Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Good News As The Year Ends

From Douglas Harink in his Paul Among the Postliberals:

For Paul justification or, preferably, rectification (Martyn's term) is the definitive, cosmic, apocalyptic act of the one God of Israel in Jesus Christ, whereby this God, through the death and resurrection of the Faithful One, conquers the powers which hold the nations in bondage and reconciles the world to himself, in order that he might create in Christ a new people, indeed, finally a whole new world, in which loyalty, obedience, and faithfulness to the one God of Israel is made possible among the nations in the power of the Holy Spirit. In this way God demonstrates his own justice, that is, his faithfulness to the promise which he made to Abraham to bless not only Israel but also the nations and so too the whole of creation. God's right-making faithfulness thus also calls forth and enables a corresponding right-making (justice) among the peoples of the earth; specifically it creates the theological-political space for a reconciliation between Israel and the nations, a reconciliation made concretely real and present in the baptism and table fellowship of Jews and Gentiles in the new community that hears and obeys the good news which Paul preaches.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Remembering

So much has been and is being written about Christmas, one pauses before presuming to add anything of meaning or value. Second in the Christian calendar only to Easter, the birth of Jesus announces the shifting of the very axis upon which time and space, past and present, God and creation turn in their relation to one another. Incarnation names the center point of history, because nothing before or since approaches its import, depth, gift, or power. (This is the mystery at the heart of G.K. Chesterton's magnum opus The Everlasting Man.) Quite literally, from Christmas on, everything is changed.

So: herein I step lightly; we are on holy ground.

- - - - - - -

One helpful way to come to the stories of Scripture is as memory. The memory of God's presence and character and actions in the ongoing life, through time, of God's people and creation. So much of Scripture is filled with a prophet, an apostle, or God himself calling Israel/church to remember. Here forgetfulness quite nearly equates to sin, because spiritual amnesia is one and the same with spiritual atrophy. When memory fails, identity follows; and there is no faithfulness out of false identity.

So in reflecting on Christmas, I want to do a little remembering.

The first thing we ought to remember is that the infant named Joshua (for, of course, "Jesus" is the Greek approximation of "Yeshua," the Hebrew name meaning "Yahweh saves") was not an everyman, not a universal non-ethnicity; he was Jewish. The baby son of Miriam (for, of course, Mary's Hebrew name was that of Moses's sister) shared with his mother Jewish flesh: the same flesh as Ezra and Nehemiah the reformers; as Jeremiah and Isaiah the prophets; as Josiah and David the kings; as Deborah and Samuel the judges; as Joshua his namesake and Moses the lawgiver; and as Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, the fathers of Israel, God's people. This little baby boy is a son of Father Abraham.

Why remember such a seemingly obvious detail? Because the church has chronic memory loss about this "minor" fact, and -- true to Scripture's equation between forgetfulness and unfaithfulness -- the result is centuries of vitriolic anti-Semitism. (Many think this has been cured in the way modern American Christians interact with their Jewish neighbors. I have my own thoughts about that.) Therefore we cannot emphasize enough in our tellings and retellings of this grounding story that the baby Jesus was, in fact, a Jew.

Next we step back and look at the surroundings. A pregnant teenage girl, traveling with her fiance, looking for a hotel. Nine months along, no less. Though we might not repeat them in church, we have names to whisper behind such people's backs.

Illegitimate. Slut. Bastard.

Let us have no doubt that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph heard these things (and worse) along the way and throughout their life together. Not exactly what we would expect for the earthly arrival of the sovereign God of the cosmos -- and undoubtedly bewildering to a young engaged Jewish couple whose child, they were told, was the promised deliverer of Israel.

Building off of this disreputable situation, we see in the very beginning of Matthew's gospel the genealogy of Jesus (the "genesis" of the Messiah, as well as of the New Testament): the coming king as "son of David, son of Abraham," rightly so, for we expect the anointed one's lineage to be both royal and unquestionable. Yet ... oddly, there are four women mentioned, not a usual feature of these kinds of lists. Not only that, but -- as Richard Beck wonderfully draws out -- these women, each one, were involved in sex scandals: Tamar the trickster, Rahab the prostitute, Ruth the foreigner, Uriah the adulterer.

Of course, even our labels view them from a place of masculine power; they could equally be called the wise, the cunning, the faithful, the victim. But that is the point for Matthew's gospel, because it is precisely the (male-dominated) cultural expectations he is subverting with the inclusion of these women, crescendoing with the young virgin, pledged to be married yet already pregnant, the ultimate sex scandal herself.

This is the way the Son of God comes to us: a pregnant, unwed teenage girl.

- - - - - - -

What else to remember?

The place: not a sweet or well-kept "nativity scene," but a dank, dark, tomb of a stable. An inlet cave smelling of urine, manure, and sweaty animals. When God comes to us as unexpected stranger, he is welcomed not by the warmth of a bed or the knowing hands of a midwife, but rather by the cold darkness of braying and crying, straw and seed. Into this swirling chaos of creatures, the promise of new creation is born.

And the time! Occupied Israel is threatened again with genocide, and this holy family must leave in temporary exile from God's given land, for this threat -- unlike the days of Moses -- means safety is in Egypt, rather than out of it.

That is one kind of time; another is what the New Testament writers call "fulfilled." The days are complete, and now is the time when Yahweh, the God of Israel, will bring his plan to completion to deliver, once and for all, his people and his creation. The apex of history is nothing other than the birth of this powerless infant. He is the anointed one, the Messiah, the coming king, the Lord of all in human flesh.

And this is a new thing.

Looking back, we can see the signs; but in fact God has done the utterly unexpected, exactly because he is that kind of God. Even at his birth he is seen only as threat, and that will not change. This new thing God is doing will not forsake its humble beginnings: it will be faithful to the end. All the powers of the world -- religious, political, social, whatever -- will have their way with him, and he will die a cruel, shameful death as an executed enemy of the state. Just as we would have never expected the beginning, the chosen entrance, of the incarnate God into the world -- a birth canal -- so we are shocked at the end, the exit, he takes. The cross is the faithful end of a God who would come into the world through a scandal like Mary's.

So we remember the fine details, and retell the story even when we think we know it backwards and forwards. Because this story alone -- faithfully remembered in all its gossipy, uncommercial, expectations-dashing untidiness -- is capable of reminding us, truly, who it is that lies in Bethlehem's manger. This new thing that God is speaking, teasing, breathing into life -- it is indeed the hope and light of the world. Peace on earth! This tiny, helpless, vulnerable child is good news for all the people.

Who would've guessed?




Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Placide Cappeau

Though a well-known classic, I did not know "O Holy Night" until recently introduced to it through Sufjan Stevens' wonderful version. I had always known the melody but never listened to the words.

And what words! Especially the last stanza, lines like "His law is love and his gospel is peace" and "Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; / And in His name all oppression shall cease" are words we simply do not know how to sing today. So representative of the whole gospel -- social, political, spiritual -- I have been struck this month by the continuing power of these words. What a wonderful hymn.

- - - - - - -

O Holy Night
By Placide Cappeau

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees! O, hear the angels' voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from Orient land.
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.

He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Behold your King.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.

- - - - - - -

Upon Moving to Atlanta, Georgia

You and I, we are wrapped
In flesh given hue by
One who came in colored
Flesh himself. I wonder
If, as they say, this will
Be discarded in the
End, for, as they say, we
Are all the same on the
Inside. I wonder if
It is incidental
Our fleshly tones, given
By one usually
Attentive to such things.
I say that these are our
Only real selves, and I
See you truly right now, in
This very moment. When
The end comes, glorious
New beginning, we will
Not discard, nor will we
Be discarded: only
Brighter, deeper, clearer.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Links and Recommendations, Sufjan Edition


I have spent the last few days reveling in being home for the first time in nine months. I hope to not totally neglect the blog over the next couple of weeks, but forgive me if posts are sparse. In that spirit, as I catch up on my online reading this lazy Friday afternoon, I thought I'd share it with you.
  • Over at Experimental Theology, Richard Beck has written a provocative post exploring the relationship between "Christianity" and "religion." Already a wonderful conversation has arisen in the comments; I highly recommend checking out his (and others') thoughts.
  • Tis the season for Year-End Best-Of Lists! Mine will be delayed into January, but here are a few worth perusing: Pitchfork's Top 50 Albums; Slant Magazine's Year In Film and Year in Music; Paste Magazine's Best Music, Movies, TV Shows, Books, and Games of 2008; an Aint It Cool round-up of all of the end-of-year movies lists; and Time Magazine's Top 10 Everything of 2008.
  • Only four weeks until the beginning of the end of the best show on television! And scifi.com has a 10-part series of webisodes to gear up for the final, glorious bow of the masterpiece that is Battlestar Galactica.
  • Lots of (angry!) questions about Obama picking Rick Warren as convocator: Mike Madden, The XX Factor (a female group blog), and the ever-cheerful Christopher Hitchens.
  • This year Don Golden (with Rob Bell) co-wrote and released Jesus Wants to Save Christians, a book I've heard a great deal about recently but have yet to read. Golden recently posted a challenging article over at Sojourners on empire, America, God, and giving. Good stuff.
  • Bill Simmons comes in three flavors: appetizer, full course meal, and dessert. The former are his magazine articles; the latter his goofier articles (like Vegas trips). However, during the NFL season, every Friday we get a full course meal, and I save it as the very last thing I read every Friday afternoon, because it is always so good. Here is today's.
  • This kind of analysis (of Chris Paul's sneaky-smart bending-of-the-rules jumpball strategy against Manu Ginobili in Wednesday night's game) is exactly what makes Henry Abbott's Truehoop blog the king of the crop. (Yes, I just wrote "king of the crop." Did I mean "cream of the crop" or "king of the hill"? Who knows. I'm leaving it.)
  • Behold! The ultimate guide to good blogging.
  • Neal Pollack carves out the newfound semi-sport of fantasizing about NBA trades: "In other words, basketball-land has become a real-life Marvel Comics 'What If' book."
  • Christopher Beam follows Bush's "Magical History Tour" of burnishing his legacy.
  • Jimmy McCarty (linker to this blog and fellow CoC-er!) has a wonderful post up about what it means to be truly "unbiblical" in connection to the new "Poverty and Justice Bible" (about which my wife, not prone to flurries of enthusiasm over matters theological, is truly excited).
  • Two articles which I hope to address in the coming weeks, and which left me equally horrified yet for different reasons: Thomas Sowell's "Freedom and the Left" and Mike Adams's "Sea of Faces." In contrast, conservative Jewish columnist Dennis Prager's recent article, "Minorities Should Express Shame, Not Only Pride," is, even if you disagree with his thesis, a thought-provoking and conversation-starting work. It certainly was for my wife and me on our drive from Atlanta to Austin.
  • One random day a couple months ago I decided to search for some of my favorite theologians and authors on iTunes just to see what would come up. The answer is: a lot! I'm not sure how to link to podcasts, but here are some names (every one of whose podcasts are worth downloading) to search: N.T. Wright, Rowan Williams, Richard Hays, Stanley Hauerwas, Wendell Berry (!), Mike Cope, and Randy Harris.
  • Austin, Atlanta, meet your mirror: Creative Loafing and Austin 360.
  • A few recommendations before the big one below: throughout the holidays I will be listening to Fleet Foxes and She & Him, and my three Netflix rentals right now are Chop Shop, Man on Wire, and The Visitor. (And, in addition to Sufjan, one bonus classic version of a Christmas song: Derek Webb's "Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming.")
And now, without further ado, introducing Mr. Sufjan Stevens.
















Two years ago Stevens released a 5-disc, 42-song collection called Songs for Christmas. He recorded the music between 2001 and 2006 as fun gifts for friends and family, but gathered it together for commercial release in 2006.

I can't speak highly enough about the music or the artist himself. I'll save the latter for another day, but just know that in a season full of commercialism, materialism, sappiness, sentimentality, and cheapness, this collection is a treasure. A mixture of classic hymns, Christmas carols, and new music, it is a daily staple in our home beginning in November (and never truly leaving the mix year round!). I highly recommend it.

And, for your special listening pleasure, I will share with you a wonderful secret. Because the music totals about two hours worth and is spread out over five discs, I created a mix of the songs for a single disc that has remained our favorite version of it. Enjoy!



















1. Jingle Bells
2. Joy To The World!
3. I Saw Three Ships
4. Silent Night
5. O Holy Night
6. O Come O Come Emmanuel
7. Only At Christmas Time
8. Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
9. The First Noel
10. Amazing Grace
11. Put The Lights On The Tree
12. Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming
13. Angels We Have Heard On High
14. Come On! Let's Boogey To The Elf Dance!
15. Away In A Manger
16. The Little Drummer Boy
17. That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!
18. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!
19. Holy, Holy, Holy
20. We Three Kings
21. It's Christmas Time!
22. The Friendly Beasts
23. Once In David's Royal City
24. Get Behind Me, Santa!
25. What Child Is This Anyway?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Austin On My Mind

My wife and I, finally done with finals and jobs and internships, are headed home to Austin, that glorious shining beacon of weird and cool in the heart of Texas. We haven't been in nine months! After a semester of thinking about what "home" means in the context of homelessness (socioeconomic and otherwise), we are happy to be going home for a couple weeks.

What does Robert Frost say? "Home is where they have to let you in." Praise God that we have families big and wide and happy enough to actually welcome us ragamuffins in. Praise God for two weeks of feasting, laughing, and sharing, for Mexican food and televised Spurs games, for Bob Schneider and breakfast tacos, for Christmas lights and Guadalupe and burnt orange and Mopac.

Praise God for Half-Price Books!

Praise God for the Round Rock Church of Christ, family of families, home of homes, faithful disciples in the way. There is so much to be thankful for, even in the midst of economic crisis and long uncertainty and 15-hour car drives. Stephen Johnson would advise us to revel in such a liminal moment. That we might!

I know that tomorrow, on I-20 and 79, driving through five states, on my way home, I will do just that: revel. Austin, old friend -- here I come.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Scripture and God's People: Redux

The following is the final paper I wrote for an introductory class called Thinking Through Theological Education. In it the goal was to struggle with the "sacred texts" of Christians. In the first couple weeks we wrote a short paper sharing our view of the role of the Bible in Christian faith and practice, and you can find that here. This follow-up, answering the same question, is intended to chart any changes in our view. I'm interested to know what you think! Enjoy.

- - - - - - -

In the summer of 2007 I spent two months in Tomsk, Russia, serving the church there in a missions internship with two of my best friends. Our main evangelistic practice was to meet with young Russian students interested in the Bible and study it with them. Usually they were interested enough as it was, but they also appreciated being able to practice their English. After getting to know them and where they were coming from—but before we opened a Bible—we would tell them what came to be infamously known by us interns as (humbly), The Story of God.

I was the designated storyteller, and the first time’s organic happening evolved into a regular practice: before opening the strange and particular texts of Scripture, our fresh-eared friends had to hear the story from beginning to end. What other way to evangelize is there? The life of the church and its story—that is it! So I told the story. Though certainly not always fully faithful, it painted the canvas broad before we went small. Beginning with creation, through Abraham and Moses and Israel’s exodus, through covenant and land and monarchy, through disobedience and destruction and exile, through prophets and homecoming and new promises, to Jesus and new covenant, death and resurrection, Spirit and church, discipleship and mission, community and peace, hope and new creation. One response was right on target: “That is a good story!”

So the Bible is a story; and Christians believe it is the story, the true story of God, creation, life, humanity, the past and present and future. In what ways ought this true story—with all of its strange tales and archaic texts, antiquated laws and uncensored violence, dreary failures and dazzling visions—to inform, guide, root, bound, and free Christian faith and practice?

First and foremost, the Bible cannot be divorced from the church. That may sound axiomatic, but the story Christendom tells is Christians using the Bible everywhere but the church. If the Bible is “the” true story of God and his creation, yet given to God’s people, there are two places equally unfit as “home” for the Bible: the state, and the academy. Both may benefit from the leavening of Scripture through the church – for example, the end of slavery or the study of the literature of antiquity – and neither ought to be “kept” from it; but the home of the Bible is the church. When it is the product or possession of the state, theocracy and oppression and anti-witness blossom; when its abode is the academy, it drops dead, lifeless and devilish. Scripture and its story cannot live, cannot flourish, outside the mediation of the church’s communal life and worship.

Second, dogmatic absolutes as requisites to biblical belief are unnecessary, precisely because the Bible makes no such claims for itself. Thus words like “inerrant” and “infallible,” though attempting to name the great truth that is God’s revelation, are misplaced insofar as they miss both the meaning of Scripture and what Scripture understands itself to be. Here Christians would do well to follow the example of the Jews, whose intimate, familial, unapologetic wrestling with the text (like Jacob with God) takes Scripture more seriously without allowing naiveté about what Peter Ochs calls the “woundedness” of the text to creep in. While forsaking such dogmatic claims may hurt the church’s ability to name exactly “what” the Bible is as God’s truth, it also frees Christians to simply be the people who believe and live into that true story.

Because, third, the Bible is unfinished. Christians, together as the people of God, continue to live out the “final, unwritten act of the play” (as N.T. Wright puts it). The future has already come (in miniature) in the death and resurrection of the Messiah; God’s newly reconstituted people, Jews and Gentiles, live out that future in the present as the vanguard of the coming kingdom. This will call for improvisation both formed by the Bible and moved “beyond” it. Not “beyond” in the modern sense of “progress,” but rather so constituted and shaped by the witness of God’s true story in Scripture that truly new things happen. This comes about because God is the God who does new things, and because his Spirit is the witness, advocate, and guide for the church; no interpretation or reading can be divorced from the leading of the Spirit.

Eugene Peterson offers the wonderful image of what formation by Scripture ought to look like in his Eat This Book. We take the Bible into ourselves, communally and individually, chew on it, digest it, receive nourishment (and possibly indigestion!) from it. Importantly, in the context of the metaphor, we usually do not eat alone. Sometimes we do, but food is meant for fellowshipand the same for Scripture. Not all are literate; not all literates can read the Bible; and, as Stanley Hauerwas would remind us, each individual, beginning at age 12, reading his or her Bible alone in a room, divorced from the virtuous habits of the church as well as from the authority of its tradition, is a recipe for a disaster—one that already happened in the terrible tragedy of the denominationalism following the Reformation.

As someone belonging to a tradition called Restoration, I both know intimately the tragedy of which he speaks and the power of the formation he demands. I was raised in a church of Christ that trained me in what it meant to be part of a community that claimed the status of “family” over any other; that cared for every single member in any situation; that worshiped and learned and ate and laughed together every week of every month of every year; that heard and read and memorized and ate the words of Scripture with a ferocity of hunger wonderfully inimitable; that called its young people to leadership and faith and discipleship from day one. Before I ever met the works of Hauerwas, Yoder, Wright, Hays, or anyone else, I knew their "daring" ecclesiology because I grew up not knowing it was odd or unique—only that it was that holiest word for us: biblical.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Mid-Week Sabbath Poetry & Prose: Derek Webb, Rowan Williams, Cormac McCarthy, Psalm 137, and Jesus

I've missed the last couple Sundays for Sabbath Poetry, so I figured I would do a mid-week edition with poetry and prose. (Resident Theology: always upping the ante!) Derek Webb's music and lyrics always speak eloquently and directly to issues of violence and peace, so he was consciously on my mind as I wrote my post on the Mumbai attacks, and lyrics from one of his recent songs are first.

It actually seems as if these poems and passages have a thematic linking to the Mumbai post, as the next quote is from Rowan Williams in his wonderful book Resurrection, directly addressing the issue of gospel, judgment, and terrorists.

After that is a passage from a book I just finished -- The Road by Cormac McCarthy -- a devastating vision of a world literally, on every possible level, ended and ending. Shalom has departed from the land, and a father and son make the daily journey of survival.

I end with two sections from Scripture: Psalm 137 and Luke 6. I mentioned the Psalms in my post as Israel's witness to the church about what it means to give everything to God, even in the depths of darkness, death, and vengeance. No Psalm better illustrates the valleys of terrifying honesty than Psalm 137, and this version of Psalm 137 is my own dynamic translation from the Hebrew, which I did for a class. And following the horror and brutality of that Psalm is the startling call by God's anointed, King Jesus -- the one who in his life somehow, mysteriously, embodied the voice of the Psalter -- for God's people to be merciful to the ungodly, because that is exactly how and who God is.

Now, I will leave you with the texts.

- - - - - - -

A Love That's Stronger Than Our Fear
By Derek Webb (from the album The Ringing Bell)

What would you do
If someone put a gun to your head
And asked you to tell them a lie?

What would you say
If you were pushed that way
To betray yourself to keep yourself alive?

Is life worth so much?

There’s got to be ... a love ... that’s stronger than our fear
Of everything ... being out of control
Everything ... being out of control

What would you do
If someone would tell you the truth
But only if you torture them half to death?

Tell me since when do the means justify the ends
And you build the kingdom using the devil’s tools?

Can time be so short?

There’s got to be ... a love ... that’s stronger than our fear
Of everything ... being out of control
Everything ... being out of control


There is a day that’s been inaugurated
But has not yet come
That we can proclaim
By showing that there’s a better way


- - - - - - -

Resurrection
By Rowan Williams (from page 13 of the Revised Edition)

The offence of being invited to see the face of Christ in the suicide of a terrorist (especially given the appalling record of the last year, from New York to Jerusalem) is enormous. Any firm moral ground beneath our feet appears to give way, and we cannot do without it. And yet to make this repellent invitation is not to deny that the face of Christ is also in the terrorist's victims (Dumitriu makes this plain), not to say that God treats human outrage as if it did not matter, not to say that we are wrong to give way to pain and fury at meaningless slaughter. It is to remind ourselves that the hopelessness and self-loathing, even the impotent anger of the jailed murderer, all that constitutes him or her a trapped and helpless victim, must speak to us, in however distorted an accent, of the Lamb of God. Our necessary justice does not repair the breach in the world created by a terrorist's massacre, it creates a fresh breach, which we are all too willing to see as unbridgeable, as final. But if God is the enemy of all human diminution, he is there too: he is there as the 'unfinishedness' of our relation to the criminal, as the muted question, the half-heard cry for some unimaginable qualitative leap into reconciliation. He is there guaranteeing that we shall not forget even the most loathed and despised of victims. He judges our justice: not condemning it or inverting it, but transcending. It is the secret that Paul learned, of a divine justice, righteousness, which acts only to restore -- what Luther so strangely called the 'passive righteousness' of God, the justice that will not act against us, that is incapable of aggression or condemnation: the righteousness that makes righteous.

- - - - - - -

The Road
By Cormac McCarthy (from pages 220 and 230)

He got up and walked out to the road. The black shape of it running from dark to dark. Then a distant low rumble. Not thunder. You could feel it under your feet. A sound without cognate and so without description. Something imponderable shifting out there in the dark. The earth itself contracting with the cold. It did not come again. What time of year? What age the child? He walked out into the road and stood. The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small pen knife to scribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment? He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt.

. . .

The days sloughed past uncounted and uncalendared. Along the interstate in the distance long lines of charred and rusting cars. The raw rims of the wheels sitting in a stiff gray sludge of melted rubber, in blackened rings of wire. The incinerate corpses shrunk to the size of a child and propped on the bare springs of the seats. Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts. They went on. Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel. The nights dead still and deader black. So cold. They talked hardly at all. He coughed all the time and the boy watched him spitting blood. Slumping along. Filthy, ragged, hopeless. He'd stop and lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he would raise his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle.

- - - - - - -

Psalm 137

By Babylon's rivers, we sat --
indeed, there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
Surrounded by the foreign trees
we hung up our harps.
Because that was when our kidnappers
asked us for hometown hymns;
our oppressors ordered hallelujahs, saying,
"Serenade us with anthems from Zion!"

How could we ever sing Yahweh's praises
in enemy territory?
If my memory fails you, Jerusalem,
may my very being dissolve.
May my speech stutter and stick
if my memory fails you,
if Jerusalem is not the pinnacle of my joy.

You must remember the Edomites, Yahweh,
how on Jerusalem's fateful day
they were the ones crying,
"Down with it! Down with it!
All the way to the ground!"

People of Babylon, already done in:
Blessed is the one who finishes what you started.
Blessed is the one who snatches your babies
and smashes them against the rocks.

- - - - - - -

Luke 6:17-20, 27-36

And Jesus went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all. Looking at his disciples, he said...

"But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.

"But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful."

Monday, December 8, 2008

Technology and the End of Happy Accidents

It is dead week here at Candler, and I am sitting in the theology library translating Isaiah 55 for my Hebrew Readings class. Downstairs there are computers with a program on them which provides every single passage of the Bible in its original language, and rolling the cursor over any word provides its meaning, parsing, other passages where it's found, etc. An incredible tool for faster and more stream-lined word searches, among dozens of other uses.

But I am one story up in the reference room, using the standard lexicon. I'm tempted to go downstairs, as it would speed up my work exponentially. However, I'm doing my best to stay disciplined about using books as much as possible. Why?

Happy accidents.

Happy accidents are those times when you learn unexpectedly: when, in the process of searching for one thing, you find another; when, in the searching, unforeseen finding comes upon you; when, in the passage from Point A to Point C you stumble upon Point B, having had no idea it was there in the first place; when, intending to merely have your informational question answered, the question itself is transformed with new and surprising light from a previously unseen window of knowledge.

Happy accidents happen when you walk, rather than drive; when you talk over lunch and not by email; when you read the book and not the cliffnotes. Happy accidents happen when we open ourselves up to God's wonderfully unpredictable, head-tilting hand. Happy accidents are bursts and explosions of insight in the least likely times or places.

Happy accidents make life and learning a story and not a machine.

Because happy accidents know not shortcuts. I will not hear the message of Isaiah 55 by using Bibleworks version 7.0. I will not hear afresh the word of God in any passage by cutting corners. Happy accidents only occur, as Ellen Davis reminds us, when we read slowly.

Thus technology is often the great culprit in short-circuiting happy accidents. The internet -- on which I write this very moment! -- is perhaps the chief of this unhappy posse of guilty line-cutters. Don't know a word? Dictionary.com. Don't know a person? Wikipedia. Don't know a book? Amazon. Don't know anything else? Google. The possibilities of happy accidents have become virtually nil. What we want to know is what we will know ... now. Done and done.

(And of course, what could be better than an internet in your pocket? The Babel of our progress: never speak in person; never speak at all; never not know; never be a second delayed; never not have a life soundtrack; never not have a movie ready to suppress boredom. Amen and amen!)

So, today, amidst the thousand ways in which I am myself (of course) implicated in this deluge of technological shortcuts and inhumanity, my tiny rebellion, my miniature ark, is the thick tome of The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon.

What can I say? I never would have expected it, either.

Friday, December 5, 2008

On Loving Our Enemies: Shmuley Boteach and the Mumbai Attacks













The atrocities committed in Mumbai this week are a stark reminder of just how fragile a world we continue to live in. Since 9/11 Americans have been more attuned to this fact, but events like last week's remind us, brutally, that right now peace -- that is, a lack of violence -- in any place is simply not a reality.

For Christians the reminder is similar, but even harder. We are the people called to witness to the peace of God made manifest in the cross and resurrection of Christ, ostensibly perpetuated and embodied by God's Spirit in his people, the church. Such theological claims sound airy and meaningless in times like these, but there they remain. Is God's church such a witnessing community, and do such theological claims have any import for horrors like the murder rampage of Mumbai?

I believe the answer is yes, and the reason I am writing is to address an article written in direct response to the Mumbai attacks. However, I do not want to trivialize what happened. The first response of the Christian community in times of terror must be the ability to mourn with those who are mourning. The practice of mourning we received from Israel, whose Psalms remain our resource for crying out to God in the midst of injustice and great evil. The Psalms reveal to us that no emotion, no feeling, no reaction is too strong for the God of Israel to hear and take into himself. Everything goes to God, and he can handle it. To refuse our honest terror and anger and hatred from God is contrary to the witness of Scripture.

The second, and not necessarily subsequent, practice of Christians is silence. We do not know what to say, and we do not have easy answers. We do not proclaim God having "done" this thing, we do not know "why" it happened; it merely did, and we reside in the same ignorance, disbelief, and tension of the victims. We simply do not know, and that is painful.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his reflections on 9/11, Writing in the Dust, writes that silence creates a space in which we can search together for coherence, for ground solid enough to place our feet again and to stand up. After 9/11 that silence was filled with cries for vengeance, militaristic unity, nationalistic fervor, and zealous action. God knows there will be (and already have been) similar responses to Mumbai, and may God grant wisdom to those leaders forced to make impossible decisions in the wake of the attacks. And, possibly more important, may God grant his people the power and wisdom to respond with the silence and compassionate mourning the world and the victims need. Healing will come; for now we will cry, somehow learning to be still.

In such a way do I want to be sensitive to the fact that droning on about theology can sound not just inappropriate, but downright malicious, in a time like this. But it is precisely times like these that call for God's people to witness to an alternative way, so I will proceed with diffidence and an deep awareness of the potential for tone deafness.

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The author of the article I plan to address is Shmuley Boteach, writing Monday, December 1st, in The Jerusalem Post. Boteach is an American Orthodox Rabbi, a weekly syndicated columnist for the Post, and a popular Jewish author on a number of cultural and religious issues.

The gist of his article is that we ought to reserve our compassion for the victims of the Mumbai attacks, and wholeheartedly hate the murderers. As an Orthodox Jew, Boteach is not a Christian, but as a friend of Christians directly addresses Jesus's command to love our enemies. He writes:
...my response is that our enemies and God's enemies are different parties altogether. Jesus meant to love those who steal your girlfriend, cut you off on the road or swindle you in a business deal. But to love those who indiscriminately murder God's children is an abomination against all that is sacred. Is there a man who is human whose heart is not filled with moral revulsion against terrorists who target a rabbi who feeds the hungry? Would God or Jesus ask me to extend even one morsel of my limited capacity for compassion to fiends rather than saving every last particle for their victims instead?

Could God really be so unreasonable, could Jesus be so cruel, as to ask me to love baby-killers? And would such a God be moral if He did? Could I pray to a God who loves terrorists? Could I find comfort in Him knowing that He offers them comfort as well? No, such a god would be my enemy. He would abide in Hades rather than heaven. And I would be damned before I would worship him. I will accept an eternity in purgatory rather than a moment of celestial bliss shared with these beasts.

Furthermore, he takes into account the concrete example of enemy-loving Christians like Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I am well aware that my hero Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." But surely the great man never meant for this to apply to people like Hitler, who was never going to be stopped by love but only by an eloquent loathing, as articulated by Winston Churchill, which summoned an Allied campaign to carpet-bomb his war-making apparatus into oblivion. Indeed, had King's nonviolent movement not been protected, at crucial times, by federal marshalls and the National Guard, the terrorist thugs of the Ku Klux Klan might have killed every last one of them.

I want to be utterly respectful and honoring of the moral seriousness with which Boteach engages his topic and makes his claims. Furthermore, because he is an Orthodox Jew and not a Christian, I have no intention of holding him to the expectations of Christian discipleship, just as he would not expect me to act in accord with Orthodox Judaism.

However, I profoundly disagree with him, and because he himself raises the issue of Christ's command to love our enemies, I think it fair to critique his treatment. I will do my best, though, not to engage him as a person (I know very little about the man to begin with), but to interact with and critique his argument -- which I believe to be solidly representative of a host of American Christians, who are in any case the truer opponent I have in mind.

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(I don't feel I have qualified strongly enough: as a Christian, discussing an article written by a Jew, not 65 years removed from the Holocaust, as he expresses his dismay at the murder of a Jewish family serving in a foreign country -- it is difficult to put into words how uncomfortable that makes me. What words do I have to say? What right to say them? I belong to a history implicated in the worst possible violence against his ancestors, my very own religious forebears, God's people Israel. When he mentions Hitler, it is personal; when Islamist fanatics single out Jews, it is personal; violence against Jews is real and not imaginary. It is historical and familial.

So let us do this: please read his article and take his argument seriously. But from here on out, I am not arguing with Smuley Boteach; I am discussing an issue pertinent to Christians in America, because we belong to the most militarily powerful nation in the history of the planet and I believe the call of Jesus to love our enemies remains. His article was the impetus, but he is not my adversary. It is the argument of the article -- herewith personified -- which I want to address regarding my brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow members of the church. Let that be our stance as we proceed.)

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First, I want to distinguish between the witness of the Psalms and that of the article. While the Psalms offer a glimpse into situations of desperate crisis and seeming hopelessness -- and thus into the emotions of rage, anger, and vengeance that follow -- their witness is directing, funneling, those feelings to God, the only One authorized to act in response. The article, on the other hand, is arguing that we ought to hate evildoers.

Moving toward the New Testament -- and doing my best not to over-exegete -- put simply, the enemies of God and the enemies of the people of God are one and the same. When Jesus says, "Love your enemies," not only does he ground this command in the character of God (Matthew 5; Luke 6), he is speaking to the community of his followers whom he also calls to cross-carrying. That is, "Love your enemies until they kill you." This isn't an empty command because we know the end of Jesus's story.

All attempts at softening or spiritualizing the enemies Jesus has in mind simply do not take into account the way in which Jesus's teaching is inseparable both from his life and death and from the community he formed around himself. The enemies of Jesus who crucified him are the genocide-enacting, Israel-occupying, religion-blaspheming, revolution-stifling, rebel-executing, prophet-crucifying religious and political forces of the empire of Caesar. By virtue of following Jesus, these enemies become the enemies of Jesus's disciples. Thus the book called "Acts of the Apostles": Peter and John imprisoned and whipped, Stephen stoned, James beheaded, Paul tortured, the church persecuted. The acts of God's Jesus-emissaries are met at every turn with punishment and suffering and persecution by the religious and political powers of Caesar.

(I am choosing not to parse the specific instances where it is the religious authorities rather than the political authorities who act as persecuting enemies of Jesus/God/church; the story, point, and result are the same.)

So we see that, in the witness of the New Testament -- at least the Gospels and Acts, alongside Paul, though we could include others, especially 1 Peter and Revelation -- the enemies whom Jesus commands his followers to love are clearly and undeniably not "those who steal your girlfriend, cut you off on the road or swindle you in a business deal." In fact, to use the article's own words, they are precisely "those who indiscriminately murder God's children," because these are the same enemies who, in order to try to kill the baby Messiah, employed genocide. They indiscriminately murdered God's children, and Jesus died for them.

That claim, of course, opens up a whole new hornet's nest of theological disagreement. Did Jesus die for terrorists? Did he die for those who die without faith? I believe the answer to both is yes, but for Christians the only answer we need to know is the former, because God alone will judge us all.

So, how do we know that Jesus died for terrorists? Because the apostle to the gentiles, called by the Lord Jesus himself in a vision -- a vision reported no less than five times in the New Testament -- was a terrorist. Saul of Tarsus was a religious zealot intent on righteous persecution, punishment, and execution of the religiously heterodox, those wavering from the true faith and leading others astray. Fully righteous himself, wholly convinced, and in the midst of his violent campaign, the crucified and risen Lord comes to Saul the terrorist and calls him to be the apostle to the gentiles, his gospel messenger to the ends of the earth.

Painted larger: Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish carpenter who taught his followers to love their enemies and carry their own crosses, the one who submitted to torture, carried his cross, and forgave his executioners at the brink of death, the one raised by God and installed as Lord of all the earth, who sent his Spirit to his followers and called them to spread the good news of his death and resurrection, of the forgiveness of sins and the offer of peaceable community and victory over death and freedom and empowerment for love -- this Jesus, one and the same from beginning to end, calls his greatest enemy, the terrorist Saul, to be his ambassador to the nations. Forgives him. Renames him. Baptizes him. Gives him his Spirit. Authorizes him to form and lead churches, local communities of Jesus-followers.

And this Saul, renamed Paul, patiently endures every kind of suffering (see 2 Corinthians 11) in answering his call. This once violent man now never raising a finger to defend himself, this former religious zealot now submitting himself to the authorities -- those same powers and forces of the empire who stood as crucifying enemies of his Lord -- ultimately dying as a martyr in the heart of the empire, Rome, as one of the greatest witnesses the church has ever known.

It is difficult to respond to the claims of an argument like this one without simply retelling the story of Jesus and his followers. Where in that (truncated form) of the New Testament's story do we get the impression that Jesus did not mean concrete, death-dealing, murderous powers when he called his followers, as a community, to love their enemies? that Jesus's own life did not demonstrate that love? that Jesus's followers did not understand that love in the exact same way? that the martyrdoms of James, Stephen, Peter, Paul, and countless others do not witness to that same enemy-love?

The article thus misunderstands the modern example of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King did not subscribe to "an eloquent loathing," because he understood militarism to be no less evil or deathly a social enemy than racism or greed. Dr. King did not lead his nonviolent movement based on the assumption that they would be protected by armed authorities. His nonviolence was based neither on prudence nor the presumption of not being killed. His end, like that of Jesus and Paul, witnesses to the length to which he believed only light can drive out darkness. It is a misreading of both his thought and his life to assume that "surely" King didn't mean there were no exceptions. If it applied to Pilate and to Caesar, then it applied to Bull Connor and to the KKK.

And it applies, now, to the murderers of Mumbai, India.

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If this account of God's all-encompassing love, both for victim and murderer alike, is true, then the article's author makes abundantly clear that he wants nothing to do with such a God. For him this kind of God has no moral coherence, and an amoral God is an immoral God. Who wants to worship a God who can't tell the difference between a terrorist and an innocent family?

First, we ought to distinguish between hatred of evil and hatred of people who do evil. THe article seems to be advocating collapsing the two -- or rather, making the argument that they must be the same for us to be morally healthy -- but they are not necessarily so. Evidence abounds in the Bible of God hating evil, and specifically (because God is always specific) hating evil acts; and, indeed, there are even accounts of God hating evildoers.

However, we must recognize what happened in the cross: namely, God died for evildoers. In Christ God did not simply die by the hand of evildoers, but intimately and precisely for evildoers.

That is why, in the book of Acts, the resurrection is good news. We don't hear it as freshly, but doesn't it seem odd that the apostles' preaching to Jesus's murderers in Jerusalem would be "good" news? One would likely expect divine vengeance, swift reciprocity. Bad news indeed. The reason the news is good instead of bad is that the crucified victim, utterly innocent and undeserving of his execution, comes in forgiveness for his executioners. The mob that cried "Crucify!" is told by the Crucified that they are forgiven.

So we see that in the cross God puts to death sin, evil, and death itself, but in so doing rescues those propagating that same sin, evil, and death. And in the resurrection God offers true, lasting, fearless forgiveness. Evildoers hear good news in the raising of their victim.

Second, we realize at this point, as Paul reminds us in Romans 5, that before the cross all of us stand as enemies of God. All of us at some point have stood in the mob and cried for crucifixion. Though we have all also stood in the place of the victim, each of us participates in the same violence that crucified the Son of God -- whether as coercive friends, abusive spouses, manipulative parents, spoiled children, oppressive employers, whatever. We are all sinners; we are all doers of evil.

Of course, while Christianity has traditionally leveled the line ("the democracy of sinners"), as if sometimes to equate mass murder with a white lie, at the same time we do know that there is a fundamental difference between the mass murders of Mumbai, 9/11, or the Holocaust and fibbing to a friend. The God of Israel is, if he is anything, just; and, as both Old Testament and New proclaim, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord" (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30), which is exactly why we are called to love our enemies, not to repay evil for evil, and to be subject to the governing authorities. Justice and judgment await with God; it is our job, our calling, our vocation to be the cruciform community that witnesses to a love that reaches even the cruelest of evildoers and sinners.

Thus we see that God is indeed morally coherent, but not in the way we might expect, or even hope. He is the gracious Father who unconditionally loves his children, his creation, through whatever evil they might perpetrate -- to death, to the very depths of hell. The argument rightly perceives the scandal: "...would such a God be moral if he did [ask me to love babykillers]? Could I pray to a God who loves terrorists?"

These are impossible questions. But, as I understand it and have explicated it here, the answer of the gospel is that God is the one who dies for babykillers -- the same babykillers who attempted to kill the baby Jesus -- out of the incomprehensible love and hope that they might repent, be saved, and be transformed. God is undeniably a God who asks his people to love babykillers and to pray for terrorists, not because babykillers or terrorists are not evil or undeserving of vengeance, but because love and prayer are neither feelings nor well-wishing, but the divine willingness to die for an undeserving evildoer in the hope of transformation. The enemy-love of God is not sappiness or sentimentality; it is the hard stare which refuses to allow evil to win, which looks a terrorist in the face and sees a kernel of the image of God, as yet not wholly extinguished, as yet possibly the seed of redemption and resurrection, of divine infusion and transformation and wholeness. The good news, right here and right now, for every evildoer and terrorist and sinner and human being, is that God is actually powerful enough to change them -- dogged enough to not relent -- hellbent enough to see the task to death. The God of Jesus Christ, hater of evil and wholly good, sees the murderer, comes to him, and asks him to repent, follow, and be made new.

That is the gospel. That is the point. That is the God Christians worship. It is scandalous and ugly and unacceptable, yet it is the kingdom and power and glory of God bursting in on a cruel and unforgiving world of murder and rape and death. And it is good.

So. Before anything -- and I can't stress this enough -- we do not neglect the innocent and slaughtered victims of this horrific tragedy. We must not yield to some romantic notion that the perpetrators did anything other than vile, vicious, hellish evil, deserving of swift (though unvengeful) justice. We do our best to create silence for and to mourn with those who are suffering. That is where the presence of Christ is this very moment: with those who are suffering and mourning.

But while we mourn with the victims and families of Mumbai, India, and the world over, we also remember to pray for their murderers and for those yet unknown behind the attacks. May they know the great evil they have committed; may they repent; may they know that forgiveness and reconciliation and peace are possible; and may they know that even as enemies the church of Jesus Christ loves them, because God loves them.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Formational Questions for Worship: Breaking Bread, PowerPoint, and the Christian Practice of Downloading

A few questions that have been rolling around my head over the past year relating to issues of theology, worship, practices, and formation:

1) What are the implications, theological and formational, of pre-broken individual pieces of communion bread ("bite size Eucharist") for the Lord's Supper?

2) What are the implications, theological and formational, of pre-filled individual mini-cups of wine (or "fruit of the vine") for the Lord's Supper?

3) What are the implications, theological and formational, of using PowerPoint for hymns, Scripture, and sermons?

For every decision in the life of Christians, individual and communal, I think it is necessary to ask both facets of each question above:

First, what does this practice/belief/decision/structure communicate theologically? And second, how does it form us?

The first question seeks to ground all things in theology. More to the point, it ensures that we remember that everything is grounded in theology; sometimes we simply have not yet named it. That can be good -- for example, I don't know how many churches have worked out a "theology of signing up to cook meals for sick/suffering/mourning families," but it is undoubtedly one of the most profound practices of churches today. On the other hand, it can be bad -- for example, when we make decisions based on capitalist business practices ("They need to go," or "Well, that's just the real world") and not on the gospel.

The second question reminds us that even when decisions are made with good intentions, or have a worthy goal in mind, or are grounded in excellent readings of the Bible, they still might form us in unhealthy or even ugly ways. An example -- for me of late, at least -- is the use of PowerPoint in worship. I applaud churches who have jumped on board with the fact that Christians cannot live in some idyllic past, but live contextually -- and our context is the technological centerpoint of civilization. To walk into a church devoid or ignorant of computers (and their derivative technologies) is to walk into the past; that is, to walk into a place that is not our context.

But here is where questions of formation are so important. Has anyone else noticed the way in which congregations (and here I speak out of my direct experience with a cappella churches of Christ) don't seem to be remembering the words to newer songs? Start any pre-90s song without a book or slide and everyone joins in; start a newer song and everyone seems to trail off. If I am not the only one noticing this trend, I think the culprit is clear.

We are utterly dependent on PowerPoint slides.

Think about it. Mike Cope wonderfully refers to the way in which we "download" the words of Scripture and worship into our core, to the point that they are a part of us. Thus there are passages or songs, once begun, that we can join in without thinking -- not mindlessly, but from a deeper part of our selves than cognitive memory. The words have been downloaded into our souls.

My experience with PowerPoint -- confirmed through observation of others -- is that we become mindlessly dependent on the screen. The screen goes black, or the transition is too slow ... and our voices fade away. And when the correct slide is up, where are we looking? Around, or down, or "up to God," or at the worship leader? No, we are all staring at the same spot on the projector screen. Nothing is being downloaded because it doesn't need to be; the words, seemingly omnipresent, are always provided. When there were books, one of the reasons for memorizing the words was simple: who wants to be staring down at a book all the time? PowerPoint slides seduce us into thinking we are "facing up" (or facing God!), when we are really just staring at another computer screen telling us what to do. In this case, it is to sing these words at this time. And if they disappear, we look around, unsure what to do.

Now, these are just my ruminations. I don't necessarily mean to imply that PowerPoint need be cast out of the sanctuary. I am just wondering how we might creatively address the lack of soul-downloading going on in worship.

I look forward to hearing if your experiences have been similar to mine, and what solutions you can imagine. Similarly, let me know what y'all think about my (intentionally unaddressed) reflections on the Lord's Supper. See you in the comments.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Normative Way of Jesus: Remembering the Cross as More Than an Atonement Theory

The following is something I wrote in April of last year. I usually assume anything I've written before "today" is unenlightened slop -- you know, because at that point I hadn't read this book or heard that idea, so how could I have known anything? -- but upon reading through old posts I found this one instructive, and worth re-engaging, especially as friends posted comments with questions afterwards. Later this week I'll take one of the comments (by Mr. Jason Anderson) and address some of his questions. Enjoy!

(Two notes: First, this was one when my brother Garrett was blogging, so I'm referring to him in the beginning; second, I am resisting the urge to edit the post, so if you find any grammatical errors -- namely, over-italicization -- please ignore.)

(And one more note for your reading pleasure: This post parallels nicely Mark Love's six-part ongoing series on the gospel and atonement, of which this post is a kind of conclusion. Highly recommended.)

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Garrett and I often, I think, sound like we are fighting against an imaginary enemy when we post theological thoughts on our blogs, and I have been reflecting on this lately. I think it stems from our own conversations, usually directed at a view we deem false, and the only way we can perceive as directly addressing the issue is by taking it head on -- almost as if you, the reader, hold said view. For the record, this is never my (or his) intent, and I hope we can do better at moderating our sensitivity by stating thoughts positively instead of against the so-obviously-wrong ideology.

In that spirit, I would like to share something I have been extremely bothered by lately, something I've noticed to be quite widespread. (Having been raised in a household that didn't really see the need to poke holes in everybody else's "wrong" perspectives, I continue to observe and learn well-known attitudes and views about which I was clueless growing up. I say this to my parents' credit.) I am referring to the tendency of Christians to see Jesus' life and death not as the fundamental model for how we are to live our lives, but as some sort of one-of-a-kind super-religious fulfillment of what God demanded as necessary to forgive our sins. If that sounds confusing, allow me to elaborate.

Jesus was a Jew who lived under the oppression of one of the most powerful empires to ever exist on the earth. He was also poor and homeless. When His ministry began to pick up, much of the fervor around Him (especially when He "triumphally" entered Jerusalem) was due to the spirit of revolution in the air. Israel -- the very people of God! -- were oppressed, even after having returned from exile, and surely God would finally, decisively deliver them from the accursed Gentile oppressors! The Zealots were the most radical example of this: they were fundamentalists (not dissimilar to modern-day terrorists) ready to do anything and everything to liberate Zion from the foreign occupiers. Let us remember that at least one (if not more) of Jesus' disicples was a Zealot.

So when this famed prophet starts to gain some popularity, the Jews are ready for God to finally act! And hey, it actually seemed like this guy was legit. Not only was He healing people, helping people, teaching people, etc. -- He was angering the religious elite, which was always a sign of the true prophets, and was a man of the people! When He cleared the temple, all of Jerusalem was ready for Jesus to head right next door to the evil Romans who were oppressing God's people -- just like the Egyptians! -- and kick them out, too. Now was the time when God would destroy the idol-worshipping pagans, now was the time when God would liberate His people, now was the time when God would bring His reign fully and intimately to the earth and to His people!

And what happens? Jesus doesn't go next door. Jesus doesn't pick up a sword. Jesus eats a final meal with his closest friends, weeps and bleeds in patient anticipation, offers Himself freely to the authorities, submits Himself completley to the great evil to be exerted against Him, refuses to call down God's power against such evil, and anticlimactically is executed as a common criminal by the religious elite and the military powers of the empire. Not only is He executed without a fight, Jesus is hung on a cross as a sign of absolute shame and abject weakness. Everybody sees, and everybody knows the truth: this guy wasn't the real thing. God wasn't with Him. Nothing's changing. He didn't even put up a fight, and He really could have accomplished something. Now all is lost.

Okay, so we know the rest of the story at this point. God vindicates the way of Jesus, raises Him from the dead, and not only that, but lifts Him up to sit at His right hand -- this Jesus is not only a crucified and risen Messiah, this Jesus is Lord of the universe: very God Himself, embodied and human yet transcendant and divine. This part is for another day, and obviously of no less importance, but my focus is Jesus' life leading to the cross.

It is hard for me to fully articulate the disturbing attitude that I have observed, partly because it is difficult for me to understand and partly because I am not sure those who hold it do so knowingly. But allow me to try.

One way to look at the life and death of Jesus -- and in my view, the way of the New Testament writers and the early church -- is that it is normative for all followers of Jesus. That is, Jesus' life did not exist solely for the sake of fulfilling some sort of abstract "need for atonement," but that embodied in Jesus' very existence and way of life is the new way of life for all humans seeking to be truly human. I assume this way of life to be what all Christians (knowingly or not) sign up for in baptism and confession of Jesus as Lord. In a nutshell, this "Way" -- incidentally the first name given to Christians in the New Testament -- turns everything on its head. We love instead of hate, serve instead of kill, submit instead of overpower, give instead of take, suffer instead of inflict. Everything that the fallen world does instinctively, followers of Jesus -- by following the radical and paradoxical way of Jesus -- do, more or less, the exact opposite.

And, if you are paying attention, Jesus' way of life ended in a particular way and at a particular place: the cross. Thus, if we see Jesus' life as normative and paradigmatic for all of His followers, then it follows necessarily that the way in which Jesus' life ended must be normative and inherent for all Christians as well. Thus we see that Jesus did not die on a cross "merely" to "save us from our sins," but also as the necessary and expected end to a life lived in complete faithfulness to the true way of God.

Let me reiterate that this perspective in no way diminishes what Jesus did on the cross for us: it is 100% biblical and true and necessary that Jesus' blood shed on the cross offers us redemption and forgiveness from sins.

However, the attitude with which I have been coming into contact is that the life and death of Jesus is merely for the sake of "dying for our sins." The very idea that we are expected to follow the way of Jesus -- the fullest representation of which is the cross -- is ludicrous from this perspective. Jesus was God in the flesh -- He was perfect! How could we ever be expected to sell everything we have, hang out with prostitutes and homeless and sick people, and be killed for the way we live in opposition to the powers that govern the world? Jesus did that as a religious device to get us off the hook, not as an example for us to follow!

That is what I have been coming into contact with lately. I don't mean to sound sarcastic or irreverent; I feel like that description is fairly honest in its representation, at least according to the ambassadors of the attitude with whom I have come into contact. Please forgive me if I sound like I'm presenting a straw man to beat up on.

Regardless of the quality of my presentation, I find that attitude to be decidedly false, unbiblical, counterintuitive, and wholly destructive to what Christians are called to be in the world. We are called to witness to a crucified Messiah, who offered a window into how God would have us live if only we would take Him up on it. The church is supposed to embody in its very existence and community life this standard of living that reveals to the world God's offer of true life, in which we can partake even now! This is why love is at the center. Love for God and neighbor defines everything, for love is the ultimate paradox. Love accomplishes nothing, yet through love God changes the world. It makes no sense to give in to death on a cross; yet Jesus did, and we are called to the same path. We are called to suffer and even to die, even if we don't think it will accomplish anything; contrary to popular belief, it is not our job to alter the course of history, but to live faithfully by following Jesus. And the way in which we follow Jesus is by picking up our cross and walking the long road to Golgotha.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Being Simple and Giving Thanks

I was having trouble picking from a dozen or so ideas and half-written posts, planning to set them to automatically post once a day throughout the week. Then I realized -- it's Thanksgiving! I don't have school! Why am I worrying about finishing up complicated theological blog posts when I get to gather with family and feast for a week!?

Being states removed from immediate family has helped to remind me -- much less my far more conscientious wife -- what a gift it is when holidays afford the opportunity to gather together and celebrate. Not only that, but the past couple weeks have brought home to us all the ways in which God is providing new friends and family through church here in Atlanta.

So, dear readers, I hope this finds you well, and that you are able to enjoy this week with those you love. Praise God for the common gifts he gives us: for family and friends, for celebration and food, for feasting and rest, for travel and reunion, for naps and football. God is good.

An Open Question For Bill Simmons

The following is an email I sent Friday to Bill Simmons, The Sports Guy on ESPN's Page 2. I doubt he'll respond, but I thought I'd post it here for your benefit and pleasure.

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Hey Bill – question for you.

Recently I have finally been able to name a tension I have noticed in your writing for some time, and put briefly, it is a radical discontinuity in your evaluation of hyperactive technology.

On the one hand, the way you write makes it sound like you are never not watching trashy TV, never not on your Blackberry, never not talking on the phone, never not watching a movie, never not watching sports, never not laughing on YouTube, never not catching a cable movie halfway through. You even make endless recommendations for TV, sports, and general entertainment that reflect this condition you generalize to most Americans. And in all this you seem to give it your stamp of approval (or even if it sounds indefensible, you acknowledge that it's just the way it is).

On the other hand, you have columns like today's lamenting State of the Art Stadiums (SOTAS) with the profound voice of a concerned fan (a voice, I might add, that is the reason so many of us value your writing). You talk about the Warriors' stadium, about Lambeau, about the evils of the jumbotron era, about how nobody can watch three minutes of a live game without texting, about the stupidity of GMs and owners, about the basic common sense needed to value fans and offer them a way to be a part of the rising and falling of their beloved teams. I should also note that while you are usually both funny and serious -- that is, you provide humor alongside quality analysis -- the hyperactive technology-loving side of you usually comes out in the more throwaway/purely comedic columns, and the jumbotron-despising side of you usually comes out in the more analytical, best-sports-writing-in-America, reason-you-own-ESPN columns.

My question is this: How do you reconcile the two?

I understand the tension in the sense that all middle-class (and upward) Americans live in that same tension. At the same time, how can we hear you with integrity when you speak about the glory of Lambeau and decry the evils of SOTAS if you simultaneously can't watch a game sans texting and offer up (funny but serious) ideas for only more hyperactive entertainment junk?

While I realize you get much of the bang for your buck on humor, many of us take you seriously as a substantive voice in the world of sports, and laughing away this discontinuity would seem disingenuous, or at least irresponsible. So, I am wondering how you would respond, how you negotiate the tension?


(I hope you don't hear me being too harsh or serious in this; it just reached a head with your last column and I'm sincerely wondering. Thanks, as always, for your fantastic writing -- and I hope whatever is going on with ESPN gets resolved soon so we can get back to non-censored Sports Guy with 17 podcasts a week.)

Sincerely,

Brad

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Psalm 44

I came across this psalm in worship this morning and it knocked me flat. I didn't have something in mind to post last night, either from me or from "traditional" poetry, so I thought I would share this psalm. (I also just discovered the glory of HTML tags, so I can tab over now!)

So much of the Old Testament is read best against the backdrop of the Babylonian exile, but this psalm is explicit about its context. The beginning is powerful, laying down the foundation of Israel's collective memory of Yahweh's powerful deeds delivering Israel from slavery and leading them into a good land -- all not by the might of Israel's sword, but by the gracious gift and mighty power of God himself. Israel is the people who trust in God for deliverance from enemies.

Yet now Israel is in exile. They are landless. Their enemies conquered them. How to worship, how to trust, how to praise God in such a context?

As Brueggemann has taught us, in these situations of radical disorientation, Israel is daring enough to speak boldly to its God. Hear the turn midway through the psalm: "But now..." The psalmist accuses God of all these things, claims that it wasn't Israel who forsook the covenant, and even at the end calls God out of his slumber and into action.

So full of pathos and courage and faith, what a gift for God's people today: unsentimental, bold speech treating God, not with sugary kid gloves, like the God he is. He can take it; more than anything, he wants honesty from his people. And Israel bears witness to this wonderful truth no better than in this psalm.

(One more note: you'll recognize a couple phrases, especially toward the end, as the portion quoted by Paul at the climax of his majestic passage in Romans 8. Reading the entire psalm sheds remarkable light on the way Paul is employing his quote!)

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Psalm 44

We have heard it with our ears, O God;
our ancestors have told us
what you did in their days,
in days long ago.
With your hand you drove out the nations
and planted our ancestors;
you crushed the peoples
and made our ancestors flourish.
It was not by their sword that they won the land,
nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm,
and the light of your face, for you loved them.
You are my King and my God,
who decrees victories for Jacob.
Through you we push back our enemies;
through your name we trample our foes.
I put no trust in my bow,
my sword does not bring me victory;
but you give us victory over our enemies,
you put our adversaries to shame.
In God we make our boast all day long,
and we will praise your name forever.
But now you have rejected and humbled us;
you no longer go out with our armies.
You made us retreat before the enemy,
and our adversaries have plundered us.
You gave us up to be devoured like sheep
and have scattered us among the nations.
You sold your people for a pittance,
gaining nothing from their sale.
You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
the scorn and derision of those around us.
You have made us a byword among the nations;
the peoples shake their heads at us.
I live in disgrace all day long,
and my face is covered with shame
at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.
All this came upon us,
though we had not forgotten you;
we had not been false to your covenant.
Our hearts had not turned back;
our feet had not strayed from your path.
But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals;
you covered us over with deep darkness.
If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God have discovered it,
since he knows the secrets of the heart?
Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.
Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
redeem us because of your unfailing love.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Unorganized Reflections on the Loss of the Authority of the Church

Lately I have been thinking a great deal about the loss of the authority of the church. One of my favorite writers, Stanley Hauerwas, is one of the foremost expositors of the need for the church to reclaim its authority, so he is one reason for my reflection. Another is a handful of recent situations that have served as catalyst to considering the witness of the church in a place and time like modern America.

Specifically, what does it mean for the church to be the church in a land mostly self-identified as "Christian," wherein even in a small town one might find at least a dozen different denominations available to churchgoers? Is it possible for churches in such a context to retain and foster the kind of communal discipline that both shapes healthy formation and can adjudicate conflict?

For example, the New Testament offers numerous examples of the ways in which conflict ought to be addressed in church. Before even taking a look at those examples, we must recognize the way the context shapes the approaches. In the first century, to have heard and believed the gospel, to have been baptized and welcomed into the covenant community, to have been initiated into God's new all-nations people, to have chosen to worship this one true God and to follow this one true Lord and to receive this Holy Spirit -- that was quite a distinction between "old" and "new," "then" and "now." It was a serious decision with serious implications -- financial, social, familial, religious, societal, etc. Thus if conflict were to arise, there was no possibility of packing up and shipping out to the next church down the road: you were in this for life. Like a marriage, the only exit was divorce, and when divorce means leaving God's own people -- having given up everything -- that's not a viable option apart from losing one's faith.

So, just like a family, for better or worse, once you made the decision, you were in. No turning back now.

That helps explain why so much of the New Testament centers on church conflict -- a now-converted slave has run away in Philemon/Colossians, the Galatians are being deceived, the Philippians have two members at odds, the Romans are dealing with ethnic differences, the Corinthians have messed up just about everything. In nearly every instance, the plea from the apostle is for the church to remember its story, to reconcile over differences, to be of one mind, to serve one another after the paradigm of Christ, and for the church as a body to, essentially, "work it out" -- that is, the problem must be dealt with, because it's not going away on its own. Such a reality results, at least in one occasion in 1 Corinthians 5, in a member being excommunicated. (Even then, it is with the hope that he will realize his sin, repent, and re-enter the community.)

It is difficult to imagine sharing that worldview today. Not only am I not bound to my church, I was the one who chose it in the first place! When it stops pleasing me -- much less demands something of me (as if that "something" could be other than "voluntary service") -- I'm out, down the road to the next option in my buffet line of delectable ecclesial choices. The next row of stores in the outlet mall of religious consumerism.

There are three primary types of Christian traditions today that seem to still retain some semblance of church authority:

1) cults;
2) Catholics;
3) autonomous churches.

Of the first, we have groups like the one in El Dorado that were totally self-contained, with fanatical control over everyone present on an independent complex. I consider such instances to be both heretical and wrong, so we will leave them alone.

The second type is obvious: the Catholic Church has a clear hierarchy, essential beliefs to which one must give assent, and inessential beliefs with which one may disagree, and issues of authority and discipline have been and are enacted on a regular basis.

The third example includes traditions like Anabaptists, Congregationalists, and my own, churches of Christ. Some of these groups have formed semi-hierarchical/inter-congregational structures over time, but for the most part, they represent broadly a strand of "doing church" that entails each local church as an autonomous body responsible for its own doctrine, practices, and discipline.

Within this third type there are, in my opinion, some of the best and the worst displays of church authority and discipline. On the one hand, because the local church is "the" church for members and it is free to make decisions about said members, one sees a remarkable degree of profound spiritual formation in these communities. Not only that, but if a member is found to be in sin of some kind, the elders (or fellow members) will openly approach and confront the person in the hope that he or she will confess and repent the sin and find forgiving reconciliation with both the congregation and whomever he or she sinned against.

(Now, even formulating the account that way begs the question of experience: Has it ever really gone that way? The answer is obvious: not too often. But I know it has happened, and that is the biblical teaching, and implementing structures based on the assumption that it "isn't realistic" or that it has been abused in the past does not seem to me a wise move, insofar as those structures or assumptions disallow the possibility that Jesus' teaching might actually work.)

Because, on the other hand, we all know of a thousand examples of the abuse of ecclesial authority, and the severe and lasting effects -- literally down through multiple generations -- on members on the receiving end. Thus churches of Christ share a collective memory in which there is a kind of constant hum of fear of excommunication for the tiniest of offenses. And that still goes on today, in my own and numerous other traditions.

So I don't want to engage in mythologizing or romanticizing the idea -- long lost in that "wonderful world" of Christendom/Christian America/whatever -- of church authority. I only want to think about what it would look like for churches not to act as one of a dozen equally valid institutions in which individuals choose to partake and over which those individuals have unquestioned authority. How could the church ever be faithful in such a context?

Which leads me to gently lament the schism of the Reformation. The Catholic Church has its flaws and the Reformation happened for a hundred reasons, many of them valid, but the disunity and denominationalism -- and therefore loss of identity, authority, and power of God's people -- resultant from that event, so disastrously infectious in its territorial expansion and philosophical prevalence in the hearts of Christians everywhere, reminds us that the breach of God's church is not an event of celebration. Even if it or subsequent splintering was ever -- in whatever sense we might define it -- necessary, it ought to make us sad, it ought to provoke regret, it ought to instill lament, and not joy.

The Catholic Church, if it is anything, is coherent. We non-Catholic Christians are often and usually unknowingly incoherent. A primary marker of our incoherence is our inability to form communities in which the authority of the church speaks in any way distinguishable from cultural institutions and forces. May we return to Scripture, and to unity, and to the history of the church, and learn again what it means to be God's people; what, that is, it means to be holy.