Lessons from Leviticus: Part 8, Contagious Holiness

One last post in this series. I hope you've enjoyed it. It could go on and on. If you want to explore more, pick up Jacob Milgrom's commentaries, the one volume abridged version, or the longer, three-volume set.

As I recount in Unclean, one of the fascinating reversals we find the gospels is how Jesus displays a contagious holiness. 

Specifically, contamination generally obeys the law of negativity dominance. That is, when the clean and unclean, or the pure or the polluted, come into contact the negative dominates over the positive. The clean becomes unclean and the pure becomes polluted.

The law of negativity dominance creates a quarantine logic. Given the power of the pollutant, we maintain states of purity by distance and withdrawal. As we are now intimately familiar with, this the logic of social distancing and sheltering in place. 

Of course, social distancing makes sense in the world of a pandemic, but when imported into the moral and social domains--where people are deemed "unclean"--social distancing becomes a huge obstacle to acts of welcome, inclusion, hospitality and love. 

What we see in the gospels is Jesus transgressing against the rules of social distancing. Jesus breaks quarantine to touch and share community with the unclean. And yet, when Jesus does this, something surprising happens. The law of negativity dominance is reversed. In the event of contact Jesus doesn't become unclean. Instead, Jesus purifies the unclean. Rather than a contagious pollution we experience a contagious holiness. 

Again, as noted in this series, we tend to see in Jesus a reversal of the Levitical purity codes. And it is true that the law of negativity dominance dominates the book of Leviticus. And yet, what we find in Jesus isn't new. Contagious holiness goes back to the book of Leviticus. 

What Jacob Milgrom describes as "sanctum contagion" is mentioned four times in the Torah, twice in Exodus (Ex 29.37; 30.26-29) and twice in Leviticus (Lev 6.18, 27). Sanctum contagion has an if/then logic: "If x touches y, x becomes holy." For example:

Whatever touches the altar shall become holy. (Ex 29.37)
There was a bit of a scandal about the universality implied in the word "whatever." Due to perceived abuses and outrages, later rabbinic teaching tried to limit the scope of sanctum contagion. As Milgrom describes:
[The priests and scribes] were probably deeply disturbed by the stream of murderers, thieves, and assorted criminals who flocked to the altar and resided on the sanctuary grounds on the basis of hoary, venerable traditions that the altar "sanctifies": so they declared that those who entered the sacred precincts were not under divine protection. The priests therefore took the radical step of declaring that the altar was no longer contagious to persons; those who touched it were no longer "sanctified," so they might be wrested from the altar by the authorities with impunity. In this cultic reform the priests would have won the support of the king and his bureaucracy, who would have earnestly wished to terminate the sanctuary's veto power over their jurisdiction. 
We actually see evidence of this practice, claiming sanctuary protection by grabbing the horns of the altar, in the Bible (e.g., 1 Kings 1.50).

With this background in mind, we suddenly see Jesus in a new light. Specifically, as N.T. Wright has shown, in the gospels Jesus pitted himself against the temple. Jesus was the temple, the location where heaven and earth intersected, the place where humanity encounered God. Consequently, it's not surprising that Jesus would display sanctum contagion. Contact with Jesus didn't render him unclean. Instead, sinners and the unclean were purified and made holy. 

And just as we observed with the religious and political authorities who worked to limit the scope of sanctum contagion, there was a similar shock and scandal in Jesus' own ministry of purification and forgiveness, how his contagious holiness undermined the religious and political authorities of his time and place. 

Pascal's Pensées: Week 3, Welcome to the Ache


First part: Misery of humanity without God. 

Second part: Happiness of humanity with God.


A large part of Pascal's strategy in the Pensées is to point out our "misery" or "wretchedness" without God.  This is the same strategy I use in Hunting Magic Eels.

I don't call it "misery" in Hunting Magic Eels, I call it the Ache, and I devote a chapter in the book ("Welcome to the Ache") touring through what Charles Taylor has called "the malaise of modernity." 

I like the definition of malaise: "A general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify." 

Pascal, though, knows the cause: the modern world's separation from God. And since Pascal returns to the point frequently in the Pensées we'll be revisiting this topic throughout this series.

What's interesting here is how even secular journalists are noting and writing about our modern "crisis of meaning" and linking it to the poor mental health of our younger generations. Lacking a transcendent foundation for our life projects we drift among the allures of social media, entertainment culture, and consumerism. We have nothing to look forward to except the next Netflix binge. And the pandemic has only highlighted this existential vacuum in our lives. We experience life as shallow and insubstantial or fragile and precarious. We vacillate between boredom and anxiety. 

As I share with my students, we want our lives to be "high stakes." We want our actions to have weight, import, and significance. But it's hard to achieve this sense of "mattering" through self-talk. And yet, self-talk is the only tool our therapeutic culture gives us. Just stare into the mirror and try to talk your way into significance. Convince yourself that you matter.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of us find this hard to do. 

[Note on numbering of the Pensées. In this series I'll be following the numbering of the Penguin edition.]

Lessons from Leviticus: Part 7, Death, Animals, and Protecting Our Humanity

A lot of our reaction to Leviticus depends upon what we are comparing it to. Comparing Leviticus to modern, liberal sensibilities makes us perceive the book as barbaric and inhumane. But different contrasts cast the book in a more compassionate light. 

For example, just by chance, I was working my way through Leviticus while watching the HBO TV series Game of Thrones. (Our family got a free subscription to HBO with a new cellular plan, so I was finally able to watch the show.) As I wrote about recently, Game of Thrones is known for its barbarity and brutality. In this, Game of Thrones is closer to the world of Leviticus than modern America. And as I went back and forth between Game of Thrones and Leviticus I always experienced relief upon returning to the world of the Bible. In contrast to the barbarism and brutality of Game of Thrones, the world of Leviticus was more ordered, more ethical, safer, and more humane. 

In short, we tend to judge Leviticus with modern moral sensibilities instead of seeing it as the ethical and political revolution was at the time. Leviticus speaks into a world of full callous violence, sociopathic torture, routine rape, and child sacrifice. Leviticus speaks into a world like that of Game of Thrones

Seen against that backdrop, we see how Leviticus is a training manual in becoming a human being along with the creation of a humane society. Leviticus cultivates and guards human and humane sensibilities. Leviticus is a school of the heart. 

Consider, for example, how Leviticus treats the killing of animals.

It is noteworthy that humans were created by God to be vegetarians. Genesis 1.29:

Then God said [to Adam and Eve], “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food."

As we've learned in Leviticus, the blood of living creatures is their life, and in the beginning humans were not allowed to take the life of anything, human or animal. This alone is a humanizing impulse, this deep and sacred recognition for all animal life. Our modern concern for animals rights and suffering finds its origin right here in the Bible. 

Allowing humanity to eat meat appears as a divine concession after the flood. Genesis 9.1-3:

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything."
But as just noted, this concession is only granted if humans recognize that, in eating animal flesh, they have no right to the life of an animal. The life of the animal, the blood, is God's alone and must be returned to God. As Genesis 9 continues:
“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

“Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind."
Note this: "I will demand an accounting from every animal." Leviticus codifies how that accounting would be done in the life of Israel. Perhaps the oldest sacrificial law in Leviticus is found in chapter 17, specifying how the slaughtering of animals was to be conducted:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel and say to them, This is the thing that the Lord has commanded. If any one of the house of Israel kills an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it as a gift to the Lord in front of the tabernacle of the Lord, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people." (Leviticus 17.1-4)
Every time an animal was slaughtered for food it had to be taken before the Lord. This is clearly a burdensome requirement, but we can see the humanizing logic. Humans, to remain human, cannot become inured to killing. The death of each animal has to be marked and given sacred recognition. Otherwise, callousness accumulates and spreads like a cancer. Indifference to killing becomes the norm. In all this, we see how Leviticus is guarding the heart. 

Which should give us pause. When it comes to using animals as food, who is more barbaric, more callous and indifferent? Us or Leviticus? 

And as Jacob Milgorm observes, protecting the heart also seems to be the driving logic behind all the bizarre food prohibitions we find in Leviticus. 

We love making fun of Leviticus for banning shrimp and bacon from the Hebrew diet. Seems like such a waste. But such jokes miss the deeper, humanizing insight. 

To be sure, great barrels of ink have been spilt trying to find a uniting theme about why some animals are deemed unclean in Leviticus, and not fit for eating, and others deemed kosher. None of these attempts have been fully persuasive. And yet, our curiosity and perplexity here misses the deeper point. The point to be noted isn't why certain animals are considered unclean, but the fact that most animals are unclean

What we tend to miss is how incredibly restrictive Leviticus is when it comes to eating animals. And here again we see a humanizing logic. After the flood, yes, a concession is made to allow eating animals, but that concession is very, very restrictive. When it comes to animals, humans were not allowed to become omnivores. Killing is thereby profoundly restricted. As Milgrom writes, "The Israelites are asked to go beyond the abstention from blood, which is enjoined upon all people. They are to discipline their appetites further by narrowing down the permitted animals to a few. In this way they may aspire to a higher level of life, which the Bible calls qadosh, or holy." 

In all this we can see how Leviticus is protecting and cultivating humaneness. A last word from Milgrom: "[By] virtue of his training and piety, [the ancient Hebrew] soul shall never be torpefied by his incessant butchery but kept ever sensitive to the magnitude of the divine concession in allowing him to bring death to living things."

Lessons from Leviticus: Part 6, Guilt, Restitution, and Stereotypes

Stereotypes are everywhere, and we even have stereotypes of books of the Bible. When I say "Leviticus" what comes to your mind? Bizarre commands. Sexual abominations. Bloody rituals. Stoning malefactors.

But as we know, stereotypes miss a great deal, so much so they can be misleading. And the same goes for Leviticus. Consider Leviticus 6.1-7:

The Lord said to Moses: “If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the Lord by deceiving a neighbor about something entrusted to them or left in their care or about something stolen, or if they cheat their neighbor, or if they find lost property and lie about it, or if they swear falsely about any such sin that people may commit—when they sin in any of these ways and realize their guilt, they must return what they have stolen or taken by extortion, or what was entrusted to them, or the lost property they found, or whatever it was they swore falsely about. They must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day they present their guilt offering. And as a penalty they must bring to the priest, that is, to the Lord, their guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value. In this way the priest will make atonement for them before the Lord, and they will be forgiven for any of the things they did that made them guilty.”
You've likely missed the import of this passage.

When it comes to sins against the community in the book of Leviticus, a key distinction is between intentional and unintentional sins. Unintentional sins can be repaired. When made aware of your unintentional sin a guilt/sin/offense (translations differ here) offering is proscribed: 
The Lord said to Moses: “When anyone is unfaithful to the Lord by sinning unintentionally in regard to any of the Lord’s holy things, they are to bring to the Lord as a penalty a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value in silver, according to the sanctuary shekel. It is a guilt offering." (Leviticus 5.14-15)
Intentional sins, however, are a whole different issue. Intentional, willful sin--naked, prideful rebellion against God--cannot repaired and the offender must be excluded from the community:
But if one of you does wrong on purpose, whether Israelite or foreigner, you have sinned against me by disobeying my laws. You will be sent away and will no longer live among the people of Israel. (Numbers 15:31).
Which brings us back to the interesting case of Leviticus 6. If you read that passage again, with the contrast of intentional versus unintentional sins in mind, you can see the issue. Clearly the offender being described has a guilty mind, their actions are very intentional. They are extorting, stealing, lying, and swearing falsely. Such sinners have to know what they are doing is wrong. It's all very intentional.

And yet!

And yet, the offender can repent. A person can act with intentional malice yet still find a way to remain within the community. By doing two things. First, they have to offer the guilt offering. Same as the unintentional sinner. But the second, additional thing is restitution: They must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day they present their guilt offering. 

How to make sense of this? 

Jacob Milgrom argues that the critical issue is guilt, pubic confession, and a willingness to make restitution. Our stereotype that Leviticus is rigid, unbending, and unforgiving needs to be amended here. There are ways to make amends. There are routes toward rehabilitation. One is put in mind of Zacchaeus, a prototype of the willful sinner who extorted and stole:
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
We often think of Jesus' mercy as being opposed to or overturning the rigid exclusions of Leviticus. But the seeds of Zacchaeus's social rehabilitation, being welcomed back as a "son of Abraham" through his admission of guilt and willingness to make restitution, are sown in the book of Leviticus. There is a way back into community if you are willing to admit your guilt and make amends.

It's right there in Leviticus. Stereotypes can be misleading.

Lessons from Leviticus: Part 5, Theodicy and Collective Responsibility

One of the interesting observations Jacob Milgrom makes in his commentary on Leviticus is that Leviticus functions, or at least embodies, a theodicy.

The perennial question of theodicy--Why are bad things happening to us?--is given an answer in Leviticus: the communal accumulation of sin, which eventually leads to God abandoning His sanctuary. As Milgrom writes:

God will not abide in a polluted sanctuary. To be sure, the Merciful One would tolerate a modicum of pollution. But there is a point of no return. If the pollution levels continue to rise, the end is inexorable. God abandons the sanctuary and leaves the people to their doom.

What are Israel's priests trying to convey through this ritual? I submit it is their answer to the question of questions, as voiced by Jeremiah, "Why does the way of the wicked prosper?" No intellectual circle within ancient Israel evaded the challenge of theodicy...Is it possible that Israel's priests, whose prime function as "to teach the Israelites" (10:11) had nothing to say regarding God's providence?

We know now where to find their answer--not in words but in rituals, not in legal statues but in cultic procedure--specifically, in the rite with the blood of the purification offering...[The] priestly writers would claim that sin may not blotch the face of the sinner, but it is certain to blotch the face of the sanctuary, and unless quickly expunged, God's presence will depart.

[The purification ritual demonstrates] the priestly doctrine of collective responsibility. Sinners may go about apparently unmarred by their evil, but the sanctuary bears the wounds, and with its destruction, all the sinners will meet their doom.

And not just sinners, the innocent will also get swept up in the punishment of God. 

Now, of course, this might seem grossly unfair, but what we find here in Leviticus does have modern ring to it: The notion of collective responsibility and reaching a "tipping point" where the group suffers the consequences of collective, distributed guilt. 

Think about climate change, and all the suffering that lies in store for humanity. Why is that suffering happening? Well, a failure of collective responsibility and reaching a "tipping point." Current "flourishing" will have a price. A tally is being kept and will have to be repaid at some point. 

Or think about generational and systemic sin. Individual people, or groups of people, may "flourish" because of systemic injustices, but those injustices damage the social fabric of society. And if that damage is allowed to accumulate our social contract will fracture and split. 

My point isn't to draw precise analogies with these examples and what's being described in Leviticus. I'm simply underlining Milgrom's point that the vision of "crime and punishment" in Leviticus is communal in nature, and also temporally delayed when a tipping point is reached. In this vision, isolated and individual sinners might not always get the punishment they deserve. In fact, they may benefit and flourish from their wickedness. But that sin is being reckoned. It doesn't evaporate into thin air. And it accumulates over time. Things get worse and worse. And should the community reach the tipping point, they will, collectively, suffer the consequence. 

Lessons from Leviticus: Part 4, Detergents

In Leviticus there are four substances that act as "detergents," to use Jacob Migrom's evocative description. 

The four detergents used in ritual purification are fire, blood, oil, and water. Each detergent seems to have a domain of associations:

Fire -- Associated with God. Think: Moses and the burning bush, the pillar of fire leading Israel through the desert, the blazing theophany upon Mt. Sinai.

Blood -- The primary ritual detergent, associated with the animal world. The blood is the "life force" of animals, human and non-human. 

Oil -- Associated with the land, the domain of agriculture and the human sphere of work. Accordingly, oil is used mainly in the social and political sphere, as with the anointing of a king.

Water -- With oil associated with the land, water completes the picture and functions as a multi-use detergent, from everyday to ritual purifications.

As mentioned above, blood is the primary ritual detergent, especially for the expiation of sin. Why was this the case? Because blood is "life":

For the life of a creature is in the blood. (Lev. 17.11a)
This notion sits at the heart of the Levitical prohibition concerning consuming blood. No human being has a right to the life of an animal. The meat of an animal may be eaten, but the life of the animal must be returned to God. Life is sacrosanct and is under the purview and jurisdiction of the Deity. 

This explains why blood, as life itself, is the ritual detergent par excellence. The basic idea at work in Leviticus is that sin accumulates in the community, like a pollution that adheres to everything. Think of an oil spill. Or the soot that covered everything in London in a Dickens' novel. The ritual and moral impurities in Israel built up in a similar way. Blood was the main detergent used to clean the community and the sacred space of these impurities. Blood had this power because the impurities marked the encroachment of death. And only life could wipe death away. 

That idea, life wiping away death, is the critical insight. 

Here's why. In many sectors of Christianity, the atoning blood of Jesus has become associated with the appeasement of a wrathful God. But that's not what you see in Leviticus. God doesn't demand blood and blood is not offered to God to appease God's wrath. In contrast to the pagan gods, Israel's God pointedly didn't eat animal meat or drink blood. Blood was, rather, simply used as a detergent. 

Trouble was, animal blood was only a temporary detergent, so the cleansing had to be repeated over and over and over again. Thus, according to the book of Hebrews, what sinful humanity needed was a detergent so strong it could be offered "once for all." This was the blood of Christ, God's very own life, his own blood, that could wipe away every trace of sin and death. Note, there is no wrathful God here. Simply the graceful provision of the most potent detergent--God's own life--that could, in a single act of purification, wipe away every sin, of every person, for all time.

The Crack Running Through All Things

Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.

But they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. Then they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. 

Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen!"

--Luke 24.1-6

Karl Barth once famously compared the gospel to a bomb that has exploded in our midst. A potent metaphor for Europeans who had witnessed WW1 and WW2. Keeping with the metaphor, any historical investigation of the resurrection is akin to examining the hollowed out crater left behind by the blast. The bomb itself is not to be found. 

Christian faith is about this hole in history. But more than history, our faith is about a crack in the cosmos. A tear in the fabric of reality. Hiccup in the Matrix. Gap in causality. The factual loose end that science will never be able to tie. 

Is reality a closed system, tending toward darkness, entropy, and death? Are you seeking the living among the dead?

Or is there a crack running through all things where daylight is streaming through? 

Pascal's Pensées: Week 2, Transcendence Matters

Recall that Pascal was going to turn his collection of "thoughts" into a book arguing for and defending the Christian faith. But due to his death Pascal couldn't write the book. So right from the start, editors of the Pensées have tried to discern the outline of the book Pascal would have written, trying to arrange the notes and scattered thoughts in an order that might create an argumentative flow.

Obviously, such arrangements are speculative. But they do help arrange Pascal's ideas into thematic groupings which make the Pensées a bit easier to digest. Pascal did linger on certain points and return to points previously made. And while the location of these points within a larger argument Pascal might have made is hard to know, thematic groups of the "thoughts" help highlight "hot spots" in Pascal's thinking. 

For this series, I'm going to follow the flow speculatively set out by Peter Kreeft in his Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensées Edited, Outlined, and Explained. Incidentally, not everyone finds the Pensées a clear, edifying, and coherent read. Many of the Pensées are confusing, tangential, or obscure. So if you're new to the Pensées, or failed to get through the Pensées, let me suggest Kreeft's book. 

Let me say something about Kreeft's title, "Christianity for Modern Pagans." That's an aggressive title. And Kreeft is a pretty aggressive Christian apologist. But, then again, so is Pascal and so is the Pensées. 

So before we get into things, a note about "paganism."

It's a timely note as I devote a chapter to pagan versus Christian enchantments in Hunting Magic Eels, in Part 4 where I talk about the discernment of enchantments. For this, I borrow from Steven Smith's book Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac

Smith makes the argument that Christian and pagan spiritualities differ in how they place the location of the scared. Smith writes:

[P]agan religion differs from Judaism and Christianity in its placement of the sacred. Pagan religion locates the sacred within this world. In that way, paganism can consecrate the world from within: it is religiosity relative to an immanent sacred. Judaism and Christianity, by contrast, reflect a transcendent religiosity; they place the sacred, ultimately, outside the world--"beyond space and time." 
Smith points out that immanent spiritualities--locating the sacred within the world--have always been around, and even have mixed in various ways with the transcendent spirituality of Christianity. To be sure, for Christians God is both immanent and transcendent, the two mix together. But the key shift of Christianity in the West has been the recognition and role of transcendence. 

Now, to Kreeft's title and the point I make in Hunting Magic Eels, Smith observes that, after 2,000 years of cultural dominance in the West, the transcendent spirituality of Christianity is now losing ground to the immanent spirituality of paganism. Increasingly, people aren't looking toward a transcendent sacred that stands over, interrupts and judges human affairs. Rather, we seek and sacralize goods we find within creation. Things are good--food, sex, values, human being--in themselves. Creation, the parts we enjoy at least, is intrinsically good, independent of any other transcendent good that confers goodness. This trend is at the heart of the "spiritual but not religious" movement.

All that to say, when we say "God matters" we're also saying transcendence matters. Why? Here's what I write in Hunting Magic Eels:
Transcendent enchantment challenges the central conceit of the modern world, that no one, not even God, can stand in judgment of us. So it’s not surprising that immanent enchantment is now all the rage on the spiritual marketplace. One of the most noteworthy features of modern-day “spirituality” is how eclectic it is, how you choose it. In the modern spiritual marketplace, you pick your enchantment, like shopping for deals at Walmart...Mix and match until you achieve the enchantment perfectly suited for your lifestyle, budget, political views, values, and friend group. All fit to order.

These [enchantments] aren’t problematic in themselves. But immanent enchantments are collected and curated, the product of our whims and fancies. Our enchantments have become lifestyle choices. We pick the enchantment that suits us or is most in fashion. Or the one we can afford. And celebrities are such a help here. Enchantment becomes a brand and fad, the mystical tinsel we sprinkle over our curated images on social media.

If we’re thoughtful, we can sense the shallowness of it all. Can an enchantment we pick up and lay down at a whim really give our lives the sacred meaning and weight we’ve been longing for? Can an enchantment we choose for ourselves become anything but narcissistic, a reflection of our own highly selective and cropped self-image? Immanent enchantments are on the rise because they are perfectly suited to our consumeristic age. And that is the fatal, fundamental flaw.

Lessons from Leviticus: Part 3, Holiness and Grace

The Hebrew verb that animates the book of Leviticus is hivdil, meaning "to divide." 

All through the book, the Israelites, and especially the priests, are to mark distinctions and to make separations. Leviticus is about "dividing" the pure from the common and the clean from the unclean: "This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, so that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean." (Lev. 10.9b-10)

These acts of hivdil harken back to the creation story in Genesis, where God creates order from chaos via divisions, like dividing the light from the darkness. It's also a division that separates Israel from her pagan neighbors, setting her apart as a holy, consecrated community of priests. Hivdil, then, is how we create the holy:

You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own. (Lev. 20.26)
All of this makes sense, but it also creates some problems for Christians who see in Jesus a willingness to transgress against the purity codes to embrace the unclean. Readers of Unclean will wonder how its author views the imperatives of hivdil. The Levitical impulse to make divisions between the clean and the unclean is "the bad guy" in Unclean. If so, can hivdil be rehabilitated? 

I think it can, and this may be the most important lesson I've learned from Leviticus. 

To start, let me set aside one of the most common objections to Unclean. Specifically, you can't have a community, even a welcoming community, without creating some boundaries and distinctions. A community without boundaries, like shared commitments or binding promises, isn't a community. 

I think this is one of the weaknesses of Unclean, how it can leave readers with a generic vision of "inclusion." Just love everybody! Which, of course, we should. But in practice this tends to water down to mean liberal tolerance among atomized individuals. There's no welcoming community extending a difficulty hospitality in that vision. Just a bunch of liberals who say to each other in the public sphere, "I'm okay, and you're okay." Progressive Christians love the message of Unclean, but if Christian inclusion and hospitality just mean non-judgmental tolerance--I'm okay, and you're okay--one hardly needs to read my book to get that message. Just watch a lot of TV. Non-judgmental tolerance is the ethic of our age. You don't need God or Jesus or Unclean to learn this.

All that to say, were I to rewrite Unclean today I'd have added nuances that push back upon a simplistic message that moral and communal boundaries are intrinsically bad. 

Anyway, putting that issue aside, here's what I think is the big lesson of Leviticus and its call to hivdil.

Simply put, holiness is the the prerequisite of grace. 

Start by recalling the points from Parts 1 and 2 of this series. The primary goal of Leviticus was to establish Hebrew monotheism in the mist of Canaanite paganism. And the most important tool in this effort was hivdil, the making of distinctions and divisions.

Of course, hivdil had a social aspect, Israel adopting particular, and even peculiar, lifeways that set her apart from her neighbors. The dietary laws are a prime example here. And yet, the most important aspect of hivdil wasn't cultural but theological

Specifically, all the work and worry to confess, establish, and live with the holiness of Israel's God was critical to the establishment of Hebrew monotheism. The paganism of Israel's neighbors was animistic and pantheistic, worshiping the spiritual potencies at work within creation. By contrast, the holiness of Israel's God recognized God as Wholly Other. The heart of Leviticus is establishing this division between God and creation. This division, this ontological labor, was the heavy theological lifting that extracted the Hebrew faith from the pagan, pantheistic matrix of the ancient world. 

Yes, yes, yes, Leviticus is bizarre and strange. But if you keep the ontological labor of hivdil in view, you come to see that Leviticus is, perhaps, the most important book in the Old Testament. 

So, the work of hivdil was critical to establishing the ontological Otherness of God. And this brings us to the key insight: God's Otherness is absolutely necessary for a doctrine of grace. Grace is a gift, a gift that comes to us from the Outside, as a divine interruption. Grace is grace because is crosses over a vast unbridgeable abyss, a chasm so great we cannot cross it from our side. It is the Otherness of God that makes grace an experience of God's free, unprompted, unilateral movement of love toward us. 

And without grace, there is only magic, being pushed and pulled in the competitive arena among rivalrous, fickle, and capricious creational powers.

My point here is that you can't get Jesus without the prior work of Leviticus. You can't have an experience of God's grace without a prior experience of God's holiness. You have to stare into the abyss, helpless, before the surprise at seeing a bridge cross over to you. There is no unmerited and unconditional gift without ontological Otherness. Without God's Otherness there is only spells and incantations. 

As I said, holiness is a requisite for grace. God had to be separated from creation to establish God as God, to extract relationship with God from the pagan and magical. This theological work had to happen first before anything else could happen. Before grace there had to be God. And once that work was completed, once we were clear about God, the path was paved for the revelation of grace. 

For grace to be experienced as grace an ontological boundary had to be crossed. 

Leviticus established the boundary, and in Jesus God crosses it in grace. 

Lessons from Leviticus: Part 2, Sobriety and Worship

As mentioned in the last post, much of the logic of Leviticus was to create clear contrasts between Israel's monotheism and the pagan practices of Israel's Canaanite neighbors. Yesterday we noted how the profound silence of Tabernacle rites and rituals created an acoustic contrast. Today we look at the sobriety of Israel's worship.

There are only two narrative sections in the book of Leviticus. The most famous of these is the first one found in Leviticus 10 concerning the deaths of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu. 

Why were Nadab and Abihu killed? You'll recall that a fire from God comes forth to kill Nadab and Abihu when they bring a "strange fire" into the sanctum of the Tabernacle.  We'll turn to the issue of profaning and desecrating sacred spaces in the next post, but was that the only thing going on in this story?

We get a hint that something more was going on later in the episode as God gives Aaron and Moses instructions about how to prevent incidents like this from taking place in the future:

Then the Lord said to Aaron, “You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the tent of meeting, or you will die. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, so that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and so you can teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.”
It seems that Nadab and Abihu made their mistake because they were drunk. Thus the "lasting ordinance": priests "are not to drink wine or other fermented drink" so that they could "distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean."

In short, not only were Israel's priests to be silent during their rituals, they were also to be sober. This was another a contrast with Canaanite paganism, where religious celebrations and rituals were reveries, frenzies, and orgies fueled by intoxication. The default in the ancient world was to use chemicals in religious practices to create altered states of consciousness. Not so among the Israelites. They were silent and sober. 

You can see this contrast at work in Exodus 32, the story of the Golden Calf. Recall how the Israelites, impatient with Moses' delayed return from Mt. Sinai, ask Aaron to fashion for them a golden calf to worship. Aaron does so, and the Israelites begin to worship the calf in a drunken revelry. The contrast with Leviticus is clear: idolatry and pagan worship is associated with drunken religious frenzies.

A similar contrast can be seen in 1 Kings 18, Elijah's contest with the prophets of Baal. Although alcohol isn't mentioned in that episode, we see a clear contrast between Elijah's quiet calmness and the wild frenzy of the pagan priests. 

The sobriety of Israel's worship reinforces the point from yesterday's post. God cannot be manipulated, nor does an encounter with God require some big human production or demonstration. This, I think, has some relevance for the working (if unstated) assumption in many evangelical spaces that worship demands a big, exciting, frenzied show. The assumption that if the adrenaline isn't flowing worship is "dead" and the Spirit absent. Christian worship is looking pretty pagan these days.

But the deeper insight, for me at least, is the simple lesson from Leviticus that God encounters me just as I am, in my ordinary, quotidian existence. I don't need to enter into some exotic ecstatic state, perhaps chemically induced or facilitated, to meet with God. 

Normal everyday consciousness and life is right where God meets me. No show, production, emotional high, ecstatic state, or chemicals needed. 

Lessons from Leviticus: Part 1, Silence, Magic, and Relationship

I'm currently reading through the book of Leviticus. My guides are Robert Alter's translation and commentary and Jacob Milgrom's commentary. With Alter and Milgrom as guides I'm enjoying the journey through Leviticus, which is a bit of a surprise. I've read through Leviticus a few times before and never got too much out of it. 

This series won't be a comprehensive survey of Leviticus. It will be, rather, an idiosyncratic collection of insights and observations as I've read through the book. This blog, from the beginning, has been a sort of public journal, my digital Moleskin, a place where I gather ideas, quotations, and observations. In this series I'll be archiving lessons I've learned from Leviticus.

In the first three posts in this series I want to share reflections about how Leviticus helped establish Israel's monotheism.

It's widely agreed that ancient Israel's great theological innovation was monotheism, denying the existence of all gods except the Creator God. Or, at the very least, the recognition that any supernatural agents in the cosmos are subordinate vassals created by God. And importantly for this series, Leviticus performed much of the heavy lifting in facilitating this monotheistic revolution. 

Specifically, modern readers find much of Leviticus bizarre and confusing. But viewed against its pagan, polytheistic backdrop one can discern a logic at work in how the rituals and regulations of the book separated Israel's worship of God from how their neighbors interacted with their deities. 

Take silence, for instance. Jacob Milgrom observes:

The rules [in Leviticus] governing the worship service further served to differentiate the Israelite tradition from the pagan religions. The entire sacrificial ritual of the tabernacle, aptly labeled "the sanctuary of silence" by Y. Kaufman, was conducted in silence. The lack of speech can be best explained as the concerted attempt of the priestly legist to distance the rites of Israel's priest from the magical incantations that necessarily accompanied and, indeed, empowered the ritual acts of his pagan counterpart. 

Silence separated God from magic. Israel was, rather, in a living relationship with God.

Magic is metaphysical technology. The incantation of a spell harnesses a spiritual power, bending it to the purposes of the spell caster. It is not unlike an electrician tapping into an electric source and directing it toward some desired end, like illuminating a lightbulb. Such was the relationship of Israel's neighbors with their gods. The gods were used to bless or curse. 

By contrast, the silence of Israel's worship pointed in a different direction. Israel's God wasn't a power among other powers that could be manipulated or used for personal gain. Just ask Balak and Balaam. Israel's God was the LORD. We stand silent before Him. We shut our mouths.

“Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman?
Or an image that teaches lies?
For the one who makes it trusts in his own creation;
he makes idols that cannot speak.
Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’
Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’
Can it give guidance?
It is covered with gold and silver;
there is no breath in it.”

The Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth be silent before him. (Habakkuk 2.18-20)
I think it's interesting to ponder the degree to which our relationship with God is either magical or relational by keeping track of how much talking versus listening is going on, how much petitioning versus silence. 

To be clear, there is communication in a relationship and a lot of petitioning. My wife and I talk all the time, and we petition each other all the time. But the situation is mutual, relational. We listen as much as talk, we obey as much as we request. A similar mutuality should characterize our relationship with God, a sign that God isn't being used as magic.

We're Back

Due to COVID, for a year I've been cut off from the place that had provided me with my deepest experience of church, the Men in White at the French Robertson unit. 

If you've read this blog or my books, true even of Hunting Magic Eels, you know how important the prison has been to my spiritual walk. But in March 2020 chaplain volunteers were told that we were no longer permitted to visit the unit. 

And a year passed. 

Everyone can tell a story of loss during COVID. And not all griefs are comparable, given how many lives we've lost. But one of my greatest losses during this season has been the loss of the prison and our Monday night Bible study. It's been a long, hard year being separated.

But the world is starting to open back up, and TDCJ is now allowing chaplain volunteers back onto the units. Programing isn't back up yet at our unit, so our study hasn't restarted. But we are now allowed to visit and participate in the church services on Sunday morning. So yesterday I went out to the unit for the first time in over a year, preaching in two of the church services. 

Just driving out to the unit was emotional, not having made that drive for so many months. Then arriving and entering the unit. And at last, finally, after so long a separation, getting to see and talk with so many of the Men in White from Monday nights. Such a sweet reunion. They've suffered a lot, as we all have, but they are resilient. As they shouted in church, "God is good."

My first service was in Building 19 gym. We sang. We prayed. A brother shared a message. Then it was my turn. I went to the front. The men prayed over me. How I missed that. Needed that. Then I lifted my head and said, "We're back."

Pascal's Pensées: Week 1, God Matters

I doubt I'll be able to top the epic 60+ post series "The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings." In retrospect, it was a great series for this year of COVID. The series was nostalgic and uplifting. It was a wonderful oasis during a tough, dark, difficult season. Thank you for all the encouragement you gave me about that series. 

But I am keen to resist any temptation to match or top that series. That's pressure I'm just not going to put on myself. So if you're disappointed in the new Friday series, I'm sorry to let you down. Feel free to share your concerns with the management. 

Soon after starting the series on The Lord of the Rings I knew what my next series was going to be. I wanted to blog through Pascal's Pensées.

Some background. 

Pensées is French for "Thoughts." It was the title given to the collection of jottings, reflections, notes, and ideas of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), the French mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher, writer and Catholic theologian. Pascal had been collecting his insights to write a book that would be an apology for and defense of the Christian faith. Pascal died before completing that book, but his thoughts were published after his death as the Pensées, a work that is considered to be a Christian classic.

As long time readers will have noticed, over the years my writing here has become more evangelistic and apologetic in nature. In the early years of this blog, I used to care a lot about making Christianity respectable to skeptics, atheists, and agnostics. I was, pretty much, an agnostic myself. 

But around the time of the publication of Reviving Old Scratch, I've been slowly making a turn. A book about the devil should have been a good warning sign. I still recall doing a breakout session at Rachel Held Evans' and Nadia Bolz-Weber's Why Christian? conference to talk about the devil with a room full of progressive Christians. Worlds were starting to collide. My deconstruction had turned toward reconstruction. The functional atheism of my progressive Christianity has given way to the post-progressive enchantments of Hunting Magic Eels. I'll always work to keep my faith generous, inclusive, liberationist, and intellectually humble. But I'm now pretty firm and vocal on this point: God matters.

Why does God matter? Well, Pascal is a great companion to help make that case. Welcome to the new Friday series.

The Metaphysics of Mental Health

In January I devoted a series to some of the paradoxes regarding the intersections of faith and mental health. 

A baseline observation is that faith is, in review after review, reliably associated with mental health. God is good for you. Faith makes you happier and healthier. 

And yet, some puzzles surround this trend. Specifically, why is it that people of faith can struggle with mental health problems despite having God in their lives? Also, why is it that people without any faith can be psychologically healthier than people of faith? 

Basically, it appears that God does aid mental health, but the relationship isn't 100% clear. Is there a way to describe why faith is reliably associated with mental health while also accounting for the paradoxes noted above? More precisely, how can we solve these paradoxes without blaming people struggling with mental health issues (e.g., saying they don't have "enough faith")? And also recognize the role of God in mental health without becoming overly triumphalistic in our expectations  (e.g., a "name it and claim it" approach to mental health)?

My answer, if you read the series in January, was to attend to metaphysics. 

Specifically, how should we think about the relationship between the Infinite and the finite, between Being and being, between Creator and creature, between Grace and nature?

The argument I made, borrowing from many different theologians, was that we tend to frame the relationship between God and creation in competitive terms, God as one cause among many causes, one being among many other beings, one creature among many other creatures. A powerful creature, to be sure, the most powerful, but still, a creature. By contrast, theologians from apophatic traditions have argued that God cannot be located "within" creation or found "alongside" creatures or causes. God is present directly to all of creation--in God we live, move, and have our being--but the relation is non-competitive and non-rivalrous. God doesn't nudge creatures or causes aside to do God's work.

To be sure, the relation between Infinite and finite, the "causal joint" to use Austin Farrer's term, is shrouded in apophatic mystery. And it is likely making your head spin. It makes my head spin.

So I've continued to think about all this, wondering if this train of thought is apophatic or just incoherent. And is there a difference? 

But I do know what I'm trying to get at, and I think I can state that simply. 

I think what I'm wanting to say is that we need a metaphysics of mental health that doesn't create "either/or" paradoxes but allows for "both/and."

For example, I think a lot of the paradoxes described above are created by a metaphysics of either/or. It's either God or therapy/medication. If it's all God we get the triumphalism of the prosperity gospel, just name it and claim it. We also get the blaming, that if people are unhappy they simply haven't yet turned to God. Swinging to the other side, if it's all just therapy and medication then there's no room for God.

So it would seem that the answers we're looking for should be both/and. God and therapy/medicine. But we need a metaphysical account that can support this both/and. That is what I'm trying to locate and describe, a metaphysics of mental health that recognizes the intrinsic creational potency of therapy and medicine but that doesn't reductively eliminate God from mental health. Relatedly, we're looking for a metaphysics of mental health that recognizes God's supranatural presence and agency in our mental health journey without this power simply overriding or overwriting our creaturely integrity. We need a non-competitive metaphysics of mental health, where God and therapy/medicine are not pitted against each other in an either/or, zerosum game.

To be clear, I'm not saying that what I sketched out in January and glossed here is sufficient to this task. I'm just describing what I'm hunting for in a metaphysics of mental health.

Hunting Magic Eels: Podcast and Interview

I promise I'll keep the book promotion stuff to a minimum, but with Hunting Magic Eels now officially out I wanted to point you to a recent podcast and and interview I did about the book.

First, many of you know Luke Norsworthy and his podcast. Luke and I had a conversation about Hunting Magic Eels if you'd like to give that a listen, or find it wherever you get your podcasts. 

Second, I had the most fun and insightful interview with Addie Helms, who owns Addie's Boutique here in Abilene, TX. Addie hosts coffee chats with local artists and artisans on her Facebook Live feed, and I was her first author to be interviewed. Jana joined us because she's friends with Addie and one of the artists featured in the store. As mentioned in the interview, Jana makes a line of handmade brooches called "Tiny Joys." Anyway, Addie is just a wonderful interviewer, and she, Jana and I had a delightful and lively conversation about the book. You can watch our Facebook Live conversation here.

I hope you get a chance to read Hunting Magic Eels, and if you're so inclined please give the book a share on your social media platforms. If you like the podcast with Luke or the interview with Addie, share those as well. And reviews on Amazon or Goodreads are much appreciated.

Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age

Today is the official release of my new book Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age!

Hunting Magic Eels is about finding God in a secular, scientific, and skeptical age. It's a book about reconstructing faith after a long season of doubt and deconstruction.

The guiding idea of the book is that faith is more about attention than belief. Faith is perception, a matter or seeing. Consequently, faith can be wooed, romanced, nurtured and sustained through practices of attention. 

Part 1 of the book--"Attention Blindness"--walks through some of the ideas from Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. Chapter 1 --"The Slow Death of God"--describes how the world, in the West at least, became disenchanted. This is a sad but very diagnostic chapter, helping us see exactly where our attention shifted over the last 500 years, giving us clues about where we made some wrong turns and how we might get ourselves back on track. Chapter 2--"Welcome to the Ache"--surveys the impact of disenchantment upon mental health, how we are struggling in the West without a transcendent ground of identity, purpose, and meaning. Touring the pain and struggles of modernity cultivates a restlessness and thirst for God. We become disenchanted with disenchantment, disillusioned with our doubts, and skeptical about our skepticism. 

Part 2 of the book--"Enchanted Faith"--is the heart of the book. In Part 2 I describe the psychological and perceptual posture we need to cultivate in order to re-enchant our faith. Chapter 3--"Eccentric Experiences"--uses William James' famous chapter on mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience to help us "widen the view" about what encountering God might look or feel like. Many assume God only speaks to us in an audible voice or through visions of angels. But few of us have such experiences. So we assume God "isn't there." But James helps us see that God is always there and speaking to us if we are willing to open our eyes and ears.

Chapter 4--"Living in a One-Story Universe" is about recovering sacramental wonder, seeing the world, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, as "charged with the grandeur of God." Chapter 5--"The Good Catastrophe"--uses J.R.R. Tolkien's famous essay "On Fairy-Stories" to describe how our mental well-being requires "an outward turn," how hope, meaning, worthiness, gratitude, and joy flow out of a posture of gift and grace. 

Part 3 of the book--"Enchanted Christianities"--makes the point that enchantment isn't something we have to invent from scratch. Christianity is full of enchanted traditions. In Part 3 I survey four such traditions--the Liturgical, the Contemplative, the Charismatic, and the Celtic. Touring these traditions I talk about icons, prayer practices, contemplation, the liturgical calendar, spiritual warfare, miracles, beauty, emotion, worship, spiritual disciplines, fasting, nature, friendship, and much more. 

Lastly, in Part 4 of the book--"Discerning the Spirits"--I have two chapters on the topic of spiritual discernment. In these chapters we face what has been called "the myth of disenchantment," the observation that modern people still seem to be very enchanted in a lot of ways, from believing in ghosts to pagan spiritualities. That is to say, what might be happening in the West isn't a decrease in enchantment but a shift of enchantments. If so, then the call to enchantment must also face the prospect of misenchantment. As I describe in the book, how do we keep enchantment clear of the kooky, the self-indulgent and the dangerous? Part 4--the chapters "Enchantment Shifting" and "God's Enchantment"--is devoted to these questions, touring the various enchantments on offer in the world and describing how we can discern the voice of God in a very noisy and crowed spiritual marketplace. 

So that's the book! I hope this brief tour entices you to pick up a copy. The book would make a great read for those who are struggling with faith in this increasingly post-Christian age, or for those wanting to minister to such people. Many of the insights I share in the book come from my personal experiments in sharing Christianity with increasingly skeptical college students and young people. In that regard, you can read the book as a sort of manual on how to do evangelism in a post-Christian world. And for those who aren't struggling with faith, the book will give you tools and insights that can deepen your spiritual journey. 

Lastly, let me ask a favor today.

I've always refused to monetize this blog. You will never have to pay to subscribe, it'll always be free. You will never have to look at an advertisement. And you will never see a link to a Patron account. This blog is a gift. 

And yet, because of this, many of you over the years have asked how you could support me or say Thank You. Today is a day where you can do that. Take a moment today, or whenever you can, to share the Amazon link to Hunting Magic Eels (or the publisher or Indiebound link) on your social media accounts, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. And if you read the book and like it, take a moment to share a rating and sentence or two of review on Amazon or Goodreads. Suggest the book to pastors, friends, Bible classes, and book clubs. Any support and sharing of the book would be warmly appreciated. 

And with the world opening back up, please contact me (beckr@acu.edu) to come talk to your people about how to hunt magic eels and our need to recover an enchanted faith in a skeptical age.

Happy to Be Potential Nazis: Political Resistance and Spiritual Formation

I want to follow up on my post about the witness of the Jehovah's Witnesses during Nazi Germany, who were sent to the concentration camps and wore a purple triangle. 

Specifically, how can your church and denomination earn the honor of getting your own colored triangle in the Nazi concentration camps?

The issue here is one of spiritual formation and political resistance. When things get hard and sacrificial, like being sent to a Nazi concentration camp, willpower is just too anemic a resource to reliably guide you to the light. Political resistance isn't a snap decision, it's a product of spiritual formation, habits of identity, thinking, and behavior so deeply ingrained that when the hurricane winds start to blow you're so deeply grounded and rooted you're able to stay upright. Add to this how, when a community stands collectively together, it makes it easier for members of the group to stand. We help each other resist. 

We also know that spiritual formation is rooted in practices. Habits and shared patterns of life. So, what form did the Jehovah's Witnesses' spiritual formation take that enabled their resistance to Hitler? The Jehovah's Witnesses had, and have, four practices:

1. Do not vote in elections.

2. Do not pledge allegiance to the flag or nation.

3. Do not run for or hold any political office.

4. Do not serve in the military.

Looking at this list, you can see how the Jehovah's Witnesses' practices of spiritual formation enabled their resistance to Hitler. 

And this raises a question.

Specifically, what is your church or denomination doing to prepare your people for political resistance? What's your list of practices?

Yes, I think we're all very happy that the prospect of a Hitler isn't on our horizon. So perhaps we can dispense with this work. We're contented to live in churches who would have made excellent Nazis, thanking God that we--fingers crossed!--will never have to watch that happen. We're reconciled to the fact that we are okay living as potential Nazis.  

I'm not exaggerating this. This was the exact situation of the German church before the rise of Hitler. Those Christians weren't Nazis, not yet. But they were all potential Nazis, Nazis in embryo. And likely so are we. 

So, yeah, maybe a Hitler isn't on our horizon. But the moral questions are still real and acute. Are we the Christians we think we are? Does our church have the moral capacities to resist nationalism and patriotism, especially in times of war? 

And all this without even commenting on how vast swaths of evangelicalism are already given over to nationalism and patriotism. 

Which brings me back to the list above--no voting, no pledging allegiance, no holding political office, and no serving in the military. Clearly, these spiritual formation practices allowed the Jehovah's Witnesses to stand against Hitler. And my assumption is that any church with these practices would continue to posses the capacity to resist Hitler, now and forever. Basically, we know these practices work.

And yet, this list is extraordinarily controversial. I doubt many churches would sign up for any one of the list, let alone all four. 

Fine. And if that's the case, then let me ask you this: So what's your replacement list? 

If the spiritual formation practices of the Jehovah's Witness are too radical, what's your replacement list that would allow your church to resist Hitler? How is your church going to be able to earn its own colored triangle in the Nazi concentration camps? 

My sense is that there are no replacement lists. It's just not on anyone's radar screen. We wax on and on about the failure of Christianity during Nazi Germany, lamenting it as the great moral failure of Christianity in modern times. And yet, we simply don't care about attending to this very issue--political resistance--in our own churches. We all want to be Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but never put in the work. We're such huge hypocrites. I've spoken in hundreds of churches, and I've never been in a church that has devoted a part of its mission to spiritually forming its people for political resistance. We are, by and large, content to be potential Nazis, hoping that we'll never have to face a political crisis like the German Christians faced with the rise of Hitler. Rather than forming our people, we hope to get lucky. We pray we can make it to our graves with a clear conscience, never having to face an arrest or concentration camp, reaching our deaths able to see ourselves as beautiful, loving, tolerant people, the farthest thing from a Nazi as you can imagine. But we're not any better than those German Christians. We just got lucky. We never had to face the ultimate test.

But maybe, just maybe, you do care about this. Maybe you don't want to attend a church full of potential Nazis. Maybe you don't want to be a potential Nazi. Great! Then let's return to the pressing question: What's your list? What is your church doing by way of spiritual formation that would enable your political resistance to the siren songs of nationalism and patriotism? To be clear, I'm not talking about what sorts of sermons you preach or hear in your church. I'm talking about political habits. Let me spell it out: P-o-l-i-t-i-c-a-l   h-a-b-i-t-s. Make a list of those habits. Show us some action or behavior that demonstrates some degree of political nonconformity. How your church is politically weird, even offensive. Show us some practiced habit that instills in your people the capacity to give a political "No!" to the nation when your neighbors are waving the flag and screaming "Yes!"

Listen, we might not like the Jehovah's Witness list. It might ruffle our feathers. Make us angry. We might think it a fine thing to vote or serve in the military. Okay. Then what's our alternative list? Because if there isn't a list, and my own church doesn't have such a list, then let's just be honest and own the fact we aren't going to earn a colored triangle in the concentration camps. No list, no resistance. We would have saluted the Swastika and cheered "Heil, Hitler!"

Go Wildcats!

We interrupt our regularly scheduled theological programming to bring you some sports news from the NCAA men's March Madness tournament. I feel that my sports loving readers would be disappointed if there was no mention of this news on the blog.

If you missed it, little 'ol Abilene Christian University, the 14th seed, upset state powerhouse Texas University, the 3rd seed, last night!

I'm a sports person, and basketball is our family's main sport. So last night was pretty amazing on so many levels. My sons were together on campus watching the game in Wildcat Stadium with all the students, who properly lost their collective minds when we won. And it's such a crazy experience seeing students of yours--many of the team have been in my classes--being in the national spotlight. 

Also fun, ACU aired a national commercial last night and yours truly briefly appeared on screen (at the 12 second mark). 

Here's my take on the game. Size-wise we were totally overmatched. Points were hard. But ACU led the nation in forcing turnovers, and that's what happened last night. A scrappy, tenacious defense. So, so impressive. I said to Jana before the game, "Here's why I think ACU has a chance. Offenses can choke. Three point shooting can choke. Star players can choke. But defenses? Defenses don't choke."

So, congratulations Wildcats! 

And stay tuned. We play UCLA on Monday.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Final Week, For Not All Tears Are An Evil

I cry a lot, but I don't generally completely lose it. I shed tears, but I don't sob. But I have sobbed twice in my life after encountering a work of art. Once was after watching the movie Glory in 1989. And the other was when I came to the end of The Lord of the Rings.

I remember this vividly. I was a high school student. I was sitting on the couch reading, family members in the room and house. And when I finished the last lines of the book I knew I was going to lose it. I could feel it coming on over the final pages. And not wanting to look like a crazy person in front of my family, I went to the bathroom, locked the door, and, well, just sobbed.

Why was I crying?

It was Sam. Sam's love, attachment, and loyalty to Frodo is, I think many would agree, one of the greatest portrayals of love in all of literature. And this love takes center stage in the final moments of the book. It's just heartrending to watch Sam say goodbye to Frodo at the Grey Havens. 

And so tears are shed by Sam, Frodo, Merry and Pippin. Gandalf, wisely and kindly, had invited Merry and Pippin to the departure knowing Sam would need the company of friends on his return journey home. As Gandalf says to the crying hobbits:

'Yes,' said Gandalf, 'for it will be better to ride back three together than one alone. Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-Earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.'

No they are not. This was one of those moments early in my life, as a high school student, when I began to understand the relationship between love and tears. There is just no way of loving without bringing grief into your life. Love and suffering go hand in hand. 

So, what are you supposed to do? Well, you're supposed to cry. Sob. You grieve. There is just no way through but through. This is what love is. And while it might seem very strange to bring in Vision from WandaVision here, I really do think he hit the nail on the head when he said in the final episode, "What is grief, if not love persevering?"

But there's still joy and life in the midst of these tears. Sam still has Merry and Pippin, and the three ride back to the Shire where Sam will be reunited with Rose and his daughter, and all the full happy years they will have together. We love, we grieve, and we go on loving. This is the pathos of human life. Loving those who have passed over the Sea, and loving those still in our life. We love and we cry. And it's the most beautiful and profound mystery of life.

The final lines of the book:

At last the three companions turned away, and never again looking back they rode slowly homewards, and they spoke no word to one another until they came back to the Shire, but each had great comfort in his friends on the long grey road. 

At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland, and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as the day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap. 

He drew a deep breath. 'Well, I'm back,' he said.

The Purple Triangle: The Jehovah's Witnesses in Nazi Germany

Last week, my son Aidan and I took a day trip to Dallas to visit the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. During the exhibit I was struck again by the display of the variously colored triangles the Nazis used to identify prisoners within their concentration camps. You're likely familiar with the yellow triangle (two often used to make a Star of David), indicating a Jewish prisoner. Red triangles were for political prisoners, like communists. Pink was for homosexual prisoners.

I knew about this labeling system and had seen exhibits like this before, but during this visit I was struck by a display about the purple triangle, which I don't recall encountering before.

The purple triangle was for the Jehovah's Witnesses, the only Christian denomination specifically targeted and persecuted by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps.

Why did the Nazis persecute the Jehovah's Witnesses?

Well, according to Jehovah's Witness theology, you cannot pledge allegiance to any ruler or nation. In addition, you cannot bear arms for any political power. Consequently, the Jehovah's Witnesses refused military service. They also refused to sing patriotic songs or give the "Heil Hitler!" salute. If you greeted a Jehovah's Witness with an "Heil Hitler!" they would answer, "Good morning" or "Good evening." 

Obviously, the Nazis found this completely intolerable, so they began to persecute the Jehovah's Witnesses and eventually sent them to the concentration camps. To be released, all they needed to do was sign a loyalty oath to Hitler and the Nazi state. Most of the Jehovah's Witnesses refused, and remained in the camps.

I confess, I don't know a lot about the Jehovah's Witnesses, nor do I want to defend their beliefs from top to bottom. But what I do want to share is that, as a Christian, I find their witness during the Holocaust to be absolutely heroic and admirable. 

The Christian resistance to Hitler was pretty abysmal. Both Catholics and Protestants have a very checkered history when it comes to standing up to Hitler. The Catholics appeased and the German Church just completely capitulated. Yes, there are a few heroes like Bonhoeffer (a Protestant) and the White Rose (mostly Catholic), but the denominations as a whole either appeased or outright supported the Nazis. 

And then there was the Jehovah's Witnesses. Here was a Christian denomination that had their own colored triangle in the Nazi concentration camps! Can you imagine a greater badge of honor for your church? 

My goodness, if I were a Jehovah's Witness, I'd wear a purple triangle pin every day of my life.

The Enchantments of Celtic Christianity

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

I'm marking the day as my new book Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age is due out next week. But Amazon has already been shipping the book, so you can get your copy today!

The connection between the book and St. Patrick comes from Part 3 of Hunting Magic Eels entitled "Enchanted Christianities." The point of this section of the book is that we don't have to reinvent enchantment from scratch. Christianity is full of enchanted traditions, and in Part 3 of Hunting Magic Eels I survey four of them--the Liturgical, the Contemplative, the Charismatic, and the Celtic.

I'm proud and excited about all of these chapters, but I'm especially proud of the chapter on Celtic Christianity, which begins with St. Patrick. 

The reason I'm so proud of this chapter is that, as I mention in the book, Celtic Christianity has become a bit of a brand. As you know, there's a whole cottage industry out there--from books to music to retreat gurus--marketing itself as "Celtic," and much of it, from a historical and scholarly perspective, is just wrong or plain silly. I didn't want my chapter to be like that. 

So, I took a deep dive into historical Celtic sources and scholarly accounts of Irish monasticism. My book is written for a popular, general audience, but I'm proud of my Celtic Christianity chapter mainly as an academic and scholar. To brag a bit, I think this chapter is one of the best popular-level pieces out there about Celtic Christianity in presenting the distinctive flavors of Celtic Christianity while avoiding the nonsense and distortions you find everywhere under the brand "Celtic." As I write in Hunting Magic Eels:

Before digging into the enchantments of Celtic Christianity, I need to stop and say something about objections that might call the entire notion of “Celtic Christianity” into question.

The first objection concerns the commercialization of Celtic Christianity. Basically, “Celtic” is a bit of a brand. Slap a Celtic knot or cross or an Irish blessing on something, and you can sell it as “Celtic.” Likewise, in the realm of faith and religion, you can slap “Celtic” onto almost any spiritual nonsense and sell that as well. There’s a ton of books on the market selling “Celtic” versions of Christianity and spirituality, many full of rubbish and caring little about historical accuracy. Anything vaguely spiritual or mystical can get branded as “Celtic.” To avoid this, I’ve taken care to make sure that all the Celtic poems and prayers you read in this chapter come from historical Celtic sources...

Which brings us to a second, more scholarly concern. Almost everything about the Celts and Celtic Christianity is controversial and disputed. Many scholars contend that the “Celts” never really existed, not as a culturally and ethnically identifiable people. Another example: almost everything about St. Patrick can trigger an academic temper tantrum. Some scholars, though in the clear minority, question if St. Patrick even existed. Others have also argued that the [frequently cited] “Celtic versus Roman” church contrast is too simplistic and distorting. The Roman and Celtic streams bled into and influenced each other, it is argued, making them impossible to disentangle. Many speakers, gurus, artists, and authors like to contrast a freer, more spiritual, more egalitarian, more environmentally friendly “Celtic” Christianity with a more dogmatic, rigid, patriarchal, and hierarchical “Roman” Christianity. Scholars think that contrast is way too simplistic or just plain wrong. As St. Patrick himself once said to the Celts, “If you would be Christians, then be as the Romans.”

These objections duly noted, most scholars agree that the Christianity that emerged from Patrick’s Ireland did have a distinctive quality, texture, and sensibility. These qualities can be found elsewhere within the Christian tradition, so we need to avoid simplistic, unwarranted contrasts. For example, the Desert Fathers were hugely influential upon the Celtic saints. Much of what gets branded as “Celtic” can be found throughout the Christian tradition. But the contrasts people make about Celtic Christianity haven’t emerged out of nowhere. Scholars have long recognized distinctive features that characterized Irish monasticism, a unique spiritual sensibility we can gather under the label “Celtic Christianity.” The particular texture of this spirituality can be gleaned by reading the poems, prayers, sermons, devotions, and liturgies of the early Irish Christian tradition along with the lives of the Irish saints. This distinctive Celtic spirituality is also communicated through the art and artifacts the Irish Christians bequeathed to us, from the high crosses of Ireland to the illuminations of The Book of Kells.

We should keep a critical eye out whenever we hear something marketed to us as “Celtic,” but anyone can read the Celtic breastplate prayers—the most famous being St. Patrick’s—and see there’s something unique going on in this neck of the Christian woods. You experience the peculiar strangeness of Celtic Christianity when you hear St. Columba opine, “Jesus is my druid.” Or learn about the Celtic caim prayers, prayers of protection offered to the Trinity as one draws a circle of protection around oneself to ward off dark, occult forces. If all that sounds a wee bit magical, well, it is. That’s why we’re here. With the Celtic tradition, we are, most definitely, in a unique neck of the Christian woods. And who isn’t up for a walk in an enchanted forest?

The Gospel According to Game of Thrones

I'm late to the game in any commentary about Game of Thrones, but our family was given a free subscription to HBO when we signed up for a new cellular package. So for the first time I've been able to watch the much acclaimed and commented on TV drama. (I've not read the books, so my comments are just about the HBO adaptation.)

To get something out of the way right at the start, Game of Thrones is for mature audiences given its sex and violence. And that, of course, raises some questions about if Christians should consume this drama. I'm not going to spend any time defending the series as entertainment for Christians. Opinions will differ.

What I do want to write about is the amorality of the series and world created by George R.R. Martin. As many have noted, Martin's fantasy is a sort of anti-Lord of the Rings. Inspired as it was by his Catholic faith, Tolkien's epic is a classic good versus evil struggle with good triumphing in the end. Martin's fantasy, by contrast, is amoral. As the title of the show suggests, Martin's world is Nietzschean, Darwinian, and Machiavellian, a grim struggle for power. The good aren't reliably rewarded in Martin's epic. In fact, the good often come to sudden, violent ends at the hands of the evil and psychopathic. 

And given this, it seems strange, even outlandish, that one might find any "gospel" in Game of Thrones. Yet that's what I want to share.

And no spoilers below. 

Agian, I'm late to this game. There has been a lot of very good writing about Christian themes in Game of Thrones. For example, many of the protagonists we care most deeply about in Game of Thrones are those on the margins, those without power or influence who are just trying to survive. This attention to the weak and oppressed is very Christian. There's a whole lot of God's preferential option for the poor in Tyrion Lannister's quote from Season 1: "I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards, and broken things."

Others have also pointed out how religion in the Game of Thrones, while pagan, highlights how faith becomes fused with politics, how the will to power becomes sacralized by the gods. This creates a prophetic looking glass for Christians who are tempted to use God to justify their own illicit will to power in the political arena. 

Still others have pointed to the Augustinian anthropology at work in Game of Thrones. Depravity and moral confusion are on full display. Any humanistic optimism regarding human nature is going to take a beating in Martin's world. 

And lastly, Game of Thrones isn't amoral, quite the opposite. Game of Thrones might be tragic and the good aren't guaranteed success, but that doesn't means goodness isn't present. In fact, many of the very worst characters at the start, like Jamie Lannister and the Hound, go on interesting moral journeys. Key protagonists, like Jon Snow, Brienne of Tarth, and Tyrion Lannister, are solidly good. And the ripples of goodness sent out from Ned Stark at the very start gently ripple through the entire series to the very final frames. At heart, the story in Game of Thrones is a moral drama, a story about the perseverance of love. In many ways, the pathos of trying to be good person in an evil world is what makes Game of Thrones such a powerful work of art. 

Which brings me to the gospel according to Game of the Thrones.

Let me state the obvious: there's not much Christianity or gospel in Game of Thrones. Again, putting aside the observations above, in trying to be anti-Tolkien Game of Thrones is trying to be anti-Christian. So how can I claim to find the gospel in the show?

Let me suggest that Christianity isn't found in the text of the show but in the moral sensibilities of the viewer. The moral shock of Game of Thrones, its well documented moments where good and virtuous people are suddenly and violently dispatched by psychopaths, only works if we assume an audience who holds to the Judeo-Christian moral worldview. The "art" of Game of Thrones is due to its transgressive nature, what sets it apart from Tolkien's moralism. But transgression presupposes a moral backdrop that one can transgress against. The gospel according to the anti-Christ is the truth that there exists a Christ. 

Now the counter argument here might be that any wicked entertainment could be morally justified on just these grounds. To behold evil is to be reminded of the good. And the more evil, the more good we'd behold, correct?

Not quite. As I observed above, the transgressive nature of Games of Thrones isn't the sadism of, say, a Saw movie. Game of Thrones isn't violence for the thrill of it. Game of Thrones has many things that elevate it to the level of art: story, characterization, and moral depth. We don't voyeuristically thrill to the deaths of good people in Game of Thrones. Quite the opposite. Their deaths hurt us because we have come to care for and admire these characters. The story creates empathy and moral concern. The transgressive nature of the show is that these good people don't get what they deserve. Game of Thrones displays the moral asymmetry of the lament psalms, where the righteous suffer and the wicked thrive. 

All that to say, as I watched Game of Thrones it slowly dawned upon me that the critical accolades of the show are wholly due to Christianity. Without Christianity bequeathing us the moral vision of the West Game of Thrones just doesn't exist. Couldn't exist. The show would be unable to perform its transgressive trick of moral shock and reversal. The central artistic conceit of the show presumes Christianity. 

The gospel according to Game of Thrones is that when the show shocks me I'm acutely reminded of the Christ within me, the Logos, the moral grain of the universe. My dismay at the moral twists and turns of Game of Thrones, what makes the show so addictive and compelling, points me toward the Kingdom I long will come to earth as it is in heaven. Yes, on the surface, the Game of Thrones doesn't seem to be a gospel text. The gospel is found, rather, in the moral relationship the viewer has with the characters. 

True, in Martin's world there isn't an eschatological horizon where the Sheep and the Goats are separated by the Judge of History. But that Judge very much exists, because without that Judge the show just doesn't work. The Judge sits in the heart of the viewer as we weigh every character and every choice they make in the moral balance. You cannot watch the gospel-less world of Game of Thrones without being haunted by Christ.