Search Term Friday: Strange Loops and Theology

Recently these search terms
strange loops and theology
brought someone to the blog.

Those search terms go back to a very old series I did in 2007 in the early years of this blog. In that series I shared some theological reflections on Douglas Hofstadter's book I Am a Strange Loop.

I have not thought about that series for years, but after seeing those search terms I was interested in going back to see how those reflections held up. Feel free to give your assessment.

Initially these reflections were broken up over five posts. I've edited and pulled them all together into this single post.

Yes, that makes this post very long. But if you get to the end I hope you'll feel rewarded with some really interesting ideas. Ideas that may change how you think about free will, love, life, death, resurrection, Jesus, narrative theology and the Eucharist.


One of my favorite authors is Douglas Hofstadter. I first encountered his work when I picked up his 1979 Pulitzer-Prize winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (henceforth, GEB). In GEB, Hofstadter meditates on the idea of self-reference and how it seems central to consciousness and meaning.

In his book I Am a Strange Loop Hofstadter picks up those themes he left off in 1979. In what follows like to offer some theological reflections on I Am a Strange Loop, touching on issues related to identity, resurrection and the ritual of the Lord's Supper.

1. We Are "Little Miracles of Self-Reference"

The book GEB is mainly a reflection on Kurt Gödel's famous incompleteness theorem. Simplifying greatly, Gödel was able to embed self-reference in what was then considered to be a mathematical system of iron-clad logical rigor, Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica. Today, Gödel's theorem is considered to be one of the most important logical, philosophical, and epistemological breakthroughs in the history of world.

The idea of self-reference is common enough. It even has biblical roots. Paul in Titus 1:12 says,
Even one of their own prophets has said, "Cretans are always liars..."
Given ancient sources we know the person Paul is referring to: The Cretan philosopher Epimenides. Consequently, the self-referential paradox surrounding Epimedides' statement is called The Epimedides Paradox or The Liar Paradox.

The paradox is easy to see. If Epimenides is a Cretan and he utters the statement p--"Cretans are always liars"--then what is that truth-status of p?
If p is true then Cretans are not always liars which means p is false: A contradiction.
The contradiction is due to self-reference. The simplest way to see this is in the old-standby:
This sentence is false.
You see the paradox. If the sentence is false then it's true. If it's true then it is false.

Again, the paradox is due to self-reference, the sentence points to itself. The point about Gödel's theorem was that Gödel was able to embed self-reference into the system of Principia Mathematica, making the logical system presented in that book speak about its own truth/proof status.

But Gödel's breakthrough was not just simply about self-reference. Rather, Gödel's proof was able to create a new level of analysis. That is, Gödel's paradox came via a higher-order coding system, a new level of meaning, which could "speak about" a lower level of meaning. The outcome was still paradoxical and self-referential, but it came via a higher-order, nested structure. A structure, Gödel later proved, that would continue on ad infinitum. Kind of like a set of logical Russian dolls.

Okay, all very interesting, but what does any this have to do with being a human being?

Well, Hofstadter contends that this idea of nested self-reference is what gives rise to human consciousness, our symbols, and our sense of self. It is our ability to reflect on reflections that pulls us up, cognitively speaking, from being simply stimulus-response creatures. That is, I can have a thought, then wonder about that thought, then wonder about that wondering.

It's like Gödel's self-referential Russian Dolls, with new meanings produced at each new level of nested self-reference. Hofstadter has some great labels for this process. He calls it the "Gödelian swirl of self." But mainly he calls us Strange Loops: Self-reference looping back on itself to create new meaning. In the words of Hofstadter we Strange Loops are "self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in, mirages [which] are little miracles of self-reference."

2. The Self as a Symbol and Attunement with the World

Beyond the idea of self-reference there is another idea in Douglas Hofstadter's book I Am a Strange Loop that we need to get under our belts. This involves the relationship between symbols, the self and the causal aspect of symbols.

Again, Hofstadter calls us "Strange Loops" due to the self-referential nature of human consciousness. If self-reference is the "loop" part, what does "strange" mean?

As we saw in Hofstadter's discussion of Gödel, a strange loop is not simply a feedback loop like audio feedback through a speaker and microphone leading to that ear-piercing screech. Rather, a strange loop produces higher-order structures which create meaning through their reference to lower level structures. These higher-order structures are called symbols. In the words of Hofstadter,
What I mean by 'strange loop' is...not a physical structure but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy.
This ability for level-crossing (higher-to-lower and lower-to-higher) and for loops of self-reference is what creates the vast complexity of human symbol acquisition and development. Again from Hofstadter,
Concepts in the brain of humans acquired the property that they could get rolled together with other concepts into larger packets, and any such larger packet could become a new concept in its own right. In other words, concepts could nest inside each other hierarchically, and such nesting could go on to arbitrary degrees.
Now, and this is the big point, what sits at the top of these higher-level structures? What is the big "nest" that "contains" all the levels of reference and all the symbols?

Hofstadter says it is the Self-Symbol, the "I" sitting in your mind. This Self-Symbol begins acting on the world and the world, in turn, sends input back through the levels of the Self-Symbol causing it to adjust, harmonize, and synchronize. The Self-Symbol becomes "attuned" to the world. Hofstadter describes this whole process:
The vast amounts of stuff that we call 'I' collectively give rise, at some particular moment, to some external action, much as a stone tossed into a pond gives rise to expanding rings and ripples. Soon, our action's myriad consequences start bouncing back at us, like the first ripples returning after bouncing off the pond's banks. What we receive back affords us the chance to perceive what the gradually metamorphosing 'I' has wrought. Millions of tiny reflected signals impinge on us from outside, whether visually, sonically, tactilely, or whatever, and when they land, they trigger internal waves of secondary and tertiary signals inside our brain...

And thus the current 'I'--the most up-to-date set of recollections and aspirations and passions and confusions--by tampering with the vast, unpredictable world of objects and other people, has sparked some rapid feedback, which, once absorbed in the form of symbol activations, gives rise to an infinitesimally modified 'I'; thus round and round it goes, moment after moment, day after day, year after year. In this fashion, via the loop of symbols sparking actions and repercussions triggering symbols, the abstract structure serving us as our innermost essence evolves slowly but surely, and in so doing it locks itself ever more rigidly into our mind. Indeed, as the years pass, the 'I' converges and stabilizes itself just as the screech of an audio feedback loop inevitably zeros in and stabilizes itself at the system's natural resonance frequency...

...but there is a key any strange loop that gives rise to human selfhood, [in] contrast [to the audio feedback loop], the level-shifting acts of perception, abstraction, and categorization are central, indispensable elements. It is the upward leap from raw stimuli to symbols that imbues the strange loop with "strangeness". The overall gestalt 'shape' of one's self--the 'stable whorl', so to speak, of the strange loop constituting one's 'I'--is not picked up by a disinterested, neutral camera, but is perceived in a highly subjective manner through the active processes of categorizing, mental replaying, reflecting, comparing, counterfactualizing, and judging.
The important point here is that in the process of attunement the Self-Symbol isn't passively absorbing the world. The Self-Symbol isn't a blank slate. The Self-Symbol is triggering events in the world. The symbols have causal potency. In turn, events in the world can trigger changes in in the symbols and how they are organized in the Self.

3. "Who Pushes Whom Around in the Population of Causal Forces that Occupy the Cranium" or Can an Idea Push Around an Atom?

The reason for focusing on this give and take between Self and World is that if the Self is primarily a symbol we'll have to wrestle with how symbols are locations of causality, how symbols can trigger other symbols and trigger events in the world.

Such questions bring us to the issue of how the Self might be "free" in a physical universe governed by the laws of physical causality. That is, are symbols controlling their own triggering or are these symbols being pushed around by the lower level particles? Do the symbols have any causal power of their own, able to push around the atoms and molecules? Or are the atoms and molecules pushing around the symbols in a deterministic and reductionistic manner?

Framed crudely, can an idea push around an atom?

In approaching this question Hofstadter takes inspiration from the thoughts of Roger Sperry, the pioneer of split-brained research fame (all our talk of "right-brained" versus "left-brained" traces back to Sperry). Here is the Sperry quote that has inspired Hofstadter:
In my own hypothetical brain model, conscious awareness does get representation as a very real causal agent and rates an important place in the causal sequence and chain of control in brain events, in which it appears as an active, operational force...

To put it very simply, it comes down to the issue of who pushes whom around in the population of causal forces that occupy the cranium. It is a matter, in other words, of straightening out the peck-order hierarchy among intracranial control agents. There exists within the cranium a whole world of diverse causal forces; what is more, there are forces within forces within forces, as in no other cubic half-foot of universe that we know of...

To make a long story short, if one keeps climbing upward in the chain of command within the brain, one finds at the very top those over-all organizational forces and dynamic properties of the large patterns of cerebral excitation that are correlated with mental states of psychic activity... Near the apex of this command system in the brain...we find ideas.

Man over the chimpanzee has ideas and ideals. In the brain model proposed here, the causal potency of an idea, or an ideal, becomes just as real as that of a molecule, a cell, or a nerve impulse. Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and, thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to produce in toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet, including the emergence of the living cell.
The big point Sperry is making is that it is perfectly legitimate to see ideas and symbols as causal forces. That is, a causal description of the brain does not have to be a description as a biologist and physicist would give it, at the level of molecules on down. It is legitimate to see ideas pushing around molecules and not the other way around. To quote Hofstadter:
Do dreads and dreams, hopes and griefs, ideas and beliefs, interests and doubts, infatuations and envies, memories and ambitions, bouts of nostalgia and floods of empathy, flashes of guilt and sparks of genius, play any role in the world of physical objects? Do such pure abstractions have causal powers? Can they shove massive things around, or are they just impotent fictions? Can a blurry, intangible 'I' dictate to concrete physical objects such as electrons or muscles (or for that matter, books) what to do?

Have religious beliefs caused any wars, or have all wars just been caused by the interactions of quintillions (to underestimate the truth absurdly) of infinitesimal particles according to the laws of physics? Does fire cause smoke? Do cars cause smog? Do drones cause boredom? Do jokes cause laughter? Do smiles cause swoons? Does love cause marriage? Or, in the end, are there just myriads of particles pushing each other around according the the laws of physics--leaving, in the end, no room for selves or souls, dreads or dreams, love or marriage, smiles or swoons, jokes or laughter, drones or boredom, car or smog, or even smoke or fire?
But beyond these rhetorical questions, Hofstadter tries to explain how there might be a scientifically valid way of viewing the causal power of symbols and mental states. The issue, according to Hofstadter, goes to levels of description. For example, consider the question: Why did World War II begin?

You could try to answer the question at the level of particle physics, trying to explain the swirl of particles that we labeled "World War II." Or you could try to describe WWII with a higher-level description, referring to larger-scale patterns. You might, for example, talk about a causal force labelled "Hitler."

To illustrate how ideas can have causal potency on physical objects Hofstadter offers up this metaphor.

Imagine a huge array of dominoes ready to fall. However, this array of dominoes is special. It is set up to do a calculation. Logically, you figure out an array of dominoes that can take a numerical input (e.g., knocking down X rows of dominoes in various spots to correspond to different numbers) and make a calculation. Specifically, the dominoes are set to fall to create two outputs, a red domino will fall in the end if the input number is prime and a blue domino, in a different area, will fall if the input number is not prime. So, we input our number--641--by knocking down the correlated rows of dominoes. We then watch the cascade of dominoes fall. The cascade goes in all directions dictated by the computational structure we've arrayed. Some cascades split and rejoin. Others stop. In the end, the red domino drops and the blue is left standing. Verdict: 641 is prime. (Computer people will recognize that this domino array is simply a computational algorithm, no different in application then what goes on in a computer or calculator.)

Given this example, Hofstadter asks the question: Why did the red domino fall?

Well, we could try to give the explanation in terms of particle physics. And that would be a valid but unfeasible and incomprehensible explanation. Or, we could scale up a bit and say, "Because the domino next to it fell." Again, that is a legitimate explanation but still too myopic. So, we could back up further and say that the red domino fell due to long complicated chains of dominoes falling, an appeal to the array. Again, this is accurate enough as far as it goes but it still misses a great deal, like the fact that this array isn't arbitrary or random. It has a pattern. So, in the end, it is perfectly legitimate to say that the red domino fell "Because 641 is prime."

Hofstadter's conclusion:
The point of this example is that 641's primality is the best explanation, perhaps even the only explanation, for why certain dominos did fall and certain other ones did not fall. In a word, 641 is the prime mover. So I ask: Who shoves whom around inside the domino chaninium?
To clarify, this isn’t a route around determinism. Rather, it is simply an acknowledgment that appeals to ideas and symbols as causal forces are scientifically legitimate. That is to say, if I love my wife I need not fear that a reductive appeal to biology, chemistry, or physics discounts or trumps the simple fact that I love my wife and it is this love that is the causal agent. Just like prime-hood was the causal agent in the domino example. And it is this love that pushes the molecules around in my mind rather than the other way around. Particle physics didn’t make the red domino fall. Prime-hood did. This is not to say that the particle physics picture and the prime-hood picture disagree. They are describing the same event. It is just that the particle physics picture, being at too low a level, can’t reach up and describe the higher-order pattern that is running the show. In the same way, brain function cannot reach up and explain love. Conversely, neither can love be reducible to brain functioning. Once the higher-order pattern is in place it gains a causal potency that does not exist when particles are random and patternless.

Pattern is everything. And you are a pattern.

4. The Self as a Curious Collage of Human Souls: How We Live Inside Each other

Having unpacked all this we can now start discussing some interesting theological implications which have to do with what Hofstadter calls the "blurring of selves."

Let me get to his thesis directly.

If the Self is a symbol--a pattern--that interacts with the world and other minds via feedback loops, then parts of the pattern of that symbol leave copies of itself, mainly upon other minds.

Let me give an example. When I say about my wife, "Jana would like that dress," I know this because Jana's Self-Pattern--her Strange Loop--has been using my Self-Pattern--my Strange Loop--as a feedback source for years. Thus, parts of Jana's pattern--her Selfhood--have left traces on my mind. Succinctly, my internal pattern/representation/symbol of Jana is due to the original pattern of Jana. Thus, parts of Jana's Self live in me. I say "live" because we've noted that symbols have causal potency. To some degree the patterns of Jana's Selfhood in me have the same causal potency they have in her. Thus, when I act or think in a way that reflects "Jana would do this" or "Jana would like this", I have these responses because, to a very real degree, Jana's pattern in me is causing those responses. I am not the cause. Jana is the cause.

In short, my Self, my Pattern, is not solely located inside me. Rather, my pattern is distributed, shared, and blurred across many minds. And, if symbols have causal potency, then my soul is affecting the world via that distribution.

Let me let Hofstadter make this point:
What is really going on when you dream or think more than fleetingly about someone you love (whether that person died many years ago or is right now on the other end of a phone conversation with you)? In the terminology of this book, there is no ambiguity about what is going on. The symbol for that person has been activated inside your skull, lurched out of dormancy, as surely if it had been an icon [on a computer screen] that someone had double-clicked. And the moment this happens, as much as with the game that opened on your screen, your mind starts acting differently from how it acts in a 'normal' context...The activation of the symbol for the loved person swivels into action whole sets of coordinated tendencies that represent that person's cherished style, their idiosyncratic way of being embedded in the world and looking at it.
Some more...
If you seriously believe, as I do..., that concepts are active symbols in a brain, and if furthermore you seriously believe that people, no less than objects, are represented by symbols in the brain..., and if lastly you seriously believe that a self is also a concept, just an even more complicated one..., then it is a necessary and unavoidable consequence of this set of beliefs that your brain is inhabited to varying extents by other I's, other souls, the extent of each one depending on the degree to which you faithfully represent, and resonate with, the individual in question.
Thus, we are, in Hofstadter's words, "curious collages" of human souls:
Every normal adult human soul is housed in many brains at varying degrees of fidelity, and therefore every human consciousness or 'I' lives at once in a collection of different brains, to different extents.
5. Jesus as Strange Loop: Symbols, Causality and Resurrection

If this is true, if causally potent self-symbols and self-patterns are distributed across persons--that is, you can change the world through me and I through you--then it stands to reason that this can happen across time as well. That is, the patterns of those who have died continue to affect the world through the patterns they originally created, the ripple they set off in the pond.

For example, in Chapter 1 of I Am a Strange Loop Hofstadter begins with a poignant autobiographical story involving the death of his father. A couple months after his father's death Hofstadter's mother was looking at a photograph of her husband and declared, "What meaning does this photograph have? None at all. It's just a flat peice of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It's useless."

In response Hofstadter writes, "The bleakness of my mother's grief-drenched remark set my head spinning because I knew instinctively that I disagreed with her."

Why? Hofstadter goes on to recount his response to his mother:
In the living room we have a book of the Chopin etudes for piano. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photograph of Dad--and yet, think of the powerful effect that they have had on people all over the world for 150 years now. Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning. Those pianists in turn have conveyed to many millions of listeners, including you and me, the profound emotions that churned in Frederic Chopin's heart, thus affording all of us some partial access to Chopin's interiority--to the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul of Frederic Chopin. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards--scattered remnants of the shattered soul of Frederic Chopin. Each of those strange geometries of notes has a unique power to bring back to life, inside our brains, some tiny fragment of the internal experience of another human being--his sufferings, his joys, his deep passions and tensions--and we thereby know, at least in part, what it was like to be that human being, and many people feel intense love for him. In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings him back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his gentleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again, but in the medium of brains other than his own. Like the score to a Chopin etude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed, and it is something we should cherish as long as we live.
When I read this passage I immediately thought of Jesus of Nazareth. To see the connection let me slightly edit Hofstadter's speech to his mother. Read this and ponder its implications for how we might come to see the Imago Christi--The Image of Christ--causally potent in our lives today, still changing us and the world:
In the living room we have a book that contains the stories and words of the life of Jesus. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photographs of the people we love who have died--and yet, think of the powerful effect that those stories have had on people all over the world for 2,000 years now. Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours shaping their lives to imitate his life, producing communities and actions that give indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning. These saints have conveyed to many millions of people, including you and me, the profound emotions that churned in Jesus’ heart, thus affording all of us some partial access to Jesus’ interiority--to the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul, of Jesus of Nazareth. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards--remnants of the soul of Jesus. Each of those letters and words has a unique power to bring back to life, inside our brains, some tiny fragment of the internal experience of Jesus--his sufferings, his joys, his deep passions and tensions--and we thereby know, at least in part, what it was like to be like Jesus, and, thus, many people feel intense love for him. In a very potent a fashion, when the saints celebrate the Eucharist, sharing the stories of those who knew Jesus intimately, what is activated inside our living brains are some of the most central representations of Jesus that survive, making little fragments of his soul dance again.
In the shared memory of the Eucharist the Strange Loop known as Jesus of Nazareth is shared, spread, and passed along. Generation after generation. Century after century.
Theologians often emphasize the narrative heart of the Christian faith, The Story sitting at the Center. I think Hofstadter's work provides a whole new way of thinking about this. In light of Hofstadter's analysis the "story" isn't just a story, remembered, retold and reenacted in the Eucharist, it is the soul-pattern of Jesus that continues to causally affect and change the world.

Think of what happens during the Eucharist while you read this quotation from I Am a Strange Loop:
Though the primary brain has been eclipsed, there is, in those who remain and who are gathered to remember and reactivate the spirit of the departed, a collective corona that still glows. This is what human love means...the more deeply rooted the symbol for someone inside you, the greater the love, the brighter the light that remains behind.
6. Causality, Miracles and a Strange Loop Theology of Transubstantiation

If Jesus was God he represents a Causal Dead End. Jesus would be a causal force in history that could not be reduced to or traced back to anything prior. Jesus, then, would be causally unique.

But once "inserted" into human history, once that Strange Loop takes up its place in the causal whirlpool of history, it begins to affect things, causally speaking. Like a rock thrown in a pond which sends out ripples in all directions. And all those effects, all those ripples of the Incarnation, are, in a strict sense, supernatural. Because when they are "reduced" they trace back to the Causal Dead End.

In short, if Jesus is the cause then God doing it. Think of it like a Time Machine. If I, today, give a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus, then, in a very miraculous way (and I mean that literally), Jesus is doing it. Jesus is transported into the present. The Strange Loop of Jesus, like the Chopin songs discussed above, is inhabiting my mind, causing things to happen in the world. He was Dead. But now he is Alive.

To my mind, this seems to be an interesting convergence between causality and the miraculous, the two being, in this vision, the same thing. The view here suggests that causal events in the world, locally explainable via the scientific method, might actually be "supernatural" in their origin. God might not then need to intervene time after time after time, always fiddling with the cosmos. God may have intervened just once, inserting His Pattern into the causal flux. And everything traced back to that pattern is a miracle. Or, phrased another way, Jesus is the Only Miracle. A miracle that is still sending ripples across the pond.

But this miracle, if it plays out in the causal flux, needs a means of self-sustainment. A means to re-energize, propagate its influence, and avoid dissipation. Thus, the Incarnation, prior to death, ritualizes a means to accomplish those ends: a narrative, communal remembrance. In the words of Hofstadter: "in those who remain and who are gathered to remember and reactivate the spirit of the departed, a collective corona that still glows."


And if this is so, then maybe Catholics and Protestants are both right about the Eucharist.

Maybe Jesus really is present, in a miraculous way, as the Catholics believe. And maybe Eucharist just is a corporate remembrance as the Protestants believed.

But maybe these two things--the presence of Jesus and the remembrance of Jesus--really are, in the end, the exact same thing.

The Airy Christ

The Airy Christ
By Stevie Smith


After reading Dr Rieu’s translation of St Mark’s Gospel.

Who is this that comes in splendour, coming from the blazing East?
This is he we had not thought of, this is he the airy Christ.

Airy, in an airy manner in an airy parkland walking,
Others take him by the hand, lead him, do the talking.

But the Form, the airy One, frowns an airy frown,
What they say he knows must be, but he looks aloofly down,

Looks aloofly at his feet, looks aloofly at his hands,
Knows they must, as prophets say, nailèd be to wooden bands.

As he knows the words he sings, that he sings so happily
Must be changed to working laws, yet sings he ceaselessly.

Those who truly hear the voice, the words, the happy song,
Never shall need working laws to keep from doing wrong.

Deaf men will pretend sometimes they hear the song, the words,
And make excuse to sin extremely; this will be absurd.

Heed it not. Whatever foolish men may do the song is cried
For those who hear, and the sweet singer does not care that he was crucified.

For he does not wish that men should love him more than anything
Because he died; he only wishes they would hear him sing.

Wanted: Jesus Christ

I just started reading God's Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America by Larry Eskridge.

If you were unaware, the Jesus People was a movement in the 60s and 70s that fused hippie culture with evangelical Christianity. Eskridge's book is a history and analysis of the "Jesus Freak" movement and its lasting impact upon American Christianity.

The Jesus People movement hit its cultural high water mark in 1971 when Time magazine devoted its cover and lead story--"The Alternative Jesus: Psychedelic Christ"--to the hippie Christians.

The Time cover is shown here.

The Time story led off with the words from a Wanted poster from a Jesus People underground newspaper:


Notorious leader of an underground liberation movement.

Wanted for the following charges:
—Practicing medicine, winemaking and food distribution without a license.
—Interfering with businessmen in the temple.
—Associating with known criminals, radicals, subversives, prostitutes and street people.
—Claiming to have the authority to make people into God's children.

APPEARANCE: Typical hippie type—long hair, beard, robe, sandals.
Hangs around slum areas, few rich friends, often sneaks out into the desert.

BEWARE: This man is extremely dangerous. His insidiously inflammatory message is particularly dangerous to young people who haven't been taught to ignore him yet. He changes men and claims to set them free.


Christ Confesses Us

You know the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25.

The King puts the sheep on his right hand and says this to them:
"Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."
The sheep are shocked. Consulting their memory they don't ever recall seeing the King on earth:
"Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"
The King replies with the famous words:
"Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."
Here's what I'd like to note about this parable.

What's interesting is that the "sheep" don't recognize or confess Christ on earth. Not in any verbal or conscious way. The confession of Christ is behavioral, performative and non-verbal.

In fact, the confession of recognition is reversed.

What is salvific isn't a verbal or a conscious recognition of Christ on earth. The sheep don't ever recall seeing Christ on earth. "When did we ever see you?" the sheep say.

What is salvific is that Christ, witnessing our lives, recognizes and confesses us.

"Come, you who are blessed by my Father."

The William Stringfellow Project: Conscience and Obedience

The William Stringfellow project continues where I read all of William Stringfellow's books in order and in their first editions. For previous installments visit the sidebar.

After what many consider to be his best book--An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land--Stringfellow followed up with Conscience and Obedience: The Politics of Romans 13 and Revelation 13 in Light of the Second Coming.

Conscience and Obedience was published in 1977 by Word out of Waco, TX. The dedication of the book reads: "for post-americans."

As you can tell from the dedication, the focus of Conscience and Obedience is political theology. The book was prompted by a question an FBI agent posed to Stringfellow after the fugitive priest Daniel Berrigan was discovered hiding at Stringfellow's house. You'll recall that Berrigan was avoiding the authorities as a part of the Catonsville 9 action protesting the Vietnam War.

Stringfellow had been writing An Ethic when the FBI captured Berrigan at Stringfellow's house, a book in which Stringfellow compared the US government to "the principalities and powers" described in the New Testament. Which clearly had something to do with why Stringfellow felt that it was theologically and morally appropriate to provide haven to Berrigan. Something that Stringfellow was subsequently indicted for.

But in an interrogation after Berrigan's arrest an FBI agent asked Stringfellow the following question: "Dr. Stringfellow, you're a theologian. Doesn't the Bible say you must obey the emperor?" In the Preface to Conscience and Obedience Stringfellow describes his response to the agent:
His query startled me, I admit, not so much for its thrust as for the evidence it gave of how minutely the ruling powers scrutinize citizens. I could not concede the simplistic premise about the Bible which his question assumed, and I rebuked him about this, taking perhaps forty-five minutes to do so. During the discourse, he wilted visibly, and, when I paused momentarily, he abruptly excused himself and departed. This was some disappointment to me, for I had only just begun to respond to the multifarious implications of the issue he had raised. The episode contributed to my conviction to write this book.
To have been a fly on the wall during that exchange.

Anyway, we can assume that Conscience and Obedience is what Stringfellow would have shared with the FBI agent about what it might mean, theologically, to "obey the Emperor."

Stringfellow builds his analysis, as you can tell by the subtitle of the book, by exploring the tensions between Romans 13 and Revelation 13. These are two critical texts for political theology but they seem to give contradictory messages.

As reflected in the question from the FBI agent, Romans 13 seems to preach obedience and acquiescence to political authority. The key text:
Romans 13.1-5
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. 
In this text governmental authorities are described as servants of God. Thus, we should "be subject" and "submit" to these authorities.  By contrast, when we turn to Revelation 13 we see political authority on earth as something "the Dragon" gives to "the Beast" leading all the peoples and nations of the earth into idolatrous worship:
Revelation 13.1-8
The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name...The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority...The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?”

The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world. 
You can see the tension. Are governments the "servant of God" as described in Romans 13 or the surrogate of "the Dragon" as described in Revelation 13? Should we submit to governments or resist "the Beast"?

These are the sorts of questions Stringfellow is trying to answer in Conscience and Obedience.

Stringfellow beings in Chapter 1 by giving his vision of Christian ethics. According to Stringfellow, Christian ethics is not rooted in rules of conduct that are standardized across time, place, context and persons. For Stringfellow, when ethical principles and rules are articulated in the abstract in order to make them both "timeless" and "universal" they are removed from the complexities and ambiguities of lived human experience. This is why the bible doesn't give us a complete and rule-bound ethical system to follow.

As Stringfellow says, "any ethical system which is settled and stereotyped, uniform and preclusive, neat and predictable" is both "dehumanizing" and  "unbiblical."

Ethical action isn't following a standard set of rules. For Stringfellow, ethics is a matter of vocation. All humans and all institutions have been given their vocations by God and ethics is living out that vocation:
Ethics has, essentially, to do with the exercise of vocation--with name and identification, selfhood and relationship, capability and function, place and purpose--for both institutions and authorities as well as persons.
What is our vocation? Our vocation is worship, service to the the gift of life as given to us by God. Thus, when persons or institutions are cherishing, serving and caring for life they are exercising their vocation and living ethically before God.

But when we look at how these vocations are being handled Stringfellow notes the following:
All this is spoiled and distorted in fallen creation. The biblical story of the fall bespeaks the renunciation of life as gift.
This discussion of vocation and the Fall allows Stringfellow to unpack the differences between Romans 13 and Revelation 13. Specifically, Romans 13 is describing the vocation of government, how governments were created by God to protect, serve and nurture life in Creation. Consequently, insofar as government is fulfilling its proper vocation before God--that is, when governments worship God as agents of life--the government should be obeyed.

However, in the Fall governments have lost their vocation. In this instance governments don't direct worship toward God but, rather, take the place of God demanding idolatrous service, allegiance, submission and loyalty. Governments become "the Beast on earth," servants of "the Dragon," agents of death. That is what Revelation 13 is describing.

In Chapter 2 Stringfellow uses vocation to ground the idea of political "legitimacy." Specifically, when government is fulling its proper vocation before God it is politically "legitimate" and should be obeyed. But when government rejects its vocation it becomes "the Beast" and should be resisted. As Stringfellow succinctly summarizes:
[V]ocation [is] the clue to conscience and obedience in nation and in church.
Vocation is also at root of Christian resistance to the state. When the Christian resists the state the Christian isn't resisting the state per se but is, rather, recalling the state to its proper vocation. Political resistance is calling the state back to worship.

That said, the church struggles to critique the state in this way because of what Stringfellow names as "the Constantinian Arrangement" where the church becomes involved "in the preservation of the political status quo."

In Chapter 3 Stringfellow turns to the issue of anarchy, law and order. Stringfellow wants to tackle the objection that, "Without [obedience to the state], it is said, there would be anarchy."

Stringfellow's answer to this question is to point out how sin is being limited in this objection to human agents. That is, human agents, because of sin, are agents of social chaos. The state, by contrast, is a virtuous, stabilizing and ordering agent. Metaphorically, citizens are rebellious children and the state is the wise parent.

The problem with this, according to Stringfellow, is that such a notion fails to grasp that the state is just as fallen and sinful as human persons. Specifically, more often than not the state, rather than human persons, is the cause of social disruption, chaos and instability. Citizens aren't just getting agitated all on their own. They are often responding in anger and hurt to abuses inflicted upon them and their neighbors by the state.

Which is to say, calls for "law and order" assume that the state is a wholly benevolent agent and that sin is wholly on the side of the citizens. The fact that there are sinful laws supporting a sinful order is not being acknowledged. But the fall affects everything, even the state. The state has to repent along with everyone else. Stringfellow:
[T]he fall implicates the whole of creation, not human life alone and not human being uniquely, and, further, that each and every creature or created thing suffers fallenness in its own right. Thus, to speak concretely, when the chaos of political authority is evident as, say, it is in the existence and dysfunction of the Pentagon technocracy, that constitutes a sign of the fallenness of the principality as such rather than merely the consequence of human depravity or frailty or corruption...
In short, anarchy and social chaos is the default condition. Conflict between persons, between institutions and between persons and institutions simply is the condition of the fall, with the state contributing its fair share to the mess. As Stringfellow describes it:
After all, war is chaos; hunger is disorganization; pollution is havoc; disease is dysfunction; tyranny is anarchism; violence is disorder. Creation is truly fallen.
In Chapter 4 Stringfellow turns to a discussion of the "Second Advent." For Stringfellow, the first Advent was the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth in the person of Jesus and the community gathered confessing him to be "Lord of all." The second Advent, according to Stringfellow, is the coming of Jesus as Judge of the principalities and powers announcing "the destruction of all worldly political authority..." As Stringfellow summarizes, "Judgment--biblically--does means the destruction of the ruling powers and principalities of this age."

And according to Stringfellow while the Second Coming is hoped for in history it is also an imminent reality, "the eschatological truth [that] is represented in any moment in any event in this world, to those whose eyes see and whose ears hear."

In short, Christ's judgment upon the principalities and powers in his Second Coming is a reality and hope that breaks into every moment:
The relationship between the Word of God and creation, even in time, transcends time and is, from a human point of view, imminent at any time. In the Word of God a thousand years are not more than a moment.

If some have put aside the expectation, it is not because Christ is tardy and not because God has postponed the next advent, but because the consciousness of imminence has been confused or lost. I regard the situation of contemporary Christians as much the same as that of our early predecessors in the faith so far as anticipation of the Second Coming matters. We expect the event at any moment. We hope for it in every moment. We live in the imminence of the Eschaton. That is the only way, for the time being, to live humanly.
Finally, given all this, how are Christians to live in relation to the state? If the state is as sinful and fallen as human agents, if the legitimacy of the state has been lost because the state fails to embrace its vocation before God, how are we to relate and respond to the state?

Simply, what is the political task of the church?

Stringfellow turns to this question in the final chapter of the book. Stringfellow's answer, based upon his reading of the biblical witness, is that the church is called to the work of advocacy. Stringfellow:
[T]he church of Christ is called as the advocate of every victim of the rulers of the age, and that, not because the victim is right, for the church does not know how any are judged in the Word of God, but because the victim is a victim.

Advocacy is how the church puts into practice its own experiences of the victory of the Word of God over the power of death, how the church lives in the efficacy of the resurrection amidst the reign of death in this world, how the church expends its life in freedom from both intimidation and enthrallment of death or of any agencies of death, how the church honors the sovereignty of the Word of God in history against the counterclaims of the ruling principalities. This advocacy, in its ecumenical scope as well as its actual specificity, constitutes the church's political task, but, simultaneously, exemplifies the church's worship of God, as intercession for anyone in need, and for the need of the whole creation, which exposes and confounds the blasphemy of predatory political authority. 
Moreover, Stringfellow says that there is a "diversity of gifts distributed throughout the body of the church in order that no victim be without an advocate."

And because the church functions as the advocate for any and all victims in the world the church cannot avoid deep and ongoing political involvement:
If the church is called to advocacy, in a biblical sense, as a way of expressing its imminent eschatological insight, then the church cannot withdraw or retreat or escape from political involvement; it cannot indulge equivocation or apathy or indifference. On the contrary, in freedom to take the part of any victim, the church is plunged into the most radical sort of political witness in which the church besets political authority on every side, incessantly, resiliently, eclectically, dynamically, and with the marvelous versatility which the diversity of gifts of the Holy Spirit abundantly supplies.
Of course, we rarely see the institutional church engaging in such advocacy. But it does happen. Right here or over there, the church is always happening.

Thus, Stringfellow concludes the book by describing the church as an event in time:
[T]he Kingdom is, I believe, temporal as much as spatial...the event of the church constantly, repeatedly fractures time. This is to say, the church as an institution or nation is, first of all, an event of the moment, gathered here or there, but that does not predetermine whether or how the church will appear again. The church is episodic in history; the church lives in imminence so that the church has no permanent locale or organization which predicates its authenticity as the church. This may seem a hectic doctrine of the church to the Constantinian mentality. It is. But it is so because it suggests the necessity of breaking away from Constantinian indoctrination in order to affirm the poise of the church awaiting the second advent of Jesus Christ.

Search Term Friday: Theology of God as Parent

At the start of my research career my focus was on emotional disorders. My doctoral dissertation was on anger management and most of my early journal publications focused on assessment models trying to untangle anxiety and mood disorders. But after a few years I grew bored with this research. Plus, it's hard to do clinically-oriented research when you are working at liberal arts school. You need access to clinical and psychiatric populations to do good clinical research and I didn't have that.

So, in 2003 I re-assessed my research career. I asked myself, "Well, if I don't have access to a clinical population what population do I have access to?" I looked around the campus of Abilene Christian University and noted, "There do seem to be a lot of religious people around here."

And thus was born my research career in the area known as the psychology of religion. Instead of studying anxious, angry or depressed persons I would study religious persons.

This blog is a result of that research shift. As I read and thought more and more about the intersections of faith and psychology I kept having a lot of theological thoughts that didn't have a clear empirical research outlet. So where to gather those theological thoughts? How about starting a blog and dumping the stuff there?

And so was born Experimental Theology, the theological ruminations of an experimental psychologist.

When I first turned to psychology of religion my early studies were focused upon attachment to God. This was and remains a hot area of investigation and it involves the application of attachment theory to our relationship with God. Attachment theory, pioneered by John Bowlby, describes the close affectional bonds that form between infants and caregivers. Early observational work by Mary Ainsworth noted that the childhood attachments with parents can vary in the amount of anxiety they display (separation and stranger anxiety) in what are called the attachment styles.

The early work in attachment focused on parental bonds, but in the '80s and '90s researchers began applying attachment theory to romantic relationships. It was argued that the emotional templates laid down with parents would cast a long relational shadow, shaping how we'd experience subsequent love relationships. For example, if you experienced your early attachment figures as emotionally unpredictable or unavailable you'd have responded to that uncertainty by becoming either anxiously attached (preoccupied with the parent) or avoidantly attached (dismissive of the parent). Later, when your dating career started you'd import that same dynamic--anxiety or avoidance--into this new attachment relationship with your romantic partner. You might be anxiously attached to your romantic partner (jealous, worried about rejection, etc.) or avoidantly attached (fearful of commitment, emotionally distant, etc.).

In the attachment theory literature Lee Kirkpatrick was the first to note that these attachment dynamics--parental and romantic--are also observed in the relationship with God. Kirkpatrick noted that the four attachment criteria described by Mary Ainsworth apply to parents, romantic partners and to God:
1. Proximity Maintenance: We wish to be near or close to our attachment figures.
2. Separation Anxiety: When separated from an attachment figure we experience distress.

3. Secure Base of Exploration: The attachment figure functions as "home," our emotional "base camp."

4. Haven of Safety: When hurt or fearful or distressed we go to the attachment figure for protection, healing, and/or comfort.
I wrote about attachment to God in the early days of this blog, back in 2006. So search terms like the recent "theology of god as a parent" often bring people to the blog. And in the first post of that series I noted how the bible describes relationship with God as an attachment bond, God as a parental figure--paternal and maternal--and as a romantic partner:
God as Mother and Father:

[God speaking to his people:] “As a mother comforts her child so I will comfort you.” (Isaiah 66:13)

[God’s people speaking to God:] “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father.” (Isaiah 64:8)

[Jesus teaching his followers how to address God in prayer:] “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9)

[God comparing his love for his people with a mother’s love for her child:] “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has born?” (Isaiah 49:15)

[Jesus comparing his love for the people of Jerusalem to the protective behavior of a mother hen:] “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how I have often longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” (Luke 13:34)

[God comparing his love for his people to a parent teaching her child to walk:] “When Israel was a child, I loved him…it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them in my arms.” (Hosea 11:1,3)

[God comparing his love for his people to a parent raising a rebellious child:] “For the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.” (Isaiah 1:2)

God as Romantic Partner:

[A description of God’s love for his people:] “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” (Isaiah 62:5)

[A description of God’s relationship with his people:] “For your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his name.” (Isaiah 54:5)

[An image of Jesus, the Lamb, marrying his people, the Church:] “ ‘For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.” (Revelation 19:7-8)

[A continuation of the above image from the book of Revelation, where the people of God are compared to the new Jerusalem:] “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2)

[The New Testament author, Paul, comparing marital love with Christ’s love for his church:] “Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” (Ephesians 5:25)
And if God is experienced as an attachment figure then it stands to reason that relationship with God should also display aspects of the attachment styles, where believers can become either anxious or dismissive about their relationship with God. Relationship with God can become as fraught and distressed as any other love relationship. These were the dynamics--emotional distress in the God relationship--that eventually led me to connect attachment to God with the Summer Christian vs. Winter Christian experience in Part 2 of The Authenticity of Faith.

Roller Derby Girls

So, Jana and I went to our first roller derby match.

And loved it!

Somewhere a few months ago I had read an article about how roller derby was growing in the US and how the resurgence of roller derby has been connected to third-wave feminism--a sport organized by women for women athletes, and a sport that combines toughness, athleticism and femininity. I found that link--roller derby and feminism--to be interesting. But for my part, I mainly love anything having to do with the '50s and '60s. Roller derby was at its cultural peak during those decades, so I was interested in its resurgence. I love anything retro.

So last week while visiting my family in Pennsylvania Jana was reading the paper about local events coming up. And she noted that the Eerie Roller Girls where having a double-header bout in a few days and would I like to go? You bet, I said. And so it was that Jana and I, along with my two sons and three nephews, all went to our first roller derby.

It was a double-header. In the first match the Eerie Roller Girls took on the Queen City Roller Girls from Buffalo, NY. The second match had the B-squad from the Eerie Roller Girls going against the J-Town Roller Girls from Johnstown, PA.

Prior to the bouts we took the time to familiarize ourselves with the rules. But it took us awhile to understand everything that was going on, the various rules and strategies involved. But by the second bout we started to really get the hang of it. I found myself, at one point, screaming at the lead jammer to call the jam before the other jammer reached the pack. You know, the stuff you yell at a roller derby match.

I can't say how much our teenage sons and nephews liked the event. The main word they used to describe the evening was "interesting." Jana and I loved it. We're officially roller derby fans.

Now the burning questions you are probably wanting to ask is was event a show or a sport? And were the women scantily or provocatively clothed?

Regarding being a show, when some people think of roller derby they think of something like professional wrestling. And I think some roller derbies are like that.

But what we saw was a sport, associated with the Women's Flat Track Derby Association.

Regarding clothing, while there were some feminine flourishes to the basic team uniform it wasn't, speaking as a man, an ogling sort of experience. The whole thing was very different and unique and had a campy, theatrical flair, but we experienced it as a sporting event. Those women were competing as athletes. There was an injury (and emergency medical people were on hand like you see at a football game). And beyond skating ability, strength and cardiovascular stamina were really, really important. If a jammer was too fatigued to get through blocks that team was in deep trouble.

As for roller derby being the quintessential feminist sport I don't know, as a man, if I can say. But we do know this: roller derby is a full contact sport (like football) that is also a female sport. Roller derby isn't a female version (and therefore a lesser version in the eyes of some) of what was originally a male sport. Roller derby is a female contact sport. Roller derby doesn't imitate the guys. So if men want to play roller derby, and male roller derby leagues are starting up, they are going to have to follow the lead of the roller girls.

If a guy wants to play roller derby, and it looks like a ton of fun, he's going to have to learn to block and jam like a roller derby girl.

At one point during the double-header I looked at some of the little girls in attendance cheering on their favorite roller girl.

I leaned over to Jana and said, "If I were a little girl I bet this would be pretty empowering and inspiring."

And if you looked at the faces of those little girls, they seemed to agree.

Eerie Roller Girls taking on the Queen City Rollers

"A Boy Named Sue": Who Wrote That Song?

Following up on yesterday's post about the Tokens Show in Dayton just a historical note about a song Lee Camp sang during the show and Ed Larson's commentary about the origins of that song.

The song in question is "A Boy Named Sue," popularized by Johnny Cash and first sung by Cash on the At San Quentin album.

Now while it seems foolish for a psychologist to correct a Pulitzer-prize winning historian on a matter of history, I do want to comment on the history Ed gave about the song "A Boy Named Sue." I know a bit about Cash in light of the research I did for my recent The Theology of Johnny Cash series.

Here are the lyrics to the story-song "A Boy Named Sue":
Well, my daddy left home when I was three,
and he didn't leave much to Ma and me,
just this old guitar and a bottle of booze.
Now I don't blame him because he run and hid,
but the meanest thing that he ever did was
before he left he went and named me Sue.

Well, he must have thought it was quite a joke,
and it got lots of laughs from a lot of folks,
it seems I had to fight my whole life through.
Some gal would giggle and I'd get red
and some guy would laugh and I'd bust his head,
I tell you, life ain't easy for a boy named Sue.

Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean.
My fist got hard and my wits got keen.
Roamed from town to town to hide my shame,
but I made me a vow to the moon and the stars,
I'd search the honky-tonks and bars and kill
that man that gave me that awful name.

But it was Gatlinburg in mid July and I had
just hit town and my throat was dry.
I'd thought I'd stop and have myself a brew.
At an old saloon in a street of mud
and at a table dealing stud sat the dirty,
mangy dog that named me Sue.

Well, I knew that snake was my own sweet dad
from a worn-out picture that my mother had
and I knew the scar on his cheek and his evil eye.
He was big and bent and gray and old
and I looked at him and my blood ran cold,
and I said, "My name is Sue. How do you do?
Now you're gonna die." Yeah, that's what I told him.

Well, I hit him right between the eyes and he went down
but to my surprise he came up with a knife
and cut off a piece of my ear. But I busted a chair
right across his teeth. And we crashed through
the wall and into the street kicking and a-gouging
in the mud and the blood and the beer.

I tell you I've fought tougher men but I really can't remember when.
He kicked like a mule and bit like a crocodile.
I heard him laughin' and then I heard him cussin',
he went for his gun and I pulled mine first.
He stood there looking at me and I saw him smile.

And he said, "Son, this world is rough and if
a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough
and I knew I wouldn't be there to help you along.
So I gave you that name and I said 'Goodbye'.
I knew you'd have to get tough or die. And it's
that name that helped to make you strong."

Yeah, he said, "Now you have just fought one
helluva fight, and I know you hate me and you've
got the right to kill me now and I wouldn't blame you
if you do. But you ought to thank me
before I die for the gravel in your guts and the spit
in your eye because I'm the nut that named you Sue."
Yeah, what could I do? What could I do?

I got all choked up and I threw down my gun,
called him pa and he called me a son,
and I came away with a different point of view
and I think about him now and then.
Every time I tried, every time I win and if I
ever have a son I think I am gonna name him
Bill or George - anything but Sue. 
You can watch Cash performing the song at San Quentin here.

During the show Ed said that "A Boy Named Sue" was written by Johnny Cash, and was inspired by his association with Sue K. Hicks, an attorney who was a friend of John Scopes and who agreed to be a prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial. Sue Hicks was named after his mother who died after giving birth to him.

However, "A Boy Named Sue" wasn't written by Johnny Cash.

"A Boy Named Sue" was a poem written by Shel Silverstein, and was also released in 1969 (the same year as Cash's At San Quentin) on Silverstein's album Boy Named Sue (and His Other Country Songs).

Who inspired Shel Silverstein's poem? Eugene Bergmann argues that the song was inspired by humorist Jean Shepherd, who was a close friend of Silverstein's. In an interview in 1965 Jean Shepherd shared this about how this feminine-sounding name affected his development in life:
You know how it felt to grow up all of your life, with the name Jean? Spelled with a J? Listen, I fist-fought my way through every grade in school. How do you think I go so aggressive?
If the song wasn't written by Cash or inspired by Cash's association with the Sue Hicks from the Scopes Monkey Trial how did Cash come across the song?

According to Robert Hilburn's recent biography, Cash was told about the song lyrics by Don Davis, a music producer and family friend (Davis was married to Anita Carter, sister of June Carter Cash). Don felt the lyrics would make a great song for the upcoming San Quentin concert as Cash had had previous success using lyrics from a Silverstein poem at the prior Folsom prison concert. This was "25 Minutes to Go," a Silverstein poem that became the lyrics for a highlight song on the At Folsom Prison album.

Like with Folsom, maybe some lyrics from Silverstein could make another hit for the San Quentin concert?

But Cash didn't take the lyrics with him to San Quentin. Cash liked the quirky story of the song but left it behind to record later when he got back from San Quentin.

But June Carter threw the lyrics onto a stack of material that Johnny was taking with him to the prison concert. During rehearsals Cash pulled out the lyrics and decided to add the song to the show. The musicians worked out a simple and rough accompaniment, playing the song live for the first time before before the inmates of San Quentin.

And the result?

"A Boy Named Sue" became one of Cash's biggest hits.

Visiting and Evolving in Monkey Town

Dayton, Tennessee.

Home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial.

And the home of our dear friend Rachel Held Evans, best-selling author of Evolving in Monkey Town (now Faith Unraveled), A Year of Biblical Womanhood and the forthcoming Searching for Sunday.

If you follow Rachel's blog or Twitter account you'll have noted that Jana and I were in Dayton last week to visit Rachel and Dan and to take in the Tokens Show being held in the historic Rhea County Courthouse where the Scopes Trial was held.

The Tokens Show is a theologically-themed radio variety show, similar to A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor. Tokens is hosted by Lee Camp, author and theologian at Lipscomb University. Musically, the show is built around country, blue grass and gospel music. Comedy sketches focus on religious and Southern characters, our favorite being Brother Preacher. Theologically, the show is built around a theme woven together by music, comedy, Lee's narration and interviews with authors.

The Dayton show was built around the theme "Breaking Down False Dichotomies" with a focus on the tensions between science and religion, especially the debates about evolution. Using the famous Scopes Monkey Trial as the focal point the Dayton show was filmed in the Rhea County courthouse where the trial was held. The authors interviewed for the show were Rachel and Ed Larson, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion.

Getting to visit Rachel and attend this show (given its historical location and focus on the intersections of science and religion) was too good to pass up. So Jana and I drove to Dayton from Pennsylvania (where we've been visiting my family).

Also, the show was filmed and may appear on your local PBS station. I'll try to keep abreast of those details and let you know when the show is set to appear on TV.

After watching Inherit the Wind the night before to get into the mood, Jana and I arrived in Dayton early enough the day before the show to eat at Jacob Myers, recommended by Rachel. Jana and I had a delightful dinner on the balcony looking out over the river. The next morning Jana and I walked up and down the main street of downtown Dayton visiting the antique shops. Score! Jana found all sorts of things she had looking for all summer in antique and thrift shops. For my own part, I found a vintage suitcase that I'm going to start using on overnight speaking trips.

We met up with Rachel and Dan for lunch and then went with Rachel to her interview filmed in the basement of the courthouse where there is a museum about the Scopes Trial. After that Jana and I did more shopping downtown. (Well, Jana did more shopping. I took a nap on a bench on courthouse grounds.) Before the show we had dinner under the trees of the courthouse. There we got to visit with Rachel some more and ran into a few other friends and acquaintances attending the show.

The show itself was awesome. Though it was a struggle for the tech people and the performers. The Rhea County courthouse, despite its historical stature, is still a working courthouse. And the day of the show the court was in session. The court was supposed to be out by noon but didn't end until two. That put all the Tokens people under the gun. Especially since this show was being filmed. And given that the show was being filmed some of the segments of the show had to be re-taped if something glitchy happened. That often disrupted the flow of the performers, who had to be repeatedly started and stopped by the film crew. But it all worked for me. You got to hear songs twice and it made the audience feel like we were participants working hard with the performers to get the show on film so that others could enjoy it later.

Enough about our visit. You're here for theological conversation. So, three theological reflections about the show.

First, through Lee Camp and Lipscomb University I was thrilled to have my tradition, the Churches of Christ, hosting the show. What a weird tradition I have! As I was describing to Rachel, the Churches of Christ are such a mixed lot right now. Practically speaking, I think we are two different traditions right now, what I've called ecumenical Churches of Christ versus the sectarian Churches of Christ.

The Tokens show in Dayton was an illustration of this divide and how within the ecumenical Churches of Christ the conversation is so much more vibrant, intellectual and interesting than what is happening in evangelicalism. True, there are difficult cross-pressures being negotiated between the work of our intellectuals and the university administrations who are trying make our schools attractive to evangelical families. So Kudos to Lipscomb and Lee for hosting the conversation about evolution and faith at the Dayton Tokens show. The show represented the best of the (ecumenical) Church of the Christ tradition.

Second, this conversation about faith and evolution is important as highlighted in Rachel's interview with Lee during the show. It goes to the show theme of "false dichotomies." Specifically, as Rachel recounts in her poignant memoir Evolving in Monkey Town, conservative, fundamentalist and evangelical churches are putting the best and brightest of each generation in an untenable position by claiming that you can't be a Christian while believing in evolution. So you have to choose: Creation or Evolution.

Listen, I know there are complex issues here and slippery slopes to avoid. But to allow zero middle ground here is crazy. There are many very smart and honest Christians who will be persuaded by the scientific evidence regarding the age of the earth and the evolution of the species. To force these Christians to make a choice or to simply force them out is not a good long-term strategy. The better way forward is to extend the right-hand of fellowship to everyone, agree to disagree, and keep the conversation energized. I don't mind sharp theological disagreement so long as we share the Eucharist as brothers and sisters afterwards.

My last theological reflection about false dichotomies related to the show has to do with Lee's conversation with Ed regarding the political and theological paradox that was William Jennings Bryan.

For me, the theological star of the Dayton show was William Jennings Bryan. Why? Because Bryan got me thinking after an observation Lee made in asking a question of Ed.

Our understanding of history often reduces to simplistic black and white narratives. And that's how we've come to understand the Scopes trial. Especially if you watch a film like Inherit the Wind. On the one side is William Jennings Bryan, religious fundamentalist defending a literal reading of the bible. On the other side is Clarance Darrow, courageous defender of intellectual liberty and free thinking. These two titans go head to head in the Scopes trial, in Darrow's famous cross-examination of Bryan about the bible, with Darrow the clear victor. Reason trumps religious fundamentalism!

(And yet, even in Inherit the Wind we see this sort of dichotomy undermined. My favorite scene in Inherit the Wind is the final one. The courtroom is empty, Darrow is alone and packing his briefcase. He picks up the bible in one hand and The Origin of Species in the other. Darrow weighs them back and forth, looking like he's pondering which one to take with him and which one to leave behind. In the end, with a smile, he tucks both the bible and The Origin under his arm and walks out of the courtroom. Darrow refuses to choose. Or, rather, he chooses both.)

Back to the paradox of Bryan. Why was Bryan in Dayton crusading against evolution? The issue for Bryan wasn't really about a literal interpretation of the bible, the concern of so many evangelicals today. The important issue for Bryan was the moral direction of American society.

Specifically, as both Lee and Ed pointed out, in the wake of the bloodshed of World War I Bryan felt that evolution undermined both Christianity and democracy, replacing each with a "might makes right" ethic, where Nietzschean  "supermen" would justify their domination of the weak with an appeal to "the survival of the fittest." And Bryan had a point here. As Lee mentioned during the show, Hitler's Mein Kampf was published on July 18, 1925 while the Scopes trial was taking place in Dayton.

Relatedly, at the time of the Scopes trial Bryan was a vocal critic of American imperialism and militarism. Which is interesting. Today, how many evangelical Christians who reject evolution are also sharp critics of American imperialism and militarism? Not many. Which goes to the paradox of Bryan and how he is a lesson for our own time.

Specifically, if I had to choose I'd be happy to trade evangelicals a belief in evolution for a vigorous prophetic witness against American imperialism and militarism. I'd happily shift to a belief in a literal seven day creation if evangelicals collectively raged and protested against foreign wars, drone strikes and imperialistic policies.

Biblical literalism isn't the boogie man here, it's Empire.

Add to this the fact that Bryan was also an outspoken critic of capitalism and a defender of labor. Bryan argued for an income tax in which the rich pay more than the poor along with the creation of the U.S. Department of Labor. How many evangelicals today align with those sorts of policies? Bryan was also a supporter of the woman's suffrage movement.

My point here that Bryan doesn't fit into the "fundamentalist" box we've created for him. It's another example of the false dichotomies we are living with. William Jennings Bryan was a religious fundamentalist who was also a social progressive.

Which makes you wonder, maybe we need more William Jennings Bryans in the world rather than fewer of them. Because the modern heirs of William Jennings Bryan--Bryan, the defender of labor and critic of American imperialism and militarism--look little like their ancestor.

And let me end with this, how in thinking about Bryan during the show, maybe for the first time, I started to re-think my easy endorsement of evolution.

An answer Ed gave to Lee about Bryan prompted this reflection. Specifically, how did Bryan's religious conservative fuel is social progressivism?

According to Ed it was Bryan's belief in the Imago Dei, that we are all created in the image of God. That belief--that all humans have divine dignity and worth--fueled Bryan's work for women's suffrage and his defense of the working man in the face of capitalistic exploitation. Belief in the Imago Dei also drove Bryan's criticisms of imperialism and militarism.

And this was also why Bryan was so alarmed about evolution. According to Bryan, evolution undermined the Imago Dei, leaving behind a social-Darwinian ethic of survival of the fittest--Hitler's vision where the weak, deformed, defective, handicapped and retarded would be removed from society. A world where the strong could dominate the weak.

Where is human dignity to be grounded if Darwin was right?

Secular humanists, of course, have a suite of responses to Bryan's worry. Bryan's concern, that evolution would unmoor ethics, has often been refuted.

And yet, many intellectuals have noted a curious gap in arguments like those offered by the New Atheists. Specifically, people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens seem to simply assume a foundation of liberal democracy without pondering very much where that foundation comes from or the basis for its warrants. Why should we assume that liberal democracy or the values of humanism will be the necessary and "natural" default of human society or the telos of human development? Why isn't tyranny or social-Darwinism, with the strong dominating over the weak, a perfectly legitimate and warranted alternative? Why shouldn't the victors get to write history and say what is right vs. wrong?

Such questions have led thinkers like Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book Justice: Rights and Wrongs to argue that an account of universal human rights can only be made coherent within a religious framework, similar to the Christian confession regarding the Imago Dei at work in the thought of William Jennings Bryan.

Let me be clear, I am not well-versed enough in the debates regarding ethical foundations to say if such arguments are correct, but I do think that, at the end of the day, a universal commitment to human flourishing and/or rights can only be grounded in an account that takes the value, dignity and worth of every human person as sacred and inviolable. Which makes human dignity, for the purposes of ethical and political reflection, confessional and metaphysical in nature. Or axiomatic--an irreducible given--if you are looking for a less religious word.

Which is to say that belief in universal human dignity is religious in nature. Human dignity is not a matter of science, data or evidence. It is something that we confess. It is simply something we believe in. The most important thing, in fact, that we can believe in.

As Thomas Merton said, "guard the image of man for it is the image of God."

Which is to say, while I accept the scientific account of evolution the ghost of William Jennings Bryan began to haunt me in the middle of the Tokens show.

I accept evolution. But I also believe in the Imago Dei. And those two things, upon reflection, aren't so easily or simply reconciled...

All day Jana and I kept searching for the perfect gift to take home from Dayton. We wanted something to remind us of the Scopes Monkey Trial. The Scopes Trial museum in the courthouse doesn't have a gift shop and the shops in towns don't carry a lot of Scopes memorabilia.

But late in the day Jana found me the perfect gift. It was a vintage cast iron monkey bank (pictured here). I'll be taking it home and proudly displaying it on my office desk.

What a wonderful memento to remind us of the day we visited Rachel and went to the Tokens Show, sitting in the very same courtroom where William Jennings Bryan and Clarance Darrow faced off in 1925.

The day we visited and evolved in Monkey Town.

Search Term Friday: Seventy Times Seven

The number "seventy times seven" occurs frequently in the bible. And the search term "seventy times seven" recently brought someone to the blog, linking them to a post from 2010 entitled "The Song of Lamech Is Not the Song of the Lamb."

In that post I point out that the phrase "seventy times seven" was not initially associated with forgiveness but was, rather, rooted in a song of vengeance.

Consequently, I suggest that Jesus's reference to forgiving "seventy times seven" is reaching way back into the Old Testament in order to undo something that went wrong a long time ago and affects us still:

The very first mention of "seventy times seven" is not Jesus's instruction on forgiveness. The first reference of "seventy times seven" or "seventy seven" in the bible is found in Lamech's Song of the Sword.

The Song is found very early in Genesis--right at the dawn of the biblical story--after the sin of Cain and Cain's exile. From there the descendents of Cain are named and among them is Lamech. In the middle of this, without any real context, Lamech gives what has been called the Song of the Sword:
Genesis 4.23-24
Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words:

I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for injuring me.
If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times. ”
Again, we don't know any of the background here. We don't know who the young man was or why Lamech killed him. But what we do know is that this is a song of vengeance. More, it's a song of "shock and awe" vengeance.

There's the normal tit for tat vengeance.

Then there's Cain-level vengeance--vengeance times seven.

And then there is Lamech-level vengeance--vengeance seventy-seven times.

Again, this is the very first reference in the bible to seventy-seven (or seventy times seven). And we note here that this number is associated with vengeance, with a Song of the Sword.

In light of that, I wonder if Jesus's teachings on forgiveness are not directly addressing the ethic of Lamech and the hold it has upon our imaginations. Is not Jesus explicitly rejecting the Song of the Sword and the world it creates?
Matthew 18. 21-22
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times."
Also note the sword-theme in the arrest at Gethsemane. Swords are everywhere:
Matthew 26.47-56
While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.

Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”

Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”

In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled. 
Everyone in this scene is working with the imagination of Lamech. The Song of the Sword is the ethic of everyone in the scene. Everyone, that is, but Jesus.

The men coming for Jesus are carrying swords. And Jesus chides them for their mistake. He basically says, "What ever gave you the idea that you'd need a sword to arrest me? When did I ever carry or call for swords?"

Jesus is in effect saying, "When did you ever hear me sing the song of Lamech?"

And Jesus's followers are just as confused. They are still singing the song of Lamech. The swords are met with swords.

But Jesus says, put your sword away.

We have a new understanding of seventy-seven.

The Song of Lamech is not the Song of the Lamb.