One of my favorite traditions on New Year’s Eve is to read Dave Barry’s “Year in Review” — not just for comedic value, but for the sake of remembering where we’ve been for the last 12 months. What events changed us? What important things happened that we only gave fleeting attention and should revisit so as not to repeat past mistakes?
What worked and what didn’t?
Despite my narrow perspective as a young, white, gay, married, somewhat liberal (okay, very liberal) Episcopal priest from the West Coast now living in New England, I want you to look back with me on the last 12 months at particular events that pertain to or involve Christianity. This list is by no means comprehensive, and it probably reflects what I read and who I know more than I have yet to consider. Nonetheless, walk with me through 2014 in Christianity, starting with . . .
. . . when after having recently been named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” Pope Francis continued trying to teach Christians how to be Christian. From his humble car, humble dwelling, and humble dress to his humble nature, humble words, and humble pie (I’m guessing), the pope stirred up controversy by speaking about the church’s attitude toward women, “the gays,” and even money . . . as if institutionalized religion had anything to do with “the root of all kinds of evil.”
Pope Francis spoke extensively about the poor, saying that, “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.” Some criticized the pope’s comments, calling him a poor economist . . . I’m guessing they meant that as an insult.
But the pope shocked the world when he officially revealed that he is, in fact, Catholic.
Northeast of the Vatican, a revolution broke out in Ukraine following months of protests. A series of images emerged from the protests, displaying Orthodox priests standing between pro-European Union activists and police. The government had banned prayer in the midst of these protests, but as one of the priests said, “It is illegal. It is immoral. Nobody can forbid people to pray.”
I’m not sure if those priests are just extremely faithful or completely and utterly badass. However badass these Ukrainian priests may be, they are certainly devoted to their faith and to the people.
This does beg the question of what is worth believing — a question that Millennials often answer a little too quickly, as we were reminded of in . . .
. . . when a comparative religions class was tasked with developing its own religion. Students included meditation but left out leadership, kept Eastern spiritual practices but excluded a concept of hell or punishment for not following the prescriptions of the religion.
Citing institutionalized religion’s tendency to be overly judgmental (how stupid), the students remarked that all were welcome to their religion all of the time and could leave whenever with no hard feelings. Of course the students failed to acknowledge the suffering in the world as well as the tendency for things to get messy when people gather into community.
“By ignoring the question of suffering of humanity, and role of religion in addressing that suffering, I am afraid that this new generation is denying itself the opportunity to truly connect not just with the divine, if that’s their thing, but with each other.” Their professor concluded that feel-good religion is no good without the acknowledgment of the suffering in the world.
After all, how can we work toward greater justice without admitting that we all need to work to change things? One idea revealed itself in . . .
. . . when one film suggested that we could flood the entire world and wipe out all of the bad guys. That is exactly what God does in Noah, the Darren Aronofsky film that came out earlier this year starring Russell Crowe as the title character. The book was better, but I did like the guardian rock creatures (even if their rockiness and involvement in the ark isn’t exactly canon). The studio did its due diligence offering a disclaimer to religious people:
“The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.”
I think that some people were upset about how Noah was portrayed in the film — he wasn’t a friendly, older Cabbage Patch doll building a cute little boat for a bunch of clean animals. He was severe, a little crazy, and the boat was gigantic and dirty. Others worried about those rock creatures, but they were so cool. Perhaps a more problematic theme for many of Noah’s critics was the clear message of environmentalism. There are veiled references to fracking and more obvious ones to animal cruelty and overpopulation. It’s almost as if Aronofsky is trying to make us think that the God of creation might care about . . . well . . . creation. That’s crazy talk though.
Speaking of crazy talk, in . . .
. . . Sarah Palin had been pleasantly absent from headlines in 2014 (compared to previous years, that is), but Sister Sarah did step out of her family bar brawls for a few moments to enlighten us all about the redemptive nature of torturing people. Her exact words were,
“Come on! Enemies who would utterly annihilate America! They who’d obviously have information on plots, say to carry out jihad. Oh, but you can’t offend them, can’t make them feel uncomfortable — not even a smidgen. Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”
You may want to pause here, read a book, and restore the brain cells that you just evacuated. Ready? Okay.
The Rev. Winnie Varghese said it best when she called Palin’s use of the term “baptism” in this context “demonic.” Baptism, being the primary sacrament of Christians, an initiation rite for the community, and the acknowledgement that God calls us to holier living than we alone can manage, symbolizes being born anew into “a vision of a Creation that has not fallen” and is “beyond our imagining healing for ourselves and the world.” While “torture is the abuse of a body for the purposes of the torturer . . . We lie to ourselves, collectively, and permit the abuse of human beings, sometimes to the point of death. It is demonic.”
Religious dialogue deserves better secular arenas than Sarah Palin and so many others so often offer, such as in . . .
. . . when we were given hope for conversations that went beyond the norm of “does God exist or not?” or “would Jesus have waterboarded Judas, given the chance?” Bill Nye’s debate with Ken Hamm on evolution versus creationism in February taught us very few new lessons because Ham’s views represent such a minute segment of Christian thought.
When so many Christians are on board with scientific pursuits, theories, and discoveries, don’t you think it would be nice if someone could moderate all of the extremes and stimulate some real conversation between science and religion?
Allow me to introduce Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
Okay, so you’ve heard of him. Well, the host of Cosmos consistently comes under fire from certain Christian circles, but Tyson has actually found a way to demonstrate the ability for science and religion to coexist. That is not to say that most mainline Christians hadn’t already found a way, but our ways weren’t quite so televised.
A recent piece on ThinkProgress cited a Cosmos segment that mentioned Giordano Bruno, a fourteenth-century Dominican friar who claimed that the universe was bigger than our solar system and faced backlash from his contemporary religious authorities. Was Tyson trying to attack religion or was he calling attention to some people’s tiny concepts of God as Bruno had centuries earlier?
Now in . . .
. . . since changing science proves a difficult task, a group of, I’m guessing, city-dwelling, non-white immigrants (?), began the Conservative Bible Project with the hopes of returning the text of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures to its “original,” conservative roots. By extracting all of the liberal stuff, they hope to reveal the “true” word of God.
Are those air quotes big enough? They reported that they will have to remove Jesus altogether if they are to align scripture to their ideology.
Speaking of absurdities, in . . .
. . . out of nowhere a conflict emerged between Israel and Palestine, and the death toll escalated to absurd heights as incomprehensible hatred used incomprehensible amounts of weapons to kill incomprehensible amounts of human beings. Luckily, there are clearly good guys and bad guys in the conflict — it would be terrible for people to publish one-sided opinions too hastily. It would really be bizarre if like-minded Christians argued with one another, from afar, about what the answer is for peace in the Middle East. We do have all the answers.
Not that we shouldn’t dialogue about such conflicts from afar, but let us not forget the domestic concerns of which we can argue, like in . . .
. . . Christians in the United States had more opportunities this year to engage the politics of immigration as a rush of Central American children entered the country. There was, of course, tremendous disagreement about what the government ought to do; however, a few churches revived the Sanctuary Movement by allowing illegal immigrants to use churches as a safe haven, which probably means they had to unlock their doors outside of Sunday.
St. James Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas mobilized to provide food and other goods for those seeking sanctuary, as did others. And while immigration is still a controversial issue, volunteers in churches like St. James demonstrated that caring for our neighbors — even when they are in the country we are in illegally — is a virtuous task.
And speaking of caring for our neighbors, in . . .
. . . Michael Brown had been shot and killed by a police officer a month earlier in Ferguson, Missouri and several other black men were extra-judicially killed, spurring protests all over the country. As a white man, it is better for me to point to black men and women who have written on this and related issues so eloquently. So please read these (and more) articles:
What I Heard in Ferguson, by friend and seminary classmate Broderick Greer, who has grown as an activist and theologian in tremendous ways during seminary and over the last few months. He shall surely lead the church toward participating in God’s mission of justice in the world.
When White Friends don’t believe what blacks go through, they’re not friends, by Mary C. Curtis who reminds us of the truth of her title and reminds me of what it looks like to love someone who has a worldview I don’t fully understand and sometimes haven’t recognized.
Face it, blacks. Michael Brown let you down, by @dexdigi, whose provocative piece reminds us that no one is pure and perfect or a spotless sacrificial lamb . . . and that it shouldn’t matter. If we pretend that it is okay for police to kill some people and not others based on merit, we might as well finally admit all together as a country that we find it more acceptable for violence to happen toward black bodies than it is to white ones.
Some would consider Ferguson to be a topic that does not belong in the pulpit. There are many instances in which I would agree — such tragedy is not merely sermon fodder — yet if we cannot talk about serious issues facing our society in church, where can we?
Speaking of preachers who use serious topics in a sensationalist way in order to gain notoriety, in . . .
. . . Marc Driscoll resigned from Mars Hill Church in Seattle after being accused of plagiarism, bullying, and an unhealthy ego. The several-month investigation turned up even more ammunition against the pastor, whom many love to hate. Read more of that here.
But speaking of implosions, in . . .
. . . a woman snuck into the first ever Muslim prayer service held in the Washington National Cathedral and proceeded to stand up and yell at the Muslims in prayer to “leave our churches alone!” Her humble, and most kind, Christian request was met with the swiftest security escort the cathedral had ever seen. But it’s like Jesus always said, “leave our churches alone you Muslims.”
And speaking of hot messes, in . . .
. . . we continued to ask how it has taken so long for Christianity to accept that women fully possess the ability to be in all levels of leadership in the church. Sure, the Episcopal church has had women priests for a few decades, bishops for a couple, and a female presiding bishop since 2006, but Christianity is how old again? It took all of the “straight,” white, male hot messes who have controlled the institution of the church for nearly 2,000 years to recognize that women can do more in church than sit quietly and submit to their husbands?
The Church of England joined in on the fun in naming the first woman who would become a bishop, the Reverend Libby Lane. I’m sure we all wish her luck as she dons the purple clericals and finds herself surrounded by male bishops . . . seriously . . . pray for Libby. And while you’re talking to God, thank Her for the Christmas present we all received with the rumors of a reprisal of the Vicar of Dibley, featuring the Right Reverend Geraldine Granger. That would be simply magical.
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As we begin the eternal struggle of not writing “2014” on all of our checks, forms, and homework assignments, let us also call to mind where we’ve been and what we need to do to make this a better year for all people.
Whatever your resolutions may be for the new year, let them include some compassion for your fellow humans, some engagement in civic society for the good of the oppressed or neglected, and some cheer for the goodness of creation.
And Happy New Year!