Monday, October 31, 2011

Love Wins, Part 8: There are Rocks Everywhere

A critical aspect of Christian theology is the confession that salvation comes to those who are "in Christ." But what does that mean?

For some it means orthodoxy, right belief. Those who are "in Christ" are those who overtly and publicly confess that "Jesus is Lord."

The trouble with that notion is that Jesus explicitly teaches against that view: Matthew 7.21: "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." So there seems to be more to being "in Christ" than the confession that "Jesus is Lord." It seems that, to be "in Christ," we have to "do the will of the Father." Here we move away from orthodoxy to orthopraxy, from right belief to right practice.

This is an old and ongoing debate, and it sets the backdrop for the most provocative chapter in Roll Bell's Love Wins.

Chapter 6 of Love Wins is entitled "There are Rocks Everywhere."

This is my favorite chapter of Love Wins as it is the most theologically creative. The chapter is, at root, a chapter about Christology (the doctrine of Christ).

Early in the chapter Bell points us to the story in Exodus 17 where the people of God are thirsty in the desert and call on Moses and God for water.
Exodus 17.1-6
The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”

Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?”

But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”

Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

The LORD answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.
So, Moses strikes the rock and water comes forth in the desert to quench the thirst of the Israelites. After pointing to this story Bell then goes on to cite the audacious and shocking exegesis of Exodus 17 from the Apostle Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 10.1-4
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.
Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is some pretty daring Christology. Paul in 1 Cor. 10.4 states that the rock in Exodus 17 was Christ. Talk about experimental theology...

Here is Bell's unpacking of Paul's Christological analysis:
Jesus was the rock?

How is that? Christ is mentioned nowhere in the story. Moses strikes the rock, it provides water, and the people have something to drink.

Story over.

Paul, however, reads another story in the story, insisting that Christ was present in that moment, that Christ was providing the water they needed to survive--that Jesus was giving, quenching, sustaining.

Jesus was, he says, the rock.

According to Paul,
Jesus was there.
Without anybody using his name.
Without anybody saying that it was him.
Without anybody acknowledging just what, or, more precisely, who--it was.

Paul's interpretation that Christ was present in the Exodus raises the question:
Where else has Christ been present?
When else?
With who else?
How else?

Paul find Jesus there,
in that rock,
because Paul finds Jesus everywhere.
Theologians would call this a "high Christology," an example of a "cosmic Christology" where Jesus is understood to be woven into the very fabric of creation. As Bell says, "Paul finds Jesus everywhere." The classic example of this high or cosmic Christology is John 1:
John 1.1-3
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
The high Christology of John is very different from the lower Christologies found in the Synoptic gospels. Compare "In the beginning was the Word" with the opening of Matthew:
Matthew 1.1
This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham...
It's one thing to be the Messiah (low Christology) and quite another to be the Logos through whom the world was created (high Christology).

Both sorts of Christology are on display in the New Testament, and we really don't need to choose between them, but the high Christology of John 1 and 1 Cor. 10 can radically reframe what it might mean to be "in Christ." Consider, as Bell does later in Chapter 6, the high Christology of Colossians 1:
Colossians 1.15-20
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Here we find echos of the Christology of John 1. Through the Son "all things were created." More, all things were created "for him." The Son is the telos, the goal, the direction, the end point of creation. Everything is heading toward the Son. Still more, "in him all things hold together." The Son is the animating force of the cosmos, the fabric or web holding everything together. Here we see the idea Paul was gesturing toward when he said "that rock is Christ." Jesus is everywhere in creation. Finally, the Son will "reconcile to himself all things...making peace through his blood shed on the cross."

All things.
Created. Held together. Reconciled.
Past. Present. Future.

In light of the high Christology of Colossians 1, 1 Corinthians 10, and John 1--where Christ is "everywhere" and holds "everything" together--we wonder what it means to be "in Christ." If Christ already holds everything together isn't everything, in a sense, already "in Christ"?

In short, a high Christology might radically reconfigure what being "in Christ" might mean. We might, for example, be "in Christ" in the same way the Jews were in Exodus 17. Saved, rescued, sustained, and blessed without realizing Christ is there, without confessing that Christ is present.

This, obviously, raises a host of questions about how Christians relate to other world religions. Might there be Exodus 17 rocks in the experience of other faiths outside of Christianity? Might other religions, like the Jews in Exodus 17, be saved by Christ without their explicit awareness and confession?

What we have in this view is a sort of fusion between exclusivism and inclusivism. Salvation comes to those "in Christ" but with a cosmic Christology "in Christ" has been radically expanded allowing Christ to be the savior for others in an Exodus 17 sort of way. Here is Bell toward the end of Chapter 6 on this point:
[T]here is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity. This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum.

As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn't matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn't matter what you believe, and so forth.

Not true.
Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.

What Jesus does is declare that he,
and he alone,
is saving everybody.

And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.
In sum, what we see in all this is how a high Christology can create space for a more inclusive vision of God's saving purposes while holding onto the exclusivistic claim that all are saved "in" or "through" Jesus Christ. It's all a matter of how big your Jesus is. About if you think there are any more Exodus 17 rocks out there.

That said, I think skeptical readers of Love Wins will wonder about Bell's handwaving remarks that his high Christology hasn't thrown out the cross. And to be honest, it's true that he doesn't do a lot more in Chapter 6 to explain how the cross fits into the cosmic Christology he's deployed. So, to end this post, I'd like to sketch out something along these lines, something that Bell could have said in response. And it has to do with how I started the post, with the distinction between confessing "Lord, Lord" (which doesn't save you) versus "doing the will of the Father" (which does save you).

The issue, again, goes back to what it might mean to be "in Christ." More specifically, how does the cross get us "in Christ" when Christ is everywhere?

To get at an answer I'd like to borrow from the panentheistic analysis of Jürgen Moltmann in his book Trinity and Kingdom. Specifically, the "Christ is everywhere" formulation might lead us to assume a pantheistic position where we see an equivalency between God and creation. This doesn't seem very orthodox, but if we resist this equivalency what are our options? What might it mean to say that God creates something that exists "outside" of God? Can anything be "outside" of God? Isn't God omnipresent? And if God is omnipresent then how can creation exist outside of or externally to God? Creation has to be "in God" in some form or fashion, correct? And if so, doesn't that lead to pantheism?

Not necessarily. According to Moltmann, building off some Jewish theologians, God's creation involves two parts. The first part is God's withdrawal. A negative action of God to create space for creation. This "making room" for creation involves an act of self-limitation on God's part. After this negative space has been created the second, positive act of creation can occur. Here God speaks a positive word into the vacuum that was created through God's self-limitation. These two phases of creation are like breathing. First, a breathing in--passivity, vacuum, a pulling in. Followed by a breathing out--activity, creation, a moving out.

This formulation creates a panentheistic position. God isn't equivalent to creation. Nor is creation "outside" or independent of God, a object "beside" or "next to" God. Rather, creation is a space within God, a negative space that God has evacuated to make room for the Other.

This is a very paradoxical space. We are "in God" but in a way marked by the absence of God. We exist in a space that God has evacuated. Because of God's self-limitation the space of creation is marked by god-forsakenness, the loss or lack of God. We exist--positive creation--because God has self-limited--negative creation. The practical implication of this panentheism is that God can only appear in creation--the space of God's self-limitation--as weakness.

This is where the cross comes in. What does God look like in this world? God looks like Jesus on the cross. This is the idea I was trying to communicate in my recent post Your God is too Big which, if you haven't already, you should read as I don't want to say all that again. But let me at least remind you of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's commentary of how God comes to us in this world:
God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
All this is just a theological way of saying that "God is love" (1 John 4.8). Love--that is how God moves in this world, this space of God's self-limitation. This is why some of the church fathers proclaimed that "force is has no part of God."

And this brings me back to the start of the post. What does it mean to be "in Christ"? It means to love. To love as Jesus loved. To live a cruciform life. To take up our cross and follow him.

Yes, it's true that "Christ is everywhere." But what does this mean? I think it means that wherever love exists God is present. Because God is love. And that is how the cross is necessary for us to be found "in Christ." True, in one sense, as created beings, we are already on the "inside," but in a god-forsaken way. To exist is, to some extent, to be on the inside of the omnipresent God, but this existence is in the space of God's absence. So, to really be on the inside of creation, to be with God in creation, we need to go through the cross, to follow the path that Jesus walked. Jesus on the cross shows us the Father, shows us where God is located in this space called "creation." And when we follow Jesus to God, when we go through the cross, when we love, we find the Father in this world. On the cross Jesus shows us that "God is love." So we pick up our own cross to "do the will of the Father."

And this, according to Jesus, is what saves us. This is how the cross allows us to be truly and fully "in Christ."

Friday, October 28, 2011

On Blogging: A Conversation with Rachel Held Evans

Last month Rachel Held Evans, author and blogger, was on ACU's campus for Summit. I know many of you follow Rachel's blog and have read her book Evolving in Monkey Town.

During her time on campus the ACU Honors College sponsored and hosted a discussion with Rachel and I about our experience as Christian bloggers. The good people in ACU's Learning Studio have put together three videos, now online, capturing our conversation.

For my own part, I had a blast and felt deeply blessed to get to spend some time with Rachel.


Part 1: Where we discuss the history of our blogs

Part 2: Where we discuss civil discourse on blogs

Part 3: Where we discuss some of the neurotic aspects of blogging

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Monsters in Modernity

Halloween is coming!

If you're new here you are likely unaware of my annual odes to Halloween. As will become clear, I really like the holiday. For theological reasons.

Next Tuesday, All Saints Day, the day after Halloween this year, I'm speaking in the "Monsters Chapel" being hosted by my friend and colleague Dr. Kyle Dickson.

I am really excited to speak in the Monsters Chapel, a themed chapel using "monsters" as a way to talk about spirituality and morality, because I've written some about the theology of monsters and I have a chapter on monsters in Unclean.

I was planning on using my chapel time to talk about scapegoating and monsters (sharing the analysis from Unclean). I was going to build the talk around Nietzsche's famous quote:
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.
I was going to show these two clips--one from Beauty and the Beast and the other from the classic 1931 Frankenstein movie (which is great fun to watch)--where angry crowds head out with torches and pitchforks looking to lynch and kill the monster. As Nietzsche warned, in these scenes of hunted and hunter who is the greater monster?

But when I found out that I'd be speaking about monsters the day after Halloween my thoughts turned toward the existential. As I've written about before, I think Halloween functions as a collective memento mori. And in this age of death avoidance, I find this aspect of Halloween to be very healthy.

So with this in mind I wanted to show a clip connecting monsters with death. Zombies are good for this illustration. And the first zombie clip I could think of, being a child of the 80s, was Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

Now the part I want you to pay attention to starts at the 6:30 mark when Vincent Price starts his creepy voiceover (which, I've discovered, is called a sprechgesang).

Now what did you notice about those zombies?

I'll tell you. They come out of graves.

Now why is that of interest?

Well, because you just don't see zombies come out of graves much anymore. In modern zombie movies zombies are more likely produced by toxic waste, radiation, or a virus. In modern movies zombie etiology is biological, not occult. So it's a bit of a surprise to see zombies coming out of a cemetery.

This observation brought to mind another Halloween-inspired essay I wrote about modern vampire films. In that essay I make an observation similar to the one I've made here about zombies. Specifically, in older vampire movies the vampire was the product of the occult. The vampire was undead. But in modern vampire movies, like modern zombie movies, vampirism is caused by genetic mutations and viruses. Again, the etiology is biological.

My argument in that essay, one that struck me again while watching the Thriller video, is how modernity--this Age of Reason--has been hollowing out the monster story. That is, even monster stories have become scientific. Full of talk about genetics and viruses and illnesses and toxicity.

We see a similar hollowing out regarding spiritual categories. Sin is no longer a spiritual condition. The etiology of sin, as with zombies and vampires, is more likely to be biological. Sin is an illness, a disease, an addiction, a product of genetics.

I'm not saying this is necessarily bad. I'd rather not go back to an age were schizophrenics were considered to be demon possessed. I'm just noticing the hollowing out that is occurring during this age of disenchantment where even traditional occult stories are now about science.

More, the rise of science, as I recently argued, is creating increased death denial. Modern medicine and technology creates an illusion of immortality. That through our technological power we can defeat death. And this death denial and avoidance is even creeping into zombie movies. How bad has it become that even zombies can't be associated with death?

But the reality, despite our illusions, is that we can't defeat death with science. And we should remember that from time to time. (Like, say, on Halloween!) To remind ourselves that zombies and death do, actually, go together.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

On Christian Communion: Why is Killing Okay But Not Sexuality?

Last year our campus hosted a scholar from an evangelical university who has published extensively on the topic of same-sex attraction. Overall, the presentations were very good and I enjoyed them very much.

However, there were a couple of things that were brought up in one of Q&A sessions that I've been rolling around in my head.

The issues brought up in the Q&A had to do with a choice the speaker presented regarding the identity scripts available to Christians experiencing same-sex attraction. As described by the speaker there is, on the one hand, a gay identity script. This script basically says that the person should explicitly and intentionally "own" the label gay as both an identity marker and lifestyle choice. This would signal a departure from the Christian community and a movement into the gay community.

On the other hand, the person could also adopt an "in Christ" script where allegiance to Jesus trumps sexual experience. That is, this person might, for a lifetime, experience same-sex attraction but this experience doesn't become an identity marker. Rather, following Christ is the identity marker, and this, according to the speaker, would mean obedience to a traditional Christian sexual ethic (i.e., sex is only sanctioned by God when it occurs in a heterosexual marriage).

So the speaker presented this as a choice, a choice between a gay identity script and an "in Christ" identity script which adheres to the traditional Christian sexual ethic (in this latter script the person might experience lifelong same-sex attraction but would remain celibate). A Christian experiencing same-sex attraction, then, has to choose between these two identity scripts, gay vs. "in Christ."

But during the Q&A one of my colleagues questioned this dichotomy. Are these the only choices? Specifically, why couldn't there be a "gay in Christ" script? In this script the person would be committed to sexual relations under the same structures as hetero-Christians. That is, they would confine intimate sexual relations to a marriage covenant, only in this case the covenant would be same-sex. In short, why not a fusion of the two scripts presented by the speaker? Could this not be an option?

At this point, the speaker demurred stating that such a "gay in Christ" script wouldn't be in keeping with a traditional Christian sexual ethic. That's true, but the speaker seemed to suggest, though I could have read him wrong, that such a script would signal an effective departure from Christianity itself. That the traditional Christian sexual ethic was a boundary marker that couldn't be crossed if one wanted to be a Christian. That a "gay in Christ" script was, effectively, an oxymoron.

This is the part that set my mind wondering.

As I noted in a recent post, I'm aware that certain moral, doctrinal and theological accommodations may create too much of a rupture for the interpreting community. So I understand how a "gay in Christ" script could go "too far" for particular Christian communities. But I can't help but note that those communities have already accommodated hermeneutical moves that are just as rupturous1, if not more so, than a "gay in Christ" move.

Take, as an example, the moral issue of killing.

As we all know, Jesus expressly forbids his followers from killing:
Matthew 5.21-22a, 39, 44
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, "You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment." But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.

I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
As we are all well aware, many Christians, now and in the past, have read these passages in a less than literal way, making allowances for killing under various circumstances (e.g., self-defense, police work, just war). But that said, there have been other Christians who have read these passages literally and have argued that Jesus really meant what he said. Turn the other cheek. Do not resist an evil person. Love your enemies.

Now, I don't want to adjudicate between these two views, between, say, just war thinkers and pacifists within the Christian tradition. I simply want to make two observations and then ask a question.

Here's the first observation. Even if you are a proponent of just war I hope you'd admit that it takes a lot of hermeneutical chutzpah to override an explicit command of Jesus. More, a command that many would consider to be at the very heart of Jesus's ethical vision for Kingdom life. And while it is true that it also takes hermeneutical chutzpah to override the presence of homosexuality in Paul's vice lists, I think such an override isn't nearly as significant as overriding the Sermon on the Mount and the foundational ethical vision of Jesus.

This is my second observation. Though there is great debate and controversy between the pacifists and just war people within the Christian communion these believers seem, by and large, to recognize the Christian brotherhood and sisterhood of those who disagree. To be sure, each group might question the depth or level of Christian commitment of their opponents, but by and large the Christan community allows people to differ on this very difficult moral issue.

And these two observations lead to my question: If we are okay with diversity on the issue of killing--overriding an explicit command at the heart of Jesus's Kingdom vision on a topic of enormous moral consequence--why won't we allow for a diversity of views within the Christian communion in regard to Paul's vice lists?

That is, if you are willing to extend the right hand of fellowship to pacifists or just war advocates why not to gay Christians?

The point is, even conservative Christian communities, though they don't notice this, have already incorporated a hermeneutical rupture that is very much greater than anything in play regarding Paul's vice lists. Christian churches allow their members to go to war. Christians are allowed to kill. This, despite Jesus's explicit prohibition. And to be clear, I'm not challenging that position. I'm simply pointing out that if you allow for diversity on the issue of killing--an issue of the greatest moral consequence, theologically, biblically, and ethically--why not diversity and Christian communion on an issue--sexuality--of more marginal concern and importance?

1 That's a new word I've coined: "rupturous"--the adjective form of "rupture."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Your God is too Big

As a college professor interested in the psychology of religion I'm sort of an anthropologist of young adulthood spirituality. That is, I listen a great deal to how my students talk about faith, God, Christianity, and church. I'm particularly interested in listening to what moves them spiritually.

One of the things I've noticed in this regard--something, to be sure, not unique to this age group or generation--is the prominence of a focus on God's bigness. Worship that seems to move my college students, and many other Christians, tends to focus on God's transcendence and awesomeness. "Awesome" just might be the most common word my students, and many other Christians, use to describe God.

This focus on God's bigness is often used in worship to create an acute sense of our smallness in relation. Ecstatic worship is often triggered by a felt sense of God's transcendent power, size, and awesomeness. I leave such worship psychologically stunned and overwhelmed by God's bigness. My sense is that a lot of contemporary worship is explicitly aimed at trying to create this experience. And that makes sense. Worship means "to bow down." Thus, to worship God means to "bow down" before God's power and size.

And yet, I wonder about all this. Particularly from a missional perspective. Specifically, I struggle with how the felt sense of smallness I experience in worship is supposed to transition into Christian mission. I do see how an acute sense of our smallness works as a trigger for ecstatic worship, but find it hard to see how that sense of smallness helps Christians learn to eat with tax collectors and sinners.

Put bluntly, I'm wondering this: How does an experience of God's awesomeness help you learn that God is love?

Let me be clear. I think God is awesome. I think it's good, as a critique of human pride, to experience God's awesomeness. I'm just expressing a concern about how this sort of ecstatic worship transitions into missional living.

In light of all this, here's what I want to say to many Christians: Your God is too big.

Here's what I think. I think too much focus on God's awesomeness leaves us ill-equipped to see God's smallness in the world. Perhaps we'd be better able to transition from worship to mission if we started focusing on God's smallness rather than on God's bigness. Isn't it one of the purposes of worship to help us see aright? To see God more clearly? If so, perhaps we need to start worshiping God's smallness. Our God has gotten too big.

Let me try to illustrate what I'm talking about.

See the smallness of God in this famous section of Night, Elie Wiesel's memoir of the Holocaust:
I witnessed other hangings. I never saw a single one of the victims weep. For a long time those dried-up bodies had forgotten the bitter taste of tears.

Except once. The Oberkapo of the fifty-second cable unit was a Dutchman, a giant, well over six feet. Seven hundred prisoners worked under his orders, and they all loved him like a brother. No one had ever received a blow at his hands, nor an insult from his lips.

He had a young boy under him, a pipel, as they were called--a child with a refined and beautiful face, unheard of in this camp...the face of a sad angel...

One day, the electric power station at Buna was blown up. The Gestapo, summoned to the spot, suspected sabotage. They found a trail. It eventually led to the Dutch Oberkapo. And there, after a search, they found an important stock of arms.

The Oberkapo was arrested immediately. He was tortured for a period of weeks, but in vain. He would not give up a single name. He was transferred to Auschwitz. We never heard of him again.

But his little servant had been left behind in the camp in prison. Also put to torture, he too would not speak. Then the SS sentenced him to death, with two other prisoners who had been discovered with arms.

One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains--and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.

This time the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.

The three victims mounted together onto the stairs.

The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.

"Long live liberty!" cried the two adults.

But the child was silent.

"Where is God? Where is He?" someone behind me asked.

At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.

"Bare your heads!" yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping.

"Cover your heads!"

The the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive...

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

"Where is God now?"

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

"Where is He? He is--He is hanging here on this gallows..."
This is a powerful story, with particular resonances for Christians, a people who worship a God who hangs dead on the gallows. And I wonder, when I read stories like Wiesel's, if contemporary Christian spirituality, a spirituality so focused on God's bigness, is able to train us to see God in the figure of that little boy.

How can we learn to see God's smallness?

Perhaps no one described God's smallness better than Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in one of his letters from prison:
God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
It is true that God is awesome. But, as Bonhoeffer observed, "God lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross." God "is weak and powerless in the world." God helps us "not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering."

God is small.

God is that little boy hanging from the gallows.

God isn't powerful and mighty.

God is weakness and powerlessness.

So this, again, is what I'm wondering. Might a spirituality of God's bigness and awesomeness be hindering our ability to see the smallness and weakness of God? God as the child hanging on the gallows. God in the body of the demented mental patient. The craving addict. The senile old person in diapers. The starving child. The drooling retarded. The street walking prostitute. The homeless man on the park bench. The queer kid bullied on the playground.

Might our God be too big? Too big for us to see the smallness of God?

Where is God?

God is here--weak and hanging on the gallows.

Friday, October 21, 2011

"Biblical" as a Sociological Stress Test

Recently I was invited to be a part of a conversation regarding how a community I'm associated with should approach a controversial topic. The stated goal of the conversation is to think about what a "biblical" approach would be regarding this issue.

So I've been thinking a lot about the word biblical and about what it might mean.

Here's my basic observation: Whatever biblical means it doesn't mean biblical.

What I mean is this. Are Catholics biblical? Methodists? Pentecostals? Amish? Presbyterians? Episcopalians? Baptists? And on and on? It seems everyone would own the word biblical. And if that's the case, if biblical can embrace all this diversity, then I struggle to understand how, when I gather to discuss a "biblical" approach to a controversial subject, that anything other than a diversity of opinions will emerge. Strictly from an empirical standpoint, the bible doesn't produce homogeneity of opinion. Rather, it produces heterogeneity of opinion. That is a fact. The bible does not produce consensus. And if you think that it could or should you're just not a serious person.

The point being, a conversation seeking to find a "biblical" view isn't heading toward a fixed destination. Rather, such a conversation will be airing a diversity of views that share a family resemblance. The word "biblical" here is the name we have for that family resemblance. Similar to the label "Smith Family Reunion." Biblical means something like Smith Family Reunion.

Phrased another way, biblical is just a synonym for Christian.

Secondly, biblical definitely doesn't describe the attempt to conform to or recreate the church we find in the pages of the bible. I know of no denomination that looks like the church revealed in the New Testament. Can you point me to one?

And if we can't what does that say about how we are using the word biblical? Suddenly it's very clear that biblical doesn't mean "doing what they did in the bible." Because no one is doing that. So what does biblical mean? Again, whatever it means it's clear that it doesn't mean biblical.

So what does it mean?

This is what I think it means. Biblical is a word Christian communities use to describe their hermeneutical strategies. Biblical is a word that is used to describe how a particular faith community reads the bible. What this means is that the word biblical is a sociological label, a way of describing the interpretive strategies of a particular community.

Consequently, when a faith community gathers to discuss if a view is biblical or not they are asking how a particular view sits with their hermeneutical history and norms. The issue isn't if a position is biblical or not (because, as I noted above, no one is being biblical) but if a position would cause a sociological rupture, a tear in the hermeneutical fabric that has held this community together. If the position can be woven into the hermeneutical web then it is declared biblical. But if the rupture is too great then the view is declared unbiblical.

In summary, this is my definition of biblical:
Biblical is a sociological stress test
When groups gather, as I will be gathering, to have a conversation about what is or is not biblical they are engaging in sociological stress test. Can this hermeneutical community, given its history and norms, accept a change in this area without significant rupture? How much stress can we tolerate? That's the question under consideration. How much stress can we tolerate?

This, as best I can tell, is what it means to be biblical.

MANA & the Manabago

Food Crisis in East Africa - MANA from ManaNutrition on Vimeo.

Mark Moore and the Manabago are coming to Abilene on Monday!

Mark is the CEO and founder of MANA. What is MANA? From the MANA website:
Simply put, Mana is RUTF.

What’s RUTF?

RUTF stands for Ready to Use Therapeutic Food, and it’s been designed specifically to treat kids diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition (SAM). RUTF can be broadly defined as peanut butter mixed with fortified milk in an over-sized ketchup packet.

A child diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition can be – literally – on the brink of death. On average, three packets a day for six weeks will revive a child, getting him or her back to normal nutritive levels, healthy, responsive and happy. Better yet, the RUTF track record is such that kids who have been “nursed” back to health from a SAM state rarely fall back into that state again. In other words, when they’re back, they’re back for good!
Mark recently wrote about his discovery of the "miracle food" (aka, peanut butter) at the Huffington Post. To help raise awareness and funds for MANA Mark and others are driving a groovy 1971 Manabago through the United States. The stated goal of the Manabago tour is to help save the lives of 10,000 kids by Christmas 2011.

The Manabago is in Abilene on Monday. Again, surf the MANA website for more about RUTF and its uses in treating children with severe acute malnutrition. And look for the Manabago coming to a city near you!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Triangle of Love

I've recently been asked to contribute a paper to a journal where I'll respond to five papers dealing with the subject of love from both psychological and theological perspectives. So on my bike ride to work I was thinking about the Greatest Commandments:
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.”
As I pondered these words it struck me that three loves are spoken of:
Love of God: "Love the Lord your God."
Love of Other: "Love your neighbor."
Love of Self: "as [you love] yourself."
Obviously, these loves have different foci:
(The word "cultic" might need some explaining. I'm not talking about "cults" like what you hear about in the media. The word cult here is referring to religious activities that are devoted to the care and honoring of a deity. The word cult comes from the Latin colore, meaning to "cultivate" or "care for" in a gardening sense. Applied to religious life, then, cultic activity is the "care for" a God or gods--usually through rituals of worship, honoring, and veneration. Thus, going to church on Sunday to worship God is a cultic activity.)

As I thought about these loves and their different emphases I was struck how they exist in tension with each other. For example, in Unclean I spend a great deal of time talking about the tensions between mercy and sacrifice in stories like Matthew 9.9-13. In that story we see cultic love ("sacrifice") coming into conflict with humanistic love ("mercy").

I also discuss in Unclean the tensions between love of self and love of others. I recently wrote some more about this and received some pushback from some of you. Recall, I've expressed some skepticism about the modern therapeutic focus on healthy boundaries. However, many of you have argued that healthy boundaries, as a form of self-love, are necessary before we can love others in a healthy way. Thus we face another tension: Love of self (setting boundaries to preserve the self) and love of others (allowing the self to become expended on behalf of others).

In short, the ideal of love seems to exist in the middle of a triangle at the center of these three foci of love:
Using this model we can examine/describe various faith communities by looking for imbalances, where one vertex/corner might be being privileged over the other two. For example, when we find self love dominating in a faith community we have a group strongly focused on self-care and therapeutic issues (e.g., self-esteem enhancement). In communities where cultic love dominates we'll find a strong focus on pleasing (or displeasing) God, often through correct doctrine and rituals (e.g., religious dogmatism and fundamentalism). Finally, in communities where love of other dominates we'll find a strong humanitarian and humanistic community, with lots of discussions about things like justice and poverty.

We might even go further and create two-point codes showing how particular faith communities combine two loves to create a distinctive life. For example, a Unitarian group might get a SO code (Self/Other) if they have a therapeutic/humanistic vibe, with little interest in "religion" (the cultic love). A social justice oriented evangelical group (think Jim Wallis or Tony Campolo) might have a CO code (Cultic/Other) where there's a strong impulse to obey God that is mainly expressed through social justice activism. In contrast, more conservative evangelical churches might get a CS (Cultic/Self) code where obedience to God mainly results in benefits for the self, either salvifically or therapeutically (I'm trying to capture in this the huge self-help aspect of a lot of contemporary Christianity).

The ordering of the codes might also be used to communicate relative emphasis. For example, your typical therapeutic evangelical community might get a CS (Cultic/Self) ordering, but someone like a Joel Osteen might get that switched around with a SC (Self/Cultic) ordering to communicate an excessive focus on self love (where we start seeing that health and wealth gospel stuff emerging).

I'm just brainstorming with all this.

Anyway, to wrap this up, it does seem like some sort of balance is the key. And in light of that, I'm intrigued by the trinitarian structure.

So what do you think of this model? And for those of you in the social sciences or working with churches, have you seen a model like this anywhere else?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Buying a Bible

A couple of weeks ago I looked at the bible Brenden, my eldest, age 14, was carrying to church. I think it was a gift from the church when he was, if I recall, going into 1st Grade. He's in 8th grade now. So the bible was looking a little juvenile, for a kid in elementary school. Not for a kid starting High School in less than a year.

So I told Brenden I'd get him a new bible, something he could grow into and that would support his early explorations into the text.

Thus we found ourselves, one Saturday, heading for Mardel, our local Christian bookstore.

This may surprise you, but I love Christian retail stores. I really do! I find Christian bookstores absolutely fascinating. All around you is Christian clothing, Christian jewelry, Christian home decor, Christian music, Christian books. You can even buy a shofar if you like to blow a ram's horn on Sunday morning!

I just have the best time looking around. Given my research interests Christian bookstores combine two of my very favorite things:
Crazy + Christian
And I'm not just window shopping. I got my "Love Your Enemies" t-shirt at this Mardel. And I actually bought a book by John Howard Yoder in this store. (My thought upon seeing the book, if I recall, was something like "What the hell is that doing in here?").

That said, this is also the Mardel that had banned Derek Webb's Mockingbird album.

But back to our story, my mission to help Brenden pick out a bible.

The bibles are on the back wall of the store. And above each shelf of bibles is prominently displayed the version to be found underneath. King James Version (Happy 400th Birthday!). New King James Version. New International Version. New Living Translation. English Standard Version. Contemporary English Version. New American Standard. New Revised Standard. The Message.

Underneath each version where a host of options, a bible in that particular version for all sorts of things. There were Metal Bibles, Waterproof Bibles, Camouflage Bibles and Chunky Bibles. There were bibles for mothers, fathers, men, women, businessmen, hunters and soldiers. And, of course, lots and lots of bibles for "teens."

What to get Brenden?

Initially, we went two different directions. First, I pulled a few study bibles I thought were good. I've gotten good use from the NIV, NLT, and NRSV study bibles I have. So I had Brenden look at these as I wanted him to have something that would help him make sense of this sprawling and confusing collection of books known as "the Bible."

We also pulled a collection of "teen bibles" aimed at Brenden's demographic. Personally, I didn't like the look or approach of these bibles but, hey, it wasn't going to be my choice. It was going to be Brenden's call and he was interested in looking at them. So we collected a stack.

Surrounded by stacks of bibles I sat Brenden on a bench and said, "Look through all these. Take your time. I'm going to look at the shofars and see if I can get the staff to blow one for me. When I come back, after the walls of Jericho fall, you can tell me what you think."

When I returned from shofar shopping Brenden had ruled out the big study bibles. They were a bit too much.

But Brenden was also struggling with the the teen bibles. I said, "You don't look too excited about these bibles either."

He wasn't. He kept flipping through the pages and finally asked me, "Why is there all this stuff in the middle of the page?"

If you've not flipped through one, teen bibles have a magazine sort of feel. Every page has pictures of cool kids making cool observations about how cool Jesus is. There are little surveys in the bible. Little checklists. Little bits of advice about teen issues. And around it all, hidden in the background, is the biblical text.

Brenden asked, "Why can't you just read the bible without this stuff getting in the way?"

I responded, "Well Brenden, here's the deal. The people who made this bible don't think kids will, well, actually read the bible. So they put all this other stuff in there hoping that you'll at least read that. It's a bible if you aren't interested in reading the bible."

So we were stuck. Brenden seemed to be "in between," developmentally speaking. Too young for the hefty study bibles I liked and too wise, spiritually speaking, to be comfortable with the hyper, radical, ADHD teen bibles with words like "awesome" and "revolution" blasting off every kinetic page.

So we went back to the shelves and, after bit of searching, found something really good. Let me recommend the new NIV Student Bible for those of you shopping for a good bible for a teen. Here's what I like about this bible. First, it's mainly a bible. About 90% of every page is just the text. Second, the other 10% of the page (along with all the other study helps) is devoted to illuminating the story in the text rather than trying to make the bible "relevant," "radical," and "cool." (Note: Philip Yancey was involved in writing the study notes.) And, finally, the aesthetics (font, page layout, design) of the bible are very attractive and ageless. Though the bible is aimed at teens and college students, it's a bible that you could hand anyone just starting out with the bible.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Poetry of a Murderer

Most of us, I'm guessing, know about the logical fallacy known as ad hominem. Ad hominem is Latin for "to the man." According to Wikipedia an ad hominem "is an attempt to negate the truth of a claim by pointing out a negative characteristic or belief of the person supporting it." Basically, in an ad hominem you try to discount the message by attacking the messenger. On strictly logical grounds an ad hominem is a fallacy. That is, there is no logical connection between the content of a message and, say, the virtue or intelligence of the messenger. Flawed messengers can speak the truth. Consequently, each "message" (i.e., argument) should be treated on its own terms.

However, Wikipedia goes on to note that there are situations when what we know about the messenger is relevant to our assessment of the message. As Wikipedia says, an ad hominem "is not always fallacious; in some instances, questions of personal conduct, character, motives, etc., are legitimate and relevant to the issue."

For example, the other day I heard someone make a comment about the Presidency of Bill Clinton, dismissing his leadership because of his extramarital affairs. For many Christians Bill Clinton's moral failings cast a pall over anything good he might have done in office.

And here's the deal, moral failings are relevant data when it comes to leadership. But how relevant are various failings to those seeking elected office? Is any mistake in the past automatically disqualifying? Where's the line? How far back do we go?

What is legitimate data about character and what is voyeuristic mudslinging?

More, when do we forgive and allow people to move forward? I was thinking about this the other day after reading about Robert Downey Jr., during an awards ceremony, asking his industry to forgive Mel Gibson and allow him to work. You'll recall that Downey, due to his drug troubles, had to make his own way back into favor. Downey, now a forgiven industry darling, was asking the powers that be, in light of Gibson's drunken anti-Semitic rantings, to extend the forgiveness he had found to Gibson, his ostracized friend.

I bring up these ruminations about ad hominem because I'm always struck, when reading the psalms, that these are the poems of a murderer. More, a murderer and an adulterer. And I can't help but wonder, if King/President/Senator/Mega-Church Pastor/Movie name it...David were around today if we'd hold his poems and praise songs in such high esteem. I very much doubt it. I expect that we'd make an ad hominem appeal and shun the psalms. This would seem to be one of those cases where the moral character of the messenger is relevant to the message.

From time to time you do hear preachers point out that David's story is a story of forgiveness. We pause to feel amazed that, given the evil David had done, he's still described as a man after God's own heart. But such sentiments, as I've heard them, seem a bit too easy to me. Emotionally speaking, I think we are missing the scandal of the psalms. Would we, for instance, sing praise songs written by a known murderer and adulterer? I doubt it. So what makes the psalms any different? I think it's a willful act of forgetting and pretending on our part.

This is what I think is going on. I think we don't want to confront the moral scandal of the psalms. Why? Because if we really, truly confronted the scandal of the psalms we'd have to start taking a hard look at the ways we refuse to forgive those around us. It's pretty hard to take a swipe at, say, Bill Clinton, when you're singing the songs of a murderer on Sunday morning.

We shouldn't gloss, emotionally, over what David did. We should struggle to forgive David. We need to keep the scandal of the psalms--as a witness to the scandal of grace--firmly in view. For only then will the poetry of a murderer turn, at last, into the true poetry of praise.

Monday, October 17, 2011

On Walden Pond: Spend Yourself

Toward the end of Chapter One of Walden Thoreau shares some reflections about charity.

Page after page, as we have been reviewing in these posts, Thoreau preaches about the virtues of simplicity. The first chapter of Walden is entitled "Economy" after all. And Thoreau discusses at great length how we can live and enjoy life with less.

But in the concluding pages of this chapter Thoreau turns to address questions about charity. Thoreau seems keen to address various criticisms he's heard coming from some within the Concord community. It seems that some had suggested that Thoreau, in living upon less, had turned his back on philanthropy. I'm guessing that wealthy townspeople were justifying themselves in the face of Thoreau's experiment by pointing out that their excess cash allowed them to help the poor. Thoreau, by contrast, could do no such thing. So who was living more virtuously? The reclusive writer sitting in his small cabin? Or the wealthy philanthropist who gave alms to the poor?

Who helps the poor more? The Thoreau-inspired hippie or the businessman? It's an interesting question. But I don't want to get into all that. I'd like, instead, to share something from Thoreau that I think we all should hear.

First, in reflecting on how charity is typically done Thoreau has this to say:
If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.
I think we understand what Thoreau is reacting to. There is much within charity that is presumptuous, meddling, demeaning, humiliating, or simply ineffective. Charity is often done for the person giving, usually to assuage their conscience, than for the person on the receiving end.

This isn't to say that Thoreau rejects acts of charity. He's just suspicious of do-gooderism. But if a life of charity comes from a deep place within our souls, Thoreau says, with no small admiration, go for it:
But I would not stand between any man and his genius; and to him who does this work, which I decline, with his whole heart and soul and life, I would say, Persevere, even if the world call it doing evil, as it is most likely they will.
So all in all, while Thoreau was suspicious of charity, he didn't have a wholly dim view. But does he have any positive advice for us? He does. This is the quote I really wanted to share:
If you give money, spend yourself with it, and do not merely abandon it to them.
This is the advice that I think everyone should hear, no matter your politics and views about charity. What Thoreau is saying is this, charity has to be relational. It's not just the privileged giving to the underprivileged. The rich giving alms to the poor. Charity shouldn't be an economic transaction. We should, rather, seek to "spend ourselves."

More and more I'm becoming convinced that, when confronting poverty, the issue is less about economics than about relationships. Rather than thinking about charity we should be thinking about friendship.

This isn't, of course, to say we shouldn't worry about socioeconomic injustices and inequities. It is, rather, to say that when we come to people as anonymous do-gooders the people we are trying to help are likely to be as tempted as Thoreau was to make a run for it. Who wouldn't? Again, there is much within charity that can be demeaning and humiliating. Only true friendship with the poor will help us see the inhumanity in our well-intentioned acts of charity. Because, as many of you know, the rich often presume to know what the poor "need" and what is "best" for them. There is a knowledge and empathy disjoint that gets in the way. This gap of understanding can only be bridged by friendship. And friendship means, as Thoreau noted, spending ourselves.

Let me be very confessional. I'm just beginning to learn this lesson. I'm preaching at myself in this post. But I'm starting to place myself, more and more often, in places where people don't look like me. Ethnically, academically, socioeconomically. My hope, as times goes on, is that friendships will bloom from these repeated encounters. I pray that I'll learn to spend myself. That I'll learn to be a friend.

A good book to start thinking along these lines is Friendship at the Margins.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

"All That Are Here Are Humans.": The Soul of the Principalities and Powers

I started reading today, on the recommendation of my friend and colleague David, Roméo Dallaire's account of the Rwandan genocide--Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. Dallaire was the commander of the UN peacekeepers during the 100 days when 800,000 Rwandans were murdered, one of the quickest and most efficient genocides in history.

This after the civilized world had looked at Auschwitz and collectively promised, "Never again."

Much of Dallaire's book is an indictment of the UN and the nations on the Security Council, the United States among them, and their failure to act. More, their failure to even care.

Why was the developed world so apathetic? In the Preface Dallaire recounts the assessment of a group of UN bureaucrats who came to evaluate the situation in the first weeks of the genocide. Their conclusion was the Rwanda had no "strategic" interest. No oil. No cache of natural resources. Nothing of value for the Principalities and Powers. Their summary assessment:
We will recommend to our government not to intervene as the risks are high and all that is here are humans.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Slavery of Death: Part 12, The American Culture of Death Avoidance

Recall, in this series we are trying to understand the following 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.
How, exactly, are we held in slavery by our fear of death?

In my last post--The Pornography of Death--I argued that our fear of death is largely unconscious and neurotic in nature. Our slavery to the fear of death is largely hidden from view.

This feat is accomplished, as I argued in the last post, by a host of cultural mechanisms that aid in death avoidance. Overt psychic confrontations with our mortality have been minimized.

The great psychological treatment regarding this death avoidance is Ernest Becker's seminal work The Denial of Death. Becker's work will be critical for us as we go forward, but for today's post I'd like to share the complementary analysis of Arthur McGill in his book Death and Life: An American Theology.

The basic contention of McGill's Death and Life is that Americans worship Death. Death is the god of contemporary America, the idol we serve, the hub of the wheel. And if this isn't obvious it is, again, because an ethic of death avoidance is operative throughout American society.

McGill starts Death and Life by observing that “Americans like to appear as if they give death hardly any thought of all.” The American lifestyle is, thus, “for people to create a living world where death seems abnormal and accidental. [Americans] must create a living world where life is so full, so secure, and so rich with possibilities that it gives no hint of death and deprivation.”

We accomplish this feat, according to McGill, through acts of death avoidance. Americans live with “the conviction that the lives we live are not essentially and intrinsically mortal.” But, as noted in the last post, this is a neurotic fantasy. McGill calls it a “dream,” an “illusory realm of success.”

So how is this illusion maintained? According to McGill, "Americans accomplish this illusion by devoting themselves to expunging from their lives every appearance, every intimation of death . . . All traces of weakness, debility, ugliness and helplessness must be kept away from every part of a person’s life. The task must be done every single day if such persons really are to convince us that they do not carry the smell of death within them."

What we see in all this is how the American success ethos, the cultural expectation to be “fine,” is being driven by an underlying existential fear. This is the slavery to the fear of death. It is a collective pretending, a psychic game that allows us to avoid a direct confrontation with our own mortality. And through these acts of avoidance “Americans,” writes McGill, “are able to shield themselves from the awfulness of life, from the torment and devastation which always threaten to overwhelm their sensitivity.”

To shield ourselves from the “awfulness of life” we create illusions to protect us. Here is McGill on this point:
This whole realm of successful life (even for the people who live by it) is only a dream, only an illusion, only an imaginative creation like a work of art…Americans know, at some deep level, that every generation will suffer like its predecessors and will die like them. Foam rubber mattresses, anesthetics, fast airplanes, and color TVs—these do not enhance the quality of inner life. These do not make human life any less a plaything for death. But these do help to create an illusory realm of success and happiness: a realm without pain, without failure, without destitution and death; an illusory realm so centered in life that on Sunday afternoons in the fall, the spectacle of twenty-two adult men running around after a bag of air is enough to provide millions of people with zest and joy. The optimism is known to be an illusion. But, like a work of art, it is serious and important because it is a work of imagination. This illusory world is critical, in fact, because it performs an absolutely important function for the American people. It helps them conceal the horror of life which they half know to be there. In order for these sensitive Americans psychically to endure their existence at all, they have to interpose between themselves and actual life a dream world of success and cleanliness and health and beauty and perpetual youth.
Beyond entertainment culture and our effort to create nice appearances, McGill goes on to observe that vast portions of American Christianity are aimed at propping up these illusions, giving religious sanction to American death-avoidance. McGill contends that “It is the Christian God who helps veil the horror,” it is the Christian God who is “the crucial figure in the illusory world…[helping] us veil and endure this nightmare world.” We see this in the triumphalism in many sectors of Christianity. The almost manic optimism of church culture that cannot admit any hint of debility, disease, death or decay. Churches thus are filled with smiling cheerful people responding "Fine!" to any inquiry regarding their social, financial, emotional, physical or spiritual well-being. Fellow church members too afraid to show each other their weakness, brokenness, failure and vulnerability. For such admissions threaten to expose the neurotic lies that sit at the heart of Christian culture and American society.

This reminds me of Walter Brueggemann's assessment about why Christian churches avoid the use of the lament psalms in worship:
It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented…It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to me, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the larger number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about an incoherence that is experienced in the world…I believe that serous religious use of the lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought that acknowledgement of negativity was somehow an act of unfaith, as though the very speech about it conceded too much about God’s “loss of control”…The point to be urged here is this: The use of these “psalms of darkness” may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith
It's interesting that Brueggemann uses the same language of repression. The avoidance of the lament psalms is a "a frightened, numb denial and deception," a "cover-up" that "does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity."

Why is there this frightened, numb denial and deception within our churches? Again, according to McGill it's a symptom of a fear of death, the very slavery spoken of in Hebrews 2. And this fear of death creates an ethical duty, the duty to deny the existence of death in the midst of our lives. As McGill describes it:
The most crucial task is for people to create a living world where death seems abnormal and accidental. They must create a living world where life is so full, so secure, and so rich with possibilities that it gives no hint of death and deprivation. Here we have the first ethical duty imposed by the conviction that death is outside of life and that life is the only good for which we should live. According to this duty, a person must try to live in such a way that he or she does not carry the marks of death, does not exhibit any hint of the failure of life. A person must try to prove by his or her own existence that failure does not belong essentially to life. Failure is an accident, a remediable breakdown of the system.
McGill calls this duty to hide death--the pressure to be "fine"--the ethic of death avoidance:
Every American is thus ingrained with the duty to look well, to seem fine, to exclude from the fabric of his or her normal life any evidence of decay and death and helplessness. The ethic I have outlined here is often called the ethic of success. I prefer to call it the ethic of avoidance...Persons are considered a success not because they attain some remarkable goal, but because their lives do not betray marks of failure or depression, helplessness or sickness. When they are asked how they are, they really can say and really do say, "Fine...fine."
But again, the ethic of avoidance is being driven by fear-based illusions. This results in an enslavement that is both hard to see and admit. The truth is too terrifying to face.
Why is there this passion to gather people into the arena of true life and to remove from them all marks of sickness and debility? Because many Americans have to create a society which does not cause or require debility and death. Life, life, and more life--that is the only horizon within which these Americans want to live. Epidemics of sickness, economic disasters bringing mass starvation, social violence and disorder threatening at every street corner--if any such things were to happen, then death would no longer be outside of life, be accidental to life. Then, the American venture of nice homes, clean streets, decent manners, and daily security would prove to be false.
Fabricating this illusory world is a high and necessary calling...The more clearly Americans perceive grim horror and senseless suffering in their actual existence and the more eagerly they long for release, the more they are compelled to believe that this realm of happy, healthy appearances is real. The more they wrap themselves in those appearances, in the comfortable and peaceful suburban streets, the more they will say that the dreadful things are merely appearances.
The whole American venture into health and success and beauty and vigor, the whole existence which Americans try to live with all their consciousness rests on the hidden substratum of suffering and dreadful knowledge...I am convinced that the American joy of life, its style of success, and its passion for service are all born out of the heart of darkness...
The world is awful, but Americans usually do not say so. Instead they have a good and loving god. This god is not real. Death is real. But like tan skin and regular exercise and peaceful neighborhoods, this god belongs to the realm of illusion, by which Americans are able to shield themselves from the awfulness of life, from torment and destitution which always threatens to overcome their sensitivity.
This god of death denial, the governing ethic of American culture and much within contemporary Christianity, is, I contend, the satanic power described in Hebrews 2:
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.
To be set free from the illusions of "success" and the ethic of being "fine" we need to be set free from the satanic power the holds the power of death, the fear that is keeping us all enslaved.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Universalism, Grace and the Bondage of the Will

In the comments to yesterday's post Keith asked me a question about how the Reformed and Arminian traditions view "total depravity." I'd like to share the thoughts I offered Keith and connect those to the doctrine of universal reconciliation.

Do Arminians believe in total depravity?

Yes and no. If by total depravity we mean that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3.23) then Arminians do believe in it. But this isn't really what we mean by total depravity. Romans 3.23 is speaking to universal sinfulness, which is a bit different.

The issue goes to how the Reformed and Arminians view the human will. According to the Reformed humans are totally depraved, even our wills. Our will is broken, non-functional, and sinful. Thus, even if we were "able" to choose God that choice would be a sin, a form of selfishness, wanting/choosing God for the wrong reasons. In short, humans are incapable of "choosing" God. Or at least choosing God in a way that would be holy. The human will is depraved, unholy, stained with sin. Martin Luther called this "the bondage of the will."

Thus the doctrine of election. If we can't choose God then God has to choose us, God's will has to make the choice because we can't do it.

Arminians see this a bit differently. Arminians believe in free will (in contrast to Luther's "bondage of the will") and, thus, see human choice as morally neutral. That's the key difference. The apparatus of choice is morally neutral. More, the apparatus of choice is functional. Consequently, humans have the capacity to freely choose God. And in a way that isn't morally contaminated. Consequently, there is no need for the doctrine of election. With the will functional and morally neutral the initiative can sit on the human side. The point here is that the will isn't "totally depraved" as it is in Reformed thinking.

Now it's at this point where the Reformed counter with a very strong argument. The counterargument from the Reformed is that if human choice is allowed then that choice is a "work" and, thus, cause for boasting. This negates grace.

This argument makes sense. If I can be blamed for my choice to reject God (as Arminians believe) why can't I be praised (and boasting is just self-praise) for my choice to accept God?

That's a strong argument.

So what are our options? The doctrine of election? The belief that God picks some (regenerates the will of the elect) and doesn't pick others (leaving their wills depraved and in bondage)?

Seems like there is no good choice here. Grace gets screwed either way. In the Arminian view grace is screwed because humans have a cause for boasting. In the Reformed view grace is screwed because God limits grace to the few.

It's a real pickle.

That is, unless, you endorse the doctrine of universal reconciliation. Grace actually wins in universalism. On both scores. First, God's love extends to all. Second, because humans are finite and broken creatures God will have to decisively intervene within our biographies to move us toward perfection. God doesn't "regenerate" the will in an instant. Rather, the process is more like parenting. Coaching, punishing, supporting, prompting. In universalism "becoming perfect like our Heavenly Father is perfect" is the goal. But it's a developmental process.

But the key is this. You can't look back at that process and say, "I could have done this on my own." Because you couldn't have. The Divine Initiative is what saves you.

You have to stand in heaven and say, "There is no cause for boasting. I'm here because of grace."

The Disgust of Holiness

For those of you interested in the topics I discuss in Unclean I wanted to point you to a sermon recently preached by Jeremy Jernigan entitled "The Disgust of Holiness." Jeremy is a minister at the Central Church in Arizona. Jeremy also blogs at Tomorrow's Reflection.

The Disgust of Holiness from Central Christian on

I'm stunned that Jeremy got so much of the book into his sermon. For those of you thinking about using Unclean in small group or class settings you might find Jeremy's sermon video a useful discussion starter, particularly if class/group members aren't reading the book. For those wanting Jeremy's list of verses where Jesus touches people before cleansing/healing, you can find those on his summary post at the Central blog.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Churches of Christ versus Evangelicalism: Five Contrasts

In light of my last post--Four Reasons Why I'm Church of Christ--some of you wanted me to clarify the distinctions between the Churches of Christ and evangelicalism.

Let me start with Dana's comment about Scot McKnight's definition of evangelicalism. According to McKnight evangelicalism is defined by four things:
  1. The centrality of the Bible.
  2. The centrality of the atoning death of Christ.
  3. The centrality of the need for personal conversion.
  4. The centrality of an active mission to convert others and to do good works in society.
Dana asked, if this is the list/definition of evangelicalism, would the Church of Christ be considered evangelical. And the answer is yes.

But as I noted in my comments to Dana, Scot's definition of evangelicalism is intentionally trying to create a "big tent." And he's to be commended for that effort.

Still, when a lot of people hear the tag "evangelical" they have a much narrower conception in mind. I like the way qb looked at it, a contrast between "formal evangelicalism" and "popular evangelicalism."

So in this post, while there is no distinction between the Churches of Christ and formal evangelicalism, I'd like to make a few contrasts between the Churches of Christ and popular evangelicalism.

Contrast #1: Evangelicals are more politicized than the Churches of Christ
I mentioned this in my prior post. The Churches of Christ tend to be apolitical. This, to my mind, is one of the biggest contrasts with popular evangelicalism. Let me give a couple of illustrations.

First, as noted in my last post, the Churches of Christ don't have flags in our churches. Nor do we have patriotic displays in our worship services. For example, a couple of years ago there was an outcry on the ACU campus about a patriotic display being used as a part of our start of school opening ceremony which is a chapel service. You'd expect to see this sort of outcry at an Anabaptist school. And that's my point. There's an Anabaptist strain in our movement that pushes back on "God and Country" conflations.

A second illustration: we don't preach about religious values issues. I've been a member of the Churches of Christ my whole life and have attended conservative and liberal churches within our movement and I've never heard, not once, a sermon about abortion or gay marriage.

A third illustration: We don't talk about Presidents or political parties from the pulpit. I've never heard a sitting American President--Republican or Democrat--discussed from a Church of Christ pulpit. I'm sure it happens, but it's not the norm. More, Church of Christ preachers tend to speak to their congregations assuming that both Republicans and Democrats are in the audience. When we criticize one party we tend to criticize the other one in the next breath.

All that said, please note that these historical trends seem to be changing here and there. Some Churches of Christ are becoming more politicized. But this is a recent trend. Historically speaking, the Churches of Christ have been apolitical. And the best of them remain so.

Contrast #2: Churches of Christ have a more sophisticated understanding of Scripture than evangelicals
Perhaps an illustration will best get this across. Every faculty member at Wheaton--widely considered to be a flagship school of American evangelicalism--has to annually sign a statement of faith that confesses the following:
WE BELIEVE that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race...
This isn't just the case at Wheaton. Over the last decade there have been a number of high profile incidents where scholars at evangelical schools have been let go or asked to leave over the issue of evolution.

In contrast, faculty members in the Churches of Christ schools can believe in evolution. In fact, if you polled every faculty member across every Church of Christ university campus I bet the majority would endorse evolution. The point being, the intellectual conversation about the bible on Church of Christ campuses is more sophisticated than on evangelical campuses.

Contrast #3: Churches of Christ have an Arminian, rather than Reformed, soteriology
Not all evangelicals are Reformed, but a lot of them are. Thus, as a point of contrast Churches of Christ don't believe in original sin, predestination or the doctrine of election. More, we have a more optimistic view of humanity, seeing the Imago Dei rather than total depravity.

Contrast #4: Churches of Christ have an amillennialist/preterist eschatology
This might not seem like a big deal, but increasingly it seems to be from what I'm witnessing in evangelical churches and among political candidates courting the evangelical vote.

Churches of Christ don't believe in the end times thinking ascendant in many evangelical churches. We don't believe in the Anti-Christ, rapture, tribulation, thousand year reign, or Battle of Armageddon. Our reading of Daniel, Jesus's eschatological discourses, and Revelation are preterist. That is to say, most of us think everything foretold in the bible has already happened, with most of the prophecies pointing to either the fall of Jerusalem or destruction of Rome. Why do we believe this? Well, we read Revelation 1.1 literally:
Revelation 1.1
The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John...
Everything spoken of in Revelation--the Beast, 666, and all that jazz--would "soon take place," presumably within the lifetimes of those to whom the book was addressed to, the seven churches of Asia.

The reason I bring this up is that there seems to be a growing fascination about the "end times" in a lot of evangelical churches. More, these "end times" speculations get wrapped up in geopolitics with the state of Israel playing a key role in bringing about the Second Coming. In short, there is within many sectors of evangelicalism a fusion between end times eschatology and the role of America and Israel in geopolitics. This theology is then used to support or justify various policy decisions in regard to the Middle East. And some of this theology is used to justify war.

I don't here want to comment on the incoherence, immorality and danger of this theology within American evangelicalism. Suffice it to say, there is none of this nonsense in the Churches of Christ.

Contrast #5: The worship of the Church of Christ is less contaminated by entertainment and consumer culture
I might get some pushback about this last, but I thought it worth mentioning. If only to stick up for my tradition.

The Churches of Christ worship in the acapella style. That is, we sing without instrumental accompaniment. No organ, piano, or praise band. Just four part harmony.

This might be the most distinctive aspect of our tradition. Within Christianity only the Eastern Orthodox and the Churches of Christ worship solely acapella. We are a "peculiar people."

Let me be very clear. I have no problem with instrumental music in worship. In fact, I enjoy it a great deal. However, there is a point of contrast here between the acapella tradition of the Churches of Christ and the dominance of praise bands across large sectors of American evangelicalism.

There are good points and bad points about both acapella worship and praise band worship. I don't want to get into all that. I just want to conclude by saying one thing in favor of acapella worship and how it provides an important contrast with a lot of evangelical worship.

In my opinion, here is the single greatest benefit of acapella worship. As churches are increasingly co-opted and tempted by an American culture beholden to entertainment, hipsterism, consumerism, branding, marketing, salesmanship, image, relevance, showmanship, and spectating, the acapella style of worship is a theological breath of fresh air. To be sure, worship ministers around the world are working hard to prevent the worst of these abuses within their churches. But that's my point. Instrumental worship has to swim upstream.

But acapella worship? Acapella worship is so...uncool.

Exactly. That's its genius. That's its prophetic protest and resistance to the cultural forces around us.
To conclude, it will be objected that I've engaged with some of the worst aspects and stereotypes of American evangelicalism. That is true, I've not engaged with the best of the movement. But stereotypes are what are called to mind when people ask if we're "evangelical." Consequently, this post is simply meant to highlight points of contrast between the Churches of Christ and "popular" or "stereotypical" or "media presentations" of evangelicalism. And while these characterizations don't fit all evangelicals, particularly their leading intellectuals, these points of contrast are real, legitimate contrasts between the Churches of Christ and much that is found under the banner of "evangelical."
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