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.

Advent Sermon: God Comes into the Lights of Evil

lantern

Did you see it?  Did you see them?

All around us, in the darkness, there are lanterns.  Lanterns in the darkness that surround us.

We peer into the darkness, squinting our eyes, attempting to make out a shape or hear a sound.  We peer into the darkness trying to see who’s there.  We peer into the darkness trying to see what is there.

We look and look…we seeing nothing, but specks of light in an ocean of darkness.

The walls of our lives are high…there are times we feel totally safe, as if the walls of our lives cannot be taken.  Yet, as we keep watch in the tower that rises above these walls, we can’t help but notice the lights in the distance, those lanterns, flickering outside the walls of our lives.  We are safe in here…yet out there, darkness creeps closer, and pressing against our lives…the darkness merges ever closer attempting to confuse the cities of our lives with the presence of the darkness.

We see the lanterns.  Still flickering.  Still burning.

In the darkness is the reminder that there is something pressing against us that we cannot make out, that we cannot see, that we cannot hear.  Yet, there is it…it’s presence of the ominous light of silence.  The lantern in the darkness letting us know all might not be well.

“Hear the Word of the Lord given to Isaiah the prophet, “Now it came about in the days of Ahaz, the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, the son of Judah, that Rezin the King of Aram and Pekah the son of Ramaliah, King of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not conquer it.  When it was reported to the House of David, saying, “The Arameans have camped in Ephraim, his heart and the hearts of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind.  The Lord said to Isaiah, say to Ahaz, Take care and be calm , have no fear and do not be fainthearted because of these two stubs of smoldering firebrands because they have said let us go against Judah and terrorize it, and make for ourselves a breach in its walls.  Thus says the Lord, “it shall not come to pass.”  Then the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God, make it as low as hell and as high as heaven.  But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!”  Then he said, “Listen now, of House of David, is it too slight a thing for you to try the patience of men, that will try the patience of God as well?  Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.  For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.”  Isaiah 7.10-16

We did not come here today care free.  Not one of us came to this place with a perfect life, without problem, without deficiency.  Not one of us came here unaware that there is something, someone, some opposing and broken force, camped outside of our cities that seek to press against us and overcome us.  We’ve seen the light flickering in the darkness and it fills us with fear and anxiety because we know the lights will move closer and those things holding the lights will seek to breach the walls of ourselves and our homes as they seek to terrorize us and destroy us…

Some of us may already see ladders mounted on the walls and we can only imagine what is it at their bottom, attempting to make their way up and occupy our cities.

What is attempting to occupy you?  What is it that is attempting to overcome you?  What do those lanterns in the darkness mean to you as they move closer, and closer…ever closer to our presumed safety?  What is that makes you shake as a tree in the wind when you hear its marching, see its presence moving closer, maybe begin to hear the faint war songs of those things that seek to take away all hope, all future, and all attempts of salvation?  What are those realities in our lives that announce to each of us…let us go up and terrorize them!

Let us breach their walls and overcome them!

The absence of love.

In our families, between husbands and wives who have forgotten how to love, and have instead chosen to co-exist.

Between children and parents, who take one another for granted, ungrateful for the gift that they are to one another.

Relationships that are shipwrecked on selfishness and torn apart by stubbornness.  The absence of love…people who are so lost in each other’s presence that they are not even sure how to have a simple conversation anymore.

The absence of economic certainty.

Funny thing, in times of economic turmoil and strife, we often take our frustrations out on one another, when one another is all we have to make it through.  Do you have enough or is “not enough” threatening your family?  Is not enough the thing that keeps you from being happy?  Do our pursuits for economic certainty get in the way of us finding ourselves, seeing our loved ones, or cast a vision of the world that simply creates another version of, not enough?

The absence of contentment. 

Discontent seeks to overtake all of us.  Discontentment…it eats us alive and pushes us to create another future wherein we can ensure our contentment.  We are not satisfied with who we are, where we are, what we are and the reason we are here is because of everyone else around us…

The presence of temptation. 

What temptation haunts you?  What thing is it that no one else knows about, that is constantly there, whispering your name, whispering for you to enter?  What thing is that you have never been able to overcome and it has paralyzed you physically and spiritually so that you have even begun to question whether God can forgive you or that you can even resist this stranglehold it has one you?  What is it that seeks to press up against you, from out of the darkness…

What carries the lantern and reminds you that it is always there?

“And I will give you a sign, behold, a virgin, a son, Immanuel.”

invading army

As we stand here, in our cities, worried about what is drawing near and camping all around us, seeking to overtake us at any moment and throw our lives into the abyss, we hear a word of the Lord.  And the word of the Lord is…have patience.

Immanuel.

You may see these things lurking outside your walls.  You may be hearing them try to convince you that there is no deliverance…there is no hope…there is no answer to the problems that fill our lives and threaten to break our relationships.

The Good News of Immanuel, of the sign of God, is that these things do not have the final say.  They are not able to overcome you…they will not breach your walls, they will not have victory, they are nothing but smoldering firebrands whose days are numbered…and by the time the Son comes, by the time Immanuel is in our presence, they will be things of the past and would have given way to a future whose motto is no longer, “us all alone”, but “God with us!”

And here is the beautiful thing about Advent:  Advent happens in the midst of occupation; in the midst of a threat to our lives!

Advent is God’s statement that when the world seems bleak, when your life seems to be threatened, when you have more questions than you have answers, when brokenness and loneliness is attempting to fill your home, when temptation is seeking to become a permanent fixture in your daily existence…when it seems like the terror you’ve been living with has no end…just then, at that moment, when you are unsure about even asking God for a sign…God gives us one anyway and his name is Immanuel.

God.  With. Us.

God is coming to dwell with us Church.  When it would be easier for God to leave us alone to the mess we’ve made, our God makes himself known not as one that determines our lives in some far off place, but as a God that knows that only one answer will do: Immanuel.

In reflecting on the Immanuel passage in a sermon Saint Augustine writes:

“You must remember, brothers and sisters, what a tremendous desire possessed the Saints of old to see the Christ.  They knew he was going to come, and all those who were living devout and blameless lives would say, “Oh, if only that birth may find me still here!  Oh, if only I may see with my own eyes what I believe from God’s Scriptures!” The saints knew who from the Holy Scripture that a virgin was going to give birth as you heard when Isaiah was read: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb and shall bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”  What Emmanuel means the Gospel declares to us, saying, “which is interpreted God with us.”  So do not let it surprise you, unbelieving soul, whoever you are, do not let it strike you as impossible that a virgin should give birth and in giving birth remain a virgin.  Realize that it was God who was born, and you will not be surprised at a virgin giving birth.  So then, to prove to you how the saints and just men and women of old longed to see what was granted to this old man Simeon, our Lord Jesus Christ said, when speaking to his disciples , “Many just men and prophets have wished to see what you see and have not seen it; and to hear what you hear and have not heard it.”

I propose the words of Jesus to his disciples are not only to them, but to us also…and the words of Augustine are not merely for his church, but for us in the present…

For indeed, many just men, women and prophets have wished to see what we see and to hear what we have heard…lives spent in anticipation and expectation longing to see what we see and hear what we have heard and experience what we have, and are, going to experience.

The question this advent becomes for us all: when we see, will we believe?  When we hear will we listen? “Therefore, the Lord said to you Church, “Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son and she will call his name Emmanuel…which translated means, God with us.”

As the lanterns burn around the camps of our lives: Emmanuel.  God with us.  Amen.

Christ Goes to the Movies: The Conjuring and Resurrection

CONJURING_ONESHEET_MAIN_FINAL_INTL

Our culture is a walking contradiction.  Drives me crazy.  We are on board with Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, or any “professional” atheist writing today…then these same people buying the books of these methodologically inept charlatans of logic, flock to theaters to see a movie about nothing more, or less, than our fascination with the paranormal and the hunch we all have that grandma is floating around us, just over our left shoulder to be exact.

If you want to throw off mythos, just embrace Reformation theology…you don’t need to be an agnostic kool-aid drinker.  There are plenty of rationalists to choose from.

As a culture we lap up, in giant proportions, anything that can effectively deconstruct the mysterious and ambivalent, the numinous and the holy, only to find ourselves making small budget films such as The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity weekend box office smashes.

We can’t believe in the hope of a valley of dry bones, but those orbs in our pictures, you know, the ones floating around our kids in all those family photos, those are the real deal…certainly more real than any sort of kerygmatic utterance that has given birth to a faith that refuses occupation from the culture around it…even if the evangelical right has failed to grasp the memo.

We hurriedly rush to be “intellectual” and “scientific” and deny the dogmatic claims of faith…fools rush in where even angels fear to trod.  It has become in-vogue to trash faith, downplay theology, point out the idiocy of structures of belief (and I admit, much of what claims Christianity today is downright stupid).  Even complete idiots think they are smart just because they can utter the senseless words, “I don’t believe in God,”  quote Bart Ehrman, or even follow Betrand Russell down his path of Christic critique when he notes that Jesus miserably failed to have his pulse on eschatology.

Anything and everything that might tear down the metaphysical/that alongside the physical/paranormal…is embraced as if it’s the new intellectualism…yet these same people that want to evacuate faith for nothing more than a misplaced sense of coolness (or a idolatrous sense of empiricism) embrace the very platonic worlds of embodiment they wish to bankrupt when they deny the most paranormal event of them all: the resurrection of the Christ.

In other words…for a culture that is obsessed with being “historical” and “scientific” we sure are quick ditch Jesus and embrace Casper.  The resurrection is nonsense, but living forever in a soulish existence is perfectly logical.  Jesus is garbage, resurrection is nonsense and ahistorical dreaming, but I know my grandpa gave me this vision from beyond the grave!

But this is problematic because the answers of science and history (besides the fact they are both biased and limited) are not able to give us an answer to the ultimate question of thinking our own non-thinking dead self.  We are beings toward Death…Heidegger was correct.  We cannot avoid this…and being a Humean (a follower of David Hume’s thought) doesn’t change the fact that we all reckon with death even if we think it to be nothing more than an uncertain void.  Our lives are marked in relation to our deaths because only in relation to our deaths can our lives have meant anything.  The beginning is such only in relation to its ending.  Our lives are not the infinity of totality until the total has been subsumed into the infinite.

In The Conjuring, the scary movie that has recently taken the country by storm, it became apparent that the very thing that we fear as a culture is the very thing we cannot let go of: death.

We are not interested in conjuring any ideas of the Christ, faith, or resurrection, those are all nonsense but we are very interested in conjuring the paranormal outside the parameters by which the paranormal has been thought for millennia: faith, hope, God and a holy respect for mystery.   We fill our own sense of existential wrath (that our bodies will eventually die) with answers that we can live with, rather than answers that wish to unsettle that with which we live.  The resurrection, or hope in that which we cannot control, we evacuate for the more believable and apprehendable view of a soul that will outlive our bodies and exist in some sense of temporality wherein we can communicate with our loved ones or even make ourselves into family photos as perfectly round cylinders…or better yet, perhaps we’ll be able to speak to our loved ones via the Long Island Medium one day.

We spend our entire lives trying to run from death, thinking our living apart from our dying, yet the dying fascinates us more than the living…we are infatuated with what happens after we die and with the latent presence of death that surrounds us in the very idea of the disembodied spirits of others…even to the point that Christians have conjured a view that dying is in fact better than living!

What?

Tell that to the person that died.

We look at death as if it’s a celebration rather than what it really is…the cold hard fact that the Rider on the Ashen Horse…the rider named Hades and Death (and for anyone that has experienced his swiftness experiencing a death is hell…See Revelation 6.7-8) is still very much at work and has not yet been fully defeated by the One on the White Horse.  The First Fruits of a Resurrected Christ have not yet produced subsequent harvests as Jesus, Paul and the Apostles all presumed were imminently pending.

Death Sucks…

and romanticizing it in some weird form of Christian Gnosticism or discounting Christian ideas such as the paranormal reality of resurrection only to embrace ghosts and goblins (as does The Conjuring) instead is utterly ridiculous.   Makes no sense.

Christians are so scared of dying they make up heaven and their favorite biblical chapter is the aliteral Revelation 21…and the anti-Christians are so scared of dying they embrace “spirituality” or spiritual things such as The Conjuring and in the process continue to live forever thanks to the Greeks…oh the stories we will tell ourselves about ourselves to make our aimless lives less pathetic.

In The Conjuring, death is everywhere and it becomes incarnated via some very stark images. r-THE-CONJURING-large570

Death resides as a dark presence behind the family that occupies the haunted house.  The family is oblivious to its presence but the seer can see it.  Death is hanging by the neck right above the head of an unbeknownst character…its feet dangling overheard as we feel the breeze of its toes brush past our neck.  Death lives behind the door in that dark place we cannot see…climbing its ways onto our beds…tugging at us, pulling us, pressing upon us…and its stench reminds us that this idea we have of death is not as surreal as we first imagined.  Death is guiding our families up stair wells and stair cases…causing us to beat our proverbial heads into those spaces where we think can save ourselves from its evil nothingness.

Death is present.  It is absent.  It is unruly.  It is random.  It is filthy.  It is unkept.  It is chaotic.  And for now, it is final.

Death is the residue of creation that demands some reckoning with its absent presence.  This is why scary movies work.  It’s not the scenes on the screen that bother us…it’s that the scenes on the screen will not stay on the screen and will make their creepy way into our lives, jeopardizing our living.  That’s why we jump when things go bump in the night after watching great possession movies like The Conjuring.  The Conjuring doesn’t bother us…it’s that we too might be conjured and thereby be dead.

Yet, reckoning with death’s residue is exactly what binds Christians and those who think Christ is ridiculous…

And that followers of Jesus have evacuated resurrection and embraced The Conjuring of our Souls via The Conjuring Christ…the ultimate seer…is equally ridiculous and maybe even borderline heretical.

Let me explain.

Most people in America believe in the concept of a soul.  Most people believe that this soul leaves the body and goes somewhere after death.  Christians somehow embrace the Pauline idea that “to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord”…and also is to be present with me in my house when I feel that sudden waft of cold air that is obviously my dead god-fearing grandmother.

Many people believe there are spirits, evil and good, warring against us, and each other, on a daily basis.  Christians and anti-Christ’s both use the language that the deceased person is in a better place.  Many Christians believe in a literal devil that literally got himself and a 1/3 of all the angels kicked out of heaven (for you KJV readers who think this, you’ll need an Apocrypha to find this story)…and that on their way to hell they have been given free pass to exit and enter hell as they enter and exit weak people whom they might possess.  These evil spirits are what possess us and the historically innocent victims of the movie.  When Christians see The Conjuring…they absolutely think this entire episode could be likely, at least on a minor scale.  And many more conservative Christians would never even watch this movie for fear that they might have exposure to those said evil spirits and bring them to their homes.

Many non-Christians, like the ones on those TLC shows that hunt ghosts, for some weird reason invoke Christian rites when dealing with evil spirits.  People who claim no faith, even the protoganist demonologists in the movie, The Conjuring, don’t show a particular commitment to Christianity, though they use Christian symbols and rites in their anti-conjuring efforts.   The very faith that many people think improbable is at least probably effective on the more probable reality of spirits in our midst…yet those rites are given their efficacy on the very event they deny as improbable: the resurrection of Jesus whom we call the Christ.  Can someone explain this to me?

In other words, there are some very generally accepted ideas about death, what it is, what it means, who survives it, where they go, what they do, and how all this relates to infinitely evil and good spirits that many believe are part of the primordial beginnings of creation.  All this typically surrounds conversation of our “spirit” or “soul” and very little can be delineated by way of difference on these ideas whether one is speaking to a Christian layperson or an anti-Christian post-modern American.

So the non-faithful are embracing the rites of faith, efficacious only on the ridiculous ideas of Jesus and his resurrection, which they don’t believe in…AND the idea of death shared by pro and anti-Christ people is virtually synonymous at a cultural level.

We are seriously confused.

If Christian ideas of beginning and middle are so very different from the narrative of secularity and culture…then why do we as Christians share so closely the view of endings we find to be common currency by those who could care less about Christ?  If beginnings and endings matter…and the beginning of Hawking, et al, is so very dissimilar to the beginnings we found on the Holy, then why are our ideas of ending virtually similar in how we construct them?

If our theology and faith matter, and it matters because of the answers and practices it imposes upon us that choose to follow The Way, then our theology should lead us to a different pronouncement than that shared by The Conjuring…and a culture that seems to have little trouble embracing the pagan idea of a soul but can easily laugh at the idea of resurrection.

There’s a reason that the paranormal is romanticized and fantasized in the form of spirits/souls…and why Zombies are killed.

Dead people don’t come back in the flesh…this is unacceptable and would constitute an Apocalypse (I think biblical authors could agree here).  There is nothing Christian about believing with everyone else that manifestations of The Conjuring and its subsequent manifestations of soulish flights to heaven (or hell) are “what happens” or “could happen” after we die.  Even the Greeks believe this.  What is Christian is not providing ontic purchase to those things that call themselves real while denying reality to the event by which all reality must stand in measure: the resurrection of one they call the Christ.

jesus-resurrection

Thinking our death is one of the most difficult things to honestly do…thinking our non-existence.

Death is not just a residue, or remainder, of all those who have been born and died so that we too might also be born and die, but from a Christian theological perspective death is a theological residue of the resurrection.  Jesus, as the resurrected one, leaves behind a millennia of tombs that are still coated with the presence of death.  The tombs have not given up their dead…the residue simply thickens as history progresses.

Existentially, this bothers us…death bothers us.  It is such a bother that even those that want to completely throw off the paranormality of metaphysics are left embracing some bizarre form of metaphysics in order to feel good about what happens when they are done living their hedonistic lives…and Christians do the same, only in obverse.  Christians embrace a bizarre metaphysics of existence as a reward for physical deprecation.  In the end, they both hope in the same thing…the same status and form of existence…and the Christian just makes themselves feel better because at least their soul makes its way beside Lazarus.  As my former professor of Church history would never tire of telling us, form and content people, form and content…two sides of the same coin.

But maybe there is a third way.

We do not need a Conjuring Christ to call forth our platonic souls from their evil material cages when we die.  We do not need a Christ to Conjure us with his magic and all of a sudden make known what is only now perceived via our ability to reason and the fountain of our vision.

No!  To believe that Christ is a conjurer of dead people is to believe he is nothing more than some sort of spiritual witch, an extension of God’s self that does things that he tells others in the biblical narrative to flee…like pursuing seers and diviners.  Jesus is not a conjurer and God is not the collective holder of Plotinus’ basket of souls that are at home in the being of God waiting to be dropped into this miserable thing we call “flesh” (shout out to my Southern Baptists if you will).

What we need is to divest ourselves from these fallacies and have a theology and faith that is consistent from beginning to end.  We need to affirm an ending that is marked by its beginning and vice versa.  We need to be unique in our idea of hope, not only in regard to things such as soteriology, Christology, etc., but also extend that uniquely Christian flavor to our ideas of eschatology, the consummation of history…extend our uniqueness to our idea of death.

D. Stephen Long, in his book The Goodness of God, notes that a good life is marked by an equally good death and that we as a culture, specifically as a church, have forgotten how to die good deaths.

I have pondered this idea for many years now and what it might mean.  Perhaps, part of dying a good death is not placing our hope in something we have always been taught and presume it to be biblical…but maybe a good death begins when we are aware that our beginning and ending all end up in the same place: in the empty tomb of Christ that marks our birth and resurrection into the infinity of divine mystery.

The Conjuring Christ is not the one that sits by our death beds and gives us the options to haunt our relatives, or take flight to heavenly bliss…a good death is not marked by the certainty of the soul conjurer we call Jesus.

A good death is relegating our very existence into the grace that we cannot understand and into that mystery we call God…and our hope is that in that space is one/One who is/was Resurrected.

 

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.

 

 

God is Nothing: Lacan Wrestles with Thing 1 & Thing 2

thing one and two

“In the symbolic order, the empty spaces are as signifying as the full ones; in reading Freud today, it certainly seems that the first step of the whole of his dialectical movement is constituted by the gap of an emptiness”

-Jacques Lacan in his “Response to Jean Hyppolite’s Commentary on Freud’s ‘Verneinung.’”

Everyone wants something.  They strive for something…some-thing.  We as a society are fixated on the things, the little ‘beings’ or objects to which our attention is directed and for which our work is given.  When we look at the world we see it through the lens of things, of a bunch of somethings, and we turn all of our ideas, hopes, aspirations and longings into various things that we can pursue, participate in or master.  The world is full of things, and as Hannah Arendt is apt to tell us, we have given the world around us the thing nature that it is; the world and its things are “thing-ified” (if I can so gently make that word up) because we have taken the world from what it is and we have conceived of the contents of the world within the limits of what constitutes thingness…what constitutes possession for only a thing can be possessed.

We work for homes, for cars, for piles of things.  We work to secure our lives through the things of our investments…we secure our relationships by the things we invest in them and we derive all meaning from the fact that we are able to take our ideas, generate an imaginary world and then divest ourselves of what is real in search of the always illusive thing.  This quest keeps us questing, keeps us defining, keeps us pursuing the thing/things.

We have made the world so dependent upon the idea of thingness that we cannot even conceive of anything that is not a thing.

I am here reminded of Dr. Seuss’s story The Cat in the Hat.

In this quaint little tale, all of everything (the state of affairs within the children’s home if you will) are fine.  Everything (which is really nothing if you remember…more on this in a few more paragraphs) is fine.  UNTIL someone comes into the life of the children and begins to give the room a “thing” nature.  The Cat in the Hat releases “things” into the house, which ironically disrupts everything (which was really nothing as the Mother left the children alone).  The Cat brings in the thing nature…even brings in real characters known as Thing 1 and Thing 2…and they do things, they play with things, they value the fun they are having with “every-thing” and it is this chaos of thingness that is valued…that even the children valued.

For a short while the “things” happening were a new creation, a new way of being, a new diversion from the nothing they were really experiencing.  They valued this new “thing” and they did not listen to the goldfish swimming in his bowl that was full of nothing and going nowhere, yet somehow the fish in the nothing place that goes nowhere was able to see what happens when “things” get out of control and usurp the space of nothing.  These things were valued, that is, until after several attempts by the goldfish sternly reminded the children that these “things” need to stop and “everything” needs to be cleaned up and ordered aright once again.  In other words, we need to get back to the real that is nothing.

The releasing of everything and its chaos into the nothingness of the empty home wreaked havoc even as it also preoccupied the children for a short time with new “things” to watch, see and do.  Into a room of nothing, everything was created…and everything that was created was shown to be nothing more than a diversion from the Real of life that happens apart from “thingness”…the  mundane space which conditions who we are…the space that is more determined by nothing than by the false ontology of thingness.  The children thought the “things” were fun and properly teleological in orientation, yet by the end of the story they discover it is a teleology that goes nowhere and does nothing more than distract us from what really conditions the spaces inhabited by our lives.

We have not given the world a thing nature for purely entertaining reasons as these children were so apt to do (though we have done this), but this thing nature has occurred because of our misdirected sense that what is and what will be is constituted more by the presence of a/the thing, than by nothing.  We have filled our worlds with things to rid ourselves of the nothing…yet the joke is on us.  We cannot rid ourselves of nothing even with the thing as Lacan so aptly notes above.

We have done this, not only in regard to the physical things we enjoy, but also into those metaphysical realities to which we give allegiance and service.  Of course, in our late capitalist culture, the world has taken on the very nature of the thing.  That is why we live.  But why has the thing nature also dictated how we think our faith, our God and the meaning of our lives?

Because we have so thoroughly conceived of the nature of reality as the nature of the thing, it seems that God, Jesus, faith, the ecclesiastical community, our salvation, etc., have all become nothing more than a long list of things; a long list of possessions that give us identity.  They are things that are, things that matter, things that will be…God is nothing more than the thing to which I pray or the thing I fear.  The church is the thing I do on Sunday to ensure I am in proper relationship with the Thing I call God so that this God will bless me with another thing.  My faith is the thing that makes me who I am and conditions how I engage the world…and my salvation is the thing I have because so long as I have it this thing is mine…and because I have all these things, I AM SOMETHING.  To be without these ultimate metaphysical things, things that are grossly conceived as all other things in our language and habits, is to mean that I am nothing, no one, not a something.  These things make me who I am.

I can “see” them.

I can “feel” them.

I can experience them.

I can “touch” them.

I can think them.

These things have become concretized into our thing schematization because we can think the world only in relation to the thing.

But this is where we are wrong.

The thing does not make us who we are or create our worlds.  The thing has no ontological purchase of its own; its only purchasing power comes from us who invest the currency of the thing with value.   The thing is not an end and it is not a beginning.  Thingness is not realness and it is not absoluteness.   We think our lives, worlds and faith(s) are all about being properly directed toward the right thing, but what Lacan discloses to us is that it is not the thing that shapes who we are or where we are going; it is the nothing that does all this.  We want to think there is something, yet our lives are all really the result of the reality of the nothing…the nothing that is disguised as some-thing via the thing that is really nothing apart from the nothing that makes it a thing.

All that may sound a bit circular, confusing even.  I promise I am not writing to confuse.  So let me break this down and then argue the point a bit further:

There is not anything other than nothing.  Nothing is…there is no such thing as a thing apart from the nothing which gives rise to the world in our vision, though this is a world that rests its things on nothing; it’s not a world that ends nothing with a world of things.

We have so conceived of the world via a thing nature, or a particular type of ontic character, that we have left behind the role that nothing plays in making us everything we are…even as this idea of absence and nothing is still nowhere to be found.

Nothing conditions how we speak, what we value, what we pursue, those “things” we are fearful to pursue.  Nothing is what places us where we are and it is only relation to that nothing that meaning can be created or generated.  This is one of the main thrusts of nihilistic philosophy.  It is not a philosophy that argues for some sort of black hole abysmal reality where there is no meaning; on the contrary, it is only because nothing is that everything can have meaning for a thing only has meaning in relation to nothing.  Apart from this frame of reference, a thing is lost in itself without any analogous referent from which it may make sense.  Apart from nothing a thing is not even a thing…and therefore, apart from nothing we too are nothing.  Thus, nothing is.  So while we strive to forget nothing by thinking everything, we lost in the process an important part of ourselves and what makes us who we are.

Lacan goes well beneath Heidegger’s own idea of Geworfenheit here…

Lacan notes, “But the subject has a no less convincing sense if he encounters the symbol that he originally excised from his Bejahung.  For this symbol does not enter the imaginary, for all that.  It constitutes, as Freud tells us, that which truly does not exist; as such, it ek-sists, for nothing exists except against a supposed background of absence.  Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist.”

He goes on to the quote at the beginning of this essay, “it certainly seems that the first step of the whole of the dialectical movement is constituted by the gap of an emptiness.”

What Lacan is observing in his response to the famous psychoanalyst Jean Hyppolite is that our lives are negotiated more from the gaps of nothing than by the imaginary worlds we have built for ourselves.  Nothing is the condition of meaning because the symbolic order rests on this negation of things in order for meaning to be construed.  It is only  because there is an absence that a presence appears.

The bejahung that Lacan mentions is Freud’s term for our original primordial inception into the symbolic order.  It is the original affirmation that we did not affirm.  Our place in this order, an order which does not exist but exists apart from itself, is really nothing…it’s a place we cannot place anywhere, it is nowhere, yet its constitution as nowhere means that it is the nothing that is somewhere.  The bejahung is our inception into that order (language, symbols, sounds, meaning, body language, ideas,etc.), an original inception that is no longer available to us but surfaces in us at moments of repressed desires, visions, déjà vu, dreams, etc.  It is the place into which we are plunged and emerge with the symbolic, with language, yet we cannot recount the making of the symbolic or its highs or lows.  We are people of symbols yet the genesis of the symbols have long been lost in ek-sistence of the bejahung that’s nothingness allows for the existence of other symbolic things, which really do not exist.  Or as Lacan notes, “Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist.”

Thus, our worlds and the things we fill them with are really nothing and they reside nowhere but the places we have granted them to reside.  The emptiness of our minds, the places where we do not think but where we really are, is more indicative of our condition then are all the things we create and all the imaginary’s we fabricate.

So if our worlds are really conditioned by nothing and the foreclosure of our language into a specific symbolic order, what does this mean for those things that mean most to us…those things that we can place our in our hands, our heart and our minds?

It means that we are not driven from or toward the places we can grasp, but we are perpetually the creation of what has grasped us even as it has nothing to grasp us with.  The gap between there and here, where and there, is the gap and nothing that makes us as much who we are as all the fabricated things we have created to hide from the gap that is nothing, yet has made us everything.

These spaces that are nothing are really the spaces that fill our lives…it is the nothing of the lives we wish we could have that surface in our consciousness and produce the world we think we see.  Only because the fabrications of our worlds do not really exist, because they are nothing, do they present themselves into the symbolic order as an imaginary thing.  The fact that things appear to us in the present and we aim for them in the future, only do so because they are nothing and do not exist anywhere, thus our very “thing” nature of the world is really driven by the world we do not see toward the place we do not know with “things” that aren’t really there…meaning they are the things that are not really us or the real that remains allusive.

If the thing nature of the world we have created is merely that which has taken us away from the place of nothing, and nothing…or that which is no longer available to us, is that which constitutes our moving, thinking and being, than what does that say for our faith and its objects if we continue to call them things?  Perhaps, to begin this conversation aright…we should begin not by saying all those things that are things and then seek about defining them in our possession…but perhaps with Lacan, we should take a more apophatic approach.

For if as a people of faith we claim that God is where we come from, where we are and where we are going…perhaps we are not discussing a thing known as God…

Perhaps what we are saying is that God is nothing

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.

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.

Parables: Stories About the End of the World

Mark misunderstood gospel

The following is a sermon I preached in year B this past summer.  In my ministerial context, sermons are generally 20-30 minutes.  This one is on the 30 minute side due to the pedagogical material at the front of the sermon.  I hope this helps you wrestle with this very short Markan parable as much as it did me.

Text: Gospel of Mark 4.26-29

Of the many things that we think, and know, and believe about Jesus, one of the most certain realities of the nature of his ministry and life is that Jesus taught by means of parables.   This is a truth and illustration to which there is more testimony and evidence than many of the orthodox beliefs we have about Jesus such as: the virgin birth, the trip to Bethlehem, that Jesus had siblings, or that his father’s name is Joseph.  These are things we believe…but for some reason the authors of the NT and the early church felt that it was more important to preserve this form of teaching by Jesus than it was to verify and create a mountain of literary evidence supporting the very historical foundations of our faith.  Why is that?  Why does our faith tradition preserve the teachings and presentations of Jesus to a greater degree than the hardcore historical facts we think necessary to hold such faith?  Haven’t all people in all times been as hung up about history as we are today?  The most obvious response must be that there is something particularly special about parables…something that we better take note of if we are going to read the Gospels faithfully.  There must be something so special about parabolic expressions that the church knew it was not easily grasped, harnessed or interpreted, but it understood that if we’ll stick with it and hang on…perhaps the world at the end of the parable will be different than the one that existed prior to its utterance.

You see, Church, we often find ourselves to be like many of the people that surrounded Jesus during his ministry.  We’ve spent some time observing him, hearing him, and we think we know what he’s saying…yet Jesus keeps speaking to us in Parables.  Aren’t parables the expressions of children??  Stories of fancy meant to fill our imagination and just give us another entertaining way to learn?  Wasn’t Jesus just being a good teacher and implementing the method of teaching that best suited the learning style of those around him?

If we already know the answers than why does he keep teaching us like we’re idiots?  If we already know the parables than why does the world look like it did before Jesus told them?  Could it be that the parables we think we understand, we don’t really understand at all?  Could it be that we have taken the parabolic mystery and challenge out of the parable and reduced it to simple moralizing or spiritualization and in the process drained the parable of its power?  Do we read the parables of Jesus…see the easy answer and then think we have it?  Might I suggest, if we read the parables and the answer is easily configured and assimilated into our lives…well, we’ve probably missed the point of parable.

Alan Culpepper, my teacher at Mercer, described parables in this way:

Parables compel us as their hearers to see the world in a new way.  Whether used in debate or didactic settings, parables point to the improbable in the midst of the ordinary and force us to pause to consider it.  They shift our angle of vision…the parabler sees something no one else sees.  He or she conveys that vision metaphorically or paradoxically through the out of place in the midst of the common, inviting us to puzzle over the relationship between the two.  The parables, however, are so unstable, elusive, and revolutionary that the church has tirelessly found ways to resolve the parables tensiveness, reduce them to simple lessons, and beat the life out of them by making them familiar…Fortunately, Jesus’ parables resist this reduction and give us the ability to see the world as he sees it. (RE journal Spring 2012).

Parables are meant to use ordinary events, ordinary things, and create an unordinary reality.  They are meant to challenge our ideas of how the world works by using our very ideas of how the world works…Parables are mechanisms that are employed in very specific situations, at specific times, to challenge a specific notion or to interject an idea into a sea of ideas that are misguided and shallow.  In other words, a parable is the teaching device by which Jesus blows up our ideas, our opinions and our worlds.  The option to not have an opinion about the parable or to not come to some kind of conclusion regarding its meaning is not an option in the face of the challenge of Jesus telling the parable.

Jesus considered his ministry to be the very manifestation of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God…and this method of teaching, parables, is the method by which Jesus is confronting the world in various contexts to see what that kingdom is all about.  Parables are not simple lessons that we use in Sunday School to learn the basics of loving Jesus…parables are the very tools that Jesus uses to say this is the end of the world as you know it!  The Kingdom of God is near…its right here around the corner…listen to this parable as the world comes closer to its end!  I am teaching you this way because the future that is myself has broke into your present!

The context of the ministry of Jesus is apocalyptic expectation.  The time of Jesus is ripe with expectation and a multitude of religious groups and people that are anticipating some form of God breaking into their present…but what the Gospel of Mark tell us…is that this breaking, this tearing of reality occurs before Jesus even utters one word of a parable and in a way that is not expected or heard by anyone…other than as the sound of thunder.  Mark is so convinced of the utter ripping of reality, the tear of God into history, that he places this event of divine coming at the very early stages of his Gospel.

In Mark 1.9-13…we get the brief mention of the baptism of Jesus.  What is unique about this story is the word that Mark uses to describe the event of God’s spirit descending upon Jesus.  Mark 1.9-13 reads as follows:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening and the spirit like a dove descending upon him and a voice came out of the heavens: You are my beloved son, in You I am well pleased.  Immediately he was compelled to go into the wilderness by the Spirit”

The story tells us, very calm and collectively, that God “opened” the heavens and the spirit descended…but the Greek word does not connote a nice opening scene that fills some piece of Romantic literature as the dove of God wisps away onto the shoulder of Jesus.  What the Greek says is that God “RIPPED” “TORE” open the heavens…and that tearing of the heavens leaves a scar on creation that cannot be put back together.  The world will never be the same again!  And this apocalyptic event that takes place at the baptism of Jesus happens before Jesus does anything in ministry…and Mark wants to tell us as readers that from here on out…the world is different.  The end has come into the present…and Jesus will then teach in a way that is reflective of the end of the world and remind us of the pending Kingdom of God that is already at work.  Parables are a means of teaching in this new apocalypse…or this new revealing of who and what God is.  Parables have to do with taking the ordinary and placing them within the context of a heavens that have been torn apart by God and will never be fitted back together!

Understanding this, we come to our text, and we discover that this parable is something we already know.  Perhaps we give it a very shallow read or glance at it quickly…but since we are such stellar students of Jesus and already earned an “A” in his class…we think we don’t need this lesson…but lets her Mark anyhow.  Turn to our text…Mark 4.26-29.

At first glance, this scripture seems pretty easy to grasp.  We can read this parable and it seems pretty obvious what Jesus is saying right?  The kingdom of God is basically the small seed that is planted by the farmhand.  The seed is sown, as we saw very meticulously by Jesus in the lengthy parable of the Sower in first part of chapter 4, and it will produce a harvest that will be ripe.  In this parable, Jesus is clearly telling us that the Word is the seed, as he does in v13 on the first parable, and that the Word will produce a harvest.  We don’t know how, but it will be evident when we awaken after our slumber.  At first glance church, this parable is obviously part of what we remember Paul telling us is the milk of babes in Christ…where’s the meat of the Gospel?  We’ve already got this figured out…Next please.

But let’s pause here just a bit longer.  This first half of the parable is taking the ordinary practice of agriculture and noting its regular results.  This makes sense to any farmer or hired hand that plants seed.  They can relate.  But let’s ask a few questions.  What is the Kingdom of God here?  Jesus says the KOG is like a “man” who casts seed upon the soil.  Who or what is the soil here?  And how is the harvest produced?  The parable does not tell us of any extant causes of the harvest.  It does not mention managing the soil, or sunlight, or even water.  The parable doesn’t give any details as to how the spreading of seed in the soil produces a harvest, yet it does.  For many of us, we would walk through this field and we would be thinking of all the biological things occurring at a micro-biological level and we know WHY a harvest is produced by planting seed.  We can scientifically explain it.  But for someone hearing this parable for the first time, they walk through the same field and they have no idea how that happens.  They count the giving of the earth as a miracle, not a biological fact to be manipulated by farming techniques.

Many times this part of the parable is interpreted to easily.  But I can already here the objections, “Pastor Nathan, the Gospel is easy to understand…we shouldn’t have to think about them this hard to understand them.”  If we think that parables are supposed to be easy to understand, what do we make of Jesus when he says earlier in our chapter, “To you has been given the KOG, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven.”  Seems like in Mark Jesus speaks in parables precisely because he doesn’t want people to understand…  Moving back to interpretation, the man in the parable is often interpreted the one who preaches the Gospel.  The preacher’s throw the seed onto soil.  The soil is understood to be us or those people that hear the seed of the word and respond.  Our response is the harvest and then the one who proclaimed the Gospel initially can come along and reap the harvest of our response and those around us.  In other words, this is interpreted as a passage that reinforces our boring imagination as we think it’s about saving souls, even though Jesus has said nothing like this in this passage or to this point in the Gospel of Mark. In other words, we take this to mean, “Let’s spread the word to get people saved so that they can be the harvest.”  Anyone who has read the Left Behind books knows this to be true.

There are problems with this simple interpretation.  First, it’s not reading this parable as a parable.  It’s reading it as an analogy in which we correlate elements of the ordinary to elements of our preconceived ideas of salvation, which is a problem if a key to understanding parables is our initial worldview.  In other words, we are doing what Dr. Culpepper described as “tirelessly finding ways to resolve the tense nature of the parable.”  If the parable, no matter how many verses long, doesn’t shake us to the core, than we’ve already missed it.  Do not pass Go.  Do not collect $200.  Go back and try again please.

Second, every analogy fails.  Rather than trying to see the “spiritual” meaning in this parable, let’s just let it be.  Maybe this parable is simply saying that the KOG is about the mystery of the gift of the earth.  The KOG is not manipulated by human effort.  It is not the product of any specific ministerial paradigm or purpose driven model.  The KOG is not simply the man that preaches.  The KOG is not simply the place to which the seed is thrown.  And the soil cannot be the church or anyone who listens.  Soil is not active…it is acted upon.  The soil is a passive recipient of the seed…it doesn’t choose whether the seed will fall on it or not. The Kingdom of God is reflective of the process of our non-involvementIn other words, the Kingdom of God is thoroughly the work of God.  It is God’s gift to us.  And it is God’s gift to us through the smallest and most humbling beginnings…God walking amidst creation dropping seeds of revelation on the crust of the earth.  Does the KOG need someone to proclaim the Gospel?  Absolutely.  But is this parable telling us of the importance of the preacher or is it telling us of the mystery of the smallness of what is sown…and that such small revelations are not brought to harvest through the work of our hands…but through the mystery of the spirit of God working in the present to bring an end to the world in the form of Jesus? 

Within the context of Jesus’ pending expectation that the Kingdom of God was being manifested and displayed in his ministry, this parable is consistent with the covenant God made with the people as far back as Abraham.  The people did nothing to be chosen.  The people did nothing to make themselves grow.  The people did nothing to which they could take credit for being wrapped into the narrative of God that would give them hope of resurrection, yet, here is the shadow of the Temple, here is the shadow of the Commandments, here is the shadow of the Prophets, and here is Jesus calling us to the end result of the work that God began to do in the very beginning of creation.  The Kingdom of God is predicated on the Spirit of God that has entered the world and is tossing its seed of repentance into all of creation…and the harvest will come because of God…and God will harvest it.

The Kingdom of God is not the easily manipulated technique of planting whereby we get the crop to grow through preaching a few bible verses.  What this parable is trying to tell us is that the KOG is the mysterious Work of God that has very humble beginnings.  It is begun with simple planting, or a tearing into the soil by the seed…the tearing of God’s Spirit into the life of Jesus after his baptism, and the harvest is the mysterious production of a world that looks like God in Jesus Christ.

This is an important parable and message to note because by the time the Gospel is being composed surely not all people believe who Jesus is…Jesus has always had his share of critics.  The parables are often not merely mechanisms of teaching, but they are also challenges to critics in story form via familiar conceptions.  Can’t you see the world into which Jesus’ ministry happened?  After Easter, Jerusalem is still standing.  Romans are still in power.  Creation looks the same.  The “new creation” is not so new…to the average viewer of reality.  Thus, the Gospel writer feels the need to express and rehearse parables of Jesus that offer a response to the criticism of the lack of greatness that must have obviously been Jesus’ “kingdom.”  This parable is one such response.  The Gospel has small beginnings…and its maturation is mysterious…but one need not worry because God is taking care of what’s happening beneath the soil, which is the world, and God will ensure the harvest when we awaken the next morning.  The end of the seed is also the beginning of the harvest.  Death of the kernel must happen before life can occur…and how this happens, for people in Jesus’ context, is not known.  It isn’t us…it is the gift of God.

But let’s now allow this parable to simply stop there.  Remember, the Gospels are written after the affirmation and witness that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.  We have just celebrated a season in the church year in which we rehearsed and remembered the birth of Jesus, his ministry, his suffering, his death, his resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church.  We ALL KNOW the story.  We, as a church in the 21st century, are the epitome of Monday Morning quarterback and we have an unfair vantage point because we KNOW where the narrator of Mark is taking us with all these stories.  We know how it ends…and how things are really going to turn out for Jesus.  And we believe our knowledge of the story to be the case…but the readers and hearers of MARK didn’t know the end.  When the reader or hearer gets to Mark chapter 4 they don’t know of Peters confession that Jesus is Lord or that Jesus’ tomb will be found empty.  And surely some of those encountering Marks Gospel have heard stories of what supposedly happened to Jesus, they don’t believe it, so they want to see what this Gospel has to say for itself.  Thus, into a context of very premature knowledge of Jesus, and probably a context of also heightened criticism about what really happened to Jesus, this parable not only offers a different look as to how the KOG is brought forth, and not only that the KOG has humble beginnings that are cultivated by God in mysterious ways beneath the earth…but this KOG is ultimately initiated, and cultivated by God in the very tomb of Christ…producing the harvest of his resurrection!

Using allegory as many of the early church fathers, it is easy to see that this parable might also be Mark’s way of saying that not only is a seed the humble beginnings of a harvest that sprang from the ground we know not how, but also the one whom you say is not the Christ…the one whom you say the disciples took away by night…the one whom you saw crucified by Romans…the one that has failed to make purported post-resurrection appearances to only those who believe in him…the one from the Podunk town of Galilee with an earthly family…this guy that went from town to town having to get food from others and live off the kindness of others…the ancient hippie of sorts that went around teaching in parables precisely because you didn’t understand…This one IS the HARVEST of the last days!

Jesus’ ministry is the seed.  His life and works are the seeds scattered in creation amongst us, yet this seed when it hit the soil of creation eventually died. The Christ was buried…but for three days God was doing something in the tomb.  God was busy preparing a gift for us.  We don’t know how it happened and we didn’t know how long it would take, but God was busy tending to the seed beneath the soil, sealed away in the tomb.  Then one morning, we were awakened only to find what the Apostle Paul describes as the first fruits of the new creation!  Hear 1 Corinthians 15.20-21, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.  For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead.”  If there is anything that the Gospel of Mark proclaims, it is a proclamation that the life and presence of Jesus is the beginning of the end of the world and the beginning of the KOGThis kingdom doesn’t happen like we think it will and it doesn’t look like we want it to, but it will produce a harvest that is totally dependent on God’s cultivation and the very first fruit of the seeds of God’s spirit in the world will be the seed of the Christ that is made to grow from out of the earth so that a sickle may be taken to the rest of creation in anticipation of for the harvest that must happen in light of the resurrection of Jesus.

You see church, the fruit that is the KOG is not up to us to make grow.  And the fruit that is the Kingdom of God isn’t all our feeble attempts to preach to souls that are the harvest of our labor.  In this very short parable, a parable that only occurs here in Mark…we see that Jesus is radically challenging our notion of how the harvest works, what the harvest is and what our role in that process is not.  I’m sorry church, but this parable is not about us.  It’s not about me and it’s not about you…We are not the target here…and we’ve missed it because we want to offer simple interpretations that make us feel like we understand and that we feel are directed at our spiritual needs.  But this parable won’t allow it.  This parable, within an Easter context…as all the Gospels are, tells us that Christ is the harvest.  He is the first fruits of the work of God…the manifestation and fore-bearer of what the Kingdom looks like.  The small man from Galilee, who is a meager nuisance on the religious and political scene of ancient Judea…is the smallness from which God will save the world and harvest all of creation.  And because he is the first fruit of the harvest, we have a hope that there are other fruits that will spring up from the ground with him as the world continues to stubbornly continue into history.  But this is what the kingdom of God is…it is the remainder of creation after the first fruit of Christ…it is something we can’t expect, something we don’t understand, but something that will spring up among us in a very unexpected way from a very unexpected origin.

And Jesus said “With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it (as far as they were ABLE TO HEAR IT*) and he did not speak to them without a parable, but he was explaining everything privately to his own disciples.” (Mark 4.33-34)

What is Jesus privately explaining to you?

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

untamed Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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