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.

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.

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

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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)

Jesus and the Occupy Movement: Why the Political Left (& Right) needs the Church

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As the single largest conference of the leftist and liberal political agendas gathered this Week at Pace University in NYC, I found myself wandering back through my own experience of this Conference and wanting to offer some ruminations not only on its seminal importance, but also its shortcomings as a movement.

When I went to LeftForum last year, it was galvanized by a huge presence of activists and leftists of a hundred different stripes…even a Ron Paul Leftist group was present. They were all there, descending upon the City and the University that is within a few blocks of the sights of Protest in the fall of 2011, gathering to discuss the future of our economy, our politics, our government, our social constitution…and attempting to think alternatives to the greedy hubris and totalitarian politics that is making an indelible imprint on each of our lives. It was an act of the word Glen Beck hates the most, Social Justice, a movement attempting to define and grapple with what it means to live just lives, fair lives…lives that are not stacked against the proverbial “house” that seems to be holding all the cards.

Those that attended the conference were admittedly having discussions on how to, in the words of Barack Obama, “fundamentally change” America. They were talking about folks like Marx, Trostsky, Lenin, etc. They were attacking neo-liberal political agendas and asking how we might move past these hegemonic forms of life. It was a critique of culture and it was admittedly coming from the Left.

Unlike outlets like FoxNews would have us believe, these people were not covert in their demonstrations. They were not trying to subvert the Constitution in a shrouded room with dimly lit lights and coverings over the windows. On the contrary, most of the people I talked to admitted the problems with our democracy. They went after “archaic” documents such as the Constitution, and most humbly and admirably, many of them were able to demonstrate how leftist politics and “socialism-lite” have always been a part of America’s history. Socialism and Marxism literally goes back to Thomas Paine (the darling Common Sense author of the political Right) and Abraham Lincoln (who was reading and being influenced by Marx in the 1850’s…Marx even supported Lincolns invasion of the South), both personages who conservatives worship as if American Gods and to Lincoln we have affirmed this divinity erecting a temple in Washington to commemorate his divinity. Time would fail to recount the rise of lobbyism under Grant, the creation of social “safety” nets under FDR, and the “great society” given to us by LBJ.

The attendees of the Conference know the system (and our financial and political ways of beings are systems) is so complex and multi-faceted that there are truly no simply solutions. But just because the task seems formidable and perhaps irresolvable within a complacent electorate, doesn’t mean we should just surrender the cause of justice and mute the prophetic voices that must call systematic evil to the floor. America is a difficult project because the liberal democratic ideals upon which it was founded has now been merged with ideological sentiment that is logically inconsistent with the libertinism of authentic liberalism and the net result is literally crippling the country…and there are many folks feeling the buckling of our national knees. The system simply cannot sustain itself at its current pace…we must seek alternatives…or we must be willing to accept the logical ends of capitalism unchecked and production unabated.

That their cause is noble and good is not a question. Whether or not one finds the caricature of my experience palpable or not, is also a mute point. At bottom, Occupy was about speaking truth to power, saying “hell no” to those that want to trample and prey on unsuspecting consumers…even if their ignorance is partially their fault, and it was seeking alternatives outside the framework of laissez faire capitalism (even though this type of Capitalism has been dead in this country for at least 100 years).

One of those new frameworks being explored was Christian theological tradition. This is what our group of folks was there to explore… I was part of a panel that was largely comprised of McAfee School of Theology @ Mercer University affiliated pastors and theologians that presented on the topic of global capitalism and Christianity. Our panel was chaired by the Rev. Dr. Graham Walker. We baptists were engaging the far left political and activist elements alive and well in America and around the globe.

As a group we learned several things that are extremely important for Occupy and our Churches to note.

We were asking the question, “Is there anything that the Christ event, scripture and Christian history can say to this current predicament?” And, surprise, surprise, we were the ONLY ones exploring this issue. Last year, out of 400 panels, we were the ONLY panel exploring Christian theology and economics as it interfaced the global economic meltdown.

This, however, is problematic…it is a problem because most human beings are religious in nature, in habits, in orientation, even those that claim irreligiosity or atheism. People organize their lives around principles and ideas that transcend the immediacy of their bodies, even if that which transcends our bodies is a transcendent idea of the self regulated self (which is a problem if no one’s ever told you). There is an “other” idea, concept, thing, being, whatever, that drives us toward further existence…a purpose that grounds who we are and what we value…and this value of all values is what concerns us. It is how we make sense of the meaning of life.

Most people are religious because the religious does not confine itself to a specific ontology; it is, rather, couched in various ideologies which may, or may not, be theological in orientation…Even 60 years ago Paul Tillich was making this argument…and today Slavoj Zizek is the cultural reminder of the religious value of our ideologies.

But this begs the question…if Occupy was a movement that was engaging that which is most complex in the world…and that which is felt by us all…how could it proclaim to answer these questions for the majority when most of the majority answers the tough questions of life through a lens of faith?

How can a movement tackle systemic evil when it has no paradigm for engaging evil other than in subjective moral leanings or ideological preferences from the Left…especially those that robustly discount how most people in the world determine value and a sense of good or evil?

Over and over we heard, and many saw on the news, signs that were proclaiming “We are the 99%”…as if to suggest that those in Occupy were the “common joe” and fighting for “main street” when all the while the folks that instigated the movement, and the folks that hosted LeftForum, are really part of the 1%. They are part of the academic world that has all but forgotten the word “God” or faith. Marx has become their Christ…the dead Lenin their Pope. Revolution has become their New Jerusalem and the Parousia is the place where their ideologies take a physically manifest form in the much anticipated, and not too distant, future.

“We are the 99%.” Or so we are told by all the academic elites and activists that litter the hallways and conferences of the Occupy Movement and LeftForum.

But this is not the 99%…and to try to solve the problems of the majority with an ideology of the very very marginally populated academic elite will not gain the necessary grass roots to effect real change in real systemic ways. The leaders of the movement and its intelligentsia are generally agnostic, if not adamantly atheistic. At last Springs Left Forum, one panelist even described herself forthrightly not as an activist or socialist, but as an atheist. This is the way she wants people to primarily identify her…her first impression if you will. And the movement claims no religious motivation??? Indeed, the 99% that Occupy is fighting for is most certainly atheist, right?

To neglect the religious when dealing with some of cultures most difficult problems is to neglect the singular most significant resource that humanity has used to make sense of the world.

The problem with Occupy is not its concerns or even its methods. The movement is thoroughly a justice movement, and despite the bad media attention, it is prophetic in its content.

The problem with many folks in the Occupy movement, however, is that most of them embrace historical perspectives that are antagonistic toward religion and they continue to foster such antagonism. Many of the leaders in the movement are pro-Marxist, pro-Leninist, pro-Anarchist, pro-socialist, pro-Communist, to name just a short few, and they embrace many of the great ideological thinkers behind these movements. Unfortunately, many of the ideologues that generated these many “isms” were not careful enough thinkers and they dismissed religion as myth rather than metanarrative.

What the Occupy Movement (and what this year’s Conference will also most likely miss) fails to see is that they can never effect change in a multi-contextual way if they are adamantly opposed to the theological persuasions of the 99%.

Most people in America believe in God. Most of the working class finds their faith very important to them.

Most of America, the large portions of Americans that are victims to the financially systemic evil we find all around us, believes that God is important and that their lives have divine purpose. They are not buying the famous Marxist line that religion is an “opiate” regardless of if they even understand that analogy within its historical context or not.

If those at the front of the Occupy movement insist on defending the 99 and insist that they are the 99, they need to realize that unless they embrace some form of theological underpinnings their movement will have little effect and it will generate little excitement at the grassroots level. It will remain an academic sideshow with little relevance in the real world.

People need devotion to drive them. They need something greater than themselves to galvanize their spirits and organize around. They need hope and salvation/wholeness. For many people, the simple nothingness of the concrete world is nothing for which they should sacrifice themselves or their families.

When I was at the Conference I was speaking with a lady who is a Methodist activist within the Occupy Movement. She noted the loathing of religion by the elites within the movement and how their own ideology was inconsistent with the working class they were attempting to help. Much of Occupy is fighting for those marginal groups of people that are exploited for financial gain. They tout their movement as a justice movement, yet they fail to embrace the theological grounding upon which social justice is predicated in most major world religions. Social justice and equality is not a Westernly originated idea. It is a religious idea encased within a religious framework.

Occupy (and it’s morphological forms that will precede from this movement) should realize that they need the churches as much as the churches need them. The Church is the defender of the poor. It is the organization that can speak truth to power and do so under the protection of religious liberty. It is the place in which wholeness and salvation are united into a concept of well being and restoration/restitution of our humanity. It is the bearer of sacred scripture, the text that has the power to convict and call into question the evils of the world, not reinforce either a Left or Right political agenda! The very ministry of Jesus was about releasing the captive and condemning the political and financial structures around his ministry. The church should join hands with those fighting exploitation and stand alongside equality and reconciliation in an attempt to create a world that more faithfully looks like the Kingdom of God and less like a reflection of the greed that penetrates the heart of a capitalistic society.

Only in doing so can anything be truly “occupied,”…and strangely, only in this way, can anything beside our selves be an incarnate manifestation of a Kingdom not of this world. Luckily for us, we have an example of an “occupation” in humanity that effectively did change reality and serves as a salvific paradigm for us all.

 

Easter Hope is Paranormal Hope that our Bodies Matter

drybones

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

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

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

This Eastertide cannot be stopped.

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

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

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

These proclamations miss the point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My God My God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christianity and Capitalism: The Enigma of Capital

Protests at Zuccotti Park

Protests at Zuccotti Park

A Small Explanation

This review is forthcoming in the next Review and Expositor Theological Journal. The theme of the Spring 2013 issue is “Christianity and Economics” and it is largely the product of a series of papers presented by myself and a host of other academic and pastoral colleagues at last years LeftForum @ Pace University in New York City.

The end of 2011 was characterized by a great upheaval and public response to unchecked capitalism across the globe, particularly as the meltdown known as the Great Recession continued to have lingering effects. Images of Zuccotti Park and Occupy protests arose over night as it was becoming more and more clear that nation States and big money had disclosed the real nature of their corrupt union via bailouts and the mystical creation of excess liquidity.

Into this vacuum of despair emerged a number of grassroots and academic responses.

Indeed, the very grassroots Occupy movement was not the work of the proletariat; it was the brain child of professors of anthropology that were able to organize this resistance to a system that has become too big for anyone to stop. Too often, however, the literary and media aspects of the resistance and cultural critique were from the far left intellgentisa. This, and unfairly so, allowed too many folks across various political and religious persuasions to dismiss these events as fringe movements of the Left that were simply trying to usurp societal order and restore the ever feared “S” word: SOCIALISM. Elitist, agnostic leftist and progressive academics and activists were the ones loudly critiquing the many hallmarks of capitalism. Secular culture was engaging and judging itself, while the church and theologians stood idly on the sidelines not wishing to engage this very material problem. While some of our pastoral colleagues in New York were leading marches carrying the golden bull of Wall Street, images that reminded us all of a similar biblical incident involving another golden bull, other pastors were left lost in the gaze of capital and speechless as to how the Christ event might actually become suddenly very practical.

Into this context, my colleagues and I considered it a worthy endeavor to go the scene of the Protests, New York, and to ask in what ways might Christianity challenge the systemic evil of our current economic forms of exchange and how might we communicate this to a population that largely sees Christianity complicit in the conservative neo-liberal economic agenda?

To this end, we were the only group of Christian pastors and theologians that presented papers at last years LeftForum, a conference that had nearly 400 various presentations and speaking engagements. We were the group that refused to allow post-metaphysical thinking to drive the agenda of critiquing the systemic economic ills plaguing us all. While our leftist colleagues were all around us invoking the names of Trotsky, Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, etc., we were invoking Christian hyperbole, Hebrew Bible social justice texts, Continental Christian theology and even the likes of the most evangelical of them all, John Wesley.

We were challenging the assumption that in order for one to offer an alternative to the unchecked flow of capital and the eschatological dead end of accumulation, one must also abandon Christianity and theological reflection. In fact, as will be argued in some our essays for the upcoming journal, one is not able to stand with the 99% if there is an a priori dismissal of one of the single largest components that the 99% use to navigate the world and make sense of their existence: faith/religion.

We partook in the project with the firm belief and resolve that if we will but only listen to the voices of the Christian past and present, we will find a wealth of resources that will not only call the evil of our present capitalist driven society to the floor, but it will also refuse to let Christian theology and praxis be co-opted by ideological forces that try to confuse their democratic or republican agenda with Christianity. This has gone on too long and it must stop.

To this end, along with various articles that will propose a revolutionary core of Christian theo-economic discourse, several reviews will be contained in this journal that reflect Christian pastors and theologians engaging in texts that are primarily economic in nature. The purpose is to embody how theology and economics might begin a dialogue that is being sorely neglected by much of the church. People of faith should not be disinterested in these matters, for the very folks to which ministry is offered are the ones who are living this economic hell that seems to hang over us like a never ending purgatory.

Thus, this review of David Harvey’s Enigma of Capital is another aspect of engaging Christianity with contemporary economic theory and making resolute our claim that Christianity is not something that is passe or irrelevant during this time of economic change; indeed, it is pivotal if we are to engage cultural phenomena and respond in holistic ways that are not only healthy and economically viable but also comprehensively salvific.

harvey-enigma-of-capital-front-cover

THE REVIEW

Professor Harvey’s book is a passionate Marxist analysis of the current economic meltdown and a review of how libertine capitalism has created the current wreckage. His thesis: capital flow is a system of exchange that is built upon inherent contradictions and fabrications that will organically create more crises than solutions.

He notes that various capitalist crises have been recurring with ever greater frequency since the 1970’s (the emergence of credit) and that this most recent Great Recession is simply a foretaste to the destabilizing of systemic neo-liberal economics that cannot continue ad infinitum under the weight of its own means of production and expectation of a compounded 3% growth. This is why Dr. Harvey calls the recent economic calamity a crisis; it is the rationalization of the irrationality of continual capital accumulation and capital flow.

While economists and politicians the world over are replete with reasons for the current financial crises, Harvey summarizes the issue with a simple definition of capital early in his text. Upon rehearsing the latest “Disruption,” writing one of the most concise synopses of the recent global meltdown and its many domino effects, Harvey presents to us the central concern of his text: Capital flow. He writes, “Capital is not a thing but a process in which money is perpetually sent in search of more money.” This central idea for Harvey’s work demonstrates how this perpetual search is the enigmatic instigator of capitalist crises.

This is the problem with capital: its goal is itself. Capital is a means of creating surplus (profit) relative to the cost and value of services or products produced. This surplus of production, known as capital, has to find newer places of expansion so that continued production and surplus can be absorbed in the market that would allow the process to continue unabated.

Capital, however, is beginning to encounter obstacles that disrupt this flow. Capitals relationship to labor, nature, the lack of new markets into which capital may expand, and excess liquidity to pacify the capitalist symptom are just a few of those obstacles. When this happens, economic crises emerge. Crises disclose the unstable logic of capital, and thereby create the potential for newer systems of exchange that might prevent future occurrences. As Harvey notes, “Crises are moments of paradox and possibility out of which all manner of alternatives, including socialist and anti-capitalist ones, can spring.” Ironically, capital ends up creating an environment in which its own future is questionable.

The coherence of Harvey’s argument is very structured and easy to follow. The text has eight chapters, but it can easily be divided into two sections. Section I (chapters 1-5) is the description of the global meltdown, along with the definition, character and polyvalent functions of capital. This section is a rigorous dialogue with Marxist theory and a scolding critique of neoliberal economic theory that has been embraced by most modern Western nation states.

Section II (chapters 6-8) offers a description of how the natural breakdown of capital affected the entire globe and how the endless accumulation of capital is reshaping many different environments into a form of “second nature” that could have catastrophic consequences. Concluding this section, Harvey offers his own resolutions to the crises capitalism that will certainly challenge his readers.

Overall, Harvey’s text is a good balance between common public prose and an academic analysis of capital. It is a text that can be approached by laymen of economic theory, yet also offer challenges for those of a more academic persuasion. While Harvey is clearly writing from the Left of the economic and political spectrum, his writing is very balanced and he often does a good job of swaying away from ideological quagmires that would distract his audience from his argument. Even though his solutions seem ultra-liberal and utopian, and these admittedly so, the genealogy of capital that he traces leaves little choice to continue down the same unambiguous path.

As an augment to this journal, it should be noted that pastors, theologians and ministers should be reading this material. Economic despair and imbalance is going to be one of the major challenges of the coming decades and the church needs to be informed. Harvey is describing the economic reality of those to whom we minister. If the church continues to be a handmaiden to particular political ideologies then it will continue to be speechless in the marketplace of discourse. Yet, if one is convinced that Christian theology can narrate a different world and is creative enough to offer an alternative reality to the dismal picture of conservative and liberal polarities, then just maybe our eschatology can be begin to take on the shape of Christ and refuse the shape of capital.