Behind Bars With The Lord of the Rings: Part 1, The Perfect Movie for a Maximum Security Prison

During the month of July when I'm out of town visiting my family in PA Herb and I like to line up some movies for the guys in our prison bible study at the French Robertson Unit. "Movie Month" in July is a nice break for everyone when I'm out of town.

The movies should have a religious theme. The administration won't let us show just any movie in the chapel. But what counts as a "religious theme" is a bit open to interpretation. The movies we tend to show are explicitly religious, but this July I suggested that we watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

That raised a few eyebrows among the men. Readers of this blog, I'm sure, know all about the Inklings, that J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic and that he weaved Christian themes through The Lord of the Rings. But the guys in the prison know none of this. They've never heard of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien or the Inklings. When they hear "The Lord of the Rings" they don't think theology, they think action movies.

So when I suggested we watch The Lord of the Rings as a Christian movie that sounded very strange to them, as if I suggested we look for Jesus in the Fast & Furious movies. It didn't compute.

So before we watched the movies I took some time to set it all up. I told them about Tolkien and his faith and how he wove Christian themes through the book.

And some of those themes, I said, make The Lord of the Rings the perfect Christian movie to show in a maximum security prison.

The Last Day

The Last Day

When the last day comes
A ploughman in Europe will look over his shoulder
And see the hard furrows of earth
Finally behind him, he will watch his shadow
Run back into his spine.

It will be morning
For the first time, and the long night
Will be seen for what it is,
A black flag trembling in the sunlight.
On the last day

Our stories will be rewritten
Each from the end,
And each will hear the fields and rivers clap
And under the trees

Old bones
Will cover themselves with flesh;
Spears, bullets, will pluck themselves
From wounds already healed,
Women will clasp their sons as men

And men will look
Into their palms and find them empty;
There will be time
For us to say the right things at last,
To look into our enemy’s face

And see ourselves,
Forgiven now, before the books flower in flames,
The mirrors return our faces,
And everything is stripped from us,
Even our names.

--Kevin Hart, from Flame Tree: Selected Poems

Resurrect Our Holy Fools

You might have heard of the protest movement Buy Nothing Day (BND).

BND is an international protest against consumerism and it's held the Friday after Thanksgiving, what is commonly known as Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year.

The basic thing to do on BND is just opt out, don't shop on Black Friday. But BND protests can take on all sorts of forms.

A strange and public form of BND protest is the Zombie Walk. Here's a video link to a 2012 Zombie Walk in a Portland mall. During a Zombie Walk you dress like a zombie and go shuffling through a mall, making a comment about how consumerism has robbed us of life, personality and moral agency. We're just dead, obedient zombies when we rush to the malls on Black Friday.

I expect that people might find the Zombie Walk ridiculous. But there's huge biblical precedent for prophetic rebuke taking the form of performance art. The biblical prophets did things like the Zombie Walk.

Consider this example, one of many, from Ezekiel:
Ezekiel 4.1-6
“And now, son of man, take a large clay brick and set it down in front of you. Then draw a map of the city of Jerusalem on it. Show the city under siege. Build a wall around it so no one can escape. Set up the enemy camp, and surround the city with siege ramps and battering rams. Then take an iron griddle and place it between you and the city. Turn toward the city and demonstrate how harsh the siege will be against Jerusalem. This will be a warning to the people of Israel.

“Now lie on your left side and place the sins of Israel on yourself. You are to bear their sins for the number of days you lie there on your side. I am requiring you to bear Israel’s sins for 390 days—one day for each year of their sin. After that, turn over and lie on your right side for 40 days—one day for each year of Judah’s sin."
The Zombie Walk seems tame by comparison. But some prophets did extreme things like this.

This sort of performance art-as-protest is not limited to the biblical prophets, it has a long history in the Christian tradition. The "holy fools" in the Orthodox tradition routinely used performance art to rebuke a wayward or spiritually dead populace. In the Western tradition St. Francis is the most famous example of a holy fool.

And given what time of year it is, remember how it was St. Francis who created our modern Nativity sets by inviting the town of Greccio to come out and see a living Nativity he created in a cave. Performance art.

I bring all this up because I wonder if performance art is what evangelism should look like in the year 2016. I think churches are struggling with evangelism, how to proclaim the good news to a society that is increasingly disinterested in church and faith.

Maybe we should preform the admonition in 1 Corinthians 4: We are fools for Christ!

Maybe churches should, in fun and creative ways, take to public spaces the way the biblical prophets did, to create a message and spectacle that speaks to, pricks and fascinates our culture. I think street performers and minstrels are the sorts of evangelists we need today.

Maybe it's time to resurrect our holy fools.

Second Sunday of Advent



"Anna"

The doves beat their wings rhythmically
on the cages
as coins clinked, sheep bleated
and the men shouted.
The burnt smells coming on the smoke
washing over holy stones
worn smooth by generations
waiting.
The old woman
willow thin, knees calloused
rubbed rough
by daily petitions,
traces with arthritic hand
the contours of the consolation
in the soft curve of the infant's face.
His small hand grasps her bent finger
in an answer
to all her prayers.

Personal Days: The Beck Christmas Trees

I love the way our house looks during Christmas.

Our family tradition has always been to go get a live Christmas tree on the Friday after Thanksgiving. We usually go at night before or after dinner. The four of us drive to Lowe's and pick out a six-foot Noble fir. I pull the trees out of the stalls and then spin them around for Jana, Brenden and Aidan to inspect.

We then get a few inches cut off the stump so the tree can drink. We buy some tree food. Then we head on home. Once at home I get out the stand and we all work to get the tree standing upright and vertical. And then we let the tree rest for a day so the branches can relax.

Then on Saturday we put the lights and decorations on. All in time for the first Sunday of Advent.

We actually have two trees. The natural tree goes in our living room and it's Jana's tree to decorate. She's sort of a Christmas tree artist in this regard. All through the day on Saturday she'll look at the tree, like a painter staring at a blank canvas. She's pondering color schemes and ornament themes. Inspiration hits and then she starts to decorate once I put on the lights.

So our tree looks different every year, which is one of the things I love, how each year and each tree is unique. This year Jana said, "I want to make a fun tree." So a big red bow went on top, accented by a peppermint candy striped ribbon.

Our second tree is an artificial tree and it's in the family room. Brenden and Aidan are in charge of decorating this tree. This is the tree that has all their special ornaments. Ornaments we've given them--a fish ornament for Brenden because he likes to fish, a Dr. Who ornament for Aidan when he was really into the show--along with the ornaments they made as children over the years.

Ornaments special to family and marital trips go on the natural tree. There we have ornaments from England and Jersey--Hello, friends! An ornament from the White House when we toured it in 2008 after Obama won his historic election. An Elvis ornament from a trip to Graceland. An ornament from Hawaii.

And a very special ornament: a ribbon flower from our wedding.

Both trees are filled with memories.

The Fractured Republic: Part 4, The Scale of Christian Social Action

Last post pondering Yuval Levin's book The Fractured Republic.

Here's why I'm thinking this book. As I have written about many different times on this blog, I'm concerned about the scale of Christian social action, especially among my progressive Christian tribe.

As we've described it in these posts, the scale Christian social action today is either too small or too large.

With the middle, mediating institutions in America weakened or gone, only two scales remain: the individual or the state.

On the one hand, the scale of the individual is too small. This is why it seems like so much of our social justice activism takes place online. An individual can use a Twitter account. But Twitter, as good a tool as it can be, especially for marginalized voices, is no substitute for being out on the streets working alongside others to improve your city and neighborhood.

On the other hand, the scale of the state is too large. The state can help, and it most definitely can stop doing harm, but many of our problems are best faced as local problems requiring local solutions.

The scale of Christian social action seems to be in the middle layers of American society--face to face, eye to eye, neighbor to neighbor--the exact layers that increasingly require attention in America.

And what's interesting to me is how both liberals and conservatives seem to agree on this point. To be sure, we might not agree on what we think the state should or should not do. But when it comes to investing in local organizations working to address needs and problems liberals and conservatives tend to work side by side. That's my experience--from work in the prison to dealing with systemic homelessness in our town to churches working toward racial reconciliation--the liberal/conservative divide drops away in our shared work.

When we work in the middle layers of society we find common ground.

After I read The Fractured Republic I read Tattoos on the Heart, the story of Father Gregory Boyle and Homeboy Industries. You likely know Fr. Boyle's story, how he started Homeboy Industries to help give jobs to gang members in LA.

Homeboy Industries is in the middle layers of society. Homeboy Industries isn't a lone individual, and it's not the sate, but Homeboy Industries does connect with both individuals and the state. It's a mediating institution.

So if you read Tattoos on the Heart in light of The Fractured Republic a couple of things jump out at you.

First, the state can't immediately fix what a gang member faces in the home and on the street. For example, as you read Tattoos on the Heart you are overwhelmed by the stories of familial chaos and abuse. True enough, there are systemic forces behind those broken families. But what can Congress do today for the kid being beaten with a metal pipe? That kid needs a mentor, guide and friend in their life today.

How's the state going to provide that mentor? And how's your Twitter feed going to help that kid?

Further, as you know if you've read Tattoos on the Heart, what the gang member has internalized is crippling self-loathing, guilt and shame. Again, there are systemic reasons why that shame exists, but today, for that kid right now, what law speaks heart to heart into that shame in credible and intimate ways?

The only thing that can speak into that shame is someone like a Father Boyle. Someone who loves you through the years as you make the unsteady journey toward the light. And that journey is unsteady. As anyone who has worked at the interface of law and human tragedy knows, rigid federal regulations lack the nuance, sensitivity and mercy required to address the particular case by case needs that human beings present. Laws are crude, one size fits all, cudgels. Yes, federal assistance is needed, but federal programs lack the flexibility, perspective, wisdom, and grace that local organizations possess.

Only people, looking at each other eye to eye, on a first name basis, can offer that flexibility, grace and wisdom. Only people like Father Boyle can do this sort of work. Yes, the state can help Father Boyle, but the state can't replace Father Boyle.

Homeboy Industries represents the scale of Christian social action.

This is not to say social action can't exist on the scale of the individual or the state. By all means, use your Twitter account and use your vote. But let both liberals and conservatives agree that the scale of Christian social action is at the human scale, the local, community scale.

Fire off your Tweet. Head to the polls every two years for the midterm and the general elections. But more than anything, if you're a Christian, let's walk into a local organization like a Homeboy Industries and get to work.

In our neighborhoods and towns, standing shoulder to shoulder, looking eye to eye. That is the scale of Christian social action.

The Fractured Republic: Part 3, Subsidiarity

As Yuval Levin argues in his book The Fractured Republic, the middle, mediating institutions in America have weakened and evaporated leaving only two extremes, a mass of individuals on the one hand and a large, centralized state on the other.

In the last post we discussed how this situation impoverishes our social imagination and limits our ability to address social problems. When the state is the only actor on the stage our imaginations are limited to the state. The state is the only solution we can imagine. Or, at the very least, the state is only solution available to us. And to be sure, the state can address many of our problems. But some of the issues facing our neighborhoods require a more local and personal approach.

But with the loss of the middle, mediating institutions we lack the social infrastructure to address issues at a smaller, more local and personal, scales.

Thus Levin's recommendation: We need invest in and and empower these middle institutions.

Here's Levin (p. 5):
The middle layers of society, where people see each other face to face, offer a middle ground between radical individualism and extreme centralization. Our political life need not consist of a recurring choice between having the federal government invade and occupy the middle layers of society or having isolated individuals break down the institutions that compose those layers. It can and should be an arena for attempting different ways of empowering those middle institutions to help our society confront its problems.
The recommendation here an ethic of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is an idea that comes from Catholic social teaching and is, per Wikipedia, "an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority." According to the principle of subsidiarity "political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority."

Levin goes on to point out that both liberals and conservatives share subsidiarity impulses. On the liberal side there are labor unions, community organizing, localist consumerism (from locavores to all the Wendell Berry-inspired lives and communities), the black church, to anarchical and communitarian groups (think: Catholic Worker and New Monastics). On the conservative side there are the emphases upon family, the local church and charitable enterprises. And both liberals and conservatives have a long history with local non-profits.

All that to say, both liberals and conservatives like subsidiarity, like the focus on localism. And Levin's argument is that, with the middle, mediating layers of society weakening, our goal should be to focus on, invest in and strengthen these institutions.

Now the problem here is that these institutions have been fading, they are weak or now non-existent. So a call for subsidiarity isn't for the federal government to simply roll back to let the local institutions handle things. Because when the federal government rolls back what will be left is a vacuum. And speaking as a liberal, this is the prospect I fear when conservatives tout the ability of the church to handle things like universal and comprehensive health care. Let me be clear, I'm not saying that socialized medicine is the solution to our health care problems (thought I suspect it might be), just that conservatives fail to recognize that churches and private benevolence aren't going to provide universal and comprehensive health care to all American citizens. So there remains a role for government in these instances.

So the call for subsidiarity isn't for the federal government to unilaterally roll back and push things back onto states, cities and neighborhoods. The goal, for Levin, is for the federal government to support and invest in these local institutions. Here's Levin making these points (p. 144):
If we do turn over more responsibility to the institutions of our civil society and local government, we will need to do so with the recognition that these institutions have been weakened in recent decades...It would be a mistake to imagine that they stand waiting, ready and strong, just beneath our liberal welfare state, so that we need only roll back that state and they will step up. That assumption would, for one thing, partake of a misleading fantasy of volunteerism that paints a partially distorted picture of America's past--as if all the things now done by our programs of public assistance were once done by church and fraternal organizations. And it would also ignore the erosion of families, communities, and civil society in our time. The mediating institutions do not just need to be unleashed--they need to be revived, reinforced, and empowered...
Of course, some might reject subsidiarity, thinking that Congress is the only and best solution to what ails us.

But my guess is that a lot of liberals and conservatives sense that local institutions--if assisted and empowered by the federal government, and that's a big if--are better situated to handle the complexities the problems that our cities and neighborhoods face.

And if that's the case, investing in subsidiarity may be a location of common ground for both liberals and conservatives.

For liberals especially, I'd like to make that case in the next post.

The Fractured Republic: Part 2, Everything Starts Looking Like a Nail

As a liberal Christian one of the most challenging things I read in Yuval Levin's book The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism is his analysis regarding how we, as individuals, now stand isolated and alone before the state.

I think this is a potent analysis that we really need to ponder.

In Part 1 we used the words "fracture" and "diffusion" to describe our increasingly individualized society. What do we mean by these descriptions?

According to Levin, over the last few generations we've seen a breakdown in the mediating structures of American civic life. By mediating structures we mean local communities that stood between the individual and the state. Families, unions, churches, civic organizations, etc. In generations past there was more to civic engagement than "the state." Civic and social engagement took place within and through these smaller, local organizations.

But over the last few generations these mediating institutions have broken down or vanished altogether. And so what does that leave us with? Two things: individuals and the state. There is no mediating social structure between the two. There is just me and you, and we both, as isolated individuals, stand before the state.

In Levin's words, this is the great "bifurcation of American life," an increased pull toward individualism on the one hand combined with an increased focus and reliance upon a centralized state. The middle institutions between individuals and the state have vanished.

Here's Levin (p. 89):
...the bifurcation of American life...[is caused by] a greater centralization of power in the federal government to accompany greater individualism in the culture and economy. Increasingly, society consists of individuals and a national state, while the mediating institutions--family, community, church, unions, and others--fade and falter...[We] find concentration at the ends and a growing vacuum in the middle.
I think this is a huge, huge insight. I'd like to unpack some implications, keeping my eye on my progressive Christian tribe.

That the middle, mediating structures have evaporated in America, leaving only individuals and the state, explains why our politics has become so polarized. When only individuals and the state exist all social action must, necessarily, be done by and through the state. The state has become the only game in town.

Individuals, by themselves, can't do much, and the only other actor on the stage is the state. Thus the inevitable conclusion: If we want to do anything to solve our social problems we have to get the state to do it.

And both liberals and conservatives are affected here. Conservatives desiring to conserve "American values" and the "American way of life" want the state to protect and preserve American culture. Liberals, by contrast, want the state to fix and address economic inequities.

Either way, the solution to what ails America is the state.

Which means that both liberals and conservatives find it necessary to take control of the state. And so we fight over that control. And it's this fight to take control of the state that has made our politics so polarized. As individuals we fight to take control of the state, trying to wrest control away from others. Politics becomes a winner-take-all cage match.

But let's return to Levin's point. The reason we are fighting over the state is because we have an impoverished social and political imagination. We fight over the state because the state is the only thing we can imagine effecting change in the world. As individuals we are too small. So in our imaginations the only thing capable of making a difference in the world is the state.

The trouble with this, as Levin points out, is that while the state is a good solution for many of the problems facing us, it's not so good for other things. A lot of stuff that is broken in our neighborhoods can't and won't be fixed by Congress passing new laws. Many of the problems we find in our local communities can only be addressed on a smaller and more relational scale.

I find myself in agreement with this analysis. As I noted in my posts about a progressive vision of the Benedict Option, one of the things that plagues progressive Christian visions of social action is statism, the belief that social action is primarily done by and through the state. Progressive Christian social action is almost wholly focused on the machinations of the US judiciary, legislature and presidency.

Progressive Christian social action often reduces to getting the state to do progressive things.

Speaking as a progressive, of course I think we should get the state to do progressive things. But the problem with statism is that it doesn't look very much like Jesus' vision of social action, which was a lot more local, relational and intimate. Consider how Jesus gives little political attention to the Roman state but massive amounts of personal attention to hurting people on the street.

Beyond Jesus, a related problem with statism is how it has no room for the church. If the state is the only actor who can get anything done in the world then the local church is irrelevant.

Let's conclude by revisiting the main insight.

The mediating social institutions that stood between individuals and the state have been vanishing in America, leaving the state as the only player on the field big enough to address our social ills. But while the state can help solve many of our problems, it can't solve all of our problems. Especially those problems where the systemic and the personal intersect and interact, from poverty to race relations to chemical dependency to social and familial breakdowns.

I understand that the state can do more or less harm. Like many progressives I'm worried about the next four years. But the state, to take one example, cannot solve our racial issues. During the next four years let us not forget that Ferguson, all the other police shootings and the rise of Black Lives Matter occurred during the Obama administration. Having a progressive in the Oval Office did not and will not solve our racial issues.

The political imagination of progressive Christians needs to expand beyond electoral politics.

And yet, for far too many Christians electoral politics is the only tool we focus on in order to fix our social problems. We lack the imagination for anything else.

And if all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.

The Fractured Republic: Part 1, Blinded By Nostalgia

Over the summer I read Yuval Levin's book The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism.

Levin is writing from a conservative perspective, but from what I'd heard about the thesis of the book I wanted to read it as that thesis resonated with me as a liberal Christian, what I was experiencing in my life on the streets of my town walking alongside the paroled, the homeless, the working poor, the mentally ill and the addicted. I'm increasingly disillusioned with the political insights coming from progressive Christians on Twitter and Facebook. And I've never been very impressed with the conservative insights.

Given what I'm looking at on the streets of my town, I'm searching for something more helpful, honest and realistic than what passes as political discourse on social media.

So I was intrigued by The Fractured Republic, wondering if it might point to some bridges that could connect liberal and conservative Christians when it comes to the issue of social engagement.

Toward that end, I'd like to share some of the analyses from The Fractured Republic along a few thoughts about how I think it points to some common ground that might be exploited by liberals and conservatives. Also, I wrote these posts last summer before the election, and reading them now I think they are even more important.

The major social diagnosis at the heart of The Fractured Republic is that over the last two generations America has experienced increasing fracture, diffusion, fragmentation, and liberalization. More and more we see ourselves as isolated individuals rather than as members of smaller communities. Some of the forces of this individualization are of concern to conservatives, like the breakdown of families, and some are of concern to liberals, like the breakdown of shared civic engagement. Some of the forces of fragmentation are cultural and some are economic. Regardless, we live in an age of individualism.

Now to be clear, this individualism is both a blessing and a curse. Autonomy and independence isn't all bad. We've arrived at this moment because we've desired it. And yet, this radical individualism creates some problems when we seek to address many of the social ills that confront us.

According to Levin, both the Right and the Left are hampered by nostalgia for the past, wanting to go back to an age where some sort of consolation balanced out the individualism and fracture of our time. The differences between the Right and Left are rooted in that they want to consolidate different things. The Right looks back nostalgically and seeks to recapture the cultural consolidation of the 1950s, when America broadly shared the same beliefs and values. The Left, by contrast, looks back nostalgically and seeks to recapture an economic consolidation, a time when American manufacturing reigned and unions were a strong and powerful political force.

[Post-election note. Reading this bit of Levin's analysis after the election it sounds less on point in the wake of Trump's victory, especially in the Rust Belt. There's been a lot of post-election discussion about if the Left has abandoned its traditional concern about class and labor issues to focus on identity politics. At the very least it happened in this election when the Democrats nominated Clinton over Sanders, whose socialistic concerns were more classically liberal. Trump, it seems, was better able to exploit the traditionally Democratic economic nostalgia for America's history of manufacturing in his attacks on globalization and trade. In this Trump was able to exploit both sorts of nostalgia, cultural and economic.]

Trapped by our nostalgia, cultural and economic, we struggle to face up to the reality that there will be no going back. Despite Trump's victory, American culture remains radically multicultural. There's no collective going back to the "Father Knows Best" 1950s.

In addition, there is no way to reverse the modern economic realities of globalization and decentralization. Despite Trump's promises to renegotiate trade deals or a Bernie Sanders-style socialism, we are not going to return to the golden age of American manufacturing.

In short, our politics is stymied because we keep looking backwards to some Golden Age. Both Left and Right have their own visions of this Golden Age. Regardless, both Left and Right offer solutions to current problems by turning toward the past.

But in the analysis of Levin, there is no going back. The cultural and economic ground has so shifted under the feet of both the Left and the Right that we need new solutions.

Here's how Levin describes the situation (pp. 92-93):
Our republic has become deeply fractured, and our politicians have struggled to pin the blame for this phenomenon somewhere without fully acknowledging its character. The Left see economic inequality as the root of all other forms of social fracturing, and argues therefore that a policy of more aggressive redistribution would not only help ease income inequality but also mitigate the political power of the wealthy, strengthen poor communities and families and create more opportunities as well...The Right sees cultural disintegration and polarization--marked by dysfunction at the bottom and reinforced by a loss of cultural self-confidence at the top--as the source of the persistence of entrenched poverty in America. Conservatives therefore argue that social policy must focus on family and community, and worry that the Left's misguided, if not opportunistic, efforts to address entrenched poverty through greater economic redistribution can only make things worse by hampering the economy, distorting the personal choices of the disadvantaged with perverse incentives, and exacerbating dependency.

In the effort to avoid the (rather obvious) conclusion that cultural and economic factors are inseparable, liberals and conservatives tend to exaggerate the implications of their favored explanation...

Our debates about whether culture or economics ultimately matters most keeps us from seeing what kind of action might be plausible. These debates often implicitly revolve around the question of whether we should attempt a reversal of the profound diffusion and decentralization of the past half-century and more in the economic sphere (as the Left would prefer) or the social sphere (as the Right would like), when the fact is that we stand little chance of any wholesale reversal in either realm. This leaves us a politics of dual denial: in any given policy debate, one party (be it Republican on cultural matters or Democrats in economics) denies the fact that the diffusion in our society is a dominant and essentially irreversible fact about contemporary America, while the the other party denies that this fact entails some very significant problems.

This pattern suggests a broad and deep failure of self-understanding--and perhaps, above all, a failure to grasp precisely the social, cultural, economic, and political dynamics of America's postwar evolution. It is a failure that has much to do with the blinding nostalgia...[a nostalgia] that has shaped and sharpened the unease and disorientation of twenty-first-century America. This is where a half-century and more of fragmentation and fracture, or liberalization and diffusion, has left us.
On both the Left and the Right, the new wine calls for new wineskins.

First Sunday of Advent



"Exile"

The faces of the old men
glow orange in the brazier's light,
seeing through time
with white milky cataract eyes.
The camels snort somewhere in the dark.
Huddled against the desert cold
they tell us the stories.
One Story, really.
A hope, now tenuous and dim,
rendered more fragile with the tellings,
like the glowing cinders rising
and taken by the wind
into the dark beyond seeing.
Of a king
who would come.
Of a God
who had not forgotten us.

Personal Days: Poems for Jana

Wednesday was Jana's birthday. And as is our tradition, I gave her a poem.

I've been doing that for over twenty-five years. Jana has lots of poems!

I've been writing poetry since High School. I'm not the best poet, but I like to write it. And from time to time I post some of my poems here. In fact, on Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, I'm posting a poem.

I've been writing poems for Jana for a long time, starting when we were dating. And the tradition has been that, instead of a card, I give Jana a poem on her birthday, our anniversary, Valentine's Day and Mother's Day.

Like I said, Jana has a lot of poems.

Thanksgiving Is the Liturgy of Christian Living

I thought it worth revisiting this post from last Thanksgiving about gratitude:

Gratitude is an important theme in my book The Slavery of Death. As I argue it, when life is treated as a possession that can be taken from us, damaged or lost our lives become infused with fear causing us to cling, protect, hoard, defend and aggress.

The antidote to this fear is gratitude, viewing life--the whole of life--not as a possession to be defended but as a gift to be shared.

Treating the whole of life as gift has become an important spiritual insight for me. Consequently, I was struck by Peter Leithart's commentary on 1 Timothy 4.4-5 in his book Gratitude.

The text:
1 Timothy 4.4-5
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
This seems like a pretty bland and straightforward text. Be thankful. Got it.

But there is an idea at the heart of this text that is very profound if you let the implications sink in. And the idea is this:

Gratitude sanctifies the world. Gratitude makes the world holy.

Nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thankfulness, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

Think about that. Think of everything you possess, everything that is yours in life. How can we live with these things in a way that doesn't entangle us? In a way that isn't sinful?

Receive them as gifts. When we handle the things of the world as gifts they become holy, consecrated and sanctified. Gratitude--thankfulness--marks the boundary between the sacred and the profane.

Ponder that. Thankfulness marks the boundary between the sacred and the profane.

In the Slavery of Death I argue that gratitude accomplishes this because the object in question--which includes not just possessions but also things like your time, attention, status and your very life--is relocated in the mind by thankfulness, making us able to "lose" and "let go" of the object as we live for and share with others. Thankfulness sanctifies the world because thankfulness creates the capacity to use things--by letting them go or sharing them--in holy ways.

Here is Peter's commentary from Gratitude about this text, linking thankfulness with the priestly use of the world:
[This is the logic behind] Paul's claim that everything is "sanctified" by thanksgiving. Since all things are good and all are to be received with thanks, all things are gifts from the Creator. By giving thanks for all that comes to hand, the Christian correctly identifies the character of created things as created gifts. For Paul, thanksgiving has a performative effect on the things received. Receiving God's gifts with thanks does not merely identify them as gifts but also sanctifies them, consecrates them as holy things. The world is sanctified, made holy, through thanks. To say that created things are "made holy" by thanks is to say that created things, already God's by virtue of creation, become specifically his possession by the prayers of the people. Given Paul's regular identification of believers as "holy ones" the logic seems to be this: Christians are holy ones, indwelt and anointed by the sanctifying Spirit of Jesus, priests to God and to Christ. As such, they ought only to touch, eat and use holy things. If they receive any thing that is is impure, their priesthood will be defiled by it. Purity and holiness "taboos" continue to operate in the New Testament. Holy people must have holy things. But for Paul no elaborate rite of sanctification is required: only the giving of thanks. Once consecrated by thanks, a thing may only be used for God's purposes. Holy food could be only eaten by priests in the Old Testament, holy implements could only be used in the sanctuary, holy incense could be used only on the altar. If Christians consecrate whatever they receive by thanks, they are not only claiming it as God's own but also obligating themselves to use it in a particular way, to use it with thanks. Thanksgiving is thus the liturgy of Christian living. It is the continuous sacrifice that Christians offer. Gratitude to God is the continuous sanctification of the world.

More on How to Overcome Prejudice and Discrimination According to the Early Church

In yesterday's post I mentioned that you could argue that racial and ethnic divisions were the Number One problem facing the early church.

Seems like some things never change.

Consider, as another example, the very first dispute among the early followers of Jesus:
Acts 6.1
Now in those days, when the disciples were growing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the native Hebraic Jews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 
There it is, the very first dispute within the early church was ethnic in origin.

The native Hebraic Jews had lived their whole lives in Palestine and still spoke Hebrew. These were the ethnically "pure" and "true" Jews. The Greek-speaking Jews had lived abroad and spoke Greek rather than Hebrew. These Jews had been ethnically "assimilated."

And across that social line, a dispute arose over ethic discrimination: The widows among the Greek-speaking Jews were being ignored.

There it is, right at the start of the story, prejudice and discrimination dividing the church.

And so the Greek-speaking brothers and sisters do what Paul did with Peter in Galatians 2, they confronted the prejudice and discrimination in their midst so that the kingdom could come on earth as it is in heaven. And the church responded to eliminate the discrimination taking place in their midst.

Two observations.

First, racial and ethnic divisions plagued the early church. The story unfolding in Acts and in Paul's Epistles is the story of how the church confronted and dealt with those divisions. So in the wake of this election season let's pay attention to what they were doing and how they did it.

Second, going back to my recent post on this subject, the sphere of action in these stories is the local church. These racial and ethnic divisions were being dealt with within the church, within the intimate sphere of face to face relationships among people committed to confessing Jesus as Lord of all.

The actions to "make the kingdom come on earth" in the Jesus' ministry and in the early church were not electoral and political but relational and intimate. And yet these were the actions that turned the world upside down.

How to Overcome Racism According to the Early Church

We've been talking a lot about race on our campus. As a part of all the many ongoing conversations I was asked in a chapel setting to talk about how we can address the racial tensions on our campus, and everywhere else in America.

During that chapel a female African American student asked me, "Is there anything we can do to heal these divisions, other than to pray? What can we do to bring people together?"

In response I brought up the example I wrote about last week.

You could argue that racism was the Number One problem facing the early church. For example, as I wrote about last week, in Galatians 2 we are told about how Peter, pressured or shamed by fellow Jews, stopped eating with Gentile Christians. Racism was dividing the church. So Paul confronts Peter's racism, calling Peter back table fellowship.

So that's how I answered the student's question. One thing we can do to heal our racial divisions is to do what Paul was urging Peter to do: break bread with people from different races.

Following the example of Jesus, table fellowship was how the early church overcame her racial divisions.

Breaking bread together was how the gospel ideal of "neither Jew, nor Gentile" was put into practice and made a concrete reality.   

America's Holocaust

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to lead our Study Abroad experience in Germany. During that time in Germany I was impressed with how the German people had and were continuing to reckon with their great national shame: the Holocaust.

Right in the middle of their capital city, Berlin, we spent powerful hours experiencing their Holocaust memorial, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. In that same city we also experienced the Topography of Terror museum. Outside of Weimar, German tour guides led us through the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Displaying the Nazi flag and giving the "Heil Hitler" salute are illegal in Germany.

Wherever we went in Germany we saw evidence that a national reckoning with the Holocaust had been and is being attempted.

I thought of the German ban of the Nazi flag recently when a truck in a car show here in town was proudly flying the Confederate flag as it drove past.

No one blinked or winced. People cheered and applauded.

And the question came to me, "Why don't Americans see the Confederate flag the same way the Germans view the Nazi flag?"

The answer that came to me was this: America has never reckoned with its Holocaust.

Ponder this. In the middle of Berlin there is a massive memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Where in Washington DC is a memorial to the lives lost in the Middle Passage?

When do Americans, collectively and culturally, reckon with their guilt in the slave trade?

What happened on those slave ships and on American soil was as horrific as what happened in the Nazi concentration camps. But has the US reckoned with that legacy the same way Germany has reckoned with its Holocaust?

For example, have you ever seen or visited a Holocaust memorial in the US? Many of us have. There are numerous Holocaust memorials in the US. Almost every major US city has one.

By comparison, have you ever seen or visited a memorial to the Transatlantic slave trade?

We Americans do better mourning Nazi sins than we do facing and grieving our own.

In 2015 the Permanent Memorial to Honour the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade was unveiled on the grounds of the United Nations. That such a memorial was just erected in 2015 is stunning. That the memorial was erected by the United Nations and not the United States goes to my point.

True, you can see exhibits about the slave trade in our civil rights museums and you can experience slavery themed tours at historical sites like Monticello. But such experiences only go to reinforce the fact that America has not morally reckoned with the slave trade the way Germany has reckoned with the Holocaust.

In our museums the ugly legacy of slavery is routinely connected to exhibits of civil rights progress, from the Middle Passage to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Such a narrative is morally consoling. These dark evil things are in the past. We've made progress. Let's move forward.

For example, in the national mall in Washington there is a memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights hero. We want pride rather than guilt. We memorialize racial struggle with a heroic symbol of progress. In moral contrast to Germany, there is no memorial in our national mall remembering the lives lost during the slave trade and during America's years of slavery.

America has a Holocaust. And truth be told, America has two Holocausts: Slavery and the genocide of the Native Americans.

And yet, America has never morally reckoned with either slavery or the genocide of Native Americas as Holocausts. The Confederate flag is not moralized in America the way Germans see the swastika.

And this, I would argue, is the single biggest reason America has not been able to adequately address the racial problems plaguing our nation. Because there has never been a formal and culturally sustained moral reckoning with the American Holocausts we are always starting the conversation about race from two different moral locations. African Americans and Native Americans begin with the experience of Holocaust and expect us to engage this conversation with the moral, spiritual, political, and economic seriousness a Holocaust deserves.

The rest of us? We are the Holocaust deniers.

And from those two moral locations we cannot find our way back to each other. The moral chasm is too wide.

When that Confederate flag goes by in a parade, our African American friends and neighbors see that flag as the symbol of America's Holocaust. The hulls of slave ships were the American concentration camps, the Auschwitz and Buchenwald of the Middle Passage.

The rest of us cheer and applaud the Confederate flag as a symbol of "Southern pride."

That is what separates us, at the deepest level.

The Holocaust and its deniers.

Personal Days: See You at AAR/SBL!

If you are going to be attending the annual American Academy of Religion (AAR) and Society Biblical Literature (SBL) conference in San Antonio this weekend, look for me at the Fortress Press display in the book area on Sunday at 3:30. I'll be there for a book signing for Reviving Old Scratch.

Tripp Fuller will also be there signing his recent book The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic Or Awesome?, a part of the Homebrewed Christianity Guide series that is starting to roll out.

The Kingdom Comes When You Get In My Face

The day after the election I wrote about Jesus' kingdom proclamation, how Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God was available, even in the midst of a colonial occupation, even while Caesar sat on the throne.

In the post I pondered the shock of that proclamation, how we still find it incomprehensible.

How is the kingdom of God in our midst during the Donald Trump administration?

What I don't think Jesus meant is what we heard a lot of after the election, that no matter who is President "God is on the throne."

That claim--"God is on the throne"--is sort of true and sort of not true. It's true in the sense that God is sovereign. But it's not true in the sense that the kingdoms of the world are still in rebellion, still actively or passively resisting the rule of God. Although the kingdom is present and advancing, Satan is still the "god of this world" (2 Cor. 4.4).

So we need some clarity on this point as the claim that "God is on the throne" often misses the fact that a great cosmic battle, a struggle that encompasses both the moral and the political domains, is currently ongoing. The statement "God is on the throne" can be taken as a call to passivity and resignation while a battle is raging.

But if the call to make "the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven" is a call to action, revolt and resistance in the face of the ongoing rebellion of "the principalities and powers," how could Jesus have proclaimed that the kingdom was available in his midst?

The kingdom of God was available in Jesus' midst because, there, within the sphere of his relations, the reign of God was a lived reality. And that same kingdom is available to us, at all times and places. The kingdom of God is a live potential, available, right here and right now.

But we have to be clear about something. The kingdom of God isn't an existential balm, a call to relax because "God is on the throne." The kingdom of God is about the rule and reign of God--justice, peace and righteousness--in our midst.

For God to be "on the throne" in our midst means submission and obedience to God's rule. Otherwise the claim that "God is on the throne" becomes meaningless, and worse than meaningless, a sentimental platitude that narcotizes us in the face of a broken world.

For "God to be on the throne" in our midst requires a rearrangement of our lives and social sphere. That was Jesus' message: Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.

God's rule reigns in our midst when, in the words of Mary's Magnificat, we have lifted up the humble, sent the rich away empty and filled the hungry with good things. That is what happened in Jesus' presence, that is how the kingdom of God was "at hand." When these social reshufflings occur in our midst that is how we know "God is on the throne." 

This is, obviously, a far, far cry from resignation and passivity. But the scope and sphere of the kingdom has shifted, and I think this is key to Jesus' political imagination. The kingdom comes in our midst in the intimate and relational sphere of the friends gathered to confess "Jesus is Lord" and to enact this kingdom in their sphere of relationships. This is the vision we see in Acts 2 and Acts 4, what the kingdom looks like "in our midst." The kingdom of God, to borrow a famous phrase, is a new world within the shell of the old, even within the shell of a Donald Trump administration. The reign of God is planted as a mustard seed. We see that seed planted in Acts 2 and 4, a seed that grew to the point it threw town after town into civic chaos, the kingdom "turning the world upside down" (Acts 17.6). Satan knocked off his throne.

The political imagination of the kingdom is "think globally, act locally" within the sphere of human relationships. All the social, political and economic problems at work in the world are addressed and rehabilitated within the church where the kingdom of God rules "in our midst."

And to be very, very clear, making the rule of God come in our midst is a hard labor. It is active, energized and often confrontational.

Consider how the kingdom of God comes in the midst of the church at Antioch through Paul's face to face opposition of Peter:
Galatians 2.11-12
When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 
There were many dimensions to this conflict, but one of the dimensions was racial and ethnic. Peter, a Jew, had withdrawn fellowship from Gentiles. And with that separation the kingdom of God evaporated, the rule of God was no longer enjoyed "in their midst."

So Paul takes decisive action. Paul opposes Peter to his face. And Paul does this--wait for it, wait for it--to make the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

That is the sort of hard and intimate work that we are called to do to make the kingdom come. The claim that "God is on the throne" makes demands of us. The kingdom demanded something of Peter--overcoming his racism--and he failed to comply. The kingdom demanded something of Paul--opposing Peter to his face--and Paul did that hard, relational work.

The kingdom commanded racial reconciliation in their midst, "neither Jew nor Gentile." The kingdom came when Paul opposed Peter and demanded that the church make that command a reality, right then and right there.

But again, notice the sphere of action. The kingdom comes not by voting or marching, but by insisting upon obedience to the rule of God in our midst, even if that means that you have to get in my face.

So beware when you say "God is on the throne." That's a call to action, sometimes to interpersonal confrontation.

The kingdom of God is at hand. Let us repent and believe the good news.

And if I don't, brothers and sisters, please get in my face.

UnClobber

My good friend Colby Martin, pastor of Sojourn Grace Collective in San Diego, just released his first book UnClobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality.

To pique your interest, Colby is letting me post an excerpt from UnClobber, the story that starts Chapter 1 of the book:
Excerpt from UnClobber Chapter 1

As all good stories do, mine begins in a lesbian’s hot tub.

Carol was short, fit, and sported a high and tight haircut. No matter when I saw her she was dressed in shorts, a polo shirt, and white sneakers. Carol lived across the street from me growing up, and I knew two facts about her: she was a lesbian, and she owned the block’s only hot tub.

I was probably eight or nine years old when my mom told me and my two brothers that our neighbor was gay. My mom knew this because Carol had been her PE teacher back in high school, and though I couldn’t have appreciated how unusual it was at the time, Carol lived out of the closet in our small town of Albany, Oregon since as long as my mom could remember.

And I knew she had a hot tub because I could see it through the fence on my route when I delivered newspapers around the neighborhood. Carol subscribed to the Democrat Herald, so I interacted with her from time to time as I tossed a paper on her porch or collected her monthly payment.

Even though I was raised in a conservative Baptist home, with a dad who descended from a long line of Baptists, I think it was because my mom was a first-generation Christian that I never got the sense that Carol was anything other than, well, a retired gym teacher who read the paper. You see, while I remember my mom informing the three of us about her former kickball instructor, I don’t recall her layering it with negative associations. Sure, Mom taught us that homosexuality was a “sin in the eyes of the Lord,” but I think she missed the Sunday school series on homosexuality at First Baptist Church, because she never spoke a word of judgment or condemnation against Carol beyond that. Plus, to the excitement of this particular pre-teen paper boy, she said yes when Carol asked if my brothers and I wanted to swim in her hot tub. I’d never been in a hot tub before, and I wasn’t about to let the sinful lifestyle of one of my longtime customers keep me out of the water.

Three things stand out to me about my first time in a hot tub, which also coincided with my first time in the home of someone who wasn’t straight. First, the iced tea wasn’t very good. I’m pretty sure it was unsweetened Lipton. (No offense, Carol, but this is not the drink of choice for young boys). Second, her hot tub didn’t have any fancy lights, and the jets didn’t work. So it amounted to an oversized bath for me and my brothers, a bit of a letdown for my first time. It took me years to buy into the allure of a Jacuzzi. Finally, thinking back on that afternoon, what stands out the most about Carol-the-lesbian and her backyard hot tub was how, well, normal she was. She might have been a sinner, but she sure was a nice sinner.

Seeds were planted in my heart that afternoon in the piping hot (if sadly motionless) waters of Carol’s tub. I wouldn’t come to appreciate that moment until years later, nor would I be aware of the seeds’ presence in my heart. But in the pages that follow I want to tell you the story of how I discovered that both following the beliefs of my head and trusting the convictions of my heart do not have to be mutually exclusive endeavors.

In fact, I believe that the spiritual journey might very well involve the process of aligning these two realities...
You can order UnClobber at Amazon.

For more about the book visit its website. And go here for more about Colby.

Preterism and the Gospels: Part 8, Eschatology Revisited

Let's go back to the claim I made in Part 1 of this series, the issue that prompted this series of posts.

Many have claimed that transcendence--believing in God--is inherently problematic. Consequently, the best sort of Christianity is a sort of religionless, death-of-god Christianity where the only healthy way to be a Christian is to be a follower of Jesus who doesn't really believe in God.

In this argument all transcendence--belief in God--is bad transcendence--unhealthy, infantile, or prone toward violence. I'm very familiar with transcendence of this type having published a lot of research investigating these psychological dynamics and also having written a book about it.

And yet, as I once discussed with my friend Luke Norsworthy on his podcast, there are numerous cases of good transcendence. There are tons of examples where belief in God has had a humanizing effect upon people. In fact, I'd argue that this is the default situation with most religious believers. Not to say that faith makes people saints, just that, on the average, people find that their faith makes them better than what they might have been otherwise.

To be sure, there might have been other routes toward this betterment--a good self-help book, some meditation, a season in therapy perhaps--but still, faith has, by and large, made people better. Not better than others, but better.

So the issue is less about faith per se than why faith might, in some cases, go wrong, and horribly, horribly wrong at that.

What are the ingredients of bad transcendence?

As I argued it in Part 1 of this series, I think the number one ingredient that produces bad transcendence is bad eschatology, especially a hellfire and brimstone eschatology where God sorts the saints from the damned at the End of Time.

If that's true, if a hellfire and brimstone eschatology promotes bad transcendence, then we'd be keen to explore readings of Scripture that worked against bad eschatology.

And one of those readings of Scripture, I've been arguing, is a preterist reading of the Gospels.

This reading of the gospels has, by and large, been an odd and marginal part of my faith tradition. But this reading is becoming more and more mainstream, and you now regularly see it in the work of scholars like N.T. Wright.

Here's how the preterist reading improves upon the bad eschatology traditionally extracted from the Gospels.

First, according to the preterist reading all of Jesus' teaching about punishment and judgment--from the outer darkness to the fiery furnace to that place of weeping and gnashing of teeth--is pointed to an event within history. Judgment and "hell" are historical rather than metaphysical, this-worldly rather than other-worldly. Hell isn't a supernatural punishment inflicted upon disembodied souls. Hell is a reality in this world that affects us as we live day to day.

Second, according to the preterist reading this hell-on-earth isn't a product of divine wrath. Hell is a self-inflicted wound. A freely chosen path toward self-destruction. As Jesus declares in the gospel of Luke, when we do not "learn the things that make for peace" we walk ourselves toward annihilation. In the gospels, by opting for violence over peace Israel brought about her own destruction.

All this overcomes the bad eschatology where God punishes the souls of the damned at Judgment Day by throwing them into hell to burn forever. Jesus never taught or envisioned such a thing. We can, rather, turn our attention to the hell Jesus was concerned and warned about.

We can learn the things that make for peace. We can turn our backs on the suicidal and self-destructive thrall of Satan.

We can repent and believe the good news that the kingdom of God is in our midst.

Preterism and the Gospels: Part 7, Prophet of Love and Peace and Prophet of Apocalyptic Doom

I've been taking us through a preterist reading of the gospels, keen to trace out the eschatological imagination of Jesus.

Why?

I've mentioned how liberal and conservative Christians tend to pick and choose their way around Jesus. Liberals thrill to Jesus' message of love and care for the "least of these." Conservatives, by contrast, point out that Jesus liked to preach about hellfire and brimstone.

Two Jesuses, pick your flavor.

Our preterist reading of the gospels helps us overcome this liberal/conservative divide.

Specifically, as we've seen, Jesus was preaching both messages.

On the one hand, Jesus was preaching the advent of the kingdom, but an "upside down" kingdom that eschewed the "will to power" that was motivating the violent impulse to overthrow the Romans. The kingdom, Jesus said, was already available, but in humble and small ways. The kingdom comes when we welcome children, care for the least of these, forgive each other and bless our enemies. This is how the reign of God is established on earth. And this is the material that liberals tend to focus on in the gospels.

And yet, this kingdom proclamation was being proclaimed by Jesus at a time of crisis. If Israel heeded Jesus' message it would be spared and saved. Israel would fulfill her vocation, to be a light and blessing unto the nations, a city set on a hill that would call the nations to Zion and the worship of God. But if Israel rejected its vocation and persisted in its "will to power" it remained under the thrall of Satan and would only bring bloodshed, darkness and violence to earth. Israel would self-destruct.

And so Jesus sounded the alarm and gave dire warnings. These warnings grew in intensity and urgency as opposition to Jesus mounted, culminating in Jesus' lamentation over Jerusalem in the last days of his life.

This is the material of judgment that threads all through the gospels, the material conservatives grab to point out that Jesus routinely talked about a place called "hell" where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

But with our preterist reading of the gospels we see this material regarding judgment in a different light. The "Judgment Day" Israel was facing wasn't some personal moral accounting that individuals have to face after death to determine if they are bound for an eternity in a place called heaven or hell.

Israel's "Judgment Day" was today, the moment of choice upon hearing Jesus' gospel message. Salvation and the kingdom of God was available today, right here and right now, in our midst. Repent and believe the good news, or face the dark and dire consequences.

That was John the Baptist's message. And that was Jesus' message.

All this is neatly summarized in the gospel of Luke in Jesus' lamentation over Jerusalem:
Luke 19.41-44
And when Jesus drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
Jesus was Israel's judgment day, the time of her visitation. As promised by the prophets, YHWH had returned as the Good Shepherd to gather up the lost and scattered sheep of Israel. The Sower was sowing His seed and some of that seed was falling on good soil. The prodigal sons in the far country, the tax collectors and prostitutes, were returning home. As promised by the prophets, the glory of YHWH had returned to tabernacle among His people. From Cana onward, the wine of the wedding banquet was beginning to flow. The kingdom of God had come.

But Israel refused to learn the things that make for peace. And in refusing peace Israel would now face enemies who would tear the nation down.

That was the choice, and it remains the choice.

Learn the things that make for peace or walk the path toward cataclysm.

This is how you avoid the liberal/conservative picking and choosing to appreciate the whole of Jesus' message.

Jesus was both/and, prophet of love and peace and prophet of apocalyptic doom.

Personal Days: ACU Faculty Lip Sync Battle

Last year the Honors College, taking a cue from Jimmy Fallon, asked some faculty to participate in a lip sync battle for charity. That promo is pictured here.

It was a great success. My songs where "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees and "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns-n-Roses.

It was such a success last year that last night we did it again, inviting more faculty and staff to participate. My song this year was "Welcome to the Black Parade" by My Chemical Romance.

But alas, I did not win. The competition was fierce! Congratulations to Ryan Bowman and his amazing backup dancers for their winning performance of "Bright Lights Bigger City" by CeeLo Green.

I think ACU has a new tradition on its hands!

Preterism and the Gospels: Part 6, The Sign of His Coming and the End of the Age

At the start of the gospels Jesus picks up the message of John the Baptist, "Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand." Following John, as this message was increasingly rejected throughout Israel, the correlated theme of judgment--a Great Winnowing--began to show up in Jesus' teachings, warnings and parables.

By refusing Jesus' kingdom invitation, Israel was keeping with its suicidal collision course with Rome. Jesus saw the coming conflagration and warned that unless Israel turned back there would be hell to pay within that generation. Jesus' message of judgment, the second coming of the Son of Man and the end of the age wasn't about some future heaven or hell. All of it--judgment, second coming and the end of the age--was happening within history, within the generation of those who listened, firsthand, to Jesus' warning.

This dire note of warning in Jesus' message picks up steam through the gospels and culminates in Jesus' final response during Passion Week. In the Olivet Discourse from the three synoptic gospels--Mark 13, Matthew 24 and Luke 21--Jesus brings his prophetic warnings to their full and final explication as Jesus' teachings regarding final judgment, the second coming and the end of the age are tied to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

That Jesus was speaking about the destruction of Jerusalem is clear at the very start of the Olivet Discourse.  Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem in the final days of his ministry. Jesus' disciples point out the beauty of the temple buildings and Jesus gives his prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple:
Matthew 24.1-2
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” 
So it is clear that the event being prophesied in the Olivet Discourse are the events of AD 70, the destruction of the temple.

Hearing this the disciples ask a question about the timing of Jesus' "second coming" and the "end of the age":
Matthew 24.3
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
The association here is the one we've been tracking throughout the gospels. In the gospels the "second coming" and the "end of the age" occur during the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

If there is any doubt about that Jesus makes it clear later in the discourse:
Matthew 24.30-31
“Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other."
The coming of the Son of Man will occur with the destruction of Jerusalem, the historical event the Olivet Discourse is predicting.

So if that's the second coming, what about the day of final judgment?

In the Olivet Discourse Jesus also connects final judgment to the events in 70 AD:
Luke 21.20-22
“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.
In short, throughout the gospels when Jesus talks about judgment at the end of the age, about people being tossed into an "outer darkness" where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth," Jesus is talking about an imminent historical calamity. Jesus never describes "hell" as Christians tend to think about it.

As the Olivet Discourse makes very plain, the destruction of Jerusalem--"When you see Jerusalem surrounded by enemies"--will be "the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written."

The "time of punishment" spoken of by Jesus throughout the gospels isn't a "hell" at some far future Judgment Day. The "time of punishment" was an event in history, an event prophesied by Jesus before his death.

In sum, Jesus' eschatological imagination--all his talk about judgment, a second coming and the end of the age--was focused upon the concrete social, political and religious matrix of his time and place. Jesus' futurist prophesies were tied to imminent historical events, events he tied directly to the destruction of Jerusalem.

Here's how N.T. Wright sums it up in his book Simply Good News:
Jesus spoke of certain things that were to happen "within a generation." Many modern scholars have supposed that he was talking about "the end of the world," and that he was wrong. But, in those famous passages in the Gospels, Jesus is talking not about the end of the world but about the fall of Jerusalem...And of course Jerusalem did indeed fall to the Romans about forty years after the end of Jesus's public career...

Jesus continually warned his fellow countrymen that if they didn't follow where he was leading, the result would be disaster. He used quite lurid language for these warnings. Even so, the message didn't really get through. He wasn't saying what they wanted him to say. But a lot of those warnings, taken out of context and interpreted through the lens of much later medieval beliefs, made it sound as though Jesus was warning people not that their city and nation would be destroyed but that they were going to hell. "Unless you repent," he says twice in the early paragraphs of Luke 13, "you will all be destroyed in the same way." Read that in the fifteenth century, and it's obvious what it means: unless you give up your sins, you will be thrown into hell for all eternity. Read it in the first century and a very different meaning should be equally obvious: unless you turn from your crazy path of nationalist rebellion against Rome, Rome will come and do to you what it has done to everyone who stands in its path. Jesus's contemporaries took no notice. The warnings came true.
The end of the age, the second coming of the Son of Man, the final judgment where people are thown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

According to Jesus, all these things have already happened.

The Kingdom of God, November 9, 2016

I don't know if words are in order today, but I wanted to write some.

(And these reflections do fit with my series on preterism and the gospels. Today's post in that series is below.)

Here are some thoughts for November 9, 2016.

When Jesus went back to his hometown of Nazareth to inaugurate his ministry he entered the synagogue and took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He found and then read these words aloud:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
Jesus then sat down and said something utterly shocking:
“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Fulfilled in your hearing? Fulfilled?

The Roman empire was still in charge. Caesar still sat on his throne. As did Herod.

And yet, Jesus declared that the "Nazareth Manifesto" was a live reality, available right then and there, even in the midst of Imperial Rome. The Scripture had been fulfilled in the midst of horrific colonial oppression and occupation.

Jesus didn't set before his hometown a political agenda, a party platform, a get out the vote plan, or a petition and list of demands for Rome. The vision of Isaiah, said Jesus, wasn't something that needed to be accomplished, through revolution or electoral politics. The kingdom already existed.

A few weeks ago I told a group of ACU students in a chapel setting that our anxiety over this election, and today over its results, is directly proportional to our idolatry. By that I mean that I don't think we believe what Jesus preached in Nazareth that day. We remain just as shocked and disbelieving as Jesus' hometown was.

We are convinced that it's up to us to make the kingdom come. That's the idolatry, that it's up to us and our political efforts. That it's up to America, and our political party specifically, to make Jesus' dream come true. But Jesus said, the kingdom is already here, here in the midst of Caesar's and Donald Trump's administration.

Jesus lived for thirty-three years under Rome. God was with us as Caesar sat on the throne.

Yesterday, we thought it was up to us to make the kingdom come. And we are sad and angry because we believe we failed. 

But it never was or is up to us.

The kingdom of God is as here today as it was yesterday.

But like Nazareth, we just don't believe it.

Preterism and the Gospels: Part 5, All These Things Will Come Upon This Generation

Preterism is the view that all biblical prophecy was wrapped up and fulfilled by 70 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem. In these posts I'm focusing upon Jesus' eschatological imagination as it's presented in the gospels.

A preterist reading of the gospels argues that everything Jesus said about coming judgment had nothing to do with heaven or hell but everything to do with an imminent historical catastrophe about to take place if Israel did not repent and believe Jesus' good news, that the kingdom of God did not have to be taken violently but was, rather, already in the midst of them, hidden, yes, but growing like a mustard seed.

There is no clearer way to illustrate this point than to trace how Jesus' proclamation of judgment, along with the coming of the Son of Man, was to happen within the generation of those who listened to Jesus' message.

Again, recall how Jesus' kingdom proclamation was that the kingdom was "at hand." And how the advent of the kingdom, with its call for repentance, was bringing a moment of decision to Israel, a choice that John the Baptist described as a "winnowing," a separation between the wheat and the chaff.

For example, in Matthew 10 Jesus commissions his disciples to take the message about the arrival of the kingdom to the towns of Israel (10.7): "And proclaim as you go, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.'"

Accompanying this message was the correlated warning about judgment (10.14-15): "And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town."

That day of judgment isn't at the end of time, but an impending historical calamity. Jesus goes on to describe the persecution his preachers will face, and he time-stamps the entire experience (10.23):  "When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes."

The Son of Man coming and corresponding day of judgment was expected to happen within the lifespan of disciples being commissioned. In fact, the proclamation in Israel won't have been completed before the coming of the Son of Man. So they better hurry--"Flee to the next town!"--because the clock was ticking.

If there is any ambiguity about this, the Son of Man coming within the generation, it is cleared up a few chapters later in Matthew (and see also the parallel texts Mark 8.38-9.1 and Luke 9.26-27):
Matthew 16.27-28
"For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
The coming kingdom, the judgment associated with the Day of the Lord, and the Son of Man coming with his angels would all happen within that generation. People alive to hear Jesus' preaching would be around to see it all happen.

And just so there is no mistake about this, Jesus returns to the point in Matthew 23 (see also Luke 11 and 13) as he pronounces judgment upon the religious leaders of Israel.
Matthew 23.34-36
"Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation."
All these things would come upon that generation. The time of crisis was at hand, the message of repentance had been proclaimed but was being rejected. So Jesus weeps (Matthew 23.36-39):
"Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate.

"For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
That generation would see the Son of Man returning, but by that point it would be too late.

Preterism and the Gospels: Part 4, The Great Winnowing

We like to think of Jesus exclusively preaching a message of love, grace and peace. But such a reading of Jesus ignores the message of judgment that accompanied his kingdom proclamation.

By and large, Jesus has been bifurcated. Liberal Christians tend to latch on to Jesus' message of love and mercy. Conservative Christians tend to latch on to Jesus' message of judgment.

This division is inevitable as liberal and conservative Christians are working with incompatible eschatological visions--love wins versus eternal conscious torment--which are imported back onto Jesus. This forces you to pick and choose material from Jesus that supports your eschatological vision. Thus, two Jesuses emerge from the pages of the gospels, one liberal and one conservative.

And it's here where I think preterism is helpful. Both liberals and conservatives read Jesus as talking about a future place called "heaven" or "hell" when Jesus was actually talking about an imminent event that would happen within history. Consider the following text:
Matthew 7.13-14
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few."
Most of us instinctively read this text as being about heaven and hell, a reward or punishment at some far future date at the end of the world. But according to a preterist reading, the "destruction" being spoken of here was both imminent and historical. And throughout Jesus' entire ministry he was warning about this event.

As prophesied by John the Baptist, Jesus would sift Israel, a great winnowing that would separate the chaff from the wheat. The Great Winnowing runs all through Jesus' teachings. We saw it above in the Sermon on the Mount: "Enter by the narrow gate for broad is the way the leads to destruction."

Israel faced a fork in the road, a choice that would create a separation. The Great Winnowing.

The Great Winnowing sits at the heart of Jesus' parables. One example:
Matthew 13.47-50
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Read the three parables in Matthew 25, the Parable of the Ten Virgins, the Parable of the Talents and the Parable of the Goats and Sheep. Each one is a parable about a coming separation and judgment.

Again, you can't do justice to Jesus without attending to the Great Winnowing theme that runs through his kingdom message. Just as John the Baptist predicted, Jesus was bringing a fire to earth that would separate Israel:
Luke 12.49-56
 “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"
Note again how in this text that the coming fire, the Great Winnowing that "brings division," isn't the fire of a future hell. The fire Jesus is predicting is one that is coming soon, in the "present time."

Jesus' audience is told to wake up and read the signs of the times. Judgment is imminent.

Okay, here's how all this helps us overcome the liberal vs. conservative reading of Jesus.

Again, according to a preterist reading of the gospels the fiery Day of the Lord prophesied by both John the Baptist and Jesus was the violent path of self-destruction Israel was pursuing in seeking the overthrow of the Romans. Israel was seeking to make the kingdom of God come through violence and political domination.

Jesus rejected that path and declared that the kingdom of God had already come, was already available. The kingdom, where peace and mercy ruled and where swords were beaten into plowshares, was at hand. The kingdom of God is in our midst. So repent and believe this good news.

In light of this gospel proclamation, Israel was faced with a choice. (We are still faced with this choice.) Heed Jesus' message or continue on the path of self-destruction. This is the Great Winnowing.

The reason Jesus' message seems so mixed--love and grace mixed with fire and judgment--is that Jesus' kingdom proclamation was being preached at a time of crisis. Israel was driving itself off the cliff. Seeing this, and standing in the shadow of the Hebrew prophets, both John the Baptist and Jesus raised the alarm.

The grace, peace and love of the kingdom was available, right now, as the salvation of both Israel and the world. The storm clouds were coming and the lost and scattered sheep of Israel were being gathered up by the Shepherd. The Mother Hen was calling to her chicks.

But the time to accept this message was running out.

Judgment would come, said Jesus, upon that generation.