Tuesday, September 29, 2009

On the Curious Claim That People "Like Jesus" (But Not the Church)

I would guess that most folks reading this blog have heard the claim, whether on book covers or in popular magazines, that "people like Jesus, but not the church." Lately I have found myself perplexed by this statement.

On the one hand, I get it. Churches, particularly churches in North America, have so forsaken their calling to follow and embody the life of their Lord, have so capitulated to cultural temptations like consumerism and hyper-patriotism, that non-Christians only see a great big archaic institution, rotting in aging outposts dotting the neighborhood's geography like windows into a time -- ostensibly the "good old days" -- when everyone was a Christian and the pews were filled every Sunday. But widespread hypocrisy and an abandonment of the true gospel of Jesus have so consumed the church that, like the Pharisees in Jesus' time, Christians have become the problem rather than the harbingers of God's good news. What are we about? Growing the church. What about Jesus? Oh, well, we'll get to him.

I get it. And clearly, the claim has weight. It is a needed and truthful challenge to a church long used to being on top, merely by being present. And that time is swiftly coming to an end.

But what is curious about the claim, what in all truth is baffling, is this notion that "people like Jesus." Here is my question: What is there to like?

In a culture consumed with money, possessions, and endless creation of wealth, Jesus walks with the poor -- with single moms on welfare, with illegal immigrants in need of health insurance -- and says, "If you are righteous yet wealthy, go and sell all you have and give it to the poor. Then you will have eternal life." What is there to like about that?

In a culture obsessed with sexuality, whether expressed in chauvinist conquest or in personal preference, Jesus walks with the celibate and the faithful, and says, "In the beginning, one man and one woman. What God has joined together, let no one separate." What is there to like about that?

In a culture fixated on marriage and family, with "traditional values" and the white picket fence, Jesus -- a celibate man with no children -- walks with prostitutes and orphans, and says, "Unless you hate mother and brother and sister, unless you leave your own family and follow me, you have no share with me." What is there to like about that?

In a culture possessed by ceaseless lust for ambition, for power and dominance, Jesus lives with the homeless and finds the character of the Almighty in the powerlessness of a child; and he says, "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." What is there to like about that?

In a culture unable to imagine life that is neither grounded in nor sustained by perpetual violence, Jesus refuses retaliation and submits to shameful execution by the state; and he says, "Put your sword away! Instead, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Yes, take up your cross and follow me!" What is there to like about that?

In a culture whose language and values center around concepts like universal humanity and freedom from authority, Jesus comes forth as a Jewish man from Palestine, calling a particular people to himself, and says, "Anyone who is not for me is against me. Do not live like the pagans, but in trust and obedience, imitate your heavenly Father, who shows kindness to the just and unjust alike." What is there to like about that?

And so on. If one actually reads the Gospels, instead of assuming nice pretty pictures of a blue-eyed baby Jesus giggling his guts out in celestial bliss, it is clear that the man from Nazareth -- who lived an identifiable human life in the early decades of the first century in occupied Palestine -- is certifiably not in any discernible accord with what American culture "likes." In fact, he seems to stand squarely opposed to much of it.

Of course, this does not mean that Jesus -- or the life of his people, when faithful -- cannot be attractive to weary American eyes. The offer of the gospel -- as invitation into truthful speech and marital fidelity and enough food for all and reconciled community and peaceful living and witness against oppression and worship of the one true God -- is indeed good news, after all. But the goodness of the news is not that it confirms what we already know: though its judgment is grace, it is still judgment.

And I have a feeling the sort of judgment Jesus brings is not something people "like" beforehand, if they like it at all.

Monday, September 28, 2009

What Was Augustine's Conversion From and To, and When Did It Happen?

The conversion of Augustine, both in a moment in a Milan garden but also torturous and belabored over a great length of time, was in essence a radical liberation from slavery to the distorted self to free submission to the truthful Lord of all things, Jesus Christ. It is unhelpful and overly assuming to lay on Augustine any number of “better” religious or philosophical labels prior to his conversion, whether drawn from his own account or supposedly discovered “behind” his telling of the story. Similarly it is of no avail to find a “true” point of conversion at or after (or long after!) Augustine’s experience in the garden, not only because there does not exist some “pure” faith to which one can point and say Augustine did or did not convert, but also because we must not fall for the fallacy either that conversion is in fact a singular moment in time or that in conversion one immediately switches from “100% pagan” to “100% Christian.” Faithfulness in interpreting rightly in this case is judged by our willingness to take Augustine’s own account, and the form of that account, seriously, or merely as a later matrix grafted onto an unassuming narrative for the sake of audience and theological purposes. Books VIII and IX of the Confessions narrate the theological climax of this rich telling of the lifelong conversion, by God, of a stubborn creature bent toward lies finally ordered to the pleasure of rest in the truth.

Of course, the lead up to Book VIII, in which the moment of conversion actually happens, is the necessary context for understanding what happens in Milan. The restlessness of which Augustine speaks in his infamous beginning phrase (OUP; p. 3) sets the stage for a God-neglecting life haunted by the pursuit of a God who will not let up until his beloved finds true rest in him alone. From infancy to boyhood, from philosophy to Manichaeism, from second thoughts to Milan to Ambrose: Augustine frames his entire life retrospectively through the lens of an unscratchable itch, the relentless draw of the Christian God, given voice retroactively through the words of the Psalms. On the cusp of Book VIII, Augustine has been drawn to Christian Scripture by the pagan evangelistic preparation of the Neo-Platonic writings, and finds himself caught in between the sins of the flesh and the call of the spirit.

The reason for Augustine’s fleshly struggle was, in his words, being “still firmly tied by woman” (p. 134). To choose God ultimately meant for Augustine to give up sex—to embrace, as he had prayed before, “chastity and continence, but not yet” (p. 145)—but he “hesitated” (p. 134). Slavery is the self-chosen condition: “I sighed after such freedom, but was bound not by an iron imposed by anyone else but by the iron of my own choice. The enemy had a grip on my will and so made a chain for me to hold me a prisoner” (p. 140). Passion is “the consequence of a distorted will,” and the “violence of habit” (p. 141) results from slavery to passion, eventually becoming necessity. The judgment of God is just, for the choice was his own, but similarly there is no self-made escape, for self-chosen habit has become servitude.

In the midst of the “single soul…wavering between different wills” (p. 149), the Lord “put pressure” on Augustine “with a severe mercy wielding the double whip of fear and shame,” lest he “again succumb” and “relapse into [his] original condition” (p. 150). The only answer, counseled “the dignified and chaste Lady Continence,” was to “[c]ast yourself upon him, do not be afraid. He will not withdraw himself so that you fall. Make the leap without anxiety; he will catch you and heal you” (p. 151). And so, alone in tears in the garden of Milan, beneath a fig tree Augustine obeyed the voice of the child and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ…mak[ing] no provision for the flesh in its lusts” (p. 153; Rom. 13:14). The God of Monica, of the Catholic Church, had in Augustine’s words “converted me to yourself” (p. 153).

Book IX recounts the aftereffects of Augustine’s formal conversion, now the Lord’s servant (p. 155), pierced by the arrow of God’s love (p. 156), granted pardon and remission for sins (p. 157), “trembl[ing] with fear and…burn[ing] with hope” (p. 160), finally no longer loving vanity and seeking after a lie (p. 161: six times in a single paragraph!). If one were only to read Books VIII and IX, they might be taken as “before” and “after” snapshots of Augustine’s conversion. But set in the context of Books I-VII and X-XIII, there is much more to the story! On the one hand, without a doubt the instantaneous changeover from death to life, from pagan to Catholic, is manifest in the liberation of Augustine’s habitual slavery to the distorted will into new and free life in happy service to the Lord Jesus. On the other hand, the re-telling and re-interpretation of his own life story gives the reader new eyes to see how God was always at work in his life—wooing and calling, disciplining and teaching, through as varied of instruments as his mother Monica, his friends from home, the folly of the Manicheans, the philosophy of the pagans, the lure of lust, the deceit of ambition, the rhetoric of Ambrose, the voice of a child.

Thus the Confessions are, quite literally, conversion in long-form. Because God was never absent—indeed, because God in Monica was never absent—conversion began at the beginning. And if later baptism was the actual washing away of sins (p. 157), and if Augustine’s literary works written at Cassiciacum, though in service to the Lord, “still breathe[d] the spirit of the school of pride” (p. 159), then conversion continued into the future as well. The conversion, then, was, as Paul says in Romans 6, from slavery to sin to slavery to righteousness. Only in worship of the true God can worship of the false self be liberated from distortion and death. Only when Augustine refuses reliance on himself, casting himself instead upon the mercies of God (p. 151), are “[a]ll the shadows of doubt…dispelled” (p. 153).

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Patty Griffin

Patty Griffin is one of those rare musicians who has had a long and fruitful career, has been universally recognized and praised as among the very best at her craft, and yet still might legitimately be called underrated or even relatively unknown. She is one of my wife's favorite artists, and the quality (within the quantity) of her output is remarkable. (If you don't know her, go check out her music!)

The song below is from her most recent album, Children Running Through, and is a powerful and suggestive exploration of relationship, conflict, abuse, and hope. I find it a wonderful twist on the notion of the gospel, literally "good news," threatened by a demonic upending but refused by the strength of a voice willing to speak dissent. The relentless acoustic guitar and vocal performance bring it home.

My own poem afterward is, as has been my unfortunate habit of late, completely (and almost absurdly) unrelated, thematically or otherwise. It's almost jarring. Regardless, this week I received Arther McGill's Death and Life: An American Theology in the mail, and this poem was a bleak reflection upon beginning the book.

- - - - - - -

No Bad News

By Patty Griffin

Don't bring me bad news, no bad news
I don't need none of your bad news today
You're a sad little boy, anyone can see
You're just a sad little boy
That's why you're carrying on that way

Why don't you burn it all down
Burn your own house down
Burn your own house down
Try to kill your own disease
And leave the rest of us
There's a lot of us, leave the rest of us
Who wanna live in peace to live in peace

I'm gonna find me a man
Love him so well
Love him so strong
Love him so slow
We're gonna go way beyond the walls of this fortress

And we won't be afraid
We won't be afraid
And though the darkness may come our way
We won't be afraid to be alive anymore

And we'll grow kindness in our hearts
Tor all the strangers among us
Till there are no strangers anymore

Don't bring me bad news, no bad news
I don't need none of your bad news today
You can't have my fear
I've got nothing to lose, can't have my fear
I'm not getting out of here alive anyway

And I don't need none of these things
I don't need none of these things
I've been handed
And the bird of peace is flying over
She's flying over and
Coming in for a landing

- - - - - - -

On Dying in America

I have come to realize that
I do not want to die. The street
Outside, in its speeds of men and
Constant stillborn explosions, holds
Only highways of death, postponed
And held at arm's length like a trail
Littered with corpses slain by swift
Bullets, trained across a canyon
By snipers happily random
In their trigger satisfaction.
The world entire is this sort of
Thing: murderous canyons of end.
We walk among them like sick dogs
Whimpering, limping toward the long
Needle of being put to sleep.
This is the truth. And I am scared.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Leonardo Boff on Capitalism, Socialism, and the Community of the Holy Trinity

"In the capitalist system, under which we all suffer, everything is centered upon the individual and individual development. There is no essential regard for others or for society. Goods are privately appropriated, to the exclusion of ownership on the part of the vast majority of persons. Individual differences are valued to the detriment of communion. The socialist system, for its part, emphasizes universal participation, which, as far as the ideal is concerned, more nearly resembles the trinitarian dynamic. But personal differences mean little here. Socialist society tends to constitute a mass rather than a people, because a people is the fruit of a whole network of communities and associations in which persons count. The trinitarian mystery invites us to adopt social forms that value all relations among persons and institutions and foster an egalitarian, familial community in which differences will be positively welcomed. As the Christians of the base church communities have formulated it: The holy Trinity is the best community."

--Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), p. 85

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

More on Cinematic Violence: Clarifying the Conversation

I have been taken to task! A recent post of mine, concerning the question of how Christians ought to discern ethically what sort of visually violent content to view (and why), has been a point of debate over on one blog, and trickled over to another. I have deeply appreciated both positive and critical responses, but wanted to do my best to respond charitably and to clarify any miscommunication on my part.

More than anything, allow me to begin by summarizing my original intent with the post. My goal was (1) to extend a stimulating (and ongoing) conversation I had with my wife to others who might find it valuable, because (2) her conviction about feeling, for lack of a better word, "icky" with the amount and content of violence entering her head through film and television (represented, for better or worse, by Quentin Tarantino), seemed a fascinating and helpful response to engage my own questions about (3) the role, purpose, and human effects of simulated violence seen through the visual medium, as well as about (4) how to differentiate between said portrayals of violence that might be helpful, thoughtful, intentional, worthy, or ethically challenging and portrayals that might be harmful, exploitative, thoughtless, gratuitous, or morally damaging. Specifically, a central concern was (5) exploring the way audience members in America, particularly males in action movies, seem to have become so desensitized that they cheer on, laugh, applaud, and generally enjoy brutality, torture, murder, and all other sorts of violence in films whose portrayals are today (6) so extraordinarily realistic that they could be confused for the real thing if it weren't for the fact that we "know" going in that it is "just a movie."

The last point, or at least the phrasing of it, seems to be a unique point of contention, because in the post I say the following (bolded for poverty of forethought):
And this realization was uniquely directed at the medium of film; the written word involves and requires the imagination in such a way that we do not -- as we unarguably do with modern special effects today -- come face to face with what our brains understandably receive as the real thing. To read "And he took the adrenaline-filled syringe and injected her heart with it" is of a substantially different sort than to watch John Travolta stab Uma Thurman in the chest with a six-inch needle.
Clearly that was the wrong choice of words. Most sane people who see a movie at the theater qualitatively do not "receive as the real thing" simulated cinematic violence. A rhetorical mishap on my part, without a doubt.

But I hope the broader paragraph, and the post as a whole, make clear that I am not trying to say that cinematic violence is questionable because we are so stupid as to think it's real. Rather, I want to ask whether seeing realistically portrayed violence, however simulated and however cognitively acknowledged as simulated beforehand and throughout, can have deleterious effects on us over time whether we like it or not, and if so, how we should go about discerning the types and amount of visually simulated violence we choose to take in.

It seems to have been a poor choice to focus the discussion on Tarantino and Inglourious Basterds, mostly because people (rightly) see in him and it a lack of thoughtless violence, and in actuality a profound exploration of the power of film and the futility of vengeance. For those who made it all the way to the end of the post -- and I realize it was long! -- I should hope it was clear that I couldn't agree more! My choice of Tarantino and I.B. was partly the simple fact that my decision to see it was the spark for my conversation with my wife, but even more so precisely because it does not fit into any neat categories of "ethical" versus "non-ethical" cinematic violence. (Not to mention the fact that my fellow audience members were cheering on the Nazi-scalping.) So if the pervading theme of "Tarantino" so hangs over the post that it overshadows the fact that I love his work and that I am using him out of respect for the thought behind his films -- then I simply did not communicate.

Furthermore, to address Adam's post directly, I am unclear on where hypocrisy enters into the equation. I quote one of his comments in full:
I find it really amazing how many people responding here are so stuck within the frame of fake violence and real violence being the same that they’re basically unable to read my post with any kind of comprehension. It’s a simple accusation of hypocrisy — “you think portraying violence is a serious moral issue, yet your practice contradicts that belief.” There’s really nothing more complicated going on here than that. Nothing shutting down the actual discussion of filmed violence. Nothing calling for the end of crucifixes and passion plays — just pointing out hypocrisy, pure and simple.
I want to be careful in my response ... but I simply do not know what I said in the original post to give the impression that I do not think there are serious moral issues with traditional portrayals of the crucifixion of Christ through crucifixes in sanctuaries, passion plays, and Mel Gibson's film. Obviously, if I were to claim the latter are of no moral consequence or are not worth questioning, but violence in film is, my hypocrisy would be apparent for all to see. But all three of those examples -- alongside many other generally accepted Christian portrayals of violence -- are deeply problematic, and I would love to extend the conversation to those areas as well. It is unequivocally a public sign of the ugly contradiction -- and the politics behind it -- inherent in modern conservative churches that The Passion of the Christ could be hailed as messianic filmmaking, while radically milder content (sexual, violent, or otherwise) could be simultaneously dismissed outright or assumed to be sinful.

My only question is, Do I say something like that in my post? Either way, my intent was 100% the other direction. One of the examples I offer of artful, ethical, praiseworthy cinematic portrayals of violence is The Wire, which seems clear enough to me, at least, that I am not taking a simplistic or a priori stance against portrayals of violence, but instead want to call Christians to thoughtful conversation about creative and faithful ways to discern what is worth watching.

Responding to Marvin Lindsay, Adam says:
There is a conversation to be had on this topic [of cinematic violence], but posts like this and the one I was responding to totally shut it down from the start.
I confess, my only response to a statement like this is pure befuddlement. Going back through the post, I can see how the argument seems to be leading to a place where "the implications ... are not hopeful" -- i.e., "it looks like we're just gonna have to reject this whole thing completely." And to be sure, that was where my mind was as I was finishing up a beguiling, enormous, passionate post at 3:00 in the morning. But I also quite intentionally ended the entire piece with the fact that, while my wife has found her answer, "I'm still searching." In a sense, all 3,500 words served only as one long-form question mark, meant to inspire conversation and critical thought regarding our (usually unquestioned) assumptions about what we watch, why, and how it affects us.

At least, that was the hope. In one sense, I got exactly what I wanted: lots of conversation! And I am happy people at least found it worth thinking about. But I also hope that this post (the one you are reading right now) might serve to redirect the conversation from questions or assumptions (or understandable conclusions taken from poor communication on my part!) about me and my prudishness or hypocrisy or whatever, and instead back to the original subject.

Regardless, a final and sincere thanks to all my gracious interlocutors, as well as a reminder ... please be kind in the comments!

Saint Augustine on Tarantino

"I was captivated by theatrical shows. They were full of representations of my own miseries and fuelled my fire. Why is it that a person should wish to experience suffering by watching grievous and tragic events which he himself would not wish to endure? Nevertheless he wants to suffer the pain given by being a spectator of these sufferings, and the pain itself is his pleasure. What is this but amazing folly? For the more anyone is moved by these scenes, the less free he is from similar passions. Only, when he himself suffers, it is called misery; when he feels compassion for others, it is called mercy. But what quality of mercy is it in fictitious and theatrical inventions? A member of the audience is not excited to offer help, but invited only to grieve. The greater his pain, the greater his approval of the actor in these representations. If the human calamities, whether in ancient histories or fictitious myths, are so presented that the theatregoer is not caused pain, he walks out of the theatre disgusted and highly critical. But if he feels pain, he stays riveted in his seat enjoying himself."

--St. Augustine, Confessions, III.ii.2

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Grammar of God, Part VI: "Faith In" Versus "Faith That"

Much of what I try to do on this blog -- which is a reflection of what I hope to do in the church -- is a melding of academy and normality. Meaning, it is fine to discuss complex, abstract, and/or technical matters in the context of the academy -- actually, that is exactly where it ought to be done -- but to presume either that others can partake of the conversation who do not belong to that world, or that an academic discussion will directly affect matters on the ground, is generally ignorant or seriously deluded. Part of my conviction, though, is that theology has power on the ground: that when God's people take the time to discern theologically what the Spirit is doing in their midst, new and extraordinary things can happen. And that is the promise and the task before Christian theologians.

And I realized, in coming to write this post, how beneath the surface this mindset can be for me. At times I feel amateurish in my discussions of theological matters -- and to be sure, they often are -- but more often than not what I am doing is the task described above: attempting to concretize heady stuff. Which is only to say -- qualifying explicitly -- that what I say in this forum almost always may be found elsewhere, in better words.

That said, few topics have had more ink spilled on them than faith. So pardon my self-aware attempt at incarnating other, better said accounts into more manageable terms.

Put simply, I am tired of hearing Christians repeat the phrase "believe in God."

"I believe in God." "He believes in God." "I'm not even sure if she believes in God." "Well, at least they believe in God."

Enough already!

"I believe in God" bears almost no relation to the content of Christian confession or faith. The statement that a friend or family does or does not "believe in God" has no more informed us of their status as Christian or pagan (much less Muslim or Hindu) than if we were to say "they are human."

For the record, I believe Christians (especially academics!) ought to be excessively gracious toward fellow Christians who may use unspecific or unhelpful colloquial language, but whose hearts are in the right place or who simply aren't "in the know" about what certain technical terms mean. And I continue to believe that that is a discipline educated Christians must learn.

But on the other hand, part of being a Christian is being trained in how to speak truthfully about the faith. And the language of "believing in God," in my estimation, has finally lapsed into incoherence in attempting to articulate anything meaningful or substantive about Christian (or any other type of) faith.

The reason the language is so ubiquitous is, I suspect, a broad reaction to a culture that is increasingly hostile to any theistic commitments whatsoever. Thus to be someone who would publicly "admit" to "believing" that "God" exists is to be grouped into a minority category more constitutive than any specific conviction about the God being believed in.

So we might say of a coworker that "he believes in God" -- but he doesn't belong to a community of faith, or show evidence of a life made possible or different by this God-belief. We might also say of an older, faithful Christian that "she believes in God" -- and her life seems impossible to understand apart from this God-belief. Yet in general these two persons would be categorized beneath the broader term "believes in God."

Not only does this language lead to a kind of nonsense in our religious speech, it nullifies any meaning or difference implied in holding Christian commitments. A person who believes that a spiritual world exists, or that a spiritual power created the world, or that spirituality is important, is not only not one and the same with a follower of Jesus -- such descriptions simply have nothing to do with what it means to be a Christian rather than not. Almost the entirety of all human beings, up until the last couple hundred years or so, believed in (what we now call) a spiritual world. Even since the Enlightenment, it is truly difficult to find what we might call a "100% atheist" (though they certainly exist). Furthermore, however, the deceptive prevalence of agnostics and atheists are, for the most part, confined to the western or industrialized world. A supreme majority of all human beings that live in the world today continue to retain (and flourish in) theistic-spiritual "beliefs." What matters -- and that especially for Jews and Christians -- is what these beliefs say about God.

In that sense, then, Christians do not believe in; Christians believe that.

Christians believe that God is the creator of all things; that God made humankind in his image; that God called Abraham; that the children of Abraham were brought up by God out of slavery in Egypt; that God gave the Law to Israel through Moses at Sinai; that God brought back the exiles from Babylon.

Moving forward, Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the anointed one of Israel; that he is the Word made flesh; that he was crucified for the forgiveness of sins and raised from the dead in power; that he reigns as Lord of all; that his Spirit has been poured out in fullness on the church; that he will one day return again, and that all things will be made new.

These are the sort of "that" things Christian believe. Christians are a "that"-believing sort of people. And that accords exactly with the sort of God Christians serve: a God whose person and character are defined by actions: creating, calling, promising, delivering, breathing, raising, restoring. We believe that God is the one who does these things.

Now, of course the New Testament does use the language of "faith in," but almost universally this simply means trust. When Jesus says -- for example, throughout the Gospel of John -- "Believe in me," what he means is either "Put your trust in me" or "Believe that I am of God," and decidedly not "Believe that I exist." I hope we are able to see the absurdity of such a claim!

And so it makes sense to continue to say "Put your faith in God, not [man/money/family]," which is only another way of saying, "Don't worship idols; they aren't trustworthy!"

But with regard to "believing in God," as for me and my house, we shall instead believe "that God..." Only that language is adequate for that God.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Matthew Myer Boulton

With the launch of 80 Minutes For Life, I have reverted from movies to music, at least temporarily, and naturally switched memberships from Netflix to eMusic -- with the corollary benefit that music is not time-sapping, in the midst of a busy semester, the way movies are -- and thus have an inordinate amount of new music just waiting to be heard. Some of the bands include Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, John Coltrane, Radiohead, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, The Decemberists, Bruce Cockburn, Okkervil River, Patty Griffin, and more. With all that quality music just sitting there -- without a doubt self-consciously legitimizing a sense of musical hipness -- what is the one album I have been listening to more than any of those combined?

Butterflyfish.

I was directed to Harvard theologian Matthew Myer Boulton's band by Ben Myers, and the recommendation was spot on. I won't add to Ben's expert analysis, but just head over to their site and try out some songs, and you'll find yourself similarly hooked to some good ol' folksy children's songs about Jesus, love, family, and creation, too.

Apart from the fun and the real power in the songs, one of my favorite things about the album is that my two favorite Old Testament eschatological images for Christ and the church -- the stories of Jonah and of Noah and the ark -- have their own, wonderful songs dedicated to them. Being that Jonah plays such a large role in my theology and in this blog, I thought it fitting to share Boulton's happy (and insightful!) retelling.

And instead of sharing a poem of my own -- the ink has run dry as of late -- I've paired it with a gorgeous painting by John August Swanson, whose incredible art adorns every hallway of the new main building for the Candler School of Theology.

- - - - - - -

What Jonah Learned Inside the Whale

By Matthew Myer Boulton

Jonah was a man
He used to run away again and again
He sailed across the sea
And yet he ended up just gettin' wet
And now he knows that

There's one thing you can't do
It's run away from love
Love's in every way
And if there's one thing you can do
It's live like love is here to stay
Every day
That's what Jonah learned inside the whale

He learned that whales have no teeth
But they do have great big tongues
And God is underneath
Everything and everyone
That's what Jonah learned inside the whale
And that ain't just one heck of a fish tale

It's testimony that love will never fail
Even down inside a whale

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Kim Fabricius on Divine Flu

Please go read Kim Fabricius' latest post over on Faith and Theology, entitled "Divine Flu: A Health Warning." He diagnoses symptoms of two strains infecting the church today: Neo-Liberalism and Conservative Evangelicalism. Here are some teasers:
Neo-Liberalism

Sufferers

• Feel the omission Old Testament readings from Sunday worship is a welcome relief rather than an egregious truncation. They regard the preacher as a reflector on experiences, or a community life-coach, rather than one called to confront the congregation with God’s living word of grace and judgement.

• Tell us the Creeds are old-fashioned, bang on about “relevance” and, with “chronological snobbery” (C. S. Lewis) masking historical ignorance – the idea that the Church Fathers or Reformers believed in a bearded celestial pensioner is risible – instruct us about what modern people can and cannot accept.

. . .

• Think “Calvin and Barth” is the name of a comic strip, that orthodoxy is dull rather than dangerous, and that John Spong is a “progressive” theologian rather than a recycler of Enlightenment ideas.

. . .

• Are fans rather than followers of Jesus when it comes to his absolute rejection of violence; for example, they will kill other people if the state tells them to.

Conservative Evangelicalism

Sufferers

. . .

• Hold tenaciously to the quite unbiblical, relatively newfangled, and deeply problematical doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

• Act like the doctrine of penal substitution is in the Creeds, find nothing at all sub-Christian in the idea that God “punished” Jesus on the cross, and deploy this model of the atonement as the litmus test for distinguishing “real” Christians.

. . .

• Despise Richard Dawkins while actually believing in the kind of God he rightly rejects, as if the existence of God were, in principle, demonstrable, as if the proposition “God exists” were a hypothesis to be affirmed or denied, as if God were simply the hugest of individuals.

. . .

• Are fans rather than followers of Jesus when it comes to his absolute rejection of violence; for example, they will kill other people if the state tells them to.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Charges Condemning Michael Sattler to Torture and Death

"First, that he and his adherents have acted contrary to the mandate of the Emperor.

"Secondly, he has taught, held and believed that the body and blood of Christ are not present in the sacrament.

"Thirdly, he has taught and believed that infant baptism does not conduce to salvation.

"Fourthly, they have rejected the sacrament of extreme unction.

"Fifthly, they have despised and condemned the mother of God and the saints.

"Sixthly, he has declared that men are not to swear before the authorities.

"Seventhly, he has commenced a new and unheard of custom in regard to the Lord's Supper, placing the bread and wine on a plate, and eating and drinking the same.

"Eighthly, he has left the order, and married a wife.

"Ninthly, he has said that if the [Muslims] should invade the country, no resistance ought to be offered them; and if it were right to wage war, he would rather take the field against the Christians than against the [Muslims]; and it is certainly a great matter, to set the greatest enemies of our holy faith against us."

—Thieleman J. van Braght, The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians (translated by Joseph F. Sohm; Scottdale: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), p. 416

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: David Bazan

David Bazan has blazed a unique trail in the music world, awkwardly (but successfully?) straddling the indie and the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) scenes at once. As Pedro the Lion, his soft and broken-hearted ballads snagged a cult following for his bare-bones approach to both the music and the lyrics; but as his style evolved the increasing complexity seemed to lose the heart of what was so special before. Fortunately, his new album, Curse Your Branches, is a beautifully successful amalgam of all his previous work, and one of the most affecting, emotionally raw, and spiritually honest albums I have heard in some time.

Any of the songs from Curse Your Branches -- which reads like a musical journal from a post-evangelical who hates hell, wants to love Jesus, refuses simple explanations, despises hypocrisy, and can't stop sinning but wants to do the right thing -- would be worth sharing in this forum, but below is my favorite so far. Its tone is not dissimilar from an angry lament psalm, or a speech from Job, telling God how it (or he) ought to be in order to be just. The point, of course, is not the supposed irreverence of telling God what's up -- it is in talking to God at all, addressing God as morally culpable, holding God to the standards of Godhood which God has set for himself.

My own poem afterward is a simply a short reflection on our nature as talking (but fallen) creatures.

- - - - - - -

When We Fell

By David Bazan

With the threat of hell hanging over my head like a halo
I was made to believe in a couple of beautiful truths
That eventually had the effect of completely unraveling
The powerful curse put on me by you

When you set the table
And when you chose the scale
Did you write a riddle
That you knew they would fail
Did you make them tremble
So they would tell the tale
Did you push us when when we fell

If my mother cries when I tell her what I have discovered
Then I hope she remembers she taught me to follow my heart
And if you bully her like you’ve done me with fear of damnation
Then I hope she can see you for what you are

When you set the table
And when you chose the scale
Did you write a riddle
That you knew they would fail?
Did you make them tremble
So they would tell the tale?
Did you push us when when we fell?

What am I afraid of?
Whom did I betray?
In what medieval kingdom does justice work this way?
If you knew what would happen and made us just the same
Then you, my Lord, can take the blame

- - - - - - -

Speech

We are loudmouths all of us
And the silences of our beginnings
Call out darkly and in secrecy
Beyond all the swaying sweaty towers
Bellowing our lonely blood
And following our stillborn scars

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

On the Politics of Absolute Truth: The Narrated God, Faithful Witness, and the Christian Story

Recently my wife and I had an extended and fruitful conversation with close friends of ours at our church here in Atlanta, concerning the nature and various types of truth related to human life and Christian faith, and consequently how to go about engaging, exploring, believing, and sharing those truths. The conversation left my mind spinning for days, and I had to put thought to word in order to make sense of what I was thinking through. The following is a portion of what I shared with them some time afterward, and it seemed fitting to post it here as well.

For my theologically minded friends, pardon the cribbing of Jenson and Hauerwas -- they were principal influences on my reflection, but I was (and am) not aiming to ransack without due homage!

- - - - - - -

1. I think a helpful way to characterize the nature, existence, and character of the biblical God is that he is narrated: that is, he is known through the telling of a story. Not only that, but that story is a narration of his actions.

So first of all, God's existence is not a given or even a static "always-is-no-matter-what"-ness, but is told through the story of his involvement with and among creatures in creation. To me, this implies that the way we talk about God, as well as God's existence, must take the form Scripture models, rather than talking about abstract philosophical concepts and attributes that are largely alien to the Bible. For example, God is "that one who brought up the slaves from Egypt" or "that one who raised up Jesus from the dead" rather than "that one who is omnipotent/omniscient/omnibenevolent."

2. That God is a narrated God seems to correlate perfectly with the Incarnation; the face of the invisible God is a particular human face, not abstract or universal or absolute or whatever, but a male Jew from a particular town in occupied Palestine in the first three decades of the first century. He spoke a certain language, ate and pooped, went through puberty, read and listened and learned new things. He taught and led a new movement and performed miracles, and was arrested and tried and murdered by the occupying authorities, and then he was alive again after dying. And so on.

What I mean to say is that, the narrated character of the biblical God (we could also say "Israel's God") fits in perfectly with the fact and, more importantly, the story of Jesus. Jesus is the human story of God. Again we find ourselves not in a realm of abstract absolutes, but in a decidedly particular context.

(I would add that it also correlates to the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit play and are characters and roles in a drama, the drama of creation, redemption, and consummation -- or past, present, and future -- in one life.)

3. Because of the nature and character of God, and thus the nature and character of the truth about this God, the way in which God and truth are spoken and represented by Christians is supremely important. In other words, the medium is the message. The character of the sort of truth God is necessitates the character of the way we as Christians go about "truthing."

The way I see this relating to the discussion of "absolute" truth is that it may entail that, as Christians, we let go of the need or option to name or describe the truth we profess as "absolute." Instead, what we do is witness to truth, and the way we witness to truth is (in my view) threefold:

a) Tell the story.
b) Live the story.
c) Do Perform the story.

The first is pretty straightforward -- tell people about Jesus, etc. The second means to live, as a community and in our individual lives, as members of the coming kingdom in a world that stands against that kingdom. The third is meant for the context of worship: that we embody the story liturgically, through baptism, through the Lord's Supper, through songs, through prayer, through testimony, etc.

Two more points.

4. What I want to emphasize is that the sort of claims we make for the God revealed in Jesus cannot also be similarly claimed for other gods. For example, if the sort of things Christians claim for God are substantially no different than the claims of Deists, of Muslims, or of random theists, then the "absoluteness" or truth of those claims doesn't really make a difference. Thus the statement "the fact that God exists is absolute truth" doesn't necessarily have meaningful content from a Christian perspective if the terms we are using don't have specifiably distinct content. If "God" means a monad, or the Trinity, or an arbitrary deity, or Allah, the statement doesn't mean much; similarly, "exists" might mean different things; and then of course "absolute" implies a certain type of God and a certain type of existence, both of which might be unfaithful or unrelated to the Christian God.

Thus, we return to the necessity of story and of (peaceful) witness: to the reply, "But which God, and what sort of existence?" we can reply, "Let me tell you the story of Israel, Jesus, and the church." Or we might reply, "Come and see," i.e., come and see the way we treat each other and you will see what sort of God. Or again, we might reply, "Come and pray with us," i.e., come and see the way we worship and by participating you will see what sort of God. And so on.

5. Finally, returning again to the notion of "absoluteness," I think it is important to emphasize that behind every doctrine, practice, and theology is a politics. Not having anything to do with government or democracy, but meaning, not only "what does this perspective say?" but "what does this perspective do?" How does it function when convicted people believe it and live it out?

In my perspective, the "politics of absolute truth" inevitably leads to a distortion of faithful Christian witness. The reason is historical as much as theological: when Christians start speaking "absolutely," people usually start to die. Sometimes the dying is justified explicitly; sometimes it happens as a matter of course. But almost always non-Christians become "the enemy" because, on an indisputable basis, they are "absolutely" wrong. And somehow, and almost by any means, these pagans (whom everyone knows to be wrong) must be brought to the truth. This may take the form of the Inquisition; but it can also take the form of America's invasion of Iraq, where some Christians find the war providential to evangelistic hopes -- when in fact the notion of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children dying by deadly explosions (mostly ordered or launched or dropped by Christian soldiers in the American military) somehow for the sake of the gospel is horrifying and utterly at odds with the gospel of the tortured and crucified God.

And while it may sound outlandish, I truly believe that these sorts of instance -- with Christians behind the choices, Christians enacting those choices, and Christians justifying and applauding those choices -- result from the type of theories, viewpoints, and arguments that stem from a Christianity/evangelism/epistemology understood as "absolute." Instead, I think Scripture offers us resources for a different way of comprehending, articulating, explaining, and living out the Christian story that is both truthful and faithful to the God who is the subject of that story.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Bryan Stone on the Ecclesial Nature of Salvation and the Faithful Practice of Evangelism

"The thesis of this book is that the most evangelistic thing the church can do today is to be the church — to be formed imaginatively by the Holy Spirit through core practices such as worship, forgiveness, hospitality, and economic sharing into a distinctive people in the world, a new social option, the body of Christ. It is the very shape and character of the church as the Spirit's 'new creation' that is the witness to God's reign in the world and so both the source and aim of Christian evangelism. On this understanding, the missio dei is neither the individual, private, or interior salvation of individuals nor the Christianization of entire cultures and social orders. It is rather the creation of a people who in every culture are both 'pulpit and paradigm' of a new humanity. Insofar as evangelism is the heart of his mission, this very people constitutes both the public invitation and that to which the invitation points. That is why all Christian evangelism is fundamentally rooted in ecclesiology. It can even be said that the church does not really need an evangelistic strategy. The church is the evangelistic strategy.

"Allow me to radicalize this a bit further. My point is not that the church, by behaving rightly in public, is capable of being truly evangelistic because to the extent it avoids hypocrisy it is able to attract the world to the gospel. While there may be some truth in this, it still tends to instrumentalize and externalize the church relative to the gospel and relative to Christian salvation. My point, rather, is that Christian salvation is ecclesial — that its very shape in the world is a participation in Christ through the worship, shared practices, disciplines, loyalties, and social patterns of his body, the church. To construe the message of the gospel in such a way as to hide or diminish the unique social creation of the Spirit that the first Christians called ecclesia is to miss the point of what God is up to in history — the calling for and creation of a people. The most evangelistic thing the church can do, therefore, is to be the church not merely in public but as a new and alternative public; not merely in society but as a new and distinct society, a new and unprecedented social existence. On this view, any evangelism for which the church is irrelevant, an afterthought, or instrumental cannot be Christian evangelism. 'Social holiness,' to use John Wesley's phrase, is both the aim and the intrinsic logic of evangelism. The practices of the church that embody this social holiness are the witness that becomes evangelism in the hands of the Spirit. ...

"The practice of evangelism, I believe, inescapably counters and disarms the world's powerful practices by unmasking the narratives that sustain them and by offering a story and a people that are peaceful and beautiful. The gospel can, therefore, be good news again in our world. By only if in Christ something new in the world has been made possible and by the Holy Spirit present — something both disturbing and inviting, a salvation in the form of a new story, a 'new humanity,' a new peoplehood. Conversion, on this view, is not primarily a matter of deciding in favor of certain beliefs or having certain experiences. It is rather a change of worlds, participation in a new worship, and a journeying toward a new city. The practice of evangelism always hopes for such a conversion and seeks actively to nourish it. But where the evangelist is tempted to become impatient with the inefficiency of obedience and worship hen more 'efficient' means are readily available such as manipulation, accommodation, and imposition, we are reminded that evangelism is ultimately an activity of the Holy Spirit and is not subject to our own calculus of effectiveness and 'return on investment.' Evangelism, then, or so this book will argue, is not primarily a matter of translating our beliefs about the world into categories that others will find acceptable. It is a matter of being present in he world in a distinctive way such that the alluring and 'useless' beauty of holiness can be touched, tasted, and tried."

—Bryan Stone, Evangelism After Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), pp. 15-16, 20-21

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Or, Mark Love's "Wilco on a Sunday"

It has been a busy week getting back into the swing of things, what with classes and classmates and work and internship and hundreds of pages of reading and... So I have fallen short on my responsibilities this Sunday! No new poetry for the Sabbath.

Instead, head over to Mark Love's blog, and read today's riff on his regular "Dylan on a Sunday" reflections: "Wilco on a Sunday." Mark is spot on, and as an official representative of those who know that Wilco is the best band in the world, I endorse and authorize his words with a full-face grin.

Enjoy, and have a great day off tomorrow.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Belated Anniversary, With Explanations: Why Mi Yodea?

When putting the blog together last year — on an all-day shift at the backdoor of the library, on a hot late summer afternoon, if memory serves correctly — I wanted a way to characterize the tone and aim of the site in a pithy, creative way. I'm not sure what sparked the connection to Jonah, but one of the reasons it is one of my favorite books in Scripture is because of what it says about God. Not only is the Israelite prophet the bumbling clown who gets everything wrong, but the sworn enemies of God's people — the inhabitants of Nineveh — are those to whom Jonah is sent by Yahweh to preach. Yet Jonah's message is not merely "fire and brimstone" for its own sake, but he is commissioned in the hope — Yahweh's hope! — that the city might repent. And the city does repent! And God does relent!

And all the while, Jonah sits, and watches, and whines. What is God's reply? "Should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left — and also many animals?" (4:11). Such a goofy last note, yet so profound: If you knew the grace and mercy of Israel's God, how could you ever suppose, much less hope, for wrath and destruction on these senseless people (and animals!) in such great need of my help?

The message of the book is in keeping with much of the rest of the Old Testament, that Yahweh is a God open to new and surprising futures. I will retain my full exegesis of Mi yodea? for a coming post, but if you read 2 Samuel 12:22, Esther 4:14, and Joel 2:14, you will see the exact same question posed in similar circumstances: though the enemies swarm, though the tribulations mount, though even God himself has promised judgment and finality — who knows? Who knows if Yahweh of Hosts, the Holy One of Israel, the merciful and gracious Lord of Lords — who knows if he will relent, if he will create a new future, if he will part the waves and make a path of redemption? Yes, we know the past; yes, we know what is realistic; but we know what sort of God our God is, and he may, just, yet...

This vision of God seriously disintegrates once Christian doctrine formally pronounces on God abstract universal attributes like "omniscience," "omnipotence," "omnibenevolence," "immutability," etc. Is God not free? Is God not more than mere monad? Is God chained by the past, or by our interpretations of his or our past, or by what is realistic or predictable?

No, and no, and no and no and no.

That is indeed why Mi Yodea? ought to be the central, overarching question for all of theology; for though one might understandably believe otherwise, theologians do not have any better clue of what God is up to than anyone else. We don't have the scoop.

If, however, we position ourselves such that we expect God to surprise us, as is his way, and such that we go looking for his curious work in places the world forgets or belittles, then at the very least, we will have opened ourselves from the beginning, to the extent that we can, to the places and forms and character of God's actions and presence.

And that, I think we may say with confidence, is a good start.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Belated Anniversary, With Explanations: Why Resident Theology?

The title of the blog is relatively straightforward. Anyone familiar with Stanley Hauerwas's most popular work, Resident Aliens, will catch the resemblance. Beyond that, along with my desire to have "theology" in the title (good for Google searches? I don't know), the reason is twofold.

First, to make abundantly clear that what I am not about on this blog is disembodied, conceptually abstract, esoteric jargon intended for philosophical geniuses who have nothing better to do than to sit around and think about matters that have no bearing on life as it is lived by everyday human beings. The church, while a sojourning community and not ultimately at home in this world, does simultaneously -- like the Israelites in exile in Babylon or dispersed among the nations -- take up residence in this life, in this world, in this time. There is no escaping it, nor should there be hopes for such, or attempts at such. God has created us to be his creatures in an alienated and broken place still filled with the imprint of his glory. The mission of the church is for the sake of the world God loves. And so we build houses and plant gardens and raise children, because we, with the world, are not forsaken or forgotten.

The work and practice of theology, therefore, similarly must not be divorced from concrete, dirt-sullied life in this aged world of ours.

Second, I have this idiosyncratic pleasure in the notion of churches each housing a "resident theologian": someone called forth by and for the community, in the midst of the community, as a person gifted by God with the mind and capacity, and therefore the task, of thinking through the theological implications and vision and prescriptions of the gospel. While it is doubtful I will ever hold such an office, I have this romantic vision of churches so valuing the need for hard, careful, nourishing theological reflection that the idea catches on. Furthermore, regardless of official title, I have often felt like I filled such a position in many times and places, and the title of the blog fits the description of the responsibility I have often carried, by implication or by explicit conversation, in the churches which have been my home.

Finally, the subtitle should be equally clear:

"Taking the time God has given us to practice the good work of theology in imaginative, faithful, and playful ways, in service to the church and the world."

If I have done anything right, at least by my plans for what this blog should be from the beginning, it has been to stay true to this vision. Theology is a good work, but it requires careful and patient practice -- but never too serious, never sloppy, never bound to boredom or to slavish routine -- and as Hauerwas puts it so well, God has given us all the time we need to complete the tasks before us. May we take them up, then, and fulfill them to the best of our abilities, with profound gratitude for such an extraordinary gift.

Belated Anniversary, With Explanations: Why Rembrandt?

The choice of Rembrandt's unparalleled, magisterial painting The Return of the Prodigal Son for the above banner was one I made from the moment of the blog's conception, and while it was half a year before my friend Patrick made it look less like a cut-and-paste job and more professional and attractive, I am happy that it has always cast its shadow over the goings-on here. In thinking of an image or piece of art as a visual representation or communication of what I hoped would happen on the blog, Rembrandt's masterpiece was quickly the only candidate before me. The reason is simple: When I was in Russia two years ago, while exploring the hundreds of rooms of The Hermitage in St. Petersberg, I came upon a handful of Rembrandt's works spread out over his career. Particularly poignant was the placement of The Return exactly adjacent to his Abraham and Isaac, a kind of spatial intersection of Scripture's central stories of fathers and sons, of obedience and mercy, of promise and fulfillment.

The effect of the two paintings was, in every sense, quite literally overwhelming -- I felt the need to sit down -- but I could not take my eyes off of them, especially The Return. A professor told me that in preparation for Henri Nouwen's book on the parable, Nouwen traveled to The Hermitage to see the painting in person, and spent an entire day, 12 hours straight, sitting in front of the canvas without moving, studying the faces and emotions and actions of it all as the sun's light drifted in varying degrees across the face of it. Having been in the same spot, surrounded by tourists and visitors from all nations, enveloped in the hazel light of a summer Russian sun breathing gently from right to left across brother, room, and father and son -- Nouwen's enraptured stillness makes perfect sense.

For Easter this year, I included an image of the painting along with a poem I wrote in reflection on it. For me, and for this blog, the painting as a whole (and the snippet captured for the banner) speaks in a thousand truthful ways of the gospel: father and son, forgiveness, welcome, initiative, freedom, family, hospitality, celebration, embrace, exile and restoration, humility, mercy, grace, compassion, pain and loss, sin and deceit, redoubtable pride, jealousy, rebuke, hope, surprise, new life. We are always someone in the picture; at times we think we are other than who we are. The gospel bursts forth and proclaims itself in all its multifarious glory and beauty in every second we give to meditation and discernment of this inimitably depthless work.

And if something of that power -- one ounce, one scrap -- finds it way into the words I scramble together every few days for reading together on this blog, then I will have succeeded beyond all expectation, and Rembrandt's place as head of proceedings will have been wisely chosen indeed.