Ten things about Baptists

In my novel The Secret Side of Jaya, she learns a lot about Baptists while living in the Ozarks.

For starters, within their shared identity, they come in all varieties of theological nuance and group practice – and the lines within them can be drawn sharply. And they don’t handle snakes as part of their worship.

Here are a few facts:

  1. Baptism is reserved for believing “born again” adults and is usually by water immersion only. Jesus is accepted as Lord and Savior.
  2. Church authority, with few exceptions, is placed in the local congregation, which can voluntarily affiliate with other like-minded fellowships. Beliefs can vary by congregation, historically along Calvinist versus Arminian lines. Far more than I want to get into here, other than say I’m in the Arminian camp.
  3. The major affiliations in the U.S. are the Southern Baptist Convention, American Baptist Association, National Baptist Convention, National Baptist Convention of America, American Baptist Churches USA, and Baptist Bible Fellowship International. Far from the only ones.
  4. There are also Independent Baptist churches that refuse to affiliate with others.
  5. Faith is a matter between God and the individual. Thus, absolute liberty of conscience is essential.
  6. The Bible is asserted as the only norm of faith and practice. So start flipping pages.
  7. Baptist membership is roughly 100 million worldwide – half of them in the USA, where they constitute a third of American Protestants, especially in the South.
  8. They make up more than 40 percent of the population in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee.
  9. Forty-five percent of African-Americans identify themselves as Baptists.
  10. The Lord’s Supper, or communion, is considered symbolic and not necessary for salvation. There is no set calendar for its observance.

~*~

Does this make their identity any clearer? We haven’t even touched on some of the key theological language.

 

Some facts about the Brethren

The Brethren resemble Mennonites in many ways, including their belief that baptism is for believing adults only, but they have their differences, beginning with the way they baptize. They traditionally do it by trine immersion, and historically that often happened in the dead of winter, once they broke the ice in the stream. Seriously.

Much of my ancestry on my dad’s side were Brethren, as I explain on my Orphan George blog.

Here’s a brief introduction to the faith.

  1. Alexander Mack (1679-1735) was the leader and first minister of a Pietist community that broke with the three state churches in Germany in 1708. Persecution sent them fleeing to the Netherlands and then, beginning in 1719, to Pennsylvania. Mack arrived with about 30 families ten years later, essentially completing the migration to the New World.
  2. They often resembled the Amish – and some still do – including the German-speaking identity. Like the Amish, Mennonites, and Quakers, they have upheld a peace testimony that rejects participation in war.
  3. They also led lives modeled on simplicity and a non-creedal belief, “No creed but the New Testament.”
  4. They were active on the American frontier and grew in numbers.
  5. There has often been an identity problem. They were often called Dunkards or Dunkers, for their mode of baptism, which some found offensive, or German Baptist Brethren – but please don’t confuse them with the Baptists or the United Brethren in Christ, which I was raised in, or the Brethren in Christ, an offshoot of the Mennonites. Or the Plymouth Brethren in Garrison Keillor’s past, who broke off from the Anglicans.
  6. Tensions between conservatives and progressives led in the 1880s to a separation that split off the Old German Baptist Brethren, on one side, and the Brethren Church, on the other, from the central body, now known as the Church of the Brethren.
  7. The Heifer Project began as a Brethren peace and social justice initiative in the 1950s.
  8. Denominational polity is through Annual Conference.
  9. The annual love feast includes foot washing.
  10. What others call sacraments the Brethren call ordinances. Among them are the laying on of hands and anointing for healing or for consecrating an individual for service.

Meet the Mennonites

The early Quaker movement was heavily influenced by Mennonites via the early General Baptists in England. It’s a complicated story, but today Quakers and Mennonites still share some deep bonds, especially in the witness for peace. And yes, they’re both important in Pennsylvania. In fact, the first Mennonite congregation in America was a joint venture with Quakers in Germantown, then outside Philadelphia.

Here’s some background.

  1. Mennonites are oldest body of the Anabaptist movement, which rejected infant baptism, insisting instead the sacrament was only for believing adults.
  2. The denomination is named after Menno Simons (1492-1561), a priest who left the Roman Catholic church in the Netherlands and was persecuted as a heretic.
  3. Its followers have been heavily persecuted, especially in the early years in Switzerland and Germany. Many were burned at the stake.
  4. It identifies with an underground church going back to Waldo and the Waldensians.
  5. They are strong proponents of peace, refusing to participate in military service or to fight in self-defense.
  6. The Amish split from the Mennonites in 1693. Today some conservative Mennonites resemble the Amish, while others are urban professionals – most fall somewhere between in lifestyles.
  7. They are known for their four-part a cappella hymn singing, although that’s changing with the youngest generation. Lay ministry and mutual discipleship are common.
  8. Communion is celebrated as an annual love feast. Any lingering conflicts among the members of the congregation must be reconciled first.
  9. It’s no longer primarily German-speaking or German descendants, a consequence of active mission work and growth worldwide.
  10. Anabaptism is seen as the third stream of Protestantism – the others stemming for John Calvin and Martin Luther. Unlike them, it never accepted state sponsorship or endorsement.

What if there were a sequel?

Let me repeat, What’s Left is my final novel, even though it’s appeared before several earlier ones — or their later revisions. That doesn’t mean I might not rework some more of my earlier books, but I have no intention (at this point, ahem) of undertaking such an ambitious project.

Still, if it’s ever successful, there can be a demand for a sequel. There are many possibilities that point to further development.

One plot twist I considered was this:

A handful of the Erinyes’ grandchildren rebel by returning to attend college across the street from Carmichael’s. Perhaps it’s inevitable that they apply for jobs in the restaurant.

Can they work? We’ll let them decide about becoming cousins.

This could have opened considerations about rebalancing the ownership, for one thing. Or more dimensions to our understanding of what it means to be a family. Or even their own reasons that parallel those of Cassia’s father in moving way back in the early ’70s.

~*~

It’s a big book, admittedly. But it could be a lot bigger.

Where would you take the story of What’s Left from what’s already there? What would you like to have answered?

~*~

I wonder where Cassia’s generation of her extended family or even their children go from here as they face today’s big challenges.

Like brother monks on the road to nirvana

Cassia’s conversations with Rinpoche lead her to crucial new understandings of her father.

In earlier drafts of my novel What’s Left, I considered these possibilities, but rejected them as, well, too wordy, esoteric, or preachy:

Your Baba was on the cusp of some original thinking about Christ as Light, Rinpoche tells me. He was connecting that with an ancient line of Greek philosophy about a term known as Logos. It was all very, very exciting. He was seeing Christ as much more than the historic person of Jesus, much as we see Buddha as something much more than a historic person — you know, Gautama — too.

Well, that happens to be a hobbyhorse I ride. Let’s give her father a break!

Rimpoche continues. Your Baba had scorn for those who claim a personal spirituality without any disciplined tradition. He wanted to encourage people to delve into a practice — not that they’re all equal, but they have their own unique wisdom to impart — and that led to his organizing some fascinating ecumenical dialogues, ones that included your Orthodox priest, plus a rabbi, a Sufi or yogi, an evangelical, and so on.

Maybe we’d better leave all that for a later discussion? Cassia has more pressing questions, many of them regarding his photographs and family.

Throughout his monastic studies and labors, he’s pressed to concentrate totally on what’s happening in the moment. Even while sleeping. Looking through a lens would, according to Manoula, place a filter between full experience of that timeless breath and himself. It would place a mask across his face when he most needs to be fully naked, as it were. Who knows what he wears in the monastery, for that matter. We can guess from the photos he took later, on his return visits — and his portraits of his teacher and fellow practitioners. For now, he needs to see not just with his eyes — and his Third Eye — but also with his nose, tongue, lips, ears, and especially his fingers and extended skin. And from there, to embrace the eternal realities rather than the ephemeral illusions flickering and dashing around him. Through this stretch, he heeds fellow monks who create beautiful colored-sand mandalas and then scatter them to the wind rather than preserve their work. This emphasis on the present while pursuing eternal truth may seem to be a paradox, but he submits to the instruction and its flowing current.

So that, too, was filtered out of the final revisions. As was this:

Baba and Rinpoche had grown close when they were both residents in the monastery. Rinpoche was then just another of the aspirants, albeit a Tibetan refuge with a lineage. Their teacher blessed their venturing into the Heartland to establish the institute here, and Rinpoche, with his mastery of Himalayan languages, took up an offer to teach academic courses at the university while leading a spiritual community from the house.

~*~

Like Rinpoche, Cassia’s father was in many ways a teacher. In their case, they were dealing with ancient Buddhist lore. Good teachers, as you know, are rare.

Tell us about your favorite teacher.

~*~

Orthodox Christian iconography can be out of this world. Just look at this church ceiling!

Some things to consider about Pentecostals

When Jaya meets Joshua and his family in my novel Nearly Canaan, she’s introduced to their Pentecostal faith. It’s not like most Christianity.

Here are some points to consider.

  1. It’s more emotional than most churches, for one thing. Shouting, dancing, praying out loud during the service are common, along with applause, praise songs, and a rock band.
  2. The term comes from the Day of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts and its events 50 days after the Resurrection of Christ.
  3. Pentecostalism’s principal defining trait is speaking in tongues as “Bible evidence” for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The vocal utterances are rarely in a foreign language the speaker doesn’t know, unlike the Day of Pentecost, but in a stylized babbling known as glossolalia. The proclamations are usually translated by another into the language of the congregants – typically English, though the movement is rapidly spreading worldwide.
  4. In Brazil, an estimated 12 percent of the populace is Pentecostal and rising.
  5. The movement started at the 1906 Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, led by African-American preacher William J. Seymour, or maybe as early as 1896 with the Apostolic Faith movement or maybe 1901 in Kansas when Agnes Ozman, a Holiness Methodist, was publicly recognized for speaking in tongues. It’s had more recent incarnations, such as the Charismatic strand among Roman Catholics and Episcopalians.
  6. Among Pentecostal churches, theological beliefs can vary widely. But the majority interpret the Bible literally.
  7. Women were ordained to leadership roles from the beginning of the movement.
  8. Some denominations place strict limits on personal conduct and attire, even forbidding sports and movies.
  9. Many Pentecostals are found as active members in non-Pentecostal congregations.
  10. Pentecostal denominations include Assemblies of God, Foursquare Gospel, United Pentecostal, Church of God in Christ, and Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, but there’s a raft of smaller ones, too. Congregations range from small storefronts to mega-churches.

 

Beware, the Romantic Cult of the Artist

Yes, we’ve admired madmen, especially those of a tragic sort via what I see as often incestuous works of art. You know, celebrations of other works of art or, especially, their creators.

In effect, there’s a question. Other works based on mythology, classical or Nordic, typically, face immortals who are still caught in some dimension of time – how else could they spawn children?

Turning the focus from flawed gods to the Immortal Artist, then, implicitly asks: Are madmen closer to God? Or filled with demons to be cast out, perhaps as artworks?

You know, the cliché history of poet suicides or pianist-composers who die at an early age or libertine actresses, that sort of tragedy, not always as a consequence of defying the gods, either. Think of all the poets in the core opera librettos – a shorthand for the librettist himself or the social commentator – as well as the composers or singers. It’s a long list.

Remember, too, in many Native cultures, there’s a special place for the madman as gateway to ancient wisdom or healing or a netherworld.

Admired madmen but also feared them. Just don’t get too close, even with a morbid curiosity.

Like the artist, they exist at the fringe of the village.

It’s implicit even in hymns about hymns and the raising of voices.

And also my speaking here as a fellow poet and novelist.

~*~

It’s hard to look beyond our own boundaries and explore the greater world beyond.

This is crucial, if we’re to engage others, in light of murder, rape, warfare, and other oppression and injustice around us. Is art really far from fostering imitation in life itself? Or is it rather for escape from any reality? Do we desire encounter or flight?

Earlier, I admired dazzling tricks and outward style, derring-do, and jests with fancy footwork. Shining surfaces and surreal images.

Over time, that’s changed.

My heroes have become more human and flawed, as well.

~*~

Throughout much of Friends’ history, many of the fine arts were offensive to the faithful; most painting, drawing, sculpture, fiction, theater, music, and opera were seen as superfluous vanities, engagements that took our attention away from worship. “We Quakers only read true things” is how one Friend expressed the matter when returning an unread novel to a neighbor. For a people who refused even gravestones, worldly adornments detracted from loving a heavenly Father with all their heart, mind, and soul, as well as loving one another as Christ had loved his/its followers.

Tertullian issued a related warning, in De Spectaculis, Latin circa 200 CE. Essentially: “The Author of truth loves no falsehood: all that is feigned is adultery in His sight. The man who counterfeits voice, sex or age, who makes a show of false love, anger, sighs and tears He will not approve, for He condemns all hypocrisy. … Why should it be lawful to see what it is a crime to do?” (Translation by Kenneth Morse)

As was recognized in Zen some centuries ago, when people started writing and singing and painting and acting from their spiritual practice, the flowering is already past its zenith. Nonetheless, we also know the power of the Zen-suffused works as they extended on to pottery, architecture, tea ceremony, even martial arts.

When I view Japanese and Chinese art, the Zen/Chan pieces jump out in their freshness from the well-schooled stream of traditional art.

Thus, with poetry or musical performance that knows living silence: a whole higher dimension. Necessity for revolution here. Transformation. Transfiguration. Transcendence. Transparency, too.

Is this a matter of like recognizing like spirit?

~*~

My real distrust of the celebration of the artist as a demigod comes in a plea for greater humility.

Yes, we work – as the poem Toltecatl, translated as “The Artist” by Denise Leverov details lovingly before countering with “The carrion artist: works at random, sneers at the people, / makes things opaque, brushes across the surface of things, / works without care, defrauds people, is a thief.”

The contrast is telling.

We’re hardly alone in work. Plumbers work, paying the price in their knees. Farmers work. Teachers work. Mothers, especially, work. Go on down the line, and admire all who do so with developed skill and intelligence and service. Who can say one field is truly superior the others?

~*~

I’m left wondering about a crossover identity of artist and priest, an expectation that the artist is expected to guide others into love or even the natural wonder around us.

It’s a fine line, between being a priest and a demigod. An inflated ego is a constant temptation, among others.

Still, how can I not love the movie “Amadeus”?

Who do you look to for inspiration?

We could throw in a few exotic festivals to liven things up

One of my favorite lines I cut out of my novel What’s Left, was this quip:

I want some backbone in my religion. You can’t sit without it.

But as I looked at the flow of the story, I just couldn’t find a good place to develop some pushback from Cassia in her teens, where it would have been most appropriate.

Still, if you know anything about the practice of meditation itself — often called sitting — you just might enjoy the double-meaning.

Another way I thought of raising more color regarding their Buddhist identity was through rounds of Tibetan holidays. The names and special touches alone can be charming: New Year’s archery; incense to drive away evil ghosts; Sho Dun “yogurt festival”; the Meeting of the Eight Guardians (stay inside to avoid evil outdoors); Golden Star to wash away greed, passion, jealousy and to abandon ego; the washing festival. Think of the picnics and ritual bathing.

I might have also built something on the Eight Auspicious Symbols, including conch shell, parasol (crown), victory banner, golden fish, or treasure vase. The Endless Knot is the name of a chapter, though.

Beyond that, I kept looking for synonyms for Buddha or Buddhism. One of my favorites, which I didn’t use, is the hanging cliff-side wonders. Some of those monasteries are no place for anyone with a fear of heights!

~*~

Many traditions have special dishes for specific holidays — secular or religious. Sometimes it’s even a family thing, rather than something everyone does.

What’s your favorite “holiday food”?

~*~

Church-sponsored Greek festivals are popular events in many towns across America. And, yes, men do much of the cooking. Opa!