Blog

Dancing in the Wilderness

Faith and I did not know we were standing on the precipice of the wilderness three years ago as all we could see was bone-chilling darkness. After most of an adult life in Japan we were attuned to the profound need for belonging and we understood what it was not to belong. It had not occurred to us that we would feel the worst sort of exclusion and disenfranchisement from American Christians. We learned the hard way that speaking against power, even the power of a Christian institution, would forever mark us as outsiders. The cost of belonging, the silent acquiescence we were so familiar with in Japan, we had presumed, wrongly, would not be a price required among the “non-idolatrous.” As I look back at the misogyny, the open financial corruption, the abuse of students and faculty, the price of being inside now appears obviously idolatrous. But it may be that it is only from the wilderness, which at first felt very punishing and lonely, that the reality of the flesh pots of Egypt are exposed. As we walked into the wilderness, we slowly discovered this beautiful community outside the gates. Continue reading “Dancing in the Wilderness”

The Birth of Jesus as Divine Comedy

Both Abraham and Sarah respond with laughter to their absurd plight.  Sarah laughs privately and Abraham “fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” (Gen. 17:17).  The absurd situation of being promised a child, though Sarah is barren and Abraham is so old he is as good as dead, is laughable as it is absurdly hopeful.  The laughter is not simply doubtful, though it encompasses doubt. It is, as one might say at the unforeseen but happy resolution of an impossible situation, “Unbelievable!” Their laughter is acknowledgement of the absurdity but it is not bound by mere impossibility or tragedy. The fact that they memorialize the laughter in naming the child Isaac (He Who Laughs) indicates this laughter is integral to their faith. Since Abraham, in Paul’s explanation, is the prototype of faith, this indicates our own faith is to be caught up in the same laughter. More than that, Isaac or He Who Laughs is a type of Christ, meaning that the divine and human are melded in laughter personified. Continue reading “The Birth of Jesus as Divine Comedy”

I Kissed Dating Goodbye as I am no Longer Human: Curing This Sickness Unto Death

Total freedom and the possibility of total destruction are not simply global phenomena (the “free” possibility of ending organized civilization through nuclear warfare or global warming) but are conjoined in a “despairing” Subject. Progress toward attaining the self, whether it brings down the world or simply destroys what is, marks the present world order but also the despairing, fear bound Subjects emerging at the end of late modernity. This despair, in Søren Kierkegaard’s depiction of it, might be despair at not being conscious of having a self, or despair at not willing to be oneself, or despair at willing to be oneself, but all three reduce to the same predicament.[1] There is a disease of the spirit (the spirit of the age or the individual human spirit) a dividedness and fear in which unity is sought (becoming or attaining the self) in negation of the self. Kierkegaard calls it “the sickness unto death.” Continue reading “I Kissed Dating Goodbye as I am no Longer Human: Curing This Sickness Unto Death”

Beyond Hysteria: From Frankenstein’s Monster to Hegel, Freud, and Paul

For most of human history people lived out their lives in the codified cocoon of traditional societies in which the cosmic order was presumed to dictate immutable laws determining every aspect of human life. One might respond by submitting or transgressing, but the laws were held in place by divine dictate. To change up the world order was not a possibility and was made a possibility only by one who would claim to be the way, the truth, and the life. Changing the world order is a possibility introduced by Christianity but the notion of freedom, even among the first Christian heretics, is perverted to mean an absolute freedom from all constraint.  Freedom from the law combined with the revolutionary notion of recreating the world, apart from the specifics of the work of Christ, created a stream of thought already developing in the Corinthian Church but famously represented by such key figures as Descartes, Hegel and Nietzsche. Beginning with doubt and constructing from the foundations up (Descartes), with death and nothingness itself as foundational (Hegel), philosophy marked the turning to a radical freedom in which no values hold (Nietzsche). Continue reading “Beyond Hysteria: From Frankenstein’s Monster to Hegel, Freud, and Paul”

Should Christians Refrain from Going to Court in Cases Involving Other Christians?

Paul links three topics which, on the surface, may appear to have little in common: “going to the law” or taking someone to court (I Cor. 6:1-8), sexual immorality (6:9-11), and freedom and discipline (6:12-20). What these three topics share is a warning against manipulating or taking advantage of fellow Christians. In Corinth there is apparently an elitist group – those who count themselves “wise” and who have more economic and social standing and who are misusing their freedom in Christ.  These people, as seen most clearly in chapter 11, are taking advantage of their social standing. They are “grasping” sexually (some conclude they are using boy prostitutes), financially (attempting to make money by taking advantage of their Christian brothers and sisters), and even in their station in the church (pride of place in wisdom and position) they are “grasping” what is not theirs. The situation, where some in the church are taking others to court, may be an extension of the thematic problem; the wealthy and powerful taking advantage of the poor and weak. Continue reading “Should Christians Refrain from Going to Court in Cases Involving Other Christians?”

The Origin of Evil: The Perverse Personality

This week Christopher Watts was sentenced to three consecutive lifetimes in prison for the August murders of his pregnant wife and two young daughters. He explained that he had hoped to start a new life with his girlfriend. After strangling his wife and smothering his children, Watts
buried his wife, Shanann, in a shallow grave and put his daughters, Bella and Celeste, in containers of crude oil. The Washington Post reports that neither prosecutors nor the surviving relatives of Shanann, Bella and Celeste Watts who spoke at Monday’s hearing expected to ever understand how a seemingly normal person could annihilate his entire family. Watt’s parents, Cynthia and Ronnie Watts, could not believe their son had done such a thing but in light of his confession they asked only that Watts one day explain himself.   Continue reading “The Origin of Evil: The Perverse Personality”

The Biblical Personality Spectrum: 1. The Masculine

Paul, in his depiction of the various stages or possibilities for the human subject (building on the Old Testament), depicts four primary ways of being human or four ways for ordering human subjectivity. The primary poles around which he arranges these four possibilities are desire, language, and death. Each of these elements are interrelated, as desire has to do primarily with lack (lack of being, mortality, death, finitude, sexuality) and language or the symbolic order (law, authority, culture, religion, etc.) is the medium through which desire is channeled in dealing with lack. Each of the primary poles is linked (not exclusively but primarily) to an embodied cognitive capacity so that the auditory, the spectral, or the sensuous, are either privileged or subordinated in the four subject positions. In turn, the emotional spectrum (which is inclusive of all three poles and is not simply “feeling”) can be ranged from the root negative emotion of shame (in which lack or death holds sway through the spectral and sensuous) to guilt (in which the symbolic dominates) to love (in which the punishing effect of the symbolic is suspended).  For Paul, it is not simply a matter of being a Christian, as he will locate Christians in several places along the spectrum, but he does trace a developmental progression. In this short piece, I will describe the first of Paul’s four subject positions: the masculine. Continue reading “The Biblical Personality Spectrum: 1. The Masculine”

The Church is an Ethic a Liturgy and a Real Presence

One of the key moments in Alexander Campbell’s break with Presbyterianism and denominationalism came when he returned his communion token, unused, to the coffers of the Presbyterians. The token, issued by the Church of Scotland and other Presbyterian Churches, was a ticket of entry showing that the bearer had been duly tested and approved by the clergy to gain access to the Lord’s Table. The tokens were a form of “salvation currency” as the bearer was declared a bone fide Christian (to be denied a token was to lose access to body of Christ). The tokens became sacred objects, some even requested they be put in their coffins at death, and they were a means for clergy (who came to view them as their personal possession) to accumulate power and insure their own station. The system originated with John Calvin and spread to Protestant churches all over the world, including the U. S. The particular thing which may have plagued Campbell, as he purposely put himself at the end of a line of 800 some communicants, was that he realized that his new friends among the Scottish reformers would not qualify for the Lord’s table as they were not of the right party.[1] Continue reading “The Church is an Ethic a Liturgy and a Real Presence”

Christian Nationalists?

As the President promotes the term “nationalist” in the midst of two terrorist attacks by men who seem to have also embraced Trump’s nationalism, the question arises as to the meaning and associations of the term. UNESCO claims that with “the birth of modern nations, anti-Semitism became essentially ‘nationalist.’”[1] The UNESCO report connects the rise of modern nationalism to a new and more virulent form of anti-Semitism. While the United States, in the words of George Washington in his letter of assurance to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R. I., “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” there is a clear rise in anti-Semitism (the Anti-Defamation League logged a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017) as the rhetoric of nationalism heats up. With the murder of the 11 worshipers in Pittsburgh (the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history), it is clear that Jews can no longer depend upon this country being a sanctuary from anti-Semitism.[2] Inasmuch as Christian evangelicals are key supporters of the source of this amped up rhetoric, the question is whether one can be a follower of Jesus and a nationalist? Contained within this larger question is the question whether Christianity is inherently nationalistic and anti-Semitic and, of course, there are historical moments where this appears to have been the case. Continue reading “Christian Nationalists?”

A Christian Devil?

The following is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Rios.

Matthew 4:1-11

When talking about Jesus’ temptation it is but inevitable to identify ourselves with Jesus.  After all, everybody is tempted, constantly. But, what about an interpretation in which a Christian can see himself as being Satan? This is a possibility ignored by many because, well, who likes to be called Satan?

In a hermeneutics class with Jason Rodenbeck, a book called “Grasping God’s Word” by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays was used. A comment by Rodenbeck about the name of the book stood out (without demeaning the richness of the book) “the word ‘grasping’ has a violence to it. I’ve got it, I own that. I wish it was ‘being grasped by God’s Word’.” The idea is that the Bible is not something a Christian should hold, but that which holds the Christian.

It is a fact that everybody is an interpreter; and in this case, even Satan is. Satan uses misapplied Scripture to tempt Jesus. Several things must be pointed out: 1) Satan is called by three different words: tempter (v.3), devil (vs. 1, 5, 8, 11), and Satan (v. 10). 2) Satan is using the Word of God to tempt the Word of God (Logos, Jesus). 3) By doing so, he thinks his interpretation of the Word of God is superior to the Word Himself (Jesus). 4) The temptation is luring Jesus to succumb to the culture, religion and politics of this world.

Every teacher of the Bible should be careful about what he learns and teaches (James 3:1). It is not uncommon for teachers and preachers to use Scripture according to their agendas. It is not uncommon for them to believe theological doctrines based on verses out of context. It is not uncommon that their congregations end up believing these theological doctrines, whether they’re correct or not. And this is the reason why I think it is important to stop “grasping the Word of God” like Satan tried to do, and start “being grasped” by it.

The three words that describe Satan in this pericope can describe preachers as well. In Revelation 2:12-17 the Church in Pergamum is rebuked for holding false teachings and for committing acts of immorality. They are warned to repent or Jesus will make war against them with the sword of His mouth (the Word). Immorality and false teaching have crept into the church, many preachers even mishandle Scripture to teach that certain immoralities are no longer immoral, but normal. And so they fall into the first description of Satan, they are tempters. This control over what the Bible “teaches” is what makes them fall into the second description since “devil” comes from the words “calumniate, accuse, repudiate, misrepresent;” they are opposed to what the Bible teaches because they think that their interpretation of the Word is more important than the Word itself, even if or when it is a lie. Because of this misuse of the Scripture and their opposition to it, they become “adversaries” (the meaning of Satan) of the Word itself (Jesus).

Many preachers today use Satan’s strategy to have more “Christians” in their churches. They lure them to “following Christ” by remaining in the kingdom of this world, and by appealing to this world’s idols. There is no change of culture, or religion, or politics. Who would not like to have eternal life without sacrificing a thing? But, in this account Jesus does not fall into Satan’s temptation. Would He –having eaten bread or having thrown Himself from the pinnacle of the temple or worshiped Satan– gone to die on the cross? Not likely. And is it not what Jesus calls Christians to do as well–take up our cross to die (Matthew 16:24)?

Many preachers may not know that what they are teaching is opposed to the Word. And how could they not if they fail to do their homework when it comes to interpreting? “Ignorance is not the same as innocence.”[1] Christians must acknowledge this: bad theology leads to bad practices, many times violent ones. It is every Christian’s task to let himself be grasped by God’s Word in order to have good theology and as result, good practices. Mankind, since Genesis 3, is so used to the violence of seeing, holding, eating and sharing the wrong thing with others because it empowers them. And this is what makes the kingdom of Christ so radical, the citizenship requires the complete opposite of empowerment since it calls to an emptiness and denying of the self.

…the Bible is not something a Christian should hold, but that which holds the Christian.

Satan’s temptations follow his own pattern in Genesis: food, sight, pride. Israel fell on all of these during the wilderness. But Jesus shows a better way by denying His own needs in order to focus on ours. Christians are called to do the same to other Christians. But many, like Israel, fail to do so, or like Satan, they become the enemy to other Christians. What does Jesus call those who do Satan’s will? Those who refuse to be endorsed by a peaceable kingdom and therefore endorsing a violent one? Those who are not willing to give up their culture, religion or politics for a relationship with God? A Christian devil? No, He calls them “son of the devil” (John 8:44). Strong words that may apply to some who think are Christians, but not everyone who says “Lord, Lord…” (Matthew 7:22-23).

[1] This is a quote from the film Batman v Superman  which is thought to be a variation of the line from the English poet Robert Browning who said “Ignorance is not innocence but sin.”