Thursday, December 18, 2014

Marks of the Missional Church

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

I think I read this book wrong. Marks of the Missional Church was written by three friends of mine for a publishing company with whom I've previously worked. Therefore, it's pretty difficult to say less than exemplary things about it. I wasn't super excited with the book. I didn't think the writing was particularly crisp and the chapters seemed to blend into one another pretty heavily.

About four fifths of the way through (how long it took my dense mind to process all of this), I realized I was reading the book wrong. It's not particularly (or generally) geared towards me reading it by myself on the couch in two or three sittings. It's not that kind of book. Marks of the Missional Church is meant to be read slowly and in community. The entire purpose is for people to come together, read the relatively short chapters together and then live with the material for a while, before coming back to repeat the process.

Organized around the characteristic marks of the Church from the Nicene Creed (one, holy, catholic, apostolic), the book explores each in depth as it relates to the life of a faith community. This is a book for the Church, but perhaps not for the churches we most commonly see. There is an understanding of the need to recapture the kind of Church which Nicea defined (1700 years ago) as a means of reclaiming purpose, place, and value within our society at large.

Many of the chapters use stories - both imaginative narratives and real life examples of faith communities - to illustrate the direction to which the authors intend to push the audience. It is a great book to work through in a congregation struggling to understand exactly what "missional" means in real life. The book is rooted in worship, with prayers provided to bookend each chapter and guiding questions for reflection and study. It's not going to go over the head of most parishioners (although the reading level seems a bit higher than most similar books - and that's a good thing), but it should also be a difficult read, in that it challenges us to think beyond the typical church answers that so often allow us to forget the real necessity of uncomfortable growth.

I wish there were more stories. It was impossible for those chapters to run together, even when reading the book incorrectly. I wish some of the language was a little less formal and a little more conversational; sometimes it sounds academic, even if the content isn't so much. It's not as good as perhaps I'd hoped for, and I'm not sure I can give it as ringing an endorsement as I'd liek, but it's a great format for Storian Press to embark upon and I hope to see other, similar titles in the future. Marks of the Missional Church is a unique work that should at least be considered by pastors and those responsible for leadership and guidance in faith communities seeking to make and be a real difference in the world.

Just remember, make sure to read it right.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Anachronistic Innkeeper

Just fair warning here: I don't have a PhD in ancient near-east anthropology. I've got enough degrees to make me dangerous, but not enough to make me bulletproof.

There's no innkeeper. He doesn't exist. I know we see him in all the children's plays around this time of year - and he's become the unofficial scapegoat of Christmas, turning away a pregnant woman in the middle of winter - but there's no innkeeper. There's probably no stable either, but there's definitely no innkeeper. The Bible doesn't mention an innkeeper; we infer that because Luke Chapter 2 says "there was no room in the inn," or at least it says that in English, anyway.

The innkeeper doesn't exist, though, because the inn doesn't exist. That's the real problem. We make a poor inference because the translation makes no sense to us. People simply did not stay in hotels in Jesus' time. There were places we might call inns, but they were for the rare merchant or perhaps a military detachment headed some place without barracks. In Jesus' time, if people were traveling, they made personal connections. You arranged to stay with family or family of friends. You knew someone, who knew someone, who had a place. Often people would just show up at a relative's house unannounced - this kind of hospitality was infused into Jewish culture from the very beginning. The Torah even calls people to welcome strangers. If your cousin doesn't have room in his house, try the neighbor's, they might have room.

So what of the inn? Well, that's the tricky part. There was no inn. We're not just crossing language barriers, but cultural barriers, plus barriers of time (and we're doing it twice - once between Jesus' birth and 1611, when the King James Version came out, and another between 1611 and today). The King James Version twice translates a Greek word as "inn." Both instances are in Luke (very convenient for comparative purposes), but they're two different Greek words. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan takes the injured man to an inn, promising the innkeeper he'd pay for the man's care. In that instance, there is a word used which means "public lodgings." That's an inn, any way you cut it. The word used in chapter two, though, really means "guest quarters." The very fact that the same book uses two different words in what are really two different circumstances is good evidence that they're not meant to imply the same thing.

Here's where a nerdy working knowledge of traditional lodgings comes in handy. Most families, at the time, lived in one room, essentially. They had a kitchen or sorts, perhaps, with a work space, and some area where they could lay a mat out at night (the family would likely all huddle together as they slept). As the family grew - subsequent generations, cousins, uncles, parents, whatever, they would add rooms onto the home. In the cities, they'd build up (they still do in Jerusalem today), or, if there way space, maybe out. Then each nuclear family would have a place of their own.

Since homes were designed to be added on to at a later date, most reserved the roof for guests. If the family had some money, they might have a designated guest room, but there's not a ton of rain in Israel, so the roof would do. If they had my mother's manners, they might kick someone out of the "good room," so guests could use it and extra people would cram into the first floor (or main room, depending on construction).

So this leads us back to the scripture text - likely Joseph and Mary showed up at a relative's house, perhaps someone distant cousin or what-have-you, and requested hospitality. In reply, they were told the roof was full and there was no space for guests. This is where, if there was genuinely no room, they likely would have hopped next door or moved down the list of distant relatives who lived nearby and tried another place. They didn't, though (another pet peeve is when it's portrayed that Joseph and Mary tried a lot of hoteliers with no success), because they were offered an alternative.

While it's entirely possible the relative they visited had a barn out back, it's extremely unlikely. Those families with livestock (and almost everyone had livestock of one kind of another - eggs and milk and such didn't grow at Safeway, after all) would use them during the day for work (pulling carts and whatnot) or leave them outside to graze. At night, the animals were brought into the house, where they'd bed down on the other side of the main room from the family. Other rooms were guest quarters or the living spaces of older relatives because it was polite to not make people you wished to honor sleep with the goats.

Joseph and Mary likely found a relative with a full house, but one generous enough to offer space with his own wife and kids for this distant cousin and his poor, pregnant betrothed. The Bible mentions Jesus being laid in a manger (a feeding trough for animals), but there's no mention of a stable or a barn - I think, because there wasn't one.

So, if this is true (and while I think it makes sense, I might be entirely wrong), how did this inaccurate portrayal of the event get passed down so thoroughly through the years? I have no proof of this at all, but I suspect it has something to do with how these words might translate to seventeenth century England.

The King James Version came about at a time when scripture in the common language was just emerging. It was written for the common people (if you had money, you were educated, and thus could read scripture in Latin, if you so desired), and I'm guessing "guest quarters" would have been entirely foreign to the common people. People of the time rarely traveled - most would never get more than six or seven miles from the house in which they were born FOR THEIR ENTIRE LIVES! Houses were hovels - and anyone you knew lived nearby and could stay at their own house. Inn - a public housing option for travelers without the means to call upon the local noble - was likely the best they could do to convey the message to the people at the time.

Subsequent English translations were loathe to change the words, which had become so familiar to people in such a familiar story (although the newest version of the NIV does say "guest room," as Luke intended). Today, we all just assume, I guess, that there was a Motel 6 on every corner in Jerusalem and Joseph didn't have the money to spring for an Embassy Suites.

I'm not sure what the point of this whole thing was, really, other than to explain my frustration with the way we tell this story.* Perhaps it's simple to illustrate the importance of further questions, of not taking everything at face value. Investigation is good for the soul - and, at the very least, it may keep some of us from perpetuating the tale of the anachronistic innkeeper to another generation. Merry Christmas!

Just be thankful we didn't delve into the historicity of the census that drives this journey in the first place - you do not want to go there!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Poehler Wisdom

I read the new Amy Poehler book this week. I didn't think it was great. It surely wasn't a bad book. It was entertaining and funny, a touch preachy at times. There are interesting insights into some of Poehler's comedy and career. Mostly, though, it was a solid reminder than famous people really aren't any different than the people we spend time with everyday (other than often fabulous wealth, incredible egos and a maniacal drive to succeed). Amy Poehler's book mad me a bit sad for her. Like, I'm happy her life is less awful than it used to be, but it's more of an "I've accepted how messed up I am," sort of way. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just not fantastically satisfying to read at this point in my life.

She does make an overall point - and my praise of it will immediately look like hypocrisy, given the way I ended that last paragraph - that resonates with me deeply. My two favorite quotes come in the same section. The first, "Success is full of MSG." The second (maybe credited to David Simon) is "Ambivalence is the key to success." Her point being that striving for something will never be fulfilling and almost always disappointing. Live life for life. Do things you're passionate about, things you believe it. Make your own life, not yours or someone else's expectations of what life should be.

When we seek for something, we'll never be happy, even if we find it. It is in those moments where we don't need anything that whatever we're looking for seems to have arrived. Of course, once we start seeking an absence of seeking, we enter an existential death spiral that will eventually fry our brains.

But anyway... it was an interesting book that produced in me a profound ambivalence, which seems to be (unless there's some insidious sadism lurking inside that tiny comedian) exactly what she was going for.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Chris Rock, Killer Mike, and Racial Progress

Chris Rock is a comedian. He's also a really smart dude. He comes to things from an interesting perspective and he's always got something to say that's been well thought out. He doesn't shoot from the hip. I really enjoyed this recent interview with him. They cover a lot of things (including his new movie, that I think may be very good) like politics and race.

He's got a great line when asked about the difference between the black civil rights movement and the one currently happening with the LGBT community. "I always call Ellen DeGeneres the gay Rosa Parks. If Rosa Parks had one of the most popular daytime TV shows, I’m sure the civil-rights movement would’ve moved a little bit faster too."

There's a lot of good stuff there about Obama and politics in general. I've seen a few places pick up his take on racial progress.

Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.

So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.

Chris Rock doesn't do interviews unless he's promoting a movie (even though he barely talks about the movie), so enjoy it while it lasts. You can find lots more Rock at Grantland, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Hollywood Reporter. He can do whatever interviews he wants because he's so unavailable, but also because he's one of the few celebrities entirely free to speak his mind. He's made tons of money and his audience won't care what he says. He's also got five lifetimes worth of street cred, so he can speak honestly both from and to his place as a prominent African American.

Another person in a similar position is Killer Mike, a rapper (currently of Run the Jewels). There's a great podcast with him on Grantland. Here he engages on topics of importance to the black experience, but not in the sort of monolithic way so many of us (white people) are used to hearing it. There's only a few minutes at the beginning about music, the rest (and it's more than an hour) is unique, intelligent, and challenging for anybody.

When speaking of racial progress, I have to agree with Rock: it's about white people changing. One of the things I notice about racial discussions in this country is that they're less about race, especially among younger people. This is not the old trope about class being the new race (class will always be a divisive topic), but something different about the motivations behind our discussions of race. This is really in the generation behind me (and although I'm 33, there is at least one, if not two full generations of adults, distinctly different, younger than me), but race seems less about race. We can't deny the shocking numbers of racial disparity, but in the end, when (younger) white people are upset about Ferguson these days, it's not because a black man was denied justice, but because a human being was.

That's not to say race isn't a component and an important one (white human beings still have a better time of it in the justice department), but I think white people may actually starting to view people who look different as people first. I think (hope) this will allow for us to hear and express a true diversity of opinion. So that when Chris Rock or Killer Mike speak to the public, they can do so AS black men, but not ON BEHALF of black men.

When a black man in a suit is on CNN, 95% of the time, the audience assumes (or is supposed to assume) he's speaking on behalf of black people. It's the black opinion. That doesn't happen with white men - we all assume they speak for themselves or perhaps a specific group with whom they hold a position (like the NRA or Greenpeace). Obviously, the hope is for that to change. I'm sure even Al Sharpton would love (well, wouldn't totally mind, might be more like it) to fade into a chorus of diverse black voices with access to mainstream media.

I share all these links today in the hopes more people can gain access to the kind of perspective we don't always hear, especially in a world where everything is condensed into soundbites. There's no "us vs them" stuff here. It's two men, with their own unique identities, expressing their own individual opinions in public forum. I wouldn't necessarily agree with everything said and they certainly don't necessarily agree with each other. Race is a part of who they are, it informs their perspective and opinions, but they don't allow it to be the defining aspect of what they have to say.

Neither should we.

If we manage that, well, then it might just be some small step on whatever Chris Rock will call racial progress.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Birth of a Comedy Master

My daughter is two and a half and she thinks she's hilarious. Previously she'd do or say funny things from time to time and we'd laugh. She then assumed those words are universally funny and she'll say them whenever she wants you to laugh. Her "best" joke up until now has been "pee pee curtain." It came out of nowhere the first time, in a car full of people, and we all cracked up. She says it a lot now. We rarely laugh anymore, which is fine with her; she'll just come up to you, say it, then ask, "can you laugh now." I've been wondering if that could be an effective gimmick for an actual adult stand-up comedian. Maybe.

Anyway, over the last couple of weeks, Eva's comedy has changed slightly. Now, when she's asked or is asking a question, she'll often replace one word with something else. What's your favorite food, Eva? Headbands, she'll answer, then laugh at her own joke.

I realized today, though, that this is comedy. She's figured it out. At its core, all comedy - at least spoken comedy - is saying something people aren't expecting. Everything from the classic, "Take my wife, please, take her," to Seinfeld-ian observational humor (What's the deal with airplane bathrooms...), even to vulgar or gross-out comedians (Did she just say that?), is just timing. It's saying something people don't expect. The key to being great at it is figuring out exactly the right unexpectedly thing to say at exactly the right time.

Obviously my daughter is not going to be headlining in Vegas anytime soon, but she's got all the tools.

**Yes, this was short, but it was an interesting notion, just a bit too long for a Facebook post, plus everybody loves it when they see pictures of my daughter. Win-win-win all around.