The Dejected Landscape Consorts Well with Our Shame and Bitterness

The world is not as it should be. Advent is the season for marking hope, but it is a specific hope. It is the hope that in the coming of Christ we may experience God’s peace—a peace which passes all understanding. Our piecemeal peace falls short. God’s shalom is different than these tenuous ceasefires. It is the experience of relational, spiritual, emotional, and cosmic wholeness. In God’s shalom everything is the way that it was meant to be, there is no lack, there is no anguish, there are none of the conflicts we find ourselves mired in. 

Denise Levertov’s poem In California During the Gulf War describes a world deciding not at peace. Blight-killed eucalyptus, trees and bushes rusted by Christmas frost, hills exhausted by a five-year-drought—even the promise of certain airy white blossoms inspire no hope—the dejected landscape consorts with us in our shame in bitterness:

Among the blight-killed eucalypts, among
trees and bushes rusted by Christmas frosts,
the yards and hillsides exhausted by five years of drought,

certain airy white blossoms punctually
reappeared, and dense clusters of pale pink, dark pink–
a delicate abundance. They seemed

like guests arriving joyfully on the accustomed
festival day, unaware of the year’s events, not perceiving
the sackcloth others were wearing.

To some of us, the dejected landscape consorted well
with our shame and bitterness. Skies ever-blue,
daily sunshine, disgusted us like smile-buttons.

Yet the blossoms, clinging to thin branches
more lightly than birds alert for flight,
lifted the sunken heart

even against its will.
But not
as symbols of hope: they were flimsy
as our resistance to the crimes committed

–again, again–in our name; and yes, they return,
year after year, and yes, they briefly shone with serene joy
over against the dark glare

of evil days. They are, and their presence
is quietness ineffable–and the bombings are, were,
no doubt will be; that quiet, that huge cacophony

simultaneous. No promise was being accorded, the blossoms
were not doves, there was no rainbow. And when it was claimed
the war had ended, it had not ended.

The first Gulf War was a popular war in the US, in part because of its perceived justness—Iraq had aggressively invaded Kuwait—and partly because of its brevity. Officially it lasted only 5 weeks from January 17, 1991 -February 28, 1991. American soldiers had few casualties and most of the Patriots that entered Kuwait and Iraq for the duration of the fighting were missiles.  By late February, the Iraqi military was desperately surrendering to news crews. 

I was also in California during the Gulf War, at least the start of it. I was a sophomore in high school.  My mother, an artist, and musician was invited to the NAAM Convention at the Anaheim Convention Center. She was representing  Baldwin, there to demonstrate their latest electric organ. As a teenager and budding guitarist, I spent the entire convention on the hunt for celebrity autographs and free guitar picks. We were aware of Operation Desert Storm from watching the evening news in our hotel room. It was an anxious time. War and the threat of war are never fun. But the mood inside the convention center was not dampened. Everyone was clamoring to see the latest keyboard, effects pedal, and sound system, and play new model guitars, unaffected by the bombs being dropped half a world away. 

On Sunday, my dad and I went to church at the Crystal Cathedral, the set of Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power, a weekly telecast of positive preaching which aired every Sunday morning. I am not sure if the camera panned to where my dad and I sat that day. I may have been on TV, if only briefly. 

Schuller’s sermon centered on how George W. Bush called and talked to him before declaring war on Iraq and how we should support him. Flags were waved and we prayed for our country. ‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land. God bless the USA.

Levertov’s poem proved prescient. When it was claimed the war had ended, it had not ended. This was only just another episode of violence between the US and the Gulf region. In the next decades there would be an Iraqi assassination attempt on former president Bush’s life (41), Bombing of the region by every US president, Sept. 11 and the Second Gulf War, the Hunt for Weapons of Mass Destruction, ISIS, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Saudi War in Yemen and tomorrow, who knows. No promise was being accorded, the blossoms were not doves, there was no rainbow. And when it was claimed the war had ended, it had not ended.

It’s 2018. There is more drought and exhausted hillsides, and the blight still kills eucalyptus in California, despite certain white blossoms and the distraction of celebrity sightings. We are a world not at peace. 

Even so, come Lord Jesus. 

Hope for a Post-Hope and Change America: a book review

Reclaiming Hope by Michael Wear tells the story of faith in the Obama administration. Before he turned twenty-one in 2008, Wear was already a White House staffer, appointed by the president to the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships as one of the youngest WH staffers in the modern American political era. He had previously worked with Barak Obama’s election campaign and he would go on to direct faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

240_360_book-2109-coverGiven this bio, Wear is obviously sympathetic to Obama and his legacy; however what he offers here is both sympathetic and critical. He describes Obama (and his own efforts) to intersect with people of faith and address their concerns, and the places where he felt Obama had failed to build bridges to religious communities. His book is part memoir, part political analysis with some theological musings thrown in for good measure.

The first five chapters of Reclaiming Hope, are autobiography. Wear describes his improbable journey to the White House, meeting Obama and working on the campaigns and in the White House. Despite Obama’s Christianity and his respect for people of faith, faith was of secondary importance to the administration. Many of Wear’s colleagues were ignorant of faith concerns, and occasionally antagonistic to religious concerns. This biography section gives an insider look at a few places where Obama wrestled with religion in the public sphere (i.e. his distancing himself from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, his meeting with evangelical leaders, his appointment of Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration, etc).

The next three chapters discuss in greater detail how the Obama administration addressed (or didn’t address) the concerns of people of faith. In chapter six, he discusses abortion. While Obama and the Democratic Party are officially pro-choice, the policies that Obama promoted during his administration were aimed at reducing the overall number of abortions. The number of abortions decreased, during his tenure they were at their lowest in years with a higher number of adoptions. Nevertheless, Obama’s abortion policies were not well received by those on the Religious Right, and weren’t adequately Pro-Choice for some on the left. Chapter seven examines the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act and the tone-deaf way the administration responded to Christian’s who felt their religious freedom was being infringed on.Chapter eight describes Obama’s evolution on same-sex marriage, which put him more and more at loggerheads with traditional, religious folk.

Chapter seven examines the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act and the tone-deaf way the administration responded to Christian’s who felt their religious freedom was being infringed on.Chapter eight describes Obama’s evolution on same-sex marriage, which put him more and more at loggerheads with traditional, religious folk.

In chapter ten, Wear describes the second inauguration. In contrast to the first inauguration, the evangelical pastor Obama had asked to pray (in this case Louie Giglio) was vehemently opposed because of a twenty-year-old sermon against homosexuality. In his first inauguration both Rick Warren, a conservative evangelical megachurch pastor, and the first openly gay Episcopal  bishop, Gene Robinson prayed—a testimony to Obama’s ‘big-tent,’ inclusive approach to religion. At his second inauguration, the lines between Right and Left had hardened.

Wear’s final two chapters wax theological on the meaning of hope, not in the political sloganeering sense, but in the Christian sense. Politicians offer a piecemeal  and little hope, but Christian hope is Jesus—our hope for today and evermore. Wear closes with thoughts on how Christian’s ought to engage the political landscape, bringing hope to realms of religious freedom and race relations.

I appreciate the insider perspective Wear brings to faith and politics in the Obama era. He reflects on the places where he feels like Obama was true to his vision, and the places where he dropped the ball.  Wear strikes a nice balance between narrative and analysis. I also appreciate the insight he brings as a person of faith from the left side aisle. If Christianity gets coopted by the Right, the Left is often ignorant of the Bible and Jesus. That brings a unique sense of challenges.

This is an interesting read for anyone interested in faith and politics (something we won’t get away from in the Trump era). The hope for America and the world is not this president or the last one. Or the next. It is Jesus, hope of the nations and change we can believe in. I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for my honest review.

Lessons From a Bad Dad: Hosea 1

There are bad dads and then there are bad dads. Some fathers subject their kids to cruel disciplines to teach them a lesson. Hosea was cruel to his kids to teach his country a lesson. He named his kids awful things, so his country would know how bad things had gotten. He was a very bad dad. Okay, so God was the one who told Hosea what to name his kids, but this fact makes me glad I am neither a prophet or the son of a prophet. If you don’t know the story, here are the details from Hosea 1:

When God first spoke to Hosea, he told him to find a prostitute for a wife (more about this in a later post). He married Gomer, daughter of Diblaim and together they had three children. The first was a son. Hosea called him Jezreel and God’s behest. The name was a double entendre. It referenced the valley of Jezreel, the place where Jeroboam II’s great grandfather, Jehu, deposed the previous royal family, the house of Omri. Evil queen Jezebel’s body was torn to shreds by dogs at Jezreel, the king and the rest of the family were massacred,  just as the prophet Elijah foretold (2 Kings 9). This was God’s judgement on Israel’s kings for leading the Israelites into Baal worship. When Hosea named his son Jezreel, he was warning Jeroboam. A similar judgement would await him if he and his family didn’t repent of their own idolatry and wicked dealings. The name Jezreel also means YHWH scatters (or sows). It foretold future judgment—a nation scattered to the wind and carried into exile by the Assyrian army.

The next time Gomer got pregnant, she gave birth to a bouncing baby girl. God told Hosea to name her Lo-Ruhamah, meaning Not-Shown-Mercy or Unloved. Knowing Gomer’s history, Hosea’s friends may have wondered if the name indicated the child was not really his; yet the reason for the name Lo-Ruhamah wasn’t personal but theological. The Lord would “no longer show mercy on Israel or forgive them.” The child, in name, became the embodiment of Israel’s broken relationship with God. When Gomer weaned her daughter, she became pregnant again with another boy. Hosea called him, “Lo-Ammi”—Not my people. So, Hosea named his kids after a national Massacre (like calling your first born Wounded Knee), Unloved and Not Mine!

I don’t know how Hosea’s kids turned out, but eventually these younger two get a name upgrade: “Say to your brother, Ammi, and to your sister, Ruhamah”(Ho 2:1, NRSV), meaning ‘my people’ and ‘loved one.’ The older son, Jezreel hears how his name, YHWH sows, will come to describe God himself re-sowing Israel.   The scattered will be gathered, the unloved will be shown mercy and will be valued, a rejected people will find themselves back in their Lord’s embrace.

Still, Hosea and Gomer’s three children spent the first several years of their lives enduring constant negative messaging from their father (and Heavenly Father?). This is significant time for early childhood development. Healthy attachment sets children on the path toward future success. Did Massacre, Unloved and Not Mine experience the love of their parents? Did Hosea hug and nurture his sons and whisper to them how much he loved them? Did he tell his little girl she could become anything she wanted to be? Did he swell with pride at every developmental milestone? And smile as they mispronounced words and laugh at their nonsense rhymes? When his children grew, did they feel their father understood and respected them? Did Hosea’s stern demeanor soften as he aged? Or did his prophetic austerity make him always enigma to them?

We don’t have enough information to know what kind of father Hosea really was. We only know he named his kids horrid things as an object lesson (I’ve been a pastor and I know how easy it is to carelessly turn your kids into object lessons).  My guess was he really was a bad dad, the way we all were when we first became fathers. He, like us, was human, and thus a mess of contradictions. Thankfully the final word Hosea hears God declare over his children speak of restoration, hope, return, renewal, love, life.

Hosea’s names for his kids shock us today.  I don’t think the names were any less of a shock in his own time. Hosea wanted to make vivid for his compatriots the reality of God’s judgement and their brokenness and alienation from God. Does Hosea’s kids’ names make vivid our own sins too? Will it shake us to repentance? Can we learn from this bad dad?

What is our Jezreel? In what ways do our leaders repeat sin and unhealthy patterns of the past?  Manifest Destiny and the American Militarism? The idolatry of consumerism? How are we cut off from God’s mercy? How do we fail to trust God, and continually reject Him by our actions? In what ways are we not God’s people?

American Civil Religion: a book review

American Civil Religion is not Christianity, nor is it any of the great world religions. The term ‘civil religion’ describes the way politicians use religious imagery and  myth toward nationalistic ends. It denotes the way national symbols and political rhetoric comes to take on  religious characteristics.  Gary Laderman writes:

Americans live by common myths, or sacred stories that express the ideals and fears, moral imperatives, and shared themes that make sense of the world and orient the American nation in a larger, cosmic sense of providence, destiny, and God’s designs. It is in this combination of myths, rituals, morality, God, and meaning that religious nationalism assumes form and acquires content as a religious culture generally under the public radar, but certainly a prime driver in American politics.(19)

American Civil Religion by Gary Laderman

Laderman is professor of American Religious History and Cultures at Emory University and a deft guide through the pseudo-religious landscape of American civil religion. His new E-Textbook from Fortress Press,  American Civil Religion  examines the intersection of religion, politics and culture. The e-book structure allows him to include images, link to relevant online media sources (i.e. YouTube) to present a text that is as dynamic as it is informative.

Laderman begins each of the three sections of this book with a case study from American history which explores a particular theme. In part one of this book he examines the past and present of civil religion in America. His ‘case study’ is the flag-waving after September 11th.  Citing Robert Bellah, he argues that in times of social crisis Americans ‘find solace in their sacred status (29).’  The flag becomes a sacred symbol because of the ritiuals surrounding it which point to shared identity and transcendence.  The American brand of ‘civil religion’ owes much to its protestant and Puritan heritage which affirmed the absolute transcendence of God and his involve in political affairs.  This heritage, combined with the Deism of the founding of America also left an indelible mark  giving Americans sacred principles to rally around (connecting God and national destiny, self-determination, religious freedom).

In part two Laderman describes how war and violence are sacramentalized by the body politic. The civil war is his case study and a prime example of how ‘sacrifice for the union’ took on a spiritual dimension.  The death of Abraham Lincoln became a symbol of unity for the Union and the ritual surrounding his travelling embalmed body brought cohesion to a nation in need of healing. Certainly the civil war was not the only example of this: wars and rumors of wars abound in American history. Laderman examines a number of moments of crisis in American history where the rhetoric surrounding the death of soliders takes on a religious/transcendent dimension. Presidents from both sides of the aisle use religious imagery to justify wars and honor the dead.

Part three describes how the political leaders make use of sacred symbols in pop culture. Laderman’s case study is Ronald Reagan’s attempt to co-opt Springsteen’s Born in the USA. However  Reagan is not the only president to take hold of cultural images. Other presidents have made use of the media and new technologies to serve their ends  (From FDR’s Fireside chats to Obama’s YouTube channel and beyond). In the last chapter Laderman discusses the plurality of “American Civil Religions” as each religion (Christianity in Protestant and Catholic varieties, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism  etc) is  used to serve national and cultural ends.

This is a meaty little book (93 pages with pictures). It offers an astute analysis of the religious character of American culture and institutions.  Laderman is a historian and the chief value of this book is the way he illustrates ‘civil religion’ with examples from our history.  If you are looking for a book which examines how religious metaphor has been co-opted in the American context, this book provides an insightful analysis. Laderman stops short of telling readers what their response should be to these trends. Clearly sometimes the religious dimension to American public life has served some good. However, sometimes  the trends are somewhat troubling and American civil religion tends to over-promise. Reaching for transcendence will do that to you.

I enjoyed this book and the use of images and video clips enriched the text. I give this four stars: ★★★★☆

Thank you to Fortress Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.