Friday, September 30, 2011

Allowing God to Rage

In our adult bible class on Sunday mornings we're studying the book of Revelation. The book guiding us through the study is Michael Gorman's Reading Revelation Responsibly.

What does Gorman mean by "responsibly"?

Well, Gorman means couple of things. First, a responsible reading of Revelation is going to avoid the end times, Left Behind nonsense you find in many Christian churches. Second, a responsible reading of Revelation is going to have a proper understanding of the violent imagery of the book.

Revelation is a violent book. Lots of blood and destruction. But Gorman's argument (and many others have also made this argument) is that the violent imagery of Revelation has to be read through the central image of the Agnus Dei--the Lamb that was Slain--found in Revelation 4-5. The War of the Lamb against the Dragon and the Beasts is fought through the self-giving of the cross.
Then I saw a scroll in the right hand of the one who was sitting on the throne. There was writing on the inside and the outside of the scroll, and it was sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel, who shouted with a loud voice: “Who is worthy to break the seals on this scroll and open it?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll and read it.

Then I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll and read it. But one of the twenty-four elders said to me, “Stop weeping! Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the heir to David’s throne, has won the victory. He is worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
As John weeps in heaven he is told that the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the heir to David's throne, has "won the victory." It's militant imagery. But when John turns to look at the Lion he sees something quite different.
Then I saw a Lamb that looked as if it had been slaughtered...
The Lamb comes forward to take the scroll and all of heaven breaks out in song.
And they sang a new song with these words:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and break its seals and open it.
For you were slaughtered, and your blood has ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
And you have caused them to become
a Kingdom of priests for our God.
And they will reign on the earth.”

Then I looked again, and I heard the voices of thousands and millions of angels around the throne and of the living beings and the elders. And they sang in a mighty chorus:

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered—
to receive power and riches
and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and blessing.”

And then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea. They sang:

“Blessing and honor and glory and power
belong to the one sitting on the throne
and to the Lamb forever and ever.”
Any reading of the violence of Revelation has to read that violence through the image of the Lamb that was Slain. God's victory over evil was accomplished not by force of arms but through the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Consequently, when the saints, the Followers of the Lamb, are depicted in Revelation they are found to be conforming to the Lamb's non-violent method of battle. For example:
Revelation 12.7-12
Then there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels. And the dragon lost the battle, and he and his angels were forced out of heaven. This great dragon—the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, the one deceiving the whole world—was thrown down to the earth with all his angels.

Then I heard a loud voice shouting across the heavens,

“It has come at last—
salvation and power
and the Kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Christ.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters
has been thrown down to earth—
the one who accuses them
before our God day and night.
And they have defeated him by the blood of the Lamb
and by their testimony.
And they did not love their lives so much
that they were afraid to die..."
Again, we have the militant imagery--there was "a war in heaven." But notice how the faithful fight this "war." The faithful defeat the Dragon "by the blood of the Lamb." Their weapon isn't a sword but "their testimony." And rather than kill, the faithful are martyred--"they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die."

In short, when we read the violence of Revelation through the vision of the Lamb that was Slain we come to understand that the violent and bloody imagery in the book is symbolic rather than literal.

Symbolic of what? Symbolic of the rage and judgment of God.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

In order for the New Heaven and New Earth to come there is a great deal of evil in the world that God is going to have to deal with. Judgment will be a necessary prerequisite. The rage of God has to come before the restoration of all things.

And yet, when we read passages about the rage of God in books like Revelation I often sense a resistance among some of my friends. These friends, generally tenderhearted and liberal folks, find the rage of God depicted in Revelation to be "over the top" and "excessive."

But here's the weird thing. These compassionate and liberal friends of mine tend to be the people I know who are most upset about the evil, pain and suffering in the world. These are the friends that rage about sex-trafficking and world hunger. And well they should rage. So why are these friends the most squeamish when they see God rage against evil in Revelation? This seems strange to me. Why isn't God allowed to meet our rage? It seems that if we are raging against the evil in the world we'd be comforted by God's same rage. But that's not what you tend to see among liberal Christians. Liberal Christians seem very comfortable with their own rage but very reticent when it comes to the rage of God.

I think I understand their hesitancy. The rage of God, if not properly contextualized, can be misused by Crusaders who go to war in the name of God, wars that don't look very much like the self-sacrificing War of the Lamb. So I see the concern. The rage of God worries us because it is so often misappropriated and used to justify other forms of violence.

Which is why I started this post with some comments about the Agnus Dei. We do need to properly understand the cruciform shape of the War of the Lamb.

And yet, we shouldn't rob God of God's rage in the process. In our worries about others misinterpreting the "war of heaven" we shouldn't turn God into milquetoast. We need to allow God's rage to meet our own. Otherwise, Christianity loses its eschatological character and reduces to a bland form of liberal humanism.

Yes, this is a balancing act. If the rage of God is separated from the Agnus Dei we have some problems, problems conservative Christians often succumb to. But on the other side, liberal Christians are tempted to temper the rage of God, almost as if they are embarrassed that God actually cares about evil in the world.

To be biblical, we need both sides of the equation.

We keep the Agnus Dei firmly in view. And we allow God to rage.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Gospel According to Lady Gaga

Okay, I'm going to get real vulnerable with you. Very confessional. At the risk of seriously damaging my reputation with some of you.

I'm a bit of a Lady Gaga fan.

Here's how it happened.

Last Christmas I was reading a variety of end-of-the-year reviews about albums of the year. I don't follow music very closely so I use reviews like this to "catch up." I find well-reviewed albums and then listen to the song samples on iTunes. And if I like what I hear, I'll buy it.

One genre of music I like is dance and club music. I like the beat and the energy. Same reason I like rock. I like music that has a lot of energy.

So, last year a lot of people had Swedish artist Robyn's Body Talk as the best dance album of the year. I listened to it on iTunes, liked what I heard, and downloaded it. And listening to it both Jana and I decided we really liked the album.

So after a month or so, when you start to tire of an album, I started to look around for something similar. And everywhere I checked people were saying that Robyn was the Swedish version of Lady Gaga. This suggested to me that their sounds might be similar. So if I liked Robyn...

So I said to Jana one day, "Don't think I'm crazy, but I'm going to buy a Lady Gaga album." Jana was aghast. All we knew of Lady Gaga was her crazy persona. Odd hair, make-up and dresses. She clearly seemed to be a freak. But I said to Jana, "You know how you like that Robyn album? Well, a lot of people think she sounds like Lady Gaga. So I thought I'd see about that." That was enough.

So I bought Lady Gaga's Born This Way.

I listened to the album on the way back and forth from the prison bible study. It's about 20 minutes there and back, so I was able to listen to almost the whole album. And when I got back home I told Jana, "I've listened to the Lady Gaga album."

"What did you think?"

"Well, I loved it."

She was shocked. And so was I.

Here's my summary assessment: I think Lady Gaga is a pop genius. She is, in my opinion, very much like Michael Jackson and the early Beatles.

And what I mean by that is that Lady Gaga has an incredible ear for catchy tunes. Rarely have I listened to an album where I liked just about every song. I generally like about only 25% of the songs on albums I buy. Even artists I really like. But I like about 85% of the songs on Lady Gaga's albums. Song after song I say, "That's a great song. Turn it up."

Now, I have a lot of friends are who are music snobs. So this post is doing massive damage to my reputation. No doubt my blog readership among academics will plummet. But what can I say? There's no accounting for taste. No acounting whatsoever.

But my shame aside, I writing about Lady Gaga today for a more serious purpose.

During all my reading about Robyn and Lady Gaga I came across some stuff about Lady Gaga that I found interesting, theologically speaking. As I told Jana over the summer, "I'm sort of developing a theological curiosity about Lady Gaga." Jana asked, "How so?"

Well, Lady Gaga calls her fans "monsters." Or "little monsters." And by that she means freaks--the odd, the weird, the lonely, the rejects, the nerds, the castoffs. And you can't help but wonder, in light of the gospels, about that demographic. In my book Unclean I have a chapter on monsters. And I've written about the theology of monsters on this blog. Consequently, Lady Gaga's use of the label "monsters" caught my attention.

Because as I've written, the category "monster" is charged with ambivalence. On the surface the monster is a normative threat--a defilement, a degradation, a location of moral and communal harm. Thus, monsters are expelled from community. And yet, most monster stories suggest that the monster is often a scapegoat. That the monster is more victim than victimizer. Underneath, if we could but see it, the monster is one of us.

So it's theologically apt that Lady Gaga uses the category monster for her fans. Because she's targeting a group that has been cast out of society. Again, she's explicitly embracing the freaks, weirdos and social outcasts. But Gaga, like in the monster stories, has flipped this and made the label "monster" a term of affection, welcome, embrace, community, inclusion and hospitality. (The diminutive "little" signals the playful affection.) This parallels my own interests in Unclean--Can we show hospitality toward monsters? So I'm intrigued by Gaga's community of "little monsters."

More, Gaga's lyrics often explore and deconstruct, in good Girardian fashion, the scapegoating mechanisms at work in the lives of many of her fans. Take, for example, the song "Bad Kid" from Born This Way.
I’m a bitch, I’m a loser baby maybe I should quit
I’m a jerk, wish I had the money but I can’t find work
I’m a brat, I’m a selfish punk, I really should be smacked
My parents tried until they got divorced ‘cause I ruined their lives

I’m a bad kid and I will survive
Oh I’m a bad kid, don’t know wrong from right
I’m a bad kid and this is my life
One of the bad kids, don’t know wrong from right
(This is my life)

Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure
You’re still good to me if you’re a bad kid baby
Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure
You’re still good to me if you’re a bad kid baby
A bad kid baby
(Don’t be insecure)

I’m a twit, degenerate young rebel and I’m proud of it
Pump your fist if you would rather mess up than put up with this
I’m a nerd, I chew gum and smoke in your face, I’m absurd
I’m so bad and I don’t give a damn, I love it when you’re mad
When you’re mad, when you’re mad.

I’m a bad kid and I will survive
Oh I’m a bad kid, don’t know wrong from right
I’m a bad kid and this is my life
One of the bad kids, don’t know wrong from right
(This is my life)

Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure
You’re still good to me if you’re a bad kid baby
Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure
You’re still good to me if you’re a bad kid baby
A bad kid baby
(Don't be insecure)

I’m not that typical baby
I’m a bad kid like my mom and dad made me
I’m not that cool and you hate me
I’m a bad kid, that’s the way that they made me

I’m a bad kid I’m disastrous
Give me your money or I’ll hold my breath
I’m a bad kid and I will survive
One of the bad kids, don’t know wrong from right

Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure
You’re still good to me if you’re a bad kid baby
Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure
You’re still good to me if you’re a bad kid baby
A bad kid baby
I've worked with kids like these, as have many of you--the "bad kids." These kids are social and moral "monsters." But Gaga deconstructs the label "bad kid" in the song. These kids are moral monsters not because they are intrinsically evil but because "they don't know right from wrong." More, while on the outside these kids are an objective pain in the ass (that's my professional clinical diagnosis), inside their "heart is pure." Their deviance is due to more to insecurity ("don't be insecure") than depravity.

In short, in this song Gaga is trying to get on the inside of these "monsters," to speak to their brokenness, sadness, loneliness and alienation. To society these are "bad kids." But Gaga sings to them "You're still good to me."

And I ask you, doesn't that sound a whole lot like Jesus?

Gaga calls out to the little monsters. And Jesus eats with with tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes.

All this was, for me at least, profoundly illustrated by the recent suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year-old boy from Williamsville, NY, who took his life last week after years of school yard bullying because of Jamey's struggles with his sexuality.

Jamey was a "monster" on his school yard. A social outcast. A freak. A scapegoat.

But Jamey did find a place of community and welcome. And it wasn't at church. Jamey found a home with Lady Gaga and her little monsters as he recounted on his video for the It Gets Better Campaign.

After Jamey's death, Lady Gaga dedicated a song to Jamey, a sort of memorial service for Jamey with his fellow "monsters," in a recent concert. (The YouTube clips of this keep popping up and coming down so it might be hard to find it.) And while some have questioned the wisdom of her doing this, I think her motives were pure and I found the performance, and the love from the crowd, to be quite moving.

Okay. Is Lady Gaga a Christian role model? Do I agree with everything she stands for? Are the motives of advocate celebrities pure? For this post, I don't really care about those questions. Like all of us, Gaga is a mixed bag. But for this post I'd like to a keep a tight focus on one particular aspect of Lady Gaga, her passionate engagement with the "little monsters" of society, her attempt to welcome them and show them warmth, understanding, and respect.

And in this, I can't help but wonder if Lady Gaga isn't shaming the church. Because here's the deal. If kids like Jamey aren't being welcomed by churches or by their schools where are they supposed to go?

This is what I think. I think every Christ-following church should start talking to their youth groups, saying unambiguously: We want you to be a wall of protection for kids like Jamey. Seek out and protect--emotionally and socially--every weird, weak, nerdy, lonely, queer kid at your school. We don't care if they are a goth, or a druggy, or a queer. Doesn't matter. Protect these kids. Churches should train their youth groups to be angels of protection, teaching them to find these kids and say, "Hey, I love you. Jesus loves you. So no one's going to bully you. Not on my watch. Come sit with me at lunch." That's what I think. I think every Christ-following church should start Guardian Angel programs like this, teaching their kids to stick up for kids like Jamey. Not with violence. But with welcome and solidarity. Because it's hard to bully a group. So let's welcome these kids into a halo of protection and friendship.

That's what I think Christians should be doing to change our public schools. We shouldn't be fighting battles over stuff like school prayer. Because you know what I think God thinks about our battles regarding school prayer? I think God is shouting from the heavens, "Why don't you shut the hell up about school prayer and start sticking up for Jamey?"

And if you think my language is strong, sensitive reader, know that I'm just paraphrasing the prophets. Read how the prophets speak about prayer, song, and worship when the People of God allow injustice at the gates. You want God in our public schools? So do I. But guess what? God is already inside our public schools. Standing by kids like Jamey.

So the question isn't, why won't the School Board allow God in our schools? No, the question is, why aren't we joining God on the playground and sticking up for kids like Jamey?

We are a stiff-necked, disobedient and rebellious generation.

When Jamey Rodemeyer heard his peers, in person and online, say "Why don't you kill yourself you queer?" (a fair summary of the stuff he was dealing with) I can't help but assume that he thought that the Christian church supported and endorsed those sentiments. Because even if Christians weren't directly involved in the bullying we certainly were complicit, if only in our collective silence and apathy. "Let the gays protect gay kids," our collective silence declares, "and we'll take care of our own."

And that breaks my heart.

Who will protect the little monsters? Who will speak out for them? Who will welcome them? Who will weep for them?

I know Lady Gaga will.

What about the church?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Loving Your Neighbor as You Love Yourself: A Comment on Love and Self-esteem

I was having a conversation the other day with Anne, one of my graduate students, about the relationship between self-esteem, love and the second Greatest Commandment--love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Specifically, one of the things you often hear in churches is this: you have to love yourself first, and then, once you love yourself, you can love your neighbor. In this formulation, self-love functions as a prerequisite for the love of others. And you often hear it described as a two-stage process:
Stage One: Love yourself
Stage Two: Love others
In one sense, I agree with this. It's hard to really love others if you've got a catastrophically bad self-esteem. In those cases what looks like love might actually be, underneath, a fearful, servile dependency. So in that sense, I get it.

But actually don't think Jesus has this very recent, Western psychotherapeutic situation in mind. I don't Jesus is saying anything at all about self-esteem in the second Greatest Commandment. And it worries me a lot that churches are leading with messages of self-love. I don't think Americans need to hear a message that starts like this: "The first thing you need to do is work on loving yourself. And when you've got that down then you can turn to loving others." Because, as best I can tell, a lot of Christians are spending their whole lives just working away on the first part of that equation. Year after year American Christians are spending all their spiritual formation energy on learning to love themselves. And that seems a bit screwy.

What I actually think Jesus is trying to say in the second Greatest Commandment is that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. As I argue in Unclean, Jesus is trying to blur the boundary between Self and Other. Jesus is trying in the second Greatest Commandment to form an identity relationship between Self and Other, to see our lives as intertwined. The hallmark of this fusion is empathy, the ability to stand in another person's shoes and ask a simple question: "If this were me, what would I want?" Basically, "love your neighbor as you love yourself" is just another version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Later in the conversation, Anne came back to the issue of self-esteem. She asked, "But don't you think self-esteem is important in learning to love others?"

Again, in really bad situations, as with chronic depression, I do think enhancing self-esteem should be a therapeutic focus. But for most of us, I don't think we need to spend a lot of time working on self-esteem. What I told Anne was that I think we should be working on self-forgetfulness.

I think the key, and this seems to me both very Christian and very Buddhist, is to just stop with the evaluative self-rumination. The secret, I think, isn't to try to go from a low self-esteem to a high self-esteem. The secret is to just stop playing the self-esteem game altogether. The key is to get out of your head.

Unfortunately, I don't have any great tips on how to accomplish this. Just the recommendation that perhaps we shouldn't take our self-assessments too seriously. I tell my students that I don't really believe in positive self-regard. Rather, I believe in ironic self-regard. Stop taking your internal monologue so seriously.

I think is path toward self-forgetfulness is a form of kenosis, of self-emptying. And perhaps that is what should really be the target, a kenostic self-esteem. A self that "dies" so that we can become available to others.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"We Must Try."

As a huge kindness advocate, I was touched by this quote from the new memoir of film critic Roger Ebert:
O'Rourke's had a photograph of Brendan Behan on the wall, and under it this quotation, which I memorized:

I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don't respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.

That does a pretty good job of summing it up. "Kindness" covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Raising Stones: Worship for the Missional Church

The other day I was thinking about the Old Testament practice of raising stones to worship God, give thanks, seal a covenant, or name the Presence of God on earth. Specifically, I was wondering if altar-building should function as the dominant metaphor of worship for the missional church.

Here's a sketch of what I've been thinking.

Prior to the construction of the tabernacle and eventually the temple, the worship of God in the book of Genesis wasn't tied to place. Rather, wherever an encounter with God occurred that place was made into a place of worship, usually by raising an altar of stones. These stones commemorated places where the Presence of God was recognized and named. "God was here," the stones seem to say.

For example, the story of Jacob's dream at Bethel in Genesis 28:
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar...
The raising of a stone in the story is Jacob's way naming the Presence of God: "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." And I wonder if that model isn't something that might describe worship for the missional church.

During the time of the tabernacle and temple God was in a specific location. Thus, to encounter the Presence of God you had to go to a specific place, eventually this was the temple in Jerusalem. God's Presence was identified with a particular and immobile location. Kind of like how Christians view the church building. God is in the church--a temple-like building--and we go there to encounter God. Obviously, for the missional church--a priesthood scattered among the nations--this view of church and worship is a problem. The temple/church model doesn't fit the experience of the missional church in the world.

But here's the deal, the temple is no more. So where are we to worship? I'm wondering if we don't go back to the pre-temple form of worship: raising altars to name the Presence of God in the world.

Of course, I'm not saying we should start piling stones on top of each other in our workplaces or at the YMCA or in the frozen produce section at Walmart. I am simply suggesting that raising stones on holy ground, wherever we find it, is a better model of missional worship than the temple/church model. In temple/church worship you have to leave the world and go to a particular place. But in altar worship God is already in the world! The gateway of heaven is just around the corner. Holy ground just might be at the YMCA.

And if this is so, worship starts to follow the pattern of Jacob. As strangers and sojourners in the world we learn to name and commemorate the Presence of God in our daily lives. In our homes, our neighborhoods, and our workplaces. We stop, perhaps even today, to declare that we are standing on holy ground:
“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

Friday, September 23, 2011

Love Wins: Part 6, Winning, But Not Like Charlie Sheen

Up to this point I've been briefly (and not very exhaustively) summarizing each chapter of Love Wins, generally just pointing out and framing an area of agreement between myself and the book. And to his point in Love Wins, Chapter Four, I've not had much to disagree with.

But I do start to disagree with the book in the latter half of Chapter Four. So I'd like to take some time to talk about this disagreement.

At the end of the day, Bell isn't espousing universalism in Love Wins. He's espousing a view called conditionalism. Conditionalism says this: the doors of heaven are always open. Even post-mortem. But you have to walk through the gates. God isn't going to force you.

C.S. Lewis famously phrased it this way: The doors of hell are locked, but they are locked from the inside.

In short, God never forecloses on salvation. Not now, not ever. But humans can turn away and keep turning away. Perhaps for eternity. You banish yourself from heaven.

(BTW, this raises a question lots of people have asked about Love Wins. If Bell is just repeating everything C.S. Lewis said--which he is--why the collective freak out?)

Here is Bell walking through his conditionalistic position in Chapter Four:
If we want hell,
if we want heaven,
they are ours.
That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced.
It always leaves room for the other to decide.
God says yes,
we can have what we want,
because love wins.
Now back to that original question: "Does God get what God wants?" is a good question, an interesting question, an important question that gives us much to discuss.

But there's a better question, one we can answer...It's not "Does God get what God wants?"
"Do we get what we want?"
And the answer to that is a resounding, affirming, sure and positive yes.
Yes, we get what we want.
God is that loving.

If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option. If we insist on using our God-given power and strength to make the world in our own image, God allows us that freedom; we have the kind of license to that. If we want nothing to do with light, hope, love, grace, and peace, God respects that desire on our part, and we are given a life free from any of those realities. The more we want nothing to do with all God is, the more distance and space are created. If we want nothing to do with love, we are given a reality free from love.
The regulating idea behind Bell's view is a common one: Love requires freedom. Love wins for Bell, not because we all get to heaven, but because we all get what we want. Love wins because love allows us freedom. So even if someone is separated from God, perhaps for all eternity, that is a win for love. Because you are getting what you want.

You don't want God and walk away.
God allows this.
So love wins.

Let's think about that. Love, according to Bell, allows people to walk away from God. More, Love allows people to keep walking. Toward what? Away from "light, hope, love, grace, and peace." So Bell asks us to imagine Love allowing people to walk deeper into darkness, despair, hate, revenge, and violence. To get a sense of this imagine the horrors, depravity and bestiality of war. And then keep multiplying that. We imagine Love allowing people to walk deeper and deeper into that?

There are a couple of problems with this idea. First off, we start to suspect that Bell's playing a rhetorical game. Doctrinally, on the surface, he's espousing conditionalism. But psychologically speaking, who is going to keep walking deeper and deeper into a horrific, depraved and bestial existence? I mean, even sociopaths need to relax and enjoy a nice day at the park. Everyone needs a bit of peace and grace. It's just not realistic to imagine people walking, forever and ever, into a deeper and deeper hell.

But the more important question to raise is if a loving God would allow that decent into madness to happen.

The response, I'm guessing, comes back to the issue of freedom. What, it might be asked, am I suggesting? That God thwart our choices and corral us, against our will, into heaven? That seems to be the key idea driving Bell's position: Love requires freedom. This is how love "wins." As Bell says, "That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide."

It's at this point I'd like to push back with a little psychology, because I think Bell's notion of freedom is flawed.

At root, "free will" is a feeling. It might be more than that (e.g., separation from the causal flux of the universe), but this much we know for sure: "freedom" is a feeling.

This feeling has two parts: 1) Self-authorship/ownership and 2) Choice/caring congruence.

We feel free when we "own" our decisions and actions. When I scratch my nose I feel that I "own" (i.e., willed) the entire action. This sense of ownership helps create a feeling of self-authorship. I am writing, with my decisions, the story of my life.

We know these feelings of "ownership" are, in fact, feelings because there are situations when this feeling can become suspended. Hypnosis and disassociation are examples. In such cases my motor cortex is activated--I'm doing things--but I don't feel the actions are "mine."

The second part of the feeling of freedom involves choice/caring congruence. When our choices align with what we want or care about we feel a sense of inner harmony and freedom. I'm doing what I want to do. Harry Frankfurt calls this volitional unanimity. Everything within me "agrees." Desire, choice and behavior are aligned.

Feelings of "unfreedom" occur when we are forced, say, at the point of a gun, to do something that is misaligned with what we care about. We are doing something we don't want to do. The point-of-a-gun example seems obvious enough when we think of external compulsion. But the compulsions can be internal as well. Psychosis, compulsions and addictions are all examples of states where people feel internally overthrown. But these are really just extreme example of what Paul describes in Romans 7, doing things we don't really want to do. Paul describes this lack of volitional harmony as being "wretched." It doesn't feel good. It doesn't feel free. We feel internally betrayed and coerced, "against our will" as it were.

That, as best I can tell, is "free will." "Free will" is a feeling of self-ownership and inner unanimity, what psychologists call voluntary behavior.

Let's now go back to Bell's statement: "That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide." As it stands, this assessment is totally non-controversial. Love doesn't put a gun to your head. Love doesn't force, manipulate, or coerce.

In short, God wants our choices to be voluntary. God wants us to "own" the decision. God wants us to "want" the decision. But for that to happen, as we've just seen, more than choice is involved. For a feeling of freedom to exist we need choice/caring congruence.

Suddenly, this freedom thing is looking a bit more complicated. Freedom isn't simply the absence of external coercion. Freedom is about getting our choices to align with our affections and desires. God abandoning us to our choices isn't freedom. It's a lack of coercion, to be sure. But that's a very thin view of freedom, love and choice.

Let me try to illustrate this by taking on a sacred cow.

You often hear preachers say, "Love is a choice." This is wrong. Love, as any sane person knows, is fundamentally about caring. I'm not saying that love is a fleeting feeling. I'm saying that love is a deeply rooted affection.

And here's the deal, everyone knows this already. So it's a testimony to how crazy things have become that I have to spend words convincing you of something you already agree with. The "love is a choice" idea is so pervasive it takes no small amount of work to stop and note how very strange and inhuman it is. Just think of someone you love (I've got my sons in my mind) and ask yourself: What best describes your experience of love toward these people? Choice? Or a deeply rooted affection?

I don't know about you, but I don't wake up and "choose" to love my sons. No, I wake up and feel a deeply rooted affection.

To be sure, those affections affect my choices and decisions. And that's kind of my point. Caring drives choice. I make loving choices because I care about my boys. I don't choose to care about my boys so that I can make loving choices. That's backward.

(To be fair, the "love is a choice" meme gained prominence among preachers who were trying to preach the centrality of covenant and promise-keeping in the face of marital infidelity where people were justifying their actions with statements like "I just didn't love him/her anymore." And by this people meant, "I don't 'feel' in love with him/her anymore." To push back on that argument preachers started to respond with,"Love isn't a feeling. It's a choice." And what they meant was that feelings of affection ebb and flow, but a commitment gets you through the low periods. This is true, but we should get clear about what is actually going on.

What the preachers tend to miss is that you have to care about commitments for the "love is a choice" encouragement to work! Because if I don't care about my commitments or keeping my promises you have very little leverage with me on this score. Again, that's my point. Caring is what grants us volitional traction. If you don't care about something I can't use it to sway your choices.

In short, what the "love is a choice" encouragement is doing is this: "I know you don't care about him/her right now. But you should care about the promise you made before witnesses. You should care about your integrity. You should care about what God thinks." And so on. The hope here is, because caring has evaporated for the spouse, that caring can be found elsewhere--in God, the kids, the commitment, the extended family, personal integrity/reputation. But here's my point: You've got to find caring somewhere. Because if you can find that caring and bring it to the front you can affect the choice. You can say stuff like, "Okay, you don't love him/her. But think about the kids." You try to fish for some alternative/backup location of caring to give the marriage time to heal and for spousal affections/caring to reemerge.

The point is, I get the whole "love is a choice" idea and what it's trying to so--shifting caring from the spouse to the promise--but let's not mistake preaching for psychology.)

Let's get back to Rob Bell and Chapter Four of Love Wins.

Given what I've sketched above, what's the problem with Bell's view of love and freedom in Love Wins? On the one hand, the notion that Love isn't going to force or coerce anyone into heaven is perfectly true. I totally agree. But there's something problematic if that's all we mean by "freedom," God just leaving us to our choices. Again, freedom isn't about choices. It's about something deeper. It's about what we care about. It's about love.

I think Augustine was pointing at this when he said that all our little loves are shadowy and incomplete until they fully rest in the Love of God. "Our hearts are restless," he famously wrote, "until they rest in Thee." Our affections are broken and scattered. Our loves are all pointed in the wrong direction. And due to that disarray our choices become sinful and self-defeating.

With our affections broken our choices are broken.

And here, finally (!), we can see the problem with conditionalism. If our affections are disordered there is no way we can "chose our way" toward God. Something deep within us is confused and disoriented. We want the wrong things. So if God wants us to turn toward the Kingdom God can't just abandon us to our choices. God can't just step back and say, "I love you. And because I love you I will step back to grant you freedom." That's a recipe for disaster. Because freedom isn't about the absence of external pressure or force. Freedom, rather, is about getting our choices aligned with our affections. But if we want the wrong things to begin with how are we to make good choices?

The point is, love isn't going to win if God just steps back to abandon us to our choices. There might be a "win" in there somewhere, but it's not a winning God would want. That's more like a Charlie Sheen kind of winning, choices running amok because of our disordered affections. No, love really wins only when God begins to work at a deeper level, when Love begins to work with our loves. Love moves our loves toward Love. Our desires and affections have to change before our choices begin to move. And that requires positive action on God's part. Not the withdrawal that Bell imagines in Love Wins.

And here's the deal, this is going to be a very slow process. Because Bell's right on this point: God isn't going to overthrow or coerce our affections, internally or externally. God can't just change our affections overnight without that being experienced as a volitional assault upon us. These are psychic structures rooted deep, deep within our identity. These are psychic glaciers that are going to have to move at a glacial pace.

But they can move, even if slowly. And the slow pace allows us to preserve our inner sense of self-authorship and unanimity.

This is why I prefer universalism to conditionalism. Conditionalism suggests that God abandons us to our disordered affections and the predictable Charlie Sheen-like volitional mess that soon follows. Universalism, by contrast, confesses that God loves us and will not abandon us, that freedom isn't about a lack of coercion. A lack of coercion is not what sets us free. What sets us free is having our affections healed. When our loves come to rest in Love. Where Bell's conditionalism envisions God's abandonment, universalism envisions God's tireless and eternal involvement. Love healing the loves of my life--bringing order, unanimity, and harmony.

Bringing freedom.

That is when Love truly wins.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Love Wins: Part 5, Who Would Doubt God's Ability to Do That?

First, let me point you to Ben Myers' wonderful review of Love Wins--Will Hell Be Empty?--which puts Bell's book into conversation with church history and theology. It's a great read.

Chapter Four of Love Wins is entitled Does God Get what God wants? In this chapter Bell tackles a bunch of issues, most of which swirl around questions regarding God's sovereignty. Can history end up any other way than how God wants it to end up? If God desires that all people be saved (1 Timothy 2.4) will God get what God wants? Will God be victorious or oversee a defeat of epic proportions? Will the grand story of God's Creation, started in hope and love, end in tearful and torturous tragedy?

Will God fail?

As I've said repeatedly, the belief in universal reconciliation is really just the endorsement of two very biblical and uncontroversial beliefs:
1. God desires to save every person who has ever lived (omnibenevolence).
2. God gets what God wants (omnipotence).
If a person struggles with how God can pull this off, in the face of death and human rebellion, we can throw in a third adjective: omniscience.

God's a pretty smart cookie. God can figure it out.

(Let me pause here to say that I'm not wholly comfortable trotting out the Greek "omnis" to describe God. I have doubts about all three of them. Along with my friend Matt, the only one I'm about 100% confident on is that God is love. I use the omnis here because most Christians play with these three cards. In light of that, playing the omnibenevolence and omnipotence cards is often the quickest way to get someone to see that universal reconciliation is both biblical and orthodox.)

Here's how Bell describes all this at the start of Chapter Four. Prior to the quote below he's been contrasting the faith claims many churches make on their websites. How, on the one hand, these churches claim that billions of non-Christians will spend eternity in hell and how, on the other hand, God is loving, sovereign, mighty and powerful. As Bell points out, those two claims don't go together very well:
This is the God for whom
"all things are possible."

I point out these parallel claims:
that God is mighty, powerful, and "in control"
and that billions of people will spend forever apart from
this God, who is their creator,
even though it's written in the Bible that
"God wants all people to be saved and to come to a
knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2).

So does God get what God wants?

How great is God?
Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do,
or kind of great,
medium great,
great most of the time,
but in this,
the fate of billions of people,
not totally great.
Sort of great.
A little great...

Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?
Obviously, not everyone "gets saved" this side of death. Thus, for God to accomplish God's sovereign purposes we have to confess that God is both Lord of Time and of Death. This is why, as I've contended over and over, that the defeat of death is so central to an understanding of God's love. We confess that God is the widow, the shepherd and the father in Luke 15, relentless in pursuit and eternally open to our returning home. And if people doubt that God can reach us after death--people who think that Death is greater than God--Bell quotes Martin Luther on this point. In a letter written in 1522 to Hans von Rechenberg discussing God's power to reach us after death Luther asks:
Who would doubt God's ability to do that?
Who indeed?

It's really a simple question: Is God more powerful than Death?

Christians sort themselves into two groups depending upon their answers.

The No group. And the Yes group.

I'm in the Yes group. I think love is stronger than Death.
The Song of Songs 8.6
Set me like seal on your heart,
like a seal on your arm.
For love is strong as Death,
passion as relentless as Sheol.
The flash of it is a flash of fire,
a flame of Yahweh himself.
Here, in human love, we find a mirror of God's own love. I believe that God's love for us is stronger than Death. That God's passion for us is more relentless than Sheol.

That the fire of love, in this life and the next, is the flame of Yahweh himself.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Love and Ever More Love

It's been a great few days at ACU's Summit. I'm a bit exhausted by it all. My classes when well, but the big highlight was getting to have a wonderful conversation with Rachel Held Evans about our lives as bloggers. The conversation was videotaped so expect to see some of it appear here (or on Rachel's blog) after the editing is done. My big takeaway: Rachel is the real deal. She's brilliant, warm, funny and compassionate. And as an ACU faculty member I was deeply touched by how much time she to took to visit and personally interact with our students.

Given how busy it has been I'd like to share a quote today from Dorothy Day that I've been saving:
Even the best of human love is filled with self-seeking. To work to increase our love for God and for our fellow man (and the two must go hand in hand), this is a lifetime job. We are never going to be finished.

Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up. If we love each other enough, we will bear each other's faults and burdens. If we love enough, we are going to light that fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much.

Yes, I see only too clearly how bad people are. I wish I did not see it so. It is my own sins that give me such clarity. If I did not bear the scars of so many sins to dim my sight and dull my capacity for love and joy, then I would see Christ more clearly in you all.

I cannot worry much about your sins and miseries when I have so many of my own. I can only love you all, poor fellow travelers, fellow sufferers. I do not want to add one least straw to the burden you already carry. My prayer from day to day is that God will so enlarge my heart that I will see you all, and live with you all, in His love.

Monday, September 19, 2011

On Walden Pond: Go Small

After discussing issues related to clothing, Thoreau, in Chapter One of Walden, next turns to the issue of housing.

(The picture here is one Jana took of the Thoreau cabin replica at Walden Pond Park).

Throughout this discussion Thoreau says things that sound downright Christian in calling out materialism and consumerism. Why buy bigger and bigger houses? Why not be content with less? Why enslave yourself to a mortgage?
Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.
Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less?
[T]he cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.
When Jana and I were shopping for our first house, which is the house we still live in and plan to live in (Lord willing) for the rest of our lives, we were given the following advice: Buy as much house as you can afford.

Anyone else ever hear that?

Trouble was, I was a student of Walden. So we went the opposite direction. We went small.

We figured, why tie up all our monthly income into a mortgage? Why not content ourselves with a smaller house and free up our money for other things? Vacations. Eating out with the family. Going to the movies. Savings. And charity. Lets spend our money on life rather than on a house.

From the start we called our house "Briarwood Cottage," because it is small and we live on Briarwood street. It is, square footage-wise, the smallest house of any of the houses of our friends and acquaintances. And I feel a sort of perverse pride in that, having the smallest house of anyone we know.

I'm not saying this to be boastful. I'm mainly wanting to share our story as it is, I think, interestingly unAmerican. In America the push is for bigger and bigger houses. And we've seen, in recent years, the ruinous effect this can have on people and upon our national economy. So if you are young, and your first house is in your future, let me pass on our story and the advice of Mr. Thoreau:

Go small.

Friday, September 16, 2011

On the Moral Example of Captain Jack Sparrow

Jana, the boys, and I are pretty big Pirates of the Caribbean fans. More precisely, we're huge Jack Sparrow fans. I loved the first film--Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl--but only moderately enjoyed the following three films. But I'd go to anything if Jack Sparrow is in it. I think Depp's character is really one of the most entertaining characters in Silver Screen history.

Anyway, given that this is a psychology and theology blog I wanted to make a moral observation about Jack Sparrow, specifically his penchant for non-violence.

To be sure, Jack Sparrow isn't a moral paragon. Far from it. But it is noteworthy that he dislikes violence. Sparrow doesn't start fights. And he'll go to ridiculous lengths to avoid them. And it's not because he's a coward or lacking in skill. Sparrow is very brave and exemplary with the sword. He just doesn't like to fight.

For example, there are multiple scenes across the four movies where violence is about to break out and Sparrow jumps in to stop it and work out a negotiation. His efforts always fail, but he spends a great deal of time in the movies trying to talk people out of fighting.

Yes, his motivations are generally self-interested. And he's no pacifist. But I find Sparrow's reticence regarding violence to be morally commendable and worthy of note, particularly among pirates.

With so many violent action heroes in our movies Sparrow stands out as a moral exemplar and an exception. I think Sparrow's aversion to violence is striking given, say, the examples of the Marvel and DC Comics heroes currently dominating the screen. Consequently, Sparrow's example might have a salutary effect on young audiences.

Though we might have to lock up the rum. Savvy?

Footwear New Collection


Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Exclusion and Inclusion of Eunuchs

I'd like your help thinking about something.

To start, I want to walk you through three texts regarding the exclusion and inclusion of eunuchs from the People of God.

I hope we all know what a eunuch is. If not, Google it and then come on back.

We start with a passage from the Torah excluding eunuchs from the assembly of the Lord:
Deuteronomy 23.1 (NIV)
No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.
For the translationally curious, The King James Version renders this verse in a quite memorable way:
He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD.
The New Living Translation I think is the most straightforward, avoiding the NIV's use of the loaded word "emasculated":
If a man’s testicles are crushed or his penis is cut off, he may not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.
All told, I kinda like "wounded in the stones." My son is playing middle school football. I think I'll remind him to wear proper protection by saying, "You don't want to get wounded in the stones do you? Excluded from the assembly of the Lord? Then put your cup on!"

Anyhow, that's the starting point, the exclusion of eunuchs from the Assembly of God. But later in Isaiah we encounter a great many passages where Zion, the temple and the assembly of God is universalized. All nations will come to Zion to worship God. And in the middle of these texts eunuchs are specifically mentioned. Previously excluded, eunuchs will now be included in the coming Messianic Kingdom.
Isaiah 56.3-5
Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”

For this is what the LORD says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
Okay, now let's jump ahead to the New Testament. In Acts 8 we find Philip baptizing the first non-Israelite in the book of Acts. The man is from Ethiopia. Interestingly, the man is reading Isaiah. And he's a eunuch.
Acts 8.26-39
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.
And thus, in fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, eunuchs gain access to the Kingdom of God. That which was excluded has now been included.

In sum, this seems to be a pretty clear theological story about eunuchs moving from exclusion to inclusion. But my question is this, what does the eunuch symbolize? Theologically, what was being excluded in Deuteronomy 23.1? And why? Further, why was the inclusion of eunuchs a sign of the Kingdom coming?

I don't know enough about how eunuchs were perceived in ancient Israel and in Second Temple Judaism to get a handle on these texts. But something important is going on with the inclusion of eunuchs. This seems to be more than a story about genital mutilation. But maybe that's all it is. But is there more? Something about gender? Something about sexuality?

Any thoughts on this would be appreciated. Regardless, I know this much for certain: That which was previously excluded by God eventually becomes included in God's ever widening circle of love.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dust & Grace

In Monday's post I was talking about the Protestant worry over "works based righteousness," the notion that a person could "earn" their way into heaven by doing good deeds.

I don't know about you, but growing up I heard a lot of talk on this subject. But here's the weird part. I don't think I've ever encountered a person who actually believed they could earn their way into heaven, morally speaking. And that's sort of odd. Why all this holding forth against something no one believes in? It's all just wasted breath. Why all this teaching, preaching and worry about a doctrine no one subscribes to? The whole effort has a ridiculous air about it.

That said, while I've never encountered a person who thought they could "earn salvation" I've met a lot of people who have felt they could mess it up. So maybe that is what the fuss is all about, an attempt to lift the load of shame and guilt from people's shoulders.

I grew up in a faith tradition that had (and still has) a pretty strong legalistic strain. A lot of my friends now in their 40s and 50s look back with a lot of anger about being made to feel that salvation was fragile and that God was an Angry Old Man out to zap you.

But for some reason this never happened to me.

So what kept me healthy, when so many were hurt, growing up in a legalistic tradition?

The answer might surprise you. I think, deep down, I had internalized a bit of the doctrine of Original Sin. Which is strange because, coming from an Arminian tradition, this wasn't a doctrine we taught or talked about. But somewhere deep in my heart I had this sense that we were all pretty flawed and screwed up. Now, a lot of people take this realization in a pretty dark direction, the depressing assessment that humans are depraved and rotten to the core and we all deserve punishment in hell.

But that wasn't how I intuitively internalized the doctrine of sin. For me, it felt that people were less depraved than, well, simply human. We were less evil than vain, foolish, and fearful. Sad more than sinful. Weak rather than wicked. Dumb more than demonic.

Not that there isn't real evil in the human heart. Just that I've encountered few truly evil people in my life. Most of the people I've met were sort of like me, less evil than ridiculous. That's how I feel about myself. I feel more clownish than bad.

Given how ridiculous we all were it seemed pretty obvious, to my young mind, that God was going to have to do the heavy lifting. I just assumed, perhaps naively so, that God would take all our our foibles and moral ineptitude into consideration, that, to use biblical language, God wouldn't expect much of us because we are but dust.
Psalm 103.13-14
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
In short, for some odd reason I internalized the doctrine of sin as comedy rather than tragedy. The doctrine of Original Sin made me feel lighter rather than heavier. Happier rather than oppressed. I felt an experience of grace rather than doom.

Again, not that there weren't a lot of bad people in the world. I didn't mind the idea of God zapping bullies. But most people aren't bullies. So I couldn't ever emotionally resonate with the notion that God, in God's Wrath, was all ginned up and ready to send all us sinners to hell. "Really?", I thought, "God's that upset with us? Why? I mean, look at us. We're ridiculous and pathetic. We're dust. Dust! Why would God want to send dust to hell?"

So I never thought God was angry like so many did. God was more sad and compassionate. And sometimes laughing. The way you feel around something small and weak.

Again, I'm not trying to minimize real evil, injustice and suffering. I'm not trying to offer up here a mature and systematic theology of sin. I'm simply trying to communicate a feeling I had as a child. Why my legalistic faith tradition didn't affect me. I looked around at humanity and concluded that the bar was so low for us that God couldn't expect very much. And that if God wasn't expecting very much then God's fundamental stance toward humanity was pity rather than rage. I mean, if you saw a lost puppy wandering around the street you'd want to take care of it, not throw it into the barbecue pit.

In short, I looked around and felt enormous pity and sadness for my neighbors on earth. And sometimes I laughed at our foibles. Here we all were. Dust.

And who rages against dust?

No one, I concluded.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I walk past the guardhouse.
The Monday evening Bible study
with the men dressed in white
We sang, prayed
and discussed the resurrection.
Where do the dead go
after they have died?
I did not know.
Past the barbed wire
the darkness awaits.
Summer is growing old
and the days are briefer.
I drive away
down an empty desert road
toward home.
The full moon hangs low
in the East,
still following me
as he did in childhood.
I click on the radio.
The public station is playing
Mozart's Requiem.
I turn up the volume
and lower the windows
so the moon,
the cactus and the coyotes
can hear the death mass.
I want silent company when I grieve.
Where do the dead go?

I did not know.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Slavery of Death: Part 9, On Sarx, Law and Sin

Before moving forward with this series I'd like to take a moment to go back and tie up some loose ends about the relationships between sarx ("flesh"), sin and the Law. Getting clear about this dynamic will reinforce what we've learned about the Orthodox view of salvation and should offer a radically different take on the Protestant fetish regarding "works-based righteousness." That should be worth the price of admission.

In Paul's discussions in Romans 1-8 he describes the complicated relationships between sarx, sin, death, and the Law. We've mainly been talking about the sarx/sin/death dynamic. To clean up our understanding of Paul let's add on the last bit: Law.

The New Testament is clear that Christians are to follow the Torah, the Law. But what does this mean? Well, as Christians we follow Jesus' interpretation/embodiment of the Torah. In summary form, Jesus describes his interpretation of the Law:
Matthew 22.36-40
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
In compressed form, Jesus identifies the Law with love. Thus, Jesus-followers understand Torah obedience to be the commandment to "love one another."
John 13.34-35
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Love, according to Jesus, is how our righteousness will surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees:
Matthew 5.17-20
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
This understanding is underlined in the epistles where love is understood to be the fulfillment of the Law:
Romans 13.8-10
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Galatians 5.13-14
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

James 2.8-10
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.
What you see in all this, Romans 13 in particular, is how the New Testament authors (e.g., Paul and James) understood Matthew 5 perfectly well: Love is the fulfillment of the Law and all Christians are to obey the Law. If you are a Christian, you can't opt out. Torah obedience--keeping the royal law of love--is required.

This understanding will help us going forward as we examine Paul's discussion of sin, sarx and the Law in Romans 7-8. Specifically, we're positioned to understand Paul's fundamental claim: The Law is holy and good.
Romans 7.12
So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
This is a very important point to get across. The Law is good and must be obeyed. Read Psalm 119 and other Torah psalms for more along these lines.

That said, there is a problem with the Law. What's that problem? According to Paul the problem is this. Separated from the Spirit of God humanity became sarx, "flesh." To help guide sarx God gave us the Law. This was a good thing as humans needed and required moral guidance (hence the psalms thanking God for the Torah). The trouble here was the fact that humans were sarx/flesh and the Law was spiritual. Giving the Law to sarx was like asking a dog to show good manners at high tea. There was an ontological disjoint between humanity and the Law. As mortal sarx humans couldn't keep the Law, couldn't love (cf. 1 John 3.14). Worse, the Law makes the cravings or sarx even more acute, like a parent prohibiting something from a child.
Romans 7.5
For when we were in the realm of the flesh [sarx], the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death.
So while the Law was good, holy, spiritual and righteous it was too high a bar for sarx to clear. So the Law, though good, made the situation even worse.
Romans 7.7b-11
I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.
All this would make you believe that the giving of the Law to sarx was a pretty bad idea on God's part. It did seem to make matters worse. So Paul is keen to address the following criticisms of God:
Romans 7.7a
What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful?

Romans 7.13a
Did that which is good, then, become death to me?
Paul answers in both cases "No!" Again, we have to go back to the key insight: The Law is good.

So what's the problem? The problem is sarx. The problem is the ontological disjoint, the mismatch between sarx and the Law. Constitutionally speaking, sarx can't keep the Law. Enslaved to the fear of death sarx is easily pulled into sin and law-breaking. Worse, the Law makes sarx crave and sin all the more. Paul sums up the ontological disjoint well:
Romans 7.14
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.
The problem, then, isn't with the Law, legalism, or law-keeping. The problem is the ontological incapacity of sarx, the fact that sarx is a slave to sin and death. Thus the Law, intended for our salvation, becomes just another tool for Satan to keep us in bondage. Hence Paul's famous lament:
Romans 7.24
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?
Sarx, being subject to death and enslaved by the fear of death (Heb. 2.14-15), can't escape sin. And the Law makes this situation even worse.

So the problem with the Law has nothing to do with legalism or works-based righteousness. The problem isn't really with the Law at all. Again, the Law is good. The problem is with the mortal nature of sarx which renders us incapable of fulfilling the royal law of love. Given this situation, what we need is rescue from sarx and death: "Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?"

Salvation comes to us from Christ defeating death and reconnecting us to the Spirit of God. The result of this rescue is that we are no longer sarx, we are filled with the Spirit. This enables us to keep and fulfill the law of love. Again, the Law is spiritual but we were unspiritual. But now, filled with the Spirit, there is no longer an ontological disjoint between ourselves and the Law. A Spirit-filled people can fulfill the Spirit-filled law of love. We've been set free from the body of sin and death to live according to the Spirit and the law of love.
Romans 8.1-13
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
You really can't say it much better than that. The Law was powerless to make us holy because it was weakened by our flesh. Sarx couldn't lift that load. Given our powerlessness, Christ rescues us from the body of sin and death to connect us with his Spirit. Connected with the Spirit we are now able to fully met the requirement of the law in our lives. We're able to do this because death has been defeated in our mortal bodies: "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you." As a "new creation"--given a new ontological status--we are now able to fulfill the obligations of the Law: "if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live."

I encourage you to read all of Romans 7-8 so you can fully absorb Paul's logic and argument.

To conclude, Paul's worry about the Law isn't the classic Protestant fetish about "legalism" or "works-based righteousness." Paul expects, as Jesus and every Old Testament and New Testament writer expected, that we are to fulfill the law of love. Jesus' criterion of perfection--"Be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect"--is 100% in force. Perfection is the endpoint, the goal we are heading toward, what the Orthodox call theosis. So the problem isn't the Law, or works, or perfection. The problem is the incapacity of sarx--the body's enslavement to sin and death making us unable to fulfill the Law. This problem was overcome by Christ defeating death, sin and the devil, thus allowing the Spirit to be poured out on flesh/sarx (see: Pentecost). And with the Spirit we are now able to fulfill the law of love.

Rescued from death by the Spirit who raised Christ from the dead we are now free to become perfected in love.

And that's the gospel in a nutshell, that's the Good News. We were enslaved to sin, death and the devil. But Christ rescued us from the "body that is subject to death" by pouring out his Spirit upon us and setting us free to love.
1 John 3.14
We know that we have left death and come over into life; we know it because we love others. Those who do not love are still under the power of death.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

An Old Old Story: Ground Zero Sum

On the anniversary of 9/11 let me point you to a new monthly podcast--An Old Old Story--done by Alan Elrod and Zachary Crow, both students at Harding University. Harding, for you non-CoC folks, is a sister school of ACU's. You can also follow An Old Old Story on Twitter.

The inaugural podcast reflects back on 9/11 and its lingering effects upon the relationship between Christian America and Islam. The first part of the podcast features an interview done by Jimmy Shaw talking with Kyle Holton, American missiologist and theologian, who has been living and working post-9/11 among Muslims in Mozambique. Listening to Holton's personal encounters with Islam, I think, are very helpful for Americans wanting to engage with Islam in a more thoughtful way. I was particularly struck by Holton's contrasting "trespassing" versus "understanding," where the worry about proximity with Muslims sits in tension for many with the call to welcome and understand. As Holton says,
"You cannot talk about loving your neighbor without destroying those fences and destroying this concept of trespassing."
The second part of the podcast is an essay by Jonathan McRay, author of You Have Heard It Said: Events of Reconciliation. A great line from the essay, where Jonathan is talking about Christianity and Islam with his acquaintance, a Muslim taxi driver:
"I do feel called by the way of Issa the prophet, who said to love your enemies.”

Friday, September 9, 2011

Love Wins: Part 4, "We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word."

Let's get this clear, I believe in eternal punishment.

I also believe that through Christ God will "reconcile all things to himself" (Col. 1.29). Is that a contradiction? Can you believe in eternal punishment and universal reconciliation?

I do.

After having talked about heaven in Chapter Two of Love Wins Rob Bell turns to the subject of hell in Chapter Three.

This chapter is an interesting ramble. In it Bell make a great many, generally disjointed, observations about hell. Consequently, as an argument the chapter isn't very clear or illuminating. But I'm not sure that's what Bell is going for. For the most part, I think Bell is more poet than logician. And I think there is power in his approach. By raising so many questions about hell Bell brings home the point that the word "hell" has been hollowed out, theologically speaking. Bell the poet is trying to restore the poetry of hell, the associative richness and thickness that has gone missing in many sectors of Christianity of the "turn or burn" persuasion.

So what are some of the observations Bell makes about hell in this chapter? A brief survey:
1. The Old Testament hardly mentions hell. And the New Testament not much either. It's just not a central doctrine.

2. Jesus talked a lot about the city dump outside of Jerusalem (Gehenna), but hell as we understand it?

3. In our otherworldiness we tend to miss the hells we find around us.

4. Hell is strong language, offensively so. But some evils require commensurate language ("Some agony needs agonizing language.")

5. Hell comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from individual evil to systemic injustice.

6. When Jesus talks about the "coming wrath" he was mainly talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

7. Jesus preached hell to religious people already a part of God's covenant. Hell is "insider" language.

8. The Old Testament visions of God's wrath repeatedly show two things: 1) Correction and 2) Ultimate restoration. These Old Testament teachings regarding God's judgment are strangely missing in Christian thinking.

9. Paul advocated handing believers "over to Satan" for their eventual salvation.

10. Aion, generally translated as "eternal", doesn't necessarily mean "forever and ever and ever." Aion often refers to an "age." Thus, "eternal punishment" can mean (as I take it to mean) "punishment in the next age."
Does any of this add up to an argument? Not really. But again, I don't think that is what Bell is trying to do. I think he's trying to restore a bit of the mystery, complexity, and poetry to what has become a thin and hollowed out concept. Thus Bell's conclusion to the chapter:
To summarize, then, we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in the God's world God's way.

And for that,
the word "hell" works quite well.
Let's keep it.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Freedom Road

The Summer 2011 edition of ACU Today is now out. ACU alumni will be checking their mailboxes. But everyone can go to the online version of the magazine here. (I recommend you go into Fullscreen mode and use the zoom button.)

I point you to this edition because there is a feature article within about the Freedom Ride class I was a part of during the summer. Many of you followed our progress on the class blog I kept.

Our ACU Today feature--entitled Freedom Road--begins with the stunning spread on pages 46-47 of the online edition. The feature includes powerful photography (historical and pictures from the trip, one of me playing freedom songs on my guitar as our bus rolled down the road), student reflections, a bit of Civil Rights history, and an article I wrote.

The student reflections are particularly moving.

I am deeply grateful to Ron Hadfield and the ACU Today staff. The Freedom Road piece is beautiful, emotionally powerful and spiritually uplifting. But what I love most about the feature is how it has captured, in words and pictures, one of the most amazing experiences I've had as a teacher. The 2011 Freedom Ride was ACU at its best.

And the march continues...
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