Saturday, February 11, 2012
Rambling Thoughts on Health, Salvation and Oprah Winfrey
But I've been thinking about Oprah as the year's lectionary readings have been leading us into Mark's Gospel, filled with all those short vignettes of Jesus' BANG! POW! BAM! healings, coupled with his message that the Reign of God was "at hand."
I used to watch Oprah, before her show got so self-absorbed, celebrity-driven and bling-dispensing. And I've subscribed to O magazine, before the ratio of advertising to editorial content and the cognitive dissonance therein -- you know, "You are capable and talented and beautiful and empowered, and that's why you need to look a certain way and buy all this stuff" -- finally got to me. I enjoyed and was inspired by the stories of everyday people who overcame desperate situations in extraordinary ways, I appreciated the practical, accessible cognitive psychology that underpinned many of the articles and I also liked the affirmations and uplifting quotes that were there in between all the cosmetic ads and photos of Oprah's Favorite Things.
So while I find Oprah's self-aggrandizing brand of celebrity spirituality, what I can understand of it, goofy in a Shirley MacClaine/Tom Cruisey way, and while I get tired of her seeming constant celebration of herself as personification of her "brand" -- I also see someone who, having struggled to free herself from a very damaging family experience and destructive personal choices to become successful, has a genuine interest in giving other people hope that they can do the same. And that is not a bad thing.
The problem is, I run into a lot of my coreligionists who, in their ongoing battle against "works righteousness," wrongly conflate the notion of spiritual self-betterment, the climbing-Jacob's-ladder model of salvation that's the opposite of the Gospel message, with what I think is a healthy realization that we can be enslaved by faulty thinking, by learned responses to stress that don't work anymore or that never worked at all, by the messages imprinted on us by parents and our culture, by a paralyzing helplessness...and that there are practical, proactive ways people can overcome those patterns of thinking and doing.
I would like to respectfully suggest to folks who do ministry in communities like these that it is possible in this sort of milieu to be so heavenly minded in terms of affirming the Lutheran idea of justifcation by faith that, when it comes to community outreach and care of the whole person, we do no earthly good. If someone's m.o. from day-to-day is enculturated learned helplessness, high-minded discussions about our inability to earn brownie points for good behavior with God don't make a lot of sense; because that person has somehow internalized the idea that brownie points from anyone for anything -- getting out of pajamas in the morning, staying in school, learning something more than Ma and Pa and Uncle Earl know, aspiring to a challenging career or even to a self-supporting job, delaying gratification in service to a greater good -- are either totally beyond their grasp or else are just not worth the effort. "Don't try to impress God with good works, because God isn't impressed by them," can sound very much like "Don't try," period.
All of which, as I'm sitting here thinking about stuff and procratinating housecleaning on this cold February day, leads me to pondering the Lutheran tendency, at least as I've experienced it, to maintain a very Western, penal model of sin and grace and to reduce the idea of salvation to God's free key to a heavenly condo. I mean, that was certainly the definition of salvation that I grew up with; my unearned fire-insurance policy won for me by Jesus. Many decades later, after having lived a lot of life and being exposed to both the Eastern Church's ideas about salvation -- salus indeed -- being about spiritual and other health in this life as well as the next, and to the very real benefits of cognitive psychology and counseling, I wonder why so many of us are still stuck in a rather simple-minded and to me unhelpful salvation paradigm starring Jesus as our defense attorney, Satan as prosecutor and Judge Sky Daddy gravely perusing our multi-paged record of criminal charges. That's how it seems to me, sometimes, in our collective Godtalk.. How does that mesh with Mark's image of Jesus as One whose healings are a powerful sign of God's intention that we be freed of whatever it is that alienates us from God and from one another and from living "the life that is life"?
(As you can see, I really do not want to vacuum the living room right now.)
Our local fundamentalist churches, of course, offer their own version of the eternal get-out-of-jail-free card (some conditions may apply); and they are also fond of promoting the tempting idea that struggling rural people's personal chaos and community malaise are largely blameable on certain predictable Evil Others, so that if American society just purified itself of the Evil Others life would return to a comforting scene from The Andy Griffith Show with Jesus, the Duggars and a really big, flappy American flag thrown in. You can laugh at that, or get angry at that -- but do those of us in the Christian mainstream have any kind of compelling alternative vision of a life healed by God that makes sense to a teenager with little competent adult guidance or role models whose only idea of an "abundant life" is a boyfriend, or some aimless young man who drifts between Mom's basement, under-the-table odd jobs and baby mamas, or a proudly self-sufficient entrepreneurial couple who suddenly find their tenuous grasp on a bit of security and dignity yanked away when a major local employer moves its operations elsewhere and all the money bleeds out of the community?
How does the Gospel we encounter in Mark become real for people like this? Discussion is welcome and encouraged.