Back to the Future and Syria…some lessons we must unlearn

back-to-the-future

I’ll never forget one of the opening scenes in the movie Back to the Future.  Doc and Marty have gathered in a mall parking lot to experiment with Doc’s new time machine.  This is the setting for the first test run of a machine that will travel through time and space.  Einstein will be vindicated.

As Doc and Marty unload the Delorean and back it onto the pavement, Marty is recording the entire episode with one of those old school hand held vhs recorders (can you believe we used to haul those things around to capture a memory???)

Then, out of the corner of his eye, Doc sees something disturbing.  He notices a white van armed with heavy artillery machine guns careening in his direction…and at once, as the audience is still trying to figure out what’s happening, Doc yells with a squeaky high pitched tone, “The Libyans!”

Marty is lost.  Why should they care about Libyans?  Doc quickly explains that the time machine needs powerful fuel and the only fuel powerful enough for time travel in 1985 is plutonium…and Doc stole the plutonium from the Libyan Terrorists!

The Libyans crash into the scene shooting up Doc’s car and making Marty duck for cover.  Doc himself is caught in the fire and is presumed dead after being riddled with bullets.  Unbeknownst to Marty (and the audience) Doc isn’t really dead.  He had a silver try on his chest because he knew the Libyans would show up.

As the scene is coming to an end, the time machine eventually has a successful flight “back to the future,” Marty is left recording it all and the Libyans crash their van in a wreckage of fiery misplaced glory as they chase after the Delorean.

And that is how a generation of Americans were introduced to Libyans and Middle Easterners of similar ilk:  Terrorists who smuggle arms, money and chemicals on the black market. 

I vividly remember as a child of 7 years old watching Back to the Future the first time and having this very subtle impression lodged in my consciousness.

Some things never change.

Millions of Americans, if not a majority, continue to have a biased opinion against  Middle Eastern Islamic countries.  The images projected upon us in 1985 from Back to the Future have found a similar place in our collective geopolitical consciousness.  This despite the fact that millions of the same Americans have never visited these countries, lived with its people, studied it history or asked hard questions of our governments approach.

The contemporary hatred for Syria is a fine example of this stereotyping. 

Many steretypes exist around Syria and thinking its government to be akin to Nazi Germany or theocratic Iran has been fueled by the Bush Administration’s ability to turn Syria and Assad into a molten pariah and has been continued by Obama’s pathological desire to want regime change in Syria regardless of the geopolitical consequences.

Obama’s stance has been so hardened that it led him to declare what many of us remember as his “red line” if you will.  The Red Line was Obama’s arbitrary designation that prohibited Assad and his military from using chemical weapons in its war with Free Syrian Rebels.  If Assad used chemicals, then Obama would act with a swift military campaign.

In 2013, it was believed by the administration that that had in fact happened.  A series of attacks in March and April of that year were launched in a small village around the city of Aleppo.   Chemical weapons (a type of sarin gas) were deployed and at least 19 civilians, and 1 solider were killed while scores of others  suffered injuries.  The Obama administration was hot and it began to make preparations to neutralize Assad.

The attack was supposed to happen no later than September 2, but on August 31, 2013, Obama gave a press conference at the Rose Garden and announced the attack would be put on hold as he would seek the approval of Congress (even though he did not seek this same approval in Libya).

Long story short, it is now well known that the Al-Nusra front and the Turks both have the ability to make and proliferate the type of Sarin used in the attack at Aleppo.  Assad’s army did not have that type of Sarin at its disposal.  Obama was being punked, set up, in order to fight a proxy war for Turkey and the Rebels.  The Rebels had released the Sarin on civilians in order to induce an American attack.

Luckily, at the behest of the joint chiefs, the attack never occurred and Obama eventually wised up.  Though his neurotic Syrian policy remains the administration’s stance and few Americans know the truth about chemicals used in Syria…even fewer care to discover the truth as it is much easier to hate Syria than not fall victim to cultural group think.

As Americans, we should ask ourselves, “Should we allow images of Back to the Future and our government’s policy against Syria to be projected onto us?”  Should we embrace it?  Or might it be better to ask a few questions of the government many of us already distrust?

There are actually several reasons to not hate Syria and I would like to propose a few here.  The situation is complex and fraught with the danger of painting too broadly or not considering the many facets of discussion.   Nonetheless, a corrective step in our thinking about Syria is in order.

No doubt, the Assad family rose to power as the result of government take over.  Those are rarely pretty and they are rarely done without exacting causalities.  Bashir Assads father, Hafez, was a shrewd politician and came to power via the Corrective Revolution of 1970 as he took his Ba’ ath Party to power.    He arrested and imprisoned much of his opposition and appointed men of similar religious and political persuasion to positions of power in the new government.

What would result would be a police state and the president (a president by force if you will) was established as a national icon and allegiance to him (or at least not against him) was expected.  This is similar to many other Middle Eastern countries by the way.

There are several occasions of brutality and political maneuvering during Haffez’s presidency that would appall Americans.  Attempts to overthrow the government were the harshest offenses.  Those are well documented and you can search for them yourself.  Despite those attempts, the Assad’s have held onto Syria for nearly 50 years.  Hafez groomed his son Bashar to become president and Bashar has now been president since 2000 (the year his father died).

What I want to point out is not how we got here, but now that we are here how we might think more clearly about Syria and an Assad “regime.”

Is our current opinion and policy warranted?  Should we desire Assad’s ouster because of its historical trajectory or might the world be better off to support his presidency as Westerners even though we may wince at the political culture itself?

First, we should support Assad because he espouses religious toleration.  Anyone that replaces him, such as the folks that now run Iraq, Libya or Egypt, will not espouse religious toleration.

Assad is a member of a unique religious minority that is a mixture of Christian mysticism and Islamic practice.  He is an Alawite, a minority in Syria (less than 5% of the population) that has been persecuted and targeted by the larger Sunni presences for the majority of Syrian history.  As a religious minority and from a family that had experienced religious intoleration, Assad provided (and would provide) a safe space of Muslims, Christians and other minorities to practice their religion.  Syria is one the historical birth places of Christianity and the early church had a strong presence there.  There are convents in Syria that can be traced back to the 3rd and 4th centuries and these Christians, though a minority, have been free to live and practice their religion in Syria without persecution.

Likewise, Alawites, Druze, and Ismallis also experienced religious toleration.  To be sure, such was not the case at the beginning of the Corrective Revolution when suspicions were high of any religious expression that could usurp the new Alawite controlled government, but today toleration was the modus operandi.

If Assad is removed such will no longer be the case and we could see the eradication of minority religious sects, including Christianity, from Syria.

Second, Assad provides stability.

The largest point of contention during Bush’s administration was the proliferation of weaponry through Syria to Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations, in attacks upon Israel.  The previous administration felt as if Assad was not doing enough to control their borders and stop the trafficking of weaponry.

How times have changed.  With Isis active in the region, the issue is now just to get rid of Assad for the hell of it.  This administration has made no good argument to oust Assad except the false chemical narrative and to continue the narrative of Bush’s axis of evil.  With multiple examples of what attempting to inaugurate “democracy” in the Middle East has actually done, how is this argument still a good one?

Otherwise, why do we want him to leave when it is now clear that the rebellions in other Middle Eastern states have NOT produced the kind of democracy we had hoped?  Is anyone in the government so foolish as to think this is a rebellion of civilians against their government in search of a more democratic way?  In fact, the opposite has shown itself to be the case.  If Assad is deposed, mass instability will ensue into every facet of Syrian life, and the Syrian refugee crisis will disclose itself as the tip of the iceberg.

As Seymour Hersh states, “the so-called moderates had evaporated and the Free Syrian Army was a rump group stationed at an airbase in Turkey…The assessment was bleak: there was no viable moderate opposition to Assad and the US was arming extremists.”

We may not like a Syrian version of democracy, but is the alternative really that much better?

Third, Assad has cooperated militarily with our government even though the public is unaware.

The US and its allies have the best intelligence gathering agencies in the world.  Sryia does not.  However, in unauthorized protocol and communication, there is strong evidence to suggest that Sryia has cooperated with distributing military intelligence about the locations of Isis and Al-Nusra within Syria to the West and its ally in the east, Russia.  Further, Syria provided information about its capabilities and intentions through various military channels with the understanding that it would reach the US.  In exchange, the US military has also put out actionable information that it knew would reach Syria.

In addition, and despite our national amnesia, Syria has cooperated with the US under the Bush administration as well.  After 9/11, Assad was “extremely helpful” according to a former consultant in the intelligence community.  Seymour Hersh notes the extent of cooperation with the US after 9/11.

“In 2002 Assad authorized Syrian intelligence to turn over hundreds of internal files on the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Germany.  Later that year, Syrian intelligence foiled an attack by al-Qaida on the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and Assad agreed to provide the CIA with the name of a vital al-Qaida informant.  In violation of the agreement, the CIA contacted the informant directly; he rejected the approach and broke off relations with his Syrian handlers.  Assad also secretly turned over to the US relatives of Saddam Hussein who had sought refuge in Syria, and – like the Americans allies in Jordan, Egypt, Thailand and elsewhere- tortured suspected terrorists for the CIA in a Damascus Prison” (104-105)

Like Washington, Syria believes Isis must be stopped.  Yet we remain churlish toward their historical overtures.

Fourthly, countries we know that support extremism want him gone.

Some of these countries are our allies such as Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.  In fact, these countries have been conspiring with our own government to traffic weapons into Syria in order to exact regime change.  Why would we, as Americans, support the same regime change of a country with no evidence to ever suggest it  (Syria) is an existential threat to America when we have documented mountains of evidence that the few nations mentioned above support, fund and have provided haven to people who are hostile to America, the west and any other religion but their own?

There are existential threats but the Syrian government is hardly one of those.

Why would we be motivated to partner with the devil in order to get closer to the Anti-Christ?  Seems to me there’s much more at stake (money, ideology, silent promissory notes, etc.) that is driving this decision.

Why is the US not directing its attention toward these countries?  Why have we not stood on our moral high horse, our Reaganite “city on  a hill” and demanded more from our NATO pals?

It’s not that the US is not cozy with regimes.  We are very cozy with dictatorships that provide stability so long as we have a piece of the pie.  Due to our frigid rhetorical flourishes toward Syria we have not been allowed to share in any of the pie they distribute.

We are the quintessential bully of the world’s militaries:  We create fantastic narratives about how our violence is justified in order to hide from the reality of our misuse of power.  We pick on countries we know we can defeat while we sleep with countries that have our babies…even though they are cheating on us every second they get.

And like one of my seminary colleagues who served in the armed forces was apt to say: We have to have conflict.  If we don’t have conflict we cannot try out our weaponry, we do not know our full capability and the military cannot promote officers.  Conflict and American Militarism go hand in hand.

Lastly, I have experienced Syrian hospitality first hand.  In 2007 I was able to visit the belly of the beast, Damascus, and spend 4 days within the country’s borders. I visited sites that have been held by Isis such as Palmyra and I have seen the beauty of its people and its geography.  I walked in downtown Damascus and I honestly felt safer there than when I was in Israel, where it seems guns are everywhere in public.  The Syrian people were kind, informative, hospitable, and proud of their country.  I shared Q & A sessions with Christian Syrian doctors, was given a tour of the country by someone that is now a Syrian refugee who has endured hardships and relocated his family to Scandinavia, shared meals with Syrians proud of their heritage and enjoyed the stability of the Assad government when I was there learning as a student and Christian pastor.

I loved Syria when I was there.  I loved its people.  It has a special place in my heart and I wish I could share that experience with each American I come into contact with everyday because I know if we could have passed the peace with Syrians together there would be less hatred toward the country, more empathy for those lost in its war time tragedy and more understanding for a government that might not be our favorite but may be doing the best it can.

Thus, with this overture I ask you to reconsider your opinions on Syria, its government and to caste an opinion that is informed.  Study the situation.  Read some investigative journalism.  And by all means, think for yourself. Do not let your opinion be persuaded by Obama or Fox News…let it be persuaded by the sometimes ugly, and hard choice, that comes when we make decisions based on fact rather than feeling.

I know what we all learned from Back to the Future, but maybe it’s time to rethink that impression.

*The extended Hersh quote and other small quotes are taken from essays in his recently released, Seymour Hersh. The Killing of Osama Bin Laden. New York: Verso, 2016.

 

The Beauty of Love: Learning from Thomas Jay Oord

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As the events at Northwest Nazarene University continue to unravel in the coming weeks, I wanted to offer some positive words about my good friend Tom Oord, and perhaps introduce him to those who know the man of the books, but could also benefit from knowing the man behind them.

It was the year 2003 and I was a senior Religion major at Trevecca Nazarene University. I had worked hard, emerged from the cocoon of my theological raising, and spent the last 4 years of my life preparing for ministry. For my efforts, the Religion  Dept at TNU granted me the Systematic Theology Award for my graduating class. We had lots of smart folks in my class that year, folks whom I highly respect, so getting this award was a surprise even as it was an affirmation of how hard I had worked, how much I had read and the newly assimilated theology I was beginning to develop.

The award didn’t grant a person much, just bragging rights and a piece of paper with my theology professor’s signature (Dr. Henry Spaulding, now president of Mount Vernon Nazarene University). It also included a 25$ gift card to Cokesbury bookstore in downtown Nashville. My four years at TNU taught me to love books…making this 25$ almost as awesome as the award itself.

I’ll never forget the book I bought.

I perused the shelves and looked at all the textual options until I came across a book edited by a fellow Nazarene, a scholar with whom I had only began to become acquainted in my studies at TNU. The book was Tom Oord’s dual editorial with Bryan P. Stone, Thy Name and Nature is Love: Wesleyan and Process Theologies in Dialogue. This book absolutely peeked my interest. I had begun to really appreciate process theology at the time (at least as much as an undergrad religion major could) and was definitely interested in seeing how my Wesleyan roots might connect with this more progressive theological movement that placed a heavy emphasis on God’s relationship with creation, rather than God’s relationship above or in juxtaposition to it.

Tom’s article “A Process Wesleyan Theodicy: Freedom, Embodiment, and The Almighty God,” radically shaped the way I thought about Theodicy, a theme that was very important in his earlier work and continues to echo in his more direct explorations of Love. One could argue that this early essay is an issue that continues to motivate Tom as he continues to think about things like sin, death, evil, salvation and freedom in light of God’s name and nature of holy love.

As a young theology student I was really struggling with ideas central to the idea of God and our doctrine of such. One thing I came out of TNU clearly convinced of: classical theism and Greek Metaphysical theologies couched in the Bible didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I needed something more and I needed it to be more biblical and more Wesleyan.

Tom gave that to me.

He talked about how we as creatures are free and that God does not over-ride our freedom even to perform God’s will. He discussed the nature of evil and how God wishes to deal with evil through the almighty persuasion of human bodies to shape history and proclaim God’s goodness. The concept of “indirect bodily impact,” that God chooses to shape the world through us, not in spite of us, made a lot of sense methodologically and it was consistent with the ideas that God is holy, God is love, and we as creatures are free.

Most indicting in this essay is when Tom is busy being a great teacher and delineating differences of various theodicy’s employed in the church. Once he outlined multiple ways of talking about God’s absolute power in relation to conditional evil in the world, he gets to the crux of the matter. We can’t talk about God as being all-powerful in the traditional way of understanding that statement without God in some way being culpable for evil that God could otherwise prevent. If God is a God of perfect love, and that love is in some way intelligible, we must be able to speak in some way positively about that perfect love. He says it like this, “Because the God of accidental free-will theism fails to override or withdraw the freedom of such perpetrators, attributing perfect love to this God seems implausible.”

In other words, to have the power to prevent evil, and then not prevent it, makes one culpable for the action…and its hard to ascribe that sort of willful declension as loving.

He goes on to argue that God is not culpable for evil because God allows the world to be free and such freedom cannot be over-ridden by God. Thus God’s power must be understood in ways that are more relational and not coercive. This is where divine persuasion and love comes into the mix and Tom speaks of how scripture demonstrates to us God’s loving insistence to persuade humans to act, rather than coerce them to do. (a take that is also empirically verified in our daily lives)

This theodicy has proven indispensible to me as a Wesleyan thinker and pastor because it takes serious our Wesleyan insistence that God is love and God is relational…and that holiness is located in a relational holiness between God, world and others. Tom is simply trying to make theological and philosophical sense of how that might best work in a way that is methodologically responsible and also avoid creating a bastard theological hybrid between Wesleyanism and Calvinism, a marriage that never did make pretty babies.

In 2004, at the Wesleyan Theological Society’ meeting in Seattle, I met Tom Oord for the first time. I asked him some questions about this essay. He didn’t know me from Adam, but I remember the hospitality with which he engaged me and took me seriously. I followed that meeting up with emails and Tom always gave me thorough responses. He treated me as if I was one of his students, not the alum of a sister institution for which he had no time.

Since this first essay and meeting with Tom, I have learned that Tom is second to none in his support of young scholars in our tradition.

In 2009, I gave a paper at WTS in the science and theology section. Tom Oord was the head of that section and accepted my paper for presentation. Later in 2009, over some science and freedom discussions, Tom sent me a complimentary copy of his book Creation Made Free. The only caveat was he asked I write a review and get it published. I did so and that review appeared in the Review and Expositor: A Baptist Consortium Journal that same year. In 2011, I attended the Bible Tells Me So conference in Nampa, ID. After the conference, I noticed the intended publication from that conference did not include a particular essay that I found profoundly important on the relationship between the Academy and the Church. I wrote Tom. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes, but the essay was included in the final text. Later in 2011, I told Tom a fellow pastor and myself were going to read his text Defining Love. He sent me two copies, both signed, and even asked how the study went. In 2012, I asked Tom about proposing a paper on Arminius and Inter-religious Dialogue at the upcoming WTS in Nashville. I also wanted to get it published in the WTJ. After inquiring with Tom, he encouraged me to propose the paper, that it had a good chance of publication. In 2013, my first WTJ article appeared in the Spring 2013 Issue. And lastly, when I was applying to do Phd at Emory, Tom spent 45 minutes with me on the phone discussing a career in the academy.

Had it not been for Tom Oord, there is much I would not have learned from his multiple books, but there are also many chances I would not have been given in our tradition. Without his help, the doors of Wesleyan academia would probably have remained shut to me.

My seminary degree was done at a Bapstist institution. I have had multiple chances to publish in print and online, give papers and be a part of projects through my Baptist connections. I have had zero opportunity in my own tradition, except what has been granted by the hospitality of Tom Oord, the gifts he saw in me and the gift of his friendship. I never had him as a professor, but he has worked with me as if I was one of his students.

Our tradition needs teachers like Tom Oord.

We need scholars that provide us with a broad theological landscape and challenge us to think through our ideas not just with our existing ideas. We need scholars that will drop the proverbial Barthian Bomb on our theological playground and equip us with the tools to engage the world with responsible and mature reflection. We need teachers with whom we may not always agree, because in disagreeing, we may be given a stronger intellect if it leads to a more thorough discovery of the weaknesses of our position. We need folks like Tom Oord that aren’t content to just give us buzz words and pledge allegiance to the old guard, but really believe our theology of holy love is worth doing…but it must be done right and without trite. And lastly, we need scholars like Tom who will stand beside young scholars, encourage, equip and give them the opportunities they need to be the future teachers of the church…teachers who aren’t worried about the good ole boy Wesleyan or Nazarene club but sincerely want to shape the future through influencing young scholars.

I am thankful for the decade long history I have with Tom Oord. He has shaped me in ways he’ll never know…but I do know I am simply one among many to have been changed by his life and work.

I am thankful for the ministry and academics of Tom Oord. I am thankful for his friendship. And I am thankful for what is happening on NNU’s campus as some of the steps of recent days are being reconsidered. The truth is, despite everyone being worried about Tom’s future, the real future we should be worried about is ours. Administrations may think they are doing Tom a favor if they let him keep his post, but the reality is, We, our tradition, need Tom…perhaps even more than he needs us.

So Tom, thank you for who you are, what you stand for and all you do. Your efforts have not returned void.

God is a Dumb Idea

zappas quote

It is fashionable nowadays to hate on Christianity and theology.

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

SMDH.

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

As if contrarianism is the new sign of intelligence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex is Divine: Zizek, Jayadeva and the radicality of Incarnation

Jayadeva

When the falsely innocent Christlike figure of pure suffering and sacrifice for oursake 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.

 

Wondrous dwarf, when you cheat demon Bali with side steps

Water falls from your lotus toenails to purify creatures.

You take form as a Dwarf, Krishna.

Triumph, Hari, Lord of the World.

 

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.  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.  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.  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?

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.  The divine has always been playing games that have not limited their play to the fertile crescent.  Jayadeva also plays similar games of violation and psychologically twisted debtful obligation.

I will argue below that by reading the incarnation through the work of Zizek and Jayadeva, one is left with the incarnation as a sexual ethic that is embodied between two people.

Zizek argues for the end of the incarnation as a transcendent referent and for a more embodied discourse that takes on the Pauline insistence of ethical living.  Jayadeva makes very clear that the incarnation is the articulation encounter one has had with the Big Other (read God) that typically occurs under the auspices of a sexual encounter.  While the encounter that Jayadeva describes is thoroughgoing sexual, one needs to penetrate beneath the sexuality to the core that pushes the encounter to occur in the first place.  This is known as the drive or Freud’s Trieb, even though this methodology may be a trifle anachronistic (we all read from somewhere).

The trieb is not only the locale that cannot be localized, it is also the thing deep within oneself that longs for the fulfillment and rest that can only occur, according to Jayadeva, in the encounter with Hari.  When the trieb is left empty, it is sorrowful and lacking.  It is the mourning Rada.  The body demonstrates outward signs of mourning, until the Divine, or Hari, once again comes home from wandering and offers a temporary place of rest.  Then the ankle bracelets may resume their ringing, though briefly.

Jayadeva unmistakably articulates the necessity of sexuality for human being/becoming in relation to the divine, particularly as that experience that is best known as jouissance, or painfully pleasurable arrival…or what most Christians call heaven.  Thus, the incarnation is a sexual ethic that is to be lived between people, between two subjects that might not know one another exist.  This is evident in the amount of failed relationships that occur, not because love and sexuality is not present, but because an incarnated sexual ethic is not embodied.  If Jayadeva were writing/righting today, perhaps he would suggest that the only Big Other (read Lacanian sense of Other that is not oneself i.e., structure of language, trauma, or the feminine) that is left is the other of the person.

For Zizek, questions of divine culpability go to the heart of the Christian God.[3]  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.  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?”

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, 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, 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.

Yet, Zizek writes, “Christ is not the contingent material embodiment of the superasensible God: his “divine” dimension is reduced to the aura of pure Schein.”

The Incarnation, therefore, is a statement about the end of transcendence into immanent transcendence 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.  In turn, Zizek argues, this freedom from the excess of looking for the THING that is present in Jesus allows a person to love and act ethically.

What is most important in the incarnation, therefore, is the possibility to embody agape and to act in loving ways toward the opposite sex, abolishing all sexual barriers.  The power of the incarnation to release one from metaphysical whims produces a reality wherein there is no Jew, nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.  No wonder the “Christ was a traumatic scandal.”

Zizek offers readers an alternative reading of the incarnation.  In so doing, 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 (us) with us.  Jayadeva will finalize this embodiment for us.

While Zizek and Jayadeva could be juxtaposed,  together they provide a coherent synthesis and ground upon which incarnation can be expanded to the embodiment of a sexual ethic.

This essay began with the quote, “You take form as a Dwarf, Krishna.”

Krishna, like Jesus, is an embodiment of something.  Both are individuals that come from elsewhere.  Both are individuals that interact with humans and seek to satisfy the excess of the human quest for the place from which Krishna and Jesus come.  Krishna is the coming of the THING.  Unlike much of Christian tradition that places a Law between the THING and the person, Jayadeva is the wall effacer.  There are no restrictions in Jayadeva that could prohibit the person from experiencing the THING of God, except God’s wandering ways and lustful lies.  Jayadeva wants to make St. Teresa’s “coming” a reality, but in so doing one realizes that one cannot really “come” because Hari is never always there, he is always already never there when he is there.

 

When Hari and Rada are together, their experience is beatific and mystical, yet, it is one that does not last.  It leaves both Rada, and Hari (even erstwhile he is promiscuous) wanting for more.  If they had found fulfillment in one another, then the trieb of Hari would be of no consequence.  One cannot help but notice as the poem moves that Hari must be dreaming of others, which he does in fact pursue, “The wondrous mystery of Krishna’s sexual play in Brindaban forest IS Jayadeva’s song.  Let its celebration spread Krishna’s favors.  At the end, however, Krishna exclaims, “Glance at me and end my passion’s despair.”

The poem may be read as the story of unquenchable desire that simply exhausts the ability of the other to end passion whatsoever, particularly the passion of the god’s.  Who/what, after all, can quench a divine libido?

Therefore, one is left with an incarnation of Jayadeva as linguistic explanation after the encounter one has with God or one can argue that the incarnation is the ethic that is not expressed in Jayadeva, thus reading against the texts sexual obtuseness, while at the same time reading with it.  If the incarnation allows for a real ethic, as proclaimed by Zizek, this ethic must look different than is described in Jayadeva, particularly in that Zizek challenges Jayadeva’s insistence on questing after the suppression of passion by attaining the THING, Krishna, God, one’s rest!

If Jesus as incarnation is the power to free one from the excess of trauma, than what does this say about being free from the traumatic effects of the relationships the gods have with people, particularly Rhada?

Reading Zizek alongside of Jayadeva indicts the Gitogavinda for its sexual hierarchy, yet it does locate the place of heaven and incarnation as being between two peoples in sexual encounter.  The sexual encounter is brief and simply complex, but the insistence on its placement in the development of Krishna as a God, and Rhada as the subject receiving the impalement, testifies to the inability to fully describe a REAL sexual encounter, one that is ethically responsible and fulfilling for both parties regardless of the passions that are quenched.  The dialectic is that the moment initiates more moments in hopes of finding the real one.  Rhada and Krisha fall together, they fall apart and then back together again, but they never arrive.  Zizek, however, suggests that this arrival is already here making the journey null and void.

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking of Noah

 

Noah

There is nothing that intersects Church and Culture as much as a Hollywood portrayal of a beloved Bible story. The reactions to the recently released Paramount Pictures film Noah has continued to prove this true.

Upon hearing of the proposed production of the film many Christians preemptively began to be suspicious, simultaneously anticipating its release but perilously curious to see how Hollywood might butcher their Vacation Bible School themes of old. A tight lid was kept on the film and there was little information about the film online until its release. Since then, the cultural noise coming from Christian critics and defenders alike has come to deafening levels.

Yet despite a haze of persuasive Christian personalities pleading with their constituents to avoid the picture, the film has had a strong showing at the box office; it’s as if the critics are having the opposite effect of their intent and theaters continued to be packed for the film even after pleas of abstention.

In its first weekend Noah grossed $44 million dollars in the US and had an International gross of $51 million. In Russia, the film grossed $17 million becoming the best release ever for a non-sequel film. For a film that cost $130 million to make, it was well on its way.

By its second weekend at the box office Noah has eclipsed the $100 million dollar mark and set box opening box office records in several countries such as Brazil, Germany and Peru. Italy, France and Japanese markets open to the film this coming weekend.

This strong showing has not assuaged the dismissals of many Christians. Before people have even seen the film they are relying on their trusted cultural voices to guide their viewing decisions. In a land where people prize liberty, freedom and personal choice, many Christians are glad to let their trusted prophets decide for them.

But many of the criticisms have nothing to do with the quality of the story or the imagination of the directors. Even picking on the CGI seems like a stretch to me, especially if these viewers enjoyed Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.  The criticisms seem to universally focus on its portrayal of the “actual” flood narrative and the misconstrual of characters such as Noah, especially since the Bible is crystal clear about the personality traits of Noah (tongue in cheek*).

To add further insult to injury, many people and beloved bible teachers can’t help but illustrate their extreme biblical and Judeo-Christian tradition illiteracy by attacking characters such as the “Watchers” and the story-line of animosity between Noah and the leader of the cities of Cain.  These characters are not wholesale creations but are an intimate part of apocalyptic Jewish tradition.

For example, the Watchers are embedded in Jewish tradition and extra-canonical texts such as The Book of Watchers via the tradition of Enoch, The book of Jubilees and even the Book of the Giants. They do indeed function as precarious figures who not only teach humanity metallurgy and the like, but also tempt them to sin and evil. But their role in the tradition is firm and poignant.
As for the animosity between the Line of Seth (Noah) and the lineage of Cain, this has long been an interpretation within Jewish Midrashic and Christian attempts to make sense of language that occurs in Genesis referring to “sons of God” and “daughters of man.” While many contemporary Christians make fools of themselves thinking this refers to literal angelic beings, our forbearers knew something else must be done here. This language was interpreted as referring to the two lineages that oppose one another in the film: Seth’s line being the sons of god and Cain’s line being the daughters of men.

What this all points to is not a freelance corruption of the biblical story but an imaginative portrayal utilizing biblical and Jewish traditions to continue telling the story of Noah in uniquely compelling ways. Christians have issue with this imagination, but even within our own Christian tradition Noah was rarely interpreted as a literal event that must be adhered to and retold with narratival integrity. Early Christian interpreters did not see the story of Noah as a literal tale of God’s righteous anger and sadistic justice but as a foreshadowing of Christ.

Following a Christian allegorical representation, the story of Noah foreshadows that righteousness is expected by Christ. Noah is the Christ figure that represents life. The flood is not about literal destruction, but about salvation from death via Christ. The ark is understood as the Church, outside of which there is no salvation. The over indulgence of Noah after the flood which leads to his drunken stupor is read as an allusion to the Eucharist, or thanksgiving, that Christians commemorate when we give thanks and break bread rehearsing one history’s more fateful evenings.

Yet the movies critics persistently bloviate over theological content rather than cinematic presentation. The argument, if there is one, is to be had over the latter, not the former.

The film is being levied as “pagan” with “cultic” keynotes.  Some Christian viewers say that it is an entirely fabricated narrative with little resemblance to how the flood really happened. Other criticisms make fun of the character of the Watchers as unbiblical and more akin to Lord of the Rings than the Bible. Shades of the following are also surfacing: the movie has little character development, God is not the central character, Noah is portrayed as a madman, evolution is being promoted, the movie deviates from the biblical narrative, and the producer is an atheist Jew.

These criticisms are being broadcast on every imaginable form of media and countless people have already found Noah guilty of biblical heresy. For them, this movie is nothing more than something else to stand against, a cultural perversion of God’s Word, even while folks all around are engaging this film and perhaps turning to the pages of Genesis for the first time.

Christians pray for occasions to share their faith and talk about scripture with others, but on this account many are passing up that opportunity…an opportunity to not only dialogue with others but to also dig into their tradition and learn.

It is true that the film takes great liberty to develop and create an entertaining narrative, but who can blame the producers?
The Genesis account of the flood is very sparse and there is little to no character development of Noah, his family or even God for that matter. Read the chapters. You will be surprised how many holes in the story Christians have filled with their imaginations instead of staying strictly to what the bible says. If we want to blame the movie for being sparse on biblical details, blame the exilic editors of the material for not giving us any.

What would a movie being “true” to a verse by verse account of this story even look like? Not even Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ followed a verse by verse literal account of the Passion of Jesus and Christians loved that film.

One obvious example is that in the Bible Noah only speaks one time, once! Not exactly what we need from a main protagonist. Yet we act as if we’ve had conversations with him and know him personally. And that one time is when he curses Ham for coming upon his “nakedness” while he is passed out from the fruit of his vineyard after the flood subsides. This curse is the narrative explanation for why the Canaanites are not true heirs of Gods Covenant with Abraham (to be introduced in Genesis 12) and also sets the stage for the Deuteronomic conquests that will comprise large parts of the books of Joshua and Judges.

So Noah gets one sentence in his biblical role and it’s a curse. Not exactly encouraging.

In the movie, Noah never curses his sons and this scene acts as a point of reconciliation for the family. In the film, Noah speaks often, cares about creation, and is a man that loves his family but also vigilantly wants to do God’s will. Sure he has character flaws and we don’t like what we see but this is the producer’s way of making Noah human and articulating our frail humanity in the face of momentously impossible divine callings.

Noah has passions and passions scare the hell out of people without them.

The actual story of Noah in the Bible begs many questions that the text simply doesn’t answer, but which the producer addresses with creativity. Questions such as the following are imaginatively portrayed:

Where did Noah get the wood for the ark? How did he build it? Did anyone try to stop him? What did his family feel during this time? How did the animals arrive? How did the animals ride passively in this ark? Did Noah ever have doubts? How did Noah see the world? What sorts of evil was the world doing? How did the flood start? Where other biblical characters alive and did he interact with them? Did God verbally talk to Noah or is God silent like he is for many of us?

The movies importance is not found in these unique and inconsequential questions, however. The power comes from the themes the movie introduces, themes that get to the core of faith.

noah praying

Have you ever wrestled with your calling and longed for discernment? Noah does too.

Have you ever been compelled by a calling you can never see, just feel? Noah does too.

Have you ever thought about the nature of judgment? So does Noah.

Have you ever thought about how God’s judging might also appear evil? So does Noah’s family.

Have you ever been asked how you’ll do what you’ve been called to do, only to respond, “I am not alone!” So does Noah.

Have you ever thought about your own complicity in the sin and evil of the world? So does Noah.

Have you ever thought about what grace and mercy looks like? Noah begs this question.

Have you ever questioned the character of God? The movie is implicit with theology here.

And unlike critics would have you believe, God is not absent in this film; God is the unseen character driving the plot and these questions stubbornly arise from this film to challenge our faith if we will let it.

Yes, the film takes creative liberties, but the core idea that the world is evil, has turned from its Creator and must now be judged via a great deluge is present.  Further, the film is not whimsical so much as it  taps into the deep roots of Judeo-Christian tradition via the Watchers, the animosity of lineages and even the role of Methusaleh.  Doing some homework would do the blogosphere, and many pulpits, a lot of good.

If we have a problem with the “myth” of the movie, perhaps we really have a problem with our own myths.

For all the banter being leveled against the film it appears that there remains not only a huge cultural interest in the film and its message, but also global interest in religious ideas linked to the bestselling book of all time: the Bible. Such interest and attention needs to be embraced by followers of Jesus, not dismissed because of a faulty perception of how biblical stories must look on the big screen by people who are less than qualified to pass such judgments. If we want something to generate conversation across cultural and religious boundaries here is our chance.

In a context in which the church is becoming increasingly irrelevant for a flood of reasons (pun intended), the church should seize this opportunity to engage discussion about faith with many people who would usually be less than interested. We should seize this time to discuss faith and culture, Christ and context, old stories and the new ones we are creating via our lives.

For a rare time in our culture people are talking about the Bible. This is a good thing.

Let’s make sure we’re joining the conversation without our feet in our mouths.

Be Free in Christ, Ditch the Rules

Joy of living

“One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ.” –Luther

And Jesus said to the masses, “Come to me all ye who are weary and heavy laden…and be introduced to my list of rules.” (Matthew 11.28)

This is the Gospel in modern day America or at least in the conservative South.

Long have we left behind a love for the Word of God, and its many revelatory moments, and shortly have we embraced a Gospel of “do this” and “do that” if you want to be Christian.

Tragically, we may have never even heard the word of God because we have been too busy hearing our own words as the Word of God.

It’s funny actually…thinking we are reading words that tell us God’s Word and only seeing ourselves.  Silly humans who think they believe in Jesus when they really just believe in themselves.

As a kid I grew up in a very conservative bible believing Church.  I was weaned on sermons of the Premillenial Return of Jesus, a church full of backsliding Christians, and mandatory monthly salvation experiences because the sanctification we failed to fully receive last month didn’t quite stick.

The hermeneutic that was employed was largely a very literal reading of the Bible.

The dictum, “the bible says, I believe it, that settles it” would have fit in well.

Far be it from many of them that the bible only says what it says because they were reading it from a particular historical and ideological bend.  I digress.

Even in this setting, it was never blatantly stated, “Come and receive Jesus into your heart and then receive his rules to make sure he stays in your heart.”

This wasn’t spoken, but this was the assumption.

People were not “saved” to freedom.  They were actually “saved” from the bondage of themselves to the bondage of Christ, which ironically often turned into bondage to themselves.

Far be it from all those preachers that St. Augustine had one day said, “Love God and do what you please.”

The Gospel was a call for bondage disguised in a call for freedom.  Only after accepting this Gospel was one plagued with the burden of performing it.  It was sustained by our actions, as if our actions maintained its legitimacy in our lives.

We were invited to altars to be “saved” and we were invoked to “let Jesus into our heart” and after that prayer was prayed we were then introduced to a Christ whose yoke was not easy, whose burden did not give rest and whose eyes were constantly judging our every move.

Where exactly had the goodnews gone?

Was the goodnews, the Gospel, the eventual hope in heaven?  Cause we all knew the bad news, the bad news that by accepting Christ’s salvation we just accepted his rules and became subject to his chastisement and the chastisement of those who “love” him.

The Gospel could inversely be titled, “Get Saved, Get Rules” or to paraphrase a famous hymn, “All things are ready come to the rules…”  Nevermind the feast that only includes Welch’s grape juice.

At least Jesus has been working on a rule book since the Ascension and is preparing that place for us.

At this point, Slavoj Zizek is right.  When Christ asks us for nothing he is really asking us for our everything…he is not asking us to be free…he is asking us to be a slave without real freedom, not even freedom in Christ.  Freedom in Christ functions as a smoke screen to take away the liberty of salvation.

How in the world has the Gospel been reduced to this…to a simple list of rules and held hostage by a faith more dependent on our faithfulness to a fabricated ethic than the faithfulness of Christ?

Why have we preferred the list of Paul’s rules for his robust theology of justification, love, redemption incarnation and resurrection?   Shouldn’t we attempt to understand these ideas so we might better understand any ethical guidance since theological affirmations preceded ethical guidance?

Why have we looked to reinvigorate Leviticus when Jesus brought the end of this world, it’s norms and it’s structures, to a consummation in his resurrection?

Rather than understanding the message of Leviticus via what it is saying, we have emphasized what it is says and foregone its formative function to make a people…a people that Jesus seemed to think could still be created absent a rigid formal adherence to its mandates.

Why have we preferred a flat boring prescriptional Bible that we can easily manipulate and contain in our actions over a living scripture that seeks to challenge us at every turn and renarrate the world into something that looks like the end of the world known as Jesus lifted up for us?

We have turned the bible into a rule book.  It is now, unofficially, a historical rule book, nothing more nothing less.  It flatly tells us what we have to DO in order to BE Christian and STAY Christian.  Case closed.  This is its job. 

It is just the dictionary to heaven for the uber pious without any analogical, tropological or allegorical application!  (Historical methods of reading scripture in the early church that are not rational/ethical/literal in nature)

Is it little wonder people, young people, aren’t interested in the Gospel?  We have given them a bunch of rules rather than engendered a passion for the story of Jesus.

We have given them a bible that has less nuance than Dr. Seuss and a witness that demonstrates we care more about waging culture wars for Jesus rather than creating the culture of Kingdom.

Who wants such a Bible and such a faith?  To whom does it appeal?

It’s boring.  It’s easy.  It’s about as deep as a 2nd grade education…and after a person is “saved” this 2nd grade knowledge is supposed to pacify us with its lists until we enter the pearly gates at some indefinite period of time in the near future.

Thanks but no thanks.

There’s nothing of any depth here…just listen online, and at work, to all the shallow people that seem to follow Jesus and how they read the Bible.  It will make you sick to see and hear what the Gospel has been turned into.

There is a lot of news close to this premature Gospel but there is no goodnews to be found.

I can hear it now…but ParanormalChrist…Jesus fulfilled the Law, he didn’t abolish it.  We have to have rules!!  How do we know who wins in the end if we don’t have rules?

As if Christianity is a game of Monopoly.

religion-sets-rules-jesus-sets-you-free

Did Jesus come to invalidate the Law?

In Matthew 5 he seems to suggest no, but his no is a yes via his interpretation of the Law.  Jesus only says no so he in fact can reform the law into something more than it is.  This is one of the tricks of Matthews Gospel!

Jesus broke all kinds of Law!

He ate with sinners: tax collectors, women of ill repute and fisherman.  He extended forgiveness under his own authority.  He walked longer than a Sabbaths day walk and plucked wheat on the Sabbath.  He kept women close by.  He walked through cemeteries.  We don’t once see him ceremonially washing himself before ANY act of ministry.  He outright contradicted Moses with his famous, “you have heard is said BUT I say…” statements.  Etc., Etc., I digress.

Jesus’ relationship with the Law is a bit different than we like to think.

How have we let something as awesome and ineffable as the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ be turned into a dry list of rules?  How have we limited something as limitless as scripture???

Why have we reduced our faith to an ethical norm, one that historically is probably only as old as the Puritans, you know, those folks who occupied New England 400 years ago and made Jesus the Christ culpable in a few historical curiosities?

Why have we not taken Paul serious when he says that in Christ all things are lawful?

In Corinthians, Paul states that when he is with Jews he will not eat meat sacrificed to idols but when he is with Greeks he encourages the divine barbeque.

What’s going on here?  Is Paul being Petra’s “Chameleon” changing with his surroundings?  Is Paul being a New Testament hypocrite, coming under the Book of Revelation’s warning to “luke warm Christians” or is Paul being fully free in Christ and living out his faith as one not bound by the law?

Perhaps Paul believes the Gospel transcends petty ethical norms that have nothing to do with believing Jesus is somehow incarnate God and humanities great hope.

There is no one more qualified than Paul to say that our theology, our faith, our kerygma, is larger than our religious understanding.  Here is a man that lived and breathed the law, by heart, hid it in his heart!  And yet after seeing Jesus Christ…the resurrected Jesus became his agenda, not his obedience to Leviticus, Deuteronomy or any cultural standard grounded in human norms.

Yet we have not taken Paul’s advice.  We have not followed Jesus or read the Gospels careful enough.

We have confused the Gospel with its “rules” and many, many, many of the “rules” we invoke have no firm grounding biblically or theologically.  They are the products of Puritan holdovers and of fundamentalist interpretation of scripture of the past 125 years, making for one deadly combination that seeks to zap the life right out of the Gospel and dematerialize a very material redemption alive in Jesus.

Being Christian now means…follow these rules:

Read this book.  Pray this often.  Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.

If others don’t like it, well, they are going to hell anyway.  I’m going to get fat and happy with my 2nd grade faith and the list of rules given to me by the teacher.

I like Paul’s rules, not his theology.  I didn’t even know he had theology.

I like Jesus’ ministry, but not his take on Moses.

I like the teachings of the church, but only when those teachings take the appearance of actions that momma and them always told me.

And on and on and on.

For those of you who don’t follow Jesus because the Gospel is presented like this.  I don’t blame you.  I wouldn’t either.

It saddens me that we have traded in a robust faith and a deepening understanding of God in Christ as revealed through the powerful pages of the Bible for a faith that has been reduced to Aristotle…a faith that is just a list to do.

The Sermon on the Mount has become The Nichomachean Ethics.

Jesus is no longer the eschatological prophet of God…Jesus and his followers are just supreme ethicists with Gnostic aspirations…but this helps them sleep at night and helps them control their eternal “destiny,” which is why Jesus came in the first place (insert sarcasm here).

Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill would be proud.

Too bad it’s their Gospel we are proclaiming and not that of Jesus.

It’s a shame really.  The world could really use a good word right about now.

Jesus is NOT the “reason for the season”

 

Jesus meme

First, there is Christmas…

Then, there is farce…

The subtle denial of a Holy-day that is held delicately in the balance of adoration and consumption, with the latter giving way to our actions while the former  is trapped in our sensibilities.

Our very way of celebrating it dialectically usurping its truest image.

As we push further into the season of Christmastide, the wave of incarnation supposedly still cresting before us, the season has all but ended.  Christmas trees will come down.  Dickinson’s villages will be put up.

Christmas is over.

There is no tide at the end of our Christmas; it has been lost.  There is no lasting effect of Christmas; its consummation occurred by 9am around countless Christmas trees throughout the world on December 25th.  The season that used to begin on Christmas day and extend into the New Year, has now given way to a fully secularized caricature even by those that say “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

Jesus is the reason for a season that lasts one day…a day that covers the eyes of the Christ with swaddling cloths.

Systemically, there is absolutely no theological understanding of what is occurring at Christmastide.  There is no wide spread reflection amongst those that believe the Christ events occurs in Bethlehem or Nazareth and what the meaning of that event is within the history of the world and the history of ideas.  There is no feast that occurs at twilight of the incarnation.  The season has no patterning that would make us assume culturally that our celebration has some particular Christian character.  The only character the season enjoys now is one of capitalist flavor and misplaced affections wherein we tell ourselves Christmas is not about “things” only to spend the majority of our time with “things” and thinking of the “things” we’d have liked to receive.

Say what we may, but Jesus is not the reason for the season.  He’s not even considered that by those that seem to say that quaint phrase the loudest…their actions denying their language.

Christmas is the lie we tell about ourselves to hide ourselves from our true selves cause the thought of us actually not caring about the “real reason for the season” is unbearable upon the selves that deceive themselves into thinking they care or that Jesus as the Christ of God matters in any real material way.

Christmas, as is now celebrated, is usurped in its very celebration.  Our very means of remembrance also containing the deconstruction of the event itself; we think we inaugurate a Savior but in fact we inaugurate his absolute meaninglessness.

A Christ that is good for nothing but to be born.  A Christ and his story that does not shape our lives more than the culture below the Christ into which he is received.

But this is problematic, because “Christ” and our embodiments of “Christmas” are oxymorons.

The very offensive and effacing concept of Christ does not fit alongside the marketplace of ideas in Christianity.  It doesn’t fit with how we talk, think and act upon Christmas.  Even simple things, such as a Christmas eve service, or a Christmas day service, has been deemed as bothersome because it interferes with the real meaning of the season: family and gift giving.  People who are devout in their faith, those that scream conservatism the loudest and proclaim a culture war has been initiated upon Christmas are at the front of the line in relegating Christmas to a secular holiday void of any meaningful theological content, and certainly void of any religious formation other than grandpas prayer over the turkey at dinner.

Christians have lined up in hordes to embrace an empty Christology that is void of any real spiritual formation and caste in the appearance of the secular dismissal of anything more than a current rush to a particular morning that holds no more content than the anemic form of its arrival.

Christmas has become nothing more than farce…but it can be nothing but farce as the paranormal Christ stands beside it.  There is simply no more stark a comparison nor is there a more deep distinction than the theological content of advent, Immanuel, Christ-event, incarnation and the cultural and ecclesial embodiment Christmas suffers at the hands of those that “love Jesus” and those that could really care less.

The object of desire, the Christ, has been lost in a plenitude of objects that fill nothing but create a greater sense of void in society.  What Lacan calls Object a’s…substitutions for the real object of our desire that lead nowhere but to the end of unwrapping presents as children collectively sigh, “is that all?”

We say we desire the Christ, the event, yet our actions say we really desire the object below the Christ that is really the object of nothing.  It is nothing but brown monochromatic semblances coated with shiny illusions.  The trick is we have lied to ourselves about our intent and our desire when our intent and our desire are clearly seen via its own incarnation in the world.

Christ is not an alter event.  Christmas changes nothing.  There is no theological, ecclesiological, or cultural power to be had here…all of these mean nothing to the masses.  Christ has simply become the conduit through which we satiate our desires and participate in the quest for more…and it’s so perfect because we are able to do it all in the name of God.

How fortunate and perfectly ideal that God wants for us what we want for ourselves.

Jesus quote

We like the object of our power to continue to lure us into the imaginary lands of plenty and more and we like for the real Jesus to stay buried so we can turn him into our version of buddy Christ that approves of our blatant sacrilege.  We justify our excess in the face of a Christ that always excessively gave himself while incessantly refusing the excess of power and things.

Even at Christmas time, or moreover especially at Christmas time, we say that we want our kids to “have a good Christmas” and have “good memories,” but what does that mean besides give them a grand display of everything capitalism has to offer?  What makes a Christmas good?  And why must it be made to be so, when the very incredible event of incarnation and its theological content should be enough to keep us preoccupied as we hold hands with loved ones and actually spend time seeing the feast of the incarnation occur in one another?

I wonder what kind of Christians we are making by celebrating Christmastide as we do and not re-narrating the season to be more than the pinnacle of gifts that explode from under a tree.

If such is not the case, when was the last time Christmas was a spiritual experience for you?

When was the last time your faith was actually made stronger because of this special “season”?

Most Americans can’t name one…must be a first world problem.

But this farcical way of celebrating Christmas, or the Mass of Christ, is to be expected in a late capitalist and decaffeinated Christian society.

We do not value mystery.  We do not value a story that is more than characters and details…and we don’t not think deeply about our faith.

The Bible doesn’t require deep thinking because it is plainly obvious what it means…all the while we bore one another with a dead nativity that does nothing more but provide a photo op for our children’s programs.

Scripture is dead.  The nativity just a detail.  The characters just furniture to fill the room of the story.

Scripture only serves the purpose we have for it and the familiar stories of a tired family, a baby born in the still of the night and strange characters gathering around this child are just the details of how; they are not characters that subtly seek to subvert our sense of self and critique our presumed piety…and certainly there is no sense of a proleptic theological point being made by Matthew in this Gospel…because this would of course go against a plain reading of the Bible. (tongue in cheek)

The baby Christ has become “normal”; the nativity has become nothing more than something to defend in the public square…both have become so decaffeinated that there is effectually nothing that happens when we encounter them or think of them.  Rather than being an audacious story that seeks to challenge our worldviews, we have traded in the para-normality of the event and its characters for something we can digest and feel good about a faith that we have given to ourselves since such self given faith never challenges anybody to be different or to seek forgiveness.

And we know this, but to make our idea of Christmas palatable, and our ideas of the details of these infancy accounts infallible, we simply lie aloud about our true intentions so we can justify the appearance of our actions.

But amdist all the deception, misplaced piety and Christians saying Jesus is “the reason for the season” when there is really no season at all and Jesus better not be the reason we indulge ourselves in fantasy…one thing remains: Christmastide.  And it refuses to be decaffeinated…even if our collective Christian experience insists on a faith that changes nothing, not even “believers.”

There are plenty of reasons for the season, but even Jesus knows he’s not one of them, especially a season that is already over.  Perhaps it is a good thing the season is fleeting…we’d hate to desecrate the Christ any further by making Christ a neo-liberal that would clearly celebrate his nativity like we do.

 

Go and Sin…Bravely

sin bravely text

As I prepared for seminary after finishing my bachelor’s degree, a well-respected and articulate professor of mine said, “Go to seminary, study hard, but have fun. Theology is pointless if you’re not having fun.” I’d like to think what I have done since then has been a quest in having fun…and reading Sin Bravely has certainly been an extension, and affirmation, of all the fun being Christian is supposed to be.

It’s not the typical fare I read, or discuss here at ParanormalChrist, but an excursus of theological fun is in order in case you think what I do here usually sucks.

So if you’re not having fun, please stop, put down your Christianity and find the one that is fun.

In a life plagued by interesting the mixture of classic American Liberalism and Puritan anthropological expressions of the Self, this small text goes to the heart of what happens when we turn our faith and our religion inward rather than outward: We become cowardly sinners who think our faith is FOR us and to support OUR worldviews as the INTENTION of God.

Funny how God always thinks like us isn’t it?

The title is catchy, and is in fact why I picked it up, “Sin Bravely,” but the text is not a book that promotes a life that is free from societal obligations nor does it reject personal behavior that is founded in the Gospel of Jesus called the Christ.

The text is, rather, a call to have fun in life, to have fun being a Christian, to have fun engaging our lives as brave sinners…because that is in fact all we are: Sinners saved by grace. Note that Paul does not use a past tense in the Greek there.

To those with holiness tradition sensibilities (i.e., most Wesleyan and American Holiness traditions) this may come as a surprise. At least it did for me, but Ellingsen was a trusty guide through those Augustinian/Lutheran forests.  Historically, Augustine won the debate on defining sin, but in these traditions Pelagius has really taken center stage. Even the late Dr. Bill Greathouse (a renowned theologian and leader in the Church of the Nazarene) quipped after a General Assembly to a colleague, as he was laughing, “we’re all just a bunch of Pelagians,” and this comment after a debate on the floor following how the denomination was to define sin in its articles of faith.

Ellingson is trying to free us from that moral certitude, or overly humanistic perspective, that is touted by folks like Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren or the similarly related prosperity preacher Joel Osteen (that which is the result of misapplying historical figures such as Jacob Arminius, John Wesley or even the Apostle Paul for that matter).

These authors, along with strong currents of American ideology, promote a “do it yourself” Christianity that seems to equate purpose with a focus upon the self (even though they profess such is not the case). Jesus is to be followed because he enables you to be a better you…though I don’t recall reading this in the Gospels. I digress. Warren, Osteen and their entourage, equate ones success with ones efforts…efforts that can overcome our humanity and align ourselves with God’s “purpose” which somehow also looks like the vision of the world offered via the American Dream.

This is good, and commendable to a degree, but the problem arises when the “steps” are followed and the “purpose” discovered…and we continue to look more American in our materiality and philosophies and less Christian all the while. It’s hard to be prophetic when you’re not really being prophetic…go figure.

In other words, the vision offered in the Purpose Driven model is one that looks like a success story within the American Dream.  The only thing that makes it different is that it is peppered with Jesus…not to mention all this talk of purpose is still talk directed upon ourselves, for ourselves.

The goal becomes the self and its actualization. Christianity and Jesus are just the vehicles by which we actualize ourselves. This doesn’t really sound a whole lot like the words of one who said, “unless you pick up your cross and follow me.”

And this is where “Brave Sinning” takes center stage.

Ellingsen is writing from a Reformed theological perspective, Lutheran to be exact, and he is following Luther’s Augustinian theology of concupiscent desire to discuss sin as not only those things that people do by omission or commission, but all our activities by which our self is the goal, the end, of the action.

And not only are our actions selfish, but even the act of faith and religious expression since being religious (having faith) is something we do for the self…as something that is self-ish…self-centered…so to it is sin. Even reading this review, or stopping to read this review, is an act of self-decision for self-benefit…and hence marred in the sin of selfishness.

This is what Luther and Augustine mean by those bound by sin, Luther’s idea of being simultaneously sinner and justified. It is not an idea hatched in Calvinist Hell as some would observe; it is, rather, the idea that at any point wherein the self is the driving force of the action the action is sinful.

Thus, sin is ever present because our egos always play a role in our decisions. We cannot escape our condition…or as the writer of Ecclesiastes is apt to note, “there is not one righteous, no not one.” Whether it be helping someone pray, writing a sermon, giving to the poor, asking God for forgiveness, mowing our yard, being kind to our spouses, being an awesome teacher to students etc., etc., all these actions have benefits for the self and were the self not benefited in some way than most of us would not do them.

This is what separates us from Christ:  Christ partook in action for the gain of nothing…as humans we do not know how to do that.

Even the act of confession is a sinful act whereby we are confessing our sins to save our “souls” from hell…and in the holiness traditions that speak of sanctification the goal is really a negation of the self in order to find the “real” spiritual self.  Hence even this pious theological idea of purity is still an act of spiritual actualization that is not selfless…in fact it is totally centered on the self.

And that is a profound theological trick: to convince people we are not interested in the self only to really preach a gospel that makes us better selves, feeling better about ourselves and creating a path whereby the self we hate becomes the self we can love.

Thus, Elingsen writes to inform us that once we realize we are all sinners to the core, selfish ego-centric beings, we can then be free to sin bravely.

We can bravely help the poor, preach the Gospel, petition for peace, give to others, bury the dead,  marry the happy,  help a child with their homework., etc., because we know that we do these things as people who are not pure in our intentions but who do them as sinners and do them so that God can turn our actions into something greater than our motives, no matter how pure we think them to be.

sinboldy

In other words, we do them as sinners saved by grace in thought and practice, not as people who do them thinking we are worthy because of our holy intentions. Once we are released from the idea of purity in motive and act, we are then free to sin bravely, courageously, and to embody a Gospel that is authentic and honest…and one that is much more fun than a list of Puritan rules whereby we are the author and sustainer of our faith via our actions that “keep” us “right” with God.

Ellingsen reminds us of the words of Augustine, “love God and do what you will.”

A heart turned toward God will love God through its actions, yet it will do it lost in the space of God’s grace and not beholden to an ideal of purpose and prosperity that remains focused on the self rather than focused on the God wherein the self is to reside. A perpetual quest for self, whether secular or religious, leads to a fragmented society of fragmented people…that take themselves too seriously and get caught up in their own importance as they pursue themselves.

But a life that is committed to brave sinning will face the world in hope and freedom. Hope in the Christ that has made us more than we could ever be and free to be ourselves as those that engage in the playful realities of life that we like to call business, and God just calls playtime.

I leave you with the words of Ellingsen

“So Sin Bravely! But believe and rejoice in Christ even more bravely…as long as we live here in this world we will have to sin, but no sin will separate us from Christ. Have fun, too!”

Too Scared to Love: an Essay on Fear, Love & the Gaze

Emerson Fear

FEAR & GOSPEL

“Perfect Love Casts out all Fear,” so the writer of the Epistle of 1 John tells us.

In a world of so much fear, and so little love, one is left to wonder if there is indeed a perfect love that can handle the level of fear that seems to be inundating our worlds, our communities and our lives.

Fear of being nothing motivates us. Fear of losing everything makes us work harder. Fear of being ignorant makes us study. Fear of never being loved makes us pursue those filled with fear and unable to love in return with even more abandon.

Fear negotiates the world. It even negotiates our relationship to one whom we call The Christ. Were it not for fear, the fear of God, one wonders if fear could have become such a common currency.

It is used by so many, understood by so few. Fear is the Lord of the world.

Perfect love casts out fear? Really? Into what context does this even make sense…?

The Gospel’s knew something about fear.

They knew whoever controlled the mechanism of fear controlled the masses and their behavior. Yet, the Gospel attempts at multiple levels to dispel fear in some uniquely concrete ways that are lost on us when we read it as a story of details, rather than a narrative of provocation.

At multiples places in the Gospel the very thing that causes fear (principally the unknown) is resolved through a state of overcoming that which is feared.

In other words, fear is defeated by fear that is directed toward the redemption of fear.

The remainder of this redemption is no longer a love gone awry…a love that is misdirected because it is directed by fear, and therefore unloving, but a love that is so perfect that it can cast our fear.

Fear has been redeemed to become otherwise than itself through a dreadful event.

There is nothing more fearful than a dead person emerging from a borrowed tomb…yet there is nothing more redemptive than the ultimate fear of death lying lifelessly dead beside one whom the earth could not contain…The Christ simply giving it a passing glance as he slowly walks by.

This is paranormalChrist at his finest. An Example of the perfect love of God casting out the fear that threatens all of us constantly.

But the resurrection is not the only fearfully fearless redemptive act that redirects a love gone awry.

Others places in the Gospel remind us that Jesus came into the fearful situation of calming storms. These situations are unique because it speaks volumes about the Gospels mission to step directly into situations wherein fear is the arbiter of reality and denounce it as a misdirected affection. It is no coincidence that the stories do not primarily serve a purely Christological function, as much as they serve to renarrate the world we receive.

No doubt, the incarnation of God in one whom we call The Christ is a renarration par excellence, but such renarration does not occur because we have been able to precisely determine the ontological significance of the Historical Jesus. The stories don’t serve as perichoretic marking points.

The stories serve as confrontations with rulers, with archetypes, with paradigms of seeing the world that are now made new because the Christ has been his paranormal self and defied the natural order of things via God’s perfect love for the world…a love that castes out fear in every situation because what we fear most, our deaths, is now no longer something that should be feared.

Remember, Death is still lying outside the tomb lifelessly dead, its vibrancy and sting negated via the Christ and his stubborn refusal to remain subject to Hades.

This doesn’t only mean that now fear has been dealt a death blow via the death of death, though it certainly may mean at least as much. It also means that the supernatural perception of the Christ, the powers that allow him to calm fear, to suspend deaths final grasping, is not bound to his X-Men capabilities as much as it is bound to the simple things we miss about The Christ.

Fear cannot be defeated with greater fear.

Christ does not defeat fear in the world via the death of death with a greater coercive strength to make death die.

It is not with force that Christ resurrects himself nor is it with force and great chaos that Christ speaks stillness into the brooding clouds and churning seas of life that would love nothing more but to overtake our beings, who we are, and sink our dreams and potentials into the watery abyss below.

Fear is not defeated with a greater fear…that simply makes it stronger and more resistant.

What fear and death cannot resist, and what can thereby redeem love gone awry, is perfect love.

Perfect love that is characterized via The Christ as: perfect words, perfect presence, perfect patience, prefect space…a space that receives perfect love in simplicity and is filled with so much love that fear itself no longer has habitable room.

There is very literally no room at the inn where perfect love resides.

Moment of fear: The Crucifixion

Moment of love: Today you shall be with me in paradise…words spoken into immeasurable violence and death wishes thrown all around us.

Moment of fear: The perfect Storm

Moment of love: Peace be still…words of peace spoken into hearts filled with dread.

Moment of fear: My life is moving toward death

Moment of love: Death is not the final word…God actively raising Jesus and giving Jesus the gift of resurrection.

*And for a contemporary application…

Moment of fear: People all around us so filled with fear that their fear has produced a love gone awry

Moment of love: embracing the paranormalChrist and being a presence of spoken love that gives fear no safe harbor.

The Gospel is filled with saying no to fear, yet it is by fears we have been living and through fear our love has gone awry…and we have mistaken our fears for the things that we love even as the things that we love seek to be destroyed because fear does not allow us to fully love what we have been given to love.

We do not know how to love and surrender power through love.

We do not know how to receive love that is not seeking to gain something from us.

We do not know of a love that seeks the benefit and wholeness of the Other because we love through our fear of self satisfaction.

We do not know that love is not about control; it’s not about infinite demand.

We do not know that perfect love is self-kenotic…a self-kenosis that incarnates a love that is more than ourselves and creates a world so utterly foreign that it lends its audience to ask, “Can this be the Christ?”

Surely salvation/healing doesn’t look like this!

We are so fearful of losing everything or not being fulfilled or getting our way that our fears have characterized our affections and disguised themselves as pure motives when all they really do is keep us from loving and precipitate the destruction of our worlds…one nation, one community, one home, one person at a time.

Fear does not give life…it steals it…which is precisely why The Christ had to steal the greatest fear of them all.

Fear does not have the final word; It doesn’t get to write the end of the story.

Love and the Gaze

Our world is one with fear and trembling before the very numinous presence of a multitude selves unaware and it has become the catalyst for our narcissism and the infinite demands such places on those around us.

We know that fear is persistent and structurating because our world is in disrepair. A world guided by perfect love does not fall apart; its seams remain tight and colorful, keeping reality sewn neatly together…but fear unravels the seams and slowly pulls reality apart…because fear cannot understand what it cannot see…that it doesn’t really exist.

There is nothing to fear because fear is no-thing.

The nothing of fear has held love hostage…and love has gone awry…its very presence being questioned and its idea being lost.

And this takes multiple forms.

The chiefest form that is encountered by the many of us is the fear that holds us hostage to the gaze of the other…or perhaps we are the other that holds the world hostage in our own gaze.

The gaze is the view into reality wherein the subject, the person, is the all knowing, seeing, desiring eye, by which all of life is held to account.

There is nothing outside the gaze…no greater perspective than the gaze. It is penetratingly stubborn and inhospitable because it desires to see all things without adjusting its view…without discovering that it’s a gaze that is founded upon the fear of really not seeing what is there to be seen.

So long as the gaze can hold the world in its view, it sees what it wants as such desires are generated out of the fear to really see the world for more than it is. To see the world for more is to see its own self negation, to be on the road to seeing a world marked by beautiful subjectivity rather than fearful controlling of the subjects/objects that comprise the world.

So long as the all seeing eye of the gaze is lost in its specter of fear…love will remain distant because love is the impossibility of real relationality that the gaze has lost in its own sight.

The gaze becomes its own worst enemy because the very thing it is attempting to achieve, i.e., peace and happiness, is alluded its sight because it has failed to grasp that peace is not the product of seeing and demanding…holding the world in debt to its vision.

As Gerard Wajcman notes in describing a central thesis on the gaze:

“the central thesis that rules the hypermodern world- that all of the Real is visible- is itself animated by an implicit correlative thesis: If all of the real is visible, then all that is not visible is not Real.” (Lacanian Ink 38, “The Universal Eye and the Limitless World”).

It is little wonder that a world lost in the gaze of a love gone awry, one fueled by fear and disenchanted by what could be real by what is “real,” is incapable of seeing past its own fear and into a world of new creation that doesn’t just expand the gaze but negates it in its totality.

Real love, real relationality, is absent, not because fear has the final word, and thereby also death its closest partner, but because death and fear are what is visible and real…while the real moments of love that could be spoken into existence are seen as not real because they are not…they are not in the gaze.

And thus the vicious cycle recurs.

Those who want love the most…are also those whose love has gone awry because it is founded on fear and not in the simplicity of a spoken presence that reshapes the world one syllable, one touch, at a time.

Such perfect love simply does not exist in the gaze.

Peace is the result of loving past the fear, past the sense of happiness founded upon the fear of not controlling or having, past the sense that everyone around us is held hostage to the debt of the perception of the gaze.

“Perfect love Casts our fear…” the writer of the Johannine Epistle tells us.

As long as we continue to love from fear we are never really loving; we are only fearing to love.

…and as long as we fear to love because we have confused love with the needs of the gaze, we as a culture and society will continue to become dismembered, continue to spiral into despair and continue to be our own worst enemies in our quest for what all human beings want…

Love, peace and happiness as can only come from one who emerges from the tomb, stops, directs his gaze at us and confidently says, “Fear Not.”

 

Exchanging the Resurrection for the Soul

The-Resurrection-of-the-Dead_620

“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.