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Stories that Wear the Clothes of My People

January 22, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

In exile, the “Jewish heirs of old Israel” came “to perceive that there were other ways to understand the death of their nation…,” to “sing new songs to their God,” whose authority “transcended all national boundaries… to be both Jewish and citizens of diverse nations” (Oxford Study Bible, page 42). It was “a situation in which the struggle for new identities, new forms of religious community, and new ways of being the people of Yahweh, could be explored.” These were the communities of the biblical tradition, those “that produced and treasured it” (ibid., page 41).

I did not produce the biblical tradition, but I come from a community that treasures it.

You see, when Israel was dismantled and the people exiled, when they were forcibly removed from the land of their stories, a transformation took place. In order to survive, their faith had to become something that could exist outside of its physical roots, and God had to become larger than any nation: so large, in fact, that no nation could claim Him solely – not even their own. In order to survive, they had to open doors to others, even as they fought to close doors on how they would or wouldn’t participate with those others. In order to maintain some grasp on their God, they had to share Him. Now, millennia later, people who had nothing to do with the production of their traditions nevertheless feel that they belong to them, because they treasure them.

I wonder if a global religion is too big. Religious homogenization may be no healthier than the commercial kind. It’s not to say there isn’t one God, but that it may not be wise for everyone in the world to approach and perceive that God in the same way. A healthy person anywhere in the world will have much in common with a healthy person somewhere else; yet the ways to accomplish health are diverse. There are many culinary traditions, many kinds of work, many ways to exert, connect, nourish, celebrate – and worship.

This ancient Israelite anomaly both moves and unnerves me. They found a way to hold onto their root even being removed irrevocably from it, and this stirs my heart, makes it beat with hope for home. Yet in forging this answer, they also erected impassable walls between themselves and their new home, their new neighbors; and in bringing the old ways with them, while it may have kept the old ways from dying altogether, it also divorced those traditions from their land. Their context.

Without context, what are we? A fact, no matter how well verified, is utterly meaningless until framed in a story to give it context. A rule of grammar, a foreign word – they mean nothing until a person possesses a web of interrelated rules and words to give them context. What is Zion to me? A concept, at best an expectation of some other spiritual realm in the afterlife; but to those who lived there, it had direct relevance. They knew what it smelled like.

More and more, I begin to think that religion should be local. It is fine to know about and respect other peoples and places; it is good to learn their languages and see their homes. But one’s own heart needs to be rooted in one’s own land. Religion is place-specific. Just as the universal truths that any given religion can express are inevitably tied to a particular culture, they’re also tied to a particular place.

It has taken us – me – a long time to realize the role that culture plays in one’s faith, and to see that that’s okay, that in fact people need to adapt things into their own context, even when they’re “converting.” Now I see the importance of location, too. We’re so used to underestimating the specificity of place. Our fruit, toys, cars, clothes come from around the world. Only lately have we begun to realize the richness derived from existing within one’s own boundaries, the importance of locality.

At the same time, we live in an age in which we’re aware of the rest of the world. We read Rudyard Kipling, Rumi, Lao Tzu, and we’re better for having done it. We grow Japanese maples here in Oregon. We eat wheat, which was born in the Near East, not here.

In many ways, what I’m trying to do now is very like what the early Jews were attempting. I want to understand how on earth it makes sense for me to treasure their traditions, just as they wanted to make sense of how in God’s name their nation could die. I too seek new songs to sing to my God, songs that hold relevance to me, an American woman living at the turn of the twenty-first century, just as they sought new songs to build new relationships in a new land with the God they knew. I too am struggling for a new identity, a new form of religious community, and a new way of being among God’s people. I too want to reconcile my religious and ethnic lineage with my current place and time and people.

Most of all, I want a faith that’s rooted in the soil beneath my feet, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh; one that speaks from the world directly surrounding me, one that I can taste in this air and smell in this land.

I want stories that wear the clothes of my people. Not ones that require me to stretch my imagination around the world to a culture I will never fully understand because it is not my own, and to call “home” a place I have never been, from which I did not come.

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