25 May 2017

At the head of the table

Spring in Moscow. (At the Tretyakov Gallery, a special exhibition of the paintings of Zinaida Serebryakova.)

The Blasphemous Posture of Looking Down

How much of my life have I actually spent in hours of conversations about who is in and who is out of God's kingdom? Conversations where I was articulate, even compassionate, even honest. But now I see that all academic conversations, all theoretically discussions, are in their own way untruthful, no matter how honest you try to be. Even when you are well armed with Bible verses, commentaries, and research papers, how truthful can any conversation be when you are sitting at the head of the table? That was the life I had before I experienced profound brokenness, suffering, and shame -- the life lived from the shallows and not from the depths.

[Jonathan Martin, How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help Is on the Way and Love Is Already Here]
It's a little hard to describe Jonathan Martin's book -- 215 pages of often inspiring, occasionally repetitive meditations on what it's like for a rock-star Pentecostal preacher to hit rock bottom, be forced to leave home and marriage, and learn to accept a new status: a recipient of grace rather than its celebrity distributor.

His waves of ocean and shipwreck metaphors deliver many vivid insights. The one that struck me yesterday, toward the end of my reading of How to Survive a Shipwreck, was this: ... how truthful can any conversation be when you are sitting at the head of the table?

To me there's a direct tie-in with the 17th-century Quaker rebellion against the religious authorities. On Monday, I was sitting with Natasha Zhuravenkova at Friends House Moscow, holding a copy of Margaret Fell's testimony "Concerning her Late Husband GEORGE FOX" (using the text in the book Hidden in Plain Sight: Quaker Women's Writings 1650-1700). Natasha sat at the computer, with her Russian translation on the screen. Margaret's testimony described the beatings and imprisonments that George Fox endured, and also listed her own imprisonments: four years at one stretch, and later another full year.

Both George and Margaret had been condemned to be "out of the King's protection" for refusing oaths of allegiance and religious supremacy to the king. In one legal appeal mentioned by Margaret, even habeas corpus was ruled as unavailing in the face of this condemnation, known as praemunire. But, according to Margaret's testimony, her original crime was not refusing the oaths, but allowing her home to be used as a meeting place for dissenters and dissenting congregations, namely Quakers.

So, the founding generation of Friends collided directly with the collusion between church authorities and government authorities (in other words, the people who were then "at the head of the table") to repress free expression of Christian faith. The texts, vocabulary, rites, and structures of those claiming to represent the Gospel had been scandalously re-purposed for bondage. It's no wonder that Margaret Fell responded as she did, the first time she heard Fox's case against the religion industry:
And so he went on, and said, "That Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God," &c. I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, "The scriptures were the prophets' words, and Christ's and the apostles' words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord": and said, "Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, 'Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;' but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?" &c. This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, "We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves."
"We are all thieves" -- here is a confession that everyone who is in a position of power and privilege in the Christian world should consider. How do we thieves earn the right to tell someone else that we have it right and they have it wrong?

Yes, we will sometimes have it right, and they will sometimes have it wrong. And we should care about right and wrong at least as much as those confident 17th-century bosses did. But before we prioritize our theories about the threat to biblical authority, let's consider the danger our stern theories pose to the real-life reputation of the Gospel for tender believers and seekers. Before declaring someone "out of the Friends' protection," maybe we should first sit back down in our pews and cry bitterly. Let's do all this considering and grieving and kissing each others' tears in full view of a cynical and skeptical world, a world that knows too much about those in authority who assume (in Martin's words) "the blasphemous posture of looking down."


Maybe there was some bitter crying among those in Northwest Yearly Meeting who decided that their interpretation of Scripture entitled them to define others out of fellowship. Mostly I heard impatience.

Ascension Day.

Young Quaker artist -- from Rwanda to Newberg.

Charles McCrary on voice, irony, and writing seriously about religion.
If we write in ways that play off our presumed audience’s assumptions, what are the implications of that scholarly voice? For one, we expect the reader to perceive the incongruity between what the speaker says and means. This might be easy if we know the speaker, but it’s more difficult, perhaps even unfairly so, if we don’t. Second, and more important, this type of ironic voice could be used to smuggle in normative assumptions about the validity of our subjects’ actions, ideas, and interpretations. This type of smuggling is quite common in the study of religion, and I think it’s a problem.
Beth Woolsey has the definitive answer to the public, private, or home school question.

Judy and I were back at the B.B. King Blues Club last Friday to hear Sergei Voronov and his CrossroadZ band. Here's the song they're best known for.

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