The Importance of Asking Questions

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ICON SET-14David is one of the greatest of the Bible greats. I mean, if the Bible had its own team of Avengers, David would be Captain America. (Or Captain Israel, more appropriately) But really, how could he not be? He made his mark early on, striking down Goliath with the definitive good-over-evil, stand up for the little guy, God-is-on-your-side victory. That’s a big way to start a story.

It all began when David’s dad sent him to take provisions to his brothers who were fighting in a war against the Philistines. When he got to the battle lines, he checked in on his brothers but rather than reporting what was going on back home, David’s attention was fixed on a man from the Philistine side of the fight. He was more than a man though. He was a mouthy, cocky, giant of a soldier named Goliath who reveled in taunting the Israeli army. David listened as Big G launched into what had become a daily diatribe. “Hey you over there! Choose someone to come fight me. If he kills me, we’ll become your subjects. If I kill him, your ass is grass.”

Big talk for sure but Goliath’s stature more than backed him up. When illustrations of Goliath were used in Sunday School, he stood twice as tall as David and had the burly chest and giant muscles of a bearded, dark-haired Schwarzenegger in his prime. Saul, the first king of Israel, had been worried about Big G’s taunts for a while because there didn’t seem to be anyone in his army who could equal him in either stature or gravitas. Needless to say, it came a quite a surprise when David said, “Um, I’ll do it.”

Saul stated the obvious: This wasn’t a good idea. Goliath had been a warrior since his youth and David was, well, still a youth. However, I’ll say that as a kid, I knew enough about Spiderman and Angels in the Outfield to know youth wasn’t a deal-breaker for greatness. Sometimes, it takes a kid to do a hero’s job. Therefore, it made perfect sense to me when David told Saul, “I watch sheep for a living. When a lion or a bear came and carried off one of my sheep babies, not only did I go after it, but I got Lamb Chop out of the lion’s mouth, grabbed it by its mane and killed it for trying to eat her. So if I could kill a lion and a bear, I can certainly kill that mouthy Sasquatch across the way. He’s trash-talked the armies of God and his is the ass that will be grass.”

Saul relented and in trying to help protect the kid’s life, put his armor and helmet on David in a sort of biblical makeover montage—the sort that’s usually soundtracked by “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” or “Dress You Up” by Madonna—but David couldn’t even move in Saul’s bulky full-grown-man armor so he decided to stick with what he knew. He picked up five smooth stones from the stream, put them in his shepherd’s bag and with sling in hand, walked out onto the battlefield. Today, if I was a Sunday School teacher, I think I’d compare Big G to Thanos and David to Tom Holland’s pint-sized Peter Parker. In both size and stature, they stood as opposites and the outcome looked pretty bleak for lil Davey.

Goliath stomped out to meet his pint-sized agitator and I imagine this was a humorous but sad sight to behold from the sidelines. Here’s this kid, tiny and small like Tom Holland, walking out sans armor, sword or shield, to fight a nine-foot-tall embodiment of male machismo. Goliath scoffed at this apparent lack of a challenge but David clapped back saying, “You have swords and spears, but I’ve got God on my side. Today, God is going to end this and when that happens, I’m going to decapitate you. Thoughts and prayers.”

Annoyed, Goliath stepped forward to crush the irritatingly confident kid but as he did, David didn’t fearfully run in the opposite direction. Instead, he ran toward him. Taking a stone out of his bag, he dropped it into his slingshot and whipped it through the air. The rock careened right into Goliath’s forehead, the armies on both sides gasped in disbelief, and Big G fell facedown to the ground. Lights out.

There couldn’t have been a quieter moment in all of history. Both the Israelites and the Philistines stood stunned and silent, staring at the kid who struck down the tallest, loudest champion in the land. But David didn’t miss a beat. Running over to stand over the top of him, he took Goliath’s own sword, killed and then decapitated him. David won. Goliath lost. The theme from Rocky played.

In Sunday School, that story became the identifying tale for David’s legacy but it was merely the opening act of his story, a preamble of sorts to a life of largeness. He was Legolas and Aragorn in one—the ultimate fighter and ultimate ruler—and from a young age, he was my favorite person in the Bible. He was everything I wanted to be and from as early as I can remember, I’ve been inspired by the idea of him. He was the king and a conqueror—the antithesis to my general adolescent state of feeling frail—and he was strong to the point of killing large predatory animals with his bare hands. While I’d never advocate for animal slaughter, especially lions and bears (oh my), I would advocate for strength of self, body, and character. David had, in my young mind, all those things.

In junior high, I couldn’t even shower in front of the other boys. After a morning of football practice, I knew my pubescent stink would follow me for the rest of the day if I didn’t wash it off but I was also so self-conscious and afraid of my own lumpy reflection in the mirror that I literally shook with fear as I ran into the locker room showers. I’d hold my towel in one hand outside the reach of the water, wash myself off with the other, then as soon as I turned the water off, mummify my naked self with my sour-smelling towel before scurrying back to my locker. I couldn’t even bear the thought of being naked for the seven feet between my locker and the shower. I dried off like a scared and soiled puppy shaking after being forced to get into the bathtub.

But David, I was told, had no problem being naked. I can’t count the number of times I heard the phrase, “David danced naked before the Lord” at church. So the idea of a harpist who doubled as a giant-killer dancing around like he’s fresh out of the shower when “Oops…I Did It Again” comes on was really something to me. What’s interesting is that at 35 years old, I found out the Bible doesn’t say that happened at all. David was a dancer for sure but he did so while clothed. [2 Samuel 6:14] A simple Google search showed I wasn’t the only person who believed this fallacy but for whatever reason, I did. (There’s no age limit on learning something new y’all.) Still, regardless of his being clothed or not, it was David’s dancing that led me to one of my first confrontations with the anvil-like entity that is church dogma.

ICON SET-14The Bible talked exhaustively about dancing and we as a Pentecostal church were encouraged to dance during times of worship. We could dance to our hearts’ content, up and down the aisles if we felt so moved. Brisk Jericho Marches around the sanctuary with shaking and weeping were acceptable, dare I say expected, and many times this freedom of dancing before the Lord even included tambourines. However, choreographed dancing was all but forbidden to take place on our sanctuary stage. That sort—the planned and practiced sort—was considered both inappropriate and sinful.

It seems like a silly tidbit of dogma to get hung up on, but my teenage era of music was the teen pop of Britney, boy bands and TRL. Dancing seemed to be everywhere except our church stage. It’s not that we church-going teens were devoid of art within the church—we sang in elementary schools, went to national competitions and performed dramas in Sunday service—but I wondered why, when our choir sang, we were relegated to a step-touch routine lest our dancing be too provocative. David danced, right? I had a lot of questions.

There were many reasons given, the most pronounced of which was that girls shaking their hips on stage would cause men to lust after them while at the same time painting those girls as immodest. “Modesty” was a big buzzword for the young women of the Pentecostal persuasion in the late 90s. They had to be on constant modesty-watch lest their choice of clothing provoke we teenage boys to public bouts of uncontrollable masturbation. Interestingly, there was very little talk about young men acting like equilaterally-respectful humans regardless of what a women wore. Seems like that’s a system set up to reinforce disparity and place the blame for men’s transgressions on women, but I digress. Dancing fell firmly under the canopy of immodesty and as such, it was forbidden.

The summer of my junior year, our youth group didn’t do a full-length musical as we had in the past. In previous years, our director wrote an original musical and we spent the summer months bringing it to the stage. This particular summer, we would instead present two One Act plays. One was a piece our director had written about the fall of man as told through the different trees in the Bible; heady, interpretive stuff with big set pieces that looked like trees. It was interesting and cool. The other was a piece I wrote which was basically the same story—the fall of man and the salvation God can bring—only my interpretation was far more abstract. The through-line of both stories was redemption, something we imagined would appeal to every demographic and my director even touted the merit of telling the same story two different ways—fully supporting my more bright-colored, flashy vision.

As I brainstormed the best way to tell the story, I reasoned: If God is the bestower of creativity, why isn’t the church at the forefront of artistic expression? Why do we always seem to be four steps behind? So, using the tools at my disposal and all I’d learned from award shows on MTV and musicals on PBS, I created a half-hour-long One Act with two speaking characters serving as my Greek chorus while the story itself would be told through interpretive dance and movement.

Though I should have expected it from the outset, the congregation wasn’t prepared for what unfolded in front of them. We wore outfits from Gadzooks and looked like a group wannabe club kids, something our southern conservative audience who favored straight-forward storytelling couldn’t wrap their minds around. But mostly, all they could see were co-ed teenagers dancing on stage together. The applause was cordial and minimal, a smattering really, and I took my bow as months of work on costumes, lighting, choreography, writing and rehearsals evaporated into nothing. In an instant, the crowd had non-verbally turned against us and we knew we’d done something that didn’t land. More than not landing, it was implied we’d done something wrong.

I had a big dream but wasn’t experienced enough to fully foster a bridge between my mid-sized suburban Pentecostal church community and an atypical way of visualizing their faith. After the lights went dark, I picked up the broken spirits of my cast mates and piled them on my back, carrying them with me for a long time.

Where I felt perpetually weak and frumpy, tattered and powerless, David was strong. He was a straight-up action hero. Even outside the Bible, I was drawn to heroes who fought for the little guy. King Arthur, Robin Hood, the Lone Ranger—they’re who I’ve aspired to be. But while those characters symbolized benevolence in the face of evil and insurmountable odds, as I dove into David’s story, I discovered his strength of character was somewhat nonexistent. He was a living, breathing disaster area—the sort of person who needed orange cones around him at all times—yet he was also known as a man of God. To take it one step further, even though he was an adulterous manipulator, he was still considered a man after God’s own heart.

That’s also part of David’s story once he’d become king of Israel. It played out like this: David was walking on the roof of his palace (because that’s what you can do when you’re king and you have a palace), and saw a woman named Bathsheba taking a bath—how ironic. This establishes David as Ricky, the neighbor kid in American Beauty who creepily watched a woman through a window. Bathsheba was married to a man named Uriah, a name I guess she could look past, and David knew this but didn’t so much care. He wanted her, he was the king, and he got her pregnant.

Horrible name aside, Uriah actually sounds like a standup guy. When David panicked because he knocked up a married woman, he concocted a plan to pawn the baby off as Uriah’s. He interrupted Uriah mid-war, commanding him to come back and be with Bathsheba and hoped he’d be so happy to be home from the war that he’d get busy with his wife. He didn’t. Instead, Uriah slept at the entrance of the palace near the servants. He said his commander and fellow comrades were in tents fighting a war so why should he receive special treatment? It seems that the dude whose name sounded like an infection had more integrity than the dude with the crown on his head.

As you can imagine, this irritated David. So, he got Uriah drunk, believing he’d stumble home and this time he’d for sure get busy with his wife. But Uriah’s principles were stronger than the wine and again he slept near the servants. Now royally pissed off, David acted as any rational adult would—he sent Uriah back to the front line of battle where it was most dangerous, and left him there to die. So Uriah was killed in battle, David made Bathsheba his wife and they had a bouncing baby boy.

This is a biblical Shonda Rimes drama. There’s the hot soldier who’s loyal to his battalion, the hot and slightly voyeuristic wife who bathes in public and misses her far-off husband, and the hot king who’s horny for the wet naked lady. The hot wife falls for the first guy to show her some attention while her husband is away and she winds up pregnant. That last sentence was unfair to Bathsheba but it’s actually the only way I’ve heard the story told. It should’ve read: The hot wife fell prey to the literal king of the castle and regardless of if she was into him or not, she couldn’t say no and wound up pregnant with the king’s baby while her husband was away fighting a war. There, I fixed it.

Even after I’d graduated into grown-up church, the rest of David’s story tended to read like appendixes to his triumph over Goliath. Sure we learned about his pratfalls and his moral failings, but the story always came back to that Peter Parker of a little guy whirling a rock at that Thanos of a giant, knocking him on his ass and decapitating him proudly like the star of a Ridley Scott film. The truth is that David had a closet full of skeletons and along with being the dude who fought a lion and a bear and won handily (church kid pun!) he had a man killed and was an adulterer. These traits tend to be universally frowned upon should you have a conscience and/or are a human who isn’t garbage, but most Christians whiz past those parts, leaning on the adage that “all have sinned and fallen short.” [Romans 3:23] I feel it’s important to reinforce the fact he banged a dude’s wife and then had that dude murdered.

If the President of the United States did that today, Anderson Cooper would be interviewing Christians on CNN who’d sound like the demon-possessed girl in The Exorcist as they bellowed on and on about the moral authority in our Bible-based nation. At least I think that’s what would happen. The Evangelical establishment seems to be cherry-picking which “sins” to care about and which to blissfully ignore these days, especially when it comes to men in power. The point is, we collectively give David a pass. Why? Because his exploits for God were so pronounced early on that it made up for his later wrongs?

Just as our church’s dogma about dancing puzzled me, David’s story caused me to ask even more questions. For instance, why do the harems of wives many of the above-the-title heroes possessed tend to slip our minds? David had at least six wives. Those facts are so deeply embedded into our heroes’ backstories that most people don’t recognize them as real parts of their God-fearing lives. Still, they had them, they’re the heroes of the best-selling book of all time, and I have questions about why we dismiss this as being a “cultural issue” of their day while we don’t dismiss others under the same stipulations.

Which inevitably led me to another question mark: Jonathan.

ICON SET-14Jonathan was King Saul’s son and right off the bat, he and David hit it off. Soon after David killed Big G, the Bible says, “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” [1 Samuel 18:1] A verse later, it says Jonathan made a covenant with David because “he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.” [1 Samuel 18:3] It’s interesting. If the word ‘Jonathan’ was replaced with ‘Elizabeth’ or ‘Mary,’ this would be preached about as biblical love at first sight. There’s a sense of reckless abandon that accompanies Jonathan taking off his royal trappings and his armor to give them to David. That’s not a casual action, nor it is a proportionate response to meeting someone new who you simply think would make a good addition to your bowling team. There’s a level of instant, deep devotion in Jonathan’s actions.

David and King Saul’s relationship, however, was contentious at best. Saul became jealous of David’s post-Goliath popularity and tried to kill him a few times. Saul even went so far as to give his daughter Michal to David to be his wife as a backdoor trick to get David killed. In an episode eerily similar to David’s interaction with Uriah, Saul said he didn’t expect a dowry from David “except a hundred foreskins of the Philistines, that he may be avenged of the king’s enemies.” [1 Samuel 18:25] Saul sent David into battle hoping the Philistines would kill him and the blood for his death wouldn’t be on his hands, but David came back with 100 foreskins—super gross—and Saul’s plan failed. He tried to kill David again but “Jonathan, Saul’s son, delighted much in David,” [1 Samuel 18:19] and kept David safe. Jon even stood up to his father, the king, and told him to back off from David and quit trying to kill him. It didn’t work for Wile E. Coyote and it wouldn’t work for him.

As such, David spent large swaths of time on the run from Saul but Jonathan kept him safe at every turn. Jon said, “May the Lord take vengeance on David’s enemies.” The Bible continues, “And Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him, for he loved him as he loved his own soul.” [1 Samuel 18:16]

When Jonathan learned that Saul intended to kill David at any cost, he defended David at the expense of his relationship with his father. Saul turned on him, claiming he’d shamefully chosen David over his family. [1 Samuel 20:30] When Jonathan told David, the Bible says David, “fell on his face to the ground and bowed three times. And they kissed one another and wept with one another, David weeping the most.” [1 Samuel 18:41] Jonathan let David go in order to save his life, saying, “The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my offspring and your offspring, forever.” [1 Samuel 18:42] Jonathan is saying their love and their connection can’t be broken.

The last time David saw Jonathan, they met up in the desert where David was hiding. Jon told him, “Don’t be afraid. Saul will not lay a hand on you. You will be king over Israel, and I will be second to you. Even my father knows this.” [1 Samuel 23:16] They had a future and in it, they were standing alongside each other. However, not too long after that, the Philistines killed Jonathan in battle.

Now, if you ask most Bible Belters about David and Jonathan’s relationship, they’d tell you it’s the ultimate story of plutonic devotion among man friends—the world’s first recorded bromance. If you ask someone whose outlook on the world and history is a bit more liberal, it’s the story that illustrates God-centric, romantic love between two dudes. Whether you read that as homosociality or homosexuality, the Bible says at Jonathan’s funeral, David lamented, “Your love to me was more wonderful than the love of women.” [2 Samuel 1:26] Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see a modern day conservative pastor in Texas saying he loved a dude more than he loved his wife at that dude’s funeral. But that’s what David, the man after God’s own heart, says in black and white on the page.

When Julie Taymor directed the Broadway classic The Lion King, she said, “One of the best things about The Lion King is that it’s not about race and all about race. When white audiences go to see The Lion King, they don’t think about it. They get the beauty and the talent of these great performers and the music. And yet if a black audience goes, it’s all about race. Because, imagine a young African American child going and seeing a king who’s black. It is about a future where racism won’t be an issue at all.” I see David and Jonathan’s relationship through a similar lens. To someone who leans to the conservative side of the fence, David and Jonathan’s connection is inconsequential to the larger story. To others, it’s a life raft that says, in the words of Lin Manuel Miranda, that “Love is love is love is love.” Believe what you want, but the Bible says he loved Jonathan more than any woman.

The significance of the cultural context within the Bible is a dialogue many people don’t want to have because it makes them uncomfortable, but there are others who are asking big, tradition-challenging questions about why specific dogmatic strictures exist. To them, the church—specifically the Evangelical Church—has positioned itself as an out-of-touch stalwart in a world that’s radically changing. But it doesn’t have to be. Today, we read what Jesus said and think, “Of course that’s how that should be,” but when those things were actually said, much of it was considered counter-culture heresy; a brazen disregard of centuries of tradition and “in-stone,” “black and white” commandments and rituals. The bedrock of truth is the same throughout the history of the Christian faith: the unending love of God, the need to love each other, the need to take care of the poor. The branches—the extra stuff surrounding the trunk of the message—have been ever-changing since the texts were written on scrolls, spoken around campfires, or edited and reinterpreted by scholars and kings throughout history.

David taught me perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned as a man of faith: to ask big questions. Why do we believe that way? Why do we vote that way? Is that dogma sound or is it just your opinion? Seek the answers, even if they’re different than what you were taught all your life. The Book of Psalms is known for its frou-frou language and copious amounts of praising but it also contains chapter after chapter of David questioning God. “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts?” he asks in chapter 13. “Who may dwell in your sacred tent?” he asks two chapters later and is something many churches are asking themselves today. (The answer is everyone by the way.)

In Sunday School, the takeaway was that no matter how big our personal Goliaths may be, God is bigger. I’m glad it still means that because some days, the Goliaths seem insurmountable. But I also think David’s life stands as a witness to the fact that yes, God is bigger than our personal failings but also, God is bigger than our dogma. David showed me how to be strong while also being myself. There’s a gospel song by Fred Hammond that says, “When the Spirit of the Lord comes upon my heart, I will dance like David danced.” I loved that song when my high school ensemble sang it but more than just dancing—which I’m still prone to do—I will also question like David questioned.

David’s story begins in the book of 1 Samuel chapter 16.

So what’s this all about? Read my introduction to the Sunday School for Sinners and Saints project here. 

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