Sunday, November 29, 2009

Voyeurism, Violence, and Virtual Reality, or: Is Reality TV Our Gladiator Games?

This week I came across an excellent article over at Slate about Bill Hayes, the producer behind Jon and Kate Plus Eight and other reality TV shows about big families on TLC. It reminded me that about six months ago I wrote up an extensive post about the ethics of reality television and submitted it, without success, for publication on an entertainment blog. I forgot about it all this time, but in the midst of the ongoing extraordinary popularity of reality shows, I thought I might go ahead and post it now in this venue. There are clear resonances with my piece (written just two months later) on film and the ethics of cinematic violence, so I thought it might be of interest in light of that conversation. I've left the text below mostly unedited, so forgive the now-outdated references to what was happening at the moment.

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Reality television has never appealed to me. In the pre-fad days when it merely consisted of MTV's Road Rules or The Real World -- when I would have been the target audience! -- I couldn't have cared less, and the onset of Survivor and the now-decade long ensuing stream of imitations and incarnations of every imaginable sort of "reality TV" did nothing to change my interest.

But reality TV is more popular than ever. One of the hallmark lessons of the actors strike last year was that the networks could keep making money off of their continually (and sometimes most) profitable shows -- which, of course, were unscripted. Not much of a leverage tool for actors when you realize you're not really all that necessary for profit.

And so the 2000s have been the Decade of Reality. Survivor, Big Brother, The Amazing Race, The Real World, The Osbournes, The Anna Nicole Show, The Simple Life, Miami Ink, The Girls Next Door, Little People Big World, Jon and Kate Plus Eight, America's Next Top Model, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Then of course you have the biggest gun of all, American Idol, which is a beast unto itself.

I only have experience with one reality show: Jon and Kate Plus Eight. Last summer, after moving to Atlanta, in the midst of finding a church home and searching for jobs, my wife and I watched a lot of television: we finished The Wire, went through all six seasons of The Sopranos, and watched the first season of Mad Men. Lots of time, lots of TV. And Katelin ended up discovering Jon and Kate, and fell in love. I resisted for a while but finally gave in to watching it when she had it on. The kids were cute, it was fascinating to see them grow as a family, and it was nuts to imagine having eight children under 3 years old before turning 30. A great concept.

We would get into discussions here and there about the way Jon and Kate treated each other, or especially (for me) about the ethics of having cameras in your house in the centrally formative years of your children, but for the most part, it became a bit of a weekly staple in the East home. And so much for the better.

Fast forward to the last couple months, where Jon and Kate Gosselin -- mostly frumpy, normal people who happened to have twins then sextuplets, living somewhere in New England -- adorn the covers of every single gossip rag and tabloid in publication. They are the center of a firestorm of accusations about infidelity, poor parenting, flaking out, etc. They've become "controversial," "hot topic," "celebrities." Us Weekly is analyzing Kate's awkward haircut, for God's sake.

Somehow, a popular TV show that wasn't in existence two years ago has so transformed the lives of an ordinary married couple -- who, by the way, have traveled around the country and spoken to churches about God's presence and blessing in the midst of their impossibly stressful situation -- that anything is in play in the next six months. They might divorce, they might move out of their new million-dollar home, they might have open affairs with significant others.

But one thing they won't do: Cancel the show.


Bill Simmons, ESPN Page 2's Sports Guy, loves reality TV. One of his all-time favorites is MTV's The Real World, and any iteration or offshoot like Real World-Road Rules Challenge or The Duel. He refers to them constantly in his columns and regularly discusses them in his podcasts with friends like JackO and Dave Jacoby.

What Simmons is famous for is finding and reveling in the unintentional comedy of idiots and blowhards who make a fool of themselves or who are so ridiculous, absurd, or over-the-top in their insanity or wrongness of what they do or say that it is hilarious to viewers. The best example is probably that of Corey Feldman singing on Valentine's Day, apparently in utter seriousness and for all the world to see, to his wife on the VH1 show The Two Coreys. The man is truly making a fool out of himself, but damn if it isn't drop-dead funny for us to watch.

The only real possibility for something that is profoundly uncomfortable, devastatingly sad, or even wrong to step over the line from "able to be enjoyed by viewers whatever is said or done" to "probably shouldn't be laughed at or enjoyed" is, as far as I can tell, serious physical injury (putting someone in a hospital, losing an essential limb, rape) or death. Anything and everything before and up to that point is fair game, not only because it wouldn't transgress the serious-physical-detriment boundary, but precisely because these people choose to be on these shows. They know the stakes, they know the rules, they know the game. Usually they are well paid. In a sense -- more than that, in reality -- they are a kind of performer, choosing to be broadcast before the world, snafus and peccadilloes and all, as and for nothing more or less than our entertainment.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who watch reality TV.


I have no interest in lecturing, belittling, or moralizing Bill Simmons. He is not the issue. He does, however, represent well the broad swath of reality TV viewership across America. To that extent, I want briefly to take a look at the combination of the picture I have painted of the situation combined with the type of viewer Simmons represents, and then to wonder what the witness of the church might be in response.

Essentially, reality TV is about voyeurism. To some extent, all forms of storytelling, fictional or otherwise, are or have the potential to be voyeuristic, in the sense that we get a thrill from stepping into someone else's shoes and, through their noteworthy experiences (remember, we don't read people who are inactive: their lives are full of salacious and gripping action ours rarely see), experiencing for ourselves things we almost certainly would not ask or expect otherwise but are, without a doubt, exceptional and exciting. But storytelling needn't inevitably be voyeuristic; we may, through a book, poem, movie, or song, imaginatively see an exotic place, or hunt a criminal, or feel the guilt of a thief, without doing it for the sake of "being" someone else, much less looking down on other forms of life.

The point, regardless, is that art is a healthy cultural way of exploring life through others' eyes. Similarly, nonfiction art -- whether portrait, history, poetry, biography, or documentary -- does the same, and through the power of imagination, but by a different route: the historically concrete lives of real human beings. (Not uncreated; only not humanly created.)

Where, in this vista of human artistic expression, exquisitely viable and always praiseworthy when in done in humane and truthful ways, does the modern show called "reality TV" properly fit?

That, to me, ought to be the central, grounding, pressing question for all who care about American culture, healthy television, and especially the Christian witness vis-a-vis both.


If it has become part and parcel of the practice of watching reality TV, that serious damage may be inflicted by or upon participants, and/or that participants will be laughed at or cheered on in acts that in any other situation viewers would neither join nor applaud, then the medium itself has signaled the end of any legitimate ethical justification for conscientious viewership. There is more to human life than the financial profit of participants or producers; than the supposedly free choice of persons captured by cameras for others' enjoyment; than the mere physical survival of people profoundly and lastingly damaged in ways not limited to the emotional, relational, and spiritual. There is nothing legitimate about sitting in the comfort of an air-conditioned home and watching, by virtue of a screen which projects moving images, human beings say and do things that are stupid, nonsensical, hurtful, painful, wrong, insulting, or controversial.


This is a practice that destroys the lives of those in front of the cameras and profits those behind them. It is a practice that, perhaps in a less obvious but certainly no less serious way, destroys the lives of those sitting on the other end of these moving images and laughing at them or discussing them the next day at work, because it both leads us to think of the screen-images as something other than human beings and draws us into a way of thinking where what we would never do or teach or approve of others doing becomes the appropriate object of our laughter and entertainment. We are happy to discuss these people's lives and choices as if they would not in any other case make us not only feel pity but worry about the tragic consequences (not least suicide). Perhaps we berate the stupidity or immorality of their decisions ... but we're still watching.

In this sort of watching, we are transformed from human beings created for relationship, for welcoming community, into subhuman automatons laugh-tracking at the pratfalls of those whom we have lost the ability to see as fundamentally the same as ourselves -- that is, we have forgotten that these people are our neighbors.

As should be clear by now, I believe this arrangement is wrong, and therefore that it ought to stop. If not from the television side (they've got all that money to make and all those people to exploit), then from the viewer side -- particularly on the part of Christians.

But we have our blinders on. We remember the Romans' lustily cheering on the leonine dismemberment of slaves or the brutal, bloody battling of the warriors to the death, and we scoff at their barbarism. But reality TV is our gladiator games, each living room our family-made coliseum. We cheer and applaud as young, immature, ignorant, and foolish people self-destruct until they hit bottom, lash out against the cruelty of the world, participate in the same self-serving demise that is our own -- and we don't have a second thought. It's all in good fun. They're getting paid. Everyone has a choice. It's funny. Don't take things so seriously.

And one more college co-ed gets fed to the lions.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Practicing Faith, Part VI: Sabbath

The Sabbath generally gets a bad rap with modern Christians. On the whole it is viewed from a distance as a once-good, then-abused antiquated practice that Jesus clarified as neither necessary nor beneficial. Even though some of the very structures of modern work life in America—weekends, holidays, businesses closed on Sunday, no mail on Sunday, and so on—were inspired by or structured from the spirit of the Sabbath, it remains for the most part something we simply read on a page but don’t practice in our lives; and certainly not something embedded into the meaning of living as disciples of Jesus.

To be sure, Christians are not required to practice the Sabbath (inasmuch as they are “required” to do anything!), and it was an important, indeed essential adaptation of the Jewish gospel proclaimed to the Gentile world that the practices that marked out membership in the people Israel were not essential for inclusion into the church—that is, one needn’t become a Jew in order to become a Christian. Yet in the freedom to remain Gentiles and not to “have” to do certain practices Christians have often fallen into the habit of believing that what is not required would not be good to practice in itself, when in fact some of the most life-giving, enriching, healthy practices may be just those that can only be done out of the freedom we have been given in Christ.

The Sabbath is one of those practices. The Sabbath is, at root, about the limits of creaturely existence, about living human life precisely as a human. Because God is the only one who may truly be called infinite, our finite lives as humans may be received either as a threat (we are not in control!) or as a gift (we are not in control—and amen for that). Sabbath rest decides for the latter: to receive from God our finite, temporal, vulnerable lives as gifts to be celebrated and delighted in and shared with others. That we need sleep each night, that we need habits and rhythms for the days and weeks and years, that we simply cannot work without ceasing, that our efforts by their sheer willpower will not always succeed—all these things are gifts of the Creator to creatures for the flourishing proper to what we have been made to be. Sabbath names the limits of our abilities and our energies, saying, “Here, and no farther,” and with gladness we thank God for the grace of his boundlessness.

Like the other disciplines, Sabbath orders us to the peaceful rhythm of love for God and neighbor. It recognizes our profound need for freedom from the constant encroachment of noise and stuff by blocking out time for quiet and non-consumption. There simply is no need to consume (or to be consumed) when we can do nothing better than to delight in God and God’s good gifts to us.

Sabbath is especially powerful as a discipline in American culture in its witness to a way of life ordered not by control, activity, or ceaseless “connection” (such that we are always available, always distractible, always ready to keep the world running) but by the gracious rule of the one God who reigns forever and completely. Sabbath can even be overwhelming, a kind of merciful judgment, in the way it reminds us so sharply that we can in fact stop—that God has made us for this very thing, not to produce-produce-produce, but to love and be loved, to delight and be found delightful. Our perpetual “on empty” is no sign to a dangerously tired world of an alternative way, but if our lives are filled (even as faithful friends and tireless coworkers) with the grace of a God who gives us rest, who longs for us to have true rest, then perhaps we have something to offer after all.

Therefore our working definition will be:

Sabbath rest is the creaturely practice of recognizing the limits of finite human living, marking out space in time devoid of work, resting from the speed and busyness of daily life, and delighting in God and God’s good gifts to us.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Elvis Perkins

As part of our beginning steps toward practicing Sabbath on a regular basis, yesterday Katelin and I stayed away from television, internet, and telephone -- so (blessedly) I wasn't able to get this post up in time for reasons befitting the spirit of the series.

The poem below is from Elvis Perkins' most recent album, which has taken longer than I expected to warm up to, but is finally opening up its delirious beauty. The song is a glorious spin on political eschatology and the frenzied end-of-the-world scenarios that start making the rounds around election season.

My own poem afterward is a reflection I wrote in class this past week, inspired by Billy Collins' poetry of late. I deal so much in words -- creating, assessing, devouring, digesting, spewing -- it was helpful to find and explore a metaphor for what it feels like sometimes.

(I have recently submitted this poem for publication, so I have taken it off here for the time being, just in case.)

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By Elvis Perkins

Though I forget your name
I remember your sweet face
Till doomsday fell I

Man I went wild last night
Oh I went feeling all right
I don't let doomsday bother me
Do you let it bother you?

I know you told me once and again
Will it mean that we won't be friends?
When doomsday rears her ugly head again

And though you voted that awful man
I would never refuse your hand
On doomsday, on doomsday

Not in all my wildest dreams, it never once was seen
That doomsday would fall anywhere near a Tuesday
But flight across the skies seeing fate before my eyes
There isn't any sense to a good by-and-by
Oh I don't plan to die
Nor should you plan to die

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Quaestio Disputata: On the Death of Christ as a Sacrifice for Sin

Question. Whether Jesus’ death on the cross should be understood as a sacrifice for sin?

Objection 1. It seems that it should not, because a sacrificial understanding of the cross inevitably leads to an understanding of God as needing to be placated and appeased by the blood sacrifice of a human being—not only an awful and utterly unhelpful image, but one that is unfaithful to the biblical vision of the nature and character of God.

Objection 2. Further, a sacrificial interpretation necessarily fosters an image of God that is non-Trinitarian: instead of the one God who acts in Christ, Jesus is the “Son” sent by the “Father” to die a brutal and horrific death in absolute submission to the paternal will. Not only, then, does God become a demanding monad or a schizophrenic binity, but God’s own action opens itself up to the charge of “divine child abuse.”

Objection 3. Further, given the inherent violence at the heart of a sacrificial understanding of Jesus’ death, the politics of such an interpretation—that is, the way in which this reading of the narrative is embedded, embodied, and scripted into the life of communities—has been, and ineluctably will be, irrevocably violent. The violence characterizes both the powerful and the powerless: the former justify their coercion by recourse to the divine, and the latter are compelled to submit to oppression in imitation of the obedience of God’s own Son.

Objection 4. Further, the entire symbolic worldview of the sacrificial system is antiquated and has no purchase in the modern world. It is meaningless to tell persons living today that “Jesus is the sacrifice for your sins,” much less to call upon ancient accounts of sacrifice, as if to become a Christian one must accept the ancient conception of the gods and their appeasement by sacrificing living beings for their benefit.

On the contrary, Jesus’ death on the cross, while multifaceted and multilayered in its capaciousness for salvific meaning and theological interpretation, inescapably entails understanding it as a sacrifice for sin. The background of the Old Testament and the interpretive lens of the New Testament render it so, and richly, for in a world that has not moved beyond conceptions and enactments of sacrifice, the sacrifice of Jesus proclaims the gracious end of sacrifice and invites all to participate in the self-sacrificial character and peaceable community of the triune God of Israel.

I answer that more than anything, as a hermeneutical lens for understanding the death of Christ on the cross, sacrifice is simply and absolutely unavoidable if we are committed to being faithful to the New Testament documents. Prior to those texts, however, the Old Testament stands as the guiding framework and symbolic infrastructure for making sense of any meaning in the Lord’s anointed being arrested, tortured, and executed as divinely accursed—yet raised to new life, vindicated in obedience, and exalted in glory. The originating interpretive “stuff” which the first century Jewish believers had to work with when approaching Jesus’ death after the fact were the primal narratives, and specifically the Levitical installation for how to deal with sin, found in Torah. Notions of animal sacrifice, the life-and-death power of blood, the need for purity, corporate atonement, transference of sins, expiation and propitiation, the scapegoat, and the Passover lamb (among others) all find their origin in these magisterial texts.1

Thus for the early communities of those gathered by the witness of the risen Lord, shaped fundamentally as they were by the stories and rituals of the Hebrew Scriptures, the raw materials for looking backwards in Spirit-led discernment of the meaning of the shameful death of Israel’s Messiah were already embedded in their worldview and religious construal of God and human life. This is made clear in nearly every book of the New Testament. Paul, the earliest representative writer of the early church, writing just 20 years after Jesus, calls him “our Passover Lamb [who] has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7), and similarly calls him the “sacrifice of atonement [hilasterion]” put forth by God (Rom 3:25).2 The Johannine literature calls Jesus “the atoning sacrifice [hilasmos] for our sins” (1 John 2:2; 4:10), as well as the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) and the inimitably worthy “lamb who was slain” (Rev 5:12). The Synoptic Gospels no less portray Jesus through a sacrificial lens, primarily through their presentation of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples as a new kind of Passover meal, forever transformed in light of Jesus’ impending death. Noting the Day of the Unleavened Bread and the preparation for the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb, Jesus eats the meal with his disciples then passes around broken bread and shared wine as Jesus’ own “body” and “blood of the (new) covenant” (Matt 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-23). In these ways the broad contours of the New Testament texts appropriate their received concepts of sacrifice and sin toward understanding the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross.

However, no other document more forcefully or frequently centralizes the idea of Christ’s sacrificial death for sin as the book of Hebrews. The book’s heart is the middle section of 4:14–10:18, in which the author articulates a vision of Christ as the chief and final priest (4:14-16), who is able both to end once and for all the entire superstructure of sacrifices constantly being offered to atone for sins (9:11-14) and to make the perfect and ultimate sacrifice for sins, once for all (9:23-28). He is able to do this because, unlike a normal priest, who as a sinful man must make sacrifices (from the blood of an animal) for himself as well as the people, Christ’s sinlessness deems him both the perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice (7:23-28), and in offering himself in the altar of heaven “made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (10:14). Clearly, for the author of Hebrews, Jesus’ death on the cross is explicitly and unequivocally the sacrifice for sin.3

The question at this point, then, is, What is sacrifice?4 Expanding the narrowed definition with which the term has been marginalized, Robert Jenson identifies “a sacrifice [as] any prayer spoken not only with language but also with objects and gestures, so that these latter are like the verbal prayer ‘offered.’”5 And as exemplified in the book of Hebrews, any “common distinction between the offerer and what is offered” is “obliterated.”6 It must also be noted with Thomas Torrance that “in the Old Testament liturgy it is always God himself who provides the sacrifice whereby he draws near to the worshipper and draws the worshipper near to himself.”7 The sacrifice is offered by God’s own provision and action, thus originating in God’s desire for the severing of alienation.

How does sacrifice work? According to Edward Irving, the logic of sacrifice involves an understanding of sin as pollution, a corruption in which all humanity shares. In the Incarnation, however, God himself assumes that polluted flesh, and it is that same body “yet kept from sin by the agency of the Spirit...that becomes the first instance of restored humanity and the basis of redemption for others.”8 In this way Jesus’ entire life, and not only his death, may be affirmed as a sacrifice to God, as the one “who until his death was the gift of the Spirit to the world, now becomes the giver.”9

It is fundamental in this discussion to remember both that Jesus offers himself on the cross and that Jesus is both divine and human, so that, on the one hand, the gift of this sacrifice is freely self-chosen by a human being, while on the other hand, the offering is God’s own self given in behalf of others. The former point affirms the continuity between Jesus and us—that the one obedient to God unto death lived a truly human life—and the latter the discontinuity—that the cross and resurrection is an event in the triune life of God, over against but for us. The grace of this discontinuity is that, though God chooses to suffer for us, the sacrifice is once for all: “being-a-victim is not valorized—it is exposed as that which has no justification before the triune God who has acted to dismantle its claim to be a redemptive technique in the cultures of the world.”10 The only sacrifice to which Christians are now called, as people saved by/from sacrifice, is the “sacrifice of praise” (Heb 13:15) and the “living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1) of holy and worshipful bodies given in loving service to the world.11

Is such an understanding inherently violent? Does it lead inevitably to coercion and/or passive submission? According to Michael Gorman, for Paul “the reality of the not for him a symbol of divine violence that permits or even encourages violent acts and language. Rather, it is above all the reality and symbol of divine inclusion and love.”12 Thus the logic of the cross—and, necessarily, of discipleship—is one of “selfless concern for others rather than some form of self-harm,”13 particularly with regard to those in power. Alternatively, because once and for all there is an end to sacrifice, Christian proclamation intrinsically rules out the need or possibility for scapegoats, offering instead a people freed from the temptation to falsely blame others and capable of naming the dehumanizing injustice of coercion and false sacrifice. Where the world can only see dirtiness, and when the powers whip up a murderous mob, the church of the risen Lamb speaks a better word: one of a purity not dependent on human hands—of a victim whose voice could not be silenced—of a cross that hangs empty, forever.

Therefore, the use of sacrifice to understand the work of Christ on the cross does not inevitably lead to a God needing to be appeased by blood, instead remaining faithful to the biblical God who provides graciously for his people’s cleansing.

Therefore, when cross and resurrection are understood as events in the life of God, when the Father giving and the Son obeying and the Spirit empowering are seen in mutual concert and kenotic love, and when the violence of the cross is viewed as of human and not divine origin, the triunity of God is affirmed in the sacrifice of Jesus.

Therefore, the politics of the lamb who was slain in fact leads to empowerment of victims and the renunciation of coercive violence, for as followers of the crucified and risen Lord Christians are liberated from the meaninglessness of oppression and empowered peaceably to subvert the structures of injustice as a cruciform community.

Therefore, for those parts of the world that do not retain sacrificial cults (though it must be noted that much of the world does), in continuing both to perpetuate scapegoat tactics and to employ the image of sacrifice in heroic or civic discourse, they actually remain powerfully open to the good news of the one who gave himself up for them.

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[1] Colin Gunton rightly points out that the “[o]ne unifying feature” of the “great variety of practice and interpretation” of sacrifice in the Old Testament is the “single centre” of the Exodus event. See Gunton, The Actuality of the Atonement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 120-21.
[2] All biblical quotations are taken from Today’s New International Version.
[3] For a helpful summary of the priestly material in Hebrews, see Ben Witherington, The Indelible Image: Volume One: The Individual Witnesses (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 441-46.
[4] For a helpful analysis of sacrifice and holiness in both Testaments, see D. R. Jones, “Sacrifice and Holiness,” in Sacrifice and Redemption, ed. S. W. Sykes (New York: Cambridge, 1991), 9-21. [5] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, The Triune God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 192.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1992), 110. He goes on: “so in the actualized liturgy of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, it is God himself who in atoning propitiation draws near to us and draws us near to himself.”
[8] Gunton, Actuality, 132.
[9] Ibid., 135.
[10] Joe R. Jones, A Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine (2 vols.; Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 457. See also the proposal of S. Mark Heim, Saved From Sacrifice (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), which I commend even if I do not agree entirely.
[11] For a creative account of the centrality of worship, story, and character for a theology of sacrifice, see S. W. Sykes, “Outline of a Theology of Sacrifice,” in Sacrifice, 282-98.
[12] Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 145.
[13] Ibid., 146.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Brotherly Dialogue, Part II: On Foot-Washing, Violence, Jesus, and Justice

This is a continued dialogue between me and my brother Garrett based on the painting by Lars Justinen entitled "Servant to the World. You can read Part I here.

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Brad: I think I'm interested in a general way with what you conceive of "foot washing" as a practice to mean or convey. As a visual or rhetorical image, it seems to me to be uniquely intimate, personally connecting, and radically servant-like. So when the Master bends to wash the feet of his followers in John, he is modeling for them what they are absolutely not beneath, and indeed must practice after he is gone: bow to the lowest position in intimacy and connection with others, and serve them. And when Jesus comes to Judas, he even washes Judas' feet because, though he knows what is to come, Judas remains one of the twelve and is one of the men who has walked with Jesus these last weeks and months. Does he wash the feet of "the betrayer of the Son of God"? Yes, but as the one betrayed, and not only that, but before the act is committed! It seems to me that those two facts mark a central distinction between Jesus the foot-washer of Judas and Jesus the foot-washer of bin Laden. Although we might be able to posit a theological account of how Jesus is and was "with" those who have suffered under bin Laden such that he is actually one (as God) that is wronged in bin Laden's evil actions, that seems an abstract end-around the simple fact that the murderous consequences of bin Laden have oppressed and killed particular human beings on behalf of whom we may not have the right to posit a Jesus washing their oppressor's feet.

Does that make sense? The image is not the father or mother of a man or woman lost in the towers or on one of the planes, or of one abused and oppressed in Taliban Afghanistan, but of a towel-wasted first century man in a United Nations-esque room washing the feet of a mass murderer who claims the sanction of God for his actions. Is there fundamentally a "same-ness" in the cross and in foot-washing? To me, the latter involves a radically different image and message than the former.

I guess part of the issue here has to do with being alive, yet also being unrepentant. The painting does judge me as not flinching at the notion of Jesus washing Bush's feet, however much I find myself in absolute disagreement with his decisions as a President (and of course, uniquely as one who claims to be a Christian). And it succeeds in disarming me to the extent that I'm just not sure what to do with him. Which raises the question for both men: what difference would it make if they were dead? Because being that they are both still alive, does enemy-loving foot-washing entail the possibility of conversion and thus repentance from having perpetrated mass violence? Again, I feel the judgment: it is actually (however distantly so) a possibility in my mind that Bush could, in his lifetime, come around to see the wrongness of his actions. But I more or less view bin Laden as a static case: as a murderous and hateful terrorist arch-leader who is and always has been and will be the same thing, utterly judged by God and fixed in his moral stasis. Undoubtedly that is wrong simply because of the example of Paul, the Christian-killer. So I'm open to being wrong at this point.

But how would we deal with this picture if both men were dead? How do we deal with evil posthumously? Traditionally, Christian doctrine affirms a radical openness of grace unto death -- that is, God's judgment enters unreservedly into the picture after the "chance" of life. For an unrepentant murderer, traditionally that would then entail the justice of God as unleashed in hell. Of course I don't know how to go near that faithfully or with integrity, but the very question implies two things: first, that death changes something in the way we envisage Jesus' loving (our) enemies, and second, that at some point divine justice is revealed. So what should we do with it with regard to figures, whether living or dead?

I guess my final question has to do with conceptualizing, on the one hand, God's enemy-love in the present, and on the other, God's visible and decisive justice for those who are oppressed. If an abused woman cries out to God night after night and her husband is arrested and convicted and forever taken away from her, there is nothing available to me able to understand the image of Jesus washing her husband's feet in response to (that is, coterminous with) her crying out for deliverance. In the same way, bin Laden has not been apprehended or punished. Should we pray that he be? May Jesus only wash his feet in concert with corporal justice? I don't know -- it all seems to get bizarre at that point. I guess the in-the-middle-ness of the whole situation problematizes everything. What comes to mind is God hardening Pharaoh's heart or striking Herod dead in Acts. If Jesus is Israel's God revealed in a human life, however we comprehend God's equal treatment of evildoers, we also have to find a way to deal with his justice toward them on behalf of those who suffer.

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Garrett: I agree with your definition of foot-washing. Nothing to argue about there. I do not think that it matters whether Jesus washed Judas' feet before or after his act of betrayal, especially in John! Even when Jesus is washing their feet he says "And you are clean, though not all of you," and John follows with the commentary, "For he knew who was to betray him." When Jesus washes his disciples feet, Judas' betrayal is at the forefront. And importantly, Jesus washing Judas' feet does not clean Judas, and yet Jesus still does it!

You said, "the simple fact that the murderous consequences of bin Laden have oppressed and killed particular human beings on behalf of whom we may not have the right to posit a Jesus washing their oppressor's feet." I just can't agree with you here. Your assumption seems to be that Jesus would not wash the feet of anyone who has oppressed or killed particular human beings. Is that correct? If so, Jesus would not wash the feet of any soldier in the American military who has killed another human. Would you go that far? If not, why not? If your basis for Jesus not washing bin Laden's feet is that he has oppressed and murdered other humans, how is that different than those who have killed others in war or are a part of a system that oppresses other people?

I definitely believe there is a fundamental "same-ness" in the cross and in foot-washing. Is your contention that Jesus would die for someone whose feet he would not wash? It seems contradictory to me to say that Jesus would die for someone but not serve them. Why not? The cross and foot-washing, in my mind, serve as paradigms for the way Christians should act in the world: always adopting a posture of humility, servanthood, and self-sacrifice. You have argued that I have "sentimentalized" the phrase "love your enemies" by suggesting Jesus would wash the feet of a murderer. I see just the opposite happening. On an abstract level you are willing to say Jesus would die for bin Laden, but yet, on a concrete level you are not willing to allow Jesus to wash his feet. To me, Jesus' feet-washing is what the cross looks like in every day life.

What difference would it make if they were dead? I get your point here, but I don't think it takes away from the truth of the painting. Even if they were dead, the painting is representing them as alive. It is a representation of what Jesus would be willing to do to a sick murderer. It is not an eschatological painting of Jesus washing their feet in the kingdom of God. It is not a statement about what will happen to these men and women on the day of judgment. It is a statement about the one who knew "that the Father had given all things into his hands," and yet was willing to get on his knees to wash the feet of 12 sinners, one of whom would betray Jesus himself. It is a statement about the willingness of Jesus to serve any person, regardless of the sinfulness of their life. Jesus does not condition his serving other people by whether or not they are repentant. Surely Jesus would hope for the conversion and repentance of both men from having perpetrated mass violence, but he does not wash their feet solely for that purpose. He washes people's feet because that is what it looks like for one human to love another human, and to recognize that even the most despicable murderer is created in the image of God.

How is it that you draw such a fine distinction between the two? How can you assume that bin Laden is a hopeless case, while Bush is not? How can you assume one is callous, while the other might possibly change? God has hardened bin Laden's heart, but not Bush's? Surely God will judge them both and surely God knows their hearts, but how can you? To designate some as lost causes and others as reachable seems to me like you are playing God. There is no way you can know. All you can do is hope that the power of God is strong enough to overcome the hardness of any heart.

How do we deal with evil posthumously? We leave the judgment of the living and the dead to God. It is not ours to decide. God will judge rightly and I believe we can trust him in that. But until Christ returns, we must go on loving others, even murderers, with the love shown by Jesus, manifested in the entirety of his life, including the cross and the washing of his disciples feet.

Again, I have to emphasize, the poster is not a picture of God's judgment. It sounds like you want the picture to represent the entirety of who God was, and is, and is to come. It cannot do that and it does not try to do that. It is a picture of what God looked like when incarnated as the man Jesus. It is a picture of what Jesus' love looked like in action. It is a picture of what that same love would look like today. It is not a picture of the day of judgment. It does not give the whole story. It can't. It is one picture. It can't say everything.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Brotherly Dialogue: On Lars Justinen's Painting "Servant to the World"

Recently my brother Garrett and I got into an email dialogue about Lars Justinen's painting, "Servant to the World." Garrett, finishing up his Bachelor's in Biblical Text at Abilene Christian University and set to start his MDiv next year, found the painting on an online syllabus of Phil Kenneson's for a class on Christ and Culture. The painting, as seen below, portrays Jesus washing the feet of Kofi Annan, in a room full of various nations' flags and world leaders sitting in a row, including Angela Merkel, Tony Blair, Annan, George W. Bush, Manmohan Singh, and Jiang Zemin. Of course, in between Annan and Bush is Osama bin Laden, the controversial center of the piece. Garrett found the painting invigorating and said he was ordering it to put on the wall of his and his wife's apartment. After a week or two of reflection, I sent Garrett an email sharing my concerns, and he wrote back. Below you'll find that correspondence, and more in the days to come.

(For more information on the painting, read more here or here.)

Brad: So I wanted to share a concern with you about the Bin Laden/Jesus painting.

While I get the idea of it, and its use, as a heuristic device, something to spark conversation in a classroom of predominantly white middle-class Christian students in a university setting -- I'm not sure I think it's appropriate in a home setting. I was trying to think of analogies. Would it have been appropriate in 1944 Germany to hang a painting of Jesus washing Hitler's feet, in a row with Stalin, Churchill, and FDR? Or in 1979 Uganda of Jesus washing Idi Amin's feet, with Mao, Carter, and Thatcher? I guess I just see lots of serious issues involved in the interplay between painting, message, context, social setting, public meaning, etc. What would happen if you hosted in your apartment a family who lost a son or daughter in the WTC buildings? Or a family whose loved one is in Afghanistan right now? Or an immigrant family whose relatives suffered under the Taliban, or still do so today, or who know people caught into Al Qaeda and are rent by it?

Again the painting seems fit for a classroom discussion, but I'm confused about the message. Is it that Jesus loves each equally? Is it that each person in the row is morally equivalent? To me, if it has to do with nonviolent response, then it is disastrously bourgeois and out of connection with those who are actually suffering. I guess what comes to mind is a picture of children being tossed into the ovens of the holocaust while Jesus washes the feet of the Nazi guards. It just doesn't make sense. There is no justice in the picture. But isn't God the God of justice? Don't we not retaliate exactly because God will avenge? Doesn't the God of Jesus stand resolutely apart from and absolutely against the monstrous evil of Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and bin Laden? If so, how could he wash their feet? To wash feet cannot be equated with nonretaliation -- in my imagination, Jesus is not even in that room with those Pilates and Herods but rather with the victims of Afghanistan and the WTC, suffering with them and crying out in anger and mourning against the insanity of the Powers. But never washing their feet, never baptizing the blood on their hands. Jesus cries out against their brutality in unwavering commitment to the justice of the kingdom, willing to pray for them and unwilling to deny the image of God in them and certainly ready to die at their hands -- but never legitimating them by something as intimate and affirming as foot washing. I just don't think that is an appropriate image for perpetrators of genocide.

In my opinion, such an image sentimentalizes the phrase "love your enemies." I don't think that phrase has any legitimate meaning if it does not also entail standing against the violence of those same enemies.

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Garrett: I definitely understand your feedback about the Bin Laden/Jesus painting and you said a lot of things that I had not thought of. I think you are right about how offensive this could be to all the types of people you listed: a family whose son or daughter died in WTC, a family whose loved one is in Afghanistan right now, or an immigrant family whose relatives suffered under the Taliban or who know people caught up into Al Qaeda. You are right that it would be wrong to parade such a painting in front of them. Putting the image on my wall would probably been totally inappropriate and offensive.

However, I think you are wrong to say that Jesus wouldn't wash Bin Laden's feet. If he died for Bin Laden, why would he not wash his feet? If he would wash Judas' feet, why not Bin Laden's? Furthermore, why is Jesus washing Bin Laden's feet more offensive then Jesus washing Bush's feet? Because one says he is a Christian and the other says he is a Muslim? Both murder; both do so in the name of God, religion, truth, justice, and "the right;" and both deny immorality of what they do. The value of the painting, in my opinion, is to challenge a perspective that looks at Bin Laden as the Son of the Devil, while looking at "our" leaders as good people who have just misunderstood the call of Jesus (or worse, who think what "our" leaders do is good).

I agree with what you had to say about justice. There is not justice in the picture. But that makes sense to me. Jesus did not come to demonstrate for us what the justice and the wrath of God look like. He demonstrated for us what it meant to love our enemies and two of the most prominent images for that, in my mind, are the crucifixion and Jesus on his knees washing feet. Now surely Jesus would also take other postures towards the leaders in the pictures, perhaps speaking judgment and woes on them, but I do not see why that would keep him from serving them as well. You said, "Doesn't the God of Jesus stand resolutely apart from and absolutely against the monstrous evil of Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and bin Laden?" Absolutely true. But just because Jesus stands apart from against someone or something, doesn't mean he won't wash their feet or die for them. The God of Jesus stands resolutely apart from and absolutely against the monstrous evil of Judas, who betrayed the Son of God, but Jesus still washed his feet.

"To wash feet cannot be equated with nonretaliation -- in my imagination, Jesus is not even in that room with those Pilates and Herods but rather with the victims of Afghanistan and the WTC, suffering with them and crying out in anger and mourning against the insanity of the Powers." I think you are probably right here. Perhaps this contradicts everything else I said, but I do think you have a point about this. Jesus probably wouldn't be in that room, he would be with the victims, suffering, crying out, and mourning with them, and prophesying against the powers. I guess my only contention is that, if he were to find himself in that room, Jesus would not be vehemently opposed to washing their feet.

"But never washing their feet, never baptizing the blood on their hands." This assumes that washing someones feet baptizes the blood on their hands? When you serve the poor, does that thereby baptize all of the sinful actions they have committed? I do not follow your logic here and if anything, this logic would force you to give up serving anyone with sin on their hands.

Finally, I will just say that I think there is a difference between what I believe to be the truth of the painting and the appropriateness of it in our context. Although I think the message it gives is true, I agree that it is entirely inappropriate to put in our home and to show off to guests. I appreciate you calling me out on this. I wouldn't have thought about almost any of these issues if you hadn't.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Kathleen Raine

Kathleen Raine was a British poet and literary critic whose life spanned the expanse of the twentieth century. Her poetry is marked by beautiful form and a Christian spirituality borne out of deep personal experience. Her poem below is deceiving for its simplicity; not only does it take multiple reads to intake the sense of it (as, of course, all good poems do), I actually mistook the last line as "reparation measures" rather than "separation measures" -- a decidedly different meaning in the difference of a single letter! The heartfelt sorrow of this poem, not untouched by the joy of desire, is especially powerful.

My own poem afterward is more formal for my own habit than usual, but makes the attempt to name that time of intangible recollection, so profoundly spiritual by nature, before falling asleep. There actually does seem a connection here, as there so rarely is, between the two poems paired together.

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Written in Exile

By Kathleen Raine

There is a word at heart for the next of death,
The farthest from joy; if I could fathom it
I would from this most desolate and distant place, bless

The maker of distances, since what divides
Me from His presence is the extent of Heaven.
Were He less high, I could not be so far.

And my unrest fathoms the deep of peace,
And by my depth downcast, Lord, you are risen,
Your love's great realm, my separation measures.

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Coming to the Judgment of Sleep

As I lie still next to the slow-form body of my wife,
her heavy breathing, heat, knowledge intimating to me
(like the soft wink of a gentle sun) a history and
a life, unfiltered I receive the heartless march of the
day’s thoughts and spinning hang-ups.

Our speeds untranslatable
we speak in foreign tongues like respiratory machines,
her breath bleeding the count, my mind charging the mount. Is there
a harmony in this? Is her peace judgment on the long
marathon of my mind’s rattling comedown?

The pictures
frame haloed like ghastly saints come to moralize the past.
A dark-skinned god reminds me of the sins for which I have
no capacity to atone, and I thank him knowing
he knows my resentment.

The rest of my fits of sex and
violence come forth with predictable urgency, and he
holds court in the valley of my self-loathing’s judgment: a
single verdict singing forth in the thick darkness of my
beloved’s breathing: enter that, and grace covers you whole.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Commending to You: Trio Film Fest

About a year ago, my friends Patrick and Daron and I decided, in the midst of one of our many feverish discussions about all things film, that we needed to have a movie marathon together. But if we were going to do it once, shouldn't we make it a regular practice? And if it was going to be a regular thing -- at least for a couple years while all here in Atlanta -- why not give it a name and formal rules, not to mention specify ourselves as the inaugural members, with more potentially to come?

Thus was born Trio Film Fest.

The charter members were, of course, us three. There would be four marathons per year, with specific criteria chosen in advance. Each of us would bring two films, totaling six films for the day (or stretched out over more than one day, as the case may be). The goal would be serious, extended discussion of film; introduction to movies we otherwise wouldn't be able or have the time to see; sharing with one another movies perennially underrated or undervalued but especially loved by one of us for some reason; and so on. Ideally the themes would bring out interesting and unforeseen connections that would only serve to enhance our experience and appreciation of them.

Oh, and the best part: For each Trio Patrick (graphic designer extraordinaire) would create a special poster to commemorate the day and the movies.

So the first Trio was last January and the theme was simple: two films from each person by the same director, sharing an actor as well. We were flexible with Patrick's, as you'll see, but check out the poster:

Daron brought William Wyler's Roman Holiday (1953) and How to Steal a Million (1966), each starring Audrey Hepburn. I brought Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), each featuring the bizarre and utterly fantastic Klaus Kinski. Patrick brought Lars von Trier's The Five Obstructions (2003) and Dogville (2003).

Our second Trio was in April. The theme, once again, was pretty simple: two films each from the same writer, but by different directors. I should also add that the goal was to find films most of us hadn't seen, or at least hadn't seen in a while.

I ended up bringing Paul Schrader's The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese; 1988) and The Mosquito Coast (Peter Weir; 1986), Daron brought Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita (Besson; 1990) and The Transporter (Corey Yuen; 2000), and Patrick brought Scott Frank's Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh; 1998) and The Lookout (Frank; 2007). The connections between these were especially intriguing.

The third Trio was in July, and the theme was a bit more personal: bring your favorite movie, along with one you've been dying to see for a long time but for whatever reason just haven't gotten around to.

The favorites were Michael Mann's Heat (1995 -- mine), Ethan Hawke's Chelsea Walls (2001 -- Patrick's), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie (2001 -- Daron's). The forever-evaded films were, respectively, Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963), and Henri-Georges Clouzot's Diabolique (1955).

Finally, the fourth Trio for 2009 was just last weekend, and to finish the year off with a bang the three of us took a weekend trip with our wives to a cabin in Tennessee. Here was the view:

You can imagine how increasingly ridiculous we felt (and our wives reminded us of being) for spending our time indoors when that remarkable beauty lay outside.

Regardless, our theme for the weekend finished off the year in fitting simplicity: the same actor in related but different roles.

I brought Stephen Frears' The Hit (1984) and Steven Soderbergh's The Limey (1999), each starring Terrence Stamp (as a retired/past-prime hitman/criminal, I might add). Daron brought Sydney Pollack's 3 Days of the Condor (1975) and Tony Scott's Spy Game (2001), each featuring Robert Redford. And Patrick brought Joel Schumacher's Falling Down (1993) and Mike Cahill's King of California (2007), each with Michael Douglass.

So if you're counting at home, that's 24 total films, more than half a dozen foreign languages represented, covering nearly every genre, spanning from 1953 to 2007. Not a bad start for our first year. We already have our second year's themes and dates planned, with only more complexities involved. In surprise honor of the close of our first year, Patrick put together a special poster for the first four editions of Trio Film Fest:

I hope you've enjoyed this walk through our little movie marathon group; let me know if you have anything similar of your own, or if you have any comments or suggestions. It's been a blast, and I'm looking forward to more of the same.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Co-Narrating the Search for True Religion: Augustine's De Utilitate Credendi and Belief's Shaky Priority


“So there was a bewildering forest, and it had finally become intolerable to be planted in it” (8.20). So Augustine narrates, looking backwards, not only his own state as a confused and misled Manichean before his Christian conversion, but also that of his friend Honoratus, the impetus for and recipient of Augustine’s small work De Utilitate Credendi. Currently a similarly bewildered (or at least, from Augustine’s perspective, disordered but appropriately open) Manichean, and one due to their friendship, Honoratus finds himself narrated—subtly, powerfully, attractively—into Augustine’s own story: dazed and falsely taught, in search for truth, able to be delivered by God alone into all wisdom and salvation in the warm hearth of the Catholic Church. In the course of this co-narration, Augustine addresses the primary issue (apparently) holding his friend back from Christian belief: namely, belief itself. The Manicheans taught well that true religion must be arrived at by reason—that ultimately reliable faculty of human understanding—and that belief was a foolish roundabout for the unskilled, ignorant, and heretical. This assessment of faith/belief—so central to the Catholic Church’s doctrine, life, and witness—raises serious challenges for Augustine, a relatively new Christian. They are never far from his response in De Utilitate, which is the co-narration of Augustine and Honoratus’ journey together toward the essential truth—found in the Catholic Church—that trusting belief in God’s providential authority is necessarily prior to understanding.

The structure of the work is fairly straightforward. In 1.1-3 Augustine introduces the topic and names Honoratus as the addressee of the treatise. He quickly moves into the issues in 2.4-4.9 by addressing the accusations of the Manicheans against the Catholic inclusion of the Old Testament as authoritative Scripture. From there, Augustine takes a detour in 4.10-6.13 into types of error and truthful writings only to lead back to a final answer concerning the Old Testament. He goes on explicitly to co-narrate his and Honoratus’ search for religious truth in the context of so much confusion in 7.14-8.20, before returning to the subject at hand in 9.21-12.26—namely, the necessity of believing for daily life. Finally, in 12.27-14.32 Augustine presents his argument concerning the wise and the foolish and the need for trustworthy authorities, before his climactic exhortation in 15.33-17.35 where he articulates the acts of God in Christ, miracles, and given authorities for the benefit of all. He concludes in 18.36 with a final appeal and personal remarks.

In the following we will take up a close reading of the text, identify prominent themes for analysis, and critique, both positively and negatively, the effectiveness, substance, content, and form of Augustine’s arguments.

On the Advantage of Believing

Augustine begins his discourse by addressing Honoratus personally—a practice he continues throughout the work, keeping the second person pronoun firmly in view at all times—and by distinguishing, for Honoratus’ sake and (likely) for other potential readers’ sake as well, between true heretics (those who author or uphold views that are false and/or for “some temporal gain”) and those led astray by heretics (1.1). Because Honoratus is in the latter camp (whether truly, or placed there by Augustine’s rhetoric), he and Augustine can search for the truth together. This is fitting since both men came to Manichaeism in concert, and generally for similar reasons, believing that the Manicheans would answer—reasonably answer—their religious questions, and deliver them from the superstitions holding them back (2.1). Having now converted (or returned) to the Christian faith, Augustine now aims to reclaim his friend by proving to Honoratus “that, when the Manicheans attack those who, before they are capable of gazing on that truth that is perceived by a pure mind, accept the authority of the Catholic faith and by believing are strengthened and prepared for the God who will bestow light, they are acting irrationally and sacrilegiously” (2.1). Their own fallacious and irrational teachings may be clearly seen when “fact may compete with fact, case with case, proof with proof”—and Augustine leaves “its consideration, therefore, to [Honoratus’] good sense” (1.3).

Augustine moves immediately into the primary textual critique of the Manicheans against the Catholics, namely, the presence and use of the Old Testament in the sanctioned writings of Christian Scripture. Augustine is less immediately explicit about the nature of the Manichean objections to the Old Testament, though his language is visceral: they “upset the uneducated by attacking the Catholic faith and especially by criticizing and tearing apart the Old Testament” (2.4; emphasis mine). Instead of repeating the Manicheans’ criticisms, Augustine presents a positive case for how to read the Old Testament faithfully, which “is offered...under four aspects: as history, as explanation, as analogy, and as allegory” (3.5). He goes on to explicate these aspects in their particularity but also as cohering in a way that is reasonable, straightforward, universally taught in the Church, and employed by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament. History is plain enough: reporting something that happened (3.6). Explanation is when the Old Testament is used to elucidate the reasons for a particular action or teaching, especially regarding the differing expectations and commands in the different ages before and after Christ. Analogy “enables the harmony between the two testaments to be perceived,” and indeed is “used by everyone whose authority those people recognize” (3.7). Here Augustine partially reveals the substance of the Manicheans’ critique: that interpolations have corrupted the text, and in particular where certain texts might indict the false claims of Mani. Here, Augustine says, “only ordinary intelligence” will suffice to see through their “great stupidity.” Finally, allegory is the refusal “to take everything...according to the literal meaning of the words,” and instead “to have it unveiled by the Spirit,” that is, to see the true spiritual meaning conveyed by the words (3.9). Everything these aspects of faithful interpretation convey, according to Augustine, is utter repudiation of the Manicheans’ claims.

At this point Augustine takes a detour—and not an impersonal one—into exploring with/for Honoratus the various types of error (vis-à-vis authoritative writings) into which one may be lead astray (4.10). The first is to mistake as true something untrue, though it is not the writer’s own thought; the second to mistake as true something untrue, though it is the writer’s thought; and the third to understand as true something really true, though the writer did not know it (4.10). Augustine has “nothing against the first, and [is] not concerned about the last”; it is the second that is the issue (not to mention the fourth possibility: to understand truly the truth of the writer’s intention) (5.11). The point about these types of error is that it is unclear, and in fact incoherent, which type of error the Manicheans accuse the Catholic Church of making. In fact, the Manicheans revel in their ignorance by attacking what they do not understand, for “everything in that scripture is profound and from God,” containing “absolute truth,” there being “nothing wiser or purer or more sacred” than the writings of the Old Testament (6.13). Honoratus should come, then, not to “despise the actual authors,” but to “love them,” “extend[ing] the same good will to those through whom, as such a long tradition assures us, the Holy Spirit spoke.”

Augustine does not merely want to prove the worth of the Old Testament or disprove the false accusations against the Catholic Church: he wants “to open up for those who have a care for their own souls the hope of a divine outcome and the discovery of truth” (7.14). In this spirit he describes his and Honoratus’ situation as one, their “soul...trapped and immersed in error and stupidity...looking for the way of truth, if there is one”; if Honoratus “recognize[s] the truth” of this description, Augustine invites him to “look for the truth together.” It is here that Augustine introduces the foundation for the rest of the work—namely, the imaginative construal of the world as consisting of a mass majority of those who cannot or do not know the truth, a small few who can or do, and the rational proposition that the ignorant should trust the knowledgeable (7.15). This construction of the world lays the groundwork for a search for the truth, with the Catholic Church as the natural starting point (7.19). Having set up this search, Augustine narrates where he was immediately before his conversion, planted in the “bewildering forest” of so much confusion, “ready and very receptive” to “anyone able to teach” him (8.20). As for Honoratus, his “soul should be in a similar state of concern now.”

In the next section, Augustine arrives at the original, inaugurating question: the Catholic Church’s “insistence that those who come to it must have belief” (9.21). Augustine’s thesis is complex but direct: “There is no right way of entering into the true religion without believing things that all who live rightly and become worthy of it will understand and see for themselves later on, and without some submission to a certain weight of authority.” (Initially there is a sidestep into the difference between credulity and belief, explaining it by analogy with the important distinctions between interest and curiosity, keenness to know and studiousness [9.22].) At this point Augustine is engaging in an imaginary dialogue with Honoratus, supplying both skeptical questions and proper answers. Accordingly Augustine walks through the various objections to belief—after noting that apart from belief ordinary human practices like friendship could not exist—by positing again that mass of needy persons who must believe before they can come to understand (10.23). And even if Honoratus is not among the needy, he ought to believe for the sake of example—not to mention the fact that one cannot know everything for certain (10.24). This latter point leads to differentiation between understanding, believing, and having opinions, the second of which is simply unavoidable in human life, so long as it is true, something one could not know otherwise, and grounded in trustworthy authority (11.25). The ultimate example is that of children’s rightfully believing that their parents are in fact their parents, for otherwise “filial love, humanity’s most sacred bond, would be the victim of criminal arrogance” (12.26). To believe, as presented here, is part and parcel of what it means to be human.

The argument continues: “No one will question that everyone is either foolish or wise” (12.27). Thus in important matters the foolish must trust the wise rather than themselves. Yet “[h]ow can the foolish find someone who is wise?” (13.28). For the fool, in his foolishness, cannot know who is wise or foolish! “[T]he cure for this immense problem can only come from God,” who provides trustworthy authorities for the foolish to trust. The Catholic Church is right therefore to teach “that, before all else, those coming to religion must be persuaded to have faith” (13.29). In this instance the Manicheans are caught in an impenetrable web of contradictions—than which there is no “greater insanity”—for in urging people to believe their teachings about Christ, they undermine themselves by fostering belief (but in them, not Christ) and basing their teaching on Scripture’s historical record (which they denounce) (14.30-31). Why not disbelieve in Christ completely rather than believe in their version of him, when by their own admission they were not actually on hand to witness him? No, in obedience to Christ’s own direct command, true Christians necessarily must believe in him (14.32).

Finally, Augustine reaches his climactic exhortation: “[I]f your heart is set on a happy life, then with total commitment and every kind of offering, with sighs and even in tears if possible, pray to God to deliver you from the evil of error” (15.33). Given that human beings inevitably trust fellow human authority, there is no greater act of love than divine wisdom’s condescension into human form. The salvific efficacy of this authority is established by Jesus’ miracles while on earth, which displayed the power and majesty of God’s authority and thereby “turned the straying souls of mortal men and women of those times toward itself” (16.34). Similarly, the widespread approval and acceptance of the Catholic faith testifies to its providential authority instituted and wrought by God, the refusal of which is either sacrilege or arrogance (17.35). Concluding, then, Augustine calls once more on his friend to “listen...and the good teachings of Catholic Christianity, doing so with devout faith, lively hope and simple love...not ceas[ing] to pray to God himself” (18.36). Belief not having been impinged by the Manicheans’ accusations, Augustine ends by enticing Honoratus with other philosophical truths learned from Catholic teaching, a closing hint that initial belief truly is only the first step.

Prominent Themes

The themes of De Utilitate Credendi are expertly interwoven and not easily disentangled. For example, the Old Testament plays a prominent role in the beginning, but plays little to no discernible role in the latter two thirds of the work. Similarly, the Manicheans themselves (and the views they represent), while seemingly omnipresent in the work, exist primarily to be refuted, as an example of false religion, a necessary backdrop against which the light of truth may be more fully revealed; but Augustine seems more concerned to present the beauty, the positive substance of Catholic faith to his friend than to nitpick the naysayers. Though he engages in the latter, it is a subordinate concern.

What, then, might the essential and overarching themes of De Utilitate Credendi be? I suggest that there are three pairs of themes that work together as mutually illuminating units in the course of the work, within which other prominent issues may be located: friendship and the search for religious truth; belief and authority; and God and the Catholic Church.

As we have seen already, the very existence of De Utilitate is predicated on the ground of the long friendship between Augustine and Honoratus. That friendship permeates Augustine’s words, for the entirety of the work is built on his sincere, tangible desire for his friend to be reclaimed and delivered from the error of his ways. Though to some modern ears the hefty appeals and strong claims Augustine makes in the work might seem to undercut his goal, the honesty and care so explicit in them only reveal the seriousness with which he views attending to the truth. Such an approach could only have endeared him to the type of man he portrays Honoratus to be. Thus the ever-present “you,” the shared past between the two men, and even the (seemingly) rhetorical throw-away example of the possibility of legitimate friendship in 9.22 thematically cohere as the common ground within which Augustine and Honoratus may take up their search for the truth together. As friends with a common history, Augustine is at liberty to include Honoratus in the supposedly past narration of his own life, now brought forward into the present as a sort of type of religious quest in which Honoratus now finds himself. The past (Augustine’s journey from the Church to the Manicheans and now back to the true religion) and the present (Honoratus’ unsettled identity as a Manichean, originally inspired by Augustine himself) now unified by Augustine’s rhetoric, the two are one in search for true religion. And because God promises finding to the seeker, faithfully blessed Augustine’s past search, and assigns reason its appropriate place in Catholic faith, the quest for truth is undeniably an event to be encouraged, lauded, and shared.

Belief, of course, is the founding question of the document and the central argument at its heart—and, we may presume, the singular obstacle to Honoratus’ entry into the Catholic Church. Moreover, given that the work is not a mere private letter, and with his Manichean past looming in the present, De Utilitate seems also to be an exorcising of Augustine’s prior religious demons—or, put differently, a direct attack on what once so damagingly misled him and so many others, and continues to do so, through one of their most widespread critiques of the Church. The thesis of the work, stated negatively in 1.2, may be restated positively: “To prove that those who accept the authority of the Catholic faith act rationally and religiously, and in doing so are made capable, through a pure mind, of gazing on the truth, as well as strengthened and prepared for the illumination of the true God.” For Augustine, the (gracious) flip side of the necessity of belief is the gift of the authority of the Catholic Church. Any discussion of belief requires mention of the role of authorities (and human trust thereof) in daily, and particularly religious, life. Thus even when one is mentioned without the other, each exists only in reciprocal relation to the other and, by the end of the work, can only be understood as mirror perspectives of the same reality.

If, then, authority leads ineluctably to the Catholic Church, the Church is not conceivable outside of the intimate, sovereign acting of God. The Church can only be the sole true authority for human religious life if it is the gift of God. In this context God cannot be passive, distant, or a mere observer, nor can the Church be of human manufacture, for to give the absolute trust of faith to an institution not ordained and ordered by the wisdom of the God who condescends to human existence would be foolishness worse than the Manicheans’ claims. Alternatively, Augustine has no interest in making “Catholic faith” merely another religious human option in contrast to “Manichaeism,” but rather seeks to ensure that God is the ultimate subject and telos of both this particular discussion and religious seeking in general.

Understanding the interlocking themes of De Utilitate Credendi in this way, as inseparable pairs of mutually illuminating ideas, opens up the work to be itself without forcing an arbitrary hermeneutical stamp upon every page. Furthermore, subordinate themes like the role of reason, the place of the Old Testament, and the impact of providence each fit appreciably within the foci of the respective thematic pairs above.

Assessment and Critique

Regardless of Augustine’s actual success or failure to convince his friend of the usefulness of believing, De Utilitate as a work in itself contains a myriad of profound achievements, curious choices, and fascinating questions. Its overall strength is, as discussed above, the ethos of integrity and pastoral care that pervades it from start to finish. Whether or not Augustine had been ordained as a priest yet (see “consecrated” in 2.4), the extraordinary lengths to which he goes to share with his friend why he should leave his heretical group and come to the truth are a testament to the overriding power of Augustine’s own faith and the love he held for Honoratus. The opening paragraph, in which he clarifies that what he ascribes to the Manicheans as heretics does not apply to someone in Honoratus’ case, indicates from the outset the extreme sensitivity of his approach (1.1). Beyond the friendly spirit, Augustine’s willingness to tell his own story of searching after the truth as a single narrative uniting the two together is more than rhetoric—it is gracious and exceedingly charitable, recognizing his past self in the lost bewilderment of his friend and offering solidarity. His persistence in moving beyond merely denigrating the Manicheans, and instead offering a positive vision of the Catholic faith, is indicative of the work’s exceptional character.

At the same time, Augustine does offer a thoroughly satisfying dismantling of the Manicheans, and it is difficult to imagine Honoratus’ continued conviction in his sect’s claims. The very man who brought Honoratus into the fold—now more than five years a Christian, possibly a priest, and by choice unmarried and removed from the social ladder once so limitlessly open to him—writes with passion and empathy, but more than anything knowledge, to take apart, piece by piece, the religious claims of the Manicheans. The ferocity of Augustine’s rhetoric is reserved especially for them: they “attack” believers and act “irrationally and sacrilegiously” (1.2), they deceive with words “removed from pure and simple reasoning,” they “upset the criticizing and tearing apart the Old Testament” (2.4), they make “shameless” claims that are “uncritical and foolish” (3.7), they “condemn...before learning” thereby revealing their “wretchedness” (3.9), they critique the scriptures “so foolishly and so ineffectually” (6.13)—and so on. But Augustine’s critique is not limited to harsh accusations. Positively, he presents the case both for the legitimacy of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture and for the historical accuracy and authoritative reliability of the entire canon. Negatively, he points out the enormous logical inconsistencies of the Manicheans’ receiving truth from a book like the Acts of the Apostles while simultaneously holding that interpolations render it suspect (3.7); clarifies for the Manicheans themselves that their accusations of error are incoherent (4.10-12); and delivers the fatal blow by casting light on the ridiculous claim that, in contrast to the historical record given by eyewitnesses, people should believe in the Christ presented by those living hundreds of years later (14.30-32). In short, the Catholic faith rests secure, and the Manicheans are left dizzy and out of breath.

Augustine also succeeds mightily in proving the necessary reality of trusting authorities in human life. Augustine deftly deploys the extensive argument concerning wisdom and foolishness and the daily regularity of believing authority by reshaping and refashioning the lens through which Honoratus views the world; furthermore, he grounds the priority of authority’s authority, so to speak, in God. “Since, therefore, we had to model ourselves on a human being but not set our hopes on a human being, could God have done anything kinder or more generous than for the real, eternal, and unchanging wisdom of God itself, to which we must cling, to condescend to take on human form?” (15.33). It is “this authority [that] saves us,” for divine providence establishes it “to be like a fixed step on which we may stand to be lifted up to God” (16.34). And having seen “such great help from God, so productive and so beneficial, shall we hesitate to hide in the bosom of his Church?” (17.35). From the search for truth, to the necessity of authority in human life, to the providential action of God in Christ and his miracles, to the safe and happy home of mother Church: the case is closed, the path clear. It is now only up to Honoratus what he will do.

To leave it there would undoubtedly be Augustine’s wish—and is certainly the effect after reading his closing words—but pressing weaknesses and peculiar holes in the work remain. The first has to do with Augustine’s treatment of the Old Testament. Put simply, whether or not the Old Testament yields to various methods of interpretation, and whether or not those methods may be found in the New Testament, is immaterial with regard to whether the contents of the Old Testament render it unfit for religious use. Of course, there is a circularity involved here, one which Augustine exploits to great success, concerning the validity of any scriptural texts as they currently stand. But it is an odd choice to prove from texts the Manicheans claim are corrupt and rampant with inaccurate interpolations (the New Testament) that a separate, equally criticized text (the Old Testament) is valid. Though Augustine rightly dissects the Manicheans’ circular logic, in this case his own argument falls prey to the same temptation.

The next two weaknesses are similar in the brazen bizarreness of their assumed acceptance. The first is found in 7.19, where Augustine, having dealt sufficiently with the Manicheans, asks “what religion we shall commit our souls to for cleansing and renewal.” His answer? “Without question we must begin with the Catholic Church.” Why is there no question? Is not the entire point of the work that there are significant questions? Augustine glances over “reasons” for this supposedly clear starting point: the numeric volume of Christians; that “everyone agrees that there is only one Church” in spite of so many heresies; that “as those who know assert, [the Catholic Church] is more sincere about the truth than all the rest.” It barely warrants noting that these are not reasons at all, but merely Augustine’s own opinions proffered as universally recognized or even self-evident truths. Who are “those who know”? Augustine knows more than anyone that not everyone agrees there is one Church. And since when did quantity equate to truth or sincerity? Why should Honoratus not begin with the Donatists, or with the Jews, or with Platonic philosophy? There is no lucid or compelling rationale.

The other brash assumption Augustine makes is found in 12.27: “No one will question that everyone is either foolish or wise.” This statement is the set-up for much of Augustine’s argument concerning the need for authority in human life. While the heart of the argument still obtains without Augustine’s radical sapiential division, it is unhelpfully and unnecessarily weakened by the dichotomy created at the outset. The point, of course, is that Honoratus will likely agree that the vast majority of humankind is in need of wisdom they do not possess, and therefore must trust others’ wisdom for their own sake; and as far as it goes, the argument works. The problem surfaces in the commitment Augustine must subsequently make to the notion that the wise do not necessarily belong to that category of persons who need to believe. Honoratus might understandably counter Augustine: “But if I am one of the few wise, why should I believe? Shouldn’t the foolish believe me?” Augustine’s humility entails no problem placing himself before God as one who is foolish and in need of greater faith, but he cannot (or chooses not to) categorize his friend in the same way. “[A]uthority is there for those who are incapable of gazing on the truth” (16.34)—but what about those who are capable? Augustine explicitly includes Honoratus in that small group of those “who are easily able to grasp the divine secrets with sure reasoning” (10.24). Then why should they believe? Well, it would not be harmful to them; but more importantly, it sets a good example, since it is the established rule of the Church, and no one ought (or at least, Augustine would never be willing) to question the practice. Besides, “who can say we should believe nothing that we do not know for certain?” This is clearly the greatest weakness of Augustine’s argument: there is simply no definitive reason offered why, if Honoratus is wise, he should, at the last, believe.


Though Augustine’s failure in this respect—to articulate persuasively why belief is necessary for those who are wise—is significant, the shortcoming is not ultimately overwhelming. The whole of De Utilitate Credendi, so filled with Augustine’s fervor for the faith and exacting impatience toward its fallacious shadows, equally robust with dissecting argumentation and the gentleness of friendship, more than makes up for the deficiencies, inevitable as they are, of a work authored by one happy to admit he wasn’t always right.