Jesse James DeConto is a journalist, musician and author of the spiritual memoir This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World. He is releasing a series of excerpts like this one, paired with music videos for songs that shaped his story. "This Little Light of Mine" is the first.
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A Tree-of-Life Politics of Abundance
When people talk about the fall of humanity in the Jewish Genesis story, we never talk much about the Tree of Life. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil gets all the headlines and sermons because that’s the one that’s supposed to define us. That’s what we see, when we look around at humanity: The Fall, and a lot of evil triumphing over good.
Martin Luther, the father of Protestant churches, “was once asked what God was doing before the creation of the world,” according to German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “His answer was that he was cutting canes for people who ask such useless questions.”
Who says you can’t offer a doctrine of abundant grace with a bit of sarcastic wit? For Bonhoeffer, this was really a question of why. Why did God create? What was going on, such that God decided to make a world? As Bonhoeffer saw it, this is a question rooted in guilt, shame, and fear. It’s really asking: What did God want of the world? What did God make me for? Am I living up to it? Am I accepted? It’s a question falling from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, not the Tree of Life.
Sipping Scotch in a Mansion and Eating Jesus Off the Floor in the Nation’s Capital
On Sunday, we went to the Washington National Cathedral, a gigantic Episcopal church and self-professed “spiritual home for the nation.” This strikes me a bit funny, as a) Episcopalians make up fewer than half a percent of the nation, and b) America, regardless of religious affiliation, seems more interested in mammon than it does in spirit.
But our friend has been attending the cathedral since she moved to D.C. a few months ago, and I worshipped in Episcopal churches for about seven years, not since 2007, and, frankly, I had missed how the traditional liturgy can transport me to a different place, psychologically speaking – a place where a man dying on a wooden cross 2,000 years really does seem to matter in a cosmic, world-changing kind of way. Plus, I wanted to see the neo-Gothic architecture in its transcendent beauty. This is the rub, right? Mammon makes beautiful things. What was difficult for me about the Episcopal church is the same thing that’s difficult about Washington, D.C.: It’s the wealth, it’s the power, it’s the privileged way of life that seems very distant from my beer-and-burgers existence, let alone from Jesus who had no place to lay his head.