My early attempts at math were innocuous enough. Two plus two, ninety degrees, 3.14 and numerator over denominator. This last one was to be indelibly marked on my brain by a teacher who reminded us that we lived in North Dakota. Numerator Denominator. North Dakota. Numerator Denominator. Nearly thirty years later I remember it vividly and wonder how the kids from South Carolina ever figured out Numerator Denominator. Perhaps their statehood served them in other math tricks, I guess.
To begin with, math was entirely practical. It helped one discover how many cupcakes Sally could give each of her two friends if her mother made a pan of six. It served to show us how much candy a boy could buy if he had a dollar and seventy two cents and candy bars were thirty five cents each.
Later, math became more elusive, Just when we thought we had numbers mastered, they introduced X. X was the mathematical equivalent of the Burmuda Triangle. Answers entered X and were never seen again, at least on the worksheet in front of you. X had a thousand faces. It was Elvis. Young X. Army X. Fat X. Forget Elvis – X was Syblll. X=MPS. I never quite knew which X I were dealing with, and knowing it was destined to change, I was never really motivated to figure it out.
Interestingly enough, I didn’t start out to be a mathematician. I started out to be a musician and artist. At three I was singing in the pew next to my mother. Song #241 in the red-backed hymnal. Short little songs the song leader called choruses. The monthly birthday song for those who had celebrated a birthday in that month. We sang’m all. When the good part of the service (the music) was finished and the boring part (the preaching) began, I’d do a quick 180, kneel on the floor and place my coloring book on the seat of the oak pew. Music, then art.
During the preaching, I gave life to purple horses wearing red saddles and led by children with green complexions. Let the other poor sops listen to the ranting fellow in the pulpit. I was in church. I had things to create. When the preaching was finished, my mother would tap my back. I’d spin around and stand up for the closing song. No matter how long the preacher preached, at least we ended on an up note.
On a good Sunday, I walked out with four or five new pieces of art – visual representations of what was within. The rest of the congregation had a list of three keys to a successful life written on the back of their church bulletin. Often these keys wouldn’t fit a single lock in their heart, but they had dutifully written them down, presumably for a friend.
Somewhere along the line, that all changed., As de-motivated as I was to keep up with the many faces of X, I had to admit I was born into a mathematical world. Logic said that if there were questions in life, there were answers. Answers were there to be figured out in a concrete manner. By twenty, I was sure I could master the problems of life, probably before lunchtime, if I just figured out the right equation. Poverty was answered by a sufficient minimum wage. Family squabbles could be addressed with correct apportioning of time – family unity through simple division. Once I fixed the world’s problems using my math skills, I moved on to my own. Apparently I’d never heard the airline attendant encourage me to place my own mask over my mouth before helping those around me.
What I discovered in solving my own problems was that they were not quite so simple as everyone else’s. While I could divide and conquer for so many others, when faced with my own issues of insecurity, the numbers just didn’t add up. I couldn’t figure out who I was with pen and pencil. I couldn’t cipher meaning out of loneliness or simplify the fractions that my heart split into when disappointments came. As handy as hard numbers were, they were useless in areas what were important to me.
What I needed for my internal struggles was less in the way of numbers and more in the way of crayons. Certain difficulties were too complex to be placed in columns like numerical soldiers. Some of what I felt needed a spectrum, not a slide rule.
Bible college was a time of fast discovery. I learned new words and their meanings. Words like propitiation and immutability. Numbers didn’t work too well in this environment either. The things I felt in my heart towards the things they were teaching me came back to me at night in full motion, vivid color dreams…yet in an academic world that lived in fear of heresy, we were told that theological conundrums had one true answer. One. No fractions, no decimals, and most certainly no color or backbeat, just 1.0. Don’t’ ask any more questions.
At the risk of being labeled heretical (and thereby thwarting my fast track to pasturing a mega church, as if I hadn’t already thwarted that myself a few times), I’m needing a theology with a little more room for color and sound. I’ve never been able to deduce the right things to say at a funeral, yet I’ve found them somewhere deep in my heart. When doing weddings, I’ve tried to add line upon line, precept upon precept, until the bride and groom understood the solemn occasion as simply as one plus one. In the end, all he wants to do is kiss the girl.
Likewise, when discovering God’s path for myself, I’ve found the realm of song to be more beneficial then the realm of 1’s and 0’s. In reading scripture, I’ve found more than one passage that meant different things to me at different times. The mathematical theologians told me that I had to settle on one interpretation when my heart cried out for three.
Take for a moment Psalm 40. I’ve been pondering verses 6 – 10 for a couple of days.
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, "Here I am, I have come— it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart." I proclaim righteousness in the great assembly; I do not seal my lips, as you know, O LORD. I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and salvation. I do not conceal your love and your truth from the great assembly.
Reading this through the other day, I was blown away to think that thousands of years ago, God saw fit to cue David to write a passage about me. I felt every nuance of that paragraph was about what God was doing in my heart…that somewhere in the library of heaven, my name was scrawled in a book, and God had checked that book out. I felt called to proclaim righteousness in the great assembly. I felt compelled to speak of His faithfulness of salvation. I vowed to never conceal what God had done for me and share the love with others. You can imagine my reaction when I read the commentaries that indicated – at least according to mathematical theology – that I was whacked in the head.
Not only did they consider me whacked, they were pretty much split in their own opinions, leading one to believe that half of them were whacked as well. Some commentaries insisted this passage although written by David’s hand, was written from Christ’s perspective….and I can certainly read it that way. Others say that it was about David himself. I can buy that too. Oddly enough, none of the commentaries list my name as one of the possible subjects. By omission, they seem to argue that it could be about either Christ or David, but it is most certainly not about Randy Bohlender.
Here’s where mathematical theology bites, in my opinion. I don’t see the fulfillment of this passage as an equation, I see it as a musical chord.
I grew up on chords. My father had an unusual affliction that made it impossible for him to drive long distances in the car without singing. He could control it for ten miles or so, but any drive longer than that and he would break into song. Often my mother would join him, albeit in a quieter voice. I would chime in from the back seat and after a verse or so we’d settle into a tight three part harmony. There, on the back roads of North Dakota, “What a Day That Will Be” never sounded so righteous as when sung in a long, red 1977 Ford LTD Coupe.
Pondering the “Jesus, David or Me?” conundrum that I was faced with by Psalm 40 and mathematical theology, I began to think about the concept of a chord. In a chord, with several tones melding into one glorious sound, which note was right? Certainly there was a melody note – a primary note that the chord was built around, but were not the other two notes important for the chord to be intact? Could it be that rather than randomly rejecting two of the three interpretations, I should be embracing all three? An even wilder thought came to me: What if, in the symphony of eternity, I was made to be a note in this chord? What if, here and now, I was getting a nod from the conductor? Could it be that failing to play my note would make this chord to be less than as-written?
There must be room in our thinking for an artistic theology. Call it creative if you like – or heretical if you must. All I know is that the hard and fast answers I’ve been forced to calculate often leave me wondering more than knowing. Go ahead and exegete your passages, decipher your Greek, parse your participles and preach your sermons. I’m going to turn around in the pew and color.
Tap me when it’s time to sing.