Wednesday, August 8, 2007

"I Only Want to Know": Sibling Assignment #31

Inspired by seeing "Kiss Me Kate" this past Sunday, I assigned my siblings to write about a musical in whatever way they see fit. InlandEmpireGirl's post on "Annie" is here. Silver Valley Girl wrote about "Les Miserables", here.

When I started classes at North Idaho College in 1972, I enrolled in choir. Our director was Rick Frost, a Christian, an openly professing Christian.

Several members of the choir, most from Coeur d'Alene, were also openly professing Christians and had a history with each other in the Lutheran church through their involvement in youth group and in regional and national Christian youth conferences.

They were good people: Marian, Sandy, Jim, Kurt, Darrell, and others. One day I ran into Kurt in a hallway of the Aministration building. I liked Kurt, greeted him, and we began to talk.

Suddenly, Kurt asked me if I was a Christian. No one had ever asked me this before.

I didn't know what Kurt meant. I'd gone to church all my life. I was baptized at age 15. I had a lot of friends who also went to church and we never asked each other or asked others in the church or outside it if they were Christians.

What Kurt meant, I know now, was whether I had opened my heart to Jesus Christ and accepted Him as my personal savior.

At that point, I began to realize that this group of Coeur d'Alene kids had Jesus on their minds all the time. They talked about the Lord. They prayed together. They saw their lives through a prism whose light was the Lord.

They also understood being a Christian to be a matter of a special, overtly stated commitment that they talked about a lot and showed to the world by carrying Bibles, wearing buttons, like "I am Third", and putting bumper stickers on their cars.

I didn't like this. I liked these kids, but I did not like their overt confession of their Christian faith. It seemed clubby. It seemed that they were too interested in figuring out the Christian status of others and I thought these kids were looking for too many external signs and certain ways of talking that confirm, in their way of seeing the world, whether a person was truly a Christian. Or not.

For me, a person being a Christian was pretty much assumed if a person went to church and I understood our American culture to be primarily a Christian culture. I didn't see any need to talk about having received Christ (to this day, I've never claimed a particular moment when this happened; it's always been happening) or of behaving in ways that set me apart from my Kellogg friends, as long as I was good.

These new friends got me thinking.

Actually, they got me to asking questions. I began a process which is still at the core of my being. I did then, and I still do, experience Christian faith as interrogative, not declarative. I experience my faith with more of a sense of mystery than of certainty. I am less concerned with personal salvation and more concerned with the collective body of Christ and the impact of the life of Christ on social matters, less on individual ones. I see Christ as our Savior, not mine.

Salvation seems more a corporate experience than an individual one and, for years, I've thought that, the promise of salvation is a beginning point, and that focusing on it so much can be put aside and the question, "What now?" ought to be restlessly and ceaselessly asked and acted upon. How can Christians be a salve in a wounded world?

I've gotten ahead of myself.

When the rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar" was released in 1970 as a record album, before it had ever been performed, it became a flash point of controversy. The opera looked at Jesus as a man. Its story ended before the resurrection. It looked at Jesus largely through the perspective of Judas.

I remember church members at the United Methodist Church of Kellogg not quite knowing what to think about it, wondering if we should have some kind of youth meeting to talk it out.

I heard a couple of the album's songs on the radio and didn't think much of the album until I received it as a graduation gift. Because I knew it was controversial, I listened to it with deeper interest and read the lyrics.

It was the best stuff, for my temperament, I'd ever heard regarding Jesus and the Christian faith.

There were the central questions: Who are you? What have you sacrificed? Do you think you're what they say you are? And, in "Heaven on Their Minds", Judas cuts loose with a pained and emphatic, "Jesus!" and exclaims:

You've started to believe
The things they say of you.
You really do believe
This talk of God is true.
And all the good you've done
Will soon get swept away.
You've begun to matter more
Than the things you say.

These lyrics began my career of skepticism and critical thinking. It began my lifelong asking of the question, "What if?" What if the good of Jesus got swept away because the name Jesus or the utterance of "the Lord" began to matter more that what Jesus said? What if this emphasis on accepting Jesus was the acceptance of a feeling more than of a way of seeing and moving and acting in the world?

What if Jesus had become more a Superstar than a Savior, more an icon than an embodiment of the Kingdom of God, where the meek, the poor, the mustard seed, the prodigal son, and the prostitute at the well, not the proud, the wealthy, the fancy gardens, the self-righteous, seething brother, and moralistic legalists come to stand for the values of God's Kingdom.

What if Jesus was more human than anything else? And what if his life was a PR campaign?

I loved these questions and wrestling with them strengthened my faith rather than threatening or diminishing it. What diminished my faith was buttons and bumper stickers and Christians who wouldn't say shit if they had a mouthful.

I've had a handful of transforming spiritual experiences when I could hear God speaking to me. One of those experiences was seeing "Jesus Christ Superstart" on stage in London. I'd seen the movie already, and enjoyed it, but somehow the story was diminished on the movie screen because of the movement of the movie from one place to another and because the characters themselves seemed small in relation to the landscape of the Holy Lands.

In the theater, the action and the songs were confined to a single stage. Having the story before me intensified the questions, made the passion of Mary Magdeline, the tortured soul of Judas, and the hours leading up to the crucifixion and crucifixion itself more immediate, more unnerving and glorious.

I was a junior at Whitworth College (now University) when "Jesus Christ Superstar" showed at Cowles Auditorium as the Saturday night movie. Afterwards, the halls of the South Warren dormitory, most of the discussion was of the movie's theology and whether it was sound.

In effect, I responded that "Jesus Christ Superstar" wasn't the Westminster Confession of Faith. It was asking us to look at the story of Jesus from an imaginative perspective, to see it from a perspective unaccounted for in the gospels. (I say this better now than I did in 1974!)

It was as if the story of "Othello" were told from Iago's point of view. The changed perspective changes the story, and while the point of view of the gospels is the canonical perspective, can't we, I wondered, imagine what Jesus looked like from Judas' point of view? Even if it's not canonical?

Furthermore, might this not be the perspective shared by many who are outside the faith? Shouldn't we entertain that perspective as well as the insider's view?

I'm sure many of the students that night minimized my point of view because I was a literature major and understood truth more in terms of story and multiple points of view than dogma or doctrine.

But, I was really, indirectly, echoing the words of Judas. Jesus' life and what his story has become in the 20th and 21st centuries inspires me to ask questions, look at a variety of perspectives, and to be driven by the same wish that "Superstar's" Judas has:

"I only want to know."

Unlike Judas, though, I'm not a traitor.


Pinehurst in my Dreams said...

I have never seen Jesus Christ Superstar. I heard all the buzz back at NIC, and the songs on the radio. I became a Christian - born again - personal salvation - then end of my Freshman year of college. For me it was the culmination of all my questions up to that point. Afterward, I have spent my time getting to know Him and learning to let Him lead my life. He is my life. I am constantly learning how to love people with the depth of love He pours through me. It's still my choice, but His power.

raymond pert said...

You said this beautifully. This is really what I mean by it's our salvation: the picture of salvation is so huge and our experiences are so various and we all complement each other so miraculously. I really appreciate you making this comment.

Katrina said...

I appreciate your sharing the fullness of your experiences of Christ and Christians. I love about you that you ask questions and open yourself to all sources for finding the answers.

In truth, I believe both the defined moment of obedience that marks salvation AND all that comes after as one seeks to better know and serve God are important to the whole of what being a Christian means. The moment of choosing Christ is the moment that the drowning person is pulled safely aboard the lifeboat. There's more, of course. There's rowing the boat, offering blankets and food to other survivors, locating more people in the wreckage before they go under and pulling as many of them as you can from the water--but none of it is possible from outside the lifeboat.

But yes, I agree that we have to strive to see ourselves and Christ through the outsider's eyes before we can begin to tell them who He is and what He offers. It's a whole lot more than a bumpersticker. :)

Don Sausser said...

From this agnostic's point of view I admire the questions asked in JC Superstar.

I think far too many "Christians" assume they have all of their questions answered and wear blinders to prevent further inquirey.

But I did enjoy your discertation regarding your own faith.

Don Sausser said...

Also, I too knew Rick Frost well. He and Todd Snyder colaborated to produce some memorable performances.

Last I knew Rick was the head of the music department in a very large church in PA. But that was about 9 years ago. He moved there when former NIC President, Barry Schuler took a presidents job at the Williamson Free School in PA.

raymond pert said...

Katrina: I think we agree that the experience of salvation is ongoing. In my experience, I cannot pinpoint a moment when I experienced a defined moment of obedience. I have had some very clear and defined moments when I tried to get out of being a Christian and tried very hard to not be a Christian. It didn't work. I finally realized I was "stuck". It was as if it were the life I was hard wired for, so I have never had the sense of having made a choice to become a Christian. I only have the experience of being constitutionally incapable, as it turned out, of leaving/escaping/extracting myself from the presence of and life in the Trinity. My experience has profoundly shaped my sense of how strong human will is/isn't. I never really chose to be a Christian in any single moment of choice and I was, at an important juncture of my life, unable to choose to leave, hard as I tried. The story of the lost sheep as always been central to me. The sheep didn't choose for the shepherd to come for him. The shepherd actively went in search of and found the sheep. If that story is analogous to the human experience with God, I have felt, in all modesty, that I didn't so much go looking for God as God came after me..and found me.

Thanks so much for coming over and commenting and doing so with such eloquence.

Don--Thanks so much for coming over and reading my post. I appreciate very much that you enjoyed what I wrote. Christians don't often bring agnostics enjoyment! Agnostics bring me a great deal of enjoyment, so I'm glad that I was able to give some enjoyment back to the agnostic world. I mean it.

I loved my two years singing under Rick Frost's direction and I hope he is thriving in his work elsewhere. As a choir director, he was humane, demanding, precise, very intelligent, funny, and generous. I thought he drew a very good sound out of us at NIC, especially given that most of us were avocational singers, not future pros. He's remained an inspiration to me in my work as a teacher because he didn't treat us like amateurs. He created a professional and demanding atmosphere and it really paid off.