I win most “my childhood was so fundamentalist’” debates. In these conversations I usually just have to bring up one name, and the latest round of “Crazy Christian upbringing” goes to me. That name is Jerry Falwell. For most mainline and progressive Christians the name itself is enough to bring weeping and gnashing of teeth. Memories flash through our heads of Dr. Falwell telling people we would blow the terrorists away in the name of the Lord, that 9/11 was God’s punishment for homosexuals, feminists and abortionists and that feminists and lesbians just needed a good man.
My time at Liberty U was not a total wash – I had a powerful group of friends, all of us actors and writers who I would sneak off with for cigars and poetry. Of that group only a few retain any religious identity. Some have felt that the only honest thing they could do to live lives of integrity was to exit from Christian faith altogether. Of those of us who retained our faith, three of us have gone to seminary – one to become a Presbyterian Church in America pastor, one to become a ‘middle-right’ Evangelical hospital chaplain, and myself to fall in with the Progressive Christian Alliance and work in issues of theology and the post-Christian world, progressive and liberal theologies and the question of post-mainline Christianity.
At times I like to take stock of my life by looking back at who I was and where I have gone. While living in Florida the world of Evangelical churches – Vineyard, Calvary Chapel, non-denominational charismatic – ceased to have the impact on me that they once had. At one time they had been places of vital faith formation but in my early 20s the ‘Disney-esqe’ aspects of the faith began to grow a wedge between my heart and my mind. At some point before leaving Florida for Spokane, Washington, I picked up John Shelby Spong’s Why Christianity Must Change or Die, though I did not read it until years later. Now I am not comfortable with some of Spong’s rhetoric but at the time it was vital to my faith formation. I am thankful to my Lutheran and Presbyterian campus ministers in Spokane who helped me find a vital and living progressive faith expression.
‘Young Jason’ – that Jason of my Liberty University days – would be most shocked by the events of this last weekend. In many regards this was a weekend of joyous weddings. We were lucky to see people who are dear to our hearts enter into life-bonds of love, affection and support. The brother of my wife’s high school friend wed on Friday and one of my ‘soul sisters’ tied the knot on Saturday in a beautiful church wedding. In another way it was a symbolic weekend, which revealed to myself how much I had grown as a person of faith.
Fridays wedding was a Walima, the “family and close friends” reception of Indian Muslim weddings. The event – which we were told by our friends was “small” by brown people standards and we assured them was “large” by white people standards – was Muslim to the last detail: Salat prayers were held in an adjoining room, the Koran was read to us and our friend’s childhood Imam did the sermon in three languages, none of them English. The food, while delicious, contained no pork and no alcohol.
Saturday’s wedding, in contrast, was my first-ever lesbian wedding. My friend and her sweet love celebrated their union with a blessing of their covenant before friends, family and members of their church family. I had met my friend in church and it was important to her that not only she be wed in a church service but that the service was Anglican/Episcopal. The reception theme was “redneck” (my friend’s family roots are in the south) and it was ALL alcohol (rum and coke) and ALL pork (southern BBQ).
“Young Jason” would have balked at both of these options. I would have insisted that my Muslim friends were Satan worshipers who secretly desired to convert us all by force and, in a brilliant display of ignorance toward my own tradition, would have insisted that their religion was innately violent. Even worse Young Jason – and I do not phrase it that way in order to escape that Young Jason and Present Jason are not the same person, but that we are two different experiences of my ‘me-ness’ in time and space – would have told his dear friend that she was in a sinful relationship, that her lifestyle was abomination and that her only chance at life with God was repentance.
In short: Present Jason would have kicked Young Jason in the balls.
Two biblical images immediately come to mind. The first is the New Testament image of the fullness of time where humanity gathers at the “wedding banquet of the lamb” and we are reunited with God in Christ (Revelations 19:7-9). The second image is from the Hebrew Bible, where God hosts a feast of all nations – reconciliation of God’s people, together and feasting despite their differences (Isaiah 25:6).
I am in no way doing a detailed reading or exegesis of these images, but am instead engaging a theopoetic; the possibilities, leanings and wanderings spiderwebing out of the texts. To present a model of God that is defined by the feast – and in particular the wedding feast – is to become rooted in an image of God that a) brings together into union through love and b) a God who parties. In the New Testament story of the bridegrooms when the ‘right people’ do not show up all the outsiders, left behinds and marginal are invited in to be the guests.
This, we are told, is what the Kingdom of God looks like. Anyone who has been through one knows that weddings become dangerous places, despite all the joy. Seating arrangements must be made carefully so that ago-old disputes do not erupt over cake. Divorced parents can find themselves seated at the same table. Disagreement can range among the assembled guests on the suitability of the partners for each other. This is the Kingdom of God; a dangerous place where the invited guests are beloved of the couple (a trinity if their ever was one – two partners who are creating a third entity and reality present in the relationship of the two) yet may sit at odds with each other.
As in all the models presented in the New Testament the Kingdom of God – or, in this model more of a Kin-dom of God – contains the odds and sods of society. I am reminded of my “middle-right” friend when he was doing his chaplaincy training. The director of the program was a Gay man who explained to my friend that for him God may turn out to be Jerry Falwell and for Jerry Falwell God may turn out to be a large, black Lesbian.
Past Jason saw the Feast of God/Wedding Banquet of the Lamb as a place where the invited were received into God’s presence. What I missed were the types of people invited, that God’s acceptance was not based on what was ‘right’ or ‘correct’ but on what was Good and Healthy for the renewal of creation and human flourishing. God in Christ did not invite based on worth or right belief or works, but on the condition of those who fell outside of what was safe for the status quo were just as welcome, or more welcome, than the people who did the ‘right things’.
This weekend what I did not encounter was the truth that lesbians and Muslims are just as worthy of God’s love as right-believing Christians. I did not discover a false sense of syncretism or universalism. I discovered that right-believing Christians are invited to the Feast of God just as much as lesbians and Muslims, that God has a place for me and all of us who have “right-belief” among his people. I learned that as we celebrate the unity and love of God we do so in a way that celebrates the diversity of the assembled guests. And I learned that the guests of God’s feast are a wild bunch, argumentative and uncertain of their places in the heart of the Lovers.
Present Jason would not pass Dr. Falwell’s definition of a Christian. Nor do I pass the test for several of my dear friends from my Liberty University days. Though I find that the further I move away from believing in the “right way” the more I fall in love with God in Christ, the more I embrace the passion of God in the Bible and my call to Christian faith.