On Peeling the Onion of Culture

One of my goals for the blog is diversity of content.  From time to time, I will post essays like this that reflect my passion for the work of local church ministry.  As a teaching pastor at Mount Paran North Church of God and a generosity strategist for the Generis Group, I spend the majority of my working time tackling the challenges of local church leadership, ministry, and funding.  If these challenges interest you, read on!  As always, I welcome your comments, both criticism and applause.

This week I returned from one of the most enjoyable experiences of my professional life.  The seminary where I teach as an adjunct professor has a partnership with our sister denominational school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, referred to as STEDH on the island (le Séminaire Théologique de l’Église de Dieu en Haïti).  I received an email back in December from our dean, asking if I would be interested in an all-expense paid trip to Haiti to teach Luke-Acts to 40-50 graduate students, most of whom are working pastors.

Sometimes, life is so sweetly unfair.

I just spent three days in pristine weather teaching the Books of Luke and Acts to seminary students in an open-air classroom in the hills of Haiti.  I felt as though I had died and gone to heaven.

I have had the opportunity to travel and to preach in various islands of the Caribbean, but there was something particularly special about this trip.  It was about as immersive as a cross-cultural trip can be, in that I spent all day, every day in the classroom with the same large group of people.  They didn’t have the choice not to constantly interact with me since I was leading the class.  And, by God’s grace, I had the sense by the start of our second session that I had won their trust.  “He is young,” one student told the president of the seminary, “but he is heavy.”  That is a compliment I will not soon forget.

Anyone who finds himself in the middle of Port-au-Prince won’t have a difficult time figuring out that they aren’t in Kansas anymore.  Obviously, the culture is dramatically different.  The language, the food, the housing, and the social etiquette are nothing like the mainstream of life in the United States.  This is typically where the average tourist’s cross-cultural experience begins and ends, by noticing clear differences in appearance and living customs.  But these are not really examples of culture; they are manifestations of it.  These manifestations are the tip of an iceberg of localized nuances that cannot be known apart from a deep engagement with “the way people are with one another.”

I don’t know a better way to define culture.  What is even trickier about this “way people are with one another” is that it is the product of a laundry list of fairly random ingredients that stretch back hundreds, and sometimes even thousands, of years.

I would not be able to pick out examples of this duality between visible difference and invisible culture without having spent such concerted time interacting with Haitians without any other Americans around.  As I continued to observe and ask questions, examples of invisible culture abounded.  To get at them, though, requires peeling back the onion.

The flight to Port-au-Prince was 2/3 empty, yet in typical airline fashion the passengers were all seated together in full rows.  When the seatbelt light dinged off, I assumed everyone would rush to an empty row for more space.  In fact, not one Haitian budged.  It was in the classroom that I realized this was not an issue of preferred proximity; it was a manifestation of what anthropologists call dyadic (or communitarian) personality.  This same culture of collectivism relieves the need for grocery stores.  They don’t exist, since open-air street vendors take their place.  What we see on airplanes and in the streets is people living, working, and even traveling in very close quarters.  Peel back the cultural onion, and we find the unconscious, firm belief that life is inherently more public than private.  It’s not a preference.  It’s an is.  It’s “the way people are with one another” because that is the way it is.

Another example of peeling the cultural onion occurred in the classroom.  I was at first taken aback by the intensity of the questions that were shot at me from the class.  It seemed to me that the students were sparring with me rather than creating discussion.  My translator referred to it as the “shooting range” which didn’t help things.  After our first day in the classroom, however, I realized that I was not being attacked.  The intensity of the questioning was simply a manifestation of the dialogical nature of the culture.  This dialogical culture is also demonstrated in worship services.  A preacher in Haiti who isn’t constantly being interrupted by participation from the congregation just isn’t on his or her game.  One-way preaching isn’t preaching, as Haitian preaching is a conversation with the audience.  As an American professor, I felt like I was being put on the hot seat, but in actuality I was just joining in the daily dialogue of a Haitian classroom.  Haitian culture is very rabbinic in this regard.

And these are simply the nuances that are observable by the pedestrian on a day-to-day basis.  To peel back the cultural onion more forcibly requires hard research into Haiti’s history.  Indeed, the effects of the colonization of Haiti as a French slave depot have reaped libraries of sociological study.  I discovered in the classroom that virtually all Haitians speak Creole, and everyone understands French, yet not everyone feels comfortable speaking French, as it is a mark of social status, and mistakes would be terribly embarrassing.  When I inquired about the safety of the streets, they assured me that I was much safer most anywhere in the city than the average Haitian, because foreigners are respected and protected.  How could such a proud nation that fought so hard for independence from France seem so imbalanced in their classism and their preference for outsiders?  The growing discipline of postcolonial studies supplies the answer: these are the visible manifestations of a culture influenced by the invisible history of colonization.  The colonized tend to take on the traits of the colonizers.  Sad but true.

My relative safety on the streets of Port-au-Prince this week is the result of happenings in the 18th century.  Such invisible mysteries are waiting to be revealed in every arena of relationships to those with the courage to peel back the onion of culture.

For whatever reason, I have always been a hack student of organizational culture.  This impulse may stem from my commitment as a New Testament scholar to de-familiarizing the text so that Bible study becomes what it should be: a cross-cultural Indiana Jones adventure into what Karl Barth called, “the strange world of the Bible.”  It may stem from being a lifelong cultural urbanite in a denomination whose center of gravity is profoundly rural.  It certainly stems from the privilege I have had to serve in such a variety of churches and colleges.  I have learned over time that the heartbeat of every organized group of people, “the way people are with one another,” is always created by the invisibilities of culture.  Always.

As Jim Shepherd, the CEO of Generis (the generosity consulting firm where I serve churches as one of my irons in the fire), says in his fantastic book, Contagious Generosity: “Culture trumps everything.”  Forget about the mission statement, “core values,” and other formulas that are crafted for web advertising and staff cheerleading.  They mean almost nothing.  All that matters are the intangibles.  All that matters is culture.

We ignore this reality to our own peril.  Yet it is so hard not to ignore it.  I ignore it all the time.  It is hard work to peel back the onion.  Only a methodical trek through sets of very inconvenient questions sharpens the cultural onion peeler.  It is easier to work with visible raw materials rather than invisible histories, drives, and nuances.  The German architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, famously said of his magnificent craft, “God is in the details.”  I have especially learned that when it comes to creating a win-win situation in a Haitian classroom, among a board of directors, or in a church capital campaign, God is in the nuances.

This is the true battleground for those of us who want to make a positive impact on our families, marriages (yes, your marriage has a culture.  You are the way you are with one another because of a variety of invisible fears, insecurities, proclivities, and histories, most of which stretch back to childhood experiences.  Shout out to Sigmund Freud!), companies, and churches.  We know that “the way people are with one another” is the product of complex cultural dynamics.  We can have the courage to admit this unchangeable reality and dive into its complexity, conceding that culture dies hard and changes at a breathlessly slow pace.  Or we can just talk slower and louder to the French-speaking Haitians, expecting that eventually they will understand us without us taking on the responsibility to understand them.  We can return to the same old tactics of setting new year’s resolutions, creating new policies, adjusting our calendars, visioneering reorganization strategies, and cranking out new print materials full of exciting, vision-oriented rhetoric (At our church, every member is a minister! Kablam!).

Eventually, however, if we really want to effect positive change, we’ll close our fancy laptops and reach for the plain old onion peeler.

I am difficult to pick out.  Bottom row; fourth from left.

I am difficult to pick out. Bottom row; fourth from left.

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On Benefaction in 2014

The turning of the New Year led me to reflect on a very peculiar New Testament text.  January is, of course, the month that we focus on personal change, both incremental and dramatic.  Families flock back to churches everywhere.  New gym memberships quadruple in popularity.  We eat more greens.  It’s like an annual self-help festival.

The documents of the New Testament easily fit into our January schema, because Scriptural authors seem to always be attempting to get their audiences to change their ways in some way.  The priests called this change purity.  The prophets called it justice.  John the Baptist and his Nazarene cousin, Jesus, called it repentance.  And at the close of the curious letter of 2 Thessalonians, Paul called it…earning power.

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ [them are fightin’ words], we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-10) 

Given the fact that 2 Thessalonians would have been read aloud to the house church (virtually everyone was illiterate in the first century Roman Empire), I can only imagine the congregational reaction.  “Pastor Paul would rather me starve to death than fail to follow his example!”  That’s a little strong, isn’t it, Apostle?

Yet it is not at all the negative judgment of this passage that is so shocking.  It is the alternative lifestyle that it demands.  Paul is, in essence, calling every last Christian to be a benefactor.

In the cities of Paul’s churches, Thessalonica included, a carefully crafted economic ecosystem made the world go round.  Walk into any ancient city, turn around 360 degrees, and this ecosystem was visible in every direction.  It was created by, of all things, inscriptions carved in stone.

In these inscriptions lay the grave distance and the sobering similarity between the ancients and us.  We create economic ecosystems with commercials, sexually charged images, and media messages throbbing on screens large and small.  In the end, these messages and images are meant to do one thing: stimulate the economy.  The ancients achieved the same economic bump with inscriptions.

Here is what I mean.

The glue that held the ancient city together was the network of benefactors that funded the city.  These benefactors not only paid for roads, latrines, aqueducts, and other public works projects, but were expected to provide food in times of shortage, games and festivals for the entire city to enjoy, even temples of worship.  Because there could be no urban development without the proper care and feeding of the city’s benefactors, standard customs arose to insure that benefactors continued to spend their money on the city’s needs.  One of these customs was aretology: a set of vocabulary, formulas, and proclamations that heaped honor upon the benefactor.  The ubiquitous inscriptions in ancient Thessalonica were expressions of this aretology.

Here is a representative inscription from the first century, to benefactor Skythes:

Skythes, son of Archidamus, has been good to the citizens, eagerly coming forward and without hesitation to offer a benefaction.  This is right and proper for a man who loves his city and is concerned for honor and good standing among the citizens.  Accordingly, we the People, being grateful to him and having seen his fine and noble character, resolve to praise Skythes because of the diligence and the forethought he has in both sacred and secular affairs and, in addition, resolved by popular decision, to crown him with a gold crown during the games at the Festival of Dionysus.  We will announce at the games when the citizens are assembled: ‘The people crown Skythes of Archidamus a fine and noble man who is well-disposed to the city,’ so that all may know the people are eager to honor its best men, so that they might eagerly continue to give benefactions.

As is evident, the citizens of ancient cities had plenty at stake in keeping their benefactors buttered up.

The tension reflected in Paul’s instructions in 2 Thessalonians reflects this ancient institution of the benefactor.  Not only did the early Christians direct all of their aretological muscle away from earthly benefactors and toward the resurrected Jesus (Erastus is the city manager of Corinth – a wealthy and honored position – yet just gets lumped in with all the other Christians in the greeting list of Romans 16), but they disallowed their house church members from participating in the primary welfare system of the ancient world that was – you guessed it – provided by benefactors.

Because benefactors controlled such vast wealth in the ancient city they needed a mechanism to shore up their influence.  They did this by amassing a retinue of followers, typically called, in Latin, clientes (hence, our English word, clients).  Clients were called not only to defend their benefactor’s honor, but to look out for his interests in courts, in politics, and in financial transactions.  So what’s in it for the client?  Look at it like a paid internship with a very meager job description.  In short, for a Thessalonian to score a clientship with a benefactor meant that they could quit their day job.  They could kick back into a life of ease under the watchful provision of the benefactor.

“What do you mean if we don’t work, we don’t eat, Pastor Paul?  You’re taking away our golden ticket!”

Against this context, it is truly remarkable that the earliest Christian teaching disallowed new converts to become clients.  Before reminding the Thessalonians that he had consciously disavowed his own honored rights in order to stay away from the appearance of clientship, Paul includes this rule in the preaching they had originally received.  Along with the announcement of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and second coming, early Christian preaching championed the death of the client system among all the baptized.  Why?  The reason is certainly not some right wing attack on the social safety net (Paul essentially invented a robust system of care for the needy in his churches; see 1 Timothy 4:3, for one example).  Nor is Paul asserting some sort of primitive Marxist critique of the “trickle-down” economics of the city.  Paul did not watch Fox News or MSNBC.  These were not his categories.  So what is Paul’s point?

The revolution of early Christianity was to call every believer, young and old, rich and poor, male and female, to cease any pursuit of clientship, so that they might attain to their God-given calling to be benefactors.  And because our early Christian ancestors believed that God had called them to such a station in their city, Christianity transformed the Roman world in time.

In 2014, may our resolutions be those not of client consumers, but of benefactors.  May our families, our churches, and our cities raise their chisels to our accomplishments.  Let the inscriptions commence.

Inscription delete

Apocalyptic Christmas

Merry Christmas, friends.  I thought you might be interested in reading this article which is published in the present issue of Journal for Preachers.  This Journal, edited primarily by faculty at Columbia Theological Seminary, is one of my favorite reads and I highly recommend it as an exemplar of passionate, literary preaching.  I hope you enjoy my musings on the apocalypse of Christmas!

I have tended to view my role as a preacher to take the familiar and to make it unfamiliar, in order that it might be re-familiarized in a fresher, perhaps even what might be considered a more biblical manner for the hearer.  Nowhere is this challenge greater than in the boorishly accepted texts of Advent.  This is not a challenge of originality, much less novelty.  The goal of preaching is not to tread new ground, but old.  Yet the Christmas story does pose a particular pitfall.  The ground of these texts may have gotten so rutted by constant treading that we fail to aid our congregations in looking up from that ground in order to discover the apocalypse that Christmas hails, the advent not just of a baby, but of a new world, blazing beyond our ruts.  Or, even more dangerously, might we tend to remain in our ruts in order to avoid the advent of such a new world altogether?

None of these are new challenges for the preacher.  Indeed, we meet them head-on, fifty-two times per year.  But the intensive, embedded nature of the Christmas season within our western cultures may provide a unique opportunity to journey beyond our conventional roles as exegetes, counselors, and historians.  In this essay, I want to propose that approaching these texts, and their relationship to our own society, as cultural anthropologists may represent a fruitful method for unlocking new impact.  For if, as I suggest, Advent is an apocalyptic event, definitively breaking from the old world to invite us into the new, the tools of cultural anthropology can assist us in perceiving the inner-workings of these worlds.  My hope is that such perception will then fill us with the courage that is all too often lacking in staid Advent preaching; the audacity “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more.”[i]

Christmas and Cultural Anthropology

The advent texts are a cultural anthropologist’s dream.  In the libraries of ancient literature, there is perhaps no more famous (or easily accessible) crossroads of the clashing of cultures, the richness of symbols, the diverse layers of human traditions stretching into the Hebrew, Roman, and Hellenistic worlds.  Then, of course, there are the alternate lives that these texts have breathed in and through the consciousness, the liturgies, the political, familial, and social dynamics throughout Christian history.  Interestingly, when we put on our cultural anthropologist’s “hat” we not only cast light upon these historical and contemporary realities.  We also find that the vital shift we seek to make as preachers, from familiarity to apocalypse, is mirrored in the discipline of cultural anthropology itself.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the discipline of cultural anthropology was restfully entrenched in structural-functionalism as the accepted lens for viewing human societies.  The structural-functionalist view, now typically called functionalism, operated like an anthropological camera, providing a comprehensive snapshot of a given society.  Such snapshots depicted an achieved equilibrium, in which the various components of cultural mysteriously worked together to achieve balance.[ii]  In the functionalist viewpoint, culture itself takes on the role of independent organism, into which persons, institutions, and symbols fit.  Thus, and in general, the “ideal” societies tip toward static convention and the continuity of societal institutions.

Then, in the heyday of functionalist momentum, the world went to war.  The Great Depression ravaged complacent capitalism.  From the supposedly Christianized southeastern United States, civil unrest began to stir.  Cultural anthropologists took notice of the fact that equilibrium didn’t seem to be the glue that it was once, and they looked for other lenses.  The most readily available – conflict theory – proved to be the silver bullet for dethroning functionalism.  Popularly associated with Karl Marx, conflict theory considers the glue holding together a given culture to be not a shared system of consistent values, norms, and structure, but an ongoing battle between inconsistent values, norms, and structures.  While conflict theory held great allure, even romance, it largely exhausted itself by feeding on the same raw material as functionalism, unconsciously sharing its presuppositions about the centrality of institutions and the functionality of conflict.  Yet out of this logjam a new discipline emerged, rife with possibility for the preacher.

Symbolic theorists, the most famous being the “Sociology of Knowledge,” called into question the manner in which the former theories invested human cultures with an independent distance from the persons within them.  With an emphatic recognition that people operate on the basis of the symbols that they attach to reality, symbolic theory seeks to map out these symbols as the primary means by which society is ordered.  Peter Berger famously considered this “symbolic universe” to be the highest level of organization, whereby symbols form their own systems of meaning as they embrace and account for institutional order.[iii]  This symbolic universe holds knowledge itself captive, which in turn legitimates a society’s institutions.  When a society’s symbols – its body of shared assumptions – come into question, the symbolic universe begins to break down, and a different symbolic universe must be sought.

Is this trajectory of the study of cultural anthropology – from functionalism to symbolism – not also the continuum that we Advent preachers inhabit?  Surely we preachers have known the safe world of functionalism at points in our lectionary, balanced and clean.  Functionalism is King Solomon’s cultural lens, where the Proverbs always come true despite outrageous conscription rates.  Functionalism is the lens of the Deuteronomists, a lens of predictable prose that must be added to Job’s untamed poetry in order to achieve equilibrium.  Functionalism is often the lens of our parishioners who expect, even demand, some divine blessing to offset suffering.  Such a world does not reach outside of itself for answers.  Answers are fairly easy to come by in the functionalist “world without end.”  Apocalypse is impossible for the functionalist world.

The symbolic lens, however, is more complex, more able to listen to diverse voices.  The symbolic lens understands that the culture is not on a quest for balance, but for meaning.  As full-fledged practitioners of the symbolic lens, twenty-first century persons are on a manhunt for meaning, a manhunt that we Christians claim is met in Jesus Christ.  But we do not believe that such a claim can make sense in the old symbolic universe.  That world has been trashed by the apocalypse of Christmas, replaced by God’s re-ordered world.

The most significant difference this distinction makes for the preacher is this: The preacher of the functionalist world arises on Christmas morning to welcome Jesus into our conventional world.  But the preacher of the apocalypse is welcomed by the Advent texts into God’s new world, and must struggle with an unconventional set of symbols, categories, and values, in order to adjust.  What is at stake, of course, is not just the meaning of Christmas.  The meaning of Christianity itself is on the line.

The Symbolic Universe(s) of Christmas

The Advent texts represent a warzone of symbolic universes.  On the one side stand the conventional imperial powers.   By enacting the conventions of tribute, census, worship, and authority, conventions depicted and echoed in the Advent texts, the Caesars mediated a powerful symbolic universe.  This symbolic universe was entrenched and seemingly unquestioned.  “All went to their own towns to be registered,” passive in the face of the Rome’s functionalist precision.

This precision included Rome’s program to disseminate not just its authority, but its symbolic ideology into every facet of Hebrew life.  Warren Carter describes this ideology as the claim that “Rome exercised sovereignty over the world, that Rome and the emperor manifested the presence of the gods, that the emperor and imperial officials were agents of the gods, and that Rome manifested the gods’ blessings in constituting societal well-being.”[iv]  Jewish persons during the time of the birth of Christ need only to look upon the golden eagles affixed to Herod’s temple in Jerusalem to be reminded that they were far from immune from Rome’s symbols, even at the epicenter of their sacred space.  The battle between symbolic universes is easily illustrated in Josephus’ wrenching story of Herod’s last days, in which the rumor of his impending death sparked a group of Torah students to tear down the golden eagles, enthusiastically supported by the Jerusalem crowds.  Unfortunately for them, Herod was not quite dead, and ordered them burned alive.[v]

Advent arrives within the very teeth of Rome’s totalitarian symbolic universe that attempted to co-opt the city of Jerusalem.  It arrives in conflict with Herod, Rome’s henchman.  Is this not why God must show up on podunk Bethlehem, among shepherds and innkeepers and teenage girls, those most schooled in “the arts of resistance?”  Is this not why the stars that conventionally hailed the birth of the Caesars now realign to hover above the manger?  Is this not the meaning of the Magnificat, the song of Zechariah, the prophecy of Simeon?  “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”  Jesus is born and an apocalypse has occurred.  A new symbolic universe, a new world entire, has supplanted the old!

Christmas as Comfort

Unfortunately, our society, hell-bent on comfort at all costs, is in no mood for a new Christmas world.  Like the largely passive citizenry of ancient occupied Palestine, we remain immune to the apocalyptic edge of Advent.  As a result, preaching Advent hope so easily devolves into a message of comfort that is compatible with our culture’s symbolic universe.  This conformist message capitulates to the individualism, materialism, timelessness, and boundaries of empire.

“Just remember, the true spirit of Christmas is in your heart,” Santa Claus says at the ideological climax of the popular children’s film, The Polar Express.  Such hyper-individualism is the penultimate message of comfort to a society that believes in autonomy over authority, with the self as the moral, autonomous center.[vi]  It transforms Advent from an event to a feeling not just subject to, but completely owned by one’s personal tastes.

“Christmas is a time for giving,” the commercials will tell us, and preachers, following suit, neuter our imagination of the birth of Christ from an apocalypse into a tidy Christmas present.  It is so much more palatable that way, a chaser to our society’s sedative of materialism.

Department store chains massage their way into our consciousness by stripping away biblical language.  In Manhattan last year I was shocked to see an entire advertising campaign utilizing the stark word, “Believe.”  Believe in what?  This dearth of history should call us preachers to the Christmas symbols that emerge firstly from the material: a stone manger, a serious tax burden on the poor, a messianic minority report in the shadow of a despotic ruler.

“Happy holidays,” the greeter at the Wal-Mart says on cue, and preachers decry some sort of nostalgic loss, solidifying conventional boundaries between insider Christians and outsider “secularists.”  This is little more than the nationalism of empire; the attempt to resurrect Constantine’s dead bones.

These examples are attempts to welcome the Christ child into our functionalist world.  They say to Jesus, in essence, “We are comfortable with our world and are happy that you have come to help us better succeed within it.”  Even biblical scholarship has gotten in on the act, with prominent writers morphing the infancy narratives into “parabolic overture” in support of a nonmiraculous, liberal Protestant Jesus.[vii]  Thankfully, we need not resign our preaching to this functionalist world.

Christmas as Apocalypse

The infancy narratives provide the preacher with the raw materials for a new symbolic universe that begins to construct God’s new world.  The Advent texts, therefore, are apocalyptic, not comforting, in nature.  This is in line with what we know about the apocalyptic genre within the canon itself.  John Collins lists the Scriptural functions of apocalypticism.  They include providing “support in the face of persecution, reassurance in the face of culture shock or social powerlessness, reorientation in the face of national trauma, consolation for the fate of humanity.”  Rather than any sort of flight from concrete reality, Collins asserts that apocalypticism “is a way of coping with reality by providing a meaningful framework within which human beings can make decisions and take action.”[viii]  The function of apocalyptic thought, then, is well-suited both to the historical context of the infancy narratives as well as the violent clash of conceptual systems illuminated by symbolic theory.  In the discordant space created in this clash, the preacher can invite the hearer to reconsider our social construction of reality, by reminding the hearer that through the incarnation God physically lays claim to the world in order to redeem it, and to invite us to inhabit it anew.

What might this habitation look like?  How does the Christmas story lead us into God’s new world?  I will propose three ways.  First, the apocalyptic message of Christmas mocks the “therapeutic, technological, consumer militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life”[ix]  “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree,” and such a decree was no joke.  Augustus, “the august/revered one,” remains widely recognized as one of the most successful empire-builders in human history.  His first-person funerary inscription brags of unprecedented taxes raised, armies conquered, peace secured, and honors lavished.[x]  Much of this success was achieved via the power of symbol.  As many commentators have observed, the Caesars held power through mediating a particular “symbolic universe” which infiltrated all aspects of their administrative agenda, comprising language, architecture, coinage, entertainment, and literature.[xi]  Against such a backdrop, it is hard to shake Frederick Buechner’s startling Christmas contrast:

“Insofar as [Augustus] is remembered at all, most people remember him mainly because at some point during his reign, in a rundown section of one of the more obscure imperial provinces, out behind a cheesy motel among cowflops and moldy hay, a child was born to a pair of upcountry rubes you could have sold the Brooklyn Bridge to without even trying.”[xii]

In the Christmas texts, a new set of symbols replaces golden eagle, laurel wreath, throne, scepter, triumphal procession.  Christmas power is found in ostracism, illegitimacy, swaddling clothes, and, perhaps above all, singing.

Second, the apocalyptic message of Christmas creates a new class of insiders.  The fact that taxation is at the center of Luke’s story has a symbolic meaning that can be illuminated by historical inquiry.  Marcus Borg has argued extensively that the virtual caste system represented in the Israel of the gospels is true to what we know from other sources, and that the stratification can best be explained by the tithe system.[xiii]  As Rome ratcheted up the tribute requirements, utilizing a highly successful network of tax gatherers, a clean line separated the devout from the dirty.  Those who could no longer pay the tithe were relegated to the margins of religious society, evidenced in the caste of am ha-aretz, the “people of the land.”  The later Mishnah includes rabbinic calls for the am ha-aretz to be gutted like fish.[xiv]

Into this milieu arrives the universality of the Christmas message.  Simeon proclaims the reach of this divine bombshell: “a light for revelation to the nations, and for glory to your people Israel.”  In the Advent texts, this blessing extends especially to the outsiders: to Mary, unexpectedly pregnant; to Joseph, disobeying the Torah yet still named a “righteous one,” to shepherds, whom Philo notes, “are held mean and inglorious…most of all in the eyes of kings.”[xv]  Now a king of the grand reversal is born; a king of wondrously open commensality.  Does not this king convict us of the comfortable borders that we patrol?

Third, the apocalyptic message of Christmas combats timeless individualism with ancient story.  Part of an effective symbolic universe is the role of story.  The symbolic story of Rome was no exception to this rule.  “The birthday of the divine Augustus was the beginning for the world of the gospel,” the province of Asia decreed, shortly before the birth of Jesus.[xvi]  Thus inaugurated the story of the first century Empire; a story of Rome’s golden age, hailed by the stars that fatefully appeared each time a new Caesar was born.  Hear the Advent texts laugh: Rome’s stories aren’t old enough.  They are novelties; new and light-hearted inventions.

Like a family Christmas tree filled with ornaments transformed into family heirlooms by time, Advent texts invite us to plant our hearing of Christmas in older stories.  “Don’t just read,” Matthew begs.  “Pick up each ornament, each element of the story.  It is an invitation to an older story.”  Matthew speaks of this invitation in the terms of the fulfillment, the ultimate reflection, of Scripture.  Amidst all the wrangling over whether or not Matthew 1:23 mistranslates Isaiah 7:14, we often miss the point.  “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet!”  Matthew has reframed history.  It is such a short leap from the Christmas story to the full-blown apocalyptic worldview of Paul.  “For the present form of this world is passing away…”

Choosing God’s Symbolic Universe

One of the most repulsive stories that has awakened something in the American consciousness is the story of three women, held captive for a decade, in a home in suburban Cleveland, Ohio.  I do not want to downplay this atrocity, but given the fact that over one million slaves remain in captivity around the world, perhaps this story struck such a nerve, not because it is shocking, but because it represents a greater sense.  This sense is the observation of artist James Turrell, “The world is not one we receive but one we create.”[xvii]  It is the sense that the world we have socially constructed from the symbolic universe we have ingested is little more than myth, lie, locked cage.  Jesus does not need to be invited into such a world.  Such a world does not need to be comforted, but revealed for what it is.  Such a world is in need of an apocalyptic unveiling, that we may break free into God’s new world.

Whatever Christmas looked like, Mary “was safely delivered of a son,” to use the Queen’s English.  Let our preaching not re-create this into another sweet scene.  For those with courage, this birth was a foretaste of something bigger, a new symbolic universe that protests the old.  God’s new symbolic universe was safely delivered in the apocalyptic travail of the splitting away of the old universe.  May we preachers choose the right universe.


[i] James Baldwin, “As Much Truth As One Can Bear,” in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, ed. Randall Kenan (New York: Pantheon, 2010), p. 28.

[ii] “The resolution of any discrepancy, whether in values, activity or cognition, is believed to be both needful and desirable as well as the ordinary thrust of ‘normal’ human behavior.”  Bruce Malina, “Normative Dissonance and Christian Origins,” in Social-Scientific Criticism of the New Testament and its Social World, ed. John H. Elliott (Decatur, GA: Scholars Press, 1986), pp. 40-42.

[iii] Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966).

[iv] Warren Carter, “James C. Scott and New Testament Studies: A Response to Allen Callahan, William Herzog, and Richard Horsley,” in Hidden Transcripts and the Arts of Resistance: Applying the Work of James C. Scott to Jesus and Paul, ed. Richard Horsley (Atlanta: SBL, 2004.), p. 92.

[v] Josephus, Antiquities, 17.6.3-4.

[vi] See Richard Sennett, Authority (New York: Knopf, 1980), pp. 84-121.

[vii] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Birth (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), pp. 34-35.

[viii] John J. Collins, “Apocalypses and Apocalypticism,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 287.

[ix] Walter Brueggemann, Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), p. 192.

[x] See Res gestae divi Augusti (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 1924.

[xi] See Joshua Rice, Paul and Patronage: The Dynamics of Power in 1 Corinthians (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2013), p. 45.

[xii] Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 2004), p. 54.

[xiii] Marcus J. Borg, Jesus A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship (San Francisco: Harper, 1987), pp. 84-87.

[xiv] A’Haron Oppenheimer, The Am Ha-aretz: A Study in the Social History of the Jewish People in the Hellenistic-Roman Period (Leiden: Brill, 1997), p. 176.

[xv] Philo, On Husbandry, 61.

[xvi] OGIS, 458.

[xvii] Richard Lacayo, “Prince of Light: How Artist James Turrell Conquered the Heavens” Time (July 1, 2013): p. 42.

Thaumazein

A while ago, I decided I would score some major points as a dad and as a husband if I surprised my 2 daughters with tickets to the super bowl of childhood if you are a girl – Disney on Ice.  Sophia and Evie were 6 and 4 at the time, and to them, Disney characters on ice skates is my version of getting tickets to the Super Bowl.  This is a really big deal in their young lives.

So we headed down to Phillips Arena, bought tickets at the ticket booth, and sat in our upper level seats overlooking the ice and waited on the show to begin.  And as excited as I was about seeing the excitement on my girls’ faces, I have to confess secretly as I sat in my uncomfortable stadium chair waiting on the fun to begin, I started to fantasize about how much better it would be to see a Hawks game or a boxing match or something a little more masculine than Daisy Duck on ice skates.  And then the show began, and I found myself captivated by it, because it reminded me so much of what happens each year at Christmas.

The show began with all of the famous Disney characters that we’ve all known since childhood skating onto the ice one-by-one as everyone cheered.  There were Donald and Daisy Duck, Goofy, Pluto, the bear and the feral kid in the jungle book, Cinderella and Snow White & the 7 Dwarfs, Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, Tarzan, and Bambi; this massive cast of characters coming out one at a time all singing and skating and dancing in unison with the crowd of thousands of children on their feet.  As the song progressed a big white canopy was brought out to the middle of the ice; a hush filling the stadium, as all of the characters began to circle around this big, closed centerpiece.  And then at the climax of the song with dozens of characters skating around under the lights and the whole crowd up on their feet – the great unveiling.  The canopy opens and out comes Mickey Mouse – the one and only; the central character to the Disney Universe; the one from whom all the others came and to whom they all continue to point.

In the same way, Christmas is the time each year when we revisit the same cast of characters that we have known so long in their annual journey toward the great unveiling of the one and only.  There is the virgin Mary and the visitation from the angel and the illegitimate pregnancy and Joseph along for the holy and horrible ride.  There is the stern innkeeper who won’t give up a room and the cattle and sheep that become witnesses to the great unveiling in his place.  There are the shepherds who were just minding their business when a whole army of angels lit up the night sky and told them what they could never have believed without seeing a whole army of angels lighting up the night sky and even then they probably wondered if old Yitzak put something funny in the cigarettes after dinner that night.

There are the astrologers/magi who see a new star and travel hundreds of miles to discover where it was pointing and no doubt wondered if their telescopes needed some serious recalibration when the star seemed to point to a barn that smelled like manure in a village that didn’t smell much different than the barn did.  And to really read the Bible is to know that there are more characters there at the nativity as well; characters stretching back century upon century.

There is King David also right there among the cattle and the sheep because God had told him a long time ago that one of his offspring would one day rule forever.  And old Moses is there too with his staff and his beard stumbling around because he’s old and all he ever does is walk, walk, walk; the old walking man who told Israel about a future ruler sort of like him who would rule them forever whenever they finally got to stop walking and to sit down in the Promised Land.  There is Isaiah who lived through the destruction of Jerusalem when it looked like God was done with the whole salvation plan and yet he looked through the carnage and the burning walls of Jerusalem and the screaming of the innocent and saw the moment when Immanuel, the Prince of Peace, would come screaming innocently into this world to set it on fire and to be himself burned up by it.  There is Jeremiah who said that one day God would wrap up all the promises he had made to Israel into a new covenant with the whole world.  And somehow even Adam and Eve are hanging around in the background in their fig leaves, the ones who kind of started it all in a sense, because the whole messiah idea got rolling when God told them in Genesis 3:15 that even though the serpent got the better of them in the Garden of Eden, one day someone would have a baby that would stomp the serpent’s head to death.

All these characters that we have seen around the nativity sets and heard about in Scripture for as long as we’ve been alive.  All these holy misfits, like a bunch of ducks and feral children and mermaids, dancing in a swirl and singing in unison and pointing to something, to someone in the middle, like those Disney characters on ice skates.  And you know, to block out all of this cultural Christmas marketing that has diluted the holy day into a holiday; and to just read it as it was, is to see this great cast of characters circling around a centerpiece for thousands of years, waiting on the great unveiling of the One and only.

And when the centerpiece at Disney on Ice opened and Mickey Mouse was revealed in the middle of Philips arena that night, you should have seen the looks on my girls’ faces.  They gasped.  It took their breath away for a moment.  And that’s what Christmas is supposed to do to us.

If I had to boil the Bible down into the single Greek word that appears at every turn in the stories about Jesus in the gospels it would be pretty easy.  It is said of the crowds, of the disciples, of those who believed in Him and those who didn’t; of those who thought he was God and those who wanted to kill him for being a blasphemer.  You could boil it all down to the Greek word, thaumazein, and it means, to have your breath taken away.

In the earliest Christian communities, when all sorts of people might kill you and your family for declaring allegiance to Jesus, very few people were literate and so there was no point of writing stuff down about Jesus.  What’s more there were still plenty of people around who had seen it all firsthand.  And so they would gather in caves, and in living rooms with the lamps snuffed out and someone standing guard on the roof just in case they were found out.  They would gather over bread and wine and someone who had been there or knew someone who had been there would start telling the story in a whisper of the great unveiling of the one and only, and those huddled around the storyteller, both skeptic and believer, would gasp at the thought of such thing.

My prayer for each of you this Christmas season, is a catch in the throat; a gasp of wonder; that feeling of amazement that the shepherds had when their night was interrupted by the whole host of angels singing in chorus up in the night sky.  They are still singing, you know, and everything in this world that is really real is still pointing to the center, to the canopy, to the great unveiling that took place in that musky barn in that backwater town to that backwoods couple.  May the hilarity, the stupidity, the grace of the whole scene hit you this year like a slap in the face; a punch in the gut.  He didn’t have to do it like that.  But he did…maybe just to take your breath away.