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

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

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

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

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

Hope to see you in beautiful Santa Fe in November!

Prison Diary: Team Effort

This week I’ve been out of town teaching a class on hospitality for an amazing collection of students in Spring Arbor University’s MA in Spiritual Formation and Leadership program. So I wasn’t able to be out at the prison on Monday night. Herb covered for me.

This is a huge part of what makes our class work on Monday nights, that Herb and I are a team. If I was the only one teaching the class I would have had to cancel this Monday. And if Herb were alone he would regularly have to cancel class.

Trust is hard-won out at the prison. People, many well-intentioned people, come and go. So the dependability and reliability of the Monday night Bible study, week after week and year after year, the fact that we never have to cancel, is a large part of why the men in the study have come to trust, love and respect us. We always show up.

But it takes a team to make that happen. Herb covered for me on Monday and I’ll eventually have to cover for Herb. And not only does our partnership make the Bible study reliable for the men, it also makes it sustainable for Herb and I over the long haul.

Their Homeland is a Foreign Country

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country...They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.

--from The Letter to Diognetus

What Are You Looking For?

Our Sunday bible study last spring was studying through the gospel of John.

And one of the things that struck me in the gospel of John were the very first words of Jesus.

From John 1:
John 1.35-38
The next day John the Baptist again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them,

“What are you looking for?”
Some translations have the question as, "What do you want?"

What do you want? What are you looking for?

I don't know about you, but those are some really deep questions. Deep, deep down, what am I looking for? Deep, deep down what do I want?

I bet if we all sat down together and shared our answers we'd find that our answers were very similar.

Deep, deep down, we all want the same things.

And the gospel of John, I think, gives an answer to those longings.

Wheat and Tares

I've been thinking a lot about the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.

From the Gospel of Matthew:
Matthew 13.24-30
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away.

So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’

He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
As Jesus goes on to say, the wheat represent the children of the kingdom. The weeds represent the children of the evil one. The field is the world. And both the wheat and the weeds are left to "grow together." Any separating of the two is left to the eschatological judgment. Any separating of the wheat and weeds prior to the judgment will damage both wheat and weeds.

Interpretations about this parable abound. But there is something that struck me recently.

Jesus doesn't describe the kingdom as a bounded location, like a city with a wall around it, a division between Us and Them. The kingdom is, rather, located everywhere, mixed in and found, here and there, among the weeds. The kingdom is distributed, it can be found anywhere and everywhere.

And it seems, if I'm following Jesus, that any attempt to separate the kingdom from the world, to concentrate and localize the kingdom, only does damage to the kingdom. 

We tend to think of the kingdom as a place, a pure space we create in contrast to the world. But in this parable that pure space can't be and shouldn't be created.

All is messy and mixed up and impossible to separate.

Where is the kingdom?

Nowhere it seems.

Yet everywhere.

Singing With the Damned

This week I had a conversation about the hymn "I'll Fly Away." My conversation partner, a progressive/liberal Christian, was expressing disdain for the song.

Given their concerns about social justice in this world, "I'll Fly Away" is routinely criticized by progressive Christians as being other-worldly and escapist. And it's easy to see why when you look at the first verse and the chorus:
Some glad morning when this life is o'er,
I'll fly away.

To a home on God's celestial shore,
I'll fly away.

I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away;
when I die, hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away.
I understand the criticism progressive Christians level against these lyrics. As I've written about before on this blog, where in "I'll Fly Away" is the whole "may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"? Where is the vision of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth in Revelation 21-22?

It does seem like "I'll Fly Away" is pointing us away from this world in anticipation of the next. The song suggests that the goal and aim of the Christian life is to "fly away" from this world to the next.

But as I've written about before, here's the interesting thing...

Each week out at the prison I sing hymns with the inmates. And "I'll Fly Away" is one of their favorite songs. And it's not all that hard to see why. From the second verse:
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I'll fly away.
I think it's obvious why the inmates like this song.

Sung on the inside of a prison--sung by the damned--"I'll Fly Away" is a song longing for release. Sung by the damned "I'll Fly Away" is an anthem of liberation.

Songs, like theology, depend on social location. Some theology in some locations is obscene. Like the prosperity gospel in rich American suburbs. But the prosperity gospel in the third world? Maybe not so bad. Penal substitutionary atonement for children? Not a good idea. But for murderers? Maybe not so bad.

Same for song lyrics. From the outside, on the outside of a prison, yes, "I'll Fly Away" seems escapist. But on the inside of a prison "I'll Fly Away" is an expression of liberation theology.

When you're singing with the damned "I'll Fly Away" becomes a song of resistance.

Prison Diary: Our Friday Series for 2017

Over the last couple years I've done briefer, thematic posts on Fridays. I've blogged through the Rule of St. Benedict. We've revisited posts from interesting search terms that brought people to the blog. And last year I shared personal, Facebook-like posts.

So what to do on Fridays in 2017?

I get a lot of emails and requests to write more about Monday nights out at the prison. As regular readers know, every Monday night I teach a bible class for about 50 inmates at the French-Robertson maximum-security unit. I've shared a lot of stories from the prison bible study here on the blog. And "the Men in White" (inmates in Texas where all white shirts and pants) feature prominently in Reviving Old Scratch. In fact, I dedicated the book to the Men in White, along with my brothers and sisters at Freedom Fellowship.

French-Robertson Unit
Because of these stories, people want to hear more about the prison bible study. But truth be told, it's not like anything particularly profound happens every week during the study. I can't fill Fridays with amazing stories from the prison.

But honestly, I really don't think that's the best way to view the work out at the prison, or any ministry.

I've come to see the prison bible study as a practice of simple fidelity. The magic is found in simply showing up. Week after week, year after year.

It's hard and often tedious. You're frequently tired and have other things to do. It takes discipline, commitment and sacrifice. It's a marathon, not a spirit. You just keep showing up. Every Monday you show up and light a candle in the darkness. 

On the surface, the fidelity of simply showing up looks small and boring. But I've come to see it as powerful and as revolutionary as a mustard seed, to use Jesus' way of describing the kingdom of God.

So while showing up each week to teach the bible class won't fill Fridays with powerful, earth-shattering stories, it does make great material for a diary entry, a note or observation about what happened that week.

So that's what we are going to do on Fridays in 2017.

On Fridays I'll be sharing short, diary-like entries about what happens each week on Monday nights out at the prison.

I hope you'll join me.

And blessings be upon you, friends. Wherever you are and wherever you go, keep showing up and lighting your candles.

Open Communion in the Church of the Crucified Christ

[T]he eucharist, like the meals held by Jesus with 'sinners and publicans', must also be celebrated with the unrighteous, those who have no rights and the godless from the 'highways and hedges' of society, in all their profanity, and should no longer be limited, as in religious sacrifice, to the inner circle of the devout, to those who are members of the same denomination. The Christian church can re-introduce the divisions between the religious and the profane and between those who are within and those who are without, only at the price of losing its own identity as the church of the crucified Christ.

--Jürgen Moltmann, from The Crucified God

The Philosopher Returns

The Philosopher came back to the prison Bible study Monday night. I hadn't seen him in months.

I wrote about the Philosopher three years ago. He's an interesting character and we've had a some long, difficult conversations. Here's a lightly edited version of a story I've shared before:

The prison bible study was about to start but I was hanging back, waiting on the Philosopher.

The Philosopher is new to the study. He's really smart in many ways. Hence the nickname he's been given by his fellow inmates. They call him the Philosopher.

But the Philosopher is also socially challenged. To my eye he as a lot of Asperger-like symptoms. These social skills issues make the Philosopher difficult to deal with in the class. The Philosopher has a tendency to go on long theological, doctrinal or biblical disquisitions that hold the floor for too long. But the Philosopher has trouble reading the non-verbals of the class as well as mine. He doesn't know when to stop so I have to awkwardly interject to get the class moving forward again.

But that's not why I'm hanging back this evening. I don't mind the Philosopher being long-winded. I'm an expert in being long-winded. So I get it.

I'm hanging back because last week the Philosopher accosted my co-teacher Herb. He accused Herb of "blasphemy" and asserted that Herb had "blood on his hands."

To be clear, there are lots of disagreements in the bible study. But this was extreme. It's going to be hard to have a good class discussion going forward if accusations of blasphemy are being leveled. So I need to check in with the Philosopher.

Here's the hilarious thing. You might be wondering what Herb was teaching that provoked the charge of blood-soaked blasphemy. It was this: Max Lucado.

That's right. Max Lucado. That damned heretic.

Herb was leading a discussion about Max Lucado's recent video series on grace. And why, you might ask, did the Philosopher find grace to be blasphemous?

Well, the Philosopher is a bit of a legalist. Consequently, the doctrine of grace is a bit scandalous. It's blasphemy. Thus Herb is leading souls to perdition for preaching (via DVD) the doctrine. Hence the "blood soaked hands" accusation.

The Philosopher was the last one to get to the study. He handed in his lay in (the slip of paper given by the chaplain's office granting permission to go the study) to the guards who began to pat him down.

But there's something stuffed in the Philosopher's sock. That's a problem which gets the attention of the guards. Their mood turns grim. You're not supposed to have things stuffed in your socks.

Is it contraband? A weapon?

Turns out it's a bible. One of those tiny, pocket-sized King James Version bibles.

The Philosopher was now asked to stand with this hands against the wall for a more thorough pat down.

The Philosopher has, it is discovered, about five small bibles stuffed all over his person.

One of the guards remarks, "I patted this guy down last week and he had like eight bibles on him."

The pat down concludes. I reflect. I'm about to try to have a biblical conversation about grace and legalism with a guy who carries bibles stuffed in his socks and whose nickname is "the Philosopher."

But in truth, I really don't want to debate the bible with the Philosopher. All I really want to say is that we don't mind disagreements in the study. Disagree all you want. But we do need to tone down the rhetoric. If you disagree with someone, fine, but you can't call them blasphemers and say that they have blood on their hands.

But here's the problem that surfaces as we talk. The Philosopher feels compelled to say these things because, in his words, "my Father told me to say that." "My Father," of course, is God. The Philosopher is communicating directly with God, sharing God's words with us.

Probing into this, as we talk, the Philosopher reveals to me that he's sort of like the apostle Paul, getting visions directly from God.

I realize as the discussion goes on that this is getting beyond a biblical discussion and that I'm bumping into something more psychiatric. How do you have a disagreement with someone speaking directly for God?

I work to keep the discussion biblical and point out that the apostle Paul, despite the revelations he received from God, once worried that he might have been misinterpreting those visions, that he might have been "running in vain." Consequently, Paul sought out other mature followers of Jesus--Peter, John and James--to check out his gospel with them. I have the Philosopher turn (in one of his five bibles) to Galatians 1 to read about Paul's worry and his actions.

This story is new to the Philosopher. Or, at the very least, this story never registered in this particular way. Paul--the apostolic model for the Philosopher--needed other Christians to check and sign-off on his gospel. Truth required communal discernment.

We can't, I cautioned the Philosopher, be a lone wolf. Not even Paul.

That, at least, was the point I tried to bring home. I wasn't totally successful. But I gave the Philosopher pause. He became more thoughtful. Reflective. You could see the wheels turning.

The great apostle Paul once worried that he might have been wrong.

It's a sobering thought.

But a perfect thought, in my estimation, to start off a bible study.

Especially for Christians who like to carry lots of bibles.

Experimental Theology 2016 Year in Review

Happy New Year!

I'm putting this up today, on January 1, as Monday's regular post. 

As has been my tradition, every New Year I look back over the blog to gather up posts that summarize my year of writing and reflection on the blog.

Thank you so much for reading, commenting, and sharing posts on social media. And thank you to all of you who I've met in person or sent me emails this year sharing how much this blog has meant to you. The feeling is mutual, I've been so encouraged by the relationships we've formed online.

It's true that social media can be a pretty toxic place, but I hope what you find here Monday-Friday each day, even if you disagree with me, is thought-provoking and encouraging. I'm looking forward to 2017.

So here it is, the 2016 Experimental Theology Year in Review:

1. Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted
I tried not to overwhelm the blog too much with the roll out of my new book, but in 2016 my book Reviving Old Scratch came out with a book launch on a Malibu rooftop doing a podcast with N.T. Wright and Greg Boyd. Thanks so much to Tripp Fuller and Luke Norsworthy for hosting Devilpalooza.

It's been encouraging to see the book so well received, by N.T. Wright himself and from progressive Christian audiences, the group I had especially in mind when writing the book. I've also been in contact with a lot of churches who are doing bible classes or reading groups using Reviving Old Scratch.

Thank you to everyone who read the book, shared it on social media or reviewed it on Amazon, Good Reads or on your blog or Facebook. And a special shout-out to Bob Cornwall for posting the very first review of the book and to Jonathan Storment who did a series about the book over at Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog.

To accompany the book, I spent the year writing some more about the devil. Some of those posts were: We Need a Satanic Hermeneutic, Blaming the Devil: Empathy and Responsibility, Dreamy and Devilish Thoughts: Description vs. Explanation in Theology, The Pope and the Devil, and Does the Devil Exist?: Resistance Over Existence,

2. Paul and the Gift: Grace as a Social Revolution
2016 started with me reviewing John Barclay's book Paul and the Gift, an academic tome of Pauline scholarship that had gotten a lot of buzz.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of that series I review Barclay's six "perfections" of grace, and in Part 3 I argue for a seventh perfection of grace (a post of interest to those to believe in universal reconciliation). Those posts brought us to the heart of Barclay's argument, that Paul focused on the incongruity of grace: God gives gifts to the unworthy and undeserving.

That might sound like a very traditional place to land, but in Barclay's hands there are two huge implications. First, Barclay argues that Paul did not perfect the non-circularity of grace, the teaching that grace carries no obligations and cannot and should not be repaid. For Paul, grace is incongruous but it very much creates a bond of obligation. Grace must be repaid.

Second, Paul's teaching of incongruous grace enabled a social revolution, allowing Paul to experiment with boundary-crossing communities. Grace, according to Barclay, was a sociological event that broke down the social barriers existing between the worthy, significant and esteemed (Jews, males, free people) and the unworthy, despised and shamed (Gentiles, females, slaves). Grace destroys all human criteria of worth allowing for a "new humanity" to emerge.    

Finally, as bonus, since I connected Barclay's work to universal reconciliation in my series, I threw in a post about The Perfections of Grace in Calvinism, Arminianism and Universalism.

3. The Four Arguments for Affirming Same-Sex Marriages
The most viral post of the year was a post in which I shared "the four arguments" for affirming same-sex marriages.

I had been asked by an evangelical institution to survey, summarize and then share with them the biblical and theological case for affirming same-sex marriages. As I did my literature review for them, I discerned that there are four main arguments that get used alone or in combination over and over again. Thus, the "four arguments" for affirming same-sex marriages.

After my presentation, I've considered adding a fifth argument that has recently gained more attention. The fifth argument would be "The Inclusion of the Sexual Other" based upon the inclusion of eunuchs in the kingdom of God.

4. Edging Toward Enchantment
A lot of modern Christians struggle with doubt and skepticism concerning the transcendent and metaphysical aspects of faith. So in 2016 I devoted a series of posts about how these doubting believers might edge themselves back toward enchantment. This might have been the most important series of the year.

The series began with a post about miracle stories, in the Bible and in Christian communities. How can disenchanted, doubting and skeptical believers embrace these stories? I argued we can do this by finding resources to edge ourselves back toward enchantment and by making the turn from deconstruction to reconstruction.

How to do this? I suggested a few different things.

First, you can fill your world with sacramentals that help you recover the Catholic imagination of a sacramental ontology where the world as charged with the grandeur of God.

Second, you can practice being open to surprise. This eccentric, receptive posture combats the ruminating introversion of the modern self, an introversion that can impair our ability to experience the sacred and transcendent.

Third, you can practice existential jujitsu, by doubting your doubts and by embracing a romantic Christianity that is disgusted with disenchantment. We can even use the brokenness and suffering of the world to doubt disenchantment.

Finally, we practice hallowing life, by practicing resurrection and through rituals like prayer and anointing.

Later in the year I revisited the subject of enchantment with some posts to help doubting Christians rethink miracles. I suggested that miracles can be viewed as a hermeneutical activity that hallows events and fosters a relational experience with God. But my main point was that miracles are a hermeneutics of gratitude.

5. Jesus and the Jolly Roger: A Church for Pirates
The series I had the most fun with this year was "Jesus and the Jolly Roger," using pirates as a parable to talk about the kingdom of God.

The origin of this series was planted by my friend Simon Nash when he handed me Kester Brewin's book Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates, And How They Can Save Us. I did class using this material at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures and then shared it here on the blog.

The posts in the series were, in order, The Kingdom of God is Like a Pirate, The Violent Take It By Force, The Curious Case of Captain Jack Sparrow, Raising Merry Hell, Living Under the Sign of Death, and The Pirate Code of the Kingdom of God.

6. Praise, Lament and Shape-Note Singing
In 2016 Leah Libresco called me about an article she was writing for Nate Silver's 538 blog over at ESPN. Leah had come across shape-note singing of old Christian hymns at local sings and noticed a difference in the lyrical content of those hymns and the content of contemporary Christian pop songs.

Leah published her analysis, and some of my reflections about her findings, in her article "The Sun Is Always Shining In Modern Christian Pop."

I followed up Leah's article with two posts. First, I grew up in a shape-note tradition. Second, Leah's analysis comparing shape-note hymns with Christian pop is similar to the lyrical contrast between the Psalms and Christian hymnals.

7. Idolatry, Oppression and the Development of Demons
Supplementing an argument I make in Reviving Old Scratch, in 2016 I wrote long series about the biblical connections between idolatry and oppression and how these were associated with demons.

The goal of the series was to show that demons involve a mixture of the spiritual (idolatry) and the political (oppression). When it comes to "spiritual warfare," conservatives tend to associate the demonic with the spiritual (e.g., spooky, disembodied spirits) where progressives tend to associate the demonic with the political (e.g., social justice). Consequently, each miss important aspects of spiritual warfare. Conservatives miss how the spiritual warfare should focus on oppression and progressives miss how oppression flows out of worship.

The ten posts in the series, in order, were The Angels of the Nations, The King as Guardian Angel, Territorial Spirits and Angelic Warfare, Lucifer Is the King of Babylon, The Lord of the Flies, The Origins of Hell, The gods of the Nations Became the Demons, The Demon Haunted City, The Prince of This World, and The Spiritual Roots of Liberation Theology.

8. Political Theology
A wrote a lot about political theology in 2016 in two series and a couple of post-election posts.

The first series meditated on Paul's claim in Romans 13 that the state is "God's servant for your good," and that the state "doesn't bear the sword in vain." These were hard posts for me, as I've tended to gravitate toward anti-empire theology. But I think it's important to listen to the parts of Scripture that you'd rather dismiss and ignore. The posts in this series were, in order: Heartburn, The Locust Effect, Political Theology in a Land of 911, Do Black Lives Matter in Ghettoside?, "One Could Do As One Pleased Only With Stateless People", and The Greatest Source of Suffering in the World.

The second political series pondered Yuval Levin's book The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. I was interested in this book because I felt that Levin's analysis might help conservative and progressive Christians find common political ground in working for the common good.

The heart of Levin's analysis is that both conservatives and liberals increasingly look toward the federal government to solve local, community problems, making our politics more polarized and less effective. Meanwhile, the "middle" institutions best positioned to address local and community problems, especially in that murky and difficult territory where the moral and familial mix and intersect with the structural and systemic, have been hollowed out. Levin argues that we can best solve our problems by investing in these local institutions and I find promise in this suggestion as progressives and conservatives both have localist impulses, making local community work a location for political common ground.

Keeping with this localist focus, after the election I wrote a post entitled The Kingdom of God, November 9, 2016.

In that post I pointed out how Jesus' gospel message--his "glad tidings"--was that the kingdom of God had arrived in the midst of an oppressive, colonial occupation. My observation, witnessing the post-election reactions, was that it seems like we're missing a critical piece Jesus' political imagination given the violent swings of emotions we experience in the face of electoral defeat or victory every four years.

And yet, some readers felt that the post was another one of those "Don't worry, God is still on the throne" appeals. So I followed the post up with three other posts to describe what it looks like to confess that "God is on the throne" and the hard, local work we are called to in order to realize the Lordship of Jesus in our midst. Those follow up posts were The Kingdom Comes When You Get in My Face, How to Overcome Racism According to the Early Church, and More On How to Overcome Prejudice and Discrimination According to the Early Church.
 
9. Preterism and the Gospels
In the debates about hell you'll often hear proponents of eternal conscious torment say, "I believe in hell because Jesus believed in hell. The person who talked the most about hell in the Bible was Jesus."

But what if Jesus never believed any such thing? What if hell was an event that happened within history?

Preterism is the view that all biblical prophecy was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. And while preterist readings of Scripture can tend toward the extreme, preterist readings of the gospels are gaining a wider hearing. The work of N.T. Wright is a prime example. As Wright argues, Jesus was speaking about a coming cataclysm, but this cataclysm wasn't an otherworldly hell where souls were damned for all eternity on Judgment Day. Hell, as Jesus preached it, was a looming national catastrophe that would befall Israel if the nation didn't repent and heed the gospel proclamation.

If this view is new to you, you can read any of N.T. Wright's books about Jesus. Or you can read the eight-part series I did: The Problem is Eschatology, John the Baptist and the Day of the Lord, The Kingdom Has Come, The Great Winnowing, All These Things Will Come Upon This Generation, The Sign of His Coming and the End of the Age, Prophet of Love and Peace and Prophet of Apocalyptic Doom, and Eschatology Revisited.

10. Popular Posts
A specialty of this blog is the long, multi-part series. But there were many stand alone posts that got a lot of attention this year as well. The most popular from 2016 were:
Fragile Worshipers
Learning To Live With Penal Substitutionary Atonement
The Theology of Thrift Stores
The Five Loves
Put Away the Sword: Tragedy and Eschatology
Neo-Reformed Theology and Suffering: What Happens When God Becomes a Math Problem
Pokémon Go and Kingdom Eyes
America's Holocaust
11. Blogging about the Bible
Finally, I continue to pride myself on being a liberal, progressive Christian blogger who loves to write about the Bible. I might be liberal and progressive, but I read the Bible everyday and teach two Bible classes every week, one at church and one out at the prison. And I regularly preach at Freedom Fellowship, a mission church plant I talk a lot about in Reviving Old Scratch.

All that to say, I love studying and sharing insights from Bible study. Some of the best from 2016 were:
An Unbelieving and Perverse Generation and the Suffering of Children
Workers for the Harvest
Faithfulness In Corrupt Systems
Pleroopneumatic Christians
So that was the year 2016 here at Experimental Theology. Thanks for joining me here each week. I look forward to seeing you online or in person in 2017!

Grace and peace,
Richard

Personal Days: End of the Year

Last Friday of 2016!

Through 2016 I used Fridays for more personal posts. I used "Personal Days" to share moments of my life, using this blog like people use Facebook.

On Fridays you knew it was a Senior year for Brenden, the first year on the golf team for Aidan and a 25th Anniversary for Jana and I. You saw my prison Bible and my prayer books. You've peeked into my office, looked into my classroom, and got a look at the bike I ride to work each day. We've lamenting our favorite Mexican restaurant burning down and I announced the first time I ever played guitar on a praise band. We've attended another Roller Derby together, stood on the stage of Jana's production of Little Women and you know what my iPhone screen looks like. You saw my Rublev icon tattoo touched up and walked with me around Walden Pond. You found out that I write Jana lots of poems, that I love walks in the snow and that I voted for Hilary.

And here, with this picture, you finally get to see behind the screen, where all the blog magic happens.

I hope you enjoyed Fridays on the blog. But it's a new year and time to do something different. Next Friday, the first in 2017, I'll be starting something new. See you on the other side.

Experimental Theology Years in Review 2006-2015

Since starting Experimental Theology in the middle of 2006 I've collected highlights from the blog at the end of the year. On Sunday, New Year's Day, I'll be posting the 2016 Year in Review.

If you're new to the blog and want to trace its evolution, and my faith journey, over the years, you can dip into the Years in Review from 2007-2015:
The 2007 Year in Review
The 2008 Year in Review
The 2009 Year in Review
The 2010 Year in Review
The 2011 Year in Review
The 2012 Year in Review
The 2013 Year in Review
The 2014 Year in Review
The 2015 Year in Review
On Sunday, New Year's Day, we'll take a look back at the year that was 2016. 

The Slaughter of the Innocents: Did Herod Make a Mistake?

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

A while back in my prison Bible study we were studying through the gospel of Matthew.

Early on we were in Chapter 2. Matthew 2 is all about a clash between two kings. The clash is right there in the opening three verses:
Matthew 2.1-3
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
Two kings. King Herod--ostensibly the king of the Jews--hearing about "the one who has been born king of the Jews." No wonder he was disturbed.

We know the rest of the story. Upon hearing about this other king Herod orders the death of all young boys in the town of Bethlehem. The Slaughter of the Innocents.
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
Alerted by an angel Mary, Joseph and the baby escape to Egypt until they get word of Herod's death. Even then Joseph is still wary of the new king, causing him to move north, far away from Jerusalem:
But when Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. 
So from beginning to end in Matthew 2 there is this violent and bloody clash between kings. King Herod on the one hand and King Jesus on the other.

Having noted all this, I asked the men out at the prison a question.

I asked, "Did King Herod make a mistake?"

The men looked puzzled, so I elaborated.

"Well," I continued, "we always say that Jesus' Kingdom is 'not of this world.' Jesus didn't want to take Herod's throne. So it doesn't seem that Jesus was a political threat to Herod. So it was all a big misunderstanding on Herod's part. The Slaughter of the Innocents all a big mistake. Right?"

Some of the men begin to nod, seeing my point.

So I continue, "So Jesus was no threat to Herod?"

Now the men are unsure and some reverse their answers. "Wait," they say, "Jesus was a threat to Herod."

I agree. I point out that all the blood in Matthew 2 seems to make that point. Jesus was a huge threat. We pause to read Psalms 2:
Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed.
I go on to bring out the tensions in Matthew 2.

"I asked the question 'Did King Herod make a mistake?' because I think we tend to over-spiritualize Jesus and his Kingdom.

"That is, we think that Jesus' Kingdom has no political implications for the world, for the allegiances we offer to the world, to the state in particular. To be sure, in one sense Jesus isn't interested in Herod's throne. And in that sense Herod horrifically misunderstood Jesus' mission and wickedly shed innocent blood. So, yes, Herod made a evil mistake.

"But Jesus was a threat to Herod in a deeper sense. In this sense Herod rightly discerns a threat to his power and acts accordingly. In this sense the Slaughter of the Innocents was no misunderstanding. The birth of the true King of Jews was a climactic and disruptive event. King Jesus was dangerous.

"How so, if Jesus wasn't going to try to overthrow and take Herod's throne? How was Jesus a legitimate political threat to Herod?

"I think it has to do with how political power is built upon our allegiances, how we swear ultimate loyalty. At root, patriotism is an act of worship. Consequently, while Jesus may not have attempted to seize Herod's power he did radically undermine his power, dissolving it and reducing it to nothing.

"And when the state sees its allegiances weakened, changed, called into question or vacated it will respond. Violently.

"In that sense, Herod didn't make a mistake."

Hateful

We were once foolish, disobedient and misled.
We then lived in malice and envy.
Hateful ourselves, we hated one another.

--from the Liturgy of the Hours (Titus 3.3)

It's a simple text, but I love the image of seeing salvation as being emancipated from the cycles and dynamics of hatred.

Being lost is being in that place where we all hate each other, even ourselves.

The Love of Stephen

Today is the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

Which makes this a very good day to be mindful of our brothers and sisters throughout the world who are facing persecution, violence and death for their faith.

What strikes me about the story of Stephen's death in the book of Acts is the strong Christological overtones, the early Christians loving their enemies the way Jesus did:

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 

Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” 

When he had said this, he fell asleep.

Light a candle and say a prayer today. May we all aspire to the love St. Stephen displayed with his final, dying words.

For Unto Us a Child is Born


The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
upon them the light has dawned.

You have increased their joy and given them great gladness;
they rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest.
For you have shattered the yoke that burdened them;
the collar that lay heavy on their shoulders.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and the government will be upon his shoulders.
And his name will be called:

Wonderful Counselor;
the Mighty God;
the Everlasting Father;
the Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish and uphold it with justice and righteousness.
From this time forth and for evermore;
the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

--Isaiah 9.2,3b,4a,6,7

Our Spirit Should Be Quick to Reach Out Toward God

Prayer and converse with God is a supreme good: it is a partnership and union with God. As the eyes of the body are enlightened when they see light, so our spirit, when it is intent on God, is illumined by his infinite light. I do not mean the prayer of outward observance but prayer from the heart, not confined to fixed times or periods but continuous throughout the day and night.

Our spirit should be quick to reach out toward God, not only when it is engaged in meditation; at other times also, when it is carrying out its duties, caring for the needy, performing works of charity, giving generously in the service of others, our spirit should long for God and call him to mind, so that these works may be seasoned with the salt of God’s love, and so make a palatable offering to the Lord of the universe. Throughout the whole of our lives we may enjoy the benefit that comes from prayer if we devote a great deal of time to it...

Practice prayer from the beginning. Paint your house with the colors of modesty and humility. Make it radiant with the light of justice. Decorate it with the finest gold leaf of good deeds. Adorn it with the walls and stones of faith and generosity. Crown it with the pinnacle of prayer. In this way you will make it a perfect dwelling place for the Lord. You will be able to receive him as in a splendid palace, and through his grace you will already possess him, his image enthroned in the temple of your spirit.

--Saint John Chrysostom

Favorite Advent and Christmas Reflections

It has been my habit over the years to repost each year popular Advent and Christmas reflections from the blog.

Maybe seeing those posts every Advent season is a tradition regular readers enjoy, like watching It's A Wonderful Life every year. Or maybe it gets old seeing the same posts appear every year. Who knows?

So how about a compromise? One post this year with links to the four most popular Advent and Christmas posts I've written.

Everything I Learned about Christmas I Learned from TV
Perhaps my most viral Christmas post, a playful meditation using the Christmas TV classics How the Grinch Stole ChristmasRudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas to sneak up on "the true meaning of Christmas."

"Watching Their Flocks By Night": An Advent Meditation
Another hugely popular post using research about cultures of honor and violence in herding cultures to recover the scandal of having shepherds standing around the manger.

Christmas Carols as Resistance Literature
Christmas carols as subversive? In this post I talk about two Christmas carols--O Holy Night and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear--to highlight the political commentary in the lyrics. Beyond being shared a lot on social media, this post has been used by churches for sermons and Bible classes during the Advent season.

Piss Christ in Prison: An Unlikely Advent Meditation
An edgy post from the prison Bible study I lead using Andres Serrano's controversial artwork Piss Christ to recover the shock of the Incarnation its message of scandalous, unbelievable grace.

The Day the Revolution Began: Atonement Theology Needs Old Scratch

I just finished N.T. Wright's new book about the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began.

A couple of weeks ago Wright was at SMU speaking on the subject of his book, and readers of the blog who attended the talk alerted me to the fact that Wright gave Reviving Old Scratch and myself a nice shout out, along with Scott Peck (People of the Lie), and Walter Wink (his work on the Powers), as writers helping modern Christians recover a robust theology of the Devil and "spiritual warfare."

The video of Wright's talk is below and you can pick up these remarks at the 21:02 mark.

If you read The Day the Revolution Began you see why Wright made this comment.

Jesus' victory over evil--Sin, Death and the Devil--plays a huge, central part in Wright's treatment of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. By focusing on the Passover themes of Jesus' death Wright's atonement theology emphasizes victory and emancipation. Jesus' death is the New Exodus liberating us from dark, enslaving forces.

To be clear, there is so much more in The Day the Revolution Began than these Christus Victor themes. One of the noteworthy things Wright does in the book is build a bridge, by focusing upon the story of Israel, between Christus Victor and penal substitutionary views of the atonement. These two views of the atonement are often pitted against each other, but Wright shows how they supplement and complement each other.

But the point I want to make here is that, according to N.T. Wright, you just can't make sense of the Gospels, the cross and the kingdom of God if you don't have a theology of the devil. And it makes we wonder if the reason we struggle so much with the cross and atonement theology is because we've drifted so far from the biblical imagination.

That insight was a huge part of why I wrote Reviving Old Scratch.

Fourth Sunday of Advent


"Mary"

Racing the owls and the gloaming
darkening the dusty
path home.
She leans to balance
the burden of water
gathered once more
for the cooking and washing,
chores and duties
finally put to rest.
The sharp-edged moon
rises on the cobalt sky,
fading predictably to blackness.
The murmuring house quiets,
and soon she is gathered among
still, resting bodies.
She is awake and surrounded
by the silence
of her thoughts.
And then,
the interruption of Light.
Announcements of blessing, favor
and impossibility.
She bows her head.
Alone,
poised
on the edge of the world,
unseen, unknown,
small,
far beyond the machinations of empires and armies
and men.
The softest of whispers.
"Yes."

"Annunciation" (Oil on Canvas, 1898) by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Personal Days: Divine Office, Vol. 1

The aesthetics of the spiritual life are important to me. Little things, like colors, matter.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy using the four-volume Divine Hours to pray, how each of the volumes is a different color. As Advent nears you anticipate putting down the brown Volume 4 for the last part of Ordinary Time to pick up the blue Volume 1, the Advent and Christmas prayers.

One of my favorite things to do with the blue prayer book is to say the prayers next to our nativity set. I'll light a candle, watching the flickering light dance over the Holy family, the shepherds, the wise men, the angel and the animals.

I'll move the colored ribbons around, getting all the prayers for the day marked. And then begin.

The Day I Started Believing in the Devil

My recent posts about showing the Lord of the Rings movies out at the prison reminded me of some stories and insights I share in Reviving Old Scratch.

Specifically, thinking about the hobbits as the heroes of the story in the Lord of the Rings, and how their weapons where the Fruits of the Spirit rather than the Ring of Power, reminded me of the story I share at the start of Chapter 10 in Reviving Old Scratch, about my first attempt to teach the Beatitudes inside a maximum security prison:

From Reviving Old Scratch, Chapter 10: The War of the Lamb
I vividly remember the day I started taking the Devil seriously.

I was teaching class out at the prison. We were at the start of Matthew 5, the start of the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes.

I was reading through them. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those that mourn…Blessed are the meek.”

But then I stopped.

Stopped because I’d noticed something on the faces of the men. Skepticism. Growing skepticism that culminated when I hit the word “meek.”

I put my Bible down and looked around. “Looking at your faces,” I said, “it doesn’t seem like you’re buying this.”

There was an awkward pause, a lot of staring at the ground and uncomfortable shifting in the seats. Finally one of the men spoke up.

“It’s not that we disagree, but you just can’t do that stuff in here. In here meekness is mistaken for weakness.”

And the implication was clear. If you are weak you’ll get hurt. Inside a maximum security prison weakness is dangerous...

To this day, I vividly recall that Monday night out at the prison. That night was a turning point for me. A conversion experience. That was the night I witnessed a head on spiritual collision. At close range saw the Beatitudes crash into the world. And it wasn’t pretty.

Later, after I had sorted through the wreckage of my well-prepared Bible study, I realized that was the night I started believing in the Devil.

From the beginning of this book I’ve been describing “the satan” as the force or forces which are adversarial to love and the Kingdom of God. And that night out at the prison I stood face to face with the Devil.

“You can’t do that stuff in here.”

There were forces that were adversarial to meekness in the world of the prison, and to all of the Beatitudes, making the Way of Jesus risky, costly and dangerous. The Men in White wanted to follow Jesus, they wanted to obey, but they had their worries, fears even. To follow Jesus was to swim upstream against a dark and satanic current.

Behind Bars With The Lord of the Rings: Part 5, Samwise Gamgee

Who is the main hero in The Lord of the Rings?

In the prison bible study we talked a lot about Gandalf. But we decided that, while Gandalf is a critical player, his main job is to clear the ground so that men and hobbits have space to operate.

We concluded that Gandalf is sort of like Michael the Archangel. Gandalf fends off higher demonic powers, like the Balrog, so that men and hobbits are able to carry out the decisive action on the ground. Gandalf doesn't confront the Dark Lord directly, but he makes room for others to defeat him.

Frodo seems to be the main hero. And I'd not argue with anyone who believed that. But the men in the study had a different opinion. In their estimation the main hero of the story is Sam.

At multiple junctures Sam is the one who saves the day. And the story ends with Sam.

Critically, when Frodo can no longer climb Mt. Doom, Sam picks him up and carries him.

Again, this goes to the deeply Christian heart of The Lord of the Rings. The main hero is a servant. We defeat evil by carrying each other.

Yes, Frodo is the dramatic focus. But if The Lord of the Rings is anything it is a prolonged meditation on the fidelity of Samwise Gamgee.

Which is to say that The Lord of the Rings is a prolonged meditation upon sacrifice, selflessness and servanthood. Sam never thinks of himself, never puts himself first.

And at the end of the movie all our attention is on Sam. The hero of the story.

The servant.

Behind Bars With The Lord of the Rings: Part 4, The Weapons of the Battle

As we continued to talk about the hobbits in the prison bible study, noting how they are the unlikely heroes of the story, the inmates made a comment about their weapons.

Everyone has amazing weapons in The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf has his magical staff. Legolas is pretty handy with his bow and arrow. Gimli swings an axe. And Aragorn has the legendary sword Andúril.

But what weapons do the hobbits weld?

True, they do have little swords. Froto has Sting. But by and large, the weapons of the hobbits aren't really traditional weapons.

"What are the weapons of the hobbits?" I asked the men in the study.

John shouted out, "The Fruits of the Spirit."

It was a great answer. And I agreed. The most potent weapon of the hobbits is their virtue. Humility. Perseverance. Compassion. Courage. Kindness. Goodness. Gentleness.

Faith, hope and love.

The hobbits become the heroes of the story because they are virtuous.

It's their goodness, humility and love for each other that make them the most formidable enemies of the Dark Lord.

Behind Bars With The Lord of the Rings: Part 3, The Heroes of the Story

In the prison bible study, after we talked about the ring and the temptations of power, we turned to the issue of heroism.

"Who are the heroes of this story?" I asked.

Well, there are lots of heroes in The Lord of the Rings. There's Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolos, Gimli, Faramir, Elrond, Éowyn, Treebeard. To name a few.

But the men in the study knew the right answer to the question.

"The hobbits," they answered, "the hobbits are the heroes."

"Correct!" I said, "But consider this: Think about how strange the hobbits are as heroes."

"Think about all the superhero movies that are being made," I continued. "All those superheros have some super power or ability. Superman, the X-men, Spiderman, Captain America, Flash, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk. These superheros are, well, super. These superheros are above us, better than us. They can even fly.

"Now consider the hobbits. The hobbits are the weakest characters in the movie. They are small. They have no superpowers like Gandalf. They can't fight like the men, elves and dwarves. And yet, the hobbits are the heroes.

"Think about that," I said to the men, "think about how in The Lord of the Rings the weak become the heroes, how the weakest ones in the story overcome the strongest ones. Think about how of all the people in Middle Earth that it's the hobbits--the hobbits!--who defeat the Dark Lord.

"Can you see how very Christian this movie is? If you ever doubt it, just look at the heroes in the Marvel and DC movies and compare them with the hobbits of The Lord of the Rings.

"As it says in 1 Corinthians:
Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important"

Third Sunday of Advent



"Shepherds"

Like black spiderwebs
the branches of the ceder trees
thatch the moon-warmed sky,
doused with icy flecks,
steady or winking,
as the old ewe pulls grass
on the edge of the firelight.
We, lying separate and silent now,
our hearts still racing
mixed with jumbled private thoughts
of visions and visitations
too outsized and brilliant for accounting.
We did not speak
anymore of what we saw
once returned to our darkened fields.
The tracings of our thoughts
too broken to build
easy bridges between us.
This announcement
has shattered our night
and we inventory the pieces
of the world we once knew
and no longer recognize.

Personal Days: First Snow

We had our first snow of the year yesterday!

Even though we live in West Texas it still snows here. It never gets very deep. Usually just a dusting. Our winter precipitation tends to be freezing rain. We don't get snow days in West Texas, the snow never accumulates to any depth, but we do get ice days.

If you've never seen freezing rain it's quite something, meteorologically speaking. Two main ingredients cause freezing rain. First, the surface temperature has to be below freezing. Next, you have to have layers of different temperature air above. Frozen precipitation high above in a cold layer has to fall through a warmer layer, which leads to melting and returning the water back to a liquid state. That rain then falls through layers of cold air at the surface, supercooling the water. So the water reaches you as liquid rain. But that supercooled rain, upon hitting a surface below freezing, immediately turns to ice. Everything becomes encased and encrusted with a layer of ice, sometimes quite thick. Roads turn into massive ice skating rinks. And school gets canceled.

I much prefer snow. I grew up in Pennsylvania on the shore of Lake Erie. So I was raised in the land of lake effect snow. I have memories of massive snow drifts. Job #1 in the morning growing up was shoveling out to Mom's car, cleaning the snow and scraping the ice off the car, shoveling out the driveway (the snow plows passing in the night push huge mounds of snow into the end of the driveway), and then starting up the car to get it warm.

I don't miss that part of snow, but what I do miss is walking in snow. One of my most favorite things to do in the world is to take a walk in a softly falling snow.

So that's what I did yesterday morning. Snow doesn't fall here very often. So I grabbed my coat and took a walk. One of the few Texans, I suspect, who head outside for walk on a snowy morning.