An Appeal to Christians Concerning the Relative Insignificance of the Presidential Election

I was asked to submit a piece on the subject of “evangelicals and politics” given the passions that underly this year’s election.  It is scheduled to be published in Columbia Theological Seminary’s preaching journal in November.  As always, I welcome your feedback, both positive and critical, in the comments section.

 

In the spring, I asked my daughter where she would like to visit if she could travel anywhere in the world. Her 8-year old answer: “Monticello.” Apparently I have done something right as a parent. My cup runneth over.

We flew into Richmond early on a Friday, then drove to the plantation. It is a land of shadows and ghosts, the plantation’s mystique exacerbated that morning by the sweltering fog. We toured the house and walked the grounds. Though I was well familiar with Jefferson, it was remarkable to see his genius through the objects that comprised his life: maps, fossils, journals, scientific tools, musical instruments, and the famous library. At the end of our visit, we began the slavery tour on Mulberry Row.

I was not prepared for the emotional impact of this final tour. It was not the reconstructed dirt-floor shacks that got to me, or the Hemmings saga, or even the reality that this President owned over 600 human beings during his lifetime. I knew those facts from books. What the facts can’t make you feel is proximity. Mulberry Row is virtually in the physical shadow of the mansion.

I simply could not shake the conception of people being born, living, and dying, knowing nothing beyond a few acres in the shadow of such opulence. They lived in a closed, totalitarian universe that defined reality. Those born there must have simply assumed that was the way the world had always worked: whites in the mansions, blacks in the shacks, world without end.

I walked to the President’s grave, and when my daughter trailed off I shook my fist and had some choice words for the dead man and his enlightenment project.  For if a system that is predicated on education, science, and human progress is capable of producing such injustice, then something about those worlds of thought is patently wrong, not contradictory, wrong. I know all that is harsh, but even Jesus thought some sins were unforgivable.  “Woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”

I have been tasked to write some thoughts about how we Christians might navigate our charged political environment in the wake of the American presidential election. Monticello is no doubt a windy route to get into this discussion. My point is to suggest that it is time to shake our fist in a new way. We have shaken our fist at “the system” for a long while, and of course there were many Christians in Jefferson’s day doing the same. But perhaps, as with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s situation, the system is no longer salvageable. So shouldn’t we shake our fist at the ideas that birthed this self-destruction, and move on to build the system to which we are called? I am talking, of course, about the Church.

I’m not going to bog this piece down with a bunch of disclaimers. I have read Romans 13 and the prophets. I am not advocating for some sort of ecclesiological isolationism. I am advocating for a fresh magisterial vision of Christendom: first as ethnicity, then as nation.

In our compartmentalized world, where religion has its safe and tidy place, the conversion texts of the New Testament make little sense. This is principally because the texts aren’t about conversion as we know it. Yes, a choice is being made and there is a crossing over, but why must this be ritualized by baptism, profession and community? And why in Acts does a thoroughgoing emphasis on the ethnicity of the gospel’s hearers persist? One reason is surely because the message required and created a new ethnicity. For them, baptismal water was thicker than blood. Zeba Crook of Carleton University argues that this is precisely how we should understand the term faith in the context of the New Testament: not as a private assent but as the loyalty that cohered the ancient systems of empire, slavery, even philosophic guilds.[1] “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” Such a very physical assertion was nothing short of a reimagining of the facilities of the human person. We are talking about something far beyond the “fictive kin” construct that the social science critics push. Early Christian conversion was more like stem cell research.

New ethnicity, of course, naturally births a new nation. I suppose this is what made Rome so nervous about our ancestors. Our present pluralism is homogeny in comparison to theirs, and the Caesars certainly had little interest in tamping down on new religious thoughts. The problem was that the Christians didn’t act like a religion. They meant instead to function as an interstate, self-sustaining nation. Richard Horsley of the University of Massachusetts has noted this in Paul’s letters, where an emphasis on geography, autonomy, and economic solidarity constituted the church as an “alternative society.” The letters, then, were “Paul’s instruments to shore up the assemblies’ group discipline and solidarity over against the imperial society, ‘the present evil age,’ ‘the present form of this world that is passing away.’”[2] Sometimes I think that communist nations who suppress the Bible understand it better than we do. We Christians have been playing with political explosives all along.

What does all of this matter to republicans and democrats, supporters of Trump, Clinton, or whoever else? I would not go so far as to say that the election doesn’t matter. I do suggest that it matters far less than we have been groomed to think. Amidst the intemperate passions over certain jobs in Washington D.C., can as I as a preacher engender such a vision of our vaulted sanctuary that makes the White House pale in comparison? Can I love the Bible with such heart that we are tempted to enshrine it under black lights for tourists to view? Can I boldly announce to patriots that there is a precious new patriotism available to all?

My ethnicity is Christian. My nation is the Church. And we have no boundaries.

Jefferson Grave

[1] See Zeba Crook, Reconceptualizing Conversion: Patronage, Loyalty, and Conversion in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2004), pp. 200ff.

[2] Richard Horsley, “1 Corinthians: A Case Study of Paul’s Assembly as an Alternative Society,” in Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1997), pg. 52.

Save us from our Spirituality: Fleshing Out Easter

Now when grace fills the soul, that soul rejoices and smiles and dances, for it is possessed and inspired, so that to many of the unenlightened it may seem to be drunken, crazy, and beside itself. . . . For with the God-possessed not only is the soul wont to be stirred and goaded as it were into ecstasy but the body also is flushed and fiery, warmed by the overflowing joy within which passes on the sensation to the outer man, and thus many of the foolish are deceived and suppose that the sober are drunk. Though, indeed, it is true that these sober ones are drunk in a sense.”
Philo of Alexandra, 1st Century CE

Being a Pentecostal on Easter is like being a first grade child on Christmas morning. The pent-up energy is overwhelming. The whole day is so enchanted. I am not always outwardly emotional, yet I struggle to keep it together during the services. Every Easter Sunday, I fight tears from the first note of the gospel choir. But when those in my camp stand to preach on this holiest of days, we have to check our sensitive sides at the door. Christ has risen, and this calls for a sermon that might peel the paint off the walls.

A little-known fact about global Pentecostalism is that we build our faith communities around the centerpiece of preaching. A lot of people fail to realize this because it’s our spiritual fireworks that tend to get noticed and make our movement distinctive, not our sermons. But this is mistaken. The Jews have often been called the People of the Book. We Pentecostals might be called the People of the Preacher.

It was Martin Luther who introduced preaching as the centerpiece of Christian worship during the Protestant Reformation, with his emphasis on sola scriptura as the proper foundation of true faith. Still, the difference between a Lutheran worship services and a Catholic mass is not immediately apparent today for the uninitiated. Although a radical, Luther held on to a bunch of the Roman church’s accoutrements: a high view of the sacraments, prayers of call and response, goblets, robes, lectionaries, glum paint, manuscripted sermons. Pentecostals, for better or worse, dispensed with all these things. If there is a Hammond organ and a preacher, church can be had. I once worked at one of the largest Pentecostal churches in Atlanta, with a huge staff and a fancy new building. Occasionally, our senior minister used to exclaim, “We don’t need this building. Just put me and the music director in the parking lot and they’ll come.” He was probably right. You might say that we Pentecostals have always held onto the protest in Protestantism with greater extremity than Martin Luther.

As a result, it is practically a truism to say that Pentecostal preachers go all out. The message cannot be divested from the physical presentation, the forceful flesh and blood of the preacher. If you are not a Pentecostal, you cannot imagine the things that I have seen.

There is the sheer decibel level of our preaching, of course. Many of our preachers do not believe that preaching is preaching unless the sermon is shouted at the top of the lungs from start to finish, always into a microphone. I have heard preachers in tiny sanctuaries with a dozen people, and they still use a microphone. The heightened decibel level is often said to be that which distinguishes preaching from teaching. It’s perfectly fine if you aren’t shouting much; you’re just teaching, and we value that too. But if you claim to be preaching, then you’d better bring the heat.

There is the athletic nature of Pentecostal preaching as well. In our tradition, preaching can take a toll on the body. Some of our preachers carry a towel on their shoulder throughout the sermon, like a heavyweight boxing coach, just to keep the sweat out of their eyes. I’ve seen our preachers sweat through double-breasted suits like they were undershirts, royal blue jackets deepening to midnight navy by the time of the altar call. Our preaching calisthenics are myriad: jumping, dancing, running, crying. Sometime we create impromptu skits by pulling people from the congregation, like a comedy sketch show. “Whose line is it anyway?”

There is the dialogical nature of Pentecostal preaching, often associated with African-American Christianity but normative for Pentecostals everywhere. I was in Haiti two years ago, teaching pastors at a Pentecostal seminary, and I was immediately taken aback by the intensity of the questions routinely shot at me from the class. It seemed to me that the students were sparring with me rather than creating discussion (my translator referred to the experience as the “shooting range,” which didn’t help me feel better). After I adjusted to the new scene, I realized that the Haitians were just living out their Pentecostalism in the classroom. Since our movement eschews experts, truth must emerge from dialogue. I was a preacher to them, not a professor, so interruption was the ultimate compliment.

The Pentecostal preacher testifies like a witness to the jury. There is an unction to it that involves movement and sound, flesh and bones. No one can remain, no one must remain still and silent. “Well!” “Preach it, preachah!” “Alright now!” “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard,” Peter and John protest in Acts 4:20. The sermon is not really a sermon, in the sense of a presentation people listen to. Instead, it is a dialogue that all participate in. It is a contact sport, a “language event” not a PowerPoint, with the requisite calling back and forth, the energy transferring from one side of the room to the other until no one and everyone is the preacher.[i] When it is done, the physicality doesn’t stop. Pentecostal preachers have this phrase: “Shake it out.” You do that when you are alone after the service, wringing out the last drops of passion from your bones.

If “the medium is the message,” as McLuhan famously remarked, I have been thinking about how this Pentecostal medium of physicality might uniquely contribute to any preacher’s understanding and appropriation of the Easter story. Modernism gave to us the medium of intellectual cognition with its natural message of rationalism as the primary method of discerning truth. Doesn’t this modernistic medium and message diminish the way that we read and proclaim Easter texts? What might it mean, from top to bottom, with every sinew of ourselves, to join the Pentecostals of Acts 2 and “flesh out” Easter?

Fleshing Out Our Stories

One of my favorite seminary classroom tools is a rare gem in historical Jesus studies: the so-called Bar Ma’jan Parable. Found in the Palestinian Talmud, the folk story of Bar Maj’an apparently antedates Jesus, allowing us a small window into Jewish storytelling in and around his time.[ii]

In this simple tale, a young Torah student and a rich tax collector named Ma’jan meet their fate in the afterlife. The Torah student was so socially insignificant that his death goes unnoticed, while Ma’jan the wealthy tax gatherer is given a hero’s funeral. This strange dissonance is caused by the fact that before his death, Ma’jan threw a great banquet and invited all of the poor, so that the people forgot all about his shameful lifestyle. In hazy dreams of paradise, however, the student is enjoying gardens and fountains, while Ma’jan is unable to cross over.

I love to watch the eyes of my classroom students when they are introduced to this story for the first time. There is typically a pregnant silence while they process the elements of the story that they already know from several parables of Jesus. Bar Ma’jan becomes a pathway into glimpses of Jesus that are often brand new. It begins to dawn on them that Jesus didn’t just float around Galilee, a semi-conscious oracle of divine speech. Jesus had a brain. Jesus had a context. Jesus reworked new stories out of old ones in order to share his theological opinions. In short, Jesus was a real, flesh and blood human being who lived, really lived, among other real human beings.

But the flesh of Jesus is not only apparent in his engagement with other rabbinic voices, the stories of Jesus themselves have an inherently fleshly quality. Bar Ma’jan is simply not alive enough for Jesus, so in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus he takes the elements of the story and vivifies them. Jesus turns their grainy analogue signals into roaring high definition. This vivification is intensely physical. In fact, the introduction in Jesus’ reworked parable is not only about the rich man’s fashionable outerwear, but includes a depiction of his fancy underwear, made of “fine linen.” This image of fine linen caressing the clean body of the rich man is contrasted with the hunger pangs and skin sores of Lazarus. As if this vivid physical suffering were not enough to behold, Jesus paints in some stray dogs that lick Lazarus’s sores for sustenance. Taking in such a description of Lazarus in an oral culture must be something like watching the recent film, 12 Years a Slave, today. You just want to look away, such is the brutal imagery.

The remainder of the parable doubles down on the physicality of the characters. Lazarus comes to rest in the very breast of Abraham, while the rich man suffers in torturous fire and focuses on a particularly painful speck on the tip of his tongue. There is a spatial chasm that separates them. This fixed space, like a raging river, simply cannot be crossed. And perhaps most creatively, Jesus does not conclude the story with moral platitudes or ethical principles. While the Ma’jan parable leaves the listener hanging, Jesus fills in the blanks. The point of the story is the set of scrolls that are a part of the rhythms of life for Jesus’ audience: the pen-and-ink Bibles. “They have the Pentateuch and the Prophets,” Jesus concludes. “The scrolls are right down the street at the synagogue. Go and handle them.” Jesus’ focus on the fleshliness of the rich man and Lazarus is the vehicle toward a more visceral reflection on an object that Jesus’ audience could see, touch, hear, venerate. It’s always weird to me when people call Jesus a great philosopher. In my reading, he seems so ardently literal about things. “Go and do likewise.”

What does any of this have to do with Easter? Easter puts us preachers in the shoes of Jesus, in that each year we are tasked to retell, to rework an older story. This story has been with us for many centuries; what do we say about it now? Could it be that the pulse of contemporary western culture challenges us to reinvest these narratives with a profound physicality? Perhaps we can render the Church a great service by taking some preaching cues from Jesus’ parables, and fleshing out our resurrection sermons.

Fleshing Out Spirituality

On September 18, 2012, the world of early Christian scholarship was jolted by Dr. Karen King’s announcement of the discovery of a groundbreaking papyrus. Presented in the shadow of the Vatican, the Coptic fragment was received with much media fanfare, including interviews with major news networks. The lines of the relic are broken, but one clearly reads, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’” King claimed that the fourth century papyrus was copied from a second century Greek text, so although it held no relevance to the historical Jesus, it did supply “a new voice within the diverse chorus of early Christian traditions about Jesus that documents that some Christians depicted Jesus as married.”[iii] Turns out that the scholarly consensus now considers the papyrus as a medieval forgery, and not even a very good one at that. I am not seeking to throw Dr. King under the bus – her paper is quite nuanced – but I do contend that our newfound fascination with Gnostic understandings of Jesus that has birthed a cottage industry reflects contemporary leanings of spirituality as much as it does a unique niche of historical inquiry.[iv] For those who would seek to endow early Christian Gnosticism with the status of an authentic expression of our faith, albeit a different denomination, perhaps we should look not only to the past, but also the present. Our culture’s spirituality is Gnostic, and it is failing.

Barth Ehrman describes early Christian Gnosticism broadly:

According to Gnostics, the world is a place of imprisonment for sparks of the divine that originated in the divine realm but have come to be entrapped here. These sparks want and need to escape their material entrapment. They can do so by learning the secrets of who they really are, where they came from, how they got here, and how they can return.[v]

Just like some Nazi scholars somehow separate Jesus from his Jewish lineage, the Gnostics divested Jesus of his “material entrapment,” his physicality.[vi] What resulted was not necessarily some liberation of the soul, but rather the denial of the significance of the body. The Corinthian church took some baby steps toward what would become later Gnosticism with their libertine cat call: “all things are permissible!” Such a posture led them to downplay bodily ethics (see 1 Corinthians 5-6). The Gnostics were “spiritual but not religious” long before the question made it onto census reports.

Where do we see the substance of Gnostic Christianity today? Look no further than Facebook, where the ethereality of opinion and affiliation take the place of lifestyle, of embodied action. We may not keep our knowledge secret anymore like the Gnostics of old, but we encamp around it, imbuing it with the secret powers of hatred, xenophobia, and pride. Listen to the current political rhetoric (if you can stomach it), which champions the closure of the physical borders of this nation to those in physical need, offering whimsical notions of distant moral support instead. Even the financial support we will send to them isn’t physical, but rather another clever maneuver on the public debt sheet.

And the people that we preach to: what Gnostic messages constitute their diet? On a more popular level, look no further than the “spiritual leaders” of blathering Hollywood, those who substitute an external God with a concrete history for a voice inside our heads. Martin Buber, the famed Jewish philosopher described this descent into spirituality:

But if it is the castle of separation where man conducts a dialogue with himself, not in order to test himself and master himself for what awaits him but in his enjoyment of the configuration of his own soul – that is the spirit’s lapse into mere spirituality. And this becomes truly abysmal when self-deception reaches the point where one thinks that one has God within and speaks to him. But as surely as God embraces us and dwells in us, we never have him within.[vii]

All of it seems Gnostic to me: religion devoid of concrete history, belief devoid of an external ethic, boundaried community subverted by individual interiority.

Enter the Bible, which revels in the physical world so much so that no Hebrew term even correlates with the great modern divide of the “spiritual” (vs. the secular). From the beginning of Genesis, God revels in physicality, declaring the earthy creation to be “good” at every turn. Man and woman do not emerge from some divine spiritual realm. They are hued out in the dirt. Jacob body slams God and God fights back with bone-wrenching vengeance. Moses hits a rock with a stick with the result that he isn’t allowed to set his old feet upon the Promised Ground. Levitical priests mediate what can be eaten, touched, and tithed. Likewise, the Temple is constructed with marked specificity: measurements, metallurgy, and the pots and pans all matter. In the Bible, holiness is not holiness unless it occupies a space. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Matter matters to God.”[viii] Are there not over two hundred muscles in the head of an ordinary caterpillar to tell us such a thing?[ix]

Fleshing out Easter

When I was in graduate school, a took a seminar on ancient Greek texts that might help to illuminate features of the New Testament due to their proximity or contents. One of the texts that we translated was the Life of Numa, by Plutarch, who wrote just after the Apostle Paul. In Plutarch’s story, Numa was a king in the distant past of Greece’s glory, known for prudence and wisdom. I must admit that I kept wondering what Numa had to do with the New Testament even as we chronicled his kingly exploits. Finally, during the last session of the semester, we translated Numa’s grand finale. In the end of Plutarch’s tale, 500 years after the death of Numa, a flood sweeps through town and opens his tomb. Surprisingly, no body is found there. In the corpse’s place are piles of books. No resurrection is heralded and no appearance occurs…just books in place of the bones. With five minutes left in the class it seemed clear that everyone agreed: “The resurrection of Jesus is not unique in ancient literature. We need to forget that confessional nonsense. Have a great Christmas break!” I understand that these matters are complex, but it still felt like the professor cursed my momma.

For Christians, the apex of the biblical story arch that begins in Genesis is the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection is the great surprise of the metanarrative, the ace up God’s sleeve that no one saw coming. Easter is the joker in the pack when the chips have all been lost. At the empty tomb, God takes the conductor’s wand and brings the symphony to its point of triumph. On Easter Sunday, we realize first and foremost that we regular humans have been simple newborns for millennia, glimpsing shades and colors of reality, but not distinct shapes; hearing echoes and cadences that we have barely begun to translate into anything discernable. Easter is our disorienting birth, where we have to navigate a brand new outside world.

Unsurprisingly, the physicality of the resurrection event prevails in the gospel narratives. In John’s account, the grave clothes have been laundered. In Matthew’s telling, the guards tremble, are stupefied, then run. In Luke’s story, there is a pronounced emphasis on food and eating. In Paul’s account, over a thousand healthy eyeballs see the resurrected Lord at one time. In all the accounts, the stone has been rolled away and Jesus seems fixated on walking the same old dirt roads with his old friends. “Reach out your hand and put it into my side,” Jesus says in John 20:27. But this time he is not refortifying a withered hand, he is challenging the disciple to touch. “Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (Luke 24:39). And ultimately, in the ascension, Jesus enters the firmament as a body, uniting the heavens and the earth. In the words of fine artist Makoto Fujimura:

Some say that such ‘resurrection’ is one’s memory of the disciples’ desire to speak of Christ, to continue to remember him. To me, the Resurrection is a physical imposition, not merely a psychological recognition. Christ’s sacred reality invaded ours, embedded in the abundant physical reality. The Resurrection is a new generative paradigm, full of the aroma of Christ, that replaces the old limited-resource reality. Our limited minds and perceptions cannot see yet the fullness of that reality.[x]

The resurrection of the gospels is not some Gnostic secret, but a physical triumph.

Without slipping into unnecessary fundamentalism, maybe it is this physicality that can save God’s people through our Easter preaching. For heaven’s sakes, is not all preaching sanctified conjecture? So was it the same heart that was broken for the sins of the world that revivified with new life inside the rocky enclave that Easter morning? Was it the same feet that were pierced by the nails that laid claim to the grave floor and shook off the linen garments? Was it the same lungs pierced by the spear that inhaled the damp air of resurrection life with a start? Was it the same hands that were driven to the cross by real Roman hands that dislodged the stone from the tomb’s entrance with a shove? Was it the same head bloodied by the thorns of scorn that disappeared into the early morning fog, the unlikely herald of the new creation?

In the Pentecostal tradition, we recognize we weren’t there to know exactly how Easter happened or what it looked like, but we have a phrase for such rhetoric: “That’ll preach!” In our cultural moment, we know that our ahistorical spirituality is neither anemic nor on life support. It is already dead. Let’s invite the resurrected Jesus to the memorial service, even as he smells of sweat and spices, fresh and unsightly scabs upon his brow. Let’s wrestle with him as Jacob did and dodge his dislocating jabs. Let’s allow the holy temple of his body to sanctify our space. Let’s watch him play in the dirt.

This Easter, may we not stand before a phantom, a parable, or an idea. May we stand before a resurrected person, shocked and awed, yet not struck dumb. May we have the bravery to look deep into his wounds, then to shout with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

If we think there is a even a chance of such a miracle among us, we might run the aisles like Pentecostal evangelists, just as sure as Peter and John ran for Christ’s tomb.  “Preach it, preachah!”

Karl Barth said that every Christian worshipper, saint and skeptic alike, is stricken by one question in her heart of hearts: “Is it true?”[xi]

Christ resurrected, 1661. Canvas,oval,80 x 64,5 cm Inv.6471

Rembrandt, Christ resurrected, 1661. Canvas,oval,80 x 64,5 cm Inv.6471

[i] I borrow this phrase from Eta Linnemann, cited in Peter Rhea Jones, Studying the Parables of Jesus (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 1999), pg. 6.

[ii] See Jacob Neusner, ed., The Talmud of the Land of Israel, Vol. 20: Hagigah and Moed Qatan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pg. 57. On the origins of the Bar Ma’jan story, see Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1954), pg. 183.

[iii] Karen L. King, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’”: A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment,” n.p. (2012). Online: http://www.gospel-thomas.net/King_JesusSaidToThem_draft_0917.pdf. For the later published article see Harvard Theological Review 107, no. 2 (2014): 131-159.

[iv] For perhaps the most famously sympathetic reading of early Gnostic traditions, see Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage, 1989).

[v] Barth Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: Harper One, 2014), pg. 304.

[vi] On the former, see Walter Grundmann, Were Ist Jesus von Nazareth? (Weimar: Verlag Deutsche Christen, 1940).

[vii] Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970), pg. 152.

[viii] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (New York: Harper Collins), pg. 228.

[ix] See Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper, 2013), pg. 19.

[x] Makoto Fujimara, “Friends, Haven’t You Any Fish?” in What Did Jesus Ask?: Christian Leaders Reflect on His Questions of Faith, ed. Elizabeth Dias (New York: Time Inc. Books, 2015), pg. 274.

[xi] Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man (New York: Harper, 1957), pp. 97-135.

Pentecostal Babel

As we reflect upon Pentecost Sunday, I submit here my recently published article in the preaching journal of Columbia Theological Seminary.  I was pleased that this piece was made the lead article in the Pentecost edition of the Journal for Preachers (just ahead of Walter Brueggemann’s contribution, which made me feel pretty good!).  The article is also a smattering of one of the chapters of my upcoming theological memoir, which is presently being copy-edited by Cascade Books.  I welcome your comments and criticisms!

“Now, do not go from this meeting and talk about tongues, but try to get people saved!”
William Seymour, The Azusa Street Mission

One of the reasons that I voraciously enjoy the Journal for Preachers is that I am a Pentecostal. I find myself terrifically motivated by the perspectives of this community of mainline Protestant preachers, who seem to so effortlessly move exegetical and theological dirt around the jobsite to uncover treasures I would never otherwise discover. In this collegial spirit, I thought our readers might enjoy a Pentecostal perspective on the Day of Pentecost, particularly the phenomenon that pushes the entire story off the ground: the gift of tongues. In circles where the emphasis of Acts 2 is typically placed on the birthday of the Church, perhaps moving the dirt around the tongue talking, the early morning racket, and the accusations of drunkenness will reveal some hidden gems.

The Sign of Tongues in the Pentecostal Tradition

It is safe to say that the average man on the street, if he has heard of a Pentecostal, associates us with one of our odder habits: what is typically called “speaking in tongues.” We take this phrase from the King James translation of the book of Acts in the New Testament, a translation that was hammered out during Shakespearean times. You might also call the habit, more contemporarily, “speaking in languages.”

Speaking in tongues is what Pentecostals became known for early on, especially at the Azusa Street Revival at the beginning of the twentieth century. Its leader, William Seymour, tried his best to focus people’s attention not toward the phenomenon of tongues, but toward the lifestyle such Spirit-empowerment produced. “If you get angry, or speak evil or backbite, I care not how many tongues you may have, you have not the baptism with the Holy Spirit,” the illiterate Seymour preached.[i] Still, it is hard not to focus on a group of people who spontaneously burst into shouting a bunch of syllables that sound like gibberish.

“We believe in speaking with other tongues as the Spirit gives utterance,” my denomination’s faith statement reads, “and that it is the initial evidence of the baptism in the Holy Ghost.” As if speaking in tongues were not aberrant enough, this statement seriously upped the ante. If you don’t speak in tongues, you haven’t really had a full experience of the Holy Spirit, we declared. The gift of tongues is the entrance requirement into Spirit baptism and the complete Christian life. If you don’t do it, according to our particular tradition, you’re not a bona fide Pentecostal.

Our motives in this effort to encourage the gift of tongues have always been pure, but slapping a bunch of strictures around the activity of the Holy Spirit is tricky business at best, like trying to tame the wind. At worst, we can dress up to play the part of God. Certainly God “does not change like the shifting shadows,” James 1:17 says, but neither is God beholden to formulas. In erring to the latter side, I have seen and heard all kinds of personal stories about well-meaning Pentecostals trying to “help” others receive the gift of tongues, and the stories range from the horrific to the hokey.

Growing up, there were plenty of altar calls to receive the Holy Spirit by way of the “sign” of speaking in tongues (signage is the language for the gift used in Mark 16:17). People often testified of “seeking” the gift for many months (One new convert of our congregation who was in seeking mode remarked, “The Holy Ghost sure is an elusive thing, ain’t He?”). Seekers would crowd the altar, and holy huddles would form around them, swaying back and forth, everyone praying out loud, eight, ten, twelve hands on the seeker’s shoulders and head. At some point after the seeker had been thoroughly leaned on by the group, someone would take the lead. The leader would stand face to face with the seeker, and the oral exam would begin. “Speak out!” “Speak anything that comes to mind!” I have seen people pat the chin of the speaker with the back of their hand up and down, over and over. Judge us if you must, but the Catholics believe that the communion wine transubstantiates into real blood. Are we Pentecostals not also allowed some hocus-pocus?

If there were Holy Ghost blockages that the prayer huddles could not break through, individual attention was warranted. The pros were called in with tactical stents. One friend of mine was taken to a room and given practice words. “You can do it!” he recalls the pro’s encouragement. In my mind the scene looks like an interrogation room in an episode of Law and Order, a hanging light bulb over a metal desk, the pro with a walkie-talkie strapped to his belt to relay any breakthrough. Even with such serious help, my friend never did speak in tongues.

In fact, I know all kinds of people who identify with Pentecostalism but never crossed the tongues threshold. My denomination is still trying to figure out what to do with them. Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:8 that “the Spirit blows wherever it pleases.” “The Holy Ghost sure is an elusive thing, ain’t he?”

Glossolalia and the Repair of Language

There are all kinds of smart studies on the phenomenon of speaking in tongues, typically called glossolalia in academic circles (from the Greek words glossa – language – and laleo – to speak). The experience of tongues is not particular to Pentecostals, or even to Christians, but there does seem to be a common thread uniting those who participate: Glossolalia is the language of the underclass. In the words of Randall Balmer at Barnard University: “It provides a voice to people who feel they have no voice.”[ii]

I fear that such a definition might be interpreted as Marxist escapism, tongues as an opiate for the poor. I have never thought about tongues as some Christian version of the Exorcist, eyes rolling back into the head for a few moments of ecstasy, like a drug hit. Tongues are not the result of some kind of divine possession, which seems to be Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 14:32 — “The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.” Instead, at the most elemental level, tongues are about…tongues. Tongues are about language, about words. They beg the question, “Where does language come from and what does it mean to do?”

Even the most secular among us would readily acknowledge that the project of human language is in deep disrepair. The Quaker spiritualist, Richard Foster, contends:

The tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation. A frantic stream of words flows from us because we are in a constant process of adjusting our public image. We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding.[iii]

Is not such evidence of the seductive and devalued power of language all around us? Just listen to the droll of the cable news wars, in which language is weaponized to the point where logic and objectivity are chess pieces to be played, ninjas stars to be thrown. And hasn’t the larger church lost the battle of fighting devalued words with more devalued words that are theological in nature? “Christian language needs to be redeemed,” Marcus Borg argues.[iv] The Church has not been able to save us from the word vomit soup we now swim in. We are all growing increasingly illiterate, shouting words back and forth that have little meaning and less value. All that matters is how sharply we can carve out the edges of our words.

Historically, Christian thought has been on the forefront of deconstructing the power of words to their constituent elements. There is plenty in the Bible about the potency of language (my mother was fond of quoting James 1:19 in our home, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak”) and this tradition has grown throughout the centuries. From the first monk, Anthony the Great in the third century, Christian monks attacked word vomit with the powerful weapon of silence. Thomas Merton, the famous trappist monk of the last century, renowned for his vows of silence, considered words to be the building blocks of the “false self” that we project onto others for our own perceived good.[v] His corrective: create silence. Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish theologian, wrote well over a century ago, ““If I were a doctor and could prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence.”[vi] Scores of similarly beautiful quotations on the power of silence from a thousand Christian mystics fill the literature of church history.

Pentecostals are a part of this Christian trajectory, but have attacked the same problem of word vomit from a dramatically different angle. You might say that the monastic tradition fought word inflation by raising the interest rates on language. The fewer words in play, the better their value. We Pentecostals did not follow this approach. As an underclass people, perhaps we saw silence as, in the words of Wendell Berry, “the distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair.”[vii] So we just decided to receive a whole new language altogether, and by doing so, to transcend despair.

The Post-Babel Language of God

In Acts 2, the followers of Jesus are waiting for the fulfillment of the promise of 1:5: “For John baptized with water but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” And then, like a sandstorm, it hit. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (2:4). But that is only where the true story begins. It is the response of the onlookers to the phenomenon of speaking in tongues that constitutes the real meat of the narrative of Acts 2.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” (2:5-12)

Languages old and new, spewing forth from the poor white trash of Galilee, now suddenly linguists. Indeed, what does such an event mean?

It is hard to doubt that a very specific Old Testament text stands behind Acts 2, backlighting its meaning. It was way back in Genesis 11 where the nations highlighted in Acts 2 first endured their birth. There, the story of the Tower of Babel adds two great brush strokes to the burgeoning picture of YHWH in the early days of humanity, a God who is ferociously particular. Those two new particularities painted in Genesis 11 are simply that (1) God doesn’t care much for urban living and (2) really disdains dictatorial regimes with their forced homogeneity. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves,” the whiz kids of the Mesopotamian valley devised in Genesis 11:4. Armed with their Apple computers, their new brick-making technology and cool, horn-rimmed eyeglasses, they sought to remake history.

But God is not enthused.

“Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other,” God decides after convening a council of Himself. “That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world,” scattering them “across the face of the whole earth.” In the Old Testament tradition, God’s response to Babel is where languages (other than Hebrew?) began. The project of multiple languages/tongues was meant to prevent human oppression at the Tower of Babel.

Of course, humanity found a way to derail that project of multiple languages as well. The Egyptian Empire would soon rise, forcing everything it could force on those who did not speak Egyptian. The Babylonians would give way to the Persians would give way to Alexander the Great would give way to the Romans. One Tower of Babel was replaced with thousands more ethnically specific. By the time of Acts 2, there are too many towers to count; thousands of ethnic groups, attempting to build bigger towers, to control the “foreigners” around them. And then the Holy Ghost descends, and in one fell swoop, there are no more foreigners. A bunch of tongue-talking, illiterate Galileans turned all the towers of Babel to rubble.

At the Day of Pentecost, the crisis whereby human languages separated the peoples of the earth, keeping them at odds with one another, is suddenly eradicated. Oppression gives way to the birth pangs of unity. “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” the astonished nations of the world gather to proclaim. Languages that were once unintelligible are rendered intelligible. Confusion gives way to understanding. “What does this mean?”

Every Christian tradition has to answer this question for themselves, of course. There were some in the Jerusalem crowd that simply assumed the disciples had been binging on bloody maries and mimosas, what with all their round-the-clock celebration of Jesus’ supposed resurrection. We tongue-talkers are still considered imbalanced, if not loony.

But for Pentecostals, the answer to the question of the crowds still rings out. “What does this mean?” It means in part that God has visited us to change lives and to change history, to forge new creation from the old. This new creation, wrought by the Holy Spirit, requires not silence, but declaration. This new creation requires wonder and bewilderment. Most of all, this new creation requires new tongues — the only intelligible language in God’s new world. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that language is the archive of history.[viii] God’s new history operates on new words. Tongues are God’s grand finale of holiness; the final sanctification of language itself so that all things might be made new.

T.S. Eliot wrote about his frustration of “Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure.”[ix] If part of the meaning of the Tower of Babel is that no particular group of people has the corner on the word market, I am certainly not insinuating that Pentecostals have a corner on the tongues market. Such a claim would be transforming tongues to propaganda. I am sure there are abuses and forgeries. Rainer Maria Rilke told a young poet, “Even the best err in words when they are meant to mean most delicate and almost inexpressible things.”[x]

Even so, what I mean to say is that rather than capitulating to word vomit or silence, there is something beautiful about offering the very elements of language as worship unto the God of all language. Our babble somehow levels the towers of Babel all over again. Each Sunday, is this not what we preachers do?

 

[i] Aaron T. Friesen, Norming the Abnormal: The Development and Function of the Doctrine of Initial Evidence in Classical Pentecostalism (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013), pg. 58.

[ii] Miller, “BeliefWatch: Spirit Filled.” http://www.newsweek.com/beliefwatch-spirit-filled-107031, para. 4.

[iii] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (New York: Harper Collins, 1988), pg. 101.

[iv] Marcus J. Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – and How they can be Restored (New York: Harper One, 2011), pg. 2.

[v] Fred Herron, No Abiding Place: Thomas Merton and the Search for God (Lanham, NY: University Press of America, 2005), pg. 55.

[vi] Rabindra N. Kanungo and Manual Mendonca, Ethical Dimensions of Leadership (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996), pg. 101.

[vii] Wendell Berry, What Are People For?: Essays (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010), pg. 59.

[viii] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Cambridge: Harvard, 1997), pg. 13.

[ix] T.S. Elliot, Four Quartets (Orlando: Harcourt, 1943), pg. 30.

[x] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (New York: W.W. Norton, 1934), pg. 26.

Thou Shalt Not Judge

Recently I was asked to write a magazine article on the thorny matter of Jesus’ prohibition of judging in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.  Clearly, Jesus did not get himself crucified because he had nothing to say in judgment of the status quo.  So what do we make of such a prohibition in Matthew 7?  To this end, I have brought many recent thoughts together in the hopes of offering some answer to this paradox.  As always, I welcome your feedback, whether critical or supportive.

In 1744, King Louis XIV of France fell dreadfully ill. Fearing imminent death, he prayed to the patron saint of Paris, St. Genevieve, for a miraculous recovery. As his condition proceeded to worsen, King Louis tried to twist God’s arm a bit more by making a solemn vow: If God would spare his life then he would be rebuild the Church of St. Genevieve to make it worthy of her honor. The King did indeed recover and made good on his vow. The cathedral that he built, now called the French Pantheon, stands today as one of the crown jewels of French architecture and history.

Because of the grand beauty of the cathedral, French geniuses and luminaries began to be buried within its foundations in the 19th century. These include the great writers Voltaire and Victor Hugo, the composer Rousseau, Marie Curie – the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry – and Louis Braille, who invented the alphabet for the blind. Western societies would look different today had these prodigies not lived. An inscription above the door to the French pantheon reads, “For the Great Men.”

There is a newly prominent artist who started out painting illegal graffiti around the city of Paris before switching to photography. He goes only by the name, JR, he is never photographed without a disguise of some sort, and his work is growing in fame around the world. The French government recently commissioned his latest work, dubbed “The Pantheon of Selfies.” JR has covered the French pantheon, inside and out, with thousands of selfie photographs of everyday people. The photographs line the floors, the dome, and the outside of the building so that they are visible from miles away. If the selfies were laid out on the ground, they would span multiple football fields.

What is the message of this national art installation? Whether direct or indirect, it seems clear to me, and it is a message of the ultimate demolition of Christian civilization. The message of the “Pantheon of Selfies” is that there are no great men anymore. There are no great voices among the chatter of the masses. We once burned one another at the stake over whose ideas were superior. Now, we are drearily all the same.

The Greatest Voice

In all of history, no single body of teaching has approached the impact of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. Icons as diverse as Ghandi and Martin Luther King relied on the Sermon on the Mount for their resistance movements, effectively changing history as we know it.  In this speech, Jesus claims to be the greatest voice when it comes to the art of living. If we do not believe in great men and great voices, Jesus’ teaching will be insensible to us.

Even the context of the sermon is laden with meaning. Just as Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the 10 commandments and the Torah that would serve as the constitution of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, so Matthew depicts Jesus climbing a mountain to deliver the supreme, authoritative body of teaching for the Church of the New Testament. There is no feigned humility, no self-deprecation in Jesus’ words. Jesus claims that there is a great voice, the voice of God found in the Law and the Prophets, and that he is now the true echo and interpreter of that voice. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Bold words.

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is picking a fight with the Pharisees. Over and again he tells the people what they have conventionally been taught, then claims a greater authority with a new teaching. In what many scholars consider the thesis of the entire sermon, Jesus lays down the hammer. “Unless your righteousness is greater than the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” Bold words.

Today, of course, we would find Jesus’ words arrogant. We might expect him to say something like, “Here is the voice of the Pharisees and their interpretation. It is a fine and valid interpretation, it’s just different than mine. I’m contributing to the conversation.” Jesus offers no such soft edges. He believes in greatness, that his teachings have come to embody true greatness. His instructions on every subject in the Sermon on the Mount – anger, lust, divorce, hatred, giving, prayer, anxiety, money – are tough as nails. Bold words.

And yet…right at the point when Jesus’ followers are ready to barnstorm the world with this new Sermon on the Mount lifestyle, Jesus applies the brakes. After He has aggressively deconstructed virtually every societal norm, thus creating a new society, Jesus reminds them that conventional methods are not going to effect any such change. Somehow Jesus’ followers must discipline themselves to embody this new way of being, to spread this new message, to publically shine like a “city on a hill” for the whole world to see, without casting judgment on others.

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (7:1-2)

Bold words.

A Non-Judgmental Movement

Jesus calls His followers to enroll in a movement that lives radically counter-culturally and yet refuses to judge detractors. In the following verses, He makes it clear that this posture against judgment should take place both within the Christian community and toward outsiders. We are called to help our brother or sister to clear their eyes, but not without the greater attention turned on ourselves (vv. 3-5). We are also to be careful not to presume that outsiders (sometimes called “dogs” or “pigs” in Jewish tradition) will respond favorably to our values (v. 6). When it comes to this challenge, how are we Christians doing today?

I recently saw the hit Christian film, “God is Not Dead.” If you have not seen the movie, perhaps you should. It is something I would gladly watch with my children were they old enough to understand it. For me, the film is important because it is written for Christians, especially Christian youth groups. Because of this audience, the film is representative of the way Christians are thinking about themselves these days. If so, we are in trouble, because the movie embodies a terribly judgmental posture, one that we Christians should be running from. This posture can be summarized in stereotyping, villifying, and simplifying.

The film tells a series of stories in which Christian characters interact with nonChristian characters. There is an atheist professor whose sole job in the classroom is to demean and belittle Christians. There is a Muslim man who beats his daughter and kicks her out of the house when she listens to Christian preaching. There is an environmental activist who viciously attacks evangelical Christians in her journalism. Do such people exist? Of course, but they are not the enemy and sweeping generalizations based on media personalities are irresponsible. Those images are powerful and we Christians should be the first to oppose them because they objectify people Christ loves and died for.

In an age in which Christians are increasingly stereotyped as anti-gay, judgmental, and hypocritical (I would argue that we are none of these things, but that the Church’s “light of the world” mandate is actually getting along quite well), we should maintain a constant vigilance when it comes to stereotyping. If I understand the basic teaching of Jesus, we certainly should not fight stereotyping with stereotyping.

We must stand guard against stereotyping because its sister is the next step in the process of judgment: vilifying. The late Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, famously wrote that we tend toward turning “I and thou” into “it.” There is something about human nature that is rabidly fed by an objectified “other.” We often use this objectification to mark out what we most believe about ourselves. This is important. Our beliefs are not like atheists or Muslims. But can we be comfortable and clear on these differences without vilifying and creating opponents?

Too often we Christians have wielded the sword of Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, wildly (and somewhat blindly) swinging away at whomever appears to be an enemy of Jesus. It’s the scientists! The atheists! The gays! The communists! Jesus, however, seemed to recognize that “they know not what they do;” that on a practical level the power of groupthink had prevailed in his death. The majority who lynched him were just following orders. All that to say, should we be interested in increasing the preexisting tensions between us and Muslims or us and atheists? How would this glorify God? Yet it is so easy to fall into, in our society where conversation gives way to the shouting matches of the cable news wars.

Finally, to embody Jesus’ nonjudgmental attitude means to beware of simplifying. There is always the tendency to see people we disagree with as two-dimensional, along with their ideas. More often than not, everything is complicated. Rather than being baited into the same old hot-button positions, shouldn’t Christians be the primary voices of reason and nuance in the marketplace of ideas?

The Impossible Road

In the end, the way of the Sermon on the Mount is so difficult because it requires fierce passion for the correctness of the way of Jesus alongside the refusal to judge those who disagree. Instead, we leave that up to God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer summarized the dilemma thusly:

To give witness to and confess the truth of Jesus, but to love the enemy of this truth, who is his enemy and our enemy, with the unconditional love of Jesus Christ – that is the narrow road. To believe in Jesus’ promise that those who follow shall possess the earth, but to encounter the enemy unarmed, to prefer suffering injustice to doing ill – that is the narrow road. To perceive other people as being weak and wrong, but to never judge them; to proclaim the good news to them, but never to throw pearls before swine – that is a narrow road. It is an unbearable road.

Indeed, to depart the masses of selfies and enter the cathedral of Jesus’ teaching is to enter through an archway that bears this inscription, “For the Great Men.”

A Letter to My Daughters

It is a Wednesday afternoon, and my 6-year old daughter is cutting paper shapes on my desk while I write a Father’s Day sermon.  She has finished a paper skirt and taped it to her waste.  This is an idyllic time in my life, and looking into her eyes reminded me of a letter that I published last year.  I hope it might be meaningful to you to read, as it was for me to write.  Perhaps it might also spur you on to read Thomas Merton and Marilynne Robinson, which would be time well spent.  As always, I welcome all comments, positive and negative.

SAM_1081

Sophia,

I will never forget holding you for the first time, my firstborn child, looking into the eyes of this little angelic baby for the first time, you the size of a football, a little angel football, crowned, as Jesus said, “a little lower than the angels.” In that moment a question settled into my mind until the tears flowed, that beautiful firstborn question: “How could God be this good to me?”

Evie,

And then there was the second-born moment. This moment was a couple of years in the making in a sense; a couple of years of figuring out what it actually means to steward a miracle, a miracle who kept us awake at all hours of the night and vomited all over us at all hours of the most inopportune times. And then you appeared in our midst, a second angelic visitation. And we found that the secondborn question is even grander than the first. No longer, “How could God be this good to me?” But even more, “How could God be this good?” Period.

This extravagance is more than I can bear. There are days with you in which I fear I will wake up and it will all have been a dream; a breathlessly happy dream. The joy that you have brought to your mother and me is, in the words of 1 Peter 1:8, “unspeakable, and full of glory.”

What I mean to say is that when I am with you, it as if the New Testament vision of creation has been finally consummated. I live my days now in a bright fog of wonder, feeling my way through a world made new each day, a world pulsing with the laughter of God. The theologians tell us that we live in what they call the “Already-Not Yet” tension of the old and new ages. Yet to look into your eyes each day is to feel the heat of the bush burning unconsumed, to glimpse the eschaton, to fall into the crevasse of the new world splitting from the old. I never knew that every inch of reality is sacred, until you appeared. My everyday miracles.

Unfortunately, the old age continues to tighten its ugly grip on the world that you will soon know all too well. I cannot save you from the very real darkness that has gripped this world. That is God’s job. But perhaps I can enlist you to join His assault on the darkness, that “the whole earth be filled with his glory.”

What will arm you for such a mission? Consider these three challenges.

First, in an age that is driven by false images, be true to the image of God that has breathed upon you, and that lives within you. Over and against what you will learn in science class, Genesis 1:27 tells us that you were created in the likeness of God. This means that the center of your being reflects God. When I see you, I see God. This is true of every person.

It will not be easy to remember this as you grow. The forces of our culture will claim to love you and will attempt to stamp you with a different image, an image of commodity. A world of commodity assigns a value to you based on achievement, intelligence, athletic ability, the shape of your body, the features of your lovely face. This value is no less than the mark of the beast (666), an assigned image that keeps the world buying and selling. Do not give into this powerful lie of consumerism. The merchants of our society will advertise to you a sense of deficiency – what you are not – in order to sell you the solution: diet pills, mascara, overpriced I-things. They will do so using the power of images.

We see this most luridly in the empire of pornography. Perhaps it could have previously been named an industry, but that day has passed. It is an empire now: an entire world of powerful fantasy, so normal that we could not even watch the Super Bowl together this year without covering your eyes during commercials advertising Doritos and web hosting. Yes, it has come to that.

Pornography is the result of a society in which bodies have been commoditized, de-mystified, and stripped of the imago dei. Pornography is what happens to a people when, in the words of the film, The Sixth Sense, the streets are full of “dead people, walking around like regular people, only they don’t know that they’re dead.” You will have to navigate such a world. I pray that you do not exchange the image of God for the mark of the beast.

Second, in an age obsessed with exteriors, nourish your interior life. I have a Facebook account (1700+ friends!) for some reason, and it disgusts me. Why in heaven’s name the average person now feels the need to inform the world of every nook and cranny of their day is beyond me. It is similar to pornography in a sense. Things that were once sheltered as private are now mindlessly bloviated to the public. I am sorry that my generation has given you such a world. (They are calling us the “Me” Generation. Perhaps you can change that.)

The only answer that I know of to maintain any sense of depth in such shallow, numb waters is the cultivation of the interior life. In the words of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, “the interior life is the ability to respond to reality, to see the value and the beauty in ordinary things, to come alive to the splendor that is all around us in the creatures of God.” Such a life requires “unlearning our wrong ways of seeing, tasting, feeling…to acquire a few of the right ones.”[1] It means that along with the pace and the noise of sports, school, friends, hobbies, we dive into the pleasures of prayer, solitude, study, even silence. I hope you find these disciplines to be gifts, not burdens.

Finally, in an age that is increasingly spiritual, I pray that you become religious. By this I mean that I wish you to find a home in the traditions, the language, and the community of the Church. God has seen to it that our family tree has been grafted into the specific Christian family of the Church of God. So, in Texas football parlance, dance with the one who brung you. At a young age, marry the Church, blemishes and all. She is not perfect, but she will save you from the Tower of Babel, from a life of the forced and unthinking sameness of our consumer culture. She will save you from your own sense of individualism, so God-given, that will yet eat you alive when left to its own devices. She will give to you the gift of originality; of color in an otherwise black-and-white society.

That originality is the full circle. It is the image of God within you. Let His image not be snuffed out. These days, looking at you, it is all that I can see.

I leave you with a sentence I read from the Pulitzer prize winning novel, Gilead, in which a dying Congregationalist minister reflects on the wonder of his child. “It’s your existence I love you for, mainly.”[2] There are days when this is all that I know how to feel, what to say.

 

[1] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (New York: Harcourt, 1955), 33.

[2] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Picador, 2006), 52.

Reading Romans During Pentecost (And As a Pentecostal!)

I am pleased to post this piece, just published in the Pentecost issue of the Journal for Preachers from Columbia Theological Seminary.  More than a book review, my hope is that reflecting on the historical setting of the earliest Christian house-gatherings in Rome will free us from Martin Luther’s individualistic reading of the single most influential document in all of western culture – Paul’s letter to the Romans.  I welcome your comments and critique!

You may be wondering what a book of critical scholarship on the archaeology of ancient Pompeii has to do with our preaching ministry during the season of Pentecost. It might be exciting had remnants of some early Christian presence been suddenly discovered in the ruins, but this is not the case. And, indeed, the first half of Peter Oakes’ book is about as technical as they come, full of guild-specific vocabulary and seemingly endless lists of the precise weights and measurements of the hundreds of tools, furnitures, and other household items painstakingly catalogued by the excavators of the town. There are some pictures, yes, but even these are drab. Yet for those preachers willing and able to endure the statistical analyses, Oakes has provided much low-hanging fruit for our taking. The book is, in the end, a surprise exercise in historical imagination. It strikes me that this is exactly what we preachers do each Pentecost.

There are two unexpected turns that comprise the action of this book. After a thorough survey of various houses in Pompeii, Oakes compares them with socio-economic models to correlate the square footage ofa family’s living space with their social status in the city. In this first turn, Oakes estimates, for example, that the 78% of the city’s population who lived near and below the subsistence level resided in rooms sized less than 199 square feet. In contrast, the 2.5% that comprised the regional and municipal elites are naturally paired with the larger homes of Pompeii, typically totaling above 1,000 square feet. The result is a vivid picture of the ancient family, business, and city. However, it is the second turn of the book that bears the payoff for the preacher. Based on data from New Testament scholarship on the size and socio-economic breakdown of house churches, Oakes emerges a “model house church” from the ruins of Pompeii, then recalculates some of his formulas to extrapolate that congregation to a much larger scale – the ancient city of Rome.

My pulse quickened as I was introduced to this ancient congregation of my believing ancestors. They meet in the home/workshop of the craftworker, Holconius, who serves as the group’s patron, 30 members cramming into 300 square feet. The space is “spartan; dark if the doors were closed, open to the street if they were open; in a very noisy environment; heavily encumbered with materials, tools and work in progress; lacking in cooking facilities and latrine.”[1] There are a few other householders present, but the great majority of the group consists of slaves, freedmen, migrant workers, and the homeless. We meet some of these members in Oakes’ vivid reconstruction. There is Primus, the gentile slave. There is Sabina, a freed slave, scrapping for survival in the wake of being released by the master who had formerly provided for at least her basic physical needs. There is Iris, the bar maid, rented out for sex. And there is Holconius, the householder, a cabinet-maker thrust into a sense of responsibility for whatever this ekklēsia was, and whatever it was to become.

What ensues is a reading of Romans that thoroughly divests the letter’s themes from the shadow of Martin Luther’s individualistic interpretation, returning the letter to its home: the local house-church. We experience the great themes of Romans through the lives of its true addressees. The promise of divine justice is no longer relegated to theories of atonement, but is now cast in the light of Primus’s hope that one day his oppressors will be punished. The promise of eternal life, “astonishingly underplayed by scholars,” is proof for members like Sabina that “the gospel validates their suffering and encourages them in their day-by-day endurance.”[2] Iris is promised that her abused bodycan be a “living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Rom 12:1). And Holconius grapples with the staggering reality and responsibility that all these, even these, are the “many brothers and sisters” of Jesus, the firstborn (Rom 8:29).

If someone such as Holconius had been asked to picture a group of people answering to the description that Paul gives in Romans, the picture would not look like that group in the workshop, including his own slaves and children, the pair of stoneworkers who were scrabbling for subsistence, and the rather dubious serving girl from the bar down the street. Surely the Spirit-filled children of God ought to be a carefully selected group living a contemplative life in a temple on an island somewhere? Paul said that the Christians were indeed carefully chosen – but they turned out to be this lot![3]

The book leads us not just into the raw data, but into the feeling of shock as this ragamuffin group of the redeemed stares at one another, their mouths open, at the first hearing of Romans 8:16. In that context, “We are all God’s sons and daughters” didn’t sound sentimental. It sounded like a bomb exploding.

And so perhaps the gift of this book in the here and now is to offer we preachers a corrective to the high-mindedness of Pentecost. After all, it is easy to get caught up in the fireworks: the tongue-talking, the fire-splitting, the fiery sermon by one who had been friends with the resurrected Jesus that launched the (capital C) Church into existence and on toward global influence. It is easy to speak of Acts 2 as the birthday of a new religious institution that has led to the very pulpit and pews before us. The on-the-ground reality of the Day of Pentecost was all that it meant for (little c) house-churches: small groups of Christians crammed in dark rooms, discovering what it meant to unremember everything that the wider culture said had value, and to dismember every dividing wall between them. “Even on my slaves, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit.”

Delete

[1] Oakes, 94-95.

[2] Ibid., 140-141.

[3] Ibid., 165.

Should “God is Not Dead” Offend Christians?

Today I saw the “Christian” film, God is Not Dead. Not since the Chic-fil-A fiasco over gay marriage have I felt such embarrassment, such a punch in the gut, by the fact that this kind of material has become representative of evangelical Christianity to evangelical Christians. We have already become such a caricature in many ways to our wider culture. What a sad thought that we Christians have taken the bait and bought into that same caricature, mistaking the caricature for biblical Christian discipleship.

If you have not seen the movie, perhaps you should. It is something I would gladly watch with my children, were they old enough to understand it. It is certainly a useful tool to open up conversations (although the function of the movie’s storyline is to effectively cut off conversations). For me, the film is important because these are my people. Evangelical, Pentecostal Christianity is my movement. I care deeply about how we engage our culture with the message of Christ. It is from this passion that I express disappointment in this movie.

I will not offer a synopsis of the plot here, as these are readily available on other websites. However, I will straightaway break the cardinal rule of persuasive rhetoric, by first offering a series of caveats as a foundation to my criticisms. No, this is not in the name of any sort of political correctness in the face of my many Christian friends who were inspired by the movie. Instead, these caveats are offered in the name of nuance, complexity, and truth; the very (Christian) values which this film completely eschews. Caveats often sound so droll in our cable news culture, where all arguments have to be dumbed down to visceral sound bytes focused purely on the singularity of the punch line. For that reason, I’ve come to think that a small part of embracing Jesus as the Prince of Peace is embracing caveats.

So here we go.

Caveat #1: I gratefully affirm the presence of Christian art forms in the entertainment marketplace.

There was once a day when art was considered a high calling of God. True Christian geniuses painted canvases, created stunning icons and stained glass forms, and raised majestic cathedrals because they understood their work to be reflective of the glory of God. There is a carving above the door of the cathedral at Seville, Spain, with a quotation by the dean responsible for building the structure. “Let us build a Cathedral so great that those who follow will think us mad for having made the attempt.” I believe that this same artistic impulse drove the gospel writers to jaw-dropping levels of artistry in their presentation of Jesus. I have always considered it a point of pride that we Christians have this artistic history.

This history continues to march forward in many arenas of art. I think of the folk artist, Howard Finster, the Catholic novelist, Flannery O’Connor, and the rapper, Lecrae. I think of the thousands of everyday believers who serve vocationally in the arts as teachers, architects, and performers. It may be that film is something of a final frontier for Christian artists, and we have only begun to take our first baby steps. For those steps to be wooden and even ugly is acceptable (jerking about from “The Passion of the Christ” to “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” to “God is Not Dead”)…as long as they are taken in the direction of Scripture and Christian orthodoxy.

Caveat #2: The medium of film virtually requires stereotyping.

This is my main beef with God is Not Dead, which I will discuss throughout this article. That discussion should not take place, however, without recognizing that film is an extraordinarily two-dimensional art form, especially films that are targeted toward a younger audience. The art of the simple story requires heroes that are outlandishly heroic, and villains that are outlandishly villainous. What is remarkable is the gospels (which many scholars believe were written to be performed as stage plays) emphatically do not paint all things in such midnight blacks and lightning whites. They are chock full of villainous heroes and heroic villains. Mel Gibson’s film about the crucifixion fell into the same trap in his characterization of Jesus’ Jewish opponents, which is not reflected so easily in the gospel texts.

Caveat #3: We Christians should fiercely defend the right of any group to say what they want…even other Christians.

It is a good thing for the world to see that our faith, and our intra-faith conversation, is vibrant, robust, and heated. After all, we have four gospels, not one. We have Galatians where Paul is ticked off at Peter, and 1 Peter that jabs right back at Paul (when you use the term, “Our dear brother Paul,” the gloves have come off and been incinerated). We have, in Acts 15, Christian Pharisees who demand circumcision, and, in Hebrews, Christian Jews that want nothing to do with Judaism. Since we believe that these discordant voices form the gospel choir of the New Testament, somehow singing together to become beautiful, we should cherish diverse voices, and fight to preserve them. The censorship of any voice is the clearest road toward oppression, so we Christians should defend the freedom of (everyone’s) speech with a particular vigor.

Caveat #4: Seeing people come to transforming faith in Christ is awesome.

What the culture will probably find to be the most offensive part of God is Not Dead is basically everyday Christian faith. We Christians are emotional about seeing people personally embrace Jesus Christ, and it is this distinctly Christian emotion that the movie strikes so effectively. I found myself moved by the conversion stories of the film.

We must admit to our secular friends: “We know this make us oddballs to you, but we can’t help it. Jesus said, ‘Go and tell.’ It is what we do. We are not Judaism. We are, and always have been, an evangelistic movement.”

Now back to why I felt the wind knocked out of me throughout the majority of God is Not Dead. Piggybacking on the four caveats, I will list four problems with the movie.

Problem #1: God is Not Dead stereotypes the supposed “enemies” of the Christian faith.

We need to be ultra-sensitive about stereotyping. While the depiction of the college professor whose sole mission is to make sure none of his students are allowed to believe in God is disturbing, the portrayal of the Muslim father beating his daughter upon hearing the news of her conversion to Christianity is horribly offensive. These are visceral, powerful images that do not reflect the average science professor or Muslim, and many Christians do not enjoy personal friendships with Muslins or atheists to counterbalance these gripping images.

In an age in which Christians are increasingly stereotyped as anti-gay, judgmental, and hypocritical (I would argue that we are none of these things, but that the Church’s “light of the world” mandate is actually getting along quite well), we should maintain a constant vigilance when it comes to stereotyping. If I understand the basic teaching of Jesus, we certainly should not fight stereotyping with stereotyping.

Problem #2: It feels good to draw up battle lines.

The late Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, famously wrote that we tend toward turning “I and thou” into “it.” There is something about human nature that is rabidly fed by an objectified “other.” We often use this objectification to mark out what we most believe about ourselves. This is important. Our beliefs are not like atheists or Muslims. But can we be comfortable and clear on these differences without vilifying and creating opponents?

Too often we Christians have wielded the sword of Malchus in the Garden of Gethsemane, wildly (and somewhat blindly) swinging away at whomever appears to be an enemy of Jesus. It’s the scientists! The atheists! The gays! The communists! Jesus, however, seemed to recognize that “they know not what they do;” that on a practical level the power of groupthink had prevailed in his death. The majority who lynched him were just following orders. All that to say, I am not interested in increasing the preexisting tensions between us and Muslims or us and atheists. How would this glorify God? Yet the film seems to do just that, painting Muslims as child abusers and science faculty as wine-bibbing, arrogant snobs.

Problem #3: God is Not Dead mentions nothing about the historical Jesus.

Let me repeat that: nothing. Nothing about his teachings, his death, his resurrection, or any of the implications therein. Instead, any theological content of the film consists of abstract arguments over whether or not the existence of God can be proven or disproven by science (oddly enough, a question which the film bends toward the inability of the latter rather than some body of insurmountable evidence for the former). Why does this matter? This one is actually quite simple: the existence of a divine creator bears no immediate evidence for the truth of Christianity any more than it would for any other form of theism, including polytheism.

Once again, we seem to be playing on the field of best-selling, shock-and-awe atheists, rather than our own. Their version of the Christian God, also presented in the movie, is typically a kind of fixed, dictatorial CEO of the closed system of the universe. Why are we having this debate with them when such an image has nothing to do with either the Old or New Testaments? Our version of God is not a version; He is a revelation. He has been revealed to us by the person, words, and work of Jesus. I think we should keep our eye on that ball.

Problem #4: God is Not Dead Simplifies Complex Conversations.

Although this one may be attributed to the medium of film and this movie’s target audience, it still earns its own headline. Rather than be baited into the same old hot-button issues, shouldn’t Christians be some of the primary voices of reason and nuance in the marketplace of ideas? Instead of out-arguing the atheists then fanning the same flames of hatred which have caused the War on Terror to mushroom into the longest active military engagement in United States history, what if Christians were engaging culture with different ideas, such as these examples:

  • What sorts of questions does science ask that theology does not, and vice versa? How might each discipline benefit the other?
  • How does the science of the origins of the universe push us to interpret the creation stories (yes, there are two) in Genesis 1-3?
  • How might evolution instruct us about God’s infinitely creative character; a God who intentionally created things that created?
  • How can we relate graciously toward our Islamic neighbors and foreigners, recognizing that most of us who are Christian were either born into a Christian family or a nation where Christianity is widely practiced?

In the end, perhaps what should be most remembered is the statistical reality that neither atheism nor Islam come close to matching the tremendous growth and impact of present Christendom. I would suggest that our more consistent opponents are apathy and materialism, especially in the west. To pick a fight with atheist scientists and devout Muslims is to severely miss the target.

Whatever the case, Jesus promised “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” If hell is powerless in the face of the Church, I’m not one bit concerned about a few rogues, whether atheists or militant Muslims. But I am deeply concerned about what this irresponsible response to them – God is Not Dead – says about us.

Fear and Wonder

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.  Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”  But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.  “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”  Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. 

Mark 16:1-8

In his book, Letters to a Young Doubter, William Coffin, the former university chaplain at Yale, describes an Easter service that takes place each year on the edge of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Thousands gather for this sunrise service each year, and it includes some spectacular elements. During this service, when Matthew 28:2 is read (“And suddenly there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone”) a giant boulder is heaved over the rim of the canyon. As it goes crashing down the rocky face into the Colorado River, a two thousand-voice choir suddenly bursts into the Hallelujah chorus. Talk about pulling out all the stops: Easter inspires spectacular celebration unlike any other Christian holiday. Coffin asks, “Too dramatic? Not, if despite all appearances, we live in an Easter world.”

And yet, the first time Easter was remembered, in the first gospel ever written, Easter isn’t anywhere near that dramatic. There are no two-thousand voice choirs, no falling boulders, no lightning flashes, no Hallelujah choruses. Instead of the spectacular, there is fear and wonder.

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.…And the story ends. Of course, the other gospel writers fill us in with many more vivid details about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. And of course, a later Christian scribe even added a longer ending to Mark, no doubt out of discomfort over such an abrupt conclusion. But in the first telling of the story, this was how it ended. We hear the announcement that Jesus has risen, but the man himself doesn’t even make a cameo appearance.

Almost everyone is illiterate 2,000 years ago, so the gospel of Mark was not written to be read, but heard. It would have been performed orally, like a play. Imagine sitting through an entire reading of the gospel of Mark, all 16 chapters, and finally getting to the end, expecting fireworks, explosions, Jesus busting out of the tomb with a red cape like Superman. Instead, the first telling of the story ended with a group of marginalized women shell-shocked and bewildered by such news. They are too shell-shocked to speak, so full of fear and wonder are they. “Make of it what you want,” Mark seems to goad us. “Make up your own mind.” The End.

I can’t say for certain, but I have come to believe that Mark ends the story in this way because he realizes that this is the most logical conclusion of the resurrection story. It is the most reasonable response to Easter then and now. That response was and is fear and wonder.

Perhaps there is no more relevant message to our world today. After all, we live in an age of the mass suppression of fear and wonder.

There is a very popular comedian named Louis C.K. with a famous bit about airplanes. He builds his comedy sketch around the fact that it is always our first tendency after disembarking from an airplane to complain. “I had to wait on the Tarmac for forty minutes.” “The flight was delayed for forty minutes.” “The in-flight internet was slow.” “The seat was cramped.” I have made all of these complaints hundreds of times without ever stopping to think about the truth: I am sitting in a cramped seat in the middle of the sky, hurtling through the stratosphere like a Greek god, suspended between heaven and earth on a giant piece of supernatural steel. I complain about being delayed thirty minutes. It took Lewis and Clark two and half years to get to the Pacific Ocean and half the crew died along the way. It takes us five hours. Oh and that internet that takes an extra second to get to the next webpage, it’s magically communicating right now to a satellite hanging in outer space. His punch line to all of our complaining? “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”

This is the message of Easter. It is the message of Mark’s ending that leaves us hanging on the edge of our seats. It is the message that sparks fear and wonder. “Everything’s amazing.” Christ is risen. We are called to fear and wonder.

What sort of lifestyle is this? What does fear and wonder look like in our everyday realities? I offer three suggestions.

First, to live in fear and wonder is to acknowledge that I do not have it all figured out. Turn on the television, visit the Barnes and Noble, pay for any manner of day-long seminar, and you’ll find a host of preachers, self-help gurus and politicians who have figured out the meaning of life on our behalf. Just vote for this party, just buy this book, just join this fitness plan and you’ll have the life of your dreams, exactly as it was meant to be. The Church, unfortunately, has all too often represented exhibit A of this kind of belligerence, preferring our fundamentalism and our certitudes to fear and wonder. But the women…fear and wonder led them to do the opposite; to keep their mouths shut. If Mark wanted to create a myth to convince people that Jesus had raised from the dead, this is a very poor way to write it. The women not only never expected Jesus’ resurrection, they hadn’t the slightest clue what any of it meant. Fear and wonder starts where our own understanding ends. It is in that space, I believe, where God dwells.

An Easter text if ever there was one is found in Ecclesiastes 5:2. “Do not be quick with your mouth. Do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” In the face of such holy mystery, perhaps we Christians could take a cue from the women and not be afraid to keep our mouths shut a little more often.

Second, to live in fear and wonder is to embrace bewilderment. About a month ago, I was leaving my house to go to work early in the morning, and I noticed an envelope on the doorstep with what looked like a child’s handwriting on the outside that said “The Rice Family.” I assumed it was a birthday invitation for my little girls from one of the children in the neighborhood, so without opening it I put it on the dining room table and went to work. My wife messaged me a few hours later and said, “Why is there an envelope addressed to our family with 7 $100 bills in it and no note.” To this day I have no idea. It might be a purposeful story if we were about to lose our house or have the gas shut off but that is not the case. We had no urgent need for $700. The money sits in my desk drawer today. It kind of feels like blood money, like some sort of Abrahamic test from God. I can’t bring myself to spend it, because I did nothing to earn it.

And maybe that is the lesson. I so quickly divide life up into stuff that I think I’ve earned and stuff that I think I’ve been given. The message of the gospel is that I have earned nothing. Every good thing in my life has been mysteriously dropped off, addressed to me by a God who is just so full of joy and trickery, that he puts stacks of riches on my front porch, and disappears without a trace.

So like the women in Mark 16, I am trembling and bewildered. Trembling and bewildered that I have married so far up. Trembling and bewildered at the sight of my children on their bikes in the coul-de-sac or asleep in their beds. Trembling and bewildered at the wonderful sojourners all around that He has allowed me to call friends. Trembling and bewildered that I get to wake up in the morning and live one more day. Every breath is miracle. Every bit of light that fills my eyes is a gift. Everything’s amazing. Everything’s amazing. Everything’s amazing. He is risen.

Against those voices on the cable news channels who would say the world is going to hell in a handbasket (as if Vladimir Putin stands at the center of the controlling narrative of the world), the voice of God which rang out 6 times over creation in Genesis 1 is still ringing: “And God saw that it was good.”  The reason our society is so enamored with celebrities, entertainment, and Apple computers, is that we are hardwired for bewilderment. That need is not met in the “empire of illusion” that our culture has created like the false world of the Matrix. It is met most primally in Easter and the resurrection of Christ.

Finally, to live in fear and wonder is to be a little nervous about how God might shake me up; me and my categories. Why are the women afraid? Because they realize that whatever on earth the empty tomb might mean, life is never going to be the same. The way they are comfortable thinking about death, suffering, closure, eternity…it is all up for grabs now.

How much easier Christianity would be without Easter! It would be so palatable, so respectable. If only Jesus died a martyr’s death and was laid to rest at some marble-walled memorial center in Jerusalem. We could visit the center, look through its museum about the things he said and did and the ways he changed the world. We could gaze at his coffin with one of those eternal gas flames burning and a bronze plaque of one of his more famous sayings. We could take our children there and tell them about this inspiring figure of history who taught us so much about ourselves and who changed history with his teachings and the way he lived his life. That would be nice, and respectable, and not costly at all. That would be safe.

In C.S. Lewis’s famous allegorical novel, The Chronicles of Narnia, the young child Susan inquires about the Christ figure in the novel, Aslan the lion, in a conversation with Mr. Beaver:

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Easter, in the end, is not just some feel good, self-helpy, abstract message about feathers, and peaches, and cream, and butterfly kisses, and hope, and optimism. It is the very unsafe message that God has gone to unimaginable lengths to capture our hearts and to fully claim His ownership over the world. He has invaded. He has assaulted. He has blown every false god (and they are all around us and in us) to smithereens. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Because this God is so dangerous that he defeated death and he is still dangerous enough to defeat even us.

“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” May we receive that same Easter gift of fear and wonder.

On Peeling the Onion of Culture

One of my goals for the blog is diversity of content.  From time to time, I will post essays like this that reflect my passion for the work of local church ministry.  As a teaching pastor at Mount Paran North Church of God and a generosity strategist for the Generis Group, I spend the majority of my working time tackling the challenges of local church leadership, ministry, and funding.  If these challenges interest you, read on!  As always, I welcome your comments, both criticism and applause.

This week I returned from one of the most enjoyable experiences of my professional life.  The seminary where I teach as an adjunct professor has a partnership with our sister denominational school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, referred to as STEDH on the island (le Séminaire Théologique de l’Église de Dieu en Haïti).  I received an email back in December from our dean, asking if I would be interested in an all-expense paid trip to Haiti to teach Luke-Acts to 40-50 graduate students, most of whom are working pastors.

Sometimes, life is so sweetly unfair.

I just spent three days in pristine weather teaching the Books of Luke and Acts to seminary students in an open-air classroom in the hills of Haiti.  I felt as though I had died and gone to heaven.

I have had the opportunity to travel and to preach in various islands of the Caribbean, but there was something particularly special about this trip.  It was about as immersive as a cross-cultural trip can be, in that I spent all day, every day in the classroom with the same large group of people.  They didn’t have the choice not to constantly interact with me since I was leading the class.  And, by God’s grace, I had the sense by the start of our second session that I had won their trust.  “He is young,” one student told the president of the seminary, “but he is heavy.”  That is a compliment I will not soon forget.

Anyone who finds himself in the middle of Port-au-Prince won’t have a difficult time figuring out that they aren’t in Kansas anymore.  Obviously, the culture is dramatically different.  The language, the food, the housing, and the social etiquette are nothing like the mainstream of life in the United States.  This is typically where the average tourist’s cross-cultural experience begins and ends, by noticing clear differences in appearance and living customs.  But these are not really examples of culture; they are manifestations of it.  These manifestations are the tip of an iceberg of localized nuances that cannot be known apart from a deep engagement with “the way people are with one another.”

I don’t know a better way to define culture.  What is even trickier about this “way people are with one another” is that it is the product of a laundry list of fairly random ingredients that stretch back hundreds, and sometimes even thousands, of years.

I would not be able to pick out examples of this duality between visible difference and invisible culture without having spent such concerted time interacting with Haitians without any other Americans around.  As I continued to observe and ask questions, examples of invisible culture abounded.  To get at them, though, requires peeling back the onion.

The flight to Port-au-Prince was 2/3 empty, yet in typical airline fashion the passengers were all seated together in full rows.  When the seatbelt light dinged off, I assumed everyone would rush to an empty row for more space.  In fact, not one Haitian budged.  It was in the classroom that I realized this was not an issue of preferred proximity; it was a manifestation of what anthropologists call dyadic (or communitarian) personality.  This same culture of collectivism relieves the need for grocery stores.  They don’t exist, since open-air street vendors take their place.  What we see on airplanes and in the streets is people living, working, and even traveling in very close quarters.  Peel back the cultural onion, and we find the unconscious, firm belief that life is inherently more public than private.  It’s not a preference.  It’s an is.  It’s “the way people are with one another” because that is the way it is.

Another example of peeling the cultural onion occurred in the classroom.  I was at first taken aback by the intensity of the questions that were shot at me from the class.  It seemed to me that the students were sparring with me rather than creating discussion.  My translator referred to it as the “shooting range” which didn’t help things.  After our first day in the classroom, however, I realized that I was not being attacked.  The intensity of the questioning was simply a manifestation of the dialogical nature of the culture.  This dialogical culture is also demonstrated in worship services.  A preacher in Haiti who isn’t constantly being interrupted by participation from the congregation just isn’t on his or her game.  One-way preaching isn’t preaching, as Haitian preaching is a conversation with the audience.  As an American professor, I felt like I was being put on the hot seat, but in actuality I was just joining in the daily dialogue of a Haitian classroom.  Haitian culture is very rabbinic in this regard.

And these are simply the nuances that are observable by the pedestrian on a day-to-day basis.  To peel back the cultural onion more forcibly requires hard research into Haiti’s history.  Indeed, the effects of the colonization of Haiti as a French slave depot have reaped libraries of sociological study.  I discovered in the classroom that virtually all Haitians speak Creole, and everyone understands French, yet not everyone feels comfortable speaking French, as it is a mark of social status, and mistakes would be terribly embarrassing.  When I inquired about the safety of the streets, they assured me that I was much safer most anywhere in the city than the average Haitian, because foreigners are respected and protected.  How could such a proud nation that fought so hard for independence from France seem so imbalanced in their classism and their preference for outsiders?  The growing discipline of postcolonial studies supplies the answer: these are the visible manifestations of a culture influenced by the invisible history of colonization.  The colonized tend to take on the traits of the colonizers.  Sad but true.

My relative safety on the streets of Port-au-Prince this week is the result of happenings in the 18th century.  Such invisible mysteries are waiting to be revealed in every arena of relationships to those with the courage to peel back the onion of culture.

For whatever reason, I have always been a hack student of organizational culture.  This impulse may stem from my commitment as a New Testament scholar to de-familiarizing the text so that Bible study becomes what it should be: a cross-cultural Indiana Jones adventure into what Karl Barth called, “the strange world of the Bible.”  It may stem from being a lifelong cultural urbanite in a denomination whose center of gravity is profoundly rural.  It certainly stems from the privilege I have had to serve in such a variety of churches and colleges.  I have learned over time that the heartbeat of every organized group of people, “the way people are with one another,” is always created by the invisibilities of culture.  Always.

As Jim Shepherd, the CEO of Generis (the generosity consulting firm where I serve churches as one of my irons in the fire), says in his fantastic book, Contagious Generosity: “Culture trumps everything.”  Forget about the mission statement, “core values,” and other formulas that are crafted for web advertising and staff cheerleading.  They mean almost nothing.  All that matters are the intangibles.  All that matters is culture.

We ignore this reality to our own peril.  Yet it is so hard not to ignore it.  I ignore it all the time.  It is hard work to peel back the onion.  Only a methodical trek through sets of very inconvenient questions sharpens the cultural onion peeler.  It is easier to work with visible raw materials rather than invisible histories, drives, and nuances.  The German architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, famously said of his magnificent craft, “God is in the details.”  I have especially learned that when it comes to creating a win-win situation in a Haitian classroom, among a board of directors, or in a church capital campaign, God is in the nuances.

This is the true battleground for those of us who want to make a positive impact on our families, marriages (yes, your marriage has a culture.  You are the way you are with one another because of a variety of invisible fears, insecurities, proclivities, and histories, most of which stretch back to childhood experiences.  Shout out to Sigmund Freud!), companies, and churches.  We know that “the way people are with one another” is the product of complex cultural dynamics.  We can have the courage to admit this unchangeable reality and dive into its complexity, conceding that culture dies hard and changes at a breathlessly slow pace.  Or we can just talk slower and louder to the French-speaking Haitians, expecting that eventually they will understand us without us taking on the responsibility to understand them.  We can return to the same old tactics of setting new year’s resolutions, creating new policies, adjusting our calendars, visioneering reorganization strategies, and cranking out new print materials full of exciting, vision-oriented rhetoric (At our church, every member is a minister! Kablam!).

Eventually, however, if we really want to effect positive change, we’ll close our fancy laptops and reach for the plain old onion peeler.

I am difficult to pick out.  Bottom row; fourth from left.

I am difficult to pick out. Bottom row; fourth from left.

On Benefaction in 2014

The turning of the New Year led me to reflect on a very peculiar New Testament text.  January is, of course, the month that we focus on personal change, both incremental and dramatic.  Families flock back to churches everywhere.  New gym memberships quadruple in popularity.  We eat more greens.  It’s like an annual self-help festival.

The documents of the New Testament easily fit into our January schema, because Scriptural authors seem to always be attempting to get their audiences to change their ways in some way.  The priests called this change purity.  The prophets called it justice.  John the Baptist and his Nazarene cousin, Jesus, called it repentance.  And at the close of the curious letter of 2 Thessalonians, Paul called it…earning power.

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ [them are fightin’ words], we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-10) 

Given the fact that 2 Thessalonians would have been read aloud to the house church (virtually everyone was illiterate in the first century Roman Empire), I can only imagine the congregational reaction.  “Pastor Paul would rather me starve to death than fail to follow his example!”  That’s a little strong, isn’t it, Apostle?

Yet it is not at all the negative judgment of this passage that is so shocking.  It is the alternative lifestyle that it demands.  Paul is, in essence, calling every last Christian to be a benefactor.

In the cities of Paul’s churches, Thessalonica included, a carefully crafted economic ecosystem made the world go round.  Walk into any ancient city, turn around 360 degrees, and this ecosystem was visible in every direction.  It was created by, of all things, inscriptions carved in stone.

In these inscriptions lay the grave distance and the sobering similarity between the ancients and us.  We create economic ecosystems with commercials, sexually charged images, and media messages throbbing on screens large and small.  In the end, these messages and images are meant to do one thing: stimulate the economy.  The ancients achieved the same economic bump with inscriptions.

Here is what I mean.

The glue that held the ancient city together was the network of benefactors that funded the city.  These benefactors not only paid for roads, latrines, aqueducts, and other public works projects, but were expected to provide food in times of shortage, games and festivals for the entire city to enjoy, even temples of worship.  Because there could be no urban development without the proper care and feeding of the city’s benefactors, standard customs arose to insure that benefactors continued to spend their money on the city’s needs.  One of these customs was aretology: a set of vocabulary, formulas, and proclamations that heaped honor upon the benefactor.  The ubiquitous inscriptions in ancient Thessalonica were expressions of this aretology.

Here is a representative inscription from the first century, to benefactor Skythes:

Skythes, son of Archidamus, has been good to the citizens, eagerly coming forward and without hesitation to offer a benefaction.  This is right and proper for a man who loves his city and is concerned for honor and good standing among the citizens.  Accordingly, we the People, being grateful to him and having seen his fine and noble character, resolve to praise Skythes because of the diligence and the forethought he has in both sacred and secular affairs and, in addition, resolved by popular decision, to crown him with a gold crown during the games at the Festival of Dionysus.  We will announce at the games when the citizens are assembled: ‘The people crown Skythes of Archidamus a fine and noble man who is well-disposed to the city,’ so that all may know the people are eager to honor its best men, so that they might eagerly continue to give benefactions.

As is evident, the citizens of ancient cities had plenty at stake in keeping their benefactors buttered up.

The tension reflected in Paul’s instructions in 2 Thessalonians reflects this ancient institution of the benefactor.  Not only did the early Christians direct all of their aretological muscle away from earthly benefactors and toward the resurrected Jesus (Erastus is the city manager of Corinth – a wealthy and honored position – yet just gets lumped in with all the other Christians in the greeting list of Romans 16), but they disallowed their house church members from participating in the primary welfare system of the ancient world that was – you guessed it – provided by benefactors.

Because benefactors controlled such vast wealth in the ancient city they needed a mechanism to shore up their influence.  They did this by amassing a retinue of followers, typically called, in Latin, clientes (hence, our English word, clients).  Clients were called not only to defend their benefactor’s honor, but to look out for his interests in courts, in politics, and in financial transactions.  So what’s in it for the client?  Look at it like a paid internship with a very meager job description.  In short, for a Thessalonian to score a clientship with a benefactor meant that they could quit their day job.  They could kick back into a life of ease under the watchful provision of the benefactor.

“What do you mean if we don’t work, we don’t eat, Pastor Paul?  You’re taking away our golden ticket!”

Against this context, it is truly remarkable that the earliest Christian teaching disallowed new converts to become clients.  Before reminding the Thessalonians that he had consciously disavowed his own honored rights in order to stay away from the appearance of clientship, Paul includes this rule in the preaching they had originally received.  Along with the announcement of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and second coming, early Christian preaching championed the death of the client system among all the baptized.  Why?  The reason is certainly not some right wing attack on the social safety net (Paul essentially invented a robust system of care for the needy in his churches; see 1 Timothy 4:3, for one example).  Nor is Paul asserting some sort of primitive Marxist critique of the “trickle-down” economics of the city.  Paul did not watch Fox News or MSNBC.  These were not his categories.  So what is Paul’s point?

The revolution of early Christianity was to call every believer, young and old, rich and poor, male and female, to cease any pursuit of clientship, so that they might attain to their God-given calling to be benefactors.  And because our early Christian ancestors believed that God had called them to such a station in their city, Christianity transformed the Roman world in time.

In 2014, may our resolutions be those not of client consumers, but of benefactors.  May our families, our churches, and our cities raise their chisels to our accomplishments.  Let the inscriptions commence.

Inscription delete