Smelling Your Way Into the Kingdom of God

Out at the prison we've been in the book of 2 Corinthians. 

If 1 Corinthians is about conflict within the church, 2 Corinthians is about a conflict between Paul and the church. In much of 2 Corinthians Paul is defending both himself and his ministry in contrast to people whom he describes as "super-apostles." Paul is being sarcastic with the label "super," but his cutting description is pointing to a contrast many within the church seemed to be making. The super-apostles appeared stylish and successful, whereas Paul seemed weak and ineffectual. 

Knowing he was coming out on the short end of a contrast with the super-apostles, Paul takes aim at the metric being used. How should one evaluate a ministry? By what criteria do we judge success? You see Paul making this point in a pivotal text:

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor 5.16-17)
Paul was suffering in the comparison with the super-apostles because the Corinthian church was viewing their respective ministries from "a worldly point of view." And from a worldly point of view, Paul's ministry seemed the poorer. Paul didn't seem as successful, talented, attractive, spectacular, polished or charismatic. But as Paul points out, Jesus hanging on the cross didn't look much like a winner. Seen from a worldly point of view, Jesus on the cross doesn't appear successful, talented, attractive, spectacular, polished or charismatic. 

Paul's key insight is that you can't see the kingdom if you're using the wrong metrics, if your perception is skewed. My favorite example of this comes early in the letter, where Paul uses a metaphor of smelling. This is a favorite of mine because most of the sensory and perceptual metaphors used to describe the kingdom of God tend to be visual or auditory metaphors, images of sight or hearing. But in 2 Corinthians 2, Paul describes the perceptual contrast as being between perfume and stench:
But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. (2 Cor 2.14-16)
Compared to the super-apostles, Paul's person and ministry smelled like trash. He was an offensive odor. Paul stank, and the Corinthians were holding their noses. But Paul's offensive smell, to return back to the visual metaphor, was due to how the church was looking at him from "a worldly point of view." How Paul smelled had less to do with Paul than with the perceptual filters being used by the church.

For those with cruciform perception, Paul and his ministry would have smelled like roses. But for those using worldly perception, Paul was an offensive stink. The sensory contrast--smelling like roses or trash--hinges completely upon one's perceptual filters. 

And so, I told the men out at the prison, we enter the world with our noses. We will smell the smells. The question is, are we able to smell our way into the kingdom of God? When Christ appears unexpectedly before us, will we smell roses or trash? Will be be drawn to the perfume of God or recoil in disgust?

So let me give Jesus's "for the one who as ears, let them hear" a little Pauline tweak:

For the one who has a nose, let them smell.

On C.S. Lewis and Sunbeams: The Apologetics of Imaginative Inhabitation

I recently finished the very interesting book Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Michael Ward. 

In Planet Narnia, Ward makes the argument that Lewis uses the archetypes of the "seven heavens"--Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Saturn, Mercury, the Moon, and the Sun--to create a distinctive imaginative world for each of the seven books in The Chronicles of Narnia. You can read Planet Narnia to see which planets go with which books in The Chronicles. I went into Planet Narnia as a skeptic that Ward had cracked "the Narnia Code," but he makes a strong case. And even if Ward is wrong, his close reading of The Chronicles, along with the Ransom space trilogy and Lewis' entire corpus, popular and scholarly, is very illuminating.

Ward also makes the argument in Planet Narnia that The Chronicles of Narnia was written to advance Lewis' argument from his apologetical book Miracles

The popular consensus is that Miracles is Lewis' least effective apologetical work. When I read it, many years ago, I didn't find it overly persuasive. Ward argues that Lewis also felt a dissatisfaction with the book, and that the The Chronicles of Narnia was his attempt at a better approach. 

Scholars of Lewis have long been interested in his seemingly abrupt switch from popular apologetical works to the writing of children's fantasy stories. What caused this change? Was Lewis withdrawing from the fight for the faith?

Ward argues, no, Lewis didn't withdraw. He simply changed tactics. According to Ward, Lewis recognized the limits of rational argumentation in apologetical debate. You see that rationalism on display in Miracles. Such logical arguments really only go so far, and they generally fail to persuade. What was needed, rather, was a conversion and a baptism of the imagination. This is what happened to Lewis himself when, as a young atheist, he encountered George MacDonald's fairy story Phantastes. MacDonald converted Lewis' imagination.

Lewis knew that the rational arguments of books like Miracles could only get you so far. You struggle to "get" faith by standing aloof and objective, analyzing it from the outside. What was needed, rather, was imaginatively inhabiting faith, getting "inside" the story. Only there, from the inside, could the "logic" of faith be appreciated and understood. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia to create that imaginative world and opportunity.

Lewis described this strategy of imaginative inhabitation in a short essay titled "Meditations in a Toolshed":
I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.
The book Miracles was looking "at" the sunbeam of faith. Detached, rational, objective, argumentative. Miracles examined enchantment from the outside.

The Chronicles of Narnia, by contrast, looks "along" the sunbeam, imaginatively inhabiting the world of faith. Enchantment is experienced from the inside. Looking "along" the sunbeam is a participatory form of knowing and understanding as you live within the story. 

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: Part 17, Fifty Shades of Grey

We remain in Chapter 6 of Louise Perry's The Case Against the Sexual Revolution entitled "Violence is Not Love." 

Last week I discussed the troubling rise of choking during sex among the younger generations, a trend associated with widespread pornography consumption and one that is adversely affecting the mental health of young women.

And yet, it could be argued that both Perry and I are moralizing here. Maybe young women like being choked? Maybe we're just prudes who are opposed to kink? 

One bit of evidence here for that argument is/was the popularity of the BDSM erotica of the book and movie Fifty Shades of Grey. Hundreds of thousands of women, if not millions, read the book and watched the movie. Clearly there is a widespread desire out there among women for BDSM kink. Some women do like being tied down, spanked, whipped, and choked during sex. Some women do have rape fantasies. Consequently, aren't we, as moralizing prudes, stigmatizing these desires and the women who have them? Again, let people do what they want in the bedroom!

How does Perry address this argument? 

Perry puts much of the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey upon male possessiveness, and how this hits the erotic buttons of female sexual psychology. Recall, from earlier in this series, the impact of evolution upon female mate choice. Specifically, given the reproductive challenges women faced in Stone Age contexts, women evolved to identify "high investment" mates. Male focus and exclusive attention were therefore erotic cues. In modern language, a male being "really into you" was arousing. Exclusive and focused attention signals care, investment, and love. In fantasy, these attentional cues can be pushed to become superstimuli, where male attention become obsessive, his entire world now orbiting you. This obsessive attention from a desired male hits female sexual psychology in its sweet spot. It's the exact opposite of that dud of a husband who never listens to you, barely notices you, and only watches sports on TV. In contrast to that, wouldn't it be arousing to have a gorgeous, rich man be obsessed with you?

That's the erotic appeal in Fifty Shades of Grey. Importantly, beyond obsession, there are other erotic cues involved here. As I mentioned, we want this obsessed man to be both handsome and rich, exactly like Christian Grey. This is critical to the erotic fantasy. If Christian Grey was a poor and ugly man he's not becoming an object of erotic desire, no matter how obsessed he is. In fact, that dude would be a stalker and we'd call the police on him. This erotic desire for good looks and wealth also goes back to an evolutionary logic. The "high investment" mate you're looking for isn't just investing attention, but also resources, both genetic and material. Stepping back, Christian Grey has all of these: He's gorgeous. He's rich. And he's obsessed with Anastasia. All the ingredients for an erotic fantasy are there. Here's Perry describing this:

Christian Grey is a violent, controlling brute, but his obsessive behavior towards Anastasia does at least demonstrate his unwavering commitment to her. Fifty Shades adds a whips-and-chains aesthetic, but many older romance novels are centered on much the same dynamic: the strong handsome man who falls head over heels in love with the heroine and will do anything to have her, up to and including being violent.

...There is variation within the romance genre, and heroes may be more or less aggressive depending upon the particular book, but one theme remains consistent: the consumers of women's erotic fiction have never been turned on by a man who plays hard to get, wavers in his interest, or is distracted by the attentions of other women. Long before Fifty Shades came along, what these readers were aroused by is the fantasy of a man who is really into them, often obsessively so.

As Perry goes on to note, while obsessive, violent men might be erotically attractive in fantasy, violent and obsessive men are not the best partners in real life. We know, for instance, that the number one cause of domestic violence is male jealousy. And this creates one of the saddest and most tragic aspects of domestic violence, how abused women interpret violence as obsessive and exclusive interest in her, that abuse is a sign of love. According to Perry, this confusion is also behind why many young women are now consenting to being choked during sex. Perry writes:

Sadly, images of strangulation shared or liked by women on social media...and testimony that I've heard directly from many young women all suggest that many of the women who seek out strangulation have a very particular--and very misguided--understanding of what strangulation means when men do it to them during sex. 

To put it bluntly, many of these women are as deluded as the victim of domestic violence...who 'imagines--falsely--that a punch in the face or a hand around the throat is at least a sign of his continued interest in her.' They think strangulation indicates a man's love, passion and desire for them. More often than not, it indicates none of these things, but, in a culture in which the differences between male and female sexuality are routinely denied, particularly by liberal feminists, it shouldn't surprise us that many of these young women take the lead from erotic fiction such as Fifty Shades and misinterpret aggression from their male partners as a sign of passion...

The Argument from Evil and the Moral Obligation to Believe in God

I'm floating an argument. Experimental theology as advertised. Feel free to kick the tires.

This is a two part argument. The first argument is for the existence of God based upon the problem of evil. The second, related argument is for the moral obligation to believe in God.

The first argument:

1. The problem of evil exists only if God exists. Phrased negatively, if God doesn't exist then the universe exists exactly as it must and cannot be described with moral terms such as either "good" or "evil." As the atheist Richard Dawkins has said, 

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
2. Evil is a problem. We judge that the world ought and should be otherwise.

3. Therefore, God exists.
The second argument:
1. We are morally obligated to believe that evil is a problem. To look upon evil and say that it is neither good or evil is sociopathic and wicked. We must believe that evil is a problem and name it accordingly.

2. Being morally obligated to believe that the problem of evil exists, we are, therefore, morally obligated to believe that God exists.
The provocation of these arguments is to make the point that the problem of evil is often taken to be the best argument for atheism. Logically, though, as I try to illustrate above, the problem of evil presupposes theism. We can only make the judgment--either rationally or emotionally--that the world ought to be otherwise if it indeed can be otherwise. This is precisely what Christians believe in the face of evil, that the world ought to be otherwise because it can and will be otherwise. This is a call to moral exertion in the face of evil. By contrast, the position of atheistic materialism is that the world can't be otherwise. The world exists exactly as it must exist, and no configuration of it can be morally judged as either good or evil. The problem of evil simply doesn't exist. 

But what about the problem of pain and horrific suffering? Well, again, from the position of materialism consciousness is epiphenomenological, a mere by-product of particular material arrangements with no causal power upon those material constituents. That some material configurations are associated with conscious pain and torment is the unproblematic way the universe just happens to exist, and can't really be otherwise. Horrific pain is as morally unproblematic as a rock or the law of gravity. As Dawkins points out, according to materialism suffering is "precisely" what "we should expect." So, resign yourself. Can't be otherwise. Move along, there is no problem here. 

Of course, though, we can't move along. No caring person could. We judge that a universal moral obligation is involved here. Indifference isn't an option. Which moves us decisively from an atheistic to theistic framework and the moral obligation to believe in God.

Stated simply, because Christians judge that the world ought and can be otherwise, yes, we have a problem of evil. But this is much better, morally speaking, than thinking evil is not a problem, which is the metaphysical implication of materialistic atheism. 

Covenantal Substitutionary Atonement

I've recently written about some of the issues associated with penal substitutionary atonement. Again, you know the basic idea: Because of sin we stand under God's judgment and wrath. However, Jesus stands in our place, taking that judgment and wrath upon himself. Jesus substitutes himself and dies for you and I.

The main criticism of penal substitutionary atonement, as I and others have described, is the view of God that sits behind it. God's baseline stance is wrath, a default position that has to be changed. Consequently, the leading edge of the gospel proclamation is The Big Angry Guy in the Sky. Salvation is being rescued from That Guy.

This criticism is well known. And yet, there is a substitutionary logic in the New Testament regarding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And many of us feel queasy about those passages and tend to ignore them. So, how are we to read texts that have a substitutionary logic?

To start, we all can see the point that love often involves suffering for each other and for the sake of each other. Love often accepts suffering and pain intended for others. Love involves protecting and shielding others, even when those others might be "getting what they deserve." If something bad were going to happen to my children I'd rush to "substitute" myself. That's what love does. So it's not surprising that God does the same thing.

The sticking point has to do with where the suffering is coming from. That's where substitutionary logic gets weird. The "bad thing" coming down on us is God's wrath. God ends up saving us from God. That's the paradox introduced by the crime-and-punishment metaphor.

But as scholars like N.T. Wright and others have noted, the better frame here isn't penal but covenantal. YHWH and Israel form a covenant, with God's plan being to bless the world through Israel. But Israel cannot keep its end of deal, bringing upon itself all the punishments that befall those who break covenants in the ancient Semitic mind. Israel breaks its promise with the result, per the covenantal agreement, being exile. And at that point, God's plan to bless the world through Israel gets stuck.

So, God enters history in Jesus to be Israel's representative, Israel's Messiah. And as the faithful Israelite Jesus takes up the covenantal burden--both in fulfilling the Torah and in bearing Israel's punishment in breaking the covenant. In Jesus God does what Israel could not do, stepping in to help Israel fulfill its side of the covenant, which, per ancient Semitic covenantal logic, does include punishments for breaking promises. In all this Jesus substitutes himself for Israel. Jesus protects Israel from itself, carries a burden it cannot carry, and takes on its exile so that Israel can be set free.

The point in all this is that we can read the substitutionary logic of the New Testament through a covenantal rather than penal frame. In short, I've suggested that we speak of a "covenantal substitutionary atonement" rather than a "penal substitutionary atonement."

Of course, this raises other sorts questions, but these are different questions from those thrown up by penal substitutionary atonement. The substitution in this covenantal context has less to do with you and your particular relationship with God than with the narrative of God's relationship with Israel and God's overcoming the curse of the Law to push Israel's vocation forward, through the Messiah, to its universal objective where all can be saved. 

The Light that Enlightens Everyone

Ever since my time at Taizé last summer I have been contemplating what it means to describe God as "light." 

This is a central image in the Gospel of John and in 1 John. 1 John 1.5 says it plainly, "God is light." 

Light is also prominently featured in the Prologue of the Gospel of John, where the Logos is described as light:

In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 

What struck me today were the lines that soon follow, describing the reception of the light:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.

In these passages we tend to focus upon the rejection of the light. The light comes into the world and the world "did not know him." But what struck me today in this verse was the phrase: "The true light, which enlightens everyone."

Against a backdrop of rejection a universal note is being struck. The verb here is present-tense ("enlightens") and the scope is "everyone" (literally, "all men/persons"). 

I'm cautious to push too hard here. John, it seems to me, is often more poet than theologian. Especially here in the Prologue. But I'm pondering how two contrasting things are being said here concerning the availability of the light.

First, everyone is standing in the light. The true light "enlightens everyone." That's a pretty wondrous and mysterious thing to contemplate. 

It raises a question: How, exactly, is the true light enlightening everyone? If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say the "enlightenment" here is our shared participation in the divine Logos. Human rationality and consciousness, our ability to "see" and to "know" any "truth." Basically, if you posses a mind you are standing in the light. Everyone, as bearers of the image of God, possesses this ability, this enlightenment. As it says in the Psalms, "in Your light we see light." 

And as some physicists like to say, everything is made of light.  

And yet, the capacity to "see" and to "know" doesn't automatically lead to full illumination. We can turn our faces away from the Light to embrace shadows. You can fail to see the Light that enlightens you. Thus Paul's exhortation (1 Thess 5.5) that we strive to become "children of the day" and "children of light."

The Prince of the Power of the Air

Out at the prison Bible study we were in the book of Ephesians.

One of the things we tracked through Ephesians was a theme of what some call "spiritual warfare," our struggles against the devil and other spiritual forces. A sampling of themes: 

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the children of disobedience... (2.1-2) 

Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. (4.26-27)

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. (5.15-16)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places...In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one. (6.10-12, 16)

I remember when Fortress Press, now Broadleaf, first approached me to write a popular book. (My first three books--Unclean, The Authenticity of Faith, and The Slavery of Death--were scholarly books. Readers who have read all my books will have noticed a big contrast in style between those first three books and my last four.) When Fortress asked me about what sort of book I wanted to write, I had a quick answer: "I want to write a book about the devil." That's how Reviving Old Scratch came to be. 

That was a very odd and risky choice. The audience Fortress was aiming at was mainly the progressive Christian camp. And my own audience was mostly progressive. So no one saw a book on the devil coming. Progressives, for a variety of reasons related to their doubt, deconstruction, and demythologizing tendencies, just don't talk much about the devil. Given that, I had no idea who would even read Reviving Old Scratch

Why, then, did I want to write a book about the devil? It was the prison. For example, as we worked through those texts in Ephesians above it was the most natural and obvious conversation you could have. Those men out at the prison know the prince of the power of the air. They see the devil, clearly. So I wrote Reviving Old Scratch to bridge my worlds, the world of the prison and the world of the doubting progressive Christian. I wrote Reviving Old Scratch for an audience of one--myself. But many others have found the book helpful as well. Because when you read a book like Ephesians, it's hard to miss what is staring at you in the face.

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: Part 16, The Rise of Choking

We now reach Chapter 6 of Louise Perry's The Case Against the Sexual Revolution entitled "Violence Is Not Love." 

In this chapter Perry discusses the mainstreaming of sexual violence through popular depictions of BDSM, which stands for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism. 

Let me jump right into one of the more alarming treads we are observing among young people: the rising frequency of choking your partner during sex. 

For example, choking a partner during sex is now twice as common among younger generations when compared to older cohorts. Not surprisingly, women are more frequently choked than men. And when men are choked, it's often by another man. One study found that 58% of women on a college campus had been choked during sex. Ponder that. The majority of young women having sex today are now being choked. Research has also shown that allowing yourself to be choked is associated with poorer mental health.

Why has choking become mainstream? The research is also clear: Pornography. 

A generation has now been raised with online pornography, where violence, overwhelmingly toward women, has become normalized and eroticized. This is the fruit of the sexual revolution: We are a culture that now chokes women during sex. This is now the norm. A great advance for female liberation. Congratulations, sexual revolution. 

And since young women also have also been raised by porn, she assumes it is normal for her boyfriend to put his hand over her throat during sex. What other vision of sex does she have except what she's seen on PornHub? 

Finally, that being choked during sex is negatively affecting the mental health of young women should be a surprise to no one.

Learning to Love Revelation

This week out at the prison we dipped into the book of Revelation. The topic of the evening was actually 2 Thessalonians, but our discussions about "the man of lawlessness" in Chapter 2 took us on a wild ride from Daniel to Revelation. 

The book of Revelation has become one of my very favorite books in the Bible. Not a lot of people agree. Many people find Revelation bizarre and triggering, too weird and bloody to be of any value. But as I shared with the men out at the unit, I've learned to love Revelation.

I love Revelation because it is a fierce and prophetic criticism of Empire. Revelation is a no holds barred takedown of Rome, and of every Imperial power that has followed in Rome's footsteps. Revelation isn't about "end times" prophecy. Nero is clearly 666 and Babylon, "that great city that rules over the kings of the earth," is clearly the Empire founded on the banks of the Tiber.

And the climax of Revelation is the fall of Babylon in Revelation 18. Three groups of people weep over the fallen city--the kings of the earth, the merchants, and the sea captains. The political and economic order of the world is wholly overthrown. And standing vindicated in the midst of the rubble of Empire are the saints of God.

I love Revelation because it teaches me to not "trust in princes," as it says in the Psalms. Or to put faith in exploitative economic systems. Revelation helps me discern the political and economic wreckage all around me. Revelation tells the truth about the world. Revelation helps me see Babylon, that "demon haunted city," who rules every nation and economy of the world.

Poetry as the Language of the Actual

In Hunting Magic Eels I describe how poetry can be a resource for re-enchantment. 

As I describe in the book, the "scientific gaze," which reduces reality to raw material "stuff," bleaches the world of value and meaning. We can think of poetry, then, as the opposite of the scientific gaze. The "poetic gaze" sees reality as suffused with meaning and value. As I argue in Hunting Magic Eels, poetry helps us recover a sacramental ontology. All of life becomes sign and symbol. 

Given this view of poetry, I was stuck by how C.S. Lewis, with a correspondent in 1949, once described the relationship between language, poetry and reality. Lewis wrote:
In a sense, one can hardly put anything into words: only the simplest colours have names, and hardly any of the smells. The simple physical pains and (still more) the pleasures can't be expressed in language. I labour the point lest the devil should hereafter try to make you believe that what was wordless was therefore vague and nebulous. But in reality it is just the clearest, the most concrete, and most indubitable realities which escape language: not because they are vague but because language is ... Poetry I take to be the continual effort to bring language back to the actual.

"I Believe in Damnation and Salvation"

Some of you might have seen this quote from Bob Dylan in a recent interview

“I’m not a fan of packaged programs, or news shows, so I don’t watch them. I never watch anything foul smelling or evil. Nothing disgusting; nothing dog ass. I’m a religious person. I read the scriptures a lot, meditate and pray, light candles in church. I believe in damnation and salvation, as well as predestination. The Five Books of Moses, Pauline Epistles, Invocation of the Saints, all of it.”
First, I agree with my friend Mark that "dog ass" has to enter the theological lexicon. :-) 

But I was mostly struck by Flannery O'Connorian tone of Dylan's quote. O'Connor and Dylan share an apocalyptic spiritual vision, painting the world in stark moral contrasts. It's this aesthetic that draws me to their art. Both O'Connor and Dylan play a high stakes poker game. Life and death. Salvation and Damnation. Saints and Sinners. 

As Dylan sang, a hard rain's a-gonna fall. Or as O'Connor wrote once, in what a few years back I took to be the byline of my blog, we trudge into the distance following the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus, for the Lord created us out of dust, made us blood and nerve and mind, made us to bleed and weep and think, and set us in a world of loss and fire.

That is the deep paradox of my theological vision, a progressive Christian who prefers fire and brimstone tent revivals. I like the Holy Rollers, snake handlers, and prophets of doom, because among them you feel that something is at stake. That's the whole point of the climactic scene (Spoiler alert!) in O'Connor's famous short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find." When the Misfit says about the grandmother, "She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” O'Connor is calling out our lack of existential urgency, and how that lulls us into a spiritual and moral slumber. 

I expect you are appalled. That you don't find any of this imagery inspiring. If you're a deconstructing, ex-evangelical you're feeling triggered. My apologies. You should know I'm not the best companion for progressives, evangelicals, or ex-evangelicals. But I'm not prescribing any of this for you. You do you. For my part, none of this imagery makes me feel afraid, guilty, or judgmental. I makes me feel alive. It wakes me up. It makes me feel that everything I do today matters. Life feels full of adventure, significance, and portent. Today has an edge. My heartbeat is eschatological. My pulse is apocalyptic. 

Maybe I feel this way because I'm well-adjusted. Or maybe because I'm deeply twisted. Who knows? But goodness, I'm loving the ride. And if you're a fan of either Dylan or O'Connor I expect you know what I'm talking about.

Reading the Bible with the Damned: Part 4, I'll Fly Away

Reading the Bible with the damned also changed how I think about heaven. 

A great example of this is how I've come to think about the song "I'll Fly Away."

As regular readers know, my favorite thing to do out at the prison, in the middle of our two hour study, is to pull out old church hymnals to sing gospel songs. The men in the study shout out numbers, we flip to that page, and then sing. We've gotten very good at harmonies over the years!

If you grew up singing gospel songs out of hymnals you know that many of these songs are songs about heaven. "When We All Get to Heaven." "To Canaan's Land I'm on My Way." "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder." "In the Sweet By and By." "Blessed Assurance." "Higher Ground." "We're Marching to Zion."

But by far, the most favorite song about heaven that we sing out at the unit is "I'll Fly Away."

Again, when I started leading the Bible study out at the prison my theological sensibilities were progressive. Consequently, I held the standard progressive view about heaven and songs about heaven. Songs about heaven were escapist and triumphalistic. Songs about heaven expressed an "over-realized eschatology." Let me explain these terms and their interrelated concerns.

By "escapist" we mean that a yearning desire for heaven can cause us to ignore pressing moral duties here on earth. An "escapist" view of heaven can also have pernicious moral effects. For example, calls for creation care can fall on deaf ears if you feel that the world is soon about to end in an apocalyptic conflagration. If the earth is a dumpster fire why put it out if you feel the whole show is going up in smoke soon anyway?

By "triumphalistic" and "over-realized eschatology" we mean that the full blessings of heaven are claimed as actual and live today. This is most clearly seen in the Prosperity Gospel, where expectations of "blessing," "victory," and "favor" are very high in a world still characterized by pain, suffering, failure, tragedy and death. A triumphalistic and over-realized eschatology assumes a degree of immunity to misfortune in this life that is inappropriate and unrealistic, an immunity that can only be truly enjoyed in heaven. As Jesus said, in this world we will have trouble. All creation continues to groan.

Such concerns cause progressive Christians to marginalize talk of heaven. The focus is, rather, upon the pressing moral demands of earth, right here and right now, and attending to its locations of harm and brokenness. And I do think this is exactly right.

And yet, when I started singing "I'll Fly Away" out at the unit I began to hear that song differently. "I'll Fly Away" sounds different in a maximum-security prison than it does in the pews of an affluent, middle-class church. Once again, location, location, location.

Inside a prison the line that jumps out at you from "I'll Fly Away" comes from the second verse: "Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I'll fly away." How could that line not hit you with some force inside the walls of a prison? 

Inside a prison, and sung by the incarcerated, "I'll Fly Away" doesn't sound triumphalistic, it sounds like a lament. And if "I'll Fly Away" sounds "escapist," well, that's because you really do want to escape! 

Hearing "I'll Fly Away" sung by the damned caused me to reflect upon the origin of all those old gospel hymns about heaven. The people who sang and loved them. These were poor people living hard lives. These were Black churches facing slavery and segregation. The longing for escape was real and acute. These songs pointed away from today's despair toward future hope. 

These songs reminded them, and remind the damned even today, that there is a balm in Gilead

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: Part 15, A World that Has Forgotten How to Love

After describing the harms and oppressions women face in the porn industry, in Chapter 5 of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution Louise Perry turns to talk about the effects pornography has upon its consumers.

Perry starts by introducing us to the idea of "limbic capitalism," how online media appeals to and hijacks our brains. The business model of online and social media is to become more "addictive."

For example, advertisers know that our brains are wired to trigger off of sexual cues and stimuli. I can't tell you how many times a day I have to face a seductive image in an ad while I'm doing something totally innocuous on the internet. The online algorithms know I'm a man, and advertisers will use thumbnail pictures of women hoping that I'll chase those images with a click. Sex sells. And porn, obviously, takes this visual hijacking and manipulation to a whole other level. A Perry writes:

Porn is to sex as McDonald's is to food. These two capitalist enterprises take our natural appetites, pluck out the most compulsive and addictive elements, strip away anything truly nutritious, and then encourage us to consume more and more. Both products are examples of superstimuli: exaggerated versions of naturally occurring stimuli that tap into an evolved longing for nourishment, excitement and pleasure but do so in a maladaptive way, fooling the consumer into gorging on a product that initially feels good but in the long term does them harm.

One of the things that is harmed is our investment in and competencies for intimacy in real life, both emotional and erotic. One of the great ironies of the sexual revolution is how it was supposed to liberate us for more and better sex. However, the younger generations are having less sex and less satisfying sex when they do. Much of this is due to online porn, where sexual appetites can be sated without having to mess around with the complexities and demands of sex with a real person. It's just a lot easier to masturbate alone to porn. You don't have to learn how to cook, you can just drive through for fast food. We're quickly moving into a dystopian sexual future where sex is going to be wholly transferred from the human to the online, virtual and robotic. Robert Putnam wrote a famous book called Bowling Alone, documenting modern disconnection, isolation, and loneliness. The sexual revolution is writing its own version of that book: Having Sex Alone.  

The problem with the sexual revolution is that its message of "liberation" obscures a vital truth. Human sex is complicated. Sex is hard. Sex entangles us. Sex demands things of us. Things we owe each other as human beings. And when faced with this work--counting the costs, weighing the entanglements, surveying the relational complexities, shouldering the obligations--many just opt out for porn. It's a simple cost/benefit analysis. It's just a whole lot easier. 

And with each click our collective willingness and capacities for love slowly evaporate. That will be the ultimate legacy of the sexual revolution: a world that knows how to masturbate and has forgotten how to love.

Reading the Bible with the Damned: Part 3, Guilt and Forgiveness

Ah, the atonement wars!

If you've ever followed the conversations among deconstructing evangelicals, many of whom are now ex-evangelicals, you know that the atonement has been a site of debate and controversy. 

This debate has mostly focused on penal substitutionary atonement. I've written about these issues extensively on this blog, even recently. At the heart of the concern about penal substitutionary atonement is its focus upon sin, human guilt, and forgiveness.

Before spending time out at the prison, I shared these concerns without much nuance. Penal substitutionary atonement was just bad, across the board. But guess what? Guess what is a pressing spiritual and emotional concern inside a maximum-security prison?

If you guessed guilt and forgiveness, you win a prize.

Here's the thing, guilt is a problem. Shame is a curse. They really are. Consequently, forgiveness and grace are needed. Visions of atonement that address shame and guilt are dealing with deep and vital human concerns.

But it all comes down to location, location, location.

Should you, for example, use forensic metaphors with children and young people, cranking up the guilt to get a big emotional response from them at the end of your rally, retreat or camp experience? Probably not. But you might lean into forensic metaphors when working with people who have committed crimes that haunt them, who wonder if they can ever be forgiven for the horrible things they have done. Yeah, you might talk with these people about how their sins have been forgiven and their guilt washed away by the blood of the Lamb.

The prison taught me that forensic metaphors for atonement have their place. When you work in a space where guilt is the most pressing pastoral problem, you become thankful for the message of forgiveness, that our guilt and shame have been nailed to the cross. Before reading the Bible with the damned I never talked about much about these metaphors. But today, reading the Bible with the incarcerated, I talk about forgiveness quite often.