Bible Session Zero

Inspired by a comment @catholickungfu made on twitter today, here’s an idea for getting at all the things the Bible means to you that you aren’t quite aware that it means. In a group setting, I imagine this could be used in an initial meeting as an in-class writing assignment of ~15min, followed by sharing, comparing, and imagining dialogues between everyone’s characters.

It might also be a fruitful exercise to do on your own, as a different way to explore your relationship with the Bible.

If you teach classes or lead Bible study, do feel free to use this exercise, with or without adaptation, as long as you cite this blog post as a source. And I’d love to hear how it works out!


Introduction

In many ways, the Bible is as much a character as it is a sacred text. When we talk about the Bible, our understanding of that character colors everything we say, and how we hear everything anyone else says.

In this exercise, we will use some character building questions modeled on character creation in some TTRPG systems to try to flesh out what that character, “the Bible”, is actually like. Then, when we talk about the bible later in the course, we have a way to talk about how all of those different Bibles in our heads might influence the conversation.

Instructions

There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions.

Since we are trying to surface impressions and associations that we have that color are reactions to the Bible, treat this more like a free association exercise then like a quiz. The limited time box is intended to help us do that.

If you aren’t sure what your answer to a particular question is, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it: write an answer that feels right, even if you can’t connect it to any particular memory or experience.

1. What are the first three words you think of when you think about the Bible?

2. What are the first three feelings you associate with the Bible?

3. What is your first memory of the Bible?

4. What is your favorite memory of the Bible?

5. Describe a time when the Bible was used to make you feel bad

6. Describe a time when something in the Bible made you feel better

7. What do you like most about the Bible?

8. What do you like least about the Bible?

9. If the Bible were a person, what would that person be like? What kind of job would they have?

10. Now give that person a name.

11. Describe the relationship between that person and God

12. Describe the relationship between that person and the church

13. Describe the relationship between that person and you

14. If you could change one thing about that person, what would it be?

Posted in Scripture | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Stories, Reality, and Trans Inclusion

“The monomyth is the story that’s managed to win. The one that beat up all the other stories and sent them crying home to Mommy without their schoolbooks and lunch money.”

Unpleasant realization dawned. “You’re talking about reality.”

“Of course we are, dummy. What, you thought that one story was somehow more real than all the others, just because it’s the one that has the most people living in it? . . . What we think of as reality is just the tale type that took over longest ago. The others keep fighting back.”

Seanan McGuire, Indexing

The universe is made of stories and matter. Humans tell stories about the reality we perceive, experience and imagine… and those stories shape that reality. Then we, or our children, tell new stories, based on our new reality. This is how human societies change.

At times, people are telling competing stories. That’s okay, that’s part of how change happens.

What’s not okay is when people telling one story try to cheat by beating up all the people who are telling new stories, including their own children, and send them away crying without their schoolbooks and lunch money. In my story, we call that “bullying.”

I get that in their story, they’re defending themselves and their families against some kind of “evil” or “immorality” or “perversion of the natural order of things.” In their story, they’re the heros.

In their story, there have always been only two sexes, male and female; only two genders, men and women; only one sexual orientation, heterosexuality; and anything else is some modern perversion, innovation, even conspiracy to destroy society.

(Society is a story, too. Other societies tell different stories.)

You don’t have to study much history to know that homosexuality has been around for centuries. You have to look harder to find the evidence for more than two sexes, and for the existence of transgender people. That’s partly because, when the people telling the “only two sexes” story win, they tend to silence the people and destroy the documents that attest otherwise, as happened in the earliest days of Nazi Germany.

“The natural order of things” points to matter, not stories, as its unbeatable argument. “Everybody knows” (that part’s a story) that there are only two sexes, male and female, defined by their clear differences in their infant genitalia.

The only problem is, it’s not true. It’s not true that infant genitalia come in only two flavors, male and female, clearly and unambiguously different from each other.

Continue reading
Posted in Moral theology, Scripture | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Litany in a Time of War

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on us.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on us.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on us.

Lord Jesus, you were conceived by the Holy Spirit: have mercy on us.
Lord Jesus, you were born of the Virgin Mary: have mercy on us.
Lord Jesus, you suffered under Pontius Pilate: have mercy on us.

Lord Jesus, you were crucified: have mercy on us.
Lord Jesus, you died: have mercy on us.
Lord Jesus, you were buried: have mercy on us.

Lord Jesus, you descended to the dead: have mercy on us.
Lord Jesus, you rose on the third day: have mercy on us.
Lord Jesus, you ascended into heaven: have mercy on us.

Lord Jesus, you are seated at the right hand of the Father: receive our prayer.

For you alone are the Holy One,
You alone are the Lord,
You alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ,
With the Holy Spirit,
In the glory of God the Father,
Amen.

Posted in Prayer | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Snow Queen

Do you admire people who do the right thing, even at cost or risk to themselves?

Are you concerned about care for the earth, taking steps to reduce your carbon impact, resisting the throwaway culture that defines everything disposable because it’s convenient?

Do you admire people who are super creative, who take original ideas and turn them into something that other people can enjoy?

Are you tired of entertainment that’s clearly calculated to try to capitalize on the last big thing that made money, to increase its chances of making money, to the point where those considerations override the original artistic vision, if there ever was one in the first place?

Do you like storytelling? Fairytales? Improv?

Then let me tell you about a talented young independent creator, and her latest crowdfunding project, and why it’s not on Kickstarter, and — most importantly— how you can help by signing up for her crowdfunding campaign and spreading the word.

I first heard about Jeeyon Shim when I saw an article about a new kind of game she had co-created: a keepsake game, it was called. It was a kind of role-playing game – not a traditional tabletop RPG like D&D, but a storytelling game that involved not only creating a story in response to the prompts of the game, but also making something in the course of the game, that would be a keepsake, a souvenir, something that you had made with your own hands, using the materials that came with the game, and/or the directions and suggestions to collect those materials yourself.

I’d never heard of such a thing, and the idea behind it appealed to me: that creating a handcrafted keepsake could be incorporated into a game, so that after you spent those hours playing the game, you could actually have something to show for it at the end. So I read a couple of articles and interviews, and started keeping an eye out for her work.

Her newest project is called “The Snow Queen.” It’s a storytelling game for two people (excellent, I might actually be able to find one person to play a game with me) with a setting played with familiar fairytale elements (good, no steep learning curve), and with a game mechanic, instead of being the usual dice or occasionally cards used in a role-playing game, was based around… a chessboard?? Cool!!

I had to find out more. I watched a stream in which she played a quick version of the game with the show’s host, explaining the rules and giving us a chance to see how it worked and get a feel for what it was like to play. That convinced me I actually wanted a copy of this game, instead of just being intrigued by it from a distance.

But she also spoke about why she was crowdfunding this project herself, when she had previously been very successful on Kickstarter. If you follow this sort of thing at all, you can probably guess that the reason she left Kickstarter was over their announcement that their platform was going to become heavily dependent on NFTs.

If you don’t know what those are, I’m very happy for you; but the important thing to know is that the production of NFTs involves thousands of hours of computer calculations — thousands of hours using electricity generated by a power system that is still largely dependent on fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change –to produce something that has no intrinsic usefulness, does not contribute to the public good, and whose only value is what you can convince somebody else to pay you for it.

And if you’re concerned about climate change, if you care about how it’s already affecting people right now and it’s only going to get worse; if you’re someone, like Jeeyon, who is serious about living out those values when the rubber meets the road, then Kickstarter becomes something you can’t continue to participate in without compromising your values.

I’ll be honest: I don’t think this is a decision I would have been able to make. Because the cost for an indie creator who has an established reputation on Kickstarter to move off to do their own crowdfunding is like a local indie business moving out of the mall, or downtown, or wherever it is where you get a lot of foot traffic from people passing by on their way to other businesses, but your store window catches their eye so they come in and buy from you too – moving out of the mall, and doing business out of your own front room in your neighborhood. Where there is no foot traffic to other similar businesses, and the people who are used to seeing you at the mall maybe don’t know where you went, and there’s no reason for people to come to your house except to actually buy from you. And also, you probably have to remodel your house a bit in order to make room to do your business from your front room, not to mention the additional cost for publicity and marketing.

That’s where we come in, you and me.

By signing up for her crowdfunding campaign at this link, and sharing it with people you know, we can try to help make up for that lost foot traffic, and help reduce the risk that this talented young creator has taken in order to live out her values.

This is a theology blog, not a gaming blog. This is not usually the sort of thing I would write about here. But making hard choices in order to live out your values is where the rubber meets the road, for theology. And care for the earth, and turning away from a throwaway culture, are Catholic values that Pope Francis wrote about it in Laudato Si.

We aren’t all in a position where we can afford to take a risk like that. We aren’t all brave enough. But we can all spread the word to help support somebody who was.

Sign up for the pre-launch campaign for the Snow Queen. Spread the word about it.

And hey, if you’re interested in theology and gaming, drop me a comment & say hi! 😇

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How Long?

I heard a piece this morning, thanks to the prayer ministry Pray As You Go, and on first listening, it struck me as a beautifully enculturated version of a chanted psalm.

The thing I learned about Gregorian chant years ago, in a fabulous three week course at Goucher College — the thing that transformed my understanding of it forever — is that, unlike all the other music I’d ever heard, Gregorian chant is a musical form designed around the words and the breath, rather than the other way around. There is no steady beat, no fixed number of beats per measure. There’s a reason for that. If you’re composing to a time signature, then the music constrains the text.

In Gregorian chant, it’s the text that constrains the music.

It means you have time to breathe. It means you don’t have to insert extra space between the sung words just to satisfy the musical form. (I’m looking at you, church music written in the 70s and 80s that can’t be sung a capella without awkwardness because of all those measures of rests.)

It means that chant can be faithful to the text. If you want to sing the actual words of scripture, this is what you do.

I used to experience chant as boring, because of all those repeated syllables on the same note. It didn’t help that it was always, in my early experience, sung in an extra-special church voice — I think everyone I heard was imitating what they thought Gregorian chant was “supposed” to sound like — and usually with a rigidly even tempo, giving every syllable the same amount of time; and so it had no phrasing.

Which is the opposite of the point. The whole point of chant, they taught me, is the freedom to let the phrasing of the text be the phrasing of the music.

Which is why How Long, by Bifrost Arts Music, knocked my socks off. It’s not a capella, it’s not actually chant, and it does have a time signature. (It even has some of those pesky empty measures, which — like every folk group alum of my generation — I promptly filled with a soprano descant echoing the last words I’d heard!)

But the phrasing. Oh, the phrasing. It’s a psalm of lamentation. Even those empty measures are placed in the text at the point where my exhausted lamenting self pauses to sigh… before finishing the sentence, the question, the lamentation.

It feels like chant, but it sounds like “regular music”: that was my early morning, still-waking-up takeaway.

Listening a few more times tonight, I perceive that it doesn’t really resemble chant at all, musically. But it does for me what chant does: it lets me breathe.

I do encourage you to take a listen, either at Pray As You Go or at the Bandcamp page of Bifrost Arts, where you can buy your own copy to support their work. The album is called Lamentations, and How Long is how it begins.

Posted in Music | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Sin as an Occasion of Grace

This Tuesday was the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.

Something about that struck me differently, this year. I’d normally think about Paul being struck down and all the following drama — because that’s what I usually hear emphasized, and certainly how we usually allude to it in passing: the whole dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus. But today, when I saw the name of the feast, it registered as if anyone else’s name had been there. The conversion of Kevin. The conversion of Sally. The conversion of Robin. The conversion of Paul.

Perhaps because, the evening before, I had caught myself falling into a familiar shortcoming: caught myself, and caught myself. Stopped, and turned around, and walked back up that metaphorical slope. And then, instead of berating myself for backsliding, I caught myself there, too, and instead thought through exactly what had happened: what had been the stimulus, and the opportunity, and how exactly I had started to fall back into it, and how I noticed what I was doing, and how I stopped.

I narrated all that to myself, and found that I experienced it as a moment of grace — a grace that I would not have encountered, had it not been for my slipping on a banana peel, flailing wildly, trying to keep my balance, and…… succeeding, with the help of that grace.

Catholics usually speak in terms of an “occasion of sin.” It’s in the traditional Act of Contrition: I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to sin no more, and avoid the near occasion of sin. I was 7 when I learned what it meant: a place, or situation, where you are more likely to fall into sin. Like a bar for an alcoholic in recovery, I would say now; I don’t remember whether we were given a less venal or more child-friendly example in our first communion class.

But if there are occasions of sin, must there not also be occasions of grace? Ordinary ones, not only the sacraments. Sin as an occasion of the grace of the sacrament of penance, that absolves and reconciles us, is almost trite — or perhaps I’m confusing it with the despondent reminders from the pulpit that we should come to confession (with nary a word as to why).

Sin can be an occasion of grace: grace that not only helps us to stop sinning in that moment, but to perceive the machinations of mind and heart, of desire and will, that lead us to sin. To understand how we got there. We firmly resolve to sin no more: that resolve is immensely aided by such understanding.

For all that the visual drama of the Road to Damascus scene inclines us to assume that Paul’s conversion occurred instantaneously — or, perhaps, began when he was struck from his horse and was complete by the time he hit the ground — scripture implies otherwise. Rather, that moment was Paul’s realization of what he had been doing, Whom he had been persecuting.

Scripture tells us almost nothing about the next three days. They take almost no time to read about, so it’s easy to overlook them, or perhaps ascribe a purely symbolic meaning to them, alluding to Jesus’ three days in the tomb. But think back on your own experiences of suddenly realizing that what you have been doing is wrong: doesn’t it take some time and reflection to understand how you got there, and which habits of thought veiled your perception of right and wrong, and what you need to change to avoid falling back into those same old habits again? I think that’s what Paul was doing, those three days.

We know that like all of us, he continued to struggle with habitual sins, because he wrote about it in his letters, lamenting, “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.Even for St. Paul — with apologies to the liturgical calendar! — conversion was not a single event, but a life-long process.

Conversion is a turning, a turning away from sin, a turning towards God, again and again, over and over, a dance that goes on, we hope, all our lives. And at every turn, grace meets us, supports us, steadies us, gently guides us, if we consent to be met, and supported, and steadied, and guided.

Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Posted in Theology | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Brief Notes On Marginalia

I must begin with a shoutout to Books with a Past, whose email newsletter alerted me to the existence of an entire website devoted to marginalia!

The article they linked to, Edgar Allan Poe on the Joy of Marginalia and What Handwriting Reveals about Character, quotes Poe arguing that marginalia is a uniquely free and authentic form of writing, on the grounds that, when writing in a book, unlike every other form of writing, you are writing only for yourself: in dialogue with the author and also with yourself, working out ideas and arguments. This made me wonder whether Gretchen MacCulloch, author of the (absolutely delightful) book Because Internet, would categorize marginalia as formal writing (like books), informal writing (like postcards), or something else entirely.

Perhaps the genre depends on whether the marginalia is pre- or post-printing press: while today’s marginalia are rarely seen by anyone but the author (though my favorite part of buying used books is seeing what the previous owner wrote in the margins!), at least some of the medieval marginalia by scribes and copyists often seems to be explicitly directed to subsequent readers, sometimes asking for prayers for the soul of copyist.

I learned to write in books shortly before I started my masters in theology. It was not my idea! But when I asked the advice of the women in my small email group what I should do to prepare, Ann O. gave me two pieces of advice: a) read “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler, and b) learn to write in my books. I was horrified by both suggestions (after all, I’ve been reading books since I was five!), but I eventually agreed a) to read the book, and b) to try writing in it — figuring that since I was unenthusiastic about the book, it wouldn’t bother me as much to ruin that book!

Well, it didn’t take long before I got the point that writing in the margins is a way of arguing with the author, which made me much more enthusiastic about the whole thing. (And the book itself was not horrible, especially for someone coming to theology from a science background: it turns out you actually do need to read this stuff differently. Who knew?) I have also found it helpful over the years to diagram in my books, circling key concepts with annotated arrows explaining the relationships and so on. This is something you can’t (yet?) do on a Kindle, which is why if I want to really engage with a book, I need to own a hardcopy. (Although I think I’ve heard there are newer tablet programs that allow this sort of thing with PDFs…? If you’ve used such a thing successfully, I’d love to hear about it.)

I wonder if quote-tweets, in which one tweets a comment above someone else’s tweet, could be considered a form of marginalia, too. What do you think?

PS – it’s not too late to sign up for the free February series on Interfaith Perspectives on Economic Justice — let me know if you do!

Posted in Books | 1 Comment

Free Interfaith Series on Economic Justice

The excellent Institute for Christian, Jewish, & Muslim Studies in Baltimore is offering a free online series on economic justice this February.

A four week series on Thursday evenings, this series will grapple with questions like “when is a society economically just” with perspectives from a Jewish, a Christian, and a Muslim scholar, each reflecting on economic justice from the perspective of their own religious tradition.

The first session will be an introduction and orientation to interreligious learning by the director of the Institute, who is also their Roman Catholic scholar. It always surprises me a bit that this sort of thing is necessary, because I’ve done a fair bit of ecumenical and interfaith learning and discussion, and it’s always been a positive experience for me. But there does seem to be a fair bit of suspicion, or perhaps simply nervousness, that studying with people from other traditions will somehow “dilute” one’s own religious identity.

For the record, I’ve had the exact opposite experience: there’s nothing that makes me realize just how Catholic I am than hearing people from other religious traditions describe their own spirituality, beliefs, and perspectives! And at the same time, what they contribute broadens my context and perspective, which gives me more to reflect on from my own perspective.

I will never forget the first time I attended a Christian-Jewish bible study offered by ICJS: as we were reading over a text from one of the gospels, a Jewish man in the room spoke up and said, “Jesus sounds just like Jeremiah!!” And suddenly I felt as if a whole new wing had opened up inside my head: I realized that Jesus had been raised in and was preaching to a Jewish community that knew the Law and the Prophets a whole lot better than I did, and that must have influenced how they heard him! It sounds obvious when I say it now, but even obvious things don’t necessarily occur to you if you’re never in a context that sparks the realization.

I’m very pleased that ICJS is beginning to offer courses like these online, to spread their reach beyond the Baltimore area, so that more people can benefit from their work.

And the topic! Economic justice is a topic that I feel is incredibly important, especially in our society today. I have basically no background in economic theology, so this will be a great introduction for me.

I will definitely be there! If you’ll be there too, let me know here or on Twitter, and maybe we can chat about the material during the week after each class. Sort of a virtual “hanging out in the parking lot after the class is over to keep talking”… but without the dark and the cold and the standing. 🙂

Posted in Economics | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Winter Solstice: Already and Not Yet

A lectionary reflection for the 21st day of December, in the 4th week of Advent

The first reading for today is from the Song of Songs (Sg 2:8-14). It contains a passage that must have been set to music that I know, because I can almost sing it to some phantom melody…

For lo, the winter is past,
The rains are over and done.
The flowers appear on the earth,
The time of singing has come.

Why do we hear this today? The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year; it’s the midpoint of winter, not the end of it. “Solstice” means “standing sun”: if you’ve been tracking the location of the sun in the sky at the same time every day, you’ve seen it move in one direction every day; but today is the midpoint, today it stands still, tomorrow it starts to move back, in the other direction, and the days will start to get longer.

The winter isn’t past. What’s going on?

There’s a churchy phrase we toss around sometimes: “already and not yet”. It expresses the tension, or the mystery, of how the Reign of God is already here… and not yet here. It was inaugurated when Christ died and was raised… and is not yet fulfilled until he comes again in glory, to judge the living and the dead.

On the winter solstice, the end of winter has been accomplished. We are no longer heading into winter; we’re on our way to spring. Winter is already over… and not yet over.

It’s like that third candle on the Advent wreath. On Gaudete Sunday we rejoice, because we are closer to the fulfillment of Advent by the feast of Christmas than we are to the beginning of Advent. In a way, we live all our lives in “pink candle time”, in the “already but not yet”.

On this winter solstice, on this Tuesday of the fourth week of the second Advent of the pandemic, may you rest in the sure knowledge that the winter is past, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come… already, surely, irreversibly, although not yet.

O Radiant Dawn,

splendor of eternal light, and sun of justice:

come and shine on those who dwell in darkness

and in the shadow of death.

Come and save us!

O Antiphon for December 21

A grateful tip of the hat to PrayAsYouGo. whose reflection for the day prompted this post. Their daily reflections are beautifully structured, short but deep.

Posted in Lectionary reflection, Liturgical year | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Held: Blessings for the Depths (…including one from me!)

An amazing book is coming out soon, and I’m honored and thrilled to be a contributor!

When I first read the call for submissions from enfleshed for a new book called “Held: Blessings for the Depths”, I knew immediately that I had to have a copy. The vision for the project fired my imagination:

We hope our book of blessings for the depths will feel like someone trustworthy is holding your hands and looking you in the eyes as you journey through mystery, unknowns, or discernment.

How lovely!

And anyone who’s familiar with my blog or twitter feed can probably understand why this next bit appealed to me:

Though some exceptions will be permitted, we are largely seeking submissions that de-center Christian language. While we hope to maintain a deep sense of spirituality throughout the entire publication, we encourage writers to do so with a minimal use of traditional God language, playing with more expansive and creative ways of pointing to the mystical and mysterious, the Divine, the Sacred, the ordinary magic of shared existence.

While I write as a Catholic, I’ve always actively welcomed non-Catholics, non-Christians, agnostics, atheists, those who are “spiritual but not religious.” I know there are many reasons why people may be uncomfortable with or alienated from Christian language and imagery. Even for those of us who are comfortable and familiar with such language, venturing beyond the comfortable and familiar can enliven our spirits and further open our hearts to the Divine.

And what is not to love about this??

Blessings will be interspersed with commissioned art, as well as interactive elements encouraging intimate engagement with the book. We hope this book will be the kind of item people form a relationship with – carrying it from place to place, passing it to a friend, writing in the margins, personalizing, and perhaps especially, a source of blessing during difficult times.

As I considered whether I might submit, I slowly realized that this might be the perfect match for a poem I had written years ago, a meditative piece about menstruation, originally titled “The Blessing.”

It was inspired by a half hour workshop on menstruation that I attended at a women’s expo that profoundly and forever transformed my relationship with my period. (I unfortunately don’t recall the name of the Black woman who led the workshop; I’d reference her here if I could, as a matter of citational justice.) The poem gave sound and structure to the insights I took home that day, and I said it over to myself whenever I got my period, as a spiritual practice, at various times during the days I was bleeding.

I am deeply grateful to the project editor at enfleshed who gently encouraged me to consider revising the piece to be gender inclusive. I had considered it before submitting, and decided against; I was attached to my original words, based on my personal experience as a cis woman. But, as a Roman Catholic woman, I know intimately the pain of praying with language that excludes me; and I realized I didn’t want to inflict that pain on anyone else. The editor kindly gave me a few days to work the revision, and I’m quite pleased with the resulting version that is inclusive of everyone who menstruates, no matter their gender identity. (It is coincidental, but quite fitting, that I am posting this piece during Trans Awareness Week.)

I’m also excited about the pricing model they’re using:

Suggested price per book – $15
Receive one book, support enfleshed gifting one book** – $30
Pay what you can – $0-14

**The values of enfleshed align with wealth redistribution. While correcting income inequalities requires serious and significant changes at the systemic level, and a major disruption of wealth hoarding among the top 10%, we also encourage those with “enough” and “more than enough” financial resources to look for opportunities (in things of pleasure and necessity, as well as supporting movements for change) to justly re-distribute resources

This is a model that I first encountered years ago (about the same time I wrote the poem, as a matter of fact), instantly loved, and have rarely seen since. It appeals to me because I know what it’s like not to be able to afford anything beyond the bare necessities. I find it especially apt for a resource like this, that helps people along a journey: knowing that I’m making the book available for someone who couldn’t afford it otherwise gives me a sense of spiritual connection, that my journey is a pilgrimage I’m sharing with that unknown person.

Whether or not you decide to buy a copy, I hope you will share my excitement at being a part of this splendid project!

Posted in Books, Prayer, Sacred art & architecture | Tagged , | 2 Comments