Thick and Clear

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on November 14, 2009

The writer C.S. Lewis once wrote that a true religion needs to be both thick and clear. (Please see: “Thick and Clear Religions” at dangerous idea.)

“Thick” religion is full of symbols, traditions, ceremonies, and mystery. It touches the human heart as per what is extra-rational and eternal. “Clear” religion provides a straight-forward philosophical and moral arrangement for living that even a child can understand. A religion that is thick but not clear is a cult of great obscurity, where only a small priestly class knows (or is allowed to know) the inner secrets of temple life. A religion that is clear but not thick is a perpetual child’s school, where simple truths are never built upon into adulthood.

I come from a faith tradition that had far more emphasis on “clear” spirituality than on “thick” religion. I am seeking a way of life that maintains my clear religion yet lovingly incorporates mystery, shadows, and symbols (“thick” religion).

Any thoughts?

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Story of the Good Samaritan: A Fresh Perspective

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on August 09, 2008

You’ve probably already heard of the Story of the Good Samaritan. It was Jesus’ answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?”.

What you may *not* have heard is the symbolic interpretation of this story. Amazingly enough, looking at this story as being symbolic (allegorical) produces a sweeping picture of the entire story of humankind from beginning to end.

The story begins with a traveller going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. This is a steep downhill journey. This is symbolic of Adam being placed into the earth with the purpose of ruling over it after having been designed and thought of in the eternal, heavenly mind of God. [Note: The very beginning of the story in the original language (ancient Greek) even says “a certain man …” (the traveller), which is translated as “Adam”.] Yet before Adam can realize his true potential of ruling over all of the earth, he and his wife, Eve, make a tragic decision. Without fully realizing what they are doing, they surrender their privileges as a son and a daughter of God.

The thieves who attacked the traveller are symbols of the devil and demons. The robbery of the clothes of the traveller represents a loss of authority and identity, which is what happened to Adam and Eve (and to all of humanity, their descendants) when, after being tricked into doing so by the serpent, they disobeyed God and ate from the forbidden tree. This was then marked by their expulsion from Eden and their loss of a regular, face-to-face relationship with God in that garden. As happened to the victim in the story, they became “half-dead”. All of humanity is created in the likeness of God, and yet this stain of separation from God remains.

The unhelpful passers-by, the priest and the levite, represent religious law and religion systems. Neither is able or willing to help. [As it is written: By the works of the law, no one will be justified (helped).] Symbolically in the story, the law comes by first and then the religious ceremonies, formalities and systems that surround that law. [The Levites assisted the priests in ancient Judea.]

The Good Samaritan represents Jesus. The Samaritan pours oil and wine upon the victim’s wounds. Oil often represents the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of God) in the Bible, whereas wine often represents the blood of Christ, shed for all of humanity on the cross. Samaritans were part Jewish and part gentile (non-Jewish). This is symbolic of Jesus being God and man. The victim is then carried by the Samaritan to Jericho. This symbolizes Jesus Christ doing what humankind carelessly gave up the ability to do on its own: going “down” to its divine (heavenly) destiny of ruling (the story of Genesis says subduing/possessing/having dominion over) the earth. The inn where the traveller is housed in safety is a symbol of the church, the body of Christ. Finally, the promise of the Samaritan to return represents the second coming of Jesus back to the earth.

Another facet of this symbolic interpretation is offered by Sam Soleyn in his new MP3 series entitled “The Culture of the Kingdom”. See:

In program 139 of this series, Mr. Soleyn sees the two coins as symbolizing 2,000 years. This is because the type of coin in the story refers to one day’s wage for the average worker at that time, and also because, in the Bible, references to one day were often symbolic of 1,000 years. If this is correct, Jesus is saying that he would return for his church after about 2,000 years.

By the way, seeing this story as a series of symbols is not a new invention. Rather, it has ancient roots. The respected 3rd-century theologian Origen wrote down this interpretation and said that other followers of Christ had passed it down to him. See:

Do you also find this symbolic interpretation interesting or do you consider it to be just a distraction from the more direct meaning of the story?


Book Review: “The End of Religion”

Posted in: Reviews,Spirituality by bill-o on August 05, 2008

“The End of Religion” is a book with a serious and provocative title. Yet even though this is indeed a serious work, its touch and tone are light for those readers who are truly seeking Jesus but not a religious institution. As the author, Bruce Cavey, teaching pastor of the Meeting House in the Toronto area, freely explains, this book is for those who love Jesus but who are burnt out on religion.

Even though this is ultimately a theological book, it is conversational in tone. For example, Mr. Cavey’s story of his own marriage having matured into a love-based relationship does more to explain why love is better than law than a long, technical theological dissertation ever could. The author’s retelling of a chance meeting with an atheist who loved the Golden Rule but didn’t know Jesus had said it also provides an important touch of humanity and personality. The reader gets a sense of actually sitting across a comfortable living room and talking to the author over a casual cup of coffee, even though weighty spiritual issues are being discussed.

For those readers more inclined to a Bible-teaching style, a substantive discussion of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, as well as an examination of the Greek word skandalon in the gospels, will you provide you with what you are looking for.

The essence of the book can probably best be summarized in the author’s story (parable) of the couple Bob and Sue. To rekindle the romance in their marriage, Bob planned a special dinner at a restaurant, capped off by the presentation of a blue rose. However, Bob then invited Sue to several more dinners just like it at the same restaurant. What started out the first time as something romantic and special became routine, monotonous, and even more than a little strange each time after the first dinner. And so it is with religion.

For Mr. Cavey, excessive religion is an “organzational dependence”. This is where a person depends in whole or in part in a organization (institution) for access to God. Religion, as he sees it, is marked by the presence of fear and not its absence. It seems that avoiding this fear-and-dependence trap will bring someone much closer to the religion-less life that the author extols.

What does the author means when he says “the end of religion”? Mr. Cavey’s ideas about this title phrase come to a climax in the chapter, “The Day Religion Died”. Here, he writes:

“Yes, the Bible says that Jesus died for our sins. But it also says that he died for our religion. In Christ, God crucified the whole mess once and for all. In fact, by repeatedly emphasizing that Jesus died for our sins, the biblical writers were emphasizing the end of religion as a way to God.”

There is not necessarily a lot of practical application in this book (other than a paragraph at the end encouraging readers to “seek out intentional community”). In other words, if you agree with the author that Jesus declared the end of religion, then what do you now? Such a question is valid. However, that’s not the point of a book like this. “The End of Religion” challenges and confronts long-held assumptions about Jesus and religion. The author properly leaves it to others (expressly including his readers) to illuminate the next steps in turning this theory into practice.

It’s not a main theme of the book, but I do appreciate when the author mentions his own church congregation, the Meeting House. The Meeting House is evidently “a church for people who aren’t into church”. Rather than seeking to build the largest possible institutional church, Mr. Cavey freely admits that he expects his church to exist in a radically different form in another gerenation. Mr. Cavey clearly seems not to be a pastor who is writing his book as a stepping stone to megachurch superstardom or as a vehicle to prop up his own ministry.

If you’re looking for a long, technical treatise on theology, this is not the book for you. However, if you’re looking for a breath of fresh air about Jesus and his love, then I would recommend this book to you.

For more information, see:


You may not realize this but there is a web site dedicated to interpreting song lyrics. This site is called, interestingly enough, On this site, people are invited to post what they each think are the meanings (interpretations) of various songs.

For me, what is often most interesting about this site is not the interpretations themselves but the fact that the posted meanings so wildly diverge. (For example, type in “Hotel California” and read the possible song meanings that are posted there.) How can everyone listen to a popular song and yet come to such clearly different views of what the song really means? Didn’t the songwriter have only one interpretation in mind when he or she wrote the song?

Now let’s take a recent popular song, “Bottle It Up”, by singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles. Please go to the following part of to see both the lyrics of this song and its possible meanings:

(Please Note: You’ll need to be familiar with these lyrics in order to understand the rest of this post.)

For those of you who don’t already know, “Bottle It Up” is one of two popular songs by Ms. Bareilles, the other one being “Love Song”. On, “Bottle It Up” is described as being “cute”, about relationships going too far too fast, about a guy who’s too emotional in a relationship, or about Ms. Bareilles record label being too controlling. Evidently, what Ms. Bareilles had in mind was the last one in this list: her record label wanting to have too much of a say about her songs. See:

With this interpretation in mind, I listened to the song again and it made a lot more sense. The first half of the first verse and the third verse represent the record label talking down to Sara. The second half of the first verse, the second verse, the chorus, and the bridge are Sara responding (a very brief summary: “I do it for love.”).

Yet I’d like to suggest here an even more expansive and spiritual meaning of this song. If you take a look at the words of this song, the parts of the song where the record label is speaking can be viewed as being religious institutions. Just as a record label could be overly controlling of one its artists, so can a religious system place chains on the hearts of spiritual seekers. The parts where Sara is speaking can be seen, of course, as genuine love responding to religion and beginning to move beyond it.

First, notice how religious systems talk down to people: “Babe”, “Little Darlin'”, “kindly shut up”. And look at how the ultimate goal of institutional religion is everyone keeping up their end of the bargain, which is the essence of contractual law. Now there is nothing wrong with contracts, but they can’t in themselves lead themselves to the fullest expressions of true spirituality: faith, hope, and love. Without active traits like these in our lives, contracts (laws) can become mere tools for threats or manipulation.

In the third verse, the speaker talks in both the singular and in the plural, just as the singular “law” can be the plural “laws” and both mean essentially the same thing. The line “killing me sweetly” at the end of this verse plays on the words from Roberta Flack’s song “Killing Me Softly”. This is a subtle emphasis on how institutions love what is sweet (sugary). Sugar tastes good to eat, after all, but it provides little long-term nutritional value.

Religious institutions also love to “bottle up” an expression of reaching out to the divine and then try to repeat it over and over again, even when such old ways of doing things may no longer be necessary or appropriate.

The first verse turns like a door hinge on the word heart and how it can be seen in two different ways. Religious systems see the heart as something to be mechanically manipulated into “doing the right things”. Thus, we see the words “Get to the heart of it”. This is a command to strip things bare down to a cold and dry essence. Anything outside of certain predefined boundaries is not good. The turning of the first verse comes with the use of the s word, which represents a strong “push back” by the spiritual seeker. “No, it’s *my* heart, not yours!” The second verse describes a contrasting heart: one that blooms like a flower. It is delicate and beautiful. Here, knowledge in and of itself is not desirable (“I don’t claim to know much”), whereas love is gentle and encouraging.

The bridge of the song talks about maturing from law-based religion to love-based spirituality. Yes, when we are young and immature, rules (laws) can be useful. They tutor us, if you will, until we become spiritual adults. At the end of the bridge, religious (institutional) laws promise more laws (“resolutions”) as being the solution for all of life’s problems. The “new year” reference speaks of time, and the word “never” in front of it refers to what is locked in time. It can never be eternal. (In contrast, the word love is repeated eight times; eight is often seen as the number that symbolizes eternity.)

The ultimate expression of love comes overlaid upon the last time the chorus is sung. The essence of love is that you have to give it away before you can get it. This is something that goes beyond contracts and laws. At its highest expression, it is the laying down of one’s life for others.

God is love. In his eternal presence, love and not law will be the only guiding principle of interaction between one person to another. The “garden of love” was Eden where people and God met face to face and interacted purely on the basis of love. Where there was law, there was only the law that God made with himself. And so it will be again for those who love him.


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