theater historian Oscar Brockett, on the importance of definitions: “Allow me to define the terms, and I will win every argument we have.” If we let Jensen define the term “religion” as “organized religions,” which often lose sight of the values inherent in their core beliefs, then we can say that All My Bones Shake addresses this proposition: You can be religious, or you can be a human being. Jensen would redefine Christian religion to help himself lead a good life as a socially and politically aware human who believes and practices Jensenist Christianity. But it is difficult to call what he is doing “religion:’ Reading Jensen’s thoughts on his religious experience, I was struck by his resemblance to what spy novels call a \(\(mole,” an agent accepted into an enemy’s espionage organization who gathers intelligence and spreads disinformation to destroy it. The difference is that Jensen is known to be a mole by his Presbyterian minister, Jim Rigby, and the faithful who embrace him. Jensen remains an atheist. He openly denies the existence of God as conceived by the religion he wishes to join. He denies Christ’s divinity and resurrection, two key beliefs girding all Christian religions. Others have shared my skepticism. Unitarians, Jensen writes, tell him he is one of them, and ethical humanists say he would be right at home under their tent. Yet Jensen claims personal and spiritual comfort in the St. Andrew’s community, partly because he was raised and confirmed as a Presbyterian, though he admits to being a bored nonbeliever throughout that experience. All My Bones Shake gives us insight into the tension between religious belief and the ways believers want to lead their lives. Heresies generally start with an individual who views orthodoxies in unorthodox ways that appeal to enough of the faithful that others who hold heretical beliefs can remain comfortably among the flock. Heretics are believers who think differently about, and challenge, tenets of faith. Jensen denies his belief in virtually all the fundamental articles of Presbyterian and Christian faith. Still, he wants to be accepted by its believers. The kindest thing to call this is paradoxical. Jensen explains that he was attracted to St. Andrew’s by the liberal beliefs and practices of Rev. Rigby and his congregation, especially in matters of gender politics. Jensen’s feelings of attachment to St. Andrew’s intensified when Rev. Rigby wrote him a letter of support during the controversy surrounding his 9/11 op-ed. Jensen cites Rev. Rigby’s translation of the Apostle’s Creed “from the original Greek” as an inspiration. But key points in the translation correspond so loosely to the original Greek versions in the standard historical manual of faith, the Enchiridion Symbolorum Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum, that it might as well stand on its own merits without appealing to traditional authority. For several years, Jensen participated in the political activities of the church while making no secret of his atheism and his disinterest in two questions that all world religions past and present address: Where does the world come from, and what happens to us when we die? In March 2006, Jensen declared in a published essay, “I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe Jesus Christ is the son of a god I don’t believe in.” On April 1, 2006, Rev. Rigby posted an essay on AlterNet explaining that St. Andrew’s received Jensen as “an attempt to build connections.” When the Committee on the Ministry tioned how a person with such avowed of its congregations, Jensen viewed the process as a “charade” and “an assertion of dominance by those who wanted clear answers to inherently perplexing questions about the meaning of the label [italics mine] ‘Christian.” He sees bad intentions because he fails to do what Jesus Christ, whether human or divine, stressed in his preaching: that we step outside ourselves, sympathize with others, and treat them as we ourselves want to be treated. When the church declared Jensen’s reception into St. Andrew’s “irregular” and reclassified him as merely “baptized:’ Jensen says, he cried “for something that I think had to do with a fallen world.” This egocentrism, if nothing else, might give reasonable people cause to doubt the sincerity of Jensen’s Christianity. The rest of All My Bones Shake explains his personal, alternative theology. He expresses dissatisfaction with those who interpret religion narrowly and do not accept as Christian people like him, who have radically different “conceptions” of God. Jensen stresses, correctly, how tribal human beings are. But tribes, like ethnic groups, depend on recognized definitions of membership. Characteristics like a collective name, a shared history, belief in common myths, and a shared culture are crucial. It is understandable that thoughtful believers would not know how to handle someone who denies their basic beliefs while claiming to be one of them. It is logical that they would make honest inquiries for serious reasons, and unfair of Jensen to accuse them of meanly applying labels or persecuting a rogue thinker. St. Andrew’s eventually admitted Jensen by exploiting the technicality of his youthful confirmation, claiming he already was an official Presbyterian. Church authorities, meanwhile, drafted new guidelines about belief that allow for lots of wiggle room. This whole business, and this book, are unlikely to change the prevailing social, political, economic or religious order much. They hold the same perverse fascination that Oliver Sacks’ extreme cases of anomalous psychological behaviors offer. Like the flap caused by Jensen’s 9/n editorial, it distracts us from serious problems. I was left with the feeling that the “prophetic voice” in the title is Jensen’s own, and that what he is saying will be as perplexing to thoughtful people of good will and sympathy as the sound of one hand clapping. Tom Palaima is Dickson Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches classical and Mycenaean Greek. 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 21, 2009
You May Also Like
The documentary in Falfurrias is sinister and spiritual.