All posts by J. R. Daniel Kirk

Professor at Fuller Seminary, resident of San Francisco, consumer of dark chocolate, brewer of dark beer, reader of Flannery O'Connor, watcher of the Coen Brothers, listener of The Mountain Goats.

New Formating Requirement for Book Reviews

I’ve decided that in the future all academic book reviews should add a common courtesy. When I’m about to read the summary of a film or a novel, those that give away crucial plot twists will dutifully declare, *Spoiler Alert!*

Academics, however, have not typically been so thoughtful.

I therefore call upon all of you, my comrades in the guild, to elevate the thoughtfulness of our discourse. If you give away the punchline of a book in your book review, please indicate this at the very beginning by using the phrase, “Spoiler Alert,” preferably well placed to draw attention to itself before someone gets too far into their skimming.

Serenity: Love, Belief, and a World Without Sin

If you’ve missed the series Firefly, you may go to Hulu right now and start catching up. It was canceled after one season but managed to produce not only a huge cult following but also a feature film entitled Serenity.

Following up on the series, and assuming for the most part that you know the characters and their ways from there, the film focuses on the desire of the intergalactic alliance (think “the Empire”) to recapture River, a young woman who has taken up with a former freedom fighter (think “the rebel alliance”) and his crew–a posse that now steals and trades whatever they can to make a buck off of their Firefly Class spaceship named Serenity.

This is called a “space western” on many of the sites, and the name is apt (think “first three Star Wars movies, with their western hero Han Solo / Luke Skywalker”). Heck, so long as I’m making Star Wars references, there’s even a scene where the good guy and bad guy duke it out on some catwalks. But I digress.

A few interesting themes pervade the movie, and I’d encourage you, should you dive into this world with its cult following, to keep your eyes and ears open for them.

One of the characters is a “shepherd,” a futuristic sort of monk/pastor. He encourages the main cowboy type, Mal, to believe–even if he doesn’t believe in God, to believe in something. There’s a running theme in the film about the power of belief itself. It’s worth keeping your ears out for that.

One of the core conflicts in the movie seems to revolve around that idea of belief. The alliance believes that it can compel people to be better, to a better way of life. Mal and his posse represent the opposite. Mal says he doesn’t believe we can make people better.

As Mal dukes it out with a guy who always seems to be dressed in black (or dark purple), their different beliefs come to the fore again. Evil dude is a top flight assassin, who is striving to create “a world without sin”–a world that will hold no place for himself, he well knows. The conflict of the film is resolved when Mal presents an alternative means to that world without sin: not killing the girl, River, but telling the galaxies the truth about the Alliance.

In the end, Mal tells the secret of survival to River as they fly off for their next journey: love. It was love that enabled River to be freed from the Alliance in the first place. It is love that allows the crew of Serenity to survive.

Especially for a “space western,” this was a well-told story whose thematic riches might be easy to miss within the otherwise predictable action-hero adventure.

Resurrection to New Creation

It has come to my attention that Michael Pahl has started blogging through his excellent book, From Resurrection to New Creation.

The book is an excellent entry point into not only the significance of the resurrection per se but also the importance of narrative theology and knowing how the end of the story transforms the rest.

For you pastor-types or small group leaders or college ministers: this would be a great book to use for a study group, small group, Sunday school class, introduction to what Christians believe class, etc. For the rest: this is a great way to take a step or two forward in that being transformed by the renewing of your mind to which we’re all called.

Stringing Out the Culture Wars

A couple days ago I offered some reflections on the current discontent by many (especially established scholars) in the Society of Biblical Literature, a disappointment in the religious nature of some biblical scholars’ work that has led some to start formulating a proposal for shoring things up.

Toward the end, I wondered if what we might be seeing there is one instantiation of a larger cultural phenomenon: groups left and right are retrenching, even while a new middle forms as post-liberals and post-conservatives recognize the best in the “other” that was villainized by their forebears.

In religious circles themselves, old flames are being reignited. Al Mohler has thrown down the gauntlet on two issues in particular: inerrancy and evolution.

The anti-Darwinism post was written in response to Karl Giberson’s editorical in the Huffington Post, “How Darwinism Sustains My Baptist Search for Truth.”

Justin Taylor has jumped in to defend Mohler, expressing his hopes the Biologos fails in its efforts to undermine inerrancy, support evolutionary theory, and distance Christianity form a historic Adam and Eve.

A couple of thoughts from my end. First, conservative theologies are inherently powerful and will continue, in all likelihood, to draw a large number of adherents.

Second, I am thankful that Biologos is so publicly working to create space for folks to continue to worship the God who raised Jesus from the dead while they work within the scientific consensus and wrestle with holding onto the Bible with one hand while engaging the world of modern scientific discovery on the other.

Third, this is another instance of that retrenchment I was talking about. While Giberson strives to carve out a both/and of baptist faith and Darwinian theory (showing some hostility, perhaps, to the world that has not been realigned as his own), Mohler accuses him of old school, God-abandoning liberalism.

Fourth, being a non-conservative evangelical (if that’s not an oxymoron) myself, I do find myself particularly put off by the conservative reaction. In particular, I am dismayed by the ways that the responses to Giberson express hope for failure and downfall. This seems to be symptomatic of our (I share it) Protestant tendency to put too many things in the realm of essentials. We are too often unwilling to be thankful that other people who read the Bible differently, who understand science differently, who put together the ethical pieces differently will thrive in their Christian ministries, reaching people who would be repulsed by our own expressions.

Is it possible that diversity is inherently good? Can we, should we not, celebrate that there are people to both our left and our right in any circumstance, and that these will be able to truly draw people to the true God even though they (like ourselves) do not have the truth completely worked out.

Hell

I’d like to be a universalist. Or, at least, something more like a universalist than I am now. The more I ponder the ramifications of the traditional idea that anyone who doesn’t put faith in Jesus going to Hell, the more I hope that there’s more than one loophole.

My thoughts have been pushed on this recently by a few different interactions.

I have continued reading Rachel Held Evans’ Evolving in Monkey Town. In this book she chronicles her own struggles with the idea of God sending people to Hell. They began when she was in college and saw on TV the murder of an Afghan woman.

The injustice of it was searing. And, the reality struck Evans deeply that this woman was not a Christian, was a Muslim because of her upbringing. Is the God of justice going to meet her in judgment, this victim of injustice, and condemn her to hell for all eternity? Was her abuse and murder only the beginning, a foretaste of what’s to come?

A second factor has been an e-mail conversation with someone who wanted to know a bit more about what I meant by saying that Romans is Paul’s theodicy project. For my work on Romans, that was confined to a very narrow question: the question of God’s faithfulness to the Jewish people in accordance with what God had promised in scripture.

But that doesn’t make for a very compelling answer to the global questions of the presence or absence of a just God. Is the gospel good news, he asked me, for a girl who is imprisoned, a victim of sex trafficking?

Again the question comes to us how the gospel is actually good news for someone who has experienced nothing but injustice, whose life is defined quintessentially by her status as a victim. Is the gospel good news if it means that such a victim, upon death, will meet a judgment that makes her life of perpetual rape seem like paradise in comparison.

A third strand of thought has been stirred by my reading through Revelation. That book ends with a few surprises.

One of the startling scenes at the end of the book is this: the kings of the earth bring their glory into the great city of God–into which nothing impure can enter (Rev 21:24).

In the book of Revelation, everything is black and white. There are the people who follow the Lamb and there are the people who follow the beast and there is no waffling in between. Those who follow the beast, who are enriched by the great Prostitute, mourn her death and then become a feast for the birds of the air.

But here we are, at the end. A surprising parade enters. People who, based on the logic of the story shouldn’t be there. But not only are they still alive, they are priests, bringing the gifts of the peoples to God.

A few thoughts on all this:

  1. I trust that the God of all the earth will do what is right. I will hope and trust that the God who is just will be the justifier of the one who has suffered unjustly here on earth. Although I can’t say that any one person or category of people will “be saved” in the end, I anticipate that I will be surprised at the company of faces gathered before the throne worshiping God in the end. Revelation encourages me to hope for such surprises.
  2. Once upon a time, I had two categories of universalist. One was what I called the “Duke Methodist” (sorry, Duke friends, it’s a story about my past) type of universalism due to the way I heard some Div students undermining the importance of sin. This sort of universalism was the “we’re not so bad, so surely no one could end up in hell” universalism. The other was what I called “Barth universalism” (though I know Barth wasn’t a universalist). This sort of universalism was the “Christ’s work is so big that it clears out hell” universalism. Any hope we have of a surprising embrace, a unexpected inclusion, will have to be closer to the latter. There is only one way to the Father and it is through the Son. But I anticipate being surprised at some of those whom the Son chooses to bring before the Father, claimed as his own.
  3. It is important not to undermine the significance of setting ourselves against the purposes of God or of rendering to other “gods” the worship that only the true and living God is due. There is a grave possibility of aligning ourselves against the work of God in the world. Of course, as I read through the biblical texts I discover that this possibility often lies closer to hand for those who should be insiders than for those who are distant from God’s people.

And Give You Peace

Sometimes, people who make no profession of allegiance to Jesus shame me through their telling or enactment of the gospel story.

I’ve commented about the Mountain Goats here several times over the past few weeks. Monday I was looking for some copyright information for the song Love, Love, Love and stumbled across the liner notes for The Sunset Tree.

I already knew from listening and the buzz on the street that this album is heavily autobiographical. And that autobiography entails a childhood deeply scarred by an abusive stepfather. The songs are often moving and hard to listen to as they chronicle personal pain through sung stories.

Today I saw that the following notes are on the liner:

Made possible by my stepfather, Mike Noonan (1940-2004): may the peace which eluded you in life be yours now

Dedicated to any young men and women anywhere who live with people who abuse them, with the following good news:
you are going to make it out of there alive
you will live to tell your story
never lose hope

The first thing that got me was the wish of peace upon the abusive stepfather who “made possible” this chilling album.

And then, there is the proclamation of good news: you who are captive will know freedom; you will know new life. You have hope.

John Darnielle lives within, and creates a world in which, eschatology matters. The end shapes our stories. The coming ending of our stories gives us hope. And, it gives him the confidence to wish a blessing of peace rather than a curse of retribution.

What We Do, Echoing in Eternity

“What we do in life echoes in eternity!” Thus saith Maximus, the Gladiator. Now the question we’re all asking: is Gladiator good theology?

I’ve been reading through Revelation, and today came through a few chapters close to the end. This is where the great whore goes up in flames and becomes sport for her own crows… er… a feast for those who profited from her. Great, gory stuff.

But the thing that continually pops out at me when I read through these concluding segments are the places where we discover that our works are far from incidental for the eternity ahead.

Let’s start with the dress of the Bride. In my deeply Pauline circles, people often talk about being clothed in the righteousness of Christ. That’s an apt metaphor for union with Christ: “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ” and all that.

But what is the Bride wearing? Is she wearing the bright, spotless righteousness of Christ? No.

“It was given to her that she might be dressed in pure, pristine linen–for the linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Revelation 19:8). The church, the bride of Christ, shines with the glory of what God’s people have done on earth.

Earlier in the book there had been a word of comfort spoken concerning those who “die in the Lord”: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the spirit, in order that they might rest from their labors–for their works follow with them” (Revelation 14:13). Why don’t they work anymore? Because their works enter in after them.

The really scary stuff, of course, comes at the very end. With the judgment.

“The dead were judged by what was written in the books–according to their deeds” (Rev. 20:12).

“…Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each one was judged according to his deeds” (Rev. 20:13).

“Behold! I am coming soon! And my reward is with me to pay each one according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:12).

One of the challenges besetting post-Reformation soteriology is coming up with a robust place for our works in the big picture of both what God is up to in the world and our own eternal future. We shrink back from passages such as these that seem to tie our eternal state with what we do here on earth. We often retreat to Paul for counter-testimony to overturn what otherwise would seem clear.

I think we need to get over it.

The assumption throughout Revelation is that God’s people are distinguished from the world by being faithful witnesses of God and of the Lamb. We are distinguished by not participating in the violence, immorality, and abuse of persons that defines “the world,” as well as by our faithful service to God rather than God’s adversaries.

In other words, the point of Revelation is that Christians should take comfort in the fact that God looks at the ways that they are set apart from the world and will vindicate them for it in the end. If the idea of being judged according to our deeds, or having our deeds be the eternal adornment of the church, is not a source of comfort to us, I’d humbly suggest that the problem is not that this is theologically incorrect.

Instead, the problem is how we’re living (or not living) in faithfulness to the lives to which we have been called.

Pillars of the Earth

When the Times of London asked its readers to vote for the best book of the past 60 years, they chose Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. But we all know that being winner isn’t everything. The runner-up was Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.

I, being a barbarian, was introduced to this latter work for the first time when Netflix Instant suggested I might be interested in the mini-series currently being run on Starz.

I am now addicted.

Now let me hasten to add that I am under no illusion that all my addictions are wholesome. Lost: definitely good for me. Homebrewing: probably good for me. Flannery O’Connor: definitely good for me. Pillars of the Earth: maybe, maybe not. The series is violent, has more than its fair share of sex scenes (I like to say that one of the main characters and his love interest have “a very simple relationship”) and one particularly disturbing rape scene. So, be forewarned.

So why do I watch a violent, “adult content” show, besides, of course, the adult content and violence?

The story sets out, even if too bluntly, the dangers of power, the power one has when one is presumed to speak for God, and the challenges of interpreting a broken world where one’s theology says that God is at work but the things playing out in real life do not testify to that reality.

Although I do not think the story handles the God and power questions with particular subtlety or grace, I nonetheless resonate with the danger I see unfolding on the screen before me. Even for those of us without formal ecclesiastical power, we do a dangerous thing when we presume to speak for God, to interpret the world as God’s spokespersons.

But this is what we have to do whenever we teach someone what the Bible says or how it applies to our lives. This is what we do every time we move forward in confidence because our spirit seems to be nudged by the Spirit of God.

Blowing up those moments into communal and national moments of life and death, as happens in Pillars, has the power to make us realize the power we wield and the danger we undertake when we make similar judgments in our own smaller worlds where the ramifications often seem less a matter of life and death.

Or, to put it somewhat differently. There you are, watching a ruthless king question why God isn’t defending him, why God isn’t blessing him. There you are, confidently barking back that no God worth His salt would come to the aid of such a deluded tyrant. And then maybe, just maybe, it dawns on you: are my expectations that God will baptize my life’s little schemes any more holy? Am I so different? Just what kind of power do I expect to wield on the basis of my faith?

And then, in all likelihood, you get drawn back in and enjoy a captivating story.

Jesus & the Temple

On Jesus clearing the temple and cursing the fig tree, William Telford says this:

The Lord whom they sought had suddenly come to his Temple (cf. Mal. 3.1 and Mk. 1.2) but had condemned rather than restored it! Elijah the prophet had been sent before the great and terrible day of the Lord (Mal. 4.5; cf. Mk. 9.12) but they had done to him whatever they pleased (Mk. 9.13)! Therefore the Lord would come and smite the land with a curse (Mal. 4.6) and the blow had been struck against the barren fig-tree… God’s plant, Israel, had been withered… “This mountain”, which was to be elevated in the Messianic Age, was in fact to be uprooted and cast into the sea! For the Markan reader the cursing of the fig-tree was an eschatological sign prefiguring the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. For Mark, it was a commentary upon his own time. (The Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, 163)

This is one fantastic book.