The Hostess with the Toastess

I always enjoy hearing This American Life, but this past weekend’s story on “Home” was particularly poignant. My favorite was the last act, “The Hostess with the Toastess,” which begins with an investigation of the trend of artisanal toast, and ends with an affirmation of our common humanity. It’s about how a young woman struggling with schizophrenia finds a sense of normalcy and community using coconuts, coffee, tattoos, and (of course) toast. She creates a support network for herself and, surprisingly, a working business model.

I think this has a lot to do with church. Honestly, that’s what I’d like to see happen with Saint Junia. We don’t have to be a full-service restaurant with a lengthy menu. We just have to do about four things really well: coffee, coconuts, grapefruit juice, and toast.

“Frozen” and the Gospel

Our worship team sang select verses from “Let it Go” from the Disney movie Frozen during worship on Sunday. I couldn’t help smiling as I imagined what some of my clergy colleagues would think. I have friends who are worship snobs (of both the liturgical and contemporary varieties) who would be horrified. But as I reflected on the message of the song and of the movie, I thought it was entirely appropriate as we enter more fully into this Lenten season, especially with a congregation of people who have been hurt or burned by churches in the past.

I’ll share that I’m someone who is highly critical of the Disneyfication of culture, but I also really appreciate Walt’s original vision and, doggone it, Disney just does so many things so well. For me, knowing and appreciating Disney is part of cultural literacy, and for us homeschooling parents, visiting Disney World is just as important as visiting Washington, D.C.

So I was amused to see a news article about a pastor who got his nose out of joint about the movie. (Although I also wonder, How hard is it to find a right-wing pastor somewhere in America who isn’t foaming at the mouth about something? This is news?) The big issue, of course, are the casual ways the movie refers to a gay relationship and, he argues, bestiality.

(Regarding bestiality, Rev. Swanson is apparently seeing something I’m not—either that, or it’s just another way to casually link consensual gay relationships to something nonconsensual and abusive).

I’m not the only one who sees that Frozen may be the most Christian-themed movie Disney has released since Pinocchio. I’m impressed that Disney had the courage to poke fun at past Disney tropes of falling in love, marrying, and living happily ever after. Someone on their creative team obviously paid attention to feminist critiques of the role Disney plays in the social education of girls (and boys) over the last several decades. (This movie definitely passes the Bechdel test). The overarching message of the movie is that “true love” isn’t about the hormonal rush of finding your sexual mate, but the self-sacrificial agape love that one sister has for the other. Both heroines overcome their separation and shame through the power of love. I think it’s a great illustration of the Good News.

As for the song “Let it Go,” I don’t agree with Garbarino’s assertion that it represents Elsa’s “fall.” I believe her “fall” was the years she spent locked in her room with her parents’ well-meaning but wrong-headed teaching that her feelings and her power were meant to be closeted. Her answer—self-imposed exile—was not freedom either, but when she sings, “no right, no wrong, no rules for me” she’s not denying the existence of morality. She’s celebrating the fact that her gift is no longer subject to the moral judgment of others. She’s a woman claiming power that she has been told to hide her whole life. I can see why that would make Rev. Swanson uncomfortable. It’s too much like Tamar in Genesis 38 turning the tables on her slut-shaming father-in-law and the double standards of his culture.

More than any other Disney movie, this is one where we see both the light and dark side of community and social life. Community can be judgmental and censorious, but it can also draw us into life-giving relationships. Even when Elsa thinks she has run away, her actions continue to have an impact on the community. There’s probably a great sermon in there, too.

Finally, the conventional Disney hero, Prince Charming, becomes the villain. The movie shows us the way some people use social and political power and ginned-up moral outrage to gain advantage for themselves at the expense of others. I’m sure this message wasn’t lost on Rev. Swanson, either. The moral and spiritual messages of this movie do not look like the Christianity he believes.

But they look like what I believe.

Five Areas of Discipleship

There are a lot of different ways we can talk about how one follows the Way of Jesus, but my favorite is this one.

Jesus says that there are two Great Commandments: Love God, and love our neighbors. But we love not only as individuals (showing devotion and serving others), but also as a church as a whole (worshiping in a community and doing justice in society).

So, small groups have often talked about making a covenant to pursue these four areas, often called “works of piety” and “works of mercy,” loving God and loving neighbors.

jerusalem.jpg?w=630

But there is a fifth area that often gets neglected among mainline Protestant churches: witness. Evangelism, which literally means “spreading the Good News,” touches all four of those areas.

The word “witness” means both observing and telling. In worship, we both observe what God is doing among us and tell about it. In devotion, we draw our attention to what God is teaching us and how God is growing us; we look for answers to prayer. In service and justice, we both tell the story of God’s liberating love and live it out by helping others. All of that stuff is “witness.” Adding this fifth area reminds us of the importance of learning to talk about the grace we see active in our lives and the world around us. We are not just telling the Good News—we’re being the Good News.

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 9.28.14 AM

Adding “witness” also reminds us that both observing and telling are part of what we do as followers of the Way of Jesus. We name grace when we see it. We connect current events and our modern life stories to the stories of the Bible and our faith history. Witness is how we live our public and private life, the way we embody the gospel and speak it with our mouths. Witness is our existential relationship, our “way of being in the world.”

This is also why followers of Jesus need a church. Witness is part of how you live an authentic life in community. Most of us tend to favor one expression of faith: I can go off on a mountain and pray and feel spiritual in nature (devotion). I can serve others and feel good about the good work I’m doing (compassion). I can be an advocate or activist and hold right opinions (justice). I can raise my hands in worship and try to glide through life on a spiritual high (worship). I can even tell others about Jesus without knowing intimately what that grace looks like in my own life. Any of these areas isolated from the others can become toxic. But a church helps us balance them and bring them into focus. Witnessing means all of us, together, making worship, devotion, compassion, and justice an integral part of our identity.

Believing

There’s an odd verse in the resurrection story in John. After Mary Mags comes running back to the disciples with news that the corpse of Jesus is missing, Peter and the B.D. (Beloved Disciple) sprint to the tomb. They both look at the grave clothes lying there.

Here’s the verse that’s crazy: “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:8-9)

Now, if you’re religious, and you’ve heard this story before, you probably didn’t notice anything unusual in the sentence. But here’s the crazy thing:

What did the other disciple, the B.D., actually believe?

Most people respond, “the resurrection,” but nobody has told them that Jesus has been raised. The author tells us in the very next sentence they didn’t understand the scriptures or that Jesus must be raised. There is no content, no X that the B.D. can believe in. All they know is that someone has taken the body. There is no gospel, no angelic announcement, no one telling them that Jesus is alive. But the B.D. believes.

We so often assume that “believing” means “agreeing that such-and-such must be true,” but what we get here is something that precedes even knowing what it is you’re supposed to believe. The B.D. just looks at some folded laundry and believes. Something in him clicks, and he can’t even put his finger on what it is yet.

We use “believe” in this way when we talk about believing in yourself, believing in someone else, believing in a vision. Faith. “Believe” in this context doesn’t mean accepting a statement as a fact—it means this desperate, hopeful something at the core of our existence.

We do not yet know where God is taking us, but we are embarked on the journey, following where God leads.The invitation to believe is not about blind faith, but about trusting the one who leads us.

Why We Need Unbiblical Ethics

Most modern Christians do not get their norms for ethics from the Bible, and this is a good thing.

For example, as many critics of Christianity point out, nowhere do biblical authors explicitly condemn slavery. There is, of course, the whole Exodus story, and we can read it and retell it in such a way that we hear God’s sympathy with oppressed people. We can say that even ancient authors looked forward to a day of equality and freedom, when “everyone will sit under the shade of their own fig tree.” But Christian slaveowners pointed out that some scriptures told slaves to be obedient to their masters. To be obedient to God, they argued, you were supposed to accept the status quo.

The same is true for sexual ethics. Even though I really like Margaret Farley’s 7 norms for Christian sexual ethics (which are necessary for “minimal” justice), I have to admit that they are not found in the Bible: doing no harm, mutuality, commitment, none are explicitly named. Even consent is questionable. The social rules governing sexual behavior in the Hebrew Bible are all geared toward fulfilling God’s covenant with Abraham: produce lots of descendents and possess the land. Even if you take “love your neighbor as yourself” as an important principle, it’s not specific enough to tell you what kind of behaviors are good or bad. (Even hate groups claim that they are motivated by love).

While the scriptures may contain all things necessary for salvation, they do not always spell out explicitly what “things” we are supposed to learn or how to apply those things to our lives. One of my favorite stories from Genesis 38 (Judah and Tamar) points out the hypocrisy of our sexual double standards, and highlights all kinds of issues that make for really good discussion of sexual ethics. But it doesn’t say, “go and do likewise.” I believe this is why we may use the Bible as a starting point for discussions of Christian ethics, but we can only find the end in the person of Jesus Christ.

This is also why when it comes to women’s rights, or children’s rights, or economic justice, or LGBTQ rights, or church management and polity, or payday loan sharks, or immigration reform, I have little patience for my clergy colleagues who either a) dismiss these things as divisive “issues” that are somehow less important than “preaching the gospel,” or b) say “the Bible clearly says,” as if they aren’t already engaged in the act of interpretation, reading things into the text that aren’t there. Again, it’s not bad to read things into the text—it’s just important to know what those things are.

When Christians deny the possibility of marital rape, or speculate that slavery wasn’t so bad, really, they are not violating norms of biblical ethics. They are living out exactly what they’ve been taught by pastors and Sunday school curricula throughout Christendom: the Bible is all they need. We mainline clergy enable this kind of thinking unless we are clearer about our sources for Christian ethics.

For Christian ethics, what the Bible doesn’t say is as important as what it does. This is why when people say, “Just stick to the scriptures,” I cringe inside. They either do not know the scriptures as well as they think they do, or they are operating on a false premise that all of our Christian ethics come from the Bible. The Bible gives us a form and a model for doing theology and ethics, but it does not do the work of theology and ethics for us.