April: Reading + Recs + The Cross of Autism
This was my first time observing Lent. I prayed, went to church, fasted on the proscribed days, and pretty much failed at my Lenten intention - limiting my time on social media. I was going to give it up entirely, but with Drifts newly out I needed to promote it and couldn’t do that without social media. But, of course, promoting Drifts didn’t require me to mindlessly scroll through Instagram. That’s on me.
When I was still an atheist I had many assumptions about Lent that I’ve learned aren’t accurate. Lent is not about suffering for suffering’s sake or the mortification of the body through fasting because the body is bad. Lent is about finding personal ways to open up room in one’s life for God. Like clearing away clutter and flinging open windows to let light and fresh air into a dank house. And while I spent too much time staring at my phone to say I succeeded in limiting my time on social media, I nevertheless feel that my first Lenten season deepened my relationship with God.
I spent time contemplating the new worldview that comes with faith; everything is transformed. In my atheist days I assumed being religious meant suspending rational thought and keeping your intellect sequestered in a little box. Now, I feel like I can see an entire spectrum of colors I never noticed before. It is like turning toward a fuller apprehension of reality.
On to April’s reads and recommendations:
1. One Good T-shirt:
Like everyone else, as soon as I saw this t-shirt I had to have it:
2. Two Good Books:
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham
Bauckham, a noted New Testament scholar, challenges contemporary assumptions that the Gospels are the result of long periods of “anonymous community transmission.” Bauckham dismantles this theory, arguing that the Gospels are records of specific, named eyewitness testimony. Drawing on internal literary evidence, granular study of first century grammar and names, first century historiographical practices, and recent scholarship around oral traditions, Bauckham argues the Gospels cannot reflect a long tradition of shifting oral history; not only were they written too quickly after the Crucifixion for that to have taken place, but also the earliest Christian communities maintained protocols to prevent this. Most critically, scholarly estimates (by Christians and non-Christians alike) date the writing of the Gospels to have occurred during the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses. In the 1st century, the Gospels were known to be sourced from specific, named eyewitnesses and these eyewitnesses were the authoritative sources of their testimony throughout their lives.
I used to believe the ways in which the Gospel accounts differ revealed it was all a scam, but the ways the narratives differ are not just easily explained, which Bauckham does, but add to the veracity of them being records of eyewitness testimony; not only because two people will never recall the same event in the same way, but because the ancient mode of historical testimonial was understood as needing to use fact to reveal meaning. As a writer of memoir myself I can relate! The Gospels, Bauckham concludes, are part of ancient historiographic practice known as “bioi” meaning biographies. In a time when few people knew how to write or read, the original way the Gospels were transmitted was orally, with the eyewitnesses acting as living safeguards against heedless change. As the eyewitnesses aged and died, the necessity to record their “bioi” became apparent. Baukcham presents his theory persuasively – and I now know more about first century Jewish naming traditions than I ever imagined!
How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus by Larry Hurtado
Hurtado offers compelling evidence that the worship of Jesus began in the immediate aftermath of the Resurrection. This argument runs counter to theories that worship of Jesus slowly coalesced many decades after his death. Most simply, the Epistles of St. Paul, known to have been written only 20 years after the crucifixion, provide ample evidence that the very earliest Christian communities worshipped Jesus. But this is only the starting point for Hurtado, who does not only examine Christological statements, but looks beyond to investigate the actual liturgical practices of early Christian communities. Hurtado examines the historical setting to demonstrate the monotheistic scrupulosity of first century Jewish people that emphasizes just how revolutionary it was for the early Christians to worship Jesus. This paradigm shift, Hurtado argues, was not a result of Hellenistic pagan influence, it came directly – and almost immediately - from the original Jewish followers of Jesus. Hurtado suggests that powerful post-Resurrection revelatory experiences of Christ made it clear to his followers that God intended Jesus to receive worship as part of the Godhead.
3. Three Good Essays:
The Cross of Autism by Aimée O’Connell
During Holy Week I had a few stressful appointments and meetings, and in the aftermath I was dysregulated and overwhelmed. Normally, I beat myself up for the many days it takes to regain a somewhat even keel, chastising myself for not just getting on with it. I am loathe to let myself “use” being autistic as an excuse, as if admitting that I can’t keep up with other people is a personal failing. I know where this mentality comes from and I know its faulty, but it is hard to shake the things that formed you as a child.
That week though, for the first time, I brought this inner turmoil to prayer. It wended its way into my thoughts about Christ as a human being, thinking that he felt the heat of the same sun that shines down on me, dozed by the light of this same moon, knew the taste of fresh bread and the salty brine of olives, knew what it was to take a breath, to yawn and stretch and dream. It felt intimate and immediate in ways I couldn’t have imagined when Lent began. And for some reason, thinking of the tenderness of his humanity, seeped into the way I was thinking about myself.
Born from these swirling thoughts, during Lent I did something for the first time: instead of making excuses to others for my limitations, I requested a simple accommodation and explained it was because I am autistic. It was not easy, and did not go immediately smoothly, but it still felt like the right thing to do.
Not long after, I came across this wonderful essay, The Cross of Autism, which hit home:
For much of my life, I have equated “the cross of autism” with enduring the suffering particular to this condition and accepting it as my lot. Perpetual anxiety, painful sensitivities to light and sound, headache and nausea in noise and crowds, inability to express emotions, difficulty speaking… all of these have been realities for me, along with debilitating exhaustion and a heavy measure of self-loathing when I fall short in acting up to social expectations. All of this seemed in line with how I took Jesus’ Passion and Crucifixion to be. In my spiritual immaturity, I saw Jesus’ suffering as a demonstration of “walk it off.” Take what life deals us, even when it’s unfair, and carry on without complaining.
Through the grace of God, and the fruits of my time spent in prayer this Lent, I am learning to see now that this is not at all correct. It is an overly literal distortion of what is actually meant by each of those spiritual maxims. My view has been rooted in manipulation – that is to say, manipulating my suffering to such a degree that I denied it, and I denied myself the chance to experience it fully. In denying the truth of what I suffered, I paid the triple price of ordinary exhaustion plus the extra work of maintaining an untruth plus enslaving myself to standards I cannot possibly reach or maintain (and in the process, unfairly raising the expectations of others).
Sabbath Empire by Graham Pardun
Grahum Pardun, author of Sunlillies, a book of Orthodox Christian reflections on nature and the sacred rhythms of life, has started a Substack. His first essay, Sabbath Empire, considers what many writers term “the machine” - the overarching framework of modernity, which is premised on rampant progress, technological power, uprooting of tradition, and dehumanizing efficiency at all costs. As Pardun writes, “the Machine springs from a very human desire for transcendence—a thirst given us by God, a thirst we are very much meant to quench.”
He then goes on to examine how this thirst was warped, beginning in the “long-ago mystical anarchy” of Eden and the Hebrews memory of themselves as “the first intentional counterculture against the Machine:”
Day by day, Adam was to learn to freely resist what would become the Babylonian daydream—the scientific flattening of nature, reshaping it for the sake of the human will alone—and to freely embrace the reality of Eden instead: a roaring waterfall of living beings, infinitely diverse, all living in and for and as one another, a vast communion giving voice to the boundless, self-giving life of God.
Summing up what his Substack will be about, Pardun writes:
You will hear about wild saints and forest-gardens, and about the depths of the heart; you will hear about a new vision of science, about the anarchic desert fathers, and flowerlike machines—you will hear about many things, brothers and sisters of my heart; it will be quite an adventure!
Tell Me How to Live by Rose Lyddon
Conversion is an almost inexplicable experience. In this essay, Lyddon writes about her own conversion to Catholicism with poignant humility:
Conversion narratives are difficult because there are so many stories you can tell, so many elements swirling around the central thing, which is unsayable, miraculous grace. God worked on my heart until I came to believe—and that change isn’t something you can really write about. Once it happens you can’t go back.
As Lyddon observes, our modern secular worldview has created a crisis of moral authority. This leaves each individual in the untenable position of starting from scratch to construct their own idiosyncratic morality and metaphysical framework. It is seen as something of a dereliction of duty, then, for a modern person to acquiesce to an externally imposed moral teaching. She goes on to wrestle with an aspect of conversion that I’m sure is common for many people today - how to resolve the tension between your existing self-willed values and those of the Church:
It’s very possible, at this stage, to reject faith; not to turn back the process, but to live in an unhappy limbo, denying yourself full communion with the Church and participation in the sacraments. I stayed there for a while and it was very painful and lonely and dark. I spent the Triduum last year at a Catholic church in Carmarthen feeling very alone, knowing I had to become a Catholic but unable to see my way through all the intellectual brambles and the conflicts that my attachment to self-will had put in my way.
Lyddon concludes with how she now approaches Church teachings that she might not agree with, describing a mindset of humility that I have found to be both challenging and fruitful in my own similar journey:
When I encounter a point of Catholic teaching with which I disagree, my response, now, is not to immediately reject it and argue against it but to treat it with curiosity and patience, admitting the limitations of my understanding and praying that understanding will come—while accepting that it may not, and that the apparent contradictions may never become clear within my earthly life. This is, in part, an act of humility—acknowledging that the millennia of teachings that have come before my singular intellect may have discovered some truth that I, in my twenty-seven years, haven’t managed to work out. But it’s also a fidelity to the moral authority of the corporate body of the Church. I’ve experienced enough consequences of self-will, and believed enough things that I now think to be wrong, that I’m willing to place my own judgement in second place.
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