Why Progressives can love Bible Studies

This guy is very excited about whatever is happening with him and his glowing bible right now.

Obviously, when people think of “the most awesome thing I could do on Wednesday night,” the first thing that comes to mind is “go to my church’s bible study.” Where else do you get a chance to hear old Mavel, who claims to have the gift of discernment, (but not, apparently, the gift of brevity) pontificate about the bible for two hours?

Ah, bible studies.  These things have been a staple of American church-goers’ Wednesday nights at least since the Great Awakening, and a component of the community life of many traditions before that. So obviously, because the crew at SafeHouse are bible-nerds and experimental with our church-doing, we decided we needed to try one out. See how it fit.

So we just finished an eight-week run of dinner and bible-studying, reading through the whole book of Colossians. Some of the things we did were pretty standard: we got together at my house, shared a meal (sometimes breakfast-for-dinner, sometimes pizza, etc.), caught up on each other’s lives, cracked jokes, and relaxed. Then we all grabbed some bibles from my bible-shelf, took turns reading the text from that week, and then had a free-flowing, idea-generating, story-full, multi-pronged conversation about what we’d read that lasted usually about an hour and a half. Some things were a little different from bible studies I’ve gotten to go to — the beer and cocktails with bible-reading was a fun twist. I learned from studying Martin Luther that theology is always better with a beer in hand. (Okay, I actually learned that in college before I knew anything about Martin Luther, but it makes me feel better to cite a famous theologian rather than take responsibility for things myself. Also, side note: if Martin Luther had been writing “Freedom of a Christian” with cosmos rather than lagers, I think it would have been a lot more fabulous to read.)

“Christian faith has appeared to many an easy thing; nay, not a few even reckon it among the social virtues, as it were; and this they do, because they have not made proof of it experimentally, and have never tasted of what efficacy it is. What I’m saying is, drink this, it makes it all better.”

And I loved it. I want to do it again. Here’s some reasons why I think progressive Christians should love bible studies:

1.  There are so few real forums in our world to do this kind of conversation with people! Nearly everybody in the universe values deep, thoughtful conversation — just consult the online dating profile of everyone ever. But besides some late-night dorm convos in college, most people struggle to find places where they can talk about real things with interesting people; where they can ram their ideas as articulately as they can into somebody else’s and see what pops out. Digging into something meaningful, pulling it out and looking at it from different angles, bouncing thoughts and ideas off of other folks in a safe environment… this kind of talk is… diamonds, in terms of real human conversation. Progressive Christians everywhere search furiously for forums to toss around really good concepts about God, faith, life, and the universe, and often those forums are hard to find.

This isn’t telling facebook about your religion and politics and getting a reel of 70 comments. It reaches back to the old days of the wisdom traditions, where people sat with one another, tossing out an idea, thought, or bit of wisdom, while other curious, interested, wise people would reflect on it, finding ways that it worked and circumstances where it might not, honing your thought by their careful handling of it. This is the style of thinking out loud from which the book of Proverbs comes. And sometimes…

Octopus Bible Study

This octopus is a ridiculous and brilliant thing. It has nothing to do with this post, but I found it when I searched for “bible study funny.”

2. …it turns up some ridiculous and brilliant things! Example: the night we were talking about the household codes in Colossians, it happened to be that all the people who came for dinner and bible study were gay men. Having four gay men play with the passage on wives submitting to their husbands was  legendary. Not only was it fun and full of good humor and storytelling, but it also brought out a surprising diversity in perspectives, and a unique time of speculating about how we as men could relate to the leading women in our lives. It was great, although… the slaves and masters conversation got a little out of hand. But hey. 🙂

3.  It gives you a sense of the character and conversation of the scriptures. The bible is a giant, thousand-year stretch of conversation about God. What we do in a bible study is a microcosm of what is actually happening in the scriptures. Reading it together then talking about it together helps us figure out how to relate to this sometimes-impenetrable text in a way that listening to a speaker from a stage or even reading it on our own simply doesn’t do. It teaches us to treat the scriptures as a conversation partner, rather than either a silent shelf-bound bit of arcana that doesn’t actually talk to us, or the conversation dominator who cannot be interrupted or talked back to.

4.  It lets us become literate in the bible. I know not everybody values this, but I do. Knowing the scriptures, whether I agree or disagree with any particular part in it, is a huge deal to me, and I think it’s important to a lot of other folks as well. Some people it’s important to because they need to be able to be more knowledgeable than the people who are using the bible to attack them. Some people see in the scriptures a well of deep wisdom that they can tap into in daily life to make them more compassionate, resilient, and hopeful. Some people do it for reasons of pure curiosity — the minds who simply love to play with ideas and learn new things. And for some , knowing the scriptures is a way to learn about the story of God interacting with the world.

5. And most importantly to me, reading the texts together and exploring them with others is a powerful way to pursue a connection and relationship with God. Doing theology, whether in a group or on one’s own, is not like studying an object, as though God were something that could be analyzed. As one of my gay theology crushes, James Alison, writes, “The presupposition of theology is that it is itself, as a discipline, a small but important subsection of God’s continuing self-communication to all people.” Reading scripture together, talking about God and faith is not an attempt to figure everything out, to nail down some specifics about what we think, but rather is an adventurous attempt to be with the One who is speaking to us, and inviting us to speak back.

My point is that progressive Christians, more than most, have a great reason to have these sorts of conversations over the scriptures! Our values of serious community conversation, of biblical literacy and pushing the limits of our minds, of finding new ways to make the scriptures meaningful to our lives, and of genuine connection to a relational God — it’s all there.

So, the Bible Study. Yea or Nay? Do Progressive Christians have reasons to keep this style of community space around in the future?


Repenting of… Keeping Love to Myself

Lent Ashes

So as a bit of a switch-up from my normal way of being a Christian, which I tend to live out and interpret in a pretty undisciplined, passionate, ever-so-slightly blasphemous, academic, theology-and-cocktails, occasionally agnostic, low-church sort of way, I decided to break out of my norm and do something that would feed whatever inner part of me is liturgy-loving and ritual-infused. Thus, I decided a month or so ago that I would like to observe Lent this year: the part of the church calendar leading up to Easter that is a time of penitence, repentance and preparation, anticipation, drama, reflection, and usually involves giving up of some sort of luxury.

Now I know I’m not the first progressive Protestant to decide to do Lent, so I’m not breaking the sound barrier here. But I wanted to do something that forced me to reflect on God, and consider how I might live and love better… and I figured, this might be a really powerful way to prepare for Easter this year, when SafeHouse Church transforms from part-time, once a month, preview gatherings to Big Kid Church, every-week, inexorable, It’s-Actually-Happening church. That’s going to be a celebration, and I want to get my heart and my head ready for it.

And so I’ve been reflecting on themes of repentance. Rarely, recently, my biggest concern… and the shocking harbinger of my first reflection on repentance is… Mary Daly.

Mary Daly with an Axe

I’ve just finished my first-ever Mary Daly book, Beyond God the Father. I don’t know how it’s taken me so long to get to her — feminist theology is something that I’ve loved, and Daly is the grandmother of all white American feminism, and possibly broader even than that. Love her or… love her less… she’s a force to be reckoned with. Just look at that axe, all ready to fuck up the patriarchy.

It took me a while to get used to her style of writing, but once I did, I fell in love with it. All sorts of capitalized Words and hyphenated re-membering of language. She believes that words have power, and that it’s important to be creative and constructive with them. Yeah, I’m not really where she’s at on a lot of her ideology (I dislike making that apologetic), and yeah, she’s a bit of an isolationist, transphobic product-of-her-times (that’s a more important apologetic)… but one of the things she went all out for was believing in and living into a Future in which unjust relationships were no more, in which women were able to unleash all of their creative genius and craftiness, and in which people really lived into love. She saw that on the horizon, and called for people to live on that horizon even if it wasn’t quite here yet.

And therein lies my first bit of repentance for the Lenten season.

Over the last few years, my view of God and the world has transformed massively. I’ve gone from being a traditional evangelical Christian who believes that the purpose of Christians in the world is to convert everybody around them so that they won’t go “die in their sins” and God send them to hell eternally to something quite different. My understanding of the character and person of God has changed into something else. I’ve come to believe, deeply, in the most essential parts of my being, that God is love, that God is the parent who will never stop pursuing Her children. That He passionately resists the evils of poverty, addiction, abuse, dishonesty, and hatred in the world (rather than having sex with your significant other before you are married, or drinking, or hanging out with people of different religions), and invites us into the exciting, dangerous work of doing the same! I believe God, a personal, present, active God, is breaking into the world from that Future that the Christian faith talks about, in which all things beautiful are kept and all people are resurrected and all good things are glorified and “God is All, and in all” (1 Cor 15). God is breaking into the world, singing creativity into our souls, screaming… begging us to halt our violences big and small, weeping for the dying, rejoicing in our victories as people who bear Her image.

This is Not the Gospel

And… I think that a community of folk who are talking about God this way is a direly important counterculture! Not only to the way not only mainstream, young, modern-worshipping Christianity is today, with their God who tells you you’re so awful and disgusting that God cannot even look at you unless Jesus covers your sins with his blood, and who talk about “conquering the Twin Cities for Jesus,” but also to much of other mainstream culture, that tells you we can’t look at you unless you cover your body with the right clothes, makeup, persona, and perfectly sculpted having-shit-together-ness. One wants you to cover yourself with Jesus, the other with Express, and both can leave the wise person feeling the lovelessness, the shallowness there. I think we’re called, instead, as a people following the way of Jesus, to a Future where people are reconciled to one another, where people are healed, where love and creativity and community defeat hatred and brokenness and systems of evil and we’ve got to jump in or we will be lost here.

Neither is This

And, believing these things, passionately believing them, I have also really rather kept them to myself.

Somehow, I’ve left some of the evangelical parts of me that are important behind, and that’s been bothering me. If I really believe that God is this incredible, glorious force and person that has transformed my own life and I believe can transform others, for whatever reason, I’ve still kept it behind closed doors. I’ve told a few people, of course. But… this… this is Good News! People need this, are longing for this!

Here’s one of the parts from Adam’s talk Sunday night at SafeHouse that really stuck out to me:

“…James wants us to not just glance, but to look closely at ourselves in the mirror, this more-than-just-a-metaphor for the good news of God. The good news of God, the mirror, has something to say to us. We must hear it beckon us to prayer and protest. We must listen to it woo us into feeding the hungry and for developing a hunger for justice. We must let it speak to us when it comes to spiritual practice and social action. Because, ultimately, we are both deeply wounded and God’s prized possession. And that’s why we seek to empower people and to become empowered people ourselves.”

Empowering, at SafeHouse, is giving people the resources to be becoming what God made us to be. It’s at least partly letting them know God’s intense love for them and seeing them transformed by that. And I feel like I’ve been keeping that, this Good News, this Love, to myself.

And so this is my first act of repentance… to repent of keeping Love to myself.

I’m a person who would much rather hang out and listen to people than anything else. I’ve been burned by evangelical churchianity, and an ideological conquest that they call love. But if I really do believe in God, in this Gospel, this Good News that Jesus said in Luke 4:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because the Lord has anointed me
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor
to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind
to liberate the oppressed
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  

…then I’ve got to repent of not telling people this. Of personally enjoying the healing, the freedom, the restoration this has brought to me, but not sharing it with others.

And folk at SafeHouse, friends, everybody else, I’d love for you to think about this as well. To think about what it means to invite people into this Love, this Future.

I don’t care if you’re here, elsewhere, whatever. Tell people about this. Invite people to SafeHouse, or somewhere else you know they can live this out with others. But if you’ve gotten even a little bit of this grand love and embrace and healing, this God who is telling us we are Her children, don’t keep it to yourself. Introduce people to this God, to this love. I am pretty sure it’s badly needed, and that most people are waiting to hear it.