Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter as the World's True Nature

“[Faith] sees in the resurrection of Christ not the eternity of heaven, but the future of the very earth on which his cross stands. It sees in him the future of the very humanity for which he died. That is why it finds the cross the hope of the earth.” -J├╝rgen Moltmann (Theology of Hope, 21)
The resurrection is what gives meaning to the crucifixion of Jesus and the crucifixion is what gives meaning to the resurrection. The reason that Christ's presence in solidarity with crucified people on the cross has any light, even in its undeniable darkness, is because this Jesus has resurrection as his future. And the reason that resurrection has any importance beyond a mere miracle of human biology is because it is the resurrection of the one who united divinity to humanity, even crucified humanity. It is the resurrection of him who has met us in the deepest darkness, and who "humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him" (Moltmann, The Crucified God). In communion with him, as he shares our fate, we share his future. Therefore, when we witness the resurrected Jesus, we witness a future reality, our future reality, and our true nature. Resurrection is, because of who God is, the only natural consequence of God's crucifixion in Jesus, for God is indeed that whom God is becoming. God is God's future. And being brought into communion with God through hypostatic union, through Christ's gracious communion with us--even in death--we are made to share this future as our revealed nature. We are God's future. And God's future is resurrection.

As Carl Ullmann put it,
"The resurrection of Christ in particular...appears but as the natural and necessary consequence of the divine life which filled the constitution of his person; while it forms besides, in virtue of the life bond that unites him with his people, the ground of the whole Christian eschatology as connected with the resurrection of believers" (Carl Ullmann, "On The Distinctive Character of Christianity" in John Williamson Nevin's The Mystical Presence, 37). 
What constitutes the disruptive and unexpected quality of the resurrection is not its discontinuity with reality, but its continuity with reality in a world that is tortured by fraudulence. In other words, resurrection surprises us not because it is alien to the world but because the world is alien to its own true nature. Resurrection reveals the world by interrupting the world. In this, the resurrection shares the "cosmic and eschatological" character of the sacrament. As Alexander Schmemann describes it, "It refers at the same time to God's world as he first created it and to its fulfillment in the kingdom of God" (The Eucharist, 34).

When we behold the risen Christ, in our communion with him in his death, we behold the truth about ourselves, the truth about our world, and we are compelled to leave in the grave all that which does not belong to this resurrected life.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Thought For Holy Saturday

On the seventh day God rested
In the silence of the tomb;
Having finished on the sixth day
All his work of joy and doom.
Now the world had fallen silent,
And the water had run dry,
The bread had all been scattered,
And the light had left the sky.
The flock had lost its shepherd,
And the seed was sadly sown,
The courtiers had betrayed their king,
And nailed Him to His throne.
O Sabbath rest by Calvary,
O calm of tomb below,
Where the grave clothes and the spices
Cradle Him we did not know!
Rest you well, beloved Jesus,
Caesar’s Lord and Israel’s King,
In the brooding of the Spirit,
In the darkness of the spring.          -N.T. Wright

I've always found great mystery on this day of Holy Week. Few days get less attention than Holy Saturday, but for whatever reason, I'm drawn into it each year.

Today there will be family barbecues, since folks are in town. There'll be easter egg hunts, visits to the mall, rounds of golf.... in even the most reverent Christian communities, Holy Saturday will be treated as a sort of flex-day before Easter Sunday. But I can't help but think that something gets lost when Holy Saturday is not observed. There's a mystery that gets obscured.

Jesus does not only take on his body the act of being killed and the act of dying on Good Friday. On Holy Saturday, he takes on the act of being dead.... of being lifeless....

Even in his crucifixion, even as Jesus bleeds, there is some living happening... as Joe Kay wrote yesterday, "If we’re not bleeding, we’re not living." Last night, at the Good Friday service at our church, we appropriately focused our reflection on Jesus' seven final words. On Good Friday, there are words to which we can listen... words of Jesus' dying... words like, "into your hands I commit my spirit..." But on Holy Saturday, there are no words to which we can listen... only the silence, the kind of silence that only death can manufacture... the piercing and frustrating silence of the dead. There's death where we thought there'd be life. The one who was to save us has failed...

I wonder what comfort we might find in Jesus' being dead, in Jesus' presence in the utter silence of a tomb. I wonder if we should be comforted in knowing that even this kind of darkness is not reserved from whatever future this Jesus may have. And I wonder if we'll miss the comfort if we ignore the darkness.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The First Christian Fellowship: a Good Friday reflection

"He did not die for the sake of a good world, he died for the sake of an evil world, not for the pious, but for the godless, not for the just, but for the unjust, for the deliverance, the victory and the joy of all, that they might have life." Karl Barth, Good Friday, 1957 (from Deliverance to the Captives, 81)
The church is marked not by its piety, not by its faithful confession, not even by it's glorious mission from God... the church is marked by it's communion with Christ, it's acceptance from God in its darkest moment, and thus, the church is marked by the scars of crucifixion. Karl Barth, in his Good Friday sermon before the Lord's Supper in 1957, clarified this distinction by pointing to the two criminals with whom Jesus was crucified. "Don't be surprised," he said, "if I tell you that this was the first Christian fellowship, the first certain, indissoluble and indestructible Christian community" (77) Unlike the disciples--who indeed constituted something of a latent and provisional Christian community but could not help themselves from fleeing the scene of Jesus' most profoundly incarnational activity--"in this hour they could not abandon him. ...He and they, they and he were bound together, were not and are not able to be separated in all eternity" (77-78). Indeed, for Barth, "it would perhaps be more appropriate not to represent Jesus' death at all..." than to represent it excluding the two criminals who died with him (76). The first Christian fellowship was not composed of a faithful but foolish band of tenacious followers as much as it was of the unfaithful criminals who could not by any work get themselves off of their crosses. This is the mark of Christian fellowship, the unity of the church: that Jesus shares their company when they are not close but furthest from God, furthest from salvation, and with his presence "[blinds] with light the solitude that death has made" (from "Four Plays For Dancers" by W.B. Yeats). Christ joining us, us being joined with Christ, in a broken body and poured blood--this is the church, before we even have a chance to respond. The church's fundamental character is Eucharistic.

Does it matter if one criminal does not confess that which the other criminal does? Does this difference exclude one of them from communion? Not according to Barth. "...the difference is not important enough to invalidate the promise given so clearly, indeed without distinction" (81) And indeed the table is set, even for the one who cannot confess the confession of faith.
"'My body which is broken for you! My blood which is shed for you!' These are Jesus' words at the Last Supper... The two thieves witness this breaking and shedding.... He who has overcome death, the King of Life, was the poor suffering servant whose dying gasp mingled with theirs....the promise is given only to crucified criminals, who are utterly compromised before God and before men...And mark this: precisely these, and these only, are worthy to go to the Lord's Supper... We are such people, all of us..." (81-83). 
On the cross of Christ, Jesus joins us in our death. It is not those who believe, those who have faith, those who are obedient, who find themselves in God's presence so much as it is those who are lost, alienated, and crucified. We are such people, all of us. When we cannot even conjure the faith to hope, Jesus utters the words of our souls, "My God, my God... why have you forsaken me?" And so in Jesus, we find our companion... this Jesus who has resurrection as his future... and he bring us with him for we are bound to him by his love and grace.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Dark and Desperate: A Maundy Thursday Reflection

Today is about power and self preservation... but only insofar as it is not about those things.

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day of Holy Week when our lenten journey is interrupted by a family meal. Lent, in case you haven't been given the space to follow, is a season of the recognition of our shared human frailty. We follow Jesus into the wilderness, into Jerusalem, and eventually to the cross... looking along the way right into--not around--the reality of death which faces us, in which Jesus meets us on the cross. The common practice we take up, in order to face this reality with honesty and sobriety, is to "give up" something. Not everyone in the church does this. Some choose to "take up" some kind of practice instead. Some try to reflect without any specifically Lenten discipline. But whatever practice we take up or put down, we do it in order to nurture this honest reflection that we cannot do this on our own, that the destructive monster haunting the human soul which gives life to the most horrific tragedies of our experience is not alien to any one of us, and that we all desperately and utterly need God's grace and forgiveness. In this, we ontologically recognize ourselves as beggars. We beg for God's love and mercy, not as those with a right to salvation or as those for whom organization for some economic reform would bring us out of our poverty. We beg as those undeserving and those who are powerless to scape or claw our way out of our own skin.

In his memoir, Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, Mark Vonnegut, MD., writes of his struggle with mental illness. He describes his loss of confidence "that going crazy was something that happened to other people" (xi). His description of the self-alienating experience is haunting. "All of a sudden," he writes, "I can't eat or sleep.... I'm hearing voices.... I'm not sure who I am or where I am.... Maybe I caused an earthquake... Maybe my father killed himself... Life is over" (36). In reading his description, I was gripped by the anxiety that the stuff in Vonnegut is the stuff in me, human as we are... this experience is not so far from where I am that I should consider myself immune. In fact, I cannot help but see why something similar shouldn't happen to me. I even wonder if it is happening to me. As I said, his are haunting words. His is a haunting experience. But what comes as something of a surprise is the grace that Vonnegut experiences in the midst of his struggle. "Then it turns out that I'm in a psychiatric hospital, which is not good but is better than what I thought was happening. When I was asked if I was hearing was a relief to finally be talking to someone who knew what was going on" (36).

Vonnegut writes, "The biggest gift of being unambiguously mentally ill is the time I've saved myself trying to be normal" (9).

What does any of this have to do with Lent? What, especially might it have to do with Maundy Thursday?

Lent is a season of confession. That is to say, in Lent, we are free to unmask, to take off the shackles of our self-preservative impulses which seek to suppress our dysfunction. We are free to save ourselves the time we spend "trying to be normal" or healthy or righteous, and finally talk to someone who knows what is going on. The biggest gift of being unambiguously frail is the time we save ourselves trying to be powerful. And the interruption comes every Sunday and in full force on Maundy Thursday--the interruption of grace. As Paul Tillich has written, "Man does not have to deceive himself about himself, because he is accepted as he is, in the total perversion of his existence."

In the midst of this season of confession, in the midst of finally giving up on preserving our normality, giving up on trying to save ourselves and just admitting that we're dark and desperate. Jesus comes to un on his knees and serves us, washes our feet, and feeding us. Jesus breaks the bread and says, "take, eat." He takes the cup and says, "take, drink... this is for the forgiveness of sins." He says all this to us... to we who are dark and desperate. If we don't embrace this as an interruption, even a scandalous one, then I'm afraid we'll miss the point. The acceptance and the forgiveness we receive in this meal is not something we had coming. We are loved precisely where we do not deserve love. What could be more disarming? All the radical hospitality that has been played out in Jesus' ministry to lepers and tax collectors and prostitutes is localized here in this meal... here in Judas...

Yes, Judas...

Judas, the one who is in the middle of betraying Jesus and sending him to his execution, is accepted at the table too... in his utter faithlessness... "in the total perversion of his existence." When we look to the table and see Judas, we should see ourselves--served God's grace in the midst of our frailty. And I don't know what you wanna do with the rest of Judas' story... if you remember, he leaves the table still full of his own sense of power and self-preservation, that he follows through with his betrayal and eventually commits suicide out of his guilt. Things didn't end well for him... but I can't help but hope--I need to hope--that in some way, Jesus' death is still Jesus' acceptance of Judas, his companionship in the utter shame of violent execution, even if its at his own hands. Jesus accepts us when we cannot accept ourselves. I have to hope this because I know how often I have left the table with Judas, full of my own power and self-preservation... When Jesus dies on the cross, I have to hope that he dies with Judas, assumes Judas' guilt and shame for its redemption.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves... it's still Thursday.

Ironically, in the radical hospitality and unfathomable grace of Jesus, a command is manifest. The word "Maundy" comes from the Latin, Mandatum--a mandate or a command. Jesus tells his disciples to love. That's the command. And it's not just any kind of love. It's not the love which elevates honor and esteems the most powerful people above the weak. This love is put on display in Jesus' act of washing the feet of his disciples. This was not his job. This was the job for invisible people, powerless people, people like the ones we recognize ourselves to be in Lent. But Jesus takes the basin and the towel and does the job. In doing so, he dismantles the virtue of power and elevates the honest, the shameful. He flips upside-down our notions of greatness. He lowers himself. And the logic continues all the way to crucifixion. As the Church eventually would articulate it, "he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:7-8). This is the command, the mandate, we receive.

Patrick McCormick has some wonderful reflections on the Eucharist, the meal we celebrate on Maundy Thursday. He articulates perhaps one element of the frailty we've been talking about as "seeing ourselves as hungry eaters." This emphasizes the character of this meal as a meal. He writes, "Seeing ourselves as hungry eaters and acknowledging our fundamental and permanent neediness helps us to recognize ourselves as the beggars and debtors we are, and to see that the only way we come to the eucharistic banquet is as grateful and unworthy guests...." He gets our status right, and by placing it first, he gets the order of things correct. But it doesn't stop there. He goes on... "The only possible response to this incredible act of graciousness on God's part is to share whatever we have been given with all the other beggars at the feast" (A Banqueters Guide to the All-Night Soup Kitchen of the Kingdom of God, 7-8).

In our frailty, we are accepted. And in our being accepted, we accept. We are liberated to liberate. We do not have to deceive ourselves about ourselves. And as Tillich continues, "...being accepted by God means also being transformed by God." But for now, while transformation seems so far away, let us notice our being accepted without wasting our time on the illusion that we deserve it. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Not Just For Nazarenes: A Review of "Nazarenes Exploring Evolution"

I have been reviewing a lot of resources, particularly youth ministry resources, which deal with science... there's not a long list... especially if you're looking for something that's not presumptuously "apologetic" in defense of "creationism"... there's virtually nothing that's not dominantly preoccupied with human origins.

Most recently, I read a book called Nazarenes Exploring Evolution. Even though I am growing less patient with resources that are so preoccupied with this relatively narrow discussion of science's role in theological reflection, I kinda liked this one. That is to say, I think it will be helpful to a lot of evangelicals. This book is the product of a unique and courageous denominational endeavor--courageous because of the pervasive conservatism in the Nazarene tradition--to articulate the possibility of taking evolution seriously without fear. In case you're not familiar, the Nazarene tradition is essentially an evangelical and Wesleyan tradition. As such, they fall on the conservative side of the theological spectrum, which is why evolution is hot-button issue and why, again, it's admirable that this collection of scholars and pastors came together to take it seriously. Taking scripture, theology, and Christian tradition even more seriously, the contributors of this book show the potential compatibility of evolution and creation, of Christian theology and serious science. Many traditions have already resolved their tensions on this issue, but many evangelicals are still struggling. If you have been conflicted before about having to 'choose' between science and faith, between Christianity and evolution--if all you have heard is that evolution is a completely different 'world view' from that of Christian faith--you should read this book. Even though this endeavor is in the Nazarene church, all of us can learn from it! This book is not just for Nazarenes!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Unity of Difference

“We are to allow one thing to be really and truly distinct from the other, to be its own genuine self. There is a logical and philosophical urge in thinking men to reduce all things to a single unity. But this urge of the natural reason tends to petrify the heart. There is no single essence to which all existing things belong, no single essence which makes all things basically one. The only true unity of created things is the unity created by love. The heart embraces all things in their great variety and the heart loves them all.” -Arnold Albert van Ruler (God's Son and God's World, 64)
As van Ruler points out, there is a tendency among us " reduce all things to a single unity." The tendency is strong enough that we may even be offended by van Ruler here. Is it not true that, at some basic level, we're all made of the same stuff? Is there anything human that's truly alien to any human? How could we empathize with one another if we couldn't in some sense share a single unity? And didn't St. Paul himself write, "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus"?

Herein lies the tension of human unity and diversity, not to mention Christian unity and diversity. Whatever unites us cannot subsequently exclude us or anyone else in who they really are. In Christian unity, we are united in Christ. The standard which unites us belongs not to any of us, and yet we are bound to it, by it. There is a sense, in humanity and Christianity, in which we are all made of the same stuff. We are all, if nothing else, broken... and in Christian unity, we're accepted in our brokenness. We are not united in our sameness, although it may be that something is shared, and we are not united in purity--purity which unites by way of exclusion. We are not united without difference. In whatever sense that "we are all one in Christ," it is by no means by way of flattening, conflating, or reducing humanity to some single unity of perpetual similarity. No.  "The only true unity of created things is the unity created by love. The heart embraces all things in their great variety and the heart loves them all." Our true unity comes to us as God's acceptance of us in our fractured and broken human existence. We are not united by our love for God, we are united in being loved by God, a love which embraces the variety of difference.

What's difficult about this, what's difficult for Christians to swallow, is that Christianity thusly does not imply a special conduct attributed to uniquely to Christians... although conduct must follow grace. In being accepted in our difference and in being united in being accepted, it does not follow that Christians are in any way moral superiors to anyone else. The Christian may recognize the acceptance of God received by all even where some do not recognize it. But the Christian is not unique in any other sense. That is to say, we do not have any outright claim of ownership on the good or the beautiful. Christian unity is not a unity of purity or a unity of sameness which excludes difference. Christian unity is the unity of the Christ, the universal love of God for all people. We are clothed in this. There is no standard we must reach or approval we must seek. We need not reduce ourselves to a single unity. But what becomes fundamental to us is that we are loved in our multiformity... and in this we are united.

What does this mean, however, for churches? Is this not so passive that anyone should feel comfortable in a church, even if they are profoundly exclusive in their conduct and ideology? What about justice? As I said, conduct must follow grace... it is indeed anticipated by it. Therefore, a Christian community eventually desires to be the ambassador of this unity in difference. Its conduct is meant to correspond to that radical grace of God in some way. The Word of God is proclaimed in the church, and this Word, as a word of acceptance, is a word which rejects our exclusivity, excommunicates our excommunicative impulses, and convicts us in our acts of marginalization. It is not so passive. We are commissioned, perhaps paradoxically, to witness to God's love in the world with our actions. But these actions are not the prerequisite to Christian unity, they are the response to it. We don't act out of the compulsion of pragmatism, we act as the logical response to being unified in our difference. We speak against sin and advocate justice because sin and injustice are not compatible with our having been accepted. I am reminded of something Kenda Creasy Dean once wrote which is, I think, descriptive of Christian social conduct, "With God's breath in the church we are called to exhale, but not because it's a morally good thing to do but because we can't help ourselves" (Dean, Almost Christian).

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Who Needs Religion? And Are We Outnumbered?: thoughts on grace and the future of the Church

I don't know the numbers, but I can say with confidence that I'm in the minority. For every solitary Christian who reads the bible as a human and living word from God, affirms the ethical legitimacy of same-sex relationships, calls for peace and nonviolence, advocates for gender equality, and calls out for economic justice, there are many many more who read the bible like a manual, have determined that homosexuality is sin, who condone and even encourage militarism, oppress women, and favor the wealthy. As my friend Andrew Hackman put it, "for every Wes, or Rachel Evans, or Brian McLaren... there are a thousand Mark Driscolls" (in the comments).  For Andrew and many others, these numbers provide grounds for an all-out assault on religion in general. It's done more harm than good, hasn't it? The deficiencies so outweigh the benefits, so what use is religion anyway, especially when you can come to quite life-giving solutions without religion?

I wouldn't presume to defend all religions, or perhaps even "religion" in some general sense, from these questions. But I do want to say something about Christianity, then I wanna say something about that first part... the part about the ratio of Rachel Held Evans's to Mark Driscolls....

First, about Christianity... I don't think Christianity is primary about coming to life-giving conclusions.

... bear with me...

I don't think it's about reading the bible well, accepting LGBTQ people, non-violence, gender equality, the feminist critique, or social justice... I think Christianity is about receiving grace... grace for when we do end up using the bible as a weapon (and I think even atheists do this sometimes), for when we don't accept gay people, for when we do end up resorting to violence, for when we do revert back to our patriarchal reflexes,  and for when we don't generously reject consumerism. Christianity is for failures. Now, this should not imply that Christianity does not, then, after receiving grace, come to life-giving conclusions... those to which it may be true that any non-religious person may also be able to come. In fact, there is a sense in which, after having received grace, we have no choice but to come to these conclusions. But Christianity suffers not the tyranny of moralism. Its highest good, its distinctive quality, is not the capacity of a person to be good or to enact justice. And what sets Christianity apart for me, in this regard, is that unlike in a moral/humanist atheism, the life-giving conclusions we've outlined already (though by no means exhaustively) are not the result of moral ambition or optimism. Atheism, or any other religion for that matter, which presumes to think that morality can be expected on the basis of human good or that justice can be hoped for on the basis "progress," fails to take as seriously as does Christianity, the reality of human frailty. It was a Christian theological framework which allowed Martin Luther King, Jr. to say “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  King was a Christian theologian. Without the grace of the gospel, "life-giving conclusions," namely justice and inclusivity, are superficial and hopeless when they're faced by the anxious truth that they are tragically outmatched by human inability to live by them. Jurgen Moltmann has written, "the gospel is realistic, not idealistic. It does not bring new teaching; it brings a new reality." Without new reality, works of love stand on a flimsy surface. The grace and forgiveness of the cross sustain and give life to life-giving conclusions--grace is the rationale for justice... not vice-versa. It's not that someone who isn't religious can't also have an understanding of grace and forgiveness, but I am yet to discover a rationale for such things that has any real strength aside from the rationale of the crucified Christ. So who needs Christianity? Well, at the very least, anyone--even one with high ideals--who needs a new reality, who needs acceptance when they can't live up to their high ideals. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "...if Jesus is the Christ... then I am not primarily called to do the things he does; I am met in his work as one who cannot possibly do the work he does. It is through his work that I recognize the gracious God" (Christ the Center, 38). Anyone's capable of conceiving of goodness... you don't even need religion for that... but who's gonna meet you when you're incapable of the good? Christianity, not as judge but only as witness, says that the gracious God revealed in Jesus Christ certainly will.

And now I wanna say something about that first part... the part about the ratio of Rachel Evans's to Mark Driscolls.

It may be true that we're outnumbered. It may be true that open, reasonable, compassionate Christians are fighting an uphill battle. For every one Progressive Youth Ministry Conference, there are a thousand Focus on the Family/Answers in Genesis/TBN/Mark Driscoll/etc.-type conferences. For every committed follower of Christ who attends an "Open and Affirming" church, there are 10,000 Christians worshiping in conservative churches where even the idea of a gay Christian is treated as a work of fiction. This might be true. But I wanna ask, what direction do you think things are going? Do you think we'll always be outnumbered like this? I wonder sometimes if the abolitionist Christians before the Civil War felt similarly outnumbered. It may be trite to reference this example, but I'm doing it anyway. Abolitionists were a minority voice in America. There was a time in history when it was just assumed that Christians supported slavery. They even used the bible to do so. For every abolitionist, there were a thousand others who thought the abolitionists were destroying the Church (even some Christians who opposed slavery in principle couldn't bring themselves to pursue its abolition). But the arc of history, loooong as it is... especially considering that Martin Luther King was still fighting basically the same fight even as recently as the 1960's... seems to be bending towards justice. Even though we're certainly not done with the work of racial reconciliation, it's gotten a lot more difficult to find a Christian in America who supports slavery... they're certainly not the majority anymore. So I wonder if there is actually as strong a justification to give up on Christianity as what seems to be implied in the numbers. I wonder if there's even justification anymore to assume that Christianity, even evangelicalism, means conservatism. Even if the majority represents the present situation in real (sometimes horrific) ways, perhaps the minority--the McLarens and Evans's--represent the future. The arc of history is long, but because of the new reality of grace, I think we can be patient and persistent in bending it toward justice.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Gun Free Zone

Today, a friend of mine posted on their Facebook: "Is it just me, or is making a MILITARY base a gun free zone the most illogically ridiculous thing ever?"

She had a good point. I simply and playfully made the comment, "Definitely challenges our common notion of militarism."

Now, I have no idea what she was talking about. I don't know what legislation or policy or context in particular she's actually commenting on, but it reminded me of a sort of "slogan" that the Christian Peacemaker Teams used to have on their website (might still have it somewhere), "What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devoted to war?" I was also reminded of Jesus' illogical command to Peter, "put down your sword" (Matthew 26:52). And I was reminded of Paul's observation that "the cross is foolishness..." (1 Cor. 1:18).

What if military bases, of all places, were "gun free" zones? That would be foolishness, right? I guess it probably would... but maybe... just maybe... the fears we have and the things we hope will be accomplished through military intervention--namely, our fear of death and our will for peace!--could actually find solace and solution in a gun free zone, or at least in a place where swords are put away. Now am I talking about the real world? Maybe not. But is it a world that could be made real? Could it possibly be the world more real than this one in which guns and intervention are such compelling dance partners?

What kind of world would be required for militarism to find a definition compatible with disarmament, with non-violence? Where could it be fathomed that victims could find peace without becoming victimizers?  It's "illogically ridiculous," but it might, in some world, be the logic of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And perhaps as Christians, its precisely of that world that we are to be ambassadors in this one?

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Telling The Story: A Review of Noah (the movie)

I've heard there've been some negative reactions to the Noah movie. A couple of nights ago, my wife and I got out to the movies for the first time since Henry was born (that's a whole 5 months now). In deciding what to see, we watched the trailer to Noah and it had us. We both like Russel Crowe, we both like the Bible... what more could you want?

Now, after having seen it, I don't really understand why people didn't like it (I think Ken Ham, the Answers in Genesis guy, wins the award for hating it the most... and for most comical reaction). Sure, if you were looking for an exact retelling of the Biblical account from Genesis, you might have been surprised... but that would have made for a shorter, much less interesting film. Instead of following some rigid predetermined structure, Darren Aronofsky decided to tell the story without simply telling the story. He brought out themes... very human themes... very biblical themes, which you might not have gotten from a simple retelling. In the biblical narrative, we're left to fill in the blanks on a lot of things. How did Noah really hear from God? What was Noah's attitude toward creation, toward his fellow human beings? What was it like, emotionally, for Noah to receive this calling from God? What was it like, emotionally, for God? We're told that Noah was righteous, but did he see himself that way? What made him righteous, exactly? What was the real difference between Noah and everyone else on the planet? Was he just stoically obedient, or did he go through doubt and struggle? Was God's command always clear? Aronofsky seems to have just taken the invitation to creatively fill in the blanks. And he did so... quite creatively.

Aronofsky has given us a very human, very dynamic Noah. In the biblical account, all we really get about Noah is, "he did all that God commanded him." God says something, Noah does it. He's not a dynamic Character. We get no sense of his own internal struggle. We don't really get to see him as a person. Aronofsky takes the liberty of speculation and gives us a Noah who does indeed do all that God commands, but does so with real questions, conflict, and struggles. It's difficult for him and we get to see, through the eyes of his children and his wife, how difficult it is for him to move forward with such a radical command, to anticipate and to watch the destruction of everything he knew.  In doing this, Aronofsky brings us as persons into the story on a level at which we've never necessarily been able to enter it before. We are invited to experience the story in a way that's simply not represented in our traditional, Sunday School retellings, with the cute songs and pretty rainbows. And in this sense, I think Aronofsky's telling is quite biblical. We are invited, by the Bible itself,  to engage the text of scripture not just intellectually or in rigidly literalistic terms, but as God's living word to be written on the heart. He doesn't just go word for word through scripture, but he invites us to engage the story with our heads and our hearts.

To get a clearer explanation of some of the themes which come up in the movie, you should read Aronofsky's own explanation, but there were definitely clear themes of justice & mercy and sin & repentance. Throughout the film, a tension is created between the values of justice and mercy. The question of human righteousness lives in this tension. If justice prescribes annihilation, what then should we do with mercy? In this, I think Aronofsky actually tapped into some of the ambiguity of the text itself. It took a careful reading of the text, I think, to bring out some of the ambiguity he did. For example, through his various embellishments (and I don't mean that derogatorily) he raised the interesting question, was God originally planning on saving humankind at all, or was God originally intending to save creation from humankind? There is enough ambiguity in the text, if you read it carefully, to make room for this question. And whether or not you agree that it is a good exegetical question, it is a good theological question. That is to say, its theological implications are certainly important for the story. And again, whereas in the story in scripture, we don't have a very dynamic Noah and we don't have an explicitly emotional God, Aronofsky, through employing a dynamic and conflicted human character, allows us to see an implicit reflection of the emotions implicit in God in the biblical story. God is struggling with the question of justice and mercy. God is wrestling with the pain of destroying the creation which God created in God's own image, which God saw as very good. Will the story end in the undoing of creation (symbolized in the waters of heaven and earth merging, wherein at creation they were separated) or will God interrupt the justice with mercy and bring true righteousness to bear upon the earth? This is the question of the text, as I read it, and this is the question of the film, beautifully illumined through elaboration and embellishment (again, in a good way) by Aronofsky. So, in this sense, I think the movie Noah is quite faithful the story of Noah.

Another theme which Aronofsky brought out, which I would expect conservative evangelicals to appreciate, is the theme of repentance and sin. The question, throughout the movie, is raised; what's the difference between Noah (and his family) and everyone else on the planet? What makes him so special? And without giving anything away, I'd say that the question was answered in Noah's realization and acknowledgement that there really isn't a difference. The same stuff that's in them is in him too. We might call this "original sin." Noah's obedience to God comes out of his realization that he is a "sinner in need of a savior," that he too deserves judgement. Everybody else's disobedience comes from their illusion that they're "special." Evangelicals should eat that stuff up!

I tend to agree with Tony Jones' assessment of the film, particularly in his naming it as a Midrash.

Midrash... to shamelessly quote Wikipedia, " a method of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal, or moral teachings. It fills in gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at." This is an ancient rabbinical method for biblical interpretation, used to illumine the deeper meaning hidden in the ambiguity of the biblical narrative... and that's pretty much what Aronofsky has done. It's not a new thing. Aronofsky is not the first person to take liberties with the biblical text... and I'm sure he wouldn't claim any real authority in his interpretation. That is to say, his interpretation is not, nor is it intended to be, the final authoritative reading of the text. Of course not! It's just one way, particularly his way, of reading this story.

And that is perhaps the problem that conservatives will have with the film. What it seems that conservative evangelicals expect to get from a "Biblical" film is, in some sense, an authoritative interpretation. They expect perfect (and by perfect I mean literal) synchronization with biblical material because, by their assumption, there can only be one right way to read and interpret (many of them might even reject the concept of interpretation believing that a simple reading of the text actually requires no interpretation... I don't even know how they expect that to work). And they expect the film to be made by... well, one of them. They will always maintain suspicion if someone doesn't share their confession of faith.

These expectations keep evangelicals from knowing when they have a friend... it happened with Rob Bell (I guess I should explain this further, but I probably won't) and it's happening with Aronofsky. What should be their best resource for cultural and evangelistic engagement, they've turned into an enemy. There are deeply evangelical themes and impulses in this film, but rather than using those themes as a starting point and using them to start a real conversation with the watching world, they've simply rejected the film and cut off conversation completely (seriously, read Ken Ham's review. It's hilarious). We could be affirming this movie, using it to invite people into deep theological and spiritual reflection and, even better, into serious engagement with the biblical narrative. But instead, as with so many things, we're relinquishing our ownership of the story and its spiritual depth altogether. Whatever beauty and truth people find in this movie, and I'm sure they'll find some, evangelicals are asking people not to associate it with them, with us, and that just doesn't make sense to me.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

"I'm not all that liberal" ...and other things liberals say...

I've been in countless conversations in which I've eventually felt the need to defend myself from liberalness. "I don't really think I'm all that liberal...," I'd say, with a somewhat inquisitive voice, as if to ask myself the question ..."right?"

I wanted... I still want... to believe that it's not "all that liberal" to hope for an end of bigotry in the church, to call for justice (even hypocritically, sometimes) in American economics and politics, to dream of a day when people are embraced and accepted simply on the basis of their humanity and our shared humanity. I didn't, I don't, want to think that it's a "liberal" thing to read the bible as a nuanced, human, and living word from God. I didn't, I don't, think at all that affirming God's call on the lives of women, gay people, and all other kinds to ordained vocational ministry is something to be seen as "liberal," given that calling is something God does, not something the church does. I want that stuff to be normal. I want "liberal" to mean something weird, far to the left of where I am--where there are no rules, anything goes, nobody really believes anything apart from "it's ok to believe anything," and nothing really matters... that is, after all, the perception that many conservatives have about "liberals," but that couldn't possibly describe me... right?

I still don't think I'm all that liberal. I still believe the Bible is "authoritative," although I am sure we can find a better word than "authority" (maybe revelation?). I still believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he died for my sin, and in my shame, that Jesus calls us to follow, and that God's reign is the world's true end (a world, I might add, in which justice is displayed in politics and economics, where it is "on earth as it is in heaven," in which "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus"... which is probably where all my "liberal" ideals come from in the first place, ironically). I still believe that human beings should be free, free for their own human dignity, for God is glorified in the dignity of human beings. I believe in creeds and confessions and in the fundamental importance of believing the right things (and that there are, in fact, wrong things). And I believe in loving your enemies. I don't think I'm all that liberal... but now I wonder if that's just something liberal people say...

Maybe it's the embarrassment of the whole World Vision fiasco that went down recently, or maybe it's some kind of liberation I received from attending a progressive youth ministry conference, but for whatever reason, I'm feeling less and less motivated to defend myself from liberalness. After all, if being liberal just means accepting gay people and reading the Bible carefully (and accepting gay people as a result of reading the bible carefully), then I guess I shouldn't defend myself. Maybe that's exactly what I am. Or maybe "progressive" is a better word... maybe I can make that mean something closer to what I actually am... but really, who's gonna hear "progressive" without hearing "liberal" too? Either way, I know I'm not exactly conservative anymore... even if I still love and appreciate many parts of conservationism and evangelicalism.

Maybe I should just own it... or maybe I should be fine with just being "a Christian who cares about theology and wants social justice"... or something like that... even if nobody else is using that for their Facebook profile. Whatever the case, I can probably say, just for simplicity's sake... I don't care if I'm actually "all that liberal" after all.