out of context, it sounds like a heresy
On truth, beauty, promiscuity, and the transgressive, trickster God: a manifesto of sorts. Plus, in praise of Bari Weiss.
We are the ones who draw the line between the sacred and the trivial.
I’m teaching the first Easter season lesson to a class of seven- to nine-year-olds. They are stereotypically rowdy and incoherent, so I try to engage them by asking questions at the start and end of every lesson.
“Someone tell me what Easter is about.”
Hands shoot up around each table, fingers wiggling with pick-me enthusiasm. I point at one girl.
“The Easter bunny,” she says, her mouth spread in a pleased smile, eager for approval.
“Nope, it’s not about the Easter bunny,” I say. “Has nothing to do with it.” She pouts as I point to one of the pastor’s daughters. This girl better have the right answer.
“Jesus,” she says, but I can hear the question mark in her tone.
“Yes, Easter’s about Jesus. And what do we remember about Jesus on Easter?”
“That he died and rose from the dead,” a boy says.
“Very good. That’s what we’ll talk about today—why it’s important for us to remember what Jesus did.”
At the end of the lesson, there’s an activity: every kid gets to draw or write in response to a question—“What are some things that remind you about Jesus and what he did?”
“Jesus made armpits!” one girl says.
And I instantly want to correct her. We don’t talk about armpits in this class. But she’s not wrong. So I hold it in. “Correct,” I say soberly. “Jesus did make armpits.”
A minute or two later, I watch over the kids’ shoulders as they fill in their activity sheets. The Bible reminds some of Jesus and what he did. I see pictures of the cross, the bread, the cup, and other people’s faces.
One boy has written inside his cross: “God made butts.” I sigh. He, too, is not wrong.
sanctity + the stiff upper lip
It’s funny how people are usually most offended by things that don’t actually affect them. We get attached to what we perceive as true or right, and we get upset when these things are violated. We forget that truth doesn’t exist within us and that ultimate truth is inaccessible to us.
Finite beings in a finite realm have no absolute knowledge of the Infinite God, only analogies, mythical models, symbols, and abstractions.
It’s happening everywhere, especially when it comes to religion, politics, and culture. We erect hallowed walls around our golden calves and feign offense when the calf is prodded. But the calf isn’t sacred and doesn’t belong to us anyway. Truth is free. Truth sets free.
In an era of significant tolerance and acceptance, it’s remarkable how pearl-clutchy people still are. (I’m not saying this is patently bad.) When I visit cathedrals with friends, it’s usually my less-believing ones who are most adamant about watching their language inside a cold, majestic sanctuary. While they’re shushing each other, I’m thinking, God can hear your f-bomb just as well outside these walls. And if he’s offended by it in here, he’s offended by it out there. (And I doubt he’s offended at all.)
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The idea of sacredness is bred deep within us. It’s God-bred, in fact. Don’t touch this tree. This ground is holy—take off your shoes. But it’s also funny how God corrupts what he has declared sacred. When we get too comfortable, he disrupts.
“What I have called clean, do not call impure.”
“But, God, you’re the one who called it impure to begin with!”
“Lol, yeah, that joke was funny for a while, right? Time to move on. My next stand-up special is about to begin, and the audience has changed.”
Jesus announces that eating his flesh and drinking his blood is the only way to be part of his family, and his audience is horrified. The concept screams against everything they believe. Flesh and blood are associated with sin and death. The suggestion is scandalous and offensive.
Today, though, Communion is such a safe affair (especially for those of us who attend non-Catholic churches), with barely-there wafers, next-to-nothing sips of grape juice, and the difficulty of concentrating on the actual thing we’re supposed to be commemorating. It’s tender and fragile, and it shouldn’t be. As C.S. Lewis once averred, ‘the obligation to feel can freeze feelings, and reverence itself does harm.’
Sanctity, true sanctity, flirts with the utterly sacrilegious. We don’t think God will arrive the way he actually arrives. He, a god of mystery, keeps us in surprise and suspense. The trickster god likes to stun and startle.
While Elijah was listening for thunder and earthquake, God’s voice floated by on a soft breeze. While the Jews anticipated a militant deliverer, God arrived as a weakling babe. And the religious cadre huffed and puffed against a vagabond prophet, reinforcing their house in hopes he wouldn’t blow it down.
Later, the Romans thought they had closed the curtain on this bizarre and annoying Messiah-wanna-be by nailing him to a cross. They washed their bloody hands and waited for daylight, not realizing they had just been the set-up for a cosmic joke. The punchline came a few hours later: the curtain ripped open as holiness and justice spewed onto sin and filth, overwhelming it with its bald-faced superiority.
But no one was laughing, not even those who were in on the joke. Like a comedian who doesn’t care what the audience thinks, God tells the joke because it is funny, not because everyone will find it funny.
The cross, the torture instrument turned neck trinket, screams against the lines we draw between the sacred and the trivial. God erases those lines: they are too clear, too pretty to be maintained. “Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”
And those of us who are in on the joke (or who at least try to be) go screaming about the cross in all its flagrant, promiscuous glory.
truth, promiscuity, and transgressiveness
When I’m upset over someone’s transgression against one of my golden calves (a principle, a place, a symbol), it is usually because I feel threatened. But, really, I shouldn’t be. Truth and I are not of a piece. Whatever is truly sacred and good is sacred and good without my attributing sacredness and goodness to it.
Truth doesn’t need my defending. I might defend my understanding of it, but not the thing itself. The thing itself cannot be known. It can only apparate and be apprehended. Once it—the true and sacred thing—arrives, it instantly becomes transgressive.
The act of apprehending the truly sacred thing confirms its transgressiveness. We perceive with finite eyes, handle with sinful hands, and apprehend with flawed minds. When a true or sacred thing arrives, it transgresses what we already consider true and sacred.
When we are safe, truth makes us uncomfortable. When the line in the sand is touched, we feel threatened. But as long as we are safe, we cannot be good.
I’m considering this piece a manifesto of sorts:it has something to do with my thinking on writing and storytelling. If I aim to communicate truth and beauty (or about truth and beauty), I must embrace its inherently promiscuous and transgressive nature, not just in what I communicate but in how I communicate.
When the words sound scandalous as I write them—when I fear crossing a line, I am likely closer to truth than when the words are safe and comfortable. When I’m about to digress during Bible study and I have to start with, “Out of context, this sounds like a heresy…,” I’m probably closer to divine truth than at any other time.
When I shy away from transgressive language and promiscuous ideas, it is usually because I’m afraid of disrupting the safety, comfort, and sanctity-mindedness of others. But perhaps the disruption is necessary. Indulging in disruption, smudging the line in the sand, is the only way to comprehend the “divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live.”
Most parents and teachers would frown on kids for talking about butts and armpits in a church classroom; they’d consider it (and the inevitably ensuing laughter) disruptive. But God made butts and armpits, and Jesus had them, and they should remind us of the god-joke—God’s tendency to transgress the human-drawn lines between what’s sacred and what’s not.
The kids get the joke. Butts and armpits are funny and promiscuous and aren’t to be spoken of in polite company. But God doesn’t live by that rule. So why should we?
asides + signal boosts
I got roped into a book club reading of Culture Care, by Makoto Fujimura. It’s been recommended several times already, so I suppose it was bound to be. I haven’t gotten to the part where he talks about “border-stalkers” yet, but I’ve heard people quote from him about that before. The term came to mind as I was writing about the line in the sand and thinking about the artist’s responsibility to sit restlessly on that line, that border, and make it blurry.
Last week, I started listening to the podcast documentary series, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling. It’s hosted/reported by Megan Phelps-Roper, former spokesperson for Westboro Baptist Church (emphasis on former). She grew up fundamentalist Christian when they were all like Harry Potter is evil and is gonna turn our kids into witches, etc. That’s a fascinating perspective to come from as, presently, an entirely different group of fundamentalists wants to ban/cancel Rowling and her books because they’re ostensibly harmful to society.
Also, I have a bit of a (professional) crush on Bari Weiss who commissioned the podcast series via her new media company, The Free Press. I hope she keeps pushing this kind of content out into the world.
I didn’t mention this when I recommended her episode on the Asbury Revival in my last post, but Olivia Reingold, the reporter Bari commissioned for that story, isn’t religious at all and describes herself as ‘not even spiritual’ (her mother’s an atheist and her father’s non-religious). Considering the bias so common in news reporting these days, you wouldn’t have been able to tell from the narrative.
So, kudos to Bari! I love this tight, transgressive reporting. Keep it coming!
Someone in the writing channel of a discord I’m part of shared this link: Lose the Very. If you’re a writer and you feel like you use the same descriptive words repeatedly, this site might be your new best friend.
Andrés Ruzo, “How I found a mythical boiling river in the Amazon,” TED Talk
Mark Edwards Freshwater, C.S. Lewis and the Truth of Myth
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
Orual in Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis
It is, quite honestly, and amalgam of things that have lived in my head and heart for some time.
C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm