Tag Archives: cruciformity

Abstinence is Death

In an interview with Christianity Today Christine Gardner talks about the language that Evangelicals use to talk about abstinence. Gardner’s book is entitled, Making Abstinence Sexy–a telling encapsulation of how Evangelical abstinence are striving to affirm the culture’s obsession with sex–and visions of abundant, great sex in particular–while giving it a distinctive, Christian veneer:

They are using the very thing they are prohibiting to admonish young people to wait. They are saying, “If you are abstinent now, you will have amazing sex when you are married.”

Holy non sequitur, Batman!

Gardner thinks that Christianity has something to offer that has been largely missing from these abstinence campaigns:

Language of sacrifice and suffering can be transformative to those who know that sex sells everything from cars to deodorant and, now, abstinence.

I think she’s getting close. Abstaining from sex is suffering, dying to the desires of our bodies. In a world where people are regularly remaining single into their thirties and beyond, it’s death with no this-worldly promise of new life.

Perhaps reframing abstinence as participation in the cross of Christ is better preparation for marriage than the promise of great sex on the other side.

Image: photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

No only is there no correlation between abstinence now and quality of sex then, this framework perpetuates a self-centeredness that can make sex a source of conflict and tension rather than intimate oneness.

Whatever else sex is, it is also an extension of the other dynamics of who we are both as individuals and as couples. If we are insecure and distrustful in our relationship, that will play out in our sex as well. If we are looking to sex simply as the avenue of self-satisfaction, we are going to discover that the presence of another person with their own set of needs and desires is an annoyance and hindrance.

That’s the deeper problem with the “sex will be great if you wait” dynamic that some seem to be advocating in the church world. It buys into the idea that sex is about “me.”

First, whether you’re Christian or not, sex is always going to be about “us.”

But then there’s the more important fact for us as Christians that “love” is not about seeking our own. Our understanding of sex needs to be reframed as an expression of the self-giving love of Christ by which we are called to make God’s love known in the world.

In other words: if we frame abstinence as the death that it is, we are putting our sexuality within the Christian narrative of Christ crucified. This is the same story within which we are called to love our partners Christianly in our sexual relationship.

Patience and Wisdom

As we think about who God is, we often struggle to hold down ideas that appear contradictory to us. How can God be both holy and gracious? How can a just God also be merciful? How can the God whose wisdom calls us to a definite way of life exercise patience with those who refuse?

These are the three pairs of seemingly incompatible attributes that Barth unpacks in his chapter on the God who loves (Church Dogmatics §30, “The Perfections of the Divine Loving”).

While I resonated with the tensions of the first two pairs, I found the Patience and Wisdom section to be a bit more strained.

The strength of this section, as usual, came in the insistence that we don’t know from any sort of ideals or preconceptions of what a God is or might be that God is wise and patient. We only know that this is who God is because it is who God has revealed Godself to be in Jesus Christ.

What is the true God’s patience?

Patience exists where space and time are given with a definite intention, where freedom is allowed in expectation of a response.

God is patient in eager expectation that those reconciled to God in Christ will enter the relationship God has created in him.

This section of the Dogmatics contained a couple of beautiful, revisionist readings of biblical passages, including here God’s marking of Cain. The preservation and defense of the murderer is the triumph of God’s mercy and patience.

When Barth moved into the discussion of wisdom, I felt that Jesus Christ as the wisdom of God was too much confined to the small print, and not given enough of a defining place in the major theological structure. The desire to juxtapose wisdom with patience felt strained at this point.

Nonetheless, there was another beautiful revisionist reading of the OT, as Barth discussed the story of Solomon suggesting that a contested baby be split in half and given to the parents. There is a people who profess to come to God in search of wisdom, but would take death to be proven right. And there is a people who come to God in search of wisdom, and would rather suffer the personal loss in order to give life to the other.

The two women end up representing a people standing before God, whose wisdom is made known in the cross of Christ–and is, therefore, not a wisdom that can be known from below, but only by God’s own revelation.

The patient God is wise–patiently awaiting a people who will see God’s own wisdom made manifest in the cross.

From here, Barth will move into the God who is perfect in freedom. Apparently, this is either more important or much more difficult to talk about than God as love. §31 extends over the next 240ish pages of the book. Steel yourself…

Story Telling & Crisis

This past quarter I had a student whose final project was about storytelling. Working at a Christian undergraduate institution, there was something of a culture in which a veneer of “nice” was masking shallowness and exclusion.

The stumbled upon solution? Storytelling night. Or, as they call it, “Yarning in the Round.” I forgive him for turning a noun into a verb.

Listening to his NPR-style documentary, the power of telling stories came through repeatedly. It’s funny–we look at the people around us and assume everyone else is “normal,” but then we exclude ourselves from that label.

We realize that our own stories are not stories of confidence and glory but rather of fumbling and shame and wounds all mixed up with moments of hope and beauty. But somehow we encounter other people and assume that their lives are the public moments of being put-together and beautiful that we happen to encounter–creating a content for the label “normal” that applies to no actual person that we have ever known with any depth.

Reframing normal. That’s what storytelling is about. It provides the rich, comforting revelation that my crap is, in fact, normal, and that there are fellow travelers through the mire. And, hope for moments of rest and peace and beauty.

My student’s project dovetails beautifully with a recent initiative of ReImagine in San Francisco.

About a month ago the stories were about spirituality and sexuality (you can read one by Anna Broadway and one by Dani Scoville [this one was subjected to heavy revision by the editor] on the SoJo blog). This week they were on Surviving Identity Crisis.

Of course, in order for you to feel the full power of the stories you’d have to… well… hear the story. But, despite that, here were a few take-aways that were rich for me:

  • We work with metaphors that create the wrong idea of what most of our lives will look like: we talk about climbing a ladder or being on a path. But most of us are, instead, enmeshed in stories. Not kids stories with a straight, single plot line. But real stories. Where people are diverted. Where quests fail. Where there is no going home and starting over. This is no “there and back again” children’s tale.
  • We tend to think about issues of identity, vocation, and career somewhat interchangeably. We need to get over this. There is an “I” who lives this life who can move from job to job, who can be, and respond, and love irrespective of other parts that are in place. (At least, in theory…)
  • It is a common, and often lifelong experience to wrestle with finding a way for our deepest longings and passions to coincide with the work we do on a daily basis (whether paid or not).

There were two particular pieces of wisdom from the night that I think will stay with me a long time.

  1. When making a decision, or discovering oneself to be in a time of transition, often it is more helpful to think in terms of a 5ish year block of time rather than “the rest of my life.” The reality is that very few of the courses we choose set us in one immovable place For.Ev.Ver.
  2. Richard Rohr told one of our storytellers that we spend the first 40 years of our lives building a tower, and then we come to the point where we have to decide if we’re going to be willing to trust God enough to jump off of it to live into what comes next. Yikes. But, importantly, this “tower” isn’t a tower simply built on success. It is the work of the successes and failures alike.

The stories held a great deal of “normalzing” power: they were stories of anxiety, of suffering, of rejection, of pain, of celebration, of hope, of hopes dashed, of insecure answers to the question “what do you do?,” of getting places but never arriving.

In that, there was creation of a new “normal”: it’s your normal. It’s my normal. There’s no “put together them” who stand over against “angst-ridden, disappointed me.”

Our lives are real stories–and good ones. Stories that are much too rich and complex to find resolution in one single dynamic such as job or marital status or recognition. Stories that, all too often, make it look like the only way to resurrection glory is the way of the cross.

Dungeons and Castles

As folks who have been around here (or me) know, I get my spiritual direction from the Mountain Goats. And I need it. Today, as I get ready to tell my own story at a gathering about “Navigating the Crisis of Identity,” John Darnielle posted this on the band’s website (language warning on his post):

I love literally everything about my life and I have this probably-dumb-but-what-the-hell mystical sense that if even one small detail of my life had been changed, then everything would be different now, and who’s to say that the things most dear to me wouldn’t have to be traded away in the bargain?

***

If there’s any point to this story, and I’m not sure there is but, it’s that the songs I sing, which are often about finding ways to call a dark dungeon a glittering castle & really mean it, have some of their genesis in me being a fearful young kid with just enough presence of mind to turn to music as an escape.

That’s what I continually learn from the Mountain Goats.

I can tell you that resurrection glory only comes by way of the cross, but he knows how to mean it better than I do. I confess the sovereignty of the God at work in the world, but with a chastened confession that wants so many things to have gone differently.

In the middle of all that brooding and questioning, there’s often the sense that I know who I am, what I should be, what I should do. But here, too, life is a jumbled contradictory mess. Who is this “I” whose story of identity crisis will be told tonight? I’m not sure I’ve seen yet.

And the Mountain Goats remind me of that as well:

Suffering and Redemption

The stories of the suffering Maccabees (see here and here) provide some interesting conceptual frameworks for making sense of how Jesus’ death might transform the standing of humanity before God.

But there’s another piece that is not so clear in these passages–an important dynamic in early Judaism that suffuses the NT.

Eschatology.

E. P. Sanders described the expectations of early Jewish people as “restoration eschatology.” After the return from exile didn’t quite come together as anticipated; after the Persians and Medes and Greeks and Romans continued to rule the Land for centuries; after the Temple was pitiful and then all gussied up by a half-Jew (at best)–after the unfolding of Israel’s story made it clear that no earthly course of events could turn the tide of history in Israel’s favor, the expectations were translated to a cosmic scale.

God would have to intervene dramatically. The End of business as usual would have to come by God’s hand.

But these two dynamics weren’t separate. The people who were suffering persecution and needed rescue from the kings of the earth looked to the God of Israel to do what is right; and, they looked for an eschatological visitation to be brought about through the suffering of the faithful.

The suffering righteous are not merely the persecuted. Theirs are the labor pains that usher in the age to come.

The faithful not only look back to the suffering of the Maccabees as ushering in a worldly deliverance, they begin to frame the future in similar terms. When the righteous suffer in the time of the great tribulation, God will bring about the final, eschatological deliverance of God’s people, making all things new and setting the cosmos to rights.

And so, when Jesus hangs on the cross, we read of the cosmic portents: the sun being darkened at midday. The earthquake. The rocks splitting. The dead rising. Jesus’ death is both literally and figuratively an earth-shattering event.

The ages have turned.

The new creation has dawned.

God’s faithful one has suffered, experiencing in himself the labor pangs that give birth to the age to come.

All of which, of course, makes this the best moment in Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of the Christ:

It’s Still Easter

Just a reminder, especially for all the self-inflicting faithful who suffered through forty days of Lenten fasts: it’s still Easter.

I know, it’s Thursday. But really. (Of course, in terms of cosmic reality, it really is always Easter and Lent is a sort of game we play to keep us from taking it for granted. But that’s another rant for another day.)

Easter lasts seven weeks in the liturgical year, so don’t leave behind the resurrection yet.

Resurrection means that God is invested in the world God created–not to rescue us out of it, but to transform it for us to inhabit forever.

Image: zirconicusso / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

New Creation is a transformation of the old, not creation out of nothing. Sort of like we, as new creatures in Christ, are transformations of the old, not creation out of nothing.

Of course, the two are related. It’s the God who calls into being the things that are not who is also the God who raises the dead (Rom 4). It’s that kind of power that God has at work in us through God’s Spirit. It is the power to create. It is the power to bring new life.

If there is a Church of God; if there is a people who are in Christ–it is Easter.

Of course, the trick in all this is that Easter comes by way of Good Friday. So our Easter triumph is the paradoxical triumphal-procession of the way of the cross. Ours is a resurrection through crucifixion.

But that’s just why we need the resurrection and its power. This is not a mere slavish existence to get to the end of our dreaded, drudging task.

Our participation in God’s commitment to transform the world is suffused with hope. We pour ourselves out in Christ-like, God-reflecting love. And we can only hope and trust as “I die daily,” the “life of Christ will be at work” in every corner of this world to which we give ourselves.

It’s Easter. We celebrate. We celebrate not the absence of scars, but their transformation and glorification. We celebrate. We celebrate new life from the old, new creation from the old.

And we make that new real in the present because the future has already begun.

Law, Gentiles, and Decalogue in the NT

I’ve been arguing over the past week that followers of Jesus don’t go to the Decalogue as the starting point for our ethics. We begin with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In particular, we have kept coming back to the Sabbath as a command that is no longer binding on God’s people.

I want to focus on Paul, but before I get there I want a brief pit stop in Acts.

In Acts 15, the “Jerusalem Council” decides what the Gentile believers must (or must not) do as they come into the family of Israel’s God:

“Therefore, I conclude that we shouldn’t create problems for Gentiles who turn to God. Instead, we should write a letter, telling them to avoid the pollution associated with idols, sexual immorality, eating meat from strangled animals, and consuming blood. After all, Moses has been proclaimed in every city for a long time, and is read aloud every Sabbath in every synagogue. ” (Acts 15:19-21, CEB)

The Decalogue as such is notably absent, as is the Sabbath command in particular. It seems that if there were some requirement that the Gentiles adopt this distinctive Jewish practice this would be the place to tell us.

But to Paul.

In particular, to Paul and the Decaglogue and the Law of Sinai more generally.

When Paul wants to contrast the present epoch of salvation with what came before, it is the Law given at Sinai that serves as his point of differentiation.

In 2 Cor 3:7ff., here’s how it goes, where Paul is contrasting the Law carved in stone with his ministry of the gospel:

  • The Law brings death, though with glory–Paul’s ministry brings the Spirit, with greater glory.
  • The Law brings condemnation; Paul’s ministry brings righteousness

It’s not simply that Paul’s ministry is more glorious than Moses'; it’s that the law on stone–i.e., the Decalogue itself–is the point of contrast between Paul’s ministry of the Spirit and Moses’ ministry of Torah.

Then there’s Galatians. The whole point of Galatians 3 is that the Abrahamic covenant is the point of continuity between God’s people old and new–and therefore the Law is the point of discontinuity. Law is not about the promise or the people of promise–it participates in curse and enslavement that must be overcome (Gal 3:10-18).

Then what’s the Law’s purpose? Funny we should ask…

So why was the Law given? It was added because of offenses, until the descendant would come to whom the promise had been made. It was put in place through angels by the hand of a mediator.

It’s a placeholder. It’s a custodian or guardian, a temporary stand-in from the time between Abraham and Christ. This is specifically the Laws that God gave on Sinai to Moses.

Image: FreeFoto.com

The tradition of angels mediating the Law was common in early Judaism (see also Heb 2:2). That’s what Paul is alluding to here.

None of this is to say that the Law was bad, or that it was experienced as a burden, or any of those stereotyped denigrations of the Law that people have fallen into.

It is to say, however, that what defines us as a people is tied to a different covenant, and therefore what it looks like to be the people of God is fidelity to a different sent of covenant norms.

The Decalogue was Israel’s covenant, and this is why Israel was known for keeping Sabbath among the nations.

The death of Jesus is ours, and this is why we are to be known as those who lay down our lives so that others might live. Our summons is to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Deriving our ethics from the Decalogue is binding ourselves to the shadow rather than Christ who is our life-giving substance. Our ethics begin with the self-giving Christ, not the Exodus; with the new covenant rather than the old.

Atonement Begins… When?

Tony Jones is hosting a series of guest posts on the atonement in the lead-up to Good Friday and Easter.

Mine is there today:

“Jesus died for our sins.” Often, the problem with this core piece of our common Christian confession is that we think we know what it means. And so we limit our understanding of the fullness of the atonement…

Forgiveness is not merely about having guilt forgiven. Forgiveness becomes the means by which we are freed from an enslaving tyrant…
(read the rest at Theoblogy)

Theology as a Way of Life?

I hate to get too predictable, but you can imagine how I responded when I saw the following in a recent advert from Paternoster Press:

James McClendon is right to assert that Theology is ‘not merely a reading strategy by which the church can understand Scripture; it is a way—for us, it is the way—of Christian existence itself’.

Disclaimers: (1) I do not know where James McClendon says this, therefore I do not have a larger context for interpreting what “theology” means here. (2) I do not know who this “us” is of whom he speaks.

Image: dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Let me also say, first and foremost, that there are some ways that I can see myself affirming this sentence. If by “theology” you mean, “Jesus, the crucified Messiah, is resurrected Lord,” then I agree that this mini-narrative of Christian theology provides both the hermeneutical lens for making sense of scripture and provides us with the way of Christian existence itself.

If this is the life of Christ, after all, then we who are dubbed “little Christs” are called to renarrate this life in our own.

But of course, my concern is that this is not what the phrase means at all.

My concern is that it has taken a typical Evangelical mistake (relying on the Bible as though the Bible is THE thing, rather than Christ being THE thing) and pushed it back one further level from the appropriate target, landing on Christian theological articulations as THE things that determine faithful Christian faith and practice.

“The way,” of course, is Jesus.

The Bible testifies to Jesus as the way God has provided for the life of God’s creatures. It is one step removed from the person and his narrative, but is the access we have and the God-given interpretation of the saving story.

Theology in the traditional sense is a second step removed, as it reflects on what the Bible has said about Jesus who is the way and the God who provided Him.

If I’m reading the paragraph fairly, the claim that theology is the way of Christian existence is a door to a world in which theology forms the hermeneutic, identity, and praxis of a community. In such a world, articulating the correct theology becomes its own good–the very faithful practice God hopes for from Christians.

If theology is the way of Christian life itself, then mental constructions and statements of right belief become the markers of Christian life. And in so doing, following Christ along the way of the cross, being ambassadors of the message of reconciliation, feeding the hungry, caring for the parentless, embracing the outsider–all of these become second-order responses, and lie far from the center of faithful Christian practice.

But perhaps we can just agree (hard as it is for my inner 8 to say such a thing):

The theology by which we understand scripture is that Jesus is God’s messiah, given up on the cross and then raised and enthroned at God’s right hand.

This theology of the Christ is our way of life, because it means that all of our life should be a giving up of ourselves in order that all creation might live under the freedom of the risen Christ’s lordship.

Now that’s a “theology as the way of Christian existence” I can get behind–a theology in which theology itself is eclipsed by the Christ of whom it speaks.

Reimagining Faith: Faithfulness

One of the most important debates in NT scholarship for the past 30 years or so has been the interpretation of the Greek phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ (pistis christou; “the faith of Christ”).

Basically, it comes down to this: is Paul talking about “faith in Christ” (objective genitive) or “the faithfulness of Christ” (subjective genitive) when he uses this phrase?

In this case, “faithfulness of Christ” would mean Jesus’ faithfulness in going to the cross.

Can pistis mean “faithfulness”?

The answer is decidedly, “Yes.”

In fact, the most unequivocal use of pistis in the book of Romans is one in which it clearly means “faithfulness” rather than faith, and is used in a “subjective genitive” construction.

In Rom 3:3, Paul is reflecting on the “faithlessness” of some who did not believe the gospel. He contrasts this with the faithfulness of God. “Their faithlessness cannot nullify the faithfulness of God, can it?”

Faithfulness of God is the English rendering of τὴν πίστιν τοῦ θεοῦ (ten pistin tou theou; “the faith of God”).

Might this help with the conversation we’ve been having here since the end of last week?

The starting question was what we do with final judgment based on works within a system of theology that strongly emphasizes justification (initial judgment?) based on faith.

On Saturday I suggested that we rethink “faith in Christ” as “faithing into Christ,” or “believing unto union with Christ.”

Today I want to raise the question of whether thinking in terms of “faithfulness” might better capture what Paul is after than our normal idea of “belief”?

In order for this to work, we’ll have to rethink the faith versus works contrast. In Romans and Galatians, there are particular works that Paul is eager to deny are at the heart of justification–those that define Jewish people as a particular set-apart people; works that indicate conversion to Judaism as such.

No, says Paul, Gentiles don’t have to become Jewish. Faithing into Christ is enough.

Within this framework, Paul’s claim in Romans 1 makes much more sense. The goal of his ministry is to bring about “the obedience of faith” or, “faithful obedience” among the Gentiles.

Not faith alone, but an obedient faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If we are saved by Christ’s faithfulness in going to death on the cross for us, perhaps our part in continuing the story is to respond with a Christ-shaped faithfulness of our own.

Believing into Christ means faithfulness to the Christian story, a lived faithfulness that puts that story on display in our own communities, our own lives.