Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Theology of Filthy Rags

by Charity Erickson 

The other day my mother brought a green suitcase to my house, full of random crap from my old bedroom. There was a Bop-It, an illustrated costume design book for Othello I made during my theatre days, and stacks of journals, sketchbooks and other miscellaneous papers. She and my dad are moving, and their realtor told them, "Get rid of it; get rid of it all."

I pulled a notebook out of the pile and guessed at its contents. "A collection of dour post-pubescent musings," I said before thumbing through the first few pages. And instead of bad poetry, brooding self-portraits, and sketches of Jesus on the cross (as I’d expected) I discovered pages of hard data: graphs and numbers, neat and thoroughly organized information from my single semester of lab time as a nursing student at a Christian college. I had once believed these seventeen pages would pave a straight path to my calling as a medical missionary. Turns out they were a record of my diminishing interest in the sciences, a loss of drive that led my Christian biology professor to declare of me before the entire class: "What a waste."

A waste.

But I showed him; now I'm a blogger.

After my disappointing Christian college experience, I went through periods of not caring at all--and then caring too much--about the ridiculous dogma of various traditions, spinning from progressive, to conservative, and then back again, and I haven't found any branch of Christian culture that wouldn't declare a similar condemnation over me: "What a waste." Whether it be for my female-ness, my cowardly and tender heart, or my craving for nuanced judgment--my distrust of all sacred cows--I have heard the Christians say, among many sects: "You didn't buy into our system. What a waste."

A waste: refuse, garbage, extra leftover filth.


And the feminist in me just adores that the prophets refer to all our righteous acts as "filthy rags." Excess blood, period-soaked fabric. Waste. And though Isaiah speaks derogatorily of this natural process of the body, I now prophetically appropriate his words and proclaim in all my heretical, feminist grotesquery: a waste is a gross extravagance. It's something more than what is necessary. It is something that is "too much;" but what I want to do here is argue that instead of looking at our spiritual idiosyncrasies--the things we do, say and believe that don't build upon or add to our official belief system--are not things to disdain or cast off like so much garbage. The inconsistencies we hold onto are "extra," but I'm starting to think that they are also grace.

All of us are at least somewhat aware of the embarrassing aspects of our bodies and our souls, parts that won't fit into any logical schema, facets of ourselves and of our beliefs that can't find room in the systems designed for us to inhabit. Awkward excesses of experience, wounds from endeavors that led to nowhere, that served no special purpose, that didn't teach us much of anything--but are part of us, anyhow. Weird scars that are not badass at all, purple veins and crooked stretch marks. Extra stuff that doesn't correspond with reason or providence. Waste. These things make each person's faith unique. It's not orthodoxy, and it's not pretty, but it's true; our quirks make us who we are.

For example: I once believed I had a supernatural calling in medical missions but now know that it's not going to happen. I have had beautiful words of prophecy spoken over me by people who, it turned out, were con artists. There have been dreams and spirits, and I don't know what to do with them. But do I think it's all bull? Think it’s all in my head, or someone else's head? I don't know. I reserve the right to not decide. I'm still Pentecostal. I think. And it's weird, and uncomfortable, and a bit humiliating, especially in the more "liberal" environments I frequent. It's this additional part of my faith that keeps me from fitting in one place or another. It's wasted faith, but there's something about it that I love too much to let go.

So I'm trying to make sense of it all, and I think this is how it works: we Christians--as individuals beloved by God--are too complex to classify perfectly into theological groups, categories by which we can be defined and judged by others (and too often by other Christians). There is always some part of a Believer that will end up as waste, as unaccountable excess. This is why it's absurd to equate all Calvinists with Fred Phelps--people are more than the sum of their theological parts. These inconsistencies might look like filthy rags, to some. But these are also the things that make us un-judgeable by others, unable to be categorized, wild. 

And I like to think there is something holy about that--that extra, wasteful part of ourselves where the Spirit will minister like it can with no one else who is or has been or will be. Yes, it's waste. But I'm coming to believe that that's not such a bad thing.

Charity Erickson and her husband live and work together in the north woods of Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @CharityJill.

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