Breaking Out of the Box of Religion

I am someone who very much believes that God cannot be confined to the narratives and metaphors religion uses to describe the immanent divine. Whatever is sacred is so much grander than our meager language could ever do justice, and so I struggle even with the Bible or with the Church in its definitions of God that are often too strangely limiting. This is something I don’t feel alone in, as I’ve moved from Tennessee to New York and seen this struggle all too apparent among my new friends here. What I see is this yearning, this real desire for the “God beyond God,” for something beyond the “box” in which religion – and Christianity specifically – have placed around this grand concept.

And yet, the box is something I know quite well and even love. I did not spend my time in seminary focusing on theology or studying the transcendence of God, as some of my classmates did. Instead, my focus was centered around Biblical criticism. I was fascinated – and still am – by inspecting the box, tearing at it, even poking fun of it at times. I was less interested in the questions about Jesus’ divinity – which I saw as a problem for the theologians in seminary to sort out – and far more concerned with historical questions about what Jesus did or didn’t say, what his family looked like, what his culture and language told us about him or the compelling nature of his life. So, in some sense, despite my view that God was bigger than the box we long to put God into, I spent considerable time inside the box where I was most comfortable, because history was more tangible to me. The discussions about the indescribable God haunted me on some level. Yes, God was bigger. Most will admit that much despite the limits they’re eager to place around God. What else was there to say? Didn’t I have to work with the box I’d been handed, as I’ve only ever got my own social location to work with? I’m a big-picture person, but I couldn’t conceive of what there was to say that didn’t just bore the daylights out of me if we were going to start talking about what happened off the canvas.

Religion, as I’ve come to understand it, has for a long time now been concerned with putting God into this very box. Quite literally, that happens with the ark of the covenant, and it happens again in the building of a temple for God’s residence. Which is not to say the Hebrew mind believed God remained in this one and only spot, but that there was a specific place for God was evidence of the limits of God’s grandness. In the Gospel’s story of the curtain in the Temple being torn after Jesus’ death, you could argue that there was a momentary desire to get God out of the box only to have house churches (and later, cathedrals) once again confine God to an enclosed space with new limits arising in arguments about the nature of divinity. I want to be careful here in acknowledging that I don’t think Jesus was undoing the box Judaism had placed around God. Jesus wasn’t the first critic of the box within Judaism and certainly not the last. And, so too, Jesus wasn’t without his own limits for God’s character. Or at least for how humans should conceive of God. That, of course, raises the important question of what God is not. If God is so much grander than the limits religion have placed around God, where does the grandness stop? I can think of plenty of places in our society where God’s presence should seem lacking, and yet it’s often those very places where God’s presence is also most apparent.

To me, the desire for breaking out of the box is an important desire. I think we need to come to see God as bigger than we might have thought of God growing up in Sunday school or at church camp or wherever, but I also think to toss aside the box and just frolic in nature singing “kumbaya” misses something, as well. While religion has failed in an epic way to bring us the fullness of God, it’s nevertheless been the one vehicle through which our limited minds could experience an important (albeit limited) picture of what’s truly sacred. Many of my friends who have this earnest desire to seek God beyond the confines of religion are, ironically, not having that need met outside of the confines of religion. That’s not to say they don’t get glimpses of it on a hike through the wilderness or in a conversation with a friend, but the communal approach to religion, the (often-failed) goal of achieving some higher, loving good, the guarantee of guides and mentors through the process of searching for meaning in this silly life: I don’t see that happening without at least some aspect of the box. Even if we’re needing to scream at the box, it’s still the box we find ourselves needing to work through in order to feel as though God has heard us. So, by all means, let’s break out of the box, acknowledging to live big and to love bigger than we might have imagined ourselves doing before, but before we go constructing new boxes, let’s not forget how important the ones we love to hate really are to us.

Language as Culture

For most places in the world, you can tell what culture someone’s a product of by the language he or she uses. On a grand scale, that’s really basic and makes plenty of sense. A native Arabic speaker, for example, is probably Muslim, whereas a native speaker of Mandarin has probably been immersed in the culture of China. I realize there’s plenty of exceptions to those rules, especially in America where we’re a hodgepodge of cultures. But as a general rule, the language that we speak speaks volumes about our cultural knowledge. Even on a smaller scale, and this gets to the heart of my point, people in the corporate world use words like “digitization” or “globalization” or “Six Sigma,” whatever that is. People who are part of governmental agencies are fluent in a long list of acronyms like USAID, NGO, NSA, RPCV, etc. So, it’s not just the culture of a country. Organizations, institutions, religions all have their own language, and if you know and engage the language fluently, then it stands to reason that your identity is related to whatever that culture might be.

If all of that sounds a little too common sensical, I figured I’d lay out the problem: There are certain languages that I know but choose not to speak because I don’t want to be associated with that culture. Christianese, for example, engages in a language of Evangelical Christian culture. You won’t catch me saying something like, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” or “Let’s get the prayer warriors together.” And yet, the fact that I know the language as well as I do, on some level at least, suggests that the Evangelical cultural identity is one that I understand and will never fully shed. Even if I was never completely immersed in that culture as someone who came from a more liberal church, it’s part of growing up in the Bible belt. Like a comedian who pokes fun at something, you are (at least somewhat) what you critique. Or put another way, if a Moroccan who speaks fluent Arabic moves to France, wears French clothes, and only speaks in French, are they still a Moroccan? Of course, and they always will be.

One of my favorite stories from college came from a professor who was making fun of new age religious folks. He told a story of a young man – a Westerner – who traveled to meet the Dalai Lama desperate to figure out what to do to achieve enlightenment. When the youth finally met His Holiness, he explained, “I meditate and meditate but nothing ever happens. What am I doing wrong?” The Dalai Lama looked at him, chuckled in his usual “everything is funny” sort of way and said, “You want to achieve enlightenment? Go home and be a Christian.” I both love and hate that story. I love it because it says something true to me about how we are what we’re raised to be and will always carry that with us no matter where we go. I hate it for the exact same reason. Some languages we need to shed, forget, or ignore no matter how much a part of us it is. And yet, at the same time, it raises important theological questions for me –

Who decides what language is appropriate or what identity it carries? What magic box does that derive from? Remember several years ago when everyone wore the “WWJD” – “What would Jesus do?” – bracelets? That’s a good example of someone jumping on a decent marketing idea without ever actually theologically-engaging what they were doing. What would Jesus do? Probably not wear this stupid bracelet. In our modern era where everything is driven by competition, capitalism, and money (the modern triune god), I guess I’m far more skeptical of religious language, because I don’t trust the culture – a culture often obsessed with being relevant for the sake of increasing membership. Maybe there was a time where the language was more honest, searched out, tested, and maybe even during that time, I’d just as easily have questioned or eschewed that language and the culture it entailed.

But to push back on this notion that we are the language we engage, try as they might have, no one decided at the Council of Nicaea what being a Christian was. Did they issue creeds that had a lasting impact? Sure. But to say that what it means to be Christian has been remotely uniform since 325 CE would be incredibly naive. In fact, to say that being Christian means the same thing in 2014 that it meant in 1914 is just as untrue. There’s not some magic box or succinct, clear language that provides one answer throughout history for what it means to be a part of any religion, because there hasn’t been one language or one culture driving the narrative or how it was told. To me, on some level at least, that means that the language I choose to use to describe myself, the culture I engage in or maybe even create from scratch, is wholly mine. That’s not to discredit tradition; it’s to value that we’re just as capable of making our own traditions out of the ones we’ve been handed by our forefathers and foremothers. So, while I value tradition and the power of it, I believe each one of us are just as capable of deciding what our language means and how we should carry it into the future. But that doesn’t happen without community, without challenging one another on what we mean, or without creatively looking both backward and forward at the same time. Because we want our language tomorrow to be better than the language we used today.

Bad History and Poor Choices in the New Jesus flick

Several years ago when Mel Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ hit theaters, I was a sophomore at Wabash College, and there was a riveting discussion panel about the film particularly concerning whether or not the film was anti-Jewish. Average churchgoing folks felt strongly that the film portrayed anti-Roman sentiment but wasn’t in any way anti-Semitic. Those of us who had studied the text more carefully knew better. We could see there were dangerous extra-biblical, artistic choices that – whether intentional or not – gave credence to the notion of Jewish deicide. That’s the charge that the Jews and their ancestors were responsible for the death of God. And it’s precisely that charge that’s lead to an untold amount of violence against Jews over the past two thousand years.

So, when Son of God, the newest crucifixion flick, hit theaters, I was excited to watch it not only to see how the past decade or so has changed how evangelicals approach the story but also to see iconic shots of Morocco where the movie was filmed. In fact, most of the movie was filmed outside of Ourzazate in southern Morocco, a ten-hour bus ride from where I lived two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. As such, watching the movie was, to me, less a leap back to the first century and more a leap back to two years ago, and in that sense, I very much enjoyed the film.

So, too, I was pleased to see that there have been some serious strides made in the realm of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, nearly praises the film even calling it an “anti-Gibson” film. The producers and directors went out of their way, he says, to consult Jewish and Christian scholars, though Foxman still worries that the film had several historical inaccuracies that were “unfortunate,” and I couldn’t agree more on that point.

Other bloggers have been even kinder. Paul Anderson, a professor at George Fox University, writes that the film has a diverse cast and furthers inter-religious sensitivity (emphasis mine):

First, I was impressed by the interracial presentation of characters within the narrative. Indeed, many of the main characters were British actors, largely because many were recruited among London’s theater district, and were thus Caucasian, but other races were also represented. In the brief overview of Jewish history, Samson is presented as an African, as is Balthazar — one of the wise men. Joseph of Arimathea is black, and as the filming was done in Morocco, the presentation of Mediterranean townspeople worked very well in service to a sense of realism in the narrative. I also liked the way that inter-religious sensitivities are shown. In one particularly gripping set of sequences, Jesus is praying to God in the Garden, Caiaphas and Jewish leaders are blessing the Lord during the Passover, and the wife of Caiaphas is praying to her gods in her own way. All are sincere in their faith, yet they also come at the issues from different perspectives.

For whatever positive strides this film makes in the realm of Jewish-Christian dialogue, I felt that it raised new concerns as a film shot in a Muslim country with Muslim actors but with the intention of being sold to a largely Islamaphobic audience. With such a large number of evangelicals bemoaning that Barack Obama is a “secret Muslim” (as if having a Muslim president would be a terrible thing or as if being secret about your faith weren’t an oxymoron), is it not absurd to see those groups packing stadium seating to watch a film about Jesus where at least half of the cast are a racial group these people fear or despise?

If that’s not bad enough, the character of Satan, played by the same Moroccan who played Satan in the miniseries “the Bible”, was completely cut from the film because of concerns that he “looked like Barack Obama.” So, let me just get this straight: You have a film being made for an evangelical Christian audience. The evangelical audience, by and large, despises Muslims (and those who they think might secretly be Muslims). The person you cast as Satan is Muslim. Most of the other major characters in your film are Westerners. You shot the film in Morocco and used Moroccans as your extras because you wanted to portray something historically accurate to your film, but history was less important when it came to Jesus’ skin tone or that of his disciples?

I’ll grant you that the Mediterranean was a diverse place, but I also found Mr Anderson’s choice of referring to Joseph of Arimathea as “black” somewhat strange given that the actor is a Moroccan man named Noureddine Aberdine (it’s possible Prof. Anderson was intending to refer to the actor who played Simon of Cyrene who was of darker complexion; however, that actor was also Moroccan). North Africans are most often considered Caucasian and more specifically are usually of Arab, Berber, or Arab-Berber descent, so I do wonder whether there might be some need to change the race of minor actors or actresses to feel better about claiming the film offers an “interracial presentation of characters.” That it does. But it places minorities in lower roles, or as Satan, and then delivers it to an Islamophobic audience. That’s troubling to say the least.

So maybe this film is, indeed, one step forward for Jewish-Christian relations, but if that’s true, I fear it might be two steps back at the same time.