I’m laughing to myself at the title I’ve chosen for this next blog; it could be the name of a music group or even a Broadway musical! On a more serious note, I would like to spend some time over the next few weeks sharing my perspective on the biblical figure of Joseph and why I think he is particularly relevant at the moment. I know it might seem odd to travel back over four-thousand years to find anything relevant for today’s world but stay with me as I unpack his life and connect the dots.
It is my observance there is a great deal of similarity in the context of Joseph’s life and today’s Millennial generation. I think he is particularly pertinent to this transitional time in history. Knowledge is increasing exponentially and human connectivity allows for significant change to occur quickly. I also see a correlation between Joseph’s father Jacob and the perception many millennials have of their parents’ generation and their firsthand experiences with institutional religion. Jacob, before he was renamed Israel, was quite the con man. He was the Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) in “Catch Me If You Can” of his time. It was only after wrestling with God and being reduced to a state of brokenness and humility did his identity change. The frustration I hear from millennials is they feel like they were sold a beautiful dream home on what turned out to be swamp land by their parents and religious leaders. All this was done under the guise of their investment in the future being a peaceful vacation paradise. Life hasn’t unfolded quite the way they were led to expect. Their promised land has turned out to filled with irritating blood sucking mosquitos and hungry alligators!
AROUND AND AROUND WE GO
It was the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw who upon contemplating human history asked “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” It’s a sobering question. There is a great deal of wisdom to be gleaned from the annuals of human history and yet few do. Personally, I’m deeply concerned over the devaluation of history in our public education systems. Nothing good will come of it. Would you believe that at many US universities you don’t have to actually study history to get a history degree! [i] Doesn’t that seem a bit absurd to you?
Often within the context of dialoging with people in the various public sectors, I will mention a historical event as recorded in the bible. The reactions as you might imagine are fascinating. In the current hyper PC culture, whether Christian or not, if one references the bible in any work presentation you can feel people cringe. It’s typically not because they have a personal issue with it, but their fear of the corporate PC police. Their first thought is “oh no, what’s going to happen to them now?” Ask anyone who is invited to speak in these environments, those who book speakers are vigilant in telling you what you can or cannot say.
In part, institutional religion bears some responsibility for this situation as it has created the perception the bible is strictly a “religious holy” book. In reality the bible is a collection of 66 books of which many are historical in nature. While they focus predominantly on the history of the Hebrew people, they are written from a paradigm that God is in control of the events shaping their lives. Here is the kicker…so are most other ancient historical books! Every ancient civilization was built on a paradigm of “the will of the gods” being paramount and the modern concept of separation of church and state was nonexistent.
REALITY CHECK TIME
In my view, the history of mankind as recorded in the book of Genesis, no matter your stance on its literalness, is an authentic portrayal of humanity and all its dysfunction and brokenness. It’s an R rated movie, sanitized and repackaged on Sundays in churches around the world now as G rated. The idealized imagines of our Sunday School and Vacation Bible School days are the ones which still dominate our perspectives of biblical figures. Ask any Hollywood producer who attempts to bring a historically accurate and culturally authentic movie to the screen. The backlash from the Christian community can be astonishing. Without any actual knowledge of historical context or anthropology, they will tenuously hang onto their idealized perceptions. For those in search of authenticity, there continues to be a mass exodus out of the institutional religious world due to profound disillusionment with this lack of reality. We discussed this issue in a previous blog “Houston We Have a Problem”.
Despite what religious leaders might consider a crisis, from my perspective there is a huge opportunity. I think we are in what I call an “Etch A Sketch” moment. How many of you Boomers remember that childhood toy? There are some at the moment who carry the perspective religious leaders once drew them an idealized picture of church life in order to draw them in. They’ve since had a harsh reality check as they collided with life and broken humanity; it turned out to be a bit more complicated than presented. Many are in a reactionary “shake mode” at the moment as they try and erase a picture someone else drew for them. For the millennials raised in this environment, it’s more attuned to “time to delete that app” as it is really subversive malware. While this has many religious leaders in a panic, it has been my experience based on numerous discussions, those in the perceived spiritual wilderness are not actually lost but simply looking for authenticity. They are actually on a quest with a fundamental requirement that whatever happens, it must be devoid of more bleached biblical stories or idealized worldviews. No more pursuing mirages.
It is my commitment to you that I will unpack these stories as they are and not how we think they should be. I will not sanitize them as for me the beauty of the story is God at work in damaged humanity. These are the stories of songs. As Johnny Cash once sang in his #1 hit song “A Boy Named Sue”
And we crashed through the wall and into the street
Kicking and a’ gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer.
That is the more accurate description of life as depicted in the biblical historical books.
HOPPING ON THE DRAMA TRAIN
The account of Joseph is one of the more dramatic story-lines included in the bible narrative. Filled with betrayal, repeating cycles of success and failure and an international crisis, it makes for riveting reading. Much to the consternation of those who think they know how God works, the story of Joseph is filled with the very same paradoxes and confusion we all feel on our own life journey. His story is one for all of us, especially those trying to navigate life and careers out there in the unforgiving geo-political economic jungle where one mistake can have deadly long term consequences. Joseph had a few rather vulnerable moments throughout his life. It is not hard for me to imagine him sitting there wondering to himself “what the hell is coming next, can I do anything right?” Given the inconsistent trajectory of his life, he unquestionably felt the fear of vulnerability and the sense of powerlessness against forces much greater than himself.
It has always intrigued me how often the name Joseph has been used by religious organizations in association with their ministry to the poor. Not only was Joseph not a religious figure, the closest he came to ministry was having an Egyptian father-in-law who was the High Priest of the sun god Ra. Then, when one considers the manner Joseph approached solving a rather substantial problem on a national scale, how he went about it looked nothing like any religious models I’ve ever seen. He would have been excoriated by the American press and some religious leaders in today’s cultural climate. I realize I’ve made a couple rather surprising comments right out of the chute and some of you are wondering if I’m talking about the biblical Joseph you learned about while growing up. I can assure you I am so let’s take a closer look at this story together so you have a better understanding of my perspective on this intriguing character who played such a significant role in the plan of God.
Before we can move forward we need to back up a bit and put Joseph’s life into context. To do that we need to look at the family he grew up in as it was crazy dysfunctional. Many millennials have confided in me, that in hindsight, this is their perspective of growing up in the church world. First of all, Joseph’s father Jacob was a skilled con-man. He would have made P.T. Barnum blush. Some of you just got a nervous lump in your throat but hear me out; on at least three occasions it is recorded he deceived people to get what he wanted. He was a master at telling you what you wanted to hear and giving you the perception he had your best interest in mind, all the while getting exactly what he really wanted which was status and wealth. He bamboozled his older brother out of his stature as firstborn and stole his birthright. (Genesis 25:29-34)
NOW YOU SEE ME, NOW YOU DON’T
As his father Isaac aged and started losing his eyesight, Jacob and his mother Rebekah concocted an elaborate ruse to pretend he was in fact his older brother Esau and swindle his father’s prayerful blessing for himself. He was not only in full character mode, but full costume as well, all the while deceiving his own father to get what he wanted. While wanting the sacred things, the way he went about it was very unsacred. He was a master manipulator. Some of you are starting to connect the relevancy dots! I apologize for digging up memories of painful experiences from days gone by. I think it’s important though for us to understand that while we may have gone through pain, our children weren’t immune. They were the silent partners in all this; too young and powerless to speak up though at the time. Are you hearing them now?
Later, in the grand style of Clark Gable kissing Vivian Leigh in “Gone with the Wind”, Jacob would sweep the beautiful Rachel off her feet the very first time they met when she came to a well to water her father’s sheep. Jacob had moves! He was the Tony Manero (John Travolta) of his day. “Staying Alive” could have been the theme song of his life as he danced through it while fleecing people along the way. One of the inherent problems with grifters is you tend to learn the skills from other family members. Well, Jacob met his match with his manipulative uncle Laban who switched daughters on him at his wedding. While wanting Rachel, Jacob ended up with Leah. While Jacob was livid, Leah was stuck in a loveless marriage, Jacob would get back at his father-in-law in a sheep breeding scam whereby he prospered immensely at the expense of Laban but was able to marry his beloved Rachel.
Leah endured it all and bore Jacob four sons; Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah. She also bore him a daughter Dinah who only gets mentioned because she was raped (Genesis 34) Rachel was not getting pregnant and insanely jealous of Leah so she gave a servant named Bilhah to Jacob to get her pregnant in her stead. It worked and she bore Jacob another son named Dan and subsequently Naphtali. Rachel’s perspective in all this is summed up here “I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won.” (Genesis 30:8) This was a full blown cat fight with the children being used as weapons! Not to be out done, Leah then gives her servant Zilpah to Jacob to get her pregnant and get back at her sister. It works and while Rachel is fuming, Jacob’s sons Gad and Asher are born. To add fuel to the fire, with an “In Your Face!!!” move, Leah sleeps with Jacob again and bears him two more sons Issachar and Zebulun.
THE DAYS OF OUR LIVES
Yes, this is soap opera material here folks. This is down and dirty family dysfunction on full display. Unlikely as it sounds, these are the people God is working with! The craziness on display here is not altogether different from the family and church world many millennials grew up in with its many fights and scandals. There is a reason there are thousands of religious denominations. We Boomers have to own this if our children are going to move past it. Some of them are stuck back there still trying to sort out the craziness of what they observed in contrast to what they were told.
It was into this chaos and dysfunction the millennial Joseph was born. Finally, Rachel got pregnant and Joseph was the exhilarating result. It was all going to be different now that God’s blessing had turned up. The great love of Jacob’s life had finally produced a son for him! Well, not so fast, tragically while giving birth to her next son Benjamin, Rachel would unexpectedly die. Not exactly the outcome anyone was expecting. Suddenly Joseph was thrust into a particularly difficult situation; he and his baby brother were motherless. By no fault of their own, they found themselves in the middle of a family in conflict. They were the offspring of a women who was in an intense competition with the three other mothers in the family. They now had targets on their backs in a world they had nowhere to hide.
Next week I will pick up from here as we look at how Jacob overcompensated for the situation by coddling and overprotecting Joseph and Benjamin which led to some rather unhealthy perceptions of themselves and where they stood with others. This would come crashing down when they came face to face with the real world. The unexpected created disillusionment and soul searching. It was reality check time and it wasn’t pretty. You see, history has a way of repeating itself. The question before us; what will we learned from it?