This is a guest post by Matthew Distefano. You can read more of Matthew’s work at his website All Set Free and his book All Set Free: How God is Revealed in Jesus Christ and Why That is Really Good News.
There are certain theological assumptions within American Christianity that you just don’t touch. But I have always been the questioning type, and if I have learned anything from Girard’s mimetic theory, it is that prohibitions increase desire (to say the least!). Tell me I can’t question the doctrine of hell and I will. Tell me I can’t question the doctrine of sola scriptura and, again, I will. And tell me I can’t question the “common” understanding of the “wrath of God,” and well, here I am doing just that.
Like many Western Christian doctrines, the definition of God’s wrath seems to be a given. Frankly though, like so many other “orthodox” views, I cringe at our eagerness to espouse such a belief. I mean, I do understand the propensity to believe in a quid pro quo type of God (thanks for that one Rob Grayson!) who A) reserves blessings for the righteous while B) reserving wrath for the wicked. I understand the human psychological need to ensure that we are in rather than out, that we are Jacob rather than Esau, elect rather than non-elect, and vessels of mercy rather than vessels of wrath (Romans 9:22–23). Ernest Becker’s work on the topic of death anxiety comes to mind in explaining our propensity in doing this. But I will leave that topic for another time (like in my forthcoming book, From the Blood of Abel).
But is this view not unlike the God of Deuteronomy 28? Is it not unlike the God of Job and his so-called friends? Is it not unlike the God of the writer of Wisdom of Solomon? And didn’t Jesus—in places like Matthew 5, Mark 2, and John 9—teach his disciples that this economy-of-exchange model of God is inherently false? Answer: I believe he did.
Spotlight (2015), starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci; directed by Tom McCarthy, co-written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
“Sometimes it's easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around the dark. Suddenly, a light gets turned on and there's a fair share of blame to go around. I can't speak to what happened before I arrived, but all of you have done some very good reporting here. Reporting that I believe is going to have an immediate and considerable impact on our readers. For me, this kind of story is why we do this.”
The story of the sexual abuse cover-up scandal of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston could easily be an exploitive one to put on film. It might have slammed Christian faith itself as something naive, or it could have been a film that gave Protestant denominations easy reach to criticize Catholicism. But as we will see, there is more to this than “just religion.”
When a spotlight is shone upon something in the darkness, it exposes that thing to the light. This is an obvious thing to say, of course, and speaking quite basically one probably understands the what this sort of experience is. However, how one understands the revealed thing may not be so readily apparent. Perhaps things were being built in the darkness for a long time before the light was cast upon the space where the building-up occurred. So, while one sees by the light, it may well be possible that one's initial glance may also take some longer time to examine what they now see, so as to have the best understanding of the exposition that they can.
“Whenever I’m approached by an evangelist – by a Christian missionary – I know I’m up against someone so obsessed and narrowly focused that it will do me absolutely no good to try and explain or share my own value system. I never want to be rude to them, of course, but never have any idea how to respond to their attempts to convert me; in short order, I inevitably find myself simply feeling embarrassed—first for them, and then for us both. I’m always grateful when such encounters conclude.” – K.C., Fresno
I recently became acquainted with the works of Egyptian poet, Yahia Lababidi. His sixth and largest book of poems is entitled, New and Selected Poems (1993-2015). He describes the collection as "twenty-three years of marveling, questing and helplessly confessing in verse."
To shield yourself against the evils of this world, keep your lips wet with the taste of revelation.
To accept revelation, and the promise of rebirth, we must be willing to forsake our old life.
He explained his inspiration for them: "Because we live in a time when there is so much unfortunate suspicion and murderous ignorance in regards to the "Muslim world", I attach a selection of my spiritual aphorisms - increasingly composed under the inspiring influence of the mystical branch of Islam, Sufism."
Might poetry and aphorisms, shared across cultures and faiths, create bridges in a time when others would build walls? Might we exchange lines of verse rather than draw lines of fear and aggression? And how does poetry function help us hear each others' heart?
H.L. Hix, speaking specifically (and mysteriously) about Lababidi's Balancing Acts, relates what the poems tell us about themselves:
Hix unpacks each of these phrases, but readers are encouraged to see what each of these statements means in context. Endorsements for the book by other world class poets can be viewed at this website, which we also recommend for orders.
When all of our darkness and all that we believe to be light comes face to face—finally—with the One in and through and by whom all things were made, when all our good intentions are laid out and our best made plans meet the architect of the cosmos, when our internal “I am not” comes crashing into the Eternal “I AM”, all that bids us to say “no” to the beauty of love will forever be done away with and we will hence, “know as we are known”.
This is not an atonement theory, neither is it a specific hermeneutic. It is a declaration of the success of Jesus, not over some ideological “sin” as though God is somehow able to “fill all things” except the sinner, who still lives “in and through” God. The success of Jesus is neither a victory in a non-existent war, somehow playing itself out on a grand scale, as though divine creator were subject to the whims and will of time and mortality. The only “spiritual battle” is the eternal internal discussion with the self regarding value and worth.
This battle is the Armageddon of the soul, and each of us must face it head on. It matters not where the first shots were fired, be they an 8 year old boy suddenly feeling rejected by supposed Christian authority figures (myself), or the young woman who will never measure up to her mother’s impossible standards of beauty and her father’s continual rejection of anything “imperfect”. What matters is that we all have these shots fired at us continually. Not by some mythological “satan” (a character never given the power of omnipresence in the biblical narratives, and yet somehow able to be just that today), but by human beings, some well-intentioned, others not.
Our source of healing then, indeed our source of “salvation” lies in the recovery of that which has wounded us so deeply; namely, our humanness. To recover our humanity, we search for ways to build and affirm that humanity. The activities of a soul in search of its humanity are varied, and depending on social environment, religious upbringing, and a plethora of other factors, they “flesh out” on the (horizontal with no “correct”) scale from pastor to plumber to prisoner. In other words, it doesn’t matter where we find ourselves in life, the reason we’re there is because we’re searching for our humanity once again.
The only thing that grants us our true humanity, the only thing that beckons us from the halls of timelessness, what early Christians called the “gospel” is the risen Christ. A body raised in defiance of all notions of sacrificial bloodshed, the scapegoat has become the lamb and triumphed over death, not by fighting it or avoiding it, but by embracing it and declaring once and for all that no other scapegoat will ever be necessary, the goat has once and for all been delivered to the fires of hell and the Passover lamb has come bursting out of the tomb, once again filling all in all.
|Screenshot from X-files episode "Babylon"|
*Spoilers included. This article assumes readers have watched the episode or won't mind spoilers.
In the X-files episode entitled "Babylon," I was impressed with the research, creative writing, strong imagery and bold themes. I don't presume to know the writer's intent, but from the artistic side, we are permitted to draw our own takeaway meanings and messages. Two came quite forcefully that some X-files fans might appreciate.
The episode begins with a graphic terrorist attack by two young Muslim radicals. Too easy I thought; that's not how these writers roll. Then comically, Mulder and Scully meet a pair of young, but strangely familiar, FBI agents. They repair to take two approaches at trying to prevent the next attack, each providing an essential puzzle-piece. Ultimately, this will lead to a resolution that prepares us for the takeaway lessons about the world and about God.
Babylon: "Misery is the River of the World"
The most intense scene finds Mulder in a vision-state. He is in a large rowboat under a dark sky. Hooded slaves are rowing across some sea. 'The Smoking Man' (Mulder's primary series antagonist) appears and cracks a whip, "You want the truth, Agent Moulder? You've come to the right place!" and he whips him again. Moulder turns from the Smoking Man and makes his way forward, between the slaves. We hear Tom Waits singing, "Misery is the River of the World." The lyrics in their entirety speak to what the episode means by Babylon, but they can be summarized in these lines:
Ted Grimsrud recently wrote a response to my edited book, From Suffering to Solidarity: The Historical Seeds of Mennonite Interreligious, Interethnic, and International Peacebuilding, on his blog, 'Thinking Pacifism.' It was a mainly positive response at the outset, remarking that “the peace-focused writings make an excellent contribution” and ultimately recommending the book and concluding that “[t]he writing throughout is clear. The book gives a wide-ranging sense of the present application of Mennonite peace convictions and how this emerging field of peacebuilding has evoked many creative and life-enhancing responses by Mennonites and those influenced by them in ministering to a violent and often quite broken world.”
But after underscoring what was good about the book, his primary critique revolved around the book’s perceived omission of any attention to peace theology, asking, Have Mennonites moved past peace theology?
Now, I don’t want to write a response simply because I think someone’s critique is mistaken and it makes me look bad (although I’m human and this is probably part of the equation). And I don’t make a habit of responding to reviews, but the nature of Ted’s blog and this particular post as a “response” rather than a review suggests that this is an opening for a constructive and respectful conversation. In this sense, I want to write a response to correct some misconceptions, but also to ask for clarification on points I found confusing or potentially misleading. In this sense, as my book is only the beginning of my ongoing research on the uses of history in peacebuilding—especially how a historical infrastructure can help generate empathy—I want to know how I can improve in the future without uncritically meandering down a path that may not have been legitimately cut in the first place.
"Master, grant that I may not so much seek ... to be understood as to understand."
- Prayer of St Francis of Assisi -
Following up on my last post, 'Religion in Two Senses,' I felt it would be helpful to offer a sample of good articles written supporting or condemning 'religion' in the two senses I outlined. Then I hope to name three points of critical common ground that will enable us to see the authors' unified concern and agenda.
To review, the type of 'religion' that some authors condemn is the Christless religion marked by words like religiosity, self-righteousness, spiritual abuse, control and hypocrisy -- the dead religion devoid of grace, compassion and mercy -- the religious malpractice to which Christ issued repeated 'woes' in Matthew 23. This is the 'religion' that subverts and displaces the revelation of Christ by attempting to achieve or maintain in the flesh (Gal. 3) what Christ alone authors and perfects (Heb. 12, Eph. 2).
On the other hand, the type of 'religion' that the authors affirm is the pure and undefile religion of James' Epistle or the worship in Spirit and in Truth of John 4. This 'religion' is identified by the prophets and apostles as centered on Christ--the faith once delivered (Jude) or the gospel we received (1 Cor 15). I personally prefer to call this 'living faith,' but when described as 'religion,' it also carries the sense of Christ-ordained faith practices (baptism, Eucharist, obedience to Christ, etc.) and community (i.e. gathering, beginning with 'two or three are gathered in his name'). It is the religion of self-giving love, peacemaking and forgiveness we read about in Micah, Amos and the Sermon on the Mount.
In this latter sense, Brian Zahnd clarifies his position to highlight how Christianity is 'delivered' and 'received' in that biblical sense:
There is a sense in which it's true that "Jesus didn't come to start a religion." But it's equally true that the coming of Jesus would inevitably result in a religion (or religions!). Religion is how we pass on the faith from generation to generation. Without religion everyone has to start from zero and make their own discoveries. And very few are capable of this. We might think of science as the "religion" of passing on scientific knowledge from one generation to another. If we require each generation to make their own scientific discoveries in the name of "authenticity," this isn't going to make the world more authentic, it will just make the world a whole lot more stupid! To say, "I'm against religion" is pretty close to saying, "I don't care if my grandchildren are Christian or not." I tell people if you have a relationship with Jesus, you can thank the Christian religion for making this possible.
I agree with Brian as I understand him here, and yet I can promise you: Brian is against 'religion' in the first sense--it's just not the word he uses for it (usually). I can make that promise cecause I know that he is against religiosity, self-righteousness, spiritual abuse, control and hypocrisy. Indeed, he has paid the heavy price of publicly echoing Jesus' woes against the other "religious echoes" of the politicized culture wars and their Christless "civil religion." He squares off against these powers week after week. And on the flip side, he is a persistent voice for the 'pure religion' described and affirmed above. To hear him unpack James' use of the term, you can find the podcast entitled "I'm not just spiritual; I'm religious" by clicking HERE (it's #27).
So again, in the interest of hearing each other, I distinguish the uses of 'religion' according to the adjectives modifying it, the questions being addressed and the author's intention in context. To see the two uses in action, here are a few samples from either direction.
It seems I must regularly justify to high church friends how I can participate in and edit for CWR magazine and CWR blog, whose stated mission it to proclaim authentic Christianity without the religion. These friends challenge my negative use of the term, 'religion.'
Another group of friends who are either low church, 'nones' or 'dones'--those who follow my work with CWR--question how I can nevertheless participate in Orthodox services, which I experience as life-giving and fruitful but they may regard as 'dead religion.' They challenge any positive use of the term 'religion.'
I heard both objections again this week, and it came to a head with a very sincere question (in kind tones) from an old friend who was stumbling over Brian Zahnd's positive use of the term 'religion' in his book, Water to Wine, and in his recent podcasts, even though he is an esteemed columnist in the CWR magazine.
The obvious answer is that the word 'religion' carries two senses, one negative and one positive. Neither sense should be ignored and neither should be totalized. Here, then, was the clarifying question I was asked and my two-pronged response.
We need to quickly realize that faith didn’t begin with us. This is the faith that was once for all delivered to us from those who have gone before us. It is a faith that we have received. Christian faith is a received tradition.
Because of this reality, we don’t get to make Christianity up. Yes, we innovate, learn anew, and contextualize faith for the day in which we live, but we do not create something brand new. We do not manufacture a new faith. We receive it. We live it. We become it.
Faith echoes back all the way to Eden and God’s promise to one day put all things right (Gen. 3:15). Faith then moves and meanders through Abraham and God’s promise of a seed through whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed.
It flows through Moses, finding temporary resolution in Israel’s freedom from exile. It travels through David and the promise of an eternal King. And, it moves through the prophets, all the way to Jesus – the ultimate resolution of Israel’s story; a story for the whole world. It then travels through the apostles, through the centuries after them, to us.
In the mystery of the Eucharist God in Christ chooses to make himself present to humanity by ordinary elements. Through grain and grape we find Christ present in the world. But it’s not unprocessed grain and grape that we find on the Communion table, it’s bread and wine. Grain and grape come from God’s good earth, but bread and wine are the result of human industry. Bread and wine come about through a cooperation of the human and the divine. And herein lies a beautiful mystery. If grain and grape made bread and wine can communicate the body and blood of Christ, this has enormous implications for all legitimate human labor and industry.
The mystery of the Eucharist does nothing less than make all human labor sacred. For there to be the holy sacrament of Communion there must be grain and grape, wheat fields and vineyards, bakers and winemakers. Human labor becomes a sacrament. A farmer planting wheat. A vintner tending vines. A miller grinding wheat. A winemaker crushing grapes. A woman baking bread. A man making wine. A trucker hauling bread. A grocer selling wine. Who knows what bread or what wine might end up on the Communion table as the body and blood of Christ.
This is where we discover the holy mystery that all labor necessary for human flourishing is sacred. A farmer plowing his field, a worker in a bakery, a trucker hauling goods, a grocer selling wares, all are engaged in work that is just as sacred as the priest or pastor serving Communion on Sunday. The Eucharist pulls back the curtain to reveal a sacramental world.
Click here to receive a sneak peek of From Suffering to Solidarity: The Historical Seeds of Mennonite Interreligious, Interethnic, and International Peacebuilding, edited by Andrew P. Klager. In addition to a promotional flyer, included in this excerpt are the Foreword written by Marc Gopin, Introduction by Andrew Klager, and the first chapter by John Derksen. (Used with Permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers): wipfandstock.com
Fundamental to our understanding of God is that he is a loving Father to all people with a special and purposeful relationship with those that follow his Son, Jesus Christ. This is that heart of evangelistic faith: that God loves all people as his children, seeks to save all, and in Christ has died for all.
Yet, often the universal parenthood of God is dismissed as a liberal idea in, especially, Reformed-Baptist circles. As I have investigated this interpretation, I have found that it was largely due to the battles between liberal and conservative Baptists in North America. The argument is older than that, but here it took on a particular intensity. Social Gospel Baptists emphasized our common humanity to support a political ethic of rights and responsibilities. We see good examples of this in Walter Rauschenbusch’s classic, The Social Principles of Jesus. While their hearts were in the right place, like many progressives, their hearts exceeded what their exegesis could demonstrate. Moreover, while there are many beautiful elements of the Social Gospel, it too often over-emphasized the political dimensions of sin and salvation and undermined the personal. When they did demonstrate their doctrines with exegesis, they used strongly historical critical methods of interpretation, unafraid to point out inaccuracies in traditional views on certain passages, which offended the conservatives.
In response, the conservatives in turn offered polemics against liberalism, who conservatives worried dissolved the particularity of the church. J. Gresham Machen, for example, dismissed the doctrine of God’s universal fatherhood in his Christianity and Liberalism. However, while the Reformed-Baptists appealed to adoption texts in Paul and John, which does apply childhood relationship only to Christians, this essentially neglected a large sum of Biblical material that did speak of all people as God’s children, glossing the Bible with their own Calvinism. In doing so, the dangerous implication could be that God does not love all people, or if he does, it is certainly in an arbitrary, uneven, and preferential way, saving the elect while damning everyone else.