Thursday, March 28, 2019

Things We God Wrong about the Bible & Why It's Important to Get It Right

Things We Got Wrong about the Bible & Why It's Important to Get It Right

This was my presentation at St. Bede's Adult Forum on March 24, 2019. As members of the church choir misses these forums, I am posting this for them as well as for others who missed the event.

            When I was in seminary our daily morning services consisted in Morning Prayer followed by Holy Communion. We were all expected to attend Morning Prayer, but communion was optional. Coming from a very low church, I was not at all used to daily communion, so I often joined others in leaving the chapel right after Morning Prayer. It was called "The Judas Walk," as. thought the more haughty high church seminarians, we were turning our back on Jesus as a kind of betrayal.
            So, how do you remember Judas. What happened when he identified Jesus to the soldiers with a kiss?
            In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) there are three occasions where a kiss is an important part of an event. They are found in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the story of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet in the Pharisee's house, and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. In their accounts of Judas' betrayal of Jesus by a kiss, both Matthew and Mark (Mark being the earliest gospel) describe the kiss using the Greek verb kataphileo, which means to kiss firmly, intensely, passionately, tenderly, or warmly. As Biblical scholar Clarence Jordan has it, kissing "over and over again."
            Describing Judas' kiss, the author of Luke uses the simpler phileo (22:47) meaning, simply, "kiss" and philemati (22:48), denoting a kiss to show respect or gentle affection between friends.
Luke does use the more effusive kataphileo in the story of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet
and to describe the father's welcoming home of his son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The events in both of those stories are highly charged and speak of the depths of human caring.
            So while Matthew and Mark describe Judas' kiss of betrayal in terms of its tenderness and intense passion, the author of Luke uses the more formal forms of the verb, phileo and philimata. When we pay attention to these differences, our understanding of  Judas' betrayal takes on a quite different meaning. Instead of the usual explanations of Judas' betrayal as stemming from greed, radical disappointment, or wanting to force Jesus to claim his kingdom by might, what we have is an intense struggle in the mind of Judas -- a struggle between his deep affection for Jesus and his pledge, for whatever reasons, to the authorities. Anguish is probably the best way to describe Judas' emotional state.  This is clearly a therapist's or an existentialist's dream - one we have missed over and over again.
            So, when Luke tones down the intensity of Matthew and Mark's description of Judas' kiss
by the use of the relatively pedestrian phileo and philemati, was that done intentionally to set off Judas' kiss from that of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet and the father who smothered his returning son with kisses? Whatever the intent, Luke's change of the form of the verb has reduced Judas  to a one dimensional figure at this point, robbing him and us of the immense power of this event.,

The Popular Claim that the Old Testament God is a God of Violence
While the God of the New Testament is a God of Love.

            In this view, the Jewish Law is seen as a burden, something thoroughly rule based and oppressive. Nowhere, the claim goes, is that more evident than in the Book of Leviticus. So I want to talk about Leviticus, this most maligned Book of Bible to see if we've gotten this theory right or wrong. I want to focus on the Holiness Code (18-20), which in some way may be the high point in Biblical morality.
            Much of Leviticus is concerned with the holy - not the ethereal, spiritual holy, but with the root sense of the word, as "set apart." The People of God had been set apart, made holy. They were different from other peoples and that was reinforced by what they were to eat, how they were related to one another sexually, and even what fabrics they could wear. It was not that they were better than anyone else: they had been chosen, in a sense, to be a city set on a hill. They belonged to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in a special way (Oddly enough, Abraham is noted for, among other things, his lying to save himself, Isaac's name meant "laughter," and Jacob stole his brother's birthright - giving us "The God of the Liar, Laughter, and the Larcenist." As Norman Ewart wrote "how odd of God to choose the Jews."
            Much of the morality of Leviticus has to do with our participation in the reality of God. Here are two high points taken from the Holiness Code in the middle of Leviticus: note that each ends with "I am the Lord your God,"
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyards bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard: you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. Lev. 19:9-10
 When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. Lev. 19:33-34.
This concern for the poor, for the stranger is probably unequalled in all of Scripture and it is enjoined because that is who God is. My last parish was as rector of John Steinbeck's parish church in Salinas, California and some of my parishioners were the leaders of the lettuce industry - and they followed those words of Leviticus, leaving a tenth of their produced for the poor. They were reflecting the very character of God. In part that is also reflected in St. Paul's urging us "to put on Christ."
            Another thing: Jews have always considered the Law as a gift, as it let them know what God expected of them. I think any of us would have been relieved to know what our boss or our supervisor expected of us.

In the Old Testament, there are several strains or traditions of morality:
            First, there is the morality based on the character of God (also, with their                                                    dietary laws, reflecting the experience of a nomadic people).
            Second, there is the practical, most clear in the delightful Book of Proverbs,                                                      where we learn how to be a moral merchant, how to choose a wife,                                    and about such character traits as laziness and generosity.
            Third, the tradition of social justice, as in Amos and the major prophets.
                        Amos 7:7-9 God requires that our morality be judged by a plumbline.
                        Amos 6:4ff. He addresses income inequality/indifference to the poor.
                        5:21-24 This is the heart of Martin Luther King Jr's faith. I believe this is the high                                      point of Biblical ethics.


            Jesus' parables have different purposes, mainly what it means to live in Kingdom of God.
The Biblical scholar Amos Wilder (Thornton Wilder's brother) wrote that they represent a paradigm in conflict with the prevailing cultural values of the time. They are an assault on our cultural paradigms: what we value or prize, how we are organized, middle class ethics, what we reward. This is clearest in the parables of the Workers in the Vineyard, the Lost Sheep, and the Lost Coin (where God's generosity is mirrored in the prodigality/generosity of the woman who spends many times the value of her lost but found coin for the party to celebrate her success!.
            There are several instances where the bite, the controversial nature of a parable is undercut by either translations or later explanations. The most striking is the Parable of the Leaven (Luke 13:21-22 and Matthew 13:33). The Pharisees have just asked Jesus to explain what he meant by "the kingdom of God."

                20. Again he said, “To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God with?  21 It is like a                    woman who took leaven and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

There have been hundreds of thousands sermons on this parable, focusing on the way that our faith grows and grows over the years until . .  .However, there is a problem here. Recently it was pointed out that the only meaning of leaven in the New Testament is "corruption," "evil," as "beware of the leaven of the Pharisees." All of a sudden we discovered the revolutionary character of this parable. Can you imagine the horror of the Pharisees? First, a woman is the metaphor for God, but then there is what she does: she takes corruption and hides in the middle of the purity of the flour, kneads it together until the elements are indistinguishable and then it represents the Kingdom of God. What this does, it seems to me, is shift our conception of what is required to be part of the Kingdom away from personal morality - more about that at another time. But you can see how a powerful parable has been turned into a Hallmark card - just because of a mistranslation.
            The same is true with the Parable of the Unjust Judge, only here through the addition of an added explanation. Luke 18:2-5

1. And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 "He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by her continually coming.'" 6. And the Lord said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate his elect who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?

With the explanation (in italics here), the parable is an exhortation to pray diligently: if the widow finally gets what her family needs from this crooked judge, how much easier it will be with God. A gentle, kindly story. However, with the explanation removed, it is clear that the widow (again a woman) is the metaphor for God - like the hound of heaven, coming back and back until His will is fulfilled. What a great parable for those parents dealing with a child seemingly lost to drugs or criminality. God never gives up.
            The process has, in my opinion, domesticated the Parable of the Sower. The explanation focuses the parable on the soils, describing how different situations or character flaws keep us from being productive members of the kingdom, turning the parable into a theology of works! How different it is when the focus is on the Sower, sowing seeds where there is little hope for harvest. It's not only the spiritually receptive who receive the blessing, but those who through limited intellectual capacity, maybe advanced ADHD, or as a result of being sexually abused are unable to respond at the same level as the spiritually gifted. After all, it is with the outcasts with whom Jesus spent most of his time.
            You can always disregard the explanations - added by editor who "didn't get it."
Relationship between Christianity and Judaism/ Jews and Christians

          When I was in seminary, probably the most prevalent notion of this relationship was what was called Triumphalism, that once Jesus had come to fulfill the Law the Jewish religion had been supplanted. At its worst, Jews who had rejected Jesus as Lord were traitors. Mostly, though, Judaism was treated with tolerance and for its importance in leading up to the Christian faith.
            Fairly recently things have changed, first through the publication of Karl Barth's Commentary on Romans, published in German in 1920 and in English in 1930. Barth's conclusions on the critical nature of Romans 9-11 were popularized by the Swedish bishop and New Testament scholar, Krister Shendahl, while teaching at Harvard and Paul Van Buren, an Episcopal priest teaching at Temple University. Their critical insight or observation was that God does not break promises, therefore the promise made to Abraham that he would be the father of the people of God remains. The Jews remain the People of God and we as the Christian church have been grafted into Jewish holy history. Thus, our relationship to Judaism is one of dependence, not superiority.
Same Gender Relationships
          For centuries, the Christian church believed that homosexuality and homosexual behavior was condemned in the Bible".       What is condemned is male Prostitution and exploitive relationships involving two men. In the Bible there is only one description of a homosexual relationship based on mutuality, sacrificial love, and commitment. That is the relationship between Jonathan and David. Though conservatives believe their relationship was not sexual, I believe the text says differently.
            The conflict within the church about homosexuality mirrors the previous debate within the church about slavery. On the one side has been those who proof texted or used selected quotes from Scripture to defend its position in favor of slavery and against tolerating homosexual relationships and acts. On the other side have been those who argued that the overall witness of Scripture is against the toleration and practice of slavery and in favor of the church's affirmation of same gender relationships and sexuality.
            My favorite piece on the matter comes from the author, Frederick Buechner. He writes that when we say God is love, one of the things we mean is that all love comes from God. There is no other source. It is not one of the things in our power. It happens through us for the other. What this tells me is what St. Paul in Galatians 5 tells us, that when we observe the marks of the Holy Spirit or the presence of agape love, that indicates the blessing of God. There is much more to say, but this is a good beginning.

            I have often heard comedian Bill Maher challenge self-identified Christians by asking "How can anyone believe in a religion with a talking snake?" The line always got a chuckle from his audience, even while demonstrating the amazing ignorance of Bill Maher, who is unaware of the role of myth and metaphor in dealing with the ultimate questions about human life. and in our  addressing our relationship with the infinite.    
          No respectable Biblical scholar of any Christian denomination believes that the stories involved in the creation narratives were intended to serve as history. Their function is etiology, trying to make sense of our place in the world, questions of meaning, purpose, guilt and shame, death and so much more. There are multiple authors of these accounts, ranging from those referred to as "J" for their use of "Yahweh" to refer to God and their existentialist bent to the school of writers called "P" or Priestly School, known for their interest in details and their interest in rituals and priestly governance. J's focus on the creation is reflected in the stories of Adam and Eve and the rest, while P devised the scheme of the seven days of creation - and if you pay close attention you can spot traces of both schools interwoven in each other's narratives in Genesis. They are also probably the first existentialists in recorded history.
            With these stories and others the question is not when or whether they took place (ala Bill Maher and other scoffers). The right question about myths is not "when did it happen?" but "where is it happening?" 
          When I was in Salinas, California I experienced all this as I observed the story of Cain and Abel being lived out in Steinbeck's "East of Eden" in the Salinas Valley. Bruce and Steve Taylor had controlling interest in Fresh Express produce, the successor to the great Bruce Church company, the largest lettuce company in the Salinas Valley. When Steve "got religion," he initiated a brutal battle, forcing Bruce out of the family business. Bruce, my parishioner, then started Taylor Farms, which is now the equal of Fresh Express. The struggles between these two brothers took place within a larger context which had continued through generations - and which has been experienced in other family and cultures. Thus, the important question about these myths of Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve, and the Tower of Babel should never be "When did it happen?" but "Where is it happening?" And as we will see in a future Forum, they have happened over and over again in communities, intimate relationships, and even among nations.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Ironies are Killing Us

The Ironies are Killing Us
by Thomas B. Woodward

            There are times when the ironies of life get to be too much. One in particular had to do with the Sandy Hook massacre of those little children. It shook me to the core. Others have followed, but I will stick with Sandy Hook.

            Besides the terrible carnage in it all, there was this newspaper headline: "NFL Honors Victims of Sandy Hook School Shootings." Now there, I thought, is something close to the ultimate irony: fans and players of a sport centered on violent confrontations of every minute of every game are somehow honoring not the perpetrator, but the victims of violence. That few would find such an irony startling is probably a good measure of how deadened we have become to the symbolism and reality of so much of our life.

            The more I thought about that headline, the more upset I became. The National Football League thought it was honoring the victims of Sandy Hook shootings by doing what, in good part, led to the shootings in the first place! Keeping silent. "My God," I thought, "a secondary and even worse irony." The symbolism and the reality of those moments of silence in the sport's pregame ceremonies surely should have pushed at least one commentator into paroxysms of disgust. "Dream on," I thought. This holy moment of silence, ironically, speaks not for the victims, but for those who have been observing decades of silence in the face of innocent suffering. How civil we are. We will honor the fallen by keeping our mouths shut.

            So what was the story I wanted to read?  I would keep the headline, but the story would have a different direction. It would read something like

Yesterday the National Football League set aside a period of time before each of its Sunday games to honor the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings with five minutes of outrage. Following the lead of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, each stadium crowd was led in five minutes of chanting "No More. No More, It's Enough! No More Guns!" by officially clad cheerleaders of the competing teams, each flanked by their own children or nieces and nephews. The response seemed to vary from stadium to stadium, with voices barely heard in some locations while the chanting was deafening in others, often lasting fifteen minutes or more after the cheerleaders had retired to the sidelines.    
            I wonder if anyone inside or outside our churches, synagogues, or mosques expects anything but the ironies, with the silence and relief that community acquiescence brings. It frightens me that there is no institution we can count on for focused and continuing outrage. In that fear my mind went back to the words of the athiest, Albert Camus, as he spoke to a group of Dominican monks about what the world expects of Christians:

What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face  history has taken on today.[1]

Silence, yes, if it is to recall the holiness of innocent life. Silence, yes, if that remembered holiness leads us unequivocally to safeguard that holiness against the worship of anything that might threaten or snuff it out, even guns. However, if that silence dies outs in the stadium, let those Dallas Cheerleaders and their sisters take over, thrusting their pompoms into the sky, demanding, "Enough. Enough!" as they stand with all those who fear for our children and who refuse to accept legislative loopholes and clever judicial distortions of the Second Amendment. Ironies and oxymorons are clever and original intent justices may be even more clever, but they won't be able to stand up to a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader with a child on each arm.

[1] Camus, Albert, "Resistance, Rebellion and Death," Knopf, NY, 1961, p. 71

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Most Terrible Irony in My Lifetime

     I am shocked that a large number of U.S. Senators and members of Congress who identify themselves as believing Christians would approach the yearly celebration of the birth of Jesus by shamelessly enriching the wealthy of this country while eliminating health care insurance coverage for over thirteen million poor and struggling families.
     Who do they think they are honoring on December 25? It is certainly not Jesus, who identified himself over and over again with the poor and the outcast. It is certainly not Jesus, who time after time railed against the wealthy who enriched themselves at the expense of the human family. One cannot hold a hymnal filled with Christmas carols in one hand while holding this legislation in the other.
     Jesus, following the lead of the Prophets who preceded him, spoke loudly and clearly against the underpinnings and the elements of the "tax reform" bill passed last night. Jesus summed it up in his brief challenge, "You cannot serve both God and Mammon." Our President and the Republican majority in both houses have loudly and clearly chosen Mammon - and as a final insult to the faith they claim to profess, they wanted to accomplish it all "before Christmas." Is that terrible, terrible irony - or simply blasphemy?

Monday, May 01, 2017

Israel & the Clown

Israel and the Clown
Thomas B. Woodward

            I have been convinced for a long time that most of our Biblical history is centered in the comic experience – or more particularly, in the image of the clown (not not Bozo or Ronald McDonald, more like Emmet Kelly or a stage clown like Avner the Eccentric or Ken Feit.[1]
The fool. I want to explore that through four overarching themes:the calling of the nation, Israel;the role of Isaiah's image of the suffering servant; the ministry and role of the prophet; and the fool, the church as pied piper.

            For me, the two high points of Jewish Scriptures are the calling of the nation, Israel, and Isaiah's vision of the nation as suffering servant. Both reflect the clown's experience.
            There is a poem by William Norman Ewer which It begins, "How odd of God to choose the Jews.” “How odd" and, some would add, how very much in keeping with the comic or foolish stance of God in dealing with the world, reflected in the wonderful playfulness in the calling of Israel. 
            In the Bible, God does not choose the richest, most educated, or most powerful people to be His people. God, instead, chooses the smallest and least significant people to be the people of God. They are not rich, they are not powerful, they are not distinguished morally or ethically.The choice of the Hebrew slaves was comic -- just as it was with the apostles - and for you and me.
            And Israel's authority does not depend not on military might, but on her weakness and her faithfulness to a vision. Reading the Book of Deuteronomy, there is a cyclical pattern. When the nation is conscious of its comic origins, it flourishes; but when it begins placing its trust in its own power and strength . . . certain disaster. That cycle is repeated over and over again. That is called the Deuteronomic theory of history.[3]
            It is only when Israel takes herself too seriously, when she forgets the high comedy of her calling that she becomes unfaithful. The experience of grace, for both Christian and Jew is, at its purest, the experience of incongruity, of surprise and delight at being chosen, forgiven and redeemed. But, when that becomes our right, when it is something we own, we are in for big trouble.

                     Adam, to stretch Biblical language, fell from gravity.
                     We all fall, says the Bible, though not in so many words,
                     because of gravity.
                     We are raised in levity,
                     levitated into a new dimension.  "How odd of God. . . ."
          The comic dimensions of Israel's calling is also reflected in the underpinnings of her identity.
One of the phrases that echoes throughout the Psalms is the exhortation to remember that we worship “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." You've got to love it: Abraham, who lied to protect himself and his interests, Isaac, born when his parents were in their nineties, who with tears running down their faces from joy and shock, to celebrate the incongruity of it all they named him Isaac, which means "Laughter." And then Jacob, who violated at least nine of the 10 commandments in grand style while stealing his family blind. "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. . ." or, "The God of the liar, laughter and the larcenist." How odd of God . . .[4]


            On the other side of Biblical experience, there is Isaiah's great portrayal of the nation as Suffering Servant. These visions of the Suffering Servant reflect much more the pathos of the clown than they do the grimness of tragedy -- and that, I believe, is its peculiar power. Similarly, I am  reminded every Holy Week that no one ever pities Jesus on the Cross. An important element of the Russian tradition, the clown is "He who gets slapped," the buffoon who absorbs into his or her body the pain and the hostility of the surrounding world.
            As you read the words of Isaiah 53:2-7, picture Israel, the Holocaust, picture Jesus on the Cross, picture suffering humanity in any setting. Or picture Emmett Kelly, the tramp clown as he is buffeted in one after another tragedies.

"Without beauty, without majesty (we saw him),
no looks to attract our eyes;
a thing despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. . .

And yet ours were the sufferings he bore,
ours the sorrows he carried. .
On him lies a punishment that brings us peace,
and through his wounds we are healed. . .

[picture Emmet Kelly, picture a holocaust victim]
Harshly det with, he bore it humbly,
he never opened his mouth,
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter house,
like a sheep that is dumb before its shearers
never opening its mouth."
                                       Isaiah 53:2-7

           In my experience, one of the most impressive things done by a religious group was done by a group of Quakers in New York City.One day in the late 1960's with all the violence surroundingthe nations' responses to the Viet Nam War,the City's Quaker community heard that there was to be an ugly confrontation between some angry young protesters and some militaristic construction workers at a building site.
          So the Quakers went, as a group, to the siteand positioned themselves between the two factions as they converged upon one another.absorbing the hostility and the punishment of both protesters and hard-hats until,finally, the combatants began to see what was happening. Then quietly, and somewhat sadly, both sides withdrew – touched deeply by the holiness of God present in those (how could you say it better?) clowns.
            In response to Isaiah's portrayal of the Suffering Servant and the many instances of Jesus' embrace and of the poor and the marginalized, Soren wrote in his diary one of the most ironic lines in all of Christian theology: 

"In the splendid Palace Church a stately court chaplain, the declared favorite of the cultivated public, shows himself to a select circle of distinguished, cultivated persons and preaches a moving sermon on this word by the Apostle: 'God chose the lowly and despised.'  And nobody laughs."


            We have the calling of the nation, the vision and experience of the Suffering Servant/the Crucified One, and  third,  the calling of the nation and its people to be prophets for the world,
to expose and to shame the idols which entrap human lives and human communities with their 
 inadequate, false and blasphemous ways of being in the world. This sacred calling of the nation and its prophets is not too different from the calling of the clown or fool. The Fool. The Holy Fool.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel used to retell an old Hassidic tale as a parable of our calling: 

   Once upon a time there was a small kingdom whose only industry was its agriculture.  Everyone was happy and everyone had plenty to eat -- until one year, when it was discovered to everyone's horror, that something terrible had gone wrong with that year's crops. Something in the crops made whoever ate them crazy -- insane. The kingdom was soon in an uproar. So the king hurriedly gathered all his wise men and wise women together and met with them around the clock for several days. Then he called his kingdom together to announce his decision. "Twelve people will be set aside," he said.  "The rest of us will eat the crazy-making crop. But all our food in storage will be set aside for the twelve. They will eat the old crop. The twelve will serve the very important function of reminding the rest of us that we are, indeed, crazy."

What a magnificent image of our calling!  The ministry of the fool. The fool, stumbling along, in trouble with the authorities which trouble us all, not quite understanding the wisdom of the age, always a little out of step – whether by name of Mother Theresa or Francis of Assisi, Desmond Tutu or Rosa Parks -- ambassadors of another way, reminding the rest of us that we are, indeed, crazy.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit," says Jesus. 
"Blessed are the meek. . the merciful. . the thirsty and the hungry. . .
"Blessed are you  mourn. . ." 

Those are hardly values of this world. If you want to find the Credo of the clown, there is no better place to look than the Beatitudes or the Magnificat, a world turned upside down.
            As teller of truth, as mirror (mime) to the people of their sin and their possibilities,
spelling out the bondage and the idolatries of the age, the  similarities between Israel and clown, between the church and the fool are neither frivolous nor artificial. Both traditions are grounded in a common frustration with the fallenness of the world and both understand both the tragic and the absurd in life. Both understand the reality of a grace and radical acceptance which are not for the world to give. I'm convinced that the more completely we understand the fool, the more involved we will be in the meaning and the message of the Bible.
            We begin with the prophets. For the Biblical prophet, for Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah, there is a fundamental confrontation between a confused and alienated world – and a vision of a radically different order.  The same is true for the clown; though where the prophet's weapons for the confrontation are his anger, his imagination, and (for Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea) occasional pantomime, the clown uses play, costuming and a whole range of miming and slapstick to confront the absurdities and idolatries of the day.

The director for Charlie Chaplain and the Keystone Cops movies, Max Sennet, had one, and only one basic tenet: "Always keep the comic on the wrong end of the gun." Just so with God and the prophets -- both in Biblical times and now.

            Isaiah, a patrician turned prophet, goes through the streets virtually naked in order to pantomime the distress which is about to overtake the nation. Jeremiah, learning that the country is soon to be overwhelmed and overrun by conquering Babylonian forces, on his way out of town absurdly buys a field as his commitment to God's promise to restore the country's fortunes. 
            The prophet Hosea was a marvelous fool. In order to show the nation its own unfaithfulness towards God, Hosea marries Gomer, the most outrageous prostitute in the country –and remains faithful to her while she continues to ply her trade. When his friends ask, "Hosea, how on earth could you have married Gomer -- and then stay faithful to her while she continues to have sex with any and all available males in the city? How can you deal with that level of unfaithfulness?" Hosea responds, "How is that different from God's experience with you?" 
                Hosea then names his children with names which reveal the nation's shame. You can see Hosea out with his children waiting for some super patriot to say, "What lovely children. What are their names?" just so he could respond, "Well, this one is Internment Camps and his sister is Ferguson, Missouri and the little guy in the stroller is Abu Grahib."[5] The Prophet as Clown/Fool


            Part of being the prophet involves holding up before us alternative realities, just as our understanding of our Baptism is that we are already citizens of heaven, already incorporated into the Kingdom of God - something our coming physical death will not interrupt. The Credo of the world is "First you live: then you die. The Credo for the church is "First you die: then you live."[6]
            An Alternative Reality: or, as my friend David Fly observed, "Every Stan Laurel needs his Oliver Hardy."  Not too long on almost every large college campus across the country there was a group of films which came back year after year, playing to packed houses. You can still find them at Netflix. The message in each of these movies is the same:  in this world, it is only the fool who is sane.

Zorba the Greek
A Thousand Clowns
King of Hearts
Harold and Maude
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

            Whether it is Murray in "A Thousand Clowns," Alan Bates in "King of Hearts," Maude in "Harold and Maude," Mac in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" or Zorba the Greek each of these clown/fools has found himself or herself caught in the midst of a hostile world, somehow out of place and involved in a constant struggle for emotional, spiritual and physical survival.
            The message in each of these movies is that always, it seems, the one who appears the most human, the most humane, discovers himself or herself as the alien, the intruder -- as out of place. I think of Charlie Brown and Linus in the old comic strip, Peanuts, two kids, standing together, pondering the meaning of life. The first to speak is Charlie Brown:

Charlie Brown:   "I think I can understand your fear of libraries, Linus. 'Library Fever'  is similar to    other mental disturbances. You fear the library rooms because  they are strange to you. You are out of place. All of us have certain areas in which we feel out of place."
Linus: "Oh?  In what area do you feel out of place, Charlie Brown?"

Charlie Brown: "EARTH!"

Maybe Charlie Brown is on to something, something that each of us knows, however dimly --
that maybe it is better to be ill at ease in a world such as ours, where survival of the fittest so often means survival of the least human. To be too much at home in this to be in trouble.
As Jesus said, "Foxes have holes, and birds have their nests, but the [children of God] have no place to lay their heads."
            And there is the movie of Harold and Maude, a story of the courtship of Harold, a teenager obsessed with death, and Maude, an irrepressible seventy-nine year old woman who takes delight in everything, absolutely everything. They have just met after a funeral Harold has attended out of his morbid obsession with death. Maude is there because a funeral is just as much a celebration of our lives as anything else.

Harold walked out of the pew and the old lady followed.
"What do you think of old fat Tom?" she asked.
"Who?" said Harold.
"St. Thomas Aquinas up there.  I saw you looking at him."
"I think he's... uh ... a great thinker."
"Oh, yes.  But a little old-fashioned, don't you think? 
Like roast swan.  Oh, dear!  Look at her."

They stopped before the dour portrait of the Madonna.
"May I borrow this?" the old lady asked,
taking the felt tipped pen from Harold's coat pocket. 
With a few deft strokes she drew a cheery smile on the Virgin's mouth.

Harold looked about the empty church to see if anyone was watching.
"There.  That's better," said Maude. 
"They never give the poor thing a chance to laugh. 
Heaven knows she has a lot to be happy about. 
In fact," she added, looking at several statues at the back of the church,
"they all have a lot to be happy about. 
Excuse me."

Harold made a halfhearted gesture for his pen, but to no avail.
The old lady was already in the back of the church,
drawing smiles on St. Joseph, St. Anthony, and St. Theresa.
"An unhappy saint is a contradiction in terms," she explained.

The Clown/Fool as Prophet, as Truth Teller. The Church as Buffoon, soaking up the world's hostility. And the Church, like Maude, as Pied Piper, enticing us into deeper and more profound dimensions of reality.  So, where are we in the world? Again, as David Fly reminds us, every Stan Laurel needs his Oliver Hardy:

There is an old Hassidic saying which goes: Everyone must have two pockets into which he can reach from time to time as his need requires. In the one pocket it shall be written: "For my sake were the heavens and the earth created." And in the other: "I am but dust and ashes."

One of the chief functions of the comic spirit is to remind us of "the whole truth."  Whenever we want to become either more or less than ourselves, the task of the clown/fool is to remind us of just that, the whole truth. In his collection of fantasy lives of Jesus, A. J. Langguth relates this story:

"At the instant the heavens parted,the Baptist turned up his face and absorbed
the words with his whole being."THIS IS MY BELOVED SON-- " the Baptist's
eyes shone with pride --"IN WHOM I AM WELL PLEASED." John dropped
his head with humility and looked for long moments into the depths of the brown
river. This will not do, Jesus thought.  Apologetically, he said, "I believe he meant me."

In his concern for the whole truth, the clown/fool chastises us when we reach too high –
and inspires us when we fail to reach at all.

Thus, Anderson and Johnson were sitting at the local bar, each lost in his own,
private misery. Finally Anderson heaven an enormous sigh and said, “Things
are so bad. .. so terrible, I feel like committing suicide." Johnson took a sip of
his beer, sighed his own enormous sigh and said, "If only I felt that good!"

The whole truth. The concern, always, with the fool is to return us to our humanness and to the experience of grace and forgiveness. Sometimes we get lost in our finitude. Other times we get lost in our abstract delusions of grandeur. Then, when we reach too high  or become too arrogant,
the fool's (the church’s) task is to recall us to our finitude and to the reality of our finite, thingy, particular world. There may be no better illustration of this than an old Jules Feiffer cartoon of an elderly man sitting on his front porch in a rocking chair:

"I used to think I was poor." he says.
"Then they told me I wasn't poor.  I was 'needy.'
"Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy; I was 'deprived.'
"Then they told me 'deprived' was a bad image; I was 'underprivileged.'
"Then they told me 'underprivileged' was overused; I was 'disadvantaged.'
"I still don't have a dime.
"But I have a great vocabulary."
It may be that only when we come to terms with the most concrete and persisting realities of our human condition that there is any decent chance of hope. We begin that, in ourselves and in the world around us, by paying attention to the whole truth. The tough stuff.
            And paying attention to the other side, the banquet side of life. Again, to use the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschell: "God has so ordered this world that every little girl will be a princess and every little boy a prince." Somehow, you and I, despite all the evidence to the contrary,
must continue to say just that -- in every way we can.
            And maybe the only way we can understand this is through parables, the Magnificat, the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount or some means which shows the presence of a totally other dimension than the pragmatic and the functional and the relevant. As St. Paul notes, our worldly wisdom tends to do us in. Here is my favorite illustration of this thing we have called "the whole truth." Langguth is writing about the boyhood of Jesus -- and his fantasy about Jesus has its own reality in the imago Dei that is each of us.

“Jesus opened his notebook on the study hall desk. Using the ruler from
his geometry class, he drew a ledger's line down the center of one page.
At the top of the left hand column he wrote ‘ASSETS.’ and over the other,
‘LIABILITIES.’ Under ‘LIABILITIES,’ he printed in block letters,

Shielding the page from the girl across the aisle, he added:

With some dismay he counted the entries and began to contemplate
the "ASSETS" column. With another look to be sure the girl couldn't
see the page, he wrote, "SON OF GOD."

In better spirits, he closed the notebook and started on the next day's translation of Cicero.

Despite all our liabilities, confusion and the dailiness of our lives, we have been chosen for a God who, for some strange reason, delights in us. It is so important to remember the left hand column.  We must never allow that to be taken away from us - or any of those in our care.
Part of the ministry of the fool (the church and the synagogue) in this culture is to remind us, always, to contemplate the ASSETS column.
            So how to sum it all up, put it all together? I think if I had to choose one character (not from the Bible) as an example of what it means to be a holy fool in the kind of world we living in, it would be Murray, in Herb Gardner's play, "A Thousand Clowns." Murray does not sound very religious, but a wise person would say that he is talking about life as it is given to us and speaking deeply about the things of the spirit.
            Because Murray has been a pretty unconventional guardian for his young nephew, a social worker has come to see about taking the boy away. At one point, the social worker speaks sharply to Murray, saying "Murray, you've got to come back to reality!" Murray responds, "Well, O.K., but only as a tourist."[7]
           Then Murray talks about the child's future –and in these words about our own vocation as holy fools: 

“And he started to make lists this year.
Lists of everything: subway stops, underwear, what he's gonna do next week.
If somebody doesn't watch out he'll start making lists
of what he's gonna do for the next ten years.
Hey, suppose they put him in with a whole family of list-makers? 
He'll learn to know everything before it happens,
he'll learn how to be one of the nice dead people. .

I just want him to stay with me till I can be sure he won't turn into Norman Nothing.
I want to be sure he'll know when he's chickening out on himself.
I want him to get to know exactly the special thing he is
or else he won't notice it when it starts to go. 
I want him to stay awake and know who the phonies are.
I want him to know how to holler and put up an argument,
I want a little guts to show before I can let him go.
I want to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities.
I want him to know it's worth all the trouble
just to give the world a little goosing when you get the chance.
And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason
why he was born a human being and not a chair.”

That's the crucial thing about living, all of living. Along with all that troubles or delights us from day to day and all the crises that befall us it is the reaching for that subtle, sneaky, important reason why we were born human beings and not chairs that provides the dimension of depth and of meaning for our lives.
            You and I have been set aside – set aside as religious people – as Episcopalians – to be a kingdom of fools. Believe me, there is no higher calling. Gabriel Marcel, the great French philosopher, once said "Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived." And it is so important that we do not reduce life to surviving or coping. Survival skills and coping skills and getting along too often leave us clinging to the surface of life. But there is so much more: you and I, we have been asked, in a phrase, to eat last year’s grain. And there is no higher calling.


            "The Prostitute in the Family Tree" by Doug Adams goes into detail about many of the comic elements of Scripture. One of the highlights of the book is Doug's hilarious use of the Geneology of Jesus - suitable for Advent sermons. Doug was a faculty member at the Graduate Theological Union, specializing in Scriptural Studies and Religious Art.
            "Kerygma and Comedy in the New Testament: A Structuralist Approach to Hermeneutic" by New Testament scholar Dan Via is a difficult read, but an important element in contemporary Biblical scholarship.
            "The Parables of Jesus from the Inside," in Volume 47:1 of the Sewanee Theological Review is my own contribution to the study of the parables, based in part on the work of Walter Wink and Carl Jung. My approach, using a dramatic approach to the parables, rich in comedic insight, in interactions with a congregation or other group allows participants to find themselves within several key parables of Jesus. A copy is in the St. Bede's library.
            "Tellling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale" by Frederic Buechner has an engaging reflection on the comedic structure and experience of the Gospels.


You can find several videos of Avner the Eccentric on youtube. I believe he is the best stage clown around. You will not regret the time you spend watching these videos. In my glory days, Avner and I taught together - and each time after watching him perform, my stomach ached from laughing. His stage show is on two youtube videos:  and

Ken Feit is much better in person than on a video, though I just found John Towson's site which has most of a long lost film about Ken's performances (the other part of the film is dedicated to the Jesuit ministry of Nick Webber's Royal Lichtenstein One-Quarter Ring Circus which played mostly on college campuses and in the middle of large ghettos. You can search for his videos on your own. Here is Ken Feit:

Here is Ken Feit, the storyteller, as Prophet, with his story of Cleo, the pregnant woman who is also the Muse of history and here as a poor Apalachian woman:
Cleo has gone to a fortune teller because she is worried about the baby she is carrying:
-- Fortune-teller lady, I got me a problem.
*  The problem in your belly, Cleo?
-- That's right, fortune-teller lady. That's where it is. Can ya help me? Sometimes I lay on my back, I feel a kickin' in my belly. Sometimes I close my eyes, I feel a pain in my head.
*  Well. This sounds serious. Set yourself down. I'll check ya over.
*Cleo, your baby is something else!
-- I know that fortune-teller lady.
*  I mean it is somethin "else" else!
-- Whatcha mean?
* I mean this here baby's gonna be strong.
-- Stronger than Rome?
*  That's right! This here baby gonna be rich!
-- Richer than Egypt?
*  Uh-huh. This here baby gonna travel a lot!
-- More than England?
*  That's right!
-- Well, that's wonderful, fortuneteller lady. I'm much obliged for what you tell me.
*  Not so fast, Cleo. You didn't let me finish.
--  Whatcha got to say?
* Just this. Your baby gonna be strong but gonna beat up on the babies it don't like.
-- No!
*  Yeah-us. Your baby gonna be rich and have lots of food, but keep it for its own mouth.
-- No!
*   Yeah-us. Your baby gonna travel lots. But its eyes gonna be mostly closed.
. . .
-- Tell me, fortune-teller lady, ain't der a goodness in my baby?
*  There's a goodness. Your baby's a good baby, but it got a streak of meanness too.
-- What name should I give my baby? Huh?
*  Call your baby, call your baby ... Cleo, call your baby -- America!
-- America?
*  America!
__ I never heard that name before.
*  I just made it up.
--  But why America?
*  On account of it's genuine kind - and that's Amer. But it's mean to. And that's Ca!
--  Can't I just call my baby, Amer?
*  You forget the Ca, and you get a kick in the teeth from your own baby. You understand?
And then Cleo wrestles with the thought: shall she keep this baby who will be full of kindness and generosity or what happens when her baby hurts and maybe kills some of her other babies?

This is an adaptation from Joe Martin's collection of stories and reflections of Ken in the book "Foolish Wisdom."

Ed Stivender's Nyah-Nyah Geschichte

 One of my favorite storytellers is Ed Stivender, whose work almost always focuses on religious religious themes.  He has one of the most creative theological minds in the country and often introduces himself,
One of my favorite storytellers is Ed Stivender, one of the most creative theological minds in the country. Here is how he often introduces himself:

"Hello, I'm Ed Stivender and I am a storyteller.  In fact, I'm a religious storyteller.  As a matter of fact, I'm a born-again storyteller.  If you want to know the truth, I've been born again so often that my soul has stretch marks!" 

He then lectures about the truth of "Nyah, Nyah Geschichte" ("Geschichte" being the German word used in theology to designate holy story or holy history). 

"You can hear the 'Nyah, Nyah, Nyah, Nyah-Nyah' phrase from early childhood echo through all of holy history," says Ed. "You can hear it as Noah looks back from the Ark at those who mocked his venture and are now holding on to the upper branches of the town's tallest trees as the flood encroaches foot by foot. "Nyah, Nyah, Nyah, Nyah-Nyah! Look at the Smarty-Pants!"
"You can hear it as the Hebrew slaves reach the other end of the Red Sea safely, as they look back on the Egyptians and their fancy horses and chariots drowning in the sea -- 'Nyah, Nyah, Nyah, Nyah-Nyah!  You thought you ha-ad us!  You thought we were on-ly sla-aves!"[[8]] 

The same theme echoes through event after event throughout Jewish and Christian scriptures -- with the Exodus, with various rescues of the young nation, with the return of the people from Babylonian captivity, and supremely with the resurrection of Jesus.  "Nyah, Nyah, Nyah, Nyah-Nyah!  Evil thought it had won!  Nyah, Nyah, Nyah, Nyah-Nyah!"  Not a bad image.

[1] See appendix for a videos and stories of Avner and Ken.
[3] You can check it out in Judges, I-II Samuel, I&II Kings, and Chronicles.
[4] This illustration comes from Doug Adams, author of "The Prostitute in the Family Tree."
[5] For a similar perspective, read in the Appendix Ken Feit's performance piece on Cleo, the Muse of History, visiting a fortune teller for advice on whether or not to abort her new nation about to be born.
[6] My first 15 Minute Play is an illustration of ths Credo. You can see it at:
[7] When I was presenting an earlier version of this piece, a middle aged man at the rear of the lecture hall became very disturbed. When I asked him if he had something to share, he said, "I teach drama at Kent State University and one year we were in rehearsals for "A Thousand Clowns," when the National Guard killed four of our students and the university shut down. When the university resumed the semester, we decided to go ahead with the play. On opening night, when we came to the line 'but only as a tourist,' the place erupted with cheers, tears and applause lasting over five minutes."
[1][8][]From lecture notes.