Practice Makes Presence
I like the Star Wars myth, but it's only a like, not a love and it's certainly not an obsession. I feel the need to see the new movies but not anytime near their release date. In fact, I saw The Last Jedi last week, almost after a month after its release. In the meantime, I absorbed some of the reviews of the movie, many of which were critical of the new tone taken toward the Jedi myth. I grinned twice in my seat at two comments/scenes that I am sure threw gasoline on the fire of the hearts of super fans.
(Spoiler time) When Yoda appeared to Luke, he gave advice and then took part in arson. Yoda's intent was to counsel the emotionally conflicted Luke about his vocation as a Jedi and his sense of calling. This part of myth has always been very appealing to me. Luke's story arc is where the conscious mimicry of Joseph Campbell's hero's journey comes through clearly in the series. After observing Luke's tension, the wise and enlightened Yoda opines something like "we are what we grow out of." Following this, Luke finds the sacred Jedi scrolls set ablaze and finds that Yoda's response is laughter at Luke's shock and sorrow. Yoda knows that Luke has appointed himself as the protector and even preserver of his lineage. A task Yoda willingly allows to go up in smoke. Yoda's final counsel is that the force and the Jedi will always be, even without texts and even without the temple. Cue: star wars fundamentalist anger!
What if we burned our sacred text? Dogmas have a nasty habit of becoming self-referencing castles where the drawbridge is permanently up, leaving only the truly devout (if not slightly reckless) to climb its walls to gain entry. In my experience, the elevation of text to mythical status has done this in my own spiritual experience. Faith, for many, has become an exercise in rational proofs of ancient texts. This type of belief bears its membership card, marking out those who belong to the spiritual club and those who are lost. The club sounds infallible, inerrant, and solely authoritative.
Yesterday, I attended the memorial service of a man who volunteered in my youth group when I was a teenager. The church we all attended was a very traditional Baptist church. In the 80s/90s devotion could easily be measured by the size of your leather bound bible. In reflection, some of the types who waved it around the most opened it the least (at least in public). Part of me doesn’t blame them. That book is hard to understand. It is not even one book, but its entries are the bridge between two different faith communities and dozens of geographies (none of them modern western democracies) and was written in three different languages. What is available is what was preserved, the library is fascinating in its brutal honestly about human nature, divine nature, and transformational possibilities.
Also Yesterday, I dropped into my daughter's church youth group where I am considering volunteering. The topic was decision making, and when asked by the leader if they use the Bible in their decision making, most of the students answered "no." I don't blame them either; it's hard to get direct advice about current scenarios that writers of the bible couldn't even imagine. In the discussion, there were a few students adamant that all of life's answers could be found in the book. Other students pushed back with a multitude of "what if's" that made their decision making difficult. How should we answer these sincere questions?
I feel an affinity for Luke; I too prefer to have the temples and wholly protected scared texts. After all, Bible reading and study is required for spiritual growth, or is it? Yoda's laugh at Luke's horror at seeing the Jedi text books demonstrates something modern Christians miss. The fruit of spirit does not include reading comprehension. The threat of what faith would be or could be if we lost access to our sacred text can tell us something powerful about our assumptions. Instead of a Cosmic Christ who's fellow triune partner is the present spirit, we instead elevate cosmic literacy and cosmic textual infallibility and end up appointing ourselves the dogmatic fundamentalist, just like Luke Skywalker.
At this point, some of my dear friends reading may think I have lost respect for sacred texts. Nothing is further from the truth. Instead, we live in a time with unique advantages - widespread literacy and education, quality media production, and the network of scholarship that regularly contributes to our understanding of ancient texts and religious groups. All of these were lacking in the early church. Somehow and someway this teaching was preserved by storytelling and letter writing during a time of widespread illiteracy and massive difficulties in replicating and protecting texts.
With the flames burning high, Yoda laughs and encourages Luke by telling him that the force and the Jedi don't need the temples or the texts. They have always been and will still be - all without his help. If it scares you to lose your sacred text, consider that for eighteen centuries most Christians had access to only portions of Bible books, fewer could read them, and still, its influence (even when negative) spread all over the world.
At the close of the youth group, I was asked to tell youth how I approach life decision's with the bible. I could have said to them that I have a BA in Biblical Studies, 20 hours of New Testament Greek, am a seminary dropout and I still read all I can on historical Jesus scholarship. I could have told them I spent the Christmas break reading NT Wrights 736 page book on the historical issues regarding the New Testament's claim of Jesus' resurrection. Instead, I told them there are many answers in our sacred texts, the time given to look for them is not spent in vain, but to remember that they all come from one example. The example of incarnate wisdom, compassion, and love whose very presence deployed wine at a wedding party, zapped the sick with healing, and restored the dignity of humans that society had branded as garbage.
"Jesus loves me this I know for Bible tells me so" works when you can read and your advantages allow for to own a personal copy. And when your place in the history of this world presents other challenges, the ancient spirit force (you knew that I would use the force didn't you) of wisdom, love, and power will do what it has always done, even without the help of books and our buildings. Ironically, I know this because it's in the sacred text. Others may come to know it if I can read it, ponder it, let it change me and force me to become a contemporary example of THE ancient example. The story opens hearts and minds not when we protect it, but when we tell it, in words and action. Now that's a myth where I can plunge my heart and mind.