Unpublished: Doubts Aren't That Important

A lot of people come to me when they experience faith problems.

There's not a ton that I can do to help. There's no magic bullet that I have. No great answer I'm sitting on that I haven't shared.

But I'm not speechless. I can share my own story. I can express solidarity. I can suggest things to read if there's a particular theological perspective that I think might be helpful. And sometimes I offer this response:

Have you given Christianity a try?

A lot of "faith struggles" are purely mental events. Wheels turning in the mind. Which is fine, but much of that mental drama has little to do with being or not being a Christian. I'm not saying that our questions aren't important. I'm saying that getting mentally okay with Christianity still doesn't make you a Christian. There's more to it than that. Like actually being a Christian.

Let me say it this way. We routinely say that Christianity isn't about intellectual assent to propositions. Christianity isn't about believing all the right things, checking all the right theological boxes. But if that's the case we have to say the same thing about our doubts.

Being or not being a Christian isn't about all the mental drama, all the stuff floating around in your head.

If orthodoxy isn't all that important than neither are your doubts.

--an unpublished post about doubts and the need to move past them

Broad Is the Way That Leads To Destruction

Matthew 7.13-19
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

///

I know lots of liberal and progressive Christians really dislike this text. But I'm here to tell you, brother and sisters, that I agree with Jesus!

BROAD IS THE ROAD THAT LEADS TO DESTRUCTION!!!!

I believe this!

In fact, I think it's pretty obvious if you read the daily paper or watch the evening news. Really, is this actually news to anyone? Is this actually controversial? I don't think so.

Broad is the way that leads to destruction.

Let us, again, remind ourselves about the destruction Jesus was warning about: the destruction of Jerusalem.

And who were those false prophets Jesus was warning about?

Again, these were the false Messiahs who were or would be agitating for the violent overthrow of Rome. But as Jesus declared, the one who lives by the sword will die by the sword. Jerusalem was on road to destruction because she had, in the words of the gospel of Luke, "failed to learn the things that make for peace."

And in contrast to this "broad road" of violence the way of Jesus as described in the Sermon on the Mount is a very different sort of path--a narrower, harder and lonelier path. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Turn the other cheek. Go the second mile.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

These are the teachings that bear "good fruit." These are the teachings that provide, like the wise man building on a rock, a firm and lasting foundation. These are the teachings that make the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

And yet, this is a hard, hard teaching. So hard it will be a narrow way. Few will find this path. Most will opt for violence. And we know where that road leads.

No one said it better than Jesus.

Broad is the way that leads to destruction.

To the Girl With the Rainbow Stairs

Grace comes to us
in little things.
Even as we dream and struggle
for each other
and the sky and the water and the air.
Hoping, fighting
for all things to be healed and whole.
Grace comes to us
in the colors and the laughter
in the bread broken and the wine
and our voices joined and chanting.
Grace comes to us
in little things.
In the pinch of sunlight on the skin
and the wind soon to be blowing through your hair.
Grace does come.
Even in the ache of leaving.
That too is grace.
For it is the pain of joy,
and happiness,
and love.

All Aboard the Blue Train: Johnny Cash and the Train Song

As regular readers know I've become a bit of a Johnny Cash nut. I listen to Cash all the time so as my sons ride in the car with me they hear a lot of Johnny Cash playing.

My son Aidan sums up Johnny Cash like this. Aidan says, "Johnny Cash sings about trains, prison, murder and Jesus."

That's just about a perfect description of Johnny Cash.

In my series about the theology of Johnny Cash (see the sidebar on the blog homepage) I wrote about the prison, murder and Jesus parts. But nothing about the trains.

Johnny Cash's first recording with Sun Records wasn't "I Walk the Line" or "Folsom Prison Blues." The first song Cash wrote and recorded with Sun was a song about trains.

That song was "Hey Porter." "Hey Porter" needed a compliment song to make a record. Cash went off and wrote "Cry, Cry, Cry." "Cry, Cry, Cry" became the A-Side of Cash's first record and was his first hit. "Hey Porter" was the B-Side and also got a lot of air play.

"Hey Porter" is one of the few (and it might be the only) happy train songs recorded by Cash. Inspired by Cash's feelings returning home after his tour overseas in the air force, "Hey Porter" shares the excitement of a man riding a train back home to loved ones in the South. The last verse of the song:
Hey porter! Hey porter!
Please open up the door.
When they stop the train I'm gonna get off first
Cause I can't wait no more.
Tell that engineer I said thanks a lot,
and I didn't mind the fare.
I'm gonna set my feet on Southern soil
and breathe that Southern air.
Again, "Hey Porter" is a happy train song. The train is bringing a son, a lover, a brother and a friend back home. This happy theme is an exception in Cash's train song discography. For the most part when Cash sings about trains the theme is loss, sadness and regret. The train is passing the singer by taking other people to happy places. That's the image from "Folsom Prison Blues." From the first, second and third verses:
I hear the train a comin'
It's rolling round the bend
And I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when,
I'm stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin' on.
But that train keeps a rollin' on down to San Antone.

When I was just a baby my mama told me. Son,
Always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry.

I bet there's rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They're probably drinkin' coffee and smoking big cigars.
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can't be free
But those people keep a movin'
And that's what tortures me.
Another sad train theme in Johnny Cash's songs are trains taking lovers away or not bringing them back home. A nice example are the lyrics of "Train of Love." From the first two verses:
Train of love's a-comin', big black wheels a-hummin'
People waitin' at the station, happy hearts are drummin'
Trainman tell me maybe, ain't you got my baby
Every so often everybody's baby gets the urge to roam
But everybody's baby but mine's comin' home.

Now stop your whistle blowin', 'cause I got ways of knowin'
Your bringin' other people's lovers, but my own keeps goin'
Train of love's deceivin', when she's not gone she's leavin'
Every so often everybody's baby gets the urge to roam
But everybody's baby but mine's comin' home.
Sometimes a train isn't in the song but railroad tracks are mentioned to similar effect. The railroad tracks are leading off to a happy place but we can't get on the train to follow them. We see the path leading home but we are unable to follow it. From "Give My Love to Rose":
I found him by the railroad track this morning
I could see that he was nearly dead
I knelt down beside him and I listened
Just to hear the words the dying fellow said.
He said they let me out of prison down in Frisco
For ten long years I've paid for what I've done
I was trying to get back to Louisiana
To see my Rose and get to know my son.

Give my love to Rose please won't you mister
Take her all my money, tell her to buy some pretty clothes
Tell my boy his daddy's so proud of him
And don't forget to give my love to Rose.
In short, beyond the debut of the happy "Hey Porter" the train songs of Johnny Cash tend to be sad and melancholy songs. Happiness is on the train and that train is leaving us or passing us by. We're left standing by the railroad tracks listening to the whistle in the distance.

(By the way, if you'd like to explore many of the early train songs of Johnny Cash check out the "All Aboard the Blue Train" compilation album put out by Sun Records in 1962. It's one of my favorite Johnny Cash albums. I have it on vinyl and play this record in my office more than any other.

Some interesting backstory behind this and other compilation albums put out by Sun Records.

Cash left Sun for Columbia in 1958. But Sun owned all Cash's early material. Consequently, while Cash was recording new albums with Columbia Sun kept releasing "greatest hits" compilation albums alongside Cash's newer material, much to the chagrin of both Cash and Columbia. "All Aboard the Blue Train" is one of those Sun compilation albums.)

So the train song for Johnny Cash is a sad song. The train whistle is a sound of lament, loss and regret for the sinner sitting in prison for the poor man dying by the railroad track and for the lovers who are saying good-bye forever.

And yet, at the end of Cash's career a note of redemption is sounded. On his 1994 American Recordings album, the first he did with Rick Rubin, Cash recorded the song "Down There By the Train," a song written for Cash by Tom Waits. (Waits also recorded his own version of the song twelve years later on his three-disc Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards.)
If you've lost all your hope, if you've lost all your faith
I know you can be cared for and I know you can be safe
And all the shamefuls and all of the whores
And even the soldier who pierced the side of the Lord

Meet me down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow
I think it's theologically fitting that one of the last train songs recorded by Cash is "Down There By the Train." For me, the song reaches back to the start of Cash's career as the answer to the sinner's lament sounded in "Folsom Prison Blues." It is a song that brings the hope of reunion in "Hey Porter" to the man dying by the railroad tracks in "Give My Love to Rose."

Yes, the train songs of Johnny Cash are laments, filled with loss and regret. But there is a place where the "train goes slow," slow enough for all of us in our sin and sadness to hop aboard and find our way back home.

Unpublished: A Letter to My Class On Being Prepared for Sadness

In a recent lecture in my PSYC 120 Introduction to Psychology class I was talking about sadness and spirituality. My sense is that a lot the theology we give to young Christians is so optimistic, hopeful, and triumphalistic that they aren't prepared for sadness, loss and disappointment. Consequently, when these young Christians encounter pain their faith is shaken and often falters. They draw the only conclusion available to them: If life is sad then God has abandoned me.

So in class I said that you should learn to expect sadness and be prepared for it. Which sounds awfully depressing. So after class I sent the students an email trying summarize what I was trying to say. Here's the email it sent them:
Dear PSYC 120,
I was thinking about class today and wanted to say a bit more.

If you weren't in class this might not make much sense, but if you were in class you'll recall I said that life is often very, very sad. All of us will shed many tears before it is all said and done.

That's where I left it in class, but I wanted to follow up and say a bit more about all this.

My goal in sharing all this isn't to make you depressed. It's to help you prepare for the future. Now is the time, here at ACU, to construct a theology--a way with God--that prepares you for sadness, prepares you for difficult times. You need to have a theology that expects loss, failure, pain, abandonment, accident, illness and death. Otherwise, you will be knocked off balance when these things occur, and you will wonder why God has abandoned you. But God hasn't abandoned you. God is there, in the midst of it all. But we have to prepare ourselves to seek God in the darkness, to find God in the darkness.

To be sure, life is and will be filled with joy, wonder, and deep, lasting happiness. I pray these things will fill your life to overflowing. But be prepared for sadness and disappointment. Come to know that God is and will be waiting for you in those dark moments. Do not panic when the pain comes. Do not avoid or fear the pathways of grief. Learn to suffer patiently and wisely, knowing that even in midst of pain that you are deeply loved and that you are not alone.

Grace and peace,
Richard

--an unpublished post sharing, obviously, a letter I sent my class a few years ago

Orthodox Alexithymia

In 2012 I wrote a post describing something I called "orthodox alexithymia." Some recent conversations I've had about the role of emotion in theological reflection brought that post back to mind:

David Hume once famously argued that "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions." What is interesting about that claim is that, particularly in the area of virtue and morality, modern psychological science has proven Hume to be right. And I wonder, what are the implications for theology?

To be sure, Hume stated his case too strongly. Reason isn't necessarily the slave of the passions. And we don't think it ought to be all of the time. But modern research has shown that cognition and emotion are interwoven systems, with emotion often taking the lead in helping us think correctly and virtuously.

This is a bit different from how the Greeks viewed the situation. For the Greeks emotion was error-prone and wild. Consequently, the wise person would use reason to subdue, tame, and guide the emotions. Thus the vision of the detached, cool, and cerebral philosopher.

We now know that the Greeks got this wrong. When emotion is decoupled from reason we have something that looks like sociopathy. At the very least reason needs emotion to do its work properly. I'm thinking here of work done with persons with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. People with damage to this area of the brain have trouble connecting emotion to how they make decisions or plans. Because of this these individuals can make long pro versus con lists but never reach a final decision. Cognitively these individuals have the ability to plan, and in great detail. But without emotion the cognitive system doesn't care about one outcome over others. And this caring, this emotional attachment, seems to be what breaks the rational stalemate and terminates the chain of calculation. In this reason is functioning as the servant, if not the slave, of the passions. It's as if Reason is saying to the Emotions, "Hey, I'll do all the calculation and accounting, but at the end of the day you're going to have to tell me what we really care about."

It is as Hume once provocatively argued. He said, "'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." There is nothing unreasonable or illogical in preferring scratching your finger over preventing the destruction of the whole world. Yes, such a choice is monstrous and evil, but it's not illogical. The monstrosity goes to the issue of caring and emotion. What is broken in preferring scratching your finger over preventing the destruction of the world isn't reason, but emotion.

What does this have to do with theology?

Simply this. When theology and doctrine become separated from emotion we end up with something dysfunctional and even monstrous. A theology or doctrinal system that has become decoupled from emotion is going to look emotionally stunted and even inhuman.

What I'm describing here might be captured by the tag "orthodox alexithymia." By "orthodox" I mean the intellectual pursuit of right belief. And by "alexithymia" I mean someone who is, theologically speaking, emotionally and socially deaf and dumb. Even theologically sociopathic.

(Alexithymia--etymologically "without words for emotions"--is a symptom characteristic of individuals who have difficulty understanding their own and others' emotions. You can think of alexithymia as being the opposite of what is called emotional intelligence.)

Orthodox alexithymia is produced when the intellectual facets of Christian theology, in the pursuit of correct and right belief, become decoupled from emotion, empathy, and fellow-feeling. Orthodox alexithymics are like patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex brain damage. Their reasoning may be sophisticated and internally consistent but it is disconnected from human emotion. And without Christ-shaped caring to guide the chain of calculation we wind up with the theological equivalent of preferring to scratch a doctrinal finger over preventing destruction of the whole world. Logically and doctrinally such preferences can be justified. They are not "contrary to reason." But they are inhuman and monstrous. Emotion, not reason, is what has gone missing.

(In my opinion, hard-core, double-predestination Calvinism looks just like this. An icy, monstrous and alexithymic theology.)

In their defense, the orthodox alexithymics will emphasize the view of the Greeks: reason must tame the passions. We cannot discern the will of God if we allow our feelings to get in the way. Emotions are temptations. Therefore we must make our feelings submit to reason. Reason leads you toward God. Emotion leads you away from God. So put your feelings to the side. If a chain of theological reasoning starts to horrify you then you must repress those feelings. Stuff that horror, swallow it.

But in light of what we now know about the relationship between cognition and emotion this Greek-inspired defense is sounding more and more hollow. And dangerous. A theology that is repressing the emotions, we suspect, just like in other spheres of life, is more rather than less likely to lead us astray.

Theology, as an activity of reason, might not want to be a slave of the passions, but it might want to partner with emotion much more closely.

Hope for Winter Christians

Jana and I are still in the UK but our speaking tour is coming to an end. Having shared with lovely, amazing and inspiring faith communities in Jersey, Brighton, St. Albans and London we start heading north toward Scotland for our final engagements. I can't wait. I'm heading to the land of George MacDonald, who has been, perhaps, the greatest influence upon my faith.

If you're looking for a taste of what has been happening on the tour on Sunday evening it was my great pleasure to share a meal and conversation with the Borough Common community with our conversation continuing afterwards at a pub around the corner.

I was honored that John joined us that evening and especially honored that he has shared a great deal of our conversation from our evening together over at his blog. Please head on over to John's blog to read some of my thoughts about hope and Winter Christianity. Also give note to John's own reflections about what I shared.

One line from the evening:
What Winter Christians need is a balanced diet of indictment, lament and hope.

Sitting Among the Gravestones in the Churchyard of St. Andrews in Castle Combe

The ivy grows so quickly across the crumbling gravestones
only the angels can see it.
So my eye follows
the dance of the bees among the elderflower.
Mortal and immortal each marking the time in our own way.

This stone bears her name
now illegible from wind and rain.
So my finger traces what it can
slowly through lichen and moss.
A prayer of remembrance lovingly etched.
The living seeking communion
with the dead.

Unicorns in the Bible

For many months now I've been using the King James Version of the bible in my daily devotionals. Beyond reading a passage here or there I don't believe I've ever read the KJV so thoroughly and closely. And it's been interesting.

Here's one interesting thing. Did you know there are unicorns in the bible?

By my searching, unicorns are mentioned nine times in the Old Testament of the KJV:
Numbers 23.22
God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.

Numbers 24.8
God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.

Deuteronomy 33.17
His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.

Job 39.9
Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?

Job 39.10
Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?

Psalm 22.21
Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.

Psalm 29.6
He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.

Psalm 92.10
But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.

Isaiah 34.7
And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.
It's both delightful and a bit startling to run across a unicorn when you are reading the bible.

Translationally speaking, where did the unicorn come from?

The Hebrew word in question is re’em (רֶאֵם). Re'em is believed to refer to aurochs (also called urus), an extinct form of wild cattle that was the ancestor of modern domesticated cattle.

When the authors of the Septuagint (who began to translate in the 3rd Century BCE) translated the Hebrew of the Old Testament into Greek the re'em was getting rare and scarce, on its way to eventual extinction. Having little to no exposure with the creature the translators of the Septuagint translated the Hebrew word re'em for the Greek word monokeros, which means “one-horned.”

In the 4th Century AD St. Jerome translated the Greek Septuagint into Latin giving us the Latin Vulgate, which became the official bible of the Catholic Church. Encountering the Greek word monokeros ("one-horned") Jerome translated it with the Latin equivalent--unicornis. (From uni- ‘single’ + cornu ‘horn’).

When the translators of the King James Version encountered the Latin word unicornis rather than translating the word they simply turned the Latin word into an English word.

Unicornis became unicorn.

And that's how unicorns got into the bible.

But more modern translations, knowing more about the re'em, tend to go with "wild ox" over "unicorn."

Unpublished: Wasting the Body and Blood of Jesus

If the elements of the Lord's Supper, bread and wine, represent--symbolically (Protestants) or actually (Catholics)--the body and blood of Jesus then we should note that the body and blood of Jesus was given and broken and poured out for us unconditionally, while we were yet sinners. Isn't that, at root, what the Lord's Supper symbolizes?

If so, to exclude "sinners" from the body and blood of Jesus--his outpouring love--and reserve it for the "saints" seems to set into motion a legalism that I worry about.

The body and blood of Jesus was poured out on Calvary for the whole world as Jesus says "Father forgive them." That is what is celebrated at the Lord's Supper, the wild, wasteful love of God poured out upon an unrepentant, ignorant and violent humanity. You don't put gatekeepers around that. You don't put Keep Out signs around the sacred wounds of Jesus.

Let us not worry about wasting the blood of Jesus upon the blind, deaf and dumb for the blood of Jesus is eternally, profanely and foolishly wasted upon the world. The blood of Jesus was not collected to be doled out to an elite group of spiritual insiders. The blood of Jesus fell upon--it was split--and soaked into the earth. His blood was given away to all, to be cherished, ignored or wasted.

--from an unpublished post exploring arguments for open communion

Dry Bones, You Shall Live: Preterism and the Resurrection of the Dead

Many months ago a wrote a post about preterism. Partial preterism has been a dominant view in my faith tradition, the Churches of Christ. And there are even a few within my faith tradition who subscribe to full preterism.

As I described in that earlier post full preterism contends that all the language in the New Testament concerning final judgment and the second coming refer to the destruction of Jerusalem (which occurred in 70 AD). The main exegetical and hermeneutic move informing this position is to read all the eschatological material in the NT through Jesus' Olivet Discourse (Mark 13, Matthew 24 and Luke 21), which clearly speak to the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem.

For example, from Luke's version of the Olivet Discourse:
Luke 21.20-22
“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written."   
The destruction of Jerusalem is described as being "the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written." Which is a big, sweeping statement. Full preterism takes that offer, reading all descriptions of judgment and hell in the NT as being about the destruction of Jerusalem. Simply put, hell just is the destruction of Jerusalem. Full stop.

In a similar way, full preterism believes that the second coming of Jesus also refers to the destruction of Jerusalem. From the Olivet Discourse in Matthew:
Matthew 24.1-3, 30-31
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

“Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other."
Notice how the second coming (Matthew 24.30-31) is described as occurring at the time of the destruction of the Temple (Matthew 24.1-3). According to full preterism, then, the second coming has already occurred when the Son of Man came back in judgment upon Jerusalem in AD 70.

In summary, full preterism sees both final judgment and the second coming has having already occurred, per Jesus' prophecy, with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. All biblical prophecy has been fulfilled. It's all in the past, with no prophecy left outstanding awaiting some future fulfillment.

Now, one objection to full preterism has to do with the resurrection of the dead. The impulse in full preterism is to see all OT and NT prophecy as already fulfilled. No prophecy remains to be fulfilled in the future. Everything, so to speak, has been prophetically "wrapped up" by AD 70.

To be sure, you can, as we've seen, use the Olivet Discourse to make a case that the "second coming" occurred in the past (AD 70). But what about the resurrection of the dead? Clearly that hasn't occurred yet. The general resurrection of the dead is something we are still waiting for. So it seems that some things are still to come in the future. Issues like this are why many in my tradition subscribe to partial preterism, the belief that while most things were fulfilled in AD 70 there remain a few things still left for the future, like the second coming (as traditionally understood) and the general resurrection of the dead.

Pondering all this, I've been wondering about if you can you have a full preterist understanding of the resurrection of the dead.

That would be hard to do, especially in light of various Pauline texts (e.g., 1 Cor. 15, 1 Thess. 4). But if you were going to try here's how I'd go about it.

As we know, the resurrection of the dead isn't a big theme in the Old Testament. And when resurrection themes do occur they often have to do with restoration. Consider, for example, the theme of being rescued from "the pit" in the book of Psalms. In this imagery we are "brought back" from the realm of the dead.

Related to this idea of restoration is how resurrection imagery is used to speak about the end of exile and the restoration of Israel. In this sense, the forgiveness of sins--the end of exile and the proclamation of God's Jubilee--is the resurrection of the dead.

The classic example of this is the dry bones vision in Ezekiel:
Ezekiel 37.1-6
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones.

And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.

And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
You shall live. This is resurrection imagery used to speak about the reconstitution and restoration of the people of God, the end of their judgment and exile.

Again, while certain Pauline texts remain a sticking point, I do believe a preterist case could be made concerning the resurrection of the dead. Specifically, if we take a cue from the OT the resurrection refers to the end of exile in the declaration of God's Kingdom Come, in the proclamation of God's Jubilee and the forgiveness of sins in the restoration of Israel. 

The resurrection of the dead is God breathing life back into the dead body of God's People.

Pentecost is the resurrection of the dead.

Pentecost is the fulfillment of Ezekiel's prophecy, when the Spirit of God breathed life back into the deadness of Creation. Just as God did at the very beginning. New Creation. Re-creation and resurrection.

Dry bones made to live again.

The Church is Dying and I Couldn't Be More Excited

As I write Jana and I are in the midst of a speaking tour through the UK. We're at the halfway point in our journey, having spent most of our time on Jersey in the Channel Islands and on the mainland in Brighton.

Right now our hearts are very, very full. Most people who visit the UK go from tourist spot to tourist spot. We, by contrast, have been moving from church to church. And the experience has been overwhelming.

I can't really put into words all that I am feeling. But I wanted to share just one impression two weeks into the trip.

A lot has been written recently about the rise of the "nones" in the United States, the increase of those not identifying with any religious tradition along with the correlated decline of religious affiliation across denominational lines, from mainline to evangelical.

There's been a lot of handwringing in response to those trends, about what might be done to stop the bleeding to slow or prevent America from becoming a thoroughly post-Christian nation.

Well, I've been dipping into this post-Christian world over here in the UK, the place where America is heading, and I wanted to share a few things.

It is true that, compared to the US, the churches here are smaller. And those smaller numbers do present the expected sorts of problems and hardships. But what Jana and I have experienced, over and over, is that the small churches in this post-Christian context are vibrant, passionate, Spirit-filled communities. Christianity isn't dead in Europe. Christianity isn't in decline.

Checked boxes on demographic surveys of "religious affiliation" cannot capture the winds of the Spirit.

Currently, Jana and I live in Texas. It's a place where just about everyone is a Christian. Which means, to echo Kierkegaard, that no one is a Christian. Here in the UK nominal affiliation has melted away leaving churches behind that, yes, are smaller but churches that have been distilled, a Christianity that has been purged and reduced to a potent spiritual concentrate. The believers and faith communities in a post-Christian context are powerful thing to behold.

I'm thinking here of Hannah, her joy, passion, generosity and love of Taize worship. Of Becky, her kindness and stunning jewelry. I'm thinking of Sunday afternoon on Jersey with Simon and Katie. Conversations with Paul and Kirsty. A nighttime walk in London with Stephen and Clare. The weekend away with the City Gate church with Andy, Curtis and JoJo. Sunday lunch with Mike and Pam. Dinner at Gwen and Johnny's. Conversations in pubs with Martin and Tim. Sunday worship and fellowship at St Ouen's in Jersey and One Church in Brighton. Listening to Julie's stories on unforgettable evening with Eve, Tim, Roger and Matthew.

I could go on and on. The people I've mentioned are some of the most amazing people we've ever met. And our trip is not yet over.

There is a lot of fear in America about the decline of the church. Well, I've seen a vision of what that looks like in the UK, what the church looks like in a post-Christian culture. True, the church is smaller here. But the church is so much more vibrant and exciting.

Religious affiliation is on the decline in America. They say the church is dying.

And I couldn't be more excited.

Business Connect Host 2015: The Promise and Perils of Pluralism

One more post sharing reflections from the Business Connect Host event.

In this post I want to talk about the promise and perils of pluralism.

In the final session of Host Linda Woodhead asked us to entertain a very interesting question: If you had to design a religion "from scratch," from the ground on up, what would you include?

It's an interesting thought experiment. What should a religion include? And what things should be left out?

We had a lively discussion and toward the end of the conversation Linda asked another interesting question: Since we're creating religion from scratch should there be only one religion for the world? Or should there be many? Should pluralism be built into religion?

Fascinating question. It sounds really creepy to insist that the whole world should subscribe to only one religion. Pluralism seems more desirable here, for a variety of reasons. And yet, implicit in many religions is the assumption that there should only be one religion for the whole world, the impulse to convert the whole world to your faith.

So maybe there should be many religions, or at least more than one.

And yet, religious pluralism also seems to be at the source of a great deal of conflict, often violent conflict. Pluralism seems desirable but we can't seems to handle it.

When it comes to pluralism it seems we're damned if we do and damned if we don't.

Trying to overcome the suspicions between groups was at the heart of Tim Nash's presentation, his effort to foster greater understanding and sympathy between the West and China. Difference is hard and we have to be intentional not to default to the worst impulses of group psychology.

Of course, one thing that might be suggested here is that the best answer to Linda's thought experiment is that we should have no religions. In my opinion, not surprisingly, I think the problem isn't religion but the tribal instinct at work in human psychology and sociology. I don't think we're wicked because of religion. I think we're wicked because of human evolution. And religion is often captured by those beastal instincts. Religion at its best works against those impulses. Religion at its best makes us human.

Unpublished: Neurotic Christians

Following Jesus involves a certain amount of ego-strength. It takes ego-strength to let others go first, to take the last place, to be a servant, to allow others to get the accolades. This is a struggle for many of us. Not because we are wicked but because we are so unsure about our basic self-worth that we become addicted to praise, compliments, attention and popularity. We engage in what psychologists have called "excessive reassurance seeking," constantly taking the temperature of our social network to verify that we are being noticed, approved of, and included.

Another way to say this is that we often fail to follow Jesus because we are neurotic. And our neuroses cause us to be self-focused and attention-seeking when we should trying to become self-forgetful and other-oriented. Instead of listening we like to talk. Instead of giving compliments we fish for them. Instead of serving quietly we like to share our accomplishments. Instead of admitting wrong we give excuses. Instead of sharing our failures we live a lie.

We are "curved inward" upon ourselves not because we are wicked or depraved but because we are socially anxious and neurotic.

--an unpublished post exploring the impact of neurosis upon followers of Jesus

Business Connect Host 2015: Black Magic and Kenarchy

Two more posts, today's and one more next week, to share some preliminary reflections from the Business Connect Host event.

In this post I want to talk about black magic and  kenarchy.

At Host both Roger Mitchell and Stephen Backhouse spoke about kenosis in ways that were very, very helpful to me.

Stephen began by asking us to describe what a practitioner of "black magic" is trying to do. The consensus was that black magic is the attempt to impose your will upon the world to remake it in your image. And that, Stephen pointed out, in the same impulse at work in politics. Politics is a form of black magic. Politics is the attempt to impose your will upon the world to remake it in your image.

Stephen went on to contrast that "will to power" with what we see in the Kenosis Hymn of Philippians 2. Here is where Stephen said some things that were very helpful to me.

Specifically, there are a variety of problems when we think of kenosis as an "emptying" that takes you from the top to the bottom. If that's what kenosis is then it's really something only the privileged can do. But Stephen drew out the political aspects of the Kenosis Hymn arguing that the phrase "equality with god" was less about a divine ontological status than a term common at that time and place used to talk about political rivalry, especially a rivalry with Caesar, the expression of a desire to wrest power away from Caesar for yourself (Caesar being, of course, a god).

Further, the word harpagmon is a bit tricky to translate. We often render it "clung to" or "grasped," or "did not consider it something to be used to his own advantage." This definition is key in understanding kenosis as kenosis is framed in the hymn as the opposite, the antithesis of harpagmon. Harpagmon means to seize something as plunder with an open use for force. It's a term of violence, with military overtones.

Harpagmon is black magic, the use of force to impose your will upon the world.

And that--harpagmon--is what Jesus renounces in kenosis. Kenosis is not a movement from "high" status to "low" status as much as it is a refusal to use coercive power in the world to seize things for ourselves. Instead of seizing and gathering power for himself, as Roman political rivals would as they plotted against Caesar, Jesus renounced this path and chose the path of love.

Another way we might frame all this is that Jesus revolutionized how we think of power. This is the idea at the heart of what Roger Mitchell calls "kenarchy."

Kenarchy is the "rule" or "authority" of love, the "new politics" of love that Jesus introduces with a Kingdom made up of servants who renounce power over others. (For more about what Roger is doing with the notion of kenarchy visit his blog.)

What does the the politics of kenarchy look like?

Roger shared seven foci of kenarchy found in Scripture: instating women, prioritizing children, advocating for the poor, welcoming strangers, reintegrating humanity and creation, freeing prisoners and caring for the sick.

If the politics of the world is the black magic of harpagmon, kenarchy is the white magic of the Kingdom of God.

Business Connect Host 2015: Are the Powers Evil or Fallen?

In this post reflecting on the Business Connect Host event I want to talk about our struggle against "the principalities and powers."

When you are talking about businesses and economics you can't help but talk about principalities and powers. In his presentation at Host Bob Ekblad (author of Reading the Bible with the Damned) gave a great biblical and theological overview of the powers and of our battle against them.

One of the discussions we had at Host had to do with the ultimate destiny of the powers. For example, are the powers going to be ultimately destroyed as seems to be the case in 1 Corinthians 15?
1 Corinthians 15.24-25
Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
Or are the powers ultimately redeemed and reconciled? For example:
Colossians 1.15-16, 19-20
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him...God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
It's an important question. Are the powers evil or fallen? If evil the powers shall be ultimately destroyed. If fallen the powers are ultimately reconciled to God, tamed, chastened and "put back in their box" to use Stephen Backhouse's phrase from Host.

While seemingly abstract this question has important practical implications for how we are to "resist" the powers. What form shall our resistance to the powers take? A lot of that depends upon if the powers are to be destroyed or redeemed.

When I listened to Julie Tomlin's presentation about her experiences in Greece, how demoralized the people were because of their broken economy, it's hard not to take a very dim view of the powers and conclude that what they ultimately deserve is destruction. Picking up on Matthew Lynch's presentation, it feels like the situation in Genesis 6 before the flood. As Matthew pointed out, the flood does not ruin the earth. The earth was already ruined by human violence and wickedness.
Genesis 6.11-14
The earth was ruined in the sight of God; the earth was filled with violence. God saw the earth, and indeed it was ruined, for all living creatures on the earth were sinful. So God said to Noah, “I have decided that all living creatures must die, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. Now I am about to destroy them and the earth. 
It feels sometimes that the powers have ruined the earth and that the only solution is for God to wipe the world clean of them.

And yet, there were moments during Host when the powers seemed redeemable.

For example, during the "Tales from the Inside" event hosted by Simon Nash out at the prison one of the Jersey locals who works in prison ministry told this powerful story. It was a story of a man who had a prior criminal record who had gotten arrested again. Because of his prior history this second arrest likely meant that this man would be going back to prison for a long time, keeping him away from his wife and young children.

On the day of his hearing the man was keep waiting all day. Finally, at the end of the day, with the courtroom now empty, the magistrate called the man forward.

The magistrate had recognized the man and had waited to the end of the day so that they could talk privately. A week or two before the magistrate and the man had met and the magistrate remembered that they had talking about their children. The magistrate gave the man a friendly but stern lecture to keep his nose clean so that he could be at home to be a good father to his children.

And then the magistrate let the man go free.

Upon hearing about this wonderful act of grace from the magistrate Stephen Backhouse leaned over to me and whispered, "See, the powers aren't always bad."

In moments like this--when we see power used to protect, forgive, support or bring justice--it seems like the powers are redeemable.

So how are we to live with the powers?

When I think of Chris Neal's presentation regarding how to create missional communities within a structure like the Anglican Church, or Simon Nash's presentation about how to stimulate employee performance in a business with supportive rather than coercive or manipulative interventions, I was moved to make the comment at the end of Host that perhaps the best we can do with the powers is to humanize them.

That's what the magistrate did. The magistrate humanized the interaction which gave the power the capacity to behave humanely.

Business Connect Host 2015: The Costs of Capitalism

I'm continuing to reflect on my time at the Business Connect Host event on Jersey. In this post I want to talk about the effects of capitalism upon our lives.

Specifically, I want to reflect on the presentations made by Eve Poole and Mark Sampson. Both Eve and Mark made a variety of criticisms about capitalism, Eve drawing from her recently published book Capitalism's Toxic Assumptions and Mark from both his doctoral work and the life he shares with his intentional missional community.

One of the points I took away from both Eve's and Mark's presentations was an appreciation of the various ways capitalism forms and malforms us.

Specifically, beyond any economic criticisms we might make about capitalism what is undoubtedly the case is that capitalism shapes us into a certain kind of human being, a human being with particular desires and imagination.

For example, according to Eve one of the toxic assumptions at the heart of capitalism is that competition always produces the greatest good. Economically speaking, competition can struggle to find cooperative, nonzero sum outcomes--the "win/win" scenario. But for the purposes of this post I simply want to ask about the spiritual cost of competition upon our lives.

How does a life spent competing in a capitalistic economy affect us--emotionally, spiritually, cognitively, relationally and behaviorally?

Of course, you might deny that you are competing. But you are. You compete to get a job against other applicants. You compete to keep your job, get promoted at your job or get a raise. And your place of work is competing against rivals in the marketplace. If those rivals win you lose your job. So you compete against them. And your nation's economy--of which you play a part--competes against the economies of the world.

If you're working you're competing.

So it's reasonable to ask: How is this lifetime of competition affecting you? Affecting us and our communities? What is the spiritual fruit being produced by this steady diet of competition?

And yet, someone might retort, while these criticisms are important is there any other option? What other choices do we have? Communism? Surely that's a dead end, right?

Such questions go to a point Mark made at Host: Capitalism has destroyed our imaginations.

The fact that "Capitalism vs. Communism" is the only choice we can see before us is, more than anything, a vast failure of imagination. Free markets vs. central planning exhausts our economic imaginations. Beyond those two options, we can't even imagine another world. Which is shocking given the economic diversity we witness across human history.

Mark suggested that one of the reasons we need to cultivate and protect alternative economies is that, like protecting endangered plants, you never know when you might need them. Some endangered plant might wind up being the cure for Ebola. But if that plant goes extinct we'll never find the cure. It's in our self-interest to keep that plant around. You never know.

Similarly, alternative economies preserve systems that pre-date and thrived before the rise of capitalism. We might need these systems at some future date. We might, in fact, need them now.

Regardless, these alternative economies--new worlds in the shell of the old--cultivate the imaginative capacities necessary for social critique and social change.

You can't change the world if you can't imagine it.

And that ability to imagine has been slowly and steadily eroding.

Business Connect Host 2015: Entrepreneurial Churches and Giving People Work

Last week it was my honor and privilege to gather on Jersey island with a collection of extraordinarily talented and passionate people of faith as a part of Business Connect's Host event to talk about the intersections of faith and business. We were scholars, authors, entrepreneurs, lawyers, clergy, journalists and business professionals. Over the course of three days we reflected on the question at the heart of Business Connect's vision: What does success look like?

Host was conducted like a TED event with each of us taking turns making short, distilled presentations. It was a lot to take in and I'm still absorbing it all. But over a few posts I wanted to share a few quick impressions.

One of the Host themes involved the intersections of entrepreneurial business and Christianity. Kina Robershaw and Richard Higginson from Cambridge University presented data from their work interviewing Christian entrepreneurs. And Ramona Hirschi shared some of her work supporting entrepreneurial efforts across the globe helping people trapped in poverty to, in Ramona's words, "trade their way out of poverty." To support some of these efforts check out Little Trove.

For this post I want to make a connection with this notion of using entrepreneurialism to do good in the world with another event I participated in while attending Host.

Specifically, from inside HM Prison La Moye Simon Nash hosted the "Tales from the Inside" event where Bob Ekblad, Jersey locals and I shared reflections and stories about working with prisons.

One of the things that came out during this conversation was the need to support people after they are released from prison. In fact, this might be some of the most important work we can do, work done on the outside and after prison.

In the US if you are released from prison with a felony conviction on your record your future vocational and job prospects are practically ruined, consigning you to a life of poverty and job insecurity. Getting a job upon being released from prison is incredibly difficult. Upon seeing a criminal history workplaces just don't want to take a risk. And that's understandable. But someone has to hire these people if they are to ever have a chance at rehabilitating their work histories and their lives.

Thus my growing conviction: Churches should get out of benevolence and charity industry and start running businesses.

What people really need is work and work, generally speaking, just isn't anything churches can give people. Churches will give you canned goods or a meal or used clothing. Churches can give you money for an electric bill. But by and large churches can't give you work.

But I think they should. Churches should start giving people work. Not work training, but work.

Churches could start running an eclectic assortment of businesses. Many of them. Restaurants, retail, construction, home improvement, and landscaping. Again, we're not talking about one business that hires six people, but many businesses, enough to reach a saturation point where enough people are moving in and out so that employment opportunities are consistently open.

What would these businesses be used for? For ex-prisoners these businesses would be places where an employment history could be rehabilitated. For those fighting to get out of poverty these businesses would be places where vital job skills could be learned, incomes stabilized, and an employment history established.

People would work in these businesses for a year or so with the expectation that they would move into the industry they have been training in. If you've been working with the church restaurant you move out to get a job in the restaurant industry. If you've been working with the church landscaping business you move out to take a job in the landscaping industry. And so on.

There will be more grace in these businesses so that people can make mistakes while new habits are being formed. But there would be standards and there will be failures. There are plenty of charitable organizations that can help the people who can't hold down the job. But for the ones who can work, the ones who just need a chance, and maybe two or three chances until they stabilize, churches that give work would be filling a gap. Such churches would be a bridge between handout charity and workforce entry.

For many, many people the thing they need most is work. And it's the one thing the church can't give them.

But it could.

Unpublished: Kenosis

I am tired of myself.
And not, let me say,
in any morbid, psychopathological sense.
(And why do we so quickly go there?
I've become impatient with the mental health frame and worry.
How everything is shadowed
by diagnoses and the fear
of being mentally ill.
Because really,
who among us is healthy?
Let me be sick for a moment.
If that is what this is.
Which it isn't.)
As I said. I'm tired. Of myself.
Not sad. Not depressed. Not suicidal. Not dark.
Just tired.
Tired of being an ego. Having an ego.
I'm tired of filtering everything through myself.
What I like. What I agree with.
What I don't like. What I don't agree with.
Who put me in charge of sifting the world?
Myself.
Which goes to my point.
Why is it my unthought assumption that everything is about me?
Like a reflex of mind,
a twitch of the soul.
And this isn't the expression of a desire
to escape into some other person or life.
This isn't envy.
The grass isn't all that greener
on your side of the fence.
This is a weariness
of being at the center of my thoughts and concerns. Weary
that everything, good and bad,
is about this self at the center of it all.
I want to forget myself.
To not see myself reflected
in every thought or flicker of feeling.
I want to see clearly.
The sky,
a bird on the wing.
And you, standing there.
As it seems to me
that this would be freedom
and salvation
and rest.

--an unpublished poem

Where is Wisdom?

But where does Wisdom come from?

Where is Intelligence to be found?

No human being knows the way to her, she is not to be found on earth where they live.

"She is not in me," says the Abyss; "Nor here," replies the Sea.

But where does Wisdom come from? Where is Intelligence to be found?

She cannot be seen by any living creature, she is hidden from the birds of the sky.

Perdition and Death both say, "We have heard only rumours of her."

God alone understands her path and knows where she is to be found. (For he sees to the remotest parts of the earth, and observes all that lies under heaven.)

When he willed to give weight to the wind and measured out the waters with a gauge, when he imposed a law on the rain and mapped a route for thunderclaps to follow, then he saw and evaluated her, looked her through and through, assessing her.

Then he said to human beings,

"Wisdom?--that is fear of the Lord; Intelligence?--avoidance of evil."

--Job 28.12-14, 20-28 (NJB)

The Prayer of Faith Shall Save the One Who is Sick

James 5.14-15 has always been a difficult text for me:
James 5.14-15a (NIV)
Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.
The promise of healing described here--"the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well"--collides with the reality we face in praying for sick people who regularly aren't healed. Adding to the problem, in the face of those unanswered prayers, we wonder if the prayer wasn't offered "in faith." Maybe, then, it was our fault. The prayer wasn't answered because we didn't have enough faith.

In light of those issues, what recently struck me about this text is the moral and confessional context of the entire passage. That confessional context pushes back on how the NIV translates the word "well" in 5.15. The literal word is "save," the word that is typically used to describe God saving us from sin.

So here is a more literal reading of the same passage from the ASV including the entirety of 5.15:
James 5.14-15
Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him.
Looking at the whole context you could plausibly make the case that the prayers of the elders described here are focused upon spiritual healing. The prayer of faith with "save" the sick. Because if the sick person has committed sins these will be forgiven.

Even the phrase "the Lord shall rise him up" can be taken in a spiritual light as this is the same term used to describe resurrection.

And the spiritual focus on confession and the restoration of sinners continues in the very next verse:
James 5.16
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. To be sure, the healing here may be physical, but the ailment is connected to a moral infirmity: the remedy is clearly the confession of sins.

The "powerful and effective prayer" of the righteous is, thus, connected to the "confession of sins."

Powerful and effective in what way? Well, the text goes on to talk about Elijah:
James 5.17-18
Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
Like with the prayer for the sick, taken out of context this text is often cited as an example of the powerful and miraculous effects of prayer. Prayer for the rain to stop or start. But once again the text shifts away from the "miraculous" and back toward the moral and confessional:
James 5.19-20
My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
In short, it seems that "powerful and effective" prayer has less to do with stopping rain than with the restoration of sinners, saving them from death and covering over a multitude of sins.

Overall, then, the focus on healing from 5.14 to 5.20 seems to be more spiritual than physical, more focused on the restoration that comes from confession. Let me edit the passage to make it more compact:
The prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up...and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him...Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed...if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
None of this is to deny that there is a medical or physical aspect to the text. But it seems clear to me that the focus of the text is less about praying for miraculous healing than upon confession and the healing/resurrecting of sinners

The Purity Psychology of Progressive Christianity: "Do One Wrong Thing and You're Tainted"

A few months ago I wrote a post describing "the purity psychology" at work within progressive Christianity.

As I describe in Unclean, it's pretty much impossible for anyone to avoid purity psychology as purity seems to be an innate way we all, conservatives and progressives alike, reason about morality.

To be clear, the "purity culture" at work among progressive, liberal or radical Christians is very, very different from the "purity culture" at work with conservative and fundamentalist Christianity. The moral grammars at work among progressives and conservatives are very different. For example, where conservative Christians focus on things like sexual purity for progressive Christians purity is focused upon complicity in injustice and oppression.

Again, as a progressive Christian fighting against injustice and oppression is how I think about right or wrong. Justice is how I define moral "purity." Being "pure" or "righteous" in the eyes of God--in light of God's preferential option for the poor--means not being complicit in injustice.

In short, while a purity psychology is always at work whenever anyone thinks about being a good person--however they define it--I'm not saying that every expression of purity is morally equivalent. As a progressive Christian I don't think that at all. In fact, I think the exact opposite. As a progressive Christian I think conservative Christians should shift their purity categories away from sex to focus on oppression. I think the world would be a better place if we got our purity categories lined up with the right sorts of things.

So my observations about progressive Christian "purity" isn't to draw a moral equivalence between conservative and progressive purity. My observations are psychological in nature, descriptions of how purity psychology, of whatever sort, operates in a similar sort of way. Ways we should pay attention to.

For example, as I describe in Unclean, purity psychology is governed by a variety of contamination attributions. And one of those attributions is dose insensitivity.

Dose insensitivity is the contamination appraisal that even a small amount of the contaminating substance will have a catastrophic effect. For example, if I tell you that there is a very, very small amount of fecal matter in your pasta that knowledge ruins the dish for you. It doesn't take a full sized turd to ruin the dish. A very, very small amount will do the trick. Contamination is dose insensitive, a small dose will contaminate just as effectively as a large.

So let me illustrate how attributions of dose insensitivity work among progressive Christians. Here's a question that gets at the issue: How much complicity in injustice and oppression is acceptable?

Well, the answer, obviously, is none at all. Complicity is dose insensitive. Any bit of it is bad and needs to be eradicated.

This impulse to expunge every last trace of complicity sits at the heart of the radicalizing impulse within progressive Christianity, and progressive politics generally. This impulse is the psychological and moral imperative that moves you from liberal to progressive to radical. And let me again be clear, I'm not judging that trajectory at all. It's the trajectory of my life in both politics and religion.

But that trajectory, because of purity attributions such as dose insensitivity, is always going to be tempted in various ways. And one of those temptations is the temptation to point out or call out the complicity of others. Because any complicity at all is bad and worthy of being pointed out or called out it has to be expunged, even the smallest bits of it, even among well-intended friends and allies. And if you appear to be letting any complicity pass--for example, asking people to tone down the call outs--you're reconciling yourself to complicity. You're not centering the right things, not being a good ally. You're giving aid to oppressors.

Again, I'm not criticizing call outs. Call outs can be prophetic speech. What I'm saying is that call out culture is tempted in various ways by the purity psychology at work among progressives and that it's important from time to time to resist those temptations. For the sake of justice. For the sake of getting shit done.

For example, it's important to both admit and attend to the purity temptations at work among progressives because purity psychology often causes progressives to cannibalize and damage themselves in various ways. The effort to call out and expunge every bit of complicity among friends and allies sits behind the Twitter firestorms that leave so many disillusioned and disheartened.

Let me give two recent illustrations of what I'm describing.

On the progressive left you can't get two more different voices regarding Twitter activism than Freddie deBoer and Suey Park. And yet, in two recent articles both deBoer and Park make similar diagnoses about the purity dynamic at work among progressives, a dynamic that leads to a cannibalization which hurts the larger cause. Causes both of them--and many of us--are fighting for.

As a part of his conversation with Jay Caspian Kang--A Debate on Online Political Discourse--deBoer made the following observation about the damage social media firestorms cause when progressives rage with hashtags in calling out each other and potential allies:
It’s not unreasonable for people witnessing such things to conclude that the left will never stop harming itself sufficiently to do the work of changing the world. Here, too, I speak from experience. None of this is new or unique to the online space; left-wing movements are always in the process of blowing themselves up. I am discouraged by seeing so many of the typical ugly interpersonal dynamics of the left play out on Twitter over and over again. Many decent people who want to help are afraid to weigh in publicly on issues of controversy for fear of being ground up in a Twitter storm. Maybe that’s ridiculous; maybe they should just get over it; maybe they should get tougher. Maybe so. But they probably won’t, and I think we should all be able to take a long, hard look at how to better integrate potential friends into our movement, without being accused of not being an ally. Because the left needs friends.
Why does this cannibalization happen among progressives? One of the problems, as I'm diagnosing it, is that allies, being allies, are often complicit in various ways. Which makes allies, per the logic of dose insensitivity, problematic in all sorts of ways. Yes they are allies, but are they good allies? Can't they be better allies?

Progressives perennially struggle with allies, how to work with sympathetic but complicit people. Consider just how much commentary is devoted to "the ally problem" in online progressive spaces. Notice the number of Tweets and words progressives devote to the issues they have with allies. Just this morning I read a 2,500+ word post at a radical website that was 100% about allies and their numerous faults. A post not about injustice or concrete policy proposals--you know, a post about actually getting something done in the world--but a post about the shortcomings of allies.

No doubt allies are flawed, but if allies are your central, defining problem, well, you can see why progressive causes have difficultly reaching the critical social mass needed to get stuff done in the world.

The left does need friends but the left, because of its purity psychology, is also very hard on its friends, fracturing a potential coalition from ever reaching the tipping point needed to change things. Friends and allies will be complicit in various ways, but if progressive Christianity is going to have any significant impact upon the world it's going to have to figure out how to work with complicit friends. And yet, as deBoer describes, that work is frequently being undermined by a purity impulse that keeps tempting us to "call out" and cannibalize ourselves.

And while I've been focusing upon allies, what is important to attend to is how this isn't just a problem with allies. Even people who aren't complicit in various ways, and there are very few of these, still have to demonstrate a purity in their moral performance on social media. Any flaw, inconsistency or failure in this moral performance, even a small one per the purity logic of dose insensitivity, can result in the same social media backlash that poorly performing allies regularly face.

For example, Suey Park is both an activist and a woman of color. She's not a blundering ally. And yet, Suey faced a huge social media backlash because her moral performance with #CancelColbert was judged to be a mistake by many progressives. And what is interesting is how in Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig's recent profile of Suey Park in the New Republic--Why Won't Twitter Forgive Suey Park?--Suey describes how her mistake was processed as a purity failure by progressives.

In the article Suey succinctly describes the dose insensitivity purity dynamic at work among progressives:
Park’s understanding of her Twitter presence carries a distinctly Christian note. “It’s a lot like purity politics in the church,” Park observed, referring to the tendency of Twitter groups to attack perceived wrongdoers. It is, she pointed out, a strategy that works for activists until it turns on them. “You do one wrong thing,” Park said, “and you’re tainted. You’re out forever.”

UK Speaking Tour Dates

For the next four weeks Jana and I are very, very excited to be in the UK spending time with a variety of organizations and faith communities. Don't worry, nothing here on the blog will change. The blog will still be posting Monday-Friday at 5:00 CST.

If you're in the UK here are events when I'll be speaking in public venues. Hopefully I'll get to meet some of you while visiting.

If you have questions about any of the details below Hannah Bywaters has been coordinating all our engagements. Feel free to contact Hannah at 07973 959847.

June 2-5 / Jersey
Speaking at various events and venues with Business Connect. Check events, schedule and venues here.

The "Tales From the Inside" event is on June 4 where Bob Ekblad (author of Reading the Bible with the Damned) and I will be speaking together inside HM Prison La Moye about our experiences working in prisons.

Sunday, June 14 / Brighton
Speaking at One Church, Florence Road, 10:30am service.

Informal discussion group organized by Martin Poole of St Luke’s upstairs at the Good Companions Pub, 132 Dyke Road, 8pm.

Sunday, June 21 / St Albans & London
Speaking at Ashley Hall Church, St Albans, 10am service.

Speaking at Borough Common Church in the 'schoolroom' of The Borough Welsh Congregational Chapel, 6pm service.

Sunday, June 28 / Aberdeen
Speaking at St Mary's Episcopal Church, Cove Bay, 9:30am.

Speaking at Mission Church, Old Aberdeen, 11am.

A Million Boring Little Things

I was talking to one of my students recently about the temptations of youthful spirituality, how when you are young you get addicted to the buzz of the worship high and then go searching for a more intense fix. You become a worship junkie.

From your high school youth group on being close to God is being ON FIRE! Because God is AWESOME!

That's the temptation for youth, being trained to associate God with adrenaline and the Spirit with excitement.

What I told my student was this.

What no one ever shares with you when you're young is that Christianity is boring. No one tells you that. That Christianity, for the most part, is boring.

No one tells you that Christianity is a 70 to 80 year grind in becoming more kind, more gentle, more giving, more joyful, more patient, more loving.

You learn that God isn't in the rocking praise band or the amped up worship experience. What you learn after college is that Holy Ground is standing patiently in a line. You learn that Holy Ground is learning to listen well to your child, wife or co-worker. Holy Ground is being a reliable and unselfish friend or family member and being a good nurse when someone is sick. Holy Ground is awkward and unlikely friendships. Holy Ground is often just showing up.

Being more and more like Jesus is a million boring little things.

No one ever tells you that when you're young.

Just like no one ever tells you just how risky and revolutionary it all is.

That a truly radical life of following Jesus is made up of a million boring little things.

"The Lord's Will": Thoughts About Death, Stoicism and Progressive Christianity

I'm currently working on a book entitled Angelic Troublemakers: A Progressive Theology of Spiritual Warfare for Doubters and the Disenchanted. And in one of the chapters I'd like to tackle some issues regarding how progressive Christians respond to the problem of suffering.

As I discuss in the book, among progressive Christians the problem of suffering may be the biggest obstacle to faith, the biggest source of their doubt. And yet, many progressive Christians respond to suffering, death in particular, in ways that have come to puzzle me.

So I'd like your help and feedback. Before I write this chapter I'd like to float some observations to get your reactions. I'd like to test some impressions out. 

To start, by and large progressive Christians recoil at the notion that God is involved with or "wills" suffering. Because if God "wills" suffering, like the death of a loved one, then God is a monster.

And yet, throughout the Old Testament we find expressions of God bringing both "weal and woe" (Isaiah 45.7). For example, this week in my bible class at church I'm doing a lesson on 1 Samuel 1-2, the story of Hannah and the birth of Samuel.

Recall that Hannah is barren. And in 1 Samuel 1.5 it says that the Lord had closed Hannah's womb, which is a source of great suffering and sadness for her. This--the Lord closing her womb--is problematic enough. But Hannah's prayer goes on to pile on the problems.

As we know, Hannah prays to God to open her womb and God answers her prayer. In praise to God Hannah sings a famous song in 1 Samuel 2. And here's a part of her song:
1 Samuel 2.6-8
The Lord brings death and makes alive;
he brings down to the grave and raises up.

The Lord sends poverty and wealth;
he humbles and he exalts.

He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honor.
The Lord brings death and makes alive. The Lord sends poverty and wealth.

No doubt the preferential option for the poor is the key aspect of this text--"He raises the poor from the dust"--but there's some theology here that makes many progressive Christians squirm. It is the same theology we see in Job:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.”
Again, many progressive Christians recoil at the thought that God would take away our children (recall that all Job's children were killed). And yet, Job reconciles himself to that fact. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Consider also the sentiment of Ecclesiastes:
"There is a time to be born and a time to die."
There is a note of resignation sounded in this line, to say nothing of the stoical tone of the entire book of Ecclesiastes. When it's your time to go it's your time to go. It's God's will.

Consider another text:
James 4.13-15
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 
Again, many progressive Christians recoil at a text like this. "Whatdaya mean, 'if the Lord wills'? God picks and chooses who is going to die on the highway this holiday weekend?"

What I want us to focus on is how the theological sentiments expressed in texts like these--"if the Lord's wills," "there is a time to die," "the Lord brings death and makes alive," and "the Lord gives and the Lord takes away"--were experienced by the ancient Hebrews as something that bolstered and strengthened their faith and how we, by contrast, get knocked for a loop.

"The Lord gives and the Lord takes away" was consoling to the ancient Hebrews. It shocks and ruins us.

Ponder that contrast.

The Hebrews suffered horribly. As in horribly. More than most progressive Christians like myself can even imagine. And yet a people who suffered horribly wrote these texts and found these texts consoling.

By contrast, many privileged progressive Christians can hardly hold onto faith simply because these texts exist.

How screwed up is that?

What's going on here? What can explain this massive theological disjoint between the ancient Hebrews and modern progressive Christians?

My hunch, and this is a key part of the idea I want to float, is that what we are seeing in these Old Testament texts is an expression of what might be called Hebraic stoicism or Hebraic acceptance or Hebraic resignation or Hebraic impassivity. And by such labels I mean the effort to emotionally and existentially reconcile oneself to one's situation in life, especially in the face of suffering, loss and death. In this Hebrew worldview the notion of "the Lord's will" was akin to the Greek notion of fate. Not quite the same thing, but close enough to make the point that the good things and the bad things that happened to you were your fate, your lot, the Lord's will. A fate, lot or will that you had to accept and become reconciled to.

And here's the thing. This stoical understanding of "the Lord's will" has been the default assumption for most of world history. People reconciled themselves to their fates. And the Hebrews had their own version of this. When the ancients said that something was "the Lord's will," even a death of a loved one, they were speaking about this acceptance and resignation to fate.

The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.
Interlude: Let me pause to make a very important observation. By "reconciled to their fate" I don't mean reconciled to injustice and oppression. Notice in the lament Psalms that the problem isn't death or loss. The problem, over and over, is the enemy, the oppressor. Biblically understood, lament is more about injustice than grief. And note how even in Hannah's story the problem wasn't her closed womb but her oppressor Peninnah: Hannah's "rival [Peninnah] kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat." (1 Sam. 1.6b-7)  
We've almost lost this stoical sense of "the Lord's will," but not quite. How many of us can tell stories here about our grandparents? Many of our grandparents expressed stoical acceptance in the face of loss--from the death of a child to a crop lost to drought--with the simple "the Lord gives and the Lord takes away."

This understanding of "the Lord's will"--as emotionally and existentially reconciling yourself with your situation in life--has been largely lost among progressive Christians. You can't say "If it's the Lord's will" to progressive Christians without them bristling--"What do you mean, if it's the Lord's will!? The Lord wants this one to die and this one to live?"--or descending into a funk of doubt.

And here's the really, really weird thing.

It's not that progressive Christians are afraid of or opposed to stoicism. In fact, given their doubts about things like heaven progressive Christians have to adopt some form of stoicism! Relatedly, many progressive Christians gravitate toward Buddhism or agnosticism, and each of those have built into them their own stoical stance toward death, suffering and loss. Progressive Christians tend toward the stoical. They just bristle, ironically, at biblical and Hebraic expressions of stoicism. Biblical expressions of stoicism--"the Lord gives and the Lord takes away"--fill progressive Christians with anger and doubt. But eastern, philosophical and humanistic expressions of stoicism? Those are cool.

Overall, then, it seems that something has changed, theologically speaking, that has caused progressive Christianity to drift away from the biblical imagination despite their philosophical sympathies for the very view the bible is articulating.

What went wrong?

Well, if you've read any of my three books--what I loosely call my Death Trilogy--you can anticipate what I'm about to say.

Specifically, a part of what has happened is that over the last 500 years in the West our existential relationship to death has changed, particularly among the affluent and privileged.

Advances in technology, medicine and agriculture have increasingly insulated us from death. We also work to push reminders of death out of view. Death is now "pornographic," an illicit and unseemly topic. We've created an illusory and delusional state of affairs where we pretend to live in a deathless world.

Consequently, when death occurs we feel that it is abnormal and alien. Death is experienced as exceptional, a violation of the norm. Death is intrusive, inserting itself from the outside into our lives.

But before the modern era death was an expected and anticipated part of existence. When someone died it wasn't all that surprising, even children dying. Death was normal.

"And if I die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take."

Even children were trained to expect death to come suddenly and soon.  
 
Simplifying, then, our existential relationship to death has shifted from stoicism to shock.

And I think it's this existential shift from stoicism to shock that explains why progressive Christians bristle at references to "the Lord's will."

Follow me here. We are at the crux of the argument.

Where death was an expected part of existence--even an accidental death or the death of child--a stoical assumption regulated what was meant by "the Lord's will." "The Lord's will"--if we use that phrase as shorthand for Job's "the Lord gives and the Lord takes way"--meant emotionally and existentially reconciling ourselves to our life situation as it stood, as being our lot, our fate, as "the Lord's will." And this was because death wasn't shocking or perplexing or intrusive. Death was coming to all of us--perhaps even tonight--so why be surprised when it did?

By contrast, when our existential relationship with death shifted to shock death began to appear accidental, intrusive and abnormal. Death shouldn't happen.

So when death occurs it feels like a violation, like an attack. Consequently, in the modern era when death is attributed to "the Lord's will" our only framework is to feel that this is just about the worst and most horrible thing you can say about God. The stoical framework has been lost. "The Lord's will" can only mean for us that God is attacking us, that death is being inserted into our world from the outside.

And here at last we are at the root of why I think so many progressive Christians hear references to "the Lord's will" as being tantamount to the claim that God is arbitrarily and capriciously "picking and choosing" who to let live and who to let die. We are at the root of why we are so existentially shocked by Hannah's prayer in 1 Samuel 2: "The Lord brings death and makes alive."

Notice how the "picking and choosing" complaint places death as something outside the world, as something being inserted into life by "the will of God." Notice in this complaint--"So God is picking who will live and who will die?" (As if it's not obvious that everyone is going to die.)--how the world is assumed to be deathless.    

By contrast, in the ancient worldview where death was inside the system--an expected, normal and regular part of life--a reference to "the Lord's will" in relation to death wasn't introducing something from the outside. A reference to "the Lord's will" simply named life as it was, a mixed bag that included death. "The Lord's will" simply meant that there is a time to live and a time to die. And everyone was going to die. Read Ecclesiastes. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. That's life. You shouldn't expect anything different.

And yet, we do.

Why?

Because of the pornography of death we live with the delusional assumption that death is irregular, accidental and abnormal. Death is an intrusion and an interruption of "normal life." Consequently, to attribute this intrusion to God--as "the Lord's will"--is a theological outrage and scandal.

But it's scandal that has been created by our delusional relationship with death, the assumption that death is not a normal and regular part of life.

Our scandal at the bible and with references to "the Lord's will" isn't a problem with the bible or the "Lord's will" biblically understood.

The problem is with our delusional relationship with death in the modern era.

The Hebrew people suffered horribly. And they were consoled by Job's confession that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. They were consoled because they were not shocked or surprised by death.

There was a time to live and a time to die. This was an accepted truth.

But us?

We are theologically unsettled by Job because death isn't a part of our lives. Death is out there somewhere, waiting to attack us. And attributing that attack to God is blasphemous.

And so we reject Job's prayer.

And become filled with doubts by a people who knew more about death, loss and suffering than most any of us.