Happy Birthday Church!

A couple of observations about some Pentecost icons.

First, the empty seat at the top is the Empty or Teaching Seat. This Seat represents the place where Christ sits, not physically present but present now through the Holy Spirit and continuing to instruct the church.

Second, Paul is included among the apostles sitting at the top right across from Peter on the top left. Frequently icons conflate or stack time, stacking past, present and future events on top of each other.

Third, who is that old king at the bottom of the icon?

That is Kosmos (or Cosmos) representing the entire world, not creation but the peoples of the world. Kosmos holds in his hands scrolls of apostolic teachings symbolizing that with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the commissioning of the church the teachings of Jesus are spreading throughout the whole world. And having received this teaching Kosmos--the peoples of the world--are now emerging out of darkness.

I hope you have a blessed Pentecost.

Happy Birthday Church!

Unpublished: The Wounds of Progressive Christians

Jana and I were once members of a new church plant when I was in graduate school. This was a church associated with our tradition but was more progressive, for that time and place at least. What happened was that a lot of people who had been hurt by our churches were attracted to this new church given it's progressive nature. That's a good thing, people were looking for healing. But it also brought with it a lot of anger, hurt and dysfunction. That church no longer exists.

One of the lessons Jana and I learned during that time is that it's hard to build a church upon a foundation of anger, resentment and hurt. It's hard to build a church around an identity that basically says, "We're not like those other churches."

It's often been noted that progressive theology is inherently reactionary, the moon to the evangelical sun.

But if that's the intellectual side of the equation, the hurt and anger is the emotional side.

--an unpublished post about the emotional woundedness that runs through progressive Christianity

The Lady Lifers

Many thanks to Judy for sharing this TEDx video with me. The video shares an original song composed and sung by women serving life sentences, without the possibility of parole, in Muncy State Prison in Pennsylvania.

More information about "The Lady Lifers" can be found here.

We really need to have a conversation in this country about if life without parole is cruel and unusual treatment. I think it is.

Humans were created by God to be eschatological beings.

Hope is as essential to us as water, bread and air.

Being The Man in Black: It's Harder Than You Think

I recently presented with my good friend Mark Love at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. We did an evening session entitled "A Whirlwind in a Thorn Tree: The Music and Theology of Johnny Cash."

It was a fun session. Thanks to everyone who attended. I am kicking myself, however. During the session I forgot to share one of my favorite Johnny Cash quotes from my son Aidan.

I listen to a lot of Johnny Cash in the car. A lot. So the boys have soaked up quite a bit of Cash's discography.

One day driving in the the car to school with me Aidan says, "Johnny Cash sings songs about murder, prisons, trains...and Jesus."

I think that's one of the best descriptions of Cash's music I've ever heard. Way to go, son.

For my part of the session out at Pepperdine I talked about the theme of solidarity, standing with the outcasts, the marginalized and the down-and-out. I was surprised how few in the audience knew that Johnny Cash dressed in black as a sign of solidarity, as a symbol of grief. Most in the audience thought the black attire was an outlaw thing. No doubt it was, but as the lyrics to the song Man in Black describe:
Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.

Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.

Well, there's things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin' everywhere you go,
But 'til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You'll never see me wear a suit of white.

Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black
The black dress was a sign of solidarity, funeral attire as a symbol of weeping with those who weep.

After making these observations about the theme of solidarity in the music of Johnny Cash I wanted to complicate the picture a bit. It's easy for fans to fall into fawning hagiography when it comes to Johnny Cash. No doubt, there is much to admire. But the picture of solidarity is complicated.

One example of this complication comes from the story of Glen Sherley.

A day or so before the famous Live at Folsom Prison concert Cash was given the song "Greystone Chapel" written by an inmate at Folsom, Glen Sherley. Singing a song written by an inmate captured Cash's imagination given his penchant for showing solidarity. Cash decided to end the concert by singing "Greystone Chapel," and before the song Cash shared that it was written by Glen Sherley, an inmate there at Folsom. There's a famous photo of that moment--Cash shaking Sherley's hand from the stage. It's the photo you see above.

After having made a connection with Cash, and being made famous by the album, Sherley was eventually granted parole. And Cash was there to meet Glen at the gates of the prison when he was released. And Sherley, given his musical talent, began to preform with Cash on tour.

It's a wonderful, feel-good story. By showing solidarity in singing "Greystone Chapel" Johnny Cash saves Glen Sherley.


Over time on tour Sherley began showing sociopathic tendencies, making violent threats to members of the crew and band. Worried about Sherley's potential for violence Cash cut Sherley loose, removing him from touring and other projects.

From there Sherley drifted.

And on May 11, 1978, seven years after being released from Folsom prison, Glen Sherley shot himself in the head.

What went wrong? Was Sherley a sociopath who used Cash to get a release from prison? Did Cash fail Sherley by not sticking with him longer?

It's hard to answer those questions. Opinions differ. But I shared this story at Pepperdine because I wanted to make a point about solidarity.

Let's not romanticize solidarity. Solidarity is absolutely necessary, a non-negotiable for a follower of Jesus. But solidarity doesn't always end well. Solidarity often ends in heartbreak and tragedy.

We can all pile up story after story, how after hard years of walking alongside someone, pouring our lives into someone, emptying our bank accounts for someone, how it all fell apart in the end.

Solidarity doesn't guarantee a Happily Ever After. If you live a life standing in solidarity with people you're going to, eventually, have some Glen Sherley stories.

Being a Man or a Woman in Black, standing in solidarity with others, it's harder and more heartbreaking than you think.

Prayers for the Prisoners

Last night was an emotional night out at the prison. I'm about to start some traveling and will be gone from home for about two months. So last night was the last night I was going to be with the men at prison for many weeks.

I was surprised by how emotional I got saying good-bye. It is only for two months, but two months is a long time and I felt it. I am going to miss these men. I joke with them all the time that I write and talk so much about them because it's my goal in life to make them the most famous prison bible study in the world. These men have meant so much to me. In many ways they have saved me.

Funny how that works, your faith saved by inmates at a maximum security prison. God moves in mysterious ways. I encounter God more behind bars than I do sitting in a pew.

Over the next two months while I am away from the prison it would mean a lot to me if you remembered the men at the French Robertson Unit in your prayers. I regularly pray that God protects their bodies as well as their souls. They live in such a dark and violent place.

And if words are hard to come by as always The Book of Common Prayer is there to help. The prayer for prisoners and correctional facilities from the BCP:
Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal: Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment. Remember all prisoners, and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice. Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous. And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot. All this we ask for your mercy's sake. Amen.

Conversation With Rob Bell, Part Two

Luke has posted Part Two of our conversation with Rob Bell over at his site Newsworthy with Norsworthy. If you missed it, Part One of the conversation is here.

In Part Two the topics shift to the theological notion of zimzum, which Rob and his wife Kristen used in their most recent book, Eucharistic theology and practice, and toward the end reflections on creativity and failure.

Again, it was a blast being with both Rob and Luke. Hope you enjoy the conversation.

Unpublished: Patience

Over the last year I've heard patience mentioned over and over, in all sorts of contexts.

I've heard patience described as the quintessential experience of faith. Faith is learning to wait on God in the midst of doubt.

I've heard patience described as the quintessential act of love and kindness, managing our irritations and our hurry to be attentive and gentle with each other.

I've heard patience described as the quintessential aspect of peace and non-violence as we refrain from using power to make things "work out right" right here and right now. Peace requires a patient, eschatological hope.

Patience, it seems, sits at the root of many, many things.

Things like faith, hope, and love.

--an unpublished post about the virtue of patience

I Would Weep

When I was young I would weep through communion.

Prior to taking the Lord's Supper, which we did every Sunday, it was the tradition at my church to sing a reflective song, often one in a minor key, that made us dwell upon the sacrifice and suffering of Jesus.

Sometimes the song focused upon Jesus praying and weeping in the Garden of Gethsemane. Songs like "Tis Midnight And On Olive's Brow":
'Tis midnight, and on Olive's brow
The star is dimmed that lately shone;
'Tis midnight in the garden now,
The suff'ring Savior prays alone.

'Tis midnight, and for other's guilt
The Man of Sorrows weeps in blood;
Yet He that hath in anguish knelt
Is not forsaken by His God.

'Tis midnight, and from ether-plains
Is borne the song that angels know
Unheard by mortals are the strains
That sweetly soothe the Savior's woe.
Other songs focused upon the passion and crucifixion of Jesus. Songs like "O Sacred Head":
O sacred Head, now wounded,
with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded
with thorns, thine only crown:
how pale thou art with anguish,
with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish
which once was bright as morn!

What language shall I borrow
to thank thee, dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
O make me thine forever;
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love for thee.
I would weep through these songs, the tears often carrying through the communion service. My heart would break each week during the Lord's Supper.

Theologically at this time my mind was governed by what we call penal substitutionary atonement. A part of what brought me to tears was the knowledge that Jesus had suffered for my sins. And each week I felt a deep sorrow for that.

But here's the strange thing. The peculiar alchemy that mixed this theology with my personality within that faith community didn't produce in me a toxic, guilt-ridden faith.

To this day I'm puzzled by this as I am very aware that this was not everyone's experience growing up in my faith tradition, or within conservative Christianity generally. For many others something in the mixture of personality, doctrine and faith community created a toxic and poisonous religious experience characterized by fear, shame and guilt. Along with a vision of a brooding and wrathful God.

But not so with me. For some reason, while I knew that Jesus was suffering for my sins, my sins were not my focal point. All I felt in those songs was how much Jesus loved me. Even though I was a mess and a sinner. Jesus was willing to do that for me. And if that were true, then how much did he love me? It was, by my calculation, a love beyond measure.

I didn't feel traumatized or abused or scared. I felt loved.

And that feeling has never really left me. No matter my failures. No matter my sins. No matter my brokenness. Jesus loves me.

And that has been the template and model for my own love, what my love aspires to. No matter your failures. No matter your sins. No matter your brokenness. Love. Unconditionally.

People often ask me, how did I get from A to Z? How did I grow up in a sectarian and fundamentalist faith tradition to get to where I am today, theologically speaking, all the while looking back upon the past with great love, affection and gratitude?

How'd that happen given the very different experiences of others?

Truthfully, I have no idea. I can't explain how it happened, but I can describe what happened. I heard the same message but drew a different conclusion. I wept over my sins, like everyone else, knew Jesus died for my sins, like everyone else, but I felt love rather than wrath. 

And if I'm honest, I miss that feeling.

Progressive Christians don't typically weep over their sins when they contemplate the cross or take the Lord's Supper.

But I used to.

And I still do from time to time. Maybe it's nostalgia. Maybe it's sentimentality. Maybe it's bad theology.

But I still weep for my sins.

And I still feel loved.

A Friend of the World Becomes an Enemy of God

Many months I was teaching a bible class at church as a part of a series on the book of James. I was working through Chapter 4 which contains a string of rapid-fire imperatives:
James 4.7-10
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
Submit. Resist. Come near. Wash. Purify. Grieve. Humble yourselves.

When we read texts like this our tendency is to interpret them pietistically and individualistically. Our struggle to resist the devil, for example, is a struggle to purify our hearts in a private, spiritual battle against lust or anger or addiction.

This interpretation is reinforced by the text that comes directly before the command to "resist the devil":
James 4.4-6
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”
Again, the temptation here is to interpret "friendship with the world" pietistically. The world is a place where people are sinful and we aren't to be friends with sinful people.

All in all, then, James 4.4-10 has tended to be a text read about Christian withdrawal from the world in an effort to maintain our moral purity.

But the context of James 4.4-10 is not about a private pietistic struggle. The context is about communal peace-making within the church.

The backdrop of the imperatives in James 4.4-10 starts back up in James 3.18. Here's the full context leading up to "do not be a friend of the world" and "resist the devil":
James 3.18-James 4.3
Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. 
"Friendship with God" is being a peacemaker. And "friendship with the world" is associated with violence. "What causes fights and quarrels among you?" "You desire but do not have, so you kill."

In this text "the world" isn't a place full of moral depravity. "The world" is a place where people fight and kill. And Christians aren't to be friends with fighting and killing. "The devil" is using our desires to tempt us into fighting and killing. And Christians are to resist that.

In a world of violence, quarreling, fighting and killing James is very clear:

Friendship with violence is becoming an enemy of God.

Finding God in All the Wrong People

It was quite a week at the Pepperdine lectures. After Jana and I spent some time with Rob Bell as a part of Luke Norsworthy's podcast we also spent time with Nadia Bolz-Weber. We especially loved getting to know Nadia's family who are just amazing, amazing people.

As a part of her presentation Nadia shared some excerpts from her upcoming (Sep. 8th) book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. No spoilers, but the most poignant stories Nadia shared had to do with the small but eternally weighty work of simply getting along with people. Later, when Jana and I were visiting with Nadia, I shared with her how these stories have been the most impactful for me. We also talked about how this is what we both appreciated in Sara Miles's work.

Specifically, a lot of people have romanticized notions of "community." We talk about "community" all the time. How we need "community" how we should be "community."

But community is, for the most part, hard, irritating and boring. As I said in one of my presentations, community often means standing around drinking bad coffee with people when you'd rather be someplace else.

And community often means, and I'm thinking of Sara's work with the food pantry at St. Gregory's and my life with Freedom Fellowship, sharing life with people who are damaged in various ways. There are so many people in the world who are hard to like, let alone love--through their own fault or no fault of their own--and community means loving these people.

But most importantly, what I love about Nadia's work, in its confessional posture, is how that damaged and unlovable person isn't really you at all. It's me. In all my vanity, pride, envy and insecurity.

Let's not romanticize the drudgery and irritation of community. Or the sin community will expose in your own dark heart. The Kingdom of God is all the wrong people working hard to love each other. And that's a difficult thing.

But it happens. Over and over it happens.

Even when you're drinking bad coffee.

Rob Bell at Newsworthy With Norsworthy

Before the start of the Pepperdine Lectures it was my honor (along with Jana) to drive out with Luke Norsworthy to Laguna Beach to record a podcast with Rob Bell.

Rob, and his friends who hosted us, was awesome. So warm, welcoming and hospitable.

We spent about three hours talking with Rob and enjoyed every minute of it. Part One of that conversation is now live at Luke's website Newsworthy with Norsworthy (and you can subscribe to and follow Luke's podcast on iTunes).

In Part One we talk a bit about Love Wins and the issues related to human freedom, something I was looking forward to talking to Rob about.

I'll let you know when Part Two of the conversation goes live.

Bringing Heaven to Earth: You Don't Have to Wait for Eternity to Live the Good News

I'm fortunate that my preacher, Jonathan Storment, is also a dear friend. Jonathan and Josh Ross, who is also a friend, have a new book out entitled Bringing Heaven to Earth: You Don't Have to Wait For Eternity to Live the Good News.

Bringing Heaven to Earth is a great book and I was honored to endorse it. I asked Jonathan and Josh if I could share an excerpt from the book. Regular readers know I'm passionate about the local church, so I was excited that Jonathan and Josh chose to share this story from my own church here in Abilene.


Excerpt from Bringing Heaven to Earth:

My favorite hymn is “O Holy Night.” It’s easily one of the most profound, powerful songs ever sung. “Fall on your knees.” This was not written as a request, but as a mandate. In the light of the gospel and the power of God’s love and grace, we have no choice but to kneel in worship.

Heaven has entered earth in the form of a Baby, and now “the soul feels its worth.” What a great line! The chains are released because the slave is our brother, because the soul feels its worth. I think I understand why we keep this hymn in the “Christmas song” category. It conveys such power and insists on such a humble response, we can only handle it a couple of times a year. And from a historical standpoint it’s incredibly accurate.

When most of us think of human rights—when we think of equality and opportunity, justice and mercy—the biblical foundation for these things is entirely influenced by the Jesus story. Heaven has intersected earth and changed everything. The soul has felt its worth.

Jesus is God’s Way of letting the soul feel its worth. At its heart, the gospel is about a God who chooses to be among us.

God chooses to be among the people who ordinarily are overlooked. He paid special attention to shepherds and teenagers and fishermen and single moms and small children. Jesus showed special care to lepers, blind persons, those with physical disabilities, crooks, liars, hookers, and worse. That’s who God decided to be with.

Rene Girard was a French philosopher who taught at Stanford University. He was a brilliant anthropologist who was fascinated with one question: “Why, in modern times, does the marginalized person have moral authority?” This reality confused Girard because, outside of the movement of Jesus, there was nothing comparable to it in ancient culture or literature. The ancient world celebrated the strong and heroic, not the vulnerable and weak. Girard found this fascinating in light of greater attention being paid in the modern world to liberation movements and efforts to protect the rights of minorities and to combat human trafficking. What was motivating all these efforts to come to the aid of marginalized and powerless people?

Girard traced this social phenomenon back to the life of Jesus. He discovered that with His birth and death, Jesus introduced a new plot to human history. The victim mattered. The people who were oppressed mattered. And to the confusion of his peers at Stanford University, Girard, a man respected for being a great thinker and widely known as a secular humanist, started following Jesus.

Our world thinks the most important thing you can do is take the right position on the right issues. Jesus reminds us that the most important thing is to be standing in the right place. Girard’s great insight was that Jesus changed the world by standing in solidarity with all the “wrong” people.

Jesus created a new ethic, which His followers adopted and lived out. God in human flesh celebrated life among the least of these, until the outcasts and overlooked people on the margins of society started to realize that they mattered too. Gradually it took hold, so that a growing number of cultures adopted an ethic that insisted that everyone mattered. It sounds like such common sense to today’s Western mind. After all, we assume that these truths are “self evident.” But in Jesus’s day, this was a breath-taking, groundbreaking insight that no one had ever considered before.

Who would have thought that asking a Samaritan divorcee for water, or having a party with a corrupt tax collector, or touching lepers would have such far-reaching implications? Who would have thought that a Judean peasant who never wrote a word that was preserved, and who never traveled farther than forty miles from the village where He was born, would so radically alter the world? But centuries later, Jesus’s life slowly deconstructed an economy in the West, in a world that was unknown to the ancient near east. His life, example, and justice ethic overturned a system built on slave labor and slave trading. And he did it with parties. By choosing to socialize with those who were despised by the “acceptable” people, Jesus opened people’s eyes to the entrenched lie that some lives matter more than others.

God in human flesh partied with all the wrong people.

A few months ago, the church I serve had a party for Martha. Martha had been in prison for more than a decade, and after she was released she had to spend years on parole. On the day her parole finally ended, we threw a party to celebrate Martha’s freedom. She was re-entering society fully, and the church thought that was worth a celebrating with cake and punch.

For an evening, people celebrated something really significant. There were tears and hugs and high-fives and junk food. But Martha’s party really started a few years earlier.

When she first entered prison, she was incredibly lonely. The other inmates received letters from friends and family, but Martha didn’t have a support group. She was more than incarcerated, she was alone.

One day a prison chaplain suggested that she read the New Testament, mentioning that Paul’s letters could be considered God’s letters sent to Martha.

Then the chaplain gave Martha a Bible.

At first she ignored the chaplain’s advice. Two-thousand-year-old letters couldn’t replace notes from a friend. But eventually Martha picked up the Bible just to skim through it. When she did, one word caught her attention and eventually got her to read the whole Bible.

The word that stood out is found in the first verse of the first chapter of Paul’s letter to Christians in Ephesus:

“I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”

And the soul feels its worth.


Jonathan Storment is the preaching minister at the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, TX and is the author of How to Start a Riot.

Josh Ross is the preaching minister at the Sycamore View Church of Christ in Memphis, TN and is the author of Scarred Faith.

The Hermeneutics of the Temple Action: The Theological Scars of Empire

This will be the last of three posts regarding the hermeneutics of Jesus's temple action (Part 1 here and Part 2 here).

As I mentioned yesterday, my interest in the hermeneutics of the temple action--how the story is interpreted--is that this story can be used to unmask the background assumptions regulating how we read the biblical texts, the unspoken worldview that tells us which readings of the text are legitimate versus illegitimate.

Here is the analysis I have been giving.

In debates about justified violence and just war Jesus's temple action is often used as a warrant for using violence against people, even to the point of killing people.

A different reading of the temple action could argue that Jesus's violence in the temple action was violence directed at property, rather than at people, as a protest against economic and political exploitation.

As I mentioned in the last post, I don't think Jesus's actions can be used to justify violence of either sort--toward people or property. Just war apologists and militant activists who make appeals to Jesus's actions in the temple are free to disagree with me about that. My point has been, rather, that a wildly implausible reading--using the temple action to justify violence against people--has frequently been deemed moral and legitimate while an equally if not more plausible reading--violence toward property to protest exploitation--is generally deemed immoral and illegitimate.

Why the different attitudes about those two readings?

The suggestion I made yesterday was that when the reading is used to support the violence of Empire that reading is deemed moral, theologically reasonable and legitimate. But when a reading supports violence protesting or interrupting Empire, and milder forms of violence at that, that reading is generally deemed immoral, theologically unreasonable and illegitimate.

What I'm trying to draw attention to is how Empire regulates our reading of Scripture, how Empire unconsciously sets up the boundaries of what is moral versus immoral, reasonable versus unreasonable, legitimate versus illegitimate.

So let me, to end this series of posts, make this point clear.

Imagine I go to a Christian blog or forum and there I see Christians debating whether or not killing is ever justified. We've all seen or participated in these debates, say, between pacifists and just war apologists. And while many of us have strong opinions about this topic most simply feel torn. We see the good points being made by both sides. So the debates roll on.

Here's the point I want to make: Christians find these debates about killing people perfectly normal.

Can a Christian kill people? Ho hum.

Ponder that. This is how deeply Empire has scarred our theological imaginations. It's completely normal for Christians to debate killing people online, coolly listing out criteria about when killing is or is not acceptable.

Now imagine you stumble upon a different sort of debate today on the Internet.

Imagine you come across some Christian activists debating online about when it is or is not acceptable to use violence against property as a part of a protest against economic and political oppression. Using biblical texts like Jesus's temple action these activists are setting out criteria for when it is justifiable to destroy property as a part of a protest. These activists discuss things like "last resort" criteria just like the "last resort" criteria used for just war: Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical. It may be clear that the other side is using negotiations as a delaying tactic and will not make meaningful concessions.

If we came across a debate like that online we'd freak out. We'd log in to say, "Hey, destroying property is never, never okay!"

Ponder, here, our reactions to those two debates, Christians debating justifiable violence toward people versus justifiable violence toward property.

My point, again, isn't that either sort of violence is justified but that when Christians debate killing people no one finds this conversation weird or problematic as a conversation.

Listing out criteria for killing people? That's totally normal behavior for Christians. 

But listing out criteria for the justified destruction of property? That's totally beyond the pale--radical, crazed, immoral and insane.

Once again, I don't think either sort of violence is justified. What I'm trying to point out is how our notions of sanity, morality and radicality have been twisted in ways we barely notice or register. Violence toward property in a protest? That's the height of immorality and irresponsibility. It's anti-Christian to the core. But few if any Christians are shocked by a debate about killing human beings. We think killing is a legitimate debate to be had, worthy of reasoned conversation and consideration.

Killing people? That's on the table of options. It's a very Christian conversation.

Think about that.

That is how deeply our theological imaginations have been scarred by Empire

The Hermeneutics of the Temple Action: Jesus, Empire and Othering Violence

In yesterday's post I made an observation regarding the hermeneutics of Jesus's temple action. Specifically, in the debates about pacifism within the Christian tradition Jesus's temple action is often used to justify violence toward people, even killing people.

The observation I made yesterday was that many of the Christians who make these sorts of arguments--that Jesus's temple action provides a warrant for violence against people, even killing people--often decry the destruction of property as a part of protests against economic or political oppression. And yet, Jesus's actions--violence toward property as a part of a protest against exploitation and oppression--fits this situation better than using his actions as a warrant for killing people, because Jesus didn't kill anyone during the temple action.

Again, my point in making this observation isn't to provide a warrant for violence toward property during protests. Jesus's temple action was a symbolic and dramatic enactment taking place within the overarching narrative of Israel's relationship with YHWH. I'd argue that Jesus was telling a story more than he was engaging in a form of political activism.

People can debate me about that. Regardless, my purposes in drawing attention to Jesus's temple action is how it illuminates background assumptions that regulate our hermeneutical choices, why some readings of a text are deemed legitimate or illegitimate.

Specifically, in conservative, evangelical circles why is the temple action often used to justify violence toward people--even killing people--but never used to justify violence toward property in protests against exploitation and oppression?

I think a key here is where the violence is being directed, the othering nature of violence.

Specifically, when the temple action is used in debates about justified violence toward people--even killing people--the person being aggressed against or killed in these debated scenarios is an Other--the enemy, for example, in a just war. The violence is being directed at Them rather than at Us.

By contrast, violence toward property in protests against exploitation and oppression is a violence directed against Us.

Consequently, the purposes of these two forms of violence are different. In killing the enemy the goal is to preserve our country, violence to protect Us, violence to protect our empire.

In contrast, the goal of violence directed toward property in protests is to call us and our empire to repentance for systemic oppression and exploitation.

This contrast again highlights the puzzle I noted yesterday and above. Specifically, which situation best fits what Jesus was doing in his temple action? Was Jesus killing enemies of a foreign nation in a war to protect his country or protecting his family from a violent intruder?

Or was Jesus using violence toward property in a protest to call his nation to collective repentance for its systemic oppression?

Again, my point here isn't to justify violence against property. As I said above, I think Jesus's actions were a singularity, a theatrical enactment taking place at a critical time and place in Israel's overarching story. My point is to draw attention to how more plausible readings of Scripture are deemed illegitimate while less plausible readings are deemed legitimate.

In the case of the temple action notice how a pro-Empire reading is, by default, deemed moral, rational and legitimate whereas an anti-Empire reading is deemed immoral, irrational and illegitimate. When the violence is directed toward Others the reading is legitimate but when the violence is directed at Us, even violence of a much milder sort, it's illegitimate.

I'm interested in the hermeneutics of the temple action because it reveals how our readings of the biblical text are betrayed by our self-interest, personal and national, how Jesus becomes aligned with Us against Them.

Especially when we'd like to kill Them.

Part Three

The Hermeneutics of the Temple Action: Jesus and Violence Toward People or Property?

In the debates about pacifism within the Christian tradition many Christians have justified the use of violence and killing by making an appeal to Jesus's temple action, the time when Jesus flipped the tables of the moneychangers and dove sellers and drove people from the temple courts with a whip.

I agree with the many other Christians who think that this is a horrible argument. It's quite a stretch to go from Jesus's temple action to killing people. Of course if Jesus, say, stabbed somebody to death in the temple then we might have something to talk about. But that's not what happened. To be sure, the word "violence" could be used to describe Jesus's actions, but that's a far cry from giving us a warrant to kill.

And yet, there is something much less talked about and debated regarding Jesus's temple action.

Specifically, many months ago I was reading a book by David Graeber, anarchist activist and one of the intellectual leaders of the Occupy Movement. In the book Graeber was describing how one the questions most hotly contested in activist communities is if it is ever okay to break a window during a protest. And if so, when?

A strict non-violent approach to activism would argue that it's never okay to break a window, for both practical and ethical reasons. But more militant strands of activism would say that while we should never hurt human beings there are times when it's justifiable to destroy property. That is, when we talk about the use of violence a distinction can be made between property and people.

In recent months this distinction--violence toward property or people--has also come up in the wake of property destruction associated with the protests against police brutality in cities like Baltimore. For example, in their recent "Cost of Freedom" conversation at Biola University Cornel West and Robert George talk about the property/people distinction in relation to the protests in Baltimore (pick up at the 1:35 mark).

I bring this up to make two observations.

The first observation is that while I don't think the violence of Jesus's temple action can be used as a warrant for violence against people the situation is murkier when it comes to violence toward property. The temple action was a symbolic, public and visible act of protest against economic and political corruption that involved some violence toward property. Jesus left the moneychangers and dove sellers with a bill.

Now, to be very clear, I think it's hard to draw ethical implications from Jesus's temple action.

For example, it's hard to tell if Jesus was trying to change the system or trying to provoke the system into a violent response, picking a lethal fight to shame the Powers That Be. Either way, Jesus's temple action wasn't politically effective, unless you consider execution by the state a mark of success. Basically, it's hard to get a sense of what Jesus was trying to accomplish in the temple action.

In addition, if Jesus did destroy property during the temple action he took full public responsibility for it. Jesus wasn't an anonymous anarchist wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. What we see in Jesus's action, if we believe that he destroyed property, is more akin to acts of civil disobedience where property is destroyed and those engaging in the action do not flee but stay to be publicly identified and arrested. An example of this would the Catonsville Nine.

So again, it's hard to know exactly what, if any, lessons we should take away from Jesus's temple action. Which brings me to the second point I'd like to make, a point that is more about the hermeneutics of the temple action than about the ethics.

Specifically, many of the Christians who use the violence of the temple action to justify killing or violence toward people are very often the same people who decry violence toward property during protests.

Which is very strange if you think about it.

Specifically, hermeneutically speaking it's a real stretch to use the temple action as a warrant for killing because, as we know, Jesus didn't kill anyone during the action.

However, a coherent hermeneutical case could be made that Jesus did engage in violence toward property as a part of a protest against economic and political exploitation. I'm not saying such a case should be made or that it's justified, simply that a stronger case could be made for violence toward property as opposed to killing.

And yet, many of the Christians who use the violence of the temple action to justify killing or violence toward people are often appalled by the violence toward property in protests against economic and political oppression.

Part Two

Unpublished: Disagreement in Community

The rupture between Catholicism and Protestantism occurred when Martin Luther said this:
I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.
I'm Protestant enough to think everyone has a Martin Luther line in the sand. Even Catholics. There are issues of conscience where you can no longer fellowship with a particular faith community.

However, not everything should or ought to become an issue of conscience. We can't do community unless, at a variety of critical locations, people are disagreeing yet staying in communion. Yes, there will be locations of rupture. But agreement isn't what ultimately what binds the community together.

Disagreement is what makes community a real community.

--from an unpublished post arguing that we need to tolerate more disagreement within faith communities

Searching for Sunday

I just finished reading Rachel Held Evans's newest book Searching for Sunday.

First, Searching for Sunday is such a well-written book. Rachel's writing is always smart, funny, soulful, honest and warm. When you read Rachel you're going to learn something in one paragraph, laugh in the next, and get self-reflective after that. That's what I've always liked about Rachel's writing, the combination of heart and mind, intellect and soul, erudition and passion.

Overall, here is what struck me about Searching for Sunday.

The narrative thread that runs through the book begins with Rachel and her husband Dan, who live in the small town of Dayton, TN, struggling with and eventually leaving a loving but conservative evangelical church. This is a painful leave-taking because this church loved Rachel and Dan and Rachel and Dan loved this church. But the theological and political tensions grew to be too much.

Let me pause here. I grew up in a small conservative church. And I still attend a church that is more conservative than I am. How am I able to tolerate this?

I think a large part of it is due to the fact that the churches I attended, while theologically conservative, were Anabaptist enough to be apolitical. Presidential elections came and went and we never talked about them. Preachers never treated the congregation as a voting block to be sent to the polls.

As I reflect on this in light of Searching for Sunday (I'm thinking here especially of Chapter 8 "Vote Yes On One"), I'm wondering if this isn't evangelicalism's fundamental mistake, the politicization of the church. Evangelicalism has become more concerned with elections than with the gospel. Rather than proclaiming the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus evangelicalism has devolved into a raw, Nietzschean will to power.

No wonder Millennials are disillusioned.

Anyway, after leaving their church Rachel and Dan work with others to start a new church called The Mission in Dayton. That church plant never reaches the numerical and financial "tipping point" to take off, eventually exhausting the small group who started the work. The Mission closes its doors.

A season of disillusionment for Rachel follows. We've all felt it. Maybe we should just sleep in on Sundays and give up on going to church. And if we do go back to church where should we go? Most churches have some sort of baggage that disqualifies them given the "must have" checklist we bring to the table as we shop around. No church is perfect.

Eventually, Rachel and Dan find their way back to Sunday, finding community at St. Luke's Episcopal Church.

This journey of leave-taking and reunion is told through the lens of the seven sacraments--baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing the sick and marriage. While Rachel and Dan are "searching for Sunday" we are introduced or, rather, re-introduced to the church by reflecting upon these seven sacraments. Rachel's reflections upon the sacraments are biblical, theological and historical. You learn a lot of bible and church history reading about each sacrament.

But the thread that holds it all together is how each sacrament, as Rachel experiences it in contemporary contexts in her own life and with fellow believers, brings Rachel back to that grace we call the church. As Rachel writes in her Prologue "Dawn": "It seemed fitting to arrange the book around the sacraments because it was the sacraments that drew me back to church after I'd given up on it."

That is the part of Searching for Sunday that I'd like to dwell on.

In many ways Searching for Sunday is the continuation and sequel to Faith Unraveled (formerly Evolving in Monkey Town). If you read Faith Unraveled you know that it was a book about doubt and questions and Rachel's quest to find a faith that would welcome and embrace those questions.

Those doubts are still very much with Rachel in Searching for Sunday. In fact, to this reader, those doubts seem even heavier.

A lot has been made about Rachel's relationship and conflict with evangelicalism. And much of that disillusionment with evangelicalism is on display in Searching for Sunday, related mostly to Rachel's more "progressive" or "liberal" views regarding gender roles and the inclusion of LGBT persons in the church. Those two issues are a large part of Rachel and Dan's "break up" with the evangelical church they were attending in Dayton.

And yet, as I read Searching for Sunday, doubt remains the deeper issue. Disagreements about gender and sexuality are a part of the problem, but what haunts Rachel from the beginning to the end of the book is doubt.

For example, early the book Rachel laments (emphasis her's),
What if none of this is true? What if it's all one big lie?
In the chapter "Easter Doubt" Rachel tries to describe what it is like to go to church full of doubts. She writes,
[T]here is nothing nominal or lukewarm or indifferent about standing in this hurricane of questions every day and staring each one down until you've mustered all the bravery and fortitude and trust it takes to whisper just one of them out loud on the car ride home:

"What if we made this up because we're afraid of death?"
In the chapter "Wayside Shrines" Rachel is visiting a Catholic monastery looking to pick up the pieces after the failure of The Mission church plant. Rachel finds herself in a conversation with a monk in residence there along with a Catholic woman also on a retreat at the monastery. The conversation turns to a recent tornado in the area that did a lot of damage. Both the monk and the woman express praise that the Blessed Mother protected the monastery from the tornado. Rachel is crestfallen, thrown back into doubt. She writes:
They looked at me, expecting some kind of a response, but I didn't know how to tell them this was exactly the sort of thing that made me doubt...What kind of God pulls storm clouds away from a church and pushes them toward a mobile home park?...

I studied my plate, feeling both guilty for asking these questions and resentful of those who don't. No matter where I went to church, I realized, doubt would follow, nipping at my heels. No matter what hymns I sang, what prayers I prayed, what doctrinal statements I signed, I would always feel like an outsider, a stranger.
Finally, I think it's telling that Rachel begins the book with "Dawn" and ends the book in "Dark." Not your typical progression in a Christian memoir. Maybe Rachel has "found Sunday" by the end of the book at St. Luke's and in the church universal, but the trajectory of the book is from Dawn to Dark.

Doubt still haunts.

All that to say, again, much has been made about Rachel's lover's quarrel with evangelicalism regarding gender and sexuality (see the chapter "Evangelical Acedia" for a status report regarding her relationship with evangelicalism). But I think focusing on that quarrel misses what I think is the deeper story of Searching for Sunday.

Searching for Sunday isn't a story about someone breaking up with evangelicalism to become a mainline Protestant. Searching for Sunday is, rather, a poignant memoir about our desperate struggle to find and hold onto faith in the modern world.

I see this struggle every day in the lives of my students. I feel it in my own life.

Recently I found out some friends of mine have stopped coming to church because, well, they just don't believe anymore.

Maybe we have made all this stuff up because we are afraid to die.

Listen, if you focus on Rachel's squabbles with evangelicalism you'll be missing what I think is at the heart of Searching for Sunday. To be sure, evangelicals aren't helping the doubt-filled all that much, but as Rachel's story in the monastery shows this is a story that transcends denominational lines. Searching for Sunday is a story about doubt nipping at your heels no matter where you go on Sunday morning.

Which is why, to end on a positive note, I think Rachel's focus on the sacraments is so helpful and important. In my own way I'm making the same journey Rachel is making.

Recently, my friend Mark described me by saying that I've practiced my way back into faith. I think that's right. I've practiced my way into faith.

My faith, to connect back to Rachel, has become sacramental. Tangible, communal, relational, physical and incarnational.

As Rachel says near the end of her book,
The purpose of the church, and of the sacraments, is to give the world a glimpse of the kingdom, to point in its direction. When we put a kingdom-spin on ordinary things--water, wine, leadership, marriage, friendship, feasting, sickness, forgiveness--we see that they can be holy, they can point us to something greater than ourselves, a fantastic mystery that brings meaning to everything. We make something sacramental when we make it like the kingdom. Marriage is sacramental when it is characterized by mutual love and submission. A meal is sacramental when the rich and poor, powerful and marginalized, sinners and saints share equal status around the table. A local church is sacramental when it is a place where the last are first and the first are last and those who hunger and thirst are fed. And the church universal is sacramental when it knows no geographic boundaries, no political parties, no single language or culture, and when it advances not through power and might, but through acts of love, joy, and peace and missions of mercy, kindness, and humility.

Tonight, as I write this, I'll be going to my own little dysfunctional church family called Freedom Fellowship. There rich and poor will share donated soup. Addicts will break bread with college professors. Criminals will clean up with business owners. White, Black and Hispanic will embrace as brothers and sisters.

Tonight we will anoint the sick and raise our hands in praise. We will celebrate the sacraments. We will confess Jesus as Lord. We will practice resurrection.

Is that faith? I don't know.

But I'm with Rachel on this.

Whatever it is, it is searching for resurrection, it is searching for Sunday.

We are pointing ourselves toward the Kingdom of God.

Batman and the Joker

A few weeks ago I was with a bunch of my students who were presenting their research at the annual Southwestern Psychological Association (SWPA) conference. One of the invited speakers at SWPA was Travis Langley, author of the bestselling book Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Night. My colleague David and I also got to visit with Travis during a poster session where we all had students presenting their research.

One of the things that struck me during Travis's presentation was his explanation about why Batman is so popular, perhaps the most popular comic-book character out there. (Superman and Batman seem to run neck and neck in this race.)

Here's what Travis said about the enduring popularity of Batman.

Batman attracts us, according to Travis, because Batman becomes Batman by intentionally undergoing a psychological transformation. Most superheros are superheros because they are an alien (like Superman) or because something happens to them that gives them super-human abilities (like Spider-man).

But Batman is different. Batman doesn't have any special abilities. Batman is Batman because he chooses to become a dark symbol, chooses to become a bat, chooses to become a vigilante.

Basically, as Travis pointed out, Batman is Batman because of his psychology.

Relatedly, Batman's classic adversaries don't have super-powers. Rather, they too are characterized by their own psychological quirks brought on in many cases, like Batman's, by past trauma.

Thus, when Batman confronts an adversary we're not witnessing a clash of powers but a clash of psychologies, two personalities colliding. And we're drawn to the clash as we're keen to see what the adversary draws out of Batman's psyche.

The iconic example of this is Batman's conflict with the Joker. The conflict between Batman and Joker is a psychological conflict, the Joker constantly probing and exploiting the darker elements in Batman's psyche. The Joker doesn't want to beat Batman up as much as he wants to pervert or destroy Batman's psychological and moral integrity. With Batman and the Joker it's a clash of wills--rooted in their respective psychological traumas--rather than a clash of super-powers.

Now this might be a bit of a stretch, but as I listened to Travis describe all this about the conflict between Batman and the Joker I kept thinking about the conflict between Jesus and Satan in the gospels.

Specifically, the clash between Jesus and Satan in the temptation narratives in the gospels isn't a clash between super-heroes with super-powers. We don't see Jesus and Satan throwing thunderbolts at each other from mountaintops. And Jesus and Satan don't destroy a city the way Superman and General Zod do in the recent Man of Steel movie.

No, the battle between Jesus and Satan is more like the battle between Batman and the Joker. The battle between Jesus and the Satan is psychological, moral and spiritual in nature.

I think that observation has important implications for how we envision what is called "spiritual warfare." The battle with the Satan is internal rather than external. The battle is moral, spiritual and psychological in nature.

Satan isn't a super-villain with super-powers confronting us from the outside.

Satan is more like the Joker, a force that probes and exploits the darker elements in our psyche, our fears and our perversions.

Knowing the Things That Make For Peace

Last week I wrote about preterism and the work of N.T. Wright.

Specifically, we discussed how when Jesus speaks about a coming judgment, especially in his Olivet Discourse (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21), he wasn't talking about an otherworldly hell but about the destruction of Jerusalem. As N.T. Wright has observed, "in those famous passages in the Gospels, Jesus is talking not about the end of the world but about the fall of Jerusalem."

In a comment to that post a reader asked the following question:

"If Jesus was simply telling people not to rebel against Rome, how is that relevant to us today? Or should we not try to find personal relevance in the words of Jesus?"

That's a great question, one I wrote about last year:

Again, as scholars like N.T. Wright have pointed out Jesus seemed acutely aware that his people were on a lethal collision course with Rome. If Israel did not repent, if Israel did not listen, she was going to revisit the catastrophe when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. It was all going to happen again, Jesus prophesied. History was repeating itself.

Only this time it would be Rome dropping the hammer.

Jesus saw it coming. And he tried to stop it. But he had failed. And it brought him to tears.

Luke 19.41-44
And when Jesus drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
Jesus's lament over Jerusalem helps us unpack how Jesus saw his mission, what he meant when he proclaimed "the Kingdom of God."

Specifically, why did Jesus weep over Jerusalem? It was because Jerusalem had failed to learn "the things that make for peace." And because Jerusalem had failed to respond to Jesus's kingdom proclamation--had failed to learn the things that make for peace, failed to learn that the Kingdom of God was "in their midst"--Jerusalem had set herself on a path of destruction.

What I find important in these observations is how Jesus's teachings regarding salvation and judgment are rooted in the concrete and historical conflict between Jerusalem and Rome. Jesus's kingdom proclamation wasn't about an otherworldly heaven and hell. The kingdom was about learning "the things that make for peace" in this world. Responding to Jesus's message was learning that the Kingdom of God is right here, right now, "in our midst."

Repent and turn back from the path of self-destruction. Learn the things that make for peace.

The Kingdom of God is at hand.

Relatedly, let's again note that the judgment Jesus spoke of--that place of weeping and the gnashing of teeth--wasn't hell. This was the judgment that Jesus wept over: violent death in this world. Jesus wept that those living by the sword in this world would continue dying by the sword. The "coming judgment" was a personal and communal annihilation because a people had failed to learn "the things that make for peace."

And it seems to me that Jesus's message--his proclamation of the kingdom and judgment--is extraordinarily relevant to this day. Perhaps even more so.

With Jesus we continue to weep over a world that refuses to learn "the things that make for peace." Interpersonally, socially, economically, politically, and ecologically.

The Kingdom of God is in our midst. May we repent and be saved from destruction.

Unpublished: Fireflies

There are moments that I have felt and have named
as God. Where I have glimpsed something,
out of the corner of my eye. Something clean, bright
and holy. Epiphanies, as quick and as fleeting as fireflies
dancing. And me, a child rushing
to touch and cherish in the hollow of my hands
before the light dances away.  As it always does. Still
I have seen. Seen the night
illuminated just beyond my reaching.
Even on these the darkest nights. Calling me forward--
watchful, silent and expectant.  

--an unpublished poem

Rethinking Heaven and Hell: On Preterism, N.T. Wright and the Churches of Christ

My faith tradition keeps surprising me.

There's a lot that is quirky about the Churches of Christ. Our eschatology is an example. And yet, just when I think we're weird and marginal I discover that, well, through either providence or historical accident we find ourselves right on the cutting edge.

As I've written about before, eschatology within the Churches of Christ has tended toward preterism, generally partial preterism.

To catch everyone up, preterism is the view that all biblical prophecies have already been fulfilled, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. In full preterim this includes all prophecies about Final Judgment, the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead. Partial preterism is the less extreme and more common view, arguing that most of the prophecies in the book of Daniel, the book of Revelation and in Jesus's Olivet Discourse (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21) were fulfilled in 70 AD (and/or with the destruction of Rome) but that Final Judgment, the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead are still to come.

Again, many within the Churches of Christ subscribe to partial preterism. We believe that all that stuff in Revelation about the Beast, 666, the "rapture," a millennial reign and the Antichrist was referring to events that occurred in 70 AD. (Though many think that Revelation is about the destruction of Rome rather than Jerusalem. Still, we concur that most biblical prophecy is over and done with.) According to partial preterism the only event in the future that remains is the Second Coming of Jesus which ushers in Final Judgment. And that final event--the Second Coming--is wholly unpredictable and instantaneous. Jesus will come like a "thief in the night" (unpredictable) and in the "twinkling of an eye" (instantaneous).

Pore over the book of Revelation as much as you like, you will never be able to read the tea leaves.

All of which means that, in the eyes of the Churches of Christ, attempts at working out "end times prophecy," especially in relation to geo-political events (like focusing on, say, the state of Israel), is a total waste of time.

Growing up with preterism made me feel weird. Every time I engaged a Christian outside of the Churches of Christ--Baptists in particular--they had all this apocalyptic "end of days" and "rapture" theology worked out. So when I shared my belief that all that stuff they were talking about had already happened in 70 AD I was met with astonishment and incredulity.

And yet, over the years I've been noticing how preterism is becoming more mainstream. And much of this due to the work of N.T. Wright.

I don't know if Wright would describe his views as preterist. Wright is definitely not a full preterist. But much of Wright's writing articulates a partial preterist viewpoint, especially when it comes to Jesus.

Specifically, Wright argues over and over in his books, a view shared by many biblical scholars, that Jesus was calling Israel to repent as she was on a self-destructive collision course with Rome. Jesus saw the coming violent conflagration and predicted it. And about forty years after Jesus's death his predication came to pass.

All that to say, most of what Jesus was talking about in the gospels in regards to judgment--that place where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth"--isn't about an otherworldly hell in our future. Judgment, according to Jesus, was going to be a concrete historical event.

Hell was coming to earth.

And it did in 70 AD.

Here is how Wright makes these arguments in his recent book Simply Good News:
[R]eaders of the New Testament have made the mistake of forgetting (often because of the [physical/spiritual] split-level universe they live in) that language about such things as sun, moon, and stars falling from heaven was about what we would call political events...Jesus spoke of certain things that were to happen "within a generation." Many modern scholars have supposed that he was talking about "the end of the world," and that he was wrong. But, in those famous passages in the Gospels, Jesus is talking not about the end of the world but about the fall of Jerusalem...And of course Jerusalem did indeed fall to the Romans about forty years after the end of Jesus's public career...

Jesus continually warned his fellow countrymen that if they didn't follow where he was leading, the result would be disaster. He used quite lurid language for these warnings. Even so, the message didn't really get through. He wasn't saying what they wanted him to say. But a lot of those warnings, taken out of context and interpreted through the lens of much later medieval beliefs, made it sound as though Jesus was warning people not that their city and nation would be destroyed but that they were going to hell. "Unless you repent," he says twice in the early paragraphs of Luke 13, "you will all be destroyed in the same way." Read that in the fifteenth century, and it's obvious what it means: unless you give up your sins, you will be thrown into hell for all eternity. Read it in the first century and a very different meaning should be equally obvious: unless you turn from your crazy path of nationalist rebellion against Rome, Rome will come and do to you what it has done to everyone who stands in its path. Jesus's contemporaries took no notice. The warnings came true.
As you can see, all this is very consistent and supportive of the partial preterist position. And Wright's work is full of passages just like these. Jesus wasn't talking about an otherworldly Hell and Final Judgment. Jesus was predicting a concrete historical event, an event that happened in 70 AD.

And yet, there is a new emphasis here with Wright, one that was missing in the Churches of Christ of my youth.

Specifically, I was mainly taught preterist readings in the Churches of Christ so that I could dismiss the "end times" theology of other faith traditions--all that talk about the rapture and the Antichrist--as hogwash. And, to be clear, I didn't mind that. To this day I think "Left Behind" theology is hogwash. And dangerous when it justifies Christians taking sides in geo-political conflicts.

But what Wright is doing here with a preterist reading is a bit more. Wright is rethinking, in light of the gospels, what "heaven" and "hell" might mean. That conversation, the one Wright is having, never came up in the Churches of Christ I was associated with. While preterist we still talked about hell as being an otherworldly torture chamber. But if that's not what Jesus was talking about, if Jesus was talking about the destruction of Jerusalem as we were so fond of arguing, then it appears that the Churches of Christ haven't been preterist enough.

And that's what I find so interesting. Not only is preterism increasing in scholarly respectability, but scholars like Wright are prompting preterist faith traditions like Churches of Christ to dig more deeply into the doctrine.

Within the Churches of Christ we taught preterism to combat "Left Behind" theology. But we've failed to grasp how preterism might allow us to rethink heaven and hell as Wright is doing.

In the Churches of Christ we've used preterism polemically, as a weapon to rebut bad eschatology. But we've failed to invest in preterism as a positive theological resource.

In the Churches of Christ preterism is a theological resource familiar to our people. A resource, if we invested in it, that could profoundly alter how we think about heaven and hell.

Washing Dishes at Freedom Fellowship

I touch my brother gently
upon his shoulder
and he startles
as a scared, small bird
flushed from a hidden, safe place.
"I am sorry," he says.
"I am sorry. I have only been out
of prison three days."
A body marked with a neuronal stigmata,
a chemistry violently scarred.
A touch is not the advent of grace
but an omen, sinister and foreboding.
A crucified body and mind
that suffers and carries our sin.

But the shared meal awaits us.
Our Eucharist of soup and bread.
The Table soothing the cellular trauma.
Synaptically resurrecting and recreating.
"Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you."

The hot water bites.
The dishes are baptized,
washing them clean.
My sister dries and shares of her surgery.
A pacemaker.
We rejoice that her heart now beats
seventy times a minute.
Each throb, as the blood flows through her,
a hymn of praise and thanksgiving.

Stars sparkle above the trashcans in the alleyway.
The moon shines off the white garbage bag crinkling and full.
Unburdening to end the work.
It is finished.

Turning, returning
home to the sanctuary of praise.

I hear the saints singing.

Guiding me through the night.

Bearing Shame

Shame has fallen on hard times. Much of this is due to increasing concerns about the public shaming of people on social media. See the recently published book by Jon Ronson So You've Been Publicly Shamed.

I share these worries about the public shaming of strangers on social media, how our outraged Tweets can do serious harm to people--relationally, psychologically and economically. But I'd like to say a few things in praise of shame. Not public shaming, but how shame, as an emotion, is a vital component of what it means to give and experience love.

What I'd like to do is bring into conversation the ideas of Brene Brown (Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfection) and Virginia Burrus (Saving Shame).

To start, if you are familiar with Brown's work you know she makes a distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt is "I did something bad." Shame is "I am bad." Thus, in Brown's scheme, guilt is good--it encourages you to take responsibility--and shame is bad.

And that's how a lot of us now think about shame. Shame is bad.

And yet, if you ponder it, shame is actually a pretty important and vital human emotion. To be sure, shame can be toxic. Shame can be weaponized. But shame isn't all bad. We'd worry about living in a world where shame didn't exist.

So let's push back on Brown a bit. "I am bad," isn't shame. It's self-contempt. To be sure, shame can prompt self-contempt and self-contempt can be a toxic or pathological outcome of shame, but shame shouldn't be reduced to self-contempt.

So what is shame? According to Burrus, shame is the confrontation of human limitation, the exposure of our weakness, failure, brokenness and vulnerability. Shame is this experience of exposure.

And Brown gets this. The hot burn of shame we feel in this exposure is what Brown calls the "excruciating vulnerability" we experience when we allow ourselves to be imperfect in front of each other. Shame, at least partly, is what makes vulnerability emotionally excruciating. Shame is the emotional threshold that must be crossed to get us to connection and intimacy.

In short, Brown really isn't against shame. She actually preaches shame when she talks about "excruciating vulnerability." We must risk the exposure--the shame--of being imperfect in front of each other. Connection requires vulnerability, excruciating vulnerability. Shame is at the heart of connection.

As Burrus suggests, shame is the advent of love. Shame creates the opportunity of love. When I expose myself to you--showing you my sin, failure, imperfection, brokenness and weakness--I feel the flush of shame. I stand naked before you. 

And as I stand there--scared and exposed--what I'm seeking is empathy and acceptance. In the words of Brene Brown, I'm looking for "Me too."

In short, what I'm looking for is the bearing of my shame.

When you love you carry the failure, weakness and brokenness of the Beloved. The Beloved hands you their shame and you bear it, you carry it, you share in it. And the Beloved, in turn, carries your shame.

Love is the bearing of shame.

Love is sharing the burden of our common humanity, sharing the burden of our failures, imperfections and weaknesses.

Unpublished: Refuse to Blow the Candles Out

I think that life is hard. I think that life is sad and painful. I think that love is rare and fragile. I think that life is full of loneliness and loss and heartbreak and that we're all desperately grateful for even the smallest scraps of human warmth, kindness and intimacy.

So if I see even the smallest flicker of love, grace or tenderness I want to protect it. I want to fan it so that it might grow. I don't want to move through life extinguishing the flames. I don't want to be the cold, chilling wind blowing the candles out. There are too few. And the night is very dark and cold.

Maybe on some far eternal horizon God will stand in judgment of all the ways we warmed ourselves with whatever affection we could find. Or of how we sheltered those who loved in ways that others found unacceptable.

Maybe. Maybe one day we will plead for a mercy that will not be granted. Maybe.

Shall we be asked to repent of love?

No one knows. So here with you, huddled in the cold blackness, I make my choice.

I refuse to blow the candles out.

--unpublished thoughts about empathy, loneliness and love

On Free Will and Restless Hearts

I want to pick up on a theme from yesterday's post about the role of human freedom in how we think about hell and the possibility of universal reconciliation.

As long time readers know (and more recent readers who have delved into my early writings on this blog), I used to write a lot about my struggles with what we'd call "free will." Some of my questions and doubts I shared back then about "free will" were (and continue to be) quite alarming to some readers.

I haven't written about this topic for many years so a brief note to update you on where my thinking is currently on this subject.

Perhaps surprisingly, my view of human freedom has become quite Augustinian. Specifically, my view of human freedom is nicely summarized by the famous lines at the start of Augustine's Confessions:

"Our hearts are restless until they rest in You."

It's not that we aren't free. It's just that with our disordered and broken affections our freedom doesn't move us forward, doesn't bring us anything but more sorrow and frustration.

That is to say, I think the discussion about "freedom" and "will" is missing critical and essential parts of human nature. We might be "free" but what do we want, crave, desire, love or care about? The discussion about "free will" is a thin, hollowed out discussion which misses these critical elements.

So it's not that I don't believe in free will. It's that I think a discussion about freedom and will separated from a discussion from affections and desires isn't a conversation that truly reflects human experience. A debate about "freedom" doesn't address what we love and the restlessness that disorders our desires.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about an old and perhaps unfashionable metaphor for sin:


Sin-as-sickness is a metaphor that really preaches out at the prison. The men in the prison know they have made mistakes. They know they have made bad choices. Note how the language of mistakes and choices focuses upon the will, the free will.

But what the men really, really struggle with is this deep sense that sin is a sickness, that deep down their desires are disordered and broken.

Yes, the men in prison want forgiveness for their crimes, for the wicked choices they have made. But what they really, really want is something much, much deeper...


What they long for--what I long for--is healing.

Hell Exists But Is Emptied

Thanks to Alan for sending this video to me. It's a nice theological discussion from 2011 in the midst of the Love Wins debate giving a Catholic perspective on hell and universalism:

I think many readers would land where Fr. Barron lands, universal salvation as a "reasonable hope."

For my part, as regular readers know, my issues swirl around the issue of human freedom. Specifically, I don't think it is psychologically or theologically realistic to believe that a finite human will could resist the infinite love of God for all eternity. Because of this I'm a bit more sanguine about the prospects of hell eventually being emptied.

Hell exists. And will be "crowded" for a season. But hell is eventually emptied. Not forcibly emptied, but emptied because of God's infinite patience.

How Not to Kill a Muslim: A Manifesto of Hope for Christianity and Islam in North America

"But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven."  --Jesus

I think this command of Jesus--the heart and soul of his Kingdom vision--is felt more acutely in Christian/Muslim relations than anywhere else. So I'm grateful for my friends Josh Graves and Sean Palmer. Josh for writing the book and Sean for providing us this review.


Christians and Muslims make up half the world's population and the world is at war.

The September 11th hijackings and attacks, orchestrated and performed by Al-Qaeda, introduced many western Christians to the battle between certain elements within Islam and the rest of the world, particularly the Great Satan, America.

In part, the response of the West has been to return bloodshed for bloodshed. Regardless of the merits of the on-going military conflicts in Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and other contested territories, the fact that eyes are being exchanged for eyes cannot be ignored by the church. At the same time, too many of the voices calling for increased violence or tensions or exclusion toward Muslims, both in the U.S. and around the world, are Christian.

Into the discussion of relations between Christians and Muslims enters Dr. Joshua Graves (a friend) and his newest book, How Not To Kill a Muslim: A Manifesto of Hope for Christianity and Islam in America. In short, Josh gives Christians a framework in which to engage, not only the idea that there are Muslims in the world and we have deal with their presence as a reality, but that there are Muslims in the world and the way of Christ mandates we see and love them as neighbors.

At the heart of How Not to Kill is a fundamental assumption: The Christian community has lost her story. The story, Josh argues, begins with the obvious and simple fact the Ismael and Isaac, central figures in the story of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are brothers. What's more, and this is the central textual argument, is that Jesus' parable of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10) is the primary model for enemy/Other-love and requires Christians to view their Muslim neighbors with grace, love, and compassion.

The story we've lost, Josh argues is the story of the Bible.

Arguing for a different kind of interaction with Muslim and Islam is where Josh does his best work. His prescription: Knowledge of God and knowing of neighbor.

While I don't want to step on his punchline, suffice it to say that what is being called forth is a life rooted in the story of God more than a life rooted in headlines and/or misinformation. The headlines of the day, Graves asserts, create and nurture fear, rather than engagement. What's more, it's a story either ignorant of or ignoring the Biblical narrative and the nature of God revealed in the ministry of Jesus. Add to that the fact that most American's knowledge of Islam could fit onto a Post-It Note and we have a recipe for exclusion rather than embrace. Perhaps the best part of How Not To Kill is Graves' final chapter, 'Islam For Dummies,' where he simply lays out the meaning and history of many of the terms popularly used but largely misused about Islam.

What is striking about this engagement is that the book itself is the result of intentional engagement of Christians with Islam and Muslims in Nashville where Graves lives and minsters. This fact alone saves the book from the theoretical wasteland so easily accepted in the church and academic theology. What's more, many conversations about Muslim and Christian relations get side-tracked by discussion of ISIS, Syria, the Iran deal and other particulars you and your neighbor can't do anything about. Here, Graves hold our feet to the fire regarding persons living in and shaping our local communities; people we can actual have coffee, lunch, and prayers with. How Not To Kill gently reveals our own lack of love, grace, and humility or our stubborn, self-serving refusal to engage with others at all.

Yet as I read the book, I was haunted by a sense that there were a few things Josh would like to have done differently.

While Josh begins a needed conversation between Muslims and Christians -- and in particular educates Christians about Islam -- that education seems preliminary. Throughout the text, I kept coming back to two questions. The first was, "Is Josh fairly representing conservative Christians?" My sense is that many, if not most, of my conservative friends would read How Not To Kill, might say, "That's not really what I think..." or "That's not fair...."

I'm not arguing that the book in uncharitable, but rather incomplete in this regard. Since the genesis of the text began with actual people with real questions, it would have been nice to have some thoughtful, coherent arguments exposing how more conservative readers have worked through these issues and why what seems like hate or disrespect to some may be their attempt to "not kill a Muslim." Even if some feel that the elimination or marginalization of Islam is best for the world, why they believe that's the case. In short, I don't think Josh (again, my friend) makes their case well for them (though I'm sure they're making it in their own forums).

The second area I felt the book was incomplete was that it leaves the reader (at least this one), saying, "Yeah, but what about ______." I say this as a positive. As I turned through the pages, I wanted to hear more. More about Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac; more about Jesus and the images of God (a chapter that was absolutely beautiful and may be the inspiration of my first tattoo); more about American immigration law and interpreting Jesus' teaching in view of His actions rather than a separate theological compartment.

I would have loved for Josh to tackle the issue concerning the ascendancy of Christian Zionism and how it is affecting American Christian's relationship with Muslims and why, for some, and American agreement with Iraq -- or any predominantly Muslim country -- necessarily jeopardizes Israel. Where most books I read are too long; this one is too short.

And, that, perhaps, is the most glowing review I can give. When the book was over, I didn't want it to be over. I wanted to know more, in Josh's words, "see more." And that's the reason, I think you should rush out to get your own copy. Then read it. Read it again. And order a few copies for your friends.

You can order one or more copies here and here.


Sean Palmer, the author of this review, is the Lead Minister at The Vine Church in Temple, TX. Profiled in Christian Standard Magazine’s “4O Leaders Under 40” issue, Sean is a blogger, speaker, writer, and teacher to various age groups and travels annually across the U.S.

You can find more of Sean’s writing at his blog, The Palmer Perspective as well as Wineskins.com and Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed.

You can also follow Sean on Twitter.