Thursday, July 20, 2017

Tales of the Demonic

Posted on 6.25.2011

Last year I was sitting in the backyard typing away on my laptop. It was one of those wonderful mornings where I'm working outside with a cup of coffee and the dog running around.

Suddenly, things got very bad. I was surprised to see a man let himself into my backyard. I was startled but saw he was wearing a hard hat, a tool belt and a florescent vest. He was from the electric company and he was looking for our electric box.

Feeling cheerful I said, "Well hello, checking the meter?"

He responded, "Ummm. No sir. I'm here to shut off the power."

Shocked, I sought clarification, "Turn off the electricity!?"

"Yes sir."

"But why?"

"Lack of payment."

Now I'm really alarmed and confused, "Lack of payment? We're set up on an automatic bank draft. How could there be lack of payment?"

The man looked worried, like I was about to totally go off on him. "Sir, I can't say. All I know is that I'm supposed to shut off the power. I'm just doing my job."

I took a deep breath...

Monday, July 17, 2017

Do not “prejudge divine things from human”: Tertullian on Divine Anger

I have been doing a little digging in Tertullian’s work The Five Books Against Marcion the last couple of days. The five books cover an astonishing amount of ground (creation, hermeneutics, prophecy, goodness, Christology, etc.), which makes sense once you consider what a convoluted mess Marcion’s theology actually was. They didn’t call him the “arch-heretic” for nothing.

One important area is his treatment of divine anger. Mark Sheridan has touched on the issue of the Fathers’ handling of Biblical anthropomorphism in Language for God in Patristic Tradition and shown how the different strategies involved were concerned with making sure we were reading the Bible in a way that is “fitting” to God’s dignity and majesty. Obviously, the Marcionites thought attributing anger or wrath to God was unfitting, which partially motivated their rejection of large portions of the Old Testament and New.
Read more at:

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Conquest, Exile, & Cross: Replacing Projection With Reality

Written by Branson Parler
on February 24, 2014

The problem

If you’re a proponent of nonviolence, you will definitely hear the question: what about the conquest of Canaan? How does this fit with the call to nonviolence? How does this “violent” God fit with the nonviolent Jesus? Numerous books have engaged this issue and the problem of God’s violence, often focusing on the Old Testament (usually meaning the conquest recorded in Joshua). These questions must be answered carefully because the answers given have far-reaching implications and not simply for our view of nonviolence. My contention is that Christian pacifists must affirm certain points of continuity between Joshua, Jeremiah, and Jesus—conquest, exile, and cross—or else they may undermine the central logic of the biblical narrative and, along with it, our doctrine of God.


One popular answer is that the conquest narratives record Israel’s projection onto God rather than God’s actual instructions to Israel. . .

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Finkenwalde Option

The Need for a New Monasticism

Many “options” for the survival/renewal of the church in North America are floating around today. Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is the best known among them and the touchstone for this recent flurry of other “options.” All of them share two basic convictions:

-the American church is in dire trouble and needs a fundamental reshaping, and

-this reshaping requires intentional community to resist the world’s incursions.

Most of them point to monasticism, a reform movement in the early church protesting the accommodation of the church to ideas, ways, and mores of the Roman Empire, as a model for the kind of reform needed. This is a sound instinct. The trick is to discern the shape of the features of a monasticism fit for North America in these times.

And that’s been the catalyst for the discussion around Dreher’s book. Is it Benedict, or Francis, or the Jesuits, or some other version of monasticism that might serve us best in this time and place?

I suggest that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (DB) experiment to design a community to both support and equip at Finkenwalde, the site of the Confessing Church’s underground seminary, merits consideration. Dare we call it the Finkenwalde Option?

In a letter to his brother in early 1935, shortly before he took on the task of directing this underground seminary to prepare pastors for Confessing Churches, he wrote, “...the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.  I think it is time to gather people together to do this...”[1] 

In the context of the maelstrom ignited by Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933 the thorough accommodation of the church to German culture was evident to DB. He indicted his church in these uncompromising words: "Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world."[2]

It’s no stretch to apply that same indictment to the American Church. Not suggesting that America and it leadership are comparable to Hitler’ Nazism, the Third Reich, but the reality of the church’s accommodation to our culture in denaturing and debilitating ways sadly mimics the German church of DB’s time.

The Sermon on the Mount

As noted, he turned to monasticism as a model for the renewal and reconstruction of the church in Germany. He did not seek to reduplicate what Benedict and others had done. He knew something new was required – the spirit and ethos of monasticism. In his view, the Sermon on the Mount must be at the heart of this effort. Indeed, in the above letter to his brother, he claimed that Jesus’ Sermon was “the only source of power capable of exploding the whole enchantment and specter (Hitler and his rule) so that only a few burnt fragments are left remaining from the fireworks.”[3]

The Sermon on the Mount, far from being an impossible ideal we can never reach or a teaching applicable only during the so-called Millennial reign of Christ on earth after the defeat of Satan and evil, or for a special, higher class of Christian, or any other evasion, Bonhoeffer fervently believed Jesus’ teaching here was meant as practical guidance on living the life of God’s kingdom which Jesus had inaugurated. His popular book Discipleship (aka The Cost of Discipleship) makes this clear. Glenn Stassen, a latter-day Bonhoefferian, has followed up DB’s conviction that Jesus’ Sermon is concrete, practical guidance for his followers today, with ground-breaking research that has confirmed this conviction made even clearer the Sermon’s practical thrust.[4] It would be quite possible, in my judgment, to gather Christian communities around this description of life in God’s kingdom (which begins now in this life) as a focal point of this new monastic life.

The Arcane Discipline

DB later in his Letter and Papers from Prison insisted on the need for the church to retrieve the ancient church’s practice of the “arcane discipline.” They excluded outsiders from the practice and celebration of its most intimate rites. This was to protect these rites from misunderstanding and profanation and outsiders from gaining untutored perceptions of what was happening. Even in the nonreligious Christianity DB was struggling to articulate there remained a necessary place for formative worship.

We could include here, I think, the development of spiritual disciplines[5] aimed at buttressing our intention to resist the empire’s push to accommodate the church to its needs and aspirations and instead inculcate the ethos and ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s probably the best single “Empire-Buster” we have in our Bibles. Jesus here contradicts or stands on their heads much of what the Empire wants us to buy into and live our lives by. (Bonhoeffer and Stassen are worthy guides for this endeavor.)

Christian Education might be reconceived and implemented as vocational training. Our needs and struggles as Christians attempting to live faithfully from one day to the next is its curriculum. Wes Granberg-Michaelson has recently promoted Finkenwalde as place for us to begin to begin thinking and acting toward a new church.[6] He identifies some of what we are up against in that effort as:

-chauvinistic nationalism,    

-growing economic inequality,       

-destabilizing climate change,       

-unprecedented forced migration,  


-increasing militarization

In a world that at its best valorizes human effort and achievement and at its worst gleefully entice us to long for, anticipate, and experiment with things most would recognize as base and low (even if they dabble in them themselves), the church will not lack grist for its reflection and training in living a Sermon on the Mount-centered life.

This arcane discipline reaches even further than this, though. It reaches into the very core of who we are in Christ and with and for one another. In Life Together Bonhoeffer makes the astonishing (to us modern westerners) claim that it is confession of sin, one to another, that makes the church the church!

The practical putting to death of the old nature (especially it chief expression as pride), assuaging our loneliness, assurance of forgiveness, breakthroughs to community and new life, all this happens as one person confesses their sins to another. Not a priest, not to God alone, but to another Christian. All God’s gracious gifts to us breathe their life from this center. For in meeting with and confessing to another person, we are confessing, receiving pardon, and being filled with new life by Christ himself who stands between us as the center of our relationship.[7]

Such confession prepares for the central act of worship, the Lord’s Supper. Here’s how Bonhoeffer sums it up:

“The day of the Lord’s Supper is a joyous occasion for the Christian community. Reconciled in their hearts with God and one another, the community of faith receives the gift of Jesus Christ’s body and blood, therein receiving forgiveness, new life, and salvation. New community with God and one another is given to it. The community of the holy Lord’s Supper is above all the fulfillment of Christian community. Just as the members of the community of faith are united in body and blood at the table of the Lord, so they will be together in eternity. Here the community has reached its goal. Here joy in Christ and Christ’s community is complete. The life together of Christians under the Word has reached its fulfillment in the sacrament.”[8]

The Three Circles of the Church’s Life

DB is famous, of course, for his insistence that the church be deeply involved in all dimensions of life, “helping and serving,” rather than dominating as he puts it in Letters and Papers.[9] In his book Faithful Presence, David Fitch articulates a vision for the church’s immersion in the world that is consonant with Bonhoeffer’s insight. He proposes three concentric circles in which the church engages it community

-the close circle is gathered community of the committed. Perhaps this would be Bonhoeffer’s “arcane discipline,” his term for the worship of the church in a world-come-of-age. Note Fitch does not say a “closed” circle. He focuses on the quality of relationship in the group rather than its boundaries.

-the dotted circle is a place in the neighborhood where Christians host others beyond the close circle. Perhaps it’s a home gathering, or perhaps a gathering in some other place where Christians offer others the chance to see and experience what goes on in the circle.

-the half circle encompasses the places of hurt and brokenness we encounter. Here the Christian is a guest who extends the presence of Christ into a situation where it may or may not be accepted.

This a helpful way to order our thinking about being immersed in the world as DB advises. Now Bonhoeffer believes we are in a period when the church’s verbal witness has lost credibility and we ought to express our faith during this time with our deeds alone. As Walker Percy put it in The Thanatos Syndrome, our words “no longer signify.” Fitch does not have such a reservation but both are united in insisting the presence, sharing, helping, and serving others is a necessary precursor to valid testimony.

A Finkenwalde Option

Truth is, the Finkenwalde Option Bonhoeffer innovated failed. Or, rather, aborted. The Gestapo closed the seminary in 1937. Two years does not a community of resistance to the kind of forces identified above. So it remains an open question whether we can do it, either. It requires a different way of thinking and certainly different structures for doing church this way. In all honesty the present adult generations in America will not entertain a Finkenwalde Option. We (and I include myself here) are incapable of breaking free from the bonds of reputation, consumerism, and comfort. But if we will own that, and make an effort to nurture younger generations to transition to this way of being church, well, there may be hope down the line.

When Bonhoeffer announced his intention to find a career in the church, his siblings teased and taunted him over the church’s boring, stodgy irrelevance. He brashly shot back, “Well, then, I shall reform it!” And in ways unimaginable nor predictable, he did. Or at least played his part. His indispensable role. And because we have the record we do of his efforts, we have impetus enough to take up his aborted reform of the church and begin working it through in our own very different time and place. We won’t likely see the fruit of it, us older generation folks, but in my judgment, it’s the right thing to do and past the right time to do it. So, thanks be to God for the work and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and we thank him by taking up and doing what he saw and began – a Finkenwalde Option.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament of Freedom, Geoffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, eds. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), 424.
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Thoughts on the Day of the Baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm RĂ¼diger Bethge," Letters and Papers from Prison: DBW 8 (Augsburg Fortress. Kindle Edition), 11000.

[3] Bonhoeffer, Testament of Freedom, 424.
[4] Glen H. Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance (Jossey-Bass, 2009).

[5] David Fitch has seven helpful disciplines in his Faithful Presence: the Lord’s Table, Reconciliation, Proclaiming the Gospel, Being with the ‘Least of These’, Being with Children, the Fivefold Gifting, Kingdom Prayer.
[6] “From Wittenburg to Finkenwalde,”
[7] Bonhoeffer expounds this understanding of our humanity as centered in Christ in his book Sanctorum Communio (“Communion of Saints”).
[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible DBWE 5 (Fortress Press. Kindle Edition: 2578.
[9] DBWE 8:14361.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Major Clue to Understanding the Early Christian accounts of Jesus

Divinity Returns in the Messiah
In the second temple period, we find the theme which I have come, in recent years, to regard as the major clue to all the early Christian accounts of God’s action in Jesus.

Ezekiel tells of the divine glory, riding on the throne-chariot, abandoning the temple to its fate because of the persistent idolatry of people and priests alike. But in the final dream-like sequence of the book the temple is rebuilt, and in chapter 43, the divine glory returns at last.

This is the point, as well, of the whole poem of Isaiah 40–55: The watchmen will see the divine glory returning to Zion, though when they look closely what they will see is the figure of the Servant.

The point is this: In two of the major so-called post-exilic books, Zechariah and Malachi, the Temple has been rebuilt, but the promise of YHWH’s glorious return remains unfulfilled.

The prophets insist that the Spirit will return, but that it hasn’t happened.

YHWH will indeed return, but that very insistence is powerful evidence that he hasn’t done so yet. Of course the people are offering sacrifice and praying in the newly restored temple, because that’s how sacred space works, as with the Western Wall in Jerusalem to this day, where devout Jews and even visiting presidents go to pray even though no Jew supposes that Israel’s God is really in full and glorious residence on the old Temple Mount.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Resisting Trump with Revelation (36)

Wrap up

Whew! Our long journey through Revelation is over. But we will have to deal with Donald Trump’s iteration of American Empire for some time to come. I hope you have found John’s vision as challenging and compelling as I have. It reads and feels very contemporary to me. And not as a forecast of some few years at the end of history (calendarizing) but rather a characterization of the perennial challenges the church faces as it struggles for faithfulness in following Jesus in every time and place.
There will always be empires for the church to contend with. Today that empire is less a nation-state than he globalization of a way of life (consumer capitalism) through economic relationships. A rose by any other name, however, is still an empire, uh, I mean rose. The issues and dynamics are similar.
On the one hand, John’s vision addresses readers’
-priorities (by pressing on them reality as it is in Christ),
-passions (by rhetorically pressing on them the immediacy and urgency of response), and
-practices (by pressing on them acts of resistance).
On the other hand, the empire’s dragon-drive tactics include (in the words of Wes Granburg-Michaelson )
-lulling the church back into complicit comfort (denies cost of discipleship),
-condoning narrow, nationalistic loyalties (denies the multiethnic character of the church),
-offering the subtle idols of personal success and material reward (denies the call to follow Jesus), and
-promoting forms of spiritual escapism (denies the crucible of following Jesus).
In this clash of Imperial forces into which we have been drafted (“called”) to serve on God’s side, the price of faithful service is, according to John’s vision, threefold (Rev.12:10-11):
-our enemy the “accuser,” has been defeated (our priorities),
-we fight (“conquer”) him by the “blood of the Lamb,” (our passions) and
-we don’t “cling” to life when threatened (our practices).
The lens John gives us for interpreting reality is the “slaughtered Lamb” of Rev. 5. He’s the “Lion of Judah” though through the gospel’s reversal of our presumed reality he is the slaughtered Lamb. This image turns everything else on its head in Revelation.
-nonviolent suffering is strategic,
-death is the way to life, and
-the persecuted church in which Jesus rules and lives carries the destiny of the world.
All of this, this book of Revelation, far from being some weird apocalyptic fantasy of the “end times,” depicts an “alternate social world”, the vision of God’s Kingdom and those who live in it, in order to shape the community and individual identity of an audience living under imperial rule.
Every empire has its particular aims but all are fired by the same pretentions. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” empire features
-a hard, exclusive nationalism,
-a valorization of strength and force,
-social and financial elitism, and
-demonizing enemies. 
These are chief among the imperial dictates the church is called to resist in our time. Such resistance will cost us, no doubt. It is also the price and prize of the victory Christ has won for us. Even the death of his witnesses are a sign and even a means of Christ’s victory.
After this journey through Revelation, it seems appropriate to end where with John’s benediction for his book, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Resisting Trump with Revelation (35)

Responding to the word and Dismissal (22:8-21)

Responding to the Word

Jesus’ sermon is over. Our hypothetical worship service turns to “Responding to the Word.”  The first move in this section is a reminder to worship only God. It’s usually a hymn or song in our services. Here it is a warning addressed to the Seer himself. And if John needs such admonition, we do all the more. This word must be published abroad “for the time is near” (v.10). The emphasis on “soon” (vv.12,20) and “near” (v.10) reminds us that we live in a time requiring urgency and readiness for God’s work in the world is ongoing (v.11) and our faithful response to him is necessary (vv.12-13).

Next a Beatitude is pronounced on the hearers:  

“Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” (vv.14-15)

Even pronouncing blessedness, the Seer also issues a stern warning against any who “love and practice falsehood.” In context this must refer primarily to those who give up, give in, and collude with the empire and its worldview (as it has been throughout the book).

Jesus, the Davidic, Bright Morning Star messiah, the genuine Emperor for God’s people and God’s world (remember, the slaughtered Lamb of Rev.5!) issues the Call to the Table of the Eucharist of our worship service in v.17:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

Coupled with the call “Come, Lord Jesus” (v.20), which may function here as a “preface” to the Eucharist, this verse invites the readers/congregation to experience “the revelation of Christ through his “coming” in the Lord’s Supper.”[1]

Other eucharistic imagery includes the references to “dining” with Christ (Rev.3:8, 20, 4:1) and the Passover imagery in the letter (15:2-4; 16:1-21) esp. the references to “blood.”

I won’t belabor these references here (check the article in the footnote for a fuller treatment). But I do want to call attention at this point to the baptismal imagery used throughout the book, esp. the notion of being sealed or marked with the Name (3:12; 14:1; 22:4) and being clothed with white garments (3:4-5, 18; 4:4; 16:15; 19:13,16) or robes (6:11; 7:9, 13-14; 22:14). Consult the article below for the evidence that these carry allusions to baptism. What I do want to spend a little time on is that the visions of Revelation are bracketed between baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This, I think, is the true setting for Christian existence, the matrix or “force field” within or between which we are to live as Christians and function as God’s witnesses. Some comments from my blog on this theme:

God comes to us personally through his living Word, Jesus. And he comes to us through his written Word, the Bible. But he also comes to us through his enacted Word, the sacraments. These rituals, baptism and the Eucharist, give us the opportunity to both kinetically and imaginatively encounter the living Christ and practice the skills and moves necessary for faithful prosecution of the struggles of God’s people.

From the perspective of God’s SCRM, these sacraments can be re-visioned to gain traction within this framework. Indeed, I suggest that military imagery is especially helpful here and lifts up aspects of these acts frequently overlooked. I refer specifically to seeing baptism as induction into the military and the Eucharist as the rations that nourish and sustain soldiers in military action.

The Holy Spirit uses the Liquid Word of baptism and the Edible Word of the Eucharist to seal, that is, confirm and make effective, the Preached and Written Word of the Bible.

Baptism is a sign of initiation into God’s people, akin, I suggest, to induction and basic training into the military. Both give us a new parent (Uncle Sam/God the Father), a new identity, a new family, new resources and skills, a new inheritance or goal, and a new vocation (to serve in God’s Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement).

The Eucharist sustains and nurtures us in Christian living. Again, we might liken it to the “rations” a soldier lives off while in action. In the Eucharist we experience a preview of the great feast in God’s kingdom which is our hope, receive provision for present need, and we practice the skills needed to do and be the people God calls us to be. Undeserved welcome, friendship, peacemaking, hope, and stewardship chief among them.[10]

These sacraments are “means of grace” because they initiate and sustain us as members of God’s people and through whom we meet the risen Christ and grow in relation to him.

Another way to state the significance of these sacraments and their importance for us is to think of baptism as the beginning that never ends and the Eucharist as the end that has already begun. We never outlive or outgrow our baptismal call to live for Christ and God’s kingdom; so too, we experience here and now, in part, hope of life and friendship with God and one another in his new creation forever and ever. We live, as I like to put it, between the Font of baptism and the Table of the Eucharist. The various graces of each enfold from opposite directions making that imaginative space between the font and the table in the sanctuary a matrix of grace that forms us as God’s people.

Yet another way to reflect on the significance of these sacraments is to say that in baptism Jesus’ SCRM life becomes ours, while in the Eucharist, our lives become SCRM lives in his.

This is the “grace” John ends his book with (22:21). By now we have a full-orbed profile of this grace to fortify us for the struggle the Empire. A final post will offer some concluding comments on our journey through this strange book.

[1] Charles A. Gieschen, “Sacramental Theology in the Book of Revelation,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 67 (2003), 171.