Leaning Into Death: An Alternative Reading of Acts 2.42-47

buddha death

Preaching from Acts 2 this Eastertide, it dawned on me this familiar passage was saying something much simpler, yet more profound, than providing fodder for theological arguments between Pentecostals and, well, every other Christian.

The early portion of this chapter (tongues of fire, upper room, etc.), gets most of the attention in the chapter, and rightly so.  It’s bizarre, unusual, and produces a proclamation that had never happened before.

In Chapter 1, Jesus ascends into heaven and the disciples go to Jerusalem (to the Upper Room) to wait, for something unaware.  Chapter 2 continues the action answering the proverbial, “so what now?  If Jesus isn’t here, what happens and where are we going?”  The tongues of fire episode is the first part of the answer.

But the tongues of fire is the easiest part of the answer.

I mean, who doesn’t like a religious experience?  Plenty of people thrive on experience, feelings, euphoric highs that charge our life.  We have all been witness to the power of religious experience, perhaps even experiencing something religious ourselves.  The two fastest growing segments of Christianity in the world are the two that offer an experience, a doing, with God: Pentecostalism and Catholicism.

Ok, so you’re not religious and don’t like that analogy?  Do you like sex, the experience of sex?  Or is it better to think and talk about sex as opposed to having sex?

Do you enjoy the experience of cheering for your favorite sports team, cheering for your child, experiencing joy?  If you’d rather go to Disney World than talk about it, you prefer experience because participating in something powerful makes you feel.

Thus, we understand how powerful, and preferable, great experiences are.  You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that we humans LOVE to experience FEELINGS.

It is little wonder Acts 2 and an experience of the Holy Spirit gains the traction it does.  Its powerful, it’s refreshing, it’s renewing.

Yet, the early portion of Acts 2 is not the end game.  The end game begins when the experience of the first part of this chapter takes a form of life, a form of life in Acts 2.42-47 that is a daunting reminder/request.

Acts 2.42-47 is a troublesome text that offers a vignette of life in the early church while simultaneously making the rest of us nervous at the consequences.  It reads:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

There’s just something about the implication that we should fellowship, commit ourselves to the teaching of the apostles, pray, break bread and praise God that seems like too much work.  And lest we get too comfortable, let’s not forget this idea of “holding all things in common and selling our possessions” in order to provide for those who have need that makes us spiritually wriggle and physically convulse.

While this list seems odd to us, it is not uncommon for Luke to give us these summary statements about life in the early church, brief portraitures of how they organized their communal living.  He does so in several places throughout Acts, such as chapters 4, 6 and 9.

In so doing, Luke is not only telling us how the early church lived, but he is gently nudging us to go and do likewise.

The trouble with these summaries, however, is that they are often lifted out of the chapters in which they occur.  These summaries, like Paul’s lists of “dos and don’ts” that keep people out of heaven, are summarily read and rehearsed with little regard to the stories preceding and following them.

While debates about religious experience and the political ideology of Acts 2 are intriguing, I have a different question: Why does this summary occur here, in this part of the Acts 2?  What larger narrative is at work behind this summary?  And why does the Lectionary ask us to read this text at this point in the Easter Season?

The problem with reading Acts chapter 2 is that it is read as two separate texts.  We have a 2.0 and a 2.1 version: a Pentecostal experience and a purview into life in the early church.  We preach an experience OR we preach a political obligation.  Rarely do we seek the coherence of this chapter.

Simply put, Acts 2.42-47 is impossible apart from Pentecost.  This is a way of life that cannot be lived apart from the Spirit.  The episodes of this chapter are episodes but they must remain a singular chapter, parts of a larger whole.  But let’s not stop there.

Acts 2.42-47 cannot happen apart from the Resurrection in Luke!  The Resurrection of Jesus in Luke, the Ascension of Jesus in Acts 1, and the Giving of the Spirit in Acts 2 are three stages of a singular event in which Jesus is glorified and given back to creation.

If Christ be not raised, then living in the kind of community discussed in Acts 2 is laughable.  If Christ be not ascended, then there is no giving of his presence to the Church.  If there is no giving of the Spirit, there are no tongues of fire, no empowered proclamation, and no Church.

Therefore Acts 2 is part of our Easter readings.  At first blush, one would surmise we should read Acts 2 during the season of Pentecost, but if we understand this larger movement we see that Acts 2 is not describing a Pentecostal community; it is describing an Easter community empowered through Pentecost.

It is because Jesus is raised, and the end of time marked by the outpouring of the Spirit, that those who believe on Jesus are compelled to live a life in which they sell their things, hold all things in common, break bread together, worship, and commit themselves to the apostles teaching.

Easter has empowered this early group of believers to not hold so tightly to life and empowered them to grasp more tightly to one another.

In a world without Easter, we cling to our life.  In a world with Easter, we grasp our death, and through death find life.

The early church knew how to grasp their death.  They understood it to such a degree that they lived their life toward death, leaning into it.  They leaned into to such a degree that they held loosely to all that was theirs and committed themselves to one another, anticipating that the end that had started in the Resurrection of Jesus, and been confirmed in the giving of the Holy Spirit, would overtake them all soon.

The early church took Joel 2.28 seriously,

“After this I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions.”

Here is the kicker: only people who are convinced that in Jesus’ Resurrection the end has begun can live according to Acts 2.42-47.  Only people who have received tongues of fire to proclaim the ridiculous message that Jesus is raised and that we can share in his resurrection can live as Acts suggests.

Moving one step further, people who believe this, and have experienced the outpouring of the Spirit, can do no other than live as Acts 2 suggests because they understand they are living toward death, living toward the end that is God.  People who know the end is near have no time to be consumed with grasping to a life they will lose so they lose the life they have.  The Apostle Paul insinuated something similar when he proclaims, “I am crucified with Christ.”

In the debate between paradox or dialectic, in this instance, we side with paradox.

One may believe this end will come in the clouds with Christ, or believe it comes at the time of our own death, either way, we must lean in toward the end.  This is what the early church does and why Acts 2.42-47 is odd; it’s a way of life that doesn’t grasp life.

I call this a hermeneutic of loss, a hermeneutic grounded in the death of Jesus and the loss of the world.

As such, Acts 2.42-47 really functions as more of a reminder of what matters than a dictum to be followed.  The texts job isn’t to exacerbate our failings, but to remind us that this is how people live who live toward the end: People who believe the end is now in the Resurrection, Ascension and Coming Holy Spirit of Christ.  When we forget life is found in death, we live life for life-sake and when death comes we wish we’d lived toward death, because we will regret living as if the end wouldn’t happen.

But this reading shouldn’t come a surprise.

I have never known a hermeneutic of loss, or read scripture as texts toward death, until I lost my own father nearly 12 weeks ago.  After suddenly losing him, scripture has just as suddenly become a new land.  I see in it things hidden before; I feel in it things I never knew to feel.  Eerily, parts scripture make more sense now because it too was born out of a series of traumas that led to life in/through loss.

After my father’s death, all I wanted to do was do these things in Acts 2 with him.  I wanted to sit in his Sunday School class one more time, hearing the apostles teaching.  I wanted to eat with him again, break bread.  I wanted to fellowship more, visit his house after work.  I wanted to pray for him, with him, share in the simple pleasure of hearing him pray one more time before dinner.  I wanted to be thankful more, enjoy life more, not let the trivial things of life irritate me when I was around him.

When he died, he left behind all the things he loved and enjoyed.  His family, his hobbies, his business: it is all still here.  Yet, my father lived as one who never held too tightly to these things.  He left them behind, he knew he would, so he spent his days doing as much of Acts 2 as he could.  If you knew him, you lived Acts 2 with him as well.

Acts 2 reminds us that at the end of our days, either at the appearance of Christ in the Clouds, or in the face of death when it comes for us, we will not regret anything except that we had lived more like the picture given to us in Acts 2.42-47.

My suggestion?

Discover the resurrection of Jesus.  Discover death.  Lean into it.  Find life.  Find Freedom.

Value Voting is Nonsense

value voters

Recently, the Atlantic published a column describing the transition of part of the American voting segment from value voters to voters of nostalgia.  Christians who used to vote based on a candidates position on abortion, gay rights, euthanasia, pro-family, etc., have forgotten those values and are now voting for their identity as Americans.

We have transitioned from being voters of values to voters of identity, voters who want someone to restore order to the chaos we see surrounding us.

America has lost it way!  Prayer is no longer in schools, apple pie is no longer piping fresh from the oven when dad gets home from work, and gasp, football has surpassed baseball as the nations favorite sport!

We need the good ole days when FDR created the New Deal, Ike gave us the interstate system and grew government spending to do so,  JFK nearly began a nuclear holocaust and Lyndon Johnson was creating the Great Society…not to mention air conditioning was a boon in the middle of the 20th century.

We long for the days when women had much lower social standing, fewer people were educated, gay rights was an oxymoron and your kid could get beat up on the play ground without consequence.

Yes!  Let’s make America Great again!

As large groups of people have coalesced around a bombastic candidate in Donald Trump, they have not found unity in his morality or social views.  In fact, they ignore them.  Instead, people have found unity in the awesomeness of days gone by.  The slogan, “Make America Great” indicates both the opinion that right now isn’t great and that in the distant past such greatness can provide a model for future greatness.

This is just as well.  It’s about time we vote what we really believe: voting for values is nonsense.

The Reagan Coalition had historically long legs.  But its step has finally reached its pinnacle and is now on the descent.

For nearly 30 years the Republican Party convinced voters that if they would vote Republican they would be casting their lot with a party that stands up for American Values, for Christian values.

Republicans vowed to protect unborn babies, pursue amendments to Constitutions preserving “traditional marriage,” and keep the war on drugs at a fever pitch.  Republicans would conserve the America of our grandparents and parents, and in turn, would preserve an America that we would recognize as we hand it off to our children.

All of this was nonsense.

It was religious populism garnering votes as the Republican and Democratic party made indistinguishable decisions.

Both parties spent a lot of money.  Both parties started wars and continued conflicts.  Both parties traded in public interest for their electoral interests.  Both parties spoke like Patriots while acting like bastards.

As the value voting mantra swept through our country and continued to foment political action in our churches, it continued to mean nothing while those who voted based on values felt as if they were really doing something.  In fact, they did nothing but cast their lot with people who would no more change a single “value” law then undo the results of the Civil War.

Libertarian voices tried to speak out and be heard.  Large constituencies of younger people, or disillusioned boomers, who tried to draw attention to economic policy or public policy were silenced because libertarian positions were too liberal.

How can you legalize marijuana?

What…you believe people should be able to do with their body parts what they want so long as it doesn’t infringe on your rights?

You don’t want prayer in schools…are you a pagan!?  Of course wanting prayer in schools is the Christian thing to want!

You don’t want to outlaw abortion?!  How can you even sleep at night?

These questions and more were, and are, frequently asked by values voters.

While many of us look around and have seen for decades that agreeing with George W. Bush on abortion had absolutely nothing to do with the way he governed the country, still a stubborn voting segment has thought voting by values would change something.

In similar fashion, even liberals who thought that agreeing with Bill Clinton on social policy would usher in an American utopia were sorely disappointed…and if you ask far left liberals about President Obama, they would say he, like Clinton, has pandered to the political class and not gone far enough to the Left to institute the sweeping change our country needs.

Obama ran on change and a new set of values, yet other than a token gay marriage decision by the Supreme Court, he has continued the policy of war, taxation, free trade, expansive oil discovery and government growth of his predecessor.

As with Republicans, so with Democrats: votes cast for similar values are just that, votes.  Sharing a value with a candidate does not mean they will administer the country as they should.

Republicans did not outlaw euthanasia.  They did not make abortion illegal.  They could not stop gay marriage from becoming law.  They cannot get prayer back in schools.

Sharing a professed value can make them your friend but it shouldn’t make them your candidate.

Democrats have not made good on their single payer intentions.  It took President Obama two terms to finally come around and support gay marriage.  The black community continues to have high crime and incarceration rates, while black youths are the single highest unemployed segment of our society, all under the first black president.

Democrats haven’t come good on their values either…why?

Because values DO NOT MATTER in politics.

This was recently illustrated when I watched John Kasich during a CNN town hall.  Someone asked about his approach to appointing a Supreme Court Justice.  His reply?  He did not want an activist judge but neither would he let his personal opinion about gay marriage influence his decision to appoint a judge who was pro gay marriage.  He said, “it’s the law of the land so we move on.”

In other words, he has his personal conviction, but in a secular politic it’s not a deal breaker because it is not the job of the state to uphold religious norms.  Political life and religious life don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

As for commerce, Kasich said, “I don’t understand why we can’t trade with someone who thinks differently than us.  Like the instance of the bakery and gay couple…In my opinion, its trade, sell them a cup cake and move on.  If you disagree then say a prayer for them, but in my opinion it shouldn’t prevent us from the political activity of commerce.” (my rough paraphrase)

Politics and values at the operative level do not go hand in hand, which is why, the value you need to share with a candidate is not their stance on gay marriage or gay cupcakes.

The value you need to share is their principle of governance.

What animates a person’s political philosophy?  How would they legislate and why?

Values come and go with time, but political principles remain.

This is why our Founding Fathers could have diverse opinions on religion, yet they were bound by a pursuit of liberty and freedom.  This is why Benjamin Franklin could be an agnostic and still unite in brotherhood with George Whitfield, even giving money to his ministry.  This is why Thomas Jefferson could be a Deist who did not believe any New Testament mythology, yet he shared a passion for liberty with Baptists and united with them in pursuing an American nation that would embody liberty (albeit one with its contextual limitations).

Christian values did not unite the Founders of our country.  Social values did not unite our Founders either.  Just ask South Carolina if they shared the same values as New York 200 years ago.

What united the country was a love for liberty, a principle.  This principle does not change even as social moors and interpretations of scripture do.  Either you believe in liberal republicanism or you don’t.  Either you agree with John Locke or you don’t, but such is not predicated on a “value” grounded in any “moral” concern.

Thus, I am glad The Donald has entered the world of politics because he has finally disclosed what so many of us have believed for so long: value voting is nonsense.

When you cast your vote today, consider not voting for someone who shares your morality, but perhaps, someone who shares your political vision for the country.

 

 

I Don’t Believe in Jesus

Magellan

This is the newest rage…and by people far less intelligent than Magellan.  (FTR, I support Magellan, Galileo and Copernicus)

Just go onto any social media outlet and you’ll find people clanging the cymbals of disbelief.  And not just disbelief in general (for which there may be justifiable cause) but disbelief in Jesus, his actual historical existence.  Magellan disagreed for sound reason.  Today, people disagree because they don’t WANT to agree…baseless disagreement and decisions abound.

Pseudo-intellectuals that want to sound smart and flex their post-modernism resound uniformly, “I Don’t believe in Jesus.”

Like this is the new popular belief that all the cool kid’s hold…cool kids who are not experts in history, Jesus or modes of belief…hell, people who hardly read a book or if they do its Richard Dawkins lite.

This very phrase was actually used in a recent conversation I had with someone that should know better.

After I spoke about my very historical trip to the Middle East and some of the reasons for going, out of nowhere this phrase comes flying in, as if from a resident twitter atheist, “I Don’t Believe in Jesus.”

I mean, what does that even mean?  What are you expressing when you say that?  Cause when I hear that, without any kind of qualification, I immediately ask myself, “which part of Jesus do you not believe in?”

And then things become drowned in the absurd.  The illogical leap is made from the presumed, “I don’t believe in the Divinity of Jesus,” (which I understand and am willing to discuss) and quickly devolve into the “I don’t believe he EVEN EXISTED?”

Seriously?

In our collective attempt to sound enlightened or flex our autonomy from the strictures of the Bible belt, let’s not look stupid.  We can be critical thinkers without being idiots.

Let’s be clear: those that deny that Jesus even existed are on shakier ground than those that believe all the dogma about Jesus ever contrived.  There is simply no warrant for disbelief in the historical personage of Jesus other than the ideological preference for his non-existence (and thus not having to deal with his historicity…I digress).

Like anything else, if we hear others say it, and we tell it to ourselves, we can eventually believe the most ridiculous things…things like saying Jesus wasn’t even born.  That he never walked the earth.  And that all the people who heard stories and read stories of this figment of our imagination were equally duped into retelling them.

Now, we can debate the nature OF his birth.  We can debate the PURPOSE of his life.  We can discuss his ROLE in the historical plane of the 1st century.  We can even debate his HUMANITY and its relation to God, but we cannot debate that he was born, had a purpose (we all do), had a role and he was a human that made sense of his life within the drama of God (if you don’t think about your life like that fine, but most 1st century Jews did…this part is called history for those of you wanting to make historical statements about Jesus not ever setting foot in history).

So how do we know?  What are our sources?

First, there is the Bible.  I know I know.  The Bible.  It’s a book ridden with fairy tales, myths and absurdities.  I agree.  It is.  But so is your life and mine.  Deal with it.

We cannot discount the Bible based on the logic that all literature therein is of a singular type.  The Bible is NOT A BOOK.  It is a compilation of many books.  Think of it as an anthology.  As such, it is comprised of many TYPES and KINDS of literature.  Some of this literature is poetic.  Some is mythological.  Some is historical.  Some is hyperbolic.  Some is biographical.  Some is personal, like letters.  Some is apocalyptic, etc.  Therefore, we cannot reduce the content of one type of writing in one part of the anthology because writing in other parts includes things like talking asses and floating ax heads, stories shaded as much by theological intent as by the event itself.   This means that the literary character of  Genesis 1-11 or parts of the loosely historical books can logically discount the content of the Gospels.

The Gospels are our primary source for information about Jesus especially that he existed.  The literary type that is the Gospels was basically brand new in the 1st century but its closest of literary ken was Greco-Roman Biographies.  These biographies included three elements usually: a birth narrative, a life with work and pivotal moments of significance and a narrative of death.  Greek biographies were not synonymous with “lies” or “myths.”  They addressed real historical people and attempted (with some literary freedom) to interpret that life for their audience.  T

This literary genre was in no way synonymous with what we today know as fiction.  Thus, the nature of the Gospels as writings indicate that the kernel with which they deal is real and historical and this not even mentioning the striking historical accuracy of geography and Jewish custom found in the Gospels.  In addition, there is diversity of witness about Jesus in the Gospels, yet in this diversity is a singularity of a historical personality: Jesus of Nazareth.

Further, there is an entire field of research that deals with issues pertaining to the “historical Jesus” and scholars that participate in that endeavor range from fervent believers in his divinity to fervent detractors of anything about Jesus that has to do with “saving” the world.

Yet, what they all agree on is that Jesus did EXIST and the Gospels offer us clues to the more or less accurate details of the life of Jesus.  The literature here is too dense to describe here in detail, but if you are so inclined a quick googleing of “historical Jesus” will bring up enough sources to remain occupied for a lifetime.  There you will find the criteria for why parts of the gospels may be more or less historical, how that criteria is judged, and the implications of this research.  I recommend, for a juxtaposed study, to begin with Dominic Cross and John Meier.  They disagree on everything, but they both believe as historians that Jesus existed.  One believes Jesus was resurrected; the other thinks he bodied decayed like all bodies but he lives on metaphorically in Christians…so you get the drift.

Secondly, we have the Apostle Paul.  I know I know.  He wrote the “Bible” so that makes his letters a bunch of lies and myths.  Humor me for a minute.  He didn’t write the Bible.  He wrote letters that came to comprise large portions of the New Testament.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we have the earliest extant Christian reference to the last supper.  Paul writes,

“ For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread;  and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”  In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

This is important because Paul is writing about an event that presumably took place, historically, and the events of that night were passed on through oral tradition.  The Gospels have not been written yet when Paul writes this.  Paul says this in a letter.  Paul’s Letters, while theological, were not fictitious rehearsals of history.  We can debate Paul, his theology and anything else you want, but what cannot be debated is that Paul in a very personal letter to a real historical church mentions an event that was remembered to have happened with Jesus and his disciples even before that event was recorded in any Gospel.  Oral history does not equal fiction.  While this passage obviously carries some Christian dogma, the kernel of the event remains tucked inside.

This passage alone, and its authentically Pauline character, gives reason for most scholars to say that the Last Supper, along with Jesus’ Baptism and death, are THE three most historical moments in the life of Jesus that can be explored by the unbiased critical historian.

Secondly, we have extra-biblical sources that testify to his existence.

The most notable source is Josephus, a Jewish historian during the time of Jesus’ life that kept history for the Romans, traveled with their armies, and who never believed on Jesus or his teachings.  Josephus writes this,

“About this time arose Jesus, a wise man. He drew to himself many; and when Pilate, on the indictment of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not cease to do so, and even to this day the race of Christians, who are named from him, has not died out.” (Antiquities 18.63-64)

This is a reconstructed passage that takes out agreed upon Christian interpolations of Josephus’ writings.  In fact, there has been a lot of ink and keyboards spilled on scholarly opinion regarding Josephus’ statement about Jesus but the central idea that Jesus lived, was killed and had followers, is virtually agreed upon by all scholars as authentically Josephus.

Josephus has no reason to play into the make believe fantasies of Christians.  He has no reason to reinforce the idea that Jesus lived.  While his writings are not free of historical error, he is widely held as an authoritative voice in Roman history and his work, especially writings free of ideological content as the above.  Josephus, at this point in his work, simply mentions “Jesus” as one who was also killed by the Roman empire at this time and that people who followed him are still called Christians.

That is history.  That is an event of some kind.  That is a real historical person whether you like it or not.

Josephus, however, is not the only extra-biblical source that confirms that Jesus existed.  Roman historian and Senator, Tacitus, also mentions Jesus aka “Christ” in his writing.

He notes

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”  (Annals Book 15).

Tacitus was not alive during the time of Jesus (Born in 55AD) but he was also not known for perpetuating falsehoods.  As a Roman historian and Senator he would have taken his work seriously and would have only recorded what he knew was of definitive importance and accurate.  Tacitus’ mention of Jesus, or his posthumous personage “Christ”, demonstrates the existence of one Jesus and his followers.

I could continue to offer other Roman authorities or very early Christian sources that would also continue to provide these historical centralities: that Jesus was born, lived, was killed by the Roman Empire and continues to have followers.  Time would fail me and this blog would bore you more than it has already.

We can say many things about Jesus.  We can debate a lot about him.  We can disagree on his nature or if Christianity is a total waste of time.  But what cannot be debated is that Jesus was a real person.  He lived.  He existed.  He taught people.  And he was executed.  Just because you don’t want to follow him doesn’t mean you should make yourself look foolish by denying his existence.  The former can be a respectable choice; the latter, a childish outburst to deal with your daddy issues.

You don’t have to believe what the church says about him but church dogma and historical existence are two different things.

So when you say, “I don’t believe in Jesus, “ at least think about which Jesus you don’t believe in because the historical Jesus is one that you disbelieve at your own discretion and at the display of your own ignorance.

My Dead End on the Highway of Holiness

night_road higway

Seventeen years of commitment to the Nazarene tradition has now come to an end.  I have arrived at the end of that theological road, that ministerial road, that road that at times seemed like a Mobius Strip suspended in its own infinity.

Comprehending the ending is not near as hard as experiencing the ending.

This past week I was notified that my District License in the Church of Nazarene would not be renewed.

In Nazarene polity, the District License is the affirmation of your District group of Churches that you are fit for ministry and it is the next to last step before a person is ordained.  Typically, this License is held for only a few years and our Manual states that this licensure is not to exceed a 10 year period on the way toward ordination, extenuating circumstances withstanding.

In short, the process works as such.

A person is affirmed by their local church.  The said local church then grants them a Local Ministers License.  A year later this same person applies for a District License.  This process includes a questioning, answering and discernment process that includes a ministerial advisory board and an education board comprised of various pastors on the District.  If a person passes the discernment process at the District Level, they are then guided into the proper education to fulfill their ministerial obligations.  This whole process can take as little as 5 years or as long as the District allows a person to travel this road.

This process is not set in stone, however.  A person can have 0 education, feel a calling to ministry, be assigned a Church and then work on education WHILE pastoring a church.  A person can choose to pursue their education absent a university and their education for ministry counts as much as a person with a university degree.  A person can attain a District License and choose to be a student, such as pursuing a Bachelor Arts in Religion or a Master of Divinity, the only caveat being that ANY ministry done during these student years doesn’t count toward ordination because this person is not directly employed by a church…so employed experience means more than real experience.

As you can see, there is some diversity to the iron clad process of ordination and discernment of ministers.  It is guided by the Manual but it is regulated by the subjective reality of human beings.

Enter my story.

I was called to preach (since that’s what we called it back in the day) in 1998.  I was granted a local license that same year at my local Nazarene Church.  I was then granted a District License the following year in 1999.  Since then I have had a District License every year, for 16 years, except 1.  I have been in the ministerial process of the Nazarene Church since I was 17.

Why you ask?  Certainly it is easy to become a pastor then become a brain surgeon?!  Well, one would think…but I have become the victim of red tape and circumstance.

From 1999-2003 I was as student at Trevecca Nazarene University.  I graduated with a 3.6 gpa as a Religion Major.  I did a lot of ministry in college…BUT I was a student so none of that counts toward ordination.  Only my education counted toward ordination but education doesn’t shave any time off your process to be ordained if aren’t on a church payroll.

After the University but before Seminary, 2003-2004, I did youth ministry at my local Nazarene Church and taught the adult Sunday School class with my father, who deferred to me and my newly minted education.  But my youth ministry and teaching (and I think I did some preaching that year also) did not count toward ordination because…you guessed it, I was not on a church payroll.

I had excelled enough at Trevecca that I knew I really wanted to go to Seminary and earn my Master of Divinity Degree.  I actually ended up taking that year off of school because after first telling Vanderbilt I would accept their 70% scholarship, and enter fall of 2003,’ I had to rescind that acceptance for familial reasons.  I then pursued Masters work at the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, in Atlanta.  I was offered a full ride scholarship.  I accepted and studied theology there from 2004-2008.  I graduated with honors, 3.95 gpa, and was granted the Outstanding Scholars Award for my class…an award that had not before, nor since, been granted.  While in Atlanta I did some very good ministry at Harvest Community Church of the Nazarene…BUT NONE of that counted because I was a student.

So 6 years into the process and I am still not ordained but I have a lot of experience and have been doing ministry.

In 2005 my wife was pregnant with Twins.  I needed work.  I was willing to pastor a Nazarene Church and forgo my full ride at Mercer if some churchwould hire me.  My education would not have ended; I was just planning on doing distance learning through Nazarene Theological Seminary and pay for my education.  I wanted to pastor a church.  I wanted to fulfill my calling.  I was willing to sacrifice scholarship money to serve my people, the Nazarenes.  Well, you might be surprised that the prospects of a pastor finding a church at 24 years old is not good.  The Letter to Timothy encourages the church to not despise the youth of the church or its up and coming talent…In my case, the church never gave me a shot…I was despised and the Letter to Timothy sat in silence.

I called the Georgia District Superintendent.

There were four, 4!, churches within a 45 minute drive of seminary that were open.  The DS did not go to bat for me.  He hung me out to dry and could care less I was on his district.  I called my DS in East TN, asked him about work, he said he had nothing (75 churches at the time but nothing for me) and he wasn’t helpful when I asked him to please give a call on my behalf to Georgia or surrounding districts.  He didn’t do that for me.  I needed work, I contacted my leaders and they were not helpful.

I sent out 20 resumes to specific churches and to every Nazarene District in the Southeast, I even sent a resume to a church in Phoenix and Philadelphia!  I was willing to move.  I wanted to pastor.  I was Nazarene…but nothing.  I did not get ANY response from ANY Nazarene Church or District.  The only response I received was from a non-denominational church in South Carolina wanting to pursue my resume.  They sent me an initial candidates questionnaire.  I did not pursue it because a few weeks earlier I had accepted work at a local Papa John’s Pizza and a promotion with it.  I needed to work.  I had twins on the way.  The church didn’t step up, but I needed to work so I made a decision for my family.

You may be saying “well, you didn’t have a lot of experience, so maybe that’s why no one called you.”

That would be a false assumption.

By this time in my life, I had preached a lot.  I had been a supply pastor many times, I had done youth revivals, I had organized entire worship sequences, I had filled in countless of times for pastors.  I had done internships and taught/organized classes for the church.  The Easter before I applied for a church I had planned the entire Easter liturgy at my church in Atlanta, preached the sermon, broke bread and done it all in front of 272 people that Easter morning.  My resume was strong for a young pastor…and I had references to reinforce it.  Yet, I could get no help.  No one in my corner.  No leader to lend me a hand.

So I moved back to TN in 2006 and began work at my family’s business.  The good people at Mercer helped me with my education; I kept my scholarship and commuted for 2 years to Atlanta to finish.  I was determined; I was going to finish this degree.  I did not know how I would use it but I was going to be faithful.

Everything I did from 2005-2009, however, did not count.  I was a “student” and as such my ministry was education not experience, at least according to the Nazarene Manual.  Still not ordained…we are now in year 10.

I had plans of pursing Phd right after seminary, but by then I had 3 kids and it wasn’t in the books to move.  So I entered the family business (an opportunity that even 2 years prior was not a possibility due to finances…so this was not a failsafe I had in my back pocket while I pursued ministry opportunities), grew the business and did part time ministry during that time.  I would preach, teach district classes, teach Sunday school, etc.

2009-2014 I saw some of my most productive ministerial years.  Since I did not go straight into Phd I wrote papers for conferences, such as the Wesleyan Theological Society.  I published multiple academic book reviews for Review and Expositor.  I published 2 papers in theological journals, legitimate journals, with a solid reputation.  I contributed to online articles at ethicsdaily.  I taught more district classes for pastors in training.  I performed 5 marriages and a few funerals.  And, to attempt to finally meet ordination requirements, I got on staff at my local Nazarene church in 2010.  So from 09-14’ I did all that and was actively in ministry teaching weekly, and preaching monthly…not to mention I helped grow my family business from 1 store to 7 stores, while chasing 3 little boys (and a little girl that is now 4 months old) around my house.

In 2013 I thought I had finally gotten my Phd break.  I was a final candidate for Phd in historical theology at Emory.  I had my advisor chosen.  We had discussed how my work would begin and where it would go.  I had been faithful and now, finally, I was going to get a good break.  It didn’t happen.  I had done all I could to prepare for this opportunity.  I had been published and presented more papers and research than most folks IN a Phd program, let alone people just trying to get in one.  My efforts were not enough.  I was not extended an invitation.  With that declination, a little part of me died.  I’m still working on how to move past it.  Accept it.  And deal.  I maintained my relationship to the local church and was on staff but Emory had effectively taken the wind out of my sails…

I had no idea where my life was going.

I have been successful in business and have created many lasting friendships in business and in theological circles.  I knew I didn’t want to give up on theology or ministry so in 2014 I went to interview for my District License again…after much honest conversation and personal admittance of my own inner ambiguity, the District granted my license.  I had not done enough to be ordained but because of my disenfranchisement with the process I did not push for it either.  Back in 2010 the district told me to keep a log of my ministry work to earn credit for ordination.  I mean seriously?  That was not going to happen.  I had done a crap ton for the church and I wasn’t about to write done every minute of everything I had done toward ministry.  I didn’t know anyone that had done that, let alone do that for 8 years of part time ministry to get ordained as per the Manual.

I think this year, 2014-2015, was the year the district was looking for to finally ordain me…a process that was taking far too long and, for me personally, beginning to strain under its own incredulity…making it basically undesirable.  I mean, if there are people who know less, don’t have the experience, and yet still get through the process quicker because they weren’t a “student” or they didn’t participate in a demanding business…then it seemed to me the church was willing to take mediocrity, so long as it was mediocrity that they were managing.

That was the thing about me…I was unmanageable.  And through the years, while I had earned my supporters I had also earned few detractors.   I had become a little angry and silently frustrated that the District would affirm via ordination every Tom, Dick and Harry that said they loved Jesus…but for me I couldn’t catch a break.

Then 2014 happened.  That summer I had contributed to a book, Renovating Holiness, edited by two friends, Tom Oord and Joshua Broward.  They asked me to contribute a few months earlier and I sent them my final essay last summer.  It was a reminder that I was not done as a Nazarene.  There were people here that still valued me, even as I valued them, and we all sought to contribute to making our church better as we rethink old forms of faith.  The book was published and released Feb 2015.

Also that summer I had started a unique ministry at a local Nazarene Church.  I eventually ended up preaching at this church in June, a few times in October and November, and then most Sundays December to March.  When I first went to fill in for a pastoral colleague of mine, who was also moving on to another ministry in a few months, I had no intention of even seeking out this pastorate.  I was just trying to come good on my promise to the District that I would serve…and subsequently I love preaching.  By my second Sunday there in October I felt my heart changing…I felt like this may be the opportunity, the reason I have stayed Nazarene and continued on this process despite the discouragement along the way.  Myself, and the people, clicked, or so I thought.  My family liked the church.  We felt loved and we loved those folks in return.  It was one of the best ministry experiences I have had in my life.  It wasn’t a university job…but maybe this is what God had for me.  The church needs thoughtful people too and I thought this situation held a lot of promise.

This situation, however, never materialized.  I was willing to bend a lot to make this happen.  I was willing to reorganize work, family and my entire schedule to meet the needs of this church.  But I was never given that opportunity.  In my opinion, the District failed me.  The leadership failed me.  Here, once again, when I needed honesty, transparency and a good shake…it didn’t happen.  Thus, through the years when I most needed the church…the church let me down.  There is a lot to this situation and why it didn’t materialize, but I know that none of that was my doing.  It was totally out of my hands.

SOOOOO Enter the present.  After struggling with my calling and my place in this world (if I can quote Michael W. Smith) for nearly a year and a half, then seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, a real opportunity, only to have it snuffed out…and on the heels of Emory being snuffed out, I was spiritually and intellectually exhausted.  My creativity was zapped.

The hard thing about being one of the clergy in the “know” and seeing how everything works is that when you need a break, or you feel burned, or you’re just pissed off and asking God “what Next?” the last place a pastor, struggling or otherwise, wants to be  is church.  In all other professions you can leave that place and never see it again.  You can quit your job, tell them to shove it, and disappear…BUT when your job is church, you can’t do that without people being suspicious of your intentions and questioning your piety.  I have been working toward a common ambiguous goal since I was 17, a path that has taken many twists and turns.  But turn after turn I see what I once loved and what inspired me continually get stripped away…that place, the place that represents all that I am not at the moment or unrealized gifts that will never be, that place…that place is a place I don’t want to be around.  I needed  break, a rest.

So I took it and that was a mistake.

After Emory declined to offer me an invitation to study, I slowly began to shirk from the work I thought I was doing in preparation to be a liaison between church and academy.  A Liaison is what I had thought my call, my vocation, would become.  A scholar pastor or a pastor scholar, someone that bridges the gap between these seemingly two juxtaposed realities in current culture.   My dream job was to be the dean of a chapel, while also teaching classes at a university, and in the summers travel and preach at conferences or camp meetings.  I loved teaching, I loved preaching…I loved academics yet I loved the local church.

Then the invitation to contribute to Renovating Holiness happened.  The connection with a local Nazarene church happened.  Things were looking up…then they turned south again.  After I finished my interim work at this church I attended church much less frequently.   In 12 weeks I was probably at a half dozen services.  I came a few Sunday mornings, a couple Sunday nights and had stopped coming to Wednesday night’s altogether.  The Wednesday night fell by the way side due to work…I just couldn’t operate 7 stores, take care of my health, be a family man and be all things to all people at church at the same time, especially since it seemed lots of those doors were being shut in my face (past and present).

After careful consideration and counsel with some good friends, I decided to give ministry another year.

Here I was, a 34 year old man going through a process that is supposed to take 4-6 years and I am on year 17.  I was getting tired.  I was feeling a bit ridiculous.  It was obvious that the church had no desire to seriously engage with someone on a true bivocational level, as univocational pastors that were equivalent to the village idiot were making more headway than myself with degrees, tons o f experience, good homilies and academic standing.  BUT despite all this, I was going to be faithful and see what this year held.  Like 2014, I had no idea the opportunities or ways the Spirit would work; I was willing to do it again.

This year, however, I wanted a sabbatical.  I wanted the District to renew my license but I wanted to step back and evaluate.  I resigned at my local church as pastor of Christian Education.  I was not opposed to doing ministry, even teaching and preaching a little, but it’s very difficult to give an honest evaluation of something when you are still close to it.  I needed to step away and just be still.  Shut my mouth and listen.

The District did not grant me that.

I was notified this past week that my license was not renewed and on a board with at least half a dozen men who know me personally, and have known me since I was a teenager, none of them even motioned for my renewal.  Not ONE.  It was brought to the table and my name and license sat in the center…no one picked it up.  They said that my commitment to the local church was illustrated in my attendance, and of late, my attendance was not on point.  My work the past year, especially the work I did as an interim fill in, was not enough for the district.  Apparently I still had more to prove, since that is the basic point of the licensure process: to prove yourself.  But, really, there is nothing I else I have or can prove to anyone that doesn’t see.

I have many issues with how this was handled.  I wrote the District Superintendent, I made my complaints, but this entire situation stands as is.  After 17 years of ministry and being a Nazarene minister…that road has come to an end.

I will never again enter the Nazarene process of ordination.  That road has about as much promise as Secessionary Way in South Carolina.  I am done.

The most frustrating part of this entire process is the pretentious piety and sanctimonious posturing that took place all for the sake of a righteous roll calling.  It’s difficult to have the majority of a life’s work stand before people ( they can plainly see it and know that I have the abilities to do ministry and pedagogy) and yet they act hubristically and pass judgment on my abilities, or even worse, by not renewing my license tell me to “get lost…your services are no longer needed.”

I just hope that the folks that did not renew my license say a prayer of thanksgiving.

They should thank God they’ve never studied what I have studied, learned what I have learned , know what I know, or wrestled with career and calling as I have…living in ambiguity and ambivalence, traversing the reality of doubt and faith as those two remain interconnected.  They should say thanks they have never done so and rejoice in their spiritual uprigthness and theological absolutes…because if they had been me, not only would they have been out of the game years ago, they might have had some fine men on a board tell them what they told me, “No.”  No grace for you.  No time.

There is nothing new under the Sun here folks…carry on.

So where do I go from here?  What shape does my life take?

Well, immediately I will continue to run my business as best I know how.  I will continue to work hard to balance work, family, my vocation and perhaps in the future do some more ministry when the season arrives.  There are many places I could fit in and I have already begun to explore other traditions.  But for the time being, and probably over the next several months, I will be pondering what it means to move past my Nazareneness.  I cannot change my roots.  I cannot take back all that I have given to the church.  I can’t undo any of it, nor would I want to.   As Derrida reminds us all, our traditions can never be fully evacuated even if we evacuate them; they continue to structure our discourse.

I suppose I could stay and worship, but the sign out front will be a constant reminder that when I needed thoughtful people to give me grace and space, I was denied both…and I can’t support that sort of Institution.

So if you are Nazarene, reading this, and have been part of my ministry:  Thank you for allowing me to serve.  Thank you for the experience and for what you have taught me about ministry.  Thank you for being a blessing and encouragement to me when I needed it most.  I am who I am because of people in the local church.  This event, and my personal feelings, have never been the result of anyone in the local church.  My local Nazarene pastor is both my pastor, and my friend, and he has never done anything to make this happen.  He has always supported me, even when I gave him reason not to.  He knows who is he is and if you do, please support him, because he an outstanding minister who loves God and his people, the church.

This final releasing of me by my Church is the result of a journey that has taken years to mature.  So while my path with Nazarene ministry has come to an end, my path is not at an end.  This recent turn of events has inspired me.  It has reminded me who I am even as people have told me who I am not.  It has lit a fire under me and makes me want to be better, not bitter, as the cliché goes.

I do not know what the future holds…but I do know, thanks to folks like Ted Peters, that “God is the worlds future” and it is into that future where I will find myself and hopefully find some of you there with me.

God is a Dumb Idea

zappas quote

It is fashionable nowadays to hate on Christianity and theology.

Any idiot with a keyboard thinks themselves a philosopher because they can debate an evangelical who’s extent of biblical, philosophical and theological nuances is the dictum “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”

SMDH.

It’s not that Christianity, or the vehicle of its transmission, theology, is above reproach. It certainly should be reproached, but not in the remedially cultural way as such is found on all sorts of social media and in popularly published books by the world’s favorite anti-religionists. Just because Dawkins says something doesn’t make it gospel, and just because a person believes in God doesn’t make them a victim of a logical fallacy. Oh how many “scientists” and lovers of empiricism would make David Hume, Isaac Newton and Galileo, roll in their collective graves over their trashy arguments and shallow thinking.

As if contrarianism is the new sign of intelligence.

If you’re gonna bash idols people, you better know what you’re picking up.

So what’s the beef? What seems to be the objection to doing Christianity, to doing theology, to…*hold your breath…gonna say the “g” word* to do careful thinking while simultaneously employing the term “GOD.” God is the problem, right?

To some, God is the Illusion or Delusion. Of all the problems religion has, God is the biggest…so let’s just chalk God up to the big nothing, dismiss why this word is operative, and claim superiority because we are not naïve.

In other words, the problem that seems to plague theology is a problem of metaphysics and God is about as metaphysical as it gets.

But is this warranted? Should we, SHOULD YOU?, dismiss it simply on the grounds of our, YOUR, presumed ideas of God and metaphysics?

The objection that theology, and Christianity, offers a rank metaphysic is true. To a degree this is true, but only to a degree is this true, but only as this question, the metaphysical one- continues to look for the answer to the primordial question of “what is.” Metaphysics is often speech about the ridiculous, using conceptions that border on laughable, using certainty that doesn’t exist…but such does not have to constitute all metaphysical speech…or speech that is concerned with the question of “what is.”

The pre-Socratic and Socratic traditions gave different answers than Christian theology to the question of “what is” yet it seems they do not experience the same sort of denigration as any form of metaphysical reflections encountered today, especially a metaphysic grounded in the conviction that there is a transcendent otherness that is at work in the creativity of the universe. Randoms acts of good matched by equally random acts of violence that creates newness in its wake.

Thales doesn’t seem to take near the flak that Christian theology takes. His questionable hypothesis regarding water as the standard constituent element of the question of “what is” is apparently redeemed because he is also the beginning of modern philosophy with his dismissal of mythology as a the first reasonable assumption one must make before beginning philosophical inquiry. After Thales, nearly all philosophers had succumbed to his critique of mythology and had to account for substance, flow and flux, apart from mythology.

Yet Thales is a man that would not make an “A” in any standard philosophy class today writing a term paper defending water as the ultimate metaphysical reference point. For a postmodern protestor, water cannot be the ultimate element for all elements are equally acceptable because they refuse ultimacy.

The real kicker is this, however: The pre-Socratic philosophers provide insights into the role of logic and modes of correlation between reality and experience, and also the ineffable transcendent character of the world that cannot be reduced to a metaphysical naturalism as is so easily done today by those who claim to be the empirical rationalists that believe and apply the scientific method (as if there is a singular thing known as such).

The very idea of science being hegemonically valued over theology as if to critique theology via realism is failing to understand its founding conceptualities. It is like critiquing Aquinas’ biology with 21st century knowledge. It simply cannot be done nor is it fair to the logical coherency of Aquinas’ positions nearly 800 years ago. It cannot be a fair critique because it does not critique the coherence of his logic and the ideas as they stand within their own intellectual current and context. It is simply too easy to critique a wholly other idea with a definition that is utterly foreign to the concept itself.

So yes, theology is a metaphysic but as such this does not imply a particular metaphysic, nor does it preclude other forms of knowledge whereby “what is” may be ascertained and neither does it imply that thinking this way will make poor thinkers, for indeed, academic theology is so broad in the fields of the humanities that one would be hard pressed to find another discipline that requires so much of our intellectual efforts to be done responsibly.
Theology is not the simple act of quoting scripture or rottenly defending dogma with an appeal to an invisible authority. Theology is not the act of asking inelegant questions that have preordained answers.

To the contrary, theology is the act of asking “what is”, “what is truth,” and then foraging the markers of humanity that have asked this very question.

Good theology will not stop at the bible nor will it bashfully start there. It will press into what a priori ideas have already been received and integrated into our schematics that make reading the bible possible at all. Why do we even receive the bible and how do we read it? It will engage thinkers that few dare to handle, Nietzsche, Cicero, Eckhart, and Bertrand Russell to name a few. ..Marked opponents to theo-logic. It will also engage more congenial thinkers such as Augustine, Wesley and even Jesus, in an attempt to bring in the nihilistic and the mystical into divine cooperation as historical revelations of what it is we seem to be thinking when we think the idea of God.

But all this cannot be said without being spoken and written…without theology acting semiotically.

Theology is a semiotic, a construction. And as such it is never given, foundational, or fundamental. It is always conditional. It is always a statement that expands the historical, lyrical, philological, architectural, genealogical, philosophical and literary condition of its timefulness. Theology is never simply revelation; it is foremost imaginative creation.

Theology does not in totalitarian fashion claim to epistemically finalize our speech or ideas…on the contrary, and following the arguments of Rowan Williams, proper theological speech simply opens up the possibility for more text, more life, more acts, more speaking.

So it may be en vogue and a cultural marker of intelligence to announce open hostility to theology and its objects, but to this I would say, those that object do not understand the object of their objection. Neither do they understand the origin of true philosophy they seek to invoke when lumping all of metaphysics, theology, philosophy, genealogy, and Christianity, etc., into the same odorless vapor.

Because Theology is not saying everything; it is saying many things, and it is not the positing of a supreme metaphysic that is outmoded by scientific empiricism, not a revealing of an ontological thing we call God that is physically somewhere out there.

What theology says is that the place from which the primordial question even comes is from a place that transcends us, surpasses our humanistic love affair with ourselves and that that place of reflection is best captured in theo-logic around the symbol of God; this is why you should study theology.

Theology does not ask you to believe and think of God filled with God, it asks you to think the symbol of God creatively. Theology is the renaissance of ideas around the ultimate question of substance, flux and change and we just happen to call the regulative principle of its discourse God.

God might be a dumb idea, but its the best word we have to try to captivate the reality that we are all dumb anyhow…we just refuse to believe it.

Not All Evangelicals Suck: John Wesley and his Radically Christian Economic Ideas

wesley money

The driving characteristics and hallmarks of capitalism today would have all found an uneasy home within the theological and moral world of John Wesley. He did not accommodate himself to the themes of the pervading culture, and despite his hierarchical political approach, he was revolutionary in his political and economic thought because it was predicated on a commitment to a specific image of God and a proper order for creation. Of the many things that might most concretely disrupt and deter from this image was an irresponsible relationship and understanding of one to wealth and capital.

Indeed, Wesley one finds almost the complete antithesis to most major themes that buttress the design of capitalism run rampant.
Themes that include, but are not limited to: a disregard for the other, the valuation of material, the desire for affluence, insatiable want, the inability to share, a disregard for community, the holy trinity of democracy, republicanism and economic theory, a lack of personal austerity, the limitless pursuit of desire, solidarity with the poor, a generous spirit with ones resources and a fixated concentration on market values and futures. At virtually every point Wesley is opposed from an economic, political, and most importantly, a theological perspective.
Wesley was not an economic theorist nor did he hate money. What concerned Wesley were the economic structures that would result from an inordinate desire to have money, to earn money, and to hoard money. In other words, what concerned Wesley was the unsanctified nature of the world. The theological resolution to keeping money in proper perspective was Wesley’s commitment to a theological concept he called sanctification or also Christian Perfection.
Simply defined, sanctification literally means setting a particular object or person apart for God’s use; humanity consecrates the said object and God sanctifies it, sets it apart, for Gods use. Sanctification is the reality of the life of the believer because it is the manifestation of the love of God in the believer wherein selfish desires are progressionally driven away. Perhaps more than any other theologian in church history, Wesley emphasized the process of sanctification as a necessary aspect of Christian existence. As Randy Maddox notes, “For Wesley this facet is an inseparable compliment to justification; namely, our present deliverance by God from the plague of sin, not just its penalty.”
Wesley an evangelical that not only cared about converting; he was intimately interested in how God shapes the world through sanctified people.
Sancification was part of saving grace that shaped how a believer related to the world, so when Maddox indicates that sanctification is about delivering from the “plague of sin” such may be interpreted as that grace that reshapes how one relates to the world and lives out their daily existence in practical ways. Sanctification is the means by which one is delivered from colluding in evil and selfish uses of money and our lives redirected toward living a life that is reflective of God as a donating, mutually sharing and all-together loving way of relating to the world and others. The reorientation from love of self to love of others is in no clearer way embodied than in our economic transactions and in one’s ability to speak truth to that which seeks to debase humanity through cycles of production and consumption. For Wesley, capital is not a goal; the goal is holy living. The result is surrendering one’s resources to God.
An additional aspect of sanctification was its communal orientation. Sanctification was something that occurs within the community of faith in order to minister to creation.
As H. Ray Dunning points out, virtually all sanctification texts in the New Testament are corporate in nature. All aspects of a Christian’s life fall under the auspices of sanctified reality. This means Wesley was concerned with a sanctified relationship to money due to his awareness of the unbridled nature of human desire. Sanctification in our current context need not mean Wesley was concerned with making money holy, but that he understood it to be an object that must be properly set apart for specific purposes and ends, thus squarely placing our relationship to capital and economics within his theology of the ordo salutis (Order of Salvation).
Wesley further notes that unsanctified Christian practice has the ability to implode as it could potentially become the hand-maiden of demonic political and economic forces that seek to challenge and re-narrate the world. Wesley is prophetic as to the current impotency of Christianity to occupy anything other than its own institutions and bigoted agendas precisely because it is unsanctified in its disposition:
“For wherever true Christianity spreads, it must cause diligence and frugality, which, in the natural course of things, must beget riches! And riches naturally beget pride, love of the world, and every temper that is destructive of Christianity. Now, if there be no way to prevent this, Christianity is inconsistent with itself, and of consequence, cannot stand, cannot continue long among any people; since wherever it generally prevails, it saps its own foundation.”
Wesley’s political and economic philosophy is bound to his anti-materialistic convictions founded on his reading of the Bible. When the world around him was appealing to natural rights, empiricism, nominalism and other popular intellectual fads, Wesley was insistent on founding his political and economic perspective on Jesus.

As Stephen Long notes,
“Wesley’s moral theology assumes Jesus as archetype (against Hume’s ectype). This necessitated an apriorism. What is something cannot be determined solely by its brute givenness; it is intelligible against the backdrop of the archetype. But this does not dissolve the world into essences and ideas that have no real existence. The pattern for reason is the hypostatic union where humanity and divinity are brought together such that a particular individual discloses to us the fullness of divinity.”

Wesley was convinced of a biblically shaped politic that placed others at the fore of one’s embodiment of Christ. Just as Jesus was not concerned with the acquisition or accumulation of goods, but was marked by a life of giving, so too did Wesley envision the Christian life as one lived in service to the other as a model of the supreme archetype that is Jesus the Christ. Yet money has the inverse effect of not disclosing ones servitude and obligation to the other as an obligation to God, but as that which enables others to serve us, feeding the monetary urge to desire more and give less. Wesley was suspect of the role of money in the lives of believers because of its power to negate Christian faith.

Wesley’s sermon on the “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” is an excellent example of how serious he takes avarice and the misappropriation of means when he declares that if one has gained all the money they can, and saved all they can, then they should in greater portion give all they can if they have any desire to escape damnation. Otherwise, Wesley fears that one can have no more hope of salvation than Judas Iscariot himself. Wesley is so utterly convinced of the corrupting nature of money that he offers little by way of hope for anyone who is rich. His notable sermon “The Danger of Riches” squarely places the onus of corruption on money in general and not simply as part of the immoral acquisition of money.
At this juncture, Wesley’s famous sermon on money has incredible import. Here, Wesley advocates a proper understanding of capital and how it is to be used. It is not a sermon on the demonization of money, but it is a sermon that clearly articulates a healthy relationship to the object of exchange known as money. In fact, in the sermon one gets the very strong impression that money and capital, when used rightly, is a good and virtuous object; yet money that is not dissipated properly can result in various evils and injustices. Along with sound personal economic advice, one finds a thoroughgoing Wesleyan critique of the very idea of money that keeps our system occupied through debt and exchange values. A look at Wesley’s take on money, and then debt, will show Wesley’s revolutionary political core.
Simply put, Wesley suggests one should make all they can, earn all they can and then give all they can. The first 2 propositions are self explanatory. Wesley believed in making an honest living and saving what is necessary for one’s future sustenance. The most important anti-capitalist sentiment found herein is his conviction that one should not harm the well being of another in ones quest for earning a living. Wesley would find it abhorrent for one to put another out of business or to attack another’s trade in any form of economic activity, especially activity that would result in the destitution of the competitor. But isn’t this exactly what the “free” market does? Does not a market built on competition and capital, driven by desire and greed, encourage activity that will generate individuals/corporations whose ultimate value is the value of money? Indeed, are not some of the most “successful” businesses in America those that see weaknesses in competition, study them and then implement strategies seeking to destroy the other company?

Hear Wesley’s injunction
“We are to gain all we can without hurting our neighbor. But this we may not, cannot do, if we love our neighbor as ourselves. We cannot, if we love every one as ourselves, hurt anyone in his substance [note Wesley’s personal italics here]. We cannot devour the increase of his lands and houses…by gaming, by over-grown bills, or by requiring or taking such interest as even the laws of our country forbid. We cannot, consistent with brotherly love, sell our goods below the market price; we cannot study to ruin our neighbors trade, in order to advance our own…None can gain by swallowing up his neighbors substance, without gaining the damnation of hell!”
In addition, his statement that currency should not be manipulated seems to embody a preference for a working wage wherein the consumer and the producer can operate at an equal level of exchange, neither one abusing the other. However, in our current climate, not only is currency manipulation adversely affecting its valuation, and thereby undervaluing property and working wages, the entire global edifice of economic exchange is based on currency valuations against other currencies, which often times results in the over-valuation of the goods of some countries to the extreme detriment of another.
Another crucial issue raised by Wesley is the issue of debt. Perhaps more than any other issue this lies at the heart of capitalism as multiple recent studies continue to contend from liberal and conservative economists alike.
Philip Goodchild notes, “There is no more significant social force within the contemporary global economy than debt…Debt is a means that becomes an end…to repay interest on a loan, someone else must have created the money elsewhere as debt, so that the original loan is repaid and the debt is canceled. The amount of debt money in the economy spirals ever higher. The force of debt grows ever stronger.”
For Wesley, debt keeps people from being able to give. Wesley’s emphasis on ministering to the poor is not out of pious ambition; it is out of his commitment to love of neighbor and love of God. The poor need to receive as a redemptive act, and in such reception, one is also part of the activity of God whereby one declares their independence from the compulsion to consume and the worship of mammon. Thus, accruing debt is in sharp contrast to the spirit of giving, particular in our culture today where non-existent money is not called debt; rather, it is known as a form of discretionary spending called credit. The accumulation of debt, especially discretionary debt, is a clear indication the ones affections toward money are already unsanctified.
Wesley’s historical context prevented him from developing a rigorous theory of money, but had he been able to do so he most likely would have been able to see that on a global scale money is unable to sustain the stability of trade because there is nothing beneath it to guarantee its value. Money is a symbol, whereby the means of exchange value, and exchange use, are confused in the symbol money with use value imposed by the physical presence of money, the idea of money itself. The great miracle of capitalism is that it discovered, along with the invention of credit, the nature of money as a value established without any intrinsic worth. Money becomes its own goal that actualizes hope in itself and is defined by invisible markers such as “markets” and “speculation” both ideas and concrete economic places that are in actuality nowhere precisely because they have no location and do not exist.
While Wesley did not have a sophisticated opinion on how an economy might function on a micro or macro-economic scale, he knew well the things that drive our current markets such as fear, desire and greed. His sermon, “The Danger of Riches” can almost act like a primer on economic exchange and consumer psychology.
In this sermon, Wesley offers an acute awareness of the role of desire in economic exchanges. He writes, “First, they that desire to be rich, to have more food and coverings; they that seriously and deliberately desire more than food to eat…” He notes that desire is the catalyst of inordinate consumption. He then couples the desire for more than one’s necessity with the idea of endeavor, or the commencement of causes to satiate the desire for more than one needs. One might today call the endeavor entrepreneurship or venture capitalism.
Endeavors are falsified because the place from which they arise is the unholy affection of “more.” It naturally follows for Wesley that the result will be an individual that is determined to possess material wealth, rather than immaterial recognition in the being of God. An economic exchange built on desire, mobilized by endeavors, results in more things than are necessary. This collection of things results in the apparition of personal property for individual purpose and ownership. The result, for Wesley, is not a decrease in desire or the arrival of the American dream or the “good life,” but a perpetuation of the “desire of having more.” A desire that is endless and who’s own longing is its own destruction.

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.

 

 

Ghosts in the New Testament? Looking for Phantoms in the Gospel of Mark

christ_walking_on_the_water

INTRO

With a name like ParanormalChrist, perhaps some biblical discussion on the Paranormal is in order, if nothing but to quell and satiate our fetish for paranormal activity.

As has been argued in other posts, Christianity is a paranormal faith. It’s a faith that not only embodies paranormal elements in the general sense of that word, but also narrates a salvific reality alongside the normal that is seeking to redefine and re-narrate creation into something other. Christianity is not a history of stories about historical events that were “normal” for biblical times and are not “normal” now; Christianity is a counter-witness to the norm of supposed creation and is the arrival of a rethinking of the normal “alongside/Para” the normal.

Christianity emanates the paranormal: God incarnate in a human being, paranormal activity in the heavens at his birth, paranormal healings and miracles, the paranormal taming of natural elements…and my favorite paranormal constitution-The Resurrection of Jesus from the very dead! And let’s not forget the opening of Tombs in Matthew coalescing around that said apocalyptic manifestation of the paranormal arrival of the end of time at the very dissolution of the grave of Jesus. So, if you are looking for paranormal, just open the New Testament and read. See my previous post, “I see Dead People: Zombie Apocalypse or Resurrection of Jesus” for a fuller explication.

A HISTORY OF PHANTOM IN THE GREEK LANGUAGE

I will keep this discussion on the actual New Testament word that is used for “ghost” or “apparition,” focus on its meaning, its etymology, the texts in which it occurs, and perhaps give a few deductions from its contextual usage.

The specific language of “phantom” is part of an extensive etymological family that starts with the Greek word fain0, meaning in the transitive sense “to manifest or show” and in the intransitive sense “to shine or gleam”…the point being an emanation of sorts. Interestingly, in the NT the word faino only occurs in the intransitive sense of “to shine” and such can be found in multiple places such as John’s Gospel, Revelation and parts of the Pauline corpus.

The NT makes extensive use of the derivatives of faino via the terms faneros/fanerow. Similarly these derivatives mean “to make visible to perception,” “ to show” in the sense of both disclosing to the mind and the eyes. The reference is not just to a simple “revealing” but to a revealing that also involves some sort of understanding. A disclosure of the gospel and its meaning is usually the direct object of this language.

Like many of our English words, our word “phantom” comes directly from its Greek descendent “phantasmos…fantasma.” This is the nominal form of the verb fantazo and it means “to bring to manifestation” and it is often used in the Greek to denote an appearance. We have evidence of this sort of usage not only from the New Testament, but specifically from classical Greek authors such as Herodotus and Apollonius.

The word, however, is not limited to the manifestation of what appears to be a unique kind of physicality. In the Old Testament Apocryphal books, such as Wisdom and Sirach, we see a spiritualizing of the term, so that in Wisdom it refers to the appearance of Wisdom to those that are following the path of righteousness…while in Sirach (and perhaps to the dismay of some reading this blog) this very language means to “invent, imagine” and is almost synonymous with the verb “fantasiokopew,” which means to “see phantoms.” The implication being that this language of phantom has been consistent in ancient times, as today, with those that fabricate reality; that see things that aren’t really there.

fantasma (our English phantom) is a member of these family of meanings. One might ask how this might be so? How can these words that mean some sort of appearance and revealing have anything to do with what we today think of as modern day apparitions, or for that matter, ancient apparitions?

First, as a derivative, their connection seems pretty clear that even if one is talking about making something appear, whether it be related to the paranormal or not, the idea of appearing is still there. This is also usually followed by some form of light or shining.

But a second level is equally important.

If this language is used as a means of disclosing a truth, or bringing something to light, the places where this language occurs in the Gospel can take on a double meaning. It can mean to denote the typical vernacular of “ghost” but also can mean an appearing in the form of revelation that leads to understanding, particularly because this language is only used to describe a scene in which Jesus coming to his disciples.

Let’s look at that passage(s).

MARK 6.49 & MATTHEW 14.26

The ONLY place in primitive Christian literature where the word “phantom/fantasma” occurs is in The Gospel of Mark 6.49 and its parallel passage The Gospel of Matthew 14.26.

These verses read, “Beholding him [Jesus] walking upon the sea they thought he was a phantom and they screamed” [my translation].

Our Bibles like to domesticate this scene and many translations just have at the end “they cried out” but if what they are witnessing is a perceived ancient paranormal encounter with sea ghosts as were believed to exist, screaming would be the order of the day…not a wimpy crying out for help.

Matthew reads the same way, without any deviation in form, so the parts of speech operative here are also identical. We should not interpret this as two different occurrences, but the remainder of a singular tradition that found its way into Mark and then incorporated by Matthew. There is nothing in the Greek to convince us otherwise.

The idea being expressed here is that the disciples are in a boat on the sea. Their lives are already riding upon the hands of chaos and they are at the whim of nature and the forces of darkness that lurk beneath and above them. They find themselves caught in a storm, and if we read this text rightly from its etymological level, perhaps a light of some kind is shining in the darkness of the scene. The disciples are not sure what it is but they know it’s not normal for things to be coming toward them across the water. The implication is that a ghost, a phantom, a sea ghost, is coming to them to finish what the storm has begun to do. This is a scene of panic and it touches the very core of ancient sensibilities regarding evil and the forces of nature. Their reaction is one of fear for their lives…they are tossed about on the sea and now they are about to encounter something they have only heard in the stories of others.

Into this scene, Jesus is the one that is really “revealed” in the light of this perceived phantom. Only he’s not revealed, or appeared, or shown to be a phantom, he is shown to be one that is so much more…one that is so much more paranormal I might add. Christ is the one that comes into this unstable situation filled with fear, anxiety and screaming disciples and does what no one else can do. He calms their surroundings, he tames nature, he does what sea ghosts can’t even do and he calms the disciples.

But the disciples’ exaggeration and mistaking Jesus for a ghost should not surprise us. This reaction simply follows the Markan motif of disciples that fail to understand what is really happening. This narrative, while it is unique in the language that it uses, is incorporated into the Gospel as an appropriate narrative archetype we see over and over in Mark…and the whole point is for the audience to see more clearly what the disciples were barely seeing at all. Thus, in this story of Jesus walking on water and disciples thinking him to a be a ghost, the gospel writer is using this ancient Greek language of fainw/fantasma to really shine and illumine the person of Jesus into a situation in which his arrival is continually misunderstood.

Other than these passages in Mark and Matthew, which are most likely originally Markan following the Synoptic theory of Markan dependence, Jesus is nowhere referred to as a ghost or a phantom in the New Testament, including the post-resurrection accounts. The New Testament is very careful to not use this language of the risen Christ and we should also be very wary of a similar designation even if this is the only way we know to make sense of the constitution of the body of a risen Jesus. The narratives of his post-resurrection appearances don’t even insinuate that the disciples saw him and thought him to be a ghost…even in the John 20 narrative when Jesus appears in the room with closed doors the text says that the disciples were “surprised,” not “surprised” that Jesus had taken on the form of a phantom or ghost. They were surprised that Jesus, whom they recognized and did not confuse as a ghost, was suddenly in their midst after once hanging on a cross.

WAS JESUS A GHOST? HOW TO NOT THINK DEATH

The language that the NT uses for the post-resurrection body of Jesus is just that: Jesus. There is not a lot of qualification as to the substance of his body or its components. It really seems to be a non-issue because of the firmly held belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. There was no need to describe him as other than himself, as other than Jesus. So no attempt is made to call him a spirit, a ghost, or an “angel” or messenger from the grave.

Likewise, we should not take this occurrence of this language in Matthew and Mark as occasion to interpret this along with Pauline concepts of spirit/pneuma

Unlike the popular theorizing of death today that confuses the words spirit/ghost/phantom/apparition, etc., the NT never confuses these terms. The Spirit that is talked about in Paul is not anywhere near the ancient meanings of phantom we see in the Gospels or other classical Greek literature. Spirit refers commonly to the spirit of God, or God’s presence. It also refers to the enlivening portion of a person…their inner workings, but it never refers to an alternative form of existence that floats around disembodied. That idea comes from the Greek notion of soul/psueche and even here we do not see the NT going out of its way to contrive a weird theology of after- life existence combining ideas of phantom, spirit and soul as we are so apt to do in our modern period.

When the NT wants to speak of life after death it always does so in the context of anastasis/resurrection. If we want to understand what it means to live after we breathe our last we need to start with this concept and begin to purge ourselves of heterogeneous mixture of all these ideas that link things like phantom and spirit. The NT doesn’t do this…so if we claim to be biblical, or even logical, this is a first step in the right direction.

LESSONS LEARNED AND CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS

Finally, some have asked me if we can deduce from the usage of phantom language in this Markan account that phantoms/ghosts exist.

First, what we can say for certain is that in this passage of Mark the author is clearing playing with this language and the disciples are once again going to be stooges in the narrative. The author IS using language that would have had play in his context. It was intelligible and would have been widely understood. The sea was the abode of all sorts of mystery and it was not uncommon to hear of stories of ghosts on the waters. Before we can make a deduction about whether this proves ghosts to exist, let’s first understand why this passage occurs and its role in Mark.

Second, up until fairly recent history…and even into the present for many, it was a no-brainer that ghost and apparitions existed. That this language occurs in the NT is most likely not proof that these things are real, as much as it is proof that in this culture they were thought to be real. To reinforce this, one should only note that the NT does not make a big deal of ghosts or phantoms. There is not specific statement or series of stories regarding them…so if you are looking for a biblical reason to believe in ghosts, this one narrative is gonna leave you searching for more, even though culturally we can say that such ideas were common currency.

Lastly, dead persons are never called phantoms. When the Bible speaks of those dead in the faith, they are never referred to as angels, demons, apparitions, ghosts, phantoms or spirits. The popular conceptions we have of all these phenomena are all generated from hope and experience, but they are not generated from the NT.

The most salient NT passages that speak of the dead are in Paul. His passage in Corinthians states that “those absent in the Body will be present in the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5.6-8)…or again he states in 1 Thessalonians “those who are alive and remain will not prevent those that are asleep from seeing the coming of the Lord…the dead shall rise first.” In both these passages our state of existence is ambiguous. We can either admit this, or we can continue to make sense out of it by pressing these verses into OUR PRECONCIEVED ideas not grounded in the text.

Biblically, all we can say is that when we die God is responsible for our bodies thereafter…and a biblical theology of death has no place for an idea of people that turn into all sorts of metaphysical existences.

What one must conclude after evaluating this language of phantom/fantasma in the NT is that if we remove it from its literary context we are prone to all sorts of misrepresentations and conclusions, but at place in Mark…that the disciples would think Jesus a ghost, or an invention of their mind, is not all that surprising. After all, this is the Gospel where Jesus asks us, “Do you still not understand?” ( Mark 8.21)