Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cheap Praise and Costly Praise

One of the more popular devotional/praise songs when I was in college, and one still used on our campus, was "The Steadfast Love of the Lord Never Ceases." The lyrics:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.
His mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning.
Great is your faithfulness.
The Lord is my portion says my soul.
Therefore I will hope in Him.
The lyrics come from Lamentations 3.22-24 (the exact wording is from the ESV). It's a great song but I have some problems with how we sing it. Specifically, the song is taken out of context.

What is missing when this song is sung is Lamentations 3.1-21, all the verses leading up to this outpouring of praise. These verses are critical if we are to properly understand the sort of faith being expressed in verses 22-24.

Here are verses 1-21 (NLT). They are an extraordinarily raw and heart wrenching expression of lament and accusation:
I am the one who has seen the afflictions
that come from the rod of the Lord’s anger.
He has led me into darkness,
shutting out all light.
He has turned his hand against me
again and again, all day long.

He has made my skin and flesh grow old.
He has broken my bones.
He has besieged and surrounded me
with anguish and distress.
He has buried me in a dark place,
like those long dead.

He has walled me in, and I cannot escape.
He has bound me in heavy chains.
And though I cry and shout,
he has shut out my prayers.
He has blocked my way with a high stone wall;
he has made my road crooked.

He has hidden like a bear or a lion,
waiting to attack me.
He has dragged me off the path and torn me in pieces,
leaving me helpless and devastated.
He has drawn his bow
and made me the target for his arrows.

He shot his arrows
deep into my heart.
My own people laugh at me.
All day long they sing their mocking songs.
He has filled me with bitterness
and given me a bitter cup of sorrow to drink.

He has made me chew on gravel.
He has rolled me in the dust.
Peace has been stripped away,
and I have forgotten what prosperity is.
I cry out, “My splendor is gone!
Everything I had hoped for from the Lord is lost!”

The thought of my suffering and homelessness
is bitter beyond words.
I will never forget this awful time,
as I grieve over my loss.
Yet I still dare to hope
when I remember this:
And it is here, at this moment, where, inexplicably, the song of praise breaks out:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.
His mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning.
Great is your faithfulness.
The Lord is my portion says my soul.
Therefore I will hope in Him.
Now here's what I want to ask you. Isn't it cheating a bit to jump to verse 22 without first singing verses 1-21? And yet, that's what we do in worship. We skip to verse 22. Literally and metaphorically. Skipping over the lament we jump straight into the praise. We skip over the brokenness. The sorrow. The tears. The grief. The despair. The anger. The pain. The doubt. The god-forsakenness.

We skip over it all and start worship at verse 22.

And what sort of spirituality does that create? Answer: It creates a false, cotton-candy sort of spirituality. A spirituality that wants to jump to the happy ending without the dark and painful journey of lament. It makes me think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's distinction between Cheap Grace and Costly Grace. I wonder if we should start talking about Cheap Praise and Costly Praise.

Cheap Praise starts with verse 22. Costly Praise starts with verse 1.

To be clear, I'm not saying that we shouldn't sing verses 22-24. I'm just saying it's cheap to skip ahead. Skipping ahead you skip over the experience where God is a wild animal who drags you off the path and tears you to pieces, leaving you bloody and broken. Skipping ahead you skip over the experience where God stands you up against the wall and uses you for target practice, shooting his arrows deep into your heart.

If we start the song, as we often do, with verse 22 we get one sort of spirituality. A spirituality of cheap praise. But if we start the song in verse 1 we get something very different, costly praise. A praise that is hard-won, honest, and truthful.

And it all boils down to where you start the song.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cookie Cutting the Bible: A Case Study of the Word "Righteous"

One of the interesting things about the bible is that it defies theological systematization. The bible is unruly and messy. And for some, this multivocality (which many take to be a euphemism for inconsistency and incoherence) is damning, marking the bible as an error-filled and wholly human product.

I get that. There is nothing more disorienting than growing up as a fundamentalist and encountering multivocality and discrepancies in the biblical text. This is a well worn path--disillusionment with biblical literalism--from belief to unbelief.

But while I appreciate these struggles, and struggle with them myself, there are times when I really enjoy the zany inconsistency of the bible. I enjoy the fact that it often feels like we are trying to stuff a thunderstorm into a bottle. What I love (and hate if I'm honest) about the bible is how, just when you've got something figured out, there is a chorus of voices within the text that resists what you've just created--your simplification, codification, and systematization. There's a reason, for example, why Calvinists and Arminians will never agree. They each sit on opposite ends of one of these perennial tensions.

All this struck me the other day thinking about how a lot of Church folk use the word "righteous." Specifically, they are not using the word in a biblical way. Rather, they are using the word as a theological term. A fully biblical usage leaves words messy and imprecise. But used theologically and doctrinally these words become clean, clinical, and precise. The word "righteous" in this instance is just a cog in a theological machine.

For example, when many Christians use the word "righteous" they don't have the biblical usage in mind. Because the biblical usage is all over the place. Rather, their use of the word "righteous" is governed by how the word functions in a made-man system that is imposed upon the bible. And when this man-made system is imposed on the bible a lot of the unruly stuff in the biblical text is cut out, marginalized, and left to the side.

Think of man-made doctrinal systems as a cookie cutter and the bible as the cookie dough.

What this means is that when people use a word like "righteous" they are using the cookie cutter version of the word, not the cookie dough version of the word, the biblical version of the word. That is to say, when people use doctrinal terms they are pushing a lot of biblical material to the side, ignoring a lot of the biblical material that doesn't fit into the shape of the cookie cutter system.

Let me illustrate this. One cookie cutter use of the word "righteous" is to claim that righteousness is imputed by God and has nothing to do with human moral effort. We all know passages, most of them in Romans, where Paul uses the word righteous in this way. But that cookie cutter use of the word leaves a lot of cookie dough on the cutting board. Some examples:
Matthew 25.45-46
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
Matthew 25 is a great example of how the righteous are defined as those who care for the poor and needy and, thus, are the ones who inherit eternal life.

Here are some examples of personal piety earning you the label righteous:
Mark 6.20a
Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man.

Luke 1.5-6
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.

Luke 2.25
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him.
This passage in Luke is a nice parallel of Matthew 25 where welcoming the poor is "repaid at the resurrection of the righteous":
Luke 14.13-15
"But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Here's a curious passage in Romans, of all places, about righteousness being connected to moral effort:
Romans 2.6-13
God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.

All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.
Speaking of Romans, just when you think you've got the mantra "by faith alone" down you run into Martin Luther's letter of straw.
James 2.24
You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
Following James, you can't get any more clear on the relationship between actually doing right and being righteous than the words of the Beloved Apostle:
1 John 3.7
Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.
If John is to be believed then there's been a whole lot of deceiving going on! When was the last time you've heard it preached from the pulpit: "Let there be no mistake, dear congregation, it is only the one who does what is right who is righteous." Personally, I think we need some sermons like this. I agree with St. John. Christians are being lead astray.

Finally, just when you hear a great sermon on how all our good works are filthy rags that we need to take off so we can be clothed in Christ...
Revelation 19.8
"Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Slavery of Death: Part 15, To Live as if Death Were Not

In the last post we talked a bit about the eccentric identity of Jesus, about how Jesus didn't own or possesses his identity, how he received it as gift from the Father. Consequently, Jesus did not fear death, did not fear dispossession or loss. There was no "grasping" in Jesus (cf. Philippians 2.6). This allowed Jesus to step away from the anxieties that drive human rivalry, to step away from the ways we strive for meaning, success, status, reputation, security, and esteem.

In making those observations we followed the work of Arthur McGill. However, another thinker who has done great work in this area is the Catholic theologian and writer James Alison. I'd like to share a few quotes from Alison in this post to reinforce and supplement our analysis about the identity of Jesus and the identity that we are called to adopt.

A key insight for Alison is the way death has distorted human desire. This informs Alison's view of the doctrine of Original Sin. Recall from the very first posts in this series that we've been thinking about what, exactly, we've inherited from the Fall. Specifically, we've been following the Eastern Orthodox tradition which suggests that what we inherit from the Fall isn't sin per se, but the mortal condition--death. Being mortal--in the Apostle Paul's word "flesh" (sarx)--Satan can use our fear of death to tempt us into sinful practices. Being mortal the fear of death is the greatest motivator in human psychology and the Devil uses this for his purposes. This is the slavery to the fear of death, a fear controlled by Satan, that is discussed in Hebrew 2.14-15. This is the work of Satan that Jesus came to earth to dismantle (1 John 3.8). This perspective regarding the relationship between sin and death (what the Orthodox call Ancestral Sin in contrast to the Protestant doctrine of Original Sin) is descried well by the theologian S. Mark Heim:
Removed from Eden we are "[u]nourished by the divine energy, our existence fades into subjection to corruption and death. In such a state, our mortality becomes a source of anxiety. Futile attempts to defend ourselves from it lead us into active sin and estrange us from trust in God. Now sinfulness is more a result of mortality than mortality from sinfulness. To say that humans are 'conceived in sin' does not mean that some guilt or evil inclination is passed on to them in the act of their conception, but that what they inherit is a mortal human nature, which became mortal as a result of sin.
Alison is very much working with this view, but he goes a bit deeper. Specifically, he suggests that the rule of death after the Fall has distorted and disordered our desires and affections. It's not just that we are anxious about death, but that our anxieties have so shaped our desires that we want and crave things that are, at root, death fetishes. We crave things in the Fall that are significant to us only because they help us hide from or flee from death. And these cravings are what brings about human contentiousness and violence. Alison summarizing this take on the doctrine of Original Sin:
Very briefly put, this doctrine posits that, in the light of Jesus' resurrection from the dead, it became possible to look back and see that all humans, ever since there has been humanity (and the codeword for this was 'since Adam'), have been involved, by the mere face of being born and socialized into human culture, in a culture run by death, vengefulness and its scapegoating and sacrificial outcomes. We are thus all born into a culture in which desire is distorted against itself and frustrated.
"All desire is severely distorted" according to Alison because these desires "partake of the imagination which dominates us, an imagination run by rivalry, resistance to change, the longing for security, and by the need to protect ourselves against death by seeking our survival at the expense of others." That's a key insight. In the Fall, in this era dominated by death, we find ourselves among rivals with each of us seeking to "protect ourselves against death by seeking our survival at the expense of others."

And yet, Alison continues, these desires are "capable of being undistorted over time, of being brought to share, starting from where it is, in the life of God." How is this accomplished?

Alison's answer parallels the analysis from the last post. The difference is that, rather than talking about identity, Alison talks about two different sorts of desires. On the one hand are the desires distorted by death, the desires we have because we've been "born and socialized into human culture, in a culture run by death." These are the desires of our "flesh," the desires that Satan uses to lure us into ersatz meaning (e.g., making money, being "successful," being famous, etc.). But in the life of Jesus we find another source of desire. Here, in the personality of Jesus, are desires that are uncontaminated by death. As described by Alison, in a world where death lures us into sin Jesus becomes a counter-lure, a location of desire that is not distorted by the culture of death. Alison on this contrast:
So we might talk about two sorts of imagination alive in humanity, one, the apparently normal one, in which we are run by death and given meaning starting from death, in which the search for meaning is always over against some other, and in which we lure each other on, and which is inevitably futile--haunted by vanity; then the other sort of imagination which has been made available by the installing in our midst of the first fruits of a counter-lure: the possibility that our imaginations and our desire can be made alive to meaning and goodness in a way which does not lead us into conflict and rivalry.
Again, the things we desire are meaningful insofar as they aid us in the fight against death. And as we've noted, this effort necessarily brings us into conflict with others. The way out, according to Alison, is to transcend death. To live as Jesus lived, to live as if death were not. This robs death of its power to confer meaning. And when death loses its power to confer meaning we find that we are no longer in rivalry with others. No longer do we "need to protect ourselves against death by seeking our survival at the expense of others." This is the same analysis we observed in the words of John Chrysostom: "[H]e who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil." Here is Alison on this point:
[W]e wait for grace to bring us to our senses, to our right minds, by refusing all sorts of lures and temptations into easy meaning, and we are only able to do this by living as if death were not. That is, by treating death, and all the ways in which it runs, frightens, compels, hurries, threatens, shames us as something which is not out to get us and has no power over us.
Now one of the things I really like about the way Alison approaches this topic is a particular frame he uses, a frame that I think is really helpful in connecting all this theology with day to day life. For example, you may have been asking over the last few posts, "What does all this look like in practice?" What might it look like to step away from desires that have been distorted by death? What might it look like to live as if death were not?

Well, according to Alison one aspect of how this might look is in the renunciation of "winning." Our death-driven desires and rivalries are often experienced as competitions that we are trying to "win." This could be winning an argument, winning an election, winning a promotion, winning recognition, winning the lottery, winning a fight (of any sort), winning a battle for control, winning in the court of public opinion, winning a struggle for power, and so on. Almost all our rivalries involve some sort of "winning" against a rival.

But those who live as if death were not don't worry about winning or losing. Because winning is only meaningful against a backdrop of death. Winning is only meaningful if death is handing out prizes to winners and losers. This is why, as noted in the last post, Jesus was so calm in front of Pilate. Jesus wasn't trying to "win." Jesus wasn't afraid to "lose" when Pilate threatened him with death. Jesus was playing a different sort of game. Consequently, death couldn't be used to push or pull Jesus, couldn't tempt him into caring about what most of us care about (i.e., winning or losing). As Alison describes:
We are so used to describing Jesus' cross and resurrection as a victory--a description taken from the military hardware store of satanic meaning--that we easily forget that what that victory looked like was a failure. So great is the power behind Jesus' teaching and self-giving that he was able to fail, thus showing once and for all that 'having to win', the grasping on to meaning, success, reputation, life and so on is of no consequence at all. Death could not hold him in, because he was held in being by one for whom death does not exist, is not even the sort of rival who might be challenged to a duel which someone might win. But if death can only get meaning by having victory, if the order of sacred violence can only have meaning if it matters to us to survive, to be, to feel good, at the expense of someone, then someone for whom it doesn't matter to lose is someone who is playing its game on totally different terms, and its potential for giving meaning collapses.
I hope you can see, in relation to the last post, how this extends our analysis of Jesus's identity in interesting ways. Free from the fear of death Jesus is able to "fail." Or, rather, he's able to "succeed" in a manner that can only be viewed, from our death-infected vantage point, as utterly alien and paradoxical. Unlike most of us, Jesus isn't using death to create meaning. Jesus doesn't have to own or possess something--doesn't have to win--to be successful or important or admirable or secure. Jesus isn't driven by death-infected desires. Which means Jesus doesn't have to fight against you or me or anyone else. Jesus doesn't worry that you might get or have something that he desires. Jesus isn't worried about you getting his promotion, moving into his neighborhood, getting the recognition, ruining his nation, cutting in line (literally or socially), your team winning, or you getting your candidate elected. These death-infected desires don't motivate Jesus. It's never you against Jesus. Jesus is not a rival of yours. No matter who gets the promotion, or neighborhood, or recognition, or nation, or position, or election Jesus doesn't experience loss. He's not trying to win against you. Winning doesn't motivate Jesus.

Because Jesus lives as if death were not what motivates Jesus is love.

As Alison sums it up:
[Jesus] models what it looks like to live from within the utterly non-rivalistic creative power for which death is simply not a reality.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Christmas Story

Wishing you a blessed first Sunday of Advent.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

"Love is the Expansion of the Self"

Thanks to Timothy for sending me this video, a clip for an upcoming documentary about the Occupy Wall Street movement.

I expect many here will have a variety of opinions about the OWS movement. I'd like to bracket those issues (pipe dream!) and simply say that I resonated a great deal with the theology of this particular video. I think it expresses a lot of insight into the Principalities and Powers. This isn't to say capitalism and market economies are evil, just that they are as fallen and prone to the forces of dehumanization as all institutions in the Fall. Satan is ruling capitalism as surely as he is ruling the other Principalities and Powers. The key is resistance to the forces of dehumanization. To, in the words of William Stringfellow, live humanely within the fall. It's that expression of humanity, that desire to humanize modern economies, that attracts me to the video.

Besides, the phrase in the video "love is the expansion of the self" could have come right out of Unclean...

BTW, has anyone read Eisenstein's book Sacred Economies?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

We Weren't as Good as the Muppets...

Our church has being doing a series entitled "I am Highland" which introduces one of our members and shares a bit about their ministry and journey with the church. You can watch these at Highland's site on Vimeo.

Anyhow, here was the "I am Highland" video from this week:

Daniel the Puppet - I am Highland from Highland Church on Vimeo.

BTW, regular readers know why Daniel doesn't play Jesus at Highland. It's because that role is already taken. For your information Daniel, I'm the one who plays Jesus at Highland.

Anyway, I loved Daniel's "I am Highland" video. It was very nostalgic for me.

If you didn't grow up going to church you may be unaware about just how much Christians are into puppetry. Puppets are huge with Christians. For example, puppets make it in at #123 on the list of Stuff Christians Like.

Puppets at my church mainly showed up during Vacation Bible School. I have fond memories of this as the High School students were in charge of the puppets for VBS. So as a teen I got pretty good at puppetry. I was aided in this by the fact that as a child I lived through the Golden Age of Puppets in the US. During my formative years Jim Henson made puppets mainstream, taking his creations from Sesame Street to primetime TV with The Muppet Show (the show debuted in 1976 and ran until 1981). In fact, this Thanksgiving weekend the Muppets are making a bit of a comeback with a new movie--The Muppets.

So as a kid I imbibed--from Sesame Street to The Muppet Show--a lot of good puppetry. Thus, when I became a senior I felt well prepared to be the teen in charge of the VBS puppets. And this being my last time with the puppets as a part of the youth group, I decided to raise the bar.

It ended up being a bit of a disaster.

For starters, I went a bit crazy with the scripts. Back then you couldn't (or at least we didn't) buy canned puppet scripts for VBS. You had to write your own. You'd look at the themes each night and try to write a little situational sketch with the puppets to illustrate that evening's message. I went a bit overboard with this, writing overly long (sort of like my blog posts) scenes aiming, in my own mind, at the VBS equivalent of an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

The other problem was that, due to the complexity of the skits I wrote, I needed a lot of scene changes. That's right, I needed scene changes. No plain black background for me. Amazingly, I convinced our youth group to come to the church on weekends to paint backdrops for the puppets. I'd convinced them that all this work was going to be worth it. We were going to have the best VBS puppets our church had ever seen!

So we painted. And rehearsed. Watch out Jim Henson.

It all came to a humbling end when, on the first night, we were doing a skit to illustrate the theme "Jesus is our Savior." The scene I wrote had the puppets out on a boat on a sunny day. Things are looking good until the clouds darken and a storm blows in. (Scene change!) The waves get higher and one of the puppets is pitched out of the boat and begins to drown.

If I recall, the puppet gets pitched out of the boat because of a lighting strike. We had this big cardboard lighting bolt attached to a clothes hanger.

This is all very exciting isn't it?

Anyway, the puppets in the boat find a life preserver and throw it to the drowning puppet. After much effort and drama, they pull him back onboard. He's saved! At this point the clouds break and the sun returns. (Scene change!) Back under sunny skies the puppets discuss the rescue and make the observation that Jesus is...wait for it, wait for it...just like a life preserver!

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a damn fine puppet script.

Anyway, things don't go as planed. The scene changes involved pulling a string to get the painted fabric pulled up and over the 2x4 board above us. During the first scene change the fabric got caught and wouldn't move. So we tugged and tugged, eventually pulling the board onto our heads. Crash!

I think some of my friends actually did get whacked pretty good as our hands were occupied, being inserted into puppets as they were and thus unavailable to ward off the blow. The song leader rushed to our aid and helped pull the board and all that painstakingly painted scenery off of us.

Needles to say, the kids just loved it. Roaring with laughter through the entire mishap. The incident is now a part of church lore as the day-the-puppets-pulled-the-scenery-on-top-of-their-heads story.

And so ended my puppet career.

At the time, I felt like such an idiot. But now, looking back, I have such fond memories. I loved those puppets. So many warm memories of friends (we are all grown with kids of our own now) kneeling behind the puppet theater, arms aloft, scripts taped to the boards in front of us, making magic like Kermit the Frog.

We weren't as good as the Muppets, but we made the kids laugh. And that's what I remember most of all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Slavery of Death: Part 14, Eccentric Identity

In this post I want to finish our exploration of Arthur McGill's book Death and Life: An American Theology. More, I want to starting tying together a lot of the threads from this series.

Across the last two posts we've been using McGill's work to approach two texts:
1 John 3.8b
The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.

Hebrews 2.14-15
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
According to McGill, Americans are dominated by a culture of death avoidance. Fearing death we create identities built on possession and ownership. As McGill says, "I can do this securing in two possible ways. First, I may try to seize bits of the world for myself. Second, I may act in such a way that I will be approved by other persons or forces so that, in reward for something I have done or because they expect themselves to benefit from me, they will deliver some bit of reality over into my control." McGill calls these two routes to identity aggression and appeasement.

We see in this, in light of Hebrews 2, the association between a fear of death and a bondage to sin and the devil. Fear of death leads us to create a "sinful identity," an identity built upon possession. More, this fear causes us to fear loss and dispossession. This fear infuses existence and brings us into conflict with others. As McGill writes,
What propels people to possess? Their fear of death, their fear that their identity will be taken from them.
A sinful kind of identity surely requires aggression or appeasement; it requires defenses against others and against the threat of death as final dispossession.
[When we define our identity] in terms of a reality which we can have and which we can securely label with our own name, we live under the dominion of death; we live under the dominion of dispossession. We live in terror of death, of having this bit of reality which we call ourselves, taken from us. Our whole existence is controlled by that terror.
In light of all this, let's now attempt to connect McGill's analysis with the work we did early in this series. Specifically, we can see a parallel between McGill's "identity of possession" and sarx, Paul's word for the sinful identity. As NT scholar James Dunn has described Paul's use of sarx:
[Sarx denotes] what we might describe as human mortality. It is the continuum of human mortality, the person characterized and conditioned by human frailty...
Sarx creates sin because, being mortal, we strive to fend off death through possession. As John Chrysostom observed: "[H]e who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying." Here we see how mortality fears are the source of our "selfishness," of our "fleshly desires." As Orthodox theologian John Romanides has summarized:
Through the power of death and the devil, sin that reigns in men gives rise to fear and anxiety and to the general instinct of self-preservation or survival. Thus, Satan manipulates man's fear and his desire for self-satisfaction, raising up sin in him...Because of death, man must first attend to the necessities of life in order to stay alive. In this struggle, self-interests are unavoidable. Thus, man is unable to live in accordance with his original destiny of unselfish love. This state of subjection under the reign of death is the root of man's weakness in which he becomes entangled in sin at the urging of the demons and by his own consent. Resting in the hands of the devil, the power of the fear of death is the root from which self-aggrandizement, egotism, hatred, envy, and other similar passions spring up. In addition to the fact that man, [as John Chrysostom has written,] "subjects himself to anything in order to avoid dying," he constantly fears that his life is without meaning. Thus, he strives to demonstrate to himself and to others that it has worth. He loves flatterers and hates his detractors. He seeks his own and envies the success of others. He loves those who love him and hates those who hate him. He seeks security and happiness and wealth, glory, bodily pleasures...Fear and anxiety render man an individual.
Having connected McGill's analysis to the Eastern Orthodox perspective regarding the relationship between sin and death we can now turn to the Christus Victor themes of salvation. The Scriptures say that the Son of Man appeared to "destroy the devil's work," to defeat the one who "holds the power of death." So how might this happen in McGill's analysis? How might we be rescued from sin, fear and the devil?

The answer builds off of McGill's notions regarding an identity based upon possession and how that makes us anxious about dispossession. Christus Victor salvation, for McGill, involves us being liberated from an identity of possession. Liberated from this identity our fears of dispossession will cease allowing us to respond in love to those around us. The fear of death dissipates and love can emerge. "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear."

How might this look? McGill gets his answer by examining the identity of Jesus in the gospels. Where does Jesus get his identity? And how is Jesus's identity different from our identity of possession? Toward an answer here is McGill analyzing the identity of Jesus in the gospels:
In the New Testament portrayal of Jesus, nothing is more striking than the lack of interest in Jesus' own personality. His teachings and miracles, the response of the crowd and the hostility of the authorities, his dying and his resurrection--these are not read as windows in Jesus' own experience, feelings, insights, and growth. In other words, the center of Jesus' reality is not within Jesus himself. Everything that happens to him, everything that is done by him, including his death, is displaced to another context and is thereby reinterpreted. However, this portrayal is understood to be a true reflection of Jesus' own way of existing. He himself does not live out of himself. He lives, so to speak, from beyond himself. Jesus does not confront his followers as a center which reveals himself. He confronts them as always revealing what is beyond him. In that sense Jesus lives what I call an ecstatic identity.

In all the early testimony to Jesus, this particular characteristic is identified with the fact that Jesus knows that his reality comes from God...Jesus never has his own being; he is continually receiving it...He is only as one who keeps receiving himself from God.
The key to Jesus's identity is that he doesn't "own" it. Jesus doesn't "possess" himself. Rather, Jesus receives his identity. His identity is gift. The center of Jesus's identity exists outside of himself. In the language of David Kelsey Jesus is living an "eccentric existence." From Kelsey's book Eccentric Existence:
[T]he question "Who are we as creatures?" makes it clear that while I have my personal identity only in and through relations with other creatures of giving and receiving, my personal identity is not given to me by them in their assessment of me and does not depend on their judgments of me. My personal identity is free of them, grounded elsewhere. I am radically given to directly only by the triune God. Faith as trust responsive to God's giving is the attitude that my right to be and act, and the justification of the time and space I take up being and acting, is not contingent on my meeting the needs or acquiring the approval of any of those finite others to whom I give and from whom I receive in the society of creatures. Faith is the attitude of trust in God's radical giving of reality as alone definitive of my personal identity: a finite creature called and empowered to be, to act, and to give in my own place and time. Your personal identity is defined by God alone and not by any creature. It is eccentrically grounded and defined. (p. 339-340)
An "eccentric" identity is an identity grounded outside the boundary of the self. An eccentric identity is the opposite of McGill's identity of possession where, as he describes it, "I have a boundary which marks the domain of my reality." As McGill notes, Jesus did not define his identity in this manner. Jesus had an "ecstatic" or "eccentric" identity, an identity found outside of himself in the Father. Consequently, Jesus feared no one. Was competitive with no one. Was aggressive toward no one. Why? He didn't own himself. And, thus, could not be dispossessed of himself. McGill on the dynamics of the Christ-like, eccentric identity:
[B]ecause I no longer live by virtue of the reality which I possess, which I hold, which I master and keep at my disposal, I am free to share myself and all my possessions with others. Above all...I can be honest with others. I can be open before them. I do not have to draw a line to mark the boundaries of my reality where I place a sign which says "Keep Out." I do not have to conceal my being behind a wall in order to keep it mine and to prevent others from taking it from me. Since I never have myself, I can never be dispossessed of myself. In short, in all my relations with other people I am freed from the anxiety of having always to keep possession of my own reality in order to be.
The classic example of this in the gospels is Jesus's lack of fear in the face of Pilate.
John 19.9b-11a
“Where do you come from?” Pilate asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”

Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above."
Jesus doesn't have to aggressively protect himself from Pilate. Jesus's non-violence, his ability to love, was founded upon his eccentric identity. Free of the fear of death Jesus is free from sin, violence, and the devil. Perfect love had cast out fear. Thus, Jesus can go to the cross and forgive those who sent him there.

It is as John Chrysostom says, "[H]e who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil."

Once again, as we saw early in this series, we see the close connection between the fear of death and sin. But our earlier biblical/theological analysis is now starting to unpack in ways that might allow us to get a handle on, psychologically speaking, what it might mean to be set free from the fear of death and why that liberation might allow us to exist in loving ways with others. Following McGill, when we fear death we cannot love others, for death causes us to adopt an identity based upon self-ownership. This sort of identity, and the striving it promotes, brings us into rivalry with others. As John Romanides describes:
Love that is free of self-interest and necessity fears nothing...All human unrest is rooted in inherited psychological and bodily infirmities, that is, in the soul's separation from grace and in the body's corruptibility, from which springs all selfishness. Any perceived threat automatically triggers fear and uneasiness. Fear does not allow a man to be perfected in love...Being under the sway of death and not having real and correct faith in God, man is anxious over everything and is ruled by selfish bodily and psychological motives and, thus, he is unable to love unselfishly and freely. He loves and has faith according to what he perceives to be to his own advantage...Thus, he is deprived of his original destiny and is off the mark spiritually. In biblical language, these failures and deviations are called sins. The fountain of man's personal sin is the power of death that is in the hands of the devil and in man's own willing submission to him.
Consequently, if we want to step out of this dynamic--to step out of our anxiety-driven rivalries as Jesus did with Pilate--we need to adopt an eccentric identity. A loving identity that is "free of self-interest and fears nothing."

Across these posts we should be gaining a sense of what all this might look like. Opposed to an identity of possession we have an identity received as gift. Rather than holding onto our identity with a death grip, we come with hands that are open. Perhaps there is no better vision of what this might look like than in Philippians 2:
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped...
Note the role of grasping--holding onto status, reputation, power. Clinging to--grasping--the stuff of self-definition, self-esteem, personhood and identity. Grasping is an identity of possession.

And how many of us are engaged in this activity? Grasping at identity? Clinging. Holding on. Knuckles white.

But if we let go, if we don't fear death, loss, and dispossession, the devil begins to lose his power over us. We are starting to see how the Son of Man is "destroying the works of the devil" by "freeing those who all their lives where held in slavery by their fear of death." As John Chrysostom describes:
For indeed 'man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,' [but] if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone...And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one's country? For these are small things to him 'who counteth not even his life dear,' says blessed Paul.

Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil?
Notice how Chrysostom describes the victory over Satan as the victory over the identity of possession. If nothing can be taken away from us the strength of the devil, which is based upon the fear of death, is dissolved. This freedom is exactly what Jesus demonstrates in Philippians 2. Jesus lets go, empties himself, entrusts himself to the Father. Nothing can be taken away from Jesus because he doesn't own it in the first place. Jesus doesn't fear dispossession because he's already dispossessed himself in the act of kenosis. Consequently, no one could threaten or scare Jesus into acting selfishly or aggressively. As Pilate discovered, the fear of death, Satan's greatest tool, was ineffectual against Jesus. Death had no power over Jesus. This allowed Jesus to fully love us, "to become obedient to death, even a death on a cross."
John 15.13
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
And let's return to Philippians 2 to note that this route, this letting go, is the remedy Paul puts forward to reduce rivalry, the violence produced by grasping, by the identity of possession. This link between possession and rivalry is also nicely illustrated in the book of James:
James 4.1-2
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God.
What causes violence--quarrels, fights, and killing? An identity seeking to possess. Desiring but not having. Coveting but not getting what we want.

The solution, again, is to receive our identity, as Jesus did, as a gift from God. We learn to let go. And by adopting this eccentric identity we begin to "have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus."
1 John 3.14-18a; 4.17b-18a
We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Streaming 2012: "I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice."

I mentioned a few months ago that I'll be presenting with Walter Brueggemann during Streaming at Rochester College this June 18-20 on the theme "I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice."

I've cut a few promo videos for Streaming. In this one I talk about how Dr. Brueggemann's discussions regarding the tensions between the Levitcal and prophetic traditions in the life of Israel helped trigger some of the points made in my book Unclean:

It's an honor, to say the least, to have someone like Walter Brueggemann read your book and comment on how much he learned from it. A few weeks ago I was also surprised and humbled to get a note from Stanley Hauerwas complimenting the book. Dr. Hauerwas specifically commented on how helpful the book is in thinking through how the church treats the mentally ill and disabled, a subject of interest to him (and me--shoot, I bet we're all interested in the how the church treats all sorts of people).

Unclean is a book about the choices facing the church in how it treats people. And those choices aren't easy. So I'm looking forward to thinking through those dynamics this June at Streaming with Walter Brueggemann and others interested in missional leadership. Hope to see you there!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

On Heretics & Disagreement

We muzzle dogs; shall we leave men free to open their mouths and say what they please?...God makes it plain that the false prophet is to be stoned without mercy. We are to crush beneath our heels all natural affections when his honour is at stake. The father should not spare his child, nor the husband his wife, nor the friend that friend who is dearer to him than life.
--John Calvin, Protestant Reformer and Father of Calvinism (1509-1564)
Calvin says that he is certain, and [other sects] say that they are; Calvin says that they are wrong and wishes to judge them, and so do they. Who shall be judge? What made Calvin the arbiter of all the sects, that he alone should kill? He has the Word of God and so have they. If the matter is certain, to who is it so? To Calvin? But then why does he write so many books about manifest truth?...In view of the uncertainty we must define the heretic simply as one with whom we disagree. And if then we are going to kill heretics, the logical outcome will be a war of extermination, since each is sure of himself.
--Sebastian Castellio, French theologian (1515-1563)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Love Wins: Part 8, The Good News Is Better Than That

Chapter 7 of Love Wins is entitled "The Good News is Better Than That."

A big theme in this chapter, and the part I like the best, has to do with our image of God. What is God like?

I think Bell is right. This is the question beneath all the other questions. This debate isn't really about heaven or hell. This debate isn't really about limited or universal reconciliation. No, at the end of the day, when we finally get down to the bottom of the barrel, there's a single question underneath them all.

What is God like?

I've seen this play out in so many different forums. As have you. We like to think we are talking about the bible or doctrine or tradition but what we're really debating is rival visions of God.

And, according to Bell, a toxic vision of God is why many ultimately reject Christianity. A view of God who, on the one hand, "loves" you but who, on the other hand, will torture you for all eternity in hell. Bell on this point:
Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die?

That kind of God is simply devastating.
Psychologically crushing.
We can't bear it.
No one can.

And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don't love God. They can't, because the God they've been presented with and taught about can't be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.

And so there are conferences about how churches can be more "relevant" and "missional" and "welcoming," and there are vast resources, many, many books and films, for those who want to "reach out" and "connect" and "build relationships" with people who aren't part of the church. And that can be helpful. But at the heart of it, we have to ask: Just what kind of God is behind all this?

Because if something is wrong with your God,
if your God is loving one second and cruel the next,
if you God will punish people for all eternity for sins committed in a few short years,
no amount of clever marketing
or compelling language
or good music
or great coffee
will be able to disguise
that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality.
Here's my take on this. And this might offend some people. But this is what I think. I think if you've really thought about hell--and I mean really thought about it--you have some serious reservations about attributing that vision to God. I'm not saying you are a universalist, just that you'll get where universalism is coming from. You might be an annihilationist, or a conditionalist, or a hopeful universalist, or simply a traditionalist who has some doubts. But at the end of the day we are all wrestling with the same thing. We are all struggling with a vision of eternal torture and the confession that God is love. And the two don't fit.

And if you don't get this, aren't at least sympathetic to the impulse behind a book like Love Wins, then I don't know what to say. There isn't much to say. Our sensibilities are too different. Worlds apart in my experience. And while that might sound defeatist, believe me, I've been around this block a few times.

When I think of hell, in all its glory, I have an experience of such overwhelming grief, horror and sadness that theological conversation is just halted. Words fail me. And if you keep talking I can't go on with you. I've stopped. I can't continue. And if you ask what's wrong, all I can do is walk you back to edge of the abyss. To have you look again. To look harder. To look again at all that pain. To hear those screams. And to know, with icy dread, that it will never, never, never end.

At the edge of that abyss I fail. My heart stops. And I have nothing else to say.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Love and Ever More Love: The Life and Times of Dorothy Day

The last few months I've been reading selections from Robert Elisberg's Dorothy Day: Selected Writings. In September I shared with you a wonderful quote from this volume:
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.
Reading through Dorothy Day's writing made me interested in her story. Her early days as a radical bohemian journalist. Her conversion to Catholicism. Her fateful meeting with Peter Maurin (whose dream it was to make the world a place "where it would be easier to be good"). The start of The Catholic Worker. The beginning of the Houses of Hospitality. Her activism. (The picture here is of the last time Dorothy was arrested in 1973. She was 76 years old. Quite a grandma.)

Given my recent immersion into the life and times of Dorothy Day, I thought I'd take a post to recommend a good starting place for those wanting to become more acquainted with her. Specifically, after having looked at a few biographies of Day (outside of her own autobiography The Long Loneliness) let me recommend Jim Forest's All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day. Forest's biography isn't magisterial, lyrical, or definitive. But it is well-done, short, and written by someone who knew and worked with Dorothy. What really recommends Forest's biography is that is it packed full of pictures and quotations from Dorothy Day. I found the cumulative effect of pictures, biography, and selections of Day's own words to be quite powerful. In short, if you want to get a start on the life and thought of Dorothy Day I'd begin with All is Grace and Selected Writings.

(However, if you have only two hours to spend on this you could try the bio-pic Entertaining Angels, with Moira Kelly playing Day and Martin Sheen playing Peter Maurin. Though there are things to quibble with in the movie it'll make you interested in Dorothy Day.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

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The New Manna

Let me recommend to you Brant Pitre's new book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. The book is just jam-packed with insights. I want to share one of those insights with you and then connect Pitre's Catholic analysis with a more Protestant understanding.

As noted in my last post, there are a variety of New Exodus themes in the life and teachings of Jesus. That is, in light of the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18:15-18, Jesus suggests in various places that he is the one Moses foretold--a second Moses leading a New Exodus.

As described in the last post there were a variety of things that were expected to accompany this second Moses--a New Exodus, a New Passover, a New Law, a New Covenant, a New Tabernacle, and a New Promised Land.

And along with all this there was also the expectation that the Exodus miracles would return with the second Moses. And one of these was the return of manna.

You'll recall the original manna story:
Exodus 16.4-5, 11-15
Then the LORD said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”

The LORD said to Moses, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God.’”

That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.

Moses said to them, “It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat."
"What is it?" As Pitre recounts, there was actually a great deal of rabbinic speculation regarding that question. And the bible gives some clues. For example, the manna "tasted like honey" (Ex. 16.31) suggesting that the manna was a foretaste of the Promised Land, a land "flowing with milk and honey" (Ex. 3.8). Supporting this association, that manna was Exodus food, is the fact that the day the Israelites began to eat the food of Canaan the manna stopped:
Joshua 5.10-12
On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover. The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate the produce of Canaan.
Manna is the food of travelers and sojourners, the bread eaten between Egypt and Canaan, between Liberation and Consummation.

More, manna is bread from heaven. Manna is supernatural, the food of angels:
Psalm 78.23-25
Yet he gave a command to the skies above
and opened the doors of the heavens;
he rained down manna for the people to eat,
he gave them the grain of heaven.
Human beings ate the bread of angels;
he sent them all the food they could eat.
In light of the New Exodus expectations, the Second Temple Jews believed that one of the signs of the Messiah, the second Moses, would be the return of manna, the "bread from heaven." Given that expectation, and that in various places Jesus hints at being the second Moses, we can ask: Did Jesus ever speak of the return of manna?

Pitre argues that we find one reference to manna smack in the middle of the Lord's Prayer:
Give us this day our daily bread.
The echo of manna should be obvious in the phrase "give us this day." As you know, manna was collected each day and not kept over for the next. So the frame here in the Lord's Prayer is a New Exodus frame. And according to Pitre there is more.

You'll have noticed a repetition in the prayer: a mention of "day" and "daily." In the Greek these aren't the same word. The first occurrence is the word we all know as "day." But the second word, translated as "daily," is a bit of a mystery.

The word in question is a neologism and it occurs nowhere else in the bible or in antiquity. This is the only time the word is used which makes it hard to know its meaning. The word is epiousios:
Give us this day our epiousios bread.
What does epiousios mean? Opinions differ. Ousia means "existence," "being," or "nature." Thus, some translate "epiousios bread" as the "bread we need for being/existence." But Pitre points out that the prefix epi means "on," "upon," or "above." Thus he argues that the better translation of "epiousios bread" is the "bread above nature/existence." In short, "epiousios bread" is supernatural bread or heavenly bread--the manna spoken of in Psalm 78. In light of this, we could translate the Lord's Prayer like this:
Give us this day our heavenly bread.
Or, if you want to convey the New Exodus motif directly:
Give us this day our manna.
In this translation the Lord's Prayer become an Exodus prayer for a people liberated from bondage and journeying to the Promised Land. It is a prayer for manna, for supernatural sustenance during the journey. It is a prayer for those who have been set free from slavery but who have yet to reach the New Heaven and the New Earth, the land flowing with milk and honey.

While some may question this interpretation of the Lord's Prayer, we are aware of a more explicit discussion of Jesus and the new manna in the gospels: Jesus' Bread of Life discourse.
John 6:30-35
So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."
We see the New Exodus expectation voiced by the people: If Jesus is the Messiah, the second Moses, then where is the manna? (You can almost here Jerry Maguire saying "Show me the manna!") Jesus responds with "I am the bread of life." A few verses later Jesus makes the association with manna more explicit: He is "the bread of heaven."
John 6.48-51a
I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven.
There it is. Jesus himself is the new manna. Jesus is the bread that sustains the Exodus community. And if we read this back into the Lord's Prayer we might translate it like this:
Give us Christ this day.
Which makes me think of St. Patrick's Prayer:
Christ shield me today

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.
To return to Pitre, note that he is a Catholic scholar. Consequently, when he reads "I am the bread of heaven" he thinks of the Eucharist, of Christ being actually, if miraculously, present in the bread of the Eucharist. In this reading the Eucharist is the manna, the actual body and blood of Jesus. This reading is supported by the final part of the Bread of Life discourse:
John 6.51b-58
"Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.
As Pitre rightly points out, Catholic theology, with its doctrine of transubstantiation, is well positioned to interpret this text, and even more so in light of the new manna theme. The actual body and blood of Jesus is present in the Eucharist. Immanuel, God physically with us in the Eucharist, sustaining us as manna on our Exodus journey. And like we saw with the Israelites, the presence of Christ in Eucharist tastes like honey, it's a foretaste of heaven. The Eucharist is our daily manna, our taste of Christ, until we reach the Promised Land.

I admit, that argument is the most attractive argument for transubstantiation I've ever heard. The Eucharist, Christ's mystical presence among us, as manna--the bread of heaven that daily sustains the church on her journey to the Promised Land.

That said, I don't think Protestants are excluded from this understanding. Though we don't believe that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus, we do believe that when two or more are gathered in Jesus's name Christ is present amongst us. And thinking along these lines we might move Pitre's analysis in this more "Protestant" direction.

Specifically, where is the body of Christ? Is it found in the mystical doctrines of transubstantiation? Or in the koinonia of those gathered in the name of Jesus? True, it's not an either/or. But if the "body of Christ" can be associated with koinonia, if Christ is with us in the mutual love we share, then might not the corporate body of Christ be the new manna? Might manna look like this:
Acts 4.32-35
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
Might our mutual love be our manna, the "bread of heaven" that sustains us on our journey to the Promised Land?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Second Moses

If you've been following a lot of the New Testament scholarship you're aware of the wealth of insights pouring in over the last few decades regarding New Exodus perspectives on the life and teachings of Jesus. I want to share something along these lines from the new book by Brant Pitre Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. But before doing that in the next post, I thought I'd use a post to summarize some of the New Exodus ideas.

To start, what were the Jews expecting of the Messiah?

If you quizzed people in your church about that question my guess is that the #1 answer would be that the Messiah would lead a popular revolt to eject the Romans and restore the Davidic kingdom. To be sure, this was a part of the constellation of ideas surrounding the concept of Messiah. But the expectations regarding the Messiah were actually much richer and broader, more inclusive and even cosmic in scale.

One of the notions that captures this richer vision was the expectation that the Messiah would be a Second Moses. Moses himself predicted that a Second Moses would come with the expectation of a New Exodus. Consequently, many of the Second Temple Jews believed the Messiah to be the fulfillment of this prophecy:
Deuteronomy 18:15-18
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.”

The LORD said to me: “What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.
As a Second Moses leading a New Exodus the expectation was that there also would be a second giving of the Law. A New Law and New Covenant. More, this New Law would be written on hearts rather than on tablets of stone:
Jeremiah 31:31-33
“The days are coming,” declares the LORD,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the LORD.

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the LORD.
I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people."
In addition, there would be a New Temple. We need to recall that a lot of the Second Temple Jews thought that the rebuilt temple was a bit of a sham. You'll likely remember that when the old-timers saw the Second Temple they wept, for it was only a shadow of its former glory. We should also remember that after the destruction of Solomon's temple the artifacts in the Holy of Holies (like the Ark of the Covenant) were carted off never to be seen or heard from again (until Indiana Jones found them). So in the time of Jesus the Holy of Holies was empty, suggesting that the Shekhinah of God had not returned to dwell among the people. So God was absent. The people were still in exile, despite being back in their homeland. Thus, the expectation was that the Second Moses, who built the tabernacle, the first dwelling for God's Shekhinah, would repeat this feat, building a New Temple that would bring God's dwelling back to earth.
Ezekiel 37:25-28
They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”
Even more, in addition to a New Law/Covenant and a New Tabernacle/Temple, the Second Moses would bring the people to a New Promised Land. And here's where the vision really starts to transcend the political. The New Promised Land isn't just about restoring the fortunes of Israel. The scale of the New Promised Land is cosmic in scope. It will be a New Heaven and a New Earth:
Isaiah 65:17-18
“See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
Finally, if there was to be a Second Exodus we'd also expect to see a New Passover meal. Though there is no direct biblical quotation for this it's clear how a New Passover would have been expected in conjunction with a Second Moses and New Exodus. Outside of the bible there is historical evidence, from both Jewish and Christian sources, that the Second Temple Jews were looking for a New Passover, what they called the Passover of the Messiah. (In fact, many Second Temple Jews expected the future Messiah to be revealed during the Passover.)

Summarizing all this:
The Jewish Expectation of the Messiah as the Second Moses:
  1. New Exodus
  2. New Law and Covenant
  3. New Passover
  4. New Temple
  5. New Promised Land
Given these expectations, the question readers of the New Testament can ask is this: Did Jesus consider himself to be the Second Moses?

Do the New Testament writers show Jesus leading a Second Exodus? Giving a New Law and Covenant? Instituting a New Passover? Building a New Temple? And leading us to a New Promised Land?

These questions open up rich and exciting perspectives on the life and ministry of Jesus.

In the next post, thanks to Pitre's book, I'll point to another, less noticed, New Exodus theme in the gospels.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Fuzzy Correlation: A Ramble about Capitalism, Socialism and Politics

Here are some thoughts I had the other day about capitalism, socialism and politics.

(And I'm an idiot for even trying to share some of this stuff in the current political climate. Somebody, please, take this keyboard away from me.)

I don't think we can ever escape sin. Consequently, I think every economic system is going to have sinful aspects to it. Capitalism is no exception. But one of the interesting features of capitalism is how it harnesses sin for the greater good. We pursue our self-interest, often in competition with each other, and all boats rise, prosperity fueled by the "rat race" of modern economic life. By saying, effectively, "Good luck, you're on your own" capitalism takes our innate instincts for survival and social comparison (shame and "keeping up with the Jones's") and turns it into gasoline for the engine of productivity. As Adam Smith pointed out, we don't appeal to the benevolence but to the self-interest of the butcher, baker and candlestick-maker. Or, in the words of Gordon Geckko, "Greed is good."

A couple of observations about this. First, it seems here that capitalism gets human nature right. This is one of the reasons capitalism appears to be more successful than communism. Communism seems to miss the mark on human nature. Ironically by being too optimistic and hopeful, even Christian. People don't tend to work hard for the good of others. Saints might do that, but normal people don't. Normal people are lazy and like to free ride on the system. Just ask any Children's minister at church how easy it is to get people to teach Sunday School. Everyone likes to drop their kids off at Sunday School. But fewer actually step up to take a turn teaching. Free riding is human nature.

So capitalism does seem to have the more realistic anthropology. It assumes humans are selfish and self-interested and then puts them in competition. This infuses economic life with an anxiety that is effectively leveraged into work.

While capitalism is premised on human selfishness this focus on individual effort isn't wholly without biblical precedent:
2 Thessalonians 3.10
For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
While the "collectivist" visions of community life in Acts 2 and 4 seem utopian (and even communist), we get a sense in 2 Thessalonians 3.10 (and in other places where Paul preaches work) that people were free riding on the system. Thus the rule: If you want to eat, you have to work.

What capitalism does is to take this notion--if you work you can eat--to a unique place, an extreme even. It suggests that, if we assume a level playing field, that any need you are experiencing is the product of your failed work ethic. You are not eating because you are not working. And that's a working assumption among many Americans today, particularly among conservative Christians.

And to some degree, you can't really argue with that assumption. It's empirically true that if you don't work you'll struggle to pay your bills. Which creates another interesting feature of capitalism: it helps assign the blame when it comes to need. Specifically, if you are in need that's your own fault. Society isn't being "unjust." There is no "injustice" here. You're just failing to follow the Apostle Paul's command: Work.

This is why, in America today, we moralize socioeconomic status. Failures of character (e.g., a lack of a work ethic), it is believed, produce need. Strength of character produces success. Thus, God is blessing the wealthy. God helps those who help themselves. A sentiment that many think is in the bible. (It isn't.) This is why we see health and wealth gospels so popular among Christians. Health and wealth gospels resonate with how we think capitalism accurately assigns praise and blame.

Now this blame assignment would work well if, in fact, the playing field was perfectly level. Imagine, say, if we could hit the reset button and let everyone have the exact same family, go to the exact same high school, have the exact same gender, have the exact same skin color, have the exact same physical appearance, have the exact same genetic aptitudes, have the exact same life experience, and so on. Imagine a perfectly randomized clinical trial. In that case, yes, we might be able to identify the virtuous by their subsequent success. But, as we all know, that's not the situation we have. What we have is a system well in motion, one with with a variety of different and unequal starting places. The topography of "fairness" isn't level. It's hilly and uneven. Just how uneven is a matter of debate.

I want to talk some more about that hilly fairness topography, but before I do I'd like to pause and make a few comments about the effects of sin within the the randomized clinical trial described above. Specifically, while communism gets human nature wrong about our work ethic (i.e., we'd rather work for ourselves rather than for others) capitalism gets human nature wrong when it comes to acquisitiveness and fair play. It's true that capitalism creates productivity. But it doesn't reliably reward virtue. In fact, since capitalism mainly rewards success within a competitive environment we'll often find that "good guys finish last." We call this corruption and greed.

And there's another flaw in the system, of a generational nature. To see this imagine us starting our clinical trial experiment at Time 1, kicking off the self-interested competition of capitalism to get all those worker bees off and running (or buzzing). The Time 1 round plays out and prizes (think: promotions) are awarded. Trouble is, there are only so many promotions and wins to go around. There is a bottleneck at the top. Which, in one sense, kind of works. With few prizes to go around the competition and innovation really ramps up. And that flurry of activity is generally good. But as Time 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 tick by something starts to happen. Due to the bottlenecking we start to have growing inequities as time passes. The Have's start having more haves. And the Have-Not's start having more nots.

This is the second flaw in capitalism. Over time, due to bottlenecking, capitalism leads to greater economic disparity. Despite an initial level playing field of, say, 100 employees, there is only one manager position. Someone gets that job and the increased pay that goes along with it. And this pay allows the kids in that family to go to a better high school and college, improving their human capital. That human capital and the old boys network (Dad is, after all, in management and not working on the factory floor) increases the probability of these kids ending up in management and not on the shop floor. This is no guarantee of course. But the odds of reaching the American Dream have ticked up a bit in your favor. And, over time, those odds accumulate.

This isn't to say capitalism is bad. It's just glitchy. Capitalism can't produce utopia. Every system is going to have its problems. And to say that capitalism is better than, say, communism isn't a claim that capitalism is flawless. It's isn't. It has two basic design flaws: It rewards corruption and it creates income inequities. In short, despite capitalism's promise of accurately assigning praise and blame (work = eating) it often fails to deliver.

Like I said, every economic system is contaminated by sin.

And this is hardly a controversial conclusion. Even Republicans feel a bit squeamish about defending CEOs. The only business owners it is safe to praise whole-heartedly are the small business owners. But CEOs and big corporations? There's something a bit shady, a bit too greedy about them. To be sure, Republicans are sympathetic to big business. But watch the rhetoric of the Republicans running for this year's nomination. They'll not sing the praises of CEOs and big business, though they will defend them from time to time, albeit obliquely. No, what they'll do ninety-nine times out of a hundred is sing the praises of small businesses. And why is that? Because we're aware that the system has a glitch. For not very virtuous reasons, big things tend to get too big in capitalism. Perhaps too big to fail. Or monopolies that stifle competition. Or increasing income inequity.

Now let me get back to the issue of how we assign praise and blame in capitalism and moralize socioeconomic status.

Recall, blame can be easily assigned if we all start off with a level playing field. But the playing field, as we've noted above, isn't level. So, given this unevenness, success is only going to be, at best, a rough approximation of virtue. Yes, it will have some approximation. Again, those who are responsible and work hard will, on average, rise to the top. Those who squander their opportunities or don't work will drift toward the bottom. Still, this correlation isn't perfect. Some people get head starts. Some people get lucky. And some people succeed because of vice rather than virtue (think of that Machiavellian co-worker who stabs you in the back to get the promotion or get you fired). And so on. In short, there are many virtuous and hardworking people who, in America today, aren't living the American Dream. And why does this happen in capitalism? Simple. The system isn't perfect.

And this puts us in a bit of a pickle. Given that the correlation between success and virtue is only approximate there is some ambiguity in how we should approach the issues of fairness and wealth redistribution. This in addition to the the generational flaw inherent in capitalism which produces, over time, greater economic disparity.

For example, if the correlation between success and virtue were exact then we really would struggle with the idea of wealth redistribution. We'd be taking something from someone who "earned" it and giving it to someone who is a bum. That doesn't seem right. We should reward virtue. (Again, we are imagining here that the correlation is exact. That those who aren't eating aren't working.)

But what if the correlation is less than exact? Let's say it's actually quite weak. That where I end up in life is more a matter of fortune and systemic corruption than my own virtue. More, that the lucky and/or corrupt "winners" get to pass their "winnings" on to their children, that the playing field isn't reset after each generation. (Call this the "trust fund baby problem" or the "old boys network problem".) Well, in that situation it seems that we'd try, as Americans have generation after generation, to remediate the situation via our social contract. Why? Because good, hardworking people are economically struggling. And lucky or less than virtuous people are living large. That doesn't seem right or fair. The system is no longer rewarding the virtuous.

Call this the theodicy of politics.

This political theodicy problem is, incidentally, what drives populist unrest. The ideal capitalist polarity of Rich = Good and Poor = Bad gets reversed and we start to see the sentiment emerge that Rich = Bad and Good = Poor (this sentiment is usually labeled "class warfare"). This reversal is what see in the lament psalms, hence my label of theodicy. (Incidentally, the polarity in Scripture where Good = Poor and Bad = Rich is called by theologians God's "preferential option for the poor" and it sits in tension with the capitalist polarity of Rich = Good.) When we see the populist polarity emerge we're going to see more voices crying out to rectify the situation. Attempts to move the wealth back to the virtuous poor and to correct the systemic inequities that created the uneven playing field. As I said, it seems that America has had to do from time to time.

One of the things I'm trying to say about all this is that, given the fuzzy correlation between virtue and success, we are looking out on something akin to Rorschach blot. There are examples and counterexamples aplenty that can help illustrate the strength or the weakness of the correlation between success and virtue. During this election year we'll see conservatives emphasize narratives that demonstrate a stronger correlation (think ACORN stories on Fox where Poor = Bad/Lazy) and liberals emphasizing narratives that demonstrate a weaker correlation (think fat cat Wall Street/CEO stories on MSNBC where Rich = Bad/Greedy).

The truth, obviously, is somewhere in the middle. How strong is the correlation between virtue and success in America today? It's hard to say. It's a debatable point. But one thing is clear, your views on the correlation affect how you see the world and how you think our social contract should be arranged.

And in light of that, I'd like to make a few concluding observations.

First, no one really knows what the actual correlation is. And because of that I think everyone needs to be a whole lot more humble about what is going on in America today. More, in light of this uncertainty we should pause to consider the counterexamples to all our examples. We need to get clear about just how unclear the situation is.

In this sense there is something healthy, if infuriating, in listening to the competing examples on, say, Fox and MSNBC. Each is providing the examples and counterexamples that demonstrate the fuzzy correlation. And this is why we get in trouble if we exclusively listen to only one set of examples. We can fool ourselves into thinking that the correlation is stronger or weaker than it actually is.

This is why, I think, political debate is often so unproductive. Rather than paying attention to the fuzzy correlation conservatives and liberals simply exchange examples and counterexamples thinking that they are "refuting" each other when, in fact, they are just talking about opposites ends of a shared and underlying reality. And it's hard to solve problems when you are only paying attention to 50% of the available information.

(As a case study, examine at the narratives that are dominant about what happened during the 2007 financial crisis. On the Right the examples are about individual irresponsibility, low income people buying more house than they could afford (Poor = Bad: poor being being greedy or dumb). On the Left, by contrast, the story is about a greedy Wall Street, their reckless leveraging and how the credit agencies hid the risk under AAA ratings (Rich = Bad: greedy bankers and Wall Street sharks). Which narrative is right? Well, both are right. And that's the point. Tell the whole story. Don't just lock in on 50% of the story and think you're telling the truth. You can't tune into only half the information and think you are describing reality.)

All this is why, I think, America has created a capitalism/socialism hybrid. We have the sense that the association between success and virtue is only approximate. We know there are glitches in the system. So we try, in each generation, to position our social contract somewhere in the "middle" and adjust it back and forth if we think it's drifting too far in one direction. Generally, these adjustments are small.

The point being, Obama isn't all that different from George W. Bush who wasn't all that different from Clinton who wasn't all that different from George Bush who wasn't all that different from Reagan. And so on. These guys really aren't all that different. At least when I look at them. Sure, they adjusted things one way or the other per their party. But voters voted in each case for that particular adjustment. Which is sort of the point of a democracy. But the larger social contract today, looked at from a big picture perspective, isn't radically different from when, say, Nixon was in office. Yes, adjustments have been made. And there will be more adjustments to come. Back and forth, back and forth, looking for the sweet spot of the fuzzy correlation.

Which is really just to say, in my long and tedious manner, that I don't know what the fuss is all about. I really do believe that if things get out of hand in one direction we'll have a new New Deal. And if things get out of hand the other way we'll have a reduction of government. Again, it's back and forth, back and forth.

We are pretty evenly divided in America. And that's what we'd expect if we were finding the middle of the correlation, the sweet spot. And yes, this makes us polarized. Red state. Blue state. Each sitting to one side of the sweet spot. But this also means everyone's doing their job. Bringing into the conversation (and voting booth) examples and information--whether that be about free riders on welfare or CEOs with Golden Parachutes--that we need to make good decisions.

Does that mean the wisdom of the crowd will lead to the best outcome? Not necessarily. But I'd rather trust all of us than only half of us.

To conclude, take all this for what it's worth. Which might not be much. Just some thoughts that were going through my head on my bike ride to work.
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