Stormy Meet Melania: The Evangelical Exception Which (Dis)Proves the Rule

It is an odd conjunction, evangelicals excusing porn star escapades, allowing for the support of white supremacists, and willing to offer up endless excuses of a biblical nature for the most grievous character flaws. It demonstrates the infinite flexibility of a gnostic Christianity to coordinate the “flesh” so that it does not impinge on the spirit (and vice versa).  Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council suggests Trump’s sex with porn stars is like a “mulligan” in golf.  A “mulligan” is a shot that is not counted in the final score which usually occurs when first teeing off.  It is the exception that proves or founds the rule.  If golf incorporated unlimited mulligans there would be no game, yet to get the game up and running there must be exceptions to achieve full enjoyment. Trump is allowed his mulligan in the way the original father is allowed access to all of the women in Freud’s primal horde.  The father’s transgressions with his daughters is the exception (to the universal taboo of incest) which gets the game/the tribe up and running while at the same time delineating its absolute taboo. Trump, as primal father, has full access to transgressive enjoyment on behalf of his primal horde. For him it is mulligans and sex without rules as he embodies the founding moment for a new order – evangelicals trumpet his election as a seismic shift. The more he transgresses the more he demonstrates his embodiment of the law – which he cannot possibly violate. He is truly God’s chosen leader – our David (as evangelical leaders have claimed) allowed his Bathsheba and his Uriah.  He was raised up, as Paula White has claimed, like Esther for precisely this moment. He is the founder of a new age in which his obscene enjoyment absolutely delineates between the sacred and the secular. Continue reading “Stormy Meet Melania: The Evangelical Exception Which (Dis)Proves the Rule”

The Gospel from Hell

God so loved the world and yet, so hated its sin that his anger was pitted against his love. Love and wrath, good and evil, eternal struggle, is found in God himself, between Father and Son. Thus, the Father killed the Shepherd of the sheep and spilt his blood so that he would not utterly destroy the sheep but would contain the infinite wideness of his anger.  His righteous wrath is forever so that the ninety and nine find the broad path unto eternal torment while he saves the few through killing the Shepherd. Who can fathom his ways? The narrow way of mercy passes like the weaver’s shuttle at midnight, hidden as it is in the dark mysteries of the divine decree. No man can know his mighty whim, for it blows like the wind, redeeming but a few and preserving the multitude for the smelting pot of his anger. Save but for the good pleasure of the Father in the torture and death of the innocent Son, his eye would turn not from executing his infinite justice.   Continue reading “The Gospel from Hell”

The Final Parable

The following is a guest blog by Brett Powell.

The Synoptic Gospels of Matthew and Luke share alternative adaptations of a parable told by Jesus in which a master, in preparation for a journey afar, temporarily entrusted various amounts of wealth to his servants. In Matthew’s version, eight talents (a unit of weight) are distributed among three servants: the first servant receiving five, the second receiving two and the third receiving only one—each according to his proper dynamic. In terms of wealth, it’s impossible to say just how much Jesus was imagining. The idea, so it would seem, is that each servant received, not just slight gradations in pay, but measurably different degrees of resources. Such that, the first servant is entrusted with a sum of resources which could potentially employ or support a multitude, the second is entrusted with the resources to support many and the third servant is given the means to support only a few. Continue reading “The Final Parable”

The Lie Behind Penal Substitution and Divine Satisfaction

A way of illustrating how sin functions through a lie is to use the theories of divine satisfaction and penal substitution as a case in point (a singular illustration) of the lie.  That is, these theories of atonement, I would argue, simply offer up the universal deception of sin under the guise of salvation.  Penal substitution and divine satisfaction do what Paul depicts sin as always doing – presume there is life in the law, that suffering and death are redemptive, and that death is an absolute.  Paul’s picture of the fallen Subject is one in which the law (the law of the mind) is presumed to provide life, and death and suffering, under the guise of law, are continually taken up as the law of sin and death.  Three things come together in this understanding: the law as the will to power (to obtain life and being); desire and suffering of and for the ego or “I” (the idol or image); and the production of death confused with life.  In Paul’s picture this is the dynamic within every fallen Subject.  Likewise, the logic of every form of false religion is built upon these three pillars; the immutability of the law setting up the absolute nature of death which makes suffering and death a form of redemption. The gods of paganism require penalty and payment so that law and order are maintained. The good Buddhist or Hindu recognizes that there is a cosmic law at work (karma or destiny) which must be obeyed, that asceticism or relinquishing of life and self is the means of salvation, and that death is the doorway into this salvation.  Both Anselm of Canterbury and John Calvin presume that law is the economy determining the nature of salvation and this salvation requires eternal payment – the death of Christ. If penal substitution and divine satisfaction are a repetition of the problem it is a peculiarly blasphemous repetition as it is at the same time a displacement of the orthodox Christian answer. Continue reading “The Lie Behind Penal Substitution and Divine Satisfaction”

Hope for Getting Through the Dark Night of the Soul

The darkness of life confronts some more than others and for what, perhaps is a majority, this darkness seems inescapable.  This was brought home to me in the following three vignettes, a Mafia wife, a despairing novelist, and a poverty stricken young girl. The three stories converged upon me this week as a problem for which there is no justification or answer.  In place of an answer I offer counter stories accompanied by poetry and song (weak even in the description); the stories of two men who faced soul crushing despair in a wilderness of hatred, bigotry, and racism, and yet who, like Moses, caught a glimpse of the promised land.  At their lowest point both see beyond the immediate despair and prospect of death and their vision is captured in a moment of transcendent artistry.  The vision of their art is the singular balm, of which I am aware, for the dark night of the soul.  Continue reading “Hope for Getting Through the Dark Night of the Soul”

Salvation Through a Change of Covenant: The New-Covenant of Peace as a Counter to the Covenant with Death

One of the most interesting developments in recent theology is the renewed focus on the atonement or the meaning of the saving work of Christ.  There is nothing more basic to Christianity than salvation and many (I am thinking here of my experience with beginning theology students) seem to presume there must be absolute consensus. While there are a variety of biblical metaphors for atonement these are usually sorted out into the standard overarching theories: Christus Victor or Christ’s victory over Satan, satisfaction (which included particular readings of sacrifice and punishment) and the moral influence theory (Christ died to demonstrate the love or wrath of God). (Some would suggest that ransom constitutes a separate theory and note that divine satisfaction should be separated out from penal substitution.) More recent theories have evolved around Rene Girard’s scapegoating theory in which Christ as the last scapegoat undoes the scapegoating mechanism.  This fits well with development of nonviolent theories of atonement such as J. Denny Weaver’s narrative Christus Victor.  David Brondos sets forth ten additional soteriological models (e.g. redemption/recapitulation, theosis or the union of the divine and human natures, entry into the Kingdom, reconciliation, liberation, and proclamation).  One might term this a crisis in soteriology but, though there are competing models which contradict the others, the overall trend is toward a more participatory and transformational understanding of the death of Christ.  There is a gradual closure of the gap that is present in many theories between the benefits of the death of Christ (e.g. some reducing it to going to heaven) and living out the Christian life as a disciple (ethics).  Michael Gorman[1] suggests that all have fallen short (they are all stuck on the penultimate “how” and have missed the all-embracing “what”) in not naming “new-covenant” as the category under which all the others can be subsumed.[2]  Gorman is building on the shift to a more participatory understanding (entry into the Kingdom through living out a cruciform life) but the specific thing which this new-covenant brings about is peace (in Gorman’s explanation and in his exhaustive proof of this explanation from Scripture). What I would add to Gorman’s “new-covenant of peace,” which Gorman is far from alone in recognizing (though it may have gone unnamed as a theory of atonement), is that this “what” of salvation contains within it the very “how” he would set aside (the end or goal of salvation as the peaceable Kingdom gives us a direct insight into how it works as a displacement of a world grounded in violence). Continue reading “Salvation Through a Change of Covenant: The New-Covenant of Peace as a Counter to the Covenant with Death”

A Rumor of Angels

When Stan and Vicky found us, Faith and I had been beaten and robbed and left for dead.  They took us in and fed us and cleaned our wounds. We were so disoriented that we did not know what had happened or how to go on.  The gang that got us was not of the club and knife wielding sort and the wounds they inflicted were not physical, which would have made helping us more straightforward.  As it was, we needed the peculiar abilities and the large measure of grace Stan and Vicky had devoted their lives to developing and dispensing. Continue reading “A Rumor of Angels”

Mindhunter and Theology: Serial Killers, Mass Murderers, and the Death of Christ

The Netflix series Mindhunter dramatizes the beginnings of FBI profiling necessitated by, what would come to be called, “serial killers.”  Based largely on the work of John E. Douglas, who recognized that seemingly random murders often follow a pattern traceable to particular “psychological types,” the series illustrates Douglas’ application of psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis to crime. Douglas brings psychology, and specifically the Freudian theory of masochism and sadism (death drive), to bear upon criminality so as to both identify the psychological make-up and experience of the killer and to predict future behavior. In the broadest terms, psychoanalysis is built upon the presupposition that the human disease (Freud was a medical doctor) is subject to prognosis because it follows regular patterns with identifiable causes and effects.  The more the disease – neurosis or psychosis – has a grip on an individual the more their behavior, thought, and personality, will follow a predictable (almost mechanical) pattern (the more the disease will “present” itself). In terms of destructive behavior and murder, the more the individual is given over to compulsion the more destructive and thus the more predictable their behavior. In this sense, a serial killer presents the perfect object of study as they have relinquished control (in their own description and as the series abundantly illustrates) to compulsions which are totally destructive.  Those who are most “out of control” better demonstrate the nature of the cause and effect power which animates their actions. The perfect presentation of the disease is to be found in pure death drive and destruction.   Continue reading “Mindhunter and Theology: Serial Killers, Mass Murderers, and the Death of Christ”

Peace as Redemption from the Violence of Sin

The Gospel of non-violence is not simply non-violence tacked onto a typical evangelical or Catholic understanding.  The NT involves a radical sort of belief system characterized throughout by a peace that surpasses human capacities to implement or apprehend.  The peace of the Gospel is attained by a reordering of the world and every aspect of the world (which indicates the pervasive nature of both violence and peace).  Peace stands over and against violence as the key descriptor of the alternative inaugurated in the kingdom of God. It is an alternative mode of social interaction built upon an alternative understanding of God working itself out in an alternative understanding of the atonement. The doctrines which branch out from this Gospel all bear the vitality of peace as life-blood and fruit.

The peaceable Kingdom (ecclesiology) makes peace a lived possibility through a holistic alternative to the pervasive violence (the historical dialectic/conflict, the eternal return to war, the personal agonistic struggle) which marks thought and human interaction in the kingdoms of this world. Just as violence characterizes the principalities and powers of this world and is descriptive of the work of sin, salvation is a peaceable counter Kingdom which serves as the formative basis for a new humanity.  Peace is a discipline to be learned, a form of thought to be implemented, an ethic to be inhabited, and a form of inter-personal relationship to be attained in and through this kingdom.

Paul, in Colossians, equates being in the body of Christ with the rule of the peace of Christ in the heart (Col. 3:15).  Inward peace of the heart cannot be disassociated from the corporate peace of the body of Christ.  Both are directly linked to “letting the word of Christ dwell richly within you” and this in turn is connected to worship, teaching/learning, and the cultivation of thankfulness.  Paul ties “whatever you do in word or deed” to letting this peace rule (Col. 3:16-17). Peace is a holistic descriptor of the economy of salvation and all that it entails.

A hermeneutic built upon a necessary violence (which misses the centrality of peace) will ground this necessity in the person of God (God invokes and uses violence for salvation) worked out in the death of Christ. This violent gospel depends upon a hermeneutic which displaces both the ethic of Christ and the Gospels as interpretive frame. The love of God and the anger of God, in this understanding, are in a conflict which can only be resolved through the death of Christ.  Sin and salvation pertain primarily to a problem and resolution in the mind of God.  God himself directs violence against Christ so as to satisfy his righteousness.  Violence, in this gospel, has an ontological ground and origin surpassing the finitude of humanity.  Divine anger is infinite as is the required payment. Peace is subsequent to this original violence and consists of having achieved a balance in the most primordial of conflicts.  To reverse John Milbank’s description of the peaceable heavenly city, this economy is built on the virtue of resistance to anger and its ultimate domination. The death of Christ is a coercive resolution to a reigning legal necessity.  This heaven is simply the hell of humanity projected into the economy of salvation.

A hermeneutic built upon peace, to the contrary, finds this peace as original to the person of the Trinity.  It will read the death of Christ as the end point of human sin and violence (rather than a result of God’s wrath).  This hermeneutic will, of necessity, be Christocentric in its reading of the NT as the peace of Christ is the only lens which provides this key insight into the immanent Trinity.  In other words, peace describes a reading of the NT which touches upon sin, salvation, the doctrine of God, the doctrine of the Church, hermeneutics, and anthropology.

As Milbank describes it, in the heavenly city come to earth virtue is not the virtue of resistance and domination but it is grounded in the original peace of God.  Peace is basic to human experience because it is basic to God.  Peace poses the possibility of an alternative life based upon a reconstituted personality in the image of God.

One way of getting at this is the alternative thought form which breaks out of the dull regularity posed by violence.[1]  Divine creativity knows neither the bounds of formulaic thought nor the rut of a personality given over to compulsive repetition. As Ro. 8:2 puts it, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death.”

The law of sin and death describes a law of violence binding to dissolution and death.

All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” (Ro. 3:12-17, ESV)

In Paul’s genealogy of sin, violence and peace mark two paths. Violence begins with the organs of speech being caught up in deception and turned against God and this gives rise to murder.

In his detailed depiction (in Ro. 7) of the impetus behind this violence the split ‘I’ (doing what it does not want and unable to do what it wants) demonstrates how the law holds out a fullness of being – promising life (wholeness or completeness as the object cause of desire) but ending only in an agonistic struggle to the death (7.16-20).  This struggle is all consuming, and in Paul’s description, it seems to include corporate humanity represented by Israel and individual persons represented by Adam.  Paul describes this life in the flesh as a life of slavery to fear, deception, and violence, and life if the Spirit is posed, over and against this way of violence, in chap. 8 as the way of peace.

The fear and slavery under the law of sin and death, with its work through deceptive desire aroused by the law, became ‘another law’ (ἕτερον νόμον).  This law, however, is voided (along with all of its violent machinations) by Christ.  The punishing effects of the law of sin and death no longer bind, as God has condemned the law of sin through the death of Christ (8.1-3) who ushers in the law of life in the Spirit. This then will result in the capacity to ‘walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit’ (8.4).

This walk is characterized in all of its phases by the power of life which Paul characterizes as the path of life and peace (8:6).  Paul describes this new mindset as one that one is enabled to suffer and absorb violence so that those who suffer with Christ will be glorified together with him (8.17). We may be subjected to violent futility and death but this violence no longer defines the Christian.

 Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. (Ro. 8:36-7, ESB)

The Spirit of life is a departure from the universally binding law of violence and death. Christ’s death defeated death and we participate in this defeat as we absorb violence.  We conquer by turning from participation in the violence of the world through the love of Christ.

[1] Thus, the typical conversation in opposition to non-violence – the “what if” scenarios which present a situation in which violence is seemingly the only resolution – are themselves a proof that there is a logic which constrains its bearers rather than the other way around. Thought is reduced to something on the order of mechanics so that the capacity to imagine an alternative world is demonstrably foreshortened.  The dull regularity with which the “what if” scenarios repeat themselves is on the order of a neurosis.  The compulsion to repeat, which Freud found was the consistent indicator of neurosis, binds thought in an imprisoning pattern.  Rather than an avenue for understanding, creativity, and growth, thought begins to cannibalize its host through its constrained regularity.

 

[2] New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). (Ro 8:36–37). La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

Theology as Diagnosis of the Human Disease

Where the truth of Christ is understood to counter a lie and the death of Christ an overcoming of the orientation to death fostered by this lie there are an infinite variety of ways in which this overcoming is to be described.  Key throughout is the recognition that this understanding has its explanation in the lived reality of human experience. As opposed to theories of atonement focused on the mind of God (i.e. divine satisfaction, penal substitution) which do not, for the most part, engage the lived reality of human experience, an immanent explanation of how the world is impacted by Christ is readily available.  Let me suggest a direction for the theological enterprise as it engages the ongoing task of apprehending the meaning of the death of Christ. Continue reading “Theology as Diagnosis of the Human Disease”