Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Heaven: a series by Byron

Byron of nothing new under the sun has finally completed his series on heaven in 17 posts. His discussion delves into creation theology, eschatology, and social ethics with a keen eye toward issues of time and materiality (against the prevalent strands of gnosticism that have contaminated views of heaven for many hundreds of years). The following quote by Jürgen Moltmann is quoted by Byron and functions as a kind of thematic introduction to his overall project:
The thought of death and life after death is ambivalent. It can deflect us from this life, with its pleasures and pains. It can make life here a transition, a step on the way to another life beyond - and by doing so it can make this life empty and void. It can draw love from this life and deflect it to a life hereafter, spreading resignation in 'this vale of tears'. The thought of death and a life after death can lead to fatalism and apathy, so that we only live life here half-heartedly, or just endure it and 'get through'. The thought of a life after death can cheat us of the happiness and the pain of this life, so that we squander its treasures, selling them off cheap to heaven. In that respect it is better to live every day as if death didn't exist, better to love life here and now as unreservedly as if death really were 'the finish'. The notion that this life is no more than a preparation for a life beyond, is the theory of a refusal to live, and a religious fraud. It is inconsistent with the living God, who is 'a lover of life'. In that sense it is religious atheism.

—Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, 49-50

Why I Am A Universalist, §8: The Doctrine of the Atonement (Section IV.5)

Section IV.5: Parameters for a doctrine of the atonement: ontology

An orthodox doctrine of the atonement must affirm that God’s economy of salvation is …

(5) … ontological. Ontology is the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being. Classically, ontology is the study of “the ‘what’ … which indicates the substance of a thing” (Metaphysics VII.1). To describe something as “ontological” is to relate this thing to being itself. The ontology of God is thus an investigation into the nature of God’s being. Already in previous posts, particularly on actualism, we have investigated ontology at some length. The qualification of actualism means that ontology in this study is no longer concerned with “the substance of a thing” but rather with the act of a thing, the event of a thing’s being. An actualistic ontology thus understands being as the consequent of act. At the very least, being and act coinhere so that being is being-as-act and act is act-as-being. And on the level of epistemology, God’s being—qualitatively distinct from creaturely being—is only noematically accessible in light of divine action. The basic contours of an actualistic ontology we have already sketched in the previous section, along with the identity of the atonement as the reconciling act of God in Jesus Christ. Our concern now is to focus on the ontological nature of the atonement, i.e., how this reconciling act is definitive of both God’s being and ours.

The ontology of the atonement follows from the acceptance of two presuppositions: (1) a christological actualistic ontology, and (2) a strong doctrine of the hypostatic union in Jesus Christ. The latter implies other theological assumptions which have been and will be discussed when necessary, including but not limited to the following: (3) the objectivity of the incarnation, which asserts the efficacy of the incarnation apart from our subjective awareness of that christological event; and (4) the doctrine of election as developed by Karl Barth. Now of these theological topics, (1) and (4) have been addressed at length already, and (3) has been a theme throughout §8. Consequently, I will devote the rest of this section to the hypostatic union and the ontological grounding of our reconciliation in Jesus Christ. Along the way, of course, I will articulate the other emphases when necessary for explanatory purposes.

The event of the atonement looks in two directions at once: backward to the protological act of election and forward to the eschatological realization of new being in the ecclesial community. Both dimensions—past and future—find their ontic center in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the hinge for divine and human history. Jesus Christ is both the God who elects in pretemporal eternity to be God for us and the humanity elected by God to be humanity for God. As Deus pro nobis, Jesus Christ is both self-positing and self-posited, electing and elected, the God who assumes and the humanity that is assumed. Jesus is the ontological unity of the divine Logos and the human nature; the triune God and the ecclesial community are indissolubly linked in the incarnate Christ. In the person of Christ we look backwards and forwards, inward into the being of God ad intra and outward into the being of the church. We find this hinge between God and humanity in the hypostatic union.

The atonement is an ontological event because of the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. In the incarnation, the Logos definitively assumed human nature, joining God and humanity in the decisive act of God ad extra. The assumptio carnis (assumption of flesh) is a clarification of God’s being in carne (in the flesh). Jesus Christ is not merely the Logos in the form of a human; he also embodies and actualizes the gracious taking up of humanity into the life of God. In the joining of the Logos to human nature, the triune God actively assumes what is other than God into the very being of God. In other words, the incarnation is itself the event of reconciliation. The very act of incarnation is the reconciliation of what is not-God with God, and thus the incarnation itself points forward in expectation of the cross. The incarnation depends upon the essential events of crucifixion and resurrection, in which God redeemed sinful humanity and reconciled the world to Godself. The assumption of humanity in the incarnation of Jesus Christ presupposes the mission of the Son to suffer and die in the place of sinful humanity. The atonement is an act of God which encompasses the entire life of Jesus from birth to ascension.

In the assumptio carnis, the Logos did not assume an abstract humanity without any relation to particular human persons; rather the Logos assumed the concrete human nature that is common to us all.
Jesus the human being (the homo humanus) is identical with human nature (the natura humana), so that Christian doctrine is right to express the mystery of God’s becoming human not as him taking on human life (assumptio hominis), but as him assuming human nature (assumptio humanae naturae) in the person of the Son of God. In this way the early theologians with their language and thinking about substance and ontology emphasized the universal scope of the identity of the Son of God with the one distinctive person Jesus. In so doing they dared to think that Jesus Christ is the sacramentum mundi – the generally recognized great Sacrament per se (cf. 1 Tim. 3:16). Not only was God shown as reconciling the world in him, but this reconciliation was accomplished in him. (Jüngel, Justification 161-62)
Jesus is the sacrament of the world, and thus the sacrament of each individual person. In the assumption of human flesh, Jesus assumed my flesh. Consequently, we are joined to Christ in a real and ontological manner. Our very life is grounded in him: his death to sin is our death, his life of obedience is our life, and the reality of his resurrection will be our reality (2 Cor. 5:14-15). According to a christological actualistic ontology, our being is a being-in-act only insofar as our being is located in the being of Jesus Christ. His life is our life; his humanity is our humanity; his being-in-act is our being-in-act. The primacy of the past event of Christ’s atoning life and death does not reduce reality into a crude christomonism, but instead properly situates our own present historical existence within the narrative of God’s gracious and sovereign will. Thus, it is necessary for us to distinguish properly between past and present, between Christ and us. At another time I will address in detail the three tenses of salvation—past, present, and future—but for now it will suffice to examine the ontology of the atonement in relation to the past reality of Jesus Christ and the present reality of believers.

Our thesis is that the person of Jesus Christ is the definitive and constitutive center of each person’s being. Against fears that this evacuates present reality of any significance, we must assert that this kind of strong doctrine of the incarnation does not undermine but rather preserves a proper place for our present existence by redefining the being of humanity as the humanity of Jesus Christ. The axiom undergirding this thesis comes from Col. 3:3: “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Our life—our true life—is hidden from us in the person of Jesus Christ, and thus in the being of God. Our identity is not located in ourselves (in nobis) but outside of ourselves (extra nos). The external center of existence—our de-centeredness in Christ—is a reality known only by faith. Through faith alone, we awaken with new eyes to see that the ontological ground of our being is indeed Jesus Christ, even though present reality would seem to indicate otherwise. Faith, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, is “the conviction of things not seen,” and one of the things “not seen” is the center of our existence. Often Christians confuse the center of their being with the “soul,” which is a metaphor that simply means we are more than the sum of our biological parts. However, this extra something, this superadded plus of being which often bears the name “soul,” is not something we possess, but instead a relation toward the external ground of our existence in God. Thus, it is theologically more appropriate not to speak of a “soul” but instead to identify the ontological ground of our being in Jesus Christ; or rather, the ground of our being is Jesus Christ.

The ontology of the atonement thus connects past, present, and future in the person of Jesus Christ as the center of both human history in general and each person’s history in particular. Christ’s actualized existence is the ontological locus of our existence, to which we are existentially conformed by faith alone (sola fide). Our ontological being is Christ; our ontic-existential being is in conformity to Christ (conformitas Christi). To put this another way, our essential being is the consequent of God’s acting in Jesus Christ ‘for us and our salvation,’ while our existential being is the consequent of God’s acting in us through faith. Both dimensions of reconciliation—past and present, ontological and existential—are the work of God who reconciles the world to Godself. The former—“God was in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:19)—definitively establishes our new being through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth; the latter—“God in us” (Deus in nobis)—existentially disrupts and reorients us through the ‘word of the cross’ which creates faith.

In more traditional terms, the former is the doctrine of the atonement and the latter is the doctrine of justification. Here, however, we are expanding the atonement to include past, present, and future. The past event of reconciliation is the atoning work of Jesus Christ; the present event of justification is the unifying work of the Spirit; and the future event of resurrection is the consummating work of the triune God “who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6) and will in the eschaton be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). Together, the three temporal stages of reconciliation all depend upon the primal act of the Father who creates and elects through the Son and in the Spirit.

Atonement (the past event of new creation) is thus intimately related to justification (the present event of new creation). In the same way that justification is not a purely forensic event but is ontologically effective, so too is the atonement an ontological event. The reason why reconciliation and ontology must be thought together is found in the person of Jesus, who establishes the atonement between God and humanity and declares the justifying ‘word of the cross.’ “For Christ is our peace,” as the author of Ephesians declares, in whose flesh God created “one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (Eph. 2:14-15). The accomplishment of the atonement in the person of Jesus, however, is not the end of the story. Even though Jesus reconciled the world “to God in one body through the cross,” he now proclaims “peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:16-17). Peace was ontologically established in the person of Christ, in whom “one new humanity” was created. But now God brings this new humanity to us in the existential event of justification. The faithfulness of Jesus is the ground for our faith in him, and the being of Jesus as the eschatologically new human person is the proleptic realization of our new being. Jesus is the true and definitive imago Dei, and we ontologically correspond to him by conforming to the imago Christi through faith alone.

Faith is thus an ontologically reflective Yes to God’s ontologically effective Yes to us in Jesus Christ; that is, faith brings one’s individual being into correspondence with one’s true being in the person of Christ. Faith, as the gracious gift of God, ontically connects past and present, Christ and humanity. By grace alone (sola gratia), our being-in-faith corresponds to the being-in-faith of Jesus—a correspondence that awaits the eschatological consummation of God’s reality toward which both past and present point in hopeful expectation. Both aspects, the christological and the existential—‘there and then’ and ‘here and now’—are entirely grace. Reconciliation in Christ and the existential realization of new being are an overflowing of God’s utterly gratuitous being-as-love.

In conclusion, we must not shy away from ontology. The great christological formulas are rooted in questions of ontology, though their presuppositions are far different from our own. We have not touched on the communicatio idiomatum or the patristic emphasis on deification, nor have we addressed the christological conflict between deification and impassibility in patristic theology or the conflict between a classical substance ontology and a modern actualistic ontology. Our intention here has been simply to articulate the basis for an ontology of the atonement, and this basis is none other than Christ Jesus our Lord. The incarnation is more than a concept to talk about during Advent; it is the ground of our hope. The hypostatic union is more than a term for academic theologians; it is the basis for our identity, the locus of our humanity. A Christian ontology begins and ends here, with the incarnate Son of God who is extra nos, pro nobis, and by the grace of God, in nobis. The heart of the gospel and the locus of our identity is found in the God who became Emmanuel, God with us, in Jesus Christ—the one who graciously took on our estranged humanity in order to awaken us to new life. In him alone we hear the words of liberating hope: “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

Monday, November 27, 2006

Film Review: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

This review was requested by Shane. If you would like to request a review, please leave a comment under the post “Film Reviews & Recommendations.”

Watching Dangerous Liaisons is an uncomfortable experience: one gets a sick pleasure out of watching people do evil things to others. The film is about aristocratic plots to ruin other people’s lives, usually through sex-related schemes. Based on a stage play, the heart of this film is in the complicated dialogue, primarily between the characters (brilliantly) played by Glenn Close and John Malkovich; Close plays Marquise de Merteuil and Malkovich plays Vicomte de Valmont. The rest of the people in the movie are their pawns, the people they manipulate in achieve their wicked ends. Uma Thurman plays a young virgin betrothed to a man who is an ex-lover of Marquise’s. So Marquise plots with Vicomte, as usual, to seduce Thurman’s character and teach her the ways of “love.” The rest of the film involves more plots, more seduction, more betrayal. What makes the film especially interesting, however, is not so much the plots themselves as what these plots represent. I will discuss two particularly fascinating aspects of this film: aristocratic facades and the supreme “battle of the sexes.”

(1) Aristocratic facades. Liaisons plays with the motif of mask and reality, a theme made all the more effective because of its setting in 18th century France among the aristocracy. This is effective for two reasons: first, period pieces generally highlight the fact that older societies were far more concerned with propriety and social mores than we are today; second, aristocracies are by nature concerned with social privilege and superiority and thus demand a certain kind of presence, poise, and propriety in order to convincingly act the part of nobility. When aristocratic and old European societies are combined, one ends up with a setting ripe with potential for exploring the darker side of nobility. A story like Liaisons plays with the superficiality of this upper-crust society by presenting characters who intentionally use this masked culture as a means to indulge in their self-aggrandizing plots and pleasures.

(2) Gender games, or “the battle of the sexes.” The heart of this film is the male-female conflict that rages from beginning to bitter end. Not only are the plots sexual in nature, but they are born out of a primal gender war over who is the superior sex. Marquise de Merteuil (Close) is the mastermind behind the sexual games carried out by handsome and conniving Vicomte. Early on, she tells Vicomte why she insists on ruining these people’s lives. In short, it’s because men dominate in every sector of society, and women are subjugated by men to meet their needs and desires. Women, she then says, are forced to be crafty in their dealings with men; they have to find ways to reasserting their place in society. This cannot be done in public, or on the surface. Women have to work beneath the surface of society; they have to work behind the scenes rather than on the stage of public opinion. Marquise’s mission in life is to be on top, to assert herself in such a way that the men in her life feel superior, though the true superiority always, in the end, remains with her.

Thus the stage is set for a grand “battle of the sexes.” In this way, the film is like Desperate Housewives set circa 1780. The numerous sexual escapades are part of a larger gender rivalry in which Marquise—representing the cause of the female sex—asserts her feminine authority in the midst of a society that only recognizes male authority. By the end of the film, however, the “battle of the sexes” culminates in a declaration of war by Marquise against Vicomte himself. The partners in crime end up being divided against themselves as part of the great rift between male and female. Without question, this is the most fascinating aspect of this film. The film tells a contemporary story of a woman’s struggle for liberation, but from within the context of aristocratic 18th century France.

However, this promising premise is diffused by the end of the film. When the credits roll, one is left with the implied conclusion that Marquise’s struggle is foolish. Without giving away the end of the film (too much), the story concludes with Vicomte as the reformed man and Marquise as the bitter woman who loses everything in her (misguided?) struggle to gain power for her sex. Granted, Marquise is a conniving character who does plenty of harm to other people, but then so does Vicomte. He is one of the smarmiest characters in the history of cinema. Even so, the finale of the film leaves one feeling sympathy for him. He is the “changed man” who understands the meaning of true love. His cold, smarmy heart is converted and thus his demise in the grip of love is a Romeo-esque tragedy.

In the end, Vicomte’s elevation comes at the cost of Marquise’s humiliation. Consequently, Dangerous Liaisons starts out like a historical feminist film, but it ends up reinforcing the stereotypes and prejudices which feminism wishes to counter. The headstrong woman is humiliated, while the wicked man has a change of heart and receives praise, as if his love covers all past wrongs. The woman is judged and the man pardoned. I am reminded of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, in which the woman receives the public condemnation while the man retains his social status. This makes for a disappointing end to an otherwise fascinating film.

Dangerous Liaisons is a beautifully made film full of lush detail and lavish costumes. The events in the plot are dark and disturbing, offering a stark and provocative contrast to the light and superficial world of French aristocracy. The movie does a great job of playing with the two realms in human interaction—public and private, overt and covert—and in doing so, the movie gives the 1700s a refreshing modern portrayal. In Liaisons, the same struggle for equality and the same dark divisions between public and private that we see in the news every week are replicated in 18th century France. The film reminds us that human depravity is constant throughout human history, that secrets are eventually revealed, and that love is always greater and more satisfying than individualistic self-gratification. Even so, the primary theme of male-female conflict concludes on a sentimental note that ends up, intentionally or not, reinforcing old male-female stereotypes. While the film demands some criticism on this point, it is well worth engaging, and the high level of production and acting make it a pleasure to watch even when the subject matter is less than pleasurable.

Friday, November 24, 2006

A plea to the church: denounce the execution of Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein is on death-row, just as President Bush and a majority of Americans wanted. But for those who identify themselves with Jesus Christ, who bear the name “Christian,” whose primary loyalty is (or at least should be) to the church, Hussein’s death in the name of “justice” should only be a source of great discomfort and shame. In fact, I propose that as the church, it is our duty as followers of the Crucified One to denounce the execution of Saddam Hussein—just as we must denounce the execution of any person.

This is a wildly unpopular claim in the United States today. Even those who are generally opposed to the death penalty view such a punishment as “just” when carried out against someone like Hussein. But it is precisely this kind of unpopular claim that I believe the church needs to make in order to truly be the community that witnesses to the sovereign grace of God.

Karl Barth made it clear in Church Dogmatics III.4 why Christians cannot support the death penalty. His arguments are summarized well by John Howard Yoder in his excellent book, Karl Barth and the Problem of War:
There are logically three possible kinds of ground for judicial penalties. The first is the protection of society. But a protection which is so absolute as to require the absolute elimination of any menace is justifiable only if the state which is to be protected, or the nation which intends to protect itself, is also an absolute. The absolute value of the state or the human social order is, however, something which the Christian cannot affirm. The second general reason for penalties is the expiation of an offense against the moral order; yet the Christian knows that there can and need be no more expiation since the cross of Christ. The third general ground for judicial penalties is the argument that through punishment the criminal may be rendered a more useful citizen. In this case killing is conceivable only if we are sure ahead of time that no improvment is possible; this also is something which a Christian may not affirm. Thus Barth concludes that the death penalty normally is never acceptable; capital punishment may not legitimately be a state institution. (22-23)
Yoder does a fine job summarizing Barth’s arguments against the Christian support of capital punishment, but it is well worth our time to read Barth himself on this subject. It is also worth taking into consideration the fact that Barth laments the history of the church, in which Christians have almost always supported capital punishment and eschewed careful theological reflection on the subject. In what follows I will quote Barth on each of the three positions summarized by Yoder above in the same order. The three supports for capital punishment (CP) that Barth articulates are: (1) CP protects society; (2) CP is morally necessary for the criminal to atone for his crimes (sins); and (3) CP makes the criminal more beneficial to society by removing her from it.

1. Barth writes of the first ground of support for capital punishment:
It belongs to its nature as an orderly society that its measures can have only a provisional, relative and limited character, that they must always be in a position to be transcended and corrected. But in punishing by death, it does something unlimited, irrevocable and irreparable. Again, it belongs to its nature as an orderly society that its actions must be designed to secure and maintain the life of its people. But to punish by death is to destroy life. ... [I]n capital punishment the state leaves the human level and acts with usurped divinity. It destroys life instead of maintaining it. It deprives of right instead of upholding it. (CD III.4, 444-45)
The United States government, in the hands of a president who senses a divine calling, has left the human level and usurped divinity in a way unprecedented for nations claiming to be democratic. I live in a country which has given itself the divine prerogative to take as many lives as it deems necessary in order to destroy radical Muslim leaders and take revenge on the loss of American lives on 9/11. The U.S. has absolutized—i.e., deified—itself, and we see this most clearly now in the condemnation of Saddam. The humiliation and destruction of Saddam Hussein is, at the same time, the glorification and divinization of America. The U.S. has essentially become the instantiation of the supreme being of theism: omnipotent in war, omniscient in intelligence (e.g., the Patriot Act and wiretapping), and omnipresent in the deployment of troops, the proliferation of bases and interrogration centers around the world, and the global spread of media and technology. The one major attribute unaccounted for is omnibenevolence.

2. Against the second ground of support, Barth writes in opposition to the view that the death penalty is a kind of expiation for sin:
[O]n the Christian view the retributive justice of God has already found full and final expression, the expiation demanded by Him for all human transgression has already been made, the death sentence imposed on human criminals has already been executed. God gave His only Son for this very purpose. In His death He exercised judgment according to His wonderful righteousness, and He did so once and for all for the sins of all men. Is not the result of this just judgment mercy and forgiveness for all? Who, then, is not included? (442)
The sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the end of all sacrifices. In his death, the expiatory deaths of all others are included and therefore finished. No other sacrifice is necessary. In fact, no other sacrifice is even possible. The death of Jesus is unique in kind and excludes the possibility of imitation. Since Jesus was nailed to the cross, all other expiatory deaths are nullified. Consequently, every death penalty exacted upon criminals is a mockery of Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice as the sacramentum mundi.

3. Finally, Barth writes the following regarding the third ground of support:
The death penalty obviously assumes the very different verdict that improvement, education and rehabilitation are out of the question for [the criminal], and therefore the proposition that the responsibility of others towards him is at an end. His punishment can no longer have any positive character for him. Among others who offend daily, this person has done something which is so evil as to make life with him intolerable. And since he fortunately has no power to remove us from the world, we remove him from the world. ... It declares society to be inwardly powerless in relation to him. All that it can do is to confront him with outward superiority, to decide to put him to death and therefore to live on without him. ... From this standpoint already the death penalty incontestably means that society arbitrarily renounces the obligation which it has towards the criminal too. (440-41)
Even if Christians in support of the death penalty reject the deification of the state and the expiatory nature of a criminal’s death, it remains incontestable that capital punishment is a surrender of responsibility. By putting a person to death, society in general and the church in particular renounces any obligation to that person. The church (for the most part) recognizes the necessity of caring for the marginalized and the oppressed. So why the rejection of the criminal whom God embraces, whose sins are covered by the blood of Jesus? There is no justification for such rejection.

Eberhard Jüngel makes quite clear in his ethical writings how essential it is for the church to demonstrate Christian responsibility toward the criminal. Jüngel expounds his ethics from a center in the doctrine of justification, which carefully differentiates between person and work, thus embracing the person while (if necessary) condemning the work. Such a distinction ensures that we are more than our acts, whether good or bad:
We are still waiting today for a reform [of the state penal system] that would make a fundamental split in the undisputed connection between person and deed by addressing prisoners as people who are separable from their deeds. ... What are we [the church] doing to say that they are more than the sum of their deeds, that even as prisoners they have value—a value that is hardly noticed and yet is inalienable, the value of human beings justified by God? ... Will we stretch out our hand [to them]? Or would we prefer the judgment and punishment of the law to have the last word and the unjust stay unjust? (Justification 270)
The question to the church, to the United States, and to the world is clear: Will we stretch out our hand to Saddam Hussein? Even if he refuses to receive our embrace, will we refuse to offer it? Can we see Saddam as a person apart from his deeds, however barbarous? Can we dare to see him in the shadow of the cross as the one for whom Christ died?

The church that witnesses to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ must be a church that has a profound and perhaps unpopular “reverence for life,” as Schweitzer declared. We must be a church that demands true justice—not justice as the world understands it, but justice as defined by the triune God, who came to the world in Jesus Christ while we were still sinners to reconcile us to God. We must embody the mystery of divine love, that gives of itself and overflows even to the least of all people. We must have our vision shaped by the gospel of justification, which refuses to see people in terms of their good or bad deeds and instead sees people in terms of God’s eternal and insurmountable ‘YES’ to each person in Jesus Christ.

Saddam Hussein is one such person. No matter the extent of his crimes against humanity, he is still loved by God, for such is the inscrutable depths of God’s being—a being who loves unconditionally, gives unceasingly, forgives eternally, and redeems completely. This is why we confess that God is love. The question for the church is: Will we demonstrate this kind of love?
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:7-11)

Films @ AAR: a review series

At the 2006 AAR/SBL Annual Meeting, a number of films were shown and discussed as an effort to engender dialogue regarding art and social issues. I was unable to attend any of the film viewings, so instead I will watch and post reviews of these films over the next few months. The following is the list of films I will review:

Dawn of the Dead
Toward a New Christianity: Stories of African Christians in Ghana and Zimbabwe
Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving and Repentance

You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. (James 5:5)
May this verse humble us as we in the United States “fatten our hearts” on this Thanksgiving Day while people are slaughtered in the Middle East. Thanksgiving is something we must offer God continuously in recognition of God’s everlasting faithfulness and goodness to us. But thanksgiving, as the prophets made quite clear, also requires repentance for the ways we have squandered God’s gifts and rejected the covenant of grace.

In this time of great global conflict and moral chaos, in which many of us in America live “in luxury and in pleasure” while others in Iraq live in destitution, let us join in repentance as well as in thanksgiving. Let us strive to end the “day of slaughter” by seeking peace instead of violence, justice instead of inequity, selfless giving instead of selfish consumption, self-control rather than the control of others, love instead of apathy.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

More Universalism in the Blogosphere

In the past couple months, there have been a number of additions to my ongoing index of posts on universalism, entitled “Universalism in the Blogosphere.” Here are some of the most interesting additions.
  1. Richard Beck, a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University, keeps up a blog entitled, Experimental Theology. In addition to series on “Moral Psychology,” “Game Theory,” and “A Theology of Humor,” he recently completed a new series called, “Defending Universal Salvation,” or “Why I am a Universalist.” The full list of posts can be found on my index, or you can use the links in his final post in the series.
  2. Over at GOTT, Keith DeRose has some interesting recent posts. First, there is the interview with Gregory MacDonald, which I mentioned on this site. Second, there is the treatment of Carlton Pearson by NPR and Dateline NBC. I myself heard the NPR piece some time ago, and it deserves further attention. Pearson is not as theologically astute as one might like, but he does have a couple important insights. And he certainly does not deserve the castigation he has received from his fellow Pentecostal believers. The most recent post merits its own listing ...
  3. Yesterday, DeRose posted an essay written by Gregory MacDonald entitled, “Can an Evangelical be a Universalist?” I single this out for those interested in reading MacDonald’s argument in a condensed form. I hope to give this essay a more thorough engagement in the future. His list of evangelical objections are especially helpful, in that they articulate the opposing arguments quite clearly. I think objections 4 and 6 are especially worth addressing in detail; the others should be rather easy to refute.
I hope this index continues to be a helpful resource. Please let me know if you find other people blogging about universalism, and I will add them to the list.

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: a series by Chris Tilling

I am grateful to Chris for offering his readers such a thorough investigation into the new book by Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chris is currently going through the book chapter-by-chapter in his new series. The book will likely be the source of much discussion and debate. I’m just waiting for its U.S. release next month—Dec. 15, according to Amazon. In the meantime, thanks to Chris for summarizing the arguments by Bauckham.

Click here for the outline of the series with links, or here to read Chris’s interview with Bauckham himself.

The Heresies of American Evangelicalism

My series on the heresies of American evangelicalism has come to an end, so in the interest of making it accessible to all, here is a table of contents with links to all the posts. I may expand the series as the need to address issues in American Christianity arises. Let me remind my readers that this series is not intended to condemn the church but to prod it toward maturity in the faith. We live in an age in which the line between piety and idolatry is very thin indeed. We must be diligent in weeding out “everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (Heb. 12:1), but never at the expense of Christian charity toward all, especially toward those with whom we most disagree. Toward that end, I offer this series in the hope that churches in America will proclaim the gospel with clarity and integrity.

The intention of this series was to examine the essential dogmatic loci as they are popularly articulated or implicitly understood in American evangelical churches. By no means have I exhausted every facet of the problem in each locus; instead I stuck to one major issue that seemed readily apparent. For example, I discussed the doctrine of the Trinity in Part II, but not the attributes of God or the doctrine of election, to name two other areas of importance. Much less have I have examined all of the loci worth addressing in such a series. Perhaps I will offer further reflections in the future.

The Heresies of American Evangelicalism
  • Part I: Introduction
  • Part II: The Doctrine of God — a less-than-fully triune God
  • Part III: Christology — a docetic Christ
  • Part IV: Soteriology — a pelagian soteriology
  • Part V: Holy Scripture — a docetic-propositional Bible
  • Part VI: Eschatology — a gnostic eschatology
  • Part VII: Ecclesiology — nationalism, or depoliticized discipleship

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Last Bastion of Sexism

On the drive home from the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting, I got into a casual conversation about marriage and last names. Most people in my generation find creative ways of combining each person’s last name. I entirely agree with this. Theologically, it is less than ideal—indeed, unacceptable—for the wife to simply take the husband’s last name. Names carry the weight of one’s identity, and the traditional patriarchal practice of having the wife conform to the identity of the husband fails to account for the fact that the husband, too, must take on a new identity in marriage. As the Scriptures make clear, the two will become one flesh. This new marital identity is an event of God’s presence and sanctifying power, in which something new is formed out of the old; marriage is an icon of the new creation.

Some people combine their last names; others hyphenate; others take on entirely new last names. The only two traditions I frown upon are when the wife takes the husband’s last name or when they each keep the same name. In both situations, the radical event of new creation, in which a new identity replaces the old identity, is lost or distorted. Both the husband and the wife should be transformed and caught up in this event.

Now it occurred to me in the course of this conversation that there remains at least one bastion of male privilege left in our country: the title, i.e., “Mister” and “Missus/Mistress.” Only the female has to change her title, from “Miss/Ms.” to “Mrs.” The male has no corresponding change. Why is there no change? Why is the female forced to indicate whether or not she is married, while the male need not disclose such information? Is there a latent endorsement of male freedom to act according to his desires, while the woman is forced to identify herself as either “available” or “taken”? Also, the word “Mister” is simply a weakened form of the word “Master” from which it is derived. Granted, the word has been expanded somewhat so that women can also be identified by the term “Master,” but our title system still identifies this word with the male partner in a marriage.

I will not even begin to address the issue of titles for homosexual couples. That is still too heated a subject to touch on in this country, especially within the church. In any case, I think it is at least worth pondering the titles we place in front of our names. I have yet to hear anyone offer a critique of its latent sexism. Any thoughts?

NB: Amy and I do not fit into the ideal. She ended up taking my name, not because of any tradition or principle, but simply because combining our names sounded ridiculous. Her maiden name (another sexist term, since there is no corresponding term for men; at least not yet) is “Fong” and my last name is “Congdon.” The different variations all sounded horrible: “Fong-Congdon,” “Congdon-Fong,” “FongCong,” you get the idea. Now we could have both taken completely different names, or I could have taken her name. On this point, I am open to criticism. Part of me still feels uncomfortable with her losing her last name. This past summer we almost changed it to make our names equally different, but she did not want to endure the hassle of altering all the different forms and ID. Something to think about, for sure.

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Summary of AAR/SBL

As most readers of this will know, the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting was held in Washington, D.C. this year. I went to attend the Karl Barth Society meetings primarily, and whatever else I heard was just a bonus. I left on Friday at noon for the capital. We arrived at the 4 pm meeting a few minutes late but in time to hear Philip Ziegler begin his paper on Wolf Krötke’s theology of freedom and concreteness—free for the movement of Word and Spirit while concretely located in the situation of Gottesvergessenheit, or “mass atheistic indifference,” which currently plagues the land of east Germany. Ziegler is a rising star in the theological world whose presence at Aberdeen alongside John Webster is another reason to study in Scotland. (Those of us who know Mark Husbands of Wheaton College will recall that Husbands and Ziegler co-edited a volume of essays by George Schner entitled, Essays Catholic and Critical.)

Following Ziegler was the much anticipated paper by Wolf Krötke himself in his first ever appearance in the United States. He spoke on Karl Barth’s theology of religions, a subject that has not received the attention it deserves. According to Krötke at the end of his talk, we cannot afford to avoid the subject any longer. He did a very fine job explicating Barth’s understanding of other religions/gods through a careful analysis of the excised paragraph from Church Dogmatics III, entitled “God and the gods” (originally §42, I believe). He explained the removal of this paragraph as evidence that Barth did not think his treatment of the subject was sufficient. He also related that missing paragraph to Barth’s discussion of Light and the “little lights” in CD IV/3, §69: The Light of Life.

(For example, consider the following quote from Barth in the §69, p. 156: “The positive thing which takes place in the confrontation of the little lights of creation with the great light of its Creator is that they are not passed over or ignored, let alone destroyed or extinguished, but integrated in the great light.” Krötke suggests that Barth would have us understand these “little lights of creation” as connected with the gods of religion. They have a real identity, so they are not simply nothingness, and yet they have no identity apart from the Light which gives them their reality. Cf. Eberhard Jüngel, God's Being Is in Becoming, pp. 20-22, n. 25. Jüngel very nicely summarizes Barth’s discussion of the Light and the lights from CD IV/3.)

On Saturday morning, we heard Walter Lowe present a paper on “Apocalyptic and Discipleship – Explaining Christianity.” In this paper, Lowe did a fine job exploring the need for an apocalyptic in our modern age, one that is grounded in Barth’s own theology. Lowe contends that a proper apocalyptic balances the concreteness of the gospel with the contextual-existential situation of the believer. Apocalyptic provides the means by which the gospel carries an existential bite without falling into the existentialism which Barth so harshly criticized. Apocalyptic is the existential contextualization of the concrete gospel which grips us. Faith, Barth says, is a state of “being suspended”—connected with the biblical notion of “the fear of the Lord”—which disrupts us while at the same time offering us the assurance of the good news in Jesus Christ. Lowe concludes by arguing that, for Barth, the apocalypse has already occurred in Jesus Christ, but this apocalypse includes both past and present, both the concrete reality of Christ and the existential reality of the believer. Apocalypse holds these together while adamantly denying the temptation of triumphalism (cf. Left Behind), which rests comfortably in the final conclusion of history while avoiding any kind of contextualization or being-suspended.

Finally, in the grand finale, George Hunsinger and Archie Spencer critiqued David Bentley Hart’s theology of the analogia entis. I will spend more time on this in another post. As Hunsinger said to my friend, Chris, “I think I held my own.” Indeed, he did. But so did Hart, who showed a measure of patience and courage in the midst of a room that without doubt sided almost entirely with Hunsinger. Spencer gave a very fast and complex paper on Hart’s misunderstanding of Thomas Aquinas and his lamentable participation in the “colonization of history,” which characterizes the entire R.O. movement. Hunsinger made the simple yet spot-on argument that Hart’s theology is simply non-christocentric, that the only mediator between God and humanity is Jesus Christ. Hart essentially rejected this claim, though he never said so directly. Hart stated that if we are indeed created by God (creatio ex nihilo), then there is an analogy of being between creation and the Creator—as he said, this is simply a given and we cannot get around this fact. While I hope to spend much more time on this debate, we can see the basic disagreement here: Hart views the analogy between God and creation as one grounded in the act of primal creation; Hunsinger views the relation between God and humanity as one grounded in the act of re-creation or new creation.

After the KBS sessions were over, I went to the book exhibits and purchased some great books. More on that later. We also heard Richard B. Hays give a paper on narrative interpretation of the Bible. He argued for the rehabilitation of the doctrine of Scripture’s unity by arguing that Scripture should be understood as a “coherent dramatic narrative,” in which we understand the unity of the Bible “from the end point.” Finally, shortly before leaving for Princeton, we stumbled upon N. T. Wright responding to two papers for the Evangelical Philosophical Society. I usually do not care much for Wright, but his comments in this session were quite provocative and profound. It was a great way to close out an excellent day.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Back from AAR

Posting has been hit-or-miss recently with academic pressures mounting in anticipation of the holiday season rush. More recently, I and Chris (of Disruptive Grace) attended the first two days of the 2006 American Academy of Religion conference in Washington, D.C., primarily in order to attend the Karl Barth Society meetings. I will offer summary accounts of the papers we heard. The meetings we attended were very good. Over the course of Friday and Saturday, we heard papers or presentations by Philip Ziegler, Wolf Krötke, Walter Lowe, George Hunsinger, Archie Spencer, David Bentley Hart, Richard B. Hays, and N. T. Wright. In addition, I spent a nice sum of money at the book exhibits. More on all this later.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Human Freedom and the God-Time Relation

Travis has written a short tome on the questions of human freedom and the relation between God and time. The discussion was prompted originally by a discussion on T. F. Torrance’s Divine and Contingent Order and the subject of open theism. I highly recommend reading his post and joining the conversation.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Sufjan Stevens and Christian Music

Books & Culture have an article in the Nov/Dec issue on Sufjan Stevens, written by two people who are apparently jealous that God bestowed infinitely superior music talent upon Stevens and not them. Their article, besides illuminating nothing about Stevens or the Christian music scene, ends with what is perhaps an unforgivable sin: criticizing Stevens for a lack of musical ability! I quote:
Despite his skills as a lyricist, his limitations as a musician hinder any over-arching artistic unity. Stevens is in many ways a capable composer. Quite a few of his melodic ideas are fresh, interesting, and distinctive, and his arrangements are meticulously crafted. The trouble is that his creativity is limited to essentially two different song-types: an introverted, folksy one and an extroverted, symphonic one. In short, there is a major disconnect between the subtleties of Sufjan Stevens the poet and Sufjan Stevens the composer. His music lacks the carefully modulated gradations of tone, meaning, and mood that distinguish his poetry.
Both authors are musicians and professors at Eastern Nazarene College. I sincerely hope there are enough fans of Sufjan at that school to rise up in mass protest against the libelous lies printed here.

Pope Benedict: there exists a real analogy

When Pope Benedict XVI gave his lecture on “Faith, Reason and the University,” almost all of the discussion (and outrage) focused on his comment regarding Islam, even though this was actually a quote from another thinker whose statement he calls “unacceptable.” But what no one touched on was his statement on the doctrine of analogy. Here is his comment in full:
In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God’s voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which - as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated - unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, “transcends” knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul - “λογικη λατρεία,” worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1).
Some questions for discussion in light of Pope Benedict’s statements:
  1. Why must our reason be “an authentic mirror of God”? Why must our thought alone, which is inherently individualistic and self-contained, reflect God and not some other facet of our being?
  2. Where is the effect of sin upon our reason? Where is the fall? What are the ontological and noetic effects of our estrangement from God?
  3. Is God revealed us in our natural reason? Where is the uniqueness of Jesus Christ? Is it not problematic that Benedict limits God’s revelation to the form of logos, that is, as reason and not as the person, Jesus of Nazareth? The words “Jesus,” “Christ,” and “grace” are not mentioned once.
  4. Where is the nearness of God in Jesus Christ? Where is the coming of God to the world in the incarnation? Is not this the proper locus of any doctrine of analogy? And must we not understand Christ in much broader (and less gnostic) terms than as Logos?
  5. What is the relation between analogy and divine freedom? Does the analogy of being confine God to a rational correspondence between divine being and human reason? Could not God be free in the sense that God can overcome the infinite unlikeness between God and fallen humanity in the revelatory likeness of the incarnation of Jesus Christ?
  6. While I agree with Benedict that a split between the ordained will of God and the hidden will of God creates the horrific possibility of a capricious God, are we actually limited to the dichotomy between a voluntarism which renders God unknown and capricious and the doctrine of analogy which insists “that between God and us ... there exists a real analogy”? Are not both options rooted in our natural, inherent human capacities—the capacity to push God away and the capacity to rationally understand God by means of an analogia entis?

Friday, November 10, 2006

Sermon: “Come, for everything is ready now”

The Gospel according to Luke, chapter 14, verses 15-24:

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and fences, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”
Gracious Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, open our hearts and minds that in hearing and receiving your word of gracious invitation, we might be transformed into your sanctified witnesses to the establishment of your eternal kingdom through Christ our Lord, in whose name we pray. Amen.

By the time Jesus tells this parable of the great dinner, we as listeners have been well-prepared. Luke’s gospel tells us that on this Sabbath day Jesus attended a meal at the house of a Pharisee, where he healed a person with dropsy. After speaking to the guests about how to be humble and to the host about how to be gracious, Jesus then delivers this parable. His earlier teachings had been the prologue. This is the heart of the matter. His teachings were about everyday feasts; this is about the great feast. His teachings were about how to live in the kingdoms of this world; now he speaks about the kingdom of God. So what, then, does he say about this kingdom?

First, according to Jesus, the kingdom of God is an event of interruption. We see from the responses of the invited guests that the invitation to the great dinner is an interruption of their lives. The servant of the master comes to them and to us unannounced and declares: “Come, for everything is ready now.” The kingdom feast is a disruption of their existence and ours, a wave in the otherwise calm sea of our self-contained lives. The servant comes calling us to something greater, something outside of ourselves, something worth setting aside possessions, work, and family for the joyous event of eating together. But for those who have much invested in the kingdoms of this world—in the world of possessions, work, and social networks—the interruption of the kingdom is muted, the voice of the servant pallid and subdued.

Such is not the case when the servant proclaims the good news of a feast among the poor, crippled, blind, and lame. For them, a dinner party is completely and utterly incomprehensible. The announcement of a feast for anyone is a gift, but the announcement of a great feast for them is a totally gratuitous gift—a gift given without any reasons, entirely unwarranted, simply irrational, utter foolishness. While it is not recorded in our text, the servant probably proclaimed the same message to them, “Come, for everything is ready now.” It is finished. The table is set, and the meal is served. And who is the poor person called to this table? It is I. It is you. It is my neighbor and yours. Or, at least, the poor, the blind, and the lame ought to be us. These are the people who have no vested interests, who have nothing to offer others. They have no kingdom; they are entirely dependent on a world which shuns them. In relation to the master, they are passive recipients of the gift which disrupts and continues to disrupt the fabric of their lives. At the same time, the feast of the kingdom reorients them toward the future—not just a future, but the particular future of the kingdom. It is a future that remains for the most part unknown, and yet behind and above and before that unknown future stands the master who calls them to the meal with the message of grace, “Come, for everything is ready now.”

But the kingdom feast is more than interruption. Not only are we stopped in our tracks; we are redirected and taken to a home, the home of the master where the table is set and the food lies ready before us. Thus, second, the kingdom of God is an event of liberation. The kingdom is not only a No to our past, but much more importantly, it is a Yes to our future. The master says No for the sole purpose of saying Yes. The event of the kingdom interrupts in order to liberate. The kingdom of God dissolves all our self-evident attachments—whether to money, possessions, status—in order that new attachments may be established in their place. Those who dine with the master in the parable are not merely taken away from their old lives; they are given new ones. The poor are not simply transported to a new location (in which they would remain poor and crippled); they are brought home and made rich. Those who have nothing to offer are given everything and more.

The fact that the kingdom is a liberating event helps to explain the excuses of those who were originally invited by the master. Liberation is only attractive to those who are oppressed. The people who refused the dinner invitation had fields, oxen, and family; they were satisfied with what life had to offer. The kingdom of the status quo was sufficient for them. Interruption and liberation are inconveniences for such people. Of course, this is like playing in a sandbox while vacationing at the beach. The liberating feast of the kingdom freely bestows its festal liberty upon all people apart from their capacity to repay the host. But there is a cost. One must allow the old order of things to pass away. Liberation is always a dialectical event. Freedom is always freedom-from and freedom-for: from the No and for the Yes, from the old and for the new, from the past and for the future, from sin and for righteousness, from death and for life.

Lastly, then, beyond death and life, beyond interruption and liberation, we arrive at the third and final event of reunion. After the poor and the lame are brought in to the feast, the master tells his servant to “go out into the roads and fences.” The servant is sent to the figurative slums, to the invisible people who are overlooked and rejected for reasons beyond physical handicaps. The streets and roads represent the usual social outcasts; but the fence represents social segregation and systemic divisions. In the time of Jesus, no fence was more prominent than the one between Jews and Gentiles, yet the master proclaims that even this division will be overcome by the liberating power of the kingdom feast. The master tells the servant to “compel” them, for what could be more compelling than the gracious love and divine joy that radiates from this home, from this table? The master, in establishing reunion among divided peoples, proclaims the year of Jubilee, when slaves are set free, divisions overcome, and disparate groups come together as one people. Cultural norms are uprooted in the presence of this festal delight, in which the emancipatory event of reunion replaces the ancien régime of division. And this same jubilean joy ought to be replicated in our own Sabbath rest, as Jesus demonstrated in the healing of the man with dropsy. The event of a Jubilee year comes along maybe once in a lifetime, but in our new lives, we must eat of this feast regularly.

Thus, the parable of the great dinner is not only evocative of God’s disruptive and liberating kingdom, it is also—and perhaps most especially—an icon of the Eucharistic feast, in which we partake of the body and blood of Jesus. The Eucharist interrupts our normal patterns of life and excludes all other forms of sustenance. Jesus Christ, sacrificed for us, declares a firm No to any attempt on our part to supplement the meal of our Lord or to even assist in its preparation. Jesus says No to us, yet at the same time he declares, “Yes, come; for everything is ready now.” The Eucharist then liberates us by feeding us with our only true food and our only true drink. Finally, the Eucharist joins us together in unity as one body under one Lord. All divisions are definitively nullified at the Lord’s table, and in their place reigns the unity of the Holy Spirit. Most importantly, the paradox of this meal—and the paradox of the kingdom itself—is that God gives us this true food and true drink free of charge. The Eucharist is the meal of grace; the kingdom is the reign of grace; God is the God of grace.

The parable of the great dinner, like that of the Good Samaritan, does not tell us the full story. The end is really only the beginning. The master tells the servant to go out into the dark and lost corners of society, and then the parable ends, as if to imply that this is an ongoing reality. The work of reconciliation is complete; the work of reunion continues today and awaits the final and true kingdom feast, when Jubilee will last for eternity.

In conclusion, who is this servant who goes into the far country to proclaim the jubilean feast of the kingdom, who brings in the poor and the blind, who compels the outsiders by the overwhelming presence of grace? He is none other than Christ himself. The one who calls us out of the past and into the future, who interrupts us as the way and the truth and the life, who seats us at the head of the table, who bore the cost of the No in order to bring us the Yes without restriction—he is also the very one on whom we feast, for it is his body and his blood that brought us there. He not only prepared the meal; he is the meal. He prepared himself for us and our salvation, that we who are poor might become rich in him.

R. S. Thomas, a poet and priest in the Church of Wales, wrote this near the end of his life:
When we are weak, we are
strong. … When we are poor
and aware of the inadequacy
of our table, it is to that
uninvited the guest comes.
Jesus Christ interrupts us as the uninvited guest; he stands before us, poor and weak people that we are; he sees our inadequate table that has nothing to offer him; and then, giving his own body up for us, he declares, “Come, for everything is ready now.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Timothy Birdnow: total nutjob

A person recently sent me a link to an article entitled, “Hot Air,” a livid rejection of people like Gore who pronounce warnings about our environment. I responded with the following letter. I am sad that these people exist; I am even sadder that Christians think this guy is worth listening to.


What is this article supposed to prove to me? That science has definitively debunked global warming? Well, no, it hasn't. Some scientists disagree with global warming, but others believe the evidence points toward it quite clearly. This article does not deal with most of the evidence usually put forward by people like Gore. After reading this article and the other links, I still think Gore's evidence is far more convincing.

This leaves me with a more likely idea: the article wants to persuade me that people who are concerned about the environment and the capitalist system undergirding these problems are simply "enviro-nuts," who want to push "their socialist agenda on us." Here is where this author (whom I will discuss in a second) reveals himself to be a "conserva-nut." He could make this argument if and only if it could be proven that those who support the fight against global warming are indeed closet socialists who have hidden political agendas. The problem is that the largest grassroots movement on environmentalism is coming from rank-and-file evangelicals, who by and large vote Republican, who support the war in Iraq, etc.! Furthermore, it is blatantly evident from Gore himself that global warming is not a political issue, but a moral one. And that is precisely why so many evangelicals are on board -- not because they have clandestine political motives, but because they sincerely believe (and rightfully so) that humankind is in sin regarding the way Western society has decided to order its life.

The author proves himself to be more politically underhanded than these supposedly leftist loons when he writes, for example: "The global warming scare is a political maneuver to economically damage the United States and install a global top-down command-and-control regime to make our economic decisions." This is simply foolish, and utterly anti-Christian. The author shows that he worships a very particular idol, one that has captured the hearts of just about every individual in this country: the idol of Mammon. His primary concern is about "our" economy. The Right wishes only the best for our economy (read: the ability to spend and save at our leisure, to become rich, to fulfill the "American dream") while the Left wishes to take down our economy and return America to primitive, pre-colonization roots.

The author inhabits a mythical world where the Right is American and the Left is anti-America and thus pro-terrorist, pro-socialist, pro-(fill in ideology here). The author is simply towing the line of Ann Coulter and those who see the world in black-and-white. As Bush said, either you are with America or you are with the terrorists. Or as Rumsfeld said, either you live in a pre-9/11 world or in a post-9/11 world, as if it is obvious that once you exist in the latter, you must submit to the whims of the U.S. government, as if protecting America is like protecting God (assuming God needs protection). The author exists in a make-believe world, in his own Matrix where everything is simplified ad absurdum, where all complexity is flattened out and ambiguity erased. Either you are an enviro-nut, socialist, America-hater, or you are a proper American (who, by the way, is a capitalist-loving, war-mongering, money-worshiping fool).

This guy writes: "We supposedly have no choice but to give up this foolish consumer/capitalist civilization and return to the life of frolicking among the daisies in our homespun duds, living a simple, communal, low energy life." The assumption behind this statement is that the reader will see the absurdity of "living a simple, communal, low energy life." The problem is, I do not see the absurdity. In fact, what I see is that this is precisely how the Christian church has lived for most of its life, and in some areas, still actively pursues. I think of the monastic life, or of the early church. This guy speaks not for any person with religious sensibilities, but for the godless Coulter-clones (whether or not Coulter has a religious sensibility is beside the point, and for the sake of the church I hope she does not) who choose to excise from the Bible statements like, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Instead, the Bible proclaims, "Accumulate wealth. Pursue power and status. Enjoy your self-made life. Take care of #1." Most insidious of all, this abomination of the Bible is baptized as indeed Scriptural. I think we need another Luther to state it plainly: Thou art the antichrist!

The whole point of Gore and other environmentalists is indeed that this country needs to change its pattern of life. Whether or not you or anyone else thinks that science makes this point to us, I believe it is simply beyond question whether or not Western-American society needs to change. If reading cience is unconvincing, read the Bible instead. This author plainly has no regard for the Christian faith and the mandates that follow from following Jesus. His is a religion of the Self. His god is America. His worship is consumerism. His evangelism is warfare. His eschaton is world-domination.

So who is this nutjob? Timothy Birdnow. One look at his blog makes it clear that he is beyond hope -- at least seemingly beyond hope. Here is the first juicy quote from his blog: "Success in Iraq will come militarily, by KILLING the insurgents, by destroying the capabilities of both Iran and Syria." Enough said. Birdnow needs only to be condemned by the Christian church. He is a threat both to this nation, but more importantly, to those who claim the name of Christ. May he, by the grace of God, come to learn the deep and disturbing error of his ways.

Please only send me stuff worth reading. This was only worth burning.

Grace and peace,


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Where have I been?

  1. On Saturday I watched The Road to Guantánamo, a gripping docudrama which I will show this Saturday for the movie group I host twice a month at our church. I highly recommend it for everyone.
  2. On Sunday, I preached my second sermon at The Well on the “paradox of the Kingdom.” As soon as we get it posted online, I will let people know.
  3. On Tuesday evening, I preached in my homiletics class. I feel really good about that sermon, even though I made the academic mistake of creating a literary event rather than an oral-aural event. I guess it goes to show that deep down inside, I’m still an English major. I think I might post that sermon here for people to read.
  4. On Tuesday night, I watched as our nation voted its best in a decade. As one of the CNN commentators mentioned, “What a difference a day makes!” Indeed. I also watched the Stewart-Colbert Midterm Midtacular, which was a superb way to close out election night. More to come on the election in the future.
  5. On Wednesday, I finished editing the articles for the upcoming issue of the Princeton Theological Review, which will come out in December, on “Theology and Global Conflict: Beyond ‘Just War.’” We have articles by Daniel Bell, Gordon Brubacher, Mary-Jane Rubenstein, and an interview with George Hunsinger. Yours truly has a small book-note. If you are at an academic institution, we would appreciate it if you asked your library to subscribe. It is only $25 for institutions; $12 for students. Details are on the web site.
  6. Finally, I simply have to print the final monologue by Stephen Colbert on the live Midtacular episode. At the end, it was clear that the Democrats had won a major victory, so of course, Colbert had to unlease his tirade against the clearly terrorist-loving American public. Here is his speech at the end, perhaps the best thing he’s ever written:
“You’re the ones who made this bed. Now you’re going to have to move over so a gay couple can sleep in it. Tomorrow you are going to wake up in a brave new world. A world where the Constitution gets trampled by an army of terrorist clones created in a stem-cell research lab run by homosexual doctors that sterilize their instruments over burning American flags, where tax and spend Democrats take all of your hard-earned money and use it to buy electric cars for National Public Radio and teach evolution to illegal immigrants. Oh, yeah, and everybody’s HIGH!”

Friday, November 03, 2006

Am I An Evangelical?

This is a question that has vexed me consistently since attending Wheaton College, and more specifically, since reading Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Halden hopes to figure this out in his new series. Stay tuned for more posts. If Karl Barth is considered an evangelical, then I am an evangelical; but if we define evangelical according to, say, Francis Schaeffer or Wayne Grudem, then count me out.

At least I know what kind of evangelical I am not! Check out the recent post by the Friendly Atheist on personal evangelism with the Holman New Testament (Personal Evangelism Edition) and Focus on the Family.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Top 20 most influential books

Since Ben Myers of Faith and Theology has published his list of the top 20 books that have influenced him, I might as well join the party. My list is not limited to theological titles, mainly because what brought me into theology was the study of literature. These are the books that have shaped my thought in general the most, which thus includes my theological thought. I welcome your comments as well as your own lists.

(Some of the titles stand-in for other works by that same author, and I only listed an author once, no matter how many books deserve to be in the top 20.)

20. Alan Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection
19. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
18. Flannery O’Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge
17. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
16. The Study Catechism (PCUSA)
15. Thomas Cranmer, The Book of Common Prayer
14. Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian
13. William Shakespeare, King Lear
12. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale
11. William Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination
10. John Webster, Confessing God
9. Augustine, Confessions
8. T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ
7. Dante, The Divine Comedy
6. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
5. R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
3. Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World
2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1
1. T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets