John Bennison Words and Ways | 2012 | November

Bedrock Christianity and Bedrock Americana

[You can read and/or print a pdf version of this commentary here.]

Bedrock Christianity and Americana

A Precarious Reflection for the Thanksgiving Holiday, 2012

By John Bennison

Above: “Seaside with the Sermon of Christ” – Bruegel, late 17th century. Note what looks like “Pilgrim” dress!



 The presidential election is history, and you’d like to think we ought to be able to move on and enjoy the holidays; followed by that creeping encroachment of the  traditional mass consumer spending spree, to the delight of retailers. But the debate over one of the most contentious issues remains unresolved; namely, the federal deficit / budget crisis, the battle over new revenues (taxes) and a looming “fiscal cliff.”

The day after the election, the Speaker of the House of Representatives delivered a speech, meant to re-establish his political party’s position on such matters.  In his remarks, he alluded to scripture, perhaps with whatever seal of approval that might provide:

“In the New Testament, a parable is told of two men,” he reflected.  “One built his house on sand; the other built his house on rock. The foundation of our country’s economy – the rock of our economy – has always been small businesses in the private sector.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the “rock” to which that little scriptural illustration was referring was Jesus’ ethical teachings; based on an unconventional and (as it turned out) unpopular form of radical egalitarianism.

The use of an analogy for the two types of foundations for anyone who would undertake to construct their life was well known and used in the ancient Near East. But the New Testament employs it specifically to conclude that section commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew 7) or Sermon on the Plain (in Luke 6). And, that particular “rock” had little to do with keeping one’s fiscal house in order, taxes to Caesar, the entrepreneurial spirit, or the free enterprise system.

That bedrock of Jesus’ teaching did however have implications as to how we might order our lives in society; in closer alignment with what those scriptures depict as something more akin to what the divine had in mind. As well as how we ought to treat one another, without vacuous pretence or self-embellishment.

The last Words and Ways commentary explored how we might reconcile our very human motivations of gratitude, generosity, sufficiency, abundance and excessive concern for self.  As a Thanksgiving holiday reflection that customarily takes stock of our bounty and abundance, this commentary explores what is clearly the precariousness of our lives, in light of the bedrock of what we call our Christian faith.


The Precariousness of All Things, and the Impermanence of God

“Rock of Ages cleft for me
Let me hide myself in thee.”

Hymnist Augustus Montague Toplady, 1763

 Legend has it that Rev. Augustus Montague Toplady, an itinerant English preacher, was inspired to write the old Christian hymn of personal salvation, when he was caught in a nasty storm and sought refuge in a rocky crag in the Mendip Hills of England. It wasn’t the first, nor last, time mortals sought a form of divine protection and favor for refuge and repose that was touted to be as sure and firm a foundation as rock.

That’s what religion is often purported to promise; something – indeed, sometimes anything — of permanence to which one can cling; when the ground beneath our feet begins to shift, and the old reliable pillars we’ve constructed can no longer support the weight of the pressures brought to bear upon them.

This could certainly include those outmoded human institutions and belief structures (religious, social, political, economic, etc) that bear little resemblance to present-day realities.  In a “religious” context, when all else fails, the prophets and soothsayers call us to turn (or return) from what is retrospectively regarded as our wayward ways in exchange for another covenant, or “grand bargain.”

When we do so, we want to believe if there remains at least one constant, amidst the uncertainties of life.  God – or, at least our notions of who, or what, God is — should be that one certain anchor and rock. After all, isn’t that how we typically try to define the divine, as all-knowing, all-powerful, all-everything we want “Him” to be?

The seeming contradiction we find in our own biblical tradition, however, is a kind of divine dynamic contradiction, when it comes to making our images and imaginings of God as one who is inanimate, unchanging and permanent. And it becomes clearly problematic when we seek to construct some sort of bedrock of faith.

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The Affliction of Affluence

The Affliction of Affluence:

Reconciling Gratitude, Generosity & Greed

[Reader’s comments welcome at the end of the commentary. You can read and /or print a pdf copy here.]






“Lazarus & the Rich Man” – Medieval fresco, Rila Monastery, Bulgaria


“Dear God, you made many, many poor people.
I realize, of course, that it’s no shame to be poor.
But it’s no great honor either!
So, what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?”

 From Tevye’s monologue, Fiddler on the Roof, Harnick & Bock, 1964


We all know the story of Tevye the poor peasant, who dreams of another life; with his own particular list of those things that constitute what would make him a wealthy man.  For him, it includes ducks, chickens, turkeys and geese, a wife with a proper double chin, a big house all the neighbors would envy, and all the time in the world to discuss holy books with learned men.

But if you find the story terribly quaint, but hardly apropos to the kind of world we live in today, consider this: although the lyrics to Tevye’s song are based on a short-story by a Russian Jew named Sholem Aleichem written in 1899, its original title has a much more contemporary ring to it. It was called, “The Bubble Bursts.”

The common dream most people have of one day having more than they already have seems to have remained as fleeting and elusive as ever. Meanwhile, the gross disparity and widening gap in this country between the haves and the have-nots has reached a point where an oligarchy of corporate interests posing as individuals shape public opinion and outspend each other as never before in partisan attempts to buy an election.

Along with the old adage about the rich getting richer –and the equally true and opposite reality (the poor get poorer) — there is also the story of reversal. Fortunes are made and lost. And the moral tale is told again and again; where the truly fickle, stingy and self-absorbed types are easily afflicted with their reliance upon that which is fleeting, and not of ultimate value (that is, enduring or eternal).

What might the lottery winner and “The Donald” have in common? And, is it an affliction that may be more common than we might be led to believe?


Rich Man, Poor Man


“Lord who made the lion and the lamb,
You decreed I should be what I am
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan
If I were a wealthy man?”

 Tevye’s further monologue


Wealth-X is the name of a company that describes itself as a “global ultra high net worth prospecting, intelligence and wealth due-diligence firm.”  And if you understand what all that means you’re far more savvy in this regard than I.  However, it recently released a report listing the richest person in each of these fifty United States; and that’s something even I can try to comprehend.

The report found that California and New York are the states with the highest number of mega-millionaires, but see if you can ace this quiz by naming these fellow citizens I suspect you actually don’t know on a first name basis (answers at the end of the Commentary):

• In first place, from Washington State, who is worth $64.5 billion? Hint: they’ve given most of their billions away to the foundation they established in their own names.

 • In second place, from Nebraska, who is worth $49.6 billion? Hint: The Wizard has given most of his fortune away to #1’s foundation, and last month persuaded 11 more billionaires to give away at least half their wealth to the same philanthropic organization.

 • And in California, in third place, who is worth $41.1 billion? Hint: Not only did he buy an Hawaiian island last June, and is sponsoring not one, but several boats in the America Cup race, he’s signed on to #2’s “Giving Pledge” promising to give away the majority of his wealth as well.

The correct answers can be found at the end of this commentary.  Now, lest we think Wealth-X is simply all about money, it is apparently also a sponsor of something called the Global Poverty Project, with a goal of stamping out world hunger.

But if you do a Google search to see if there might be another site called something like Poverty-X, ranking the very poorest person in each state, you’ll come up empty; in part, perhaps, because there may just be too many nameless faces to count.

Perhaps that’s what makes the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke’s gospel so interesting.  Jesus, his contemporaries, and later his would-be followers didn’t have a name for the rich man (It was not until the Latin Vulgate translation did the name Dives appear). But they all knew some wretched soul, who could have been named Lazarus; the one whose name means, “God is my help.”

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