A Matter of Space
Brian Blount remembers the day that changed the way he thought about the Bible. “I was preaching to people from a poor neighborhood,” he told the audience at Tabor Presbyterian Church in a special evening presentation last month. Dr. Blount is now the president of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond and teaches the New Testament there. On the day he remembers, he was quoting Scripture, the “Lilies of the Field” verses that bring peace and comfort to those exhausted from striving: “Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.”
Afterwards, a young girl approached him. “This means that I will never have anything or do anything,” she said. So, the beloved words of St. Matthew seemed different to someone who was starting from extreme hardship than they did to those who started from relative privilege, Blount said. “My reading only added to her despair.” This is what he means when he says “Space Matters,” the name of his talk, a play on Race Matters the title of the famous book by Dr. Cornell West.
Contemplating the idea that people from different spaces interpret things differently, Blount went back to an academic life of study and teaching, but few would question the importance of his ministry. “We struggle all our lives to find truth,” he said: “Now more than ever.” He said today’s stew of fake news, slanted news and constant pursuit of validation of our own beliefs rather than an exchange of ideas, makes it especially hard for people to talk to each other in a way that advances understanding. “We have forgotten that there needs to be some kind of formal agreement that recognizes what truth is,” he said. “Truth has lost its meaning.”
But despite the general belief that the truth is in particular peril these days, the Bible has always been interpreted differently by those with different motives. He cited the passage from Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. All of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Plantation owners quoted this to justify their possession of human beings; those opposed used it as a mandate against slavery. Other passages advise women to take a silent role in the church and the oppressed to bear their suffering silently, as is their Christian duty. Or not, according to who’s doing the quoting, he said.
Even scholars who spend their lives studying the word of God differ, he reminded the audience. “For instance, why was Jesus important enough to die?” Blount asked. Was it because he was a revolutionary, or labeled as a blasphemer, or threatening to the powerful? Or simply because it was necessary for him to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies? Scholars have all those opinions and more, even though they have exactly the same text to enlighten them.
For a more modern example of words open to various interpretations, Blount chose “Black Lives Matter,” which to supporters means “Black Lives Matter, Too.” But to those threatened by the movement, it suggests that other lives don’t matter. “Which is it?” Blount asked.
By the Numbers
Some people find relief from the ambiguity of words in the more precise discipline of math, Blount said; but even there we find a tendency towards manipulation according to point of view. For an example, he cited the common practice of weighting the desirability of loans and extension of favorable terms according to the zip code of the borrower. But those working for social justice also find some guidance in the same information, by examining crime statistics for different zip codes, and increasing foot patrols and offering services to the youth who live there.
The Dog and Bone Theory
One point of view, in fact one Blount said he embraced in the past, is that if only you keep digging deeper and deeper you’ll eventually find hidden meanings and accumulate enough indisputable facts that everyone will agree on the meaning. Not so, he discovered with more maturity. There’s no way that our own experiences will fail to color our understanding. Like new-world slave owners, he said, long-ago promoters of European colonialism found plenty in the Scriptures to give them a moral imperative for the subjugation of whole societies, while religious leaders who emerged from the oppressed societies found plenty to justify fighting oppression.
In the end, he said, we have everything to gain from realizing that there will be various understandings of what he calls the “meaning potential” of every truth, and from seeking out communities that help us discover our own boundaries and discussing how they differ.
Blount said he’s a fan of inter-faith dialogue for this reason and, in response to a question from the audience, said dialogues between faiths outside of Christianity also are fruitful for identifying commonly held beliefs as well as differences. “Don’t be afraid that learning what someone else sees will change what you see,” he said. “It will help you find places where you might have missed the truth. Boy, did I have some blind spots.”
Blount ended by saying that, despite a long professional study of the ways in which sacred words can be interpreted, he remains very much a searcher: “I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Coming Home to Piedmont
Dorothy Wood Jones lives in Richmond now, but returns to Crozet and Piedmont Baptist Church as often as she can. “I’m surrounded by family here,” she said. “Most of us are related in some way. If we’re not, then they still feel like family.” Last month, she came for Piedmont’s 149th homecoming and recalled growing up in the church. “We didn’t know much about what was going on outside our little world,” she said. As the civil rights movement gained momentum after World War II, she knew little about racial unrest. “Our parents protected us, sheltered us,” she said. Later, the church was a center for the NAACP, and she learned more.
The daughter of a farmer, Jones grew up in a row of four homes near the church, all but one inhabited by relatives and that family might as well have been related, she said. Everyone in the family of six had chores, and hers was to keep the chickens off the porch. “I never will figure out why they wanted to come on the porch in the first place,” she said. “It still puzzles me.” One day she got so angry at a wayward hen that she threw a stone at it to dislodge it from the porch. “That chicken fell over and died,” she said. “I never did tell my mother why.”
As she grew up and attended Burley High School, her old classroom at Hillsboro School, across from the church, became a community center. She and her former classmate Marie Walker Mickems recalled dancing to Fats Domino and Ruth Brown where they had once learned their letters and numbers. Ruth Brown’s “Mama, He Treats Me Mean,” a 1950s-era R&B standard, was a favorite they both recalled.
Jones moved to Richmond to attend Virginia Union University, got married, and returned often to see her mother in Greenwood, eventually with her three children. “We came back and forth so often that I called them my ‘carbabies,’” she said. She had a long career as a supervisor for the government. Her husband, Al C. Jones, is a minister who pastored Piedmont for years, traveling back and forth on Sundays to preach.
Her friend Marie Mickems left for Los Angeles in 1956 and returned to Virginia thirty years later. In between she worked for a dental clinic. Both women are ordained deacons serving other churches now, but both love to return to their childhood church. “Grandparents, aunts and uncles,” said Mickems. “They’re all near us, just out there in the churchyard.”
Although the members of Crozet Baptist Church have been collecting food for their annual Thanksgiving meal for weeks, they give the public a couple of chances to help. The “Share the Blessings” project provides a Thanksgiving meal for hundreds of people. The next opportunity to donate food or cash will be Nov. 9 at the Crozet Market, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. To find other opportunities to help, go to www.crozetchurch.org.
The people of the Monacan Trail Cooperative Parish—Batesville, Mt. Olivet, and Trinity United Methodist Churches—have been busy with fall events, including Batesville’s Homecoming on Oct. 13 and a highly successful coat drive there, and coffee with Pastor Tim Worley every other Thursday at the Crossroads Store. Mt. Olivet staged a massive yard sale in two locations for Haitian charities. Just in time for Thanksgiving, Mt. Olivet’s wonderful bakers will present their best work at the yearly bake sale, Saturday, Nov. 23, starting at 7:30 a.m. Those who come late may find this popular event sold out. At Crozet United Methodist Church crafty members are gearing up for the Annual Christmas Bazaar Dec. 7 in the Parish Hall.