Category Archives: Culture

God of Peace and Justice

This weekend I’m giving a talk on the God of Peace and Justice.

As if on cue, the writing of this talk is now punctuated by news that Israel has launched a ground invasion into Gaza and rumors are swirling that a passenger (!) jet was “blown out of the sky” by a missile near the Russian-Ukranian border.

I find myself at a loss.

As someone whose citizenship and home lies within the nation that has created unprovoked war in Iraq, that ensconced itself in over a decade of combat in Afghanistan, and that is in the business of killing people around the world by dropping bombs by remote controlled “drones,” what can I possibly say?

America has no moral ground to stand on in opposing violence around the world. We have not found a better way to be agents of peace.

It is times like these that underscore the impossible dream that is the reign of God. The idea of power that does not seize power, the vision of a people who do not take their own revenge, who believe that life is found in giving it away rather than seizing it–that vision is an impossible dream.

We’ve caught glimpses of it, though. Gandhi opened up a better world in India. Martin Luther King, Jr. pushed opened the door to a better world here in the U.S.

I ask the question of where God might be in all this. What difference does God make?

One answer comes from the mirror that gets held up to us as American Christians when we want to speak, but the hypocrisy of doing so shines forth in headlines about our own country’s drone activity.

We cannot speak because we have not pursued a better way. We have not pursued a better way because we have baptized the story of militarism and of nationalism rather than telling a better story enlightened by the narrative of Jesus.

Put differently, if the Christians in America believed that God’s route to peace and justice was the way of the crucified Christ rather than the crucifying Romans, America, and we who are Americans, would have some sort of footing from which to critique the devastation that other countries cause.

This beings me to a second dynamic.

I sub-titled my blog “Telling the story of the story-bound God.” God did a dangerous thing when God bound Godself to humanity. It was a decision to allow God’s name, God’s character, God’s reputation, be bound up with God’s people.

If God appears absent on the world stage due to the inflammations of war and injustice, it is because God’s people have not embraced and lived out the story of God as king of peace.

Finally, I don’t think that any particular conflict is proliferating due to a misapprehension of the identity of God by one or both parties. These wars are not clearly wars about religion or driven by religion.

However, there is a transformation that the gospel story demands of us in how we see the “other.” There is a call to be like God who causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

We are not called to the naive denial that there is injustice, or that we have a true enemy, but we are called to pray for and love such perpetrators.

More than that, we are to follow in the way of the God who, in Christ, reconciled all things to himself, and be agents of such reconciliation. The gospel story looks like enemies being won over through sacrificial love.

We need to be wary of taking sides in these conflicts, and in so doing accept the economies of power that the world is handing us.

That is to say, there is a gospel answer in there, somewhere. There is a way that God has made Godself known which says both that the world is not, right now, the world as God would have it to be, and which says at the same time that God has shown us a better way and patiently woos us toward it.

If only we will listen. If only we will follow.

The complicated question of how we as not only Christians but citizens are to live in a world where this dream of Kingdom come has not been realized, well, that’s another question as well.

Frozen: A Story of Christian Love

There’s this brand new movie that just came to theaters. It’s called Frozen.

Ok, so the truth of the matter is that we never go to the theater, so it takes me 6-9 months to catch up on what everyone else is talking about. But I digress.

The upside to my tardiness, however, is that this contains spoilers which will not spoil the movie for just about anyone…

Before singing the movie’s praises, I must confess that it has its downsides as well. My Twitter stream blew up when I made this my day’s prayer:

Screen shot 2014-07-15 at 9.34.03 AM

But there are two very powerful and beautiful dynamics in the Frozen story world that capture love as it’s defined within the Christian story–and we do well to notice.

First, the great act of love that saves the day is not romantic love.

The film actually does a fantastic job of deconstructing “Disney love”: the alleged “love” of two people who know nothing about each other but simply find each other attractive. (Or, worse yet, the “love” of the man who acts to save a completely passive woman as though his work is somehow “true love.”)

Kristoff mocks Anna for thinking she can love someone she just met. “True love” doesn’t work like that. FROZEN

How, then, does it work?

The movie beckons us to ask that question, and plays with our expectations. We’ve been trained to think that “true love’s kiss” is the ultimate act of love.

Not only does Anna realize that she didn’t have true love to bestow such a kiss, the expectation that romantic love will save the day is, itself, thwarted.

The act of true love, instead, is an act of self-sacrifice. Anna throws herself in front of the sword that is aimed at her sister Elsa.

Not only is this not an act of romantic love, it is an act of self-sacrificial love, a willingness to die so that the other might live.

When I watch this, I have two thoughts simultaneously: (1) Yes, yes, and a thousand times yes! (2) Why can’t the church consistently work this reinterpretation of what true love actually consists of?

If I have one frustration with the genre of contemporary praise music, it is that it has adopted the cultural notion that heart-aflutter romantic love is the highest form of love. We act as though our culture has rightly identified what the greatest form of love is, and then we cast Jesus into that role. (“Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss and my heart turns violently inside of my chest,” anyone?)

Frozen, however, took the high road: reinterpreting the act of pure love as self-sacrificing love, enacted so that the other might live.

Second, the plague that provides the dramatic tension in the film is empowered by fear. The fear, in turn, feeds on itself, until the horrors of an eternal winter spew forth out of Elsa.

Until, that is, Elsa discovers that the remedy for fear is not concealment and cowering, but love.

She articulates this realization baldly, and the instant it comes to her, she gains the power to control the powers she had been given.

And as she says that love over comes fear, I hear echoing in my mind, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

Love lies at the heart of the Christian story. There are lots of ways to think about and depict love. The story told by Frozen captures this better than we have often found ourselves capable of doing on our own.

World Vision and Being a Disciple

This week, as the World Vision kerffufel was unfolding, I saw a phrase from Denny Burk that caught my eye. He concluded from his survey of scripture:

Thus it is impossible to be a “follower of Christ” while endorsing or participating in a same-sex marriage.

The idea of being a follower of Christ caught my attention. Immediately I began to think of this in terms of discipleship. And I slowly began to see that it might truly be impossible to be a disciple and continue to support an agency that allows for homosexual marriage as it brings relief to needy children.

What does it look like to be a disciple? Three stories run almost back to back, demonstrating what being a disciple might look like in such a situation.

In Mark 9, Jesus has just predicted his death (vv. 30-32). Not understanding what Jesus was saying, what kind of Messiah they were following, the disciples rambled off on their own conversation.

An embarrassing conversation.

A conversation about which of them is greatest.

Not seeing the crucified messiah before them, they did not see the mirror of the Cruficied that was showing them what the life of following must entail.

And so Jesus had to show them. The kingdom of God is not like they think it is. “Being first,” says Jesus, “entails being last, and servant of all.”

Jesus then takes a child: the low person on the ancient totem pole of social hierarchy. His words are stunning: “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me isn’t welcoming me but God, who sent me.”

To reject World Vision is to play the part of the disciples: to place ourselves in the place of being rebuked by Jesus for pursuing greatness through power. To find ourselves rejecting the Jesus who is in the child for the sake of our own attempts to build the kingdom of God in our own image.

The story continues.

John hopes to clarify that the disciples as a group provide the boundary markers, protecting the name of Jesus, and the kingdom it brings.

“Teacher!” says John. (BTW: in Mark, if you want to find someone who doesn’t know what’s going on, look for the person who calls Jesus “teacher.”) “We saw someone casting out demons in your name, but we forbid him because he doesn’t follow us.”

To be a disciple is to think that our group circumscribes the sphere where God’s blessings are known. Clearly if you’re not with us, you cannot truly be a follower of Jesus.

Right?

Wrong.

Jesus says, “Don’t stop him! … Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”

To pull out of supporting an organization that is doing the work of God in the name of Jesus because they do not follow us in the particular way that we are following Jesus–this is to play the role of the disciples.

And the disciples are rebuked by Jesus for placing themselves at the center of the kingdom of God, remaking its upside down nature after their own image.

In the wake of these two rebukes, the third story is all the more shocking.

It’s only 20 verses later. In Mark 10.

The people are bringing children to Jesus for him to bless them (Mark 10:13-16). The children. The ones about whom Jesus has said, “If you receive one of these, you receive me, which isn’t receiving me, but the One who sent me.”

The disciples, the ones who were just rebuked for thinking that they form the wall of partition between Jesus and the world, they hindered the children.

The disciples missed their chance.

In striving to protect Jesus, they refused to embrace the children.

They missed Jesus.

And they placed themselves in the mortal danger of causing one of the little ones to stumble (that’s at the end of ch. 9).

Withdrawing from support of World Vision in order to faithfully follow Jesus, in order to keep those children from the mercy being offered in the name of Jesus, this might truly be the only way to be a disciple.

Because being a disciple looks like playing power games that blind us to the upside down nature of the kingdom of God.

Because being a disciple looks like establishing our own Jesus-follower bona fides while spurning the notion that Jesus is present in the children standing in front of us, coming through us to find the blessing of Christ.

The roller coaster of the week gone by will be forgotten by most of us in a few weeks time. But what it managed to do for a brief instant was lay bare the tendency that resides deep within us.

It laid bear the rut that is easiest to fall into for those of us who follow Jesus most closely.

It is the danger of being a disciple. It is the danger of being of the company of disciples who fail to see that the cross changes everything.

It is to bring ourselves under the words of Jesus’ rebuke.

It is to be sent out from the presence of Jesus with the calling to relearn to find him: not in the world circumscribed by people like ourselves, but in the face of the child who comes to us in order to find Jesus.

Writing in the Hell of Exile

Or, some thoughts on Barton Fink (streamable it on Netflix or via Amazon).

You might be asking yourself, “Self, why is jrdk posting thoughts about a film that came out 22 years ago?”

To this the answer would be twofold: (1) The Coen Brothers are the greatest storytellers of our generation, so it is always appropriate to write about their films; and (2) jrdk is going to be writing an essay on the reception of the Bible in Coen Brothers movies, so he’s doing his homework.

I don’t want to get too fancy about the whole “reception of the Bible thing,” so let me put it like this: the Coens regularly use allusions to scripture as anchor points for interpreting the palettes of imagery that suffuse their films.

Barton Fink is a quintessential example of this.

Fink is a playwright. He feigns modesty, and is genuinely self-deceived about his commitment to the common man–toward whom he is endlessly condescending and to whom he cannot, will not, listen. But about whom and for whom he desires to write.

Barton Fink envisions himself as a creator, though he seems capable only of recycling the same lines again and again.

And, Barton’s move from New York to Hollywood is an exile. More specifically, it is a Jewish man’s Babylonian exile. The recipient of a novel entitled, “Nebuchadnezzar,” written by an author who is currently working on a screenplay entitled, “Slave ship,” Barton stays at a hotel that is a hanging garden evocative of the ancient Babylonian wonder. The film invites being read in concert with the book of Daniel, specifically, the recounting of faithful aristocratic Jews navigating their life in Babylonian exile.

The hotel seems to double as a sort of hell. The desk man, Chet!, comes up from a trap door in the floor–a typically devilish short of entrance. Fink signs himself into the guest book and we see it from the God’s eye view above. ["You can check out any time you like but you can never leave"?]

The Biblical resonances are more than faint allusions.

There is one scene where Barton is at his wits’ end, and picks up the Bible the Gideons had left in the desk drawer. He reads:

And the king, Nebuchadnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, “I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known unto me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be made a dunghill.”

This is a modification to the biblical text, which does not name Nebuchadnezzar. It’s a change that helps us draw the lines between the text Barton reads, the book he receives earlier, and the whole idea of Babylonian exile.

It seems to me that this text points in two directions at once. First, there has been a chopping to pieces. It is the Coens, after all! Goodman Aflame in Barton Fink

But it also becomes a picture of what Barton is trying, and ultimately fails, to do: he is supposed to conjure up exactly what the studio mogul wants of him, but he’s not told what to do. The mogul has a dream, and Barton is supposed to tell it in his script. The studio owner says he wants that “Barton Fink” feeling, but… well… not so much.

The modified Daniel reference is immediately followed by another biblical reference.

Barton thumbs from Daniel to Genesis. And there, at Gen 1:1, rather than “In the beginning God created…” we see the first lines of Barton’s own film script, lines he has typed and stared at repeatedly:

Chapter One 1. Fade in on a tenement building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Faint traffic noise is audible; 2. As is the cry of fishmongers.

The juxtaposition is significant. Later Barton will proclaim himself to be a creator. But what he creates is not in keeping with his “king’s” dream. His own words, replacing the words of Gen 1, show how Barton sees himself–playing God, creating a new world for the common man in theater, in film.

The biblical Daniel realizes that reading the king’s mind and interpreting his vision is not the work of any man on earth. Barton thinks himself a god-like being, and so possesses no such realization, making himself into a sort of anti-Daniel.

Barton ends up passing through a fiery furnace before all is said and done, another juxtaposition of his hotel with hellish imagery that signals to us that Barton’s project and his very self are not as noble as he seems to think.

One other biblical layer comes to mind.

Barton is supposed to be writing a wrestling picture. But he knows nothing about wrestling movies. And he knows nothing about wrestling.

I wondered if this failure to apprehend wrestling was one of the indications of Barton’s failure to grasp his own identity. Throughout the film Barton’s Jewishness is a recurring theme. But is he “Israel”? Is he one who knows what it is to wrestle with God?

If you’ve not seen Barton Fink, go watch it. We’ll wait.

If you have watched it, what do you think? Are there things I’m missing? Things you disagree with? Points you think are helpful for holding this film together?

A couple of my own ideas in closing: (1) the fact that someone is using biblical imagery doesn’t mean that they are retelling a Bible story, and we shouldn’t expect them too; but (2) the fact that someone isn’t retelling a Bible story doesn’t mean they’re not telling a biblical story. (In fact, I’d say that the Coens end up telling some of the most biblical stories in Hollywood precisely because they are free enough from the idea of retelling the particular stories to create new stories that capture things in fresh ways.)

Also, if anyone can explain that girl in the picture to me, I’d be eternally grateful. Hopefully, I listen better than Barton…

Conversion of the Imagination

Paul puts it this way: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Richard B. Hays puts it this way: “The conversion of the imagination.”

It’s the practice of so steeping ourselves in a narrative, in an understanding of the world, of in an understanding of how the world actually functions, that we see everything differently.

We name problems differently.

We imagine solutions that we never thought possible.

And we see a path between those problems and those solutions that we never would have entertained before. And, if we have enough faith, we might even walk it.

On the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.s‘ famous “I Have a Dream” speech, it’s his own participation in the conversion of the collective imagination of the United States that continues to inspire me and stir me to hope:

As a Christian, I am stirred by his ability to weave the biblical vision of a better, more just, future into his vision for America.

In the mess that is the mutually intertwined lives we live where religion and politics are inseparable, the use of Biblical imagery to call, prophetically, to the kings of the earth to stop using their power for tyranny, and to call, prophetically, the citizens of the earth to love one another, models a way of being a Christian in the public sphere that had, and still has, the power to shape us from within to become the kind of people that we know we should be.

Speech is a powerful tool. Its power is readily sidelined for other, more immediately effective powers.

Speech can also be a blunt object. Its power is readily employed by the power that be to keep their power and to keep others away from it. In politics, this is the greatest modern day hindrance to a true MLK heir shaping our vision for a better collective failure. (This is where Obama has by and large failed to live up to his promise.)

The strongest power that the word has to offer is when it gets deep inside us and opens our eyes to a new way of being, and that so vividly depicts the image that we recognize it is a way that has the power to make us more truly and fully human.

To the extent that King’s dream has become a reality, it is because the collective imagination of our country and our world has experienced a deep conversion about what it means to be fully human. To the extent that it has not, our collective conscience, our collective imagination, has failed.

The World in Miniature

The ancients understood something about the world that we, too often, don’t.

They understood that the patterns of being and interacting in each sphere of the world were establishing ways of being and interacting that affected the others.

When Aristotle wanted to make hay about politics, he started with the most basic political unit: families. More specifically, he started with husbands and wives.

The assumptions he made at one level permeated each other level. In the home, as in society at large, there are people who are given to foresight and planning–who are, in short, superiors. Things would only work well if these superiors ruled their inferiors.

Where does such superiority come from? From the ability of the reason to conquer the passions of the body. From the ability of strength to subdue the weakness that would ruin a home, a city, or a kingdom.

Men were to rule at home for the same reason that Alexander the Great should be the great emperor over all the inhabited world: each epitomizes reason, virtue, and physical power.

At a conference recently, some folks were wrestling with why male power in the church is such a difficult thing to dislodge in America–a place with enough theological education that we should know better.

If we look around we see the seeds of undoing the models of society that uphold the power of patriarchy: when we say “all men are created equal” we actually have to mean all human beings, not just all males. Once we’ve said and meant such a thing, there is no longer any basis for ascribing rule to men alone.

If we look “down” we can see the seeds of undoing the models of society that uphold the power of patriarchy: we strive, now, to have our children settle their disputes without fighting. We call exercise of physical power of intimidation “bullying,” not “manliness.” Our change in vocabulary says that we refuse to be a society governed by physical might as though this is some demonstration of the superiority that gives you the right to lead.

But when we look “up,” it’s an entirely different picture.

While we bemoan gun violence at home, our country is perhaps the greatest perpetrator of gun violence around the world–through exporting of not only arms but also of persons to pull the triggers.

While we righteously deplore the justice of human rights violations in places like North Korea, we violate the human rights of our own political prisoners either in Guantanamo Bay or through extraordinary rendition.

A couple of thoughts about all this.

First, the ancients were right. And, we will not be able to have the microcosms of safe and flourishing communities we desire while we are creating a cosmos of danger and destruction. As long as the national narrative is one of power through violence, that will be the micronarrative of our communities as well.

Second, in the United States, Christians are the greatest hindrance to the alternative economy of peace coming to fruition on the national stage. This is because Christianity is the strongest perpetuation of the narrative of patriarchy in our country.

Patriarchy is about a way of understanding rule through power. And Christians are the boldest, loudest group of people who still maintain that the power of the man (which is always a power of physical might and of a presumption of fundamental inequality and of exceptionalism) as the order of the cosmos.

There is a power in the narrative we teach our children, that simple narrative whose mandate is, “Use your words.” I.e., don’t use the coercion of your fists.

That microcosm has the power to create a different kind of cosmos. Here, I would argue, the power comes not from any inherent power in words, but in the economy of the kingdom of God as put on display in the cross of Christ.

Peace has a chance, not because weakness is inherently better than power, but because of the promise of the power of the God who gives life to the dead.

“Deutsches Requiem”

On vacation last week, I did what vacating people do: I read. Short stories, mostly. (Pro Tip: when the most free time you’ll ever have to read ever in your whole life is 30 minutes or less due to the parenting of little people, go with short stories rather than novels.) Ok, it was short stories entirely. And it was a steady diet of Borges, Labyrinths.

“Deutsches Requiem” is a first-person narration of the death of the Third Reich and its dream. As the teller recounts his tale, he is spared from lamenting this death by one central conviction: the downfall of Hitler’s Germany is a martyrdom of sorts, the death of the first grain of wheat that is necessary for a truly new world to be brought into being.

This appreciative resignation is only possible because the narrator has been deeply transformed.

“I will say little of my years of apprenticeship. They were more difficult for me than for others, since, although I do not lack courage, I am repelled by violence. I understood, however, that we were on the verge of a new era, and that this era, comparable to the initial epochs of Islam and Christianity, demanded a new kind of man.”

It would be hard to imagine a more succinct distillation of the frightening theology of National Socialism. The idea that a new era, with a new humanity, was being brought into existence by the violence of Hitler’s wars and concentration camps was a devastatingly powerful metanarrative.

Violence, in fact, is how our narrator typifies the coming era he has, in the end, helped bring into existence:

“An inexorable epoch is spreading over the world. We forged it, we who are already its victim. What matters if England is the hammer and we the anvil, so long as violence reigns and not servile Christian timidity?”

Borges has captured something so profound, so utterly basic to Christianity, that it is to the perpetual shame of Jesus’ followers that we have not taken hold of it. Borges

Whenever violence is victorious, Christianity is defeated. Whenever we play the part of the crucifying centurions rather than the crucified Christ, our profession of faith is undone.

Now, we might well think that Borges is ridiculous to think that “servile” Christianity was the norm before the 1930s or ’40s. We might find ourselves wishing he were right!

But in the worlds created by Borges, time does not move in a straight line. The narrator himself recounts the glorious deaths of his forebears in the opening lines of the story.

If there is incongruity between reality and the narrator’s words, it comes from an irony that Borges has deeply planted.

Borges has told a story of anti-Christ, something that is only possible when once you’ve grasped well who the Christ is. The irony continues as the narrator goes on:

If victory and injustice and happiness are not for Germany, let them be for other nations. Let Heaven exist, even though our dwelling place is Hell.”

“Heaven” is the world of happiness–happiness that comes to pass not only through violence, but injustice. Hell is simply to be on the wrong side of the violent wielding of power.

The beauty of the story is that it draws us into a loathsome rejection of the narrator’s view of the world, a place where wielding the sword is the great new era, only to send us back to the reality that this, truly, is the world in which we live and the means by which we judge it.

The words of Jesus that the world is least willing to hear have always been, “It shall not be so among you.”

Us and Them?

Genre note: this blog post is about suggestions and questions. It’s about thoughts clanging around that haven’t found a way to resolve in some sort of palatable harmony. Like real life, it’s a mess of happenings and thoughts and interpretations and rightness and wrongness.

Now that the caveat’s behind us…

I’ve been thinking about “us and them” a good bit this past week.

It started with a blog post: There Is No They. I was wrestling with my own tendency, more broadly observed in others as well, to distance myself from the folks to whom I’m joined.

No, there is no “they” that is the Evangelical church, for example, that’s doing it all wrong. It’s we. It’s I.

Sunday I gave a little talk on sexuality for a church group. Again, I found myself compelled to give a word of warning: despite our tendencies to adopt such a posture, there is no “they” who fail to live up to the gold standard in contrast to the “us” who attain to it.

When we gather to talk about sexual brokenness and sin, there is no “they” about whom we are speaking. We are all people whose lives are touched in every realm by some measure of brokenness and shame, failure and guilt. This includes our sexuality. And it includes even people who have only ever had sex with the one spouse to whom they’ve ever been married.

When we talk as Christians about homosexuality, there is no “they” about whom we are speaking. We are speaking about us, Christians, among whose number and in whose body are gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgendered sisters(-)and(-)brothers.

No, there is no “they” that are the sexual failures in contrast to the “we” who have our stuff all together.

Yesterday in the car a conversation with my seven-year-old went something like this:

    “Who’s more important, Jesus or God?”

    “Well, Jesus shows us how much God loves us. Like that Bible verse we sing about.”

    [Insert the singing of John 3:16 here.]

    “Did Oma believe in God?”

    “Yes.”

    “She died.”

    “Well, this is die in a different sense. John’s talking about life as knowing God forever.”

    “So people who don’t believe won’t get to go to heaven and know God forever?”

What kind of “us” are we talking about, what kind of “them” do I want my 7-year-old to carry in mind?

I started thinking about how people act in the world–not just the love God part, but the love neighbor part. If only “they” lived down to the lists of vices that pepper the pages of the Bible, and if only “we” lived up to the lists of Spirit-empowered virtues.

In the middle of all this messifying of the world, I was driving home today and debriefing the Mountain Goats concert I missed by being in Cambridge at the end of June. John Darnielle sang 1 Samuel 15:23:

The song lyrics sit in tantalizing disjunction to 1 Samuel 15:23. A crystal healer who, as AKMA put it,

is not a maleficent enchanter dedicated to a degraded deity, nor a mere charlatan; he provides clothing and shelter for outcasts, and heals the sick. His account of himself sounds more like the description of the works of the Messiah in Matthew 11:1-6, on the basis of which one might (biblically) say regarding the healer, “Blessed is whoever takes no offence at him.”(“‘What These Cryptic Symbols Mean’”, BibInterp 19 (2011): 124

“They” are sometimes more “us” than we are–a surprise reflected in the scene of Matt 25 as much as anywhere. “Lord, lord, whenever did we?” “Lord, lord, whenever did we not?”

“Us and them” can be a dangerous and self-serving weapon. For the most part, even if not always, we might want to put it away before someone gets hurt.