Tag Archives

6 Articles

Sentimentality Kills

In Rodney Clapp’s eclectic little book spanning the life and work of Johnny Cash, country music, American culture, and Christian identity he tackles the sentimentality that he believes is at the heart of ecclesial degeneration in America today:

“Because idolatry is the most destructive of sinful conditions, the greatest danger to the true faithfulness of the American church comes not from without but from within. That danger is not persecution or victimization or accusations of hypocrisy, but our own all-too-easy tendency to sentimentalize our faith. To sentimentalize the faith is to instrumentalize it, to make it a tool of our ambitions, our comfort, and our security. Sentimentalization is mild-mannered idolatry, sin sweetened and trivialized. Sentimentality kills vital faith with bland complacency.” (60)

My teacher, Stanley Hauerwas, once wrote,”The great enemy of the church today is not atheism but sentimentality.” (The Hauerwas Reader, p. 526) He wrote a blurb on the back of Clapp’s book, and  I imagine he would agree with Clapp’s assessment.

What he describes as sentimentalization is all over North American protestantism. Many of the regnant forms of preaching and worship that pastors are encouraged to adopt are designed to comfort rather than convict, to sell self-actualization rather than exhort cruciform living.  Sentimentalization is the cross reduced to a decoration made of diamonds and silver; discipleship reduced to Instagram Bible verses; asceticism sacrificed on the altar of low expectations – it is Christian faith made into a series of Precious Moments figurines.

Sentimentality is a milquetoast approach to faith designed to be unobtrusive and inoffensive.  But a gospel that does not offend is no gospel; the Word brings not peace but a sword, and divides sinew from flesh. (Matthew 10:34, Hebrews 4:12) It is the kind of Christian life a marketer would design to sell to middle class Americans with overstuffed lives and underdeveloped souls.

Sentimentality is killing us.

82 views

Jesus Didn’t Fight No Bums

How might Rocky illuminate Jesus’ atonement? In Rocky III, the beloved pugilist’s aging trainer, Mick, is terrified at the prospect of Balboa fighting Clubber Lang, played famously by Mr. T in his breakout role.  Rocky doesn’t understand Mick’s fear, as he’s on a long win streak and feels quite confident.  They have the following exchange, culminating in one of Mick’s most famous lines:

Rocky: He’s just another fighter.
Mickey: No, he ain’t just another fighter! This guy is a wrecking machine! And he’s hungry! Hell, you ain’t been hungry since you won that belt.
Rocky: What are you talkin’ about? I had ten title defenses.
Mickey: That was easy.
Rocky: What you mean, “easy”?
Mickey: They was hand-picked!
Rocky: Setups?
Mickey: Nah, they wasn’t setups. They was good fighters, but they wasn’t killers like this guy. He’ll knock you to tomorrow, Rock!

Rocky discovers, to his horror, that the win streak he’s so proud of is manufactured.  To protect him, his trainer has been picking fights that amounted to the path of least resistance.

In his classic treatise On the Incarnation, Athanasius makes quite a similar point about Jesus, in a discussion about the nature of his death:

A wonderful translation, with an introduction by CS Lewis.

And as a noble wrestler, great in skill and courage, does not choose opponents for himself, lest he cause suspicion that he is fearful of some, but leaves it to the choice of the spectators, especially if they are hostile, so that when he has overthrown the one they have chosen, he may be believed to be superior to all, so also, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior Christ, did not contrive death for his own body, lest he should appear fearful of some other death, but he accepted and endured on the cross that inflicted by others, especially by enemies, which they reckoned fearful and ignominious and shameful, in order that this being destroyed, he might himself be believed to be Life, and the power of death might be completely annihilated. So something wonderful and marvelous happened: that ignominious death which they thought to inflict, this was the trophy of his victory over death. (On the Incarnation, [Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011], 75.)

In other words, because Jesus didn’t choose a cleaner, quicker, or less “ignominious” death, none of his opponents (or the disciples’ future opponents) could accuse him of seeking an easy way out.  Because he submitted to such a vile death as torture and crucifixion, the very barbarity of this death became “the trophy of his victory.”

Jesus didn’t fight no bums.  He didn’t hand pick his opponents.  He faced the worst killers the world had yet invented – the Roman Empire – and the horrible, common death the endured became the means through which the power of sin was shattered.  Our Lord didn’t pick an easy fight, and for that, we can all – with St. Athanasius – be thankful.

44 views

The Pew Forum Obituary & the Good News of Powerlessness

“Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” -Lord ActonPewForum

 “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” -James 4:10 (NRSV)

If you’ve ever been to a Hospice House, you know that there is such a thing as holy dying.  Even in a film absurd enough to suggest that Tom Cruise could be a samurai, the viewer encountered the idea of a “good death.”  As Christians, death and resurrection are at the very heart of our faith.  Thus it is surprising to see the defensiveness, anger, fear, and finger-pointing among Christians that have accompanied the release of the recent Pew Forum obituary report sounding the death knell for most forms of Christianity in the US.  Evangelicals point to the attitudes and theologies of liberal Christians. Liberal/Progressive Christians point to the intolerance and judgmentalism of conservatives.  Decline is everyone else’s fault. And we’re pissed.

The Pew results are neither surprising nor encouraging, but I want to suggest they need not cause us to despair, either.  Most forms of Christianity are suffering because we have so accommodated to American culture (regardless of which side of the culture war battle lines one prefers) that we no longer offer a compelling alternative that is more interesting than a football game, yard sale, or an extra hour of sleep.  To make matters worse, many of the most ‘successful’ churches have bucked this trend not by offering a faithful alternative, but by doubling down and out-MTVing MTV.  Their end is destruction.

Instead, perhaps what we are experiencing is a necessary winnowing.  Elaine Heath has suggested the church is going through a “dark night of the soul,” a period of spiritual struggle from which we will emerge more vital and faithful.  I can’t help but think that the decline of Mainline Protestantism is overall a good thing.  The “Christian Century” was marked by the worst atrocities and wars humanity has ever concocted. We deserve to lose our prominence.  Maybe if we can embrace our newfound irrelevance, as my friend Evan suggests, we might find the only renewal worth having.

My own United Methodist tribe is marked by a sad compromise with the world that defines our history even today.  Scott Kisker reflects on the compromise that led early Methodists to abandon their anti-slavery stance in a devil’s bargain to win the frontier (and eventually become the “most successful” church in the newly united US):

“When Euro-Methodists abandoned some of our brothers and sisters to accept a place at America’s table, we were deceiving ourselves that we could use the power that went with the position to do good. We didn’t notice we were being changed by the power. We became worldly, not holy.” (1)

Christ Carrying the Cross, circa 1580, by El Greco. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Christ Carrying the Cross, circa 1580, by El Greco. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The story of American Methodism is mimicked heavily in US Protestantism more broadly; this is so whether we consider the Moral Majority, “Cross & Flag” triumphalism of the 1980’s or the gradual succumbing of denominations like the UCC to forms of liberal Religious Leftism that mirrored and thus could not critique politically compromised evangelicalism.  They were both Constantinian in approach: seeking power and influence on the world’s terms in the guise of the gospel.  Like Kisker notes in reference to Methodism, “we were deceiving ourselves that we could use the power” without being co-opted by it.  Lord Acton’s dictum remains true for all who are not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

That’s why the Pew Forum report gives me hope.  In our newfound (and uncomfortable) powerlessness, we just might recover the church of the apostles.  Our failure on the world’s terms just might lead to success on God’s terms.  Isn’t the direction of the gospel the story of downward mobility? Henri Nouwen thus reflects:

“The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record – that’s what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame. The way of Jesus is radically different.  It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility.  It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place!  Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing?  Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life.” (2)

Jesus once told Peter (John 21:18) that when he was older, he would be taken where he did not want to go (this indicated Peter’s death by crucifixion, in imitation of Jesus).

Likewise, the church in North America is being led where it does not wish to go.

Jesus, though, has walked this lonesome valley before us. We journey towards a cross.

But after the cross…

Saints rising from the grave, plaque, circa 1250.  Courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons.

Saints rising from the grave, plaque, circa 1250. Courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources:

1. Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist? (Nashville: Discipleship Resources 2008), 47.

2. Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey.

25 views

Good Friday, Trinity, and Atonement

Image

For many Christians, Good Friday brings up aspects of Christianity they would prefer to minimize, or leave behind entirely.  Themes like sacrifice, suffering, guilt, and blood make many followers of Christ uncomfortable.  Jeremy Smith has recently argued in favor of moving the locus of atonement further away from the cross.  Indeed, the cross remains to followers of Jesus what it was to people in the ancient world: foolishness and a stumbling-block. (1 Cor. 1:23)

In Death on a Friday Afternoon, Fr. Richard Neuhaus explores various attempts to re-imagine the atonement and finds them wanting.  He looks at the cross through the lens of liberal, existentialist, and liberationist theologies and finds in them little to no hope at all.  But neither is he (pardon the expression) satisfied with expressions of atonement that emphasize the wrath of God the Father punishing Jesus on the cross.  Instead, he suggests we see the cross as an act of love by the whole of that great mystery we name as God: the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The book as a whole is marvelous, and I would commend it to your reading. The section to which I refer is worth quoting in its entirety:

“We do well to get rid completely of the notion that the atonement is about what God did to Jesus. This requires returning to the truth that the God who brought about our atonement is the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Atonement is from beginning to end the work of the three divine Persons of the triune God. In collusion with the Father, the Son, in the power of the Spirit, freely takes our part by becoming our representative.  A representative is different from a substitute. The atonement is not a quantitative matter. It is not as through there is a certain amount of wrong for which a certain amount of punishment is due, and so somebody must be found to take the punishment. That way of thinking produced the ritual of the scapegoat, a ritual reenacted in many different ways throughout history. Christ’s atoning sacrifice is not about quantitates of sin and punishment but is intensely personal. It is the mending of a personal relationship between God and humanity that had been broken.

Justice requires that  satisfaction be made; we were and we are in no position to make such satisfaction. Jesus Christ actively intervenes on our behalf, he freely takes our part in healing the breach between God and humanity by the sacrifice of the cross.  To speak of a collusion between the Persons of the triune God suggests the word ‘conspiracy.’ It is a helpful word when we remember that conspire means, quite literally, ‘to breathe together.’ in the beginning, God breathes life into Adam; Jesus breathes upon the disciples and says, ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’ The triune God conspires for our salvation. The entire plan is love from beginning to end, and the fullness of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is engaged every step of the way.  It is not an angry Father punishing an innocent Son, with the Spirit on the sidelines helplessly watching. No, it is the Father, Son, and Spirit conspiring together to save us from ourselves.  At the Father’s command, the Son freely goes forth in the power of the Spirit to become one of us.  On our behalf, as Representative Humanity, he lives the life of perfect obedience that Adam – and all of us ‘in Adam’ – failed to live. And he completes that life by dying the perfect death.” (220-221)

The cross is a conspiracy of love by the triune God.  That’s why we call it Good Friday, and that’s why we run away from the cross to our peril.  Let us, with John the Baptist, behold and marvel at “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29) Thanks be to God.

14 views

Holy Saturday, Failure, and Seth Godin

When it looked like Jesus has failed, he was actually on a rescue mission. From a 15th century Italian master, courtesy of www.geopolicraticus.wordpress.com.

“…but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews
and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called,
both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom
of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
-1 Cor. 1:23-25

“Only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes
the world because it is no longer afraid of death. In his time the
crucified Christ was regarded as a scandal and as foolishness.
Today the church…must return to the crucified Christ in order
to show the world the freedom he offers.”
-Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God

According to Frederick Buechner, the resurrection means that “the worst thing is never the last thing.” In Christ’s victory at Easter, sin and death are destroyed, their power is gone, and we are freed in Christ to live new lives that boldly testify to the risen savior. Paul tells his young protege, Timothy, “God did not give us a Spirit of timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” (2 Tim. 1:7) As Christians we must discipline ourselves to fail well.

I was lucky enough to see Seth Godin give a talk at High Point University recently. Godin is a writer and entrepreneur who has some insight on failure that Christians should take to heart. In a blog post titled “How to Fail” he writes:

“There are some significant misunderstandings about failure…
All of us fail. Successful people fail often, and, worth noting, learn more from that failure than everyone else. Two habits that don’t help:
• Getting good at avoiding blame and casting doubt
• Not signing up for visible and important projects” (1)

Godin pushes us to see that if we aren’t failing, we aren’t trying hard enough. If we are only doing “sure things,” if we are only traveling well-worn paths that we think are guaranteed to work, then odds are we aren’t jumping in with both feet. Like Edison discovering 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb, we make often make breakthroughs only after failing a lot. Like Godin says, successful people fail along with everyone else, but they learn from it more than everyone else, too.

As Christians, we know what God can do with an apparent failure. The cross is still a stumbling block and foolishness to the world because it is shocking that death has been conquered by death, that the moment when it looked like God had failed became the place of God’s greatest triumph.  Drawing on images from 1st Peter, Christians have long pondered how Jesus spent Holy Saturday, and prayerfully considered that Jesus was in fact in the realm of the dead reaching out to the righteous in Sheol.

To live in light of the resurrection means that we, too, are free to fail, free to risk, because we know that our efforts are not in vain. We know that we work for a Kingdom that will come, regardless of our faults and failures. We work for a savior who can do marvelous things with shaky disciples and a few loaves of bread.

Thanks be to God.

15 views

“Jesus Didn’t Tap” says the Green Power Ranger

https://i0.wp.com/image3.examiner.com/images/blog/EXID2854/images/jason-david-frank-mm-a-mixed-martial-artist.jpg?resize=238%2C238

Jason David Frank, a lifelong martial artist most famous as the Green Ranger on the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, has recently decided to get into mixed martial arts (“MMA”, or ‘cage-fighting’ for the uninitiated).  He also has a clothing line…about Jesus.  Check out the gloves in the above picture, as well as the t-shirt below:

// <![CDATA[// Seen guys wearing Tapout or Affliction t-shirts? Well, this is the Christian version…whatever that means.  Here is the description from the website:

Jesus Didn’t Tap was one of the first Christian based MMA clothing companies to hit the scene. In the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, to “tap” is to quit or give up. The message of the Jesus Didn’t Tap line is that Jesus didn’t quit after going through unimaginable suffering and pain when he was crucified on the cross. The company aims to represent both the competitiveness of MMA and honoring God in all of their designs and hopes it will help spread the Christian message of salvation to a whole new audience.

First of all: there are more than one Christian MMA companies??  Oh well.  The problem with this is that, in MMA, to “tap” essentially means to submit.  And while they are correct that Jesus didn’t give up due to pain, they seem to overlook the fact that Jesus’ crucifixion was essentially an act of submission.  Philippians makes this clear:

Philippians 2

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6
Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

This plays on two facets of Jesus’ crucifixion, one of which is usually emphasized to the detriment of the other.  One the one hand, the cross did display the power of weakness the shame the strong, the total abandonment of human power and the acceptance of a shameful and common death – the death of slaves and traitors.  This is the Christology seen in Paul, who tells us that God’s power is “made perfect in weakness.”  The cross is the prime example of this.

On the other hand, Jesus’ torture and execution required a great deal of fortitude, will, physical endurance and spiritual strength.  Paul told Timothy that God gave us a Spirit of love and discipline, but also of power.  The Bible is clear that the anointed of the Lord do receive power from on high – they slay Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, administer kingdoms, suffer torture and imprisonment.  And so, while the cross is a display of weakness, it is also an exhibition of spiritual strength par excellence.

These are hard to hold in tension.  For instance: Neoconservatives who love Jesus will emphasize power and control, the Pantocrator, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and the strength that comes from conviction and duty.  Pacifists and many more Christians who trend left will,  on the other hand, emphasize the weakness of Jesus (and the church) and the power of holy defeat to overcome the strength of the world.  They are both theologies of the cross, but of very different varieties.

I respect Mr. Frank for being open about his Christian convictions, and for attempting (in his own fashion) to get “the message” out there.  But here, as usual, popular expressions of Christianity lack both theological substance and intellectual nuance.  Sigh.  These folks mean well, and have given us a good opportunity to think about the meaning and message of the cross.  There are worse things to sell than Jesus MMA shirts.

At any rate, Jesus did tap.  Thanks be to God.

667 views
%d bloggers like this: