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American Gods: On Mawmaw’s Faith in Hillbilly Elegy

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s powerful memoir, we meet an amazing character: Mamaw.  Vance’s grandmother, Mamaw is simultaneously the fiercest and most supportive person in his young life. She’s equal parts endearing and terrifying.  Mamaw read her Bible every night, but wasn’t afraid to grab a gun and aim it at the center mass of anyone who threatened her family.  She’s fascinating, to put it mildly.  Vance, in naming her deepest commitments, describes her thus: “Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.”

Throughout history, Christians have had a variety of different relationships with governing authorities. In many times and places (including today), Christians find themselves oppressed by state power. On occasion, the church has been formally tied to governmental authority (think early Medieval Europe, or the late Roman Empire).  Even when not in power directly, at times Christians find that they can and do support the state, while in other contexts Christians must oppose the state.  This diversity of approach is represented in Scripture; government, when it is serving  its God-given purpose, is something like the portrayal in Romans 13.  The emperor “does not bear the sword in vain” but is an agent of justice.

On the other hand, when government is in full rebellion against God, when Caesar is truly evil and the state is failing in its purpose, it is under judgment like the Beast of Revelation 13.  This is why, in some circumstances, Christian fidelity might look like (relative) support of the state or (relative) opposition to the state.  Amid the complexities of actual history, this is clearly a scale, not a binary – and in most situations there are some things the church can support and others she must resist in various ways.

The description of Mawmaw’s priorities reminds me of the important distinction between nationalism and patriotism.  A Christian can be a patriot, and locate themselves anywhere on that scale.  Nationalism is a different animal, though, and one that really is not a Christian option.  Here is the best definition I’ve seen of the difference:

Patriotism is fundamental to liberty because pride in one’s nation-state, and a willingness to defend it if necessary, is the basis of national independence. Patriotism is the courage of national self-determination.

By contrast, nationalism is patriotism transformed into a sentiment of superiority and aggression toward other countries. Nationalism is the poisonous idea that one’s country is superior to somebody else’s. Nationalism is intrinsically a cause of war and imperialism.

The first option is open to, but not required, of Christians.  Augustine describes persuasively in City of God how bonds of affection naturally develop between an individual and the geography and culture in which they live, no matter how secondary such bonds are to a Christian’s identification with the Heavenly CIty.

Nationalism, however, is antithetical to the gospel because it fails to locate pride of place in a proper order of loyalties.  To put it simply, insofar as the nationalist’s love of country rivals or is greater than their love of God, it becomes a form of idolatry.  The patriot, on the other hand, might be able to recognize the kind of failure of vocation described in Revelation 13, having properly sifted their love of country through the sieve of the gospel.  Nationalism can only ever be blind.

I learned the phrase “chastened patriot” from one of my intellectual heroes, the late University of Chicago public intellectual Jean Bethke Elsthain.  It was her way of expressing an Augustinian conviction which holds together both the need for the good order provided by government and the finitude found in even the best organizational scheme that humans can concoct.

I’m not sure if Vance’s Mawmaw was a chastened patriot or not, but she is described like many Christians I’ve known, particularly in the US South: their religiosity and their love of country are almost one in the same.  They might tell you that God is first in their life, but in truth, July 4 might be, for their family, an equally important holiday to Easter.  In terms of identity, they will tear up for Lee Greenwood before they will Isaac Watts.  Of course, Mawmaw’s faith, like that of so many other adherents to civil religion, is classic American Protestantism: it has almost nothing to do with the Christian community.

As a response to the sort of undiluted nationalism of the Mawmaws out there, many Christians (especially since last year’s election) have rediscovered their Anabaptist streak, looking for any chance to oppose the powers that be.  This – while necessary, as examples like Barmen, Romero, Bonhoeffer, and King make clear – can become another form of idolatry, if taken too far.  All governments stand under God’s judgment.  Our job as Christians is not, first, to make history turn out right.  Let us be known, first, for whose we are, not what we stand against.

To wrap up our Christian identity in either supporting or opposing Caesar gives him far too much credit.  Stick to Jesus. Let him, not your love for or hatred of any Caesar, be your guide.

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Where All Our Thinking Begins and Ends: On the Centrality of Jesus

Where does thinking about God, or people, or the world begin?  For Christians, there is a very particular answer to this question: Jesus.

I was in a discussion with someone recently about the use of the traditional Trinitarian description of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This individual had a dislike for naming the First Person ‘Father,’ and saw little utility in using that language.  When pressed, the argument was that this person had their own individual experience of God, and thus what they decided to call God should be as reflective of their encounter as was Jesus’  relationship with God, which led him to call God Father.  The implication was quite clear: Jesus’ experience of God was but one of many, and his understanding and/or description of God is no more or no less determinative than any other.

This is, of course, a perfectly reasonable argument for someone to make who is not committed to the Christian movement.  If one believes, as many faiths and individuals do, that Jesus was only a holy teacher, a wonder-worker, an apocalyptic prophet, or a misunderstood peasant, then of course Jesus’ own narration of the divine-human encounter is just one of many.

Everything changes, though, if we believe Jesus was and is God, and that in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we are given the fullest glimpse possible of who and what God is like.

Karl Barth is famous for placing Jesus, the Word of God, at the center of Christian life and thought.  Among his greatest contributions to theology in his famous (and massive!) Church Dogmatics is his re-narration of the Calvinist doctrine of election.  For Barth, election is first about the election of Jesus, not individual Christians or non-Christians, and the election of the rest humanity is only understood secondarily and derivatively from that election.  Thus, on his reading of predestination the church is committed to

…the unsearchable majesty of the good-pleasure with which God has from all eternity and in all eternity both the right and the power to dispose of the world and us, in which as God He has in fact disposed of us and the world, so that His eternal will is the Alpha and Omega with which all our thinking about the world and ourselves must begin and end.

In this emphasis on Jesus, Barth shows himself to be, in some ways, simply a careful reader of Scripture and proclaimer of the Gospel.  (He was, before he was known as a theologian, a Reformed parish preacher.)  After all, the New Testament operates by a similar logic: everything is different because of Jesus. Everything, from the bottom up, including the Torah, economics, ethnicity, holiness – all of it! – must be rethought in and through Jesus.

Here’s one example.  Notice how 1 John 4:8-11 (NRSV) narrates loving others and describes God’s nature as love.  For John, we know what love is not because there is some abstract, ethereal concept (as in a Platonic form) called love that exists “out there,” but rather we know what love is because God sent the Son to be the atonement for our sins:

Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

For John, like Barth, we only know what love is because God sent the Son. The truth is known, the deepest reality is apprehensible, not by our individual experience or keen reasoning, but by God’s self-revelation in Jesus, in whom our thinking begins and ends.  Likewise, we know how to live not because of our own ethical imperatives or innate morality, but because we live as a response to the love God has shown us. “Since God loved us so much,” John said, “we also ought to love one another.” (v. 11)

There is popular meme I have on my office door in which Barth says, “The answer is Jesus.”  Like Jeopardy, the answer comes first.  Then, he concludes, “What’s the question?”

I know of no other way to read Scripture or exegete the world around us as Christians except in, by, and through Christ.  If Jesus is who the Church has always said he is – Alpha and Omega, Son of God, Immanuel, Messiah, Christ, Word of God, Second Person of the Trinity – there is no other way to think and live Christianly.

In a Christian grammar, Jesus is not one of many ways to God.  He is not a mere teacher or prophet.  The Word is not one experience of God to be placed side-by-side with others, including my own.  He is not a guide among many other guides.  Jesus is God, while also being fully human.  He is the best window we have, short of the eschaton “when [our] faith shall be sight,” of God.

If our thinking and living bypasses Jesus, or makes him secondary to any other lens, concern, guru, or hermeneutic, we are doing something other than Christian living and thinking.

 

Source: Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics (Study Edition 10): Volume II, 32-33 (London: T&T Clark, 2010)

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The Real Jesus is Not on TV

by Drew 4 Comments

During the lead up to Christmas and Easter each year, there is a spat of programming around biblical and theological themes – specifically about the life of Jesus.  (As I write this during Holy Week 2017, CNN and PBS are running especially grotesque examples of this genre.)  This is a pop culture equivalent of the fascination that many scholars and pseudo-scholars have shared throughout the centuries, from the earliest gnostics to the 20th century Jesus Seminar.  Unfortunately, most of these are attempts to reconstruct a “real” Jesus more adaptable and interesting to the popular culture of whatever time and place, rather than diving more deeply into the Biblical and patristic record.

From the first, the church has endorsed a variety of views on Jesus.  We have four gospels in the New Testament, when we might have had one.  Of course, many so-called gospels have been rejected by the church as well (these rejected gospels provide the grist for the mill of the biannual “NEW SECRETS OF JESUS” programming we continually endure).  In this morass of various Jesus’ on offer, how do we determine true from false savior?

The esteemed Emory professor Luke Timothy Johnson, recently retired, provides a helpful sieve in his polemic work The Real Jesus, which took ruthless aim at the specious scholarship of the Jesus Seminar.  According to Johnson, the real Jesus of the gospels and the tradition has a story with very clear lines:

When the witness of the New Testament is taken as a whole, a deep consistency can be detected beneath the surface diversity. The “real Jesus” is first of all the powerful, resurrected Lord whose transforming Spirit is active in the community….the one who through the Spirit replicates in the lives of believers faithful obedience to God and loving service to others. Everywhere in these writings the image of Jesus involves the tension-filled paradox of death and resurrection, suffering and glory.

Within the New Testament, no other pattern joins the story of Jesus and that of his followers. Discipleship does not consist in a countercultural critique of society. Discipleship does not consist in working overwhelming miracles. These elements of the Jesus tradition are not made normative in the way that the pattern of obedient suffering and loving service is.

In other words, the real Jesus cannot be known apart from the clear arc of his story in the New Testament: sacrificial service, radical love, death and resurrection.  Any other Jesus is a reconstruction – and, as Schweitzer noted almost a century ago – most likely a self-aggrandizing fiction.  This takes away the edge, the beauty, and the heart of the Jesus we meet in the New Testament.

I’ll let Johnson have the last word:

For our present age, in which the “wisdom of the world” is expressed in individualism, narcissism, preoccupation with private rights, and competition, the “wisdom of the cross” is the most profoundly countercultural message of all.  Instead of an effort to rectify the distorting effect of the Gospel narratives, the effort to reconstruct Jesus according to some other pattern appears increasingly as an attempt to flee the scandal of the gospel. (p. 166)

Do you agree with Johnson’s portrait of “the real Jesus?” Why are we continually attracted to visions of Jesus that outside of the earliest witnesses? Leave a comment below!

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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.

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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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A Gloomy Church is No Church

Christ is risen!barth prayer.jpg

(Christ is risen indeed!)

The church is founded on the resurrection of Christ.  In the light of this, the church – God’s people, not the buildings in which we happen the gather – cannot be gloomy.  The Easter joy is contagious and pervasive. Recently my congregation sang the classic Brian Wren hymn that contains these lines:

“Christ is risen! Earth and heaven
Nevermore shall be the same.
Break the bread of new creation
Where the world is still in pain.
Tell its grim, demonic chorus:
Christ is risen! Get you gone!
God the First and Last is with us,
Sing Hosanna, everyone!”

Pain is not absent after Easter, but it is also not finally victorious.  We can “tell its grim, demonic chorus” – with a shout of alleluia! – that Christ is risen, and nothing else can ever be the same.

In his wonderful little book on the Lord’s Prayer, Karl Barth reflects that in the death and resurrection of Christ, the kingdom has already been accomplished:

“In Jesus Christ the world has reached its end and its purpose. Therefore, the last day, the judgment, the resurrection of the dead, all this is already fulfilled in him. It is not only an event to be awaited, it is behind us. We must understand that in him it is also a past event. When the church speaks of Jesus Christ, when it proclaims his word, when it believes in the gospel, when it goes out to the pagans to make known the gospel, when it prays to God, remembers Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. Those are not ordinary historical events to which we would give a mere religious significance (telling ourselves: that is all very well, but indeed it means nothing). No! They are not nothing. They are all that has happened and is behind us. We proclaim the word made flesh, and we announce the kingdom of God which has come. When it is not jubilant, when it is not sure of its significance, the church cannot be insistent and is not insistent. A sad and gloomy church is not the church! For the church is built upon him who has been made flesh, upon him who has come to say the last word (not the next to last). This last word has already been uttered. We live upon this event. There is nothing more in it to be changed. We cannot turn back time, whose beginning is Christmas and Easter.”

There is much anxiety about Christianity in the West.  Fear and despair abound among laity and church leaders alike.  It is easy to understand how gloom, like a slow-acting poison, might seep in.

But let us remember, with Barth, that in Christ, all has been accomplished.  Let us with joy recall that at Pentecost the Spirit gave birth to the church, and we have been promised that “the gates of hell” will not prevail against her. (Matt. 16:18)  We thus greet gloom and doom with the fierce smile of a competitor who knows the game is rigged in our favor.

Christ is risen! Earth and heaven nevermore shall be the same!

Let us show it in our words and actions, in our attitudes, in our boldness and daring to be the church, to claim our story, to be true to Christ and thus filled with the Spirit whose abiding fruit is joy unmixed with gloom.

 

Source: Karl Barth, Prayer: 50th Anniversary Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 37.

 

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The Only Free Person: Jesus

Only truly free person who has have lived is Jesus, the Christ, Son of God.water and spirit

In the 21st century West, we tend to think of freedom negatively as freedom from: from constraint, morality, obligation, limitation.  Our icons are lone rangers like Rambo and the Marlboro Man.  One person against the world, without care, without accountability to anything outside (much less above) the self.  This is freedom as it is commonly spoken of today.  If you don’t believe it, ask 6 out of 10 millennials what their relationship status is or what they think about having children.

Jesus offers a different model of freedom altogether.

Jesus was free because he was obedient.  His liberty was based not in freedom from all outside constraint, but because his life was forfeit to the Father.  His was freedom for: for the Father, for his mission to Israel and the Gentiles, for the inauguration of the Kingdom.

Alexander Schmemann, reflecting on baptism in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, argues that the one who bows is the only one who is free:

And how truly noble, truly human and genuinely free are those who still know what it means to bow before the High and the Holy, the True and the Beautiful, who know what reverence and respect are; who know that bowing down before God is the true condition of freedom and dignity. Indeed Christ is the one truly free man, because He was obedient to His Father to the end and did nothing but the Father’s will. To join the Church alway has meant to enter into Christ’s obedience and to find it the truly divine freedom of man. (Of Water and the Spirit, 34)

To be a Christian, a member of the body of Christ, is to participate in “Christ’s obedience” and discover that true freedom is to incandescent with God’s grace. “He must increase, and I must decrease” is not a figure of speech, it is the via salutis (way of salvation). (John 3:30)

The radical call of the gospel is that any other freedom is merely shadow and illusion.  In bowing before our Creator, we discover the only freedom that is not self-negating, because we are imitating the one truly free person.

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Jesus: The Way or Just Another Path?

by Drew 8 Comments
Christ Pantocrator from a dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons.

Christ Pantocrator from a dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons.

Is Jesus a unique revelation of God, or one of many sages or prophets who point us to the Transcendent?  Is he God in the flesh, or just another means for my personal growth and self-affirmation?

In John 14:6, Jesus makes a claim that was as startling then as it is today:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In the commentary from his excellent For Everyone series, retired bishop and St. Andrews professor N.T. Wright puts the ensuing controversy thus:

How dare he, people have asked. How dare John, or the church, or anyone else, put such words into anyone’s mouth? Isn’t this the height of arrogance, to imagine that Jesus or anyone else was the only way? Don’t we now know that this attitude has done untold damage around the world, as Jesus’ followers have insisted that everyone else should give up their own ways of life and follow his instead? I know people, professing Christians, for whom it seems that their central article of faith is their rejection of this idea of Jesus’ uniqueness.

I echo Wright’s observation that many Christians seem rather embarrassed by this passage, quick to dismiss it or downplay it.  Such folks are especially found in mainline and progressive evangelical circles.  There is a reason Lesslie Newbigin named this phenomenon “the scandal of particularity.”  It is a scandal that God calls a particular people (Israel).  Likewise it goes against all our enlightened notions of tolerance, of our axiomatic faith in the equal validity of every possible religious expression, to take Jesus at his word when he claims to be the unique path to truth and life.

As Wright notes, however, when we reject this truth, the medicine is worse than the illness:

The trouble with this is that it doesn’t work. If you dethrone Jesus, you enthrone something, or someone, else instead. The belief that ‘all religions are really the same’ sounds nice and democratic—though the study of religions quickly shows that it isn’t true. What you are really saying if you claim that they’re all the same is that none of them are more than distant echoes, distorted images, of reality. You’re saying that ‘reality’, God, ‘the divine’, is remote and unknowable, and that neither Jesus nor Buddha nor Moses nor Krishna gives us direct access to it. They all provide a way towards the foothills of the mountain, not the way to the summit.

This is why the overwrought sermon illustration about the blind Hindustani – in which several blind sages try to describe an elephant by touch and they each declare that their part is the whole beast – is so misleading.  The only way one can argue that every religious truth is equally valid is to claim a fictional place of neutrality to all beliefs AND do violence by leveling every faith tradition.  This is re-heated Enlightenment ideology run amok, and it’s as patronizing as it is false.  We do not have to grind every faith down to some fictional core essence (see picture to the left) and pretend they all have the same conceptions of the divine, of values, of the ends of life in order to get along with others of differing beliefs.  We actually honor our Muslim or Buddhist neighbors more by engaging the fullness of their traditions as they describe them than by pushing every religion through a sieve of modernist bias so that we can compare similar crumbs of truth.

Nothing less than the New Testament witness is at stake here.

It isn’t just John’s gospel that you lose if you embrace this idea. The whole New Testament—the whole of early Christianity—insists that the one true and living God, the creator, is the God of Israel; and that the God of Israel has acted decisively, within history, to bring Israel’s story to its proper goal, and through that to address, and rescue, the world. The idea of a vague general truth, to which all ‘religions’ bear some kind of oblique witness, is foreign to Christianity. It is, in fact, in its present form, part of the eighteenth-century protest against Christianity—even though some people produce it like a rabbit out of a hat, as though it was quite a new idea.

Another way this gets argued is by folks who describe themselves as Christians but are clearly uncomfortable with the divinity of Christ.  If Jesus is primarily a sage, a healer, or a prophet declaring the righteous justice of God, then his divinity becomes

incidental.  Allan Bevere notes in an importance piece,

Jesus is much less challenging as my buddy than as the way, truth, and life.

Jesus is much less challenging as my buddy than as the way, truth, and life.

Much contemporary theology has been quite deficient…by attempting to keep the significance of Jesus, while denying the necessity of his identity as the God-Man.

The way to clicks and headlines in contemporary Christianity is to claim that Jesus was everything BUT God in Jewish flesh: an activist, a Republican, an African-American, transgender, a capitalist, a rabble-rouser, a defender of the status quo, a teacher, a comedian, or the ideal member of the proletariat.  Stanley Hauerwas, in his characteristic wit, likes to argue that Jesus was bald (because of the patristic dictum, “what he has not assumed, he has not healed”).

Of course, the fact that Jesus’ life and teaching relates to us on so many levels is wonderful, a testimony to his ongoing appeal to folks in all walks of life across time space.  But all such reflection should be a celebration of the beauty of the incarnation, the radical affirmation that God has become flesh and never ceased being God.

The moment, however, that it’s more important to make Jesus affirm my identity than it is to affirm his divinity, we’ve dramatically reduced the Jesus we meet in the New Testament.  To make Jesus primarily an agent of personal affirmation or some other selfish purpose is to make incoherent the Jesus of John 14.  Instead of the way, the truth, and the life, we are left with a way, some truth, and my life.

Source: Wright, T. (2004). John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 (pp. 59–60). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Accessed via Logos 6.

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Jesus Was a Refugee From Terrorism

by Drew 5 Comments

Jesus was a refugee from state-sponsored terrorism in Egypt.

Courtesy James-Michael Smith, via jmsmith.org.

Courtesy James-Michael Smith, via jmsmith.org.

That rings more sharply than I intend. The “Jesus was ____” move is sometimes overplayed and unhelpful (and often not really about Jesus). But in this case, it is simply a fact, not a rhetorical ploy. This insight comes to us straight from Scripture, from the savior’s own story: Jesus and his family found refuge in Egypt:

When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.
-Matthew 2:13-15 (CEB)

There is a plague of fear in our culture. It is not of God, because “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) and because we are commanded everywhere and always to care for the well-being of others as much or more than our own. This anti-gospel is everywhere. Most of us, though, can’t see it. Like fish swimming in the ocean, we don’t know we are in water.

Everywhere in the Bible, when God appears, the first word is, “Do not be afraid.” Everywhere in our world we are told, “Be afraid, be very afraid, and especially be afraid of ____.” In this case, it is refugees (which is really just an extension of the fear of immigrants as a whole, which itself is just the good ol’ fear of difference that easily morphs into hatred and prejudice).

We have been down this God-forsaking road before. In 1939, the US refused entry to nearly 1000 Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany. Some found refuge in Europe, many later died in the demonic machinery of the Holocaust:

In a highly publicized event in May–June 1939, the United States refused to admit over 900 Jewish refugees who had sailed from Hamburg, Germany, on the St. Louis. The St. Louis appeared off the coast of Florida shortly after Cuban authorities cancelled the refugees’ transit visas and denied entry to most of the passengers, who were still waiting to receive visas to enter the United States. Denied permission to land in the United States, the ship was forced to return to Europe. The governments of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium each agreed to accept some of the passengers as refugees. Of the 908 St. Louis passengers who returned to Europe, 254 (nearly 28 percent) are known to have died in the Holocaust. 288 passengers found refuge in Britain. Of the 620 who returned to the continent, 366 (just over 59 percent) are known to have survived the war.

The Good Samaritan was so-named because he helped the man on the side of the road, beaten and bloody, while the good religious people walked on by.

love syriansGod help me – and I mean that literally, because I am not yet perfect – I’d rather be a Good Samaritan than a pious man passing by who is indifferent to suffering out of fear or caution.

Christians are not allowed the luxury of living based on worst-case scenarios and calculations of how many of a given group might wish us harm.

We are called to a holy foolishness that welcomes the stranger in trust and in hope that we may be welcoming an angel unawares. (Heb. 13:2) It was not that long ago that we turned away Jewish refugees from Germany. It is always easier to fear the stranger than it is to welcome them, just as the mire of sin is always more easy and natural than the graced road of sanctification.

American Christians, left and right, are almost to a person slaves to culture; sometimes that culture is all permissiveness and “tolerance,” so-called, and other times it is obsessed with building walls and circling the wagons. By and large Christians reflect these trends rather than offering a gospel-conditioned critique from what is supposed to be an alternative community. As Martin Luther King Jr. said so eloquently, we tend to be thermometers and not thermostats.survey 1938

But Jesus was a refugee, fleeing slaughter in the town of his birth with his family. To reject refugees in our communities and churches now, is nothing less than rejecting Jesus.

As strangers to the world and her ways, Christians should always have a bias towards loving and welcoming the strangers in our midst. This is especially so when those strangers are fleeing violence and chaos. If that bias is not in evidence – and other, less virtuous biases are – the natural question follows: have we even met Jesus?

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