http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.51533The Christmas stories in the Bible have a message – and it is neither the commodified story of contemporary culture, nor is is the cutesy baby in a stable nativity scene. It’s a story of political subversion and social reversal, set in a particular time and place.

Humans are excellent pattern recognisers. Generally speaking.

It helps though, when we have a cue letting us know what sort of pattern to expect. Many patterns are cultural, they use recognisable signs and signifiers which make sense to those immersed in the culture they are developed in. Looking at unfamiliar signs is difficult when we aren’t immersed in a culture.

When we are overfamiliar with dumbed down versions of stories we have a double problem: we feel as though we know the story, but our knowledge is entirely out of context.

One of the key and most obvious patterns in the gospels, is that of reversals. And this is firmly established in the Christmas narratives: the virgin is pregnant, the night sky invades the day time, the king is a pauper, God is a human baby, the outcasts are welcome. The writers of these stories made these reversals deliberately, pointedly, to overturn expectations and set off a narrative of an upside down way of seeing the world.

To understand the meaning (or one of the meanings) of this pattern, we have to consider the culture of the time in which they were written. What would it mean for things to be upside down?

These stories are set at a particular time, a really important time. It was in 6 CE that Judea, Samaria and Edom became the Roman province of Judea. Roman Judea was substantially larger than it’s predecessor state had been, with an eastern border which stretched as far as contemporary Jordan and even encompassed Damascus (hence Saul/Paul and his dual citizenship). It was an important part of the Roman Empire, and its good governance was key to Roman security.

One of the key groups in maintaining this order, were a cadre of Jewish leaders known as the Pharisees. When people talk of the Pharisees in churches, they will often make much of a particular type of ancient Jewish theology, and set Jesus up in opposition to that. This way of thinking misses the obvious: the Pharisees were effectively working for the Romans. They were crushing dissent and trouble because of a political need. The theology of the Pharisees is relevant, but its particular relevance is that it was far more in line with Roman theology than their rivals the Sadducees, not that they were stuck up or full of their own self importance.

Behind all of this was a corrupt priesthood – run by a figure called Annas, who was high priest in Jerusalem between 6 and 15 CE until he was deposed, but whose family continued in the role. Think: mafia. Think: contemporary despotic regime of your choice.

So this is the context – the time that was being written about, and the time in which it was being written. A puppet state, run by a corrupted priesthood, enforced by violence. And what are the writers talking about? Reversal. Reversal of everything. And if I were to ascribe a ‘meaning’ to Christmas, perhaps that would be it. It is a scene setter for the ‘ministry of reversal’ that the Jesus movement comes to embody. Tables are literally turned. The dead are brought back to life (we must talk about Lazarus some other time).

And in the midst of this – a whole host of reversed rituals, baptism, the reversal of the Roman military Sacramentum, and the core Christian rite, the shared meal: a subversion of the Roman banquet. Everything is overturned, everything is lampooned. Its incredibly subversive – social and political dynamite.

Perhaps the point is that the only way this all makes sense, is if you stand it on it’s head. Which is why I’m so keen, on an #alternativeadvent.

 

 

My #alternativeadvent project starts on the 2nd of December, and will run all the way through to Christmas.  I’ve been trailing this on social media for a little while now, and I recognise that some people are not entirely sure what the general idea is.

So I put together a short video this morning, just to give a little bit of explanation.

Sorry about my dodgy filming skills, but hopefully it gives you the general idea. It’s an email every day through advent, with four themes running through: the first set of emails will be on the subject of an ‘ahistorical advent’, then I will write about an ‘absurd advent’, then about an ‘anarchic advent’ and finally about an ‘atheist advent’. Essentially it’s a reflection on advent through a historical/literary lens, then through a more philosophical lens, then a political lens, and finally through a more theological lens.

I hope you’re able to join me for this, and that as we go you feel able to share your own thoughts, using the hashtag #alternativeadvent, because anything like this needs to be a conversation. And if you know me, you’ll realise I’m pretty much always up for a conversation, until about 10pm. After that, I might still be up for a conversation, or I might just be asleep. Sometimes its hard to tell.

calfThere’s a story in the Hebrew scriptures, about the people of Israel after they had escaped from Egypt. In the story, which is absurdly rich in symbolism and image, the people are making their way through the desert when their leader Moses climbs a mountain to commune with God.

To cut a complicated narrative unreasonably short, the impatient Israelites get fed up waiting for Moses to return, and decide to melt their golden jewellery to create an idol – a golden calf, which they then proceed to worship.

Moses, who has spent 40 days on the mountain eventually returns to find all this going on, loses it a bit, and a load of the Israelites pop their clogs. When you read serious Jewish interpretations of the story, it grows more complex around the edges, considering the motivations of those who built the calf, and so on.

So here’s the thing: as with many Bible stories, there are two predictable dangers when we read the story: 1) The story is written off as complete nonsense: “It didn’t happen, and it has nothing to say to us.” 2) The story is taken totally literally, as though it is a modern historical account: “This is exactly what happened to a ‘real’ people, in a ‘real’ place, at a ‘real’ time.”

Neither of these two approaches manage to capture the complex subtleties of the story, which was almost certainly written down or collated from oral tradition as part of the process of nation building while the Israelites were in captivity a few centuries BCE. While this whole question – the historicity of the text – makes for fascinating reading and discussion, I’m not about to run through all that here.

I’m more interested in the question of the Golden Calf: what does it represent?

I think there’s a strong case to be made for the Golden Calf as representative of certainty.

Moses’ disappearance up the mountain was for ’40 days’ a term used to represent a long time. Faced with the disappearance of their spiritual leader, the people grew upset, and eventually chose what they felt to be a logical course of action.

“Give us a god to go before us,” they said, “for we don’t know what has come of this man Moses.” (Exodus 32:1)

What the people wanted was some sense of security, a kind of certainty that they could cling to. Moses, a man who had difficulty communicating at the best of times, had left them to wait for him while he communed with an invisible, unknown God. Would he ever return?

To put this in to a framework with which people who read this blog are familiar: Moses led the Israelites into a period of major league deconstruction. He took them out of the brutal certainties of Egypt, where they had suffered, but at least they knew what was what, and into the wilderness.

And then he had left them…

Extended uncertainty, lets be honest, really gets to you. It grates. maxresdefault

And after a while – a long time – they began to crave some sense of certainty. ‘It’s time to reconstruct, to rebuild: give us a god to go before us…’

When they eventually came to act upon this craving, they constructed something which would have been culturally very familiar – and they gave a lot to it – this was no petty endeavour. A lot of gold went into making that statue.

This is precisely what happens to many who try to find some solid ground on which to stand after deconstruction, they go for something familiar, they invest in it, they give it their all, and in the end they create another idol.

I feel huge sympathy for the Israelites, mainly because I think I may have felt just as they did. And yet from the benefit of some elevation, looking down from Mount Sinai, Moses who was a somewhat absolutist sort, could see the futility of this search for comfort. And lost his rag. Understandable yes, but harsh, Moses, harsh: dwelling in uncertainty is difficult.


Are you struggling with deconstruction? Taking apart beliefs and ideas with which you’ve lived for years?

Are you considering reconstruction, and wondering if that is right for you, now? I’m running a retreat for people like you in November, you can book here. Or alternatively, contact me to find out about other ways I can help. 

file000606541737.jpgThere comes a point in most people’s lives, when things have to be taken apart. Beliefs, world views, ways of understanding yourself, and what life is all about.

This is because the structures we build up become too restrictive. We reach the point where they no longer holds us properly, and that chafes.

The things you know, the experiences you’ve had, the stuff you’ve learned… you need a new framework to hold it all.

Its like in the old days when they used to keep wine in bags made from the skins of animals, called ‘wine skins’: you couldn’t keep new wine in old wine skins. Because they would split, they were only good for the old wine.

New wine had to go in new wine skins. New ways of seeing the world, require a new structure.

The same process is true of us when we are conscious of our religious or spiritual beliefs. The structures we built up, sometimes from childhood, will eventually need to come down in order to accommodate our new, wider, more mature understanding. That doesn’t mean our old structure was bad – although it can feel that way, because the restriction is uncomfortable. Really though, it just means that it doesn’t fit anymore. Like the yellow jumper I begged my parents for when I was about twelve. I loved that jumper. It doesn’t fit me now, and anyway I’m no longer convinced yellow is my colour.

The process of deconstructing a religious or spiritual world view is often difficult, sometimes very painful indeed. If you’re lucky, it’s easy. But we’re not all lucky, because these things have built in defences against deconstruction, often involving feelings of guilt, doubt, and existential dread.

For various reasons, conscious deconstruction is way better than unconscious deconstruction – (when you just go “this is all b*llocks”, and chuck the lot). The problem is that sometime later you will find yourself wishing you had a certain part, and then you have to go looking in the bins. And there’s always disgusting stuff in the bins. Much better to take it apart carefully, being aware of where the bits are, and what they do. Conscious deconstruction for the win.

I’m running a deconstruction retreat in November to help people do just that, find out more or book here. I’m planning on it being a small affair – intimate. Because this stuff is personal, and I prefer to work with small groups.

I’m also in the process of setting up a number of house conferences on the same kind of theme, a house conference is a conference… in a house. A bit like a house concert, but without a band, and fewer hairy roadies. If you’ve got a house (or other nice, friendly space), and you know some people who might like to come, then let’s talk about doing one at your place.

 

priestMy post about tipping over the certainty curve created some extra interest this week, after Thinking Anglicans posted posted a link to it on their website.

Some of the thoughtful responses to it, led me to write a little more about the process, rather than going in to the post about silence, which I had planned as the next in this series. That one will come soon.

Before I go into some more detail about the process, I should point out that I don’t mean to suggest that evangelicalism has a monopoly on certainty. All traditions have their elements of certainty, dogma or orthodoxy. However, one of the reasons I pay some particular attention to evangelicalism is a tendency within particular parts of it to prefer total certainty to mystery or doubt. In this post I will refer to a couple of individuals who clearly were not evangelicals.

So another thing to make clear is that the arc or curve that I depict in the original post is a deliberate simplification of the process, I don’t mean to genuinely suggest that there is either a very straightforward line, or that the journey is ‘one way’. Rather the real picture is more complex, and always dynamic.

The best model I have seen for understanding the complexities of this kind of process is called Spiral Dynamics, a very complex piece of work which purports to be an overarching meta narrative that explains human development. As a good GenX postmodern thinker, I’m innately suspicious of such a meta narrative, however, experientially I resonate with the process described by Spiral Dynamics thinkers.

That doesn’t mean though, that I believe there to be no value in the curve model. All of these things are limited, they are deliberate and knowing simplifications of a complex situation. They are visual aids, just as, for instance, parables are story aids to understanding similar things.

So, speaking of parables, let’s reconsider the curve, in particular the way in which the curve model maps with the parable of the prodigal son. I use this curve a lot, and the curve images I use below also highlight/map in black text, what I believe are the key stages of the way people view God/ultimate concern in a journey of spiritual development.

In this story, the son starts off at the bottom left of the curve, looking up to his father (the God figure) in the knowledge that in him, all needs are met. He is developing in the place of ultimate safety and certainty. Naturally enough though, the son develops, and goes through the difficulties and frustrations, and disillusionment of adolescence. This precipitates something of a crisis – where he believes that life elsewhere would be better than what he has. And in some ways, of course, he is right. He is a child, and he recognises that adulthood is different to what he has now.

prodigal_sonSo in the story, the son leaves home, and becomes physically distant from his father – in a similar way someone may leave the certainty of evangelicalism, or any other dogmatic view of God, and become physically distant from the church. This is the beginning of his period of deconstruction, during which the proto evang-exiter may become arrogant or conceited about his or her journey. ‘I know the way to live, and it’s nothing like the old way…’

But this is not a long term sustainable way of existing. Not for most people anyway. It’s hard, and it’s quite false. There’s a sense of denial about it, and there is a very good chance that this is likely to precipitate another crisis, or series of crises. In this case the son finds himself utterly degraded, and comes to realise he is in a place of paradox. At this stage his desire to be with his father is strong, and he makes a return.

For some ex-vangelicals, ex-Christians or church leavers, there is a return to their home, although like the prodigal son, they are not returning as the same person who left. They are changed. They now, perhaps, have a more rounded, less certain view of the world (it’s not hard and fast, these journeys are not the same for everyone). And their return may not be to the fold of evangelicalism either, rather it may be a return to the church more broadly. Hence you find many ex-vangelicals in the bosom of traditions that embrace a more mysterious or apophatic understanding of God. The paradox stage.

peter1Another example is the disciple Peter (a non evangelical of course), who goes through a similar process to the Prodigal son. In this case, Jesus is the God-figure, the point of ultimate concern. In the first place Peter is dependent upon Jesus, seeing Jesus as the answer to everything. Jesus is all powerful at this stage in their relationship, and Jesus is at his miracle performing best. As things develop, Jesus plays an almost parental role in Peter’s life – he has left his family to follow him. But then crisis hits, and all of a sudden the miracle working Jesus has gone, and a new captive, powerless Jesus has emerged. This throws Peter in to a state of turmoil, and he finds himself denying the master he had followed so closely until now. At the point of Jesus’ death, Peter is at his most distant, entirely removed from Jesus. He is not arrogant at this point, rather he is broken, which demonstrates that everyone walks this path in a unique way. Peter’s re-encounter with Jesus is his experience of the mystery of un-earned grace, and he moves into a place of all pervasive love and acceptance. Does this make him perfect? No. Does it make him totally wise and enlightened? Again no. This illustrates that this is not a simple process as this curve would make it appear, this is not the end of Peter’s story. He goes through a new set of curves, crises, and moves forward. But this curve is quite clear, he tips over the edge of certainty. Mother Teresa

This kind of process accounts for the myriad stories of loss of certainty, and loss of faith, that characterise Christian ministry. The proverbial dark nights of the soul. Mother Teresa (Catholic) is an oft cited example, her doubts were made public after her death, and they demonstrate that she suffered greatly. And of course there are many others who experience the same kind of issues, and whatever tradition they come from, it’s jolly hard.

For the activist, this is a particularly difficult experience, and this is partly why I’m interested in the experience of evangelicals, who are fundamentally, part of an activist tradition. The certainty stages are much more steady ground for the activist, who often needs the reassurance of certainty to provide her/him with energy.

I suppose fundamentally my point is that for all of us, the God we grow up with, needs to die. I don’t really care what tradition you’re from, or what religion, or belief system, or philosophy. That which guided our childhood must, at some point perish, if we are to advance in to spiritual maturity. In each person the process is different, probably unique. In many, perhaps most, it involves a crisis, or series of crises. And, in my experience, inevitably certainty has to die away. It can be the work of a lifetime, and many of us never get there.

If you feel that you are going through a period of deconstruction, you might like to come on a retreat with me to talk about the process. You can express interest here.

bible1

An evangelical pastor, who was going through something of a evang-exit process of his own, once asked me if I thought evangelicalism was a cult. My response was “no,  it lacks many of the markers of being a cult, but I think it is, to some extent, an addiction.”

This sense of being addictive is strongly linked to its association with certainty. There is definitely a sense in which people positively want certainty at particular points or stages in their lives, in some ways they even need it. But the danger that this comfort blanket is never dispensed with, and one becomes addicted to, or reliant upon it. And this is tough, its a tough process to go through. I recognise it in myself at times too, I can feel uneasy at times living with uncertainty, and I know that in some ways I’m a certainty addict too. And part of the recovery from any addiction is to recognise it, as long as we deny it, we will never be free from it.

So in the natural process of spiritual development, there comes a stage for an individual or community, where their maturity must lead them to recognise the problems of certainty. And due to the strong link between the tradition and the condition, this is very often a first stage exit point from evangelicalism, or indeed from any social structure that relies upon certainty as a founding dogma.

The diagram below shows a curve which represents movement from spiritual knowledge, to spiritual wisdom, from certainty to uncertainty. We are all somewhere on this curve, and the general idea is that as we mature, we move upwards from bottom left and then tip over the top, and begin to fall down the other side. But as anyone who has fallen down a hill knows, this process can be a profoundly uncomfortable experience. Particularly if there is nobody to help you.  Very often we get stuck at one point on the curve for a protracted period of time (clinging on).

certainty2

On this journey, the point marked as the Christian ministry stage is the most productive place, this is where a lot of the ‘work’ of the church gets done. This is also where the majority of adult evangelicals are too, and it reflects the remarkable and laudable productivity of that tradition. Bluntly though, it pays churches to keep people there.  Keep people certain, and they will remain productive. Let areas become gray, and you have trouble on your hands!

And of course once people do tip over, they can sometimes demonstrate the apparent folly of their move by becoming insufferably arrogant – looking down on those who are at the stage they have just left. ‘I pity the fool…’ as Mr T might say.

 

Very often, what precipitates a movement from the more comfortable stages at or around the top of the curve, is some kind of crisis. Possibly the death of a loved one, or maybe an episode of mental or physical illness. This is important, because it’s once again about certainty. Crises can also move people forward or backwards on this curve, it’s not as linear as the diagram makes it look, its not simple, its dynamic and complex.

After tipping over the curve, to save their sanity, the individual may need to leave the church or deconvert altogether. This is difficult for all concerned, those who are at a stage of certainty can look on in horror at this process, wondering what has become of their friend/loved on. The person undergoing the transition feels the intense discomfort of leaving their addiction to certainty behind, as well as their community, and to some extent free falling into an abyss. It’s notable that many people who have gone through this process eagerly pick up some new form of addiction, or obsession. Witness the very many young progressives with a strong penchant for cigars, whisky, real ale, or a particular genre of music, or even a new religious tradition for instance. Now this departure is not always necessary, a wise pastor or parent may be able to help people who are part of a community or family to go through this process with support, with the potential result that they may remain part of the tradition, but with a new understanding of its dogmas. If all concerned are comfortable with that, then great.

But that’s not usual, generally the process leads people out of fellowship in some way. And that’s difficult, and often painful. There is though, a word of comfort for those looking on: this is a natural process. And it’s not the last word, towards the bottom of the curve is a greater acceptance, a universalising sense of self which recognises the value of a variety of spiritual expressions, and often even finds renewed energy in Christianity. People at this point are moving beyond the duality which is at the core of certainty to a very positive place indeed. But it takes time, sometimes it takes a very long time indeed, to get there.

Next time I write about this, it will be about the usefulness of silence in this journey, and the importance of finding someone who can act as a guide.

Interested in coming on a retreat to explore deconstruction with me? Express your interest here…

 

file000612565099I’ve realised from the responses I got from the first blog in this series, that a lot of people who engaged with it, aren’t leavers themselves, but the parents of leavers. And so before I go on to write more about leaving, I want to write about that particular issue. Because it’s a painful one.

For a lot of church leavers, the process happens in early adulthood. There’s a natural point just around the 18 – 20 mark when young people who have remained in church through their teens (by hook or by crook) may choose to walk away.

It feels like a part of the process of growing up, of establishing one’s own identity, of coming to terms with the nature of the world, and your own relationship with it.

There’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance for some young people when it comes to church: ideas about the nature of God, of prayer, the Bible and so on, often seem to conflict with their knowledge or experience of the world. You either learn to live with that conflict, learn to overcome or deny it, or you choose to accept that what you were taught is actually wrong, and if its the latter, then it can feel like there’s little point in keeping on going to church.

For some, the whole thing of going to church can be an impossible burden, it can weigh you down, oppress you, to the point where you feel a sense of great relief in leaving.

Even if there is a sense of relief, for the leaver, this can be a difficult process, and they may need support in managing it, which is what this blog series is really about. But there’s another dynamic too – the evangelical parent.

I’ve lost count of the number of people who I’ve known who have shared, indicated, or tried to disguise their pain at the departure of their children from the tradition they had grown up in.  (I wasn’t counting in the first place, but if I had been, I’d have stopped by now.)

For some parents there is an ability to rationalise it, to come to terms with it in some way. Just as they tend to when a loved one dies, previously strict ideas of God’s judgement often start to become a little woolier at this point: ‘God knows they are a good person, so surely…’ And of course this is a similar process to one which the leaver may have gone through too. ‘I just don’t believe that if there is a God, they are as mean as that…’

But still there can be a sense of dread. Nobody wants to believe that their child, their beloved, will be consigned to an eternity away from God, and lets be honest, that is what the majority, or at least a large proportion of evangelical churches teach is the case for those who aren’t Christians. And to be a Christian is to fit in a rather narrow mold.

So there’s a number of ways of approaching it:

1) You can tough it out. ‘They made their choice, I just pray God has mercy…’

2) You can deny it. ‘They are still Christian at heart, this is just a phase’.

3) You can engage with it.

Option three requires a lot of resource. Principally it requires thinking, and that means a reappraisal of your core beliefs, and it may require the conscious deconstruction of parts of your own evangelical theology. This doesn’t necessarily mean leaving evangelical church, although I’ve seen it precipitate that too. But I’ve known lots and lots of evangelicals who remain in church despite, not because of, the theology they are taught. ‘Where else would we go? Our friends are here.’

But it’s that moment when the child tells the evangelical parent that they are moving in with their girl/boyfriend, or that they just don’t believe in God anymore, and perhaps they never really did – and all this reinforces to the parent that things are not how they used to be, or perhaps how they hoped they would be. And maybe it feels like a part of you has just died an aching death, and you realise you can’t ignore it any more. Or you can, but if you do, it’s going to be really hard. 

For me, the only real solution is to engage. I’m not keen on denial, and I don’t think toughing it out is a long term solution. I think you have to talk, to think, to reflect/pray/contemplate, to read, and to talk some more. I’m keen to facilitate that kind of conversation, and I’m easy to get hold of. Facebook message me, tweet me, or email me. There are answers, they just may not fit the kind of way you think at the moment.