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We Don’t Get to Hold God Accountable: Theodicy as a Problem

As creatures made in God’s image, we are given many gifts, broad freedom, and power to represent Him with boldness in the world, but we are never given the right to hold God accountable.

William Placher’s The Domestication of Transcendence ends with a thoughtful chapter on what is usually called theodicy, the theological discipline that examines the justice of God.  Placher’s project in this work is to show how 17th century thinkers “domesticated” God, emphasizing via human reason God’s immanence (knowablility) to the detriment of God’s transcendence, particularly in classic Christian categories.  Given that focus, it should be no surprise that he finds theodicy exemplifies the worst of this trend.

Classic theodicies, in dealing with a basic (yet difficult!) question of innocent suffering, might pose a question like this: “If God is all-powerful, all-loving, and all knowing, why do children get cancer and die?”  This limits the answers, naturally, to compromising some part of God’s character: God either must not be omnipotent, benevolent, or omniscient.  The only other alternative is that either the supposedly innocent sufferer is not really that innocent, or that the suffering serves some higher purpose to which we do not have access.

All of these miss the mark, of course, if one is committed to the Trinity of Christian belief and worship.  Placher cites John Hick as an example of the spiritual gymnastics one must do to resolve the tensions inherent in traditional theodicies, by which we [read: theologians] seek to hold God accountable:

…in Evil and the God of Love, John Hick proposes that a world without pain “would lack the stimuli to hunting, agriculture, building, social organization, and the development of the sciences and technologies, which have been essential foci of human civilization and culture.” Like right-wing politicians urging reductions in welfare benefits to force people back to work, such a theodicy seeks to justify God in the face of starving children by pointing out that their hunger constitutes a stimulus to agriculture and hunting. This seems to manifest a kind of moral tone-deafness. My point is not to launch personal attacks on particular writers of theodicy, but to suggest that something about the enterprise of theodicy itself drives even thoughtful, decent folk to morally unacceptable conclusions. (204, emphasis added)

As Hauerwas argues in his magnificent God, Medicine, and Suffering (first published as Naming the Silences), it is the entire practice of theodicy that must be rethought, not simply this or that variety thereof.  Theodicy as normally undertaken inevitably results in compromising some critical facet of our understanding of God or humanity.  The quest to hold God accountable is thus bankrupt from the jump.  What is needed is a way of honestly confronting evil and suffering while holding on to God’s character revealed in the self-giving love of Christ.  This results in its own difficulty, but a difficulty that is altogether better than the kind of alternatives represented by John Hick and others in the tradition of theodicy.  As Placher has written before in regards to the Trinity, Christians must hold on to, rather than attempt to resolve, an inherent tension that we run up against:

Theologians have often been justly criticized for announcing a “mystery” whenever they find themselves lacking a good explanation. But it is not intellectual cheating to refuse to explain something if you can give an account of why just this should not be explicable; and reflection on the nature of sin, I have been arguing, provides just such an account. Christians therefore should say both that there is not a single point where God is absent or inactive or only partly active or restricted in action, and that there are irrational events that are somehow not caused by God. They should be willing to say both without worrying overmuch about how both could be true, for the attempt to resolve such worries leads inevitably to a search for sin’s causes that makes it explicable, and it therefore loses its full irrationality. Even worse, it starts to produce accounts of why those who have suffered somehow deserved it – the one thing biblical texts like Job and the Gospel healing stories so firmly reject. (211, emphasis added)

To sum up, it is not our job to hold God accountable. We are mere creatures, and so our search for God will always carry with it some degree of mystery. And our efforts to do so, however humble, pastoral, and well-intentioned, result only in alternatives that are worse than living with the tension Placher names above.  As Brueggemann and others point out, the Bible nowhere offers a “theodicy” in the traditional sense. The only answer Job gets is, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

The Bible treats evil as a reality to be confronted rather than an intellectual puzzle to be solved. The laments of the Psalms are the finest example of this, teaching us to call out to God in the raw reality of agony, not wax philosophically over our predicament.  Laments hold together the goodness of God with the incomprehensibility – what Hannah Arendt called the “banality” of evil – that mars so much of life on this side of the eschaton.

We don’t get to hold God accountable. It is not ours to justify the ways of God to us.  But neither can we be deaf to the cries of innocent suffering or blind to the raw evil in our midst. That tension is precarious, but it is better than the alternatives.

Is theodicy by nature a bankrupt discipline? Should we seek better alternatives, rather than abandoning it altogether? Leave a comment below – and don’t forget to enter your email at to the right of the title and subscribe to get these blogs in your inbox weekly!

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The Shack is Not a Christian Movie

The recent film adaptation of William P. Young’s bestselling novel The Shack is an anomaly. The cast, including the Academy Award-winning Octavia Spencer (from such hits as The Help and Hidden Figures), is strong. Tim McGraw even successfully pulls off the role of the down-to-earth neighbor, who actually looks at home driving a truck and going to church. The direction and cinematography are effective; there are some truly beautiful shots in The Shack of mountains, gardens, and waterfront scenery.   The story follows the book quite closely, and delves deep into weighty themes like the Trinity, God’s sovereignty, and the question of innocent suffering. While no film can deal adequately with such topics in two hours, The Shack has a lot of meat on the bones and leaves room for mystery and questions. The cast handles all this with subtlety, avoiding the cheesiness which one often finds in religiously themed movies. In short, this is a well-made film.

That’s why The Shack is not a Christian movie.

Christian movies, by contrast, are generally poorly directed, low production-value affairs. They typically feature, if not a wholly unknown cast, mostly amateur acting. The writing is often heavy-handed, resolving complex questions with too much simplicity (see God’s Not Dead, for instance). The theology of most Christian films is a hybrid of thin evangelicalism with American family values, which maps neatly onto the worldview taught and preached in many large non-denominational churches in the US.  The theology of Christian films is usually “functionally Unitarian,” a term I owe to a seminary professor, Dr. Freeman, who helped me realize that most evangelicals can only talk about Jesus and rarely address the other persons of the Trinity, much less the Trinity as a whole. Christian films reflect this unfortunate habit.

[If you’ve never read the book and not yet seen the movie, consider this your spoiler warning.]

The Shack’s plot is fairly simple: a father and husband, Mack, experiences a horrific tragedy that changes the course of life. Sometime later, in the throes of what he calls The Great Sadness, Mack receives a mysterious letter in the mail from God inviting him to the shack where that tragedy had occurred. When Mack reluctantly goes, he meets the Trinity – except the three Persons are represented in largely unexpected ways. In the ensuing conversations and experiences, the movie deals with the nature of God, sovereignty, religion, the afterlife, and what philosophers and theologians call “the problem of evil.” As noted above, this is a lot for any single movie to tackle, and The Shack packs more actual theology into a film than any other mass-marketed feature I can call to mind.

Any depiction of the Trinity risks heresy, including the famous Rublev icon.

None of this is to suggest that The Shack is without problems. Most of the issues with the novel are present in this adaptation. Any portrayal of the Trinity is bound to be imperfect – for we cannot adequately portray a mystery via a finite medium like film. Even Rublev’s beloved icon could lead one to tritheism, if taken to the hilt. Young makes clear that the decision to portray God as an African-American woman has to do with Mack’s own family baggage.   While it is admirable – and, for many conservative readers, quite controversial – to portray the First Person of the Trinity in this way, it is not without its own problems. The novel, and to a lesser extent, the film adaptation run the risk of mammy stereotypes. The portrayal of the Holy Spirit in some ways also gets into stereotypical territory. These issues need to be taken seriously, but I still believe this is a valuable story. We are in a cultural moment where I find it difficult to imagine a white writer portraying non-white characters in such a way that it would be critique-proof. Young – and the film’s producers – took a risk here. While problems should be acknowledged, so should their boldness in attempting to help readers envision God as other than an old white man with a beard.

The bulk of the people who have major problems with the movie, like the book, are those (chiefly from the Reformed camp) who take issue with social Trinitarianism, patripassianism (the teaching that the Father suffered along with the Son on the cross), and God’s sovereignty. It is the third of these that likely causes the most headaches among its critics. If you believe that “everything happens for a reason,” that God’s hand is somehow behind everything that happens all the time, you will not like how this film addresses the problem of evil. On the other hand, if you are drawn to a kind of middle way about sovereignty – I personally can’t square either the micromanaging God of Reformed doctrine or the removed deity of Process thought – you’ll find The Shack compelling on this score. In not offering easy or trite answers here, the film is more brave and more honest than most popular Christian takes on these deep questions of faith. (Roger Olson’s book is worth a read if you want to dig into these questions more; coming from an evangelical Arminian perspective, his reading strikes the kind of critical but overall appreciative note that I would see as appropriate.)

Popular Christian books and films always draw a reaction from a wide swath of people, Christian and not, theologically trained and not. I’ve been disturbed at how many people I’ve noticed, who are otherwise broad-minded and fair critics, that have judged The Shack to be unworthy of Christian eyes without seeing or reading it. As we saw so prominently with Rob Bell’s Love Wins, the speed and vitriol with which some Christians will dismiss something without having actually read or viewed it is astonishing. On the whole, I would recommend The Shack – the movie and the book – before nearly all of its competition in the Christian publishing and Christian film industries. It is far from perfect: inelegant in some places, a bit on the nose in others. Don’t trust the reviews, though.  This movie fall into an unfortunate category almost all its own: it pushes the envelope far too much to be promoted by the usual folks who support movies like Courageous, but it is too Christian to pass critical muster.  All that said, I believe it succeeds much more than it fails. My own ministry experience has been that few other resources open up in-depth conversations about the Trinity and the problem of evil like Young’s imaginative and powerful parable.

The Shack actually addresses God as Trinity, tackles hard questions without offering easy answers, and does so with the acting skills and production values of an actual quality film. For all of these reasons, The Shack is not a Christian movie – and this is why it succeeds.

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Jesus, Hitler, & the Willfulness of Evil People

people-of-the-lieWhat do Jesus & Hitler have in common?

Contemporary Christians too often lack the resources to resist or even name evil.  I have learned from scripture, the desert fathers, and even the Harry Potter novels that evil must not be taken lightly.  A classic resource that many people, myself included, have found helpful is M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie.

In an especially helpful section of chapter 3, Peck differentiates between the normal, even healthy, narcissism of functional adults and the “malignant narcissism” of the evil.  For the author the difference between these two kinds of narcissism is that the evil have “an unsubmitted will.”

He goes on to elaborate:

The reader will be struck by the extraordinary willfulness of evil people. They are men and women of obviously strong will, determined to have their own way.  There is a remarkable power in the manner in which they attempt to control others […] Indeed, it is almost tempting to think that the problem of evil lies in the will itself. Perhaps the evil are born so inherently strong-willed that it is impossible for them ever to submit their will. Yet I think it is characteristic of all “great” people that they are extremely strong-willed – whether their greatness be for good or for evil. The strong will – the power and authority – of Jesus radiates from the Gospels, just as Hitler’s did from Mein Kampf. But Jesus’ will was that of his Father, and Hitler’s was that of his own. The crucial distinction is between “willingness and willfulness.” (78-79)

Jesus and Hitler: both people of conviction, of strong will. But ultimately Hitler’s will served nothing but his own maniacal ego, and Jesus’ will was forfeit to the Father. “Not my will, but yours be done,” as he prayed in Luke 22:42.

In mixed martial arts parlance  – and much to the chagrin of many Macho Jesus types – Jesus “tapped.” That is, he surrendered his own will out of obedience to the Father.  Though surely plagued by the desire to preserve himself from torment, as the heavily fictionalized Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ so aptly demonstrated, the Son of God ultimately submitted.

The malignant narcissist’s “unsubmitted” will, however, is precisely the opposite.  He or she desires the world to bend to their will.  All who refuse to submit must be destroyed, one way or the other.  This is evil unalloyed.

Submission is a nearly extinct virtue, not merely in today’s culture but even in the church who worships Christ as King and Lord.  Thomas a’ Kempis, the devout monk who left us one of the great devotional classics of all time in The Imitation of Christ, devotes a whole chapter (9) to obedience and submission.  Here we find this refreshingly counter-cultural wisdom:

There is greater security in living a life of submission than there is in exercising authority. Many live under obedience, more out of necessity than out of love of God, and they murmur and complain in their discontent. These will never achieve spiritual freedom until, for the love of God, they submit themselves with all their heart.

I can already hear the familiar litany of late-modern warnings against such archaic virtues. (Feel free to leave them in the comments section anyway.)

However unpopular in our day and untested in our experience, submission to God is the way of Christ, the narrow way that leads to life.  All else is the way to death, even if it be a wide and easy path that passes through Vanity Fair on the way.  In the end, there is only “Thy will be done” or “my will be done.”  And while a baptized willfullness is a recipe for sainthood, Peck’s “unsubmitted will” is little more than embryonic evil.

A prayer from the heart of the Wesleyan tradition brings this home beautifully. I’ll close with this prayer, used in Covenant Renewal and Watch Night services for centuries, in hopes that the embers of long-dormant virtues might be kindled in me and in my fellow disciples today.

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

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Finding God Where Understanding Does Not Reach

by Drew 1 Comment

john paul 2 easterThere are times we must seek God in darkness, times when God’s goodness and love are difficult to spot. As a pastor, there is no more difficult time when I see people seek God than when they bury their child.  At times like this, understanding is in short supply. As I’ve said before, the death of children is perhaps the best argument there is for atheism.  But the occasion of this writing is a bit more personal. Today we bury my cousin Matt, who died of a rare disease at 33 years old.

This is senseless.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that God is love, I believe in the redemption of the world through Christ and in the gifts of the Spirit.  I do not grieve as one who has no hope. (1 Thess. 4:13)  But I also know that 33 year olds are not supposed to die.

I was listening to a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio the other day and came across this quote from Gregory of Nyssa, the great Cappadocian Father. Though I studied a bit of Nyssa with Professor Warren Smith at Duke, this particular quote was new to me.  In Life of Moses, Nyssa allegorizes the ascent to God through Moses’ biography.  There we find this remarkable passage, in which Moses finds God’s presence in the darkness on Sinai in Exodus 19:

[Moses] teaches, I think, by the things he did that the one who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible and—lifting up his own mind, as to a mountaintop, to the invisible and incomprehensible—believe that the divine is there where the understanding does not reach.

It is important to remember that Nyssa’s assessment is not an invitation to agnosticism or Unitarianism.  The end of the apophatic search is the Holy Trinity. The God one meets in the darkness, when understanding fails and night is thick, is none other than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  For Nyssa, the image here is of spiritual growth in God.  In his Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles, he notes

Moses’ vision of God began with light; afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud. But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in the darkness.

Gregory of Nyssa, 11th cent. mosiac from Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kiev. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Gregory of Nyssa, 11th cent. mosaic from Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kiev. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

The spiritual beginner thus may not see God in the darkness.  This gift is the result of a spiritual ascent from the visible, to the to hazy, and onward until finally all is night.  As martyrs and monastics have found throughout history, God can be sought and found even in the most bleak circumstances, even when it appears that He has totally left the scene.

This makes me think anew of Jesus’ cry of dereliction when, borrowing language from Psalm 22 to express the mysterious agony of his existential abandonment, he prays from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)

If we find it difficult to follow Nyssa on this point, let us at least look to Christ, who in the midst of suffering too profound for words still called out to the Father.  God was there, even if understanding was not.

Today I will gather with many who will seek God where rational thought has failed. We will bury someone who died too young, who suffered too much.  I pray we all have the courage, with Moses, to look for God even in this dark place.

I am grateful that this is the Easter season, and that, in John Paul II’s words, we are despite all things an “Easter people.”  Nothing, then, can separate us from God’s love – not the darkness of death, not the evil of a life cut short, not the insanity of diseases without cure in an age that seems so advanced.

Christ is risen, so we will gather in faith, sing alleluia, and thumb our noses at the darkness.  For Matt is with God, and God is present even here, even now, where the understanding does not reach.

Almighty God,
you judge us with infinite mercy and justice
and love everything you have made.
We rejoice in your promises of pardon, joy and peace
to all who love you.
In your mercy turn the darkness of death
into the dawn of new life,
and the sorrow of parting into the joy of heaven;
through our Saviour Jesus Christ
who died, who rose again,
and lives for evermore.
Amen.

Source for Nyssa quotes here.

Prayer from the New Zealand Prayer Book funeral liturgy, found here.

Full text of Life of Moses available here.

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Allowance is Not Affirmation: Why “A Way Forward” Might Be

theodicy cartoon

Would you want to worship a God whose “plan” involved this? Me neither.

I am having difficulty keeping up with all the proposals and counter-proposals running around the UMC right now.*  The one with the most steam still seems to be A Way Forward, simply because of the big names and churches behind it.   The conservative reaction against this proposal has been swift and strong, which is not surprising.  I have, however, been puzzled by the reasoning of some opponents.  Take, for instance, this reflection from Matt O’Reilly, which reads in part:

“If General Conference permitted those Annual Conferences that choose to ordain practicing homosexuals to do so, then that would amount to General Conference giving its blessing to the practice of homosexuality. Allowing the decision to be made locally does not amount to a neutral position on the part of the General Conference. If this proposal were implemented, it means that The United Methodist Church would affirm the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching, even if it did not require all Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals and local churches to bless homosexual unions.”

In short, the chief problem with this argument – that allowance is basically equal to affirmation –  is theodicy.

Arminians like Matt and myself are not burdened by the micromanaging, puppet-master God of hyper-Calvinism.  We don’t have to say that all things happen for God’s glory, for some “reason” or “purpose” that aligns with God’s mysterious will.  One of the things A Way Forward gets right is this basic theodicy: God is not the author of evil, but God can and often does draw good out of evil.   That is critically different from merely accepting all things that happen as God’s will and not asking tough questions.

That leaves us in a difficult spot, though.  Unless one goes down some dead-end road like process theology, which compromises God’s power and/or knowledge, Arminians have to affirm that God is omnipotent.  God can do anything.  That means God allows things that are against His will, things that are morally horrific, even though they cause Him pain.  Think, for instance, of the suffering of children, or the martyrdom of countless saints in the history of the church.  Does God want these things to happen? I would find that God quite difficult to worship.  But does God allow them, in at least a minimal sense that He could intervene to stop them?  Yes.  And we will, and should, wrestle with that.

But there is mile-wide gap between allowance and affirmation, and the distinction is important.  In that sense, allowing pastors and churches more flexibility in determining their ministry to same-sex couples is not necessarily tantamount to the church “affirming” those choices.  In the Book of Discipline we allow differences in crucial matters such as war & peace and abortion.  Does this mean affirming all those possible positions? No.  It means allowing a diversity of reactions to complex matters.

I’m not a signatory to A Way Forward. I have my own issues with it, which myself and others from Via Media Methodists will be discussing on an upcoming issue of the WesleyCast.  But the argument that allowance must be seen as affirmation is false . In that sense, then, I would argue that A Way Forward has potential.   It’s not perfect, but with work, it might just be a legitimate way forward.

At any rate, I’m excited to see that there is a great deal of energy being expended in various attempts to keep us together.  Breaking up is the easy way out, but we are adults.  We should be able to disagree without ceasing our fellowship.

And as for disagreeing with Matt, well, he’s going to be at my Annual Conference (speaking at a way-too-early evangelical gathering), and I look forward to discussing these differences face-to-face!

_____

*Kudos to Joel Watts for his new proposal.  His is the only one I’ve seen that suggests – in the name of order – swift and firm accountability for those who violate the possible new settlement.  One of the pieces most of the proposals I have seen lack is some of assurance that the same manner of “disobedience” we are currently seeing won’t be tolerated under a new arrangement.  Any compromise will not please all of the extreme elements, which is why a determination on the part of the leadership to hold strongly to any new situation is crucial.  Otherwise we will not be settling a vital question in the church, we will just be moving the goal lines and welcoming the same kind of strife to continue.

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Tornadoes, Theodicy, and Calvinism

David Bentley Hart is like Barth to me.  That is, my claims to appreciate his work are far too grand compared to the amount of his work I’ve actually read.  Nevertheless, what I have read of his I have greatly enjoyed.  With the usual Calvinist claptrap being thrown around once more in response to the Oklahoma tornadoes, Hart offers the kind of strong medicine we need.  The following was taken from a Christian Century interview about his book on theodicy in the light of the tsunami, The Doors of the Sea.

On the Calvinist Anxiety Over God’s Sovereignty:

“Frankly, any understanding of divine sovereignty so unsubtle that it requires the theologian to assert (as Calvin did) that God foreordained the fall of humanity so that his glory might be revealed in the predestined damnation of the derelict is obviously problematic, and probably far more blasphemous than anything represented by the heresies that the ancient ecumenical councils confronted.”

What Pastors Should and Should Not Say in Times of Tragedy:

“I honestly don’t know. I haven’t a pastoral bone in my body. But I would implore pastors never to utter banal consolations concerning God’s “greater plan” or the mystery of his will. The first proclamation of the gospel is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated and will ultimately destroy. I would hope that no Christian pastor would fail to recognize that that completely shameless triumphalism — and with it an utterly sincere and unrestrained hatred of suffering and death — is the surest foundation of Christian hope, and the proper Christian response to grief.”

So Where Was God?

“Where was God? In and beyond all things, nearer to the essence of every creature than that creature itself, and infinitely outside the grasp of all finite things.”

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“When There is No Peace”

by Drew 4 Comments

Libya Alhurra TV posted images on Facebook of Pro-American supporters taking to the streets in Libya today to distance themselves from the rocket attack which killed Chris Stevens

I’ve been having a back and forth with my friend Morgan over his recent blog post reacting against the attack on the Libyan embassy.  Morgan is a deeply committed Christian and an articulate interlocutor.  This exchange raised a question with me: how do Christians respond to the kind of senseless violence that seems to be so prevalent in our world?

Certainly, any reaction that blames all Muslims as a whole is to be vehemently denied.  The above photo, from this story about an anti-extremist rally, is evidence enough that not all of Islam is violent (and it is sad indeed that we must keep reminding folks of this in a post-9/11 world).

It seems to me that a measured, loving, but honest response is warranted.  Many of my liberal and progressive Christian friends were so quick to remind us that not all Muslims are terrorists that they seemed to forget that a tragic few are.  They seemed more interested in offering an apologetic on behalf of moderate Muslims than in grieving the lost or crying out for justice.  This strikes me as a “PC” response but not necessarily a Christian one.

As Christians, we are called to pray and work for and witness to the peace of Christ, the prince of Peace.  How that plays out in the world of international politics, foreign policy, and non-state actors with RPGs is a complex question.  Whatever else we say, we must know that the call for peace must not come at the expense of justice, or vice versa.  The prophet Jeremiah thus excoriated the false prophets of his day:

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. (6:14, NRSV)

We must not be too quick to cry “peace” in the absence of justice.  There is a time for peace and for war, a time for forgiveness, and a time for the sword of government to do its work.  The time for reconciliation will come.  For now, let us pray for the victims of this attack, for the people of Libya (especially those of the household of faith), and for the perpetrators: may they be brought to justice swiftly, and may the God of all people so draw them to Himself that they repent and are reconciled to God and neighbor.

For now, as the old song goes, let peace begin with me.

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Songs for Aurora: The Psalms Versus the Cult of Positivity

I’ve been preaching on the Psalms recently, using Walter Brueggemann’s three-fold typology (orientation, disorientation, new orientation) to order my preaching and teaching of the Bible’s great prayer book.  Little did I know that, unfortunately, the Sunday I had planned to preach about the Psalms of disorientation would be all too close to one of the worst mass killings in recent American history.

I do a double cringe every time a horrific act like the shootings in Aurora takes place.  The first is for the evil act itself, for the victims and their loved ones, for the communities shattered, for families torn apart.  The second cringe follows closely, though: the gut feeling in my stomach that all around the country (and the world) Christians are going to start saying stupid things in the face of cruelty and grief.  Case[s] in point here and here.

Too much popular Christianity is so inoculated by the cult of positivity, so intent on existing only in easy victory, on the mountaintop, that such actions literally do not compute with their comfortable, simple worldview.  So they result to familiar yet ultimately grotesque platitudes: God has a plan; every cloud has a silver lining; only the good die young, etc.  The most common refrain in these – often Reformed, whether acknowledged or not – churches is that somehow this (any and every this) fits into God’s purpose and will for the world.  Ugh.

Brueggemann, in his masterpiece The Message of the Psalms, points out the problem with churches that preach and sing nothing but a well-ordered, rational universe:

Life is not like that.  Life is also savagely marked by disequilibrium, incoherence, and unrelieved asymmetry.  In our time – perhaps any time – that needs no argument or documentation.

Certainly, in the face of the Aurora massacre, no one can doubt life’s “incoherence.”  Denial won’t cut it.  The Bible does not deny agony and distress, and we see this most acutely in the Psalms.  Nowhere does the Bible say, as evangelical leader Jerry Newcombe wrote, “If a Christian dies early, if a Christian dies young, it seems tragic, but really it is not tragic because they are going to a wonderful place.” (emphasis added)

Some might suggest that going on as if the world is well ordered and sensible in the face of counterfactuals is an act of gospel rebellion, of faith unmixed with doubt, just as Jesus would have us exhibit.  Bruggemann is suspicious:

It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more  frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life…a church that goes on singing “happy songs” in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.” (The Message of the Psalms [Minneapolis: Augsburg 1984], 51-52.)

The questions that come at times like this are all legitimate.  In the Psalms, everything is on the table: God is asked to show up, to be the God of deliverance, the God of hope; God is accused of silence and abandonment; God’s own holiness and righteousness is invoked against what looks like his insufficiency in the face of evil.  Jesus cries one such Psalm on the cross in Matthew and Mark: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)

The legitimacy of the questions does not equate to easy answers, though.  The Bible doesn’t give us those.  Job learned that the hard way.  The Psalms are no better.  “There is no rhetorical answer to all these questions in the Psalms any more than in the New Testament.  The only real answer is Jesus Christ.” (Bonhoeffer, Prayerbook of the Bible [Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2005], 170.)

This is how the Bible deals with the disorientation, the darkness, the madness of life: by addressing it all to God, the good and bad, the gore and the glory:

Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs,
and an impious people reviles your name.
Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild animals;
do not forget the life of your poor for ever.

Have regard for your covenant,
for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence.
Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame;
let the poor and needy praise your name.
Rise up, O God, plead your cause;
remember how the impious scoff at you all day long.
Do not forget the clamor of your foes,
the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually.

Psalm 74:18-23

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Bin Laden’s Death: A Variety of Reactions

bin laden deadThese last few days have been a study in contrasts.  Many are overjoyed (emphasis on the ‘over’) at the announcement that Bin Laden was recently killed in a firefight with US forces.  Others have been horrified at such reactions.  I sat with a group of pastor friends this morning and we wrestled with it together.  Scriptures such as Ezekiel 33:11 were invoked: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” says the Lord.  We wondered at the intersections of state and church, of faith and citizenship.  This is one of those issues where there may well be a collision between the two.

Yes, Paul is clear is Romans 13 that the ‘sword’ of government is God’s instrument to punish the wicked.  But Jesus is also clear that we are to pray for enemies and bless our persecutors.  There is a clear role for the government – I am not one of those neo-Anabaptists that thinks Christians should have nothing to do with the government – but the necessary confrontation with evil ought not make us triumphalistic or compromise Christian charity.  I’m not a pacifist, nor am I against the death penalty; I do, however, believe that deaths resulting from just wars or proper executions ought to be mourned.  Each person – even a Hitler, Pol Pot, or Bin Laden – is a person made in the image of God (however corrupted), a person that Jesus went to the cross for, and a life that ultimately was designed for fellowship with God.  Even with a ‘good’ death, such as when a love one has been suffering greatly and death comes as a relief, remains something that ought to be saddening.

Sam Wells, a protege of Stanley Hauerwas, fellow faculty member at Duke Divinity and Dean of the Chapel at Duke released a statement (why?) about the reaction to Bin Laden’s death that reads in part:

This is not a day for celebration.   A celebration would be due if the perpetrators of those crimes had expressed remorse, regret, and repentance. They have not. A celebration would be due if there had been a conversion of Bin Laden or his followers to a truer practice of Islam. There has been none. A celebration would be due if the overwhelming response from Christians in America had been one that embodied the commandments to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. There has been no such overwhelming response. A celebration would be due if there had been a proper process of justice, involving arrest, gathering of evidence, trial, defense, and prosecution. There has been no such process… [i]f we assume that killing a suspect without trial, without persuading him of the justice of our cause, and without bringing him to a true expression of his own tradition – let alone our own – is a victory, then it is a sign of how far we have allowed this war to distort the values of our civilization.

I think he’s right to to point out what would have been real reasons to celebrate.  I think he’s naive to sugggest that a preferred outcome would have been some kind of criminal proceeding.  Bin Laden was not a criminal.  He was an enemy; not just an enemy soldier, but the equivalent of a general (a figurehead and a commander of forces hostile to the US, whose tactics were repugnant to the conventions of war).  Arrest may have been preferable, for the potential intelligence that could have resulted, but odds are someone so radicalized did not wish to be taken alive by US forces.  Furthermore, unlike his victims, Bin Laden knew he was a target.  He had a better chance than the victims of 9/11 and other attacks ever had.

Then there is another reaction worth note, this time from pro MMA fighter and active Green Beret (Army Special Forces) Tim Kennedy.  Having served in the War on Terror (I’m not going to put it in quotes, as I think it is disrespectful to the soldiers serving in this conflict) in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kennedy speaks to both his elation at hearing the news of Bin Laden’s death and his disappointment in not being a part of the action:

“So there was a little sense of disappointment that I wasn’t part of it… I’m just totally excited and thrilled to see a really dark, sad chapter of our country’s history — it’s not coming to a close, but that’s definitely a chapter that’s pending…[i]f I was going to design a version of hell for me, that would be it. Where I’m sitting there reading about special operations going in to do a hit on a HVT, on a high-value target, and just having to not be there. It’s absolutely excruciating.”

As Gene Hackman says in one of my favorite films, “A winner always wants the ball when the game is on the line.”  We shouldn’t be horrified that Kennedy wanted to take part in this action.  I’m sure many elite warfighters would want to as well.  Not out of blood lust or uber-testosterone, but because that is what such people are trained for, and, however dangerous or unpleasant it may be, that’s their job.

I think both responses are reasonable given the various vocations of these two men.  A professor of Christian ethics and preacher ought to be the conscience of a community, even when it is unpopular.  And we ought to expect our cloistered academics to have a degree of unreality to their views.  Nothing new there.  The gospel calls us into conflict with the culture around us (and any culture), as well as with our own passions.  He has done the church a service by reminding us of this.

But we need the Tim Kennedys of this world too.  We need people who are willing to step up and face demented enemies in hostile territory, willing and able to undergo rigorous training, sacrificing personal needs for the needs of the larger community.  In the face of such bravery we can only be in thankful awe.

I will continue to wrestle with these issues.  I am not proud of my initial reaction.  I wasn’t running into the streets waving the Stars and Bars, but neither was I reverently praying for an enemy whom I am called to bless.  The work of sanctification goes on, and today I realize, once more, that I have a long way to go.

P.S. Who is the “our” when Wells writes of “our civilization”?  I was under the impression that Wells had little interest in the project of the the modern West.  Generally those who speak of a monolithic Western Civilization are something like crusty paleo-cons who are chafing at multiculturalism.  As ecclesiologically focused as Wells’ theology is, I’m just surprised he would use that kind of language.

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