Sunday, November 28, 2010

Playing Truth

Somehow, as I scrambled to find one text after another as the minister called out the citations and expounded on them in a particularly broad-based message today at church, I managed to have a meta-experience as well as listen to the commentary, remember chapter and verse numbers, turn pages, and take notes.

I have mentioned before, I think, that one thing I especially appreciate about the Old German Baptist church is that they have a plural ministry--there are always 4, 5, or even more ministers in front on a Sunday morning, taking turns at opening remarks, choosing and lining hymns, leading prayers, and giving the message of the day. There is a lively exchange of ideas and insights, and no boredom from hearing the same voice or the same point of view every week.

After more than a year and a half of attending almost every Sunday, raptly listening to 2 hours of detailed reflection on the Bible, it amazes me all that is in those ancient writings. And then outside of church, I am exposed to a somewhat random assortment of other points of view on scripture--Anabaptist and Quaker listserves, Facebook friends, several individuals I share a meal with now and then, news articles online, etc.

Today it just all came together: people have been reading, writing, discussing and arguing about
these same words for nearly 2,000 years! And everyone thinks they are right! And there is always some new idea, context, or perspective!

How can this be? It's just one volume!

Then an image came to mind. A piano (most of them, anyhow) has 88 keys--88 different notes. That's it. That's all. If they are in tune (and since I have a piano-tuning friend, I tend to assume "in tune" as the normal, default condition), then each key is a fact...a truth. There is no arguing about it. It just is. That's the note. You press the key, that's what it is. (Not some instruments, where the manner of sounding the note can influence its pitch, like a violin or a trombone).

But how many different ways there are to put those notes together! An infinity--because even when two people play the same notes in the same order, it comes out different. Even when one person plays the same notes in the same order on different days, it comes out different. Each individual, then, may bring an entirely different mood or effect to those 88 simple truths. Something complex, subtle, unique is woven out of those truths each time someone sits at the piano...whether it is a child playing Chopsticks, or a sibling gleefully playing Fur Elise for the 14th time in an evening because she knows it's annoying after about the 3rd time, or an advanced student practicing a fragment of a difficult piece over and over, or a fabulous musician playing a highly publicized concert, or an untrained prodigy improvising something that sounds like Bach, but will never be written down or played again in all of time.

Some of these piano players may feel as if they've made a mistake in some contexts, there is no such thing as a mistake. Sometimes the player might feel there's a mistake, but no one else could possibly know. What does "wrong note" mean when each note is a Truth? It is not that the note itself is wrong, but that it is in the wrong context, making it inharmonious--ah, NOT necessarily inharmonious with the other notes, but inharmonious with the effect which the player is trying to achieve. A note in a jazz piece may be deliberately, effectively, deliciously inharmonious...if a harmonious note were struck instead, THAT would be a mistake.

When I think of the Bible as a compilation of Truth, I can look at the ministers and others as players of that Truth. Each plays a different composition, but each composition is still full of Truth.

Attending the German Baptist Church is like going to a recital where many talented pianists play pieces from different composers. Lots of variety. They may be apparently unrelated, or focused on a theme. I may prefer some offerings more than others. No matter what, I get to hear lots of Truth.

Being exposed to a wide variety of religious perspectives and views is like listening to lots of different kinds of music. Some styles naturally resonate with my personality and experience more than others, just like some people like jazz and some like classical. But other people appreciate the ones I don't, so there's something for everyone.

It's fascinating to think that such rich diversity can come from just those same 88 keys...or from one book.

Understanding this makes it really easy to step back from doctrinal or interpretational arguments. Should women cover their hair? Is it ok for them to wear pants? Is same-sex marriage an abomination? When is divorce ok? Who can re-marry? Can we shop on Sunday? How and when should baptism be performed? Should ministers be paid? Is it ok to kill if you're in the Army, or getting an abortion? On and on....

People think they can and should settle these questions once and for all. But that's like saying from now on, the only piece of music that is really the Truth is a chromatic arpeggio encompassing all 88 notes. Or the "tuning song" that the piano tuner uses to test the notes in her effort to restore them to perfect order.

If we ever did arrive at such a complete, perfect one-right-way understanding of the Bible, I think it would be the end of the Bible. Who would stick around listening to that chromatic arpeggio over and over?

It is the very diversity, even dissonance, of all the possible pianists and compositions that keep us engaged. Let's remember to enjoy the concert and appreciate the pianists, not constantly criticize every piece.


  1. Way to go, Natalya! I really enjoyed reading this post. I have also felt a treasure is hidden in this diversity of human beliefs.

    I have discovered that my beliefs are a mishmash or conglomeration of various belief systems. I feel blessed that to have experienced the divine in so many ways. I still use the word "god" out of habit, but I know it encompasses so much more than one person or belief system could express in words or practices.

    So, I continue to be a cultural and spiritual hybrid, allowing myself to again worship with a variety of people. And it feels good to be alive. thank god, for that.

    And thank god for you!

  2. Hi Natalya! Thanks for coming to my BLOG today. It's so nice to meet you, virtually! I love the internet for this kind of thing. I'm meeting all kinds of fascinating people.
    I'm like PlantSinger...a bit of a mishmash.
    Liked your post too! I'll see if I can figure out how to become one of your "followers" too.
    Stop by ever so often. I have all kinds of adventures out here with my herd...and I love to tell the story about it too.
    Nancy, smiling at you!