The Gospel According to the Lord of the Rings: Week 27, The Divided Resistance

The company comes to the borders of Lothlórien. There, due to their distrust of dwarves, Haldir demands that Gimli wear a mask as they are taken into the elvish land. Offended, Gimli objects and draws his ax. Haldir responds by notching an arrow. Aragorn steps in to settle everyone down.

Aragorn proposes that the entire company wear blindfolds in solidarity with Gimli. At this point, Legolas objects, and Aragorn calls him out for his own brand of stubbornness. Legolas submits to the plan with lament. To which Haldir responds,
Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him.
There's a point I make in Reviving Old Scratch about how we can't make much progress on justice issues because of how conservative and progressive Christians have split the problem into two mutually exclusive halves. For conservatives, the issues we face are all moral problems. If individuals were better moral actors many of our social ills would markedly improve. For progressives, the issues we face are all systemic problems, requiring top down policy fixes.

Obviously, the issues we face are a gestalt, a complex, interactive whole. Consider things like police brutality. There are obvious policy fixes that can help. But each police officer is also an autonomous moral agent, making their own choices. Name any other social issue facing our society and it's the exact same dynamic. But instead of wrestling with this complexity we throw stones at each other, each cherry-picking media stories that reinforce the preferred narrative.

I'm also put in mind of denominationalism in an increasing post-Christian world.

When Christianity was thriving and bulging at the seams in the 1950s, denominationalism was something we could afford. Plenty of people to go around. But as church attendance continues to wane, denominationalism is increasingly a luxury we can't afford. Partnerships and joining forces between dwarves and elves is the order of the day.

Post-Progressive Evangelism

If you get a chance, check out the book Arguing Religion: A Bishop Speaks at Facebook and Google.

The book shares expanded versions of two talks Bishop Robert Barron delivered on the campuses of Facebook and Google in 2017.

I've never been taken much with Christian apologetics, but I found Bishop Barron's two talks very thoughtful and very well done, a wonderful model of how to engage a post-Christian world.

My interest in these talks comes from my post-progressive Christian shift. On the one hand, as a progressive, I find nothing attractive or compelling in the evangelism I see among conservative, evangelical Christians. But on the other hand, among progressive Christians I see no evangelistic impulse whatsoever.

So, for anyone else on the post-progressive Christian journey, I think you'll find Bishop Barron's book a nice place to explore what the opening moves of evangelism can look like in a post-Christian world.

No Voice Is Heard and the Speech Pours Forth

We've been visiting our family this last week, on the shores of Lake Erie. Through the generosity of my parents, Jana, the boys and I have been staying in a cabin on the lake. Every day we stare out over the water. And today, my reading from the Psalms was from Psalm 19:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
The most enchanted, restorative moments by the lake are the moments of quietness. Nothing but the breeze and the gentle lapping of the waves on the shore. There is no speech, there are no words, no voice is heard. And yet, everything around you is communicating.

Sitting here, if you listen, you cannot hear a voice. I couldn't convince a skeptic that God is speaking to us. But I hear God, all the time. Speech is pouring forth.

The Duty of Grace: Part 3, Grace, Faith and Love

Of course, whenever you hear the word "obligation" and "duty" our minds think of pietistic religious performance. But if you look at what Paul considers to be the "obligations of grace" his imagination is very social and relational.

What is the duty of grace? For Paul, it's a simple one word answer: Love.

In response to grace we show fealty to God by loving each other.

Romans 12 is a beautiful example of this. After eleven chapters discussing grace and faith, Paul turns to the duties of grace, how we offer our lives as a "living sacrifice" in fealty to the God who gives us grace:
Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other...Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

“I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the Lord.

Instead,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.
If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
burning coals of shame on their heads.”

Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.
In the very next chapter, Paul gives a succinct summary of the duty of grace:
Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law.
The examples of this are everywhere in Paul. In 1 Corinthians we have Chapter 13 telling us about the duty of grace: "Love is patient, love is kind."

We find it in Philippians 2: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant."

So let's not have a grim puritanical imagination when we hear the words duty and obligation.

The fealty grace demands is love. Because of grace, as Paul says, "we belong to each other." And so its our duty to love each other with "genuine affection" and "delight."

This is the duty of grace.

The Duty of Grace: Part 2, The Obligations of Grace

Following up on my last post. Grace and faith are terms from ancient patronage: grace/gifts are given by patrons and received by clients with faith/fealty.

The point I don't think we appreciate about the grace/faith and gift/fealty relationship is how grace created bonds of obligation.

Grace places demands upon us. Again, this is the logic of Paul's great "Therefore!" in his letters. Grace comes with expectations, duties, and obligations. Grace binds us. We're not free agents or operators. We've been given a new Lord. As Paul says in Colossians, "For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son." Grace made this transfer, effected our rescue, and now we are servants to this new Lord and Patron. And as citizens of Heaven we have obligations and responsibilities to the City.

This is why faith without works is dead. Faith isn't mental assent. Faith isn't belief. The demons believe. Faith is fealty, allegiance, obedience, loyalty, fidelity, and faithfulness. The demons have belief, but they have no loyalty to the King. The demons are rebels. This is why faith without fealty is dead.

This is also why Hebrews says such harsh things about believers who walk away from grace:
Hebrews 6. 4-6
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt. 
The problem here is disloyalty, you could even say treason. Spitting into the face of the patron who gave you everything. And notice the word that's used to signify this rejection of grace: contempt. The loss of faith isn't a loss of belief, but a display of contempt. Contempt is another honor/shame word from ancient patronage. Rejecting the gift of the patron (in this case God's gift of his Son upon the cross) brings dishonor upon the patron. It's the greatest affront and insult, the worst thing a client could to to a generous and loving patron. Especially when you weren't worthy of the gift in the first place!

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 26, When Lore Wanes

Having escaped the Mines of Moria, and needing to put some distance between themselves and pursuing orcs, the Fellowship contemplates going to Lothlórien.

Boromir, who also objected to going through the Mines, rejects this suggestion, sharing the opinion of the people of Gondor that Lothlórien is dangerous and that no one who enters those woods leaves "unscathed."

Aragorn responds:
"Say not unscathed, but if you say unchanged, then maybe you will speak the truth. But lore wanes in Gondor, Boromir, if in the city of those who once were wise they now speak evil of Lothlórien."
As we've noted, memory is a sign of wisdom for Tolkien. We see here, in Aragorn's response, how wisdom fades when "lore wanes" among a people.

And it affects choices, decisions, and proper understandings of the world. Is Lothlórien safe or not? No doubt, as we'll soon learn, Lothlórien is dangerous, but it's good. Not unlike Mr. Beaver's description of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

It makes me wonder about how we see God, the church, and Christianity as "lore wanes" in our post-Christian world. This is, no doubt, a conservative lament, a wondering about if the future is as bright as it promises us, a worry about if some important truths, our "lore," should be remembered and preserved. Regular readers know my mind doesn't often go down this trail of worry, but today, with this passage in the story, I ponder the question.

The Duty of Grace: Part 1, Patronage, Grace and Faith

I've been increasingly struck, the more I study about ancient notions of grace and faith, how we modern readers of the Bible just don't get what the NT writers were talking about.

Grace and faith were words that described ancient patronage. The ancients weren't capitalists. The economy was driven by patrons and clients, an economy that traded in grace and faith. Wealthy, powerful, and influential patrons would give gifts (grace) to their clients and subordinates. Upon receiving those favors and gifts, the recipients would express gratitude and fealty (faith) to the patron.

Grace and faith are relational terms describing the actions and obligations of patrons and clients.

The big Christian innovation regarding these terms, as pointed out by John Barclay, was how ancient patrons would give grace to worthy clients, people whose faith/fealty would be of some benefit to the patron. But God's grace, by contrast, was given to unworthy clients. Beyond the means of this gift (the crucifixion of Jesus), this was the shock of the gospel, how God's grace disregards the worthiness of those upon whom He bestows His gifts/grace.

This bit we get about the grace/faith dynamic. We don't deserve grace. But what we don't quite get is how faith is fealty, the obligation to respond to grace with loyalty and allegiance. Following Paul, because of grace we have a new Patron, a new Lord in a New Kingdom to whom be pledge fealty and allegiance. It's this fealty that sits behind Paul's momentous "Therefore!" in his letters. We were unworthy, but we have received a great gift. And that gift, the ancients would have understood, came with strings attached, duties, and obligations. We've been given grace, therefore we respond with gratitude and obedience.

We respond to grace with faith. Gifts are followed by fealty.

"Death" By George Herbert

Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,
       Nothing but bones,
 The sad effect of sadder groans:
Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.

For we considered thee as at some six
       Or ten years hence,
 After the loss of life and sense,
Flesh being turned to dust, and bones to sticks.

We looked on this side of thee, shooting short;
       Where we did find
 The shells of fledge souls left behind,
Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort.

But since our Savior’s death did put some blood
       Into thy face,
 Thou art grown fair and full of grace,
Much in request, much sought for as a good.

For we do now behold thee gay and glad,
       As at Doomsday;
 When souls shall wear their new array,
And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.

Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust
       Half that we have
 Unto an honest faithful grave;
Making our pillows either down, or dust.

Why Heaven Matters

What's the point in believing in heaven?

Heaven has fallen on hard times. Outside of the faith, belief in heaven is the epitome of wishful thinking. Who but most naive among us in our post-Christian age believe in heaven?

But heaven is also dismissed among Christians as well. We're told that old hymns like "I'll Fly Away" are escapist. We're also told that we shouldn't mention heaven to console the grieving. A mention of heaven would be traumatizing and hurtful.

We live in strange, strange times.

And so, we preach a heavenless gospel. The kingdom of God is social action in this life, right here and right now. Christians don't really need heaven the implication goes.

And yet, we do.

For this post, I'll leave aside the hope of heaven, the consolation that death has been defeated. What I want to focus on his how ethics and justice work require an eschatological imagination.

Consider non-violence. Non-violence only makes sense if there's a heaven. If there's no heaven, and the only life you have is this physical life, well, of course you'd have to defend and protect it. Non-violence demands an eschatological imagination, that your death on earth isn't the end for you.

Consider, also, justice work. There are two temptations in justice work.

The first is resignation. The fortunes of history go up and down, so why work for justice if you're not going to be able to see and reap the rewards in your lifetime? Why not just give up and live a self-interested life?

The second is revolutionary impatience. Since the future is uncertain, we push to make the revolution happen in our lifetime. Change has to happen now, we have to see it with our very eyes. Nothing can wait. Incremental progress is capitulation and failure. Consequently, to bring about justice in our lifetime force has to be used. Violence is the price of impatience.

The only thing that rescues justice work from these temptations is an eschatological imagination, the belief, as MLK said, that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice." It's that eschatological conviction that pushes against resignation and tempers revolutionary impatience. This is why heaven matters.

To be sure, we've all read enough Marx to know that heaven can also diffuse energy for political change. In the words of the old country song, we can become so heavenly minded we're no earthly good. So our eschatological imagination has to be placed in a dialectical relationship with the prophetic imagination, heaven set alongside "Let justice roll down like a river!"

Still, heaven is a vital part of the answers we are seeking.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 25, The Sacrifice on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm

Unable to cross the mountains because of the snow, the Fellowship reluctantly decides to pass through the Mines of Moria. In the mines, the group faces the Balrog, the creature of darkness the Dwarves unwittingly awakened as they dug deep--too deep--searching for mithril.

In the climatic moment, Gandalf confronts the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, sacrificing himself for Frodo and the others. As Fleming Rutledge writes, Gandalf "becomes the sacrifice for all the others as he falls into the abyss. The Ring-bearer escapes because, at the crucial juncture, Gandalf interposes himself between Frodo and the demon. It is another Christ-like moment."

As we know--Spoiler Alert!--a resurrection event is in The Fellowship's future. Which can tempt some to think that Gandalf is the Christ-figure of the story. But a Rutledge points out, no one character in the story should be identified as the sole Christ-figure. Rather, there are Christ-like moments and actions, over and over again. Every member of the Fellowship, at some point, stands in the place of Christ. Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Merry, Pippen, Sam, Frodo, and even Boromir. Each are called to their Christ-like moments.

The same is true of us.

As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: "Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his."

Correct Theology

I've written about before how psychologists approach the issue of theory, and how that has affected my approach to theology.

Specifically, psychologists approach theories pragmatically, as tools to help in clinical situations. Basically, is this theory helpful and useful?

I approach theology the same way. This is a unique approach. Most theologians are trained in, or eventually fall in with, a theological "school," working from a distinctive theological position over against "rival" theological schools. For example, you might find social Trinitarians and classical Trinitarians going to war.

I don't come from a theological "school." I pick up and lay down theology as it becomes more or less helpful and useful.

But how to I judge useful and helpful?

In two ways. First, I'll explore how a theological perspective cashes out psychologically, morally, and socially. How does this theology affect human hearts and minds? What sort of values and ethical actions does this theological view set into motion? And how does this theology affect community and the church?

The second way I evaluate a theological view is how it helps address specific theological problems, like the atonement or theodicy. No theological "school" is bulletproof, they are collections of strengths and weaknesses, and these can be evaluated and explored by setting the "schools" side by side as you consider theological issues and questions. For example, Karl Barth is good for some things, but not for others. Same with liberation theology. Same for Augustine. Same for Tillich. And so on.

All that to say, again, my approach to theology is very pragmatic.

But in reading Katherine Sonderegger's Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God she shares another reason for evaluating theological proposals: gratitude and praise. Sonderegger writes:
...[T]he doctrine of God is most fittingly pursued and explicated as a form of gratitude and praise, for this is our spiritual worship. In the end, this only can serve as warrant for our [theological] novelty, that God will be more fittingly praised by such change.
I like that a lot. The goal of theology is to facilitate greater gratitude and praise.

The "correct" theology is the theology that prompts in us greater thanksgiving and worship.

Anne Lamott On Welcome

Then, in my thirties, my system crashed. I got sober, because I had gone crazy. A few women in the community reached out to me. They recognized me as a frightened lush. I told them about my most vile behavior, and they said, "Me, too!" I told them about my crimes against the innocent, especially me. The said, "Ditto. Yay. Welcome." I couldn't seem to get them to reject me. It was a nightmare, and then my salvation.

It turns out that welcome is solidarity. We're glad you're here, and we're with you. This whole project called you being alive, you finding joy? Well, we're in on that...

So our families were train wrecks; we've ruined the earth; kids die all the time. How do we understand that something welcoming remains, sometimes hidden, that we can still trust? When all seems lost, a few friends, the view, and random last-ditch moments of grace, like Liquid Wrench, will do. Otherwise, I don't know. We don't exactly solve this problem, or much of anything...

I've discovered that offering welcome helps a lot, especially to the deeply unpleasant or weird. The offer heals you both. What works best is to target people in the community whom no one else seems to want. Voilà: now welcome exists in you.

We want you, as is. Can you believe it? Come on in. Sit down. Let me get you a nice cup of tea. Would you like a lime juice bar?

--Anne Lamott, from Small Victories

Come Out Into the Tempest of Living

Do and dare what is right, not swayed by the whim of the moment.
Bravely take hold of the real, not dallying now with what might be.
Not in the flight of ideas but only in action is freedom.
Make up your mind and come out into the tempest of living.
God’s command is enough and your faith in him to sustain you.
Then at last freedom will welcome your spirit amid great rejoicing.

--Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Weeping Prayer

I recently have been reading about the Orthodox spirituality in Russia, though this observation may be associated with Eastern Orthodoxy generally.

One of the things that has struck me in the Russian Christian tradition is the role of weeping. Holy persons and holy fools in the Russian tradition will often weep, and spiritual counsel is often to be told to go and weep. And one of the miraculous things that happens in Russia is when their icons weep. There is, basically, a whole tradition of what we could call weeping prayer.

I've been through a lot of studies where we survey all the different types of prayer, from structured prayer to breath prayer to contemplative prayer to petitionary prayer. But I've never encountered a book or study on prayer that included weeping prayer.

I think we should include it. To weep as a form of prayer seems to be a very powerful expression of prayer. To weep for your sins. To weep for the sins of the world. To weep in solidarity with those who are weeping.

And while it might seems strange to us in the West to weep in this intentional manner, it's very common in the Russian tradition. Spiritual seekers and pilgrims are told, "Go and weep."

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 24, The Fellowship and the Church

So the Fellowship of the Ring leaves Rivendell, heading south.

Rutledge makes the observation that the Fellowship is an image of the church, especially as they stuggle and work together in the snows of Mount Caradhras. Rutledge cites Ephesians 4:
We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.
Rutledge makes the connection to the Fellowship:
The Fellowship of the Ring is (among other things) an image of the Church. It is a conglomeration of disparate elements, some of which (Elves and Dwarves) have been historical antagonists, yet each with a common calling, now being "joined and knit together." When each part is "working properly" it is being "upbuilt in love," as will gradually unfold--and this will be true even of Boromir.
The friendship that emerges between Gimli and Legolas is a wonderful illustration how, in the Fellowship as Church, the "wall of hostility" between the different races of Middle Earth is dismantled and replaced with friendship, solidarity, mutual care, sacrifice, and love.

The Bleeding Stinking Mad Shadow of Jesus: Part 4, Sacrifice

We've covered the stinking Jesus and the mad Jesus, today the bleeding Jesus.

The point here should be obvious. Following Jesus involves blood, sacrifice. As Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."

A bleeding Jesus isn't a therapeutic Jesus. A bleeding Jesus, as Bonhoeffer pointed out, bids us to come and die. A bleeding Jesus is a costly grace Jesus.

A bleeding Jesus doesn't fit on a Sunday worship stage with a rocking praise band under those soft lights. Blood is a bit of a mess, and it's going to stain the carpet.

The Bleeding Stinking Mad Shadow of Jesus: Part 3, The Shock of a Stinking God

Of course, the author of Unclean has to love describing Jesus as "stinking." As I describe in Unclean, there is an emotional, almost sensory, offense to Jesus. I've shared some of this material before in Advent reflections.

In Unclean, I describe the controversial work Piss Christ by the photographer Andres Serrano. In 1987, Serrano unveiled the work, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a mixture of blood and urine. The work broke into public consciousness in 1989, when members of the US Senate expressed outrage that Serrano had received funding from the American National Endowment for the Arts. Senators called the work “filth,” “blasphemous,” and “abhorrent.” One Senator said, “In naming it, [Serrano] was taunting the American people. He was seeking to create indignation. That is all right for him to be a jerk but let him be a jerk on his own time and with his own resources. Do not dishonor our Lord.” Later, in 1997, the National Gallery in Melbourne, Australia was closed when members of a Christian group attacked and damaged Piss Christ.

Obviously, the content of the photograph is offensive, but a lot of the offense is really in the name, the juxtaposition of the word "piss" with "Christ." What is blasphemous is the contact between something holy and something defiling. Piss contaminates the Christ.

As I describe Unclean, this is an example of the attribution called negativity dominance in judgments of contamination. That is, when the pure comes in contact with the contaminant the pure becomes polluted. The negative dominates over the positive. The power is not with the pure, but sits with the pollutant. 

Once you come to understand the emotional logic of contamination, you can sympathize with why the Pharisees judged Jesus as becoming defiled when he ate with tax collectors and sinners. Given the logic of negativity dominance, the pollutant--the tax collectors and sinners--defiles Jesus, the pure. Again, the negative dominates over the positive. The pollutant is the stronger force. Consequently, it never occurs to the Pharisees, because it is psychologically counter-intuitive, that Jesus's presence might sanctify or purify those sinners he is eating with. Pollution just doesn't work that way.

Returning to the reactions toward Piss Christ, we can see the same logic at work. In the contact between urine and Jesus in Piss Christ we instinctively judge the negative to be stronger than the positive. Thus the shock. Thus the blasphemy.

But the deeper blasphemy just might be this: That we think urine is stronger than Christ, that God making contact with the disgusting parts of human life would somehow contaminate, demean, and defile God. There is something in us that resists Jesus' full participation in the human condition. The spiritual, holy, and divine must be radically separated from the messy, bodily, and, yes, stinking aspects of human life.

But consider Beth Williamson's analysis of Piss Christ:
What are we to make of this work: what are we to understand by it, and how can we interpret it?

Most obviously were enraged by the combination of the most iconic image of Christianity—the Crucified Christ—with human bodily fluid, and felt that this work set out deliberately to provoke viewers to outrage. The artist almost certainly aimed to provoke a reaction, but what reaction?

The fact that urine is involved is crucial here. But was the use of urine simply intended, as some of Serrano’s detractors have claimed, to cause offense? Had the artist deliberately set out to show disrespect to this religious image, by placing it in urine? Some felt this was tantamount to urinating on the crucifix.

I would suggest that, even if some viewers and commentators feel that it was the artist’s intention, or part of his intention, to be offensive, there are also other ways to interpret this work...

The process of viewing the Crucified Christ through the filter of human bodily fluids requires the observer to consider all the ways in which Christ, as both fully divine and full human, really shared in the base physicality of human beings. As a real human being Christ took on all the characteristics of the human body, including its fluids and secretions. The use of urine here can therefore force the viewer to rethink what it meant for Christ to be really and fully human.
In other words, a Jesus that doesn't stink, isn't really a human Jesus. Our God is a stinking God, and that's always going to be a scandal.

The Bleeding Stinking Mad Shadow of Jesus: Part 2, Madness and Morons

Let's start with "mad." By mad, of course, we don't mean angry, we mean crazy. Like the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.

We'd like Jesus to be rational and sensible. We'd like Jesus to add up nicely on our Excel spreadsheets. But Jesus is not rational or sensible, at least not by the calculus of the world. There is something foolish and a bit crazy about Jesus. In the gospels, Jesus' sanity was frequently questioned, once leading to a family intervention:
When his family heard about it, they set out to take charge of him, because people were saying, "He's gone mad!" (Mark 3.21)
Of course, this is also one of Paul's great themes in his letters, the foolishness of the cross:
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
The Greek word for "foolish" here is mōrós. The entry for mōrós from the Strong's Greek Dictionary:
Mōrós (the root of the English terms, "moron, moronic") – properly, dull (insipid), flat ("without an edge"); (figuratively) "mentally inert"; dull in understanding; nonsensical ("moronic"), lacking a grip on reality (acting as though "brainless").
In the eyes of the world, followers of Jesus are morons. We are considered nonsensical, dull, lacking a grip on reality, brainless.

Like our leader, we're a bit mad.

The Bleeding Stinking Mad Shadow of Jesus: Part 1, A Transgressive Jesus

In my blog header I feature a quote from Flannery O'Connor, from her novel The Violent Bear it Away. It's a quote about how Jesus haunts the protagonist of the novel, Francis Tarwater:
...trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus...the Lord out of dust had created him, had made him blood and nerve and mind, had made him to bleed and weep and think, and set him in a world of loss and fire...
The quote echos O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood, how Jesus haunts Hazel Motes, the protagonist of that novel:
Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.
Only Flannery O'Connor would describe Jesus as a "wild ragged figure" and as "bleeding stinking [and] mad." But that's why I love her.

I'd like to take a few posts to explain why I'm so captivated by "the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus."

First, the obvious. Describing Jesus as bleeding, stinking and mad is offensive. And that's what I love about the quote, its offensiveness. Everywhere you turn in Christianity, Jesus is portrayed as attractive, charismatic, and appealing. Jesus is never portrayed as a shock, scandal or stumbling stone.

And yet, that's precisely what Jesus was. There was something transgressive about Jesus. As I explain in Trains, Jesus and Murder, transgressive is a term that comes from the art world. Transgressive art is art that shocks and offends our aesthetic sensibilities.

Jesus was transgressive, he shocked and offended the sensibilities of his time and place. So much so, they killed him.

That is the Jesus I want to follow, the transgressive Jesus. The offensive Jesus. The scandalous, shocking Jesus. The bleeding, stinking, and mad Jesus.

The Crucifixion of George Floyd


This will be a week of silence, prayer, and lament on the blog. If you visit this week, I invite you to join with me in this prayer practice.

Everyday, set a timer for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Lament and cry out to God during this interval for all the black lives that have died under the knee of a white supremacist and Christian nation.

Weep and lament.
Offer up prayers of confession and repentance.
Pray for peace.
Ask for wisdom and courage as you discern the work God is calling you to.

///

There is no one way in which the cross can be interpreted. I offer my reflections because I believe that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice...

Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.
--James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Antichrist



2 Thessalonians 2.3-4, 9-12
Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of sin is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple...

The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 23, Appointment, Freedom, and Story

Our final post about the Council of Elrond as we reach its climax.

After Elrond sets out the course of action, to destroy the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, Frodo steps up to meet his destiny:
An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo's side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.

"I will take the Ring," he said, "though I do not know the way."

Elrond raised his eyes and looked at him, and Frodo felt his heart pierced by the sudden keenness of his glace. "If I understanding aright all that I have heard," he said, "I think that this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will. This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great. Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it?...

"But it is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right..."
Once again, following Fleming Rutledge, we see the deep theological narrative of the story emerge, the "something else" at work. Frodo wonders at his words "as if some other will was using his small voice." And Elrond underlines the providence at work in Frodo's choice, "I think this task is appointed for you, Frodo."

Which raises a theological question about our freedom. We all know the snarly theological issues about freedom and predestination. Rutledge suggests that here, with Frodo's choice, we find a way through these thickets. The task is "appointed" for Frodo, but it's his choice to walk this path. As Elrond says, "If you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right." Both drive the moment, divine appointment and human freedom.

All this makes sense in a narrative, and in the drama of our own lives as well. There are moments where we feel God has orchestrated our lives to bring us to a particular place, person, or choice. We find ourselves, like Esther, divinely situated "for such a time as this." And like Frodo, we freely choose and consent to the predestined path. As theological axioms, freedom and destiny, none of this squares up logically, but as a story it all makes perfect sense.

Masters of Self-Deception

One of the great lessons of Sigmund Freud is that our minds are masters of self-deception. We don't see ourselves very accurately. We like to paint pretty pictures of ourselves, justifying, denying, or avoiding the hard truths we'd rather not face.

I was reminded of this reading Psalm 36, a description of the wicked:
In their own eyes they flatter themselves
too much to detect or hate their sin.
We are masters of self-deception, flattering ourselves to the point where we cannot detect our sin or come to hate it.

The Moment When God Is Closer Than Ever

When we come to a point in our lives where we are completely ashamed of ourselves and before God; when we believe that God especially must now be ashamed of us, and when we feel as far away from God as ever in all our lives---that is the moment in which God is closer to us than ever, wanting to break into our lives, wanting us to feel the presence of the holy and to grasp the miracle of God's love, God's nearness and grace.

--Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Circle Prayer

One of my favorite moments of the week is the concluding prayer of our weekly Bible study out at the prison.

When our time is up we say "Circle up." And then the 50-60 guys get up and move to the edges of the room. We all hold hands and we ask aloud, "Who wants to pray us out?"

Someone volunteers and then leads the prayer.

Most of the petitions are for their families, for God to care for them and keep them safe. They pray for unity and revival on the unit, that God's kingdom come to where they live. They always pray prayers of blessing over Herb and I, and always for our families. And they regularly pray for the guards, which are essentially prayers for, if not enemies, than for the most difficult people in their lives. All this is offered up with both force and conviction. They pray boldly.

After the "Amen" the men come up to Herb and I for goodbye hugs. "Stay safe," I usually say, "We'll see you next week."

Post-Script:
Like most of my posts, I wrote this post three months ago, before COVID-19. The prison went on lock-down in March and all religious programming has been suspended. Many of you have asked me about the Men in White, and sadly, I've been unable to see them face to face for many weeks. In a season of grief, this has been one of my deepest losses. Please keep the men in your prayers.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 22, Small Hands Moving the Wheels of the World

The Council of Elrond finally decides that the Ring must be destroyed. Elrond sets out the task before them:
"The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength or wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere."
Here is one of the great Christian themes in The Lord of the Rings, how this victory over evil will be achieved by "the weak" and those with "small hands." The saving of Middle Earth comes through its smallest, weakest, most unheroic inhabitants, the hobbits of the Shire.

It's a clear echo of 1 Corinthians:
God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.
A contrast could be made between Tolkien's very Christian story in The Lord of the Rings with the imagination we find ascendant in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To be sure, there are Christian themes in Marvel--I'm looking at you Iron Man in the final moments of the battle with Thanos in Endgame--but the imagination of Marvel is Powerful People (aka, superheros) using power virtuously. Virtuous superheros are the saviors of the world.

In Tolkien's world, by contrast, the saviors are the weakest people who refuse to use superpowers and who destroy superpowers.

Why God Matters: The Warrant of Love?

In a recent post I shared that the theological labor of our time is to explain why God matters during seasons of a pandemic independently of science, self-care, and social work. I wrote:
First, when you look at progressive Christian Twitter the spiritual counsel being offered is, well, not all that impressive. It basically boils down to wash your hands, social distance, and practice self-care. All legitimate bits of advice, but you don't really need God for any of this. Just follow the recommendations of the CDC and listen to your therapist. When this is the content of Christian speech during crises--#selfcare and #medicalprofessionals--God isn't adding anything to our lives, or to our ability to cope with challenging times. During pandemics you don't really need God. All you need is science and self-care.

Second, I was on a call with some pastors recently, invited to share some thoughts and encouragements during this difficult time. During the call, one of the pastors lamented how he wished his church had more and better ways to meet the needs of his community as we wrestle with the world of COVID-19. Specifically, there were so many good community organizations already in full swing and doing great work this pastor couldn't see the niche for his church. And without that niche, he felt that the church was useless.

I totally empathized, and encouraged his church to find some place to serve or support the community, but I also offered a caution or, perhaps, a question.

Specifically, the church doesn't primarily exist to do benevolence work in the community. The church should do this sort of work, and I'm even comfortable in saying the church must do this work. But the church can't be reduced to this work.

So I shared with the pastor, you're right, there's lots of good work being done by community organizations. And they often do this work better than the church. But a pressing challenge for pastors is to boldly articulate for your congregation why God matters independently of social work.

My point in all this, again, is that Christians and churches need to articulate why God matters, beyond science, self-care, and social work.
In the comments to that post, and as these reflections bounced around social media, I noted a common response.

The response basically took the form of God as warrant. (Warrant isn't a typical word, but it basically mean to "justify" or "authorize" a course of action. Thus, the "warrant" of an action is your justification or reason for doing what you're doing.)

Specifically, God "matters" because God is the "warrant" for listening to science, self-care, and social work. By far, the most common response I saw to my post was that calls to social distance and wear masks are acts of care and love for our vulnerable neighbors. God calls us to love, and so we love through following the medical recommendations in how to not spread the virus. That's why God matters.

That seems like such a clear answer to my question, but it's missing the point of my critique.

Let me be clear, of course God is our warrant for love, which during a time of pandemic includes social distancing and wearing masks. But the point of my post was that our answer to why God matters can't be reduced to God being the warrant of love. Again, to be very clear, God is the warrant of love, but God can't matter solely for us as the warrant for love. God has to matter, to use the words of my original post, independently from being the warrant for love.

Here's why it's a problem to reduce God to being the warrant of love. There are two parts to the problem.

First, when God is reduced to warrant God is being used as means to an end. God is some moral or psychological prod motivating me to act in prosocial ways.

There's a host of problems when God is used instrumentally like this. For starters, when God is reduced to means the end we're aiming for becomes paramount. For example, if the loving end we're aiming for during a pandemic is social distancing and wearing masks then we each can reach that end from a variety of different paths, from a variety of different warrants. You, as a Christian, might appeal to God. God is your warrant for social distancing and wearing a mask. But non-Christians will have different warrants, their own and different reasons for taking care of the vulnerable. And since the end goal is caring for the vulnerable, these warrants aren't really all that important. The important thing is doing the right thing in social distancing and wearing a mask.

Does God matter in that scenario? Not really. What really matters is social distancing and wearing a mask. The social ends. The means you get to that end are various, and you can get there however you want, but its the end that matters in the end. Which means God doesn't matter.

Sure, God might matter for a few people, but not for most people. Which means God is optional, by definition not necessary. God doesn't really matter.

So you see how we're right back to the point I made in my original post. Commenters who responded with some version of "Well, God matters because God is my warrant for loving the most vulnerable" haven't even started to answer my question.

And those who responded "What does it matter why you do it, just do the right thing." are also just restating the point of my post: Does God matter? Apparently not, for these commenters.

(To be clear, the question "Does God matter?" is meant for people, like me, who think God matters. If a reader doesn't believe in God I don't really care what they have to say about the question.)

Which brings us to the second part of the problem.

The theological concern in reducing God to a warrant is idolatry, using God in the service of some higher value or purpose. In our discussion, this higher value and purpose is social distancing and wearing mask to care for the vulnerable. We see that good and use God to justify doing that good.

The trouble here is that when God is put in the service of some higher good that higher good becomes our god. So when that good shifts or changes, God is redeployed to provide the warrant for that new target. In such a system, where God is the warrant for the good, there's nothing that stands in a critical relationship with our vision of the good. God simply serves whatever we call good.

That's idolatry, and it's also dangerous. To be sure, it's not dangerous to wear a mask or stand six feet away during a pandemic. Just the opposite. For now at least. I don't want to cede total moral authority to doctors and scientists. Doctors and scientists can give us facts, but those facts don't come with values and morals attached. There must be a locus of moral reflection and authority that stands in a critical relationship with doctors and scientists.

So my point isn't that social distancing and wearing masks as an act of love is morally problematic. Not at all. It's the right thing to do. What's dangerous is a particular habit of thinking about God, where God is only useful to us when God gives us a reason for doing something we want to do. The examples abound, historical and current, about the disasters that occur whenever we use God to justify the good as we see it. Reducing God to a warrant is hugely problematic. Perhaps not in the case of social distancing, but the issue here isn't the social distancing but the habit of thinking going on about God during the pandemic.

In fact, I would argue that the greatest threat facing Christianity, among both progressives and evangelicals, is this habit of thinking, using God instrumentally, as a means to an end, as a warrant for something we want to do.

On the one hand, this habit of thinking promotes atheism. Because if you don't need God to be good then God doesn't matter. And on the other hand, this habit of thinking promotes idolatry, God becomes the religious tinsel we sprinkle over whatever we call good. And you see this playing out everywhere. Most progressive Christians are functional atheists and most evangelicals are idolators who use God to justify MAGA nationalism.

Asking why God matters is trying to get down under that rot.

The Broken Signposts of N.T. Wright: Part 9, Natural Theology Revisited

When we revisit the prospects of natural theology through N.T. Wright's broken signposts, we get a sense of how he's splitting the difference between Lord Gifford's hope for the Gifford lectures and Karl Barth's strong "Nein!" about the possibility of human reason ever reaching across the abyss to God.

On the one hand, Wright's seven vocational signposts--justice, beauty, freedom, truth, power, spirituality, and relationships--seem to be pointing us somewhere, toward some vision of human flourishing. In this, Wright's vocational signposts are species of the moral argument for God's existence, that we can discern a "moral texture" to the cosmos that points us toward some Value in the fabric of reality that cannot be reduced to or captured by factual, scientific description.

So the vocational signposts can be taken as evidence of "natural theology," observations we make of the world which tell us something about the existence of God and God's characteristics. But Wright is quick to push back upon that conclusion. For two reasons.

First, the vocational signposts don't really escape the criticism of skeptics who would reduce them to some evolutionary or sociological account. The signposts don't imply theism.

Second, as Wright has been keen to point out, all the signposts are "broken." They don't really point anywhere but to our own failure. And in the face of that failure, coupled with the objections made by skeptics, the prospect of natural theology evaporates. As Wright summarizes:
The seven 'vocations', then, are at best broken signposts. They appear to be pointing somewhere, but they lead into the dark, or over a cliff, or around in circles to where we began. Were they just wraiths, the ghosts of our own imaginings? Were they just random impulses in a late-developed evolutionary pattern? Were they, after all, the wrong questions to ask? Should we simply have capitulated to the cool Epicurean cynicism: yes, we feel these things, but they don't really mean anything, and we should silence such irrelevant voices and pursue the placid pleasures available to us here and now? Or should we smile an early Barthian smile and say, Well, there you are, nothing good was ever going to come from all that?

Is there a way forward from this apparent impasse?
For Wright, the way forward is Christology. The goal of natural theology has always been to reason upward toward some abstracted notion of God, the "God of the philosophers." But for Wright, the vocational signposts only make sense when we read them backwards onto Israel's history in light of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Humanity (in Adam) and then Israel was given a vocation by God. And in that vocation we have a glimpse of what it means to "be a human being." But humanity failed. We dropped and broke our vocation, shattering it into a thousand pieces--the broken signposts. Both that vocation and our failure only come into view when we look at Jesus on the cross. The broken signposts won't enable you to reason your way upward to some abstract notion of God. But the broken signposts can bring you to the foot of the cross, where God reveals his glory in the crucified Jesus.

You can't make sense of justice, beauty, freedom, truth, power, spirituality, and relationships independently from Jesus. You can't discern human vocation separate from the cross. You can't know what it means to be a human being except through Christ. This is Wright's argument, that human vocation as revealed in the signposts only make sense when read backwards (and now forwards) from the cross. Jesus fulfills Adam's and Israel's vocation.

That is natural theology for N.T. Wright: the cross, as a public event within history and not as an abstract philosophical proposition, is the only true signpost in human history. And through that signpost all the other signposts will find their proper place and expression.

For outside of the cross, all signposts--all our attempts at justice, beauty, freedom, truth, power, spirituality, and relationships--are bound to brokenness, confusion, and futility.