Bitten By A Camel | Notes, Reflections, & Critical Review

Kent Dobson. Bitten By A Camel. Fortress Press, 2017. (158 pages) [These notes and review is of a pre-publication copy.]

1. Spiritual Mountaineering

If you want to be shaken to your core, if you want to eat amazing food, if you want to unlearn all your political positions, if you want to marvel at the complexity and beauty and ridiculousness of religious expression, if you want your faith to fall apart, if you want to stand in awe while waiting for the bus, if you want to barter in the market the old-fashioned way, if you want to be at the center of the world’s psycho-spiritual upheaval, then Jerusalem is your place. (4-5)

There was no plan. There was no man upstairs. I could no longer believe in a puppeteer God pulling the strings of circumstance. The pizza place next door turned the suicide bomber away, so he just walked to the next crowded restaurant. That’s the way it is. Totally arbitrary. Random. (6)

What had this ghost, Moses, started 3,000 years ago? (12)

But for a moment, in the morning light of Sinai, with saliva on my jacket and pain in my arm, I knew there was no right path. I knew there was no clear plan, not like I’d hoped. Whatever I was looking for was utterly unlike what I was looking for. I’d been reduced to just being me, faults, hang-ups, misgivings, desires, dirty clothes, and doubts. I was only myself, and to be frank, I barely knew what it was like to be me. In all my earnest devotion, I was trying to get away from myself, or fix myself, or make myself believe something, or do enough righteous stuff to find myself, and also to find God. (15)

And after being bitten a few times I started saying more directly, “Wait a minute, this is not working.” Certain ideas, theologies, images, and beliefs kept dying, which brought some grief and uncertainty, as well as some anticipation and excitement. (19)

If you’re wondering if I’m on the slippery slope, let me assure you, I’m at the very bottom. And from this vantage point, way down here, I’m wondering what’s next. I’m looking around, and I see a lot of good company. I’m actually not alone. Many others have slid down this slope with me. It’s been a pretty wild and exciting ride. We’ve died a certain kind of death and our ideas have died a certain kind of death. All of which has created some pretty fertile soil. I see new shoots coming up in this soil. I see new life taking root. I see green where I expected to see ash. How did we all end up in this valley, in this looming desert, in this place of possibility and freedom? It’s a gift, a gift of our times, and of a new spirit of existential authenticity and courage. (20)

2. The Perils of Border Crossing

But I couldn’t stay loyal to some version of faith that wasn’t mine anymore. It turns out, by some grace, I had been dragged, kicking and screaming and cursing and doubting, to a border between one land and another. (25)

I came to understand that these voices were the inner Loyal Soldier. I learned about this from Richard Rohr, and later from Bill Plotkin. The image comes from World War II. [Check out the writings and programs of Bill Plotkin. See Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003), 91–96. See also Richard Rohr, Falling Upward (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 44.] A few Japanese soldiers were stranded on islands in the South Pacific years after the war was over, but they didn’t know the war was over. Their commitment and loyalty to the war is what kept them alive—it was their survival strategy. They couldn’t have made it through their suffering without a loyal commitment to the war. So it is with our childhood survival strategies. We couldn’t have survived the traumas and hardships of childhood without them. They kept us alive. But they continue to function, even years after the war of childhood is over.

| My own Loyal Soldier kept me safe enough. I learned the language, the actions, the behaviors, the rituals, the outfits, and the beliefs to be socially accepted in American evangelicalism. But at a certain point, the Loyal Soldier’s job is over. I really didn’t need this voice to remain safe and accepted in my twenties or thirties. It was time to move on, to thank the soldier for all his work, and relieve him of his duties.

| When we get to the border of something unknown—like when we face our disbelief, or question what we’ve been told about God—our Loyal Soldier often gets called into service. Whatever strategies kept us safe growing up is all the Loyal Soldier knows. His voice can be so loud that we never really get going. Instead, we back away. This is okay from time to time, and nothing to be ashamed about. But remaining loyal to what’s safe and comfortable doesn’t help us grow up. (27-28)

Feeding a public self-image was merely a strategy for avoiding being nobody. (30)

The vocation of preaching requires the occasional bending of the truth. Sometimes we’ve got to preach faith even when we’re struggling with doubt. Every pastor and rabbi and imam and priest knows what I’m talking about. There’s an invisible line we also know is there, “This far you shall come, but no further.” This is probably why Jesus never worked for an organized religion. The pull to keep the group intact is often stronger than the pull of the truth. (31)

We have only to follow the thread of the hero path. Where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outwards, we shall come to the center of our existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world. – Joseph Campbell, The Hero with A Thousand Faces (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973).

I went out to find God, and God wasn’t there. Everything I ever learned about God fell apart. Turns out this had to happen for me to grow up. And in my view, a lot of our theology, our images of God, our doctrines, our beliefs, have to fall apart for us to keep going. The ashes become the fruitful ground for new growth. Let our kids reject the whole lot. Let our church be unable to pay the bills. Let our spouse be honest about his or her real experience. Let’s go out with our neighbors and ask them questions about meaning, and God, and life, and don’t pretend we know the truth anymore. There’s nothing to fear. (34-35)

We tend to think that faith is about loading up the camel for the long haul, but it’s just the opposite. All our certainties about God and the truth have turned us into the rich man in Jesus’s story. To cross the border, to pass through the gate, a lot of stuff needs to be unloaded. For me, my beliefs about original sin, the afterlife, the Bible, end times, salvation, knowledge of God, and an extra-special spiritual life all had come off the back of the camel. As Jesus says, it’s the only path to the kingdom. We all must be laid bare.

| My prayer is that we will set a few burdens down and heed the call to go forth. My hope is that we will cross the border, even though there are voices screaming at us to stop. We will have to leave a few cherished things behind and travel lightly. But it’s a gentle invitation, not a demand.We can say “no.” But it’s a call that promises new life on the other side of our impending spiritual death. A new kingdom awaits. It’s a call where new “hints and guesses” about what is ultimately true and real emerge in the desert we thought would be barren. So let’s leave home, cross the border, go through the eye of the needle and see what happens. (35-36)

3. You Are Not a Problem to God

These are not benign messages. This is a kind of child abuse, and I’m not being flippant. The church I grew up in did tremendous damage to young people by telling them they’re a problem to God from their first breath. The church wounded people with its low view of human beings and its narrow view of God. The message is about our fundamental essence. According to this worldview, our true essence is both sinful and unworthy of God. And once you’ve been initiated into this way of thinking, it’s hard to shake. (42)

It cannot be true that God is less loving than I am. (43)

I remember hearing as a kid that Jesus never cried, because he was sinless–we even sing about it at Christmas: “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” So crying was another sin. I used to think about him completely silent in his manger, the ultimate good boy for Mary and Joseph. This is completely absurd. Not to mention, later in life, the Bible says clearly enough that “Jesus wept.” What a relief.

| Religious shame, fear, and its depraved view of human beings are serious problems, problems that go way back. Not all the way to Adam and Eve, but to the early days of Christianity. (43)

We have to start from a better place. When you get the beginning of the story wrong, the whole thing grows into a monster. (44)

When you believe that your core identity is a problem, you end up fulfilling this negative image. The constant use of shame and rules only makes the situation more intolerable. You can even use original sin to justify bad behavior: “I guess I really am a wretched sinner. That’s why I did this. I’m pretty much worthless. Forgive me, I’ll try harder next time.” And the cycle continues. (44)

Augustine had a lot of regrets from his life of wild partying before he became a Christian. Like we all do, he was trying to work through his own issues. His Confessions are haunting and beautiful. But his view on personhood has got to go. He is not even the sole voice on the matter. The entire Eastern half of Christianity never accepted original sin in the first place, so there’s no need to think it came down from Sinai or the Sermon on the Mount. “Original sin” was just one interpretation on being a human being. But we should no longer start in such a depraved place. | Original sin is done, it’s over. (46)

Sin is more like a question: What are ways of living that cause suffering? What are ways of living that disintegrate our God-given wholeness? The question of what it means to miss the mark is a metaphor worth thinking about. Right now, our modern way of life is causing all kinds of suffering. We’re missing the mark in all kinds of ways. In this sense, human beings “sin.” (47)

In other words, there is a great dance between personal freedom, responsibility, communal needs, the wisdom of the past, and the Spirit of God. We’re still dancing. And don’t worry so much about getting it wrong. We all get something wrong. Big deal, you’re not going to burn in hell. All this is to say, people miss the mark. But they’re not originally sinful. (48)

I am originally good.We all are.| And what we need, more than anything else, is for our own goodness to be reflected back to us. This ought to be the full-time job of the church or any spiritual community. We’re already good, in the deepest recesses of our being. And contact with this original goodness is needed to heal all the broken and fragmented parts of our lives, the problems we have created, and the ones that just happened to us, by no fault of our own. Embracing our original goodness is absolutely essential. (49-50)

Without a good mirror reminding us we are okay, it’s very hard to go further on the path of transformation. (51)

In the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.

It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of the sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere. – Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

The hint and guess is that we are far more beautiful to God, just as we are, than I ever imagined. (55)

4. Worry about the Afterlife, After Life

The history of hell also tells us a great deal about the human psyche, particularly the shadow side of that psyche. Hell is where we shove things that are elements of what we have a hard time facing in ourselves, putting these elements on the “other.” We deny being anything like “them.” We put our own shadow qualities on other people, or entire groups. (63-64)

I came to learn that most of the ancient speculations about the afterlife had more to do with justice than with eternal destiny. People imagined that God would put the world to rights, for the living and the dead. Images of a final judgment were meant to change present behavior. They were meant to bring the eternal rule of God into the present. The Hebrew prophets in particular were experts in wildly intense threats in order to provoke radical change. To push the prophetic threat into the future is to miss the point in this life. Now is the time for justice. Now is the time for peace. Now is time for God’s eternal reign. The opposite is to burn in hell right now, a hell of our own making. (64)

The “world to come” is a mystery. This is a gift, not a curse. This frees us up to live in the here and now. (65)

Death is not a problem. Death is a sobering gift. All things end. Of this we can be certain, even if we are uncertain if death is the beginning of something unknown. My dad’s life, the only life he was given, was over. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” This is an ancient Hebrew poem about the way things are, not a philosophical statement about God as the causal agent of suffering, death, or even joy. All is given, all is taken. The universe breathes in, and the universe breathes out. (68)

Who am I to say what’s going to happen? To be certain there is an afterlife and to be certain there is not an afterlife are pretty much the same thing. Agnosticism about the “world to come” is a more gracious and honest way of being spiritual for me. (69)

Let’s worry about the afterlife, after life. (69)

To actually live like this is to live a little closer to Jesus. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for today has enough trouble of its own,” Jesus said. We’ve done almost nothing more than worry about the future. We’ve rarely taken Jesus at his word. Maybe it’s time. (70)

5. Beyond Bible Worship

I mean something specific by myth. A myth is a way of telling the truth that is richer than just facts. A myth is a story that’s true but not historical. It’s concerned with the symbolic, archetypal, and metaphoric. In a good myth we find something of our own lives being reflected back to us. This is absolutely true of the biblical stories. (76)

So much of what passes as biblical certainty boils down to taste. “I like my interpretation,” we say (without saying it). “My interpretation is better than yours, because it is clear, right here, the way I read it. Therefore it’s right.” (78)

My point is, we all live with glaring inconsistencies when it comes to the Bible. We make the Bible do our bidding and then refuse to admit it. (79)

The Bible is too often a concrete substitute for God. We put our faith in the words, probably because we can hold it in our hands. But this can actually block us from the divine, instead of opening us up. When we substitute the text for the divine, everything depends upon the correct reading. (79)

I’ve come to trust that the stories are not asking us to believe them, but to engage them. For example, we don’t allow ourselves to disagree with Paul. Or after hearing Jesus say, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we don’t ask, together with the teacher of law in the story, “Who is my neighbor?” We leave our questions at home, when in fact they are needed to open up to new ways of seeing. (80)

Like all good poetry and myth, the Bible is meant to work on us, over time, slowly, like a stream over a riverbed. It creates a longing in us for contact with God, and then leaves us unfulfilled and ready for the real thing. The church father Origen says, “Daily we read the scriptures and experience a dryness of soul until God grants food to satisfy the soul’s hunger.” [See Henry Chadwick, Early Christianity (London: Penguin, 1993)]. Real food doesn’t come straight from the page. It’s like something happens in the soul, between the lines on the page. When we read, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God,” we pant for something beyond the words. The language simply activates or deepens our own longing. And so the Bible calls us more deeply into our own experience, in all its naked reality. (82)

My own questions about the Bible have changed dramatically over the last few years. I rarely ask anymore, “What does this passage mean?” or “What is God really trying to say?” More often I’m asking, “What effect does this passage or story have on me? What am I drawn to or repulsed by?” (83)

We ended up worshiping the golden calf of biblical certainty, instead of the mysterious, compassionate, inclusive, and untamed God to which the text only points. (86)

I took my stand halfway between love and awe. – Saint Ephrem

6. Ending End Times and Coming Back to Earth

A Jesus who is going to burn and torture everyone who doesn’t accept his earth-quaking return is not a messenger of love and not in line with Jesus of Nazareth as portrayed in the Bible. This theological tribalism divides the world up between the truly worthy and everyone else. (91)

Maybe you’ve heard Einstein’s famous line,

No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it.

The consciousness I carried, that had specific views about our place on this earth, and the big story we were all in, couldn’t generate a fresh and more hopeful vision. My whole way of thinking, particularly about our place on this planet, needed to shift. This is what I craved, a new consciousness. If consciousness sounds too fancy, I mean simply a new way of thinking, living, and being in the world. (93)

When it comes to evolution I don’t think it’s the scientific facts that most disturb the worldview I grew up with. The deeper fear is that we might have to rethink our God and admit how little we actually know rather than simply adjust the scientific data to fit our clockmaker God. … Evolution messes with our worldview. We no longer seem to be the center of the universe anymore. But very slowly I realized that not being at the center of things could be embraced, along with the fear, dread, and wonder of it all. (97)

I’ve come to think of evolution itself as a kind of theology, an expression of God’s word. Evolution gives us words for a beautiful, complex, and mysterious reality. Everything is morphing, changing, expanding, growing, collapsing, and renewing. I even think of words like creation, fall, redemption, and restoration as evolving right alongside everything else. Attempting to come to terms with evolution right now has been more important to me than believing in the virgin birth or the inerrancy of the Bible. It puts the human experiment in its rightful place. We can no longer assume God made the world just for us. (97-98)

It seems that a modified sacred story, a new grand narrative, is in order. The old one has served us well enough but it’s now in the way. | I’ve come to believe that the actual universe story we’re discovering is a new kind of sacred scripture. [See Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era—A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (NewYork: HarperOne, 1992).] These new realities are changing us; changing the church and our spiritual communities. There’s no science-religion divide anymore. We have an opportunity now to get as curious about human biological evolution, quantum physics, anthropology, and space as we are about the meaning of the Eucharist. They’re of equal theological significance. Our theology changes along with our cosmology, as it always has.

| There’s no need to throw out the Bible, in case anyone is worried. The Bible never entered the scientific conversation in the first place. (99)

Only a poet in love with creation, in love with nature, could have penned the opening chapter of Genesis. Only an experience of wonder could have given birth to such insight. (100)

I’m not convinced creation is broken, the way I was taught. We actually belong to the earth and are the earth. The particles in our body preceded their present arrangement and will outlast their present form. Creation is just fine, as it is, in all its diversity, complexity, and terrifying beauty. (101)

The Milky Way is a divine sentence, one that I had never read. Both saints and scientists insist we’re deeply interconnected with all of reality, with the meadow and the far-flung reaches of space. This is a workable spirituality for this century. (103)

Listen to Jesus’s most provocative words: “One day you will realize that I am in the Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” This is the real second coming. This is the coming of the cosmic and mystical Christ. This is Christ consciousness. This is the shift to new ways of thinking and being in the world. It’s like we’re born again. It’s like being caught up in the clouds with Christ. It’s like the Spirit of God welling up from within like living water. (108)

7. Avoid Getting Saved

But there’s something funny about the evangelical preoccupation with getting saved. Here’s Jesus on the matter: “Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it.” (109)

We’ve fulfilled Jesus’s words, by losing any sense of what’s important in life. (110)

Salvation is about a certain way of being and becoming in the world. There’s no magic formula that gets you across the line. Just because you convert to Christianity doesn’t mean you’re living a life of salvation. Salvation is a metaphor for a life lived with greater and greater integration and wholeness. In fact, the “saving” I’m trying to describe has very little to do with what religion we belong to. (112)

We cannot think into new ways of living, we must live into new ways of thinking. – Richard Rohr

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stage of instability—and that it might take a very long time. – Teilhard de Chardin [See Michael J. Harter, Sj.J., Heart on Fire (Chicago: Loyola, 2005).]

Jesus doesn’t fit neatly into any expression of first-century Judaism that we know of, nor of any Christian tradition born in his name. (117)

One of the most important things we can do right now is give up on being saved. We might even need to give up on identifying as a Christian. (118)

Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains a single seed. But if the grain of wheat dies and goes into the ground, it reaps ten, twenty, even a hundred times” (John 12:24). A lot of contemporary Christianity is a seed unplanted, a grain of wheat on the shelf, a set of abstract beliefs and “objective” truths, untested and unknown but waiting to go into the ground of transformation. (120)

So here are the important questions in my mind these days: Where are we in the story, in the Pascal Mystery, in the pattern of death and resurrection? Can we find a bit of ourselves in the grand narrative staring back at us? (121)

The camel has to be naked to pass through the gate. (122)

8. The Wall of a Knowable God

Shortly before the time of Jesus, a legend surfaced that the Roman General Pompey went behind the sacred curtain of the Temple in Jerusalem when Rome swept the Greek empire, and he found only an empty room. This is a powerful symbol of where the divine quest may actually be leading us: to emptiness. (125)

It seems like now even the word God isn’t working. At its worst, that word is another golden calf. Our certainty about this God is an idol, a substitute for the real thing. It’s an image that we’re bowing down before, an image we can control and promote, a God who does things the way we think they should be done, votes the way we vote, sees the world the way we see it. The word God, and our certainty about that God and that word, is blocking us from the Mystery that is God. (126)

Every spoken word and every image of God is just an approximation. This isn’t New Ageism. Something like this could be the first line in every statement of faith, creed, or doctrinal decree. A new creed might sound like this:

We bear witness to the mystery of existence, to Reality, to our best attempts at naming the Divine, who is beyond all our striving.We honor the mystery of being alive as pure gift. We trust that whatever we mean by God—is just a hint. And we trust that this hint is loving and is love. (127-128)

The kataphatic tradition speaks of God in the positive. It speaks in images and words. It’s what we in the West were raised on: “God is like . . . God is. . . .” | The apophatic tradition speaks of God in the negative, about what God is not, or by subtraction. It speaks without images and without words. God is wordless. God cannot be spoken about. God has no name. God has no form. God has no image. God is not an object. God is not a being, as we understand a being. God doesn’t even exist, at least in the way we understand existence. We cannot say anything at all about God, because no language is adequate. In fact, we cannot think anything at all about God, because God cannot be thought of and is beyond thought. (130)

The extreme of human knowledge of God is to know that we do not know God. – Thomas Aquinas

The mystical path is quiet. It’s lived mostly without words. (131)

If you have serious doubts about God, great. You may just be at the edge of a cliff, but it’s not a cliff into God-less-ness. To jump is to begin a deeper faith story. All the saints and mystics insist that to jump—or more likely to fall—is to be held in a darkness of Love. It’s to be in a cloud of unknowing, which is a cloud of love. In fact, the author of the classic mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing calls the first step a “cloud of forgetfulness.” We must forget what we’ve learned about God if we’re to go any further. This was completely counterintuitive to my ownWestern Christian ideas of growing in the “knowledge of God.” (132)

There’s no story without leaving home. (138)

I’m not trying to be overly prescriptive at this point. I’m highlighting a pattern. Only you can name what’s become a burden that needs to be set down or left at the border crossing or taken off the camel’s back. It’s going to require a more dangerous trust of your own raw experience. Many Christians are taught to break trust with their own inner experience, and this is sometimes helpful advice when we’re young. It’s really hard to make it through adolescence when the voices in our heads are legion. But if we ever want to make it to adulthood we must start a lonely path back to the quiet inner whispers of our hearts. It’s time to find out what’s true in our real experience and not what is supposed to be true. (139)

9. Coming Down from Sinai

The questions kids have is an invitation to explore what we really believe, or more likely what we think we believe, and what we no longer really believe. Kids expose the gap between our real experience and the “truths” we’re supposed to pass on. Just pay attention the next time you swallow hard trying to explain something to a kid you’re actually not sure you even know anything about. I probably should have given my own sermons to children before I ever gave them to adults. (146-147)

I thought I knew, at least a little bit, what the spiritual life was about. That’s what paid my bills. But it stopped working. I thought it was about doing spiritual stuff, or talking about spiritual stuff, or believing stuff, the kind I heard about in church or read in spiritual books. But this is what I’ve learned: the spiritual life is my actual life. (147)

One of the most holy things we can do is accept the reality of our own lives. (150)

God cones to you disguised as your life. – Paula D’Arcy [Paula D’Archy, quoted by Richard Rohr in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 66.]

Part of what’s needed as we cross the border to a deeper faith is living the life we actually have. God is not off somewhere in a special place, or to be found doing a bunch of super-special spiritual things. In fact, God is not “out there.” We cannot take seriously anymore a God up in heaven, really far away, a man in clouds, a superman being. Mystery, Reality, the Ground of All Being, the Great Spirit, are all slightly better names for the nameless found hidden in all things. | This sort of thing has a name. Some call it panentheism. (151)

Let me say it as plainly as I can. The future of our planet, our spiritual communities, our sanity, and our health depends upon waking up to the aliveness of God in all things. It’s okay to become panentheists. It’s time we fall in the love with the ordinary. (153)

In other words, the institutional resistance to the breakdown of faith might actually be helping it fall apart, and to be reborn. So let’s not be so hard on the institutions that “just don’t get it.” We don’t really get it either. Resistance, tension, and unknowing are all part of this evolution. (154)

Two things died on Good Friday: Jesus the man, and what his own followers needed him to be. And most of contemporary Christianity hasn’t learned very much about the second death. (154)

Dear Lord God, I have no idea of where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so. But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I’m doing. I hope that I will not do anything apart from that desire. I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will not leave me to face my perils alone. – Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1962), 227.

— via reflections & critical review —

I finished this book on the way home from leading an Israel tour, which was both serendipitous and poetic because while Kent and I have never met, we have mutual friends, and common vocational experiences (such as our journey towards leading Israel tours) which I appreciate and find intriguing. It is these commonalities that led me to read his book with anticipation and curiosity at Kent’s spiritual journey. I found in the opening pages further kinship with his journey, for I too, remember that hike up Mt. Sinai, the cramped train ride in Egypt, and the winsome and precious gift that is Rabbi Moshe. I, too, have disdained the slippery slope, preferring to call it a “slide” which was designed to be descended. I, too, know the almost out-of-body experience of preaching that which you yourself are unsure.

For many of us who grew up in a faith tradition, particularly of a Christian variety, there is a radical shift going on, from one understanding to another, what is frequently being called a “deconstruction.” I have been collecting these observations over the years, paying attention to friends, colleagues, and also to my own journey. I am fascinated by what is transpiring in our collective consciousness as well as intrigued at the voices of the critics, the ones for whom deconstruction is a threat, or even a blatant heresy. And I have found, that it is often where these two meet that the most destructive or productive churning takes place. The edges are almost uninteresting. It is easy to dismiss that which is too different from you. But when the tension is close, it is threatening, and exciting…or both. Where the dividing lines get drawn is where trust and faith feel most vital.

I consider Kent’s book to be right there in the middle of the close tension. His voice is worthy of consideration in this conversation because of his personal life story, his breadth of education, and his thoughtful reflection. I am grateful for his contribution to this journey in Bitten By A Camel, and commend it to anyone who is wrestling, or even seeks to understand what wrestling is and means.

With that, below are a few critiques.

On page 105, Kent writes,

And this idea really changed me: Jesus’s self-identifying title was “Son of Man,” ben adam, a way of identifying with our shared humanity. Jesus was saying, “I am the human one.” This title alone is a clue that Jesus seems more interested in being human than being a God.

While it is true that the phrase “ben adam” means “the human one” (or in some cases “this human one”), there are also contending arguments that suggest this phraseology means more than that. The most significant passage debated, Daniel 7:13-14, may be referring to an angelic kind of being, or representation thereof. NT Wright argues this passage is what is being referenced (vis-a-vis Josephus) by Jesus in his conversation with Caiaphas in Mark 14 to declare “Messiahship.” Anchor Bible Dictionary states that Daniel 7:13-14 “became traditional in some forms of Jewish and early Christian speculation which anticipated a transcendent eschatological agent of divine judgment and deliverance.” [Nickelsburg, G. W. E. (1992). Son of Man. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 6, p. 137). New York: Doubleday.] Acts 7:56, one of only two references in the New Testament outside of the Gospels (the other being Revelation 1:13) records Stephen saying,

“Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

It is at this utterance that the members of the Sanhedrin, “covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.” (Acts 7:57-58)

On page 111, Kent writes,

Continuing to grow into a life of wholeness, beauty, compassion, presence, grace, and love is what I now call salvation. Participating in making our world, our cultures and societies, a little more whole, sounds like salvation. Worrying about my eternal address or being in the right group is hell.

I quibble here, but I would suggest that the understanding of salvation in the biblical narrative is much more visceral and cosmic than what Kent writes here. To be “saved” in many parts of first-century Judaism meant to throw off the yoke of the oppressors, and restore the kingdom to God, not to foreign unjust and brutal powers. There is a long list in Israel’s history of foreign powers brutalizing their people, forcing the impossible decision of suicide or slavery (e.g. Gamla and Masada). That is an apt description of “hell.” In addition, the Hebrew word for “salvation,” also connotes “victory.” To understand the power of the Jesus movement, and thus the theologies that grow from that movement, I think it is critical to understand the political circumstances in which the Jesus movement arose.

On page 137,

Like the hero’s journey in the archetypal stories of humanity, the first step is the hardest. The first step is to leave home. For many of us, leaving home means leaving the church. We must break our parents’ hearts and run. Many of us have to give the finger to the well-intentioned pastor and head for the exits, break with the conversation at the Thanksgiving table or we’ll never grow up.We have to say, “I can no longer accept the God of my childhood and my church and the cliché platitudes that pass as spirituality.”

I do appreciate the running. I also appreciate that this step is hard. “Leaving home” is what it feels like for those who are growing, evolving, and discovering a new way of being in faith. However, what may be counter-productive to this new development is the disdain or chauvinism that can also lurk in the shadows of this new light, and “giving the finger,” may compromise and/or sabotage this new awakening, tainting it with more of a “reaction” to what I can no longer adhere to, rather than a delight in the discovery. I recognize my evaluation may be too flowery for some who prefer a more earthy and “real” expression of angst (after all, shouldn’t we be angry at really bad teaching). Perhaps. I have just witnessed that for many, the grounding of their deconstruction is rooted in a contempt for their past more than an embrace of their new understanding. It appears to me that this leads to a spiritual and psychological angst that actually prevents new growth, and hinders joy. Let me emphasize that I completely affirm leaving “the God of my childhood and my church and the cliché platitudes that pass as spirituality.” Pastorally, I encourage those who do, to do so without calcifying that leaving as the journey.

Last, on page 138,

Let’s not forget that after preaching in his hometown, the people wanted to throw him off a cliff. Jesus never went home again.

This story in Luke 4 needs a nuanced understanding. Immediately after “preaching,” (which was immediately after the reading from Isaiah), “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked.” In other words, they had a very positive response to the fulfillment of this prophecy in their very midst. They had, after all, named their town after the word for “branch” from Isaiah 11, a reference to the Messiah (The word “netzer,” meaning “branch,” is where we get the word “Nazareth”). It is only after Jesus relayed the stories of Elijah, Elisha, the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian that they got up to stone him.

About VIA

One comment

  1. Kevin, I loved your opening where you just took quotes from the book and referenced the page numbers. As someone who has read this book, I find it very helpful and refreshing to relive those parts of Kent’s book.

    “I consider Kent’s book to be right there in the middle of the close tension.” I couldn’t agree more!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and reflection on this fantastic book.

    I have also written about Kent’s book. If you would like to read my reflection, simply follow this link:

    Have a wonderful day!

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