Friday, March 30, 2012

A New Apologetics

You can now explore the chapters within my most recent book The Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience using Amazon's Look Inside function. (Apologies for those of you outside the US. The Press tells me they are still working to get the book overseas.)

One of the arguments of the book is that the landscape of Christian apologetics has been dramatically altered in the face of functional accounts of religious belief. The first paragraph of the book:
The goal of this book is to answer a question: Why do people believe in God? More specifically, this book is aimed at answering a particular form of this question, a nuance that emerged in the modern period through the work of thinkers such as Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and, of particular importance for this book, Sigmund Freud. The shift in emphasis in “the God question” occasioned by these thinkers has rendered much of Christian theology and apologetics effectively useless in addressing many contemporary criticisms of religious faith. The playing field has shifted. And a new kind of apologetics is needed.
Traditional apologetics has focused on the reasonableness of faith. This is a defense of faith based upon logic, philosophical argumentation, and evidence. However, this project has been rendered impotent in the face of arguments like those of Freud and Marx.

How so?

By talking about the functions rather than the contents of religious belief thinkers like Freud and Marx have effectively changed the subject. I illuminate this distinction a little later in the Prelude:
Let me give an example of the relevant contrast here, albeit somewhat crudely. In classical apologetics a Christian might have been asked to justify her belief that Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected from the dead. What justifies that belief? By contrast, in the wake of the work of thinkers such as Freud, the question morphs and becomes something a bit different, something like this: Why would someone be attracted to the idea of life after death? That is a different kind of question, a question that moves past the propositional contents of faith and begins to investigate the underlying, often subterranean, motivations behind belief-formation itself. These questions are highly destabilizing because few of us are able to plumb the depths of our unconscious motivations. Is it possible that I believe in the resurrection because I am motivated by a deep and unconscious fear of death? Honest people admit that this may be a very real possibility. If so, hasn’t my faith been rendered to be an illusion, a psychological system that helps me cope with an unsettling reality? Suddenly, we are no longer talking about evidence, argument, and reasonableness. We are talking about psychological motivations, often unconscious motivations. And if those motivations are called into question (plausibly so, for who does not want to live forever?) how are we to respond? The tools of classical apologetics are impotent here. Nor is the bible or theology of any help.
So how are we to approach the argument of a person like Freud? If theology and the bible are of no help what are we to do? My assessment from the book:
[I]ssues related to human motivation, particularly unconscious motivation, cannot be settled with armchair speculation or biblical analysis. Nor will introspection, even erudite and sophisticated introspection, move us forward. These issues, ultimately, boil down to human psychology. To make any headway with these new criticisms of faith, to show, for example, that faith is more than “wishful thinking,” a person is going to need to know a bit about how religious belief functions in the mind of believers. Apologetics has shifted to the social sciences.
When my publisher asked me to write a book description I wrote that the book was attempting a "New Apologetics." He emailed back wondering, "Isn't that sort of a bold claim?"

I replied, yes, yes it is.

Why write a book if you're not being bold?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ethnocentrism and Politics

Two years ago I reviewed the book Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion by Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam. Given that we are in the midst of an election year I thought I'd bring this research back to your attention. The effects of ethnocentrism upon American political life should be of concern to every follower of Jesus.

Kinder and Kam define ethnocentrism as generalized prejudice, the propensity to separate the world into in-groups and out-groups. From Us Against Them:
...ethnocentrism is an attitude that divides the world into two opposing camps. From an ethnocentric point of view, groups are either "friend" or they are "foe." Ethnocentrism is a general outlook on social difference; it is prejudice broadly conceived.

We define ethnocentrism to be a way of thinking that partitions the world into in-groups and out-groups--into us and them.
Ethnocentrism is the psychological tendency to separate our social worlds into "us" and "them." As a part of this process we attribute virtue to people similar to ourselves and vice to out-group members, people from different ethnic groups, nations, socioeconomic strata or belief systems. More, given these attitudes we are ready to help in-group members and thwart out-group members:
Ethnocentrism is a mental habit. It is a predisposition to divide the human world into in-groups and out-groups. It is a readiness to reduce society to us and them. Or rather, it is a readiness to reduce society to us versus them. This division of humankind into in-group and out-group is not innocuous. Members of in-groups (until they prove otherwise) are assumed to be virtuous: friendly, cooperative, trustworthy, safe, and more. Members of out-groups (until they prove otherwise) are assumed to be the opposite: unfriendly, uncooperative, unworthy of trust, dangerous, and more. Symbols and practices become objects of attachment and pride when they belong to the in-group and objects of condescension, disdain, and (in extreme cases) hatred when they belong to out-groups. Ethnocentrism constitutes a readiness to act in favor of in-groups and in opposition to out-groups...
What does it mean to say ethnocentrism is generalized prejudice? We tend to think prejudice is group specific, and it can be. For example, one might have very negative feelings about a particular out-group (e.g., Whites, Blacks, gays, Muslims, etc.). However, the research on ethnocentrism has revealed that prejudices tend to cluster together. Thus, if we hear a person make a comment about blacks on welfare we can make a good guess about where this person stands on gay marriage or immigration reform.

What are the sources of ethnocentrism? In Us Against Them Kinder and Kam show evidence that ethnocentrism, across ethnic groups, is generally uncorrelated to various political positions (e.g., party identification, views on limited government). Among Whites there are some slight trends. Among whites ethnocentrism is, albeit weakly, correlated with political conservatism, a distaste for egalitarianism (e.g., social welfare to produce "fairness"), social distrust, and a desire for a more limited government. Generally, however, ethnocentrism is a force in American life that is distinct from other, more commonly discussed, political variables. Consequently, ethnocentrism needs to be examined as a political force in its own right if we are going to get a true and accurate sense of the dynamics involved in American policy debates.

Interestingly, ethnocentrism declines with increasing education. The most important factor appears to be college education. As Kinder and Kam summarize the data: "Based on these results, it would seem that education, and especially the experience associated with higher education, build tolerance and erode ethnocentrism."

The bulk of of Us Against Them is devoted to examining how ethnocentrism influences how certain Americans approach various policy issues and hot button topics. Kinder and Kam are keen to note that ethnocentrism does not have an effect on every political topic. Rather, ethnocentrism is activated when a particular political issue, or a media framing of the issue, is presented as an "us against them" conflict. Sadly, this "us against them" frame fits many of the issues currently facing America. Thus, while ethnocentrism doesn't affect every political debate is does influence public opinion on a wide variety of topics. In Part 2 of Us Against Them in Chapters 4-10 Kinder and Kam use two different measures of ethnocentrism to predict attitudes on a variety of political topics. Summarising, ethnocentrism predicts the following:

  1. An aggressive, hawish foreign policy stance.
  2. Less empathy for foreign civilian casualties in America's wars (e.g., the deaths of Iraqi women and children in the War on Terror).
  3. Less support for foreign aid and assistance.
  4. Support for anti-immigration policies and protective measures to preserve "our American" culture from the effects of immigration.
  5. Opposition to gay rights.
  6. Opposition to policies, such as affirmative action, aimed at redressing historic inequalities between blacks and whites.
  7. Opposition to means-tested welfare (i.e., programs for low-income persons) such as Food Stamps or Medicaid.
  8. Support for social insurance welfare, such as Social Security and Medicare.
The contrast between these last two are the most interesting to me given my particular and, I'd argue, non-partisan interest in universal health care for all American citizens. Generally speaking, Americans actually do like social welfare programs. Thus the great difficulty politicians face from older voters when they try to reform Social Security or Medicare. For example, President Bush created the Prescription Drug Act that wasn't paid for and which added 400-550 billion dollars to the national debt. And no one minded that much or to took to the streets dressed as Thomas Paine. More, we don't mind the federal mandates that make us pay into Social Security and Medicare from our paychecks. But a mandate to pay into health insurance is, well, tyrannical.

So we sort of like the welfare state. More precisely, we like social welfare that is for us. But we are against welfare for them.

These are some of the reasons for why I think some of the opposition to the Affordable Care Act is driven by ethnocentrism.

Anyway, ethnocentrism--generalized prejudice--is out there this election year. It always is. It's called sin. So do your best to fight these tendencies within your own heart and help raise the political discourse between now and November.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On Masculine Christianity and Powerplays

You may recall a while back a big conversation that was kicked off on the Internet by some comments John Piper made about Christianity having a "masculine feel." Regarding this "masculine Christianity" Piper said:
...the fullest flourishing of women and men takes place in churches and families where Christianity has this God-ordained, masculine feel. For the sake of the glory of women, and for the sake of the security and joy of children, God has made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry.
As a part of the Internet reaction I wrote a post in response to a call made by Rachel Held Evans asking for some men to weigh in on the topic. That post of mine focused on this text from the gospels:
Matthew 23.9
And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.
I'd like to revisit this topic and some of the associated commentary responding to John Piper by expanding on my original post.

Let me start with this. I think a lot of people were missing the point in trying to push back on John Piper. Specifically, the focus was often on gender and not on the deeper issue--power. More, I think by focusing on gender a lot of the resultant commentary unwittingly helped John Piper make his case.

Let me explain that. When John Piper made the comment that Christianity--God in particular--has a "masculine feel" many people rushed to their bibles to point to passages where God is tender, soft, or nurturing or where a maternal metaphor is used to describe God.

I think this was a mistake for two interrelated reasons.

First, in pointing to "feminine" aspects of God you're unwittingly reinforcing gender stereotypes. By pointing to God's tenderness as an example of a Christianity with a "feminine feel" you've labeled tenderness as "feminine." Which is a tacit acceptance of Piper's describing other adjectives as "masculine." My point here is that tenderness isn't masculine or feminine. And by rushing to present a contrast to Piper some people allowed his framing to structure the conversation.

Second, by pointing out these "feminine" aspects of God you are unwittingly contributing to Piper's complementarian position. Piper points to "masculine" attributes of God and those responding to him point to "feminine" aspects. That is, God has these "masculine" aspects--like strength--and these "feminine" aspects--like tenderness. That would make sense to Piper as both man and woman are, as a complementary pair, created to reflect God's image. Of course God has both attributes, which is why a man and a woman can't, by themselves, reflect the Image of God. You need to bring the woman with her "feminine" attributes, attributes presumably that men don't have or contribute, into union with the man who brings the "masculine" attributes.

In short, I think the rush to show that God has "feminine" attributes muddies the waters at best and makes Piper's case at worst.

My recommendation is to not play Piper's game. Don't accept his framing. The issue isn't really about gender at all. The issue is about power.

Which brings be back to Matthew 23.9.

On the surface in this passage it looks like Jesus is saying something that backs Piper up. That God is a Father, a male. But I think that is missing the point.

Jesus's statement--"call no man on earth father"--was a bomb. A huge bomb. Jesus is attacking the foundation of the power structure supporting his society.

We tend to forget just how patriarchal Jesus's society was. A survey of gender relations in the contemporary Middle East gives us some clue. As does a perusal of the Old Testament where the patriarchs rule. The men, the fathers, the patriarchs held the power.

And into that context Jesus says, "Call no man on earth father."

Jesus isn't saying God is a man. Jesus is attacking the patriarchal power structure, cutting it off at the knees. The issue isn't about gender. The issue is about power.

We see Jesus elaborate upon this theme in one of his more puzzling statements:
Matthew 10.34
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword."
Huh? Isn't Jesus supposed to be the non-violent Prince of Peace? What's all this about swords and "I have not come to earth to bring peace"?

In the next verses it all becomes clear:
"For I have come to turn 'a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.'"
Again, Jesus is attacking the patriarchal power structures embedded in first-century Middle Eastern family organization. Jesus is bringing a sword, but he's not attacking people. Jesus is attacking a power structure, cutting it down. Yes, Jesus is bringing a war. But it's a war against patriarchy.

In both of these passages Jesus is showing a new way, a way that renounces powerplays. Just after his statement about bringing a sword Jesus goes on to say this:
Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
This isn't a contradiction of Jesus's earlier statement about not bringing peace. Again, Jesus is attacking power structures. The cross is the sword. The cross is the war. Instead of grasping at power we lay it down and take up the cross.

So the issue isn't really about gender, about if God has a "masculine" or "feminine" feel. The issue is about the use of power within the Kingdom. The discussion about gender is really just a cover for a powerplay, about who is in charge and who gets to call the shots. And as we've seen, Jesus is absolutely hostile to this sort of thing. When this sort of thing is going on in the Kingdom Jesus will be bringing the sword. There should be no peace in this instance, only conflict with the power structure. Another moment in Matthew on this point:
Matthew 20.20-21, 24-28
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

“What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus completely undermines the powerplay. Power in the Kingdom is not "lording over" people, with some giving orders and others obeying orders. That's the way the world works. And if you see that sort of stuff going on in a church you're witnessing heresy. Christians don't give orders to Christians. The Christian way is the cross. The greatest amongst us are the servants. The preeminent amongst us are the ones washing feet. We seek to serve rather than be served. That's how power looks in the Kingdom of God.

The problem with what John Piper said isn't about Christianity having a "masculine feel." Truth be told, I don't know what the hell he's talking about. The problem is with what is going on beneath that statement. "Masculine" is just a warrant to exert power. About calling men on earth "father." About some getting to "lord over" others. It's about a power grab.

And in the face of that powerplay Jesus's response is pretty clear.

"I have come not to bring peace, but a sword."

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Parable of the Lost Sheep: Calvinist Version

Then Jesus told them this parable:

“Suppose a shepherd has a hundred sheep and he loses all of them. Doesn’t he go out into the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds one? And when he finds one, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. And having rescued one sheep he leaves the ninety-nine sheep lost in the wild. He calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me! I have found one of my lost sheep.’

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Slavery of Death: Part 27, The Only Way to Live

I'm going to start wrapping up this series. I think the main ideas are pretty well in place. But what I think might be helpful are some "incarnations" of what all this might look like in real life, this being free from the slavery from the fear of death and, thus, able to love others fully, authentically and sacrificially.

To help with this, let me share a story from William Stringfellow's book My People is the Enemy. I pick this story because it illustrates so many of the themes from this series, showing how they link together: slavery to the fear of death, self-interest, self-esteem, the martyrological identity, salvation as emancipation from the fear of death and sacrificial love as the lived experience of resurrection.

The story...
One witness of God's power in reconciling men is known now in the death of Lou Marsh.

Lou Marsh died in New York City at ten minutes after nine on the evening of January 9th, 1963...

Lou worked for the New York City Youth Board, assigned to one of the East Harlem juvenile gangs..

Lou was beaten to death by four guys. He had somehow persuaded the gang--the Untouchables--not to go ahead with a rumble to which they had committed themselves...Some of the older boys--alumni, so to speak, of one of the gangs in question--wanted the issue between the two gangs to be settled in the traditional way, by a rumble. They resented the fact that Lou mediated the dispute, or at least accomplished an armistice. Evidently they were humiliated that the younger boys in the gang followed Lou's counsel rather than their own. So they ambushed Lou and beat him savagely. He lived for two days in the hospital, unconscious. Then he died...

Lou was a Negro.

He was from a fairly poor family living in the North. He had to save on sleep and work incredibly hard--usually in menial jobs--but because he was intelligent and sensitive, he managed to get a very good education. When I first met him, about five years ago, he was a seminarian at Yale; perhaps he felt somehow guilty about being in such a place as Yale Divinity School at all, while his folks were still where they were and while his people were still where they were in this country. For a time, after he left seminary, Lou, in a terrible way, hated the fact that he was a Negro. It was more than a feeling sorry for himself; it was as if he complained about his own creation, as if he was rejecting his own birth.

It seemed to him, for a while, better not to live than to be a Negro in America.

After leaving New Haven, he moved to New York City. To act out his resentment, he virtually disassociated himself from bourgeois white society, drifting about the city, unable to look for a job, living on borrowed money, and, it seemed, borrowed time, staying sometimes in flophouses or on the streets.

As he would say himself, he went through the whole bit.

But then, at last, he understood that all this was some vanity of pride, that he was indulging in his own self, accusing and condemning himself, punishing and rejecting himself especially for being a Negro; expecting and even, in a way, wanting to be confirmed in this by the rejection of others. Then he realized that he was engaging in suicide.

That was the moment--when Lou was in Hell--in which he knew, I think for the first time, that he was loved by God. That was the event in which by the power of God in the face of the fullness of death, Lou was emancipated--set free to love himself, to love others, and to welcome and receive the love of others. That was the time of Lou's salvation, the time of his reconciliation with himself and with the rest of the world.

What followed was more or less predictable. Having been so intimate with the presence of death in his own life, but having beheld the reality and vitality of the Resurrection in his own life in the same event, Lou was free to live for others.

So that is what he did.

He took this job with the Youth Board and soon was so preoccupied in caring for the kids in his gang that he forgot himself, so fulfilled his love for others that he lost his self-interest, so confident that he was now secure in God's Word that he was not afraid of death.

He was no longer afraid to die the way he died. He knew about the real risks of his job, especially the way he was now free to do his job. The way he died was surely no surprise to Lou. Not that he sough such a death, or any sort of death, any longer, but he was ready to die and was without fear of death. He no longer was in bondage to the alienation of men from each other. He was no longer a pathetic, partisan, professional Negro; he had become a man. Nor was he any longer an imitation white man, a Negro received nominally into white society, as at Yale Lou had been, but never welcomed as himself; he had become a person. Lou himself had been reconciled, and so his existence and life could be, for the first time, not just a symbol of grievance and protest--as valid and needed in American society as that may be--but more than that, a ministry of reconciliation. He had become so free he could give away his own life freely--and surely that is the secret of reconciliation in Christ.

Lou Marsh, when he died, was ready; that is, he had already died in Christ and was so without fear of death. That is the freedom the resurrection bestows upon men.

That is the only way to die, which at the same time means that this is the only way to live.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Slavery of Death Series Now on the Sidebar and the People Said, "Amen!"

I have few more posts to go, two or three, in The Slavery of Death series. But it's way past time for me to respond to the many requests to get this series up on the sidebar.

Well, it's now over there. Hugs and (holy) kisses all around.

And doing this made me late to church. So gotta run!

UPDATE: If you want to link to one post for a Table of Contents for the entire series you can find it here.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


As you make plans this summer, put Streaming at Rochester College on your radar screen for June 18-20. The conference schedule is now online. Some highlights:
3:00 Welcome and Opening Worship: Mike Cope
4:15 Film review: Lars and Real Girl
5:00 Walter Brueggemann: “Life as a ‘Business Model’”
7:30 Rolando Diaz and Caryl Parker, Live performance, music and painting

8:45 Walter Brueggemann: “Covenant: Life Redefined as Faithful Relationship”
10:00 Panel Discussion: Practicing the Prophetic Imagination
11:00 Greg Stevenson: “Pharisees Anonymous: Mercy in Matthew”
1:15 Film Review: Tree of Life
2:00 Richard Beck: “The Purity Collapse: The Psychology of Missional Failure”
3:00 Panel Discussion: Unclean
4:15 Worship, Caryl Parker
5:00 Evening free, including Tigers’ game vs. Cardinals

8:45 Richard Beck: “The Will to Embrace: In Search of Christian Hospitality”
10:00 Brueggemann and Beck conversation
11:15 Closing Worship, Sara Barton
I'm particularly excited about that 10:00 conversation with Walter Brueggemann on Wednesday.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Calvinism is Jank

When you get to be my age as a college professor you have to start acting like an anthropologist to keep up with the culture of your students. When I started teaching I could make a Seinfeld joke and everyone in the class would laugh. I was young enough that the students and I shared pop culture.

Those days are long gone. Both because I've aged and because I don't have the time I used to have to see movies, watch TV, be on Facebook, or listen to new music.

To remedy this situation I resort to anthropological fieldwork. I ask my students about what they are listening to, what's cool, what's lame. And so on. And I also pay attention how my students talk.

The other day I was visiting with Caren, our student worker in the department. She was talking about something and said, "It was pretty jank."


"Did you say jank?" I asked. "J-a-n-k?"

"Yes," she replied. "Don't you know what jank means?"

I did not. So she spent some time explaining it to me. The anthropologist hard at work.

My researches into the meaning of jank continued this last weekend eating pizza with our friends Matt and Amy (Happy Birthday Amy!). Matt, being much more cool than I, helped fill in some details. I also spent some time looking up jank on Urban Dictionary.

As best I can tell, jank originally meant that something was of poor or lesser quality. But the meaning of jank has now evolved into an all purpose word for saying something is bad. Context largely defines the meaning of jank. If you don't like something or find something to be defective, cheap, or of poor quality you can call it jank. As in, "X is jank." (You can even say something is "janky".)

Given that this blog is on the cutting edge of theological experimentation (e.g., I've tried to introduce "D'oh" into the theological lexicon) I thought I'd try to introduce jank into the theological blogosphere.

Hence the title of this post.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Christus Victor in the Lord's Prayer

I'm sure you are familiar with the Lord's Prayer from Matthew 6. I'd like to draw your attention to the translation of verse 13:
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil...

And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

And bring us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

And don’t let us yield to temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.

Do not bring us to hard testing,
but keep us safe from the Evil One.

Keep us from being tempted
and protect us from evil.
As you can see, there is some ambiguity about how to translate the version of the Greek word πονηρός (ponēros, pronounced pon-ay-ros') in this text.

As best I can tell, the ambiguity comes from the genitive case in the Greek. The genitive case for singular nouns in the Greek is the same for masculine and neuter nouns. Thus the genitive usage in Matthew 6.13--tou (the) ponērou (evil or evil one)--can be either masculine or neuter. We know we are working with the singular (rather than the plural). If we read tou ponērou as a singular masculine noun we have "the evil one." But if we read it as singular neuter noun then we have something that is more abstract, evil rather than evil one. The Greek, as best I can tell, allows for both readings.

Contrast this with the use of ponēros in Matthew 13 (the Parable of the Sower) where ponēros is preceded by ho, the singular masculine version of "the." In this instance the translation seems clear : Evil one (the devil).
Matthew 13.19
Those who hear the message about the Kingdom but do not understand it are like the seeds that fell along the path. The Evil One comes and snatches away what was sown in them.
The phrase tou ponērou occurs three other times in the book of Matthew. Perhaps the context of those verses will clear things up?
Matthew 5.37 (NIV)
All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Matthew 12.35 (NIV)
A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.

Matthew 13:38 (NIV)
The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one...
Matthew 5.37 isn't clear. The NIV has tou ponērou as "evil one." But the ESV renders it as "evil" with no loss of meaning. In Matthew 12.35 we have tou ponērou describing treasure--tou ponērou treasure--which the KJV renders as "the evil treasure." Finally, in Matthew 13 we have the children/people of tou ponērou. All these translations have this as children/people/sons of the "evil/wicked one."

This last is interesting in that, as we saw above, when telling the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13.19 Jesus uses the masculine ho ponēros to designate "the evil one." A few verses later, in verse 38, Jesus uses tou ponērou to describe the same object. This suggests, at least within the Parable of the Sower, that Matthew's use of tou ponērou is sliding toward the masculine usage. Consequently, if forced to guess about the use tou ponērou in the Lord's Prayer we might break toward "the evil one."

The phrase tou ponērou occurs in Luke twice (Luke 6.45, 11.4) in parallel passages to the Matthew texts. A different usage occurs in John 17.15:
John 17.15 (NIV)
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.
This prayer seems to echo the Lord's Prayer. The NIV, ASV, NLT and GNT keep their translations consistent with their Matthew 6.13 renderings, staying with "evil one" in both cases. By contrast, the KJV stays consistent with "evil" in both texts. Both the ESV and CEV make changes, going with "evil" in Matthew 6.13 and switching to "evil one" in John 17.15. In short, all the modern translations go with "evil one" in John 17.15 which again builds a case, given the parallels between the prayers in Matthew and John, for translating tou ponērou as "evil one" in the Lord's Prayer.

In the epistles tou ponērou occurs three times:
Ephesians 6:16
In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

2 Thessalonians 3.3
But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one

1 John 3:12
Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous.
2 Thess. 3.3 seems to echo the Lord's Prayer. Thus we find the now familiar diversity in how the translations render tou ponērou. The NIV, ASV, NLT, ESV and GNT all go with "evil one." The KJV stays consistent with "evil." The CEV does something interesting and goes with "harm." More about this choice below.

However, all these translations, given the context, go with "evil one" (or something similar like "the devil" or "the wicked one") for Eph. 6.16 and 1 John 3.12.

So what is the conclusion of the matter? As I assess the evidence, more often than not tou ponērou tips toward the singular masculine interpretation: "the evil one." More, I think this translation is in better keeping with the Christus Victor worldview of the New Testament writers.

That said, there is enough interpretive wiggle room for interpreters wanting to modernize the meaning. If "the devil" is an unattractive idea for many modern readers of the bible you can go with "deliver us from evil" in the Lord's Prayer. And most versions of the Lord's Prayer go in this direction.

But this is what I find most interesting. The word we have been kicking around--ponēros--comes from the root ponos (πόνος) which is the word for work or toil and, by association, suffering or anguish. This fits the context of Matthew 6.13: "Lead us not into trials, but deliver us from suffering/pain/anguish." This is why the CEV translates 2 Thessalonians 3.3 as "protect you from harm." Evil here is harm, pain and suffering.

Interestingly, this understanding fits the biblical depiction of "the evil one." The devil is the one who brings ponēros--harm, calamity, disease, hurt, suffering and pain. This fits with what we see Satan doing in the Book of Job and in Paul's thorn in the flesh, a suffering sent by a "messenger of Satan."

To be sure, when we see moral disease and brokenness the meaning of ponēros shades toward the ethical--sin, moral brokenness, wickedness. But the background meaning is broader--suffering, pain, hurt, harm, and brokenness. "The evil one" is the personification of all this pain, suffering and brokenness.

This suggests, to me at least, that there is a cosmic aspect to praying "deliver from the evil one." And why, perhaps, the generic term evil is just fine. Particularly if we focus on the root idea, that the universe is broken on a cosmic scale. We suffer. We hurt. We die. And we harm each other. More, life is tedious, full of toil and boredom. Again, the root idea behind ponēros is the suffering associated with toil and work. The malaise and dissatisfaction associated with working within modern economies is also wrapped up in the biblical notion of evil. There is a chronic suffering associated with the world of work.

All of this is implicated in the word ponēros. Everything is broken. Everything hurts. Everything is heavy.

We seek Shalom. Restoration. Reconciliation. Peace. Relief. Healing. Salvation.

And so we pray: Lord, deliver us from tou ponērou.

In the face of all this hurt, toil, suffering, pain and brokenness, may your Kingdom Come.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Works of Mercy

Many Christian traditions formally recognize seven Works of Mercy as obligations that every Christian must perform. The warrant for six of the Works of Mercy is found in Matthew 25.31-46. The seventh Work of Mercy--burying the dead--was later added based upon Tobit 1.16-17.

I've always been fond of Ade Bethune's artwork depicting the Works of Mercy. Bethune was the artist who created the banner for Dorothy Day's The Catholic Worker and was a regular contributor of artwork for its pages.

The Works of Mercy

Feeding the Hungry
Giving Drink to the Thirsty
Sheltering the Homeless
Clothing the Naked
Visiting the Prisoner
Visiting the Sick
Burying the Dead

These are the actions that define the Christian lifestyle.

The irony, of course, is that few Christians actually do any of this.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Central Tendency in Skewed Distributions: A Lesson in Social Justice

I think I'm one of the few academic bloggers in the world who blogs in a discipline that has nothing to do with what I teach at the university. Theology and this blog are my hobby. By profession I'm an experimental psychologist. Which means that my day job is largely about teaching undergraduate and graduate statistics for psychology students. That's what pays the rent.

In short, nothing I write about in this blog is a part of my daily classroom teaching. I've never taught a class in theology. I don't teach in our College of Biblical Studies. I have no contact with our MDiv students. In my entire career at ACU I've guest lectured in a graduate bible class exactly...once.

Basically, I'm living two lives.

But my interest in theology does, from time to time, leak into my statistics lectures. A recent example.

Earlier this semester in my undergraduate statistics class we were talking about measures of Central Tendency and how they behave in skewed frequency distributions. Let me explain this.

A measure of Central Tendency is a number helping you ballpark the "middle" or "center" of a distribution. The most commonly used estimate of Central Tendency is the mean, the arithmetic average. You calculate the mean by adding up all the scores and then dividing by the total number of scores.

The second most common measure of Central Tendency is the median. The median marks the 50th percentile. Fifty percent of the scores are above the median and fifty percent fall below the median.

When a distribution of scores is bell-shaped and balanced (a normal distribution) both the mean and the median sit in the exact center splitting the distribution right down the middle. That is, the mean and median are equal. See the center distribution in the picture below.

Well, if that's the case, if the mean and median have the same value, why have two different measures?

Because this only happens in perfectly symmetrical distributions. When the distribution is skewed and asymmetrical the mean and median take on different values. Which is to say when a distribution is unbalanced there's no consensus on where the "middle" might be located. You could say the middle is where the mean sits. Or you could say the middle is where the median sits.

Okay, so what issues might affect that choice? Well, the key thing to note is that the mean is the most sensitive to the effects of skew. That is, the mean is very sensitive to extreme scores and, thus, is "tugged" more rightward or leftward compared to the median. This can be seen in the left and right distributions of the picture below (Note: the Mode is a third measure of central tendency and is the most frequently occurring score, thus it always sits at the top/highest point of the distribution):

Note how in the left picture (an example of negative skew) the mean is the most leftward measure of central tendency. That is, the mean is the most affected by the extreme scores on the left and is, thus, pulled furthest away from where the scores are piling up to the right. A similar thing is observed in the right picture (an example of positive skew) where the mean has been tugged the furthest rightward.

What is the implication of all this? Basically the following. When a distribution is "normal" people usually report the mean. But when the distribution is skewed we tend to report the median as the median is less affected by the extreme scores.

So where does theology fit into this?

Well, as I was describing all this to my students a month ago I asked the following question:

"When you hear people report the average family income of American households do you hear people say 'mean family income' or 'median family income'?"

A few students respond, "I think I hear people say 'median family income'."

"That's right. The measure of Central Tendency we tend to use in reporting family income is the median. Okay, so what does that tell you about the distribution of family incomes?"

"That it's skewed?"

"Right. When you hear people using the median that's often a clue that the distribution they are trying to describe is skewed. And the distribution of family incomes in America is skewed."

I follow up with another question. "Can you guess if the distribution of American incomes is positively or negatively skewed?" (Refer to the picture above to make your own guess.)

"Is it positively skewed?"

"Yes, it's positively skewed. The great majority of American incomes pile up on the left, on the low end. But there are a few extreme scores--the millionaires and billionaires--that pull the distribution to the right."

I draw this distribution on the board. For you, here is the distribution of American family incomes based on 2005 data (H/T to Visualizing Economics):

Note the positive skew. Note also the behavior of the median and mean (you may need to click on the graph for a closer look). The median is $46,326. The mean is $64,344. Again, the mean is more affected by the presence of the extreme scores, being pulled more rightward by those millionaires and billionaires (who are actually so rightward they are literally off the chart).

Okay, again where is the theology in all this? Well, it has to do with issues related to social justice. I made this point in class a month ago in the following way:
"Note how American family incomes are all piled up on the left. What does that mean? What are the practical implications of that?

Think about it this way. What is the income that officially marks poverty? It's around $20,000. Okay, now imagine a solidly middle class person, someone who makes, say, $50,000.

Given that, what is the distance between the middle class and poverty? About $30,000. Is that a lot of money?

What if someone in the family has a catastrophic illness? Can the hospital bills from a catastrophic or chronic illness run over $30,000 in a year? Oh my yes. Hospital bills from illnesses like that can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

And what about disability or injury to the breadwinner? Or divorce? Or layoffs?

Shoot, if your car breaks down you're screwed. Many new cars are well over $30,000. And a good used car can deplete that $30,000 buffer pretty quickly.

The point being, the lesson of the positive skew, is that the distance between being middle class and being poor is very, very small. We're all piled up on the left of the distribution. So a little bit of bad luck--illness, injury, layoffs, something going wrong with the house or car--and a solidly middle class family can fall below the poverty line. Can even become homeless. And if not that, can struggle mightily and will have to forgo things like sending their kids to college. A little bit of bad luck and a family might suffer generational consequences.

Now consider this. If the distance between the middle class and poverty is about $30,000 what is the distance between being middle class and, say, being Donald Trump or Bill Gates?

If the distance between middle class and poverty is $30,000 the distance between middle class and being a millionaire is $950,000. See the difference? There's not really a difference, a few thousand dollars, between the working poor and the middle class. We are all piled up, the great majority of Americans, on the left. And the difference between all those folks and the rich is, well, measured in the millions if not billions of dollars. It's a distance that is hard to compute in your mind.

In short, to be middle class is to live with chronic vulnerability and uncertainty. A real day to day anxiety about waiting for the other shoe to drop. Which is why access to things like universal health care and unemployment benefits are so important, a social safety net for those at or near the bottom. Which, the positive skew tells us, is basically everyone."

Monday, March 19, 2012

Girls latest 2012 fashion shoes collection Album 4


The Slavery of Death: Part 26, Ecclesiastes as Exorcism

In the last few posts we've been talking a great deal about how our pursuit of self-esteem, identity, significance and meaning are often driven by neurotic existential anxiety, a denial of death to use the words of Ernest Becker. In biblical language we engage in idolatry, serving the principalities and powers in the hope that we might bask in their reflected glory, purpose, and seeming immortality. If we serve the principalities and powers people speak well of us, our life is said to matter, we've "made a difference."

But as William Stringfellow has pointed out, service to the powers is service to death. At root, the spirituality of the powers is the spirituality of survival. Although the rhetoric of the powers is intoxicating, their mission statements tending toward messiahism, at the end of the day the "bottom line" (however that is measured) is the ruling ethic. For example, at my Christian university when ideals clash with hard economics the refrain is heard, "Well, we are a business."

Not to suggest that the powers are simply workplaces, industry, and businesses. I keep coming back to Stringfellow's examples that the powers are "legion":
According to the Bible, the principalities are legion in species, number, variety and name. They are designated by such multifarious titles as powers, virtues, thrones, authorities, dominions, demons, princes, strongholds, lords, angels, gods, elements, spirits…

Terms that characterize are frequently used biblically in naming the principalities: “tempter,” “mocker,” “foul spirit,” “destroyer,” “adversary,” “the enemy.” And the privity of the principalities to the power of death incarnate is shown in mention of their agency to Beelzebub or Satan or the Devil or the Antichrist…

And if some of these seem quaint, transposed into contemporary language they lose quaintness and the principalities become recognizable and all too familiar: they include all institutions, all ideologies, all images, all movements, all causes, all corporations, all bureaucracies, all traditions, all methods and routines, all conglomerates, all races, all nations, all idols. Thus, the Pentagon or the Ford Motor Company or Harvard University or the Hudson Institute or Consolidated Edison or the Diners Club or the Olympics or the Methodist Church or the Teamsters Union are principalities. So are capitalism, Maoism, humanism, Mormonism, astrology, the Puritan work ethic, science and scientism, white supremacy, patriotism, plus many, many more—sports, sex, any profession or discipline, technology, money, the family—beyond any prospect of full enumeration. The principalities and powers are legion.
Following Walter Wink we've described service to the powers in this series as "demonic possession." When involved in idolatry the spirituality of the power becomes internalized. We become possessed, possessed by the "angel" of the power which is the angel of death. These death-serving angels could be named "demons," satanic forces that that have taken up residence inside of us. Stringfellow describes the process:
People are veritably besieged, on all sides, at every moment simultaneously by these claims and strivings of the various powers each seeking to dominate, usurp, or take a person’s time, attention, abilities, effort; each grasping at life itself; each demanding idolatrous service and loyalty…
Exorcism, then, is a matter of expelling this spirituality from our lives. In the last post I described this as a renunciation of idolatry, rejecting the false gods of self-esteem and meaning within the culture. We "die" and become indifferent to the ways the various powers in the culture attempt to "dominate, usurp, or take our time, attention, abilities, effort." Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego we refuse to kneel to Nebuchadnezzar's idol. In the language of Revelation we "come out" from Babylon. In the language of Paul we no longer see the world "from a human point of view." In the language of Jesus we lose our life so that we might find it, storing up treasures in heaven and not on earth.

And in the language of Ecclesiastes we declare the idolatrous pursuit of self-esteem and significance to be "meaningless" and "vanity."

In light of this I'd like to suggest that Ecclesiastes is a great treatise on exorcism. Perhaps the most powerful exorcist text in the bible.

Many think Ecclesiastes is depressing. Only if you're demon possessed! For the great task of Ecclesiastes is to expose the dynamic at work behind service to the powers, the pursuit of meaning and self-esteem through the cultural hero system. Who is Oz, the force behind the curtain pulling the levers of achievement, reputation, significance, and self-esteem? What Ecclesiastes shows us, in pulling back the curtain, is exactly what Ernest Becker has shown us: death is the force in the background driving the show.

Because of this Ecclesiastes talks a lot about death. And for a culture dominated by a denial of death that topic can seem morbid and depressing. But think about how death is being used in Ecclesiastes. Death is being deployed to show the futility of the self-esteem project, that idolatry is, at root, a service to the angel of death. Ecclesiastes isn't about existentialism and angst. Ecclesiastes is interested in smashing idols. Ecclesiastes is interested in exorcism, purging our soul of death-oriented spiritual strivings. Ecclesiastes is trying to get us to stand with St. Paul and declare that the self-esteem project is one big pile of "rubbish":

I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens...

I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly...

I undertook great projects...

I amassed silver and gold for myself...

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired...

The verdict? Meaninglessness. Death overtakes it all.

And so, to echo the Revelation of St. John: "Come out, come out. Come out my people."

Come out into what? What does it look like when I renounce the principalities and powers and the self-esteem I try to borrow from them? The answers from Ecclesiastes:
A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God.

I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live.

Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Do not be overrighteous,
neither be overwise—
why destroy yourself?
Do not be overwicked,
and do not be a fool—
why die before your time?
It is good to grasp the one
and not let go of the other.
Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might...

The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
than the shouts of a ruler of fools.
Wisdom is better than weapons of war.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive account of the positive message of Ecclesiastes. Nor am I saying the message is 100% consistent. But I believe the cumulative message is clear:
Give up the striving after self-esteem and significance. How? Do good work. Enjoy the work for itself. Don't turn work into a self-esteem project. Don't serve that power. Put aside the anxiety of chasing self-esteem and significance and learn to enjoy the day. Notice the simple gifts of food and drink. Be present with your loved ones. Cherish and cultivate friendships. Don't turn religion into a self-esteem project. Don't be too righteous. Yet don't be foolish either. Seek wisdom over violence and war. Avoid the propaganda of nations and fools. Spend the day doing good.
This, in the estimation of Ecclesiastes, is what it looks like, in the words of James Alison, to "live as if death were not." This is what it looks like, in the words of William Stringfellow, "to live humanely in the Fall." This is what it looks like, in the words of Arthur McGill, to receive your identity as "gift" rather than as a possession you must protect and defend against others. This is what it looks like, in the words of Ernest Becker, to trade neurotic strivings for a "relaxedness" in the face of death.

In short, this is the vision of the person who as stepped away from idolatry, who has been exorcised of the spirituality of the principalities and powers. Non-anxious. Peaceful, internally and externally. Relaxed in the face of death. Not lured into crazy self-esteem projects. And thus non-rivalrous and non-violent. Joyful for the day and simple graces. Doing good work. Not too righteous, holding religion at a distance. But not undisciplined and foolish. A good friend. A good family member. Spending the day doing good.

Basically, following the example of the Great Exorcist himself:
Acts 10.38
Jesus went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Be Human in This Most Inhuman of Ages...

You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope. Shall this be the substance of your message? Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God. You agree? Good. Then go with my blessing. But I warn you, do not expect to make many friends...
--Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Jesus Poems: Cana

It was getting late
with the warm fuzz
of the wine
well worked into our minds
when the first sign
of the Kingdom of Heaven
in a back room
with only the paid help
as witnesses
and the quality
of the gift
passing unnoticed
because of our
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