The Cross as Spectacle or Model

Idolatrous religion, by definition, is focused on an image and is made for the eyes. In Buddhism, the size and sheer spectacle of the religion is key. We lived near the world’s largest Buddha in Japan– one you can walk in and which even has public toilets (in the Buddha). The power of the religion is to be felt in its visual presentation – bigger is better as the intent is to overwhelm the visual field. Idolatrous religion feeds what the psychotherapist, Jacques Lacan, calls “scopophilia.” The love of looking is definitive of a form of human subjectivity in which the libido or desire is set upon attaining an object in the visual field. The idolatrous and the pornographic play the same role in holding out a lure or object which can only heighten desire in the looking and can never satisfy it. Idolatrous religion, in its employment of the phallic symbol (or in Japan what is literally a “penis idol”) points directly to sexual empowerment. The sexual, though, in idolatrous religion, as in human desire, is a vehicle of a more basic desire which is the driving force constituting a form of subjectivity. Continue reading “The Cross as Spectacle or Model”

An Unlikely Protagonist: The “Other” as Savior by Tyler Sims

The following is a guest blog by Tyler Sims.

Prelude: The Blindfold Removed

The world is deceived. You can see it from corrupt fiscal systems to a new rise in nationalism. Recently, my immigrant friends in NYC had their world turned upside down by the travel ban. Simultaneously, some conservative Christian friends felt their world become safe again. There are many examples of communities and individuals set against one another and unwittingly against themselves. A systemic lie has infused itself into our world and into our lives. In this blog, I will share how an Iranian Muslim played an important role in my own delivery from this pervasive lie. But first let us look at an important question.

What initial step will woo us from the systemic lie?

A lie which envelopes our world and taints our ontology must first be introduced to its captives. The blindfold needs removal. Romans 7 provides a description of how the lie functions in individuals. It is as pervasive as the air people breathe. A simple message is spread: “I” can be God and or “we” can be God.

Self-Actualization is just around the corner; progressivism’s utopia is nigh. I am just one more accomplishment away. We are just one more policy from victory. My self is nearly forced into submission. The victims are close to delivery and we have silenced the others.

I will save myself. We will save ourselves.

“I” will find peace in power, states the man willing himself to change. “We” will find peace in silence, chants the group tired of objections. If “we” silence the others, dissonance will be gone, and the harmony of isolation achieved.

At this point the collective “we” has taken up the same painful agonistic struggle of the isolated “I” as both the deceived individual and the collective “we” seek the same goal. The goal is to silence the cries of injustice or difference and to speak their own preferred reality into existence.

The lie generates alienation from God and others. It creates isolation from self and instills an empty silence from which only emptier vessels are propagated.

It comes to its zenith in the form of genocides, xenophobia, wealth hoarding and more. Through individual lips it speaks, “I don’t need you.” Through a plentitude of lips it speaks, “we don’t need them.” Both of which imply none of us need God. We begin to believe in “speaking” a superior world into being. I, or we, can be God, creators of our own safety and power.

How do we overcome the subtle pervasiveness of this lie?

Certainly, being aware is helpful. But its deception is so systemic, so cunning, we need more than intellectual understanding. We need our intellect to bring us to practice.

If the “I” is damned by its own isolation and the collective “we” is damned by its willing alienation, then the surprising savior of those deceived is, in fact, the “other.”

It is only in a face to face meeting with the other that a person (the “I”), might see his reflection as through a mirror provided by the different other. The group of an alienated “we” loses its appeal. No longer bound to homogeneity, the adjusted reality includes the “I” and the other.

Acknowledgment of the other by necessity requires either reconciliation or annihilation.

Enticed individuals and groups believe in an ability to speak forth reality as God does. It is exactly the presence of the other which disturbs the fantastical ambitions of the “I” or the alienated “we.” A choice must be made about this disruptive other, annihilation or reconciliation?

Through inviting the disruptive other into the alienated “we” it is possible for the group to begin reconciling with the other, begin its escape from systemic deceit and thereby find reconciliation with God’s larger reality.

How exactly does the “other” play into our salvation from the lie?

The following story describes how an Iranian “other” functioned first as a disruptive other and then as a savior–a liberator. In this story, the reader will be introduced to a practice which effectively delivers us from the systemic lie of this world.

Practicing it is nearly impossible if you have not met the other, made eye contact with and talked to the other. Experiencing truth syphons the lie from your own perception of reality. Meeting a wider reality in the flesh is disturbing. Truth’s efficacy is not in remote words but in an intelligible encounter with the other. This story describes how I met face to face with the other and in that meeting discovered an age old salvific practice.

The Story: Roopya my Iranian-Muslim friend and disruptive other

Roopya is from Iran. He is a twenty-five-year-old graduate student at Columbia University and thinks of himself as a nominal Muslim. When I first met Roopya at a Manhattan library in 2014, I understood him to be a Muslim student from the foreboding country of Iran and in need of English speaking instruction. In my mind, Roopya needed to enter Jesus’ kingdom as soon as possible.

Two months later my primary understanding of Roopya was not as a Muslim student in need of immediate salvation but simply as my Muslim friend. In fact, his otherness quickly began to point to the log in my eye and the deception within my small world.

For example, Roorya seemed to be content with his life in Iran and optimistic about Iran’s future. I commented, “Iran doesn’t sound half bad from what you say. But I have grown up hearing Iran is a country bent toward ill will and other negative things.”

Roopya shared with me, “In my country we are taught to fear America and told that when our nuclear scientists are killed America is behind the killings.”

My country’s paranoia and propaganda in view of his country’s propaganda created a profound mirror for reflection.

Roopya became for me the disturbing other messing up my picture of reality. This new image included Roopya within my reality. It beckoned me to either adjust and make room for the “other” or steep my mind in further deceit, denial and acquiescence to the world’s violence. If I chose denial, I would be choosing to opt into the systemic lie, believing I could create an alternative world with no other.

Roopya’s life would not allow me to easily step back into the lie. Meeting Roopya–a kind, goofy and intelligent young man–challenged me to accept the reality of an other who was much more than an Iranian, Muslim or elite academic. This other was a person, who shares many dreams, hopes and desires that I do. He is an other who loves a whole host of people in Iran on the other side of the world.

Roopya My Brother

Early in 2015 my friendship with Roopya brought more changes. He had simply become my brother. All Identity markers were gone. My fixation on bringing Roopya to Christ was gone. Roopya’s distinct otherness had broken into my own chamber of silence, where I would speak to myself, or among like-minded people, about my ailments and the maladies of the world–an image akin to Romans 7. It is an image devoid of intelligible conversation for it is in denial of God’s wider reality. But Roopya’s distinct presence shattered the monolithic culture of small town America in which I had dwelt for so long.

Roopya’s bare personhood injected new colors, people, words and thought into my reality. The new things required me to reconstruct my comprehension of reality. My old reality understood people need Christ, aid and love. But the terms and language of that reality was set for me by middle class American and evangelical Christianity. My new friendship forced me to reconcile this reality with a reality which understood Iranians as decent people, not merely a nation on a map.

In this new reality, U.S.A. sanctions on Iran could result in unjust hardship or despair for my Iranian friend.

In this new reality, Muslim Iranians uphold the commandment to respect the elderly at a much higher level than the average American Christian.

In this new reality, Muslims are thought of as people first and their religious life is defined as they describe it on their terms— not by a world religions class.

In this new reality, some Muslims lead lives of integrity far outpacing the integrity of American Christians.

Roopya as Deliverer

In this new reality, the other became a functional savior.

The other saved me through breaking the barriers of ignorance and paternalistic self-righteousness.

The other saved and humbled me by demonstrating a level of dignity I thought only possible among Christians.

The other saved me by teaching me to love a diverse world of people and cultures.

The other saved me by asking me to hear the cries and laughter of the wider world.

Indeed, it was the other who acted as a clear mirror by which to see myself and a clearer lens by which to see reality. I knew a lot of others while living in NYC. The others originated from Yemen, Iran, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and China.

Every one of those others had funny stories to tell and family whom they cherished deeply. They also had fears, desire for safety and belonging. Most of them disliked a certain group of people. Overall, their virtues outweighed their vices and even more important their virtues found deep resonance within my own heart.

Originally, I went to the other with the gospel of Jesus out of a desire to serve and with a sense of duty. But I was gifted with a grateful heart for the liberation I received…at the hands of the other. The liberation to see myself in the context of a global world as opposed to homogenous suburban America. The liberation to step closer into the wide world of people whom Christ loves. The liberation to see that in the other–despite all of his vast differences– I see myself, and in that fleeting union I see clearly for the first time the way of Christ.

Roopya’s example demonstrates how liberation occurs. When Roopya’s identity markers became no more than incidental, something happened: he became my brother. And as we learned to embrace one another we each became increasingly aware of the wider world, increasingly complete and increasingly human.

Embracing the Other as Savior

We participated in the practice which clears away the systemic deceit of this world. The deceit which says “we” are God and by necessity there is an excluded other. What did Roopya and I practice? We practiced: embracing the other.

As I embraced the other it was the difficult exercise of embracing Roopya that made true gospel sharing possible. I learned to see him as he was and not as I perceived him to be. I was forced to be reconciled with our differences.

Even more so, I had to reconcile with our similarities. Only when I saw myself in his eyes could I begin sharing good news. In other words, only when I could see him as nothing more or less than an equal person could I offer Him the peace of Christ.

Through humbly embracing Roopya as a person, I simultaneously embraced Roopya and Jesus’ cross. Roopya’s witness, his otherness, drew out my own darkness and embracing him meant embracing my personal need to take up the cross anew. When I embraced Roopya, Christ embraced me in return.

Conversely, my otherness provided Roopya with the challenge of including a Christ follower in his perception of reality. He had to account for my faith and desire to love “others” in the name of Jesus.

Herein lay salvation from the systemic lie: we must all, personally and collectively embrace the other as Jesus did. Christ did so to the point of the cross, nonviolently bearing the gulf between the other and in his subsequent resurrection Christ provided a new way.

Embracing the other must happen in real space and time and on a name to name, face to face basis. Only then will the heavy fog of systemic deception begin its retreat from our lives and communities.

For Roopya and myself embracing each other created a peaceful and safe environment by which Roopya could consider Christ as savior. The Christ who commands us to love the other.

Perhaps, not so we can “save” the other but so that by loving our enemy we might be saved.

(Dr. Paul Axton, Mirslov Volf and work with Global City Mission Initiative all deserve credit for influencing the ideas in this blog.)

Learning to Breathe: Is Your Religion Making You Sick?

John Cheyne writes of epidemics of insanity among Christians desiring to be more holy. Obsession with sin, blasphemy, and fear that one had somehow committed the unpardonable sin has been a prime cause of insanity.1 Pietistic melancholy, Methodist quests for perfection ending in mental breakdown, narratives of lives revolving in and out of asylums due to the disease of religion, seem to point to a literal aggravation of the human disease rather than healing. Scott Peck’s advice to many of his patients, though he was a Christian, was to shed their religion as it was making them sick. Continue reading “Learning to Breathe: Is Your Religion Making You Sick?”

Salvation as Assurance Not Insurance

Disease is sometimes best diagnosed in its exaggerated or most prominent form. Jesus healed the blind to illustrate the universal predicament of blindness, which he could cure. Freud worked with severe hysterics and neurotics presuming they manifest a universal problem. They were often those wealthy enough to take the time and money to pay for diagnosis and recognition of their ailment. Today’s super-rich, likewise, display the dis-ease of the time as they have enough disposable income to address their deepest fears. The January issue of the “New Yorker” traces the movement of survivalism, from the odd ball individualists holed up in Alaska, to the super-rich among technology executives and hedge-fund managers. One of their number estimates that some 50% of this group are preparing for a potential apocalypse. These centi-millionaires and billionaires portray an exaggerated form of the universal disease. They describe the fear – or “sheer terror” – of being left without basic necessities should American culture break down. They exhibit a basic fear, which due to their vast wealth allows them to act on these fears. Continue reading “Salvation as Assurance Not Insurance”

The Christianity of an Empty Word

I have been forced by the circumstance of life to acknowledge there are two forms of Christianity which cannot abide together. There is a Christianity which is observable as a distinct form of life and there is the religion which people join. In one form, “Christ has died so that we do not have to” and in the other is the recognition that we are to imitate Christ. It is not simply that there is a problem with Christians who transgress (evil Christians, mean Christians, unloving Christians); rather there is a transgressive form of Christianity which colludes with those who crucify. Continue reading “The Christianity of an Empty Word”

Finding the Cross in the Lynching Tree

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees1

The photograph of the lynching in Marion Indiana of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith haunted and then inspired Abel Meeropol to describe the event in verse. His poem, set to music and recorded by Billie Holiday, is a poignant depiction of the “American Holocaust.” Continue reading “Finding the Cross in the Lynching Tree”

What Is The Proper Christian Response To Evil Government?

As we enter this confusing period in our nation, the response and responsibility of Christians to government is being brought front and center. Rethinking the Christian role in Empire may prove to be the silver lining to the cloud of the present chaos. It was under the darkest of circumstances, after all, that Paul outlined the responsibility of Christians to the State. During the period in which Nero ruled Rome, Christians, by their very existence, were thought to be a danger to the Empire. Paul provides instruction as to how to proceed in light of the fact that Jesus has been slain and Paul himself will shortly be murdered. Continue reading “What Is The Proper Christian Response To Evil Government?”

Shame: Has It Returned or Have We Been Deluded by Pride?

Andy Crouch, in a recent Christianity Today article, announces the return of shame to western culture:

“From online bullying to Twitter takedowns, shame is becoming a dominant force in the West. Thankfully, the Bible is full of language about shame. It’s just that most Westerners don’t see it.”1 Continue reading “Shame: Has It Returned or Have We Been Deluded by Pride?”

The Lie of Modernity and the Truth of Christ

Some things can be missed, not because they are small or inconsequential, but because they are pervasive and all-encompassing. The forest of modernity obscured by the trees (scientism, ontotheology, rationalism, etc.) has been the focus – perhaps even the discovery – of postmodern philosophy and cultural theory. Jean Baudrillard has described it in terms of simulacra – which “is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.” As the psychoanalyst and cultural theorist Jacques Lacan has described it, the truth is that which inheres in a lie. Jacques Derrida has summed up his understanding with the idea that there is nothing outside of the text. Slavoj Žižek has described human subjectivity as founded in a primordial deception, but as with Baudrillard, the lie is the necessary primordial condition for the human subject to arise. Peter Berger has described culture and religion as a process of projection or externalization, reification, and internalization, in which culture is simply the continually generated environment which humans create and which, in turn, shapes them. What these thinkers share is the notion that reality, culture, religion, human subjectivity, and even truth, are ultimately a human construct and this is made absolutely clear in their deconstruction of modernity. Continue reading “The Lie of Modernity and the Truth of Christ”

My Life in Theology

Karl Wallenda, the famous wire walker, described his time on the wire as that point when he was really living and everything else as waiting. This comes close to describing my relationship to theology. Theology is simply talk of God. As I see it, two things make up the key elements of the Christian life – the walk (or following Christ) and the talk of God along the way. Though the walk and the talk cannot be clearly delineated, it might be said that the talk is at once the impetus for the walk and what informs the walk. When I am talking of God as I am walking along the way I feel that I am doing what I was put on this earth to do. It is my equivalent of being on the wire. This is not something peculiar to me or to a certain class of Christians; rather I think this is precisely where the deep joy of the Christian life enters in and it is to be the feeling and attitude of every Christian.

In the story, The Fiddler on the Roof, Topol dreams of sitting in the synagogue discussing the finer points of Torah with the rabbis – he dreams of a life in which he did not have to milk his cows and go about the business of making a living. It is not that Christianity relieves us of this responsibility but milking the cows and making a living are no longer definitive of who we are and what we are about. Christianity is not a supplement to our main activity of earning a living but has become our main activity. “Doing theology” is one way of describing the content of this activity.

The writer of Hebrews describes the activity of the Christian in the way Topol dreams. The Sabbath or seventh day activity is not simply one of the days in the week for the Christian but we have entered into the Sabbath – Today we have entered into His rest. Our life is no longer defined by the six days of work which make up ordinary time but we have entered that special time in which God has ceased His labor so as to take up redemptive activity – the very point of human history. So too, we are to cease one kind of labor and activity and we are to enter into redemptive activity. In this time the Words of life fill our conversation and our thoughts and are definitive of our relationships. “Redeeming the time” does not mean we become frantic to accomplish more work. It means we have entered into Sabbath time and we have been relieved of the heavy burden constituting the work and life of those outside of this time. Deep conversation about God (and the various modes that conversing might take – witnessing, teaching, preaching) – or taking up the Word of God and walking is the Sabbath activity we are to be about. “Theology” describes this process (for me it is a verb or practice – it always contains a doing).

The question of whether one needs to do theology to be a Christian is like the question if one needs to eat to be human. You can go without for a while but the fact that you are here means you have already dipped into the bowl. You may be living off of the processed, manufactured, or synthetic stuff. You may be consuming and passing along undigested material. Milk demands no awareness on the part of the infant that consumes it. The meat requires serious preparation, lots of chewing and digestion, and is best done with a host of companions around a large table. Theology is the feast which binds the fellowship together and it is that joyous occasion in which we partake in the meat of the Word. We might have our popcorn friends with whom we discuss entertainment (the perennial inanities of those consumed by hoops and goals). True friendship forms around the meaty sustenance of the Word.

Theology, as the dialogue which is our primary engagement as Christians, speaks of the necessity of a dynamic synthesizing (of Old and New, apostolic teaching and tradition, of Jew and Gentile, male and female, and ultimately of all things). Theology was once known as the “Queen of the sciences” as all knowledge was brought together in the foundation of Christ. The University was formed with the understanding that there is a uniform theological understanding into which all knowledge can be integrated. Theology is the means of integration and the point where the synthesis is realized. As Nicholas Lash has described it,

To think as a Christian is to try to understand the stellar spaces, the arrangements of micro-organisms and DNA molecules, the history of Tibet, the operation of economic markets, toothache, King Lear, the CIA, and grandma’s cooking—or, as Aquinas put it, all things’—in relation to that uttering, utterance and enactment of God which they express and represent. To act as a Christian is to work with, to alter or, if need be, to endure all things in conformity with that understanding.

This synthesizing point ultimately involves the synthesis of persons into a unified understanding and united body. As the Word is exegeted we are drawn together through conversing over the Word into the Word. The first theological conversation demonstrates the process.

In the case of the walk to Emmaus, Christ is the exegete, the means of exegesis, and recognition of the resurrected Christ is the end of the process. The law is made to come alive as it is synthesized or understood through the person and work of Christ explained by Christ. Christ is not absent from the exegetical synthesis taking place. He is not a static object added onto the Old Book. He is there with them in the walk and the talk and who He is becomes clear when they break bread together. So too in the present; who He is becomes clear in the walk and talk that unfolds between us and the promise is that He is there in our midst. We are joined together as friends through the Word in the Body of Christ. As we break bread together, the real presence of Christ is there in his Body constituted through the brothers and sisters on our right and left.

The great joy of my life (I do not mean to sound as if it is coming to a close) has been the friendships that have formed and which I continue to enjoy which are focused on a continual exegesis of the Word. The conversation constitutes the deepest of relationships as we are joined together in an unfolding of who Christ is. My vision of heaven – the move from glory to glory in Paul’s description – would be friends setting out together on a walk which would be filled with conversation burning with the recognition that another was there in our midst. The expectation would be that at the end of this walk we will break bread together and we will definitively recognize the One on whom our conversation has centered.