Advent and Injustice

The last two posts about my experiences visiting sites associated with the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evars might not seem to be very seasonal and cheery to some readers. Why dwell on such dark, tragic, and horrific things during the Christmas season?

Well, because it's not the Christmas season. Not yet. It's Advent now. Advent is the season of exile, a time of god-forsakenness. Advent is the season of longing and groaning. Like the slaves in Egypt and the exiles in Babylon, Advent is the season when we cry out for justice in the face of oppression.

All that to say, Advent is the perfect time to dwell on such dark, tragic and horrific things.

The Assassination of Medgar Evers

The day after the Racial Unity Leadership Summit prayer retreat made a pilgrimage through sites associated with the murder of Emmet Till, we made a pilgrimage to the home of Medgar Evers. The picture here is one I took of the house.

Medgar Evers was a veteran of World War II and had fought in the battle of Normandy. He was honorably discarded as a sergeant. Upon returning home, Evers took advantage of the GI Bill to get a college degree in 1952.

Medgar Evers was one of many successful and accomplished Black war veterans who chaffed upon returning home to the Jim Crow South. Black solders had bled and died for the United States, but they found themselves quickly forced back into the American apartheid system. Many of these veterans were lynched because they pushed back so fiercely upon returning home.

In 1955 Evers became the first NAACP field secretary in the state of Mississippi, the most lethal state to work as a civil rights activist. Evers became a fearless champion of civil rights, organizing voting registrations, managing boycotts, guiding protests, challenging segregation, and starting local chapters of the NAACP.

All this work made Evers a target of the Klu Klux Klan. Evers faced constant death threats. In 1963 a Molotov cocktail was thrown at his home. He was one of the most courageous heroes of the civil rights era.

On the night of June 12, 1963, the same evening John F. Kennedy made his nationally televised Civil Rights address, Evers came home, pulled into his driveway, and exited his car. His wife and three children were asleep inside the house. Across the street, Klansman Byron De La Beck was waiting. Seeing Evers leave the car, De La Beck fired his Enfield 1917 rifle.

The bullet pierced Evers's heart, exited his body, went through the front of the house, passed through the living room, punched a hole in the wall, entered the kitchen, and finally struck the refrigerator.

When you visit Medgar Evers's home you can see the bullet hole in the wall between the living room and the kitchen. Knowing where that hole is, you can stand outside and trace the path of the bullet from the house across the street where the shot was fired all the way to the kitchen refrigerator.

Tracing that melancholy line, you can stand at the exact spot on the driveway where Medgar Evers was assassinated.

Of all the things we witnessed during our travels at the retreat, that bullet hole in the wall continues to haunt me.

It's just a small hole, but it remains and represents an evil scar that has not healed.

The Blood of Emmett Till

Last week I was honored to participate in one of the Racial Unity Leadership Summit (RULS) prayer retreats hosted by the Carl Spain Center here at ACU. The RULS retreats bring together racially diverse leaders from across the Churches of Christ to pray, listen, discern, and organize in seeking racial justice, reconciliation, and unity in our faith tradition and the world.

This most recent prayer retreat was held in Jackson, Mississippi and was organized around readings and pilgrimages to sites associated with the murder of Emmett Till. For the reading, all the retreat participants read The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy Tyson.

Many historians consider the murder of Emmett Till to be the spark that ignited the American Civil Rights Movement. In 1955 Emmett Till was a fourteen-year old boy from Chicago who was visiting his uncle Mose Wright and extended family in the Mississippi Delta. On August 21, Emmett and some of his cousins drove to the small town of Money to by some Cokes and candy at Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market. The market is now a rubble, to the right is a picture I took.

At one point Emmett was in the store alone with Carolyn Bryant, who owned and ran the store with her husband Roy. What transpired between Emmett and Carolyn is unclear since there were no witnesses, but what is clear is that Emmett said something to Carolyn, perhaps something flirtatious, that offended her, something that violated the strict taboos that regulated White/Black interactions in the Jim Crow South, especially interactions between Black males and White females.

Offended at how Emmett spoke to her, Carolyn exited the store to get a gun from a car. While she did this, Emmett wolf whistled at her. That also was a social taboo. Hearing that whistle, Emmett's relatives from Mississippi knew they had to get out of there fast. The group fled.

At 2:00 am that evening, Carolyn's husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam knocked on the door of Mose Wright's house. They each were carrying guns and demanded to see the boy who "did the talking" to Carolyn in the store. Emmett was unable to escape out the back door before the two men found him. Bryant and Milam forced Emmett into their car and drove away.

Toward morning, Bryant and Milam took Emmett to a barn in Sunflower County, just outside of Drew, on the plantation where Milam's brother worked as a supervisor and manager. There Bryant and Milam beat, pistol-whipped, tortured and eventually killed Emmett by shooting him in the head.

A picture I took of the barn where Emmett Till was tortured and murdered:


Bryant and Milam disposed of Emmett's body by wrapping a cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire and throwing him into the Tallahatchie River. Some evidence suggests that Emmett was thrown into the water at the Black Bayou Bridge in Glendora, Mississippi. A picture I took of Black Bayou Bridge:


Three days later, a boy checking his fishing line spotted the body in the river. My picture of the location on the Tallahatchie River where Emmett Till's body was found:


There are two markers of the "River Site," one on the main road and the other 2.6 miles down a dirt road at the site where Emmett's body was recovered on the banks of the Tallahatchie. Both of these markers have been repeatedly shot at and replaced multiple times because of the damage. You can see the bullet holes on the main road marker from this picture I took:


Mose Wright recognized the men who kidnapped Emmett, so both Bryant and Milam were soon arrested and put on trial.

Because of the torture he had suffered, Emmett's body was gruesome, horribly disfigured. The local Mississippi authorities wanted a quick burial. Mamie Till Bradley, Emmett's mother, had other ideas. Mamie demanded that her son's body be sent back home to Chicago.

In planning the funeral Mamie was counseled, given the horrific sight of Emmett's body, to conduct the services with a closed casket. Mamie objected, demanding a open casket for the viewing and the funeral. “Let the world see what I’ve seen,” she said.

And the world did see. The Black press covered the viewing and funeral and Jet magazine published a gruesome photo of Emmett. The photo and the story of Emmett's murder outraged and galvanized Blacks across the nation, a spark that would help ignite the American Civil Rights Movement.

During our retreat pilgrimage, we visited the Sumner County courthouse where Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were put on trial for the murder of Emmett Till.

To the right is a picture I took of the courthouse.

The trial lasted five days, and included Mose Wright courageously standing up in the courtroom to point at and positively identify the killers. The twelve members of the jury, all white men, deliberated for an hour.

The verdict was never really in doubt.

Not guilty.

Today, if you visit the Sumner courthouse, you'll find a Confederate Civil War memorial outside on the grounds. Facing the courthouse, it's to the left. Here, a picture I took of the memorial. Notice the Mississippi state flag flying above, the only state flag in the US to still carry the Confederate "Stars and Bars."

The inscription on the memorial, an ode to the Lost Cause, reads:
"For truth dies not and by her light they raise the flag whose starry folds have never trailed; and by the low tents of the deathless dead they lift the cause that never yet has fallen."
Facing the courthouse on the right, directly opposite the Civil War memorial, with its tribute to a "cause that never yet has fallen," is a historical marker about the murder of Emmett Till and the trial that took place at the courthouse.

The juxtaposition of the Confederate memorial and the Emmett Till historical marker on the very same grounds is deeply jarring and incongruous. When you stand and stare at the Sumner County courthouse it's almost as if you are being offered a choice. Confederate memorial to the left. The murder of Emmett Till on the right. Where will you stand?

Having made this pilgrimage--from the barn where he was tortured and killed, to the bridge where his body was thrown into the Black Bayou, to the banks of the Tallahatchie River where he was found, to the courtroom where his killers were acquitted--I knew my choice.

I could still hear the blood of Emmett Till crying from the ground.

I choose to stand with Emmett Till.

Second Sunday of Advent



Behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem...

Sand snakes
between camel hooves.
Pinwheel stars trace silver
celestial paths on studied, faded scrolls.
Riders sway hypnotically,
drowsy in their saddles.
The winking, twinkling beacon,
heavy with hope, each day
climbs higher on the horizon.
This journey stops, we know,
when sight, craning upward,
finds the apex of the sky.
The geometry of our lives,
rendered simple in the end,
and rudimentary.
Two points defining the invisible
line tethering eternity
to earth.

Journal Week 49: Christmas Gifts for the Johnny Cash Fan

My next book Trains, Jesus, & Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash will be coming out in 2019. The manuscript is done, but there is still editing, copy-editing, page proofs and all the other stuff that turns your Word document into a physical book.

Given that I've spent a lot of time with Johnny Cash over the last few years, I thought I'd share some Christmas gift idea for the Johnny Cash fan in your life.

The cheapest thing you can do is go to a used record store in your town (or online) and buy a vinyl copy of a Johnny Cash classic. I'd recommend At Folsom Prison or At San Quentin. Depending upon quality, used vinyl of Johnny Cash albums ranges from $5-$20. And if you don't have a record player, pick an album that has cool cover art and then have it framed.

If you have a record player and some money to spend, you might look at the vinyl Unearthed collection ($225). This collection has all of Cash's best music from the Rick Rubin years ("Rusty Cage," "The Man Comes Around," "Hurt," "Delia's Gone"), along with many other tracks that didn't make it on the American Recordings albums. Disc 7 is a highlight as it has Cash singing old gospel standards (this music was also released as a solo album, My Mother's Hymnbook). Here's a video review of the boxed set.

Beyond music, here are three book recommendations.

The definitive biography of Johnny Cash is Robert Hilburn's Johnny Cash: The Life.

My two favorite "coffee table" books about Johnny Cash are House of Cash, edited and complied by John Carter Cash, and Johnny Cash at Folsom and San Quentin: Photographs by Jim Marshall.  

House of Cash is a wonderful and intimate collection of Johnny Cash memorabilia, photos, and reflections. You see handwritten notes, lyrics, and letters Cash wrote over the years, even a valentine he made for June. House of Cash lets you see Johnny Cash as his friends and family saw him. You even get his recipe for chili!

If you adore the Folsom and San Quentin concerts, Johnny Cash at Folsom and San Quentin is a must have. It's a big picture book filled with the pictures from Jim Marshall, the famous music photographer, taken at both concerts. So many amazing, iconic images in this book, many never seen before.

So there you have it, some Christmas gift suggestions for the Johnny Cash fan in your life. And next Christmas you can put Trains, Jesus, & Murder under the tree!

The Power for Salvation

Our Sunday adult Bible class at church was going through a series on Romans. One of the Sundays I had Romans 1:16-17. The words I focused on where these:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation.
The word I particularly wanted to focus on was "power." My father-in-law Pat pointed out to me that the Greek word for "power" in this text is the root of the word "dynamite."

The point I made to the class was that, by and large, we don't think of the gospel as a "power." We mostly think of the gospel as a legal verdict, the proclamation that we've been forgiven.

But salvation doesn't mean "forgiveness." Salvation means rescue, liberation, and emancipation.

Salvation means Exodus.

And if that's the case, I asked the class, what does it mean that the gospel is a power for salvation, an explosive force in the world that sets people free?

On Satan and Monotheism: Explanation vs Adversary

I am not a famous scholar and thinker many people track closely with. Few have made a study of how my thought has changed and developed over time. And yet, there are few people who have given all of my work a close reading and have noted some issues and tensions.

One of those tensions is how some early empirical work of mine regarding Satan and monotheism jibes with the arguments I make in Reviving Old Scratch.

In 2008 I published an article in the Journal of Psychology and Theology entitled "The Emotional Burden of Monotheism: Satan, Theodicy, and Relationship with God." The hypothesis of that research was that belief in Satan helps alleviate the burden of theodicy posed by monotheism. The problem of evil is acute in monotheism as God appears to be ultimately to blame for suffering in the world. By positing a Satan, which creates a soft, good vs. bad, dualism, some of that burden is alleviated as some of the bad things in life can get blamed on Satan rather than God.

(Of course, this just creates another round of questions about if God, as the creator of Satan, isn't ultimately responsible for Satan's actions as well. Still, by situationally laying blame on Satan the acute theodicy questions are, at least in the moment, delayed, thereby reducing some of the acute emotional burden of monotheism.)

Eight years after publishing "The Emotional Burden of Monotheism" I published Reviving Old Scratch.

I think one of the more interesting points I make in Reviving Old Scratch is how our compassion creates doubts. Compassion, I argue, is an acid that can dissolve faith.

How so?

Again, it has to do with theodicy, the problem of suffering. Our compassion pulls us deeper and deeper into the suffering and pain of the world, and as we are drawn deeper and deeper into the darkness our theodicy questions grow more and more heavy and intense. Where is God in all this pain? Thus my argument: Compassion pulls us into the suffering of the world and all that suffering creates questions and doubts.

So, how are we to resolve this emotional dilemma, how do we maintain both compassion and faith in the face of horrific suffering? The argument I make in Reviving Old Scratch is that we have to adopt what Greg Boyd describes as the "warfare worldview" of the Bible. The cosmos is a spiritual battlefield and we are thrown into the middle of an ongoing fight. We are not given much information about how the fight started. All we are called to do is pick a side, pledging allegiance to King Jesus and getting on with the work of advancing in the kingdom of God.

In short, Reviving Old Scratch seems to be doing exactly what I described in 2008, what monotheists do in the face of suffering: Push blame onto the Satan to alleviate their doubts about God's goodness and power.

Again, few people know my work well enough to raise this issue with me. But I was aware of the critique my 2008 article would raise about what I was saying in Reviving Old Scratch. "Someone at some point is going to ask me about that Satan article," I said to myself. And some people have.

I have given my answers to those question, but recently I found a really tight summary from N.T. Wright about what I think Reviving Old Scratch is trying to do. Here's Wright (on page 737 in, of all places, Paul and the Faithfulness of God):
The stronger your monotheism, the sharper your problem of evil. That is inevitable: if there is one God, why are things in such a mess? The paradox that then results--God, and yet evil!--have driven monotheistic theorists to a range of solutions. And by 'solutions' here I mean two things: first, the analytic 'solution' of understanding what is going on; second, the practical 'solution' of lessening or alleviating the actual evil and its effects, or rescuing people from it. In various forms of the Jewish tradition, the second has loomed much larger. As Marx said, the philosophers have only interpreted the world, but the point is to change it.
My answer to the contrast between my 2008 article and Reviving Old Scratch pivots off of this distinction between an analytical and a practical theodicy. As I see it, the 2008 article was mainly about an analytical theodicy, how many Christians create a soft, metaphysical dualism to "explain" evil in the world.

Reviving Old Scratch, by contrast, is a call for a practical theodicy. In the words of Wright, the theodicy of Reviving Old Scratch is a call for "lessening or alleviating the actual evil and its effects, or rescuing people from it."

Or, as I put it in Reviving Old Scratch, the only theodicy the Bible gives us is resistance.

Basically, the Bible doesn't give us an analytical theodicy, it only gives us a practical theodicy. A call to action.

The big point I make in Reviving Old Scratch is that our attempts to solve the analytic puzzle of evil can be paralyzing. Some of us just can't solve the puzzle, even with a Satan. I can't. For example, as I said above, we ask questions about why God created Satan in the first place and why God doesn't bind and banish Satan right now. Those questions are hard to answer, so they remain open, analytic loose ends that intellectually torment us. The emotional burden of monotheism remains.

So the point of Reviving Old Scratch isn't to answer those questions. Reviving Old Scratch doesn't give you an analytical theodicy like the one described in my 2008 article. The point of Reviving Old Scratch is that, in the face of those open, analytical question, we shift our focus toward the practical theodicy of "lessening or alleviating the actual evil and its effects, or rescuing people from it."

As I describe in Reviving Old Scratch, we still have our doubts, but we can't let those intellectual puzzles cripple our energy and resolve to resist evil in the world. The great temptation for many of us is that we've turned evil into a theological puzzle we have to solve rather than a call to action in the world.

Reviving Old Scratch isn't trying to alleviate the emotional burden of monotheism by viewing Satan as an "explanation." Reviving Old Scratch is a call to face Satan as the "adversary," and issues a call to action.

The Grace We Could Extend to One Another

"We deal in disparagement and feel it proves we are freer of illusion than earlier generations were. We are, as we have always been, dangerous creatures, the enemies of our own happiness. But the only help we have ever found for this, the only melioration, is in mutual reverence. God’s grace comes to us unmerited, the theologians say. But the grace we could extend to one another we consider it best to withhold in very many cases, presumptively, or in the absence of what we consider true or sufficient merit (we being more particular than God), or because few gracious acts, if they really deserve the name, would stand up to cost-benefit analysis. This is not the consequence of a new atheism or a systemic materialism that afflicts our age more than others. It is good old human meanness, which finds its terms and pretexts in every age."

--Marilynne Robinson

The First Sunday of Advent



There were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them...


The desert's dusty breath
gathers, swirls burning embers
like fireflies.
A twig cracks like a bone in the darkness.
Nearby, whispers.
The sound of a cloak pulled
close in the coldness.
Then a hushed, still silent nothing.
And that was the moment
when the world ended.
The ages burnt away
by angel songs.

Journal Week 48: Early Caroling in Prison

I know it's not Advent yet, but we've been caroling out at the prison for a few weeks.

We got started early because we haven't been able to sing Advent and Christmas carols for two years in a row.

Two years ago the guys wanted me to start singing carols once we got past Halloween. Being I liturgical purist, I resisted. "Let's wait until the first Sunday of Advent," I said.

Well, two years ago the semi-annual lockdown occurred before the first Sunday of Advent. So we didn't get to sing Christmas and Advent carols. By the time the lockdown ended many weeks later the Christmas season was over.

And the same thing happened last year. Early in November, the guys started asking to sing Christmas carols. And being a liturgical purist, I again resisted. "Let's wait until Advent," I said. But then the lockdown happened and we missed the entire Advent and Christmas season for a second year in row.

So this year, well, screw liturgical purity. We started singing in November.

We weren't going to miss singing Advent and Christmas carols for a third year in a row.

A Scandalous Hermeneutic

When I speak to audiences I try not to preach to the choir. If my audience is conservative, I'll say progressive things. If my audience is progressive, I'll say conservative things.

I am sort of that way on the blog as well, as I'll tweak progressives as well as conservatives. I don't know if I leave many blog readers completely comfortable.

Basically, if I'm speaking to you I try not to play to your biases. I'll try to make you uncomfortable. And if my audience is mixed, I'll work to make sure everyone leaves feeling on the hook.

Much of this, if I'm honest, is a contrarian streak in my personality. I don't like doing or saying what is expected. But the theological impulse behind what I'm doing is that I don't think you've heard the gospel--the part that involves taking up your cross--unless you've been offended to some degree.

I don't mean offended as in shocked by something you deem uncouth or distasteful. I mean offended in that you've encountered a "stone of stumbling," a call of the gospel that seems foolish or scandalous.

This is the scandalous hermeneutic I use when I speak: Where is the offense of the gospel for this particular audience?

Where does the gospel trip you up? What part of "taking up your cross" are you refusing to obey?

I don't beat my audience over the head with this scandal, but once I identify the "stone of stumbling" I do make sure it comes up at least once in the talk.

Whenever I speak, at least for a moment, I'd like for your to experience an uncomfortable pinch.

You're hearing the gospel, after all, and it's going to make you wince "Ouch."

"My Work Is Loving the World"

"Messenger" by Mary Oliver

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
      equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
      keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
      astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
      and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
      to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
      that we live forever.

--from Thirst: Poems

The Lament Psalms and Emotional Atheism

In my post yesterday I mentioned how the lament psalms aren't for doubters but for lovers. That is to say, the emotional backdrop of the lament psalms is a love relationship with God. Some might prefer to describe it as a covenantal relationship.

Regardless, the lament psalms never express doubt or skepticism about God's existence. God's goodness, yes, but not God's existence.

And yet, a lot of doubting Christians are drawn to the lament psalms. What can account for this attraction?

One answer is provided by the psychologist Julie Exline, who has done research about a phenomenon she has described as "emotional atheism."

Emotional atheism is observed when atheists express anger at God, usually in relation to a past faith experience. These ex-believers display a dual relationship with God. Intellectually, these atheists deny the existence of God. But emotionally, these atheists report being angry with God. We can assume this anger emerged within the faith experience, and might have played a large part in the deconversion. For some atheists, those feelings of anger appear to linger in the season of unbelief, even if the emotions are incoherent. How can you be angry at something that doesn't exist? And yet people do.

All that to say, the lament psalms may be associated with doubt during a transition into emotional atheism: Not believing in God, while feeling angry at God.

Love & Lament

Over the years I've written a great deal about the attraction Winter Christians have for the lament psalms. Many of us who struggle with doubt find a home in the lament psalms.

But I've been wondering if many of us too quickly embrace the questioning and accusations of the lament psalms. Specifically, lament is connected to love, lament flows out of love.

The psalms are passionate love songs, many of them sad, heartbroken love songs. The psalmist is in love with God, and the pain we witness in the lament psalms flows out of that love.

In short, lament psalms are songs sung by people desperately in love with God.

The lament psalms aren't for doubters, the lament psalms are for lovers. 

Journal Week 47: Waiting for Advent

I've discovered there are two kinds of people in the world, and it's one of the deep social divides polarizing the world.

On the one hand are the people who put up Christmas trees and decorations on November 1, right after Halloween.

On the other hand are the people who are absolutely appalled by the this practice, insisting that Christmas stuff shouldn't go up until after Thanksgiving.

As always, I find myself caught in the middle of this debate. At our house we wait for Advent put up Christmas stuff. But let me defend the November 1 Christmas people for a minute.

First, Allhallowtide is a Christian holiday. Thanksgiving is an American holiday. So I don't see why a Christian should wait on American holiday. After Allhallowtide the next big Christian festival is Christmas, so I don't see why getting ready for that is a big deal. I don't think Christian celebrations and preparations need to wait on national holidays. Global Christianity isn't celebrating Thanksgiving. This waiting on Thanksgiving is an American thing.

But the real reason I'm defending the November 1 Christmas people is this: Oh, how I can't wait for Advent! I know it's weird to wait on a season of waiting, but I adore Advent. Absolutely adore it. Advent and Christmas are my favorite seasons of the liturgical year.

All that to say, I'm sympathetic to the early Christmas people. For weeks I've been waiting and anticipating Advent. So I get the impulse to want it all to start earlier rather than later.

Regardless, Thanksgiving is now behind us. So it's time to lay down our swords, come together, and unify.

The waiting for the waiting is almost over.

Advent will soon be upon us.

The Metaphysics of Morality: Part 4, Everyone Hallows

As I've made arguments about the necessity of metaphysics to keep morality from sliding into nihilism, I've repeatedly made two points.

The first point has been the most contentious and the one we've devoted most of our attention to, the necessity of metaphysics to ground morality and ethics.

Skeptical atheist readers have had all sorts of questions about what I mean by "metaphysics" "grounding" ethics.

By metaphysics, as I have repeatedly said, I don't mean spooky or supernatural. By metaphysical I mean how some systems require axiomatic givens, a priori truths, and first principles. My argument is that morality only escapes nihilism if it can assert some goods and values as axiomatic givens, as a priori truths, as guiding first principles, non-negotiable values that the legal philosopher Hans Kelsen has called "basic norms." With basic norms in place we can proceed with the task of ethical deliberation asking, "What ought we do do?" Without asserting some basic norms we can never get traction on that question. We'd have no criteria to define "the good."

I think all that describes what I mean by metaphysics "grounding" ethics. But people still get tripped up on the word "grounding." What do I mean by "grounding"?

The definition of grounding I'm using is this: grounding involves "taking something vague, theoretical and abstract and giving it a firm practical basis." Metaphysics "grounds" ethics in that it takes abstractions like "good," "evil," "right," "wrong," "well-being," "harm," and "flourishing" and makes them practical by specifying the values necessary to give those terms concrete, actionable meaning.

For example, we all want to act in ways that are "good." But that abstraction--good--is meaningless until we lay some values on the table to define what we mean by "good." The same goes for words like "harm," "well-being," and "flourishing." There are wildly different views about what does or does not constitute harm, well-being and flourishing, so those words by themselves are too abstract to be of practical use. They need grounding. Metaphysics grounds ethics when we assert non-negotiable values that define what we mean by good. These values allow us to evaluate competing ethical claims, helping us choose the good and adjudicate between competing goods when they come into conflict.

So that is the first point I've been making. Metaphysics is required to ground morality and ethics. The alternative is moral nihilism.

The second point I've repeatedly made is that everyone engages in his metaphysical work. To be fair, everyone engages in this work except moral nihilists, people who think words like "good" and "evil" are inherently meaningless. But most people, however, think the words "good" and "evil" have meaning beyond an expression of our preferences. Most people think the statement "Hitler is evil" is different from "I strongly disapprove of Hitler." Which means most people are metaphysicians, positing values that exist independently of our personal preferences ("evil" means more than disapproval), values that are universally applicable (the values that define "evil" apply to me, you, and Hitler), and values that stand in judgment of people like Hitler ("evil" should be condemned, prevented and stopped).

And if all that is granted, and I cannot see how anyone but a moral nihilist wouldn't grant it, we reach the point that kicked off these reflections many weeks ago: Everyone engages in what I've called "moral hallowing."

To be sure, this is idiosyncratic language. "Hallowing" is an old term meaning "to make holy." To hallow is to declare something as sacred and set apart. I have described the metaphysical grounding of morality as "moral hallowing." By that I mean both parts of the argument I made above.

First, the metaphysics of morality "hallows" in that it asserts, sets apart, and protects the basic norms that ground ethical reasoning. The values that give "evil" its moral weight cannot themselves be called into question, otherwise we descend into moral nihilism. In this sense, these values are "sacred" and "set apart." Hallowed. 

Second, these values are universally applicable and stand in judgment of human actions. The values that judge Hitler also judge me and you. More, there's an expectation of compliance with these values. "Evil" isn't a lifestyle choice where we shrug and say, "Live and let live." We expect evil to stop, and feel morally obligated to prevent it.

All this points to the sacred, hallowed aspect of morality. Some values are "set apart" as inviolable and all of humanity is judged by those values, sorting the good from the evil. And everyone except moral nihilists engages in this metaphysical task.

As I've said, everyone hallows.

The Metaphysics of Morality: Part 3, Metaphysical Smuggling

Since I've started pursuing these explorations into the relationship between morals and metaphysics I've been reading quite a few books on this topic. I am not, you should know, the first to have noted the connection, that there is a "givenness" to values that can make them tautological and circular in how they simply have to be axiomatically asserted. Nor am I the first to note that this "givenness" makes morality and ethics an inherently metaphysical enterprise.

One book that has been very helpful in this exploration has been Steven Smith's book The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. If you've been intrigued by my posts about moral hallowing and the metaphysical grounding of values you might want to read Smith's book.

A part of Smith's argument involves an examination the Enlightenment. Summarizing a conclusion reached by many scholars, Smith describes how the Enlightenment thinkers set out to build a moral system from scratch using only "pure reason" and the careful study of "human experience." But what the Enlightenment thinkers ultimately and unconsciously ended up doing was "cheating," smuggling in the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition they thought they were repudiating. As Smith describes (p. 157), "While purporting to derive ethical guidance from human experience, in fact they systematically imported their own preconceived values and imposed these values onto human experience...[T]hey pretended to ground their principles of ethics and justice in their empirical research and reflections, but in fact [as Carl Becker observed] 'the principles they are bound to find are the very ones they start out with.'"

In short, the Enlightenment smuggled Judeo-Christian values into their system. The Enlightenment thinkers praised themselves as Apostles of Reason, but their entire project was "constituted at its core by a practice of pervasive deception and self-deception."

Smith then goes on to argue that we continue to follow the footsteps of the Enlightenment. Specifically, we also smuggle metaphysical notions and values into our ethical arguments. As modern, secular people we pretend we can use pure reason to make ethical decisions independent of axiomatic values or metaphysical commitments, values and commitments often dependent upon or borrowed from religious traditions. We convince ourselves we are reasoning independently of these values, but what's actually happening is a smuggling operation, we are using non-religious terms and ideas but we are using these as vehicles "suitable for sneaking values or premises that are officially inadmissible" into secular ethical and legal deliberations.

For example, Smith has us consider the harm principle. Something is wrong if it causes harm to others. The harm principle seems to be a straightforward, rational, and objective criterion by which we can judge right vs. wrong. A related criterion, one Smith doesn't consider in as much detail but has come up a lot in the discussions on this blog, is that we should act in ways that promote human "well-being" or "flourishing." Again, this seems to be an objective and rational way of thinking about right or wrong.

But in both these cases, according to Smith, smuggling is taking place. When you drill down into the harm principle or the imperative to promote well-being and flourishing you eventually uncover a lot of values, values that simply have to be asserted, taken as axiomatic givens. We think we can avoid metaphysics when speaking about harm, well-being, and flourishing, but all we are doing is smuggling in our values.

Consider the harm principle. On the surface, it seems simple. Do no harm, right? What's metaphysical about that? Well, a moment's consideration reveals that people have very different notions about what does or does not constitute harm. As Smith observes (p. 104), "'[H]arm,' as we've seen, turns out to be a receptive vessel into which advocates can pour virtually any content they like, or that they can persuade others to swallow." 

Consider the following contentious issues:
  • Is the War on Drugs causing harm? Would legalizing drugs be causing harm?
  • Is it harmful for adults to have sex with consenting teenagers?
  • Who is more harmed, the baker who is asked to bake a wedding cake that violates their beliefs, or the gay couple who is refused service?
  • In the case of border control, whose harm should we care more about, harm to the citizens of the nation or harm to the illegal immigrant seeking a better life?
We can go on and on. Bland statements like "First, do no harm" are useless here outside of any metaphysical or values-based commitments.

Beyond harm, the same goes with defining "the good" as promoting human "well-being" and human "flourishing." As with harm, people have competing visions of human well-being and flourishing. There is no universal agreement on what "well-being" and "flourishing" even means. The statement "the good is what promotes human well-being and human flourishing" is meaningless. For example, does it promote human "well-being" or "flourishing" to have open or closed borders between nations? Does it promote human "well-being" or "flourishing" for the government to coercively garnish your hard earned wages to pay for social welfare programs? And if so, to what degree? What about legalizing drugs or prostitution? What about abortion? And on and on. People disagree about all this stuff. So you need to define what you mean by "well-being" and "flourishing," and there is no way to do that without sharing your metaphysical commitments and axiomatic values.

In sum, words like "harm," "well-being," and "flourishing" in these debates are just a vehicles for smuggling in your metaphysical commitments and values. As Smith observes (p. 105):
It would seem to follow that responsible and meaningful debates would neither contend over the harm principle nor expect it to do any real work in resolving contentious issues. Instead, [these debates should] engage with the larger theories or visions or commitments from which particular understandings of "harm" are derived. "As we discourse on public affairs," John Courtney Murray observed, "we inevitably have to move upward, as it were, into realms of some theoretical generality--into metaphysics, ethics, theology." ... If conversations about "harm" are to be anything more that obfuscating and question-begging, they need to carry us to consider our deeper commitments and their bases in such things as "metaphysics, ethics, theology."

And there is the rub. Because it is precisely those sorts of matters that the cage of modern secular discourse operates to keep out of the conversation.
(If you want to see plenty of examples of this, just read some of the back and forth comments between myself and some atheist readers of this blog. You push them to unpack their definitions of harm, well-being, or flourishing, asking that they lay their values and metaphysical commitments on the table, and they just get stuck. They bluster, they name-call, they change the subject. It's fascinating to watch. And the reason they get stuck at that point is that it forces them to face their smuggling operation, forces them to admit they are working with metaphysical commitments and grounding values. But to admit that gives too much of the argument way. So they dig in their heels and a lot of "obfuscating and question-begging" results.)

In debates about morality, secular thinkers like to think they can avoid the issue of metaphysics by appealing to "objective" criteria like "harm," "well-being," or "flourishing." But these terms are functionally meaningless. You can't define harm or flourishing or adjudicate between harms or competing visions of flourishing without a system of guiding values rooted in a metaphysical notion of "the good."

All that to say, we are back to the argument I've been making. You can't get ethical reasoning off the ground without engaging in metaphysics, without minimally asserting some values as self-evident givens. From the Enlightenment on there have been attempts to sidestep the necessity of metaphysics for ethics and morals, but every attempt to do so through "rational" appeals to "harm" or "flourishing" simply end up smuggling metaphysics and values into the conversation.

You might think you can escape the necessity of metaphysics when you talk about morals, but you can't. You're just smuggling.

The Metaphysics of Morality: Part 2, The Somatic Marker Hypothesis and Ethics as What You Care About

In Part 1 I used the axioms of Euclidean geometry to illustrate how ethical reasoning works. Before we can make ethical and moral decisions we need to have some grounding values. These grounding, foundational values are metaphysical in nature in that they are taken as ethical givens, values assumed to be axiomatic.

The point I made in Part 1 is that rationality itself cannot produce these ethical givens, these axiomatic valuations. Reason is a computational process that can only get off the ground by taking these values as inputs.

For example, consider the axiom of inviolable human worth and dignity. Many of us take human dignity as an unassailable, ethical given. However, there are many who reject this axiom. For example, the animal rights activist and ethicist Peter Singer argues that human dignity is form of speciesism, privileging the pain and suffering of human beings over the pain and suffering of non-human animals. Many atheists have also argued that human dignity, given how it is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is a concept that should be discarded.

The point here is that a moral axiom many of us assume--human dignity--is both disputed and rejected by many. And the people rejecting it are not (generally) moral nihilists. They simply assume and work with a different set of moral axioms and reach a different set of ethical conclusions.

Regardless, the metaphysical work--assuming some values as inviolable givens--is necessary.

Let me, in this post, give another example of what I'm describing.

In his book Descartes Error the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes what he calls the "somatic marker hypothesis." In his work and research Damasio has observed that certain people with damage in the frontal cortex have difficulty making decisions. Specifically, when facing a choice or a decision these patients can make long lists of pros and cons but can never terminate the chain of evaluation to make a choice. They can't pull the trigger on the decision.

Damasio's argument is that these patients can't make a decision because the damage to their frontal cortex disconnected the analytical part of their brain (the part making the long pro vs. con list) from the emotional part of their brain, the part of the brain that cares about all those pros vs. cons.

In short, Damasio has argued that we need more than analysis and rationality to make decisions, we need emotions as well, we need to care. Because if we don't care about Outcome A versus Outcome B how could we ever decide between the two?

Basically, rationality can guide our decision making process, but rationality needs to know what you care about if its going to help you make a decision. Rationality requires some emotional input, otherwise the computational analysis will never terminate.

This is, I am arguing, exactly what happens with ethical reasoning. But instead of emotions and caring we're talking about moral axioms and ethical givens. Naked reason can guide ethical reflection and deliberation. Reason is vital when we face ethical quandaries and predicaments. But naked reason needs to know what, ultimately, we ethically care about. We need to know 1) what we value and 2) how those values rank against each other when they come into conflict. Otherwise, how could you ever make an ethical decision? All you'd be able to do is make long lists of ethical pros vs. cons. Remember those frustrating debates in your college Ethics 101 class? All those interminable ethical debates are just like those patients with damage to the frontal cortex. The conversation and debate never ends. And yet, we have to make moral choices in life. So how to choose? We just have to take some goods as given and/or more important than other goods. And rationality itself can't make that call. There are many rational conclusions to ethical debates. Rationality is just a computational tool. Reason can't tell you, in the end, what to care about. Just sit in on an ethics class.

All that to say, when I describe morality as being metaphysical I'm talking about how rationality is separate from the values we have to input into the system.

These values aren't the product of reason, they make reason possible.

The Metaphysics of Morality: Part 1, Moral Axioms and Reasoning

I'm continuing to think and read about the metaphysical grounding necessary for values and morality.

If you're a regular reader you may have been following these thoughts of mine over the last few months, but it you're just jumping in a quick summary of the basic idea I'm arguing for.

In short, human values are metaphysical in nature in that they have to be taken as "goods" that are self-evident, non-negotiable givens. To be clear, metaphysical here doesn't mean supernatural or religious. Metaphysical here means axiomatic, things that simply have to be assumed as first principles to get the analytical system off the ground.

If this seems unclear, a good illustration about what I'm talking about is Euclidean geometry. For the logical system of geometry to work--Remember proving things in High School with "QED"?--some basic axioms have to be assumed. For example, an axiom of Euclidean geometry is that the shortest distance between any two points is a straight line.

Now, notice two important points about the relationship between axioms and reasoning in Euclidean geometry.

First, the entire logical system cannot get to work without axioms provided as inputs, as fuel for the logical machine. This illustrates something that I argue holds in exactly the same way for ethical and moral reasoning: Reason alone is not enough. Reason is just an analytical, logical, computational capacity. Reason can suss out fallacies and help you weigh options, but reason can't tell you what is right or wrong independently of how you value various goods when they come into conflict. In the same way that reason without axioms can't lead you to a geometrical truth, reason alone cannot tell you what is right or wrong independently of values. Reason is just a computational tool, but it's a tool that needs raw materials to work with.

This limitation of reason is illustrated by a second feature of Euclidean geometry. Specifically, if you change the axioms and you change the truths. You may or may not know this, but Non-Euclidean geometry was discovered when mathematicians rejected the fifth axiom of the Euclidean system. This was the parallel postulate, the axiom that two parallel lines could never intersect. Well, when you reject that postulate, when you allow a parallel line to cross at some distant point, what you have is a geometry for curved space. This Non-Euclidean geometry for curved space is what Einstein famously turned to to come up with his theory of General Relativity, gravity as causing curvatures in spacetime.

My point here is how different axioms created different geometries, different truths and proofs. Both Euclidean and Non-Euclidean geometry are equally logical and rational, but they describe different realities because they start with a different set of axioms.

I am arguing that a similar thing happens in moral and ethical reflection. Two competing ethical systems can be equally rational. Both systems can make appeals to "reason." For the most part, then, the differences in ethical systems isn't that one is rational and the other irrational. In this sense, a secular, non-religious ethical system and a religious, theistic ethical system can be equally rational. Both reason from axiomatic, first-principles toward ethical conclusions. Any differences in ethical conclusions between these or any other ethical systems would be due to different axioms, as with Euclidean and Non-Euclidean geometry. One ethical system defines "the good" one way and an alternative ethical system defines "the good" in an different way. Just like Euclidean geometry accepts the parallel postulate and Non-Euclidean rejects it.

All that to say, appeals to "rationality" and "reason" in ethical debates is really beside the point. The fundamental issue is how one defines "the good," the fundamental axioms that give you the raw material for ethical reflection and decision making, from the personal to the political.

The point I've been making across various posts is that everyone, theist and atheist, are involved in this metaphysical task, in declaring and specifying "the good," the evaluative, non-negotiable givens that will guide ethical reasoning. Before you can start "reasoning" you have to specify your values, and how those values are ranked should they come into conflict.There's no way to avoid this fundamental task. Oh sure, you can try to say that a process of reason produced your values. But that just backs up the problem. We can ask you to show your work, to display all the inputs and steps of that prior process of reasoning, what axioms provided the input and what computational steps were executed to get to the position you currently espouse.

At some point, unless you're a nihilist, you'll drill down to the basic inputs, to the metaphysical foundation, to the givens, to the moral axioms upon which your ethical systems stands.

Journal Week 46: Johnny Cash Book Update, Some Help, and an Update

In July I finished my first draft of my forthcoming book about Johnny Cash titled "Trains, Jesus, & Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash."

In the weeks since I've been working on getting lyric permissions. The rights of most of Johnny Cash's songs are held by Hal Leonard and Alfred Music. So I had to go through the process of requesting from both publishers permission to quote Johnny Cash lyrics in the book. It's a process you have to be patient with.

So far, I have received permission to quote from the following songs:
"I Walk the Line"
"The Man in Black"
"Folsom Prison Blues"
"San Quentin"
"The Ballad of Ira Hayes"
"Give My Love to Rose"
"The Legend of John Henry's Hammer"
"Sunday Morning Coming Down"
"Ragged Old Flag"
"Drive On"
"All God's Children Ain't Free"
"Delia's Gone"
"The Man Comes Around"
"The Gospel Road" 
Each chapter of the book is built around one songs above.

I'm still wanting and working on getting permissions for two other songs.

The first is "Hurt," the Johnny Cash cover of the Trent Reznor song. "Hurt" is controlled by Kobalt Music and I'm still trying to get a response from them.
 
The other song is "Greystone Chapel," written by Glen Sherley when he as an inmate at Folsom Prison and famously sung by Johnny Cash during the recording of the live concert album At Folsom Prison. Alfred Music controls the worldwide rights to "Greystone Chapel," and I have secured that permission. But a different company controls the US rights to "Greystone Chapel." That company is Copyright Management Inc. However, it seems this company no longer exists.

Copyright Management Inc. was in Tennessee, but according to Tennessee it seems like the company dissolved in 1982.  It looks like the company might have became Copyright Management Inc. of New York in 1989, but that company seems to have dissolved in 1999.

All that to say, without knowing if Copyright Management Inc. exists and where I can find it, I have no idea how to get the US permissions to "Greystone Chapel." Is it possible, if this company dissolved that "Greystone Chapel" is now in the public domain and I can quote the song?

You have any knowledge or expertise in this area, or can locate who controls the US permissions to "Greystone Chapel," I'd be much obliged.

UPDATE:
Thanks to some sleuthing from Kyle M. we have some more leads. It seems William (Rusty) Courtney with Family Airs Publishing may have the rights to "Greystone Chapel."

However, I can't find contact information online for Mr. Courtney or Family Airs Publishing. The only lead is his LinkedIn profile. And his Twitter account, which hasn't been used in some time.

I tried to call Mr. Courtney's last place of employment listed on LinkedIn, but the establishment doesn't seem to have a direct line. So, if you're in the Nashville airport, stop by to see if Mr. Courtney is sill bartending at Hissho Sushi and ask how I might get in touch with him.

Sunday School with Judges: Part 4, This Is Not the King You Are Looking For

The most famous character in the book of Judges is Samson.

Samson is an interesting character. First, let's admit this: The stories of Samson are great stories. Theology and ethics aside, we can see why the Israelites preserved and shared these stories. There's serious entertainment value here.

That said, beyond fireside tales of legendary exploits, what are we supposed to take away from the stories of Samson?

Here's the way I asked the question in my Sunday School class: Was Samson a good judge or a bad judge?

The answers here are all over the place.

Some say Samson was a good judge. In the stories, God is with Samson at critical moments. The New Testament book of Hebrews also lists Samson, along with other judges, as a hero of the faith.

But there are also many commentators who argue that Samson is the very worst judge. Some see a downward progression in Judges, each judge getting worse and worse and worse, finally culminating in the mess known as Samson.

I actually think this mixed message is the point we're supposed to take away from the book. Samson may be a hero, but he's also a train wreck.

And that's because all our heroes are like that.

Think about every hero you've had in your life, people you've put up on a pedestal. And then remember when they disappointed you. We want our heroes to be perfect, but no human is perfect. Everyone fails. Everyone disappoints. Everyone has skeletons in the closet.

Everyone, even the best of us, has a fall from grace.

Toward the end of Judges, after all the crazy stories, there is a refrain, a longing that keeps getting repeated: "In those days Israel had no king."

The message is clear. Samson might be a hero, but he wasn't the king we were looking for.

Saul won't be either, when Israel finally does get a king. David won't be either. Not Solomon. Not anyone. No mere mortal is going to be the king we are looking for.

And I think that's the big point of the book Judges by the time you get to the end. Judges leaves you with an ache. You might thrill to the stories in Judges or be horrified by them. Either way, by the time we get to the end of the book we haven't found the king we were looking for. And the world is suffering because of that. Judges leaves you searching and longing for the Kingdom of God.

In short, Judges is a mess, but what Judges leaves you with is a Messianic longing. An ache for the Kingdom of God. The longing for our rightful king.

Samson might be a great read, but he's not the king we were looking for.

Sunday School with Judges: Part 3, Exodus, Again and Again

It might be hard to find the gospel in Judges, but I think it's clearly there.

The word "judge" is not really the best description for the protagonists in the book. Many commentators think the word "deliverer" is better. Because that's mainly what the judges did, they delivered Israel from oppression.

If you're familiar with the book of Judges you know it presents us with a cycle that happens over and over again in the book. Things start off good, but Israel slowly turns away from God, becoming tangled in the thorns and snares of the gods of the nations surrounding them. As punishment, God allows Israel to be enslaved and oppressed by her pagan neighbors. Under the heavy yoke, Israel cries out for rescue. God hears the cries of Israel, has pity upon them and sends a judge, a deliverer to set the people free. And this happens over and over.

There's something about the repeated, iterative nature of this cycle that really leaves an impression with you.

Specifically, every rescue in Judges is like a little Exodus, every Judge a little Moses setting the people free. Only this happens over and over. It's Exodus, again and again.

But it's also more than that. Judges is a foreshadowing of God's promise to rescue Israel after the exile that comes with the fall of Israel and Judah. As N.T. Wright likes to point out, Israel's bondage in Egypt wasn't due to sin. The exile, by contrast, was the result of sin. Thus, the liberation of the exiled people of God has to involve the "forgiveness of sins" in a way that wasn't in play with Moses and the Exodus.

But the repeated little Exoduses in Judges are very much associated with the forgiveness of sin, as each season of bondage and oppression is a consequence of Israel's sin. In this, the book of Judges stands between Exodus and the Exile, an echo of Exodus but also a foretaste of a coming grace: the forgiveness of sins.

And what I think is really powerful about Judges is its picture of the iterative nature of this grace and forgiveness. In Exodus and the exile, the frame is a one-time event, a linear, serial process. But in Judges, grace is iterative, a repeating cycle. In Judges, it's grace again and again.

That insight into the repeated, iterative nature of grace is unique to Judges. And once again, this is a message that will preach. Because who doesn't need grace again and again?

Yes, we all need the big, climatic salvific moments in our lives. The Big Emancipation. We all need Exodus. But in the day to day grind of the spiritual life, trying to live into the long faithfulness, the message of Judges rings more true. Few of us make steady, cumulative progress on the way to holiness and heaven. Our spiritual lives feel more like a cycle. Good, strong, spiritual seasons falling back into disobedience and darkness. And then back into the light. Faith. Disobedience. Bondage. Rescue. Over and over again.

So that's the gospel according to the book of Judges. What I need in life, what we all need, is grace.

But we need it again and again.

Sunday School with Judges: Part 2, Thorns and Snares

As I mentioned yesterday, one of the big struggles many of us have with the book of Judges is how, coming on the heels of Joshua, it continues the conquest of Canaan.

That said, Judges quickly changes the focus. Concerning the surrounding pagan nations, the struggle in the book of Judges shifts from removal and eradication to faithfulness and covenantal fidelity in the midst of the nations. From Judges 2:
Judges 2.1-4
Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” As soon as the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. 
God changes the agenda. No longer will God stand with Israel in battle against the nations. God will leave the nations where they are so that they will be "thorns" and "snares" to Israel.

To be sure, there are some sticky issues here, how God seems to leave the nations in place as a punishment for Israel. Regardless, this situation changes the game in Judges when compared to the book of Joshua. Specifically, with the nations staying put the focus in Judges lasers in on the issue of idolatry, remaining faithful to God in the midst of thorns and snares.

And that is a message that can preach. I preached it recently out at the prison and it really resonated. "You live among thorns and snares," I said to the Men in White. And they wholeheartedly agreed. All around them the gods of this world are enticing or threatening them.

And it's the same for all of us. We live lives surrounded by thorns and snares. And as the image of the snare makes clear, this is not a passive situation, us just falling into a hole. We feel positively hunted by predatory forces. These are snares we are avoiding.

All that to say, while the book of Judges has its problems, the book does speak to this situation well, the experience of trying to be faithful while living among the nations, about fidelity to God while living in the midst of thorns and snares.

Sunday School with Judges: Part 1, Judges is Hard on Judges

A few months ago, the adult Bible classes at our church did a series on the book of Judges. As regular readers know, I teach an adult Bible class every Sunday at my church. The name of the class is Sojourners, and I've been teaching it for about fifteen years.

When I first heard we'd be doing a series on Judges I groaned. Along with the book of Joshua, Judges is one of the hardest books to teach. For three reasons.

First, following after Joshua Judges continues the conquest narrative of Israel, the command to remove and displace the Canaanites in the land.

Second, Judges is filled with violence. To be sure, the violence makes for great story telling. From Ehud stabbing the obese Moabite king Eglon to Jael driving a tent peg through the temple of the Canaanite general Sisera. These stories are great stories, but they are hard to turn into Sunday School material.

And third, there are many "texts of terror" in the book of Judges, some of the darkest and most tragic stories in all of the Bible. From Jephthah's daughter (Judges 11) to the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19).

So, yeah, Judges presents the Sunday School teacher with a bit of a challenge. Especially for an adult Bible class like mine, filled with liberal, progressive Christians. For many, the book of Judges is an obstacle to faith. For the reasons stated above. Every Sunday with Judges was going to be triggering a faith crisis.

Still, I wanted to be a dutiful Sunday School teacher, so our class did a series on the book of Judges. And I'd like to use a few posts to share what that sounded like.

I started by naming the elephant in the room, our problems and issues with the book of Judges. What I discussed above.

At that point I could have gone into a big hermeneutical spiel showing how progressive, liberal Christians read these problematic Old Testament texts. There's tons of great material out there on how do read the Bible this way, from Rachel Held Evan's Inspired, to Peter Enns's The Bible Tells Me So, to Rob Bell's What Is the Bible?

But I didn't launch into a big hermeneutical discussion. For three reasons.

First, the study was supposed to be a study about the book of Judges, not a class on how to read the Bible. There is a time and place for a class on how to read the Bible, but such a class is a whole multi-week and multi-month study of its own. And I just didn't have the time. I had eight weeks to cover the book of Judges.

Second, I think sometimes we just need to let the Bible be weird and unsettling. I understand the impulse to smooth out all the rough, dark, violent edges. But I also worry about doing that all the time.

Let me state it this way, if I already know what the Bible should and ought to say, why read it at all? If I already know what the Bible is supposed to say before I read it, the Bible can't teach me anything or challenge me. The Bible is always and only going to preach to me an enlightened, humanistic worldview that helps elect Democrats to political office.

All that to say, I think there's some value it just allowing the Bible to be strange and unsettling, without always quickly rushing to explain it all away.

And finally, there's the Jews. These stories of military victory and conquest were not written by the Empire. These are the stories of one of the most oppressed and persecuted people in history. Yes, it's highly problematic when the Empire adopts theses stories as it own. Social location is everything.

Let me put it this way. I get the issues we have with the Old Testament, but there's something obscene about tone policing and concern trolling the Jews.

So that's how I started off the class. Yes, I said, we have lots of problems with the book of Judges. And yes, I could spend a lot time deploying a sophisticated progressive hermeneutic that would protect us from the text before we waded in. But why don't we, I suggested, just let the stories stand as they are and see what we can see?

And here's the first thing I see when I read the book of Judges.

Yes, as progressive, modern readers we're hard on the book of Judges. But guess what? Judges is hard on Judges. No Hebrews would read the book and say, "Those were the best of times." No, the message of Judges is exact opposite. As the book slowly descends into chaos, terror, and darkness we reach the take home point of the book: "These were the worst of times."

Judges is deeply aware that something is profoundly broken. Judges is not a triumphalistic book. It is a story of moral and political collapse.

And if that's true, it might be a really interesting book for us to read today.  

Journal Week 45: Autumn

The leaves are starting to fall here in Texas. And the days are getting cooler.

Autumn has always been my favorite season. The turn from summer to winter has always made me grow melancholy and reflective, even as a child. There's a pensive moodiness to autumn that I've always experienced. The music that has always perfectly captured my mood this time of year is George Winston's album Autumn.

I grew up in Pennsylvania, so I miss the full palette of color Northern trees give you this time of year. Here in Abilene we mostly have live oaks, mesquite trees, and pecan trees. None of which turn fiery red or orange during autumn. I miss those colors.

Still, on my bike ride to work brisk chilly winds are starting to blow, leaves are starting fall, pecan nuts are dropping and filling the yards, and the sun is setting sooner. So I'm growing reflective and thoughtful again. Just like when I was a boy, walking home from school kicking his feet through wet autumn leaves...

Watch

One of the things that strikes you about the parables of Jesus is his emphasis upon vigilance, being watchful for the coming kingdom.

I've written about this before, how the kingdom comes via perception. The kingdom of God is near, always at hand, if we could see it.

Jesus's call to watchfulness and vigilance makes a similar point. The kingdom comes upon us unexpectedly, unannounced, and without warning. Consequently, we have to be attentive and alert.

In my life, I've come to think that spiritual practice is maintaining this posture of watchfulness throughout the day. Spiritual practice is cultivating the perceptual capacity to the discern the kingdom that is near and at hand.

Where is the kingdom, right here and right now?

Be alert. Watch. Attend.

There Is Mercy In Heaven, But The Road To It Is Paved By Our Merciful Acts On Earth

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy." My brothers and sisters, sweet is the thought of mercy, but even more so is mercy itself. It is what all men hope for, but unfortunately, not what all men deserve. For while all men wish to receive it, only a few are willing to give it.

How can a man ask for himself what he refuses to give to another? If he expects to receive any mercy in heaven, he should give mercy on earth. Do we all desire to receive mercy? Let us make mercy our patroness now, and she will free us in the world to come. Yes, there is mercy in heaven, but the road to it is paved by our merciful acts on earth. As Scripture says: "Lord, your mercy is in heaven."

There is, therefore, an earthly as well as heavenly mercy, that is to say, a human and a divine mercy. Human mercy has compassion on the miseries of the poor. Divine mercy grants forgiveness of sins. Whatever human mercy bestows her on earth, divine mercy will return to us in our homeland. In this life God feels cold and hunger in all who are stricken with poverty; for, remember, he once said: "What you have done to the least of my brothers you have done to me." Yes, God who sees fit to give his mercy in heaven wishes it to be a reality here on earth.

What kind of people are we? When God gives, we wish to receive, but when he begs, we refuse to give. Remember, it was Christ who said: "I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat." When the poor are starving, Christ too hungers. Do not neglect to improve the unhappy conditions of the poor, if you wish to ensure that your own sins be forgiven you. Christ hungers now, my brethren; it is he who deigns to hunger and thirst in the persons of the poor. And what he will return in heaven tomorrow is what he receives here on earth today.

What do you wish for, what do you pray for, my dear brothers and sisters, when you come to church? Is it mercy? How can it be anything else? Show mercy, then, while you are on earth, and mercy will be shown to you in heaven. A poor person asks you for something; you ask God for something. He begs for a morsel of food; you beg for eternal life. Give to the beggar so that you may merit to receive from Christ. For he it is who says: "Give and it will be given to you." It baffles me that you have the impudence to ask for what you do not want to give. Give when you come to church. Give to the poor. Give them whatever your resources will allow.

--Saint Caesarius of Arles

Apocalypse: Unveiling or Invasion?

As many of you know, the Greek word apocalypse means "to unveil" or "to reveal." An apocalypse means that something which was hidden has now been brought into view.

Many of the scholars who describe Paul as an apocalyptic thinker, though, add something more to this definition. More than "unveiling," apocalypse means "invasion."

For example, in his highly influential commentary on Galatians, Louis Martyn makes some observations about this passage:
Galatians 3.23-25
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed [apocalypse]. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
First, note the images of bondage and captivity. "Held under custody." "Locked up." "Guardian."

Next, note how Paul describes the apocalypse as "coming": "the coming of faith," "the faith that was to come," "until Christ came," "this faith has come."

In short, the apocalypse isn't just an unveiling, the apocalypse is something that breaks into our world as sets us free. Apocalypse as invasion, as an act of deliverance.   

Here is Martyn summarizing Paul's imagination:
The genesis of Paul's apocalyptic--as we see it in Galatians--lies in the apostle's certainty that God has invaded the present evil age by sending Christ and his Spirit into it. There was a "before," the time when we were confined, imprisoned; and there is an "after," the time of our deliverance. And the difference between the two is caused not by an unveiling, but rather by the coming of Christ and his Spirit.