“Would You Agree the World is Getting Worse?”

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“No, I wouldn’t.”

The lady who had asked me the question looked appalled, like I had just belched in her face. She and her friend had shown up in our yard to share their faith. It was not the answer she was expecting. Nor, in fact, was I. I had planned on simply giving my usual “I’m not interested in a theological conversation” answer (which isn’t technically true—I’m almost always interested in having a theological conversation, one which involves me asking my questions, too).

I think her statement reflects one of the biggest problems I have with many theological and political perspectives—they assume that we’re going to hell in a hand basket. Now, I don’t think we’re marching happily toward utopia, and I don’t put my faith in human progress. But I don’t know many people who would trade living in 2015 for living in 1915. Cancer, polio, or heart disease? Sorry. Women’s suffrage? Out of luck. Jim Crow and segregation? Here to stay. Child labor? It’s a free market, baby. War? The world’s three most deadly decades are still in front of us.

So, no, I don’t agree that the world is getting worse. We have some formidable challenges in front of us: economic inequality, systemic racism, gun violence, and climate change, just to name a few. An extinction-level event due to climate change may be unfolding in front of us. But if you offer me a time machine to pick any decade from the past in which to live, would I choose any time but now?

Not likely.

Her question inspired me to pick up and reread some of Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope. I still think God’s invitation to join God in a salvation project for the world is the most exciting Good News that Christians can spread. In the resurrected Christ, the future is radically open, and the horizon between God’s impending kingdom and our present is always shrinking. It’s not something we build with our own effort, but we anticipate and participate in what God is already doing. The Kingdom is among y’all, says Jesus. It’s like a portal to the dimension of love and justice, and it’s leaking into this world and contaminating it with grace.

God Cares About Your Happiness

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Deutsches schwarzköpfiges Fleischschaf” by 4028mdk09Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

God is concerned about the material conditions for human flourishing. 

“Material conditions” means the stuff out of which life is made. That means tangible stuff: money, bodies (health), food, water, and physical touch. This is why so much of the Bible is about poverty and economic inequality, why there’s manna in the wilderness, why Jesus heals peoples’ bodies, and why incarnational theology is so important.

It’s also why Ezekiel’s God is so angry with the way the rich despoil the planet and ruin it for the poor.

God is also concerned with the social conditions for human flourishing.

“Social conditions” means the stuff out of which our life together is made. Relationships, politics, power, justice, and communication. This is why so much of the Bible deals with jealousy, anger, and forgiveness; with shared, decentralized leadership; with moral double-standards and hypocrisy.

I think it’s important to state these things, because there is a toxic Christian meme that regularly makes the rounds that asserts that God cares more about your holiness than your happiness.

I understand what people are trying to say when they assert these things: that our culture is self-centered and pleasure-seeking. But the Bible never contrasts holiness with happiness. True happiness, biblical authors assert, comes from meditating on and understanding Torah—not just the literal words of it, but the deeper truths to which they point. The Hebrew Torah was like the Greek Logos. It was Wisdom, the principles by which God created the world, and when human beings sought them out, they would find “true happiness.”

In this, the biblical authors agreed with Greek philosophers like Epicurus, Epictetus, and Aristotle. Happiness is more than pleasure-seeking: it is found in virtue and understanding. You can’t buy it, and excess wealth is dangerous—but it’s hard to be happy in poverty.

Jesus echoes his Jewish tradition and comments on Greek philosophy as well when he says this stuff:

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.

“Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.

“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.

“Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

“Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

“Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. (Matthew 5:3-11, CEB)

You would think that these assertions would be uncontroversial: God cares about the material and social conditions for human flourishing. God is concerned with human happiness. But there is a political aspect to these statements as well.

God is not concerned about the poor because God wants them to be holy; God wants them to be happy—which has political implications. God wants oppressed and marginalized people—the “thin sheep” in Ezekiel’s story—to be happy, to have fresh water and good pasture, not dirty water and ruined pasture.

A God who cares about human happiness is a dangerous God. God is dangerous to those who relativize the happiness of other human beings.

This God who desires mercy and not sacrifice, who cares about human happiness and not merely holiness, IS controversial. Holiness is the means, not the end. We do not pursue happiness in order to be holy, but holiness in order to be happy. Holiness which does not lead to greater human flourishing is not holy. It is infernal.

A Trinitarian Creed for Allies

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We are not saviors.
We believe God was at work
long before we arrived.

We believe in the Creator,
who liberates and cares for the oppressed,
who created us in all our diversity
to taste and see that God is good,
and to see the image of God in each other.

We believe in the Redeemer
who walked in solidarity with us,
who proclaimed release for the captives,
who spoke truth to power,
who refused to let violence and death have the last word.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
who comforts when words fail,
who gives us courage when our hearts fail,
who listens for what is unsaid and unheard.

We believe God’s love is manifest
when we stop making apologies for injustice,
when we accept correction gracefully,
when we confess our complicity in violence and oppression,
when we listen with open hearts,
when we don’t hog the microphone or the spotlight,
when we use what power we have to share power with others.

We will not fear
the righteous anger of the wounded,
the manufactured outrage of the powerful,
or the decentering of our own experience
as we witness God’s unfolding story of liberation.

We believe the invitation to join in God’s reconciling work
is Good News worth sharing.
We believe we are all called to be allies for someone else.

We are not saviors.
We believe God was at work
long before we arrived.

“Frozen” and the Gospel

Our worship team sang select verses from “Let it Go” from the Disney movie Frozen during worship on Sunday. I couldn’t help smiling as I imagined what some of my clergy colleagues would think. I have friends who are worship snobs (of both the liturgical and contemporary varieties) who would be horrified. But as I reflected on the message of the song and of the movie, I thought it was entirely appropriate as we enter more fully into this Lenten season, especially with a congregation of people who have been hurt or burned by churches in the past.

I’ll share that I’m someone who is highly critical of the Disneyfication of culture, but I also really appreciate Walt’s original vision and, doggone it, Disney just does so many things so well. For me, knowing and appreciating Disney is part of cultural literacy, and for us homeschooling parents, visiting Disney World is just as important as visiting Washington, D.C.

So I was amused to see a news article about a pastor who got his nose out of joint about the movie. (Although I also wonder, How hard is it to find a right-wing pastor somewhere in America who isn’t foaming at the mouth about something? This is news?) The big issue, of course, are the casual ways the movie refers to a gay relationship and, he argues, bestiality.

(Regarding bestiality, Rev. Swanson is apparently seeing something I’m not—either that, or it’s just another way to casually link consensual gay relationships to something nonconsensual and abusive).

I’m not the only one who sees that Frozen may be the most Christian-themed movie Disney has released since Pinocchio. I’m impressed that Disney had the courage to poke fun at past Disney tropes of falling in love, marrying, and living happily ever after. Someone on their creative team obviously paid attention to feminist critiques of the role Disney plays in the social education of girls (and boys) over the last several decades. (This movie definitely passes the Bechdel test). The overarching message of the movie is that “true love” isn’t about the hormonal rush of finding your sexual mate, but the self-sacrificial agape love that one sister has for the other. Both heroines overcome their separation and shame through the power of love. I think it’s a great illustration of the Good News.

As for the song “Let it Go,” I don’t agree with Garbarino’s assertion that it represents Elsa’s “fall.” I believe her “fall” was the years she spent locked in her room with her parents’ well-meaning but wrong-headed teaching that her feelings and her power were meant to be closeted. Her answer—self-imposed exile—was not freedom either, but when she sings, “no right, no wrong, no rules for me” she’s not denying the existence of morality. She’s celebrating the fact that her gift is no longer subject to the moral judgment of others. She’s a woman claiming power that she has been told to hide her whole life. I can see why that would make Rev. Swanson uncomfortable. It’s too much like Tamar in Genesis 38 turning the tables on her slut-shaming father-in-law and the double standards of his culture.

More than any other Disney movie, this is one where we see both the light and dark side of community and social life. Community can be judgmental and censorious, but it can also draw us into life-giving relationships. Even when Elsa thinks she has run away, her actions continue to have an impact on the community. There’s probably a great sermon in there, too.

Finally, the conventional Disney hero, Prince Charming, becomes the villain. The movie shows us the way some people use social and political power and ginned-up moral outrage to gain advantage for themselves at the expense of others. I’m sure this message wasn’t lost on Rev. Swanson, either. The moral and spiritual messages of this movie do not look like the Christianity he believes.

But they look like what I believe.

Noah’s Nonexistent Nosy Neighbors

This March, the blockbuster film Noah will hit theaters. I’m going to be preaching on the story of Noah and the flood this Sunday.

I always find the movie versions of Bible stories fascinating, because everything—everything—depends on the interpretation. I like to ask people, “If you were the director, how would YOU tell this story?” Who would you cast in what roles? Does the race or ethnicity of the people you cast matter? Where do you set the story? In the story of Noah, which has virtually no dialogue, what words do you put into people’s mouths? Why? Every camera angle, every CGI bird or snake, every line of dialogue, every music choice for the soundtrack are interpretations of this ancient story.

I find the trailer for Noah fascinating because there is no mention of Noah’s neighbors at all in the text. (You can read the story here.) I grew up hearing the popular version of the story: Noah must have had tremendous faith, because he obeyed God. His neighbors laughed at him, because who builds a boat in the middle of a desert? Boy, I bet they were sorry when the rain started falling!

Yet there is no mention of Noah’s location. He could be on an island, for all we know. The story probably originated in a place we call the Fertile Crescent, so it’s unlikely the author is thinking of a desert. There is no mention of neighbors. Perhaps no one lives nearby. So why a desert? And why do we feel it necessary to add skeptical neighbors? Is it because many of us who have never been to the middle east imagine that it’s all desert, and that we imagine people walked around in it wearing bathrobes and head scarves? Is it because as religious people, we find it galling to have skeptics point out our irrational faith, so we have to make them the bad guys? I find it fascinating that this version of the story still holds such sway over people’s imaginations. We just assume this is part of the story, like we assume that Jesus had long hair and a beard. We no longer even recognize these as interpretive choices that we make about the text. For us, they are part of the story.

Several non-religious folks I know wonder, “What does it matter? It’s a made-up story anyway.” But regardless of whether you are a true believer or not, the way we tell stories matters. Does it matter that Noah’s neighbors, never mentioned in the text, are portrayed in the popular telling as skeptics who laugh at his faith? Yes. Does it matter how “the wickedness of humankind” which God seeks to destroy is portrayed? Yes.

And if it matters to non-religious folks how the story is told, how much more should it matter to believers! This is why we need to study rhetoric, and film, and theories of interpretation (hermeneutics). As believers, if we don’t study the stories critically, we just embed our own prejudices in them and pass them along to the next generation. As skeptics, if we just exchange old myths for new ones, we do the same.

The author(s) of this story had an agenda. In order to faithfully read the Bible, interpret it, and apply it to our lives, we need to figure out that agenda and what it means for us today.

Which is why you need to come to worship at Saint Junia on Sunday 😉

Three Axioms and an Apology

1. All theology is political.

2. Theology which claims it is not political is both political and dishonest.

3. Theological language which attempts to transcend politics, casts aspersions on “both sides” of an issue, or is deployed to make its users feel better about their privilege is political, dishonest, and condescending.

4. I’ve definitely been guilty of #3.

A Scandalous Rhetorical Reading of Romans 1 and 2

In debates about homosexuality and the church, people who want to maintain that homosexuality is a sin often quote Romans 1:26-27. I do not think this scripture supports their views. In fact, I think it undermines them.

The following is a rhetorical reading of Romans 1:8 through 2:29. I have paraphrased it, updated it, and made it as scandalous as it might have been to its original hearers. It is not meant to accurately reflect all of the nuances of Paul’s original argument, but to highlight the fact that the whole first chapter is, in fact, a parody of exclusivist Christian thinking. It is a prologue. The second chapter is where he brings the hammer down.

There will be people who read the following paraphrase and won’t get it. They will accuse me of twisting Paul’s words. But maybe (I hope) they will get a taste of what it is like to be on the receiving end of Paul’s hyperbolic rhetoric. I believe this reading is far more true to his argument than their use of a handful of verses ripped out of context.

If you’d like to follow along, open Romans 1:8-2:29 in a new tab.

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First, I thank God for all of you good Christian folks, because the whole world knows how faithful you are. I want nothing more than to come and be with you in person, good religious people, so that we can encourage each other. I would love to share with you the same kind of experience I’ve had among the non-religious and the pagans, who have been coming to Christ in record numbers. I’ve been helped in my work and taught by both civilized people and savages, philosophers and fools. That’s why I’m so eager to come and share the Good News with you good Christian folks in the big pagan city of San Francisco. (1:8-15)

Sure, both religious people and pagans want me to be ashamed of this Good News that I share with both the cultured pagans and the religious minority. But I’m not ashamed of the Good News, because it’s the power of God for everyone who has faith, to the religious minority and also to the pagan elites, because the Good News reveals God for who God really is. If you get it, then you really get it. (1:16-17)

Look, I know you already know this, but it bears repeating: God is furious with everyone who would suppress the truth. The kinds of hellfire and brimstone you have preached to the pagans is true: God has already shown everyone, Christian and pagan alike, who God really is: you can see who God is through the beauty and awesomeness of nature. (1:18-20a)

So these non-religious people around you have no excuse: these pagan elites, the agnostics and the culture worshipers, because although in their hearts they probably already know God, they are ungrateful and irreverent. Their brains have become clouded. Even though they believe themselves to be smart and hip and wise, they are really dolts, and they choose instead to worship idols and mascots: supermodels and superheroes, gods of sex and money and power and death. (1:20b-23)

So God lets them. God lets them turn themselves into a joke, because they worship creatures rather than the Creator. They become sexually promiscuous and perverted, believing that to be cultured means to indulge themselves in a buffet of pornographic delights. Their emperors lead the way (and some of them, like Caligula, were killed by the boy toys they kept in bondage). Their women are no better. They all swap partners as if every body were just a set of interchangeable orifices. They treat people as sexual objects to be used for personal gratification. The most important thing in their universe is their own pleasure. You’ve seen reality TV, so you know what I’m talking about. (1:24-27)

And since they chose to ignore God, God let them fill themselves with perversion: greed, petty rivalries, envy, murder, violence, lying, gossiping, racism, bigotry. They created a culture of cynical antipathy, live-and-let-die, contemptuous of family, or religion, or civic-mindedness. They know such things are wrong and lead to the death of everything good, but they not only do them, but they make heroes of people who celebrate these values of the culture of death. (1:28-32)

So, by now you’re nodding along with me, because I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. The world is going to hell in a hand basket. But here’s the kicker:

You ain’t any better than the pagans you rail against. (2:1)

You are also without excuse, because you yourselves are no better and yet you stand in judgment of them. You religious-types say “God will send them to hell.” Do you imagine that when you judge them for doing these things, and yet do them yourself, you will escape judgment? Or do you fail to appreciate what the Good News of God’s grace in Jesus Christ really means? Don’t you realize that the repentance you should be most concerned about is your own? But because you are judgmental and self-righteous, you are making your own personal judgment day that much worse. (2:1-5)

Everyone is going to get what’s coming to them: people who humbly do good will be treated well, and people who are self-righteously wicked will truly understand the hell they preach toward others. You want to talk about hell? Self-righteous sinners will indeed experience hell, but the religious hypocrites will have a front-row seat. The self-righteous pagans will follow. But the same is true of heaven and the reward of the kingdom of God: Good religious folks will lead their righteous pagan brothers and sisters into their reward. Because God shows no partiality. (2:6-11)

Sure, all who are wicked without religion will die without religion, and those who are wicked and religious will be judged by the faith they supposedly hold dear. Because it’s not those who hear or parrot their religious precepts who are judged righteous by God, but those who actually do good. When non-religious people instinctively do good, they show that they have God’s religion written on their hearts. And on the day of judgment, it’s their hearts that will matter to God. (2:12-16)

But if you call yourself a Christian and rely on your religion and your heterosexuality and the fact that you don’t rob banks, and you brag about your relationship to Jesus, and if you are sure that you are the bright spot of civilization in a world of darkness, and you’re going to bear God’s message to all of creation, will you not hear it for yourself? You already know the stereotype of religious people: They are embroiled in scandals about money and sex and pyramid schemes. They police other people’s bedrooms, but they spend more money on porn than anyone else. It’s even written in the Bible: “religion” and the name of God is practically a cussword among the non-religious because of you. (2:17-24)

For example, your heterosexuality or your straight marriage is indeed a great thing if you actually follow the Bible. But if you don’t do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, the virtue of your heterosexual marriage in God’s eyes is a sham. So if gay and lesbian persons actually follow Jesus better than you do, won’t their marriages be virtuous in God’s eyes? For a person is not a Christian who is one outwardly, nor is true marriage something about your genitals. Rather, a person is a Christian who is one inwardly, and real marriage is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual. Such a person may not receive praise from others (or from you), but they receive it from God. (2:25-29)

Jesus in Disguise (John 7)

Preachers often talk about “Jesus in disguise” as a figure of speech, because he identifies with people in desperate situations: poverty, sickness, prison, and so on. But in John 7, he’s actually in disguise. His brothers tell him to go back to Jerusalem for the Tent Festival and do some magic tricks to boost his Klout score reputation, “…for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” Because it’s one thing to feed 5000 people in rural Galilee, but it’s quite another to do miracles in Jerusalem itself.

Of course, Jesus had already done a miracle: healing on the sabbath, back in chapter 5. This brought him exactly the wrong kind of attention.

So in chapter 7, he tells his brothers, “No, you go on. I’ll stay here.” After they’ve gone, he puts on a fake mustache and glasses, and goes to Jerusalem in disguise. While he’s mingling among the crowds, he overhears people talking.

“So, do you think this Jesus character will turn up for the festival?”
“I sure hope so. He’s a good guy and I’d love to meet him.”
“Are you kidding? He’s a charlatan.”

Jesus sidles up to the conversation and listens in. Maybe that’s why he decides half way through the festival to put the disguise away and start preaching. When he does so, the religious leaders start murmuring.

“Wow, he preaches pretty good for someone without a degree.”
“I got my degree from God. So why are you trying to kill me?” he asks.
“Are you nuts? Who is trying to kill you?” they reply.
“I heal one guy on the sabbath and you all get your underwear in a twist,” he says. “Why can’t you understand that I’m doing exactly what God wants?”

Then the bystanders start whispering to each other
“Did you hear? The priests want to kill this guy.”
“Then why are they standing around talking with him? Do they think he’s the messiah?”
“Can’t be. He’s just some guy from Capernaum. I think he was born in Nazareth.”

I’ve been trying to read through John with new eyes the last few weeks. John supposedly has a very high view of Jesus, a lofty Christology that emphasizes Jesus as the eternal Word of God. While I believe that’s true, I find it interesting that Jesus often seems like he’s doing all of this without much of a plan. In spite of the fact that he keeps saying “my hour has not yet come,” it feels like he’s improvising. His humanity shows up in unexpected places: his fear that his friends will leave him; his abortive attempt to secretly infiltrate the festival. Over the next few chapters, he plays cat-and-mouse with the Temple authorities. In many ways, he seems to be reacting more than acting. In spite of his lofty rhetoric, I can hear Jesus’ frustration and anxiety coming out in unexpected places. I’ve been taught a scholarly skepticism about how the gospel writers present Jesus’ teaching, but John does not paint a picture of a Jesus who is in control of things, who has divine foreknowledge of every event and placidly fulfills his destiny. There’s some of that, sure, but there’s also a lot of what I feel on a day-to-day basis while I’m planting a church: “Okay, I know what my mission and message is, but what the heck am I doing in this situation? God, do you have my back?” I think it’s a good example of how, even with a clear sense of mission, ministry is hard.

John used to be my least favorite gospel, because the dialogue seemed so stilted, warped by John’s high Christology. The more I read through this time, the more I’m having to reevaluate my perspective.

Atonement: Christ the Victor

I’m glad to see Christus Victor gaining more traction among popular Christianity. There are even a few contemporary Christian songs that borrow some of the concepts. I’ll confess I get a bit antsy, though, because the Commercial Evangelical Juggernaut is really good at appropriating other theological ideas and using them to dress up the same tired theology of power and violence.

There is a great book on the subject, but I think the best way to illustrate it is with the following video.

The best strength of Christus Victor theology is that it takes seriously the whole story of Jesus’ life: incarnation, birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection. His incarnation makes atonement, because by taking on our flesh and our frailty, God is with us. Even our human limitations become holy. His birth makes atonement, because he transforms what we mean by power, family, love, and mortality. His life makes atonement, because God has to learn to walk and share, just as we do, making the whole process of learning holy and pointing us toward maturity. His ministry make atonement as God shows us what real humanity looks like, spreading grace everywhere he goes. His death makes atonement, not because he dies in place of us, but in solidarity with us. And his resurrection makes atonement, because even our rejection and our failure to recognize him does not stop God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ.

By contrast, in the story told by most Western Protestants (“penal substitutionary atonement”), the only thing that really matters about Jesus is his death. As one Christmas banner put it, he was “born to die.” This allows Christians to support, among other things, capital punishment — after all, if God believes in redemptive violence, shouldn’t we?

In the popular imagination, it isn’t even Jesus’ death that makes atonement, but his suffering. Because he bears the sin of the whole world, his suffering must be the most profound and severe in the cosmos, and we elevate the brutality of his death. Yet in the Hebrew Bible, it is simply the blood that makes atonement—not the pain. Sacrificial animals were sacrificed humanely, and the entire point of doing so was that people could enjoy a covenant meal of reconciliation with God.

I think the penal substitutionary view is bankrupt, and will become increasingly so in our lifetimes. Moral violence does not make us safer, it supports bullying, abuse, inequality, and oppression, and it stands in contrast to everything Jesus preached and taught. A theology of God that depends on redemptive violence is the best ideological ally of white straight male supremacy. I believe we are seeing it crumble before our eyes: nearly all of the news headlines these days are about it. I don’t want to sound too optimistic. Violence and the Kingdom of Death can get quite cozy with whoever happens to be in power.

In the Christus Victor story, though, we focus on the things Jesus actually said and did, not the abstract idea of his role as a sacrificial animal. This is why I think Christus Victor is gaining traction, and why it will continue to do so.

I’ve already written about understanding atonement through Jesus as a moral teacher. In my next post, I plan to write a bit about how I’m learning to reclaim and reinterpret the idea of Jesus’ sacrificial death.