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SUCCESS (A Sermon)

"Smile" (By Jackson)

“Smile” (By Jackson)

SUCCESS (A Sermon)

Once upon a time two monkeys were splashing in the mud, flinging their feces at each other, laughing like idiots, whatever. One of them said, “let’s go get some grubs” and the other one said “No, I’m tired of grubs, I’m tired of this whole grubby scene.” So he killed his friend and carved him into a pair of boots with straps. And he pulled on his bootstraps up up up until he was out of the primeval muck and now his great-great-great-grandnephew is a barista at Starbucks, slowly paying back his bachelor’s degree in subversive literature. The degree is not worthless, he tells himself – he has a popular blog in which he castigates the primates in Washington. The grand primates are unconcerned about his belabored writings – to them he is only a monkey flinging digital feces. Unscented.


…And once upon a time, a semi-intelligent primate was too lazy to search the internet, so I typed “success story” into my own brain and that’s what popped up. What is “success”? What does it mean to be “successful”? My two brothers, both born in New Jersey, are lawyers now – they’re successful by New Jersey standards because they both got out of New Jersey. I was born in the Bronx and married a Bronx-girl. I earn a tenth of what lawyers do, but I’m successful by Bronx standards because my wife is half Jamaican and my floor is covered with children. My Mother was born in Soviet-occupied Hungary, she’s a success because she does not currently reside in a mass grave. When I asked her opinion about monetary versus genetic success she was wisely silent, but I could see that her mind was engaged in calculating dividends of great-grandchildren.
I’m not going to go on and on about my family (I do hope to still receive Birthday gifts from someone this year), but even these few examples suggest a vast diversity of definitions for “success,” even among a small group of relatives.


As a male of the human species my mind and body were built for hunting. And even though I don’t use these tools to kill animals, I can feel the hunter-gears turning inside when I zoom in on a concrete, short-term goal, clear everything else in my mind to make a straight path, launch myself forward, accomplish the mission, and then immediately forget it and identify another short-term concrete goal. “I will find the remote control.” “I will fill in the blank.” “Twelve other monkeys and I will change this light-bulb.” For the hunter, success is a sporadic series of quickie-victories.
Women are something else. I don’t claim to understand them at all, but being a Snodgrass gives me the right to patiently explain something I know nothing about. Elizabeth has been conditioned by our culture to approach objectives in a male/hunter way, and yet when she’s given a choice she’ll enact a different strategy: she’ll survey the landscape, identify some edible or pleasant or colorful objects that might trigger interesting thoughts or seed an enjoyable conversation, gather these objects in a bag and ideas in her head. Later, while shiny objects enliven the atmosphere and edible objects add color and texture to dinner, she’ll open the jar of conversation pieces in her mind, and a colorful mix of old and new thoughts will tumble from her mouth. Though she’s been trained as a hunter, her body and mind seem to operate more naturally as a gatherer, and so her ideas of success seem to be something like “I want to feel more fulfilled, to be surrounded by objects, foods and people that will make life more stimulating.” Maybe I’m way off here, I confess that my field-study of Elizabeth is clouded by the nature of my hunter mind and body, which is always stalking her in the hope of achieving a short-term concrete goal, a moment of victory followed by a heavy forgetful sleep.
Will I ever achieve a short-term concrete goal again now that I’ve said this in public? In my defense I’ll point out that I avoided words like “clutter” and “chatter.” A gatherer wants to be surrounded by interesting things, so she can nestle in them. A hunter wants one interesting thing at a time, straight ahead, so he can throw himself at it. And I believe that it was a combination of these approaches that made the human species so successful in the wild. But then you put these two jungle animals in the modern industrial consumer world and it starts to look crazy – our nest is a jumbled mess, she’s neurotic and I’m obsessive.


Our transition from jungle animals to urban intellectuals has been accompanied by a constant renegotiation of what it means to be human and what it means to be successful. Three million years ago, intelligent primates would pick a few berries, pee on a bush and say “There, now we’re both happy.” Success for them was to briefly carry a torch in the great relay-race of life. To eat, shoot and leave, sprouting a few healthy babies and bowel movements along the way. Then ten thousand years ago came the farmer who chops down the bush because it only sprouts berries once a year, and he plants some corn. For him, “success” means being a man, he fights the earth to give him what he wants, returning only the bare minimum to keep the earth producing. Of course the Earth is always winning, so he and his first cousin spawn fourteen young farmhands to fill the Earth and subdue it.
Then there’s me – I read interesting things and say interesting things, I process information. Then I log in to the bank website and the number is bigger, then I go to the grocery store and the number gets smaller, and I cook something and eat it. I live on a high-wire, a tight-rope. I’ve been taught to fear looking down – you don’t want to be a farmer, that’s why you went to college, to learn how to get paid for processing information. And you don’t want to be a forager, that’s why your forefathers took over the world, and it wasn’t easy! But that means “success” is something more abstract, because my hands are neither trading with the earth nor fighting with it.
I suppose “success” is becoming synonymous with celebrity. The world, it turns out, can only feed a limited number of celebrity egos, but cyberspace can accommodate an infinite number of celebrities – the catch is, you’ve got to be your own publicist and your own paparazzi. When I was young there was an expression people used when you accomplished something – “don’t get a big head about it.” But in the selfie-generation your head needs to be the biggest thing in the world – “look at how big my head is compared to Mount Rushmore in the background! The obscene pride of Manifest Destiny is nothing compared to my vacation bender!” “So, um…I joined your fan-club, I get hourly updates on your newsfeed…but what is it you produce? What is it you do?” “’Produce’? Go back to the industrial age, old man.”


When I think about “Generation Why Me?” or whatever it’s called, my first impulse is to assume that for young people, “success” is an abbreviation of “sexual excess.” Like one of those Newspeak texting things, “IMHO, Success tonight, LOL.” But as a college teacher, I find that “success” has come to mean something far more alarming – for most of my students, the definition of success is “getting away with it.” These kids, no matter how many times they heard about a “good clean game” in Little League and Sunday school, a quick glance at the TV news revealed something else: the most successful people in this country got there by “getting away with it,” and stay successful by constantly testing the limits of what they can get away with. How many lies can you tell before you get caught? How many interns can you grope? How much money can you steal? (And, PS – if you become successful enough, you can attain the status of plutocratic immunity, “too big to fail,” where you get caught with your hand in the cookie-jar and still get the cookies).
We’re concerned when teenagers bully each other to suicide. I’m horrified when I hear about the date-rape epidemic on college campuses. Meanwhile as a college teacher I’ve had to become a detective to investigate an epidemic of plagiarism. But aren’t these just symptoms of the same disease? Tomorrow’s bankers and senators aren’t in college to learn how to ask deep questions – they’re in college to refine their skills of getting away with it. Because as children watching the Wall-Street bailout, they learned that “getting away with it” is the secret of success. “Do unto others as long as they can’t sue unto you.” Children hear what we say, but what forms them the most is watching what we do. “Bullying is bad, Joey. Now shut up and get me a beer, Donald Trump is on TV.”
It’s the bullies and superstars who become models for success – not the janitors, bus-drivers and teachers. Certainly not the adjunct professor, which I suspect must be Latin for “Scab,” since it basically means the expendable grunt you bring in for a quarter of what you’d have to pay a tenure-track PhD. I make less in a year than the lady who empties the trash can in my office – and I bet she gets dental insurance. Twenty years from now, professors will be huddled outside campus gates at 6am, the dean will come out with security officers in riot gear: “You – speak English? Teach metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology? Fifty bucks, you teach it today. Fifty bucks.” “Yes, I…teach that.” And some poor sap who’s been hired to teach ancient history will be lecturing “In the old days when men wore frock coats and top hats, there was a word they used – write this down, it will be on the test – ‘Re-tire-ment,’ which meant that someone got tired,” the day-laborer with a doctorate will get a tear in his eye “and then they played checkers for twenty-five years.” Retirement as we know it is a twentieth century concept, and in the twenty-first century it’ll be replaced by “Re-try-ment,” in which senior citizens will get to retry the service jobs they did as teenagers.
Someday our retirement homes will be like the Mayan pyramids, the Ziggurat of Ur, the great stone heads of Easter Island – incomprehensible ruins, cryptic reminders of a forgotten era. Children playing frisbee with a bedpan washed in acid rain will ask, “what failure caused the fall of this civilization?” And one of our primitive stone-age descendants will think a moment and say, “success. It was success that caused the fall of this civilization.” The children will be confused. But it was not failure that turned the fertile crescent into the Iraqi desert, not failure that turned Easter Island into a barren rock, not failure that turned the Mayan cities into jungle ruins. It was success. Because every year they strove to put more land under cultivation, more backs under the whip, more voices into the pledge of allegiance, and every year they succeeded, until the land was exhausted and the people were too many and it all came tumbling down. Success was their failure. Meanwhile off in the woods, small groups of migratory scavengers enacted a different story, no magnificent metropolis, no crops, no shirts, no money, no stuff but the basic stone tools of survival. Jungle savages. We’ve been taught to think of them as failure, and in monetary and material terms they are, but their failure is success. How do we measure that success? Everyone in this room is descended from primitive savages.


We may have been told that we come from failure. God’s failure to create a perfect world or humanity’s failure to be a perfect citizen. When I was young, I heard that the human story begins with failure and shame in the Garden of Eden, and that the penalty was death. And, looking around, I’ve noticed that our stone-age, bronze-age and iron-age ancestors do seem to all be dead. Except that they live on in us. Oddly we’ve been taught to think of that as a failure – if our ancestors had behaved better, God would have destroyed the world by now. We don’t have time this morning to delve into religions and various doctrines of “salvation,” we could sort of cobble together the notion that an immortal angel has been chained to an incorrigible monkey, the goal of the game is “don’t let the monkey act like a monkey,” and success is attained when the monkey dies and the angel returns to the sky (wait, that’s not in the Bible…I think that’s in “Escape from the Planet of the Apes”). From the immaculate angelic standard we’re all failures. But from primate standards we’re super-stars – to monkeys we all look like Kevin Costner and Madonna.

We are success – we are the pure and patient eggs that were in the right place at the right time, like a sweatshop seamstress who took a moment to gaze out the window and got discovered by a Hollywood big-shot. Each of us here comes from a sperm that won a dangerous race against a thousand million others, the losers all died. We’re the X-Wing Chromosome that hit the Death-Star, or some of us are the Y-Wing, I’m no biologist. We’re Top Gun, the best of the best. Not to get all queen-ey about it, but we are the champions, my friend. And when the Ben Hur of sperm kissed the Cinderella of ovum, we magically transformed our mothers into pumpkin coaches. And I would like to think many of our mothers, mine included, celebrated the success of biology, and not the failure of birth-control.

Of course the danger didn’t stop there, we are also the success of those people who kept us alive, who furrowed permanent creases in their brows and worried white streaks into their hair. And as babies we thanked them by drifting into a peaceful sleep, letting them gaze at our soft serene baby forms, and then they looked at each other and tried to sneak off into the nursery because we always slept in the middle of their bed and we said “THANK YOU!” But it came out as “Waaaaaaaaah! Were you two in the middle of something? I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate being alive! Hey – I know a great family game – you change my diaper while you feed me!”

Ten years ago I had the curious experience of doing childcare in the Milwaukee ghetto, and then working in a downtown Manhattan preschool, where parent paid 35 thousand a year to have their kids there for three hours a day. I would ask the ghetto kids, “what do you want to do when you grow up?” And they’d say “Oh, I’ll be the president of a major company with a lot of secretaries and my own airplane.” And when I asked the privileged Manhattan preschoolers they’d say “I want to drive a dump-truck!” “Sorry, Anastacio, you can grow up to be anything you want…except that.” Ten years later I wonder if there’s a trucker in Wisconsin thinking “well if I was running this company,” and a corporate president in Manhattan sighing, “Man I wish I was driving a truck.” But in all my childcare experience, there’s one thing I’ve never heard a child say (including my inner-child, who’s right now shouting at me to shut up and let you people go home). I’ve never heard a kid say “When I grow up, I’m going to be a semi-intelligent primate.”

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a semi-intelligent primate.” Wow, saying it feels good. That puts a whole different perspective on how I would tell the story of how I got from my Mommy’s tummy to here. Because when I say that, I feel like a success, like maybe I’ve accomplished that and more. No pressure, I’m not here to push you into any monkey-business, but if you say I with me, it might feel good. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a semi-intelligent primate.”


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Cain and Abel in the Bible, Qur’an and Talmud

Red Spot on Concrete


(A Comparison of the Cain and Abel story in the Bible, Qur’an and Rabbinic Literature)


In modern times, as the sibling traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam continue to slug it out over any provocation, it’s easy to read a deep pessimism in the Cain and Abel story: as soon as two brothers existed, the fighting began – and over what? Why did Cain kill Abel? Was it just an outward expression of an inborn human nastiness? Jealousy, greed, pride? Some hazy, ill-defined “Original Sin?” Our investigation into this first murder must begin with the motive, and to discern it we’ll need to pay close attention to what makes these neighbors different.


GENESIS 4:2 Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.
3 In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground,
4 and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering,
5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell…
8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.


The Biblical account of Cain and Abel is told in bullet points, leaving us to read between the lines for the answer to the question: why did God accept the offering of one and not the other? We read in Genesis 4:2, Abel was a “keeper,” someone who gathered and guarded God’s creatures while Cain was a “tiller,” someone who manipulated God’s land for his own purposes (the “fruit of the ground” here is grain, not the “fruit of the trees” mentioned in Genesis 3:2, 3:3 and 3:12). The shepherd is a protector of creation while the farmer is a hijacker. And God acknowledged the shepherd’s maintenance with abundance, while God punished the farmer’s mutiny with drought.


Though the Qur’an does not name the livelihoods of the brothers, it contains a warning against humans attempting to control the land’s output of grain and fruit: “When the earth puts on its golden clothing and ornaments, and its people think that they are masters of it, Our command comes to it, by night or by day, so We reduce it to stubble, as though it had not flourished yesterday.” (Surah 10:24)


Sura 5:27 And relate to them with truth the story of the two sons of Adam, when they offered an offering, but it was accepted from one of them and was not accepted from the other. He said: “I will certainly kill you.” The other said: “God accepts only from the dutiful.
5:28 If you stretch out your hand against me to kill me I shall not stretch out my hand against you to kill you. Surely I fear God, the Lord of the worlds:
5:29 I would rather that you should bear my sins as well as yours, and be an inhabitant of the Fire; that is the reward of the unjust.”
5:30 At length his mind made it easy for him to kill his brother, so he killed him. Thus he became one of the losers.


Abel is silent in the Bible, but here he is presented as a prophet whose offering is a fulfillment of duty toward God. Abel’s proclamation that “God accepts only from the dutiful” (5:27) implies that Cain sacrificed for selfish reasons, so that God would multiply Cain’s own gain. Abel responds calmly to Cain’s murderous rage: as a prophet he refuses to answer violence with violence, and if martyred, Abel will be cleansed of his transgressions. Like all other prophetic stories in the Qur’an, this narrative focuses on a choice. Cooperating with his neighbor would give Cain the chance to learn Abel’s way of pleasing God. But Cain is fixated on competition for the goods of this world, and it will cost him his place in the restored Eden of the world to come.


Genesis 4:9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”


In the Biblical account of Eden, God wanders in and out of the story and then has to ask what’s happened in His absence: When Adam and Eve hide after eating the fruit, God has to ask where they are, (Genesis 3:8) how they got the idea they were naked and whether or not they’d eaten from the tree, (Genesis 3:11) and later where Abel is. (Genesis 4:9) Some commentators would say God is just playing with them, and yes, as a father of small children I frequently ask where they’re hiding while I can clearly see the wiggling giggling lumps under a blanket. But in terms of the Eden story, it seems more plausible that the original tellers did not imagine God as omnipresent (everywhere at once) or omnipotent (all knowing) – if God in the story was all-powerful and all-knowing, there would be no story at all. In the Qur’an, neither Cain’s crime nor Abel’s body is hidden from God.


Sura 5:31 Then God sent a crow scratching the ground to show him how to cover the dead body of his brother. He said: “Woe is me! Am I not able to be as this crow and cover the dead body of my brother?” So he became of those who regret.
5:32 For this reason We prescribed for the Children of Israel that whoever kills a person, unless it be for murder or for corruption in the land, it is as though he had killed all men. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the lives of all men.


Modeling burial after the crow resembles a Rabbinic legend recorded by Rabbi Eliezer: “Adam and his mate came and sat by the corpse, weeping and mourning for him – but they did not know what to do with Abel’s body. A raven whose companion had just died said: I will teach Adam what to do. The raven took his dead companion, dug the earth before the eyes of Adam and his mate, and buried him in it. Adam said: We will do as the raven.” In the Qur’an, Adam’s ability to conduct the first burial is replaced with Cain’s inability to accomplish it. Cain killed his brother in the hope of gaining a greater share of the earth’s abundance, but the attempted burial shows that the land has been turned against him.


The Qur’anic expansion on what it means to be a brother’s keeper was also expressed in the Talmud, “Man was first created a single individual to teach the lesson that whoever destroys one life, Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had destroyed a whole world; and whoever saves one life, Scripture ascribes it to him as through he had saved a whole world.”

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Warning: This Book does not contain The Answer about what’s “Right” and “Wrong” concerning Sex or the Bible – only Texts to ponder and Questions to consider.

The following snippets are from a chapter called TEXTCRIME: FORNICATION.

When it comes to Jesus’ views on sex and sexuality, we’ve got very little to go on.  Topics about which Jesus never says a word include (in no particular order):
-Premarital Sex
-Sex Education Class
-First Base, Second Base, Third Base, Short-Stop, Left Field
-Leonard Cohen
-Inventive Positions
-Weird Kinky Stuff (Costumes, Leather, Chains, Etc.)
Nowhere in any Gospel does Jesus directly mention any of these, either to condone or condemn.  I feel a temptation to add masturbation to this list, but he did say “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:30)  So I’m always surprised to see many Christians walking around with a right hand intact.

Where family values are concerned, Jesus tells us that his teachings will shatter households across generations: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53)  Whether Jesus himself was or had ever been married is a mystery that will never be resolved because the Bible never definitively confirms or denies it.  Is there anything the Bible can tell us about marriage and the Jesus movement?

Our classic image of the Jesus movement is thirteen dudes quitting their day jobs to become a free-wheeling fraternity on a year-long spring break, crashing parties and disrupting church services.  But a brief note at the end of the story puts a twist on this image: when the buddies have been busted, the disciples have fled and Jesus is being crucified we find that “there were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.  These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.” (Mark 15:40)  This is the first time we hear of Mary Magdalene and these “many other women,” and yet we’re told that they’ve been on tour with the Jesus crew from the start!  And that they’ve been footing the bills for food and lodging all along.  Like first-time viewers reaching the end of Fight Club or The Sixth Sense, we’ve got to go back and re-envision the entire story.

Later, as Paul questions the rights of an apostle, he asks “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas [Peter]?” (1 Corinthians 9:5)  But if the disciples, including three of Jesus’ brothers, were married…  Did they leave their wives and kids at home during their year(s) on tour?  In the middle of the Gospel, Jesus sent his followers out in pairs to share the good news – Mark reports that he sent twelve, but Luke says he sent seventy (which seem to be male/female pairs).  Was the Jesus movement a fraternity, or was it a nomadic tribe?  This opens up a whole mess of questions, but there’s one in particular that pertains to our study: Did Jesus, traveling with these women (and possibly children), really share Christianity’s hostility toward women, marriage and motherhood?

We get mixed reports of Jesus’ policy on divorce and remarriage.  In Mark’s Gospel he strictly condemns divorce and remarriage: “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’  ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate…Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:6-9, 11-12) Luke’s Gospel agrees, (Luke 16:18) in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus allows divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery. (Matthew 5:32, 19:9)  The Gospel we call John is silent on the subject of divorce.  It’s also the only Gospel that contains the curious story of the adulteress.

JOHN 8:3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them,
4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.
5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now what do you say?”
7 …”Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.
10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 She said, “No one, sir.”  And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Now the obvious question is…  If this woman was caught red-handed or whatnot – was she committing adultery by herself?  Where is her accomplice, condemned to the same crushing fate by the very same Law of Moses? (Leviticus 20:10)

Jesus’ most shocking move, in terms of sexuality, is not something he does but something he doesn’t do: When a Roman Centurion begged Jesus to heal his beloved slave-boy, Jesus didn’t ask if they’d been engaging in those activities Romans were famous for doing to slave-boys (which continues in Roman Christianity) – he healed the young slave and praised the Centurion’s courage, “turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’” (Luke 7:9)  I suppose if Jesus could forgive the adulteress for breaking one of the Ten Commandments, he could forgive the Centurion breaking an obscure law hidden in Leviticus.

In general, Jesus seems to have a profound disinterest in what goes on in our pants, except for when he gives a rather perplexing statement in Matthew’s Gospel: “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:12)  Um…I can’t accept it.  Sorry, Jesus – I think you’re the coolest but I’ve got no idea what you mean by this.  And I’ll confess I’ve got some doubt that you even said it.


In the first couple decades after Jesus was crucified, “Good News” spread through the Empire about a small-town rebel being raised from the dead.  The reverberations and implications of this news echoed far and wide – if the God of Israel had broken the natural laws of life and death, what other afflictions and divisions might be overcome?  And if God through the Christ had invited Gentiles in, did that mean that they could have full access to God without following the Laws of the Torah?  In references scattered through his letters, Paul preserves some fascinating fragments of what the Christ movement was like in these first years, before he joined it.

“All things are lawful,” (1 Corinthians 10:23) the invitation circulated through Gentile nations. In synagogues scattered throughout the Empire, a section would be partitioned off for Romans who wanted to witness but couldn’t live kosher.  Then there were rumors of this new Judaism where “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)

This new breakthrough of old divisions promised unimaginable freedoms to Greeks (Gentiles), slaves and women, and so it comes as no surprise that it was these outcasts who braved the threat of persecution and public execution to join it.  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul quotes one of the earliest hymns sung by the Christ movement, in which we can see the reflections of the first converts:

2:5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

According to this hymn, the Christ had been more powerful than the Emperor, but instead of using this power to exploit the vulnerable, he had taken “the form of a slave,” he had embodied feminine virtues, “humbled himself and became obedient,” and God had exalted him with such glory that “every knee should bend…and every tongue should confess,” Jew and Gentile alike.  Paul’s letters and the Acts of the Apostles show that it was wealthy women who supported this movement, hosting illegal meetings and funding itinerant preachers like Paul, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae…for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” (Romans 16:1-2)[7]  Naturally these women would not have been so generous or taken such great risks if they were being told to shut up all the time – no, in this movement, women were allowed to lead, praying and prophesying during rituals. (1 Corinthians 11:5)

There was even some experimentation in blending Christianity with that Old Time Religion, as John the Revelator attests in his message to the congregation at Thyatira, where “that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.” (Revelations 2:20)  When you launch a religion with the slogan “All things are lawful,” there’s bound to be a diversity of opinion about what “all things” might include.

LIBEL has finally become available – right now it can be found at https://www.createspace.com/4847171  and in a few days it’ll be on amazon.com too.


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“Bones & Stones” Sermon on Video

This was originally written as the second part of the “Spheres” presentation. Then a new beginning and ending were added so it could stand alone as a sermon.   (I was so pleased with the introduction, that the text of it became the cover design for “CHAOS,” my book of sermons.)   This video was taken at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Black Mountain, NC on May 4th.

This video is of the “Road Version” of the sermon – I had to cut it down for length (and content).  The full version of “Bones & Stones” is included in “CHAOS,” by book of sermons.

Chaos front2

This book is available at:




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“CHAOS” (New Book by j. Snodgrass)




I’m very excited to announce, at long last, the release of “CHAOS,” a series of sermons I’ve been giving at various Unitarian Fellowships in Western North Carolina (some of these can be seen on video in various posts on this site).  The sermons in this book revolve around the question of how the “meaning of life,” and how the search for “the meaning of life” through religious practices, changed in that turning point of history known as the Agricultural Revolution (disclaimer: this book does not contain the “meaning of life”).  As Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael, wrote after reading a “CHAOS” manuscript: “Chaos is a disturbing, disconcerting, and delicious diatribe. It will stir up the little gray cells in your head, guaranteed.”

The book is now available in print and kindle editions through amazon.com and createspace.com


WHO SAYS CHAOS? (Excerpt from “Casserole” essay in “CHAOS”)

In Bulfinch’s Mythology, we read a Greek account of the beginning: “Before earth and sea and heaven were created, all things wore one aspect, to which we give the name of Chaos…” But who is the “We” in this sentence? Who had the wisdom and perspective to look upon the web of existence nature had created and call it “Chaos?” We’ve learned a lot in the thousands of years since the Greek Empire, but I can’t think of a single scientific or intellectual advancement that has put humanity into the position to say that the primeval world didn’t work – actually, a lot of our wisdom and perspective today tell us that things were working fine and we created chaos. I hear people all the time saying “Human beings are destroying the earth,” but that’s not the problem. Human beings destroying the world is only a side-effect of human beings trying to fix the world, to perfect the earth.

When we hear these words, “Chaos” and “Order,” we’ve always got to ask “Who says ‘Chaos?’ Who says ‘Order?’” From Pharaoh’s perspective, everybody cooperating and sharing the wealth is “Chaos” and “Order” is 99% of the population slaving miserably to provide for the leisure class. Moses might have said the Empire’s domination was “Chaos” and communal support was “Order.” The Monarchy says Anarchy and Democracy are “Chaos,” the slave-trader says tribalism is “Chaos,” the dominator says equal rights will be “Chaos.” Freedom is Chaotic, oppression and slavery and genocide have historically been pretty well organized.

When I see a creature straining against its own nature, at war with its environment, at war with every other species, at war with neighbors, at war between genders, and members at war with their own bodies, I see chaos. When one gear in a machine refuses to turn, knowing that the pressure it builds will cause the whole engine to break down, I see chaos. When one dancer in a conga-line breaks the chain, refusing to be touched or keep in step, thrashing out against the other members, I see chaos (and that’s why you’ll never ever see me in a conga-line, I would literally rather die and take the whole world with me. Dancing in line is where I draw the line).

Yes, I have boundaries, I believe in boundaries. My marriage, for example, has boundaries I would protect like an animal. My children’s safety is a boundary I would defend, I don’t want them “getting mixed up in” anything dangerous. These boundaries were not created by some priestly decree – if people didn’t pair off and protect their young the human species would not have survived its first generation. But there are other boundaries we need to look at again, boundaries we did set up, between the human species and the rest of the biological community. We need to stop asking “where can we make this better? How can we make this work?” And start asking, “Where do we fit in?”

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