Saturday, May 19, 2012

Atonement at Ground Zero

From the winter of 2010 through the spring of 2012, I worked on a book that is now titled Atonement at Ground Zero: Revisiting the Epicenter of Faith (Wipf and Stock, 2012). It just hit the publisher's catalog yesterday, and should be on Amazon and Barnes & Noble soon.

I wrote this book in an effort to struggle with the question, Why did Jesus die? There is much to found in our various doctrinal grids to attempt to answer that question theologically, but what happens when you attempt to press back to the ground zero of the events surrounding Jesus' death? Would the witnesses to his execution agree with our theological interpretations?

So in Atonement at Ground Zero I look back at the New Testament to help us imagine and hear the responses of the various witnesses. Through Jesus' friends and family, the community of Israel, the Romans, and through Jesus himself, we discover an interesting and surprising weave of experiences and expectations.

My hope is that this is a book that joins in with other (more qualified) voices that want to expand rather than restrict the doctrine of the atonement, but also that it will be a book that helps us communicate the richness of what God has done in Jesus Christ for the sake of the world. So it becomes, in essence, a preaching book that seeks to help others to embrace and speak of new images that lead people into the expansive mystery of God's love for the world.

My desire is that it would help followers of Jesus—-pastors, leaders, and others who care about communicating the good news of Jesus Christ--to find new language that launches from the old, and to learn to employ new images that mean as much to our culture as the former ones did in cultures now long past.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Is Jesus Reckless?

In reading Luke chapter nine this morning, I was struck by the way Jesus seemed to play a bit fast and loose with the qualifications for joining him in his work. We know that the twelve disciples were pretty sketchy in their understanding of who Jesus was and what he was up to, yet they were sent out in his authority to proclaim the good news of the kingdom, to heal the sick, and to cast out demons. And Jesus sent them out unsupervised!

On top of that, when he was told that someone was out there casting out demons but not as part of the group of disciples, Jesus told his friends that it was okay: If a person isn’t against you, he says, then consider yourselves on the same team.

But what if (I am thinking to myself) that other person doesn’t think rightly about things we consider to be important? James might be wondering, “What if that person thinks that Samaritans are just as good as Jews?” John might ask, “What if that person is like the Sadducees, and doesn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead?” Peter could be asking, “But what if that person hasn’t given up everything like we have?”

If the disciples were to have asked Jesus these kinds of questions, there’s a good chance he would have answered them like he answered Peter much later, described in John 21:22:

“What is that to you? Follow me.”

I wonder if, today, Jesus wanders through the halls of power, up and down the grimy streets of the city, along the corridors of the prisons and the sanctuaries, seeing people acting out their dramas as ones who are sometimes for him and sometimes against him. In those places of turmoil and intrigue, does he continue to whisper the same words over and over to all the broken and misguided people he encounters?

“Come, follow me.”

And when we who call ourselves faithful describe who is in and who is out, whose political posturing constitutes good or evil, whose doctrinal declarations are truthful or heretical, whose worship practices are valid or invalid, does Jesus continue to say to us,

“What is that to you? Follow me.”

Monday, May 7, 2012

Same-Sex Marriage and the Lost Love Between Church and State

The topic of same-sex marriage is still causing a stir in the US, from the White House to every state in the Union to just about every church in every city. It’s a subject that cannot be dodged.

According to this morning’s CNN article, almost of half of US citizens are open to the idea of gay marriage, and even more are fine with the idea of civil unions. When you break down the polls by religious affiliations, the numbers are mixed, with Roman Catholics being considerably more open to gay marriage than are Evangelical Protestants.

I think there might be something important going on here, and I believe it may transcend the arguments about the sanctity of marriage (being evidenced by how the government defines and affirms marriage). Here’s a text of Scripture to consider on the matter:

“. . . if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:40)

These are the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The context is about how his followers are to respond when confronted by an “evil doer” (v. 39). Many today would say that those advocating for gay marriage are well within the ranks of the evil doers. Whether or not that is the case, there is, I think, something to consider here.

We have been sued for our coat—the defining of marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

Perhaps we will have to also give up our cloak—our partnership with the state in defining, affirming, and establishing marriage. Think about it:

•Some churches would be uncomfortable (at the least) with a co-habiting, unmarried couple in their midst, but would not typically raise a concern if the couple had obtained a legal marriage license (at City Hall, in Las Vegas, or wherever) prior to applying for membership.

•There is a distinct partnership between church and state in a marriage ceremony. I have officiated at a number of weddings, and when I pronounce the couple “husband and wife,” they are married, and the government takes my word for it. However, if the county recorder’s office doesn’t receive the signed marriage license in due time, there will be no recognizable marriage for that couple, either by the state or by the church.

Let’s face it: The church in the US has been holding hands with the government when it comes to marriage for a very long time. It has been an unquestioned and comfortable partnership because we have operated under the perception that we share a common interest when it comes to marriage. The problem is that we don’t have matching agendas when it comes to marriage. The government affirms marriage because it offers the possibility of safety and stability for the raising up of families (and future citizens), and creates legal boundaries for property rights, child custody, and so on. But the church typically affirms marriage for different reasons. For the church, marriage has something to do with reflecting the image of God and creating nurturing environments for human beings.

The push toward same-sex marriage is clearly deconstructing the concept of marriage as it has traditionally been known. So perhaps the government needs to drop the word entirely and simply grant “civil unions” to any two human beings who qualify for such unions (marriage—even traditional ones—are not rights as people currently claim. Not everyone has the right to get married. You can’t get married to someone if you are already married to another; you can’t get married if you are not of a certain age; etc.). If the government decides that such unions serve the self-interests of the nation, and if sufficient popular (read: voting) support leans that direction, then it will happen, regardless of the label put upon them.

So where does that leave Christian communities? What would happen to us if we separated the sanctity of marriage from the legality of the state? Would marriage really die, or would it be reborn? We might have to consider giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. And very likely, we will have no choice.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Christianity and Angry Critics

I’ve been reading various blog comments regarding Christianity on a number of sites. I find myself perplexed and bothered by the vitriolic responses by some non-religious folks who find the Christian faith to be stupid, violent, evil, repulsive, and dangerous (one commenter even offered the hope that a certain high-profile TV preacher would be “taken out” by some disillusioned parishioner).

One thing I notice is that much of the angry comments are crafted around a lot of popular distortions of Christian faith—including some distortions maintained by Christians themselves. On occasion I read critiques against Christians by atheists and am somewhat disturbed that I don’t entirely disagree with them.

It is rare to see a religious skeptic taking issue with legitimate biblical scholars or theologians. The kind of reasonable reflection that comes from some of those Christians in the academic world is not typically the fuel that lights up the commentator’s fires. Most of the attack is on popular religion and too much of it reeks of deep hatred and even violence.

I worry about this. I don’t mind that some people find Christians to be irrelevant or mistaken—that’s been going on for a couple of thousand years. But I am concerned when the blogosphere carries comments and declarations suggesting that a purging of Christianity from society would be the balm that soothes the wounds of the nation (although people like the Emperor Nero and Adolf Hitler thought the same thing).

I wonder if there aren’t two things going on here:

1. Through the angry words of the critics, should we who follow Jesus take an honest look at ourselves and see if the critiques are, in any way, warranted? Is it possible that God could be speaking through some of the more thoughtful critics, and even through the ones who are rageful?

2. Could much of the anger that we hear be grounded in the perception that Christianity—at least in America—is not so much a description of the movement of faithful people who follow Jesus, but instead is a dominant political and social force that is viewed as an oppressor of freedom? Is the fury that we witness a tool for unseating the perceived power of Christendom?

This is disturbing stuff and we ignore it to our peril. Strategizing ways to retain or gain power is not, in my view, the answer. But I think the answer might be found in revisiting our identity as followers of the humble king who “came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). We may truly end up being pushed to the margins of society (as has happened elsewhere in the history of the world), but it may be that we meet Jesus anew at those places at the edge.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Rachel Held Evans and her V-Victory

Rachel Held Evans’ recent campaign to get her publisher to allow the word vagina to remain in her upcoming book was not only funny, but also successful. She correctly describes the concerns and fears of editors and publishers that the use of certain words will offend their popular Christian readership and diminish book sales. Rachel rightly calls for that to change.

But it probably won’t, at least not anytime soon. Publishers of popular Christian books seem to view their audience as ones who don’t want to read things that go too deep, ask too many uncomfortable questions, contain violence, or use offensive language. A visit to one of the few remaining Christian bookstores will offer evidence of the literary Pablum that people seem to want to slurp.

However, I don’t think our publishing friends give their audiences enough credit. I’m not saying that everything has to be heavy-duty academic stuff, but the history of Christianity is hardly bereft of weighty writings or scandalous stories. The first three hundred years of the church alone produced volumes of serious theological thought that still line the shelves of academicians today.

There are popular speakers who add to this illusion. I heard the popular writer Donald Miller (whose first book, Blue Like Jazz, I loved) speak recently and he spent a great deal of time telling people that scholarship was dispensable when it came to being a follower of Jesus. I suspect he was trying to say that lack of theological credentials shouldn’t disqualify a person from being a disciple, but it didn’t come off that way. I’m concerned about how people heard his message. It suggested an anti-intellectualism that isn't helpful to any of us.

As far as scandalous material goes, it’s a good thing that current Christian publishers didn’t have a hand in determining what went into the Bible. Otherwise they might have sanitized

•Jael pounding a tent stake through Sisera’s head (Judges 4)

•Onan terminating intercourse and spilling his semen on the ground (Genesis 38)

•The gang-rape and dismemberment of a woman (Judges 19)

•All kinds of steamy sex talk (Song of Solomon)

You get the idea. Using language gratuitously in order to sell books is no better than sanitizing language for the same reason. But I would hope that some brave editors and publishers would push the envelope a bit and see if their audiences would rise to the occasion. Authenticity, intelligence, and artful use of language are good things.

So, hurray for Rachel and her vagina victory.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Theology and Vampires

Later this month—May 17-19, to be precise—my collection of short stories, Dark Ocean, will be available as a free download through Amazon. A special bonus at the back of the book offers a few chapters from a previous novel, This Side of Death.

This Side of Death is a horror story. It involves vampires. I should probably explain why I like to write theological-type things and also creepy, spooky stories. Both my mother and my wife have their own explanations for my behavior, but I don’t buy into the whole demonic possession thing.

I started writing This Side of Death a few years ago because my grandchildren were reading the Twilight series and trying to convince me that vampires were not evil, but were actually a misunderstood and marginalized race of beings. I set out to show my descendants the truth about the undead.

But the story sort of got away from me and I discovered that it was fertile ground for exploring questions of faith. In This Side of Death, a family has suffered the loss of their husband and father, a good man who died a horrible and violent death. The son, Jay, drifts from anger to disillusionment to a deep sense of responsibility. His sister, Vickie, mostly stays in the anger mode.

They are drawn into a story of violence and horror, seeking to answer the question, What is hell? For them, hell has come to visit them on earth. Vickie declares that God himself should be banished there after what he allowed to happen to their father. A local priest, who keeps appearing at the margins of the family’s life, speaks pastorally to them and offers a way of thinking about life and God that they have not yet considered.

This story will end up being a trilogy. The second book, Morana, should be out this year (if my copyeditor will quit having a life of her own and do what I demand!) and the third is in process. Anglican priests keep popping up in the story, sometimes as key characters. They provide the theological and ethical voices of the stories. In This Side of Death, they offer a perspective on the nature of evil; in Morana they actively confront social injustice that appears in the form of human trafficking, a horror that is orchestrated by—you guessed it—another vampire.

Fiction—especially creepy fiction—is a great way, I believe, to hash out theological ideas. Characters get to wrestle with their doubts and fears in ways that are not always permitted in Christian non-fiction (nevermind that most Christian publishers won’t publish the kind of fictional trash that I write).

The one who used fiction as a theological vehicle better than anyone in the world was Jesus. His parables tell stories that offer characters that walk out the implications of his teachings. The characters don’t always fare well, and sometimes suffer great pain. But the stories make the point, don’t they?