N.T. Wright on The Second Coming of Jesus

As regular readers know, I've written here before about preterism, the view that all biblical prophesies concerning "the second coming" of Jesus are references to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Preterism has been a stream of thought within my faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, but has mostly been dismissed as crackpot.

And yet, my interest in preterism stems from the fact that the view is increasingly getting support from biblical scholarship. N.T. Wright is a case in point.

For example, in a recent article "Hope deferred? Against the dogma of delay" (published in Early Christianity, 2018, Vol. 9, p. 37-82) Wright, among other things in the article, looks at two of the key "second coming" texts from the gospel of Mark:
Mark 9.1
And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Mark 14. 61-62
But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’”
In both passages, Jesus proclaims that the present generation--his audience in Mark 9 and the High Priest in Mark 14--will witness in their lifetime the kingdom of God coming "with power" and the Son of Man coming in the clouds

What could this possibly mean?

Wright argues that the answer is found in Mark 13. In Mark 13 Jesus again speaks of this "second coming":
Mark 13.24-27
“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
This passage in Mark, along with its parallels in Matthew and Luke, are generally read as predictions about some future event related to Judgment Day and the end of the world. And yet, as Wright points out, the events in Mark 13 are clearly about the destruction of the Temple. Jesus' discourse in Mark 13 kicks off this way:
Mark 13.1-4
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 
For Wright, and myself, Mark 13 provides the key to understanding Mark 9 and 14: The second coming of Jesus that would happen within a generation was the calamity of AD 70 when the Temple was destroyed. As Wright comments:
What about Mark himself? Did he think, in writing the passages in Mark 9:1 and 14:62, two of the regularly-cited key texts, that Jesus had been predicting a cosmic catastrophe? The main answer to this is found in Mark 13...this so-called "apocalyptic discourse" is primarily about the fall of the temple...This, indeed, is the event which will happen within a generation...And everything we have seen so far from Paul, from Matthew and from Luke insists that we should read this language [about Jesus's "second coming"] in terms of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus on the one hand and the fall of the Temple (the heaven-and-earth place) on the other.

Gentleness as Contact

Yes, one more post talking about rain and hail. :-)

While Jesus never spoke of damaging hail, he did speak of our love falling upon people as refreshing rain:
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5.44-45)
The fruit of the Spirit I think of when I think of rain is gentleness. A gentle rain. Nothing quite moves me spiritually as a soft, gentle rain falling on trees, flowers or grass. Seriously, a soft, gentle rain will quickly send me into deep, mystical, spiritual reveries.

All that to say, if we want to fall on others like rain, gentleness is what comes to mind. Gentleness is the opposite of hitting people like hailstones.

And yet, I don't think I've ever heard a sermon on the virtue of gentleness. Kindness, yes. But not gentleness. Are they different, kindness versus gentleness? Patience versus gentleness? Mercy versus gentleness?

Of course, they are all related. But in the semantic range of English, gentleness seems to evoke notions of contact. Gentleness makes contact softly, calmly and tenderly. Something harsh, by contrast, makes contact in ways that hit us hard and roughly. You can, I imagine, do something kind and merciful in a way that isn't gentle. Which is why, I'm thinking, gentleness, in the biblical Greek, slides into notion of meekness. Meekness seems to be less about what you do in the world than how you go about doing it. I think gentleness points to a similar idea. It's less about what you are doing than how you are doing it.

Which is why, to loop back to rain and hail, rain is gentle and hail is harsh. Both are examples of contact, two objects meeting. Which makes it a great metaphor for human interactions. We make contact with each other, all the time, in ways that can be either soothing or damaging, gentle or harsh.

The Divine Comedy: Week 40, Love and Light

Let's retrace our steps across these thirty-nine posts. We've journeyed down through hell in the Inferno, to the frozen center of the earth. From there, we climbed up back to the surface and then upward through the terraces of Mount Purgatory.

And now, here at the start of the Paradiso, we will begin to rise above the earth and through the heavens.

I say heavens plural as, like hell and purgatory, Dante will rise with Beatrice through heavenly levels, the the heavenly "spheres," each sphere/heaven associated with a planetary body. The "map" of Paradise is basically a reflection of Ptolemaic cosmology. The spheres/heavens:
1st: Moon
2nd: Mercury
3rd: Venus
4th the Sun
5th Mars
6th: Jupiter
7th: Saturn
8th: the Fixed Stars
9th: Primum Mobile
Above/beyond the Primum Mobile, the final physical heaven which is the abode of the angels, is the the Empyrean, the abode of God.

Paradise, we'll come to find, is all about light. The glory of God shines down from the Empyrean and is refracted through the nine heavenly spheres, filling them with light. And as the Pilgrim rises up through each heaven, the souls he encounters will appear as flashing, glowing, dancing, multi-colored lights. It's all a huge light show.

And as we'll also come to find, one of the beautiful ideas in the Divine Comedy is how the heavens move because of the love of God. Dante's is an enchanted, magical, supernatural cosmology. Instead of the laws of gravity and planetary motion, love moves the planets and the stars.

In the Divine Comedy, paradise is all about love and light.

Hail and Bruised People

Thinking about my metaphor from yesterday--Are you falling on others as refreshing rain or damaging hail?--brought to mind one of my favorite descriptions of Jesus, from a prophecy in Isaiah:
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. (Matthew 12.20)
The "damaging hail" metaphor brought this text to mind as (1) we get a lot of hail here in West Texas, and (2) there's also a lot of agriculture in West Texas. So the image of hail damaging fragile plants (the breaking of bruised reeds) is a common one around here.

All that to say, there's a lot of fragile, vulnerable people out there. A lot of bruised people. Are we falling on them like rain or hail?

Are You Rain or Hail?

Sometimes images and metaphors come to me unawares in the middle of teaching or preaching.

Recently, I was talking with a group of church staff sharing how in our pursuit of God we can become so focused upon going upward toward God, our hearts directed in a heavenly, spiritual direction, that we fail to come down from the clouds to approach each other, here on earth, in loving and gracious ways. As the old gospel song says, we become so heavenly minded we are no earthly good. Even worse, we can become self-righteous and judgmental. In our spiritual pride we can hurt people.

Anyway, in trying to share this idea, this image came to mind and I shared it off the cuff:
"We become so focused upon heaven we get pulled higher and higher, so high in the clouds we freeze, so we fall to earth not as refreshing rain but as damaging hail."
I think that's a great way to think of the contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels. Jesus fell upon the earth as a gentle rain, where the Pharisees, in their pursuit of spiritual/heavenly purity, fell upon people as damaging hail.

Release Day!

Today is the official release day of Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel of Johnny Cash. It's exciting, and a bit of a relief, to finally get to this date.

As an author, I try not to swamp you with too much book release stuff. But today is a day to ask for a favor. If this blog has meant anything to you over the years, and you've wanted a way to say "Thank You," you can do one or two things for me today.

First, share the book link today on social media! (Amazon link is here. Indie book link is here.) Even if you're not planning to read the book or can't endorse it (because you haven't read it), even a neutral shout out like "Richard Beck has a new book out about Johnny Cash" would be appreciated.

Second, if you read the book and like it, consider giving it a review and some stars on Amazon or wherever book reviews are found.

Thank you for all your help today!

Hermeneutics as Spiritual Formation

We're in a season of discernment at our church, and yesterday David Kneip, a colleague at ACU, gave a presentation about how we read and interpret the Bible.

During David's presentation, he made a point that I think is very insightful. David mentioned how, in our faith tradition, we've always worked hard to "obey" the Bible. And while that's a commendable goal, David pointed out that this desire has had some unintended consequences.

Specifically, the desire to "obey" the Bible shapes how we think about God. God becomes a Rule Giver, and our relationship with God then reduced to how well we follow the rules. And that whole scheme, David pointed out, makes us very anxious. What if we get it wrong and break the rules?

There's been amble commentary on how this way of reading the Bible creates anxiety. But the deeper point I discerned in what David shared was how hermeneutics functions as spiritual formation.

Hermeneutics shapes our hearts and minds. Hermeneutical strategies can habit us into an anxious posture, making us more neurotic in our relationship with God.

The Trains, Jesus and Murder Soundtrack on Spotify!

Every chapter of Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash is built around a Johnny Cash song. In order, these are the songs and the chapters:
Chapter 1: “I Am Bound for the Promised Land”
Chapter 2: “I Walk the Line”
Chapter 3: “The Man in Black”
Chapter 4: “Folsom Prison Blues”
Chapter 5: “Greystone Chapel”
Chapter 6: “San Quentin”
Chapter 7: “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”
Chapter 8: “Give My Love to Rose”
Chapter 9: “The Legend of John Henry's Hammer”
Chapter 10: “Sunday Mornin' Coming Down”
Chapter 11: “Ragged Old Flag”
Chapter 12: “Drive On”
Chapter 13: “Delia’s Gone”
Chapter 14: “Hurt”
Chapter 15: “The Man Comes Around”
Epilogue: "The Gospel Road"
This list isn't a greatest hits compilation, though some of those hits are here: "I Walk the Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues" from early in Cash's career, to "Hurt" and "The Man Comes Around" from the later years. I selected the songs to illustrate or highlight some theological or biographical aspect of Cash's career.

For example, the very first chapter about Cash's boyhood is built around "I Am Bound for the Promised Land," the very first song Cash remembered hearing as a child. In Chapter 10, I use "Sunday Mornin' Coming Down" to tell the story of Cash's drug addiction. In Chapter 11 I use "Ragged Old Flag" to discuss how the gospel intersects with Cash's patriotism.

If you want to listen to the soundtrack of Trains, Jesus and Murder, Fortress Press has pulled the songs together on a Spotify playlist. It's a great way to listen your way through the book.

Trains, Jesus, and Murder officially launches next week, on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Books are shipping now! Get your copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Indiebound.

If you'd like to help launch the book, give it some social media love leading up to November 5. And if you like the book, consider giving it a review online.

If you're interested me bringing the gospel and Johnny Cash to your church, school or organization, I'd be excited to explore that with you. My speaking schedule and contact info is here.

The Beer I Had For Breakfast Wasn’t Bad So I Had One More For Dessert

As I pointed out in my last post, one of the major themes in Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash is that the gospel is rooted in solidarity, God standing with the oppressed, excluded and marginalized. Cash gave voice to this gospel when he sang for "the poor and beaten down, livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town."

Another aspect of the gospel is how grace comes to us in our weakness and in our hurt, as Cash also gave voice to late in his career when he covered Trent Reznor's "Hurt."



In Trains, Jesus and Murder I explore these themes of hurt and grace through the story of Cash's struggle with addiction. This is the theme of my third post on the Tokens Show blog:

The song Cash felt best described this time of his life was his cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down,” a song Kristofferson wrote to give voice to his own battles with substance use. Looking back over the years of his addiction, Cash said about the song, “It didn’t hit me until one day when I was at home and out by the lake and I realized how far I had come from the days when I felt like the man in the song…so empty and alone. All of a sudden the lines of the song started running through my head and I realized I could identify with every one of them”:

Well I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head, that didn't hurt
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad
So I had one more for dessert
Then I fumbled in my closet through my clothes
And found my cleanest dirty shirt
Then I washed my face and combed my hair
And stumbled down the stairs to meet the day

On a Sunday morning sidewalk
I'm wishing Lord that I was stoned
'Cause there's something in a Sunday
That makes a body feel alone
And there's nothin' short of dyin'
That's half as lonesome as the sound
Of the sleepin' city sidewalk
And Sunday mornin' comin' down
Read the whole post here on the Tokens Show blog.

Trains, Jesus, and Murder officially launches next week, on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Books are shipping now! Get your copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Indiebound.

If you'd like to help launch the book, give it some social media love leading up to November 5. And if you like the book, consider giving it a review online somewhere.

Also, as I'll share through the week, if you're interested me bringing the gospel and Johnny Cash to your church, school or organization, I'd be excited to explore that with you. My speaking schedule and contact info is here.

San Quentin, You've Been Livin' Hell to Me

Part 2 of my series on the Tokens Show blog comes from Chapter 6 of Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash.

The post starts this way:
“Sing it, Cash!” the prisoners roared and screamed. “You know it man, we’re all in hell in here!”

If the gospel according to Johnny Cash is a message of God's solidarity with the poor and oppressed, my favorite example of this comes from the time when Cash almost started a prison riot.

Cash started playing prison concerts in the late 50s. His first concert, in 1959, was in Huntsville, TX. A thunderstorm hit during the outdoor show, soaking the performers and causing a power outage. But what should have been a disaster proved to be a revelation. The enthusiasm and the gratitude from the inmates that day overwhelmed Cash. Cash was so moved by the experience he quickly scheduled another concert at the notorious San Quentin prison. Over the next ten years, Cash would do over thirty prison shows, without compensation. And what he observed during those shows pricked his heart and fueled his activism in the 70s when he became a national voice calling for prison reform. 
Read the whole post "San Quentin, You've Been Livin' Hell to Me" here on the Tokens Show blog.

Trains, Jesus, and Murder officially launches next week, on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Get your copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Indiebound.

Again, if you'd like to help launch the book, give it some social media love leading up to November 5.

And if you're interested in me bringing the gospel and Johnny Cash to your church, school or organization, I'd be excited to explore that with you. My speaking schedule and contact info is here.

What Is the Gospel According to Johnny Cash?

To give you a peek into some of the themes of Trains, Jesus and Murder, I recently wrote some posts for the Tokens Show blog.

Part 1 of the series used the title of the book: "Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash."

If you want a hint about what "the gospel according to Johnny Cash" looks like, the post (using material from the book) is a good introduction. Here's a snippet:
The gospel is rooted in God’s solidarity with the marginalized...This was the gospel the Man in Black proclaimed when he stood on the stage of Folsom Prison and sang songs for “the poor and the beaten down, livin’ in the hopeless hungry side of town." ...

The gospel also proclaims that grace comes to us in our failures and weaknesses. Cash’s struggle with drug addiction is well known, and the pain and damage he caused during those years haunted him, regrets that found artistic expression toward the end of his life in his cover of Trent Reznor’s song “Hurt.” 
Read the whole post here on the Tokens Show blog. 

And again, Trains, Jesus, and Murder officially launches next week, on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Get your copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Indiebound.

If you'd like to help launch the book, give it some social media love leading up to November 5.

Also, as I'll share through the week, if you're interested me bringing the gospel and Johnny Cash to your church, school or organization, I'd be excited to explore that with you. My speaking schedule and contact info is here.

Trains, Jesus, and Murder: Endorsements and Advance Reviews

As you can see, I got my copies of Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash in the mail!

Get ready for a week of Johnny Cash, as the book officially launches next Tuesday. If you'd like to help with the launch, share some social media love about the book this week and next on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. It would be most appreciated.

Some endorsements for the book:
For longtime fans and those who know nothing about the Man in Black, this book is a profound and beautiful meditation on the spiritual legacy of Cash, a story of how each of us can find salvation and grace in surprising and unlikely places. Trains, Jesus and Murder will heal your heart, stir your soul, and call you to action.
--Ian Morgan Cron, author of The Road Back to You

Trains, Jesus, and Murder is a moving account of Johnny Cash, which simultaneously teaches us much about the cultural matrix we call Americana and the meaning of the gospel--one that encompasses our deep brokenness and the possibilities of a grace so beautiful that it could only be approached in lyric and song.
--Lee C. Camp, host of Tokens Show (TokensShow.com) and professor, Lipscomb University, Nashville

This is a book for everyone, even if you are new to the music of the Man in Black. I wouldn't have considered myself a Johnny Cash fan, but that changed with Beck's thoughtful storytelling about this beautiful, yet troubled man who somehow found salvation with the damned.
--Luke Norsworthy, pastor; author of God over Good

Beck's book is a fascinating, engaging, and contextualized deep dive into the sacramental gifts Cash gave us through his music, poetry, stories, and worldview, reminding us of the power of being seen and heard. Cash's legacy is one of deep theology, driven by a train-like rhythm, that points us toward redemption--and Beck has captured it perfectly.
--Jayme R. Reaves, public theologian and coordinator for the Centre for Encountering the Bible, Sarum College, Salisbury, England

Beck's voice is perfectly pitched throughout, rooted in his own ministry to the incarcerated, and refracted through his dual expertise as both a psychologist and a theologian, Bravo. What an extraordinary and wonderful book.
--Eve Poole, author of Leadersmithing and Capitalism's Toxic Assumptions

Not only does it hum with the heart and story of the Man in Black, it also clears the dust off of Johnny Cash's deeply held theology. This is a beautiful book.
--David Benjamin Blower, musician, author of Sympathy for Jonah, host of the Nomad Podcast

Richard Beck captures Johnny Cash in ways no one else might, exploring our universal struggles at the intersection of brokenness, healing, and faith. You don't have to love Johnny Cash to be captivated by him and, more importantly, by the Jesus who is reaching out to you the same way he did the Man in Black.
--Sean Isaac Palmer, author of Unarmed Empire: In Search of Beloved Community, speaking coach, and teaching pastor, Ecclesia Houston
And for advanced reviews:
Publishers Weekly called the book "beautiful."

Booklist described it as "haunting" and a "must read."

And the Englewood Review of Books listed it among the Fall 2019 Most Anticipated Books for Christian Readers.
Get your copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Indiebound.

Also, if you're interested me bringing the gospel and Johnny Cash to your church, school or organization, feel free to make an inquiry (my speaking schedule and contact info is here). I've already shared the gospel messages in Trains, Jesus and Murder in class settings and sermons, mixing live Johnny Cash music (and encouraging the audience to sing along!) with theological reflection.

The Divine Comedy: Week 39, Beatrice

In the Garden of Eden, at the top of Mount Purgatory, the Pilgrim will meet the next guide in his journey, the one who will lead him upwards through Paradise.

If Vigil represented Reason, the next guide, Beatrice, will represent Faith.

The relationship between the real life Beatrice, and the one we encounter in the The Divine Comedy, is a bit of a literary mystery and puzzle. How connected are the two?

According to Dante, he only met Beatrice Portinari twice in his life. Both encounters were short and fleeting, almost impressionistic. The first encounter was when they were children. They met once more, nine years later, when they passed on the street. Hardly knowing each other, both Dante and Beatrice married different people. Beatrice died in 1290, at the age of 24. After her death, Dante would compose poems to her memory.

Dante's fascination with Beatrice is strange, to me at least. The short, fleeting nature of their meetings doesn't seem to justify the depth and intensity of Dante's feelings for her. To say nothing about the fact that Dante was married to another woman. What was going on in Dante's heart and mind?

Hard to say, really. Something like a courtly love--an idealized, pure, unconsummated, ennobling love--at first sight. What does seem clear is that there was something in Beatrice that came to symbolize for Dante the object of desire and love. And maybe their lack of contact helped create that symbolism. Beatrice became a cipher for Dante's romantic, and eventually, spiritual longings.

And perhaps that's the point, the connection between romantic love and spiritual longing. As we've seen in The Divine Comedy, God created us to be lovers. And all our loves, even Dante's courtly love for Beatrice, are drawing us and pointing us toward our ultimate desire.

And so, ten years after her death, Dante, in the literary guise of the the Pilgrim, beholds Beatrice again in the Garden of Eden. The vision that filled him with love on earth will now serve as our guide, pointing beyond herself to the Love behind all our loves.

Psychology, Theology and Halloween

If you're a long time reader of the blog, you know that when Halloween rolled around I'd post and re-post all my collected psychological and theological ruminations about Halloween.

I haven't linked to those posts in a many years, but today a throwback post to the early years of the blog.

Here, for your Halloween edification, are some links to my monster and Halloween-themed posts:

Religion as Rightness

As the sociologists will tell you, religion is notoriously difficult to define. Typically, religion is defined as sacred beliefs and rituals that bind a community together.

I was struck by John Haught's definition of religion in his recent book The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe. It's a view of religion that's been rattling around in my brain.

According to Haught, "religion" refers to a seismic change in human consciousness that occurred during the Axial age, the great spiritual awakening that occurred in the East, in Greece, and in the births of the Abrahamic faiths. Religion, for Haught, names what emerged in cosmic history during this epoch, and what is held in common across these wisdom traditions.

And what would that be? What is the core of religion?

According to Haught, the core insight of religion is "rightness." Here is Haught describing the dawn of "rightness" in human consciousness during the Axial age:
What was occurring during the axial period--and continues now--was the birth of a new sense of rightness. The new wave of consciousness began to make sharper distinctions than ever before between a right way and a wrong way to live, think, act, work, and pray. Indian mystics during the axial period, for example, distinguished a higher calling to reality and truth from a lower and lazier contentment with illusion and attachment to immediacy. They sought to purify piety of contamination by distracting symbolic imagery and warned against a life of vain attachment to passing allurements. Ultimate rightness, they said, is neti neit, "not this, not that." ... The Buddha (circa 500 BCE), in his Noble Eightfold Path, sought to teach right wisdom, right action, and right appreciation. Even though he was not concerned with finding a deity to worship, or a permanence beneath perishing, the Buddha was nonetheless measuring human piety, moral conduct, and wisdom in accordance with an incorruptible standard of "rightness." In China Laozi was looking for the right Way. In the Greek world Socrates and Plato noted the sharp difference between opinion and truth, between what is transient and imperfect on the one hand and what is real and perfectly good on the other. The prophets of Israel a bit earlier had laid out a path for authentic human existence in which "doing right" (tzedek, tzedekah, mishpat) came to be associated less with sacrificial offerings and more intimately with the ideal of social justice as commanded by a God whose preeminent concern was for the poor and oppressed. The prophet Micah taught that the right way to live is "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). Centuries later Jesus of Nazareth, identifying himself with the prophetic tradition, distinguished between the present age of injustice and the "right" age of compassion and peace now dawning. He spoke of a "reign of God" in which superabundant love would transcend mere fairness. His apostle Paul referred to the work of Jesus as "justification," a term that implies "making things right." The evangelist Luke wrote of the early Christian movement as the "the (right) way" (hodos), and the Gospel of John presents Jesus as "the way, the truth and the life." Still later, Muhammad would set forth the Five Pillars of Islam as the way to keep his followers on the right course in their pilgrimage on Earth.
Not denying the existence of supernatural beliefs and rituals throughout history, Haught defines the core of religion as this dawning of "rightness." He writes:
When I use the term "religion" in this book, I therefore mean an awakening to the dawning of "rightness" ... It was during this "axial" time in human history that devotees began to acknowledge formally that rightness is real--indeed more real than anything else.
And a bit more from Haught on the connection between rightness and religion:
The long and gradual cosmic awakening to rightness has become explicit, in widely different ways, in wisdom traditions such as Hinduism, Daoism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Platonism, Christianity, and Islam. By promoting values that they take to be universally and unconditionally good--for example, compassion for life, love of truth, and care for other humans--religious traditions sometimes think of rightness worshipfully. For them it is the transcendent ground of all being, truth, and value. At times they enshrine, adore, and even personify rightness, treasuring it as what is most real. To emphasize its universal and inexpressible realness, they endow it with the qualities of hiddenness, transcendence, and indestructibility. To religion the inaccessible, comprehensive, and unsettling reality of rightness is the ultimate reason why humans seek truth, why we have a sense of obligation, and why we long restlessly for perfect beauty. In our intellectual, moral, and aesthetic experiences we all, at least tacitly, anticipate rightness--even when we deny it. This becomes obvious whenever we catch ourselves in the act of looking for right understanding, right action, and right satisfaction. Even ordinary human consciousness is inseparable from a tasting of rightness.

In religion, however, the tasting intensifies to the point of savoring. In religion people become explicitly and thankfully aware of the reality of rightness. Religion is a gradual but grateful awakening to the elusive horizon of unrestricted being, goodness, truth, and beauty. These are "transcendental" ideals that, for the sake of linguistic economy, I refer to collectively as rightness.

The Kingdom as Agriculture

It's not news that Jesus was drawn to agricultural metaphors when he shared parables about the Kingdom of God. But I've been thinking about that more and more, wondering what Jesus was getting at.

Specifically, I was reading in Mark 4 where Jesus compares the kingdom to planting and seeds three times in quick succession. 

The Parable of the Sower: "A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path...seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

The Parable of the Seed: "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

The Parable of the Mustard Seed: "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Of course, each parable has its own particular interpretation. The seed needs receptive soil. The seed grows on its own. The seed will grow beyond its humble beginnings. Each of these, held together, provides a window into how Jesus thought about what he was doing in the gospels.

But what I want to ask is this: Is there something significant in thinking about the kingdom in these agricultural terms?

What strikes me is that, given the military and conquest expectations Israel had for her Messiah, these agricultural metaphors seem very unexpected. When you think of "kingdom" you don't, I expect, tend to stare at a seed growing, day after day. When you think of "kingdom" you think of armies, walls, territory, and power. You think of Empire.

And then here comes Jesus with something that sounds like this: "The Kingdom of God is like watching grass grow." How anti-Empire is that vision? And watching the grass grow is a strange sort of Revolution. Watching the grass grow isn't, I'm guessing, anyone's view of The Resistance.

Some other thoughts:

What does it mean that the kingdom is sown rather than taken?

What does it mean that the kingdom requires waiting and passivity rather than forcing and activity?

What does it mean that the kingdom begins with the smallest thing rather than the largest?

All that to say, I think there is something deeply subversive going on in Jesus's agricultural parables.

The Divine Comedy: Week 38, Let Pleasure Be Your Guide

Having arrived at the Garden of Eden, with hell and purgatory behind them, Virgil's final words to the Pilgrim before his departure are moving and profound:
"I led you here with skill and intellect;
from here on, let your pleasure be your guide:
the narrow ways, the steep, are far below.

Behold the sun shining upon your brow,
behold the tender grass, the flowers, the trees,
which, here, the earth produces of itself.

Until those lovely eyes rejoicing come,
which, tearful, once urged me to come to you,
you may, sit here, or wander, as you please.

Expect no longer words or signs from me.
Now is your will upright, wholesome and free,
and not to heed its pleasure would be wrong:

I crown and miter you lord of yourself!"
Here is Dante's vision of a sanctified and purified humanity. Here our loves are finally healed, our bent desires finally straightened. Here the heart is finally tamed as we can "rule" and "govern" our passions ("I crown and miter you lord of yourself!")

At long last, the Pilgrim is able to obey Augustine's famous admonition: "Love, and do what you will."

Or, as Virgil puts it: "Let your pleasure be your guide."

Before this moment, following our passions, desires, and pleasures would have led us away from God, our loves being bent and disordered. But now, pleasure leads us rightly and truly, because our "will is upright, wholesome and free." Delight has always been the goal, God's deepest dream for our lives. In fact, when our loves are healed to resist pleasure would be to fall back into sin and away from God. As Virgil says, once our love is healed to "not heed its pleasure would be wrong."

Business or the Bible? Thoughts about Science and Evangelicalism

I don't think I'm surprising anyone when I say that evangelicals have a troubled relationship with science.

For most of evangelicalism's history, the conflict has been about evolution. But more recently, the issue has been with how evangelicals approach the science of climate change. As with evolution, we see evangelicals displaying greater resistance to the scientific consensus when compared with other demographic groups.

That similarity, I think, has caused many to assume that evangelicals are just plain antagonistic toward science generally, across the board. And that may be, but I think the situation is both more complex and more damning.

Let me start by saying something surprising: I sympathize with why evangelicals struggle with evolution. I don't agree, but I sympathize.

I sympathize because, if you are committed to reading the Bible as literally as you can, I can see how your reading of Genesis 1-2 creates conflicts with science. And as a Christian, I can also sympathize with why you'd want to embrace the Bible over any human consensus, even if that consensus was scientific.

So again, I sympathize with Christians who reject evolution. I disagree, but I can see and sympathize with how they connect the dots. I appreciate the desire to honor the Bible.

But when we turn to climate change, things are a bit different.

Here's the biggest difference: There's nothing in the Bible that conflicts with climate change science. Climate change science poses no Biblical or hermeneutical crisis for the Christian, forcing you to choose the Bible over facts.

This makes climate change wholly different from how evangelicals have approached evolution. Yes, there is science denialism at work in both instances, but that denialism has to be coming from two different places. We know the Bible is the source of resistance to evolution. But where is the resistance coming from when it comes to climate change?

I think the answer is obvious. Resistance to climate change science is rooted in a resistance to a regulatory state, especially regulations over industry and markets. If climate change isn't "real," or is real but isn't "man made," then it is illegitimate for the state to regulate industry and markets to help heal and restore the climate.

Basically, climate change denialism is rooted in a free market ideology.

And this is why climate change denialism among evangelicals is so damning. I can see the defense of the Bible in their resistance to evolution. And as a fellow Christian, I can even respect that position. More, a Creation museum is pretty innocuous. Believing in a literal seven day creation doesn't hurt anyone.

But with climate change, we see evangelicals defending free markets. But even worse, this denialism isn't innocuous, like believing in a literal seven day creation. This denialism causes damage and affects our neighbors.

In short, the heart of my observation here is to draw attention to the different sources of science denialism at work among evangelicals, and what that reveals about evangelicalism. The evangelical conflict with evolution is about the Bible. The conflict with climate science is a free market ideology. And that reveals a lot about what evangelicalism has become in recent decades, less a Christian movement than a political one.

A concluding note, for those who would like to push back and debate the science of climate change.

I'm willing, for the sake of my argument, to put a question mark around the science. If we bracket the scientific question, what we'll see is that my argument is really a sociological observation. Specifically, there is no Biblical reason why evangelicals should deny climate change more than any other demographic group. So something else has to be driving that opinion. And if it's not the Bible, then what? Well, again, I think the answer is obvious and brings me right back to my conclusion:

Evangelicalism defends politics as much as it defends the Bible, making it less a Christian movement than an ideological one.

The Generous Orthodoxy of Herman Melville

For the past few summers I've been setting myself the task to read one classic novel.

This summer I read Moby Dick. It's a novel about a whale, who might be God, the devil, Nature, or who knows what. Scholars debate the matter. :-)

One of my favorite quotes, from early in the book, is from the narrator Ishmael who is reconciling himself to Queequeg's paganism:
Let him be, I say: and Heaven have mercy on us all - Presbyterians and Pagans alike - for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.

The Metaphysical Emotions: Part 5, Mattering

Self-esteem isn't wholly an emotion, but emotions are deeply involved in how we experience the self. William James described self-esteem as the “average tone of self-feeling.” Psychologists Mark Leary and Roy Baumeister in their work on self-esteem describe it as “affectively laden self-evaluations.”

So feelings are definitely a part of our experience of self. I think we all understand this, how emotions are wrapped up with our sense of self. We can feel pride and delight in the self, anger at the self, ashamed of the self, and on and on. The "average tone" of all those feelings is a large part of our experience of self-esteem.

Obviously, our "average tone of self-feeling" has a huge impact upon mental health and well-being. The trouble is, as noted in Part 4, feelings are tethered to the environment. Emotions related to the self go up or down depending upon our successes and failures. In fact, most psychological theories of self-esteem argue that it functions as a sort of thermometer, assessing how well we're doing in life. If we're achieving our goals and finding friends the thermometer of self-esteem rises: we feel good about ourselves. However, if we're running into failure and experiencing loneliness the thermometer falls: we experience lower self-esteem. Again, that's the point of emotions, to give us environmental feedback.

The trouble with this, obviously, is that our self-esteem gets pulled up and down by life. Self-esteem becomes a roller-coaster ride. The psychologist Michael Kernis describes this aspect of self-esteem as the "stability of self-esteem." Is your self-esteem stable or unstable? A self-esteem closely tied to successes and failures creates a fragile, unstable, contingent self-esteem, a feeling of worthiness that rises or falls depending upon how life is going. And that's a dicey proposition, placing your value and worthiness in the hands of others and the environment. All has to go perfectly in life for you to feel significant, valuable, and worthy. Yet life is rarely perfect. We come from broken homes. We carry broken dreams. We experience rejection and failure. And our "average tone of self-feeling" reflects all that. No wonder we're such a mess.

Well-being, by contrast, needs to be associated with a stable self-esteem, a self-esteem that isn't contingent but unconditional, a worthiness that is durable and consistent, one not tied so closely to the ups and downs of our successes and failures.

What would that look like? One vision of a stable, unconditional self-esteem is called mattering in the field of positive psychology. Mattering is an existential stance toward the self (though I'd say it's more metaphysical than existential) that gives the self a sense of durable significance, value, dignity, and worthiness. Simply, you matter, your life and struggles have value and significance, no matter what. You are worthy, no matter what.

Not surprisingly, feeling that you matter--feeling worthy of love and belonging--is associated with well-being. Brene Brown, anyone?

And again, what's fascinating here is how mattering requires a metaphysical, religious attitude. Consider this item from a recent scale developed by psychologists to assess mattering: "Whether my life ever existed matters even in the grand scheme of the universe." The question behind that question is, why? What makes your life matter in some durable, cosmic sense? What anchors and secures your worthiness in the midst of a vast, indifferent, insensible universe?

The answers to those questions--What ontologically grounds and secures your mattering?--highlight the metaphysical, religious aspect of stable, unconditional self-esteem--a worthiness, dignity, value, and significance that transcends our empirical circumstance. As I've said before on this blog, the problem of self-esteem cannot be solved therapeutically, it can only be solved religiously. The research on unstable self-esteem and mattering illustrate why.   

And that brings us to the end of this series. To summarize:

Gratitude, joy, hope, and mattering are vital to human flourishing.

And each emotion requires that we adopt an eccentric, religious posture, a grounding, foundation, and source from "beyond" the empirical, factual, and observable.

Faith as the foundation of human flourishing. 

The Metaphysical Emotions: Part 4, Joy

Paul's letter to Philippians is famously called his "Epistle of Joy." Why? Because Paul mentions "joy" or "rejoice" sixteen times across four chapters. That's a lot of happiness pouring out. You'll recall the famous refrain from the letter: "Rejoice in the Lord always. And again I say: Rejoice!"

But here's the crazy thing: Philippians is a prison letter. Paul was incarcerated when he wrote his Ode to Joy.

There's lots of ways to define "joy," but my definition is illustrated in Paul's letter to the Philippians. Joy is the experience of great delight regardless of external circumstance. Joy is singing "Rejoice!" while sitting in a jail cell. Paul makes the point well in the letter:
I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. 
Regardless of circumstances, Paul's contentment and joy remains constant: "I have learned the secret to being content in any and every situation."

And what's "the secret"? This: "I can do all things through him who gives me strength."

In short, like gratitude and hope, joy has a metaphysical structure. How so?

Emotions, by definition, are triggered by environmental events. That is what emotions are for, their adaptive purpose. Emotions give us environmental feedback. In the face of uncertainty we experience anxiety and fear. In the face of loss or setback we experience sadness. When facing a violation of our rights or dignity we experience anger. When something good happens we experience surprise and delight. And overall, these feelings help us navigate our world.

The problem, of course, is that this makes our flourishing dependent upon circumstance. Our emotions go up and down depending upon what's happening to us. And this situation has always posed a problem for the wisdom traditions: How can we experience inner peace, calm, and joy if we're so dependent upon and triggered by circumstance?

The answers here vary. Many wisdom traditions suggest some sort of emotional disengagement to achieve internal tranquility. Buddhism and Stoicism are examples. Mindfulness is a good modern spin on this approach. By being present and mindful we put some distance between ourselves and our emotions.

But Christianity isn't going for inner tranquility, Christianity is going for joy. Christianity is going for an emotion.

So how does that happen, how can you get emotional delight that's consistent and constant regardless of circumstance? Well, you have to find and ground this delight in something outside and beyond circumstance. And that, like faith and hope, requires a metaphysical, religious posture:
I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
To be clear, the metaphysical, religious posture required for joy doesn't have to be Christian, but joy does demand some ontological source of delight that exists beyond physical, observable circumstances. Otherwise, joy becomes, like all emotions, contingent upon circumstance, rather than constant "in each and every situation."

The Divine Comedy: Week 37, Farewell to Virgil

And so, the Pilgrim and Virgil get to the top of Mount Purgatory, the sins of the Pilgrim purged on each terrace. As the Pilgrim says in Canto XXIII:
...I came up here
climbing and ever circling round this mount
which straightens in you what the world has bent.
That's a neat summary of Dante's vision of spiritual formation: to straighten in us what the world has bent. Sanctification is straightening our bent loves.

At the top of Mount Purgatory, Virgil and the Pilgrim reach the Garden of Eden, the earthly paradise. There Virgil departs from the Pilgrim. If the Pilgrim is going to reach God he will require a different guide.

More on the Pilgrim's new guide in the weeks to come, but for today a farewell to Virgil.

Again, in the symbolism of the Comedy the pagan poet Virgil represents Reason. And Reason, as we've seen, was able to lead the Pilgrim through hell and up Mount Purgatory. But can Reason get you all the way to heaven?

Dante answers, no. Reason might get you to the highest mountaintop on earth, but on earth you'll forever remain. Without faith, you'll go no higher.

At some point in the journey toward God, one must leave Reason behind.

Faith Lies (with Darrell Smith): Lie #7, Real Faith Is Blind Belief

Today is the final post from Darrell Smith, sharing from his book Faith Lies: Seven Incomplete Ideas That Hijack Faith and How to See Beyond Them.

Faith Lies with Darrell Smith
Lie #7: Real Faith Is Blind Belief

Have you ever felt guilty about doubting or questioning something about your faith?

Have you ever suppressed or ignored your thoughts or ideas so as not to make waves or cause trouble in your church or faith community?

Have you ever been told that faith believes without seeing or knowing—that it is a blind leap?

Has such thinking ever failed you?

The final lie that we will push through together in this book is the idea that real faith is blind belief. Put another way, faith involves the suspension of intellect.

This lie tells us that our brains—our thinking and reasoning—get in the way of our faith and must therefore be sidelined for faith to be real or pure. This lie is sneaky. It has quietly crept its way into our lives and our culture. The results of this lie, however, are not quiet. The results range from fundamental extremists who are willing to completely, intellectually detach and blindly follow faith interpretations that call for intimidation or violence against those who do not believe to millions of faith survivors who feel forced to quietly abandon systems and doctrines that do not seem to include their lives.

This lie can make faith seem ridiculously unhelpful and irrelevant. This lie can also make faith seem violent and cruel.

Though this lie can make loud reverberations throughout our society, strangely enough, this is a lie of keeping silent—a lie of quieting objections, running from arguments, and avoiding disagreements. It is a lie of punting away our intellect in order to keep the status quo. It is a lie of hiding that which we really think or struggle with because we don’t want to appear weak in the faith.

This is a lie of a small god—a god who can only be engaged through fairy-tale-like belief. The god at the center of this lie is so weak and insecure that it cannot withstand doubt, questions, argument, or dissent.

What if God actually desires a good argument? What if our faith actually needs doubt, criticism, and exploration in order to change us—let alone change the world? What if wrestling is required?

The Metaphysical Emotions: Part 3, Hope

Like gratitude, hope is a vital aspect of human flourishing.

There is no better witness to the role hope plays in mental health than Viktor Fankl's observations in Man's Search for Meaning, his psychological study of life among his fellow prisoners in the German concentration camps in WW2. Frankl writes,
The prisoner who had lost his faith in the future — his future — was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay. Usually this happened quite suddenly, in the form of a crisis, the symptoms of which were familiar to the experienced camp inmate. . .Usually it began with the prisoner refusing one morning to get dressed and wash or to go out on the parade grounds. No entreaties, no blows, no threats had any effect. He just lay there, hardly moving. If this crisis was brought about by an illness, he refused to be taken to the sick-bay or to do anything to help himself. He simply gave up.
Hope, having faith in the future, is foundational for well-being. And yet, once again, we're confronted with the metaphysical structure of his emotion. 

Hope is a religious emotion because hope is what happens when all reason, logic, and evidence has exhausted itself. Hope isn't rational, scientific, or empirical. Hope shows up when reason, science, and facts have reached their limit. Hope only shows up with all available options have been explored, tried, or failed. When you reach that point, when all the facts say you are doomed, that's the moment when hope either shows up or not. Hope is the crossroads you reach when reason comes to the end of the line.

Hope, then, is the ability or the will to see beyond. Hope, by definition, sees or posits something outside of the system we're currently in. Because of this, hope is very much like faith, a conviction about something unseen and not rooted in evidence or facts.

Once again, as with gratitude, we see how mental health flows out of a metaphysical, religious orientation to the world.

The Metaphysical Emotions: Part 2, Gratitude

We know that gratitude is one of the most robust predictors of emotional, physical and relational well-being. And yet, gratitude, this critical piece of mental health, is a metaphysical emotion. 

I've written about this before, how Robert Emmons alerted me to the metaphysical structure of gratitude. Emmons is the world's leading expert on gratitude. You can check out a popular treatment of his research in his book Thanks!

In a talk I once attended, Emmons spoke about some of the conceptual issues associated with gratitude. One of the issues was the distinction between gratitude for and gratitude to.

Gratitude is a social emotion, the thankfulness we feel having receiving a gift (or some benefit). Gratitude implies a gift, which in turn implies a giver. This is gratitude to.

But what about gratitude for? Emmons raised the question of environmental gratitude. Can you feel gratitude for the sunrise, a beautiful mountain, for life itself?

To be sure, we can feel lucky and fortunate for all these things. But without a giver can we, properly speaking, feel gratitude for these things? Who are we saying "Thanks!" to when we feel gratitude for our life? An indifferent, silent cosmos?

In short, since gratitude is a social emotion, feelings of gratitude for ontological realities--life, flowers, new birth, ocean breezes--require a metaphysical framework. Gratitude implies a gift and a giver.

By contrast, the best a non-metaphysical worldview can give you is a feeling of preciousness. Cosmically, life is an outlier, a wildly improbable event. So we should preserve and cherish it. Watch any cosmology show hosted by an atheistic scientist and you'll see this feeling evoked. Carl Sagan was really good at it.

And yet, preciousness isn't the same as gratitude. Most importantly for our purposes, feelings of preciousness are not a fundamental aspect of mental and physical health. In fact, preciousness can cut in the opposite direction. For some, preciousness evokes cosmic terror and despair. And I've heard atheists describe the emergence of life in the cosmos as an accidental event of no real import. Life is a cosmic fart. We're just cosmic pond scum. Sure, being a statistical anomaly can lead to awe, but it can also lead to nihilism.

All that to say, feeling cosmically lucky is not the same as gratitude. Proper gratitude, and its role in human flourishing, implies giving thanks, and giving thanks requires a metaphysical posture.

Like I said, mental health requires a religious orientation to the world.

The Metaphysical Emotions: Part 1, Metaphysics and Mental Health

There is a suite of emotions that appear to be integral to mental health, but what's interesting is how each of these emotions have a metaphysical nature.

By "metaphysical" I mean each emotion has, to borrow from David Kelsey, an "eccentric" character. Something from the "outside" comes to us--rescue, gift, joy, identity, grace. To borrow from and slightly tweak C.S. Lewis, for Joy to be Joy there must be a surprise to it. Joy is something that cannot be harnessed or controlled, it comes to us as gift. 

In the posts that follow I'd like to sketch out the metaphysical structure of these emotions, while also pointing out how foundational each are for mental health. The implication is, of course, that mental health is rooted in a religious posture toward the self and the world.

The Divine Comedy: Week 36, Pornography Revisited

Soon after I encountered the sin of sloth on the slopes of Mt. Purgatory, I was scheduled to give a chapel talk at Belmont University about pornography. And in what might be a surprise to some, I talked about Dante with the college students.

You might think I would have focused on the sin of lust in my talk. Again, lust is punished on the upper slopes of purgatory, where the sins of excessive love are purified. Pornography seems to be a great example of loving a good thing--sex--too much.

But in my talk at Belmont, I didn't connect pornography with lust. I suggested that pornography was a sin of sloth, not loving a good thing as well as we should. Pornography is, at root, a form of laziness.

Of course, we can argue that analysis. I'm not going to be dogmatic about any of this. But the reason I equated pornography with sloth was that I wanted to highlight something about sexuality with the Belmont students.

Basically, sex, real sex, with real human beings is hard work. It takes time, effort, attention, care, communication, fidelity, and on and on. And a lot of times, it's just too hard, too troublesome, too much work and hassle. Porn is so much easier.

That's what I shared with the students. The problem with pornography isn't the lust, it's the laziness.

This is especially true in a marriage. Porn is sexual laziness within a marriage. Sure, pornography is a form of lust, but it's also an example of not loving the good thing in your life--your spouse--with as much energy, attention, and commitment as they deserve.

Faith Lies (with Darrell Smith): Lie #6, Faith Is a Private Matter

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

Faith Lies with Darrell Smith
Lie #6: Faith Is a Private Matter

Much like divulging whom we voted for in the last election, many of us have embraced the incorrect idea that our spiritual lives are strictly personal—part of an internal dialogue between our heart and the source to which we hold. This, like so many of the lies we face, is a lie of incomplete thinking—a half-truth.

Faith is most certainly personal. We are not wrong to think that we have an internal dialogue with the divine. We are not crazy when we recognize that the God of the universe knows us and loves us personally. We are right to recognize that the same transcendent power and ultimate authority that spins the cosmos also chooses to pursue relationship with us—to actually dwell among and within us. Faith is intimately and awesomely personal. But personal is not synonymous with private. In no way is our faith a private matter.

Our faith was never meant to be something we do alone. Both the stories of the Bible and the overarching story of the history of the faithful confirm that faith is communal.

When we steer into the skid of private spirituality, allowing faith to retreat only to the personal, faith then becomes that which divides us rather than that which unites and ties us together. The results of such faith include division, isolation, loneliness, resentment, bitterness, hatred, and bigotry as we turn more and more inward and fear that which is different from us. Is that a bleak enough picture to get your attention? I hope so.

How about a bigger picture? Hold on to your personal relationship with the divine. It is not in any danger. Just don’t grasp it so tightly in your clenched fist. Let it sit in your open palm. It will remain there. No one will steal it away. And if we hold it openly, we can receive more. Our personal faith can be added to; it can become more than it is now.

We come from community.

We need community.

Community needs us.

Community is not optional.

Explore these ideas in Faith Lies: Seven Incomplete Ideas That Hijack Faith and How to See Beyond Them.

Next week, Faith Lie #7 – Real Faith is Blind Belief

The Colonialism of Disenchantment: Part 3, Believing in Magic Justified Your Oppression

Some readers may want to object to my linking disenchantment with colonialism. That might strike some as a cheap shot, a way of stigmatizing doubt and disenchantment within progressive Christian circles by making a forced, unwarranted connection.

But disenchantment does have a history with the colonial project. This is the argument made in Magic's Reason: An Anthropology of Analogy by Graham Jones.

For our purposes, Jones makes two arguments.

The first is that the rise of entertainment magic in the West was linked to Enlightenment values. The modern stage magician was no longer viewed as an agent of the occult but was, rather, a skilled illusionist. Magic became "scientific" and "technical." The audience knew what they were witnessing was a "trick." What happened on the stage looked like "magic," but the audience knew better, and that was a part of the delight and fascination. This E/enlightened approach to magic facilitated disenchantment among the masses.

As Graham writes, "modern magical showmen were expected to present tricks as tricks to audiences eager to be deceived, but not so credulous as to mistake illusions for reality. These performers agentively carved out associations with science." Thus, "Western illusionism converged with modern materialist cosmology and empiricist epistemology...[B]y the beginning of the nineteenth century, the illusionist had emerged as 'a powerful symbol of progress' in the West, as a scientific popularizer and debunker of superstitions...The close association of entertainment magic with Enlightenment values of rationality, skepticism, and materialism made it a powerful resource for signifying secular modernity..."

Jones' second observation is that, once the stage magician became an agent of disenchantment, he could be used to expose and create a contrast with "primitive" peoples who still "believed in magic." In contrast to the Western stage magician, the sorcerers, witches, and shamans of ingenious peoples were viewed as cons taking advantage of uneducated savages. The modern stage magician demonstrated how indigenous magic was just "tricks," and anyone who "believed in" these tricks was primitive, childish, and backward. Thus, in "exposing" indigenous magic for what it was, while noting the incredulous nature of the "savages," modern magic fueled the narrative of "progress" that gave birth to the colonial project. Indigenous people who believed in "magic" were "childish" and "primitive," in need of parenting, education, and supervision.

As Jones writes,
The era of colonialism invigorated Enlightenment discourses of progress by dramatizing the dominion of Western European powers over less technologically advanced peoples of the global south. It also provided magicians with a new foil: "primitive"--or, in Weber's parlance, "savage"--magicians reputed to hold sway among colonial populations. More than Europe's fairground quacks and village soothsayers, ritual experts in non-Western traditions came to figure in the literature and lore of entertainment magic as conceptual embodiments of premodern, non-modern, or antimodern approaches to magic. Magic authors drew on a variety of ethnographic representations and erudite commentaries in constructing these discourses, equating the benighted outlook of present-day colonial subjects with the superstitious beliefs of Europe's historical past. 
In short, a disenchanted approach to "magic" supported the colonial project.

Now, if this all strikes you as just an academic theory--linking the modern, disenchanted approach to magic to the colonial project--Jones goes on in Magic's Reason to show how modern magicians were used by colonial powers to discredit indigenous shamans and sorcerers. Jones recounts the case of Robert-Houdin, the Father of Modern of Magic, who was used by the French colonialists to "debunk" and "expose" the "trickery" of the marabouts, popular religious figures in colonial Algeria.

Here in the case of Robert-Houdin we see disenchantment--a refusal to believe in magic--used as an agent of colonial  oppression. A disenchanted approach toward "magic" was associated with progress, advancement, and reason, the attitude that justified the paternalistic posture behind the colonial project to educate backward, childish, savage, and primitive colonial populations. If you believed in magic that, quite literally, justified your oppression.

And that is why I describe this as "the colonialism of disenchantment."