life in the suture zone...

In the earthquake faults between tectonic plates, the suture zone is the in between place where they meet. I find in that a metaphor for the times in which we live... and invite your conversation in the suture zone.

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Location: Bakersfield, CA, United States

... a struggling, but mostly joyful, apprentice of Jesus.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

locked in Manzanar...

Early in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. It ordered all Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans to internment camps located throughout the U.S. for the duration of the war. It happened on what would later become the day of my birth, February 19, not something with which I am proud to share a birthday. Much of this was at the prodding of then California Attorney General Earl Warren (who later became Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court – go figure!) and several others including the Los Angeles Times, who stirred up the public hysteria regarding invasion, especially among the west coast population who were very afraid after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was the era of yellow journalism. (Have we ever left it?)

This was a very tragic event in our country’s history, an action that as early as a year after the war was recognized by historians and other observers of our society not to have been necessary at all, not to mention the violation of constitutional liberties it represented on such a massive scale. One can only hope that we have learned something from this regarding our current circumstances

I travel by one of these camps at least twice a year on my way up Hwy 395 on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. Called Manzanar and now a National Historic Landmark, the camp was one square mile of barb-wired Japanese society in the middle of the cold, high desert of eastern California. Tens of thousands of Japanese nationals and Japanese-American citizens were housed there… against their will. I have often wanted to stop. Late this last March I finally had enough time to visit for a few moments.

The day I visited the wind was blowing hard. Please understand, the wind always blows hard on the eastern side of the Sierras. But even the National Weather Service had noted that these winds would be exceptionally strong. They were. Though there was only wind on the valley floor, you could see it snowing on the peaks. The snow was blowing nearly sideways, eastward toward me. So hard was the wind that you could not see the clouds from which the snow was coming. Gusts were predicted to be 50 mph where I was, and had to be much stronger on the peaks. The snow blurred and obscured the edges of the clouds that dropped it.

Though some of the Japanese children housed there it remember it as a happy place, much of that is probably attributable to the efforts of the community to protect the children, to make their lives as normal as possible in such a remote and desolate place. For the adults, it was different. And so the mood of the place now is somber. I sat and watched the mountain peaks from the high desert valley below, looking into the heart of Manzanar framed by the peaks behind it. I imagined the barbed wire, the machine-gun equipped guard towers, the armed soldiers, the sad funerals. The cemetery is still there. And I remembered a huge wrong perpetrated on many innocent people of Japanese descent. I remembered wondering if there were any Italian or German war relocation centers. That’s what they were officially called. Roosevelt privately called them what they were: concentration camps.

As I sat there, I became sad.

After awhile, my thoughts turned to the church. Without any disrespect for the Japanese people who suffered this injustice, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is a kind of picture for today’s evangelical and fundamentalist churches.

Born in modernity, our churches, many at least, have circled the wagons. The winds of change are upon us. Today’s new paradigm cracks and roars and shifts like the snow in an avalanche and grinds into small pieces whatever is set before it. As the threatening snows of post-modernity or post-colonialism tumble toward us, driven by 50 mph gusts, we had to do something. We had to protect ourselves some way.

“Come out and be separate,” we quoted to our neighbors and each other. “Remove yourselves from this evil generation.” And just as surely as the Desert Fathers did so long ago, we’ve chosen to cloister ourselves in a world of our making that makes sense to few besides us. We’ve raised up the barbed wire of intellectual elitism as protection. We have concocted intellectual schemes to deny what is readily observable to those not coming from our faith perspective, all in an attempt to protect the Bible. We have turned God into a capricious Greek character whose heart would deceive rather than love. When challenged, we have raised our voices louder than those who question, drowning out the issues that plague our children and teens. We have vilified anyone who dares question our orthodoxy and brandished our Sword menacingly. And little by little, we’ve watched our numbers dissipate.

Not only that, the machine guns of the church have pointed inward. The Japanese children were told that Manzanar was for their safety, to protect them from the angry hoards who were upset by Pearl Harbor. They, however, were very bright and very observant and very honest, as most children are. They asked their parents, “If we are here for our protection, why are the machine guns in the guard towers pointed at us instead of outside?” The church, too, has self-appointed protectors of the faith that would just as soon “shoot their own” if they stray outside the barbed wire of evangelical or fundamentalist orthodoxy.

Is our orthodoxy so precious, so critical, so fragile that it cannot endure the test of questions and thought and challenging dialogue? And what about the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached? Does it bear much resemblance to what has become our orthodoxy? Or to him? Do we treat people like he did?

These are some of my thoughts as I sat there and observed. Ironically the driving snow leaves the eastern Sierra breathtakingly beautiful. It will soon turn to water in the snow melt. Will come down the canyons and valleys to the river. It will help slake the thirst of Los Angeles further south. Even the camp will come to depend on it.

I know. Being trapped in those mountains in that wind and snow would not be a good thing. But looking at it from a distance, getting a broader perspective, there is a rugged beauty to it. And honesty. And most of all, future hope. Even though you can’t see the clouds behind the snow. True, not all of what comes with post-modernity is good or harmless. But might there be something about it that causes us to question our modern view of being Christian to our health (and the health of the world God says he loves)? Might we not ask questions of ourselves – and be asked by others – that will turn us from assenters to dogmas and mere practicers of rituals into something better? Like Jesus followers?

Interesting thing. Much of the compound has been taken over by some kind of yellow wild flower whose stalks are just about to burst open. There are thousands upon thousands of these stalks. They cover the ground in places. They are spreading beyond the confines of the barbed wire and guard towers. In fact, there are many more beyond its borders. Ready to explode into bloom.

It’s going to be a glorious blooming!

Grace and peace!



Anonymous Marshall said...

"We have turned God into a capricious Greek character whose heart would deceive rather than love." Powerful.

Owen, I have been thinking last night and today about your titular metaphor: the suture zone. Like all symbols, this one is rich and open-ended, and I realize that all bible-centered seekers are in "suture zones" of other types, in addition to the one between modernity and post-modernity.

Here is one of them: the zone between God's portryals in the Bible and God in our lives. One of my daughters, for instance, is struggling in her prayer life right now because God did not prevent her mother's and my divorce. "God hates divorce"...she prayed hard like what's the deal?! (No need to answer that question; the struggle is the point.)

Another suture zone is that between our nature and God's supernature. I have the Spirit...but look at my behavior at x a.m. on y date.

To be a Christian is to struggle. Perhaps to follow any sincere spiritual path is to struggle. We live in a dynamic universe, as dynamic beings, and we follow a dynamic Creator.

"Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world..." (1 Peter 2:11a)

I went through some therapy after Carol left, and often Al would interrupt me by snapping his fingers several times. This was a sign that I was erring by trying to fix everything right away. But it is a process, he would say. "Trust the process."

Perhaps that is the way to stay out of the concentration camps... It's an imperfect world, we are imperfect people, and we serve a living and surprising God. Maybe, from time to time, as we busy ourselves constructing unassailable (il)logical systems, building unscalable walls, loading theological machine guns, we would be wise to listen to learn if perhaps God is snapping his fingers.

4:00 PM  
Blogger judy thomas said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:10 PM  
Blogger judy thomas said...


There is a beautifulm poignant young adult book called Farewell to Manzanar, and a children's book called Baseball Saved Us. I think you would enjoy both. Glad you are blogging!

12:28 PM  
Blogger Owen B. said...


I know of both books and intend to read them both. I thought of baseball as I drove through the camp on my visit. One of the sites was the former baseball field. How ironic that these committed Americans played the national pastime game while unconstitutionally locked up inside the barbed wire. Many of them lost literally everything in the process.

Another really good resource on the subject is a group called "Living Voices", a live dramatic presentation coupled with historic photos, film news clips and audio track. It is incredibly moving. I met a woman in March who was in one of the camps. The issei and nissei are beginning to die out now from advanced age. Thanks for visiting.

Marshall -- I knew the "Greek character" statement would get some response. But I really feel that we do God an injustice when we turn him into something akin to Zeus (or fill in the blank) who decides the fate of people on a whim. I mean no disrespect to God's sovereignty. In my tradition, it is a character trait that has probably been underappreciated. But the contortions we've gone through in coming out of that imbalance have placed us heavily on the other side. We are unable to live in the tension between these realities.

What bothers your daughter, bothers me to. I would reflect that while God hates divorce, God has not prevented it from happening, even in the Bible. The question is, what are we to do with that? Is God impotent though he cares? If so, why pray? Does he not care? If so, why pray? Or is there some other way to look at this? (So no one misunderstands, I highly value prayer in its multiple forms.) This is the root of the collision between God's sovereignty and man's free will.

I am most uncomfortable with easy, simple answers to such questions. I am also suspicious of syllogisms that work out all conflicts.

I don't have an answer, but I think we need to be careful with how we characterize God. More in a later post.

The last thing I would suggest is that perhaps we read God wrong in these sacred writings. Perhaps our impression of God is more reflective of our systemized theologies about him and less reflective of the experiences of his interactions with people in the stories we read there. I don't know. It's just a thought.

On the suture zone metaphor....

For anyone wanting to further explore the geological background of the phrase "suture zone", go to

Grace and peace!

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

"The last thing I would suggest is that perhaps we read God wrong in these sacred writings. Perhaps our impression of God is more reflective of our systemized theologies about him and less reflective of the experiences of his interactions with people in the stories we read there."


I think that God opposes divorce, but I have concluded that God's love is not about unerring obedience to rules. My ex (I'm sure she would agree) was deeply unhealthy, and - if God is indeed at work in us, as I believe he is - his aim is to perfect us. I think in our case that love required surgery. WE were more important than the marriage. I think that, in the scales, Carol's well-being outweighed my clinging to her for support. And as for me, the divorce has driven me into a deeper, healthier self-understanding and truer relationship with God. I suspect my grandchildren, yet unborn, will benefit, as generational patterns have been disrupted. I suffered, but God's servants do that on behalf of the greater good. I think you are right, Owen: "We read God wrong."

2: WHY I THINK WE READ GOD WRONG (Warning: the alarm on your rant-o-meter should go off right about now.)

The doctrine of inerrancy... "God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow" / "God was sorry that he had made man on the earth."

The doctrine that the Bible is 100% divine with all human error barred leads, I think, to logical monstrosities (see above), but more importantly to an underreliance on God.

How so? If we believe that God is perfect (biblical), and that he would give us nothing less than a perfect book (non-biblical), then add to this God's silence and the fact that we see few or no miracles, and the result is that we say God helps, but behave as though we are on our own Wehave in hand a perfect guidebook, God in a box, covering all eventualities.

I mean no one disrespect, and I am ranting: sorry. It's just that life is complex and God is big.

The universe, scientists now suspect, is infinitely larger than the visible universe, which alone is incomprehensibly large - and God is greater yet. As C. S. Lewis somewhere points out, all of existence is a single untterance, one time.

My point is that the Bible is finite, but God is not, and thus he can DEAL WITH our complexity. Were the Bible sixty times as lengthy, documenting a thousand times as many lives, each of us would remain a singular challenge, a singular set of opportunities, a singular set of risks, a singular set of blessings.

But is the Bible not the Word of God? Curiously, it never makes that claim. It says that Jesus is the Word of God, and it says that "all scripture is profitable."

Do I mean we should set it aside? No. What I mean is that I have come to believe that God "wrote" in human history, and is still doing so. The Bible is an an invaluable interpretation of events during a key period of human development. I believe it to be a miracle in and of itself. But I do not believe it to be perfect. By saying this, I don't believe that I deny the Bible at all, only certain human creeds about it.

I find credible that the Bible represents a sincere effort on behalf of many individuals and an entire culture to document faithfully their experience of the living God. I believe it to be Spirit-guided. But when has "Spirit-guided" ever meant perfect! When was any biblical character (other than God) perfect, even after Pentacost?

We must read, we must study...and we must continue to seek! The Bible can never have been intended to limit God's activity or to hamper our relationship with him.

6:50 PM  
Blogger Owen B. said...

Marshall said...
The Bible can never have been intended to limit God's activity or to hamper our relationship with him.

Very excellent post! And very challenging! Your last point is incredibly important for us to understand about God's character and nature. I have been telling worshippers how important it is to comprehend as much as possible God's character as experienced by people in the stories.

Another friend of mine is attending the Emergent Conference in Nashville. (Wish I was there.) You might like to read his post tonight. I referred him to your comment, too.

His is found at

Marshall, I grieve that you have had to go through what you have gone through, but I agree with your conclusion that you are better for it. I trust your judgment that Carol is also. I pray for a deeper experience of the Almighty as he is for you, for both of us, as we traverse our part of the suture zone.

Thank you so much for sharing your comments on my blog. You enrich it greatly.

Grace and peace, Marshall!


10:25 PM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

Several quick things, Owen:

First, thank you for inviting me to participate in your blog. It has come, it seems, at "the right time," giving me an impetus to focus my thoughts, and enriching my relationship with God.

Second, it is just fun to get several doses of your excellent prose each week. You are a writer, and I am blessed by your craft. Thank you - "The Suture Zone" is proving to be a rich blessing to me.

Third, thank you for your praise for my post above.

All the best.

2:11 PM  

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