Monday, April 24, 2017

Book Review: Finding God in the Body by Benjamin Riggs

The physical and spiritual are not opposed to each other. They are not two competing worlds. There is not something apart from our life called the "spiritual journey." The journey is our life. When we sleepwalk through life, we are just along for the ride. When we mindfully participate in the journey, we are walking the spiritual path. - Benjamin Riggs, Finding God in the Body

In recent years, I've lost track of how many books on spirituality I've read. I even wrote my own last year, which required me to read even more for research purposes. After so much reading and writing, certain concepts and themes tend to pop up again and again, with different ways of expressing and illustrating them. As you might be able to imagine, not all of these books have been created equal: as with any genre, some are engrossing and well-written, and others...are not.

After so long, I've come up with a few principles to judge whether a spirituality book is good or not:
  1. It minimizes jargon, and explains well what jargon it uses.
  2. It avoids chapters becoming bloated with paragraphs full of the same airy words and phrases, slightly rearranged from sentence to sentence.
  3. It grounds its concepts in everyday experience, striving to connect ideas or practices to what one might encounter in daily life.
  4. It is intentional about inviting the reader to participate in what it presents.
Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West by Benjamin Riggs is the latest in this long line of spirituality books that I have read. While the title suggests that it might be a book about spirit-body synchronicity, it is more an introduction to spirituality, mainly using concepts from Christianity but also some Eastern traditions.

How well did this book meet the above principles?

Minimizes/explains jargon: Riggs throws a lot of different concepts at the reader, including contemplation, meditation, mindfulness, sanity, true self/false self, suffering, and more. Many of these weave in and out of each other, but the ones he works with the most are true self/false self, suffering, and meditation. In fact, the process of acknowledging one's false self--that is, the persona we present to the world in order to find acceptance and our own self-conceptualization--runs through most of the book. Because he reminds the reader so often about this, it will be one they will likely be able to understand the best. Others do not fare so well: "sanity" in particular was one that, given its natural ties to mental health issues, did not seem to hold up even as it appears in later chapters. So for some he is very clear, and others could have been explained better or edited out. And I might have gone with the latter, because...

Avoids bloated paragraphs/chapters: There are many stretches of this book where Riggs works with the same concept for pages on end without moving forward with helping the reader understand. One example: in a later chapter on practicing meditation, there is a span of six pages where he explains that such a practice isn't about thinking the right thoughts or only about the mind, with non-sequitors about sanity, chaos, and the language of the body being silence, without connecting them very well to the main subject at hand. He has a 33-page chapter devoted to the identity of Jesus that eventually suggests that Jesus shows us how to relate to God ourselves, but that contains a lot of deconstruction and exegesis that doesn't serve his main point.

Grounds concepts in everyday experience: Riggs' introduction features his own story of pursuing spirituality and the experiences that inspired and shaped him along the way. When he writes about rejecting the false self, he succeeds in showing how what we project to others or ourselves is often a result of our pasts or our desire to fit into the world around us. Unfortunately, related to the above two points, in between there is a lot of pontificating about a lot of different concepts, along with long stretches of treading philosophical water.

Intentionally invites the reader into the presentation: There are two points where Riggs offers a set of instructions for observing prayer practices, one near the beginning and the other toward the end. In between there is much of what I've already described, which the reader might not have the patience to endure in order to get to those sections.

All in all, Finding God in the Body would not be my first choice to introduce others to spiritual practice. I found his own story very helpful and he does well in explaining certain themes, but the book is weighed down by a lot of filler that could have been streamlined or left out entirely. The book takes too long to get to the most informative or engaging parts, and a novice probably won't have the patience for that.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Vintage CC: No, the Risen Jesus Isn't a Zombie

I wrote this in April 2015 just after Easter, and it seems as relevant today as it did then, as this joke always comes up somewhere. So this is my half-geek, half-theologian response.

In the past few years (probably longer), it's become a common joke to refer to Easter as Zombie Jesus Day or something to that effect. It might actually have been around longer than that, but to me it's been more noticeable lately. The pic to the left was one such mention of it that I saw on Facebook yesterday.

See, he rose from the dead, just like a zombie. Get it?

Sometimes the line between humor and criticism is blurry, and whether this is meant as one or the other varies from instance to instance. Nevertheless, the claim that Easter features a zombie Jesus is misrepresentative of Christian theology and the zombie genre. As it happens, I'm a big fan of both, so I feel some measure of responsibility to delve into the differences between Christian belief about the resurrection, and zombie mythology.

Let's begin with how zombies are conceptualized. At its most basic, a zombie is a corpse that has been reanimated. While not every story features an explanation of how this happens, a fair amount identifies its origins as viral. According to Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide, this virus overtakes the brain, alters it, and ultimately destroys its normal functioning. In addition, it stops the heart, rendering the subject dead. Through its alteration of the brain, it reanimates the body, although this newly revived corpse bears little resemblance to what it did before both in terms of mechanism and appearance. The virally-corrupted brain asserts enough control over the body's capacity to walk and, at times, grab, but it essentially drags the body along. All other organs no longer work, and the zombie doesn't have the same use of its motor skills as it did before.

Furthermore, the reanimated corpse is still a corpse. This means it will continue to decay. It no longer discerns relationships; no longer differentiates between loved one and enemy. It doesn't remember who it is or its place in the world as a person. It only knows what the virus causes it to know: a hunger for other living flesh. In other words, the body is no longer what or who it was physically or mentally. It was dead, and now it is, in its revived form, undead. Animated, but still dead.

Let's contrast these characteristics with claims about what Jesus is like after the resurrection. First, in two separate Gospel accounts, Jesus is said to be unrecognizable to people when they encounter him: Mary Magdalene in John 20, and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. It is not until he does something familiar that they finally do recognize him. In Mary's case, he says her name, and in the disciples' case, he breaks bread with them. This suggests some altered, new physical form, or at least some inability to recognize him on the part of the observer. Furthermore, Jesus remembers past relationships and continues to interact through normal means.

The Apostle Paul expounds on his own theory of altered physical form after resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:39-49:
Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is* from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.
The term "spiritual body" is an oxymoron. How can a spiritual thing also have a physical body? The essence of what Paul is saying here is that one's resurrected form is something new, imperishable, glorious, powerful. This may be what the Gospel writers had in mind when Jesus was not immediately recognizable to some who encountered him. Contrast this with a zombie, which remains in its old, worn out, degenerating flesh.

We next move to John 20:19-31, which is commonly known as the "doubting Thomas" story. Jesus twice appears to the disciples in a shut room, again indicating that he has taken on a new imperishable form. At the same time, however, he shows Thomas his crucifixion wounds. Some may argue that Jesus here is still in his old body, and yet he has appeared in closed quarters. He is recognizable to Thomas, which may suggest that the presence of those wounds suggests that the former body has somehow been redeemed in the process of its transformation. He is still who he was, yet also something new. Once again, note that Jesus takes up familiar relationships and interactions. To save us some time here, note that he does this in every post-resurrection account in the New Testament.

One final story worth discussing is the end of Luke 24, where Jesus suddenly appears among the disciples. He shows them his wounds as in John, but they think they're seeing a ghost. To prove he's more than a ghost, he eats a piece of fish in their presence. Not only does he elect to eat fish rather than take a bite out of Peter's arm, but he is also shown once again to have taken on a new form that confounds an easy dualistic spiritual/physical explanation.

All of these show that Easter is not the celebration of a reanimated, still-decaying corpse that cannot discern relationship. A zombie is still very much subject to the power of death, just in a different, even more horrific way. We do not proclaim, "Jesus is undead!" We proclaim "Jesus is risen!" And what Christians mean by "risen" is newly alive in an incorruptible, imperishable form that is somehow both physical and spiritual, no longer subject to the power of death in any way.

Furthermore, when Christians claim that Christ is risen, we also mean that in a transcendent sense. At communion, we not only remember who Jesus was and what happened in his death and resurrection, but we proclaim his continuing presence with us, beyond the limitations of a single physical form. We proclaim that he is still watching, guiding, presiding, and loving. A zombie is not even its former self, incapable of interaction with us as it could in life.

We dress up like zombies for Halloween. We celebrate Jesus' transcending death at Easter. These are the differences between the two.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Book Review: Rules for Revolutionaries by Becky Bond & Zack Exley

In big organizing we have big target universes. We need to talk to everyone--not just narrow slices of assumed swing voters--about what we want to achieve. We have to get as many people as possible engaged in the work of talking with voters. We have to have voters make demands of their representatives in Congress. Together, we will constitute a wave that will swamp the influence of big money, corporate media, and other establishment players who are invested in maintaining the status quo. - Becky Bond & Zack Exley, Rules for Revolutionaries

Rob Bell had Zack Exley on his podcast a couple of months ago. The topics of discussion ranged from Exley's work on the Howard Dean, John Kerry, and Bernie Sanders campaigns to evolving campaign tactics to his current project to get hundreds of ordinary citizens to run for political office at every level. I was intrigued by what he said, because he painted a picture of a cutting edge way to approach politics and pursue societal change, and because he freely shared his critiques of both major parties and how insular and risk averse those in the inner circles at the top tend to be.

Near the end, Exley plugged the book he'd written with fellow organizer Becky Bond entitled Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything, which I'd placed on my to-read list soon after. It's not a book I'd typically want to pick up, simply because the genre of contemporary political commentary is not what I choose to read for fun. But the way Exley cast a vision in his conversation with Bell for grassroots organizing on such a massive scale, I decided that I wanted to take a look.

And then, by happenstance, the book review network I'm a part of offered it up.

Exley and Bond begin their work by making the case for what they call "big organizing," which they present as bold, innovative, reliant on a vast network of individuals and groups at the local level to keep driving it, and pursuant of sweeping change. In their words, in big organizing people work on "a plan so big it can only be accomplished when everyone who wants change (a majority of the people) works together" (p. 2). The authors suggest that there is actually a sizable enough bloc of people in this country spanning differences that, given the right kind of organization, empowerment, and motivation, could change our nation's direction even without the usual trappings of traditional systems and practices.

Off the bat, the authors stress that in order for these tactics to work, people have to want them to work. They have to put in the time and effort needed to pursue them, and to partner with others who want to accomplish the same goal. But Exley and Bond are very clear from the first chapter on that nothing will be handed to those who want change.

As the title suggests, these elements of big organizing are presented as rules. Every chapter after the first takes its title from a rule, where an explanation with anecdotes and illustrations follows. The first couple of these drive the point home that the revolution will not happen on its own or with ease. It will involve people who want it to make it happen.

After these initial buckets of cold water are thrown on the reader, they turn to the more practical matters of big organizing, many of which may sound quite different from what people are used to if they've been a part of such movements. They take pains to show how reliant on volunteers rather than staff this method is. Especially at first but through its duration, the authors stress that their model counts on unpaid manpower to achieve much of what it sets out to do. Local volunteers know their communities best, and will do much better than outside consultants coming in to present a logo and some slogans.

Other rules are in this same spirit. They advocate for small donations from ordinary people rather than constantly wining and dining big donors who will resist the change you want later on. They make the case for local organization but centralized messaging. They advocate for the perfect not being the enemy of big and risky ideas and actions. And they caution against "single-issue" thinking, noting how interconnected things like immigration, civil liberties, income inequality, and access to healthcare actually are.

Because Bond and Exley both worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign, many of their examples come from that experience. While some may appreciate seeing what these ideas look like in practice in this way (both successes and setbacks), some may actually have trouble with this given how that campaign eventually faltered. I couldn't avoid Sanders' loss clouding the lens through which I read. There was also more than one instance where the authors would express regret for missed opportunities, hesitation, or poor decision-making, saying, "If we had seen this rule through to its full extent, things could have gone better." Of course, neither the reader nor author will ever know that for sure.

Should these rules be discounted given the end result of their implementation in this case? Probably not. I got the sense from this book that Bond and Exley learned a lot from what they did and know how they'll try doing it the next time. But that question still might be enough for some to hesitate on what they present here. Both reference work prior to what they did with Sanders that was more successful, and some may be able to read this knowing that sometimes these rules work and sometimes the human factor or other particulars are too much to overcome.

If nothing else, Rules for Revolutionaries shows us how things can be different if enough believe in and work toward a common cause. They may work or they may not given a certain context and the level of commitment and energy of its players. But as Bond and Exley say at the beginning, none of this will happen on its own. These rules are to be remembered in the midst of the struggle, because that's what it will be.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Pastoral Prayer for Real Resurrection

based on John 20:1-18

God of resurrection, we have come seeking the promise and hope that this day brings. We are keenly aware of what in our lives needs new life, wondering if the good news of Easter is really enough to transform it. We feel a desperate need for more than just the tomb being empty; for the risen Christ to be truly present with us and raise what seems to be too far lost to redeem.

And so we lift it all up to you, because if there was ever a day all year to do it, it is today. We lift up our stresses, our anxieties, our needs to work harder to impress others or ourselves. We lift up our diseases of mind, body, and spirit that hold us back. We lift up the people we’re estranged from, both the cause of the fraying and its ongoing effect. We lift up our doubts and hesitancies of faith. We lift up our dissatisfaction, our disillusionment, our disappointment, our despair.

These are the places where we need Easter most; where your reminders that you intend resurrection for us will speak loudest and bring most joy.

O God, may this day be more than greeting card-level platitude for the parts of our souls that are hurting and afraid. Make resurrection real for us. Help us to hear our name, to see, to believe, and to proclaim. Amen.