Why in the Hell does Hell Matter? Moltmann helps us think the bad place

hell

Christianity is a religion of hope, unless of course your hope is in hell, in which case hell is your hope as the binary opposite of its cohort heaven. Hell is necessary because heaven is; one is not intelligible without the other.

But what is that really animates this our idea of hell and why do we hold onto it so tightly, a refined idea of the “afterlife” or “punishment” handed down to us via the logic of ancient peoples who lived in a 3 tiered universe?
Hell is currently such a flippant idea for so many. Millions believe in it, yet they do not live as if it’s a pending reality. But this is the incredible thing about belief: We can believe and that belief makes it real, even if the idea of the belief makes no material difference in our daily lives. Or perhaps, our actions discloses our true belief and we should learn what in the hell we believe in at all, as our mind says one thing and our hands say another.

Because lets be real. If people, millions of Christians, really believed in an “eternal” torment known as hell and they really really really wanted their loved ones to avoid it, how could we not quit our jobs and make a full time effort of warning others? If this was a firm belief, one of which we were thoroughly convinced, then surely we could not continue to meander through the distractions of modern society with all those going to hell without rushing toward them in great fear and trembling at the destruction and eternal pain that awaits all those that do not make the right choice of belief!

Seems to me, if Hell were a reality, then we would have no time to spare or energy to waste but in convincing everyone we can of this horrible horrible place.

Fact is, we don’t. 

We shake hands and nod at one another at church. We believe what the “bible says” (whatever that means) and we carry on, as if hell is this distant land that will never matter in the here and now.

So what animates our obsession with hell and our fantastic ideas of it? Why do we NEED this logic, a logic of separation, punishment, a peculiar idea of the character of God? Why in the hell is hell so important and is our logic of it illogical at best?

For many ancient peoples, Hell was a means of talking about destruction, particularly to the fiery elements that would eventually destroy creation.  The early church picked up on this wonderful usage of fire and used fire to burn heretics, returning the elements of the body very literally into the elements of the earth.  This process purging creation and punishing the victim simultaneously.  Hell, at its end, contained the idea of final separation from God, a reality that was somehow conscious to those without a consciousness at that point.

Yet, all the ideas of hell that we seem to possess and the flippant way in which we praise or ponder over this opposite of where none of us are headed, are really only possible because of our historical amnesia. We talk about hell like children and pissed off preachers because we have never lived it, so we have to contrive it to be what we “think” it to be and somehow buttress those ideas with our religious language and quotes of Jesus. But for people that actually live hell, like Christians in Mosul, Iraq, they have no need to invent wide eyed galleries of fire, men and women screaming in torment as they suffer burns from the bodies they don’t have and ponder endlessly how they did not make the right “choice.”

These Christians live hell; they have no need to imagine it.

As Moltmann suggests in his brief discourse on hell, there is no denying the reality of hell. Hell is understood as a total annihilation. In ancient times, fire was the ultimate annihilator from which nothing returned; in modern times, we have found hells in gas ovens in Europe, Christians in Rwanda having their children chopped up and tossed into rivers and Christians in Chile being tortured under the regime of Pinochet in the 70’s.

 Hell is…but it is so conveniently full of hope for many of us who believe in its opposite, for no hope in hell means no heaven to gain.

We hear sermons on hell and we are so calloused against all the hells on this earth because of our misunderstanding of some greater hell that even those experiencing hell today should consider as greater than being decapitated, their wives raped and their houses burned.

That’s a hell of a way to make the point that we care nothing about what hell really is, only what we want it to be during our benign bible studies.

For People who are awaiting the Hell of a tribulation period in the Book of Revelation, they have never known hell, seen it, and have no business talking about tribulation. Just because it hasn’t happened to us doesn’t mean we can confiscate this idea and doctor it up with the fanciful opposite of the Roman Road to salvation. Give me a break people…what the hell are we doing? This is Gospel?

At its end, Hell is illogical. It makes no sense because at its bottom, as Moltmann tells us, hell is not the logical end of the end; it is the logical end of human free will.

The logic is as follows. God who is love, preserves our human free will as a loving act. God has also, via love, went to the furthest ends to save humanity (from ourselves presumably) and give us the choice to save ourselves from destruction via Jesus the Christ. Even though God wants all people to be saved, there is a chance that our free will can reject God. Thus, the loving thing for God to do is to offer rescue, continue to maintain our free will to choose God, or we choose our own destruction in the place we have never seen but seem to know so much about.

Yet Moltmann presses us. He asks, “Does God’s love preserve our free will or does it free our enslaved will, which has become un-free through the power of sin? Does God free men and women, or does he seek the men and women who have become lost?”

For people who believe in an uber depraved nature of humanity, it is surprising we have so positive a view of free will, as if our depraved selves know a good “decision” when we see one, especially a decision of eternal consequences.

For Moltmann this logic of hell crumbles under two pressing points, which also open up a more biblical and theologically responsible way of considering the origination of the idea and necessity of hell.

First, for Moltmann, this logic of hell is inhumane and illogical. Inhumane because there are too many universal contingencies that seem to remove free will from the equation of folks being able to save themselves with their “choice.” Think handicapped people, jungle tribes, babies who die early (yes I know evangelicals have domesticated these answers with the mysterious “age of accountability” but the church historically took it seriously, making sure to baptize people who clearly could not make a choice like dying folks, physically impaired folks and babies). Also think God’s “chosen people” who are unable to choose Christ yet are bearers of the promise of God. How is this problem solved without tumbling into supercessionism?

The logic is illogical because as Moltmann points out, “there are not many people who can enjoy free will where their eternal fate in heaven or hell is concerned.” In others words, it’s not really a choice. It’s the choiceless choice that we mask as a choice to feel good about the choice we made and excuse all the sinners to be damned for their bad choice.

Really, those of who live by a logic of hell suspend two ideals in balance that are contradictory.

We want to hold in the balance God’s power, providence, love and desire to save us because we are depraved and cannot save ourselves. By grace we are saved through faith. Yet we hold to the idea that we are not really deprived as badly as we would like because we can really make a good decision concerning our salvation, so there is an element that is not “corrupt” known as a our will, that can affect our reason to supersede our deprivation. Thus we are doomed to God’s provision, but God’s provision is held hostage to our unfallen will and the ability we have to enact it. How strange for a people that believe in sin and the total otherness that is the reality of God.

Or in Moltmann’s questioning it sounds like this, “How firm must our own decision of faith be if it is to preserve us from total non-being? Anyone who faces men and women with the choice of heaven and hell, does not merely expect too much of them. It leaves them in uncertainty because we cannot base the assurance of our own salvation on the shaky ground of our own decisions. If we think about these questions, we have to come to the conclusion that in the end not many will be with God in heaven…or is the presupposition of the logic of hell an illusion- the presupposition that it all depends on human free will?”

In other words, how resolute must our decision be if it is so monumental that it carries with it such metaphysical implications? Is there any human anywhere with that kind of resoluteness? And if not, then the idea of salvation is not necessarily negated but is it thoroughly rested in the idea of God and God’s salvific purposes which are too heavy for the weight of human will but perfectly comfortable in the relation of God in Christ that negates free will in a later descent into hell, a descent that does not ask our will to participate in it and a descent that properly orders our idea of hell.

Second, the logic of hell is incredibly atheistic accordingly to Moltmann. For in this idea and transaction of hell, the human is her own Lord or God because only in using that will is God’s power enacted, making God subject to the depraved nature of a human will. God has no power here. God is impotent; here God is merely the genie in the lamp that is powerless unless we rub its side and tell him our wills desires. “If I decide for heaven, God must put me there; If I decide for hell, then God will put me there.”

God, who is providential and almighty, is bound to our decisions, impotent in the face of the human mind. We create our own reality or we make our own hell, all through a singular cognitive process. As Moltmann writes, “Humans do not just dispose over their lives here; they decide on their eternal destinies as well…after God created us free as we are, he leaves us to our own decisions. Carried to this ultimate conclusion, the logic of hell is secular humanism, as Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche already perceived a long time ago.”

But all of this was not the originary nature of the idea of hell. Neither must we be content to live with a full blown humanism nor an illogical idea of faith that believes contradictions and calls them biblical.

Christian ideas of hell are intimately linked to the separation of reality from God, but not as we would like. Hell is important because Christ descended into it; it is not important because of our bastardization of the concept in modern times. Hell has no need to fill it with our ideas of it, for hell is. It is not there, or far; it is here and near. We can marshall all the metaphysical arguments we want against hell and the pagan ideas that germinated alongside Christianity, and we may be correct in our arguments, yet reality tells hell is still felt by many today. It is experienced. It is real. It is the place into which Christ goes.

Hell needs Christ, and Christ needs hell, not because Christ needs a destination for our bad choices, but because Christ passes over the gulf of fire and annihilation to dwell with us there as long as necessary, emerging victorious.

Moltmann accentuates this activity when he writes, “it is pointless to deny hell. It is a possibility that is constantly around us and within us. In this situation, the gospel about Christ’s descent into hell is particularly relevant: Christ suffered the inescapable remoteness from God and the God-forsakeness that knows no way out, so that he could bring God to the God-forsaken. He comes to seek that which is lost.”

Christ, therefore, brought hope where there was none. Christ came to the place where all hope has been abandoned and made it hopeful, providing a means of overcoming its isolation.

Hell is not some place in the netherworld where bad people go when they die and it defies reason to think that God needs binary rewards to give to his good kids while he tosses his bad kids out to pasture. For those of us who have kids, we understand how dangerous it would be to allow them to make choices of such import and consequence. Hell matters because Christ experienced it and brought hope into it, destroying its finality, ensuring that is it no longer the final word that so many Christians wish it to be.

God’s graceful act toward the world is not dependent on the efficacious acts of our choosing. In a world of rampant consumerism, surely the banality of choice can make sense to us. No, God’s universal grace is not grounded in hell, or heaven, or the grounding of both of those in humanism (even if it’s a humanism affirmed by your local preacher).

God’s grace is grounded in the cross that eclipses hell, rather than firmly establish its possibility.

While I mourn that so many of us want the final last words of God to be those of condemnation and judgment, feeling that our right choice should be rewarded (think older son in the prodigal narrative here), scripture tells us a different story. In the Bible, judgment is not the final word. Hell is not the final abode of the world. The earth does not burn and turn to a cosmic bowling ball being hurled by God across the Milky Way.

No, the final word is not Hell and God doesn’t need your choice to make it happen.

Get over yourself.

The final word is, “Behold I make all things new”…and from this the Bible exempts no one.

*Source for the Moltmann material for this blog is: “The Logic of Hell” in God Will Be All in All, ed. Richard Bauckham (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 43-47.

Sex is Divine: Zizek, Jayadeva and the radicality of Incarnation

Jayadeva

When the falsely innocent Christlike figure of pure suffering and sacrifice for oursake tells us: “I want nothing from you!” fails miserably – we should not forget that these are the exact words used by the Priest to designate the court in Kafka’s Trial: “The court wants nothing from you.”  When the falsely innocent Christlike figure of pure suffering and sacrifice for our sake tells us: “I don’t want anything from you!,” we can be sure that this statement conceals a qualification “…except your very soul.”  When somebody insists that he wants nothing that we have, it simply means that he has his eye on what we are, on the very core of our being.

 

Wondrous dwarf, when you cheat demon Bali with side steps

Water falls from your lotus toenails to purify creatures.

You take form as a Dwarf, Krishna.

Triumph, Hari, Lord of the World.

 

The incarnation is the perverse core of Christianity and the perverse core of the perverted god’s that desire the absolution of a person for the sake of their own divine egos.  The incarnation has historically been the doctrine of the divine overtaking the human form in the person of Jesus and using this medium to exact divine revenge and quench the thirst for the apparent ontological masochistic necessity that the God of the Bible seems to display.  What sort of God is this that takes over our way of being, the form of our human flesh, and uses it to appease his own ineptitude of not securing a tree in the Garden that would not be violated?  Could we not have saved our flesh had this God not created this obvious temptation?  This is what a pervert does and this is the practice of perversion.  The pervert sacrifices the innocence of another person in order to gain something from them, typically sexually.

Sex and violence have always been partners.  How useful is a doctrine of the incarnation if it is continually used to reinforce a theology of perversion and furthermore place the object that it sacrifices, humanity, into
the debt of the God that asks for the sacrifice?

This is the string that is attached.  Christ has died, and in this required death, we are in debt, even though God does not need our currency.  If this is the case, than why require the currency of flesh?  Sigmund Freud was right, we do owe death a debt.  Only the debt we owe, as so finely articulated by Zizek above, is the debt of our being, our flesh, because the Christ figure has given us his being, his flesh.  There must be an alternative way.  The divine has always been playing games that have not limited their play to the fertile crescent.  Jayadeva also plays similar games of violation and psychologically twisted debtful obligation.

I will argue below that by reading the incarnation through the work of Zizek and Jayadeva, one is left with the incarnation as a sexual ethic that is embodied between two people.

Zizek argues for the end of the incarnation as a transcendent referent and for a more embodied discourse that takes on the Pauline insistence of ethical living.  Jayadeva makes very clear that the incarnation is the articulation encounter one has had with the Big Other (read God) that typically occurs under the auspices of a sexual encounter.  While the encounter that Jayadeva describes is thoroughgoing sexual, one needs to penetrate beneath the sexuality to the core that pushes the encounter to occur in the first place.  This is known as the drive or Freud’s Trieb, even though this methodology may be a trifle anachronistic (we all read from somewhere).

The trieb is not only the locale that cannot be localized, it is also the thing deep within oneself that longs for the fulfillment and rest that can only occur, according to Jayadeva, in the encounter with Hari.  When the trieb is left empty, it is sorrowful and lacking.  It is the mourning Rada.  The body demonstrates outward signs of mourning, until the Divine, or Hari, once again comes home from wandering and offers a temporary place of rest.  Then the ankle bracelets may resume their ringing, though briefly.

Jayadeva unmistakably articulates the necessity of sexuality for human being/becoming in relation to the divine, particularly as that experience that is best known as jouissance, or painfully pleasurable arrival…or what most Christians call heaven.  Thus, the incarnation is a sexual ethic that is to be lived between people, between two subjects that might not know one another exist.  This is evident in the amount of failed relationships that occur, not because love and sexuality is not present, but because an incarnated sexual ethic is not embodied.  If Jayadeva were writing/righting today, perhaps he would suggest that the only Big Other (read Lacanian sense of Other that is not oneself i.e., structure of language, trauma, or the feminine) that is left is the other of the person.

For Zizek, questions of divine culpability go to the heart of the Christian God.[3]  For this reason, Zizek argues for a radically different approach to a doctrine of the incarnation than may be found in Athanasius’ De Incarnatione.  Zizek spots the perverse core of Christianity, and in so doing the pervert Christianity historically calls God, and calls for the forging of a new direction not located in transcendence.  For Zizek, the incarnation is not a statement about the importance of transcendence, but a statement about the importance of the body, the immanent reality of living people caught in living structures of truth seeking and fulfillment.  God needs the world and drains transcendence in the process.  Jesus, known as the Christ, is the desublimation of the transcendent God of Judaism.  Judaism could never bring God to where it was/is, thus it negated any sort of anthropomorphic identity to the Supreme Creator.  Zizek argues that this negation of anthromorphic concepts, however, necessarily places Judaism on the road to making God man, on the road to Christianity.

Zizek describes it thus,

“it is the Jewish religion which remains an “abstract/immediate” negation of anthropomorphism, and as such, attached to, determined by it in its very negation, whereas it is only Christianity that effectively “sublates” paganism.  The Christian stance is here: instead of prohibiting the image of God, why not, precisely, allow it, and thus render him as JUST ANOTHER HUMAN BEING, as a miserable man indiscernible from other humans with regard to his intrinsic properties?”

For Zizek, what occurs in the incarnation is not the propitiation of sins in the form of a human being or the restoration of the divine image that was lost at the fall, but the handing over of the world to humans.

When Christianity asserts that the divine THING has come in/as Jesus of Nazareth, the THING that is beyond, known as God, is shown to be absent because Jesus is present.  Zizek interprets Jesus as a figure within the symbolic order or the drive/thing/law schemata, wherein the drive toward rest is always directed toward the thing that is supposed to give rest, i.e., God, but such rest is always prohibited from fully resting because of the prohibitions from the Law separate a person from the THING or destination.  Jesus, however, traverses the Law and makes the divine present and therein ends transcendence.  He makes the destination of the drive apprehensible, thus offering a place of rest and an end to the excess of sin that is produced in seeking the relationship with the divine via attempts at becoming divine.

This means that the event of the Christ is not an event that brings one into relationship with the BIG OTHER God.  Christ does not do our work for us and pay our debt through his divine threshold of pain.  Rather, the incarnation, the coming of God to humanity, the shrinking of transcendence, is the event that gives us the chance to be free from our excessive quests for the unattainable THING, God, for in Jesus, says Christianity, God is with us.

Yet, Zizek writes, “Christ is not the contingent material embodiment of the superasensible God: his “divine” dimension is reduced to the aura of pure Schein.”

The Incarnation, therefore, is a statement about the end of transcendence into immanent transcendence in the Christ figure, Jesus.  Jesus as the incarnation is not the living apprehension of an ontological other, but the dismissal of that Other and the freeing of humanity from its haunting and obsessive quests toward something else.  In turn, Zizek argues, this freedom from the excess of looking for the THING that is present in Jesus allows a person to love and act ethically.

What is most important in the incarnation, therefore, is the possibility to embody agape and to act in loving ways toward the opposite sex, abolishing all sexual barriers.  The power of the incarnation to release one from metaphysical whims produces a reality wherein there is no Jew, nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.  No wonder the “Christ was a traumatic scandal.”

Zizek offers readers an alternative reading of the incarnation.  In so doing, he offers readers a different kind of incarnation resulting in the adaptation of an ethic of agape that destabilizes dominant worldviews and begins a constructive theology.  The incarnation is the event that makes true ethical behavior possible because God is (us) with us.  Jayadeva will finalize this embodiment for us.

While Zizek and Jayadeva could be juxtaposed,  together they provide a coherent synthesis and ground upon which incarnation can be expanded to the embodiment of a sexual ethic.

This essay began with the quote, “You take form as a Dwarf, Krishna.”

Krishna, like Jesus, is an embodiment of something.  Both are individuals that come from elsewhere.  Both are individuals that interact with humans and seek to satisfy the excess of the human quest for the place from which Krishna and Jesus come.  Krishna is the coming of the THING.  Unlike much of Christian tradition that places a Law between the THING and the person, Jayadeva is the wall effacer.  There are no restrictions in Jayadeva that could prohibit the person from experiencing the THING of God, except God’s wandering ways and lustful lies.  Jayadeva wants to make St. Teresa’s “coming” a reality, but in so doing one realizes that one cannot really “come” because Hari is never always there, he is always already never there when he is there.

 

When Hari and Rada are together, their experience is beatific and mystical, yet, it is one that does not last.  It leaves both Rada, and Hari (even erstwhile he is promiscuous) wanting for more.  If they had found fulfillment in one another, then the trieb of Hari would be of no consequence.  One cannot help but notice as the poem moves that Hari must be dreaming of others, which he does in fact pursue, “The wondrous mystery of Krishna’s sexual play in Brindaban forest IS Jayadeva’s song.  Let its celebration spread Krishna’s favors.  At the end, however, Krishna exclaims, “Glance at me and end my passion’s despair.”

The poem may be read as the story of unquenchable desire that simply exhausts the ability of the other to end passion whatsoever, particularly the passion of the god’s.  Who/what, after all, can quench a divine libido?

Therefore, one is left with an incarnation of Jayadeva as linguistic explanation after the encounter one has with God or one can argue that the incarnation is the ethic that is not expressed in Jayadeva, thus reading against the texts sexual obtuseness, while at the same time reading with it.  If the incarnation allows for a real ethic, as proclaimed by Zizek, this ethic must look different than is described in Jayadeva, particularly in that Zizek challenges Jayadeva’s insistence on questing after the suppression of passion by attaining the THING, Krishna, God, one’s rest!

If Jesus as incarnation is the power to free one from the excess of trauma, than what does this say about being free from the traumatic effects of the relationships the gods have with people, particularly Rhada?

Reading Zizek alongside of Jayadeva indicts the Gitogavinda for its sexual hierarchy, yet it does locate the place of heaven and incarnation as being between two peoples in sexual encounter.  The sexual encounter is brief and simply complex, but the insistence on its placement in the development of Krishna as a God, and Rhada as the subject receiving the impalement, testifies to the inability to fully describe a REAL sexual encounter, one that is ethically responsible and fulfilling for both parties regardless of the passions that are quenched.  The dialectic is that the moment initiates more moments in hopes of finding the real one.  Rhada and Krisha fall together, they fall apart and then back together again, but they never arrive.  Zizek, however, suggests that this arrival is already here making the journey null and void.

 

 

 

 

 

Be Free in Christ, Ditch the Rules

Joy of living

“One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ.” –Luther

And Jesus said to the masses, “Come to me all ye who are weary and heavy laden…and be introduced to my list of rules.” (Matthew 11.28)

This is the Gospel in modern day America or at least in the conservative South.

Long have we left behind a love for the Word of God, and its many revelatory moments, and shortly have we embraced a Gospel of “do this” and “do that” if you want to be Christian.

Tragically, we may have never even heard the word of God because we have been too busy hearing our own words as the Word of God.

It’s funny actually…thinking we are reading words that tell us God’s Word and only seeing ourselves.  Silly humans who think they believe in Jesus when they really just believe in themselves.

As a kid I grew up in a very conservative bible believing Church.  I was weaned on sermons of the Premillenial Return of Jesus, a church full of backsliding Christians, and mandatory monthly salvation experiences because the sanctification we failed to fully receive last month didn’t quite stick.

The hermeneutic that was employed was largely a very literal reading of the Bible.

The dictum, “the bible says, I believe it, that settles it” would have fit in well.

Far be it from many of them that the bible only says what it says because they were reading it from a particular historical and ideological bend.  I digress.

Even in this setting, it was never blatantly stated, “Come and receive Jesus into your heart and then receive his rules to make sure he stays in your heart.”

This wasn’t spoken, but this was the assumption.

People were not “saved” to freedom.  They were actually “saved” from the bondage of themselves to the bondage of Christ, which ironically often turned into bondage to themselves.

Far be it from all those preachers that St. Augustine had one day said, “Love God and do what you please.”

The Gospel was a call for bondage disguised in a call for freedom.  Only after accepting this Gospel was one plagued with the burden of performing it.  It was sustained by our actions, as if our actions maintained its legitimacy in our lives.

We were invited to altars to be “saved” and we were invoked to “let Jesus into our heart” and after that prayer was prayed we were then introduced to a Christ whose yoke was not easy, whose burden did not give rest and whose eyes were constantly judging our every move.

Where exactly had the goodnews gone?

Was the goodnews, the Gospel, the eventual hope in heaven?  Cause we all knew the bad news, the bad news that by accepting Christ’s salvation we just accepted his rules and became subject to his chastisement and the chastisement of those who “love” him.

The Gospel could inversely be titled, “Get Saved, Get Rules” or to paraphrase a famous hymn, “All things are ready come to the rules…”  Nevermind the feast that only includes Welch’s grape juice.

At least Jesus has been working on a rule book since the Ascension and is preparing that place for us.

At this point, Slavoj Zizek is right.  When Christ asks us for nothing he is really asking us for our everything…he is not asking us to be free…he is asking us to be a slave without real freedom, not even freedom in Christ.  Freedom in Christ functions as a smoke screen to take away the liberty of salvation.

How in the world has the Gospel been reduced to this…to a simple list of rules and held hostage by a faith more dependent on our faithfulness to a fabricated ethic than the faithfulness of Christ?

Why have we preferred the list of Paul’s rules for his robust theology of justification, love, redemption incarnation and resurrection?   Shouldn’t we attempt to understand these ideas so we might better understand any ethical guidance since theological affirmations preceded ethical guidance?

Why have we looked to reinvigorate Leviticus when Jesus brought the end of this world, it’s norms and it’s structures, to a consummation in his resurrection?

Rather than understanding the message of Leviticus via what it is saying, we have emphasized what it is says and foregone its formative function to make a people…a people that Jesus seemed to think could still be created absent a rigid formal adherence to its mandates.

Why have we preferred a flat boring prescriptional Bible that we can easily manipulate and contain in our actions over a living scripture that seeks to challenge us at every turn and renarrate the world into something that looks like the end of the world known as Jesus lifted up for us?

We have turned the bible into a rule book.  It is now, unofficially, a historical rule book, nothing more nothing less.  It flatly tells us what we have to DO in order to BE Christian and STAY Christian.  Case closed.  This is its job. 

It is just the dictionary to heaven for the uber pious without any analogical, tropological or allegorical application!  (Historical methods of reading scripture in the early church that are not rational/ethical/literal in nature)

Is it little wonder people, young people, aren’t interested in the Gospel?  We have given them a bunch of rules rather than engendered a passion for the story of Jesus.

We have given them a bible that has less nuance than Dr. Seuss and a witness that demonstrates we care more about waging culture wars for Jesus rather than creating the culture of Kingdom.

Who wants such a Bible and such a faith?  To whom does it appeal?

It’s boring.  It’s easy.  It’s about as deep as a 2nd grade education…and after a person is “saved” this 2nd grade knowledge is supposed to pacify us with its lists until we enter the pearly gates at some indefinite period of time in the near future.

Thanks but no thanks.

There’s nothing of any depth here…just listen online, and at work, to all the shallow people that seem to follow Jesus and how they read the Bible.  It will make you sick to see and hear what the Gospel has been turned into.

There is a lot of news close to this premature Gospel but there is no goodnews to be found.

I can hear it now…but ParanormalChrist…Jesus fulfilled the Law, he didn’t abolish it.  We have to have rules!!  How do we know who wins in the end if we don’t have rules?

As if Christianity is a game of Monopoly.

religion-sets-rules-jesus-sets-you-free

Did Jesus come to invalidate the Law?

In Matthew 5 he seems to suggest no, but his no is a yes via his interpretation of the Law.  Jesus only says no so he in fact can reform the law into something more than it is.  This is one of the tricks of Matthews Gospel!

Jesus broke all kinds of Law!

He ate with sinners: tax collectors, women of ill repute and fisherman.  He extended forgiveness under his own authority.  He walked longer than a Sabbaths day walk and plucked wheat on the Sabbath.  He kept women close by.  He walked through cemeteries.  We don’t once see him ceremonially washing himself before ANY act of ministry.  He outright contradicted Moses with his famous, “you have heard is said BUT I say…” statements.  Etc., Etc., I digress.

Jesus’ relationship with the Law is a bit different than we like to think.

How have we let something as awesome and ineffable as the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ be turned into a dry list of rules?  How have we limited something as limitless as scripture???

Why have we reduced our faith to an ethical norm, one that historically is probably only as old as the Puritans, you know, those folks who occupied New England 400 years ago and made Jesus the Christ culpable in a few historical curiosities?

Why have we not taken Paul serious when he says that in Christ all things are lawful?

In Corinthians, Paul states that when he is with Jews he will not eat meat sacrificed to idols but when he is with Greeks he encourages the divine barbeque.

What’s going on here?  Is Paul being Petra’s “Chameleon” changing with his surroundings?  Is Paul being a New Testament hypocrite, coming under the Book of Revelation’s warning to “luke warm Christians” or is Paul being fully free in Christ and living out his faith as one not bound by the law?

Perhaps Paul believes the Gospel transcends petty ethical norms that have nothing to do with believing Jesus is somehow incarnate God and humanities great hope.

There is no one more qualified than Paul to say that our theology, our faith, our kerygma, is larger than our religious understanding.  Here is a man that lived and breathed the law, by heart, hid it in his heart!  And yet after seeing Jesus Christ…the resurrected Jesus became his agenda, not his obedience to Leviticus, Deuteronomy or any cultural standard grounded in human norms.

Yet we have not taken Paul’s advice.  We have not followed Jesus or read the Gospels careful enough.

We have confused the Gospel with its “rules” and many, many, many of the “rules” we invoke have no firm grounding biblically or theologically.  They are the products of Puritan holdovers and of fundamentalist interpretation of scripture of the past 125 years, making for one deadly combination that seeks to zap the life right out of the Gospel and dematerialize a very material redemption alive in Jesus.

Being Christian now means…follow these rules:

Read this book.  Pray this often.  Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.

If others don’t like it, well, they are going to hell anyway.  I’m going to get fat and happy with my 2nd grade faith and the list of rules given to me by the teacher.

I like Paul’s rules, not his theology.  I didn’t even know he had theology.

I like Jesus’ ministry, but not his take on Moses.

I like the teachings of the church, but only when those teachings take the appearance of actions that momma and them always told me.

And on and on and on.

For those of you who don’t follow Jesus because the Gospel is presented like this.  I don’t blame you.  I wouldn’t either.

It saddens me that we have traded in a robust faith and a deepening understanding of God in Christ as revealed through the powerful pages of the Bible for a faith that has been reduced to Aristotle…a faith that is just a list to do.

The Sermon on the Mount has become The Nichomachean Ethics.

Jesus is no longer the eschatological prophet of God…Jesus and his followers are just supreme ethicists with Gnostic aspirations…but this helps them sleep at night and helps them control their eternal “destiny,” which is why Jesus came in the first place (insert sarcasm here).

Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill would be proud.

Too bad it’s their Gospel we are proclaiming and not that of Jesus.

It’s a shame really.  The world could really use a good word right about now.

Go and Sin…Bravely

sin bravely text

As I prepared for seminary after finishing my bachelor’s degree, a well-respected and articulate professor of mine said, “Go to seminary, study hard, but have fun. Theology is pointless if you’re not having fun.” I’d like to think what I have done since then has been a quest in having fun…and reading Sin Bravely has certainly been an extension, and affirmation, of all the fun being Christian is supposed to be.

It’s not the typical fare I read, or discuss here at ParanormalChrist, but an excursus of theological fun is in order in case you think what I do here usually sucks.

So if you’re not having fun, please stop, put down your Christianity and find the one that is fun.

In a life plagued by interesting the mixture of classic American Liberalism and Puritan anthropological expressions of the Self, this small text goes to the heart of what happens when we turn our faith and our religion inward rather than outward: We become cowardly sinners who think our faith is FOR us and to support OUR worldviews as the INTENTION of God.

Funny how God always thinks like us isn’t it?

The title is catchy, and is in fact why I picked it up, “Sin Bravely,” but the text is not a book that promotes a life that is free from societal obligations nor does it reject personal behavior that is founded in the Gospel of Jesus called the Christ.

The text is, rather, a call to have fun in life, to have fun being a Christian, to have fun engaging our lives as brave sinners…because that is in fact all we are: Sinners saved by grace. Note that Paul does not use a past tense in the Greek there.

To those with holiness tradition sensibilities (i.e., most Wesleyan and American Holiness traditions) this may come as a surprise. At least it did for me, but Ellingsen was a trusty guide through those Augustinian/Lutheran forests.  Historically, Augustine won the debate on defining sin, but in these traditions Pelagius has really taken center stage. Even the late Dr. Bill Greathouse (a renowned theologian and leader in the Church of the Nazarene) quipped after a General Assembly to a colleague, as he was laughing, “we’re all just a bunch of Pelagians,” and this comment after a debate on the floor following how the denomination was to define sin in its articles of faith.

Ellingson is trying to free us from that moral certitude, or overly humanistic perspective, that is touted by folks like Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren or the similarly related prosperity preacher Joel Osteen (that which is the result of misapplying historical figures such as Jacob Arminius, John Wesley or even the Apostle Paul for that matter).

These authors, along with strong currents of American ideology, promote a “do it yourself” Christianity that seems to equate purpose with a focus upon the self (even though they profess such is not the case). Jesus is to be followed because he enables you to be a better you…though I don’t recall reading this in the Gospels. I digress. Warren, Osteen and their entourage, equate ones success with ones efforts…efforts that can overcome our humanity and align ourselves with God’s “purpose” which somehow also looks like the vision of the world offered via the American Dream.

This is good, and commendable to a degree, but the problem arises when the “steps” are followed and the “purpose” discovered…and we continue to look more American in our materiality and philosophies and less Christian all the while. It’s hard to be prophetic when you’re not really being prophetic…go figure.

In other words, the vision offered in the Purpose Driven model is one that looks like a success story within the American Dream.  The only thing that makes it different is that it is peppered with Jesus…not to mention all this talk of purpose is still talk directed upon ourselves, for ourselves.

The goal becomes the self and its actualization. Christianity and Jesus are just the vehicles by which we actualize ourselves. This doesn’t really sound a whole lot like the words of one who said, “unless you pick up your cross and follow me.”

And this is where “Brave Sinning” takes center stage.

Ellingsen is writing from a Reformed theological perspective, Lutheran to be exact, and he is following Luther’s Augustinian theology of concupiscent desire to discuss sin as not only those things that people do by omission or commission, but all our activities by which our self is the goal, the end, of the action.

And not only are our actions selfish, but even the act of faith and religious expression since being religious (having faith) is something we do for the self…as something that is self-ish…self-centered…so to it is sin. Even reading this review, or stopping to read this review, is an act of self-decision for self-benefit…and hence marred in the sin of selfishness.

This is what Luther and Augustine mean by those bound by sin, Luther’s idea of being simultaneously sinner and justified. It is not an idea hatched in Calvinist Hell as some would observe; it is, rather, the idea that at any point wherein the self is the driving force of the action the action is sinful.

Thus, sin is ever present because our egos always play a role in our decisions. We cannot escape our condition…or as the writer of Ecclesiastes is apt to note, “there is not one righteous, no not one.” Whether it be helping someone pray, writing a sermon, giving to the poor, asking God for forgiveness, mowing our yard, being kind to our spouses, being an awesome teacher to students etc., etc., all these actions have benefits for the self and were the self not benefited in some way than most of us would not do them.

This is what separates us from Christ:  Christ partook in action for the gain of nothing…as humans we do not know how to do that.

Even the act of confession is a sinful act whereby we are confessing our sins to save our “souls” from hell…and in the holiness traditions that speak of sanctification the goal is really a negation of the self in order to find the “real” spiritual self.  Hence even this pious theological idea of purity is still an act of spiritual actualization that is not selfless…in fact it is totally centered on the self.

And that is a profound theological trick: to convince people we are not interested in the self only to really preach a gospel that makes us better selves, feeling better about ourselves and creating a path whereby the self we hate becomes the self we can love.

Thus, Elingsen writes to inform us that once we realize we are all sinners to the core, selfish ego-centric beings, we can then be free to sin bravely.

We can bravely help the poor, preach the Gospel, petition for peace, give to others, bury the dead,  marry the happy,  help a child with their homework., etc., because we know that we do these things as people who are not pure in our intentions but who do them as sinners and do them so that God can turn our actions into something greater than our motives, no matter how pure we think them to be.

sinboldy

In other words, we do them as sinners saved by grace in thought and practice, not as people who do them thinking we are worthy because of our holy intentions. Once we are released from the idea of purity in motive and act, we are then free to sin bravely, courageously, and to embody a Gospel that is authentic and honest…and one that is much more fun than a list of Puritan rules whereby we are the author and sustainer of our faith via our actions that “keep” us “right” with God.

Ellingsen reminds us of the words of Augustine, “love God and do what you will.”

A heart turned toward God will love God through its actions, yet it will do it lost in the space of God’s grace and not beholden to an ideal of purpose and prosperity that remains focused on the self rather than focused on the God wherein the self is to reside. A perpetual quest for self, whether secular or religious, leads to a fragmented society of fragmented people…that take themselves too seriously and get caught up in their own importance as they pursue themselves.

But a life that is committed to brave sinning will face the world in hope and freedom. Hope in the Christ that has made us more than we could ever be and free to be ourselves as those that engage in the playful realities of life that we like to call business, and God just calls playtime.

I leave you with the words of Ellingsen

“So Sin Bravely! But believe and rejoice in Christ even more bravely…as long as we live here in this world we will have to sin, but no sin will separate us from Christ. Have fun, too!”

It’s called The Book of Revelation, not “Revelations”

Revelations End

The most popular and feared book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, suffers a thousand deaths every time someone gets this wrong. You can hear it at any coffee shop (at least in my town), church parking lot, or casual argument at work when a co-worker is trying to convince you of all the things they have learned from Hal Lindsey or John Hagee. Heck, you’ll probably even hear it around the Thanksgiving dinner table or around the Christmas Tree of Baby Jesus. As with many arguments, this phrase is often used to win, to be right. The Bible is the ultimate trump card to win all arguments; and let’s face it, it’s not really being used for much else nowadays. The Bible functions apologetically as the proverbial ace up one’s sleeve…and as the ace begins to get slammed on the table in defense of a particular end time scenario this quaint phrase rears its ugly head and becomes the second incarnation of Jesus the Christ as someone says, “Well, the Book of Revelations says…”

Stop. The. Presses.

There is no Book of Revelations. Sometimes this reference to the scariest book in the Bible is just shorthanded. People get lazy, so instead of calling it “The Letter of Revelation,” “The Apocalypse of John,” or even “The Book of Revelation,” we have given it the shorthand name “revelations.”

Perhaps you’ve heard it said like this. As you try to defend the idea that maybe the secular State of Israel is not the same as the ancient historical reality of Israel and then build on that nuance for a deeper appreciation of the complex geopolitical situation of the Middle East, your conversation partner may halt you mid-stream and say, “Well, in Revelations is says…”

Again, there is no “revelations” in the Bible. This may seem like a minor point of contention, something that those of us obsessed with semantics would find amusing while the rest of the world is concerned with praxis and scriptural applicability to our lives.

Not so fast. You see, the language we use builds the worlds in which we live. We construct worlds with our language…our language is not just constructed by our worlds. The same is true for our biblical understandings. The bible doesn’t just shape our language; our language about the Bible also shapes how we understand it. And in this case, confusing “The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ,” or “The Book of Revelation” with “revelations” plural creates a gross methodological starting point wherein we have already begun to read this book incorrectly by our very naming of it wrongly.

Let me quote the first verse of the Book of Revelation, which is also a historical letter to 7 historical Churches. The following is my own translation.

John writes, “The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave to his servants concerning what must quickly come into being, signifying the sending of its message through his messenger and servant John.”

John does not call the following Letter a series of “revelations” about Jesus nor does he title his message as one of multiple meanings or purposes. His point is clear. He is writing A (singular) Apocalypse about Jesus.

Now, unlike popular parlance would have us believe, the word apocalypse does not mean end of the world, mass destruction, fiery balls of molten rock falling from the sky, visions of John Cusack and the Movie 2012…Apocalypse means none of this. The language of apocalypse has taken on a ton of baggage because of the Book of Revelation for sure, but such has happened not because Revelation warrants it, but because we are reading it as a book full of disasters rather than reading it as The (singular) message of the resurrected Christ we call Jesus and the work God has begun in his ministry.

Apocalypse is the Greek word that means to “reveal,” “to disclose,” or “to make known.” The word does not mean to hide, to puzzle or to cause massive destruction. What John is telling us at the very first sentence of this letter filled with apocalyptic imagery, revelatory imagery of ONE revealing, is that he is about to tell his readers who the Christ is. He is about to define him. He is about to disclose him to the world, not hide him away in some Bible code that only experts with massive book sales can unlock for the rest of us. Revelation is about disclosing the story of God in Christ working to redeem the world and bring about its new creation. It is not about giving John a secret message that his Churches would not understand…a message that would be locked away until 2000 years later when the world is on the verge of economic collapse, Russia and Iran are in cahoots and Israel is now in jeopardy of losing the veracity of its longest standing peace treaty with its very historical neighbor: Egypt.

NO! John is not interested in any of this. He is interested in giving us a vision of Jesus that is grounded in the imagery of the Hebrew Bible in such a way that the story of Jesus is simply the contiguous reality of what God had begun in those ancient stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is interested in Revealing Jesus to us! He is not trying to hide the Christ or his workings! And he is busy doing this in a literary type and genre that was used by oppressed peoples who felt as if the only way their worlds could be redeemed was for God to physically break into their present and alter their future.

Apocalypticist’s, such as John, are negative people and they have historical warrant for their lack of prophetic optimism one might find in older prophets such as Isaiah or Jeremiah. Apocalypticist’s use dark imagery, but only because they understand the nature of humanity and they witness to a strong historical track record in which humanity does not come around as it should, it does not follow the message of Christ and it is in love with power and the trappings of the worlds empires.

The people that write letters such as Revelation, Enoch or Esdras are feeling the sledge hammer of evil and they are sharing in the oppression and persecution of their brothers and sisters in Christ. They are writing with inspiration from an oppressed minority that has suffered immeasurably. They are labeled as atheists that wish to subvert the State and are accused of eating their children and drinking their blood in a ceremonial meal we now call Eucharist…for these kinds of people, who have seen their own brothers and sisters used by Nero as human torches to light the Roman skies at night…for these kinds of people, and for a person named John that is in Exile on a remote Island known as Patmos BECAUSE of his faith…for them the only language that will suffice is that of the literary type we now call apocalyptic because there is no other form and positioning of words that is able to not only capture their angst and despair but also provide them hope in a world full of beasts that are getting drunk on the blood of the saints!

But Just because it is a negative literary type that is employed by people of faith from around the years 200BCE to 200CE doesn’t mean that the letters or books that contain these images are trying to hide anything. Indeed the opposite is the case…what they are arguing is that the only way to see reality and the world is through this apocalyptic lens. It is the REAL world, the real picture of what is going on…not the picture of what will happen 2000 years after the writing of the document. John is speaking a word to the present. He is revealing Jesus in the present. He is not hiding Jesus under the Bushel of history awaiting his full disclosure to the enlightened ones amongst us in the year 2013 who have the ability to change all of their interpretations to fit history and to correct all of their previously bad interpretations’.

John is writing to reveal. He is not writing to hide and he titles his letter this in the very FIRST sentence if we will simply stop to read it. Let’s not read this Letter with all the expectations of the people who can’t read Greek…or they do read Greek and just skip the first sentence. You’d think they would have learned something in Elementary School English about context clues and following directions. John is giving us directions before we start reading…and he is telling us he is writing A (singular) revelation (disclosure) of who Jesus the resurrected Christ is as he opposes and destroys evil. He is not trying to hide anything.

Quit trying to play connect the dots…there are no dots to connect. Save your $ and quite buying all those “Left Behind” books and their historical revisionist counterparts that are now making their way on the scene.

So John is writing about A revealing of Jesus that is not convoluted but thoroughly dependent upon the story of God that is told throughout the Hebrew Bible and he is telling it in a singular kind of way.

In other words, it’s called Revelation, not Revelations.

People often confuse all the many images and plot lines that are developing within this mysterious letter with mini-revelations, mini-visions that constitute a larger whole. To a degree, this is correct. John, however, is not writing to give us snippets of historical details that can be understood apart from the resurrection of Jesus…apart from the Lamb of God who rides on his White Horse. There are many images and visions in the letter because the story of God in Christ is long and tedious. It is not easily flattened or easily summarized…it has been building as a metanarrative for at least 2500 years. History such as this that is melded together with a cosmic Christ event cannot be reduced to a mere retelling. It must be poetically and beautifully written so as to captivate its hearers and bring those of us as readers into its world, which is ironically our very own. These images are part of a coherent whole meant to disclose the meaning of Christ and the direction of the world…they are not meant to be read as mini-revelations that all have theological meaning apart from Christ.

All of these visions, chapters, characters, numbers, seals, bowls, prostitutes, angels, witnesses, etc., all of these work harmoniously together to tell the story of God in Christ. To tell the world that Christ is Lord, not Rome. To tell the world that Christ has defeated death, it has not defeated him. To tell the world that Rome is not the new creation, but God is busy about building a New Jerusalem. To tell the world that Jesus we call Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end…the I AM. This is the SINGULAR revelation (revealing) of the Apocalypse of John.

The way we talk about this letter profoundly affects the way we read it…and sadly, many people read it as if it is a 22 chapter encasement of multiple revelations rather than a part of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ that is attempting to show a singular revelation of this One whom the world crucified but whom God saw fit to resurrect.

Revelation is not meant to be confusing and it’s not meant to scare the you know what out of your you know where. It is meant to cast a vision toward the incarnation of God in Christ and tell ONE story of revealing to a world that is sadly mistaking the Pax Romana, or the Pax Americana, with the Pax Christi. Christ is king, Christ is Lord and he is such because of the work he has done…and John wants us to know of this work. This is why John writes his letter. He wants his churches to know the risen Christ in relation to their world…and as a part of our canon of Christian scripture the Church has said we confess we continue to need it to do so.

So next time you are tempted to skip the first sentence of Revelation, or you get in that discussion at church or with your neighbors about the bible and the last days and they tell you what it says in the “book of revelations,” just remind them that the work of Christ is singular and it is powerful. Confusion is not of God, it’s of the other guy.

And the Apocalypse of Jesus is not so much about destroying the world as it is redeeming lives. You might be surprised that in the face of such Good News, aka Gospel, you may just render them speechless.

 

 

Zizek reads the Bible: Thoughts on Incarnation

nietzsche quote/

The incarnation is the perverse core of Christianity and the perverse core of the perverted god’s that desire the absolution of a person for the sake of their own divine egos.

When the falsely innocent Christlike figure of pure suffering and sacrifice for our sake tells us: “I want nothing from you!” fails miserably – we should not forget that these are the exact words used by the Priest to designate the court in Kafka’s Trial: “The court wants nothing from you.” When the falsely innocent Christlike figure of pure suffering and sacrifice for our sake tells us: “I don’t want anything from you!,” we can be sure that this statement conceals a qualification “…except your very soul.” When somebody insists that he wants nothing that we have, it simply means that he has his eye on what we are, on the very core of our being. (The Puppet and the Dwarf, 170).

The incarnation has historically been the doctrine of the divine overtaking the human form in the person of Jesus and using this medium to exact divine revenge and quench the thirst for the apparent ontological masochistic necessity that the God of the Bible seems to display. The recent History Channel Series on the Bible shows at least this much…but let’s ask a few questions:

What sort of God is this that takes over our way of being, the form of our human flesh, and uses it to appease his own ineptitude of not securing a tree in the Garden that would not be violated?

Could we not have saved our flesh had this God not created this obvious temptation?
This is what a pervert does and this is the practice of perversion. The pervert sacrifices the innocence of another person in order to gain something from them, typically sexually. Sex and violence have always been partners, even when it comes to ideas of salvation.

How useful is a doctrine of the incarnation if it is continually used to reinforce a theology of perversion and furthermore place the object that it sacrifices, humanity, into the debt of the God that asks for the sacrifice, while simultaneously setting it up? This is the string that is attached. Christ has died, and in this required death, we are in debt, even though God does not need our currency.

If this is the case, than why require the currency of flesh? Sigmund Freud was right, we do owe death a debt. Only the debt we owe, as so finely articulated by Zizek above, is the debt of our being, our flesh, because the Christ figure has given us his being, his flesh. There must be an alternative way.

For Zizek, questions of divine culpability go to the heart of the Christian God.

Zizek writes, “God as omnipotent is a perverse subject who plays obscene games with humanity and His own son: he creates suffering, sin and imperfection, so that He can intervene and resolve the mess He created, thereby securing for himself the eternal gratitude of the human race.” He later asks, “For which authority above Himself – is God himself forced to sacrifice his son?” (The Fragile Absolute, 157-158). For this reason, Zizek argues for a radically different approach to a doctrine of the incarnation than may be found in Athanasius’ De Incarnatione. Zizek spots the perverse core of Christianity, and in so doing the pervert Christianity historically calls God, and calls for the forging of a new direction not located in transcendence.

Zizek’s questions are strikingly difficult, emotionally stressful and piously challenging…yet the questions remain despite our incessant need to hide behind the pages of scripture that actually raise these questions through an honest reading of text.

For Zizek, the incarnation is not a statement about the importance of transcendence, but a statement about the importance of the body, the immanent reality of living people caught in living structures of truth seeking and fulfillment. God needs the world and drains transcendence in the process. Jesus, known as the Christ, is the desublimation of the transcendent God of Judaism. Judaism could never bring God to where it was/is, thus it negated any sort of anthropomorphic identity to the Supreme Creator. Zizek argues that this negation of anthromorphic concepts, however, necessarily places Judaism on the road to making God man, on the road to Christianity.

Zizek describes it thus,
“it is the Jewish religion which remains an “abstract/immediate” negation of anthropomorphism, and as such, attached to, determined by it in its very negation, whereas it is only Christianity that effectively “sublates” paganism. The Christian stance is here: instead of prohibiting the image of God, why not, precisely, allow it, and thus render him as JUST ANOTHER HUMAN BEING, as a miserable man indiscernible from other humans with regard to his intrinsic properties?” (The Fragile Absolute)

For Zizek, what occurs in the incarnation is not the propitiation of sins in the form of a human being or the restoration of the divine image that was lost at the fall (contra St. Athanasius) but the handing over of the world to humans. When Christianity asserts that the divine THING has come in/as Jesus of Nazareth, the THING that is beyond, known as God, is shown to be absent because Jesus is present.

Zizek interprets Jesus as a figure within the symbolic order or the drive/thing/law schemata, wherein the drive toward rest is always directed toward the thing that is supposed to give rest, i.e., God, but such rest is always prohibited from fully resting because of the prohibitions from the Law separate a person from the THING or destination. Jesus, however, traverses the Law and makes the divine present and therein ends transcendence. He makes the destination of the drive apprehensible, thus offering a place of rest and an end to the excess of sin that is produced in seeking the relationship with the divine via attempts at becoming divine. This means that the event of the Christ is not an event that brings one into relationship with the BIG OTHER God. Christ does not do our work for us and pay our debt through his divine threshold of pain. Rather, the incarnation, the coming of God to humanity, is the shrinking of transcendence, is the event that gives us the chance to be free from our excessive quests for the unattainable THING, God, for in Jesus, says Christianity, God is with us.

Zizek writes, “Christ is not the contingent material embodiment of the supra-sensible God: his “divine” dimension is reduced to the aura of pure Schein.” (On Belief 95).

The Incarnation, therefore, is a statement about the end of transcendence into immanent descendence in the Christ figure, Jesus. Jesus, as the incarnation, is not the living apprehension of an ontological other but the dismissal of that Other and the freeing of humanity from its haunting and obsessive quests toward something else. Zizek is basically arguing that freedom from the excess of looking for the THING (God) that is present in Jesus allows a person to love and act ethically. When we are no longer looking for the BIG OTHER, we are free to look at one another as Christ does his disciples. What is most important in the incarnation, therefore, is the possibility to embody agape and to act in loving ways toward others. The power of the incarnation to release one from metaphysical whims and produce a reality wherein there is no Jew, nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. No wonder the “Christ was a traumatic scandal.” (The Fragile Absolute)

In reading the incarnation as such, Zizek offers readers an alternative reading of this important theological concept. He offers readers a different kind of incarnation resulting in the adaptation of an ethic of agape that destabilizes dominant worldviews and begins a constructive theology. The incarnation is the event that makes true ethical behavior possible because God is with us…and for Zizek we are therefore released from God. Perhaps the mystics were right. The only prayer we should fully pray is “God rid me of God” so that I can be released to myself and the world…Just as Christ was so released into humanity.

Easter Hope is Paranormal Hope that our Bodies Matter

drybones

ParanormalChrist’s genesis is the very ambiguous event that we call the Resurrection of Jesus.  It is this singular event that has shaped the contours of faith, belief, hope and dared to challenge the norms of creation by declaring that the impossible has happened and it has happened definitively in Jesus.  And this impossible event, this aporia, this enigma, this non-analogous happening is the very event that generates hope in people of faith.  Yet, this event has been too domesticated and beaten down to mean much of anything anymore. It is a routine point of dogma, something people believe in without any substance to that belief.  It has become nothing more than the evidence to support our faith that Jesus is God’s Christ, while the concept itself has shifted to the wayside and been relieved of its heavy theological weight.  Yet, we should not let Resurrection off the hook so Gnostically…I mean easily.

During this Eastertide, however, we should note that resurrection in the New Testament and in early Christian faith is not simply a “proof” of Jesus’ identity.  It’s not simply the means whereby death is defeated, and therefore, our souls may one day take flight to Christ.  The Resurrection of Jesus is not something that confirms our Trinitarian belief, somehow affirming the metaphysical connections between Father and Son as eternally related beings.  In other words, there is so much more to the paranormal theology of Christianity and resurrection than is common amongst popular preaching and it all begins in this part of the Christian year in which we now find ourselves: Eastertide.

The notation of this season as Eastertide is fitting.  Eastertide, or the period that exists between the Resurrection of Jesus and Pentecost, is appropriately called such because it carries with it the connotation that what has happened ambiguously in the tomb (and it must be ambiguous since no one was inside the tomb to witness the mechanizations of resurrection or how it happens) has created a tide of new creation that sweeps across the hills of the world with the tomb of Christ as its epicenter.  As the Christ event emerges from the tomb, creation is peeled back.  Its earth is moved.  In a moment similar to the movie Inception, when the city is folded in over itself and a new reality is created amongst images that intercept our conceptions of what can be, and what is normal, the resurrection of Jesus inverts the walls of the tomb and creates a space that has never been seen by anyone but those who dare to rush into the tomb and participate in the Inception of the Christ.  The Christ delves into the consciousness of creation, into its deepest darkest spaces.  He takes up habitation in the recesses of the being of creation, the mind of the earth, and emerges to start a new tidal wave of paranormality that sweeps across the landscape leaving nothing untouched as it moves across the lie that is our perception of reality.

This Eastertide cannot be stopped.

It cannot be repelled or stuffed back into the recesses of the tomb; it is a theological tsunami that covers creation…the after affects of which forces everyone to participate in this new creation.  Even those that deny the Eastertide has arrived are still helpless amongst the waves of resurrection that surround their being and often extend newness to them in ways they could never acknowledge.  Eastertides efficaciousness is not predicated on our reception of it.  The Christ has emerged, the new creation has been pushed up from out of the ground in tectonic fashion, and all of creation benefits from this sovereign Eastertide that wraps us into its swells.  Eastertide is not a choice we make; it is the new creation begun in the paranormal event of Resurrection that is the new condition of the world.  Eastertide is grace, not a choice…the grace of a new impossible existence that is now a permanent part of creation…compliments the Inception of Christ.

Thus, Eastertide is the remainder of the Resurrection of Christ, the indelible imprint on creation of an ambiguous event that begun and continues via the imprint of the body of Christ that was rustled from its lifeless state against the cold stones of the familiarity of our lives and our boring dogmatized world.

But we fail to see this over-arching quality of resurrection because we have drained it of its significance and its theological depth.  We have turned it into a “historical” event but have given up on its “historic” meaning.  Preachers climb into their pulpits across this nation and testify that the Resurrection is the most “historical” event in history…having more “proof” than any other event in history, etc., etc.

These proclamations miss the point.

When resurrection is reduced to such, rather than seen in its grand theological and cosmological perspective…it is worthless.  It is just a thing in the past that verifies our present faith…not something that conditions are present faith and uniquely qualifies Christian hope as it did for so many Christians who first believed in its reality.  When resurrection is just FAMILIAR dogma it becomes empty because it is just an event that makes my present faith possible, it affirms what I think, feel and believe…it is not something that ambiguously sets the parameters of faith as such.  Even worse, we lose the very thing that makes the flavor of our faith Christian.  And there is nothing more uniquely Christian than Resurrection.

Resurrection is the intrusion of the paranormal into creation creating a New Jerusalem whereby hope is redefined and Christian eschatology more uniquely defined.

Resurrection is a game changer.  It is THE event that shapes Christian thought and praxis, and not because it confirms the identity of Jesus or confirms the ability of your soul to go live with Christ.  It is a game changer because it is God’s statement that our bodies matter because the Body of Jesus mattered!  That God was so passionate about creation and our bodies that God raised up the Christ in bodily form (not to mention the idea of incarnation is also a very body heavy concept) is the declaration that God is just as much interested in our material world and our material redemption as God is our spiritual redemption.  Eastertide is the renewal of material creation…not a flow of water beneath the surface that makes unseen spiritual changes!   And if we take the idea of resurrection seriously, it may even be the case that God is more interested in the material than the spiritual…as even the Christ makes subsequent appearances post-Resurrection in material form.  That God raises Christ means that whatever it means to have life in Christ and hope in the God…is to mean that in some way our physicality is redeemed and not hostage to the typical cycles of death.  God could have given Christ a soulish resurrection, but such would not have created the alterity necessary to change the structure of creation to such a degree that redemption could be redefined and the ultimate telos of creation redirected!

You will hear some commentators call the risen Christ’s body a “spiritual” body or a body that was “special” but this is NOWHERE IN THE TEXT!  Even one of my favorite theologians Paul Tillich makes this mistake on philosophical grounds.  We may not like the idea of a physical resurrection or think it is a rudimentary belief of ancient peoples, but that does not change the hard core positioning of this belief in the early Christian community and the power it wielded in shaping eschatology.

The very clear connotation of the Gospels is not that Jesus was a new spiritual substance, but that Jesus’ physical body was resurrected and seen and touched by people who knew what his physical body looked like!  To interpret these post-Resurrection scenes as mystical Christs’…or Casper Jesus such as we see in John 20…is absurd and not part of the plain meaning of the text.  It is our way to reduce the reality of the resurrection…to not face the fact that the Resurrection is paranormal.  It cannot be assimilated into our ideas of what is acceptable.  If God was interested in being normal and doing things the normal way…he would not have chosen to raise dead people nor produced a bunch of idiot believers that would believe in this absurdity.  This is not normal; this is paranormal.

The story of Easter is paranormal.  It cannot be domesticated.  It cannot be reduced to spiritual meanings because it is a very physical intrusion.  It is paranormal hope in the Rising Dead!

But what is this paranormal hope?  What hope does Eastertide bring that begins in the tomb and puts an exclamation point on the importance of our physical bodies to God in Christ? (this should not be new either folks, in Genesis Jacob’s body matters as the people of God take what’s left of his body to Canaan from out of Egypt where he died.  See Genesis 50…and also Ezekiel seems to think our bodies matter.  See chapter 37)  God has been interested in resurrecting and preserving bodies as a part of new creation throughout the entire story of scripture…and the hope of Resurrection that is found in the Resurrection of Jesus is our Resurrection.  That’s it.  That’s the revolutionary hope.  Don’t seem so disappointed…let me explain.

Our hope is NOT eternal life.  Our hope is NOT an afterlife.  Our hope is NOT that our SOUL goes to heaven when we die.  This is NOT our hope…and I would argue that this is not even scriptural.  This is pagan; this is Gnostic; this is Greek; this is NOT a Christian perspective and it is not grounded on solid NT Theology or biblical studies.  Our HOPE IS, however, Resurrection.

The early followers of Jesus did not follow Jesus because he was the first guy to come along preaching an afterlife in God.  Afterlife was not a new concept and Christians did not own the block on this idea.  It is at least as old as Egyptian civilization and we have evidence it is probably older than that.  Jesus did not just come along and give his version of how to live life because his version of after life was better.

The thing that is unique about Christ is that at the END OF HIS LIFE, his life was taken back up by God in the form of Resurrection.  Resurrection is the NEW IDEA.  It is the hope that has captivated the people of God from the time of the Maccabees to the time of Christ.  Part of God renewing creation is the literal renewing of creation!  Go figure!  And part of that renewal is as the Apostle Paul stated…Christ is the FIRST FRUITS of the new creation, the new harvest…of the resurrection of the dead.  And because Christ is the first-fruits, we can anticipate their being a second fruits harvest.  That harvest IS the HOPE of all Christians.

Early followers of Jesus did not follow him because they thought they would live forever with God.  Plenty of philosophies and religions already taught that stuff.  What gave the Christ event its unique quality and impetus was that the follower of Jesus had hope that they too would be part of the new creation that was started in God raising Christ and would continue in their own resurrection…their own BODILY resurrection.   Why else would Paul be so adamant about the supreme importance of Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15?!?  He writes (NASB version)

“Now if Christ is preached that he has been raised from the dead, how do some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  But if there is no resurrection of the dead, NOT EVEN CHRIST HAS BEEN RAISED!, and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is also in VAIN.  Moreover, we are even found to be false witnesses of God because we testified against God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised.  For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ is raised and if Christ is not raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.  THEN THOSE WHO HAVE FALLEN ASLEEP IN CHRIST HAVE PERISHED!…but now Christ has been raised from the dead, the FIRST FRUITS of those are asleep

Paul is directly relating the resurrection of Jesus to a resurrection of the dead and arguing that they are co-dependent!  One implies the other.  The Christian hope is not that we live with God after we die in the form of some weird thing we call a soul that is non-identifiable or non-localizable.  If we are counting on our souls to be with Christ we are of most folks to be pitied because our hope is not in the perpetual life of our soul.  Nice try Plotinus, but I don’t think so.  This is Greek pagan Gnostic religions and this is NOT Christian and I loathe that is has become a part of Christian belief in the present…and not only that but to the detriment of a robust Easter resurrection faith.

Our hope is, rather, that if we have life after death after death (and I mean the double negation there)…it is because God CHOOSES to raise us up as God also raised up the Christ!  Our lives and our existence in God after this life is not the result of a paranormal nature we all possess that ensure we exist either here or there after we take our last breath.  Rather, as Christians, our only HOPE and the very unique hope that made Christianity a different kind of faith was that people had the audacity to believe that God raised up the physical Body of Jesus as a sign of his victory over creation and set the parameters of Gods restorative goals…and so too God will raise up those who trust in Christ even though we perish within the confines of History.

This is the scandal of Christianity folks…that people actually believe they will be bodily raised as a part of God’s redemptive plan for the world.   If we are to live after we breathe our last…Easter faith teaches us, the Gospels teach us…that it will be because God resurrects our physical bodies and NOT because our soul goes to live with God.  Easter does not simply confirm the identity of Jesus as God’s great Houdini moment; it is the content of what matters to God and a foreshadowing of the direction of the world.

This sort of faith is not normal…it is paranormal…it is the belief that our dead corpses will be restored by God (a very grisly scene of faith if there ever was one) and it is only in the audacious confines of Easter faith that we can believe such nonsense.

Crucified God: Jesus wasn’t kidding, God really forsook him

My God My God

“My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…” (Matthew 26.39)

“And he took with him Peter, James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled” (Mark 14.33)

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me…And being in agony he was passionately praying and his sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground” (Luke 22. 42 & 44)

“My Soul has become troubled, so should I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ But for this purpose I came to this hour” (John 12.27)

An often neglected aspect of “Good” Friday and the very tortuous circumstances that enveloped Jesus is a very clear biblical picture: Jesus was human.  Jesus was not a mind reader, he was not a fortune teller and he did not posses X-Men type powers that allowed him to sustain these brief moments of hell leading up to his betrayal, trial and final execution.   Jesus was fully human and we would be remiss to read the story of the passion of the Christ this Easter as a cheap gloss whereby Jesus (who is also God) knew that despite all these horrible things that were about to unfold, in the end it would work out.

The events of Passion in the Gospels are not just nice details to fill our bibles so that God actually has a story of God’s death.  The details are not immaterial, meant to simply tell us the “how” and “why” of Jesus death.  In other words, the details mean something.   When we overly divinize Christ too soon the details become moot because Jesus knew what would happen, Jesus knew he was the supreme lamb and he knew as God that he would be resurrected. Jesus has no reason to be worried; he knows resurrection awaits him.   If this was the case, then how is the sacrifice of Christ really a sacrifice?  If we lay down our lives for our friends, yet we know that our life will again be taken up…is the loss of our life really love?   Are the verses above simply wrong?  Did Christ not really experience despair and did he not mean it when he asks God to “take this cup from me?”  If this is the case, then I struggle to understand why Jesus would pray so hard that something that seems like “blood” would perspire from his forehead.  A man who knows the end does not pray so fervently.

What the gospels present to us is a very dialectical view of Christ.  We often look at Jesus as this one who marched proudly and boldly to his death.  He knew his hour had arrived and he bravely stretched out his back for flogging, he boldly spoke truth to people who had authority to kill him and he unflinchingly stretched out his arms on a cross as he was welcoming the nails that would drive through tendons and bone.  But this is not the only picture of the Gospels; it’s not even a dominant picture.  Christ is not so bold and he is not looking forward to what seems to be developing all around him.

In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) we get a picture of Christ that prays the unthinkable and is deeply distressed by the events of this week.  The synoptic Christ is NOT looking forward to a potential trial with authorities.  He is not looking forward to potentially facing a death sentence.  Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus even prayed…”if this cup can pass…then please make it so” and Mark tells us that Jesus was greatly disturbed and filled with inner turmoil.  Why would Jesus have these feelings if they were not genuine?   How could his deep distress be justified if this is a man who knows that in 3 days it will be fine?

Yes, Jesus does end his prayer with “not my will, but yours be done,” but this is simply an affirmation that Christ has surrendered himself to the mission of the God he serves.  Ever since the scene of his baptism the life of Jesus has not been animated by his own words; it has been a mirror image of God to the world via his ministry.  Jesus has been busy proclaiming the Kingdom of God and performing visible manifestations of this Kingdom.  If God chose to end his Kingdom proclamation then so be it; Jesus cannot resist what God is doing.  But, to this God that Christ earlier in the Synoptics calls his “father,” this God with whom Christ has a much more intimate relationship than is normal, he asks, “if this cup can pass from ME…make it so.”

The Synoptic Jesus is not bold and he is not excited…and the cliché statement that he was thinking about YOU and YOUR sin…and that this somehow made this horrible trial easier is simply a romantic way to sanitize the crucible of violence and anguish experienced by the human Jesus.  Jesus was tortured, mutilated and turned into a human poster…YOUR sin does not make this easy.

So the Synoptics give us a very hesitant Jesus, a human Jesus, with deep feelings and emotions that stir him to his very being.  They give us a picture of one who is not convinced that there is any “Good” in this Friday.

The Gospel of John on the other hand gives us a bold Christ.  This is the only Gospel that does so.  The Johannine Jesus is not timid and he is not deterred from his coming “hour.”  In the Gospel of John one finds the very famous “lifting up” sayings in which Christ proclaims that he is moving toward this event in which he will be “lifted up” in order to bring all people unto himself.  This is John’s way of pointing his readers to the passion and the “lifting up” of Christ on the cross.

There is also the theme of “my hour” that is recurrent across John’s narrative and this theme enters the Gospel fairly early.  After the introductory portions of the text, chapter 2 presents to us the first miracle of Jesus at the wedding at Cana.  This is the event in which the wedding runs out of wine for its celebrants and Mary asks her son Jesus to intervene.  Jesus replies abruptly, “Woman, what do I have to do with you?  My HOUR has not yet come.”

Another example is when Jesus goes down to the feast at the encouragement of his family in John 7.  The text implies that his family is trying to get him in trouble with the authorities and they slyly say, “well no one does anything in secret when he seeks to be known by others…so if what you do is real, show yourself to the world.”  His family is not supportive here; they are trying to get Jesus jailed or even worse, killed.  The text tells us that his historical family did not believe upon Jesus or his works…and into this context Jesus replies to them, “My time has not yet here…but your hour is always here…you go up to the feast because my time has not yet come.”

Jesus is fully aware that he is a polarizing figure and he knows that if he goes up to the feast at their request that violence could easily ensue.  Jesus does eventually go to the Feast of Booths in John 7, but he does so in secret…he doesn’t want to make a scene because his HOUR is not yet here.   The Johannine Jesus is committed to this theme throughout the Gospel and Jesus does nothing that is inconsistent with him moving toward this enigmatic hour; an hour of which Jesus seems to be aware, but of which the characters in the story fail to understand.

The Johannine Christ boldly steps into his mission in John 18.11 as the Roman cohort comes for him.  Peter tries to defend Jesus through violence and he swings his sword at a nearby soldier striking his ear; it’s a wonder Jesus and his disciples were not all killed then and there.  Jesus tells Peter to stand down and then he asks him, “Shall I not drink of the cup the father has given me?  It is for this hour I have come.”

So in John we have a Jesus who is focused on his mission, boldly moving toward it and in the synoptic we have a dithering Jesus who is fully human and filled with anguish…a very human Jesus who is not so confident.

Yet, even though John sanitizes the human grief of Christ and Luke portrays a Christ who on the cross dies a good death, a death in which he calmly whispers to God, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”   Matthew and Mark preserve a very early tradition that testified to Christ crying to God in words of honest despair and nothingness.  Jesus does not die peacefully giving up his spirit in Matthew and Mark.  Here, he dies a horrible death of wailing and crying…hurling contempt toward God for what is happening.

This would be an early tradition and is most likely very historical since it would make sense for the community of Jesus to not retain statements made by Christ that would seem to create enmity between Jesus and God.  If you’re trying to spread the good news of Jesus, it’s much easier to do so without Jesus getting mad at the Father from which he was sent and even declaring a firm separation.  Jesus was so adamant in John about his hour and purpose and this cup of which me must partake…yet as he is nailed to the Roman Cross, his body convulsing and consciousness fading in and out…he musters up the ability to scream, wail and cry out to his “Father,” in Matthew and Mark:  “MY GOD MY GOD WHY HAVE YOUR FORSAKEN ME!?”

Do we really take these words seriously?  Amidst the varying portrayals of Jesus and his attitude toward the events of these next 3 days, do we take this witness of Jesus in Matthew and Mark seriously or do we think Jesus was just making a hyperbolic statement on the cross that would provide the gospels with drama that would captivate the readers?

Why would Jesus utter such words?    How does this make sense in a Christian tradition that has so sanitized and neglected to see meaning in these his very last words?  What was Jesus expressing in the scene that theologian Jurgen Moltmann describes as the “Crucified God.”

Jesus has spent his entire ministry proclaiming the closeness of God to humanity.  He has redefined what it means to be in relationship to God.  He has seen people healed in his ministry.  This is a testimony that God is near.  He has been preaching a non-judgmental message of grace that extends to all who will believe.  He has been baptizing people and getting them ready for the coming of God into the world.  He has raised dead people and experienced a closeness with God that heretofore had been unheard of…yet, at this moment when he most needs this God that is so close…this God is in fact so FAR away.  All that he has preached, taught and performed were testimonials to who God is, yet this God does not spare Christ this fate!  Jesus, the one who prayed to this God as his “Father,” is realizing that the closeness and the grace that he has proclaimed…are in his final moments not available to him.

Moltmann says it like this, “When we look at his non-miraculous and helpless suffering and dying in the context of his preaching and his life, we understand how this misery cried out to heaven; it is the experience of abandonment by God in the knowledge that God is not distant but close…In full consciousness that God is close at hand in his grace, to be abandoned and delivered up to death as one rejected, is the torment of hell.”

In other words, the God that animated the very preaching and life of Christ is letting his preaching and life end.  The vision that Christ has for the world is contingent upon his living to continue to incarnate this reality and the God who he feels has called him to this prophetic role is letting it all end in such a horrible way.  The God that Jesus knows so well has turned his back on him and his prophetic mission.  Christ has been left to die by the one he called “Father.”

To make the situation more stark, when Christ asks the question, “My God my God why have your FORSAKEN me?” he is not only anguishing over his own betrayal by God and the tortuous end to which his life has come…but he is connecting his life to the life of God as inseparable realities.

Jesus has fostered a unique symbiotic relationship between himself and the father.  He has understood his life to be the incarnation (though this language is not used in the Gospels) of God to the world.  God is visible in his ministry and his ministry is the visibility of God.  Jesus associates his very life with the very mission of God.  Thus,  for Jesus to end up on a Roman Cross is not just an indictment on a God that has not held up to his end of the bargain, but it is a cry that reflects the most bitter betrayal any of us will ever experience: Betrayal by our closest companions, betrayal by family.

Thus for Jesus the cry of forsakenness must mean not only that he feels forsaken by God, but in the very utterance of forsakenness Jesus is basically asking, “Why is God forsaking Godself!?”  By forsaking Jesus God is not simply forsaking the sage of Galilee; God is turning his back against God.  Jesus is not the only one crucified on this hill; God is crucified.  The narrative of God is so connected with the narrative of Jesus that for Christ to be forsaken and die is for God to forsake God and kill God’s self!  This is an event that is taking place between Jesus and his Father, one to whom he prayed, wept and beseeched would let these events pass.  The Gospels of Matthew and Mark preserve a story that displays an interaction within the life of God…between one that makes God visible to the world and the one that is now invisibly visible to Jesus in his absent presence.  To Jesus, God has become an absent derelict Father!

If Jesus was the Truth of God born into creation, then what happens in this cry is nothing less than God turning against God.

While we are often quick to give explanations in Christian theology as to the “why” of Jesus’ forsakenness, we must refrain from doing so on Good Friday. We may early not want to take Jesus’ words seriously; we may not want to hear his cry of forsakenness for what it really is: the death of God and the grief of one who so believed his life was animated as the prophets of old that he looks to the heavens in utter disbelief that his Words are coming to an end in this penal deed.  We must not, then, say on Good Friday that Jesus died for this reason or that reason…but we must pause and enter the story of Jesus as a man betrayed by his Father and left to die.  Racing to Resurrection Sunday is a cheap way of romanticizing his cry of dereliction and retards our ability to appreciate theologically the meaning of resurrection within the context of utter abandonment.

As we move through the next 3 days, let us not dismiss these Gospel stories and the differing portrayals of Christ…and let us not harmonize their details to the point of making the details meaningless…but let us acknowledge as those who stand around the cross that the beginning of faith is NOT in the events that we will call Easter a few days from now, but faith only begins after God is crucified.  While many religions testify to prophets and disciples dying for the faith, only in Christianity does God die for Gods self and does God declare to God’s self such forsakenness.

The Christ Aporia: his last name is not Christ and he’s not your friend

untamed Jesus

Aporia…confusion is of the devil, but aporia is of the Father -this is the least one can say about a definition of the Christ, a symbol as rich as it is dense, as familiar as it is foreign.

Or one can say it as John Milbank does in his seminal text, The Word Made Strange, “The Name ‘Jesus,’ does not indicate an identifiable ‘character,’ but is rather the obscure and mysterious hinge which permits shifts from one kind of discourse to another” (p149).

Yet Christ is not conceived this way, at least not by church folk.  Christ is not complex; it is (he is?) domesticated, weakened and too cozy to emit the sort of mysterium and holy fear that should accompany the utterance of the aporia Christ.  While we have gained a friend in Jesus Christ, we have lost the “Word made Strange” (to use John Milbank’s quaint phrase), and have forgotten that the very idea with which we become cozy is the very idea that wishes to perplex, challenge and leave us at a loss.  The Word is no longer Strange; it is now all too familiar to the point of catatonic proportions.

Yet, Christ is not an idea with which we should be comfy; it is an idea that should be strange, disquieting and disturbing.  You know the kind of idea that makes guys like Herod kill a bunch of 2 year old’s kind of disturbing.  To invoke the Christ is to invoke a theophany of magnificent magnitude, for the symbol Christ upsets the very metaphysical structures of the world.  It challenges anything that is counter-christ and it challenges our fabrications of order and prescription.  These structures have been shaken to such a degree that the very ordering of the world is not as it seems because of the presence of the Christ.  For Christ to mean anything it is to mean that our familiarity with the world has been inverted and lost.  If we know the place in which we live, than we live not in the place that is occupied by the Christ.  Christ is not normal; it is not routine; it is not profane.  It is abnormal; it is traumatic; it is holy.  These characteristics mean that if the foundations be not shaken and crumbling than Christ is most likely not operative…not anywhere, but especially not operative in our idea of Jesus.  No wonder so many people think Jesus and Christ dead symbols!

This is because Christ is aporia, and aporia negates what we know, even about the much said object to which Christ points: Jesus.  In this case it negates our idea of Jesus precisely because we call Jesus a/the Christ.  The Christ known as Jesus attracted followers not because he was familiar, but because the strangeness of his life left the world around him undone…and only in undoing the world is one able to resurrect it anew.  Perhaps this is why there is no resurrection amongst those most devout…their world is not undone by the perplexity of the Christ known as Jesus.  The Word is no longer strange; it is impotently familiar.

Ironically, the very Christian idea that might now leave us standing confounded and challenged now leaves us with a gain in the eyes of many.  We have lost the strangeness of Christ, but at least we have gained a personal friend in Jesus (I feel like inserting a Teddy Ruxpin Commercial here as an example of carrying Jesus Christ with us everywhere and him even telling us what we want to hear by inserting a new tape in his back).  The Horrible transcendence of God has been sublimated via the incarnation of Jesus…when in fact the opposite should have happened theoretically, and thereby Christ is not a strangeness that leaves us feeling more strange, Christ is now a pillow that makes us feel more at home.  Isn’t it funny how Divine kenosis has such a non-effect on those that profess its dogma?  Putting a leash on Christ has never been so popular and taming the content of this symbol never more rampant!  The very people who say there is power in Christ have helped reduce such power by defining Christ in narrow and restrictive ways, ways that make the leash holder comfortable…not realizing they have just grabbed the whirlwind!

So, unfortunately, for many today Christ is conceived in very personal, up close, familial kinds of ways.  Perplexity, uncertainty and awesomeness is no longer a part of the equation.  Buddy Jesus exists all around us, yet very little thought is given to how the theological construction around the historical Jesus and the symbol of Christ eventually merged together forming a linguistically synonymous relationship.

Jesus is often interpreted through the New Testament as “Christ” but the symbol of Christ is independent Jesus…at least this would have to be the case in order for the early Church to appropriate the symbol “Christ” upon the person Jesus.  Even characters in Gospel stories seem to know a difference between the person of Jesus and the idea of Christ.  Peter proclaims to Jesus “you are the Christ” (note the definite article there).  The Woman at the well in the Gospel of John notes a belief in the Messiah while Jesus and her are talking about her life…and she returns to her village not believing Jesus is the Christ, rather she asks her kin folk, “might he be the Christ?”  Clearly, during the ministry of Jesus it was not evident that he was THE Christ.  He was interpreted to be the Christ after Easter, and this dogma makes its way into the Gospels a generation later, but there is little in the gospels that would lead one to believe that a pre-Easter Christological pattern had even begun to emerge (indeed what would a pre-Easter Gospel even look like???  It most likely would not exist).  This is not a radical Jesus Seminar conclusion, even more conservative Catholic scholars who profess full ideas of the immaculate conception, trinity, etc.,would agree on this point.

Thus, the powerful symbol of Christ has been lost in the sea of Jesus, even becoming nothing more than Jesus’ last name.  Whatever we conceive of Christ, we conceive of Jesus…whose name is in fact Jesus “Christ.”  The confusion of these two terms and the assumption of their linguistic marriage lead me to prefer to talk about Jesus and Christ in Tillichian terms whenever I invoke these names.  Following Tillich, one should note that it is Jesus whom we call the Christ…not Jesus Christ…and it is Jesus that may only be granted such Christological status because his life takes on Christic significance, not because he was born with a last name that identifies who he is as Christ.  Jesus is only Christ because the story of his life is worthy of a designation as Christ.

The reason this parsing of concepts is important is because in understanding the terms separately one may, thereby, begin to actually appreciate any Christological significance bestowed upon Jesus.  When Christ is just an assumption of identity by the historical wonder worker from Nazareth, the loaded concept of Christ is lost amidst our domesticated faith…thereby emptying the Christ of the very power that many folks testify the person of Jesus Christ to represent.  Only by freeing Christ from Jesus can we fully appreciate what it is that is about Jesus that makes him Christ, and therefore, makes him significant.  Thus, if one is to understand Jesus, one must understand that Christ is an aporia (a confusion, a loss, a perplexity at every turn)…only by freeing Christ from our structured comfortable faith might the actual person of Jesus whom we call Christ become a symbol of strangeness that is anything but something that can be overly conceptualized on a rationalistic level and then stuffed into our hearts…our chest being the cozy threshold of a Jesus that is no longer strange enough to change anything…let alone change us. 

Who needs the death of Jesus? We have Facebook

social-media-jesus

The widespread use of twitter, tumblr, Facebook, etc, and the past success of the movie “Social Media” and the accolades it received across various Hollywood awards shows should have gained the attention of the church and thoughtful followers of Jesus. Yet, this is not the case. Normally, us self-professed Christian folk can dismiss the latest entertainment and internet phenomenon as a fad, but not this time. Indeed, this time, we are co-opting it for our “biblical” purposes and our sense of “evangelism”…too bad we are not thinking critically about co-opting these mediums and the theological statements being made in doing so. Moving right along, if the success of social media in the movies hasn’t gotten our attention, the explosion of social media as a way of relating and communicating most certainly should, yet when was the last sermon you heard on the relationship between the Gospel and Social media or the Gospel Facebook style? In a connected world, it seems that thoughtful Christian thinking is disconnected from the purposes and the impact social media is making on millions of people around the globe. What is occurring before our eyes is a new way of creating community and belonging. Hollywood and internet media has successfully tapped into the desire that people have to be a part of something greater than themselves…and if atonement is about anything, it is about connecting people something greater than themselves.

The church, however, is not failing to take advantage of social media or even having a Facebook or Twitter presence. In fact, more and more churches are connected to the abyss of social media. Yet, the reality is that few churches are asking the hard theological questions that Facebook and social media creates. For millions of people that use Facebook, and other social media, these mediums are their community. These mediums are the ways in which a generation of people are learning the skills of communication, and ironically losing their ability to communicate in truly human ways at the same time. The connections people are finding are taking the place of the real communal connections. In our attempt to be a part of an online community we are sacrificing real community; we seeking at-one-ment, yet the very means by which we are seeking is creating the very opposite desire that drives us to embrace artificial connectivity.

So are Christians really thinking about what makes Facebook work? What is it about Facebook that keeps users returning daily, coming back for more, again and again, only to find the same website exactly where they left it? In other words, what essential human need does Facebook fill that makes it “work” for thousands of people across cultural and international boundaries? What need is the church neglecting? What does a social media community have, promise and do that draws people unto itself? Might I suggest that Facebook works not because of what it is, but what it does. Let me repeat, Facebook works not because of what it is, BUT WHAT IT DOES. If any of my past posts on atonement have said anything thus far, I trust that the function of the idea of atonement, and our subsequent theology thereof, is pivotal to its importance, development and continual hermeneutical applications in the present context of human need.

What Facebook does is connect people. Facebook works for so many people because it taps into the primordial need all humans have to be in community with others. It fills a vacuum of emptiness and loneliness, making people feel part of something larger than their daily mundane existence. Facebook, and other forms of social media, has the power to orient lives and wrap them into a larger narrative with an agreed upon location, agreed upon communicational norms and agreed upon taboos that can get one kicked off a friends “friend list.”

For thousands of years human community has been created around sacred objects and the creation of boundaries to identify participation in a particular community. These agreed upon and understood objects and boundaries gave the participants a sense of belonging and a connection, in many cases, to a God from which the community had been gifted. In the past, meaning was often found as people learn to commune around the center known as God, the ultimate object of our attention, our “ultimate concern.” God was the supreme sacred object around which community was created…whether a specific commitment to the Christian idea of God was sustained is immaterial to this observation.

In our contemporary situation, we no longer need to connect to one another through sacred norms in the name of God or scripture. God and text, due to a multitude of factors, have been usurped as the most reliable means that teaches folks how to relate to themselves and that which transcends themselves. Blame it on liberalism, the scientific revolution, the failure of Christians to actually act like Jesus, or whatever, our generation no longer perceives at-one-ment as something solely experienced within a religious context…we now have social media to connect to others in mysterious ways, this satisfying our human need for belonging and hope amidst a community of others.

Now, its Facebook that makes these rules of community and takes the initiative of establishing how we connect with others, the world and ultimately fills a sense of void that generally only happened within the context of religious communities. When we need to connect, need to talk, or need to cry, we do so on cyberspace with our Facebook “friends,” all the while keeping real physical community at the distance of the keyboard. We no longer sink into contemplation, prayer or questions about the nature of what it means to be human. These questions are obsolete because of we have new communities that give us a sense of purpose (even if purpose is now defined as staying connected ALL THE TIME to everything that doesn’t matter…it’s the connection and perception of belonging through that information that now makes us –at-one with our disperate selves.) We are so serious about our Facebook connections that those on our “Friends List” that may not connect with us as often as we like could be excommunicated from our circle of friends.

If millions of people are now looking for community via Facebook, what is driving this phenomenon? Why do so many people find real connection here and not in real authentic community, such as the Church (please suspend all criticisms that the church is often not the church…just work with me that the church IS the beachhead of the Kingdom of God)? Why do so many people neglect family, and the coherence of Church family, for the facsimile relationship of Facebook? Could it be that the church and our families have ostracized many individuals through judgment or prejudice? Have we kept people away by our rules, laws and doctrines, building a hedge around our sacred communities rather than opening doors for those looking to belong somewhere? What happens when the primary means of connection is no longer God in Christ, but a Facebook icon on our smartphones?

Ultimately, is the success of Facebook partially due to the inability of the church, and many Christians, to be an open community who embraces the outcast rather than subdue them through doctrinal obligation, dry moral commitments or even extreme religious laws?

Just as Jesus accepted the marginal, the poor and the wayward of society, so too is there a place for these people at the table of Facebook. Facebook is the new community wherein anyone can belong, be loved and find friends. Mark Zuckerberg has offered a new narrative wherein our faces and books can be read by others. In the at-one-ment of Facebook, there is no judgment, there is no demonization and there is no prejudice. All are welcome to participate and be at-one…atoned of their separation and lostness through social media. Can we eerily hear Facebook echo John 8.10 to the outcasts, “where are your accusers?”

The connection that Facebook provides, however, is artificial. We do not interact with people on Facebook, we interact with images, pictures and statements. We learn how to relate to symbolic stimulus as a means of identifying with others, rather than learning the simple need we have to speak and hear one another. The result is a world that is “plugged in” and addicted to a form of hyper-connectivity, yet very disconnected.

How might Christianity speak to this reality? What central Christian event is the connecting event of history and the event that acts as the glue of Christians everywhere around the world? In what way does religion, specifically Christianity, connect us to one another? An answer may be found in the story of the Gospel and a renewed understanding of the atonement of Jesus and it offers a far deeper connection than facebook can imagine or re-narrate. Fortunately, the problem of connecting people is exactly what the Gospel of Jesus has always been about. The Gospel is about connecting others to Christ, to God, to one another and to the world.

A primary means of connection in Christianity is through the atonement action of the Christ. The atonement is generally wrapped into the gory details of the death of Jesus and how his death bestowed forgiveness into creation.

There is, however, another often neglected aspect.

While the atonement may be the vehicle of how God redeems humanity, it is primarily, at its basest function, a means of connecting people to God, each other, themselves and the world. The atonement, or at-one-ment of Jesus, does not happen in a vacuum. Disciples are gathered around the cross, the world beholds it, and community is created after this event. In other words, the atonement of Jesus is as much a vehicle of connection and the genesis of community as it is an event wherein we debate the love theory of Abelard or the substitutionary theory of Anselm.

Jesus Tweets Gospel of John Style

Jesus Tweets Gospel of John Style

The Gospel of John beautifully demonstrates, through the words of Jesus, the events of the atonement through the “lifted up” sayings that occur in 3.14-16, 8:28 and 12.32. In 12.32 Jesus says, “And if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all people unto myself.” As the Christ is lifted up before us, he draws all people to himself and connects that which was never together. He creates a community out of chaos and a sense of belonging out of despair. In the act of at-one-ment, Jesus makes us one, connecting us with himself, his God, one another, ourselves and the world. The result is a connected community we call the Church.

The second function of the atonement is forgiveness, but even this acts as a connecting, community making reality.

The first “lifted up” saying in John 3.14-16 indicates that forgiveness is primarily accomplished in the lifting up of Christ in the passion narrative. Jesus says, “even so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes may in him have eternal life.” The atonement of Jesus is the act wherein we are made at-one with one another and God, but this is chiefly accomplished because we share the identity of forgiven people. Our forgiveness and acceptance by God in Christ connects us. Forgiveness is important due to the sense of belonging it fosters in the forgiven, creating a new family and new relationships.

Forgiveness creates identity in the community of Jesus. We share the bond of having encountered God incarnate in Jesus, demonstrating to us what forgiveness looks like and how to extend love and grace to others. The incarnation of God in Christ, and the atoning work of this Christ for humanity, is a physical means of connection that could not have been accomplished by an aloof God. Real connection happens when God is incarnated in Jesus for us and we are then the incarnate atoning Christ to one another and the world.

There is no grander connection than the one created wherein a true friend has laid down his life. After this event, we gather together as a group not sure of what happened, only to find the Christ come into our presence and breathe upon us the spirit that binds us. We are a community that was created by the Christ and, subsequently, are called to bring this community into the brokenness from which we came.

For generations, people have shared real life and found real meaning because this one was lifted up for us, creating a community that can never be torn asunder. Surely, the community wherein the Holy Spirit resides should be a community committed to sharing what real connection looks and feels like in the presence of a social media that narrates a very different form of community and connection. The Gospel event of atonement is the place wherein we can really see one another’s faces and wrap ourselves into a book full of stories that teaches us how to live in community and create a better creation as God takes it to the place that is Christ shaped…a place that begins as we stare one another in the eyes, kneeling at no other place, than the foot of the cross.