Saturday, July 12, 2014

a light unto my path, but not a laser beam

I spent the 4th of July weekend in East Texas with my beloved family. My aunt and my older sister threw a party for my uncle's 80th birthday, and just about all of his kids, grandkids, nieces and their families arrived for the occasion. There were about 40 of us, and we had a wonderful time.

I was there for four days, including a Sunday, so of course we went to church. It was a little odd. About halfway through the service I realized I was clenching my jaw so hard that it hurt. I made myself relax but I've been thinking (of course). The whole Evangelical mindset is so firmly embedded in that culture. The town where my mom and my sister live is right in the middle of the Bible belt, and there's not much room for alternative views.

It's the most bizarre feeling--on the one hand, I don't feel at home anywhere in the world like I do in that particular region of the country and with that particular group of people (who don't all live in East Texas, but they are all family). The combination of those people in that place left me feeling at home and accepted in a way that I haven't in a long time.

But on the other hand, I completely and utterly don't fit in. If we sat down and talked theology--which is supremely important to almost everyone there, we are a group that approaches our faith through the intellect--even though I and a few of others would be fascinated to hash it all out, the strict evangelicals among us would be horrified to find out that we don't all agree. At least a few of them would not be OK with what I believe these days, how I think. (although perhaps they wouldn't be as surprised as I think they would be.) There are many things that are absolutely non-negotiable for them that have been untrue in my mind for decades. And to be fair, that I don't believe that way any more is non-negotiable for me.

It's a bit depressing. Evangelicals think they are completely and utterly wedded to the idea of the Bible as the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit and thus just as applicable to you and me today as it was when it was written. Really they are just completely and utterly wedded to the way they have been taught to think about the Bible. The Bible contains and yields myriad interpretations. wait--stop. I should re-word that and say that they way I used to think about the Bible was more about how I had been taught than anything else. I can't speak to what's going on in anyone else's mind.

So restricting this to my own changes: I don't believe in the inerrant, absolutely authoritative Bible anymore, but it was a long journey. I started out slowly thirty years ago--first recognizing some of the Bible's obvious contradictions and repetitions, then learning more about the historical context, then starting to see how my reading had been slanted by certain assumptions that were based in Evangelical sub-culture rather than any ultimate truth. Finally I've come to see it as a huge, sprawling, colorful, fascinating, inspiring book of wisdom and spiritual advice, entirely worth studying, but not authoritative in the way that I used to think it was. It wasn't written to me, it was written to the Hebrews, the Corinthians, the Christians in Rome, the Galatians.

But it was a scary trip, leaving that traditional, ingrained view of the Bible behind. I was several years into it before I could say with any confidence that I was OK with my new point of view. Now I can say that the further away I am from that old way of seeing scripture, the more irrelevant that it seems to me.

From my current point of view, the way I used to read the Bible seems almost like idolatry--worshiping words on a page instead of the living God. A living relationship with the Divine Being is completely different than measuring my thoughts and actions against words written a couple of thousand years ago in another time and place. I've been trying to think of an analogy--maybe this: if you found a box of your grandparents' letters written over the course of their long marriage, you might find them inspiring and moving and instructive for your own marriage, but it wouldn't even occur to you to worry about disregarding things that were no longer applicable to your own time and situation.

But that would be completely wrong to most Evangelicals. That belief in the universal, absolute authority of Scripture is the cornerstone, the bedrock of their belief system. For most of them, it's non-negotiable.

There are some beautiful things about that. Many Evangelicals take the study of scripture very seriously, which means they have ready familiarity with some of the greatest wisdom literature ever written. I'm the direct benefactor of that one--I passed my first Master's written exam back in 1985 in no small part because there were 4 (out of 15) questions in the short answer section that were about the Bible. I knew the answers without even thinking, while others of my classmates were despairing afterward (who the hell are Ruth and Naomi?).

Also, Evangelicals' sincerity, faithfulness, and devotion are rare in a culture that more and more tells us we should just do whatever we want, believe whatever we want, be cynical about anything other than cycnicism.

But even though I see things to admire, I can't go there anymore. It just doesn't make sense to me, and as I've said a gazillion times before, I can't agree with their opinions about many issues.

That's all. We have company coming (yay!!) for the next two weeks, and the day they leave, we are headed to Italy, so it will probably be a month or more before I post again. Hope you are all enjoying summer.

Friday, July 11, 2014

reading report: too much time on the plane

Remember "the next post" mentioned in the previous post? This isn't it. Still mulling that one.

In other news, you may have missed it in the comments a few weeks ago, but Laurel recommended a novel called Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, particularly for those who are planning a trip to Italy. It is perfect for that purpose, but it's also the best book I've read in years, so go find a copy of it even if you aren't headed to Italy. I tried to read it not long after it came out and never made it past the first chapter. Maybe because Walter's description of Pasquale, a young Italian who has recently inherited the Hotel Adequate View, felt motivated by pity. I've had my fill of novels about poor, victimized, wounded people, how they got that way, and why they will never rise above it. But Laurel recommended it highly, so I persevered. For which I am grateful, because Pasquale turns out to be a wonderful character, the heart and soul of the novel--and he does rise above his circumstances, although in a much more interesting way than I would have predicted. It is a terrific book, warm-hearted and generous, beautifully written, often funny.

This is starting to sound like an overblown description of wine (woody and fruity with a sexy nose and overtones of toasty oak). Just go find it. It's about Hollywood, movies and movie stars, a tiny albergo on the coast of Italy, the sometimes surprising nature of true love, selling your soul (or refusing to), Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, and the Donner party. Can't miss, right? I think I'm going to read it over again, because if it has a flaw, it's that there are lots of things going on and I'm sure I missed some of them.

On the return trip, both of my flights were delayed, so I ended up with plenty of time to read. Tawna Fenske's third novel, Frisky Business, turned out to be the perfect antidote. I've followed Tawna's blog for a long time, so I feel like she's a friend, although I've never met her and she has no idea who I am. She just gets better and better. This one, the story of a woman who takes over as director of development at a non-profit in Bend, Oregon, is just about the perfect romantic comedy--amusing, fizzy-light, but intelligently written with some worthwhile insights into people and their motivations. (see? like a wine description again.) I just wish she'd slow down a little and trust her story more, because it felt a bit rushed at times. Fun read, though, and if you're stuck on a plane circling Minneapolis for 45 minutes waiting for a thunderstorm to move through, you'll be just as grateful for it as I was.

And that's all the news from here. It's hot as heck here and since we don't have A/C, that makes things a bit miserable. But we've got fans and we're headed out to the lake this weekend to swim. Hard to complain, because that's what summer's all about, right?