The Bicycle Tour Part 3: Faith and Bible Bit

As is documented in Part 1, my initial effort to deal with spiritual matters did not go well, due to my temporarily having lost my mind, or at least my judgment.

But I wasn’t comfortable just abandoning it. This tour was, after all, entitled “Faith is a Bicycle”, which is also the name of the CD that my sacred songs singer/song-writer friend, Scott, was promoting on this tour. His songs are, like, “sacred”, eh? We were performing in churches – places where people of faith gather for religious purposes. It would seem terribly incongruous in that atmosphere if Ross were to avoid faith matters entirely. Right? “What’s he afraid of?” people would ask themselves.

Scott was perfectly happy to handle all the spirituality and leave goofy, secular, though blessedly inoffensive, story-telling to me. “What’s he afraid of?” I asked myself, afraid of the answer.

But I was determined. I looked over the faith/spirituality/religion stuff I’d done and picked away at it. Cleansing without sanitizing, I thought. I can do this. Really.

What I came up with was what we called “The Faith and Bible Bit”. Despite Scott’s misgivings, I performed it a few times. When it worked, it worked pretty well. It didn’t always work.

The Faith and Bible Bit

The things Scott and I have done together over the last couple of years have involved what I’d call “faith talk”. We did a couple of events related to Lent and we performed together on an Advent Sunday worship service. When we started this project – this “Faith is a Bicycle” Tour – I think we both had in mind that our show would be like those things.

Well, I’m hardly the guy for this task. I’m no theologian. I’m an out-of-work lawyer,  stay-at-home father of adult children and writer of profane blog posts about family life. But, it is worse than that. I’m not merely unqualified; I appear to be hostile to the whole idea. As I began writing little bits for this, it emerged that I am sort of cynically non-spiritual and crabbily anti-religious and deeply troubled by the place of religion in public life. As a result, as Scott and I discovered during the first stop on the Faith is a Bicycle Tour, when I talk about faith matters – I put people off.

At our first performance, a few weeks ago at Eastside United in Regina, I did a whole series of faith bits. It fell so flat that Scott and my wife insisted that I scrub the whole thing and start over. Which I did.

But I’m going to try again.

I have a deep affection for my United Church of Canada, our earnest and faithful efforts to apply our religious values to contemporary problems and our instinct to look out into the world and be inclusive rather than look inward and be insular. I’m not cynical or crabby or deeply troubled about the United Church. Just everybody else in the religious world. That doesn’t sound very inclusive, I know.

But faith talk is difficult anyway – even when it’s done well. It makes people uncomfortable.  In any social setting – if you want to make people cringe, squirm, avert their eyes and suddenly have somewhere else they have to be – talk about your faith. For a more dramatic effect, ask about theirs. People don’t like talking about their faith any more than they like talking about their sex lives. And they definitely don’t wanna hear about yours. It is the “don’t ask, don’t tell” of social existence.

Faith is personal. Talking about it leaves you vulnerable. And it is serious – solemn. We treat it with Reverence. It’s not funny. Joking about it is dangerous. You can offend people without meaning to – as I have learned the hard way on several occasions.

Especially dangerous is joking about the Bible. The Good Book. So let’s do that now.

We Christians loves us our Bible. We recite it every Sunday. We have favourite passages we use on special occasions. We marry people with it. We bury people with it. You can’t be well read, educated and cultured without at least some familiarity with it. There are allusions to it in all the great literature. It has inspired some of the greatest music ever composed, and a lot of country music as well. It has been the subject of great works of art, and of fluorescent paintings on black velvet cushions. With tassels.  It has given us some great big fat terrible epic movies. We put bits of it on fridge magnets, greeting cards, coffee cups and granite slabs. We actually prefer our Bible in little aphoristic bits. Snippets of bumper sticker enlightenment. We get lost and confused if the passages get too long.

Despite the fact that most culturally Christian homes have several Bibles in them, they never get read. That’s why our Bibles last so long. We don’t handle them – except maybe to look up an obscure literary reference; and, now that we have google, we don’t even do that.

I’m comfortable with that. I think the Bible gets better reviews than it deserves – and I say that without having read it. I’m not going to let my lack of knowledge prevent me from expressing the definitive opinion on the subject. I know enough to notice that, for some reason, this confounding, contradictory, and frankly dangerous book gets a kind of magic dust sprinkled on it so that, regardless of what it actually says, it’s always steeped in wisdom, profoundly meaningful and, above all else, “good”.

Well, it can be good. As long as it doesn’t fall into “the wrong hands” – as it so often does.

Scott’s song, Seven Times My Soul [it’s on the CD – so, like BUY it already] – a wonderful song – is about dipping one’s self in the Jordan River seven times. It is about healing, about being revived and refreshed, becoming one with the Sacred River – being immersed in the divine – wrapped in the spirit. Tranquility, peace, comfort. Soothing water as a metaphor for God’s love and care. It’s a very nice image – an image Scott’s song evokes beautifully.

In Scott’s manuscript of the song he notes that it comes from the second book of Kings, Chapter five.

So I got out my Good News Bible – who doesn’t like good news?  The chapter that inspired Scott’s song tells the story of Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army. He’s a brave and mighty soldier and strong leader. He is troubled by a terrible skin condition. Some sources say he had leprosy, that very Biblical affliction, but the Good News text just calls it a “skin condition” that turns his skin white and flaky.

Naaman gets some advice from a nameless little girl who is a servant to his wife. This little girl, we learn, was abducted by the Syrians during one of their raids against Israel.

So, right at the beginning of this story, we’re confronted with the kidnapping and enslavement of a little girl. She’s a key character in the story, but she isn’t named and her abduction and slavery pass without any critical comment. This little captive slave girl, for some reason, wants to help out with Naaman’s skin condition – which she apparently takes more seriously than her own situation. “Yes, I’m facing a lifetime of involuntary servitude, but look at you. That must really itch.”

She suggests that Naaman go see the prophet in Samaria, a fellow by the name of Elisha, who has been named by God as the successor to Elijah.

Naturally, he accepts her advice and trundles off to Samaria and to the home of the prophet Elisha, where he is greeted by one of Elisha’s servants.

The servant tells Naaman to go dip himself in the Jordan River seven times. Seriously.

Naaman is angry that he doesn’t get to deal with Elisha directly – that he has to deal with one of Elisha’s “people”. And, really, he was hoping for some more dramatic and miraculous cure than washing himself in dirty water – something a bit more Abbraca Pocus Shazzam and Pow “Yer Cured, Hallelujah!”.

He eventually does what the servant recommends and, after the seventh dip, he’s completely cured – and in the process becomes convinced that there is no god but the God of Israel. Hard to imagine that the clearing up of a skin condition would be enough to cause a religious conversion – but it’s in the Bible, so it must be true. I wonder if the Clearasil people know about this.

Naaman is of course very grateful to Elisha for curing him and he offers him money. Elisha refuses the money. Naaman leaves, heads back to Syria.

Into the story steps Gehazi – another of Elisha’s servants. [See? So many characters with odd names, no wonder this book has never caught on.] Gehazi sees an opportunity. He chases down Naaman, and tells him that, in the last few minutes, there has been a change in circumstances and Elisha would now like three thousand pieces of silver and two changes of fine clothes as payment for the cure. Naaman is happy to pay – in fact, he feels so good in his new skin that he gives Gehazi six thousand pieces of silver. Big haul for a servant.

When Gehazi gets back with his ill-gotten loot, Elisha confronts him. Gehazi lies, denying that he’s taken any money from Naaman. Big mistake – you shouldn’t try to lie to a prophet who sees all and knows all. Nor should you play cards with him. Elisha is very angry. He throws Gehazi out, saying “and now Naaman’s disease will come upon you, and you and your descendants will have it forever”. Sure, enough, as he’s leaving, Gehazi notices his skin was turning white as snow.

That’s the story.

Am I the only one who thinks that, maybe, Elisha over-reacted here; went a bit overboard? Gehazi is afflicted for the rest of his life. All of his descendents – forever – are cursed. Come on. I think even Stephen Harper would have trouble being this tough on crime. Just imagine, you see a guy in the shower at the Y – “Hey, Young Gehazi, I see you have a nasty white rash there.” “Yeah – great great great great great great great Granddad made a big mistake.”

I think if you have to power to mete out that sort of punishment, you ought to pause, take a deep breath, before exercising it. You don’t want to act rashly. [Yes, that’s a pun. Don’t you think that puns are just the edgiest form of humour, next to spoonerisms?]

So, it’s a nasty story. What do we take out of it? Well, we focus on the healing, soothing waters of the Jordan River. That is accentuating the positive. We don’t sing songs about child slavery, skin diseases or multi-generational curses.

Last week, in Sunday School at Sunset, the kids were making arks – for Noah’s family and the animals. That’s a great story about God getting angry and killing every human being on earth not related to Noah. Kills em all. By drowning. And all the animals except a pair of each. Only the fish are spared from this Godly murderous rampage. And, I suppose, very fit birds.This is a story we tell our children – because, I suppose, it would be just so much fun to spend some time on a big boat with all those animals. A floating zoo, as the Irish Rovers called it, with all those green alligators and long necked geese – also known as “the only survivors”.

So, it doesn’t matter what’s in there – we’re going to call it Good News. We are going to blip over all the death, destruction, rape, mayhem, genocide, boils, skin rashes and icky discharges as simply details of “historical, cultural context” and we are going to take from the book what we like – what conforms to our view of the world – then insist that our view is properly “Biblical”. And I think that is just great. We will fight Bible thumpers with Biblical niceness. Sure, our Bible is the same Bible that Bill Whatcott reads. And the Westboro Baptist Church. But the Bible, like religion generally, is a vessel. We can, I suppose, pour into it prejudices, hate, anger, division, superstition and fear. And many do.  But I’d prefer we decant our highest aspirations, our most noble virtues, our most tender sensibilities. And maybe, if we work on it faithfully, we can make it funny.