Monday, January 4, 2010

A Letter Of Interest (Proving that the Journey of Faith Isn't Reserved For Idiots)

I get lots of email and answer almost all of it (crank letters aside). Once in a while I get a letter I'd like to share. In this case here's a letter that I think might help all of us remember that stereotypes about religion -- Evangelical or otherwise -- don't apply to a lot of people. I found this humbling and instructive as well as interesting. And no, I'm not including this here just because this writer had a few nice things to say about my books.

Best, Frank

Enjoy.

From Luke Gillespie



Sent: Sun, Jan 3, 2010 2:33 am
Subject: Thank you!
Dear Frank,

May I introduce myself and say how much I appreciate what you've been saying in recent appearances, in your Huffington post pieces and various TV interviews (D.L. Hughley, Rachel Maddow, GritTV, Democracy Now, etc.) and recent lecture and Q&A at the Hammer Museum at UCLA.

If you'll permit me to give some background...

I was born in Japan to what I would call "moderate" Southern Baptist missionaries (youngest of five children) in 1957, grew up in Osaka, and went to a private English-speaking school in the city of Kobe. My father, A.L."Pete" Gillespie, was from Memphis, TN, and my mother, Viola "Bee" Gillespie, was from southern Indiana. They met in Louisville when she was in nursing school and dad was attending Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

My father was a pacifist (quite unusual for southern baptists), though he would have prefered to simply be called an ambassador for Christ. When WWII broke out, and especially after Pearl Harbor was attacked, dad would preach to his congregation (he pastored a couple of churches in Owenton, KY, and Charleston, IL) that the Bible teaches us to love our enemies, so he said we should pray for the Japanese. Well, some of his congregation didn't like to hear that since some of their own sons were fighting "them Japs". Dad had initially wanted to go to the Soviet Union as a missionary before the war started, but after he married in 1940, both parents decided to go to Japan.

When my parents arrived in Japan in 1948, my dad expressed his opposition to the war to fellow missionaries, including one who said, "Pete, I fought for your freedom." My dad responded, "I didn't ask you to go." "But Pete, what if everyone felt the way you did?" Of course, my dad didn't need to answer that question.

I remember my folks showing home movies of a Japanese pastors' conference c.1949. Dad used to say, "There is pastor so-and-so of Hiroshima Baptist Church. He lost 99.9% of his congregation in an instant. Without the love of God in his heart, this man would not be able to smile today."

Years later, my dad helped Billy Graham during one or two of his crusades in Japan (late 50s, early 60s?). I'm sure that my dad knew a number of folks that you grew up meeting, at least those close to Graham. (As a footnote, I cringe every time I see Franklin Graham today--he seems to have fallen prey to the right-wing agenda more than his father had. Of course, his father stayed close with the Clinton's, and never seemed to subscribe to the notion that one party was more "christian" than the other, at least publicly.)

My parents, however, taught us kids a kind of practical spirituality and became very suspicious when things started turning so political in the late 70s and early 80s and fundamentalists started taking over the southern baptist seminaries. As I reflect back, I'm glad they both died shortly after they reitred in 1979 (mom of lymphoma in 1982, dad of parkinson's disease in 1983, just a year before your father died) before things got so nasty. Dad was of the opinion that the government should not be in the business of teaching Sunday School. He supported the old Baptist tradition of “separation of church and state” (in fact, the first Baptists in the USA were called and came from “Separatists” in England for this very reason, something many do not realize today). So, he was in favor of the effort by the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs to lobby AGAINST school prayer. "Whose prayer are you going to pray?" he would say.

My folks were not liberal, but not fundamentalistic. Dad always used to preach that faith was a matter of the heart, not a particular creed. One of my favorite verses is 1 Samuel 16:7b, "the Lord sees not as mans sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." If only we could all do the same.

In any case, I did grow up reading what I could in the area of Christian theology, philosophy, art, culture, etc. I read most of your father's books. I read your Addicted to Mediocrity. I didn't always agree with everything I read, but I welcomed someone writing about the arts and asking christians to become more artistic and more involved in the arts (I am a professional pianist now and a professor of music at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, IN, where I teach jazz and classical piano and history, and also have an interest in comparative arts). Dad used to preach a sermon on how God calls us to "higher ground" in every aspect of our lives, and not to be average or mediocre.

My own spiritual journey has brought me to a point that finds resonance in many of your current thoughts. As Cornell West said in an outstanding lecture here a few years ago, "I am a christian, not a Constantinian christian, but simply a christian." I echo his sentiments and would love to see the two of you on the same panel discussing current socio-cultural, religious and political trends. You would both have such excellent insights to share.

My faith is at the core of my being. Yet, I find nothing in common with right-wing christian theocracy or christian "Taliban" thinking or behavior. The whole right-wing fundamentalist movement has barked up all the wrong trees. When Obama won Indiana Nov 2008, I couldn't believe it. Many of us democratic and independent folks here were thrilled.

I realize that folks like Rush Limbaugh, the mormon guy Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly and the like are simply entertainers, but at the risk of becoming too "dogmatic" myself, I hope and "pray" that their sphere of influence doesn't actually lead to an assassination attempt and all the other crazy and stupid things their ditto-head followers espouse. Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow may be entertainers, too, but they (and Chris Matthews) seem to speak so much more common sense. Of course, I also enjoy listening to Bill Moyers.

Though I tend to be left of center, I've never felt comfortable with either the far right or the far left. I remember chatting with a unitarian seminary student in Boston years ago. "What is your dogma?" I asked him. He said, proudly, "We have no dogma?" Of course, I added, "Well, that is precisely your dogma." It reminds me of the "Myth of Neutrality" as you wrote years ago, yet we are all blessed and cursed with language and meaning that is at once concrete and fleeting at the same time. The old "line of despair" that your father wrote about with Kierkegaard was always interesting to me. I don't always agree with everything Kierkegaard had to say, but I was still drawn to some of his writings, and this alleged "line of despair" could, I felt, become a perpetual moment of spiritual awakening, a moment where we realize that we simply don't have all the answers but are willing to have faith; and his notion that "Subjectivity is truth" has continued to resonate with me: it's "relational" truth that I'm interested in, not an abstract "absolute" truth.

And your voice is like Kierkegaard in his Attack Upon Christendom as you rightly point out the hypocrisy of the religious right.

After all these years, Pascal's Pensées also continues to resonate with me in many ways. One of my favorite quotes, "Skeptics are rarely skeptical about their own skepticism," could be applied to Christopher Hitchens and the like (though I agree with much of what he says, I don't always like his tone, and I disagreed with his view of the Iraq war).

I have shared several of your interviews to all of my Facebook friends and tried to get as many folks to hear what you have to say as possible. And I just now clicked your "become a fan" on your Facebook page. 

A good friend recently gave me your book, Crazy for God, and I look forward to reading it. As soon as I finish it, I will read Patience with God and I look forward to reading anything else you write and any interview or lecture you give in the future. Your website has been bookmarked! 

I wish there was a way to get you on one of our lecture series here at Indiana University. It would be great to have you here and to meet you in person.

One more point if I may... In the UCLA Hammer lecture, you mention a great point about President Obama bowing in Asia, but, if you'll permit me to say, as I understand the story, it was not China, but rather Japan that the main bowing incident took place. It is part of Japanese culture to bow out of respect; the Chinese don't have the same tradition. As a Chinese friend said to me recently when I was performing a music tour in China, you can recognize the Japanese at Chinese airports because they're the only ones bowing.  So, if you mention this in future lectures, I hope you say Japan. 

Please forgive me for rambling on and for my self-indulgence. Again, I appreciate so much what you're saying. We need more voices like yours in today's aesthetic, artistic, spiritual, cultural, social, and political dialog.

Sincerely,

Luke
-----------------------
Luke Gillespie, D.M.
Associate Professor of Music
Jazz Studies/Piano (MA118)
Indiana University Jacobs School of Music


Published here by permission (Copyright Luke Gillespie, Dec, 2010)

You may contact Luke at:

http://www.riax.com/host/luke-gillespie.com/

6 comments:

Karen said...

This letter really resonates with me. There are many of us like this man who love God and yet are thinking, reasonable, artistic individuals.
Thank you for posting this.
Karen Underwood

john.defelice said...

Wow. A fellow traveler and kindred soul.

gmftech said...

What a beautiful, thoughtful letter. Thanks for sharing.

shadowlands said...

Frank- thank you for sharing this story of a fellow traveler. I just finished reading " Patience with God" and am still wrapping my head around some of your ideas. It is good to know that there actually some 'Christians' who would rather use their brains for something other than a doorstop. Shalom

mom23 said...

"it's "relational" truth that I'm interested in, not an abstract "absolute" truth. "

What does this mean? Sounds like mumbo jumbo. Sure, there could be some kind (any kind) of force out there. But giving it ANY definition seems pretentious and silly. Giving it a specific name, life-story, and message, (those of Jesus) seems even sillier. How do those of you who seem to have no problem with this practice consider yourselves to have any intellectual integrity???

Luke Gillespie said...

Thank you, Frank, for posting my "letter" above, and I thank your readers for their positive comments.