Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Paul among the Evangelicals, §2: The Context

2. The Context of Rom. 5:12-21

After stating the “thesis” of the letter in Rom. 1:16-17, Paul begins by arguing for a universal solidarity in unrighteousness among both Jews and Gentiles, which Paul places in clear contradistinction to the δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ (Rom. 1:17). Paul’s first “universalistic” argument in the letter is made clear by his quotation of Eccl. 7:20 from the LXX: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.” In the presence of such sinfulness, the righteousness of God takes the form of divine judgment (τὸ κρίμα τοῦ θεοῦ; Rom. 2:3). Beginning then with the νυνί in 3:21, Paul presents the righteousness of God in the form, not of judgment, but of justification. In the presence of faith, God’s righteousness is the gracious event of justification on the basis of the redemption in Jesus Christ (3:24). Justification, like judgment, is the demonstration of divine righteousness; in justifying the one who has the πίστις Ἰησοῦ, God justifies Godself (3:25b-26). In Rom. 4, Paul connects faith to Abraham, thereby demonstrating God’s faithfulness to the covenant even while departing from the law.

This brings us to Rom. 5, which is the point at which occurs a “shift of emphasis and subject matter,”[12] from righteousness and justification to life. Martinus de Boer makes this especially evident in a chart[13] in which he notes the occurrence of certain key words in chapters 1-4 and then in 6-8. Thus, the words πίστις, ἔργον, and κρίμα (to take just three examples) occur 33 times in Rom. 1-4 but do not occur at all in Rom. 6-8. Likewise, the words θάνατος, ἁμαρτία, πνεῦμα, and σᾶρξ occur a total of only 12 times in Rom. 1-4, but a total of 86 times in Rom. 6-8. The transition thus occurs in Rom. 5, and as Boer argues, vv. 12-21 are the central turning-point in the book[14]. In these verses, Paul’s argument turns from justification by faith to life in the Spirit, and he grounds this movement in the relation between Adam and Christ. With this context in place, we turn now to the arguments for and against universalism in Rom. 5:12-21.


12. Martinus C. de Boer, The Defeat of Death: Apocalyptic Eschatology in 1 Corinthians and Romans 5 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988), 147.

13. Ibid., 148.

14. Whether one places Rom. 5 with Rom. 1-4 or 6-8 largely determines how one interprets the place of the Adam-Christ dialectic in the larger picture of Paul’s argument. De Boer notes that Schweitzer and Ridderbos place it with Rom. 1-4, while Bultmann, Käsemann, Nygren, Cranfield place it with Rom. 6-8. Others place Rom. 5:1-11 with the preceding chapters and vv. 12-21 with what follows, including Melanchthon and Leenhardt. De Boer himself views Rom. 5 as a “discrete literary unit,” but views vv. 1-11 as more closely connected with Rom. 1-4, while vv. 12-21 are equally connected to the chapters before and after it.; cf. de Boer, 147-49.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Resquiescat in Pacem: Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

Ingmar Bergman, the greatest living filmmaker—and my personal pick for the greatest filmmaker of all time—passed away in his sleep at his home in Fårö, Sweden at the age of 89. He is the director of such influential and highly acclaimed works as The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), Fanny and Alexander (1982), and Scenes from a Marriage (1973). His last film was 2005’s Saraband, a follow-up to Scenes from a Marriage.

Bergman was a consummate artist. He is known as the “poet with a camera” for the way his films penetrated the depths of human existence through carefully crafted gems of artistic beauty. His films were stark in their exploration of human death, sexual tension, the existence of God, human evil, and family disorder. Some of his images are iconic, such as the scene of Jöns playing chess with Death.

Many of his films are existential in nature—i.e., they probe the depths of human existence. Like Andrei Tarkovsky, Bergman is less interested in conventional storytelling and more concerned instead with crafting visual poems that delve into the human psyche. More so than almost any other director, Bergman used film as a vehicle for exploring the abyss and the peaks of human experience. The most poignant example of Bergman’s existentialist aesthetic is his 1966 masterpiece, Persona. In this film, a nurse is put in charge of a psychologically unstable actress, but in the course of their interaction, the two personae become harder and harder to distinguish. This film is one of Bergman’s most experimental and avant garde, and it is considered a hallmark of cinematic surrealism.

Bergman’s existentialism makes him one of the most important filmmakers for theologians. Bergman himself grew up in a strict Lutheran household, but he later claimed to have lost his faith at the age of eight. Not surprisingly, nearly all of his films grapple with important issues of belief and unbelief. The Seventh Seal openly discusses the existence (or non-existence) of God in relation to the problem of evil raised by the reality of the bubonic plague. Fanny and Alexander, the most autobiographical of Bergman’s films, presents an unforgiving look at the clergy through the character of Bishop Edvard Vergerus, and young Alexander has a Wizard of Oz moment in which a teasing adult pretending to be God suddenly reveals that he was playing the whole time. (This scene is probably Bergman’s interpretation of his own loss of faith at the age of eight.)

For what it’s worth, Fanny and Alexander is my personal favorite of Bergman’s films. The film is a profound exploration of the power of the art, a beautiful portrait of a family, and a simple testament to the depth of Bergman’s own artistic vision. At the start of the movie, Oscar Ekdahl gives a speech to the theater troupe with which he has worked all his life. He says:
My dear friends, for 22 years, in the capacity of theater manager, I've stood here and made a speech without really having any talent for that sort of thing. Especially if you think of my father who was brilliant at speeches. My only talent, if you can call it that in my case, is that I love this little world inside the thick walls of this playhouse, and I'm fond of the people who work in this little world. Outside is the big world, and sometimes the little world succeeds in reflecting the big one so that we understand it better. Or perhaps, we give the people who come here a chance to forget for a while, for a few short moments, the harsh world outside. Our theater is a little room of orderliness, routine, care and love.
The theme of the “little world” of art and the “big world” outside is recapitulated at the close of the film in an even more profound speech by Gustav Adolf Ekdahl. Without discussing the significance of this theme itself, I wish to suggest that this speech illuminates precisely what I think Bergman’s legacy should be: that in his “little world” of cinema, Bergman succeeded “in reflecting the big one so that we understand it better.”

The Spirit of the Lord, §10.5: Forensicism

Fifth, the vision of the New Jerusalem is forensic. The eschatological vision of the New Jerusalem is not only one of peace and wisdom, but also one of justice. The word of the Lord not only teaches; it also judges and arbitrates. As I have already indicated, the basis for true justice is the judgment of God, and the prophecy in Micah makes this point particularly evident. Nations on their own are incapable of beating their swords into plowshares; they require the sovereign will of God to realize this otherwise impossible reality. God alone determines the world to be a place of peace and justice for all people, and this divine determination does not override human freedom but rather establishes it. As a result of God’s gracious will for all nations, “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” The word of grace comes down from the mountain of Zion to all people in order to actualize the reality which each nation desires but cannot realize on its own. The nations of the world are thus wholly dependent upon the justifying judgment of God for their being-in-communion with Creator and creation.

The forensic framework of Micah’s vision testifies to the centrality of the law. Word and law are correlative concepts: the word of the Lord is a covenantal word of law, and the law given by God is a law which encounters humanity in the event of the word. From one perspective, the law is the internal basis for the word, while the word is the external basis for the law. Correspondingly, the covenant is the internal basis for creation, while creation is the external basis for the covenant. The law confirms the gracious will of God toward humanity, establishes the covenantal relation between God and humanity, and will one day be written on the hearts of all people (Jer. 31:33); the word of the Lord, in turn, declares, teaches, and actualizes the law of the covenant, but in the eschatological kingdom such words of instruction will no longer be necessary “for they shall all know me” (Jer. 31:34).

From another perspective, however, the word is the internal basis for the law, while the law is the external basis for the word. The word of the Lord calls creation into existence (Gen. 1:3, Jn. 1:3, Heb. 1:2); comes to Abraham as confirmation of the covenant prior to the giving of circumcision (Gen. 15:1); goes out from the mouth of the Lord and “shall not return to me empty” because it accomplishes the divine purpose (Isa. 55:11); was “secret and hidden” though declared by God “before the ages for our glory” (1 Cor. 2:7); was made known by God in the giving of the divine name as the basis for God’s faithfulness to the covenant (Exod. 3:14-15); was definitively revealed in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, as eternal life in fellowship with God for all people (Jn. 1:1, 1 Jn. 1:2-3); and finally will never pass away though heaven and earth may pass away (Matt. 24:35, Mk. 13:31, Lk. 21:33). The law, therefore, is the concrete form that the word of God took in relation to the covenant people of God. The law is not the basis for this covenantal relation but rather originates in the primal divine word that calls the cosmos and the covenant into existence.

In the end, the word of the Lord is the internal basis of the law because Jesus Christ and he alone is the Word of the Lord, and as the eternal Logos of God he is the Lord of the law, the fulfillment of the law (Matt. 5:17), and the telos of the law (Rom. 8:1-4). Jesus teaches the law as one who has authority over the law (Matt. 7:29); moreover, “all authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to him as the Lord of all life (Matt. 28:18), as the one who commissions disciples to be his messengers to the ends of the earth. The incarnate Word of God is the one who “sustains all things by his powerful word,” including the law and the covenant, along with all creation (Heb. 1:1-3). As a result, the law depends upon the word, not the word upon the law: “In the beginning was the Word.” Most importantly, Jesus Christ as the incarnate Verbum Domini is the internal basis for the law because the law points to him rather than the other way around. The law is a proleptic manifestation of the eschatological reconciliation which Jesus Christ actualized in his life, death, and resurrection as the incarnate Word. The law is “only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities” that Christ brought into existence (Heb. 10:1), because only Jesus Christ “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins,” and by this sacrifice “he has perfected for all time those who were sanctified” (Heb. 10:12, 14). Christ’s sacrifice is not an external addition to the law, but is rather the internal basis for the law. Jesus Christ’s person and work is both the eternal foundation and eschatological realization of the “covenant of peace” (Isa. 54:10) which the law anticipated but could not actualize: “for what the law was powerless to do” God the Father accomplished by sending the Son on the divine mission of reconciliation “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us” (Rom. 8:3-4). Because he alone “made purification for sins” as the “mediator of a better covenant” (Heb. 1:3, 8:6), Jesus Christ fulfilled what the covenantal law could only await in hopeful anticipation—viz. the reconciliation of the world (2 Cor. 5:19), the justification of the ungodly (Rom. 5:6-8), the defeat of sin and death (1 Cor. 15:24-26), and the establishment of the kingdom of God in which “God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

The judgment of God is a life-bestowing judgment. According to the prophets, the judgment that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord is one that rectifies the systemic disorder and oppression perpetuated by the power-structures of sin and death (Isa. 62; Jer. 23:1-7). Because of God’s rectifying judgment, the poor are welcomed to the banquet table, the foreigners are brought home, the defenseless are given safe shelter, and the widows and orphans are adopted into a new family. The judgment of God destroys the old world of static actualities and establishes a new world of endless possibilities. Against the hegemonic reign of sin and death, God calls into being the reign of love through the liberating agency of Word and Spirit. As the objective and subjective dimensions of divine judgment, respectively, Word and Spirit inaugurate the irruption of the New Jerusalem into the existing nexus of antiquated relations, thereby identifying the old world as definitively and eternally old and establishing the new world as definitively and eternally new. Instead of social and economic inequities, divine judgment establishes universal equality before the throne of grace; instead of violent factions, divine judgment brings peace to the world; instead of a humanity artificially divided by borders, cultures, and creeds, divine judgment unites all around the mountain of the Lord; and instead of the cyclical hopelessness of human history, divine judgment initiates the only truly new event: the event of the messiah, the event of Jesus Christ—the incarnate Word of God, the life-giving judgment of God made flesh.

This is the promise of divine judgment: where God speaks through Word and Spirit, life flourishes anew and peace reigns among the peoples of the earth. According to Isaiah, when the Spirit of the Lord is “poured out on us,” the barren desert becomes a fecund forest and the city that once oppressed the needy becomes a pasture for the grazing of God’s flock (Isa. 32:14-15). The Spirit of the Lord is thus the Spirit of divine rectification, the Spirit who comes bearing the life-giving judgment of the Lord. The Spirit is the Spirit of the Word. The Spirit of the Lord is the Spirit of God’s Yes—or rather the Spirit of God’s No to sin and death in service of God’s Yes to righteousness and life. Where the Spirit of the Lord blows, the stump becomes the branch (Isa. 6:13, 11:1), the wilderness becomes a fruitful field (Isa. 32:15), and the heap becomes the city of Zion (Isa. 44:26). The Spirit concretizes the creative judgment of God; the Spirit manifests the new world here and now by actualizing, in the eternal moment of divine revelation, an existential encounter with the eschatological Word. In other words, the Spirit of the Lord concretizes the New Jerusalem, subjectivizes the objective res of the verbum Domini, and existentially realizes in the moment of revelation the divine rectification accomplished in the messianic mission of the triune God.

We must remember that the actualizing work of the Spirit is not a second work in distinction from the work of the Word. The divine agents of Word and Spirit together constitute one work—viz. the missio Dei. The entire witness of the New Testament makes it clear that there are not two missions but only one: the mission of reconciling the world to God, the mission of new creation (2 Cor. 5:17-19). The Spirit is sent by the Father as the Spirit of Christ, as “the Spirit of the Son of God” (Gal. 4:6). The Spirit is not sent on a second mission by the Father, nor is the Spirit necessary in order to complete what the Son began. On the contrary, there is one mission of reconciliation and adoption, and the Spirit is the Spirit of the living Jesus Christ who already accomplished that mission in his faithful obedience to the point of death on a cross. Consequently, the Spirit does not complete or augment the salvific faith of Christ; rather the Spirit subjectively confirms what was objectively fulfilled by Christ’s faith. The Spirit, we might say, is the existential realization of Christ’s historical actualization of adoption. The Spirit confirms the work of Christ by moving within the hearts of those who received adoption, awakening them to the reality of the redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ. By crying, “Abba! Father!” the Spirit existentially awakens the adoptee to her identity as the child and heir of God (4:7). As Paul clarifies in Rom. 8:15b-16, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” The Abba-cry of the Spirit subjectively confirms or bears witness that we have indeed been objectively adopted as children of God through Jesus Christ.

The fructifying Spirit of Christ is the awakening and empowering agent of the community’s existence-in-faith. The missional Spirit of God existentializes and concretizes the objective reality of Jesus Christ’s mission of redemption and adoption. The Spirit calls the community’s faith into existence by actualizing the existential encounter with the Word that reconciles, adopts, and perfects humanity. According to Barth, faith “consists in the subjectivization of an objective res,” in which this objective other—viz. Jesus Christ—remains “independent of and superior to” the human subject of this faith (CD IV/1, 742). Concordantly, “faith does not realize anything new,” since faith does not realize a new object, nor does not it even realize a new relation to that object; faith is simply “following its object,” an object which, as divine subject, has already established the irrevocable ontological relation to the human subject in the covenant of grace. The Spirit, therefore, existentializes the ontological reality of the new creation through the Spirit’s fructifying presence in the community. Our new existence-in-faith is one in which “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20), yet at the same time we “live by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). Thus, the objective reality of Jesus Christ is our new life, but it is a life made possible through the empowerment of the Spirit as the one who existentializes and concretizes the history of Jesus Christ.

As the rectifying event of Word and Spirit, the eschatological reign of God destroys the bonds of oppression and establishes a covenantal community of righteousness. In such a community, true freedom is found in obedience to the verbum Domini, true peace is found in the just arbitration of the Lord, and true justice is found in the righteous judgments of God. Justice is not determined by an abstract theoretical ethic but is rather concretely embodied in the Suffering Servant who “will bring forth justice to the nations” because the Spirit of the Lord is “upon him” (Isa. 42:1). The messianic servant “will faithfully bring forth justice” and “will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth” (Isa. 42:3-4). In him, the justice-establishing judgment of the Lord is incarnate; in him, the universal reign of God is actualized. He is “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (Isa. 42:6), and in him the covenantal community becomes a witness to the light and a concrete embodiment of God’s covenant of grace. In him, God has delivered the justifying judgment upon the people of the world which alone realizes the eschatological hope of true righteousness and peace: “Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever. My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places” (Isa. 32:16-18). The hope of justice, righteousness, and peace rests wholly upon the Promised One, the messiah, the servant who comes to suffer on behalf of others and establish God’s eternal reign. He comes “to open the eyes that are blind” and “to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon”; he comes to liberate and redeem, to reconcile and restore. In the righteous reign of God that the messiah brings forth into the world, all things are made new (cf. Rev. 21:5). Instead of despair, God’s reign brings comfort; instead of hunger, “a feast of rich food” (Isa. 25:6); instead of tears, the joy of the Lord (Isa. 25:8); instead of barrenness, children beyond number (Isa. 54:1-5); instead of namelessness, a new name (Isa. 62:2); instead of forsakenness and desolation, delight and fertility (Isa. 62:4); instead of the shroud of death, a song of new life (Isa. 25:7); instead of silence, the judgment of the Lord (Isa. 65:6); instead of darkness, “salvation like a burning torch” (Isa. 62:1).

The confession of the covenantal community is that this divine judgment has indeed taken place in Jesus of Nazareth, the promised Suffering Servant who is the incarnation of God’s eternal will to reconcile and redeem creation. In him, the rectifying declaration of God was delivered once and for all; in him, the Spirit of the Lord was manifest as the Spirit of God’s eternal, electing Yes to all people. The inauguration of God’s righteous reign is now a complete but not yet consummate reality; it is established but not yet revealed to all. Christ is the one who comes bearing the judgment of life, for the Father “granted the Son also to have life in himself” as well as the “authority to execute judgment” (Jn. 5:26-27). As a result, “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (Jn. 5:25). Christ thus comes as the divine Judge whose judgments raise the dead to new life by the power of the Spirit. According to the prophets, he is the one on whom the Spirit rests in fullness of power, whose voice calms the waves and heals the sick, and whose coming establishes God’s reign. He is the one who turns the wilderness into the forest and brings the branch out of the stump. In fact, according to the prophet Isaiah, he is the branch: he is the subversive seed that grows new vines of righteousness in the midst of the oppressive briars of sin and death; he is the promised seed who comes as the tree of life within the desolate land east of Eden to rectify a world spiraling into the abyss. He is the Promised One, the Coming One, the Judge of the world who is judged in our place, and the Word of the Lord who speaks God’s justifying Yes in accordance with the Spirit of life.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. (Isa. 11:1-6)
Jesus Christ came to “judge the peoples” (Isa. 3:13) in order to establish equity (“for the meek of the earth”), peace (“wolf shall live with the lamb”), and covenant faithfulness between God and the people of the earth. Christ is the incarnation of God’s faithfulness to the covenant, and consequently God calls the community of the covenant to respond with similar faithfulness by living in correspondence to the equity, peace, and justice realized in the mission of the messiah. The justifying missio Dei liberates humanity for the responsibility of living in correspondence to the divine mission of reconciliation. The result of the missio Dei is that the covenant is now written upon our hearts (Jer. 31:31-34); we are now equipped by the power of the Spirit to live in faithful obedience to the covenant of grace. In the absence of such faithfulness, however, the prophets unequivocally declare that the Lord encounters us with a definitive No: “The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of the people” who have taken advantage of the poor and amassed their wealth by exploiting the needy (Isa. 3:14). God denounces those “join house to house” and “field to field,” taking land for themselves “until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land” (Isa. 5:8). These people live isolated in their “large and beautiful houses,” but these homes will soon “be desolate” (Isa. 5:9), for death is the natural consequence of living in opposition to one’s neighbors: “for the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).

God’s No, however, is not the end: “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” According to the prophet, “The LORD of hosts is exalted by justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness” (Isa. 5:16). In the face of a human race marked by injustice and unrighteousness, God takes up the cause of justice and righteousness in humanity’s stead. In the midst of a world defined by death, God submits to death in Jesus Christ in order that we might receive the gift of eternal life—a life that concerns our very being here and now. Despite the fact that we continue to merit the divine No in the way we say No to each other, God chooses instead to say Yes by submitting to our human No of suffering, oppression, and death in order to conquer the No from within. God negates the negation of sin and paradoxically establishes the positive reality of resurrection. God thus exalts Godself by accomplishing the work of divine justice; God shows Godself to be holy by reigning victorious in righteousness over all human unrighteousness. As Luther understood, God is righteous in that God makes others righteous. God’s holiness and righteousness are creative: they seek out ungodliness and unrighteousness in order to make the ungodly holy and the unrighteous righteous. God is just in establishing true justice. God accomplished this work objectively in the event of the cross and subjectively in the awakening power of the Spirit. This is the essence of the missio Dei: to create by Word and Spirit a community of righteousness that will live in accordance with the eternal life given in Christ Jesus; to create a community that says Yes and Amen to God’s Yes and Amen to us in Jesus Christ; to create a community that loves the neighbor in correspondence to Christ’s love of humanity: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. . . . Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” (1 Jn. 3:16, 4:11).

We thus find the repeated prophetic declaration that God does not desire cultic obedience but rather love for others. The “fast” which the Lord chooses is in fact “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke” (Isa. 58:6). The prophet continues to describe the proper form of worship as feeding the hungry, offering hospitality to the homeless poor, clothing the naked, and (perhaps most difficult of all) caring for one’s own relatives (Isa. 58:7). When the community’s worship takes the form of social justice, then God promises the glorious presence of the Lord (vv. 8-9), the guidance of the Spirit (v. 11), a rootedness in tradition (v. 14), and an endless delight in the ways of God (v. 14). The community of love and justice is the community where God dwells. God’s Spirit is not bound to us because we preach from the Bible or because we happen to be structurally related to past Christian communities. We must continually be conformed to Christ (conformitas Christi) by the Spirit; we must allow the God of peace and justice to shape us into a community of peace and justice. Only then will we live in correspondence to our actual identity in Jesus Christ. If we preach the right words but fail to embody love of the neighbor, we remain a community in contradiction; instead of being a community of God’s Yes, we become a community of God’s No. As a result, the word of the Lord to us today and always is this: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (Zech. 7:9-10).

Other passages could also serve as the word of the Lord to the church regarding the law of God and the justice which God demands of the church. According to God’s word to Israel: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD (Lev. 19:18). According to James: You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Jas. 2:8). According to John: 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. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us (1 Jn. 4:7-12). According to Paul: Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom. 13:8-10). According to Paul again: For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:13-14). Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). And according to our Lord: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:43-45). He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40; cf. Mk. 12:28-34; Lk. 10:25-28). In all of these passages the law is defined by love of God and love of neighbor, which are not two different loves but rather one and the same love, for the love of God must also be love of neighbor and love of neighbor is dependent upon the love of God. The connection between love and the law is brought out perfectly by Paul’s important phrase, “the law of Christ.” Paul does not reject the law altogether but instead recasts it in christological terms. Christ determines the law, for he came as its foundation and fulfillment.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Nicomachus discovers email

In “Aristotle’s Email—Or, Friendship in the Cyber Age,” Tim Madigan wonders how Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics might have been different had he lived in the Internet Age:
In Book VIII of his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle categorizes three different types of friendship: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure, and friendships of the good. Friendships of utility are those where people are on cordial terms primarily because each person benefits from the other in some way. Business partnerships, relationships among co-workers, and classmate connections are examples. Friendships of pleasure are those where individuals seek out each other’s company because of the joy it brings. Passionate love affairs, people associating with each other due to belonging to the same hobby organization, and fishing buddies fall into this category. Most important of all are friendships of the good. These are friendships based upon mutual respect, admiration for each other’s virtues, and a strong desire to aid and assist the other person because one recognizes their essential goodness. ...

Email has added a new wrinkle to Aristotle’s threefold schemata. Thanks to it, and the wonders of the internet in general, it is now easier than ever to stay in touch with people from throughout one’s life. Old acquaintances, long forgotten, can be found relatively easily through Google searches and services such as classmates.com, where you can often track down old school chums you haven’t spoken to in many a moon, for a fee.


After dealing with unruly anonymous comments for the past couple years, I have finally decided to limit comments only to registered users of Blogger. My apologies to those people who use the anonymous comments feature responsibly and are inconvenienced by this change.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

In God we trust: Psalm 56

As I was reading this morning’s lectionary passages, I came across Psalm 56. Almost right away I noticed that Psa. 56 contains the refrain “in God I trust” twice (italicized below). I could not find any suggestion online that Psa. 56 was influential in the wording of America’s national motto (in the KJV, it reads “in God I have put my trust”), but the psalm still provides an interesting resource for how we should understand this phrase. Here is the psalm in full:
Psalm 56:1-13

Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me;
all day long foes oppress me;
my enemies trample on me all day long,
for many fight against me.
O Most High, when I am afraid,
I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I am not afraid;
what can flesh do to me?

All day long they seek to injure my cause;
all their thoughts are against me for evil.
They stir up strife, they lurk,
they watch my steps.
As they hoped to have my life,
so repay them for their crime;
in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!

You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your record?
Then my enemies will retreat
on the day when I call.
This I know, that God is for me.
In God, whose word I praise,
in the LORD, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I am not afraid.
What can a mere mortal do to me?

My vows to you I must perform, O God;
I will render thank-offerings to you.
For you have delivered my soul from death,
and my feet from falling,
so that I may walk before God
in the light of life.
On the one hand, the psalm’s prayer for divine wrath seems to legitimate the kind of violent and retributive justice we see in the world around us. But on the other hand, the psalm makes it very clear that vengeance belongs to God alone, not to us. Today people use the phrase “in God we trust” as a way of trusting (or asking) that God will give us the victory. But in the psalm it is clear that this statement means trusting that the victory belongs to God. We are in God’s hands, and that may mean God rejecting what we want if it is contrary to God’s will.

I find it helpful to read this psalm in the light of Rom. 12:17-21:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
To confess “in God I (we) trust” is to say No to personal vengeance and Yes to living peacefully with others, No to being overcome by evil and Yes to overcoming evil with good, No to the way of violence and Yes to the way of peace.

Paul among the Evangelicals, §1: The Problem

1. The Problem: Rom. 5:12-21

Few passages have exercised such a profound influence on the shape of Christian theology as Rom. 5:12-21. Moreover, as William Barclay notes, “no passage is more difficult for a modern mind to understand”[1]—though, of course, not only modern minds. The famous so-called Adam-Christ typology in these verses has vexed interpreters for centuries, particularly the universal dimension of “πάντας ἀνθρώπους” (Rom 5:12). In his treatise, “On Marriage and Concupiscence,” Augustine states that Paul does not mean “that Christ removes to life all those who die in Adam.” He then offers this interpretation:
[Paul] said “all” and “all,” because, as without Adam no one goes to death, so without Christ no man to life. Just as we say of a teacher of letters, when he is alone in a town: This man teaches all their learning; not because all the inhabitants take lessons, but because no man who learns at all is taught by any but him.[2]
Calvin, for his part, offers the standard Protestant interpretation in his commentary:
[T]he benefit of Christ does not come to all men, while Adam has involved his whole race in condemnation; and the reason of this is indeed evident; for as the curse we derive from Adam is conveyed to us by nature, it is no wonder that it includes the whole mass; but that we may come to a participation of the grace of Christ, we must be ingrafted in him by faith.[3]
Augustine and Calvin reflect the general consensus of the Christian tradition, which has insisted that passages such as Rom. 5:12-21 and 1 Cor. 15:21-22 are not to be interpreted as favoring a universal salvation.

Recently, the issue has become more acute among English-speaking Protestant evangelicals, who have been unimpressed with the options historically available to them: (1) a so-called Arminianism which locates salvation anthropologically in the free decision for Christ, and (2) a so-called Augustinianism-Calvinism which locates salvation in the decretum absolutum of double predestination. Two notable examples of this ongoing conversation include Universal Salvation? The Current Debate,[4] which takes its cue from the work of philosopher Thomas Talbott, especially his book, The Inescapable Love of God,[5] and The Evangelical Universalist,[6] a recent pseudonymous publication that seeks to offer a biblically grounded position on universal salvation. In these works, as well as in other articles, Rom. 5:12-21 is a central passage. While patristic theologians like Origen[7] and Gregory of Nyssa[8] and modern theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar[9] are frequently mentioned, Karl Barth is often at the center of these discussions both as a theologian and as an exegete. Barth is often accused of (or praised for) being a universalist, generally with reference to his later theology post-Church Dogmatics II/2.[10] Few, however, consider Barth’s exegetical insights into Rom. 5. By first examining the arguments for and against a universalist interpretation of Rom. 5:12-21, I argue that while Barth’s interpretation of Romans does justice to the central concerns of each side in his formulation of a dialectical anthropology in the “shadow” of a “consistent eschatology,”[11] there are certain aspects to the Pauline text itself which Barth does not touch upon that are important in the debate over universalism.


1. William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 78.

2. Augustine, “On Marriage and Concupiscence,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1.5 (New York: Christian Literature Publishing, 1886), Book II.46, 302.

3. Commentary on Rom. 5:17.

4. Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge, eds., Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

5. Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (Parkland: Universal Publishers, 1999).

6. Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006).

7. See Origen, On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth (London: SPCK, 1936).

8. See Gregory of Nyssa, The Catechetical Oration of Gregory of Nyssa (Early Church Classics), trans. J. H. Srawley (London: SPCK, 1917); On the Soul and the Resurrection (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2.5), trans. W. Moore (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988). See also M. Ludlow, Universal Salvation: Eschatology in the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa and Karl Rahner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

9. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope ‘That all Men be Saved?’ with A Short Discourse on Hell (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988).

10. Oliver Crisp, in particular, has presented a cogent argument for why Barth’s theological positions in the Church Dogmatics necessitates universalism. Of course, on purely logical grounds, Crisp is entirely right. But of course Barth’s concern for divine sovereignty and his rejection of human logic as the highest value in theology prevents him from drawing the conclusion of universalism. See Oliver D. Crisp, “On Barth’s Denial of Universalism,” Themelios 29:1 (2003), 18-29.

11. See Bruce L. McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909-1936 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 207-40.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Pax Americana as the new Pax Romana

Cullen Murphy has a new book out titled, Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. The journal Reason has an article about it by David Weigel. Weigel agrees with Murphy’s assessment that America is the new Rome, but he criticizes Murphy for doing what Al Gore does with global warming: “working from pessimism and drawing a straight black line from the present into the infinite, ominous future.” Whether or not Murphy and Gore are justified in being pessimistic (as I think they are), the article is still worth reading. Weigel summarizes some of Murphy’s biggest fears:
He sees three bleak possible future for Pax Americana. In one, the borders are locked off and the security state peeks into every bedroom. In another, America's megalopolises break off into city-states: Cosimo di Medici, meet Michael Bloomberg. In his grimmest scenario the breakdown of controlling authority and the sense of "in-this-togetherness" that government provides leads to "the rise of corporate feudalism on a global scale."
[Reason Online]

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Living Out Scripture Meme

The new “Living Out Scripture Meme”—or simply “Bible verse meme” as Chris Tilling calls it—is spreading. Andy Goodliff got the meme started with a quote from David Ford, but he didn’t offer his own verse. While I have not been tagged (as far as I know), I will break the rules and post my own contribution to the meme anyway. Jason Goroncy and Sean Winters both already picked my favorite passage from Scripture (2 Cor. 5:11-21), so I will pick a different passage instead.

My own choice for this meme will be Rom. 5:1-11. The whole chapter is wonderful, but this section in particular is very important to me. With Eberhard Jüngel, I view the justification of the ungodly as the center of the Christian gospel. Here is the passage:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

“As Barth” Winner: Ann Chapin!

The “As Barth” contest is over and the winner is ... Ann Chapin, for her poem, “Barth & Rumi Advise the Theologian.” Many thanks to everyone who participated in this fun experiment. The poems were all very creative and thoughtful; some were also quite profound. In case you missed the contest, click here to read all of the entries.

And now, here is Ann Chapin’s winning poem in full:

Barth & Rumi Advise the Theologian

“We and our existences are really non-existence;
thou art the absolute Being which manifests the perishable.”

You can’t find Him in there, go ahead, look hard,

with all the commentaries you may buy - or write yourself.

His domain we cannot discover,

and this shore has no port.

Does one arrive only by shipwreck?

“Come and dwell with me and be my Beloved,” is His call.

His love gives birth to hurricanes,

takes everything,

and gives more than all things back in Him alone.

(You have caused this shipwreck.

My secret stores of comfort,

hidden rafts of self-reliance,

hidden even from myself,

you have utterly destroyed, dashed against

the rocky shore of your desire for me.)

“But when the eye is turned toward the Light of God
What thing could remain hidden under such a Light?”

Paying Attention to America: A Second Response to John Wilson

John Wilson of Books & Culture has written a third column touching on the issue of the “partisan captivity of the gospel” in response to the book by Charles Marsh. (I would, of course, like to hear him respond to my previous comments, but I’m not holding my breath.) In this latest column, Wilson quotes 2 Tim. 2:14 and challenges his interlocutors to “avoid stupid arguments.” In other words, one should make a solid case and present valid evidence, rather than simply repeat catchy axioms or speak from personal experience. What’s interesting about Wilson’s statement is that this is precisely the criticism I put forward against him in response to his first column about Marsh’s book. Certainly, if he thinks I am putting forward “stupid arguments,” I would like to know so that I can respond intelligently. Unless he makes his criticism clear to me, I will assume he refers to people other than myself.

Wilson then writes:
What are we in fact talking about? From my point of view—open to correction—that seems to have become rather blurred as the conversation has proceeded. Charles Marsh contends that the "partisan captivity of the gospel in the United States is the gravest theological crisis of the Christian faith in our time." That's a sweeping judgment, accompanied by similarly sweeping pronouncements in the course of Marsh's book. Is this central contention true? How should such a claim be assessed? What sort of evidence counts? (For instance, would it be relevant to look back at the cover stories from the last 12 issues of Christianity Today magazine? Would that be one small chunk of useful evidence?)
A charitable reading of this statement would be that Wilson wants to keep our conversation grounded in Marsh’s particular claims about the “captivity of the gospel.” (Of course, the conversation was never about Marsh’s own arguments; it was about Wilson’s rejection of Marsh’s arguments.) An uncharitable reading would be that Wilson is avoiding all the counter-arguments with which he disagrees by either calling them “stupid” or asserting that they are “blurring” the conversation (i.e., they are irrelevant). While it seems probable that the uncharitable reading is more accurate, I will give Wilson the benefit of the doubt and assume the charitable interpretation.

We are thus back at square one. After three columns, I had expected to get further along than this. Unfortunately, I am stuck answering the same questions raised the first time: Is there really a “partisan captivity of the gospel” in America? Is the problem as wide-spread as Marsh suggests? The only advance that I can see is that Wilson is no longer using his own personal experience as the trump card. He at least recognizes that the different sides in the debate need to put forward evidence and sound arguments. As Wilson notes, the obvious question arises: What counts as a solid argument or convincing evidence? Wilson suggests looking at the covers of Christianity Today. That’s certainly an interesting suggestion. But why not look at the covers of World or Focus on the Family. Somehow I get the feeling these might offer a more accurate (or at least complete) picture of contemporary evangelical politics.

My own evidence is quite simple: the widespread support for war (and the Iraq war in particular) and the death penalty among pro-life evangelicals. Why are so many evangelicals pro-life on some issues but not pro-life on others? What could possibly explain this obvious hypocrisy? I suggest that Marsh offers the correct diagnosis: there is a partisan captivity of the gospel among American evangelicals. In my recent critique of nationalism in American evangelicalism, I said that the problem with evangelicalism today is not a disregard for politics but rather a political engagement strictly along party lines. Evangelicals rightly think that the Christian faith has important ethical implications and thus calls people to social and political action. But many evangelicals have blindly superimposed the American two-party system onto Scripture, or, conversely, tried to squeeze the gospel into a Republican mold. Either way, far too many evangelicals arbitrarily abide by certain passages from Scripture while rejecting others—once again, along party lines.

To be clear, I think evangelicals who side with the Democratic party as the best articulation of the gospel are also in the wrong. The gospel does not conform to any political party—much less an American political party. I am thus skeptical of Jim Wallis and Randall Balmer, just as I am skeptical of any Christian who calls a particular party “my party.” I realize some will say that picking a party is like going to war: it is a necessary evil in our present situation. But I reject this line of argumentation (about both picking parties and going to war). The Christian life is a life of discipleship, in which we are called to bear our cross, to lay down our lives for our neighbors, and to love our enemies. We are not called to devise political schemes for the success of a particular ideology. The fight against abortion, for example, is not so important that we must be willing to wed the gospel with a particular party. In other words, to put it in starker terms, the fight against abortion is not so important that we must be willing to commit idolatry. If discipleship means anything, it means standing up for what is right (contra war, environmental destruction, economic and educational inequity, etc.), even if it means giving up political influence and the attention of a powerful president.

I generally side with people like Tony Campolo who advocate for a “seamless garment” pro-life position. American evangelicals, for the most part, advocate for life on only a few select issues—issues that are determined along party lines. As a result, the evangelical pro-life movement is all too often arbitrary and hypocritical, despite the recent commendable support of environmentalism as a pro-life issue. Do evangelicals go off to war on the basis of their Christian faith—a faith rooted in Scripture and a theologically robust understanding of the gospel? Or do they go off to war on the basis of a loyalty to their country? Are evangelicals Americans or Christians first? And does this change depending on whether they are in church on Sunday morning or at work or in school or celebrating the Fourth of July or listening to the president speak or at a Marine recruitment office or in Iraq? Is our identity shaped by Jesus Christ, our Lord and King (or President, to use modern lingo) or by the American president? Is our political perspective shaped by the gospel or by the two-party system?

As long as evangelicals continue to be selectively and arbitrarily pro-life, Marsh is quite correct to say that there is a “partisan captivity of the gospel.” Of course, Wilson is also quite correct to point that (as he did in a personal email) that the world of American evangelicalism is much more complex than one might conclude from reading Marsh’s book. But this is an empty argument, because it can be used against anyone. Are not all books oversimplifications of reality? Is there any book that actually captures the full complexity of human existence, much less American evangelical existence? I tend to think the argument used by Wilson has a dark side to it. Often people who denounce a book for oversimplifying matters are simply upset that the author has created a picture which one does not like or with which one does not agree. Would Wilson feel the same about a book which targeted the “liberal captivity of the gospel” in America? Don’t Hannity and Limbaugh and O’Reilly—not to mention Dobson, Robertson, and the late Falwell—oversimplify matters just as much if not much more so than Balmer and Marsh? The “oversimplification” argument is often useful, but it can also be quite sinister. It can disguise one’s own ideology while exposing another’s. And as I said in my previous post on this topic, I am firmly convinced that evangelical partisanship is the symptom and not the actual disease. I would very much like to hear Wilson’s response to that point.

At the end of his last column, Wilson asks: “To answer the questions raised by Marsh's book, we have to pay attention to the America we actually inhabit.” I wholeheartedly agree. And I think this is precisely what I have been doing. I am open to hearing how I can better pay attention to America. Even though I have been critical of Wilson in this post, I remain dedicated to carrying on the conversation. In his second column, Wilson asked: “Can we talk?” I believe that we can. But I have to hear any constructive feedback from those who take Wilson’s side. Perhaps the partisanship is not as pervasive as some might suggest. But surely that is no argument against the existence—even wide-spread existence—of such evangelical partisanship, or of its underlying causes. In the end, I agree with Wilson: no more stupid arguments.

Final day of voting

The “As Barth” contest ends today at 5 pm EST. Be sure to vote if you have not already. I will announce the winner at the close of the contest.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Gospel according to the Arcade Fire

I would like to someday write a book with this title. Ever since I first heard the Arcade Fire in 2004, I knew that they deserved a careful and intelligent engagement. After two albums and two live shows, my love for this band has never wavered but has only expanded and matured. And while I do not have the time or energy at this point in my life to write such a book, it gives me great pleasure to say that the new article by David Dark in Books & Culture will suffice nicely (at least for now). Dark’s analysis of the Arcade Fire is penetrating and thoughtful. My only misgiving is that I did not write it myself.

Film Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

The fifth book in the Harry Potter series is the longest, yet the fifth film in the series is the shortest (so far). This means that while the film itself is of a very high quality, the adaptation is the loosest and the most choppy of all the films thus far. As a result, any evaluation of this film is going to be mixed. On one hand, David Yates has put together a very solid movie in terms of the level of production and the quality of cinematography and acting. But at the same time, the movie feels rushed, choppy, and not unlike watching a Cliff-Notes version of the book: hitting all the highlights but without any of the substance.

The film begins with the best opening sequence of any of the films thus far in the series. In the scene, Harry and his cousin Dudley are attacked by dementors in their residential Muggle neighborhood. Yates departs from the book a bit in the way he stages the scene, but with the use of hand-held cameras and dreary lighting he almost creates a better realization of what Rowling intended than the book itself. The opening sequence demonstrates the medium of film at its very best, in which every element works together to convey not only external events but also internal emotions. The camera shot of Harry and Dudley running is superb in the way it places the camera in the position of the dementor without actually showing the dementor at any point in the chase. Yates captures the fear and dread indirectly by showing them running, rather than showing the objects of fear themselves. Unlike a book that tells you what happens, film is able to show you without words. And the more a film shows rather than tells, the higher the level of filmmaking. Yates proves himself a first-rate filmmaker with this scene. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is not so successful, though the filmmaking is still of a high quality throughout.

Virtually all of the problems with this film involve the complexities of translating a book into a movie. Because Yates must chop certain elements of the book out in order to keep the film at a decent length, some plot developments are inserted into the film rather awkwardly. This is most noticeable at the point in the story where Harry and his friends discover the Room of Requirement. In the book, Dobby the house-elf tells them about this room, but Yates has stripped this movie of house-elves entirely (except for Kreacher, at J. K. Rowling’s insistence). As a result, Yates has Neville Longbottom stumble upon the room by accident, which simply doesn’t make sense. In light of the important role played by the Room of Requirement in the final two books, the spontaneous and awkward insertion of it into this fifth film is unfortunate. Not all plot developments stand out like this, but there are some more serious departures from the book that are at least as frustrating.

The film has two major casting successes: Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge and Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood. These two actresses steal the show with their spot-on performances. Staunton is deliciously evil in her role as the prissy, self-centered, and imperious pawn of the Minister of Magic. Lynch is delightful in her role as the strange and aloof friend of Harry. Even though Lynch is a newcomer to film, she holds her own against a master of the stage such as Staunton.

All in all, the fifth entry in this series of seven films is a solid contribution by Yates (who will helm the sixth film as well). While I still believe Alfonso Cuaron’s third film in the series is the best all-around movie, Yates is the next best director for these books. I eagerly look forward to seeing what he will do with the sixth book.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Liturgy for Miscarriages?

On July 17, National Public Radio’s program Fresh Air discussed (listen here) the memoir by Peggy Orenstein entitled, Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night and One Woman's Quest to Become a Mother. Orenstein’s book is, as the title indicates, about the pursuit of motherhood, and in the interview with Terry Gross, she discussed the physical, psychological, and spiritual ordeal of having multiple miscarriages.

Especially interesting was Orenstein’s discussion of a modern Japanese Buddhist ritual for miscarried, aborted, or stillborn children that she experienced while living in Japan. The ritual is called mizuko kuyô: the word mizuko means either “water child” or “unseeing child.” The ritual involves making an offering to Jizo, a bodhisattva, or enlightened being, who watches over young and unborn children. Here is Orenstein herself on the word mizuko from her 2002 NY Times article:
I had never previously considered that there is no word in English for a miscarried or aborted fetus. In Japanese it is mizuko, which is typically translated as “water child.” Historically, Japanese Buddhists believed that existence flowed into a being slowly, like liquid. Children solidified only gradually over time and weren't considered to be fully in our world until they reached the age of 7. Similarly, leaving this world—returning to the primordial waters—was seen as a process that began at 60 with the celebration of a symbolic second birth. According to Paula K.R. Arai, author of “Women Living Zen” and one of several authorities I later turned to for help in understanding the ritual, the mizuko lies somewhere along the continuum, in that liminal space between life and death but belonging to neither. True to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, it was expected (and still is today) that Jizo would eventually help the mizuko find another pathway into being. “You’re trying to send the mizuko off, wishing it well in the life that it will have to come,” Arai says. “Because there's always a sense that it will live at another time.
One should note that this ritual is rather controversial. It is a fairly recent addition to Japanese Buddhism, and it is widely rejected by serious centers for Buddhist thought. In a way, the mizuko kuyô is to Buddhism what the “health-and-wealth gospel” of televangelists is to Christianity: it is popular with the masses, used by less scrupulous Buddhist temples to manipulate people into guilt, and is a massive fund-raising machine. According to Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, the ritual is rejected by a “majority of Buddhist organizations,” which consider it a “modern innovation based on questionable theology” (98).

That said, for Orenstein, this ritual was very healing. Even though she herself is Jewish by faith, this ritual was a concrete and public way of acknowledging the loss she felt but had great difficulty expressing to others. Like many other women, Orenstein found it very hard to process her experience of having miscarriages. She writes:
There’s little acknowledgment in Western culture of miscarriage, no ritual to cleanse the grief. My own religion, Judaism, despite its meticulous attention to the details of daily life, has traditionally been silent on pregnancy loss—on most matters of pregnancy and childbirth, in fact. (At the urging of female rabbis, the Conservative movement in which I grew up has, for the first time, included prayers to mark miscarriage and some abortions in its most recent rabbis’ manual.) Christianity, too, has largely overlooked miscarriage.

Without form, there is no content. So even in this era of compulsive confession, women don't speak publicly of their loss. It is only if your pregnancy is among the unlucky ones that fail that you begin to hear the stories, spoken in confidence, almost whispered. Your aunt. Your grandmother. Your friends. Your colleagues. Women you have known for years—sometimes your whole life—who have had this happen, sometimes over and over and over again. They tell only if you become one of them.
All of this raises for me the question of a liturgy for miscarriage (not to mention a liturgy for aborted children, comparable to a liturgy for divorce). Like Buddhism, Christianity has what Albert Schweitzer called a “respect for life.” And yet our Western culture finds it very difficult to publicly acknowledge, affirm, and process issues of death and sexuality. The church needs to be the place where people do not simply remain statically bound to their cultural surroundings but instead are able to live in a way shaped radically by the gospel. Being a community of peace is one important facet of this, but it also involves learning how to properly be a community of life. Our American fixation on the issue of abortion has gotten out of hand. Thankfully, people have begun to see that being a communio vitae involves a lot more than politics. It means being a community of peace, healing, justice, and love. Along with that, the church needs to be a place where women can openly acknowledge and share their burdens with others. Rom. 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Our society has little time and patience for such selfless acts of love toward our neighbors, but this is precisely what it means for us to be the church.

It seems to me, then, that a Christian liturgy for miscarriages is long overdue. Granted, the book on Buddhist ethics mentioned above says that Christians have sought recently to appropriate the mizuko ritual for Western churches, but I could not find anything on this. If someone knows about it, I would be interested in hearing more about what such a liturgy looks like. At the very least, I would like to encourage pastors and other church leaders to make topics like miscarriage open for integration into the life of the church community. (The same should go for women who have abortions, who especially need the comforting embrace of other people; and Christians should be the first to embrace them. See this thoughtful reflection on how the mizuko ritual might instruct Christian churches on the issue of abortion.) Let us learn not only how to rejoice with those who rejoice, but also how to weep with those who weep. Let us not only rejoice with women who become mothers, but also weep with women who lose their dream of motherhood.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Digital Karl Barth Library

Gradually over the past year, Alexander Street Press has been publishing the complete works of Karl Barth in German in their online Digital Karl Barth Library. Recently they put up the entire text of Die kirchliche Dogmatik, and eventually the English translation will be available (possibly later this fall). In honor of this important event in Barth studies, here is one of my favorite quotes from Barth’s Church Dogmatics on the topic of faith.
Glauben heißt: Folgen, seinem Gegenstand folgen. Glauben heißt: einen schon abgesteckten, schon gebahnten Weg gehen. Der Glaube realisiert nichts Neues, er erfindet nichts, er findet nur eben, was für den glaubenden wie für den nichtglaubenden Menschen schon ist. Er ist nur des Menschen tätige Erschließung dafür, nur seine tätige Entgegennahme, nur seine tätige Anteilnahme daran. Sie macht den Christen aus. Es ist also umgekehrt der Christ, der, indem er glaubt, dem Gegenstand seines Glaubens gerade alles zu verdanken hat: das ganz Unermeßliche, daß er im Verhältnis zu jenem Gegenstand nicht nur da sein, sondern bei seinem Sein tätig dabei sein darf. Das ist sein großer, sein gar nicht hoch genug einzuschätzender Vorsprung vor Anderen: daß dieser Gegenstand nicht nur für ihn da ist, sondern daß er seinerseits für diesen Gegenstand sein darf. Es bleibt nicht bei dessen Beziehung zu ihm. Er selbst tritt seinerseits in eine Beziehung zu ihm. Das unterscheidet den Christen vom Nichtchristen. Der Gegenstand, der als solcher einem Kreis zu vergleichen ist, der alle Menschen und einen Jeden von ihnen umgibt, hat sich um den Christen damit, daß er glaubt, geschlossen, während er beim Nichtchristen eben an der Stelle, wo auch er glauben dürfte, aber noch nicht oder nicht mehr glaubt, noch offen ist. Er hat die Beziehung zu dem, was doch in Beziehung zu ihm ist, nicht aufgenommen. Das ist sein Abnormales. Wogegen Glaube die Normalisierung des Verhältnisses zwischen dem Menschen und diesem Gegenstand ist: der Akt, in welchem der Mensch das tut, was dieser Gegenstand fordert, was ihm diesem Gegenstand gegenüber zukommt: der Vollzug der Entsprechung zu dem, was dieser Gegenstand an sich für jeden Menschen ist und bedeutet.

—Karl Barth, Die kirchliche Dogmatik IV,1 (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 1980), 829.

Friday, July 20, 2007

A ban that isn’t a ban

Bush bans terror suspect torture

US President George W Bush has signed an executive order banning "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of terror suspects.

It says torture and personal abuse - including sexual acts and attacks on religious beliefs - are intolerable.

CIA Director Michael Hayden said the order gave the agency the legal clarity it had been seeking.

The administration has faced pressure at home and abroad over interrogation techniques used on suspected militants.

The most controversial practice allegedly used by the CIA is "water boarding" - in which prisoners are strapped to a plank over water and made to fear that they will drown.

The American authorities have never confirmed they use the technique and it is unclear whether the guidelines allow it.

Leonard Rubenstein, director of Physicians for Human Rights, told the Associated Press news agency that the executive order was inadequate.

"What is needed now is repudiation of brutal and cruel interrogation methods."

"General statements like this are inadequate, particularly after years of evidence that torture was authorised at the highest levels and utilised by US forces," he said.

The White House declined to say whether the CIA currently had a detention and interrogation programme.

But it said that if it did, the agency had to adhere to the guidelines.


Back in Portland ...

My wife and I are back in Portland, Oregon for an extended vacation until August 24—though with PhD applications and papers to write, it will be a rather busy “vacation.” Here are a couple pictures of our hometown.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Final “As Barth” poll is open!

The final poll to decide the winner of the “As Barth” contest is now open. Voting will continue until 5 pm EST on July 25, one week from today. If you are new to the contest, click the link above the poll to read the different entries.

I should note that Aric Clark’s poem, “As Christ,” just barely missed making the cut by 1%! His poem was one of the first to bend the rules of the contest, and it turned out to be one of the favorites.

“As Barth” Finalists

The finalists for the “As Barth” contest will be chosen today at 5 pm EST when the first round of polling ends. I will then put together a final poll with the six finalists. The poll will be open for one week and the winner will be determined at 5 pm EST on July 25.

There are eight hours left to vote, so get them in now while you can!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Harry Potter 7 Leaked

You can read the NY Times article here. Or you can see it for yourself and risk spoiling the fun.

Update: The controversial leak has been taken down as expected. If you want a countdown to the book release, you can download the Harry Countdown Google Gadget. Or watch the countdown online here.

New tag: “Books and Culture”

In case you have not noticed, a lot of my blogging is done in response to articles and columns published in Books & Culture, the culturally sophisticated supplement to Christianity Today. I decided today that I have enough posts on B&C to warrant a new tag titled “Books and Culture” (the ampersand, unfortunately, is not allowed). There you can find all the posts that deal with articles published in this important journal.

A shout-out to Alan Jacobs: If you are not a regular reader of Books & Culture, be sure at the very least to read the monthly column by Alan Jacobs, “Rumors of Glory.” His column addresses contemporary issues in art, religion, and politics. His latest column, “Amplifying Charity,” is particularly worth reading if you are a blogger.

Gospel and Politics: A Response to John Wilson

Yesterday, John Wilson posted a response to my blog post of last week which was itself a (rather hastily written) response to his review of the new book by Charles Marsh on the partisanship of contemporary American Christianity. I have to admit: I am flattered that of all the responses John Wilson (editor of the consistently excellent Books & Culture) received, he chose to respond to mine in his latest column. Wilson calls Fire & Rose a “thoughtful blog,” and from such a well-read and intelligent person, this is high praise indeed. I am grateful to Wilson for taking the time to read these random musings of mine.

On a side note, while I have not yet read Marsh’s book, I suspect I will agree with its basic thesis. (I agree with Wilson that cries of theocracy are getting a bit old, but I disagree with Wilson in that I think these cries are often on-target.)

I wish to thank Wilson for his thoughtful response. As a 2004 Wheaton College graduate with a major in English literature, I have heard him speak on numerous occasions, often introducing or asking questions of visiting writers. My short response to him is that I certainly hope the conversation continues, and I think there is much about which we agree. I also think my brief statements lack clarity and were too ambiguous to be accurately understood. Let me offer some clarifications of my earlier post:

1. Wilson makes more of my statement that his review was “unnecessarily harsh” than I intended. But seriously, was his review of the new books by Chris Hedges and Dinesh D’Souza an example of political charity? Wilson did not seem interested in starting a conversation with either of them. Do we have Alan Jacobs’ excellent column to thank for his softer side? (I’ll admit to being just as harsh and uncharitable as Wilson often is. Certainly, my words can come back to bite me. I’m learning along with the rest of them.)

2. My mention of idolatry seems rather out of place without my recent criticism of nationalism kept in mind. I did not mean to suggest that people from my hometown are simply idolaters who do not take the gospel seriously. That would be going way too far. I meant to suggest rather that the underlining issue is not merely a partisan captivity of the gospel. Instead, one’s partisanship has its origin in a more fundamental issue—viz. how we understand the gospel. Marsh is only half-right in criticizing the partisanship of American Christianity, and Wilson is only half-wrong when he says that partisan politics is not the main feature of evangelicalism. To both I would say that partisanship is the symptom, not the disease. As a result, it rears its ugly head in some places but not others. A disease can rage undetected for years. I think Wilson happens to experience an evangelicalism where the symptoms are not as obvious, whereas I grew up in an environment where the symptoms were sometimes all I knew of Christianity. The disease, I want to suggest, is rooted in a misunderstanding of the gospel, one that depoliticizes Christ’s call to discipleship and/or attaches it to some earthly phenomenon, forgetting that the kingdom of God is “not of this world” but rather of the new world, the New Jerusalem, which is still sociopolitical in nature. In sum, I am not calling partisan politics itself idolatry, but rather suggesting that partisanship flows out of a distorted (perhaps idolatrous) conception of the gospel.

3. I do not want to suggest in the least that voting based on moral issues is somehow invalid. I am against abortion as much as the next person. Two things bother me greatly, though: (1) the notion that abortion trumps every other moral issue, and (2) that voting for a particular party trumps even the issue of abortion. Both of these were apparent in the NY Times article to which I referred in my previous post. Both of them are guided by a deeply partisan politics that reveals a profound captivity of American evangelicalism. I happen to think war is a more damaging reality than abortion, but I realize many will disagree with me. While I do not want to suggest that voting on the basis of these moral issues is misguided, I do wish to say that to care about one issue without caring for the other(s) is a major problem that needs to be addressed. And if it takes twenty books saying the same thing to get the point across, then so be it.

4. Finally, I am not convinced that we have such moral clarity in any issue that we can let it determine our entire vote. But I do think there is a qualitative difference between abortion and war policy: the former is not tied to a particular national ideology. That is, to support or reject abortion has no intrinsic connection to whether one also supports the Bush administration or feels patriotic about America. The same is not true of the war in Iraq. Both abortion and war are moral issues, to be sure, but war is a national issue as well. Both are also pro-life issues, yet the broad support for the war by American evangelicals demonstrates an extra factor in the political equation beyond evangelical interest in preserving human life—viz. a nationalistic support for (violent) American involvement in world affairs. This concerns me, as it also (apparently) concerns Marsh. I wonder if it concerns Wilson as well. Perhaps he does not think my criticism of nationalism corresponds to the evangelical world he has experienced thus far, but two can play at that game.

In conclusion, I certainly hope the conversation continues. My first post was guilty of some exaggeration (e.g., the use of “infinitely”), but I do think the issue is as serious as I and others make it out to be. Even so, I am hopeful that the less partisan, less politically captive world experienced by Wilson is truer to the way things actually are than I presently realize. And at the very least, I hope we can work together to bring about such a world, if only in our local communities.

Best Music of 2007: Mid-Year Report

Artist: The National
Album: Boxer

With Boxer, The National have not only put together their best album yet; they have also quietly placed themselves above all the other albums thus far this year. Boxer never forces itself upon anyone, but with its beautiful, late-night melodies the album sinks deep into your consciousness and makes you wonder how you ever survived without it. Best tracks: “Fake Empire,” “Green Gloves,” “Start a War”

Artist: LCD Soundsystem
Album: Sound of Silver
James Murphy’s second album is a masterpiece. His first self-titled album was an astonishing debut, but this album is clearly the work of a maturing artist. Sound of Silver demonstrates an ever-widening musical palette combined with smarter, more memorable, melodies. Best tracks: “Someone Great,” “All My Friends,” “Us vs Them”

Artist: Arcade Fire
Album: Neon Bible

The second album by the Montreal-based band led by Win Butler and Regine Chassagne is no Funeral, but then again it doesn’t need to be. A lesser album by the Arcade Fire is still leaps and bounds above almost anything else. Neon Bible demonstrates the versatility and depth of this band. The Arcade Fire is the Radiohead for my generation: a band capable of commanding the limelight while producing richly textured music with lyrics that explore the full range of human experience. Neon Bible also shows that Win Butler & Co. are some of the finest lyrical artists in the world today, who never lose sight of crafting beautiful songs that compel listeners to sing along. Best tracks: “Black Mirror,” “Intervention,” “Black Wave, Bad Vibrations,” “Windowsill”

Artist: Battles
Album: Mirrored

Battles defy any attempt to classify them. Prog rock, math rock, whatever—Battles refuse to fit into any musical taxonomy. They stand alone, and they know it. From its opening track, you know Mirrored is going to be a musical experience unlike any other. And it is well worth the time. This album shatters what you thought contemporary music could produce, and the result is a gem, a classic that will live on long after the rest of the albums on this list are forgotten. Best tracks: “Race In,” “Tonto,” “Tij”

Artist: Spoon
Album: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Just released, the latest album by Spoon continues the string of great albums. After 2005’s excellent Gimme Fiction, this new album had high expectations—and it does not disappoint. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga boasts some of Spoon’s catchiest songs, while the use of horns, classical guitar, and other orchestration demonstrates an expanding sonic palette. Best tracks: “Don’t Make Me A Target,” “Rhthm and Soul,” “Finer Feelings”

Artist: Justice
Album: †

Few albums are ever as purely enjoyable as † by Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay, who together form Justice, a French dance-electronic group. This album sounds like LCD Soundsystem mixed with elements of 70s and 80s rock and tailored for a late-night club with heavily distorted synths. The result is a debut album that is fresh and original, bursting with infectious energy. Best tracks: “Genesis,” “Let There Be Light,” “Waters of Nazareth”

Artist: The Twilight Sad
Album: Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters
The Twilight Sad are a Scottish rock band hailing from Glasgow that has clearly learned from fellow British groups Radiohead and Coldplay, but show that they are capable of infusing their own distinctive style into each song. Their new album demonstrates this band’s great promise. As the anthemic guitars wash over you, moving subtly from living room intimacy to arena fanfare, it is clear that there are great things in store for this band. Best tracks: “Cold Days From The Birdhouse,” “That Summer, At Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy,” “And She Would Darken The Memory”

Artist: El-P
Album: I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
Last year saw the release of fantastic rap albums by Ghostface Killah and Clipse, but El-P’s latest pushes them all aside. Like Mirrored by Battles, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead elevates the genre to new levels. The lyrics are full of depth, and the music is brazenly innovative at ever turn. While at times perhaps overly ambitious, this album nevertheless bristles with incredible energy and lyrical power. Best tracks: “Run the Numbers,” “Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love),” “The Overly Dramatic Truth”

Artist: Blonde Redhead
Album: 23
Three years after their magnificent Misery Is A Butterfly, Blonde Redhead return with possibly an even greater album. 23 surrounds you with a sonic landscape that seems familiar (My Bloody Valentine, Radiohead) and alien at the same time. The album contains some of the most beautiful moments in any album this year. Best tracks: “23,” “Spring and by Summer Fall,” “Silently”

Artist: Patrick Wolf
Album: The Magic Position
Patrick Wolf is often hailed as the new David Bowie, and for good reason. Wolf’s eccentric personality, refined musicianship, and over-the-top glam rock sound make for the perfect, if not always entirely consistent, combination. Wolf also shares similarities to Rufus Wainwright for a lot of these reasons, whose album almost made this list. In the end, The Magic Position shines above other similar productions and solidifies Wolf as a young artist worth following in the years to come. Best tracks: “Overture,” “Get Lost,” “The Magic Position”

Other albums that deserve mentioning: Panda Bear, Person Pitch; The Field, From Here We Go Sublime; Eluvium, Copia; The Besnard Lakes, The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse; The Sea and Cake, Everybody.