Sunday, 24 November 2013

Pop Justice

Neil Postman warned us of an age when 'entertainment' would be our primary mode of discourse. Right on schedule, our moral norms are now transferred through entertainment - especially for those must susceptible (namely, the young). We hand our emotions over to the sounds and images and through it, we are formed into who we are. I do not mean to be a mere prophet of doom of the evils of television and pop music. I love my sitcoms. And I'd consider losing a limb to see U2 in concert. It's a transition of discourse like others that have taken place. There are pros and cons to such a transition. It allows us to think anew about how cultural forms besides words form us - consider how the pre-modern world was largely shaped through liturgy, art, and religious music. But we must at least be cognizant of the fact (and the attendant dangers to this fact) that entertainment profoundly shapes our behaviors and social norms. And vice versa. Look to our entertainment to see what we value and how we live.

The picture is sobering.

Our pop songs feature men speaking the same words as rapists: "you know you want it" (Robin Thicke). Or they feature the manipulative language of a boy talking a girl into a one-night-stand: "I know we only met but let's pretend it's love. . .tonight let's 'get some'" (One Direction). A boy dances on stage acting out the ogling of scantily clad women who are stoic, nameless, impersonal (Justin Bieber). A man announces point blank that he's 'a dog' and that he wants his women 'like Miley Cyrus. . . facedown, booty up' - objectified and faceless. A slave. (Pitbull 'Timber').


Our music worships rape, abuse, and exploitation - why the heck are we so surprised over sexual violence in our society? We worship and glorify it and call it 'entertainment.' We dance to it at our parties, we get drunk on it. We unleash these songs on young people and we wonder why they turn around and exploit and abuse one another. Where are role models telling our young men to treat women with respect? Where are the encouragers telling our young women that they deserve to be treated better? Why are we only openly offended when a woman takes too much of her clothes off? We expend all our energy shaming Miley, while the likes of Robin Thicke and Pitbull get free passes for creating music that celebrates demanding women to be subservient to their monstrous desires. At least Pitbull is honest: the way we found Miley acting at the AMA is exactly how he wants her. She may deserve some criticism, but in a sick way she becomes the victim that allows us to ignore the real problem - and we perpetuate her exploitation by joking and ridiculing her.

We act shocked when teenage rape/sexting cases hit the news, or when a forced prostitution ring is uncovered. What blissful and damnable ignorance. Parents have no clue about the culture of sexual exploitation that exists among young people. So many are ignorant of the sex-slavery industry that is rampant here in the West (it's by no means a 'third world' problem). Don't they realize that those few scapegoat cases are merely the tip of the iceberg?

Why should we be surprised, when the hymns are of rape, and the liturgy on stage is one of assault?

This is not the prudish ramblings of a culture warrior expecting this sinful world to be good, or calling for people to hide from it. It's the indignant fuming of someone looking for justice.

Indeed, merely hiding away from 'the depravity of the world' does little good. The Church must offer an alternative set of symbols and values: Songs, sounds, images, practices, words, of justice, respect, value, and love. Not as an alternative sub-culture that mimics the world's forms (in diminished quality, typically) and gives us an escape from the world - but in dynamic, prophetic, active ways.

And so, it is in this spirit that I say to all women, including Miley: I just want you to know that you are worth so much more than this world tells you that you are. You are golden. You are loved. Pitbull may want you on your hands, 'twerking,' but Jesus wants to look at your face, and behold the beautiful, free, independent, whole person God has made you to be. And I see you that way too. To all men: you can live for so much more than this. For building up and not tearing down. For giving, not for taking. For serving, not for demanding. Come to the table, where you find all that you are looking for in giving yourself for others, and being given to by others. Find your identity in the humility of mutually serving and being served by women - live for their dignity while so much of the rest of the world finds their identity in exploiting and dominating over women.

All Christians, men and women, are called to submit to one another, just as Christ has given all to us; not to exploit and take from one another. We come to the table of Christ where there is reconciliation between the sexes, in stark contrast to a world where we enslave and dominate. We live in a new community in which we sing about, gaze upon, and liturgically mimic the One who came to heal, uplift, and dignify us while we are yet sinners - loving us merely because He chooses to, not because of anything we do. Through these symbols, sounds, and actions, we are reminded that we are set free, we have worth, in Christ. The world, especially our youth, is thirsty for such a community. Let us show the way, and in doing so announce freedom for the captives that are shackled to the violent sex gods that are hiding behind stylized synth tracks.

She must and shall go free. 

Saturday, 19 October 2013

The Embrace of the Divine

In especially Eastern Christian art, you regularly see holy figures making a sign with their right hand: two fingers standing together, thumb and ring finger touching with the pinkie nearby. This gesture spells out a particular short-hand for the name of Christ, but it also symbolizes the two natures of Christ, and the three Members of the Trinity, respectively. 

More than merely a stuffy declaration of dull dogma, or a fetish for symbolism, this represents a quiet, simple, and yet poignant statement of the core of the Christian message. The two doctrines expounded in this gesture are not selected at random. The disputes over these two doctrines (the Trinity and the incarnation) defined the early Church and her identity, and the Orthodox Church especially has always placed great significance in these doctrines and expounding and symbolizing them abundantly. Yet, I do not believe it is incidental that these two doctrines are declared together in this one gesture. Together they make for a remarkably profound and holistic declaration: The God who is eternally embracing, accepting, and communing with Himself in perfect fellowship, has come and opened His fellowship to His creation. He humbly comes to our world - to you and me! - in embrace, acceptance, and communion in the form of the incarnation: when the fullness of His 'hypostatic union' came and united to our brokenness.

The One in eternal self-embrace has come to embrace this physical world and fill it with the glory of His presence.

At the end of all things, the Lord shall descend and 'God's dwelling shall be with humanity.' We shall live in communion and harmony with our God. The God of fellowship shall fellowship with us, eternally. We shall be caught up in the symphonic embrace of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This small gesture represents the most tremendous and profound of truths, and its quiet declaration is scattered throughout museums, churches, art textbooks, and the annals of history. The world cannot escape from the preaching of these dead saints, who tell us with their hands about the embracing Three-in-One who has come to embrace us.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

'In Christ Alone' and the PCUSA: Getting the Story Straight and Rambling on the Atonement

(We will be returning to the multi-part series on marriage. But first, this little diversion).  

The recent controversy over the PCUSA's decision to exclude the popular contemporary hymn 'In Christ Alone' provides a fabulous object lesson on two items: 1st, the danger of jumping to conclusions and, 2nd,  the history of Christian views of the atonement. 

And I never pass up an opportunity to talk about the history of Christian views of anything. 

The actually-not-so-recent decision by the PCUSA to keep 'In Christ Alone' out of their new hymnal (it took place back in May, I believe, but people are just now talking about it as far as I can see) has been cited by many as another evidence of the PCUSA's slide into liberalism and apostasy. The decision was over the line 'and on the cross as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.' The PCUSA committee wanted to include a version of the hymn (which has appeared elsewhere) that says 'and on the cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.' 

The PCUSA has been accused, by making this decision, of caving to modern relativism and its distaste for a God of wrath and judgment out of a wimpy desire for a more tolerant, loving, 'soft,' God. 

But, I'm afraid that most of these accusations fail to even bother to try and understand what actually took place amongst the PCUSA decision-makers, and serves as an unfortunate example of hastily jumping to conclusions. 

I don't deny the importance of being on guard against false doctrine, Paul's letters regularly attest to the importance being watchful. But  such a vigilance should not exist at the expense of cool reason or thoughtful engagement with what's really going on. 

I also don't deny that the mainline denominations have been, in many ways, slipping into an un-orthodox theological liberalism. My home church left the PCUSA and I supported that decision, and still do. 

And, I really do like 'In Christ Alone,' a lot. 

But I'm not willing to concede that this decision is just another step in their 'path of apostasy.'  That strikes me as way too simplistic. 

You see, here's the thing. 

3374281260_51ab30b6dc_n.jpgThroughout Christian history there have been a number of different views regarding what is, theologically, happening on the cross. Why exactly is Jesus dying? What is the significance of His death?  This question is what we call the issue of the atonement. And there are, naturally, different 'theories' of the atonement.

As I go into some info about these different theories, I really encourage you to do your own research, because my assessments are, I'm sure, full of mistakes. 

In the Middle Ages, a theologian by the name of Anselm taught a view on the atonement that focused on God's honor. God's honor was threatened by sin, and someone had to make amends for this threat. Sin had to be atoned for to rescue God's honor.  The Reformers, Calvin especially, never really rejected this basic frame of mind and taught, similarly, that God's justice needed satisfied. God's justice cannot merely be turned aside, it must be fulfilled. Calvin (as he is usually caricatured, anyway) taught this in a very clear legal-framework; in terms of crimes that had to be paid for, to God, by somebody so that we may stand before God as justified. This view is called the Penal Substitution view of the atonement. 

This, arguably, differs from the view of the Church Fathers; or at least from what the emphasize. 

In early Christian writings, you find very little about God's wrath being satisfied, actually. Usually, instead, their focus is on the defeat of satan and the defeat of death. When humanity fell, Satan and death gain dominion over the human race. Christ comes to satisfy that dominion and overturn it. Yes, God is somehow involved in all this, in that He is the one who placed the curse of death upon the earth. And yes, the atonement is still substitutionary. In fact, it is more broadly substitutionary than the penal view, in that Christ is taking on all that is broken in humanity and putting it to death, not just the legal consequences of sinful actions. 

But in the Patristic teachings there is little discussion of a need for God's wrath to be satisfied. The emphasis is more upon God's grace and love in offering Himself to be handed over to death in our place - but with the knowledge that through this action He would defeat death and all of creation would begin to be freed from death and sin. The emphasis is upon God's love being manifested on the cross, not so much His wrath. 

There is variation among the Fathers/or at least rather varying ways of describing all this. Forgive me for the simplicity of this description. 

Athanasius' classic text 'On The Incarnation' would be considered one of the most key articulations of the Patristic view. I highly encourage you to sit down and read it for yourself. I recommend this version:

"It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits." -Athanasius 

In this quotation, God's motivation is to save humanity from 'their own negligence' and 'the deceit of evil spirits' not His justice. 

Gregory of Nazanzius quite explicitly tosses out what would later be described as penal substitutionary atonement: "To whom was that blood offered that was shed for us, and why was It shed?...if to the Father, I ask first, why? For it was not by him that we were being oppressed.” –Gregory of Nazanzius

According to Gregory, God had no wrath that needed satisfied by Jesus to save us. Instead, with the rest of the Fathers, he emphasizes that humanity did not need its dues paid to an ever-vengeful God, but needed recreated and rescued from death and sin. The cross is thus not a symbol of God's justice or wrath, at least not in any explicit or exclusive way, but is more so a symbol of love and His challenging of the forces that have entrapped humanity in sin. 

There are other, newer, theories of the atonement that take slightly different angles, try various synthesis of these and other views, etc. I am not very familiar with these, so I shall not bother to comment on them. 

None of these views necessarily deny that God is just or wrathful. They just deny that God's justice is what needs satisfied for us to be saved. Indeed, it affirms His wrath against sin and evil, because here once and for all they are destroyed and cast out. 

For a long time, people have been proposing problems with the Medieval/Reformed view of the atonement. E.g., 'How can God punish Himself?'   It has been a topic of some debate, and certain mainstream, protestant, groups have never been thrilled with it with it or, at least, believe we should not focus so exclusively on it as if it is the only image of the atonement in the Bible. 

The song, 'In Christ Alone,' has a very specific and very exclusive view of the atonement. One that I have personally struggled with. I am honestly not sure that I can agree with it because I lean toward the more Patristic view of the atonement. I am not sure that the cross is God satisfying His own wrath, but God sticking a knife into the heart of death and winning victory for the renewal of His beloved creation.

It's hard to say exactly what was going on at the PCUSA. And I can confess that my research has been pretty shallow. But from what I have seen, no one (certainly not the condemners) have given much evidence for what the discussion was really about. All I have found is this account purportedly by one of the participants, that has already been lost to the Internet under a wave of alarmist reactions to the apostasy of those Presbyterians. And this view makes it sound like differing views over the atonement was exactly the issue at hand, not some distaste for God's wrath. 

Here are some of the reflections by a member of this committee (from here:

"The text agreed upon was one we had found by studying materials in other recently published hymnals. Its second stanza contained the lines, “. . . we discovered that this version of the text would not be approved by the authors, as it was considered too great a departure from their original words. . . . We were faced, then, with a choice: to include the hymn with the authors’ original language or to remove it from our list.

. . . People making a case to retain the text with the authors’ original lines spoke of the fact that the words expressed one view of God’s saving work in Christ that has been prevalent in Christian history: the view of Anselm and Calvin, among others, that God’s honor was violated by human sin and that God’s justice could only be satisfied by the atoning death of a sinless victim. While this might not be our personal view, it was argued, it is nonetheless a view held by some members of our family of faith; the hymnal is not a vehicle for one group’s perspective but rather a collection for use by a diverse body.

Arguments on the other side pointed out that a hymnal does not simply collect diverse views, but also selects to emphasize some over others as part of its mission to form the faith of coming generations; it would do a disservice to this educational mission, the argument ran, to perpetuate by way of a new (second) text the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger. The final vote was six in favor of inclusion and nine against, giving the requisite two-thirds majority (which we required of all our decisions) to the no votes. The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness." 

From this account, the discussion has little to do with the issues that have been brought up by critics. 

For whatever it's worth, C.S. Lewis opts for the Patristic view (known as the Christus Victor view of the atonement) in The Chronicles of Narnia. There is really nothing in that story about God's anger or honor needing to be assuaged, only of man's need to be rescued from the dominion of Satan (the White Witch) and Christ's (Aslan's) willingness to offer Himself to Satan in our place - all the while knowing that this act would break Satan's power and lead to death itself "working backwards." Lewis quite clearly rejects the Reformed/Medieval view in Narnia, and seems to lean this way in his other writings as well. 

I know I personally would be quite conflicted over creating a hymnal that has a song that promote a very exclusive and specific view of the atonement that, in the grand scheme of Christian history, is far from monolithically ascribed to and which I personally am uncomfortable with based on my reading of Scripture and my engagement with early Christian writings.

Though, I will say, it is odd for a traditionally Reformed denomination to be running away from important Calvinist thought.

But that's different from being liberal or unorthodox.

In fact, quite the contrary in the minds of my ardent Arminian friends.

It may very well turn out that there is more to the story. But no more to the story has been given as far as I know. At the very least, none of the condemners have given any detail or insight into what happened whatsoever, and have only drawn conjectures based on the PCUSA's final decision.

This is problematic on a number of levels, not the least of which is the lack of charity. The Church has enough controversy and division without it having to be...shall we say.... manufactured (there's been a lot of that going on lately). 

Also not the least of which is the ignorance it reveals about different views of the atonement and of Christian history. This proves one of the many dangers of evangelicals' oft-cited historical amnesia. Because we don't know the history of our own theology, we jump to ridiculous conclusions when faced with something different to what we are used to. There is a long history of Christians believing, or at least leaning towards saying, that God's love, and not so much His wrath/justice (at least in the way we typically think of these things), are what is 'going on' on the cross.  There need be nothing earth-shattering or apocalyptic about this, if we knew history. 

I think it's also interesting that in his, now popular, critique of the PCUSA's decision, entitled "No Squishy Love," Timothy George (who I have great respect for and whose book on reading Scripture with the Reformers looks tremendous, though I have not read it yet) compares the change of this hymn to various historical heretics who denied God's wrath. The funny thing is that Athanasius, known primarily for his stalwart stand against the heresies of the 4th century, would quite possibly agree with the non-wrath version of the hymn. This fabulous article puts it well: 

“While Athanasius uses legal vocabulary at times, his guiding framework for understanding sin and salvation is not of sin as transgression, and salvation as an escape from punishment, but a medical paradigm of sin as corruption, and salvation as an escape from death. From this perspective, the problem of the atonement is not an angry God, but a sick and dying humanity.”   ("Substitutionary Atonement and the Church Fathers" by Derek Flood). 

Historical amnesia leads one to believe that everything different than the way you think must be apostasy. Usually when that happens, you end up throwing out a good chunk of Christian history as apostate without even realizing what you're doing. If the PCUSA is apostate for this decision, so must much of the early church and the beloved C.S. Lewis. And the Eastern Orthodox Church, which never bought into any of this penal substitution stuff (though many of my Protestant friends might not have any problem accusing them of heterodoxy), for that matter. 

Just earlier today, actually, while not even thinking about this case, I started to dream ahead to when I am (as I hope to be) teaching theology. I imagined what sort of a syllabus I would put together. I know exactly what my first two assignments would be.

First, I would have my students write a 1-page description of how they would describe the Gospel to someone.

Second, I would have them read Athanasius' classic text, 'On the Incarnation.'  (including C.S. Lewis's marvelous Introduction to a newer translation)

Then, I would have them compare this text to what they originally wrote. I wager that they would find some significant differences, not the least of which would be (though they wouldn't necessarily know the right terms for it) a difference in their understanding of the atonement.

I would hope that these differences would be a source of surprise.

This assignment would hopefully help to show how easily we get lost in our contemporary mindset (a danger Lewis himself warned of in his introduction to a translation of On The Incarnation) assuming that the way we think is, clearly, the way everybody has always thought. We so easily miss how many ideas we take for granted and assume as true, that have not always been believed. Indeed, scores of men and women sincerely trying to understand and live out the same faith and reading the Bible as you or I have come to a variety of different conclusions on a variety of different things and this must be taken into account in understanding our own opinions. This awareness would serve to remind us not to wallow in the small world of just what is right in front of us, but the need to be in touch with the vastness of the Christian Tradition, to constantly keep, as Lewis remarks: "the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds."

"And this can be done only by reading old books," he adds (Introduction, On the Incarnation by Athanasius). 

Without this cleansing breeze, we will make many mistakes. 

For further reading, I recommend this PCUSA pastor's discussion of the situation. I don't agree with everything he says, nor do I think his caricature of penal substitution is fair, but this gives you another example of the more complicated picture within the PCUSA. This decision was not made by a bunch of liberal hippies scheming about how they can get rid of the wrathful God of the Bible, but seems like the decision of people well informed by Christian history and the varying tenable descriptions of the atonement - and wisely aware of the  various issues of navigating the relationship between theology and church life. 

Monday, 24 June 2013

Marriage and Kids: A Modern Evangelical 'Sex Cult''?

This is part 1 in a series titled 'The Bridegroom, The Bride, and the Kingdom: Discontented Evangelical Reflections on Sex, Society, and Asceticism' - a series of posts getting to the heart of the issues we wanted to write and reflect on when we started this blog. Please comment and add thoughts, critiques, and reflections. These are ideas we want to work on together. 

Much of the ancient world was rife with sex-cults; religious institutions and practices that were deeply sexual in their purpose and nature. Ba'al worship was particularly lascivious, based on a mythology of a promiscuous, violent, incestuous, rapist-god. The purpose of such cults was to express, which in turn shaped the expression of, the desire and need for fertility for the sake of social survival and/or for particular sexual practices. Mythology was about sex and family, and sex and family were about mythology. These cults were worldly and idolatrous, because they elevated human, worldly, needs to ultimate and divine significance.

It remains a relatively universal tendency that one's sexual practices, norms, and beliefs about sex are influenced by one's mythology; your 'theological narrative' as it were, and vice versa. When God entered history with Israel, and ultimately with Christ, He offered a new mythology that placed all of creation under the Lordship of One Creator and One Savior, ultimately orienting us toward a different sort of consummation: the marriage of God with His Creation; Christ with His Church. This was not to say that the longings that drove sex-cults were not important to Him: He cared about the wellbeing of His creation. But nothing was to stand in His place.

Contemporary Christianity sometimes operates as if it possesses a mythology that worships human marriage, sexuality, and reproduction, to the detriment of our worship of God and the minimization of this true theological narrative (most clearly expressed in Rev. 20 & 21). It's an old and relatively understandable form of idolatry, but one that has taken on a new tone and nature in the post-industrial, evangelical world.

One of my favorite bloggers, Rachel Held Evans, recently wrote a fantastic piece titled 'Sex and the Path of Holiness.'  She critiques here the false choice our rhetoric places between purity & virginity vs. a notion of the unchaste (woman, particularly) as 'damaged goods.' She is not advocating a loosening of norms when it comes to pre-marital sex, but instead for turning away from hanging one's entire purity and worth on whether one is a virgin or not. This quotation is particularly poignant:

"Perhaps instead of virginity…or even purity (which carries something of an either/or connotation, I think)…we ought to talk about the path of holiness. Holiness, to me, means committing every area of my life— from sex, to food, to time, to work—to the lordship of Jesus. It means asking how I might love God and love my neighbors in those areas so that the Spirit can grow love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in the sacred soil of everyday life."

She cites another blogger, Jamie Wright, writing about her personal experience:

"...everything I believed about my own sexuality was built on two huge lies. 

The first comes from our culture, and it tells us that sex outside of marriage isn't a big deal. 

The second is from the Church, and it tells us that sex outside of marriage is the biggest deal of all the deals ever.


We've made virginity the goal, when it is purity that we should be aiming for; They're not the same thing. Sexual purity is a lifelong practice that doesn't begin or end with a single sex act, just as it doesn't begin or end on a wedding night."  

I have noticed a great number of young evangelicals, like myself, more than a little dissatisfied with what we were taught about chastity and sexually purity - especially in terms of what their goals are. The problem is perhaps best revealed by our inability to find a way to explain sexual purity in any other terms than preparation for marriage/the preservation of pleasure in marriage.

We were told that the purpose of our sexuality is for marriage - human marriage is the entire goal and end of our sexuality.  That saving ourselves for marriage (and really, no other reason) is what God's Word demands of us. That if we save ourselves and avoid lust we will enjoy marriage better, implying that this enjoyment should be one of our supreme concerns. Sexual purity, we were taught at least implicitly, is as Wright says above, 'the biggest deal of all deals ever' - a unique sin that marks us in ways other sins, it is implied, do not; because it defiles the marriage bed. We, now as young adults, feel pressure in some corners to get married and make babies quickly. We feel second-rate if we are not married, or are married but not having kids.

There's truth in all these things. And places for each of these teachings (especially when trying to encourage young people to make good decisions that they have not been well prepared to make by their culture). I believe this often, however, amounts to an evangelical obsession towards marriage and the nuclear family that borders on idolatry. Sometimes it sees as if we treat human sexuality and marriage are our mythology; our ultimate theological narrative. All of our sexual ethics, and other ethical dimensions as well, fall around this mythology. This emphasis is at odds with and competes with the Biblical sexual/relational/marital narrative of the marriage of the Lamb and the Church.

Please do not misunderstand me:  family is absolutely a crucial institution. And I applaud and join with those who speak about the need for strengthening families. So much depends on this.

But so much seems missing here.

 The point that Evans talks about above is, I think, the smoking gun. It reveals that we practically worship the human marriage bed. We laud virginity, and shame its absence, in a way that reveals an obsession with marriage and 'the ideal wedding night' as the ultimate goal for which we strive. As she perceptively asks us, what about holiness for its own sake? Or self-control (as Jamie Wright advocates) for its own sake? Is there anything worth living for, or a basis for making decisions about sex, that's bigger than a wedding night?

This missing link is also partially revealed in our apparent inability to deal sensitively and effectively with the complicated family lives around us. We live in churches where single individuals are often seen as 'missing something'; and the pressure on them to settle down and start popping babies can become pretty enormous. Very few are told how to be constructive with their singleness. As a result many men and women become angsty, desperate, insecure, and self-obsessed as a result. When they do get married, they probably make for not terribly emotionally-well-adjusted mates. For somewhat different reasons in either case, single pastors of each gender have trouble getting appointed at churches. We arguably also don't know how to deal very well with divorcees, single parents, barren couples, remarried couples, those who chose not to have kids (if they are ever allowed to voice such a desire), those with family (or themselves) in homosexual relationships (like it or hate it, it's a reality that churches will increasingly have to deal with), or those who are not chaste, as if an indelible mark has been placed on them that ruins their ability to be the best Christian they could otherwise be. We pay lip-service to 'new beginnings' and getting a new, spiritual virginity, but the fact we have to formulate such language tells us that we treat this failing as uniquely grave and detrimental.  It's as if we don't exactly know how to find a place for these people in our 'religious cult,' because they don't fit into our mythology in which 'pure' marriage and kids are the ideal of all ideals.

 Mother's or Father's Day are among the most explicitly celebrated non-liturgical holidays in the American Church.  Perhaps there's a proper place for them, but for too many in the pews these are uncomfortable and painful days, and they are not often handled very well by pastors. They can be deeply painful days for the infertile, and those who have miscarried. Or whoever might feel less important for not cranking out babies. And for those who have to smile and lie through their teeth about how they feel about parents who abused them.

Family is one of our favorite buzz words. We create a myriad of organizations about 'family.' Defending 'traditional marriage' or 'traditional family values,' are some of our favorite political talking points. It's almost literally the only thing we can talk about. Walk through a Christian book store and find countless books (perhaps even the majority of the book you will find) on improving marriage, finding a spouse, parenting, how to date, and (my favorite category of fringe-worthy texts) how to have good 'Christian' sex. I don't want to say all these things are necessarily wrong. There's plenty of important topics that need to be talked about within these areas.  I merely want to point out the overwhelming degree to which we talk about family, sex, and children. I think it's suggestive of a misappropriation of priorities. This is perhaps best illustrated by the relatively minimal selection of books on theology, rigorous discipleship, justice, the poor, and classic Christian writings, at Christian bookstores. They're there, but rarely on the front table when you walk in and usually relegated to a small corner - to leave room for the Christian romance novels, of course.

I'm purposefully being hyperbolic. This is not the case everywhere, and the situation is quite complicated on the ground - but I think there's some general truth here. Our worship of marriage as the pinnacle and crux of the Christian life too often marginalizes too many people and leaves them feeling un-celebrated, second-rate, and half-Christian. It turns our focus from God. It creates false expectations.  And it ultimately undermines the ability to actually have healthy marriages and families.

We need a new mythology.

Many early Christians had a much different attitude towards sex and marriage. And, often for good reason, we have rejected many of their attitudes (such as that of Augustine, who saw sex as 'the original sin'). But they are worth bringing into the conversation to shake up our assumptions. Many (but not all) early Christians put a heavy emphasis on the portions of Scripture that seem to advocate sexual asceticism; abstaining from marriage and family. The cultural pressure to marry in order to perpetuate wealth, prosper the state, and create a legacy, was a major influence here. Renouncing sex, family, and possessions in order to live for the service of others, holiness, and a Kingdom not of this world, became the counter-cultural rallying cry of some early Christians: We don't live for these things anymore. In a world in which people often had to cut ties with family to become Christians, and Christianity as a religion of 'families' was largely foreign, such attitudes were more natural. (In future posts, we will talk more about the relationship between the Church and society in terms of their views of marriage - past and present.)

We may find plenty to critique here, but let's not fail to point the finger back at ourselves. We often focus too exclusively on other portions of Scripture, especially the Old Testament with its admonition to 'multiply' and the blessings of having a 'quiver-full,' and its celebration of marriage and sexuality (Song of Solomon). The early Christians perhaps had too low a view of sexuality and family. We, at the same time, have too low a view of a state of being non-married and without kids. Neither seems entirely biblical to me.   Perhaps we ought to try and balance out these extremes, or find a new way to understand how they relate to one another.

I think the balance comes in recognizing more consciously that marriage is not the be-all and end-all of the Christian life: Christ is. This requires putting all things, even good things, on the altar - willing to follow whatever path we are called to, trusting that God is with us...and with those called to a different path than our own. He is our goal.

No wonder we live with rampant sexual promiscuity, pornography, lust, and are watching our families deteriorate. We make marriage and self-fulfillment and children the goal of our sexual ethics, instead of self-denial and commitment to God. Without such discipline, we will never conquer these huge issues. Grasp onto this world and you will lose it all. We'll never solve our family and marriage problems by making family and marriage the ultimate goal. All we do is create self-obsessed, short-sighted, individuals not well suited for healthy marriage in the first place. How can we expect to repair our human marriages without paying attention to our eternal and supreme marriage to Christ?

The elephant in the room is the fact that many Christians in my generation (like the rest of the west, different only in degree), are putting off or avoiding marriage, and having very few kids, compared to  the rest of the world. An obsession with marriage and family is not the proper response. Encouraging increased commitment to Christ, is.

Christ gave His body to us. Our body belongs to Him. He is our first love, our ultimate spouse. All that we do should be directed toward that relationship. Our sexuality, our whole being, belongs to Him above anyone else (even our spouse/hypothetical spouse). For some, this commitment means marriage and kids. For others it might be something different. The worship of Christ and the cultivation of this union between Christ and His bride - becoming a holy people for Him is the goal for all. That is the marriage at the center of our worship that should direct our sexual, and other, practices. That is our ultimate mythology; our theological narrative upon which all else depends.

We do not have to give up the celebration of marriage to put Christ first. To the contrary, putting Christ first puts marriage in its proper context and makes it beautiful and whole. Indeed, bad spouses are bad Christians. Likewise, bad Christians are bad spouses. I like the Orthodox understanding of marriage as an 'icon' of Christ and His Church. It anticipates the union of God with humanity, and between humans, that will come in the Kingdom. It has eternal significance. Yet it is also subservient to the call to Christ. For all these reasons, the Eucharist is central to the Orthodox wedding ceremony. And this is also why the Orthodox can be comfortable celebrating both celibacy and marriage; they are different paths toward the common goal of becoming the spotless bride of Christ.

This perspective gives marriage a beauty and significance far beyond the wildest dreams of many evangelicals, while yet taking it down from the lofty place of idolatry where we have placed it.

I am inclined to think that a healthy church will find a way to honor, celebrate, and find a key role in the Kingdom for temporary singleness and (I think we should consider the place for) lifelong celibacy, or barrenness, ( I realize this is controversial, but I would include couples who intentionally avoid bearing children - I think this might be a legitimate calling some people might have - though I would encourage couples without kids to strongly consider and pray about adoption), or those who are not 'spotless virgins,' and training everyone to make their ethical decisions with Christ foremost in their minds. Marriage, sex, and reproduction are not our gods. Yahweh is our God. Christ is our God, our spouse.

A healthy church will live in the strange contrast between enjoying what God provides and desires for us, and living in simplicity, humility, and self-sacrifice in order to remain humble before Him and focused on serving others - particularly the 'least of these' who are the very body of our First Love. This is the whole reason why the Church has long encouraged fasting; from food and sex, and trying to live as detached from possessions as possible. To make sure that nothing, even generally good things, become gods and get in the way of serving others and being close to God.

Can we re-orient our perspective to not live for a worldly sex-cult, but for the cosmic marriage of God with His creation that we look forward to? The marriage supper of the Lamb?

We wait for Him to come for His bride. May we be found wanting only Him.

Holy Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon
In part 2, we hope to challenge our assumptions about what the Church's relationship to society's definition of marriage is or should be, in a post tentatively titled: 'They're Re-Defining Marriage? That Happened A Long Time Ago.' 

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Function of Myth

There is little need to remind most of you that today is Fathers's Day. Fathers, as Kyle pointed out, are such an important part of the Biblical story. Indeed, God is described as Father. The Father of the whole word.

So what does this have to do with myth? Let us consider myth as the story you tell yourself to connect what you see in the world with your perceptions and beliefs about reality. As anyone can tell you, where you come from shapes you. Who your father is or isn't, was or wasn't has a major impact on shaping your personal myth. Especially when considering who God is and what you can expect from life based on relying on God.

Matthew 7:9-11 points out that even our earthly fathers, as evil as us broken humans are, can still give good gifts. How much more can our Heavenly Father give us good gifts? Words cannot even express how much more God can provide for us.

But, and this is the kicker, do we believe it? Do we believe this "myth"?

Hopefully, I can get some reader response--what, my friends, is your myth? What is the story you tell yourself about the world and how it works? How to reconcile the world in your head with the world around you?

The Prodigal Jesus: Happy Father's Day

Today as I was reflecting on Father's Day and the story of the prodigal son, I began to wonder if the parable of the prodigal son is about not only about us sinners, but is also about Jesus.  

A few passages to consider: 

Exodus 4:22: 

"Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LordIsrael is my firstborn son."

Hosea 11:1-3: 

"When Israel was a child, I loved him,

    and out of Egypt I called my son.

The more they were called; 
the more they went away;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and burning offerings to idols."

A few verses later, God predicts that he will destroy his son, Israel: 

11:6 "A sword will flash in their cities;
   it will devour their false prophets
and put an end to their plans."

And yet a few verses later, God recoils in compassion, promising to re-establish his people (this theme is all throughout the prophets: impending judgement but future restoration): 

 "How can I give you up, Ephraim?

                                 How can I hand you over, Israel?"

Matthew 2:14-15: 
"And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, 'Out of Egypt I called my son.'" (citing Hosea)

Matthew 3:17: 
"and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." 

Matthew 27:54: 
"When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

Psalm 16: 9-11

"Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
    my body also will rest secure,
10 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
    nor will you let your faithful[b] one see decay.
11 You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand."

Luke 15:24 (from the parable of the prodigal son): 

"For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate."

Matthew 17:22-23:

"When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.”

Luke 24:5: 
"And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?" 

Hebrews 2:11-15

Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. 12 He says,
“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters;
    in the assembly I will sing your praises.”[h]
13 And again,
“I will put my trust in him.”[i]
And again he says,
“Here am I, and the children God has given me.”[j]
14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanityso that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death."

Rodin's Prodigal Son
In the Old Testament, Israel is portrayed as God's son. The Father calls His son out of Egypt and brings him to a land to possess. Yet the son is wayward, a prodigal son. God promises to punish Israel, his son, yet also that he would not leave them destroyed - he plans to restore His son out of his deep compassion. 

In Matthew's Gospel, especially, Jesus is portrayed as Israel the Son. Matthew explicitly quotes Hosea ('out of Egypt I have called my Son') as a prophecy of the life of Christ. The story of Israel reflects itself in the story of Christ. In this parallelism, the Gospel writers are trying to point out that Christ is the fulfillment of and substitute for, Israel. In Christ, wayward Israel must be destroyed and made alive. Israel's sins must be put on Him and through His death Satan's hold on Israel is destroyed. Although Israel as a political entity was destroyed and restored all once before, this was just a shadow of what was to come: Israel still had to die and be made alive again, to be fully redeemed from sin. This is the mission of Christ and in Him, Israel is made new. The son (Israel, the body of Christ, the communion of Christ) is restored and exalted and blessed forever with new, eternal life. 

This is the beautiful complexity of biblical imagery; confounded by the incarnation. We are the prodigal son, and so is the Godhead incarnate in Christ; his humanity is the flesh of the sons of Abraham, and of all human beings - destroyed and resurrected with and for us. 

All who are in Christ die and are made alive again - the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel to destroy and rebuild her, fulfilled in all who take part in Christ's body and blood. 

Romans 6:5-8: "For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self[a]was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him."

The story of the prodigal son is, in many ways, the story of Israel and the story of Christ as the bearer and fulfillment of Israel's story. And it is also each of our stories as sinners who come to God. The story of Israel is a parallel for the story of the whole world: we are all created and beloved by God, all have been wayward, and in Christ we die and rise anew. 

We are children of God, and He is well pleased in us, whom He has called out of Egypt. He has broken the bonds of sin on us and freed us from captivity. He has destroyed our temple and built us a new, everlasting temple (we are a temple, just as Christ was the temple that he predicted would be destroyed and rebuilt in three days). We are whom He has redeemed and called as His own. 

What a beloved, recklessly, loving, Father we have. He is prodigal, reckless, in His love for us: throwing a party for us for having returned home. We were dead, and now we are alive. 

He calls us His son. He becomes one of us and identifies with us. He sends the eternal Son who becomes the son Israel. Son of Adam, son of Abraham. Son of man, son of God. Eternal Son, Israel-son. What a ridiculous set of inconceivable mysteries and absolutely confounding, seemingly contradictory images. 

But we know this: He is a Father worth celebrating today, no matter what experiences you have had with your earthly fathers. We have been adopted into an eternally, recklessly, loving family who does not give up on His wayward children but becomes one of them to lead them through death and out the other side into a glorious new life together. 

Happy Father's Day.