Friday, February 17, 2012

Born-again in Bakersfield

LA Times columnist Steve Lopez drove around California's central valley finding out whom conservatives favor in the upcoming presidential race--mainly because California's primary next June could actually carry some weight in when Republicans choose their candidate.

The answers he got to his questions were both funny and scary.,0,5204952.column

Steve was lucky enough to be invited into the home of Rosalyn Strode in Bakersfield to listen to her views and those of several friends.

Those present favored Rick Santorum as having the most "Bible-based" values.

Loren Hodge, director of a ministry providing food and clothing to persons in need, expressed his views, and is quoted in Steve's column, "Taking pulse of state's GOP:"

"What's happening in this country," said Hodge,  "... is downright scary. With all this "abortion and homosexuality," he went on, the United States may be headed for a hell "worse than Pearl Harbor, worse than 9/11."

"God," Hodge said, "will not be mocked." 

Those words are from Paul's letter to the Galatians, chapter 6, verse 7, where he tells the Christians to "bear one another's burdens" and "test their own work."  They should "not grow weary in doing what is right... God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow."

Is it respectful of the Bible to take these personal words to new believers and interpret them as a hellfire-and-damnation message to the USA?

When I was attending First Presbyterian Church in Bakersfield in the 1960s, Bible-based values did not include opposition to legalized abortion or to same-sex marriage.  Those issues hadn't come up yet.

There I heard the call and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and saviour, thus becoming born-again.

The main requirements to be accepted as a Christian then were to accept the Bible as God's Word--every verse of it--and to be "in but not of the world" as explained in Paul's letter to the Romans.

"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2). 

Being transformed so that your life would reflect your new relationship with Jesus was expected, but that didn't go much beyond the Ten Commandments.  No sex outside of marriage was part of the deal, and of course, wives were expected to be "in submission to" their husbands.  I figured I'd get around that one by not marrying.

The only political issues that divided "real" Christians from the average church-goers were your position on divorce and your position on evolution--at least as far as I knew.  Jesus made clear his views on men's easy access to divorce in 1st-century Israel, and I accepted my church's view that you couldn't believe both Genesis and the theory of evolution.

Randall Balmer in The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond (Baylor U Press, 2010) documents the rise of the abortion issue as a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. 

He explains that before Ronald Reagan became a candidate for president, having a "Bible-based" position on divorce was the true marker of an evangelical Christian.  An Episcopalian or some other Christian could be more likely to toss out of the Bible a particular verse that seemed inconvenient. 

Frank Schaeffer in Crazy for God reveals his own role in moving abortion into a central place dividing truly biblical Christians from those who might not turn to the Bible for answers to social issues today. 

It's been almost fifty years since I became a Christian in a Bible-believing church community in Bakersfield. 

Today I teach RS 304 Women & Religion at California State University, Northridge. 

I still cherish the Bible and read the Psalms or one of the Gospels almost every day, but I have learned to study who wrote each book of the Bible, for whom, in what social context.  I still see it as God's Word, but I appreciate how each part of it came to be and when it was written.  I value it as truth but not factually "inerrant."

I study Genesis but do not view it as a scientific document that could be in conflict with the theory of evolution.  In fact, I am amazed at how scientific theories, such as that of the "Big Bang," can go hand in hand with the words, "And God said, 'Let there be light.'"

I have studied the handful of biblical texts that are used to combat legalized abortion and to oppose same-sex marriage, but I don't come to the same conclusions as Loren Hodge, Rick Santorum, or Jerry Falwell.

My views today are aligned with those of Nicholas Kristof in his column "Beyond Pelvic Politics" in the New York Times on February 12.

"I may not be as theologically sophisticated as American bishops," he writes, "but I had thought that Jesus talked more about helping the poor than about banning contraceptives."

What does it mean to have biblically-based values? 

Certainly one of those values is to read the Bible (all of it--not just a few verses), to study each book of the Bible in its own context, understanding who wrote it, when, and why, for whom--and only then to presume to make conclusions about what God wants us to do today.

That's how to respect the Bible and form values that are truly Bible-based.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Shekhinah, God's Presence

Professor Daniel Matt, pre-eminent scholar of the Zohar, an ancient Jewish text, spoke at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles this weekend. 

"From Kabbalah to the Big Bang: Ancient Wisdom & Contemporary Spirituality" was the title of the lecture series.

My Hebrew teacher, Gilla Nissan, invited her students and friends to attend, so I took part in Shabbat evening services in a temple for the first time.

"Holy, holy, holy--kadosh, kadosh, kadosh" is about all I can say of the experience.

We sang psalms: "Sing to God all the earth, sing to God a new song...."Tov L'Hodot"... "L'cha Dodi"...

For this Presbyterian it was kind of like the praise singing at the beginning of some church services, but in Hebrew with Hebrew tunes and rhythm, so much more powerful and authentic.  These words have been sung and chanted for three thousand years to reach out to the Almighty.

The rabbi leading the service was herself a treat to watch: a joyful smile spread across her face as she spoke and sang, close-cropped brown hair topped by a kippah or yarmulke, more often worn by Jewish men.  

Her clothing too was androgynous: a simple black suit with black scoop-neck shirt and no jewelry or make-up... clearly female but joyously free of the usual gender accoutrements.

Then Daniel Matt spoke about "Shekhinah: the Feminine Half of God."  He noted that although the Hebrew God is clearly beyond gender to those who reflect on the issue, still God has been portrayed predominantly in masculine terms.

"We have to balance the masculine with the feminine," he argued.  

Kabbalah challenges our understanding of God.  It pushes us to move beyond our childish images to "Ein Sof"-- a god that can only be described as "Without End."  

The Talmud uses a word with feminine grammatical gender, Shekhinah, to describe God's Presence.  Kabbalah says that when the Shekhinah and "the Holy One, blessed be He" are reunited, the original union of all things will be achieved.

"Every human action affects the divine couple, either helping or hindering" this union, Matt said.  "If we become truly receptive, wisdom appears spontaneously, taking us by surprise."  

The Zohar was written in Provence and Spain in the 12th & 13th centuries by Moses DeLeon, perhaps using earlier mystical material.  It's about mysticism, which Matt defined as "direct contact with God."

When Moses asks for God's name, God refuses to be pinned down, saying only "I am Who."  The ten commandments include the prohibition against making "graven images, but Ezekiel begins with a most riveting picture of God.  That book becomes "the archetype of Jewish mystical ascent," Matt said.

The community out of which the Zohar developed began to reimagine God in new and startling ways, Matt said.  They used "new ancient words"--milim ha-attiqim ha-hadash.

"There is no place on earth empty of your presence," says a commentary on the Torah in the Talmud.  The word Shekhinah denoting God's presence comes from the root shakan meaning "to dwell."

Partly because of the word's feminine gender, Shekhinah came to be seen as the Divine Feminine.  One rabbi even describes his mother as "the embodiment of the Divine Feminine," said Matt.

He said that Gershem Sholem calls it "the revenge of myth" that God starts to be seen as both masculine and feminine because for so long any hint of the feminine had been excluded from the view of God.  The prophets criticized worship of Anat, Ashtoreth, and Asherah--the female gods worshipped in Canaan. Maimonides and others had said for so long that God is not physical.

But in the 12-13th centuries, a view of God as union of masculine and feminine re-emerges in the heart of rabbinic Judaism in Kabbalah.

"Some people don't realize that God is equally masculine and feminine," Matt said.  

Matt summed up his view of God in three statements:
1) God is Ein Sof--without end and beyond any other descriptive words.
2) Thus we cannot see God as masculine.  More accurately, there is a balance of the divine feminine and masculine within God.
3) God needs us--is incomplete without our cooperation.

"We need to reacquaint ourselves with the Shekhinah," he said.  One way is to welcome the Sabbath as a queen, a practice that was begun in Kabbalah:  "Come, let us go forth to welcome Queen Shabbat."

"As the sun sets and the Sabbath begins, go to a high spot, close your eyes, and meditate on the Shekhinah, God's Presence," Matt suggested.  "Shabbat means 'to stop.'  It is an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with God.  For the whole day, we possess the greatest luxury possible--not thinking of money [or work]."

"We can disengage from materialism," he said.  We can enjoy walking, reading, unplanned time.

"The Shabbat is a palace in time, a chance to recover the divine presence of God."

As his words ended, the room was filled with awe, a holy sense of God's nearness, and a new feeling that we can indeed live in God's presence for at least one day if we choose.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Such a Winter's Day

News of Whitney Houston's death today makes us all wince.

It began as such a lovely day in Los Angeles: billowing clouds rolling in from the ocean, challenging the standard blue sky and sunshine.  It remained a brisk and boisterous day of weather with the sun winning, the 20% chance of rain fading.

I went shopping in the downtown fashion district with my daughter Ellen, looking for wedding accessories.  Then we went to lunch in Echo Park at a Thai-Mex fusion restaurant.

How could such a happy day be invaded with this kind of news? 

While 10 million people in Los Angeles County are working, playing, thinking of Valentine's Day or the Grammy awards, some are taking one more hit of a drug to get through the day.

For Whitney in her room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the pills are fatal.  She misses the annual party she loved to attend before the Grammys.

For the rest of us, the evening turns cloudy and thoughtful.

I'm reeling from these repeated sucker punches: a 22-yr-old Santa Monica girl in November, Amy Winehouse last summer, and now Whitney Houston.

In each case there's so much talent and beauty, the struggle against addiction, and so much loss.

As a mother, my heart aches. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

An Archdiocese Fighting to Survive

Jesus would not be proud of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, fighting to survive as it goes through bankruptcy proceedings.

Over 550 people have filed financial claims against the Archdiocese to receive some kind of compensation for sexual abuse by priests or church employees.

Let's set aside what Jesus might say or do to the perpetrators and overseers of abuse. ("It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble" Luke 16:2). 

What would he say to the administrators who want to throw out 95% of the claims because the abuse occurred more than six years ago or the abusers were not technically employees of the Archdiocese?

Jesuits, Franciscans, etc. are employed by their orders, not by the Archdiocese.  Furthermore, officials argue, parish employees are not hired by the Archdiocese.  Survivors of abuse should sue only the parish or the particular order to which a priest may have belonged.

The Archdiocese's goal is to save money, not souls.

Jesus had quite a few things to say about those who place money above God's values. 

The only time he lost his temper was with moneychangers cheating people in the temple courtyard.

One need not dig very deep into the Gospels to find Jesus' words on trying to hang onto your money.  It's right there in the Sermon on the Mount.

"You cannot serve God and wealth" (Matthew 6:24).

"Give to everyone who begs from you..." (Matthew 5:42).

The Archdiocese may survive as an institution through its machinations, but its soul is already dead.

The Power of Pink

What a fast-moving story! 

My students (always on their smart phones) alerted me during class on Wednesday to the controversy over Susan G. Komen for the Cure ending its $700,000 per year grants to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

On Thursday pro-choice vs. pro-life forces waged war via Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.  Even Judy Blume tweeted: "Susan Komen would not give in to bullies or to fear.  Too bad the foundation bearing her name did."

Today Komen reversed its decision and promised to restore funding to Planned Parenthood.

Apparently last December Susan G. Komen for the Cure informed Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) that its annual grants of about $700,000 would be ended.

On Wednesday a board member of Komen reported that the decision was related to pressure from anti-abortion organizations and churches such as the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis and the Southern Baptist Convention.

Though Komen donates to Planned Parenthood only about 1% of its annual $93 million per year in grants and though PPFA uses that money for breast cancer screenings, anti-abortion groups had taken note of that 1% and had urged people to stop donating to Komen.  Why?  Because PPFA spends a small per cent of its budget on providing abortions.

"A growing number of religious organizations had become concerned that donations to Komen would benefit Planned Parenthood and had advised members not to give to Komen," reported the New York Times on Friday.

Bowing to that pressure, Komen made a new rule that its grants could not go to organizations that faced investigation by federal, state, or local authorities.

For PPFA "being the target of partisan investigations is part of doing business," noted NYT reporters Gardiner Harris and Pam Belluck. No other groups receiving money from Komen are under investigation.

I like the pretty pink ecard being sent to Komen: "Thank you for cutting off funding to cancer screening programs in order to prove that you are pro-life" (NYT, 2/2/12, p. A14). 

Thank you to the builders of the internet for giving so many women and men the power to express their political views quickly and effectively.