Sunday, November 29, 2009

Back in Gear

So. I'm vacuuming at work, just as we're closing. And I'm thinking, for whatever reason, about my customers that day. Many nations. Many cultures. Many ways of thinking, each of which is represented and explored by some of my product (I sell videogames now, parttime). But, I think with a rush of pride, this is what's cool about America. Room for every culture, and room for every gens on earth. And we (the "old" Americans, be they black, white, or brown), lap it up. People go out for pho and Thai noodles and Ethiopian food, and we celebrate the best elements (in food especially, but in philosophy as well) of every culture that has taken up residence in this great nation of ours.

And then I wonder. What are the "best" elements? Are they inherently good? Or are they situationally good? That seems sensible. Culture responds to environment and need. If you can't get just the stuff you need for the religious festival, you make do with what you have. Eventually, that becomes the tradition - culture is adaptive. So the "best" elements that America absorbs are those that function best, and for which there is most need. From there it's easy to extrapolate - the only inherently "good" thing about the American cultural ethos is its willingness to adapt (read: steal) culture from other peoples. There is no really "worthy" or "precious" American value (which is completely uniquely American) except the pursuit of the useful value.

Well, I thought, how does this apply to religion? Religion is the corporate or communal response to the experience of the divine (Johnstone, under Creative Commons). And our religion is shaped by the corporation or community in which we find ourselves worshipping. I worship quite differently from Christians in Zambia or in India or in China...but we are all responding to that divine experience. And all of us have worship quite distinct from that which obtained in the past - or which will in the future - but the response of religion, (even aside from your particular faith background) is common to all cultures.

All of that, however - the adaptability of culture, and the synchronicity of religious expression, seems to me quite distinct from faith (the daily actions we undertake on the basis of our beliefs) and from gospel (the universal message of divine reconciliation shared by the Incarnate Word).

Gospel knows no bounds of culture - it is as true in deepest darkest Antarctica as on the plana of Mars. God loves us and wants to be in true relationship with us. That can be true whether you worship with guitar or with organ or in silence or in scientific exploration.

Faith, our continuous response to the wondrous message, is likewise the same, however it is expressed. That we love our neighbours, and that we seek to be in that right relationship with each other and with God, and that we act that way is a constant, even if one culture's deep insult is another's highest revelation of love.

Faith and gospel transcend (and transform) culture. They surely are not isolated from it, and they are also not fundamentally altered by that relationship, just as the Immutable God can weep for His dead Son (more on this later).

Long story short is this:

I'm back, baby.

Pro tip: upcoming post, on how we interpret sacraments in light of the above.

Monday, November 23, 2009


It is that time of year again. Good, harvest food - gourds and root vegetables. Through the falling leaves, and into the first sounding of the trumpets of winter. It's a season when we consider our own gratitude - we give thanks for food, for our lives, for our families.

We give thanks for superheroes.

Thanksgiving of my sophomore year of college, I couldn't afford to fly home, so I just parked myself in my dorm room with supplies, and books. Everything I needed. I got bored out of my mind. I went to the video store. I rented something like six movies. By chance, they all happened to be superhero movies. And thus began one of my favorite holiday traditions. Every Thanksgiving, I rent or buy superhero movies, and pay particular attention to the philosophy, the literary implications, and (especially this year) the theology of superheroes.

Apologies to the uninitiated as it concerns superheroes - I'm about to get very specific in my examples. I invite you to look these cats up on Wikipedia, if you don't know who they are already. Suppose, for just a moment, that you live in the Marvel Universe (copyright the Disney Corporation, 2009). Where is the church? What sorts of sermons do you hear about those with special powers? How does the presence of truly exceptional people affect your understanding of, say, Romans? Is there a religious contingent speaking out against the Nephilim of Genesis? Do the sorts of hatred and fear that characterize the X-Men series spring not from political pressures, as the movies depict, but from the church? How does the church receive Iron Man? What about Spiderman? Colossus? The Beast?

There are, then, two sorts of questions that we can immediately apply, here. One is the question of power - a central issue in the comic book genre, and a concern of our churches everywhere. How do we integrate and accept the powerful into our churches - the wise, the strong, the brave, the influential, the rich? How do we preach the saving and humbling gospel of Jesus Christ to those who think that they have no reason to be humble, and feel that they have no need to be saved? How do we evangelize the Fantastic Four?

Second, and even more worrying to me, is the question of difference. I can see churches not having a problem with (and some churches being very excited about) having Tony Stark (Iron Man) in the pews. Likewise, out of costume, Peter Parker (Spiderman) poses no problems. But Bruce Banner (Hulk) in his more verdant state? Johnny Storm (Human Torch), in need of an asbestos pew? On the other end of the thermometer, is Iceman going to be able to take communion without a) freezing his grape juice or b) causing quite a stir? Can we, as church, truly be open and accepting of everyone - everyone - even if they are visibly different? Can we preach the good news to all, be church for all those baptized, administer our sacraments and truly engage discipline, even to the exceptional among us?

I'm not sure, yet. But Lord, do I hope so.