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”
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”
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?”
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?”
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”
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.
The nephew of the deceased interrupted the service at the graveside to object to the entire procedure. “No Turk, Jew, or Muslim, would be forced to submit, against his will, to the rites of a religion which he had rejected,” he cried out. “What is this ‘official Christianity’ then?” asked the young man. “It is the great Whore, Babylon, with whom all the kings of the earth have fornicated, the wine of whose whoredom has made drunk all the peoples of the earth. . ..” The young doctor explained that the deceased had refused to participate in the official worship of God and so, accordingly will have reduced his sins, in his own estimate, by one – “namely the sin of participating in making a fool of God by calling the Christianity of the New Testament what is not the Christianity of the New Testament.” 1 Continue reading “No More Reformations – Just Singular Individuals Called from the Herd”
How I lost an original, though not fully worked out, notion of peace as a new Christian and then arrived, again, in middle age at an understanding of non-violence is not a process I can narrate in detail. I guess I lost my original notion of Christian peace simply through circumstance. My father explained his understanding of Jesus command to turn the other cheek through a story: “A preacher teaching on this passage is suddenly slapped by someone. The preacher immediately punches the offender but then explains – now I have turned the other cheek.” Being of a literal frame of mind and not attuned to the finer points of hermeneutics – I may have missed the intended facetiousness of the story. A “masculine,” anti-communist, right-wing, nationalistic Christianity was modeled – we lived in Texas. My sense that we should be at peace with the land and God’s created order, though we may need to kill off some of our fellow humans, somehow survived a bit longer. Ultimately, the nationalistic forms of American Christianity proved to be a corrosive sort of mud swamp to my first (naïve) understanding of Christianity. Continue reading “Arriving at Peace in the Land of Silence or How to Drain a Mud Swamp”
A guest to my class on world religions was asked to address the subject of mystery. Being an academic who had spent his life studying the desert fathers I thought a good way to begin the discussion would be to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate notions of mystery. My request that he do this fell flat, as he indicated he had never considered the issue. I had just finished teaching a section on Zen and felt it was important to say what the Christian mystery is not. Having spent 20 years in Japan it would not have occurred to me to presume to teach on the role of mystery without distinguishing its legitimate form and function. My experience with this guest speaker, however, seems to typify a growing phenomenon. Continue reading “The Mystery Revealed”
Are the writers of the New Testament a reliable guide as to how we should read the Old Testament and thus understand the Bible? At a more basic level, is the Bible coherent? What one encounters in much of biblical scholarship is lack of an implicit trust that the Bible is a book which tells a story in which beginning, middle and end form a coherent whole. Continue reading “Whence the crack in the mirror of the Word?”