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. 

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Thankful, Assured, and Advertising? That's it?

If we're saved by grace, why should we do 'good works'? 

This is the question that Ligon Duncan proposes to answer in this recent video for the Gospel Coalition's New City Catechism series (a series that sounds like a great idea to me!).

His opening point is, I believe, his best: "in salvation we are saved not only from the penalty of sin, but the power of sin."

It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that Duncan sets this notion aside in his summary of the three reasons growth and good works are important in the Christian life. These three reasons are, to express gratitude to God, to be assured of our salvation, and to draw others to the Gospel. This, it seems from what he says, is why God desires to free us from sin. For these three reasons. 

Is that really it? 

I believe that seeking salvation from the power of sin for its own sake, should be the central reason we pursue Christian growth. I believe Scripture is overwhelming in its claim that freedom from sin is one of the primary reasons Christ dies for us. John Piper gives a better account of the work of God in growing in holiness in this description of sanctification for the same video series.  But, something still seems missing. He still does not give a substantial reason for seeking sanctification in a way that makes sense. So much of the witness of Scripture seems missing here. 

 All too often, our attempts to explain the gospel begins with the doctrine of justification - how do we 'get in the club'? This ignores that the place from which we develop our doctrines is a Bible which is first and foremost a comprehensive narrative. Our 'justification' is one piece in a bigger puzzle that makes sense only when we understand the whole story. When we start with justification, questions about ethics and holiness get left to the side and have to be shoved in somewhere later with half-hearted motivators like 'gratitude' and 'advertising for the faith.' We are missing the 'big picture' of what salvation is about. 

When you look at the story of Scripture from cover to cover as a whole story, instead of just a sourcebook for rules and doctrines, this whole 'salvation' thing takes on a much more multifaceted meaning than we often get from overly-Reformed descriptions of salvation that focus more on God's judgement and His desire to preserve His holiness, than on His 'hell-bent,' relentless, desire to free His creation from the clutches of sin and death.

Paul, in Romans, is confronted with this same question about grace and works. If we are saved by grace, why should we stop sinning? What follows is a multiple-chapter elaboration on God's plan of salvation from sin and death.

In Romans 6:6 he says that we were saved,  "that we should no longer be slaves to sin." We have been united to Christ in his death and resurrection. In that mysterious and mystical relationship, we take part in His defeat of sin and the birth of new life out of darkness (read the whole chapter!). 

Paul continues to deal with some related issues, particularly pertaining to the Old Testament law. But he brings his thoughts to a glorious crescendo in chapter 8, describing how we are the beginning of God's imminent restoration of all creation: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies" (8:22-23).  

This is why becoming a righteous and just person matters; because God came to redeem His creation and make it new. This is at the heart of His works in Christ. To ignore Christian growth and holiness is not just to ignore a chance to be grateful, a chance to be assured, or a chance to advertise for the faith. To miss this is to miss the whole point of salvation. 

I do not believe we can achieve Christian perfection in this life, nor does our salvation depend on it. We are saved by grace. Yes, absolutely. And if we are in Christ, we will be with Him in the new world. But I also believe that the work of  God in Christ is fundamentally about renewing the creation, and we are called to join in this renewal. We were not simply cleared from a death sentence and handed a ticket to heaven. We have been redeemed, renewed, recreated.   The God who made the heavens and the earth has begun that same creative process all over again right here in the middle of this world, through Christ, the firstfruits of the new creation. 

What does this mean for our daily lives? For our relationships? For our career plans? These are hard questions. But they are issues central to the questions we are exploring in this blog. How can we live more cognizant that we serve a God boiling over with love for His creation which has been tormented by sin, death, and decay? A God who can never fill us with 'too much love'? A God who wants us to treat everyone around us with the same self-emptying, boundless, love that He shows in His acts of redemption? How do we be and announce in word and deed the new creation? 

2 Corinthians 2:17: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come."

I believe that Paul is here making an intentional allusion to an important doctrine expounded by the Old Testament prophets, particularly Isaiah, regarding God's plan to make a new creation: 

"See, I will create
    new heavens and a new earth." -Isaiah 65:17

Let us try and learn how to go forth to love and to serve, knowing that the Redeemer God who tramples over death by death and makes all things new, is with us. 

"But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion.


He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. . . . Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men." 

-St. Athanasius, On The Incarnation of the Word of God 


Tuesday, 11 June 2013

In Which N.T. Wright Answers My Question

I was thankful and overjoyed (giddy like a 13 year old girl at a Justin Bieber concert, actually) that a question I posed to New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright was selected for a blog interview of reader-generated questions at one of my favorite blogs: the blog of Rachel Held Evans.

I asked about the relationship between his views of eschatology and social ethics. Is the pursuit of justice for this world, full of people who will ultimately not be saved living on a planet yet to be fully redeemed, worthwhile. N.T. Wright is perhaps most well known for his book Surprised by Hope (which I cannot recommend highly enough, especially if you have never thought outside the 'Left Behind eschatology' box and never sat down to realize that the resurrection should be, actually, central of our faith and particularly our eschatology). My question was largely revolving around his particular eschatological views and why exactly doing good in this world, in this body, matters (as he contends it does).  You can read my full question and his full response at the original post at Rachel's blog, here.

One line from his response particularly struck me. Wright writes (I love saying that), "The point of justice and mercy anyway is not ‘they deserve it’ but ‘this is the way God’s world should be."

This reminds me of some thoughts I've written about previously, particularly on what I like to call 'the frivolousness' of God's love. [some have challenged me on this language so I say it with some tentativeness. read the original post on the subject, linked to just above, for a fuller explanation].  That is, noting the way that God shows love as an end in and of itself; risking that those whom He shows love to might still reject Him. Care for the other is central to His nature and is acted upon for its own sake. He shows love abundantly, toward all.

The Spirit is at work in the believer to make them like Jesus. As we share in His death and His resurrection life we become increasingly like Him. This is how the eschaton filters into our own day and age. This is how our future resurrected, glorified, selves begin to come to life in the here and now. To be like Jesus is to be frivolous with our love; to show love unequivocally. Showing mercy and justice to the undeserving - which is the significance of very central act of Jesus, His sacrifice - regardless of the response or consequences. Pursuing justice in the world around us matters, because it is in showing justice and mercy to all people unequivocally that we become like Jesus and the 'not yet' becomes a bit more 'now.'

I think the lesson to learn here is that N.T. Wright's particular eschatological views are not entirely necessary to believe that seeking justice is important... but it is better than some views in this respect. What is most important, however, is that we are called to follow Christ's example even though we don't have all the details figured out of why and what becomes of the good we do. We are called, first and foremost, to be obedient to what we know God wants us to do, and what we know is consistent with His character. We know that He is a God who desires to redeem creation and calls us to be a part of that work, in some way or another (this does distinguish us from some, particularly extreme dispensational, views). That is enough to tell us to get to work.

"Christ did not know measure in His love for people, — and in this love He lowered Himself in His Divinity to the point of being incarnated as Man and took upon Himself the sufferings of all. In this sense He teaches us by His example not of a measured limit in love, but rather an absolute and immeasurable surrendering away of oneself, by definition a laying down of one’s soul for others."
- Saint Maria Skobtsova of Paris

I highly recommend you check out the original post to see the question and answer in their fullness. There are some great questions about sexuality, reconciling God's justice and mercy, open theism, and others.


Thanks, Dr. Wright!  

Monday, 10 June 2013

The Cad at the Communion Table

We each possess a monster within us. But it is not a foreign monster. This monster looks so much like us that we are scared to look it in the face. It is the monster that desires nothing more than to exploit; to take, steal, lust, abuse.

I am not married, nor have I ever been anywhere particularly close to being married. I hope to be married one day. But in this desire for marriage, my inner-monster finds a safe way to sneak into the depths of my heart and life. My desire for companionship, sexual union, surrender to another, are easy paths for the exploiter to reside inside of me. Marriage becomes an idol. And then darker and more horrid things become even greater idols and marriage itself must be sacrificed. It's a clever trick. I become a monster and any hope of being a good spouse is abandoned at the altar of selfishness. A selfish person cannot be a good spouse. Worshipping the joys and desires of marriage undermine any hope of having that which I desired. 

I must learn to re-orient myself. 

We must kill lust and selfishness in order to have any hope of healthy marriages. We cannot become one flesh with someone when our only concern is how to feed the monstrous desires of our own flesh. Scripture is quite clear on the call to love your spouse's body as your own.

How can we give ourselves, or prepare ourselves to give, to a spouse in this way? 

We must first be a good spouse to our Lord. It is in that relationship that we most fundamentally learn to give and to give up our selfish desires.

Christ entered into this world to redeem a people for Himself; a people to be His bride: 

bread and wine #1
"And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy." -Hosea 2:19

"Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” -Revelation 21:9 

We must devote ourselves fully to Christ our bridegroom.

When we come to the Eucharistic table, to take communion, we are not merely remembering Christ's death. The Eucharist is a marriage feast. It is an anticipation of THE marriage supper of the Lamb. There, Christ becomes one flesh with His bride, the Church. We are in Him, and He is in us. This is no mere memorial, it is an anticipation. Much more than this, it is a consummation. We become one flesh with Him in His sacrifice. He gives all to us and we give all to Him. 

Yet here's the catch: we must give up all our desires other than Christ in order to be truly united to Him. We must be willing to give up all blessings and gifts and run after the Bridegroom wherever He would lead us. We must be ready to give up wealth, comfort, family, friendship, marriage, our safety, and our very lives.

He has given all for us and to be one flesh with Him. We must be ready to do the same.

This is not something that merely takes place in our heart. This is not a task for mere cognitive exercise (cognitive prayer and cognitive Bible study). We must pray with and in the midst of our living. We must learn Scripture by living it. Devoting ourselves to our spouse cannot be a mere cognitive exercise. What lover can be a worthy spouse by thoughts alone?

Christ has told us quite explicitly how to love Him, how to bless Him: we must keep His commandments, and we must love 'the least.'

What spouse would let their beloved wander naked and hungry in the streets? To let their spouse be bound in brothels? To die in the wars of the power-drunk? All these are our beloved, our Christ. This is where we become His bride: in the dark places of the world where He has gone before us to suffer with the suffering.

We are called to trade our inward-focused motion to an outward one; actively blessing and loving our spouse. I believe this is necessary to become a good spouse. We should look for our partners to be those who have been running ahead into darkness to care for the suffering, to work for the Kingdom. If I am to marry I hope to find someone in the trenches with Christ. Someone who, like Christ, is to be found with the suffering; where we love other bodies above our own, because we are devoted first and foremost to the body of Christ.

But in this journey, we may be called to abandon everything.

To gain your life you must lose it. And there is no guarantee of getting back everything you gave up.

But you will gain a feast. A marriage feast with the Lamb.  A marriage, a home, an eternal Love.

[ F ] Juan de Flandes - The Marriage Feast at Cana (1496) - Earlier Sketch
Lord, teach us to love You. Teach us to see You in the suffering humans around us. Let us learn to turn aside our selfish desires and the comfort we find in being inward-focused.  You call us out. You call us to love you with our whole selves. To be one flesh with you. To be married to you. To be your beautiful bride. Lead us to the table to break bread with you. Let us drink wine with you. Let us live this marriage feast in our daily lives and work - let us celebrate the Eucharist in giving ourselves away to the needy. That is the marriage feast we are called to partake in. That is the holy consummation of our marriage to you. We suffer with You, we walk into death with You, knowing that You have gone ahead and before us, and came out victorious out the other side. We will always be together. Transform this whore at Your communion table into Your lovely bride. 


Update 6/10/13:    An apt quotation that Miroslav Volf posted on Facebook today: 

"A Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor" -Luther