The Divine Comedy: Week 3, These Wretches, Who Had Never Truly Lived

In Canto 3 Virgil and the Pilgrim pass through the gates of hell--ABANDON ALL HOPE--and enter the outer "vestibule" of hell.

It's sort of like the lobby of hell.

Being the lobby, this place is hell but isn't hell. Here in this "nowhere" place we find the Indecisive, those who in life never took a stand for good or evil. These are souls whose lives were neither particularly praiseworthy nor condemnable.
And he [Virgil said] to me: "This wretched state of being
is the fate of those sad souls who lived a life
but lived it with no blame and with no praise."
The souls found here were "neither faithful nor unfaithful to their God." Consequently, heaven doesn't want these people, and neither does hell! You know it's bad when hell kicks you out. That's why these souls find themselves not in hell, but in the lobby.
Heaven, to keep its beauty, cast them out,
but even Hell itself would not receive them
The sin of these Indecisive souls is that they "stood but for themselves."

I don't know about you, but it seems like here in hell's lobby we find a perfect description for our time and place. Sure, here and there are people who are moral exemplars or very wicked. But most of us, we're just living for ourselves. We're not particularly good or virtuous, but neither are we depraved and evil. To quote from Revelation, we're neither hot nor cold. We're comfortably lukewarm.

As you likely know, in the Inferno the souls suffer a punishment that symbolizes their particular sin. The punishment for the Lukewarm and the Indecisive is to chase after a banner for all eternity that never takes a stand:
As so I looked and saw a kind of banner
rushing ahead, whirling with aimless speed
as though it would never take a stand;

behind it an interminable train
of souls pressed on...
You know what that sounds like? Capitalism and consumerism, our economy of desire, chasing after the next iPhone, weekend party, and beach vacation. Living from weekend to weekend. As I tell my students, there is more to life than waiting for the next Harry Potter movie, video game release, concert or party.

Stop chasing your desires, goddammit, and take a stand for something!

Why? Well, if you spend your life chasing the weekend or the next shiny new thing you're going to get to the end of your life and discover that you never really lived:
At once I understood, and I was sure
this was that sect of evil souls who were
hateful to God and to His enemies.

These wretches, who had never truly lived...

There Is More Beauty Than Our Eyes Can Bear

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance - for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light .... Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? .... Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave - that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”

― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Gustave Doré

Yesterday I wrote about Ezekiel's vision of the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37.

One of my favorite depictions of that scene is from Gustave Doré. I'm sure you've seen Doré's work before. Doré is famous in Christian circles for his illustrations of the Bible, 241 wood engravings done in 1843 for a deluxe edition of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible. Those wood engravings have gone on to be reproduced in many other Bibles. I first encountered them in old King James Bibles.

Doré illustrated 139 scenes from the Old Testament, 21 scenes from the Apocrypha, and 81 scenes from the New Testament. You can look at them all here.

Anyway, like I said, my favorite of all the Doré illustrations is the Valley of Dry Bones:


Prophesy Over the Bones

Ezekiel's vision of the Valley of Dry Bones is very familiar to us (Ezekiel 37). But what struck me recently about this text is the connection between prophecy and hope.

The Lord shows the prophet a valley of dry bones and then asks this question: “Son of man, can these bones live?”

The prophet cannot answer and replies, “O Lord God, only you know.”

And then the Lord responds with this:
“Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live."
Prophesy over these bones. Say to them, "You shall live."

The point that struck me is how we tend to think of prophets as bringing words of judgment and doom. And to be sure, the prophet does bring those words.

But the prophet also brings a word of hope. In Ezekiel 37, the prophet speaks words of life. Prophesy over these bones. Say to them, "You shall live." The prophet speaks life back into the dead.

Our world needs these prophets. People are lost, despairing, and hopeless.

You and I, we have a job to do.

Let us speak life back into the dead.

Prophesy, the Lord commands, over the bones.

Politics Will Not Fix What Ails Us

"Every philosophy that believes the problem of existence to be shelved, or even solved, by a political event, is a sham philosophy. There have been innumerable states founded since the beginning of the world; that is an old story. How should a political innovation manage once and for all to make a contented race of the dwellers on this earth? If anyone believes in his heart that this is possible, he should report himself to our authorities: he really deserves to be Professor of Philosophy...

"We are feeling the consequences of the doctrine, preached lately from all the housetops, that the state is the highest end of man and there is no higher duty than to serve it: I regard this not as a relapse into paganism, but into stupidity." --Friedrich Nietzsche

Personally, speaking as a Christian, I think it's both pagan and stupid.

The Divine Comedy: Week 2, The Gates of Hell

As the Pilgrim and Virgil begin their walk to the gates of hell in Canto 2 Virgil recounts how he was taken from hell and sent by heaven to be the Pilgrim's guide.

In Canto 3 the pair reach the gates of hell and pass under the ominous (and famous!) inscription:
I AM THE WAY INTO THE DOLEFUL CITY,
I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL GRIEF,
I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN RACE.

JUSTICE IT WAS THAT MOVED MY GREAT CREATOR;
DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE CREATED ME,
AND HIGHEST WISDOM JOINED WITH PRIMAL LOVE.

BEFORE ME NOTHING BUT ETERNAL THINGS
WERE MADE, AND I SHALL LAST ETERNALLY.
ABANDON EVERY HOPE, ALL YOU WHO ENTER.
Rightly frighted, the Pilgrim remarks to Virgil, "Master, these words I see are cruel."

I agree! So before entering the Inferno, we should probably stop right here and talk a bit about hell.

Let me state up front that I'm not going to try to give the Inferno a hopeful, universalist spin or reading. Dante's theology is Dante's theology.

That said, a couple of observations about Dante's hell.

First, people who espouse hopeful eschatologies about the fate of all humanity are often dinged as being sentimental and soft on evil. So let's clear this up: Hell is necessary. True, we might have different visions of hell, but we have to have it. Without some sort of final reckoning there's no way for God to deal with evil and injustice, eschatologically speaking.

And Dante, in fact, is really helpful for hopeful eschatologies. When we get to Purgatory in the Comedy we're going to get a vision of punishment as redemptive purgation and purification.

Second, as we go on we're going to find that the sign "ABANDON ALL HOPE" isn't 100% true. As we'll see in the Inferno, many people have been rescued from hell.

Third, as we'll also see, not everyone suffers horribly in hell. Some live lives in hell very much like the life they lived on earth. Virgil, for example.

Forth, what about hell being "eternal"? There's an interesting debate in Christian theology about this distinction: Hell being eternal vs. hell being empty. If the free choice of creatures is assumed then hell remains an eternal possibility. Hell is the direction you're headed if you are walking away from God. That said, at the reconciliation of all things hell might be emptied. Thus, hell may be eternal but empty. Here's a video from Catholic Bishop Barron talking about if hell exists but is empty.

And lastly, and related to my first point, the language of eternal damnation is necessary for prophetic rebuke in this world. I talk about this in supplemental footage for Kevin Miller's documentary Hellbound?

And what's interesting here is that this is exactly how Dante uses hell in the Comedy. The biggest problem modern readers have with the Comedy is the deep dive you take into the politics of Florence, Rome, Italy, and Europe, past and present. You could make a very strong argument that The Divine Comedy is, at its heart, a political manifesto with Dante using hell to call out and damn the corruptions of the church and the state. 

Reading the Psalms: Part 4, i carry your heart with me

After listening to my class on the Psalms, with my encouragement to "stay romantic," Jana's mind when to a poem by e.e. cummings.

When Jana and I were falling in love, those many years ago, e.e. cummings' poem "i carry your heart with me" was a poem we shared because it captured our feelings for each other. During my class, Jana's mind went back to that poem as I described the Psalms as romantic love songs to God. Jana looked the poem up again and read the words, but this time reading the poem as a prayer to God. Jana shared this with me the next morning and asked me to listen to the poem again, but as a prayer. Both Jana and I were struck by how powerful the poem works as a prayer.

Here's "i carry your heart with me." Pray it as a prayer and see what you think:
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
                                                            i fear
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
Maybe this prayer doesn't work for everyone, but for Jana and I praying words was a profoundly moving experience. 

Reading the Psalms: Part 3, Too Romantic?

When I encouraged my class on the Psalms to "stay romantic" as we studied these songs I did get some pushback.

Many people resist attempts to make our love relationship with God "romantic." Much of this criticism is leveled at contemporary praise songs that cast God or Jesus as our romantic partner. These songs are derided as "Jesus is my boyfriend" music.

But let us be very clear. The "Jesus is my boyfriend" stuff didn't start with Hillsong. That notion goes way back to the Christian mystics, female mystics in particular. Julian of Norwich, anyone? Teresa of Avila?

In all this, I'm reminded of this caution offered by James Smith in his book Desiring the Kingdom, a book, along with his book You Are What You Love, about how love, and even romance, has to be placed at the heart of spiritual formation:
I think a philosophical anthropology centered around affectivity, love, or desire might also be an occasion to somewhat reevaluate our criticisms of "mushy" worship choruses that seem to confuse God with our boyfriend. While we might be rightly critical of the self-centered grammar of such choruses, I don't think we should so quickly write off their "romantic" or even "erotic" elements (the Song of Songs comes to mind in this context)...The quasi-rationalism that sneers at such erotic elements in worship is concerned to keep worship "safe" from such threats is the same rationalism that has consistently marginalized the religious experience of women--and women mystics in particular.
And it's not just female mystics. St. Francis was "God's troubadour," a romantic poet who sang love songs to God.

In short, I wonder if our resistance to "staying romantic" isn't because, at some deep level, we know that love means surrendering and losing control.

When we resist "romance" we are keeping love at an emotional distance, more "objective" and therefore safer and controllable.

We keep our love unromantic because we want to stay in control and minimize the risk.

Reading the Psalms: Part 2, Being in Love with God

When I describe the psalms as love songs my mind naturally goes to attachment theory.

In psychology, attachment theory is one of the main ways we describe the experience of "love," love between parents and children, love between romantic partners, love between friends.

Psychologists typically describe four features of this "attachment bond":
1. Proximity Maintenance: We wish to be near or close to those we love.

2. Separation Anxiety: We experience distress when separated from those we love.

3. Secure Base of Exploration: We are at "home" with those we love, and they give us the courage to take risks and face challenges

4. Haven of Safety: When hurt, fearful or distressed our loved ones give us protection, healing, and comfort.
All of these aspects of love show up in the Psalms:
1. Proximity Maintenance: "But for me it is good to be near God." (Ps. 73.28)

2. Separation Anxiety: "Do not be far from me." (Ps. 22.11)

3. Secure Base of Exploration: "By you I can crush a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall." (Ps. 18.29)

4. Haven of Safety: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." (Ps. 46.1)
In encouraging my class on the Psalms to "stay romantic" I was pointing to the emotional topography of the Psalms, how over and over these poems describe all the features of what it feels like to be in love.

Reading the Psalms: Part 1, Stay Romantic

A while back, I was introducing the Psalms to our Wednesday night Bible class at our church.

The big point I made was this: Stay romantic.

Before we do anything with the Psalms, categorizing them, analyzing them, pay attention to the genre. These are poems and songs. This is the language of the heart, the language of love. And there are times in the Psalms when the romance can be a bit embarrassing in its intimacy:
Psalm 42
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

Psalm 63
My whole being longs for you.
Of course, not all the Psalms are sweet. But even in their lament and rage, the Psalms are expressing the stormy aspects of love in the face of grief, hurt, loss, and betrayal. No one gets that upset if they haven't been in love.

So that was my advice to the class as we started off the Psalms. We're going to analyze these loves songs, but as we do don't forget to stay romantic.

The Divine Comedy: Week 1, Reason Can't Get You All the Way to Heaven

Let's try going through Dante's The Divine Comedy on Fridays to start 2019. We'll see how many Fridays this will last.

A programming note: I'll be using Mark Musa's translation from the Penguin Classics.

Fridays won't be a close reading of the Comedy. This is going to be a selective, idiosyncratic, scattered collection of random thoughts about the Comedy.

Let's start with Virgil.

At the start of the poem, with the first Canto of the Inferno, the Pilgrim finds himself midway through life lost in a woods:
Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off the straight path.
Frightened, the Pilgrim tries to ascend a hill topped with sunlight. The path is blocked, however, by three ferocious animals, a leopard, a lion and a wolf. The imagery here is that the Pilgrim cannot directly walk upward toward divine illumination. The leopard, lion and wolf are often interpreted as images of sins that prevent the Pilgrim's upward spiritual ascent.

At this point, the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, appears and proposes to take the Pilgrim on another path, one that will lead first down through hell and then upward toward heaven. The pair then set off.

In offering to be the Pilgrim's guide Virgil notes that he will not be able to lead the Pilgrim all the way to heaven. Virgil can only lead so far. At that point another guide, Beatrice, will have to step in. And at the very, very end of the journey Beatrice will hand the Pilgrim off to St. Bernard.

Interpreters take Virgil, Beatrice, and St. Bernard to represent Reason, Faith and Contemplation respectively. And while Virgil is with the Pilgrim the longest, all the way through hell and up Mount Purgatory, the message is clear: Reason can't get you all the way to heaven.

That's the significant point I'd like to sit with today. Reason can't get you all the way to God. This has been a huge lesson for me, especially the last couple of years. I'm a rational, intellectual, questioning person. And my rationality places huge, huge stresses upon my faith. I'm a doubter and a skeptic. I'm really good at "deconstructing" faith. So much so, my faith almost cracked.

But you know what? I eventually learned the lesson highlighted here in The Divine Comedy. When it comes to God, reason, doubt, skepticism, and deconstruction can only take you so far.

At some point, if you want to get to heaven, you have to leave Virgil behind.

Everyone Already Knows All the Answers

One of the things that wears me down about Christian writing on social media, from both progressives and evangelicals, is that everyone already knows all the answers.

Seriously, if you're a evangelical, there's nothing for you to learn or give you pause. You already know all the answers. You know exactly what is right and what is wrong.

Alternatively, if you're a progressive, there's nothing for you to learn or give you pause. You already know all the answers. You know exactly what is right and what is wrong.

I've stopped reading a lot of social media feeds for one very simple reason. If you're an evangelical, I don't need to read you, because I already know what you're going to say. As an evangelical, you will say evangelical things. Alternatively, if you're a progressive, I don't need to read you, because I already know what you're going to say. As a progressive, you will say progressive things.

And I'm not saying you're wrong.

I'm just saying I already know what you are going to say.

"Descending Theology: The Resurrection" by Mary Karr

From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in—black ice and squid ink—
till the hung flesh was empty.
Lonely in that void even for pain,
he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist
of his heart began to bang
on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled
back into that battered shape. Now

it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.


--"Descending Theology: The Resurrection" by Mary Karr (Poetry Jan. 2006)

The Argument Between God and Israel

One of the things I love about the Old Testament are the countervailing voices, the way the Bible argues with itself. For example, in Unclean and Stranger God I spend time pointing out how Israel's prophetic tradition likes to pick fights with the Levitical tradition.

Another place where you see a fight break out is in the Psalms in how God and Israel feel about the exile.

On one side you have God's perspective: "Israel, you deserve this."
Psalm 78.57-64
But they put God to the test
and rebelled against the Most High; they did not keep his statutes.

Like their ancestors they were disloyal and faithless,
as unreliable as a faulty bow.

They angered him with their high places;
they aroused his jealousy with their idols.

When God heard them, he was furious;
he rejected Israel completely.

He abandoned the tabernacle of Shiloh,
the tent he had set up among humans.

He sent the ark of his might into captivity,
his splendor into the hands of the enemy.

He gave his people over to the sword;
he was furious with his inheritance.

Fire consumed their young men,
and their young women had no wedding songs;

their priests were put to the sword,
and their widows could not weep.
Israel, for her part, disagrees and responds with "No, we didn't deserve this.":
Psalm 44.13-22
You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
the scorn and derision of those around us.

You have made us a byword among the nations;
the peoples shake their heads at us.

I live in disgrace all day long,
and my face is covered with shame

at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.

All this came upon us,
though we had not forgotten you;
we had not been false to your covenant.

Our hearts had not turned back;
our feet had not strayed from your path.

But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals;
you covered us over with deep darkness.

If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,

would not God have discovered it,
since he knows the secrets of the heart?

Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.
It's a fascinating debate in the Psalms, this argument between God and Israel.

Journal Week 52: Happy New Year!

We've reached the end of the year, Week 52!

I'm pondering what to do on Fridays for 2019. I might journal my way through Dante's Divine Comedy. I read the Divine Comedy over the last few months and I have a spattering of random thoughts that don't quite add up to a cohesive blog post or series and are probably best suited for short observations shared on Fridays. We'll see.

But mostly, just a note today to say thank you so much for reading and following the blog. It's crazy to think I've been doing this since 2006. I joined the blogging game late, but I've been able to survive past the Golden Age of blogging. Not many active blogs out there anymore. The podcasters have come and they have conquered! But I'm still here, and so are you.

I hope you have a blessed 2019. And wherever the new year takes you, you always know where you can find me. I'll be right here, Monday-Friday, 5:00 am Central Standard Time.

See you next year!

(Well, Monday is actually New Years Eve, but close enough...)

The Footnotes of Fleming Rutledge

I've been re-reading Fleming Rutledge's book The Crucifixion. If you've not read the book, I highly recommend it.

My note today isn't about the content of the book, it's about the footnotes. I'm a reader that tends to ignore footnotes. But during this second pass through The Crucifixion, for some reason, I started reading the footnotes.

And oh my goodness, the footnotes of Fleming Rutledge! The footnotes are almost better than the book. She just torches sacred cows and dishes out forceful, no holds barred opinions on all sorts of issues, topics and people. I'll read a footnote and exclaim, "Oh no she didn't!"

All that to say, get yourself a copy of The Crucifixion.

And make sure you read the footnotes.

Teach My Heart This Day Where and How to Find You

O Lord my God.
Teach my heart this day
where and how to find you.

You have made me and re-made me,
and you have bestowed on me
all the good things I possess,
and still I do not know you.
I have not yet done
that for which I was made.

Teach me to seek you,
for I cannot seek you
unless you teach me,
or find you
unless you show yourself to me.

Let me seek you in my desire;
let me desire you in my seeking.
Let me find you by loving you;
let me love you when I find you.

--St. Anselm

For Unto Us a Child Is Born


The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
upon them the light has dawned.

You have increased their joy and given them great gladness;
they rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest.
For you have shattered the yoke that burdened them;
the collar that lay heavy on their shoulders.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and the government will be upon his shoulders.
And his name will be called:

Wonderful Counselor;
the Mighty God;
the Everlasting Father;
the Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish and uphold it with justice and righteousness.
From this time forth and for evermore;
the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

--Isaiah 9.2,3b,4a,6,7

The Favored One

I was reading through the Annunciation text in the gospel of Luke. Specifically, my attention was caught by Mary's reaction to Gabriel's famous "Hail Mary" greeting:
Luke 1.26-30
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God."
Here's what struck me. Notice what perplexes Mary. It's not the angel, it's the greeting. Mary "pondered what sort of greeting this might be."

Ponder that. An angel has just appeared to Mary. You'd think that would be the big shocker. But it's not, it's what the angel says that perplexes her.

And just what does the angel say to her? This: "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Mary seems to doubt that she is favored by God. As evidence for this doubt, notice how Gabriel has to say it again to reassure her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God."

I don't have any big insight about having noticed this, that Mary seems to think she's not or hasn't been favored of God. Maybe it's a sign of Mary's deep humility. Or maybe it's a sign of Mary's deep humiliation, how she felt so far down the ladder of favor and status that hearing that she was favored just didn't compute.

And maybe that tells us something about why Mary was chosen by God. Mary was at the absolute bottom, so far down that the greeting "Hail, favored one" would have been deeply and profoundly shocking and perplexing.

Grace interrupts the shame of the world to fall upon the very least of these.

Fourth Sunday of Advent


The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David...And the angel said to her, “...Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 

A man aflame,
a messenger, still,
burning and unconsumed
as the memory of Horab.
Shimmering, holy
ground once again.
And she alone,
quivering, trembling,
swaying on the edge of the world
to hear for us all
of this, the final emancipation.
Of a child 
setting all people free.

Journal Week 51: Family Christmas

Every year for Christmas we drive from Texas to Pennsylvania to be with my family. I love getting to be back home during the holidays.

Because of the trip we do our family gift exchanges before hitting the road. We call this "family Christmas." Santa shows up in PA on Christmas, but our family gifts are exchanged earlier during family Christmas. It saves us from packing up a ton of Christmas gifts and driving them across country over 1,400 miles.

We had our family Christmas this week, Jana and I giving our gifts to the boys and exchanging our presents with each other. And pictured here is my favorite present!

Because of my having fallen in love with Flannery O'Connor, Jana got me this lovely Flannery O'Connor art print from Blue Hour Studio. Check out the website out for a nice gift for the literature lover in your life.

I hope all your gift giving goes as well as Jana's did this year. She nailed it.

A Rant On Ugly Christmas Sweaters

I know it's unseemly to rant during this season of "peace on earth, good will toward men" but I really have to get something off my chest about ugly Christmas sweaters.

I'm not sure when the trend of buying and wearing ugly Christmas sweaters became a thing, but it seems to have been around for a quite a few years now. And I want to register a strong objection.

To be clear, I'm not opposed to the wearing of an ugly Christmas sweater. My issue is what constitutes a legitimate ugly Christmas sweater.

My problem is how you can go into a store nowadays and buy an intentionally designed ugly Christmas sweater. I'm sure you've seen this in stores, sections of sweaters that were made intentionally ugly so that you can purchase your "ugly Christmas sweater" to wear to a Christmas party. This is such a thing that at many parties there will be an "ugly Christmas sweater" contest, a prize going to the most hideous entry.

I object to all of this. And here is why: It's not all that hard or interesting to intentionally make something ugly. And even more importantly, to make a sweater intentionally ugly goes against the whole idea of the ugly Christmas sweater.

Ugly Christmas sweaters became a thing because people looked back at old Christmas photos and noticed the ugly sweaters from decades past. Those sweaters are absolutely hilarious. But this is the key and critical part: Those sweaters are hilarious because the people wearing them thought they looked good! Those sweaters weren't intentionally worn to be ugly. It's only in hindsight that we find them so hilarious.

Today's ugly Christmas sweater craze is totally different. It's purposeful ugliness. And I find nothing interesting about that. How hard is it to make something ugly? And why is it funny that someone purposefully bought something purposefully designed to be ugly? I just don't get it.

And let me add this. Not sure if you noticed this, but a lot of what passes for "ugly Christmas sweaters" are actually ugly Christmas sweatshirts. Why does no one point this out? That your ugly Christmas sweater isn't actually a sweater?

All that to say this. Here is my rule about ugly Christmas sweaters. The only sweaters that are legitimate ugly Christmas sweaters are vintage and used Christmas sweaters. If you find an ugly Christmas sweater at Goodwill or a thrift store, or in your grandfather's closet, you probably have yourself a legitimate ugly Christmas sweater.

But if you're buying your ugly Christmas sweater off the rack at a retail store? Please. What you bought is ugly, and it might be a sweater, but it's not an ugly Christmas sweater.

Progressive Christians, sin and Sin

I want to follow up on yesterday's post, about how if we want to understand what Paul means by "salvation" we have to understand the difference between sin and Sin, between sin as a moral performance error versus Sin as an enslaving power.

The point I want to make is one I raise in Reviving Old Scratch, a point about one of the reasons progressive Christians need a vision of spiritual warfare.

Specifically, many progressive Christians don't like penal substitutionary atonement. Consequently, progressive readers probably like the contrast I drew in the last post between sin and Sin. In the shift from sin to Sin the emphasis moves away from moral "mistakes," from the guilt and shame that surround what I called "little s" sin.

And yet, progressives are also ill-equipped to see Sin in its "Capital S" variety as well. For two reasons.

First, as I point out in Reviving Old Scratch, many progressive Christians have a lot of doubts about the supernatural, often doubting even God's existence. Consequently, it's hard for many progressive Christians to wrap their heads around Sin as a cosmic force that enslaves humanity. That view of Sin, Paul's view of Sin, the Christus Victor view of Sin, is too metaphysical.

Second, a lot of progressive Christians are liberal humanists. That's not a criticism, I'm a fan of liberal humanism, but liberal humanism can make reading the Bible difficult. For example, liberal humanists have a very positive and optimistic view of human beings and the world. Because of this, progressive Christians don't like to draw hard moral distinctions between the church and the world, between the saved and the lost. Thus, it's hard for progressive Christians to see humanity and the world as enslaved to dark cosmic forces.

Basically, some work has to be done to wed visions of inclusion and tolerance with the notion that the world is in thrall to Sin, Death and the Devil, and that salvation is emancipation from those forces:

"For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son." (Col. 1.13)


Post-Script:
To anticipate some responses, the easy move for progressives would be to identify "the kingdom of darkness" with current systems of systemic oppression. But that creates subject and verb problems.

The verb problem. The salvation verbs are past tense, not future tense. God has already rescued us from "the kingdom of darkness." This isn't political work for the future. To be sure, there is an "already/not yet" dynamic regarding salvation, salvation has a future-oriented aspect. What I'm speaking to is the "already" part, how the church has already been rescued from "the kingdom of darkness," even in the midst of Imperial Rome, even in the midst of the Trump administration. Can progressives describe what it means that the church has already been rescued from the kingdom of darkness?

The subject problem. God saves us. God is the subject, we are the direct object. Salvation is grace because God is the one who acts unilaterally to save a stuck and hopeless humanity. Our activism cannot, will not, save us in the end. At least that's what Christians believe. We cannot save ourselves. To be sure, we can and must participate in God's salvation, working it out in "fear and trembling," but participation assumes the prior work of God.

In short, if being "rescued from the kingdom of darkness" simply means our political work and activism then we've become the Messiahs we've been looking for, the agents of our own salvation. In the grammar of salvation we've become the subject.

All that to say, making a facile one-to-one correspondence between "the kingdom of darkness" and current oppressive systems doesn't address the issue I'm raising.

Sin versus sin

A few months ago when teaching Romans to our adult Bible class at church, I made the point that you'll never really understand Paul's vision of the gospel and salvation until you understand the difference between Sin and sin.

Most of us, when we think of sin, think of "little s" sin. "Little s" sin is a moral failure, a "missing the mark."

To be sure, Paul talks about "little s" sin and considers it a problem. But according to Paul, our real problem with sin isn't with "little s" sin but with "Capital S" Sin.

There's a difference between sin and Sin.

"Capital S" Sin is a force that enslaves human beings. According to Paul, "Capital S" Sin is a power we submit to and serve, like a god.

For example, Paul says in Romans 6:
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
This is a description of "Capital S" Sin. Sin isn't a mistake. Sin is a power that can reign and rule in your body, forcing you to obey. Sin can have dominion over you. Sin is a false god to whom we can give idolatrous allegiance. We can present our bodies either to God or to Sin.

All that to say, if you don't understand Sin as an enslaving power you'll never understand Paul's vision of salvation.

Salvation isn't merely about being forgiven.

Salvation is about being set free from the power of Sin.

Jesus Was a Refugee

As the principalities and powers continue to display inhospitality to the refugees of the world, this Advent season I am reminded of this poem: "The Flight in the Desert" by Brother Antoninus:


The last settlement scraggled out with a barbed wire fence
And fell from sight. They crossed coyote country:
Mesquite, sage, the bunchgrass knotted in patches;
And there the prairie dog yapped in the valley;
And on the high plateau the short-armed badger
Delved his clay. But beyond that the desert,
Raw, unslakable, its perjured dominion wholly contained
In the sun's remorseless mandate, where the dim trail
Died ahead in the watery horizon: God knows where.

And there the failures: skull of the ox,
Where the animal terror trembled on in the hollowed eyes;
The catastrophic wheel, split, sandbedded;
And the sad jawbone of a horse. These the denials
Of the retributive tribes, fiercer than pestilence,
Whose scrupulous realm this was.

Only the burro took no notice: the forefoot
Placed with the nice particularity of one
To who the evil of the day is wholly sufficient.
Even the jocular ears marked time,
But they, the man and the anxious woman,
Who stared pinch-eyed into the settling sun,
They went forward into its denseness
All apprehensive, and would many a time have turned
But for what they carried. That brought them on,
In the gritty blanket they bore the world's great risk,
And knew it; and kept it covered, near to the blind heart,
That hugs in a bad hour its sweetest need,
Possessed against the drawn night
That comes now, over the dead arroyos,
Cold and acrid and black.

This was the first of his goings forth into the wilderness of the world.
There was much to follow: much of portent, much of dread.
But what was so meek then and so mere, so slight and strengthless,
(Too tender, almost, to be touched)--what they nervously guarded
Guarded them. As we, each day, from the lifted chalice,
That strengthless Bread the mildest tongue subsumes,
To be taken out in the blatant kingdom,
Where Herod sweats, and his deft henchmen
Riffle the tabloids--that keeps us.

Over the campfire the desert moon
Slivers the west, too chaste and cleanly
To mean hard luck. The man rattles the skillet
To take the raw edge off the silence;
The woman lifts up her heart; the Infant
Knuckles the generous breast, and feeds.

Third Sunday of Advent



In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying...


This is the tenderness that disturbs,
and stirs dark, doubting waters.
Love is the hardest miracle.
Among the jumbled, stacked impossibilities,
it is grace that stings and troubles most
and causes faith to falter.

Journal Week 50: A Year With The Message

Awhile back I shared that on the first Sunday of Advent last year I started a daily Bible reading plan to read through the Bible in a year.

Well I finished that plan, and really enjoyed the experience. So when the first Sunday of Advent came around this year I rebooted the plan and have started to read back through the Bible again.

Last year the translation I used was Bibliotheca's version of the American Standard Version. The ASV is a very literal translation. So much so it was found to be too clunky with its sentence structure (Greek and English being very different in this regard). Thus the whole ASV family of revisions: The Revised Standard Version (RSV), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the English Standard Version (ESV).

For this year's reading I wanted to jump out of the "literal" family of translations (formal equivalence translations) to something more dramatic (dynamic equivalence translations). There are a host of options here, from The Voice to the New Living Translation.

But Jana, knowing of my plans, bought me a very nice copy of the late Eugene Peterson's The Message. I have zero experience with The Message, but I know so many people who have been blessed by Peterson's translation.

So far, I'm toward the end of Genesis now, I'm really enjoying the experience. I think this might set up a tradition going forward, alternating each year between literal and "dynamic" translations.

Advent and Injustice

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

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

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