Sociologists and political scientists are worried about us—all of us and some of us a lot more. Part of their compensation package is based on how many people they can convince to share the same worry. And, if that worry turns into a social movement, that is even better and actually miraculous. As a few of them might conclude about such a development, such progress would be “an unanticipated and not well predicted outcome given the variables under consideration and the logic model imposed upon the data.” Huh?
In any case, they are worried about the way we live our lives, especially compared to our previous settlements and interactions. For example, they report that our children used to play with the neighbor’s children; now children are matched up with like-minded and like-classed others and sent far away to the develop their talents, no matter how weak those gifts really are. Play dates are increasingly like arranged marriages.
They also note that where we live—our address in a specific community—has fallen victim to the “big sort.” If on Memorial Day weekend, we look to houses on the right and to the left, chances are everyone is cooking on the same type of grill and eating the same menu. We are organized by social class and hardly meet or interact with others who are living other circumstances. When I was growing up very working class, the dentist next door would always borrow our lawn mower, not because he couldn’t afford one but because my father was more “handy around the house” than he was and could keep a lawn mower running no matter what the challenge was. This allowed us to trade that favor into pretty good dental care. In academic circles, this is referred to as “social capital” and is as valuable as other forms of capital, only harder to commodify and certainly nearly impossible to put in your wallet.
They also complain that we are increasingly isolated and privatized. We don’t visit with our neighbors. We don’t drop in at each other’s houses. The world is so digitized and segmented and that the old days of people coming to your door without a pre-arranged mission are long gone. You could with great justification greet someone at your door these days with a salutation like “Did you NOT check my online calendar? Did I seem ready to accept visitors?” Now, when the doorbell rings it is for a special function—the UPS man, the cable guy, or people you’ve invited for a dinner you’ve Doodling, texting and Googling about for weeks on end. When those earnest signature collectors come from Clean Water Action is an exception. They are too young to know they are breaking some big rule. And, of course, there are the Jehovah’s Witnesses who must have special training to employ rejection as a source of connection to salvation. I admire their inability to know where they are not welcome.
Two weeks ago, on a busy Saturday morning (another observation by the sociologists—even our leisure time is way over-programmed) the doorbell rang. When I first heard it, I thought, “Do I have a text?” “Is the laundry done? “Is the smoke alarm battery calling in to let me know its days are numbered?” Yet another observation by another researcher, the average American adult hears 150 beeps/blurps/chirps/bings every hour, most of which he ignores, just as he should. Some days, when my electronic devices seem to all call out as if it is their mating season, I feel like a dog in a Skinner experiment, raising my little ears and salivating for no good reason. These days, like mothers of yore, our smart phones rings and we can call out “That’s my phone; I’d recognize its ring tone anywhere!” I think all primates, birds and even worms recognize these calls for attention.
So, the doorbell rang I made my way downstairs We don’t have any way in our house of checking out who’s on the front stoop except by running outside and seeing, which really blows your cover. So, I simply opened the door to find an elderly man and a younger one. I deduced that they were together by their outfits, neither dressed like the FedEx man. Initially, I thought, “Encyclopedia salesmen” but then I remembered there were no more encyclopedias and selling Wikipedias door to door seems sketchy. And, besides these men were more Fuller Brush than Face Book types. I gave them a quick look over and thought they posed no terrorist threat, so I opened the screen door as well and gave them a little smile and asked, “Can I help you?”
“Well, good morning, Ma’am. Isn’t it a lovely spring morning!”
I stuck my head out the door, looked around and agreed that it was.
“Ma’am, I am minister Bradford from the Calvary Baptist Church up the street and this is a parishioner from my church, Petey.” Petey couldn’t stop smiling and raising his eyebrows. They seemed nice enough so I let him continue his introductions.
“Ma’am, do you know Jesus as your personal savior?”
Gosh, the swarm of snarky replies that swept into my conscious brain was almost overwhelming. I have never ingested a really serious illegal drug but I imagined this was like that rush. Part of the problem of being a professor is the employment of quibbification as a tool of combat and partee. Quibbification, as defined the Professor’s Handbook, is the tendency to question every word and argue as long as breath will allow to answer questions that no one but you and another remotely quoted scholar has raised. So, when this nice man asked this question, I wanted to jump into a discourse about the disappearance of mainstream churches, the attraction of me-centered theology, the development of drive-in churches, God as a merchandising brand and so on. My brain spun on.
“I don’t know Jesus as my personal savior but I bet you don’t know Megan, my personal trainer or Siri, my personal assistant, either” was my second thought. That sounded like it evened the score but it had a taste of meanness to it. My third possible response followed.
“I don’t know Jesus as my personal savior; our relationship is more spiritual. I consider Him less a friend and more of a benevolent overload. Sort of like one of the heads of the Hogwarts school, but with an appeal process.” That kind of reply sounded like it could have launched a long conversation about schisms in the church and the changing character of religious faith. This pastor may have read the same sociological journals as I did and given his seriousness of purpose may have known the literature a lot better. So, I passed on that response, as well.
I simply replied, “Actually Reverend Bradford, this is a Jewish household.”
A light fell over his face, like rapture.
“My gosh, we love the Jews!” He nodded to his colleague, “Don’t we, Petey?” I think Petey nodded but mostly I think he was surprised at the turn the conversation took. Or maybe, he could just read my mind.
Then, he rolled out in quick order all the reasons why Jews such a gift to him.
“Ma’am, did you know that Jesus was a Jew?”
I am thinking, “Well, that’s the way the story goes but why was his last name, Christ?” I let it go.
“And all the apostles were Jews.” I nodded my head; I did know that.
“And, the Jews gave us the Old Testament.” Quibbification raises its head. “Gave?” I wondered. Maybe not exactly gave. Maybe, left it hanging around like a library book that gets read by lots of people. And, I didn’t want to get into the complications here with authorial attribution and the lost Gospels and the DaVinci code, so I let that go, as well.
I smiled in recognition of his kindness and openness to me and my faith. Of course, it should be said right here that I was raised a Catholic and live with a partner who is Jewish. So, quibbling again, we are not exactly a Jewish household but my claim to him that we were seemed like an easy enough way to not have a long conversation on the steps. I wanted to be kind and respectful.
“Well. Reverend, in this household we embrace all faith traditions and respect yours, of course.” I thought, gosh, it is so easy to sound inauthentic.
“I hope you have a good day and best wishes in your ministry.” I shook their hands and they left with a little wave or maybe that was a blessing.