Friday, August 27, 2010

Everybody loves a parade (Sunday Reflections for August 29, 2010)

There is a tradition that one starting point of the modern age is the Italian poet Petrach’s Ascent of Mont Ventoux in 1336. In his account of the event, Petrarch claims to be the first person since antiquity to climb a mountain simply for the view.

Whether true or not, the popularity of the story reflected the new attitude toward the world and toward life that swept Europe in the period known as the Renaissance. We know it best from the paintings of the time but Petrarch’s story shows that this new attitude also affected people’s behavior and state of mind. The world came to life in a new way and people looked at their own lives in a new way.

Over the past few weeks I’ve looked at a lot of songs, searching for popular music for the “Word from Culture” portion of our summer worship services. Popular music is, of course, one of the legacies of the Renaissance. Especially since its explosion in the 20th century, it seems that nearly every aspect of life has had a song written about it.

Some would say this is just another example of human narcissism but I think that’s too harsh. Yes, we are fascinated with ourselves but then, why shouldn’t we be? Isn’t that what it means to be a human being? Isn’t that what self-consciousness is about? We are unique in the animal kingdom (as far as we know) in being able to reflect about our own lives. Sometimes it gets obsessive but more often it’s either curiosity about ourselves, reflection on our successes and failures leading to planning for a better future, or simply celebration of who we are and of the joys of life.

This “celebration of life” category is one I’ve become especially aware of as I’ve perused the popular music realm. In finding so much of it, I’ve realize that there isn’t so much of it in the church music realm. That’s due, it seems, because it just isn’t a big topic in either the Bible or Christian theology. And that, I think, is a problem.

No, Christianity as it has been traditionally presented just isn’t real big on celebrating life. Don’t get me wrong. It is there to be found, both in the Bible and in its theological tradition, but it is a bit of a minority report. Awareness of life’s joys often gets drowned out, frankly, by the stronger awareness of our propensity to do bad things to each other (sin, in other words) and of life’s inherent pain and suffering.

Here again, I think we need to be aware of Christianity’s cultural and historical origins. To put it simply, it developed among people for whom life was often really, really hard—and typically, pretty short. For that reason, Christianity has had a tendency to dismiss this world and human life as essentially a failure and put all its eggs in the basket of a future world to come. Hence, there have been regular appearances of Christian prophets of doom and destruction, especially in times of social distress (war, famine, natural disaster, etc.

Wedding at Cana, Giotto 14 c.
Modern biblical scholarship has shown, however, that such a dismissive view of earthly life was not central to Jesus’ teaching. Contrary to the popular view that Jesus’ mission was all about getting people to heaven, the bulk of his teaching was actually about very this-worldly matters. When confronted with human suffering, he tried to alleviate it on the spot and rarely consoled people with “well your next life will be better” bromides. And then there was his notorious reputation for all that “eating and drinking.” Jesus a party animal? Well, there was the business with all that wine in Cana.

To be honest, I think the Hebrew Bible—the Christian Old Testament—gives a fairer representation of the biblical tradition on this score. It, too, likes its wine and banquets, even if they are most often used as images of God’s kingdom to come. The images only work, of course, if it’s already assumed these are really good things which we aren’t getting enough of in the here-and-now.

But even more fundamentally for the whole biblical tradition are the texts I go back to so often, the creation stories in Genesis. We have too often undervalued these texts’ report of God’s verdict on the creation, and especially human beings, as being “very good.” Nor have we sufficiently appreciated the essentially positive view of human life in God’s charge to “till the garden and keep it.” In affect God says, “I’ve given you all this stuff. Now enjoy it.”

Yes, there is that misadventure with the serpent and the tree. In the Bible’s view, however, that doesn’t negate God’s previous overall judgment. Human life has its problems—big ones. But the overarching theme of the Bible’s story is that we have the ability to overcome them and the responsibility to help each other overcome them.

The reason? Because of that opening story declaring that this world and this life are so “very good.” Who would want to waste them? Though much of the church scowled and grumbled, this was the re-discovery that launched the Renaissance 500 years ago and which has been at the center of modern life every since. It’s long past time for Christianity to embrace that truth, to join in the celebration of the gift of creation and life, and to stop, as Fanny Brice would say, raining on the parade.

Don't tell me not to live, just sit and putter
Life's candy and the sun's a ball of butter
Don't bring around a cloud to rain on my parade

Don't tell me not to fly, I simply got to
If someone takes a spill, it's me and not you
Who told you you're allowed to rain on my parade

Ooh, life is juicy, juicy and you see
I gotta have my bite, sir
Get ready for me love, 'cause I'm a "comer"
I simply gotta march, my heart's a drummer
Don't bring around the cloud to rain on my parade

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