Tuesday, 22 November 2005

Crisis of Faith

Let me set the stage for you.

It's right around Passover in the year 7 or 8 CE, a nice spring day in Nazareth. There's going to be wedding the next day; all the preparations are ready. There are three characters in our little scene:

  • Levi, who is called Biff: the protagonist, and narrator. A Jewish boy, apprenticed to his father as a stonecutter, about 13 years old. Funny, irreverant. (Hopelessly) in (hopeless) love.

  • Joshua: another young boy, again around 13. Very philosophical, and incredibly wise for his age. Kind and honest. Biff is his best friend.

  • Maggie: a young Jewish woman, also about the same age. She's the bride in this wedding, betrothed to Jakan, the son of Iban, a Pharisee and important member of the Sanhedrin. As appalling as at might seem to us, remember that 13 or 14 was a routine age for marriage in the Promised Land in those times.

Right. So, to contine, Maggie is (not-so) secretly in love with Joshua, and Biff is (not-so) secretly in love with Maggie. Biff is also in love with Joshua's mother, Mary, but only in a sort of mainly joking "she's my backup wife" sort-of way. So anyway, it's the day before Maggie's wedding, and she asks Biff to get Joshua to meet her that evening. Joshua knows it's so Maggie can profess her feelings for him. He knows he can't carry through on anything he might feel for her, so he asks Biff to go in his place, and pretend to be him, so Maggie's feelings won't be hurt.

I fell backward on the ground and there was in my head a bright light, and the rest of the world existed in the senses of touch and smell and God. There, on the ground beside the synagogue, Maggie and I indulged desires we had carried for years, mine for her, and hers for Joshua. That neither of us knew what we were doing made no difference. It was pure and it happened and it was marvelous. And when we finished we lay there holding each other, and Maggie said, "I love you, Joshua."

"I love you, Maggie," I said. And ever so slightly she loosened her embrace.

"I couldn't mary Jakan without—I couldn't let you go without—without letting you know."

"He knows, Maggie."


I thought she might scream, that she might leap up and run away, that she might do any one of a hundred things to take me from Heaven to Hell, but after only a second she nuzzled close to me again.

"Thank you for being here," she said.

- excerpted from Lamb, by Christopher Moore

If you haven't figured it out already, Maggie is better known today as Mary Magdala, or sometimes Mary Magdalene. She is the one, scripture says, who found Jesus' tomb empty the first Easter morning. She was with him in his last days, and one can assume, through much of his ministry as well. Joshua is just Greek for Jesus, so it's not that much of a stretch. And Levi, who is called Biff is Jesus' childhood best friend.

Purists would complain that the character of Biff completely fictional, and that including Jesus as a character in a story with extra-marital relationships (for which he is in part responsible) is nothing short of blasphemy. I think they're wrong. Though very little is written about it, it's very likely that Jesus lived a largely normal childhood, had friends, played, and did everything else a normal child did in the first century.

There's something about the humanity in this portrayal of Christ that I like, that he was one of us. The book as a whole is, of course, wickedly funny, and I recommend you find a copy of it at your local public library, and read it just as soon as possible.

But that brings me to my recent crisis of faith. Did Jesus' humanity appeal to me in this portrayal because I already think of him as a person? Am I so unsure in my faith that I can't even say for sure that Jesus was the Son of God? Was Jesus anything more than a worker of miracles, a man of wisdom and kindness and acceptance, and a prophet of God?

I've puzzled over these questions for a little bit, and haven't come any closer to finding answers that work for me. I still find church (when I go) to be a place where I feel at home. I'm surrounded there by by a love largely rooted in a God that maybe none of us is understanding correctly, speaking about and listening to fallible scriptures written by people with biases and prejudices just like us, singing hymns of praise with memorable tunes, and words of questionable accuracy. It's a comfortable place, but having said what I just have, my presence there feels almost quasi-apostate.

It's not that I have a problem in my relationship with God. He or She, and I, are doing just fine, thank you very much. We even talk once in a while, though it's not as often as I feel I should. My trouble is, the belief system to which I allegedly adhere places the divinity of his Son front and centre. While I can accept and believe (without proof, I might add) that God exists and that he loves me, the precise nature of his son seems... insignificant.

When I was still discerning for ministry just a year ago, one question I was asked was to describe what I believed God was. And I said, "I believe that God loves me, and all the rest is crap." It just doesn't matter. It would seem that Christian doctrine disagrees with me.

How do I put Christian doctrine as it exists, and my fractured, shattered belief system back together?

Sunday, 6 November 2005

On Mission

Mission is not a small word.

Don't get me wrong. Phonetically, it only has two syllables. In this sense, it is a much smaller word than, say, onomatopoetically, or pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, or even, syllable. These words, tounge-tying as they may be, express not horrifically exciting, or broad, or significant concepts [though you might disagree if you're a fictional coal miner afflicted with pneumonoult...]

Mission is not a small word. A mission can be a journey or a quest, sometimes military, of some significance. A mission statement is a statement of beliefs which one will follow, a credo, a motto, a set of guiding principles. Mission is the name of several places, including towns in British Columbia (in the Fraser Valley, near Abbotsford), South Dakota and Texas.

I live in an area of Kelowna called the Mission. It's an almost exclusively residential area, with reasonably sized (for a city) lots, green space, foliage, beautiful mountain views, schools and not a lot of traffic. The specific area I'm in seems to have been built in the 1970s, and not renovated for modernity's sake since then. As a result, my apartment is in a house with a stucco'd exterior, and the inside is covered with enough dark wood panelling to heat this place for an entire winter.

I've also noticed that, for a city of its size, Kelowna has an inordinate number of churches, a large number of them highly conservative theologically, and extremely evangelical in practice. A result is a truly amazing number of religious schools: Catholic, Lutheran, Pentecostal (the Kelowna "Christian" School, as though the rest of the church-run schools aren't, I suppose), and so on. I wonder if this trend of evangelism has a historical basis in Kelowna's founding. If Kelowna's early years saw developed focused in what is now the downtown, a particularly eager group of Christians, perhaps, set out to take God's message to the (then) more rural, unchurched areas, and thus started the Okanagan Mission. I don't know if that's true, but it seems plausible.

These observations were drawn together by my experience travelling to Kelowna from Nova Scotia; six days in a car travelling across New England, Ontario, the US Midwest, Saskatchewan and Alberta. I was struck by the pervasiveness of radio in the United States.

Let us consider, for example, a typical Canadian conurbation (one of my new favourite words). I'm going to use Pictou County, in Nova Scotia: New Glasgow, Stellarton, Trenton, Westville, and for kicks, the slightly distant Pictou town, total population around 35 000. I could just as easily use the cities of Vernon or Penticton here in British Columbia, which are similar in size. Pictou County has one local radio station, CKEC, and a CBC transmitter. Compare that with Minot, a city of 36 000 in northwestern North Dakota, which has ten radio stations, several of them locally originating, and six of them self-describing as "Christian radio".

This is not something isolated to small Minot. Driving on Interstate highways, far away (for the most part) from large cities, one is exposed to mainly AM radio, which propogates over greater distances. The majority of stations I was able to receive were either Christian radio or conservative talk radio. Sadly, I don't think I heard Air America Radio once. Several of the programs I listened to really disturbed me. One was a program extolling the virtues of (I swear I am not making this up) Christian financial planning.

In one call, the hosts advised a man to quit the part-time job which helped him to support his family. The reason: he was selling beer at the local stadium at sporting events, and this wasn't Christian. Sure, his family might not be able to eat. Sure, he wasn't having any himself. But God has a plan; he'll provide. What absolute "God has a plan for you; it's just not this, because you'll obviously be damned forever, because we think the Bible says so" Calvinist crap. I think. I really need to read more theology. Then I'd know whether it's Calvinist or not.

The other thing that really bothered me was a letter from the mother of a three-year old, who wrote (ostensibly for the three-year old — yes, really) about how she loved witnessing (that's a friendly word for evangelizing) people by handing out Christian-themed pamphlets to people while in a grocery store, because, seriously, who's going to be mean and turn down a three-year old girl? It bothers me because the girl can't possibly understand the Message (capitalized for the evangelicals who are reading) she's sharing. At best, she understands that Jesus was born in a church filled with hay and cows on Christmas Day, and that church is where she goes to play in the Nursery on Sunday.

Coming up next: pictures (I hope!), and a possible crisis of faith.