Religious education is shallow in Tunisia, so there’s little theological substance to keep a young person from going to extremes. George Packer in the New Yorker*
George Packer’s recent major piece in the New Yorker details the religious and political turmoil in Tunisia. Tunisia should have been the one great success of the Arab Spring, according to Packer. It had many advantages other Arab states lacked: no deep ethnic or sectarian divisions, no oil wealth to draw unwanted foreign attention, a tradition of moderate Islam, widespread literacy, and a small apolitical army. But Tunisia is a mess. One of the main reasons for this mess, he argues, is the lack of responsible teaching about the Qur’an. He details how “a religious vacuum during the Bourgiba and Ben Ali regimes” combined with widespread access to radical sermons on satellite television to create a large, radicalized population among Tunisia’s youth.
Packer makes a compelling argument. But I found all this yearning for responsible teaching of a holy book interesting. I wonder if this author, or his publication, would apply the same standard to other cultures – perhaps our own. Would he draw a line between extremism in America and a lack of responsible Biblical training? I doubt it. We all know how the mainline media views evangelical Christianity. But another expose of the media would be cliché. We have more important things to think about.
Last Sunday night Keith Clark, one of our teens, preached an important sermon I hope we listened to. He used radical Islam as a negative example, and asked us to consider how we compare. I have also wondered the same. When I think about the hate and the fear men embed in religion I am too frequently reminded of some church-going men I was raised around. The rigid, unforgiving, woman-fearing, patriarchal, aggressive stance radical Islamists take seems awfully familiar. I am not saying those church-going men would easily resort to violence, only that their prejudices were easily as virulent as those of the radical Islamists wreaking havoc around the world. So Keith’s topic resonated with me immediately.
Keith focused on the way one uses scripture. Radical Islamists, he argued, make no distinction between literal and symbolic language, and thus take extreme positions. We must be careful not to do the same, or we will treat the actual Word of God similarly, with similar results. He is right. That very morning I spoke from Mark 11 - the passage where Jesus says:
Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be taken up and cast into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart it will happen, it will be granted him. Mark 11.23
Of course we know Jesus is speaking symbolically. If you disagree and believe everything in the Bible is to be taken literally you are welcome to prove me wrong and make the Mount of Olives do a cannonball in the Dead Sea.
The lesson Jesus applies in Mark 11.24-25 is that we should trust the prayer of faith and believe we have the power to accomplish things that seem impossible – like forgiving each other. Reading the whole passage in context, and listening prayerfully will save anyone the price of an airline ticket to Jerusalem. More important than that – such careful attention to context, and such prayerful devotion to the Word will allow us to live by it. Otherwise we will become some version of what radical Islamists are – grotesques.
*George Packer, "Exporting Jihad," from The New Yorker, March 28,2016, pp.38-51.
This time of year I am readily reminded of Houseman’s poem about the cherry, “loveliest of trees.” He describes a cherry tree in peak bloom as “hung with snow,” and laments that of his “three score years and ten twenty will not come again.” Anyone who has visited the Tidal Basin of our nation’s capital when our Japanese cherries are at peak bloom agrees with his sentiment. The trees do seem burdened down with plump snowflakes, and fifty years seems little time to enjoy them.
I did not make it to the Tidal Basin this year, but have fully enjoyed my personal cherry tree. It stands outside my office window. The elders planted it for me in memory of my father, who passed in 2003. He was not given his allotted three score and ten, nor was his father before him. The tree planted in his memory was in danger of an early death as well when it contracted a bacterial infection a few years ago. David Bobbitt, a degreed horticulturist, told me he could save the tree if I trusted him. He cut the tree back so far that nearly half the trunk was gone, and only one branch with one leaf remained. I brought a red Christmas ball from home and hung it on that branch, since it reminded me of the tree Charlie Brown bought at the Christmas tree lot. David was right. He did save the tree. It is magnificent, and has been for several springs. The gnarled trunk enhances the beauty of the blossoms as it stands handsomely outside my window.
Today, as I write these few lines, I can look through the faintly pink snowflakes and see a regally posed cardinal. He moves very little. He seems to be regarding me as carefully as I regard him, but I know he isn’t looking at me at all. He is seeing his own reflection in the glass. Last year the mockingbird that lives on our property caught his reflection in the same window and did a war dance against himself for hours. Sir Cardinal is calmly standing his ground (or holding his tree), and poses for almost an hour before changing branches with great pomp, and striking another, equally regal pose.
While all this is going on a squirrel starts up the tree then decides it is too much work. This squirrel had pilfered my birdseed all winter and is fat enough to be on one of those TV weight loss shows. I have named him Orson Welles. Bumble bees of commensurate size float slowly like swollen dirigibles, lazily lapping nectar from the pink-blush blossoms.
My mind moves from Houseman to Hopkins and his poem, Pied Beauty. It is a psalm of praise to God for the beauty of nature. “Glory be to God for dappled things,” it begins, and goes on to mention the “rose moles” of trout, “finches’ wings,” and the “gear, tackle and trim” of tradesmen. He praises all things “counter, original, spare, and strange,” and ends his poem “praise Him.” I have taken “counter,” “original,” and “spare” as the keys to a good sermon (I try to leave out “strange”).
King David tells us that the created universe declares the glory of God (Psalms 8 and 19), and James tells us that everything good and perfect is a gift from the Father above (James 1.17). My cherry tree, with its blush blossoms, its regal redbird, its bobbing bumblebees, its background of blue sky, its grounding in green grass declares the same. Elliot calls April “the cruelest month.” Looking out my window I reject this. I cannot help but agree with Houseman, Hopkins, David and James.
And so to their quartet I add my bass and sing, “Praise God.”
Back when I was young and cocky and in college I used to like to be seen reading the current issue of Mother Jones. Back then you were quickly assigned a label: either “liberal,” or “conservative.” This was true at OVU, and at Cincinnati Christian Seminary - although the labels meant different things at each school. I was (and am) an unapologetic Biblicist, so the liberals labelled me a conservative. I held (and hold) some opinions that are definitely not conservative, and so the conservatives labelled me a liberal. I tried to find ways to let everyone know I didn’t belong to either camp, and so, like any good American, I decided to accessorize. Since it began publication in 1976, Mother Jones has been synonymous with leftist journalism. It was the perfect accessory to shock and confuse. If I wanted to be seen reading a magazine that irritated everyone and shattered molds I had few choices. The UTNE Reader was too obscure. The Village Voice was too “village.” Mother Jones was just right. I agreed with little I read in Mother Jones, although the writing was good – agreement wasn’t the point. The magazine was an identifying accessory, like a ball cap with a logo on it.
The “Mother Jones,” for whom the magazine is named, is Mary Harris Jones, an Irish-American socialist and labor organizer. The coal miners of southern West Virginia started calling her “Mother” Jones as she worked among them before the First World War. Having lost her family to a flu epidemic, and all her possessions in the Great Chicago Fire, she dedicated her life to helping men earn a living wage. She was, and is an icon for radical social consciousness. The problem with her as a symbol of radical social and cultural equality is that she doesn’t fit this category at all. Mary Harris Jones opposed women’s suffrage. She was fighting for men to earn a living wage. She believed the place of a woman was in the home, raising children. This is definitely not the position of the periodical that bears her name.
The name “Mother Jones” then, is an accessory – an accoutrement, a decoration intended to enhance an image. We do that in our culture. We take people, places, events, items and brand them. We pour into them our own meanings. They become the symbols we create, representing meanings we choose with little connection to their true identity. An election season provides daily opportunities to see this phenomenon. Hilary, Bernie, Trump, and Cruz are vessels that contain anger, aspiration, hate, hope, fear, and frustration.
The greatest object of our extravagant disregard for truth is Jesus. He is whomever we decide He will be. In His name great lies are told, great license enjoyed, great violence performed, great hatred vented. Thus it has been at least since the Romans started executing heretics shortly after the Council of Nicea. Few of us can claim, despite our best efforts, that we have never used Jesus as an accessory.
We have no right to define Him. We believe Him, or reject Him, but He defines Himself. In doing so, He defines us. William Willimon, in his book, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, tells of a young man who came to him after a panel discussion at Duke University on homosexuality (a label Willimon rejects) and declared that he was a baptized Christian, and no one had the right to define him – he defined himself. Willimon pointed out that if the first half of his statement was true, the second half could not possibly be. In being baptized we yield to God the right to tell us who we are. As God says in Isaiah 43.1 “I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are Mine.”
God has gone to great lengths to make Himself known. He became flesh and dwelt among us. We have been given four gospels to make us intimate with Jesus. Everything else in the Bible either looks forward to Him, or explains Him. Our task (our blessing!) is to know Him as He is, and follow wherever He leads. This is all. Anything else is an idolatry of self
I recently purchased Chris Janson’s new CD “Buy Me A Boat.” One of the songs on this CD is titled: “Messin’ With Jesus”. Some of the lyrics are: “I love driving fast down a country road, but a voice in my head says take it slow, so I, yeah I ain’t messin’ with Jesus. I wanna keep Him on my good side, keep Him on my bad side a little less of the time…. no I ain’t messin’ with Jesus.”
In our Christian walk, we need to stay on Jesus’ good side. Our walk may be hard and it may get rough at points. We must keep Proverbs 3:5-6 in our minds. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” (NKJV) But, do we really get on his bad side? John 3:17 says “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” Jesus did not come down for us to get on His bad side, He came down to save us from when we do bad.
Walking with God may be a hard path to take. Life as a Christian will be harder to live than life as a non-Christian because we stand out in the crowd. We are different than everybody else, but we also have a better reward in the end. If we focus all of our thoughts and actions toward God, then He will direct our paths. During our walk, let us look to God for help, let us pray to God when we are feeling down and when we need someone to talk to.
Another phrase of the song is: “Everything we do you know he’s gonna see us, so I don’t mess with Jesus”. No matter what we do, we cannot hide from God. He sees all that we do, so why would we try and mess with Him?! If He is going to see what we do, and know all that we do, why would we try to get around what He says we must do?
Another line of the song says: “But I walk the line, until I get to the other side”. As we walk with Christ, too often we are walking on the line. We are walking on the thin line between good and bad. We are too often walking too close to the edge. But, if we look to God and keep our minds and thoughts on Him, then he will direct our paths. When we walk this line, Jesus walks with us. John 10:4 says: “And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” Jesus will be with us during all of our struggles. Don’t mess with Jesus. He sees all and He knows all and we need to keep Him on our good side and on our bad side a little less of the time.
A few weeks ago, my dear friend Ben Binkley suggested that if I wanted to get to know Jesus by reading the Gospels, I should start with Luke, since it’s one of the easiest to read. My Bible-reading skills are admittedly lacking, so I figured it was good advice. And for the most part, Luke is easy to read. He writes about Jesus’s life like he’s jotting down the manuscript of a press briefing— no unnecessary fluff.
I just would have appreciated a little fluff when I got to Chapter 5, verses 36-39: He told them this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’ ”
My appreciation for Luke’s approach to writing was gone almost as soon as it started. Where did wine come from? I thought, rereading the tiny passage at least three times, trying to will my sleepy brain into figuring out what on earth it actually meant. I didn’t succeed. The wine is… the Pharisees. No, the disciples. Uh, the wine is… not… really… wine. Jesus is hosting a party? Who keeps wine in a skin?
“This makes literally no sense to me,” I finally concluded, snapping my Bible shut, only dimly aware of what lame use I’d made of the word “literally.” So much for getting to know Jesus.
But later that day, I sat on my bed listening to a playlist of Disney show tunes, and it eventually landed on “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins. Julie Andrews’ angelic voice came softly through my speakers, singing lines so familiar I’ve known them by heart for years:
Though her words are simple and few
Listen, listen; she’s calling to you
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag…
And before I knew it, two fat tears were making their way slowly but surely down my cheeks.
Maybe it’s absurd to be convicted by the words of a fictional nanny. But somewhere in those lyrics, it seemed I was hearing a bit of Jesus.
Jesus’s words— at least the ones we get to read— often seem simple and few, like the bird lady’s. Too simple and few. They’re confusing. Sometimes, they’re weird. And I want so many more of them than the ones Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John stuck us with.
But despite that, so often Jesus just says to me— to all of us— feed the birds.
In its simplest, purest form, that’s His message. Listen, He says, I’m calling you. Feed them (Mark 6.37): the ones with no food and the ones who seem like they have it all. The ones who are the hardest to love— oh, you feed them too.
That was what Jesus was best at - more than the preaching, more than the parables, even more than the miracles. Love is Jesus’ great gift (John 13.34-35, 15.13). I don’t know what He was thinking all the time, and I don’t know what His disciples were thinking of Him, or why Luke couldn’t have at least explained the wine metaphor to the benefit of one prone-to-overthinking English major, but I do know one thing: Jesus’s message was one of love. Jesus fed the birds.
And I know that Jesus didn’t sing like Julie Andrews (much to the disciples’ chagrin, probably). And that maybe it’s a tad sacrilegious to compare the Messiah Himself to a Disney character. But when there are days that my Bible seems too big and too confusing to bear, those days when I am tempted to drop it out of a window or else quietly shove it under a pile of socks where I don’t even have to try to comprehend it, I’ll try to remember the day I found Jesus in the Mary Poppins soundtrack.
I’ll try to remember that Jesus is calling me anyway. I’ll try to listen. And I’ll try to do the startlingly ordinary task He’s asking of me: just feed the birds.
- Jayne Ross