Slaying the Dragon: Part 3, The Dragons and the Powers

In the last two posts I've said that the great sea dragons Leviathan and Rahab are associated with the New Testament language of principalities and powers.

This is can be seen in the Old Testament in how Rahab is a name for the great sea dragon as well as for nations hostile to the kingdom of God.

For example, in the last post we looked at the three instances in the OT where Rahab describes the great sea monster defeated by YHWH (Job 9.13, 26.12; Ps 89.11). For example:
Psalm 89.8-11
Who is like you, Lord God Almighty?
You, Lord, are mighty, and your faithfulness surrounds you.

You rule over the surging sea;
when its waves mount up, you still them.

You crushed Rahab like one of the slain;
with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.

The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth;
you founded the world and all that is in it.
But Rahab is also used to describe nations hostile to God, Egypt in particular. For example:
Isaiah 30.7
Egypt's help is worthless and empty;
therefore I have called her
“Rahab who sits still.”

Psalm 87.3-4
Glorious things are said of you,
city of God:

“I will record Rahab and Babylon
among those who acknowledge me—
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush—
and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’” 
In these texts we see the image of the dragon--Rahab--being use to describe a political entity--Egypt--that is hostile to the rule of God.

And we also see a political vision of the "slaying of the dragon" motif. The dragons are defeated in Psalm 87 when the great political powers of the world--the Leviathans and the Rahabs--are brought into submission to the kingdom of God.

Rahab and Babylon, along with other political dragons, we be among those who acknowledge God.

In Psalm 87, the City of God comes to earth when the dragons are slain. This echos Jesus' victory over the powers:
Colossians 2.15
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Slaying the Dragon: Part 2, The Other Sea Monster

Again, most Bible readers have come across the great sea monster Leviathan in the pages of Scripture, perhaps noticing this dragon because there are many cultural references to Leviathan outside of the Bible. But there's a second, lesser known sea monster in the Bible as well.

Beyond Leviathan, the other sea dragon in the Bible is Rahab:
Job 26.10-12
He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters
for a boundary between light and darkness.

The pillars of the heavens quake,
aghast at his rebuke.

By his power he churned up the sea;
by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces.

Psalm 89.8-11
Who is like you, Lord God Almighty?
You, Lord, are mighty, and your faithfulness surrounds you.

You rule over the surging sea;
when its waves mount up, you still them.

You crushed Rahab like one of the slain;
with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.

The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth;
you founded the world and all that is in it.
Many commentators have contrasted the non-violence of the Jewish creation story in Genesis 1 with the violence of the Babylonian creation myths. For example, in the Enuma Elish Marduk kills the dragoness Tiamat, the primordial goddess of chaos who ruled the oceans. After slaying Tiamat, Marduk uses the parts of her body to create the world.

In the Babylonian myth, creation happens through killing and violence. This violence is missing in Genesis.

And yet, some see hints of the Enuma Elish in the biblical references to Leviathan and Rahab. Creation doesn't happen through violence in the Old Testament. But the chaotic elements of the world, represented in the great sea dragons Leviathan and Rahab, are tamed and subdued. When the Spirit of God moves over the chaotic deep and begins to speak a creative, ordering Word, this is imagined as a victory over the chaos and the deep, the taming and victory over of both Leviathan and Rahab.

I'll have more to say about Rahab in the next post, but just a final observation about slaying dragons and the warfare worldview of the Bible. Again, in the New Testament the Great Dragon becomes associated with Satan. And in calling Satan the Great Dragon the New Testament authors evoke the great dragons of the Old Testament, Leviathan and Rahab, and God's victory over them in rightly ordering the world.

The kingdom of God, creation and new creation, involves a victory over the dragon.

Slaying the Dragon: Part 1, Satan and Sea Monsters

One of the reasons I decided to write Reviving Old Scratch was internalizing the point Greg Boyd makes in his book God at War.

Specifically, Greg argues that we don't appreciate what he calls "the warfare worldview" of the biblical drama.

At the heart of the warfare worldview is the observation that creation resists God's just and benevolent rule. This produces a "war" to establish God's kingdom on earth.

To be sure, we understand this war Christologically. The war we fight is the "war of the Lamb," the victory of love Jesus wins on the cross.

In the book of Revelation this victory is won by defeating "the Dragon," who is identified as Satan:
Revelation 12.7-9
Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
As I describe in Reviving Old Scratch, in the New Testament Satan comes to stand for how the deep structural elements of the cosmos--"the principalities and powers"--resist and rebel against God's invasion to establish His Christ as "Lord of All." This power struggle between Christ and the Dragon is what we witness in Revelation 12:
Revelation 12.4-7
The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter."... 

Then war broke out in heaven. 
In the Old Testament "dragons" aren't associated with Satan. In the Old Testament the cosmic foundations of creation are described as great sea monsters--dragons--rather than as the principalities and powers. Sea monsters in the Old Testament and the principalities and powers in the New Testament are related concepts, representing creation's deep, structural resistance to the reign of God. When Satan is described as "the Dragon" a bridge is built between God's battles with sea monsters in the Old Testament and God's battles with the Powers in the New.

You're probably familiar with one of these sea monsters. The great multi-headed sea dragon Leviathan is mentioned six times in the Old Testament (Job 3.8, 41.1; Ps. 74.14, 104.26; Is. 27.1).

Foreshadowing the events in Revelation 12, in the OT God is described as becoming a victorious, saving king by defeating the great dragon:
Psalm 74.12-14
But God is my King from long ago;
he brings salvation on the earth.

It was you who split open the sea by your power;
you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.

It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan
and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.
Psalm 74 depicts an event that happened in the past. So even more relevant to Revelation 12 is how Isaiah 27.1 gives a future-oriented, eschatological twist to the defeat of Leviathan:
In that day,

the Lord will punish with his sword—
his fierce, great and powerful sword—
Leviathan the gliding serpent,
Leviathan the coiling serpent;
he will slay the monster of the sea.
This event, God's defeat of Leviathan, is pictured above in Gustave Doré's famous engraving "The Destruction of Leviathan."

In the next post I want to write a little bit about a lesser known dragon in the Old Testament.

Prison Diary: Shakedown Holiday

Not a whole lot for the diary today. The study didn't happen this week because of the "semi-annual shakedown."

Two times a year the prison goes on lockdown for a shakedown. During the shakedown the inmates are confided to their cells. The guards then go from cell to cell to perform a shakedown. A shakedown is a search for contraband. The guards tear the cell apart, looking through everything the inmate owns. Flipping through the pages of every book. Inspecting every container. After the shakedown the inmates pick up the mess and put their cell back together again.

Because surprise is important for the searches, the shakedown is never announced ahead of time. We get no notice. So twice a year we drive out the prison only to be told that the semi-annual shakedown has started. We turn around and go home.

The shakedown takes a few weeks to complete. It's a miserable time for the inmates. Sitting confined in your cell for weeks. Having your cell torn up.

But the shakedown does give us two holidays a year. It's a hard on the inmates, but it's nice to have a few weeks off twice a year to re-charge your batteries and spend a few Mondays in row at home with the family.

Mercy is the Lifeblood of Fasting

There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other.
Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself.

When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry. If you hope for mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness, show kindness. If you want to receive, give. If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery.

Let this be the pattern for all men when they practice mercy: show mercy to others in the same way, with the same generosity, with the same promptness, as you want others to show mercy to you.

Therefore, let prayer, mercy and fasting be one single plea to God on our behalf, one speech in our defense, a threefold united prayer in our favor...

Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy. Fasting dries up when mercy dries up. Mercy is to fasting as rain is to the earth. However much you may cultivate your heart, clear the soil of your nature, root out vices, sow virtues, if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit.

When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn. Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering. Give to the poor, and you give to yourself. You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others.

--St. Peter Chrysologus

God Pursues Us Even After Death: The Harrowing of Hell and Universal Reconciliation

For Protestants one of the more obscure parts of the Christian tradition is the Harrowing of Hell.

The word "harrowing" comes from Old English word hergian which means to plunder, seize, or capture.

The Harrowing of Hell refers to Jesus' decent into hell to break down the gates of hell to release humanity from the captivity of the Devil.

The Harrowing of Hell appears to be referred to, if only obliquely,  in a couple of passages.

For example, in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 Peter describes Jesus as having gone to "the realm of the dead":

Acts 2.27, 31
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
you will not let your holy one see decay.

Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay.
What did Jesus do there in the realm of the dead? Passages in 1 Peter and Ephesians are used to answer this question:
1 Peter 3.18-20a
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago...

1 Peter 4.6
For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

Ephesians 4.8-10
This is why it says:
"When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men."
(What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)
The Ephesians text is ambiguous. Perhaps descending to the "lower, earthy regions" is simply a reference to the Incarnation and not the Harrowing of Hell. But 1 Peter seems to describe Jesus preaching the gospel to the dead, to "spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago."

I'd like to take a moment to reflect on the import of the Harrowing of Hell in these texts for theologies of universal reconciliation.

Specifically, in many doctrinal systems death is believed to end your moral and spiritual biography with God. Your status--Saved versus Lost--is set and fixed at death. After death your relationship with God is set in concrete, never to be changed.

But the Harrowing of Hell, one of the oldest doctrines of the church, suggests otherwise. Death did not end the moral biography of the "spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago." Death did not permanently fix an eternal fate. Christ's salvific pursuit of sinners continued after death.

For many theologies of universal reconciliation this is a key point of dispute with those who endorse eternal conscious torment, and even annihilationism. Is your relationship with God eternally fixed at the moment of death? Does God's salvific pursuit of sinners continue after death?

According to the Harrowing of Hell God pursues us, even after death.

They Left Him to Die Like a Tramp on the Street

I've written about how I've become a huge fan of Hank Williams' gospel recordings.

One of my favorite songs isn't a Hank Williams original but a cover, though Williams' cover is what brought the song to the awareness of a larger listening public.

That song is "A Tramp on the Street." When Williams recorded it the song had been bouncing around for some time among gospel and country artists, the song's exact origin of some debate among them. The cover of this song that caught Hank Williams' attention was done by Molly O'Day.

"A Tramp on the Street" was written by Grady and Hazel Cole. Starting with an image from The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16 the lyrics of Hank's cover go like this:
Only a tramp was Lazarus' sad fate,
He who lay down at the rich man’s gate.
He begged for the crumbs from the rich man to eat.
He was only a tramp found dead on the street.

He was some mother’s darling, he was some mother’s son.
Once he was fair and once he was young.
And some mother rocked him, her darling to sleep.
But they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

Jesus who died on Calvary’s tree,
He shed his life’s blood for you and for me.
They pierced his side, his hands and his feet.
Then they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

He was Mary’s own darling, he was God’s chosen son.
Once he was fair and once he was young.
Mary, she rocked him, her darling to sleep.
But they left him to die like a tramp on the street

If Jesus should come and knock on your door
For a place to come in or bread from your store
Would you welcome him in or turn him away?
Then God would deny you on that great Judgment Day.
You can hear Hank Williams sing the song here.

A Progressive Vision of the Benedict Option: Cruciformity Over Culture

Rod Dreher's book The Benedict Option is now out with lots of reviews and commentary appearing online.

As regular readers know I've made the argument on this blog that progressive Christians need their own version of the BenOp. In fact, progressive Christians already have a rich history with the BenOp, witness the Catholic Worker and the New Monastic movements.

That the BenOp is as important for progressive Christians as it is for conservatives, though for different goals and reasons, is highlighted in Ross Douthat's review of Dreher's book:
And [the BenOp is for] not only conservative churches. The basic model could be applied just as easily to non-Christian faiths, and it could be embraced by the progressive Christians who find Dreher’s vision — and Chaput’s, and Esolen’s, and Russell Moore’s — too dogmatic and rigid and anti-modern.

Being a bit of a dogmatist myself, I’m skeptical that a robust institutional Christianity can be built on the premises of contemporary liberal theology and the cultural shifts that it accommodates. But that’s all the more reason for liberal Christians to set out to prove the conservatives wrong, to show that monasteries and missionaries can come forth from progressive fields, to effectively out-Benedict Option the reactionaries and force us to concede that we misjudged them.

In doing so they wouldn’t be abandoning political engagement, but they would be laying a foundation for faith’s endurance when political activism fails. As fail it so often does, as both progressive and conservative Christians have learned at different times across the last few decades — and may soon learn again. 
That's exactly the point I've been making about progressive Christianity's need for a BenOp, how our imagination for resistance has been captured by statism.

But as Kaya Oakes points out in her review of Dreher's book, there will be big differences between conservative and progressive versions of the BenOp.

Specifically, Oakes highlights the point I've made, that a progressive BenOp will live into Jesus' practices of radical hospitality. This, I've argued, combats the temptations toward phariseeism in conservative calls for the BenOp, the same temptation that Jesus battled in his debates with the Pharisees concerning their rival visions of the BenOp in the gospels. To highlight this difference I've called the progressive vision of the BenOp the Franciscan Option, as the early Franciscans were an intentional monastic community who specialized in living among and caring for lepers.

Basically, a progressive BenOp will look the same way Jesus' BenOp looked to the Pharisees: A community that embraces the unclean, privileges empathy over piety, isn't overly pious, and is the friend of sinners.

Again, read my summary post highlighting why progressive Christians need a BenOp and how a progressive BenOp differs from the conservative version.

But for this post I'd like to simplify and distill the contrast.

The basic contrast between a progressive and conservative version of the BenOp is this: cruciformity over culture.

Whenever you hear Dreher and other conservative Christians talk about the BenOp the focus is on preserving and investing in Christian culture. The focus is on doctrine, orthodoxy, values, moral codes, spiritual practices, Christian institutions, and liturgy. The conservative vision of the BenOp is focused upon creating a group of Christians who are appropriately orthodox and pious.

By contrast, a progressive BenOp is focused upon cruciformity, people who are spiritually formed to exhibit the self-donating love of Jesus--for enemies, lepers and the sinners of the world.

As we all know, orthodoxy does not produce cruciformity.

Neither does piety.

Neither does liturgy.

A progressive Christian BenOp isn't interested in preserving Christendom or medieval monasticism. A progressive Christian BenOp is interested in forming Christ-followers who care for the least of these, a people who locally practice the works of mercy.

From a progressive Christian perspective, then, preserving Christian culture, in and of itself, is pointless. Worse, it's Pharisaical. Jesus wasn't all that interested in orthodoxy, piety or liturgy. The Pharisees were, but Jesus wasn't.

So why do progressives need the BenOp?

Progressives need the BenOp because you don't fall out of bed loving the way Jesus loved. Cruciformity requires practice, discipline, intentionality and communal accountability.

More, to cut off a conservative objection, cruciformity also requires holiness, as holiness, in the progressive imagination, makes us increasingly other-oriented and available to each other. (My deeper exploration of the connection between holiness and love is in Chapter 12 of Reviving Old Scratch). For progressive Christians holiness is kenosis.

Progressive Christians need a BenOp because social justice, while vital and important, isn't the same as cruciformity. Progressive Christians need a BenOp because being a Democrat isn't the same as cruciformity. (Similar to how, for conservative Christians, piety, liturgy and orthodoxy aren't the same as cruciformity.)

Progressive Christians need a BenOp because you can be right on all the political issues, but unless you're sharing life in a local leper colony, an abandoned outpost of empire, practicing the works of mercy, you're not living into the cruciform life of Jesus.

We need a BenOp because a worshiping community caring on the edges of empire is vital in forming cruciformity. And here I agree with the the work of James Smith, but with a crucial difference. (For more on this point this is my progressive twist on Smith's "you are what you love".) Witness the hospitality of the Benedictines and Franciscans, along with the Catholic Workers, the New Monastics and Jean Vanier's L'Arche communities. These expressions of radical hospitality flow out of shared community and a culture rooted in gratitude, promise-keeping, truth-telling, and hospitality.

And on that distinction, creating a Christian culture as a means toward forming cruicformity versus preserving a Christian culture as a pious and orthodox end in itself, is the contrast between a conservative and a progressive BenOp.

Prison Diary: The Currency That Binds Everyone

I'm fascinated by the prison economy.

Money isn't allowed in the prison. Families can deposit money into an inmate's account which can be used in the prison commissary, the place where inmates can buy things.The products purchased from the commissary then become used in the prison economy.

Without actual money the paper money used in the prison are stamps.

What's intrigued me about stamps, as I've asked questions about the prison economy, is how their value might be inflated or deflated. How much is a stamp worth?

While it's been hard to nail the specifics down from the guys in the Monday night Bible study, it does appear that the basic laws of supply and demand affect the value of stamps. To explore this more see this essay written by a Texas inmate, "In Prison, Stamps Are the Currency That Binds Everyone."

Join My DMin Class on Hospitality at Fuller!

I'd like to make you aware that I'll be teaching a class on hospitality this August for Fuller Theological Seminary's DMin program.

Anyone interested in either auditing the course or Fuller's DMin program will need a theological Master's degree and can contact Debi Yu, the Admissions and Student Affairs Advisor, for more information.  Debi can be contacted at or (626) 584-5315.

The class I'm teaching is a week-long intensive class entitled "The Call to Hospitality." The course description and learning outcomes can be read here.

As can be seen from the description and outcomes, the class will attempt to connect hospitality to spiritual formation.


Well, hospitality is hard and hospitality, welcoming and neighboring initiatives often flounder. True, a few passionate souls throw themselves into these efforts, but welcoming the stranger often fails to become infectious and contagious. People welcoming on the margins often feel lonely and abandoned, wondering when the rest of the church is going to show up. I know I feel like this a lot of the time.

In short, you can't just tell people to be more hospitable. Nor can you preach a church into becoming more hospitable. Hospitality has to be cultivated through practices of spiritual formation. Hospitality is a capacity that must be trained and practiced. That's the big focus of my Fuller class.

But if you can't attend the class don't worry, I do hospitality equipping for churches all the time. Just give me a call.

Set Free from the Hunter's Snare

Praying during the Lenten season with the Liturgy of the Hours (the Catholic version of The Book of Common Prayer) you frequently encounter this Antiphon and Responsory:
God himself will me free from the hunter's snare.
The image comes from places like Psalm 124:
“If the Lord had not been on our side”—
let Israel say this!—

if the Lord had not been on our side,
when men attacked us,

they would have swallowed us alive,
when their anger raged against us.

The water would have overpowered us;
the current would have overwhelmed us.

The raging water
would have overwhelmed us.

The Lord deserves praise,
for he did not hand us over as prey to their teeth.

We escaped with our lives, like a bird from a hunter’s snare.
The snare broke, and we escaped.

Our deliverer is the Lord,
the Creator of heaven and earth.
This is wonderful Christus Victor imagery for the Lenten season. Salvation here isn't about avoiding the punishment of a wrathful God. Our saving God is, rather, wholly benevolent and kind, the One who finds us terrified, helpless and trapped in the hunter's snare. Salvation is God untangling us and setting us free. Emancipation. Liberation.

Set free from the hunter's snare.

(BTW. you need a hunter for this image to work. So if you don't know who the hunter is, may I suggest a book to read?)

Thesis Chair

As regular readers know, my day job, what I do to pay the rent, doesn't show up much on this blog or in my books. As an experimental psychologist I spend most of my days teaching statistics (undergraduate and graduate) and supervising graduate thesis research.

Though it's hard work, I love chairing thesis research. This year I have a bunch of students. Here's what we've been researching this semester:

Jusiah's thesis is looking at the role racial socialization plays in reducing distress among African Americans in the face of microaggressions.

Craig is looking at the impact of parental mental illness upon children, resiliency in particular.

Pablo is assessing the effectiveness of a sleep education intervention upon sleep quality among college students.

Kelsey is researching the impact of parental control upon ruminative exploration among college students. (An example of ruminative exploration is never begin able to settle upon a major or career focus.)

Brianna is examining perceptions of female competency as a function of workplace attire.

Finally, Amanda just started with me and she's looking at how empathy affects pain tolerance: Can you endure more pain if you're suffering it for others?

This is my life away from the blog.

It's fun and fascinating.

Prison Diary: An Imagination for Peace

On Monday out at the prison we finished the movie Hacksaw Ridge and had a great conversation afterwards.

The movie accomplished what I hoped it would, it helped us struggle with the issue of violence. Many of the men were moved and convicted by the witness of Desmond Doss. After the study was over, last week and this week, I had a line of men wanting to talk afterwards about how addicted they'd become to violence and how the movie interrupted them. The movie had morally shaken them in ways I never could have.

Theologically, this is what the movie helped them with. To borrow from Stanley Hauerwas, the movie gave the Men in White an imagination for peace. Before the movie the only imagination the Men in White had for courage was violence. That's what courage meant, meeting violence with violence. What Hacksaw Ridge did was expand their imagination for what courage could look like. Courage could look non-violent. Until last night, that association was unimaginable for the Men in White. And lacking that imagination violence was the only option. You had to "stand up" and meet violence with violence.

But now, with Desmond Doss in their minds, the Men in White have another vision of courage, a vision that makes non-violence possible.

Non-violence isn't weakness, it is courageous, noble and heroic. This creates a new moral imagination, making new choices available, and giving peace a toehold in the jungle.

Crescimento Limpo: Helping Washington Walk

As regular readers know, my dear friends Mark and Ali lead the Crescimento Limpo ministry in Brazil providing housing for the homeless, treatment for those dealing with addiction and dignified work for those trying to reintegrate back into society. You can read and see more about Crescimento Limpo by clicking on the link on my blog header or here.

This week Mark sent me a video about a CL effort to help Washington, one of the residents of CL, raise funds for a prosthetic leg. I had the honor of talking with and breaking bread with Washington last summer. I'm excited about the possibilities for Washington should he get his prostheses.

Washington's story and dream:

If you'd like to help Washington walk the links to the CL Paypal account and their contact information can be found here.

I'll keep you updated about Washington and you can follow CL yourself at their Facebook page.

The Accidental Empire: Christian Resistance in the Age of Trump

What does Christian political resistance look like in the age of Trump?

Mark Lilla in his book The Stillborn God describes Christendom as an "accidental empire." Of the three Abrahamic faiths, both Judaism and Islam articulate their theology in explicitly political terms, as the governance of a theocratic nation.

Christianity, by contrast, acquired its empire accidentally with the conversion of Constantine. The tenets of the Christian faith were articulated and lived out while Christians lived as a tiny, marginalized group within an empire. Thus the political theology of the early Christians basically reduced to respect the government, pray for the Emperor, pay your taxes, and keep your head down.

But what happens when the Emperor becomes a Christian? How is the Christian virtue of agape to be worked out from the place of political power?

The New Testament doesn't give a lot of answers to these questions.

In our day, the question is less about Constantinianism than about how a Christian should act within a representative democracy. Still, the New Testament doesn't give us a lot of answers to these questions.

And yet, for many progressive Christians this has become an urgent and pressing question. What does Christian resistance look like in the age of Trump?

Due to the New Testament's social location within empire, New Testament political theology focuses upon the local church. According to the New Testament, resistance to empire is sharing life with and caring for a local fellowship of believers who welcome, serve and share with "the least of these." See Acts 2 and 4. That's how the early church, given her social location, defined resistance to empire.

Today, as members of a representative democracy, American Christians are in a different social location. We have access to the levers of power through our votes and voices. So the questions present themselves:

Should Christians use their political power to bring the state into greater alignment with the kingdom of God?

Or should Christians ignore the state, like the early Christians, and keep to the work of resisting empire through the local community of believers?

The answer, I think, is that this isn't an either/or. We should do both.

But with that said, if I had to choose I'd have to pick the witness and practices of the early church. Resistance to empire is rooted in a local community of believers who confess Jesus as Lord and who welcome and care for "the least of these."

Lose that and you've lost touch with a Christian vision of political resistance.

The Democratization of Holiness

Yesterday I wrote about visiting the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower, the Catholic Basilica devoted to St. Thérèse of Lisieux in San Antonio.

What's fascinating about Thérèse is that when she died at the age of 24, one of the Carmelite sisters, who had lived with Thérèse in the monastery for years, expressed concern that there wouldn't be anything to say or share at Thérèse's funeral.

That's how ordinary and unremarkable Thérèse's life had been to those who observed it. Nothing to see here.

And yet there you are, standing in a Basilica dedicated to her life, memory and devotion.

How do you square the two? Nothing to say at your funeral, your life was so boring, versus worldwide devotion and basilicas named in your honor?

It makes you face the question: Are there spiritual giants walking among us appearing as boring, ordinary and unremarkable people?

That's one of the great legacies of Thérèse of Lisieux and her Little Way, what Dorothy Day called "the democratization of holiness."

Anyone can be a radical follower of Jesus, even in the most mundane and ordinary of lives. You don't need an impressive story or testimony or life to be a spiritual giant. Look at Thérèse of Lisieux.

At your death your resume can be pretty thin, but cathedrals are built to remember you.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower

If I've ever come to your church, to talk or do equipping sessions about the practices of hospitality, you've heard me talk about St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her "Little Way."

Regular readers of the blog also know how important Thérèse has been to me since the series I wrote about her in 2012.

(If you don't know Thérèse, you can read my four part series about her starting here. Or see the sidebar on the main page of the blog.)

All that to say, I've been a huge fan of Thérèse for a few years now. So it came as a pleasant surprise to me to discover that there is a Basilica dedicated to Thérèse in San Antonio, a city I visit all the time.

On a recent trip to San Antonio I finally got to visit the The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower for the very first time. A bit about the Basilica:
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower, the first National Shrine in the United States dedicated to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the "Little Flower," was completed in San Antonio in 1931. When it was designated a basilica, it was the only basilica outside of Lisieux, France, dedicated to St. Thérèse...The Basilica attracts pilgrims dedicated to St. Thérèse all over the United States and throughout the world...

Perhaps the most treasured work of art at the basilica is a painting of St. Thérèse created by the saint's own blood sister, Céline Martin (Sr. Geneviève of the Holy Face). This 7 by 10 foot painting was part of the procession at the saint's canonization in Rome in 1927. It is located in the baptistery in the vestibule of the church. The Basilica is home to three first class relics of the Little Flower. Two are contained within the tomb chapel of St. St. Thérèse.
Obviously, I was totally geeking out during my visit. A whole church dedicated to Thérèse! With a gift shop!

I was particularly excited to see the large (over seven feet tall) painting done by Thérèse's sister  Céline. It's pictured here.

Prison Diary: Hacksaw Ridge

The spirituality out at the prison tends toward the revivalistic rather than the ethical. Jesus is the one who died to forgive us our sins. And when your sins involve things like murder this message has a particular resonance.

This message isn't all bad. The Men in White carry crippling loads of shame and guilt. So I don't mind a revivalistic message of grace.

But our conversation tends to get stuck in this place, grace for our sins. I struggle to move the conversation toward the ethical. Some of this is because I lack a certain moral authority. I'm hesitant to insist that the men obey Jesus because I live in the free world and they live in a very dark and brutal place. I don't face the moral hazards they face.

The hardest thing to talk about is violence. If you refuse or are unable to use violence to protect yourself the physical and sexual degradations you will face are harrowing. Because of this we spend a lot of time dancing around the subject of violence. It's too hard to talk about.

But I don't feel like I'm doing my job if I completely leave it alone. Which is why I was eager to get the movie Hacksaw Ridge out to the prison. I knew the movie would help us talk about violence and non-violence from a Christian perspective. I might lack moral authority, but Desmond Doss does not.

On Monday we watched the first half of the movie, right up to the start of the battle scenes. We had a good conversation afterward about violence. It was hard, uncomfortable and awkward at times, but the movie helped us talk about issues that we've tended to dance around. Some amazing testimonies were shared.

We'll finish the movie next week.

Progressive Christianity in the Age of Trump: Four Concerns

Since I took a whack at Trump yesterday ("The Bullshit of the Trump Administration") I thought it would be good Lenten practice to focus some self-reflection upon my own progressive Christian tribe.

I have struggled with how to respond to Donald Trump. Like many of you, I woke up the day after the election with a weird, surreal feeling. I felt I no longer recognized my country. How was it possible that Donald Trump was the President of the United States? I still have trouble wrapping my head around that fact.

But I am trying to wrap my head around what happened and how. And a lot of my reflection has been about how the left, progressive Christians among them, might have contributed to the climate that allowed for the rise of Trump. Along these lines I recently read this very good essay in Salon by Willie Davis, Outgrowing the cosmetic left: A liberal plea for fake liberalism to grow up. In the article Davis describes how liberals are just as guilty as conservatives for the rise of Trump, progressive Christians, I'd add, just as guilty as evangelicals.

You might want to push back on that. Feel free. But even if we disagree I'd like to share four things that have concerned me about progressive Christianity over the last ten years, four things that I think caused us to aid and abet the rise of Trump:

1. We've Lost Our Voice on Poverty and Class
I understand the progressive Christian focus on gender, race and sexuality. But by and large, over the last ten years, progressive Christianity has lost its voice on poverty and class. Progressive Christianity just doesn't have a lot to say to the poor, especially in rural communities, or about issues of concern to the poor. (For example, see my recent series on addiction.)

2. We've Demonized Half of America
By and large, progressive Christianity has demonized half of America. According to many progressive Christians half of Americans are racist, homophobic, misogynistic agents of Satan.

Listen, I'll admit it's really hard to thread the needle here. How do you stand up to white supremacy or the patriarchy without demonizing people? I don't know. But what I do know is that a lot of progressive Christian activity on social media isn't even trying.

3. Nothing Distinctively Christian About Progressive Christianity
I've written about this before, and I have another post about this coming out next week, but there's nothing particularly, uniquely or distinctly Christian about the political resistance of progressive Christians. There is zero daylight between many progressive Christians and the Democratic party. Consequently, progressive Christianity functions as the Democratic version of evangelical Christianity, a voting block in our two party electoral system, one half of the yin and yang that created the polarizing, demonizing political gestalt that allowed for the rise of Donald Trump.

4. Progressive Christianity Is Too Parasitical Upon Evangelical Christianity
Progressive Christianity is the moon to the evangelical sun. If evangelical Christianity didn't exist--from purity culture to complementarian gender roles to 81% of evangelicals voting for Trump--progressive Christianity wouldn't have anything to write about. Social media commentary from progressive Christians is devoted almost wholly to the bad behavior of evangelicals. From John Piper to Franklin Graham to Mark Driscoll to the Gospel Coalition to whatever that guy on Duck Dynasty said. If evangelical Christianity disappeared so would huge swaths of progressive Christian writing and Tweeting on social media. Progressive Christian books, blogs and Twitter accounts would vanish completely, or be left completely unrecognizable. Progressive Christianity is far too dependent, parasitical even, upon evangelicalism.

The Bullshit of the Trump Administration

Ten years ago, in the early days of this blog, I spent some time writing about Harry Frankfurt's essay On Bullshit.

In 2005 Harry Frankfurt, a Princeton philosopher, republished his 1986 essay entitled On Bullshit as a stand-alone book. Published by Princeton University Press the little book became a media sensation and spent 26 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Putting policy issues aside, I've grown increasingly alarmed by President Trump and his administration's apathy toward the truth. Non-existent massacres in Bowling Green, one of the greatest electoral wins in history when, in fact, it was one of the worst, false claims about crime and the economy, calling factual reporting "fake news." On and on. This is an administration that traffics in bullshit. You can keep track of it all here.

This bullshit prone administration is perfectly suited to a post-truth, fake news culture. We no longer care about the truth, and in that milieu bullshit thrives.

Here's how Frankfurt opens On Bullshit, words that seem prescient in light of our current political climate:
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.

In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory... (p. 1)
So, what do we mean by bullshit? And why is there so much of it?

The main analytic tool Frankfurt uses is the comparison of lying with bullshit. The two concepts seem related and yet distinct. We instinctively feel that both lying and bullshitting have some relation/application to truth or, more precisely, the lack of truth. That is, when we call a speech act a "lie" or "bullshit" we are stating that we are unsatisfied with what we have just heard. Specifically, we don't think we have been spoken to truthfully.

But it is more complex than that. Lying and bullshitting seem distinct as well. We know that when someone is bullshitting us they might not be, technically, lying. Further, when someone tells us a boldface lie our response isn't to say "That's bullshit!" but "You're a liar!" Finally, Frankfurt notes that, sociologically, we treat bullshit and lying differently. We are intolerant of lies but we appear to tolerate a huge amount of bullshit in our lives and public discourse. Why the difference?

In sum, lying and bullshit seem both related and distinct and Frankfurt sets about clarifying the relationship.

Summarizing greatly, Frankfurt's analysis is this. Lies and liars are very concerned with truth insofar as they are trying to hide the truth from us. In fact, a necessary condition of a lie is a knowledge of "how things stand" in relation to the truth.

But bullshit, according to Frankfurt, is a speech act that is indifferent to truth. A bullshitter asks us to treat their speech as a legitimate transmission of information, but in reality the bullshitter neither knows of what they speak nor is concerned to "get things right." Quoting Frankfurt:
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may pertain to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose. (pp. 55-56)
I do think Trump tells outright lies, but I think a lot of what Trump says is best classified as bullshit. For example, I don't think Trump knew about or cared about the historical place of his electoral college win. He was indifferent to that truth. Trump wasn't lying but bullshitting about his electoral college win.

In Frankfurt's words, Trump's interest when he boasts, brags and blusters is in "getting away with what he says." Trump "does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose."

This indifference-to-truth is so pernicious Frankfurt makes the following claim:
[The bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. (p. 61)
I agree. The bullshitter is the greatest enemy of the truth.

And yet, it's hard to put all the blame on Trump. Trump's bullshit thrives because we, collectively, have become indifferent to the truth. Fake news thrives because there's a market for it, willing consumers of bullshit. We believe any claim that suits our purposes. And when we're confronted by inconvenient facts we treat them suspiciously and dismiss them as fake.

Truth has become politicized. We'll say and believe whatever helps us win.

Lovin' On the Freakshow Sitting Next to You: The Church According to Twenty One Pilots

In yesterday's post I shared some theological reflections about the music of Twenty One Pilots in relation to my book The Slavery of Death. Today I want to share a related reflection about the song "Heathens" by TØP and my book Unclean.

Both Unclean and "Heathens" are meditations about welcoming the outsider, especially the extreme outsider.

In the gospels we observe Jesus extending hospitality to extreme outsiders. Jesus welcomed all sorts of extremely marginalized groups, Roman centurions, zealots, tax collectors, Samaritans, women, children, lepers, sinners, the demon possessed and prostitutes. Jesus welcomed the demented, the disabled, and the insane.

Sadly, the church routinely fails to display Jesus' lifestyle of radical hospitality. Far too often the church fails to welcome the heathens.

The song "Heathens" was released in 2016 by TØP as the lead single of the soundtrack for the film Suicide Squad. The song has set records on the music charts and was nominated for a Grammy.

"Heathens" makes many of the points I try to make in Unclean. The speaker and audience of "Heathens" is unclear, but I'd like to read the song as Jesus speaking to the church, as TØP preaching to their fellow Christians. Read this way "Heathens" is both a prophetic rebuke to the church as well as an invitation into Jesus' lifestyle of radical hospitality.

The song opens with these lines:
All my friends are heathens, take it slow
Wait for them to ask you who you know
Please don't make any sudden moves
You don't know the half of the abuse
Both Jesus and TØP have friendships with "heathens," relationships with the criminal, the immoral, the broken and the insane. They bring these "heathens" to the church. And the request is for the church to welcome these "heathens" with gentleness and compassion. Take it slow, church, don't make sudden moves. People are fragile and weak. What you see on the outside will tempt you toward judgment and harshness. But you don't know half of the abuse.

But judgment is hard to eradicate. As it says in the next verse:
Welcome to the room of people
Who have rooms of people that they loved one day
Docked away
Just because we check the guns at the door
Doesn't mean our brains will change from hand grenades
As I describe in Unclean, hospitality begins as an affectional capacity, with what Miroslav Volf calls "the will to embrace." Hospitality starts in the heart. On the surface a church gathering seems committed to peace, we've checked our guns at the door, but violence is taking place within our hearts. Our brains are throwing hand grenades.

This is the source of our failure in displaying Jesus' radical hospitality. Our brains are throwing hand grenades at the heathens.

But the song continues by pointing us toward a radical vision of Christian fellowship, a transgressive, surprising community:
You're lovin' on the psychopath sitting next to you
You're lovin' on the murderer sitting next to you
You'll think, how'd I get here, sitting next to you?
Unclean deals a lot with our disgust response, how the emotion of disgust gets used to mark and then push away outsiders as "unclean." Disgust is associated with our sense of smell, the characteristic wrinkling of the nose. This olfactory image is highlighted in the next verse of "Heathens":
We don't deal with outsiders very well
They say newcomers have a certain smell
These feelings of revulsion, and a host of other affectional triggers, have to be mastered if we want to replicate the motley and unlikely crew that Jesus gathered around himself. Hospitality to heathens is the church according to TØP. As the song continues:
You're lovin' on the freakshow sitting next to you
You'll have some weird people sitting next to you
You'll think "how did I get here, sitting next to you?"
Church should be a fellowship where weird people are sitting next to you. Church is that place where you are called to love the freakshow sitting next to you.

And we do this not because we are saintly people. As it says in the last line of the song: "It looks like you might be one of us."

We welcome heathens because we're all heathens. We're all broken, all sinners. All weird in some way. We welcome freakshows because Jesus welcomed us when we were a freakshow. And each week we come together to confess that we're still a freakshow.

That is the source of radical hospitality, the welcome of Christ that calls freaks and weirdos into community.

That is the church according to Jesus and TØP. The church is a community of radical embrace so surprising and unlikely that we look around with joyous, disbelieving faces to ask, "How I get here, sitting next to you?"

The Gospel According to Twenty One Pilots

My son Aidan is a big Twenty One Pilots fan. And the whole family likes the group. So last week the four of us went to the Emotional Roadshow concert when Josh and Tyler came to Dallas.

With their recent Grammy win and continued success on the music charts TØP has gotten a lot of attention over the last year. Some of that attention has been faith-based as Josh and Tyler both identify as Christians.

The concert was absolutely amazing. Musically and theatrically. TØP really know how to put on a show.

Much of the concert was devoted to TØPs most recent album Blurryface. As I've listened to Blurryface and watched the concert I kept seeing theological connections with my book The Slavery of Death.

The Slavery of Death is a theological and psychological meditation on this text from Hebrews:
Hebrews 2.14-15
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 
In this passage the power of the devil in our lives is described as our slavery to the fear of death.

As I describe in The Slavery of Death, and relevant to the music of TØP, our fear of death manifests in one of two ways, what psychologists call basic anxiety and neurotic anxiety.

Basic anxiety involves our survival instinct, our fight or flight response in the face of danger and threat.

Neurotic anxiety, by contrast, involves our worries about living a significant and meaningful life in the face of death. Neurotic anxiety is often social and comparative in nature, the insecurities we experience in how we measure up in the eyes of others.

In short, basic anxiety is about survival and neurotic anxiety is about self-esteem.

In the West our material affluence and medical sophistication have insulated us from basic death anxiety. Consequently, our slavery to the fear of death, the power of the devil in our lives, manifests less as basic anxiety and more as neurotic anxiety. Our fears are less about survival than about feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.

And it's here, in this arena, the space where neurotic death anxiety functions as the power of the devil in our lives, where TØP is doing some profound theological work.

The album Blurryface and the Emotional Roadshow concert are deep theological explorations of our slavery to neurotic death anxiety. And both the album and concert end with a vision of emancipation, the hope of being set free from the power death and the devil.

The gospel according to Twenty One Pilots.

Blurryface is a concept album. The opening song "Heavydirtysoul" sets us up by giving us a vision of sin with a longing for salvation:
Can you save
Can you save my
Can you save my heavy dirty soul?
What's the source of this spiritual predicament? What makes our souls heavy and dirty?

Taking a cue from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, TØP argues that death is our primary spiritual predicament. Heavy, dirty souls are created by our fear of death. As it says in 1 Corinthians 15.56, "the sting of death is sin." As TØP sing "Heavydirtysoul":
Death inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit.
Just like it says in Hebrews 2, the fear of death is the power of the devil in our lives. Death creates our spiritual predicament, our heavy, dirty souls. 

But as noted above, our fear of death is neurotic in expression, tangled up in our feelings of shame, guilt and insecurity. The second track of Blurryface "Stressed Out" makes this very clear.

In "Stressed Out" we're introduced to the character Blurryface, Tyler's alter ego, the shadow side of his personality. Tyler wrestles with Blurryface in "Stressed Out" and throughout the album. Theologically, Blurryface represents the "sinful nature" famously described by Paul in Romans 7:
For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out...

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?
Just as Paul links the "sinful nature" to a "body that is subject to death," TØP links the demonic power of Blurryface to the fear of death. Beyond lyrics like "Death inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit," skull imagery features prominently in the TØP aesthetic, and for a part of the concert Josh and Tyler perform in skeleton consumes. The relationship between death and neurotic anxiety is a huge theme in TØP's music and performances.

We trace this association, the footprints of Blurryface, through the whole album. Here's the introduction of Blurryface in "Stressed Out":
I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink
But now I'm insecure and I care what people think

My name's Blurryface and I care what you think
My name's Blurryface and I care what you think 
Notice how our "sin nature"--Blurryface--is rooted in neurotic anxiety. The power of the devil in our lives is that we're insecure and that we care what people think. This social insecurity is used by Blurryface to spiritually cripple us.

Neurotic anxiety haunts every corner of the album. We're stressed out in "Stressed Out." We're trapped in our heads in "Ride":
I've been thinking too much
Help me
There's the neurotic guilt in "Polarize": "I wanted to be a better brother, better son." In "Fairly Local" Tyler confesses, "I know I'm emotional," the lyric that gives us the title for the Emotional Roadshow concert.

All this is the work of Blurryface, the power of the devil enslaving us through neurotic death anxiety. It all builds up to a spiritual crisis in the song "Doubt":
Scared of my own image
Scared of my own immaturity
Scared of my own ceiling
Scared I'll die of uncertainty
Fear might be the death of me
Fear leads to anxiety
Don’t know what’s inside of me
Deep in this spiritual pit, enslaved to the fear of death, a cry for salvation is once again uttered:
Don't forget about me
Don't forget about me
Even when I doubt you
I'm no good without you
A vision of salvation comes in "Goner," the final track of the album, a song title that once again connects neurotic anxiety with death.

"Goner" begins with a prayer for deliverance, exorcism even. The power of the devil in Blurryface is decisively confronted. Much like the early Christians renounced the devil at baptism:
I've got two faces
Blurry's the one I'm not
I need your help to
Take him out
To break the demonic hold of Blurryface the prayer at the start of the album--"Can you save my heavy dirty soul?"--is revisited:
Though I'm weak
And beaten down
I'll slip away
Into the sound
The ghost of you
Is close to me
I'm inside out
You're underneath

Don't let me be gone
Salvation comes in the final lines of the album. How is the devil's power at work in neurotic anxiety to be broken? How is Blurryface and demonic tools of shame, guilt and insecurity "taken out"? The final lines of the album:
I'm a goner
Somebody catch my breath
I'm a goner
Somebody catch my breath
I wanna be known by you
I wanna be known by You
If you listen to the song (please do) the petition climaxes in a scream of pain and longing, need and desire. The best prayers always do. And the last word of the album, that last "you, " is held, so I've capitalized it in the lyrics above.

Salvation comes to us through relationship with the One--the You whose Ghost/Spirit is close to us and underneath us--who fully and finally knows us. As Augustine says it, "Our hearts are restless, until they rest in You."

Our neurotic restlessness comes to rest in You, comes to rest when we are finally and fully known by You. Known, and therefore loved, in all our brokenness, insecurity, shame, guilt and inadequacy.
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror;
then we shall see face to face.

Now I know in part;
then I shall know fully,

even as I am fully known.

1 Cor. 13.12

Prison Diary: One Room School House

The Bible study out at the prison is a one room school house. By that I mean the Men in White are all over the map educationally, intellectually and linguistically (English is the second language for many of the Hispanic men).

That makes teaching a challenge.

My classes in the chaplaincy program are unique in that I can challenge and push the men intellectually and theologically. These men have sat through countless chaplaincy programs over the years and decades, and they go to Bible classes multiple times a week just for something to do. So they have heard just about every take on the Bible. They've heard every Bible story a million times.

So they are rarely surprised. But I'm able to surprise them. I'm able to make the Bible strange and interesting again.

Plus, as a college professor my approach in more open-ended. I'm willing to entertain multiple perspectives and interpretations of a particular text. I'll often say, "Well, you can look at it this way...or this way...or this way." This openness contrasts the fundamentalist, dogmatic, literalistic and evangelistic tone that characterizes much of the teaching out at the prison. And again, for many of the men it's refreshing change of pace. Especially for the guys who are really sharp.

But I have to take care not to leave the other guys behind. If I use a big word I'll take care to define it. I'll say something like, "I'm going to use a big word here. Christological. You hear the word 'Christ' in there, right? It means seeing things through Jesus. So if we read this passage Christologically we're looking for Jesus in this passage. Where do we see Jesus in this text? That's reading the text Christologically." I work hard to bring everyone along with me.

Plus, I'm of the conviction that if you can't express an idea simply then that idea isn't worth all that much. I love deep theology, but I also value clarity and plain speaking. Say what you mean and mean what you say. That helps a lot out at the prison.

Democracy and The Demonization of the Good

A thought balloon about our current political situation.

In After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre makes the argument that because modernity lost its story, to use the words of Robert Jenson, we lack a coherent moral vision of our common life together. What we have, instead, are bits and pieces of a variety of incomplete and rival ethical systems. We have lots of different ways of defining "the good" but no clear way to adjudicate between these goods when they come into conflict.

Here's the outcome of this situation.

First, modern political discourse repeatedly brings rival goods into conflict. For example, in the abortion debates protecting life (a good thing) is pitted against the right to make decisions about your own body (a good thing). Two goods pitted against each other.

Regarding the debates about refugees and immigration, a concern over caring for the vulnerable (a good thing) is pitted against a concern for safety (a good thing). Two goods pitted against each other.

The examples abound. Pick any political controversy and you'll eventually find two goods pitted against each other.

Since we lack the ability to adjudicate between these goods we're forced to making one good triumph over the other good. This is difficult to do because these are obvious goods. Evidence for the goodness of the goods is clear and unimpeachable, so it's impossible to convince people that a good isn't a good.

It might be argued that a democratic process could help us find compromises between these rival goods.

That democracy is increasingly unable to bring about these compromises is because when two rival goods repeatedly compete in the public sphere the desire to have one good triumph over the other good causes the parties advocating a good to trivialize, demean, and diminish the rival good.

Democracy, thus, leads to the demonization of the good, making compromise and civic discourse increasingly impossible. Instead of a compromise between two rival goods, the political fight is transformed into Good versus Evil.

At this point, when good is called evil, democracy is doomed.

Calling the good evil, to use biblical imagery, is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the unforgivable sin. It signals that our moral compass has been damaged beyond all recognition, and now nothing stands between us and the abyss.

Divine Violence and Christus Victor: Martyn Smith

Today is a guest post by Dr. Martyn Smith. Martyn is a long time friend of the blog and he's just published his doctoral dissertation, Divine Violence and the Christus Victor Atonement Model: God's Reluctant Use of Violence for Soteriological Ends. Martyn's post below is an introduction to his book.

I'm interested in Martyn's research for three reasons. First, I'm interested in any conversation about Christus Victor atonement. Second, as I describe in Reviving Old Scratch, I agree with Martyn's argument that Christus Victor atonement only makes sense if there is a Satan. It's the same point N.T. Wright makes in his recent book on the atonement.

The third reason I'm interested in Martyn's work is his focus on violence in Christus Victor atonement. Christus Victor atonement is generally described as a non-violent view of atonement. It's true that in Christus Victor atonement God's divine violence isn't being directed at Jesus or human beings. But as Martyn points out, God is directing violence toward Satan and the Powers. For example, "binding the strong man" (Luke 11, Mark 4, Matt. 12), the Harrowing of Hell, and the War in Heaven (Rev. 12) all imply divine violence.

While I'm not in total agreement with Martyn on divine violence (I read all references to divine violence through a cruciform lens), I'm grateful to Martyn for making his scholarly case so clearly and forcefully. Advocates of Christus Victor atonement will need to wrestle with his conclusions.

My main worry, of course, is how arguments for divine violence, even if restricted to the Satan and spiritual realm, can provide warrant for human violence as we battle against evil. So beyond introducing his work in today's post, I've also asked Martyn to wrestle with the moral implications of his explorations. Enjoy!

"Loving Violence" by Martyn Smith

I am not sure who first coined the phrase, ‘all theology is autobiography’, but I owe them a debt of gratitude. Those four words have long provided a lens through which to understand my own, and others, theological endeavors. I’ve tried to work outside this adage seeking the fabled, truly objective idea, yet it’s impossible to escape my conditioning, upbringing, experiences and agenda.

Initially, I was overwhelmed by the vast, perhaps infinite, array of potential topics for my PhD. Much time was spent exploring, then rejecting, option after option, “too boring”, “too limited”, “done better by others.” The moment of revelation came in a chance comment, “the Christus Victor atonement model throws light on this…”, my PhD supervisor said during a discussion - I stopped him short, admitting I’d never heard of it! He explained it was an understanding of the cross and salvation set against the backdrop of God’s cosmic battle with the Satan and his demonic hordes - I knew where my research was headed.

A process started that saw me, seven years later, finish my doctorate, publishing it as Divine Violence and the Christus Victor Atonement Model. A fire had raged over those years, becoming a fixation; every book, movie and conversation providing insights and trains of thought into God’s nature and his relationship, or not, to violence and how this was expressed in his chosen mode of salvation.

If all theology is autobiographical, you’ll have made a response to my thesis title conveying something of your life and outlook; typical evocations range between, ‘God can’t be violent!’, ‘I don’t like the sound of that’, ‘I wouldn’t worship a violent God’, ‘that’s appalling’, to ‘how intriguing’, ‘I’d never thought about divine violence’ and ‘goodness, I can’t wait to read it…’ None of them said anything about my thesis, instead revealing the individual’s agenda, what Peter Cotterell calls their ‘presupposition pool’; that knowledge, experience and understanding held by the writer and reader in their interaction. He also spoke of ‘discourse meaning’, to explain that meaning is not found in individual lexical items, nor isolated sentences, but in the larger discourse.

I confess my enslavement to theology being autobiography; on revealing the topic of my thesis to friends, few expressed surprise, one stating, “Given your life-story, it was inevitable.” I was born in a run-down housing estate, attended an appalling school, embraced football hooliganism, dabbled in the occult, before committing an unprovoked act of violence that put a man in hospital and me in prison. On release things got worse and I was involved in profoundly unedifying relationships and practices until, on 11th May 1988 at 4 am, I had an epiphany that caused me to submit my life to Jesus Christ. I returned to my previously failed academic endeavors with singular ferocity, accumulating two undergraduate degrees, a master’s degree and latterly a PhD, all in theology.

Since my conversion, I’ve pastored two churches and taught religious education, philosophy and ethics to pupils aged 11-18 for fifteen years. That’s my presupposition pool in a nutshell – are you surprised my theology is an eclectic mish-mash of seeming contradictions? To some, I am liberalism personified because I ‘fail’ to condemn homosexuality, others think me an unerring literalist because I believe in the Satan and his demonic realm. These ascriptions, however, say more about those making them, than my theological disposition; as Lesslie Newbigin noted, “The words ‘liberal’ and ‘fundamentalist’ are used today not so much to identify oneself as to label the enemy.”

So, what are the key factors in my thesis?

I’d become uncomfortable with the Penal Substitution atonement model, perceiving it an unsatisfactory means of understanding what happened at the cross with its inference God could only save humanity by handing his son over to torture and death. It also didn’t take the Satan and the demonic host seriously, whilst the Bible, Jesus and the Church Fathers did.

I also believed few were properly engaging with the accounts of divine violence recounted in the Bible; Raymund Schwager, the Girardian theologian, notes that, “The theme of God’s bloody vengeance occurs in the Old Testament even more frequently than the problem of human violence. Approximately one thousand passages speak of Yahweh’s blazing anger, of his punishments by death and destruction, and how like a consuming fire he passes judgement, takes revenge, and threatens annihilation.” I couldn’t overlook this, or justify God’s character and actions, or redefine divine violence to make it look like love.

As my understanding and appreciation of Christus Victor grew, I linked it to God’s violence, realizing only a model incorporating divine violence into the overthrowing of the Satan could account for an actual battle between God and a real enemy. I came to see it as more than a salvation metaphor, revealing that against his primary attribute of love, God reluctantly utilized violence to defeat a real, powerful, enemy who couldn’t be overcome any other way. Again, rejection of the Satan’s existence says more about those asserting it than this being’s reality, Andrew Walker argues if scholars are ‘modernist’ they do so, not because of lack of evidence or authentic bases in the New Testament, but because they don’t believe in him.

I realized the best way of understanding biblical salvation and the God behind it, was to let the text speak for itself, conscious of my presupposition pool, but free from concerns about theological implications for a God who repeatedly exercised violence against anything which stood between him and his goal of saving those imprisoned by sin and the Satan. This raises serious issues, but they shouldn’t be a theologian’s primary concern, instead, the evidence must be followed wherever it leads; if this is unpleasant and unpalatable, it’s better than covering up or explaining-away explicit biblical evidence revealing God’s nature. Ludwig Feuerbach was onto something when he accused Christians of being more concerned to make a God in the image of their own desires and sensibilities, than of embracing him for who he is and what he does as revealed in the scriptures.

In the conclusion of my thesis, I argue that acceptance of reluctant divine violence, conjoined with the Christus Victor atonement model, likens Christian faith to being in a war, following a mighty general we love and trust entirely, regardless of his nature or orders. New recruits have to work with each other and their Leader, their lover, to secure ultimate liberation through a final, decisive victory against an evil, powerful adversary who can only be subjugated and finally destroyed by this God of insurmountable love and irresistible force. These Christian ‘troops’ are unlike a regular army; their role is not to fight, but to be involved in non-violent guerrilla activity behind enemy lines. Christians have long-wrestled with how to engage those forces, institutions and people considered ‘enemies of God’. Here, ‘meaning discourse’ must be carefully and prayerfully applied to protect against the inevitable fallen, human desire to forcefully oppose whatever stands against personally-held Christian beliefs and values. To avoid theological anarchy and worldly bloodshed, clear understanding and application of biblical spiritual warfare must be employed, so one person’s crusade against ‘anti-Christian’ entities does not entail physical violence - never a Christian option.

Three issues are of primary importance in my thesis: the Satan is a real being, the Christus Victor model best expresses Jesus’ achievements at the cross and God reluctantly utilized violence in the Bible, especially in acts of salvation.

Firstly, the Satan is an actual being, but not a person, because personhood includes the possibility of salvation; he is nonetheless real, standing against God and those he loves. Also, he is a spiritual being against whom finite, worldly-bound humans, have no demonstrable power. This may cause a feeling of impotence against this evil enemy, but this is wrong, because the cosmic, eternal battle between God and the Devil requires a human response, but one that understands its role.

St. Paul stated, “…we are not unaware of [Satan’s] schemes” (2 Cor 2:11), but we have far less discernment; so instead of embarking on a personal war against the Devil, humans must act within God’s remit. For example, Jude warns those seeking to engage the Satan on their own initiative, “But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”(Jude 1:9). If such a mighty spiritual being demurs at openly confronting the lord of evil, then humans must acknowledge their primary involvement in confronting evil forces is utter dependence on God, who alone is capable of engaging and defeating a powerful and, to humans, ethereal and mysterious, enemy. It is not the role or responsibility of humans to align themselves with those ‘fighting evil’; failing to accede this leads to a false war engaged in by various ‘Christian warriors for truth’, most obviously, the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church or those Christians standing against, or for, Donald Trump, or more subtly by groups with liberal concerns and ‘battles’. Whatever the ‘warfare’, it’s not the role of Christians to counter the Satan – it’s God’s job and he’s the only one equipped to do it.

Even St. Paul, when delineating how humans are to confront the Devil (Eph 6: 10-18), first reminds them the battle is not of flesh and blood, but a struggle against powers of this dark world and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms; in other words, stuff humans have no means of encountering. He instructs them to clothe themselves in the ‘armour of God’, before reeling off a list of symbolic items, enabling them to play their part in being ‘strong in the Lord and his mighty power’. Humans aren’t directly involved in spiritual warfare and countering the Satan, but this doesn’t mean they’re without a part to play – a diminutive part, but a part nonetheless – to live in truth and righteousness, to share the gospel of peace, to maintain faith, enjoy salvation and to express the word of God and, of course, to pray in the Spirit and remain alert, or as Karl Barth put it, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

Secondly, the Christus Victor model acknowledges the Satan’s role in the story of God’s engagement with the world and his plans for salvation; other models giving him a bit-part, or completely ignoring or denying him. If the Satan is a real adversary to God and all that is good, then he must be subdued and finally overcome - only the Christus Victor model explicitly addresses this. If – for whatever reason – the Devil is taken out of the redemption story, the divine drama is lost and the story loses its meaning. The Christus Victor account is therefore, not just the best, but the only atonement model that does justice to the biblical descriptions of the Satan and the demonic realm, highlighting and addressing the importance of their subjugation before salvation can be won.

Thirdly, a belief in God’s reluctant use of violence demonstrates there is a real enemy to be overcome and the cross, understood via Christus Victor, is the means of doing so; further, only a God willing to use violence could successfully accomplish this. When first mentioning my PhD’s theme to friends, a common concern was voiced, “…but won’t your argument encourage people to pursue violence, believing it’s what God is like and what he wants from his followers?” I replied that when humans can love like God loves, they’ll be able to fight like God fights, until then, viewing the spiritual realm through this ‘glass darkly’, our job is to trust our mighty Leader, who alone is capable of rallying and leading his followers towards a victory over the Satan. Further, because violence has been the bane of human history, it doesn’t follow that God can’t endorse or utilize violence to accomplish his goals. Miroslav Volf rightly notes we must preserve the fundamental difference between God and nonGod on this point, because the biblical tradition insists there are things which only God may do - one of them, he insists, is to use violence.

As we saw, an important issue for Christians keen to be involved in spiritual warfare is the reliability of ascription – what Paul calls the “…discernment of spirits” (1 Cor 12:10). The Bible infers that ‘rulers, authorities and powers’ in this world can so thoroughly manifest the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12) that they warrant violent opposition, but who can be trusted to rightly decide which enemy is authentically demonic. In the 1980s, for example, both Ronald Reagan and the Ayatollah Khomeni, characterized each other’s regimes as “Satanic”, yet tellingly, didn’t go to war against each other. Christians should be cautious, remembering that whilst God, in his unique, objective role as the one who is love, can utilize violence against his enemies, human beings as sinful, subjective and largely spiritually illiterate beings cannot. To reiterate, the role of Christians in this ‘battle’ is to align themselves with their Leader, live lives of love, peace and forgiveness and pray for God’s intervention, by his means, confident of his character and ability to drive home the victory, not to blindly stumble into a conflict they can little perceive, let alone understand or be effectively involved in.

After my conversion, I went to theological college to learn about my new faith and equip myself to effectively share it with others; somewhere along the way I lost sight of this goal, getting distracted in other pursuits. When I finished my PhD, I spent time trying to find the implications of my research until I had my eureka-moment! I realized I needed to go back to where it all started and become an evangelist, understanding that my primary goal ought to be freeing people from the Satan into God’s Kingdom. I believe Christians are embroiled in guerrilla warfare and the liberating of imprisoned souls is the only ‘violence’ they should entertain; or, as St. Matthew put it, “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11:12). Now that’s an endeavor worth fighting for…