Reflecting on 2020 in January felt a little “too soon”, but now that the first month of 2021 is in the bag, I’m ready to look back.
1) “Orange Man Bad!!! Orange Man Bad!!! Orange Man Bad!!!” (also known as “enemy-centered reality” and insanity).
2) Life is too short to keep pretending that we know what we are doing.
3) It is madness to calibrate one’s heart to the failed and failing promises of political ideology political parties, and politicians).
4) If you are a follower-student of Jesus Christ, please stay the hell out of this broken, bitterly divisive, and utterly deceitful discourse of partisan politics and stop “rendering to Caesar what belongs to God” (i.e. your hopes and fears).
5) “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” C.S. Lewis
6) We all want to be important and virtuous, but the truth is, “no one is righteous, no, not one.”
7) Death is coming for all of us . . . no really, you’re gonna die (our family attended two funerals in 2020 and we lost another friend last month).
8) “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.”
9) The world is a mess. Thank God for my family, our company and a few friends that “stick closer than brothers.”
10) I am learning the difference between the faith sustaining hope of the gospel, and the emptiness of mere ideology (i.e., an endless series of religious rules and political laws; the demands of self-assured, self-serving and self-righteous mortals). One is an attempted “fix-up” job on the old world. The other is the promise of new creation, and new management!
Ok, now with that out of the way. Let’s keep rolling and Don’t Look Back!
Some years ago, I experienced the adverse effects of coupling Christian faith with partisan politics. In an effort to recover my faith and my personal integrity, I cut my political ties, and I moved off of the “mothership.” But then twelve years ago something truly interesting happened. I left my native home of So. Cal. and relocated to the Pacific Northwest. For nearly thirteen years, I have been a resident of Portland, Oregon, and during this time I have become a student of the local culture.
Here in Portland, Oregon politics is not merely a sector of society but an everywhere – all the time – rain or shine, way of life (i.e., talking, advertising, public messaging, protesting, petitioning, etc.). So, you can imagine, following my earlier exodus from the world of politicized religion, how surprised I was to discover a place where politics functions with the same fervor and conviction of the “old-time religion.” Needless to say, in light of this discovery, I was forced, once again, to go back to the old drawing board.
My conclusion, thus far, is that while some people’s religion becomes politicized, other people’s politics operate as de facto religion (i.e, dogmatic, confessional concern for the ‘sacred and profane’, and ‘sin and righteousness,’ or ‘correctness’ etc.). So where Marx famously proclaimed, “Religion is the opium of the masses”, I would now add, “Sure Karl, but let’s be clear: all ideology, not just the religious variety, functions as opium for the masses!”
So, if we’re all partaking of the “opium”, then who can we trust to speak with a clear head? I recently came across an article written by Randy Remmington, president of Foursquare Int’l, entitled, “Character, Civility, and Christ.” The following is an excerpt from that article, “Christ at the Center.” Here Remmington is issuing a clarion call to those who are practicing a conflicted allegiance. It is written to those who are struggling (failing?) to “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” For, as Jesus said, “You cannot serve two masters.”
“Christ at the Center”:
“The politicians of Jesus’ day attempted to co-opt Him. In the story where Jesus was asked about paying taxes, an attempt was made to manipulate Him into declaring His political allegiance. His questioners wanted to know if He favored the anti-tax party of the Pharisees or the pro-tax party of the Herodians. They attempted to co-opt His influence for partisan political purposes.
Unfortunately, the political parties of our day are no different—except that they’ve been successful in getting many of Jesus’ followers to believe that somehow the Lord can be squeezed into one of the two major political parties. Jesus had a simple response to His questioners: Give to God what is God’s. He was saying, “Don’t give your ultimate loyalty—your heart, your passion, the very core of your being—to anything or anyone other than God.” When we fail to heed His command, we become idolaters.
Although it pains me to write this, many Christians in America have unwittingly fashioned their political affiliations into idols. How do you know for sure if you’ve made something an idol? You are devastated, you are destroyed, when it is taken from you. If your house burns down, or you lose your job, you may be sad or overwhelmed, even, and say, “What I’m going through is really hard.” But if your possessions or your job have become an idol, you say: “This is the end. There is no hope. My life is over!”Although it pains me to write this, many Christians in America have unwittingly fashioned their political affiliations into idols. How do you know for sure if you’ve made something an idol? You are furious when it is threatened and devastated when it is taken from you. If your house burns down, or you lose your job, you will certainly experience grief and perhaps anger, but you need not fall into hopelessness or fury. But when you lose an idol, you say: “This is the end. There is no hope!”
According to pastor and author Tim Keller, contemporary politics in America has become an idol for many. In “The Signs of Political Idolatry,” Keller writes: “When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful of the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once were reserved for God and for the work of the Gospel. When their political leaders are out of power, they experience a death. They believe that if their policies and people are not in power, everything will fall apart … In our politics [we believe] that opponents are not simply mistaken, they are absolutely evil.”
When will we take to heart Jesus’ command to stop giving to Caesar what is God’s? Jesus gives His followers, regardless of their political affiliation, the ultimate secret to sharing life together in peace. He says: “Make Me the center of your life. Make Me the center of your relationships, and politics will not separate you.” Only when Christ, and not partisan politics, is at the center of our lives and in the center of our relationships can we hope to flee from the idolatry that brings so much division and unrest.
“Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’- that is the motto of enlightenment.”
― Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?
Kant challenges us to grow up and “think for ourselves”, but that would mean giving up the comfort and equilibrium of our self-assured and assuring echo-chambers. For until we count the cost of independent thinking, we will remain in the tight grip of our “self-incurred tutelage.” Many of us live under the “tutelage” of leaders and experts, including those celebrated media figures who traffic in the deceitful discourse of politics and news media. In exchange for our trust and followership, our “leaders” exploit our fears by convincing us that there are essentially two kinds of people in the world, those caring, intelligent people like ‘us’, and those heartless imbeciles like ‘them.’
Arguments from based on sanctimony and outrage are lazy and unconvincing. But, unfortunately, we live in an age that values the feeling of “being right” over the unimpressive and uncomfortable discipline of trying to “get it right.” Our divisive and reductionist discourse of ‘either/or’, ‘all or nothing’, and ‘us against them’ is simultaneously crippling our thinking, while dividing, and devastating our civic life. Following the example of our media experts and political leaders, and with the help of social media, we have begun a form of discourse that can rightly be referred to as a modern-day inquisition.
Inquisitors come from all walks of life: rich and poor, the political left, right, secular, religious, etc. These crusaders of conformity are on a mission to “call out” and “cancel” the infidels and the traitors in our midst. So, when they ask “Do you believe in God? Do you believe in science? Do you believe that ___________ lives matter (black, all, unborn, etc.)?”, just know they are not asking because they are interested in a friendly discussion or a civil debate. The questions are asked for the sole purpose of assigning people to one of two groups: ‘believers or unbelievers’, ‘affirmers or deniers’, ‘supporters or resisters’, ‘lovers or haters’, ‘faithful or unfaithful’ etc.
An inquisition is essentially when one person or group applies pressure (social, psychological, or physical) to another person or group to believe and confess the “right thing” about the “right things.” The inquisition will often begin with the inquisitor’s presumption regarding a ‘self-evident, truth’, or some ‘unassailable fact’ or another. Following the inquisitor’s manifesto on “this is the way it is!”, the inquisitor will begin to expound on how one ought to think, feel and behave in light of their manifesto. “The inquisition has begun!”
When you find yourself in an inquisition, you must be careful how you respond. The temptation is to respond with an easy affirmation or an agitated refutation. But there is a third option. When you realize that nothing good comes from an inquisition, the best response is to immediately change the subject, and if your inquisitor persists, firmly state, “with regard to this conversation, I would prefer not to.” The inquisitor will likely be offended at such a response, but there simply is no other way. When it comes to inquisitions, you must be willing to disappoint right up front, in hopes of avoiding further untold frustration.
So, learning to think for ourselves includes discerning the practice and pitfalls of our modern inquisitions. The alternative is you can “convert” to the discourse of inquisition by adopting a strict adherence to certain authorized thought-forms, speech acts and ethical and moral affirmations. You can learn how to laugh (or don’t) at the right jokes, parrot the right slogans, and say “amen” to the right people in the right settings.
Sadly, some of us have literally never submitted our own worldview to a thorough critique or deconstruction. “I’ve been a conservative Christian since I was a child. If it’s good enough for my parents and my church, then it’s good enough for me.” Or, “I have been a liberal democrat since 1969.” In other words, “I am still under ‘self-incurred tutelage’ to some political party or ideological cohort. I am convinced that people like us are generally smarter or at least more loving or ‘righteous’ than those awful infidels on the other side of the political or religious bar-ditch.”
Ok. I will admit it. Many days I still feel like a frightened child. I do not want to grow up. And instead of doing the difficult and uncomfortable work of thinking for myself, I prefer to go on following the directions of the experts and leaders (I follow experts and leaders and then pretend that their ideas coincidentally cohere with my own!).
At some point, if we are lucky, we will experience a moment of clarity. Perhaps we will have our Morpheus moment where we choose between the “red pill” that leads to both freedom and suffering, and the “blue pill” that allows us to remain asleep in our “self-incurred tutelage.” Some days I take the “red pill” and some days I swallow the “blue pill” and retreat back into the Matrix. I am regularly conflicted, but I no longer believe that “ignorance is bliss.” I no longer trust my sense of confidence or incredulity, which once assured me that I was right and therefore, “righteous.”
I have been intentionally detoxing for some time now from my childish dependency on experts and authority figures to provide me with direction for my life. I refuse to come under the interrogation of the modern-day inquisitor who wants to pigeon-hole me by asking me to me affirm or deny some sacred “belief” or another.
- I value faith and theology, but I no longer believe in pastors and theologians.
- I value knowledge and discovery, but I do not believe in experts.
- I value education, but I do not believe in professors and scholars.
- I value my neighbor, but I do not believe in humanity.
- I value the civic life I share with my fellow citizens, but I do not believe in government and political leaders.
- I value theory and discourse, but I do not believe in ‘isms.’
- I value love, but I do not believe in love.
I do believe, however, that there is a cost to everything – and the cost of life is living it. And part of living involves growing up and learning how to think for ourselves, which includes learning to affirm that same activity for people whom we may disagree with. Thinking for yourself as an act of love, requires that we encourage and even celebrate others thinking for themselves, even, or especially if their thoughts are different from our own. To quote Voltaire, ‘Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.”
There are experts in every field. A physicist, for example, can discover the secrets of nuclear energy, but who is qualified to determine how or whether or not such power should be utilized? And if we take Voltaire’s advice, and honestly “think about how difficult it is to change (ourselves)”, we would realize that the world does not need more signs or lectures telling others how to think or feel or vote. How about a little less sanctimony and certainty, and a little more humility and honesty? I have witnessed an incredible irony, where those who are most vocal about ‘truth and righteousness’, manage to remain completely oblivious to their own blindspots and double standards. Also, I have observed that those who are most vocal about the need for ‘love and peace,’ are often the most demanding and intolerant of all people.
As for “love” the most cherished concept of all, I am convinced that the word “love” is quite possibly the most abused and misused word in the English language. Like so many words, it can mean whatever we want it to mean. There is, of course, that famous gloss on love from Paul of Tarsus, that appears to have stood the test of time.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Cor. 13 5-7).
The real challenge is to remember that these words on love are not addressed to our adversaries, or to our “Facebook friends”, or our spouse. These words are addressed to you, and they are addressed to me. According to this version of “love”, none of us are masters, but rather we are all infants in this department. The good news is that if we learn to think for ourselves, “and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too”, we don’t have to remain that way. We can grow up, and learn how to “live in the land of others.” Think about it!
(This article is dedicated to my friend and dialogue partner Randall, who is both fearless and gracious in discussion and debate. Randall has helped me to understand that thinking for oneself and valuing the thoughts of others, are simply two sides of the same coin!)
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are following a different gospel – not that there really is another gospel, but there are some who are disturbing you and wanting to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we (or an angel from heaven) should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be condemned to hell!” Gal. 1:7-8
For the last two years at the OC, we have been focusing on two crucial questions, Who is Christ for Us Today? and What is the Gospel (the “good news” message) of Jesus Christ? As you can see from the above quote from Galatians, as well as the four Gospels of the New Testament, Jesus Christ and his gospel travel together “hand and glove.” Jesus Christ is both the subject of the gospel as well as its author and messenger. This is why the church is founded upon Jesus Christ and informed by his gospel.
As in Paul’s day, so it is in ours, there are many “different gospels” that have arisen to compete with Christ’s gospel. Here are a few “gospels” that have become ubiquitous in the Church over the centuries:
- The Gospel of Proven Principles and Winning Formulas
- The Gospel of Church and Christian Ministry
- The Gospel of the Great Man
- The Gospel of Improved Morals and Ethics
- The Gospel of Self-Discovery
- The Gospel of Political Ideology
If you are interested in discovering how these “other gospels” compare to the power and efficacy of the one true gospel of Jesus Christ, join us this Sunday at the OC at 11:00 AM for our live stream gathering (you can find the link on both the OC and my personal page).
See you there!
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 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 even acknowledge its existence.
How about CNN, Fox News, or Time magazine? They have been ominously silent regarding the outbreak. One possible reason for media silence regarding Virus X was provided by the WHO 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 apparently attaches itself to the images and messages just before they are broadcasted out onto the airwaves. Support for this theory is based on the fact that infection rates appear to be astronomically higher among those who regularly consume news media programming.
Now, in the wake of this second Virus X 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, based on an endless series: binary oppositions: left and right, racist and anti-racist, black and white, fascist and anti-fascist, angels, and demons. This binary formulation of “good and evil” is what causes the amygdala region of the brain to inflame. The subject suffering from the effects of an inflamed amygdala, becomes increasingly obsessed with “black and white”, “right and wrong”, “good and evil.”
Virus X ultimately destroys its victim’s sense of security and existential equilibrium and in the late stages of the disease, 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 obsession with being “good” as well as a powerful longing to reach and secure the moral high ground over and against “the enemy.” But in order to secure this moral high ground, the infected subject must constantly compare himself to monsters and moral degenerates. This sense of moral superiority in the infected subject is then maintained by “calling out” all “evil doers” and “evil thinkers.”
It is believed that by the end of next week, over 10 billion people will be infected with Virus X. Meanwhile, the effects of the virus on society are already being felt as people are becoming increasingly agitated by the powerful barrage of messages and images arriving in their phones, radios, and television monitors. Gus Williams’ hardware store was recently vandalized by his neighbors who sprayed-painted in big red letters the words,”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 and primary medium of transmission of the virus. 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 second wave of Virus X has been unleashed and initial sign are not good. In fact, they are terrifying.
The above report is an allegory, not a fantasy or fiction, but an allegory attempting to describe the indescribable, and critique the unassailable. What is the real name and the actual cause of this social dystopia? 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” and a culture of “call out” and “cancel.” And I am talking about hyper partisan politics and corruption. We are being divided by our leaders and our corporations whose chief concern is the securing of power and the accumulation of profits.
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 the more we attempt to claim the ethical and moral high ground for ourselves, the faster the ground erodes beneath our feet. 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 openly admit to losing heart with this “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?