The Attractions of Christian Metaphysics: Part 6, The Weight of Enchantment

This is my last post in this series. And the point I'll be making is one I've made regularly here on the blog, our need for enchantment.

To live full, rich and human lives we need to experience sacred places and moments. We need places and moments where we can experience wonder, awe and transcendence. We need rituals to mark places, experiences and moments as hallowed, holy and set apart from the mundane and quotidian.

True, one doesn't Christian metaphysics to make this happen. Hallowing is a human universal, a deep human need. We'll do it with or without God.

Our nation helps us hallow as we flock to fireworks displays on July 4th to say Oooo! and Ahhh! Our holidays help us hallow as we enchant our houses with twinkling lights. We light candles on birthday cakes for each other. We flock to scenes of tragedy to light candles and stand vigil. We use or create rituals to solemnize marriages and deaths. Even if we don't pray we feel compelled to say to the suffering, "You're in my thoughts." We give gifts to celebrate new births.

Human life demands enchantment, it requires a sacred texture.

Again, metaphysics.

Existentially, we must sort our lives: These things are quotidian, these things are sacred. And everyone does this.

And for my part, the enchantments of the Christians faith are very attractive, outside of Jesus the most attractive thing about the faith in my estimation. The rituals, the Book, the liturgical calendar, the tradition, the saints, the spiritual practices, the aesthetics, the sacraments, the art, the music, the architecture. And on and on.

If you're looking for enchantment, Christianity is a great place to be.

The Attractions of Christian Metaphysics: Part 5, Cruciform Love

In my last post I noted that the Judeo-Christian tradition provides the foundation for liberal and democratic moral axioms, like "all men are created equal" and that we are endowed with "certain unalienable rights."

But Christianity goes deeper that liberalism and humanism. Christianity is about love.

Cruciform love in particular.

Self-donating, self-giving, self-emptying love. Agape love. Enemy love. Sacrificial love. Servant-hearted love. Kenosis. Washing feet. Seeking the last, rather than first, place. 

Cruciform love is what makes Jesus so attractive, even to non-Christians. And it's here where Christianity cuts deeper than liberalism and humanism.

To be clear, there are liberals and humanists that shame Christians when it comes to sacrificial, self-donating love. What I'm speaking about here is metaphysics.

Cruciform love is not the moral ideal of liberalism and humanism. Yes, as I noted in Part 4, every human being is a location of inviolable dignity and worth, but that doesn't mean I'm morally obligated to live sacrificially for others, especially not for my enemies.

True, few Christians reach, or even aspire to, cruciform love. But cruciform love is our moral ideal in a way that just isn't for liberals and humanists. Yes, any given liberal or humanist could, for themselves, aspire to self-donating, self-giving, self-emptying enemy love, but they would most definitely be leaving the liberal/humanist matrix and moving in a much more Christian metaphysical orbit, an orbit that originated with Jesus.

Again, metaphysics. There is nothing empirically or scientifically self-evident about adopting cruciform love as your moral North Star. You just have to put a stake in the ground and say, "This is what I believe in." And I admire anyone--Christian or humanist--who puts that stake in the ground.

So cruciform love, it's metaphysics and it's Christian.

But is it attractive?

Yes and no, I think. It's attractive in the sense that we find Jesus beautiful and feel drawn to emulate him. But is cruciform love really, ever, going to be attractive?

I don't think so, and it's here where Christian morality parts ways with liberalism. And with most so-called "Christians."

But for the few who hear his voice, cruciform love most definitely is an attractive metaphysics.

We live into his promise and find it to be true.

In losing our lives, we've found them.

Prison Diary: Two Candlesticks

We finished watching Les Misérables this week. I've never seen such a reaction to a movie we've show out at the unit. The Men in White were so excited to finish it up and we had a great conversation afterward.

For my part, I focused upon the two candlesticks.

Recall, Valjean steals the silver from the home of a kindly old bishop who takes him in for the night. Valjean is captured and taken back to the priest. But instead of condemning him, the priest tells the police that he gave the silver to Valjean and that, in fact, he left some behind. The priest then gives Valjean two silver candlesticks, the most expensive items in the house. After the police leave, the priest tells Valjean to use the silver as a second chance, to become an honest man. In the wake of this act of mercy and grace, Valjean pledges his life to God.

And from there we witness Valjean keeping his promise to God. Saving Fantine. Cosette. Marius. Even his enemy Javert.

The entire story is watching the ripple effects of a single act of grace. Two candlesticks, and all the lives they save.

I wanted to underline this part of the story as the Men in White live in a very small and circumscribed world. They feel cut off from the events in the "free world." Consequently, they feel that they don't and can't make a difference.

But when you focus on the ripple effects of small acts of grace--two candlesticks--you come to realize that even small things can have large consequences. So be faithful in the small things, give someone two candlesticks, and let the Lord attend to the rest.

That was the message I preached to them.

The Attractions of Christian Metaphysics: Part 4, Universal Human Worth and Dignity

As many cultural historians have noted, the universal ethic of Western humanism and liberalism--where every human person is treated as a sacred location of inviolable worth and dignity--is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

That God sides with the slaves against their oppressors in Exodus now strikes us as obvious. The Golden Rule is almost trite. That there is "neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female" sits at the heart of liberal democracy.

As Rene Girard has pointed out, victims are the greatest moral authority in our ethical universe. And the very first stories that recounted history from the perspective of the innocent victim were the Gospels According to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

But again, metaphysics.

That humanism and liberalism take human worth and dignity as axiomatic is a metaphysical stance. There is no empirical or scientific account that can justify the notion that every human life should be treated equally. Our ethical foundations are inherently metaphysical. Axiomatic and nonnegotiable.

For example, if a person suggested on CNN today, from a eugenics perspective, that cognitively disabled people should be sterilized, we'd shout that person down as a moral monster. It's taboo to even think such a thought. It's blasphemy. Heresy.

Again, metaphysics. Our ethical system is inherently religious.

But it might not be religious enough.

Yes, human worth and dignity is metaphysically grounded, but in liberalism and humanism it's more axiomatic than religious, given to us ex nihilo rather than grounded in a metaphysical account of the cosmos. In the Judeo-Christian tradition human dignity and worth is rooted in the account of the Imago Dei, the belief that humans are created in the image of God. In liberalism and humanism human worth and dignity is simply taken as a given, but it's not really rooted anywhere. There's no account for it.

Which makes it very vulnerable. All lives have the same dignity and worth. Unborn lives? The lives of prisoners on death row? The lives of our enemies in war?

To be clear, the Imago Dei is vulnerable in Christianity as well. Christians don't agree on abortion, capital punishment or war. God has been and is used to take and diminish life.

But since Christianity is religious, and not merely axiomatic, it has the metaphysical resources to critique itself. You can use the Golden Rule against Christians, and since it's their own rule it should give them pause. And if it doesn't, you can point out the contradiction. And keep pointing out the contradiction. You can call them hypocrites, using their own faith against them. There is moral traction for self-criticism.

But in a purely axiomatic account there are fewer resources for self-criticism. You can't use an axiom against itself. If push comes to shove, you can just reject the axiom to pick a different one. As an example of this, consider the ethical system of the utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer. Singer starts with some very different moral axioms from those liberals and humanists inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the moral conclusions Singer reaches--which are perfectly logical given his starting axioms--are very different from those espoused by many liberals and humanists.  Moral monster worthy stuff if shared on CNN. But it's all perfectly logical and defensible given his moral axioms.

Again, I'm not mounting evidence that the Judeo-Christian axiom of universal human dignity and worth is more "true" than Singer's axioms, or any other axioms in rival moral systems. That's sort of my point. It's a metaphysical game we are playing. Pick your axioms. And by the way, science can't help you.

My point is simply that Christianity has an attractive metaphysics.

Christian metaphysics gives us an account of universal human worth and dignity and that account is robustly metaphysical enough to spark and sustain moral self-criticism in a way that a purely axiomatic account does not.

The Attractions of Christian Metaphysics: Part 3, The Prophetic Capacity

One of Karl Barth's great criticisms of liberal Christianity, and liberal humanism generally, was how it lacked the prophetic resources to stand against Nazi Germany.

The guiding idea behind liberal Christianity is to unpack all the metaphysical and "mythological" material in the Bible in purely humanistic terms. Replace the transcendent with the immanent, the divine with the human, the sacred with the ethical.

But as Barth pointed out, the trouble with liberal Christianity is that if God is just the good then God becomes a cipher for whatever the prevailing culture says is good.  

The biblical term for this conflation is idolatry, making God into our own image.

The evil potential of idolatry is that when human beings turn to the dark side God comes along to legitimate that darkness, or at least stand placidly to the side. This is why liberal theology lacked the prophetic resources to stand against Hitler. Liberal theology reduced God to the Volk (the people, nation and race), and then the Volk went dark side. And the the German church followed.

But God, said Barth, is Wholly Other. God cannot be reduced to the human. God cuts across the Volk.

God's Wholly Otherness creates a prophetic capacity, the prophet's ability to utter a "Thus sayest the Lord!" over against the Volk.

Again, metaphysics. Metaphysics creates prophetic capacity, a place where the prophet can stand above and against the Volk--the nation, the people, the race.

To be sure, one doesn't need to invoke the Hebrew and Christian God to stand as a prophet. But one does need to claim a metaphysical perch, a universal moral perspective that stands above the ethics of a nation, people or race. If a person tries to work within the system they are not a prophet, they are a politician. And while much good and great work can be achieved by politics as usual, there are times when prophets are required. And prophets, by definition, don't work within political systems. Prophets stand outside the system, as a voice crying in the wilderness.

So again, metaphysics.

And one of the great attractions of Christian metaphysics is its Hall of Fame roster of prophets.

From Moses ("Let my people go!") to the prophets of Israel ("Let justice roll down like a river!") to John the Baptist to Jesus.

The Attractions of Christian Metaphysics: Part 2, Beyond Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is a comparative social metric that registers in our psyche as neurosis.

We compare ourselves to our colleagues, neighbors, friends, family and cultural standards of success and worthiness. If we measure up as "average" to "above average," we experience satisfaction. However, this satisfaction is tinged with anxiety about the potential for loss and failure.

If we measure up as "below average" we experience feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.

Because it's a comparative social metric that is a source of psychic pain and suffering, self-esteem is also a source of rivalry, competition and violence. Since self-esteem is rooted in social comparison, self-esteem creates a rivalrous, competitive relationship between ourselves and the world.

In sum, these are the two problems of the ego: neurosis and violence.

How can we escape this comparative, competitive dynamic?

Many wisdom, religious, philosophical, and therapeutic systems have proposed pathways toward a "quiet ego." A common theme in these systems is how quieting the ego (reducing neurosis) is critical in cultivating compassion (reducing violence). Again, neurosis and violence go hand in hand.

A key part of this process is transcendence, extracting the self from the matrix of social evaluation and comparison, allowing the self to stand above cultural standards of beauty, worth, and significance. A metaphysical self. But where is this transcendent, metaphysical self located?

In Christianity the transcendent self is located in God. We are "hidden in Christ." David Kelsey, in an insight I borrow in The Slavery of Death, calls this an eccentric identity, an identity located outside of ourselves, an identity that is received as gift.

The power of eccentricity to alleviate neurosis is described by Howard Thurman in his book Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman explains why African Americans in the United States were so powerfully attracted to Jesus. The reason, according to Thurman, is that Christianity allowed blacks to extract and protect their identities from the social metrics of a white supremacist society. With their egos now hidden in Christ, black Christians had transcendent, metaphysical identities that made them immune to shame and stigma. Thurman describing this:
The core of the analysis of Jesus is that man is a child of God...This idea--that God is mindful of the individual--is of tremendous import...In this world the socially disadvantaged man is constantly given a negative answer to the most important personal questions upon which mental health depends: "Who am I? What am I?" The first question has to do with a basic self-estimate, a profound sense of belonging, of counting. If a man feels that he does not belong in a way in which it is perfectly normal for others to belong, then he develops a deep sense of insecurity. When this happens to a person, it provides the basic material for what the psychologist calls the inferiority complex. It is quite possible for a man to have no sense of personal inferiority as such, but at the same time to be dogged by a sense of social inferiority. The awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power. I have seen it happen again and again.

[Seeing oneself as a child God establishes] the ground of personal dignity, so that a profound sense of personal worth can absorb the fear reaction. This alone is not enough, but without it, nothing else is of value. The first task is to get the self immunized against the most radical results of the threat of violence. When this is accomplished, relaxation takes the place of churning fear. The individual now feels that he counts, that he belongs. 
Again, the Christian approach isn't the only path one could follow to quiet the ego. But some sort of metaphysical answer has to be given to the fundamental issues of identity: cultivating a profound existential assurance of belonging, counting and mattering. Especially for socially disadvantaged persons. For without this metaphysical answer--the axiomatic givenness that you do matter, that you do belong, that you are of inestimable worth--one is trapped in the neurotic, violent matrix of social evaluation and comparison, forever dogged by a profound sense of insecurity and the fear of what Brene Brown calls "the shame based fear of being ordinary."

The Attractions of Christian Metaphysics: Part 1, Image and Fall

Why believe in Christianity?

Christian apologetics is a difficult, fraught task. And while I don't think that it's possible to argue that Christianity has an exclusive corner on the market for metaphysical truth, what I do think you can do is two things.

First, I think you can make a reasonable case that some really, really important things require some appeal to metaphysics. And by that I mean a simple axiomatic givenness that can't be grounded in a purely scientific, empirical, descriptive account. I'll illustrate what I mean by "axiomatic givenness" in the posts of this series.

Second, I think you can go on to make a reasonable case that Christianity has a suite of metaphysical beliefs that are really attractive.

Basically, we need a metaphysical system and Christianity has a really attractive one to offer. So I'd like to take a few posts to sketch out some metaphysical ideas in Christianity and why I find them attractive.

To start, I find Christian anthropology to be very powerful and important.

By anthropology I simply mean "What are humans like?"

Almost every ethical, political, economic, educational, therapeutic and social system has, at its heart, a view of humanity.

Democrats have a view of humanity different from Republicans.

Marxists have a view of humanity different from capitalists.

Freud had a view of humanity different from Jung.

Hobbes had a view of humanity different from Rousseau.

And on and on.

Are humans rational or irrational? Good or bad? Competitive or cooperative?

These aren't abstract philosophical questions. Your answers to the questions affect everything from how you parent, to how you vote, to the school you send your kids to, to how your therapist approaches your issues, to how trusting you are of your fellow human beings and human institutions (from the government, to the markets, to the police).

In the background there is a working model of human nature and it governs almost everything we see around us, along with our own attitudes and behaviors.

Like I said, metaphysics. A working, axiomatic assumption about human nature that guides politics, parenting, ethics, education, economics, therapy and our default attitude about human beings and human institutions. Odds are, when we disagree about some controversial issue--from war to the legalization of drugs to corporal punishment to schools to taxation--what sits behind these disagreements are conflicting views of human nature.

We vote and parent differently because of metaphysics.

For me, what makes the Christian view of human nature so appealing is its dialectic between humanity being created in the Image of God and the Fall.

More on this in a later post, but our primal, fundamental nature is good. Humans are created in the Image of God. As Danielle Shroyer puts it, our identities flow out of "original blessing." Goodness is our origin and goodness is our potential.

And yet, this goodness is marred, wounded, damaged and eclipsed by "fall," by sin, depravity, wickedness, ignorance and evil.

Again, Christianity doesn't have exclusive rights on having a mixed and ambivalent view of human nature, but it is one of the great attractions of our faith. The Christian view of human nature spans the universe of human action and history. Christianity can stand alongside the most optimistic, romantic and humanistic accounts of human goodness and potential. There is no flower child that Christianity can't get behind.

But at the same time, there is no horror or atrocity--from torture to abuse to genocide--that Christianity cannot predict, envision or fathom. Christianity descends to the darkest depths of human depravity.

In Image and Fall, Christianity grasps the entire bandwidth of human morality and potential.

There is no view of human nature on offer more expansive or complete.

Prison Diary: Les Misérables

The movies the chaplain's office has for use in our study aren't all that great. From God's Not Dead to The Passion of the Christ. To be sure, the inmates love these movies, but I struggle with them.

So in an attempt to broaden their horizons, theologically and artistically, I brought in Les Misérables. Last week we watched what is Act One in the musical, up through "One Day More." We'll finish up this coming week.

Showing the movie was a bit of a risk. The plot is hard to track, with big jumps in time and setting. The historical context is foreign. Finally, there's the operatic style. I, of course, can sing every word of every song from start to finish. But would the men be able to track what was going on? Especially the guys who mainly speak Spanish?

To help with this, I did two things. First, we activated the Spanish subtitles. Second, we stopped after each scene--when the movie jumps to a new year--to recap what happened and set up what was about to happen. If anything was missed in the plot we got everyone on the same page.

So how did it go?

Really well, I think. A surprising number of the men had either read the novel at some point or had seen the musical before their incarceration. These guys really loved the movie. And everyone else seemed to as well.

Inmates, it seems, can identify with Prisoner 24601.

On Avoiding Class Warfare

The mysticism of nationalism has tended to occlude any discussion of class divisions. We are convinced that we are e pluribus unum, one united from many.  Policy debate shies away from any discussion of class; those who raise the issue of class are accused of making class warfare, which strikes me as the equivalent of accusing the fire department of arson because they keep showing up at house fires.

--William Cavanaugh, from Field Hospital: The Church's Engagement with a Wounded World

Nature and the Imagination of Jesus

I've spent years trying to get into the imagination of Jesus, trying to see the world through Jesus's heart and mind.

And today I'm struck by the influence of nature upon Jesus:
"He causes his sun to rise...and sends rain."

"Look at the birds of the air."

"See how the flowers of the field grow."

"Every good tree bears good fruit."

"The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew."

"Foxes have dens and birds have nests."

"The harvest is plentiful."

"I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."

"What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind?"

"You brood of vipers!"

"As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown."

"When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared."

"Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches."

"A net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish."

“When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’"

"The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going."

"Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest."

“I am the vine; you are the branches."

Shame at the Well and Behind Bars

We've been going through the gospel of John out at the prison on Monday nights for our Bible study. We came to John 4, the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well.

And we stayed there for three weeks. For three weeks we talked about this woman.

That happened because the men in the prison deeply identified with this woman, the shame she carried and her marginalization.

When we came to John 4 I started by ticking through all the ways this woman should not have been on a Jewish man's radar screen. Students of the Bible know this list very well, but walking through this list out at the prison had a huge emotional impact.

First, the woman was a Samaritan, looked down on for ethnic, cultural and religious reasons. The Samaritans were traitors to their race and their God.

Next, she was a woman in a Middle-Eastern culture, she was to be ignored by men.

Finally, she was a sinner and social pariah, discarded by five men and illicitly living with a sixth. Shunned by the Jews, he was also shunned by her own people. And outcast of the outcasts. The lowest of the low.

Jesus couldn't have picked a more marginalized person to have spoken to that day.

And that's want resonated with the men in the prison, they found themselves within her shame.

They were the outcasts among the outcasts, the lowest of the low.

Heroin(e)

I want to keep putting the opioid epidemic in front of you because I don't think progressive/liberal Christian spaces talk enough about addiction generally, and the opioid epidemic specifically.

So if you have Netflix, take some time to watch the new documentary Heroin(e), a story following three women--a judge, a fire chief, and a street missionary--battling the opioid epidemic in the "overdose capital" of America in West Virginia.

Prison Diary: Washing Feet Is Still Hard to Do

Over the last few months out at the prison we've been working our way through the gospel of John. Last week we hit John 13 and the story of Jesus washing the disciples' feet.

If you've read Reviving Old Scratch, or have heard me speak about this, you know the story from my early days out at the prison, how we hit rocky patches when we got to the Beatitudes and John 13. "Blessed are the meek" and washing feet are hard messages in the prison.

Last week, when we were back in John 13, I was reminded that it remains a hard message. Most of the time, the men love to talk and discuss the text we are studying. But when we hit texts like John 13 the room grows quiet and I find I'm the only one willing to talk about the story. You can feel the tension in the room.

The Men in White are like us. We like to intellectualize our Christianity, treating it like it's a theological chess game we're trying to win. We talk so damn much.

But washing feet?

That's a part we'd rather pass over in silence.

Playing With Children

Jana and I were wanting to bolster our savings. Jana is the high school theater teacher for Abilene Christian Schools, and she heard that on the elementary side of the school they were needing people to do after school care. Watching the children from 3:30, when school lets out, to 5:30. A lot of parents can't leave work at 3:30 to pick up their kids, so their children stay in after school care until they get out of work.

Jana suggested that she could take that job this semester to make a little extra money. I didn't think it was fair that Jana should do this by herself, so I said I'd do it with her. So we've split the job. I go help watch the kids on Tuesday and Friday. Jana works Wednesday and Thursday.

I had forgotten how much I love being with children. All through my teenage and college years I was attracted to the children at church, playing with them after services. I loved being the father of two young boys when Brenden and Aidan were little. But as they grew older my focus shifted to being the father of high school boys, and I left the social world of children.

But now I'm back, and I remember all the things I loved about playing with children.

To be clear, it's also very hard work. Children can be irritating and boring. They can be oppositional, sneaky, demanding, loud and sullen. I'm very tired after those two hours of work.

But the joys outweigh the work.

I've always been fascinated with how Jesus paid attention to children. Jesus was good with kids. And I think there's something very important about that. I've always said, "The best test of character I know of is watching how you treat children."

I think children teach us the basics of being a human being. Children want you to bear witness, to behold, to see them. The requests you get over and over again are, "Look at me!" and "Watch this." and "Come here and see this." Most of what you do in being with children is beholding them. Seeing. Watching. Bearing witness.

Which requires two things. Presence and attention. You have to be there, and you have to have your eyes open.

And as I practice these skills again on Tuesdays and Fridays, I'm made aware that I'm being reeducated all over again in how to be a human being.

What we want most from each other is presence and attention. That's the basic language of love. But we so rarely offer each other this gift. Mostly because we are all, at various times, sullen, oppositional, demanding, and boring. So we look away. And we lose track of each other.

And eventually, we discover that we've left each other all alone, and that love is in short supply.

Presence and attention. That's what I think made Jesus so good with children. That when no one else saw them, he did.

The way he beheld everyone.

And so it is that a five year old girl takes my hand and tugs, pulling me toward the sandbox.

"Come and see," she says.

I follow.

And I behold.

Hallowed Be Thy Name

We're all familiar with the opening line of the Lord's Prayer:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 
We generally take these words to be words of respect, giving homage to God. At the start of the prayer we hallow, honor, and reverence the name of God.

These words are actually a petition, a prayer for God to act in hallowing God's own name. God hallowing God's name marks the end of Israel's exile as God gathers the scattered sheep of Israel. God hallows God's name by restoring Israel:
Ezekiel 39.7-8, 25-29
"And my holy name I will make known in the midst of my people Israel, and I will not let my holy name be profaned anymore. And the nations shall know that I am the Lord, the Holy One in Israel. Behold, it is coming and it will be brought about, declares the Lord God. That is the day of which I have spoken.

“Therefore thus says the Lord God: Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the whole house of Israel, and I will be jealous for my holy name. They shall forget their shame and all the treachery they have practiced against me, when they dwell securely in their land with none to make them afraid, when I have brought them back from the peoples and gathered them from their enemies' lands, and through them have vindicated my holiness in the sight of many nations. Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God, because I sent them into exile among the nations and then assembled them into their own land. I will leave none of them remaining among the nations anymore. And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord God.”
The Lord's Prayer is a petition for God to hallow God's name before the nations by restoring Israel, making the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven through the reign of the Messiah. 

The Spirit is Salvation: Part 6, Spirit and Law

Many of the controversies we have about salvation result from not recognizing the central role and activity of the Holy Spirit. Two related controversies involve law versus grace and justification versus sanctification.

Regarding law and grace, these two are often pitted against each other. We are told to eschew a "works-based righteousness"--moral performance under the law--to embrace grace.

Relatedly, we struggle to articulate the relationship between justification and sanctification. We are saved through faith (justification), but there's the ongoing demand of righteous living and holiness (sanctification). Which seems to sneak a works-based righteousness in through the backdoor, negating the gift of grace. How to strike the right balance? (Dietrich Bonhoeffer's contrast between "cheap grace" and "costly grace" is an example of a theological attempt to find a proper balance between justification and sanctification.)

I'd like to argue that many of these tensions result from failing to attend to the role of the Holy Spirit in salvation.

To start, let's consider the law.

The last generation of scholarship on Paul, the New Perspective in particular, has shown us that Reformation understandings of Palestinian Judaism as a legalistic and works-based religion are simply wrong. Consequently, when we pit grace against "works-based righteousness" we're mistaken. That wasn't a problem in Judaism, and it wasn't the problem Paul was dealing with.

That said, Paul clearly does have issues with the law. But if it's not works-based righteousness, what's the problem?

To get a handle on this we need to examine Paul's seemingly contradictory statements about the law. On the one hand, the law brings death:
Romans 7.5
For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death.
So it seems that the law is a bad thing for us, it arouses sinful passions. And yet, Paul goes on to say that the law is good:
Romans 7.12
The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
So which is it? The law brings about our death, yet the law is holy, righteous and good.

The paradox here is resolved when we note that the problem isn't just the law. The law, as we've noted, is actually good. The problem is the interaction of law and flesh, the mixture of non-spiritual with the spiritual. It's that interaction that's the problem. Simply:
Law + Flesh = Sin
In Paul's words: "We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin."

Our problem with the law is this ontological disjoint between our unspiritual nature (our "flesh") and the spiritual law. Our problem is an ontological incapacity to fulfill the law:
Romans 7.21-23
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 
Notice that the problem here isn't a works-based righteousness, trying to "earn" grace. The problem is an ontological and moral inability to do the right thing you know you should do:
Romans 7.15-18
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 
That's the whole problem in a nutshell: "I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out."

Ontological incapacity. The law is holy, righteous and good but I lack the capacity to carry it out. So I fall back into sin and death. Rinse and repeat.

Stuck in this cycle Paul cries out for salvation, and the answer to his cry is...the Spirit. The Spirit is given to flesh to give us the ontological capacity to become holy, righteous and good:
Romans 7.24-8.14
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 
I know that was a long text to read, so if you skipped it, seriously, go back and read it slowly, internalize the argument.

Note that the problem is not a works-based righteousness. The problem is ontological incapacity. Paul says this very, very clearly: "The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God."

The mind of the flesh cannot submit to God's law, nor can it do so.

Because of this ontological incapacity, the problem is how the law interacted with flesh to bring about sin. Salvation, thus, comes through the Spirit which breaks this cycle.

Note how the goal in all this is holy and righteous living: "Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation...put to death the misdeeds of the body." This holy and righteous living is ontologically empowered and enabled by the Holy Spirit. Our flesh, once "subject to death because of sin," is given power and life through the Spirit, which gives us the spiritual and moral capacity to "put to death the misdeeds of the body."

And when we put the misdeeds of the flesh to death we live: "If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live."

There's no conflict here between holiness and grace, between righteous living and salvation. There is no conflict here between justification and sanctification. Grace gives us the ability to be holy. Holiness is freedom from sin and death. Justification gives us the capacity to live sanctified lives and sanctified lives are the sign that we are, in fact, the children of God.

And it's all because of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit is salvation.

The Spirit is Salvation: Part 5, Life and Death

What does it mean to be lost?

Simply stated, being lost means being separated from God.

Again, in most of our debates about salvation this "separation" isn't really a separation. Being lost, in most conversations, means standing under God's wrath. Which is bad, no doubt, but wrath is an emotional state or a legal situation. Technically, wrath isn't separation. In fact, you could argue that wrath implies connection. Wrath is a relational emotion.

True, wrath might eventually lead to separation from God, but it's this separation that we most fear.

In the New Testament, separation from God is associated with death. Being lost is being dead or subject to death. And we are subject to death because, separated with God, we lack the power to overcome and defeat death.

This is why salvation is associated with power. Salvation isn't primarily about being declared "righteous." Salvation is about being connected to a power that can give us victory over death.

Being saved, therefore, is being united and reconnected with God.

And again, to echo a point made earlier in this series, this movement from death to life is ontological. Death really means death, our bodies subject to death, decay and corruptibility. Life really means life, being infused with God's Spirit giving us victory over death.

Simply put, salvation is resurrection.
Romans 8.11
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

Romans 8.19-24b
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.

1 Corinthians 15.42-55
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

I tell you this, brothers and sisters: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

Prison Diary: Play Us a Song, You're the Piano Man

Every week when David comes to the study he carries a huge folder of paper. It's about an inch thick.

It's full of piano music.

There is a piano in the prison chapel. It's only used for Sunday worship services. An inmate would never be allowed to visit the chapel to play the piano all alone, playing whatever music he wanted.

But sometimes David gets a chance to have the piano all to himself.

During the hours of our study the prison does their evening "count." Counts happen at regular intervals throughout the day. No one can move during count. You stay right where you are--our guys are obviously in the chapel--and the prison takes a census, accounting for every inmate in the entire facility.

Sometimes the count doesn't "clear." The numbers don't match up. So you keep counting and locating the unaccounted for inmates until the numbers are right.

The count can take upwards to two hours if it's having trouble clearing. Which means that, if the count hasn't cleared by the time our study is over at 8:30, the men have to stay in the chapel until the count clears. They might have to wait a few minutes, or they might have to wait for over an hour.

And if that happens, David is stuck waiting in the chapel.

Which just so happens to have a piano in the corner.

That's why David religiously brings his music to the study.

For those precious few moments to sit down at a piano, to pull out his music, and play.

The Spirit is Salvation: Part 4, The Mechanism and Means of Salvation

In the atonement debates theologians remind us that the New Testament writers don't give us a theory of atonement, and by that they mean a theory about the mechanism of atonement. That we are saved by Jesus' death on the cross is the crucial point. How we are saved by his death is a fuzzy matter.

I agree with that assessment. I don't think we get a clear picture in the NT about how atonement "works."

That said, I actually do think we are told about the mechanism of salvation in the NT, Paul especially.

How are we saved? We're saved by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the means and mechanism of salvation.

Rather than tour through all of Paul's letters, let's focus in on Romans 8 to see this illustrated.

According to Paul, the human predicament is that we are all slaves to Sin, death and the devil. We are dead, incapacitated and weak. Cut off from God's power, separated from God's life.

We are saved, liberated and rescued from our bondage by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are reconnected to God's life through the Holy Spirit.

Again, how are we saved? Answer: By receiving Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the mechanism, the means of salvation.

Here's how Paul describes it at the start of Romans 8:
Romans 8.1-6
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.

Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 

But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
The Spirit sets us frees from bondage ("Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." 2 Cor. 3.17). The Spirit gives us the capacity to please God by walking in righteousness. The Spirit gives power and life to our mortal bodies.

In short, if we were to ask Paul our questions--How are we set free? How are we given new life? How are we made into a new creation? How are we given the ability to walk in righteousness? How? How? How?--Paul's answer would be simple.

The Holy Spirit.

The Spirit is Salvation: Part 3, Salvation and Spirit in the Gospels and Acts

Let's take a couple posts to note how salvation is equated with the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

The basic thesis for this post is easily stated: In the gospels and Acts salvation is equated with receiving the Holy Spirit.

That might seem to be an obvious point, but let it sink in. Salvation in the gospels and Acts isn't associated with the atonement. Salvation is associated with being given the Holy Spirit.

In the gospels this association is most clearly seen in John:
John 3.5-8
Jesus answered [Nicodemus], “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Being saved is being "born again" in a mystical, spiritual, metaphysical sense. Simply: "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit." In John 6.63 Jesus says, "It is the Spirit that gives life."

Salvation is life, and the Spirit is what gives us life.

The Synoptic gospels are less mystical when it comes to the Spirit, but they agree with John that the coming of the kingdom is associated with the advance of the Spirit.

John the Baptist declares, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Jesus' ministry of exorcism is viewed in the Synoptics as the Holy Spirit reclaiming enemy-held territory:
Matthew 12.22-28
Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw.

And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.”

Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."
In Acts 1 and 2 the church--the community of the saved--is established at Pentecost by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 10 the mission to the Gentiles is inaugurated when the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and his household.

In fact, the entire book of Acts is simply the story of how the Spirit that filled Jesus now fills and guides the church. The Spirit is the hero of the book of Acts. How a person stands in relation to the Spirit in the book of Acts tells us how they stand in relation to salvation, the church, and the advancing kingdom of God.

So the main point: in the gospels and the book of Acts salvation is described as receiving the Holy Spirit

The Spirit is Salvation: Part 2, Divine Radiation in the Superhero Movie of Salvation

The key insight we need to understand salvation is that salvation is ontological.

We tend to think that salvation is relational and moral. Specifically, to be saved is to have our relationship with God restored. Once, we stood condemned before God, now we stand justified. Salvation is a change in relationship.

And standing now justified, we also think of salvation as a moral status. Once, I was dirty and unclean, now I am washed and pure.

No doubt, salvation is both of these things. But what tends to get missed when we understand salvation in relational and moral terms is the ontological aspect of salvation. Salvation changes our being, the substance of our very selves and existences. We are, quite literally, a "new creation." Once, we were one type of being, and now we are a new type of being. A new creature. A qualitatively different type of human being.

It takes a lot of work to even imagine this, how salvation isn't just about a change in relationship or moral status, how salvation changes the very substance of your being.

To recount a lesson from Theology 101, Western visions of salvation have tended to be forensic in nature, focusing on legal status. Saved vs. Lost. This status highlights the relational and moral aspects of salvation, our legal situation before the Judgment Seat of God. By contrast, the Eastern vision of salvation is ontological. Salvation is union and participation in the Divine Nature. Salvation is theosis, ontologically becoming God. The saints are literally becoming divine.

To make the contrast clear, the saints are not being declared divine (holy, justified, righteous) by a judge in a forensic, legal sense. The saints are becoming divine, at the atomic level, if I can use those words. Metaphysically, mystically, and supernaturally the physical components of your being--the atoms and molecules, muscles and tendons, organs and blood--are being modified and changed, becoming something different. You are becoming, quite literally, a new kind of creature.

This is may be a crude way to describe it, but imagine every atom of your being being changed by exposure to Divine radiation. Sort of like what happens in a superhero movie, like how Peter Parker is changed into Spider Man.

Becoming like a superhero, a new type of human being, a new creature. That is the Eastern vision of salvation. That's what it means to say salvation is ontological.

This is why the Spirit is salvation, because it's the Spirit that is creating and re-creating your being, fusing your DNA with the divine in the process of theosis. The Spirit is the Divine radiation in the superhero movie of salvation. The Spirit is the means of new creation. Without the Spirit new creation cannot happen. And outside of new creation there is no salvation.

The Spirit is Salvation: Part 1, The Missing Piece

My book The Slavery of Death is my deepest reflection on the subject of salvation. Mainly from a psychological perspective, the emotional contours of what it means to be set free from the slavery of death.

But I've come to think that there's a big missing piece in The Slavery of Death. Theologically, what's missing is an account of Holy Spirit's work in effecting our liberation from Sin, death and the devil. This is a particularly important issue given how much The Slavery of Death leans on Orthodox theology.

That said, my discussions about "ecstatic" and "eccentric" identity in The Slavery of Death easily lend themselves to a pneumatological treatment. An ecstatic and eccentric identity is simply the psychological experience of a Spirit-filled and a Spirit-led life.

Still, I wish I had included a more explicit discussion of the Holy Spirit in the book.

And the reason for that is that, more and more, I'm coming to see how in all our debates about salvation and atonement the big missing piece in all of these discussions is the Holy Spirit. We focus so much on the forgiveness of sins that we miss seeing how salvation is receiving the Holy Spirit.

Especially from a Christus Victor perspective, what liberates us from the powers of Sin, Death and Satan? The Holy Spirit.

What moves us--ontologically--from Death to Life? The Holy Spirit.

What vitally reconnects us with and allows us to participate in God's being and life? The Holy Spirit.

What is the ontological glue that binds the church together across time and space? The Holy Spirit.

What is the power that gives us the moral capacity to obey the Law of Love to advance in holiness and spiritual perfection? The Holy Spirit.

Simply put, the Spirit is Salvation. And I'd like to devote some posts to that idea.

Prison Diary: Set Free From the Power of the Devil

On Monday out at the prison we were in John 12 and spent most of our time talking about these verses:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
We talked about how Christians die before death, making us immune to the fear of death. And emancipated from the fear of death we become immune to the power of the devil (Hebrews 2.14-15).

As the church father John Chrysostom has said, "he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil."

As regular readers know, all this is worked out in my book The Slavery of Death. It was nice on Monday to lean into that material. 

Because if there ever was a display case for death being the power of the devil, it's inside a maximum security prison. Here's how I described it to the men on Monday.

The devil is a puppet master. We are the puppets. And the strings the devil pulls is our fear of death. That is how the devil enslaves, controls, and bullies us.

But in baptism, in dying before death, the strings are cut, setting us free from fear and the power of the devil.

And in that moment, raised up from the waters of death, a new human being is born, a new creature, a new creation. A liberated, fearless person who is totally free.

Last Call: Reviving Old Scratch Just $2.99


Last reminder that the ebook of Reviving Old Scratch is on sale for just $2.99. The deal ends on September 15 when Fortress Press wraps up its massive summer ebook sale.

For potential readers wondering if a book about the devil in the modern age would be of value to your church or ministry, Reviving Old Scratch was named the 2017 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy.

Again, the sale ends in two days. The full listings of books on sale is here.

And the Violent Take It By Force?: Part 3, Forcing Your Way Into the Kingdom

If Matthew 11.12 isn't the most puzzling passage in the gospels then that prize is likely to go to Jesus' response to the the Syrophoenician woman:
Matthew 15.21-28
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
We're familiar with the controversy here. Jesus calls the woman a dog. More, Jesus appears to have a very parochial view of his vocation and mission, privileging Israel over the nations. But the woman persists and forces her way into the kingdom.

In contrast to this story in Mark, the story in Matthew highlights the force of the woman, her refusal to be denied. That force wins the day.

I think this story in Matthew is illustrating what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 11.12, how forceful people forcefully seize the kingdom. I think Matthew is using this story to draw a contrast between the forceful faith of this pagan woman and the apathy Jesus was receiving in the towns of Israel.

Let me illustrate the connection:
Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes." (Matthew 11.20-21)

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” (Matthew 15.21-222)
What Jesus had predicted Matthew shows us as coming true. In contrast to the apathy the kingdom was being met with in Israel the pagans in Tyre and Sidon were forcefully seizing the kingdom. The woman would not be denied. She forced her way into the kingdom.

Yes, Jesus does throw up barriers in Matthew 15. But I think Jesus does this to make a point. Look, Jesus is saying, how in the face of the kingdom these people refuse to be denied. This is the forceful response I'm looking for but can't find in Israel.

The kingdom is forcefully coming and the forceful, like this woman, forcefully seize it.

And the Violent Take It By Force?: Part 2, "The Kingdom Has Been Forcefully Coming, and the Forceful Seize It"

I think the key to the interpretation of Matthew 11.12 lies in the context of Jesus' speech.

Again, all major translations translate Matthew 11.12 as a saying about the kingdom of God being attacked by forceful or violent persons. But that interpretation is the exact opposite of what Jesus is describing in the context of Matthew 11. According to Jesus in Matthew 11, the kingdom isn't being attacked. The kingdom is being rejected.

I don't want to quote the entire text of Matthew 11.1-24, but it might be good for you to read it. But here are the highlights.

The passage begins with John questioning from prison if Jesus is indeed the Messiah. Jesus responds:
“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
Note the final line, "Blessed in anyone who does not stumble on account of me." John seems to be having doubts, and Jesus offers both evidence and a warning. In short, the context of Matthew 11 is one of doubt and warning.

Jesus then turns to the crowd and begins to tell them about John. Jesus says John is a prophet, in fact John is Elijah, the long-awaited herald of the Messiah. So the issue before the crowd is if they will accept this fact:
For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear. 
The trouble is, the people aren't willing to accept John or Jesus. The people have rejected both John and Jesus. So Jesus offers up a stinging rebuke:
Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” 
I hope all this illustrates the point I made above. The context of Matthew 11 isn't one of violent people attacking the kingdom. From the start, with John's doubts and Jesus' warning to John, to the end, with Jesus' judgment upon the lack of faith he was encountering, the context is about the rejection of the kingdom, the frame is doubt and a lack of faith.

And in the middle of this conversation about doubt and a lack of faith is the puzzling passage Matthew 11.12. How does that passage fits with the context?

It might be helpful to render Matthew 11.12 more neutrally. In the passage Jesus uses the root verb biazó "to force" twice, and the root verb harpazó "to take/seize with force" once. So the idea of "force" flows through the whole passage. So some neutral rendering of the passage would be:
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully coming, and the forceful seize it.

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully coming, and the forceful forcefully take it.

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully coming, and the forceful grab it.
Rendered here more neutrally I think we see the point of the saying. From John to Jesus the kingdom of heaven had been forcefully advancing. And yet, the kingdom was being met with doubt and questioning. Even John was starting to waver. So Jesus declares that the kingdom is advancing. The army is on the move, so now is the time to forcefully seize this opportunity. But sadly, the people were meeting the kingdom with doubt and a lukewarm reception. The people lacked urgency or interest. Instead of forcefully seizing the kingdom there was apathy.

I think this is the correct interpretation of Matthew 11.12. Matthew 11.12 is offered not as a description of what was happening to the kingdom--violent people attacking it--because that is exactly what was not happening. The kingdom was, rather, being dismissed and ignored. Matthew 11.12 is a rebuke, a call to action, a challenge to doubting and questioning audiences to forcefully seize the kingdom.

In the final post in this series I'd like to support this interpretation by using Matthew 11.12 to illuminate another puzzling saying of Jesus.

A puzzle to solve a puzzle.

And the Violent Take It By Force?: Part 1, What Does Matthew 11:12 Mean?

I'd like to devote a few posts to interpreting Matthew 11:12.

Matthew 11:12 is one of the most perplexing sayings of Jesus in the gospels. Here it is:
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. (NIV)
Obviously, the juxtaposition of the kingdom and violence is provocative, making any possible interpretation a bit of a minefield.

What makes the interpretation of the passage difficult is that the verb for violence--biazetai, from the root biazó "to force"--in the phrase "the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence" (NIV), can be in the middle or passive voice. That is, the kingdom of God can be subject to force or the agent of force.

Our knee jerk response to those options is that the kingdom of God wouldn't be the agent of force. Thus, most translations, like the NIV above, interpret the verb in the passive voice: the kingdom is subject to or suffers violence:
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. (KJV)

From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. (ESV)

From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. (NRSV) 
This interpretation seems to fit well with the rest of the saying that "the violent take [the kingdom of God] by force" (NRSV). In short, the meaning of the passage suggests that the kingdom of God is under siege and being attacked.

As a first pass that seems to make sense, but upon deeper reflection it raises some questions. The kingdom of God can't be taken by force, can it? If the "gates of hell" can't prevail against the kingdom (Matt. 16.18) how could the kingdom ever be "taken by force"?

So maybe an alternative translation is in order, making the kingdom the agent of force. Few translations go this direction, but the NLT does:
And from the time John the Baptist began preaching until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people are attacking it.
Unlike the other translations, here the kingdom is the agent of force: "the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing." But the NLT keeps the main idea of the other translations, that the kingdom is being attacked by violent people.

So who are these violent people who are attacking the kingdom?

Well, some see a hint in the context of the passage. The saying in Matthew 11:12 occurs in a larger conversation where Jesus is discussing the witness of John the Baptist. The conversation takes place because John, who was in prison at the time, sends emissaries to ask of Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

The mention of John being in prison in 11:2 is taken by some to be the clue to interpreting 11:12. Maybe Herod is the violent person who, in his persecution of John, is attacking the kingdom of God, trying to take it by force. Maybe the opposition both John and Jesus are facing are the violent people who are attacking the kingdom?

I don't find these plausible interpretations. The verb harpazousin doesn't mean "attack." It means "to seize, to take by force." Sure, that might imply an "attack," but it's an attack not to destroy but to take. Neither Herod or those opposed to John or Jesus seem to be trying to forcefully seize the kingdom.

So we are back to our original question.

What does Matthew 11:12 mean?

Prison Diary: Gambling Season

The NFL season started last night, and you know what that means out at the prison?

It's gambling season.

Last week one of the inmates got busted by the guards as he entered our study. The men are routinely patted down before they are released into the chapel, checked for contraband. As you might expect, this pat down can be variously perfunctory or thorough.

Last week the pat down was thorough, and one guy got caught carrying a gambling ticket.

It's football season, so gambling is booming right now in the prison. It's against the rules, so the inmate with the gambling card was written up.

I'm not totally informed about the gambling operations at work in the prison. As you might expect, the Men in White don't talk a whole lot about this. But there are multiple gambling operations running in each house. "XXX" or "Big House." You can take bets out with these groups. Each one issues tickets, typed up on a white piece of paper. The operation name across the top with the betting details below. This was what the inmate was caught with last week.

Again, like with my earlier diary entries about the prison economy, the gambling operations boggle the mind, a small window on this whole other world that exists behind prison walls.

The Obligations of Grace: Part 4, Beyond Feeling Saved

One more post talking about John Barclay's analysis in his book Paul and the Gift, focusing on how grace obligates us to cross social boundaries to participate in the transgressive covenantal community where we have duties in the kingdom's economy of love.

Our "gift-obligations" in the economy of love cannot be decoupled from faith, as they are in the tired "faith vs. works" debate. The point of the Christ-gift--what we call grace--is to create this very community, what Jesus called "the kingdom of God." Grace without this kingdom, without the covenantal economy of love, is no grace at all.

Relatedly, if you spurn your "gift-obligations," if you refuse to participate in the covenantal economy of love, you "fall" from grace: you make yourself unavailable to the economy of love where Christ is present and performing his saving work.

I think this perspective on grace is so imporant because one of the great problems with American Christianity is emotionalism.

Let me illustrate. Recently, one Sunday at my church during the closing prayer the person leading the prayer prayed, "And God, I pray that everyone here in this room leaves this place with a feeling of having been close to you, with a feeling of your love."

After the prayer was over, I lifted my head and looked at Jana: "A feeling? We are praying that we have feelings?"

Of course we were. The entire goal of contemporary praise and worship music in America is to create feelings. Worship is successful if it moves us emotionally.

Feelings are also the goal when it comes to spiritual formation. Prayer and devotional time with God are successful if they create feelings of closeness, connection and intimacy with God. Spiritual problems are diagnosed by feelings as well, feeling spiritually "dead" or "dry."

Christianity is swamped with feelings. What is missing is any notion that Christianity, as Jesus taught it, is behavioral. "By their fruits," Jesus said, "you will know them."

By our fruits, not our feelings.

The reason Christianity has become so emotional is a bad theology of grace. When the perfection of non-circularity was perfected in church history, grace became a one-sided affair, with the initiative all on God's side. Humans, in this scheme, are not called into a covenantal partnership, but stand as passive recipients. All that is left to do in this scheme is to cultivate a feeling of gratitude for the gift of grace. Being a Christian, therefore, is working, over and over and over again, to generate this feeling of gratitude. Through praise bands and prayer and sermons that kick us in the gut. Feelings are how we respond to grace.

But again, as Barclay argues it, Paul didn't perfect the non-circularity of grace. Grace obligates us as covenantal, kingdom-of-God partners. Grace is not a one-sided transaction, grace is a social revolution: the creation of transgressive, boundary-crossing communities who live into the kingdom's economy of love. There's more to being a Christian than feeling grateful over and over again for a gift you've been given. To be clear, all our actions have to flow out of gratitude and joy, otherwise you have different sorts of problems: shame, legalism, guilt, scrupulosity, pride. But being in a covenantal relationship with God's family involves more than feelings. The kingdom's economy of love, given its relational and transgressive nature, requires is discipline, accountability, sanctification, mission, maturation, and holiness.

But due to our distorted theology of grace, we never get around to the covenantal obligations of grace. We remain stuck on the emotional and therapeutic aspects of salvation. In this theology of grace feelings become severed from sanctification, our deeper participation in the economy of love. Salvation becomes a feeling rather than a new way of living and loving.

And this bad theology of grace--grace divorced from covenantal obligations to God and each other--produces one of the great theological Frankensteins of American Christianity:

People who are mean, selfish and prejudiced who walk around feeling saved.