The Coronavirus hit us like a lightning bolt out of a blue sky. Three and a half months and one world-wide pandemic, economic meltdown, nationwide BLM protests, and anarchy riots later (I live in the Pacific NW) . . . the country kind of feels like an anthill colony that’s just been kicked by a five-year-old boy. And just when we thought things couldn’t get worse, another unidentified virus has struck and struck hard.
We are now discovering that we were recently hit by not one, but two deadly viruses. Reports are still coming in, but we now know that the Coronavirus hit first, and was immediately followed by a second and potentially even more dangerous virus. The second virus goes by the name, Virus X and is believed to target a certain region of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for affecting behavior on the basis of perceived threats.
While there is still a good deal of mystery surrounding Virus X, experts are reporting that the virus causes individuals to become suspicious and fearful of one another. One notable expert believes that Virus X was responsible for triggering the Salem Witch trials, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Red Scare of 1950’s America. What is currently known about Virus X is that it is highly contagious (more contagious than Coronavirus) and the symptoms are as follows: fear, self-righteousness, enemy-centered outrage, mistrust and a tendency toward mob justice.
Experts believe Virus X arrived shortly after the Wuhan Coronavirus, and the infection rate has been doubling every 10 days since. Unlike the Coronavirus, Virus X cannot be empirically tested, for the virus is quite literally invisible. Scientists are focusing all their attention on identifying the symptoms associated with infection. When asked about Virus X, Anthony Fauci admits of complete ignorance. And as of this moment, Trump refuses to acknowledge its existence.
How about CNN, Fox News, or Time magazine? They have been ominously silent. One possible reason for media silence regarding Virus X is the recent statement published by the WHU which states, “We believe that we have located ground zero of Virus X. It appears to have originated in the production studios of news media outlets.” The statement concludes, “Virus X attaches itself to the images and messages right before they are broadcasted out to the public. Infection rates are astronomically higher among those who regularly consume news media programming.”
Now, in the wake of this second outbreak, scientists are beginning to share their findings as to how the virus impacts its human host. They now know that this virus penetrates the body through the eyes and the ears. Once the virus enters the body it targets the part of the brain responsible for identifying “friend or foe.” As the virus attacks and stimulates the amygdala, the subject is left feeling increasingly anxious and angry, as well as threatened and fearful.
When you combine the effects of psychological volatility with daily exposure to media narratives, which continually divide the world into binary oppositions (left and right, rapist and anti-rapist, black and white, Nazi and anti-Nazi, angels, and demons) the effects of the virus increase exponentially. The subject, suffering from the effects of an inflamed amygdala, becomes increasingly obsessed with “good and evil.” In short, Virus X destroys its victim’s sense of security and existential equilibrium.
People infected by Virus X report that they are no longer able to view the world outside of the “good and evil” binary. Other symptoms include an irrational obsession with being “good” as well as “a powerful longing to reach the ‘moral high ground.'” But in order to secure this “moral high ground”, the infected subject is driven to constantly compare himself to monsters and moral degenerates. This sense of moral superiority in the infected subject is then maintained by “calling out evil” and continually comparing himself to real or imagined evildoers.
It is believed that by the end of next week, over 2 billion people will be infected with Virus X. Meanwhile, the effects of the virus on society are already being felt as people appear increasingly agitated, some to the point of neurotic delirium over ethical and moral indiscretions, both real and perceived. Gus Williams’ hardware store was recently vandalized by his neighbors who sprayed-painted the “RACIST!” on his hardware store window (interesting fact, Gus Williams is a 68-year-old black man).
With each new day, evidence continues to point to news media outlets as the epicenter of the virus, as well as the primary medium of transmission. With the force of a tsunami wave, through every conceivable form of new media, every hour on the hour, we are being flooded with pedantic and vacuous admonitions: “Don’t be a brutal rapist! Don’t be an evil racist! Don’t be a greedy capitalist!” “Don’t be a Nazi!”. This modern-day inquisition and the fanatical cult of “good and evil” is gathering steam and is threatening to thoroughly decimate what is left of our already broken public discourse.
The above report is an allegory, not fantasy and not fiction, but an allegory. The “second wave” of this new “virus” has been unleashed and its impact is tangible and undeniable. You can call it whatever you like. I will call it the primal and all too human instinct to cover one’s ass. I am referring to fanatical moralism and the detestable practice of virtue signaling. I am talking about the baseless authority of those self-appointed ‘guardians of the good. And I am talking about our current medieval justice system implemented by an angry mob with their “call out” and “cancel culture.”
You may feel tempted to join the infected mob in their blind pursuit of immunity (immunization) on top of Mt. Moral High Ground, but you need to resist. For, it turns out that as we try and claim the ethical and moral high ground for ourselves, the ground beneath our feet begins to erode. To quote Yeats, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
In the face of this societal and existential crisis, we now have good reason to believe that just like our Milky Way Galaxy, at the centre of our society is a voracious and nihilistic black hole. What will it take for us to repent of our self-righteous, enemy-centered schemes? In the midst of this death valley wasteland, a voice in the wilderness is crying out. “‘Absolutely futile!’ laments Qoheleth, ‘All things are futile'” (Ecc.12:8)? Is this the voice of wisdom or madness and despair? Are you tired of being afraid; tired of feeling threatened? It is for fear of being crazy that we are going insane. So, what do you have to lose? It is “red pill” time! “For you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
Who among us can simply admit to losing heart with life in the “new normal?” Who lacks the perseverance to unflinchingly discharge her duties day in and out in this surreal Twilight Zone episode? Now, we read in Lamentations (what a title!) that the mercies of the Lord are “new every morning.” But the writer of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, has a less optimistic take on things:
“So I considered those who are dead and gone more fortunate than those who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has not been born and has not seen the evil things that are done on the earth” (Eccl.4:2).
In stark contrast to the book of Proverbs, which teaches that there are basic principles governing all of life, the book of Ecclesiastes calls “bullshit” on our winning formulas, our self-assuring morals, and our bumper sticker wisdom. With Proverbs, there is a system of fairness and order. But who among us, without clinging to blind optimism, can still honestly say that they believe in such a system anymore?
Qoheleth is not a peddler of false hope, but neither is he a doomsday prophet. Qoheleth is a man who simply calls things like he sees them – a voice of wisdom, and a “bullshit detector” in a time of unusual and disorienting confusion. Quoheleth, or “the teacher”, does not merely describe the glass as being either half-full or half-empty. Qoheleth tells you what the contents of the glass truly are, “Hey”, says Qoheleth, “this is piss!”
According to Qoheleth, futility is simply one of the underlying symptoms of life on planet earth. You might say that futility is one of our pre-existing conditions. And while Qoheleth teaches that futility is here and it’s here to stay, this is not what he refers to as, “the end of the matter.” To those who are willing to be reconciled to the futility or “vanity” of life, the Qoheleth offers consolation and encouragement. But these precious pearls are reserved for certain people – they are reserved for “those who have ears to hear.”
Let me say at the outset that it is not my intention to dive into the particulars of our current social upheaval related to police brutality and our nation’s history of racism (they sure as shit deserve serious attention, critical and hopefully civil discourse, as well as any necessary reform). While I personally understand the current level of urgency surrounding the call for social justice and reform, my critique is focused on the use of Christian theology and gospel discourse in the social media message posted below. I intend on examining those statements which involve Jesus, his gospel, and his alleged concern for certain people groups. I also, intend on challenging the proposition that effectively equates “Christ-likeness” with “saying (this)” and “participating in (that).”
I would like to acknowledge my friend, Gretchen who provided this extremely relevant and invaluable foil for thinking about and discussing the nature of gospel discourse. This brief post above attempts to make a statement about Christian gospel and orthodoxy by abstracting certain principles from the ministry of Jesus Christ and then enlisting those principles in the service of a social, ethical, and political crisis. I appreciate what the post is attempting to do, and I like a good deal of it, but it nonetheless, in my view, falls short of presenting a faithful and ultimately helpful gospel discursive.
We have been talking for the last several weeks now about interpretive methods or ‘hermeneutics.’ My friend who shared this post with me also provided a brief summary of her own method for interpreting gospel in light of the issues of racial inequity. She writes, “This is the first post that I had seen that used Jesus’ model in a way that felt true to the gospel’s portrayals and Jesus’ challenge to 1st-century society.” There are two key phrases from my friend’s comment that highlights her hermeneutic. The first phrase is “Jesus’ model” and the second phrase is “Jesus’ challenge to 1st-century society.”
I will now attempt to demonstrate why this particular method, “What would Jesus do?” (“WWJD?”) while extremely popular, is nonetheless, a critically flawed program. For starters, the “What would Jesus Do?” ethic is a classic case of how we tend to project our contemporary issues, thought forms, and dilemmas onto the text of scripture, and onto the Person and ministry of Jesus Christ. This “WWJD?” hermeneutic is an attempt to conflate ethical dilemmas and political paradigms with a Christian gospel discourse. Unfortunately, this interpretive method ends up functioning, not as a biblical hermeneutic, as much as an exhortation based on a critique of society (both ancient 1st century Palestine and 21st century United States).
So, we begin with, “God so loved the world . . .” but when this universal and eternal love of God came to earth it was manifested in a particular form, a local, temporal, observable and wholly personal human being, Jesus of Nazareth. And when this particular man went about his day, we saw him seeking out and making time for particular persons; and as my friend has noted, especially the disenfranchised. No problem with any of that. In fact, the only problem I have with this presentation is that it does not go far enough in locating the particular objects of God’s love. The post states that “Jesus does not say all lives matter”, but then proceeds to locate the objects of Christ’s love in yet another, albeit smaller, set of aggregates.
God’s love, however, is not an abstraction, and the objects of God’s love do not exist as mere members of an aggregate or demographic group. What we discover in the gospels is that the objects of God’s love exist as particular people. These people are more than simply “human beings” or “Jews” or “women.” The people who encounter Jesus are unique individuals with amazing stories. This emphasis on the personal and particular represents a crux distinction between our modern political programs and the logic and grammar that we find in the Gospels.
The modern “WWJD?” program is a one-part gospel narrative, one-part liberal democracy, and one-part multi-culturalism, enlisted to help solve ethical dilemmas related to political, social, or economic justice. This Facebook post with its ethical dilemma is squarely located in our 21st-century liberal democracy paradigm. Therefore, not surprisingly, it is characterized by the political struggle for justice or “rights” – rights granted and protected by the state, which are increasingly being advocated and arbitrated in the court of public opinion (i.e., social media). So, while there is nothing wrong with this discourse per se (though one could argue as to its relative effectiveness), it is important to note that it is a certain kind of discourse, a political and ideological discourse.
In the United States, we are increasingly being called upon to publicly affirm our support for “the public good”, however, and by whomever, that is defined. And our current media-driven, political discourse is shamelessly committed to emphasizing the struggle between the various competing demographics or groups: ethnic groups, socio-economic groups, gender and “sexual orientation” groups, etc. But, the logic and grammar of gospel discourse did not originate within our 21st-century political ethos. The gospel originated in another “world” and, therefore, comes with its own native language and values – values that may or may not affirm or cohere with our modern ones.
So, when we look at Christ’s ministry, his teaching, and practice, we find something rather surprising. Christ repeatedly places a priority on the individual over the group. Consider the following homily. “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Lk. 15:3-7).
Notice, that when Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leaves the 99 sheep in search of the 1 lost sheep, he does not leave one “flock” to go in search of some other “flock.” Jesus leaves the whole flock of sheep to go in search of one individual lost sheep! This commitment to the individual is exactly what we find in the gospel account of Christ’s life and ministry. Jesus goes after unique individual people: Matthew, Zacchaeus, the Woman at the well, etc. Some are tax collectors, and some are Centurian soldiers, but rather than proclaiming, “tax collectors lives matter”, Jesus says to a particular person, “Hey you, up in the tree. I see you, Buddy! Come on down and let’s have lunch at your house.”
The gospel of the kingdom, which consists of God’s justice and mercy, is manifested in the ‘personal dimensions’ of life: personal encounter, recognition, affirmation, and discovery. In short, God’s love is manifest in a personal embrace and in an abiding relationship, “My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me.” So, while it is not precise enough to refer to ‘humanity’ when addressing the need for democratic or civil rights; likewise, when it comes to identifying the objects of God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ, it is not precise enough to reference group membership: Jew/Gentile, male/female, religious/non-religious, etc.
The one “sheep” that God loves and pursues is neither a statistic nor a representative of an aggregate group. For, when Jesus leaves the 99 to go in search of the 1, he is not pursuing a nameless, faceless member of a particular group. The message from the Good Shepherd is not, “God cares for the 1%.” Unfortunately, we either do not have the interest or the imagination to leave Jesus’ radical method well enough alone. When we look at Matthew, we say “tax collector”, but when Jesus sees the tax collector, he sees Matthew.
In today’s world, due to the recurring principle of injustice, we are presently having to say, “Black Lives Matter”, as opposed to “all lives matter.” For, while “all lives” should matter, the sad fact is that in certain contexts, some lives “matter” less than others. Jesus, however, does not favor individuals or groups. So, while we may choose to remain skeptical of those who simply parrot, “all lives matter”, it does not follow that we should project this same cynicism onto Jesus Christ. In other words, why do we seem to think that we can recruit Jesus away from his own specific gospel agenda to serve as the poster boy for our current cause? The problem with the “WWJD?” ethic is that we are convinced that we already know the answer to the question of what Jesus “would do”, so Christ is basically obligated by our presumption.
This modern instinct and habit of conflating people with ‘people groups’ (the language and logic of both empire and marketplace) only underscore the fact that we have not gone far enough in our understanding of Jesus’ audacious love and commitment to particular persons. God may love the world, but that love is personal, and that love manifests inter-personally. The love of God is not located in an abstract idea, principle, or policy. The objects of God’s love are those whom God seeks and with whom he establishes a face to face, person to person, life on life encounter. In Jesus’ ministry, we don’t see either “the world” or “society” seeking an encountering the savior. But what we do find are particular men, and particular women from all different walks of life, coming face to face with love himself.
In the gospel accounts, we encounter various people, extremely interesting and unique individuals who are drawn to Jesus at certain points in time and at various locations. In the vast majority of these accounts, each person is having to push through formidable obstacles: physical, mental, spiritual, and sociological in order to realize their encounter with this person, Jesus Christ (Zacchaeus, Syrophoenician woman, the paralyzed boy, to name a few). So, when we convert these particular people and their unique stories into members of an aggregate group, or a profile of a certain demographic, applying the language and the logic of politics and marketplace (i.e., expediency, special interests, and market niches).
Why do we insist on uprooting Christ’s method from its native soil of the ‘personal and particular’? We apparently cannot seem to resist the temptation to co-opt the gospel to help us solve our own ethical dilemmas and to inform our private concern for political ideology. It is one thing to reject the universal affirmation of “all lives matter”, which speaks to the current political ethos. But for the sake of the gospel, let’s celebrate the scandal of God’s amazing love, the love, and attention that he lavishes not on “humanity”, but on you and me. But thankfully, the language and logic that is indigenous to the gospels is a person-centered paradigm. For, Jesus does not engage mere aggregate representatives, but particular and unique persons.
Now, some may call this particular paradigm that I have been critiquing, with its emphasis on groups and demographics, “cultural theology.” Well, that happens to be a school with which I have some history, having studied in a school of “cultural theology” for a number of years. But, at some point during my tour in a school of cultural theology, I asked our neighborhood cultural theologian a rather point-blank question, “Hey what is this “gospel” that Jesus is always referring to?” to which he replied, “Come on, who can really say what that is?” Well, that was the day I began my journey of un-boarding that particular theological train and that day has led up to this moment.
At the inception of my graduate seminary training over a decade ago, I was determined to locate the contents of this discourse that Jesus calls “the gospel.” For I realized that if we failed to identify the unique contents of the gospel and its unique relationship to the person, Jesus Christ, then we would inevitably end up using scripture and the gospel as a theological pantry of static concepts and principles that we simply raid for the purposes of importing “Christian ideas” into other discourses and agendas.
If the gospel is not understood as having its own tradition, and its own unique logic and grammar, then the gospel will not speak to us on its own terms. When the gospel is stripped of its apostolic tradition, with its Christocentric gospel of personal encounter and embrace, it has become a dead corpse, a mere organ donor used to support the life of our favorite discourse or ideology. Let’s be fair to the gospel discourse and to its authors. Let’s provide the gospel the respect it is due as a unique, historical, living, and active discourse. And let’s be sure to ask the necessary questions.
What is the stated purpose and ‘end in mind’ of these gospels (see John and Acts)? What are the presuppositions or the “grand givens” of our favorite cultural and political ideologies? Is there one universal hermeneutic that we can use to interpret everything? What is the methodology for establishing ethical norms and laws?
Another fallacy with this “pantry” and “dead corpse” approach to Christ, gospel, and scripture, is the misguided view that there is essentially two-way traffic running seamlessly between gospel (i.e., “the gospel”, “gospel of God”, “gospel of the kingdom”) and our 21st-century discourses pertaining to “truth, justice, and the American way!” Towards recovering and preserving a gospel discourse, I would like to recommend a certain heuristic. We need to employ the oft-neglected art of CBD, or what Dr. Pinkham calls, ‘clarifying by distinction.’ Clarifying by distinction is absolutely critical to study, discourse, and faith, for in this way we begin to understand the way various forms of discourse work (gospel, law, political manifesto, creed, propositions, dogma, etc.). When we clarify by distinction we discover the logic and the grammar which is wholly unique to the discourse found in the message of Jesus Christ.
The gospel message can be summed up in the famous verse from John’s gospel, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” And when we look into the face of “begotten Son” we are looking at the invisible God in human flesh. Furthermore, when we look at this “begotten Son, we begin to understand that love is neither an abstract principle nor a mere trait of God’s nature. When we look at Jesus Christ, we are looking at love himself, “For in him all the fullness of deity lives in bodily form.
This God who comes “in the likeness of sinful flesh” has committed the sin of particularity. For, we prefer our god to be otherworldly, “above and beyond.” When the love of God becomes flesh he becomes mundane – he perspires. God’s love is personal and not abstract, and in the same way, the objects of his love are not members of an aggregate set such as “humanity” or “sick people”, or “Jews.” The only aggregate group that the scripture seems to identify in this regard is what C.S. Lewis refers to as, “the sons of Adam, and the daughters of Eve.” Again, the problem I have with the Facebook post is that it doesn’t go far enough in locating the objects of God’s love outside of an aggregate, outside of “humanity” and outside of this group or that.
In order to locate the objects of God’s love, we must first stop cannibalizing the gospel for our own ethical dilemmas and ideological programs, regardless of how passionate we may feel. The next step to locating the objects of God’s love is to recover a ‘theology of person.’ A theology of person begins with God’s love made incarnate and manifested in the person of Jesus Christ. But we must go all the way down, past mere abstractions such as, “love, truth and justice”, past the aggregate groupings of, Jew, Gentile, male and female . . . until we arrive at the ‘personal encounter.’ “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev.3:20).
Lastly, Jesus warned against a false privilege associated with the “rich”, as well as the spiritually self-assured. Zacchaeus was wealthy, but he was secretly “poor in spirit”, and his encounter with Christ was nothing short of conversion. The apostle Paul was accomplished in his religious tradition, but he came to the point where he “consider(ed) everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.” In other words, God does not favor certain people or groups as we do, but he is uniquely available and predisposed to those who seek and desire him from a point of need. For, as C.S. Lewis notes, “The cost of Jesus Christ is wanting him.”
My goal here has been to point out the folly of attempting to make the discourse of Christian gospel do the bidding of our modern agendas (ethical, political, philosophical, economic, etc). Such an approach wrongly assumes that gospel discourse follows the same rules and answers the same questions contained and expressed in our 21st-century political projects and ethical programs. Again, to simply conflate gospel and kerygma with law, ethics or ideology is neither faithful nor helpful. Let’s not do this anymore. Again, I am in no way suggesting that ethical arguments or political movements are unnecessary or wrong. What I am saying is that they must not be used as a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy, if for no other reason than the gospel, including charity, is never compulsory.
“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” Genesis
I know people, but I’ve never met ‘humanity.’ I can be delighted or disappointed with a person, but ‘the public’ is a ghost and a bloodless avatar. The accumulation of years and life experience should eventually lead to us to life’s humbling terms – we are creatures and we are mortal. Acceptance of our creaturely limitations is the first step to confronting our own hubris, and if we are lucky, the next step is the bloody mess of making hamburger out of our “sacred cows.”
God willing, before I die, I will learn how to serve my neighbor, my friends, and my loved ones. But in the meantime, I say, “damn the incriminations of all those stronger, more ‘caring and conscientious’ individuals, for whom my personal hope is viewed as too pedestrian, too bourgeois for their ambitious standards.” By the way, who vetted these priests in the first place? Contrary to popular opinion, I contend that honest recognition of our finite limitations is neither a sign of weakness nor defeat, but is, in fact, a sane and healthy realization of our lives as finite creatures, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
The serpent’s spell, “you shall be like God”, will not be broken until we return to our creaturely origins and Origin. For we are creatures and we are stewards. And stewards understand the difference between their sphere of concern (infinite) and their sphere of influence (finite). Our failure or inability to make this distinction is evidence that we are being governed by the “knowledge of good and evil.” Those living and thinking through this broken paradigm of “good and evil” are completely enslaved to it. Such people have become judges, and must now spend their entire life judging everything.
Our refusal or inability to escape the tyranny of the program called, “knowledge of good and evil”, lies at the primordial root of human tragedy and suffering. It is this “knowledge” which has corrupted our ability to clearly perceive and rightly relate to ourselves, to God, creation, and our fellow man. As we look through the lens of “good and evil” the earth does not appear whole or connected, but fragmented, divided into millions upon millions of competing interests and clashing factions. Our own minds have been so thoroughly infected with this “knowledge” that life appears to us in the form of a split-screen reality: “good/evil”, “left/right”, “us/them”, “adversary/ally”, etc.
Under the binary program of “good and evil”, the personal and the particular dimensions of life are made to constantly compete with a rushing army of images, propositions, moral dilemma, and theoretical abstracts, which all have their origins in the logic and grammar of “good and evil.” How can we possibly practice presence and hospitality when we are given over to a form of “knowledge” that presumes to interpret the world for us by dividing it into “good and evil” (i.e., red/bluet, gay/straight, black/white, theists/atheists, etc.). Furthermore, the “knowledge of good and evil” program is responsible for forging a unique set of values, namely, the blind pursuit of power, winning formulas, and self-righteousness. At this point, nothing short of the intervening grace of God can deliver us from our toxic and enslaving relationship to the “knowledge of good and evil.”
Life beyond the “knowledge of good and evil” requires a new operating system and a new paradigm for interpreting and experiencing life – enter faith and faithfulness (Gal.2:21). But unlike the metrics of finance, politics (power), or science and industry, faith and faithfulness are regulated by a foreign and unconventional logic. Faith, as Luther teaches, does not grasp, but rather is “an open hand”. Thus, faith remains hidden from the view of the public. In a very real sense, faith remains hidden from even ourselves. And since faith is a posture of dependency and receptivity, it appears weak and traitorous to our private ambitions for “greatness.”
Life beyond the “knowledge of good and evil” begins with the divine proclamation and the command to “think again.” “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:12). So when we say that we are learning to “walk by faith”. we simply mean that we have begun the long journey home. Heading home naturally involves turning our backs on the “far off country” which is the world that only knows the segregating and alienating program of the “knowledge of good and evil.” Faith is learning to sing with Bobby, “It’s alright ma…if I can’t please them!”
Faith simply responds to the God who calls and graciously restores. Fatih is an “open hand” waiting to be filled. Faith is a sabbath rest where we have ceased from our labors. Fatih asks for justice, but is willing to accept God’s judgment, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen18:25). For, while the gift of God is free, there is a cost to be counted. The initial cost of healing begins with recognizing and getting honest about our illness. In the same way, the cost of freedom begins with a desire to be free. And as C.S. Lewis reminds us, “The cost of Jesus Christ is wanting him.”
Faith is weighty but it is not pushy or boastful, for as the psalmists, Buckley and Cohen have taught us, “love is not a victory march, but it’s cold and its a broken hallelujah.” Not surprisingly, at the defining moment in his passion, Jesus’ faith was manifested in what can only be described as a sigh of resignation, “not my will, but Thine be done.” This sigh of faith appears on the lips of those who have suffered the loss of strength, confidence, and dreams. The “broken hallelujah” and the sigh of faith are neither fatalistic nor heroic; they are simply and inexplicably, hopeful (a “fools hope”?).
In short, faith still believes that our broken song and our dying sigh will be heard. It is the undying hope that we will find consolation beyond our present suffering and weakness. Faith looks to the God who leads us beyond the “knowledge of good and evil.”
I recently restarted this group, the Occasional Congregation or “the OC.” I am still trying to figure out how we are going to proceed and to be honest, I am asking myself the question, “why?” But then my friend Shirley recently commented as to how she has been drawn to the “congregation” aspect of the OC. Now, like my friend, I too am drawn to the gift of fellowship. I have been part of a number of congregations over the years, but when I began thinking about this group, roughly five years ago, I was immediately drawn to the shadow side of the OC, the “occasional” side.
The “occasional” part of the Occasional Congregation is personally appealing to me for a number of reasons. I suppose it has something to do with the freedom of not having to “regularly” attend. I mean, after all, who wants to be a part of the MC, the “Mandatory Congregation”? Now, the more I thought about this strange duality of belonging and freedom, I was reminded of a discussion I was involved in on Facebook. I am persuaded that this topic is not only relevant to the national discourse, but to the this budding community.
“The reaction to this pandemic has created a divide in this country along the lines of two competing principles. If I can put it this way: on the one hand, you have those who put a premium on the principle of safety and security, “Without safety (health) what good is your liberty?” And on the other hand, you have those who place a premium on the principle of freedom and autonomy, “We refuse to trade in our liberty for the government’s assurance of safety.”
“Not surprisingly, the principles of life and liberty account for two-thirds of this nation’s sacred creed, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Unfortunately, in our current, upside-down world, these profound principles are, at least for the moment, currently at odds with one another. Obviously, you can’t have “liberty” when you are on government lockdown, and you can’t have “life” when your dying of an infectious disease. This would explain why finding the right balance between these two poles is, to put it mildly, extremely challenging.”
Now if I am honest, if given the choice between team “love of life” or team “love of freedom”, I am going with “team freedom.” I will admit that my bias has a lot to do with my life experience and development. I have simply known too much oppression and restrictions in my life, and so I am always looking to “breathe the free air.” Also, I am deeply mistrusting of the word, “love.” So, how am I any different from all the people who appear to be dividing along these ideological lines and competiing factions?
The fact of the matter is, I am not any different from the other people who have sided with their prefered faction, over and against the other “bad faction.” But then I got to thinking, I may not be any different, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to go ahead and rip this whole debate right out of the filthy mouth of our modern political discourse! I may not be any different, but that doesn’t mean that I am not going to try and reframe the conversation.
So back to my original question. Why the OC? Given the fact that this little group consists of people of different backgrounds and biases how will we avoid the fate of the world? The OC is not the place to hide or to pretend (pretend that we all think and feel the same) but that doesn’t mean that it cannot be the place where we gather to acknowledge our shared hope, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Co. 1:27). In fact, as long as I have anything to do with it, the OC will live and die on the basis of this fool’s hope, the hope that the living Christ is truly in our midst, offering us a new discourse, and a new way of relating, beyond the factions, beyond the binary, and the mistrust.
What I am calling a “fools hope” is the reason that I have spent these last six weeks talking about repentance and why we need a Christological lens. Also, our new house is in need of a foundation, and so we have been carefully looking for a suitable one, one that is eternal and uncreated, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (I Co 3:11). Why the OC? In short, the OC exists to answer and to live into the question, “Who is Christ for Us Today?”
I said I wanted to rip the current discussion about the love of life and love of freedom from the filthy mouth of politics and media. But what if we introduce these factions to our Christological question? What happens when we bring our two rival factions, “Team Love (Life)” and “Team Freedom” into dialogue with our governing question, “Who is Christ for Us Today?” Personally speaking, what I find in Jesus to be utterly unique is the way He weds freedom to love, and love to freedom! In Christ, love and liberty are two sides of the same coin that do not fall apart! I believe this is what we call unconditional or liberating love!
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:13-15).
In Christ, there is no conflict between love and freedom. In Christ we can enjoy the natural ebb and flow between “occasionally gathering” and “occasionally abstaining.” It is Christ, and not our meetings that form and inform the life we share! So, in answering the question, why the OC?, let’s consider and take some time processing the following questions. What if the OC was a safe and intentional space to acknowledge our biases and our fears? What if the OC was a place where we practiced Christ’s call to “think again” about who He really is to us in the midst of our pandemic ridden world and hearts? What if the OC was a place where we moved beyond mere ideas into the place where Christ is for us today? What do you think?
A few weeks ago during one of our Sunday live streams, my friend Steve commented on something I said. Now for the last several weeks, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Steve’s comment. To be more specific, I can’t stop thinking about a particular word that he underscored – the word ‘allegedly.’ That one little word has now gotten under my skin. As Morpheus would say, it has become “like a splinter in my mind, driving me mad.” So, for the next several paragraphs, I will attempt to dig out the splinter.
To provide a little more context for the above mentioned, “splinter”, earlier that week, someone had posed a question regarding God and the chasms that we face. “Well, doesn’t Jesus close the chasms in our life?” My reply was, “Well, yes. . . allegedly.” I was later recounting this conversation in our Sunday live stream when Steve commented, “allegedly is the perfect reply sometimes.” I then replied to Steve’s comment saying, “I would even say, ‘most’ of the time.” Well, that’s the story. So, what’s the big deal? Why does this word “allegedly” continue to haunt me?
Let me just say that in most religious circles I have traveled in over the years, using the word “allegedly” when describing our faith in God and our understanding of scripture would be problematic. In the past, if someone were to ask me, “Does God love me?”, I would never have considered replying with “allegedly.” And why not? Well, for starters, I can already hear the voice of the incredulous, “For God’s sake Chris, don’t be so mean! Give this person the assurance they need!” Well, that is simply peer pressure and good old fashioned people-pleasing.
Another problem with replying with anything other than an enthusiastic “yes”, involves the nature of ‘objective truth.’ I am personally persuaded that knowledge in the form of objective, rational assent is ultimately meaningless. And theories that cannot be harnessed and put into the service of changing our “down to earth” lives (change in our capacity to know God, ourselves and others, change in our actions, or change in our capacity to work or serve others, etc.), are the equivalent of a hot air balloon without a basket. Now, I am certainly not suggesting that all truth is merely pragmatic or industrial. My point is simply to say, objectivity and theory are tools for exploration, lenses for making new discoveries – but they are not the discovery itself.
There is a Papua New Guinea proverb that reads, “Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle.” This sounds a lot like John’s quotation, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” A Christian view of knowledge suggests that all truth must find its home not just in the operations of rational thought or reason, but in the faculty of our affections. For as Pascal writes, “The heart has its reasons that the reason knows not of.” But what exactly are we talking about when we talk about our “affections”?
The doctrine of the affections (diagram below) describes the way musical keys correspond to different feelings or moods. For example, according to the “doctrine”, C Major denotes feelings of both “rejoicing and impudence.” D Major expresses “stubborn, noisy, warlike and rousing.” E Minor is “pensive, grieving, but not without hope.” Where the “theology of the affections”, made famous by the puritan preachers, Jonathan Edwards and Richard Sibbs, focuses exclusively on love, the musical, “doctrine of the affections” recognizes a wide spectrum of feelings expressed through variegated styles of music.
An argument can be made that the poetry books of the Old Testament canon (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon) function as Israel’s “doctrine of the affections.” For, throughout these ancient poetry books we encounter people who are expressing powerful feelings and dramatic expressions of the “heart.” And while the church historically tends to deny or suppress feelings that are considered “negative”, the Hebrew poetry books are shamelessly uninhibited from this kind of emotional censorship.
The Hebrew psalter or, the Psalms, is essentially the songbook of Israel and consists of 119 songs or psalms. Like the other books of poetry in the Hebrew canon, the Psalms are typically written in the first person and involves the author’s thoughts or feelings related to topics such as his relationship to God, his nation, his enemies, and his personal failures. The language and the mood of these psalms range from ecstatic praise to dark depression, joyous celebration to bitter laments. Consider the following examples:
“Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Psalm 10:1
“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.” Psalm 9
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” Psalm 13
“I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” Psalm 18
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.” Psalm 22
The book of Job is a poetry book as well. Written in verse style, what we encounter in Job is the sound of suffering. The language and the tone of Job is bound up with what can only be described as deep sorrow and negative emotions. Job is a case study on the articulation of feelings and sentiments associated with suffering, betrayal, and injustice. Again, the church typically suppresses or simply ignores such complaints and laments, dismissing them as too “negative.” But Job is the champion of every many or woman who has ever had the experience of being disappointed with God.
“Then Job answered and said: “How long will you torment me and break me in pieces with words? If indeed you magnify yourselves against me and make my disgrace an argument against me, know then that God has put me in the wrong and closed his net about me.
Behold, I cry out, ‘Violence!’ but I am not answered; I call for help, but there is no justice. He has walled up my way, so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths. He has stripped from me my glory and taken the crown from my head.
God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes. I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me. You lift me up on the wind; you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm.” Job 19:1-10; 30:19-31
Jesus himself a Jew, regularly quoted from the book of Psalms in his public teaching, including his personal expressions. And on the subject of the “heart”, Jesus taught that the heart is not simply a perpetual fountain of love and positive affections. According to Jesus, the heart is the faculty responsible for a whole range of feelings, motives, and passions, some “good”, and some rather “evil.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Mt. 5:8
“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Mt. 15:19
Perhaps, the most notable of all Jesus’ quotations from the Psalms occurred during his crucifixion, when Jesus cried out in anguish while quoting the following words from Psalm 22.
“And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mk 15:34
The book of Ecclesiastes is a book of naysaying, for it calls bullshit on what is commonly referred to as “conventional wisdom.” The book titled, Song of Solomon is filled with the language of unbridled romantic and erotic passion. So, what we learn from all this Hebrew poetry is that the people of God have always had a full spectrum “doctrine of affections.” And by fearlessly engaging in this tradition and learning to express our own affections, we are following in the footsteps of our spiritual forerunners of faith.
When we embrace the “doctrine of affections” we are embracing life, or what my friend Bob refers to as “daily stink’n life”! Say “good-bye” to the antiseptic, stainless steel version, and “hello” to life in all of its emotions, complexity, joy, and pain. With the doctrine of affections, we understand that God is not the least bit threatened or put off by the variegated expressions of the human heart. Thus, we no longer need to act like we are God’s press secretary, restricting our language to only “positive words.”
When we learn to talk like Job, David, and Jesus, we will stop censoring and denying our “negative” and painful emotions, and we will begin to recover our deep hearts. And when we recover our deep heart, we will start living full-heartedly before the God who sees our hearts. And when we live full-heartedly before God, we can risk being real with each other.
And what does all this have to do with my reaction to the word, “allegedly”?Well, if you were to ask Job or the psalmist of psalm 22 the question, “Does God love me?”, rather than providing you with a scripted or “church approved” answer, they would provide you with an honest answer. Isn’t that what we want, or at least what we need? As Professor Norman Cornett asks, “Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?”
With a biblically informed “doctrine of affections” we can put an end to this harmful practice of divorcing the “right” answer from the “honest” answer. In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and poets, we are free to express our deep heart to God and to one another, even if that means using “negative words.” Which means, sometimes “allegedly” is both the “right” as well as the “honest” answer to the question.
We are four weeks into our series, “Who is Christ for Us for Us Today?” I recently shared with the OC how roughly fifteen years ago, my image and understanding of God essentially fell apart. The chasm had opened, and like Jonah and Esteban, I was swallowed whole (partially “chewed”). But in the midst of a financial, family, vocational, and faith crisis, I decided to launch a desperate “hail Mary” pass to the endzone. I enrolled in a graduate seminary program, and my wife and I packed up our old broken down van and moved from sunny So. Cal. to rainy Portland Oregon.
I arrived at seminary eager to begin my quest for theological answers. But I was running out of time – my personal faith crisis was rapidly escalating into full-blown enmity and alienation. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The painful feeling of betrayal could no longer be assuaged and I began to understand how people lose their faith. God was no longer friend and he was no longer father, for the differences between us had become irreconcilable. The time had come for the old god and I to part ways. So, reluctantly, and unofficially, I called it quits with the old god. But, how on earth was I going to complete a graduate seminary degree as a partially lapsed Christian?
The old god was someone who, if I was honest, I had difficulty relating to on a personal level. And yet, for all my adult life, I have desperately felt the need to gain the old god’s favor. Deep down, I had always hoped that the old god might see fit to give me an advantage in this world and provide me with a “better life.” But the old god and our conditional, quid pro quo relationship, was finally over. The experience of breaking up with my old god was both radical and painful, for it meant mourning the loss of the old while opening myself up to the terrors of uncertainty and the feelings of abandonment. And while I would eventually discover a new Image, a crucified Image, the process is an ongoing, work in progress.
the old god
As I gradually came to terms with the fact that life as I once knew it was over, I began to dedicate myself to a new cohort consisting of faithful friends and scholars, some living and some dead. This cohort, along with my wife Maylannee (and a steady diet of brandy, PNW ale, cigars, Spotify, and my favorite films) would help me navigate through this “Valley of Dead Bones.” The other critical thing I did during this time (it turned out to be the most crucial move of all) was narrow my theological focus to a particular field of study, Christology. Christology is just what it sounds like, the study of the one called, Jesus Christ.
Back in 1933 Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught a seminar at Berlin University on the theme of Christology. “Christology as the study of Christ is a peculiar discipline because it is concerned with Christ who is himself the Word or Logos, from which we also derive the term for study.” In other words, Christology, or Logology, is quite literally the “beginning” of study itself (i.e. “In the beginning was the Word . . .”). The following quote from New Testament scholar, Tom Wright is, without a doubt, among the best theological advice that I have ever received:
“There is a certain kind of modernist would-be orthodoxy, which uses the word God in something like the old Deist sense. He’s a distant, absentee landlord who suddenly decides to intervene in the world after all, and he looks like Jesus. But we already know who God is and now I want you to believe that this God became human in Jesus. The New Testament routinely puts it the other way around. We don’t actually know who God is… But until we look hard at Jesus, we really haven’t understood who God is…In other words, don’t assume that you have got God tapped, and fit Jesus into that. Do it the other way. We all come with some ideas of God. Allow those ideas to be shaped around Jesus. That is the real challenge…” N.T. Wright
Bruce McCormack, professor of systematic theology at Princeton, was lecturing on the subject, “Why Should Theology Be Christocentric?” and was explaining why we must resist the temptation to abstract from the stark claim that “God is what Jesus does.” McCormack paused to say, “Because the church should not stutter when it says, ‘ Jesus is Lord.’” Another notable voice in our Christ-centered cohort is the man with arguably the most impressive Christology of all – he is the author of no less than one-third of the New Testament, the 13th member of Christ’s 12 disciples, and the apostle to the filthy gentiles, Paul of Tarsus. The following passage from the letter to the Colossians is one of the notable examples of Paul’s robust Christology:
“We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body.
He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross” (Col. 1:15-20 – The Message).
Now, in light of the above passage, author and theologian, Baxter Kruger writes, “It is simply impossible to make too big a deal about this one, Jesus Christ.”
I will now share with you two quotations that have profoundly shaped my Christology, and are the inspiration for the title of this current post. The first quote is from one of my beloved proffs, Dr. Al Bayls, who referred to Paul of Tarsus as a “full-blown Christoholic.” That phrase really stuck with me, but it wasn’t until I saw the film and scene above with Morton Downey Jr. and Ben Stiller, that I finally understood what the phrase “fool for Christ” actually meant. A “fool for Christ” or a “Christoholic” is not the same as a “saint” or a “committed Christian.” A “fool for Christ” is someone who is guilty of making too big a deal about this one, Jesus Christ. In the word’s of Kirk Lazarus (“a dude, playing a dude, disguised as another dude”) a “fool for Christ” is someone who has made the most grievous mistake of “going full retard.”
The painful process of deconstructing so much of what I once believed, so much of what had shaped and guided my life, has been a harrowing experiencing. But now twelve years later, by the grace of God, I can gratefully report to you that I have found a new place to live, with my family, friends, and fellow Christards. This isn’t to say that I have arrived in any sense of the word, but only that the long years of deconstruction, has finally given way to a rebuilding process. Now, with all this in mind, this Sunday, we will continue our series, “Who is Christ for Us Today?” Our next installment is called, “Whachoo Talkn Bout Jesus?”, for we will be looking at some of the unusually hard sayings of Christ. Hope to see you then!
There is a powerful and dangerous temptation to use the Orange Man as the baseline and fountain for our public discourse. I am not suggesting that we pretend that he is not the POTUS. What I am saying is that it is absolutely critical that we take responsibility for polluting our own minds and corrupting our shared discourse.
The bar for critical thinking and public discourse continues to fall. But do we ever see ourselves as complicit in this downfall? When Trump’s deficiencies become monolithic in our minds and totalizing in our discourse, we become the very thing that we criticize him for, defensiveness, inept at handling complexity, and intolerant of others.
With Trump as our lightning rod and barometer, our discourse has become brittle, scripted, and utterly divisive. We find ourselves hopelessly stuck, unwilling or too afraid to take personal responsibility for our part in this disaster. It’s as though we have forgotten how to think and talk about life without reverting to the faulty logic and grammar of politics.
So, if you are genuinely sick of all this shit, and you are tired of looking at this “Valley of Dead Bones”, I have a suggestion for you. Try repeating the following mantra: “Trump may be the president of my country, but I refuse to make him either my ‘leader’ or my ‘mis-leader.’ When called upon, I may be willing to die for my country, but that does not mean that I am willing to live for it!”