“8 Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9 “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.”
—Jonah 1:8—10—Jonah 1:8—10
“Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”― Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
A few years before I attended seminary on the East Coast, I joined some college friends at a lakeside gathering. It included the usual suspects: future accountants, would-be engineers, aspiring hotel and restaurant managers, jaded journalists-in-training, neophyte nursing students and, whatever it was that undeclared, liberal-arts majors would do for money. Also among the crowd of imbibing sun-bathers, however, sauntered a young woman who, four years earlier, had to drop out of college in order to give birth to her ‘illegitimate’ child. I put ‘illegitimate’ in soft-quotation marks because in 1984, those kinds of normative categories still held sway, and because, sadly enough, the frat-boy- father had abandoned his ‘legitimate’ responsibilities. And so, we frolicked in the sun and beneath that surreal nonchalance of making it to the very year of George Orwell’s provocative fiction. President Reagan had promised a Reaganomic Recovery, and well-ensconced on the lap of that late morning in America, we ate second bowls of crunchy cereal and washed it down with Rolling Rock.
“Who’s that?” I heard myself utter, playing the part of the jovial, half-inebriated uncle. I had said it while poking the belly-button of the child—that aforementioned ‘illegitimate’ one, who would tug at the fringe of his mother’s camisole. And this is how that four-year-product of 1980’s debauchery quipped in response: “That’s my Jesus!”
Now, to understand the backstory of why the young whipper-snapper offered these cryptic words is not nearly as important as the innocent navel itself.
Suffice to say—the child got religion! — And he got it no less from his unwed, blessed mother, who only semesters earlier had all-but-genuflected at the altar of the porcelain god, and whose idea of a religious practice involved the veneration of Tammy Faye Bakker’s mascara. And all this is to say that I saw through her and him—all the way to that little boy’s internal organs, all the way through that fleshy spot where his umbilical cord once attached itself to the placenta.
Or at least I thought I saw through them. In point of fact, I had vague notions of ‘object permanence’ when it came to the child’s placement of Jesus (within his bowels); but, in the case of the young, rambunctious woman, now tamed by religious fervor, I associated her change of heart with there being no atheists in foxholes. That is, she was turning to faith and to Christianity because she needed a crutch; and perhaps, after the hard years of raising this unfortunate child, both she and he would shed their bogus religiosity for more modestly-framed hopes and dreams… maybe a lake house. But what did I know?
It turns out, of course, that I knew very little then, and probably even less today, as I poke my finger into a different sort of belly. Today, as bureaucrats in church (and state alike) launch bellyaching diatribes regarding the demise of the institutional mainline congregations, or as the mega-nondenominational campuses comport themselves as the harbingers of what all things holy must be—popular, crowd-pleasing and clear—allow me to intrude with an alternative vision of Christ-centered theology for the coming years. It pivots, you see, around the essential truth-claims of that original, death-defying cadre of peasants and fisher-folk we meet in the pages of the Greek New Testament. Two things, two points of longitude and latitude, two over-lapping circles on a Venn diagram: 1. the Incarnation of God in the unique person of Jesus of Nazareth; and 2. the consequent understanding of this ineffable movement in history as a movement of the Holy Trinity—God in Three Persons. (And now, without giving ground, pivot! Pivot to those unavoidable relationships!)
Now, as I remind myself and others of this ‘bare-bones’ approach to thinking about the divine/human encounter, it strikes me in 2019 more than ever before, how the vast majority of the population who ascribes to these requisite-beliefs does not spend a great deal of time contemplating them. This isn’t necessarily meant to indict everyone en masse, or anyone in particular, as it is an observation that rehearses what Alexis de Tocqueville dutifully recorded in the 19th century:
“I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion — for who can search the human heart? But I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.” ( Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America)
Religion, we have honestly found, is useful. It’s useful if it’s not taken too, too seriously. Moreover, as the grease that ameliorates the friction between the mechanized gears of a democratic society, those frontier religious expressions of Christianity have all endured the test of time… even in Spokane…until now.
Let’s ponder the shift in our cultural context by juxtaposing the tepid reception of Herman Melville’s audacious allegory, “Moby Dick,” in 1851, with the ravenous hoopla that greeted Steven Spielburg’s adaptation of “Jaws,” by Peter Benchley, in the mid-to-late 1970’s. At the center of each narrative is a mysteriously menacing and seemingly ubiquitous sea creature—an albino Sperm Whale in the case of earlier novel, and a behemoth Great White Shark in the case of the latter. What distinguishes the two storylines, however, are the deeply-troubling biblical allusions, incisively woven into the text by Melville, over and against the sardonic symbolism of the fun-filled, “Fourth of July” weekend on Amity Island.
For readers of “Moby Dick,” the clues are unmistakable. Ismael—presumably named after the marginalized son of Abraham and the illicit offspring of his liaison with Hagar—takes up the narration: “Call me Ismael.” And similarly, Captain Ahab represents the unabashed worshipper of the idols of Ba’al, the lurid partner to Queen Jezebel and most importantly, the King of Israel “who did evil in the sight of the Lord” (1 Kings 16:30). Ahab, in Melville’s book, has this to say about the white whale he is seeking to harpoon and to harvest:
“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozzening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare?”[
Clearly, something’s got into Ahab’s innards, and it’s not “my Jesus.” On the contrary, rather than radioing to shore for “a bigger boat,” the over-riding obsession of Melville’s character is the Radical Other, and it is our tragic misapprehension that whatever, or whoever differs from “I” or (my like-minded shipmates) is determined to do me harm, to limit my freedom, to infringe upon my sacred rights.
Christianity, understood as the hot pursuit and the cool domestication of Absolute Truth, corresponds in 1851 with the more zealous crew members of the Pequod, and their efforts to subdue the beast of the deep. And yet, among the public who once read through the novel or tossed it aside, that message may have been lost, and irretrievably so. Why?
- Could it be that we want religion to be useful in the pursuit of our own individual freedoms—and that’s all? Could it be that’s all we really want? To be left alone?
- Or, if we have to partake in a community of our peers (and it seems like we have to), could it be that we want religion to pave the road to our homogenous and care-free vacation on the Fourth of July, because—God knows—we deserve it?
One of the most fascinating figures in “Moby Dick,” by contrast, is Queequeg, who originally terrifies Ismael, and who eventually saves him. Queequeg happens to be a pagan, a non-Christian, or a member of the heathen-class. But it’s the construction of his coffin by the carpenter which, perhaps providentially, provides the life raft for the sole survivor of the Pequod’s obliteration. I maintain the significance of this portrayal as opposed to the tedious sequels of Jaws II, Jaws III, Jaws IV and Jaws V.
Here, you see, is the outsider—the one to whom missionaries have been sent—the one who has finally come into the mainstream in 2019. But it’s this so-called savage, camouflaged with frightening tattoos, who acknowledges that there are compelling limits to the pursuit of Absolute Truth, and these ought to be honored and not transgressed for the sake of ego-embellishment.
“The postmodern church must take the risk of learning to ride whales,” writes James K.A. Smith in “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?” And by ‘riding whales’ I think we’re drawing upon another sea-going narrative; that of the prophet Jonah, in the Hebrew scriptures, depicts a moralistic, adherent of Judaism, who does not want to go where God wants him to go. Jonah, traveling in contradiction to God’s command—the Missio Dei— would like to stowaway among the diverse believers of other religious traditions and (this is vital) NOT converse with them.
In other words, if this vessel is the only means of travel to Tarshish (and not to Nineveh, where God had sent him) Jonah would avoid the interfaith dialogue for fear of being discovered. The only problem, of course, is the weather—perhaps summoned to full-froth by God, or perhaps reverting back to its own primordial chaos in God’s absence. Either way, Jonah will be found out. He will be known by those who are crying out to their gods. And so, you may know the rest through the osmosis of a crumbling Christendom: the religiously diverse crew toss the disgruntled missionary overboard, whereupon he’s swallowed by a Great Fish, and spewed out upon dry land, not far from present-day Mosul, in the recently ravaged nation of Iraq… Hmmm.
Now, it’s not my intention to beat the dead, decaying carcass of “Moby Dick,” or “Jaws,” or the Great Fish of Jonah-lore into the collective subconscious of the United States of America. That’s too tall of an order; and I’m too concerned with my own demons to exorcise the beasts of an entire nation. But I do think that Spokane and the surrounding region are manageable for starters. And if I were to start anything in this new year of Missio Dei, it would not be the watering-down of the Gospel message—that in Christ God was reconciling the world to God’s Self—it would be an interpretation of that cosmic event as a fearful conversation with Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, Bahai’s, Mormons, Wiccans, Atheists and Agnostics.
“Western, mainstream Christianity can no longer maintain that it is normative for all Christians, and we are moving slowly, if reluctantly, beyond cross-cultural mission to inter- and intracultural mission; that is, to the place where we recognize, in practice and reflection, that we need each other for mutual enrichment and correction…” ( Churches and Postmodernity: Opportunity for an Attitude Shift” in A Scandalous Prophet; the Way of Mission after Newbigin)
This admonition/observation by Lynne Price, in her essay, “Churches and Postmodernity: Opportunity for an Attitude Shift,” constitutes the first step in a journey that promises to change the implacable dynamics of every insular congregation. Christians, from disparate parts of the world (from Africa, Asia, and yes, South & Central America) are now infiltrating and revitalizing the typical church at the corner of First and Cedar. Embrace them. Let them embrace you.
But the next step requires a re-investment in the theological essentials of Christianity—Incarnation and Trinity—while simultaneously sitting across from those who reject those tenets of the Christian faith.
We sit across from them, face-to-face, not to convert them to our denominational brand, but because one of the worst storms in human history is brewing, and each one is already (as per the Book of Jonah) crying out to their own gods.
We sit across from them, belly-button-to-belly-button, but we refrain from poking them in that condescending manner of boorish uncles, or college-educated drunkards.
We listen. We talk. We don’t need to resolve differences in doctrine by concocting our own, newly-revised amalgamation of Absolute Truth.
We live into, and traverse those differences as if the journey itself is enough. And then, like Queequeg perhaps, we ourselves contract out to build a coffin, and someone else survives by floating upon it.
In the Oceania superstate of 1984, Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth, which is a painfully ironic name, inasmuch as he tells lie upon lie for the sake of maintaining the status quo. I had thought, back in my real-life experience of 1984, that we had escaped that dystopian quagmire, and that the future was none other than my Oysters Rockefeller. Not so!
In this assortment of paragraphs, it’s been my intention to offer dialogue—but this offering isn’t that of a craven liberal who claims to dwell on a higher, transcendent, plain. We don’t hover over. We don’t talk down. We don’t win arguments.
“Mission is not competition with other religions,” writes David Bosch in Transforming Mission, “not a conversion activity, not expanding the faith, not building up the kingdom of God; neither is it social, economic, or political activity. And yet, there is merit in all these projects. So, the church’s concern is conversion, church growth, the reign of God, economy, society and politics—but in a different manner!” (Transforming Mission)
And so, what’s different about this ‘manner’?
My aim, as one who finds Jesus of Nazareth to be the most compelling (and most compellingly misunderstood) person of human history, has been to probe. I poke my own finger back into my own soft and bloated belly-button, and I probe (metaphorically at least) for what this flesh means. Are you flesh? Are you flesh, blood and bones, and living or dying around Spokane, Washington? Let’s set up the meeting. (Word is, SpokaneFāVs will soon have a place to gather.)
But, like the late, great non-Christian, Walt Whitman, used to say—
– Song of Myself
Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.
Join us for a Coffee Talk forum on “The Future of Interfaith” on Feb. 2 at 10 a.m. at Origin Church, 5115 S. Freya St. Kinder-Pyle is a panelist.