Follow By Email

We'll get back to Dante next week. Today a bit of housekeeping.

For a few years people have asked me to add a "subscribe by email" feature to the blog. Whenever I've poked around Blogger in the past I could never see an easy-to-add widget for this. And since I'm generally indifferent and apathetic about making it easy for people to find, follow, share, or read my blog, there I let the matter sit.

Well, after another nudge from a friend this week I took another look at the widgets available on Blogger. And there it was: email subscription!

So, at the homepage of the blog, where you see the sidebar on the right, at the top of the sidebar is a place where you can subscribe to the blog via email. Let me know if you use it and have any issues.

And if this is something you've been wishing for, well, "You're Welcome!" True, it goes against my blogging philosophy to make this blog easy and accessible, I still like to keep things simple, primitive, and advertisement-free here on Blogger, but sometimes you just have to give the people what they want.

See you next week, perhaps now in your Inbox!

Faith Lies (with Darrell Smith): Lie # 4, I Am Supposed to Protect and Defend God and My Faith

Continuing our Thursday series with Darrell Smith, sharing from his book Faith Lies: Seven Incomplete Ideas That Hijack Faith and How to See Beyond Them.

Faith Lies with Darrell Smith
Lie #4: I Am Supposed to Protect and Defend God and My Faith

Shortly before his death, renowned theoretical physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking gave an interview to the Spanish paper El Mundo. In that interview, Hawking stated, “Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t.”

Bam! That is one of those drop-the-microphone-and-leave-the-room quotes, isn’t it? There was no uncertainty, no ambiguity. “There is no God. See ya later, Hawking out.”

What are we supposed to do with that? One of the most intelligent thinkers to ever live said that science proves that God is not real. What does that do to you? What is welling up inside of your gut? Do you feel yourself beginning to perform mental gymnastics to make Hawking’s thoughts jive with your own? Maybe not. Maybe you feel your mind throwing up a wall to keep such arguments out. Maybe you find it easier just to dismiss Dr. Hawking as a lost soul who didn’t really know what he was talking about. Do you want to argue with Dr. Hawking? Do you want to forget about him? Do you want to prove that God does exist?

If I’m honest with myself, I can admit that I have felt all of these responses at different times when I am faced with people, opinions, and worldviews that do not seem to fit into my understanding. As strange as it may seem, it is in our reaction to this benign story where we find our next lie—the idea that we, in some way, are responsible for defending or protecting God—that we need to be able to explain God and prove God in any situation at any time.

Let’s state some truths clearly in the first person:
  • I am not responsible for defending or protecting God—and that is a good thing because I need God to defend and protect me. 
  • God will not falter or disappear if I do not argue correctly, fight for, or stand up in the name of God—and that is a good thing because if God could falter or disappear, God wouldn’t be much of a God. 
  • God does not need my protection or defense—and that is a good thing because if God did need my protection or defense, we would both be screwed. 
Explore these statements and expose the incomplete and unhelpful idea that God needs our defense in Faith Lies: Seven Incomplete Ideas That Hijack Faith and How to See Beyond Them.

Next week, Faith Lie #5 – There is One Right Way to Believe and One Right Way to Behave.

Joseph and Jesus: Part 2, The Forgiving Victim

So, both Joseph and Jesus come back from the dead to face again those who betrayed them.

Now, we've been conditioned to view this return as "good news," but the fact of the matter is that we would be terrified to face a person whom we've betrayed and abandoned.

In short, the resurrection event initially engenders fear and the anticipation of punishment and judgment. We expect the victim to return with vengeance on his mind.

That's certainly what Joseph's brothers expect. And fear was the first reaction upon the news of Jesus' resurrection. But in both instances, the victim doesn't seek revenge. Rather, the victim returns and speaks a forgiving word. Joseph to his brothers, and Jesus to his disciples.

Here's how Walter Brueggemann describes Joseph's disclosure to this brothers and makes a parallel with the gospels:
The key fact in the life of this family is that they must live now with the reality of a live, powerful, ruling Joseph...[The] terror and astonishment of the brothers is not unlike that of the early church with the disclosure of the live Jesus...

[The past actions of the brothers] put them in grave danger. The wrath of their now powerful brother is imminent. But the response of Joseph is not the expected one. Instead of a response that depends on the past estrangement, his fresh speech concerns something new: 'Do not be dismayed...Do not be angry with yourselves...for God sent me...'
In the same way, Jesus appears to his disciples and says, "Peace." Or, in the language of Hebrews, the blood of Jesus speaks "a better word" than the blood of Abel. Instead of a word of vengeance, we get a word of mercy.

On Freedom and Universal Salvation

Related to yesterday's post about David Bentley Hart's book That All Shall Be Saved, below is a reworked post from six years ago, giving newer readers a taste of how I've argued for universal reconciliation.

The big point of the post below is how to square universal reconciliation with human freedom. For a lot of people, that's the big sticking point. An appeal to human freedom sits at the heart of many arguments for eternal conscious torment, but it also sits at the heart of a view called "conditionalism" or "separatism," the view of hell espoused by C.S. Lewis and dramatized in The Great Divorce and Rob Bell in his book Love Wins.

Using Love Wins and C.S. Lewis as points of contrast (and to be clear, I'm a huge fan of both Lewis and Rob), what follows is a meditation on love, freedom, and salvation:

When Love Wins came out many pointed out that what Rob Bell was saying wasn't new. Love Wins was sharing the view famously espoused by C.S. Lewis. Specifically, God's love wins because God respects human freedom, not because everyone, eventually, is reconciled to God. C.S. Lewis famously phrased the notion this way: The doors of hell are locked, but they are locked from the inside. We banish ourselves from heaven, not God. The idea here is that God never forecloses on salvation. Not now, not ever. But humans, exercising their freedom, can turn away from God and keep turning away. Perhaps for eternity.

Here are selections from Love Wins where Rob Bell is walking through this conditionalistic, separatist vision of "love winning":
If we want hell,
if we want heaven,
they are ours.
That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced.
It always leaves room for the other to decide.
God says yes,
we can have what we want,
because love wins.
...
Now back to that original question: "Does God get what God wants?" is a good question, an interesting question, an important question that gives us much to discuss.

But there's a better question, one we can answer...It's not "Does God get what God wants?"
but
"Do we get what we want?"
And the answer to that is a resounding, affirming, sure and positive yes.
Yes, we get what we want.
God is that loving.

If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option. If we insist on using our God-given power and strength to make the world in our own image, God allows us that freedom; we have the kind of license to that. If we want nothing to do with light, hope, love, grace, and peace, God respects that desire on our part, and we are given a life free from any of those realities. The more we want nothing to do with all God is, the more distance and space are created. If we want nothing to do with love, we are given a reality free from love.
The specific issue I'd like to assess in this vision, and with conditionalism/separatism generally, is the regulating notion that love requires freedom. Love wins, not because we all get to heaven, but because we all get what we want. Love wins because love allows us freedom. So even if someone is separated from God, perhaps for all eternity, that is a win for love. Because you are getting what you want.

You don't want God and walk away.
God allows this.
So love wins.

Let's think about that. Love, according to conditionalism/separatism, allows people to walk away from God. More, Love allows people to keep walking. Toward what? Away from "light, hope, love, grace, and peace." So this passage in Love Wins asks us to imagine Love allowing people to walk deeper into darkness, despair, hate, revenge, and violence. To get a sense of this, imagine the horrors, depravity and bestiality of war. And then keep multiplying that. We imagine Love allowing people to walk deeper and deeper into that?

The question all this raises is if a loving God would allow that descent into madness to happen.

The response, I'm guessing, comes back to the issue of freedom. What, it might be asked, am I suggesting? That God thwart our choices and corral us, against our will, into heaven? That seems to be the key idea driving Rob's and Lewis' vision: Love requires freedom. This is how love "wins." As Love Wins says, "That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide."

It's at this point I'd like to push back with a little psychology, because I think the notion of freedom at work in conditionalism/separatism is flawed.

At root, our psychological experience of freedom is comprised of two things: 1) Self-authorship/ownership and 2) Choice/caring congruence.

We feel free when we "own" our decisions and actions. When I scratch my nose I feel that I "own" (i.e., willed) the entire action. This sense of ownership helps create a feeling of self-authorship. I am writing, with my decisions, the story of my life.

We know this experience of "ownership" is a feeling because there are situations when this feeling can become suspended. Hypnosis and disassociation are examples. In such cases my motor cortex is activated--I'm doing things--but I don't feel the actions are "mine."

The second part of the feeling of freedom involves choice/caring congruence. When our choices align with what we want or care about we feel a sense of inner harmony and freedom. I'm doing what I want to do. Harry Frankfurt calls this volitional unanimity. Everything within me "agrees." Desire, choice and behavior are aligned.

(Programming note: I use the word "volitional" a lot in what follows. "Volitional" means "pertaining to the will.")

Feelings of "unfreedom" occur when we are forced, say, at the point of a gun, to do something that is misaligned with what we care about. We are doing something we don't want to do. The point-of-a-gun example seems obvious enough when we think of external compulsion. But the compulsions can be internal as well. Psychosis, obsessive-compulsions, and addictions are all examples of states where people feel internally overthrown or coerced. But these are really just extreme example of what Paul describes in Romans 7, doing things we don't really want to do. Paul describes this lack of volitional harmony as being "wretched." It doesn't feel good. It doesn't feel free. We feel internally betrayed and coerced, "against our will" as it were.

All this describes our inner experience of freedom.  Freedom--call it free will or voluntary behavior--is the experience of self-authorship and inner unanimity.

Let's now go back to Rob Bell's statement: "That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide." As it stands, this assessment is totally non-controversial. Love doesn't put a gun to your head. Love doesn't force, manipulate, or coerce.

In short, God wants our choices to be voluntary. God wants us to "own" the decision. God wants us to "want" the decision.

But here's the critical issue at this point, an issue that many who make strong appeals to human freedom against universalism regularly overlook. As we've just noted, more than mere choice is involved in creating the experience of freedom. For a feeling of freedom to exist we need choice/caring congruence.

Suddenly, this freedom thing is looking a bit more complicated. Freedom isn't simply the absence of external coercion. Freedom is about getting our choices to align with our affections and desires. God abandoning us to our choices isn't freedom. It's a lack of coercion, to be sure. But that's a very thin view of freedom, love and choice.

Let me try to illustrate this by taking on a sacred cow.

You often hear preachers say, "Love is a choice." This is wrong. Love is fundamentally about caring. To be clear, I'm not saying that love is a fleeting feeling. I'm saying that love is a deeply rooted affection.

What is remarkable is that everyone knows this already. So it's a testimony to how strange things have become that I have to spend words convincing people to stop and note how very strange and inhuman is the "love is a choice" formulation. Just think of someone you love (I've got my sons in my mind) and ask yourself: What best describes your experience of love toward these people? Choice? Or a deeply rooted affection?

I don't know about you, but I don't wake up and "choose" to love my sons. No, I wake up and feel a deeply rooted affection.

To be sure, those affections affect my choices and decisions. And that's going to be my final point in all this. Caring drives choice. I make loving choices because I care about my boys. I don't choose to care about my boys so that I can make loving choices. That's backward.
[Interlude:

How did the "love is a choice" meme become so ascendant and popular among preachers? Here's my best guess:

The "love is a choice" meme gained prominence among preachers as they were trying to preach the centrality of covenant and promise-keeping in the face of marital infidelity, where people were justifying their actions with statements like "I just don't love him/her anymore." And by this people meant, "I don't 'feel' in love with him/her anymore." To push back on that argument preachers started to respond with,"Love isn't a feeling. It's a choice." And what they meant was that feelings of affection ebb and flow, but a commitment gets you through the low periods. This is true, but we should get clear about what is actually going on.

What the preachers tend to miss is that you have to care about commitments for the "love is a choice" encouragement to work. Because if I don't care about my commitments or keeping my promises you have very little leverage with me on this score. Again, this is my root point. Caring is what grants us volitional traction. If you don't care about something I can't use it to sway your choices. Parents of teenagers know this very well. Where caring doesn't exist, you have zero volitional traction to affect choice.

In short, what the "love is a choice" encouragement is doing is this: "I know you don't care about him/her right now. But you should care about the promise you made before witnesses. You should care about your integrity. You should care about what God thinks. You should care about the kids." And so on. The hope here is, because caring has evaporated for the spouse, that caring can be found elsewhere--in God, the kids, the commitment, the extended family, personal integrity/reputation. But at the end of the day you've got to find caring somewhere. Because if you can find that caring and bring it to the front you can affect the choice. You can say stuff like, "Okay, you don't love him/her. But think about the kids." You try to fish for some alternative/backup location of caring to give the marriage time to heal and for spousal affections/caring to reemerge.

The point is, I understand the whole "love is a choice" idea and what it's trying to do--shifting caring from the spouse to the promise--but we shouldn't think "love is a choice" is good psychology. "Love is a choice" isn't psychology, it's a rhetorical strategy and it should not be used to guide us in thinking about human freedom.]
Given what I've sketched above, let's return to the view of freedom at the root of Love Wins and conditionalism/separatism. What's the problem with C.S. Lewis' and Rob Bell's view of love and freedom?

On the one hand, the notion that Love isn't going to force or coerce anyone into heaven is perfectly true. I totally agree. But there's something problematic if this is all we mean by "freedom," God just leaving us to our choices. Again, freedom isn't just about choices. Freedom about something deeper and more complex. Freedom has to be about what we care about. Freedom has to be about love.

I think Augustine was pointing to this when he said that all our little loves are shadowy and incomplete until they fully rest in the Love of God. "Our hearts are restless," he famously wrote, "until they rest in Thee." Our affections are broken and scattered. Our loves are all pointed in the wrong direction. And due to that disarray our choices become sinful and self-defeating.

With our affections broken our choices are broken.

Here the deep problem with conditionalism/separatism comes into view. If our affections are disordered there is no way we can "choose our way" toward God. Something deep within us is confused and disoriented. We want the wrong things. So if God wants us to turn toward the Kingdom God can't just abandon us to our choices. God can't just step back and say, "I love you. And because I love you I will step back to grant you freedom." That's a recipe for disaster. Because freedom isn't about the absence of external pressure or force. Freedom, rather, is about getting our choices aligned with our affections. But if we want the wrong things to begin with how are we to make good choices?

The point is, love isn't going to win if God just steps back to abandon us to our choices. There might be a "win" in there somewhere, but it's not a winning God would want. Love doesn't win if all we have are choices running amok because of our disordered affections. No, love really wins only when God begins to work at a deeper level, when Love begins to work with our loves. Love moves our loves toward Love. Our desires and affections have to change before our choices begin to move. And that requires positive action on God's part. Not the Divine withdrawal and passivity that Love Wins imagines in the passage above.

And I'd also like to make the point that this healing of affections is generally going to be a very slow process. Because Rob Bell's right on this point: God isn't going to overthrow or coerce our affections, internally or externally. God can't just change our affections overnight without that being experienced as a volitional assault upon us. These are psychic structures rooted deep, deep within our identity. These are psychic glaciers that are going to have to move at a glacial pace.

But they can move, even if slowly. And the slow pace allows us to preserve our inner sense of self-authorship and unanimity.

Which brings us to one the reasons why I prefer universalism to conditionalism/separatism. Conditionalism suggests that God abandons us to our disordered affections and the predictable volitional mess that soon follows. Universalism, by contrast, confesses that God loves us and will not abandon us, that freedom isn't about a lack of coercion. A lack of coercion is not what sets us free. What sets us free is having our affections healed.

Freedom happens when our loves come to rest in Love. And where conditionalism/separatism envisions God's abandonment, universalism envisions God's tireless and eternal involvement in bringing this healing to completion.

It is a vision of Love healing the loves of my life--bringing order, unanimity, and harmony.

Bringing freedom.

That is when Love truly wins.

That All Shall Be Saved

Many of my long time readers found me in the early years of this blog because of my writings defending universal reconciliation. Newer readers might be unaware of these posts since I haven't written about this topic a lot lately. But nothing has changed, I still believe that God will, in the end, reconcile all things to Himself.

In the early years of this blog, my colleagues in theology and Biblical studies thought I was bonkers when I shared my views. Rob Bell did come out soon after with Love Wins, but that wasn't vindication. If anything, it made things worse. Rob Bell and Love Wins represented everything that goes wrong with progressive, liberal theology. It was assumed that I believed in universal reconciliation because I was "progressive." It didn't matter that some pretty less-than-liberal heavy hitters flirted with or endorsed universal reconciliation, from the church fathers to Karl Barth. There's more to this view than is typically assumed. You just can't dismiss it with a wave as a capitulation to modernity, liberalism, and humanism.

All that to say, the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has just published That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. I seriously doubt that my colleagues can accuse David Bentley Hart of being a squishy, progressive, "love wins" theologian. As Hart makes clear in the book, universal reconciliation has nothing do with with liberalism. The point is, rather, for me at least, the simple yet courageous recognition that Christianity is incoherent without universal salvation.

If you don't buy that and don't want to read the book, you can dip into a bit of Hart's argument in his article God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilo (an essay reworked as a chapter in That All Shall Be Saved). And if you don't want to read that article, here's the gist of it: If God created the vast majority of humanity knowing that He would torture them for all eternity, well, then he'd be a monster.

A God that creates ex nihilo, only to end up torturing the majority of His creation for eternity, strains the theological definitions of omnipotence and omnibenevolence past the point of breaking. So I'll say it again: Christianity is incoherent without universal salvation.

The issues here are real, but it takes some theological courage to admit and face those issues directly, honestly and squarely rather than dismiss them as a modern product of liberalism and humanism.

Thank You

Two weeks ago, I invited you to donate Bibles for the French-Robertson unit, easy to read translations for the prison chaplains to hand out to inmates requesting a Bible. The unit had run out of Bibles and the chaplains have no budget to buy them.

And now, thanks to you, the Bibles are coming in. Thank you! The Bibles you shipped directly the the prison have been arriving. On Monday I took inventory of all the boxes stacked in the chaplain's office. And below is a picture of four boxes of Bibles you've shipped to me that I'll be carrying out to the unit.

Again, Thank You! Let's pray that God uses these gifts to bring comfort, grace, and transformation to the men who receive them.

Faith Lies (with Darrell Smith): Lie #3, The Devil is God’s Counterpart

Continuing our Thursday series with Darrell Smith, sharing from his book Faith Lies: Seven Incomplete Ideas That Hijack Faith and How to See Beyond Them.

Faith Lies with Darrell Smith
Lie #3: The Devil is God’s Counterpart

What is at stake in this lie is not whether evil is real. It’s not even whether the devil is real. It’s whether or not that evil, or the devil, can stand against our God.

The question we need to ask is who have we said the devil is and how does that distort our view of God and of ourselves? This is a lie about a good God versus a bad god—what is known as dualism. Dual means two opposing forces. Good versus evil, dark versus light, right versus wrong.

The primary example of dualism in our world is the idea that there is a good, supernatural force guiding the universe that battles an evil, supernatural force corrupting the universe.

God versus Satan makes sense to us because it successfully divides and organizes our reality for us. It just seems simple to think that everything that is good and right is because of God, and everything that is bad and wrong is because of the devil.

As much as we might feel that such thinking is neat and orderly, it falls apart really quickly as soon as something that is bad and wrong touches our lives. When evil or corruption really hits home and affects us personally, we want answers. “Where were you, God?” “Why did you let that happen to me?”

In turn, those questions shine a bright light on dualism and lead to questions like, “If God created everything, why did God create the devil?” or “How did the devil get access to me?”

What originally seems orderly about dualism becomes confusing and disordered as soon as we start talking plainly about the devil. To be honest, we have every right to be confused. The history of our faith is rife with misunderstanding and misapplying information about the devil. The truth is, we don’t have a clear and consistent picture about the devil—not even within the pages of the Bible.

Don’t miss that. The Bible itself does not offer a clear picture about the nature, state, or identity of the devil. What the Bible does make clear, however, is that whatever the devil is, the God who is for you stands unopposed.

Next week, Faith Lie #4 – I Am Supposed to Protect and Defend God and My Faith

Joseph and Jesus: Part 1, The Dead One Is Alive!

We were studying the book of Genesis in our adult Sunday School class, and one of the Sundays I had the Joseph narrative to teach. We were using Walter Brueggemann's commentary as a resource.

In Brueggemann's commentary I was struck by the parallels between the Joseph narrative and the gospel accounts, especially the passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. I'd like to share some of these parallels.

The first is simply to note that we can read the story of Joseph as a story of resurrection. Specifically, Joseph's disclosure to his brothers, who betrayed him, foreshadows Jesus' own betrayal, death, and return. Joseph was betrayed and abandoned by his brothers. And Jesus was betrayed and abandoned by his followers. And both Joseph and Jesus are "left for dead."

And then, out of nowhere, the dead one is standing right in front of you.

As Brueggemann describes it, in Genesis 45, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers: "We are permitted to witness a gospel disclosure: The dead one is alive! The abandoned one has returned in power!"

Parables: The Sheep and the Goats

The parable of the sheep and goats:
Matthew 25.31-46
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
It probably comes as no surprise, given my book Stranger God, that the parable of the sheep and the goats has had a huge influence upon my life and thinking.

The point I take away from the parable: We don't extend hospitality to be like Jesus, we extend hospitality to welcome Jesus.

It's a simple point, but how many churches get this reversal? Churches like to stand in the position of Jesus, as the Savior. But in Matthew 25, the Savior is the stranger, the homeless, the incarcerated.

When we welcome the stranger, shelter the homeless, or visit the incarcerated we are the one who are being saved. 

Parables: The Sower and the Soils

You likely don't need a reminder of the Parable of the Sower, but here it is:
Matthew 13.3-9
Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
And as we know, in a rare change of pace, Jesus goes on to interpret the parable for us:
Matthew 13.18-23
“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
So, why has this parable been increasingly important to me?

Well, I speak and preach a lot. Every week I'm speaking to my church, the inmates in my Bible study, and my students in my Psychology and Christianity class. And then, on many weekends I'm speaking at churches, conferences, or guest lecturing at other schools.

And because of all that speaking I can get self-focused and self-absorbed. How did I do? Did I make an impact? I focus on my speaking ability and my ideas. And because of this, I fret and push myself.

But over the last year or so, I've become increasingly relaxed and at peace about any "impact" I'm having, largely due to the Parable of the Sower. "All you can do, Richard," I tell myself, "is sow the seed."

Much of the "success" of any talk I give isn't really in my hands. It's mostly up to the person listening and the status of their heart. And I don't have access to their heart. God does, but I don't. My job is to just sow the seed.

I've become more focused on fidelity to the task than maximizing "effectiveness." I try to do my very, very best, and once I'm done I'm at peace.

The Divine Comedy: Week 34, Loving a Good Thing Too Much

Two weeks ago, we observed what Dante meant when Virgil shared that love can go wrong when we love a bad thing. We can desire to hurt others (wrath), we can desire that misfortune befall others (envy), and we can delight when others do experience misfortune (pride). These are the worst sins, purged on the lowest terraces of Mt. Purgatory.

This week, I'd like to take things out of order and jump to the top of Mt. Purgatory, where the sins of excessive love are found. There we find the Deadly Sins associated with loving a good thing too much. As Virgil shares in Canto XVIII:
the love that yields excessively to this
is purged above us on three terraces,
but how the nature of such love is threefold,

I would have you discover for yourself. 
The Pilgrim does climb the mountain to discover the "threefold" nature of excessive love, the sins of greed, gluttony, and lust.

Greed, gluttony, and lust are examples of loving a good thing too much. Possessions, money, comfort, status, praise, success, pleasure, a nation, a dream, a job, your appearance, your reputation. The list goes on and on. Name any good thing in your life, and ponder how you might be loving this good thing a little too much, perhaps way too much.

Our life is full of good things, gifts to be enjoyed, but we can love a good thing too much. And when we do, our love curdles and goes bad.

Faith Lies (with Darrell Smith): Lie # 2, God is Angry and Doesn’t Like Me—Especially When I Sin

Today we continue our Thursday series with Darrell Smith, who is sharing from his book Faith Lies: Seven Incomplete Ideas That Hijack Faith and How to See Beyond Them.

Faith Lies with Darrell Smith
Lie #2: God is Angry and Doesn’t Like Me—Especially When I Sin

The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire... 
— Jonathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God," 1741

What happened to you as you read through the Jonathan Edwards’ quote above? How do you respond? Is there something in you that rejects the philosophy behind Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?”

If you are like me, perhaps you have picked up a milder version of this philosophy. You may not think that God holds you over the “Pit of Hell” like a loathsome spider, but you may believe that God disapproves of you—or is disappointed with your life.

Whatever our response may be to the idea that God is angry with us and doesn’t like us, the truth is, too much of the Christian faith is built upon this corrupt foundation.
  • It is a foundation that leads to a world where punishment must be meted out for all bad behavior.
  • It is a foundation that not only empowers but demands judgment.
  • It is a foundation that distances children from their loving divine parent as they begin to believe what gives them divine value is the way they behave.
Behind the lie “God is angry and doesn’t like me—especially when I sin” is the idea that your relationship with God—God’s affection for you—is based on your behavior. The better person you are, the more God likes and loves you—the more God will bless you. The more mistakes you make and sins you commit, the less God likes and loves you—the less God will bless you.

Whether we recognize it or not, this lie requires God to have anger—or even worse, the dreaded biblical wrath—over the sinful behavior of people. This lie characterizes God as the cosmic scorekeeper watching our every move and shaking the Godhead in disappointment— wondering how we could repeatedly be so bad.

Actually putting these words to it may make this idea seem silly and easily dismissed, but the incomplete idea that God is angry and doesn’t like us when we sin is too prevalent and too important to leave unexamined. It must be exposed in all the little nooks and crannies of our lives.

If we can all admit that none of want to run head-long into an authentic, loving, relationship with an angry cosmic scorekeeper, then we can begin to receive the God we actually have.

Next week, Faith Lie #3 – The Devil is God’s Counterpart

Parables: The Unforgiving Servant

A parable that's been increasingly influential on me is the parable of the unforgiving servant:

Matthew 18.23-35
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
The parable is told as an answer to Peter's question, "How often am I to forgive? Is seven times enough?"  Jesus responds, "Not just seven, but seventy times seven." And then he goes on to tell this parable.

Now, intellectually speaking, the point of the parable is obvious, simplistic even. The servant has been forgiven a great debt, yet is unwilling to forgive a much smaller debt. I think everyone understands this point of the story. But my question is this: Do we actually live it?

What I mean is this: Do you live under a great burden of grace? Do you feel forgiven a great and massive debt? And has this emancipation affected your capacity to pay mercy forward? Does your moral life flow out of a great ocean of gratitude?

Again, I know this seems a simple Sunday School lesson, fit only for children. Intellectually, you're not having any trouble tracking with me. What I'm asking you about is if you've experienced this gratitude, in your heart. And if you have, has forgiveness given you a greater capacity to forgive? Has grace given you a greater capacity for grace? Has mercy given you a greater capacity for mercy?

Because grace rarely seems to translate into action. We claim God's love for ourselves, yet are petty and miserly in giving grace to others. We're vindictive and hold grudges.

What's going wrong?

It's my hunch that this goes wrong because we're not operating out of gratitude, not living out of a daily and felt realization that we've been extended a great mercy.

What I'm wondering about is the connection between gratitude and virtue, between gratitude and love, between gratitude and mercy.

If we really felt and operated out of gratitude, wouldn't our actions change in an instant? Wouldn't we become radically different people?

Parables: The Treasure in the Field

The parable of the treasure in the field has had a huge impact upon how I view the kingdom of God:
Matthew 13.44
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
Over the last year or so on the blog I've written about how welcoming the kingdom of God is a matter of perception, a matter of seeing.

That's not how we tend to think about the kingdom. Most of us, I'm assuming, adopt a moral framework when we talk about welcoming or entering the kingdom. Following Jesus is about becoming a better, more moral person.

But the parable of the treasure suggests the kingdom is nothing like that. The kingdom isn't morally hard, it's just hidden. The kingdom is here and available, but we cannot see it.

But if we do come to see it, our response isn't a long slog of spiritual discipline and mortification. The response is, rather, happy, easy, fast, and automatic.

It's all a matter about if you can see what is hidden right in front of you. 

Parables: The Wheat and the Tares

The parables of Jesus keep haunting me. I'm not sure why. For most of my life I never really spent much time thinking about the parables. The parables were never theological touchstones for me.

But increasingly they are, and I'd like to share a few parables in a series that I keep pondering and returning to.

To start, the parable of the wheat and the tares:
Matthew 13:24-30
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” 
For most of my adult life the public witness of Christianity has dismayed me. The brand "Christian" has been pretty damaged. So much so, many of us want to distance ourselves from being identified as Christian.

Problems with churches and denominations fill the news. Abuse scandals, large and small, abound. The horrible news accumulates and you just despair.

And then I think of the parable of the wheat and the tares. The kingdom of God on earth was never going to be a pure community or spotless witness. The Children of God and the Children of the Devil will be all mixed up together on earth. Jesus said so.

And yet, the moral response to that situation isn't to begin an inquisition, to start a violent weeding process. It's up to God to judge the weeds at the harvest. Our call is simply to be faithful in the midst of this ambiguous situation.

To be clear, I don't think Jesus is saying we should be passive in the face of evil in the pews. The point I believe Jesus is making is that the location of the Kingdom of God is going to be hard to identify this side of judgment, and that we're going to have to tolerate an ambiguous situation until then. Because I have a great desire to create a "pure space" right here and right now. I'm really drawn to the weeding business. And yet, I know I'd do great damage if I started that up. I try to act with wisdom and responsibility, trying to balance grace and justice. But I can't be trusted to get that right. So instead, I live with the ambiguity, with the mixed and confused moral witness of the church, with wheat and tares living side by side until the harvest.

Please Help! A Prison Bible Study Request

For years, here on the blog and in my books, I've shared stories about the Men in White, the inmates in my Monday night Bible study at the maximum-security French Robertson unit here in Abilene, TX. Many of you have been moved by the stories of the Men in White, and today I'd like to share a way you can minister to them.

The chaplain's office has shared that there is a need at the unit for easy-to-read paperback Bibles. The chaplains don't have enough Bibles to hand out when they get requests from the inmates. So they asked if the volunteer chaplains could put out the word about getting some Bibles donated.

Here is an Amazon link to the sort of Bible we are looking for.

If you or your church would like to help, send a Bible (or more) to the following address:
Chaplains Office
Robertson Unit
12071 FM 3522
Abilene, TX 79601
If you're having trouble with Amazon shipping to the prison directly, feel free to ship them to me and I'll take them out to the prison:
Richard Beck
ACU Box 28011
Abilene, TX 79699
Thank you if you can help with this request. And please remember the prisoners in your prayers.

Faith Lies (with Darrell Smith): Lie # 1, The Bible is Only the Literal Word of God

Today we continue our Thursday series with Darrell Smith, who is sharing from his book Faith Lies: Seven Incomplete Ideas That Hijack Faith and How to See Beyond Them.

Faith Lies with Darrell Smith
Lie #1: The Bible is Only the Literal Word of God

Try these statements on for size…

“The Bible is not up for interpretation. It is the inerrant, infallible Word of God.”

“If the scriptures are not literally true, then they are not true at all.”

“God said it. I believe it. That’s it.”

My guess is that most of us have heard statements like these before. We may even have been the one speaking such statements.

While an honorable intention behind such statements might be to treat the Bible with reverence and respect, the reality is that these ideas are not helpful, and they steer us into cul-de-sacs rather than opening up the journey.

Telling an imperfect human being that the Bible is a volume of perfection—writings that are without error or humanity—ensures not only that we will not be able to relate to the Bible, but also that we will only be able to use it for measuring.

If it’s simply the divine rulebook, then all I can do with it is decide whether I am following the rules well enough to be okay with God...or decide whether or not YOU are following the rules well enough to be okay with God.

This is not to imply that the Bible does not contain any words from God—only that the Bible is not the written record of God’s dictation. God was most certainly the inspiration for the Bible, but not the medium. People were the medium—they did the storytelling, the writing, the selecting, and the interpretation that resulted in the Bible. The Bible is not God’s Bill of Rights and Constitution. Rather, it is a divinely inspired story of progression that should open things up rather than constrict and regulate.

If we are going to undertake an earnest journey into our faith, we must first be critically honest about the map.

Next week, Faith Lie #2: God is Angry and Doesn’t Like Me—Especially When I Sin.

Me Versus We: Part 5, Prophetic Words

This will be the last post in this series, and I wanted to end with a comment about prophetic words.

One of my worries in pentecostal and charismatic communities is the practice of prophecy. Specifically, in these communities people are often given (or report that they've been given) a prophetic "word from the Lord" to be shared with another person. The practice varies, but typically people approach you and say, "The Lord has given me a word that he wants me to share with you."

Now, I don't want to launch into a full scale criticism of this practice. My interests right now in this series are narrow. Specifically, my concern about getting and giving a "word from the Lord" is that these words tend to be for individuals. The Lord has a word for you, the Lord has a word for me.

Once again, the focus is on me.

But when you look at the prophetic tradition, the focus isn't on me, it's on we. Look at the books of prophecy in the Old Testament. The prophet is speaking a word to a people, a group, a community. Israel and Judah. The same goes for the New Testament when we look at the prophetic words of Jesus and John the Baptist. This is not to say that there aren't examples of prophetic words spoken to individuals in the Bible. But the vast majority of those words are from prophets to kings. Moses to Pharaoh. Samuel to Saul. Elijah to Ahab. John the Baptist to Herod. The context here is still communal as the king is misruling a people.

In short, "words from the Lord" are better suited for we rather than me. Prophecy isn't about getting specific, divine guidance for my life. Prophecy isn't a self-help tool. A "word from the Lord" shouldn't be the Christian version of a fortune cookie.

Prophecy finds its proper home in a community, in a word for us.

Me Versus We: Part 4, If Your Hand Causes You to Sin, Cut It Off

Again, one of the big points I'm making in this series is how, when we read the Bible as isolated individuals, our imaginations are tempted into a pietistic moralism.

As another example of this, consider Jesus' discourse on how we should treat sin in our lives:
Mark 9.43-47
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.
All that sounds very harsh and Puritanical. And it is, but we need to attend to how Jesus' words here are aimed at We rather than Me. Let's pay attention to the verse that kicks this text off:
Mark 9.42
If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.
And let's also note the final lines from this teaching of Jesus in Mark 9:
Mark 9. 49-50
Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.
Notice how Jesus' concern about sin focuses upon the community: "If anyone causes one of these little ones to stumble."

It doesn't really matter, for our purposes, if "little ones" refers to literal children or to disciples of Jesus. Our point is that Jesus' harsh language concerning sin is focused upon a community, not a solo actor wrestling with a private vice. This focus is highlighted in the final words of Jesus' discourse: "be at peace with each other."

All that to say, we privatize our sin when we focus on Me. We end up thinking that sin is primarily about naughty things I do in private than as actions that harm the community. Sin is a Me problem,  we think, rather than a We problem.

But for Jesus, it's the exact opposite. Victory over sin, for Jesus, is less about piety than it is about peace. Sin is a We problem.

Me Versus We: Part 3, Economy, Not Sacrifice

We've all heard the story of the Rich Young Ruler:
Mark 10.17-22
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
All of us, I'm assuming, have been personally dismayed by this story. Who would even dare to obey the command "sell everything"?

Now, I don't want to take the edge off of this story. Jesus is making a radical demand. But again, to the point of this series, I think we miss Jesus' point by focusing on "me" rather than "we."

Specifically, when we read the story of the Rich Young Ruler we quickly ask ourselves, "If I were to sell everything, how would I take care of myself? Wouldn't I become dependent upon the charity of others? And how would that help anything if I became poor?"

Those are reasonable questions. And they arise because we're imagining that the command "sell everything" is directed toward a lone individual being asked to make a radical sacrifice. But that's not what Jesus is imagining. Jesus isn't pointing to "me," he's pointing to "we." The story continues:
Mark 10.28-30
Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands..." 
Jesus isn't calling for a sacrifice. He's calling for an economy.

If it's just "me," the command "sell everything" leaves me impoverished. But if the command "sell everything" is directed at "we," then I'm not impoverished, I've entered an economy of sharing and gifts.

When we think in terms of "me" we're bullied by scarcity. What's going to happen when I have nothing? By contrast, when we think in terms of "we" we find ourselves surrounded by abundance. That's Jesus' message to Peter: In the kingdom you're not going to be left destitute. You're going to receive a hundredfold "houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands."

To be clear, Jesus is still making a radical demand. But the demand is placed upon the community. It makes no sense for one person to sell everything to find himself or herself homeless and knocking on doors for a meal. An isolated act of sacrifice doesn't create the economy of the kingdom. To be sure, that sacrifice would be heroic, but it doesn't create the kingdom. Yes, there are sacrifices to be made, but they are sacrifices being made by the community as a whole so that no one is left destitute and that all are cared for (see, again, Acts 2 and 4).

The goal, as Jesus points out to Peter, isn't poverty, but an economy of abundance.

The Divine Comedy: Week 33, Loving a Bad Thing

So, last week we shared Dante's taxonomy of bad loves. Our loves go bad in one of three ways. We can love a bad thing. We can love a good thing lazily. And we can love a good thing excessively.

Also recall that the terraces of Mount Purgatory are each devoted to the purgation of one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

With this two-fold scheme in place, the topography of Mount Purgatory reflects how Dante fits the Seven Deadly Sins into his theory of bad love.

For example, this week let's examine the lowest terraces of Mount Purgatory.

On the three lowest terraces, the sins furthest away from Paradise, we find the Deadly Sins of pride, envy, and wrath. These three sins are examples of what Dante means by "misdirected love," loving a bad thing. These are the worst of the Seven Deadly sins.

What does it mean to love a bad or wicked thing?

Well, in the case of pride, Virgil shares this analysis with the Pilgrim:
There is the man who see his own success
connected to his neighbor's downfall; thus,
he longs to see him fall from eminence.
For Dante, pride is rooted less in love of self (an excessive love) than loving a wicked thing: the downfall of your neighbor. For Dante, pride is rooted in Schadenfreude and what psychologists call "downward social comparison."

Now, we might not like this evaluation of pride. Personally, I think Dante is forcing things a bit here. I think pride is rooted in excessive self love, which would put it in the upper terraces of Purgatory rather than at the bottom.

Regardless, we do see illustrated here what Dante means by loving a bad thing. When we desire that bad things befall others and delight in their failures and misfortunes, well, that's loving a bad thing.

For the sin of envy, Dante makes a very similar analysis:
Next, he who fears to lose honor and fame,
power and favor, if his neighbor rise:
vexed by his good, he wishes for the worst.
Like pride, envy is rooted in social comparison. Where pride is delighting in the fall of others, envy is wishing and desiring their fall. Again we see the point: to wish pain and failure on others is loving a bad thing.

Finally, the sin of wrath is described this way by Virgil:
Finally, he who, wronged, flares up in rage:
with his great passion for revenge, he thinks
only of how to harm his fellow man.
Desiring revenge and wanting to hurt others--the sin of wrath--is another example of loving a bad thing.

These three Deadly Sins--pride, envy, and wrath--are examples of "misdirected love," three examples of loving a bad thing. These are the worst sins which are punished on the lowest slopes of Mount Purgatory.

Faith Lies (with Darrell Smith): What Are Faith Lies?

I was recently in San Antonio at the invitation of Lynn Anderson and some amazing people associated with Alamo Heights United Methodist Church, Haven for Hope, and the Pioneer Recovery Group led by Chris Estus.

A highlight of my time in San Antonio was getting to participate in a Bible study at Haven for Hope along with Dinah Shelly, lead by Chris, Darrell Smith, and Ryan Jacobson, who are all on the ministry team at Alamo Heights. It was an energizing time for me, to see how this group was sharing a generous vision of Christianity in a marginalized context. It's something I'm doing every Monday night out at the prison and Wednesday nights at Freedom Fellowship. I felt so at home with Chris, Darrell, and Ryan, sharing their theological vision along with their passion for sharing that vision in marginalized contexts.

During our time together, I learned of Darrell's recently published book Faith Lies: Seven Incomplete Ideas That Hijack Faith and How to See Beyond Them. I invited Darrell to share excerpts from his book here with us. Today is an introduction to the book, and for the next seven Thursdays you'll be introduced to one of the faith lies.

Enjoy!

Faith Lies with Darrell Smith
Introduction: What are Faith Lies?

Faith lies are those seemingly required religious ideas or spiritual beliefs that are often confusing and rarely helpful.

Kent owns and manages a business in south Texas. He lives in San Antonio with his wife, Trisha. His two grown daughters have recently followed new careers and new marriages away from San Antonio. Nevertheless, the tight-knit, family-oriented community where Kent and Trisha raised their daughters is still home. Kent and Trisha have both been faithful and serving members of a mainline protestant church there for the last 25 years. They are both college-educated, upwardly mobile professionals, and devout Christians.

Last month, they quit their church.

These two dedicated, serving evangelicals determined that their church had lost its way and was becoming theologically corrupt by social justice and universalist influences. They also decided it was their duty as disciples to stand up to this development—to reject it in the name of Jesus—and viewed their leaving as an act of holy defiance.

Kent and Trisha do not represent an isolated situation within the church. They are part of a widening divide within the Christian tradition. For every couple who is willing to publicly declare that they are spiritually offended and quit the church, there are 10 more who just quietly disappear and even more who remain steadfast but confused in the pew.

I have had the opportunity to work with many earnest Christians who feel the strain on their faith as American Christianity is forced out of its vacuum into a more global and inclusive conversation. The tragic irony is that Ameri-Christian evangelicals like Kent and Trisha—who would follow, and supposedly defend, Jesus—appear largely out of touch with the inclusive faith of Jesus.

In the absence of the ancient Eastern context that birthed the Christian faith, Western thinking—from Greek philosophy all the way to American Imperialism—has filled the void and raised up generations of Christians who sincerely believe that it is their faithful duty to blindly believe the texts of the Bible as the literal and stationary dictates of God and to reject any deviation from that ideology while defending the honor of Jesus and his church.

Faith Lies: Seven Incomplete Ideas That Hijack Faith and How to See Beyond Them is a gentle and generative journey that seeks to help devoutly faithful people release the burdens and baggage of a de-contextualized American Christian faith and reconnect to the ancient calling to rest, feast, and love. It is not a conspiracy theory. It is a journey that creates space for the honest investigation and protest of the unhelpful and incomplete ideas we have inherited and are now defending.

In the coming weeks, we will briefly look at the seven primary lies presented in Faith Lies—hoping that our investigation and dialogue can lighten our religious load while moving us all away from our corners and toward each other.
  • LIE 1: The Bible is Only the Literal Word of God
  • LIE 2: God is Angry and Doesn't Like Me—Especially When I Sin
  • LIE 3: The Devil is God's Counterpart
  • LIE 4: I Am Supposed to Protect and Defend God and My Faith
  • LIE 5: There is One Right Way to Believe and One Right Way to Behave
  • LIE 6: Faith is a Private Matter
  • LIE 7: Real Faith is Blind Belief

Me Versus We: Part 2, Kenosis

It's one of the most famous moral exhortations in all of the Bible. From Philippians 2:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,

he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Because of this text, self-emptying--kenosis--has been taken to be at the very heart of Christlikeness, the defining Christian virtue.

And yet, kenosis has been hit pretty hard in the last few decades in light of feminist scholarship. Specifically, it seems both toxic and dangerous to expect a woman to practice kenosis if she's dealing with an abusive spouse. And the same goes for any other oppressed person. Should someone at the very bottom--victims in particular--be expected to go even lower in the name of "being like Jesus"?

What makes this even worse is that women have, in fact, been given pastoral advice guided by that sort of theology, that by being "submissive" to her abuser the woman is "following the example of Jesus."

There's a whole lot to be said here, about how to read Philippians 2 in light of these concerns, but for this post I want to make a simple observation.

Again, to the point of this series, kenosis goes off the rails when we think in terms of "me" rather than "we."

Let's back up and look at what Paul is encouraging with his appeal to Jesus' self-emptying:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
The point should be obvious. Kenosis isn't about me, it's about we. "Be of the same mind." "Having the same love." "Being in full accord and of one mind." "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit." "Regard others as better than yourself." "Look to the interests of others."

Kenosis isn't a part of your moral self-improvement project. Kenosis is forming a community.

Let me say that again: Kenosis is forming a community.

The problem with both the feminist critique of kenosis and with the toxic advice for victims to submit to abuse is that both are focusing on "me" rather than "we," seeing kenosis as something an individual does in isolation from the community. And when viewed as an isolated, individual practice, yes, that can produce some toxic situations. Kenosis practiced in isolation can produce some pretty dysfunctional asymmetries. Kenosis finds it proper and healthy home when it is being practiced by an entire community, where your self-emptying for me is being matched by my self-emptying for you. Kenosis is an economy, it's not an isolated act of self-mortification. Jesus empties, but the Father and Spirit are there to ennoble and exalt. That dance of mutuality in Philippians 2 isn't what we're seeing in an abusive situation. And that's why Paul aims his sermon on kenosis toward those who were not looking after the interests of others. Kenosis punches up, never down.

In short, kenosis is a classic example of how reading the Bible as being about "me" rather than "we" can create some toxic, dysfunctional outcomes.

Me Versus We: Part 1, The Plural You

In my recent series on the book of Acts in one of the posts I made the observation that we tend to get confused about Biblical commands because we personalize them. That is, we tend to think in terms of "me" rather than "we."

For generations, Bible scholars have been pointing this out to us, how the "you" we encounter in the New Testament epistles is a plural "you." Commands and exhortations are being directed at the community rather than at individuals.

(By the way, here in Texas we understand this. We say "you" for the singular and "ya'll" for the plural. Outside of Texas, I don't know how anyone can figure this out. "Ya'll" is indispensable.)

The point I made in my last series is that when we read Biblical commands and exhortations we tend to, automatically and unconsciously, think of them as things directed at me and me alone. The radical individualism of our culture--the atomized, isolated ego--has so scarred our imaginations that it never occurs to us that the Bible speaks toward a group, toward a community.

This is important, as I recently pointed out, because Biblical commands and exhortations can become downright toxic or harmful if directed solely at individuals. The issue from my most recent series was Jesus' command "do not worry" from the Sermon on the Mount. When aimed at individuals we find this command almost impossible to obey. As isolated individuals trying to keep afloat in a capitalistic and meritocratic world--where your entire life situation depends upon your performance--how could we not worry?

But Jesus' command isn't aimed at "me", it's aimed at "we," aimed at creating, as we find in Acts 2 and 4, a community where worry becomes irrelevant. Jesus says instead of worrying seek first the kingdom, become the People of God, and all these things will be added to us. Jesus' focus is on we rather than me.

That's one example. And I'd like to share a few more in this series.

Teaching Acts in Prison: Part 10, Watchmen

I ended my series on Acts out at the prison by jumping to the prophet Ezekiel. That might not be "proper" in the eyes of scholars, to jump out of one book to another to make a point, but hey, it's my study and I can do what I want to.

So the call of Acts is to join in the great campaign of sabotage, to join in the resistance movement reclaiming contested space in the world in the name of King Jesus.

And yet, as you'd guess from my last post, this can be hard and lonely work in the prison. Where to find encouragement and comfort when you stand alone on the battlefield?

I had the class turn to Ezekiel.

In the first chapters of Ezekiel the prophet gets his call. And it's going to be hard and lonely work:
Ezekiel 2.1-8
He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.

He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people. You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious people; open your mouth and eat what I give you.”
If anyone knows what it's like to live among thorns and scorpions, it's the men in prison. This passage in Ezekiel is one of the best descriptions of "contested space" in the Bible.

Now, when you're preaching to thorns and scorpions that's a tough gig. The men in the prison live this reality. But the call to Ezekiel continues:
Ezekiel 3.16-21
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.

“Again, when a righteous person turns from their righteousness and does evil, and I put a stumbling block before them, they will die. Since you did not warn them, they will die for their sin. The righteous things that person did will not be remembered, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the righteous person not to sin and they do not sin, they will surely live because they took warning, and you will have saved yourself.”
Living as he is among thorns and scorpions, the prophet isn't going to very successful. But the prophet does have to be a watchman. It's lonely work, standing watch on the wall in the middle of the night, but that is the call. The metric of success is faithfulness and speaking the truth. You speak the truth to the wicked and to the righteousness, and that's the only thing you can control. You do your job, and then their fate is in their hands. As a watchman, you've done your duty.

That message buoys the men in prison. The faithful don't see a lot of success around them. Theirs is lonely work.

The faithful followers of Jesus in prison are mainly watchmen, called to faithfulness and speaking the truth in their very dark world.

Keep them in your prayers.

The Divine Comedy: Week 32, The Three Ways Love Can Go Wrong

The point established last week was that, according to Dante, our sins are due to love. At the root of every sin is a love gone bad. Love of self. Love of nation. Love of pleasure. Love of security. Love of money. Love of...you name it. Sin, vice, and evil come from loving something here on earth more than loving the Eternal Good who gave us these gifts.

But how, exactly, does love go wrong?

Interestingly, the entire structure of Mt. Purgatory in the Divine Comedy reflects Dante's answer to this question. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the terraces of Mt. Purgatory are each assigned to one of the Seven Deadly Sins. And you might think that these sins are ranked from "worst" to "less worse." But that's not quite the structure. In Dante's scheme the sins/terraces of Mt. Purgatory are gathered under three groupings, the three ways our love can go wrong.

So, what are the three ways our love can go wrong? Let's revisit the lines from Canto XVIII I shared two weeks ago:
Natural love may never be at fault;
the other may, by choosing the wrong goal,
by insufficient or excessive zeal.

While it is fixed on the Eternal Good,
and observes temperance loving worldly goods,
it cannot be the cause of sinful joys;

but when it turns toward evil or pursues
some good with not enough or too much zeal--
the creature turns on his Creator then.
Dante shares his theory of "bad loves" in these lines. Love can go wrong in one of three ways.

First, love can choose the wrong goal, specifically turning toward evil.

Second, love can choose a worthy goal, a good thing, but not have enough (insufficient) zeal.

And lastly, love can choose a worthy goal, a good thing, but love that thing excessively, with too much zeal.

In short, love goes wrong in one of three ways.
1. You can love a bad thing.
2. You can love a good thing lazily.
3. You can love a good thing too much.

Teaching Acts in Prison: Part 9, The Greatest Idol

You could make a good argument that racism was the greatest obstacle facing the early church.

I say this by looking at the events in Acts 10, Peter's vision of unclean animals. Racism was keeping the kingdom from moving out into the world, so the Spirit takes decisive action in a Second Pentecost by falling upon the house of Cornelius.

And even that doesn't settle the issue, as the events in Acts 15 show. We don't typically describe the Jew/Gentile tensions in Acts 10 and 15 as racism, but I think you could make a good argument that ethnic prejudice was the heart of the problem.

And once again, this message preaches in the prison. The greatest obstacle the kingdom of God faces inside the prison is racism. Racial solidarity trumps the church inside the prison. I can talk for hours and hours about all sorts of subjects in our Bible study, but whenever I get to racism I meet massive resistance. It's the only topic I've spoken on that has caused inmates to walk out or quit coming to the study.

Racism is the greatest idol, in Acts and in the prison.

Teaching Acts in Prison: Part 8, Faith as Allegiance

The reason I was making this big, long, extended point about the book of Acts--that its focus is upon the lordship of Jesus and the kingdom of God reclaiming contested space in the world--is that this message perfectly describes the lived experience of the inmates. Especially when the focus is upon the point of the last post, the worship of false idols.

The inmates face so many temptations. The most spiritually pressing issue they face is allegiance. To a man, they believe that Jesus died to atone for their sins. But their world is so depraved, they have to fight a heroic battle to keep from sliding back into the kingdom of darkness. Their world is full of false idols calling for their worship and allegiance. Every inch of their world is hotly contested space.

In short, the inmates need a resisting faith, a faith that pushes back upon the idols. They need to hear that faith isn't just belief in the atonement, but allegiance to the kingdom of God.

Teaching Acts in Prison: Part 7, Another King Named Jesus

So why did the early church turn the world upside down?

As Acts makes clear, the Roman Empire couldn't find anything insurrectionary or seditious in the Christian movement. And yet, as Acts also makes clear, Roman city after Roman city was thrown into civic chaos after the Christian missionaries arrived.

So what was going on?

(I'm still borrowing here from C. Kavin Rowe's book World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age.)

The answer to the political paradox at the heart of Acts is idolatry.

To understand this, we have to understand that idolatry was an entire way of life. More precisely, idolatry was the sacred fabric that stitched the Roman Empire together. Idolatry sacralized the entire system. Idolatry was the cultural worldview that sat at the foundation of social life--morally, socially, politically, and economically.

Consequently, abandoning idol worship wasn't just a matter of changing where and how you worshiped. It wasn't just about a change of church addresses, going to the house meeting of the Way rather than to the Temple of Zeus. In turning from pagan idolatry the entire Roman way of life would be upended, with drastic social, economic and political consequences. And in Acts, Luke recounts the civic disruption in city after city.

So we're back to the big theme of Acts: The Ascension. The issue at the heart of Acts is the lordship of Jesus, which crashed into the idolatry at the foundation of Imperial Rome. This clash is illustrated when Paul makes it to Athens:
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was greatly upset because he saw the city was full of idols.
"Greatly upset" can be translated as "greatly provoked," "greatly distressed" or "greatly angered."

Seeing all those idols, Paul was pissed.

And in the face of this idolatry Paul's sermon on Mars Hill wasn't about the atoning death of Jesus upon the cross, it was about the lordship of Jesus. The climax of Paul's sermon:
Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead.
Here's how Luke describes what's going on earlier in Acts 17, when a riot breaks out in Thessalonica. The crowd makes this accusation against the early Christians:
These people who have stirred up trouble throughout the world have come here too...They are all acting against Caesar’s decrees, saying there is another king named Jesus!
That was the gospel message turning the world upside down: There is another king named Jesus.

And as becomes clear by the end of Acts, the crowd in Thessalonica is both right and wrong. The early church was not acting against Caesar's decrees. Again, time after time in Acts the Roman state can find nothing insurrectionary or seditious in the church. That said, the crowd in Thessalonica did get this right: The church was proclaiming another king. And that king did cause Roman citizens to abandon the gods and patterns of worship that sacralized and sustained the Empire.

In short, the early church was innocent of sedition, but guilty as charged for turning the world upside down.

This wasn't an armed rebellion against Caesar.

This was the great campaign of sabotage.