25 February 2021

So Peter wants to build dwellings?

Preobrazhenie (Novgorod School), source.

Who can blame him? There he is on the Mount of Transfiguration, along with James and John, watching Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah. [Context.] In Mark's telling of the same event, the three observers are frightened; it's no wonder that Peter impulsively blurted out something ("Why don't I put up booths for each of you?") that he could do to honor and preserve this amazing moment.

If you are intrigued by this whole incident as much as I am, and want to consider what transfiguration means for your community and yourself, I highly recommend this recent sermon by the pastor of our Friends meeting, Matt Boswell. I'm about to go off on a tangent that Matt is not responsible for, so feel free to follow that link instead of reading on!

My tangent is simply this: when we are feeling overwhelmed by a blazing experience of standing on Holy ground, when we're knocked off our feet and are honestly terrified, how do we respond? Isn't it awfully tempting to reduce the experience to something a bit more structured, a bit more normal? 

Yes, our intentions are the highest: to memorialize the experience. (Peter spontaneously offers to build things that other translators call "dwellings" or "booths," but Eugene Peterson translates them as "memorials.") Maybe I'm completely off track, but this impulse seems linked to an almost universal aspect of organized religion: after the initial blaze has cooled off, we build churches, temples, cathedrals, and other impressive edifices which command and maybe even demand our admiration.

On the other hand, the design and construction of these buildings and grounds might better be seen as expressions of their designers' and builders' devotion. They labored over these projects because they had those kinds of gifts -- to work with their eyes and hands rather than with words and voices. Decades of devoted work might go into a cathedral, and the austere Quakers among us might do well to regard such devotion with a bit of humility. Another thing: the longer the building has been around, serving the community that built it, the more it might seem to become saturated by a spirit of constant prayer.

Every element of a sacred building is part of a vocabulary. This is obviously true of things like altars and icons and stained glass windows, but even the layout and orientation of a typical church expresses theology. When an anti-faith dictatorship takes over the government in that location, and prohibits evangelism and religious education, as happened in Soviet times, this visual vocabulary may have to carry much of the load of communicating faith to new generations.

None of this is simple! Once something is built, it has to be maintained and guarded. The more elaborate the facility, the more maintaining, the more guarding. In Richmond, Indiana, a few years before our historic meetinghouse was demolished, we were in a monthly meeting for business, considering the expensive prospect of putting on a new roof. At that point someone said, "This is the last time I'm approving re-roofing this museum." The first time I visited the offices of the Andrei Rublyov Church in Elektrostal, Russia, I marveled at the elaborate security technology in place, including video cameras and a direct link to the police station. In contrast, Jesus came down from the Transfiguration mountain to face an apparently bleak future: arrest and execution at the hands of the authorities.

D. Elton Trueblood and Martin Luther King in the
Quakerly plain Stout Meetinghouse, Earlham College.
In that Transfiguration encounter, nobody seemed to be reading from a script, least of all the future bishop Peter. As the edifices get built, the scripts are also composed and elaborated. With all our vaunted simplicity, we Quakers have our own versions of the same phenomena -- meetinghouses with their own quiet elegance, some of them three centuries old as we're informed by suitably dignified plaques. Their architecture and seating arrangements suit the changing theology. Their congregations maintain subtle expectations of behavior and decorum that touch on what sorts of Bible readings and sermons are acceptable, how much enthusiasm we can tolerate, how long the silence must be maintained before anyone speaks, how much silence between speakers, and how often any one person can speak (ONCE!). What a difference from the improvised settings (taverns, even) where many early Quakers met ... and sometimes actually quaked.

In choosing what kinds of booths, dwellings, monuments to build in honor of our encounters with God, how do we distinguish what GOD wants? Isaiah (66:1-4; context) cautions us on concealing our own plans behind our piety:

This is what the Lord says:

“Heaven is my throne,
     and the earth is my footstool.
Where is the house you will build for me?
     Where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things,
     and so they came into being?”
declares the Lord.

“These are the ones I look on with favor:
     those who are humble and contrite in spirit,
     and who tremble at my word.
But whoever sacrifices a bull
     is like one who kills a person,
and whoever offers a lamb
     is like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
whoever makes a grain offering
     is like one who presents pig’s blood,
and whoever burns memorial incense
     is like one who worships an idol.
They have chosen their own ways,
     and they delight in their abominations;
so I also will choose harsh treatment for them
     and will bring on them what they dread.
For when I called, no one answered,
     when I spoke, no one listened.
They did evil in my sight
     and chose what displeases me.”

When it is God who is the initiator and designer, things are a bit different. Moses supervised the building of a portable temple, and Solomon supervised the first attempt at a permanent temple, both following God's instructions, according to the Bible. In both cases, nobody claimed that God was really confined to those places; they were a way of providing the people (Hebrews and strangers alike) safe access to God. As God says to Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:15 (context), "Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place."

The tabernacle and temple were built and maintained in the context of a near-total enmeshment of religion and state. There was a remnant of this arrangement in Jesus' time, but the Jewish authorities always had to keep an eye on the Roman occupiers, who mainly saw religious enthusiasm as a nuisance.

In our own time, a vision of church-state enmeshment is often associated with authoritarian states and demagogues. This danger of co-optation makes it especially important for us to keep open a space -- more than that, a hope and expectation -- that God may still come and knock us off our feet.

When that happens, we may be as shaken up as Peter, James, and John on the Transfiguration mountain, but instead of building monuments, let's encourage others to try going up the same mountain. In order to make that path and expectation ever more accessible, we may ask God's permission to build whatever facilities will help us keep the invitation alive, but without allowing those facilities to smother our vision or our capacity for surprise.

A Russian case study of politics and sacred space: Is Christianity under attack?

Is there a relationship between the compulsion to contain and institutionalize revelation (to build those booths), and the fear-and-militancy compromises we see in white American evangelicalism? I thought about this question as I listened to this podcast, which starts by interviewing Kristin Kobes Du Mez about her book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, and continues with a good panel discussion about the book.

At the beginning of this year, Helena Cobban began her Project 500 Years. After her first fifty entries, she reviews what she's learned to date, and how she plans to continue. (At the bottom of the page, you can find the links to go to the previous year, Key Developments of 1571, or forward, Key Developments of 1572.)

In 2021 USA: Republican senators, Merrick Garland, and an alternative universe.

Aleksei Navalny's nationalist past -- and what it means for Amnesty International. Also: Ukrainian views of Navalny are a "very complicated cocktail."

Update on Jim Kovpak's Russia Without BS: see A Serious Message. Note his Facebook page.

Esther O'Reilley looks Ravi Zacharias and Rich Mullins, and the very different ways they coped with becoming Christian celebrities.

Beth Woolsey is moving into yoga positions "with ease."

Four decades ago I was listening to Albert King play this song. Now it's Christone "Kingfish" Ingram's turn.

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