Why I Quit the Interfaith Praise Band

\”Book of John\” by Jenn Lindsay (YouTube link)

Your book of John, it feels so wrong

Each verse I read is damning me

I try to find my way inside

But it’s not my answer and anyone who says it is baffles me.

The book we read is awkward indeed

It holds you up; it burdens me

I am on the outside

Reading words that hurt to read. Your holy creed laughs at me.

What’s all this talk about truth?

What’s all this talk about the Father?

What’s with the words coming all out of order

As if to confuse us intentionally?

What’s with the words coming all out of order?

The book of John has dark legacies

Not all new life, not all good things.

I think I wanna stay outside

Of the book of Pandora and all of its problems,

The wars and the famines, the ghettoes and pogroms,

Of hating my family, hating disbelievers,

Loving a cryptic and confusing leader

Not to mention its use in the passage of history

Where the word and the truth lead…

It’s not for me.

What’s all this talk about truth?

What’s all this talk about the Father?

What’s with the words coming all out of order

As if to confuse us intentionally?

What’s with the words coming all out of order?

–lyrics to the song “Book of John” by the author

I wrote this song and played it for my Christian friends in the Gospel of John songwriting project and they were not pleased. I was a Jew attending the historically Christian but contemporarily “anything goes” Union Theological Seminary in NYC. Unbeknownst to me, when I agreed to participate in this collaborative songwriting group about the Gospel of John, the group had developed a devotional approach to the Gospel. This was a problem for me.

Three years ago I decided to attend Union in order to stare down the beast of Christianity, with hubristic visions of dismantling it from within, and I found that the beast was actually my ignorance about the diversely constructive possibilities of the Christian framework. Since then I have progressed enormously in my comfort level with Christian language, liturgy, denominations, and worship settings. I’ve even come to treasure the notion of the Trinity, after years of mental gymnastics and reductive dismissiveness about this Christian proposition. I finally released my life-raft of rational thinking, and relaxed my reactivity against what Christians had done with the Trinity and contemplated what the Trinity meant. Thus I entered the mystery.

Remember how in high school biology we learned about the parts of the cell? We learned about vacuoles, the dump-truck of the cell that putters around the nucleus and the mitochondria and the membrane and the plasma, sucking out waste and shoving it out. The vacuole cleans up the cell. Without the vacuole, the cell would toxify and die. I think for me…Jesus is a spiritual vacuole that putters around and gathers the waste of temptation and failings and stagnation and spits it out into the past, and makes transformation and reinvention possible. I name Jesus as a mechanism for transformation and a spirit of both intentional and graced newness. Jesus helps me drop my waste products so I can keep moving into the future. My every exhalation is a shedding of where I’ve been and my every inhalation is an in-taking of the present and the future, making me who I am and into where I am going. Jesus makes me available for the gifts of inspiration. Jesus is the vacuole that cleans my cell and makes me lighter and freer, and God is the nucleus that secures my central functioning, and the Holy Spirit is the mitochondrion that generates dynamic energy.

Or take a computer. God is the CPU and the Holy Spirit is the electrical socket and Jesus is the Norton Anti-Virus System. Jesus is the mechanism for renewal, for security, for new beginnings, for rebooting whenever we fail. For keeping away the viruses that corrupt the whole system.

So, I hope you can see, for a Jew with a daily Vipassana Buddhist practice, I have made some progress with Christianity.

But for some reason, no matter how much I love Christian symbols when I am alone in my room or have my nose in a book, my affinity shreds as soon as I leave my room. This made it hard to be a fully-invested participant in a devotional songwriting project about the Gospel of John, paired as I was with a group of very devotional Christian songwriters.

For example, I can’t sing devotional songs based on the Gospel of John. Its anti-Semitic, patriarchal, invective verses against nonbelievers, non-Christians and personal loyalties strike me viscerally and I flinch. In my reading, the Gospel of John is a terrifying, apocalyptic condemnation of everything I am as a humanist, a feminist, a Jew, a rather spiritual and religious agnostic type, and an occasional practitioner/guest in Christian worship settings. I can’t help it: the Book of John scares me, and it makes me angry. It’s provided rhetoric for millennia of bloodlust and bloodlibel against non-Christians. I go to Gay Pride parades and I see movement opposers holding their John 3:16 placards aloft with hateful guises. I drive past Planned Parenthood locations and I see the picketers holding their John 14:6 placards aloft with hateful guises.

Of course, of course, I know these cretins represent a certain subset of Christianity. I know the Gospel of John, not being of the synoptic gospels, is all poetic and mysterious and not to be taken literally. No, I don’t blame the actual literary work that is the Book of John for all of the religiously-motivated horrors of history.

It’s not you, Christianity, it’s me.

The Book of John freaks me out. I know that as a PC modern lady, an interfaith worker, and especially as someone who holds an MDiv from a historically Christian seminary I am not supposed to be saying things like this. I have navel-grazed my little navel to the max trying to get to the bottom of my very irrational, reactionary fear and discomfort with the Gospel of John…my feeling  that if I were to sing devotional praise songs about Jesus being the only way to the Father that I would be a pariah to myself and to my Jewish community.

But those words are not just language. They are not just the Christian version of hallel to Adonai. Those words force me to acknowledge the pain that some powerful, merciless and sadistic folks, unfortunately co-opting the labels and language of Christianity to justify their racism and genocide, have caused and continue to cause all of the people that seem to be virulently damned in the Book of John. Today, those are non-Christians and many Christians as well: LGBTQ Christians and lady Christians, Christians who feel ambivalent about Jesus, closet Christians, non-white Christians, Christians who reject missions or who marry interreligiously or who don’t hate their families in order to take up the cross….

The Book of John is a tough read for me.

So, I wrote this song.

Some people in the Gospel of John songwriting group got angry.

We fought. They said hurtful things. I said hurtful things because I was emotional and I felt cornered.

I compared Christianity to Halliburton.

Shit.

I called the Book of John a hysterical, fear-mongering ancient grocery store tabloid against rabbinic Judaism.

Shit!

Who am I?

Not the most effective interfaith activist, am I? I ended up dropping out of the group, and I think everyone was relieved. The group went on to write a very explicitly Christian collection of songs, praise music positioned as exegesis. What they called a peaceful reflection on the early pre-Constantinian John community I called a wishful projection of a time when Christianity was one thing, which the very fact of four very distinct gospels decries. But, okay. They had the project they wanted, and it seems like it was a very faithful band of Christian musicians, singing about the way, the truth, and the light.

What happened here? Is there a point at which we can no longer agree to disagree and must draw deep lines in the sand? Is there a point at which a disingenuous consensus is forced about the homogenous tenor of historical communities? Is there a point at which it is not okay to acknowledge factual consequences of language put forth in historical texts? Was it foolish of me to try and be so idealistic that I could respond honestly to this text without threatening Christians who identify with it? In the hypersensitive land of faith claims, are we only supposed to convey our honest opinions with those who will agree? When do we start practicing humility and non-defensively accept that some people might find our spiritual inclinations to be a lot of hooey? How do we cultivate beliefs so deep that no offense or opposition can shake them? How the heck do we convey them lovingly?

Would we rather be right, or would we rather be in harmony?

For all my vaunting of interfaith happytime, there certainly is a point at which incommensurable particularities prevail, irreducibly, and if certain sacred lines are crossed people start to short circuit. As a Jew, I cannot write an original praise song about Jesus and the Father. For me, this carry carries social, historical, aesthetic and spiritual implications. This makes me think of Jews in the Roman Jewish ghetto in the 1700s, forced to attend Sunday school at Chiesa di Gerusalemme. (They coped by stuffing their ears with wax.)

Looking at the lyrics of “Book of John” now, I stand by them. They are about my relationship with the Book of John. They describe my ambivalence and my alienation. They are not loaded with mal-intent, and I wrote it in a state of guileless, cathartic self-absorption, never intending offense or prescription. I know my truth and I speak it here. What is interesting is that I have shared this song with several Christian friends and they have found themselves in it as well. So I do not think that I am a complete and utter bigot.

And yet, my song was hurtful to some Christians whom I regard with respect and deep affection.

Thus highlighting the precarious delicacy of interfaith relations.

And the incredible diversity of approaches to Christian texts even among Christians.

Perhaps the only fruitful (or least incendiary) approach to interreligious affairs is to agree and prepare to be offended, and to know that when a sacred text is at hand, folks will probably get defensive and pissed, because these texts naturally evoke strong feelings. That’s probably why they are sacred: they possess power to reduce everyone in the room to utter honesty, irrational, gauche and uncomplimentary as it may be. Within our songwriting group, our respective handlings of the Book of John were quite authentic. But they did not fit together. And our agreement to disagree ultimately resulted in a bitter fragmentation of our little community of composers.

It’s fine with me that I was the one who walked away. I suck at sharing my private spiritual inclinations with other people, and I like to write music all alone in my room. Next time I leave my room to share my spiritual inclinations with people I’ll be careful not to circle around someone else’s sacred text until I know they are ready for an approach different from theirs. And I’ll do my best not to react if they totally hate John Steinbeck, Pablo Neruda, Paul Tillich, Isabel Allende, Sallie McFague or Tracy Chapman.

That stuff is sancrosanct, yo.

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12 thoughts on “Why I Quit the Interfaith Praise Band

  1. “Perhaps the only fruitful (or least incendiary) approach to interreligious affairs is to agree and prepare to be offended, and to know that when a sacred text is at hand, folks will probably get defensive and pissed, because these texts naturally evoke strong feelings.”

    This is music to my ears, truly. I think you were absolutely right to air your principled and honest objections. In a choice between offending people and sparing them offense through dishonesty or silence (which often amounts to dishonesty) I think one should most of the time go for offending people. There are a lot worse things to be than offended, after all. I think it’s a shame you felt you had to walk away.

    Oh, and while I can take or leave Tracy Chaoman depending on my mood, I DETEST Paul Tillich. 😉

  2. I absolutely love this piece Jenn. I want to think a bit more about it, but also wanted you to know that I’m with you on this “edge of interfaith.” There’s real wisdom in finding out the boundary there, and knowing when to toe the line (or, step over it).

    Oh, and I (a humanist and Unitarian Universalist) like Tillich quite a bit… but I have a special take (soft spot?) on God language and liberal Christianity, so I can see where James and I might disagree here. 🙂

  3. Thanks, guys. I like Tillich best in “Courage to Be”…his systematic theology is way too Christological for me. I guess the reason PT crept into my consciousness so deeply is that his was the first articulation I encountered of a “God” construct that is anything but anthropomorphic. His notion of radical self-acceptance and authenticity as the first stages of faith and transformation were very powerful for me. Of course, at this point, I’ve found folks who present these constructs more responsibly, more transparently, and less Christologically, but Tillich popped my liberal theology cherry, and so I always list him in my greats. I differ from Tillich on many points and on most language choices, but his basic “ground of being” framework, ideas about the importance (and undeniability) of doubt and questioning, thoughts on despair and anxiety, and his efforts to correlate religious expressions with psychoanalytics and existential philosophy definitely opened new avenues in my brain.

  4. Thanks for this meditation, Jenn. I think you’re right about interfaith dialogue. For it to fruitful it must be honest, as to avoid the cold grey pablum of “we’re all the same” liberalism.

    In that vein, I’ll have to disagree with you on the gospel of John. While you are absolutely right about its misuse, and are 100% correct in taking offense at its traditional use. In fact, you have every right to hate the gospel of John for that reason. However, you do seem to take the rest of Christianity in a commendable and admirably charitable vein that allows you to see the meaning (as you mentioned in the trinity) past the baggage. Some more recent scholarship is pointing towards some interesting ways of reading John that haven’t been done probably since the earliest days of the church. To claim it is a “screed” against Rabbinic Judaism is an interesting claim, but one that comes from our modern viewpoint rather than that of the authors. If the Johannine community thought of itself as a Jewish sect (or the TRUE Jewish sect), would it really be a matter of one “religion” criticizing another, or a matter of inter-sectarian conflict? Wes Howard-Brook has a fantastic commentary on John where he suggests that the Johannine critique should be viewed more from a viewpoint akin to more radical elements of one tradition critiquing those who were seen as taking an accomodationist stance. I would liken it to US progressives criticizing Obama (though it would be more like Marxists criticizing Obama in the case of John!). Plus, Howard-Brook also suggests that “the Jews” is an imperfect rendering of the Greek Ioudei [sic], which he would substitute (though imperfectly as well) with the name Judeans.

    Anyhow, I thought of John in a similar way to you (without being a direct target of its baggage, mind you) and now I simply can’t get enough of its incredible symbolism now that I’ve heard it in a different way.

    Anyhow, thanks for the piece, and the challenge.

    1. hey ryan–it sounds like you know about the historicity of john and i have a question. i have always been taught that john, of the four gospels, is the one set apart from the jewish community. while the synoptics have clearer traces of grounding in jewish thought and midrash, john is supposedly written by a gentile and much more focused on gentile community and thus the anti-semitism is clearer. yes, i have heard about the jews/judean translation issue. but of course, there are a million qualifiers, historical and interpretive, that might slightly exonerate the book of john for its invective. but what i was writing about was my own visceral response, grounded in the context of my life and heart and various affiliations. the tabloid comment of course emerged in a moment of defensive hysteria for me.

      i would love to know if my idea of john being grounded in gentile community is correct or off base. i haven’t heard otherwise. but then again, clearly, i read this thing on an emotional and contemporary level and have avoided deeper scholarship on the text.

      thanks! Jenn

  5. Jenn,

    Thanks for the reply. I don’t know if anti-semitism is an appropriate word in this case (or any case, really, when we are talking about historical criticism of the text). This isn’t an issue of race, nor is it, I believe, an issue of inter-religious conflict so our modern category as such, when we’re dealing with the text is not entirely accurate. I don’t even know if Judaism (or Christianity) is an appropriate naming of what we have in these texts (post-colonial biblical scholar Richard Horsley suggests that Judaism itself is a western construction altogether). I can’t remember entirely what Howard-Brook’s view is, but I get the impression that this is a criticism, seen by the Johannine side, as one levelled at (for lack of a better term) co-religionists. Even if it were a gentile community, it remains to be seen as if that was a substantive difference in terms of our modern categories. Howard-Brook also argues that the text is much harder on the Romans regardless of the Jew/Judean bashing, but that’s probably a topic for a different time/place.

    However, I will admit the visceral response is indeed a valid one. Even if the original intent of the gospel of John was not anti-semitic, it has throughout the history of it been used that way. My post-modern inclination is to recognize that response as valid, but also to see that texts do not have some sort of singular inherent ultimate meaning–even if it is, as I am arguing, a matter of historical intent. The meaning of the text depends on the community that hears it, and the modern Jewish response in the light of the last 1700+ years of Christian history is completely valid. I, however, as a Christian will continue to argue that such a reading is a complete distortion of the gospel message with a sensitivity to its painful history.

    1. Hey Ryan :). I think we’re totally on the same page. “I, however, as a Christian will continue to argue that such a reading is a complete distortion of the gospel message with a sensitivity to its painful history.” This sentence…gah, it really gets at the heart of the matter, doesn’t it? And it pains me that I worked so freaking hard to make peace with Christianity and I still just can’t deal with John. I can perform the conceptual commutative property operation painstakingly and hear you logically, but I can’t get around my gut with that book. And I think that is the point of my article…at some point there is a moment of irreducible dissimilarity between traditions. I used to think that particularity surfaced primarily in ritual form, but this text is a great place to showcase a divide that is damn near epistemologically unbridgeable.

      As for Richard Horsley’s claim, well, that’s a freakin’ can of worms, eh? He’s an NT professor, eh? Well, that sounds like a supercessionist claim furnished to grandfather in some historical theory or another. It sounds patently ridiculous and I think any Jewish historian would agree. There were diasporic Jewish communities all over the globe with distinct separatist Jewish identities long before the Enlightenment. Do you know how he substantiates that?

      1. Sorry, re: Horsley, I meant he sees Judaism as a “religion”, i.e. something completely removed from its social and historical context and isolated from the realm of politics etc. as being a western construct. Not a supercessionist, at all, actually. My bad. On an interesting aside, he argues somewhat that Jesus and the Pharisees (especially portrayed in Mark) were not really antagonists at all and that this is a later tradition. That would be an interesting starting place for interfaith discussion.

        Is it a bad thing that the traditions are “irreducibly dissimilar”? It’s funny, we long for unity and homogeneity among humanity, even when the sheer lack of such things in our world suggests that harmony and the like don’t come with it. That is not me making some sort of wishy-wash claim for so-called “diversity”–which is usually just a way of neutralizing actual important differences and allowing banal practices that don’t impede hegemonizing projects. I have no desire to be anything but a Christian and wouldn’t be so if I didn’t have strong convictions about its truth. But it is the recognition that the truth may always come in plurality.

  6. This is one of the most interesting things I’ve read on SoF so far. Thanks for your generosity of spirit in sharing it with us. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the parallels of interreligious dialogue and race/racism dialogue and also that these kinds of dialogues are often done in separate, parallel tracks that do not get at the intersectionality of religious/spiritual and racial identity. The concerns about giving offense or being offended are common to discussions about both race and religion. In my experience both giving and experiencing offense is unavoidable given the realities of power among and within social identity groups. There is too much pain that has been inflicted in the name of religion and race to believe that we can have painless conversations about them.

  7. How unfortunate that interfaith work has come to mean in anyone’s mind “the cold grey pablum of “we’re all the same” liberalism” I’ve been working in interfaith dialogue for 30 years now. Interfaith communication is hardly that. It is tough encounter if it is anything. Dr. Diana Eck at Harvard said 25 years ago at one of the North American Interfaith Network gatherings that the opposite face of intolerance is total unquestioning acceptance — both deny the reality of difference. I have never considered the “we are all one” stance as anything but the opposite of dialogue.

    Your writing and experience is clearly exploring just that depth of difference. Perhaps trite but still quite true the motto is “Unity, not uniformity.” There is a place for unity as an agreement to civil discourse — to hold the boundaries of difference in enough of an embrace that we can safely disagree. That boundary is broken by war, hate speech, terrorism and all the evils of religiously based animosity.

    I am deeply disturbed by the current all-or-nothing position taking (especially as we are seeing it in political ideologies lately). It denies the legitimate place of difference. It is totalitarian. We can not have a functional society without the unity of dialogue which acknowledges difference but does not fear it.

    So I do have to protest the language I’ve seen creeping into the descriptions of interfaith dialogue lately — above in the comments and other places. It is neither “kum-ba-ya” nor “we are all one” liberalism. These “straw-man” descriptions are misleading representations of what so many have struggled for years to achieve. True interfaith dialogue is an action of conviction, community and civil discourse, in some arenas a very daring and sometimes even life-threatening action but given the past history of animosity and grief between the religions all the more necessary.

    Chair,
    North American Interfaith Network

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