The Innate Violence of Activism

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

--Thomas Merton

Personal Days: Husband to a Drama Teacher

If you've been following these Friday posts you'll recall that my wife, Jana, is a High School theater teacher. This summer Jana and I will have been married 25 years, and for most of those years I've been helping Jana with her productions.

I've painted sets. Moved sets. Built sets.

I've attended rehearsals and given notes.

I've run sound and lights.

I've designed programs and handed out programs.

I've worked the ticket booth and the concession stand.

And famously one year, when a student got injured the night before a show, I stepped in and performed in a show. I memorized the lines in between the scenes.

This last week, it was hot gluing book pages to drops.

That's life as the husband of a drama teacher.

Tonight is Jana's last show of the year. Little Women opens tonight at Abilene Community Theater. Doors open at 7:30.

Pictured above is Jana and I at ACT, pondering the set of Little Women. This show is also a poignant one for the Becks as it'll be Brenden's last show with his Mom.

There will be lots of happy/sad tears.

Violence is a Profound Forgetting

In a spiritual sense, violence is a profound forgetting. It is a forgetting of the past--that I have been created for a purpose by a God who wholly knows me and at the same time wondrously, wholly loves me. It is a forgetting of the present--that I am a child of God, that these others around me are my brothers and sisters, also created, known and loved by God. And it is a forgetting of the future--that God is drawing all things together into a profound and peaceable unity, where there is a place for everyone in a harmony of God's composing.

--Samuel Wells & Marcia A. Owen, from Living Without Enemies

I Hold Myself in Quiet and Silence

As a critical and rationalistic person I have always been uncomfortable with Psalm 131.

I like to push against the mysteries of faith. Because, truth be told, I don't like mysteries. I want answers to my questions.

Consequently, some might argue that, theologically, I push too hard. So hard that I end up holding to some answers and ideas that are theologically suspect. Perhaps a quicker embrace of mystery would have been able to preserve my orthodoxy.

That seems to be the recommendation of Psalm 131:
My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.
You can see my problem. I do concern myself with great matters. Perhaps these matters are too wonderful for me, but I do concern myself with them.

But the other day I encountered Psalm 131 in the New Jerusalem translation. Here's how it reads: 
Yahweh, my heart is not haughty,
I do not set my sights too high.
I have taken no part in great affairs,
in wonders beyond my scope.

No, I hold myself in quiet and silence,
like a little child in its mother's arms,
like a little child, so I keep myself.

Let Israel hope in Yahweh
henceforth and for ever.
The phrase the caught me was "I hold myself in quiet and silence." For some reason that phrasing brought to light what I take now to be the contemplative core of the poem.

Becoming like a child is learning how to hold oneself in quiet and silence. More, quiet and silence is like a mother's embrace--a location of nurturing, protection, and love.

Quiet and silence is the embrace of a mother.

In sum, my attitude toward Psalm 131 has changed. I don't read the psalm anymore as a slap down for asking hard and penetrating theological questions. I now read the psalm as a call for contemplation, a call to hold myself in quietness and silence. A quietness and silence that, I believe, sustains faith in the face of one's critical interrogations and investigations.

To goal isn't to stop those questions but, rather, to make space in your life for quiet and silence. To spend time in a mother's embrace.     

He Knew Himself to be Loved by Christ

Paul, more than anyone else, has shown us what man really is, and in what our nobility consists, and of what virtue this particular animal is capable. Each day he aimed ever higher; each day he rose up with greater ardor and faced with new eagerness the dangers that threatened him. He summed up his attitude in the words: I forget what is behind me and push on to what lies ahead. When he saw death imminent, he bade others share his joy: Rejoice and be glad with me! And when danger, injustice and abuse threatened, he said: I am content with weakness, mistreatment and persecution. These he called the weapons of righteousness, thus telling us that he derived immense profit from them.

Thus, amid the traps set for him by his enemies, with exultant heart he turned their every attack into a victory for himself; constantly beaten, abused and cursed, he boasted of it as though he were celebrating a triumphal procession and taking trophies home, and offered thanks to God for it all: Thanks be to God who is always victorious in us! This is why he was far more eager for the shameful abuse that his zeal in preaching brought upon him than we are for the most pleasing honors, more eager for death than we are for life, for poverty than we are for wealth; he yearned for toil far more than others yearn for rest after toil. The one thing he feared, indeed dreaded, was to offend God; nothing else could sway him. Therefore, the only thing he really wanted was always to please God.

The most important thing of all to him, however, was that he knew himself to be loved by Christ. Enjoying this love, he considered himself happier than anyone else; were he without it, it would be no satisfaction to be the friend of principalities and powers. He preferred to be thus loved and be the least of all, or even to be among the damned, than to be without that love and be among the great and honored.

To be separated from that love was, in his eyes, the greatest and most extraordinary of torments; the pain of that loss would alone have been hell, and endless, unbearable torture.

So too, in being loved by Christ he thought of himself as possessing life, the world, the angels, present and future, the kingdom, the promise and countless blessings. Apart from that love nothing saddened or delighted him; for nothing earthly did he regard as bitter or sweet.

Paul set no store by the things that fill our visible world, any more than a man sets value on the withered grass of the field. As for tyrannical rulers or the people enraged against him, he paid them no more heed than gnats.

Death itself and pain and whatever torments might come were but child’s play to him, provided that thereby he might bear some burden for the sake of Christ.

--from a homily by Saint John Chrysostom

We Need a Satanic Hermeneutic

My fourth book Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted is out next week. While the book is for everyone, it's especially a book for progressive and liberal Christians who struggle with believing in the devil, demons, angels and spiritual warfare.

One of the arguments of the book is that, despite all our doubts about the existence of the devil, liberal and progressive Christians need to recover a vision of spiritual warfare. Because when you lose track of the Devil you tend to lose track of Jesus.

Recently, another example of this occurred to me, too late to be included among the examples I share in the book, so I'd like to share it here.

The observation is this: You need the Devil if you want to read the Bible well.

When liberal and progressive Christians read the Bible we talk a lot about reading the bible with a Christological hermeneutic. Basically, we read everything in the bible through the lens of Jesus, and if a particular reading of the text doesn't fit with Jesus we reject that reading as false.

This is well worn territory. But the point I'd like to make is that you can't have a Christological hermeneutic if you don't have a Devil. A Christological hermeneutic is necessarily a satanic hermeneutic.

Which puts liberal and progressive Christians in a bind given our doubts and skepticism about the existence of the Devil.

Again, you can't have a Christological hermeneutic if you don't have a Devil.

Let me explain this.

One of the biggest reasons progressive and liberal Christians adopt a Christological reading of the bible is the genocidal violence in the Old Testament. That violence is hugely problematic. Fortunately, that violence doesn't look a whole lot like the Jesus who preached "love your enemies." So it's often assumed--too quickly assumed--that a Christological reading of the Old Testament allows you to get around the violence of the Old Testament.

But the problem with many of these too-quick and too-easy Christological readings of the Old Testament is that they become Marcionite by introducing a huge moral wedge between the Old and New Testaments. The violence of the Old Testament, in light of a Christological reading, is judged as bad--wicked and evil, even. Which is theologically and hermeneutically problematic given how that violence is connected to God in the narratives.

What we need, to avoid Marcion-like readings of Scripture, is a way to see something good and holy in the violence of the Old Testament, something good and holy despite that violence being also wicked and evil.

That's a hard trick to pull off. And that trick is the Devil.

How did Jesus read the violence of the Old Testament? Jesus didn't read that violence as the zealots read it, as a call for holy war against the Romans. Jesus didn't read the violence of the Old Testament literally. Jesus shifted the battle to another plane. Jesus directed violence away from human enemies toward a spiritual antagonist, toward the True Enemy. The battle was against the Satan, not the Romans. That's the reading of the Old Testament--the satanic hermeneutic--that got Jesus to "love your enemies."

It's the same Christological reading of the Old Testament used by the church fathers as well. The moral problems thrown up by the violence in the Old Testament are not new. It perplexed the early Christians as well. See Marcion himself as an example here. So all the modern hand wringing about the violence in the Old Testament among progressive Christians isn't a new thing. The church has been thinking about this for a long time.

But the big difference here is that the church fathers believed in the Devil and modern progressive Christians, by and large, do not. The church fathers were able to stay in moral contact with the Old Testament because they read that violence as mistaken, yes, but also containing a spiritual, allegorical truth, that the Kingdom of God is in a battle with the spiritual forces of darkness.

To be sure, throughout church history those spiritual forces of darkness got tragically re-aligned, over and over again, with actual human beings, drawing the violence away from the spiritual realm back down again into the arena of flesh and blood. But we recognize all this as a failure of the Christological hermeneutic, as a clear violation of Jesus' call to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. The real battle, the Christological hermeneutic tells us, is never against flesh and blood, but against the persistent and insistent satanic temptations to kill each other. The battle against those satanic temptations is the battle Jesus called us to fight. That's what Jesus meant when he said "Get behind me, Satan!" to walk the road to the cross.

In short, a Christological reading of the bible requires the Devil. For both Jesus and the early church, a Christological hermeneutic was necessarily a satanic hermeneutic.

But doubting the devil as we do, this satanic hermeneutic is what a lot of progressive and liberal Christians lack. Which means that progressive and liberal Christians can't read the bible Christologically as they'd like to, as Jesus and the early church did.

It's like I said, lose track of the Devil and you lose track of Jesus.

Personal Days: My Students

This blog and my books, those are what I do for fun. My day job, what I do for a living, is teaching statistics and research methods to ACU students.

But that's a whole lot of fun as well. Every year I mentor 10-12 undergraduate students helping them do original empirical research and then presenting that work at a peer-reviewed psychological conference. They mainly submit for poster sessions at the Southwestern Psychological Association conference.

Last weekend was the SWPA conference and I had another amazing group of undergraduate students. We had a blast and the students did awesome at the conference. So, so proud of them.

So, welcome to my day job! Here they are, my students and the abstracts of their research presentations:

No Indictment?: Ethnicity and Perceptions of Trust in Grand Jury Decisions of Police Shootings
Sierra Villanueva, Elizabeth Banks and Erin Wiggins

Purpose:
Racial unrest and tension has roiled America since the events in Ferguson. Beyond the debates over the shootings themselves, there appears to be significant disagreement among Americans about the degree to which grand jury decisions are fair and unbiased, especially when they have failed to bring indictments against White police officers. Though the “rule of law” was followed grand jury decisions appear to be treated with suspicion, especially among minority populations. The present study sought to examine the effect of grand jury decisions upon perceptions of blame in a scenario describing a lethal use of police force.

Method:
Participants were 116 volunteers (40.5% Caucasian, 34.5% Hispanic, 15% African-American) who read a scenario describing a police officer (of unspecified ethnicity) using lethal force against a suspect (of unspecified ethnicity). In the Control condition participants read: "A police officer approaches an individual who is participating in an illegal activity. The officer asks the individual to comply with instructions, however the individual refuses. The officer then uses aggressive force to apprehend the individual. Subsequently, the actions of the police officer resulted in the death of the person.” In the Grand Jury condition this scenario was followed by the sentence: “Afterwards, a grand jury concluded that the actions of the police officer were justified.” After reading the scenario participants were asked to rate on a 1-7 scale the degree to which the actions of the police officer were appropriate vs. inappropriate.

Results:
A 2 (Control vs. Grand Jury) x 3 (Participant Ethnicity: Caucasian vs. African-American vs. Hispanic) ANOVA was used. Overall, there was no main effect for the grand jury prime, suggesting that the verdict of the grand jury had no impact upon judgments of the incident. There was, however, a significant main effect for participant ethnicity (F = 12.37, p < .01). Post hoc tests revealed that African-American and Hispanic participants rating the actions of the police officer as significantly less appropriate when compared to the Caucasian participants. No interaction effects were observed.

Discussion:
As expected, minority participants differed significantly in their perceptions of the scenario when compared to Caucasian participants. Interestingly, the grand jury prime did not affect officer ratings, for any of the ethnic groups represented by the participants. This suggests that, despite its “rule of law” imprimatur, grand jury decisions appear to be ineffective in “legitimizing” police actions in the court of public opinion.

Does No Really Mean No?: Perpetrator Characteristics in Attributions of Blame in Scenarios of Sexual Assault
Lulu Alvarado-Vega, Katie Higgins and Paige Womble

Purpose:
Sexual assault continues to plague American campuses. This despite significant attempts to educate college students about the sacrosanct nature of consent in sexual encounters. No means no. Or does it? The purpose of the present study was to assess gender differences in perceptions of blame in a scenario of sexual assault. Specifically, the study examined the impact of situational information upon judgments of blame when consent was not given.

Methods:
Participants were 180 volunteers, 65% female and 35% male, who were assigned to one of four experimental conditions. In each condition participants were asked to read a scenario describing a incidence of sexual assault: “On Saturday night, two college students Robert and Heather went to a party at a popular Fraternity at their school. While at the party the two found themselves alone in a bedroom where Robert began to kiss Heather. Heather told him no, but Robert continued and they had sexual intercourse. The following day, Heather reported the incident to the campus police.” In the control condition the scenario was not modified. In the three other conditions the scenario was followed by an additional statement. In the Success and Virtue conditions participants read additional details about Robert: “As a part of the police investigation, the police discovered that Robert is involved in a student organization that builds water wells in Africa where there is no access to clean water” or “As a part of the police investigation, the police discovered that Robert is 4.0 student and president of his class.” In the final condition participants read an additional statement regarding the relationship between Robert and Heather: “As a part of the police investigation, the police discovered that Heather and Robert have had an on-again, off-again sexual relationship over the past several years.” After reading the scenario participants across the conditions were asked to assign blame to Robert or Heather on a 1 (“Heather is solely responsible”) to 7 (“Robert is solely responsible”) rating scale.

Results:
A 2 x 4 ANOVA was conducted (Participant Gender x Condition). Overall, a main effect for gender was observed (F = 11.95, p < .01). Across the four conditions male participants blamed Heather more than Robert. There was also a main effect for Condition (F = 7.15, p < .01). Overall, the presence of additional information in the scenario (regarding Robert or Robert and Heather’s prior relationship) significantly reduced ratings of blame of Robert. Finally, a significant Participant Gender x Condition interaction was also observed (F = 5.39, p < .01). First, no difference was observed for the blame ratings in the control condition for male and female participants. Next, across all conditions the ratings of female participants did not vary from the control condition. By contrast, however, Robert was blamed significantly less by male participants in the Success (high GPA, class president) and Virtue (social justice work in Africa) conditions. And the lowest ratings of blame for Robert were observed when male participants read about a prior sexual relationship between Robert and Heather.

Discussion:
As we all know, when it comes to consent in sexual encounters “no means no.” Or does it? The results of the present study suggest that in the abstract males and female participants agree that “no means no.” However, in contrast females, male perceptions of blame appear to be significantly affected by situational details (relational and perpetrator information) distinct from the issue of consent.

Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder: The Correlates of Makeup Insecurity
Kaila Bellinghausen, Traci Bricka and Laura Hill

Purpose:
A significant amount of research has been devoted to how media portrayals affect the self-perceptions of women in relation to their weight and body shape. However, little to no research has been conducted upon the relationship between makeup usage and self-perception, this despite cosmetics being a multi-billion dollar industry. The goal of the study was to introduce and assess the construct of makeup insecurity, the degree to which social confidence and insecurity are associated with makeup usage, and to examine its relationship to self-esteem, body image satisfaction and social anxiety.

Method:
Participants were 138 female volunteers (Mean age = 34.64, 78% Caucasian) who completed measures of self-esteem (Rosenberg, 1965), social anxiety (Mattick & Clarke, 1998), body image (Callaghan, Sandoze, Darrow, & Feeney, 2014) and a measure developed for this study, the Makeup Insecurity Scale (MIS). The MIS is a seven-item scale with a 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 5 (Strongly Agree) likert scale. Example items for the MIS include “I feel self-conscious when not wearing makeup,” “I feel anxious when not wearing makeup in public,” and “I feel brave and confident when wearing makeup” (R).

Results:
Overall, makeup insecurity was negatively correlated with self-esteem indicating that participants with lower self-esteem reported the most insecurity about not wearing makeup (r = -.32, p < .05). Makeup insecurity was also positively associated with social anxiety (r = .33, p < .05). Finally, poor body image was positively associated with makeup insecurity (r = .62, p < .01).

Discussion:
Among the participants involved in this study, mainly Caucasian women, makeup insecurity was associated with low self-esteem, social anxiety and poor body image. These findings suggest a connection between makeup use and negative self-image. This association is consistent with the hypothesis that makeup usage is used as a compensatory strategy to bolster self-confidence in social settings.

Internet Intrusion: Who Is To Blame When Explicit Photos Get Leaked?
Eriksen Ravey and Amy Knowlton

Purpose:
Smartphones have given us the unprecedented ability to record every aspect of our lives in photographs and videos, even our intimate and sexual experiences. While this ability enables romantic partners to flirt with social media, it also raises the risk of explicit photos/videos being shared online without our permission, either by hackers or former romantic partners. How are the victims of these incidents perceived? In very public instances where celebrity photos have been leaked there has been a tendency to blame the victim. Is this evidence of a widespread trend to blame the victims when explicit material is leaked online?

Method:
Participants were 232 volunteers (Mean age = 30.85: 55.2% Female) who were assigned to one of four scenarios in a 2 x 2 design. In each condition participants read about an incident where an individual had explicit photos leaked onto the Internet. The first manipulation involved describing the victim of the leak as a celebrity (“a celebrity”) or not (“a person”). The second manipulation involved adding a description of a prior romantic relationship between the victim and the perpetrator of the leak (“a former romantic partner”) versus a control condition where this information was not included. After reading the scenario participants rated a 1-7 likert scale assigning blame to the two persons described in the scenario (e.g., 7 = the person who leaked the photos is solely to blame).

Results:
A 2 (participant gender) x 2 (Celebrity vs. Non-Celebrity) x 2 (Control vs. Prior Romantic Relationship) ANOVA was conducted. Overall, there was no main effect observed for the romantic relationship manipulation. A main effect was observed for participant gender (F = 6.72, p < .01). Specifically, across the conditions female participants tended to blame the victim more. A main effect was also observed for the celebrity manipulation (F = 11.41, p < .001). Overall, celebrities were blamed more for the leak across the conditions. No interaction effects were observed.

Discussion:
The results appear to support the conclusion victims are often blamed when it comes to leaked photos. For example, across all conditions women blamed the victim more than men. In addition, celebrity victims were blamed more than non-celebrity victims. The study was unable to determine the attributions behind blame assignment, but it is hypothesized that victims are blamed if they are judged as not having taken sufficient care and precautions to keep explicit photos of themselves under their complete control.

Who's He Tweeting?: Attachment and Jealousy on Social Media
Brandon Clements, Alexandra Gartley, Brie Hawkins and Kylie Richter

Introduction:
Social media is often used for the purposes of relationship enhancement and maintenance for those in romantic relationships. And yet, there are temptations here as well. Specifically, social media has created another space where feelings of romantic jealousy can occur as we observe and monitor, often in unhealthy ways, the online interactions of our romantic partners. To date, however, there has been little empirical work on the phenomenon of social media-related jealousy and its relationship to established measures of romantic trust, jealousy, and adulthood attachment styles.

Method:
Participants were 197 undergraduate and community volunteers. The sample was 79.9% female. The mean age was 30.1 (SD = 13.94). Participants completed the Multidimensional Jealousy Scale (Pfeiffer & Wong, 1989), which assesses behavioral (e.g., “I look through X’s drawers, handbag, or pockets.”) and emotional jealousy (e.g., “I get very upset when X hugs and kisses someone of the opposite sex.”), and the Trust Inventory Scale (Adams, Couch, & Jones 1996). Participants also completed the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965) and the Experiences in Close Relationships Scale-Short Form (Wei, Russell, Mallinckrodt, & Vogel, 2007) which assess avoidant (e.g., “I try to avoid getting to lose to my partner.”), and anxious attachment styles (e.g., “I do not often worry about being abandoned.”). Finally, the participants completed the Social Media Jealousy Scale (SMJS), an eight-item scale developed for this research. Example items of the SMJS included “I get upset when my partner is looking at or interacting on social media with somebody I think he/she might be attracted to” and “I frequently look at my partner’s social media accounts to see who he/she has been talking to”.

Results:
Overall, social media jealousy was positively correlated with jealousy ratings (r = .74, p < .001). Social media jealously was also negatively correlated with relational trust (r = -.62, p < .001). Lower self-esteem was associated with increased social media jealousy (r = -.35, p < .001). Regarding romantic attachment, social media jealously was positively correlated with avoidance of intimacy (r = .42, p < .001) and anxiety about abandonment (r = .54, p < .001). Overall, these correlations with both anxiety and avoidance suggest that social media jealousy is associated with what has been labeled a fearful or disorganized attachment style.

Discussion:
Overall, jealousy in relationships was positively associated with jealousy on social media. Lack of trust in a relationship was also associated with increased ratings of social media jealousy. Interestingly, self-esteem was negatively associated with social media jealousy, suggesting that jealousy may be associated with a negative self-concept. Finally, social media jealousy was associated with a “fearful” (high anxiety/high avoidance) romantic attachment style.

Is It Lawful To Do Good On the Sabbath?

When I was growing up I used to think that the fights Jesus had with the Pharisees about Sabbath keeping were fights about grace versus legalism and works-based righteousness.

On the one side you had the Pharisees who observed the Sabbath in a legalistic way in order to create merit and thereby "earn" their righteousness before God.

On the other side you had Jesus preaching a religion of grace. Consequently, we don't need, it was preached to us, to keep the Sabbath because legalistic, works-based righteousness isn't what Christianity is all about. We are saved by grace and not by works (i.e., "Sabbath keeping").

I now realize that this vision of the Sabbath debates is totally wrong-headed. The debates between Jesus and the Pharisees regarding the Sabbath have nothing to do with grace versus works.

So what were the Sabbath debates all about?

The work of scholars such as E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright have helped us see that the debates about the Sabbath weren't about a works-based religion. The heart of the Sabbath debates were about the identity of Jesus.

In his debates about the Sabbath with the Pharisees Jesus wasn't presenting a gospel of grace and justification by faith. The vision Jesus was presenting was this: that he--the Son of Man--was "Lord of the Sabbath." That was the essential conflict. That Jesus was someone positioning himself as greater than the Sabbath.

This is identical to Jesus's conflict with the Temple when he said, "there is one here who is greater than the temple."

No wonder they wanted to kill Jesus. The Pharisees didn't want to kill Jesus because he was a liberal hippie preaching a message of grace. They wanted to kill him because he was placing himself over both the Torah and the Temple. That was blasphemy.

In short, the issue about the Sabbath was an issue about authority--Jesus's authority in particular. The conflict wasn't about grace versus works.

But that's not to say that there wasn't a type of conflict between grace and law in the Sabbath debates. It's just not the grace vs. law conflict we've tended to think about.

The grace at stake in the Sabbath debates wasn't a grace for myself, my personal being "saved by grace." The grace in question was the grace we extend to others, and how religious law was interfering with the extension of that grace to others.

Clearly Jesus was doing things on the Sabbath that rankled. Things he shouldn't have been doing according to a particular reading of the Torah. That was the debate that brought Jesus's authority into focus. Who was authorizing what Jesus was doing?

But what, exactly, was Jesus doing?

For the most part he was healing. In one instance he allowed his hungry followers to gather some food. In short, Jesus was being gracious to others. And the Pharisees, while sympathetic I'm sure, found that problematic given how they viewed Sabbath observance and their attempts to please God.

So there was a grace vs. law debate. But the grace in question was about extending grace toward others, not claiming it for myself. The debate wasn't about works-based righteousness versus being saved by grace.

The central question was the question Jesus asked: Is it lawful to good on the Sabbath?

The debate was about doing good and the religious interference of doing good.

The debate was about empathy and compassion versus placing religious observance and ritual over caring for others. The debate was about putting God before people.

And this is, in fact, the exact same debate we are still having about what it means to be a Christian.

Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath? What comes first, obeying God or caring for people?

Interestingly, Jesus never gives a verbal answer to the question he asked.

Rather, Jesus answers with this actions.

He breaks the Sabbath and does good.

The Medal of St. Benedict: Bracelet Edition

I was recently at a Catholic store and bought for myself and Jana a St. Benedict medal bracelet. It's pictured here on my wrist. You can buy your own here.

I've written about the St. Benedict medal before. I like the medal, and wearing it, as it's a nice visual reminder of Christus Victor theology. As Gustaf Aulen describes the Christus Victor motif:
[Christus Victor's] central theme is the idea of the Atonement as a Divine conflict and victory; Christ--Christus Victor--fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the 'tyrants' under which mankind is in bondage and suffering...The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.
As I recount in Reviving Old Scratch (now available from Amazon), I first came across the medal of St. Benedict when visiting a Benedictine monastery. In the bookstore at the monastery I was buying a copy of The Rule of St. Benedict and the sister selling it to me threw into the bag a couple of St. Benedict medals. "Please, you can have some of these," she said, "They are medals of St. Benedict. They give protection from evil."

Well, who doesn't want a little protection from evil?

But seriously, the mention of evil caught my attention. "Protection from evil" rings of Christus Victor. So when I got back home I did a little reading about why the medal of St. Benedict is associated with this sort of protection. I shared some of this information in a post from 2012.

The medal, as you can see to the right and above in my picture, has two sides. On the front of the medal is an image of Benedict himself. In his left hand he is holding a copy of The Rule and in his right hand he is holding a cross aloft.

The Christus Victor themes are found on the backside of the medal.

Around the border of the medal are the letters V, R, S, N, S, M, V--S, M, Q, L, I, V, B. These letters stand for the Latin words Vade Retro Satana! Nunquam Suade Mihi Vana! Sunt Mala Quae Libas. Ipse Venena Bibas! Translated this means, "Begone Satan! Never tempt me with your vanities! Evil is the cup you offer. Drink the poison yourself!"

These are the inscriptions on the medal that relate to its association with protection against Satan, evil, and temptation.

Because of the explicit command to Satan--"Begone Satan!"--the Medal of St. Benedict has often been used for exorcisms. In fact, as I've shared before, for this purpose the medal is often incorporated into the crucifix to create a St. Benedict's Cross (pictured to the right). Though associated with exorcisms the more normal and workaday use of the St. Benedict Cross is like that of the medal, as a general talisman/prayer against evil.

Anyway, when I saw these St. Benedict medal bracelets at the store I picked two up and gave one to Jana. Lots of prayers and biblical admonitions come to mind when I look at it. For example:
 
"Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." --James 4.7

But my favorite text is from the gospels. Peter upon hearing that Jesus is heading to the cross is rebuked by Jesus: "Get behind me, Satan!"

As I describe in Reviving Old Scratch that's the fork in the road I face everyday. One choice leads to self-giving love. And the other choice is tempting me away from love. That second path, the one leading away from the cross, I identify with Satan. As Jesus did.

And so in choosing the cross I pray with Jesus, with a little visual prompt from my St. Benedict bracelet:

"Get behind me, Satan!

Reviving Old Scratch Book Launch Event With N.T. Wright and Greg Boyd

If you're going to be close to LA and Malibu on May 3rd let me invite you to the Reviving Old Scratch book launch event!

The event is a live double podcast hosted by Luke Norsworthy and Homebrewed Christianity. Special guests are N.T. Wright and Greg Boyd!

I'm excited to have both Tom and Greg at the event as their work, in different ways, inspired the idea behind Reviving Old Scratch: a progressive Christian taking the Devil seriously.

Tom, Greg and I are all in town for the Pepperdine Bible Lectures where we, along with a fantastic lineup, will be speaking May 3-6. Be sure to check out the PBL schedule if you want to hear more from Tom and Greg.

Event and registration details for the Reviving Old Scratch book launch can be found here.

Update: The event has already been sold out. Excited to see ya'll on May 3rd!

Personal Days: Dear Hank Williams, I've Seen the Light

Ya'll know I'm a huge Johnny Cash fan. Recently I've been getting into Hank Williams.

It started with Jana. She bought a record player for our family room and the kind people at Record Guys gave her some store credit for her purchase. Not having a lot of Johnny Cash vinyl on hand Jana brought home a double-LP of classic Hank Williams. I put it on and I was hooked.

Seriously, as soon as I heard the song "I Saw the Light" I pulled up the chords online, grabbed my guitar and started strumming the song. I've been singing that song all week.
I wandered so aimless life filled with sin
I wouldn't let my dear savior in
Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night
Praise the Lord I saw the light

I saw the light, I saw the light
No more darkness, no more night
Now I'm so happy no sorrow in sight
Praise the Lord I saw the light

Just like a blind man I wandered along
Worries and fears I claimed for my own
Then like the blind man that God gave back his sight
Praise the Lord I saw the light

I saw the light, I saw the light
No more darkness, no more night
Now I'm so happy no sorrow in sight
Praise the Lord I saw the light

I was a fool to wander and stray
Straight is the gate and narrow's the way
Now I have traded the wrong for the right
Praise the Lord I saw the light
You can here Hank sing "I Saw the Light" here on Youtube.

And God bless used vinyl!

Theology Is Affectional

1 John 4.7-8
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

• • •

What I find remarkable about this famous text is how knowledge of God is associated with love. The one who loves knows God. And whoever does not love does not know God.

Love is our epistemology.

Phrased another way, theology is affectional rather than intellectual.

Gratitude and Foreboding Joy

I really wish I had read Brené Brown's book Daring Greatly before writing The Slavery of Death. You might be surprised by this, but I think Daring Greatly is the perfect companion book to The Slavery of Death.

Let me give an example. One of the take home points from The Slavery of Death is how the practices of doxological gratitude help us overcome our slavery to the fear of death, our fear of loss. And in Daring Greatly Brené Brown makes similar observations about gratitude and our fear of loss.

Specifically, in her work on vulnerability Brené has discovered, somewhat paradoxically, a connection between joy and our fear of loss. When we experience deep joy we feel extraordinarily vulnerable, we fear that the joy will not last, that something tragic will happen that will rob us of happiness.

Anyone who is a parent understands this. The birth of a child is a deep and profound joy. But the birth of a child also introduces into our lives a chronic fear of loss. Our joy is fragile and precarious. Tainted by the prospect of death. In becoming a parent I was never more joyful but I was also never more afraid and cognizant of death.

In Brown’s research she has asked people about when they have felt the most vulnerable and exposed to loss. And more often than not what people have shared with her are experiences of great joy. According to Brown these are the sorts of experiences in life that make us feel most vulnerable (Daring Greatly, p. 119):
  • Standing over my children while they are sleeping.
  • Acknowledging how much I love my husband/wife.
  • Knowing how good I’ve got it.
  • Loving my job.
  • Spending time with my parents.
  • Getting engaged.
  • Going into remission.
  • Having a baby.
  • Being happy.
  • Falling in love.
As you can see from this list, joy and the fear of loss go hand in hand.

In the face of this anxiety Brown goes on to describe how many people, in the face of this exposure and vulnerability, practice what she calls “foreboding joy.”

According to Brown, foreboding joy is a way of coping with our fear of loss by emotionally withdrawing from joy so that we might protect ourselves from disappointment. Brown describes a continuum of strategies here from “rehearsing tragedy” to “perpetual disappointment,” from ruminating about worst-case scenarios to keeping our expectations very, very low. According to Brown, all these strategies share a central idea:
We’re trying to beat vulnerability to the punch. We don’t want to be blindsided by hurt. We don’t want to be caught off-guard, so we literally practice being devastated or never move from self-elected disappointment.
Relevant to my analysis in The Slavery of Death, the antidote to foreboding joy, according to Brown, are the practices of gratitude. People who stay open to joy, despite its risks, are those who practice gratitude. As Brown summarizes, joy is “a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude.”

In addition, Brown also describes gratitude as a spiritual practice, which connects gratitude to doxology. As Brown writes, “joyfulness and gratitude [are] spiritual practices that [are] bound to a belief in human connectedness and a power greater than us.”

Put Away the Sword: Tragedy and Eschatology

This last Sunday in our adult Bible class at church I was teaching through John 18-19. I spent a lot of time on Jesus' arrest, this passage in particular:
John 18.10-11
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”
I went on to use this text--"put your sword away"--to contrast the non-violence of Jesus' kingdom with the violence he faces from the kingdoms of the world.

After the class my good friend Mike asked about what we are to do with "put your sword away" in a world where groups like ISIS exist. Are we, or is a nation like the US, to put the sword away when people are being beheaded, woman raped and girls taken as sex slaves?

Of course, I don't have the answers to these questions. But what follows is a bit of my answer to Mike.

First, I said, we are creatures that live within history and we have to appreciate the tragic nature of history.

If, for example, we bomb ISIS that's not something to cheer about. It's horribly tragic. Plus, that bombing will simply create more violence as those affected by the bombing will most likely become radicalized and come to hate the US. Bombing, even if you think it's "the right thing to do," is tragic and just leads to the next round of violence within history.

And if we don't bomb and ISIS goes into a village, beheading and raping, that's also tragic.

It's tragic all the way around. Use the sword and it's tragic. Put your sword away, especially in a world of violent and evil men, and that is also tragic.

All that to say, I shared with Mike, no matter how we as Christians might feel about the use of violence to restrain evil in the world, Jesus' command "put your sword away" forces us to accept all violence as tragic. We must lament violence, even violence we feel is "justified."

That's what upsets me about crowds cheering and thrilling to calls to bomb ISIS, so-called "Christians" who are viewing violence triumphalistically rather than tragically.

Because Jesus said "put your sword away" Christians can never cheer violence. We must only grieve it.

And what if we take Jesus' command seriously and decide to "put the sword away," what if we renounce violence and embrace pacifism? How are we to view the pacifist?

The pacifist, I said to Mike, is living an eschatological existence within history. The pacifist--as sign, sacrament and foretaste of the coming kingdom--is putting the sword away within history, in a world still full of evil and violent men.

Living an eschatological existence within history creates a radical rupture and break with the world. In the face of evil the non-violence of the kingdom appears naive, immoral and irresponsible. Within history the pacifist is outrageous. The pacifist only makes sense from an eschatological perspective.

But this isn't an indictment of the pacifist or the kingdom of God. Our outrage at the pacifist isn't an indictment of the pacifist. It's an indictment of history. The pacifist is sane. It's the world that has gone mad.

We've misplaced our anger when we rage at the pacifist. We shouldn't be outraged at the kingdom but at the world.

Living as an eschatological person within history the pacifist deepens the contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men. In this the pacifist is a prophetic witness, an indictment. But rather than repenting of our violence we throw the stones at the pacifist, accusing him or her of madness, naivete and irresponsibility.

I understand, I said to Mike, that it seems insane and irresponsible to put the sword away within history, but that's not an indictment of the kingdom, that's an indictment of history.

To conclude, I ended with Mike, while Christians debate the ethics of using the sword within history I think we all have to agree with this. When Jesus said "put your sword away" he excluded the sword from the kingdom. That is, we can never, ever, identify the sword with the kingdom.

You might argue that violence is necessary--many do make that argument for good and valid reasons--but violence can never be good or righteous. Or cheered.

You can never say violence is Christian. If the sword is out the kingdom is not there.

Violence is only ever a failure, a loss, a lesser evil, an eclipse of the kingdom.

A tragedy.

The Five Loves

If you've grown up in Christianity you've likely listened to sermons about the contrasts between "the four loves." C.S. Lewis wrote a book about this entitled The Four Loves.

The four loves is a useful approach to the concept of love as the Greeks had many words for love while English speakers have only one word, the word "love."

The four loves are eros, philia, storge and agape. Eros is romantic love. Philia is the love of friendship. Storge is familial love. And agape is often described as sacrificial love.

That's how the four loves are typically presented and no doubt you've heard it all before. But if I was going to write a book about this subject I would add a love and title the book The Five Loves.

Specifically, I'd add in the love xenia. Or how this love is describe in Hebrews 13.2: philoxenia.

A xenos in Greek is a stranger. Xenia is the Greek word describing the love involved in hospitality, the love/friendship extended to the guest and the stranger (xenos). Xenia is the love of the Other.

Relatedly, the word philoxenia is brotherly love (philia) extended to the stranger (xenos).

And as we know, opposed to xenia is xenophobia, the fear of the Other.

But perfect love should cast out fear. Xenia should cast out xenophobia.

Given the biblical notion of God coming to us as a xenos, as a stranger and guest, I think the addition of hospitality (xenia, philoxenia) would make an important addition to the four loves.

Five loves.

Eros, storge, philia, xenia and agape.

Personal Days: Family Golfing

I love golfing with my Dad. It's the only time I really golf. We do a lot of golfing when Mom and Dad visit us in February as a part of their escape from the cold and snowy winter in Pennsylvania. And we do a whole lot more of it when we go up north as a part of our escape from the heat of the West Texas summer.

My most favorite golf outings during the summer are with Dad, my brother Cliff, and my brother-in-law Mark. Great, great memories over the years, the four of us golfing together. Can't wait to tee it up with them in a few months.

Brenden, my oldest, you might have surmised if you follow these Friday posts, is very into athletics. Aidan, my youngest, not so much.

But during the fall Aidan expressed interest in joining the ACS golf team in this his freshman year. So during Christmas Santa left some golf clubs under the tree. 

Aidan hadn't ever played golf before, so before the golf season began I took him to a driving range. We got two big buckets of balls and we started out working on the basics of the golf swing. The picture here is from that day.

Golf season started and Aidan is having a great time. He's new and just starting off, so he's got lots to work on. His first tournament was a struggle, but in the next two he played he brought his scores down. There is one more tournament left this year. Go Aidan! Go Panthers!

All that to say, we're so proud of Aidan for trying something new and sticking with it. And the biggest upside? Years of golf ahead with Brenden, Aidan and I.

Just like I've had with my Dad.

Christus Victor and St. Michael the Archangel

As regular readers know I've spent a lot of time over the last few years investigating Christus Victor theology. The classic modern account of Christus Victor is Gustaf Aulen's book.

The attraction of Christus Victor as an alternative to penal substitutionary atonement is that it presents us with a non-violent vision of the atonement. Instead of dying on the cross as a blood sacrifice to appease the wrath of God in Christus Victor atonement the death of Jesus is caused by human and spiritual wickedness and what saves us is Jesus's defeat of the dark cosmic forces enslaving us--Sin, Death and the Devil--in the resurrection. Just like how Aslan saves Edmund from the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (I talk about this in Chapter 4--"The White Witch"--in Reviving Old Scratch.)

So the main theme in Christus Victor is Christ's battle with dark cosmic forces, forces that afflict and enslave humanity. And when you read about that battle in the Bible you're going to read about St. Michael the archangel.

Only two angels are named in the Bible, Gabriel and Michael. There is a third, Raphael, if you include the Apocrypha. Of these, Michael is the angel that is portrayed in the Bible as leading God's armies against demonic forces.

In the Old Testament, for example, in Daniel 10 the angelic messenger is delayed in answering Daniel's prayer because of angelic interference from the Prince of Persia. The angel escapes when Michael, one of the chief princes among the angelic hosts, comes to his aid:
Daniel 10. 12-13
Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia.
So here in the Old Testament we find Michael associated with angelic combat, a particularly powerful "chief prince" among the angelic armies.

This depiction of Michael is echoed in the book of Revelation where Michael leads the fight against the Devil when war breaks out in heaven:
Revelation 12.7-9
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
Because of texts like these in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions prayers to St. Michael evoke Christus Victor themes, petitions for protection from dark spiritual forces. Prayers to St. Michael are also used in exorcisms.

A prayer to St. Michael from the Catholic tradition:
Sancte Michael Archangele,
defende nos in proelio;
contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium.
Imperet illi Deus, supplices deprecamur:
tuque, Princeps militiae Caelestis,
satanam aliosque spiritus malignos,
qui ad perditionem animarum pervagantur in mundo,
divina virtute in infernum detrude.
Amen.

St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God, thrust into Hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
Amen.
Theologically, as the leader of God's army Michael is considered to be the enemy of Satan and a symbol of the victory of good over evil.

Love, Let Us Be True To One Another

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

     --from "Dover Beach," by Matthew Arnold

That is the Kingdom of God. Being true to love in world that looks, on the outside, so shiny and bright but is revealed to be a place without joy, love, light, certitude, peace or help for pain.

Let us be true to love in this dark world where ignorant armies clash by night.

Believing in God Non-Defensively

This week with an interlocutor I was describing the relationship between my books The Authenticity of Faith and The Slavery of Death. Specifically, I see those two books as my attempt to address, for myself, what I've always struggled with as a central question my own faith journey: How can my belief in God be held non-defensively, non-neurotically and non-violently?

Pulling from my books, last spring I summarized my answer to that question in a post, but I want to share that summary again for both my conversation partner and because what follows is, in a condensed form, my best answer to what I consider to be one of the most pressing questions facing people of faith and faith communities: How can our beliefs in God can be held non-defensively, non-neurotically and non-violently?

To start, the non-violent part might need some explaining.

In both The Authenticity of Faith and The Slavery of Death I work through the case made by Ernest Becker, a case supported by the empirical work of Terror Management Theory, that our self-esteem is constructed by the pursuit of "cultural heroics," the ways in which any given culture defines a good and meaningful life. However, according to Becker this pursuit of significance is, at root, a flight from death as the pursuit of significance and meaning is being driven by a desire to "matter" in the face of death.

By and large all that is a good thing as our neurotic pursuit of significance and meaning leads to culture creation. We build, work, and create. Psychologists call this sublimation, where neurotic anxiety is channeled into culturally valued outlets.

But there is a dark side to all this. Specifically, the cultural worldviews that support our pursuit of significance can become challenged and relativized by out-group members. Consequently, people and cultures who don't share the values that undergird our metrics of "success" threaten the foundation of our self-esteem projects. And this makes us anxious.

So in the face of that anxiety we engage in what Terror Management theorists call "worldview defense." Basically, we denigrate, demean and demonize out-group members in order to protect our self-esteem projects and, thus, continue to experience meaning and significance in the face of death.

In this we see how neurotic defense mechanisms can become the fount of out-group hostility and violence.

Which brings us back to the question: given that 1) religion sits at the heart of our cultural worldview and 2) these worldviews are often being driven by neurotic death anxiety and 3) this anxiety makes us violent, how can we believe in God non-neurotically and non-violently?

As I framed the question in The Slavery of Death, in the words of Hebrews 2.14-15 how can our faith be emancipated from the "power of the devil" that is rooted in our "slavery to the fear of death"?

In The Authenticity of Faith my argument was that doubt is what protects us from believing violently. That is, if you hold your beliefs provisionally you'll retain your openness and curiosity toward out-group members.

However, as I describe in The Authenticity of Faith, there is a cost to be paid for this openness. Specifically, if you hold your beliefs provisionally you'll forgo the existential benefits of conviction, certainty and dogmatism. Doubting makes you more open and hospitable toward others but doubting also leaves you open to a lot of uncertainty in the face of death.

Basically, The Authenticity of Faith posits a trade-off between hospitality and anxiety. The more open your are to out-group members the more existential anxiety you will have to carry. Conversely, the more dogmatic you become the less anxiety you will feel but at the cost of being less welcoming and tolerant of those who disagree with you.

That's where I left things in The Authenticity of Faith. And I think the dynamics between the hospitality/anxiety tradeoff is one of the most significant insights I've ever had. But in many ways this isn't a very satisfactory ending place.

Specifically, while doubt may be a prerequisite of tolerance--by creating an openness toward difference--doubt doesn't infuse the experience of faith with feelings of joy, gratitude and transcendence. A lot of doubting Christians get stuck, spiritually spinning their wheels (e.g., they don't know if they are Christians or agnostics) or emotionally suffering because of the excessive cognitive rumination (often to the point of clinical depression) that accompanies doubt.

So in many ways The Slavery of Death is a sequel to The Authenticity of Faith in trying to retain openness toward others by re-situating the provisionality of belief in a way that allows joy and gratitude to replace the neurosis and cognitive rumination associated with doubt.

If you've read The Slavery of Death you know the crux of the argument I make in how to connect the provisionality and openness of belief with gratitude and joy (as opposed to doubt and cognitive rumination): eccentricity.

Specifically, using the work of Arthur McGill and David Kelsey, I use the notion of eccentricity to contrast an identity rooted in either grasping or gift. That is, if God is a possession of the faith community then God needs to be protected from the threat of others. This is why belief becomes violent. If God is owned by a faith community then the faith community comes to assert their proprietorial rights over God over against others. That's the root of dogmatism: We have God and you don't. God is for us and against you. God is here experienced as a possession.

And this is the the important thing to note: possessions have to be defended. Because possessions can be lost or damaged.

If, however, God is received as gift then the faith community can never possess God. This is the notion of eccentricity, that God is always approaching to us from outside the boundaries of the faith community. God comes to us as the stranger. The faith community is always pursuing God outside of herself. And this expectant searching keeps us looking for God in the world and in the Other. This is a Matthew 25 orientation. A Road to Emmaus orientation. A Good Samaritan orientation.

Hospitality, then, is rooted less in doubt than in eccentricity, in the outward-facing expectation of gift. Cognitive rumination is replaced with the capacity to become "surprised by joy," to borrow from C.S. Lewis. Instead of being trapped in your head you're opened up. 

This, in my estimation, is how The Slavery of Death improves upon The Authenticity of Faith. Doubt is replaced with the experience of gift.

Critically, gift keeps the provisionality of doubt. Gifts are never certain. They are hoped for, but they are not under our control. You can never be certain of a gift. You can't be dogmatic about gifts.

And you can't violently protect a gift you don't possess, especially gifts that are received as manna, as a grace that is received anew over and over, day after day.

Manna is gathered each day with joy and gratitude. Grace is a gift that cannot be hoarded and stockpiled.

We cannot own manna. We can only receive it.

And that moment by moment posture of openness, expectation and thanksgiving reduces our neurotic and violent fear that grace can be lost, damaged, broken or taken away from us.

It cannot.

So we look into the eyes of strangers with expectation and joy, looking to discover the gift of a brother and a sister. We open our hands and heart to the Bread of Heaven to be gathered anew each day.

Like Jesus, it is this posture of open handedness that makes us relaxed, joyful, grateful, and peaceful.

This is the grace, the "good transcendence," that makes us non-anxious and non-violent.

I Don't Like Debl

Given that my fourth book Reviving Old Scratch is due out next month (you can read book endorsements and pre-order here at Amazon) we've been talking about the Devil a lot at the Beck house.

Between Jana and I our go to line about the Devil is this:

"I don't like Debl."

It's an inside joke. About ten years ago, when Aidan was six years old, he was asked by his 1st grade teacher to fill out, on the first day of class, some pages in a little book so his teacher could get to know him and the students in the class a bit better.

On one of the pages the students were asked to fill in the blank to the question "I don't like ________." and draw an accompanying picture.

Aidan drew the picture you see here and he filled in the blank with this:

"I don't like Debl."

And neither did Jesus! But if you struggle with how to make sense of the Devil I'd encourage you to pick up a copy of Reviving Old Scratch next month when it comes out.

The book will help you say and mean it: "I don't like Debl."

Personal Days: Senior Year

Brenden, my oldest, is graduating from High School this year. With April upon us we're coming down to the last few weeks.

It's been a wonderful year, full of all those mixed up happy/sad feelings. Last holiday at home. Last games. Last drama production. So happy, but so keenly aware of the time passing.

That's Brenden with his good friend Rebecca. They were Homecoming King and Queen this year.

Brenden is such a great person. It's been a joy and honor watching him this year.

Last week we were eating at a local Mexican restaurant. Brenden got up to go to the restroom. An older man, looked to be in his 80s, was sitting alone. He spotted Brenden's high school baseball shirt. So the man called Brenden over and started sharing with him all his memories of playing baseball, and of a brother who had played a bit in the Major Leagues. Brenden just talked and talked to this man, really engaged and animated. And when the gentlemen left he stopped by our table to talk a bit more and say good-bye to Brenden.

Checking out the restaurant owner asked me, "Was that your son talking to that older man?"

"Yes, it was." I said.

"It was so kind for him to do that. To stand there and talk with him so long. That gentlemen is very lonely."

I agreed, "Brenden is a kind person."

She wanted to say more. "You just don't see kids do that, take the time to talk with a stranger like that. For that long. You just don't see it. He was so kind to do that."

As a father, moments like these make you really, really proud. I give Jana a lot of credit. In fact, I did.

"He's his mother's son," I said.

On the Selfishness of Prayer: If You Pray Only For Yourself You Will Be Praying For Yourself Alone

You are told to pray especially for the people, that is, for the whole body, for all its members, the family of your mother the Church; the badge of membership in this body is love for each other. If you pray only for yourself, you pray for yourself alone. If each one prays for himself, he received less from God’s goodness than the one who prays on behalf of others. But as it is, because each prays for all, all are in fact praying for each one.

To conclude, if you pray only for yourself, you will be praying, as we said, for yourself alone. But if you pray for all, all will pray for you, for you are included in all. In this way there is a great recompense; through the prayers of each individual, the intercession of the whole people is gained for each individual. There is here no pride, but an increase of humility and a richer harvest from prayer.

--St. Ambrose

Calvin and Hobbes: Religious Experience and Imagination

In a conversation a few weeks ago I had opportunity to revisit a post from my 2008 series about the Theology of Calvin and Hobbes.

Specifically, I was discussing how the focus in the comic strip upon Calvin's inner, subjective experience illustrates what Charles Taylor in his book A Secular Age describes as the "immanent frame," and how that frame has increasingly privileged religious experience and the challenges that places before us.

Immanent, according to dictionaries, is defined as:

Immanent
adjective
1. Existing or remaining within; inherent.
2. Restricted entirely to the mind; subjective.
According to Taylor a "secular age" is an age where the transcendent, vertical dimension has collapsed leaving only the human, horizontal dimension. A rich two-dimensional universe has now been flattened to only one-dimension. Nothing higher, no meaning from Beyond penetrates our scurrying to and fro, back and forth, on the one-dimensional immanent frame of human affairs. The only meaning and purposes are those we find within ourselves and our societies. No meaning is to be found outside of human minds. Meaning is now subjective.

A feature of the Immanent Frame in this secular age is the advent of what Taylor calls "the buffered self." In earlier "enchanted" eras the self was porous. That is, the boundaries between the self and the world were vague and blurry. The self could be affected, penetrated, and overtaken by demons, spells, or gods. But in our "disenchanted" age of mechanism and science the self has been closed off, buffered from the world. The boundary between self and world is now clear and inviolable.

With the rise of the buffered self and the collapse of the transcendent, the secular age is often characterized by attempts to gain "depth" by going deeper into the self. If we cannot reach the Heavens at least we can dig into our psyche. Consequently, the Immanent Frame, per its definition, is characterized by subjectivity, interiorization, and the valuing of "authenticity" (digging deep and then staying "true" to what you find). In short, the secular age is an "internal" age, an age of private, buffered subjectivity.

There is no greater example of Taylor's notion of the buffered self, a self dominated by its own subjectivity, than Calvin. A dominant theme in Calvin and Hobbes, perhaps the dominant theme, is the portrayal of Calvin's inner world. The magic of Calvin and Hobbes does not come from an "enchanted" world. There are no fairies or wizards. Rather, the magic comes from Calvin's own mind. It is true that Watterson blurs the lines between objectivity and subjectivity, but the force of the strips comes from entering the "interior" of Calvin. We get inside Calvin's subjective experience and see how viewing the world through his eyes changes what we see.

Here is a tour through the thematic strips that routinely take us inside Calvin's subjective experience. First, there are the wonderful and zany Spaceman Spiff strips, where Calvin has adventures of a Buck Rogers sort (click on strips to make them large for reading):

There are also the many strips where Calvin becomes a dinosaur:

Also, who can forget Stupendous Man?:

Beyond these thematic strips there are numerous strips where Calvin has subjective, imaginative adventures:

And, finally, there is the subjective/objective issue surrounding Hobbes:

Truth-hood and reality in Calvin and Hobbes is dictated by Calvin's subjective experience. This is exactly the point Taylor is making about the buffered self in the Immanent Frame. Meaning and reality is now an internal and subjective affair.

Overall, and this was the point of the conversation I was having, life in the Immanent Frame with its focus on subjective experience has had an effect upon Christian apologetics. Specifically, appeals to an unseen transcendent realm are less persuasive in the Immanent Frame. More persuasive are appeals to religious experience.

However, this appeal to religious experience is troublesome to many. The focus on subjective experience privileges the individual and the individual's interior experience. And yet, in a secular age God cannot be pointed to as a "fact" as could be done in prior enchanted eras. Thus, in the Immanent Frame, for better or worse, subjectivity is what we lean on. The Immanent Frame dictates our experience of reality. The self is no longer porous, but buffered. We look inside for God, not outside.

And yet, I wonder if Calvin might help us find our way forward here, a way to pull us out of our buffered selves and back into the world.

Specifically, while the focus of the strip is on Calvin's internal experience the magic of the strip--and I use that enchanted word intentionally--is how Calvin's imagination affects reality. The ontological status of Hobbes is the key example here.

Calvin imagines a world and that world comes to be. Or, phrased differently, Calvin's imagination changes and shapes the world.

For the Christian, then, the key would be shifting focus away from interior religious experience to capture the magic of imagining the Kingdom and letting that magic remake the world.

Faithfulness In Corrupt Systems

Our bible class on Sunday morning was working through the stories in 1 Kings 18.

Most of the time in this chapter we focus on the contest on Mt. Carmel between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. But early in the chapter our class paused to take note of the witness of Obadiah.

The chapter starts three years into the famine that Elijah pronounced to the wicked king Ahab:
1 Kings 18.1-6
After a long time, in the third year, the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.” So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab.

Now the famine was severe in Samaria, and Ahab had summoned Obadiah, his palace administrator. (Obadiah was a devout believer in the Lord. While Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.) Ahab had said to Obadiah, “Go through the land to all the springs and valleys. Maybe we can find some grass to keep the horses and mules alive so we will not have to kill any of our animals.” So they divided the land they were to cover, Ahab going in one direction and Obadiah in another.
The moral witness of Obadiah is fascinating. Obadiah is the palace administrator for a corrupt and wicked king. But Obadiah is a devout believer in the Lord so he hides a hundred prophets of the Lord and keeps them alive by supplying them with food and water. And we can assume this has been going on for about three years. No small task. And a risky one at that.

Basically, what Obadiah does is the equivalent of hiding Jews during the Holocaust as a Nazi government official.

And the witness of Obadiah isn't an isolated case. Throughout the Old Testament we find servants of the Lord serving pagan kings.

Joseph. Daniel. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Esther.

I find these cases interesting as many of us serve or work in vocations, organizations, institutions or systems that don't seem very just or holy.

And yet, like Obadiah, we can be faithful people within these institutions, doing good and protecting people within our sphere of influence. 

Awake, O Sleeper, and Rise from the Dead

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness.

The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep.

The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began.

God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve...

The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying:

“Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.

"I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise.

"I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell.

"Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you..."

--from an ancient homily on the Harrowing of Hell

Be the First to See

If you are a Simon of Cyrene, take up your cross and follow Christ.

If you are crucified beside him like one of the thieves, now, like the good thief, acknowledge your God...

If you are a Joseph of Arimathea, go to the one who ordered his crucifixion, and ask for Christ’s body...

If you are a Nicodemus, like the man who worshiped God by night, bring spices and prepare Christ’s body for burial.

If you are one of the Marys, or Salome, or Joanna, weep in the early morning.

Be the first to see the stone rolled back, and even the angels perhaps, and Jesus himself.

--St. Gregory Nazianzen

I Have Given You a Model to Follow

So when he had washed their feet and put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.

If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.

I have given you a model to follow."

--John 13.13-15a

The Passionate Man Often Thinks Evil of a Good Man

Above all things, keep peace within yourself, then you will be able to create peace among others. It is better to be peaceful than learned. The passionate man often thinks evil of a good man and easily believes the worst; a good and peaceful man turns all things to good.

A man who lives at peace suspects no one. But a man who is tense and agitated by evil is troubled with all kinds of suspicions; he is never at peace with himself, nor does he permit others to be at peace. He often speaks when he should be silent, and he fails to say what would be truly useful. He is well aware of the obligations of others but neglects his own.

So be zealous first of all with yourself, and then you will be more justified in expressing zeal for your neighbor. You are good at excusing and justifying you own deeds, and yet you will not listen to the excuses of others. It would be more just to accuse yourself and to excuse your brother. If you wish others to put up with you, first put up with them.

--Thomas à Kempis, from The Imitation of Christ