Jewish Journal

The curse of context

by Brad A. Greenberg

January 27, 2008 | 2:16 pm

Nathan Gibbs has a sad story on his blog about the death of his childhood friend, Benson Krause, and a remembrance of the music they made together. Their band, “The Third Half,” included many of the guys I grew up a few years behind, and Nathan’s post recalls an infamous moment at our church, though I was too young to remember it as much more than folklore.

One Sunday morning, his father Jim was preaching. He spoke about being corrupted by the world and used his youngest son Timothy’s innocence as an example. He said Tim was sitting in the pew making gestures with his hands and wound up being fascinated with his middle finger. Jim explained how it meant nothing outside the context of the world’s negative influence. What he did next is something no one in the audience that day will forget. He rested both wrists on the pulpit with two middle fingers extended upward. “Does this offend you?” he asked.

My childhood church was part of the Church of Christ denomination, which is, coincidentally, on the opposite end of the theological spectrum from the ultra-liberal United Church of Christ. No music with worship, no women in leadership, no heaven without baptism. And for many people the answer was obviously yes, and it led to the Krauses unceremonious return to Chicago.

The congregation’s response does not surprise me years later—many Americans, regardless of religion, would be bothered by such a display—but it makes me wonder why we find certain words, or more aptly, certain gestures, offensive? Who decided that pointing at someone with your middle finger was a greater curse than wagging your index at them?

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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