Sunday, September 23, 2007

More like a Czardas

Recently a friend recommended to me that I read Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz. Although Miller is a local author, it is probably not the sort of book I would have discovered without a nudge. The book touts itself as exploring "non-religious thoughts on Christianity", which sounded interesting - much more so than religious thoughts on Christianity (or anything else). Never a fundamentalist in the best of times, these days find me feeling decidedly non-religious and wanting to avoid anything that smells churchy at all costs.

There are a lot of things about Miller's background that bring out my prejudices about evangelical Christianity. I like to think of myself as pretty open-minded, so it is probably an ironic failing of mine (along with many other progressives) that I am too prone to rejecting interaction with the WWJD crowd without much thought to whether there might be more to them than narrow-mindedness and obnoxious evangelism. That is not to say that Miller is closed-minded. While I don't necessarily agree with every mark of ink that spills forth from his pen, his open mindedness and honesty in dealing with his beliefs (and even his doubts) were endearing and somehow drew me in. Not exactly what I expected from a book on Christian thought that was recommended to me by a friend who attends a slick megachurch in the Southwest.

The book is a collection of essays covering subjects like faith, grace, belief, love, and even money. Miller has a nice, conversational writing style that lends poignancy to even some of the non-overtly theological discussions. For example, when he writes about wanting to be known he taps into a fear that I suspect we all have to some extent - that if people really knew us, knew us as we are when we're truly ourselves, they might not want to know us anymore. I know that I felt a moment of self-recognition as I read about how he could never marry someone unless she knew him as he was when he was alone with himself, and how that would probably just scare her off.

A lot of the book also centers around experiences that grew out of the author's auditing of classes at Reed College. If you are not familiar with Reed, it has a rebellious reputation for liberalism and experimentation. Academically, it has a lively environment, but not exactly one that would be branded as a pious, non-hotbead of sin by those inclined to more conservative world views. More likely they would view it as a holding zone for people who are bound to fry and fritter in hell when all is said and done. And in the words of the great Amos Starkadder: "There will be no butter in hell." One of my favorite essays in the book is the one in which Miller talks about setting up a confession booth on campus at Reed. The twist? It was not so much set up as a confessional for fornicating hippies, but for Christian students to confess the sins that they and their religion had perpetrated.

Reading Miller's book made me think a lot about my own relationship to spirituality. It is a strange evolution I've gone through since starting to go to church a couple of years ago. The church I go to (if you can say that about a place you haven't been in four months) is a progressive one. This is good, because I don't think I could stand any other kind. The pastor and about 80% of the congregation are gay. Sometimes it feels like it's just me, my mom, a couple gay guys and the lesbians. But that is okay. These people are my friends. They're great people. It also helps that I don't go to church to find a date.

The important thing is not orientation, but that there is a lot of kindness, a lot of laughter, and a lot of tolerance. It is a place where you truly can just be who you are. When you really think about it, there are very few places like that in this world. Still, when we first started going, I often found myself sitting in the pew feeling like a hypocrite. I figured everyone else there had it all together and that I was the only heathen with a head full of questions and resistance. You see, I don't know that I really believe in everything The Bible says and I've always had some major problems with organized religion and its history.

Don't get me wrong. I believe in the big "be good to each other stuff". I believe in peace. Being a little on my meek side myself, I'd like to believe that my people will inherit the earth even if I'm not sure with what the rest of humanity is doing to it that it's going to be worth much by the time it emerges from probate. I believe in helping the beleaguered and the downtrodden. In fact, I believe that churches sometimes "prayerfully consider" things to the point of inaction, especially when deep down we know which things are the right ones to do.

If someone gets hit by a car, you don't stop and pray about whether God wants you to call 911, then wait for the Cosmos to send you a unicorn prancing under a rainbow in the shadow of a dove to the soundtrack of an angelic "Aaaaah" before moving into action. You get help and you do what you can to make the person comfortable until it arrives. Yet, I often have the feeling that we lend too much dallying about God's will to issues that should be pretty clear. It really shouldn't be that difficult.

Slogans like WWJD give me hives, but I think that if a group is modelling behaviors on his philosophies, it's pretty clear that what Jesus would do is help those in need and exercise things like tolerance and forgiveness. The thing is that it's not only Jesus who teaches these things. I could have all of them affirmed for me by Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and any number of different non-Christian teachers and philosophies. Sure, I can feel God singing in a choir in church. I can also feel the Goddess while standing around a fire with a group of pagans on a cool Beltaine night and it is no less authentic an experience. That is part of why I don't really buy into a cosmology that dictates that Christianity is the only true path to God.

Really, I think I could make a pretty good Unitarian. By not proclaiming myself to favor any one path, maybe I could shake the nagging feeling of intellectual dishonesty that churches always give me. I find it really difficult to call myself a Christian, because I don't know that I am one. Can I really be one, if I believe only in the overarching message of Jesus' teachings, but not in the details? I do not believe that I can be intellectually honest and call myself a Christian while also saying "Christians believe X, Y and Z. I accept X, but Y and Z are crap"? What's worse is that I really do believe some of the Y's and Z'a that are commonly believed in mainline Christian churches are crap. While I get that Jesus was progressive in his social views, I don't, for example, believe that part of Corinthians that says wives should be subject to their husbands, because the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church. I also don't believe in slavery or that God sent a great flood to punish humanity and I certainly don't believe in modern crackpot interpretations that blame disasters like 9/11 or hurricaine Katrina on God's displeasure with gays or liberals or anyone else.

Now, I know that the Bible is a product of various time periods and various writers (not to mention various translators, councils, etc.) and that a lot of what is taught and accepted as the "Word of God" is really just the word of whoever happens to be teaching at the moment. I know that there are schools of thought that are very literal in Biblical interpretation and others that see it all as more symbolic in nature. It is a tough question with which I've always struggled when it comes to churches and faith.

As human beings, we are all too eager to focus in on those parts of a philosophy that feel comfortable and cast aside those that don't fit our desires. But deciding that I can ignore those parts I don't like as unimportant or not being meant to be taken literally is problematic for me if I'm going to call myself a follower of that faith. To me that's akin to proclaiming myself a Doctor, even though I don't technically make an effort to heal anyone but do wear a white coat and carry a stethoscope.

When I took the Companions in Christ (that title still fills me with maximum ooginess, by the way) class that I participated in last year, I used to get really pissed off at the parts of the textbook that judged me as an "immature Christian" for what I see as open mindedness. Thinking back, I'm not sure why it irritated me to be called an immature Christian, when I am not even so sure that I am a Christian at all. I'm coming more and more to accept that I'm just a pluralist who believes that even if there is just one mountain of indeterminate nature, there are many paths to its apex. The truth is that this is what I have always believed and it's not because I'm flighty or unable to commit. It's because I see existence as nuanced and have to believe that whatever God is s/he meets us where we are and with whatever philosophy is most going to speak to us as a member of our respective cultures. Sometimes that philosophy is Christianity, sometimes it is Paganism or Islam or Hinduism or Judaism or Buddhism or even some other kind of Undefinedism.

In his book Miller writes "I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn't resolve. . . . I used to not like God because God didn't resolve. But that was before any of this happened." For me, spirituality feels more like a czardas - flirty, occasionally atonal, and moving in cycles that explode from a barely there tempo into a fast moving cacophony of multi-layered sound. I don't think that's a bad thing, because deep in my heart I have to believe that whatever the Godhead is, it cares more that we live decent, good, kind lives than what we call ourselves. And that's why it's totally okay for Miller to be blue like jazz, me to be puce like a czardas and you to be green like Yanni or sparkly disco gold like Abba. In the end it is all Music.

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