Stripped to Nothing

5 July 2018

My friend and advisor Rich Bedsoe offers a powerful reflection on how Jesus impacts history in Principalities and Powers, part 1 and part 2. They’re long pieces, but worth your time.

The question that occurs to me is, what now? The Incarnation founded a new civilization when it destroyed Caesar’s power to rule by right of divinity. Justification by faith founded a new church when it destroyed the Roman Church’s power to rule by condemnation. So what now? Something like theosis–the re-animation of the naked/dead ego by the Holy Spirit founds a new…what? when it destroys…what?

Of course the sensible answer is, “Ask again in another 150 years or so.” But in the meantime, let’s speculate.

A friend suggests that the re-animation of the naked ego by the Spirit founds a new kind of human by destroying autonomous man. This new human is no longer animated by justification alone, but by glory.

I want to chase that idea a little further, and cash out something I think is implicit in Bledsoe’s articles. Ideas have the ability to shift culture, sometimes very powerfully, but Christianity makes a substantially greater claim for itself than just some transformative ideas. I want to suggest (and I think Bledsoe would agree) that in each case, it is not simply the idea operating upon the culture. The transformative effect on the culture comes from people animated by the experience which the idea describes.

The ancient kings’ right to rule as divine was not overturned simply by the idea that men cannot be gods. It was overturned by a critical mass of people whose authentic experience of actual divinity rendered Caesar’s pretensions an obvious sham. Providence makes the contrast even starker by providing real-life satire in the person of emperors like Caligula, and in due course, Julian the Apostate.

Likewise, the Roman church’s power to rule by condemnation and contempt was not simply overturned by the idea of justification by faith. It was defeated by people who were no longer vulnerable to human manipulation through false guilt, because they had experienced for themselves the freedom of being justified by faith. In the harsh light of their new experience, the guilt-manipulations of the Roman church stood revealed for what they truly were, and again, providential real-life satire in the person of Tetzel and his ilk only served to further highlight the problem.

Today, our suspicion of all authority strips the self bare. We have succeeded in divesting ourselves of anything that would interfere with our autonomy, and as a result, we have rendered the most mundane relationships impossible. Every relational overture is interpreted as a power play, and therefore treated with suspicion. The real-life satire is all around us, if we have eyes to see. We are headed toward a world where it won’t even be possible to share a cup of coffee except by the power of the Spirit, because everything is overwhelmed with suspicion, and we’re scared we’ll be taken in.

The autonomous self, “liberated” from constricting relationships, discovers it has also rendered its much-vaunted power of choice completely meaningless. Those same substantial relationships that once constricted our choices also provided context within which our choices had meaning. Apart from that context, our choices are wholly arbitrary, and therefore meaningless.

Autonomous and alone, the self craves absolution, but recognizes no authority that might offer it; craves glory, but hates any standard by which glory might be recognizable. Everywhere people gather in elective tribes, collectives, and fandoms in hopes of re-creating a context for themselves–only to abandon them when relational problems crop up, as they always do. As substantial communities, our churches are rarely better than any other affinity group–Jeep Owners, Juggalos, or Jubilee Baptist, take your pick.

But the Spirit broods over humanity, incubating a new people. As Caesar fell before the Incarnation and the church of Rome before the Cross, autonomous man must fall before the power of Pentecost.

United with the indwelling Holy Spirit, the self automatically enters into relationship with the Father and the Son. All who thus enter are in relationship with each other as well, invited into the perichoretic triune dance. We receive this relationship not as something we might possibly earn, but rather as a gift already accomplished for us. We could not, and by God’s grace need not, manufacture such relationships; we need only steward them and harvest their bounty.

We can quench the Spirit; we can grieve the Spirit; we can prefer the flesh’s works over the Spirit’s fruit–and we often do. When we refuse the Spirit’s bounty, our benefit from one another is as insubstantial as if we were just fans of the same band, car, or TV show. But there’s a crucial difference. You can stop liking that band, and just leave the group.

You can’t escape the new birth so easily. Unlike a fandom, the new birth is a historical event, and nothing you do now can make it didn’t happen. You are a child of God forever, and your only choice now is to be a good one or a bad one. Our culture, and even most of our churches, will tell you that being a good child of God means being a great person, possessed of the kind of cleanliness everyone at the country club pretends to have, but doesn’t really. (Pro tip: they’re all wrong about that. Abraham ran off to Egypt; Samuel was a bad father; David was an adulterer and murderer, Elijah sulked in a cave, and so on. Don’t worry; you’re in good company.)

Being the child God calls you to be isn’t about moral perfection. It’s about refusing to hide your faults and flaws (what 1 John aptly calls “walking in the light”), owning what God shows you. It means being seen by the people around you and refusing to project a nice, clean image. You live in the light, and God will grow you into a great person over time.

If you hide, then you miss all the relational benefits God is offering you, and you’ll get worse every day. You’re one of those friends invited to the wedding feast who never shows up. But if you live in the light…ah, my friend, what relationships you will have!

In the context of these relationships, already provided for us, our choices become meaningful again. When we invite the Spirit to move in power and allow Him to follow through, we are not only united to God in fact, but we reap the benefits in practice. The fellowship of the triune life (into which we enter vertically) is mirrored horizontally in our fellowship with one another. In the triune dance, we find our freedom in the ability to grow into who and what we were built to be, in relation to others who do the same.

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The Fall of Ecclesiastical Communism

28 June 2018

Many American churches are closing, or merging, to survive. In many denominations, there are now the equivalent of hospice nurses for churches–interim pastors who specialize in closing churches down. The widespread feeling is that the church in America is shrinking. In fact, however, research suggests that “only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States.”

Serious engagement is another matter entirely.  

The percentage of Americans who attend church more than once a week, pray daily, and accept the Bible as wholly reliable and deeply instructive to their lives has remained absolutely, steel-bar constant for the last 50 years or more, right up to today. These authors describe this continuity as “patently persistent.”

This also means, of course, that those who take their faith seriously are becoming a markedly larger proportion of all religious people.

What is this?

I submit that we are seeing the fall of central planning in church ministry. Central planning was one of the great idols of the twentieth century, the idea that if you could systematize an endeavor on a large scale and execute it “scientifically,” there would be greater efficiency, less waste, and so on: the worship of technique with a capital T.

In 1917, a visionary went to Tsarist Russia to put this theory into action. His name was Vladimir Lenin, and his experiment failed horribly. Not only did the communists have to murder a bunch of people who didn’t really fit into the grand “scientific” design of the new society–which would have been bad enough–they were also notably less prosperous than the free world, and the entire enterprise eventually collapsed under its own weight. Everywhere central planning has been implemented on a national level, it begins by destroying those who don’t fit, and ends in dire poverty and starvation. Think East Germany versus West Germany, North Korea versus South. Cuba was once the jewel of the Caribbean. And so on, though endless 20th-century examples, right up to present-day Venezuela.

In the West, the publishing world offers another strong example of central planning in action. The Big Six publishers moved away from a broad set of offerings and responding to orders by booksellers to a “push model,” which allowed them to manufacture bestsellers by deciding on them in advance, and “pushing” them out into the market, whether the market wanted them or not. The market didn’t, as it turned out. And again, they began by destroying the careers of the authors that didn’t fit their vision — authors deemed unsuitable for whatever reason would never be “pushed,” and would not be allowed to become bestsellers. (They literally let books that were surprise successes go out of print rather than incur the cost of extra print runs to meet the demand. It’s nuts.) The Big Six became the Big Five, and the whole enterprise is looking increasingly green around the gills.

They blamed declining reading habits. Then Harry Potter taught a whole generation to read for fun, and they had to find another excuse. They blamed ebooks. Yeah, sure. There’s a bunch independent authors making a good living from ebooks, but never mind. They blame anyone and anything, except themselves and their failed theory.

The central planners are always looking for scapegoats, people to blame when the plan doesn’t work. They need a lot of scapegoats, because central planning never works.

Which brings us back to the church and its relationship to millennials. If my generation (Gen X) was so independent as to be fundamentally unmanageable (and we are, mostly), millennials are not. They are generally collaborative and team-oriented. They should be flocking to church in droves.

They aren’t. In my experience, that’s not because they’re rebellious. There’s a good bit of confusion and spiritual tourism, but that’s nothing new. The Boomers and Xers had plenty of that, too. It’s not because they don’t hear from God; in my experience they’re more open than Boomers or Xers there, too.

The fundamental problem is deeper: what they hear from God doesn’t match what they hear from church. God says to heal the brokenhearted; the church wants to point out all the ways it is their own fault. God says to seek the peace of the city; the church is mostly concerned about the peace within its own four walls. God says feed the hungry; the church wants a vision statement, a mission statement, an overseeing staff member, a proposal for the budget committee, and then of course we’ll need to run it by the property committee, which only meets every other month….

Most churches in the US are very top-down enterprises. There are a few people at the top that are allowed to have ideas, and everybody else is recruited to be support staff. Touted as “vision-driven leadership,” this pyramidal endeavor is actually central planning at its finest. And it works just as well as the other examples.

It’s vision-stifling leadership. Millennials as a class aren’t confrontational enough to try to take over the church from within (that would be my generation.) They’ll just go elsewhere. And they have.

So there’s a parallel reformation happening. You can find it in service organizations, at parks, in community meetings in city halls across the country. You can even find it in church basements–where there’s an AA meeting in progress, or a food bank at work.

When the Spirit is in a ministry initiative, of course, He also calls the necessary people together to make it run, whether that means two or a small army. But He blows where He wills, and that can’t be controlled in our day any better than it was in Jesus’ time.

When the American church learns this, and develops eyes to see where the Spirit is at work, we will be surprised at what is already under way.


A Parallel Revival

21 June 2018

I knew when God called me to go to massage therapy school that the experience was going to rock my world. I had grandiose visions of pouring a ton of extra time into my developing theology of the body before I started school, but life providentially interfered, as it so often does. I had to settle for making God a promise: “I will seek to give account of the experiences You give me. I will not ignore anything that happens, no matter how strange or how far off the map it might seem.” 

My friends, when you write God a blank check like that, He cashes it. This post lays out one of the lines of thought that came from the many, many off-the-map experiences God gave me in school and afterwards. 

God is willing to move for the healing of the world through those who are willing–including those who don’t yet recognize Him for who He is, and aren’t “members of the club,” as it were. We want God to move through the church people. He does, when they are willing. But there’s a lot more willing people out there, many of whom have never seen anything in the institutional church that they’d want to join. People who are called to healing, and know it, and the church doesn’t seem to them to be interested in or helpful for people who are trying to heal. I’m talking about the addiction counselors, AA sponsors, somatic psychotherapists, lightworkers…it’s a vast and tangled landscape, with a lot of evil and downright demonic things loose in it, but a lot of good, too. Some do their work from selfish ambition, and others from a sense of higher calling…in other words, not so different from the church, after all.

When God providentially allows some of His people to be squeezed out of the church institutions where they formerly found a comfortable home, we have no choice but to go out into the world. (Perhaps we ought to have been there already.) Called for the healing of the world, we seek the company of those similarly called, and we engage them as Jesus taught His followers to do: when you come into the house, say “Peace to this house,” and go from there. If a child of peace lives there, the peace of the Trinity rests on them through our blessing, and they recognize it as something special. I find these folks often have the sense to desire the good things God gave us, things the institutional church was all too ready to throw away without a second look.

Speaking of throwing us away, if those in the house are not children of peace, our peace will return to us (which is also how we find peace outside the institutional church.) Shake the dust and go. God will tend to them; we are called elsewhere.

Among the people of peace, wherever found, we thrive. Many times, they know things we don’t, things we refused to know because we couldn’t integrate the knowledge. In turn, we know the Name of the Higher Power they call on. We have a lot to share with one another, if we’re willing.

Now, for the past 40 years or so, we’ve seen the biggest revival in the history of the Church (notwithstanding the folks pretending it isn’t happening because the cost of admission is leaving your cessationism behind). It’s a fascinating phenomenon, and you can read more about it here if you like. For now, though, I want to draw a comparison to it.

If the trend I’m discussing here takes off the way I think it will, I expect to see a “parallel revival” on par with the current Pentecostal one. It may be some time before the exiles are willing to admit any real kinship with the institutional church, since that’s what we had to leave behind in order to participate. But as God continues to work on hearts both within and outside the institutions, I pray that He will free the insiders of their legalism, and the outsiders of their lawlessness, so that we can be one in the grace of Christ.

It’s a big dream, but I read the last couple chapters of Revelation before. I think this dream is on the way to the fulfillment of that one.

 


Moana, Frozen, and Repentance

14 June 2018

Elsa is Moana’s polar opposite. (See what I did there?) Elsa has no real guidance or mentors to speak of, and she finds something in herself that she has no way of living with. First she denies what is obviously true about herself; then she denies her connection to her people. (It’s more than a little revealing that “Let It Go,” the iconic song from the film, comes from this point of near-murderous isolation in the story, and not from the later resolution. As a culture, we don’t identify with the resolution.)

When Elsa finally comes to terms with both the reality of who she is and her connections to her people, she finds rest — but she gets little help along the way. She has no grandmother, no sea looking out for her, no Yoda, no Jiminy Cricket, no Philektetes. The only person who believes in her is her sister Anna, and she’s separated from Anna for the critical portion of the story arc. Elsa has to figure it out all by herself.

As evangelicals, we tell ourselves that we are in Elsa’s position. It’s all new, and we have to figure it out for ourselves. But it isn’t true.

On the surface, Moana looks similar to Elsa: overcoming parental resistance to embrace her true identity and calling. But as it turns out, Moana’s calling is the same calling her people have shared for generations. Her father turned away; it is her job to turn back, and in that task she is assisted by her grandmother, her mother, mystical visions, and the very sea itself.

Her people have been long-distance seafarers from time out of mind. They turned from the path because the seas became too dangerous as a result of Maui’s theft. Her father continues the error by trying to turn her from the path too, but as the deadly consequences of Maui’s sin reach her home island, Moana’s people can no longer hide. It falls to Moana to heal the brokenness of her world and reclaim her lost heritage, and she does.

Herein lies a tricky business. “Move not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set.” “Honor thy father and mother.” In a perfect  world, those two commands would never be in conflict. But what if you are the child of the man who moved the ancient landmark? What if he’s your grandfather? Great-grandfather?

That is the evangelical dilemma. And Moana has a lesson to teach.


Knowing Who You Trust

29 May 2018

This post is part of the May Synchroblog on the topic of hell. Scroll to the end for this month’s link list. 

I don’t really understand hell.

It has grown fashionable to doubt the existence of hell. I don’t. Scripture seems pretty plain about that. Oh yes, I know that no matter which verses I cite at this point, someone can point me to a thick stack of journal articles bristling with cutting-edge exegesis and theological thought, the sum of which is that there’s quite a bit of scholarly doubt. But I’ve known too many academics and read too many journal articles to be much impressed with scholarly doubt. (Yes, I know I’m not answering their arguments here. Some other time; this post isn’t about that.)

I believe in the resurrection of the dead — all of us — some to everlasting life, and others to damnation.

Of course, no reasonable observer of the Bible ever took the pop-culture caricature seriously — sinners being tortured endlessly by demons, that sort of thing. Neither the Bible nor the Church taught that hell was somehow an amusement park for demons at the expense of wayward humans. The traditional understanding is eternal conscious torment, variously interpreted as active punishment avenging a lifetime of wickedness and unbelief, or passive withdrawal of all grace, a la The Great Divorce.

Active punishment makes sense if you also believe limited atonement. On the other hand, if you believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world (as Scripture says), then on what grounds is there still punishment to be executed? Temporal discipline, as a means to redirect someone, sure. But eternal punishment to satisfy a death sentence that God Himself testified, in the resurrection, has already been carried out? I can’t make sense of that one.

I can make better sense of hell as a withdrawal of all grace. On the last day, when all our precious illusions have been shattered and we see, fully and finally, the grace of God, what then? Some of us have been pursuing that grace all our lives, and will draw near. Some, redeemed by that grace, will nonetheless shrink away in shame as its light reveals secrets we’ve tried to hide all our lives. The resulting purification will be a severe mercy.  And others, having spent their lives pretending that no such grace existed, suppressing the truth in their hearts — well, they’ll run with all their might in the other direction. Even though there’s literally nothing there. No relationship (that’s a reflection of the Trinity.) No joy. No trees or grass or chocolate cake or marbled steak or anything else that was a divine gift — and everything was a divine gift.

Under that understanding, Sartre was wrong. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is you, all by yourself, eternally removed from all that reminds you of God — and everything points to Him. So there you are, exponentially worse off than Gollum, tormented in your own skin because everything good hurts and everything ugly is all you have left. You are the worm and the rotting meat, the fire and what it consumes, and the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. In life, you failed to recognize the divine grace that kept you from that state; in death, you have no illusions about the extent of that grace, and have rejected it all.

If we grasp the depths of God’s grace to us, then we can grasp how thoroughly horrifying the complete withdrawal of divine grace would have to be.

I can at least kinda get my head around that. What messes me up at that point is the whole thing lasting forever. If I had a dog that was suffering that much in its own skin, with no chance of recovery, I’d put it down with no hesitation at all. I don’t get why God wouldn’t do the same.

But there’s a lot about God’s behavior that I just don’t get. In those gaps of understanding, we can either refuse to believe God until He explains it all, or we can trust. I choose to trust.

If you’ve never met God and recognized Who you were meeting, then that will sound like a cop-out. How can I believe in something like this, when I don’t understand it and it doesn’t make any sense? All I can say is, I understand where you’re coming from…but I’ve met Him. He is wiser than I’ll ever be, funnier than you’d think, cares deeply, and loves well. I know Who I’m trusting. Maybe one day, if you haven’t already, you will too.

***

This post is part of the May Synchroblog, in which numerous bloggers around the world write about the same topic on the same day. Links to the other contributors are below. If you enjoyed my article, you may also enjoy reading what they have to say about the topic of hell.

 


Hermeneutical Repentance: An Open Letter To My Former Tribe

24 May 2018

I was reared in a conservative evangelical tradition that was heavy on strict grammatical-historical hermeneutics. I have repented of that school of thought in favor of following the examples set by the NT authors themselves.

Look, you know I love you, but there’s no point in mincing words here: you guys suck at reading narrative. I mean, it’s terrible. Either you reduce the story to a disconnected set of little morality tales for Sunday school kids, or you chop it up into however many dispensations or homogenize it all into two covenants (or both). At best, you think it’s there as a means to the end of teaching “doctrine,” by which you mean something like systematic theology. In practice, of course, many of you mostly ignore the narrative in favor of the church epistles, especially in your preaching. To be fair, you’re mostly pretty good at the church epistles. Straight-out didactic literature is your forte.

But look, the narrative is three quarters of the Bible. Paul says that all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, and your hermeneutics courses are all a-flutter with warnings against “getting doctrine from narrative.” This means — it has to mean — that there’s something wrong with your hermeneutics. As long as you insist that your hermeneutics are fine, you’re going to continue to have the same problem, to wit: you don’t know how to read three quarters of the Bible. As soon as you contemplate some sort of hermeneutical repentance, though, you feel as though you’re about to throw open the door to every perversion and silliness that hermeneutical laxity has ever visited upon the Church. How can you proceed? How can you gain the ability to read the other three quarters of the Bible well without falling victim to the many traps and pitfalls that have snared so many of your unwary brethren?

I want to make an observation and propose a way forward. The observation: you’re scared. If your reason for avoiding narrative is that you don’t know how to avoid hermeneutical excesses, and your response to your lack of skill is to run away and hide in a church epistle…stop it. You can’t learn to swim by running from the water. God has not given us a spirit of fear.

Now, for a way forward. It’s simple in concept, sufficiently rich to cover the variety of problems you’ll have to face along the way, and as a bonus, it starts in your old stomping grounds — the church epistles. Even there, however, you’re going to have to face hermeneutical repentance. You’ve missed some pretty obvious stuff. The authors of the church epistles had none of your reluctance about drawing doctrine from narrative. For example, you somehow fail to notice that Paul derives his doctrine of justification by faith in Romans 4 from the narrative accounts of Abraham and David — the very thing you warn your students not to do. Nor is that circumstance unique — the authors of the epistles overwhelmingly draw their doctrine from the biblical narratives. Peter does it. Hebrews certainly does it. James does it. Know why? Because they’re following Jesus–He did it too.

The authors of the epistles may not have left you a hermeneutics manual, but they certainly did leave you with an enormous set of examples. Start with Romans 4, and work your way out from there. What other examples can you identify? How might you follow the example set forth for you?

Of course I realize that there will be differences of opinion, excesses, and all that. Sure. But if you’re not willing to get out there and make some mistakes, you’ll never get anywhere. You’ve gotta learn somehow.

Or you could keep being bad at reading three quarters of the Bible….


Corporeal Glory

3 May 2018

As I re-engage with this blog, I find myself wanting to give greater attention to anthropology and a practical focus on Christian physicality. This is the first of a number of planned posts on the subject.

Christian theology has had –- at best –- a very ambivalent relationship with the body over the centuries. When Nietszche sneered at “despisers of the body,” his arrow did not fly wide of the mark. What makes this so pathetic is that the ambivalence, and downright antipathy, are completely unjustifiable.

God made Adam and Eve (with bodies!), then looked back at all He had made and saw that it was “very good.” No exception clause for the bodies, I notice…

Of course, the historical comeback is that creation is all well and good, but that was before the Fall.  The dissenters have a point here, sort of.  After the Fall, the body is dead.  However, that fact, as important as it is, doesn’t seem to affect the inherent dignity of the body. When David praises God because he is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” he’s not talking about some prelapsarian state, but his own personal experience; when Solomon writes his Song, he takes a downright exuberant view of the pleasures of the flesh. (Ecclesiastes too: depressive commentators notwithstanding, the book is about how to enjoy earthly pleasures without worshiping — and thereby ruining — them.)

When we come to Jesus, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” All by itself, that single sentence goes a long way toward vindicating the body. In an instant, it sweeps away all gnostic and Platonic denigration of matter in general, and the body in particular.  Even better, the physical resurrection of Christ (as the prototype of our resurrection) carries the body, redeemed and perfected, into eternity. The closing chapters of the Bible describe the bright vision that God always intended for His creation: a perfected, corporeal humanity ruling a recreated, perfected earth as vassal kings under the King of Kings, in perfect harmony with God and each other.

That is not the end of history.  In many ways, it’s only the beginning.  Genesis 1:28-30 describes God’s design for the world He made.  Genesis 3 describes our rebellion against our design parameters.  Everything from Genesis 4 to Revelation 20 is about fixing that.  When it’s fixed, then — and only then — does human history begin to move in the direction that God set forth in Genesis 1.

Another way of putting it: Revelation 21-22 is “the end of the world,” but it is no more the end of history than Genesis 6-9.  As in the days of Noah, the existing world will perish, and the new world awaits.  As Noah and his family founded civilization as we know it today, so we — God’s elect — will join with Christ in founding the civilization of the world to come.  Obviously, the founding of it is only the beginning.

And it’s all gloriously corporeal.

A biblical view of history portrays the body as part and parcel of being human, every bit as bound up in human destiny as the soul and spirit. That viewoffers no shelter whatsoever to the notion that the body is a prison, or an impediment that will one day be cast aside for the purity of life as a disembodied spirit. Centuries of dyspeptic and flabby theologians have heaped abuse, insult, and degradation upon the body, and there’s just no excuse for it.

A slightly less demeaning, and more subtle, form of that error talks of the body as if it is the “earth suit” that the “real person” — i.e., the immaterial man — wears temporarily.  Proponents of this error will point to Paul’s reference to the mortal body as “this tent” in 2 Corinthians 5:4.  They should read the whole passage, in which Paul describes the disembodied state as nakedness, and makes it quite clear that his earnest desire is not to shed this body, but to be clothed with the resurrection body (which, by the way, is made of this one — see 1 Corinthians 15:51-54).

Operating on that foundation, the believer has every reason to regard the body as a gift to be enjoyed to the hilt; fallen and imperfect to be sure, but those problems are only temporary. God made our bodies to move, and to enjoy being moved well. The proper way to honor that gift is to move well, and eat well, and sleep well on luxuriant sheets with a ridiculously high thread count, and while we’re on the subject of things you do in bed [THIS PORTION CENSORED FOR THE SAKE OF CHILDREN AND PRESBYTERIANS] –and to enjoy it all!