In several posts over the next weeks and months, I will be offering drafts of my current manuscript, Freedom and Fellowship: An Open Source Theology, for your response, reflection, critique, and (hopefully) edification. As was true with my first book, Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All (also on Nook), I hope that our interaction based on this material will help to make my writing better.
Please, do remember that this is a first (and, in my opinion, very rough) draft. I certainly do not mind critique and argument, but your gentleness and tact would be appreciated in order for me to have the best chance of improving the thoughts and communication contained in the text.
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When I was 11 or 12 years old, my parents stopped spanking me. It was at that moment that I started becoming a theologian.
For most of my life, I was punished the same way that most children raised by parents in the “Fundagelical” world were punished – I was spanked. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” was the battle cry of child rearing, and my parents took it to heart. Not that I didn’t deserve it…
I remember clearly the last time I was spanked. It was Spring Break of my Sixth Grade year. I’m not entirely clear anymore as to what I did, but it was bad. At the moment of truth, my dad gave me a choice – I could receive a spanking or I could be grounded for the entire week. Considering that it was the beginning of the week and there was a lot of fun to be had, I chose the spanking. It was a very odd experience.
In our family, there were gradations of corporal punishment, both in severity and in implementation. My little sisters, you can imagine, were spanked fewer times than I was, and they were also subject to a different “stick.” While theirs was just a tiny, little foot long piece of cardboard tubing that my parents removed from those old hangers used for slacks, my nemesis was much more fierce. I was never told to go outside and cut myself a switch. No, I was merely sent to my room to wait. Down the hall from my room, in the coat closet, is where the tools of task were kept. I would listen intently until I heard one of my parents open and close the closet door, and then, like a reveler in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, I would count down the number of steps they took until they reached my bedroom door. The door would open and there would be my dad or mom brandishing a two and a half foot long dowel rod.
I admit, when I was seven or eight, this scene was terrifying and certainly deterred my punishable behavior. However, when you’re eleven, it’s just…well…not.
I think my dad realized it as well. I had been a while since he and I had met this way, and I honestly think that, when he saw me sitting on the edge of my bed with a look of utter boredom on my face, he knew that he had come to a crossroads.
Up until this point, groundings were used in our family, but they were seen as “less than.” They didn’t carry the heft that a good old fashioned spanking did. They were for moments when a punishment needed to be dealt out, but my parents didn’t have time to fully deal one out. They were fillers, stand ins, understudies to the real thing. But, even still, neither method seemed to be working lately.
When the choice was handed down I truly think it was because neither my dad nor my mom were too interested in having a whiny, rambunctious tween in the house for a week. So, in what I’m sure was a split second decision, my dad decided offer us both a way out of this debacle as quickly as he knew how: let the kid decide, and let everyone get on with their week.
However, the ramifications of that decision were huge, and they honestly changed the course of my life. Part of what my father had done was to acknowledge, even if only tacitly, that I was somehow responsible for my life and could play a part in determining its course and the meaning it had. In allowing me to decide my fate that day, authority was given over to me on a matter of real importance for the first time. I began to own the way I saw the world and the way in which I wanted to move in it. The fact that I got to choose one thing in life carried over and I was drunk on the ability to own the choices and thoughts of the rest of my life. That was the day that began my realization that I was no longer subject to the way that my parents saw the world. I had my own point of view, and I could construct the world in a way that was different from theirs. To bastardize Robert Frost, I made a choice and it “has made all the difference.”
The other part of what my father had done was take two, previously very significant tools of punishment out of my parent’s tool bag. If there was even only an implicit acknowledgement that grounding and spanking were not going to work on me any more then something had to be done. No parent worth their salt was simply going to allow their child to run around wild. Even though overt, coercive forms of punishment seemed to be off the table. I was not going to just be let loose to roam free. I was not an animal in a safari.
What my parents ended up deciding to do was, I’m sure out of some amount of desperation, but utterly consistent with their view of the world at the time. The next time that I did something which warranted punishment I was told that I had to sit down with a particular passage from the Bible which applied to the issue and write an essay on the scripture and how it applied to my situation.
After the Spring Break Ultimatum, the first chance my parents got to use this new form of punishment on me was after I had lied about something. I don’t remember what I had lied about, nor what passage I was given to reflect on, but I do remember the reaction my parents had to the essay I handed back to them.
I seem to recall going through several drafts to make sure that I had down exactly what I wanted to say. Still, I remember feeling like what I wrote wasn’t good enough. I was, honestly, afraid that I was going to have it handed back an be told that I obviously did not understand either what I had done nor what the Bible had to say on the subject. It is an odd thing to recognize that I was more concerned about the reception of my scriptural reflection than I was about the fact that I was a liar in need of punishment. It is an odd thing to realize that my concern had less to do with the welfare of my body than the reception of my thoughts.
After a while, my parents called me out of my room to speak with them. They sat me down and immediately addressed one of my fears. “It’s obvious that you understand what you have done and why it is wrong.” I breathed a sigh of relief. “I hope that this will serve as a lesson to you.” I assured them that it had.
My dad pointed to the bookshelf that held the 1964 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia as well as all manner of bibles and other religious books. “Landon, in writing this reflection, did you – by chance – use the bible commentary?”
I honestly had no idea what he was talking about. I had never heard of a bible commentary before.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a book that tells you what the different passages in the Bible mean. Some preachers use them to write their sermons.”
I must have looked worried. Not that anyone could blame me. It seemed to me that my dad was accusing me of cheating while writing a reflection on a Bible passage about lying as a result of my chronic inability to tell the truth.
“Don’t worry,” my mom assured me. “Even our pastor needs to use one. The Bible is very hard to understand.”
Well that was something. “Oh. Well, I didn’t. Those were all my words. That’s what they teach us in school – use your own words.”
My parents exchanged a glance.
“What?” I asked. “Did I do something wrong?”
My dad smiled. “Not at all. It’s just that what you wrote sounds a lot like what the Bible commentary says about this passage. Um…Good job. I think you learned your lesson.”
I’m sure this story seems like an odd one to tell when making a point about becoming a theologian. However, through a very odd and circuitous route, this experience taught me a very valuable lesson about theology and my relationship to it. It was this: *I could do it*. A few factors contributed to this new-found ability.
One, I didn’t even know I was “doing theology.” If my parents had instructed me to “reflect theologically” about lying in general and my penchant for it in particular I would have froze. Even though this story sowed the first seeds of my theological exploration, there was still present in the religious life we lived in a notion that theology was something huge and important, done by those who knew what the hell they were talking about. Theology was not done by everyone, let alone 12 year old liars. If I to have been told to write some theology, I would have been caught up in the minutiae of the work rather than the end product.
Instead, I was encouraged to use the “stuff of my faith” to say something about a problem I was having. I seemingly couldn’t stop lying. What did the stories of my faith have to say about that? Who else in the Bible had this problem? Based on what we knew about Jesus, what would he have said about me? In being asked to offer a response as a Christian, I was given rein to use the different pieces and parts that make up the Christian faith to do so. I was being asked to be creative and imagine what one situation would say about another. By this time I had already begun my involvement in my life-long passion of theatre, so I saw this as little different than preparing for a play and trying to suss out a character’s motivations.
As such, I wasn’t expected to do anything perfectly. Precision is good, yes, but I was not being graded on my orthodoxy. The purpose of the task was to see if I could comprehend my actions in light of what we had been taught in the Bible. In order to satisfy that concern I merely had to be able to express myself adequately and maintain a working understanding of the pieces and parts that made up the faith. I was expected to at least reference Jesus, and, as Jesus plays a somewhat particular role in the life of our faith, I had to make sure I didn’t use his presence incorrectly.
Lastly, I was being asked to reflect on a particular idea at a particular time in my life. This theological work I was doing (which I didn’t know I was doing at the time) was not a crazy idea I came up with – it was the result of trying to say something about my experience of God and what I understood to be my obligation based on that relationship. I wasn’t talking about “liars.” I was talking about “Landon the liar” with, I’m sure, references to other such liars like Jacob and Peter. What I was doing was personal, with reference to my own lived life. If I had written with someone else, even though there would have been a more expansive and accommodating nature to the writing, it still would have concerned two people and their thoughts and ideas about particular experiences.
These are not the ways we normally think of theology.