Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 Year in Review

Dear Friends,
As the year comes to a close it's my tradition to do an end of the year wrap up for the blog. It helps new readers catch up and regular readers find posts they might have missed...and to reminisce a bit. For my part, I like to gather my favorite posts in one location.

Welcome to all of you who've joined us this last year. You can find past reviews here: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010.

Experimental Theology 2011 Year in Review

1. Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and Mortality
This year saw the publication of my first book. Thanks to all of you who have read the book and to those of you who have posted reviews on your blog or at Amazon. Though the book isn't perfect, I'm proud of it. I don't think there is anything quite like it in the theological world. I've had people like Walter Brueggemann and Stanley Hauerwas say they learned a lot from the book and many people have told me that the book was "life changing." This summer I'll be speaking on the book at Streaming and the Theology and Peace Conference.

2. Universal Reconciliation
This was the year of Rob Bell's Love Wins so I wrote some more about universal reconciliation this year. The most trafficked post I wrote about universalism this year was Universalism and the Open Wound of Life, where I again point out that universalism, for me, has more to do with theodicy (the problem of suffering) than soteriology (the problem of salvation).

This year I also wrote a series of posts working through various objections to universalism. I pulled those posts together into Universal Reconciliation: Some Questions and Answers. Finally, this year over at Two Friars and a Fool I had a exchange with Daniel Kirk from Fuller Theological on the topic of universal reconciliation as the "best ending to the Christian story."

3. Stories from the Prison Bible Study
Throughout the year I've shared stories from the Monday evening bible study I help with at a local prison. The most popular stories where On Fear and Following: Reading the Beatitudes in Prison and John 13: A Story from the Prison Study. The former essay will appear in 2012 as a chapter in a book edited by my friend Richard Goode concerning the work and influence of Will Campbell. Look for And the Criminals With Him from Wipf & Stock this spring. The latter essay, on John 13, may be one of the most powerful things I've shared on this blog. Many readers have let me know that they've used that story in worship services, sermons, or church publications.

4. The Gospel According to Lady Gaga
Statistics-wise, the most popular post I wrote this year was The Gospel According to Lady Gaga. The post begins with some humorous autobiography but slowly morphs into a prophetic cry.

5. The Bible
I write a lot about the bible on this blog, sharing insights about biblical texts and reflecting on biblical hermeneutics. Interesting posts about biblical texts from the past year included The Exclusion and Inclusion of Eunuchs, Cheap Praise and Costly Praise, "My Heart is Overwhelmed": Universalism and the Prophetic Imagination, Easter Shouldn't Be Good News, The Deeper Magic: A Good Friday Meditation, and "Jesus Stopped."

Posts about hermeneutical issues that got a lot of attention were "Biblical" as a Sociological Stress Test and On Christian Communion: Why is Killing Okay But Not Sexuality?

6. Jesus Would be a Hufflepuff
Go figure, but the second most popular post I wrote this year, in response to the last Harry Potter movie coming out, was Jesus Would be a Hufflepuff. The post is silly but it does highlight a lot of what I do here: The quirky theological connection. (See also: On the Moral Example of Jack Sparrow.)

7. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!: On Disenchantment and the Demonic
Speaking of quirky theological connections, my favorite post of the year was this analysis of the demonic in Scooby-Doo. I continue to think a lot about the Powers and the demonic. Another popular post on this topic from this year was Tales of the Demonic.

8. Autobiography
From time to time I like to write autobiographical posts. I think it helps readers get to know me better. Four of the better ones from last year were Adventures in Looking Like Jesus (Or a Crazy Person), Get On a Bike...And Go Slow, What I Learned on Palm Sunday With the Greek Orthodox and Growing Up Catholic: A Lenten Meditation.

This year readers also got to put a face with a name by watching my conversation with Rachel Held Evans on blogging.

9. Are Christians Hate-Filled Hypocrites?
Last year I was startled to find myself quoted in Bradley Wright's book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...And Other Lies You've Been Told. In the book I'm quoted as saying:
"Christianity" has essentially become a mechanism for allowing millions of people to replace being a decent human being with something else, an endorsed "spiritual" substitute.
Was I wrong in saying that? Read the post to find out.

10. Provocations
From time to time I write posts geared to provoke (the most famous example being my The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity which blew up again in the final weeks of this year). Some provocations from this year: Marriage as a Spiritual Failure, Your God is Too Big, The Satanic Church, and The Poetry of a Murderer.

11. Ghostbusting
This year my ghostbusting adventures continued. The story of my students and I "busting" the Anson Light made it into local, regional and national news outlets. (I even did a local radio show about our adventures.)

12 Poems
I continue to post poems from time to time. Here were my favorites from this past year: Seeing Like My Dog, Dharma, Amnesia, Morning Office, Incarnation, and The Territory of Our Bleeding.

13. The Slavery of Death
Finally, I like to do original work on this blog. I like to actually do theology on this blog as well as write about theology. Actually, I don't do proper theology but work at my particular theology/psychology mash up.

This year the best of this sort of work was found in my The Slavery of Death series (which is still ongoing though nearing its end). The series is, at root, a psychological meditation on Christus Victor, about what it might mean to be freed from the slavery to the fear of death (Heb. 2.14-15). When the series is over I'll gather it into a Table of Contents, but if you'd like to catch up these posts, if read in order, will allow you to trace the main moves of the argument:

Christus Victor: "To break the power of him who holds the power of death"
"He who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil." (Part 1)
Christus Victor (Part 2)
On Sarx and Soma (Part 4)
The Dynamics of Sin and Death (Part 5)
Ancestral Sin (Part 6)
"In this world we are like Jesus" (Part 7)

Death & Resurrection: "To free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death"
The Pornography of Death (Part 11)
The American Culture of Death Avoidance (Part 12)
The Children of God and the Children of the Devil (Part 13)
Eccentric Identity (Part 14)
To Live as Death Where Not (Part 15)


Thanks to all of you who came here to read in 2011 and to those of you who regularly share your own thoughts and insights with all of us. I've been blessed by your online friendship and conversation.

Finally, one thing to look forward to in the coming weeks is the publication of my second book The Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience. (A preview can be found here on page 19 of the online ACU Press catalog). In the Acknowledgements of the book I've written the following:
I would also like to thank the readers of my blog Experimental Theology where early drafts of this material first appeared. I’m blessed to have one of the most intelligent and thoughtful readerships on the Internet. A warm thank-you to my readers for your many helpful comments, feedback, and encouragement. You were the first to let me know that this material deserved a wide audience.
See you in 2012!

Grace and peace,

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"We Are Jesters."

Over the holidays I've been reading Fr. James Martin's book Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. I've really enjoyed two other of Martin's books, My Life With the Saints and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.

Here is Father Martin on The Colbert Report talking about Between Heaven and Mirth and the humor of Jesus:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
James Martin
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

Between Heaven and Mirth is an apology for joy, humor and laughter being a central part of the spiritual life. I heartily agree. Ever since college I'd been attracted to the merry band of holy fools that followed St. Francis, the merriest and most foolish of them all. Fr. Martin's book is a light and breezy read, but it is full of great quotes and antidotes, many from the lives of the saints. Here was one of my favorites:
There is a Talmudic story of a rabbi meeting with Elijah the prophet, who would answer questions for him about the "world to come." The rabbi was in the marketplace when he came upon Elijah. He asked the prophet whether there were any in the marketplace who merited a place in the world to come. Perhaps the rabbi was hoping that Elijah would assure him that his piety and wisdom would earn him that reward.

Instead, Elijah pointed to two men and said, "Yes, those two." The rabbi approached the two men and asked them who they were and what they did. They replied, "We are jesters. We make sad people laugh. And when we see two people arguing, we make peace between them."

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven Has Come Near

What is the proper response to the gospel?

The answer to that question will, of course, depend on how you define the gospel. Last week I wrote a bit about how Scot McKnight contends that the Good News isn't the "Steps to Salvation." Rather, the gospel is the declaration that Jesus is Lord, that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated in Jesus of Nazareth. This is why Jesus himself preached the gospel, well before his crucifixion. For example, after his baptism in the book of Mark Jesus is observed preaching the gospel:
Mark 1.14-15
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
What is the gospel according to Jesus? It is the declaration that "the kingdom of God has come near." Similarly, when Jesus sends out his disciples in Luke 10 they proclaim the same message:
Luke 10.8-11
“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’
As I reflected on this during Advent I began to wonder if we need to rethink the "proper response" to the gospel. Specifically, the soterian gospel has tended to emphasize a response of faith. Cognitive assent. But when we come to see the gospel as the declaration that the "kingdom of God has come near" the issue is less about belief than repentance. Jesus declares in Mark "Repent and believe the good news." The primacy of repentance is even more clear in the gospel of Matthew:
Matthew 4.17
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
The role of repentance is also highlighted at the very beginning of Mark (and echoed in Matthew and Luke) when we take in the message of John the Baptist:
Mark 1.1-5
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
The message of the Baptist is what caught my attention during Advent. Prior to Jesus's entrance John is "preparing the way for the Lord" by "preaching a baptism of repentance." To be sure, faith is a prerequisite for all this. Obviously, you'd have to believe John's message before undergoing his baptism of repentance. But this is banal. Such a faith doesn't, in itself, constitute a full and proper response to the gospel. Rather, the response we see is a repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is how the heart is properly prepared for responding to the kingdom coming.

This makes sense if we consider the gospel to be, as Scot McKnight has argued, the declaration that Jesus is King. Kings don't demand belief or faith. You don't believe in kings. No, you obey kings. You give a king allegiance. So when the kingdom comes the proper response is behavioral, a reconfiguration of loyalties. A new apocalyptic reality has been revealed and we are called upon to readjust our lives to this new reality. This is why the ministry of John the Baptist was necessary.

Why has the role of repentance been deemphasized in many sectors of Christianity? One answer, I think, has to do with what Scot McKnight has pointed out: We've reduced the gospel to salvation. Thus, the crux of Christian life becomes cognitive assent (i.e., faith) rather than readjusting our lives in the face of the gospel--that Jesus is Lord and the rule/kingdom of God has broken upon us. As I described above, it's so much easier to believe that Jesus is King than to obey him as King. The point being, for great swaths of Christianity the message and ministry of John the Baptist has no place. We don't tell people that, to accept the gospel, they need to prepare themselves. All you need to do is believe in Jesus and say the Sinner's Prayer. Compare that with John's baptism of repentance and his message:
Luke 3.10-14
What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falselybe content with your pay.”
When people ask "What must I do to be saved?" Christians don't, as a rule, say things like "If you have two shirts give one to the poor." We don't see that action--giving away excess possessions--as an example of responding to the gospel. But it is. It's readjusting your life to the new rule of God.

A second and related reason for the eclipse of repentance is that repentance has become a morbid concept. Christians are ashamed of repentance because it doesn't sell well with the public. And this is understandable. If you've grown up with toxic, guilt-driven fundamentalism the word repentance conjures up notions of shame, self-loathing, and a wrathful, judgmental God. When we hear "Repent!" many of us hear "You're going to hell ya damned sinner!"

But this is where I think the ideas of preparation and allegiance come in handy. Repentance is preparing for the reign of God. It's not about getting down on yourself. It's about clearing out the rubbish and clutter of our lives. Sort of like spring cleaning. (Literally, at times, a spring cleaning. To the point of going through your stuff and giving it away.) More, repentance is about loyalty and allegiance. It's about hearing the declaration of the gospel and switching sides. It has less to do with guilt than about joining up with a new team.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

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Saturday, December 24, 2011


Merry Christmas! A poem for the start of Christmastide:

This is the emptying.
The release of heaven.
The descent
into the warmth
of a young girl's womb.
Vitally yoked
to her heartbeat and life.
Sharing the scandal
and embarrassment of flesh.
A covenant of love
sealed in ligament and bone.
to God in the Highest.
here in straw and blood.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Iconoclast Podcast

I wanted to point you all to my recent conversation with Mark Van Steenwyk and Sarah Lynne Taylor for the Iconoclast podcast hosted over at Jesus Radicals. Most of our conversation focused on the topic of Christian hospitality and the issues I raise in Unclean.

I was very honored to be invited to be a part of the podcast because when I think about Christian communities living out the vision I paint in Unclean I think of Mark's work and the Missio Dei community.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Slavery of Death: Part 17, Death and the Powers

In the last post of this series we started a discussion about how we might become "possessed" by the principalities and powers. The question going forward is how this "satanic" or "demonic" possession is associated with death. Again, from the very beginning this series has been contemplating a sort of reversal regarding the relationship between sin and death. Protestants tend to think that sin is the cause of death. The Eastern Orthodox, by contrast, tend to think of death being the cause of sin (once the Ancestral/Original Sin got the process started). Biblically, the causation seems to go both ways:
Sin causing Death:
"The wages of sin is death." (Rom. 6.23)

Death causing Sin:
"The sting of death is sin." (1 Cor. 15.56)
In this series we've been working with the Orthodox formulation--"the sting of death is sin." But again, the causality here is mutual and reinforcing. Earlier in this series I made the following diagram to illustrate this cycle:

The Ancestral Sin begins the process, separating us from the Divine Source of Life. This introduces death into human experience. Separated from Life humans are mortal animals--in the words of Paul we are sarx ("flesh"). Consequently, when death is brought to bear upon sarx we act out in sinful ways. As mortal animals we default to a Darwinian survival ethic defending against loss, deprivation and death. These actions, however, continue to keep us separated from God and, thus, the cycle repeats itself.

Biblically, the psychology of this cycle is wonderfully captured by our orienting text:
Hebrews 2.14-15
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
That is, the fear of death, as illustrated above, keeps us stuck in the cycle of sin and death.

In light of all this, the issue we began to ponder in the last post is how the satanic might be involved with the fear of death. As it says in Hebrews, the devil "holds the power of death" and, through that power, holds humanity captive.

So how are we to think about the relationship between the satanic and death? An appeal to the devil seems superfluous. Isn't death, all by itself, scary enough? Can't we just talk about death and its impact upon human psychology and leave the devil out of it?

If we did I think we'd be missing something important. And here's why. Few of us live close to death. We have enough to meet our basic needs, and much, much more. So death, real survival pressures, isn't something we regularly face. (Though many people in the world do face these direct pressures. We're all aware of the fact that 15,000-30,000 children will die of starvation today.)

So, given that our wealth has insulated us from the direct assault of death how can it be said that we live enslaved to the fear of death?

It is here where I think an analysis of the satanic principalities and powers will prove helpful. We don't notice our enslavement because, as I've argued, our fear of death is largely neurotic and unconscious. In biblical language, the slavery to death has more to do with idolatry than with a direct survival threat.

In the last post we began to get our heads around what this might look like. Specifically, following the work of Walter Wink we can think of the principalities and powers as the spirituality embodied in various human arrangements, generally power arrangements. In light of that what we now need to do is to connect that spirituality with death.

Going forward I am going to make the following argument: Death is the spirituality of the principalities and powers. Thus, to be "possessed" by the principalities and powers--to be engaged in idolatry, wittingly or unwittingly--is to be possessed by death.

How shall we connect the powers to death? Well, if Walter Wink helped us think about the spirituality of the powers, William Stringfellow will help us see how that spirituality is characterized by the idolatry of death.

Regular readers know I love Stringfellow. I've quoted him extensively over the last few years, and am about to do so again. So if you are familiar with Stringfellow's work you might want to stop here. But before you surf away let me make this point. The reason I love Stringfellow is that he has helped me make a connection between the biblical language of the principalities and powers with the psychological analysis of Ernest Becker in his books The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil. If you've read both Stringfellow and Becker you'll be nodding right now with a smile on your face. You likely can see the connections I will make in the posts to come.

But if you are new to either Becker or Stringfellow then keep reading. For the rest of this post I'll sketch how Stringfellow connects the powers to death. In the posts to follow I'll build a bridge between Stringfellow--and through him the entire biblical witness and Christus Victor theology--and the psychological work of Ernest Becker.

A distinctive feature of Stringfellow's take on the powers is how wide he casts the net. The powers don't just include human power relations (e.g., governments, organizations) but any bit of culture that has power and influence over people. One of Stringfellow's descriptions of the Powers:
According to the Bible, the principalities are legion in species, number, variety and name. They are designated by such multifarious titles as powers, virtues, thrones, authorities, dominions, demons, princes, strongholds, lords, angels, gods, elements, spirits…

And if some of these seem quaint, transposed into contemporary language they lose quaintness and the principalities become recognizable and all too familiar: they include all institutions, all ideologies, all images, all movements, all causes, all corporations, all bureaucracies, all traditions, all methods and routines, all conglomerates, all races, all nations, all idols. Thus, the Pentagon or the Ford Motor Company or Harvard University or the Hudson Institute or Consolidated Edison or the Diners Club or the Olympics or the Methodist Church or the Teamsters Union are principalities. So are capitalism, Maoism, humanism, Mormonism, astrology, the Puritan work ethic, science and scientism, white supremacy, patriotism, plus many, many more—sports, sex, any profession or discipline, technology, money, the family—beyond any prospect of full enumeration. The principalities and powers are legion.
The important part of this description for our purposes is that life is saturated with the powers. Anything that influences us, anything that dominates our thoughts, feelings or behavior is implicated in the powers:
People are veritably besieged, on all sides, at every moment simultaneously by these claims and strivings of the various powers each seeking to dominate, usurp, or take a person’s time, attention, abilities, effort; each grasping at life itself; each demanding idolatrous service and loyalty. In such a tumult it becomes very difficult for a human being even to identify the idols that would possess him or her…
Most of us spend our lives serving one or more of these powers. We serve an institution, a nation, a religious denomination, a theological system, a political party, an employer, an ideology. In biblical language this is called idolatry. Effectively it is being "demon possessed." Stringfellow on the dynamics of this possession:
[The Power] is in conflict with the person until the person surrenders life in one fashion or another to the principality. The principality requires not only recognition and adulation as an idol from movie fans or voters or the public, but also demands that the person of the same name give up his or her life as a persons to the service and homage of the image. And when that surrender is made, the person in fact dies, though not yet physically. For at that point one is literally possessed by one's own image.
Importantly for our purposes, Stringfellow goes on to connect the powers with death. Being dominated or "possessed" by the powers is to be involved in the idolatry of death. Stringfellow on this association:
…history discloses that the actual meaning of such human idolatry of nations, institutions, or other principalities is death. Death is the only moral significance that a principality proffers human beings. That is to say, whatever intrinsic moral power is embodied in a principality—for a great corporation, profit, for example; or for a nation, hegemony; or for an ideology, conformity—that is sooner or later suspended by the greater moral power of death. Corporations die. Nations die. Ideologies die. Death survives them all. Death is—apart from God—the greatest moral power in this world, outlasting and subduing all other powers no matter how marvelous they may seem for the time being. This means, theologically speaking, that the object of allegiance and servitude, the real idol secreted within all idolatries, the power above all principalities and powers—the idol of all idols—is death.
The point for Stringfellow is that the powers, like people, are motivated to survive. Thus, we serve the powers to help them fend off death. But this service is ultimately futile. The power cannot survive apart from God. Consequently, every bit of energy we give to the powers is, in the end, given to death. Death here is revealed to be, as it works through the powers, the great moral force in the world:
Death, after all, is no abstract idea, nor merely a destination in time, nor just an occasional happening, nor only a reality for human beings, but, both biblically and empirically, death names a moral power claiming sovereignty over all people and all things in history. Apart from God, death is a living power greater--because death survives them all--than any other moral power in this world of whatever sort: human beings, nations, corporations, cultures, wealth, knowledge, fame or memory, language, the arts, race, religion.
Let's summarize all this and start building bridges with the work of Ernest Becker. A key idea in Becker's thinking is how we are all motivated by self-esteem--the desire to live a life worthy of respect and approbation. But to get this self-esteem we have to spend our lives in service to some power. Stated more strongly, self-esteem is granted by the powers. We are successful because we've served a power well. We help the company make money. We help the church grow. We help our candidate win the election. We spend our lives trying to collect the various "blue ribbons" handed out by the powers. These blue ribbons form the substance of our self-esteem and self-definition.

But at the end of the day, according to Stringfellow, all that work, all those successes and blue ribbons, are in the service of death. In a hundred years or five hundred years the company or institution we are serving isn't going to exist. So what does that say about all those blue ribbons we got? And even if our nation or religious denomination does survive for a millennium who is going to remember our blue ribbons? No one. Just read the book of Ecclesiastes. All those blue ribbons are just vanity of vanities.

What this means is that death saturates our identity. This is the Great Lie from the Father of Lies. All those blue ribbons--all those things that prop up our self-esteem--are revealed to be driven by the idolarty of death. The power wanted to survive. So we helped. And we got a blue ribbon for our efforts. People applauded us and we felt "successful." But what were we doing the entire time? Playing the survival game. Death was was calling the shots and running the show.

That conclusion might be hard to believe. The work of Ernest Becker will help us see this more clearly. For now we just want to begin to explore the association between the powers and death. In addition, we see once again how resurrection involves freedom from the fear of death. Let's let Stringfellow have the last word on how the resurrection life is a life freed from demonic idolatry and the "slavery to the fear of death":
[Christ's] power over death is effective not just at the terminal point of a person's life but throughout one's life, during this life in this world, right now. This power is effective in the times and places in the daily lives of human beings when they are so gravely and relentlessly assailed by the claims of principalities for an idolatry that, in spite of all disguises, really surrenders to death as the reigning presence in the life of the world. His resurrection means the possibility of living in this life, in the very midst of death's works, safe and free from death.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Den of Comparison

People ask me a lot why I'm not on Facebook or Twitter.

The simple answer is that I can't keep up with it. Between my email Inbox and this blog I'm at my limit. I don't have room in my life to add Facebook and Twitter interactions.

This, I'm told, really inhibits my ability to build a readership for this blog. I'm unable to buzz my blog on Facebook and Twitter. But I really don't care.

And there are moments when I think I reap a lot of other spiritual, psychological and social benefits for not being on Facebook. Last spring I did a series--"The Angel of the iPhone" (see the sidebar)--trying to think about the good and the bad of Web 2.0 connectivity. The series was prompted by the spate of stories and examples of people giving up Facebook for Lent. Why, I thought, was Facebook a target for Lent? Was Facebook a "guilty pleasure"? A form of self-indulgence? A spiritual distraction? Here at the blog I asked you, if you had given up Facebook for Lent or gone on a Facebook fast, what motivated you to do so. Here were some of your answers:
I felt guilty about all the times I disappeared from reality to converse with virtual friends. consumed so much of my time...

It's possible that I have an actual psychological addiction to Facebook...The sort of thinking that leads me to perpetual page refreshing seems eerily akin to the behaviour of rats who want another serotonin shot and keep pumping that pedal...

So much of what I posted on Facebook was worded in order to see how many people would ‘like’ my comments. It’s just another way in which I am programmed to worry about what other people think and addicted to their praise.

I felt that God was asking me to give it up.

...postings would leave me angry. That made it impossible to simply log on for fun. The anger, I soon found, was not good for my soul.

I gave up facebook because I felt that it was distracting me from God's primary callings on my life, and I realized that I was not being a good steward of my time.

My reason [for giving up Facebook] was to not get "sucked in" during work or free time, lost in the news feed of others.

[Facebook] had become part of my habit to a degree I was uncomfortable with. Whenever I was bored I'd just click the icon on my bookmark bar or the app on my phone for a minute of mindless scrolling and reading about things that (for the most part) don't really matter.

It's a tool with the potential to suck out your soul...

I gave up having online debates/discussions/arguments about politics and religion.

I feel like Facebook was allowing me to be "friends" without being actually friendly, a key temptation for an introvert such as myself. Second, I found myself comparing my life to the exciting lives posted by others, and coming up lacking (in my mind)...

I would say that my reasons [for fasting from Facebook] had to do with sensitivity vs. stimulation. Our culture is addicted to stimulation (Kurt Cobaine- "here we are now, entertain me"). However, the more stimulated one gets, on movies, gadgets, music, etc. the less sensitive they become.

For me, this was about my growing insecurity that was in a lot of ways fueled by the time I spent on Facebook.

Facebook is something of a monster, chewing up increasing amounts of time as the number of friends grows larger and larger and the need to post every thought, photo and comment feels greater and greater.
I was recently reminded of the comment above--"I found myself comparing my life to the exciting lives posted by others, and coming up lacking"--reading Daniel Gulati's article Facebook Is Making Us Miserable at the Harvard Business Review blog. Daniel writes about discoveries he made in researching a recent book about how Facebook is affecting the lives of young professionals:
[T]his new world of ubiquitous connections has a dark side. In my last post, I noted that Facebook and social media are major contributors to career anxiety. After seeing some of the comments and reactions to the post, it's clear that Facebook in particular takes it a step further: It's actually making us miserable.

Facebook's explosive rate of growth and recent product releases, such as the prominent Newsticker, Top Stories on the newsfeed, and larger photos have all been focused on one goal: encouraging more sharing. As it turns out, it's precisely this hyper-sharing that is threatening our sense of happiness.

In writing Passion & Purpose, I monitored and observed how Facebook was impacting the lives of hundreds of young businesspeople. As I went about my research, it became clear that behind all the liking, commenting, sharing, and posting, there were strong hints of jealousy, anxiety, and, in one case, depression.
Where is this jealousy, anxiety and depression coming from? Number one among Gulati's list of answers is this:
[Facebook is] creating a den of comparison. Since our Facebook profiles are self-curated, users have a strong bias toward sharing positive milestones and avoid mentioning the more humdrum, negative parts of their lives. Accomplishments like, "Hey, I just got promoted!" or "Take a look at my new sports car," trump sharing the intricacies of our daily commute or a life-shattering divorce. This creates an online culture of competition and comparison...

Comparing ourselves to others is a key driver of unhappiness. Tom DeLong, author of Flying Without a Net, even describes a "Comparing Trap." He writes, "No matter how successful we are and how many goals we achieve, this trap causes us to recalibrate our accomplishments and reset the bar for how we define success."And as we judge the entirety of our own lives against the top 1% of our friends' lives, we're setting impossible standards for ourselves, making us more miserable than ever.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Territory of Our Bleeding

There's a lot of sadness in our faith community. I have a friend who is hurting beyond all words. A poem I wrote last night. A lament.
There is so much sadness
in the world.
And the edges of it
so icy and sharp--
the territory of our bleeding.
And there a numbness
too cold
for weeping.
But deep inside
the concavity of pain
there is a warmth--
the ache of love--
that thaws all loss
to the torrent and dew
of grief.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Christmas Carol as Resistance Literature: It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

It's the last week of Advent.

Last night we had our small group over for our annual Christmas party. After eating we gathered around our Christmas tree, kids on the floor and adults squeezed in on the couches and chairs. Ed and Jenni played their guitars and Marcia played her flute as we sang Christmas carols, the kids shouting out the song numbers from old church songbooks.

As we were singing It Came Upon the Midnight Clear I was struck by the prophetic power of the third verse:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
It's a stunning image. The angels appear above the shepherds and declare the birth of the Christ child with this refrain of peace on earth:
Luke 2:13-14
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
And yet, as It Came Upon a Midnight Clear recounts, since that angelic declaration of peace there has been "two thousand years of wrong." Why? Because "man, at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring."

We don't hear the love song.

And so the call continues to go out: "O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing."

Friday, December 16, 2011

The King Jesus Gospel: No More Epicycles

My guess is that we can all tell stories of defining theological moments in our lives. Moments were we realized that the answers we were getting from parents, Sunday School teachers, or learned university professors weren't able to meet the challenge of the questions we were asking. Borrowing the theory of scientific revolutions from Thomas Kuhn, our theological paradigms (Step 1) were facing too many anomalies--unexplained data points (Step 2)--leading to a theological crisis (Step 3). A paradigm shift--a theological revolution (Step 4)--was in order.

We've all wrestled with theological anomalies and the crises they create. Sometimes the anomalies can be incorporated by adjusting the theological paradigm. Just like the astronomers who added epicycles to Ptolemy's perfect circles of geo-centric planetary motion. In a similar way, we create theological epicycles to fit new and troublesome data into our current theological systems.

But sometimes the data can't be incorporated. Too many epicycles and the system gets clunky and baroque.

I distinctly remember one of these moments in college.

I was taking a class on the gospel of Luke. On the day in question we were discussing this passage from Luke 5:
Luke 5.17-21
One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick. Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
The professor was talking about the great faith of the friends and commending them to us as an example. But I had zeroed in on another part of the text. I raised my hand.
"Excuse me, professor."

"Yes, Richard?"

"The text says Jesus forgave the man's sins. Here and elsewhere in the gospels it appears that Jesus was able to forgive sins."

"Yes, that's true. Jesus had the authority to forgive sins. Jesus was God Incarnate."

"Yes, I agree. But all that makes me wonder about why Jesus had to die."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, if Jesus could forgive sins, if God can just forgive sins because God can do anything, then why did God need a blood sacrifice?"
At this point the professor went on to explain that the answer to my question was that Jesus's blood flowed both backward and forward in time. So when Jesus was forgiving sins in Luke 5 it was under the blood shed on Calvary flowing backward in time. Those sins weren't really forgiven until after Jesus died. The forgiveness in Luke 5 was anticipatory.

I let this answer pass, but something snapped inside of me. "Bullcrap," I said in my head.

I had smelled an epicycle.

Something was getting brushed aside. Something important. Later on, I realized it was the gospel itself.

Let me commend to you the new book by Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel. Many of you read Scot's blog Jesus Creed so you are aware of the book. And many other blogs have posted reviews as well. But if you missed it I wanted to make you aware of this very good book. More, I expect to use many of Scot's ideas in the years to come on this blog. So I'd like to formally get those ideas out on the table.

Scot's book orbits around a simple question: What is the gospel?

Scot suggests that we to try to answer that question before going far into his book. And I'd ask you to do the same thing: In a sentence, what is the gospel?

It's Scot's argument that many of the answers we give to that question--in fact, the answer most given by evangelicals--has conflated the gospel with salvation. More, we've come to emphasize salvation at the expense of the gospel. That seems like a strange claim. Here is Scot introducing the contrast:
Evangelicalism is known for at least two words: gospel and (personal) salvation. Behind the word gospel is the Greek word euangelion and evangel, from which words we get evangelicalism and evangelism. Now to our second word. Behind salvation is the Greek word soteria. I want now to make a stinging accusation. In this book I will be contending firmly that we evangelicals (as a whole) are not really "evangelical" in the sense of the apostolic gospel, but instead we are soterians. Here's why I say we are more soterian than evangelical: we evangelicals (mistakenly) equate the word gospel with the word salvation. Hence, we are really "salvationists." When we evangelicals see the word gospel, our instinct is to think (personal) "salvation."... We ought to be called soterians (the saved ones) instead of evangelicals. My plea is that we go back to the New Testament to discover all over again what the Jesus gospel is and by embracing it we become true evangelicals.
One of the reasons I wanted to review Scot's book is that I'd like, as might many of you, to use the label soterian from time to time to describe how many Christian think.

Again, the crux of Scot's argument is that the Plan of Salvation isn't the gospel. No doubt they are related. And Scot discusses their relationship in the book. But they aren't the same. The "Good News" isn't the Steps of Salvation. In my tradition these Steps were as follows: 1) Hear, 2) Believe, 3) Repent, 4) Confess, and 5) Be Baptized (for the remission of your sins). Your tradition might have a different list of Steps. Still, at Scot points out, these Steps aren't the gospel. They are, rather, compressed descriptions about how we are to respond to the gospel. Yes, there is a close relationship between the news and the response to the news, but the distinction is important as The King Jesus Gospel is keen to point out. Scot on the distinction:
It is customary in America to refer to the "gospel plan of salvation," by which we mean how an individual gets saved, what God has done for us, and how we are to respond if we want to be saved...[Now it] may strike you as uncommonly odd for me to make this claim, but I'm going to say it anyway: this Plan of Salvation is not the gospel...[W]hat I hope to show is that the "gospel" of the New Testament cannot be reduced to the Plan of Salvation.
Okay, so if the Steps of Salvation aren't the gospel what is the gospel? Scot goes back to the earliest apostolic tradition and finds it in 1 Corinthians 15:
First Corinthians 15 is nothing less than a lifting up of the curtains in the earliest days of the church; it tells us what everyone believed and what everyone preached. This passage is the apostolic gospel tradition. Thus...

Before there was a New Testament...
Before the apostles were beginning to write letters...
Before the Gospels were written...
There was the gospel.
In the beginning was the gospel.
That gospel is now found in 1 Corinthians 15.
Here it is, the gospel distilled:
1 Corinthians 15.1-5
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.
This is the gospel: The life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. More specifically, the gospel is how the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus fulfilled God's promises to Israel and, through Israel and Jesus, God's promises to the nations and all of the Created Order.

Another way to say this is that the gospel is the Good News about the identity of Jesus (particularly how Jesus brings the Story of God to its culmination). The gospel, Scot says, is about a person:
There is a Person at the very core of the gospel of Paul, and until that Person is put into the center of centers in Paul's gospel, we will not comprehend his--scratch that--the apostles' gospel accurately. The gospel Story of Jesus Christ is a story about Jesus as Messiah, Jesus as Lord, Jesus as Savior, and Jesus as Son...If I had to sum up the Jesus of the gospel, I would say "King Jesus." Or I would say "Jesus is Lord" or "Jesus is Messiah and Lord."
The gospel is the proclamation of a new new reality that has dawned upon us in Jesus Christ. This is why the gospel is an apocalypse (an "unveiling"). In the life, death, burial and resurrection Jesus is revealed (apocalypse) to be both Lord and Christ. Proclaiming the gospel is to proclaim this news. Jesus is both Lord and Christ.

Of course, once you hear this news, you will want to adjust to this new reality. How to adjust to this new reality is what we call "the steps of salvation."

Stepping back, some might object that Scot is marking a difference that doesn't exist. But the implications of focusing on the gospel rather than upon personal salvation are pretty profound. I refer you to Scot's book for his discussion on this subject (creating what Scot calls a "gospel culture" rather than a "salvation culture").

But the most obvious implication that Scot points out is this: the gospel is bigger than my personal salvation. This really is a Copernican paradigm shift, moving from a me-centric story to a Jesus-centric story. The me-centric story of salvation is just about me "getting saved." Harps in the clouds and all that jazz. But a Jesus-centric story--the proclamation that Jesus is Lord--is a whole lot bigger.

And, truth be told, a whole lot scarier.

Plus, the Jesus-centric, gospel story answers my old undergraduate questions about Luke 5. That story isn't about me and my guilt. That story isn't about a theory of salvation. That story is a gospel story, a story about Jesus.

That story is the proclamation of the Good News. Jesus is Lord.

No more epicycles.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Slavery of Death: Part 16, To Destroy the Devil's Work

In the last few posts in this series we've been talking about how a "slavery to the fear of death" (Heb. 2.14-15) creates sin. I now want to turn in this series to how this slavery is associated with the satanic.

Recall, Christus Victor atonement isn't preoccupied with human guilt. Rather, the focus is on how humans are enslaved to various spiritual forces. Salvation comes to us, then, when we are liberated from these hostile powers. As Gustaf Aulen describes:
[Christus Victor's] central theme is the idea of the Atonement as a Divine conflict and victory; Christ--Christus Victor--fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the 'tyrants' under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to Himself.
In Scripture the main "tyrants" are described as three, practically interchangeable, forces: Sin, Death, and the Devil--the unholy Trinity. Christ comes to set us free from these forces. As Aulen goes on to describe:
The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil. These may be said to be in a measure personified, but in any case they are objective powers; and the victory of Christ creates a new situation, bringing their rule to an end, and setting men free from their dominion.
If you've been keeping up with this series all this is very familiar. The trouble comes, however, with how modern readers of the bible are to understand sin, death and the devil to be "objective powers." Over the last few posts I've shown how, objectively and empirically, a fear of death motivates human sinfulness. There is an objective "power" in death that causes sin. But what about the devil? Again, let's recall two of the key passages guiding our meditations:
1 John 3.8b
The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.

Hebrews 2.14-15
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
What are we to do, as modern readers, with these references to the devil? As Aulen notes, one of the reasons Christus Victor atonement fell on hard times (replaced with the now ascendant substitutionary theories of atonement) was that it became difficult for modern readers to deal with the dualism inherent in texts like the ones we've been working with. The whole "devil holding humanity captive" idea seems a bit exotic, primitive and superstitious. Death is something we can work with, but the devil? Aulen describes how liberal theologians came to reject the thinking of the early Church Fathers:
[Modern, "liberal" theologians were] inclined to be critical of the forms in which the patristic teaching had usually expressed itself. They disliked intensely the 'mythological' language of the early church about Christ's redemptive work, and the realistic, often undeniably grotesque imagery, in which the victory of Christ over the devil, or the deception of the devil, was depicted in lurid colours. Thus the whole dramatic view was branded as 'mythological.' The matter was settled. The patristic teaching was of inferior value, and could be summarily relegated to the nursery or the lumber-room of theology.
Again, a part of this rejection was the dualism inherent in Christus Victor atonement:
Dualism was not popular with the Liberal Protestant theology of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; but the classic idea of the Atonement is dualistic and dramatic: it depicts the drama of the Atonement against a dualistic background. If Dualism is eliminated, it is impossible to go on thinking of the existence of powers hostile to God, and the basis of the classic view has been dissolved away.
So this is an issue we are going to have to struggle with if we want to go forward with a robust vision of Christus Victor. That is, it is all well and good to describe how our fear of death can motivate selfishness and sinfulness. It's quite another thing to describe the "satanic powers" holding humanity captive.

So, how are we going to deal with the dualism inherent in Christus Victor theology? And how might we connect bondage to the "satanic powers" to everything else we've been discussing regarding the "slavery to death"? How are the devil and death related? These questions move us into the final act of this series, a consideration of how the principalities and powers are implicated in our "slavery to the fear of death."

My analysis of the powers, and many of you will see this coming, is going to rely on the work of Walter Wink. Specifically, I'm going to use Wink's work on the issue of dualism, the issue that makes a lot of people squirm when in comes to Christus Victor theology.

(Note for regular readers: If you've read my posts on the demonic you are already familiar with what I'm about to say. So you might elect to stop here, noting that, at this point in the argument, I'm using Wink's treatment of the demonic.)

The heart of Wink's analysis is to note the tight association between the physical and the spiritual in the biblical descriptions of the principalities and powers, the "hostile forces" holding humanity captive. In one sense, when it comes to the powers a part of the problem for modern readers of the bible is that we are actually too dualistic. More dualistic, in one sense, than the biblical authors. When modern Christians talk about the devil or demons they are generally conjuring up ghostlike spirits, entities wholly disconnected from physical manifestations of power. In the bible, however, you don't see such a stark separation. This is, perhaps, best observed by taking an inventory of the phrase "principalities and powers" in the New Testament.

The phrase archai kai exousiai--translated "principalities and powers"--occurs ten times in the New Testament. In the gospel of Luke, the only occurrences of the phrase in the gospels, the pairing "principalities and powers" occurs twice. In both occurrences the phrase refers to human political institutions:
Luke 12:11
"When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say...

Luke 20:20
Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be honest. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.
The other eight occurrences of archai kai exousiai occur in the epistles:
1 Corinthians 15.24
Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.

Colossians 1.16
For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.

Colossians 2.10
...and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.

Colossians 2.15
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Ephesians 1.21
...far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

Ephesians 3.10
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms...

Ephesians 6.12
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Titus 3.1
Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good...
We can make a couple of observations about these passages. First, yes, there are times when the language of the powers seems to be picking out strictly "spiritual" powers (e.g., Eph. 6.12). However, there are other times when the phrase is picking out a strictly human, generally political, powers. (e.g., Titus 3.1). But more often than not, most of the passages are blending the two powers. For example, Colossians 1.16 clearly refers to both visible and invisible powers, powers in heaven and on earth.

The other thing to note is that the language of the powers often occurs in longer lists. In the New Testament these lists include: Chief priests, rulers, people, scribes, synagogues, kingdoms, thrones, angels, authority, glory, majesty, dominion, life, and death. Such lists continue highlight the conflation of physical and spiritual power in the New Testament.

The point being that while there is a dualism at work here it's not as dualistic as we might think. The regulating idea for the ancients seems to be this: manifestations of physical (generally political) power were manifestations of spiritual power. The two--physical power and spiritual power--were two sides of the same coin.

This might seem strange until we realize how the ancients viewed their kings as divinities. And if not themselves divine, the rulers were at least ordained by God. To defy the king was to defy God.

And, even though we consider ourselves more "enlightened," nothing much had changed. We also sacralize the political realm. It's God and Country. People aspire to create a Christian nation, a nation where political rule/power mirrors spiritual rule/power. Pondering these modern-day dynamics should help us get inside what the bible means by "principalities and powers."

Now it is true that the ancients, given their cosmology, saw the spiritual powers as existing "over" or "above" the physical powers. That spatial orientation is hard for modern readers to get their heads around. In light of this, how are we to keep the tight association between the physical and spiritual powers?

Wink suggests swapping an Above/Below orientation for an Inside/Outside orientation. Specifically, rather than seeing the spiritual as "above" the physical we see the spiritual as the "inner" life--the "heart" and "soul" if you will--of a power system. For example, when we talk about a nation, an economic system, an organization, or a corporation--each examples of power relations--we can talk about the "spirituality" each embodies. We might find a particular power system to be, say, humane or inhumane. These descriptions are picking out the "spirituality" of the power. And with this reframing in hand, we can describe the satanic and demonic as the spirituality embodied in death-dealing power structures. Here is Wink describing this:
What I propose is viewing the spiritual Powers not as separate heavenly or ethereal entities but as the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestation of power...the "principalities and powers" are the inner or spiritual essence, or gestalt, of an institution or state or system; that the "demons" are the psychic or spiritual power emanated by organizations or individuals or subaspects of individuals whose energies are bent on overpowering others; that "gods" are the very real archetypal or ideological structures that determine or govern reality and its mirror, the human brain...and that "Satan" is the actual power that congeals around collective idolatry, injustice, or inhumanity, a power that increases or decreases according to the degree of collective refusal to choose higher values.
Now it might be objected, if this is the case, that the word "spirituality" isn't really necessary. If all we are talking about are physical powers why make recourse to the word "spiritual"? Mainly because it is very difficult to physically locate the powers in the scientific laboratory. For example, the phrase "Give me liberty or give me death!" holds great sway over many people. That sentiment has power over people. But where is that power physically located? In atoms? In the strong nuclear force?

The point being, the use of "spiritual" or "religious" language here isn't a regression into superstition. It is, rather, an attempt to describe how various supra-physical forces have power over human affairs. Powers that are hard to pin down in the laboratory. Powers that will outlive us. (For the scientifically inclined I tend to think of these powers as emergent properties of physical systems which exert downward causation.) Wink on this point:
Every organization is made up of humans who make its decisions and are responsible for its success or failure, but these institutions tend to have a suprahuman quality. Although created and staffed by humans, decisions are not made so much by people as for them, out of the logic of institutional life itself. And because the institution usually antedates and outlasts its employees, it develops and imposes a set of traditions, expectations, beliefs, and values on everyone in its employ. Usually unspoken, unacknowledged, and even unknown, this invisible, transcendent network of determinants constrains behavior far more rigidly than any printed set of rules could ever do. It governs dress, social class, life-expectations, even choice of marriage partner (or abstention). This institutional momentum through time and space perpetuates a self-image, a corporate personality, and an institutional spirit which the more discerning are able to grasp as a totality and weigh for its relative sickness or health.

...The institution, however, is the totality of its activities and as such is a mostly invisible object. When we confuse what the eye beholds with the totality, we commit the same reductionistic fallacy as those Colossians who mistook the basic elements (stoicheia) of things for the ultimate reality (Col. 2:8,20). The consequence of such confusion is always slavery to the unseen power behind the visible elements: the spirituality of the institution or state or stone.
Going forward I'm going to be working with this view of the "hostile powers" holding humanity captive. I'll be thinking through how "the inner aspects of material or tangible manifestations of power" keep us enslaved to the fear of death and produce "the works of the devil." With this analysis in hand we should wind up with a robust understanding of how Christ liberates from sin, death, and yes, even the devil.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Professor in Prison: Why Five Stones?

As regular readers know, I've been helping lead a weekly bible class at a local prison. I've shared a few stories from the study, the most popular being this one.

One of the things that I've tried to downplay in the study is my status and title of "college professor" and "Dr. Beck." I just want to be Richard. But the guys in the study keep calling me "Professor" and "Dr. Beck."

I was recently lamenting about this with Jana. But she said something that really helped me. "You know," she said, "a lot of those guys never got a chance to go to college. You going out there, I bet, makes them feel a little like they are getting to take a college class." Jana's wise in this way. Her words made me realize that I didn't have to feel embarrassed by my title. In fact, it could be a location of grace.

Not that I play this up (and it helps that I don't really look like a professor). I just feel more comfortable if the guys want to call me "Professor" or "Doctor."

But here's the best thing about being a professor in prison: I've become a sort of answer engine. I'm their Google. At the end of every study a bunch of the guys will come up to me and ask questions. Mostly about the bible. If I can't answer right away I go off to find an answer and return with it next week. And the questions they ask are all over the place. Here's a recent one that was great fun to look into:
With the study over, one of the guys comes up to me after class and asks: "Professor, I have a question for you."

"Great. What is it?"

"Why did David, when he went out to fight Goliath, take five stones from the stream?"

"Why did David take five stones?"

"Yes. Why five stones? If David trusted God wouldn't he have taken only one stone into battle?"
I'd never thought about that. And by the way, these are the sort of questions I get a lot. The guys don't often ask about huge theological questions like the problem of evil or predestination and free will. They ask these midrash-like questions about small textual details and anomalies. Questions about why, if David was trusting in God, he took five rather than one stone into battle.

Well, I didn't have an answer. So I did a little research. You'll be surprised to know that there has been a bit of discussion on this subject. Who knew? One of the more interesting answers is based on this text:
2 Samuel 21.18-22
In the course of time, there was another battle with the Philistines, at Gob. At that time Sibbekai the Hushathite killed Saph, one of the descendants of Rapha.

In another battle with the Philistines at Gob, Elhanan son of Jair the Bethlehemite killed the brother of Goliath the Gittite, who had a spear with a shaft like a weaver’s rod.

In still another battle, which took place at Gath, there was a huge man with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot—twenty-four in all. He also was descended from Rapha. When he taunted Israel, Jonathan son of Shimeah, David’s brother, killed him.

These four were descendants of Rapha in Gath, and they fell at the hands of David and his men.
As we read here, there seem to have been five giants from Gath. Goliath and these four (one of whom, it seems, had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot). The four giants from Gath read about in 2 Samuel 21 are all "descendants of Rapha." And one of them was "the brother of Goliath." If we speculate a bit--And who doesn't like some good midrash speculation?--we might weave all this together to come up with an answer as to why David picked up five rather than one stone. Specifically, he might have picked up five stones because Goliath had four giant brothers. Or, at the very least, one giant brother and three giant cousins.

David went down to battle with five stones prepared to whip the whole lot of them. Five stones for five related Philistine giants.

Such are the things I research being a professor in prison.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Satanic Church

Last week I mentioned I was reading Jacques Ellul. In his book The Subversion of Christianity I wanted to point you to an interesting take Ellul has on Jesus's comment in the gospels about seeing Satan fall from heaven like lightning:
Luke 10.17-18
The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”

Jesus replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven."
What might his passage mean? Ellul focuses on the literal interpretation of the Hebrew word הַשָּׂטָן (ha-satan)--accuser. So what might it mean that our accuser has "fallen from heaven"? Ellul's analysis:
"I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning," Jesus tells us. This is basic. Let us recall again that Satan is not a person. (There is no real need to use a capital; the term is a common one.) He is not Satan but the accuser, or even the accusation. We have to say that wherever in any form or for any motive an accusation is made (including true and justified accusations), there is satan. Satan is then at work, is present, and becomes a person. The process (as for the devil) is clear-cut. The accusation crystallizes in some way, and it results in the development of a personalized accusing presence. We are familiar with the process in the development of accusations, for example, collective accusations. Jesus tells us that satan is no longer in heaven. What he means is clear. There is no longer any personified accusation before God (as in Job) now that Jesus the Son of God has come to pardon us. To use the patristic image, an advocate, not an accuser, now stands at the side of God.
Most are familiar with the biblical allusions Ellul is making to Job and Jesus. You'll recall that Job's problems start with accusations made by Satan in the Heavenly Court:
Job 1.6-12
One day the angels came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them. The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”

Satan answered the LORD, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”

Then Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.
So Job is afflicted because, as Ellul notes, the accuser stands before God in heaven. Consequently, throughout the book of Job Job cries out against this. Rather than an accuser standing before God in heaven Job wants a witness, intercessor, friend, advocate and redeemer, someone to compassionately plead his cause before Yahweh:
Job 16.18-21; 19.23-27
“Earth, do not cover my blood;
may my cry never be laid to rest!
Even now my witness is in heaven;
my advocate is on high.
My intercessor is my friend
as my eyes pour out tears to God;
on behalf of a man he pleads with God as one pleads for a friend."

“Oh, that my words were recorded,
that they were written on a scroll,
that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead,
or engraved in rock forever!
I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!"
Curiously, we never see Job's prayer answered. The redeemer/friend/witness/advocate never makes an appearance in the book. But in the New Testament we do find an answer to Job's prayer. As Ellul notes, Satan is no longer accusing us in heaven. Instead of Satan we find Jesus at the right hand of God as our advocate, friend, and redeemer. Job's prayer is finally answered.
Hebrews 4.14-16
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
So accusation has been cast out of heaven--"I saw Satan fall like lightning"--and in its place is the redeemer Job had longed for, an advocate at God's hand who can "empathize with our weaknesses."

But Ellul goes on. Given that accusation/satan has been cast down from heaven we confront the fact that accusation (the satanic) is now on earth. Accusation has become human sport. Ellul on this point:
God does not hear, does not want to hear, will not listen to the accusations that assail him from every side. But if accusations are no longer in heaven, if they no longer emanate from heaven, if God is not himself as accuser in any matter, then not only is accusation still on earth but it is also flourishing there. It is developing to the same degree as it is banished from heaven. That which no longer explodes as hatred and accusation in heaven is condensed on earth...Thus satan, accusation, proliferates in our world.
In this sense, we are satan. We are the accusers. We act like Job's satan, judging and accusing each other before God. We speak the words of the Pharisee in Jesus's parable, "I thank you Lord that I'm not like these other people."

Or the words of the crowd seeking to stone the woman caught in the act of adultery: "The Law says to stone her."

Or the words of the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son: "This son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, and you kill the fattened calf for him!"

Or the words of the religious leaders to the disciples: "Your teacher eats with tax-collectors and sinners."

Satan on earth.

And guess who is really good at this accusation, and often the very source of it? The church. Ellul goes on:
The church becomes the origin, the perfecting, and finally the model of all accusations and all systems of inquisition. It has brought the mechanisms of accusation out of the individual and private domain and into the collective and institutional domain. I do no want to overemphasize the Inquisition but it is still true that this was a prodigious perversion of revelation. A totality based on pardon became a totality based on inquisition...[S]atan came to lodge in the church's heart, the church itself became the great mistress of accusation and transformed itself into an invading cancer, crushing without end.
And because the church became preoccupied with accusation rather than pardon the rest of the world followed her example:
Alas, this development of accusation characterizes Christendom and then moves into secular movements. If our actual world is a world of insatiable accusation--political, social, intellectual, and moral--it is because of this mistaken switch on the church's part, under satan's influence. Satan made the church his special prey so that by means of it as his intermediary he might make the world truly mad.
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