Monday, April 6, 2015

Jesus Christ, Savior, Sloppy Story-Teller

Religious men were beginning to feel put off by Jesus's constant eating with local miscreants. They believed a sinners' sins tainted Jesus more than Jesus' goodness tainted them. Turds in a Divine punchbowl. (Luke 15)

So Jesus told them three connected stories.

He asked the religious men wrinkling their noses if they were owners of a hundred sheep, wouldn't they naturally leave ninety-nine of them behind in order to find the one that had been lost. And when the one lost sheep was found, wouldn't that be cause for a party?

He followed it immediately by asking which of them wouldn't turn their house upside down to find one lost silver coin until it was found. And then when the coin was found, wouldn't that be cause for a party?

Jesus caps the trilogy with a story of a man with two sons, one of which asks for his inheritance before his dad has even died. The boy squanders it all in a foreign land, realizes he's living at a lower quality of life than his dad's hired servants, and so goes home to grovel. His dad scoops him up in a rib-cracking hug and throws a party for the ages at his boy's return.

Who lost what?
The parables were a challenge to the pharisees' pious self-righteousness and their dedication to the purity rules. Nowadays Pharisee means someone who loves rules more than people. The term was an honor then. It's a slam now. One that mocks a low view of the power of the Divine Punch against any turd dropped in it.

But there is a second layer of challenge.

"Oops. I guess the sheep, and the blame for losing him, go on my shoulders."

In the story of the man and the lost sheep, it's the man who loses the sheep. Sheep don't lose themselves. Sheep are either wild or they're part of a herd watched over by a shepherd. The story puts the responsibility on the man who calls the sheep his.

In the story of the lost coin, the woman loses the coin. Coins don't lose themselves. This story also puts the responsibility on the owner of the thing, not the thing.

In the story traditionally called the Prodigal Son, the irresponsibility of the son is in view. He acted on selfish impulse. Then stubbornness. Then, drained of most of his ego, he shuffles home. This story puts the weight on the boy's silly young shoulders. Accepting of course that the father gave in to the immature boy's outlandish request.

This is really sloppy story-telling if the main point is calling sin, "sin", and assigning that sin to the right character.

But the stories hold up just fine when we put the overachieving mental pharisee on leave and hear Jesus teaching us that, in reality, reunion is the point. If we disagree that Reunion is the point, we probably prefer to stand while Jesus and the sinners enjoy their meal.

The Table is for everyone
Doesn't Christian art typically depict Jesus as the one finding the lost sheep? Sheep that he, the Good Shepherd, was responsible for? If this realization bothers us as some kind of blasphemy, it might be because we believe in a God who is dedicated to God's own reputation more than us. A cosmic pharisee of sorts, rather than the eager Pursuer Jesus depicted. But Jesus doesn't seem too worried about blame. He's trying to drill the-celebration-of-two-becoming-one into the heads of people whose entire identity is based on who's in and who's out.

Perhaps Judgment Day has God asking us all, "Who cares about whose fault this or that is? We've managed a reunion! What was apart is together again!" A hard lesson is tacked on to the end of the Prodigal Son. The older brother is pissed that the little brother is "back in" after such a short season of purity at the father's ranch. He likes a good guy table and a bad guy table separated, with faults and rewards properly assigned, just like the pharisees who incited this parable. But the Father loves the sons more than house rules. So the energy was spent on the homecoming. Like the coin. Like the sheep.

The reunion was more important than sin. That may not be the case with detached judges who preside over a courtroom. But it's always the case with Family.

If our Christian faith is understood as a penal loophole that gets us out of wrath, then we're likely to subtly believe we value us more than God values us. That is, we feel tasked with worrying about our selves as God immutably protects the perfection of the Law. The coin must find itself. The sheep must must reintegrate itself. The prodigal must come home and work off the debt. The whole enterprise becomes an adventure in self-righting rather than Reunion- certainly not anything unique among world religions.

But our being found, much to the dismay of the protectors of religion, is the inevitability of every version of Jesus' stories. Because we are loved by Love. Reunited by Oneness. Valued above any rule ever given to us.  So we scoot over and keep adding other objects of pursuit to the dinner table, letting pharisees miss out on the reunion as long as they believe they must. Whenever they're ready they can have their sins deemphasized in light of Reunion too.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Our Culture's Powerful Obstacle to Culture

Are you thinking what I'm thinking, Pinky?

Mice enjoy attacking mice.

That’s what scientists from Vanderbilt University said their 2008 research suggests. They were able to determine that mouse brains, like human brains, secrete dopamine, an internal chemical reward which is released during sex, eating and the use of drugs like cocaine. 

A male and female mouse were placed in a cage. Once tiny rodent romance was established, the female was then removed and a male was introduced. As you’d imagine, fighting ensued. When the intruder was taken back out of the cage, the first male would “engage in behavior that he learned would bring his target back.” Like a drunk banging on the other guy’s camaro, trying to get him to come back out of the bar for another go. It turns out aggression is its own reward, even when it doesn’t produce different outcomes.

It's Not a Bored Room
The season premier of The Apprentice aired Sunday night. Two hours of it. Donald’s tender heart drew me in at about the fifty-five minute mark.
After about five minutes, the halfway point of the show, the teams finished their challenge, which meant it was off to the boardroom to discuss results.

"Friends, let us speak peaceably.
People want to see you collaborate, not fight."
If you’ve ever seen the show, then you know that what happens from here is the gradual untethering of a team into individual survivors, each disassociating his or herself from anything that went less than perfectly. It’s an all out war that culminates in a firing and a sheepish trip by a former contestant to a limo waiting in the alley.
I realized half an hour into the boardroom segment that I had been glued to an argument. That's really what the whole last half of the show is. Men and women in varying measures of aggression, fighting over facts, intentions and performance. Multiple people were in tears. Multiple buses were given bodies to drive over. The show is in its 14th season of presenting essentially this formula, incidentally. That is to say, the show successfully, season after season, holds viewer’s attention by showing us a room full of people fighting.
Why would it be entertaining to watch strangers argue? Is aggression so rewarding that we don’t even have to be physically involved?

Cage-Fighter Christ
Jesus spoke from a boat when the crowd thickened. The water, as you may have personally experienced if you’ve fished just off a lakeshore, carries sound rather nicely. 

But why didn’t Jesus just skip the boat ride and raise his voice for the growing assembly?

Who knows. But I suspect it was in large part because he didn’t want his audience to get the wrong idea about the message, or the messenger, like people often do when leaders get loud and foreheads get veiny. In fact, it may be that many were drawn to Jesus initially, and then later lost interest, because he was just too lamb-like. They were looking for someone with his hair on fire and a bullhorn to his lips. This Jesus kid was talking about losing on purpose and leaving swords at home. I’m reminded of a prominent pastor’s bemoaning words about many in our society's misunderstanding of Jesus:

“Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. He is saddling up on a white horse and coming to slaughter His enemies and usher in his kingdom. Blood will flow. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship a guy I can beat up."
In other words, the Son of God must be properly understood as more rodent-like, dummies. Jesus is dragging his sword across the cage bars, beating his chest and begging for another round with a sinner. 
After all, we can only worship the chief aggressor. 

What’s it like to have a giant hand place you in a position to get high on the dopamine of your own anger and aggression? To be trapped in a cycle of believing down to your most basic physiology that the best option in a given situation is to keep the fight going even if it didn't make things really any better - what would that be like?

That’d be a hell reserved for lab mice, right?
Or would it be what makes television work?
Or would it be the chemistry of politics?
Maybe what we'd call the "Spirit stirring" for defending sound church doctrine?
Perhaps is would just be what keeps us angry until we get what we're owed from anyone and everyone?

Peace: Out?
I’ve lost a bit of my optimism that people generally, actually, want a life of peace. It seems that old idea of “shalom,” which literally means completeness and intactness - a way of no longer needing aggression, is exactly that; An old idea.

It seems we’ve settled in to enjoying our wars.
Settled for being addicts. 
Rodents even. 

We pray for and sing about peace yet want to dress up Shalom Himself in our armor and make Him fight like us, even accuse Him of liking it.
How do we have peace when aggression is what sells papers, defends imaginary borders, convincingly conveys truth, so clearly demarcates the sides, makes customer service relent, entertains for fourteen seasons in a row and actually rewards the monkey in our head with dope?

As I drove in to the office this morning amid so many anxious drivers making their way through the maze to their cheese, I wondered if they knew dopamine is also released when we play an instrument, catch a fish, learn to ski, swim, exercise, teach a kid to ride a bike, paint, laugh, ride roller coasters and make a great meal, among a billion other things that comprise a good day. I wondered if they knew that Christ got famous for a different sort of power than what we currently find entertaining. I wondered if peace is possible in a society that subsists on its absence.

"Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The Foundation of such a method is love." - MLK