Tuesday, June 28, 2016

'jesus christ superstar'

The thing about the gospel of John is, it's got great theology but it makes for really bad music.


See? It really is about a bunch of dirty hippies.
I make this observation after somebody else has characterized "Jesus Christ Superstar" in the opposite manner; which is to say, the music is great but the theology is lacking. This assuredly is true, but then I was unaware that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice ever intended to write a work of theology. Rock operas generally are meant to entertain rather than to convey a seminary education, though doubtless there is some undergirding philosophy that may be understood if one listens closely enough to the music.

Another commenter correctly diagnoses the musical as 1970s eisogesis; that is, it foists 1970s thinking onto the gospel story. Eisogesis, incidentally, is a nice word. I must remember to use it in church some time. "Preacher, that's an eisogetical reading of the text. Learn to read the passaage correctly!" (Not that this is often a problem at my church. Sometimes, but it's rare and usually only happens when one of the elders is preaching.)

There is an irony in this observation about "Jesus Christ Superstar," namely that many if not most reactions of Christians to the show are themselves essentially eisegetical in nature. Believers typically see the musical through the lens of belief and thus regard it as either essentially faith-affirming or essentially hostile toward faith, without actually stopping to consider the motivations of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

That is, the musical uses the language, symbols and even the stories of Scripture to convey tell its own story. Because it draws so heavily on the gospel, we often see it either as a presentation of the gospel ("It's about the Passion!") or as an attempted repudiation of the gospel ("It denies the Resurrection!") Both these interpretations are eisegetical in nature, relative to the text of the musical, without regard for the motivation of the show's creators or how its original audiences were meant to understand it.

A more exegitical interpretation would view the show through the lens of the 1960s, with Jesus as a representation of the highest aspirations of the sixties movements, and the Sanhedrin and Pilate representing authority and the status quo threatened by the rise of the flower children and peace movement.

Like any other piece of dramatic literature, of course, "Jesus Christ Superstar" is subject to reinterpretation through new productions that will reflect the values, beliefs and intentions that the director, producer and performers bring to the show.

Some of those reinterpretations are more authoritative anid compelling than others; but honestly, the worst are usually the ones that try to make it a gospel appeal. I saw one of those about five years ago, where they actually added brief snippets of dialogue to harmonize it with the gospels. It was a major disappointment.

But at least the music was pretty good.



Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Monday, June 27, 2016

Freedom of religion and gay marriage

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision certain to be blasted as an assault on freedom of religion, has ruled that county clerks may not refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because of religious objections.

This is as it should be.

The decision should be the final word in an argument that has been brewing ever since the court issued its 5-4 ruling on June 26, 2015, that recognized the right of same-sex couples in America to marry. Particularly in the South, a number of Christian conservatives reacted with dismay to the decision. One, Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Ky., county clerk, actually went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to gay couples, on the grounds that Christianity forbids her from having anything to do with supporting gay marriage. 

The basis for this sort of opposition is handful of places in the Bible that mention homosexuality, including two verses in Leviticus, a passage in Romans, and another passage in 1 Corinthians. Because these writings unequivocally present homosexuality in a negative light, Davis and her defenders have argued that they should not sign off on marriage licenses, and that the First Amendment protects that right.

They are wrong. The Supreme Court got this one right.

Some of my fellow Christians may disagree; however, I would point out firstly that those whose consciences are deeply troubled by same-sex marriage are free to leave jobs that require officiating at them or that in some way assisting with their processing. If we believe that there is a fundamental conflict between their faith and their job, our faith instructs us to place our faith first and recognize that we cannot meet the requirements of the job. Freedom of religion does allow us to make that choice. A lack of religious freedom would require us to stay in those jobs and perform those tasks.

More fundamentally, though, this does not rise to the level that we should feel it requires civil disobedience, nor should we pretend it does. Don't approve of same-sex marriage? OK, don't approve. The First Amendment grants you that right. There is no punishment for having a religious position on anything.

But if you take the view that same-sex marriage offends the Almighty, the best you can argue is that it offends him morally and not because it is an issue of justice that requires a principled stand. Look at all the prophets in the Bible. They were angry about things like workers denied wages, exploitation of the poor and the immigrant, and acts of cruelty. When the prophets warned of God's coming judgment, it was never because of gay people or same-sex relationships. Not even once.

Those other issues, though? Number-one theme of the Bible, Genesis through Revelation.

If we can't affirm the dignity and right of same-sex couples to marry, then let's at least stop fighting it, and focus our energies on the things that actually matter to God.



Copyright ©2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Donald Trump, born again Christian?

So, apparently Donald Trump has accepted Christ.

That is the report of James Dobson, coincidentally one of the evangelical leaders whose support Trump has been courting as the Republican Party heads into its convention. Trump is decidedly toxic, with the result that many prominent Republicans are keeping their distance, even as they pledge to support him as the presumptive nominee.

Of course, as a Christian, Trump would be able to lay claim to God's forgiveness, which he famously has said he has never needed; and then Christian voters throughout America would be obliged to support him too. The alternative is Hillary Clinton.

As my younger brother would say, "That's nice, Gary."

Trump is racist, mysoginistic, xenophobic and a liar; and he preys on the worst and basest impulses in people. As such he is unfit for city councilman, let alone the White House. Religious beliefs (real or feigned) are irrelevant to a candidate's worthiness of public office. His lack of moral character makes him the worst candidate from a major party in at least a century.

As to the claim that he's suddenly become a Christian, I call political opportunism. Want me to take claims of a recent conversion seriously? Claims of conversion don't mean a thing without a changed life. Urge him to drop his vainglorious pursuit of the presidency and to show fruit in keeping with repentance. He might start with the command of Christ to "Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, so you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come and follow me."

Trump should never hold office, but at least that way he'll have done something meaningful with both his life and his money.

If Trump comes off like someone deliberately exploiting religion for votes, the ones who comes off truly terrible are James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Jr., who are attempting to spread their legitimacy in the evangelical world over Trump. Dobson, who founded Focus on the Family as part of his effort to spread his gospel of how to raise children, has had waning influence in the evangelical world despite retiring from that particular ministry several years ago.

But if we must be honest, this is not terribly surprising. Dobson is someone who loves power and has a naked hunger for influence. That's been evident since he leveraged the audience of his show to get a seat on the Meese Commission on Pornography, but it has been especially evident since the heyday of Focus on the Family during the Bush administration, when he was threatening to put senators whose votes he disagreed with "in the hot seat."

Falwell's father was much the same way, and though I know precious little about Falwell Jr., it looks like the apple didn't fall far from the tree.

I doubt very much that the two men are making up a born-again story for Trump. My best guess is that they want it to be true, since that would appear to grant legitimacy to supporting Trump's White House ambitions and to telling rank-and-file evangelicals to support them as well.

What this tells me is that these two men, and other evangelicals who are "advising" Trump, are willing to accept a man who represents the opposite of Christ's teachings if they believes it will give them the potential for influence. To Dobson, Falwell, Michelle Bachman and their fellows, bigotry, xenophobia, philandering and self-aggrandizement are all preferable to having a liberal in the White House, at least when you give them a Christian gloss.

It is heartbreaking how far they have fallen.


Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

forgiveness is a burden

I wish someone could explain to me how forgiveness works.

That sounds so childish, doesn't it? “Forgive and forget” is one of the first lessons I remember my parents teaching me when I was a child, and I've always tried to teach it to my children too. Don't hold on to the things people do that hurt you. Forgive them, and then move on. Forgiveness is life itself. Refusing to forgive someone poisons wells so that the water becomes bitter. It salts the earth so that the crops won't grow, and festers like an open wound until it kills the injured relationship.

Forgiveness is basic to the Christian faith. The disciples asked Jesus how to pray, and he put forgiveness right at the heart of the prayer he taught them. And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.

This goes far beyond a mere religious observance like fasting or showing up at church on Sunday. Jesus made it clear that forgiveness is absolutely mandatory for anyone who wants to be counted his follower. For if you forgive men their sins, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their sins, neither will your Father forgive your sins. 

It doesn't even matter how badly the person wronged us. The people crucified Jesus, and his final words still included a plea for their pardon. Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing.

It doesn't matter how many times the same person has hurt us. The disciples came and asked Jesus how many times they should forgive the same person, and even generously suggested that seven times would be enough. Not seven times, Jesus answered, but seven times seven times.

In some ways, that doesn't sound so hard. Anyone can forgive a moment's rudeness or an evening of disrespect. At an opportune moment, or in the light of the morning, you approach the offender, show her the injury and let her understand how she hurt you. Most people are decent enough to be mortified, apologize profusely and make things right. You'd be a cad not to forgive in that situation.

But those slights are mild, like forgetting to say thank you, or slapping someone in the face. Forgiving affronts like that is easy. The big stuff is much worse. How do you forgive someone who betrays a confidence and leaves your secrets exposed and your shame laid bare to the world? How do you forgive your abuser, or someone who breaks his marriage vows? How do you forgive anyone who denies, rejects or mocks who you are; or who dismisses the agony you're going through and blithely tells you to get over it?

How do you forgive people who swear before God that they will walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death with you, and then abandon you when it starts to get dark?

How? Goddam it, how?


Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.


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