Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What Child Is This? The Reason For The Season

I generally love Christmas. I love the music (Bing Crosby, The Rat Pack, Elvis, Ella Fitzgerald, etc) and the movies (Holiday Inn, White Christmas, It's A Wonderful Life, Scrooge, etc). However, it's kind of difficult to be festive on a day like this.

Just a few hours ago, Taliban gunmen attacked a school in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, slaughtering 141 people, the overwhelming majority of the dead being students in Grades 1 through 10. An additional 124 people were injured in the attack, the deadliest assault yet by the Taliban in Pakistan. A bloodbath.

A few hours before that, a self-described cleric turned Islamic State sympathizer who had been known to police entered a café in Sydney, Australia, and held 17 staff and customers hostage for 16 hours before police engaged him in gunfire, killing him, and leaving the café manager and a customer dead; it is unknown whether they died during the gun battle, or at the hands of the deranged gunman before the shootout.

And yesterday, a 35-year-old Iraq war veteran shot and killed his ex-wife and 5 members of her family, including a 14-year-old niece, in Pennsburg, a suburb of Philadelphia.

All of this is almost too much to bear, even from my comfortable seat inside a warm public library in Canada. (Recommendation: Turn the TV off after a few minutes).

I normally write an article this time of the year pertaining to my beliefs about Jesus; I haven't quite been able to get him out of my head, even a decade plus after calling myself a Christian. 

Even after leaving my fundamentalist, evangelical brand of Christianity, I have still usually made my way to a Christmas Eve service. I have done this mostly out of nostalgia; the familiarity of the carols, and the candles and the well-wishes warm me to an extent. However, this feeling has been leaving me as the years go by. This year I may or may not attend a service.

I am no scholar...at least not yet; I am the first to admit that. But I do have my observations and thoughts on the subject of Jesus, and I will share them again this year; perhaps they've changed from last year, perhaps not.

Who was Jesus? To some, the question itself may offend. "What do you mean, who was Jesus? The question is, who is Jesus?"

To begin, I am not sure whether there ever was a person named Jesus who was the son of a mother named Mary and a father named Joseph. I suspect that there was. What I strongly do not believe are the mythology and stories that have been caked onto him by certain men throughout history. By now you may have deduced that I do not believe the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God, dictated supernaturally or otherwise by a Deity. Instead of being the Word of God, I believe it is the Word about God. It is a combination of the work of people who were trying to convey their experiences with divinity, as well as a vehicle used by power-hungry men in power, trying to subjugate the lowly.

Even if one believes that the Bible is true and God-sent, the authors themselves vastly differ when it comes to what actually occurred surrounding the birth of Jesus. Though Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John's gospels appear first in the New Testament, Paul's writings were the closest to Jesus' time-period. Paul appears to know nothing of the virgin birth claims surrounding Jesus, only writing that Jesus was "born of a woman" (Galatians 4:4) and was "descended from David, according to the flesh" (Romans 1:3). One would think that a man who knew James, the brother of Jesus, might mention such an important detail. The earliest gospel writer, Mark, did not even seem to consider the birth story of Jesus worth mentioning. We all have the nativity scene etched in our minds, of Jesus being born in a lowly manger and the three wise men traveling to him and bowing before the baby, who was surrounded by shepherds and animals. Apparently no one told Matthew: "On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him." (Matt 2: 11). Jesus could very well have been a toddler. Luke seems to know nothing about a star or the Magi (history assumed there were three of them because there were three gifts). Finally, some gospel writers seem to want to portray Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, while others emphasize that he is the Son of God, thus challenging Caesar. 

The differences and head-scratchers go on and on and in my opinion are worth examining, especially if one is to base perhaps their entire life on the Bible.

So where does this leave me? Am I a godless heathen? If you were to call my rejection of Jesus being the Messiah or the son of an anthropomorphic god who sent his son (who was really said god himself - get your head around that one) to die for my sins, then yes, I embrace the word heathen. (Heathen: "an individual of a people that do not acknowledge the God of the Bible; a person who is neither a Jew, Christian, nor Muslim; a pagan." - dictionary.com)

I do not believe that Jesus is my redeemer or my saviour because I do not believe the fundamentalist account that, due to Adam and Eve's sin, we are all - each and every man and woman, boy and girl who has ever walked this earth - that we are all miserable sinners. This is not my identity. Jesus' death was not about him spilling his blood to pay for my sins. This is an ever-increasingly bizarre notion, and if Jesus truly was the Son of God, then for God to send him to be nailed to a cross and die a bloody death, well that is a divine sort of child abuse. 

At the same time, I do believe in God and I do believe in Christ, though I shirk at using those terms anymore - at least when I can avoid it - because "God" tends to assume an Old Man In The Sky, and Christ is just an antiquated word for me. Many view God as they do Santa Claus. He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake! For many of us who grew up as fundamentalist Christians, this was, or for some continues to be a fairly thorough description of our understanding of God. No, I do not believe in this God. I must add that if God truly is a person-like superior being watching the world from on high, then serious questions must be asked, particularly as we watch unspeakable atrocities unfold and diseases cripple entire villages. Is he - because of course God is a male - uncaring or is he impotent? Some religious people choose to give God props for everything good and pleasant in the world, and let him off the hook for all the evil and abhorrent; they chalk the latter up to another mythical being, the Devil. I am unwilling to let this type of god off the hook so conveniently.

However, I do still believe in what I call the Divine Spark, or the Divine Spirit. Rather than being a Person, I believe the Divine is a spiritual presence which is present within me and in everything that surrounds me. It has many faces, and is not confined to religious, intellectual, physical, or gender boundaries. This is what Christmas can mean for me. I tend to believe that people were drawn to Jesus because he was so aware of this Divine Spark within him, that it made him free to cross boundaries that had never been crossed. Jesus was not about power; he was evasive when people asked him if he was God. Rather, Jesus flipped the status quo by emphasizing downward mobility. He reached out to tax collectors and hookers and lepers. He was far from perfect though, just as none of us are. Once, when a Gentile woman pleaded before him for healing, he described her as a dog and that he had only come to help the Jews. It was only after her cleverness that he relented and supposedly healed her.

What can we learn from the Christmas story?  I believe that just as Jesus seemed to be aware of the Divine Spark (or Christ) presence within him, which allowed him to love almost unreservedly and break boundaries, so too we are invited to see this Divine Spark within ourselves. God is literally with us.  And isn't this what we need in today's world, where we see atrocities and tragedies such as the ones I listed above? If each of us were to acknowledge our inner divinity, and then recognize our neighbour's inner divinity - regardless of their religious beliefs or non-beliefs - would we then see larger stepping stones toward global peace?

A final thought about Jesus. According to many he was the son of God, and we are also (at least Christians are) the sons and daughters of God. I am not a parent, but what do parents hope for their children? Is it that they will remain children, remain dependent on their mother and father? No. Any decent parent hopes to raise their children to be well-adjusted, functioning adults who have the tools to live their lives. Is it not the same with us? Have we been looking to Jesus (the child or the adult) for so long that we are not realizing that we have the tools necessary to love deeply and act in a responsible manner in this world? On a personal note, I see a personal therapist and attend group therapy on a regular basis as I work through childhood trauma and indoctrination which has led to mental illness. Is it my therapists or my doctors job to make sure that I become dependent on them or even worship their methods, or even for me to continue to see them forever? No. It is their desire that one day I will have the tools to stand on my own two feet. This doesn't mean I will ever have all the answers, but I will be my own person.

Perhaps this Christmas the best thing we could do is to take a minute or two to stand in front of the mirror, and to spend time with our neighbours and realize our own divinity, rather than continuing to shine a spotlight on a baby who probably never wanted the attention in the first place.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Further recommended reading @ ReligiousTolerance.org

Friday, December 5, 2014

"Deep within us all there is an amazing sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home to Itself."  

~ Thomas R. Kelly (1893 - 1941). Quaker mystic. From "A Testament To Devotion."

Album Review: Michael W. Smith & Friends - The Spirit Of Christmas

When I received Michael W. Smith's latest Christmas album in the mail yesterday, it was the first album of his that I had actually bought in at least 15 years. As a Christian teenager, I grew up listening to his contemporary gospel music. After being the keyboardist to Amy Grant, he launched out on his own solo career, with contemporary Christian music hits such as Great Is The Lord, Old Enough To Know, Secret Ambition, and Friends. In the 90's, Smith caused a significant tremor in some Christian circles when he, like Grant had done earlier, "crossed over" to the mainstream market and put out an album called Change Your World, which featured less overtly gospel lyrics. This came on the heels of his major claim to mainstream success, the hit Place In This World, from the album Go West Young Man. It was quite the achievement, though rather amusing spectacle, when Smith won Favorite New Adult Contemporary Artist in 1992 at the American Music Awards for his crossover work, though he had been an accomplished artist for many, many years.

Smith, now 57, quickly moved back to the contemporary Christian music scene, and most recently has had success with his albums of worship songs and hymns.

However, Michael makes a big splash back into the mainstream market - while retaining his Christian fan base - with the release of The Spirit Of Christmas, his fourth, and by far best holiday album to date. An accomplished singer-songwriter who has been around Nashville and other circles for decades, Smith clearly has forged friendships and gained the admiration of some of the heavy hitters of country music. The Spirit Of Christmas features duets with stars including Carrie Underwood, Vince Gill, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Martina McBride and Jennifer Nettles. Amy Grant, Audrey Smith, and Michael McDonald also appear on the 14-track album.

Smith's voice is in fine form here, and as a producer and executive producer, he manages the perfect balance  between the secular and the sacred.

The highlights here include All Is Well, a song which appeared on his first Christmas offering, so long ago that his duet superstar Carrie Underwood may not even have been born at the time of its release. Another standout is Almost There, a duet with his long-time friend, the aforementioned Amy Grant. The title track is a fantastic, sweeping instrumental medley of three songs, performed by Smith and the London Session Orchestra as directed by David Hamilton. The orchestra also excels on numerous other tracks.

There are only two minor missteps on the album, the first being Somewhere In My Memory. I understand that Christmas is a particularly magical time for children, but this does not mean that is always a good idea to feature children singing on one's Christmas album. While Audrey Smith and the Nashville Children's Choir do a fine job on this track, it takes the cake for the schmaltz component. (Note: It only just now occurred to me that Miss Smith is almost certainly a grand-daughter of Michael's; now I feel bad, but it doesn't necessarily change my mind. Then again, I don't have children.) The only other unfortunate addition to the album is thankfully a short one. Bono is featured in a minute-and-a-half spoken word piece called The Darkest Midnight. It contains the unfortunate stanza: "We'll sing and pray that God, as always, may our friends and family defend. God grant us grace in all our days, Merry Christmas and a happy end." One isn't clear if the U2 frontman, or Smith for that matter, is calling out to God to "defend" everyone, or only Christians.

The album ends with a splendid cover of Peace, a song penned by brilliant Nashville singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Michael McDonald, who joins Smith in this rendition. They do a fine job, though if you want to hear the song in all its glory, I highly recommend running to Amazon and buying Chapman's album Back To Love.

Overall, The Spirit Of Christmas is a masterpiece by Michael W. Smith. I highly recommend ordering it online, downloading it from iTunes, or picking it up at a mainstream music shop or Christian bookstore. The perfect album for the season.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Mark Andrew Nouwen