwardness in assigning god a gender, but "god-self" sounds more awkward, hopefully you'll have mercy.

**I've not met a single Christian who agrees that "if anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death," as stated in Leviticus 20:9. The reasoning is that Jesus changed the entire game, thus the brutality this suggests is 'outdated,' or 'reformed,' or 'nullified' by Jesus. But the same Christians will usually agree that the Bible in its entirety is god-inspired if not written by god himself, these are muddy waters indeed.

(image stolen from here.)

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