Michael Marshall: Noise

For some background, you may want to read my two previous posts (1 and 2) about Michael Lee Marshal.

Narrative Power

In my post published January 22nd, I wrote that language had failed. Except that isn’t what has happened. Mike is dead and we are left with competing narratives: the injustice of Mike’s arrest, police brutality, what is “necessary,” the worth of black lives, homelessness as a social issue... So it goes.

This is how people make meaning in reaction to events and ultimately how they exert power.

Recently, I have found in myself a skepticism about my own thoughts. I don’t quite trust that my patterns of thought, prejudices, or reactions are really my own. I’m not saying there’s some other personality at work whispering in my mind. But I question whether my opinions about public events (especially events as fraught as Mike’s killing) are generated within me or whether I simply default to whatever narrative happens to have been convincing enough to gain power over me.

Of course, this is also a narrative I tell about myself.


Working with homeless folks, I’ve sometimes noticed and grown to suspect that speech is a distraction from true presence. In part this is because with people experiencing homelessness, you’ll often find yourself buffeted by a stream of words that frankly don’t make sense. I find myself nodding and smiling and thinking to myself “I don’t know what this guy is talking about.” I’ll look at the volunteers who work with me and we just sort of shrug and shake our heads. “Who knows?”

But other times, when I feel particularly grounded or, more often, when I’m just too tired to put on the stupid play of active listening, I have experienced a deeply spiritual connection with the person who is speaking. In these moments of revelation, speech becomes exactly what it is: noise. I wish I could explain the uncovered fullness of another person I’ve experienced in these moments, like the envelope containing the world has been opened for a moment to something cast just beside us, always there at hand but hidden by our narratives about how the world “really is,” but of course I can’t.

Opportunities for this kind of encounter with Mike are over. His narrative has ended. As a single individual, one must resist the tempting offer to take up the easy narratives offered by competing powers.

The truth is language really has failed. It failed before the sheriffs who killed Mike restrained him so brutally. No dumb narrative will bring him back to life. There is no justice for Mike, only silence. To claim anything else is to attempt to make meaning out of his meaningless death, and to use his story to wield power.

The Reactionary Christ

The Starbucks Christmas coffeecup fiasco:

Apparently there are no liberal or conservative Christians in America, only reactionary Christians. Without fail, when public awareness turns its gaze upon the next feast day of the Christian liturgical calendar (except Pentecost, because no one knows what it is), this or that wacky corner of American Christianity will complain about some such nonsense and then it is open season for the reactions.

As a friend put it recently, we are now encountering fourth-level meta reactions: “outrage about the outrage about the outrage.” Every year some piece of nothing is presented as the foundation for quickly building a moralistic platform out of plywood and glue. This year it is Starbucks’ stupid red cups. In response, the holy, morally pure objects of the True Meaning of Christmas are thrust into social media: foster children, refugees, homeless people, poor nations, real religious persecution, the environment, Syria, something about Advent. Never you mind that people spouting these moralist tropes have little to no actual encounter with any of the people they're talking about. Liberal reactionaries need only wait as their conservative brethren dutifully choose the outrage du jour for the season.

Worse, news outlets that pass along the story appear to be reporting on a phenomenon that has no existence outside of one man's viral video and the echoing likes and shares of the unthinking masses. The moderately liberal moralist response to these kinds of non-stories shows the utter lack of politics among liberals. Far from building a constructive political foundation addressing the realities of life in America, liberals are in a constant state of reaction—reacting even to essentially fabricated movements on the right. As for conservatives, their response to this liberal cacophony is to double down on a felt sense of persecution and injustice that allows these kinds of stories to flourish in the first place.

This would merely be a disappointing trifle if reactionary politics were not a hair's breadth from fundamentalist politics. The right and left feeding off each other in the way described above cannot help but devolve into feuding fundamentalisms, each spouting its own doctrinaire moralistic truisms and working to dehumanize and silence its opposition.

What is required is a politics of reconciliation and love wherein disparate individuals are encouraged to hold political tension together and work through problems based not on whatever common wisdom they bring to the table with them, but through encounter of each other and the world with eyes unburdened by fear, hatred, loss, and the will to power.

This is the politics of the cross.

Beauty & Brokenness

The Behemoth, a product of Christianity Today, is a small magazine which aims to remind readers of “the glory of God all around them, in the worlds of science, history, theology, medicine, sociology, Bible, and personal narrative.” Sort of an effort at a reunion of the various modes of being and knowing torn asunder by the Enlightenment. The claim is that we can know God in tangible ways and that fields claiming authority based upon the scientific method can be used in conjunction with faithful theological reflection to seek understanding.

So it isn’t surprising that the most recent issue features a thoughtful piece on the theological significance of beauty. The basic argument goes that beauty cannot prove the existence of God, nothing can, but it can give an observer clues about truth.

The author quickly moves past the problem of evil: “How can there be a good God when there’s so much evil in the world?” He then suggests a “problem of beauty.” In other words: “How can there not be a good God if there’s so much beauty in the world?” Beauty graciously and freely given is a clue to the nature and reality of the divine.

My gut reaction is to reject this notion. Too often this kind of argument about the revelation of God in nature is essentially an appeal to the vague lovely. Given Christianity’s claim that God is ultimately revealed in the person of Jesus Christ—his life, death, and resurrection—the vague lovely as a theological ground just ain’t gonna cut it. I am hesitant in the extreme to move past the cross to the resurrection, to a theology of glory and victory which might deny the reality of suffering and death.

But, embedded in the piece is a part of a compelling argument. If we look at, for instance, a storm that causes destruction, pain, and death and call that a problem of evil, logically we must also allow ourselves to be confronted by the beauty of a cool breeze on a warm day, the quality of light cast through a window, or the way cotton forms around a body. The author touches upon this when he writes about redemption as a sign of beauty: “God also creates beautiful things out of brokenness—unfulfilled dreams, dashed hopes, divided communities, hurting people.” But this doesn’t go far enough.

Beauty does not cease to exist because suffering exists.

Suffering is not easily resolved by the reality of beauty.

The content of faith exists in the tension between beauty and suffering. Indeed, there is beauty not only in our response to the destruction caused by a storm but in the storm itself. A forest fire is not only beautiful because it prepares the way for new life; the fire itself is beautiful and terrifying.

A truth is available in the tension between beauty and brokenness. This is the truth of the cross.

Advent3, 2014

This post is late, I know. Advent4 is right around the corner and here I am still on Advent3. Like any good American, I'm too busy to really observe Advent for real. So I write blog posts instead.

Sticking with Isaiah[^1] (as I have in my two previous posts in this series[^2]) brings us to hope, which is appropriate because that's what Advent is. Garland instead of ashes, gladness instead of mourning. These are hoped for in the midst of Advent. And implicit in the Christian liturgical observation is that the child born on Christmas is the garland, the gladness, the mantel of praise. Except right now I can't help but think ahead to Good Friday.

When it was announced that there would be no indictment for the death—ruled a homicide by the New York City Medical Investigator—of Eric Garner at the hands of an NYPD officer, people took to Facebook and Twitter to mourn. Many quoted scripture. Many of them quoted scripture from Good Friday, the day marking Jesus' death on the cross. Advent's hope couldn't bear the burden of suffering. Only the cross could do that.

Hope is a work of love. It takes energy and effort to hope, especially in the midst of suffering. But as we hope for the child to deliver garland, gladness, and praise, we do well to remember that his life was not without ashes, mourning, and perhaps even, at times, faint spirit. We remember this not to increase the burden of suffering in the face of hope, but to take full stock of the world the Child enters.

If we hope only for the bright, nostalgic kitsch of nativity scenes, Santa, and holiday cards, we hope for an empty nothing. We deny the full power of the claim that the divine has entered the world in a barn, as the son of an oppressed people yearning for freedom, who truly realized the weight of the world, and who preached gladness but ultimately experienced pain.

Rejecting Christ

In Toronto there's a sculpture of Jesus depicted as a homeless person just outside Regis College, a Jesuit school, at the University of Toronto. But it found its home there only after being rejected by St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. It has been reported that rectors of both cathedrals were enthusiastic about the piece but higher-ups in the New York and Toronto archdiocese chose not to install the sculpture.

Timothy Schmalz, the artist, was told that the sculpture could not be installed because it was "inappropriate." The word "inappropriate" suggests offense.

Except those churches, the one in Toronto and the one in New York, being Roman Catholic, have multiple depictions of Christ inside the building where he hangs, dead or dying, from a cross. Do the decision makers in the archdiocese of New York and Toronto not take offense at Christ crucified?

Is the humble depiction of Jesus as a sleeping homeless person more offensive than Jesus on the cross? That depends on why the sculpture is offensive in the first place. Perhaps it's the depiction of Christ as less than divine, a simple human, and a homeless one at that. The sculpture says more about the viewer than it does about God. The sculpture challenges what we think about ourselves, and about those around us who we may not see or who we chose not to see. It is personal. Meanwhile, the cross has come to challenge what we think about God more than it personally challenges we who stand before it. But our reaction to the cross is what faith is all about, and we have lost the ability to really see it.

The Impossibility of Offense

Perhaps the men who rejected the sculpture in question stand before the cross and, through a work of faith, do not choose offense. Soren Kierkegaard tells us that "the possibility of offense is precisely the repulsion in which faith can come into existence—if one does not choose to be offended."[^1] It is possible that the same people who reject Christ depicted lying destitute on a park bench do not reject Christ in his abasement on the cross, but it ain't likely. It's likelier that something else entirely is going on.

The sculpture is genius because it delivers the possibility of offense back to us. The image of Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one, the Human One, the beloved one of God tortured, hanging from a bloody cross is not offensive to us not because of our faith but because the offense of the cross as been obliterated by time and the ubiquity of an image that says "here is a church."

Christ says, "Blessed is the one who is not offended at me." But it is not a blessing to find oneself in a situation where offense is impossible. To bring in Kierkegaard again, one must be confronted with the possibility of offense, must move through it, in order to have faith.

So I ask myself: why do I accept the sculpture of Jesus as a huddled homeless person? Does my acceptance come from a genuine belief that God is truly incarnate in the least among us? Or does acceptance come from a knee-jerk, right-headed, progressive liberalism in which Christianity is "stirred in as a seasoning"?[^2] Or is the possibility of offense impossible, because the existence of God has been rendered impossible in this secular age?

So, It’s Non-Religious Religion in Church That’s Not Church?

“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe…What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.” – Flannery O’Connor

Apart from what you see here on the DB, Logan and I are friends who still talk about religion and belief quite often. We do so in funny and serious ways. He also knows what love I harbor for Flannery O’Connor, so he sent me the quote above. I guess it worked, because I’m writing this. It’s also a chance for me to provide my own angle on Logan’s most recent post. Doubt and the ability or desire to believe is something I spend a lot of time wrestling with, which is what makes something like a “non-religious church” an issue for me, particularly for its shallow approach to something that is by its nature paradoxical and mysterious.

I think what we’ve got going here is a battle over terms, over the language of church and religion, which is no small battle as words are all we’ve got to explain what we’re doing. As Logan noted, Sunday Assembly hasn’t done away with religious structures even in their attempt to provide a secular alternative to “church.” This isn’t just another community organization we’re talking about here; otherwise, it wouldn’t have made the news. Rather, it’s an attempt to co-opt and then negate the mysterious connection afforded to us when we attempt to interact with the divine.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not saying Sunday Assembly should go away, or that they are wrong in their approach. Do what you want. Being a good person is good. I generally acknowledge that how you choose to experience joy in community isn’t my business. What I’d like to say though, if SA is your cup of tea, is this: don’t cheat yourself.

Churchy Church

If we’re going to get at the contention of language presented by trying to separate what church is from what you want church to be, it begins with “feelings.” Church isn’t about making you feel good, which is what O’Connor is getting at in the quote above. Want proof? Christianity, at least, is a religion that houses an execution instrument at the front of, and on the tops of, its buildings. Granted, the effect has been lessened by its shallow usage and smothering frequency on everything from jewelry to coffee mugs, but still. This is a religion about the cross, and that’s not “feel-good.”

There is a public notion at large, one which SA bases itself upon, that being a good person and feeling good about it captures what church is about if you can so conveniently place the “God-talk” by the wayside. Wrong. Church isn’t about feeling good, it’s about confronting mystery and power, confronting a cross and all it represents, and wondering what you should do about it. When people reduce "church" to something you can do non-religiously, you're pigeon-holing religion into something devoid of mystery and power, which is antithetical to the origin of religion itself. The major religions negated by SA’s “feel good, do good” approach [and we’re going beyond Christianity here], and the organization of church as an extension, is about dealing with a truth and a reality which is, often, profoundly uncomfortable. You’re not all there is, how you “feel” isn’t really the center of anything, and what’s more, you’ve got to get over that and do some real work for others with a real eye towards love and obedience. And what makes groups like the SA so inept in their attempt to make a church is this: church is the place where you go to face that and fold yourself, along with your neighbor, into an attempt to live out those uncomfortable truths. Faith and belief are real concepts that those of us committed to living out religious truth must deal with, but church isn’t even really the place we go to do that. Faith, or even the longing for faith, is a foundation upon which church is built. Church is the second step in a religious process. So you can’t separate church from faith. Sorry.

Religion and Cost

This is where the language of struggle and the concept of belief as something painful come into play. O’Connor is right in that “religion costs.” It costs a great deal. I count myself among those who cry out for belief, wishing they had it in a way they used to or can only imagine now. And in my position, I do find it much harder to believe; yet I still strive for it. When confronted by the cross, I no longer truly know what to think or feel. But I don’t go to church to figure it out. That’s work for me to do, painful work, in which I grasp for something I believe truly matters and yet consistently avoids my longing, outstretched fingers. It’s work I do in silence, work I do with friends and family and mentors and professors, work I do in books and on paper and on an awesome blog called Disembodied Beard.

But church? That’s where I go to live out the parts I know are true and struggle to keep my heart and mind open to the parts I’m not sure about. Like, that if God exists, God is love. And love is hard. Loving God and loving neighbor aren’t any easier than loving in romantic or familial relationships. Church is where I learn how to live out that love, where I learn how to express religious truths that inherently speak power to action, where I bind together with a community to buckle down and get things done. Sometimes that makes me feel good, and sometimes it doesn’t. But my “feelies,” my “believies” (Logan already linked the best clip in his article, so go to it) aren’t a factor in all that. My actions are, and they’re predicated on my desire to know more about the divine and myself.

So, do what you want to feel joy, but don't confuse that with what church is supposed to do for you. Church is supposed to confront you with mystery and power and transform you, often in painful ways. And if you want to gather and sing songs and love each other, that’s great. Seriously, it’s great. The world would certainly be a better place if everyone did that. But that's not "church minus religion." That’s a club, and if that’s what you want, name it and own it.

The Valley

There was a wide valley that contained within it two towns. One town lay by a lake. The other lay by a river. The two towns were separated by a great forest.

The people of the lake and the people of the river arrived in the valley together. Some of them settled by the lake. Some of them settled by the river.

The valley was a good place to live. The soil was good. The sun was warm. Clouds rolled over the mountains, visited the valley, and went on their way. The forest was alive and gave its game and supplies to the people of the valley. The water each town bordered brought great abundance upon the people.

The people of the lake built close to the shores. They worked the water in boats: casting nets, traveling across the lake, making wood into lumber, building roads through the town. They traded with each other. They shared meals and songs.

The people of the river built their town along the banks. They also cast nets, fished, accepted the gifts the flow the river brought with it. They built mills powered by the river, traveled down its waters, traded amongst each other, and shared meals and songs.

In the years following their founding in the valley, the two towns prospered equally. But they started to differ. The increase in the fortunes of the towns were discovered by the world outside the valley. Outsiders visited the town by the lake and the town by the river seeking trade and fulfilling curiosity.

The river brought newcomers as it flowed. The people of the river welcomed the others as the river flowed by just as they welcomed the gifts the river had given them before. They traded with the newcomers. They shared freely the gifts the river had brought. Some outsiders simply passed through, others saw that the town by the river was good and stayed. They were no longer outsiders, but people of the river as well. The outsiders brought change, new customs, new languages, and funny ways. It was not always easy for the river people to get along with the people who came from outside the valley. But the river had brought these guests just like it had brought abundance, and the river town celebrated its newfound abundance and its new friends.

The lake also attracted newcomers. Visitors traveled on the roads the lake people had built. Some came only to visit, and to trade. Others, though, saw the goodness of the lake. They wished to cast nets, to fish, to travel across the waters and to share meals and songs. And so they aimed to build on the shores of the lake, as the people before them had done, and to become lake people themselves. But the first lake people grew jealous. They coveted their lake and its riches. They looked at the roads they had built and resented that others would use them. The newcomers were foreign and different. They spoke different languages, sang different songs, ate different food, and caused difficulties for the lake people.

The people of the lake set up tolls on their roads to extract wealth from newcomers. They claimed not only the shores but also the lake itself and all its riches as their own and no one else’s. Their stories became stories of their right to dominate the lake, the roads, and the forest. They began to claim that the valley was their valley alone. The good soil was theirs. The warm sun was theirs. The clouds did not visit the valley itself, but the people of the lake instead. The songs the lake people sang over meals were angry songs. They cast out the newcomers they could, and insulted those they could not.

Fourth of July

Independence Day was just three days ago. Summer holidays are kind of different from winter holidays. Something about the heat kind of gets inside you. Summer holidays are all about spreading out, getting out of your place. We have big, outdoor get-togethers that mostly involve eating something that was cooked outside.

For Independence Day we hang red, white, and blue decorations around. We eat off of red, white, and blue plates, and wipe yellow mustard off our faces with red, white, and blue napkins. We pay a little bit more attention to our red, white, and blue flag that is a symbol of our country – of the United States. We pause and reflect on what that flag stands for. We ask, why do we continue to raise it and what does it say when we do?

One of the things we do on Independence Day is honor the veterans who have given their lives to service, who have lost their lives in battle, and who struggle with coming home. Some of them sit right here with us today, whether physically or in our memory. On Independence Day we also honor other Americans who have given their lives to make America great for all people. We honor women who struggled all over the country for the right to vote, we honor those who sat at lunch counters, and on busses, and marched for equality, we honor those who fight for the right of all to love and marry who they will.

America exists somewhere in the forest between the two towns in the story I began with today. And on Independence Day, of all days, I think it’s worth asking, which town are we?

It’s a very simple story – I know – and it misses all of the complex issues that are a part of living in this country. But I want to say that we are not one town or the other. Instead we are in the forest, in the valley. The forest is the complexity we face together. America is not one thing or another, not one town or another, but since the beginning has been attempting to see itself through the trees.

Our red, white, and blue flag, for its part, stands for many things. It stands for liberty, freedom, independence, sacrifice, generosity, speech, openness, equality, and opportunity. I am sure you can think of more. The red, white, and blue flag has flown over this country for more than two centuries and it has seen all of these values expressed every day. Unfortunately, it has also seen us fall short of those values, fail to live up to them, deny them to others. Here at home, the red, white, and blue flag has flown over slavery, the civil war, Japanese internment, segregation, racism, and homophobia. Abroad the flag has flown over war, colonialism, and terror.

The flag is a symbol as complicated as America itself, not just for Americans but also for those outside of America. We are truly in the trees.

Beyond the Valley

I love America. I love the flag and much of what it stands for. I love America’s energy, dynamism, its multiple stories, peoples, backgrounds, religions, and races. I love the history and the people who have fought in various ways for the ideas that America stands for. But in the passage for today, Jesus calls us beyond the valley, though it may be good.

We are called by Christ, as individuals, beyond our own selfish interests. We are called to go beyond the bounds of loyalty to our families. We are called to go beyond the limited local view of our communities. We are called beyond even our nation, to see ourselves as part of a world of others.

The good rain, Christ says, falls on you, and your neighbor, and your enemy alike. It pays no heed to you, your family, your city, or your nation. The rain does not only visit our valley, but the clouds also roll beyond it.

We are called to do likewise.

There are interpreters of the Beatitudes – the section of the sermon from which this passage is taken – that argue the demands Christ makes are actually impossible. They say that the point Jesus was trying to make was that because we fall short of the perfection of the divine, we need grace. They argue that it is only because of grace that we are even capable of striving toward these lofty ideals, and that when we fail, grace will catch us, bear us up, and allow us to try again.

Christ says that we are not only called to go beyond our valley to embrace people like us. We are called to love even our enemies. The red, white, and blue flag of America symbolizes many things, but loving our enemies is not one of them.

That symbol. There. The cross... symbolizes love for the enemy, the stranger, the immigrant. It has no color and stands for no nation. It flings out its arms wide beyond the limited valley and calls us forward to it. It symbolizes the grace necessary to go beyond the valley ourselves.

The rain falls beyond the valley, and a forest grows there as well. We may not know it as well as our own. It may be harder to find our way. We may even be entirely lost there. But by the grace of God, the command of Christ, and with the courage of the spirit we are called to go.