“True or False, No Matter”

I often turn to poetry when I can’t make sense of the world. It’s in writing obscure and challenging words that I am able to face the struggle of saying something in the face of despair. I think poetry is a right medium to speak about things that often leave us speechless, and struggling to understand through a poem leads us to understand the subject of it by its content and its form – the words within and how they are delivered. I believe this is good preaching, as well. We should preach around an idea, fighting with it, saying weird and counter words; and in that struggle we find truth, or we are able to deal with the eternal searching. Tell truth with a slant, as Emily Dickinson would say.

Lately, as many of you know, the world has become a little less understanding, and way less understandable. It seems when I speak, controversy surrounds, and when I stay silent, I notice how little people actually care about the issues that need to be discussed. So, rather than say outright how I feel about the current circumstances, here’s some slant. Figure out what it means. Or don’t. It doesn’t matter.

“True or False, No Matter”

True. It’s all around us

False. It’s in our blood 

True. It’s who we are 

False. Production of the Mud 

True. No one really cares

False. Those who do, for a moment

True. Those who last are already dead themselves 

False. Those who aren’t seem not to want it

True. We didn’t ask to be this

False. There’s stronger mice than men

True. We can’t expect to beat this

False. Then we begin, again

Identity Crisis: Finding Congregational Tradition in the Disciples of Christ Church

Identity is a precarious thing. We are who we are by and through relationships with other people, past events in one’s life, and a look toward what a person might or might not want to be in the future. Mix a little heredity and cultural influence, and you have an identity, for better or worse. That is, identity is made of up both your own choice of who and what you want to be, but also is heavily influenced by the world and people around you. Feminist theorist Judith Butler sees identity as a stage on which we perform ourselves, where “stylized repetition of acts” produce who we are (Performative Acts, 1988). In this way, our birth or past – Butler speaks in terms of gender formation – doesn’t necessarily determine who we are, if at all; instead, our identity is filtered through our gestures, actions, language (both bodily and vocally), and (re)enactments within our social context. I think one of the primary places we can see this identity formation at work is within the Church, a social context exploding with cultural influence, physical gestures, symbolic actions, and ‘stylized repetitive acts’ of language and worship with others.

Looking at identity in this way, how in the world does a church, a gathering of people with their own inner struggles and opinions, come to have a unified identity? This fickle, loosely affiliated gathering of people held together by the fingertips of their hopes and needs for sociality and “something more” – how does it become something more than its parts?

I have been struggling to find identity in my church, a church within the Disciples of Christ tradition, one that broke from the Presbyterian church some decades ago in an attempt to get back to the roots of Christianity, to pure discipleship, while simultaneously getting away from the that which impedes discipleship – ritual, creedal statements, and “empty” ceremony – leaving only a confession of (1) Jesus as resurrected Lord, (2) ecumenism, (3) baptism by immersion, and (4) weekly communion as our identifying elements. What the Disciples of Christ were left with are vital and foundational facets of Christianity, but what they tried to leave behind was quite a bit of tradition and “ceremony” that had its own place among the building blocks of the church. The result was a denomination that was beautifully congregational, with loose hierarchy and to-the-point theological language, one that pushed welcoming all, constricted doctrinal points to promote unity among disagreement, in which, if you had those few elements and stuck with them, you could be a church and do it faithfully.

Within this framework, the Disciples of Christ are open and welcoming toward traditional liturgy, and many churches incorporate and utilize the long-standing Catholic and Anglican liturgical tradition in diverse ways. The flip side to this coin is that there is little continuity between churches, even less hierarchical influence on what and when to be liturgically and theological traditional, and almost no reasoning to why we choose to highlight one part of tradition or worship style over something else. For example, the use of liturgical colors and the observance of the Church Calendar is completely optional, varying greatly from church to church, especially in my home state, North Carolina.

The benefits and setbacks of this liturgical (and theological) freedom is what spurs my question, ‘how can a church be something more than it parts?’. Better put, how can a church that gets to choose what it does wrangle their needs and wants under an umbrella of continuity with what has come before, get back to the basics without demeaning the ritual and liturgy that helps articulate those basics, and how can people whose identity as individual autonomous actors perform together on the church stage? How do we tell people who we are without the answer being “a little of this, and a little of that.”

The easy answer to this question would be tradition. Liturgy, hymns, ritual practices like communion and baptism, accompanied by repeated words and traditional assumptions regarding worship and life together all contribute to a sense of collective identity; an identity that lives and works with what has come before and looks forward through the lens of prior conviction of those who paved the way and pushed the church to the present point. St. Tertullian said it in a different way – “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” – but still gets the point across that those before, along with their tradition and tireless work, have made possible the very creation and sustention of the church.

And I am not here to say that tradition cannot also be something contemporary, but it still needs to be checked lest we do whatever feels right, or use that meaningless phrase, “Well, that is just the way we have always done it.” The challenge that I face is taking in “what we have always done,” especially in a Disciples church that welcomes newness and fresh perspectives, while also stressing the need to ask ourselves, “why do we do this? What impact does it have? Why does this matter in our relationships together under Christ? What message might this convey? What worshipful symbolism can this hold?” With tradition, we can answer the ‘why’ of our communion actions, even if we want to throw those actions away. But if we replace those actions, we fill it with another thoughtful, liturgical, and theological ‘why.’

Like tradition, Butler suggests that on the individual level, we do not necessarily have an identity, but we “do” or “perform” an identity. On a collective level, that is the message of Christianity, and the value of liturgy – that what we do (together) fundamentally shapes who we are and what we can become. And in line with Butler, this collective “doing” cuts across those constructions which might break us apart – gender, race, and political allegiance – without destroying the individual. Thus, (re)enacting and (re)producing the Lord’s Table, or saying the Apostles Creed in unison moves individuals toward becoming something together, actually affects the constitution of our being.

We need things that are significant, that signify something more than us, and that symbolize a “why” as much as a repetition. When we having nothing to reproduce, or when we limit what we can re(enact), say, or remember together, then we quite literally limit who we can be, and how collective we can become. That is to say, we can only be so much of a “church” if we don’t do more church.

My Walking Dead Article is Published!

Last night, AMC’s The Walking Dead returned with bang, beating out the NFL with 17.3 million viewers attached to their couches to watch Rick and the gang fight the hungry people of Terminus. A couple weeks ago, ThePublicSphere.com published an article I wrote concerning the similarities between The Walking Dead and the current immigration crisis in Texas. Adding the Ebola crisis only makes it more relevant. I hope you will check it out.


Life after Death: Coping with Loss as a Christian in HBO’s “The Leftovers”

HBO’s “The Leftovers” has become one of my favorite shows of the year. After an apparent rapture of 2% of the world population, the show details the difficulty its characters have moving on from this “departure,” and attempts not to answer what happened or why, but “what now?”. I think this show can teach us something about coping with death, especially as Christians.

The truth is American Christians have been riveted by stories of the apocalypse for decades now.  If this craze were a house, zombie horror movies in the 80s and 90s laid the foundation, Timothy LaHayes’ widely read Left Behind book series built the house, and AMC’s The Walking Dead raised twins and a spaniel in it. I think Christians are particularly adept to loving these shows and the overall narrative in the apocalypse genre for a few reasons: we actually think resurrection exists and is possible (even if we don’t act like it); we like to prey upon shows with any resemblance of Christian symbolism and imagery, even if it’s actually not there (I am guilty of this); and, maybe most importantly, we like to say these violent and bleak shows and movie have Christian motifs so we can warrant our obsession with something that is so morbid and mostly unimportant. Christians just can’t admit that we like to be entertained by things more interesting than Kirk Cameron’s movies.

The Leftovers has all of these draws. It’s fun to watch, gives you something to think about, and makes you question what a faith in anything looks like in the midst of such despair and confusion.  However, there are some serious differences, differences that I think set apart The Leftovers from the usual ramblings of apocalypse narrative that we Christians bandwagon.

Unlike zombie films and popular renditions of resurrection and life after death, The Leftovers is not about dead people coming back to life, or what happened to people who vanished in rapture-esque manner. It is about people who have lost loved ones to reasons unknown and what their lives look like as they try to cope and move one from this loss. Because no one knows where “the departed” went or what happened to them, there is a strong focus on the unraveling of lives trying to live with such questions. It show characters who try to date again after their spouse poofed into thin air; daughters who deal with their parents divorce after one of them joins a cult dedicated to smoking cigarettes, silence, and constant reminding of the departed; and sons who go looking for hope and truth in those who claim to have it, and being let down when they realize they truth doesn’t exist.

The shows still focuses on life after death that is so popular in resurrection/apocalypse narratives, but just not in the ways we are used to. “Life after death” for The Leftovers means actually looking at people’s lives after they experience death; it diverts our eyes away from those who die and find life again to those who witness death and have to live with it everyday. The attention in not to the miraculous return to life, but the daily grind of life itself. If The Leftovers was a story about Jesus, it wouldn’t be a gospel detailing Jesus’ miraculous return to earth or his ascension, but about the disciples who were left behind with feelings of abandonment and questions of “what next?”.

And that is exactly the questions that The Leftovers thinks matters. Not “Why?” but “What now?”. The show challenges us to think about the everyday struggle of moving on, of trying to get over what seemed impossible.

And we should be reminded that impossible things happen to each of us everyday. Three years ago my father took his own life, an action that still seems absolutely unreal and with which I am still trying to live. The truth is that death happens everyday and shatters our entire worlds, making it hard to carry on and imparting grief that seldom rests. As many of us experience, even as Christians try to profess hope in death it is hard to look any other direction than despair when we are faced with loss, even if there are better things we hope for like Heaven.

I appreciate that The Leftovers deals with the daily musings of what it’s like to live with and after death, not zombies, angels, and little kids who see God. I think this approach is more helpful, more authentic to human experience, and, honestly, far less corny.

The Leftovers shows us the dark side of the reality of resurrection and life after death. By giving an alternate view of “rapture,’ we are reminded that our obsession with apocalypse narratives has us looking in the wrong direction. The view of life on the ground is much more important and interesting, one that helps us move on to what’s next. Although an afterlife is a hope many of us share, we can’t forget about the dangers of focusing on it too much. Frankly, resurrection should scare us to death.