Stories that Wear the Clothes of My People

Stories that Wear the Clothes of My People

This is an ongoing series of meditations on faith, in response to readings from the articles that preface The Oxford Study Bible.

I will trust the reader to dig up the context if the meaning is unclear.

When the "Jewish heirs of old Israel" went into exile, they came "to perceive that there were other ways to understand the death of their nation." They learned to "sing new songs to their God," whose authority "transcended all national boundaries." They figured out a way "to be both Jewish and citizens of diverse nations" (page 42).

It was a transformation that demonstrated some serious resilience.

When Israel was dismantled and the people, exiled; when they were forcibly removed from the land of their stories, they couldn't rely on the physical roots of their faith to define them anymore. In order to survive, their faith had to become portable. In order to travel, God had to become larger than any nation: so large, in fact, that no nation could claim him solely — not even their own. 

In order to maintain some grasp on their God, they had to share him. They had to open doors to others, even as they fought to close doors on how they would or wouldn't participate with those others.

It was "a situation in which the struggle for new identities, new forms of religious community, and new ways of being the people of Yahweh, could be explored."

These were the communities of the biblical tradition, those "that produced and treasured it" (page 41). I did not produce the biblical tradition, but I come from a community that treasures it. And now, millennia later, thanks to the way that ancient Israel reinvented itself during the diaspora, people like I who had nothing to do with the production of Israel's traditions nevertheless feel that they belong to those traditions, because they treasure them.

I wonder if a global religion is too big.

Religious homogenization may be no better than the cultural kind, where every highway off-ramp and mini-mall in America looks about the same. It's not to say there isn't one God, but that it may not be good for everyone in the world to approach that God in the same way. A healthy person in one place will have much in common with a healthy person anywhere else, but the ways to achieve health are diverse. There are many culinary traditions, many kinds of work, many ways to exert, connect, nourish, celebrate. There are many ways to worship.

This ancient Israelite anomaly — where they reinvented their faith in order to bring it with them, and ended up transplanting it to so many other countries — both moves and unnerves me. They found a way to hold onto their root even after they'd been torn up, and that makes my heart beat with hope for home. But in so doing, they erected impassable walls between themselves and their new homes and neighbors. It was their sacred calling to remain apart.

They did hold on. But they couldn't keep from evolving into something new, as well. Bringing the old ways with them kept their tradition from dying, but it didn't keep it from being influenced. More importantly, it also divorced those ways from the land in which they had originated.

Without context, what are we? Facts are meaningless until they're framed in a story. A rule of grammar, a foreign word mean nothing until you have a web of interrelated rules and words to give them context. What is Zion to me? An image, a disembodied metaphor, the expectation of some spiritual realm — but to those who lived there, it was tangible. They knew what it smelled like.

I'm starting to think that religions should be local.

It's fine to know about other peoples and places; it's good to learn their languages and see their homes. But I think your heart needs to be rooted in your own land. Religion is place-specific. Just as the universal truths that any religion can express are tied to culture, they're also tied to place.

It's taken me a long time to see the role that culture plays in faith and to understand that that's okay, that people need to adapt things into their own context, even when they're converting to something new. Now the importance of location strikes me, too. We're so used to underestimating the specificity of place. Our fruit, toys, cars, clothes come from around the world. Only lately have we intentionally started to embrace the richness of living, eating and buying locally.

I realize that in a way, what I'm trying to do now is like what the early Jews were attempting. I want to understand how on earth it makes sense for me to treasure the traditions of a people not my own; they wanted to understand how in God's name their nation could die. I too seek new songs to sing to my God, songs that hold relevance to me, an American living around the turn of the twenty-first century, just as they sought new songs to build new relationships in a new land with the God they knew. I too am struggling for a more congruent identity, a new form of religious community and a new way of being among God's people. I too want to reconcile my religious and ethnic lineage with my current place and time and people. We do this through the stories we tell ourselves and each other.

On one hand, we live in a global world, and there's no point in resisting that. We read Sappho, Rumi and Lao Tzu, and we're better for it. We grow Japanese maples here in Oregon. We eat wheat, which comes from the Near East, and we raise chickens that were domesticated in China.

On the other hand, what I want most is to build a faith rooted in the soil beneath my feet: one that speaks from the world directly surrounding me, that I can taste in this air and smell in these woods. A faith that doesn't spring from some immaterial Platonic truth, but from the belly of this land: informed by it, with respect to it, drawing life from it.

I want stories that wear the clothes of my people. Not stories that make me stretch my imagination halfway around the globe to a culture that I will never fully understand because it isn't mine, or to call home a place I have never been, from which I did not come.

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