Love as Relinquishment Unto Death

Every action is a losing, a letting go, a passing away from oneself of some bit of one’s own reality into the existence of others and of the world. In Jesus Christ, this character of action is not resisted, by trying to use our action to assert ourselves, extend ourselves, to impose our will and being upon situations. In Jesus Christ, this self-expending character of action is joyfully affirmed. I receive myself constantly from God’s Parenting love. But so far as some aspects of myself are at my disposal, these I receive to give away. Those who would live as Jesus did—who would act and purpose themselves as Jesus did—mean to love, i.e., they mean to expend themselves for others unto death. Their being is meant to pass away from them to others, and they make that meaning the conscious direction of their existence.

--Arthur McGill

The Gospel According to the Lord of the Rings: Week 3, A Lower Anthropology

Last week we talked about one of two contrasts Fleming Rutledge makes between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. That contrast was between chance and providence. In The Hobbit, Bilbo's fate seems to be driven by good fortune. In The Lord of the Rings that element of chance drops out almost completely. In The Lord of the Rings there is "something else at work" in the background, and Rutledge traces this thread as the deep theological narrative of the book.

The second contrast Rutledge makes is related to the first and has to do with an anthropological contrast.

Theological anthropology, our view of human persons, is an interesting area of reflection in my discipline of psychology. How capable are people in self-actualizing? Is self-help realistic or doomed? Are we innately good or totally depraved? And on and on.

Broadly, we can classify anthropological theories as being either higher or lower, more optimistic versus more pessimistic. A higher anthropology tends to be optimistic about human nature and capacities. At root, we're both good and capable. Just give us room to grow! A lower anthropology, by contrast, is pessimistic about human nature. Humans are fallible, sinful, and weak.

With that background, similar to last week's observations, Rutledge makes a contrast between a higher anthropology in The Hobbit versus a lower anthropology in The Lord of the Rings. Specifically, Rutledge cites a passage after Bilbo saves his companions from the giant spiders in Mirkwood:
...somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt himself a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach.
There's a humanistic aspect to this passage. Hero faces challenge. Hero rises to challenge. Hero grows and self-actualizes. This is an optimistic anthropology. It's the anthropology of self-help and the meritocracy. 

But Rutledge observes something about this passage in The Hobbit: "I emphasize this passage because it is so striking that there isn't anything like it in The Lord of the Rings." And what sets it apart are the words "all alone by himself." No character does anything in The Lord of the Rings "all alone by himself."

Now, it could be argued that Rutledge puts too much on this one passage. Last week in the comments JD Walters pointed to a different passage toward the end of The Hobbit, Gandalf speaking to Bilbo:
You don’t really suppose do you that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck? Just for your sole benefit? You’re a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I’m quite fond of you. But you are really just a little fellow, in a wide world after all!
I think that's quite a good point that mitigates against Rutledge's hard contrast between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

For my part, I'd split the different between Rutledge and JD's comment that "There is certainly not a switch from events in The Hobbit happening due to chance and those in LOTR happening due to purpose. Tolkien's messaging is consistent in both." Because of his Catholic faith, I think Tolkien, in his own mind, held a consistent vision across the two books. That said, I do think the anthropology dramatized in the narrative of The Hobbit is more optimistic, necessitating the expository correction by Gandalf at the end. That is, what might have been in Tolkien's head wasn't really portrayed in the story, and had to get dropped in like a deus ex machina at the end. In The Lord of the Rings, by contrast, the lower anthropology Gandalf speaks of in The Hobbit is deeply woven into the narrative. This lower anthropology isn't found through a "correction" delivered in a speech, since it is so vividly displayed and dramatized in a way it just isn't in The Hobbit. Rutledge is right that nothing like the phrase "all alone by himself" occurs in The Lord of the Rings, a passage that Tolkien seems keen to "take back" at the end of the Hobbit. All that to say, the pessimistic note sounded at the end of The Hobbit is right there at the start of The Lord of the Rings.

More on this anthropological aspect of The Lord of the Rings next week.  

Silence and the Non-Productive Self

In my book The Slavery of Death, which I consider to be the most significant book I've ever written, I describe, borrowing from David Kelsey, what I call "the eccentric identity." I contrast the eccentric identity, borrowing from Arthur McGill, with "the identity of possession."

Quickly and simply, an identity of possession is rooted in earning or performing for our identity--our worth, value and significance. The eccentric identity, by contrast, is an identity given to us as grace and gift.

Last semester, in my Psychology and Christianity class, I was talking with my students about the practice of silence, and I made a connection with the eccentric identity. Many of my students don't get the practice of silence. They feel stupid and awkward just sitting there quietly. What, they ask, am I supposed to be doing?

And the answer is...nothing. And that's the point. Caught up as we are in pursuing the identity of possession, we believe that we must be doing something, producing something, for our lives and our very selves to have meaning, worth, and value.

Silence, by contrast, challenges that assumption. Silence, I told my students, is learning to hold the self before God in a non-productive posture. Because when I do that, the idolatry of productivity and performance--I am valuable to God and others because of my talents and achievements--is faced and relinquished. And in that newly opened space I can come to experience my non-productive self as valued and loved by God.

Preaching to Pagans

There's an interesting contrast in the book of Acts illustrating the contextual nature of theology, especially in missionary contexts.

In Acts 13 and 14 we find Paul on his first missionary journey and we get to listen in on two of his sermons.

The first sermon is in Acts 13.16-41, and it is preached to a largely Jewish audience. And this sermon sounds a lot like many of the sermons we've already heard Peter and Stephen deliver to Jewish audiences in Jerusalem. Specifically, Paul's sermon walks back through Jewish history, with an emphasis on the patriarchs, the Exodus, and God's promises to David:
Acts 13.16-22
“Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! The God of the people of Israel chose our ancestors; he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt; with mighty power he led them out of that country; for about forty years he endured their conduct in the wilderness; and he overthrew seven nations in Canaan, giving their land to his people as their inheritance. All this took about 450 years.

“After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’"
In contrast to this sermon, in the very next chapter we find Paul preaching to a largely pagan audience. This is the first time we get to see this happen in the book of Acts. This audience knows nothing about the history of Israel, so Paul has to preach the gospel from a very different starting place. Notice how different this sermon sounds from the sermon above:
Acts 14.15-17
“Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” 
Notice that with the pagans there's no mention of Abraham, Moses, or David. Paul instead starts with God as Creator and the evidences of natural revelation: "He has not left himself without testimony." And that testimony isn't the Torah, but the blessings of creation: "He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy."

Two very different audiences, two very different sermons.  

On Discernment: Did Paul Disobey the Holy Spirit?

One of the puzzles in the book of Acts swirls around Paul's journey to Jerusalem, where he'll eventually be arrested.

Specifically, on this way to Jerusalem, it appears that the Holy Spirit warns Paul twice not to go:
Acts 21.1-6, 10-11
When we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. When we found a ship bound for Phoenicia, we went on board and set sail. We came in sight of Cyprus; and leaving it on our left, we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, because the ship was to unload its cargo there. We looked up the disciples and stayed there for seven days. Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When our days there were ended, we left and proceeded on our journey; and all of them, with wives and children, escorted us outside the city. There we knelt down on the beach and prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home...

While we were staying there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’”
So, does Paul disobey the Holy Spirit in going to Jerusalem anyway?

A chapter earlier, Paul does seem to know, because of the the Holy Spirit, that he is going to be arrested. And he also shares that he feels compelled by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. Paul, saying goodbye to the Ephesian elders:
Acts 20.22-23
And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. 
So we see the paradox. In Acts 20 Paul says the Spirit is sending him to Jerusalem. Yet in Acts 21, he gets warnings from the Spirit not to go to Jerusalem.

What to make of all this?

Opinions seem to differ on how to reconcile these passages. But one thing that does seem clear is that while the Spirit might give Paul a warning, Paul is still free to follow his course of action. The Spirit seems to be giving Paul information to make discernments, but is still leaving it up to Paul to make the choices, even very hard choices.

I find this interesting because, in my world, a lot of Christians speak of God "closing" and "opening" doors. On that reading, it seems clear that the Spirit was trying to "close the door" on Paul's return to Jerusalem. And yet, Paul ignored those signs and opened the door. And that choice is a faithful, if costly, choice.

All that to say, warnings and bad omens, at least in Acts, aren't necessarily signs a "closed door" from God. Warnings and bad omens seem to be more about information that about what decision to make. The Spirit might give you a warning, but that doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't keep going. The warning is less about changing your mind than preparing you for the maelstrom to come.

Nothing Is More Practical Than Finding God

Nothing is more practical than finding God,
than falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.

What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.

It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read,
whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

Fall in Love,
stay in love,
and it will decide everything.

--Attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 2, "Something Else at Work"

It might seem strange to hear Fleming Rutledge say that The Lord of the Rings is a book about God. Because on the surface at least, Middle Earth is godless and irreligious. The world isn't Christian, but neither is it pagan. There are no references to deities. There is no worship, no religious rites, rituals, or sacrifices. No prayers or petitions to God or gods.

To be sure, the metaphysics of Middle earth are explored in The Silmarillion. But the drama of The Lord of the Rings takes place largely within a metaphysical vacuum. And that vacuum, says Rutledge, creates a blank canvas upon which we might detect the actions of God.

One way to see this, for Rutledge, is to contrast the metaphysics of The Hobbit with The Lord of the Rings. And it's a good place to start this series as The Hobbit functions as the prequel to The Lord of the Rings.

Two things strike you about the metaphysics of The Hobbit in contrast to The Lord of the Rings. I'll talk about the first contrast this week and the second contrast next week.

The first contrast is the emphasis on chance and luck in The Hobbit in contrast to The Lord of the Rings. Consider how Bilbo finds the Ring in The Hobbit. He's crawling around in the dark and by chance puts his hand on top of the Ring. Nothing more is said about this discovery from a metaphysical perspective. Thus, the reader is lead to believe that this discovery is simply good fortune, a lucky break. A significant bit of fortune, no doubt, but a chance happening nonetheless. And we find similar examples of Bilbo's good fortune and luck throughout his adventures in The Hobbit.

But a metaphysical change occurs in the Lord of the Rings. Fortune and luck give way to a guiding providence. Rutledge highlights this change in the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings "The Shadow of the Past" when Gandalf is sharing with Frodo the history of the Ring and Bilbo's discovery of it:
"There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master...It abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!

"Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker [the Dark Lord, Sauron]. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you were also meant to have it."
The emphases are in the original. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and Frodo was meant to have it. But how and why? Because, as Gandalf says, there was "something else at work," a mysterious, unnamed Power in the background working to thwart the power of Evil.

This reference to a background Power working to thwart Evil can be highlighted because of the metaphysical vacuum in The Lord of the Rings. We can see this Power at work because the heavens are empty in The Lord of the Rings. If the supernatural realm was busy and buzzing in The Lord of the Ring we'd miss the subtle acts--the still, small voice--of this background Power.

The "story about God" Rutledge finds in The Lord of the Rings is the drama of the providential working of this background Power. She calls it the "deep narrative" of The Lord of the Rings, and it provides a stark theological contrast with The Hobbit.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo finds the Ring by chance.

In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo was meant to find it.

The Poustinia and the Poustinik

I recently read Catherine Doherty's classic book Poustinia.

"Poustinia" is the Russian word for "desert," and in Russian spirituality it refers to a tradition where persons would leave society to go and live a hermetical life of prayer and solitude, building a small hut or finding a cave out in an isolated, secluded place. The person who sought the life of prayer in the poustinia was called a "poustinik."

I've always been interested in the intersection of righteous action with contemplation, the balance between hospitality and solitude. And the Russian tradition of the poustinia is very interesting in this regard.

Specifically, the poustinik isn't a classic hermit, seeking to avoid society. Yes, the day to day life of the poustinik is one of silence, solitude and prayer. But in contrast to the western monastic tradition, the poustinik is also radically available to others. The door of the poustinia is always unlocked and open. The poustinia prizes hospitality and welcomes interruption. In fact, the poustiniki functioned as spiritual directors for the the Russian people. If a person was needing prayer or spiritual guidance they would seek out the local poustinik, who would listen, pray and offer counsel.

Even more, if the town ever needed an extra hand, to care for the sick or harvest the crop, a person would be sent to the local poustinik who would rush to the town to be of assistance. A poustinik might spend weeks and weeks in the town among the people bringing in the harvest. And when the work had been accomplished the poustinik would leave, to return back to the silence and solitude of the poustinia.

In short, because of the poustinik's availability to the people, from spiritual direction to hard labor, when a poustinik arrived in the vicinity of a town that was consider a very good omen for the town. Every town wanted a poustinik living somewhere close by.

I don't know about you, but I just love the balances here, the radical availability to others coupled with a life of radical contemplation, hospitality flowing out of a life of prayer, solitude coupled with sociability.

And wouldn't it be awesome if our neighbors felt about our churches the way the Russians peasants felt when a poustinik moved near?

The Ground of Goodness

As regular readers know, one of the things I've been pondering a lot over the last two years on the blog is the ground of values, goodness, and morality. (In 2018, for example, I posted a lot about "the metaphysics of morality" and "moral hallowing.")

The common humanistic objection to this quest of mine is this: "Why do you need a 'metaphysical ground' for morality? Why just can't you be a decent human being?"

There's a subtle judgment at work in this critique. Religious people, it seems, need something to nudge them toward being a decent human being. For religious people, the good, the implication goes, just doesn't seem attractive enough to act on for its own sake. All of which paints the religious person as a sort of moral idiot, someone stunted in their moral development, someone who needs a Parent (cosmic or human) to tell them to be good. The humanist, by contrast, simply doesn't need that Parent, doesn't need some supernatural or metaphysical Source or Ground to tell them to be good. Who cares if there is a God, just be a decent person. It's really quite simple. The humanist expresses a heartfelt desire to be a decent human being, and can't understand why religious people need something more than that.

Well, here's why we need something more than that.

The humanistic appeal to being a decent human being is totally narcissistic. The motive to be a decent human being rests totally on pointing toward my own magnanimity. I choose to be a decent human being because, of course, that's what decent human beings do. And I'm a decent human being. So why can't you be such a magnanimous and decent human being like me?

To be clear, both the humanist and I agree, for the most part, about what a decent human being looks like. What we're talking about here is the motive for being a decent human being. For the humanist, the motive is your own magnanimity, your own goodness. You are good because well, you're good. You love, respect difference, volunteer, and sacrifice for others all because you're an amazing person. You don't need anything else to do the good, because you've got yourself. And if others need something more to prick their consciences or prod them to mortify their self-interest, well, they not a very good person compared to you, for whom virtue comes easily and naturally.

For the religious person, the motive for goodness isn't narcissistic. I don't justify the good by pointing toward my own magnanimity, my own innate, natural goodness. For the religious person, we follow the good because the good is true, the good is real. Religion gives goodness a metaphysical, ontological ground. The good exists outside and independently of my own decency and magnanimity. Yes, I desire the good because I find the good beautiful and compelling. The good draws all good people. There's enough decency and magnanimity in me that makes me, intrinsically, want to be decent and magnanimous solely for the delight decency and magnanimity brings me. Along with enough empathy to want to reduce the suffering of others solely for their happiness. The humanistic argument, that goodness should have an allure and appeal all on its own, is true. It's just incomplete.

I think I'm a decent person. But when I sacrifice for others, placing their interests above my own, I don't point toward my own goodness as the reason I'm doing these things. I point to something outside of myself, toward a goodness that exists independently of my virtue, toward a Source that brings my virtue into contact with reality. I am good not simply because I am magnanimous. I am good, or try to be, because its the truth.

I'm sure you are a decent person and desire to do decent things. But there's more to goodness than you telling me just how awesome you are.

Living in Babylon: Reading Revelation in Prison

A post from 2012, about how the Bible sounds when read inside a prison:

In our Monday night Bible study out at the prison we were working through the book of Revelation, and I was struck again about how the Bible sounds when it's read behind prison walls.

Now, we all know that Revelation is a very violent and blood-soaked book. Consequently, when we study Revelation in churches a lot of people get dismayed. The violence of Revelation doesn't sit well with our empathic, liberal sensitivities. Revelation is an embarrassment.

So, what are we to do with all the blood and violence in Revelation?

Non-violent readings of Revelation look to Chapters 4-5 in the fusion of the Throne and the Lamb. Chapter 4 is dominated by the image of the Throne, a symbol of the Rule of God. The imagery is all about power. However, in Chapter 5 this is all thrown for a loop when we encounter the One who is standing on the Throne:
Revelation 5.1-6
Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne...
The Lamb Who Was Slain--the Agnus Dei--is how God rules, how God expresses and exerts God's power. God's power is sacrificial and self-giving love. The Lamb Who Was Slain expresses the Rule of God in our world and the next.

So, if you want to see the power of God in the world you point to Jesus on the cross.

With this understanding we read the blood and violence of Revelation through the cross. The War of the Lamb isn't violent. The War of the Lamb is fought by fighting, resisting and witnessing non-violently. This non-violent, martyrological note is sounded throughout Revelation. For example, the "sword" of the Lamb is truth, witness and testimony. The sword of the Lamb comes from his mouth:
Revelation 1.16; 2.12, 16; 19.15, 21
In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.
Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.
The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.
It's not surprising, given this imagery, that when Pilate and Jesus have a conversation about power (Does Pilate have the power to kill Jesus?) they end up talking about truth.

Following the Lamb into battle, the faithful wage war with the non-violent methods of the Lamb:
Revelation 12,7-12
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:

“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.”
The faithful triumph over evil "by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony." Testimony is the weapon. And like Jesus, the faithful remain non-violent to the point of death.

These are some of the hermeneutical keys for those wanting to read Revelation non-violently. Like with most things in the Bible, the key move is Christological--reading everything through the sacrificial and self-giving love of Jesus on the cross. So when you think of God's power and rule, remember the conflation of Throne and Lamb in Revelation 4-5.

Still, the imagery of Revelation is pretty over the top. Which brings me to reading the book in prison.

The great pastoral objective of Revelation might be best captured in Chapter 18 in the call for the People of the Lamb to come out from Babylon:
Revelation 18.1-4a
After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted:

“‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’
She has become a dwelling for demons
and a haunt for every impure spirit,
a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal.
For all the nations have drunk
the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”

Then I heard another voice from heaven say:

“‘Come out of her, my people.’
so that you will not share in her sins...
"Come out of her, my people." That's the pastoral heart of Revelation. That's why the book was written, to communicate that message. The book is about two rival cities, Babylon and the New Jerusalem. And the encouragement to the churches is to "come out" from Babylon to live under the Rule of the Lamb as citizens of the New Jerusalem. Despite appearances, Babylon stands under God's judgment and those who are non-violently faithful to the Lamb will be vindicated in the end.

As I see it, the main trouble with reading Revelation as people of wealth, status and privilege is that we don't have much of a problem with Babylon. We're doing quite well in Babylon, thank you very much. Consequently, the prophetic indictment and cry to "come out" leaves us cold. We wonder, why is the author of Revelation so desperately angry?

Well, he's angry because he's screaming at a bunch of spiritual zombies. People who have become blind to the webs of oppression, immorality and violence that have entangled them and support their way of life.

Do you know who weeps first over Babylon in Chapter 18? Kings and merchants. Military power and marketplaces.
Revelation 18.9-13
“When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry:

“‘Woe! Woe to you, great city,
you mighty city of Babylon!
In one hour your doom has come!’

“The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore—cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.
The trouble is, as Americans, we benefit so much from American power--military and economic--that we can't see the sins of Babylon. So the prophetic indignation of Revelation just sails right over our heads. "That book is crazy," we say.

And Babylon rolls on...

But inside a prison it all sounds very different. Inside a prison the violence of Babylon is raw and exposed. The violence and economies of prison life are the product of and a microcosm of Babylon. Consequently, the men in my Bible study are constantly tempted to give in to that violence and economy. The choices are stark and clear. Babylon or New Jerusalem? Lamb or Beast?

In prison they feel the Beast. They know very well what Revelation is talking about.

Inside the prison the call of Revelation rings loud and clear. The call to "come out" is felt within the gut. The life and death choice is acute. Prison inmates get the book of Revelation because they get Babylon. They fight against it every second of every day.

Us? Not so much.

And Babylon rolls on...

Teach Us to Number Our Days

One of the psalms that I think about all the time is Psalm 90:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn people back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered.

We are consumed by your anger
and terrified by your indignation.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
All our days pass away under your wrath;
we finish our years with a moan.
Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
If only we knew the power of your anger!
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due.
Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Relent, Lord! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.
Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
for as many years as we have seen trouble.
May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendor to their children.

May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.
The line that I dwell on a great deal is "Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom."

The NET translation translates "teach us to number our days" as "teach us to consider our mortality." That's a less poetic translation, but it communicates the idea.

Our psychological default is to live each day as if we have all the time in the world. Consequently, we become bored with life, even bored with those we love. Life is filled with hurry, distraction, dissatisfaction, and a taken-for-granted attitude. Days and moments get wasted.

But we don't have all the time in the world. Every breath and heartbeat is a miracle that should stun us into wonder and awe. We should baptize every day and every face with gratitude.

One of my constant prayers is that I'll number today, that I won't take this day or those I love for granted. I pray for a an open, grateful heart.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 1, J.R.R. Tolkien and Fleming Rutledge

I'm in the middle of writing a book right now. The working title is "Enchanting Faith." It's a book about recovering the enchantment of the Christian faith in our secular, post-Christian, disenchanted world.

In the book I have a chapter using J.R.R. Tolkien's famous essay "On Fairy-Stories" to talk about enchantment. There's also a lot in the book about recovering a sacramental ontology, and Tolkien's work is a great resource for that as well.

So in writing the book I pondered using The Lord of the Rings to make and illustrate some of my points and arguments. But I eventually decided against this. For a few reasons. First, using The Lord of the Rings to make spiritual observations has been done to death. Please, please read this hilarious Babylon Bee spoof about pastors overusing The Lord of the Rings illustrations. A second reason is simply that not everyone likes fantasy, and I expect many potential readers won't have either read the books or seen the movies.

And yet, there's so much great material in The Lord of the Rings that would have been good for the book. Hmmm...I wonder where I could share some of that material?

In addition, though I eventually decided otherwise, during my early explorations about about using Tolkien for my book, I read Fleming Rutledge's The Battle for Middle-earth: Tolkien's Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings. Over the last two years, ever since reading her book about the crucifixion, I've become a huge Fleming Rutledge fan. And I found her book about The Lord of the Rings totally fascinating. I thought I had a good grasp of the Christian themes of the book, but Rutledge pointed out so much more that I'd missed. So much so, I spent last year re-reading The Lord of the Rings, keeping an eye out for the themes uncovered by Rutledge.

And so, in pondering what to do on Fridays during 2020, I'm going to spend some time sharing insights from J.R.R. Tolkien and Fleming Rutledge. I don't know if I can squeeze a whole 52 week's worth of material from The Lord of the Rings. I'll just share until its time to do something else.

Again, I know there's been a lot written about the Christian themes in The Lord of the Rings. But if you stay with me on Fridays, I think Fleming Rutledge will surprise you, that we'll see some new things in the book and get to talk a lot about theology. As Rutledge writes in the Introduction to The Battle for Middle-earth, a glimpse of what's to come on Fridays:
This treatment of Tolkien's great story is about God first of all. Then it is about (in no particular order) Providence, history, demonic forces, archangels, bondage and liberation, justice and mercy, failure and restoration, friendship and sacrifice, sanctification and glorification, divine election and human freedom.
[Picture note: I selected the picture above as these were the covers of the paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings I read in high school during in the early 80s. Those covers are pretty nostalgic for me.]

Faith, Hope and Love

Yesterday I shared a brief little reflection--really just two sentences--about the difference between loving people and saving people, and how the gap between those two is often filled with grief.

Reflecting some more on this, beyond love I think there is also faith and hope.

Faith, hope and love are often described in the Christian tradition as the "Theological Virtues" because we generally think of them as having God as their object. But I also think that faith, hope, and love are the main ways we have of caring for each other. Faith, hope and love aren't just theological virtues, they are deeply human virtues.

Again, we can't save people, but we can love them. And a key part of loving is faithfulness, fidelity, endurance, and perseverance. We can't save people, but we can stay with them, walk with them, through hell and back. We can be faithful to each other.

In addition, while we cannot save, we can hope. We can keep pouring words of restoration, life, renewal, and resurrection into each other.

Faith, hope, and love.

These are the gifts we give to God, but also to each other.

Speaking of Hell and Damnation: Contrasting the Ultimate and Penultimate

I'm a weird person, theologically speaking. I'm a person who believes in the universal reconciliation of all things who likes to talk about hell, damnation and judgment. You can blame George MacDonald for the former, and Johnny Cash for latter.

How can that combination make any sense?

Well, one way to do it is adopt a purgatorial view of hell, hell as purification. But the other way to think about it is to borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's contrast between the ultimate and the penultimate.

The end and/or culmination of all things is the "ultimate," the final and last season of history when "God will be all in all" (1 Cor. 15.28).

Before the ultimate is the penultimate, the season before final judgment and the "new heavens and the new earth." The ultimate is in our future, today we live in the penultimate, in the time before the end and/or renewal of all things.

With that distinction in mind, let me make an observation about damnation and hell.

Strong language about damnation and hell--"God's gonna cut you down" in the words of Johnny Cash--is proper to the penultimate. During the penultimate the language of hell and damnation names God's judgment upon history, God's anger and pathos in the face of human violence and wickedness. The language of damnation and hell is the language of prophetic indictment and rebuke. We need this language in the penultimate to resist and speak against the darkness.

The trouble comes when we shift hell and damnation from the penultimate to the ultimate. You lose the prophetic register when hell is shifted from the penultimate to the ultimate. Saying "God's gonna cut you down" in the penultimate is harsh but spoken in hope, to encourage repentance. Think of Jonah preaching "God's gonna cut you down" to Nineveh. The language of damnation turned Nineveh. By contrast, speaking of hell and damnation in ultimate terms is hopeless. There's no chance for repentance when hell is in the ultimate. When hell is in the ultimate damnation becomes The End.

So all that to say, when I speak about damnation and hell I'm speaking in the penultimate, singing in the prophetic key. I'm saying "God's gonna cut you down" to the wicked and the violent.

When, however, I speak about the reconciliation of all things, I'm speaking of the ultimate, about the end of all things when, in the words of Julian of Norwich, "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Why Don't Churches Celebrate Christmas?

I'm always struck on Christian social media how so much time is devoted to celebrating Advent but not Christmas. There's so much writing and reflection about Advent leading up to Christmas and then, after December 25th, nary a peep.

After Christmas day, the trees come down at home and off church stages. Most churches didn't sing Christmas carols yesterday or have a Christmas-themed sermon, even though December 29 is smack in the middle of the Christmas season. And so is next Sunday, as a matter of fact, January 5th. Seriously, how many churches will be singing Christmas carols on January 5th?

I find it all quite puzzling, this strange half-effort to recover the liturgical calendar. Push, push, push to celebrate Advent, followed by a complete failure and lack of interest in celebrating Christmastide, the full Twelve Days of the Christmas season (or the eight days of the octave if you're a Catholic).

(Yes, I know that properly liturgical churches celebrate the full Christmas season. The churches I'm talking about in this post are those that work hard to acknowledge and celebrate the liturgical calendar, like with Advent, but who then fail in odd and confusing ways, like celebrating Advent and ignoring Christmas.)

I try not to be too much of a a grump about all this, but I do find it strange how so many churches work so hard and intentionally to celebrate Advent only to totally give up on Christmas. Seems strange to ignore the entire point of the season.

The Divine Comedy: Week 47, The Love That Moves the Sun and the Other Stars

In the final moments of The Divine Comedy the Pilgrim looks upon God, which he sees as a great circle of light. And beholding God, he ponders a question:
so did I strive with this new mystery:
I yearned to know how could our image fit
into that circle, how could it conform...
How can we participate in the Life of God, how can we be a part of the Light?

But the Pilgrim's intellect is thwarted by the mystery:
but my own wings could not take me so high...
And then, a revelation, a final grace! The Pilgrim's sight is cleared and he is given his answer in the final lines of the poem. The ending of The Divine Comedy:
then a great flash of understanding struck
my mind, and suddenly its wish was granted.

At this point power failed high fantasy
but, like a wheel in perfect balance turning,
I felt my will and my desire impelled

by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
How can we conform to the Light? By having both our will and desire impelled by the Love that moves the sun and the stars.

This is Dante's mystical vision, the theology he has been expounding for the entire Comedy. All the movement in creation, especially the movement of our hearts and minds, is an expression of our desire for God. All of creation moves because it is restlessly searching and longing for God. Love moves the sun and the stars. Love moves the rose and the rain. Love moves the breeze and the kiss. And union with God happens when our will and desire, when all of our movements, become united with the Source of Love, where God's love is my love and my love is God's love.

Love is all around us, moving the stars, flowers, rain, and your heart and mind, drawing all things toward Itself. Seeking, seeing, and conforming to this Love is the great adventure of life and the message of The Divine Comedy.

How Christmas Saves Us

When we think of salvation, most Protestants think of the crucifixion of Jesus. We're saved because the death of Jesus is an atoning sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins.

This is true. Salvation involves the forgiveness of sins. But there's also a way Christmas saves us as well.

According to the church fathers, the Incarnation saves us ontologically.

Definition note: "ontology" is the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being. So when I say Christmas saves us ontologically I'm saying that God does something to human being, to the nature and mode of our existence. Crudely, God saves "what we are made of." Specifically, after the Fall, humanity was in a weakened ontological state. We were separated from God, and therefore vulnerable to the forces of death, decay, and dissolution. As Athanasius describes the situation in On the Incarnation, "For the nature of created things, having come into being from nothing, is unstable, and is weak and mortal when considered by itself."

Consequently, separated from God humanity was dissolving, fading away. As Athanasius says, "For these reasons, then, with death holding greater sway and corruption remaining fast against human beings, the race of humans was perishing, and the human being, made rational and in the image, was disappearing, and the work made by God was being obliterated."

So, our predicament here was ontological. Constitutionally, human being was unstable, weak, mortal. We were fading, disappearing, on the road to oblivion.

But on Christmas, in the Incarnation, God reunites Himself, through the Son, with human being. When the Word is made flesh an ontological stabilization occurs, anchoring human being and saving us from dissolution and oblivion. As Athanasius says,
So seeing that all created nature according to its own definition is in a state of flux and dissolution, therefore to prevent this happening and the universe dissolving back into nothing, after making everything by his own eternal Word and bringing creation into existence, [God] did not abandon it to be carried away and suffer through its own nature, lest it run the risk of returning to nothing...lest it suffer what would happen...a relapse into non-existence, if it were not protected by the Word.
And that's how Christmas saves us. Through the Incarnation, human being is reunited with God and is now stabilized and protected by the Word.

For Unto Us a Child Is Born

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
upon them the light has dawned.

You have increased their joy and given them great gladness;
they rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest.
For you have shattered the yoke that burdened them;
the collar that lay heavy on their shoulders.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and the government will be upon his shoulders.
And his name will be called:

Wonderful Counselor;
the Mighty God;
the Everlasting Father;
the Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish and uphold it with justice and righteousness.
From this time forth and for evermore;
the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

--Isaiah 9.2,3b,4a,6,7

The Favored One

An Advent meditation from last year:

I was reading through the Annunciation text in the gospel of Luke. Specifically, my attention was caught by Mary's reaction to Gabriel's famous "Hail Mary" greeting:
Luke 1.26-30
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God."
Here's what struck me. Notice what perplexes Mary. It's not the angel, it's the greeting. Mary "pondered what sort of greeting this might be."

Ponder that. An angel has just appeared to Mary. You'd think that would be the big shocker. But it's not, it's what the angel says that perplexes her.

And just what does the angel say to her? This: "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Mary seems to doubt that she is favored by God. As evidence for this doubt, notice how Gabriel has to say it again to reassure her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God."

I don't have any big insight about having noticed this, that Mary seems to think she's not or hasn't been favored of God. Maybe it's a sign of Mary's deep humility. Or maybe it's a sign of Mary's deep humiliation, how she felt so far down the ladder of favor and status that hearing that she was favored just didn't compute.

And maybe that tells us something about why Mary was chosen by God. Mary was at the absolute bottom, so far down that the greeting "Hail, favored one" would have been deeply and profoundly shocking and perplexing.

Grace interrupts the shame of the world to fall upon the very least of these.

Everything I Learned about Christmas I Learned from TV

Christmas is all about traditions. And one of the traditions I've celebrated here on the blog is reposting a series I wrote way back in 2007 entitled "Everything I Learned about Christmas I Learned from TV."

It's been a few years since I shared that post, one of the most popular things I've written on the blog. So, if you're new to the blog, welcome to an old Experimental Theology Christmas tradition:

As a child I loved all the children's Christmas shows. Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, Merry Christmas Charlie Brown, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, to name a few. With no videos, cable, NetFlix or DVR these shows were once a year opportunities. If you missed a show, you wouldn't see it again for an entire year.

So, these were BIG events in my childhood.

I was so addicted to these shows that, looking back, I can now discern that everything I know about Christmas I learned from TV. Specifically, I learned from TV three big lessons about Christmas.

Lesson #1: There is Something Special About Christmas
How the Grinch Stole Christmas

The first lesson I learned was from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The lesson was this: There is something special about Christmas. Something that transcended the presents, Christmas trees, meals, or decorations. Christmas, to quote from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, was "a little bit more" than all these things.

If you don't recall the show, here's the basic plot. The Grinch, who lives in the mountains high above Whoville, hates the noise associated with Christmas. So, he dresses up like Santa Claus and ties a horn on the head of his dog Max to make him look like a reindeer. In these disguises they set off for Whoville.

Once in Whoville the Grinch proceeds to steal all the Christmas presents, trees, decorations, and food. He packs all this up and heads back up the mountain just as Christmas day is dawning.

The Grinch's plan is simple. He figures that if he takes away all the Christmas "stuff" the Whos won't be able to celebrate Christmas.

But the Grinch is wrong. In the climactic scene the Whos come out of their homes and, without a single piece of Christmas paraphernalia or presents, begin to sing their Christmas song Welcome Christmas:
Fah who for-aze!
Dah who dor-aze!
Welcome Christmas,
Come this way!

Fah who for-aze!
Dah who dor-aze!
Welcome Christmas,
Christmas Day.

Welcome, Welcome
Fah who rah-moose
Welcome, Welcome
Dah who dah-moose
Christmas day is in our grasp
So long as we have hands to clasp

Fah who for-aze!
Dah who dor-aze!
Welcome, welcome Christmas
Welcome, welcome Christmas Day
Upon hearing the song the Grinch has this realization, and I quote:
So he paused. And the Grinch put a hand to his ear.
And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.
It started in low. Then it started to grow...

But the sound wasn't sad!
Why, this sound sounded merry!
It couldn't be so!
But it WAS merry! VERY!

He stared down at Who-ville!
The Grinch popped his eyes!
Then he shook!
What he saw was a shocking surprise!

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN'T stopped Christmas from coming!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"
And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.
"Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"
And this realization has such a profound effect upon the Grinch that his heart, previously two sizes too small, grew three sizes that day.

So, I learned from How the Grinch Stole Christmas that Christmas was more than ribbons or tags. More than packages, boxes, or bags. Christmas was MORE.

But here was the deeply puzzling thing about How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Watch it as many times as you want and it will never be revealed just what Christmas was truly about. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a negative tale. It tells you what Christmas isn't. But it fails, in a quite puzzling way, to tell you what Christmas is.

So as child I was left in quite a quandary. Christmas was clearly very special, but it was still a mystery. Luckily, there was more TV to watch! And a part of the mystery of Christmas would be revealed to me in that quirky tale of a mutant reindeer and his friend, the elf, who wanted to be a dentist...

Lesson #2: Christmas Means Misfits Have a Place
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

After watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas l knew there was something special about Christmas. But How the Grinch Stole Christmas never says exactly why Christmas is special. I got a clue to answering this question by watching that classic Christmas program Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The entire plot of Rudolph centers around misfits. The central misfits are Rudolph and the elf Hermey.

Rudolph, obviously, has some kind of genetic mutation. He's got a red nose and that, well, just isn't natural. So he is shunned, mocked, and excluded from the reindeer games.

Hermey has a different problem. He's terrible at making toys. And he also doesn't enjoy singing in Santa's elf choir. What Hermey really wants to be is a dentist. But for this curious interest Hermey is, like Rudolph, ostracized and made fun of. They are both, clearly, misfits. This is captured in the mournful little song they sing We're a couple of misfits:
We're a couple of misfits
We're a couple of misfits
What's the matter with misfits
That's where we fit in!

We're not daffy and dilly
Don't go 'round willy nilly
Seems to us kinda silly
That we don't fit in.

We may be different from the rest
Who decides the test
Of what is really best?
So Hermey and Rudolph leave Christmas Town and set out on their own.

The misfit theme is continued when Hermey, Rudolph, and Yukon Cornelius, after being chased by The Abominable Snowman, find the Island of Misfit Toys. This is an island where rejected, unwanted, and unloved toys find sanctuary. Rudolph, sympathetic to the plight of the Misfit Toys, because Rudolph knows what it's like to be a misfit, promises to take their plight to Santa. This is the lament of the misfit toys:
We're on the Island of Misfit Toys
Here we don't want to stay
We want to travel with Santa Claus
In his magic sleigh!

A pack full of toys
Means a sack full of joys
For millions of girls
And for millions of boys
When Christmas Day is here
The most wonderful day of the year.

A jack-in-the-box waits for children to shout
"Wake up! Don't you know that it's time to come out!"
When Christmas Day is here
The most wonderful day of the year.

Toys galore, scattered on the floor
There's no room for more
And it's all because of Santa Claus.

A skooter for Jimmy
A dolly for Sue
The kind that will even say, "How do you do?"
When Christmas Day is here
The most wonderful day of the year.

How would you like to be a Spotted Elephant?
Or a Choo-Choo with square wheels on your caboose?
Or a water pistol that shoots -- jelly?
We're all misfits!
How would you like to be a bird that doesn't fly? I swim!
Or a cowboy who rides an ostrich?
Or a boat that can't stay afloat?
We're all misfits.

If we're on the Island of Unwanted Toys
We'll miss all the fun with the girls and the boys
When Christmas Day is here
The most wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful day of the year!
At this point in the show all the misfit themes are coming to a climax. We see misfits seeking community, we see empathy as one misfit identifies with another, and, finally, we see one misfit seeking to act as savior. A misfit to save the misfits. A misfit Messiah.

But the theology of Rudolph takes its most radical, surprising, and extreme turn when the personification of evil, The Abominable Snowman, comes back from death in a quirky resurrection event--Bumble's Bounce!--as a peaceable creature who is also in need of loving community. Apparently, this "evil" creature is also a misfit. And the hint is that he's "abominable" because he's been marginalized and without community.

So, summarizing all this, I learned from Rudolph this important lesson about Christmas: Something about Christmas means misfits have a place, a community, a home. Or, rephrased, Christmas means that there are no more misfits.

But I was still puzzled as a child. From How the Grinch Stole Christmas I learned that Christmas was more than presents and Christmas trees. And from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer I learned that Christmas had something to do with misfits finding a place of love. But in both shows the reason behind it all remained elusive. Why do misfits have a home? And what does being a misfit have to do with Christmas? Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer never says.

So I was quite puzzled. But luckily, there was more TV to watch! And I finally got my answers in a speech delivered by a boy who loved to carry a blue blanket...

Lesson #3: The True Meaning of Christmas
A Charlie Brown Christmas

After the hints about Christmas from the Grinch and Rudolph I finally turned to that trusted friend Charlie Brown.

In A Charlie Brown Christmas Charlie Brown is struggling to find out why Christmas is so depressing. He seeks advice from this local psychiatrist, Lucy, who gets him to direct the school Christmas play.

Well, this doesn't go very well. Eventually, Charlie Brown is rejected as director and asked instead to go buy a Christmas tree for the play.

Most of the symbolism in A Charlie Brown Christmas focuses on the tree he picks out. Out of all the shiny, bright artificial trees Charlie Brown picks a real but forlorn little tree that isn't much more than a branch.

Charlie Brown takes this tree/branch back to the cast and they laugh at both him and the tree. This ridicule pushes Charlie Brown over the edge and he finally screams, "Would someone please tell me the true meaning of Christmas!!!!!" At which point Linus steps forward.

But before we hear Linus's answer, let's reflect on the symbol of the forlorn little Christmas tree. It's a humble little tree, not much to look at. And it's rejected and despised by men. And yet, it is real. All those flashy other trees are dead, cold, and fake. They are empty and hollow. But this fragile little tree is REAL. It's fragile, but real.

And all this taught me that whatever Christmas is about, it is about something that is humble, about something fragile and weak, about something that is despised, marginalized, and overlooked. It is life, it's real, but it's so humble that it is easily overlooked and passed over. Further, its humility makes it a stone of stumbling, a scandal, and a reason for offense.

So, to recap, these are all the lessons I learned about Christmas from watching TV:
I learned that Christmas was MORE and that it had something to do with finding community.
I learned that, because of Christmas, there were no more misfits, no more outsiders or marginalized ones.
I learned about empathy, compassion, and that Messiahs might be misfits.
I learned about how community can be the route for the redemption of evil.
And here with Charlie Brown, I learned that the humility of Christmas makes it oft overlooked and despised.
But to this point in all this TV viewing no one ever connected the dots among all these things. No one had spoken the word that explained just what all this stuff had to do with Christmas. So I perfectly understood why Charlie Brown screamed "Would someone please tell me the true meaning of Christmas!!!!!"

Well, Charlie Brown and I finally got our answer. Linus steps forward and explains it all:

May there be peace on earth and good will toward all. Merry Christmas.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

It is quiet now in the fields
where the grass was bathed in song.
And empty now the sky
that held angelic hosts and golden light.
Nothing now, but the bleats of ewes
looking for their lambs,
and the soft breeze swaying
the branches and leaves.
What did we hear?
The fire burns low
as the shepherd's eyes
stare upward, unsleeping,
into the stars.
What did we see?
No clear answer appears,
just a weight of knowing,
that a promise made
has been fulfilled.

An Invitation to "A Johnny Cash Christmas"

I'm in Erie, PA right now for the holidays. If you're in the Erie area, the Erie Church of Christ and I are hosting an evening on Monday night entitled "Trains, Jesus, and Murder: A Johnny Cash Christmas."

For the evening I'll be sharing reflections from my recent book, along with playing some Johnny Cash songs, giving it all a seasonal, Christmas twist. I hope you can join us!

The details of the event:

Date: December 23
Time: 7:00-8:00 pm
Location: 2317 West Grandview Blvd, Erie, PA 16506

The Divine Comedy: Week 46, The Trinity

In the final Canto of The Divine Comedy, St. Bernard prays for the Pilgrim, that he may receive the grace to finish his journey and look directly upon God. Our goal, in the words of St. Bernard, is "to turn our eyes upon the Primal Love."

The culmination of The Divine Comedy, then, is the Pilgrim finally beholding God. It's been quite a journey! Descending through hell, scaling Mt. Purgatory, and ascending through the heavens. All to reach what is called the Beatific Vision.

As the Pilgrim beholds God he first sees a light that holds all of creation in love:
O grace abounding and allowing me to dare
to fix my gaze on the Eternal Light,
so deep my vision was consumed in It!

I saw how it contains withing its depths
all things bound in a single book by love
of which creation is the scattered leaves...
Looking more closely into the Light, the Pilgrim then sees it as three circles of differently colored light, each the same circumference in the same space:
Within Its depthless clarity of substance
I saw the Great Light shine into three circles
in three clear colors bound in one same space.
This is Dante's attempt to give us a visual picture of the Trinity. Which a pretty impossible task, even for a poet. Dante is very aware of this, as he has the Pilgrim declare:
How my weak words fall short of my conception,
which is itself so far from what I saw
that "weak" is much too weak a word to use!
Word do fail when it comes to the Trinity. I used to think that this was because the Trinity was a pointless exercise in abstract metaphysics. I've changed my opinion about that. I've come to believe that the Trinity is the doctrine that allows Christians to confess that "God is love." The love that is the Divine Community of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is Being Itself. Like Dante, I might not be able to explain that to anyone. But I believe in this Love more than I believe in anything.

Piss Christ in Prison: An Unlikely Advent Meditation

An Advent meditation from 2013:

This last week out at the prison bible study I led the inmates through an unlikely advent meditation. Our focus was on Piss Christ, the controversial photograph by Andres Serrano.

As I describe in my book Unclean, in 1987 the photographer Andres Serrano unveiled his controversial work Piss Christ.  

Piss Christ was a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a mixture of blood and urine. The work broke into public consciousness in 1989 when members of the US Senate expressed outrage that Serrano had received $15,000 from the American National Endowment for the Arts. Senators called the work “filth,” “blasphemous,” and “abhorrent.” One Senator said, “In naming it, [Serrano] was taunting the American people. He was seeking to create indignation. That is all right for him to be a jerk but let him be a jerk on his own time and with his own resources. Do not dishonor our Lord.” Later, in 1997, the National Gallery in Melbourne, Australia was closed when members of a Christian group attacked and damaged Piss Christ.

Beyond the content of the photograph what really offends is the name, the juxtaposition of the word "piss" with "Christ." What is blasphemous is the contact between something holy and something defiling.

Piss contaminates the Christ.

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

This is why the Pharisees see Jesus becoming defiled when he eats with tax collectors and sinners. The pollutant--the tax collectors and sinners--defiles Jesus, the pure. The negative dominates over the positive. The pollutant is the stronger force. Thus it never occurs to the Pharisees, because it is psychologically counter-intuitive, that Jesus's presence might sanctify or purify those sinners he is eating with. Because pollution doesn't work that way.

In a similar way, when we observe the contact between urine and Jesus in Piss Christ we instinctively judge the negative to be stronger than the positive. Thus the shock. Thus the blasphemy.

But the real blasphemy just might be this: That we think urine is stronger than Christ. Our blasphemy is that we judge the defilement of our lives as stronger than the love and power of God.

I looked at the men in the prison and said, "This is the scandal of the Incarnation. This is the scandal of Christmas. That God descended into the darkness and defilement of your life, and that darkness and defilement did not overcome it."

I know, I told the men, that this is so very hard to believe, that Jesus goes into the darkest most shameful corners of our lives. This, all by itself, is almost impossible to believe. But even harder to believe is that Jesus is stronger than that polluting, defiling darkness.

That is the scandal of Christmas.
John 1.14a, 15
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
In the final analysis, Christmas is more subversive than the most subversive art. It's hard to be more transgressive than Christmas. Consider Beth Williamson's analysis of Piss Christ:
What are we to make of this work: what are we to understand by it, and how can we interpret it?

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

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

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

The process of viewing the Crucified Christ through the filter of human bodily fluids requires the observer to consider all the ways in which Christ, as both fully divine and full human, really shared in the base physicality of human beings. As a real human being Christ took on all the characteristics of the human body, including its fluids and secretions. The use of urine here can therefore force the viewer to rethink what it meant for Christ to be really and fully human. 
God had a body. That is about as transgressive as you can get. So transgressive that many Christians, now and throughout history, have passionately resisted and banished the thought.

Christmas is so hard to believe that most Christians don't believe it.

But the Word became flesh. God dwelt among us. And still does.


I looked at the men in the prison and paused. I wanted them to hear this. Because there is some real darkness in their lives. Darkness we rarely speak about.

I looked at them and said:

The meaning of the Incarnation is that God has descended into the midst of our shame, into the piss and the shit of our lives, and that God is stronger than our darkness.

But do you believe this? Because I know it is so very, very hard to believe.

We want to believe that our foulness, our shame, our sin, is the strongest force in our lives, the greatest and final truth about us.

It's so hard to believe what I'm telling you, because it really does feel like blasphemy.

But it's not blasphemy. This is the story of the Incarnation, of the Word becoming flesh. This is the story of God's love for you.

As shocking and offensive as it may be, this is the story of Christmas.

Thank You, Anarchy: Part 3, The Tensions of Change

As I read Nathan Schneider's Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse I kept making notes of the tensions that I felt kept coming up in the movement. I find these tensions educational as they reveal, I think, the tensions we all keep bumping into politically and organizationally as we seek to create a better world. I think one of the reasons we keep stalling out in our efforts at making things better is that we keep getting stuck in the mire of these competing agendas and visions.

So, here's a list of the tensions I observed in reading Thank You, Anarchy. See if any of these sound familiar:

1. Horizontal versus Vertical Organization: How do we distribute power and access in our organizations, society and politics?

2. Process versus Progress: How do we balance good process with making quick, efficient progress? And can process ever just be the end in itself?

3. Class versus Identity Politics: When thinking about class and economics versus identity politics (ethnicity, gender, sex, etc.), which should be the primary lens and lever of change when it comes to oppressive structures and systems? Should be care more about inclusion or economics

4. Smaller versus Larger Government: In the debate between socialists and anarchists, are our social ills best solved by socialism (a larger, more regulating government) or by local communitarianism?

5. Art versus Organizing: Is social change best achieved through artistic and provocative imagination, improvisation, and demonstration or through the toil of grass-roots community organizing?

6. Non-Violence vs Violence: Should social change always be pursued non-violently (toward both people and property) or is non-violence a tactic that can be dropped for other tactics that involve violence and/or destruction of property?

To be sure, these were the tensions of Occupy Wall Street and might not be found in other locations or debates. But I bump into these tensions pretty regularly. And, of course, some of these don't have to be forced into an either/or. 

The relevance of all this for the church is in how I envision the church as being "counter-cultural."

For example, do I think of the local church as an expression of art (a sacramental expression that isn't trying to be "effective" but point our imaginations toward an eschatological future) or as a form of community organizing and networking to deliver tangible material goods to its members?

Another example: Is the church a voting block to help America become more socialist, or is the church supposed to ignore the government and become a local community who meets the needs of its members, from health insurance to housing?

Another: Should the church prioritize poverty or progressive visions of "inclusion"?

And so on.

Thank You, Anarchy: Part 2, Horizontal Over Vertical

I don't expect there are too many church leaders who spend time reading about anarchist movements for insights into the church. But one of the reasons I do this has to do with horizontal versus vertical organization.

The Holy Grail of anarchist movements is a radically horizontal organization. Most churches, by contrast, tend to work with a vertical organization, at least partially. At the top is an executive pastor or minister and some sort of leadership, eldership board. Power and control then flows down vertically, from the top to the bottom.

What interests me here is how, for most churches, we can't really imagine ourselves organizing our communities any other way but vertically. Our vision of church is held captive by a corporate imagination. There has to be an Org Chart and a hierarchical power arrangement. Somebody has to be "in charge."
Given this, one of the benefits of reflecting on anarchist movements like Occupy Wall Street, is how hard anarchists push against verticality, how they imagine and experiment with all sorts of ways to organize large groups of people horizontally. To be sure, as Nathan Schneider recounts in Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse, struggling for horizontality is a fragile business and takes hard work. Sometimes, to make "progress," you just want someone to be in charge and make a decision.

But in many ways, as Schneider shares in his book, progress is simply the process of fighting for and creating the horizontal structure. Notoriously, Occupy didn't make concrete policy demands. So it was unclear what Occupy "wanted." But as became clear, what Occupy wanted was the horizontal vision of social and economic relations it was experimenting with, envisioning, and demonstrating. What Occupy wanted was Occupy. The people wanted American life to be more inclusive, democratic, and participatory. The "demand" was for more horizontality.

Now, while we could debate the good and bad of Occupy Wall Street, and I'm sure reader opinions will vary, what I find helpful about meditating about that movement was how I wish the church had a little more thirst, hunger, and desire for radical horizontality. Again, like in my Part 1 observation about how we can't imagine church without electricity, technology, and amplification, we also can't imagine church without vertical organization and hierarchy. We just can't imagine an organizational alternative.

And yet, there are alternatives. And even if we think we have to have some verticality (and the struggles of Occupy lend themselves to such a conclusion), couldn't the church push for more and more for horizontality? Sure, criticize Occupy all you want, but who do you think is trying harder to obey Jesus, the anarchists or the church?:
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave." (Matthew 20.25-27)