Ne’er Blooming

I love magnolia trees.

I owe this to my North Carolina connections generally, but to my two years at Wake Forest in particular.

There’s nothing quite like a tree that soars 50 feet (or more) into the air, with the prefect branch system for climbing and making mischief.

So, of course, I plant them at every opportunity.

I planted two at the first house we owned, in Durham, NC. And I planted one out front there in San Francisco.

Now, San Francisco is its own animal. We live close to the ocean, a foggy part of town. San Francisco is also basically desert, getting just a smidgeon too much water each year to officially rate as desert (from what I hear: circa 24 inches per year compared to deserts which typically get less than 16).

Thus, one must choose one’s flora with care.

I asked diligently after the fate of a magnolia tree in the Sunset District. I was assured that it would do just fine.

And it has.

Just as long as by “fine” we mean that it hasn’t died, has thickened up in the trunk, and has stayed green.

But then there’s the other part. Those promising buds.

I can keep the tree well watered. I can give it all the nutrients available in the leftover grain husks et al from my beer brewing. (Read: It’s well fertilized.)

But the one thing I can’t do is give it more sunlight.

And so, those buds arrive, full of promise. And then, eventually, they turn brown and fall off, failing to fulfill their beautiful potential.

Being objectively awesome isn’t enough.

Being well tended isn’t enough.

A magnolia tree has to be in the right place or it simply will not bloom.

Abba Chicken, Abba Egg

It is often asserted that Jesus’ cry abba, father, reflects the memory of the early church. This is how Jesus prayed.

Not only this, but several people have followed the line of argument that Jesus prayed like this not once, but every time he addressed God as “father”–referring to him as abba.

The prayer recurs in Paul. Twice.

Thus, the idea is that Paul’s churches participate in this historical memory, themselves participating in the unique form of prayer that Jesus himself taught.

But it strikes me that the opposite may explain the data just as well.

Jesus only says abba once in the Gospels. It’s in Mark. And, it’s in a context where there is no other character around to hear him. In other words, this is one of the least likely places in the Gospel for a historical remembrance to be informing the story.

What if, rather than abba father being a historical remembrance that influenced the Pauline churches, the practice of the Pauline churches influenced how Jesus is depicted as praying in Mark 14?

I have no doubt that Jesus addressed God as “Father” before Paul came on the scene. There is the Lord’s prayer, after all, and other examples of Jesus so addressing God.

But in my study of the abba prayer, I have some concern that too much historical weight is being placed on a passage that can’t bear it. Is abba Jesus’ way of praying? Well, it is in the garden of Gethsemane, and it is in those who are being renewed after the image of this suffering son (Rom 8).


Gleanings in Pacifism

I have a couple of thoughts about pacifism. The first is my own:

I am not a pacifist, but I do not believe that there is any killing which does not require forgiveness.

I would like to be a pacifist. But then there’s the real world. I hate living in this tension. I would like to be a pacifist, but I have an African American friend who won’t let me–because without that brutal war, nothing would have changed for the slaved.

I do believe that the Christian’s place in society is always to bear witness to another economy: an economy where defeat of the gravest powers of the world came by the defeat, rather than military victory, of a marginalized people’s prophet-king.

Within this story, I do not know that it is possible to ever claim that a war is just.

Claiming to be a part of this story, Christians must actively work for peace: blessed are the peacemakers. That should typify kingdom people.

Then sometimes you’ve got Russia and China keeping the Security Council from doing justice. What then?

Thought two. This time, a quote from Stanley Hauerwas:

I’m not a pacifist because I’m so nice. I’m a pacifist because I’m such a mean sonofabitch I need the community to keep me accountable.

Confessing the demands of the gospel story is not, at its best, to issue a claim that faithful expression of this religion is to be like I am. We confess the demands of the gospel story to set out the impossible, glorious vision of the Kingdom of God so that we can, as a people, work toward embodying that vision and seeing that vision reflected in the world.

I talk about the economy of the cross all the time–not because my life looks like one of self-denial, but because that’s how it should look in every relationship, every dollar spent, every minute blown in front of this computer screen.

Ok, so maybe that’s a good argument for being a pacifist after all…

The Story Beyond the Story

This weekend I reflected on the importance of narrative theology for keeping our theology from coming off the rails. A commenter drew attention to an article in this month’s Christianity Today to ask about those parts of the Bible that aren’t, in fact, narrative.

This is an important question to address. What’s all this talk about the Bible as “story” when we have these lovely psalms and proverbs and prophets and letters?

It’s an important question to wrestle with, but one that ultimately misses the point.

To say that the Bible is a story, and not just any story but the story of God’s revelation of himself in, and salvation of the world through, Jesus Christ, is to provide an overarching framework within which all the parts find their significance.

Let’s take the Psalms.

Psalm 1 begins like this:

The truly happy person
doesn’t follow wicked advice,
doesn’t stand on the road of sinners,
and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.
Instead of doing those things,
these persons love the LORD ’s Instruction,
and they recite God’s Instruction day and night! (CEB)

Who is YHWH? What is this Instruction, this Torah, that YHWH has given? Why should someone who sings this song think that keeping such Torah will lead to happiness and flourishing?

The Psalm assumes the story of Israel, a particular God who has done particular things (such as giving Torah) and made particular promises.

I’m not just cherry picking.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.Net

Psalm 2 is an enthronement psalm, celebrating Israel’s king: “Why do the nations so furiously rage together? And why do the peoples imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up and rulers take counsel together against the Lord and his anointed” (Handel’s Messiah Version).

It assumes not only YHWH and Israel, but a particular place for the king, and a particular relationship between the king and YHWH. It even assumes Abrahamic promises of inherited land, now being focused on this royal emissary.

You can sing the psalms without the story, but you’ll be transforming their meaning.

This is one reason why the article in CT was not very helpful or profound in its critiques of narrative theology. In essence, the article was a complaint about people who had done a bad job telling the story, or who had not figured out what to do with psalms or proverbs or that dread beast Qoheleth.

Similar points could be raised about NT letters. One might say, rightly, that Paul did not write stories. Of course he didn’t. And this misses the point entirely.

Paul is writing as part of a religious world formed by the story of Israel and Israel’s God. When he speaks to churches and says, “Our fathers were all under the cloud,” he is writing them into the story of Israel. When he says, “Our unrighteousness will not nullify the righteousness of God, will it?” he is comparing two characters in a story the he recognizes himself to be part of–and that he recognizes Jesus to lie at the center of as well. (More here.)

Within this huge story of Israel and of creation heading to consummation, however, there is a smaller story, an inner story that determines the rest. For Israel, that story was the Exodus. For Christians, that story is the Christ-event.

When we want to know what it looks like for this story to be on track, for this story to–for once!–not run off the rails, we look to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

It’s in light of his instruction that we can sing Psalm 1 with its praise of Torah; it’s in light of his crucifixion and resurrection that we can sing Psalm 1 with its expectations of flourishing; it’s in light of his enthronement that we can sing Psalm 2 and know what it is to have a king who has asked, and is being given, the world as his inheritance (and, incidentally, sharing it with us).

So no, I don’t find the lack of narrative at points to be any argument against narrative theology. In fact, I would argue that those parts can only be read aright in light of the larger story within which they are given voice and thereby find their meaning.

It’s Still Easter, God

Dear God, it’s still Easter.

I know you know this, but… well… It doesn’t look like it so much.

This week the news feed indicated a world where the Curse was found far and wide, but all too little of the blessings flowing.

So here’s where I’m at in all this: you’ve got a bunch of us here who are telling the world, in faith, that you have raised Jesus from the dead.

That you have overcome the powers of sin and death.

That you have enthroned your Man at your right hand.

That there is a King reigning over the cosmos for the true and living God.

That Jesus is Lord.

It’s Easter!

So why should they say among the nations, “Where is this God of yours? Where is your Lord?”

We can confess that Jesus is Lord, but when we read about massacres in movie theaters, it makes our claim ring hollow.

We can confess that Jesus is Lord, but when we blow up the internet with our intramural disagreements one might well ask, “Where is this Spirit who is supposed to be leading them into all truth? Where is this Spirit who is supposed to be binding them as one?”

Where, indeed, is the Spirit sent by the Resurrected One?

It’s still Easter.

I know that you care about your reputation. You are the God who acts to demonstrate the goodness and power of your name upon the earth. You are the God who will not sit idly by while your name is blasphemed among the gentiles.

So I guess where I’m going with all this is here: I don’t mind saying audacious things. Really. In fact, I know several people who wish I minded a bit more!

But when it comes to the audacious things of God, well… I… actually, a lot of us… well… we’d like a little more backup.

You have your Man on the throne. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him.

So, do you think we could see a tidal wave of peace? An earth-shattering abundance of food for those who have none? A few minutes of clarity that there is a plan here, there is a God whose power can bring it about, there is a people who rightly confess the God who rules in righteousness by the hand of a Resurrected King?

Maybe what I’m getting at is this: May your Kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Because this wasn’t much of an “as it is in heaven” week.

So come quickly, Lord Jesus. You are the Resurrected Lord, after all.

Theologizing and Cultural Transformation

Why would I name a whole blog, “Storied Theology,” as if the most important thing I had to say deals with some new-fangled theological method?

Why would I care if someone starts with natural law or the story of Jesus when they begin speaking of God?

How could it be anything other than, mostly, a waste of time to invest a life trying to get people to read scripture in more faithful continuity with the biblical story?

One answer to this cluster of questions is shown, in the negative, by the work of Douglas Wilson that was quoted on the Gospel Coalition website this past week. (My thoughts about it here.)

That such a moment could surface depends on myriad pieces being in place. One of them is this: the Gospel Coalition promotes a reading strategy of scripture that demands of modern people that we accept and attempt to emulate the patriarchal cultures from which the biblical texts arise.

Without a narrative hermeneutic of the cross, they have no recourse for retreating from readings that reinforce use and abuse of power. Indeed, their readings quite often demand that we all submit to such.

Patriarchy isn’t a culture moment of separate but equal… although, come to think of it, “separate but equal” is helpful inasmuch as it conjures up America’s attempt to run a “separate but equal” system which demonstrated itself to be an enshrinement of inequality.

Patriarchy is a web of cultural expressions tied to the common assumption that men are better than women: smarter, more competent, stronger, morally superior, inherently more valuable.

Patriarchy is a web of cultural expressions designed to maintain people “in their place” by the exercise of power or passive submission appropriate to their inherent value.

The problem with appealing to “nature” in theological argumentation is that patriarchy arises from a world within which physical power is the means by which leadership is acquired and exercised. Patriarchy is the fruit of a world where being able to hunt, kill, subdue, colonize, conquer leads to prominence.

Patriarchy is the fruit of the reign of the world by Egypt and Babylon, by Assyria and Media, by Greece and by Rome.

I get it. Power and conquest lead to rule.

And that’s why it’s absolutely crucial that Christians learn, again and again, the story of the cross. Here we learn that there is true power, yes, but that it is had and gained by denying the power structures of the world. Paradoxically, it is gained by losing its power to theirs.

You cannot fill the role of the patriarch in a cruciform manner, because the patriarch is the crucifier, not the Crucified.

This is but one instance of how far we are, as evangelical Christians, from having our minds transformed by the gospel story.

The Gospel Coalition’s headline description on its blog reads as follows:

Equipping the next generation for gospel-faithful ministry and promote church reform and culture transformation. Led by Tim Keller and Don Carson.

I like the goal. But it calls into question what “culture” we’re hoping to transform from and what we’re trying to transform to.

If the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be poured into the wineskins of God-given Jewish practice and belief without blowing them up, how much less can we anticipate that pouring the gospel into anti-Kingdom power structures will “transform” those structures to be more like Jesus–rather than blowing them up?

Propping up an account of sex as conquest is an understanding that maleness, physical strength, even possession of a penis per se, reflects the cosmic reality that God desires men to rule through the power of their might.

This is the theology of the world’s kings.

But it is not the theology of the King over those kings.

The story of the cross upends the story of power that props up too many of the power structures that enable us to have a voice among the people who would follow Jesus.

The heart-searching that should follow in the wake of the “sex as male conquest” debacle is much farther reaching than what J. Wilson has admirably led in. It should call us all to reexamine the ways in which we think that God’s desire is to reaffirm the power that we happen to have, the power meted out to us by the rulers of this age–who crucified the Lord of glory.

Sexual Conquering is Rape

There’s been quite the brouhaha over the piece published last week by the Gospel Coalition. The post pines for the good ol’ days, when men were men and women were women (and therefore subject to all the whims of men’s desires) especially in the arena of sex.

It cites the following from Douglas Wilson:

In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage.

I’m not kidding.

The Wilson quote then goes on to say that men fantasize about raping women because society won’t allow them to exercise the power that is rightfully theirs in the “egalitarian” bedroom.

I’m not kidding.

To cut to the chase, here’s what Wilson misses: when you sexually conquer someone, this is rape. The connection Wilson draws is too much on target: he has, in fact, described all sex as an act of rape. It is therefore not surprising that he sees such a connection between rape outside of marriage and not finding the sort of satisfaction that he suggests is coming to men in their exploits of power.

I am embarrassed for Christianity that such an advocacy of rape (marital or otherwise) could find itself onto a websites that boasts of being one of a “Gospel” coalition.

This is one reason why we narrative theology is so important: it reminds us that the story that makes us who we are must always be the story of the cross.

When Jesus came and showed us what Christian manhood was all about, he did not conquer, but allowed himself to be conquered; he did not pierce, but allowed himself to be pierced; he did not plant by scattering his seed forcibly, he planted by giving up his own life–the grain of wheat falling to the earth and dying that it might produce a crop 100-fold.

Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

You want to be a man in the bedroom? Learn what it means to give up your power rather than clinging to that primal desire to conquer.

You want to be a Christian man in the bedroom? Go and learn what this means: “The husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Cor 7).

Even the bedroom is to be part of the way of the cross. Play the part of the Roman centurion, and you’re not telling the Jesus story any longer.

Historical footnote: the comparison between the conquering, piercing Roman and the conquered, pierced Christ is not mere poetic license, as often as I do riff on such language when it comes to the cross. Wilson’s description of power, penetration, and conquest is a conjunction of themes that the ancient Greco-Roman world used to depict power and social hierarchy. Conquered peoples were displayed as ravaged women in Roman art. Homosexual sex was ok, so long as you were “penetrating” someone of a lower social standing than you and not “being penetrated by” someone of such lower status.

Standing with the Afflicted

Lament. Songs of mourning. Plaintive cries to God from a world-gone-wrong.

The biblical tradition of lament invites us to take hold of three things at the same time: (1) the world as we experience it is not, in fact, the world as God wants it to be; (2) that God’s commitment to the world is failing at this point of pain, suffering, and death; and (3) that we have a right to expect that our demands for a better world will be met by the God with the power to do something about it.

Riffing off of Walter Bruegemann here, lament means that we honor God by agreeing with what he’s told us about what a good world looks like: a world of justice, a world of abundance, a world of peace.

Lament means we honor God by coming to God as the one who actually has the power to do something about this world gone awry.

And, lament means we honor God’s choosing of us as his people by taking up our place, the people of God on behalf of the whole, to demand that God act for the good of the afflicted.

Lament confesses God’s goodness, God’s power, and God’s choice of a people to be God’s agents for the world’s blessing.

Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld

And that is why we need to never lose sight of the fact that Jesus cries out to God in heart-broken lamentation, calling on God to act God’s part as deliverer of God’s beloved children.

This is what it is for Jesus to enter into prayer in the garden, crying out, “Abba, Father.”

It is a cry of lament.

It is a cry made in anticipation of the later cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus was truly forsaken. The father was not delivering the son. The son prayed for God to act in accordance with God’s fatherly power and protection and deliverance.

A cry on behalf of himself. But also a cry on behalf of the world who was represented by him, the messiah. The representative king of God’s representative nation.

Crying out to a God who would not answer, yet, in the face of death.

We must remember that Jesus’ cry, “Abba, Father,” is a cry of lament, because here our words are said to echo his.

It is the Spirit of God by which we cry out, “Abba, Father,” showing that we are God’s children and heirs–”if, indeed, we suffer with him in order that we might also be glorified with him.”

This is a cry of suffering and lament.

It is a cry that wells up simply because of how the world is–a place where God’s power has been usurped. And usurped repeatedly.

We cry out, not only for our own suffering, but for suffering with Christ which is a suffering whose deliverance yields the age to come.

The whole creation awaits the revealing of these sons–no longer suffering, but glorified and redeemed.

The creation awaits the answer of God to the laments of God’s people.

God answered Jesus.

He raised him from the dead.

This newness of life spills over, such that it is ours. Now. Already. Even as we live into it by the way of the cross, and by taking up our own cry, “Abba, Father,” on behalf of the many, even as Jesus himself cried out on behalf of the many.

As long as the world is not as it should be.

As long as children are trafficked for sex.

As long as women are enslaved for their bodies.

As long as stomachs rumble with no bread to quiet them.

As long as tongues swell with no water to shrink them.

As long as money defines justice with no one to declare it bankrupt.

As long as bankruptcy overtakes people entrapped in cycles of injustice.

As long as our lives are taken from us by cancer and bullets and cars.

As long as there is a world that needs to be set to rights, there must be a people standing up for that world in the presence of God. There must be a people living out the world’s suffering in the presence of a father with the power to deliver.

There must be a people who cry out, “Abba, Father,” even to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Red Dog (and other stories)

Saturday night, the annual film festival known as Windrider Bay Area hosted a showing of Red Dog.

At the screening we were told that Red Dog is the all-time #3 selling DVD in Australia behind Avatar and Finding Nemo. (We also got to see the canine star’s screen test, which is hilarious.) The showing was followed by a conversation with lead actor Josh Lucas and writer Daniel Taplitz.

This was one of those stories that rolls around every now and then–a story that is as much about telling stories, and having a story, as it is about the overall plotline itself.

Red Dog is based on a true story of a dog who adopted a community in the desolate mining regions of Australia’s northwest. The dog then adopted one of the miners in particular. And when that miner died, the dog went a-wanderin’, only to return (months? years?) later.

In the film, and apparently in real life, the dog touches everyone. It brings the community of rugged miners together.

The line in the film that most struck me as the glue that held everything together was when one of the miners confessed mused on the reality entailed in coming out to a place like this to work: You dig long enough, and you discover that everyone has a story.

Everyone did have a story, and in the course of the movie a number of those stories unfold. This dog becomes the catalyst for setting many of those stories in new directions, a catalyst for new life.

The Q&A got rather bogged down (in my opinion) in the quest for cutesy stories about working with the dog Koko. Not a bad topic of conversation, but I thought the film served up a lot more compelling lines to pursue:

  • What does it take to transform our stories?
  • How do we as people find life in the middle of desolation
  • Why is it that a dog (or sometimes a child) can enter into a setting and bring people together who had, until then, managed to create their own little worlds in the midst of each other?

The film is slated for an August theatrical release here in the U.S. It’s definitely worth catching then. But make sure you bring your tissues.

Does the Son Elect?

(And other pressing concerns generated by Church Dogmatics §33.2)

Question 1: Is it faithful to Scripture to say that the Son, Jesus Christ, elects, such that in the God-man the one who elects and the one who is elected are one?

Or, is it more faithful to scripture to say that the one who elects is, properly, God the Father, who makes known to the Son that the Son has been elected for a certain task?

Barth’s whole program, as he presents it, hangs on Christ being both the subject and object of predestination.

I like the idea, but I’m not sure it’s how the NT presents God’s election. It’s all well and good for us, in our more developed Trinitarian Theology, to think “Father, Son, and Spirit” when we think “God.” However, this is not what the NT writers were thinking. For them, when they say “God” they mean the one to whom we refer to as “Father.”

More specifically, when election is assigned to a person, it is most often the Father (e.g., 1 Peter 1:1-2) rather than the Son; unless, that is, the Son is seen as agent of electing those (not himself!) whom the Father has chosen.

Barth Elects to say Yes to God Via His Pipe

Indeed, Ephesians 1 itself, the great “in Christ” celebration that provides the clearest indication that Jesus Christ is the one through whom any others are seen when they are elect, places the whole in the provenance of the Father:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us… Just as he (i.e., the Father!) chose us in him (i.e., the Son), before the foundation of the cosmos… Having predestined us (i.e., the same Father predestines as chooses and blesses) to adoption through Jesus Christ…”

I don’t think that John 1:1, “the Word was God,” provides the kind of leverage Barth demands of it to assign to the son what is clearly assigned to the Father throughout scripture.

Or, to put a different spin on it, when KB says that the son’s suffering is something Jesus speaks of “not as a necessity laid upon Him from without, but as something which He Himself wills,” I wonder what Bible he’s reading. The Son wills it as the will of the Father placed upon him.

I do not think, however, that this is as fatal to Barth’s project as he would lead us to believe. Jesus Christ can still be the primary object of election, focusing the choosing of God on the Son who as Elected One responds faithfully in electing God as well, and much of what Barth wants to maintain is upheld.

Question 2: If Barth wants the election of Jesus Christ to be the sum substance of election, such that all of us can look to Christ and take confidence in our standing before God–has he not cut off any defense he might have had against a charge of universalism?

If not every single person can so look to Christ and be comforted, then election cannot serve this purpose, which Barth says it surely has. I know, I’m not saying anything new here. And I’m happy for KB to be a Universalist based on the capacious nature of Christ’s work on our behalf.

Question 3: is it really all potential loss for God and all potential gain for humanity that God would choose to become incarnate, to become a man who must elect God in order for humanity to be truly God’s people?

I get this idea: we suck, God is awesome, God takes care of our suckiness, but at the possible expense of some of his awesomeness.

However, what if God really loves people?

What if God, creating people in his own image and likeness loves us in the same way that, say, Adam loved Seth–one born in his own image and likeness.

In other words, what if being in the image of God means that we are God’s children and therefore beloved of him, and God has something magnificent to gain from this whole business–a beloved, faithful, loving family?

I love how Barth is moving away from double-predestination (although, again, I think a revisionist hermeneutic is involved here) and creating a doctrine that is radically christological in its focus. I think that much of this is a salutary corrective to predestinarian thinking.

But more work is going to have to be done if this is going to be a revision that stands up to biblical scrutiny.

Telling the story of the story-bound God