A Noise Warning
Mom called me on Easter Sunday morning. This turn in my faith life has been hard on her, I think. “So you’re not going to church today?” she asked.
“No, I’m not,” I confirmed.
“Well, if you would just set aside all this noise and seek Jesus, He’ll come to you. I know that.”
When we hung up, her word choice echoed.
What does she mean by that word?
At various times I’ve (ungratefully, childishly) thought that Mom would’ve been a good guard for the Tree of Knowledge. She seems content to only seek after God through a study of the Bible. I sometimes envy her that easy contentment. Her house is filled with Bible studies and commentaries. There are always a couple stacked on the side of the couch where she does Bible study each morning.
Chasing Wisdom Can By Exhausting
Part of me wishes that I didn’t have a thirst to know and see and do. It can be exhausting. I’ve always had this yearning to understand, ever since I was a kid wandering all over our Tennessee farm and trying to figure out why the corn grows this way here, that way there, and what makes the pecan tree know just how and when to drop its fruit, and why the cat has her kittens in this spot every few months instead of that one over there that I made for her, and why Granddaddy’s dog Fuzz is always covered in cockle burrs but not me, and why the air is so much cooler and still down in the gully than up on the banks. I voraciously consumed every novel I could get my hands on, traveling to far off and invented worlds from my safe spot in the hayloft or Aunt Retta’s couch or my own waterbed. We didn’t have a town library – that was two towns away in Union City – but I got books from school and each Christmas Mom let me circle books in the CBD Catalog that would then be nestled inside a wrapped box and placed under the tree for me.
I have always wanted to know more, and why and how. When Secondborn started her litany of “Why?” with me and I made mention of it to Mom, I got the response, “Now you’re paying for your raising.” Evidently I wore my mother out with my need to know why.
Untested, Untried Faith
It’d be nice sometimes to just be content with what I already know, I think. But then that also seems like a waste of an able mind. Mom has a very able mind when she chooses to use it. She graduated summa cum laude – a woman who had dropped out of high school to get married and have my sister at 16 years old.
I haven’t seen that Mom values information that isn’t authorized or praised by already-trusted sources like James Dobson, Beth Moore, and Billy Graham, though. And I think that’s what she meant by “noise” – information sources other than those approved by already-trusted sources.
But it seems to me that if your faith can only exist inside a vacuum of purposed ignorance of alternatives, then it isn’t really faith. It hasn’t been tested and tried and found to be true. It’s just a wish and a hope. If I ate apples all my life and learned only from the apple orchard owners and visitors, then my faith that apples are the best and right choice springs from information that was already biased toward apples – and I spend a life without gaining the glorious knowledge of grapes, watermelons, strawberries, kiwi, kumquats, passionfruit, blueberries, bananas and pineapples! What do I say to the one who comes along with a cart full of bananas? No, I don’t want to know that taste? I’m content with apples?
Off the Farm, Into the Public Square
When we left the farm and moved to a new town an hour away, we got really politically involved. I went from shucking corn in the carport while our tinny-sounding radio played nearby to reading WORLD Magazine and watching Mom help start a crisis pregnancy center and hone her pro-life talking points while we attended Alan Keyes for President rallies.
Newt Gingrich and The Family Research Council were big deals in our house – so big that I ended up doing my media fellowship in college at FRC. (And got sent home from the program three months into it, having answered an ad in the paper in an effort to make a friend in DC only to learn the hard way what a “personals” ad is. Hey, we didn’t have those kinds of ads in my small town Tennessee newspaper! I really thought people were just trying to make friends! But that’s a whole other story for another time.)
Anyway, so caught up was my family in the Contract With America and fighting the sinful Clintons that I had no clue about the existence of another small but growing (noisy?) subset of the Christian community: The Jesus Seminar.
Until this past week, that is.
Yesterday, I finished reading Gospel Truth by Russell Shorto.
And, for the first time since setting my daily Bible reading aside in 2016, I think there might possibly be a way for me to live within Christianity.
The Jesus Seminar is one of many groups (arguably the most prominent) involved in the historical Jesus movement – which seeks to ascertain what is fact and what is fiction regarding Jesus in the Bible.
FOR REAL. There is a whole movement of people who have a thirst like mine to know, and who allow themselves to say that the Bible is not 100% literal or that lack of such a belief kicks you out of the Christian club.
In Gospel Truth, Russell Shorto unveils so many possibilities, discoveries, and truths regarding the Bible, its formation, the motivations of its writers, the social, cultural, religious, and political contexts within which it was written, and more that I cannot begin to cover them in a short blog post. It stretched my mind with information like Jesus was a day laborer and probably worked in the nearby Greco-Roman town that was filled with philosophical discussions and ideas, some of which made their way into His beliefs and therefore teachings.
Or revisiting the genealogy of Jesus that is found in the gospel of Matthew. I never really thought too much about the women included in that list other than to be grateful that women were included at all. But look at exactly which women are listed:
Why are we told that “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob,” and so on, with no mention of the women involved, but then learn that Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah “by Tamar,” and Salmon the father of Boaz “by Rahab,” and Boaz the father of Obed “by Ruth,” and that David was the father of Solomon “by the wife of Uriah…”?
A solution to the puzzle has been worked up over the past two decades by a group of scholars who realized that all of the women mentioned are associated with scandalous sexual behavior. In other words, Matthew is softening the blow of Jesus’ questionable legitimacy by indicating that in several previous instances it was necessary for the royal bloodline of Israel to be passed on via less-than-ordinary means. Bastardy, it may even be suggested, was a badge of honor, the way hemophilia was for the inbred royalty of Europe.
This line of argument certainly doesn’t prove that Jesus was illegitimate, but it may indicate that the charge of illegitimacy was an issue for the early church…Gospel Truth: The New Image of Jesus Emerging from Science and History, and Why It Matters
More than any one piece of info in this book, though, was the consistent worldview it presented: Christians authentically seeking knowledge. This idea that there are so many people out there who are preachers, teachers, nuns, writers, researchers, theologians – SO MANY – who also see the Bible as a book of words that can be viewed critically, within cultural context and possibly therefore with ideas that are not good and true for all time, is AMAZEBALLS.
I can’t share the whole book here, but I can urge you to read this book.
I didn’t know about Marcus Borg and Marianne Niesen and Robert Funk and Rev. John Shelby Spong and others like them – others who value research and reason alongside religion. They weren’t in the Religious Right community I knew. Now, I’ve learned their names. I can study what they found to be true and consider it for my own truth.
Thank you, Russell Shorto, for writing this book. Thank you, Riverhead Books (a division of Penguin RandomHouse) for publishing it back in 1997. Thank you, Collier County Public Library for keeping it on your shelves 22 years after its publication year.
I’m just one little soul trying to make her way in the seen and unseen worlds among billions of other souls. In a lot of ways, I guess I’m still the girl traipsing around the farm, eyes wide and mind open to whatever next marvel lies ahead. I haven’t found a way to quiet the wondering, wandering part of me. I crave the “noise” because I have often found that, within it, rings the subtle sound of wisdom.
There are these pieces of knowledge that float down to me – serenely swinging through the chaos and swirl of words and experience. They come to rest as if existing in a vacuum. They are apart from the rest. They are completely self-contained, content. Wholly existing. Not subsisting.
The swirl around them isn’t noise to me, Mom. It’s a backdrop to the information that floats down and gathers itself into flag after flag, pointing me toward a more enlightened and therefore firm footing.
I can put my foot down here, in the grass, beside the fallen pecan, and know how the pecan came to be there. It isn’t seen by an uninformed mind and therefore perceived for a fraction of an instant as merely an object lying on the ground. It’s fully seen and known as the fruit of much labor sustained over time, dropped here so that a cycle can continue and life can find nourishment.
Maybe one day I’ll have complete contentment. No noise. My wondering will cease. But not today. Today, I plunge again into the noise to mine and find the True.