My Dead End on the Highway of Holiness

night_road higway

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

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

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

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

In short, the process works as such.

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

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

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

Enter my story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I called the Georgia District Superintendent.

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

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

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

That would be a false assumption.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had no idea where my life was going.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I took it and that was a mistake.

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

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

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

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

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

The District did not grant me that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking Tombstones & the Grave

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Graveyards, Tombstones…the speck of infinity wherein time has stopped.

Here one is able to notice an era of foregone lives and remembrance that is now only marked by stones that are too large to move and to irrelevant to demand attention.  Some stones have been pushed over, some broken in half; others have crumbled from the weight of patience and are slowly deteriorating one speck of dust at a time.

To use a reference from Catcher and the Rye, many even have red crayons on them…tribute of the one who chose to vandalize rather than respect the place where history was completed.

Whatever the cause, plight or age, these weathered stones and sunken grounds populate the landscapes of historic cemeteries and ancient church yards. They reside on hillsides long forgotten or beside sanctuary’s that no longer include them in worship.

There are very few well worn walkways.  Few hillsides with the ghost of Christmas present perceptibly known.  Gothic rod iron fences that envelope family plots now with missing gates…visible signs that not only can no one be kept out, but no one wants in.  The only sign of history is this stone; an anchor in time that refuses to let the yore swallow us whole without some scar on the earth.

Some stones are traditional, rectangular monuments that set upon the ground over top the breath now stolen from distant lungs.  They have rounded tops that slant down like a bell curve with a simple name, dates and perhaps a mention of their prodigy.  Usually one finds a monument with two names, one for each spouse, lives bound by time and not prevented to rest beside one another for eternity…the only thing connecting them…the shingling of their dates.

Other stones are more alluring and rousing, stones that are large obelisks that protrude from out of the ground.  These stones have triangular tops that point to the heavens, as if to direct the souls beneath them the direction of their flight.  They are perfectly square all around with large bases that are able to withstand the very best of Mother Nature, though upon seeing some of them worn it is clear who will eventually win this contest.

Others tombstones, from an age in which honor was bestowed upon the dead recognizing that they are the ones that shaped our present, are tall rounded projectiles wherein cloaks and tassels are carved out of the stone and draped over the marker.  It a sense of humanity wrapped in granite, importance signified by the perpetual wave of nothingness that is their life in the present memory of those who stand before them.

There is a distinctly eerie feeling associated with these stones, these inelastic monoliths that take on a lifelike portraiture of cloaking the one who no longer needs this cloak or these tassels…or the warmth of these cool reminders in time.

Who cares so much about their dead that they give such minute attention to the very stone that will serve no purpose but to rebuke time and demand this life be remembered?

And still others, have pictures of the deceased, old photographs that capture our senses and haunt our memory as we peer into a glimpse of one that is no longer with us; the Aryan blue eyes and blonde hair of an extinguished light that now imperceptibly stares at us through the stone.

We are our images…the stones simply remind us that beneath them is a picture we will never see…and it lies beneath the dates that are now etched into dense constitution of a stone that will one day be a testament to our world once our world and its people are gone.

On one I read, “Baby,” with statue of a stone lamb lying atop the memorial.  A reminder of a life dreams never had and families whose dreams have ended.

On another I read, “Rector,” and I think about the sermons this man preached, the souls with whom he prayed.  Now, he lies lonely…several yards away from the closest tomb and far from the prayers he most likely deserves on All Souls Day.

Surprisingly, I notice another, “Blessed are they that die young…” and at once I am saddened by this child erased from the timeline of history, but relieved of the hurt and pain of living in the world.

And then there are the stones, the markers, usually groups of them together in the oldest part of the cemetery that are nothing more than obscene fragments jutting from the ground.  They are raw deposits of raw jagged rock, raw markers of raw lives, whose very marking in raw and unsanctified stone is representative of lives buried beneath.  They remember those that lived for those that were actually living.  Their tombs are sealed by the rock that says nothing and looks as if it was torn from the side of the cliff and then driven into the ground.

I’ve walked up along these stones, ran my hand over their rough surface and asked the old man beside me, “who are these people?” and “When were they buried?”  On occasion its neighboring stone has become so dilapidated and ruined…that I’ve picked up the pieces still intact and placed those back where they belong.  There are many cemeteries filled with nothing but stones like this…testimonies of people who have been forgotten.

resaca

In Resaca, I walked in the penumbra of that Civil War battle where many are laid to rest.  I walked hallowed ground as I stare at names of soldiers now sunken in the earth.  I read the story of women who donated the land, buried the dead, and prayed for their families…I feel the heavy hearts that picked up shovels, opened the earth, and poured the bodies of dead young men into the ground as if watering the soil.

Bright eyed optimism met fear and reserve on ground not far from here…racing pulses and sweaty brows climbed the hills that rise above this cemetery…an indentation of the world where the deposit of aspirations now lie in respite.

The common denominator of these stones, their dwellings, is the telling of the stories that lay beneath them, over this ground, as this part of history closed its chapter and all its hopes, dreams, failure and accomplishments are buried beneath the unforgiving weight of the earth.

We stand before these deposits of human being and we peer through the mist that must have clouded the eyes of loved ones, of strangers saying “farewell.”

These monuments are touching, emblematic of a connection in time to one that shaped the world in which we live, the very landscape that now holds them taking shape by feet they placed upon it.  A lived experience that communities shared of dying young, growing old, and finding purpose…all as we live toward the direction of an earthen house that will mute our voices unless we are able to let a few of our dreams percolate to the surface.

These stones, these grounds, are testimonies of stories that stopped being told.

They are screaming reminders to not forget…to rehearse and retell of these people.  The great irony is that these people are not much unlike us.  We just find ourselves on a different part of the arch of history…and one day, our stones will scream too.

Let’s tell our stories so our stones aren’t left with such a heavy burden all alone.

 

 

 

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.

“I See Dead People”: Zombie Apocalypse or Resurrection of Jesus?

The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio, 1601-1602

The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio, 1601-1602

At the core of Christianity is a belief in the para-normal; there is nothing more para-normal than resurrection. Can we at least agree on this one point before you read the rest?

The recent craze over the “zombie apocalypse” has got nothing on dead people coming out of tombs.  Long before Woody Harrelson and “Zombieland,” is the Gospel of Matthew and its witness to the walking dead   These same dead people were not content to walk out of their tombs and look around, they actually walk into the city being passively revealed to mothers buying groceries, priests giving offerings and children playing in the streets without adult supervision. What a leery and smelly scene.   And believe it or not, if a person takes the resurrection seriously, as an event in time and, therefore an event in language, then the Entire New Testament is predicated on nothing more, and nothing less, than the paranormal. There you go, the Witch of Indor and a dead Samuel smack dab in middle of  your New Testament (figuratively speaking). You can thank me later.

The events that are witnessed to in Matthew 27 are not available to us. In this chapter, one is able to find the betrayal of Judas, Jesus before Pilate, his condemnation and mockery, the crucifixion, dead people walking (dead people who are not Jesus…Jesus rises in chapter 28) and his burial. We do not have the ability to ascertain its contents, its meaning, or its historical veracity.  Matthew, in true 2nd Temple resurrection theology fashion, tells of the holy ones rising from their graves and being revealed to many in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Matthew is the only Gospel that catalogues this very paranormal event.  If a person is looking to feed a peculiar paranormal fetish, quit watching TLC and read the Bible.

Yet Matthew gives us a unique picture of how disruptive the event of the death of Christ truly is…that in his very death surrounding graves in Jerusalem are opened and creation gives birth to a new space, a new time, a new set of rules, a new people who were once dead are very much not so dead. Resurrection is not a testimony of the norm; its a testimony that the para-norm has arrived and creation cannot be sewn back together along its perceived seems.

Resurrection is the very act of inscribing creation with the language of permanent aporia. It is a permanent strangeness that cannot be reduced to anything but anxiety and perplexity, a fond attraction of the strange that flavors our existence, both secular and sacred. Dialectical paradox has entered our ability to speak about the truth. What we thought was untrue has now happened, and what was untruth has become the truth. Creation has lost control of itself, its metaphysical rules and boundaries have been infringed upon through the very testimony of the impossible…making the impossible the new norm for a world of supposed possibilities that lie to us about their true boundaries and dictatorial control. To say that we believe in the resurrection of Jesus is to say that we believe in a new creation, where reality is re-construed, judgments are not so neatly Kantian, Hume is not so doggedly correct and scientific empiricism must bow at the feet of the irreproachably impossible possibility of “real” writing and existence. The Resurrection is not a belief in a historical “fact” as much as it is the Gospel statement that creation is not what it seems…there is an Other who is raised among us. For Christians, this other is Jesus…none other than the Word itself.

The Christ event, in its inception at the resurrection and in its concurrent reflection in the Gospels because of the kerygma of resurrection, is para-normal both in the sense that it is a reality alongside the normal…dependent upon the normal for a sort of analogy to make sense of its non-analogous testimony; and it is also paranormal in the sense that Jesus initiates some serious paranormal activity in his subsequent “appearances” in all the Gospels (except Mark where there are no post-resurrection appearances…but in John Jesus makes a Casper like appearance and even makes breakfast through the aporia that is his body) not the least of which is Matthew’s telling of dead people coming out of their graves. These stories are weird. We should not be used to them, but unfortunately they have lost their para-normal flavor because truly brilliant people are those who dismiss this paranormality with pretentious disdain rather than wrestle with what Resurrection is and how paranormal our lives really are.

What these events testify to is that resurrection is an event of ambiguous paranormality that sets the stage for a paranormal world in which our lives are predicated upon actions we did not chose, spoken to us by words we did not create and testified to us through stories we never told. This must be why modern people are so averse to reading these stories, since us liberal American and European types are so convinced of the ontology we possess through our mere choosing.

To believe in resurrection is not only to believe in the story of Jesus at a historical level, but it is to believe that embedded in a universal story of humanity is something that is beyond our grasping or comprehending, yet this something is equally normative of what makes us who we are, something that allows us to transcend our mere mortality. In other words, there’s more to us than what we see and there is certainly more to Christ than what one can know. The resurrection is the kergymatic utterance that we don’t control our words or our world…and the Ascension is the theological statement that such will forever be the case…the closer we get to understanding in the post-resurrection scenes of our lives, the further our attempts at harnessing creation float away.

If the Resurrection is able to make anything clear…it makes abundantly clear that our apprehension of reality and our relationship to what is “real” is vastly different than most folks imagine. The relationship between space and time, matter and the ethereal, sight and perception, experience and experience, are all blurred as the Gospel witnesses to a resurrection that not only must contain the physical body of the Christ, but in carrying the load of the Christ, it also carries our words about the Christ into uncharted territories. The Word that was made Flesh in John Chapter 1 has now been resurrected to a space that is not allowed to constrict our language or the description of the world that exists through our speaking. The Resurrection has to be more than a statement of raw “fact” about Jesus coming back to life. If that’s all it is, then that is pretty boring…thank you Apollonius and Honi the Circle drawer (google them). Instead, what the resurrection does is make a declarative statement about para-normal reality/activity and usher in an age in which anastasis is the sign of God’s present Kingdom, not a precursor to a stroll down the streets of gold. Anastasis happens IN creation, not outside of it.

Precariously enough, the resurrection is that singularly ambiguous and para-normal event upon which the New Testament rests, and subsequently, most Christian dogma produced thereafter has a flavor of para-normal reality. Visions of a victorious Christ, a blood laden final battle at Armageddon, a community meal that is the very essence of an absence of Jesus’ body and bodily fluids, and a testimony that darkness and light compete on opposing levels in a struggle for creation…these are all paranormal. They are not the content of life as “seen” or “verified” or even…”ex”-perienced on a daily basis, but they are generated out of a belief that the paranormal is an intimate part of creation that connects humanity to its ground in God…that there is something on the other side of the symbols that occupy our lives that continue to beckon us as we desire to connect to that which connects us to the world, yet it still unavailable to us. That science even claims to do this just means that many folks have bought the lie that they control the language. Resurrection, on the other hand, allows the paranormal to set the stage for mystery, ambiguity, and true anastasis…a reality above the static existence of perception and apprehension…and alongside of the “real” world reminding us that what is real is more than we know; its more than we see; and its more than we can control regardless of the specificity of our language or the logic of our ideas/ideology.

To believe in the resurrection of Jesus is to say that which we keep in the tombs of our worlds, thinking them dead and non-substantive, are the very things that are trying to free us from a life of such horrible certainty and the burden of believing you know everything. Even more so, it is to believe that the “nothing” that can’t happen and the “impossible” that is not available is the new “something” with which we must contend. As Lacan was apt to note, “We think where we are not, therefore we are where we do not think.” We are not what we are; we are not who we’re going to be; yet we move further from ourselves as we get impossibly closer to the place from which Resurrection comes/happens. This is why I believe in the resurrection, the paranormal movement of the New Testament, and a Christ that is nothing more, nor nothing less, than the paranormal Other who calls us into the Kingdom Of the “real” God.

Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?

Front Cover of Book

Front Cover of Book

On occassion I will also post reviews to ParanormalChrist…Here is the first of many installments.  This is a book review I wrote  and was published in Review and Expositor: A Baptist Consortium Theological Journal over James Dunn’s little monograph, “Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?”   This an edited and amended version so as to make my points, and the text, more clear.  I hope you enjoy this debate about First Century Christianity and New Testament.  But even more, I hope it deepens your faith and creates a passion for critical inquiry into the paranormal reality of the Christ.*

Here is a question that very few Christians ever get around to asking, “Did the first Christians worship Jesus?”  This may seem like a strange question upon many eyes and ears, yet it is one that has a diverse witness across the New Testament.  Jesus did not worship himself nor did he ever promote himself as an object of worship.  So at what point did the Christian church quit proclaiming the proclamation of Jesus, i.e., the “Kingdom of God” and start proclaiming, “Jesus is God so let’s worship him”? At what point did worship shift from being directed to the God of Jesus (as even Jesus taught), to worshipping Jesus as God?  What was the historical transition?  What was the role of Jesus in early Christian worship and how was devotion to Jesus understood in the very fluid context of the first century?  To these questions, James D. G. Dunn, attempts to provide some clarity using a text that is most near and dear to many practicing Christians: the New Testament.

In so doing, Dunn, who is a Pauline scholar by trade, resumes his recent scholarly forays into the tradition of Jesus in this fascinating discussion of early Jesus devotion.  Dunn has written extensively on the theology of Paul and early Christianity, proving himself to be well qualified for the delicate task of handling the content of Christian dogma.  As an addendum to his larger works, Jesus Remembered and Beginning from Jerusalem, Dunn is here focusing his attention directly to the topic of the worship of Jesus within the context of early Christian monotheistic convictions; the issues are many, and the questions difficult, but the result is a brief text with great implications for those who are not deterred by the very provocative title.

On the surface it would appear that the tradition of Jesus as God, and as an object of worship, would be the presumption of the New Testament authors, yet such is not necessarily the case.  Dunn asks at the outset, “Would Jesus himself have welcomed his being confessed as equal with God?”  In other words, did Jesus want to be worshiped?  He continues, “The way to an answer may be more difficult or challenging than at first appeared, and the answer to the question may be less straightforward than we like.”  Indeed, as Dunn will point out, an objective look at the New Testament is not uniform on this question and pluralistic approaches to Jesus devotion is the only singularity in this sacred text on Jesus.

In searching for an answer to the problem of Jesus devotion, Dunn structures his text around the topic of worship within the context of monotheistic belief.  If one is to understand whether or not Jesus was worshiped  one should first understand the various rubrics of worship within the first century.  So Dunn explores the idea of Jesus being worshiped by studying the means, and objects, through which early Christians worshipped.  Thus, the four chapters of the book are formed by Dunn’s understanding of what constitutes essential worship, and theistic persuasions, within the canonical witness of both Old and New Testaments.

First, he defines what worship is and secondly moves on to discuss the practices and sacred places of worship.  Thirdly, he explores the question of to whom worship was given or directed.  The final chapter examines the role of Jesus within these three areas of worship and explores in brief detail the New Testament witness on the matter. He concludes with a summary of the entire text and his findings.

A strength of Dunn’s investigation is his attempt to not only engage the New Testament text and its diverse witness on this subject, but it’s attempt to engage the text while maintaining constant dialogue with two of his theological contemporaries and New Testament authorities Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham.  Both of these scholars have also recently published monumental works on early Christianity and the tradition of Jesus.  The personal interaction between these three scholars proves as the larger academic conversation from which Dunn is working.  Through constant conversation with the New Testament, and his colleagues, Dunn notes areas of weakness and strengths across their various positions, offering an alternative approach to their conclusions when necessary.  At every turn, however, Dunn is gracious, even in disagreement

An unexpected strength of the text is Dunn’s erudite handling of orthodoxy and the history of early Church dogma.  He is comfortable using the Greek metaphysical language of the councils and offers insight into how these ancient formulations may cause more confusion than clarity.   He is aware that his results will have implications for how we understand historical doctrines such as the Trinity, and also how we understand various heresies, such as modalism.  With brief warning, Dunn points out that if we misidentify Jesus and his relationship to the Father, we could again fall into the trap of Modalism, a belief that the God of the Old Testament and Jesus is the same being.  This leads us to “Jesus-olatry,” turning the icon into an idol and fails to be consistent with the witness given to us in the New Testament.

For Dunn, the New Testament offers a range of meaning and images that the authors felt necessary to talk about Jesus and their devotion to him.  He ultimately concludes his book asking for reserve on the question of whether Jesus was worshipped and points his readers to embrace the New Testament concept of Jesus as a means through which worship is directed to God, rather than the object at which our worship stops.  For Dunn, this is the New Testament evidence summarized.

While many would read the title of this text and assume this is a scholar with an agenda, Dunn is really attempting to let the New Testament speak for itself on the matter of Jesus as an object of worship.  Dunn is not promoting any specific Protestant perspective, nor is he attempting to deconstruct Catholic orthodoxy.  The book is about seriously engaging the plurality of the New Testament witness on an area that is pivotal to contemporary Christian witness, faith and practice.  Thus, this is an excellent, concise and clearly written text for anyone who takes the bible critically and seriously…and wants to deepen their faith by more than emotional appeal.  And for all Christians who affirm the tradition of the priesthood of all believers, this book is important as we daily do ministry in the world and attempt to understand the role Jesus played in ancient worship and the role he must play for each of us as we offer praise to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit.

God of the ParanormalChrist: A Definition of Real

Graph of Lacan’s 3 primary registers: Real, Symbolic, Imaginary

I will frequently be using illusively symbolic language on this blog.  While many folks have an aversion to philosophical language, sometimes words like “being” “real” “truth” “virtue” simply can’t be defined in any plain, simple, way.  To do so is to tame them, domesticate them, and to trade in a thoughtful life for one that makes us comfortable, or what Plato would have called, “the unreflective life.”  Meaning, however, is lost in definition…just as paranormalchrist is here taking on a totally different meaning than popular parlance might suggest, so too some redefintion of terms is necessary at the origins of this blog.

One of the interesting terms I will employ is the term Real.  One should not misunderstand my usage of Real with what is ordinarily “real”.  In fact, what is ordinarily “real” is precisely not the Real that is guiding the ParanormalChrist.  It is not the real of ordinary usage of which religion and faith speak.  When one says “God is Real” this is not to confuse God with what we know of the “real” world; rather we are describing another paranormal form of reality…a REAL alongside what we live as real.  Religion and faith testify to “otherness” that profoundly shapes who we are.  We attempt to be in relation to such “otherness” via ritual expressions of faith…but we NEVER see the Real that initiates our liturgy; God is Real, but the Real God is never “found” or “harnessed”…so the rituals continue, the worship is endless, our bodies find brief connection with the Real through these things…but not really getting any closer to the reality that instigates the act or belief.  The Real is what stands behind the symbols, on the other side of the imaginary world built through symbols, but cannot be confused with those symbols.  So it is this Real, this primal Cause of our being, our speaking, our praying, that I wish to define.   I will define Real via the neo-Freudian reading of Lacan.

My usage is predominately taken from the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan (please see the menu link for contemporary Lacanian theory).  I make no claims to originality here.  But I find Lacan’s theory of how reality is structured via the psyche as the most probable way to speak about languages, and their byproducts: human relationality and the subsequent construct we call culture/soceity/religion, etc.  I will also give brief explanation as to how the idea of Real is also related to the concept of God.

The real is that which is unattainable.  It is the part of life that is no longer near due to ones introduction to the symbolic order via the imaginary.  However, the Real is always that which shapes one’s behavior and drive.  It is, to use an ancient philosophical symbol, the primal Mover of being, yet without being bound to the category of being.  It is an is that is not.  Thus, it is always located beyond being, yet near enough to being to impact it.  It is that which intrudes into our existence, almost without notice, yet non-localizable. It is the only part of existence that is unadulterated by the symbolic order.  Precariously, however, it is the Real that gives rise to the symbolic order.  It is that which needs to be signified, but that which always escapes signification in the process of discourse.  Its naming is its loss.

Lacan, in an interesting theoretical turn, equates that which needs to be signified as the subject’s lack (which is expressed in the subject’s desire to “fill-in” the gap of lack that is an inherent byproduct of using a universal medium language) to express a repressed desire that can never fully be attained because it is not fully present-able.  Hence, its presence is the incarnated forms of dreams, intonations, and slips.  In this respect, Lacan can talk about the Real in a fashion that is similar to the unconscious.

The unconscious is not Real; what is beneath it and resides therein IS.  The real, then, is that which is beyond and may exist and function on several planes.  It will be necessary to focus on the real as that which commences the drive, pursuing one in one’s quest to fill the gap of lack represented by the symbolic order; In other words, the Real commences the drive and quest for belief and faith.   The Real may be likened to an Nietzschen eternal return of repetition, wherein the drive continues to reel in the subject but the real of the drive is never found.  To use Mark Taylor’s language, one could say we are always after what’s Real, After God.  The drive perpetually returns to its secondary position creating substitutive objects (objet petit a) rather than catching the reel/real thing. It will be argued that this real is that which is not only beyond, but the place from which ultimate otherness arrives.  The place from which this comes is the unconscious.  The real, then, is the repressed unconscious reality that seeps outside the bounds of the psychic self and makes its invisible self visible…shaping our world.  The concept of Real gives representation to that which cannot be re-presented or presented.

In Christian grammar, this is not called real, but God.  God is the symbol that is used to represent what is beyond, but creatively brings one into the symbolic discourse of the subject.  It is the symbol that controls the grammar of lack as humanity searches for the bridge that never was.  The supreme example of a substitutive object that sits in the place for the real, that represents the lack,  pacifying our religious symptom is the Eucharist; the body we break without ever accessing the body…Sorry Aquinas.  For Lacan, however, God is unconscious, residing as the master of the “horrible house of truth” wherein signification is the true and only form of sovereignty.  And as such, only God is Real…and the real is God.  This sounds awefully familiar to a famous Bible verse in the Gospel of John, “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and what God was, the Word was” [my translation]  The Word is God, God is the Word…and the Real is because we speak, we speak because God is Real.