Notes on "Music and the Generosity of God"

Music and the Generosity of God, by Gerald C. Liu. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017

When and how does sound become music? And what does the ubiquity of sound tell us of God? These questions are pondered in the most fascination “Music and the Generosity of God” by Gerald C. Liu.

He states the basic theme of his book, “I propose that the generosity of God manifests in the music of sonic ubiquity. Where music never ceases, God gives.” (p. 3) Through exploring the person and work of John Cage, especially his piece 4’33’’ Liu invites the reader to encounter our sonic landscape as music, and this music is an ongoing gift of an ever generous God. Liu place a wonderfully strong emphasis on sound/music as a means of God’s expression, and our encounter of God. “God may manifest beyond measure in current encounters with the music of sonic ubiquity, especially for those unable to grasp the elocutions of speech or other discursively tied ways of communicating holy grace and love.” (p. 10) “Sonic ubiquity” is a recurring concept in this book which develops into the idea of “given music.”

It is hard for me to imagine people not familiar with Cage and his most noteworthy piece, but for those people, John Cage was a composer of what could be considered avant-garde or experimental music. He was also deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism. Performance of his 4’33’’ entails performer(s) not “performing” on their instruments for four minutes and thirty three seconds (although Cage says the piece can be performed for any length of time.) The music of the piece is all the sounds that the audience is exposed to during the time of the performance.

Unsurprisingly, initial response to this piece was uncertain and often unwelcome. Theological response to Cage’s 4’33’’ was disdain. “For [Nicholas] Wolterstorff and [Jeremy] Begbie Cage musically undermines God’s intention for humanity to create and order the materials of the earth.” (p. 16) Music, for them, can only be properly and intentionally human authored sound. “Begbie emphatically claims that God has freed human beings to create music purposefully, not randomly, and that music only happens when human intent is present.” (p. 123) Begbie’s idea of music can only emphasize preconceived ideas of order, and these ideas of order are so culturally based that his approach will crush non-dominant ideas.

Liu counters Begbie stating that “Cage uses his ‘freedom’ and ‘intent’ as an author (to use the language of Begbie and Wolterstorff) to frame what otherwise would go unrecognized – that music is everywhere sounds are.” (p.17)

Cage, perhaps reflecting his Zen influence, understands music with a stance that that doesn’t try to grasp, control, or preserve the music that is heard. It is also important to remember that Cage’s piece is not about the absence of sound. “The quiet withdrawal of 4’33’’, however, does not emphasize rest or silence against sound. 4’33’’ asserts that sonic ubiquity gives music superabundantly and without limit.” (p. 54)

Liu and Cage’s understanding of the generosity of the ubiquitous sonic environment is deeply dependent on the listener’s capability to receive it as such. As Cage writes in a letter to a friend that recognizing the sonic density of his piece depends on “our own emptiness, our own receptivity; we receive to the extent that we are empty to do so.” (letter to Helen Wolff quoted on p. 54).

“Confounding the expectations of its listeners, 4’33’’ promotes hearing musical content that is ‘hidden in plain sight’ and that saturates their entire field of audibility. It displays unbounded, free sound. This same sound announces a more radical freedom, a giveness, a giving of God, or what Christians micht call ‘grace’ or ‘love’ perceived within but irreducible to audible content.” (p. 81)

This is an academic book, and the presence of French philosophers and “phenomenology” were littered throughout the book. This is not particularly familiar territory for me, but John Cage and his ideas of music and sound were familiar to me and this helped make the book feel more accessible – and truly it was an enjoyable read.

Reading this was a great gift as I delve deeper into understanding the relationship between sound and theology – or more precisely and personally – my experience of God through sound. The discussion of the superabundant generosity of music, and a stance of open receptivity resonated deeply within my own experience. This generosity and receptivity encapsulates my understanding of the human/divine relationship at its best. God is the ever abundant giver and we are the receivers – who are not merely receivers of divine generosity but also participate in it as co-creators. We are part of the divinely offered “given music” of our world.

“With or without human awareness, God gives in music: noticeably and unnoticeably, impossibly, indulgently, and even overwhelmingly.” (p. 124)

Reading "Our Sound is Our Wound" by Lucy Winkett

Our Sound is our Wound: Contemplative Listening to the Noisy World – The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2010” by Lucy Winkett. London: Bloomsbury, 2009.

If I recall correctly, I have Amazon algorithms to thank for my discovering this book. I’m glad I did. It is an intriguing, if a bit quirky book. (Some of its quirkiness is its Britishness.)

“It is the suggestion of this book that the sounds we make raise questions not only about how we live and about why we have created the environment we have, but that these soundscapes start to reveal deeper theological questions about who we are, of what we are afraid and in whom we trust.” (Introduction)

In the introduction of the book she describes a deeply moving concert she attended. About the concert she writes “I experienced musical sound which seemed to be a wound, in that it embodied vulnerability and personal exposure for the sake of the music itself.” And later “Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the sound is an audible scar of damaged tissues underneath; but the sound has substance in itself, in that part of its nature is that of a wound which reveals depth and trauma under the surface.”

The title and this introductory material connecting sound and woundedness captured my attention noticing in myself both intrigue and resistance to where the author could go with the idea. Having now read the book, I didn’t find the wound theme as present as I expected, or at least not present in the way I expected it. This is still an engaging book about the relationship between sound and faith.

What follows are a handful of quotes and notes from the 6 chapters. Nothing terribly profound on my part, just some content to give the reader a flavor of the book.

Chapter 1 – The Sound of Scripture. She writes of the Bible not only as a collection of silent words, but as both a product of sound and as a script or song that needs to be performed. “As well as our hallowed book, Scripture is also the God-breathed soundscape of human history in which we listen for the word and the Word to speak and sing.” (6) Winkle writes a lot about music, and her particular fondness for “classical” music as one of the best means of capturing the truths of scripture. She does make off-hand references to pop songs/artists, but their inclusion feels a little forced. But her celebration of the power of music and how it can express theological concepts is welcome. “It is not appropriate that before God every cadence resolves, or that every rhythm is comforting. We must allow for dissonance in our worship.” (24) This presents a challenge to the seemingly endless triumphant hymns and ceaselessly joyous praise songs. “Our harmony is not real harmony if it is bland resolution that trivializes the singer and the song.” (26)

“It is a harmony that is made when we listen to the dissonances of Scripture and experience and deepen our understanding of another. It is the harmony that is made when we listen for the voices that is singing a different part, even one that sounds contrary to the part we are singing. It is a harmony born of an attentiveness to God and to each other that means we will listen and take our rest as well as play and sing the part we have been given. This is the harmony that takes account of the suffering of God’s broken world, and as we listen for the profound song of love, we can invite others to sing.” (26)

Chapter 2 – The Sound of Lament. “[The sound of lament] is both a protest against the pain of the present time, and also a timeless expression of the weeping voice of God, in whose image and likeness we are made.” (28)

Chapter 3 – The Sound of Freedom. Both sound and silence can be tools of oppression, as well as liberation. We need only thing of the U.S. military’s use of loud music to “break down” prisoners of war. But music is also one of the most characteristic sounds of freedom. “The very act of making music together is a protest against the inequalities and divisions that human beings create in every country.” (67)

Silencing someone else’s voice is way of diminishing and damaging them. But, choosing silence can be a powerful tool for the individual. “Jesus’ journey through the days before he died is the ultimate example of God’s choosing to be silenced by the violent cruelty of humanity.”

Chapter 4 – The Sound of Resurrection. Death is the great silence, the great silencer. In Jesus we see the use of sound, to undo the silence of death. “It is into this silence of all silences in John’s Gospel, that Jesus speaks to raise Lazarus – Jesus cries with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’” (89)

Chapter 5 – The Sound of Angels. I will admit, I don’t think much of angels, and I’m not particularly drawn to the ideas of those who do give their attention to angels. Winkett gives a chapter’s-worth of attention to angels, and I was able to ride along without rolling my eyes. She takes note of the role of angels in most biblical accounts – “The angels sing. That’s what they do. It’s what they’re for. They also play trumpets and harps, and in Renaissance paintings they recline in the sky, making music for God.” (102)

This chapter includes some fascinating imagery from the bible, and other religious texts connecting music to being in relationship with God. “According to another Jewish text, Adam had heard the song of the angels before he sinned: I [Adam] used to hear, before I sinned, the sound of their wings in Paradise, when the seraphim would beat them to the sound of the threefold praise. But after I transgress, I no longer heard the sound.” (108)

“Sin had separated humanity from hearing the liturgy of heaven and it was only as the restoration of the new covenant with the birth of Christ that this was restored.” (109)

The act of listening is essential to the act of making music. “the Church too can be a community of people who listen together for the unfathomable songs of eternity sung in praise to the Creator by the created, led by the angels. In this contemplative listening, the Church translates the song and teaches it to others that we can become more than observers, and participators in the music of the cosmos.” (117)

Chapter 6 – Our Sound is Our Wound. “The Christian Church has an historic role express in this story – to call people into silence in the presence of God.” (124) And she adds “The churches’ wounds are on display when we are unable to be silent or to invite others into such a silence.” (126)

One suggestion she mentioned that caught my ear as a spiritual discipline I will consider is keeping a sound diary. This shouldn’t simply be a list of sounds, but could become an examen focusing on the sounds of our day. Where did I hear God today? What did I learn about God from what I heard today? What were the happy sounds, angry sounds, sad sounds of the day? Where was silence a gift, and a burden?

Winkett is a professional church person described in her bio as a “Rector-designate” and former “Canon Precentor.” [I’m not certain what those titles involve, but it seems like they involve church leadership.] Accordingly, this book speaks out of, and into a church context. The church as receptacle and resonator of sounds and silences, profane and divine.

This final extended quote includes an important series of questions concerning the character of the church and it’s relationship to its aural environment.

“The character of the Christian vocation emerges in the midst of this hurting world. Are we a body of people whose instinct is to fall into the silence of waiting on God with a willingness to listen with our whole bodies for the presence of the Holy One we will recognize in that sounds of sheer silence? Are we a body of people who know in our own lives the value of silence in a noisy world and teach this to our children and grandchildren? Are we a body of people at peace with our own death? Are we a body of people whose visceral compassion for a suffering world is expressed in our actions, our words, and the tone of our voice? Are we a body of people who know the language and music of lament, who have learned how to sing out our own pain? Are we a body of people whose worship of God is in tune with the songs of the angels rooted in the groans of the earth?” (131)

Rhythm Wisdom

IMG_3757.jpeg

And again, the grass turns green.
And again, the daffodils bloom.
And again, the seeds are sown.

And again, the sun rises.
And again, the sun sets.
And again, the darkness comes.

And again, we gather for prayer.
And again, we gather to eat.
And again, we enter solitude.

And again, we hear a whisper from God.
And again, we taste God’s love made edible.
And again, we see the beauty of God.

Life at the Hermitage, as all life everywhere, is filled with rhythms: from the quickened rhythms of the heartbeats of each beloved guest to the long, slow, cosmic rhythms of expansion and contraction.

A key part of the work of the Hermitage, both for staff and for guests, is to recognize these rhythms, feel them, learn from them, and enter into them. These rhythms have much to teach us.

The wisdom literature of the Hebrew scripture extols the importance of being attentive to these rhythms and to recognize the wisdom of God held within. Some rhythms are simple steady beats that are easily recognized, while others are vastly more complex and may take many generations to understand.

These wisdom texts were central in shaping early monastic life and play a central role in the Rule of St. Benedict which guides many monastic communities even today. These traditions established ways of living for people, whether in community or in solitude, that are filled with rhythms of prayer and work, the rhythms of the church year, and the rhythms of life.

Let us all be attentive to those rhythms that shape and nurture our lives. Rhythms of work, of play, of retreat, of breath, and of prayer. There is wisdom in these rhythms, if we just open ourselves to hear God within.

(Originally posted on the Hermitage Community blog.

Reading "Religion Out Loud"

Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism, by Isaac Weiner. New York: New York University Press, 2014.

When I picked this book up from my local public library (thanks MeLCat for your statewide deliver) and glanced through it I braced myself. I held an academic book covering a field where I’ve done little to know reading. I was ready to be challenged.

What I encountered instead is a book of stories told by a good storyteller. And within and around those stories was very accessible and insightful critical analysis. This turned out to be a wonderfully engaging read. I will acknowledge I have little to no experience with the critical world of sound studies, and so I have few resources to analyze the book from within that discipline. I’m a guy interested in faith and sound, and this book is about people of faith and their relationship to sound.

The books author, Isaac Weiner, is an associate professor at The Ohio State University and co-director of the American Religious Sounds Project.

The book covers the main stories covering the span of about 100 years: church bells in late 19th c.; Jehovah Witness sound cars in the early 20th c.; and broadcasting the Islamic call to prayer in the late 20th c. And with each story Weiner details the related legal, or legislative stories.

The primary issue this book covers is how has American society responded to religious sounds in public spaces. Sound often transgresses public and private space. While we can often avoid those things that stimulate our other senses, such as sights and tastes, we have few real barriers to sound. Related to the transgressive issue of sound, is the question of when is sound received as noise? This book also considers the understanding of religion simply as a set of beliefs, or whether the material manifestation of a religion – by doing such things as making loud sounds in public – is an integral part of religions.

Weiner categorizes public religious noise as serving one of three purposes: to project authority; to announce dissent; and to indicate and negotiate difference.

In looking at stories from mid 19th century to current times, the book follows the track of the industrialization of the U.S. And with industrialization came more loud sounds; of factories, steam and combustion engines, powered public transportation, etc. All this noise was seen by many as an indicator of progress.

But while the public noises of American industrialization was seen as a sign of progress, the public noises of religious life were increasingly seen as a sign of incivility. Western civilization presumed a religious evolution from noisy barbarism to quiet civilization; from a public, materialized religious practice, to a private, internalized set of beliefs.

Weiner does a wonderful job of depicting the challenges the American courts have had with “noisy religions” from seeing all sounds, whether religious or not, as equal and any loud sound as noise, to understanding public religious sound as acceptable free expression of religion. And while the cases of the church bells, and the Jehovah’s Witness sound cars were resolved in the courts, the debate over broadcasting the Islamic call to prayer in Dearborn was resolved through legislative means.

Weiner pulls together his understanding of the American response to public religious sound “[Complaints about religious noise] have expressed liberal Protestant and Post-Enlightenment ideas about ‘good’ religion, conceiving it as properly internalized, individualized, and intellectualized while also serving to authorize and legitimate these distinctly modern notions of suitable religiosity.” (p. 196)

This book helped me consider me consider the sounds of faith and when they means of expressing the content of beliefs, and when they are in themselves actualizations or materializations of that faith. I have been in contexts where the volume of sound was central to the expression of joy and faith. The question of how we should respond when other’s religious sounds transgress our personal sonic space, and when our religious sounds intrude on others remains with me.

A Resurrection-Shaped Life - a review

A Resurrection-Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth, by Jake Owensby. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018.

A Resurrection-Shaped Life is a gentle, generous, and encouraging book. It’s author, Jake Owensby, an Episcopalian bishop serving in Louisiana comes across as a man with a deeply compassionate, pastoral soul.

Each chapter is a brief meditation of a topic infused with the taste and promise of resurrection. His chapter titles help give a sense of the flavor of his topics:

·       Growing Beyond our Past;

·       The Meaning of Sorrow;

·       Recovering from Shame and Blame;

·       Mending Loss and Sorrow;

·       Forgiveness, Passion, and Justice;

·       Just Us.

The writing is filled with anecdotes that don’t come across as canned, convenient stories but as authentic experiences.

Resurrection does not always play a heavy hand in each chapter, but often lingers in the background. It is really only in his helpful Postlude that the author takes a more direct approach with resurrection, bringing together all that came prior in the book.

Owensby approaches resurrection not simply as the one-time experience of Jesus more than 2000 years ago, but as a defining characteristic of the Christian life. He sees a world filled with brokenness and resurrection as God’s unending move to heal.  “The message of the resurrection is that God transforms the life we are actually living – sorrows, wounds, regrets and all – into symbols of love’s power to mend and to heal.” (XIII)

He seriously considers the realities of repentance, suffering, shame, and injustice. He does not diminish the importance of these experiences but portrays resurrection as God’s healing response to all of this. “The resurrection teaches us that God transforms who we are through a continual process of dying and rising. We are what we have overcome.” (103)

But this resurrection-shaped life is not just about healing our own wounds, it also drives us to brings this healing power to the people and systems we encounter. “A resurrection-shaped life replaces the illusion of an eternally carefree life with the scriptural vision of an inexhaustibly caring life.” (104)

This is a warm and uplifting book, without being trite or simplistic. It offers both hope for healing, and strength for participating in and sharing this resurrection-shaped life with the world.

*This review was of an Advanced Reader Copy. Page numbering may not match the published version.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

 

Return to the Feast - a sermon

Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Cor. 10:1-13, Luke 13:6-9 (It will be helpful to actually read these texts first)

When I was a youngster few things were as wonderful, few things brought me as much joy as a church potluck. It was always a huge spread, and, believe it or not, I loved the salad table. Not that I didn’t love the table with the main dishes with the sweet and sour meatballs and every variation of casserole with cream of mushroom soup. And not that I didn’t love the dessert table with the squares, and the pies, and something that even these conservative rural Mennonites acknowledged was properly called “sex in a pan”. Oh yes, I loved those, but the salad table held a special delight.

The salad table at our potluck dinners usually included a couple versions of 3 bean salad, which I loved, a couple potato salads, which I loved. There might be a coleslaw or two, which I mostly avoided. Of the remaining of the dishes on the salad table, the base ingredient for most of these was Jello. Lovely colorful, glistening, playful, squeeze through your teeth Jello. There were a few “healthier” options of Jello salad with shredded carrots or celery, and some with fruit cocktail, but then you came to the really good ones that included a combination of Jello, Dream Whip, vanilla pudding, and marshmallows. These were salads for the gods. Kale hadn’t even been invented yet. I’m positive in the first 25 years of my life I never tasted a real lime, but I knew what limes tasted like – green Jello.

Eating food is a deeply intimate act. You are taking all sorts of edible (we hope) materials, and ingesting them into our bodies by smelling their odors, seeing their shapes and colors, feeling their texture and heft, and manipulating them past your lips and tongue and teeth, before finally swallowing and handing them over to your digestive system.

Our texts this morning all have to do with food and eating, which rightly fits into our Lenten theme Blessed Hunger, Holy Feast. I will admit when I first saw that theme for Lent I was puzzled. This is lent, when we are supposed to be fasting and doing without not feasting. Feasting seems like a Easter theme, and just like we shouldn’t be singing Christmas carols in October, it doesn’t seem appropriate to discuss feasting in Lent. Perhaps we can discover some Lenten wisdom in these texts.

I will admit that I have a deep fondness for the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Scriptures – especially the prophets, Psalms, and wisdom literature. They are for me a feast of rich words and images. They are often deeply engaged with the physical world and the physical body. In these texts, encounters with God often have physical manifestations that interact with bodies.

And so, looking at our Old Testament texts, both the Psalmist and Isaiah speak to the reader of rich food and feasts.

Isa 55:2 reads “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,

   and delight yourselves in rich food.”

My bible tells me that where the translator opted for the words “rich food” the Hebrew text actually reads “fat and fatness.” Rich foods seems like a polite and tame translation of fat and fatness. Inviting guests over for an evening of fat and fatness probably wouldn’t get many RSVPs. This is a feast of dripping juices and greasy fingers.

“5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,

   and my mouth praises you with joyful lips

6 when I think of you on my bed,

   and meditate on you in the watches of the night;”

After an extended rich feast, with joyful, and glistening lips, like the Psalmist, where do we all end up but sprawled out on the bed, on the sofa, on the floor, groaning, moaning, and burping out our praise to our glorious God of abundance.

Both the Isaiah and Psalm text begin with the desert experience of being parched and faint from lack of water and food. There are times when we feel a lack of abundance. Withholding food – like sending a misbehaving boy to their room without supper – is a familiar punishment. There will be times when you are in the desert, and times when you should be in the desert, and these can be important and necessary times when you may not be living the most abundant life. But these desert times are to be temporary and transitional. We are to emerge from the desert – parched and hungry, and ready to receive a feast. What God provides in response is not just a cup of water and a slice of bread to merely satisfy immediate bodily needs. God responds with a rich feast.

Let’s move for a moment from these rich feasts to the parable of the fig tree in Luke. I will confess that this is one of those parables where I puzzle over what I am too understand from it. A fig tree isn’t producing figs, the owner doesn’t like that he isn’t getting figs, and the gardener asks the owner to give the tree one more year. Thinking about our previous texts we see that nobody is getting a rich feast from this fig tree. So what do we make of this parable that seems to be more about scarcity of food than abundance? We will return to this.

And then we quickly turn to the 1 Corinthians text which leaves me even more puzzled than the parable.

“3and all ate the same spiritual food, 4and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.”

Well, doesn’t that just take the fun out of food. What happened to fat and fatness and glistening lips? I can imagine our Old Testament text readers hearing this line about spiritual food, and spiritual drink and responding with surprise and disapproval “Spiritual?” The OT writers are often much more interested in the pleasures of the body than Paul and the writers of the epistles. The OT write of fat and fatness, and Paul writes of spiritual food. And in the OT the food was a sign of God’s abundant pardon, and in Corinthians the people got the spiritual food, and no abundant pardon. God was not pleased with them and struck many of them down.

Earlier in 1 Cor Paul even writes “’Food will not bring us close to God’ We are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do.” 1 Cor 8:8 I think Isaiah, the Psalmist, and I would beg to differ.

Having looked briefly at these four texts I wondered what is the thread that ties them together? What is the Lent message that these texts bring to us? Is it merely they all talk about food? This has puzzled for quite some time, and it was while making a big pot of soup at the Hermitage this Friday that a thought came to me. These texts are about repentance, and abundance. These are the two basic attitudes, actions, stances that are held up. In these text God’s being, God’s character, God’s definitive action is characterized by abundance. And humanity’s being, humanity’s stance is called to be characterized by repentance.

Repentance might be the most Lenten of activities. I will admit that I’ve become quite fond of the word repent. I know it has a lot of baggage and doesn’t feel like a very welcoming word to a lot of people. The word repent, often conjures up old preachers of revivals or street corners. But I see the call to repent simply as the act and intention of turning around. Turning to face your intention. In our context, to repent is the act of turning from what you are facing to face God.

And what are we to repent of? Mostly idolatry. Idolatry, is another of those words that doesn’t comfortably fit into our vocabulary. But I think a helpful way to think of idolatry as turning your face toward, or setting your focus on anything that is not God.

Isaiah asks that wonderful question “Why spend money for that which is not bread?” This is one of my favorite lines in the bible. Why would I eat that food that has no flavor, no joy, no sustenance, no justice when I could eat food that bursts with juices and justice, with richness and reward.

To do so is idolatry. It is being satisfied with less than our God of abundance.

Living a life that is less than the one God is calling you to is turning your face to the idol of fear and familiarity.

God calls us to turn away from that which does not feed and nourish you. Turn away from dry and tasteless food. Turn away from emptiness. Turn away from a life that is less than the one God is offering to you.

I even when does our Mennonite and Brethren value of thrift and “simple living” get in the way of celebrating and participating in God’s abundance? When does our desire for simplicity, frugality and thrift take our eyes off of the God of abundance? The God who offers a rich feast.

And while our stance is to be a stance of repentance, of turning to God, God’s stance, God’s being is one of unending abundance. God doesn’t need to repent. God is already and always facing us. God is the one who provides rich feasts. God is the one who provides spiritual food and water. God is the one who serves up the fat and fatness that leaves us full and beyond satisfied. God is the self-giving one who takes the form of a human so that all may live.

And so, with this lens of repentance and abundance let’s take another look at our texts.

In the Isaiah text we saw the joy of a rich feast, but that is not the end of God’s abundance. God offers us feast for the body and spirit.

“let them [the wicked and unrighteous] return [repent]to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for God will abundantly pardon.“

God will not just pardon, which would be as sufficient as a cup of water for a thirsty man. But, abundantly pardon, a tall glass of homemade lemonade or a nice strawberry milkshake. That’s what God’s abundant pardon looks like. Turn from your idols of scarcity, fear, and self-dependence, and turn to God who is eager to provide an abundance of pardon and feasts.

And in the Isaiah text once you’ve eaten the feast text God invites you to incline your ear toward God. Once you’ve completed your intimate meal, God invites you to move in closer to hear God speak for God is about to offer a covenant as abundant as the feast that is slowly digesting. God offers not just feasts, but a relationship with the feast provider.

And in Psalm 63 verse 2 we read “So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.” The psalmist has set his face on, or toward God, has repented or turned toward God. And in verse 7 “for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.” We once again have repentance, abundance, and relationship.

Going back to the parable, my initial understanding of the parable was the tree needed to repent, turn toward becoming the fig tree it was created to be, and the tree owner would feast on figs. But I wasn’t really satisfied with that reading. I realize now that I saw no abundance in the story. But then, thanks to something Naomi said I took a second look, and took note of the gardener’s response. What did the gardener do in response to the demand for repentance, the gardener tilled the soil and offered the tree manure. The gardener provided for the tree and its surrounding ecosystem – a feast of abundant nutrients. We can only imagine that in response the following year the tree produces an abundance of figs, and the tree owner enjoys the abundant feast of figs, and lets hope that that the owner responds in abundance to the gardener.

The parable begins with a strained relationship between the owner and his tree. This relationship can only be resolved through repentance – the man turning away from his impatience, and the tree turning from its not being the tree it was created to be, and both turning toward feasts of abundance.

And this finally brings us back to my quandary about what to do with Paul and this 1 Corinthians text. Like the OT writers, he connects the lack of abundance to idolatry. To an unrepentant people not turning to God. But even then he characterizes the idolaters and eaters and drinkers. So, rich feasts don’t seem to be a sign of God’s abundance to Paul.

Here’s what I can take from Paul. In the Isaiah and Psalm text, the rich feasts were in the context of repentance, intimacy with God, and entering into a covenant with God. What Paul sees is the people of Israel taking the food offered to them by God but the people were not repentant. They were not returning to God. They were ignoring the intimacy and the covenant with God. And if you are just consuming the gift of nourishment without turning to the giver you are just binge eating. In that case, I guess Paul was right to say we are no worse off if we do not eat and no better of if we do. Without a relationship with the great giver, our feasts merely idolize our own gratification. So in Corinthians God remains the God of abundance, but the people lacked the stance of repentance, of turning their face to the source of abundance.

Just to be certain, I am not preaching some kind of culinary prosperity gospel – turn to God and you will eat like royalty (and with no adverse health effects.) God’s abundance is not our prize for repentance. God’s abundance is not conditional. God is abundant. That is simply who God is. A life not turned to God, however, is a life less than we were created for. It is a life lacking in the abundance of God. It is a life lacking the intimate relationship God desires. It is being a fig tree that bears no figs. A life not turned to God leaves us parched and hungry.

So I call you to repent. Turn to God and enjoy God’s abundant feast. And as we receive God’s abundance and enter into intimate relationship with God we in turn become God’s extravagant abundance, God’s rich feast, God’s intimate relationship offered to the whole world.

Amen

"When God Was a Bird" - a review

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“When God was a Bird: Christianity, Animism, and the Re-Enchantment of the World” by Mark I. Wallace. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.

The older I get the less certain I am about language related to God. God is neither this, nor that as well as both this and that. I also have difficulties with God and prepositions: I/we/everything am in/with/through God; God is in/with/through me/us/everything.

And into that blurry language Mark Wallace brings an engaging book with a fascinating premise: God is a bird. The book is his case for a biblically based Christian animism, but it’s his particular emphasis on the avian-God that grabbed my attention. He’s taking some of the bird language in the bible, grabbing hold of it, and running with it. This curious and specific claim of an avian God is why I chose to read this book.

Essentially, this book is Wallace’s argument for a historical biblical animist faith which he feels is needed today as a response to our world’s ongoing ecological crisis. That, and the Holy Spirit is a bird. The format of the book is “an exercise in theology, philosophy, nature writing, and personal anecdote” (x) which provides the reader an nice blending of voices.

Is that through which we encounter God, of God? Is it God? Is venerating something as sacred, the equivalent to calling it God? Is there a real difference between “is God” and “as God”? These questions kept churning in my mind as I read the book. Wallace seemed to be quick to say that encountering God through the natural world tells us that God is the natural world. But while he makes a plea for God is a bird, he also does not claim a pantheistic belief that nature is God. While at times his language about God feels very specific and concrete, he will also make seemingly contradictory statements which tells me that his understanding of God is not simplistic.

Wallace extends God’s incarnation to the animal world. He advocates for “animotheism – the belief that all beings, including nonhuman animals, are imbued with divine presence.” (2) He occasionally extends it to the rest of the natural world, but his interest is primarily animalian. In his trinity the Father represents the otherness of God, Son is the Humanness of God, and the Holy Spirit is the animality of God.

Wallace clearly states what his book is about, or what he is trying to accomplish, “My book’s thesis: Christianity, at its core, is a carnal-minded, fleshly, earthy, animalistic system of belief just insofar as its understanding of the human Jesus (Christology) and the avian Spirit (pneumatology) is rooted in its divinization of human and nonhuman creatures (animality). In this telling of the Christian story as animocentric, God is an animal, without denying the difference between God and animals, because the primary Trinitarian grammar of biblical religion centers on the double enfleshment of God in human and avian modes of being the Son and the Spirit respectively.” (14)

I found his engagement with the biblical text endlessly fascinating, even when I wouldn’t go along with his interpretations. He helped me look at some biblical themes and texts in new ways and for this I am very grateful. Wallace made me stop and reconsider biblical language for God. Is a metaphor such as God brooding over her chicks always just a metaphor, or can it reveal something deeper about God and birds. It may be too easy for us to gloss over the language of “spiritual things” like the Holy Spirit descending as a dove. That being said, I feel like Wallace was very quick to jump from Jesus referenced some animal to Jesus considered it sacred.

I’m not as convinced of a historical biblical animist faith as Wallace is, however, I’m not sure that matters very much; at least to me. The lessons of encountering God in/though/with the natural world and it’s reshaping of our current beliefs, decisions, and activities still resonates.

One thing I try to always be attentive to in reading a book of nonfiction is to be aware of who the author sets up as the enemy. It seems that we often create convenient bogeyman to act as foils against which we can make our claims. (And please note my intentional “we” in the previous sentence. I am as guilty of this as anyone.) Wallace argues against “Central strains of classical Christian opinion” (p. 21) which is admittedly a broad brush. “Classical Christianity” is also filled with voices who take very seriously the place of animals in our spiritual lives.

In the second half of the book he highlights the animist beliefs of Hildegard of Bingen and John Muir as examples of Christianimism. I was surprised that other indigenous and Celtic examples did not figure more prominently. Wallace spends quite a bit of time considering John Muir. While he acknowledges some of the challenges with Muir’s thought, I find the fact that Muir’s ideal wilderness was one where the indigenous people have been removed is more substantially troubling. If the wilderness through which you encounter God is a wilderness that reflects you, as Muir may be guilty of, then have you have potentially created wilderness and God in your own image?

The chapter on Muir also raised concerns for me about historical context. What the natural world meant to civilizations 2000 years ago is very different than what it means to modern, western folk. We are very protected from the vicissitudes of nature. We observe nature as this detached thing over there that only in rare occasions has life or death control over us. Does this protection from the natural world lend itself to our romanticizing or fetishizing the natural world.

Mark Wallace has given his readers a fascinating book. In these kinds of exercises in drawing the boundaries or portraits of God all our definitions fall short. All our descriptions of God are not God. And yet, they are still valuable and teach us of God. Whether one is convinced by Wallace’s biblical interpretation or not is not as urgent is recognizing with Wallace that we encounter God through the natural world and our destruction of the natural world limits our experience of God.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.