"Theology is a place and a story. Theology is the place and story you think of when you ask yourself about the meaning of your life, of the world, and the possibility of God."
So begins Serene Jones's epic work of raw truth, fierce love, and spiritual teaching as muscular as the fractured soul of this century demands. From her abiding Oklahoma roots to her historic leadership of a legendary New York seminary, her story illuminates the deep fault lines of this ageand points beyond them. With a voice that is at once frank and poetic, humble and prophetic, intimate and practical, Jones makes complex teachings around hatred, forgiveness, mercy, justice, death, sin, and grace understandable and immediately applicable for modern people. Excavating the wisdom of great theological voicesSoren Kierkegaard, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Calvin, James Baldwin, James Cone, Luce Irigaray, Saint Teresa of Avilashe brings them to life with an intimacy and vividness that illumines our lives and our culture now. At the same time, and with great beauty, Call It Grace reveals Serene Jones as a towering voice of a new, and urgently necessary, public theology for this century.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Serene Jones is the president of the historic Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. The first woman to head the 180-year-old institution, Jones occupies the Johnston Family Chair for Religion and Democracy. She is the past president of the American Academy of Religion. Jones came to Union after seventeen years at Yale University, where she was the Titus Street Professor of Theology at the Divinity School, and chair of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale University. Jones is the author of several books including Trauma and Grace. She is a child of the Oklahoma plains, a daughter of a university president and a single mother, a sister, a cancer survivor, a theologian, a minister, a news commentator, a public intellectual, and a devoted teacher.
Read an Excerpt
The grace of God, which dwells in my house, will not leave it desolate.
Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559
A large painting of an Oklahoma landscape hangs in my New York living room, as it has hung in each home I've lived in since I left the American plains in 1981. It depicts a solitary oil rig surrounded by scattered pieces of drilling equipment and work trailers. The rig stands tall against an empty field of wheat and a shockingly blue sky. More than once I've realized that it captures something basic about my theology. It shows the immensity and gracefulness of my home place but also captures its paradoxes, crude and uncertain. A human creation, the rig contrasts sharply with the nature that surrounds it, especially the huge cloudless sky that fills most of the painting. John Randolph, a well-known Oklahoma artist, gave this painting to my parents years ago, when we lived in the small town of Enid, in the heart of Garfield County, previously known as the Cherokee Strip, a part of what the federal government called the Oklahoma Territory.
The reddish yellow of the prairie and the bright blue sky are so strong that people who aren't from Oklahoma often miss the fact that there's an oil rig in the picture, its unseen pipelines driven deep into the dirt below. No one from Oklahoma misses it, though. Oklahomans who visit my apartment immediately imagine what is going on underground. There's no doubt in their minds but that the large metal figure is busy pumping out black sludge that translates into money. Lots of it. Nowadays, my Oklahoman houseguests can't help but think about the earthquakes caused by these rigs, too. One friend, who told me she sometimes feels several small earthquakes a day in her home there, said that the moment she looked at the painting she saw the landscape fracturing into pieces.
A study in what is seen and unseen, the picture is uniquely American: a richly colored story of land, sky, machines, and people and their struggles to find place, power, and wealth. For some, it mattered little how cruel the cost of their struggle would be. For others, mere survival was their only goal, never fame or fortune. Just life. For most, the struggle fell somewhere between the two, their complex lives captured well by the painting's contradictions.
It also summons, for me, theology, albeit theology told in a uniquely American way. I call it prairie theology.
I was taught this "prairie" version of American theology from the time I could walk. The church where I learned it is not well known today, although during its nineteenth-century glory days it was celebrated as the cutting-edge rebel of American Protestantism. Eventually called the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the church started as a social movement designed to unite all Christians through the creation of a nationwide fellowship that transcended the many disparate doctrines and denominational divides that had long cluttered the Protestant landscape. My great-grandparents joined the movement when it first swept across the plains into the Oklahoma Territory in the late 1800s. They liked its simplicity; the pithy slogan "No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible" summed it all up for them.
These early Disciples didn't like hierarchies, which meant that clergy were given no pride of place and minimal performative staging on Sunday mornings. Regular people, not special priests, presided over communion services, which consisted of grape juice and bread shared around a spare wooden table every time people gathered. The Disciples were uncomfortable with anything that smelled even slightly like church decorum; they insisted that just like Jesus, God did not care about creeds or liturgies or incense, or for that matter, about social position or racial rank. In God's eyes, everyone was equal.
This dogged insistence on equality was applied to salvation as well: everyone-even bad guys-was equally saved. They were unabashed universalists. No salvation ladder hung over our heads, waiting for the most strenuously virtuous of us to grab it and lead the way up to heaven. Salvation wasn't a contest. It consisted of the bare fact that as in life, after we die, God loves us. All of us. There was nothing more to add. The salvation playing field was as flat as an Oklahoma wheat field. Little did I realize how radical this would sound when compared with the punishment/reward theology that still dominates so many American churches.
This meant that threats and promises about heaven and hell, that great Protestant pastime, rarely appeared in family conversations or at church. Much heavier emphasis was put on our belief in a God who loved and forgave everyone's sins. Because we so ardently championed forgiveness, it was impossible to imagine why a forgiving God would decide to punish some and save others. Saints and sinners, we were all in the same boat when it came to the ultimate truth about our lives: We were all justified by God's grace alone, which was good news.
As for sin, my church steered away from the commonplace American obsession with sexual morality, instead focusing on social injustice and its moral roots in pride and greed. It was as much about public morals as private ones. The challenge of living faithfully, then, was not about being perfect but rather being honest enough to catch yourself when "unloving" feelings or actions reared their nasty heads in your day-to-day interactions. When you saw greed and arrogance running wild in your heart or in the streets, they had to be called out. Our Sunday school lesson books did not include the usual list of personal prohibitions but rather gentle advice on how to better "love your neighbor as yourself." We also learned to keep our eyes on the local political stage for similar attitudes toward others so that, as good Christians, we could live together as equals in a just society, like the early disciples.
"No question about it. Jesus teaches the greatest sin of all is racism!" my elderly white Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Walker, explained to our all-white junior-high youth group one Sunday morning as we sat in the overheated trailer that served as our Sunday-morning classroom.
"So," she said, "don't let the fact that you are white lead you to think you are special or better." She looked at our barely nodding heads, wrongly assuming no further discussion was needed. It was so typically Disciples-like, to make bold assertions about theology and social justice together and to believe it would make obvious sense to everyone.
That Sunday, Reverend Larry preached that "the sin of greed is the greatest of all" as he then moved on to talk about how the early disciples had shared everything, "giving to each according to their need.
"I know it's not popular to say so these days, but Jesus's early disciples were"-he leaned forward to confidentially share with the congregation at the end of the sermon-" . . . COMMUNISTS." My kid brain had no idea what "communist" meant. But I got the bigger point. We were supposed to share what we had. For me, that meant giving twenty cents of my weekly dollar allowance to the church as my tithe against poverty.
This all made good sense to the movement's early followers, most of them poor and uneducated, many of them social outcasts of one form or another. The theology of these downtrodden believers reminded them always that even though each and every one of them was a sinner, in God's hands they were all forgiven and graced. This sense of all-encompassing love had to make the brutal prairie life-so full of failure, hunger, violence, and hardship-more bearable and explicable. We so often, I later came to realize, find the version of theology that our life needs.
Not surprisingly, this theology provided fertile ground for the populist and socialist sentiments that flourished in Oklahoma's early days. "If God thinks we are all the same, then why shouldn't our politicians, too?" was the logic that bound church and state together. In fact, so strong was this bond that in 1914 (just seven years after Oklahoma's official formation) 175 registered socialists were elected to state and local offices, making it the most socialist state in the history of the union. Religious language dominated their campaign messages-"Jesus is a socialist!" was their favored rallying cry. One of Oklahoma's most famous socialists, Woody Guthrie, captured this well when he said, "All my songs blow out of Christ." While such a bond between faith and socialist principles is hardly imaginable in today's public life, the state's founding spirit was economically democratic precisely because it was theologically democratic.
In my own childhood experience with this prairie faith and its politics, the equation that "what you believed about God" equals "what you believed about society" was as self-evident as the hard sun above us. If Jesus cares about poor people, so should we. If the prophet Amos loathed greed, then we should make sure resources were shared among us. If Jesus told us to love neighbors and enemies as ourselves, then we should try mightily to do so. And so it went. The God that hovered over this well-ordered world of right and wrong was populist-a God of the people, a friend to the sick and the lost, a lover of the hardscrabbled and downtrodden. And Jesus was right there with us, walking alongside us, giving wise advice on how to live a good life.
Later in my life, as I studied theology and learned to look more honestly at my own family's prairie faith, I began to see that it was more complicated than it had seemed to my childhood eyes and ears. I realized there were more gaps in this belief system than immediately appeared, especially when it came to questions about what awaits us at death, how to endure unrelieved suffering, how such populist sentiments could sometimes produce horrendous action, and how to find the strength when your moral convictions are widely rejected. But to the younger me, it was simple. God is love. Jesus is the friend who shows us how to live. So go out and love and try to live like Jesus. If you fail, try harder. But don't worry, for God loves and forgives you regardless. And remember always, at the end of the whirlwind of life, all of us are graced. It helped hold the anxiety and harshness of life on the plains at bay-even for a child a mere generation removed from the most brutal aspects of plains life.
My people were farmers or, as they were dismissively called by city people, "sodbusters." No one embodied what it meant to be a sodbuster better than my paternal grandma, Idabel Augusta Seitz Jones. Her story is classic Oklahoma. Her father, Charles Seitz, was a stern, hardworking farmer who had failed in various endeavors "back east." So when he heard the federal government was giving away free land south of Kansas, he headed west to claim his share. Leaving behind his fiancée, my great-grandmother Effie Gunn, he camped for several weeks on the Kansas border, waiting till September 16, 1893, when the now famous gunshot signaled the start of the free-for-all scramble called the Oklahoma Land Run. There were seven of these runs over a period of about fifteen years, as large tracts of land were slowly sectioned off, some areas originally promised to tribal members who survived the awful Trail of Tears, and before that, most of it home to the displaced Kiowa, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Osage, and Comanche tribes.
"My father was the most handsome man in the camp," Idabel would regularly tell me as she sat in her upholstered chair in her dark living room. "He used the money he made from selling his farm to buy the fastest horse in the county. Can't remember that horse's name. But when that shot was fired at dawn to officially start the run, everyone knew that my father, climbing bareback onto that white stallion-he had sold the saddle for food on the way-would be out front. You should have seen him ride. He rode like a banshee, that man," she said. "Sweating as hard as the horse.
"My father had already scoped out the plots we wanted near Billings," she told me. "Prime land because it had a creek. He got there first, grabbed the flags with the plot numbers, and was at the land registry office in Enid by late afternoon, claiming their new God-given homestead. He then returned east to marry Effie and bring her back to their new home. They packed a small wagon with dishes and pots, a steel plow, and family Bibles." Looking at those Bibles, my grandma, to her dying day, insisted that those plots were God-given, "our divine calling" to turn its rock-hard red soil into wheat fields.
There was never any mention made of the native Osage people who had long roamed those particular plains. To the Seitz family, it was barren and free, as it was to the more than fifty thousand people who claimed two million acres of prairie on the first land run alone. Like many homesteaders' heirs, we still have the Billings farm in our family; it now supports vast fields of wheat and a few oil wells, the latter something Effie and Charles would have never imagined. Together, the oil wells bring in a trickle of money, but the few extra dollars flowing from that black sludge would have been a fortune to them. For us, it's a reminder that we are not innocent bystanders in the industry that made the state and is now destroying it through fracking. We are part of the problem.
Before the oil, though, the work of turning prairie into arable soil was backbreaking and soul tearing. They called it "sodbusting" because of the hard-hitting, pounding labor it took to crack the ground's concretelike surface open. "People thought only ignorant poor people would be foolish enough to waste their life busting soil," my grandma said. "But we were proud of our work. And we never made a fuss about anything. Just wanted folks to leave us alone. We lived far from town. We didn't have guns-they were too expensive. And if a family like ours made a scene-getting drunk, gambling, fighting, hiring strangers as farmhands-it never ended well. People would sometimes just disappear. Killed probably, by greedy neighbors or cattlemen passing through. We knew not to ask questions. Just stay quiet and tell ourselves they must have just gone back east, the work was too hard."
Quietly, her father eventually worked himself to death. But before he died, he saw golden waves of grain rise up out of his fields. "God's bounty," my grandma called it. That bounty allowed Idabel, her two brothers, Roy and Adam, and two sisters, Carolyn and Effie, to fulfill their mother's dream of going south to college in Norman, Oklahoma, where the territorial legislature had established its first non-land-grant university in 1890, now known as the University of Oklahoma, or, to us then, simply and fondly as OU. That trip to Norman was more than just going away to college. It meant leaving behind their sodbuster childhood, in search of higher things. Idabel never noted how groundbreaking it was for girls in that age to go to college. I have to believe that the example of ordained women ministers in the Disciples of Christ blazed the trail for such a remarkable anomaly. Also, that hard prairie world rendered gender roles mostly irrelevant. She, in a way, was never afforded the luxury-or the burden-of being a "girl."
Table of Contents
Introduction: What Is True ix
Station I Sin and Grace
Chapter 1 Prairie Theology 3
Chapter 2 Buried Treasure 21
Chapter 3 Original Sin(s) 37
Station II Destiny and Freedom
Chapter 4 Kierkegaard on the Playground 65
Chapter 5 Barth and Niebuhr in the Bell Tower 87
Chapter 6 The Impoverished Souls 109
Station III Hatred and Forgiveness
Chapter 7 I Once Was Found but Now Am Lost 125
Chapter 8 Hatred 151
Chapter 9 Forgiveness 175
Station IV Redeeming Life and Death
Chapter 10 Breath 211
Chapter 11 Justice 237
Chapter 12 Mercy 265
Chapter 13 Love 291