Recovering Pietists In Good Company: One of Many Lessons from the U2 Concert

Thanks to my sister and F. Bil (future brother in-law), my wife and I got to go to the U2 concert in Philly on July 14.  I have many thoughts, pictures, and reflections to share, and this post will be the first.

The show was great and, in a good way, exhausting.  There was so much content beyond the music, and I found myself analyzing every bit of video, every factoid on the massive screen before the show, every partnering of song-choice, faith, hope, and activism.  It was really, really great.

I’ll offer the cartoon below as my first bit of commentary.

I feel like I should say more, but I won’t.  We can do that in the comments. Or when I get around to writing about the thin line between (oops, there I go.  I said I wouldn’t say any more!)

The Oldest Injustice

Eugene Cho has a new post up today titled “the oldest injustice in human history is the way we treat women.”   I’m not 100 percent certain that this injustice is older than, say, the way have historically treated disabled people, children, or the elderly, but it must be close.  Certainly, the first time Male Prime treated Female Prime as an inferior, this injustice occurred, and it’s probably safe to assume that act took place before Couple Prime became the Prime Parents or the world’s first elderly people.  I forgot to mention the way we have historically treated other life on earth as a candidate for primeval evil, but you get the idea.

Certainly, the mistreatment of women is one of the longest running forms of human wickedness running through our histories and cultures down into the present.  As we all know too well, religions, even those that sprang from ostensibly egalitarian enterprises like, say, Jesus’ Kingdom of God, have very often codified and sanctified the wholesale marginalization of our sisters.  Christianity, the religion that is nothing if not a collective response to the person and persona of Jesus in history, ought to be a wellspring of egalitarian kerygma and joy.  After all, it was the women, we remember, who first saw the Risen Lord.  It was the women who went on to tell the male disciples.  It was a woman, Lydia, who first embraced the Christian story in continental Europe. It was a woman, favored by God, who bore the child Jesus.

But even now, in 2011, Christianity must contend with Christians. The Catholic Church doesn’t ordain women and doesn’t allow priests to marry, both suggesting a supervaluation of men and of one very narrow interpretation of the Apostle Paul’s disparate charges to disparate ancient churches.  While they all allow clergy to marry, something like 50% of American Protestant denominations bar women from service at the highest levels of authority, leadership, and power.  They do so, at base, from the same limiting hermeneutic keeping women from the Catholic priesthood.

I wrote a piece last month about some of this at The Huffington Post.  It’s a hard thing, isn’t it, being a religious progressive and feeling quite illiberal toward illiberal views?  You know, I used to think so.  With sincere respect to those who disagree with my perspective from a place of good will, I’m just too concerned that too many people arrive at loud, unjust conclusions for reasons that have nothing to do with the hoped-for peaceable kingdom.  I’m too concerned that every nuanced exposition of the subordinate role of women runs contrary to everything that seems plain and clear to me about the Gospel, and, worse, that it in small or big ways baptizes a world culture that continues to oppress women simply because they are not men. I’m too horrified by the rising rates of gay suicide to stomach any more “it’s right there in English” appeals to passages in scripture that, taken on their surface, seem to condemn our homosexual sisters and brothers to the flames of hell.

I don’t think this makes me a bad progressive. I don’t think Tom Paine can be faulted for failing to honor and respect the Townshend Acts in the name of pluralism.  I don’t think the abolitionists and the suffragists were wrongly intolerant of the ill-conceived perspectives and political machines that kept slaves and women down. I don’t think the Civil Rights movement was wrong for failing to appreciate the nuances of a national tradition that stood in fundamental conflict with the nation’s founding promise, and I don’t think progressive Christians are wrong for refusing to let gender inequality stand when it runs so contrary to the ethics of the order Jesus lived and taught us to inherit.

I don’t assume the worst of lay people who disagree with my sexual hermeneutics. I don’t even assume the worst of educated people who don’t share my view (the worst in this case being a conviction that they’re outright bigots), but I do have real problems when pastors, scholars, and people who have been trusted by millions of people to know better do gymnastics not to.  When the spirit of the Gospel is overshadowed but what they want Paul to have meant or in plain, contemporary English, or by what they believe, on some other authority, about what scripture is or isn’t.  When the things Paul said overshadow the things Jesus did, and the things Jesus is doing, there’s problem.

What is Jesus doing?  Only freeing people.  Only inviting them to imagine and inhabit a kingdom where his ethics and the peace of God are one, only calling us to live in that kingdom now, only hoping we abandon every unjust inclination to the vision of a commonweal in and for a world that ought to be scandalized by our excessive generosity and not, as too often is the case, our stingy, meager Gospel, our profound skill at exclusion, our hordes of grace reserved for those already favored by circumstance and by our own worst inclinations.

Sunday Morning Sedona: What Is Sacred Space?

Yesterday, I came across these great shots of The Burren at Vintage Pages. I was reminded of Buzz Aldrin’s description of the “magnificent desolation” he witnessed on the Moon, and of Joan Didion’s essay “At the Dam.” I was also reminded of my own experience in Sedona, Arizona last summer, and I thought I’d share this piece about sacred space, published previously on Huffington. I wrote this months before I’d read Didion’s  fantastic work, but well after I’d heard Aldrin talk about his own.#

What Is Sacred Space?

The Chapel of the Holy Cross rises from a 250-foot abutment in Sedona’s ferric sandstone, a sort of redundant decoration in this part of Arizona where I-17 and the Red Rock Scenic Byway seem to follow God’s own early steps across the Earth. Out here in the desert, among the great open tables of a vast, imposing communion, the idea of sacral man-made space registers in the viscerally absurd, feels essentially and obviously offensive. From the road, the innate need our species has to seek the holy seems corrupted by the building’s hubris, its imperial theology, by the categories and catechisms that value the work of fervent hands above the sublime, enduring witness of 300-million years. As my friend Jeremy and I park our rental car below the chapel’s massive cross, so meager in this scheme of things, we confess our doubts.

We’d set out on a slow course from Phoenix after breakfast. As I-17 wended north and east through desert, brush, and forest, we considered the physical reality of everything we saw in relation to the mountains we know so well back home in Pennsylvania, the trees that cover them, the interloping cities and still-interloping suburbs that never suggest this expanse of material, the planet’s bones, an endless stretch of at-rest atoms testifying for the universe. At home there are no resources unturned; limestone and slate and iron-ore are subdued and spent, the mountains are worn-down by glaciers, time, and strip-mines. I know next to nothing about the natural or industrial history of Arizona, but from the highway I am happy to believe that the stones and dirt and desert floor lie just as they rose from dry seas and tectonics. From the highway, that so much matter rests within my sightline reassures me: reality is big, our theologies are small, we must go about sincerely rendered spiritual pursuits with a humility that mimics in its depth the vastness of creation. We have a truly cosmic space in which to seek and find the holy.

Our first views of the Chapel are from the distance after three hours of roadside spiritual formation. We decide before we ever see it that we’ll have missed nothing if we don’t. We snake through the Red Rock Scenic Byway towards the Chapel’s foot fomenting reservations. Out of the car, where the rocks can hear us, we say we don’t know why people do this and that then again we do. We ascend the looping road to the Chapel’s entrance, hoping to recover the better reasons humans build religious things: from the need to offer, from the need to commemorate the places they encounter God. Still, the red rocks, the desert mountains and Arizona forests, the dirt and stone and binding heat aren’t going anywhere; the massive dome we’re under can’t be soon forgotten. But we move toward the redundant space, moved perhaps by our investment in tradition, by a certain empathy for what William Faulkner’s Jason Compson Sr. calls “that aptitude and eagerness … for complete mystical acceptance of immolated sticks and stones.” In this temple of the open air, we move to see what, if anything, might move us in a church.

From the outside foyer-summit, the vistas are impressive, just as they are from any point for miles. Inside, the central cross doubles as the altar’s focal point through the Chapel’s glass facade. I am struck by the sanctuary’s stark simplicity: the space is small, the stone walls are unadorned save two crafted rugs each depicting a nondescript apostle. The Stations of the Cross are Roman numerals formed from crucifixion-style nails (they look like railroad spikes); the altar’s ornaments are modern lines and shapes, all unassuming. Though the chapel’s founder, Marguerite Bruswig Staude, meant for its contemporary 1950s design to contextualize the liturgy of building in “a monument to faith…a spiritual fortress so charged with God, that it spurs man’s spirit godward,” I am struck by how underwhelming it is in its setting.

From outside, the Chapel of the Holy Cross is vain decoration, but in the sanctuary I am confronted by the futility that the simple space suggests. The immolated sticks and stones remain as meaningless as ever, but they enshrine in Sedona a natural counterpoint to the majesty that dwarfs them. The Chapel is an iconography of resignation, yes, but not of a surrender to despair. The spare walls and rough metal of the church confirm the higher teaching of geology: in the bare face of cosmic bigness, we might celebrate the room our smallness gives to seek. We might be moved by the fleeting crudeness of our best gifts to consider how deep and wide the holy, how ancient our environs, how vast and long the trek of matter into meaning. How blessed we are in smallness, how godward might we move.