Celebrating the Temporary, with Imagination

Posted: June 11, 2020 in Uncategorized

Celebrating the Temporary, with Imagination

• Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will drink, what you will wear…
• Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns…
• Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…

Taken literally those words seem to contradict everything we know about good health, after all one does have to take seriously what one eats, drinks and wears otherwise one will probably become unwell at some point. And birds do seem to carry seeds around and propagate many species of plants etc and lastly while it is beneficial to take time out to connect with nature and its beauty, sitting watching flowers grow works only for a while and life is more than time out.

I think that the problem might be about the literal approach to this. Sure, it is the literal descriptions that invite us to engage with the text but it seems we are to then put pictures and shapes and colours to the words so that we can explore the meaning. I think this has something to do with the need for imagination, not the naming of the colours but the putting them together into a story form to provide a deeper and richer meaning. We need to imagine what it could look like to hear the story in our minds eye.

It is said that one of the first contemporary biblical theologians to recognise the importance of imagination and story in the tradition of the Christian faith was American, Amos Wilder. Way back in the 1960s and early 70s, Wilder claimed that Jesus’ speech had the character, not of instruction and ideas, but of compelling imagination (Wilder 1971). He claimed Christianity is a religion of imagination and the oral word. And behind the particular gospel stories and images lie a particular life-experience and a language-shaping faith.

He suggested that Jesus of Nazareth and his first followers broke into the world of speech and writing of their time, with a novel and powerful utterance. So far as we know Jesus never wrote a word, except on that occasion when, in the presence of the woman taken in adultery, ‘he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground’. Of course, he must have known how to write but it is that he preferred conversation and speaking as a way of communicating. In a society growing  from an oral culture conversation would have been the common choice. In secular terms we could say Jesus spoke as the birds sing, oblivious of any concern for transcription or written record. Less romantically we can say that Jesus’ use of the spoken word alone has its own theological significance. This is a crucial point in determining the culture of the time as writing things down has about it a sense of permanence. It presupposes continuity and a future. But the spoken word is temporary. The words are gone as they are spoken. Recording devices did not exists for Jesus. As Wilder said: “Jesus was a voice not a penman, a herald not a scribe” (Wilder 1971:13).

Now tradition has it, that one of the most important pieces of ‘Jesus voice’ is the so-called ‘sermon on the mount’, and the bits and pieces of sayings that the author of Matthew’s gospel puts after this collection, such as today’s sayings:

• Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will drink, what you will wear…
• Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns…
• Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…

Generally speaking, most biblical scholars now-a-days believe there was really no such thing as a ‘sermon’ on the mount. In reality, they say, it was the editorial work of the author of Matthew’s gospel, to place Jesus within the Jewish tradition in general, and as another great teacher like Moses, in particular. However, many of those same scholars reckon that the particular everyday sayings which follow in the next chapter, and make up today’s Lectionary sayings, indicate every possibility that we have before us “the longest connected discourse that can be directly attributed to Jesus” (Funk & Hoover 1993:152).

Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz wrote a book titled The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In in 2019 which reflects the most recent advances in biblical scholarship, seeking to present an understanding of the Bible, God, and Jesus that people can believe in with integrity.

He reminds us as if we needed reminding that in recent decades, the traditional church has experienced significant decline.  He wrote the book because he was concerned about how the Bible, God, and Jesus are presented in the local church.  The book notes that when we read the Bible in a non-literal way, the rich stories and messages of the Bible begin to open up to us in meaningful and personally transformative ways.  The book affirms how viewing the Bible as the inerrant, infallible word of God is simply inadequate to our modern experience.

As an expression of progressive Christianity, the book emphasizes a number of things:

  • We are to not take the Bible literally; rather, read in light of its historical context and mostly as metaphorical narrative.
  • Free God from the bonds of supernatural theism.
  • View Jesus not as divine but as fully human.

He provides the reader with a modern view of the Bible, God, and Jesus that is believable while, at the same time, providing integrity to our beliefs. It also raises the questions surrounding the debate in the time of the Council of Nicea and the claims of Arius we spoke about last week.

So, if we stay with this scholarly suggestion for a moment, we find that the biblical stories frequently have Jesus drawing his figures of speech from the everyday world around him. “The need for food calls the birds to mind, the need for clothing the lilies…” (Funk & Hoover 1993:153).

Plus… as the 1950s Scottish theologian William Barclay helpfully said, Jesus was not advocating a thoughtless, improvident attitude to life, “but was warning against a care-worn, worried, fearful way of living each day” (Millar 2000:175). Beware of a mindless acceptance of the status quo and the insidiousness of negativity and a life driven by fear.

That’s why many of us today claim Jesus was a secular sage (Hunt 2007:6). He made no theological statements. Neither did he set out to establish a new religion. He belonged more to the ‘wisdom’ stream than the ‘priestly’ stream of Judaism.

That said, the particular sayings from our reading do have a particular focus:

  • They are addressed to people who are preoccupied with day-to-day existence, rather than with the broader political situation;
  • They challenge common attitudes towards life, and

and

  • They are exaggerations.

And they do fit with some other sayings also attributed to Jesus.

In another but similar context. Theologian Arthur Dewey says of Jesus’ sayings that they:

  • The sayings dispute the conventional wisdom that says one’s primary concern should be for those within our own social group or clan or family or nationality,
  • The sayings admit there is a degree of alienation in society, be it towards Muslims, gays and lesbians, or so-called illegals/immigrants— the common theme is those who are different whom we or they often turn into ‘the enemy’, In our western world and increasingly around the world we see this alienation being manifest as racism rising its ugly head.
  • The sayings challenge us all to reshape our social categories, especially those of others, formed by our fears and rumors and innuendo.

And when we examine the implications of these sayings and this vision. Arthur Dewey again offers this suggestion: He asks “can you imagine acting differently towards those outside the circle of your people? …not only to re-imagine your response but also to offer your oppressor a chance for a more humane reply” (Dewey 2002:80).

What seems important about all these sayings is, they make it possible for us to see the world,
the everyday world in which we live, not only as it is, but also as it can be. They offer us the chance to re-imagine. To move us to new places. To turn us into new people. And to lure a response from us that will want to do away with that which oppresses, limits, restricts, deprives, and imprisons others.

About five years back Emilie Townes, Professor of African American Religion and Theology, at Yale Divinity School, made a presentation to the ‘Voices of Sophia’ conference of Presbyterian women in the USA… Her oral presentation was shaped around a theme: What will we do with the fullness and incompleteness of who we are?

She didn’t offer a highly academic speech. Neither did she suggest she was talking about what makes any of us, perfect. What she did say was: “I’m talking about what we call in Christian situational ethics, the everydayness of moral acts… It’s what we do every day that shapes us and says more about us than those grand moments of righteous indignation and action” (Townes 006.  www.voicesofsophia.org)

Using ordinary rather than so-called ‘holy’ language, reminiscent of the one we call Jesus, Townes lists her everyday moral acts which her listeners, and now us, and we are invited to identify with:

  • the everydayness of listening closely when folks talk or don’t talk, to hear what they are saying;
  • the everydayness of taking some time, however short or long, to refresh us through prayer or meditation;
  • the everydayness of speaking to folks and actually meaning whatever it is that is coming out of our mouths;
  • the everydayness of being a presence in people’s lives;
  • the everydayness of designing a class session or lecture or reading or writing or thinking;
  • the everydayness of sharing a meal;
  • the everydayness of facing heartache and disappointment
  • the everydayness of joy and laughter;
  • the everydayness of facing people who expect us to lead them somewhere, or at least point them in the right direction and walk with them;
  • the everydayness of blending head and heart;
  • the everydayness of getting up and trying one more time to get our living right.

It is in this everydayness, Townes says, that we are formed. Boundaries and differences are irrelevant. And in the everydayness of the Jesus imagination: love enemies, forgive others, imitate divine tolerance.

As a person born in the 1940s I have to admit to being shaped by the exciting 60s theology when peace movements and alternative movements clashed with a post war suspicion of anything new.. The different seemed off the edge and reckless and sometimes weird. There is however a very important learning that has prepared me for post-modernist thinking and in part it is reflected in a book by Clyde Reid. He wrote a book called Celebrate the Temporary. And it was and is significant because its message continues to interrupt and challenge the mundane and the comfortable and the anxious in our lives.

Reid says:

Celebrate the temporary Don’t wait until tomorrow, live today.- Celebrate the simple things: – enjoy the butterfly,- embrace the snow,- run with the ocean,- delight in the trees or a single lonely flower – Go barefoot in the wet grass – Don’t wait until all the problems are solved or all the bills are paid You will wait forever – Eternity will come and go and you will still be waiting – Live in the now with all its problems and its agonies with its joy and its pain – There is joy and beauty today –  It is temporary – Here now and gone – So celebrate it while you can – Celebrate the temporary  (Reid 1972).

I want to suggest we might get a bit more of a handle on the value of protest about differences that we consider unjust or simply not Christian when we see that protest and apologetic preaching use homiletics (the art of preaching -the art of protest) as their vehicle to reach the public. You will note I am aligning protest with preaching and so calling it an art form too. I have spoken before about the Event as a living describable happening and I want to suggest that the call of God upon our lives, the call Jesus makes in his sayings is a homiletic event, an art form. It is a living unfolding evolving thing, it is an event where certain words are astir with events, are swollen with the possibility of the impossible, are restless with elemental powers, with immemorial powers that make it impossible to forget, with promissory powers that make it impossible to be content with what is present and that long to be brought forth, yearning to be born. These are the stimulants for imagination (that which is not quite there for the senses) it seems. Some of these words are words like “justice” and “democracy,” “gift” and “forgiveness,” “friendship” and “hospitality.”

The power of these words, or rather of the events that are astir in these words, is what “calls” us, solicits us, making our hearts restless like a pregnant deconstructive mother eager to deliver. The power of that call, we might say, is the first yes, a solicitous yes, the yes that calls for confirmation. We in turn confirm, respond, answer. That is the second yes. But let’s be careful here because with all this talk of the stirring of the event it is easy to become stirred with expectations of a controlling power, whereas an event is a more, wispy, and willowy thing, a whisper or a promise, a breath or a spirit, not a mundane force. The event is a stimulant of the imagination. An imagination that is crucial even more so today in this modern world of uncertainty, headless politics and unclear solutions. What might protest, challenge of the status quo, and clarity of thought look like?

How might the Call of Jesus and of God resonate not only with those who believe in God, but especially with those who aren’t quite sure what to make of God, or perhaps don’t believe in God at all?  John D Caputo suggests a few things that might be characteristics of a homiletic of call and response in today’s world, and I want to suggest that a protest is not a proclamation of metaphysical Truth, but rather a communal proclamation of prayer and praise for the advent of the wholly other—which is to say, for the event harboured in the name of God.

We might see here that a homiletic of the event doesn’t preach about God, as if God needs such, but instead preaches after God. Preaching after God can be understood in a variety of ways. At the very least, preaching after God heeds the implications of Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God and offers viable possibilities for preaching in the aftermath of metaphysics, especially for progressives who, “don’t do the supernatural well.”

Instead of viewing the standard postmodern critique of metaphysics (which consists in recognizing our inability to ascertain and/or possess objective Truth) as a threat to homiletics, it is better viewed as a gift to homiletics. From another perspective, to preach after God is to be in pursuit of God, giving voice to a desire beyond desire, and a hope against hope, for the event that is harboured in the name of God (which is a God yet to be as distinguished from a supernatural God of Being or Presence), consisting of proclamations of prayer and praise for the advent of the wholly other.

It is a postmodern remix of a restless heart, which is always, relentlessly, with hopes and sighs too deep for words, with prayers and tears, after God—precisely because life is lived in the wake, in the aftermath, of the unconditional, unnamable, affirmative, infinite call that leaves us hoping, sighing and dreaming, holding on for dear life.

What part does imagination play in all this? Well! As the psalmist writes, “Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing” (Psalm 34). Why? Because, in the words of Richard Kearney, “such desire is not some gaping emptiness or negation . . . but an affirmative ‘yes’ to the summons of a superabundant, impassioned God.” A homiletic of the event is eschatological in the sense that its hunger for God, its desire for God, suggests an “other” that is always “to come,” what eye has not seen and ear has not heard. In Kearney’s language, it can be understood as desire for the God who may be: “This desire beyond desire I call eschatological to the extent that it alludes to an alterity that already summons me yet is not yet, that is already present yet always absent (Philippians 2:12), A Serendipitous Creativity that seeks me is that which is yet still to come, An ‘Almost’ God perhaps?

To summarize then we might end by saying that with the loss of absolutes and the seemingly impossible complexity of life and inauthenticity of the un-ending opportunities and certainties, concreteness and fixed eternal truths, society seems lost, but the challenge I think is that they are lost only without imagination to provide alternatives, and find this hope and faith and trust in a valued place. We need to celebrate the temporary, and… remember the everydayness of the Jesus imagination and his sayings that spoke to people’s situations, his utterances that provided hope such as: love enemies, forgive others, imitate divine tolerance. Amen.

Notes:
Funk, R. W. & R. Hoover. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan, 1993.
Hunt, R. A. E. 2007. “Progressive Christianity: New moves in Christian thinking and practice”. A presentation to Christian Jewish Dialogue ACT, 4 February 2007.
Millar, P. Waymarks. Signposts to Discovering God’s Presence in the World. Norwich. Canterbury Press, 2000.
Reid, C. Celebrate the Temporary. New York. Harper & Row, 1972.
Wilder, A. N. Early Christian Rhetoric. The Language of the Gospel. Cambridge. Harvard University Press, 1971.
Dewey, A. “Jesus as a Peasant Artisan”, in R. W. Hoover (ed). Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

rexae74@gmail.com

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