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Creativity, the Child of Despair

Journey of the Universe

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

The final third of Journey of the Universe doesn’t say anything about the environmental crisis that you don’t already know, but the authors’ conclusion is quite interesting and could even be described as the basis of a nature-based spirituality. I wrote a few days ago about their incredibly moving meditation on how living things experience value in the universe; today I’m plagued in response to my reading by questions of crisis, apocalypse, “end times.”

Maybe that’s a natural feeling on 9/11. I still remember the horror I felt that day when, stumbling into sunlight after hours of shepherding stunned patrons of the Willamette University library past a makeshift television, I was accosted by a newspaper boy who tried to sell me a grainy photo of a man suspended mid-fall before the burning towers. From there I made my way to the “safe zone,” WU’s central auditorium, and listened to a seemingly endless buzz of voices that couldn’t seem to speak past themselves. Honestly, I was shocked this morning to read in Frank Rich’s 2011 article, “I discovered that the farther west I got, the more my audiences questioned me as though I were a refugee from some flickering evening-news hot spot as distant and exotic as Beirut.” After all, I was as far West as I could get in the continental U.S., and we were all walking around like zombies for weeks. Did he miss our stop?

This is the part of the ecological story most of us know. In the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century, humankind underwent a transformation, from awestruck serfs in a mysterious universe into enterprising kings of a mechanized one. Following upon the discoveries of individuals like Galileo and Newton, human beings for the first time allowed themselves to believe that we “with our vast intelligence had only to determine the laws governing matter for us to gain control over the entire affair” (105). A few hundred years later, we’re suffering the consequences of believing we could dominate and manipulate the very ground of our being.

That has a lot more to do with 9/11 than I think we want to admit. Sometimes terrorist acts are described as “symbolic” in the sense that the violence comes with a message, usually to inspire fear. Doesn’t that just scream mechanistic thinking? It is as though we become—as once befell the planets—no longer gods but mere “dead balls of matter” available to the scrutiny of more penetrating beings (104). At the same time, a terrorist act remains in keeping with the vast working of the universe, if in a disturbing way. Such violent acts do make room—real physical space but also a vacancy in the brain—for something new.

I occasionally have conversations with Westar’s academic director, David Galston, about human beings’ obsession with crisis thinking. We can’t seem to motivate ourselves without a crisis to address. So I naturally wondered how Tucker & Swimme would handle the natural crisis language that emerges from talk of the environment today. Yes, they employ crisis language, but they also make sense of it in terms of the dynamics of the larger universe:

It is in the nature of the universe to move forward between great tensions, between dynamic opposing forces. If the creative energies in the heart of the universe succeeded so brilliantly in the past, we have reason to hope that such creativity will inspire and guide us into the future. (118)

This led me to wonder what can be learned by exploring this dynamic in other points of crisis. I wonder if 9/11 and other moments in today’s “age of terror” aren’t too close to home still, both chronologically and emotionally. For me at least, I can’t go there, not yet, so I turned briefly to the Great Depression instead.

Miles Orvell, professor of English and American studies at Temple University, has described the Great Depression as “one of the great creative periods of our time.” This might seem counterintuitive. Until the day she died, my grandma stored ten times as much food as she would ever need, a consequence of the hungry years she survived as a younger woman. Similar pangs no doubt run through your family history. But Orvell points out that “the period … birthed several new genres, such as the melodrama, which laid the foundation for today’s soap opera, and it brought the detective novel to fulfillment, with the heroic detective stoically dealing with corruption and the underside of life in cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.” More obvious acts of creation came in the form of New Deal programs. Dr Charlie Wildman of the University of Manchester offers similar stories of creativity on British soil during the Great Depression: new housing, new transportation lines, a major renovation to the Manchester library that “accommodated one million volumes and seated over 300 readers in the Great Hall, making it the largest after the reading room of the British library.” Such activities on both sides of the Atlantic were by no means restricted to physical works, either; they included programs in the arts. You see how we reach for symbolic language to modulate our despair.

I think what’s tough about this—what we hate about this—is that none of the creativity can guarantee our personal survival. Sure, crisis language equals “important” and “worth your time” in a world full of distractions. But nothing we do is a total fix. As any Buddhist will tell you, the universe with its beautiful, terrifying creative-destructive nature cares not whether your molecules remain arranged as you. It will never reject you, but it will completely and unrelentingly remake you.

I’m not arguing with Tucker and Swimme, at least I don’t think I am. I’m wondering aloud how I feel about seeing myself as a collusion of vast patterns instead of a unique and enduring monument (in a word: a soul).

Clockwork Dreams

Clockwork Dreams by artist Vernon Tan

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.

Sex, Shame, and the Bible

It might seem like a funny way to start out: I’m sharing my least favorite Robert Frost poem with you. Stick with me.

Frost himself described “The Subverted Flower” in a 1960 Paris Review interview as one he would not like read widely. When pressed, he said it was about “the frigidity of women.” The poem, a romantic encounter between a man and woman in a field of “goldenrod and brake,” begins as flirtation and desire but devolves into shame—not for the woman but for the man, who is literally reduced to a beast when she hesitates on his gesture:

She drew back; he was calm:
‘It is this that had the power.’
And he lashed his open palm
With the tender-hearted flower.
He smiled for her to smile,
But she was either blind
Or willfully unkind.

………….

… her mother’s call
Made her steal a look of fear
To see if he could hear
And would pounce to end it all
Before her mother came.
She looked and saw the shame:
A hand hung like a paw,
An arm worked like a saw
As if to be persuasive,
An ingratiating laugh
That cut the snout in half,
An eye become evasive.
A girl could only see
That a flower had marred a man,
But what she could not see
Was that the flower might be
Other than base and fetid:
That the flower had done but part,
And what the flower began,
Her own too meager heart
Had terribly completed.

“The Subverted Flower,” A Witness Tree, 1942

Sometimes we read a poem not because we like it but because it captures an emotion. Even as I resent the man’s inability to empathize with the “girl,” I appreciate the precariousness of his attempt to cross into intimacy. The failure, at once subtle and devastating, actually undermines both partners’ understanding of the man as human, as though he “should” have known how to woo her in a way that wouldn’t expose her power to fell him with a look. Shame and vulnerability expert Brené Brown recently recounted a similar story of a man who approached her at a book signing and urged her to broaden her research on shame to include men, saying, “Men experience shame, too, deep shame. And before you start bringing up too-tough fathers and so on … my wife and daughters would rather see me die on my white horse than fall off of it.”

Many years of research later, Brown locates this shame in the tendency for people, both men and women, to derive power from the specific roles they hold for one another. When one person exposes his vulnerability to the other, it can fundamentally alter the dynamic between them. How can we deal with this in a healthy, affirming way? One answer suggested by Brown is to become more willing to live with discomfort, without assuming we will ever “get good at it” to such a degree that we actually “like” the discomfort. As we become sensitive to our own continuous attempts to draw our power from others, we become better able to sit longer with the discomfort that results. We begin to recognize that roles can change and our relationships with friends, coworkers, parents, lovers, etc., can survive and even improve.

Unprotected Texts Knust

This article is part of a series on Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust.

In a way, this is a softening of my comments about Buddhist meditation from a couple weeks ago. Handling discomfort is one skill meditation teaches. Speaking from more than ten years’ experience with cross-cultural and interfaith work, I can vouch for the fact that this skill doesn’t get easier, only more necessary. So this week when I picked up Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire by biblical studies scholar and American Baptist minister Jennifer Wright Knust, I was elated to discover a kindred spirit who is unwilling to let the Bible’s enormous variety of attitudes toward sexuality—with all the related facets of shame, vulnerability, and self control—go unnoticed.

Knust in no way attacks the Bible or Christians. Rather, she asks readers to begin with the text itself, to learn what it actually says, and to consider in what sense we want to be guided by what we find. She opens with a personal story about the bullying she experienced as a sexually inexperienced twelve-year-old who nevertheless was pegged the school “slut.”

As studies of the slut phenomenon in American high schools have shown, when it comes to being called a slut, the story is pretty much the same: A girl who is a misfit for one reason or another is selected (she’s the new girl, she develops breasts earlier than the other girls, her hair is different—whatever). Then the stories start, irrespective of what the girl has or has not done. … My experience at twelve taught me that, when it comes to sex, people never simply report what others are doing or even what they themselves are doing. … Sex, I have since discovered, can be used as a public weapon. (2)

People who don’t read the Bible stories closely, or who learned to hurry past uncomfortable passages, may not realize just how diverse the Bible’s approaches to sex and sexuality really are. Maybe I’m being too euphemistic when I say that. Let’s face it. Some people undeniably know about that diversity but pretend it doesn’t exist. Knust confronts that issue, too. Countering the existence of such a thing as “biblical standards” of sex, she presents this helpful overview:

The Bible does not speak with one voice when it comes to marriage, women’s roles, sexy clothes, and the importance of remaining a pure virgin for one’s (future) spouse. According to Genesis, a woman who sleeps with her father-in-law can be a heroine. Visits to prostitutes are also not a problem, so long as the prostitute in question is not a proper Israelite woman. According to the Song of Songs, a beautiful girl who enjoys making love can fulfill her desires outside of marriage and still be honored both by God and by her larger community. Sex is a good thing, and sexual desire is a blessing, not an embarrassment. Yet according to Exodus and Deuteronomy, sex is a matter of male property. Men can have sex with as many women as they like, so long as these women are their wives, slaves, or prostitutes, but a woman must guard her virginity for the sake of her father and then remain sexually faithful to one man after marriage. First Timothy offers yet another perspective: a woman must marry not so that she can express her desires appropriately but so that she can become pregnant and suffer the pangs of childbirth. God requires women to suffer in this way, and has demanded labor pains from them since Eve first sinned in Eden. Nevertheless, other New Testament books argue that the faithful followers of Jesus should avoid marriage if possible, in anticipation of a time when sexual intercourse will be eliminated altogether. Could one imagine a more contradictory set of teachings collected within one set of sacred texts? (8)

Sitting with these texts is a risky pursuit. It puts us in a position of discomfort, especially those of us who were raised with a “biblical standard of sex” mentality (whether or not we still adhere to it). I hope that you will join me, first of all, in reading this book over the next few weeks, and second, in testing some new, perhaps more vulnerable responses to today’s debates on this subject.

By the way, Brené Brown made one other point about vulnerability: it most often appears in situations that require a virtue we can all admire—courage.

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Cassandra Farrin Dec 2014 smCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. 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. 

“No News Here”—Historical Truth and the Jesus Voiceprint (EHJ series)

“To be ‘over there’ is not to be in a different world, but to be in this world differently.”
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

We are in the midst of a chapter-by-chapter reading of David Galston’s book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don’t be a stranger—share your thoughts below!

Chapter 3 of 9, “The Jesus Voiceprint,” Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
« Chapter 2    Chapter 4 »

“In ordinary life we all carry around what we can call an imaginary baseboard: an electrical baseboard that jolts us whenever we encounter what feels like a problem,” says Charlotte Joko Beck in Nothing Special: Living Zen.

We can imagine it with millions of outlets, all within our reach. Whenever we feel threatened or upset, we plug ourselves into it and react to the situation. The baseboard represents our fundamental decisions about how we have to be in order to survive and get what we want in life. As young children we discovered that life wasn’t always the way we wanted it to be, and things often went wrong from our personal point of view. We didn’t want anyone to oppose us, we didn’t want to experience unpleasantness, and so we created a defensive reaction to block the possible misery. That defensive reaction is our baseboard. We’re always plugged into it, but we especially notice it at times of stress and threat. (31)

This accurately describes my experience of conversations about the historical Jesus. And in chapter 3 of Embracing the Human Jesus, David Galston begins with a catalog of the hazards faced by scholars who attempt such conversations: accusations of blasphemy (implied or stated), hostility, and ad hominem attacks.

Nevertheless, honesty demands the conversation. It is in this sense that Galston appeals to the Buddhist sense of Right View, which “involves a commitment to understanding things as they truly are” (EHJ: 50).

The critical issue continues to be how we approach history. Using words like “true” or “authentic” can make us feel like we’re uncovering something absolute, but this isn’t really what we get in historical inquiry. Our access to truth is limited by human perspective, which it often short-sighted and turned toward itself. Good historians need a more modest goal—Paul Ricouer’s “model that suits,” which Galston poses here as a question: “What makes the best sense of the available data?” (EHJ: 52).

This isn’t a unique perspective to the Jesus Seminar, and in fact has been used against it. In a 2007 online article critical of the Jesus Seminar, N. T. Wright claimed “First-century Jews, for all their wide variety, were living within a story, a controlling narrative,” which he defined as a Jewish apocalyptic worldview. “The Jesus Seminar, however, and many others beside, have said that all we know about Jesus are fragmentary sayings—a little nugget about this, a little wise saying about that, and a fragment of a parable here—that do not actually retain the stories.” In other words, he accuses the Jesus Seminar of taking things out of context. Later in the article, he encapsulates the problem in the following manner: “To be historically credible, you have to picture a Jesus who is both comprehensible and crucifiable within first-century Judaism. That, simply stated, is a problem history must always deal with.”

I find it ironic that Galston and Wright have framed this historical problem in almost the exact same terms, and yet represent very different attitudes toward the historical Jesus. Wright continues to emphasize the apocalyptic prophet, while Galston places Jesus in the Jewish wisdom tradition.

With all respect to Wright (full disclaimer: I’ve read only some of his work and am probably not the best person to address his views on the relationship between faith and historical inquiry), it seems patently unfair to claim that apocalyptic consciousness is the only historically credible attitude in the first century ce. Jewish wisdom traditions are well represented prior to this period by, at the very least, the books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. At the very least, we ought to allow it is possible that Jesus could contribute to such a tradition and not solely to end-times thinking. There is more than one way to criticize the Roman Empire, after all, and therefore plenty of ways to end up crucified. Which explanation best suits the evidence?

This brings us back to the Jesus voiceprint of last week’s blog post. Galston explains:

Identifying that voiceprint in greater detail helps us talk about the ‘lifestyle’ associated with a teaching tradition. This is not at all atypical of antiquity. Virtually all schools in antiquity not only had identifiable teaching but also complementary lifestyles. Jesus and various schools in ancient Judaism were no different. (67–68)

What was that voiceprint? What characterized it? The answer is right under our noses: Socrates gave us the allegory of the Cave; Jesus told parables.

Any of us who have read the Bible know what a parable is, more or less. It’s a story Jesus told to illustrate a point. It can be pulled from its immediate context and be told on its own, and it holds together pretty well. Other people have told parables, both in ancient times and in the present. It’s a rhetorical strategy, a mnemonic device.

Well, it’s a bit more complicated. Here’s the problem: sometimes, even most of the time, the gospel writers thought they understood the parables but really didn’t, or blatantly chose to interpret the parables in such a way that it served a need in their own communities. So we have this interpretive clutter around the original story. Some historians are absolutely fascinated by that interpretive clutter. Maybe they want to know how Plato framed Socrates’ Cave story and what it tells us about Plato. Maybe they want to uncover the historical “Matthew” for instance, or at least the community responsible for the gospel named after him. That would be a legitimate historical exercise.

However, if what we’re after is the historical Jesus, and we can reasonably understand the concerns of a given gospel writer, we can also figure out what the gospel writer might have added or embellished. We can bracket out such embellishment and get a sense for the original kernel of the parable. In its more basic form, the architecture of the parable should “fit together” for the listener, even if he or she doesn’t understand it. For example, the parable employs a recurring image like in the story of the Good Samaritan, where three people pass by the injured man in succession, giving us a key to remember how the story progresses.

Is there any reason to believe these mnemonic devices couldn’t have survived by passing from an original teacher (Jesus) to his students? Could those sayings, passed around, have caused enough controversy to lead to his crucifixion? If you find this credible, the historical Jesus as wisdom teacher may not seem quite so far-fetched, after all.

Next week’s post will revisit the “the apocalyptic complaint” mentioned above in more detail. For now, let me end with an excerpt from a rather parabolic poem by Anne Sexton, “Jesus Dies”:

From up here in the crow’s nest
I see a small crowd gather.
Why do you gather, my townsmen?
There is no news here.
I am not a trapeze artist.
I am busy with My dying.
Three heads lolling,
bobbing like bladders.
No news.
The soldiers down below
laughing as soldiers have done for centuries.
No news.

Don’t leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. Photo credit: Cassandra Farrin

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. Photo credit: Cassandra Farrin

Bibliography

Beck, Charlotte Joko. “Nothing Special: Living Zen.” San Franscisco: HarperCollins, 1995.

Miller, Robert J. The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 1999.

Sexton, Anne. “Jesus Dies.” Pp. 272–73 in Cries of the Spirit: A Celebration of Women’s Spirituality. Edited by Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.

Wright, N. T. “Setting Scholars Straight about the Bible.” March 5, 2007. Accessed August 1, 2014. http://jesusseminar.blogspot.com/2007/03/setting-scholars-straight-about-bible.html

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. 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.