Posted by: Mark Nielsen | October 19, 2011

God the Holy Gambler

I have this big, awesome book on loan again from the Skokie Public Library called The Faces of Jesus. It features photos of great art created over a thousand years of Christian experience, and reflections on that art by Frederick Buechner, one of the finest theologians, fiction writers, and teacher/artists of our time. (He was even Catholic novelist John Irving’s high school English teacher at one time!)

It’s a book that I first picked up this past summer, having spotted it on display in the weeks leading up to my involvement with the first-ever Wild Goose Festival near Durham, NC. I even brought the book to the interactive fest, and left it as possible inspiration for folks working in the visual arts arena on-site. (Don’t know if it got used… I was mostly volunteering in another area, popping in on acclaimed speakers and musicians I’d never heard live, sharing stories with artists in the green room areas, or working on my own spoken-word piece). In fact on a side note, in light of the various “Occupy” movements currently springing up all over, I even wonder if WGF was a Woodstock-like dress rehearsal for some of the faith-based creative critiques currently trying to “do justice” (the biblical form) worldwide. Coincidence, or “shot-heard-round-the-world”? I agree somewhat with the common critique that the Occupiers have a bit of a problem with message clarity. But it’s early yet.

Okay, now let’s get back to the Jesus Face book. (Like how I did that? hee hee)

See, I have this vague vision (as seen through stained glass, darkly) of a grace-filled space –“safe”, but not too safe, and hopefully a full-time analog/digital space — where artists, teachers and learners from various disciplines and theological traditions can help reinvent each other’s view of God, and at the same time improve or collaborate in our work. But we’ll get to that space later. (Probably in the next blog entry, since this one’s looking long already…. And btw, if such a “meeting of hearts” space already exists somewhere, please let me know!)

First we need to explore two radically faith-altering ideas Buechner has introduced me to, in the early sections of this book:

  1. “plurality of faces” in the Hebrew scriptures, and
  2. a new take on the virginity of Mary.

These are the ideas that propelled me to the keyboard today.

Regarding faces, identity, and plurality, I will quote from Buechner’s poetical Introduction:

“To say he [Jesus] had a face is to say that like the rest of us he had many faces, as the writers of the Old Testament knew, who used the Hebrew word almost exclusively in its plural form. To their way of thinking, the face of a man is not a front fro him to live his life behind but a frontier, the outermost visible edge of his life itself in all its richness and multiplicity, and hence they spoke not of the face of a man or of God but of his faces. The faces of Jesus then — all the ways he had of being and of being seen.” (pg. 10)

At this past weekend’s Christian Peacemaker Teams Peacemaker Congress, I was in a session where we explored communication and ministry in a cross-cultural setting, and the potential for bias in the structures, expectations or language that we use. We looked at the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel, traditionally thought of as the birthplace of “diversity”, and I suddenly saw it with fresh eyes. It started with a question I sensed God asking me: why had I thought of that event solely in such a negative way? Though there was indeed a “unity” or communal project that was being dispersed by the emergence of many languages, why couldn’t that event also be seen as an evolution, a fuller flowering of God’s plan from the very beginning?

Similarly, Buechner also reminds us above that diversity (or being “multi-faced”, not the same as two-faced) is part of the IDENTITY of God, and therefore of each individual person. Who I am to my son, or when I’m with him, is inevitably different than who I am with a coworker. And next year,  I will be different with each than how/who I am today.

The tricky part is this: I am not God. Applying this kind of dynamic also to the Divine Person requires a major paradigm shift, especially for anyone interested in taking a singular, static, or “Oneness” view of God’s nature. I fully admit it is comforting (or comfortable) to say “God is the same… yesterday, today, and forever.” But isn’t it lazy to just leave it at that, and then isn’t it downright unloving and cruel to exclude anyone from the God club whose “picture” of God’s face differs from our own version?

For instance, in doing interfaith work or evangelism, the Trinity is one of the bigger challenges in building a common ground for all parties to stand upon. For a Muslim in particular, the idea of God ALSO being a human and having had a real face (Christians call it the Incarnation) reduces a holy and perfect God to some lower level that they are apparently not comfortable with. Maybe this is bad Islamic theology, I don’t know, but it’s all I’ve got handy for now…

Yet this idea of a God with many faces, all of which are equally valid, can be pretty radical if we actually act upon it. And that it has roots in the Judeo-Christian Old Testament and solid biblical scholarship gives me hope. There may yet be a way forward, at least for the evangelicals and the “emergent” post-modernists (i.e. those usually seen as the evangelicals’ more liberal, compromised, “enemies” — too far down the “slippery slope” to be helped).

Okay, on to Buechner Point #2, regarding Mary the Mother of God (MMOG for you texters out there) :

“As the ancient propecies foretold, it is a virgin who is to bear the holy child… Paul, Mark Matthew– the earliest writers about Jesus– say nothing of a virgin birth, but by the time Luke wrote his gospel, it had come to seem that nothing less wonderful could account for the wonders he was gospeling. This extraorinary life could have had a beginning no less extraordinary. History creates heroes. Heredity is responsible for human greatness. Evil also evolves. Only holiness happens.” (pg. 27, bold emphases mine)

Two things hit me between the eyes here. First, the realization that yes, the earliest and highly credible writers about Jesus did not see the necessity of mentioning virginity as an essential element in the birth of Jesus. I don’t know what to make of that. It partly makes me question Luke’s credibility on the point, but then we’re back to the slippery slope question of what else from the gospels one has the right to “throw out”, and why. A scary tension to live with, if you ask me. So the generously orthodox Buechner accounts for the virginity thing by appealing to Luke’s enthusiasm, and his own. His “it had come to seem” strikes me as a conjectural or creative –rather than historical or theological– analysis of the biblical text. And as for that “holiness happens” thing, I’ll take that kind of joyful optimism over the pessimism of “s&#t happens” any day of the week!

Pure magic there. Somehow he made the idea of Mary being a virgin seem both irrelevant AND crucial. The facts –from a scientific perspective– burn away in the face of a miracle. And yet he also addresses the fallibility factor in religious belief– that some stuff probably did and still does get “made up” by a writer or teacher (just because it steadies the faith of us fallible and insecure humans). He does not allow the unknown answer to this question (was she or wasn’t she?) become a rock upon which I have to stumble anymore. In other words: it may be up for argument… but why argue? That’s not God’s way anyway. It’s too Greek, heady or European to debate such things to the nth degree. It’s enough to say Jesus’ mother was extraordinary, his life was obviously extraordinary, and so why shouldn’t Mary rate the same level of miracle that Elijah, Moses, and thousands of God’s other beloved Old Testament figures rated in God’s eyes.

That’s enough for today, class. See me afterward if you want to volunteer to help decorate for homecoming…


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