Please enjoy this seasonal reflection that is part of our “Advent Classic” series, drawing on the riches of Christmas past that stay stowed away like favorite ornaments from one December to the next. – Elizabeth Glass Turner, Managing Editor: Wesleyan Accent
Wesleyan Accent chatted with Rev. Tom Fuerst, author of Underdogs and Outsiders: A Bible Study on the Untold Stories of Advent from Abingdon Press.
Wesleyan Accent: Do you think it’s possible for North Americans, in a society saturated with cultural Christianity, to see Christmas from a fresh perspective?
Tom Fuerst: The short answer to this question is, yes. But it’s a yes that is hard-earned – earned through embracing the longing, lament, and absence of Advent. Advent reminds us that Christmas is not a sentimental, consumerist, family-friendly holiday, but is a season of radical political subversion, the downfall of the mighty, and an upturning of the hierarchies of the world. Seeing Christmas in fresh perspective begins with participating in the biblical narrative of God’s preferential option for the poor, forgotten, and imperfect.
The question, then is not whether it is possible for our society to see Christmas in a fresh perspective. The question is really whether we want to see it in a fresh perspective, and whether we are willing to stand side-by-side with the weak, vulnerable, sinners, and exiles. That’s where Christmas has never lost its freshness.
WA: Why did you choose an Advent study?
TF: Abingdon approached me about writing an Advent book, but to be honest, it is the season of the church year I would have chosen anyway. There’s a prophetic arc in Advent, a narrative of longing shaped by the words of prophets as they stand in an in-between time – a time of longing for the coming of the Messiah and the renewed world he promises, and a time of lamenting over the seeming absence of God in the midst of an old world of violence and injustice.
Though the women in the genealogy of Jesus were not technically prophets, they embody this in-between tension. Their stories take place in the midst of a broken world where the powerful take, abuse and dispose of whomever they want. Yet these women, each of whom existed on the bottom of the social ladder, managed to find their voice and promote life and flourishing in the midst of famine, patriarchy, and death. That’s why I chose to write about them in an Advent book.
WA: How do you think Wesleyan theology is uniquely capable of illuminating the role of outcasts within the Christmas story and the unfolding narrative of God’s work among humanity?
TF: The Wesleyan tradition has more potential than any other to give voice to and raise awareness of the marginalized people in our society. Our theology begins with the Triune, self-giving love of God, who gave himself to the world in the form of a slave. This God we preach has a preferential option for the poor, humbles the mighty, throws down tyrants, and uplifts the broken. The question for the Wesleyan movement is not whether our theology is capable of illumination – it is! – but whether we care enough about our theology and our tradition to get back to our roots. John Wesley never separated justice, holiness, and love. They went together. We are invited to participate in the Triune, self-giving love of God. For Wesleyans, that participation is the only way to salvation. And the invitation to that participation is first and foremost good news for the poor.
WA: Who’s one of your favorite biblical misfits?
TF: Abraham. Always Abraham. Can you imagine the looks he got from his polytheistic friends and family when he said to them, “The one God has spoken to me and he told me to leave everything behind and go to a land he hasn’t yet shown me. Oh, yes, and, um, he also wants me to do a little self-surgery.”
Every scene in the Abraham story reveals a man who is wrestling with new-found faith. He absolutely fails to understand the character of God over and over, yet God relentlessly reveals himself to Abraham. To the rest of the world, Abraham looked like a freak show. But the world was never the same because of him.
WA: What’s one of the most interesting things you turned up in your preparation for this volume?
TF: I became convinced through my studies for this book that what happened to Bathsheba was neither mutual nor initiated by her. I think Bathsheba, like the other women in these narratives, was a powerless victim of male lust and power. Yet by the end of her story, despite her victimization and dehumanization, she becomes a life-giving person through whom God saves the world. Without Bathsheba’s resilience, there is no Solomon, and therefore, without her fortitude, there is no Jesus. Of course, God could have brought Jesus into the world however he wanted, but that God would choose to work with a victim of rape tells us, again, that the logic of the Divine looks nothing like the logic of power and politics.
WA: In terms of the liturgical calendar, what kind of spiritual formation do you think is uniquely apt to take place during the season of Advent? How do you see transforming grace at work there?
TF: Advent is a culturally, religiously, and economically subversive season of the church year. Therein, we learn that a soteriology of the market, a soteriology of the state, and a soteriology of more cannot save us. There is great spiritual value in delaying gratification, not buying into Black Friday’s promises, having a holy ambivalence regarding our politicians’ promises, and simply refusing to assume having more defines us. When we discipline ourselves in these matters, we see that the only One who could ever save us was an exiled infant who was unwelcomed by the politicians of his day. The only One who could ever give our lives meaning preached against building bigger and bigger barns just to have more. The grace is in seeing we were made for more than more.
Note from the Editor: The featured image is “The Outcast” by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1496.