Personal Days: 25th

This August Jana and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.

To celebrate the day we went to Hickory Street Cafe, a place loaded with memories. Jana and I used to go to Hickory Street when we were young and married during my years in graduate school and when Jana was the Children's Theater Director at Abilene Community Theatre. A very nostalgic lunch.

Pictured here are the cards we exchanged. I actually don't give Jana cards, I've always written her poems. She has 25 years' worth of these. Jana gave me a 3D card: a card that said "You are the key to my heart" along with an antique lock, antique keys, and two metal numbers from an old cash register. 2 & 5.

Our real celebration, though, happened the weekend before when we went to Dallas to spend a night and to go to the Dixie Chicks concert. We're huge Dixie Chicks fans. Have been since their album Wide Open Spaces.

We loved the concert, though I have to admit "Goodbye Earl" isn't the best anniversary song. But great fun to hear live with a crowd.

Idolatry, Oppression and the Development of Demons: Part 4, Lucifer is the King of Babylon

We're following a demonic trail through the Bible, noting how demons connect the spiritual and the political, idolatry and oppression.

In the last post we noted how in Daniel 10 Michael the Archangel comes into conflict with the national deity of Babylon, a territorial spirit described as the "prince of the kingdom of Persia." Here we see how a demonic spirit is associated with a political entity.

We see this exact same connection when we consider one of the most famous names for Satan.


I wrote about these associations last month, but let me review the details that help illustrate the associations I've been drawing our attention to in this series.

As I shared last month, Satan is never actually named Lucifer in the Bible. The name "Lucifer" comes from the King James Version translation of Isaiah 14.12:
How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!
Modern translations translate the Hebrew word helel here as "day star" or "morning star." The meaning can also be "bringer of light" as the "morning star" (Venus) was considered to be a bringer or herald of the dawn.

The Latin for "bringer of light" is "lucifer," so that's what we find in Isaiah 14.12 in the Latin Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible from the late 4th century:
quomodo cecidisti de caelo lucifer [bringer of light, morning star] qui mane oriebaris corruisti in terram qui vulnerabas gentes. 
The KJV translators in 1611 didn't translate the Latin word "lucifer" as "morning star." Rather, they transliterated the word, keeping it "Lucifer" in the English.

Now getting to the point of this series, we can ask: Who was the original Lucifer in Isaiah 14.12?

Well, surprise, surprise, the original Lucifer in Isaiah 14 was the Babylonian king being decried by the prophet of God.

Here we have, once again, demons showing up at the intersection of the spiritual and the political.

Grabbing ahold of this connection, the diabolical association with Babylon, the New Testament writers use the image from Isaiah 14.12--a wicked star falling from heaven--for the Devil. At multiple locations in the New Testament Satan is described as a star or light falling from heaven:
Luke 10.18
Jesus replied, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven."

2 Corinthians 11.14
And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.

Revelation 12.3-4a, 7-9
Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth...Then war broke out in heaven. 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.
The imagery here is so close to that of Isaiah 14.12--"How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer!"--that the proper name Lucifer, originally given to a Babylonian king, also became associated with the Devil.

Once again, our following the demonic trail through the Bible brings up the connections between the spiritual and the political, between idolatry and oppression.

Idolatry, Oppression and the Development of Demons: Part 3, Territorial Spirits and Angelic Warfare

When people talk about spiritual warfare they often think of battles between angels and demons and how things like prayer can affect that conflict. But as I mentioned in the last post, an overly spiritualized view of this conflict misses how demons have, throughout the Bible, been intimately connected to nation states.

Consider the case of Michael the Archangel. Yes, in Revelation 12 we read of Michael leading armies of angels against the minions of Satan, a great "war in heaven":
Revelation 12.7-9
Then war broke out in heaven. 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.
But an overly spiritualized reading of this text misses the origins of this story. This isn't the first time in the Bible we see Michael battling with demonic forces associated with Babylon. As I've described before on the blog and in Reviving Old Scratch, we see Michael tangling with demons in a story from the book of Daniel.

As you'll recall, in Daniel 10 an angelic messenger is delayed in answering Daniel's prayer because of angelic interference from a territorial spirit, named as the "prince of the Persian kingdom." The angel escapes when Michael, one of the chief princes among the angelic hosts, comes to his aid:
Daniel 10. 12-13
Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia.
As we follow the demonic trail through the Bible we see a development here. Specifically, the national "sons of God" we observed in the last post are shifting away, here in Daniel 10, from being national gods to demonic spirits.

But these demonic spirits, I want to point out, are still connected with nation states. In Daniel 10 it's the kingdom of Babylon. And when it comes to Michael's war in heaven in the book of Revelation, Babylon is also featured as the political manifestation of dark spiritual powers, the Dragon and the Beast.

All that to keep bringing us back to the point. There is more to "spiritual warfare" than disembodied spirits--angels and demons--fighting in some unseen supernatural realm. There is a concrete political aspect to this struggle as well.

And yet, to swing to the other side, the struggle isn't merely political, it's spiritual as well. Behind Babylon in Daniel 10 is a spiritual "prince." And in Revelation it's the Dragon.

And to think that you can effect political change in Babylon without wrestling with the Dragon seems both quaint and naive.

This is the connection--how the demonic is a fusing of the spiritual and the political, the biblical association between idolatry and oppression--that we are tracing through the Bible.

Idolatry, Oppression and the Development of Demons: Part 2, The King as Guardian Angel

To give a lesser known illustration of the point I made in the last post, about how the political leaders of the nations were considered to be "sons of god" and angelic guardians of the nations, consider the judgment upon the king of Tyre in the book of Ezekiel.

In Ezekiel 26-28 we find a prophecy about the judgment to come upon the pagan nation of Tyre, one of a bunch of pagan nations that Ezekiel proclaims judgment upon. 

In proclaiming judgment upon the nation of Tyre the king gets singled out for special rebuke. And in the midst of this rebuke the king of Tyre is described in a particular way:
Ezekiel 28.14
You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you.
Other translations render "guardian cherub" as "guardian angel" as cherubs were angelic beings.

Again, this is an illustration of the point made in my last post, that the rulers of the nations were considered to be angelic beings who were ordained stewards and protectors of the nations. The king of Tyre was anointed by God to be the guardian angel of the nation of Tyre.

In the biblical imagination, guardian angels are the kings and rulers of the nations.

And yet, unlike how we tend to think about guardian angels, this isn't a warm, fuzzy situation. Because as we noted in the last post, these "guardian angels," the kings of the pagan nations, are the source of political oppression. That's why the guardian angel of Tyre comes under judgment:
Ezekiel 28.16
Through your widespread trade
you were filled with violence,
and you sinned.
So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God,
and I expelled you, guardian cherub...
Notice, and this is the key point I'm making in this series of posts, how the angelic aspect of a pagan nation is conflated with political oppression.

The guardian angel of Tyre is judged as being "violent" through "widespread trade."

And that sin, the angelic spirit of Tyre descending into the demonic, brings about the judgment of God.

Idolatry, Oppression and the Development of Demons: Part 1, The Angels of the Nations

In my book Reviving Old Scratch I make the claim that spirituality and politics have to be looked at together.

It seems hard for us to do that. When it comes to evil conservatives tend to spiritualize the issue, looking for demons behind every door and under every rock. Liberals, by contrast, tend to politicize evil, reducing spiritual warfare to the political fight for social justice.

And yet, throughout the Bible the spiritual and the political are interconnected and woven together. The political and the spiritual form a gestalt, a bigger picture greater than the sum of the individual parts. And as I argue in Reviving Old Scratch, when we miss the bigger picture we compromise our ability to become agents of light in a dark world.

One way to see the interconnection between the spiritual and the political is to examine the way demons develop in the Bible. In Chapter 11 of Reviving Old Scratch I tell a bit of this story, but I wanted to devote a series to this topic to bring in other material that I didn't include in the book.

Specifically, I want to show how idolatry and oppression are woven together in how we see demons develop across the pages of the Old and New Testaments.

In this post we start with an observation I've made before on this blog as well as in the book. Specifically, in various parts of the Old Testament we get the notion that when God created the world and set up the nations God assigned a "son of God" to rule over and watch over each nation. In some ancient texts these regional deities are described as the "angels of the nations."

Here is a text where this notion shows up:
Deuteronomy 32.8-9
When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
when he divided all mankind,
he set up boundaries for the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.

For the LORD's portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted inheritance.
In establishing the nations God assigns a "son of God" to rule over each nation with God, importantly, taking Israel as His own.

These angelic rulers form the Heavenly Court over which God presides. We see this court show up in a few places, like in the early scenes of Job:
Job 1.6
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 
In this scene the national deities are making an appearance in the Court of Heaven and, suggestively, Satan is found among this group. We also see this Divine Council convened, in a text we'll return to in a later post, in Psalm 82:
Psalm 82.1
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.
If you are a regular reader of this blog I've walked you through these texts before, but if we want to follow the demonic trail through the Bible, noting how idolatry and oppression are interconnected, this is the place where we have to begin, with the angels of the nations, the regional "sons of God," the national deities.

Why? Because as the demonic story develops in the Bible these national deities become objects of idolatrous worship, the gods, angels, or spirits luring Israel away from the worship of God. If the word "demon" names anything, it names idolatry, the worship of a deity, generally a national deity, over the worship of God.

And so, right here at the beginning, we see the connection between spirituality and politics, between worship and justice, between idolatry and oppression.

Personal Days: Home Goes With You

Well, school started this week at ACU.

Not classes, but the week before classes where we welcome freshmen and transfer students to ACU. Yesterday our department welcomed our new majors. We played "social bingo" where you collect signatures from people who can answer "Yes" to the question in a particular cell of the bingo grid.

One of the social bingo questions was, "A faculty member who has been arrested."

Hmmm. Wonder who that could be?

But by far the most poignant part of this week was getting Brenden moved to ACU and getting his dorm room set up. It's an exciting time, but sad for Jana and I. The night Brenden moved into his dorm I went and stood in his room, looking at mostly an empty room but also all the things that were left behind. An award from Middle School. His rock collection. A hat from when I coached this tee ball team.

So many memories collected in the corners and on the walls of that empty room. I stood there a cried a bit.

But here's a picture of Brenden's desk in his dorm room. Notice Rublev's icon of the trinity there on top of the books? That's my son.

And at the end of the row of books is the Bible we gave Brenden at his baptism, signed by Jana and I and his four grandparents. And Brenden wears around his neck the cross we gave him that day.

Brenden's moved out, yes, but home goes with him.

Brazil Reflections: The Wealth of the Favela

During our time in Rio we took a tour through the Santa Marta favela. These are a few of the pictures I took.

Favelas are the slums in urban areas throughout Brazil. In Rio the favelas grow and spread upward on the mountainsides, and locals told us the slums are named "favelas" after the favela plant that grows on mountainsides.

The Santa Marta tour is run by the favela by tour guides that live in the favela. So your tour money goes to help the community. Many of Rio's favelas are dangerous to tourists. Drug trafficking being a huge problem. But the Santa Marta favela is very small, about 5,000 souls, allowing it to be the first favela in Rio to have a consistent police presence. (Some favelas are enormous, the largest one in Rio around 250,000, too big and sprawling for the police to effectively monitor and control.) And with the police the tours started up.

The tour begins by taking a tram to the top of the favela. Remember, the favela is on a mountainside! So it's easier to start at the top and walk your way down through the town.

And town is the right word. Favelas are little towns. Tiny storefronts meeting the needs of the community are everywhere. And the favela has its own political structure. We saw candidate posters for their upcoming election.

Although Brazil is probably the most Catholic country in the world evangelicalism is growing in Brazil and in the favelas. Our tour guide pointed out that there are more evangelical churches in the Santa Marta favela than Catholic churches. At one point we passed an evangelical church during a service, the familiar sound of praise music thumping through the walls.

The favela was alive with energy during our tour, everyone getting ready for a Festas Juninas and Julinas celebration. June and July are big festival months in Brazil. As the adults readied for the party children played soccer on rooftops.

Colorful graffiti art was everywhere, and many of the houses painted brightly.

The life and color within the poverty of Santa Marta--from the political organization, the storefronts, the faith, the festival--communicate an essential truth.

The favelas exist because Brazil has one of the world's most unequal distributions of wealth. That's a huge problem that needs to be worked. And the drug problem in many favelas remains a scourge.

The favelas exist on mountains and that's an apt metaphor for the steep systemic and structural obstacles they have to face and climb.

But the people within the favelas? Although they face systemic injustices they are a vibrant and competent people. They are merchants, politicians, artists and pastors. And the community ties they have created--the neighbor to neighbor bonds of affection--are so strong many in Santa Marta prefer living in the favela to living in the city.

As my friend Larry James describes it, this is the "wealth of the poor."

Brazil Reflections: The Dead Christ in Church

I don't know how widespread this is, but in the churches we visited in Brazil we saw statues of the Dead Christ.
It's quite startling and very morbid to American spiritual sensibilities. I'm reminded again of Leah Libresco's analysis of Christian pop music, The Sun Is Always Shining In Modern Christian Pop at ESPN's 538 blog.

As Leah points out, American Christian spirituality is persistently positive and optimistic. A statue of the Dead Christ in an American mega-church would be wildly out of place. Could you even imagine that?

But isn't something lost without the Dead Christ? Something integral to the gospel and the Christian experience?

Christ died and was dead. There is a spirituality and truth to Holy Saturday, the season between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. But rarely in American Christianity do we pause and hold ourselves still in that season of Holy Saturday.

And so, in one Brazilian church I knelt before the Dead Christ and held myself there.

And you have to hold yourself there before the Dead Christ, for it is disorienting, hard, awkward and strange.

But I knelt there and prayed and grieved.

Brazil Reflections: St. Francis and the Fiery Seraph Wings

When we were in Rio we visited Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco da Penitência (The Church of the Tertiary Order of Saint Francis Penitent). Along with the St. Benedict Monastery in Rio Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco da Penitência is a grand display of the full-on baroque style.

What struck me and the boys was the altarpiece, which showed the vision of St. Francis when he received the stigmata on Mount La Verna.

I thought I knew this story well. But when we looked at the altarpiece in the church we saw the crucified Jesus surrounded by six angel wings.

As we looked at the altar Brenden asked me, "What's the story with the six angel wings?"

 I didn't know.

My recollection was that Francis saw a vision of the crucified Jesus on the mountain, after which he received the stigmata, the wounds of Jesus upon his own body. But I didn't recall any angel wings.

So we did a little research.

Two years before Francis' death he went to Mount La Verna for a forty-day fast. On the mountain as he prayed Francis saw a vision of a seraph with six fiery wings. The seraph approached Francis and opened its wings, revealing between the wings the image of a man crucified.

The story I had recalled was Francis seeing the crucified Jesus, but the actual vision was of a six-winged seraph who opens its wings to reveal a crucified figure, presumably Jesus, but perhaps the seraph itself, or perhaps an image of Francis who upon seeing the vision received the stigmata.

So that's the story of the six angel wings.

All that to say, it was a stunning altarpiece.

Brazil Reflections: Our Lady of Aparecida and Black Madonnas

During our time in Rio we took a walking tour through the Santa Marta favela. During the tour we came across a shrine to Our Lady of Aparecida, our first introduction to the patron saint of Brazil.

In 1717 three Brazilian fishermen from the city of Guaratinguetá--Domingos Garcia, João Alves, and Filipe Pedroso--went down to the Paraíba river to catch some fish for a celebration being held for a visiting dignitary. The fishermen prayed to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception for a good catch. After struggling to catch anything the fishermen eventually dragged up a headless statue of the Virgin Mary. They soon found the head and afterward they hauled up a big load of fish.

After cleaning the statue the fishermen discovered it was a Black Madonna, specifically a black version of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. The three fishermen named the statue Nossa Senhora da Conceição Aparecida (Our Lady of the Appeared Conception). Veneration of the statue grew, especially among Afro-Brazilians due to the statue being a Black Madonna. Our Lady of Aparecida is considered to be the principal patroness of Brazilian Catholics.

I find the Black Madonna phenomenon to be fascinating. There are hundreds of Black Madonnas worldwide, one of which is Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil and another is Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. Interestingly, hundreds of Black Madonnas, and some of the oldest, are from Europe. Check out Wikipedia's list of Black Madonnas.

The origins of the Black Madonna are varied and debated. Some Madonnas may have been darkened due to physical or environmental factors that affected pigmentation. For example, the statue of Our Lady of Aparecida was found in a river. But many Black Madonnas are intentional creations, often taking on the skin color and features of the indigenous population. Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico is an example of this. In these cases the Black Madonna, often depicted with the black Christ child, reflects the trans-racial nature of divinity and the church.

Finally, many think Black Madonna iconography was influenced by the text from Song of Solomon 1:5: "I am black but beautiful."

Personal Days: Texting Breakthrough

Lord, I hate groups texts.

I don't hate a bunch of friends coordinating something. Of course I want to be included and chime in. What I hate is how my phone explodes, each text, in rapid-fire, setting off the text chime.


And it's not just group texts. Any text. My life was filled with little chimes going off.

Now I'm sure you've noticed that I'm not the brightest bulb, not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I'm a bit slow.

So it took me a good few years to realize something. Something that has changed--nay, revolutionized!--my life.

Richard, I said to myself one day, you can remove that chime when a text comes in.

And the heavens parted.

It took me years to notice how the text chime was interrupting my life. It was such a little thing. Hearing the chime go off while I was in the shower, in another room, eating, talking, riding my bike to work, praying, reading. And whenever that chime went off my attention was broken. All through the day that text chime was going off, breaking my attention.

Sure, for certain moments, I would silence my phone. But I'm not going to silence my phone for most of the day. Sort of defeats the purpose.

Because, of course, there were texts that I wanted to know about immediately. But these were from a small number of people. Jana, the boys, my mom. And I realized--I know, I know, I'm slow--that I could leave the chimes on for these texts but turn it off for all others.

Because it's not like I'm going to miss a text. I look at and use my phone all the time. If you send me a text I'll see it very quickly. Plus, if it's not a text from family it's not going to be an emergency. And if it was, you can call me. The text won't ding. But the phone will ring.

And so I took out my phone one day and turned off the text chime for everyone but family.

Glory, glory hallelujah.

My life is so much quieter!

I see my texts whenever I look at my phone, which is a lot. But the wonderful thing is that my texts no longer interrupt my attention. I can't tell you how huge that has been.

I can read. And it'll be quiet. I can talk to someone. And it'll be quiet. I can shower. And it'll be quiet. I can ride my bike to work. And it'll be quite.

Turning off the text chime is the one of the best things I've ever done.

And guess what? I wrote this whole post and my phone was quiet. And I bet you a million dollars I got a few text while working on this. I'll check my phone in a minute. I see all my texts very quickly.

But no longer do they interrupt me.

Brazil Reflections: A Selfie With Christ the Redeemer

During July my family and some members from the Highland Church of Christ spent two weeks in Brazil learning from and helping our sister church in Itu, the Itu Church of Christ. Beyond Jana and I serving as group leaders for Camp Roots, the bilingual camp for teenagers hosted by the Itu church, I was asked to be a part of the trip to spend time learning from Crescimento Limpo (translated as "Clean Growth" in Portuguese), a non-profit housing and substance use rehab initiative supported by the Itu church.

In the weeks, months and hopefully years to come I'll be sharing more about Crescimento Limpo and how you can support their work.

In the meantime, in light of the Rio Olympics, I wanted to use some posts to share some assorted reflections about our time in Brazil.

Before going to Itu Jana, Brenden, Aidan and I spent a few days in Rio. And like most tourists the big attraction you want to see in Rio is the Christ the Redeemer statue.

High on Corcovado mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park, the largest urban rainforest in the world, Christ the Redeemer overlooks the city of Rio. Built in a art deco style from 1922 to 1931, Christ the Redeemer is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The two days we were in Rio before visiting the statue were cloudy. So we were worried that we'd have poor visibility. But the day of our visit dawned clear and we had a great experience on the mountain. Wonderful, stunning views.

As you can imagine, every tourist on the mountain wanted the perfect picture. The day we visited wasn't very crowded. Our tour guide said that was a rare blessing. During peak season she has seen tourists get into fights in front of the statue, trying to stand alone in front for a picture.

Interesting juxtaposition. People fighting in front of the Christ with outstretched and pierced hands.

But like I said, there was plenty of room the day we were there. The popular pose was to stand in front of the statue and to hold your hands out and open, copying the arms and hands of Christ towering behind you.

And that's the image that grabbed me. Smiling tourist after smiling tourist taking turns posing as the crucified Christ.

I'm not a very judgmental person and I have a high tolerance for blasphemy. But something about adopting the pose of crucifixion for a selfie seemed off to me.

You could argue that the pose isn't really one of crucifixion. The pierced hands of the Christ are opened wide over Rio in the shape of a cross, but the imagery is more one of welcome, embrace and hospitality.

Still, when that open embrace is marked by pierced hands the cost and unconditionality of that welcome is staggering. Are we willing to be crucified to offer that same radical welcome?

As I watched all the tourists taking pictures, arms outstretched and hands open, I looked for the nail prints on our hands.

The statue had them.

We did not.

And that, it seems--the cost of love outpoured--makes all the difference between his love and ours.

Jesus and the Jolly Roger: Part 6, The Pirate Code of the Kingdom of God

This will be our last post in our "theology of pirates" series.

Let's revisit why many sailors turned to a life of piracy. Press ganged into service at the gun point of an empire, the life of a seaman was basically that of a slave. For these seamen, piracy offered the prospect of freedom. It was this same allure of freedom that also attracted women, who faced oppressions of their own, to the life of piracy.

But a life of piracy offered more than freedom. While life aboard a pirate ship was no utopia, pirate ships governed by the pirate codes were noteworthy for their democratic and egalitarian structures, very different from the ships of empire. Equal voice and fair distribution were values among the pirates, in stark contrast between the hierarchical and unfair distribution experienced on the treasure ships of the empire.

Again, this isn't to deny that pirate ships were filled with violence, simply that the more democratic and egalitarian life aboard a pirate ship was attractive to those pressed ganged into service and who lived a life of forced labor. The dream of a more democratic and egalitarian life under the pirate code was a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven where even the "least of these" are honored and given a voice.

As Jesus said, the kings of the world lord over us. The seamen aboard the treasure ships of empire knew this reality up close and personal. But there shall be no lording over, Jesus said, in the kingdom of God.

We see Jesus' alternative political reality emerge in the early church where members held nothing as his or her own but shared with each who had need. A new world was emerging in the shell of the old.

And who was attracted to the life of the early church? Slaves and women, those who were being lorded over by empire. No wonder they were attracted to the church, a society where lording over and domination were replaced by the care and koinonia of the kingdom.

Oppressed and beleaguered, the first Christians flocked to the church because of the pirate code of the kingdom of God.

Jesus and the Jolly Roger: Part 5, Living Under the Sign of Death

When you think of pirates you think of things like eye patches, peg legs, hooks, parrots, and buried treasure.

And you also think of the Jolly Roger.

The skull and crossbones on a black flag--the Jolly Roger--is one of the most recognizable pirate symbols. But what did it mean to sail under this sign of death?

No doubt, the skull and crossbones, as a sign of death, was meant to stir up fear onboard the ships the pirates attacked. "Death is coming for you!" the flag declared.

But in his book Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates, And How They Can Save Us Kester Brewin suggests that the skull and crossbones symbol--the sign of death--had other, deeper meanings for the pirates.

According to Brewin, when the pirates raised the Jolly Roger they were also saying something about how they saw themselves in relation to the world. Specifically, they saw themselves as dead men. Sailing under the sign of death the pirates declared that, being already dead, they were immune to the fear of death.

Here is how Brewin describes the deep symbolism of the Jolly Roger:
For all sailors the skull and crossed bones was a familiar ensign. It was entered into the ship's log when a member of the crew died...The raising of the Jolly Roger was thus deeply significant. It represented the pirates embracing of their fate--they were going to die--and yet their resistance of death at the hands of their despotic masters...

The Jolly Roger was doubtless designed to inspire fear and supplication in the hearts of those they attacked, but there is something more profound and heartfelt in the symbolism. The skull and crossed bones does not just mean 'we are bringing you death'; rather it announces 'we are the dead.' We the shat-on, the abused, the flogged, the one you have treated as less than human, have escaped your power, have slipped away from the identity you foisted upon us. We, the ones you took for dead, are returning as the dead--and thus free of all fear, free of all human labels or classifications or ranks. We might say that the pirates did not raise the Jolly Roger as a symbol of violence, but rather as a declaration that no more violence could be done to them. They were dead, and yet lived still...

It is this fearlessness in the face of structures that have oppressed and marginalized them that marks the pirates out...Drawing together what this extraordinary powerful flag meant, [Rediker] concludes that it serves to sum up piracy altogether: 'a defiance of death.'
Obviously, there are a lot of Christian resonances here.

Like the pirates with the Jolly Roger, Christians also live under a sign of death. The sign of the cross.

And this sign functions for Christians in very much the same way Brewin describes how the Jolly Roger functioned for the pirates. Under the sign of the cross Christians declare that they have died to the world. Christians live as the dead and, thus, live freed from the power and threat of death. In the words of Brewin, no more violence can be done to us. And it was this fearlessness among the early Christians--following the example of Jesus before Pilate--that made their witness so potent and powerful. Already living as the dead, there was nothing the empires of the world could do to threaten the followers of Jesus.

I've written an entire book about all this. Beyond a fearlessness in the face of the threat of death, in The Slavery of Death I talk about how our emancipation from the fear of death also affects how be build and bolster our self-esteem. Defying death means dying to the ways our culture defines a significant and meaningful life. Empires don't just threaten death, empires define who is or is not successful, worthy and significant. Empires tell us who are the winners and who are the losers.

Living as the dead, then, means being immune to the ways our culture variously praises and shames us as we seek first the kingdom of God. This immunity--found in renouncing the idolatry of our age--creates the capacity to live resurrected lives, lives set free from our slavery to the fear of death (Heb. 2.14-15).

Like the pirates, Christians sail under the sign of the cross in a fearless defiance of death.

Jesus and the Jolly Roger: Part 4, Raising Merry Hell

In his book Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates, And How They Can Save Us Kester Brewin makes the argument that pirates always emerge when economies become blocked by the powerful. During the Golden Age of piracy wealth was flowing from the New World to the Old, enriching the empires of Europe. The seamen who made this transport possible were blocked from this wealth, often pressed into naval service at the point of a gun. Press ganged into service by the empire, life aboard the ships of England, Spain, France and Portugal was functional slavery.

So a life of piracy seemed an attractive alternative. Though perilous, the life of a pirate offered freedom over the slavery of empire.

And this freedom was the great affront of the pirate to the empires of the world. The ships of England, Spain, France and Portugal carried letters from their kings allowing them to act as pirates. When a English ship attacked and robbed a Spanish ship this was legitimate, sanctioned by the king of England. The English ship was not a pirate, but a privateer.

To the pirates, that seemed to be a distinction without a difference. When robbery was sanctioned by empire it was legitimized, not robbery but business as usual. But when pirates, unaffiliated with any empire, robbed a ship? That was an affront to empire. High treason. A crime. Immoral. A sin. When captured, pirates were summarily hanged.

In short, Kester Brewin argues that piracy emerges when access to the common good becomes blocked. And more often than not, it's empire who is doing the blocking, legitimizing their own robbery, injustice, and oppression while condemning it in others.

Piracy, thus, emerges whenever and wherever an economy has becomed blocked. Pirates are symptoms that injustice is talking place. As Brewin writes:
I want to argue that pirates emerge whenever economies become 'blocked.' To put it another way, wherever we see piracy we are looking at a system in trouble, a trading structure that is unjust...
In the hands of Brewin this understanding of piracy is a powerful tool to talk about our current political and economic systems. I encourage you to read Mutiny! to ponder his analysis.

For my purposes, I want to ponder how Jesus and the early church acted as pirates.

Specifically, I think you can make a really strong case that the reason Jesus was killed was because he was a pirate.

The conflict that brought about Jesus' death was his clash with the temple. Jesus' temple action was the precipitating event leading to his arrest and trial. And Jesus' claims about "tearing down the temple" were the main issues being debated during his trial before the Sanhedrin.

Jesus had been picking a fight with the temple for some time. What was the issue?

Following Brewin, the temple represented an economy that had become blocked. Access to God, community and salvation was being controlled by wealthy and politically powerful elites. Large portions of Jewish society--the poor and marginalized--were being shut out of God's kingdom economy.

And so a pirate emerged.

Jesus began to offer forgiveness on the street, free of charge. And the problem with this was that the forgiveness Jesus offered was not legitimized or sanctioned by the temple elites. That was the question Jesus faced over and over again: "Who authorized you to do this?"

Jesus was a pirate. Acting outside the structures and controls of empire, Jesus cracked open a blocked economy, granting access to those who had been excluded and marginalized.

As Brewin writes, pirates emerge to raise "merry hell" whenever "the voiceless find their path blocked."

Jesus, as a pirate, raised merry hell, and he was killed for it. For the kingdom had begun to unblock God's economy, letting in the voiceless, excluded and marginalized. And for that the empire executed Jesus as a criminal and bandit.

In all seriousness, Jesus was crucified for being a pirate.

So raise a glass today for the pirates of the kingdom! Cheer on those raising merry hell as they unblock the blocked economies of the world.

Or better yet, let us join the fleet! It's time to join the kingdom's mutiny against the empires of the world.

The tide is up and the winds of the Spirit are blowing. So shake out the main sail and pull up your anchor.

Set sail and raise the kingdom's pirate flag.

Personal Days: Proverbs 27.14

My youngest son, Aidan, isn't a morning person. So he really doesn't like it when I greet and talk to him in the morning with any amount of volume or pep.

But sometimes, just because, well, I'm an irritating father, I'll hit him with "Good morning, my son!!" just to watch him wince.

One morning after I hit him with a cheerful morning greeting I said to him, "You know what one of my favorite Bible passages is?"

"What?" he blearily says, less than interested.

"Proverbs 27.14. And I bet you'll LOVE it."

I get a Bible and turn to the text, handing it to him so he can read it.

His eyes widen in surprise. I was right, he likes this text.

So much so Aidan wrote it down and put it up on our refrigerator, I think as a warning to his loud father.

Jesus and the Jolly Roger: Part 3, The Curious Case of Captain Jack Sparrow

In the last post I gave an apology, based upon Jesus' own parables, for using pirates, who were violent people, to make comparisons with the kingdom of God. But before we get to those comparisons I want to pause to consider the curious case of Captain Jack Sparrow.

In generations past when we thought of pirates we thought of Long John Silver or Captain Hook, both fitting the violent pirate mold. But today when we think of pirates the first pirate that comes to mind is Captain Jack Sparrow from The Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

And what makes Captain Jack Sparrow a curious case among pirates is that Sparrow doesn't like violence. Wikipedia describes Sparrow this way:
Sparrow is a trickster who uses wit and deceit to attain his goals, preferring to end disputes verbally instead of by force.
The trickster is a well known character in literature and myth. Generally, the trickster is in a position of weakness and therefore is needing to use wit, intelligence, words and wiles to get the best of the strong and powerful. Captain Jack Sparrow is one of these tricksters.

So if we are going to talk about a theology of pirates we need to ponder how the kingdom of God is like the most famous pirate of our time. How is the kingdom of God like Captain Jack Sparrow?

How is the kingdom of God like a trickster?

As I've written about before on this blog, we find the trickster at work in a variety of biblical stories. One I've written about is how Abraham tricks two pagan kings.

Consider the case of Abraham and Abimelech. In Genesis 20.11 Abraham realizes he's in danger, the weak facing the strong:
Abraham replied, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.'"     
And so Abraham deceives Abimelech, telling him Sarah is his sister. This brings a curse upon Abimelech. Wanting to be freed from this curse Abimelech lets Sarah go and rewards Abraham:
Genesis 20.14-15
Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” 
We often get hung up on this text because we moralize it. Abraham told a lie and treated Sarah shamefully. But we don't get any hint of that moralization in the text. Abraham, the weak, overcomes the strong through his deception. Abraham wins by being a trickster.

Of course, our feminist sensibilities bristle at the story in Genesis 20, but we're much more comfortable with the story of Tamar and Judah in Genesis 38. In that story Tamar, the weak one, acts as a trickster, using deception to overcome Judah, the strong one. Beaten by Tamar Judah confesses, "She is more righteous than I."

Another female trickster is Esther and how she overcomes Haman.

So the kingdom of God is like a trickster.

This is a point I make in my book Reviving Old Scratch.

In Reviving Old Scratch I make the observation that the kingdom of God, being rooted in self-giving love, places itself in a position of weakness in the world (1 Cor. 1.25). Consequently, the kingdom of God fights its battles with the world as tricksters, using intelligence, wit and words rather than through force and violence.

It is like we have said, the kingdom of God is like a pirate.

Even a pirate like Captain Jack Sparrow.

Jesus and the Jolly Roger: Part 2, The Violent Take It By Force

The kingdom of God is like a pirate.

Now, before we get into our theology of pirates, we have to face here at the start the obvious objection. Can pirates be used as a theological resource?

The pirates, we know, were violent men and women. (Yes, there were female pirates, see Anne Bonney and Mary Read as examples.) Given this violence, is it appropriate to use pirates to make analogies with the kingdom of God?

We take our cue from Jesus. In his parables Jesus would use provocative and startling comparisons to make a point about the kingdom of God. And sometimes the protagonists of Jesus' stories were immoral.

Consider the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16.1-13. The steward is robbing from his master. And then, when he's found out, the steward rips off his master even more, telling his creditors to slash their bills. The steward does this to win friends, securing his future after he is fired. And Jesus says, the kingdom of God is like that guy.

It's a startling comparison. But perhaps Jesus' most shocking parable about the kingdom comes from Matthew 11.12:
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been coming violently and the violent take it by force. 
We are perplexed by this parable. Without a doubt the ethic of the kingdom of God is non-violent. Yet, here Jesus says that the kingdom of God "comes violently" and demands a "violent" response.

This isn't the only time Jesus uses violent imagery to describe the kingdom. In Matthew 10.34 Jesus says,
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 
And on the night of his betrayal Jesus says to his disciples:
Luke 22.35-36
And Jesus said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one."
Again, we know that Jesus is not expecting his followers to actually use swords. In the very next chapter of the gospel of Luke Jesus tells Peter to put his away.

So the reference to swords is puzzling. And beyond these direct comparisons to violence, the characters in Jesus' parables often act violently.

All that to say, Jesus often used violence and violent people to say "this is what the kingdom of God is like."

So how are we to make sense about Jesus' use of violent imagery?

Returning to Matthew 11--"the kingdom is coming violently and the violent take it by force"--the violence of the coming kingdom is an apocalyptic violence, the kingdom of God cracking into and invading our lives. This is what Jesus means when he says the kingdom brings a "sword" to earth. The kingdom of God rips the fabric of our world, a rupture is introduced, a division. When the kingdom arrives nothing can ever be the same. The kingdom brings a crisis upon us.

And that introduces a moment of decision. The kingdom breaks violently upon us. Like Saul on the road to Damascus. And in that moment, as Christ stands before us, we are asked to respond in kind, to seize the kingdom aggressively and violently. No half measures are acceptable. No delays. The time is now. The crisis is at hand. To borrow from Jesus' other parables, when the kingdom breaks violently upon us we sell all we have to buy the field where the treasure is buried. We push in all our talents rather than burying them safely in the ground. When the invitation comes for the wedding feast we do not give excuses or tarry.

As the kingdom breaks violently upon us it demands a response in kind. When Jesus says "Come" we leave our nets upon the shore to follow him.

This reading of Matthew 11.12 is supported by a parallel text in Luke 16.16:
The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.
When the kingdom comes violently upon us we must respond in kind. 100%, all in.

The trouble we have with Jesus' parables is that we moralize them. We turn the parables into Sunday School material, each parable a fable with a little moral lesson. But the parables are not moral lessons. The parables are comparisons, often startling comparisons, describing the nature of the kingdom. And as we've seen, Jesus is not shy about using immoral and violent images or people to draw attention some aspect of the kingdom.

There is a "violence" to the kingdom, the way the kingdom breaks into our lives and the response the kingdom demands of us.
Luke 9.57-62
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
That is the kingdom breaking violently upon us and the violent response it demands, the "sword" that cuts through our lives, the moment of crisis now at hand.

All that to say, Jesus had no problem using violence and violent people to make provocative declarations about the nature of the kingdom.

The kingdom of God comes violently, Jesus said, and the violent take it by force.

Like I said, the kingdom of God is like a pirate.

Jesus and the Jolly Roger: Part 1, The Kingdom of God Is Like a Pirate

Last summer during our amazing time on Jersey, Simon Nash handed me a book by Kester Brewin, Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates, And How They Can Save Us.

I found the book utterly fascinating and fun, a hard to classify book that fuses theology, history, pop culture and economics. I don't know Brewin's work well, but from what I gather he's a unique thinker, known for creative and interdisciplinary fusions like Mutiny!.

In May I did a class at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures entitled "Jesus and the Jolly Roger: A Church for Pirates," inspired by Brewin's book. I promised people who missed the class that I'd blog through what I shared. So here is a series of posts--a theology of pirates--inspired by Kester Brewin's book.

Before we start, one programming note. This short series is not a review or accurate summary of Brewin's book. I'll just be selecting and sharing some gems of insight from Brewin. My series is more theological and orthodox than Brewin's more economic, political and theologically heterodox treatment of pirates.

So, why a theology of pirates?

I'm taking a cue from Jesus here, his parables in particular. As we know, in describing the kingdom of God Jesus would make comparisons that were, by turns, shocking, charming or bewildering.

The kingdom of God is like a son who asked his father for his half of the inheritance.

The kingdom of God is like a farmer going out and sowing seed.

The kingdom of God is like a manager ripping off his boss.

The kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in field.

The kingdom of God is like a net full of fish, some valuable some trash.

The kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet where everyone rejects the invitation.

Jesus uses these comparisons not to make a moral point (more on that in the next post), but to draw our attention to some facet, some aspect of the kingdom of God.

So that's what we're going to do.

And so we begin...

The kingdom of God is like a pirate.

Christianizing the Powers

Since the publication of Reviving Old Scratch, I've been in a lot of discussions about how we should think about "the principalities and powers."

As a liberal and progressive Christian I blame the powers--organizations, nations, states, institutions, bureaucracies, power hierarchies, economies, political structures--for just about everything that is wrong with the world. The powers are evil, demonic, satanic. And no doubt that's a key part of the NT witness. The Powers were and remain antagonistic to Christ and his Kingdom.

As it says in Ephesians 6.12, our fight is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and powers.

And yet, in light of the work of Hendrik Berkhof in his book Christ and the Powers, I've come to moderate my position a bit in regards to the powers. I wrote about Berkhof's work in 2013 and want to summarize it again here.

To start, Berkhof wants us to consider the creational goodness of the Powers. To be sure, like I said, the powers are hostile to Christ. But that doesn't mean the Powers are wholly evil and serve no good purpose. According to Berkhof the powers give structure and order to creation. And while this order and structure might be hostile to the kingdom of God, this order is preventing a slide into a greater chaos and disorder.

This is an argument that people like me need to wrestle with, which is why I'm revising this topic today.

Berkhof grounds his creation theology of the powers in Colossians 1.15-17:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 
As Berkhof comments, "Usually the expositors of these words have laid all the accent on [the powers] negative aspect." And yet, if we look for it Paul is saying something positive here about the powers as well. As Berkhof observes, the powers were created by Christ and for Christ, the powers were created to be in Berkhof's words "instruments of God's love." Berkhof elaborates:
It strikes us as strange that Paul can speak thus positively of what he elsewhere calls "poor and weak powers of this world" or "precepts and doctrines of men." Yet it is not so strange. Divers human traditions, the course of earthly life as conditioned by the heavenly bodies, morality, fixed religious and ethical rules, the administration of justice and the ordering of the state--all these can be tyrants over our life, but in themselves they are not. These fixed points are not the devil's invention; they are the dikes with which God encircles His good creation, to keep it in His fellowship and protect it from chaos...Therefore the believer's combat is never to strive against [the Powers], but rather to battle for God's intention for them, against their corruption.
William Stringfellow would say that the powers are not evil, they are fallen and thus antagonistic toward God, creation, other powers and humankind. Our struggle with the powers is with them in their fallenness. Berkhof continues:
Paul speaks, once, of the Powers as related to the creative will of God. But we do not know them in this divinely appointed role. We know them only as bound up with the enigmatic fact of sin, whereby not only men have turned away from God, but the invisible side of the cosmos functions in diametric opposition to its divinely fixed purpose. When Paul writes that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, not even the Powers, he presupposes that the nature of the Powers would be to do just that, to separate us from love. The Powers are no longer instruments, linkages between God's love, as revealed in Christ, and the visible world of creation. In fact, they have become gods (Galatians 4:8), behaving as though they were the ultimate ground of being, and demanding from men an appropriate worship. This is the demonic reversal which has taken place on the invisible side of creation. No longer do the Powers bind man and God together; they separate them. They stand as a roadblock between the Creator and His creation.

The Powers continue to fulfill one half of their function. They still undergird human life and society and preserve them from chaos. But by holding the world together, they hold it away from God. 
A couple of observations about this. The struggle against the powers isn't for their eradication. Rather, the struggle is for their redemption, for the powers to submit to the Lordship of Jesus and regain their proper place and function in human affairs.

The battle with the powers, then, is really about idolatry. Less about the existence of the powers than with their existential, moral, political and spiritual ultimacy in human affairs. Phrased other way, the struggle with the powers is about bondage and slavery, submitting to them rather than confessing that Jesus is "Lord of all."

So how do we relate to the powers in their fallen state?

According to Berkhof the church plays a vital role in all this. The mere existence of the church is an act of defiance and resistance to the powers. Resistance occurs where there are people confessing Jesus as Lord of all in the face of the powers. Berkhof:
[T]he very presence of the church in a world ruled by the Powers is a superlatively positive and aggressive fact...All resistance and every attack against the gods of this age will be unfruitful, unless the church is resistance and attack, unless she demonstrates in her life and fellowship how men can live freed from the Powers.
To resist the powers means that the church is to exhibit in her life the rule and reign of Jesus Christ over against the "gods of this age." In her life the church rejects the powers of mammon, nationalism, injustice, prejudice, and oppression. These powers are unmasked, delegitimized and rejected in the church as she confesses Jesus as Lord of all.

In confessing and living under the lordship of Jesus in the face of the powers the church "builds a new world in the shell of the old." The church isn't seeking the overthrow and eradication of the powers but is, rather, creating locations where the legitimacy of the powers is routinely questioned and where new patterns of social, moral, political and economic relations are established under the lordship of Jesus in the Kingdom of God. And when this happens, when the territory of the powers is circumscribed in the world by the existence of the Kingdom of God, the church creates a crisis for the powers:
Just by being simply the church, she is the instrument whereby Christ brings to crisis the rule of the Powers even far outside her borders.
Again, resistance to the powers is about idolatry, resistance is about rejecting the divine ultimacy of the powers where we live our lives under their direction and rule.

What this involves, according to Berkhof, is that we must "Christianize" the powers.

By "Christianizing" the powers Berkhof means shrinking them down to size, seeing the powers in a Christian way, seeing the powers as smaller and subject to the Lordship of Jesus.

Again, the powers serve legitimate functions in staving off general chaos and social disintegration. Cultures, value systems and social contracts (laws, politics) have some positive functions. But they only function well when they are functionaries, tools of service that aid human flourishing. The problem is that the powers are now ascendant and "in charge" of the world. Humans are serving the powers--nations, religions, corporations, "our way of life"--rather than the powers serving us. In the words of Jesus, the Sabbath was created to serve humanity, not humanity to serve the Sabbath. The created order has been reversed. In the language of Paul we have "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles." As creatures we are worshiping other created things, things we ourselves made, things like America. We built America and now we worship it, live for it, die for it and kill for it. We built this corporation and now we worship it, live for it, die for it and kill for it. We built this religious denomination and now we worship it, live for it, die for it and kill for it.

Just because it doesn't look like a Golden Calf doesn't mean it isn't a Golden Calf. Today Golden Calves look a lot like national flags, political parties, stock market portfolios and church buildings.

So the way you "Christianize" these powers, according to Berkhof, it to knock them off their thrones, to shrink them back to their proper size, to return to them to their proper function as servants of the greater good. Berkhof's summary of this:
From this discernment there springs forth a basically different way of dealing with creaturely reality. The Holy Spirit "shrinks" the Powers before the eyes of faith. They may have inflated themselves to omnipotent total value systems, but the believer sees them in their true proportion, as nothing more than one segment of creation, existing because of the Creator, and limited by other creatures...In faith life is seen and accepted in its smallness and modesty...

That [the Powers] are "Christianized" means they are made instrumental, made modest; one could even say "neutralized."... [T]he Powers are relativized, made modest. They no longer pretend to offer an inspiring center for all of life...[The church strives] to neutralize the Powers and de-ideologize life...
I like those phrases.

The Holy Spirits shrinks the powers before the eyes of faith.

To resist the powers means to de-ideologize life.

Personal Days: Summer Trip

Two weeks ago the Beck family was in Brazil. We were there because Jana really wanted the family to have a shared ministry experience--the four of us--before Brenden started college in the fall. A team from our church was going down to help with Camp Roots at the Itu Church of Christ in Itu, Brazil. Prior to camp, Drew Bowen and I spent time learning from the staff and community at Crescimento Limpo, the housing-first and substance dependence recovery ministry in Itu.

Before meeting the team in Itu our family also spent a few days in Rio to treat Brenden to a senior trip before starting school

In the weeks and months to come I'll be sharing a lot more about our time in Brazil and Crescimento Limpo, theological and ministry reflections.

But today is Friday, my day to treat this blog like Facebook. So, two of my favorite family pictures from our travels. Our family at Christ the Redeemer and the boys drinking out of coconuts at the famous Escadaria Selarón.

And with the trip behind us that means the school year is about to begin. Time to get my syllabi ready...

I Am Done With Great Things and Big Things

"I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny, invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man's pride.”

― William James

The Pope and the Devil

As I continue to talk a lot with people about the devil in light of my new book Reviving Old Scratch, one of my allies in this fight has been Pope Francis.

Liberal and progressive Christians love Pope Francis, but in one of those ironies I explore in Reviving Old Scratch they find themselves divorced from how Francis understands spiritual struggle. Here's how a Washington Post article described the disjoint:
A darling of liberal Catholics and an advocate of inclusion and forgiveness, Pope Francis is hardly known for fire and brimstone.

Yet, in his words and deeds, the new pope is locked in an epic battle with the oldest enemy of God and creation:

The Devil. 
To get a feel for how often the pope speaks about the devil check out this CNN article "Why is Pope Francis so obsessed with the devil?"

(I wrote this post before my interview with David Crumm for Read the Spirit in which David also discusses Pope Francis' affinity for talking about the Devil.)

Wash This Way!

In 2015 I wrote a post suggesting that faith communities start laundromats.

Instead of a Coffee Shop How About a Laundromat? became one of the most viral posts I'd ever written.

And if you read the comments to that post you'll find validation for the idea due to all the inspiring stories of different faith communities who started a laundromat.

So what about my church, the Highland Church of Christ?

Well, that post last year caught the attention of Jonathan and Jackie. Jonathan is a business owner and he worked up a business plan for a laundromat. Jonathan eventually handed those plans over to our friends Mike and Kathy.

And a few weeks ago Mike and Kathy broke ground for Wash This Way, a laundromat that will partner with our church to build neighborhood relationships and give dignity to the people in our town who use laundromats.

Wash This Way should be opening in the fall. I'll keep you posted!

A Progressive Vision of The Benedict Option

Last January I wrote six posts dedicated to articulating a progressive vision of the Benedict Option. I want to pull those posts into a single summary post for easy consumption and sharing.

What is the Benedict Option?

The "Benedict Option" is the brainchild of conservative author and journalist Rod Dreher. To catch yourself up, read Rod's Benedict Option Frequently Asked Questions post summarizing his thoughts over the years and his responses to various questions and criticisms of the Ben Op.

Succinctly, the Ben Op argues that Western liberalism--especially, I would argue, its neo-liberal economic manifestations--has been corrosive to the Christian faith. To survive in cultures shaped by modernity, neo-liberalism, and capitalism proponents of the Ben Op argue that Christians will need to invest in creating rich, thick and distinctive cultures that cultivate the counter-cultural virtues necessary to sustain the church and Christian spiritual formation.

In his FAQ post here is how Rod describes the Ben Op:
The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who accept [Alasdair] MacIntyre’s critique of modernity in [his book After Virtue], and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.
As you can see from Rod's description--the Ben Op as resistance to empire--there's much in his description that resonates with progressive Christians. Resistance to empire is very close to the heart of the progressive Christian vision.

Conservative Christians have been talking about the Benedict Option, why should progressive Christians be talking about it?

Progressive Christians have their own unique struggles with the corrosive effects of modernity, capitalism and liberalism. Here are four particular struggles at work in progressive Christianity:
1. Statism
The belief that the state is the sole and final arbiter of social and moral affairs, thus reducing Christian social action to taking control of the state. Rather than practicing the works of mercy--personally visiting the sick and incarcerated, personally feeding the hungry and clothing the naked--progressive Christianity has become almost wholly politicized, a fight to control the state, a fight to rule the empire.

This is not to dismiss the vital and important role of political activism, but progressive Christian social action must been rooted in Jesus' vision of social action in Matthew 25: the very personal, local, face-to-face practices of the works of mercy.

2. Individualism
As Westerners progressive Christians privilege individualism over collectivism. This fierce commitment to radical autonomy and independence makes it difficult for progressive Christians to form communities that participate God's ongoing story of covenantal promise and fidelity.

This is a major reason why progressive Christians desperately need the Ben Op. Progressive Christians need to recover what it means to be the church, not abstractly, situationally and universally but intimately, intentionally, and locally.

3. Functional atheism
There is often little that is distinctive about progressive Christians when compared to secular humanists or liberal Democrats. Progressive Christians are also often embarrassed or defensive about their faith. That, or increasingly filled with doubt about their beliefs. The ranks of progressive Christians are filled with agnostics and atheists.

Pervasive doubt and agnosticism, along with an inability to articulate anything particularly or distinctively Christian in prophetic contrast to the prevailing liberal and humanistic consensus, suggests that progressive Christians need the Ben Op to recover confidence in the distinctive particularities of the Christian faith--morally, spiritually, culturally, politically, socially, and religiously.

4. Shame, Neurotic Status Anxiety and Exhaustion
The competitive meritocracy of capitalism fills our lives with neurotic status anxiety--what Brené Brown calls "the shame-based fear of being ordinary"--which drives us to emotional and physical exhaustion as we work and perform for self-esteem, success, relevance and significance.

Social media exacerbates the problem as we compare our lives to the happiness and successes we see on Facebook. In addition, the capitalist marketing, advertisement, media and entertainment environments saturates you with images of bright, shiny people who are successful, fit, happy and attractive.

And so we push ourselves to be successful, noticed or relevant. But the pricetag of all this pushing and striving is often emotional and physical exhaustion. That, or a keen sense of shame if you "fall behind" in the metrics of success. 

All this anxious pushing and striving so fills up our lives that we have no margin, time, or energy left to invest deeply in local community, especially if that investment in local community doesn't have a significant impact on the metrics we use to label ourselves as "successful." In the end, are too busy, distracted and tired to invest in church in any meaningful way.
In summary, as Westerners progressive Christians have been spiritually formed by modernity in ways that make it difficult for us to live in distinctively Christian ways.

So what would a progressive expression of the Benedict Option look like?

As I envision it, a progressive expression of the Benedict option will embody three main components.

A progressive Benedict Option will be a Franciscan rather than a Pharisaical community
A debate about the Ben Op is at the heart of the gospels. In the gospels we observe a conservative religious group who, reacting to the corruption of the political and religious establishment under empire, decide to turn inward to reclaim their distinctive culture and traditions in order to cultivate the virtues that would sustain them. We know this Ben Op group as the Pharisees.

The Pharisees were the conservative advocates of the Ben Op of their day. Observing how the political and the religious institutions had been co-opted by empire, the Pharisees called for a Ben Op, a call for communities to invest in local synagogues where teaching, liturgy and the daily practices of Torah observance would sustain the Jewish people in the dark age they were living in.

According to modern Ben Op proponents, that first-century situation is not unlike our own, which means that today's calls for a Ben Op are going to be haunted by the shadow of Phariseeism.

A progressive vision of the Ben Op will resist this Pharisaical tendency. So according to Jesus, how does the Ben Op get off track and become Pharisaical? Consider the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:
Luke 18.9-12
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’"
According to Jesus, a Pharisaical Ben Op involves the contemptuous moral sorting of the world into the saints and sinners, the good guys and the bad guys, Us and Them.

A Pharisaical Ben Op turns inward and polices boundaries of moral purity. The Ben Op of Jesus, by contrast, turns outward and violates those boundaries:
Matthew 9.10-13
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’"
A progressive expression of the Ben Op will exhibit the radical hospitality of Jesus. Examples of progressive Ben Op communities practicing community and radical hospitality are Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's Rutba House, the Catholic Worker movement, and Jean Vanier's L'Arche communities.

In sum, Progressive expressions of the Bne Op will be Franciscan communities. St. Francis and the early Franciscans were known for their care of lepers, living among and caring for that ostracized, unclean and marginalized community. This Franciscan impulse to embrace leper colonies keeps the Ben Op looking like Jesus--outward-looking, oriented toward hospitality and embracing of the unclean in table fellowship.

Progressive expressions of the Ben Op will share life with a leper colony, places in the local community that have been abandoned by the American Dream. Jails and prisons, underfunded schools, housing developments, city missions, hospitals, a neighborhood or zip code, assisted living facilities, senior-citizen homes, non-profits serving a marginalized group (e.g., refugees, domestic abuse victims, the homeless), and so on.

The goal in these location isn't to create a program or ministry to "save" or "rescue" or even "help." The goal, to take a cue from Samuel Wells (PDF), is simply "being with," to accompany and share life in an abandoned nook of empire.

It's this Franciscan impulse that will break the hold of statism upon the progressive liberal imagination and ground their social action in Matthew 25 with the practice of the works of mercy.

A progressive Ben Op will practice Sabbath as resistance

Beyond Western individualism, the other reason it is difficult for progressive (and conservative) Christians to invest in deep, committed and faithful Christian community is "the scarcity trap," our neurotic pursuit of self-esteem, success and significance in our Western meritocracies that emotionally and physically depletes and exhausts us. The felt scarcity of not "being enough" causes the scarcity of not "having enough," like enough time or energy.

Due to the "scarcity trap" Western Christians are increasingly unable to find any margin in their lives for authentic Christian community. Western Christians are too busy or exhausted to "do church." We don't have the time or energy for Christian community and spiritual formation.

Consequently, progressive Ben Op communities will practice what Walter Brueggemann has called "sabbath as resistance." As Walter writes:
In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.
The Ben Op is often described as a withdrawal from the world. For progressive Christians this withdrawal isn't geographical, but psychological. A physical or geographical withdrawal would be antithetical to the Franciscan impulse to practice the works of mercy in an abandoned outpost of empire. But progressive Christians will have to psychologically withdraw from and opt out of the competitive, anxious meritocracy that drives the pursuit of the American Dream. We opt out of the rat race. We renounce the American Dream. Sabbath as resistance.

For progressive Christianity to become a locus of resistance to empire we have to be doxologically and liturgically formed into people who renounce--opt out, psychologically withdraw from--the way empire defines success and significance. But this renunciation will require--and this is key to why the Ben Op is so necessary--an enormous amount of shame-resiliency to remind ourselves that we aren't losers in the face of the shaming we will experience from the world when we stop chasing the American Dream.

The Ben Op community is where we will cultivate through doxology and spiritual formation the social and psychological antibodies necessary to live counter-culturally in a capitalistic meritocracy that will shame us for "falling behind." Consider an example I shared in my book Reviving Old Scratch, the story of a young man who left a prestigious educational institution to teach history at a poor, inner-city high school. That's opting out of the American Dream, the Franciscan call to share life in an abandoned outpost of empire to pursue a cruciform vision of success and significance.

But to sustain these sorts of choices, to forgo "success" to serve in ignoble ways in an abandoned outpost of empire, we need a community that will support and honor these choices. To opt out of empire is to experience shame. Which means that we have to become shame-resilient if we want to resist empire, individually and collectively.

And that's why we need the Ben Op, an intentional community practicing Sabbath as resistance so that we can develop the shame-resiliency necessary to live ignoble, foolish and cruciform lives in the midst of empire.

A progressive Ben Op will be egalitarian in gender roles

Beyond the temptation to become inward-looking and Pharisaically self-righteousness, Ben Op communities will also struggle if they are patriarchal.

Insular patriarchal communities are not safe for women and children. To be clear, this is not to say that insular and patriarchal communities are inevitably and always unsafe to women and children, just that insular and patriarchal communities are more prone to harm women and children than are more open and egalitarian communities. Women and children are always safer in communities where women share leadership with men. Especially in communities which are insular and cut-off from the world. And given that Ben Op communities will gravitate toward the insular it's safer if Ben Op communities are egalitarian rather than patriarchal.

Women and men have to share leadership responsibilities in Ben Op communities if they want to protect their women and children. Thus the final feature of a progressive expression of the Ben Op: A progressive Ben Op will be egalitarian in regards to gender roles and leadership.

Personal Days: Prayers for French Robertston Unit

Regular readers know I spend Monday nights out at the French Robertson Unit, a maximum security prison north of Abilene, leading a Bible study.

There has been some tragic news from the unit. Last Friday Mari Johnson, a correctional officer out at the unit, was killed by an inmate. 

There was no Bible class this Monday. The unit is on lock down. We have no idea how long the lock down will last and how the murder of an officer will affect the unit--programmatically but also spiritually.

Right now, French Robertson is in a very dark place and we aren't inside to help.

So, please lift up in prayers today the Johnson family and the French Robertson community.