Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Acts 24) transports me to the Chicago studio of FM radio station WFMT, where Studs Terkel sat and talked with some of the most interesting and influential people of the 20th century in his weekly Almanac broadcast. The show aired from 1948 to 1998, and I remember a year or so in the early 90s when Kim and I found the show on a local station and looked forward to hearing his gravelly voice every Sunday morning. I’ve been listening to a set of tapes, Voices of Our Time, with excerpts from the 40 years of Studs Terkel interviews, and it’s been an amazing, almost mystical experience. Over and over, I hear interviews with some of the authors who have been most influential in shaping and guiding my world view, and his interviews are from the time when their works were first published. He talked with Maya Angelou when I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings first came out, and Toni Morrison when Sula first came out. He talked with Norman Maclean when A River Runs Through It was published, and Barry Lopez when Of Wolves and Men first came out. As I listened to these creative people describe their new creations, the question arose for me, why did I stumble across these authors and not others? Why did I pick up on Ralph Ellison and Daniel Ellsberg and not Ayn Rand or Whittaker Chambers, as some of the family and friends I grew up with did? I listened to Studs Terkel and these authors describing their sense of the world, their point of view, their ideology, if you will, and I recognized my own. Was it an accident that I stumbled across the more progressive voices, and didn’t instead discover Atlas Shrugged or Witness as I came into the world of books as a 20-something? Or was there something already at work in me that caused me to gravitate toward this more liberal way of seeing the world, this sensibility that abhorred discrimination and greed and violence? Whatever it was, a latent world view awakened or a blank slate written on by progressive voices, it created a particular way for me to journey through life, it created the means by which I understand the Jesus Way that I profess to follow.
The book of Acts describes the genesis of the early church, when it was still considered one of the many competing sects within Judaism. Paul, in his courtroom argument when he was on trial, described himself as a member of the Way, which he noted people identified as a sect. The story tells us that the judge, governor Felix, was well acquainted with the Way, and he did his best to shield Paul from the antipathy other sects felt toward the Way. In further defense, Paul spoke of his particular understanding of the Way, as he professed his belief in the Law and he testified that he did his best to maintain a clear conscience. Spoken as a true Pharisee, an identity which Paul proudly maintained throughout his vocation as a missionary of the Way. The New Testament shows us that Paul’s Phariseeical understanding of the Way was not the only point of view among the early church. Along with doctrinal dissension in the book of Acts, we see a clear argument at work between Paul and James in their respective epistles. Each of them had either stumbled upon or were drawn to particular voices from the Jesus stories that were circulating, and these voices shaped or confirmed their disposition and ideology. Paul’s Voices of Our Time would have been heavy on the doctrinal scholars, while James’ Voices would have stressed the living out of faith, particularly as it concerned issues of wealth and treatment of the poor.
Before either Paul or James had ever dreamed of publishing their works, there was Jesus himself, who coined the appellation The Way, when he said I am the Way. Jesus also gravitated toward particular voices from his faith tradition, while ignoring or discarding others. Jesus was heavy on Isaiah, and light on Ezra-Nehemiah. His teaching de-emphasized the tedious legalism of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, emphasizing instead the simplicity and grace of the Shema and love of neighbor found in these same books. As I dialogue with various followers of the Way these days, I realize what a challenge it is, when we each have stumbled upon or been drawn to very disparate voices in our lives that create the ideological filters we use for screening scripture. I suppose we should not be surprised or expect it to be any different. It wasn’t for Jesus, and it wasn’t for Paul and James. Why should we have it any easier?
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.