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.

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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.

Exchanging the Resurrection for the Soul

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“I am concerned with Christ as He appears in the Gospels, taking the Gospel narrative as it stands, and there one does find some things that do not seem to be very wise. For one thing, he certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that. He says, for instance, “Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of Man be come.” Then he says, “There are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of Man comes into His kingdom”; and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed that His second coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of His earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of His moral teaching. When He said, “Take no thought for the morrow,” and things of that sort, it was very largely because He thought that the second coming was going to be very soon, and that all ordinary mundane affairs did not count. I have, as a matter of fact, known some Christians who did believe that the second coming was imminent. I knew a parson who frightened his congregation terribly by telling them that the second coming was very imminent indeed, but they were much consoled when they found that he was planting trees in his garden. The early Christians did really believe it, and they did abstain from such things as planting trees in their gardens, because they did accept from Christ the belief that the second coming was imminent. In that respect, clearly He was not so wise as some other people have been, and He was certainly not superlatively wise.” Bertrand Russel, from essay Why I Am Not A Christian

 

We don’t need Betrand Russel to tell us Jesus was wrong about Eschatology.  Most Christians think the same.  Rather than become atheist like Russel, Christians just embrace the idea of everlasting soul and we never mention that early Christian kerygma contained the grizzly image of resurrection.

The Delay of the Parousia of Jesus has created an unspoken level of cognitive dissonance within the community of disciples that follow the wonder worker from Nazareth.   Jesus was never bashful about proclaiming the imminence of the coming Kingdom of God.  The Synoptics are full of Jesus’ more immediate eschatological leanings.

Examples abound but here are a few from the Synoptics.  I do not include the Gospel of John because Johannine theology is far more reflective and a different theological animal than we find in the more rudimentary synoptic tradition.

Luke 12.35 & 40 “Be dressed in readiness and keep your lamps lit…you, too, be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect.”

The verb “to be” here in v35 is a present, active imperative.  In v40, the verb “coming” is also a present imperative; it may be translated middle or passive.  It is clear that Jesus is speaking of a present expectation, one he strongly believes (or at least was strongly believed in by the author of Luke) by the usage of an imperative.

Matthew 24.32-34 “Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that the summer is near; so, you too, when you see all these things recognize that He is near, right at the door.  Truly I say to you this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.

Notice the imminent tone of Jesus’ speech.  Jesus is speaking future here, but doing so in an exact temporal sense that locates this future within the present of THIS generation.  The word for “pass away” is in the subjunctive mood, giving it a sense of future openness, but that is negated by the “not” that precedes it.  It is not a sense of indefinite passing away being referred to here.  It’s a very specific location of place into which this passing will NOT go: the future.  It’s presently pending.  Also note the nominative “this” referring to generation.   Keep in mind this verse starts where Jesus isolates his listeners as “you” in v4.  This “you see” refers to a present active stance Jesus is asking of his readers/hearers.

Jesus is not lost when he thinks these events are going to transpire.  He believes they will happen to the very ones with whom he is speaking.

Mark 14.61-62 “The high priest was questioning him and saying to him, “are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed one?” And Jesus said, “I Am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the power and coming with the clouds in heaven.”

In this passage, Jesus makes a narratival confession of his status as Christ and links that status with the imminent coming of the end.  Jesus tells the High Priest that “you” will see this.  The “you” is part of the second person plural future of “see” and positions Jesus’ response to the plural scene in which he finds himself.  His “you” is a reference to the characters with the narrative, not outside of it. Jesus, here, seems convinced that this gross injustice that is about to be carried out upon him will be vindicated in a very physical manifestation very shortly.

These few verses, along with the scope and content of Jesus eschatological ministry, seems to also fall in line with the major consensus’ amongst the latest NT scholarship.  At bottom, Jesus was an eschatological prophet who saw his ministry as the pending coming of the Kingdom of God.  He fully expected, and anticipated, its fulfillment in and through his ministry.  This sense of urgency did not wane with the death of Jesus.  It was alive and well within the early Christian tradition.

The Apostle Paul was also convinced of the imminence of the return of The Christ, the fulfillment of what the angels told the disciples as they saw Jesus ascend into heaven in Acts 1, “why do you stand here staring up into the sky?  Don’t you know that the same Jesus that you have seen depart will return in a similar fashion?”

The Church of Acts is acting in the shadow of an imminent return and we are reminded of this at the very front of the Acts narrative.  The early church took these teachings and narratives seriously.

Paul’s imminent eschatological predilections are on full display in 1 Thessalonians where he calms the fear of fellow believers who are now facing the death of those very ones to whom Jesus might have said, “this generation will not pass away.”  Problem was…this generation was starting to pass away.  Paul writes to assuage their fears and in the process reinforces the imminent eschatological teachings that began in Jesus’ sayings.  Thessalonians is a great letter to isolate early Christian sentiment regarding the imminent return of God/the Christ because it is our earliest Christian letter (possibly as early as 38-39CE) and the church has not had the reflection of decades to fine tune its thinking.

In Paul, we do begin to see some eschatological development.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul merges the concept of resurrection to the final idea of Kingdom of God.  Here he conflates the notion of resurrection into final parousia, a commencement that will involve the physical resurrection of the dead, and living, into an imperishable existence that can live in this coming Kingdom of God.  In Paul we see the merging of the gospel traditions of Jesus teaching, with more Pharisaical leanings that taught resurrection.  If one subscribes to the theory that Paul also wrote 2 Thessalonians this clearly shows a move in Paul away from imminence and toward delay…as there are some “conditions” that must be met that are wholly other than the conditions Jesus mentions in the Gospels.

The further we move from the very historical event of the Christ the more developed we get in regard to eschatology, or the coming of the God in Christ.  The latter pastoral epistles then become concerned with how to “do” church and “be” church and very little attention is given to the coming of Jesus.  The quicker the church can move past this unseemly historical absence, the better.

So the church stands in the wake of a grave that has been opened and a return that has not taken place.  The imminence of Jesus and Paul has not been fructified, and in the process, one major element of their eschatology has been left out of the equation in regard to “last things”: resurrection.  Jesus and Paul both taught that a resurrection would occur, a physical resurrection, restoration of creation as a part of God’s final victory over evil.  It appears Jesus had taught Mary this on at least one occasion (John 11).

We, as the present day church, have forgotten this…and we give strange looks to people like me who want to once again move this hope front and center.  You don’t believe resurrection produces weird looks and confusion?  Next time you’re at church, tell someone you believe your dead corpse will once again see life and see what they say.  Tell them that bodies matter to God and that the New Testament hope is fleshly resurrection, not a soulish flight to Jesus, and I promise they will look at you like you’re a Communist.

And because we forgotten resurrection we have fallen in love with an idea of Last Things that are absent the New Testaments core eschatological tenet: resurrection.

Why?  How do I make this connection?

Because the church had to figure out a way of getting everyone to heaven without the event that Paul and Jesus firmly believed was necessary for any idea of God’s coming Kingdom: resurrection.

They both taught it would be imminent and was pending.  Such imminence, as history continues to illustrate, was misplaced.  Yet, hope in Jesus the Christ could not be misplaced due to his resurrection and despite our own.  Thus, the church internalized the hope of Christians to be one of internal release, soulish ascent to heaven, that really doesn’t need a resurrection to be manifest.

Take a poll: Many Christians are content with knowing that when they die they will go to heaven.  Ask if they care about being resurrected, they might not even know why you ask the question.  Little wonder.  Many preachers today are peddlers of soul language and confessions.  Their entire object of ministry is the proverbial “never dying soul.”  They are not interested in the restoration of creation as the vehicle whereby the world is restored into right relationship with God via the resurrection of Ezekiel’s dry bones.

The result has become an infatuation with spirits and souls.  But how could we do otherwise?  Jesus hasn’t returned and the resurrection has not happened.  We have to believe in something.

No one, at least people of faith, like to think that their relatives have died and have remained rotting in their graves.  We do not want to believe that our hope is somehow connected to the material body that the creator gave us before we entered the world.  We want to be released from the pain and tribulation we face within our bodies.  We want to believe we can escape them…not wait to be resurrected with them.

This need to escape and find a fulfillment to the “sinner’s prayer” has produced an entire generation of people that are no longer interested in being resurrected because their soul “will fly away oh glory.” If Jesus is not going to return to take our bodies, as he promised in John 14, then we need another device whereby God can fulfill his promises of salvation and get to our “mansions”.  Thus, we negate all of Paul’s talk about resurrection and embrace his only verse that says “to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord.”

The cognitive dissonance of an absent Jesus, and the absent event of resurrection, has created a vacuum of meaning that has been filled with the concepts of spirits and souls.  The Greeks would be mightily proud.  We no longer need resurrection to get to “heaven.”  It’s not a viable element of our eschatological categories.  We just need to believe on Jesus to ensure our soul flies to the right place.

Countless Maccabees died in vain.  They should have known better than to think God would resurrect their corpses atop Masada.

Since Christians have traded in the currency of resurrection for the currency of the soul we are more prone to embrace ideas that are anti-Christian eschatology and pro-secular spirituality.  Souls, spirits and apparitions have such a strong appeal because we have come to conclude that this vision of human eschatology (what happens after we die) is credible and it is credible because the imminent vision of Jesus and Paul has tarried too long.

One could even argue that the evacuation of resurrection space, of holy mystical space, has been left behind for that form of metaphysics we can grasp and make happen, apply.

Indeed, the absence of the coming of Jesus and the misguided imminence of Paul has created quite a problem for the church.  We have turned to many idols to forget this unseemly absence.  We have embraced ideas that allow us to get around resurrection and still have our Christian cake.

Not only have we embraced reason as the means by which we may know all things, but we have also opted for choices that require ourselves (our volition) to make it to heaven…rather than depend on a divine act whereby whatever is the “coming Kingdom of God” can only be given to us as a gift, a gift of resurrection that is absent our ability to believe ourselves to it.

And this is where we must make our eschatological stand.  Our end, the future of the world that is God, is never something we inherently carry in our bodies or that we secure via our belief.  God, the world’s future, is only given to us as a gift we could never give ourselves.

Resurrection is the ultimate gift because it is the ultimate end we can never give ourselves.

Christ Goes to the Movies: The Conjuring and Resurrection

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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.

 

 

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

christ_walking_on_the_water

INTRO

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

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

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

A HISTORY OF PHANTOM IN THE GREEK LANGUAGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But a second level is equally important.

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

Let’s look at that passage(s).

MARK 6.49 & MATTHEW 14.26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WAS JESUS A GHOST? HOW TO NOT THINK DEATH

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

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

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

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

LESSONS LEARNED AND CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon Pentecost 2013: Fire From the Tomb

Pentecost

This is a sermon I preached this past Sunday in my local Church of the Nazarene setting.  My tradition has a precarious and intimate relationship to this text, especially as it concerns ideas of the holy spirit, holiness and Christian experience.  As I began to look more carefully exegetically at this passage, particularly within its Luke-Acts literary corpus, I began to see and pick up on some motifs that I believe my tradition and many evangelical traditions are sadly overlooking…and that is: the Pentecostal descending of the Holy Spirit on the early Church is not a prescriptive event that serves to edify the walk of an individual believer.  Pentecost occurs, rather, in order that those witnesses that heretofore were unable to witness to the Resurrection of Jesus might now be able to do so.  Pentecost is not a “movement” or a “stage” that Christians traverse as they become more “holy,”…Instead it seems that Luke-Acts insists this happens so that those already sanctified in their following of Christ might now be able to proclaim the nonsense of a dead carpenter…who is now not so dead…is the Messiah of God.  Further, not only does Luke-Acts make this argument, it further goes on to nuance how this events is interpreted as a “last days” event within the prophetic text of Joel and therein reinterprets how we today MUST also rethink our idea of “last days,’…but you’re gonna have to read the sermon if you want to see how this works out.

As an aside, the first several paragraphs are a rehearsal of the Christian calendar as we have only recently started being very intentional about the Christian seasons in my ministry context.  I felt that since Pentecost is the climax of Easter celebration and beginning of ordinary time, or what I like to call life as usual, that this rehearsal was in order to help the congregation re-member where we have been.  Should you not need the reminder of the seasons please move to the paragraph that begins discussing Pentecost.

So…with this said, I hope this sermon on Pentecost is helpful as you continue in your pursuits to narrate your life around this resurrected one we call Jesus the Christ.

Title: “Fire from the Tomb”

Text: Acts 2.1-21

Theme: Pentecost as Fulfillment of Easter

Topic: Easter Resurrects the Christ, Pentecost ushers the Church into the Power of Resurrection Proclamation

                We have been busy following the journey of Christ this year, following the calendar that marks events in the life of Jesus and dares us to participate in those events.  It has been a journey that is now about to both end, and begin.  This day is marked by colors of red, faint sounds of whirlwinds and descriptions of fiery tongues that descend upon those who are witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus.   The journey of Jesus the Christ has brought us to this peculiarly strange place this Sunday known as Pentecost.  It has taken us a while to get here.

We started in that season of Great expectation, a season of awaiting the coming Messiah and his birth.  It was a season in which we anticipated not only the birth of Christ, but also the return of the living Christ again with great heavenly choruses’ to announce his entrance on the white horse, just as they announced his birth in Bethlehem.  It was the season of Advent.

From advent, we moved to Christmas…a 12 day period that began with Christmas day.  This is a 2 week long season in which we concentrate on the arrival of the Christ.  This season is then closely followed by what we call Epiphany.  The Season of Epiphany is that time when we cease simply knowing that Christ has been born amongst us, and we actually realize who he is and we trek to see him, offering gifts of adoration and praise just as the Wise-men demonstrate to us what it looks like to be those who have had the ultimate “aha” moment.

After these seasons of expectation, rejoicing and realization…we enter into a place that begins on Ash Wednesday…we journeyed with Christ into the desert during a time we call Lent.  During lent we wandered the desert with Christ, we faced our own mortality, we became aware of the ministry of Jesus that at times perhaps made him long for those lonely desert moments in Luke 4 over the trials and obstinacy of people who did not believe his message.  When Jesus left the desert he went and preached his first sermon in his hometown…and if you will remember, it was not warmly received.  We have followed Christ through those Lenten places that led him to that most precarious of all weeks in his life…the Week we now call Holy week.

We followed Jesus down the Hill of Mt Olives from the Garden of Gethsemane and ushered him into the city of Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Passover feast.  We went with him to the temple, we heard him exchange with beggars, we were there when he broke bread and gave us wine…and our hearts were broken and confused when Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified during this week.  The events that we now call Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were events we wished hadn’t occurred, yet we find ourselves on this journey with Christ so we walk where he walks, even if we learn things about ourselves along the journey that we don’t particularly like.

But then, the journey takes us unexpectedly to a place known as Easter…Easter morning we arise still grieving the death of Jesus only to be awakened by women screaming at the top of their lungs that Jesus’ tomb is empty, that Christ is not there, that something strange has happened.  We stand shocked, worried, strangely happy…as we then entered Eastertide.  Eastertide was a 49 day period in which we focused on the reality of the Risen Christ, what that risenness is, what it looks likes, what it means…and we were there with Jesus when he appeared to us in the Gospel of John, when he made us breakfast on the seashore, when he appeared to the 500 and when he came and walked amongst us as we were leaving Jerusalem talking amongst ourselves about the strange things that have overtaken the city…the event of Easter has changed everything…but the journey is not over just yet.

We then remembered Jesus as he had a final farewell moment with his disciples.  We were there when we walked with us after his resurrection, longing for the continual presence of the resurrected Jesus…yet he was giving us his final last words.  He spoke to us, then he Ascended from our midst…he left us…standing there as we gazed intently into the sky.  But what might Christ have meant in Acts chapter 1 when he said, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem…and to the remotest part of the earth.”  This journey is not over…

The story of Jesus has not yet finished and we have not yet fully received what Jesus told us we will receive.  As we were walking along the road with him conversing on way to a place called Emmaus, Jesus who we now call the Christ because of his resurrection, gave us a hint of this day we would soon experience.  He was leading us to the place known as Pentecost with these words,

“Thus it is written  that he Messiah should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses to these things.  And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24.45-49)

But this is something we should have been expecting along this journey, for much earlier than these words of the resurrected Jesus, Luke tells us of the words of John the Baptist in Luke chapter 3, “As for me, I baptize you with water, but One is coming who is mightier than I and I am not even fit to untie his sandals; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Back in Luke chapter 3 the prophetic words of John the Baptist didnt’t make much sense…but now, as we are further along on this journey with Christ Luke is bringing his Gospel message full circle.  What Luke began in his Gospel he is bringing to completion in his telling of this story in Acts chapter 2…this story we call Pentecost…the place that the journey of Jesus has now brought us to.

But what is Pentecost?  Why has the journey brought us here and where do we go from here?  If we follow the life of Jesus this event marks its end.  After today, we enter to a place that we call Ordinary time.  It is a time where nothing special happens in the life of Christ: no hark the herald angels sings, no wisemen, no miracles, no resurrection, and no more Pentecost’s…what does this mean for us that our journey has ended here, today, in this way, with this story…yet this ending is also a new beginning of sorts.

If we follow the text closely and if we pay attention to what Luke is doing in his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, 2 works that are separated in our bibles but were composed wholes by Luke originally, we find that despite the fact that we celebrate the big three events in the life of Jesus separately.  Despite the fact that we celebrate Easter, then Ascension, then Pentecost…and we do so with a 50 day period in between them…despite all this Pentecost and the falling of the Holy Spirit on the disciples is not a singular event.  These are not a series of events that are to be understood separately…rather they are all three events that function together in order proclaim one singular message and that is the Resurrection of Jesus.  The Resurrection is the catalyst that gives birth to the Ascension and Events of Pentecost.  It is a singular event marked by three distinct moments in the life of Jesus.  What this means is that to try to understand Pentecost apart from Easter is misleading and to understand Easter without an empowering Spirit would be an empty proclamation.  But this needs to be understood because often we separate these events to such a degree that days like Pentecost become removed from their Easter context and Pentecost becomes a time about my experience with God rather than my experience for God.  In other words, Pentecost is not an event that happens so that the disciples can have a great personal spiritual experience.  Are you listening?  If we pay attention to Luke and his Gospel and his Book of Acts, the event of the Pentecostal empowering of the disciples is not about their own personal spirituality, conscience or assurance that they are right with God.   It is, however,  part of the journey that makes Easter proclamation possible.

I know this is how this event is taught and preached…we are encouraged to have a Pentecostal experience, to speak in tongues, to be ecstatic and that this is what defines the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.  Some of us may even remember with fondness that Nazarenes were often referred to as “noise-a-renes” since our tradition has been so influenced by Pentecostal fervor and forms of worship.  This chapter is used by all manner of folks to describe the type of experience we ought to have with God…all the while this event only happens here and nowhere else…it doesn’t even happen exactly like this again in the Book of Acts or in Paul…or any other book that might be in the Bible.

Our tradition has unfortunately linked this event to something we like to call sanctification.  We have taken Acts 2 as a paradigm or a model for what it means to be sanctified by God, set apart for his purpose and granted the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit…only us evangelical Baptist and Nazarene types like to leave out the speaking in tongues part that is strangely described as tongues of fire floating upon the disciples and filling up their very beings.  All the while, this passage says nothing of sanctification…the language that we find in other places of the NT to talk about sanctification is not in this passage even though we like to imagine that it is.   Not only does this passage not say anything about sanctification but it also says nothing about our personal spirituality as the goal of this event…the event that is described for many of us through the great hymn, “How the Fire Fell.”

Traditionally, all of these events: Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost, were are all closely celebrated together because they are all movements of one unified narrative, one unified story that is not complete one without the other.  By separating them on the calendar, which is understandable since we can’t celebrate everything the same day or the same week, we have unfortunately lost what Luke is doing with the this text and what Acts is doing by positioning this story in Chapter 2.  Pentecost is not about giving us a new sort of experience with God and it’s not even about just empowering us in our own personal spiritual lives.  Pentecost is about Easter because Pentecostal power happens in order for Easter proclamation to take place.  Pentecost does not offer us a model of Christian experience that should be prayed for and replicated by others…if offers us the story of why the Spirit came, how it came and what it came for!  Pentecost came to fulfill the words of Jesus, “It is written that Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations…YOU ARE MY WITNESSES.”  We are witnesses of what??  We are resurrection witnesses!  Pentecost happens and the spirit falls upon those that are still left under the shadow of the clouds of the Ascension so that those that saw these things, those that have been witnesses will be able to proclaim the resurrection!

Pentecost is exists so that Resurrection proclamation can occur!  In the Gospels, we do not see mass spreading of the stories of Jesus after his resurrection.  The community of faith keeps this reality to itself.  It sounds crazy, it can’t be, its impossible, the Jewish and Roman authorities are already suspect of those that used to follow this dead carpenter from Nazareth.  The resurrection gospel of Jesus Christ that now he has been raised and so too will your dead body be raised from its dead state and the wages of sin that Kill us all have now been broken is not being shared after the resurrection of Jesus in the Gospels!  Why?  Because they do not have the power, the unction, or the witnessing ability to do so.  They are stuck in fear, amazement, thankfulness, but lost about what to do now that the proof that Jesus is not dead has just ascended into the clouds.  Now who’s going to believe them?

Pentecost is the event that sets this faith in motion and empowers the disciples to take the Gospel to places it would have otherwise not reached.  Pentecost is an extension of Easter in that it is the event that enables the Easter proclamation to go forth into creation.  Its not about a new experience for me or you or the disciples, its about empowering our ability to proclaim what we have already experiencing by rushing into the tomb and finding it hollow and empty…the body of Jesus the Christ no longer there.  That’s why tongues of fire fall on us…so that we can proclaim nonsense with boldness!

If Pentecost is the power of God to proclaim the events of Easter to creation, then Pentecost is also marks the end of the world, the end times, the last days.  I know this is not a popular conception of what the last days is all about but if Pentecost is about proclaiming the resurrection of Christ…then it is about proclaiming this resurrection because the ends times is upon us..and there is nothing more ends times and eerie than the resurrection of Jesus.   That’s not normal and we need to quit making it normal.

Jesus came proclaiming that the KOG was about to break upon creation.  He came, along with John the Baptist, forgiving sins and telling people that his work was an extension of Gods signs that the end of the time and the renewal of creation were imminent.  Then, in a shocking turn of events Jesus is crucified and killed…yet something apocalyptic happens…Jesus is raised!  This was a common Jewish conception of the time that the last days would be marked by the resurrection of the dead and the church dared to proclaim that the last days had finally begun to occur in the very resurrection of Jesus, or what the Apostle Paul liked to proclaim as the “first fruits of the dead…” Jesus’ body being the first harvest of the pending collection of bodies that will be renewed…along with creation by God.  SO by virtue of Pentecostal tongues of fire falling on the disciples so that they might be witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost must then be interpreted by us as something that occurred in the last days…and so long as we continue to have faith in Jesus Christ we must believe and proclaim that we are living as an extension of those last days that began with the events of Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost.

But our text goes further to argue that the message of Jesus is a message for the last days…the last days being those that exist from the Ascension of Jesus until his pending return…After the tongues of fire fall on the disciples and a scene that is reminiscent of a theophany in the Old Testament: A scene characterized by wind, noise and fire…the kinds of elements that God likes to use when his Spirit shows up on the scence…we see that Peter even changes the text of the Prophet Joel to interpret this event as an end times event.   That’s right, Peter in his sermon doesn’t just quote Joel, he changes the text to interpret this event as the event that Joel was talking about…so let’s see interesting twist.

The crowd hears the commotion of the men who have been baptized by fire as John the Baptist warned and as Jesus instructed them to wait for.  The disciples have obviously come out of the room or the place in which they were waiting and they are proclaiming this resurrection reality of Jesus to Jews from all the known nations.  Typical of folks who don’t understand those filled with the Holy Spirit, and also typical of the way many Christians act, the crowd thinks that these men are drunk…even though it is only 9am.  In a shocking turn of events, Peter gets up and proclaims the Prophet Joel to explain to the crowd what is occurring.  Peter declares in Pentecostal power,

“This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: And it shall be in the last days, that I will pour out my spirit upon all mankind.  And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy and your young men shall see visions and you old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women I will in those days pour out my spirit and they shall prophesy.  And I will grant wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth beneath, blood and fire and vapor of smoke.  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon into blood before the great and glorious day of the Lord and everyone that calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Interestingly, Luke tells us that Peter has changed Joel in order to interpret these events as applicable to Jesus…this outpouring of God’s Spirit for Easter Proclamation is a mark of these last days…which means that the new creation has in some way begun in the fact that Jesus Body was made new and resurrected…the order of nature has been reversed and creation has begun to see newness and revival from the clutches of death!  In Joel, the passage does not start out “In the last days, it starts out… “And it will come about after this…”

What is the “after this” in Joel?  Well, if you go and read Joel 2 it’s a lot of destruction and judgment…only after all that will the last days enter…yet in Acts we see Luke interpreting Joel differently and the events of the Resurrection and Pentecostal proclamation are not something that are preceded or followed by destruction.  In fact, if you read Luke-Acts the opposite is the case…what lies ahead is not dreadful news of destruction but the good-news of forgiveness and repentance because Jesus has brought the end of time into our present through his resurrection and thereby extended forgiveness in which we too may also participate in this new creation!  (repeat) Now this is good news!  This is Gospel!  As one writer aptly stated it,

“In the context of Joel, this passage meant the salvation of Israel and the destruction of those nations that had oppressed it.  The surprise of Pentecost is that the eschatological last days do not bring destruction , but rather bring mission and redemption for the world!”

In Pentecost Jesus is coming good on his promise to empower them with speech that will allow them to be his witnesses and that when this event occurs it will simply be an extension of the last days that was already begun when God decided to resurrect Jesus from the place from which no one has ever returned before or since.  It is only the paranormal strange event of resurrection and the powerful falling of the Holy Spirit on silent disciples that can galvanize such bold and ridiculous proclamation to the world.  It is only by this power that Peter could get up and proclaim as he does to the crowd in Acts 2 this powerful prophetic utterance of Joel…because the last time we heard Peter speak in Luke-Acts he was busy denying Jesus to a servant girl!  Yes, I know Peter is the one that took the initiative to choose another disciple in Acts 1, but let’s not think for a minute that his urging of this is not to distract from his own failings of denying Jesus.  Only in comparison to Judas does Peter look good, and it is only the power of the Pentecostal spirit that can empower such a man to even think of proclaiming something he so easily dismissed just a few chapters back.

If Peter can experience Pentecost and tongues of fire that force him to speak that which he otherwise couldn’t  then I have goodnews for all of us!  Easter is not over…Easter is living!  Christ is risen and on this day we celebrate when the Spirit came to give us the ability to witness to the Christ event that has initiated those things we call the last days…that the last days actually take place in what most of us call ordinary time, ordinary life, life as usual!

So go and be witnesses!…leave this place with the same power of those tongues of fire…If Peter’s prophetic imagination can be reawakened…so can all of our denying of Jesus on this day be turned into a powerful witness of resurrection.  At Easter Jesus was resurrected from his tomb.  On Pentecost, we are , the Church is, resurrected from our/its tomb(s) with the power of Christ!

Go and witness to this power!   May the Spirit of Pentecostal Resurrection be with you all.  And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

 

 

 

 

Zizek reads the Bible: Thoughts on Incarnation

nietzsche quote/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter Hope is Paranormal Hope that our Bodies Matter

drybones

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

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

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

This Eastertide cannot be stopped.

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

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

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

These proclamations miss the point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My God My God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pope is NOT the Anti-Christ: Tips for reading Revelation

pope antichrist

Let’s get straight to the point: The Pope and his election has absolutely nothing to do with the end of the world. Further, this recent papal election has absolutely nothing to do with a pope that will become the ever allusive “antichrist.” If that’s how you read the book of Revelation, please close your Bibles… now open them and start again. Perhaps read the entire Old Testament before again trying to read the final book of the Bible…a book that is theologically predicated on not only the New Testament that precedes it, but also the theological motifs of the entire Hebrew Bible that precede the New Testament. If you haven’t done that, and Re-membered what you’ve read, then chances are Revelation will prove to be quite a conundrum.

I have some very simple reasons as to why I do not proffer nor correlate papal politics with the Book of Revelation. There is literally a litany of reasons. This blog would not be able to contain all the reasons for not reading the Book of Revelation in such a way that one would deduce the presumed prophetic facts that the Pope, and his hilly city of Rome, is the very larval environment from which a super-human known as Anti-Christ will emerge. Much finer minds and scholars have written entire books on how to read the book of Revelation in responsible ways; ways that do not primarily feed our bizarre appetite for destruction, but rather offer the world and the church hope in one the New Testament called the Christ.

I understand that it is en vogue, at least within conservative evangelical circles (and Baptist circles), to believe in the Rapture and to be able to “plainly” see this in the biblical text. Even in my own ministerial context, most folks polled would say “yes” if asked if they believe in a future rapture and “yes” they believe that Rome has something to do with the antichrist and the last days. The question is not one of whether many people believe something. Indeed if enough people believe something long enough then for them it becomes the truth, even if no one else shares that belief. Another way of saying it, we don’t know what we don’t know. The real question is whether such belief is warranted through biblical, historical, traditional, theological and philosophical grounds. I would contend that the idea of “rapture,” and then all the premillennial theological baggage associated therewith (such as popes and antichrists), is absent any viable reasons for believing in the system of interpretation that is required to hold such a worldview, let alone call it the Christian reading.

Before I give my reasons, let me first say that this will not answer all detractors nor will it seek to define in entirety all of the following concepts. The most common form of remainder will be in particular interpretive questions, such as the meaning associated with particular concepts with which rapture theorists have made their most hay. Concepts such as: the mark of the beast, the tribulation, the great whore of bablyon, white throne of judgment, the destruction of satan, etc. But let me be clear, under a responsible form of biblical interpretation all of these ideas will make sense and do have answers; they just won’t have the very “literal” answers that we are so used to receiving.

Let me further add that I am a recovering premillenialist. In other words, I used to believe that in some strange way the pope, Rome, and the antichrist were all intimate parts of the end of the world that would play out during a 7 year period…3 ½ of which would be very bad for people who did not love Jesus. Until I was 19, I was a card-carrying member of Tribulation Force Christians. I was raised on the ideas of John Hagee, Jack Van Impe, Hal Lindsey and your local evangelist who specialized in the Book of Revelation. I have heard more sermons on 1 Thessalonians and its rapture teaching than most folks could probably ever care to hear…but I loved them. I loved hearing those sermons. In fact, when I first began preaching I even preached the idea of “rapture” and all the dispensations associated with it on more than one occasion. Yet…these ideas also tormented me. I have been left behind, personally “left behind,” at least a half-dozen times.

So at 18 I started asking questions…questions to which those preachers whom I respected where unable to give sufficient answers. I still held to my childhood faith, the faith I was raised with, but the more I pondered and asked questions, rather than just believe something because some old guy told me this is how I was supposed to read the Bible…the more I began to be open to a different view of scripture. I was looking for a reading that made more sense and made the dark pages of Revelation less opaque.

I personally believe this quest was led by the Spirit. And after this quest, for the first time I was able to actually read Revelation not fearing its content, but actually allowing its words to feed my spirit in the present. It was no longer a word about future destruction; it became a word about present hope and grace in my life and the life of the world. For this I am thankful.

So here’s a little of what I have learned, why I don’t believe in the rapture as its usually taught, and therefore do not fear the new Latin Pope who will, according to some, be the very material appearance of the son of perdition.

First, Revelation is apocalyptic literature, which means it should be read as apocalyptic literature. In the Bible there are many literary forms: poetry, narrative, mythology, law code, history, letters, prophecy, gospel, apocalyptic, wisdom, etc. All these literary mediums are to be read in particular ways, ways consistent with that genre if we are to understand their messages. If we read all literary types the same we will find that nonsense begins to emerge.

For example, do we read the newspaper or online news articles the way we read a poem? Of course not. To do so would mean to miss the point of the poem or the prose. We understand that one is about conveying information and the other is about captivating our imaginations and reinterpreting our worlds. Both forms of communication are true; they mean something, but they communicate differently and with different intent. We know that HOW they are written matters…and we take this into consideration when reading them.

Another example, would we read a history book the way we read L. M Alcott’s Little Women? Of course not. One is a story in history that is fictional with freedom to create another world; the other is a non-fictional biased observation on events that have happened in the past. They both use words, both can be read “literally,” yet we know to read one like the other would confuse them and distort meaning.

Yet we do this ALL THE TIME with the Bible. We read every book like its every other book. We never consider that the wisdom literature is different from the exilic prophets or that the Gospel of Matthew is different than the Book of Revelation…and as a result we read Revelation incorrectly. Or worse, we do make distinctions but do so unconsciously and therefore unintentionally coming up with interpretations that may be totally foreign to the text we are reading. We come up with crazy ideas like popes, antichrists and beasts that arise from the ocean in some weird version of Alien vs. Predator. We do this because we are reading apocalyptic poetry like it’s a newspaper article or a Pauline letter. We do not approach it as a work of APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE and then attempt to interpret it. We approach it as a flat literal text that can be read like all the other books in the bible. Next time, write your sweetheart a love letter and tell her to read it the way you read this blog…see if she’s able to understand the medium of your words.

So Rule #1 about biblical interpretation: If you do not understand the genre type you are reading and how its medium of communication functions on a literary, and therefore, historical level, you will not understand much of scripture and you will continue to read INTO the Bible what you believe because of what you have been taught. The Bible will never become strange; it will never become new; you will always see the same Bible because you read all of the Bible the same way. So Rule #1: know what kind literary genre is being used and then read it in ways consistent with that genre…

This is one reason I can say without doubt that this Recent papal election has nothing to do with the end of the world.

Second, to read the Book of Revelation in a purely futuristic way…as a book that does NOTHING but tell us the future is to question the very reason it is incorporated into the Christian canon. I struggle to understand why, why, why, a book would be included in the Bible that was ABSOLUTELY USELESS to every Christian who has ever lived, and every Christian community that has ever believed Jesus was the Christ, until the present. In what way is the Book actually inspired if it was worthless to every reader until the present? I thought all scripture was inspired and worthy for instruction?? But when we say that this book tells us all the above about Iran and Russia and the Papal antichrist, we are saying exactly this…that the Book of Revelation was useless until OUR generation arrived on the scene. I wonder what the preacher did when he came to this text say in the year 400 or 1000 or 1530 or 1776?? Did communities simply say, “Well guys, the Book of Revelation is not for us…we don’t live in the last days, so we will refrain from using it as instruction for our Christian lives because we are not the ones who can understand it.” What would be the point in having a book lie dormant for nearly 1700 years in our Christian canon and how would it be inspired?

In fact, historically the opposite was the case. Communities have always used the Book of Revelation to describe their relationship to the world and Christ’s victory over the enemies of God. Augustine used it when Rome was sacked around 400, the Catholic Church used it around millennial fervor in 1000, Martin Luther used it as allegory to say that the Roman Church was the Great Whore (he thought HE was living in the last days), the Reformed used it as a book that helped them make sense of differing shades of Protestants in 1600 and the American Revolutionaries used it as a paradigm for interpreting their relationship with Great Britain…and this to name a few. This text has always been appropriated by believers as a source of hope and to orient the way they worship. It was not relegated for use by the ENLIGHTENED ones in the 21st century that would finally KNOW ALL THE ANSWERS.

We have to be some of the most prideful Bible readers to assume that all that came before us were idiots and now we have the answers…but that is what a Rapture belief does. It assumes that now we have the answers, we know why it is inspired and we are able to use it better than any other generation because we have acquired the right form of interpretive knowledge. Well, that sounds a lot like Gnosticism and it is not very holy, because holiness is not typified by self-righteous knowledge.

A further point here is that this Book of Revelation was historically a Letter to Seven Churches. Why would John write them a letter that was not really for them? Why write a letter to people, the contents of which would not be helpful as they engage the world? I think it much more likely that John wrote words to them that would empower them in their contexts and give them hope in Christ…and that the content of the letter, (as all letters we write to one another), would have been understood by its recipients. A letter written to people that would not be able to understand every detail and all its symbols, metaphors, etc., is a useless letter…both today and in the First Century. And if this is the case, we should not ask the question, “what does revelation mean for US here today?” before asking the primal question, ‘what did the Letter of Revelation mean to those Seven churches and what might that say about our present?”

So this is reason #2 I do not fear the new Latin pope is Spanish Antichrist spoken about in Revelation 26.66

Lastly, we must also understand that to read the Book of Revelation in a literal fashion and to do this under a premillennial paradigm is a VERY new Christian thing to do. In fact, there is no historically Christian warrant for reading Revelation in this way: raptures and trib forces and literal bottomless pits and all.

This idea was germinated in the thought of John Nelson Darby in the early 19th century. Darby did not have any formal theological training but a zeal for the work of the church. He was not the first to interpret history across time periods, but he was the first to develop an entire dispensational system from the biblical text. He interpreted all of scripture within what he called 7 “dispensations” or time periods of history. Each dispensation was a different epoch of history and linked with a unique covenantal event in scripture. He then read scripture as being revealed across these epochs. His reading of scripture was very literal and did not take into consideration literary, historical and canonical issues when reading the Bible.

His ideas were popularized by one Cyrus Scofield, an evangelical leader in North America who was won over to his ideas through Darby’s work in America. (Darby was British of Irish parents) Scofield published his own KJV reference bible and interpreted all of scripture in Darby’s dispensational way. His Reference Bible was the key to engraining dispensationalism in the evangelical psyche as its study notes were alongside the pages of scripture so that the pious believer could have easy reference to this interpretive system (you can still buy a Scofield Reference Bible at most bible retailers). It was published in 1909 and was widely used in churches and Bible schools. Though it was rarely used by Universities or seminaries it became the most influential bible in North America during the 20th century (a century begun by Pentecostal end times fervor if you will). This bible became so influential that it was the main source for resolving disputes or matters of interpretation across many areas and it remained popular among conservative Christians, evangelicals and Pentecostals. It is because so many folks read the Bible in the shadow of Darby and Scofield (none of which were academically trained or biblical scholars to any degree) that people read the book of Revelation literally and think that this recent papal foray is the foreshadowing event of Armageddon.

So let me say this another way: no one of Christian note, until Darby and Scofield, interpreted the Bible in a full blown dispensational way and worked out an entire system of interpretation predicated thereon. Not Jesus, Not Paul, Not Polycarp, Not Tertullian, Not Augustine, Not Aquinas, Not Gregory, Not Luther, Not Calvin, Not Arminius, Not Wesley, Not Whitfield, Not Edwards, etc., etc.,…NO Christian thinker prior to Darby would have understood anything Darby was doing with the Bible. It was not historically Christian, it was not biblically literate, it did not make philosophical sense, it disregarded the literary genres of scripture, it usurped a full version of inspiration…AND last but not least, it was a liberal modern reductionistic way of reading the Bible by harnessing all the mystery of divine text into a model or system that could contain its truth. Conservatives eat your heart out and hate modernity, but there is nothing more modern than the latter. The very ones who accuse liberals of reasoning away text have beaten the Bible to death with Reason…and yet claim to not use it in their interpretations.

These reasons do not even begin to scratch the surface of why I do not think that the recent Papal election has anything to do with the end of the world…meaning, I have not scratched the surface of why I don’t read Revelation as a literal book about literal future events. I could go on to talk about how interpreters of Revelation often pick and choose what texts are literal and what are to be understood symbolic…often making these decisions arbitrarily. I could go on to talk about how reading this book literally as a future map does nothing to edify the church or make Christians. I could go on to offer a liturgical critique, asking why so many modern readers who believe in this “rapture” and all the stuff that necessarily follows it…like concern of papal politics is missing entirely the general usage of the Book of Revelation as a book of prayer, praise and adoration. Some of our greatest hymns are found within its pages…I could go on…but I won’t.

When I come to the Revelation I read it for its beauty; I read it for is power and its promise; I read it and never cease to be amazed at how John gives us the story of God in Christ in such captivating ways that challenge our view of the world, of good and evil, of salvation and sin, of redemption and judgment. In short, I read it as a good word to us in the NOW and any interpretation that fails to demonstrate how scripture can be incarnated into the community of faith is an interpretation of which we should all be suspect.

So Popes, Vaticans, and hairy scorpion monsters come what may…The city on a hill from which evil is performed is always performed within the shadow of another hill in which evil was already defeated.