Journal Week 25: Things I Miss About Home

I love visiting the UK and Europe. There is so much that I love and prefer about the UK and Europe in relation to the United States.

But there are some things I most definitely love about home. Here's a short list.
1. Air conditioning

2. Obligatory, free water at restaurants

3. Free refills for sodas at restaurants

4. Free public bathrooms

5. Dryers for your washed clothing
To be clear, I'm not saying I'm a good person for missing any of these things. I'm aware that dryers and air conditioning consume energy. I'm just saying I miss them.

You miss air conditioning coming back to a hot hostel after a long hot day walking a city. You miss a dryer when you need to quickly wash and dry clothing because you've packed lightly. You miss not paying a fortune for water and sodas every time you eat out with your family. And you get tired of looking for a spare euro every time you need to pee.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer Became a Christian

One of my favorite parts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life is the spiritual transformation he underwent in the early 30s. Prior to these years, Bonhoeffer had mainly pursued theological studies as an academic, intellectual endeavor. The Bonhoeffer family was Christian, but they weren't particularly devout by way of church attendance or personal devotion.

And while it may be strange to think of someone pursuing theology in a purely academic way, just attend AAR/SBL. Theologians and biblical scholars who have no faith in God are a dime a dozen. 

That was Bonhoeffer before the early 30s. But then something happened to him. As Eberhard Bethge describes it, the theologian became a Christian.

What caused the change? Bonhoeffer's time in America seemed to have played an important part. Bonhoeffer spent a post-doctoral year in 1930 studying in New York at Union Theological. During that time, two critical things happened.

First, Bonhoeffer was exposed to the black church. During his year in New York, Bonhoeffer attended and taught Sunday School at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Second, through his relationship with the Frenchmen Jean Lasserre, who was also studying at Union, Bonhoeffer was exposed to the Sermon on the Mount as the Word of God. Prior to this time, Bonhoeffer had used his Lutheran theology to keep the Sermon on the Mount in a box. But after 1930, Bonhoeffer began to see the Sermon at a command to be obeyed.

And beyond his experiences in America, I also think Bonhoeffer's pastoral work with churches, like his confirmation class in the Wedding parish, also had a profound impact upon his faith.

All these experiences changed Bonhoeffer profoundly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a Christian. Here's how his best friend Eberhard Bethge describes the change:
He now went regularly to church...Also he engaged in systematic meditation on the Bible that was obviously very different from exegetic or homiletic use of it...He spoke of oral confession no longer merely theologically, but as an act to be carried out in practice. In his Lutheran ecclesiastical and academic environment this was unheard of. He talked more and more often of a community life of obedience and prayer...More and more frequently he quoted the Sermon on the Mount as a word to be acted on, not merely used as a mirror. He began taking a stand for Christian pacifism among his students and fellow-ministers...To his students his piety sometimes appeared too fervent, and was impressive only because it was accompanied by theological rigour and a broad cultural background. This reminiscence from a student dates from 1930:

'There, before there church struggle, he said to us near to Alexanderplaz, with the simplicity that was perhaps use by Tholuck in the old days, that we should not forget that every word of Holy Scripture was a quite personal message of God's love for us, and he asked us whether we loved Jesus.'

The Cost

This was a poem I wrote sitting on a bench by Zion's Church on a Sunday morning reflecting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's 1932 confirmation class.

"The Cost"

When Christ calls,
he invites you
to come and die with him.
And resisting,
you died, dear brother,
a martyr's death.
That is what we remember,
you raging
against the marching stormclouds
that swept all
into blackness and horror.
But this resurrection morning,
as the saints gather
once again,
I remember the price
of kindness and care,
of a love poured out
upon the least of these.
The selfish climb
was there before you,
but here you were
among the children of the poor.
This is less and misremembered,
but there is a dying here.
This, too, a martyr's death:
the expenditure of tenderness
given and sacrificed.
Less a death, but a life
that counted and paid
the cost.

The Cost of Discipleship: Bonhoeffer's Confirmation Class for Zionskirche Parish

In 1932 Bonhoeffer had ascended to the heights of German academic theology. He was a rising star. Already possessing a doctorate degree at the young age of 26, Bonhoeffer had already begun teaching theology at Berlin University, Ground Zero of the theological world.

But Bonhoeffer also had a passion for the church and was ordained in 1931. In fact, he was torn between the two worlds, an academic career versus serving as a pastor. All this was before the fateful year of 1933, when Hitler took power and pushed Bonhoeffer's life in a very different direction.

In 1932, as a requirement of his ordination, Bonhoeffer was asked to take on a confirmation class for the Zion Church parish in the poor Wedding district of Berlin. The group of fifty boys Bonhoeffer was to teach had been terrorizing their teacher, an aged minister who died a few weeks after he handed the class over to Bonhoeffer. According to Bonhoeffer, the boys so bullied the man he had "more or less literally been harassed to death."

As the minister and Bonhoeffer first climbed the stairs in the school where the classes were to be held, the boys, on the landings above, threw things down upon them. Once they arrived at the classroom, the minister informed the boys that a new teacher was taking over. His name was Bonhoeffer. Hearing this, the boys started screaming and chanting louder and louder "Bon! Bon! Bon!" The harried minister beat a hasty retreat, abandoning Bonhoeffer to the chaos.

Facing the storm, Bonhoeffer stood silently, leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Minutes passed. The boys quieted some, and then Bonhoeffer began speaking.

He spoke in a quiet voice. Only the boys in the front row could hear him. Silence soon fell across the room.

Bonhoeffer told a story about this time in Harlem. The boys stayed quiet, listening intently.

When he finished, Bonhoeffer said that if they wanted to hear more stories he would tell more next time. Then he dismissed the class.

And that was the end of all the behavior problems.

Bonhoeffer took the class of boys all the way to confirmation, eventually moving out of his parent's house and taking a room in the Wedding neighborhood. He shifted his time away from lecturing at Berlin University to care for these boys. Once, when one of the boys needed him because of a medical operation, Bonhoeffer made his Berlin theology students wait in the lecture hall. All of Bonhoeffer's free evenings were devoted to his confirmation candidates, who had permission to drop by his apartment. Time talking systematic theology at Berlin University was exchanged for games of chess and camping trips with the Wedding confirmands. Academic theology was given up for being a youth pastor.

As I mentioned yesterday, this is one of my favorite parts of Bonhoeffer's life, his confirmation class for Zionskirche. Bonhoeffer was brilliant, and was a new and upcoming star at Berlin University. And what did he do? He put all that academic stuff on hold to pour himself into the children of the poor.

When talk about about "the cost of discipleship" in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer we generally tell the heroic story of his resistance to Hitler and his martyrdom. But for me, do you know what I find heroic about the faith of Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

This: His confirmation class at Zionskirche.

When I think about "the cost of discipleship" in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer I think of this:

I think of brilliant, ambitious theology students waiting impatiently in a Berlin University lecture hall because their professor is by the bedside of one of his Wedding boys.

A Birthday at Zionskirche

As I've mentioned, I'm doing some reading and reflecting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer while in Germany this month. So while we were in Berlin I wanted to visit Zionskirche (Zion Church).

If you don't know Bonhoeffer's biography very well, Zionskirche was where Bonhoeffer taught a confirmation class for a group of boys in a poor part of the city. More on this tomorrow, but this is one of my favorite parts of Bonhoeffer's life and witness.

Anyway, with very full days devoted to the students I was struggling to find time for me to visit the church.

Sunday morning was my birthday, and we weren't heading out until 10:00. Zionskirche was about a mile away from the hostel, about a 25 minute walk.

So I got up early and headed out around 7:30. I found a cafe close to the church to get a cup of coffee and say my morning prayers and do my daily Bible reading. I took my time, stopping to take pictures of the "stones of stumbling" as I came across them.

Around 8:30 I got to the church. There's a plaque to the right of the door commemorating Bonhoeffer's time serving at the church. And to the west of the building there is an abstract sculpture memorializing his life and death.

The church was closed, so I took a walk to Oderberger Straße 61. During the year he taught the confirmation class, Bonhoeffer rented an apartment at this address. I was delighted to find that there's also a plague to Bonhoeffer on the Oderberger Straße apartment building stating that he'd once resided there.

I then walked back to the church, noting in my mind that this would have been the exact path Bonhoeffer would have walked from his apartment to the church. I pulled out my prayer beads and said a "Bonhoeffer prayer" from the Cost of Discipleship on each bead: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

By the time I got back to the church around 9:00 the musicians for the 10:00 service were gathering out front. They opened the church soon after.

So from 9:00 to 9:30 I got to sit in the pews listening to the violins and cello as the musicians practiced for the coming worship. The morning sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows. And I was very, very happy.

At 9:30 I had to leave to get back to the hostel by 10:00. I wish I could have stayed for church, but the students were waiting for me to start our very full and busy day.

Later, the students found out it was my birthday. They felt sad that it didn't seem like I'd had a chance to celebrate that day.

"Don't worry," I said. "I've had my birthday moment today. It was a very good day."

Journal Week 24: Stones of Stumbling

We were in Berlin last weekend, staying in a hostel close to the Jewish Quarter.

One of the poignant things about Berlin is the ways in which the city and nation have tried to reconcile with the Holocaust. An example of this are the stolpersteine, the "stones of stumbling".

A Stolperstein is a cobblestone-size brass plate that is placed outside the former home of a person who was deported and executed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Each plate starts with "Here lived..." and then gives their name, birth date, date of deportation, where they were deported, and the date of their death.

Walking through the Jewish Quarter of the city I came across 18 stumbling stones.

The Transgressive Spirit: Part 4, "Go, And Do Not Discriminate."

In the story of the second, transgressive Pentecost recounted in Acts 10, Jack Levison makes a fascinating observation in his book Fresh Air.

Levison points out that the Greek word diakrinó is used twice, once in Acts 10.20 in the initial story of Peter going to Cornelius's house, and later in Acts 11.12 as Peter later recounts those events.

Here's how the NRSV translates the two verses, with diakrinó highlighted:
Acts 10.19-20
While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”

Acts 11.12
"The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house." 
As you can tell, diakrinó has a range of meanings: to discern, to distinguish between, to hesitate, to waver. As Levison describes it, and as the NRSV translates it, Pete's understanding of the Spirit's message changes from 10.20 to 11.12.

At the start, Peter takes the message to be about hurrying up: Don't hesitate, go with the men who have come for you.

But then the transgressive Pentecost occurs, and Peter witnesses the Spirit fall upon the Gentiles. This event changes how Peter understands the Spirit's calling. The Spirit wasn't saying "hurry up." The Spirit was sending Peter out with the command, "Go, and do not discriminate."

That is the transgressive Spirit at work, sending us out into the world with the command, "Go, and do not discriminate."

The Transgressive Spirit: Part 3, The Transgressive Pentecost

The universal, transgressive vision of Joel 2--where the Spirit is poured out upon all flesh--becomes the rallying cry of the church in Acts 2. Peter describes the church in his Pentecost sermon as the place where the vision of Joel 2 will become a reality.

But the book of Acts describes this as a work in progress, with the Spirit nudging the church forward by falling, as in Numbers 11, in unauthorized locations.

In Acts 10 the Jewish followers of Jesus are still inhibited by their moral, religious, and ethnic prejudices against Gentiles. The universal vision of Joel 2 has stalled. So the Spirit takes decisive action, bringing visions to both Peter and Cornelius, orchestrating a meeting between them.

While preaching to Cornelius, a second, unexpected, transgressive Pentecost occurs:
Acts 10.44-48a
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. 
Once again, the Spirit falls in an unauthorized location. As Peter says, "Surely no one can stand in the way." Because without the Spirit falling in this unauthorized location people most surely would have stood in the way.

In fact, they did stand in the way.

The second, transgressive Pentecost created a crisis of authority for the early church. It comes to a head in Acts 15, with the convening of the First Apostolic Counsel. People within the Jerusalem church--circumcised, Torah-observant, Messianic Jews--objected to what happened at the second Pentecost, how the Spirit eradicated the boundary between Jew and Gentile, just as the vision of Joel 2 said would happen. By falling in an unauthorized zone and eradicating the boundary between Jew and Gentile, the Holy Spirit created a huge crisis of authority for the church. A crisis that effectively split the church, if Paul's testimony in the book of Galatians is to be believed.

By claiming Joel 2 as the mission statement for the kingdom of God, and by witnessing the Spirit fall in an unauthorized location, Peter and the church crossed a boundary previously unimaginable.

The Transgressive Spirit: Part 2, I Will Pour Out My Spirit On All Flesh

In Numbers 11, as we saw in the last post, Moses prays for a day when the Spirit will be poured out upon "all the Lord's people" making them  prophets. This prayer is echoed throughout the prophets who envision a day when God will pour out his Spirit upon Israel.

But in the prophet Joel this hope takes an unexpected, expansive and transgressive turn.

Instead of the Spirit being poured out upon "all the Lord's people" as Moses envisioned, Joel proclaims a day when the Spirit will be poured out upon "all flesh." This ourpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh will fall, as it did in Numbers 11, in an "unauthorized zone," upon groups excluded from power and authority--the young, women and slaves.
Joel 2.28-28
Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.

Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
The Spirit falling upon all flesh destroys the traditional lines of power and authority--age, gender, wealth--bringing "all flesh" into the company of the prophets.

Here's how Jack Levison describes Joel's audacious vision in his book Fresh Air:
First, Joel's dream horizontally stretches the story of Moses [in Numbers 11], in which the spirit is limited to all of the Lord's people--all Israel. Joel too believes that the spirit will engender prophesying, yet for Joel this experience will reach all flesh...It is not all Israel but all flesh who shall prophesy. The prophetic promise of the outpouring of the spirit breaks every conceivable boundary, every self-imposed border.

Second, in Joel's vision the spirit also reaches vertically through society, from its top to its bottom, from distinguished men to their undistinguished female slaves. The spirit is promised, not surprisingly, to old and young men, and to sons. But it is also promised, amazingly, to daughters and slaves, both male and female. Joel could comfortably have interpreted "all the LORD's people" in the story [of Numbers 11] to include only "all elders" or "all men" or "all landholders," or some such group of privileged people. Instead, in Joel's vision anyone, anyone at all, can receive the spirit and prophesy. The spirit is not parceled out to the pious or privileged--the spirit is outpoured indiscriminately. Joel will have nothing to do with artificial limitations. There is not one boundary, not a single social convention, not a class or gender distinction, that can prevent the spirit of God from creating a world populated by prophets. This is nothing short of a devastation of privilege, an obliteration of barriers and restrictions of economy, age, gender, or status in society. Joel imagines the utter democratization of the spirit, perhaps even inspired anarchy, a world without borders, disordered by everything except the splendid choreography of the spirit.

The Transgressive Spirit: Part 1, Prophecy in an Unauthorized Zone

Our Bible class at church was doing a study on the Holy Spirit using Jack Levison's book Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life. I wanted to devote a few posts to Chapter 4 in Fresh Air, as I found it really provocative and insightful.

In Numbers 11 Moses is struggling under the load of leadership. So God tells him to gather seventy elders to help him lead the people:
The Lord said to Moses: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take some of the power of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them. They will share the burden of the people with you so that you will not have to carry it alone." (Numbers 11.16-17)
Moses gathers the seventy elders around the tabernacle and the spirit of God falls upon them and they begin to prophesy:
So Moses went out and told the people what the Lord had said. He brought together seventy of their elders and had them stand around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took some of the power of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied...(Numbers 11.24-25)
So far, so good. But something strange also happened. For some reason, two of the appointed seventy elders, Eldad and Medad, did not go with Moses to the tabernacle but remained behind in the camp. Still, the spirit of God fell upon them and they prophesied back in the camp:
However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” (Numbers 11.26-27)
This prophesying back in the camp bothers Joshua, Moses' right hand man. Apparently, Joshua thinks that Eldad and Medad's prophesying in the camp, apart from Moses' direct supervision and authorization, will constitute a crisis of authority for Moses:
Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!”

But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake?" (Numbers 11. 28-29a)
Joshua seems to be concerned about prophecy occurring in an unauthorized zone, outside the command structure and chains of authority--renegade, unsupervised prophecy.

But Moses is unconcerned, his view of prophecy is wider, more generous and more liberal. Moses responds to Joshua's concerns:
But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11.29)
In the posts to come, we'll reflect more on Moses' wish that "all the Lord's people" would become prophets.

But for this post, we simply note how the Holy Spirit has this odd habit of showing up in unauthorized zones, causing crises of authority.

Journal Week 23: Leipzig, Germany

I'm in Leipzig, Germany, during the month of June, also spending a few days in the UK. While in the UK I'll be preaching at Ashley Church in St. Albans on June 24.

BTW, the picture here is of the ACU villa in Leipzig. 

I'm Leipzig leading 15 ACU students on a Study Abroad experience. We'll be studying social psychology, with a specific focus on WW2, the Cold War, and the Protestant Reformation. We'll be taking trips to Berlin, Wittenberg, and Buchenwald concentration camp.

One of the things I'm having the students reflect on is the role of the church related to these times. Specifically, we're talking about Bonhoeffer for WW2, St. Nicholas Church for the Peaceful Revolution, and, obviously, Martin Luther for the Protestant Reformation.

For my own edification, I'll be doing some of my own work on Bonhoeffer during our month here. I have a hunch about Bonhoeffer, a way to reconcile his Cost of Discipleship with this discussion of "religionless Christianity" from his Letter and Papers from Prison. I'll be reading, pondering, and exploring this hunch during our month in Germany.  

I don't know if I'll post anything about our experiences here, or if I'll have a huge Bonhoeffer breakthrough, but you never know, so just a head's up.

You Don't Have Time for "What Would Jesus Do?"

One of the big arguments in Stranger God is that we need to connect hospitality to spiritual formation.

Most of us, I'm guessing, think that becoming more Christ-like in our lives is a process of making good choices. Life presents us with a series of moral decisions and we need to ask ourselves at each of these crossroads "What would Jesus do?"

But as Stranger God describes, life isn't really like that. Those "choices" come at us so fast that we don't really even notice we're making them. Mostly because our decision-making is being done automatically and emotionally.

As Daniel Kahneman captures so well in the title of his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, our brains have two-processing systems, one fast, rational, and conscious, and the other fast, emotional, and automatic.

We tend to think being like Jesus is controlled by the fast, rational, and conscious part of the mind, the part that asks "What would Jesus do?"

But in reality, it's the fast, emotional, and automatic part of our minds that's really controlling the show. As I've written about before, the battle to be like Jesus is won or lost in milliseconds.

In short, learning to love isn't about standing at an ethical crossroads and making good, Christ-like decisions, rolling the question "What would Jesus do?" over in our minds. Life and our brains are moving way too fast for that.

Learning to love is, rather, about forming yourself into a person where love becomes natural and automatic, like a habit of breathing.


How can you love
with the ferocity of God
if you have not wept
for all that is broken
and lost
in the world?
How can your heart
be His
if you have not been cast as bread
upon the dark waters
of suffering and pain?

You shall be poured out
upon the sharp rocks.
You shall fall like rain
upon a ground that is thirsty and dry.
You will die like Jesus
upon a cross,
and your heart will be pierced
by a spear.

Living Between Gratitude and Guilt

I've been reading through the book of Leviticus. It can be a bewildering experience, reading through all the sacrificial details and rituals.

But this much I've come to appreciate. Whatever you might think of the sacrificial system, it marked your entire life. And it mostly keep you living between gratitude and guilt.

For the daily life of an Israelite, those where the two main offerings: thank offerings--expressing gratitude toward YHWH--and guilt offerings--ritually owning how you've hurt your neighbor.

And as I pondered this, from a psychological perspective this seems to be a remarkable healthy way to live, living between gratitude and guilt.

The quick pushback here is that the word "guilt" has negative connotations. Who wants to be made to feel guilty? But as Brene Brown has taught us, guilt--taking responsibility and owning your mistakes--is an incredibly adaptive emotion, positively correlated with emotional and relational health.

Beyond personally taking responsibility for the way you've damaged relationships, there's also something healthy about taking responsibility and clearing the air as a community as well.

I shared with a co-worker last week that we do damage to each other in a workplace drop by drop. Those drops add up over time, weakening and tearing the bonds of collegiality. Taking responsibility for those drops and mending the damage quickly would prevent a lot of workplace issues and tensions.  

And gratitude, we know, is also highly predictive of emotional and relational health.

So I'm with Leviticus on this one.

Living between gratitude and responsibility--between thank offerings and guilt offerings--is a very healthy way to live.

Journal Week 22: On Rants and Social Media

On Monday, I expressed fatigue about trying to wade into the controversies of social media.

On Tuesday, I waded into those waters with On Gender, Power, and Sin: The Evangelical #MeToo Moment because the mistreatment of women, especially in Christian communities, is just too important to ignore.

Those two posts could appear to be contradictory, Monday's post and Tuesday's post. But as I reflected on it, maybe not so much. I really do tire of of social media, and the effort it takes to participate in prophetic but redemptive ways. And honestly, I really do loathe Twitter.

But the issues that rage on social media aren't all products of the social media outrage machine. Silenced for generations, social media has allowed marginalized voices to be heard for the first time. The #MeToo movement isn't a culture war issue. #MeToo is exposing a dark and sinful aspect of the human predicament that demands our attention and action. What has been done in the darkness is now being brought into the light.

Plus, when you look back on your life, your children and grandchildren are going to ask you: Where did you stand when that was happening? Did you raise your voice? Were you silent, or did you speak out?

Still, you wonder about your motivations. Are you virtue-signaling? Do you see yourself as a courageous hero?

You also wonder about your effectiveness. Aren't people just going to see you "taking sides" in the clearly drawn battle between Us and Them? Are you just throwing bombs or are you actually persuading people? And does anyone's opinions ever change? Am I just contributing to the increasingly polarization and making things worse?

And on and on and on.

On Monday, I characterized my Tuesday post as a "rant." Some of you didn't think it was much of a "rant" when the post appeared.

Well, a lot of profanity had been edited out by Tuesday morning! Along a lot of other editing.

Still, Tuesday's post is about as ranty as I get. And as tiring as social media may be, some things just need to get said.

'Tis a Fearful Thing To Love What Death Can Touch

'Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –
to be,
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing,
a holy thing
to love.
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.

--Yehuda HaLevi

The Theodicy of Being

I could (which you cannot)
Find reasons fast enough
To face the sky and roar
In anger and despair
At what is going on,
Demanding that it name
Whoever is to blame:
The sky would only wait
Till all my breath was gone
And then reiterate
As if I wasn't there
That singular command
I do not understand,
Bless what there is for being,
Which has to be obeyed, for
What else am I made for,
Agreeing or disagreeing?

--W.H. Auden, from his poem "Precious Five"

On Gender, Power, and Sin: The Evangelical #MeToo Moment

As you know, there's been a reckoning among evangelicals who are having their own #MeToo moment.

Albert Mohler in his post The Wrath of God Poured Out — The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention describes what is happening as the punishment of God being poured out upon evangelicals.

In his post, Mohler describes how the conservative resurgence in the SBC worked to restore biblical integrity to SBC doctrine, gender complementarianism among those teachings, only to find its moral integrity in these last days severely damaged and compromised.

Why did it happen?

Mohler wonders aloud if theology and complementarianism have been the problem:
Is the problem theological? Has the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention come to this? Is this what thousands of Southern Baptists were hoping for when they worked so hard to see this denomination returned to its theological convictions, its seminaries return to teaching the inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures, its ministries solidly established on the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Did we win confessional integrity only to sacrifice our moral integrity?...

Is complementarianism the problem? Is it just camouflage for abusive males and permission for the abuse and mistreatment of women? We can see how that argument would seem plausible to so many looking to conservative evangelicals and wondering if we have gone mad.
I don't know Mohler, but from I do know of him, that he's raising these questions is remarkable. Still, he doesn't fully relinquish the complementarian position:
But the same Bible that reveals the complementarian pattern of male leadership in the home and the church also reveals God’s steadfast and unyielding concern for the abused, the threatened, the suffering, and the fearful. There is no excuse whatsoever for abuse of any form, verbal, emotional, physical, spiritual or sexual. The Bible warns so clearly of those who would abuse power and weaponize authority. Every Christian church and every pastor and every church member must be ready to protect any of God’s children threatened by abuse and must hold every abuser fully accountable. The church and any institution or ministry serving the church must be ready to assure safety and support to any woman or child or vulnerable one threatened by abuse. 
I appreciate his both/and balancing act here, trying to keep the complementarian structure yet speak a strong word for protecting the abused. And yet, this is the exact same balancing act that evangelicals and the SBC have been preaching and attempting for generations. And by Mohler's own admission, it has brought the judgment of God down upon them.

In short, Mohler seems genuinely anguished and searching for answers, but he can't offer an accurate diagnosis of what went wrong. He seems legitimately perplexed. He says nothing beyond the same old, same old: Men are in charge, but they shouldn't abuse the women under their leadership.

But clearly, that's been a disaster.

And it's not really hard to see why. I think the problem evangelicals are having here is the same problem they always have. They only look at the Bible and they ignore human experience. Evangelicals always make man serve the Sabbath, rather than having the Sabbath serve man. In this instance, the Sabbath is "God's plan for marriage and the church," and men and women must conform to that plan. Come hell or high water. Well, they've found hell and high water.

Evangelicals obsess over establishing "God's plan" over the genders and routinely fail to attend to the raw material they are plugging into that plan. Mohler is right to raise questions about the theology, but that's only half the equation. It's complementarian theology combined with human nature that's the problem.

Human beings are corrupted by power asymmetries. Based on his famous Stanford Prison Study, Philip Zimbardo has called this "the Lucifer Effect." Psychologically, power has been shown to decrease inhibition, which means that when we have power we're more prone to act out, sexually and/or aggressively.
Add to this the observation that psychological studies, along with criminal statistics, indicate that men are prone to aggression and violence, physical and sexual.

An irony here is that many evangelicals admit all this, that men have a natural, durable "nature" characterized by dominance and aggression, the characteristics that make men great leaders and warriors. That's the positive spin on those traits. But the darker side of those traits are a proneness to violence and abuse.

I say this is an irony because evangelicals describe men as being "naturally" wired for dominance and aggression. And then they espouse a model of gender relations that gives power to the gender characterized by dominance and aggression. And then they express surprise that this arrangement didn't work out so well.

Given their view of the genders, let me express the irony of the evangelical position this way. Complementarianism isn't a problem because there are no differences between the genders. Complementarianism is a problem because there are differences between the genders.   

Here's an analogy for complementarianism's mistake. Imagine a church full of people, most have no tendency toward addiction, but in this church are three other groups. First, there is group of recovering alcoholics. Second, there is a group that is prone to alcoholism. Third, there is group of actual, practicing alcoholics. And then imagine, because of how you read the Bible, that you believe it is God's plan for human flourishing for everyone in the church to drink a glass of whiskey everyday. And then imagine expressing shock when a lot of these people fall into, or back into, addiction.

Listen, at this point in the post, I understand if you're a reader who is a little tired of this particular culture war battle. I, too, get a little tired of all the "f**k the patriarchy" talk, and I've been beaten up for being a "problematic" ally.

But seriously, if you don't think the mistreatment of women is the number one issue facing the moral witness of men--and not as a contemporary culture war issue, but as a demonic shadow that has haunted us for millennia--I just don't know what to say to you. Buckle up, buttercup. I think sin manifests in men in just this way.

A theological and biblical way to say all this is that men's dominance over women is a part of the Fall's curse upon humanity. The wound of sin upon gender relations is clear in Genesis 3: "He will rule over you."

So if that's a part of the curse, why do evangelicals think that building the curse into the system--gender subordination--is going to produce anything other than cursed outcomes?

News flash: The curse isn't a feature, it's a bug.

Summarizing, this isn't rocket science: If you preach gender subordination you're going to have #MeToo. Power reduces inhibitions, and men have a suite of impulses that increases the likelihood of harassment and abuse. And seriously, can you doubt this? Have you not learned something from #MeToo and #ChurchToo? Have you not had conversations with the women in your workplace? Have you not looked at the sex trafficking statistics? The statistics on rape and domestic abuse, throughout history and worldwide? There are millions of women being abused or trafficked right now in the world. Millions. And if you refuse to own that fact or be sobered by it for fear of man-shaming, I don't know what to tell you.

But again, the pushback will be, but if men were godly this would not happen. But isn't that the big blindspot here? "If men were godly..."

That "if" is a whopper. That "if" is dangerous. Seriously? You're going to make the safety of women a cross-your-fingers, let's hope for the best, contingency? A big fat "if" built atop a foundation of total depravity (as you believe to be the case)? And you are surprised this didn't go well?

Here's another news flash: men aren't godly. (And neither are women.) And given their weak theology of sanctification--because we are saved by "faith alone and not by works"--evangelicals have no clue or program about how to produce godly men. And many of them think godliness isn't even necessary. Witness the evangelical endorsement of Donald Trump.

To go back to Albert Mohler, I'm not trying to pile on. I understand how he and the SBC read the Bible. But I don't think the Bible is the problem. The problem is talking your eye off human beings and reading the Bible in a moral and human vacuum. That's how you end up making man serve the Sabbath. Perhaps a plug for natural theology fits in here, paying attention to what the sciences of human flourishing might reveal to us about "God's plan."

To conclude, I'm an egalitarian for three reasons.

First, I think you can make a biblical case for it. I'm happy to admit, for the sake of argument, that this case might not be as strong as the complementarian case. Still, you can make a biblical case for it.

Second, I think egalitarianism heals the curse of Genesis 3. Phrased differently, egalitarianism takes sin seriously, more seriously than does complementarianism. For men (and women!), egalitarianism is an exercise in spiritual formation, a monastic discipline, a kenotic practice that shapes us into the image of Christ. Let me phrase it this way: You don't promote "God's plan" by hoping that men will be godly. As we've seen, that's disastrous and dangerous. You don't hope for godliness, you form godliness. That's the contrast between complementarianism and egalitarianism. Complementarianism is wishful thinking. Egalitarianism is a plan for marriage that's spiritual formation.

Third, egalitarianism is a practice of care and protection, not just in words, wishes, and commands, but in concrete, structural ways. Complementarianism loves women with sermons. Egalitarianism loves women with love.

To conclude, for a second time. Agree or disagree with bits and pieces of this post. Quibble and point out everything that is problematic. Demand qualifications and more nuance. Tell me I'm man-shaming or a bad ally. Let me know I'm overgeneralizing and stereotyping. Fine. All I'm trying to say is this:

"God's plan" for the genders, whatever it is, has to take sin seriously.

And complementarianism just doesn't.


Yesterday, I spend a good few hours writing a pretty scathing post about evangelicalism and complementarianism, reacting to Albert Mohler's post The Wrath of God Poured Out — The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention.

As I waded into those waters with my rant, I noticed I kept watching my left and my right.

I'd write a line and think, "Evangelicals aren't going to like this bit." And sometimes I'd keep what I wrote, because it felt good to rant and I wanted to jab my finger in their face. And sometimes I'd edit and edit, because I wanted to be heard and for the point to get across.

And then I'd write another line and think, "Progressive Twitter isn't going to like this bit." And sometimes I'd keep what I wrote, because it felt good to rant and I wanted to jab my finger in their face. And sometimes I'd edit and edit, because I wanted to be heard and the point to get across.

To be clear, it was mainly a rant toward evangelicals, I wasn't trying to be moderate. Far from it. Mostly evangelicals were going to be offended. Very offended. But I also think a few things about gender that doesn't fit well with progressives. So it's just very, very hard to say anything anymore without stepping on a landmine. So you try to thread the needle. And eventually I said, screw it. I'm tired.

I'm tired of a lot of things on social media.

And by the time I got to the end of my rant, I was tired of myself.

Journal Week 21: Starting to Write

As I've mentioned here on the blog and on podcasts, my next book with Fortress Press is a book about Johnny Cash. The working title is Trains, Murder, & Jesus: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash. The publisher has always changed my working titles, so we'll see if that sticks.

I was a bit worried about this book. For the book to work I have to be a biographer, narrating much of the story of Johnny Cash, not just to make theological connections, but for readers who know very little about him. Having never done biographical writing before, I was anxious about pulling that off. But over the last two weeks I've finally gotten down to writing and the chapters are coming together well. I'm excited about the book!

People ask me a lot about my writing routine. I don't really have one. It's mainly a two part process. The first part is that I think and think until I have the book in my head. During this time I sketch out in my notebook various chapter ideas and outlines. Eventually the book comes into focus. Once it's in my head, I then, in whatever gaps I have during the day, start to write. I write in the morning. I write before bed. I write in a spare hour I have. There's just an intense month or so where I write the book during all the scraps of time I have. There isn't any routine or set writing time. Just a paragraph here, a page there, until it's all done. Since I have the book in my head, I can pick it up and lay it down as the day demands.

That said, the writing period is a pretty focused time. Jana knows when I've started to write because, suddenly, every spare second I'm intensely typing. She can always tell when I've hit the writing phase because my focus and intensity at the keyboard varies from surfing the Internet, to writing a blog post, to writing a book.

The big spiritual issue for me during the writing period is to not let my focus get in the way of being present and responsive as a husband and father. That's hard, because when I get focused I can shut the world out, even when sitting in the same room with you. That's a blessing in many ways, as I don't have to leave home to write. I don't need time away or a sabbatical. I can write in the middle of noise and chaos. But it does mean I can be physically but not mentally present. That is something I'm working on.

All that to say, I've started writing my Johnny Cash book. It's due to the publisher by January 1. So I should get back to that.

Love is Science

1 John makes two big statements about ontology and epistemology.

Ontology involves statements about existence, being and reality. Ontology concerns itself with what is.

Epistemology, by contrast, is about knowing. Something might exist, but how could we come to know anything about it? How can we test or verify what we think we know about existence and reality?

Regarding ontology, the ground and nature of reality, 1 John makes this statement: "God is love."

Regarding epistemology, about how we can come to know reality, 1 John makes this statement: "The one who loves knows God."

Love, therefore, is a way of knowing, a way of investigating reality. God is love (ontology), and the one who loves knows God (epistemology).

In short, love is a science. Love is as rigorously factual and empirical as any test tube or controlled experiment.

Love is a technology of knowing. Love uncovers facts about the cosmos. Love reveals the truth.

Love is as scientific an instrument as a telescope, microscope, petri dish or particle accelerator.

Love is science.

The Civil War

One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. The difference is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.

Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening—in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery. I know someone will ask me, ‘Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil—hoofs and horns and all?’ Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects my answer is ‘Yes, I do. I do not claim to know anything about his personal appearance. If anybody really wants to know him better I would say to that person. ‘Don’t worry. If you really want to, you will. Whether you’ll like it when you do is another question.’

--C.S. Lewis, from Mere Christianity, articulating what Greg Boyd has called the "warfare worldview" of the Bible, a critical part of the argument in Reviving Old Scratch

Our Problems With the Sermon on the Mount

Awhile back we were going through the Sermon on the Mount in our adult Bible class. For the first class, before wading into the Sermon, I took some time to outline three major problems we have with the Sermon on the Mount.

Specifically, at various times and places, and from within certain faith traditions, three problems have been noted about the Sermon on the Mount.

1. Practically Impossible

Jesus' demands in the Sermon seem so high that the Sermon appears to be practically impossible to obey. Consider:
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.

I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. 
No anger. No lust. Non-retaliation in the face of physical assault. Loving our enemies. Most people don't think they can obey these commands. At least not with any consistency and regularity. If you try to obey the Sermon you'll live a life of chronic failure.

But maybe that's exactly the point, theologians like Martin Luther have argued. Maybe the Sermon was intentionally made to be practically impossible in order to humiliate and expose any attempts at works-based righteousness.

I don't care if you agree with Luther or not, his teachings about the Sermon illustrate my point: we object to the Sermon because we think it's practically impossible. It just can't be obeyed.

2. Theologically Problematic

We also object to the Sermon because we find it to be theologically problematic. Specifically, Jesus seems to be a legalist. Even worse, there is no atonement theology in the Sermon. Salvation in the Sermon is earned through obedience. Consider:
For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.
3. Politically Irresponsible and Immoral

Finally, it is argued by any Christian who is not a pacifist that the Sermon is just not politically responsible. Many point out that Jesus' call to non-violence in the Sermon could never be the ethic of nation states.

Further, it is argued, in the face of evil Christians must resort to violence. To obey the command "do not resist an evil person" isn't just hard to do, it's immoral.


And yet, all these objections are eternally haunted by Jesus' final words and warning:
"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.

And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

Cycles of Victims and Violence

This is a reworked post from many years ago that I had a recent discussion about:

Where does violence come from?
A surprising answer is that much of the violence in the world comes from feelings of victimization. Violence creates victims, and those victims can create more violence in a vicious feedback loop. And once the feedback loop gets started, it's hard to get off the carousal.

This is the argument made by social psychologist Ray Baumeister in his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. In this book Baumeister takes on what he calls "the myth of pure evil." According to Baumeister, we tend to think that evil is produced by sociopathic sadists. But if you really look at the violence in the world you quickly realize that very little of it is caused by purely evil people. The vast majority of violence comes from normal people like you and I. Consequently, if we stay fascinated by the myth of pure evil, and Hollywood helps greatly with this, we'll never come to grips with where violence comes from.

Take, as the paradigmatic case, Nazi Germany. No doubt Hitler was a sadist. But Hitler couldn't kill six million people all by himself. Hitler needed the cooperation of his Christian nation. How'd he get that cooperation? Well, he got it because Germany felt victimized in the aftermath of World War I. A narrative of injury allowed for the rise of the National Socialist Party.

Take, as a second example, the Rwandan genocide. The majority Hutu had a longstanding grievance of injury toward the Tusi who had ruled Rwanda for many centuries (backed, in the modern era, by Germany and Belgium). That narrative of injury drove many to the Hutu Power ideology that fueled the genocide.

And the examples can get more local and personal.

Take, as a third example, the research Baumeister cites in regard to domestic abusers. Why do these men beat their wives or girlfriends? Shockingly, these men tell narratives of injury. They believe they are the real victim. Think about that: abusers think they are the real victims. How so? The stories vary. Maybe she was flirting with a guy. Maybe she disrespected or demeaned him. The point is, even if we see all this as self-serving and ridiculous, the guy sees himself as having a reason, a reason that comes from a sense of perceived injury.

Finally, one more everyday example is the increasingly hostile and hateful tone of our political discourse. As James Hunter has pointed out, narratives of injury have come to dominate American political discourse. Everyone claims the position of victim in order to use moral leverage against opponents. This shifts politics away from a pragmatic, problem-solving posture into a moralized Good vs. Evil battle that quickly spirals into dehumanization and hate.

In sum, a great deal of violence in the world comes from feeling victimized. And these narratives of injury allow us to aggress against others in a way that feels right, moral and justified.

True, we spend a lot of time calling out the narratives of injury we find ridiculous or implausible. Is there really a war on Christmas? That sort of thing. But psychologically speaking, it is difficult to reason with a person who is, rightly or wrongly, clinging onto a narrative of injury. I think that's one of the main reasons our political discourse has become so ineffective, that we are trying to use rational arguments to challenge or change feelings of victimization. That's just not going to work. When people feel hurt telling them they are not hurt isn't very effective. 

Is there any way to stop this cycle of violence?

One way would be to recognize and confess my own violence. This is the moral genius of the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." The first thing I confess in the Lord's Prayer is my own sin. And in making this confession, in facing my own violence before anything else, I step away from narratives of injury and the cycles of violence they perpetuate.

Journal Week 20: A Unique Pastoral Skill Set

Readers of Reviving Old Scratch and Stranger God will know that on Wednesday nights I worship at Freedom Fellowship, a mission church that serves a meal each week to poor and homeless neighbors followed by a worship service.

You have to have a unique pastoral skill set to serve at Freedom. This week a fight almost broke out, twice, in the the dining room. Darrell was in the middle of both yelling incidents, at one point he and a guy I'd never seen before squaring off to "take it outside." Darrell has cognitive disabilities and was pretty agitated. Joe and I inserted ourselves between the men, focusing on soothing Darrell. Terry led the other guy out of the dining room.

I admire our leaders at Freedom. They are leaders because they have a range of pastoral gifts. They can teach and administrate. They are pastoral and people of deep prayer.

And they also know how to break up fights.

A Peculiar People: Emotions and Spiritual Formation

When Aidan was in the eighth grade our family was a part of a parent/child bible class at our church. During that class I was a part of a discussion with some of the parents about the spiritual formation of our children and how that has changed over the years.

One of the things that we talked about is how our children don't seem to have the same loyalty to the church that we, as parents, do. Why is that?

There are lot of reasons that have been discussed about the drift of young people away from the church. But one of the things I talked about that night are the changes that have occurred in our faith tradition and how those changes have affected spiritual formation.

I'm a member of the Churches of Christ and I grew up in the North where Churches of Christ were scarce. In my hometown there was only one congregation of the Churches of Christ, a fellowship of about one-hundred members.

What this meant was that I was the only kid in my high-school who was from the Churches of Christ. So my whole life I felt weird. Whenever church affiliation came up I was always asked, "Church of Christ? What's that?" It always felt that I was from this strange, obscure church. And where I lived it was strange and obscure.

And we did strange things as well. In a Catholic town where most of my friends went to Mass on Saturday night I went to church twice on Sundays, once in the morning and once at night. I also went to church on Wednesday nights. Over time I couldn't hide the fact from my friends that I went to church three times a week. And what sort of freak goes to church three times a week?

All that to say, I grew up feeling peculiar and different. And that feeling of peculiarity affects you. Your distinctive identity is made salient in relation to others and you start to own that identity. And in owning that identity you develop some emotional antibodies to defend yourself against feeling self-conscious and odd. You get practiced at being peculiar.

All of which marks you deeply and emotionally. Being "Church of Christ" becomes etched into your limbic system. When you've worked through emotions of awkwardness as a child and adolescent you're not simply a member of the Church of Christ intellectually, you're a member emotionally. That identity goes very, very deep.

Why are young people walking away from church? Here's one provocative thesis. Christian kids don't feel weird or peculiar being a Christian. With youth ministries and the insularity of Christian culture--the evangelical bubble--Christian kids can be popular and cool while being Christian in those contexts. And as Søren Kierkegaard said, where everyone is a Christian no one is a Christian.

Yesterday two young men from the Church of Latter Day Saints knocked on the door. You know how Mormon youth spend two years in mission work. And whatever you might think of Mormon practice and theology you can't help but marvel at how formative those mission years are for those involved. Talk about being emotionally etched by feeling peculiar and different.

I don't want to say there aren't risks here. Peculiarity for the sake of peculiarity isn't the goal. Nor should peculiarity be prized when it's connected to toxic practices and communities.

All I'm pointing out is how if spiritual formation doesn't affect us emotionally and affectively--if faith never gets deep into our limbic system--then it's pretty easy to leave behind.

And for me at least, feeling weird is the experience that shaped me.

Seeking the Place Where Justice and Peace Will Kiss

Simple answers are often hard to find. A lot of life is about balancing tensions.

Any ethical dilemma is a dilemma because you are choosing between two good things. Any political debate is a debate because values we all care about are being pitting against each other and we're being forced to choose.

Most of life is both/and rather than either/or.

The same goes for the relationship between peace and justice. Wanting peace without justice is wanting a world where no prophet can rock the boat. Peace without justice is reduced to niceness and politeness. On the other side, a justice that is unconcerned with peace and reconciliation will become a purely destructive force.

A similar tension exists between forgiveness and telling the truth. 

So we are always managing the tensions. Mercy. Truth. Justice. Peace. And in Psalm 85:10 there's a beautiful image of this:
Mercy and truth have met each other: justice and peace have kissed.
The translation here is from the lesser known Douay-Rheims Bible. Most translations translate "justice" as "righteousness." But the point is still clear as "righteousness" involves standing in a right relation before the law, being declared "just" or "justified."

Translations aside, I love the the imagery of managing the tensions in Psalm 85.

We are seeking that place where mercy and truth come together, the moment where justice and peace will kiss.

Non-Violent Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Yes, you read that title right.

Penal substitutionary atonement continues to be debated. As I've mentioned before, the belief that Jesus' death on the cross was substitutionary is increasingly recognized. The debate tends to focus on the word penal, upon a crime/punishment framework for the atonement.

The problems with the penal framework come from how it implicates God in violence. The punishment for sin in this view is a death-sentence, and that involves God requiring the killing of Jesus.

And yet, my title says that there's such a thing as non-violent penal substitutionary atonement. What might that be?

To be sure, there are people who preach and teach a violent penal substitutionary atonement, the vision many of us find so problematic. However, punishment doesn't always have to involve violence and killing.

For example, God's punishment can be divine withdrawal. Greg Boyd uses this notion of punishment-as-divine-withdrawal extensively in his recent opus on God and non-violence Crucifixion of the Warrior God.

Behavioral psychologists are also very familiar with the distinction between positive punishment (adding something negative, like a spanking, to punish behavior) and negative punishment (removing something positive to punish behavior, like in a timeout).

All that to say, there is a version of penal substitutionary atonement that is non-violent. If the just punishment of sin by a holy God is divine withdrawal, then what happened on the cross wasn't God killing Jesus but God abandoning Jesus. And Jesus cries out in that moment, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The framework here is still penal, this is still a punishment for sin. But the punishment is non-violent.

What, then, about all the violence associated with Jesus' torture and crucifixion?

Here's where a Christus Victor frame is helpful. On the cross God surrenders Jesus to the forces of chaos and evil. Separated from God, Jesus descends into the nightmare of violence, into the hellscape governed by demonic, destructive forces. But again, Jesus is surrendered to those demonic powers, God isn't the one being violent. And still, there is a penal framework here, where the punishment of sin is being abandoned by God, handed over to chaos and the demonic forces.

To be clear, I'm not defending penal substitutionary atonement. I don't defend any doctrine of the atonement. That's sort of like defending poetry.

My point is simply that the contested word penal doesn't necessarily imply violence. There can be a non-violent punishment for a crime.

Thus, in these debates we might start needing to distinguish between violent penal substitutionary atonement and non-violent penal substitutionary atonement.

Twin Beliefs About Love

One of the reasons I frequently find myself caught in the middle of evangelical and progressive Christianity is how I've come to think about love.

As a progressive Christian, I lead with love. Because I lead with love, my theological and political positions tend to skew liberal.

That said, I also believe that love is very, very hard. Because I equate love with cruciformity, I don't think anyone--progressive or evangelical--loves very well. Especially not their enemies. Basically, love runs aground on human sinfulness and depravity. It takes training and discipline to become a human being.

Those twin beliefs--the primacy of love and that love requires training in the face of human sinfulness--keeps me suspended between progressive and evangelical theologies.