It is my hope that the thesis I completed for my M.A. English degree is attuned to the so-called “real world.” Concomitantly, I hope that those who want to read it will find that is accessible; I want people to be able to find it, and I don’t want people to have to be used to reading academic articles to comprehend it. So, here it is:
2 Samuel 21 is an example of the beauty and complexity of the Old Testament – and a reminder of why Christians should still read it.
I’ve been simultaneously reading the Psalms, Luke, and 2 Samuel. And, recently, I found myself flipping back to 2 Samuel feeling a little defeated. I was unsure of what I was really getting from reading through Old Testament histories, other than just knowing what’s in the book that I claim to follow.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy 2 Samuel – on the contrary, the book is lit. 1 Samuel is probably more well-known, what with David vs Goliath, David vs Saul, and David’s ascension to the throne of Israel, but 2 Samuel goes full of Game of Thrones as we follow more of David’s military exploits, his destructive affair with Bathsheba, his son Absalom’s rebellion, and more. General Joab’s repeated appearances in the book are enough on their own to make it compelling, and he’s far from being the only memorable character.
So it’s not that I don’t find the accounts interesting or affecting, because things like the loyalty of David’s men, Hushai’s subterfuge, and David mourning over the death of Absalom are all moving or memorable for one reason or another.
But, to get back to what I was saying – just recently, as I was flipping back to 2 Samuel with the feeling that I was doing little more than reading stories, I came to 2 Samuel 21, which has given me more pause than any other scripture recently, and reminded me of why I should read the Old Testament. You may want to read the first 14 verses.
Basically, there’s a famine in Israel and David asks God what’s wrong. God answers that the famine is happening because of the way Saul, years before, wrongly attacked the Gibeonites. So David goes to the Gibeonites and asks what they want to settle the old score, and they make the bold demand of executing seven descendants of Saul. David complies, and the seven are hanged (which could mean by a rope, or it could mean impaling or crucifixion (yuck)). The bodies are not buried immediately, as would normally be custom, and are left to rot (perhaps until the rains came and the famine ended). Rizpah, one of Saul’s concubines and mother of two of the executed men, sits in sackcloth by the bodies of the seven and day and night fends off birds and beasts who would come seeking carrion. David is moved by this action, and he goes and gets the bones of Saul and Jonathan, and, together with the bodies of the seven, he has them all buried properly, together.
Then, and only then, does the author tell us that “God responded to the plea for the land.”
There’s any number of ways you can focus in on this text, and what I assume many readers will do first is consider the vengeance and punishment. This seems like a harsh decision from David, who turns over seven (probably) innocent men to atone for the sins of their father, something that seems in conflict with the book of Deuteronomy as well as some of David’s past actions. Taking this a step further, we might attribute this blood-debt-human-sacrifice thing to God, which seems to be another example of the OT God being kinda vengeful and terrifying. However you focus this particular lens, this aspect of the text becomes a commentary on sin, atonement, and God’s righteous wrath, which is pretty run-of-the-mill when it comes to the violent passages of the OT.
But then why all the fuss about Rizpah and the proper burial? And why does the author wait until after the burial to say that God ended the famine?
There’s a tendency among readers, Christians and non-Christians alike, to either over-simplify or over-complicate the Old Testament. Given the situation, it can help us come to grips with the mass amounts of violence, the sins of our heroes, and all of the WTF stories. You might have to breeze past or carefully maneuver through things like Elisha’s she-bears and the medium at Endor in order to avoid coming away from the OT discouraged and confused. But simplifying or complicating our readings can distort or displace the messages that might be found in a more…oh, we’ll say, “theatrical” approach.
So, in this story, when does God appear?
- At the beginning, when God tells David why the famine is happening, but doesn’t tell him what exactly he needs to do.
- Throughout the story, as David and the Gibeonites mention carrying this atonement out “before the LORD.”
- At the end, when God ends the famine after David has properly buried the seven, Saul, and Jonathan.
The author makes the two explicit references to God saying or doing something at the beginning and the end, which makes me think that, after defining the problem Israel has in the beginning of the story, God does not see the problem as solved until the very end. This could mean that God didn’t need an execution to satisfy his wrath in the first place. Maybe there was something else that happened that really led to God ending the famine.
So let’s, in a sense, take God out of the middle part of this story and replay with what we have to work with, as well as free of complicated symbolism and allusions:
David goes to the Gibeonites and asks them what they want. We know from the famous Gibeonite Deception that the Gibeonites were not your average -ites, and here they have a not-so-average demand. They demand a steep price – that sons should die for their father’s crime. David, apparently without directly consulting God, agrees.
Imagine now what this looks like for David, the Gibeonites, and the seven. David loved Saul and Jonathan, and has made certain to show mercy to Saul’s grandson Mephiboseth. Now, in order to end a famine, he feels he must hand over seven innocent sons of Saul. The Gibeonites aren’t seeing this as God’s prescription – they’re sensing an opportunity to satisfy a desire for overdue vengeance. And the seven? They are, quite unexpectedly, informed that they are to be executed for something they didn’t do. And so the three parties meet up at a mountain, and the seven relatives die next to each other.
That’s a pretty gut-wrenching scene, yes? You can almost see David and some of the Gibeonites turning away as brothers and half-brothers die a gruesome death together.
God isn’t so squeamish as we are, but still God does not appear – the famine has, apparently, not ended.
The Gibeonites don’t give the seven a proper burial. Perhaps they are waiting for the famine to subside before they do so, or maybe they’re just adding an insult to the house of Saul on top of their vengeance. As David and the Gibeonites go home, probably satisfied that their business has concluded and the famine will end, the stage is cleared for Rizpah, whose actions led me to think so much about this story.
Rizpah bore two sons to Saul as his concubine, and they have just been executed. It’s possible she was there when it happened. When everyone else leaves and the bodies of her sons and five others lay rotting, she stays. She stays and mourns, fending off not only the birds that come by during the day, but the “beasts of the field” at night. Beasts of the field? This woman is not only mourning the loss of her two sons, but she’s fending off beasts of the field? At night?
This doesn’t have to be in the Bible to be moving. That’s a beautiful expression of a mother’s devotion and a horrific consequence of humanity’s violence, with or without fitting into the framework of scripture. And this is what you might miss in the Old Testament if you breeze through it or pedal too hard – the pain and beauty that resonates with readers as humans. The Bible is, at its most basic, a story, and stories should be felt in the same way that we might feel a novel or a poem or a film. Don’t miss this.
I’m not the only one who was affected by Rizpah’s devotion – it moved King David to action as well. David went home after making his deal with the Gibeonites, but he heard about what Rizpah was doing. His response was to go get the bones of Saul and Jonathan, which had been buried in haste to stop the Philistines from desecrating them. Once he has these, he has the remains of Saul, Jonathan, and the seven sons of Saul taken to a proper burial ground and put to rest. It’s an act of kindness to Rizpah, a posthumous nod to his dear friend Jonathan and his master Saul, and probably a weight off of his mind.
And then God ends the famine.
Maybe God did require that Israelites die to atone for Saul’s sin and bring about the end of the famine. And maybe this story, like many others, calls us to account for this in our view of God and corresponding doctrines of sin and atonement. But, in this case, that would actually be imputing our narrative onto the scripture, because this passage doesn’t say that God called for this action. What it does say is that God acted (implying that Saul’s debt was paid) after David buried the bones.
So what does this tell us about God? It could suggest any number of things – God holds life sacred, God is more concerned with loving hearts than with robotic obedience, God is merciful even in vengeance.
But I think looking at the story this way tell us much more about us – and isn’t understanding God, the Bible, and theology fundamentally connected to understanding ourselves and how we fit into these beliefs? We can gain these insights by examining what humans do between God’s actions in the story.
Doesn’t this story teach us that we can be cruel, vindictive, and unjust? Doesn’t it show how savage our own ideas of vengeance can be? Isn’t there something here about the sacredness of motherhood? Shouldn’t it teach us about the beauty of human life and the evil of desecration? Can’t it move us to reflect on loyalty, family, brotherhood, and honor?
Perhaps, above all, this is a reminder to heed Micah’s words to “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” God doesn’t appear pleased when the vengeance has been satiated – rather, in this story, God appears pleased when Rizpah and David are just, merciful, and humble.
By taking a step back and taking this story as a story, by actively watching it rather than passively reading it, we can avoid the usual pitfalls of OT reading. And you won’t always find that approach in commentaries.
Reading the Old Testament is hard work. Thankfully, the meticulous study of theologians and scholars is good and helpful while illuminating many mysteries and raising further important questions. But sometimes, when we read, we make the difficulty of the OT into a burden that we’d rather avoid, either because it is challenging reading, boring, or disturbing. Sometimes it messes with our idea of God, and other times it is unclear how it should teach us anything about God or being a Christian.
The solution to these common problems might not necessarily be as complicated as you think.
Read it. Wrestle with it. Let it play out in front of you and move you.
Its complexities will unfold into great and terrible beauties and truths – sometimes in the most unexpected places.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
1 Seriously, Joab is a colorful, crazy, brutal, bad-ass general. My favorite Joab scene is when David is mourning the loss of his son Absalom (whom Joab killed, btw), and Joab gives him a good-ol-fashioned “What’s the matter with you?” (like Robert De Niro in Goodfellas) because David’s mourning makes it look like he doesn’t care about his soldiers who were killed in the war with Absalom.
The evangelical world was caught off balance yesterday by a Wayne Grudem’s endorsement of Donald Trump. Actually, what the theologian posted on Townhall goes beyond a simple endorsement, as he makes the argument that, not only is it morally correct to vote for Trump, but that it would be sinful for a Christian to vote for anyone other than Trump (even a conservative third-party candidate).
Wayne Grudem is a giant of theological intellect, and a much-respected and much-beloved member of the evangelical community. His magnum opus, Systematic Theology, is one of the definitive works of Western Christianity in the 20th Century. He has been name-dropped in lyrics by Christian rappers like Braille and Lecrae. I, like many Christians, am grateful to Dr. Grudem for his work.
But this article is really, really, dumb. A brilliant man used go-go-gadget arms to reach for Biblical interpretations and applications while making breathtaking leaps of ignorance and inconsistency. While some Christians have accepted his words as the sound work of a solid logician, many in the evangelical community are shocked and disappointed. I won’t bother to walk through everything that is wrong with what he writes – if you can’t recognize it on your own then I don’t think I’ll be able to help you see it, at least not in one go.
However, Grudem is not the first brilliant theologian with an authoritative tome to his name to have written something really, really dumb.
Just yesterday I was reading Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is, and she refers to a quote from the 13th Century theologian Thomas Aquinas, in which he claims that it is a failure of man when his seed leads to the creation of a female:
“Only as regards nature in the individual is the female something defective and misbegotten. For the active power in the seed of the male tends to produce something like itself, perfect in masculinity; but the procreation of a female is the result either of the debility of the active power, of some unsuitability of the material, or some change effected by external influences, like the south wind, for example, which is damp, as we are told by Aristotle.”
Another genius, with the epic albeit incomplete Summa Theologica to his name, basically said that a man’s sexual performance determines whether or not he creates another man or disappoints nature with another female.
Clearly, that is really, really dumb.
But Thomas Aquinas, despite being nicknamed the “Dumb Ox” by his classmates, was not dumb at all. And Wayne Grudem, as he has time and again demonstrated, is not a dumb man either. It would also be irresponsible to claim that either of them are bad men – indeed, those who know Dr. Grudem would say that he has only the best intentions.
And therein lies the danger of making this about Dr. Grudem. This is the urgent matter at hand: while not excusing his ignorance, Dr. Grudem is a product of the Christian culture from which he comes, one that has chased after the wind and missed the billionaire Leviathan coming straight for them.
We do not throw out Thomas Aquinas because of this one quote largely because this sort of view is not particularly unique among thinkers of the 13th Century. Rather than indicate something about Aquinas, what this really reveals is something about that culture. Sexism was so bad at that time that a genius could think dumb things like the above quote – and it is for this reason that Johnson uses this quote to highlight the need for feminist theology. Again, it doesn’t excuse Aquinas for his view, but it is much more a condemnation of the culture than it is of that one man. Christianity and slavery have a similar relationship. For example, Jonathan Edwards owned slaves. That’s not about Edwards as much as it is about the evil slave-owning culture he lived in (and again, it doesn’t excuse Edwards).
Wayne Grudem’s argument reveals a strain of Christianity that is saturated with conservative principles, not the Gospel. Grudem dismisses all facets of liberalism, and asserts a desire for Christian cultural dominance and comfort. This is not written like a theologian who has decided it is time to get involved in politics – it sounds more like something Sean Hannity would write after Googling a few passages of scripture.
Now, if someone believes that Hillary Clinton must be defeated at all costs solely on the grounds of overturning Roe v. Wade, and if they think that overturning that decision will somehow end all abortions, and if the thought of the unborn being killed far outweighs any other moral issue, then I can’t really tell that person that they are wrong to feel that way. It’s an issue I wrestle with, as it is of great importance to me, too. So I get it – abortion is, for some people, the only issue that matters at all, and if that’s the case, I guess I understand why that person would vote for Trump.
But that isn’t what Dr. Grudem does. Rather, he writes a comprehensive list of reasons that make Trump a good candidate and Hillary a bad one, and each and every time it is on the basis of
conservative far-right politics. Dr. Grudem is so committed to his ideology that he misses, ignores, or excuses all of Trump’s faults, editorializing a demagogue into a “good candidate with flaws.”
It’s not just that he’s saying that a vote for Hillary is a sinful choice – it’s that he saying that to vote for anyone besides Trump, to conscientiously object, and vote for, say, Gary Johnson or Ben Sasse or anyone else would be sinful.
The temptation is to make this about Grudem, and while it affects the way I see him, it should reveal much more to us about Christianity in America. What does it say about what American Christianity teaches and what it practices when one of the most influential minds since the Puritans can write something like this?
I believe it indicates that large portions of white evangelicalism in America are still plagued by racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism. They are still led astray by nationalism, militarism, and a need to be culturally dominant and secure. There is cowardice. There is ignorance. And there is an overwhelming anti-liberal sentiment. I’m sure many of you have felt that last one personally.
The Democratic National Convention made a tour-de-force case for their party and their candidate as the option for love, patriotism, and democracy, following up the bumbling and flailing efforts of the circus in Cleveland. I’m not saying that Hillary and the Democrats are really all about the things that were promoted at that convention, and it’s not like every Republican loves the idea of the authoritarian state which Trump envisions. But it’s remarkably tone deaf to denounce the comprehensive evils of liberalism after those two conventions.
But tone deaf is what much of American Christianity is, and we need to be aware of this and the way it affects our religion and our politics. This tone-deafness leads Eric Metaxas, the man who wrote a big book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to say that Hillary, not Trump, is like Hitler. C’mon man – you wrote the book!
It is important to be aware of our religious blindspots. Rather than trying to isolate particular cases as problematic, it’s important to see failures as the norm.
All this is to say, it’s not Dr. Grudem’s opinion that alarms me, so much as it is the culture that has shaped his brilliant mind.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
This is one of the most pretentious things I’ve ever done as a blogger (although I used to be kind of a jerk in my nascent sports-blogging stages (“Boom! Eat it Merril Hoge! My pick for Offensive ROY just went HAM and chucked for a debut record 422 yards” (I am so embarrassed that I ever wrote something like that (but I’ve done worse (in writing (and real life too (I guess))))))). And, actually, I’m realizing that the pretentious thing could have been using seven parentheses and banking on you continuing to read. Pardon.
No, the pretentious thing I’m going to do is start this blog post with a poem that I wrote sometime last autumn:
Like a River
There’s a space inside a man which
runs like a river through mountains.
It flows from the sidereal heath
and travels a landscape of virile solitude.
It is breathtaking –
what a man finds when he can walk
within himself –
who can find his way into the halcyon valley
and take in the expanse of the starry night.
To see the mountains proud and cold,
to see the mud languishing in the
foul water that pools in ponds of neglect
and feel the sparkling stream steadily wash it clean.
What it must be to see the height and breadth
of this meandering path running from the gleaming void
to the tossing sea
where other rivers
deposit the story of a soul.
Even as I click “copy” and “paste” questions linger about whether or not you care about my poem or if it will help you to see what this post is about. And, even as I write this, I’m not certain of where this post is going – it’s actually one of the most organic posts I’ve done in a long time. I’ve been writing quite a lot, but not material for blogging. So, in a way that I haven’t always, I’m writing a blog because I want to, not because I feel I need to.
But I begin with the poem because I’m finding that, while I still believe everything I put into it, I’ve come to even better understand the pictures that I tried to paint. I’ve lived these truisms in ways I hadn’t when I first translated these ideas into a stanza.
The poem can mean a lot of things, which are not my present intention to demonstrate, but the poem is partially about where, spatially speaking, a human being exists. Yes, the Ship of Theseus that we call the self appears to occupy only one finite location in a physical body at any time – right now my 5’11” frame is seated at my desk. But if you’re reading this, then you know that where you exist is hardly limited to wherever your own Ship of Theseus might be moored, as writing and reading is an act of telepathy (ht Stephen King). In some sense, you’re existing in my mind. Or consider that just as your physical body might stand in line at the DMV until 2:18, you might find yourself in a virtual line for tickets to Hamilton that extends to 2018.
The space we occupy is much more mutable and much less defined than the physical space our bodies occupy. This space that we live in is a view within ourselves but also a boulevard to the spaces we share, metaphysically, with our fellow humans. That’s part of what writing the poem revealed to me, and in the recent months I’ve learned that all the more, and these meditations have been spurred on and guided by a variety of teachers.
First, my physical place in the world for the time being has put me in a rather unusual, and often uncomfortable, sea of consciousness. I graduated in December, and I’m going back to school (somewhere) for a Master’s degree next autumn. But, for the time being, I’m living at home. This unfamiliar territory is an unstable terrain that removes me from parts of my identity that I have grown accustomed to – I am not a student right now, I’m removed from the lives of my closest friends, I’m an “only child” for the first time, I see both my parents every day, the infrequency with which I’m substitute teaching hardly qualifies me as a working person, and, although I have a plan for what I will do next autumn, I have only heard back from one of the eight schools to which I applied, meaning that my future status as a student, friend, son, and employee is in a state of flux.
Mentally and emotionally, this makes me feel much more removed than even my physical state of being would designate. My close friend studying in England feels a world away – my friends at school feel only a little closer. Future schooling and work are so diaphanous even in rose-tinted lenses, as I am employed but hardly working, and in line to enter school but waiting on decisions.
All of this makes this time between schooling a time in which it is challenging to form my identity and just as tough to express it. Which is, I suppose, one reason I’m writing this post.
But there’s a yin to every yang. As my physical state has remained isolated and removed, and as my identity has lost or modified some of its significant traits, I have roamed far and wide among the constellations of the mind. I spend my day with ideas. I read (books, tweets, and online articles) and I observe (talk radio, music, debates, TV events, and the like) and I think and I write. And the space we share mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, can be a breathtaking space with a power to define as strong as our physical location. When I read Quiet by Susan Caine, I connected so directly with what she wrote about introverts that it made me like myself more as a person, and I have such profound gratitude for what she wrote that I almost feel like Susan is one of my friends now. Or, for another example, when I read The Souls of Black Folk, I found Du Bois’ ideas so powerful and so accurate, and so affirming in my interests and studies, it was like he had sent the book from 1903 directly to me to read. Books, TV, and the internet have pooled their resources with my mind, and each day I find myself so much a part of this human experience, removed as I am for the time being. My meditations explore these tributaries and my writing is one way in which my experience is given life.
These uncertain spaces have formed a symbiotic relationship with my spirituality as well, and once again I find the doctrine of election to be one of the most stunning attributes of God (admittedly, it causes me some angst as well, but that is a separate issue for now). I believe that God chose me before I was born (Galatians 1:15) for salvation, but also to have a purpose in life. Whether or not God controls everything I will do, I don’t know, and frankly I think too much ink is spilled pondering human free will. But I am sure, just as God planned for Paul to minister to the Gentiles, that God has a reason for calling me, and a way in which he intends to use me to glorify God and serve my neighbors. As God protected Paul against plots against his life to get him to Jerusalem, I believe God has a way in mind for me to love God and neighbor, and whatever the odds are God will see it done.
Whether you can relate or only imagine, that’s a tremendous thing to believe. But, like most Christian beliefs, it’s not something you can download into your mind like we’re plugged into the Matrix. It takes time to work through and accept. And, like most Christian beliefs, Christians always have some doubts. I’ve said that most Christians (me included) don’t actually believe they will go the heaven when they die – they do, but if they could 100% grasp and believe that they would be in heaven, they would live their lives so very differently on earth, wouldn’t they?
What this means is that living a purpose-driven life is tricky when you haven’t reached a place that seems to fit your idea of a “purpose.” I don’t think what I’m doing right now is my ultimate purpose – rather, I tend to think of “God’s plan for me” as being where I will be in, say, ten years. Then I will be doing God’s work, then I’ll be using my education to make the world a better place and glorify God. But that’s not a particularly comfortable or useful way to think. Because God has a purpose for me now, and tomorrow, and next week, just as much as ten and twenty years from now. But believe me – I wish I was doing what I’ll be doing in ten years now. That’s the work I want to do today. This attitude makes it easy to punt away spiritual work, going days at a time with little thought for God. But I’ve learned over the past couple years that ignoring daily excellence is one of the worst things a person can do (I wrote about this last year and you can follow up on that later if you wish, here).
Recently, I began to think myself very wise in the ways of theology, scripture, and spirituality. I began to think myself quite holy and righteous. But what I started to lose sight of was the way in which we must constantly turn to God, even if it means re-hearing an old truth or re-reading a letter of Paul yet again. But the truth is that, even if the words in the Bible remain the same, the truths evolve – not that they are subject to our understanding, but rather that, at each stage of our lives, the same words may be breathed in and breathed out in a different manner that attends to our situation in life while calling us to be more like Jesus every day. And even if you know everything there is to know, the way to be more like Jesus is going to be different from time to time, depending on where you are on your journey. Thus, I must continue to preach to myself.
Okay, so I know that probably felt tangential, but my musings on the bundled self, identity, and Christian living do all amount to more than an entry in my diary that you may or may not care about.
What I’m seeing is a failure for people to embrace the mutability and connectedness of our existence, choosing instead to label others and label themselves in ways that don’t make sense. When we see our soul flowing from the sidereal heath through our halcyon valleys and into the commingled sea of souls, then we can better understand ourselves and better understand and love each other, and we can move past the things that divide and conquer us.
Concerning Peyton Manning, Dan LeBatard is right: why can’t it all be true that Peyton did horrible things, Peyton is now a good guy, the journalist is not credible, the journalist has an agenda, the story is true, this doesn’t have to be about race, but yet this is about race? Those things can all be true. Why does someone find themselves saying that Peyton is totally absolved and Shaun King is a race-baiting devil?
Concerning Cam Newton’s press conference: It’s true that he should have acted differently, but can’t we all understand why he would act that way? Can’t we be fine with what he did, and try to empathize, yet still say he was wrong?
Concerning Kanye West: why does he have to be a crazy douchebag or a peerless artist? Why one or the other? Can’t we treat him like a person who’s on a journey like all of us, and say that his album, while not a masterpiece, is still pretty damn good? Can’t we appreciate the nuances that come with him and with his work?
Feeling the need to label ourselves and others inevitably leads to incorrect and overbearing labels that unnaturally warp our thinking, and in no place is this more obvious than this thing going on called the 2016 Presidential election. Fam – I fully believe that the two-party system in American politics is one of the most harmful things for our culture, our government, and our society. It creates extremism. Compromise and bipartisanship is a sham – usually when someone says that’s what they want, what they really mean is they want people on the other side of the aisle to agree with them. And this dichotomy of liberal:conservative makes people think some pretty unnatural things.
Conservatives have an overwhelmingly negative response to Beyoncé, Kendrick, DeRay, and just about anything related to race, especially when it comes to #BlackLivesMatter. Somehow it became a part of conservatism, and it is really disturbing to see the ways that conservatives predictably buck against any sort of racial protest or the suggestion that there is systemic racism, even though there is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a serious race problem in this country. Conservatives find other labels to disparage as well, SOCIALISM being one of the most prominent. So rather than consider the merits of Democratic Socialism, conservatives discredit the ideology altogether, trampling all of the good things liberalism can bring to the social inequality workbench. In short: conservatives contort their minds to oppose things that are new, different, strange, or uncomfortable. And that’s a problem, no?
Liberals aren’t faultless either. Perhaps in particular is the liberal tendency to bash Christianity. Yes, there is a marriage between Christianity and the GOP that makes me uncomfortable, and yes, Christians often conflate religious liberty with religious supremacy. But the caricature that liberals draw up of sexist, homophobic, racist, selfish Christians is unfair, and brings to an end helpful discussions about abortion and what it truly means to be “pro-life,” or what it really means for a Christian to “hate the sin and love the sinner” or how defeating ISIS is different from defeating Islam. Some people say some pretty bold stuff about gay rights and reproductive rights that, I think, upon further review, don’t make sense. But, because someone identifies as “liberal,” they feel the need to turn into a lemming and run off the cliff to get away from being conservative. In short: liberals charge ahead at unsustainable speeds, desperate to be unlike the close-minded people of the past. And that’s risky, no?
Why can’t a conservative support the teacher’s union and environmental protection? Why can’t a liberal be pro-life and opposed to gun control?
Too many people have never learned to think for themselves, and it’s because their insistence on taking sides and fabricating labels clouds their knowledge of the self and sets up roadblocks on our common boulevards of existence. We look to cues from thought leaders and ideologies and trending topics for guidance, forcing ourselves into labels and bending our perception of ourselves and our perception of others into something that is unnatural and unhelpful. You exist someplace that is so much more free than the temporal entrenchment that you’ve assumed.
Since this post of loosely-related parts somewhat resembles The Life of Pablo, I guess I will, 2500 words in, finish with a reflection on a Kanye song. I think these ideas that I’ve been kicking around in this post rather clumsily appear, in some form, in Kanye West’s song “Real Friends.” They’ve been ruthless in keeping that song off of YouTube, but here’s a 30 second preview on Tidal if you haven’t heard it.
People tend to take friends for granted. Or, at least, people don’t think critically about what friendship really means and what it means to be a real friend or have real friends. In our insatiable need for labeling, we find ourselves satisfied with acquiring “friends,” just as we call ourselves a student, spouse, employee, male, female, etc etc. But “How many of us are real friends/To real friends, ’til the reel end/’Til the wheels fall off, ’til the wheels don’t spin,” Kanye asks. But it’s a two-way street: “Who your real friends? We all came from the bottom/I’m always blamin’ you, but what’s sad, you not the problem.” Kanye is questioning whether or not he has real friends, and also whether or not he is a real friend.
What makes this message and this song so potent, besides the stellar production (love the piano sample), is that this comes from the type of introspective and self-deprecating voice that so many people seem to think Kanye doesn’t have. He isn’t bragging about being a deadbeat cousin, hating family reunions, and spilling wine at communion – he’s criticizing himself for it. He’s coming from a dark place on this one, and in that same dark place he voices frustration over his cousin stealing his laptop and holding it for ransom, and laments the loss of friends since becoming famous.
This is one of the things that makes Kanye great – when he puts himself into this metaphyscial space in such an honest and heartfelt way, you find yourself there too, even if you can’t relate to everything he’s talking about. I’m not famous. I’ve never had my laptop stolen. I’ve taken communion many times, but have so far avoided making a scene. But, listening to this song, I can’t help but think about what kind of friend I am, and who my real friends are. I can’t help but think about if I’m a good son and a good brother, and if my family’s always been good to me. It is well to consider those things, and in this case it doesn’t happen if Kanye doesn’t put himself in that space or if I put Kanye in a box he doesn’t belong in or if I deny myself the song based on what I think of that kind of music.
I think what I just said about “Real Friends” makes sense and fits into this post, but to be totally honest I just really wanted to talk about that song because I like it so much.
I’ll leave you with this: seek that place that is removed from your physical position. Do not be bound to a finite location. Challenge what you think you know. Rebel against the labels that society wants to put on you, and be careful which labels you claim for yourself. Your heart and soul and mind exist someplace that your body can never be. Explore that place. Know yourself. And when you find a fellow human there, embrace their journey, knowing their sandals are just as worn as yours.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria