Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Wonder with the Hen, the Lion, and the Puppy in the Everlasting Basket

The Trinitarian Basket
(with an inner and outer beast)
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in darkness, curious and confused. Jesus speaks of being recreated from beyond. This busting up of expected categories seems to further blind and perplex Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, and they're not the evil villains we sometimes make them out to be yet they seem to really like their silos, everything in its place. He is looking for a sign. A good concrete thing to put in its place. Whereas if he had found the freedom to wonder, to let go, to play along, he could have known that god is everflowingly lifegiving. The text doesn’t tell us how Nicodemus responded, but the silence speaks volumes.

Fourth-century pastor and Trinitarian theologian Gregory of Nyssa cautions us: concepts create idols, wonder understands. It is Trinity Sunday and the questions of the day are some of the oldest questions in Christianity. How do we fit together the Hebrew scriptural roots with the experience of Jesus as eternally foundational and alive historically and a part of us now? Gregory of Nyssa is wise when he warns us: concepts create idols, wonder understands. I don’t know what you think or feel about any point of trinitarian concepts, but I am glad you are here. And I invite you to wonder with me about a hen, a lion, and a puppy in an everlasting basket.

There once was a basket that was just the right size for three friends, and everything they loved. It had room enough to embrace, and somehow room to dance, and somehow room to spread far far out, and never feel far apart. In this everlasting basket is one God. God the hen, God the lion, and God the puppy. 

Jesus gives us the image of a mother hen. He offers us the parable where we are nervous chickens are running around the yard and the great wing of god the mother hen gathers us. I imagine this Hen brings us ‘our daily bread’. Hens as an image for the creating god are even more fantastic if you imagine a hen that's always making eggs! Yet I have a deeper reason, that I don’t think Jesus knew about - at least not the way we do. Fossil records and genetics tell us that inside the history of a chicken is a dinosaur. A chicken is a reminder of the extraordinary expansiveness of time and space and the re-creativity of god. For all the kind and benevolent imagery of that mother hen with her wing, the word dinosaur comes from the word meaning terrible and fearsome and the definition of the holy isn’t only placid peacefulness but a kind of trembling in fascination awe. This chicken is a symbol of the essence of God’s love and tremendous power. But also a reminder that God's time and being is beyond our limited scope.

In the everlasting basket, where there is a hen, then maybe we can wonder about Christ as a lion. If you're wondering why I've chosen a lion, you need to read the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That Christological fable where the Christ figure is Aslan. The great but not tame lion, the king of all Narnia. He is enchanting and he is fierce all at once. When Aslan is on the move darkness and frigid-ness come to an end. There is no fuzziness about whether or not Aslan is a Christ figure in the Narnia series. So a lion is a good image for the being of beingness that is Jesus the Christ.

The last creature in the Trinitarian everlasting basket is a puppy. To really understand the biblical idea of Holy Spirit we actually have to forget most of the ideas we have that go with the word spirit or as some of you may remember the translation ghost. The Spirit of God is animated, always loudly breathing hardly ever stationary. Like a puppy. They are full of energy anyone who's had a puppy or spent time around a grown-up dog who does not know that they are not a puppy, you know about the force of passion and energy I am speaking of in a concrete way. There is no divisiveness or tepidness or contempt in the Spirit of God. Furthermore, animals in my life who have known that I have been in grief have come to my side stayed with me. Maybe you know this experience too. Active tangible drive and empathy of a puppy is a good image for the is-ness of the Spirit of God.

I would be remiss if I didn't name that what the personas of the Trinity share is the be in the being-ness of God, the is in the isness, the will of willingness. Each of my animal pals have a bee sticker to remind us of that essence, the be of being commonality and also to remind us of the community that the Trinity are in their are-ness. Like bees.

So why does wondering about the Trinity matter? It matters because there are foxes in the farmyard. The Trinity matters because it seems so dark, and around us there is a frozen wasteland of numbness and uncaring that unconfronted will continue to break and destroy us. We bind ourselves to the strong name of the Trinity, not for ourselves alone but for each other. The Trinity matters because it models God’s intention for the whole creation: it is and it practices fluid tangible love. Categories create idols, wonder understands. The hen, the lion and the puppy, they're held in an everlasting basket that is as close as an embrace and is his big and broad as the universe. There is room in that basket for you room for your hope room to never feel alone. Room to act concretely against distortion and polarization.

In the baptismal font I have 5 different kind of stickers for you. There are chicken and lion and puppy stickers. There are also dinosaur stickers and bee stickers. As you leave today I invite you to take just three stickers, it is, after all, Trinity Sunday, and we're brought to you by the number 3. I want you to make a choice. Choose one image that comforts you choose one that challenges you and one that could motivate you. Take your 3 stickers and wonder have some prayerful curiosity about what we can do to release perilous certainties, to build fierce relatedness, to wonder about how we are well-equipped to partner with God to become his beloved community.

Categories may be temporarily satisfying, but they are the source of so much human-made terror. And nothing in who we are called to be in union with, nothing that is union with each other and the loving God of all seems to be about exclusive categories. The Holy Trinity, one God is at work in our wondering, our courage and our darkest struggles. Let us live our way into our questions with wonder. One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, love you and are on the move with you, with us, with all. Amen.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington
May 27, 2018

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Conversion from the Conventional: Buffyverse post 5

(Post 5 of 5)

A starving actress (her parents have gone broke due to not paying taxes, ever) in LA, Cordelia is more at risk and isolated than she was in high school – although in new ways. A young actress with no regular family contact is easy prey in the media industry that saturates the region. When she begins her commitment with Angel, it is only until her “inevitable stardom takes affect.” Cordelia’s commitment to combating evil with Angel in LA quickly takes up most of her daily life once again. The paranormal detectives of AI are not only her coworkers but her friends and saviors, and she theirs. This separates her from inevitable stardom, but it also serves to incorporate her into a supernatural vocation. In the first half of the first season of Angel, the gift of visions is passed on to Cordelia. This gift is not an easy gift – it is not a responsibility that she sought, but it is one she will choose to bear, the visions are a consequence of her commitment to the mission.

Consequences are the 7th phase of conversion. Cordelia’s effect is the ‘scratch and sniff’, “skull-splitting migraines (getting visions) so vague they require close captioning.” Doyle was the initial third link of the Angel Investigations, a half demon whose regular visions of paranormal provide the object of their pursuits. Before sacrificing his life, Doyle passes on the gift to Cordy, much to her dismay. “I'm never going to forgive him for doing this to me.” An empathic client replies, “For what? Choosing you? Trusting you with an enormous responsibility? Believing that you were the only one worthy of such a rare and important gift…I get the impression Doyle didn't have much by way of possessions…Seems like he gave you the most valuable thing he had.” 

This consequence leads to her further necessity for the mission in LA, as well as her experience of ‘all the worlds pain’ that punctuates her second conversion, or intensification. The consequences of her commitment to the pursuit of redemption are that she has more to give, but also more to be defended from. She persists to find within the communal mission purpose, security, meaning and well-being. The consequences of conversion are not only positive. They can be destructive – and for Cordy these visions are literally destroying her human brain. 

“He's not used to the new you.”

Cordelia’s conversion covered the seven phases of context, crisis, quest, encounter, interaction, commitment and consequences. It is in light of her dedication that she is bestowed with the visions. The gift of the visions begins the second conversion of Cordelia. Her primary conversion was from the conventional worldview to the mystical in the context of the Hellmouth and the interaction of the Scooby gang. The context of her second conversion is her commitment to the mission and work of Angel Investigations in the mystical realm of LA. 

Dr. Rambo outlines five types of conversion in his book Understanding Religious Conversion, that rely on an observation of how much someone transgresses or changes. One type is defection – which would be the case if someone were to move from the mystical to the conventional. In the third season opener of BTVS Buffy tries to defect from her call, running away, using her middle name and becoming a waitress. 

Another type of conversion is affiliation, when someone with nominal religious life or commitment moves to a more all-encompassing involvement and often a radical change of life. Sudden affiliation could be used to describe the conversion of Xander and Willow who instantly took up with Buffy and Giles in their mission on the Hellmouth. This could describe Cordelia’s initial conversion, although her incorporation took more than 12 episodes longer than Xander or Willow. Institutional transition is often called denominational switching in American parlance, but when it goes between two significantly different polities or and is similar to the fourth type tradition transition. A Buffyverse example would be when Wesley joins the work of Angel Investigations in Los Angeles after having been fired by the Watcher’s council. It is his struggle regarding going from being a Vampire Slayer Watcher to the employee of a vampire (Angel) and discovery of fulfillment in the institutional change that particularly demonstrates this type of conversion. 
In contrast Cordelia and Angel move location, but their mission remains essentially the consistent from one show to the other and does not demonstrate a type of conversion in itself. The second conversion (the gift of visions) of Cordelia meets the typology of intensification, and her third conversion (being demonized) is such extreme intensification that it may actually be seen as an institutional transition. The second conversion, or the first intensification for Cordelia immediately puts her in jeopardy. Like the first season of Buffy it is her gifts and abilities that put her at risk when a paranormal auctioneer puts her eyes up for bid. Her visions critically challenge her because of their intensity, the way they interrupt her life, and the divine responsibility they carry. 

The reported source of this gift is the Powers that Be, the rather omnipotent divine essence(s?) who issue Cordelia’s visions to preserve life against gross evil. Her visions are surround sound, sensational, full tilt experiences of the violation of creatures in a multitude of ways. They are commercial versions of living nightmares. This intensifies Cordy’s empathy and relationality with beings in jeopardy. Her self-centeredness has been eroding since she took up with the Scooby gang, but now in the encounter with true pain it crumbles. Because she cannot control the timing of the visions, this responsibility further interrupts her pursuit of an acting career and celebrity. A cherished goal is diminished both practically and passionately. Cordelia is able to commit her gift to nobility without falling apart because of her context of relationality. While she wouldn’t have received the gift of visions without being a trusted part of the group, so to she could not handle the experience without the group. Her second conversion is dependent upon the foundation of her initial conversion and confided commitment to the mystical mission of the Scooby’s and AI. Cordy’s third conversion, or the ultimate fulfillment of her conversion, happens on her own, outside the group’s knowledge.

The visions are a gift and a tremendous compliment in accord with Cordelia’s demonstrated commitment to the mission of Angel’s Investigations. A man who was half human, half demon gave the visions to her. His demonic physiology allowed him to sustain the explosive quality of the visions. During the third season we learn that these visions are destroying Cordelia’s brain. She is taking massive quantities of neurological painkillers, and is told that nothing in conventional modern medicine can restore the damage. In the episode ‘Birthday’ she is laying in a coma, during which she is led through a Dickens-ian quest of what her life would be had she not taken up with Angel and the mission two years earlier. 

 In this alternative reality Cordelia is a celebrity – she never has to dismember monsters or experience the visions or alleviate suffering. She is successful, but isolated; safe but haunted by an unexplainable feeling that something isn’t being done. Cordelia seeks what the mystical power centers can do for her to continue to serve the mission of AI. Her guide Skip tells her “The fact remains that humans are not strong enough to harbor the visions... Period! Even the Powers That Be can't change that.” To which she responds, “Then find a loophole, Skip. I know my purpose in this world and it includes the visions. And if the Powers That Be aren't complete dumbasses they know it too.”

The only way for Cordelia to keep her commitment and live out her initial conversion is to convert once more. To serve the group and the cosmos with the visions and live demands that she become part demon herself. In the Buffyverse we rarely meet a pure demon – the demons battled daily are hybrids. So given the general typology of the spectrum of beings, Cordy would have to become a demon – no longer fully human. This is the ultimate test of her commitment to the compassion, altruism, weirdness and self-sacrifice of the mystical worldview. It is the extremist option for the iconic self-centered, body obsessive, diva, queen of her own universe we met in the first episodes of BTVS. Her initial conversion has led to commitment, which led to consequences, which have cyclically led to this crisis. Her response? “So? Demonize me already.” 

Cordelia has no question about her vocation and her identity being other than an agent of grace to an embattled world. This is the amazing realization of her process of conversion – in which a higher power is privileged to participate. This third conversion, the acceptance of demonization (which remember isn't always a bad thing in the BV) for mystically vocational convictions is more than intensification but a typological shifting. Cordy’s daily community does not change, her context remains the invocation of grace in an atmosphere of demonic assault. The conversion into the mystical worldview has become so complete that it has changed her ontology. She has gone from being the wholly human combatant to the righteous demonic asset. The shift in biological typology has to be seen as an institutional or tradition transition type of conversion.

“I don't know, something. I mean, the dead rose. We should at least have an assembly.”

-Cordelia Chase

If the narrative of the Buffyverse is a love story; if the battles of two shows are an epic of affection for a world that feels like it is run by demonic individualism then the conversions within this scheme are neither simple nor finite. Watching Cordelia Chase evolve from the center of her own human universe to the extra-ordinary heart of redemptive missioners is astonishing. It resembles a religious conversion in a multitude of ways. Cordelia crosses over from the conventional-individualistic to the mystical-communalistic, through a spiraling process that leads to the critical consequences similar to the real world cost for people who accept a ministerial calling. Is it possible for religious institutions to convert people from fragmented conventional lives to the practice of communal redemption? Yes – and if we are to learn anything from the story of Cordelia it is that anyone can become a convert – if they feel welcome to participate in the process. Lastly, if also sadly, her final story isn't one of pure good news.  Deep conversion does not mean perfect missional commitment nor keep away manipulation or corruption.  

Yet if we are to continue our quest in hopes of redemption then we must convert our institutions from the language of individually resisting evil, doing justice and loving God. Conversion of communities and salvation demands that we must summon the collective courage of the converted in the Buffyverse. Being an agent of grace in this world is a conversion of our blood, sweat and tears. It isn’t just the right of the religious– it is our responsibility.

“I had no idea her wish would be so exciting! Brave New World.”

To watch for the conversion of Cordelia I would suggest an arc of the episodes Out of Sight, Out of Mind (B 1.11), Halloween (B 2.6), The Wish (B 3.9), To Shansu in LA (A 1.22) and Birthday (A 3.11). To consider the conversion from the conventional worldview to the mystical worldview I would suggest an arc of Welcome to the Hellmouth (B1.1), Phases (B2.15), Hush (B 4.10) and The Prodigal (A 1.15). Of course I would suggest investing the time to watch the vast majority of both shows, but who has the 100 plus hours to do that in a hurry.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Conversion from the Conventional: Buffyverse post 4

(post 4 of 5 exploring the conversion of Cordelia Chase in the BTVS&AI series)

In the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in the episode titled “Out of Sight”, the mystical effects of the Hellmouth alter an average, shy girl who is ignored by everyone into an invisible menace. Outward invisibility releases inner forcefulness coupled with deep seeded rage. She initiates a campaign to attack the icon of her rejection – Cordelia. Realizing that she is the object of the murderous desire, in desperation Cordy turns to Buffy for help. She realizes that whatever is going on, it is the realm of strangeness and aggression – the two things she is sure Buffy has something to do with. Cordy whines loudly more than once that ‘the weirdest things always happen when you're around!’ 

When threatened by something she can’t conquer alone she comes seeking help and saying ‘I know you're very strong, and you've got all those weapons. I was kind of hoping you were in a gang.’ There are other incidents leading up to this acknowledgement and enlistment, however, Cordelia’s crisis is directly attributable to her physical and social context. When high school is hell, the threats become life and death and require the intervention of equitably extra-ordinary people such as Buffy. The immanent threat is the catalyst for Cordy to seek a more effective option than denial, and so to step over the divide she still isn’t prepared to completely acknowledge. The crisis itself leads to the quest for solutions – the third phase in the process of conversion – which leads her to need and trust the ‘loony fringe’ folks, always in weird situations Buffy and the dorky Scooby gang who seem to hang out with the school librarian.

Dr. Rambo's book about conversion states “human beings actively seek solutions to their problems and strive to find meaning, purpose, and transcendence.” This is a fair statement about much of human experience, although we can also acknowledge that this may not be as true as we expect.  Some people seek out lucid moments and find solutions, and some people seek solutions and find connection and something greater than ourselves in the process. This is a good definition of Cordelia’s quest phase – seeking remedies and finding both meaningful connection and powerful significance. While she may find herself in a consistent state of jeopardy due to her despised social location, she also is smart and assertive and so she knows where to look for a solution and is confident she can harness it. 

Unlike many of the other residents of Sunnydale, she seeks a self-preserving outcome with the people she deems able. Does she want to know why – the mystical, demonic why – of why weird things are always happening to her? Not on the surface. Cordy is through and through a pragmatist – she wants to remedy her troubles so she can get back to being popular and safe. It is the regularity of her need for solutions that involves her ever more deeply in the rituals of the Scooby gang, even when the crisis is not hers. It is with these people and their mission that she gains a complete picture of the mystical worldview, and the human potential in fracturing evil and opression. ‘Eww’s’ and ‘oh my gods’ punctuate her interaction with the mystical and demonic for seasons to come, but from the middle of season two, she will remain in the mystical worldview.

The encounter phase (the 4th) of conversion for Cordelia is her escalating involvement with the Scooby gang. She is regularly found in the library doing research and wheedling stakes to help the mission and she evolves into a somewhat core member until graduation. Despite her pragmatism and the damage done to her social status, Cordy is strangely drawn to serving the common good within mystical worldview. Her personal threats abate somewhat, so the continued reduction of pain may be one reason for staying 'in the library'. There is also the rush in the battle against evil that can only be waged from this acceptance of the mystical world. 

It is suggested in dialogue that the Scooby gang’s pursuits free her from the responsibility and isolation of her popularity. She has considerable reasons and history of self-interest to prevent the encounter from establishing her conversion. Lastly, while she has a more complete picture of what goes on in the world, Cordelia continues to prioritize conventional socio-economics. Why she remains in the encounter is not profusely clear, however, it does lead to her continuing process of conversion. In her storyline the conversion of her socio-economic responsibility to the mystical and communitarian come to fullest expression when she has moved to LA on the spin-off Angel. Her pursuant conversions and acceptance of vocation occur because following graduation the mystical world is the sphere where she has the most success, community and effect for the well being of others. Her encounter provides the community of interaction and meaning which continue to foster the process of Cordelia’s conversion.

Two connected communities are a vital element of cumulative nurture of Cordelia’s conversion process. As noted above the conventional social structure and Cordelia’s high status leaves her feeling both isolated and bored. She is followed, but she is not heard, she is seen but not known by the crowds who surround her and the folks who despise her. Within the mission of BTVS she establishes a romantic relationship and interacts with more intense levels of mystical learning and experience. It is this communal interaction that fulfills the 5th phase of conversion for Cordelia. She learns the rituals of battling vampires, the resources for disabling demonic opponents, and the internalization of a  communal paradigm. Cordelia emerges from the communal interaction as a well aware and worthy member of the mystical worldview. It is so formative of her life that when she meets up again with Angel in LA it is her idea to join in, to organize and to participate in the mission against demonic evil. She says to Angel, “I was just saying that if we're going to be helping people out, maybe a small charge. A fee. You know, something to help pay the rent. And.... my salary. You need someone to organize things and you're not exactly rolling in it "Mr. I-Was-Alive-for-200-Years-and-Never-Developed-an-Investment-Portfolio." 

The joint venture in pursuit of redemption is now for Cordy normative, it brings her feelings of accomplishment, service and contribution. The establishment of a small business – Angel Investigations - through which AI operates serves to integrate her skills in both worldviews for the mission in the mystical domain. It is in LA and with Angel Investigations that Cordelia demonstrates the commitment of her conversion – the 6th phase.

(post 5)

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Conversion from the Conventional: Buffyverse post 3

(Post 3 of TBD)

There are two reasons for choosing Cordelia as a subject to study conversion. The first is that she begins the series as the most thoroughly privileged conventional main character. Her shift from a conventional worldview to an agent against evil is a dramatic revolution of life. It is, however, the consequences of her subsequent conversions within the mystical worldview that make her case the most extreme of all. She is the icon of the successful conventional world; who eventually accepts becoming a demon herself to continue her vocation in the communal fight. Other characters have changed and evolved and converted, but only Cordy has chosen to holistically sacrifice her conventionality – her human-ness - for the sake of the mystical common redemption. To examine her conversion I will utilize the conversion process explained by Dr. Lewis Rambo in Understanding Religious Conversion, including context, crisis, quest, encounter, interaction, commitment, and consequences. Following the discussion of the process of Cordelia’s initial conversion, I will examine the typology of her 2 subsequent intensifications or further conversions.

“Being this popular is not just my right, but my responsibility”
-Cordelia Chase

The first episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BTVS) establish the foundational themes of the Buffyverse (BV). Particularly vital to the first three seasons is the metaphor of high school is hell. Sunnydale High is a typical upper middle class, Southern California public secondary school – except for its geographical situation on top of a Hellmouth. Students are faced with the everyday pressure of academic achievement and parental transference, confronted with the physical and mental confusion of becoming adults, and perhaps most pervasively, the fearsome social caste system. 

However, in Sunnydale the everyday crises are exaggerated, intensified and incarnated due to the demonic energy beneath. The transformation of a common expression allows the Buffyverse to confront the emotional turmoil of high school more effectively than a run of the mill after school special. The embodied metaphor takes on sacramental qualities – outer signs of inner truths. The concrete usefulness of the classroom objectives vary in later life, but the success, scars, and lessons of the social scheme of high school are crucial formative forces – demonic or not. Academic achievement is approached in Buffy for its emotional and social content – perhaps the most lasting effect of the contemporary curricula. This is the context of Sunnydale High and therefore the context of Cordelia’s initial conversion. 

The formal systems of access and control in this setting are functionally limited to parents, teachers and administrators and practical power rests with a few detested social elites. The upper-middle-class American culture rewards consumerism and achievement relatively regardless of moral merit. The demonic forces and mystical dimension that exist in relationship with the conventional go largely unnoticed rationalized and suppressed. Formal religiousness is shelved, but people and ordained objects and methods have the ability to directly manipulate the mystical and conventional world: crosses and holy water repel vampires regardless of the faith of the wielder. Weird things go bump in the night – but people choose not to make anything of it. This para-normality and its effects on a high school population is the framework of influences and therefore the first phase of experiences that lead Cordelia into conversion.

When we first meet Cordelia Chase she is not only solidly set in the context of the conventional worldview, she is the reigning queen of the high school social order. While not a brainiac, she demonstrates that she is a critical thinking and articulate young woman, even if her point of view is neither egalitarian or politically correct. It is perhaps true that Cordelia is smarter than the average bear on the top of the social scheme. This judgment is confirmed because she can correctly asses the crisis of a situation she does not understand and seek out help from those she realizes do understand and can intervene. It is this capability that leads her away from complete diva-ness, from being the self-absorbed master of her own world order. 

Her particular series of crises comes from her position at the top of the high school social pecking order. Cordy garners as much respect as revilement from her classmates. Given the macro context of Sunnydale High, its literal hellishness exaggerates and perverts the micro context of emotional desperation in the social outcasts. In this context the energy of the Hellmouth disintegrates the boundary between Cordy’s conventional world and the mystical, putting her life in danger and forcing her to step from one into the other. It is a series of crises in the first season that develop the second phase of Cordelia’s conversion. She seeks a practical solution to a concrete threat, rather than an experimental or intellectual frame for conversion.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Converting from the Conventional: Buffyverse (post 2)

(post 2 of tbd)

What does one convert to and from in the ‘Buffyverse’ (BV)? Conversion happens when someone is connected to a community, when they participate in communal rituals for consonant goals, when “the interpretation of life is transformed into a religious frame of reference”, and someone’s role is guided by this interpretation of life, ritual structure and communal commitment. One thread of conversion has been the transformation from evil to good – usually due to some sort of intervention. A character such as Spike entered the epic as a several hundred-year-old vampire, passionately hell-bent, to later become a compatriot in the battle against evil. 

The most dominant thread of conversion in the series’ is from the conventional worldview to the mystical worldview. The mystical worldview resides in the same world as the conventional worldview. The mystical worldview is the acknowledgment of the multidimensional, demonically dominant cosmos in which humanity and others are the incarnation of redeeming grace. Crossing over into the mystical worldview employs soteriological significance when we appreciate that the pursuit of higher purpose is portrayed as a right relationship with the cosmos and the divine. People of the conventional worldview experience the effects of the mystical, however they tend to rationalize and suppress it. It would be fair to state that from the perspective of the mystical worldview people with a conventional worldview are the norm. Conventional people in the BV are not damned for their isolation, even if they are blissfully ignorant of the real danger and salvation that persists in their periphery. 

With the exception of the demon characters, most regular characters in the series’ convert from the conventional to the mystical worldview at some point in their life (or death). It would be difficult to be paranormally evil or fight such evil if you don’t acknowledge its reality. This progression happens for Giles when he is told as a child that he is destined to be a Watcher, and for Buffy as a teen who is informed by a mysterious Watchers Council member that she is the Slayer. A person who is fed on by and then sired by a vampire is forcibly converted. Association converts a few people – for example Buffy’s immediate friends and family cannot stay out of the loop. On one occasion Buffy crashes her own surprise party by smashing through a window and then dusting a vampire. Oz, the newcomer to the immediate circle (on a date with Willow), stands in awe. Xander says to him “I know this is hard to understand but, vampires are real, a lot of them live in Sunnydale.” To which Oz responds – ‘Actually, it explains a lot!” 

The conversion from a conventional worldview is analogous to religious conversion in several ways – communal mediation, sanctified focus, and ritualism. Communities, groups and institutions always mediate conversion. In the Buffyverse an encounter with supernatural evil does not automatically convert; in general even multiple encounters do not convert. It is the involvement with the Scooby Gang of BTVS or the staff of Angel Investigation that mediates the conversion to the mystical worldview and the responsibility of the converts to affect this worldview. 

A second similarity is the shared religiousness or sanctity focus. Religion has to do with life experiences and the way in which these experiences are conceived by self and community and the according response. Religious is a suitable description of the BV because it is particularly concerned with the dynamic established between the human being and the phenomenonenal and experiences that surpass the bound of currently dominant rational, mechanical and empirical assessments. This includes emotion, imagination, tradition and particularly in the BV, morality and justice. 

Overall the BV assumes the paranormal reality of the created cosmos as the concern of the mystical worldview. In the logic of the BV it is this mystical dimension that actually comprises the power of defeat and redemption in the conventional world. This is the paradoxical nature of the relationship between these worldviews. It is the phenomenal characteristics and power of the mystical worldview that makes the shift from one to the other a religious conversion. 

This has extraordinary implications for the contemporary ecumenical church; in that it’s organizing principle is by enlarge the same as the mystical worldview. Religions today dwell in the mystical in the context of a global arrangement that is constructed in the rational and commercial worldview. People may experience the phenomenal and demonic in the BV and continue with their conventional lives – so to in our experience. The difference often includes the transformative power of liturgy. A conversion process in the BV takes root if the initiate begins to participate in the Scooby or AI rituals. This ritual is a regular patterning of gathering due to crisis, investigation and reading of ancient texts, dialogue to prepare a response, the gathering of ‘ordained’ instruments and going out to act in light of the research and reflection. If a person remains in relationship with the missions against evil, the process of initiation is extended as well as complicated. It usually involves several phases and cycles of multiple conversions within the mystical worldview. Conversion from an average nominally/non-religious life to a religious life is profoundly demonstrated by conversion to the mystical worldview in the Buffyverse.

It is important to recognize a related facet of the tandem dichotomy for the church with the mystical and the conventional worldviews in regards to the socio-economic associations with these worldviews. The conventional worldview of the BV is primarily consumer driven and individualistic, much like the pervasive ideology of the contemporary 'West'. The mystical worldview is predominantly communitarian and focused on the pursuit of collective redemption and the ultimate good – arguably the consistent emphasis of the Christian and other religious testimony. 

It is often the case in the BV that a character converts from individualism and consumerist pursuits, and the enemy is often a capitalist-style demon or perversion. It takes no great leaps to pick up the radical flavor as one writer observed, “In BTVS and Angel there is a persistent association of capitalist values – among them the accumulation of wealth, the rationalization of production, the commodification of labor – with literal inhumanity.” (I will add the attribution when I find it). He goes on to point out that in the BV unselfishness, compassion, forgiveness, community, love, and self-sacrifice are critical to human freedom and well being. 

It has been suggested that this emphasis represents the feminist spirituality of the Buffyverse, given the immanence of the sacred, personal responsibility in a subjective and relational framework. This liberation ethic does not mean that individualist hierarchies and capitalist ventures are always in the way of redemption. The BV is resolutely postmodern in its approach to good and evil. Neither fit in a typology, the boundaries are not only fuzzy but good can be used for evil and vise versa. There are evil people and good demons, good magic’s gone wrong and so on. Someone of the conventional worldview is not evil per say because of their consumerism, but they are ignorant of the both the evil taint of the capitalist structures and the regular sacrifice committed on their behalf to maintain their lives and conventional worldview. There is a vast difference between being saved by the actions of the Scooby Gang or AI and acknowledging what really happened. However for those who are lifted from this ignorance, an amazing percentage of BV denizens join the fight. Which brings us to the conversion of Cordelia Chase.

(post 3)

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Converting from the Conventional: Buffyverse, Conversion, and Progressive Chrisitian mission

(post 1 of tbd)

The title Buffy the Vampire Slayer suggests humor, horror, action and drama all in one phrase. The opening narration suggests this is a story about one girl battling evil – but that is a bait and switch. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its spin-off series Angel, is about the communal pursuit of redemption and safety in the face of intense forces of evil and fragmentation. Buffy is the one Slayer, a bit of a Barbie who saves the world a lot. What is the plural of apocalypse anyways? Contrary to tradition she has attracted a team with whom she turns back the tide of horrific and humorous dark magic’s, demons, vampires and human perversions. It is a love story; an epic of affection for a world that feels like it has gone mad; a questing for holy intervention; a sketching of the necessity of a community; and a striving against violent waves of darkness.

Outside of my professional responsibilities as a Christian pastor I know I have converted people to four other things. 1 – baseball 2 – Todd Snider, no really, check him out, he’s good (a poster for an album decks the outside of the Magic Box at one point), 3- Buffy  4- Craft Beer.  Buffy/Angel are a pair of 20/21st century television shows that were a postmodern-ish playground for the interaction of the daily crisis and otherworldly spiritual forces. This is in stark contrast, if not battle with, the modernist empiricism, materialism and capitalism of the late 20th century. The crises of the people (and other beings) are demonically demonstrated reflections of our own. 

I cannot imagine anyone finding this hashtag who doesn't know the Josh Whedon created shows  - but they both are commonly referred to as the Buffyverse.  Here the heroes of the Buffyverse are creatures constantly in the processes of conversion to their mission and vocation. Conversion is not only a persistent experience within the Buffyverse, but it is also the way many people describe their entry into following the show(s). So it feels  natural to reflect on religious conversion from a progressive religious perspective using the hours of narrative of the most theologically dense shows ever. 

In this blog series I will be adapting an old paper to discuss conversion in the Buffyverse generally – from what to what, the kinds and stages of conversion. At the same time I identify the stages and types of the threefold conversion process of Cordelia Chase, a primary character first on Buffy and then on Angel. Spike might take the prize for the steepest conversions, but I chose Cordelia not only for the extremity of her conversions but because of her initial allegiance with the conventional world that religious institutions can feel in battle with every day.  If high school was hell, conventionality might be worse.  What did CS Lewis say, a world full of nice people being nice is that much harder to save?

There is one further reason for choosing to examine the conversion of Cordelia in the Buffyverse. Given our individualist culture, evil tends to be assigned to individual interactions. The context of these shows provides an alternative narrative: evil is dangerously large and not a one on one phenomenon. This is an attractive and resonant vision for the youngest adults in our society who have felt acutely victimized by their forbearer’s constant scapegoating. To confront persistent systemic evil, the collective courage and appreciation of difference in a multicultural society is demanded. The youngest generations respond to Buffy and friends because they provide a post-modern story to find each other in. It is a vision of how we can meet the ever-present critical challenges that are worth our blood, sweat and tears. 
Furthermore, the concurrent attraction for philosophical, sociological and religious academics suggests that the Buffyverse may be a meeting place between the overeducated and the everyday citizen. Academia of the humanities has consistently struggled to communicate with conventional people effectively regarding the complex but essential issues we study and everyone lives with. These shows portray these topics on a regular basis, sidestepping the sometimes emotionally loaded traditional sources. This makes Buffy an excellent medium to examine the sometimes verboten topic in progressive Christian zones - that is religious conversion. 

“How do you know the other world is any better than this? Because it has to be.”
-Rupert Giles


Monday, May 14, 2018

Everything: Psalm 1 and Thresholds and Caregiving in Community

The only high school graduation gift I really remember, and still have is this book you may remember called ‘All I Needed To Know I Learned In Kindergarten’. I'm not entirely sure the title holds true for me, or anyone else anymore. Life is so complex and daunting, but then I hear of friends giving kindergartners lessons on how to blow your nose and think, oh yeah, that is really important. So maybe.

Our Psalm today is Psalm 1 . Somebody, somewhere, some time, was led to put this psalm first. It is a prelude of sorts, intentionally written, or reshaped to serve as a prologue that informs us about the book that is to come. Psalm 1 is a preview that proclaims that the whole Psalter is to be instruction for life together. How do we pray as we journey into the borderlands and promised lands in troubled times? The answers this book travels through are a road trip dialogue between God and humanity that is as scenic and complicated as life itself.

Taken as a whole, the sacred song of the Psalms is this: we are called to be a community whose foundation is the God of compassion. The Psalms keep their eye on the destination, which is the ultimate reign of God. A reign which is not of raw brutality but steadfast love. It is motherly compassion and an ideal commitment of the beloved friend, neighbor, or caregiver.

Psalm 1 and 2 belong together and they open this library by summarizing this collection of poetic songs and prayers as everything you need to know. To emphasize this point the first word of Psalm 1 basically begins with the Hebrew version of the letter a and the last word begins with the Hebrew version of the letter z. Kindergarten stuff. However, there are two words we need to consider a little deeper comprehend today’s Psalm.

First is happy. There is a part of happy that is utter joy, warm cookies delight. But there is also a side of how we use the word happy that is saccharine shallow vapidness. The part that is a smiling dayglow glitter emoticon. There is a part of happy that is an unattainable goal that shames our doldrums and griefs and steals the satisfaction and the holy from the daily reality of life.

What is translated in the prayer book as happy is elsewhere sometimes translated as blessed. It is that wish or prayer for well being we utter when we say bless you. It is the naming of the glowing centeredness and glad purpose with which we desire you leave this Eucharistic liturgy with. However, there is also a way in which blessed gets used as implying privileged or prosperous. A way in which the idea is that if you follow the rules God is pleased and you get not only your allowance but also a bonus. Which isn’t the way the God of Jubilee works. Isn’t evident in the God who is on the side of the least the last and the lost. And it is really difficult to find in the life of Jesus who we understand to be the very essence and image of God.

So to begin this Psalm in deep understanding if you want to imagine, grabbing a pencil, and crossing through the word happy, and write Centered Gladness instead. But hold on to that pencil. Because the second word to reconsider, is law. Imagine crossing it out too and now write instead torah. The Hebrew text says torah, and a sort of straightforward translation of the word would be instruction. Torah is not just recited text, it is more accurate to think of Torah as a way of life. The difference between law and Torah is rather like the difference between knowing about Jesus and following Jesus. Torah is the instruction of God as learned through people dwelling with text and teaching and tradition and each other. It is holy and communal knowledge of what makes the difference between a healthy society and one that is lost and broken and fragmented. The torah wisdom way that leads to divine gladness and not wickedness, is dwelling day in and day out with a rooted community.

Today we are celebrating our graduates, Sending your loved ones out into the world is what we have been striving for it brings us gladness and delight and it is oh so difficult too. I think this time of the year is a good time to remember that caregiving Does seem to require a Divine sort of countenance. The ones we love may not make the choice you would make the first time or the second time or the evertime, but still we love you support you hold you in prayer and welcome you home again. Like the psalms, there are moments of thanksgiving and praise and lament moments of orientation when you think you have it all figured out, and then the disorientation when you have no idea what is going on. Maybe all we needed to know we could learn by studying and praying the Psalms.

So friends we are sending some of you out across the Cascade curtain and one Whitman graduate across the pond. And there are two things that I want all of us to remember from our Psalm today. The first is that you are never alone or unloved. You are made for community and welcome in this community (in the broadest understanding of this). I urge/invite you to make a deliberate effort to find a sacred community to be a part of a place where you can give and receive a foundation of steadfast love across generations and peer groups. Now I really want that to be a church and I absolutely want that to be an Episcopal or Anglican one, because I'm a bit partisan. I urge it because part of my story in my college years is that getting involved in the church community being lured there by free dinner on Sunday night gave me a beloved community when I felt lost and all alone. Thanks be to God. Furthermore, studies show that the correlating factor for success in high-pressure collegiate studies is participating in an active spiritual community.

The second bit of advice I want you to take from Psalm 1 is that there is wickedness and villainy out there, but you already know that. I want to remind all of us that sometimes we can miss how evil creeps in by casual forms like ‘everybody's doing it’ and ‘nothing I can do really matters’. More than that I urge you to use your voice STAND UP SPEAK UP ACT UP. Name cruelty and injustice when you see it. Pursue gladness for all with your whole self. Because the divine wisdom of the ages is that true happiness, real blessedness doesn't come from a momentary selfish high but from loving yourself and your neighbors as much as God loves you.

I cannot stand here in this place today and not make a brief mention of the Acts lesson as well. Of how in the mystery of the lectionary, which is a set three-year rotation of readings, chosen a while ago by a committee far from here, and they not only gave us this Psalm for today but also the Acts lesson which is about choosing a new collaborative leader. And so are we. Our prayer for St. Paul’s, which we have taken to heart is rather like the Psalms. It is built out of the personal and communal, it is thanksgiving and wisdom and lament, and its hope is on the goal and the purpose of this community - the reign of God made real in real time. As we all journey across this threshold, will you take it home with you and pray it? How could you adapt it to be for yourself, or for all who graduate or make discernment decisions at this time?

Spiritual author Kathleen Norris once said she didn’t read the paper because every reality that would be in the paper is already present in the Psalter which she prays every single day. Maybe it is rather like kindergarten lessons for a centered and glad life today. All we need to pray and live to journey in the Jesus movement. Love God, care for people, name evil for what it is and FIGHT IT, give thanks for blessings, and don’t bury your feelings. 

So graduates and congregants, parents, friends and loved ones, go forth, pray, cry, laugh, give thanks, act up, and learn fervently JUST AS THE PSALMIST SAYS. Take to heart the word of God this day, be blessed and guided and rooted. Be centered in the holy community of Jesus Christ wherever life leads you. And always, always, love as you are loved, all the time and everywhere.


St. Paul's, Walla Walla
May 13, 2018