John Bennison Words and Ways | 2013 | November

Thanks for Nothing: A Commentary for Thanksgiving in an Age of Anxietry

[A pdf copy to print and/or read is here.]

Consider amber waves of grain as you would the lilies of the field.

Consider amber waves of grain as you would the lilies of the field.



In the last few weeks a growing number of American retailers have essentially pre-announced that the annual Thanksgiving observance — when we presumably pause to gratefully remember everything we have — has been cancelled so bargain shoppers can get an even earlier jump-start on their holiday shopping for all the things we don’t have yet.  What has been dubbed “Christmas creep” has all but rendered the traditional Black Friday and Cyber Monday as quaint and passé as caroling or Courier & Ives greeting cards.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world a typhoon of record proportion hit landfall only a few weeks ago; nearly wiping an island nation off the face of the earth, and leaving those who survived with virtually nothing. Then last week an unseasonable swarm of twisters flattened whole towns across the Midwest. By comparison, it all makes the plight of those first pilgrims facing the harsh realities of their first Thanksgiving in a brave new world look like a walk in the park.

And, all the while, the airwaves and media have been filled with docu-dramas and documentaries commemorating the half-century mark of those events that shattered an age of relative innocence for those of us old enough to remember it; ushering in an age of extraordinary upheaval and anxiety, starting with what social critics and historians alike attribute to the assassination of JFK.

Juxtaposed and taken together, these events represent a seeming un-reality that hasn’t really abated much in the last fifty years. There is an unrelenting and accelerating sense of angst, with what seems like an ever increasing number of droughts and storms, terrorist and counter-terrorist attacks, crazed lone young white gunmen wreaking senseless havoc, an almost addictive acceptance of war and international civil strife as common place, and the growing economic disparity between those who regard Thanksgiving as a time to count up all the things we’ve either got, or still want, and all those others wondering how to give thanks for nothing.

But when that which would pose for might be truly real, meaningful and authentic simply cries “More! More” as the solution to our anxiousness and longing for something-ness, there is this other message offering a different kind of exhilaration – instead of acceleration – to be found in a kind of nothingness.

Jesus masterfully taught in the philosophical tradition known as Jewish cynicism, with such parabolic tales and imagery as the “lilies of the field.” And he did so at a time and age that – while seemingly ancient to our modern way of thinking – may not have been all that different from our own anxious age. Consider then our fretful, misbegotten ways, and the wild lilies of the fields.


The Age of Anxiety


We live in an age of anxiety.  While any generation might claim as much, and even call it normative, the age in which I’ve lived most of my life has been one of constant and increasing worry.

Today’s world makes the Cold War of the fifties and my own childhood look like child’s play. When the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis threatened the world with a nuclear confrontation, and while my parents argued over the affordability of building a bomb shelter in the backyard of our Midwest home, there was still a lingering vestige of innocent naiveté. In grade school we practiced duck-and-cover drills, as if such a futile gesture would protect us from nuclear annihilation.

It was a November day in Dallas, in 1963, that seemed to shatter any illusions that a worry-free world was an attainable reality; when a rifle purchased for $12.95 fired a bullet that blew the head off the President.  Each of us, who were alive at the time and old enough to remember it, can tell you where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news.  As a high school sophomore, I was in afternoon study hall at my boy’s boarding school. We’d already heard the initial and unconfirmed reports, when a student burst into the hall and simply shouted, “He’s dead!”

The quiet hall took on a whole different kind of stunned silence.  We all just stared down at the papers in front of us, our pencils motionless in our hands. The master sitting at his desk didn’t say a word. He didn’t need to. There was nothing to say.  In an instant, the sixties generation would no longer look at the world quite the same way.  The ensuing decade would only confirm what we were quickly learning.  We live in a harsh and violent world. Human institutions and national interests can’t always insure either our national or personal security. And the old order once maintained by prejudice, inequality and ideological dominance were no longer sustainable.

It seemed the most we could hope for was a gospel of economic prosperity and ever-increasing abundance to be sought and acquired, sometimes at all cost.  The commoditization of a social order constructed on the precarious balance of ever-increasing GDP would lead to cycles of inflation and recession; the one exception being the growing gap between rich and poor that has today reached a chasm so wide it is almost inconceivable it could ever truly be breached.

Nowhere is all this more apparent than the present make-or-break holiday shopping forecasts as Thanksgiving Day approaches. Utterly lost is that grade school tale we all learned of some brown skinned savages sharing what modest provisions they had with some starving neighbors who had even less. That slim disparity between having next to nothing, and nothing at all, seems a far cry from the tale we would tell to describe the kind of consumption retailers are hoping for this holiday.

But is this really what it’s all about? Instead of an observance meant to encourage us to pause and reflect on that for which we might want to be thankful, it has become a mad scramble, pausing only to give thanks for the acquisition and accumulation of more and more stuff. (click ‘read more’)

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“Christian” A-theism Series, Part III: Jesus, My Imaginary Friend

[A pdf copy to download, read and/or print is here.]


Contemplate the Face of Jesus,  a project by the children and youth of the  Adelaide Catholic Cathedral Parish, 2012. Artist: Jamie, age 8

“Contemplate the Face of Jesus,” a project by the children and youth of the Adelaide Catholic Cathedral Parish, 2012. Artist: Jamie, age 8

This Series explores new possibilities to be found in pushing beyond the constraints of theism and a-theism; and the blunt and limited question of believing or not believing in a “theistic” notion of “God.” We typically fashion our notion of anything we deem sacred “Oneness” in anthropomorphic terms, so we can more easily relate to the idea. The Christian then proceeds to incarnate that God notion with a Christology in which Jesus is typically construed as a co-eternal mediator and – peculiarly – a substitutionary sacrifice. *[In this regard, see the Postscript to this commentary.]

But for those progressives for whom such a construct is no longer viable or credible, what might still be found amidst the theological rubble in a post-modern – even post-deconstructionist – age? Indeed, what may have been there from the start of the entire imaginative process; known in the earliest days of a pre-Christian movement, known simply as the Way (of Jesus)? As near as we might be able to discern it with our own creative and interpretive imaginations, what resemblance might such a path bear to the “voice-print” of an extraordinarily imaginative character we might want to befriend?


I. The Rose Red Factor

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And he tells me I am His own
And the joys we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

Nineteenth century American hymn, C. Austin Miles

Probably every adult once had an imaginary friend when they are growing up. The reasons for it are easily understood, as well. With a child’s creative imagination, that friend of one’s own fabrication could be exactly who or what you wanted or needed them to be. You could talk to them endlessly; sharing your deepest fears and secrets, while unloading any burden or care. They would never interrupt you with their own needs and agendas. And you could always count on them to be there for you whenever you chose to conjure them up in your own imagination. Sometimes a child will imbue a toy doll, a teddy bear, or even a pet with such intimate powers.

I probably shared more about my young life when I was growing up with my beagle than any other two-legged or four-legged creature. I’d scratch his ears and he’d listen for hours, accepting anything I had to share without comment, opinion or judgment.

My daughter Emily’s young imagination was second to none. As a child she was thoroughly convinced she herself was an alien from the planet Jupiter.  She lived a mile from the big red dot. Her real name was Hemou, and she had an older brother named Hacht. At least that would be the English pronunciation, she would explain, since the language spoken in her native tongue was far too difficult for us earthlings to comprehend. At some point in her own mind she applied for, and was granted, permanent resident alien status here on planet earth. We were happy to have her.

A colleague of mine recently shared this story:

One of my daughters had a teddy bear called Rose Red. When she was very young, you could hear her talking to Rose Red when she was having a problem, or was hurt, or sick. She took a lot of teasing in her pre-teen years when she would haul Rose Red to slumber parties. She even took the little bear, always dressed properly, to her dorm room in college. And now her nine-year old daughter has a Rose Red Junior. But in spite of this wonderful memory, this little teddy bear never took on the role of a magical savior.  Today she would explain it was a way for her to express her hurts, her pains and doubts out loud so she could sort them out. Yes, Rose Red was a comfort in her very young years. Although it is still a fond memory, it is something she outgrew. I think that is what a lot of people do with Jesus. Sometimes they just don’t outgrow the dependency.


II. An Imaginary Jesus


What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and grief to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer.

Nineteenth century American hymn, Joseph Scriven

Joseph Atwill is a self-proclaimed biblical scholar who maintains the notion that the New Testament was written by some first-century Roman aristocrats who simply fabricated the person known as Jesus, and accorded him the messianic title, the Christ.

He theorizes that the emergence of Christianity was actually the result of a propaganda project created by the Roman empire as a means of psychological warfare. Why? In order to, once and for all, quell the Jewish insurrectionist movement by replacing a warrior-Messiah with a pacifist one instead; who would encourage his followers to “turn the other cheek.” In a word, Jesus existed only in the imaginative minds of those who cleverly created him, and the duped masses that subsequently then followed the fictional character.

On the other hand, after a lifetime profession studying biblical texts, Harry T. Cook proposes the hypothesis that Jesus not only existed as a figure of history and a real life person, but that there was possibly even more than one of them! That is, the figure presented in both the canonical and non-canonical scriptures may be a composite character; a combination of several different Galilean peasant sages who appeared during the first third of the first century CE.

As only part of his evidence for such a hypothesis, he points to the widely varying ways in which the otherwise singular figure is depicted and portrayed in the various gospels and earliest Pauline epistles.  [See the Words & Ways guest commentary, Is Jesus a Composite Figure? The Evidence and the Implications] To continue reading click the ‘Read More’ button …

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