Sunday, November 30, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2008

Being Simple and Giving Thanks

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

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

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

An Open Question For Bill Simmons

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

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Hey Bill – question for you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Psalm 44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Psalm 44

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

Friday, November 21, 2008

Unorganized Reflections on the Loss of the Authority of the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Introducing ... Scribite!

Behold! I come bearing good news for all the people.

A couple of old friends and I have created a group blog called Scribite. (We even have our own URL!) A bit more expansive than this more theologically-themed blog -- though you wouldn't know it by the recent slew of movie-related posts -- we will simply be writing about any and all things of interest, but in a more communal, interrelated way. We've already got the party started with about a dozen posts, so feel free to join the fun! I will still be writing here, so no need to pick one or the other -- sometimes I'll post the same on each, sometimes I'll keep it separate. It's just a different opportunity to do different kinds of stuff.

(Plus, the best part is that we all think about things in majorly different ways -- which is to say that all of my blabbering on about war and poverty and politics here, so uniform and relatively unchallenged, will certainly not go unnoticed there.)

So! I hope you'll go check it out.

Oh, and one disclaimer: I am just a writer, so save all of your praise for the look and feel and construction of the site itself for my Scribite colleagues (oh yes, you're getting that language from me). They're great with all sorts of stuff like that; I just do what I'm told.

Below is our "About" section on the site, to give you a bit of a better feel for what we're doing.

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Scribite is a group blog comprised of a handful of friends writing about everything: politics, religion, sports, culture, etc. We take our name from the Latin imperative “Write!” and answer the call dutifully. If, however, you want to ignore the accent mark and name us like an Old Testament people group (e.g., the Hittites), that works, too. Not only are we just that magnanimous, it is essentially what we are: ragtag blog scribes.

The Iconoclasts are made up of Tyler and Julie, unrelated except by friendship. Tyler is our renaissance man, a savant with daily-changing interests and expertises. He lives in Houston with his newlywed wife, cheers for the Rockets, loves good wine and dancing and people, and is equally likely by the end of his life to have (a) worked in the FBI, (b) served as a Mandarin interpreter in a U.S. consulate, (c) been GM of an NBA team, (d) coached high school sports, (e) raised 7 children, or (f) all of the above.

Julie, by God’s grace, is a lifelong Spurs fan. She proved her blogging chops with an inaugural post liveblogging a Cowboys-Redskins game. She is presently in Washington, D.C., doing D.C. things in a D.C. world. Her friends speak of her as easygoing, smart, and witty. Her future will be filled in later, once the author of this section gets to know her better.

Pomdilly is an inexplicable term inextricably tied to the inexorably complex personality of Matt. Himself a Spurs fan — is there a better way to state one’s character? — Matt finds himself in Houston in temporary servitude to an evil corporation whose name we cannot publish for fear of his safety. Suffice to say that Matt is living one crazy life — what with the early bedtimes, office hijinks, and constant anxious anticipation of Bill Simmons’ next column — a life we can only know to call Pomdilly.

Brad is our Resident Theologian, as yet without a real job, as yet unrevealing of plans to ever actually work a real job. Currently in the midst of earning his Master of Divinity degree in Atlanta, Brad is a happily married newlywed, with whom he shares overwhelming love … for the Spurs. He blogs on his own at Resident Theology. He and Matt have known each other since infancy, and they have known Tyler since high school. Which time period was a more harrowing experience, no one knows.

We hope you enjoy sharing time, discussion, argument, faith, thought, and laughter with us. And of course, we invite you to join the part: scribite!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Quantum of Solace as Feature-Length Epilogue

Bill Weber over at Slant Magazine calls the new Bond entry, Quantum of Solace, “almost like a feature-length epilogue to its predecessor.” While this assessment is largely meant negatively, I think it is an adequate way to interpret the film in a positive light. (Warning: spoilers throughout.)

Casino Royale was a virtual workshop in how to both make a rousing action flick and reboot a franchise. As a friend notes in his review, the producers went back to the basics, drawing heavily on the Bourne franchise as well as Batman Begins’ re-do of its hero. (We’ll see how JJ Abrams fares in his redux of Star Trek.)

The genius of Casino Royale was twofold: make Bond human, and give him an equal as sparring partner. As it turned out, the two were related, as the character of Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green) brought out Bond’s humanity and was herself his equal. Furthermore, Bond was an upcoming cocky agent recently promoted, engaged in a daring operation, falling in love, saving the world. We can already hear the foretaste of the coming symphony’s themes in this glorious preamble.

But everything goes wrong! She betrays him — or not — and dies — because of him? — and we see the first integral part of Bond come to being before our eyes: self-interested, cold killer. No one other than himself; he is the job.

But now the cockiness is gone. The sharp dialogue, the charm, the fun — it died with his (possibly deceitful) love. How can he be the Bond we know if only half of the equation is filled out?

Enter part two.

I am sure many will and do share certain frustrations with Quantum, and I recognize some of them. The primary one for me was director Marc Forster’s obvious inexperience in handling action sequences, particularly the chases by car and on rooftop. Most everything was too zoomed in and too quickly cut; no geography, no money shots, just boom-boom-boom. Quick editing and a handheld camera does not a Bourne movie make. Paul Greengrass, for all his detractors, knows the ins and outs of his camerawork intimately, and for my money is a master.

That is the primary downside, though as a whole the action is still strong. The positives are numerous: the quality of the bad guy; the subversion of the Bond girl (they don’t sleep together and she fulfills her own mission!); the intersplicing of the interrogation scene with the horse race as well as the Quantum meeting with the opera; Mathis and Felix, especially the latter’s setup for a larger role in the series; the seriousness of the plot; and most of all, the honesty with which the writers, Forster, and Daniel Craig approach Bond as a character.

Bond is not merely “the mission” anymore; worse, he is vengeance. He can’t stop himself from killing everyone in his path, regardless of their innocence or the help they might provide. He is angry at Vesper, angry at Mr. White, angry at the whole conspiracy, angry at MI6, angry at himself. He is anger and he is death. No one-liners, no fun dialogue, no charm. Mostly silent, wholly cold-blooded revenge.

What faithfulness to a character arc!

Bourne is interesting as a semi-moral blank; he doesn’t kill for fun, he’s just trying to find himself, find his past.

Batman is interesting as a vengeance-spurning vigilante; his parents were killed, so he will use that rage to ensure others’ aren’t given the same treatment, while always eschewing execution.

James Bond is supposed to be interesting because of his debonair ability to, as the saying goes, make women want him and men want to be him.

Well, who wants to be this Bond? Silent assassin? Unsexual murderer? International vigilante wanted by his own government?

By the end of the film, Bond does make a choice. “I never left.” He chooses not to kill, he chooses unselfish information-gathering over the satisfaction of revenge. He hints at a smile as he walks away, and we are treated, finally, to the target circle “introduction” of Bond, James Bond, as he walks across the screen and shoots us, the audience, and the screen turns red as the theme begins.

Now we have our Bond. He may not be any more role model than before, but he is an honest character. The movie may not have fit our expectations for “Bond series entry #22,” but we know who this man is now. We know his story, his past, what has made him who he is. Now he is full, fully himself, prepared for the next steps in the road.

For that kind of honesty, that kind of storytelling, I am more than willing to accept whatever flaws Quantum of Solace might contain. Here’s to years more of the grounded, engaging, faithful character that is Daniel Craig’s James Bond.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

An Unapologetic Love Letter to Movies

I love movies, and it is good to be reminded of that. This past week I caught a couple movies on TV whose greatness I had largely forgotten. I came in the middle and only watched a few minutes, but I simply could not peel my eyes away.

The films were Good Will Hunting and The Limey. (The latter was actually being played at the homeless shelter! A resident asked me if it was like Pulp Fiction, a favorite of his. Oh, cinema, how I love you.) The former, which you are likelier to know, is directed by Gus Van Sant, starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Robin Williams. I hadn't seen it in years -- I used to own it but seem to have misplaced it -- but sitting with my wife I was speaking lines with the characters, anticipating coming scenes, utterly transported and transplanted into the world on the screen. I cannot say enough about it.

The Limey is a devastating tale of revenge directed by the brilliant Steven Soderbergh and starring Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda. No need to say more, other than that it is brutal fare while beautiful somehow, simply arresting in every frame.

That was the word that kept coming to me: arresting. I mentioned in a recent post how much I am not watching movies lately, which is surely a healthy discipline for a cinephile like me, but catching even brief moments of those beloved films I realized how much of an absence it has become for me. My great love, gone for a third of a year! Sometimes I feel the need to apologize for sounding so ridiculous about something so potentially trivial, but movies are art, and those particular movies reminded me that sometimes it is okay to be head over heels in love with art.

And, my God, I am head over heels in love with movies.

There are moments when watching a movie in a theater, as part of an engaged audience, that are transcendent. Not just aesthetically or crowd-pleasing, but truly magnificent. A moment that you cannot forget.

There are films from which you honestly cannot remove your eyes even for a moment. Don't blink! That frame is essential!

My directors, those who speak my language, whose films demand and own my eyes for 90-180 minutes without fail each time out, are the poets and the entertainers, and often the best kind of mix:
  • Steven Spielberg and his profound populism;
  • Stanley Kubrick and his singular vision;
  • Quentin Tarantino and his precisely attuned cinematic drunkenness;
  • Darren Aranofsky and his immanent transcendence;
  • Steven Soderbergh and his unpredictably engaging eclecticism;
  • Spike Jonze and his quirky attentiveness;
  • The Coen brothers and their wacky absurdism;
  • Christopher Nolan and his uncompromising psychological depth;
  • M. Night Shyamalan and his unmediated, fierce personality;
  • Terrence Malick and his steady, free, meandering, meditative lyricism;
  • Paul Thomas Anderson and his wildly controlled, larger-than-life widescreen;
  • Martin Scorsese and his frenetic, epic, messy vistas of dangerous lives;
  • David Gordon Green and his wholly humane studies of imperfect people.

We see Malick in Green, Altman in Anderson, Kubrick in Aranofsky, Hitchcock in Shyamalan, much in Spielberg, most in Tarantino, all in Scorsese. Serious and funny, action and silence, far away and zoomed in, story and character, grand and tiny, pastiche and unique.

Every single one, amidst a thousand others, an artist, an auteur, a master. Painting in moving snapshots life, human and otherwise, past and present, real and imagined, realistic and fantastic, bare bones and balls out.

Perfect is the word. Arresting. Our lauded poets, and rightly so. And I love them for it. Quite simply, I love movies. They are a good in life unmeasured by statistics or survival or standards we know, because they are art, and art is not qualitative. It is felt, it is loved, it is hugged and treasured and adored and scrutinized, like family, like a lover, like an irascible ancient god always on the move.

Speaking for myself, I love 'em to death. Like basketball and Texas and theology and Wilco and Mexican food and the Spurs and Austin and the guitar and trees in autumn and holidays with family, I love, love, love, love, love movies. It is the kind of thing, the kind of gift, that makes life good. So I am thankful, and express my undying love, for the wonderful gift of the world of film.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Wendell Berry

This poem was Wendell Berry's first Sabbath poem of the new year of 1991. Berry is one of our most coherent and powerful voices against the unmitigated machinery of war, and this is one of his most powerful poems. My poem after it is a kind of extension of his poem, drawing and expanding on Berry's work. I should also give credit where credit is due: the last line, and the other inspiration for the poem, is taken from Stanley Hauerwas's "Call for the Abolition of War" at the 2007 Convocation and Pastor's School at Duke Divinity School.

[Update: I have taken down poems I am in the process of submitting for publication. I apologize for the confusion and/or inconvenience!]

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The year begins with war

By Wendell Berry

The year begins with war.
Our bombs fall day and night,
Hour after hour, by death
Abroad appeasing wrath,
Folly, and greed at home.
Upon our giddy tower
We'd oversway the world.
Our hate comes down to kill
Those whom we do not see,
For we have given up
Our sight to those in power
And to machines, and now
Are blind to all the world.
This is a nation where
No lovely thing can last.
We trample, gouge, and blast;
The people leave the land;
The land flows to the sea.
Fine men and women die,
The fine old houses fall,
The fine old trees come down:
Highway and shopping mall
Still guarantee the right
And liberty to be
A peaceful murderer,
A murderous worshipper,
A slender glutton, or
A healthy whore. Forgiving
No enemy, forgiven
By none, we live the death
Of liberty, become
What we have feared to be.

Friday, November 14, 2008

On Doing Theology With The Poor

Tuesday night was a good night.

My placement as part of my Master of Divinity program is to serve weekly at a local homeless shelter. Thursday is my usual night, but I had to make up a missed week, so I went Tuesday with some fellow seminarians (such a goofy word).

I knew beforehand that one of my fellow classmates leads an hour-long Bible study every Tuesday night for any guests staying at the shelter who are interested. Though I am planning to become a teacher in both the church and the academy (paid by the latter, in service to the former), still the idea of leading a Bible study like that, cold, off the cuff, not knowing anybody in advance, remains terrifying. Furthermore, and more importantly, what in the world do I have to say to people experiencing homelessness? I have no integrity, no ethos, from which to share anything of value with such a group.

But, I knew that, as the resident "Bible guy/theologian" serving that night -- and being called to such ministry and leadership in general -- I simply needed to accept that I would participate, and leave it at that. So I did.

When the time came, I did as I was told and walked over to the room where the study would be taking place. Only a couple people were there, and it was almost time, so I was breathing easy, thinking I was off the hook. I can handle this.

Then, of course, one by one people start to show up, and by the end, it was 13 residents (diverse in both gender and race) plus me and my leader friend. No, thank you, I'll be stepping out right about now. But (alas!) I stayed. Then, however, something remarkable happened.

God showed up.

Our site supervisor at the shelter speaks often about doing theology with the poor. Not praying "at" the poor (where they don't have a voice), not praying "about" the poor (where they aren't even present), but praying with the poor. Learning that the work and practice and discipline of theology is incomplete, void, divorced from the life and experience and presence of the poor.

I "knew" this before Tuesday; that night, I experienced it for the first time.

(I want to respect names and details, but I also want to share what it was like to be there.)

The most apparent feature of nearly everyone present was an uninhibited, gratuitous, all-encompassing love for and reception of Scripture. The Bible was it, the thing we can all trust, the way home and the way forward. Each and every word read aloud was a blessing and, in the deepest power and profoundest pleasure, good news. Anytime someone pointed us to a different passage, the person was thanked profusely and God was thanked for his grace. The Spirit present, the theological air we were breathing, was simple and twofold: God is faithful; may we give thanks.

There was much more spoken and shared worth passing along, but (for now) I will leave it at that. Instead I simply want to say:

What a wonderful gift.

Now, the worst kind of condescension is when the privileged (read: me) dote on the glories of the downtrodden (read: them) as if those in hard times exist for the sake of stately bourgeois benefit. If that is what I have portrayed, then I apologize.

What I want to do, rather, is remember the story of Jesus. Jesus is the one who, in his inaugural and programmatic sermon in his hometown, states unequivocally that he comes having been anointed and called to preach good news for the poor. And that is the story from beginning to end -- and after the end. When the church is reported in Acts to have no needy among them, they are in fact fulfilling God's promise in the Torah that "there shall be no needy among you." The church embodies in its communal life the call and story of Jesus, Israel's Messiah, as seen in his life and ministry. The disciples remember Jesus's story, their story, and act accordingly.

Just so for us. God's kingdom is a kingdom of upside down values, where the poor are first and the rich are last. As the vanguard of God's coming kingdom, can we as the church be a community that bespeaks God's upside down values, the values of the blessed poor, of the powerful weak, of the crucified God? Is there good news apart from such values?

Before, I "knew" these questions in the abstract. After Tuesday night, after receiving the gift of being allowed to share in listening to God's good Scripture with those in need -- those for whom God has a special place in his heart, his "preferential option for the poor" -- after doing theology with the poor, I actually know that it can be done. I actually know that it is a reality. I actually know, with my own eyes, that my endless critical methods of study, all of my academia and all of my braininess, are foolishness before the witness of these homeless brothers and sisters, who find in the Bible a survival text that speaks endless good news for those with ears to hear it.

The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Assorted Notes: Beauty, Spurs, Movies, SNL, Publius, Obama, and Prayer

For the first time in my life, I am experiencing Autumn. The glorious, innumerable trees of greater Atlanta are standing tall and changing colors. They are not dead, their leaves did not disappear overnight, and there are colors other than green and mortuary brown. Blood red and startling yellow and lively brown and all shades of green; this may very well be my first "Hey, there are good things outside of Texas!" moment.

I'm walking through campus underneath (as always) huge trees, and I realize that, in a consistent but random pattern, leaves are slowly falling all around me. I'm eating red beans and rice, and a leaf actually falls into my bowl. I had to stop walking it was so amazing. I felt like I was living in a Robert Frost poem. In the face of so much depoliation, degradation, and bad stewardship, God's good creation resists and lives on in its beauty and wholeness and power. Praise God for such a marvelous, gratuitous gift.

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This is me not giving up on the Spurs, nor even on my championship prediction (with which the editors of Sports Illustrated agreed, by the way!). They may be 1-3, they may have had the worst start of the franchise post-merger, they may be utterly devoid of a competent scorer in the post (other than Duncan), they may be playing their worst defense in a decade ... but I'm not panicking.

You ask for reasons? Here's five:

1) It's the first four games of the season! We played Phoenix, Portland, Dallas, and Minnesota; we lost to the first two by a combined six points, and all three losses have been to playoff-bound teams. Duncan hits the three against Phoenix, Finley hits the baseline buzzer-beater, we're 3-1.

2) Ladies and gentlemen, our offseason pickups! Roger Mason and George Hill are going to work out even better than expected (though realizing how much we lost by the Blazers taking Nicholas Batum one pick ahead of us is devastating). Mason is already knocking down shots like crazy, and Hill, in his first NBA game ever, scored 11 points in 16 minutes, played fantastic defense, and was the only spark for a listless team. I'm okay with giving these guys time to get their rhythm with the team.

3) We are beat up! Manu Ginobili -- number five in Bill Simmons' MVP rankings at the end of last season, behind only Garnett, Paul, Kobe, and Lebron -- will be back in a couple of months, finally healthy and rested, just in time for our second-half push. Then we will have Parker and Duncan as starting scoring options, with Ginobili, Hill, and Mason coming off the bench. Again, I'm fine with this.

4) The Spurs are fully aware of their big man problem. Kurt Thomas will work okay as a defensive starter, but coming off the bench -- assuming Mahinmi and Tolliver don't blossom, which they could -- we need an offensive threat. Well, already there are reports that San Antonio might be interested in trading for Eddy Curry. I don't know if I endorse such a trade, but the idea is there: Buford and Pop know they need help in the frontcourt, and they're going after it aggressively. Could Curry work? A troubled player with potential but little discipline? Someone like Dennis Rodman or Stephen Jackson? Nah...

5) It's Pop! It's Duncan! It's Parker scoring FIFTY-FIVE POINTS AND TEN ASSISTS AND SEVEN REBOUNDS!!! (Who called Parker having a careeer year? Moi.)

Yep, if you're looking for a panicked Spurs fan, this is the wrong place.

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I am used to being concurrent with the world of film. I keep running lists of movies I've seen and rankings of the year's best. Well, a little thing called "graduate school" combined with another insignificant item called "married budget" has resulted in seeing less than a half dozen movies in the last three months. I really can't put into words how vastly different this is than my normal experience. I think I saw around 150 films in 2005. A bit much, but my pace right now is about 1/6 that. My psychological makeup is simply not taking the whole cold turkey thing well. I'm dreading ending the year without a respectable end-of-year list!

(Thus complaineth the married, employed, housed, healthy graduate student surrounded by family, community, support, church, and food on the table.)

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This fall officially converted me to Saturday Night Live. (I accidentally wrote "Love" instead of "Live" -- that should tell you something about my state of mind!) Their political satire has been brilliant, as have been the episodes in general (sans Michael Phelps). I think it is a combination of the times and and the writing, but also the spectacular quality of the hosts: James Franco, Anna Faris, Anne Hathaway, Josh Brolin, Jon Hamm, Ben Affleck. Not a poor actor among them, and if you're thinking Affleck, just watch his over-the-top, relentless Keith Olbermann 10-minute piece. I almost fell off the couch.

So, they have officially captured me, and the only problem is that on the east coast it doesn't end until 1:00 am. Come on, people! Can't we be like India and just comprise one big time zone?

(P.S. Better than SNL, of course, is the funniest human being alive: Craig Ferguson. He doesn't actually start until 12:30 am here, so I rarely get to watch him -- getting up, as I do, at 6:00 am every morning -- but Wednesday night Katelin and I stayed up for an episode ... and nearly passed out from laughing so hard. I think it was when he compared Joe Biden to both Hannibal Lecter and Ed the hyena from Lion King that I blacked out for a few minutes.)

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Onto a few more serious things. First, "Publius" commented on the final post in the Voting series, and I thought I'd respond. Here was his/her comment:

"I read your post, and I could not help but be incredibly disturbed by your characterization of Dobson's words as "slander" of a sort that is "utterly reprehensible." Dobson's article was largely based in factual articulations on policy promises Obama has already made regarding the institution of FOCA, his selection of justices for the Supreme Court, his statements on dealings with Iran, and other policy and legislative proposals that are a matter of public record. Many, in fact, are directly from Obama himself. When we simply hold leaders accountable, even Senator Obama, for the things they have actually promised to do, what is slanderous in that?

Let us keep in mind that it is not only the poor who are victims in this country. How many of us have forgotten the plight of the full term child, who can be ripped limb from limb within a mother's womb with the legal imprimatur of the law? How many of us have forgotten that it is only because of an Act of Congress banning partial birth abortion, that it is no longer legal for a doctor to stab a fully delivered child (except for the head), in the back of the neck with a pair of scissors before sucking its brain out? How many of us have realized that Obama has pledged to repeal the very act that prevents this?

A world in which these atrocities do not happen is a world that both Christ, and Dobson, would surely approve of. There are many ways to help the poor, and people believe in different national policies for accomplishing such goals. If the Church is not to be a power wielding weapon in the hands of God, surely it is not our duty to impose our beliefs that others relinquish their money to help the poor. I am sure you would disagree with this statement, but to say otherwise is intellectually inconsistent. I must say, I have enjoyed reading your posts. However, on this point, I believe you are in error."

First, thanks for the comment. I so appreciate anyone taking the time to thoughtfully read and engage what I say. (And if I know you, feel free to name yourself! Anonymity usually creates distance rather than connection.)

I do not disagree on the issue of abortion. The church cannot be a faithful witness to the world if we are not a people who model what it means to welcome children into the world as a gift. I am less clear on what the implications ought to be for policy -- primarily because there is a fundamental difference, and moral ambiguity, between a rich woman in a healthy marriage and a homeless, poor, or abused woman having an abortion, and thus if Christians want to be "pro-life" they must be so holistically, in ways that nonjudgmentally welcome unwed mothers, adopt children, and call for economic structures supportive of single moms -- but I am in utter agreement that Christians must be a voice for the unborn.

I am not sure what I have written that might imply I think the state ought to redistribute money to the poor. I am not necessarily wholesale against the idea, but I am equally fearful of the kind of power a centralized state accrues when it exercises utter control over citizens' money. All that is to say that I don't have a formal stance on the issue, and thus have not intended to write as if I do. There are problems either way, and Christians (and non-Christians) can honestly disagree about what serves the poor best. There are other facets to that discussion that I think Christians ought to be able to agree on, but that is for another day.

And regarding Dobson's letter, we are going to have to respectfully disagree. His letter gives the overall impression of a kind of anti-Christian post-apocalyptic nightmare in the possibility (now reality) of an Obama presidency. I believe such rhetoric is unhelpful, fearmongering, and, yes, slanderous, especially against a fellow Christian. Furthermore, my criticism was that the entire letter misses the point: the church is not in charge of the world; thus, to envision a political apocalypse in the way Dobson does is to forget that the only apocalypse Christians believe in is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to be completed and fulfilled in his return. That is why, on theological grounds, I found Dobson's letter to be inappropriate for public discourse.

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This post has already grown beyond intent -- as if that is ever a surprise for me -- but a few more reflections on a topic somewhat germane to this week's historic events: the election of one Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American President(-elect).

(Allow me to make clear: what follows is not written coming from my partisan perspective, but as a Christian. There are faithful Christians who voted both ways on Tuesday, and this has nothing to do with party, policy, or candidate preference. It has to do with language, attitude, witness, and faith.)

From the moment the networks called it for Obama, my wife and I were aghast at the ugliest kind of reactions spilling out from seemingly all corners, including Christians. Like Dobson, many Christians have forgotten about the only apocalypse we believe in, because a great deal seem to think that Obama himself has inaugurated the end times. As I wrote about in a previous post, I term this phenomenon political eschatology.

There is a great deal to address here, but I guess all I want to say is that there is a way to appropriately express the opinion that Obama was not the better choice for President, and it is not by talking as if the world is on the precipice of disaster.

In an example I find horribly depressing, I get a tri-weekly e-journal by email that is politically conservative. I do my best to get my news and commentary from both sides, and this is one of my primary sources for the view from the Right. For the most part I find this publication to be honest, informing, detailed, philosophically astute, honorable, and helpful. Though not a "Christian" publication, it is written by Christians and largely assumes Christian faith.

Well, in their last few issues, they have gone too far. They have called Obama's victory a widescale deception of the American electorate and since Tuesday have been flying their office's flag upside down as a sign of distress. More than once they have implied that Obama's presidency holds such potential for evil and disaster that violent revolution is not out of the question, in order to reinstall what the Constitution actually calls for.

It is difficult to formulate words in response to such claims.

Though it may sound cliche, all I can ask is that we read our Bibles again. What does Romans 12-13 tell us? "Return evil for good." "Be subordinate to the governing authorities." What does Jesus say? "Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you." What did Israel expect of God's anointed? Throw out the occupiers, violent revolution, political reconstitution. What did Jesus do? Submitted to torture and death on a cross. What do Jesus' followers do in Acts when living in a pagan empire, when persecuted, when falsely charged, when given the death sentence? They resist through worship, they endure suffering, they speak truth to power, they love their enemies, they ask forgiveness for their murderers, they submit to death. They are martyrs. They live what Jesus commanded and modeled.

Friends, let us remember the way to which we are called. Nary a post goes by without me somehow finding a reason to re-tell the story of the gospel, the story of the suffering God and his suffering people, but we cannot live into the story if we forget it. As we think, and discuss, and argue, and disagree, in things political or otherwise, let us remember our story.

And when we remember our story, I am confident we will remember that one Barack Obama is categorically not two things: messiah, or antichrist.

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Living in Atlanta affords Katelin and I the wonderful gift of going to school, working, and living with a significantly higher population of African-Americans than we have experienced previously in Atlanta and Abilene. I cannot put into words how meaningful it has been to celebrate Tuesday's events with them. Not that Obama the Democratic candidate was elected, but that a nation with such a scarred history toward blacks could have come so far in so short a time. The joy and hope and impact on our friends' faces is something we cannot pretend to know personally, but it is undoubtedly something to celebrate. I hope all Christians, of whatever political persuasion, can celebrate such a meaningful event with our black brothers and sisters.

(For a brief but powerful story about Tuesday's events, go read Mark Love.)

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One more thing.

I am not a very good pray-er. I do my best, but often fail. That is okay -- God is gracious -- but because I am not a very good pray-er, my prayers don't always include all that they should. For example, in contrast to Scripture's repeated refrain, I realized Tuesday that I don't know if I have ever prayed for the leader of our nation.

Well, that's stopping right now.

While watching Obama after his speech with his family, two things hit me:

1) Holy crap, Obama has the weight of the world on his shoulders.

2) Holy crap, Obama could be assassinated.

Because political assassination belongs to "history" -- JFK, failed attempts on Reagan and Roosevelt -- and because there has been so little written about attempts made against Obama, I hadn't really given it any thought. Well, it had me like a freight train, especially with the racial implications. So I prayed. O God, please keep Barack Obama and his family safe.

And regarding the former, I realized just how much is riding on Obama's presidency. Wholesale change, "the first black president," international peaceable diplomacy, ongoing wars, a dreadful economy. So I prayed. O God, please give Barack Obama wisdom.

Those will be part of my daily prayers from here on out, for Obama as well as every president that we have. May God call all Christ-followers into prayer for their leaders, and in those prayers may we remember the One in whose hands we truly rest.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

And the verdict is...

Homelessness, the Homemaking God, and the Sojourning Community: Rachel and Her Children and Beyond Homelessness in Conversation

The following is a Literature Essay I recently wrote for my Urban Ministries class comparing two books on homelessness and drawing insights for urban ministry.

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“We are all in exile.”[1] Thus Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh, in their captivating book Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, state the overarching problem they perceive to be facing the world in the 21st century. Writing on the same topic yet in a vastly different manner, Jonathan Kozol – in his devastating book Rachel and Her Children – seeks to answer the particular question, “Why are so many people homeless in our nation?”[2] (Specifically, homeless mothers and their children.) On the one hand, Bouma-Prediger and Walsh encompass socioeconomic homelessness under the broader umbrella of its myriad forms that infect so much of North American society today. On the other hand, Kozol, through personal interviews and relationships formed over a period of time in New York City homeless shelters, paints the hard picture of life on the ground for individuals and families; he tells the untold story of mothers and fathers and children without homes or shelter or dignity in a time otherwise named “return to prosperity,” “morning in America,” “traditional values,” and “shining city on a hill.”[3] Bouma-Prediger and Walsh tell the larger, though no less true or particular, story of what it means to live in a society utterly divorced from place, a society thus doomed through its structures and apathy to displace others at alarming rates. Kozol, a non-Christian,[4] spells a narrative on the street; Bouma-Prediger and Walsh broaden the scope, do Christian theological reflection, and call the church to action. Though unrelated formally, read together the two books tell a compelling story to which both the church and larger society ought to listen.

Context is key in analyzing such an overwhelming issue. The temptation is to speak generally about a generic issue for a general audience. Instead, we must recognize that we speak from a context and for a context. For Christians that context is the church. Conversation, discussion, and analysis – especially concerning a topic as important as homelessness – cannot be divorced from ecclesiology. The church is God’s people in the world, the Spirit-led community that follows Jesus and proclaims him as Lord. In this paper I will speak primarily to that community as a member of that community. At times I will step back for a moment to talk about society, culture, policy, government, etc., but the central focus will remain the implications for the life of the church. Furthermore, I do not want to limit the practice of “ministry” to formal programs led by clergy; rather, I want to ask what the reality of homelessness across America, both that of poor people without shelter and rich people without true home, means for the daily lives of Christians in community together. In this way ministry is not limited to what is “official,” but instead the vocation of each Christian’s ordinary life alongside collective activity.[5]

Rachel and Her Children is a diagnosis and a call to arms. Poetic and unflinching, Kozol delves deeply into the lives of homeless families living in shelters in New York City. Examined as a whole, the book accomplishes four primary purposes:[6] 1) it establishes as undeniable fact the plight of the homeless; 2) it makes clear that the homeless population is growing; 3) it finds culpability in a citizenry and a government apathetic, unmoved, impotent, or unbelieving toward such a monumental crisis; and 4) it argues the case, implicitly through its stories and explicitly through rhetorical questions and proclamation, that there is a moral compulsion for radical, systemic change.

Kozol’s account offers extraordinary insights into urban ministry for the church. The first, and possibly most important, is fluid and seemingly unempirical, but is the fruit of a book like Rachel taken in its entirety: homelessness is real, it is not going away, and the church must be shaken out of its stereotypes and its malaise. A book suffused with stories ought to remind the church that, in contrast to the American lie that stats and figures are determinative, the church is a people constituted by stories. Thus, Christians need not research “the facts” about homelessness in order to care or lose prejudice. Kozol says, “We would be wise, however, to avoid the numbers game…There is no acceptable number.” He goes on to remind us that, in contrast to any number of reasons given for homelessness on all sides of the debate, “The cause of homelessness is lack of housing.”[7]

One stereotype especially squashed by Kozol is that the poor and/or homeless are somehow unspiritual or automatically non-Christian simply because they are in dire economic circumstances. One of the most emotional aspects of reading the stories Kozol tells is the ubiquitous presence of deep, abiding trust in God on the part of the homeless families. They pray, they attend church, they read the Bible, they teach their children about God. Most of them seem to believe wholeheartedly that God will rescue them from their distress. As Annie shares with Kozol: “Pray God to make me strong. If it’s a bad day I think of heaven.”[8] Or Rachel, after whom the book is named: “I do believe. God forgive me. I believe He’s there. But when He sees us like this, I am wonderin’ where is He? I am askin’: Where the hell He gone?”[9] Christians simply cannot engage in urban ministry believing that they are “bringing” Jesus or faith or God or salvation to the needy; that is, they must realize that the poor are not necessarily the poor in spirit.

If Kozol is clear about any of his convictions, it is that the system is failing, and living, breathing human beings are paying the price. The most gut-wrenching tale of this sort is found at the end of the book, about Holly Peters and the death of her son Benjamin.[10] A mother and father with a seriously ill toddler and two young children were repeatedly dismissed, denied emergency shelter, given poor medical treatment, and treated with utter disregard and disrespect. Even after Benjamin’s death much of the media coverage painted Holly and the father as equally responsible for the death as the systems that failed them. It is impossible to read the story and find sanity in any of the policies or decisions held against them; for example, they were rejected from housing because they didn’t want to be separated from Benjamin’s father. Traditional family values indeed. Holly’s story is only one of dozens that highlight that it is neither a lack of individual generosity on the part of the wealthy nor somehow the moral poverty of the poor that induces and sustains homelessness: the system is failing, and children are paying the consequences. Systemic restructuring is fundamentally requisite for any serious addressing of the plight of the homeless.

These systemic needs connect to a final insight for urban ministry: politics matters. To endorse failed or oppressive policies while “serving” the poor does no good; political action is required. Kozol repeatedly links the suffering of the homeless with the Reagan administration’s slashing of any budgetary measures meant to help the needy.[11] For those of us inclined or raised to be politically conservative, the point is particularly apt: How can the church be a faithful witness to God’s preferential option for the poor, to the suffering savior, to the homeless Rabbi, to the one who was labeled a glutton and a drunkard, if the American political party most intimately connected with policies and interests for the rich continues to have the undying support of the “Christian base”? Christians engaged in urban ministry must ask themselves what kind of politics they are called to, what kind of policies would best work for the common good, and how they might go about listening to, submitting to, and enacting the politics favored by the poor.

Transitioning to Bouma-Prediger and Walsh’s work, here is full disclosure: if I were to write one book on homelessness, it would be Beyond Homelessness. It is difficult imagining what else they could have included in this well-rounded, full, rich book. Arising out of experience in ministry, with the homeless, and in the academy (they are astoundingly well read in their sources), they present a grand biblical vision of the homemaking creator God, the ensuing and perpetuating homelessness of humankind, and the glorious homecoming wrought in Christ and the church. They analyze what exactly home is, the concrete experience of socioeconomic homelessness, the difference between home and housing, the ecological crisis, the recent arrival of postmodern homelessness, the structures of capitalism and globalization that only add to the distress of the homeless, and the ways in which the story of Scripture, the character of God, and the calling of the church speak to being a homemaking force in the world. In between each chapter is a biblical interlude in which the authors creatively employ a passage from Scripture to illustrate the various ways God’s people have encountered issues of home, exile, and homecoming.[12] In short, as members of the church they take up the hard but necessary work of theology in order to take both God and his good creation seriously and to seek a healthy way forward for a society so at odds with God’s homemaking intentions.

Beyond Homelessness is overflowing with insight for urban ministry, so any examples must inherently leave out some excellent considerations.[13] (If I were to lead a study at a local church about homelessness and God’s calling for the church, this would unreservedly be my textbook.) However, the book’s primary insight for the church is that homelessness is a scandal to the God of Jesus Christ,[14] that the story Scripture tells is one centered around the notion of “home”: given, received, enjoyed, lost, restored. Bouma-Prediger and Walsh reframe the question of “some random folks who happen to not have housing” into a theological crisis of (literally) biblical proportions about which God has spoken directly and at length. To understand “homelessness” in such a way, to have one’s vision expanded to see as God sees, is the first step Christians must take.

One of the most unexpected areas the authors venture into is the environment, what they deem “ecological homelessness.”[15] In a nation where those identified as anti-science or in denial of environmental problems are equated with ignorant, fideistic, “backwards” Christians, it is a welcome surprise to see the earth (the entire cosmos!) – understood as God’s good creation – to be at the heart of what Bouma-Prediger and Walsh consider to be good homemaking. They remark: “The world is amiss. The earth is amuck. We are feeling homeless on our home planet.”[16] More to the point: “Addressing the pervasive and pressing issue of socioeconomic homelessness, important as that is, makes little sense if we do not address the equally pervasive and pressing issue of ecological homelessness.”[17] They identify both individual reasons (emotional impairment, ignorance, denial, apathy) and systemic problems (population growth, affluence, technology, poverty, capitalism, political failure, globalization, destruction of place, contempocentrism, anthropocentrism) to explain why humans are not doing as much as they can to care for the earth.[18] They conclude in agreement with Wendell Berry that “ecological degradation…is blasphemy, an egregious affront to the living God, the holy homemaker who creates and sustains a holy heaven and a holy earth.”[19] They then spend an entire chapter outlining what it would mean for the church to be a character-formed people who embody the virtues of shalom as earthkeepers.[20]

Such serious and sustained thought ought to give pause to Christians seeking to go about urban ministry, precisely because so often perceived solutions to poverty themselves contain the seeds of potential ecological violence, which threaten in the long run any attempts to help in the short run. Urban ministry is by nature located in the city, so “nature” may not be immediately evident. But actions in the inner city have no less an effect on the environment, and thus especially there, where powerless residents may not have the means or knowledge to address such issues, the earth must be kept in mind.

Having addressed socioeconomic then ecological issues, the authors move onto what they call “postmodern homelessness.”[21] They see North American society, and globally the 20th century as a whole, as uniquely typified by uprootedness. We no longer have loyalty to, knowledge of, or love for a place. We literally do not have roots. And a people without roots have no sustenance, have no ability to know what it means to call a place home. They specifically connect this reality to two seemingly opposed worldviews (themselves proposed antitheses to the other): capitalist modernity and self-centered postmodernism.[22] Each is predicated upon the autonomous self, the freedom to choose, the placelessness affording liberation from external constraints. All such desires are false idols, the authors say, and in the end produce the same, homeless result.

What a powerful corrective for self-exalting saviors coming to the poor offering salvation! Urban ministry, when conducted by placeless people ministering to the placed (neighborhooded), turns in upon itself. Those on the “receiving” end of such ministries – though of course, ministry must always be “with,” not “to” – likely have a great deal to speak to wealthy suburbanites or educated do-gooders concerning things like community, belonging, and home. If Christians fall into the temptation of upward mobility and “freedom” from locational restraints, any ministry is doomed to ungrounded failure.

Ultimately, Bouma-Prediger and Walsh find the truth, hope, and resources of the Christian tradition – the indwelling triune God, his promises and actions, and his sojourning community called to care for creation – to be the proper home for humanity, the answer to the need for a noncoercive “household,” and the message of good news for an exiled world.[23] Such gospel belief, however, is not shared by Kozol. So how do the two books overlap and disagree, reinforce or mutually exclude each other?

Though written 20 years apart – at similar junctures? – the books’ essential agreement is in the reality and nature of socioeconomic homelessness in North America. Compare this quote by Bouma-Prediger and Walsh to Kozol’s above: “The reason that so many people are homeless in Toronto is that there is not enough affordable housing.”[24] Both wholeheartedly repudiate the (neo)conservative governmental policies that seek in any way to “trust the market” or cut public funds for the care of the most vulnerable.[25] In different ways, they also each recognize homelessness as a spiritual issue; obviously, Bouma-Prediger and Walsh’s lens is explicitly Christian and theological, but Kozol does not diminish in any way the vibrant spirituality of his correspondents and indeed openly wrestles with the implications of divinity in such wretched suffering.[26]

The differences between the books pertain more to disparate emphases and intentions than to outright ideological disagreements. Surprisingly, though Rachel and Her Children is a blistering attack on what he sees as a comfortably uncaring nation, Kozol presents few direct policy suggestions.[27] On the other hand, Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, though still not offering outlined resolutions for Congress to vote on, consistently make precise claims about the kinds of legislation in need of immediate enactment: affordable housing, increased business regulation, steps away from globalization, an established safety net, strict rules to protect the environment.[28] Beyond this slight difference, though, the books are largely complimentary: one gets a picture of Kozol sitting in a room of one of the filthy shelters in New York City interviewing one of 100 homeless families, painting the brutal picture for any and all to read and know and look away no longer. Bouma-Prediger and Walsh assume that necessary account and step further to ask even deeper questions, about God and society and the earth and culture and the church. The books themselves tell a story; a story I, as a Christian, find truthful and compelling, hopeful though harrowing.

In response to such a wealth of analysis, information, stories, reflection, theology, challenge, suffering, and hope, my questions are threefold and simple: What should I do? What should society do? What should the church do? The “I” of the first question is included in the collective “we” of the second and third questions, but each question is distinct from the others. The first two are important, and do include aspects of urban ministry: What do I do as an individual, and what kind of politics do I champion and represent for the sake of the poor and the homeless? However, for our purposes the third question takes priority: What is the message these books speak to God’s people?

First, these books remind us of our true identity: followers of the one pleased to spend his time among the outcasts of society. “There shall be no poor among you” is Yahweh’s communal Torah calling to Israel fulfilled in the church in Acts.[29] Christians today cannot be so compromised by a culture of consumption that they forgets their Lord and calling. The church, in all places, at all times, in all its various forms, must be involved in the life of the poor and marginalized – in service, in relationship, in worship. If America is suffering from a crisis of people becoming homeless, Christians must be the people who do not add to the stigma, who welcome them into the worshiping community, who provide housing and needs – who, in other words, embody the virtue of hospitality. Such hospitality, the fruit of the “virtues of shalom,” is precisely why “urban ministry” cannot be reduced to a mere program for the poor, but instead is at the heart of what it means to be Christian community lived out daily in neighborhoods and workplaces, on the street and in restaurants. Hospitality is seeing the image of God, Jesus Christ, in the other, and welcoming her accordingly. Such is the faithful response of the homemaking church, with good news of homecoming for a world enslaved to homelessness.

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[1] Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh, Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 250.
[2] Jonathan Kozol, Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America (New York: Three Rivers), 4.
[3] That is, the 1980s of the Executive Administration of American President Ronald Reagan.
[4] Kozol only implies this, but questions like “How can they pray?” indicate at least a general agnosticism. See Kozol, Rachel, 175.
[5] These claims arise out of my ecclesial tradition, that of churches of Christ, which there is no official clergy, so I don’t make them theoretically or idealistically.
[6] For more information see the “Overview” in Kozol, Rachel, 5-25.
[7] Kozol, Rachel, 12, 14. The italics belong to the original quote.
[8] Ibid., 57.
[9] Ibid., 85. Kozol devotes an entire chapter to spirituality: “About Prayer,” 174-180.
[10] Ibid., 141-160.
[11] E.g, Kozol, Rachel, 15, 17, 73-74, 101-102, 167, 203-205.
[12] The passages include Genesis 1—9;Deuteronomy 15 and 1 Kings 21; Amos; Isaiah 58; Matthew 14—15; Mark 11—16;Colossians; Revelation 21—22; and Luke 15. See Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond, 29-37, 68-75, 113-120, 153-157, 190-195, 230-238, 264-270, 305-312, 320-327.
[13] The analysis of the meaning of “home” is especially superb. See Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond, 1-28, 38-67.
[14] See Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond, chapters 1 and 3.
[15] See Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond, chapters 6 and 7.
[16] Ibid., 161.
[17] Ibid., 162.
[18] Ibid., 169-184.
[19] Ibid., 188.
[20] See Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond, chapter 6. The virtues they list are peaceableness, justice, compassion, and wisdom.
[21] See Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond, chapter 7.
[22] Ibid., 254-263.
[23] Ibid., chapters 8 and 9.
[24] Ibid., 98; see note 7 for the similar quote from Kozol.
[25] E.g., Kozol, Rachel, 56-57; Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond, 92-112.
[26] See again Kozol’s chapter on prayer in Rachel, 174-180.
[27] Kozol questions whether our policies are implicitly ways of quietly killing the poor in order to rid ourselves of them. Rachel says, “I had another baby. What about it? Are you goin’ to kill that baby?” to which Kozol responds, “As of now, we do not have an answer to that question.” See Rachel, 232.
[28] Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond, 121-152.
[29] Deuteronomy 15:4; Acts 2:42-47.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Maynard James Keenan

In high school Tool was my favorite band, in spite of what one might rightly perceive to be an anti-Christian slant in their lyrics and presentation. While I wouldn't call them my favorite today, I continue to cherish the quality of their music and the thoughtfulness of their message. Maynard James Keenan is the lead singer, and his lyrics are always powerful. "Reflection" is from their third full-length album released in 2001, Lateralus, and reveals surprisingly Christian language in its evocation of spirituality and the need for freedom from narcissism. If one were to changes the gender of the personal pronouns, a "Christianity and Culture" class could probably be fooled into thinking the lyrics were by a Christian! However, I don't want the power of the song to be reduced to what sounds "Christian"; the words are compelling in their own right, and deserve to be heard in their own tenor. In that spirit, enjoy!

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By Maynard James Keenan (of Tool)

I have come curiously close to the end, down
Beneath my self-indulgent pitiful hole
Defeated, I concede and
Move closer
I may find comfort here
I may find peace within the emptiness
How pitiful

It's calling me...

And in my darkest moment
Fetal and weeping
The moon tells me a secret
My confidant
As full and bright as I am
This light is not my own and
A million light reflections pass over me

Its source is bright and endless
She resuscitates the hopeless
Without her, we are lifeless satellites

And as I pull my head out
I am without one doubt
Don't wanna be down here
Feeding my narcissism
I must crucify the ego
Before it's far too late
I pray the light lifts me out
Before I pine away...

So crucify the ego
Before it's far too late
To leave behind this place so
Negative and blind and cynical
And you will come to find
That we are all one mind
Capable of all that's
Imagined and all conceivable

Just let the light touch you
And let the words spill through
And let them pass right through
Bringing out our hope and reason

...before we pine away...

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Love is a Justice

Pens are growing sniper scopes
And books protective shields,
The wind controlled by suited men
And rain called down by market forces.

When water droughts are bioengineered
To the specificity we deem Deity
Just missed by a nose, that will
Be happiness and unsuffering, the
Will of the people – individuals
Incorporated – enacted by
Scientific fiat; why, because we can!

But love is acceptance and presence
Love is a justice unwilling to be
Unnatural, unsatisfied by alteration
Rather, pleased with transformation
Love is communal but not corporate
Love is sweat tilling the earth, graves
Replenishing the earth, rest letting alone
The earth – only by day is love,
Even by hour and minute, but not
Then, only now, for love will not
Wait or regress: love is the time we
Have, have been given to love and be loved
By earth and family, friends and God,
Children and spouse, food and house.

Love is only this, and never that.