Experimental Theology 2016 Year in Review

Happy New Year!

I'm putting this up today, on January 1, as Monday's regular post. 

As has been my tradition, every New Year I look back over the blog to gather up posts that summarize my year of writing and reflection on the blog.

Thank you so much for reading, commenting, and sharing posts on social media. And thank you to all of you who I've met in person or sent me emails this year sharing how much this blog has meant to you. The feeling is mutual, I've been so encouraged by the relationships we've formed online.

It's true that social media can be a pretty toxic place, but I hope what you find here Monday-Friday each day, even if you disagree with me, is thought-provoking and encouraging. I'm looking forward to 2017.

So here it is, the 2016 Experimental Theology Year in Review:

1. Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted
I tried not to overwhelm the blog too much with the roll out of my new book, but in 2016 my book Reviving Old Scratch came out with a book launch on a Malibu rooftop doing a podcast with N.T. Wright and Greg Boyd. Thanks so much to Tripp Fuller and Luke Norsworthy for hosting Devilpalooza.

It's been encouraging to see the book so well received, by N.T. Wright himself and from progressive Christian audiences, the group I had especially in mind when writing the book. I've also been in contact with a lot of churches who are doing bible classes or reading groups using Reviving Old Scratch.

Thank you to everyone who read the book, shared it on social media or reviewed it on Amazon, Good Reads or on your blog or Facebook. And a special shout-out to Bob Cornwall for posting the very first review of the book and to Jonathan Storment who did a series about the book over at Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog.

To accompany the book, I spent the year writing some more about the devil. Some of those posts were: We Need a Satanic Hermeneutic, Blaming the Devil: Empathy and Responsibility, Dreamy and Devilish Thoughts: Description vs. Explanation in Theology, The Pope and the Devil, and Does the Devil Exist?: Resistance Over Existence,

2. Paul and the Gift: Grace as a Social Revolution
2016 started with me reviewing John Barclay's book Paul and the Gift, an academic tome of Pauline scholarship that had gotten a lot of buzz.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of that series I review Barclay's six "perfections" of grace, and in Part 3 I argue for a seventh perfection of grace (a post of interest to those to believe in universal reconciliation). Those posts brought us to the heart of Barclay's argument, that Paul focused on the incongruity of grace: God gives gifts to the unworthy and undeserving.

That might sound like a very traditional place to land, but in Barclay's hands there are two huge implications. First, Barclay argues that Paul did not perfect the non-circularity of grace, the teaching that grace carries no obligations and cannot and should not be repaid. For Paul, grace is incongruous but it very much creates a bond of obligation. Grace must be repaid.

Second, Paul's teaching of incongruous grace enabled a social revolution, allowing Paul to experiment with boundary-crossing communities. Grace, according to Barclay, was a sociological event that broke down the social barriers existing between the worthy, significant and esteemed (Jews, males, free people) and the unworthy, despised and shamed (Gentiles, females, slaves). Grace destroys all human criteria of worth allowing for a "new humanity" to emerge.    

Finally, as bonus, since I connected Barclay's work to universal reconciliation in my series, I threw in a post about The Perfections of Grace in Calvinism, Arminianism and Universalism.

3. The Four Arguments for Affirming Same-Sex Marriages
The most viral post of the year was a post in which I shared "the four arguments" for affirming same-sex marriages.

I had been asked by an evangelical institution to survey, summarize and then share with them the biblical and theological case for affirming same-sex marriages. As I did my literature review for them, I discerned that there are four main arguments that get used alone or in combination over and over again. Thus, the "four arguments" for affirming same-sex marriages.

After my presentation, I've considered adding a fifth argument that has recently gained more attention. The fifth argument would be "The Inclusion of the Sexual Other" based upon the inclusion of eunuchs in the kingdom of God.

4. Edging Toward Enchantment
A lot of modern Christians struggle with doubt and skepticism concerning the transcendent and metaphysical aspects of faith. So in 2016 I devoted a series of posts about how these doubting believers might edge themselves back toward enchantment. This might have been the most important series of the year.

The series began with a post about miracle stories, in the Bible and in Christian communities. How can disenchanted, doubting and skeptical believers embrace these stories? I argued we can do this by finding resources to edge ourselves back toward enchantment and by making the turn from deconstruction to reconstruction.

How to do this? I suggested a few different things.

First, you can fill your world with sacramentals that help you recover the Catholic imagination of a sacramental ontology where the world as charged with the grandeur of God.

Second, you can practice being open to surprise. This eccentric, receptive posture combats the ruminating introversion of the modern self, an introversion that can impair our ability to experience the sacred and transcendent.

Third, you can practice existential jujitsu, by doubting your doubts and by embracing a romantic Christianity that is disgusted with disenchantment. We can even use the brokenness and suffering of the world to doubt disenchantment.

Finally, we practice hallowing life, by practicing resurrection and through rituals like prayer and anointing.

Later in the year I revisited the subject of enchantment with some posts to help doubting Christians rethink miracles. I suggested that miracles can be viewed as a hermeneutical activity that hallows events and fosters a relational experience with God. But my main point was that miracles are a hermeneutics of gratitude.

5. Jesus and the Jolly Roger: A Church for Pirates
The series I had the most fun with this year was "Jesus and the Jolly Roger," using pirates as a parable to talk about the kingdom of God.

The origin of this series was planted by my friend Simon Nash when he handed me Kester Brewin's book Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates, And How They Can Save Us. I did class using this material at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures and then shared it here on the blog.

The posts in the series were, in order, The Kingdom of God is Like a Pirate, The Violent Take It By Force, The Curious Case of Captain Jack Sparrow, Raising Merry Hell, Living Under the Sign of Death, and The Pirate Code of the Kingdom of God.

6. Praise, Lament and Shape-Note Singing
In 2016 Leah Libresco called me about an article she was writing for Nate Silver's 538 blog over at ESPN. Leah had come across shape-note singing of old Christian hymns at local sings and noticed a difference in the lyrical content of those hymns and the content of contemporary Christian pop songs.

Leah published her analysis, and some of my reflections about her findings, in her article "The Sun Is Always Shining In Modern Christian Pop."

I followed up Leah's article with two posts. First, I grew up in a shape-note tradition. Second, Leah's analysis comparing shape-note hymns with Christian pop is similar to the lyrical contrast between the Psalms and Christian hymnals.

7. Idolatry, Oppression and the Development of Demons
Supplementing an argument I make in Reviving Old Scratch, in 2016 I wrote long series about the biblical connections between idolatry and oppression and how these were associated with demons.

The goal of the series was to show that demons involve a mixture of the spiritual (idolatry) and the political (oppression). When it comes to "spiritual warfare," conservatives tend to associate the demonic with the spiritual (e.g., spooky, disembodied spirits) where progressives tend to associate the demonic with the political (e.g., social justice). Consequently, each miss important aspects of spiritual warfare. Conservatives miss how the spiritual warfare should focus on oppression and progressives miss how oppression flows out of worship.

The ten posts in the series, in order, were The Angels of the Nations, The King as Guardian Angel, Territorial Spirits and Angelic Warfare, Lucifer Is the King of Babylon, The Lord of the Flies, The Origins of Hell, The gods of the Nations Became the Demons, The Demon Haunted City, The Prince of This World, and The Spiritual Roots of Liberation Theology.

8. Political Theology
A wrote a lot about political theology in 2016 in two series and a couple of post-election posts.

The first series meditated on Paul's claim in Romans 13 that the state is "God's servant for your good," and that the state "doesn't bear the sword in vain." These were hard posts for me, as I've tended to gravitate toward anti-empire theology. But I think it's important to listen to the parts of Scripture that you'd rather dismiss and ignore. The posts in this series were, in order: Heartburn, The Locust Effect, Political Theology in a Land of 911, Do Black Lives Matter in Ghettoside?, "One Could Do As One Pleased Only With Stateless People", and The Greatest Source of Suffering in the World.

The second political series pondered Yuval Levin's book The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. I was interested in this book because I felt that Levin's analysis might help conservative and progressive Christians find common political ground in working for the common good.

The heart of Levin's analysis is that both conservatives and liberals increasingly look toward the federal government to solve local, community problems, making our politics more polarized and less effective. Meanwhile, the "middle" institutions best positioned to address local and community problems, especially in that murky and difficult territory where the moral and familial mix and intersect with the structural and systemic, have been hollowed out. Levin argues that we can best solve our problems by investing in these local institutions and I find promise in this suggestion as progressives and conservatives both have localist impulses, making local community work a location for political common ground.

Keeping with this localist focus, after the election I wrote a post entitled The Kingdom of God, November 9, 2016.

In that post I pointed out how Jesus' gospel message--his "glad tidings"--was that the kingdom of God had arrived in the midst of an oppressive, colonial occupation. My observation, witnessing the post-election reactions, was that it seems like we're missing a critical piece Jesus' political imagination given the violent swings of emotions we experience in the face of electoral defeat or victory every four years.

And yet, some readers felt that the post was another one of those "Don't worry, God is still on the throne" appeals. So I followed the post up with three other posts to describe what it looks like to confess that "God is on the throne" and the hard, local work we are called to in order to realize the Lordship of Jesus in our midst. Those follow up posts were The Kingdom Comes When You Get in My Face, How to Overcome Racism According to the Early Church, and More On How to Overcome Prejudice and Discrimination According to the Early Church.
9. Preterism and the Gospels
In the debates about hell you'll often hear proponents of eternal conscious torment say, "I believe in hell because Jesus believed in hell. The person who talked the most about hell in the Bible was Jesus."

But what if Jesus never believed any such thing? What if hell was an event that happened within history?

Preterism is the view that all biblical prophecy was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. And while preterist readings of Scripture can tend toward the extreme, preterist readings of the gospels are gaining a wider hearing. The work of N.T. Wright is a prime example. As Wright argues, Jesus was speaking about a coming cataclysm, but this cataclysm wasn't an otherworldly hell where souls were damned for all eternity on Judgment Day. Hell, as Jesus preached it, was a looming national catastrophe that would befall Israel if the nation didn't repent and heed the gospel proclamation.

If this view is new to you, you can read any of N.T. Wright's books about Jesus. Or you can read the eight-part series I did: The Problem is Eschatology, John the Baptist and the Day of the Lord, The Kingdom Has Come, The Great Winnowing, All These Things Will Come Upon This Generation, The Sign of His Coming and the End of the Age, Prophet of Love and Peace and Prophet of Apocalyptic Doom, and Eschatology Revisited.

10. Popular Posts
A specialty of this blog is the long, multi-part series. But there were many stand alone posts that got a lot of attention this year as well. The most popular from 2016 were:
Fragile Worshipers
Learning To Live With Penal Substitutionary Atonement
The Theology of Thrift Stores
The Five Loves
Put Away the Sword: Tragedy and Eschatology
Neo-Reformed Theology and Suffering: What Happens When God Becomes a Math Problem
Pokémon Go and Kingdom Eyes
America's Holocaust
11. Blogging about the Bible
Finally, I continue to pride myself on being a liberal, progressive Christian blogger who loves to write about the Bible. I might be liberal and progressive, but I read the Bible everyday and teach two Bible classes every week, one at church and one out at the prison. And I regularly preach at Freedom Fellowship, a mission church plant I talk a lot about in Reviving Old Scratch.

All that to say, I love studying and sharing insights from Bible study. Some of the best from 2016 were:
An Unbelieving and Perverse Generation and the Suffering of Children
Workers for the Harvest
Faithfulness In Corrupt Systems
Pleroopneumatic Christians
So that was the year 2016 here at Experimental Theology. Thanks for joining me here each week. I look forward to seeing you online or in person in 2017!

Grace and peace,

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