The Church Emerging from a Failed Evangelicalism: The True Restoration Movement

In the 500-year cycles Phyllis Tickle locates in the history of the Judeo/Christian faith we are one year into the emergence of a new form of Christianity (501 years removed from Luther nailing the theses to the church door, 500 years prior to the Reformation takes us to the Great Schism, when Eastern and Western Christianity split, and 500 years from then takes us back to Gregory the Great and the so-called Dark Ages, etc.) We are well into what I would call the “Great Return,” giving rise to new forms of Christianity (emergent, new monasticism, missional, small church, cyber-church, deep church) most all of which are concerned with a return to forms of church which involve doing life together in some significant form.  While for many this return has meant a return to Rome, Canterbury, or Constantinople, for others it has meant a return to the economic practices of the first church (a shared purse) or a return to the land (sustainable living), or a return to community living (the new monasticism). The way of summing up the failure of evangelicalism and the emerging Great Return is in terms of ecclesiology or the doctrine of the Church: evangelicalism, according to Derek Tidball never had a developed theology of the church and, according to George Marsden, was characterized by a “general disregard of the institutional church;”[1] the Great Return is occurring in the wake of this abandonment of the centrality of the Church with a return to understanding the Church as the substance of salvation. Continue reading “The Church Emerging from a Failed Evangelicalism: The True Restoration Movement”

Mister Rogers’ Mysterious Decency

The True/False film festival in Columbia offers a preview of the year’s top documentary films before their official release and this year several of us from FP took in films explaining everything from terrorism, cowboy angst, the art world, and the iconic persona of Fred Rogers.  I cannot claim to have much of a critical faculty as a consumer of film. I am like Jerry, of Ben and Jerry’s fame, who describes his lack of taste as accounting for the huge chunks of chocolate and nuts in their ice cream. My appreciation of film often arises from its texture without my necessarily being able to discern the nuance of how and why it impacts me the way it does.  The film that aroused a mysterious depth of emotion was “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the documentary describing, as one of his sons describes Fred Rogers, the second incarnation of Jesus. Documentary films, at their best, take a slice of life and bring out the inherent beauty, hope, love, or absurdity, of everyday life, and Morgan Neville’s film provides insight to the depth of understanding and love Roger’s was able to convey to a generation of children.  Mister Rogers, patiently answering children’s questions, ultimately replying in person to over a million fan letters, taking time for everyone he comes across, was among the most decent of men. “He was such a warm, moral character,” Neville said after spending more than a year watching Rogers on tape. “He had no agenda other than goodness. I can’t think of any voice that I wanted to hear in this day and age more than his.”  The sheer moral uplift of this film caught me by surprise. Continue reading “Mister Rogers’ Mysterious Decency”

Guns, Madness, and Death in the City of Man and the City of God

Achieving security is a primary human concern.  Security against disease, oppression, hunger and ultimately death (both natural and unnatural), drives religion and civilization so that every earthly city and religion claims validity by securing, incrementally, against an originary chaos.  What distinguishes Christianity is both the mode in which it secures us and its overturning of this imagined originary chaos as chief orienting factor.  In the Kingdom of God an originary peace (found in Trinitarian love) is the foundation of an alternative City and an alternative set of peaceful practices. Primacy given to anarchy and chaos results in a life given over to the futility of securing itself. Where God is recognized as the source of life, the violence of the zero-sum game – presuming there is only so much life or being to be had – is displaced by a generous forgiveness whose resource is God. (The 70 x 7 posed by Cain’s mode of vengeance and countered by the extent of Christ’s forgiveness depicts inexhaustible vengeance displaced by inexhaustible forgiveness).  Continue reading “Guns, Madness, and Death in the City of Man and the City of God”

A Cruciform Hermeneutic: The Passage from Dead Language to the Living Word

In his meditation on a beam of light in a tool shed, C.S. Lewis noted, one can either look at the beam of light and see dust particles and not much else or one can look along the beam of light and see the world the light illumines. The meditation concerned different ways of reading the Bible and of doing Christianity. Looking at may be the peculiar modern temptation to reduce everything to our field of vision while simultaneously constricting our vision to what is right in front of us. We imagine we can reduce Scripture to a theory so as to “know it all.”  Whether this reductionist understanding is fostered by or fosters pride, either way, it is characterized by a willingness to deconstruct and not to be deconstructed by the Word. Scripture is made to fit a modernist foundation and “reality” which precedes and is apprehended apart from Christ and Scripture. Truth, in this understanding, is objective and timeless and, as a result, the historical specifics of the narrative of Scripture are presumed to be secondary. That which is timeless and universally true must be sifted out from the particular, culturally specific, and narrative bound. Ironically, the primary trues of the incarnation are presumed, due to the necessary trues guiding reason, to be disincarnate. As a result, the life of Christ and the Gospels are consigned a secondary role to the doctrinal statements and theological development of the epistles. This disincarnate truth reduces to rules to follow, doctrines to be organized, or simply primary events witnessing to timeless truth (in the fundamentalist, conservative, or liberal, application of the foundational paradigm). Narrative cannot be authoritative in this understanding, as authority is pictured as vertical or top down (as in a monarchy or hierarchy) rather than a horizontal sort of road map which introduces previously uncharted territory. Scripture is thought to inform with rules and propositions rather than guide with example, and Christ is the object of faith (we have faith in him) rather than the subject of a faithfulness we are to enter into and imitate. Continue reading “A Cruciform Hermeneutic: The Passage from Dead Language to the Living Word”

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 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”

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”

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.