I have just returned from a respite from the Bible Belt. It was not my first one in the more than a dozen years I have lived here, but it was the most memorable, the most necessary.
I have not gone “home” in almost six years now, “home,” as much as I try not to consider it so, being California. Yes, California, with all the jokes about its Otherness, its earthquakes, its real estate prices, its over-the-top lifestyles, its Governor. The first couple of times I returned after moving South, I tended to agree with the inevitable cracks and critiques. And after the lush green and beauty of this Georgia countryside, it always looked parched and over-priced.
But this time when our plane landed in Sacramento and I first heard that, what for me sounds just like plain flat, uninflected and unaffected English, I felt an almost giddy rush of familiarity. And when I saw all the diversity, even in that small airport: that mix of ethnicities and languages, I felt a kind of liberation and even hopefulness.
And when I had gone two days, three days, even four days without spotting a God-is-watching-and-doesn’t-like-what-we-are-doing mega-billboard, or even, God forbid, being asked what church I attended or having to even talk, God forbid, about God, I found my own breath for the first time in forever. All this from a person who has sincerely come to like the South, if not love much of its topography, especially the woodedness about it. All this from a person who has gotten used to, more than that, enjoyed, the multiple dialects that are often classified from North, East, and West of here as uniformly Dixon. All this from a person who has appreciated being in the historic thick of things in the history of civil rights for black Americans, wept about bombings and dead little girls, spoken at Ebenezer Baptist, marched in the King parade down Sweet Auburn, and understands how much more progress must be made to make black and white relations whole.
All this from a person who generally and genuinely loves to talk about religion, who has become steeped in Christian thought and history, who has appreciated the opportunity to become more than a little bit culturally competent in the dominant social force in this region. Who has rarely passed up the opportunity to talk about ultimacy and intimacy, and the greater things that matter.
I was happy to be talking about other things, absolutely unabashedly secular things, and the straightforward, un-sanctified, unblessed joys and tribulations of human existence. To live, at least momentarily, in the secular humanist moment. In the straightforward, empirical what-is, with its startling beauty and its many warts.
I began to notice the differences everywhere. No one said bless him or her or you, unless there was a sneeze. After more than 30 years in Georgia, even my own Jewish, at most agnostic, father peppers his sentences generously with Blessings. Bless your heart, Bless his heart, Bless her heart.
The letters to the editors of the newspapers were full of vinegar and vitriol, like most places, but not all, or at least predominantly, about how God fearing — relatively speaking — one or another public official was, or which commandment had been broken or was about to be broken.
For that matter, I did not see — though perhaps I was in the wrong neighborhoods — one ten commandment garden decoration or yard sign.
When we went to meals in homes and restaurants, we didn’t feel compelled to say a grace, and try to come up with one that hit the right notes for various denominational doctrines.
When we went wine tasting at the top of the mountain overlooking the Napa valley, filled with old sauvignon grape vines and newly budding Cabernet, we poured the good and pricey wine into plastic goblets and simply said “salud.” Whatever gratitudes we had for whichever gods or goddesses, or fates and facts of nature that had brought us there to that place swirling and sipping were held in silence.
All the glories and all the inequities I witnessed and experienced in at least a few days were, as they say in theological terminology, unmediated and unspoken. God neither promised nor provided, expected or determined, approved or scorned. Whatever presence or energy or wisdom there was in the universe was allowed to just be. Not put on a sign on the freeway or on the back of a car.
It may well be that this trip I went on to watch my daughter graduate from college, to see family together who have not been that way since the last rite of passage, to visit longtime beloved and much missed friends, to reunite with the women I wrote poetry with more than 25 years ago — this start of sabbatical time — was so conformed to my need for a break that I have only imagined all this. This time when the all-consuming religiosity I have begun to accept as normal life dissipated. When all the other colorations of this complex culture we live in were allowed their time and space in the public forum.
Oddly enough, an especially dear friend from my years in California working in social change was the first to bring things back around to matters of spirituality. Odd because when I began studying for the ministry, and then ordained, and then a “pastor” of a small North Georgia church, we found we had less and less to say to each other. I was full of new facts and insights I had discovered in courses on Christian Ethics and contemporary theology. She was trying to run a righteous non-profit aimed at reducing adolescent obesity and encouraging good nutrition for teens, especially those who are poor and of color. It’s not that I had abandoned my justice-seeking life — just put it on hold while I figured out where I was coming from on a cosmic level — but the easy intimacy of our times together was too often punctuated by awkward gaps where our ways of seeing the world, especially languaging the world, were almost completely out of sync.
It’s nothing I think of, this religion-thing, she would tell me, or pointedly imply, as we poured over racks of California-style linens and silks at discount prices. It’s almost all I think about these days, I would counter, what matters and why.
It was this same woman who was the first Californian, after a few days, to pull me back into the familiar territory of spiritual beliefs, rituals, and practice, when she told me that she had gone to Hawaii where she spent time with a woman who gives workshops on prayer beads, and left the book she had written on my night table in the guest room where I stayed.
I took all the beads I have been collecting, she told me, almost shyly, and strung them. Amber beads, glass beads, in vibrant colors. I take them with me wherever I go.
Oh, I said. They are beautiful. And thought, but I don’t want to go there right now.
If secular folks need spiritual sabbaticals and religious retreats, then I suppose it follow, that those of us ordained and fellowshipped folks whose profession plunges us daily into the world of Things That Matter and Deity need a time out to be unashamedly secular, that is, unhooked from religious affection.
You see, I believe it is neither all about God, about meaning and purpose outside our own egos and social constructs, nor nothing about God. But sometimes, you have to see one or the other more clearly. Choose sides as it were, so you get that there are both possibilities, at least for other people, if not yourself.
Which teaches tolerance, humility, and perspective. And then I went to the Grand Canyon, where God must exist in the form of the magnificent rock formations or the newly introduced giant condors, those giant, grand rare birds. And from that awesome landscape back home to Bible country, and to stacked up newspapers telling me about religious-right court nominations and threats to veto stem cell research and reports that is true, that American soldiers desecrated the holy books, the Qur’an, of their prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
I came back to my usual practice of clipping things, from coupons to cartoons, including a week-old Boondocks where a young African American man is sitting in from of his computer downloading e-mail. In the first frame, he tells his friend: sheesh, I got another Jesus e-mail.
I hate those, his friend says.
In the next frame, he reads “Please take a moment to appreciate Jesus’ infinite power and love in your life. Now forward this message to everyone you know or Jesus will hate you forever” and in the last frame “and your friend, too.”
You better do it, his friend tells him, terrified. I clipped out an article in the local weekly by John F. Sugg, an unabashedly liberal columnist and a self-described “man of faith,” who writes that “faith is a double-edged sword. It gives dignity to life. Unfortunately, in its rawest form, faith allows no debate. One man’s faith is another’s heresy.
“God doesn’t need intolerance,” his column read. And then he proceeded to catch me up on the things that had been done in the past little while — when I was on the West Coast taking a break from religion. He wrote about how the Rev. Chan Chandler, a Baptist preacher in Waynesville, North Carolina, “ex-communicated” parishioners for being Democrats. And then a story about how another pastor, the Rev. Creighton Lovelace in Forest City, North Carolina, posted a sign reading “The Koran should be flushed.”
This is not faith, Mr. Sugg asserts courageously. “It’s intolerant and ignorant religion…”
I come back from my too-brief vacation from this kind of religiosity, this kind of mean-spirited piety, this abuse of the saving notion of universal meaning and purpose. And I remember why I promised to tell you about a well-selling new book by bestselling author and former Espiscopal bishop, John Shelby Spong called The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love.
As one columnist wrote about this book, it is in many ways explosive, tossing a hand grenade into the cultural wars with its thesis that the Bible — for all its message of love and charity — has been used and abused to oppose democracy and women’s rights, to justify slavery and even mass murder.
Spong’s mission in this latest book (his most popular being Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism) is, in his own words, “to force the Christian Church to face its own terrifying history that has so often been justified by quotations from the Scriptures.” The Christian scriptures, that is.
He documents and urges a kind of liberal religious Bible-thumping, the kind I have learned to do in this time and place where most, if not all, religious and spiritual conversations are within the overwhelming context of Christianity. He urges us not to dismiss conservative Christians as jihadists or fleeing the field — not engaging at all, but to confront reactionary and hateful preachers and religiously-battling politicians on their own terms by emphasizing the justice and compassion side of the scriptural ledger.
Spong describes his role as a religious leader, as I do, as primarily that of a teacher, and the church primarily as a teaching center. For Spong, the textbook he used year after year was the Bible, normally spending an entire year on a single book. The result of this commitment to deep study, teaching, and writing, was that he has come to know and love the Bible deeply.
And also to recognize where its warts are.
I know, he writes, what parts of it have been used to undergird prejudices and to mask violence.
It was strong and uncomfortable, he admits, to come to the awareness that the people who quoted this book most often were opposed to the justice issues he found so compelling. That the Bible had been used in his childhood church in North Carolina to maintain segregation in which he as a white person was judged to be of greater worth than a black person. That quotations from the Bible undergirded patriarchal prejudice, the ways Jews and other non-Christians were treated, the way gays and lesbians and transgendered persons are diminished and damaged. The Bible and the Christianity it guides has been used and abused from the beginning through the supposition that every word within it, every old story and cultural presumption, is the Word of God, not, at the very least, the co-product of humans, Spong believes.
The Bible and the Christianity it guides have twisted the powerful God intensity, as Spong so eloquently writes, found in the man Jesus of Nazareth, and changed the Way of Jesus into an ecclesiastical, institutionalized religious system that have been imposed on the world with coercive and sometimes abusive force.
When this happens, Spong tells us, when it moved from direct experience — that is, the life and teachings of Jesus within his particular community — into codified creed with its exclusive claims to Truth and its demands for obedience, the universality of the Jesus story and message, its call to transcend tribal boundaries and deepen our lives in the midst of time, have been mangled and nearly lost.
Speaking as a Christian, for whom this Way of Meaning and Purpose speaks most passionately and persuasively, Spong describes his faith as being in a God-infused humanity through whom the Source of Life, the Source of Love, and Ground of Being lives.
We are, he writes, all God-Bearers of the world. We must rise to our new vocation, he urges, and be God for one another.
The only way that God can be with us now and through the age, he urges, is for each one of us to allow God to live and love through us, through our humanity.
If I had to return to a God-infused world, then this vision of God is one that I can live with, even gracefully. A world where our faith is quieter, less explicit, more acted within than shouted.
Where the divine in each one of us is honored and the human in each one of us praised.
May it be so.