Thursday, March 22, 2018

God’s BHAG and a Bigger and Better Gospel: Trinity and Incarnation

Jesus, God in human flesh, is the ultimate expression of God’s BHAG – his Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Such a goal is “clear and compelling and serves as a unifying focal point of effort” that engages people in their “innards” and is “tangible, energizing, highly focused.  People ‘get it’ right away; it takes little or no explanation” (Collins, The thing God wanted from forever, the divine BHAG, is for God and humanity to live together in friendship and love on this world he created for it. God desired this so much, to be so close to us, as close as he could possibly be, in fact, that he decided to become one of us!  His coming as one of us was always God’s plan. That was enormously complicated after humanity sinned and rejected friendship with him, to be sure. It now included the necessity to deal with sin and its effects in order to reclaim and restore humanity and creation to God’s intention for them.
Do you realize what this means? If Jesus was to become human anyway to fulfill God’s BHAG, then his reason for coming was not our sin or even to forgive our sin. Despite what many of us in the West have been taught it was not human sin that required Jesus to come die and be raised from the dead for us! He incorporated that into his coming as a necessary prelude to doing what he originally intended to do. But what he came to do is far bigger and better than that (as wonderful and necessary as forgiveness is).

Monday, March 19, 2018


For most of my Christian life, I never questioned it. Even in the last 5 years, I did it without reservation. As I reflect on why I used to do it, my reasons were always social, political, and cultural. They were never theological or ethical.
So as of a year ago, I stopped doing it. I no longer pledge my allegiance to the nation that I’m living in. And, to be consistent, I no longer look down upon my African, Asian, European, and Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in Christ who also find it hard to pledge their allegiance to the nation they are living in.
We're all citizens of another kingdom which is fundamentally at odds with other kingdoms seeking to rule the world, or part of it. We are outposts of heaven living as strangers and foreigners among the nations. And we need to be reminded of that identity every single day.
Christians too often ignore questions related to national allegiance, or they get mad when people raise them. Try blowing up your next Bible study by asking the question: Should Christians stand for the national anthem or recite the Pledge of Allegiance? You might just start a brawl.
The first Christians, however, would have gladly wrestled with these questions . . .

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The World Is Better Than Ever. Why Are We Miserable?

Earlier this week, I went to a lecture given by Steven Pinker on his latest book, Enlightenment Now. I’m a huge and longtime fan of Pinker’s, and his book The Blank Slate was, for me, a revelation. He’s become a deep and important critic of the visceral hostility to nature and science now so sadly prevalent on the left and right, a defender of reason and the Enlightenment against the “social justice” movements on campus, and his new book is a near-relentless defense of modernity. I sat there for an hour slowly being buried in a fast-accumulating snowdrift of irrefutable statistics showing human progress: the decline of violence and war, the rise and rise of democracy, the astonishing gains against poverty of the last couple of decades, the rise of tolerance and erosion of cruelty, lengthening lifespans, revolutions in health, huge increases in safety, and on and on. It was one emphatic graph after another that bludgeoned my current depression into a kind of forced rational cheeriness. There were no real trade-offs here; our gloom is largely self-imposed; and is entirely a function of our media and news diets.

At the same time, I was finally reading another new book, Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen. If you really want a point of view that is disturbingly persuasive about the modern predicament and yet usually absent from any discussion in the mainstream media, I cannot recommend it highly enough. A short polemic against our modern liberal world, it too is relentless. By “liberal,” I don’t mean left-liberal politics; I mean (and Deneen means) the post-Machiavelli project to liberate the individual from religious authority and the focus of politics on individual rights and the betterment of humankind’s material conditions. Deneen doesn’t deny any of the progress Pinker describes, or quibble at the triumph of the liberal order. It is, by and large, indisputable. He does something more interesting: He argues that liberalism has failed precisely because it has succeeded.

As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs. We’ve forgotten the human flourishing that comes from a common idea of virtue, and a concept of virtue that is based on our nature. This is the core of Deneen’s argument, and it rests on a different, classical, pre-liberal understanding of freedom. For most of the Ancients, freedom was freedom from our natural desires and material needs. It rested on a mastery of these deep, natural urges in favor of self-control, restraint, and education into virtue. It placed the community — the polis — ahead of the individual, and indeed could not conceive of the individual apart from the community into which he or she was born. They’d look at our freedom and see licentiousness, chaos, and slavery to desire. They’d predict misery not happiness to be the result.

Pinker’s sole response to this argument — insofar as he even acknowledges it . . .

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Death Clarifies What We Love

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Christmas Morning, 2017
There is a kind of theology that is not written in words, but written in lives. It is a type of religious reflection, not the reflection on religion of lettered men and women, but the reflection of religion through the performance of active love. If both are indispensable to the Christian tradition, it is also clear that they are neither equivalent nor, perhaps, equally important. It is the latter task: the daily, difficult, and often unremarkable practice of being in the world as a Christian that is the material of Christian life.
Rosemary Therese was that kind of Christian. The oldest daughter of a Polish father and an Irish mother, she grew up in an age when that arrangement was not yet unremarkable nor, amidst cultural and financial pressures, unremarked upon. By certain lights her life was a humble one. As the oldest child, she was not to go to college, but to care for her parents, which she did until the end of their lives. (She once told me she thought she would have studied English.) She married and had seven children of her own. They in turn, signaling further indications of further changes, were given away in marriage to other Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses and one son to the Church. They had children of their own, and now those children have begun to have children themselves. Across her heart, and that of many a homemaker, ran the crossroads of one world, with its local communities, values, and corner bakeries, and its strange successor . . .

Monday, February 26, 2018

Guns are Americans' golden calf

golden calf mosaic
Ancient Assyrian mosaic (Thinkstock)
The death-by-gun crisis in America is not just a political issue. It’s a spiritual issue of the highest order. Having all but enshrined the divinity of guns, our culture has created an elaborate public liturgy for every mass shooting. Flags go to half-staff. Counselors turn out. Thoughts and prayers pour forth. We continue to make a sorry mess of the distinction between loving God and being charmed by idols that seek to thwart the glory of God. Our national infatuation with firearms has reached crisis proportions that should trouble every believer.
All of us get sad, of course, when bullets eviscerate the joy in innocent victims’ families. If our eyes don’t water up when a tearful dad on the evening news alternatingly weeps and screams because a gunman senselessly mowed down his kid, some serious compassion is missing from the empathy chamber of our hearts. . .

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Whitewater Faith for the 21st Century: The Bronzing of the Church (ch.2)

Arthur McGill and William Stringfellow

In his fine but sadly much neglected book Death and Life: An American Theology Arthur C. McGill offers insightful theological reflection on the place and power of death in middle-class American society. He does not use the language of the “powers” as Stringfellow does but treats death as every bit the powerful and profound threat that twists our lives out of their God-intended shape and function as he does. McGill’s account is thoroughly “indigenous” in that he wrestles with the power and dynamics of death as it actually impacts Americans. This is the kind of theology we noted in the Introduction that Karl Barth called for: contextual and conflictual, communal and missional, scriptural and critical, contested and tempted.

McGill uses a wonderful image to picture the formative power of death in our culture. He calls Americans under the thrall of death as “bronze people” (26). These are folk who, according to McGill,

“devote themselves to expunging from their lives every appearance, every intimation of death. Their lives help assure us all that death is indeed outside of us. Yet to be a bronze person, to be able to live this way and convey this impression, is not easy and is not natural. In fact, it is one of the most disciplined and strenuous moral achievements. It is a constant and all-demanding task. It must be carried out in every area of a person’s life. There is no point in wearing nice clothes but having your eyes conspicuously haunted by fear. There is no point in walking and smiling with self-assured confidence if your face is deformed. All traces of weakness, debility, ugliness, and helplessness must be kept away from every part of a person’s life. The task must be done every single day if such persons really are to convince us that they do not carry the smell of death within them. It takes discipline to keep one’s garments cleaned and pressed, to keep the stylings of one’s clothes up-to-date, to keep the house painted. When a member of one’s family dies, it takes discipline . . . not to identify publicly with one’s grief“ (26).

Such a bronze way of life is buttressed and supported by an ethic of avoidance, on the one hand, and an ethic of resistance, on the other.

-ethic of avoidance: the good life entails excluding any and every negative, loss, or sign of death and the conviction that death is outside of life as well. Death is the end of life but its reality plays no role within life which is dedicated to avoiding it and treating it merely as the end of life. This is what is called the medical view of death.

-ethic of resistance: the desire to expunge the marks of negativity and death from life moves bronze people to charity and philanthropy to remove these marks of mortality from society as a whole. The church plays an important role in encouraging this charity and philanthropy preaching that this is what Jesus would do. Signs of death are treated as alien intruders that do not belong to our lives (like homeless people holding signs for help at intersections).

“As I see it,” writes McGill, “both the ethic of avoidance and the ethic of resistance are based on the conviction that the lives we live are not essentially and intrinsically mortal” (27).

The “Gospel of Having”

Thus bronze people live by “a gospel of having.” It acknowledges no lack or expectation of failure. Wealth is not jut a fact, it is core value. In the U.S. we are to be all we can be. Poverty, lack, failure are abnormal and soon to be eradicated. American children are never taught “You will constantly find yourself with needs that cannot be satisfied, with destructive circumstances that cannot be controlled. Therefore, learn courage and endurance to bear needs and in need learn how to receive and to give. Learn not to be emotionally overthrown by unrelieved an and unforeseen disaster” (15). On the contrary, we teach them that such difficulties are exceptional and to be fled as soon as possible.

We equip our children with the virtues of having and holding wealth. Hard work, ambition, self-confidence, tolerance of routine, drive, delayed gratification, and the like, will set them on the path to having what they need to secure and insure themselves against every eventuality. Their task is “to live in such a way that he or she does not carry the marks of death, does not exhibit any hint of failure in life” (18). Lack of success here means disgrace and moral turpitude, an offense worthy of punishment.

The gospel of having has ramifications beyond an individual’s negotiating her or his way through life. As a nation living by this creed, our corporate approach to life reflects it too. We are winners and reap the perks of our victory.

-We educate our young to be winners, not to accept their deficiencies but pursue securing them against their every need.

-We idolize youth.

-We search endlessly for natural resources on every continent, assuming they are ours if we need/want them,

-We exploit our technology in acquiring those resources, and

-We treat other peoples and nations as instruments for meeting our needs and serving our interests.

This ethic of success is really an ethic of avoidance. Avoidance of death. We are successful to the degree that we betray no signs of failure, lack, or non-achievement. We flee death at all costs, repress its awareness, warehouse its presence, and hope that someday our vaunted scientific prowess will defeat this “last enemy” (1Cor.15:26). We euphemize its reality: we don’t die, we expire, pass away, go on to a better place.

The American church is complicit in passing on and nurturing this gospel of having and a lifestyle of avoiding death. And in this complicity we affirm the American conviction that death is only a matter of the end of physical life and not something that should impact or influence our living of life, which is about abundance and fullness.

A Convenient Lie

The problem with this gospel of having, however, is that it is not true. And we know it’s not true. Deep down we know our official optimism is an illusion. Aware that almost anything can take our lives at any moment, we live with a vulnerability we cannot escape or evade. The more insistent this awareness of vulnerability grows, the more the specter of the meaninglessness of life threatens us. Indeed, it can shroud the whole of our lives. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes is insistent that the cruel reign of death levels every human aspiration and achievement to nothing. And for him this awareness ought to impact life every day and in every way! At the very least this awareness of death proves our optimism shallow and false.

Awareness of death requires an imaginative cover-up of this truth we do know at some level. “In order for these sensitive Americans psychically to endure their existence at all, they have to interpose between themselves and actual life a dream world of success and cleanliness and health and beauty and perpetual youth” (35). The physical incarnation of this is Disneyworld, “the happiest place on earth.” Ernest Becker, in his classic study The Denial of Death, shares the effect of such a cover-up: “It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours” (Ernest Becker [Uploaded by Snehan Kekre. The Denial of Death (Kindle Location 1195).

This convenient lie justifies the self and life our death-haunted selves require. McGill concludes: “So Americans let themselves become fully absorbed in the appearances of life, in the clean air, in the nice lawn, in the streets without beggars, in the homes without the aged . . . Fabricating this illusory world is a high and necessary calling. The bronze people should not be denigrated. . . They must exclude every appearance of pain and death, even if inside they know pain and feel the approach of death” (36).

The American “Christian” God

The deity who underwrites this convenient lie of the bronze life, perhaps we should call it the bronze god, is as much a fiction as the lie it supports. This god of love and kindness who rules the bronze world and its inhabitants is as much a fake as the world it supports. McGill asks:

“Do American Christians honestly believe that love rules this present world, rules the city, rules the home, rules the international scene? Not really. But in the realm of fabricated appearances, there God can rule and there God can have a kingdom. And as the crucial figure in the illusory world, the Christian God helps us veil and endure this nightmare world” (39).

Stringfellow similarly charges the church with preaching an “innocuous image of Jesus,” a Jesus powerless in the face of death and whose “kingdom” is limited to the personal and private inner lives of his adherents. A Jesus who makes no difference in death’s hold on human life in the political, economic, cultural, psychological or, truth be told, even in the personal realm of life (

A scene in Joseph Heller’s Catch22 memorably portrays this bronze god. An Air Corps officer in Italy In World War II named Yossarian is with a woman, a Lt. Sheisskopf’s wife, one Thanksgiving in a hotel room. Even though both claim to be atheists, they end up discussing what they have to be thankful for. Yossarian denies having anything to be thankful for while Lt. Sheisskopf’s wife claims she does.

Their discussion moves on to God (even though they are atheists). Yossarian damns God for all the evil, suffering, and mindless trouble in the world. Finally, Lt. Sheisskopf’s wife can stand his litany of condemnation no longer and tries to hit Yossarian. He parries her blow and cries out, “What the hell are you getting so upset about. I thought you didn’t believe in God?”

“I don’t,” she sobbed., bursting violently into tears. “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.”

Yossarian is a realist, at least in so far as he does not turn a blind eye to the horrors and meaningless suffering of the world we inhabit. Sheisskopf’s wife, McGill claims, is more like most Americans. Their loving but ineffectual bronze god is not real and cannot combat the power of death, but it does cover-up the harshness and terror of the world bronze people seek to avoid and evade (41).

Jacques Ellul: “La Technique”

 Arthur McGill shows us the reality, power, and effect of death as the prime expression of the hold the “principalities and powers,” the devil’s right-hand forces, have on our world. William Stringfellow gives us a theological reading of this reality, death, or “the Fall.” Another perceptive analyst of this phenomenon from a different perspective is the French historian, sociologist, and lay theologian Jacques Ellul. He tackles this problem in his analysis of “la technique” (technique).

Though often translated and interpreted as “technology” or “technological,” Ellul means something else in his use of this term. Technology and technological are expressions of “la technique” for Ellul but the thing itself he describes this way:

“In order to avoid misunderstanding it may be useful to mention again what I mean by “Technique” – often wrongly called “Technology” . . . What is called Technique can be assimilated neither to the machine nor to a collection of machines, methods and products. No longer a secondary factor integrated into a nontechnical society and civilisation, Technique has become the dominant factor in the Western world, so that the best name for our society is the “technicist society.” It is on technique that all other factors depend. Technique is no longer some uncertain and incomplete intermediary between humanity and the natural milieu. The latter is totally dominated and utilized (in Western society). Technique now constitutes a fabric of its own, replacing nature. Technique is the complex and complete milieu in which human beings must live, and in relation to which they must define themselves. It is a universal mediator, producing a generalised mediation, totalizing and aspiring to totality” (

As our milieu today, technique is totalitarian. It is the way we live and get things done. It is how we process information and make decisions. Technique, according to Ellul, is a specific rationality that is:

-autonomous with respect to values, ideas, and the state;
-self-determining in a closed circle. Like nature, it is a closed organization which permits it to be self-determinative independently of all human intervention;
-grows according to a process which is causal but not directed to ends;
-formed by an accumulation of means which have established primacy over ends; and
-in all its parts are mutually implicated to such a degree that it is impossible to separate them or to settle any technical problem in isolation

Technique for Ellul is self-justifying. “Everything which is technique is necessarily used as soon as it is available without distinction of good and evil. This is the principal law of our age” (cited at  What can be done is to be done, in other words.

James Fowler traces the development Ellul the historian and sociologist discerns with technique.

“The place of technique began to change dramatically in the eighteenth (18th) century with the quest for efficient procedures to find the “one best means” in every human endeavor. By the nineteenth (19th) century the bourgeoisie recognized technique as the key to their material and commercial interests. The industrialized technical employment of technique became a monster in the urbanized and technological society of the twentieth (20th) century, “the stake of the century” as Ellul termed it. Technique became the defining force, the ultimate value, of a new social order in which efficiency was no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity. Technique became universally totalitarian in modern society as rationalistic proceduralism imposed an artificial value system of measuring and organizing everything quantitatively rather than qualitatively. Like cancer in a living organism, the systematization of technique pervades every cell of our modern technical and technological society. The subtle illusion of this invasive methodology of technique is that people view technology as the liberator of mankind, the operational instrument that sets them free from natural function. Quite the contrary, says Ellul, ‘technique enslaves people, while proffering them the mere illusion of freedom, all the while tyrannically conforming them to the demands of the technological society with its complex of artificial operational objectives’” (A Synopsis and Analysis of the Thought and Writings of Jacques Ellul).

Technique’s effect, its totalizing rule over humanity, leads to practices and ways of life that Ellul sees as destructive, diminishing, and dehumanizing. Or, to use the language of this chapter, deathly.

So far we have seen the historical, sociological side of Ellul’s analysis. But he is also a theologian. And he writes in a point-counterpoint fashion. Not integrating the two perspectives but reading them as different takes on the same reality. From the one side, technique’s totalizing reality is pervasive and ironclad. It cannot be escaped. From the other, the reality of death and resurrection of Jesus creates freedom for his followers to live apart from the dictates of technique.

Ellul finds technique originating at the Fall when humanity declared its autonomy of God. It becomes over time the “new sacred” of a fallen world (see Ellul’s The New Demons). It thus becomes an agent and articulation of death. And it is at this point, in the collision between death and Jesus’ death and resurrection, where Ellul find “freedom” emerging. More on this below.


Arthur McGill, William Stringfellow, and Jacques Ellul have offered analyses of the place and power of death as the dominant expression of the principalities and powers that have rebelled against God and his created order and rendered this world inhospitable and dehumanizing. For McGill death generates a false, optimistic, positive, death-free worldview behind which Americans stand to avoid the harsh realities of our death-haunted world. Even the church plays a role in promoting and nurturing this “bronze” view of life.

Stringfellow finds death ruling our world through the principalities and powers as chief among the powers and the goal toward which the others devolve. The church all too frequently presents an “innocuous Jesus” who “rules” only over our private inner lives, which effectively means he rules nowhere.

Jacques Ellul comes at death from an historical, sociological point of view. He finds death in the predominance of technique in the modern world. And the church in the West Ellul finds sold out to the powers of the age and buying in to their dictates over life. (see his The Subversion of Christianity [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986], 13).

These critiques are complementary to one another. Three different ways of seeing the same thing from three different vantage points. It is time to look at how theology might respond in a way that aids Christian practice.

The De-Bronzing of the Church

Revelation 3:14-21: Christ’s Message to the Church at Laodicea

What does Christian theology have to say to a bronzed church? I think the New Testament itself gives a concise and acute analysis of a bronzed church in Rev.3:14ff., Christ’s message to the church at Laodicea. Here it is.

14 “’And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:

15 I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. 21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.’”

Laodicea was an affluent city located in the Lycus valley on a major trade route. Its wealth came from manufacturing of the soft black wool prevalent in the region, its medical center which produced a famous eye salve, and the security of its banking industry from which people all around the region came to utilize. Its theaters hosted dramatic and musical productions.

A thriving and self-sufficient community. So self-sufficient that when levelled by an earthquake in 60 a.d. the citizens refused imperial aid and rebuilt the city to an even greater splendor than before the quake.

This church is so self-sufficient that Christ has been pushed out and locked outside its gates (v.20). Christ, for his part, is ready to vomit them out of his mouth (v.16). Laodicea is one of the two churches in Rev.3 -4 that receive only censure from Christ. They have a pretty advanced case of bronzing, I’d say.

-Christ tells this church that their works are neither hot or cold. “Together, (these terms) characterize works of perseverance, faith, and love (2:2, 19; 3:8) and are synonymous with commitment (3:19)” (Koester, Revelation, 336). A church without such qualities only makes Christ sick to his stomach!

-The Laodiceans claim “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” Jesus says they are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17) in spite for their manufacturing prowess, banking institutions, and medical school. Here is where their bronzing is apparent in what they believe about themselves.

-Christ’s call to repentance is a call of love, even if tough love. If the Laodicean church does not repent, and leave Christ locked out of their fellowship, they are done as a church.

And so are we as American bronzed churches if we do not heed Christ’s warning to them. The bronze death eating away at the Laodicean church eats away at us too. And what Christ says to those Laodiceans maps pretty well on to the bronzing our culture in our I.C.E. Age.

-Individualism: American self-sufficiency is every bit as virulent as its Laodicean predecessor.

-Consumerism: we grab for money and stuff and derive our identity from it just like they did.

-Experientialism: like the Laodiceans’ love of dramatic and musical performances, Americans love to be diverted by their entertainment spectacles.

Fortunately, victory can be had over this bronzing threat to the church (3:21). It’s a gift from Christ. And this gift set us free from the fear death (both today and at the end of life). But this gift establishes a relationship which must be received and to which we must respond to. And in that relationship we find the life and freedom to live outside the iron laws death seeks to bronze us with.

Life in a Deathly I.C.E. Age

If the I.C.E. Age is death’s way of maintaining us in its grip, then the gift of new life and freedom Christ gives will take shape in opposite directions.

-Christ’s gift is a call to community. Life and freedom from the power of death is found only in being with and for others. Transformed from our death-shaped “billiard-ball” existence of complete self-sufficiency and independence into a “molecule-like” relationship between different elements related through their electrical forces, our Individuality is discovered only in a shared life of community, not individualism, the person alone and by themselves discovering and deciding who they are.

-Christ’s gift is freedom for generosity and sharing. Connected to one another, and sharing a life and destiny with others, we no longer want to withhold our goods and gifts from others but are instead eager and insistent on sharing with them. No longer is life a zero-sum game won by the one who dies with the most toys. The identity we seek and the significance and security we desire is now won by seeking the well-being of others rather than by our own self-aggrandizing activity. The consuming we practice is at the Lord’s Table which reminds and conforms us to the image of the one who gave his life for the salvation of the world!

-Christ’s gift is “inner-tainment,” a reshaping of our affections and character into conformity with Christ. The never-ending search for new and more spectacular experiences which we believe will expand our horizons and deepen our character is eschewed in favor of attention to our deepest loves which will truly shape us into who God intends us to be.

 How does this transformation, this de-bronzing, occur? According to Christ in his message to the Laodicean church, such change requires honesty about where and who we actually are (3:15,16) – bronzed people; what we actually believe (3:17) – the convenient lies that facilitate our bronzing; and attention to the love and gifts of Christ in critical interaction with who we really are and what we truly believe (3:19-20).

Technology and Prayer

But even in trying to act on Christ’s call to receive new life from him, we must be aware of the subtle shaping power of death. Ellul called our attention to the pervasive and intimate power of la technique to determine how we process information and make decisions. This can happen even in our spiritual endeavors. Thomas Merton discerns the way technique can affect prayer.

“We were indoctrinated so much into means and ends that we don’t realize that there is a different dimension in the life of prayer. In technology you have this horizontal progress, where you must start at one point and move to another and then another. But that is not the way to build a life of prayer. In prayer we discover what we already have. You start where you are and you deepen what you already have, and you realize that you are already there. We already have everything, but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess...The trouble is, we aren’t taking time to do so”   (

Life and the Eucharist

Christ’s call is a call to the table: “I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” This no doubt alludes to the meal that stands at the center of the church’s life: the Lord’s Supper, Communion, the Eucharist. Regular observance of this meal (and many churches do not regularly observe it to their hurt) is a chief means the Spirit uses to work Christ’s life into us and us into his image. Peter Leithart explains:

“The Eucharist is the way the world ought to be: Raw creation cultivated to grain and grapes. Cultivated creation brought to its fulfillment by cooking. Cooked creation enjoyed in the presence of God. Cooked created enjoyed together, by a community of worshipers. Cooked creation given in praise and received with thanksgiving. The final end of all things is the marriage supper of the lamb, and in the Lord’s Supper we anticipate that final feast, the feast that is the culmination of all creation. History is heading toward a wedding and eternal wedding reception, and our lives are to be spent readying the world for the wedding feast, a wedding feast that we are already enjoying now . . .

“And so the Supper reveals us to ourselves. This is what we are created to do: To be priests and kings, ruling the earth, transforming it from glory to glory, and joining it all in one great Eucharistic banquet” (

Luke 14 demonstrates in practical ways how the Eucharist shapes the church as a life-giving community. -First, on the way one sabbath to a meal, Jesus heals a person afflicted with dropsy (v.2) and teaches on the sabbath as a day for healing and liberation (v.5).  Then, secondly and thirdly, he explains the etiquette appropriate at any table he presides at. Guests ought sit in the places of lowest honor so as not to have to move from a place of higher honor to a lower one if a more distinguished guest arrives. Why: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (v.11). And the guest list for a party or dinner one throws should not be for relatives or friends who can in turn invite you to their party or dinner. “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (vv.13-14).

Liberation, healing, and joy, humility, and radical hospitality, then, mark the way we have been received at Jesus’ table. And the way we are to in turn receive others. 

Whitewater Faith and Death

Now that we have developed an understanding of the reality of death in North American life and looked at some biblical perspectives, we can now turn to the paradigm of Whitewater faith developed in the last chapter to see what insight it offers for a theological understanding of life in today’s whitewater world. Let’s review the paradigm:

-Keep the Sabbath

-The Theology of the Cross



To break the hold of the power and fear of death over humanity, we need a place to stand (sabbath), a way to act (a theology of the cross), a way to be (gratitude), and, as Martin Luther in his great hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” put it, “the right man on our side.” Our paradigm keeps our theology zeroed in where it needs to be for the struggle today.

Keep the Sabbath

Sabbath is the place and reality of rest. The crown of creation. The sign that God is present in his creation. And according to the creation story in Gen.1 God never left! No “there was evening and there was morning the seventh day” can be found there. It has never ended and God is present with us in this ongoing sabbath. That we believe God is far away and aloof, perhaps even too angry at us to want to be with us, is a tragic misreading of the Bible!

Sabbath is way of naming God’s eternal purpose and that purpose is the place where we can stand amid all the change, turmoil, and upheaval of our culture, catch our breath, and reorient ourselves to our proper vantage point for understanding and responding to it. Karl Barth says well what needs to be said here.

 “It is not man who brings the history of creation to an end, nor is it he who ushers in the subsequent history. It is God’s rest which is the conclusion of the one and the beginning of the other, i.e., God’s free, solemn, and joyful satisfaction with that which has taken place and has been completed as creation, and His invitation to man to rest with Him, i.e., with Him to be satisfied with that which has taken place through Him. The goal of creation, and at the same time the beginning of all that follows, is the event of God’s Sabbath freedom, Sabbath rest and Sabbath joy, in which man, too, has been summoned to participate” (Church Dogmatics, 3/1, p. 98).

Participation in God’s sabbath, his eternal fellowship and communion with humanity, is the goal of human life. We must embrace and internalize this destiny and act from its reality in our lives. Our reading of the Bible, as in the passages discussed briefly above, must be read in this largest and most expansive horizon. Sabbath is the place we have on which to stand.

A Theology of the Cross

The majority tradition of the church had tended toward a theology of glory. This view sees the Christian life as progressing toward glory in this life as well as the life to come. The cross is treated as a means to an end, our glorification, blessing, ease, abundance, etc. A theology of the cross, on the other hand, traced through Jesus, Paul, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and J├╝rgen Moltmann, has always been a minority tradition. It sees the cross as an end in itself, the definitive expression of the nature of God, and the place where we die with Christ and are raised to new life. That new life, far from leaving the cross behind, enables us to participate in cross-bearing as the way of the people of God in a world-not-yet-fully-redeemed.

From this perspective Dietrich Bonhoeffer defined faith as participating in the sufferings of God in the world (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison: DBW 8 [Kindle Locations 13867-13868]. Augsburg Fortress. Kindle Edition). In suffering and struggle rather than comfort and positivity is where God is to be found. Andrew Root, another theologian of the cross, has recently deepened Bonhoeffer’s analysis and argued that “Faith is allowing our lives to be bent toward the transcendent experience of divine action that comes to us in negation” (Faith Formation in a secular Age, vol.1 (Ministry in a Secular Age): Responding to the Church's Obsession with Youthfulness [Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition], 149). Sharing God’s suffering in the world entails a conforming of our own lives to the shape of God’s presence in that suffering. Experience of God in our fallen world is found in its pain and suffering. Relation to God, then, is tied to the cross and validated in the resurrection.

While a theology of glory is easily coopted by bronzing (a theology of positivity and a positive, death-denying outlook) is undercut at its root by a theology of the cross. Here we find our way to act in the world. And such a theology was the only one Paul knew, lived by, and preached (1 Cor.2:2). Finding life, God, in the death around us (and in us!) makes it impossible for us to avoid the darkness and pain and the cross. And as we grow in faith, we won’t want to!


“Give thanks in all things” (1 Thess.5:18). To give thanks in all things (not for all things!), gratitude, is a way of life, and a gift. That’s why the Heidelberg Catechism places the whole human response to God’s liberating grace under the heading of Gratitude. A response of gratitude to God’s grace sits at the core of who we are and are to become. Our way of being. Barth, again, says it well:

[That] which we maintain when we describe the covenant as the covenant of grace is that the covenant engages man as the partner of God only, but actually and necessarily, to gratitude. On the side of God it is only a matter of free grace and this in the form of benefit. For the other partner in the covenant to whom God turns in this grace, the only proper thing, but the thing which is unconditionally and inescapably demanded, is that he should be thankful. How can anything more or different be asked of man? The only answer to [grace] is [gratitude]. But how can it be doubted for a moment that this is in fact asked of him?

[Grace] always demands the answer of [gratitude]. Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth. Grace evokes gratitude like the voice an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning. Not by virtue of any necessity of the concepts as such. But we are speaking of the grace of the God who is God for man, and of the gratitude of man as his response to this grace. Here, at any rate, the two belong together, so that only gratitude can correspond to grace, and this correspondence cannot fail. Its failure, ingratitude, is sin, transgression. Radically and basically all sin is simply ingratitude—man’s refusal of the one but necessary thing which is proper to and is required of him with whom God has graciously entered into covenant. As far as man is concerned there can be no question of anything but gratitude; but gratitude is the complement which man must necessarily fulfil. (Karl Barth,Church Dogmatics, IV/1. London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.41-42).

Such a gift from such a giver makes life worth living. Gratitude is “the genuine being of the human person” and “joy is the simplest form of gratitude” (Barth).

It is no coincidence that the meal Jesus instituted and enjoined on his followers is the “Eucharist” – thanksgiving, gratitude. Under the signs of the bread and wine Jesus gives us his life that we may in turn gives ours to him and go forth in the world as his body broken for the life of the world. This is where duty and joy coalesce.

Brian Walsh provides a helpful litany on gratitude.

“In a culture of perpetual dissatisfaction,
a culture where you are what you have made yourself,
a culture of ceaseless craving
……for new experiences,
……for consumer goods,
……for power,
……for sex,
……for wealth,
……for status,
a culture of hyperactive frenzy and anxiety,
a culture of paralysis and numbness,
……in this culture,
……gratitude can set us free.

Gratitude receives life as a gift,
not a self-made accomplishment.                                                                                                                               Gratitude is rooted in deep satisfaction,
not held captive to dissatisfaction.                                                                                                                          Gratitude replaces isolation
with community.                                                                                                                                                         Gratitude replaces competition
with friendship.                                                                                                                                                              Gratitude meets an economy of ‘more’
with the audacious experience of ‘enough.’                                                                                                                   Gratitude abandons aggression
for gentleness.                                                                                                                                                            Gratitude shakes off arrogance,
for humility”

In this way gratitude shapes us as a people who have a way of being in the world that no need of bronzing and the resources to resist its attempt to ensnare us.


Though last on my list of rules for making a way through our cultural and social rapids, Jesus Christ is first in every respect. Martin Luther called him “the right man on our side” in his great hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” St. Paul said all that needs to be said about him in his great “Christ Hymn” in Phil.2:6-11: Christ, Paul writes

“who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

As the full and final revelation of who God is and how God acts in the world, this is the great anti-bronzing and anti-death passage in the New Testament. In him both lose their appeal and power over us. Death’s hold is broken, death itself is defeated, and there is no need for followers of Jesus to resort to bronzing to ward off its fear and terror.

It is this Jesus, though, and not the “bronze Jesus” of McGill or Stringfellow’s “innocuous Jesus,” who is “the right man on our side.” No surrogates or substitutes will do. It makes all the difference which “Jesus” we follow!


The specter and fear of death dominates our lives. The devil’s right-hand power. It keeps life stirred up, tensive, conflicted. Whitewater. In America that power manifests itself by terrorizing many into imagining and trying to live a lie about a life free of the taint or stain of loss, failure, and death. Bronzed. Even Christianity gets coopted into propounding and affirming this bronzed way of life.

Genuine Christian faith, however, offers an antidote to this spurious way of life. I’ve named it Whitewater Faith for the 21st Century: sabbath (a place to stand), a theology of the cross (a way to act), gratitude (a way to be), and Christ, “the right man on our side.” Each of these brings particular resources of the Christian tradition to bear on this American phenomenon of bronzing. More than enough to negate and break death’s power and hold over us. More than enough to enable us to tell a true story about our lives and live authentically in our world.