Prison Diary: One Room School House

The Bible study out at the prison is a one room school house. By that I mean the Men in White are all over the map educationally, intellectually and linguistically (English is the second language for many of the Hispanic men).

That makes teaching a challenge.

My classes in the chaplaincy program are unique in that I can challenge and push the men intellectually and theologically. These men have sat through countless chaplaincy programs over the years and decades, and they go to Bible classes multiple times a week just for something to do. So they have heard just about every take on the Bible. They've heard every Bible story a million times.

So they are rarely surprised. But I'm able to surprise them. I'm able to make the Bible strange and interesting again.

Plus, as a college professor my approach in more open-ended. I'm willing to entertain multiple perspectives and interpretations of a particular text. I'll often say, "Well, you can look at it this way...or this way...or this way." This openness contrasts the fundamentalist, dogmatic, literalistic and evangelistic tone that characterizes much of the teaching out at the prison. And again, for many of the men it's refreshing change of pace. Especially for the guys who are really sharp.

But I have to take care not to leave the other guys behind. If I use a big word I'll take care to define it. I'll say something like, "I'm going to use a big word here. Christological. You hear the word 'Christ' in there, right? It means seeing things through Jesus. So if we read this passage Christologically we're looking for Jesus in this passage. Where do we see Jesus in this text? That's reading the text Christologically." I work hard to bring everyone along with me.

Plus, I'm of the conviction that if you can't express an idea simply then that idea isn't worth all that much. I love deep theology, but I also value clarity and plain speaking. Say what you mean and mean what you say. That helps a lot out at the prison.

Democracy and The Demonization of the Good

A thought balloon about our current political situation.

In After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre makes the argument that because modernity lost its story, to use the words of Robert Jenson, we lack a coherent moral vision of our common life together. What we have, instead, are bits and pieces of a variety of incomplete and rival ethical systems. We have lots of different ways of defining "the good" but no clear way to adjudicate between these goods when they come into conflict.

Here's the outcome of this situation.

First, modern political discourse repeatedly brings rival goods into conflict. For example, in the abortion debates protecting life (a good thing) is pitted against the right to make decisions about your own body (a good thing). Two goods pitted against each other.

Regarding the debates about refugees and immigration, a concern over caring for the vulnerable (a good thing) is pitted against a concern for safety (a good thing). Two goods pitted against each other.

The examples abound. Pick any political controversy and you'll eventually find two goods pitted against each other.

Since we lack the ability to adjudicate between these goods we're forced to making one good triumph over the other good. This is difficult to do because these are obvious goods. Evidence for the goodness of the goods is clear and unimpeachable, so it's impossible to convince people that a good isn't a good.

It might be argued that a democratic process could help us find compromises between these rival goods.

That democracy is increasingly unable to bring about these compromises is because when two rival goods repeatedly compete in the public sphere the desire to have one good triumph over the other good causes the parties advocating a good to trivialize, demean, and diminish the rival good.

Democracy, thus, leads to the demonization of the good, making compromise and civic discourse increasingly impossible. Instead of a compromise between two rival goods, the political fight is transformed into Good versus Evil.

At this point, when good is called evil, democracy is doomed.

Calling the good evil, to use biblical imagery, is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the unforgivable sin. It signals that our moral compass has been damaged beyond all recognition, and now nothing stands between us and the abyss.

Divine Violence and Christus Victor: Martyn Smith

Today is a guest post by Dr. Martyn Smith. Martyn is a long time friend of the blog and he's just published his doctoral dissertation, Divine Violence and the Christus Victor Atonement Model: God's Reluctant Use of Violence for Soteriological Ends. Martyn's post below is an introduction to his book.

I'm interested in Martyn's research for three reasons. First, I'm interested in any conversation about Christus Victor atonement. Second, as I describe in Reviving Old Scratch, I agree with Martyn's argument that Christus Victor atonement only makes sense if there is a Satan. It's the same point N.T. Wright makes in his recent book on the atonement.

The third reason I'm interested in Martyn's work is his focus on violence in Christus Victor atonement. Christus Victor atonement is generally described as a non-violent view of atonement. It's true that in Christus Victor atonement God's divine violence isn't being directed at Jesus or human beings. But as Martyn points out, God is directing violence toward Satan and the Powers. For example, "binding the strong man" (Luke 11, Mark 4, Matt. 12), the Harrowing of Hell, and the War in Heaven (Rev. 12) all imply divine violence.

While I'm not in total agreement with Martyn on divine violence (I read all references to divine violence through a cruciform lens), I'm grateful to Martyn for making his scholarly case so clearly and forcefully. Advocates of Christus Victor atonement will need to wrestle with his conclusions.

My main worry, of course, is how arguments for divine violence, even if restricted to the Satan and spiritual realm, can provide warrant for human violence as we battle against evil. So beyond introducing his work in today's post, I've also asked Martyn to wrestle with the moral implications of his explorations. Enjoy!

"Loving Violence" by Martyn Smith

I am not sure who first coined the phrase, ‘all theology is autobiography’, but I owe them a debt of gratitude. Those four words have long provided a lens through which to understand my own, and others, theological endeavors. I’ve tried to work outside this adage seeking the fabled, truly objective idea, yet it’s impossible to escape my conditioning, upbringing, experiences and agenda.

Initially, I was overwhelmed by the vast, perhaps infinite, array of potential topics for my PhD. Much time was spent exploring, then rejecting, option after option, “too boring”, “too limited”, “done better by others.” The moment of revelation came in a chance comment, “the Christus Victor atonement model throws light on this…”, my PhD supervisor said during a discussion - I stopped him short, admitting I’d never heard of it! He explained it was an understanding of the cross and salvation set against the backdrop of God’s cosmic battle with the Satan and his demonic hordes - I knew where my research was headed.

A process started that saw me, seven years later, finish my doctorate, publishing it as Divine Violence and the Christus Victor Atonement Model. A fire had raged over those years, becoming a fixation; every book, movie and conversation providing insights and trains of thought into God’s nature and his relationship, or not, to violence and how this was expressed in his chosen mode of salvation.

If all theology is autobiographical, you’ll have made a response to my thesis title conveying something of your life and outlook; typical evocations range between, ‘God can’t be violent!’, ‘I don’t like the sound of that’, ‘I wouldn’t worship a violent God’, ‘that’s appalling’, to ‘how intriguing’, ‘I’d never thought about divine violence’ and ‘goodness, I can’t wait to read it…’ None of them said anything about my thesis, instead revealing the individual’s agenda, what Peter Cotterell calls their ‘presupposition pool’; that knowledge, experience and understanding held by the writer and reader in their interaction. He also spoke of ‘discourse meaning’, to explain that meaning is not found in individual lexical items, nor isolated sentences, but in the larger discourse.

I confess my enslavement to theology being autobiography; on revealing the topic of my thesis to friends, few expressed surprise, one stating, “Given your life-story, it was inevitable.” I was born in a run-down housing estate, attended an appalling school, embraced football hooliganism, dabbled in the occult, before committing an unprovoked act of violence that put a man in hospital and me in prison. On release things got worse and I was involved in profoundly unedifying relationships and practices until, on 11th May 1988 at 4 am, I had an epiphany that caused me to submit my life to Jesus Christ. I returned to my previously failed academic endeavors with singular ferocity, accumulating two undergraduate degrees, a master’s degree and latterly a PhD, all in theology.

Since my conversion, I’ve pastored two churches and taught religious education, philosophy and ethics to pupils aged 11-18 for fifteen years. That’s my presupposition pool in a nutshell – are you surprised my theology is an eclectic mish-mash of seeming contradictions? To some, I am liberalism personified because I ‘fail’ to condemn homosexuality, others think me an unerring literalist because I believe in the Satan and his demonic realm. These ascriptions, however, say more about those making them, than my theological disposition; as Lesslie Newbigin noted, “The words ‘liberal’ and ‘fundamentalist’ are used today not so much to identify oneself as to label the enemy.”

So, what are the key factors in my thesis?

I’d become uncomfortable with the Penal Substitution atonement model, perceiving it an unsatisfactory means of understanding what happened at the cross with its inference God could only save humanity by handing his son over to torture and death. It also didn’t take the Satan and the demonic host seriously, whilst the Bible, Jesus and the Church Fathers did.

I also believed few were properly engaging with the accounts of divine violence recounted in the Bible; Raymund Schwager, the Girardian theologian, notes that, “The theme of God’s bloody vengeance occurs in the Old Testament even more frequently than the problem of human violence. Approximately one thousand passages speak of Yahweh’s blazing anger, of his punishments by death and destruction, and how like a consuming fire he passes judgement, takes revenge, and threatens annihilation.” I couldn’t overlook this, or justify God’s character and actions, or redefine divine violence to make it look like love.

As my understanding and appreciation of Christus Victor grew, I linked it to God’s violence, realizing only a model incorporating divine violence into the overthrowing of the Satan could account for an actual battle between God and a real enemy. I came to see it as more than a salvation metaphor, revealing that against his primary attribute of love, God reluctantly utilized violence to defeat a real, powerful, enemy who couldn’t be overcome any other way. Again, rejection of the Satan’s existence says more about those asserting it than this being’s reality, Andrew Walker argues if scholars are ‘modernist’ they do so, not because of lack of evidence or authentic bases in the New Testament, but because they don’t believe in him.

I realized the best way of understanding biblical salvation and the God behind it, was to let the text speak for itself, conscious of my presupposition pool, but free from concerns about theological implications for a God who repeatedly exercised violence against anything which stood between him and his goal of saving those imprisoned by sin and the Satan. This raises serious issues, but they shouldn’t be a theologian’s primary concern, instead, the evidence must be followed wherever it leads; if this is unpleasant and unpalatable, it’s better than covering up or explaining-away explicit biblical evidence revealing God’s nature. Ludwig Feuerbach was onto something when he accused Christians of being more concerned to make a God in the image of their own desires and sensibilities, than of embracing him for who he is and what he does as revealed in the scriptures.

In the conclusion of my thesis, I argue that acceptance of reluctant divine violence, conjoined with the Christus Victor atonement model, likens Christian faith to being in a war, following a mighty general we love and trust entirely, regardless of his nature or orders. New recruits have to work with each other and their Leader, their lover, to secure ultimate liberation through a final, decisive victory against an evil, powerful adversary who can only be subjugated and finally destroyed by this God of insurmountable love and irresistible force. These Christian ‘troops’ are unlike a regular army; their role is not to fight, but to be involved in non-violent guerrilla activity behind enemy lines. Christians have long-wrestled with how to engage those forces, institutions and people considered ‘enemies of God’. Here, ‘meaning discourse’ must be carefully and prayerfully applied to protect against the inevitable fallen, human desire to forcefully oppose whatever stands against personally-held Christian beliefs and values. To avoid theological anarchy and worldly bloodshed, clear understanding and application of biblical spiritual warfare must be employed, so one person’s crusade against ‘anti-Christian’ entities does not entail physical violence - never a Christian option.

Three issues are of primary importance in my thesis: the Satan is a real being, the Christus Victor model best expresses Jesus’ achievements at the cross and God reluctantly utilized violence in the Bible, especially in acts of salvation.

Firstly, the Satan is an actual being, but not a person, because personhood includes the possibility of salvation; he is nonetheless real, standing against God and those he loves. Also, he is a spiritual being against whom finite, worldly-bound humans, have no demonstrable power. This may cause a feeling of impotence against this evil enemy, but this is wrong, because the cosmic, eternal battle between God and the Devil requires a human response, but one that understands its role.

St. Paul stated, “…we are not unaware of [Satan’s] schemes” (2 Cor 2:11), but we have far less discernment; so instead of embarking on a personal war against the Devil, humans must act within God’s remit. For example, Jude warns those seeking to engage the Satan on their own initiative, “But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”(Jude 1:9). If such a mighty spiritual being demurs at openly confronting the lord of evil, then humans must acknowledge their primary involvement in confronting evil forces is utter dependence on God, who alone is capable of engaging and defeating a powerful and, to humans, ethereal and mysterious, enemy. It is not the role or responsibility of humans to align themselves with those ‘fighting evil’; failing to accede this leads to a false war engaged in by various ‘Christian warriors for truth’, most obviously, the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church or those Christians standing against, or for, Donald Trump, or more subtly by groups with liberal concerns and ‘battles’. Whatever the ‘warfare’, it’s not the role of Christians to counter the Satan – it’s God’s job and he’s the only one equipped to do it.

Even St. Paul, when delineating how humans are to confront the Devil (Eph 6: 10-18), first reminds them the battle is not of flesh and blood, but a struggle against powers of this dark world and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms; in other words, stuff humans have no means of encountering. He instructs them to clothe themselves in the ‘armour of God’, before reeling off a list of symbolic items, enabling them to play their part in being ‘strong in the Lord and his mighty power’. Humans aren’t directly involved in spiritual warfare and countering the Satan, but this doesn’t mean they’re without a part to play – a diminutive part, but a part nonetheless – to live in truth and righteousness, to share the gospel of peace, to maintain faith, enjoy salvation and to express the word of God and, of course, to pray in the Spirit and remain alert, or as Karl Barth put it, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

Secondly, the Christus Victor model acknowledges the Satan’s role in the story of God’s engagement with the world and his plans for salvation; other models giving him a bit-part, or completely ignoring or denying him. If the Satan is a real adversary to God and all that is good, then he must be subdued and finally overcome - only the Christus Victor model explicitly addresses this. If – for whatever reason – the Devil is taken out of the redemption story, the divine drama is lost and the story loses its meaning. The Christus Victor account is therefore, not just the best, but the only atonement model that does justice to the biblical descriptions of the Satan and the demonic realm, highlighting and addressing the importance of their subjugation before salvation can be won.

Thirdly, a belief in God’s reluctant use of violence demonstrates there is a real enemy to be overcome and the cross, understood via Christus Victor, is the means of doing so; further, only a God willing to use violence could successfully accomplish this. When first mentioning my PhD’s theme to friends, a common concern was voiced, “…but won’t your argument encourage people to pursue violence, believing it’s what God is like and what he wants from his followers?” I replied that when humans can love like God loves, they’ll be able to fight like God fights, until then, viewing the spiritual realm through this ‘glass darkly’, our job is to trust our mighty Leader, who alone is capable of rallying and leading his followers towards a victory over the Satan. Further, because violence has been the bane of human history, it doesn’t follow that God can’t endorse or utilize violence to accomplish his goals. Miroslav Volf rightly notes we must preserve the fundamental difference between God and nonGod on this point, because the biblical tradition insists there are things which only God may do - one of them, he insists, is to use violence.

As we saw, an important issue for Christians keen to be involved in spiritual warfare is the reliability of ascription – what Paul calls the “…discernment of spirits” (1 Cor 12:10). The Bible infers that ‘rulers, authorities and powers’ in this world can so thoroughly manifest the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12) that they warrant violent opposition, but who can be trusted to rightly decide which enemy is authentically demonic. In the 1980s, for example, both Ronald Reagan and the Ayatollah Khomeni, characterized each other’s regimes as “Satanic”, yet tellingly, didn’t go to war against each other. Christians should be cautious, remembering that whilst God, in his unique, objective role as the one who is love, can utilize violence against his enemies, human beings as sinful, subjective and largely spiritually illiterate beings cannot. To reiterate, the role of Christians in this ‘battle’ is to align themselves with their Leader, live lives of love, peace and forgiveness and pray for God’s intervention, by his means, confident of his character and ability to drive home the victory, not to blindly stumble into a conflict they can little perceive, let alone understand or be effectively involved in.

After my conversion, I went to theological college to learn about my new faith and equip myself to effectively share it with others; somewhere along the way I lost sight of this goal, getting distracted in other pursuits. When I finished my PhD, I spent time trying to find the implications of my research until I had my eureka-moment! I realized I needed to go back to where it all started and become an evangelist, understanding that my primary goal ought to be freeing people from the Satan into God’s Kingdom. I believe Christians are embroiled in guerrilla warfare and the liberating of imprisoned souls is the only ‘violence’ they should entertain; or, as St. Matthew put it, “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11:12). Now that’s an endeavor worth fighting for…

Grace Creates a New Social Reality

In light of yesterday's post about how seeing the gift of God creates a new social imagination, I'm reminded again of the analysis of John Barclay in his book Paul and the Gift

I've shared this material before, but I keep coming back to it, over and over again, I think it's so important.

Again, the main point that Barclay makes is how grace affects social relationships.

To recap, according to Barclay Paul's great theme concerned the incongruity of grace, that God gave the Christ-gift to the unworthy.

In the ancient context that was a revolutionary idea. According to the ancients, gifts were only to be given to worthy recipients to ensure the web of social reciprocity at the heart of the ancient gift economies.

We tend to miss the radical social implications of Paul's message of grace. We moderns tend to make grace a personal and psychological experience: I feel grateful because God loves me, an unworthy sinner.

But in Paul's context the message of incongruous grace--God gives gifts to the unworthy--blew up the entire ancient way of thinking about social relationships.

In short, rather than creating an internal, private experience grace creates a new social imagination and reality.

According to Paul, in the light of grace all previous cultural standards of significance and worth--how we divide up the winners and losers in any society--are dissolved and eradicated.

Grace is an acid that dissolves the social barriers that separate the winners from the losers.

A quote I've shared before from Barclay (p. 394-395):
The cross shatters every ordered system of norms, however embedded in the seemingly "natural" order of "the world"... the cross of Christ breaks believers' allegiance to pre-constituted notions of the honorable, the superior, and the right...Paul parades the cross as the standard by which every norm is judged and every value relativized...

[As used by Paul in his argument in Galatians] The enormous creativity made possible by this vision of reality is immediately obvious: "For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but new creation."... Paul announces the irrelevance of taxonomic systems by which society had been divided in subtly hierarchical terms: old "antinomies" are here discounted in the wake of a new reality that has completely reordered the world..[I]n context the primary focus is the social novelty of communities that disregard former boundaries by discounting old systems of worth. The "new creation" is indifferent to traditional regulative norms and generates new patterns of social practice. 
We can clearly see the social effect of grace in Paul's famous declaration in Galatians 3.28:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 
For Paul these distinctions remain. Paul is a Jew and he is a man. But what has been "crucified" in Christ, to quote Barclay, is the "evaluative freight carried by these labels, the encoded distinctions of superiority and inferiority." Thus, "baptized believers are enabled and required to view each other without regard to these classifications of worth."

In short, grace creates a new social reality, the formation of communities that throw away cultural and social systems of worth to realize "new creation" in their midst through surprising, boundary-crossing communities. As Barclay writes:
Ancestry, education, and social power are subordinated to a common "calling" that disregards previous assumptions of worth (1 Cor. 1:26-31). Novel communities are encouraged to relativize the differences in culture, welcoming one another on the unconditional terms by which each was welcomed in Christ Jesus (Rom. 14-15).

Gift and a New Social Imagination

We all know the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. I was reading that story the other day and something jumped out at me.

Here's the passage:
John 4.7-10
A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."
The phrase that jumped out at me was Jesus' response to the woman: "If you knew the gift of would have asked."

If you knew the gift of God you would have asked.

For centuries we've commented on the transgressive nature of Jesus' actions at the well. A Jew speaking to a woman, and a Samaritan to boot, let alone a women deemed to be a sinner due to her domestic situation, was highly transgressive and shocking. So much so the text takes the time to comment on the disciples' shock upon witnessing the conversation.

And yet, Jesus insists that it would have been the woman who would have acted transgressively--"You would have asked"--if she had known the gift of God.

Knowing the gift of God, operating out of grace, creates a new social imagination where what was previously taboo is eradicated. The kingdom's arrival breaks down social barriers motivating us to approach each other.

We take the initiative to violate the social taboos.

If we could but see the gift of God.

Prison Diary: The Bible Study

We have a two hour block of time for our study, which goes from 6:30 to 8:30. That's a big chunk of time to fill every week.

The schedule we've adopted is one we inherited from Bob Gomez. Bob was the one who started the Monday night study many decades ago. For years Bob led the study all by himself. Bob's a bit of a hero in my eyes.

When I started Bob, Herb and I all were co-teachers. But with my arrival Bob was soon able to retire. So now it's just Herb and I.

Herb had the seniority, so he became the lead teacher. Which I rest into. I love being second fiddle.

After the reception line welcome Herb kicks the study off with our traditional opening song (a mash up of "This is the Day," "Alive, Alive" and "What a Mighty God"), a welcome, announcements and a prayer. After that Herb moves into whatever material he's working through.

About an hour in Herb stops and hands it over to me. I always start with the songbooks and those hymn sings I'm always writing and talking about. After singing I then move into my material until the end of class.

So basically there's two studies going on, what Herb is doing and what I'm doing.

So what am I doing?

Well, a few years ago after I finished up a study I asked the Men in White what they'd like to study. They said, "Let's go through the whole Bible." I agreed, and the next week we started in Genesis 1.

I wish I had noted the date when we started in Genesis. I know it was over three years ago. Maybe longer.

Right now we're in the Gospel of John, so I expect it'll take us another few years to get all the way to Revelation.

This week the first song called out was "I Need Thee Every Hour":
I need thee every hour
Most gracious Lord
No tender voice like thine
Can peace afford

     I need thee oh I need thee
     Every hour I need thee
     Oh bless me now my savior
     I come to thee

I need thee every hour
Stay thou near by
Temptations loose their power
When thou art nigh

I need thee every hour
Most holy one
Oh make me thine indeed
Thou blessed son
And our text in John was John 8, the woman caught in the act of adultery.

Not Obeying the Sermon on the Mount

The adult Sunday School class I co-teach at church is doing a quick study (eight lessons) on the gospel of Matthew.

With only eight lessons you have to be very selective about what you want to study in Matthew. For example, this last Sunday my task was to do a class on the Sermon on the Mount in 30 minutes. (The rest of our 45 minute class time in spend on visiting, announcements, sharing prayer requests, and praying.)

The Sermon on the Mount in 30 minutes!

Obviously, you can't survey the whole thing. So you pick a topic or a question raised by the Sermon and talk about that.

The question I picked was this: Are we supposed to obey the Sermon on the Mount?

That might seem like a really weird question. Of course we're supposed to follow the Sermon on the Mount. Why else would Jesus have preached it?

But there's actually a great deal of debate on this point. For my class I highlighted three places where Christians have balked at obeying the Sermon.

1. Morally Impossible
Some within the Christian tradition have argued that the Sermon is so severe and lofty in its demands that it can't possibly be obeyed. Then why was the Sermon given? To expose and humble us. By setting the bar so high the Sermon shows us that we can't be righteous through moral performance.

2. Theologically Problematic
On a related note, the Sermon equates righteousness with moral performance: "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."

You want forgiveness? It's not about grace: You have to forgive. You don't want God to judge you? It's not about grace: You must not judge others. When it comes to getting into heaven, the measure you use to judge others will be the measure that you'll be judged by (Matthew 7.1-2). Not much atonement theology here.

There's also a legalistic strain that runs through the Sermon. For example: 
Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.19-20)
Moral perfection is also assumed in places: "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect."

And finally, beyond righteousness being the result of moral performance, damnation for moral failure lurks everywhere in the Sermon:
"But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell."

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it."

"Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
3. Politically Irresponsible
Perhaps the biggest argument that the Sermon shouldn't be fully obeyed is the opinion that the Sermon is politically impractical.

"Do not resist an evil person," "love your enemies," and "turn the other cheek" are taken to be immoral stances in the face of evil. And if not immoral, than morally irresponsible.

So these are the reasons you hear for not obeying the Sermon on the Mount. And yet, in his final comparison in the Sermon about the wise and foolish builders, Jesus cuts across all these objections:
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.

The Dark Spell the Devil Casts: Refugees and Our Slavery to the Fear of Death

I wrote a post in 2015, in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, that I think remains very relevant to the political and spiritual climate in the US in regards to immigration bans.

In that post I talked about how my book The Slavery of Death explains a lot about what is going on today in American Christianity regarding our debates about accepting refugees and immigrants in the US.

The Slavery of Death is a theological and psychological meditation on this text from Hebrews:
Hebrews 2.14-15
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 
In this passage the power of the Devil in our lives is described as our slavery to the fear of death. As 1 John tells us, fear is the enemy of love. Consequently, perfect love must cast out fear.

As I describe in The Slavery of Death our fear of death manifests in one of two ways, what psychologists call basic anxiety and neurotic anxiety.

In the affluent West, where our culture is characterized by a "denial of death"--a culture where we like to pretend, due to modern medicine and our technological wizardry that we are immune to death--our slavery to the fear of death is mostly neurotic. We strive, in the words of Henri Nouwen, to be relevant, spectacular or powerful in our quest to live a meaningful and significant life in the face of death. If you looked in the mirror today to check your appearance or checked your Facebook, Twitter or blog accounts to see who was paying attention to you, well, that's your neurotic death anxiety at work. That's the power of the devil in your life. That's your slavery to the fear of death.

But from time to time in the West we also face basic death anxiety. In these instances we fear death directly and straightforwardly. With the news of a terrorist attack we feel a surge of this basic death anxiety. Our fears become less about self-esteem and more about physical security.

And as the fear of death falls upon us so does the power of the Devil.

Gripped by fear our capacities for love, compassion and hospitality quickly dry up and evaporate. Perfect love, battling hard to cast out fear, goes on life-support. If it's not already dead and flat-lined.

And the words "cast out" are prophetically appropriate. Again, in the words of Hebrews fear is the power of the Devil. And America is in dire need of an exorcism.

As I point out in The Slavery of Death and in Unclean, love involves opening yourself up to risk. And risk involves fear and uncertainty.

There are no guarantees with love. That doesn't mean you act recklessly or foolishly. But it does mean that doing the loving thing, the compassionate thing, the humane thing involves facing down legitimate fears and a willingness to live with very real risks.

The fog of fear, rooted in concerns over safety and security, is the dark spell the Devil casts to bewitch the Children of Light, the diabolical alchemy that transforms gentle and kind people into the Children of Darkness.

The Christianity of Lady Gaga

A week ago last Sunday my old post from 2011 "The Gospel According to Lady Gaga" got a new life on social media. Thanks to everyone who Tweeted out the post in response to Lady Gaga's Superbowl halftime show.

The other reason the post got a second wind was because of the Superbowl Sunday article in the Washington Post by Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons "The Provocative Faith of Lady Gaga."

One of the observations made by Graves-Fitzsimmons was the focus of my 2011 post: "The Little Monsters who flock to her concerts resemble the group of outcasts and misfits who flocked to Jesus."

The Addict as Prophet: Part 6, Modernity and Loneliness

This is my last post summarizing selected material from Kent Dunnington's book Addiction and Virtue.

I've been focusing on Dunnington's argument that addiction can be viewed as a prophetic critique of modernity. Addiction, if we pay attention to it, points us to the failures of modernity. Addiction is addictive because it gives us what we find missing in modern life.

In the last two posts we described how addiction helps us overcome the existential vacuum of modernity. Lacking a Story that gives life motivated and clarifying purpose and direction, addiction gives us a habit and a lifestyle that fills this void. Addiction makes something matter, creating a focused, unifying, consuming and motivated lifestyle.

This is not to deny the physiological aspects of chemical dependency. This is simply the observation that even when the addict is detoxed and clean the lifestyle of addiction remains alluring because of how it addresses the spiritual and psychological vacuum of modernity.

Consequently, if detoxed addicts cannot replace addiction with something that is as equally compelling and consuming they will remain vulnerable to addiction's allures.

And yet, as we've seen, modernity, because it lacks a Story, cannot give us anything as compelling or consuming. Thus we remain ever vulnerable to addictive habits and lifestyles.

Beyond filling the existential void, addiction also reduces the feeling of loneliness in modernity. As Dunnington says, "Lonely people make good addicts."

Again, loneliness is a uniquely modern problem. We are, as Robert Putnam has so ably documented, "bowling alone."

Addiction thrives in this social vacuum. Addiction often starts in social contexts, is sustained by circles of friends, and is often maintained by a webs of connection between fellow users and suppliers. And even when addiction isolates us from others it does so by becoming a surrogate "friend." Addicts often refer to the chemical they are addicted to as their "best friend." Addiction is a companion.

Thus, once again we see addiction filling a great void in modernity.

In conclusion, then, addiction provides a critique of modernity and puts a challenge before the church. Can the church provide us with something more compelling than addiction? Can the church provide us with a life that overcomes the malaise of modernity? Can the church address the modern symptoms of arbitrariness, boredom and loneliness?

I'll leave the last word for Dunnington (p. 123):
Addiction is in fact a kind of embodied cultural critique of modernity and the addict a kind of unwitting modern prophet. The church has a great stake in listening to such unwitting prophets. If the church will listen, it will be led to an examination of how its own culture contributes to the production of addiction, whether it offers an alternative culture and what such an alternative culture would require.

Prison Diary: Prison Coffee

After the set up crew gets the chapel ready (see last week's entry), Joe heads off to get Herb and I some coffee.

I never ask for or request coffee. Joe just really wants to get it for us. It's his way of saying "Thank You for coming." It is always a touching gesture on his part.

How can I describe prison coffee?

I expect many of you would find prison coffee absolutely harrowing to drink. If you have a delicate constitution this drink isn't for you. It's so dark and thick I swear you can stand a spoon upright in it. It's like motor oil. On top of that they throw in a bunch of powered creamer and an obscene amount of sugar. The coffee tastes thick, bitter, burnt and sickly sweet all at the same time. It's really quite something.

Still, I drink it. Joe brings it as a gift, so I drink it.

And over time I've acquired a taste for this concoction. I don't normally take sugar in my coffee, but now, whenever I encounter bad coffee, I'll add powered creamer and lots of sugar. This transforms the bad coffee into a taste I associate with many fond memories.

I used to avoid bad coffee.

Now I just transform it into something worse. A drink I've come to love.

The Addict as Prophet: Part 5, Modernity and Boredom

After discussing in Addiction and Virtue how addiction addresses our feelings of arbitrariness in modernity--making something matter in a world where nothing matters--Dunnington goes on to discuss a second symptom of modernity's malaise.


Because modernity lacks a telos, we don't have a Story that gives life purpose, direction and meaning. Any story we do have is the story we pick for ourselves, a story that can be dropped in an instant, making that story seem hollow and arbitrary.

You'd think that this would create a feeling of existential crisis for us. But as Dunnington points out, most moderns don't feel existential angst. What we tend to feel is bored.

Why is boredom a uniquely modern problem?

Dunnington points to two things.

First, due to our material affluence modernity has increased our leisure time. That's no small accomplishment.

And yet, to Dunnington's second point, modernity has accomplished this feat by eliminating our Story.

And these two things--time without a telos--create an existential vacuum. Space in our lives has been created--leisure time--but we lack a Story to fill that space with meaningful activity. Consequently, we fill our leisure time with entertainments and distractions. Again, this situation is perfectly suited to capitalism, large amounts of free time needing to be filled with products and activities for sale.

The trouble, we all know, is that after we cycle through all these entertainments we become increasingly bored. There's a million shows on TV and we can't find anything to watch.

Addiction, according to Dunnington, cracks through the boredom by giving use something compelling to do. Addiction, if it's anything, is a motivated state, somthing that consumerism struggles to give us consistently.

Further, rather than facing a vast, undifferentiated sea of choices, addiction focuses life upon a single, unifying activity.

When we're bored we have a million things we could do, but nothing we want to do. And if that's the experience of modernity, the experience of addiction is the exact opposite. Addiction gives you a single, compelling thing to do. Once again, addiction fills the void of modernity, functioning as a form of social critique.

Here's Dunnington (p. 118):
Addiction provides a response to the underwhelming life of boredom that plagues the bourgeois in its leisure time by making one thing matter. And addiction provides a response to the overwhelming life of boredom that plagues the working class with the fragmented and compartmentalized striving by making one thing matter. For those who are bored with nothing to do, addiction stimulates by entangling and consuming; for those who are bored with too much to do, addiction disburdens by simplifying and clarifying.

The Addict as Prophet: Part 4, Modernity and Arbitrariness

In my last post we raised the fascinating claim made by Kent Dunnington in his book Addiction and Virtue that addiction can be viewed as a prophetic critique of modernity.

How so?

Dunnington argues (p. 101) that "addiction is ubiquitous in contemporary life...because  addiction makes accessible certain kinds of moral and intellectual goods, which the development of modernity have made otherwise difficult to attain."

So, what are the "moral and intellectual goods" of addiction?

What makes addiction so addictive?

Dunnington makes the argument that modernity is characterized by a moral, spiritual and psychological malaise. Malaise is defined as "a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify."

According to Dunnington, this malaise--the uneasiness we experience in modernity--is characterized by three main symptoms: Arbitrariness, boredom and loneliness. Addiction, Dunnington argues, is so addictive because addiction uniquely addresses these three symptoms. Addiction is, thus, a uniquely modern problem as addiction is particularly well-suited for "treating" what ails modern people.

This is not to deny that addiction existed or was a problem before modernity, just the claim that as modernity exacerbated our feelings of arbitrariness, boredom and loneliness it has caused us to become increasingly drawn to addictive behaviors to reduce the discomfort we experience in modernity.

Consequently, addiction functions as a form of prophetic critique, pointing us toward the moral, spiritual and psychological failures of modernity.

In this and the next two posts we'll walk through how addictions address the three symptoms of modernity's malaise. We start with arbitrariness.

As many scholars have pointed out, modernity has lost its telos (goal, direction, purpose). In the words of Robert Jenson, modernity lost its story. According to Charles Taylor, the modern "secular age" lives in the "immanent frame." We've lost the metaphysical framework that tells us who we are and where we are going.

All that is left in modernity is freedom and the individual will. There is no "point" to anything, just you and your choices. Any meaning or telos for your life is the one you choose for yourself. There is no grand narrative or plotline you're being caught up in. Life is, rather, a Choose-Your-Own adventure novel.

This view of the human person is perfectly suited to capitalism and consumerism. In modernity our choices and freedoms are maximized allowing us to pursue our true, "authentic" selves in the quest for self-fulfillment and self-actualization.

The trouble with this, as we all know, is the person looking back at us in the mirror. True, in modernity I am the Captain of my own ship. And that's a thrilling prospect. But as I ponder my life I quickly come to the conclusion that I'm a pretty unreliable captain. I'm fickle, weak-willed, and self-deluded. My true, authentic self--the Real Me--seems to change year to year, if not day to day. Sometimes I want this, and sometimes I want that.

Again, this is the perfect situation for capitalism, marketers wooing me with rival visions of my best self, getting me to indulge or improve myself with this or that product or plan, people making money off me as I spin my wheels searching for happiness and fulfillment.

In short, without a larger goal, telos or story guiding my life, it all seems pretty arbitrary. I could do this or that, and the choice doesn't matter all that much. Because I can change my mind. I can reinvent myself in this instant.

Yes, freedom and choice provide us with a sense of control, but they do so by removing the existential weight of existence. Nothing matters, not really and not ultimately. There's just the next commercial, the next vacation, the next gym membership, the next Netflix episode, the next iPhone, the next house (bigger and better), the next shopping trip, the next Super Bowl party, the next Stars Wars or Harry Potter release, the next Friday night out with the boys or girls.

Modernity is just an arbitrary string of nexts that don't add up to anything substantive or valuable.

According to Dunnington, then, addiction is addictive because it addresses this sense of arbitrariness, that nothing matters more than anything else. Addiction is addictive because it gives weight to the unbearable lightness of being, gives texture to the consumeristic flatness of modern life.

Addiction is addictive because it makes something matter in a world where nothing matters.

Dunnington's summary of this (p. 112):
Addiction is a sort of rejection of consumerism's enthronement of the immediate over the teleological. It is true that many addictions begin from a desire to be distracted by immediate gratification. But addiction is addicting rather than merely distracting exactly because it provides the kind of propelling and purposive force that consumerism cannot provide...

Addiction provides what consumers do not believe exists: necessity. Major addiction can therefore be interpreted both as a response to the absence of teleology in modern culture and as a kind of embodied critique of the late capitalist consumerism which this absence has produced.

The Addict as Prophet: Part 3, Addiction As the Mirror of Modernity

In this and the next three posts we get to what I think is the most interesting and provocative thesis of Kent Dunnington's book Addiction and Virtue.

After making the case that addiction is best viewed as a habit, rather than a choice or a disease, Dunnington turns to the second big thesis of his argument. Here's how he describes it in the Preface:
The second broad thesis of the book is that the prevalence and power of addiction indicates the extent to which a society fails to provide nonaddictive modes of acquiring certain kinds of goods necessary to human welfare. Addiction is therefore an embodied critique of the culture which sustains it. I propose that addiction as we understand it is a particularly modern habit, and that addiction can be viewed as a mirror reflecting back to us aspects of modern culture that we tend to overlook or suppress. Persons with severe addictions are among those contemporary prophets that we ignore to our own demise, for they show us who we truly are.

Christians must heed prophets. Christians, therefore, are called to appropriately describe the addictive experience and to consider how the church may be complicit in the production of a culture of addiction.
According to Dunnington, addiction is a disease of modernity. Addiction thrives because it uniquely and particularly addresses the failures of modernity to offer us any compelling vision of the good life. Lacking this vision we cannot flourish and thrive. Later in the book Dunnington writes, "Addiction, I contend, is the definitive habit of our time exactly because it offers the most powerful available response to this particularly modern lack." In this way, by holding up a mirror to modernity's failures, addiction functions as embodied social critique. The addict as prophet.

So what are the symptoms of modernity's failure?

Dunnington points to three symptoms of modernity: Arbitrariness, boredom and loneliness.

Dunnington then goes on, as we'll review in the next three posts, to show how addiction uniquely addresses all three symptoms.

The Addict as Prophet: Part 2, Addiction as Habit

Is addiction a choice or a disease?

The first half of Kent Dunnington's book Addiction and Virtue is an attempt to tackle this snarly question. This not the part of the book that I want to focus on, but it's an important issue that lays the foundation for any theology of addiction.

We tend to moralize addiction when we frame it as a choice. Addiction, if it's a choice, is a sin and the addict is viewed as a bad person.

A key advantage, then, of viewing addiction as a disease--as a brain pathology--is that it marshals sympathy for the addict. Viewing addiction as an illness lowers moral accountability. We shift to treating addicts rather than blaming them.

There are two good reasons for viewing addiction as a disease. First, there appear to be biological correlates for addiction, genetics that appear to make some brains more susceptible to addiction. Second, addicts report a degree of compulsion that give the impression that, in the grip of addiction, their ability to exercise rational control has been compromised.

The general consensus among medical and mental health professionals is that addiction is a disease. And yet, this consensus is controversial and contested. Many professionals working with addiction think the disease model is wrong, and perhaps even harmful.

Regardless, if addiction is a disease it is a really weird disease. As Dunnington points out, most addicts recover from addiction and when they do it's often without any medical intervention. Some addicts just stop cold turkey.

Those cold turkey testimonies seem to reinforce the "choice" model of addiction. And yet, addiction is accompanied by such overwhelming and self-destructive compulsions that it's unlike anything resembling a rational choice.

In short, addiction is a paradox, falling somewhere in that murky interface between voluntary (choice) and involuntary (disease).

Our current theologies of addiction are ill-equipped to handle this murky space as we're pulled to either extreme, choice or disease. Dunnington's work is helpful as he uses Aristotle and Aquinas, the virtue traditions in Greek and Christian thought, to explore the interface of voluntary and involuntary action, the territory where addiction seems to live.

Borrowing from these virtue traditions, Dunnington suggests that addiction is best viewed not as a choice or a disease but as a habit. As Dunnington shows, the category of habit best fits the paradox of addiction, how addiction responds to non-medical interventions but is also experienced as an involuntary compulsion.

Having argued that addiction is best viewed as a habit (rather than a choice or disease), Dunnington then goes on to the second part of his argument, the part of his book I want to focus on.

Specifically, if addiction is a habit, what makes this particular habit so addicting?

Prison Diary: The Set Up Crew

To get out to the prison on time I have to head out around 5:40. It takes about twenty minutes to get there. The study starts at 6:30, so we get out there around 6:00. We have to clear security and make the walk to the chapel. If things go smoothly we're at the chapel around 6:15.

When we arrive we're greeted by Cody, Diego and Joe. Our set up crew.

The origins of the set up crew are murky. A lot of what happens in a prison depends a great deal upon your ability to convince an officer to allow you to do something, like going to the chapel early to set up.

Cody, Diego and Joe are skilled and confident talkers. A year or so ago they self-nominated themselves to become our set up crew, convincing the officers in their respective buildings to release them early so that they could help set up the chapel for our study.

And you know how it is. Once something happens once it's a tradition ever afterward. Eventually that tradition becomes expectation and something that is informal becomes formalized. Cody, Diego and Joe now have lay ins that let them come early to the chapel to help set up.

And there is a great need to set up. We have to find, collect and arrange chairs to accommodate the size of the study. So Herb and I have always been appreciative that Cody, Diego and Joe selected this job for themselves.

But more than the set up, what I appreciate most about the set up crew are the relationships. Because we get to spend some time alone each week with each other, waiting for the 50+ men to arrive, I have the closest relationships with Cody, Joe and Diego.

Everything I know about prison life and culture they have taught me.

Like how to get yourself appointed to being a set up crew.

The Addict as Prophet: Part 1, The Need for a Theology of Addiction

I'd like to share some posts walking through some insights from Kent Dunnington's book Addiction and Virtue.

If you've read Reviving Old Scratch you know that, because of my life at Freedom Fellowship, we spend a lot of our time walking alongside friends struggling with addiction. One of the reasons I've grown disillusioned with progressive Christianity is how little it talks about addiction. Addiction stalks the margins of our society, like a hungry predator, so if you want to stand in solidarity with the margins you need to have something to say about addiction. But not many Christian bloggers write about addiction.

That said, I'm not particularly impressed with conservative conversations about addiction either.

In short, there's a gap here in our theological reflection, among both conservatives and progressives, and I think Dunnington's book is a provocative and helpful contribution.

And if you don't know a lot about addiction in America let me suggest you pick up Sam Quinones' Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic as a place to get started.

Start Passing the Peace: Part 3, We Need a Liturgy of Peace

I think the main reason I'd like to see churches passing the peace is because if our world needs a liturgy right now that liturgy is passing the peace.

We're all so divided, polarized and angry at each other. Even in our own pews. So it seems to me that it might be a good idea if we all started practicing, week in and week out, looking each other in the eye and saying "Peace be with you."

Right now, other than the Eucharist, I can't imagine a more important and necessary liturgy for us. A stand-and-greet-your-neighbors liturgy isn't going to cut it. We need to practice extending peace to each other.

Seriously, to lament our polarized, divided and fractured churches, communities and nation and to not practice passing the peace is liturgical and political malpractice.

It's Spiritual Formation 101. You can't become something you're not willing to practice.

Dear churches, start passing the peace.

Start Passing the Peace: Part 2, The Foundation of Christian Community

Socially and pragmatically, passing the peace is a hospitable liturgy for introverts and for those who are struggling on a Sunday morning. The Christ-focused script--"The peace of Christ be with you."--helps the introverts and it doesn't force us to pretend.

But the deeper reason for why passing the peace is a better liturgy than the "let's stand and greet those around you" liturgy is that passing the peace focuses us on the true foundation of Christian community.

The problem with the "greeting time" liturgy is that it asks us, in sixty awkward seconds, to find some common ground between yourself and a stranger. You ask those standard get-to-know you questions, looking for some point of connection.

The theological issue here, beyond this time being hell on introverts, is that this "greeting time" liturgy is forcing us to look for the source of community within ourselves. We look for commonalities and similarities, and when we find these we find connection and community.

In short, the "greeting time" liturgy is malforming us as it is asking us to find community in similarity and sameness.

Passing the peace, by contrast, points us away from ourselves toward the true ground of Christian community: the peace of Christ. We don't bond over the fact that we both watched the Dallas Cowboy game. We bond because we are recipients of the peace of Christ.

The "greeting time" liturgy is awful because it brings up college football.

Passing the peace, by contrast, points us to Jesus.

Start Passing the Peace: Part 1, Think About the Introverts!

On Friday in my post about the Bible study I lead out at the prison I mentioned that, outside the Eucharist, my favorite part of the liturgy is the passing of the peace.

I also mentioned that my church doesn't pass the peace and that I wish we did.

So I'd like to follow up with a few posts this week to make the argument that every church should pass the peace. Because a lot of churches, particularly low-church Protestants like my church, don't pass the peace. And they should.

I'm going to get to some important theological and political reasons for why we should pass the peace each Sunday, but let me start today with a simple, pragmatic reason.

Think about the introverts!

Instead of passing the peace, a lot of churches, like mine, do have a moment in the service where we're asked to stand and greet the people around us. This "greeting time" is often assumed to be the equivalent of passing the peace. But as I'll argue in the next two posts, this "greeting time" is a very poor substitute for passing the peace. In fact, as I'll argue, rather than forming us into a Christ-centered community this "greeting time" is actually malforming us.

But before we get those heavier arguments, for today I just want to point out how inhospitable the "greeting time" is for introverts. Seriously, I know many introverts in my church who intentionally come to church late so that they can miss the greeting time. That's how difficult and hard the greeting time is for many introverts. To say nothing about the people who are emotionally or spiritually struggling on any given Sunday. The greeting time privileges extraversion and positivity.

Passing the peace, by giving us a script, words to share with each other, is so much more hospitable to introverts. This is a fact. I know introverts who come to church late to skip the greeting time who absolutely love passing the peace.

Passing the peace is also more hospitable to those who are struggling on Sunday morning. When you are passing the peace you don't have to smile and pretend life is awesome. Which, let's admit it, the greeting time forces you do do. You are not, in the sixty seconds you're given for greeting time, going to spill your troubles to the strangers sitting next to you. So you are forced by the greeting time liturgy to smile, nod and show a happy face. The greeting time is a liturgical nightmare because it is a liturgy of pretending.

Passing the peace avoids this falseness because it focuses us on Christ.

Prison Diary: La Paz de Cristo sea con vosotros

The Men in White in our bible study don't have a lot of liturgical knowledge or experience. For the most part they are, as they say, "unchurched."

So one of the things that I've enjoyed over the years is introducing the men to liturgy and the liturgical calendar. I've explained to them the difference between Advent and Christmas. One year during Lent I heavily smudged ashes onto a piece of paper to get ashes in the prison so that they could experience the imposition of ashes. My smudge was heavy and thick enough that I could rub my thumb over it to leave a faint black cross on the foreheads of the men.

This week I was talking about the passing of the peace in liturgical churches. Outside of the Eucharist the passing of the peace is my favorite part of liturgical services. I wish my church passed the peace. It's a powerful symbol of reconciled humanity as New Creation.

Most of the men in the study had never passed the peace. So I explained the point of the liturgy and the words we say to each other. "Peace be with you." or "Peace of Christ." or simply "Peace."

After this little lesson, 50 plus men got up and passed the peace.

The Hispanic men passed the peace to me with "La Paz de Christo" ("the Peace of Christ") and "La Paz de Cristo sea con vosotros."

May the Peace of Christ be with you.

And also with you, my brothers. And also with you.

On Spiritual Warfare: Dualism vs. Apocalyptic

One of the concerns when Christians talk about the Devil and spiritual warfare is a worry about ontological dualism.

Specifically, images of "warfare," with light being opposed to darkness, makes us think that Good and Evil are an ontological pair, eternally pitted against each other. To be sure, there are some religious cosmologies that embrace that dualism, but Christianity isn't one of them.

And yet, Christians see themselves as battling dark forces, collectively described as "the satan," the Adversary.

So how do we avoid drifting into dualism in light of that struggle?

In Reviving Old Scratch I borrow from the work of scholars like Louis Martyn, his commentary on Galatians in particular, to argue that the reason we experience spiritual warfare isn't because of dualism but because God's invasion of the world. Scholars call this framework apocalyptic. The world is held in captivity by dark cosmic forces--the Devil, Sin and Death--and God invades the cosmos to liberate humanity. Yes, this is Christus Victor atonement.

The key, though, for the concern about dualism, is that we experience warfare not because of ontology but because of God's apocalyptic invasion of "the present evil age."

Prayer Labyrinth

I mentioned that two weeks ago I was teaching a class on hospitality for a wonderful group of people in Spring Arbor University’s MA in Spiritual Formation and Leadership program. The residency class was at the lovely Michindoh Conference Center.

Michindoh has a prayer labyrinth on the grounds, and since we all were there as a part of a spiritual formation program a lot of people in the cohorts taking the class couldn't wait to get out to the labyrinth. Apparently, there are prayer labyrinth junkies out there.

Sad to say this, but even though there is a prayer labyrinth on my own campus, I've never walked a prayer labyrinth. Oh, I've looked at and walked around plenty of prayer labyrinths, but I've never prayerfully walked my way through a labyrinth the way you're supposed to do.

So on my last day at Michindoh, during a time of silent retreat, I headed out to the prayer labyrinth. It was a damp, cold winter day. But I love weather, so damp, cold winter days are atmospheric to me. There is nothing I love more than being appropriately dressed on a cold winter day. I love the contrast of feeling snug and warm with the feeling of cold air on your face. Have you ever delighted in that feeling? Being outside on a cold day but being perfectly comfortable because you've nailed the clothing? Not too hot, not too cold. Perfected matched to the climate. Externally, the day seems forbidding and chilly, but you're walking around warm and contented. I love that feeling. That's the feeling I had walking out to the prayer labyrinth at Michindoh.

I reached the labyrinth and took a centering breath before starting.

I slowly walked the labyrinth saying the Jesus prayer all the way into the center. At the center I lingered, resting into silence. I exited the labyrinth bringing to mind the names and faces of all the people in my life I want to be available and present to. My family, co-workers, people I've been neglecting.

I loved the experience. I walked slowly back to the conference center, pausing for long minutes to watch a black and white spotted Downy Woodpecker. The two of us sat together, alone by the grey lake.

Finally, with a stilled, quiet heart I said good-bye and walked back into the world.

Desires, Liturgies and the Kingdom: Part 4, Wanted: Liturgies for Loving the Hard to Love

Last post reflecting on the work of James Smith as we processed his books Desiring the Kingdom and You Are What You Love at last fall's Rochester College Streaming conference.

Again, if there was big point I struggled with at Streaming it was the issue I raised in Part 1, that liturgy isn't a magic bullet when it comes to spiritual formation.

So what's missing?

I think what's missing is summed up in what we mean by "kingdom" when we say that liturgy forms us to "desire the kingdom." What is this "kingdom" that we are trying to love?

Most of the time when I hear Smith describe his work kingdom is referring to the transcendent. Rarely does Smith describe liturgies, habits and practices that help us love hard to love human beings.

Basically, I agree with everything Smith describes in his books except his definition of the kingdom. Smith's implicit definition of the kingdom is too spiritual and too transcendent and not tied closely to where most failures of Christlikeness occur, the realm of social psychology and interpersonal relationships.

I love things like liturgy, the liturgical calendar, structured prayer, silence, Sabbath, Lectio Divina and on and on. I'm a huge liturgical nerd. I geek out on this stuff. But none of it is directly forming in me the interpersonal affectional capacities required to help me love hard to love people. It's this interpersonal aspect that is missing in most conversations about liturgical practice and spiritual disciplines.

I agree that we need habits and practices to shape and direct our loves. But what I want to see more of are habits and practices that form and direct our loves toward human beings.

Love, especially for the the hard to love. That's my definition of the kingdom.

So where are we describing the liturgies that help us with that?

Prison Diary: Reunions and the Greeting Line

On Monday we weren't sure if we'd be having the study since it was MLK Day. But we got late word that the chaplain's office had issued the lay-ins for our class.

(A lay-in is an approval slip, sort of like a High School hall pass, allowing the inmates to leave their cell block to attend a program offering. So if the lay-ins aren't sent out, and sometimes they aren't on holidays, the men aren't allowed to leave their cell blocks to attend our study. This is one of the glitchy things about working at a prison. You can show up at the facility ready to go, but if someone forgets to process the lay-in paperwork you won't have a class showing up.)

I was so happy we had class. I'd been missing the guys. Due the Christmas holidays (lay-ins were not given for the two Mondays around Christmas and New Year's) and being out of town last week it had been a few weeks since I'd been at the study.

These reunions are awesome. After the guys get patted down by the guards (to make sure they aren't bringing contraband into the study) they are released to enter the chapel where the study is held. Herb and I wait for the men to enter, creating a sort of receiving line. We hug and greet everyone as they enter. There's over 50 guys, so this takes awhile.

But this receiving line, the 50 hugs given out, is my favorite part of the study. And it's the favorite time of the men as well. To be embraced, to stand and share in some small talk, to chat as friends. It's an incredibly humanizing experience for the Men in White. For many of the men, we're the only people from the "free world" that they ever get to see or talk with. The greeting line really is Holy Ground.

And these greetings, as you might expect, are even more enthusiastic when we haven't seen each other in a few weeks.

So Monday night this week was really special.

Desires, Liturgies and the Kingdom: Part 3, Jesus is My Boyfriend

At the Streaming conference, as we talked about the work of James K. Smith, from time to time in our discussions criticisms were made of contemporary praise music.

A frequently leveled criticism concerned the overly romantic themes in contemporary Christian praise music. These sorts of songs are frequently dismissed as "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs.

I found that dismissal odd in light of our discussions about Smith's work about how liturgies should shape our loves and desires. Smith was arguing that our liturgies should engage our emotions, that worship should be more romantic than intellectual, but in the same breath we were dismissing "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs.

What's additionally strange here is that many of the people who are dismissive of the "boyfriend" songs are people immersed in the contemplative tradition. And yet, the contemplative tradition is the tradition most familiar with the erotic aspects of Christian worship and spirituality. If anyone felt that "Jesus is my boyfriend" it was the Christian mystics.

Finally, the patriarchy might also be at work in this criticism of "boyfriend" themes. Which is again strange given that many of the people who dismiss the "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs are liberals and progressives.

James Smith makes all these points in a fascinating footnote (p. 79) in Desiring the Kingdom:
I think a philosophical anthropology centered around affectivity, love, or desire might also be an occasion to somewhat reevaluate our criticisms of "mushy" worship choruses that seem to confuse God with our boyfriend. While we might be rightly critical of the self-centered grammar of such choruses, I don't think we should so quickly write off their "romantic" or even "erotic" elements (the Song of Songs comes to mind in this context)...The quasi-rationalism that sneers at such erotic elements in worship is concerned to keep worship "safe" from such threats is the same rationalism that has consistently marginalized the religious experience of women--and women mystics in particular.

Desires, Liturgies and the Kingdom: Part 2, The Hypocrisy of Not Raising Your Hands

A big part of the discussion about liturgies at Streaming last fall responding to the work of James K. Smith was that liturgies engage our bodies and emotions.

We aren't, to use Smith's phrase, just "brains on sticks." The brain is connected to and affected by the body. Consequently, if we want to reform and reshape our loves and desires our liturgies must target our bodies and our guts.

But as I mentioned in the last post, Smith tends to describe Christian liturgy as it appears in the Protestant mainline traditions. And again, that's great. I love The Book of Common Prayer.

But here's the question I asked Smith after one of his sessions: What about charismatic and Pentecostal worship?

At the end of the day, given how Smith defines liturgy as habitual practices directing our love toward the kingdom, every church is a liturgical church. In their habitual worship practices a charismatic church is just as liturgical as an Episcopalian church. True, these liturgies look very, very different, but both churches have habitual worship practices that direct our desires toward the kingdom of God.

Which brings me back to the question I asked. If we are looking for liturgies that engage our bodies and our emotions it seems to me that charismatic worship might be just as or even more potent than a high-church liturgy. And interestingly, where mainline churches are struggling in the West charismatic churches are thriving worldwide.

Maybe, per my last post, liturgy can be potent in spiritual formation but we need to expand what we mean by liturgy.

For example, when we call for more embodied, emotional and Incarnational worship maybe we should think more about raising our hands, along with The Book of Common Prayer.

But here's a strange thing. A lot of the people touting the need for more embodied worship are the very last people who would raise their hands in worship. A lot of people who call for worship to be more Incarnational are the very last people who would dance in the aisles.

There's a disjoint. Theologically, we say we need embodied and Incarnational worship, but when it comes to actual worship we're dismissive of charismatic displays and enthusiasms.

To be clear, I'm not a very demonstrative worshiper. I'm not a big hand raiser.

But after I tout the need for Incarnational worship I'm acutely aware of my hypocrisy when I don't raise my hands.

Desires, Liturgies and the Kingdom: Part 1, Liturgy Isn't A Magic Bullet

Last fall I was honored to be a part of the Rochester College Streaming conference where James K. Smith was the main presenter. James presented his work on desire, love, liturgies and spiritual formation from his books Desiring the Kingdom and You Are What You Love.

I wanted to post a few different thoughts about desires and liturgies reflecting upon Smith's work.

For this post, a quick recap if you aren't familiar with Smith's ideas and then a simple observation.

The first move Smith makes is anthropological. Humans are desiring, emotional animals. It's less about "I think, therefore I am" than "You are what you love."

Second move: Our desires are aimed at some vision of human flourishing, some vision of the Good Life. In theological language, some vision of the kingdom of God.

Third move: Habits and practices shape our affections. Since these habitual practices are shaping our loves and desires for a kingdom we can call them liturgies. So defined, liturgies are everywhere shaping our affections. Smith calls these "secular liturgies," mainly consumeristic and nationalistic liturgies, that shape and direct our affections toward some vision of the Good Life. 

Fourth move: Christian worship is a counter-liturgy, habits and practices that compete for and reshape our affections away from the rival liturgies of the culture. If the secular liturgies of nation and marketplace--the habits and practices of life that make us desire and love the American Dream--deform us then Christian liturgy reforms us.

Overall, I agree with every one of these moves. I really like Smith's work.

But my first response, one that many people at Streaming shared, was that liturgy doesn't seem able to bear the weight Smith puts on it.

For example, as I pointed out at Streaming, among Protestants the mainline traditions have the best liturgy, and we can also throw in Catholicism and the Orthodox, but overall I don't think these liturgical traditions are producing more saintly Christians at higher rates than other traditions.

Liturgy isn't a saint factory.

Relatedly, as another attendee pointed out, if liturgy is so powerful then why are many mainline churches losing members at faster rates than some other denominations?

To be clear, I love the liturgy in mainline churches. Jana and I went to an Episcopal cathedral for their Christmas eve service this year. I adored the service, but the attendance was sparse. Clearly, liturgy alone isn't a magic bullet.

The Gospel of Peace & the Peace of the Gospel Conference: See You There!

I'm excited to be a part of the Gospel of Peace & the Peace of the Gospel conference taking place November 2-4 in Santa Fe, NM.

Beyond myself, the keynote speakers include Richard Rohr, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Diana Butler-Bass, Stanley Hauerwas, Brian McLaren, Michael Hardin, Douglas Campbell, and Danielle Shroyer.

I can't imagine a more needed conversation in the year 2017. Plus, I'm excited to meet people like Richard Rohr, whom I've never met before. He's made a huge impact upon a lot of my friends.

If you're thinking about attending the conference the Super Early Bird rate is available until March 1.

Hope to see you in beautiful Santa Fe in November!