Monday, April 30, 2012

The Real Issues of Faith

From William Stringfellow's book Free in Obedience:
[T]he people and the things which an ordinary Christian comes into contact from day to day are the primary and most profound issues of his faith and practice...For me, the day to day issues are like these:

--a young, unmarried, pregnant girl--who says she is afraid to confide in either her parents or her minister--comes to see me to find out how her unborn child can be adopted.

--a convict writes to ask if a job might be found for him so that he can be paroled from prison.

--a college student, unable to find summer work, borrows twenty dollars.

--a woman, who has found another man, wants a divorce from her alcoholic husband.

--a Negro is arrested because he protested discrimination in the city.

--a seminarian is discouraged and disillusioned about the churches and thinks he cannot and should not be ordained.

--an addict want to get out of the city to try again to kick his habit.

--a family is about to be dispossessed from their tenement.

--somebody is lonely and just wants to talk.

These represent, in my life, the real issues of faith, just as the daily happenings in your life, whatever they may be, are the real issues of faith for you. The real issues of faith for the Church have to do not so much with the nature and structure of the ecclesiastical institutions as with illegitimate childbirth, or imprisonment, or with the problems of those who are unemployed, broke, estranged, persecuted, possessed, or harassed by the premonition of death. The real issues of faith have to do with the everyday needs of [people] in the world and with the care for and service of those needs, whatever they may be, for which the Church exists.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Open Communion as Peace Making

One of the great locations of diversity among Christian traditions is in the practice of open versus closed communion. In closed communion only the faithful members of the church, however that is defined, are invited to participate in the Lord's Supper. Outsiders, even if confessing Christians, are not welcome to participate. By contrast, in traditions practicing open communion anyone in attendance is welcomed to the Lord's Table.

My tradition practices open communion. If you are in attendance at a Church of Christ worship service you are welcome to partake of communion.

(A bit of clarification. In more sectarian Churches of Christ the operating assumption is that baptized believers in the Church of Christ are really the ones who are supposed to take communion when the trays are passed. Still, this is an assumption rather than an explicit command. I've never seen a CoC communion service where visitors were told not to participate. In the more ecumenical CoC the practice is pretty straight up open communion with "everyone is welcome to the table" being a common meme.)

While there is great debate as to which practice is proper--open or closed?--I think the best theological reasons are in favor of open communion. Some of these reasons I discuss in Unclean. But let me mention one other powerful reason in favor of open communion.

Culturally and historically in many parts of the world, and in the Middle East in particular, it was and is assumed that you are to never act violently against someone with whom you've broken bread. To break bread with someone wasn't and isn't a casual affair. To break bread signals solidarity, a deep commitment that cannot be treated lightly. We might say that eating together forms a sort of covenant relationship between the two parties.

In short, eating together is a form of peace-making. By contrast, refusing to eat with someone signals hostility with the possibility of future violence still a live option. Given this, in many parts of the world people are prohibited from eating with enemies. Because if you eat with them you can't kill them.

In light of all this, there is a strong association between the Lord's Supper and peace-making. To break bread with others is a declaration of solidarity and non-violence. That the wall of hostility has been broken down in the shared meal of communion. The threat of future violence between the parties has been take away.

This, I think, is a powerful argument in favor of open communion. By welcoming everyone to the Lord's Table and breaking bread with them there we are engaging in acts of reconciliation. More, if we remember the cultural backdrop about eating and non-violence we find the Lord's Supper to be the ministry of reconciliation. The Lord's Supper isn't a ritual. It's a sociological intervention. The fact that Christians by and large have missed this point is due to the fact that we've not been aware of the cultural assumption that we are to live at peace with those with whom we've broken bread.

And if that's the case, we should break bread with anyone and everyone in the world. Just like Jesus.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Slavery of Death: Part 31, Doxological Gratitude

Final post in this series. There is, no doubt, much more to be said. Thanks so much for the encouragement and insightful comments throughout the series. You've convinced me that I should try to pull all this into book form. I'll keep you posted.
What might be the big take home point of this series? Perhaps this: We are enslaved to death because our identities are formed--consciously and unconsciously--by death. We have death-centered and death-saturated identities. This means that our identity is driven--consciously and unconsciously--by anxiety, an anxiety that causes us to turn inward and pull back from others. It's this anxiety that produces sin. It is a slavery to the fear of death.

To be sure, most of us don't live with this fear of death in day to day awareness. We don't seem particularly gripped by death anxiety (though some of us are). What we tend to do is repress death anxiety with self-esteem projects, living to succeed and have a meaningful life according to the value system of our culture. It's this hero project--whether we are succeeding, failing or just treading water relative to others--that dominates our conscious lives. Our anxiety shifts to and fuels these projects. Thus, our slavery to death largely manifests itself through what psychologists call sublimation.

Consequently, a sign that we've been emancipated from the fear of death is when we get to the point where we become indifferent to the anxieties inherent in how our culture pursues self-esteem, how our culture defines winners and losers, successes and failures. Like St. Paul, we begin to "die" to this way of forming an identity, an identity fueled by a fear of death, considering this lifeway as loss.

When I get to this place I find myself free to love others. With the anxiety draining away I'm no longer evaluating others in relation to myself, assessing the degree to which they threaten me or diminish me. I stop being envious, jealous, and rivalrous. I stop feeling ashamed, self-loathing, and small--the morbid manifestations of jealousy, envy, and rivalry. More, given that I've become disinterested in the way my culture defines the good life I can be non-anxious and hospitable to outgroup members. Thus the biblical formulation that perfect love casts out fear. We cannot open ourselves to others if we are anxious and afraid, if our identities are orbiting around a fear of death.

But how are we to purge our identities of this anxiety, particularly if much of it is unconscious and outside of awareness? Practically speaking, how are we to "die to the self"?

Again, I think the root issue involves our identity. We need to find a way to organize our identity around life rather than death, to create an identity that is no longer driven by anxiety but by gratitude, peace, love and joy.

How do I place joy at the center of my identity, how do I "drive out fear"?

I'd like to return to the analysis of Arthur McGill discussed earlier in this series. Recall that McGill argued that death controls us when we have an identity based upon possession, where I try, in an effort to fend off death (with resources or self-esteem) to control, own, possess, rule over and dominate some bit of reality. To become a petty tyrant protecting my home, neighborhood, reputation, status, nation, and ego from the attacks, threats, and encroachments of others. And the thing to note here is how the great anxiety underneath it all--all this prickly and neurotic defending of our ego and turf--is a fear of loss and diminishment, a fear of someone taking something away from me. A fear of death.

How are we to overcome this sort of identity, an anxiety-riddled identity driven to possess in order to cope with the fear of death?

McGill takes his cue from looking at the way Jesus formed his identity 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.
In the ecstatic identity of Jesus we find an identity that is not orbiting death. Jesus cannot lose or be dispossessed of his identity because Jesus doesn't own or possess his identity in the first place. Jesus is always receiving his identity. His identity is experienced as gift and joy. In the words of James Alison, Jesus is living as if death were not. Following Jesus Christians are called to die to the self, to consider it loss, so that they can participate in the ecstatic identity of Jesus, living out of the same joy and freedom to love. McGill describing this:
[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 possession 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.
For McGill, the experience of the ecstatic identity is the experience of the resurrection, right here and right now: "the resurrection is ecstatic identity, not possessed identity."

If this is so, how are we to cultivate an ecstatic identity?

I like the recommendation of David Kelsey who suggests that the heart of what he calls the eccentric identity (similar to McGill's ecstatic identity in that the eccentric identity is centered "outside" of the self) is doxological gratitude.

Empirically speaking, this makes sense. We know that gratitude is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictors of happiness. To feel grateful is to experience life as a gift, as an experience of grace and joy. This experience of gift is at the heart of the ecstatic/eccentric identity.

But this goes beyond positive psychology. The gratitude is doxological, experienced as worship and expressed within worship.

Why is that important?

While helpful, mere gratitude, what you might find recommended within positive psychology self-help books, doesn't go deep enough to root out the satanic core of the self-esteem project, the way we become beholden to the principalities and powers. At its heart, worship relativises those powers and calls them into question. Worship exposes the self-esteem project as vanity, as an idol of self-glorification. Thus, the resurrection identity is inherently religious as it must function as a prophetic critique with the Word of God speaking against the idols of this present darkness.

And we must remember, as discussed in this series, that what we take to be "God" is more often than not a cultural idol, the religious projection of the self-esteem project, the angel of death in disguise. Even "God" must be subject to prophetic critique. We are aware that religious people killed Jesus.

But the root of this is simply the idea that doxological gratitude, by experiencing life as gift, dispels the anxious need to cling and clutch onto resources and self-esteem. In dispelling fear this posture facilitates love, an opening outward of the self toward others, because giving and self-sacrifice are no longer experienced as threat, loss, or diminishment. If life is gift then sharing life becomes possible, particularly when supported by the koinonia of the community as discussed in the last post. 

So this is one positive way forward in forming a resurrection identity--doxological gratitude.

And now here at the end, perhaps it is startling--or even a let down?--to find that we must construct an identity around prayer and worship. But then again, is this really a new insight? Have not the saints, mystics and contemplatives always preached this? Did not Jesus form his own identity in just this manner?

So my hope in all this, if you've taken this journey with me, is that we come to see doxological gratitude in a wholly new and radical light. Doxological gratitude as a means, an intervention even, to overcome the fear of death. A route to liberating an identity enslaved to anxiety. A practice of dying to self so that perfect love can cast out fear. A way of allowing Christ to destroy the works of the devil in our lives so that we, who have been enslaved to the fear of death all our lives, may experience peace, joy and life.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


A few years ago my church, the Highland Church of Christ, inherited a small, older church building in a poor part of town. The building had belonged to a church that shut its doors due to declining membership.

Highland renamed the building Freedom Fellowship and started hosting praise nights on the weekend. A small but faithful following soon grew with a lot of the Freedom community made up of low income and special needs populations. The church now worships every Wednesday night and they still host a monthly praise night on a Saturday. Meals are served before all the worship services.

I started going to Freedom in the fall and it's now my favorite place to worship. I really look forward to Wednesday evenings.

Worship at Freedom can look a bit, well, free. It's a small church with about 60 of us in attendance. There is a praise band. And during the worship it's not uncommon to have people swaying, dancing, or going up and down the aisles waving streamers. You can bring your tambourine. And pretty much everyone raises their hands with lots of "Amen's!" and "Praise the Lord's!" It's not Charismatic. It's just free and uninhibited. People just do what they want. And if you want to go up and down the aisle with a streamer, you go up and down the aisle with a streamer.

Me? Where do I fit in?

I'm not a hand raiser. I don't shout Amen. I may be the most inhibited person in attendance. But my heart soars when I'm there. The joy around me is infectious.

More, I go to Freedom because the people there aren't like me. Most are poor. Many are emotionally and intellectually handicapped. Some are homeless. Many struggle with addictions of various sorts. But I love the way these people worship.

Another thing I like about Freedom: One of the church leaders and I have a running conversation (and he might have this conversation with more than just me). A few months ago he came up to me and asked, "Richard, do you know why we come to church?" "Why?" "So God can kick us in the ass." Every week it's a variation on that theme. "Richard, did God kick you in the ass today?"

I smile and say yes.

A couple of weeks ago the leaders of Freedom asked if I might preach to the church after the praise time. There was a little anxiety on their part. Many speakers have floundered at Freedom. They just didn't know how to connect with a low income and mentally challenged audience. I was a bit worried about this myself, but my time teaching in the local prison has helped. My speaking repertoire has been expanding: I can speak to academicians, college freshmen, maximum security inmates and now, at Freedom, the poor.

Speaking of preaching to the poor, I'd always been troubled by this passage in the gospels:
Matthew 11.1-5
After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
I'd always felt that the poor were getting a bum deal in this text. The lame get to walk. The blind get their sight restored. The deaf get to hear. The dead, and this seems sort of like a big deal, are raised to life again.

And what do the poor get?

A good sermon.

That seemed kind of lame.

Well, it did until I started worshiping with the poor and listening to and sharing the gospel with the poor. Because when you do that you see what Jesus was talking about.

Many of the people at Freedom are at the absolute bottom of society. And they know it. But in the midst of worship and during the proclamation of the gospel they are transformed. They become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. They are infused with an incandescent dignity that they cannot find in the soul crushing meritocracy of American life. There is a reason they pull out the streamers and the tambourines. During worship at Freedom the Spirit of God moves and tells those in attendance--tells me--that we are precious, wanted and loved. That we are not waste, trash, or failures. That we are human beings.

So I've come to see what Jesus was talking about. I've seen the gospel proclaimed to the poor. And it's a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Whores: A Meditation on Gender and the Bible

In a recent post I wrote about my leading a study on the book of Revelation at a local prison. In that post I discussed how one of the themes of Revelation is the contrast between two cities--Babylon and the New Jerusalem--and how the pastoral aim of Revelation is to call the people of God to "come out" from Babylon.

In this post I'd like to think a bit about one of the problems regarding how this contrast is made in Revelation. Specifically, one of the metaphors used to contrast Babylon and New Jerusalem is a Whore/Bride contrast. In Revelation Babylon is cast as a whore:
Revelation 17.1-5
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”

Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

By contrast, New Jerusalem is compared to a virginal bride:
Revelation 21.1-2
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
For those aware of feminist scholarship, you'll quickly see how the writer of Revelation is using the Madonna/Whore typology. This typology expresses the ambivalent nature of male feelings regarding female sexuality. On the one hand, the male sexual fantasy is to have a woman who is sexually uninhibited and insatiable. The female actresses in pornography portray this fantasy, a female who is sexually aggressive and can't get enough sex.This--the Whore--is the sexual fantasy of most if not the vast majority of males.

The ambivalence comes from the fact that while most males fantasize about having sex with the Whore--the sexually uninhibited and insatiable female--they don't want to be married to such a woman. When it comes to marriage men want the Madonna, the virginal and faithful bride.

There is a large literature exploring this Madonna/Whore dynamic and it sits behind many of the mixed and confusing messages the culture sends to women about "what men want." It also explains the switcheroo a lot of Christian women face after they get married. Christian women are to be the Madonna prior to marriage, vigilantly safeguarding their virginal purity. But then, after marriage, Christian women are to make a smooth and quick transition to being the Whore in the bedroom. And if she fails to make this transition adequately she can be blamed for not fulfilling her sexual obligations to her husband.

But again, I don't want to get into all this right now.

What I want to get into is why women are associated with whores when, in point of fact, women aren't very much like whores at all.

Historically, and even today, prostitution isn't about sexual insatiability. Prostitution for women is about economics. Women don't turn to prostitution because they can't get enough sex. Women turn to prostitution, when they aren't forced into it, because they need to eat and pay the bills.

Men, by contrast, do pursue prostitutes for pleasure. That is, whoring is being driven by an insatiable sexual appetite--but it's the appetite of of males, not females.

Generally speaking, women aren't very promiscuous. Males, by contrast, are extraordinarily slutty. And if that's the case, then why are women rather than men called sluts?

A psychological study in this regard. A group of researchers had attractive assistants approach men and women of the opposite sex on a college campus. After a few minutes of chit chat the assistant would sexually proposition the student. The question was, what percent of women would agree to have sex with an attractive man after a few minutes of conversation? And what percent of men would agree to have sex with an attractive woman after a few minutes of conversation?

Seventy-five percent of the males agreed to have sex. The women?

Zero percent.

Generally speaking, women are choosy and discriminating when it comes to sex. Men not so much.

In short, from an empirical standpoint men are the whores.

And if that's the case, why are women always cast as whores, even in the bible, as the sexually insatiable ones?

It is a product of Freudian projection. Throughout history, religiously conservative males have had to confront one of the greatest sources of their moral failure: the male libido. The male libido--the fact that men are sluts--is a sore spot of any male community wanting to pursue purity and holiness. And what has happened, by and large, is that rather than admit that males struggle mightily in the sexual realm, males have externalized the blame and projected their libido onto women. Rather than blaming themselves for sexual sin males have, throughout history, blamed women for being temptresses. The Whore was created to be the scapegoat to preserve male self-righteousness. Rather than turning inward, in personal and collective repentance, men could blame women, blame the whores, for their sexual and moral failures. It's not our fault, the men say, it's the whore's fault.

Examples of this sort of projection are too numerous to list. Christian campuses and youth group talks are full of this sort of stuff.

But let me bring this back to whores and brides in Revelation. Given the problematic nature of this metaphor, how are we to approach these images in the bible?

I'll tell you what I do. For me, I don't read the Whore as a woman. I read it as the Freudian projection it is. The Whore is the male libido projected onto women.

More simply, when I see the Whore in Revelation I don't see a woman.

I see a man.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Sane Ones

I've written about Adolf Eichmann and the banality of evil before on this blog. I recently came across a powerful essay by Thomas Merton entitled "A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann" in his book Raids on the Unspeakable. Some selections from the essay:
One of the most disturbing facts that came out in the Eichmann trial was that a psychiatrist examined him and pronounced him perfectly sane. I do not doubt it at all, and that is precisely why I find it disturbing.

If all the Nazis had been psychotics, as some of their leaders probably were, their appalling cruelty would have been in some sense easier to understand. It is much worse to consider this calm, "well-balanced," unperturbed official conscientiously going about his desk work, his administrative job which happened to be the supervision of mass murder. He was thoughtful, orderly, unimaginative. He had a profound respect for system, for law and order. He was obedient, loyal, a faithful officer of a great state. He served his government very well...It all comes under the heading of duty, self-sacrifice, and obedience. Eichmann was devoted to duty, and proud of his job.

The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.

It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons and will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. What makes us so sure, after all, that the danger comes from a psychotic getting into a position to fire the first shot in a nuclear war? Psychotics will be suspect. The sane ones will keep them far from the button. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command. And because of their sanity they will have no qualms at all...

We can no longer assume that because a man is "sane" he is therefore in his "right mind." The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless...

And so I ask myself: what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as one's own? Evidently this is not necessary for "sanity" at all...

...The worst error is to imagine that a Christian must try to be "sane" like everybody else, that we belong in our kind of society.

Friday, April 20, 2012

There is a Time for Everything

Driving back with a van full of students from our conference in Oklahoma last week we spent some time talking about God and faith. These are good times. The best times to be a college professor. Hanging out with students and talking about life.

At one point I shared how I read this famous passage from Ecclesiastes:
Ecclesiastes 3.1-8 (KJV)
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
No doubt there are some hermeneutical issues to be resolved in this passage. How do you read "a time to kill" and "a time to hate" in light of the Sermon on the Mount? (My take is that Christians shift all this language to the spiritual realm where our "battle is not against flesh and blood.")

Those issues aside, here's how I read this text. I think it's a call to being present, engaged and mindful. In this my reading finds some convergences with Buddhism.

There is a time for everything. And whatever you are doing right now that is the time for that. So be present in that moment. Don't be in a different time. Don't be ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. Don't live in guilt, regret or shame. Don't live with worry, fear and apprehension. Live into the moment. The time is right now.

There is a time to tuck your kids in at night. When it's that time be present. Do that well and fully.

There is a time (in my life) to teach a class. When it's that time I should do that work to the best of my ability.

There is a time to drink a cup of coffee with a friend or loved one. When it's that time I should savor the moment and not be picking up my iPhone to check my email.

There is a time for everything.

And when it's that time be there and nowhere else.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Connection is a Symptom Not a Cure

Awhile back I wrote a few posts about the spiritual aspects of mobile connectivity. The series was entitled "The Angel of the iPhone" and can be found on the sidebar. In light of that series let me point you to Sherry Turkle's recently posted TED talk. I found the talk, by turns, both scary and sad.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Algorithms of Salvation

During Passion Week leading up to Easter there was a lot of discussion on religion blogs about the nature of the atonement. What exactly happened in the death of Jesus? Tony Jones had a good series on the subject leading up to Easter.

Here are some of my thoughts on this topic.

It think it's clear in the biblical narrative that there was some sort of "blockage" between God and humanity. We generally call this blockage "sin," though I think that is overly simplistic. Regardless, on our own humanity could not bridge the gap. So God, in Christ, makes a sacrifice on our behalf in an act of loving self-donation. This sacrifice is "atoning." That is, in the sacrifice of Jesus God and humanity are reconciled.

The most important aspect of all this is how the sacrifice at the heart of Christianity is a grand reversal of paganism. In paganism humans made sacrifices to appease a wrathful god. But in Christianity it is God who makes the sacrifice. Humans call out for blood--"Crucify! Crucify!"--and God hands Jesus over to appease us. The significance of this reversal cannot be overstated. In Christianity God is handed over to humans in an act of sacrifice. In Christianity God is killed. God isn't demanding the sacrifice. God is the sacrifice.

This is why the crucifixion is considered to be an act of love. The cross represents the self-donation of God, God being given to us, God suffering on our behalf. And this act of self-giving signals that the rift between God and humanity has been eradicated. In the gift of Jesus God reaches out and grabs hold of us.

This, as best as I can describe it, is the meaning of the atonement. And most Christians, liberal or conservative, would likely agree with my description.

So from where does the controversy come?

The controversy comes when people try to describe the machinery and mechanisms at work behind scenes. The most common machinery in conservative Protestant circles is penal substitutionary atonement. According to this machinery God is compelled to punish a sinful humanity. God requires a blood sacrifice, the death of the sinner. But wanting to save us God kills Jesus as a replacement.

The problem I have with this particular machinery and machinery generally is that God is not free. The act of self-donation is compulsory and, thus, not a free act of love. God must punish a sinful humanity. God has to have a blood sacrifice. God can't forgive without a death.

It's these must's, can't's, and have to's, that are the problem. They signal that God is no longer God, that a theological system--the machinery--is above God and that God must follow the rules of the game. These rules compel God to do this or that or block God from doing this or that.

In these theological systems God has to follow, like a computer program, an algorithm of salvation. But the question arises, if God has to execute the program who wrote the computer code? If God wrote the code then God doesn't have to do anything. God doesn't have to kill or punish. God can do whatever God wants to do to save or forgive. God is God and doesn't have to follow an algorithm of salvation. God's the programmer, not the program.

This, it seems to me, is the root problem. The grand strokes of atonement are largely agreed upon. God loves us and make a sacrifice to save us. The trouble comes when we posit some mechanism of atonement--an algorithm of salvation-- and then insist that God must follow the program. By doing so we make the cross an act of compulsion rather than an act of love. More, when we insist that God must be in obedience to an algorithm of salvation we engage in an act of idolatry. And idolatry is sin.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Violence and Holy Ground

In my book Unclean I discuss how purity psychology regulates the divinity dimension. If you've not read Unclean, the psychologist Richard Shweder has suggested that three main moral codes regulate human experience. One of them is the divinity code which is experienced as movement along a vertical dimension. As we move higher on this dimension we experience sacredness and holiness. As we move lower on this dimension we experience degradation, spiritual pollution and defilement.

We need the divinity dimension to have an experience of the sacred. However, my worry in Unclean is when this experience is used to exclude or harm others. My analysis in the book is that Jesus addresses this situation by conflating the sacred with acts of inclusion. When Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners in Matthew 9 he says to the Pharisees, who are standing on the outside in an act of self-quarantine, that God desires "mercy, not sacrifice." The act of mercy and embrace becomes the sacred space. And the act of exclusion becomes the source of pollution and defilement.

I was thinking about the conflation of harm, violence, care and the sacred last week. I was in Oklahoma City for a conference. One morning I walked over to the Oklahoma City National Memorial that honors and remembers those killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Obviously, this is a sacred space. The grounds are high on the divinity dimension. People here are quiet and reflective. Being boisterous, littering or spitting on the ground would be highly insulting. This place is holy, set apart for special care and veneration.

As I pondered this, how various peoples set apart sacred spaces, it struck me how often these places are associated with violence. The memorial in Oklahoma City is holy because 168 people were tragically killed there. And beyond that violence the memorial and museum also honors the first responders and those who worked to recover the dead. These are acts of care.

To be sure, the sacred doesn't always overlap with locations of harm, violence and care. This is a point nicely made by Jonathan Haidt in his new book The Righteous Mind. However, reflecting in Oklahoma City last week I was struck by how often we converge upon Jesus's conflation. Places become holy when the ground becomes tragically blood-soaked. That violence moves us toward the demonic and we want, in response, to move in the opposite direction, to redeem the space and lift it toward the heavens.

We seek to embrace those who were satanically excluded to stand on holy ground.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Slavery of Death: Part 30, The Loving Economy of the Kingdom of God

To this point in the series our focus has been almost exclusively psychological, about the way a fear of death shapes our identity and then how that fear-based identity causes failures of love. But before ending this series we should say something about the church and its role in helping us overcome a fear of death and facilitating acts of love.

Again, the relationship between fear and failures of love has to do with the fact that love often involves a diminishment of the self. Fearing this diminishment we become focused on self-preservation or the neurotic pursuit of self-esteem. We don't give to others because we fear we won't have enough for ourselves--enough money, energy, or time. We don't take the last place at the table because we fear being small, unnoticed and insignificant in the face of death. We resist death, then, by inserting either resources or a heroic identity between ourselves and death. Each produces sin. The buffer of resources makes us selfish and stingy. The buffer of self-esteem makes us rivalrous, prideful and violent. Rivalrous toward ingroup members doing better than we are. Prideful toward ingroup members doing worse than we are. And violent toward outgroup members who question the gods and values that support our heroic self-esteem project.

Obviously, selfish, envious, prideful, and violent people are going to have a hard time loving others. Such are the psychological and behavioral expressions of a life enslaved to the fear of death. Resurrection, therefore, is victory over this fear in the concrete expression of love toward others. Resurrection is the willingness to undergo a diminishment of the self and the ego to give life to others. Resurrection is perfect love casting out fear.

In light of all this it's reasonable to ask about sustainability. Can an isolated individual sustain this sort of lifestyle? At some point, as a consequence of this lifestyle of sacrificial giving, will not our situation and self become so diminished that we start to become the person in need? At what point along this continuum of diminishment and kenosis (emptying) should I stop and draw the line? In one of the more provocative parts of Unclean I discuss the nature of boundaries, how we set limits on the demands from others to provide for times of self-care, self-rehabilitation, and self-refreshment. A boundary is the point where we start to say No to others and Yes to the self.

The Christian tradition provides no clear consensus on where these boundaries should be set or if they should be set at all. What is clear is that the saints have tended to set these boundaries in more "extreme" locations relative to the mass of Christians. In short, though I offer no specific recommendations as to how to manage all this, I think it clear that the saints and the gospels prophetically encourage us to adjust our current boundaries, to say Yes more to others and No more to the self. It's the journey of learning to love more and more that seems most critical rather than someone like me setting some rule-bound or rigid standards of self-renunciation. Though I'm not sure how far we should go in some ultimate or absolute sense, I am fairly certain that most of us can do more. That's what I'm asking us all to consider.

However, these questions about sustainability become a bit less acute if we shift focus away from individuals toward the community. We aren't being asked to love sacrificially all by ourselves. God isn't asking us to be a Christian version of Atlas, holding up the whole world by our love alone. Rather, God is asking us to participate in a community that mutually practices sacrificial love. I love others while these same others are loving me in return. The issue of sustainability is problematic when we think of love flowing in a single direction, out of me and into you. If that's the only thing going on, yes, I'll soon be empty. I'll be quickly used up. But if you are pouring back into me, if love is flowing in both directions, then I'm less worried about my tank running dry.

This is why Christian love is less about sacrifice than it is about economy. Something is indeed sacrificed, there is a hurtle of fear to clear, but on the other side abundant life is found within the koinonia of the Kingdom. These are the dynamics that Jesus was describing in Mark 10:
Mark 10.17-31
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Jesus asks the Rich Young Ruler for something radical, to sell it all and give it to the poor. Not surprisingly, the young man gives in to the fear of death. I know this because I know what would be going through my mind if I was standing in his shoes. And, truth be told, we are all standing in his shoes. We know the fear and anxiety he is facing.

So we think Jesus is asking the man to make a sacrifice. But Jesus doesn't see it that way. According to Jesus if the man is able to overcome his fear and lose his life there will be an abundance awaiting him in the life of the Kingdom. Jesus isn't asking the young man to give it all away to starve to death as a homeless person. Jesus is asking him to participate in the Jubilee of God's Kingdom economy.

In short, Jesus isn't asking us to love the world all by ourselves. That's not sustainable. Jesus is asking us to participate in communities of love, what he calls the Kingdom of God. Within these communities I will undergo diminishment on your behalf but I am soon filled and rehabilitated by others. I sacrifice to find abundance waiting for me on the other side. That is the vision of church.
Acts 4.32-34
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.
At this point you are no doubt wondering: I've never see a church like this. I haven't either, but I've seen people get close. I think of monastic and intentional communities, new and old. I think of churches and small groups within churches who assist each other, often financially, in times of need. True, churches can be self-absorbed, image-driven and consumeristic. But at her best the church rallies to those in need. Even if it's just showing up on the doorstep with a casserole. In these moments the church is living into the resurrection, drawing closer to the koinonia Jesus envisions in Mark 10 and experienced in the early days of the Jesus movement.

Again, the goal of this series isn't to offer concrete recommendations for individual or church life. I'm trying to explain dynamics. And having dissected the slavery of death in the hearts of individuals we find in this post similar dynamics at the heart of church life. Jesus is not asking us to love the world as isolated individuals. The call is to participate in communities of self-giving love. Either way, the fear of death is the enemy. A church comprised of fearful individuals is going to be unable to trust each other to the point of loving self-sacrifice. In such a church each member is expected to be self-sufficient and self-sustaining, making no demands upon others. But that's not a church, that's a club. It's a community affiliating around common interests rather than a community based upon love.

In short, church requires risk, the risk always involved in love, the risk of loss and disminishment. The risk of death. If I allow myself to fall will you catch me? The church who can overcome their fear and allow themselves to fall into each others arms will be those who are emancipated from the slavery of death and who will begin to find the abundance of Jubilee in the loving economy of the Kingdom of God.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Unclean Theology

For those interested in discussing, unpacking or pushing back on the ideas I discuss in Unclean, particularly in relation to the praxis of the missional church, let me point you to a open conversation going on at the blog Unclean Theology. The very talented hosts and discussants of the blog are getting the ball rolling out in front of Streaming (June 18-20) where I'll be in dialog with Walter Brueggemann and other missional church leaders about the book.

If you've read Unclean or are considering reading it and would like to unpack its implications for church life and missional communities jump into the conversation going on over at Unclean Theology.

Just wash your hands before you show up over there...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Living in Babylon: Reading Revelation in Prison

As regular readers know, I've been posting from time to time about my experiences leading a bible study in a local prison. One recurring theme in these posts is how different the bible sounds on the inside of a prison as compared to the outside.

I'm currently leading the class in a study of the book Revelation and I've again been struck by the change in the sound of this book.

We all know that Revelation is a very violent and blood-soaked book. Consequently, when we studied this book at my church last fall a lot of people expressed dismay. The violence of the book didn't sit well with our empathic, liberal sensitivities. Revelation in one of those embarrassments found within the pages of the bible.

What to do with all that blood and violence in the book?

Non-violent readings of Revelation look to Chapters 4-5 in the fusion of the Throne and the Lamb. Chapter 4 is dominated by the image of the Throne, a symbol of the Rule of God. The imagery is all about power. However, in Chapter 5 this is all thrown for a loop when we encounter the One who is standing on the Throne:
Revelation 5.1-6
Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne...
The Lamb Who Was Slain--the Agnus Dei--is how God rules, how God expresses and exerts God's power. God's power is sacrificial and self-giving love. The Lamb Who Was Slain expresses the Rule of God in our world and the next.

If you want to see the power of God in the world you point to Jesus on the cross.

With this understanding we read the blood and violence of Revelation through the cross. The War of the Lamb isn't violent. The War of the Lamb is fought by fighting, resisting and witnessing non-violently. This non-violent, martyrological note is sounded throughout Revelation. For example, the "sword" of the Lamb is truth, witness and testimony. The sword of the Lamb comes from his mouth:
Revelation 1.16; 2.12, 16; 19.15, 21
In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.
Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.
The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.
It's not surprising, given this imagery, that when Pilate and Jesus have a conversation about power (Does Pilate have the power to kill Jesus?) they end up talking about truth.

Following the Lamb into battle the faithful wage war with the non-violent methods of the Lamb:
Revelation 12,7-12
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:

“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.”
The faithful triumph over evil "by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony." Testimony is the weapon. And like Jesus, the faithful remain non-violent to the point of death.

These are some of the hermeneutical keys for those wanting to read Revelation non-violently. Like with most things in the bible, the key move is Christological--reading everything through the sacrificial and self-giving love of Jesus on the cross. So when you think of God's power and rule remember the conflation of Throne and Lamb in Revelation 4-5.

Still, the imagery of Revelation is pretty over the top. Which brings me to reading the book in prison.

The great pastoral objective of Revelation might be best captured in Chapter 18 in the call for the People of the Lamb to come out from Babylon:
Revelation 18.1-4a
After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted:

“‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’
She has become a dwelling for demons
and a haunt for every impure spirit,
a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal.
For all the nations have drunk
the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”

Then I heard another voice from heaven say:

“‘Come out of her, my people.’
so that you will not share in her sins...
"Come out of her, my people." That's the heart of Revelation. That's why the book was written, to communicate that message. The book is about two rival cities, Babylon and the New Jerusalem. And the encouragement to the churches is to "come out" from Babylon to live under the Rule of the Lamb as citizens of the New Jerusalem. Despite appearances Babylon stands under God's judgment and those who are non-violently faithful to the Lamb will be vindicated in the end.

As I see it, the main trouble with reading Revelation as people of wealth, status and privilege is that we don't have much of a problem with Babylon. We're doing quite well in Babylon, thank you very much. Consequently, the prophetic indictment and cry to "come out" leaves us cold. We wonder, why is the author of Revelation so desperately angry?

Well, he's angry because he's screaming at a bunch of spiritual zombies. People who have become blind to the webs of oppression, immorality and violence that have entangled them and support their way of life.

Do you know who weeps first over Babylon in Chapter 18? Kings and merchants. Military power and marketplaces.
Revelation 18.9-13
“When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry:

“‘Woe! Woe to you, great city,
you mighty city of Babylon!
In one hour your doom has come!’

“The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore—cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.
The trouble is, as Americans, we benefit so much from American power--military and economic--that we can't see the sins of Babylon. So the prophetic indignation of Revelation just sails right over our heads. "That book is crazy," we say.

And Babylon rolls on...

But inside a prison it all sounds very different. Inside a prison the violence of Babylon is raw and exposed. The violence and economies of prison life are a microcosm of the larger world, Babylon distilled. Consequently, the men in my bible study are constantly tempted to give in to that violence and economy. The choices are stark and clear. Babylon or New Jerusalem? Lamb or Beast?

In prison they feel the Beast. They know very well what Revelation is talking about.

Inside the prison the call of Revelation rings loud and clear. The call to "come out" is felt within the gut. The life and death choice is acute. Prison inmates get the book of Revelation because they get Babylon. They fight against it every second of every day.

Us? Not so much.

And Babylon rolls on...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Pregnant on a Christian Campus

Last week I had a conversation with a colleague on campus about a female student in her class who is pregnant out of wedlock. Due to issues related to the pregnancy the student is going to miss more classes than had been anticipated. My colleague was working with the student to get something worked out. Hovering over the conversation was the student behavioral code and if the student could continue at ACU. My colleague was making inquiries about this with Student Life and our Legal Services, wondering about the relationship between our behavioral policies at a Christian school and compliance with Title IX, the Equal Opportunity in Education Act.

Now, I don't want to say anything about that particular aspect of this story (the ability of a religious institution to make student conduct decisions based upon its religious values). I do, however, want to raise the question that my colleague and I were discussing:

What about the boy?

Sexual ethics and religious freedom issues aside, isn't it a bit unfair that the girl's life is affected in a way the father's life is not? And how to address that asymmetry?

I understand that my school might want to address the morality of the situation when a student is pregnant out of wedlock. But, as I see it, the moral issue is nine months in the rearview mirror. What we have right now is a biological and medical situation, not a moral situation. More, by only ever dealing with one person of the pair we are creating what I feel is a very unjust situation, with pregnant female students subject to discipline and their male counterparts never addressed. And why? Simply because pregnancy is visible, the modern equivalent of the Scarlet Letter on a Christian campus or in a church.

Moreover, if our institution is going to promote pro-Life values why create a culture that disincentivizes bringing the baby to term? That is, why create a world where the young woman, upon learning of the pregnancy, has to place being an ACU graduate in the balance? Shouldn't we want to take our thumb off that scale?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Wisdom and Sin

When you are college professor on a Christian campus you are often asked about your opinion as to if Behavior X is or is not a sin. The inquiring minds of college students want to know. And one can assume that their interest is more than philosophical.

There are times when the "is a sin"/"isn't a sin" binary judgment is the best way to answer the question. But life is so complex and the Christian ethical witness so diverse that at times it's a struggle to give a definitive answer. And it's at these times where I find the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament to be a better framing than the Protestant worry about escaping the wrath of an angry God.

Specifically, some things might not be sinful, but they can be decidedly stupid. Some things don't make you a bad person, but they can mark you as foolish. And some things aren't as immoral as they are immature.

Here are some advantages of using a wise/foolish frame over a not-sin/sin frame:
1. You avoid moralizing.
Sometimes you don't want to be preachy, paternalistic and schoolmarmish.

2. You force them to take responsibility.
As noted above, students aren't disinterested interlocutors. And very often they are acting in "bad faith," to use Satre's term. That is, they are running from their freedom and responsibilities. They are shopping for an endorsement from an authority figure when they need to start taking responsibility for the hard work of moral discernment and the resultant consequences of their behavior.

3. You avoid binaries.
These moral decisions often come in shades of grey. Think about, as an example, the classic youth group obsession about where "the line" is in regards to sexual activity. Sin versus not-sin is hard to impose on these underlying continua. Wise/foolish is better situated to handle the range of choices and situational complexities.

4. The frame is more holistic.
The focus on sin is often a narrow concern over God's judgment. The focus on wisdom forces you to consider a larger and longer view, how this particular behavior or path will affect me now and over the long haul. It forces you to think about things like identity and happiness. Who do I want to be? Looking back, will I feel proud of these choices? Will this behavior get me to where I want to go?

Interestingly, while it can seem that the wisdom frame is downplaying the notion of sin it is, upon consideration, making the notion of sin more robust. Think about it. Why does God prohibit certain activities? Because God is a Puritan? Or are God's commands forms of care? Spend any time at all with the Torah psalms and you quickly become aware that God isn't a schoolmarm, prude or finger-waving do-gooder. The commands of God are wisdom, patterns of life that promote psychological and social well-being.

You want adolescents and college students to avoid sin and be good?

My recommendation: Spend less time on the sin lists.

Teach them wisdom.

Monday, April 9, 2012


During the fall I got to sit down with Kevin Miller for an interview for his upcoming documentary Hellbound? As you can see from the just-released trailer, there are some pretty big names in the documentary so I don't know if my interview will make the final cut. Regardless, the documentary looks to be a provocative discussion starter. You can follow the film through the final stages of production at the Hellbound? website with its associated blog. The film is scheduled to be out in September.

Shortly after our interview Kevin and his crew were heading to New York City to film the remembrance of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. They were looking for footage to raise questions about the ultimate fate of people like Osama bin Laden. People like bin Landen and Hitler often come up in conversations about hell as hell is often posited as a mechanism of revenge and retributive justice. As Kevin and I were talking about this I pulled Miroslav Volf's book The End of Memory off the shelf and gave it to him to read. In the book Volf talks about the healing of memory, particularly the memory of victims, in the act of ultimate reconciliation with perpetrators. It seemed a particularly good book to have in mind when thinking about 9/11, hell, memory, justice, healing and reconciliation. Kevin shot me an email saying he was reading the book on the flight out to NYC and was, indeed, finding it helpful. More, he got Volf to be a part of the film.

So, even if I don't make it into the final cut I might have contributed in more indirect ways. I'm looking forward to the film coming out.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Slavery of Death: Part 29, A Biblical Meditation for Easter

Happy Easter!

Well, the entire Slavery of Death series has been one prolonged meditation on the meaning of the resurrection (or more precisely, a particular facet of the resurrection). So I couldn't think of a better way to reflect on Easter than to tell the entire story of the series--from beginning to end--using Scripture. Look for all the themes from the series: slavery to the fear of death, how fear of death produces sin, how love casts out fear, how we come to treat our self-esteem projects as "loss," and how resurrection and victory over death is experienced in sacrificially loving others.

So here it is, the entire series, from beginning to end, in the words of the bible:
Wisdom 2.23-24
For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him. But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are in his possession experience it.

1 Cor. 15.56
The sting of death is sin.

James 4.1-2a
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.

Romans 7.21-24
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?

1 John 3.8
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.

John 13.34-35
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

John 15.13
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

1 John 4.18a
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.

Philippians 2.3-7
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant...

Mark 8.34-36
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?"

Philippians 3.7-11
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Romans 6.1-13
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.

2 Corinthians 4.10-12
We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

1 John 3.16-17
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. 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?

Acts 4.32-34
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.

1 John 3.14
We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death.

1 John 4.17
This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Harrowing of Hell: A Holy Saturday Meditation

For Holy Saturday, parts of an older post about the Easter icons in the Orthodox Church:

Where is Jesus on Holy Saturday?

The answer from the Apostles' Creed:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
born of the Virgin Mary.
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand
of God the Father Almighty.
From thence he shall come again to judge the living and the dead...
Orthodox Easter icons do not portray the empty tomb, the typical Easter scene within Western Christianity. Rather, the Easter icons of the Orthodox church depict the event known as the harrowing of hell.

The harrowing of hell refers to the events between Jesus' death and his resurrection. Specifically, the early church believed that after his death Christ descended into hell and rescued all the souls, starting with Adam and Eve, who had died under the Fall. Jesus breaks down the doors of hell and leads the souls of the lost into heaven.

This is an obscure teaching in the Western church, but the bible hints at these events:
1 Peter 3.18-20a
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago...

1 Peter 4.6
For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

Ephesians 4.8-10
This is why it says:
"When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men."
(What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)
This belief that Christ descended into hell is also captured in Peter's Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:
Acts 2.27, 31
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
you will not let your holy one see decay.

Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay.
In the Easter icons of the Orthodox church you see two common motifs. First, if you look at the three icons presented here, you see Christ standing over the broken gates of hell. In the second icon you also see two angels binding Satan in the pit of hell. In the top icon you see Satan crushed under the gates of hell.

Next, we see Christ pulling two figures up out of hell. This is Adam and Eve, imprisoned in hell since their deaths. Imprisoned, along with all humanity, due to sin. Eve is generally depicted in a red robe.

Beyond iconography, the harrowing of hell is also the dominant symbol of Orthodox Easter liturgies. Again, in Western churches the empty tomb is what you will see depicted on Easter Sunday. But Orthodox services recreate the harrowing of hell. Specifically, the priest exits the church with a cross. The sanctuary is immersed in darkness and the doors are closed. The priest then knocks on the door and proclaims, "Open the doors to the Lord of the powers, the king of glory." Inside the church the people make a great noise of rattling chains which conveys the resistance of hell to the coming of Christ. Eventually, the doors are opened up, the cross enters, and the church is lit and filled with incense.

By focusing on the harrowing of hell the Orthodox shift the focus of Passion Week. For Protestants the focus of salvation is on the death of Jesus and penal substitutionary atonement. We are saved on Good Friday. For the Orthodox the emphasis is on the resurrection of Jesus and the defeat of death, the Christus Victor themes. We are saved on Easter Sunday. The keys of death and Hades have been taken away from Satan and given over to Jesus:
Revelation 1.12-13, 17-18
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest...When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades."

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Isenheim Altarpiece: A Good Friday Meditation

As a Good Friday meditation, some selections from an older post about the Isenheim Altarpiece.

The Isenheim Altarpiece was painted by Matthias Grünewald some time between 1512 and 1516 for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim (then in Germany). This complicated work of multiple panels depicts four biblical scenes--the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, the Lamentation, and the Resurrection. The first view of the altarpiece is of the Crucifixion (upper panels) and the Lamentation (lower panels). The Crucifixion panels are by far the most famous aspect of the altarpiece:

The Grünewald Crucifixion is considered to be one of the more painful crucifixions ever painted. Perhaps more horrific crucifixions have been painted since the Isenheim Altarpiece, but relative to the genres of its time (and even today) the Grünewald Crucifixion remains unique in the risks it took. But more than this, the fame of the Isenheim Altarpiece is largely due to the fact that this Crucifixion scene was used in a church. Few churches have a Crucifixion scene this difficult as the focal point of worship.

To come to grips with the Grünewald Crucifixion one needs to see aspects of the painting close up. First, a close up of Jesus' body:

One can see the torn flesh with many pieces of thorns or wood embedded in the body from the scourging. Even more difficult is the sickly green coloration that is employed:

These are difficult images. So difficult that we might ask: How could this horrific picture be the central worship image of a church?

The answer to this question comes from noting that the monks at the Monastery of St. Anthony specialized in hospital work, particularly the treatment of ergotism, the gangrenous poisoning known as "Saint Anthony's fire." In ancient times ergotism was largely caused by ingesting a fungus-afflicted rye or cereal. The symptoms of ergotism included the shedding of the outer layers of the skin, edema, and the decay of body tissues which become black, infected, and malodorous. Prior to death the rotting tissue and limbs are lost or amputated. In 857 a contemporary report of St. Anthony's fire described ergotism like this:
"a Great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death."
The theological power of the Isenheim Altarpiece is that Grünewald painted the gangrenous symptoms of ergotism into his crucifixion scene. As the patients of St. Anthony's Monastery worshiped--and a more hideous, ugly and diseased congregation can scarce be imagined--they looked upon the Isenheim Altarpiece and saw a God who suffered with them.

In a fascinating insight, my colleague Dan at ACU has pointed out to me that when the Crucifixition panels of the Isenheim Altarpiece are opened we notice the following. In the upper panel, upon opening, the right arm of Jesus is separated from his body. Below the Crucifixion scene in the lower panels depicting the Lamentation the same opening separates the legs of Jesus from his body. In short, as the Isenheim Altarpiece is opened Jesus becomes an amputee, losing an arm and his legs. We can only imagine the power of this imagery among a congregation of amputees.

You can see Dan's observation best in the following image. I've highlighted the division in the panels with a bold white line. Again, note how when the panel is opened the right arm (in the upper picture) and the legs (in the lower picture) become detached from the body:

I don't understand a lot about what happened on Good Friday. But what I think about the most is how, in the crucifixion, God participated in the horror of the human condition and stood beside--eternally--the ugly, cursed, and god-forsaken. Like the congregation of amputees at the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim.

Some selections from Jurgen Moltmann's book The Crucified God:
The crucified Christ became the brother of the despised, abandoned and oppressed. And this is why brotherhood with the 'least of his brethren' is a necessary part of brotherhood with Christ and identification with him. Thus Christian theology must be worked out amongst these people and with concrete terms amongst and with those who suffer in this society...Christian identification with the crucified necessarily brings him into solidarity with the alienated of this world, with the dehumanized and the inhuman.
The church of the crucified was at first, and basically remains, the church of the oppressed and insulted, the poor and wretched, the church of the people.
But for the crucified Christ, the principle of fellowship is fellowship with those who are different, and solidarity with those who have become alien and have been made different. Its power is not friendship, the love for what is similar and beautiful... but creative love for what is different, alien and ugly...

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Gaga and the Church

My essay The Gospel According to Lady Gaga, originally posted here, but republished by Sojourners, continues to get some good traffic over there. Late last week the essay popped back up, thanks again to Facebook, on Sojourners's Most Read list.

Reading over some of the comments the post has received (at Sojo and on Facebook) I'd like to make some clarifying comments.

The gist of the critical feedback about the essay is that Lady Gaga isn't a very good role model, morally speaking, and that her lifestyle and lyrics promote licentious behavior.

That's a totally appropriate criticism. No quarrels on my end on that score.

But as a response I didn't write that post to hold up Lady Gaga as a moral exemplar. I think I'm clear about that in the essay. I kept my focus tightly on Gaga's appeal to kids being bullied on playgrounds. And my point was simply this: Does the church have this same appeal to these kids? Is the church experienced by them as a haven, a sanctuary? Is the church a prophetic voice in the community, leading the way on anti-bullying initiatives?

So, yes, while it is true that there's a lot to push back on regarding Lady Gaga, in this particular area who is doing more to reach out to these kids and speaking out about bullying? Gaga or your local church?

When was the last time, if ever, you heard a blistering sermon at your church about playground bullying? I mean, I don't mind people pushing back on the Gaga thing, but if you push back it would be nice to see you point to the anti-bullying program at your own church. And if there isn't one, well, let's let the sinners lead the way. The church can follow.

It wouldn't be the first time that has happened.

And speaking of Gaga, what's she been up to since my essay? Since I wrote that piece she's partnered with Harvard University to create the Born This Way Foundation to fight against, among other things, playground cruelty. Gaga donated $1.2 million of her own money to the effort.

Good on Gaga and Harvard. Now what about your local church? And how about Christian schools and universities?
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