Thursday, May 31, 2012

Am I not a Christian?

Ma Yuan: Visiting Plum
Blossoms by Moonlight
The confusion began, or reached a noticable level, in my last year of high school.  The ruling potentates at West Seattle High allowed me to take two classes at the same time during the last period of the day -- second year Russian, and writing for the school newspaper, the Chinook, across the hall and down a door or two.  Plus our Russian teacher was actually German.  The initial phase of a life-long identity crisis peaked in my last year of college, when I read Kak Mui Porteem Ruskii Yazik, "How We Ruin Russian," which combined language and politics in an indictment of communism. 

Nor was Russian the only language that had apparently gone bad: George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" demonstrated that sloppy wording threatened clarity of thought and human freedom in the Angloshere as well.  If everything relates to everything else, as apparently it did, why stick to one field for my BA?  So I mixed religion, philosophy, history and anthropology, and got a BA in "The Russian and Chinese Languages and Marxism."  That didn't get me a job, so I studied Chinese religions in Taiwan, then got an MA in "China Studies," which tempted me to pretend to know something about Chinese art -- about as much as the information content as one can find in the empty corners of "One Corner Ma's" paintings from the Song Dynasty.  Use the empty spaces on the edge of the page to evoke more truth than you actually possess -- was Ma Yuan the world's first blogger?

So what did all that "seed-picking" (as the Athenians called it) make me?  I wasn't a linguist, though I loved languages.  I couldn't call myself an anthropologist with a straight face.  "Historian" sounded nice, and a lot of the stuff I wrote did narrate events in the past (the past being easier to narrate accurately than the future) -- though my degrees didn't say that.  Some of my skeptical critics call me an "apologist," but that doesn't feel right.  If you wander through a garden and sample its fruits, does that make you the caretaker or gardener? 
Now I'm about to get a doctorate in "theology."  But please don't call me a theologian. 

I feel more like a person a quiver full of questions, and a pocket full of answers.  One can't hang that outside one's door -- though Confucius gave it a shot.

It seems difficult in the same way to identify "my" brand of Christianity. 
I am often called an "evangelical."  In the skeptical lexicon, that seems to mean (to plagarize A River Runs Through It), "a fundamentalist who can read."  (By "fundamentalist," they mean "a Christian who really believes this stuff.") 
What good is either word?  No one asked me if I wanted to "become an evangelical."  The preacher at Echo Ranch Bible Camp when I was 12 years old didn't ask us to "pray and receive a copy of A. C. Dixon's The Fundamentals."  Neither word appears on my driver's license, my passport, my Bodelian library card, and probably won't appear on my tombstone.  (The slag of marble, or the pizza.) 
True, I grew up in (under?) the conservative wing of the Presyberian Church-USA, the Presbyterian Church in America (or both its conservative wings), and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (whose wings must have been those of a turkey, it was so Puritan.)  When we moved to towns where the Presyberians were no good, we went to Douglas Island Bible Church, sang popular pietist and Gospel songs, read Chic comics, and grew up with the vague sense that trilobytes were spiritually shaky.  We certainly weren't Mormons, and were broad-minded enough to include Catholics down some ranshackled wing of our mansion of faith, along forgotten and distant hallways, past armored knights with names like Knox and Calvin who guarded the hallways nearer our more orthodox domecile. 
There was, perhaps, also a vague concept of "Orthodox," potato-faced babushkas praying in a few onion-domed churches that Stalin and his fellows hadn't gotten around to shuttering yet -- but such images belonged more to old copies of National Geographic piled in the basement, or to adventure books like God's Smuggler, than to the world of workaday faith.  
The word we always used was "Christian."  When we "prayed to received Jesus," the transaction was understood as turning us, not into "evangelicals," or even "Protestants," but "Christians." 
So why do people call Christianity Today an "evangelical" magazine? 
Why do people say I am an evangelical?  When did I sign onto for that voyage? 
We are what we eat, spiritually as well as physically.  I love some pagan writers -- Homer, after he got over those interminable battle and poem scenes in the Iliad, got rolling in his second volume about the maritime adventures of a Greek king among islands full of monsters -- that was fun, and sometimes profound.  Journey to the West.  Tolstoy, if he was a pagan.  But most of the best books seem to be by Catholics, Orthodox, or Anglicans -- Pascal, Chesterton, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Lewis, Tolkien, Girard, Percy, Budziszewski -- or by people of vaguely nondenominational and sincere and passionate somewhat shaky faith -- Lin Yutang, Rodney Stark.  There was something a bit shallow about even the evangelical writings I enjoyed the most -- mission stories, apologetics (I don't want to name anyone) -- like trees that had been planted in pots that were too small for them.  Exceptions like Milton, Bunyan and Burke prove the rule: they are great because their stories connect by a thousand threads to the story of all humanity. This I was taught in my "evangelical / fundamentalist" childhood, by example not in words, this unity that Christ brings to the mission of God in the world for the past two thousand years, and to the good in all human culture, that Milton and Dante celebrated by joining the ancients in their attempts to capture the human story by means of epic. 

Why should we cut ourselves off from all of that? 

Don't get me wrong.  I grew up among "evangelicals."  This is the community in which I feel most at home.  I am not even slightly tempted to pray to the Virgin Mary.  I like the smell of incense, as I like Indian Christians who use marigolds in their worship, but I remain, at heart, something of a Puritan.  Still, who keeps trying to lock the door from the outside?  Why shouldn't we spend half our time with the kids across the hallway?  It used to be our church minders: now it seems to be the skeptics, who want to classify, categorize, and dismiss Christians by dividing us neatly and putting us in separate boxes.   
Organizations need structure, lines of authority (Burke), heroes, permission to teach.  We can't all meet in one building, and it's probably a good thing (Stark) that different denominations offer different spiritual "products" to choose from, and to compete.
But sometimes, I think we should rip these silly labels off, and come to Jesus, again, like children.   
And that, maybe, is what I feel most like: not an "evangelical," not a "fundamentalist," not a "theologian," not even an "historian."  Not a "homeowner" (this land was once lived on by Indians, and who will live on it after we leave?), not an "American" (are we a separate species?) or a "conservative" (it is not so much that I conserve, but pray that God conserve what is worth saving.)  Rather, I feel at times like an ignorant, often confused child.  I am wandering in a garden, sampling fruits that taste good, but feeling, at times, the need for guidance, pausing to swap notes with other kids.

Last night, at our son's final high school band concert, graduating seniors gave fellow students their parting advice.  One quoted Steve Jobs:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

The poor girl didn't seem to recognize that she was, in fact, quoting Steve Job's dogmas, and telling other kids to live by them!  And where did Jobs get this bit of dogma from?  Pocahantis?  A thousand Disney movies?  It is the theme of American youth culture, programmed into each new generation to regurgitate without thinking or questioning. 

Jobs succeeded because he made use of "the results of other peoples' thinking" all his life - the machines others invented before him, and the machines he hired others to invent with him. 

And of course, Apple ripped off Microsoft, as well as the other way around. 

One innovates in dialogue with the stream of all humanity.  And that is what Christianity has done, for two thousand years.  And that is where Christian dogmas come from.
Calling myself a "Christian" gets across at least the idea that I don't know so very much -- not even exactly what I am.  It conveys the fact that we define ourselves in relation not to ourselves, but to something greater than ourselves. 


Brian Barrington said...

Very nice piece David.

I am myself a Roman Catholic Pagan Atheist Liberal Conservative Irish European Humanist Dubliner.

As the greatest American poet put it “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Brian. Come to think of it, I do see your conservative side.

I didn't know there were any great American poets. I'll google it --Walt Whitman. "Song of Myself." Ouch, that hurts. :- )

Brian Barrington said...

I'm an extremely conservative person in my behaviour, whether in my work-life or family-life. As a rule, I dislike change. Politically, I detest instability or revolution, so all my political views are concerned with preserving stability, particularly the family, which is the basis of society. 

For example, the biggest destroyer of the family over the last few decades has been the rapid disappearance of decent, stable, reliable jobs for working class men due to unrestrained  capitalism. It is hard for most men to be good fathers and husbands if they do not have decent, stable, reliable jobs – and Capitalism has destroyed their jobs. Now the destruction is starting to affect the middle class as well, as decent, reliable, stable jobs increasingly become a thing of the past for ever larger sectors of society, making family life ever more difficult. So true conservatives should be opposed to unrestrained capitalism.

Or to take another example, if I oppose excessive economic inequality, again that is mainly for conservative reasons i.e. excessive wealth inequality leads to societal instability and, in extreme cases, to revolution. That's why true conservatives should be concerned about increasing economic inequality.

In my view, most people who call themselves "conservatives" are not actually conservative, especially when compared to an ultra-conservative like myself.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: Yes, I guess I can see how dancing around pagan shrines can be considered conservative. "Old-time religion," and all.

I agree with some of your goals, but of course completely disagree how to get there, and how we got where we are. It would be graceless to pick a fight with you on that, here, though. As the American election nears, though, no doubt I'll take some shots at the Democrats, and you can explain what poor conservatives we Republicans are.