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Monday, January 25, 2010

Let me make this perfectly unclear: the new words of Jesus

Of late, my faith, my pilgrimage, seems to have been taking me in the general direction of creativity and imagination. I am starting to awaken to the realization that much of the journey of faith absolutely must involve imagination. Without it, we dry up. We wither.

Creativity is not the artist’s luxury. Pilgrimage is about movement and courage, but it must also cultivate imagination, stimulate. If a pilgrim of faith only moves, only works, then the aches and pains of the journey become our pre-occupation, and it’s easy to become bitter or to just settle down and take it easy.

In my previous post, I discussed the creative writing class that Tamie and I co-teach. We want to coax and/or challenge our students to break out of conventional language (clichés, vague writing, the received stories about yourself/others/the world). We want them to write something new. We want them to break out of convention: use new words, explore new language, tell a new story. Last week a young woman broke down into tears while I was chatting with her at the end of class. She desperately wants out of her narrative, the story that she always screws things up. The guards comes to take her back to her cage. She has to quickly wipe away her tears.

I want to transition these ideas about imagination into a discussion regarding theology and faith. What happens when the language of theology becomes fossilized? What happens when the language we use to describe faith hardens? It’s like crusty old bread that has lost its soft, moist texture.

Jesus, as it so happens, was the just the sort of chap who used new language and challenged old, prevailing assumptions. (Something about new wineskins for new wine.) Of course he did. We all know this. Yet I am wondering if there isn’t something more fundamental to be learned. Is it Jesus’ message that we should be concerned about? Or should we be imitating Jesus’ approach? Put another way, should we be concerned that we get all of the details correct when it comes to “what-Jesus-taught,” or did Jesus pass on to us a way of being-in-the-world, a way of using new language to break out of the conventional clichés that lock us into cliché lives.

Put another way, in a more universal sense, is spiritual liberation found in repeating, reciting, and reusing the words of old? Or is liberation a freedom to create and imagine new possibilities?

There is an extended passage in the Gospel of John that has many words about words, and words about Jesus’ words, and words about the words that others worded about Jesus’ words. I am thinking specifically about chapter six.

Jesus is drawing crowds.
Jesus tells the crowds that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood.
The crowd responds with a collective “Whoooooah!” “This is a difficult word, who is able to hear it?” (v. 60)
Jesus responds: “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” (v. 63)
Many split the scene. After all, cannibalism ain’t kosher.
Jesus turns to the twelve. His amigos. His homies. “Will you stay or will you go?”
Peter speaks for them all: “You have the words (rhemata) of eternal life” (v. 68)

The crowd responds that Jesus words were “hard/difficult” (skleyros) to understand. Some commentators suggest that the crowd understood Jesus, that is they comprehended him, they just couldn’t accept the word of Jesus. I agree with the commentator (Craig S. Keener) who agrees that the term here generally connotes something that is difficult to accept, “Nevertheless, it was hard to accept because they misunderstood it, as is characteristic of those who hear Jesus without faith…Even his disciples did not always understand initially, but they would in the end because they persevered.” (p. 693)

Jesus was of the tradition of those who throw a monkey wrench into convention language and disrupt our lives when our way of being becomes stale and stagnant. “Jewish sages, like other ancient Mediterranean sages, often spoke in riddles; the historical Jesus, like other Palestinian Jewish sages, employed parables.” (Keener, 692)

Jesus used words to do different kinds of things, to imagine new possibilities. But notice that Jesus forced his audience to engage their hearts/souls/minds to the point that they were baffled. He deliberately convoluted his message. This is very different from much of the contemporary creativity of the techno-savy church crowd. For so many, the lights, the cameras, the sound equipment, and the three point sermons are all meant to be as clear as possible about "the message." But Jesus' point was never primarily to deliver a message. It was to disturb our messages, it was to displace our conventional language so that we are pushed to the breaking point. Once we have come to the end of our selves, once our received paradigms completely fail, that's when we can start to engage our imagination. So much money is being invested to clarify. Jesus came to un-clarify, to challenge all that we thought was clear, and in doing this, Jesus seems to activate something deeper within.

But as I said, it is not in dispute that Jesus broke paradigms with his imaginative use of language. The real question for so many of his 21st century followers is whether his example should be followed. And this is no small question because so much of religion is built on Jesus’ language as the foundation. That is, Jesus’ words are used as the basis for doctrine or for practice, but Jesus’ use of imagination and creativity is often not the basis of faith. Jesus' methods of using language to break paradigms, well, this was just Jesus' crazy way. It was a means to an end. But should it be an end in itself?

Could following Jesus be construed along the lines of following our imagination? Can we hold to the words of Jesus and completely miss the point by failing to engage Jesus’ example of imagination?

Are we to follow the example of Christ and be creators of new language? Like Jesus, to create new language and push ourselves to the brink? Is that why Jesus never wrote his teachings down, because he expected those who came after him to build on his work of creativity? Why does the Gospel of John, in the famous and poetic prologue, allude to Genesis 1 and the creation? The Logos was creating with God in the beginning.

Jesus left the world, when presumably he could have stuck around for a while, but he handed on his work of imagination to his disciples and those who would follow them. Ah, but Jesus did leave a replacement….but a replacement who was even more tricky in her use of language: the paraclete (the comforter, or Holy Ghost), who contorts language even sometimes beyond recognition. The book of Acts describes the Spirit as moving people to speak in languages not their own, the languages of others.

My suggestion here is not that the words of Jesus are unimportant. I am merely speculating that if these words are not combined with imagination, then they can easily become lifeless. What is more, if we look closely we may see that our received interpretation of the words of Jesus, the interpretation handed down to us, may be unimaginative and uninspiring.

What seems to be missing in so much of faith and theology is creativity. We must not merely possess the words of Jesus, we must ignite our imaginative souls. Jesus not only passed along words, he also left us with an example of how to use language in a dynamic way, to retell our worn out stories, to challenge prevailing authorities who use religion and power to oppress, to break out of the conventional clichés that lock us into cliché lives.

“Ye must be born again.”


tamie said...

I really cannot comprehend why people don't comment on posts like this. This is such brilliant, clear, imaginative, intelligent, wise, interesting thinking!

tamie said...

"follow-up comments"

Asheya said...

I want to comment! I just tuned in to your blog this evening, and I will be coming back for more.

I am so into what you are saying in this post. It's like this thought has been lurking back there in my mind, but I could never quite articulate it.

Sometimes I wonder if I should give up on challenging the status quo, because you know, it would be so much easier. But it's felt to me that to be authentically myself that is what I am called to do, and I don't use called lightly. And it's also felt to me that challenging worn ways of thinking is somehow akin to following Jesus, although I have never quite pinpointed it exactly.

Thank you.