Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

Dear Christians, Your Vote Is (Not) A Big Deal

As you may (hopefully) be aware, the American Presidential election is (finally) happening next week. As you may also be aware,  Christians have been tying themselves into knots over the choice placed before them. Particularly the moderate-conservative end of the spectrum (the majority of American Evangelical Christians) cannot seem to stomach a vote for either pro-Abortion Hillary, or pro-himself Trump. Some are resorting to protest, Third-Party votes, or resigning themselves to simply not voting at the top of the ticket. Others are passionate about Hillary taking the office, viscerally driven by an unholy terror of the prospect of Donald Trump obtaining the codes for our nuclear arsenal and hearing "state of the union" addresses from him for the next 4 years.

social-2016-trump-hil.jpg

Whatever way you cut it, pretty much everyone seems to be having an existential crisis.

My personal hope is that we Christians can come out on the other end of this election cycle with surer footing, because right now it feels like our community is gasping for air and frantically questioning everything we've ever been told about America's religious history, moral center, and future trajectory. And from my perspective, frantic gasping is not conducive to making healthy choices, so let's collectively take a deep breath.

Your Vote Is A Big Deal

No, I do not mean this in the sanctimonious, overly-individualized, idealistic, first-grade-classroom-mock-election sense. Frankly, your vote is one drop in a Pacific ocean of ballots, and for those of you who live in a state that consistently swings to the opposite party, your vote feels particularly worthless.

However, it certainly is a big deal that we live under a representative government that is ostensibly driven by the voice of the people. It is crucially important to remember that the body of Christ, of which we in America are but one member, exists throughout the world. Many of those other members live under totalitarian regimes, dictatorships, and war-ravaged continents, and for them a representative democracy may feel like a far-off dream that will never be experienced in their lifetime. For their sake, we dare not take for granted what we have been given.

I am also convinced that when the church is functioning in a healthy manner, it becomes the much-needed "conscience" and "critic" of the state.* We are not to be simply a tool of said state, a lever to be pulled and manipulated when strategic votes are needed, although I am afraid this is precisely what is happening concerning hot-button issues like Abortion and Supreme Court Justices; rather, we must maintain our prophetic zeal for a world that should look closer and closer to the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus. In America, one of many ways that this zeal can be expressed is through the ballot box, not only for presidential bids, but for local propositions and city council members, which, frankly, have a more immediate impact on the life and health of your community anyways.

And do not forget, as we Americans are wont to do, that the rest of the world is watching this election. The de facto "leader of the free world" will be sworn in based on our choices next week, and throngs of people throughout the globe will be affected by an election they do not have a voice in. Use your voice for them.

Vote on November 8th. It's a big deal.

Your Vote Is (Not) A Big Deal

But please, dear Christians, do not helplessly fall victim to the lie that the way you cast your vote on November 8th is the sum total of your entire Christian expression and social ethic in this life. I'm convinced this lie is a major reason so many Evangelicals are developing ulcers this year, for we live in the shadow of a moral majority movement that has conditioned us for decades to believe that the implementation of a Christian government in America was a feat of near-eschatological importance. Furthermore, this implementation was narrowly defined as requiring a pro-small-government (but pro-large-military?) conservative leader who would be our shield and strong tower amidst the growing threat of a increasingly-secularized America. 

It's a good thing we have a model in David, who also turned to the power of the state when he was feeling threatened by enemies. Oh, wait a minute.....

Remember, God's plan for humanity was never dependent on a certain vision of governance for the American experiment. Instead, this globe-spanning plan was successfully launched over 2,000 years ago through the faithfulness of the Son in walking to the cross. Our vote cannot change that.

Remember, Jesus does not need America to be "Christian," however that is defined. He is (and will remain) seated on his throne, regardless of who occupies the White House. Don't defile this truth by placing inordinate emotional weight on the outcome of the American election.

Remember, when you were baptized into the Kingdom of God, your citizenship was transferred into a global Kingdom without end that would ultimately destroy every Kingdom that humans can build. Unnecessary hand-wringing over this election only points to the fact that you aren't convinced of this reality. 

Remember, our ability, as the body of Christ, to love both God and neighbor is neither hindered nor enabled by the outcome this election. We are still called to go forth with God's ministry of reconciliation, just as our brothers and sisters in Syria are doing in the midst of relentless persecution

Don't misplace your hope. Lift your eyes. Seek God's face. Go vote next week, and then, regardless of the result, be Christ in the world.

 

*Martin Luther King, Jr.; A Knock At Midnight

Confessions of a Seriously Struggling Evangelical

"Evangelical" is a problematic word. As someone who grew up entrenched in Evangelical culture, I have gone down the rabbit hole of trying to find out exactly what the label means, and I usually end up with more confusion than clarity. I found out that David Bebbington has a quadrilateral, Martin Luther may have coined the term when categorizing the churches born out of the Protestant Reformation, and apparently Billy Graham himself didn't know exactly what "Evangelical" meant.

Underneath the layers of confusion, however, I can't help but feel that there are remnants of something beautiful, something worth holding on to, and maybe, just maybe, a tradition to even be proud of.

But right now, I have never been more tempted to get as far away as possible from it.

  Jerry Falwell, Jr. with Trump.....right next to framed Playboy issue featuring Donald himself...

Jerry Falwell, Jr. with Trump.....right next to framed Playboy issue featuring Donald himself...

The cracks in my relationship with Evangelicalism have been showing for a while, but then Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed Donald Trump, James Dobson claimed that Trump was a 'baby Christian,' Eric Metaxas explained that Christians have an obligation to vote for Trump, and then, just last week, in what felt like the death blow of any remaining credibility that Conservative Evangelicalism held in my life, Wayne Grudem produced an overly-wrought think-piece on how voting for Trump is a "morally good choice."

Now, in many ways, I am a textbook Millenial. I care a lot about racial injustice, post on social media about #blacklivesmatter, am convinced that wealth inequality is a massive problem in our society, wasn't overly bothered by the SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage, have basically always had access the internet, and I don't know what it's like to live in an America that isn't mired in military conquest of the Middle East (9/11 happened while sitting in my 10th grade civics class). And I say this because my concern here goes deeper than my own, individual, tortured relationship with a strand of Christian tradition. 

“I do not like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad. I try to do nothing that is bad.
— Trump

Simply put, there are a lot of Millenial Christians like me out there who are trying to reconcile our impassioned social values with an upbringing that prioritized very different issues, and if Conservative Evangelicalism writ large doesn't respond quickly and decisively to the list of Trump endorsements I mentioned above, then all we Millenials perceive is a tradition whose leadership either: 1) doesn't give a rip about the very issues that define us as a generation; 2) has prioritized political influence above integrity to the message of Jesus as we see it; or 3) is simply so out of touch with reality that they can't see the insanity of arguing for the moral imperative of voting for a pathological, narcissistic, adulterous demagogue. Pick any of those 3 options, and I can guarantee you we Millenials want nothing to do with it. If there isn't a serious course correction, then I absolutely promise, you are going to continue to see Millenials fleeing from Evangelicalism in droves.*

This isn't about being "seeker sensitive." This isn't about the church trying to become "culturally relevant," or giving people what their "itching ears want to hear," as that frequently misquoted verse in 2 Timothy says.** This is more about humility and vulnerability. 

Listen to the cries of my generation. Admit that you don't understand what riles us up so much, and instead of doubling down on the very perspectives that have started to alienate so many young people, ask them questions about racial injustice and #blacklivesmatter. Ask us why we are more concerned about immigration reform than legislation about marriage and gender-based bathrooms. We aren't pro-abortion, by any means, but we aren't one-issue voters, either. We care a lot about mass incarceration, criminal justice reform, and systemic issues of poverty and education. And we Millenial Christians have arrived at these perspectives because of our love for Jesus, not in spite of it.

So when these endorsements flood our screens, our suspicions are affirmed, not only that Evangelicalism doesn't understand us, but doesn't care to.*** At best, it feels like a condescending pat on the head, and at worst, a slap in the face with a charge to "step in line!"

I do love the heart of the Evangelical tradition. I love its emphasis on conversion, because people can, in fact, change. I love the high view of scripture, because we are continuously formed by our text. And, most importantly, I love the central focus on Jesus, because what else could hold such a long and varied a tradition together?

It's out of such love that I offer this plea: stop being stiff-necked and bull-headed, repent of your lust for political power and influence, and make space for a new wave of leadership that could radically revitalize your movement.

If you don't, we will go elsewhere.

 

*This is not to say that Conservative Evangelicalism is without thoughtful spokespersons. Both Russell Moore and Max Lucado have been outspoken critics of Trump. Additionally, there are many in the less-conservative camp who have already criticized Grudem, including the likes of Scot McKnight.

**2 Timothy 4.3-4, to be exact.

***Incidentally, it really doesn't help that all of these endorsements have come from wealthy, White men. There isn't space in this blog post to get into the racial dynamics at play here, but I can confidently say that the pattern of privilege in these perspectives is a sure-fire way to lose credibility with Millenials.

Why I Support Bernie Sanders

I am an Evangelical Christian, and I support Bernie Sanders. I am aware that this seems like a paradox to many observers, so allow me to explain myself. But first, a disclaimer....

As a Christian, my primary hope for the future is placed in God's Kingdom, as inaugurated by Jesus. As such, I do not place any hope (or fear, for that matter) in the Earth's Kingdoms. This includes the Empire of the United States, no matter who leads it after the next election. This perspective, I feel, gives me a healthy distance from the insanity of our deeply broken system, which has been on full display over the past year. Frankly, I wish more Evangelicals adopted such a healthy distance in their political engagement. So whether Bernie, Cruz, Rubio, or Clinton is commander-in-chief after the next 12 months, my fundamental hope for the future is unaffected.

Although, I must admit that the idea of Cruz being in charge does make me a little panicky...

That being said, I do plan to exercise my ability to vote in favor of Bernie Sanders. In fact, I'm planning on voting during the primary season, for the first time in my life, because I'm a passionate supporter of the Vermont Senator. Whether you find my stance confusing, infuriating, or agreeable, allow me to offer a few thoughts.

First, I do know about all the reasons the typical Evangelical doesn't like Bernie. I know that he is pro-choice and supportive of Planned Parenthood. I know that he has consistently supported same-sex marriage and liberal legislation for LGBT people. I also know about that minor scandal that was dug up some months ago regarding his donations. And, yes, I know that he's a socialist.

I understand why many Evangelicals find this track record reprehensible. Truly, I get it. And let me also say that I don't love everything Bernie does. I wish he was a little stronger on gun policy. And while he seems to understand the deeply problematic and ongoing issue of systemic racism in America, I wish he went a little farther. He's not a perfect, custom-made-for-Joel politician. But, no one is. So, why exactly am I supporting him?

Every citizen builds their own personalized prioritized set of public policy issues, which is informed by their life experience and/or education. This is unavoidable, simply because the list of issues is so long*, and no person can simply say, "Every issue is equally important to me," as that would effectively be the same as saying, "All issues are equally unimportant to me." We all have to prioritize, and we instinctively do this in every other area of our lives. We prioritize our finances, our time management, and what we do with leisure. In so doing, we are stating that, "This issue is more pressing for me than that issue." So, when I pay rent instead of buying a pile of board games (much as I may want to!), I am prioritizing the need for a living space over my desire to invest more into my hobby. I am not saying that my desire for board games doesn't exist, or that anyone who spends money on board games is an idiot. And this is where our political discourse has gone totally off the rails....

You see, the decision to cast my vote for Bernie is reflective of my own priorities in regards to public policy issues in America. My life experience and studies have led me to conclude that America is economically headed towards an oligarchic caste system**, that our vast military over-reach and imperial foreign policy are setting the stage even more disastrous "blowback" in our future***, and that our abhorrent history of racialized legislation and criminal justice are simultaneously oppressing our fellow citizens, undermining the very notion of American democracy and equality, and internally tearing our country apart domestically while we attempt to export our brand of governance around the world.****

These issues: an oligarchic economy, foreign policy and imperial overreach, and systemic racism are how I understand the pressing needs facing our country. These are my public policy priorities, and, for me, these priorities are formed directly by my Christian faith. I also believe they are well-informed, and Bernie Sanders is the only candidate speaking with clarity, authenticity, and consistency on these very issues. This doesn't mean, for example, that I don't think abortion is a problem, but simply that I've prioritized it in a different way than many Evangelicals have.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill & cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.
— Matthew 23.23

So please don't assume, especially if you are an Evangelical Christian on the more conservative/traditional side of the political conversation, that I've scrapped our whole value system and have been brainwashed by the liberals. Again, just because I spend money on rent instead of board games, doesn't mean I don't care at all about board games. I just have different priorities. And can we please talk about those priorities instead of shouting at each other and posting remarkably unhelpful internet memes? Can we talk about your priorities, how you reached them, and how a different set of priorities can be equally informed by the same faith you share? Isn't that a more interesting conversation?

If you're voting for a conservative, pro-life candidate who is also very pro-military,  specifically because of his stance on abortion, then on some level you have decided that abortion, as a public policy issue, is a higher priority to address than our military spending. Similarly, you may have decided that the wealth gap is not as urgent of a policy issue. You have also made priorities, and though I see things differently, at least we can have a conversation about those prioritized issues, which is much more productive and fruitful. 

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
— James 1.27

In other words, if you are a Republican, I will not make the assumption you are "un-Christian" because you "clearly don't care about the poor people in our country, the orphans and widows who are trying to escape the war-torn Middle East that we, in part, have created, or the orphans and widows in America that have been created by our problem with urban mass incarceration." You wouldn't think that a fair assumption, right? I ask you to withhold making the same assumption about me, a Bernie-supporter.

My deep desire for racial justice, economic justice, and yes, my belief in the sanctity and dignity of every human life, which includes the lives of immigrants, criminals on death row, and the unborn, are a direct result of my belief in the Kingdom of God, as inaugurated specifically and particularly by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

So let's extend grace to each other, as we prophetically urge the leaders of America to take seriously the witness of Jesus and His body, the church, as they make decisions that will form the future path of our country.

 

*This list of issues includes, but is not limited to: foreign policy, immigration legislation, health care, gun and weapon legislation, environmental policies, finance reform (public and private), military spending and policy, prison and criminal justice legislation, marriage legislation, abortion (though this is arguably a sub-set of the health care category), racial issues including the conversation around reparations, and so forth.

**See the work of Thomas Piketty, for a comprehensive economic argument that this is exactly where America is headed, specifically because the value growth of inherited wealth is outpacing the growth of earned wealth.

***See the work of Chalmers Johnson for a scathing, but well-informed indictment of overseas American activity.

****Michelle Alexander's book on this topic, the New Jim Crow, needs to be required reading for all Americans, in my opinion.

Four Ways the Prequel Trilogy Retroactively Ruins Star Wars

Even the freshest, most beautiful bowl of fruit can be ruined by adding a single rotten, moldy strawberry to the pile. And just like such a rotted berry, the Star Wars prequels (Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith) which were added in the late 90s and early 2000s to the bowl of fruit that is the epic, groundbreaking 70s space opera, eat away at the beauty and mystery of those original films.

As the quickly-upcoming Force Awakens bears down on us, I could not help but reflect a bit on how much I despise those prequel movies. And not just because they're terrible films from nearly any perspective you can evaluate (script-writing, visual direction, effects, acting, etc.), but because they actually threaten to retroactively destroy the story that I completely adored as a child. I won't waste time here explaining how they failed as films, or the innumerable ways the plot crumbles under the slightest scrutiny, as these arguments have been well-documented  elsewhere. Rather, I want to focus on a few key ways these films specifically impact the story that I fell in love with when I first saw the originals at 9 years old.

1) They ruin Yoda.

A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.

Yoda is one of the most enigmatic characters in the original trilogy, and is one of the reasons 'Empire' is my personal favorite of the bunch. I can vividly remember my sense of awe when the film reveals this tiny, cartoonish, annoying character to be the great and wise Jedi Master that Luke is seeking. That sequence masterfully takes the viewer along the same emotional journey as the protagonist - we expect a great warrior, are frustrated at the way this green puppet interferes with the quest, and are incredulous (and a little bit ashamed of our preconceived assumptions) when he reveals himself to be the one we are seeking. This was one of the many twists that blew my mind and ignited my imagination as a child.

Wars not make one great.

Yoda's physical frailty is intrinsic to his impact as a character in the Star Wars universe. He speaks directly against Luke's urgent thirst for more power, even nearly refusing to train him. Yoda's stature, combined with the fact that he doesn't carry a lightsaber, are precisely what caused Luke to be so surprised. 

 "Judge me by my size, do you?" - Yoda in Empire Strikes Back

"Judge me by my size, do you?" - Yoda in Empire Strikes Back

This is all completely upended when Yoda throws aside his cane and launches into zany, cartoony, lightsaber-fueled combat against Count Dooku in 'Attack of the Clones.' Surely this could not be the same, enigmatic Yoda, who consistently spoke against violence and using the Force for combat? Surely this wasn't the same Yoda, whose sole purpose as a character/plot device in the original films was to flip around the expectations that the Force was simply a means to become a great warrior?

This isn't even to mention the fact that Lucas went way too far with the silly, 'reverse-speak' that Yoda incessantly employs in every single line in all three of those prequels...

2) They ruin the Force.

Midi-chlorians?? 

As a kid, I was kind of obsessed with the Force. I imagined myself controlling things from a distance (especially my light switch after I was in bed), and fantasized about being trained to be a Jedi. What I didn't explicitly realize at the time was that the mystery behind this quasi-spiritual theme in Star Wars was a huge factor in what made it so enticing. The fact that there was no outright explanation (aside from the slight nods to a hereditary component) was one of the most compelling aspects of the Force. This very mystery fueled the imagination of so many of us, because conceivably anyone could become a Jedi, a great hero, with the right training, discipline, and focus.

But, nope, apparently that's not actually true. You just need to take a blood test. A computer can simply count how many "midi-chlorians" (and we can all agree that is a terrible name, right?) you have in your blood cells. That's it. No mystery. Just some numbers.

So, why didn't Obi-Wan, or Yoda, ever get out their handy "Midi-chlorian" counter when they met Luke or Leia in the original trilogy? If Midi-chlorians are just in blood cells, how can characters 'sense' the Force when they're near others? Once again, an enigmatic, spiritual, mysterious element of the mythology is explained away in the prequels in the laziest way possible. I'm sensing a theme here....

3) They ruin the mysterious backstory.

This is one of the most important points for me. The original trilogy consistently teases a seemingly vast, incredible backstory that includes: a great war in which most Jedi were hunted and killed, which also forced both Obi-Wan and Yoda into exile; a dramatic overthrow of a galaxy-wide government which resulted in a tyrannical empire overextending its power; a unique bond of close friendship between Obi-Wan (a great Jedi) and Luke's father (apparently also a great Jedi); the horrible wounds that we get mere glimpses of in Darth Vader's quarters which point to some sort of climactic battle that must have played a role in his turn to evil.

Point for point, each of these is proven to be farcical and uninteresting in the prequels. The 'Clone War' takes place between a seemingly limitless army of robot droids (which no one cares about) and a seemingly limitless army of human clones which were grown in labs (and, yes, which no one cares about).

The government overthrow plot is laughably convoluted. Senator Palpatine is so obviously pulling all the strings, and the Jedi Council is shown to be so inept that the viewer almost doesn't want them to exist as a governing body anymore.

   "He was the best starfighter pilot in the galaxy . . . a cunning warrior, and a good friend." - Obi Wan in 'A New Hope'

"He was the best starfighter pilot in the galaxy . . . a cunning warrior, and a good friend." - Obi Wan in 'A New Hope'

The "relationship" between Obi-Wan and Anakin is consistently more annoying than endearing. You have no idea why they would ever care about each other. Obi-Wan constantly complains about Anakin's attitude and impatience, and Anakin ruthlessly whines about Obi-Wan's rigid approach to training him. In fact, if you didn't know they were "supposed" to be great friends, as Obi-Wan explains in the original trilogy, you would think they would, given their own choices, want nothing to do with each other. This also undermines the agency and individuality of each, as they are simply obeying the 'invisible hand' of the plot that needs them to develop a bond for the original films to make sense. Re-watching the first scenes with Obi-Wan in 'A New Hope,' when he wistfully explains that they were once "great friends" is transformed from a vaguely mysterious, but intriguing, hint at what happened in the past, into a laughable, head-scratching moment.

And poor, poor Vader needs a section all to his own....

4) They completely, utterly, irreparably ruin Darth Vader and his redemptive arc.

I remember when I realized that the title "Return of the Jedi" actually referred to Darth Vader's redemption, rather than the expected arrival of Luke as a great hero. The emotions that swirl around the climactic lightsaber duel on Endor are palpable, all fueled by the horrific revelation that Vader (seemingly evil incarnate) is Luke & Leia's father, a realization so abhorrent that Luke literally risks suicide by plunging himself into the depths of the Cloud City tunnels rather than face the possibility of its truth. The abject horror of this is only countered in the next film by the incredible turn of Vader, placing himself in harm's way to preserve his son. The light side does, in fact, prevail in the face of all hopelessness, not through power in combat, but through the power of self-sacrifice. Powerful stuff.

 Arguably one of the greatest cinematic moments in history, ruined when you know this guy was actually an angsty brat....

Arguably one of the greatest cinematic moments in history, ruined when you know this guy was actually an angsty brat....

Except, not really, when you learn the backstory of Vader in the prequels. He's not actually a tortured soul, a victim of an unusual gifting and talent that was manipulated by forces beyond him, including a powerful Jedi Council and a galactic government, which eventually tore him from his true love and his children, and placed him in a heart-wrenching conflict with his former "great friend" and mentor. In all reality, he's an impossibly annoying, incessantly whining, radically unstable individual who has no idea what's going on around him, and is all-too-willing to be manipulated. The Queen is not his lover, but the object of an unhealthy obsession. The climactic fight between him and Obi-Wan has less than a fraction of the emotional impact of the Vader/Luke duel on Endor, mostly because you kind of want him to die. 

It's pretty bad when the supposed emotional climax of an entire trilogy of movies results in an insufferably cliche scream of "NOOOOOO!!" complete with fists raised to the skies, and the viewer wants to chuckle instead of get misty-eyed.

While the outright failure of this supposed-to-be-emotionally-gripping moment in 'Revenge' is kind of funny, the effect it has on one of the greatest villians-turned-heroes in cinematic history is tragic. The kind face that the viewer finally glimpses under that black mask at the end of 'Return' has been forever poisoned by the grating, grimacing expression of a whiny Haydn Christensen. And it's for this very reason, when this conversation topic comes up and I explain my hatred of these movies, that I cannot stand the response, "Well, 'Revenge of the Sith' was definitely the best prequel." Maybe, but the "best" turd in a pile of turds is still a turd. 

So that's why, if I (hopefully) raise kids one day, I will keep the existence of the prequels a tightly-contained secret for as long as possible. But I still cannot wait to watch the original Star Wars movies with them.

A Theology of Refuge

The Syrian refugee crisis is the current hot-button issue in politics and social media. The country is war-torn, and the ongoing conflict surrounding its government (President Bashar al-Assad) has caused an estimated 11 million people to flee, searching for safety and refuge.

It's hard to grasp the reality of that number. Roughly speaking, this means a population equal to the size of New York and Chicago combined has been displaced. Imagine those two cities emptying out, and every occupant (many of whom are children) looking for a safe place to live.

And many Americans want to keep them out.

  Photo taken in Damascus on January 31, 2014 of Syrians lining up for food and supplies. Released by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Photo taken in Damascus on January 31, 2014 of Syrians lining up for food and supplies. Released by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

I understand that there is a real fear associated with a massive influx of refugees from that part of the world. With the reigning terror of ISIS, many people are concerned that jihadists will use the exodus from Syria as an opportunity to sneak into America and unleash attacks on our soil. I get that.

However, while there are compelling political reasons to grant these refugees access, my own perspective is primarily theological: to deny refuge to these people would be to perpetuate a socio-political ethic of fear and moral cowardice which is rooted in an idolatry of security.

Simply put, this crisis is a matter of integrity for Christians. It takes moral fortitude to say, "We welcome you here, despite the very real evil in this world that could take advantage of our openness." I don't deny that this idea is scary - it wouldn't be morally courageous if it didn't involve something to be genuinely afraid of - but it is absolutely the stance we must take, especially as people formed around the narrative of a God who became flesh and bore wounds for our sake (see Philippians 2 & Isaiah 53). To do otherwise would be to value both our own physical safety and the might and security of our nation-state over the safety of our global neighbors, our fellow image-bearers of God, and the self-sacrificing ethic modeled for us by God-revealed-in-Jesus.

The Jewish prophets in the Old Testament had a word for this: idolatry. 

One such prophet, Amos, spoke boldly to the nation of Israel when it was in some of its worst depths of corruption, declaring: "They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed." (Amos 2.6-7)

Another prophet speaking in a similar time, Micah, lamented to Israel on behalf of God, "Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house? Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights? Your rich people are violent; your inhabitants are liars, and their tongues speak deceitfully." (Micah 6.10-12)

These words reveal just a bit of the corruption that Israel had descended into, and it is especially heartbreaking to rewind the story and be reminded of where they came from: they were once refugees, fleeing an oppressive regime and slavery from an Empire, with no refuge and safety of their own.

At the beginning of this chapter in Israel's narrative, while still in the throes of slavery at the hands of Pharoah, during the well-known story of Moses and the burning bush, God says, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people. I have heard them crying out, and I am concerned about their suffering." (Exodus 3.7). This is followed by the famous account of the confrontation with Pharaoh, the plagues, and the exodus out of Egypt.  Immediately after this dramatic rescue, God-through-Moses builds a set of laws, of ethics, for these newly-freed slaves to live by:

"Do not pervert justice . . . do not do anything that endangers your neighbor's life . . . when a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt." (Leviticus 19)

statue of liberty.jpg

I can't help but notice a striking parallel here. The Israelites were called to remember that they were themselves once sojourners in a foreign land (a la the generations of European colonists that settled in the so-called "new world"), and should therefore treat their own resident aliens (refugees and asylum-seekers) with love and respect ("Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame . . . Mother of Exiles, from her beacon hand glows world-wide welcome . . . 'give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free'"). They (we) are fundamentally no different.

As the Israelites settled the land, grew into a developed society, and gained military and economic power, they increasingly desired to be "just like the other nations," (1 Samuel 8.5) and it is precisely this collective amnesia - the complete loss of their own narrative - that the prophets point to as a factor in their own corruption.

They forgot who they were, and as a result forgot how to treat their fellow humans.

They forgot God, who heard their cries, rescued them from bondage, and commanded them to be a "light to the other nations" (Isaiah 42.6), an example of God's fair and just governance. They forgot all of this, and became part of the very problem God was working through them to solve.

Thankfully, the story doesn't end there. Thankfully, God's perfect rule and reign on Earth was launched through a poor, itinerant (read: refugee) rabbi in the 1st century. Thankfully, this Kingdom continues to grow and expand in mysterious ways throughout the world, as humans get caught up in the way of sacrificial grace, mercy, justice and love modeled by a man who laid his life down and fearlessly bore wounds and suffering for others.

My fellow Christians, that is our Kingdom. That is our story, which supplants and supersedes any narratives of fear or idolatries of security which governments and politicians peddle as truth, and we dare not forget it.

There is simply no way we can both live a life formed around this redemptive narrative of God (as revealed in the Bible) and at the same time deny refuge to thousands (maybe millions) of people on the grounds that there is a small chance some radical jihadists could use the opportunity to inflict harm on us.

Maybe this sounds radical to you. I agree, and it is exactly this radical ethic that is more powerful than the radical extremism that seeks our harm.

Lord, may your Kingdom come on Earth, as it is in Heaven.

3 Things We (Evangelicals) Need to Stop Saying About the Catholic Church

I love being Evangelical. Our movement has a rich history of meaningful dialogue with culture and serious engagement with scripture. I start with this declaration, because I'm about to level a pointed critique at us.

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We need to seriously think about the ways we talk about our Catholic brothers and sisters. This type of reflection is long overdue, but particularly with the massive (and continually growing) popularity of Pope Francis, I believe now is as good a time as any to pause and reflect. So, I offer the following 3 statements, which I still routinely hear from fellow Evangelicals, as examples of outdated and ill-informed language that only serves to divide and alienate people who are .following the same Jesus, who incidentally prayed in his final moments that his followers would be united (John 17.20-23).

1. "The Catholic church is not part of the Christian faith."

The sheer audacity of this statement is stunning. According to the BBC, in 2013 there were over 1.2 billion members of the Catholic church worldwide, with over 40 percent of that figure (483 million) in Latin America alone. Now, I suspect that when people say this, they don't realize that they are effectively sitting in judgement of about one-seventh of the world's population. 

The sheer hubris of claiming that a population almost equal to the size of China has been duped into believing a "false form of Christianity" should be reason enough to stop saying this, but any crash course in history will also dismantle the logic behind it.

In my interactions with people who say this, it usually becomes clear that my conversation partner believes his/her own faith tradition (read: Evangelicalism) is the actual true form of Christianity. Now, it's important to guard against false doctrines and cults when they appear, but it's also important to understand that the form of Evangelicalism that is being held up here as "pure Christianity" didn't come into being until, at the very earliest one could possibly argue, the 16th century. So, I suppose that leaves 15 centuries of organized religion that was misguided and leading people to damnation. Thank God Luther came along, or else we would still be participating in something today that's not "part of the Christian faith!" In this view, then, Luther (and the other reformers) become almost more historically important to our movement than Jesus himself! Sure, he may have launched the Christian community, but then it languished in over 1500 years of corruption before the "true" version of it was finally and graciously unveiled to the world, which leads to statement number two...

2. "The Catholic church is corrupt."

The Catholic church is an institution. Like any other institution, it has had it's fair share of scandal: the horrible cover-up of sexually abusive priests in our own day, the descent of the papacy into greed and power-mongering during the Renaissance as evidenced by the infamous Borgias,  the medieval practice of buying and selling church offices like cardinals and bishoprics, and oh yeah, those Crusades into the Holy Land in the 11th and 12th centuries.

  Rodrigo Borgia, aka Pope Alexander VI

Rodrigo Borgia, aka Pope Alexander VI

These things happened, and while it's no use ignoring them, two points can be made in response. First, the majority of this corruption occurred in the 11th-15th centuries. It's certainly no coincidence that the Reformation was triggered in the 1500s, and Luther and Calvin were very reluctant to break up the church - they saw it as their mission to simply fix what was wrong!

In the wake of the Reformation, the Catholic Church has gone through it's own series of reformations, which have addressed and clarified many of the issues brought up by people like Luther and Calvin. As a result, the Renaissance-era Catholic church that was riddled with crime and greed simply doesn't exist anymore. If you imagine the Pope as a thoroughly wealthy man, who indulges himself in fine foods and pulls strings in politics and the church to benefit his own family or interests, you are imagining a Pope that hasn't been in power for 500 years. Instead, I encourage you to look at the current Pope, who drives around a used, donated car from 1984, suspends bishops who waste money, and prioritizes time with the homeless in his busy schedule.

Second, it's also worth noting that the institution of Evangelicalism has had plenty of its own missteps: pastors like Creflo Dollar who scam congregants into funding private jets; sexual scandals from someone like Ted Haggard, or even Mark Driscoll's recent fall from grace

The point here is that any organized institution is not safe from making serious mistakes, and these mistakes seem more and more likely as the institution gets larger and more powerful. Such "principalities and powers"  don't always function the way God would intend, and churches are no exception to this. We even have a theological word for this: sin.

Now, this is not an attempt to explain away corruption as the inevitable result of institutional growth. That would be a depressing conclusion, and wouldn't further the conversation. Rather, I hope that we Evangelicals can see that we are simply no different from our Catholic brothers and sisters. We all function in some type of organized religious system (whether it's a single, highly-organized institution under the authority of the Pope, or a loosely organized expression of various traditions under the authority of local pastors/elders). and both our chosen institutions are in need of grace.

3. "The Catholic faith is a 'works-based religion.'"

We Evangelicals love faith and grace, almost as much as we squirm when someone talks about "works." We have mantras like "saved by grace" and "justified by faith." Our hero, Luther, wanted to strike the letter of James out of the Biblical canon because of the phrase "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." (NRSV, James 2.24) This is built into our DNA, as it goes the whole way back to Luther's problems with practices like "Indulgences."

This is largely a good thing - we claim no credit for our own salvation! For most Evangelicals, if you, in any way, can claim to have "done something to earn your status before God," then you have left the bounds of grace. It is this firm commitment to such an interpretation of God's grace that makes many Evangelicals uncomfortable with the way the Catholic church encourages practicing sacraments (read: works) like prayer, confession, or baptism to receive grace and forgiveness. Well, if you have to do something, then aren't you practicing a "saved-by-works" religion?

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First, the Catholic church wholeheartedly affirms grace. According to the Catechism, grace is "the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call." It is "first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us." And furthermore, in a very telling phrase, "there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator."

Sounds pretty Evangelical, doesn't it?

I want to suggest that the Catholic practice of sacraments is just as biblical as the Evangelical focus on grace and faith. After all, Jesus commanded us to pray, and Paul seemed to think that things like Confession and Baptism were pretty important in the Christian community (see especially Romans and Galatians).

I won't argue that the culture of Catholic practice could encourage a "works-based" mindset (just show up to confession and say your "Hail Marys" and you're good!) if not done carefully and critically. However, I also won't argue that the culture of most Evangelical churches can encourage a "head-based" mindset (just believe all the right theological statements and ignore physical actions or expressions, for they can't be trusted!) if not practiced carefully and critically.

My life and faith has been personally enriched by the presence of Catholic writers, priests, and friends. Therefore, I end with a plea to my Evangelical brothers and sisters: stop adhering to ill-informed notions of our Catholic siblings. For the sake of God's Kingdom on Earth, stop perpetuating out-dated rivalries and barriers. The world needs to hear the Gospel too badly for this to continue.

Lord, have mercy. Grace and peace to you.

Christmas, Violence, and Being White in America

Usually, I associate Christmas with things like hot wassail, sleeplessness and family-time. Pleasant memories, conjured up by the comfort of tradition. This year, though, I can't help but feel more than a twinge of discomfort. While I sip on my wassail and give in to my mother's good-natured but never-ending deluge of family pictures, the children, siblings, and parents of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice are likely experiencing a heartbreaking holiday. I don't want to speak for them, but I can only imagine that they are suffering.

So, I could plunge into self-inflicted, so-called "white guilt," punishing myself for being born with a privilege these men never had access to. This response, however, is ultimately self-serving: to assure myself that I feel bad about what's happening so that my life can remain functionally unchanged. When I find myself swinging between feelings of outrage and despair, as I have been for months now, hungering and thirsting for true righteousness, I've learned to instead turn to the source of my hope.

Jesus was undeniably born into a violent world and a violent narrative. The very location of his birth was forcefully moved by the oppressive empire (Rome) who issued a census (for the purposes of accurate taxation) of the far-reaching empire they settled and built by force (Luke 2.1). Upon finding out that Eastern mystics came seeking another prophesied King, the paranoid and power-hungry vassal-king the Romans put in place to subdue the Jewish region of their empire, Herod, immediately slaughtered every two-year-old boy in the vicinity of Jesus' birth town, Bethlehem (Matthew 2.16). To ancient Jewish readers, this event would immediately call to mind yet another foreign oppressor from their past, Pharaoh in Egypt, who at one point threw every Hebrew boy into the Nile for fear of their growing numbers (Exodus 1.22).

Here we have a people, a tribe, an ethnic group, repeatedly subjugated by foreign power. When this power is seemingly threatened, either in truth or by perception, violent means are taken to eliminate said threat. Even Israel, the tribe chosen by God to bless the world, was not immune to the temptation of exercising such power to violent ends once they had an established kingdom and military power (see the long list of wicked Kings in the Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles). This is what humans do. This is the mess we create when left to our own devices. This is the "wickedness" that God saw when he looked down and "regretted that he had made human beings on the earth." (Genesis 6.6) 

But, looking down at us, in a self-inflicted disaster rooted in our original desire to have God-like power (see Genesis 3.5), God's love for his creation prevailed. God's love eclipsed His regret at what we became, and God came to us. God came through a young, scared peasant girl who courageously and thoughtfully took on the responsibility of mothering an unexpected child. God's love came through Joseph, a righteous man who preserved the sanctity of his wedding vows, but refused the temptation to publicly shame his pregnant fiance and instead submitted himself to the process of fathering a child that wasn't his own. God's love came through Jesus, who placed himself in the middle of the worst that humans could throw at him, the violence that we inevitably turn to when we seek to establish our own "kingdoms" among ourselves, rather than God's.

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There is despair in the black community of America. Cornel West would call it a sense of "nihilism," a deep and profound feeling of worthlessness. While people very quickly want to debate the particulars of each incident, the innocence of the victims, the grand jury process, the question of militarism of the police, or the fact that white men get shot by black cops and the media has nothing to say about it, I can't help but feel a similar sense of despair. All is not right in the world, and no debate, explanation, or media-blaming can ultimately make me feel better about that.

As people of the cross, the community surrounding that tragic symbol of what humans will do to an innocent life, to their very Creator come among them, we truly cannot hold ourselves distantly aloof from the recent happenings in our country. We can't hide behind explanations and arguments for one simple reason: God didn't.

Jesus had the ultimate opportunity to stay unaffected by the disaster we created, and he instead chose ultimate intimacy with our sin (Philippians 2.6-8). If you call yourself a Christian, if you seek to put your life at all under Jesus' lordship and ruling, and if you ever utter the phrase, "Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven," then I implore you to follow Jesus into the mess. Stop using whatever you are using to keep yourself at a distance. Think upon that helpless baby, born among animal feces and eventually killed as a criminal, naked and bleeding and on display for all to deride, and allow yourself to enter the brokenness surrounding us.

I promise that Jesus is already there.

Left Behind: Why We Can't Ignore This Film (even if you want to)

As many in the Evangelical world know, the official trailer for the 'Left Behind' movie, starring Nic Cage, premiered on YouTube recently. As of the time of this writing, the official clip has more than 1.5 million views. I'm sure Kirk Cameron is green with envy.

As much as I'd like to pretend all of this isn't happening, I've reached the conclusion that willful ignorance simply isn't an option at this point. If you'll indulge me, I'd like to explain two things: 1) why do I keep hoping the existence of 'Left Behind' is just an extended, bad daydream and 2) how I've reached the conclusion that it is, in fact, really happening, and that I need to stop whining and address it directly.

Transient

A Bad Dream

"Left Behind" is bad theology. When you break those terms down, "bad theology" simply means speaking/thinking/learning about God "badly." As a convinced Christian, I believe that knowing the God revealed in Jesus is the most important vocation of humanity, and to do so "badly," whether through art or academic study, is harmful to the world.

The story of "Left Behind" is based on a specific form of Dispensational rhetoric that emerged and was clarified by John Darby in the late 1800s. The implications of this alone are important: no one before the 19th century believed in the "rapture." Martin Luther, Aquinas & Paul did not believe history was headed towards a magical, instant disappearance of millions of Christians, which would then leave behind chaos and disaster in a world occupied solely by unbelievers.

This may seem like a bold claim. There are entire books on this subject alone, but here I will briefly look at two misreadings of relevant texts, which I hope will be enough to make my point. If you are not convinced, please look into it more. Reading those books would be a good start.

First is 1 Thessalonians 4:17. This is Paul's earliest letter, and he explains that "those of us who are still alive will be caught up together in the air...and we will be with the Lord forever." This certainly sounds like we will be raptured "up into the sky," but this is decidedly not what Paul was referring to. The Greek word used here is parousia, which was a specific concept that referred to the custom of greeting a royal, noble person when he visited your estate. In this process of greeting, those who lived in the estate would go to the boundary, to greet the King, or Lord, and accompany the visiting party into the estate for the visit. It would be dishonorable to the guest not to go through a parousia. 

Paul goes to great lengths to explain to the early Christian church that God is the true King, the true Lord, of our world, not the current King, Emperor, or Caesar who exerts power over you. In the resurrection of Jesus, God inaugurated this Kingship, this process of bringing about new creation, which will only be fulfilled when God returns to claim back the creation that was wrested away by sin and evil. When God does return, we who are alive will greet God, in a grand parousia, which will end back on Earth. I cannot claim to know exactly what this might look like, but the mystical language Paul used in his letter to the Thessalonian church certainly does not describe a literal "vaporization" of Christians to some disembodied, heavenly realm. Paul would be grieved to know his words would be used this way.

Second is the discourse found in Matthew 24:36-44. In this section, Jesus explains that "two will be in the field, and one will be taken," or that "two women will be grinding meal, and one will be taken." This image, combined with the one above, have largely been the source of our modern notions of "rapture." A  careful reading of Matthew 24 does not allow this interpretation.

In this section of text, Jesus draws a clear comparison to the "days of Noah," in which men were eating, drinking, and having a grand time when the flood struck. Those men, he explains, knew nothing about what was about to happen, and the flood came and "swept them away." "So too," Jesus says, "will be the coming of the Son of Man." 

Per Jesus' explanation, the ones who were "swept away" by the flood were those who were judged, not those who were found to be righteous! It is a grand irony that we have missed this fundamental point and so concluded that only the true Christians will be "swept away" by the rapture.

When I read Matthew 24, I pray that I will be left behind.

Why I Can't Ignore This

What we believe about our future directly impacts how we act in the present. If I know my house is going to be demolished in a few weeks, I am not going to waste time cleaning the bathroom, mowing the lawn, or fixing any creaky doors. So too, if we believe we are going to be "teleported" away from impending earthly disaster to a spiritual, disembodied state. Why waste time and effort on ecological care? Why take care of our own bodies? 

Additionally, and more importantly, the "good news" of Jesus' gospel is warped into fear-mongering and scare tactics. I have spent countless conversations with children at summer camps & students on college campuses, assuring them that the end of history is not something Christians should fear. The idea of God coming to set everything right should be a joyful, hopeful prospect, if one believes God is the true, rightful King of our world, and one truly wants God's will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven. 

Within the decline in popularity of the "Left Behind" novels, and what I perceived as the abysmal failure of the first few movies, I hoped this phase was over. However, as the success of this new trailer apparently exhibits, our culture still maintains a strange fascination with this theology.

Notably, I have already had non-Christian friends point it out the trailer to me, and ask what I think about it. I can only imagine this is going to increase, as the film nears its wide release. As has happened in the past (with movies like "The Passion of the Christ" and "God's Not Dead), I'm sure Evangelical churches will see this film as an "opportunity to witness." There will probably be discussion guides, as well as full-blown Sunday school curriculum, printed and sold. Large churches will buy out theaters and encourage all their patrons to attend, in an effort to make this a successful movie.

This is why I (we) can't ignore it.

In a strange way, I actually agree that the release of "Left Behind" will be an "opportunity to witness." It is an opportunity to confidently say to our friends who view it, "I do not agree with this depiction of the God I worship. Can I explain to you why that is?"

The God of the Bible, the God revealed in Jesus, is not going to "beam up" His followers so that havoc can be unleashed on the creation He once called "good" and so desired to inhabit (see Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22). This God, the one who humbly walked into an unjust death at the hands of an earthly empire, does not require the violence depicted in the "Left Behind" novels to take place before his return.

With the widespread cultural visibility this film has already gained, those of us who are firmly anti-rapture-rhetoric do not have the option of wishing it would just go away. And I encourage those who subscribe to Pre-Millenial, Dispensational Theology to examine the implications of it, at the risk of supporting a distorted presentation of Our Lord and our future.

God, may your will be done on this Earth, on the ground I walk on, as it is currently done in Heaven.

Systematic Theology (for Recovering Evangelicals): part 3

The Identity of God

Transient

The Evangelical perception of God is confusing, as if God is a complicated mix of many contradictory identities: Is he an angry, violent God bent on judgment and destroying sinful creatures? Is he a gentle, inclusive God defined primarily by love? Is he as nice as Jesus was? Is he really three different "beings"? Is he a "he"?

This minefield is difficult to navigate, and though it is tempting to ignore the hard work of discovering God's identity and just go with whatever your tradition has always said, a faulty, or less-than-biblical, conception of the Christian God is at the root of many damaging philosophies. The following is a brief outline of some of these schools of thought.

Stoicism/Pantheism, Epicureanism/Deism & the Judeo-Christian Alternative

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
— Ecclesiastes 1:9

Two major, ancient schools of philosophy have deeply infected the modern, Evangelical conception of god: Stoicism and Epicureanism.** Though there is much to be said about these philosophies, this discussion here will be limited to the relevant pieces of each.

First, one central doctrine of Stoicism taught that the entirety of creation was composed of material known as "God". This God was in everything one could see, including oneself. This whole idea is obviously closely related to Pantheistic thought, and in some ways laid groundwork for its continued prominence. Interestingly, one Greek word for this Stoic God was "Logos", which is translated into English as "word." In the masterful prologue to John's Gospel, he intentionally and repeatedly uses this word "Logos" to position Jesus as an alternative to the Stoic conception of a universal God.

There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.
— Epictetus

Second, and in direct contradiction to Stoicism, is the Epicurean notion of God. Epictetus, considered the founder of this philosophy, seemed to be dismayed over the prevailing superstitious ideas of a God, or many gods, who would randomly interfere with the goings-on of the world, and were believed to punish you in conscious torment after your death. In response, he decisively taught that if any gods did exist, they were profoundly disconnected from and uninterested in our world. The world around us, and the ongoing development of humanity, was entirely the result of natural causes. Incidentally, the rise of Deism (which many of America's founders were subscribed to) is a natural continuation of Epicurean thought.

Evangelical Christianity is not insulated from the impact of these philosophies. New Age movements declaring that God is in each of us, that God simply needs to be discovered in one's own heart, are simply modern manifestations of Stoic thought. Though Christianity rightly teaches that God is imminent, that God is close to us and involved in our lives, we can err dangerously close to a pantheistic philosophy when we forget that for God to be holy, and for there to have been a Fall, the Creator is in some distinct way separated from the created (though the redemptive movement of the Bible profoundly declares this separation was eliminated in Jesus, and will eventually be eliminated throughout the rest of the creation, but I'm getting ahead of myself....) On the flip side of this, the modern sweep of the New Atheism (Dawkins, Hitchens, and the like), and the unending fight between science and religion, is really simply a new manifestation of Epicureanism. If we can observe and explain every natural process surrounding us, then God is clearly not involved in the world in any meaningful way.

So, where is the Evangelical Christian left in all of this? Who is it that we worship? Will the real God please stand up?

In many ways, I believe Christians need to reexamine our connection to ancient Judaism, for it provides a beautiful alternative to this philosophical quandary. Rather than ignoring or fearing our connection to this ancient religion, but instead seeking to humbly understand it, we can glean marvelous wisdom and insight, particularly into the character of the God we worship.

If it were possible to travel back in time, to one of the few centuries before Jesus was born, and ask a devout Jew, "Who is God?" he would not respond with any of the following words: immutable, omnipresent, impassible, or omniscient. He certainly wouldn't say the name of God, since vocalizing the name of the divine being was strictly considered blasphemy in the ancient Jewish world, possibly at the threat of being stoned. Instead, he would likely explain that God is the one who brought his people out of slavery in Egypt, the one who made a promise to their father Abraham, and the one who would eventually bring about a Messiah to fully restore his people.  

We evangelicals have grown too fond of talking about God in terms of "attribute ontology," primarily describing God in terms of characteristics. Interestingly, many of these attributes which are frequently connected to God in modern vernacular (omnipresent, omniscient, et al.) can be more readily linked to the vocabulary of ancient Greek philosophy than the vocabulary of ancient Jewish worship. The point here is not to suggest that all these terms are incorrect, or inaccurate (though I do think some are much more helpful than others) but is rather to suggest a move away from "attribute ontology" and instead towards "event ontology."

When Moses spoke to the burning bush in the desert, he said, "When I go back to the leaders of my tribe, who am I supposed to say sent me?" And God replied, in those famous words, "I AM WHO I AM." (Exodus 3.14) I like to think this was God saying, "I'm the one who is here, right now. I have shown up to take care of this mess, and I'm always going to show up to take care of every mess, because I promised to do that, and I always keep my promises. My identity speaks for itself. I AM WHO I AM."

God shows up. When we speak about God, how much more powerful, and helpful, it is to speak about the events in which God has been revealed in the world, and even in our own lives, rather than trying to describe convoluted philosophical attributes of a supreme being. Among many other things, the Bible is a narrative of events that show how God has "showed up" throughout human history. As Christians, we stand on the tradition of our Jewish forefathers, and we can declare that God has faithfully showed up to God's own people through the ages, and ultimately showed up in a meek, Jewish Rabbi in the first century. God shows up, and will continue to show up, out of faithfulness, grace, and love in order to restore our lives, our communities, and ultimately our world. This is the God we worship.

God and Gendered Language

Transient

Before closing, I find it important to make a note on "gendered language" in reference to God. The Evangelical tradition has resolutely decided that the only pronoun which should be used to refer to God is the male "he." A quick survey of our books, sermons, and worship music shows this to be true. Jesus was male and referred to God as his "father", so the thinking goes, and this therefore reflects that God is in some way more masculine than feminine in identity. Well-known evangelical pastors have subscribed to this, and I find it extremely important to wave a cautionary flag before we limit the biblical revelation of God to one gender and support the idea that women somehow bear less of the image of God than their male counterparts. An honest look at the ways biblical writers describe God simply does not allow us to limit God to being male.

First, both "male and female" were created in God's image, equally (Genesis 1.27). God is then repeatedly described, in God's own first-person language, as a mother (Hosea 11.3, Isaiah 49.15, Isaiah 66.13). Twice, God is described as a mother animal caring for her young (Deuteronomy 32.11, Hosea 13.8). Isaiah described God as a woman in labor, and Jeremiah even speaks of God as the Queen of Heaven! (Isaiah 42.14, Jeremiah 44.25)

Furthermore, Jesus describes himself as a mother hen, wishing to gather her young (Matthew 23.37, Luke 13.34). And lastly, immediately before the famous story of the Prodigal Son, which is in large part the source of our God-as-Father imagery, Jesus portrays God as a woman looking for a lost coin in her home (Luke 15.8).

In summation, I am not advocating that we simply switch all our pronouns to "she" when speaking of God, for that would be to continue to limit God to one gender. I'm also not advocating that we refer to God as an impersonal "it!" Rather, we need to recover a more complex conception of the God we worship, and we need to examine ourselves: why are we so comfortable with always referring to God as "He," and so uncomfortable with the idea of ever referring to God as "She," especially when the writers of the Bible didn't seem to have an issue with it?

As Evangelicals, we limit our own capacity to worship when we speak only of philosophical attributes and the male gender in reference to our God. God is bigger than this, the ultimate and loving father, mother, queen, and king. God is the one who has faithfully shown up, and will continue to faithfully show up, until the world is put back to rights, declaring "I AM WHO I AM."

This is our God.

**For more on this subject, both Greg Boyd and N.T. Wright have written extensively on the impact of Greek philosophies on American Christianity.

Frozen: How Disney Inadvertently Produced the Most "Christian" Movie In a Year Full of "Christian" Films

 I have to admit that I"m quite intrigued by this....

I have to admit that I"m quite intrigued by this....

2014 could go down as the year of Christ-themed, Bible-centric movies. That is, it could if the films were more memorable. We have already seen Aronofsky's "Noah", the Newsboy's brand-building "God's Not Dead," and the re-edited History Channel's "Son of God." Upcoming titles include "Believe Me" starring Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation, yet another low-budget "persecution fantasy" titled "A Matter of Faith," another white Moses in "Exodus: Gods and Kings" (played by Christian Bale and directed by Ridley Scott) and of course that already-infamous "Left Behind" remake starring Nic Cage, the film that still seems like a giant practical joke.

That's a lot of "Christian" movies in one year. 

Full disclosure: I actually quite enjoyed "Noah," though I understand some of the Christian community's discomfort with it, not to mention Aronofsky's own comments that it was the "least biblical biblical movie ever made." And though I am wildly tired of caucasian Moses-figures leading a bunch of white people out of slavery, I will likely go see "Exodus" because I am intrigued by the combination of Ridley Scott and Christian Bale.

So, in a year that is incredibly full of references to God and the Bible in movie theaters, how is it that Disney's latest princess-in-distress tale has pointed me to Jesus more effectively than any of the others?

‘I don’t even know what love is.’
’That’s ok. I do. Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.’
— Anna & Olaf

While there is much to like about "Frozen," and a lot of conversation and feminist rhetoric has surrounded its reception, I have been remarkably struck and encouraged by its relatively simple core message. If you haven't seen it, the movie revisits and subverts most of the Disney tropes: a strapping Prince Charming, the unstoppable power of "true love's kiss," and the very definition of love itself. While some are singing Disney's praises for courageously doing something new and refreshing, others remain critical, making the point that this movie wouldn't be considered "different" if Disney hadn't repeatedly glorified the tale of a-helpless-princess-needing-a-muscular-male-hero for the past six decades. Regardless of this back-and-forth, the movie is a vessel of one core truth: Love is the action of placing the needs of others above yourself.

I suppose a SPOILER ALERT is in order here. The rest of this piece WILL spoil the end of the movie. But if you haven't seen it yet, you really need to. So stop reading and find your closest Redbox. Seriously.

Without rehashing the story in too much detail, the central tension in "Frozen" is built on the strained relationship of two sisters (Elsa & Anna). Elsa goes into self-imposed exile, while Anna relentlessly pursues a close friendship with her older sister over the course of their lives. The exiled sister leads a tortured existence, while the younger sibling does not understand what is keeping them apart. Upon reaching adulthood, Anna falls quickly for a handsome, charming prince from a neighboring kingdom. They sing a rousing song, "Love is an Open Door," before he proposes hours after they meet, and she agrees to marry him.

Pretty standard Disney fare, so far.

 The characters of "Frozen."

The characters of "Frozen."

However, the script turns wildly at this point, and both Elsa and Anna's decisions come under close scrutiny. Elsa flees the kingdom she is intended to rule, and while searching for her Anna meets a goofy, bumbling (though admittedly still handsome) man who begrudgingly helps her on her quest. The conflict between the sisters escalates, Anna's life is endangered, she realizes that only an act of true love can save her, and her fiance is revealed to be an evil man who manipulated her into agreeing to engagement so he could take over the kingdom.

The film builds wonderfully to its climax, and I was genuinely surprised by some of the twists. In two instances, not just one, it seems as though Anna will finally receive "true love's first kiss." And it doesn't happen.

Let me say that again. In two instances, Anna seems about to receive true love's kiss, but it doesn't happen. 

As the tension rises, Anna sees her bumbling male companion struggling towards her. The audience knows he can alone save her with a kiss, and we yearn along with Anna for him to swoop in, but Elsa is similarly in danger nearby. Anna, literally on the brink of death, exerts her last burst of energy to move away from the man who can save her, placing herself in harm's way, saving her sister and sacrificing her very life.

It was at this point that my jaw hit the ground. I just watched one individual literally lay down her own safety in favor of the very person who repeatedly refused her offers of friendship and intimacy. Combine this with the fact that she could have allowed the handsome man to save her with a kiss, but she instead chose death. Her reason for this choice: she loves her sister, even more than herself, it seems.

And this is a Disney movie??

Now, to be fair, Frozen is not without a typical, overly saccharine, happy resolution. Though my melancholic, artsy critic side would have loved the movie to end there, Anna's act of true love ultimately saves her, she does share a kiss with the man she loves, and the kingdom is restored.

But I'll take what I can.

I love a lot about "Frozen." I love that it passes the Bechdel Test. I love the music. I love that Olaf and Sven are genuinely funny, goofy sidekicks. I love that the women don't need men to validate their existence, nor save them. I love that young boys seem as smitten with the movie as most young girls. And most importantly, I love that its definition of love subverts our culture's outlook and creates a space in the viewer's heart in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes sense.

In theological terms, Anna experiences Kenosis. Anything resembling selfish will is emptied out of her, and her selfless act thaws her sister's hardened heart, ultimately redeeming and restoring their relationship and family.

Paul articulates a similar process in his letter to Philippi. Christ, having every reason to hold on to his equality with God, instead "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave" (Phil 2:7). And this, being possible because of God's unconditional love for the world (John 3:16) despite humans repeated refusal of God's love, our stubborn willingness to exile ourselves from God (Ezekiel 16). Knowing my own tendency, just like Elsa, to prefer isolation over accepting someone's love that I don't feel I deserve, made Anna's climactic decision emotional for me to watch.

This Gospel may not be explicitly proclaimed in Disney's latest, but if you're interested in a film with a Christian message, you can't do much better this year. Plus, that "Let it Go" song is just so darn catchy.

Systematic Theology (for Recovering Evangelicals): Part 2

The previous post in this series provided a brief introduction to the term "Systematic Theology", as well as an explanation and apologetic for undergoing the process of compiling a "systematic theology for recovering Evangelicals."

 This entry introduces an overview of the various topics to be covered. Included with each topic is a brief summary of the perspective I assumed while growing up in the Evangelical church, and which of these assumptions may or may not need to be revisited. 

Topic #1: The Identity of God

Transient

The most common pronoun used in vernacular English when talking about God is "He/Him," while the Bible presents a much more complex identity. Additionally, it's probably impossible to overstate the extent to which Greek philosophy has infected the average Evangelical conception of God. Ideas like omnipotence, timelessness, and immutability are all essentially Greek conceptions of the divine being, which I believe run directly counter to the One Jewish God, Yahweh, as presented especially in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). 

Our reduction of God to one gendered pronoun, combined with the philosophical foundation laid by Plato and Aristotle, has distanced our conception of God far from what is revealed in our Holy Scriptures. How can we recover a healthier view of God's identity in the Evangelical church?

Topic #2: Theology of Creation

The recent Ken Ham/Bill Nye event (I'm reluctant to apply the term "debate" to what actually happened there - though it certainly wasn't the same level of disaster as that infamous Scopes Trial) is evidence of how modern Evangelicals have gone "all in" on the Fundamentalists' theology of creation, established within the past 150 years. It's crucial to understand that this isn't simply a question of "science vs. religion." Rather, a vibrant theology of creation helps answer questions like, "Why did God create? What does creation reveal about God's plan for history? What does it mean for humans to bear this God's image?"

All the ills from which America suffers can be traced to the teaching of evolution.
— William Jennings Bryan (defendant in Scopes Trial of 1925)

Clamping down on the Young-Earth model in an effort to prove some scientific legitimacy can be found in Biblical text profoundly misses these questions. Instead, a healthier theology of creation can lay the groundwork for redemptive mission as we align with God's purposes for the planet.

Spoiler Alert: I don't think the Earth is 10,000 years old.

Topic #3: The Importance of the Old Covenant

Growing up in a wonderful Evangelical church and family, the first two-thirds of my Bible quickly were established as source material for some fun stories (Noah, Jonah & Samson), some scary stories of God's anger (see Noah, Jonah & Samson) and some confusing prophets (see every prophetic book). Beyond this, the purpose of including all these pages in every copy of the Bible baffled me. It seemed like all we needed was the story of Jesus, especially the cross.

Well, it may not surprise you to know that I think wholly differently now. Understanding the Old Covenant (or more realistically, a series of Covenants made with a lineage of people) as a step in God's plan for creation, which can be understood within the context of God's identity, radically helps one understand the shocking Good News that Jesus ushered in.

Topic #4: Jesus, the Messiah

I grew up feeling as though I understood Jesus well enough. He came to die for my sins (more on this in the Atonement entry) and was raised from the dead to prove that He really was God (more on this in the Resurrection entry). Jesus saves me from God's righteous anger at my sin, and this is Good News which I should share with everyone I know. So much of this conception of Jesus has changed as I've struggled to follow him.

Furthermore, where does the title "Messiah" fit into this? I always simply assumed that "Messiah" was one of those "religious" or "churchy" words that we are just supposed to apply to Jesus when we sing about him. Rather, with a robust view of the Old Covenant established, acknowledging Jesus as "Messiah" suddenly carries bold claims. Submitting to his Messiah-ship over your life becomes a tangible, life-changing act. And it really is Good News.

Topic #5: Atonement

I remember when I learned (somewhat recently) that there is more than one way of understanding how Jesus has atoned for the sins of humanity. It blew my mind, and I'm still in the process of picking up the pieces. 

If you grew up in a context similar to mine, you have always been taught the "Penal Substitutionary model" of atonement: on the cross, Jesus absorbed God's wrath directed towards our sin. If, like me, you grew up with this teaching, you might be dissatisfied with it. You might also be shocked to know that the first 1100 years of the church did not necessarily operate under this assumption (though early patristic writings do allude to it). You might be excited to know there are alternative models of atonement that are rooted in the Old Covenant, in God's Identity, and are scripturally-sound, and that the notable problems with Penal Subsitution can be dealt with and placed in a context which makes sense of a loving God who would accomplish atoning work through a violent death.

Topic #6: Resurrection & New Creation

Simply put, the resurrection was not Jesus "proving" that he really had magical, divine powers. It is not an afterthought to the cross, though a brief survey of Evangelical culture might show that we devote an inordinate amount of time focusing on Jesus' death (please note that I am NOT asserting that the cross is somehow unimportant - we have simply cranked the volume on that speaker way too loud, and the result is a distorted, crackly sound. The wide commercial success of Mel Gibson's Passion provides a relevant illustration - the viewer endures agonizingly-long scenes of bloody torture, and is treated to a mere, fleeting glimpse of the resurrected Jesus as the film ends). The resurrection of Jesus absolutely cannot be of more theological importance. Easter is bigger than Christmas.

Topic #7: The Importance of the New Covenant

Just as understanding the Old Covenant is crucial to any systematic theology, the New Covenant is equally fundamental. The act of God "cutting" a New Covenant sheds light on everything Jesus accomplished, as well as why we celebrate communion in the modern church. A refreshing look at the New Covenant has very practical implications for how we "do church" in our modern context.

Topic #8: Evangelism & Conversion

When discussing the notion of "Conversion" in the Evangelical world, one must take into account a veritable "perfect storm" of factors which have converged to birth the culture we find ourselves in: American pragmatism & efficiency, the success of Revival culture and Westward Expansion, and the afore-mentioned Fundamentalist renewal in the early 1900s. All this has produced an overly simplistic model of what it means to produce converts, and to Evangelize the masses. Christians have an undeniable opportunity to herald the Gospel of our King, but it has been boiled down to responding to an altar call, repeating a certain prayer, or even "recommiting" your life. Rooted in holistic theology, conversion moves away from "flipping a switch" and becomes a nuanced, joyful process of experiencing change and sanctification.

Topic #9: Worship

As a "worship leader" in Evangelical church settings for over 15 years, I have spent quite some time thinking about our modern notion of worship. Along with our fractured understanding of God's identity, avoidance of the Old Covenant, and undue focus on the violence of the cross, we also have the shadowy specter of a massive, seemingly corrupt, money-printing industry that feeds on producing "worship music" for our communities. Worship has been reduced to singing some songs once per week, and possibly clapping or raising your hands if you're "really into it". I pray we can reverse course, and by allowing ourselves to be drawn into God's own presence, with a fuller understanding of what that means, we can acknowledge God's worth and Lordship. Lord, have mercy on us.

Topic #10: Eschatology

Finally, we come to that big word which just means "study of how things end." This is timely, as Nic Cage is poised to wreck audiences in that Left Behind remake. Proper eschatology cannot be divorced from everything discussed above, particularly God's Identity and the Theology of Creation. Where we believe we are going has direct implications for how we act today, and as a culture, we drastically need to undo the havoc caused by Rapture-Driven, Pre-Millenial Dispensational rhetoric (if those words are largely foreign to you, they will be unpacked more in this entry). We need to recover a vibrant understanding of a multi-ethnic new heavens AND new earth, in which humanity is finally fully reconciled to Yahweh through Yahweh's own faithfulness to every covenant established with unfaithful, fickle humans, all accomplished through the sacrificial humility of the lamb. This is a God truly driven by love for God's own creation, and one that is certainly worth eternal worship.

Amen.

Systematic Theology (for Recovering Evangelicals): Part 1

Introduction

Like many Evangelical Americans, I have progressed through a tumultuous relationship with the church and my own faith. Throughout the phases of my life thus far I have moved in and out of the following wildly varied assumptions: being a card-carrying Christian also implies being a card-carrying Republican; women probably shouldn't be pastors; there was DEFINITELY one historical man named Adam in a place called Eden; there was definitely NEVER a historical man named Adam in a place called Eden; dinosaurs were absolutely among the passengers on Noah's ark; the story of Noah is a grand myth; Jesus' death was God's act of justly punishing humanity's debt to him because of sin (and there is no other way of understanding the cross); the earth is less than 10,000 years old; God knows all future events; God's foreknowledge is open and undefined; God is fundamentally a "He"; to be "saved" means repeating the "sinner's prayer"; scripture is 100% inerrant; there are parts of the Bible that are more historically reliable than others; Revelation obviously teaches the Rapture and Dispensationalism; Hell is a place of eternal, conscious torment; God is somehow working through all world religions; dropping the label "Christian" and instead calling oneself a "Christ-follower" is more spiritually sound; the Old Testament is less important than the New One;  Mary might not have actually been a virgin when Jesus was born; Catholics aren't actually Christians; and that I could no longer identify as an "Evangelical".

I still hold onto some of these assumptions. Some make me uncomfortable, and some I take great pains to radically distance myself from. Some of them will change. But underneath all of them is that divisive word: "theology", the study of God.

Theology is an interesting subject in modern culture. There are people who absolutely love studying it, and many of them may or may not call themselves "Christian". Then there are many people who do call themselves "Christian" who seem to despise it. To them, it is only a topic for cold, skeptical academics, and spending time and energy on answering difficult theological questions will only dampen one's passion for Jesus. Better to be content praying spontaneous, heartfelt prayers and raising your hands to a rockin' worship song. Don't think too hard, for that only leads to questions, which inevitably lead to being apostate.

I am sympathetic to this, to a degree. The feeling is captured succinctly by the political cartoon "The Descent of the Modernists"

"The Descent of the Modernists" by E.J. Pace, which first appeared in 1924.

I can understand, and have sometimes even interacted with, the fear of this "slippery slope". The reality is that this fear was created and cultivated within a specific historical phase in the development of Evangelical culture. In responding to this descent, the Protestant church, especially in America, has largely dug in her heels and clamped down on some "fundamental" issues that cannot be questioned (a more detailed discussion of this will appear in the Church History entry of this blog series). This all brings me to the conclusion of this introductory post.

Why Theology?

I firmly believe that more robust theology is desperately needed in the Evangelical church. Theology is something Evangelical Christians should love, not fear. An unspoken assumption in Evangelicalism seems to be, "Studying God, and relentlessly seeking answers to questions, is simply a way to 'control' God, explain away uncomfortable mysteries, and shrink God down to your human-sized intellect." This is an unfair assumption, which is keeping "lay people" from deep, rigorous study, watering down the teaching ministry of the Evangelical church, and needlessly exiling scholars and academics from the family of God. Ultimately, we are to love and worship God, and to know more about God, to study God's self-revelation through Jesus and the written Scriptures, should primarily lead to increased awe, reverence, and gratitude. This is why we need to reclaim theology.  

Why "Systematic"?

To break down the terms here, "Systematic Theology" simply means: the study of God done carefully and according to a system. Entire seminary courses are devoted to developing a cohesive, systematic way to understand God, and I am not arrogant enough to think a series of blog posts will provide a new alternative. Rather, I am intentionally choosing to label this series "systematic" because my goal is to propose an accessible way to understand how every area of theology can be understood interdependently, not independently. The cross, the Psalms, the story of Jonah, Paul's epistles, Jesus' parables, and the Mosaic law are intrinsically linked, and when weaved together, paint a beautiful picture of a loving Creator God who has decisively broken into human history. Again, this broad view is something that the Evangelical church has woefully overlooked, particularly in its ministry to youth (this is broadly speaking, of course, and I'm sure there are wonderful exceptions).

Why for "Recovering Evangelicals"?

Finally, why the label "recovering Evangelicals?" Well, to put it simply, this is the label I would currently apply to myself. At times, my ties to the Evangelical church have been threadbare, at best. However, as goes that famous quote applied to both Augustine and Dorothy Day, "The church may be a whore, but she is my mother." 

I find myself consistently returning to the Evangelical fold, and though I have periods of maddening frustration with it, I love the centrality of Jesus to the Evangelical message. He is truly the linchpin, the cornerstone, and the one to whom saving faith belongs. I add the term "recovering" simply because I am intentionally choosing to continue a relationship that has been both rocky and painful. Like any relationship that has been through hell, time must be taken to rebuild trust, to extend peace, and to heal. On the other side, though, I have deep hope that a once-strained marriage will be vital, thriving, and joyful. Entering recovery is humbling, and I pray that a humble spirit will fundamentally drive this process.

In part 2: An overview of the topics to be discussed, such as: God's identity, Doctrine of Scripture, Science, Worship, Atonement, The Gospel, Conversion, and more....

Gender Roles and the Community of Christ (part 1)

The Created Order and the Exegetical Task

The Created Order

So God created mankind in his own image. In the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27, English Standard Version)

God created human beings; he created them godlike, reflecting God’s nature. He created them male and female. (Genesis 1:27, The Message)

I intentionally decided to begin with this passage, not only because it is found at the beginning of the Scriptures, but because it forms the foundational ethic for many complementarian viewpoints. The argument goes something like this:

The male and female distinctions between Adam and Eve are vital aspects of what it means to be created in the image of God (the imago dei), and therefore these distinctions cannot be ignored. Genesis clearly states that God created humans in his image, and he specifically created them in two genders. Furthermore, Paul himself directly quotes this text to justify his explanation for limiting the ability of women to teach in 1 Timothy 2 (vs. 11-15).

On the surface, this is a completely sensible argument, and it is one that I subscribed to myself until recently. N.T. Wright himself admits to believing this perspective until the fallacy of it was discovered in one simple point: the two-gender distinction is found throughout all of creation, and is not at all unique to humans, the bearers of the imago dei (Wright, 2004).

Humans are indeed distinct from animals and plants, and Christians believe that it is the imago dei that separates us. It cannot be argued, though, that existing as male-plus-female is what it means to bear the image of our Creator, for the simple fact that mammals, fish, birds, and most plants also exist in male and female form, and Genesis makes it clear that only humanity bears his image. This is not meant to trivialize the male/female genders; on the contrary, Genesis attests to the fact that the two genders are an intrinsic aspect of all of creation, and working out what this means in a broken world is something we are all called to do. I am certainly not arguing for the church to pursue some form of a gnostic, hermaphroditic, sexless ideology and existence. However, our understanding of being God’s image-bearers must be disentangled from our understanding of gender roles. Bearing the imago dei is not limited to a matter of being male and female; it is a matter of being human.

We will briefly return to this idea when discussing 1 Timothy, for Paul uses it as a basis for later arguments.

I Corinthians 14

As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1 Corinthians 14:34-35, English Standard Version)

Possibly one of the most infamous, and misused, texts relating to gender roles is found here in 1 Corinthians. The passage is rightfully controversial, for as Greg Boyd says, “if we’re going to interpret these verses literally and apply them consistently, not only should women not teach or have authority, they also should not be allowed to ask questions in church” (Boyd, 2008). Before diving into the context of this passage, it is crucially important to remember Paul’s directives found earlier in the same letter:

…but every wife who prays or prophecies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. (1 Corinthians 11:5)

The assumption Paul makes here is that women will in fact be praying and prophesying in church gatherings, and his concern is not with whether or not they should be doing so, but simply how they should be dressed. Every culture has unspoken social rules and outward methods of expression (In America: wear black at funerals; a white wedding dress signifies purity; red, white, and blue on July 4th indicate patriotism, etc.), and in Corinth, gender was clearly designated through styles of hair and clothing. However, Paul himself was known for teaching early in his ministry that there was “no male or female” in Christ (Galatians 3:26). In this context, it is quite plausible that Corinthian women took this edict seriously and began tearing off head-coverings or letting down their long hair when participating in church services, thereby blurring the strict social distinctions (Wright, 2004). Similarly, it is quite possible that the women felt a social pressure to “be more like men” when praying or prophesying, and to rebelliously express this by dismissing the outward social female markers. Wright sums up Paul’s perspective nicely:

"The underlying point then seems to be that in worship it is important for both men and women to be their truly created selves, to honour God by being what they are and not blurring the lines by pretending to be something else." (Wright, 2004)

However, the issue of how to understand Corinthians 14 still remains. In fact, reading Corinthians 11 in this light only seems to make those two verses in chapter 14 all the more confusing. If women in the Corinthian church were permitted, even encouraged, to speak, and needed only to keep their head covered when doing so, why would Paul then turn around and suddenly require them to be silent at all times? Two compelling explanations are offered by biblical scholars.

First, as argued by Gordon Fee and later supported by Richard Hays, verses 34 and 35 are believed by some to be an interpolation, not originally written by Paul, but later added to the letter by another scribe. This argument is supported by the fact that early manuscripts of the Corinthian letters place verses 34 and 35 at the end of the chapter, rather than in their current location. Whether or not this “interpolation theory” is accurate, the verses do indeed exist in very early manuscripts (early enough to be canonized), and therefore should not simply be explained away because “Paul didn’t write them himself”. Furthermore, the question of gender appears multiple times in other aspects of Paul’s writing, and simply ignoring these two verses does not resolve every tension. Nonetheless, it is a compelling argument, and I would encourage you to study the work of Fee and Hays to better understand the hypothesis (see references).

The second argument primarily draws from the historical Corinthian context, and this is the position I personally find to be more convincing. To best understand it, a few contextual clues are important.

First, Corinth was understood to be a town primarily composed of “transportation workers, porters, and metal workers,” meaning the inhabitants came from many locations and likely spoke a wide variety of languages (Bailey, 2000). However, since the advancement of Alexander the Great’s empire, the “common language” throughout society was Greek. Additionally, in this cultural setting, men were the ones who would typically be responsible for making business connections, selling or exchanging goods, and similar public tasks which required a greater command of the common tongue, much more so than the typical woman. Interestingly, I observed a similar phenomenon when I visited Uganda: English was officially the national language; however, individuals who were not required to interact with other tribes, through business or personal connections, had no reason to speak anything other than their local dialect. In Corinth, it logically follows, then, that the women who attended the gatherings in this context may have had a more difficult time following what was being taught. As a result, it may have become common for these women to frequently ask questions to their Greek-fluent husbands in the middle of the service, or to simply lose interest and begin talking with others. This idea is compelling for several reasons, not least of which because it directly addresses Paul’s command for women to ask their husbands questions at home. In any case, Paul’s central concern in this passage is clearly maintaining order in worship services in a town that seemed to be reputably disorderly. Eugene Peterson’s translation of the same text captures this well:

Wives must not disrupt worship, talking when they should be listening, asking questions that could more appropriately be asked of their husbands at home. God’s Book of the law guides our manners and customs here. Wives have no license to use the time of worship for unwarranted speaking. Do you—both women and men—imagine that you’re a sacred oracle determining what’s right and wrong? Do you think everything revolves around you? (1 Corinthians 14:34-36, The Message, emphasis mine)

It is a grievous error to use these passage to suppress the role of women in church gatherings today. As we have seen, Paul assumed that women would always play important roles in these communities, and these texts must be read as specific directives to communities that were dealing with specific, cultural problems. This is not to say the texts are irrelevant! On the contrary, I believe we in America have much to learn from Paul’s teaching of gender expression in the church.

In the next post of this series, I will attempt an exegetical discussion of 1 Timothy 2 and Titus 2.

References

Baily, Kenneth. (2000). Women in the New Testament: A Middle-Eastern Cultural View.

Boyd, Greg. (2008). The Case for Women in Ministry.

Fee, Gordon. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians.

Hays, Richard B. (1996). The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

Wright, N.T. (2004). Women’s Service in the Church: A Biblical Basis.

Ethnicity & "The Bible"

Why it matters in ways you may not have considered.

The Bible is a compilation of ancient literary texts, including stories, letters, prophecies, prayers and poems written in Hebrew, Aramaic and ancient Greek, and has inspired untold millions of people, over thousands of years, to place saving faith in the work of Jesus, the son of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

It's also now a ten-hour TV miniseries produced by the History channel.

Created by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (of "Touched by an Angel" fame, and full disclosure: also an early crush of mine), the premier of this series was viewed by over 13 million people, and has already sparked potentially two theatrical releases. Much could be said about this production, particularly the theological perspective it espouses, and before ripping into a critique, I would like to praise the effort of the creators to capture the entire narrative arc of the Bible. This is noteworthy, and I'm truly thankful that there has been a resurgence of interest in telling this story, for I believe it's the singularly most important story one could ever hear.

Now, on to the critique...

'The Bible' leaves much to be desired in many areas (just to be clear, I'm now referring to the History Channel series, not the previously-mentioned compilation of ancient literature, which I happen to believe in the essential historicity of), and I believe one such area of importance is the way it handles language and ethnicity.

In my immediate circle of friends, this discussion has primarily centered around its portrayal of one character: Samson.

  Nonso Anozie as Samson.

Nonso Anozie as Samson.

It seems as though if you want to see American Evangelical Christians with their hackles up, all you need to do is suggest the possibility that one of the subjects of their beloved childhood Sunday School stories may have had dark skin.

In response, several questions immediately come to mind: Why exactly does this bother you? Did it NOT bother you that Moses had a British accent, or that Noah was apparently Scottish? (Both Noah and Moses were, of course, whiter than me in February - which is to say, exceedingly pasty)

  Will Houston as Moses.

Will Houston as Moses.

I know tackling the subject of ethnicity, particularly when it intersects with faith, is a good way to make lots of enemies, but I think it's important for two reasons: historical accuracy and cultural assumptions.

First, let's briefly discuss the history, which is actually pretty straightforward. The Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) takes place exclusively in the Middle East, primarily in areas that we know today as Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The period of the Judges (where Samson's story is told) takes place after the Hebrew tribe has left Egypt and settled in the "Promised Land" of Israel, but before the monarchy was established (where we eventually learn about famous figures like David and Solomon).

So, for the purposes of our discussion the question becomes, "What ethnicity were the Hebrews (the Jews)?" Well, if you could hop in a Tardis and ask Moses what ethnicity he was, he would probably look at you strangely, smack you on the head with his staff, ask you where you got your funny clothes, and tell you to get back to your family. You see, people at that time identified with their tribe, or family, rather than ethnically. Over time and generations, this close tribal association is how ethnic identities would form. These people were Jews, of the tribe of Abraham. Since we know they settled in the Middle East, our best evidence of how they looked is to observe people in that region of the world today. The unavoidable conclusion of this: Moses was absolutely, certifiably not Caucasian. Not convinced? Well, I can tell you even more resolutely that he certainly did not have a British accent, though the producers of 'The Bible' would have you think otherwise.

Why does this even matter? Well, the creators of this series are depicting actual, historical figures. Now, I am 100% in favor of taking creative license when telling historical stories. In fact, it was the creative parts of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ that stick with me to this day. But blatantly monkeying with the language and ethnicity of historical characters eats at the very fabric of the story you are telling, (if, in fact, that story you are attempting to tell is historical). You can see examples of this throughout film, and it's why I can't take some lazy depictions (Tom Cruise in Valkyrie or Kevin Costner in the Prince of Thieves) seriously. Let's go back to Gibson's Passion. Notice that his creative choices played out in some of the actions of Jesus, while he went to great pains to preserve his ethnic look and his language (the actors spoke all their lines in Aramaic, the language Jesus would actually have spoken during his life). The Old Testament is the story of God working through a specific tribe of people in the ancient world, and changing their language and tribal identities effectively changes that story. At best, it's dishonest storytelling. At worst, and this is what I fear is happening, it perpetuates harmful assumptions about people, race, and identity in our culture.

Which, finally, brings me to Samson. Does it bother me that the creators of this series depicted Samson as a black man? Actually, it does. But, and I cannot emphasize this point enough, not because I think he should have been whiteYou see, every aspect of film deserves to be scrutinized, for every aspect is the result of a choice. The decision could have been from the casting director, the editor, the makeup artist, the set designer, the actor, the producer, or one of hundreds of other people, but every single thing you see in the final product was the result of a choice someone made. Therefore, someone intentionally decided to cast Nonso Anozie as the judge who saved Israel from Philistine oppression. Perhaps there was something about his personality that captured how they wanted depict Samson (and, for the record, I think he is a fine actor). Perhaps this choice honestly had nothing to do with his color, but his acting talent. But, in any case, in the final product we have a black man as Samson.

Now, our media has an extremely checkered past regarding its portrayal of black people, particularly in America. I know white people don't like to admit it, but examples are aplenty. From the use of "blackface" in the theater, to those racist crows in Dumbo, to a more recent cover of Vogue magazine:

Transient

To be responsible purveyors and consumers of media, we must admit this reality. Like it or not, black people have all-too-frequently been depicted as either primitive, violent, or both. To say that this same media has not played a role in perpetuating our culture's attitude towards blacks would be naive. One need not look further than the recent Trayvon Martin tragedy, and the various twitter streams surrounding it, to see current evidence of this. For myself, as a convinced Christian, to think that this creative attempt to tell the story of my faith's holy scripture, which has achieved surprising levels of popularity and even multiple Emmy nominations, is contributing to these racist, cultural attitudes is a profoundly disturbing tragedy.

In the second episode of 'The Bible', we see a noble, humble, and reluctant hero in Moses, who valiantly leads his people out of slavery and into the land that God has set aside and promised to them. Juxtapose this with Samson, who is characterized by excessive violence and his ability to be seduced by Delilah and tricked into giving away the secret of his strength. The role-model-hero is remarkably Anglo (complete with British accent), while the bumbling, violent one, who serves as an example of what not to do, is black. The superiority of the white man is protected.

Now, if we were discussing just any old story, this would still be enough to level a serious critique. But we are discussing the story of the Creator God and His intervention in human history to redeem our world. We Christians get so excited when something "biblical" gets mainstream attention that we are willing to forgive too many transgressions. As if God Himself gains some credibility with a few Emmy nominations.

God promised Abraham that his family would be a blessing to the nations, which presumably includes all ethnic groups (Genesis 12). When depictions of this very same story are used to maintain harmful ethnic distinctions, something has gone horribly, tragically wrong, and we need to stop being OK with it. We are keepers of what I truly believe is the greatest story in human history, and this story should be good news to the oppressed, not a tool to further their subjugation. For truly, Jesus came "to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free." (Luke 4)

Not the other way around.

Destroying Church

Church.

Such a short word can dredge up an unbelievable range of emotions, opinions, and memories. Where some find comfort, others feel conviction, and yet others feel ambivalence. Some may think of church as simply a great way to meet people, while others immediately associate it with childhood memories and the stale smell of felt boards and old animal crackers (representing the denizens of Noah’s Ark, of course).

While it would be impossible, even in my relatively small community, to adequately assess the varied, individual experiences held by every attendee, I find it vitally important to pause and look at the big picture. How do we (speaking from an American viewpoint) think of “church”? What are the cultural assumptions and expectations we bring to the discussion? Historically, where might these expectations come from? More importantly, are they congruent with the lifestyle and mission of Jesus, the one whom we profess to follow and worship?

Church.

The story of the modern Christian church finds its roots in the story of the ancient Jewish people. In Exodus, God spoke directly to Moses, telling him to instruct the people to “construct a Sanctuary for me so that I can live among them” (25:8*). The following chapters are full of extremely specific building instructions. Everything from the altar and the courtyard, down to the lamp-stands and clothing for the priests, is covered in excruciating detail. Finally, God identifies this structure as the “Holy Place” (29:31). He proceeds to explain to Moses that, once the construction is completed, “I’ll move in and live with the Israelites. I’ll be their God.” (29:45).

The implications of this cannot be understated. God, the Creator, YAHWEH, the infinite being who chose the Israelites and rescued them from bondage, was planning to live with them. Focus on that thought for a moment. This building was, quite literally, God’s dwelling place among His people. The structure would eventually go on to become the Temple, the centerpiece of all Jewish culture, life, and daily practice in the ancient world. It was known as a holy, sacred place, the intersection of heaven and earth.

This understanding would be deeply and profoundly etched into the collective conscious of the Jewish people for centuries, significantly shaping their culture. On a smaller scale, think about how we Americans revere documents like the Declaration of Independence and the original Constitution. As a people group, our story is one of oppression, taxation, and our ability to face despairing odds to throw off the chains of a ruling tyrant. Though this story has certainly been glorified throughout our short history, the way we hold on to certain relics reveals quite a bit about our cultural values. In contrast, the Jewish story was one of exile and return. The very God who brought them out of exile, and promised a joyous return, then decided to live in a physical building amongst them. As American children learn our story through their first history classes, young Jewish children would learn their story by studying the Torah and eventually taking part in Temple practices. However, over time, as with any system under human control, the Temple would become infected with political corruption and economic oppression.

Enter Jesus.

What exactly did this particular Jewish Rabbi have to say about the Temple? Quite a bit, actually. The stunning summation of his views are captured in one incident in the book of John:

He found the Temple teeming with people selling cattle and sheep and doves … Jesus put together a whip out of strips of leather and chased them out, stampeding the sheep and cattle, upending the tables of the loan sharks, spilling coins left and right. (John 2:14-15)

Why did Jesus do this, and what does this well-known event tell us about his view of the Jewish Temple? Some argue that he was simply fed-up with the obvious corruption, and this outburst was a call for reform, while others state that he was predicting God’s impending judgement, which would ultimately come to fruition in it’s destruction at the hand of the Romans in A.D. 70. 

In any case, prior to this event, Jesus conducted his life and ministry in ways which clearly indicated that he was called to be the new Temple. His free forgiveness of sins is evidence for this, as it was known throughout Jewish culture that sins could only be cleansed by observing proper rituals at the Temple (as N.T. Wright has argued, imagine someone on the street offers to issue you a new Driver’s License, something you know can only be done through the proper channels and personnel; this would certainly turn some heads!). This additionally explains Jesus’ pronouncement to the Pharisees, “Tear down this Temple and in three days I’ll put it back together,” something we can look back on and obviously understand what he was really referring to: that he would physically raise from the dead after three days in the ground, thereby instituting the new Temple system. His angry outburst against the merchants was a blatant proclamation that the climax of the Jewish story was imminent, and that God would not be limited to residing in the Temple forever, as His people mistakenly assumed. Rather, a brand-new system was to be instituted through him, which transcended the Temple and wiped clean the stains of corruption.**

Which brings this whole discussion back to us.

We, the Church, are this new system. We don’t “go to church”, like the Jewish people once “went to the Temple”. 

We are church.

Paul articulated this paradigm shift wonderfully in his letter to the church at Ephesus:

God is building a home … He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day - a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home. (Ephesians 2:19-22, emphasis mine)

Paul’s repeated use of the word “temple” in this paragraph is quite intentional, for he knew that this word would immediately grab the attention of any Jewish listeners in a significant way. He was urging them to completely re-think their conceptions. This was a bold stroke on his part, as he was pushing against hundreds of years of tradition.

My fear is that, in subtle ways, we have regressed right back into a system, a line of thought, that Jesus literally died to change. Why do we set aside certain clothing to wear on Sunday mornings? Why do we think it inappropriate to tell certain jokes and use certain language “at church”, but not anywhere else? Why do we go to church to worship, rather than worshipping in our cubicles? Why do we go to church to “find God”, instead of finding Him in our neighbors’ homes?

The Jewish views of the Temple were birthed out of their conception of reality, that God had a specific residence, in a specific building. This view was appropriate to the cultural setting of these people. However, our ideas of “church” are also born out of our conceptions of reality, and if we continue to believe church is a place we have to “go to”, then our view of reality is dead-wrong.

This view eventually led to power-mongering, rebellion, and general corruption within the people of Israel, and as Jesus predicted, ultimately to destruction. Much like the Jewish people, we need Jesus to destroy our conceptions, before they destroy us.


*Every scriptural reference in this piece is pulled from the Message translation by Eugene Peterson.

**For a stronger, in-depth discussion of this topic, read N.T. Wright’s fantastic book The Challenge of Jesus.