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A man may cry...

Selective Religion Reading List – September 2015

A man may cry...

"A man may cry for more than one thing at once, and when you ask him why, he may not tell you. This appears to me to be the kind of thing that a novelist notices and that historians manage to ignore, generation after generation." Hilary Mantel, Art of Fiction No. 226, Paris Review

In the normal course of my work I find myself skimming, studying, and often puzzling over the state of religious studies and theology on the web. Much of what I read lacks the urgency of news, and yet to me these readings touch on some deep feeling or intuition about our world today. So, although this religion reading list reflects my highly subjective curation, perhaps it speaks to something you’re feeling, too.

Let's begin with the ancient Hymn to Dionysus, in which pirates kidnap the god of wine and merrymaking, and it does not go well for them. Although I laughed when I first read this, there is an undeniable dark side the the pirates' encounter with the god, invited by their own bad behavior. One may wish a similar ending upon the all-too-modern Syrian kidnappers of war journalist Austin Tice in “The Road to Damascus” as recounted by Sonia Smith. Although Smith treats the apostle Paul’s original Damascus Road encounter uncritically, her invocation of such a powerful myth adds depth to Tice’s brave but reckless attempts to bring the truth of what was happening on the ground in Syria to the wider world. The loose parallel with Paul adds a certain poignancy to Smith’s observation that modern-day Antakya (Antioch), once a hotbed of early Christianity, now serves as a stopover for diplomats, refugees, journalists, spies, arms dealers, and injured fighters, often crammed together in rented apartments and hotel rooms.

You’ve probably already heard about our newly discovered ancestor Homo naledi from Jamie Shreeve’s excellent National Geographic piece “This Face Changes the Human Story, But How?” While headlines have honed in on the fact that Homo naledi may have ritually buried their dead, a religious theme if ever there was one, I found the limited evidence (and with it, depth to the story) disappointing. Far more interesting to me are the questions implied by the fossils’ age:

If H. naledi eventually proved to be as old as its morphology suggested, then [Berger] had quite possibly found the root of the Homo family tree. But if the new species turned out to be much younger, the repercussions could be equally profound. It could mean that while our own species was evolving, a separate, small-brained, more primitive-looking Homo was loose on the landscape, as recently as anyone dared to contemplate. A hundred thousand years ago? Fifty thousand? Ten thousand?

Such tantalizing questions about our exact relationship to this ancestor speak to the deeper issue of what it means to be human. Sensing this, National Geographic followed up on their big Naledi news with an unfortunately abbreviated “12 Theories of How We Became Human.” If you’d rather read a more substantial but still recent essay on the subject, I suggest Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Robots Are Winning!” Mendelsohn opens his exploration of human and robotic “life” beginning with Book 18 of the Iliad, in which Achilles’ mother, the nymph Thetis, pays a visit to the Olympian atelier of the blacksmith-god Hephaestus to order a new suit of armor for her son. The intertwined notions of “automation” and slavery serve as a much-needed primer before you delve into the recent (apparently unauthored) Economist article “Editing Humanity” about new technology that allows scientists to manipulate the human genome with relative ease, and the subsequent moral backlash.

The last essay I want to recommend is Leslie Jamison’s “Empathy Exams.” Jamison weaves stories about her work as a medical actor—to train medical students in proper diagnosis and bedside manner—with stories about her decision to have an abortion followed by an emergency surgery to repair her heart valve. I recommend this article with some reservations. Jamison’s haunted conclusion that empathy is quite probably a fancy version of self-pity—or self-longing, to put it more kindly—left me shaking my head. I don't like collapsing pity, even self-pity, into empathy. From my encounters with nurses and medical students and war vets in my ethics courses and with the more seasoned crowd that made up one hospital ethics committee, I have every reason to believe empathy is more possible than modern literature seems to allow. It is often more pragmatic, too. Jamison's essay called to mind this exchange between nonviolent communication trainer Marshall Rosenberg and one of his patients:

MBR: … Now I’d like you to clarify what you would like people to do that would fulfill your need to be loved. For example, what could I do right now?

Client: Oh, you know…

MBR: I’m not sure I do. I’d like you to tell me what you would like me, or others, to do to give you the love you’re looking for.

Client: That’s hard.

MBR: Yes, it can be difficult to make clear requests. But think how hard it will be for others to respond to our request if we’re not even clear what it is!

Client: I’m starting to get clear what I want from others to fulfill my need for love, but it’s embarrassing.

MBR: Yes, very often it is embarrassing. So what would you like for me or others to do?

Client: If I really reflect upon what  I’m requesting when I ask to be loved, I suppose I want you to guess what I want before I’m even aware of it. And then I want you to always do it.

MBR: I’m grateful for your clarity. I hope you can see how you are not likely to find someone who can fulfill your need for love if that’s what it takes. (Nonviolent Communication, 72)

I think we all long for the sort of closeness that delivers intuition. Jamison expressed the same longing when, post-abortion, she said of her boyfriend, “You want him to break with you. You want him to hurt in a womb he doesn’t have; you want him to admit he can’t hurt that way.” Rosenberg wasn’t denying our ability to develop that intuition, as his larger body of work makes clear, but he did think we need to help one another come closer to one another through good communication, without shortcuts.

Empathy at its best is not quite an open, unimpeded corridor with raw emotions running both ways. Two-way pain is still pain. The difference between the giver and receiver of empathy is not a matter of which person’s pain is loudest, drowning out the other. It’s a matter of which person has the capacity to take in what is welling up. We crave empathy in waves; we may fear too much of it coming at us at once only to be strangely rocked when it comes. Someone in this scenario needs to be big enough to embody an ocean. And I think there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there’s something genuinely wonderful about living up to something so grand and intimate. People do it every day.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

Moon, Yew Trees at  Stow-on-the-Wold

This Passing World

Journey of the Universe

Mary Evelyn Tucker will be a featured speaker at the Westar Institute's Spring 2016 national meeting.

But suddenly mind overwhelmed by sense
You hear eternity in present tense—
The tree toads singing in the shallow pond,
Singing and dreaming of tall trees beyond.
—Robert Hillyer, “Hylidae”

Ecology is becoming increasingly dear to me as a subject. Nature formed a crucial lens in my complete re-reading of Paul’s letters last July, and led me to express dissatisfaction with Paul’s assumption that the natural decay of the world was directly related to moral decay, so much so that to Paul it invited cosmic war. This world is corrupt, so the standard Christian story goes, and even a radical reading of Paul retained that perspective. I just don’t buy into that.

In what sense is human morality to be associated with the natural processes of decay and destruction? New life comes from old life, as Paul also says, but we don’t have to agree with him that the old life was evil.

I found out not too long ago that Mary Evelyn Tucker of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology will be headlining Westar Institute’s Spring 2015 national meeting in Santa Rosa, California. Tucker was kind enough to send me a copy of her little book of meditations called Journey of the Universe, coauthored with Brian Thomas Swimme. Most of the meditations are only a page or two long, on topics that straddle the scientific and spiritual, such as the birth of stars, nuclei and bonding, timing and creativity. Tucker and Swimme observe that from the very beginning, destruction goes hand in hand with creativity in the universe, and that of course this finds expression in human lives as well:

There is a deep ambiguity threaded throughout [human bonds] that may result not simply in communion but also in collapse. But isn’t this also the nature of the universe—both dangerous and inviting? How do we discover ourselves in forces that are simultaneously fearful and attractive? How do we live amidst shimmering disequilibrium? One thing seems certain: the universe, navigating between extremes, presses ever further into creative intensities. (31–32)

The language of intent and desire threads through these meditations, and it left me worrying and wondering. Can the universe be said to intend or desire anything? I suppose we can say “yes,” on the grounds that we human beings, who are tiny bits of universe, certainly feel both intent and desire, as do many other living things around us. Would I be arrogant if I suggest we are just anthropomorphizing the universe when we use the language of intent? After all, we inherited all we are from the universe, and not the other way around, so it may be equally fair to argue that we inherited desire from our mother element. At the very least, I’d rather say that there is no grand Intender (“God”), only that intent is more like a wave of water, local and dispersible. Tucker and Swimme seem to agree, in that they describe this desire as “preconscious,” implying that it does not belong to a single, knowing entity.

This is important to me because morality turns on intention and desire, which together invite or demand obligation. “Did you mean to hurt me, or was it just an accident? What sort of society do you want or hope for? What should we do about it?” We can’t exit the universe’s cycle of decay, destruction, and creation—we know that now. Tucker and Swimme are simply observing that desire is a “mover” of that cycle, and as such it drives us to assign value to only the very smallest slivers of the universe, on a scale we can comprehend. For instance, after describing the courtship behaviors of a male bowerbird, spider, and peacock, they write:

What is true of each of these males? Why does he throw himself into such activity, all of it costly and some of it life-threatening?

He is seeking to convey his deepest truth—that he finds her valuable. Life has shaped his mind in a particular fashion. He cannot see all the value in the universe, but he can see hers, and it might as well be infinite, for nothing matters in comparison. His great passion is to organize his life around the work of wooing her, of impressing her, of changing himself in whatever way he can so that she will look at him in admiration and will utter in her own wordless way the longed for magic contained in that one word, “Yes.” (74)

How lovely especially here is the observation that we cannot observe all value in the universe, but that we reach instead for our own muse to that fuller context in our smaller, passing world. The whole may only be touched through a precious single instance of value. To live means in some way to give oneself (up) to a value.

Here the moral dimension becomes more apparent to me. If desire and bringing forth of value themselves constitute life, then morality is defined as the pattern by which it is achieved. Morality isn’t about cleansing or purging the corrupt world but rather about drawing value from the rich matter of the world. And it’s not a single ultimate value, such as God, but some value that drives morality. It’s also not any arbitrary value but a particular value that belongs to a greater constellation of values, what philosophers for many generations have called the Good. I find it incredibly moving that Tucker and Swinne suggest that a particular value is not something abstract, like honesty, but rather an individual life, a beloved. We don’t invent value, we discover it naturally from what exists, even if only in hints, hopes and yes, instincts.

Moon, Yew Trees at  Stow-on-the-Wold

These two Yew Trees, which flank the door to the Church of St. Edward in Stow-on-the-Wold, England, planted sometime in the 18th century, were probably survivors of an avenue of trees that led to the door of the church. They now appear to grow from the building itself. Photo by Beth Moon.

This makes morality sound like an elaborate expression of survival of the fittest (I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest as much). But I think it goes deeper than that. Consider: All living things are capable of perceiving value in the universe, unique to its own context but at the same time not arbitrary because it emerges from a greater whole. Sure, living things often seem to operate out of instinct more than anything else, usually to produce offspring, but obligation at some point can become love. At Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire there’s a famous church door held up not by stone pillars but by a pair of living Yew trees. Love is like that, a sort of happenstance that becomes structurally necessary. It was fated to take that form only in the sense that its form was possible in the material of the place.

What I’m trying to say is that “should,” the voice of morality, retains a degree of freedom when it both emerges from and upholds a value that matters deeply to you and to me. We all have varying degrees of that freedom in the sense of which values we may perceive, from the simplistic reproductive urge of a single-celled organism to the longings that produced Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Nevertheless, morality becomes a means of expressing what is personal about the deep and abiding patterns of the natural universe.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

30 Days of Paul Prequel

It's time! Dust off your copy of Paul's letters because we're launching the #30daysofPaul challenge today on the 30 Days of Paul sister site. Click here to jump to the Start Here page if you're ready to begin. We're reading all seven undisputed letters of Paul during the month of July. Full details below. First, a quick prequel.

Letters of Paul small squarePaul is by far one of the most influential figures in the history of Christianity and Western culture. Not only do we have Paul to thank (or blame) for laying the groundwork for a non-Jewish Christianity, but his writing had a profound impact on later leaders in the church, not the least of which included Augustine of Hippo, whose definition of Paul has reigned for centuries as the quintessential guilt-ridden man in need of redemption. But who was the Paul of history?

This is a difficult question to answer because soon after his death and possibly even during his lifetime, Paul's writings inspired all sorts of "fan fiction," for lack of a better term. Based loosely on what Paul said about himself, writers of all persuasions came up a "Paul" to fit their own needs in texts like 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, the Acts of the Apostles, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, and the Revelation of Paul. Paul’s creative and often startling explanations of the new relationship between God, Jesus, and the people of God inspired the full spectrum of early Christ-followers, both those commemorated by the Bible and those whose lives have been all but erased from our collective history. People loved to imagine Paul's adventures on the open road, his tendency to disrupt Roman households, his failings, his successes, but curiously enough, rarely his death.

Today we’re coming back to square one and reading Paul on our own terms thanks to the efforts of Westar’s Paul Seminar scholars. Throughout this challenge I'll be quoting from the book that emerged from that seminar, The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning. I’ve planned a number of different kinds of responses on the blog for the next 30 days to help keep us all going: written, audio, even a creative response or two. We’re all bringing different goals and intentions into this reading, so I hope you will really make this challenge your own.

We have some wonderful readers around the world who are also participating around the world. I'll be linking across to their contributions as they come out. You can already read an opening contribution from minister Glynn Cardy on 1 Thessalonians 1-3 on the Community of St Luke Facebook page. He begins, "I confess it’s been awhile since I’ve read 3 chapters of this book. It’s kind of like eating a bowl of junket. Junket was a childhood desert in the ‘60s with an odd texture and taste that I was glad to leave behind when I had more of a choice about what I ate!" It gets better from there. Enjoy!

I’m counting on you to keep me going, too. Tag your responses on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, whatever, with #30daysofPaul to make it easy for other challenge participants (including me!) to find your contributions. You are also welcome on any day of the challenge to share your responses on the Westar blog (below) or Westar Facebook page (here).

A quick refresher for new arrivals:

How to Participate in 30 Days of Paul

  • Choose your favorite translation of Paul.
    I vote for this one, which inspired the 30-day challenge.
  • Starting July 1st, read the 7 undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days:
    1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans
  • Write, draw, or record a response
    Daily, weekly, whatever—on a blog, Facebook, Twitter, in a journal, or wherever you like.
  • Tag your response with #30daysofPaul to share it with others.

I’ll be following this reading plan, which is in rough chronological order based on The Authentic Letters of Paul. You’re welcome to simply follow along or try another reading plan and compare notes. Here’s a PDF version for easy downloading and printing.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

Letters of Paul large square

30 Days of Paul Reading Challenge

Letters of Paul small squareEarlier this week I posted a 30-day plan for how to read the letters of Paul in chronological order. Several thousand visits and a ton of Facebook comments later, you’ve let me know you’re ready for the challenge!

Starting July 1st, I challenge you to read with me the 7 undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, and Romans. I’ll be posting a daily response on the Westar sister site 30 Days of Paul and sharing responses from others as well. Ready to go? Click here to get started.

Why these 7 letters? The so-called undisputed letters are the ones that most biblical studies scholars agree were written by Paul. They remain our best bet for understanding Paul, and they represent the earliest written evidence we have from the Jesus movement.

How to Participate in 30 Days of Paul

  • Choose your favorite translation of Paul.
    I vote for this one, which inspired the 30-day challenge.
  • Starting July 1st, read the 7 undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days:
    1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans
  • Write, draw, or record a response daily or weekly—on a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you like.
  • Tag your response with #30daysofPaul to share it with others.

I'll be following the reading plan I shared earlier this week, which is in rough chronological order based on The Authentic Letters of Paul. You’re welcome to simply follow along or try another reading plan and compare notes. Here’s a PDF version for easy downloading and printing.

Why Read Paul?

I’m currently reading How to Read the Bible by Harvey Cox, one of two outstanding guest lecturers we have lined up for the Fall 2015 national meeting in Atlanta. It's absolutely the perfect lead-up to this challenge. Cox urges us as readers not to aim to be big-O Objective—that is, completely neutral to the point of turning a blind eye to our personal stakes in reading the Bible. Rather, we should ask ourselves what our little-o objective is in reading this particular text.

To paraphrase him slightly, we need to have a sense not merely of what we’re reading about but of what we’re reading for.

So why read Paul? What’s your objective? When I first read Cox’s advice, it occurred to me that my objective even after many years away the evangelical-conservative world of my childhood has often been to read “to prove the Bible still matters” or “to find a better/more legitimate reading than the evangelical one,” or some variant of the two. That’s not really how I want to read Paul’s letters this time through. What other options are there? Here are a few I’ve brainstormed, to which you no doubt could add more:

Moral-ethical readings

  • What was Paul’s ethic? What sort of person is Paul calling for me to be? What does it mean to, as he says, love “extravagantly”?
  • Does Paul shed light on any modern moral issues? Was Paul a friend to women or not? Did Paul condone slavery? Does it matter?
  • How would I resolve the moral problems Paul faces with individual communities? If I could pick up a pen and write a letter to Paul, how would I answer him?
  • How might we revise his ethics for today?

Artistic-creative readings:

  • Respond to Paul not with argument but intuitively through poetry, fiction, drawing.
  • Laugh! Answer Paul with humor!
  • Put on Paul’s persona and pen a letter inspired by him to another community, real or imagined. Maybe it will help us empathize with the writers who actually did this in the earliest centuries of the Jesus movement.
  • Try reading a passage aloud, putting the weight on different words or using different emotions.
  • Put on the persona of someone who disagreed with Paul.

Historical-inquisitive readings:

  • How was I taught to read and understand Paul? Is that the Paul I’m finding here?
  • Who were Paul’s interlocutors? Can we reconstruct the people on the other side of the letter—agents of the empire, other Jesus followers whose mission was different, the communities themselves, the diverse factions within the communities?
  • What sort of place was Thessalonika, Corinth, Rome, in this time period? How did one travel in the Roman Empire? How did assemblies gather, and what did they do when they were together?
  • How do Paul’s own words compare with what others claimed about him elsewhere, especially in the book of Acts and the Acts of Paul and Thecla? How did writers outside the Bible interpret Paul? Can I see the roots of those interpretations in these early materials?

Spiritual readings:

  • What sort of relationship did Paul have with God? What sort of language did he use to describe God?
  • What did Paul mean when he described communities as “belonging to Jesus”?
  • How does reading Paul with the backdrop of Israel and Israel’s God affect my picture of his spiritual situation?
  • How do Paul's words feed into my own spiritual longings and situation? Do I have a calling as Paul so strongly felt he did?
  • Must a calling be so all-encompassing as Paul experienced it? Is there ever an occasion when I would declare a particular message “good news” and feel it must be shared with others? Is “evangelizing” in this way always wrong?
  • How do Paul’s diverse, complicated relationships with his communities awaken my own longings and fears in the relationships in my life?

Letters of Paul large squareBy the way, maybe you already know this, but I want to emphasize that it’s okay to disagree with Paul. You don’t have to take him as an authority; he was human like you and me, and he no doubt made mistakes.

As I re-read this list, I find that there remains a rich conversation to be had around these ancient letters. Over the next couple weeks I’ll share more inspiration from Harvey Cox to get us all in the right frame of mind. So be sure to pick up your copy of Paul’s letters in the meantime and grab a couple friends to join you for extra motivation. July 1st is just around the corner! Go to the 30 Days of Paul site to get started!

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.