A few weeks ago, I sat in a room with church members for our church’s Theology on Draft small group. Our setting in Washington, DC encouraged that this round of study be focused on religion and politics and what might be a responsible, Christian response within the teeming mess that is the presidential election as well as our individual responses as people who live and work in Washington, DC and cannot escape it. Sure, we spoke of the need to understand the religious right and what the word evangelical means within religious and political spectrums. And we even discussed how we’d be approaching the study of Amos in correlation with our discussions. We even asked the big picture questions about being Baptist and our baptist distinctive of religious liberty and separation of church and state.
We’ve all seen it. We’ve all groaned, or objected full-throatedly, or taken to our blogs to protest. Pat Robertson did it in 2005, the Rabbinical Alliance of America did it in 2010, and the mayor of Tokyo did it in 2011. The members of the Westboro Baptist Church do it so often it doesn’t even make the news anymore. Maybe we’ve even been guilty of it ourselves, especially lately.
It is bad theology and lazy humor. So can we all stop blaming folks we don’t agree with for calling down God’s wrath in the form of natural disasters?
“Have you seen it? It’s gigantic! And who’s that golden guy on the steeple?”
“I think that’s the man they worship. I’m not sure how I feel about them being in the area…”
With every brick, every coat of paint, every pane of glass placed into the new LDS temple, these conversations grew more insistent, more frantic. Confronted with such a large and visible building project, my congregation members couldn’t help but wonder who these Mormons really were. Would they be good neighbors? Do they count as “real Christians”? Could one of “them” be trusted as our President? And again, what was up with that golden guy with the trumpet on top of the temple?
My church folk had big questions, and in order to quell their fears and be better neighbors, they needed good information. I knew a fair amount about the LDS tradition, but only in an academic way. So, when the opportunity arose to tour the temple, I jumped at the chance.
Before ever setting foot on the temple campus, I was struck by the scope of the PR campaign run by the LDS church. Months prior to the May 2012 temple dedication, faith leaders from around the Kansas City region were mailed formal invitations to meet with LDS leaders and tour the facility. And it didn’t stop there: in the weeks leading up to the big dedication day (after which only Mormons in good standing can enter the building), thousands of volunteers were brought in to handle the public tours that took place several times a day. It seems the LDS community here knows what is at stake; because their beliefs are so often misunderstood, in order to get along with their surrounding community and perhaps obtain a few new members, they must make a special effort. Consequently, they have made hospitality an art form.
Thanks to a friend whose congregation did a Lenten study on Mormonism with the local LDS Bishop, I was able to get a spot on one of the VIP tours, led by the Bishop himself. When we arrived together, it was clear that everyone including the Bishop thought that my friend was the pastor and I was his girlfriend or wife. This awkward situation was made differently awkward whenever he introduced me as one of his clergy colleagues – but the Bishop recovered swiftly and throughout the rest of the tour made a point of addressing the role of women in the LDS church, always while making sure to catch my eye. My sense of this is that he wanted to make sure I was comfortable, and he wanted to address my presumed concerns about LDS womanhood while also being clear about his beliefs. Though awkward at first, it was also a relief to have some of this out on the table.
The tour started in the new LDS church building that sits next to the temple. Weekly worship takes place in these local meetinghouses as the temple is reserved for very particular ceremonies and rituals, including weddings, sealings and baptisms. On this day, the meetinghouse had been turned into a welcome center with rooms set up for basic introductory classes on Mormonism and reception areas readied for post-tour snacking and fellowship. We settled into one classroom and watched a rather slick video on basic Mormon history and faith as well as the history of temple building. The video stressed the Abrahamic roots of the LDS faith, as well as the strong family focus that is often a hallmark of Mormonism. As one of the leaders in the video teared up while talking about his family (“It wouldn’t be heaven if I couldn’t be with my wife and children.”), I could see a bit more clearly why the idea of a “sealed marriage” that lasts beyond death into eternity is such a cherished belief in the LDS faith.
After the video, we walked across the parking lot and prepared to enter the temple by putting protective booties over our shoes. This is not normally the protocol when entering an LDS temple, but because they were anticipating as many as 70,000 visitors in the month leading up to the temple dedication (ultimately, more than 91,000 came), this step was added in order to protect the new hand-carved carpets that weave throughout the building. Once our shoes were covered, we entered the space.
The temple was, in a word, overwhelming. The detail and craftsmanship of the woodwork, the vastness of the space, the grandiosity of the baptismal font (which sits atop twelve life-sized sculpted bulls), the dazzling light reflected through thousands of crystal droplets in the chandeliers found inside the holiest of rooms – on their own each of these facets would be impressive, but together they made the building difficult to take in. Though pictures do not do justice to the space, you can see some of the interior by clicking here: http://kcur.org/post/inside-new-mormon-temple.
There were many moments when the aesthetics of the space simply did not suit me. The most sacred of rooms, which Mormons believe is one of the closest reflections of what heaven will be like, struck me more like a luxurious funeral home with its brocaded couches, golden lamps and mirrored walls. But the blinding light from the large chandelier and the humbling devotion spread across the Bishop’s face as he silently stood watch in the room reminded me that beauty and inspiration are in the eye and heart of the beholder. This was not my sacred space, nor were these sacred symbols etched into my heart from childhood – so I was not touched in the same way as those guests who share the Mormon faith. I left the room wondering how unchurched visitors regard our sanctuary – a sacred space that I find so wrenchingly beautiful.
As we wound our way through the temple, the Bishop continued to describe the Mormon faith and ceremonial practice. In a sealing room, where marrying couples kneel facing one another and stare into mirrors that provide the visual effect of eternity, we learned more about the practice of celestial marriage. In the bride’s room, we were told more about the role of women as leader of the home and family (according to the Bishop, this is a more important role than his own because Bishops only serve terms in leadership but women are leaders of the home and family forever). In these discussions, it became all the more clear to me that I find portions of LDS doctrine deeply troubling – and yet, as the Bishop shared his heart with us, I also felt a growing respect for him and his faith.
As a result of the tour, I’ve been able to better answer my congregants’ queries, as well as a few of my own:
-Yes, the Mormons in our area will be good neighbors.
-Do they count as “real Christians”? That depends on your definition – but they sure do love Jesus!
-Could a Mormon be trusted as President? Of course! It all depends on the Mormon in question, just as it would depend on the Christian or Jew or Muslim or Buddhist in question.
I’m still not certain what I think about many of the LDS beliefs, and I am still wary of their understanding of womanhood – but I’m also very certain that these Mormons in our midst are our brothers and sisters. The more we know about one another the better – and these tours were a fantastic beginning of a conversation that should continue regardless of who wins the 2012 election.
As for that golden guy with the trumpet? That’s the Angel Moroni. And no, they don’t worship him.
Photo by Guillaume Paumier
Lara Blackwood Pickrel is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She currently serves Hillside Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri as Associate Minister for Youth and Young Adults. As a certifiable religion geek, she was rendered giddy at the prospect of seeing the inside of an LDS temple – and she is grateful to the LDS Church for the opportunity.
I was wearing a hospital gown and trying to ignore the stirrups I would soon be placing my feet into when I found out about the Supreme Court’s health care decision. I found out about it by text (3 texts, actually) before I heard about it through the news. My boss (the head of a middle judicatory) texted, “Health care law affirmed! Hallelujah!” A seminary friend texted “Court rules 5-4 in Obama’s favor!” And my favorite text was the text from a Missionary Baptist colleague of mine in Oakland who wrote, “Yeah don’t you love it when the right thing prevails? Now let’s get single payer health care!”
I love that third one because I think of it as the “already but not yet” text. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or PPACA (nicknamed “Obamacare” by critics before people actually knew what the content would be), includes a few provisions you’ve probably already heard about. It allows young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26. It expands generic drug options. It increases the income level for people to qualify for Medicaid. By the year 2020, it seeks to eliminate the “Medicare gap.” It eventually eliminates pre-existing conditions as a reason people can’t get insurance. It eliminates spending caps by insurance companies, so that people will get as much care as they need in a year. It requires companies of over 50 people to provide health care to their full-time employees. And it requires people to purchase insurance starting in a couple of years. (The argument here is that if all barriers to accessing health care are removed, people need to participate in the health care system—otherwise people would only get health coverage once they got sick, breaking down the system that relies on people paying in when they don’t need services so that there are resources when people DO need services.)
So what would Jesus think about health care? As a pastor and preacher, what might I say about this from the pulpit? I live in a city with twice the national unemployment rate (and in some neighborhoods, that rate can reach 45%). I thought this would cause me to become more strident in the way I understand politics, justice and God. And yet, it often complicates my analysis, because there turn out to be more “least, last and lost” folks than I used to track. Perhaps that’s why the theological lens of the already and the not yet matters so much to me: there’s never a moment when we can solely dwell in the “We have arrived; God is here; we are delivered,” because simultaneously, we have sisters and brothers longing for and praying for deliverance. And even health care becomes an already-not-yet moment for me in this community.
So while my initial instinct was to dance around in my paper gown in the doctor’s office (which might have proved awkward had my doctor walked in right then), my enthusiasm has been tempered. I find myself caught between two stories which represent the already and the not yet of the PPACA. The first is a story a friend of mine posted on facebook. A woman was in DC walking down the street when she heard a scream, and turned around to see a young woman jumping up and down with utter joy. “The Supreme Court upheld the health care legislation!” she shouted. “Did you work hard to get that legislation passed?” the passerby asked, trying to understand the level of enthusiasm. “No,” responded the young woman; “I just have lupus.” Already, there is hope for people with pre-existing conditions who could not get access to health care. The other story is shorter. “How are you feeling about the health care verdict,” I asked an activist friend of mine the day the news rolled out. “Eh,” she responded. When prompted, she said, “I’m just tired of liberals conveniently ignoring the people whose needs won’t get met. Today’s decision doesn’t provide health care to a single undocumented person, to a single Dream Act youth.”
Not yet have we created a system where the people who do the hardest work in our country, and without whom our economy would grind to a haltcannot get the health care they need, even though migrant farm workers (exposed to high levels of pesticide) have high rates of cancer and day laborers are often placed in dangerous work environments that risk their wellbeing on a regular basis. In Oakland, I know of one organization, Street Level Health, that does not require some form of identification for the purpose of medical care, and they are not allowed to receive state or federal funds for that reason. I received the news of the Supreme Court decision while sitting in a paper gown in my OB-GYN’s office at Kaiser. When I checked in that day, I was told that since my annual cancer screening was preventative, I didn’t have a co-pay. (That’s part of the PPACA.) I have health care because my part-time job at the middle judicatory knew I needed it and made sure that was part of my contract, since my church can’t afford to cover me.
I already have much for which to be grateful. I’m better off than a lot of friends (and congregants and colleagues) whose health insurance is praying to God that they don’t get sick, because their jobs don’t or can’t provide the same insurance that I get, or because a pre-existing condition stops them from accessing affordable insurance. And I am so grateful to my Missionary Baptist colleague for allowing me to celebrate the already on behalf of my brothers and sisters whose lives will be safer and healthier and less fearful. (“Yeah don’t you love it when the right thing prevails?”) And I am even more grateful to him for reminding me of the not yet. (“Now let’s get single payer health care!”) What would Jesus think? I suspect he would think, “I am here not for the well but for the sick.” And he would promptly turn his attention to his brothers and sisters living in the not yet.
 if you don’t believe me, look at Alabama, whose anti-immigrant legislation last year resulted in 60% of their crops rotting on the vine due to labor scarcity: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/alabama-law-drives-out-illegal-immigrants-but-also-has-unexpected-consequences/2012/06/17/gJQA3Rm0jV_story.html
Sandhya Jha is co-pastor at First Christian Church of Oakland, where she successfully convinced her congregation to give their building over to a collective of grassroots peace and justice organizations known as the Oakland Peace Center. While she dreams of creating a community based in the south African principle of Ubuntu or interdependence, her actual dreams this last week have all been about armed combat, Xena-style. Sandhya has dual master degrees in Divinity and Public Policy from the University of Chicago, and is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
“The Red Barn” was three stories of junk and treasure that stood for decades on the campus of Gould Farm, a long-lived residential rehab center in Massachusetts where I volunteered for two years in my early twenties. It had a dirt floor, reeked of mildew and dust, and was crammed with history and potential. If you needed something for your room or cabin, or for an adventure or creative project, you went looking in the Red Barn. And when something was no longer needed, or in the way, or no one knew what to do with it, a work team would come and “put it in the Red Barn.”
I can still see retro tennis rackets, a desk with a drop-lid, a plush but shredded loveseat, yards of old books, bicycles of all ages and sizes, mismatched cross-country skis, piles of clothes, antique egg beaters… piled on the floor, suspended from the ceiling, and hung on the walls.
The Red Barn was torn down a few years ago to make room for a new residential building. (It was probably also a terrible fire hazard.) I wonder where they put stuff, now? I imagine, like most of us, Gould Farmers now throw things away, donate to Goodwill, and buy the stuff they need.
My husband teases me when I take boxes of stuff to Goodwill or clean out a closet because a few weeks later, I tend to discover I need something I’ve gotten rid of. I have to go buy a third loaf pan, another copy of that book, or something-that-looks-like-a- fishing-net for Sunday School since I got rid of that garden netting that sat in our shed for three years.
But the reason we can simplify, declutter, donate, and throw so much away is that we can afford to. We can get rid of extras or things that seem like junk because stuff is pretty cheap and accessible nowadays. Gould Farm was founded in 1913, and like any farm – especially one that survived the Depression – nothing was wasted and very little was thrown away. Houses were simple because people didn’t have much and barns, sheds, and attics were full of stuff that could “come in handy some day.” Now, our lives are overwhelmed with stuff. Stores are full of cheap things made abroad that almost everyone can afford to acquire and accumulate to their heart’s desire.
I don’t mean to condemn decluttering – I’m much happier in a house that’s not overflowing. But it’s a luxury. We pat ourselves on the back if we purge our closets, kitchen drawers, and basements do we think about where all this stuff comes from? Where it goes after we toss or donate it? The reason we have so much of it in the first place?
When I trot old clothes, tchotchkes, and kitchenware over to Goodwill, I feel exhilarated. But I’m not sure I’m living more simply. I may just be exercising a certain degree of wastefulness. When I clean out my home by throwing things away or donating to the Salvation Army, those things are just going to pile and clutter up somewhere else. Places like landfills, waterways, incinerators, and Third World countries. And fussing over household clutter can be a way to distract myself from the more serious junk that’s probably piling up in the corners and drawers of my soul.
What if I spent some time examining how I accumulate so much stuff to begin with? Or planned some strategies to resist the temptation to buy cheap and buy often? What if I sat down and tried to figure out what I was really worrying about, since it’s probably not just the clutter around my house.
Jesus never called us to “live simply,” but he did preach that we shouldn’t worry:
Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? (Matthew 6:25, CEB).
Worrying about clutter can distract us from the real source of our worries – lack of trust that “there is enough,” lack of trust that God’s love undergirds every day of our lives, lack of trust that the kingdom of God is in our midst. Lack of trust that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. (Romans 8:38-39, CEB)
Not clutter nor untidy closets, not clean or dirty houses, not present or future chaos, or any other mess in our lives, can separate us from love and security in Christ Jesus. True simplicity starts in the heart, downsizing to some household basics of love, trust in God, and humility. And living simply should be done for the sake of the whole world – for the stewardship of all Creation, not just our own homes.
It’s good to declutter your house. It’s better to declutter our world. And whether you declutter or not, don’t let clutter distract you from the kingdom of God.
Heidi Haverkamp is an Episcopal parish priest in the southwest suburbs of Chicago and blogs at vicarofbolingbrook.net, about home, the suburbs, and church life. She graduated with her M.Div. from The Divinity School at the University of Chicago and earned a certificate in theology from Seabury Western Theological Seminary. The amperage needed for the electronic equipment her husband requires for work precludes their ever living in a 500 square foot home.
This week the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the denomination’s governing body, is convening in Tampa. The Rev. Katie Dawson is in Tampa as part of the delegation from the Iowa Annual Conference. Her post, reprinted here from her blog, “salvaged faith,” raises questions particular to the UMC, but also for young clergy women in other churches.
Last Saturday afternoon, the Faith and Order legislative committee passed an amendment to paragraph 304.3 in the Book of Discipline that discusses qualifications for ordained ministry. The change actually removes language that would bar a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” and removes language that talks about from service and instead inserts this language:
I have a LOT of questions about this amendment that I hope are discussed before we decide to pass this change.
1) Does this amendment refer to only ONE marriage, or does it leave open the possibility for someone to be remarried. As it stands, the amendment refers to a marriage between a man and a woman and makes no comment on the reality of divorce and remarriage, remarriage after death, etc. Clearing up that question is important. We have many re-married clergypersons in our midst and if we are already concerned about the retirement tsunami in the next 10 years – this impact might be HUGE.
2) While our standards previously called for “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness” (and still retain that language earlier in 304.2) there were no particular stipulations re: appointment for those who have failed to live out the highest of these standards. Clergy who today have committed adultery may have sanctions, but we leave room for forgiveness, repentance, etc. This new proposed language seems to preclude that by including unfaithfulness in marriage (as well as co-habitation) in the list of things that will make a person ineligible for commissioning, ordination, AND appointment.
3) Point two leads to deeper questions if the answer to my first question is “only one marriage.” With the new language that is listed here, are clergy persons who have divorced and how have remarried not eligible for appointment?
4) What about sexual conduct outside of marriage that happened in the past? What if I was a wild child as a younger adult and have since matured and changed my ways… does this amendment preclude them from being a candidate for ministry? What if a person co-habitated before marriage? Does this amendment apply retroactively to their behaviors and now as an ordained elder or deacon mean they will not be appointed?
5) **thanks to folks who talked with me in person and in the comments here** WHAT IS SEXUAL CONDUCT?! genital sex? kissing? smouldering eyes at one another over a table? Lord help our unmarried younger clergy (which we are trying to recruit) if they have to constantly fear something they are doing might be construed as sexual conduct.
I could go on and on and on about questions and implications of the wording of this amendment… the language needs to be CLEARER or else it might have implications on our current clergy that we have not for seen.
On the other hand, I’m guessing that someone who would respond to some of my questions might see that little word “may” in the fourth line from the bottom. It says that those persons “may not” be certified, ordained, appointed. It doesn’t say “shall not.” It says “may not.” And that means that Boards of Ordained Ministry and the Appointive Cabinet can exercise judgment and flexibility and can leave room for grace and compassion and forgiveness.
And that is because legislatively speaking, “may” language is permissive language. It has flexibility. It leaves the question up to the person who is exercising judgment, rather than simply following a set, prescribed rule.
And actually, for friends of the LGBT community… that means it is a step in the direction of inclusiveness. Previously the paragraph read: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.”
“Are not” is very different from “may not.”
The Rev. Katie Z. Dawson is a United Methodist pastor serving in Iowa. A graduate of Vanderbilt University Divinity School, she blogs at salvagedfaith.wordpress.com. She is a reserve delegate to General Conference and was crowned the delegation’s “twitter queen.” You can follow the action @katiez.
My good friend Patrick is currently living in England because of his wife’s work. Patrick has a Master’s Degree and had spent a number of years here in the US establishing himself in his field, and by the time they moved to England, he had graduated from two weeks of vacation to three. When he moved to England, he was not able to find a job as a biologist, and so he took a part time job working for a telecommunications company. When he was hired for this job, the employer apologized profusely that because he was only a part-time employee, he would only be able to have FIVE weeks of vacation. When Patrick told me and my husband this, we all had a good laugh. Five weeks of vacation? Don’t they know that we, Americans, usually only get two, and many of us don’t even use all that we are given?
Five weeks of vacation seemed so generous it was amusing, but in fact it is actually good business practice. And that much vacation certainly does wonders for one’s quality of life. Patrick and his wife Lisa have made good use of their generous European vacation time and have invited us along on a number of their trips. There is also scientific evidence to assert the value of vacation. Scientists from NASA working for Air New Zealand found an 82% increase in productivity following a week-long vacation.
Really, vacations are good for you. This is a truth Christians should readily affirm, but to do so today is almost counter cultural. Americans are known for their work ethic, and there’s an increasing understanding that our ethic requires constant labor. The advent of computers, smartphones and Blackberrys means that employers can expect their employees to be available and able to do their work wherever they are, at any time of day or night. No longer is time at home reserved for family, for rest and relaxation. No longer is Sunday a day of rest – most business are open, and plenty of people are expected to show up for work on that day of rest.
Taking a Sabbath, taking time to rest and relax requires discipline, since it’s no longer a culturally enforced practice. We need to have a personal practice of engaging in Sabbath. Having a Sabbath is, in fact, an essential part of being a follower of Jesus, and yet it is one that is often overlooked.
Mark tells us that while Jesus was in the midst of his healing ministry, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, [he] got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” A single sentence attesting to rest surrounded by meaningful stories about healing and preaching is easy to overlook. But there’s Jesus, taking a break – time in a quiet place to pray. He gets up early – while it is still dark out – to go and have some quiet prayer time to refocus and center himself.
I can just imagine a marketing expert looking at this and saying, “No, no this is all wrong.” Jesus is just beginning “to build his brand.” He has cast out demons and healed the sick. He is getting noticed. But just when things are starting to pick up, he stops. He goes off by himself to pray. His disciples could have been moving on to the next town or spreading the Good News, but no, they spend their time searching for Jesus. A marketing expert would probably encourage Jesus to ride the wave of his success. To just keep going. Push on through till all his goals are accomplished.
Many of us can relate without a doubt to this marketing approach. We often apply it to our own lives. I consider myself a “recovering perfectionist.” I easily fall into the trap of wanting to keep working at something until it is just right, or even to just keep checking things off on the to do list, even when what would be best for me is to take a break and take care of myself.
It is so tempting to push on through: to put off those things which would actually serve our well-being best, in the interests of hurrying along and trying to accomplish more. We live in a culture that rewards hard work, and so it is so tempting to just keep working. But we shouldn’t.
Sabbath is too important. It is one of the Ten Commandments after all!
Notice that Jesus doesn’t go off for a week and sit on the beach – although that can be an important and particularly valuable way to “do sabbath.” Notice that Jesus just takes a little time; Mark doesn’t actually say how much, but we might fairly assume a couple of hours. He takes a little time for quiet prayer. He does what feeds him, what centers him. And he gives us permission to start small.
It is nearly impossible to completely take a day off in this economy and this culture. We can start by following Jesus’ example: Jesus went back to work after his brief prayer time. Sabbath can be a way of making us more effective at the work we are doing.
Other studies suggest that those who work less than 40 hours a week are actually more productive than those who work extra-long hours without a break. Just as the creation story reminds us, we are in fact created for work and play. Exertion and rest. We are supposed to have a break.
There are many of reasons we fail to take that divinely-recommended break. For many workers, the debate about vacation or time off is not about which Caribbean cruise to choose, but a question of whether or not their family can survive without a paycheck for a week. Those of us in good paying jobs with contracts and benefits packages may complain about our lack of vacation or need to confront our own issues if we are not making good use of the gifts we are given. But there are also those who do not have the luxury of vacation or even sick days. Millions of people in America have trouble making a living: trouble putting enough food on the table and providing adequate food and shelter for their family. Taking vacation, having time for Sabbath, is too far down the list of priorities.
But it shouldn’t be that way. Jesus reminds us that Sabbath should be a right and a duty of ours. It is how we care for ourselves and our relationship with God. We owe it to ourselves to practice Sabbath time and to keep it holy. And we owe it to our fellow human beings to work for justice in our workplaces and communities to ensure that Sabbath is not a privilege reserved for the wealthy and powerful, but a God-given gift we can all enjoy.
The resume of the Rev. Dr. Molly Field James does not readily suggest that she is someone who takes time off. Holding a PhD in Theology from the University of Exeter, she now works for the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut and serves as an Adjunct Professor at Hartford Seminary. She’s also married and has a kid. But we’ll take her word for it that she is able to manage all these commitments because she’s learned how to honor the Sabbath.
Photo by freeaussiestock.com
My husband and I were running errands one Saturday when we stopped at a local bookstore. I noticed a display of books in the center aisle and realized I had never heard of them. The covers were decorated with solid, bold colors and a large bird.
“The Hunger Games? What’s that?” I asked my husband.
“Oh, The Hunger Games,” he replied. “All of my students at the high school are reading them. They can’t seem to put them down. They walk down the hallways with their noses buried in the books and when I ask them a question, they tell me to wait so they can finish the paragraph!”
“Really?” I replied. “Well, then they must be good.”
I was enraptured by the Harry Potter series and recently finished The Twilight Saga, so I was anxious to read another great young person’s series. So I bought the first book in what isThe Hunger Games trilogy. I read it in two days. And two days later, I bought the other two books. I finished all three of them in one week. They are well-written, intensely violent, page-turning thrillers. Plus they have a great female protagonist. Not the stuff of the Bible, right?
Well, I shared them with my father, who is also a pastor. He read them in four days. And when we discussed them during dinner one night, I proposed the idea of writing a theological reflection on them. I had spent a year as a youth minister, and I knew if teens were reading them, then perhaps we as Christian adults should be reading and responding to them as well. In seminary, I wrote similar reflections for various theology classes. The Hunger Gamestrilogy proved to be not only an enjoyable challenge, but a fruitful theological exercise as well.
Within this Trilogy there are a number of parallels – including the character of Katniss – with classic Jewish and Christian figures and theology. However, The Hunger Games trilogy is not an overt Christian allegory, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Religion is never mentioned in the book. Rather, Collins acknowledges her debt primarily to the Greek myth of King Minos, who sends youth to battle the Minotaur in a labyrinth. She also remembers her father fighting in the Vietnam War and wrote the book out of concern for modern youth’s desensitization towards violence.
Nevertheless, throughout the three books, parallels to basic biblical characters and themes are noted. As within the Bible, key figures become part of a narrative beyond themselves. Katniss, for example, is similar to Moses and Jesus. All three come from marginalized towns and people, receive their power from a greater source, lead a people yearning for restoration, and ultimately defy opposition for a triumphant end. In Collins’ Trilogy, as in the Bible, suffering and loss do not have the final say, and sacrificial love transforms families and societies. In the end, Collins offers a vision of a new reality in which everyone’s stomach and soul are filled.
The first movie of the Trilogy opens on March 23. The movie’s release presents an exceptional opportunity for us clergy to connect core biblical narratives with contemporary culture. Pastors and teachers can use this movie to engage students and members in their congregation in reflecting on basic theological themes. It is an occasion to speak with youth and young adults who are disaffected by the current reality of modern society and who have fears about the future. The books parallel the reality experienced by many young people today. They witness daily violence on television, environmental abuse, lack of connection between political leaders and ordinary people, a rising gap between the rich and the poor, and loss of hope for the future. For a younger generation familiar with video games and reality television shows, the novels take their experiences to a thought-provoking level.
The young audience of The Hunger Games trilogy is looking for a hero to arise from among them. As Time magazine noted when it named “The Protestor” as the “2011 Person of the Year,” there is worldwide passion, especially among the young, to change the direction of the future before the world becomes as dismal and desperate as the one in the Trilogy. Katniss Everdeen, the hero of the book, becomes a leader her audiences can follow – a leader who offers love and hope through sacrifice. I admire Hermione and Bella, but I’m casting my vote for Katniss.
Ann Langford Duncan is a United Methodist pastor in Western North Carolina where The Hunger Games was filmed. A more comprehensive electronic version with a discussion guide and questions may be downloaded for $1 from Amazon Kindle: The Gospel According to The Hunger Games Trilogy.
Photo Credit: GoodNCrazy
Are you an ordained woman under the age of 40? Email youngclergywomen (at) gmail (dot) com to become a member of the Young Clergy Women Project! Members receive access to a password protected online community, monthly e-newsletters, and advance notice of upcoming conferences and events.There’s a place for future young clergy women, too! If you’re on the way to being ordained, email ycwwaiting (at) gmail (dot) com to join.
I couldn’t tell you when I first started thinking of myself as a feminist. It’s almost like asking me when I became a Christian — I was brought up this way. In elementary school, I came home from the school library with junior biographies about Marie Curie and Betty Friedan and, no joke, Dr. Ruth. To be great, I read, was to live a life that furthered knowledge and access to it by an ever increasing swath of people.
I was in the eighth grade when Hilary Clinton became first lady. She was from my home town; how could I not have idolized her? Her feminism was of a comfortable sort; she was a mom, albeit a working one. She spent too much on her hair, but understood that it takes a village to raise a child. She was an equal partner in her marriage, even though he was the leader of the free world. It might not have made her any friends in the GOP, but their relationship assured me that smart girls could score worthy men (a key priority as I entered high school; a dream unshattered by his extramarital terribleness).
I am a sucker for a good, trashy novel. When I first began discerning a call to the priesthood, I went through the normal stage of grappling with what it might mean to be a woman of the cloth. On the other side of ordination, I pictured a future populated by massive tomes of the writings of Desert Fathers and Mothers, Greek primers, and liturgy manuals. I was sure that I would have to kick my fiction habit in this austere existence, and wouldn’t have time to miss it amongst the praying and the studying and the being pious.
Of course, as I begin my fifth year of wearing the collar, I know that my vision of the ordained life was not a complete one. I did spend my three years of seminary puzzling out ancient alphabets and surrounded by mountains of religious texts, some more obscure than others, and I currently own more Bible commentaries than I ever thought I would, but throughout it all novels have served as faithful companions along the way. In fact, by discovering the existence of a certain sort of fiction, I was eased of some of my anxieties about taking on this particular role in God’s church.
The Young Clergy Women Project
Email: [email protected]
2842 Main St. #224Glastonbury, CT 06033