Have you ever, while reading about Jesus in the Gospels, been frustrated by the way he answers questions? How often doesn’t he ask another question, or tell a story, or give some vague, cryptic answer?
Sometimes these ambiguities can be explained through cultural/historical/linguistic study, or through prayer and insight, but sometimes they’re just frustrating. It seems they were frustrating to Jesus’ companions, too—have you noticed how often the disciples ask him to explain his parables?
I’m a huge fan of Godspell (it’s a musical, based on the Gospel of Matthew). I like the music, I like the premise, I like the fact that the one-time-potential-Episcopal-priest who wrote the first incarnation of the score for his masters thesis used the 1940 Episcopal hymnal as an aid. While I was in undergrad, my school’s theatre company put on a really phenomenal production of Godspell (my best friend and her now-husband were in it, so I might be a tiny bit biased), and I fell in love. The production was filmed, and Jesus put some clips on YouTube. Here’s “All for the Best.” You’ll thank me.
It’s a fun song. Plus I have a kind of weird obsession with Judas (but that’s a story for another time), so I like his role. What I really like best about this, though, is the little dialogue between Jesus and Judas:
- Jesus: “Now, how can you look at a speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, when all the time there’s a great plank in your own?
- Judas: “Well I don’t know; how can you look at a speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, when all the time there’s this great plank in your own?
- Jesus: “Or, how can you take a speck of sawdust from your brother’s eye, when all the time there’s a great plank in your own?
- Judas: “I don’t know; how can you take a speck of sawdust from your brother’s eye, when all the time there’s this great plank in your own?
- Jesus: “You hypocrite! First take the plank out of your own eye, so that you can see clearly to take the speck of sawdust out of your brother’s!
- Judas: “Wait a minute, that’s not an answer to the question!”
- Jesus “Well, did I promise you an answer to the question?”
Well, no. He didn’t.
The song just moves on. Ha, ha, Jesus. Let’s sing and dance more! That’s how things work in musicals. Sure Jesus is a little weird, but then the whole cast is dressed like a cross between hipsters and homeless clowns, and sing as much as they talk. Musicals aren’t real life (in case you hadn’t figured that out yet).
I wonder, though, what kind of religion we would have if Jesus had given us all the answers we thought we wanted. Can you imagine it? All the ambiguities cleared up. A master list of who’s going to heaven—and a precise definition of what “heaven” means to Jesus. A guide to interacting with technology. Jesus’ thoughts on homosexuality. The career test to end all career tests. Instructions for putting together the “right” kind of church. A specific rule of life: yeah, you’re saved by grace, but here’s a checklist of what being a Christian looks like.
Answers are appealing. I suspect that’s where much of the draw to ultra-fundamentalist (or even, well, moderately fundamentalist) sects comes from: they provide simple answers to difficult questions. And there’s comfort in that.
It’s not a comfort I want, though, not really. While there are days when I think I might drown in my questions, when it comes down to it I prefer those rough waters to the tiny box of All The Answers. Because the thing is, the ambiguities give us freedom. We don’t always like freedom—at least I don’t. Freedom is scary. Freedom leaves lots of room for mistakes, and freedom demands responsibility.
That’s the thing about these ambiguities. They require things from us. They require us to be creative, as we interpret and apply Scripture in a contemporary context; to be studious as we strive to understand the original context of Scripture and consistently seek the best interpretations; to be generous and open to new perspectives and interpretations; to be faithful as we trust the Spirit’s leading in our interpretive work; to be courageous as we take the risk of being wrong.
And while nothing about this is easy, I’d rather be creative, studious, generous, open, faithful, and courageous than safe and comfortable.
You know what makes the uncertainty easier? We’re all in it together. Nobody has the answers. Nobody. I’ve been in enough denominations and met enough people to know that. We have piles of questions and a few good guesses, which isn’t much—but we also have each other, and our bruised, doubting, dirty-fingernailed faith in the triune God who won’t let us go. And that’s enough.
Have you ever wished Christianity was more black-and-white? Have you wished the Bible could be more of an answer-book than a storybook? How do you make peace with ambiguities? What do you do to live the questions now? (yeah, that was a Rilke reference.)