Category Archives: poetry and prose

The Need of a Religious “Splinter in the Brain” for our Culture

Emily Dickinson used the phrase “a splinter in the brain” to describe a sudden irruption in the routine functioning of one’s mind.  Our mind’s do work like a machine, prone to constantly regurgitate thoughts and feelings to keep our preconceptions and biases in place.  (Just as I do in this blog!)  This is too often a relentless, even monotonous process that we see from time to time when we realize we are talking to someone who will not allow us to intrude into their monologue.

The same phenomenon is present with any tribe as groups of peoples are just like individuals, striving to function in such a way so as to keep in place preconceptions and biases that maintain group coherence.  A contrary vein of thought or behavior is frowned upon and at times violently oppressed.  When this group coherence becomes more important to the group than functioning amicably with neighboring tribes war can often take place…always under some “justified” pretext of an affront or insult to the groups dignity or integrity. A closed system such as this can be dangerous which healthy tribes will address with allowing some degree of dissent.  This dissenting voice will always come from someone/s who deviate from the norm and offer a different perspective on the “reality” that prevails within the tribe.  These are often the voices of artists and religious leaders who serve the function of “a voice crying in the wilderness.”

Religion having always been an important part of my life, my focus here and elsewhere is often the role of the church in our country, particularly given the horrible catastrophe that is brewing in our country.  The church often appears to have been “culturally encapsulated” so that it often serves only to reinforce the biases and prejudices of the status quo, failing in its task to offer a prophetic word, a voice from beyond the pale of the cultures obstinate insistence of grinding on in its “metaled ways.”

The following is a relevant post from another one of my blogs from yesterday:

Barack Obama has answered the bell and has come out swinging, addressing the Republican morass of recent decades that has created our country’s present debacle, and yes, taking not-so-veiled jabs at the figure-head and spokesman for this roiling cauldron of chthonic energy.  I stumbled across a book just last week by Rebecca S. Chopps entitled, “The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, and God,” which is relevant to this cauldron as she explores how language, including religious language, can be used to give expression to hidden dimensions of the heart, individually and socio-culturally. But for this “revelation” to occur, there must be a voice/voices from beyond the pale of the status quo who see into the heart of the poisonous mindset which is always oriented primarily to maintain the prevailing power structure.  Chopps writes as a feminist but also as a Christian…apparently…though if she calls herself a Christian she is certainly beyond the pale of the Christian power structure that would “legitimate” her wearing that label.

Here I will share a couple of paragraphs from Chopps’ book:

Proclamation, in feminist discourses of emancipatory transformation, resists and transforms the social symbolic order.  Proclamation is a form of resistance to the practices and principles of modernity that control, dominate, and oppress.  But proclamation resists by way of transformation, seeking to provide new discourses by a variety of strategies, methods, and ways, and to transform the ruling principles and order into ones that allow, encourage, and enable transformative relations of multiplicity, difference, solidarity, anticipation, embodiment, and transformation.  Transformation occurs by creating new images of human flourishing, new values of otherness, and multiplicity, new theoretical practices of solidarity and anticipation. 

This is reminiscent of one of the most powerful of Paul Tillich’s sermons, “The Shaking of the Foundations” in which he argued that the purpose of the church is to, “rattle the cage” (my term) of the status quo.  But the status quo does not want to be “rattled” and will arm itself to the teeth in an effort to deny any affront to its comfy zone of satisfaction, where “they bask, agreed upon what they will not ask, bland, sunny, and adjusted by the light” of the unquestioned assumptions which give them privilege and power.  This is also obviously so with the power structure of religious culture though often those most ensconced in that power structure are basking even more in the comfort of a falsetto humility which does not permit any consideration or discussion of their motivations.

I conclude with another paragraph from Chopps:

Through discourses of emancipatory transformation, proclamation enables those marginalized voices who so often have not been heard, to speak: to speak of the beauty, hope, pain, and sorrow they have known on the margins.  Proclamation also speaks within the ambiguities of the order, the ambiguities, for instance, of the bourgeois who, though promised freedom in his autonomy, discovers few genuine possibilities for the community, relationships, and love he so desires.  Unable to find any “authentic meaning” the bourgeois attempts to fill in the empty spaces of his or her soul through the attainment of material goods that great momentary satisfaction with increasingly diminished returns.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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School Shootings and Spiritual Bromides

Another high school shooting, another response with the perfunctory, “You are in our thoughts and prayers.”  This bromide is now catching a lot of flak, especially when coming from politicians who obviously prefer a glib, meaningless bromide rather than any commitment to addressing a politically-divisive issue.  With still another round of, “thoughts and prayers,” we have the commitment of these politicians to renew their commitment to further displays of, “not gonna do a damn thing.”  And many spiritual persons, steeped in “performance art” religion, will also offer this platitude and not dare to question their legislators and local authorities.

Spiritual bromides are common…and even have value.  Offering our “thoughts and prayers” to those who have experienced misfortune or tragedy.  And these words can convey the heart’s deepest sentiment and any such expression carries value.  But spiritual bromides can become so common place that they are merely the aforementioned, “performance art” designed to convey to others the appearance that, “we feel your pain.”  Since politicians, and spiritual leaders who have long-since lost their soul, will have to face this situation again, I suggest they have a new button on their computer, “TAP,” which they can automatically press in a moment like this and send out the automated message in which “thoughts and prayers” are wished.  Even better, they can call one of their staff persons and get them to push the button, allowing them to continue with interruption their daily routine of “spiritual activity” designed only to make them feel better about themselves.

Religion is so susceptible to being reduced to bromides like this, described by poet Conrad Aiken as, “well-worn words and ready phrases which build comfortable walls against the wilderness.”  Words are easy, and regardless of how noble they might be, they can be simply the noise of “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals,” if they have no gut-level meaning in the person using them.  This style of meaningless language is captured by an Irish poet, W. R. Rodgers, in this excerpt from his poem, “Word.”

Once words were unthinking things, signaling

Artlessly the heart’s secret screech or roar,

And once they were the gangways for anger,

Overriding the minds qualms and quagmires.

Wires that through weary miles of slow surmise

Carried the feverish message of fact

In their effortless core.  Once they were these,

But now they are the life-like skins and screens

Stretched skillfully on frames and formulae,

To terrify or tame, cynical shows

Meant only to deter or draw men on,

The tricks and tags of every demagogue,

Mere scarecrow proverbs, rhetorical decoys,

Face-savers, salves, facades, the shields and shells

Of shored decay behind which cave minds sleep

And sprawl like gangsters behind bodyguards.

Its foremost ardour or its farthest wish,

Its actual ache or naked rancour.

Where is Today’s Church?

The Los Angeles Times yesterday published a scathing editorial of Donald Trump, pinpointing his gross character flaws which are glaringly influencing his ability to lead this country.  But, just where in hell is the church today when “speaking truth to power” needs to apparent from all corners of the political spectrum?  I realize that some churches are “speaking truth to power” on this matter but nevertheless the church today does not represent any spiritual presence in our culture that would assume any responsibility on matters like this.  I fear they are too busy self-pleasuring themselves with the gospel variety of the “well-worn and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness” that is called “reality.”  Religion is severely flawed in that it is practiced by humans and therefore becomes a servant to the human need to protect our religious/ecclesiastical status quo rather than brazenly announcing, so to speak, “Our emperor has no clothes on!”  This is even more of a challenge to evangelicals who so brazenly backed, and continued to back this immoral and unethical man as if they should fail to do so now they would have to admit making a mistake.  And they share that character flaw of their President, the inability to acknowledge the human tendency to make mistakes in every dimension of our life.  I do think that the teachings of Jesus assured us that it was alright to be “merely” human, which includes really screwing up often, a malady for which he has offered to forgive us.  But the disillusionment of acknowledgement that we have screwed up, even in reference to our spirituality, is really painful.  ‘Tis much easier to just shout our “holy” bromides a little louder and condemn those that disagree with us.

Here is a link to the LA Times editorial, the first of three they will offer this week: (http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-ed-our-dishonest-president/)

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are:

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

God and the Imagination

When I was very young my family lived in the sticks of Arkansas and had no running water.  During the summer we would take a bath in a galvanized-tin “bathtub” on the front porch since we had no neighbors nearby.  One day when a long dry spell in the weather was breaking and it was beginning to sprinkle, a sister of mine who had a more active imagination than I did innocently noted,“God is pouring his bath water out.”  Neither of us took this literally but the image has always stuck in my mind.  And I’ve always regretted not having become pompous at that time for I would have reminded her that God does not get dirty and does not need to take a bath.  Furthermore, I would have dismissed the notion that Jesus walked around heaven with a baby sheep under one arm and a lightning bolt under the other.

Human imagination is a very important dimension of our heart and is critical in our religious experience.  Without it we are left with sterile cognitive images of our Source and it reveals just how sterile and barren our heart is for the “heart” is more than a bunch of ideas floating around in our head. And I find it very interesting currently how that many Christians who deny the “imaginary” nature of their Friend have now voted with great passion for someone who has, and is expressing the part of their imagination than they have never acknowledged.  For, imagination does include unsavory “stuff” and it is our fear of this forbidden material that deters us from utilizing the “mind’s eye.”  In Donald Trump all Americans need to consider, “Out of the abundance of our heart our mouth now speaketh,” to paraphrase Jesus.

Poet John Masefield wrote a sonnet that reveals so much about the role imagination has in our ideological formulations of God:

How many ways, how many different times
The tiger mind has clutched at what it sought,
Only to prove supposed virtues crimes,
The imagined godhead but a form of thought.
How many restless brains have wrought and schemed,
Padding their cage, or built, or brought to law,
Made in outlasting brass the something dreamed,
Only to prove itself the things held in awe.

A “God-complex” is Avoidance of God

Trump must be one hell of a Christian!  Yes, anyone that free of guilt must be even more than the “baby Christian” that evangelicals say that he is!  In fact, since Trump has never even needed to ask God for forgiveness is the first place, maybe he has always been a Christian…even before he was born perhaps!  In some uncanny way, since the Christian “work of salvation” done in Christ was completed “even before the foundation of the world,” maybe Trump’s roots go back that far and he is god himself!  He certainly acts like it.

And I’ve thought for a long time that Trump does have some “god like” power over people though he would be according to the teachings of Carl Jung, a “dark” god.  For example, many of Trump’s followers have complete faith in him even to the point they support him regardless of what he does or says.  “God” can make no mistake so whatever comes from his mouth, though blatantly false to “non-believers,” is “true” to his followers/believers.  God declares through the prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.  And scriptural literalists interpret this to mean that regardless of what happens, God has dictated it.  This appeared in today’s news when an Oklahoma Republican legislator has declared that abortion should be illegal even in the cases of rape or incest.  “God knows what he is doing, even if we can’t understand it” is the rationale for those believers.

Facetiousness and irony are certainly part of my intent here.  But I have recognized in my clinical work, and in my personal experience, a phenomenon I called “the god complex.”  And persons with this affliction certainly to appear to feel and think they are inviolate like god is, but closer scrutiny reveals that their posture reveals profound insecurity and fear and the certainty they cling to comes only from desperation.  These people have no “faith” in God but only a compulsive, desperate clinging to their thoughts about the Bible and God.  I have found that if they could only “get over themselves” they would find that their faith in the Bible and God could take on a new dimension.  But the price tag is humility and as T.S. Eliot noted, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is humility.  And humility is endless.”

 

ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/literarylew

The Ministry as Performance Art

Bishop Eddie Long, a well-known mega-church pastor died last month after a long battle with “an aggressive form of cancer” and even more aggressive forms of financial and sexual scandals in recent years.  This story in Huffington Post is a very sad report of a life wasted under the ruse of religion, a wastage which devastated many other lives as well. (http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/03/us/bishop-eddie-long-i-knew/index.html) When “men of the cloth” get caught in compromising positions, i.e. “get caught with their pants down,” I don’t always giggle with delight.  I used to but I’ve grown up now and am more accepting of human foibles even in the arena of Hamlet’s “country matters.” But the story of Reverend Long goes far beyond the pale of “indiscretion” and reflects characterological depravity.

Having set out to be a “man of the cloth” in my youth, I can report first hand I was very much a mortal though I very much pretended not to be.  In my fundamentalist Christian culture, the ministry I took a stab at was usually performance art and, I now see, the Christian experience itself was largely “performance art” though that is not to dismiss it completely.  Life is “performance art” after all. (See poem at end.) But Bishop Long demonstrated the human cost of this duplicity, not just to himself but to those he victimized.  This is not to minimize the heinous nature of what he did but merely to recognize his primary flaw was in being guilty of being “human.”  Suffering from that malady always leaves one living a life of pretense to some degree and the more that the “pretense” is required by one’s social context to remain hidden, the greater the risk to the individual and to those around him.  And often the Christian culture fosters pretense over open human-ness which always involves being frail, flawed, and broken at times.  This is true for the laity but equally so for the clergy though the standards are often beyond the pale for the clergy.

Pretense in the area of faith is often a tragedy.  Spiritual teachers have always tried to tell us that spirituality is not about show but about authenticity and to be an authentic human being is to occasionally wallow in dimensions of human experience that we would rather not let others know about.  And most of the time we don’t have to.  Most of the time this ugliness can be addressed either privately or in the intimacy of close relationship, including therapeutic relationships.  But too often organized religions teach us to ignore this ugliness leading to the tragedy of Bishop Long.  This makes religion appear to some as complete escapism.  And often it is, and we certainly need escape for “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” (T.S. Eliot)  But the “escape” of religion can be salvivic if we deign to address the ego’s grip on the whole of our life, including our religion.

 

(From a W. H. Auden poem)

I wish you first a sense of theater.

Only those who learn illusion

And love it will go far.

Otherwise we spend our life

In confusion about who and what we really are.

 

“Cardboard Cutout” Politics and Jesus

,http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/gene-huber-trump-cardboard-cutout_us_58a91337e4b045cd34c2689d?ncid=inblnkushpmg00000009

I don’t think Trump realized what this incident was revealing about himself.  He felt that this hapless young man was making a statement which validated him but his affirmation of Trump only demonstrated his own emptiness and testified to the emptiness that Trump has brought to the table.  Trump is an “empty suit” and so vividly exemplifies the “empty suit” of our capitalistic culture which is always trying to satisfy its inner void with “stuff” in a futile endeavor which can only end with further futility…and possible disaster. Meanwhile, many Christians are aiding and abetting this enterprise and therein demonstrating the meaninglessness of their own “cardboard cut out Jesus.”

This event brought to my mind a prophetic poem of T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Man” and here is the first stanza:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.

I do think that the prophetic function in today’s world is rarely fulfilled by religion. Religion has become enculturated, “canned” or packaged and therefore not capable of bringing the breath of fresh air that is its responsibility.