It Feels Good When You Sing a Song: My [Non-Partisan] Playlist for Election-Induced Anxiety

I know I’m far from the only person who is struggling with anxiety in the run up to this year’s presidential election. I’m prone to anxiety anyway, so between politics and a few busy weeks at work and home, life has felt a bit like a big vat of stress to drown in lately. This weekend I’ve been trying to stay off of social media (mostly) and focus on reading, writing, and hanging with my kids instead, and I’m hoping to continue that trend into next week to help keep the anxiety in check and the heartburn at bay.

A few weeks ago, my boys went on a random kick of watching Sesame Street videos that had been sitting around our house neglected for quite some time, and since then, I have found myself humming one of the songs–a number by John Legend and Hoots the owl–repeatedly. Here are a few of the lyrics:

“Sing a sing about new friends.

Sing about tomorrow and yesterday.

Sing a song about old friends.

Why not sing about having a sax to play?

It can’t be bad even if it’s sad.

Sing it loud, sing it strong.

It feels good when you sing a song.”

Sesame Street is a great place to learn things, or perhaps just be reminded of them. So as another strategy to stave off the election blues and nerves, I set out on a trip through Youtube to collect a few of my favorite calming, cathartic, and feel-good tunes. Some of these are hymns, but they all speak to my spirit when I’m stressed out. If you are struggling with anxiety these days, perhaps one of them will refresh your soul as well.


 

“Creation will be at Peace” – A lovely anthem of peace performed by the fantastic choir from Weatherly Heights Baptist Church (Huntsville, AL):


“Be Still My Soul” – Another lovely, peaceful, and encouraging anthem from the incomparable Mormon Tabernacle Choir:


“It’s So Heavy” A sad, cathartic tune to remind us to let go a little when things seem to be too much, from the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Like Hoots sings, “It can’t be bad, even if it’s sad.”


“Stormy Monday” – A truly excellent rendition from the Allman Brothers that I love to play when I’m feeling a little sorry for myself. Lord have mercy…


“People Get Ready” – Now, for the feel-good tunes! You can’t beat Susan Tedeschi having some church with the Blind Boys of Alabama here:


“Let Love Take Control” – A reminder from my favorite swampy bluesman that it’s all about love, not anxiety and fear:


“It Feels Good When You Sing a Song” – And of course, John Legend and Hoots reminding us of the power of music to alter our mood:


Feel free to add to my list by linking to your own favorites in the comments.  I don’t know about you, but I can always use another anxiety-busting tune! 

Learning to Sit in a Broken Chair

 

Reflections on Faith, and Why You Should (Not) Be Afraid of That Liberal College Professor 

If you know me, or have knocked around this blog a bit, you know that I’m a liberal, feminist college professor. You’ll also know that I’m a person of faith, because, unlike some folks would have us believe, the two are not incompatible. Despite the claims of badly conceived Christian screenplays, the average college professor isn’t out there forcing students to recant or prove their faith in order to pass a class (that’s um, illegal and we would be disciplined or fired for it).

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Not standard academic procedure (in case you were wondering).

Well, perhaps I should say that being an intellectual, free-thinking professor and a Christian are not necessarily incompatible. Because if I’m honest, the way I originally learned to have faith and to believe doesn’t really float my theological or ideological boat these days.

The reason I’m a Christian and a person of faith is not because I’ve clung desperately to the things I was taught in my youth. I haven’t. If I had tried to hold on to that version of faith, I would have failed years ago. It obviously works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.

I’m still a Christian precisely because I have let go of some of those ideas and have re-envisioned others-because I have thought and wrestled and evolved. [And there’s plenty more on where I came from and where I’m at these days in my Spiritual Autobiography.]

But let’s take a step back and think about this thing that I’m calling “faith.”

When I was a teenager in a Southern Baptist youth group (which was in many ways an excellent experience with great people), one of the popular metaphors for faith had to do with sitting in a chair. I remember being told repeatedly, in various devotionals and Bible studies, that the act of having faith is like the act of sitting in a chair. When you sit in a chair, you have faith that the chair will support you. Back then, I suppose that I took it on faith that this metaphor actually made sense.

Back then, it seemed to, because faith seemed that simplistic. Chairs are made to support our weight. We know this. We are certain of this. Unless they are obviously defective, we expect them to do that without even thinking about it.

I also remember-as I’m sure some others do-being yelled at from the pulpit, with a fiery fist thumping into a palm with every repetition: “You got to know that you know that you know [that you are saved, washed in the blood, forgiven, going to heaven, etc.]!”

Back then, I knew that I knew that I knew. Then I left my conservative Christian bubble, went to college, and learned that my point of view reflected only one little corner of human knowledge and experience. I didn’t let go of my faith, but I learned to allow it to evolve into something more expansive and mature [more on that in another post].

Today, I freely admit that when it comes to God, and to understanding the mystery of Christ and incarnation and resurrection and a whole other heaping pile of things, I know very little. I am certain of very little. 

The thing is-that’s okay. Why?

Because faith and certainty are not the same thing. In fact, they are opposed to one another. Faith requires a leap. Expecting a perfectly good chair to hold you up when you sit in it is not faith. It’s common sense. There is no leap, no challenge in that.

Christianity, on the other hand, is not common sense. If you think it is, then you really have not been paying attention.

Well, this is your friendly liberal feminist (Christian) college professor standing at the front of the class calling “¡Atención!” (Did I mention that I teach Spanish?)

Today’s lesson: Christianity is a little freakin’ loco.

I mean, it turns the world as we know it upside down. It asks us to love our enemies, to pray for those who hurt us. It tells us that the least, the last, and the lost are sites of value: the least require our care, the last will be first, and the lost should be sought at the expense of everything else. It tells us that by losing our life, we gain it.

And to top it off, Christianity claims that (to borrow some language from Tripp Fuller) we can see the image of the invisible God in a homeless, first-century Jew. What??

If you grew up in church, that sounds reasonable. If you didn’t, or if you take a step backand look at it rationally, it sounds pretty absurd. It’s embarrassing. It’s offensive to the intellect, to common sense.

This isn’t a chair we can just plop down into and get all comfy in. If you take about five minutes to think about these claims rationally and (perhaps more importantly) honestly, then you must, on at least some level, doubt them.

And that’s okay too. Because doubt is not the opposite of faith; it’s what makes true faith possible.

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard understood doubt as essential for faith. As Tripp writes, “For Kierkegaard, faith is not merely explaining the idea that Jesus is God so that it becomes reasonable or palatable; faith is facing the offense and choosing to believe rather than to be offended. . . . The act of faith is the decision of the individual alone-no professor, preacher, or Sunday School teacher can make it for you.”

broken chairFaith is not an unconscious certainty. It’s a decision that you make in the face of doubt, uncertainty, and even absurdity. Faith is sitting in a chair with three legs, and against rationality, expecting it to hold you up anyway. This is not because God, the ultimate object of faith, is faulty or broken, but because our understanding of God can never be complete. It is always a chair with a few missing parts.

Faith is understanding that and taking a seat anyway.

And because of that, no matter how liberal or atheist or even hostile-to-religion they might be (because let’s face it, there are a few jerks out there in any given profession), no professor or teacher can unmake your decision of faith. You can only do that for yourself. It’s your choice.

Sure, some college professor or some other speaker or writer or friend may introduce you to an idea that will make you question everything you ever believed was true, but that’s a good thing. It’s a process that allows us to reconsider and refine who we are, what we believe, and why-usually for the better.

We have to challenge ourselves and question our own ideology in order to grow, and as most of us learn eventually, intellectual or spiritual growth, just like physical growth, can be an unsettling and painful process. That doesn’t mean that we have to let go of what is most important about what we believe. What it does mean is that we should hold it up to the light, examine it, and perhaps reshape it or whittle away at the bits that no longer seem true.

I know as well as anyone that if you open your mind to new and different ideas, it can radically alter your understanding of the world and of your place in it. In many ways, I have shifted from one end of the spectrum to the other in my journey from Southern Baptist holy-rolling teenage missionary girl to who I am today.

These days I am that liberal, free-thinking college professor that I was told to be wary of many years ago (well, 19 years ago – I’m not that old). And you know what?

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I’m really not that scary.

But I do make it a habit to loosen the screws on all of my students’ chairs. 


 

 

Reference: Tripp Fuller, The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic, or Awesome

 

The Light Still Shines

It has been quite a while since I wrote a post, between the spring end-of-semester chaos, a summer of indulging in novel-writing, and a new semester with four courses to teach and a research deadline to meet. My last post was a reading and play list for Good Friday and Holy Saturday, which I created because I wanted to slow down in those two days before the triumphal celebration of Easter morning and contemplate the darkness–the real horror of the crucifixion, and the mourning and uncertainty that would have followed for the ones who followed Jesus.

So, perhaps it is fitting that this post follows that one, because since yesterday afternoon, I have also been grappling with darkness, with mournfulness, and with uncertainty. As I began my third class of the day yesterday, a student read details of the latest school shooting to us from her phone, but right then, the news didn’t quite have time to sink in.

After class, though, came a text from a friend, accompanied by a picture of two men clipped from a news article. Did I know this student, she asked, who had been arrested on suspicion of killing another student from my university? I looked at the picture in shock. I didn’t know the young man wearing correctional-facility orange, but I did know the other man, Antonio “Tony” Moore. He was a military veteran in his late thirties who had been in a class of mine a few semesters before, and had stopped by my office to chat on various occasions, saying that he needed to “escape” from the young engineering “geeks” in his classes and talk to someone who knew how to have a conversation. This always made me laugh and say that I was just a different breed of geek.

I hadn’t seen Tony recently, and I didn’t know that he had been missing for weeks. How had this tragedy unfolded practically right under my nose–the victim someone I knew, and liked, and had traded stories about parenting with–and I hadn’t known about it until my friend’s text?

Probably because I only pay minimal attention to the news. I’m a high anxiety type, and I try to hold events that are out of my control or out of my sphere at a distance for the sake of my sanity. But when my afternoon is twice interrupted with tragic news, there’s no way to escape the fact that I work on a campus where there has already been one shooting and where Tony Moore will not be stopping by my office again.

The darkness is not at a distance. It’s right here. All around.

So with tears in my eyes I came home yesterday and engaged in what I sadly joked to friends via Facebook was “Triple B” therapy: beer, bacon, and boys. After all what could be more comforting than a rich brown ale, salty saturated fat, and long cuddly hugs from the sweetest little fellas around? Not much, right?

But once dinner was over and the boys were read to and kissed and tucked away in bed, all I really wanted to do was curl up in bed and with my laptop and something escapist on Netflix. Or, in other words, squeeze my eyes shut and bury my head in the sand so that I could, in an illusion of safety, ignore everything horrible and awful and dark in the world around me.

But that’s the irony. If you close your eyes and stick your head in the sand, there’s nothing down there but darkness.

As this occurred to me and I thought again about the victims of the most recent shooting, about Tony, and about all of the darkness in this world, a particular Bible verse came to mind, perhaps because I had seen it go by on Facebook recently, posted by another former student of mine on a hand-crafted Christmas card.

“The light shines in the darkness and the dark has not overcome it.” John 1:5

And so I write this post in part to remind myself that this is true.

No matter how much darkness there is, the light still shines among us.

And the “us” is key. 

If we withdraw, disengage, succumb to fear and stick our heads in the sand, then the light is obscured from view.

The light shines when we love each other, when we reach out to one another, empathize with one another, and serve one another.

So let’s love each other, y’all, and keep looking toward the light.  

It hasn’t gone out. 

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Narnia Christmas Card by Kelly Maust at

Spare Room Stationery

Bored as Hell: The Well-Behaved Bible and the Stunting of Spiritual Growth

This week in my Sunday school class, we began a study of Peter Enns’ book The Bible Tells Me So: Why defending scripture has made us unable to read it. I was proud of myself because I actually made it to class (more or less) on time (and there are witnesses who can attest to this, I promise!). Some of my WHBC friends know that I’m usually the one who pops into Sunday school about twenty minutes before class ends.

I could blame this on my preschoolers (and some mornings, believe me, they deserve it!), but if I am perfectly honest, I have to admit that for years, I’ve been a bit ambivalent toward Sunday school classes. In fact, for a few years of my life, I was ambivalent about church itself and rarely went except for the weekends when I happened to be visiting my parents.

I never turned away from my faith, and I never strayed (too far) from the moral code that came from my church upbringing. So why did I take a three or four year vacation from having a church home and spiritual community?

Well, there are several reasons, but here is one of the biggest: I felt like I had no more to learn, and I was bored. By the time I got my undergrad degree, I had pretty much earned my “church diploma” as well. So why go back?

I know what you’re thinking. Of course I had more to learn. No one knows it all at the ripe old age of twenty-two.

Which leads to the next question: Why did I feel that way? And the answer: Because the churches of my youth weren’t actually teaching very much, particularly when one has a whole lifetime to spend learning it. 

I figured out this connection between boredom and my disengagement with church several years ago, but our discussion of the beginning of Peter Enns’ book gave me some clearer ideas about the root of the problem. Enns writes that Christian conservatism requires a “well-behaved Bible” in order to function. The Bible is too often treated as a clear-cut “heavenly instruction manual,” and preachers and teachers jump through all sorts of hoops trying to make an ancient and complex group of texts live up to unrealistic expectations that include everything from historical facticity to scientific accuracy.

The parts of the Bible that are too messy or challenging–the ones that Enns says “don’t behave”–are either kept out of sight or are treated awkwardly. On the other hand, the parts that support the particular focus and ideology of conservative evangelicalism are trotted out and led around like docile prize ponies in a never-ending circle. Or at least that’s what it has sometimes seemed like to me.

As Enns notes, the task of making the Bible “behave” takes a lot of energy and creates a lot of stress, and as I look back on my early Christian education, I can see that it was shaped at least in part by avoidance (of biblical difficulties and of alternate interpretations) and by ignorance (of well-meaning teachers who were also hampered by a limited theological and Biblical education).

As I left my teenage years behind, I began to grow weary of the repetition. Every Sunday school quarterly seemed to have to same lessons on the same stories. All the object lessons had the same obvious and familiar morals. And no matter what text the pastor chose for the sermon, it invariably came down to the exact same point: the status of my personal salvation.

Did I need to walk the aisle and accept Jesus as my Savior? Nope. Did that when I was six. No hellfire and brimstone for this kid.

Did I need to rededicate my life to God? Maybe. But I’d done it a few times already, and besides, as a southern Baptist, the phrase “Once saved, always saved” was pretty much branded on my backside.

Did I need to be freed from the evils of smoking, drinking, drugs, or promiscuous sex? Nah. I had managed to grow up into a relatively decent and self-controlled person without any serious detours down the road to perdition.

According to the lessons of my youth, I already knew what I was supposed to believe, do, and not do. And frankly, when I went to church, I was bored as hell.

I kept growing as a person and a scholar, but for the most part, my spiritual maturation came to a halt because I had mastered understanding and believing in a narrow view of the Bible and Christian life.

The meaning of the Bible came down to being almost exclusively personal: it was about my salvation in the afterlife and my personal moral choices here on earth. (Of course, I was also supposed to worry about everyone else’s eternal salvation and their personal moral choices, but that was secondary, and besides, I had paid my dues by spending three summers as a student missionary.)

I appreciate the lessons that I learned as a young Christian and the values that I still retain from that part of my education. However, ten years, two churches, and several wonderful spiritual mentors later, I know that what I got as a child and young adult was only a small portion of a much larger picture.

I have come to know (or at least believe) that Christianity is about much more than guaranteeing the future of my eternal soul, and that the apex of my life as a Christian was not the day circa 1984 when I walked down the church aisle to “ask Jesus into my heart.” That was only the first, and perhaps the easiest, of all the questions I needed to learn to ask. 

The central message of Jesus, and the Bible as a whole, is not a personal invitation to escape eternal punishment that we need to accept and then share with others. The real invitation is to become a citizen of the kingdom of God here and now, and to actively participate in creating that kingdom on earth by giving love, making peace, and promoting justice.

It’s not about saving ourselves; it’s about sacrificing ourselves in the pursuit of God’s passion for justice and peace. It’s about radical transformation, both of ourselves and the world. It’s about wrestling with a complex, unruly Bible that offers us glimpses of God’s dream for the world and how we can bring it about. That’s the work of a lifetime, and now I know that I’m a lifetime student.

Needless to say, I’m not bored anymore. And I’m looking forward to Sunday school next week.


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God is . . . an angry turtle-torturer? Theology and the Limits of Metaphor

Featured imageI once read an “About” section of a blog in which a pastor described how he ended up in the ministry. He referenced an old political joke about a turtle: basically, if you see a turtle on a fence post, you know that it didn’t get there by itself. Someone picked it up and put it there. The implication, of course, is that God took this guy and put him in a position that he didn’t expect to be in and would not have reached on his own.

And that’s fine, as long as you don’t think very deeply or have a particular affinity for turtles.

I happened to have had a pet turtle for 15+ years, and when I read this probably-intended-to-be-cute metaphor, the first thing I thought was “What kind of jerk puts a turtle on a fence post?” Probably unawares, this writer had dragged a bit of animal cruelty and some other unfortunate  political-joke connotations into his ‘About’ blurb.

If you think for about half a second too long about the post turtle as a metaphor for God’s involvement in a human life, it breaks down and calls into question 1) whether the writer has any more business being a pastor than a turtle has being on a fence post, and 2) whether God meddles in our lives like an adolescent boy who would trap, frighten, and endanger an animal just to see what would happen.

I know what you’re thinking . . . of course I’m over-analyzing it. I know this.

But metaphors require interpretation, and like it or not, they often drag with them a host of meanings and associations, both intended and unintended. Metaphors–and words themselves–have a way of getting away from their writers and evolving meanings of their own. As any good student of literary analysis knows, the author’s original intent has to compete with the experience and knowledge that every reader brings to the text. And this reader wants no part of a God who is a jerk to turtles.

In theology, we use metaphors to explain what is inexplicable and even unknowable, whether it be the character of God or the workings of salvation. God is a father, a king, a refuge; Jesus is a shepherd, a sacrificial lamb, a cornerstone; but in a literal sense, neither of them is any of those things. These statements are all metaphors, and no matter how true they may seem, they all have limitations. We use so many metaphors to describe the divine not because they give us the whole truth, but because each one gives us a glimmer of truth.

If you stretch any metaphor too far, though, the parts that are not true overwhelm the part that is and the meaning becomes distorted, just like the unfortunate vision of God that the poor post turtle inspires for me. Metaphors also become problematic when we take one and give it precedence over all others as if it alone contains the sum of all truth.

For me, one of the most obvious examples of this problem happens with our understanding of salvation when some Christians present penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) theory not as one metaphor for salvation but as salvation itself. If you aren’t up on the terminology, PSA theory is primarily a product of the Protestant Reformation, and it is what many American evangelicals have been taught is the primary (and perhaps the only) meaning of the death of Jesus: that according to God’s divine plan, Jesus was punished on the cross as a substitute for sinners to satisfy the wrath of God against sin and make forgiveness and salvation possible.

The idea that Jesus willingly sacrificed himself for us–as unworthy as we may often be–is a compelling one. Progressive Christians who critique PSA theory sometimes forget that it does speak a powerful and redemptive truth to many people (“Formerly Fundie” blogger Benjamin L. Corey had some interesting comments about this recently, and another progressive blogger puts in a good word for PSA theory here).

Even as a critic of PSA theory, I recognize that like many metaphors, it points us toward some important grains of truth. However, it is a human metaphor based on human ideas of crime and punishment, and if we push the metaphor too far (as hardcore reformed folks like John Piper do), then we end up with a monstrous vision of God. Here are some of the problems that emerge when we carry the PSA metaphor to its logical conclusions:

  1. It means that the predominant quality of God is not love, but wrath, because God is either unable or unwilling to forgive without punishment. (Basically, God has an anger management problem and Jesus has to save us from God.)
  2. It means that there is no forgiveness, because someone always pays. A paid debt is not the same as a forgiven debt. (See Bo Sander’s apt debt analogy here)
  3. It means that God is unjust and unmerciful, because there is no justice or mercy in punishing an innocent victim for the crimes of others (Sanders and McGrath both comment more on this).
  4. It means that God is violent and that violence is redemptive, and thus it encourages the justification of violence. (Find a great starter discussion of nonviolent atonement here)
  5. All of the statements above go against the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. They negate the grace of God and the reconciling work of the incarnation.

One might argue that these conclusions are a result of over-analyzing the metaphor, but if PSA theory is presented as THE one and only gospel of salvation (as it often is in certain circles), then all of its implications must stand up to critical inquiry.

And the truth is that they do not. When PSA is over-emphasized, the partial truth that it contains is terribly distorted by the problematic nature of the human crime and punishment metaphor.

The good thing is that there are multiple atonement theories that can hold meaning for us and many Biblical metaphors for salvation. Other metaphors include transformation (being a “new creation”), liberation from bondage, return from exile, light in the darkness, sight for the blind, life to the dead, food and drink, and liberation and forgiveness from sin (list borrowed from Marcus Borg’s Convictions).

All of these metaphors give us a glimpse of both the human condition–our need for reconciliation, salvation, and transformation–and of the God who offers us the hope that those things are all possible.

We should be wary of leaders or communities who try to impose any single, uninterrogated metaphor to represent the truth of God or of salvation because those truths are bigger and better than any language we can devise.

When it comes to theology, metaphors are perhaps best when mixed.


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