Diana: So, what if they table is the real intent of the whole action of holy week and that Good Friday is the moment in which Rome decides that it’s going to destroy the table? And so, Rome introduces the cross to stop the feast from ever going any further than that upper Rome.
Rob: You have a great quote out there, why does the choice always seem to be between intelligence on ice or ignorance on fire when it comes to Church choices, right? And it seems like Jesus finds the middle there. He is on fire when he needs to be. He’s informed by his tradition. And yet, he is not bound by it. He’s moving out and beyond. So, I think that’s the way we have to try and model that. How we actually get these congregations, institutions, groupings of people, just sort of embrace that whole cloth, I don’t know. Do you have any thoughts about that? If you do, that book will be a New York Times bestseller.
Diana: I’m certainly not alone in trying to wrestle that question to the ground, you know. I have written some about it. Just this last month I have been working with a good friend of mine by the name of Tripp Fuller, who’s a Baptist and he teaches at the University of Edinburgh. And he’s a science and religion guy. He is really, really smart. And he’s 40. He’s a good bit younger than I am.
We have been talking about some of these issues and he has recently been reading Andy Root. I believe he is at Luther Seminary. And Andy has been writing about the future of the Church in this moment, how we imagine the life of clergy going ahead, what spiritual practices look like, what congregations look like, what will be the shape of religion in the coming decades. And it goes right to this question that Tripp and I sort of picked up from Andy, Andy points out that in the middle ages and a bit later, early modern period, perhaps in as late as even the early 19th century, people got inspired in Christian circles. Regular Christian’s got inspired by reading mystical literature, devotional literature. The books beyond me, there is an entire bookcase I have that is nothing but sort of spiritual classics, mystical classics, and I have read them all. I’ve taught classes on a lot of them.
Mystical literature was the way that people apprehended God. But then Root makes this really interesting claim, and he says, “But we’ve switched that up in the last hundred years. And instead of mystical literature being the primary source of inspiration, memoir has become the primary source of inspiration.” So, the example that I just gave of Barack Obama is one that is in the political realm. But that’s about more than politics. It’s about all those things you just talked about. It’s about meaning, about personhood, about the deepest sense of who oneself is, what is fair, and what is just? All of these timeless questions.
Rob: Right, right.
Diana: All of this together and the work that I’ve been doing over the last two decades, which is very memoir driven, Phyllis Tickle said that when she worked at Publishers Weekly about 15-years before she died and when she first found my work, she literally thought I had invented a new genre of work which linked the academic and the sort of predictive trend orientation that all my work has with memoir. This has been something I’ve been pursuing for two decades now as a writer. But this idea of memoir being the driver of bringing us closer to God as individuals is very strong in my work. But what if the Church reimagined itself as storytelling community. So, instead of it being a community that teaches people about the historical Jesus, instead of it being just a community that recites the creeds, it has those things, we have all that in our history, we have all those resources. What if now the primary calling is to enable people to understand the stories of Jesus, the stories of their own lives, and to be able to frame and tell those stories to one another within the community.
But also, then to be able to tell those stories whenever they’re called to in any other situation. And so, the idea of storytelling, being central, to somehow the Church’s life going forward, I do not quite think that the Church has grasped it quite as strongly as it should as a central practice. But it’s hinted at so beautifully. If you think of some of the best voices in the Episcopal Church, they’re incredible storytellers. Barbara Brown Taylor, I mean, what else has she been doing but shaping story and memoir in particular, as sort of the central point of Christian identity. You think of someone like Anne Lamont who is Presbyterian, but nevertheless, very much the same impulse. Naida Bolts Weber, Lutheran, same thing. Rachel Held Evans, sadly we have lost her, but she became an Episcopalian. And I know from my personal friendship with her, a big part of that was not just because we said the creeds and had the eucharist, it wasn’t just because you could explore any question about Jesus as an intellectual endeavor. Somehow every week the community that she entered into embodied a story that she wanted to be a part of. As a writer, she could enter into that story, and she was helping to shape it so that people could understand the story more fully.
If you start looking across the Episcopal Church, one of the things that you see in particular, and I think our best Preachers do this, I think that the presiding Bishop is doing this. It’s mostly women and people of color who have really been leading the charge about the power of memoir and the power of our stories to be the place of cohesion, the place where we can really enter into Anglican identity to share and speak our deepest poetry into the world. And to me that’s what Anglicanism always has been. Anglicanism, in my sense, is not really a systematic theology. What Anglicanism is a poetry of a way of life.
Rob: That’s wonderful. And look that prayer book. Whether you call it the new book or just the book, I think that is what people see in the words of the prayer book. They see beautiful words that are trying to point at a wondrous God who continues to intervene personally and corporately.
We’re sort of recording this, you know, and Easter is not too far. We are recording just before Palm Sunday, so Easter is out not too far away. Is there any idea, thought, words, story you are holding on to given the pandemic and life over the last two years? Is there something about this Easter for you as we sort of get towards it?
Diana: This Lent, I have been thinking about the story of the Table on Thursday. The narrative of Easter has shifted for me very strongly in recent years. That is, I keep wondering why it is that we treat the table as it’s nothing more than a prelude to what happens on Friday. I’ve been writing a number of pieces and preaching on the centrality of Maundy Thursday to the whole story. And what I really believe at this point is that Maundy Thursday is a hinge of history. The gathering around that table is the last supper of the old world in which the Roman Empire has power. And it becomes the first feast of the Kingdom of God.
There was this old line talking about Anglican poetry, CS Lewis used it I believe in the 50s to talk about the cross as the wood between the words. Which is lovely. There is the Anglican poetic notion in full force. But that might be true, but what if instead the emphasis was less on the wood between the worlds and more on the hinge of history? If you really pay attention to the table and what’s happening on that Thursday, I think there is a revolution that is occurring. There was a Baptist theologian woman who died a few years ago, in her 80s, by the name of Beatrice Berto who wrote a book called The Holy Thursday Revolution. It was published by Orbis Press. That book might be one of the single most influential books in my thinking that I have read in the last decade. And she really makes this incredibly strong case for this thing that she calls the Holy Thursday Revolution.
What if the table is the real intent of the whole action of Holy Week? And that Good Friday is the moment in which Rome decides that it’s going to destroy the table? The table is the threat. And so, Rome introduces the cross in the execution to stop the feast from ever going any further than that upper room. So, then the cross becomes Rome’s know to the vision of the Kingdom of God. You go through Holy Saturday, the question is, “Oh, my gosh, what’s going to happen here? Has Rome had the last word?” And then, you get the story of the garden.
Rob: And then you get the answer.
Diana: Right. And what I love, I wish the lectionary text didn’t divide the John account up into two Sunday’s. Because first we get the story of Mary Magdalene in the garden and Jesus turns around and says, “Mary.” And she sees Jesus and says, “Oh, Raboni.” And there are people saying that it is basically her confession. Oh my gosh, look at that, you’ve risen. And she goes and runs off and tries to tell the disciples.
Well, the next week we usually read what happens immediately following that. But it’s all one story in the text. So, what happens in that story, she runs off, she tells the disciples, they don’t believe her, and they are holed up and scared of what’s going to happen, are the authorities going to come and get them, Roman’s going to put them on crosses next. And what happens, they are in the upper room. They are not at the hill where the cross was. They are hiding out in the upper room. The first resurrection account that isn’t to an individual, but rather to the whole group of disciples, is Jesus returns to the very table where he last sat with them on Thursday. Which just goes to show to me, that is Jesus sort of underscoring the point of this action. It’s not a tritium. It’s a quadrilateral.
Diana: And it’s like, oh my gosh, all the emphasis falls on Friday. I think this misses the point of the two stories at the wings, the table and then Jesus returned to the table. The table is the point.
Rob: I think you’re on to something here. I mean, with all due respect to CS Lewis, I think it’s not the wood– What is it, the wood in the worlds? It’s the table that holds the two worlds together.
Diana: Yeah. So, that is what I love about the hinge of history. It’s really the turning. So, it’s not like the cross that is the wood between the worlds. And in fact, you know, that sets the cross up as something that is between the worlds that you can never get back too. It’s a permanent liminal space. And I think that if you understand a hinge of history, you understand that it’s less of something that’s between two things and more of a door on hinges. It’s a real opening. The table isn’t just some far off hope or some sort of thing that happened on a hill 2,000-years ago. But it’s an actual continual open door toward community, toward the Kingdom, towards feasting, a table where everyone is seated, and all are fed. And to me, that is the story that the world right now is literally starving for. So, that’s the way that I’ve been telling the story this year. I don’t think I have had such a sparkling Lent in terms of its spiritual insights for my own life as I’ve been tracing through and preaching in each successive week’s passages. And I’m literally to the point where I just can’t wait for Maundy Thursday.
Rob: Wow, that is absolutely wonderful. As they say, that will preach. That will preach and that will teach. And it just goes to show you how it can really get so captured in the violence of Good Friday that we miss the hospitality and the grace that happens on both sides of that thing. And in some ways, it decenters that and offers something larger to us. I think that is the whole point of resurrection, right? That we are being offered something larger that we can’t even imagine.
Diana: I’m just so glad to hear you say that because that’s always my fear when we shrink the weekend to the Friday, Saturday, Sunday action. It really does wind up sort of lifting up the violence and the suffering aspect of it, which is obviously there and really important for us to talk about. But it reifies it in such a way that it has turned it into the point. What you just said was just gorgeous, as a way of telling my story in your language. And I love how you did that. The story of hospitality that is on either end of the violence is the real story.
Rob: It’s the real story, we don’t want to go too far with this, but in some ways this Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday becomes a real Rorschach test for us, doesn’t it? What we see and what we don’t see. And that we see the brutality, the horror, all of that is essential. And again, not to diminish it, that we don’t see the graciousness on either side, even Jesus from the cross giving away, you know, see your son here and see your mother here and see you have each other even as I go. Or today, to the thief, you’ll be with me in paradise. I mean, all of the graciousness gets consumed really by the nails, the crown of thorns, etc. And we just sort of miss it all.
Diana: I hate to give you something else to do Bishop. But maybe the Church needs a new service. I mean, it seems like we continually miss the idea of what happened on Easter night when Jesus returned to the table. So, maybe we need a need liturgy for Easter night with a return to the table liturgy.
Rob: There you go. There you go. Look, if that has to go on my to do list, that’s a good to do.
Diana: The Clergy are going to kill me, give them one more liturgy to do that weekend.
Rob: I think in our conversation, we have actually, truth in advertising, you’ve talked about freeing Jesus and I think we’ve maybe freed Jesus today a little bit. At least in how we understand Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Diana Butler Bass thank you so much. This has been a great treat, a delight.
Diana: Well, thank you for having me on. You are doing wonderful work. And the conversations you are hosting, the hospitality you are offering is a way really of taking these stories into the world that makes a difference.
Rob: Thank you so much. God bless.