A Trope, a Dope, and a Pope: Or, How Ancient Alien Theory Helps Me Think about the Death of Cecil the Lion
July 30, 2015
by Dusty Katzenmiller
My guilty pleasure is watching Ancient Aliens, the show on the History Channel family of networks that has made popular the theory that Earth was visited by extraterrestrials in the distant past and was given knowledge, guidance, and even life by them. I find it interesting because it displays the innate human desire to believe something. Whether thinking about our species’ origins or our species’ futures, Ancient Aliens asserts that our story is more than meets the eye.
However, I have two big issues with ancient alien theory. First, it creates a Supreme Being that is wholly a projection of ourselves—an idealized self, yes, but, in the end, only a projection of ourselves. A hypothetical alien visitation in the distant past does not require anything from us, nor does it create any ethical imperatives. It only demands that we know about it and carry on living whatever life that we want to project on that alien visitation.
Second, ancient alien theory both demeans past generations of human ingenuity while exulting contemporary humanity as the pinnacle of what’s possible. It demeans past humans by claiming that it would be impossible for them to achieve great architectural feats—for example, the Great Pyramid in Giza or the civilization of Pumapunku. Ancient Aliens suggests that both were built with alien technology simply because our ancestors were not capable of complex thought. (However, in regards to the Great Pyramid, French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin et al. have recently hypothesized that an internal ramp structure and a system of counterweights could have been used to build the pyramid rather efficiently.) Additionally, ancient alien theory assumes that twenty-first-century humans have reached the pinnacle of understanding and are thus able to comprehend alien life. But recent events should give us reason to doubt our having reached the summit.
I rarely watch “the news;” my knowledge of what’s going on “out there” is more or less limited to my Facebook News Feed. Thanks to a cadre of friends who are hard at work seeking justice in Middle Tennessee (and elsewhere), I am usually well informed about the bills that would further criminalize homelessness, the often-unjust policies that are being instituted at local prisons, and the injuries that are wrought at the hands of police officers, for example. One wonders how advanced our ancestors might think we are in light of our proclivity to enslave, oppress, and generally dehumanize our neighbors. Yet we are all-too-often able to notice these injustices, look the other way, and move on.
But there are news stories that can grab our attention and keep it.
They often involve animals.
This week, our News Feeds have been inundated with the news that a beloved Zimbabwean lion was killed at the hands of an alleged poacher from Minnesota. The lion’s name, of course, was Cecil, and he was, of course, beautiful.
I myself love African wildlife. The highlight of any trip to the Nashville Zoo was always getting to see the giraffes walk around, gliding along as they take gracefully long steps. I have never seen a lion in person, but I have a profound admiration for them—perhaps because of the popular imagery of lions and lambs lying down together in peace as a representation of the coming reign of God. At any rate, giraffes, lions, elephants, zebras, they are all beautifully made creatures, but, at least since the Victorians arrived in Africa, they have all been considered as potential trophies roaming around waiting to be stuffed.
Now, I do not want to come across as anti-hunting. As Lee once pointed out in a Tokens Show monologue, the hunter often treats prey with more respect than the technocrats who force livestock to live in near-torturous conditions. In that respect, hunting for respectfully harvested food is a good thing. However, hunting merely for a trophy seems deeply perverse as well as a profound expression of “the throwaway culture.”
Cecil was beautiful. Cecil was lured into the crosshairs of a trophy-seeker. And Cecil, in death, was beheaded and his carcass left in the countryside to be eaten by vultures. Cecil was used and thrown away. Hardly the end this beautiful creature deserved.
Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical Laudato Si, recalls how “Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” He continues, saying, “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her” (1–2). The Pope then goes on to attribute, at least in part, the “use and abuse” of our planet to what he time and again calls “the throwaway culture.” He describes the throwaway culture in paragraph 22 of his encyclical in the following way.
“[Problems like pollution] are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products.”
The throwaway culture, in addition to destroying nature, “affects the excluded.” Throughout the encyclical Francis argues for creation-care on the grounds that pollution and consumerism wreak havoc on the poorest persons among us. For example, the Pope writes that “[e]xposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths” (20); “changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children” (25); and “[o]ur world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity” (30).
Of course, dignity is an important notion for this Pope. All creation has dignity that should be respected, whether human, plant, or animal. Surely the Pope falls within the tradition of Scripture in this way, because Scripture—for example, the Deuteronomic food and jubilee laws—demands that all creation be free from exploitation. The notion of giving a field a jubilee year reminds us that the field is a gift from God, and we are not lords over it. Nor are we to be lords over animals. Nor are we to be lords over our neighbors.
Yesterday, during lunch, I browsed through Netflix’s library of programming, and it suggested, because I had watched Ancient Aliens, I might like to watch a show called The Inexplicable Universe hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. For those of you who don’t know, Neil deGrasse Tyson is a genius astrophysicist who, crucially, is able to make incredibly complex ideas accessible to the non-scientist. He is also hugely entertaining to listen to. So I selected the show and started watching an episode about the possibility of alien life in the universe. I have remained haunted by the question he closed that episode with, but it requires some set up.
Genetically, according to Tyson, humans and certain species of monkeys share 99% of the same DNA. As far as intelligence goes, we are able to communicate with them through very rudimentary sign language, for example. (Whereas conversation with a dog is one-way conversation.) His point was that we can communicate with beings who share 99% of our DNA at a level of an adult with a small child. That is, the most mature monkey can only communicate at the level of a very young human child. Thus, he suggested, imagine that there are extraterrestrial beings who are only 1% more intelligent than us, drawing on the 1% difference between us and monkeys. Tyson suggested that communication with such beings could be difficult. Our most brilliant might only be at the level of an alien toddler. Such extraterrestrials might assume, as we tend to assume about monkeys, that the beings that share 99% of our stuff are really not intelligent.
And so Tyson ends the episode with the following question, which I paraphrase: suppose aliens have been to Earth and have explored it and have determined that there is no intelligent life on the planet.
An intriguing question. Especially when juxtaposed against the ancient alien theorists’ tendency both to project ourselves onto the notion of aliens and to assume that we as a species have reached the pinnacle of intelligence.
Perhaps, in light of Cecil’s death, we might sympathize with an extraterrestrial who assumes us to be unintelligent.
But I want to suggest that Tyson’s words must not be the last words on this subject. When I despair humanity’s tendency to be so habitually inhumane—to fellow humans, to sister Earth, to plants and animals—I remember Thomas Merton’s Louisville revelation.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers….Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”
“I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. ‘There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.’”
We are much more than meets the eye—this the ancient alien theorists get right. But we are not more because some ancient advanced human (which is to say a projection of contemporary humanity) flew around to different ancient societies. We are more because we are created in the image of the God who is Trinity. We know God because of the Incarnate Son. We have the “immense joy” of being human, “a race in which God Himself became incarnate.” And we are able to behold the Incarnate Son today though the Eucharist. The Eucharistic feast then can be thought of as the pinnacle of human experience. It is at the Eucharist that we learn to commune with neighbors who have been reconciled to us and to understand that there is no scarcity with God. All come to the table and are fed. There are no trophies, only lives shining like the sun.
Craig D. Katzenmiller is Social Media Editor for Tokens and a soon-to-be stay-at-home dad.
The views expressed in this alien-inspired essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Tokens Show.
Traditional Worship in a Digitally Dependent World?: Part 2
July 23, 2015
by Lauren Smelser White
Last month I wrote a blog post reflecting on why it might be that many 20- and 30-somethings could be turned off by “hip” worship. I proposed that one likely reason is because this group experiences the uprootedness of our consumerist culture in a heightened manner due to our intense dependence upon digital media. Thus, rather than glossy worship services that simply further our experience of being constantly plugged in and marketed to, it’s not surprising that what we’d crave in our corporate gatherings is a recovered sense of rootedness: participating in distinctive ways of life built up over time with certain people in a certain place. Those ways of life may be more or less named as “tradition,” which designates the creative, performative manners in which people have learned to think and behave together. These ways have stood the test of time, drawing communities together, which is why we need really good reasons to discard traditions; when we toss them aside, we leave behind our rootedness, ages of fine-tuning what we’ve built together.
In this post, “Part 2” of my reflections on the topic, I will explain a bit of what I don’t mean when I recommend preserving traditions. I do so for two reasons: (1) because the value of tradition mustn’t become or be mistaken for a smothering traditionalism, and (2) because I think it would be a mistake to go the traditional route simply as a new tactic for increasing church attendance.
For starters, let’s tackle point one: healthy rootedness in religious communities won’t happen unless our shared life is fertilized by tradition, not traditionalism. We must differentiate between the two. And it would be hard to do so better than Eastern Orthodox theologian Jaroslav Pelikan does: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead,” he says, “traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
Pelikan unpacks this statement, going on in the same passage to describe tradition as “a received body of wisdom” while traditionalism is the imposition of “an authoritarian past.” Tradition is an ongoing conversation with the insight of those who’ve gone before us; it’s open to scientific discovery and artistic creativity. The openness of tradition allows for those pivotal moments when we religious types realize that the ways we’ve been accustomed to thinking or behaving does not reflect Christ’s earthly mission. Conversely, traditionalism shuts down conversations, foreclosing the possibility of innovation, always in the name of preserving “sound” practice and teaching. Traditionalism is all about keeping things the way they are, simply because it’s what most folks—particularly the ones in charge—are used to.
Scripture provides a helpful example of the difference between tradition and traditionalism. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul reprimands the wealthy Corinthian Christians for celebrating the Lord’s Supper according to their societal tradition, which meant that they were partaking in a longer-lasting meal from which the poorer members of the congregation were excluded. Rebuking them, Paul mandates that they should celebrate the ritual in a manner befitting what Christ has done for the church; else the meal they eat is not really the Lord’s Supper: “[D]o you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” he asks. “What should I say to you?…In this matter I do not commend you!” (v. 22, NRSV).
In this context, adherents of traditionalism would resist change, no doubt in the name of “valuing tradition.” But an authentic, living tradition allows for the needed reform to be incorporated into the practice of the Lord’s Supper so that the church’s corporate life may better reflect the character of Christ without setting aside the valuable tradition altogether. From this basic example, we can see how the value of tradition should neither become nor be mistaken for a stifling traditionalism.
Assuming that we aim to reject the oppression of traditionalism while valuing the wisdom of tradition, let’s consider point 2, beginning with the question: Why shouldn’t Christians adapt to modern society by adjusting old worship practices to closely mirror pop culture? One can see why ministers would wonder if this is how the church could be invitational to 20- and 30-somethings in our time and place—a population that is leaving the church in droves, by all accounts. In the face of that exodus, church leaders don’t want to be guilty of traditionalism. “If this change is what it takes to get un-churched people in the pews,” they think, “then, by golly, shouldn’t we get rid of the shape note and get with the big screens?”
Rachel Held Evans builds a strong case that this tactic will ultimately fail because what Millennials really crave isn’t a cool vibe; it’s theological vibrancy—and that generally includes “keeping worship weird.” As evidenced by my reflections on rootedness, I agree with her; and I would specify that a congregation’s theological dynamism includes not only its teaching and everyday ethics but also its traditional forms of worship. It seems that many a well-meaning church leader has presumed that signs of tradition and theological vibrancy are mutually exclusive. They’ve based this assumption on two beliefs: that increasing church attendance is pivotal to Christian mission, and that “updating” worship will get more folks in the church building.
This leads to my closing point, which I offer as a caveat to Held Evans’s sensible suggestion that if those well-meaning church leaders really want Millennials “back in the pews,” they should “stop trying to make church ‘cool.’” ~ Recognizing traditional practices’ contribution to theological vigor is highly important, as is also realizing that it could be a turn-off to revamp those practices for the purpose of attracting young folks to church. But this is where it gets tricky: I think it would be a mistake to assume that embracing our traditional worship forms will definitely achieve the desired effect of drawing in Millennials, or anyone else dropping out of church for that matter.
We need to come to terms with the fact that Western culture is becoming more and more secular—that is, it’s more convenient for us to believe that God doesn’t exist and religion doesn’t matter than ever before. I think philosopher Dany-Robert Dufour is right that the proto-typical person in our consumerist society is currently characterized by a schizoid nature, one that is “open to all kinds of fluctuating identities and…therefore ready to be plugged into every commodity.” It’s really easy for us schizoids to prefer all the pretty new stuff that will “make us happy” above any other deity.
While I believe that “seeking the lost” is vital to Christian mission, I think it would be misguided to assume that church attendance is the first sign that we are doing that seeking, particularly in this social context. After all, aren’t we inviting people to join us with the pronouncement that real life only comes by taking up the cross of discipleship? It’s hard to believe that such an invitation will ever appeal to masses of people as accustomed to pursuing (and achieving) luxury as our culture is. Oftentimes I’ve thought it may not be such a bad thing for our congregations to thin out a bit…at least in a secular culture people are comfortable being honest about their unbelief rather than coming out of a sense of obligation. Meanwhile, we should expect that those who drift in because we’ve met their personal preferences will just as likely drift out due to personal preferences.
Rather than appealing to people’s tastes and wants, we should be appealing to Millennials, Gen X-ers, Baby Boomers—everyone—based the baptismal promise of Christoform life, death, and resurrection. We can be certain those who have come to the bottom of their entertainment barrels will realize that they’re ready for something real, even (and perhaps precisely) at the cost of their comfort. Those are the people who will stick it out with us, who will contribute to our communal life and theological vibrancy. Those are the ones most likely to be attracted to a weird group of people who’ve put down roots at the foot of a cross and the door of an empty tomb.
1. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities (Yale University Press, 1984) 65.↩
2. Pelikan, 66–67.↩
4. See the title of Held Evans’s piece.↩
5. Dany-Robert Dufour, The Art of Shrinking Heads: On the New Servitude of the Liberated in the Age of Total Capitalism, trans. David Macey (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2008), 11–12. For another example, see J.B. Metz, Faith in History and Society, chapters 1–4.↩
Lauren Smelser White is a Ph.D. student in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her doctoral work in Christian theology focuses on human participation in the trinitarian event of revelation. Lauren is a fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice, which seeks to form scholars who connect their academic work to the practice of ministry and will be outstanding teachers of people preparing for ministry.
What Are You Bringing With You? On Burdens, Baggage, and Blessings
July 16, 2015
Out my window, rain droplets slip from the leaves of trees rising from the garden near Thomas Merton’s grave. I have journeyed up here to the Abbey of Gethsemani for a few years now, perhaps making some fifteen or more trips with my former professor and now good friend Richard Goode. With each trip, we ask the same question of each other: “So what are you bringing with you today?” The answer is always twofold: physical and spiritual. What books and burdens do you bring? This trip, I carried heavy concerns, as well as a few new reads.
One such read is Pádraig Ó Tuama’s brilliant new work In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World. In it, he writes of guiding young students in a prayer exercise he calls an “imagination walk”: with closed eyes, they imagine themselves in a pleasant place and visualize a stranger approaching. This stranger, Pádraig tells them, is Jesus, and after a few minutes of silence, Pádraig asks about their conversations with the Christ of their imagination. One teenage boy said the Jesus he met in the woods asked him three questions: “How would you describe today? Have you seen anything interesting along the way? And: Is it working?” These questions struck Pádraig as an insightful “invitation to mindfulness.” Later, he observes that many have claimed three other questions as central to understanding life: Who am I? Where I am going? What am I supposed to do? When I read this a few weeks ago, though, I felt a question was missing to both sets of three, though I could not yet name it.
In a recent conversation with a friend, she revealed that a few years ago, she endured a devastating divorce. I learned this via text—through which many secrets are communicated in this age—and she ended her short story-synopsis with, “So there it is. That’s my baggage.” This language struck me, almost as a confession, an offering, something profound and personal. Though it contained no shame, the words seemed weighed with legitimate fear, the fear of rejection and judgment that accompany so many of our secrets. This was her “baggage,” and she revealed and extended it in vulnerability. Essentially, she answered the Gethsemani question without me even asking. “Here’s what I’m bringing with me,” she told me.
I realized this was the missing question to the triplets above: What are you bringing with you? This question directs us back to ourselves, inviting an awareness of our stories that can be both discomforting and disarming. So often what we bring are our wounds and woundings, the stories we tell of those, and the truths and untruths we feel about ourselves because of those stories.
Yet, though we share these stories with much fear and trepidation, it’s from our wounds that we humans come closer to each other. It’s the wounds that let us connect in the deepest ways; they are the cracks in the hard protective exteriors we build around ourselves. For me, I’m drawn in when I recognize and resonate with the pain of another. Whether in a conflict-zone, prison, therapy circle, Tenx9 storytelling event, or coffee shop, I have come to see wounds as opportunities for connection, rather than just scab marks on the flesh of our stories. These wounds and woundings burden us and baggage us, and in so doing, they might bless us as well, as they open us up to connection and community.
We tend to speak of “baggage” negatively, naming things unwelcome, unhelpful, and undefining. The word itself implies externality, something outside ourselves. But the experiences I’ve always named for myself as baggage are neither external nor necessarily negative. They are certainly painful, but in that pain, they’ve been (trans)formative, watershed experiences. They’ve added further to the definition of who I am and provided more opportunities to connect with others who have hurt and cried and longed and regretted and collapsed and recovered and been ashamed. My “baggage” still makes me nervous to fully open to someone. I fear their response: Will they pull away, judge, reject, run? But I keep finding that when I show up and share what I’m bringing with me—all my “dirt,” to borrow a different metaphor—the stories of others tend to mirror my own. We can’t be ashamed of our stories. We need to own them, because they often own us.
I dislike the way we use the word “dirt” in these contexts. Our degrading usage strikes me as only possible due to our alienation from the land. The Genesis creation story says humankind came to life from the dirt of the earth and the breath of God. It takes both soil and spirit for us to be. Nevertheless, we dishonor dirt and therefore assign its name to our dishonorable stories. And so we offer forth our “dirt” with vulnerability and anxiety. On the other side, when I am privileged enough to receive the “dirt” of another, my task seems simple: to hold and honor the story. Is there anything else to say but thank you; I’m sorry; you’re okay; and you are loved? When I receive this response, I breathe. I breathe from relief, I breathe with hope, I breathe with joy, I breathe the blessing of welcome. We offer our “dirt,” holding our breaths in hopes that the blessings of welcome and love may grow, and if they do, we breathe again. It is from this offering of dirt, and from the breath of welcomed relief, that the life of relationship often springs forth, for life is easier when shared with people who understand.
After all, dirt and breath are the genesis of life.
Michael T. McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Desmond M. Tutu. He is the founder and co-host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and an adjunct instructor at Lipscomb University. In Fall 2015, he will spend three months writing in Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Rwanda as the Visiting Scholar for TCU’s new QEP project “Stories of Reconciliation.”
Holy the Bees
July 9, 2015
by Jeannie Alexander
I remember my grandfather’s smell. It is my first memory. My second memory is of being carried by my grandfather through his backyard. So carefully we considered the apple trees, muscadines, figs, and plums, but far back in my memory we first considered the mud puddles. My grandfather was a brick mason and he and my grandmother made their home in Stone Mountain, GA, where both of their families for several generations before had planted their homestead; the modest dreams of sharecroppers. Their plots of land were stitched together like a quilt: my great grandmother Annie-Bell’s home, my great aunt Irene’s home, my great grandfather Doc’s home, my grandparent’s home, my great uncle R.L’s home, and Uncle Pete’s home. One winding twisting piece of property divided into artificial plots. A geography of tragedy, toil, love, and grace. Why is it that we think the modest dreams of the poor are any less grand than those of the wealthy? Surely they are no less holy.
When my parents were first married, they lived in a small trailer that my grandparents had moved to the back of their property behind the main house. When I was two, I would kneel on the bed, my face pressed against the window screen of my parent’s bedroom window each afternoon, waiting for my grandfather to return. His old burgundy car would pull in and, before his feet could hit the deeply rutted dirt path, I would begin shouting, “Papa come saaavvveee me!” This was our daily game. He taught me how to unlatch the screen and push it out so that he could then lift me through the window. This is where my first memory erupts, the smell of sweat, and the taste of masonry dust stuck to the roof of my mouth as I pressed my nose against his neck to identify his scent every afternoon. His hands were the roughest, gentlest hands I have ever known. And each evening, as he pulled me from the window, he did so with the purpose of connecting me to the earth in the daily ritual of dunking me into the dirty muddy water that always seemed to pool in the large rut in the middle of the driveway. It was a child’s ecstasy that I experienced in those moments; a baptism that awoke in me a deep knowing of God’s presence as it may only be encountered through an immersion of the senses. God awakens in us.
As a teenager embarrassed by rural ways and honest poverty, I immersed myself in the alternative political and drug culture of Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood, which ironically threw me into the intellectually bourgeoisie disaffected punk rock culture of angry youth, often from wealthy families, supposedly fighting for the rise of the proletariat peasant class—a birthright I had abandoned.
But in the early hours of barely light mornings following nights of insanity, I would pull myself together and return bruised and disoriented to the gardens of healing, the waters of remembrance, my grandfather’s section of plowed earth. I was 19, hungover, and standing by my grandfather’s side, a cup of coffee in my hand, watching his honeybees swarm in and out of the hive in the already hot, humid air. “Aren’t you afraid of getting stung?” I asked. “No never,” he replied. “You just have to learn to think like a bee.” As we moved from bees to fig trees to chickens, I knew to my shame the truth: the sacredness of connection was to be found here or nowhere on this earth, and all of my endeavors to find truth through separation would lead me back to this yard.
My grandfather died while I was in law school and I was so furious with grief that I refused to leave New York and go home to Georgia to attend his funeral. The fury has long since turned to peace and gratitude, and my grandfather keeps speaking to me, slowly, softly tracking my often tumultuous life. My friend Bill has bee hives now. A few weeks ago, he removed the top of the hive so I could look inside the secret world into the feeding tray on top. The bees are fed sugar water. They moved slowly in the cold wet morning air and most stayed inside the wooden hive box, but a few came cautiously out of the small entrance hole in front and moved slowly, their thick stout golden honey bee bodies covered with fine hair—so very beautiful. I hear my grandfather’s voice: “The entire source of food for the whole world rests on the backs of these bees. All of this, everything around you is connected so you can’t do nothing to these bees, this land that don’t affect you. These bees are you, and you are the bees.” I think about this when Bill shows me the old feeding trays that he had discarded because they were death traps for bees; too deep, the bees drown caught between metal screen and water. A simple mistake but the cost was dear, and I ran my finger over the screen and over the tiny hairy corpse bodies trapped inside.
One of my last conversations with my grandfather was about bees. We stood staring at the hives while I ate a fig pulled from the tree. I had focused on the bees to avoid the truth that his once robust body was being wasted by the cancer growing inside of him. “Pa-pa, what do bees dream? Do they dream together as one, a collective sigh? What happens when the light goes out inside of a bee? Do they have souls, and if so, are they little golden sparks of light that make a snapping pop noise. Do trees breathe in the souls of bees?” He put his arm around me, pulled me to him, and I kissed his cool cheek. I still do not know these things.
I am buying a house, planting a fig tree, and setting up my own bee hives. All acts of faith, every day sacraments. Wendell Berry writes that “[t]he relentlessness of the tragedy is redeemed by the persistence of grace.” I am no longer afraid of being stung; what is holy is present in the sting and in the heartbreak, but also in the way light changes slowly through the progression of a year, in the sounds of birds and bells, in the way the smell and taste of lake water and river clings to the air and shrouds us after a storm. Our imaginations, tended properly, are the keepers of old memory. It is what is meant by living a good life. Its roots plunge deep into the waters of love, and nurture within us an affection and tenderness that I think perhaps can only be lived not described; one can only point and nod and say “Ah yes, that.”
Rev. Jeannie Alexander served as the Head Chaplain at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution for three years until September 2014. Prior to that, she was the volunteer chaplain for two years. As chaplain, she facilitated the creation of an unprecedented number of programs for insiders, both in minimum security and on “death row.” Before this, she worked as an attorney, but left the practice of law to become a community organizer and to complete a graduate degree in Religious Studies with a focus on Mysticism and Christian Ethics. As an educator, she’s been a professor of Philosophy, Ethics, and Religion. As a pastor, she’s served and developed interfaith communities in prison based on a model of liberation theology, as well as served as co-pastor to Mercy Community Church, a congregation where 85% of the members experience homelessness. She is the co-founder of Amos House and Open Table Nashville and was a writer for and sat on the board of The Contributor for four years. Two of her essays are published in And The Criminals With Him, and she features significantly in the documentary Tent City, U.S.A. She lectures and preaches frequently on the topics of mass incarceration as slavery, economic justice, Christian anarchism, transformative justice, and mysticism. She understands the Gospel as a manifesto for radical liberation now on earth and an invitation to experience God through the living presence of others and creation. She is also a lover of bees, bogs, and all things wild.
Traditional Worship in a Digitally Dependent World?: Part I
June 25, 2015
by Lauren Smelser White
Rachel Held Evans recently wrote a thought-provoking opinion piece for the Washington Post that many of you probably saw as it made its way through online networks. I want to reflect a bit more on what she says, thinking further about why it might be that millennials crave something other than “cool” worship. One of the primary reasons she is onto something is because, I believe, 20- and 30-somethings experience uprootedness in ways that previous generations may not (though, undoubtedly, younger generations already experience it more intensely). This is in no small way due to our dependence upon digital technology for much of our interpersonal interaction. My main suggestion is that, in a highly mobile, digitally dependent society where uprootedness is commonplace, when it comes to corporate worship we may need more of tradition than of an atmosphere that simulates the rapid changes and virtual reality of the environment we inhabit all week. In fact, mindfully retaining some of our traditional forms of worship may be a vital aspect of the church living out its mission in this particular time and place.
For the sake of keeping my thoughts on this topic manageable, I write my reflections in two separate posts, with hope that each makes some sense on its own.
For starters, what do I mean by rootedness? It’s a notion that I find in a statement from William Faulkner, the literary master who created an entire fictional world out of one small county in his home state of Mississippi. He explained why: “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.”
If you’ve lived anywhere long enough to feel like a local, I bet you know what he means. You’ve experienced rootedness. Rootedness depends upon prolonged physical presence in a place, but it’s not enough just to exist there—to be rooted you must live there as a contributing ingredient to its flavor. Its seasons and landscape have to be part of your own inner geography. Its people have to be your people (even if they drive you crazy at times)—you know how to talk to them; you know what foods they like; you’d defend them if an outsider cut them down. Like Faulkner, you feel that there is something worth knowing about your place and its long-time inhabitants, and you know that the further you press into it the more you can learn about it. This is rootedness.
In North American, rootedness is a phenomenon that we are less and less acquainted with. Cohesive local communities are slowly becoming a thing of the past. Consider the fact that these days, on average, Americans move more but vacation less than just about anyone else on earth (or so I recently heard on NPR). I wonder what that says about us? If nothing else, it says that we are itching to pick up and move on. We don’t care much about living in one spot long enough to root down into it, to learn its geography and seasons, to get to know our quirky neighbors and to leave something of our quirky selves there. On the other hand, we rarely vacation (even cheaply). The real pleasure of leisurely traveling, even a few hours away, comes from witnessing how plants and animals and people display rootedness in new places. But we are largely missing out on this too—not only because those sorts of communities are disintegrating, but also because we simply aren’t vacationing. We don’t have time and money for travel; we have to pay the note on our bigger barns.
These are generalizations, of course. There are plenty of holdouts. But the point is that more and more we are becoming an uprooted sort of people. I’m not qualified to identify all of the causes for our uprootedness. However, I’d wager that the list includes our cultural addiction to consumption. Deep in our cultural psyche we assume that new things bring joy. Perhaps this is why we church hop so often, and why infidelity is as commonplace among Christians as it is anyone. With every change, we lose most of what we’ve built with the people we leave behind. We are not only geographically uprooted; we are interpersonally uprooted as well.
20- and 30-somethings are experiencing an extra dose of uprootedness in the interpersonal domain, as I see it, largely due to our dependence on online social media for our interaction with each other. According to neurologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, “an ironic revelation of the television-computer age is that what people want from machines is humanity: stories, contact, and interaction” (198). But digital machines only deliver “imprecise simulations” of these sorts of connections. “Small wonder,” they say, “that Internet use in adults actually causes depression and loneliness” (199).
Some may protest these statements, pointing out that the online world actually facilitates innumerable, valuable human interactions. And there is truth in this—ask anyone who has been able to raise awareness for a good cause on Facebook, or who keeps up with a loved one across continents via Instagram, or who finds a way out of isolation on the blogosphere. Most of us find real enjoyment in keeping up with our friends and family by way of these mediums, and many of us have also uncovered unique opportunities there to communicate what we value—that is, we’ve found voices that may otherwise go unheard.
So are Lewis, Amini, and Lannon simply wrong about Internet usage causing loneliness? If they could answer they may acknowledge that, yes, good things can come of our online access to one another; however, we should also consider the extent to which we need to have these sorts of interactions.
We’ve all noticed it: most of us generally keep our heads down in public spaces, checking our cell phones, much more than we tend to look around at the people in front of us. One problem with this, it so happens, is that the hypertext medium of communication doesn’t utilize the parts of our brain—the right temporal neocortex, to be exact—that deal in intercepting and producing the emotional content of speech. This is why, Lewis and company point out, we easily misunderstand each other on these mediums. “In our increasingly digitized world, [online interaction] is a convenient substitute for dialogue, but it does not convey the richness that humans unthinkingly transmit when they use emotionally tempered speech and facial expressions,” they say (60). Furthermore, “minus the perceptible cues of voice tone, eye contact, and expression,” online interaction makes it highly convenient for people to assume fabricated identities—“simply because they can” (59).
So, by being constantly plugged in to social media, we not only exclude the richness of more face-to-face interpersonal exchange (likely lowering our social IQs as a result). We are also constantly tempted to present highly fabricated versions of ourselves for online audiences, especially if we’re any good at such fabrication. Sounds exhausting, huh?
From many conversations I’ve had, I can verify that plenty of 20- and 30-somethings do find it exhausting. I think it’s because there’s something extra on the line for us, something more than just socializing. Generally speaking, we’re the demographic of folks who feel most compelled to keep up with the Joneses via online social media. Most of my friends who own small businesses feel immense pressure to have dazzling Instagram accounts; many of my colleagues in academia trying to make a name for themselves feel they must wow the world via Twitter; all of us wonder if we should be blogging. If we join in at all—and it’s hard not to, because of course we also enjoy keeping up with each other in all of the ways these technologies afford—we must battle the compulsion to self-sell via social media. Even if we resist that compulsion (each in our own ways), it’s pretty hard NOT to feel like we’re marketing ourselves as a product commoditized by “likes.” It’s exhausting, but we keep participating—because it’s also fun; because we have to advertise our businesses; because it distracts us from the mundane responsibility of adulthood; because we don’t want to be irrelevant…
All of this is what I’m thinking of when I say that my generation experiences an added layer of uprootedness. And all of it said, I would argue that the last thing we need when we gather for worship on Sunday mornings is another venue for feeling plugged in, like consumers receiving a polished marketing bid. And even if we feel we need it, dare I go so far as to suggest that we do so out of habit rather than authentic spiritual necessity? What we do seem to need is access to rootedness. And when it comes to worship, rootedness goes hand in hand with tradition.
That final statement warrants some explaining, especially because “tradition” can signify all sorts of positive and negative things for Christian believers. Because it’s too much to tackle here, I’ll attempt it next month in my next post.
1. The piece is titled “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool’.” It can be found here.↩
2. This is not exactly “Millennials,” a term that designates the generation born somewhere between the early 1980s and early 2000s. Because of my age (33) and part-time occupation (college instructor) I am in better touch with folks whose birthdays range from about 1975–1995.↩
3. William Faulkner, The Paris Review Interviews, vol. II (New York: Picador, 2007) 57.↩
4. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, A General Theory of Love (New York: Random House, 2000).↩
5. See this article if you’re curious about how our digital interaction might negatively affect our interpersonal intelligence, not to mention that of those being raised in this environment.↩
Update (7/23/15): Part 2 of this post can be found here.
Lauren Smelser White is a Ph.D. student in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her doctoral work in Christian theology focuses on human participation in the trinitarian event of revelation. Lauren is a fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice, which seeks to form scholars who connect their academic work to the practice of ministry and will be outstanding teachers of people preparing for ministry.
Everything Changed at Auschwitz
June 19, 2015
by Michael McRay
It was December 2008. He said only one sentence to me, but that was enough. Everything changed.
Poland was cold. Snow covered the ground, and the occasional drizzle of rain sent shivers down our already shivering spines. I had heard of Auschwitz death camp for years, a hell-place where the Nazis murdered over one million Jews, a nightmare I’m sure many survivors never wanted to mention again after liberation came.
One by one, my father and I walked through the red brick buildings of the compound. In one room, behind a glass partition, rested a nauseatingly large pile of human hair, shaved from the heads of Jews, gays, gypsies, and others imprisoned at the camp. In a neighboring room, thousands of old dilapidating shoes rose from the floor; and in yet another, ownerless luggage, some with names inked or etched on the leather. Face-shots of those brought to Auschwitz covered the walls. I felt utterly inundated, desperate to escape the debilitating physical reality of the Nazi’s Holocaust. My mind could not comprehend over one million people dying in the place where I stood, murdered because they were different. And the majority of those murdered were Jews, who many believe are the chosen people of God.
That’s why when my dad spoke, I knew I wouldn’t be the same.
I grew up in the South, in America’s Bible Belt. We had more churches in my small town of Jellico than we had restaurants. Religion pervaded people’s perspectives. Whenever tragedy struck, the response seemed scripted: “Everything happens for a reason,” or perhaps, “God’s ways are mysterious.” I heard this refrain echo constantly. Whether in youth retreats, at Halloween hell houses, in church, sports events, or looking for parking spaces outside Walmart, the prevailing belief was that God controlled everything.
Anything good that happened was God’s doing; and the bad? Well, God supposedly allowed that to happen so that we might learn some greater truth or achieve some deeper faith.
I remember when I was kid hearing youth pastors pray when we all arrived at the retreat center safely, thanking God for God’s many gifts and for sending angels to guide the van safely to its destination. Such language was commonplace for me to encounter and recite. I consistently heard and believed that God was looking out for me, and would care for me no matter what. God would keep me safe.
But there, standing in the crematorium of Auschwitz, a place of ash and screams, the gallows just behind us, something changed in me. With one sentence my dad broke the silence, and he broke down my theology. We stared at the brick ovens; and they seemed to stare at us. Then, without looking at me, he said, “Whatever you believe about God has to make sense right here or it can’t make sense anywhere.”
Though my father had diligently taught my siblings and me “the sacredness of questioning everything,” to use David Dark’s book title, I had believed, or at least still wanted to believe, that God watches out for each person with steady eyes and ready hands, eager to pluck us out of our trials if we have enough faith or if it fits into God’s greater plan. But Auschwitz shattered this culturally-conditioned idea that God rescues us from our problems, and I began to wonder if God rather exists in the very midst of our suffering, perhaps even hanging on the gallows as Elie Wiesel wrote in Night.
When I returned home to Nashville, I felt dissatisfied and depressed. In many ways, the safe God of my youth had become another casualty of the Nazi’s death camp. I no longer knew how to pray or what to believe. Before Auschwitz, God was expansive and powerful, full of devotion to each person. After Auschwitz, nothing was certain or solid. My faith seemed to disintegrate into the ash that once filled those ovens.
I now needed a new way to understand the faith I inherited. I wanted to be a Christian, to remain true to my roots, but I needed to find my own reasons to follow Jesus. I began to realize that if God’s place among humanity was with the suffering, if God swings from the gallows and Jesus was crucified among criminals, if he dines with the outcasts and “sinners” and the parabolic feast table of God is open to the ones us privileged folks don’t want around, then maybe my faith should have far less to do with proving God’s omnipotence and far more to do with my presence among the “least of these.” Perhaps Matthew 25 should indeed be my creed, as my dad had often encouraged. The posters of the fictional terrorist-fighting American operative Jack Bauer disappeared from my dorm walls, and the faces and words of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. took their place. Over the next several years, this faith led me into the streets, prisons, and conflict zones to learn, love, and live peaceableness, justice, and hospitality.
Auschwitz taught me that God is not safe. I’ve slowly begun to realize that perhaps my discipleship shouldn’t be either.
Michael T. McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Desmond M. Tutu. He is the co-founder of No Exceptions Prison Collective, founder/organizer/co-host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and adjunct instructor at Lipscomb University. In Fall 2015, he will spend three months writing in Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Rwanda as the Visiting Scholar for TCU’s new QEP project “Stories of Reconciliation.”
Tokens Bloggers Return
June 18, 2015
We’re delighted to announce that our Tokens Blog will have a team of bloggers sharing items with us throughout the remainder to 2015. In addition to Lee and myself (Dusty), we will be featuring pieces from Michael McRay, Lauren Smelser White, and Jeannie Alexander. We’ll be sharing bios and stories as the summer progresses. Stay tuned.
Our Most Outstanding 2015 Sponsors
June 11, 2015
We are grateful for the partnership and support of our Most Outstanding Sponsors for our 2015 season. Find out more about our sponsors by visiting their websites.
Christ is Contingency: Embracing the Unknown
June 11, 2015
by Lee C. Camp, host of Tokens Show
Christian Wiman—poet and our featured guest on our recent show in Abilene—asserts that “Christ is contingency.” It is perhaps something we might expect of a poet who goes to writing theology: language that is propositional but simultaneously subverts static, propositionalist claims. Contingency—that which can be different, cannot be predicted; a fact that is, in fact, so, but not necessarily so, does not have to be so.
It is instructive, I think, to consider a phrase in common currency in our technocratic age: we prefer to “nail down the contingencies,” a striking idiom when juxtaposed with “Christ as contingency.” Whatever—in the world of commerce, or in the world of theological inquiry, or in the business(!) of making ourselves happy—we somehow have become convinced that the fundamental business of living is nailing down contingencies, to get everything fixed and sorted out and certified; thereby, we think we avoid not only suffering but the slightest inconvenience.
That old religious word “grace” denotes a direct affront to certifiability, to having it all nailed down. “Grace” is a notion that celebrates not merit but gift. But “grace” may carry with it such religious overtones that we may miss the point of Wiman’s assertion that “Christ is contingency.” This assertion seems not so much to be a religious claim, some private, personal opinion about God, as much as it is a claim about the nature of existence, about what it means to live according to the grain of the universe rather than our furious attempts to cut against it, refute it, nail it.
“Grace” can just as easily get reduced to yet one more non-contingent truth claim, all the sudden a mechanism for determining who is in and who is out, a mechanism for division rather than reconciliation, a proposition to nail down in order to soothe our aching anxiety about the contingent nature of the universe.
But if the language of grace is to be true, it will yield no such nailing down, but I suspect will evoke a wonder that is, as Wiman says elsewhere, “the pre-condition for all wisdom” (My Bright Abyss, 64). It will “speak and be love’s fluency,” will hold doubt and faith together, the ache of loss and the joys of the excess energy of love together.
You may listen to the second half of our Abeline show this Sunday, June 14, at 1:00 Central, in West Texas on KACU 89.5 FM and available globally online at KACU.org.
Creating “the Last Christians” in Iraq
June 3, 2015
by Craig “Dusty” Katzenmiller
Recently, my wife and I ventured to Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota for a family wedding. As we walked around Sylvan Lake one morning, we reminisced about our past selves and our own journey to marriage. Inevitably, in such moments of reflection, we reach the conclusion that had we met each other in college we would have despised each other. So much of life is timing.
While in South Dakota, I read Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity; in my judgment, it’s impossible to overstate this book’s importance. I finished the chapter chillingly titled “The Last Christians” while lying in our cabin the morning after our walk. It’s a sobering chapter, chronicling the decline of Christianity in Asia, in the Middle East particularly. Christian communities, Jenkins tells us, thrived in Asia well into the fourteenth century. (This relatively unknown millennium and a third of thriving constitutes part of the “lost history.”) The decline came as a result of various factors—changes in states’ religious zeal and changes in climate are but two examples. Even into the nineteenth century, there were still Christian-minority communities of substantial importance in Asia and Africa. These were decimated in various ways: Copts in Egypt were persecuted at new levels; Armenians were victims of systematic genocide; Iraqis experienced backlash because of invasions at the end of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
That last observation struck me especially hard because we did that invading. We Americans. And largely, we Americans who think ourselves great Christians contributed directly to the demise of a fellow Christian community. As I read, I recalled, during the invasion of 2003, being in a hotel in Tampa, FL, on vacation with my family, and, to my lasting shame, I recalled my excited reaction to news of the bombings in Baghdad. My excitement over that deadly invasion betrays the main reason my wife and I would not have gotten along at the time.
About a year later, in 2004, I read the book that would change my life—Richard Hughes’ Myths America Lives By—under the tutelage of my now-dear-friend Richard Goode. Later, in 2005, I would get to know Lee Camp, our Tokens Show host. These two gentle-men exposed my allegiances as neigh unto idolatrous, and that exposing shook me to my core. Everything had to change. Through much self-examination, I realized that my god was not the God who is Trinity, but the god who is American military might, the god who is Fox News, the god who is Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.
That may sound overly dramatic, but it’s true. My hope for salvation was bound up in “the spread of democracy.” For me, and I dare say for many other American Christians, our gods were on full display during the invasion of Iraq—and it was awesome in our sight.
Now, over ten years later, I am still trying to work out just (a) what it means to live a life free of such idolatry, and (b) how I could have been so idolatrous in the first place, while thinking myself such a great Christian.
While the answer to (b) traces its roots back to my religious upbringing in a tradition that, at least in places, has wholly capitulated to the might of the state as its source of hope, the answer to (a) has remained more elusive. That elusiveness weighed heavy on me in that cabin in South Dakota, itself a place where wholly capitulated Christians systematically exterminated entire cultures not so long ago. Idolatries run deep, especially in American Christianity, and I have been reminded of that—and of my own hopefully former idolatries—as I read Jenkins’ words on the ruin of Christians in Iraq.
Lee used to say, quite often, that we Christians in America have more in common with the baptized Iraqi than with the unbaptized American. May this elusive truth grow ever more deeply in our hearts, and may our idolatries cease, and may we live lives worthy of the name of Christ.
Craig D. Katzenmiller is Social Media Editor for Tokens and a soon-to-be stay-at-home dad.