Menu

Essay

The following four short sermons were delivered at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, between July 28 and August 2, 2008.

 

All Manner of Travesties: Genesis 4:1-17

The hazards of the creative act are the loam out of which true form emerges. There is no way of achieving true form without opening possibilities of all manner of travesties. For to create is precisely not to control…. “In the beginning, God created….” Rashi says: “This verse is nothing if not mysterious….” “In the beginning” describes not the clarity of origin…but the potentialities of purpose…. There is no foundation; the beginning of a pathway glimmers.
—————————————————-—from The Beginning of Desire, by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

WHEN I WAS TRYING to decide what texts to preach on for the theme of “The Artist and the City,” I thought it would be fitting to look at the story the Bible tells about the founder of urban life, the builder of the first city. At some point it got too late to change my mind—but the story is bleak and bloody. In Cain’s genealogy you get the first mention in the Bible of artists. His descendents make music and sculpture, or, anyway, “play the lyre and the pipe,” forge instruments of bronze and iron. But out of what darkness it all emerges. The life of the city, of culture, is linked to the vitality of a murderer.

The first thing the first humans do, after they’ve been banished from the Garden of Eden, is make a baby. Some translations have Eve yelling, “Look, I have created a man as Yahweh has!” They’re not in Eden anymore, but the prospects seem hopeful: make a nice family life, sit around the fire, hold a baby. But things get all Flannery O’Connor fast. Within about thirty seconds’ reading time, that baby becomes a murderer. The narrative doesn’t pause for even a sentence to celebrate the beauty. The baby is born, it breathes, it kills. This is the story the Bible tells of the first family. Focus on that family.

Part of me wants to say that this story is overly bleak. What people would claim the first ten chapters of Genesis as their sacred narratives? There’s not a lot of time spent on the positive aspects of human civilization, not a lot of gentle loving Buddha light cheerfully radiating from the hearts of shiny men, not a lot of focus on the existential courage of brave and self-actualizing humans. It’s bang bang bang: lies, betrayal, curses, envy, fratricide, giants run amok. Six chapters in, the Lord says that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry he had made man on earth.” So the Lord decides to blot out the whole of the fledgling human race—and the camels and cats, and the turtles and birds, even the birds, the gardens, their songs.

Can you imagine a more beautiful narrative? It seems possible. But sweet, light, unambiguously beautiful ancient narratives about the beginning of time aren’t easy to find. In one version of a Greek myth, the first family is created when a golden egg cracks and Eros emerges. One half of the shell became the sky and the other became the Earth. Eros makes them fall in love. They make babies—one named Cronus, who ends up envying the power of his father, and so cuts off his father’s genitals and spills the resulting blood into the sea, where it turns into several creatures, some of them monsters. After castrating his father, Cronus becomes so afraid that his own children will do the same to him that he begins to swallow all of them whole as soon as they are born.

In a sacred story of the Iroquois, long before the world was created there was an island floating in the sky, where the sky people lived, happily and quietly. No one ever died or was born. No one was ever sad, until one day one of the sky women realizes she is going to give birth to twins. She tells her husband, who flies into a rage. In his rage, he tears up a tree that stood in the middle of the island, creating a huge hole. When his wife bends down to peer through it, he shoves her over the edge. (She ends up being saved by animals, which is cool, and creating North America, but still.)

In a Norse story Odin kills Ymir to create the earth. The city of Rome was founded when the brothers Romulus and Remus fought to the death. Children kill parents. Parents eat children. Siblings are murdered, and thus human culture begins. What rosy loam. Why could we not have begun with more unambiguous beauty?

Maybe there is something risky, even dangerous, or at least uncertain that comes with creating. It opens up the possibility of loss and failure and fear, rivalry and unchecked passion, “all manner of travesty.” As the midrashic genius Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg says, “God didn’t have to create the problematic, volatile beings who will sadden God.” But God does. God “assumes the risks of the live process of creation.”

Cain grows beautiful living things out of the ground, lovingly tends his garden, and offers the beautiful fruit to God. Abel kills animals, uses knives, spills blood, offers dead animals to God. And Abel (the slaughtering brute) is the one who is favored, while Cain is not regarded. This makes Cain angry (and who can blame him; it practically makes me angry). So Cain murders his brother. And the text says that the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive his brother’s blood, will no longer yield to Cain, the cultivator of the soil. So he becomes a wanderer and a fugitive, and then he builds a city. Violence and culture, creation and murder, curse and blessing are intertwined.

In some ways the story is similar to a thousand other stories—dark and bloody. And in some ways it completely and totally and thoroughly messes with the usual formula. In my city, Saint Paul, we venerate Alexander Ramsey, our first governor. We talk about how this great man helped found our beautiful town. We don’t usually talk about how he ordered the extermination of the Sioux. The statue of him in the park doesn’t have blood on its hands.

Nations, civilizations, Harry Potter books, often tell their stories in a way where it’s obvious that the good won. The violence may have been unfortunate, but there was something that clearly needed to be defeated. Cain’s story is not that story. It doesn’t draw clean and obvious lines between the good and the bad, and it doesn’t take the side of some victor—there isn’t one.

Yahweh doesn’t say, “The gods have spoken. Now go build your civilization.” God says to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother? What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” It could have ended there, and it would be a peculiar enough story about a god and the founding of a civilization.

But Yahweh says, Cain, you’ve killed your brother. You’re going to start running now, and hiding, guilty, afraid, ashamed, anxious. You’ll wander from place to place, thing to thing, and never be at peace.

And Cain says, it’s too much for me to bear. I can’t live like that. I’ll die. You’d think God might say, sorry, brother, you brought it on yourself; you’ve got to face it like a man; you get what you deserve. Instead, God takes Cain’s head in his hands and places his finger on Cain’s forehead and marks him, and he says, “Not so.”

God doesn’t see to it that Abel is avenged. He marks the murderer with a mark to protect him, so that he might go on living—producing the generations who play the lyre and work the bronze. Cain can’t see the mark. He doesn’t know what it means. Maybe doesn’t even want it. Maybe he believes it’s useless and doesn’t pay any attention to it. But he’s always running, tottering, wandering, with that mark on his forehead. God’s got his back. God keeps him alive, saves him over and over.

Cain is a rivalrous murderer. He shed innocent blood. He killed his brother. That’s the human story. And God kneels down before Cain, takes his finger and marks his forehead, saying, “You are marked by God’s grace as God’s own child forever.”

That is an outlandish sacred narrative.

This isn’t a story where the good man wins, where good defeats evil. It isn’t a story about the triumph of beauty. It’s a story where grace almost offensively covers the dark and bloody, entangles itself in the tangle, the horrible and beautiful mess. As Zornberg says, “It is this frame, of contingency and passion, that God chooses to inhabit.”

 

§

Freeing the Captives: Genesis 11:1-9

Is it not late? A late time to be living? Are not our generations the crucial ones? For we have changed the world. Are not our heightened times the important ones? For we have nuclear bombs. Are we not especially significant because our century is?—our century and its unique Holocaust, its refugee populations, its serial totalitarian exterminations; our century and its antibiotics, silicon chips, men on the moon, and spliced genes? No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other.
—————————————————-—from For the Time Being, by Annie Dillard

I MAY HAVE more DNA in common with a sloth than a CEO. Or it may have to do with my thyroid. It’s sluggish. Or maybe I’m just more of a meandering type than a constructive type, but, if I had been out there on the plain and people started saying, “Hey, let’s make bricks and build a tower and make a name for ourselves,” I can imagine thinking: No, I don’t want to make bricks—squaring off rigid shapes, rock hard, fastening them together with mortar to build some unshakable edifice.

Why is it public square anyway? I don’t want to build a tower. I like my name. How about let’s have a leisurely breakfast, lie in the grass and read, and then maybe take a walk. A let-the-day-take-you-where-it-takes-you sort of a thing. Culture is a process, a way of life. T.J. Gorringe, in his book Furthering Humanity, says, “Culture is the name of that whole process in the course of which God does what it takes to make, and to keep, human beings human.” My process is often slow. This isn’t a virtue, it’s metabolism, but I can imagine (who couldn’t?) that there have been days, are days, maybe these days, when the propulsion toward infinite growth and greater heights and big names ceases to nourish life.

The story says that the men arrived at the plain and said to one another, “Let’s make bricks and burn them hard, and build a big tall tower, and make a name for ourselves.” It doesn’t mention the women. Harold Bloom imagines that the writer of this story is a woman. He writes, “When script becomes Scripture, reading is numbed by taboo and inhibition.” Some imagination “is necessary if we are to be stirred out of our numbness.” Well, imagine a witty Hebrew prophetess—with bright eyes and a big brain and a sense of humor—observing peoples’ activities and writing this story: about the construction of an enormous phallic symbol, the tower of Babel, and the ultimate futility of the project. Maybe she’s birthed life from her body—moving, living, flexible, blood and flesh—feeding, nursing, smelling, naming other living beings. The men say, let’s make a tower, and this woman writes a story—a story that’s a bit wry, perhaps, and tragic.

There’s a lot of playing around with the word bound in Genesis: the snake is cursed to be bound to the ground. The people on the plain are bound to build the tower. It’s not out of freedom. They are bound—seeking fame, a name, importance—to futilely build structures out of dirt and slime. Some translations say they took brick for stone and slime for mortar. An empire built from dust and slime: think Enron, the military industrial complex, the capitalist entertainment empire.

The ancient midrash says that the tower project was so enormous that six hundred thousand people labored for forty-three years to build it. It describes the tower as being so high that it took an entire year to carry the bricks from the ground to the top. The project became so consuming that if a person fell off the tower, nobody noticed much, but if even a single brick fell and was smashed, the people would stop and sit and cry and mourn, “Woe unto us, for when will another brick be brought up in its place?”

Kafka is often called the modern heir to this story; he writes about a certain cultural tendency towards futile, hollow enterprise. Humans trapped and alienated in a suffocating labyrinth constructed from the bricks of a rapacious promethean project. In Kafka’s parable The Great Wall and the Tower of Babel, generation after generation of people works on the tower, and nothing changes. Humanity isn’t furthered, people aren’t happy, the project doesn’t solve any significant problems like world hunger or violence, but even when people recognize the futility, everybody is so deeply embedded in the project that they can’t leave.

Kafka describes legends and songs that came to birth in the tower, all filled with longing for a day when the tower would be destroyed—by five successive blows from a gigantic fist. I can see how that would work. Five successive blows from a gigantic fist would crush Wal-Mart, Target, disaster capitalism. But I hope for artistry, a creative voice, a revelation or revolution that opens less violently, more playfully, for the possibility for us to be more fully human.

At the end of the story in the Bible, God comes down not like a gigantic fist, not at all. According to the text, God says, “Let us go down,” which sounds friendly and chatty and polite. It sounds light and untyrannical. God says, “Look what they’re up to now,” and God wanders around among them and messes them up, not like a fist, but more like a mischief-maker.

God says to Godself, maybe one language, having few words, bricks and mortar, the promethean project—maybe all this is not going to be good for anyone. So God confuses their tongues and scatters them all over the face of the earth. Some, God tosses to Tahiti, where they make huts and rum drinks. Some, God tosses to China, where they paint the most beautiful characters in any alphabet in any language. Some go to the Arctic and build igloos and speak Inuit and hunt caribou and teach dogs to pull sleds. Some become wanderers, stringing beads or tending sheep. Maybe there’s a block-hard, inhuman tyranny, conformity, oppression, in having one language and few words, in the manufactured program. So God scatters them.

Another way to think of scatter, another translation, is to unbind. God pries them loose from the tower to which they were bound. God frees them. He lets them loose. And they quit building the tower. They all drop the bricks and dump the buckets of mortar over and imagine what else they can do.

This story is a lot like the story in Acts about Pentecost—where the spirit comes down and blows around and everyone starts speaking in different tongues. The speech is confused, the vocabulary is unlimited, but it’s not a curse—it’s the beginning of the church.

Our presence here, this incredibly diverse, prolific community we’re creating, is a witness to our freedom. Thanks be to God.

§

From Whose Womb: Job 38:25-41

There He gave me His breast;
There He taught me a sweet and living knowledge;
And I gave myself to Him,
Keeping nothing back;
There I promised to be His bride.
Now I occupy my soul
And all my energy in His service:
I no longer tend the herd,
Nor have I any other work
Now that my every act is love.
——————John of the Cross

IT’S A FAIRLY WILD or brave or vulnerable thing to confess to believing in a God that you can’t rationally comprehend, a God that is beyond understanding. The writers of the Bible seem to be quite aware of the insufficiency of the words available to speak of him/her/it, though they give it a good go: the lion, the rock, the womb, the fire, the breasted-one, a wrestler, an imp, loving, angry, merciful, powerful, pliable. If you begin to settle too comfortably into a limited vision, a neat definition of this God, the Bible keeps throwing little bombs to explode, or expand, or blow your head off, to blow away whatever you think you’re grasping: Molotov cocktails like the incarnation, the resurrection, the Book of Job.

We often want to tame the inapprehensible. What we don’t know and can’t control can seem frightening. So a lot of creation myths begin with a taming scenario: there’s a raging chaos monster out there that a deity defeats to create the world and make order. For things to run smoothly, people just need to line up behind the Great Orderer, follow the rules, do the yearly Tiamat dance, perform the harvest ritual, practice some agreed upon piety, to keep chaos at bay.

Job, sitting naked on a dung heap scratching his loathsome sores with a piece of pottery, followed all the rules. And it kept nothing at bay. He rages and roars and bleeds and he quits believing in the soothing structure of a well-ordered universe. He insists that God is not that.

His friends think he’s blaspheming, and they start taunting him: “Good luck, you with all your disbelief, your insulting and forsaking of our God. Go ahead and call out to your crazy God and see if anyone will answer you. You don’t believe in the Divine Order, man? You’re so screwed.”

And just about then in the story God answers Job (if you can call it an answer) out of a whirlwind. It’s almost too obvious—not the tamer, but the twister. And you should read what the whirlwind says. The Genesis account of creation offers the notion that God is the father, the administrator, the chief executive of the system that orders the world to go and do likewise. But God’s going to try explaining it a little differently this time.

In Genesis, God speaks and the world is. It’s rational and not all that messy. In Job, the images are of God giving birth to life. In the poem out of the whirlwind, God doesn’t order chaos; the sea bursts forth from God’s womb, as if God groaned and bled and birthed the world, life, weird and wild and jubilant, raucous and diverse and chaotic—ostriches and wild goats and mountain lions and bad storms and dark nights. God frees the wild asses and feeds the carnivorous beasts, provides prey for the hawk whose “young ones suck up blood.”

In this poem, God doesn’t defeat Leviathan, the sea monster of chaos who breathes fire, or Behemoth, the land monster whose bones are tubes of bronze. God speaks adoringly, for quite a long time, about Leviathan’s chest and feet and skin and teeth, about Behemoth’s belly and bones and mouth.

God seems to say, the wild and the ugly and the profane don’t threaten me. I gave birth to them all—grizzly bears, Sasquatch, Warhol, Walt Disney, Bill Clinton, George Bush. It’s a bit much, really.

The whirlwind doesn’t speak of subduing, censoring, vanquishing, or cleaning up. It asks, “Have you walked in the recesses of the deep?” God is not roping in or caging up. God is enumerating the marvels of the snorting horse who with rage swallows the ground and the wild beasts at play. The sea is the archetypal symbol of the forces that threaten humanity. In this poem, God makes garments for it, clothes it, swaddles it like a baby. God goes on and on about all the bizarre life on the planet, muscles and hoarfrost, as if God loves it, likes it even. All of it. God cares for it, everything sick and ugly, sweet and mean. It’s as if everything, absolutely everything, is lying on God’s stomach, sucking from God’s breast. God isn’t slaying any part of creation, here. God gave birth to it, and God is seeing to its upbringing. It may be a long process, but God is adamantly loving the world into full being.

In Job’s despair, he wishes he had never been born. He wants to see nothing at all, to shut the doors. God says, no, look at it, look at all this life, not like a strict moralist, a rational judge, a systems administrator, an objective observer; look at it like a mother would, groaning, birthing, holding, nursing, swaddling, changing the diapers, screaming at, caring for, feeding, reveling in the beauty of her creation. The poem gets you wondering: if it’s God who sets the wild ass free, who are we to try to tame it, cage it, or clean it up so we can take it to church.

I think that if I believe in anything, I believe in trusting God, the creator of life (not that I always manage to live in the trust). It’s a risk, a leap, to trust in the incomprehensible creator of life. Or, at least, it’s probably a lot different than having clarity on issues of faith and morality.

I don’t know if I believe John of the Cross when he says, “Now my every act is love,” but I believe that is what God draws us to. And the breadth of God’s love is startling. It’s unimaginably, thoroughly relaxed and indiscriminate, if we could just drink.

In the church we say that God gave up power and overcame distance by becoming human, on the streets, with the smokers and the drinkers, the sex industry workers and the hypocrites. We say that God became human and died, groaning and bleeding (again), for the life of the world God birthed, all that strange and outrageous and chaotic life. This might not make sense, but I believe it does make love.

Faith in the God of life isn’t a way out of the wild and profane, scary and inscrutable. It’s a way in, into the depths, where there might be spiders and broken glass and decay and rage and fur and feathers, trash and dirt and the love of God.

 

§

 

Life in Body: John 20:19-29

 

We are born between the urine and the feces,
Augustine says, and so was Christ, if there was a Christ,
skidding into this world as we do
on a tide of blood and urine.
—————————Andrew Hudgins, from “Piss Christ”

THERE COULD HARDLY be anything more shocking than the doctrine of the incarnation. It’s as if Christianity built in this irreverence: the divine, the holy, the inexhaustible had nostrils, an anal cavity. It seems like something teenage boys would make up, some blasphemy—the inexhaustible woke up with crust in his eyes, took a shit, got food stuck between his teeth, peed off balconies. This is the crux of the faith, near profanity by some counts, if you speak honestly of its details.

God (the divine, the holy, the infinite) takes on human form to pursue us, to reveal to us—is there another artist who could be so bold, so intrepid, so audacious? Display your urine or your menstrual blood, but you cannot match the Divine’s brazen, eager, zealous immodesty, excessively ardent in pursuit of us, his beloved.

The tendency to be scandalized by the body—to loathe its sweat, its un-taut skin, its secretions, its bulges, its inevitable degeneration—is clearly not particular to Christian culture, but it’s most surprising and disappointing to find it so often there. As John Updike wrote, “Make no mistake: if He rose at all it was as His body…. It was as His Flesh.” You might think the resurrection would be the place where at last the story would turn, would celebrate the soul freed from its imprisonment in gross matter, but somehow, relentlessly, embarrassingly, the gospel presses on: if he rose at all it was as his body. We have a radically, scandalously embodied faith.

From moment one of creation, it would seem from the stories in the Judeo-Christian scripture, God has an amazingly intimate relationship with our bodies. God puts God’s hands in the dirt and mud and forms a human—rolls it, shapes it, maybe wetting the clay with spit to sculpt the finer details, to mold the lips and form the toes. And then God puts God’s mouth up against the nostrils of the creature and breathes life into it. Life.

Reading the Bible—Exodus, Ezekiel, the Psalms, the Gospels, Peter and Paul, you get the feeling that the writers have heard or felt the stirrings of some sort of stunning, irrepressible, unutterable life, and they write, it seems, that others might taste it. And though occasionally Peter or Paul will write in terms that might get us thinking of disembodied souls (imperishable, undefiled, unfading), the bodily resurrection of Christ is always at the center of their excitement, their hope. The life that has them all worked up is not liverless, pulseless, heartless—it bled and breathed.

This life eternal, unending, may be unlike what we’re familiar with (what we’re familiar with being mostly half life, life colored by death and all sorts of deathliness), but, whatever the life is, it is life in the body. The Gospel of John talks about the life in terms of food and water, hunger and thirst and being born (again).

In one of his last appearances in the book, Jesus breathes on his disciples. He breathes hot moist vapor, trace gases, ammonia, acetone, methanol, into their mouths, over their tongues, through the gullet, windpipe, lungs, diaphragm. He has been dead for two days. Maybe you can’t see breath, but you can smell it, and without it you are not alive.

Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, “Receive the holy spirit.” Take it. Into your nose. When the disciples tell Thomas they’ve seen Jesus, Thomas infamously replies, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Occasionally the church has been outraged by Thomas’s request. What? He wants something he can touch, something he can feel with his hands? Shame on you, Thomas, doubter.

But if the church has slapped his hands and called him names for this, for his desire, his need for the tangible, physical—Jesus, for this, gives himself to be felt. Jesus looks for Thomas, finds him and says, “Put your finger here, and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” It’s such a nice invitation. Jesus doesn’t reprimand Thomas for wanting something palpable. He says, “Bring your hand and thrust it into my side.”

There’s something incredibly vulnerable about this story from both sides: what Thomas needs and what Jesus is willing to give to be known. Jesus gives his breath and gives his body to be felt. This is something of a different nature than giving his disciples a logical and coherent belief system to help them order their lives.

Scripture is fairly insistent that without God we have no life. And our relationship with God is not like some sort of anti-matter platonic dream; it has to do with waking up and needing food and breathing. God gives us life in our bodies. If the spirit lives, it lives in our bodies, in our hands and words, in our gullets, our throat. Our relationship with God from moment one is as embodied beings.

Faith isn’t a system or a rational assent to a historical fact. It isn’t a decision, or about adhering to an ethical standard. It is more of a recognition or awareness or belief or gratitude that our relationship with God is what gives us life—like eating and seeing and sensing and breathing, in our making and sculpting and painting and singing.

What if Christ lives in us, in the world—not barely, not like an idea or a metaphor, but like breath. What if the love and the grace of God is something that is radically present to all our senses. Maybe not as present to our rational minds, and yet all the time keeping us alive—as Jean-Luc Marion suggests, a presence so enormous, so permeating, so thorough, that it’s often mistaken somehow for absence.

The resurrection is less the founding narrative of a religion than the breaking through into our world of “the utterly vivacious,” “the ineffably effervescent,” “the entirely deathless” life, as James Alison says, breaking in, “that we might believe in the utter vivacity of God, and thus begin to live, ourselves, outside the dominion of death,” outside the restrictive, narrow, suffocating bounds of death and all the death-like encumbrances, as if our only work was to love.

God is not merely in the sacrosanct, the holy, the faithful, but in the lungs, the pulse, the touch, the tongue.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Access one piece of artwork every month for free! To experience the full archive, log in or subscribe.

Related Essays

How the Light Gets In

By

Chris Hoke

image of bare trees in front of a creek partially covered in snow.

In Nomine

By

A.G. Harmon

What Now?

By

Scott Cairns

A Disbeliever in Limbo

By

Rochelle Hurt

Pin It on Pinterest