Saturday, December 30, 2017

Wokeness and Myth on Campus

Crying “free exchange of ideas!” misses the cultural meaning of protest in a society coming apart.

The recent wave of protests at American colleges — in which students express their anger at the presence on their campuses of ideas and speakers that they believe to lie outside the boundaries of acceptable discourse — has elicited endless commentary, but little of that commentary has been helpful. To some observers, the students are admirably alert to institutional racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, and are courageous in resisting those forces. To others, the students’ responses merely mark them as “special snowflakes” unable to cope with real-world diversity of opinions. These opposed interpretations of the protests are themselves laid out, fortified, and held with commendable firmness or lamentable rigidity, depending on your point of view. In any case, they lead nowhere and leave no minds changed.
The problem lies in a failure to grasp the true nature of the students’ position. If we are going to understand that position, we will need to draw on intellectual sources quite other than those typically invoked. What is required of us is the study of myth — and not in any pejorative or dismissive sense, but in the sense of an ineradicable element of human consciousness.
The Technological Core and the Mythical Core
In his book The Presence of Myth, first published in English translation in 1989, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski divides our civilization into two “cores.” This is his term for two cognitive, social, and ethical networks, “two different sources of energy active in man’s conscious relation to the world.” One of these cores is “technological,” the other “mythical.”
The term “technological core” is potentially misleading. Kołakowski is speaking of something broader than what we usually mean by “technological,” something influenced by Martin Heidegger’s understanding. To Heidegger, and therefore I think to Kołakowski, technology is not the product of science; rather, science is the product of a “technological enframing.” Technology, on this view, is not a set of methods or inventions but a stance toward the world that is instrumental and manipulative, in relatively neutral senses of those words. The technological core is analytical, sequential, and empirical. Another way to put this is to say that what belongs to the technological core is what we find to hand: whatever occupies the lifeworld we share, and is therefore subject to our manipulation and control, and to debates about what it is and what might be done with it. To this core belong instrumental and discursive reason, including all the sciences and most forms of philosophy — everything that reckons with the possible uses of human power to shape ourselves and our environment. The technological core undergirds and produces the phenomena we typically refer to as technological.
The “mythical core” of civilization, by contrast, describes that aspect of our experience “not revealed by scientific questions and beliefs.” It encompasses the “nonempirical unconditioned reality” of our experience, that which is not amenable to confirmation or disconfirmation. As will become clearer below, the mythical core describes our most fundamental relation to the world. It is our metaphysical background, the elements prior to our manipulation and control. For Kołakowski, the failure to distinguish between the mythical and technological cores leads to a failure to understand many social trends and events.
Kołakowski brackets the question of whether “nonempirical unconditioned reality” actually exists — that is, of whether metaphysics is fictional. He is interested, rather, in the impulse toward connecting with such a reality, which he says is persistent in human civilization, though it takes many forms.
He also wants to understand this mythical core on its own terms. But this understanding can be difficult, for our society “wishes to include myth in the technological order, that is ... it seeks justification for myth.” And the only way to seek justification for myth is to analyze it into components and reassemble them in a logical sequence. That is to say, myth can only be justified by ceasing to be myth:
The Gospel phrase, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” appears to an eye accustomed to rudimentary logical distinctions a jumble of words justified at best as metaphor translatable into several distinct utterances: “I am offering you proper directives,” “I proclaim the truth,” and “If you obey me I guarantee that you shall have eternal life,” and so on. In fact, these sorts of conjectured metaphors are literal, do not demand to be understood and to be translated into the separate languages of values and information. One can participate in mythical experience only with the fullness of one’s personality, in which the acquisition of information and the absorption of directives are inseparable. All names which participators in myths have given to their participation — “illumination” or “awakening” or such like — refer to the complete acts of entry into the mythical order; all distinctions of desire, understanding, and will in relation to these global acts is a derivative intellectual reconstruction.
This description is deeply insightful, useful to reflection on many cultural phenomena. But here we need only observe that it helps to explain a great deal of what’s happening on certain American college campuses these days.
Wokeness as Myth . . .


Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Christmas Reflection

Posted by: vinoth-ifes on: December 24, 2017

Christmas is about human exclusion as much as divine solidarity. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11)

A couple excluded from the hotels and guest-houses of their home town, and later forced to flee as refugees from state persecution. A child who is excluded from his community and eventually from life itself, dying in solidarity with all who suffered the shame of crucifixion.
The best way to celebrate Christmas, therefore, is to reflect on- and repent of – the way we exclude other people and other voices from intruding on our comfortable existence.

I think today, Christmas Eve, especially of my Palestinian Christian brethren. They are caught in a vulnerable position between, on the one hand, an aggressive Israeli settler movement and an equally aggressive Islamist militancy, on the other. Rarely, if ever, are their voices heard in mainstream secular news media.

The only exposure to Palestinians on “Christian” news channels is of stone-throwing children or the remains of suicide-bombers. How humiliated Palestinian Christians must feel by constant references on the part of Western Christians to “the Holy Land” (a sentimental phrase that is not found in the Bible) combined with a wilful ignorance of history and a fundamentalist abuse of “biblical prophecy”. The global Church needs to listen to their voice.


The Great Annual Examen

The Great Annual Examen
Reflecting BACK on the past 12 months and anticipating the NEXT 12 months
400 years ago, Ignatius of Loyola crafted a genius way of prayer. His method helped  a person reflect back upon their day and their life in terms of how one experienced God.  He developed a prayer called, The Daily Examen. It is both a challenging and comforting way to trace the movement of God in one’s life. After having spent a solid year in study, reflection and prayer using Ignatius’ method of prayer, I’ve come to the conclusion that Ignatius was a genius. I only wish now that I had known about this decades earlier. Never before, had anyone in the history of the church, shared such a bold new way of spending time with God, ourselves and our own hearts.  This Great Annual Examen is based on Ignatius’ way of reflection and prayer.


Friday, December 22, 2017

When our oldest daughter, Sara, was a little girl of around six, she took ballet. I sometimes drove her to ballet lessons in our old Volkswagen Beetle. Once, as Sara pulled her seat belt and shoulder harness on, it made a slight hissing sound. This prompted her to observe with a giggle, “It sounded like the car passed gas.”*

Being the kind of dad I am, I replied, “I thought it was you.”

“Dad, I don’t do that anymore.”

“Sara, honey, everyone passes gas.”

“Yeah, I guess so. But God doesn’t.”

“No. Probably not. But, I expect Jesus did when he lived on earth.”

“Dad, they didn’t do that back then!”

I assured her that they did and that such has always been part of being human and having bodies. . .


Christmas The Third Birth Story of Jesus

Did you realize there are three stories of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament?  There’s Matthew’s and there’s Luke’s and there’s . . . John’s.  No not the John of the Fourth Gospel but John the Seer of book of Revelation fame!

Yes, he too has a birth story of Jesus.  It’s found in the twelfth chapter of his visions of the “revelation” of Jesus Christ (1:1).  In it he takes us back behind the personal and historical dramas we find in Matthew and Luke (though, of course, they hint and allude to this in various ways in their stories too).  We might say that if

-the John of the Fourth Gospel takes us back to find Jesus in the eternal being of God, and  

-Matthew and Luke tell us of his actual birth from the perspectives of Joseph and Mary respectively, then

-John the Seer takes us into the heavenly realm itself and reveals the cosmic meaning of what Matthew and Luke narrate for us.  In his enigmatic (to us) imagery and lurid detail the Seer enables us to grasp at a visceral level the story in which our lives truly makes sense, the reality that we live between the D-D-Day of Jesus’ resurrection and the V-Day of his return (to use World War II imagery), who we are and what we are to do within that story, and in particular, the authority we have as the people of the Son of the Woman clothed with the Sun. 

Here’s John vision:

12 Then a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant, and she cried out because she was in labor, in pain from giving birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: it was a great fiery red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven royal crowns on his heads. His tail swept down a third of heaven’s stars and threw them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth so that when she gave birth, he might devour her child. She gave birth to a son, a male child who is to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was snatched up to God and his throne. Then the woman fled into the desert, where God has prepared a place for her. There she will be taken care of for one thousand two hundred sixty days.

Then there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they did not prevail, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. So the great dragon was thrown down. The old snake, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world, was thrown down to the earth; and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say,

“Now the salvation and power and kingdom of our God,
        and the authority of his Christ have come.
The accuser of our brothers and sisters,
        who accuses them day and night before our God,
        has been thrown down.
11 They gained the victory over him on account of the blood of the Lamb
        and the word of their witness.
Love for their own lives didn’t make them afraid to die.
12 Therefore, rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them.
But oh! The horror for the earth and sea!
        The devil has come down to you with great rage,
            for he knows that he only has a short time.”

13 When the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he chased the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she could fly to her place in the desert. There she would be taken care of—out of the snake’s reach—for a time and times and half a time. 15 Then from his mouth the snake poured a river of water after the woman so that the river would sweep her away. 16 But the earth helped the woman. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon poured out of his mouth. 17 So the dragon was furious with the woman, and he went off to make war on the rest of her children, on those who keep God’s commandments and hold firmly to the witness of Jesus.

We live in a story of cosmic warfare! This was not God’s original intent but given our rebellion against him, God launched what I like to call a subversive counter-revolutionary movement to reclaim his creatures and creation and restore all thing to his original intent. To live as God’s people in this kind of world where we face the “fury” of the enraged but defeated dragon (v.17) means we too are caught up in this conflict.  

I know some don’t like the use of military images and metaphors because of the terrible misuse those images and metaphors have been and still sometimes are put.  However, to lose this imagery, which is pervasive in the Bible even though re-visioned for us through the nonviolent cruciform life and ministry of Jesus, is to lose the purpose, cogency, urgency, and intentionality of living for God.

In other words, living within this story of cosmic warfare won but not yet fully consolidated is living as God always meant for us to live in a world not yet fully redeemed!

We are, therefore, according to Seer John’s nativity story, those who live between the D-D-Day of Jesus’ resurrection and the V-Day of his return (to use World War II imagery).  The “fit” between this metaphor and our experience suggests its aptness. Like the Allied forces after the landing and battle of Normandy in World War II, we know we are on the winning side of this war.  The decisive battle has been fought and won (v.7-9); the outcome is no longer in doubt (D-Day/Jesus’ resurrection, v.5)). But it will be nearly a year before treaties are signed and weapons laid down in the European theater (V-Day/Jesus’ return). In between we live enmeshed in the ongoing struggles to implement Jesus’ victory in our own lives (struggle with the “flesh”), in the “world,” and with the “principalities and powers” (the “devil”; vv.13-15; Eph.6:10-20). We must remain “battle-ready,” alert, in training, and focused if we are to participate in Christ’ victory. No time for the sentimental schmaltz and nostalgia that “is” Christmas for so many within and without the church – not if we take John the Seer’s nativity story seriously!  

We find our identity and vocation with this story. V.10-12 are worth a further look on this matter.  V.10 restates the victory that is already ours and our identity as victors in Christ. Reference to the “blood of the Lamb” points to at-one-ment, the reconciliation of all things in and with God.  It’s more than simply the forgiveness of sins but reaches out to include the restoration of humanity to its primal dignity as God’s children and royal representatives and its original vocation, caring for one another and the creation as priests in the temple of God’s creation.  This restoration underwrites our call and capacity to live as God desires us to live.

God through Christ has defeated and cast down the enemy, the great serpent, the devil.  His accusatory work which held us all in bondage heretofore has had the branch on which it sat sawed off by Jesus Christ.  His lies and illusions had been unveiled for what they are for all to see.  He has no more power over us but that which we, tragically, give him.  As long as we remember, internalize, and cling to the story we are caught up in, the time we live in, our identity and vocation in and through Christ, devilish lies and deceptions will roll off our backs and will not hinder us in the least.

On the ground of our reconciliation and restoration we go forth as faithful participants in the struggle, bearing witness to what Jesus has accomplished. The boldness we demonstrate in such witnessing is born of utter confidence in Jesus as the one God raised from the dead to live forevermore and over whom death no longer has any hold. Lives given for him, even poured out to death on his behalf, become pointer to the sovereign love that made them possible.  Death is not a defeat for us and God, but has been transformed into a most luminous witness that draws others into God’s kingdom.

In v.17 John adds to the witness of Jesus “keeping God’s commandments” as a description of what God’s people do. Part and parcel of participating in God’s subversive counter-revolutionary movement is to live in such a way that our “warfare” is coextensive with living as God originally designed humanity to live!

Finally, we learned here that we have authority, authority to live and love, serve and sacrifice as members of the family God called to use as his instrument to spread his blessings throughout the world.

As people who live under the attack of the defeated but not fully pacified powers and by the cruciform pattern of Jesus and wage their battle with only the “violence of love” (Oscar Romero), cannot but celebrate Christmas with the joy of an oppressed people who hear the good news of a regime change!  This call changes life for all who embrace it.  It is a disturbing, profound challenge to the status quo and is not without its own dangers, disciplines, and demands.  Yet its promise far outweighs its cost and in taking up its call to “arms” (nonviolent, of course) we delightedly discover that this life in God’s subversive counter-revolutionary movement is what we were meant for all along!

The joy of hearing this divine call, the realization that God “takes sides” in this world (remember Mary’s Magnificat) and the realism that’s its interface with the world will often be conflictual, even mortally dangerous, generates a way of facing that world that in good Jewish fashion holds together unblinking reality at the same time as extravagant hope.

In our world, so torn and riven with oppression, injustice, and war, living as this Revelation 12 people means we celebrate Christmas with a joy that refuses sentimentality and nostalgia and a realism that knows the undeniable present distress has been judged and is passing away.  Both such joy and such realism mark our worship and service of the crucified and risen Lamb.

Here is a sample written by J. Daniel Kirk that captures a Revelation 12 perspective on our lives and service in God’s world.

A Corporate Confession and Prayer for Peace (

We gather in the name of the God of Peace
May grace and peace be ours from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
We gather in the name of the Prince of Peace
The one who says, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you.”
We gather in the Spirit
Who is our life and our bond of peace.

May peace be upon this place
May we be found worthy, that this blessing might to rest upon us.
Give light to those who sit in darkness and the valley of the shadow of death
To guide our feet into the way of peace
Open our eyes, Lord,
So that we might know the things which make for peace

We confess that we have not been peacemakers
But have sought our own good rather than the good of our neighbor
We confess that we have not been agents of your goodness and grace
But have looked out for our own interests rather than the interests of others
Gracious God, forgive us, your beloved children
In the name of Jesus, extend to us your reconciling peace
May we yearn for peace within our homes, in our neighborhoods, and in San Francisco
May this desire bear fruit in our lives through initiatives of love.

Mother of the world, and of all those who live within it,
You have reconciled this world to yourself in Christ
While we were yet enemies, aligning ourselves against you,
You gave your Son Jesus to die for us, that we might be at peace with You
Teach us how to live into the reconciliation created by Christ
So that we might learn what it is to be reconciled to one another

We confess that in our desire for peace, we often assume the postures of conflict
We have taken sides and set up ourselves as judges
We have listened to one side of the story,
And decided in its favor without waiting for the voice we have not heard
We have yearned for victory
And have believed that one side must lose for the other to win
We have seen the conflicts in the world, spurred on by an economy of scarcity
And we have not allowed the upside down economy of your Kingdom’s
abundance to create fresh vision for a world suffused with peace.

Hear our cry on behalf of the Palestinians:
may they know the fullness of life that you have created this world to provide
May they know absence of war
So that they might have hope for their children
May they know freedom upon their own land
So that they might know the dignity of fruitful work
May they know security in their homes
So that they might remember the value of their precious human lives.

Hear our cry on behalf of the Israelis:
may they know the fullness of life that you have created this world to provide
May they know peace upon their own land
So that they might raise their children in a place free from fear.
We pray for the peace of Jerusalem
May they prosper who love her
For the sake of sisters and brothers of all faiths who live within her walls,
We say: “May peace be within her.”

You have promised, O God, that love and faithfulness will meet
That justice and peace will kiss each other.
As your justice and peace kissed in the reconciling love of Jesus,
May we see in the world the joining of justice and peace
Make faithfulness spring up from even the desert ground,
And may righteousness rain down from the sky
Make a way of life in the midst of the desert
Where it seems that only death will reign.
Yours is the Kingdom of extravagant abundance,
And so we ask for vision to see how there is enough for all.

As we cast our eyes around the globe,
we confess that our nation is not innocent.
As we mourn the deaths in Gaza,
our own nation’s war in Afghanistan has cost lives this very week
While we protest the aggressions of our allies
we turn away thousands who come to us for safety and comfort

Forgive us, Father above, for we have confused the absence of war at home for the presence of peace.

Of old you warned the people who called themselves yours,
But were greedy for gain at any cost.
Of old you warned those who did not attend to the wound of your people
But said, “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace.
Of old you warned your people not to rest in unjustly gained security,
And summoned us to be ashamed when we failed in justice and love.
Of old you warned your people not to speak falsely in your name,
And to hold our tongues from saying “peace,” where there is no peace.
Of old you warned your people, not to build up diving walls,
Or to white-wash them with in the name of the Lord.

And so, when we build,
May we build on the foundation of the reconciling love of Jesus.
And so, when we speak,
May our speech be seasoned with salt, to give grace to those who hear
And so when we seek security,
May we pursue it for those who are truly insecure:
For the alien at our borders,
For the civilian at the other ends of our guns,
Even for those whom we have labeled enemies.

Through the work of your son, Jesus, make us blessed peacemakers
So that we might be called children of God.
May our light of making peace upon the earth so shine before people
That they might see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven

Silent Meditation

Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Heb 13:20-21 NRS)

This litany breathes the spirit of Revelation 12 and betokens a people committed to living as God’s subversive counter-revolutionary movement. It also cries “Merry Christmas” to a world whose hopes and fears were met in Bethlehem that first Christmas night and every night since whenever more and people embrace this call of “that other nativity story”!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Five Truths

Richard Rohr proposes five truths males need to face up to in order to grow and mature:
Life is hard
You are not important 
Your life is not about you
You are not in control 
You are going to die

I think that’s right. But I think it is of more general applicability. These five statements are essentially the message of Ecclesiastes. What life “under the sun,” apart from God, is and feels like. We do our best to fight against these realities but mostly end up screwing ourselves and others up in the process. And then we die.

Living with God doesn’t mean life won’t feel like this. That’s life in a fallen world. God and his covenantal relationship to us is all that keeps our heads on straight and our heart centered where they need to be. And strengthens us to find our significance and security in relation to God rather than the myriads of other ways we try to find it. 
A Story Interpreting the Christmas Story 

A boy sits on the porch with his grandpa and dog. The dog sees a white rabbit race across the yard and takes after it howling like crazy off through the woods. Other dogs in the neighborhood hear the first dog and chase after it as it chases the rabbit. After a time, the other dogs drop the chase one and by one. Only the first dog is left. "Why is our day the only one left still chasing the rabbit, Grandpa?" "Boy," Grandpa replied,"once a dog has seen a white rabbit he never stops chasing. Those other dogs only heard our dog chasing the white rabbit. And they'll stop chasing him pretty quick."

Our chance to newly chase or renew the chase of our White Rabbit comes again this Christmas. Do what you need to with that chance.

Virginal Conception and Other Preposterous Things

It has become traditional this time of year for some clergyperson or theologian to confidently declare that “modern” people can no longer believe in such a thing as the virginal conception (virgin birth) of Jesus. It goes against the way we know things work.

The virginal conception does seem preposterous. But, it always has. It’s not like people in the past had no idea how babies get made. I expect Joaquim and Anne found it preposterous when their daughter first tried to explain her pregnancy. I don't believe virginal conception glibly. I've had and will have my reservations, questions, and doubts about this and other aspects of the Christian Creed. But, I figure once you believe in something as preposterous as resurrection or that God loves you and desires communion with you; you're in for a pound, you might as well toss in the penny.

But, preposterous as the virginal conception sounds, I find other Christian teachings more preposterous and harder to accept given how we know the world works:

Jesus is the measure of all things? The turn-the-other-cheek guy from Nazereth who got himself crucified? . . .


Tuesday, December 19, 2017


This last Sunday of Advent this year falls on Christmas Eve. In addition to the Annunciation story (Lk.1:26-38) and Mary’s Magnificat (Lk.1:46b-55), 2 Sam.7 and Psa.89 narrate and extol God’s covenant with David. Rich stuff, yes? But it may be Paul’s great doxology at the end of his letter to the Romans that aligns best with overlap of the fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve.

Many families have a tradition of opening one present on Christmas Eve as a foretaste of the gift-giving to follow the next day. I want to liken Paul’s Roman’s doxology in this week’s reading as that present we may open early on Christmas Eve. In it Paul praises God and the one whom he has sent to fulfill all his purposes.

Here’s his doxology:

25 “Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.”

Paul invites us here to look ahead and behind the “Christmas Miracle” (Karl Barth) to gaze in wonder at what this solitary birth of a peasant baby in a backwater town in a small Middle Eastern country amounts to. And it is far more than we could imagine or even hope for!

A mystery is revealed in this child. A mystery we could never figure out even with unlimited time, information, and ingenuity. It has to be told to us. And it has been!

And this word has gone out to the Gentiles. That’s most of us folks! We’re included. From the beginning God had us in mind. And not only that, God has included us for blessing (“according to the command of the eternal God”). The “obedience of faith” is Paul’s way in Romans of saying salvation, reconciliation, new life, being conformed to the image of Christ, a world remade. And he praises God for the unfathomable magnificence of this goodness.

And the praise and glory due this “only wise God” comes through Jesus Christ who comes to us tomorrow same gifts in hands and an open welcome for his people and his world.

God is for us! We are made for God! And the unveiling of that mystery is the gift Paul bids us open this Christmas Eve.

Monday, December 18, 2017

47. Mark 11:27-33: Authority?

Jesus is again in the temple. Chief priests, scribes, and elders accost him. These are the very folks Jesus predicted who would put him to death (8:31). Jesus is facing his executioners! Their question is more of an attempt to gather evidence in advance of his trial. It’s a kind of verbal cat and mouse.

“Where you get the authority to do all that you do? We readers know the answer but Jesus withholds it instead answering their questions with one of his own. In truth, this is his way of answering their question without saying so in so many words. Jesus’ authority has been a prevalent theme for Mark and here he brings it to a climax. He has authority over Israel.

Jesus answers: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me” (v.30). His demand for an answer indicates his authority. The logic here is clear.

Jesus was anointed with the Spirit and power at the time of John’s baptism; John had pointed to him as the Coming One, the one who would act with power, and the voice at the baptism had declared to Jesus himself, in words echoing the royal psalms and prophecies, that he was the true King, God’s own beloved son” (Wright, Mark, 194).

If they had listened to John, or better, because they knew what John had said, these folks argued amongst themselves. Their options were two. Say John was from heaven and they have to admit that his answer is the right one. Say his is just one person’s view and, well, John was popular and authoritative with the people, real popular. They’d have a big problem on their hands.

So they feign ignorance. But it’s not ignorance. It’s a willful rejection of Jesus and pretty much spells the end for official Judaism. And on that basis Jesus refuses to answer them either.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Why the World is Going Backwards (and How to Stop It)

The Rise of the Anti-Revolution

All around this troubled globe, we’re seeing the rise of a phenomenon as strange as an ice-storm in a desert: the regressive revolution.

We’re used, you and I in the West, and especially in the US, where our creation myth glorifies one triumphantly, to seeing revolutions as the wheel of human progress only ever turning forwards. But revolutions, more precisely understood, can go either way: the wheel can move backwards, too. Backwards revolutions, luckily, are rarer in the sweep of human history, and if they weren’t, then you and I would probably be stuck in caves, bonded to our plows. Hence, we’ve come to only see revolution as only positive things which enshrine democracy, rights, equality, and so onlike the French Revolution, the American Revolution, etcetera.

But regressive revolutions happen too, which are often later given names like fascism, authoritarianism, and tyrannythough, in the heat of the moment, the emergence of a new order might be glorified as something more grand and promising. Such was the case in Iran, Venezuela, and post-Soviet Russia, to name just a few.

Today, if we look around the world carefully, we see regressive revolutions popping up, like little pre-cancerous sores, nearly everywhere that we look. In Europe, there are Poland and Turkey, and the first stirrings in Germany. There is Brexit in Britain. And in America, of course, there is Trumpism, which grows more tragicomic by the day (a pedophile for Senate?).

But what are these revolutions against, precisely? . . .

head more at

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Bonhoefferian Take on Evangelism

Evangelism, under the sway of the 16th century’s emphasis on the individual person’s (sinner) relation to God (judge and forgiver), saw people as needing to know they were miserable sinners in God’s sight and that they ought to avail themselves of his gracious forgiveness. Evangelism calibrated to this theology sought, then, to find others’ weaknesses and sins and bring them the good news of the gospel (as they understand it).  

As long as the sense of guilt before God was strong in our culture, this approach seemed effective. I say seemed, because whenever we met someone for who life was going well, were decent people, successful, good marriage, children doing well, etc. we discovered our gospel has little to say to them. And as the sense of guilt before God ceased to be potent culture reality the gospel was speaking a language fewer and fewer people could or wanted to understand.

The world had changed. The 20th was no longer the 16th century. The gospel we inherited, while not wrong in itself, proved less comprehensive than it needed to be. It no longer “scratched where people itched.” This, and churches behaving badly, soured many on the whole gospel “thing.” If what we were offering was “good news.” Those we were offering it to chose to pass.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized this as he sat in prison for his resistance work against the Nazis. In his Letters and Papers from Prison he offered this analysis. The changed world we live in he named the “world-come-of-age” (w-c-o-a). Humans were confident and assertive in using their powers to change the world. Science and technology were tools that engendered this confidence. They didn’t need God to solve their problems for them. No longer at the mercy of fate, custom, taboos, and religion, people took charge of their own lives. They had become agents of their own lives and history. This historical development was irresistible and irrevocable.    

In this w-c-o-a Bonhoeffer observed

“. . . In very different forms the Christian apologetic is now moving against this self-confidence. It is trying to persuade this world that has come of age that it cannot live without “God” as its guardian. Even after we have capitulated on all worldly matters, there still remain the so-called ultimate questions—death, guilt—which only “God” can answer, and for which people need God and the church and the pastor. So in a way we live off these so-called ultimate human questions. But what happens if some day they no longer exist as such, or if they are being answered “without God”? Here is where the secularized offshoots of Christian theology come in, that is, the existential philosophers and the psychotherapists, to prove to secure, contented, and happy human beings that they are in reality miserable and desperate and just don’t want to admit that they are in a perilous situation, unbeknown to themselves, from which only existentialism or psychotherapy can rescue them. Where there is health, strength, security, and simplicity, these experts scent sweet fruit on which they can gnaw or lay their corrupting eggs. They set about to drive people to inner despair, and then they have a game they can win. This is secularized methodism. And whom does it reach? a small number of intellectuals, of degenerates, those who consider themselves most important in the world and therefore enjoy being preoccupied with themselves. A simple man who spends his daily life with work and family, and certainly also with various stupid affairs, won’t be affected. He has neither time nor inclination to be concerned with his existential despair, or to see his perhaps modest share of happiness as having “perilous,” “worrisome,” or “disastrous” aspects. I consider the attack by Christian apologetics on the world’s coming of age as, first of all, pointless, second, ignoble, and, third, unchristian. Pointless—because it appears to me like trying to put a person who has become an adult back into puberty, that is, to make people dependent on a lot of things on which they in fact no longer depend, to shove them into problems that in fact are no longer problems for them. Ignoble—because an attempt is being made here to exploit people’s weaknesses for alien purposes to which they have not consented freely. Unchristian—because it confuses Christ with a particular stage of human religiousness, namely, with a human law” (Letters and Papers from Prison: DBW 8 (Kindle Locations 12081-12097). Augsburg Fortress. Kindle Edition.)

Both Christian apologists and secular “therapists” ply their trades by trying to ferret out people’s weaknesses, failures, and “sins,” especially those of the strong and successful. Both Bonhoeffer believes fail to take seriously the new historical epoch we live in. Such efforts he calls

-pointless: it seeks to infantilize others, to treat them as less than they have become.

-ignoble: it exploits others for purposes to which they have not consented (manipulative).

-unchristian: it assumes an approach which worked under certain conditions will work everywhere.  

I believe Bonhoeffer’s critique is valid for much of the “evangelism” practiced in North America in the 20th and 21st centuries. (This does not mean God has not or does not use such an approach to people; Phil.1:12-18.) We need a new way.

And that way according to Bonhoeffer is having a gospel large and supple enough to address people at their points of strength, success, health, and well-bring and not having to prey on them in weakness, wickedness, ill health, failure. And the like.

“From a theological viewpoint,” he writes, “the error is twofold: first, thinking one can only address people as sinners after having spied out their weaknesses and meanness; second, thinking that the essential nature of a person consists of his innermost, intimate depths and background, and calling this the person’s ‘inner life.’ And precisely these most secret human places are to be the domain of God! (LPP: 12955-12957)

Rather, Bonhoeffer says, ”It is not the sins of weakness but rather the sins of strength that matter. There is no need to go spying around. Nowhere does the Bible do this.” (LPP:12959-12960). The corollary here, I believe, is that evangelism is about idolatry not morality. The gospel addresses us in our strength, the places or postures we take that we believe maximize our drives for significance and security. For those places are where our idols reside and sponsor our hardcore resistance to God. The issue in evangelism, again, is idolatry not morality.

Secondly, we assume that we have an “inner life” which is where our life with God happens. But Bonhoeffer claims

“The discovery of the so-called inner life dates from the Renaissance (probably from Petrarch). The “heart” in the biblical sense is not the inner life but rather the whole person before God. Since human beings live as much from their ‘outer’ to their ‘inner’ selves as from their ‘inner’ to their ‘outer’ selves, the assumption that one can only understand the essence of a human being by knowing his most intimate psychological depths and background is completely erroneous” (LPP: 12969-12972).

Further, and in conclusion, he writes,

“What I am driving at is that God should not be smuggled in somewhere, in the very last, secret place that is left. Instead, one must simply recognize that the world and humankind have come of age. One must not find fault with people in their worldliness but rather confront them with God where they are strongest. One must give up the “holier-than-thou” ploys and not regard psychotherapy or existential philosophy as scouts preparing the way for God” (LPP:12973-12976).

“One must not find fault with people in their worldliness but rather confront them with God where they are strongest” – this must be the mantra of reconstructing evangelism in our day.

Monday, December 11, 2017


This week’s readings are full of expectation, anticipation, and the sighting of buds and blooms of nearness. Appropriate texts for this Sunday in Advent, I think. We’re zeroing in on the figure of the Messiah. Last week we talked about the kind of waiting required of us, that paradoxical “waiting that hastens the Day of the Lord.” This week we look at waiting itself.

We live between God’s acts in the past and what he will do in our future. Psa.126 captures this perfectly. The first three verses celebrate the Lord’s past actions for his people; the last three anticipate his actions in restoring their fortunes.

Isa.61 looks forward to the coming of a Spirit-anointed one who will bring healing and justice. Lk.1, Mary’s famous “Magnificat” looks forward to the great reversal of all things God will enact in favor of the poor, hungry, and lowly. John 1 edges us closer to the realization of all this with its sighting of the “Lamb of God.”

Waiting is not easy. Nor do we do it well. Yet, these words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer remain true:
"Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting—that is, of hopefully doing without—will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment. For the greatest, most profound, tenderest things in the world, we must wait.”

Friday, December 8, 2017

Tales of War and Redemption

Even in the face of the ultimate human failing, we must be responsive to suffering and attuned to joy
By Phil Klay
DECEMBER 4, 2017

When I was a kid, I had a comic book called The Big Book of Martyrs, part of a series by Factoid Books that included such titles as The Big Book of Thugs, The Big Book of Losers, and The Big Book of Weirdos. Inside the martyr book were comic-book depictions of various saints and their horrible, horrible deaths—great stuff if you’re an 11-year-old boy. I know that Catholics like myself are trying for a more modern, nicer church these days, with less of the fire and brimstone and more of the let-the-children-come-unto-me, but I can’t help thinking that if Game of Thrones can be a smash hit, then the Catholic Church might make progress in the 10- to 14-year-old demographic by leaning more heavily on the decidedly R-rated tales from The Big Book of Martyrs.
I enjoyed these stories immensely, but they were also confusing—and not because of all the killing and dying for faith. That, I could understand. God, on the other hand, behaved very strangely. He was always protecting his martyrs before their deaths, but (to my eyes) in what seemed like the laziest, most halfhearted way imaginable.
There’s Saint Lucy, for example, who refuses to burn a pagan sacrifice. She is sentenced to be defiled in a brothel, but when the guards try to take her away, they find she’s completely immovable. Big, muscular guards strain to drag off this slender young woman, but she’s fixed to the spot, standing firm. Not the greatest miracle in the world but, okay, not bad. Then things escalate. They bring in a team of oxen, hitch her to the animals, and let them loose. Once again, nothing. Guards lash the massive beasts forward, the animals pull with all their might, but Saint Lucy does not budge. They lay bundles of wood at her feet and try to set her on fire, but the wood doesn’t burn. Things are looking up for Saint Lucy. But then it’s as if God gets distracted and looks away for a moment, while they rip out her eyes and stab her to death. . .
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Thursday, December 7, 2017

46. Mark 11:12-24: Another Sandwich

 Cursing of the Fig Tree (11:12-14; Part 1)

Hope you’re hungry. Mark’s serving up another sandwich. One story split in two and another inserted between those two parts. Each story helps interpret the other.

Speaking of hunger, Jesus is hungry on the way from Bethany. He sees a fig tree and inspects it for fruit, and is disappointed to find none, even though it is not the season for it. So he curses it. What’s up with that? Is Jesus ignorant? Petulant and demanding? Neither, I suspect.

Having the cleansing of the temple episode inserted in this story gives us a decisive clue. The fig tree could be used as a symbol for Israel. Micah 7:1-2:

Woe is me! For I have become like one who,
    after the summer fruit has been gathered,
    after the vintage has been gleaned,
finds no cluster to eat;
    there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger.
The faithful have disappeared from the land,
    and there is no one left who is upright;
they all lie in wait for blood,
    and they hunt each other with nets.

The temple was the most important symbol of the nation. If we allow these two stories to talk to each other, it becomes apparent that the fig tree = temple and Jesus action here portends his rejection of the temple.

Cleansing of the Temple (11:15-19)

Jesus enters the temple he had surveyed the night before. Seeing the money-changers and animals in the outer court, Jesus stages another piece of street theater. He disrupts the money-changing and animal buying and thus prevents the sacrificial system, the temple’s major role, from functioning. It’s street theater, symbolic action, temporary. Jesus is not trying to effect some systemic change to make the temple function better. He’s announcing its condemnation (a lá the cursed fig tree). We saw earlier that Jesus has appropriated some critical temple functions to himself (forgiveness, 2:1-12) forming a one-man counter-temple movement. This action continues his assault on this venerable institution.

“It is the only account in the Gospels in which Jesus engages in any kind of violent action against others, though there is no hint that he attempted to harm anyone; he may have intended only to force a halt to the objectionable trading operations going on in the sacred precincts of the temple” (Hurtado, Mark, 271)

Jesus charges that the temple has become not “the house of prayer for all nations” it should have been but rather a “den of robbers” (v.17). The word translated “robbers” (or “brigands”) does refer to commercial activities. Rather it refers to revolutionaries who were manipulating the temple and its services for their narrow nationalistic purposes (Wright, Mark:190). No longer “for all nations,” the temple had lost it reason for being. Jesus’ action marks it “destined for destruction” which happened in the war with Rome in 70 a.d.

This was no trivial or entertaining sideshow. It was a serious politico-religious action. Deadly serious. Now the chief priest and scribes join the Pharisees and Herodians (3:6) in seeking to kill Jesus. He was winning over the masses and they could not have that.

Cursing of the Fig Tree (Mark 11:20-25; Part 2)

The next morning the disciples saw the withered-up fig tree, roots and all. This again highlights the finality of Jesus’ condemnation of the temple. Peter, seeing this, is non-plussed by what it signifies. Jesus tells him and the rest of the disciples to have faith in God. Even if the temple is to be destroyed, unthinkable to most Jews as this was, continue to believe in God (see 10:27).

He follows up with a reference to “this mountain” being thrown in the sea by prayer. What is “this mountain”? The temple mount. God is powerful to overthrow even the temple system, which is exactly what Jesus has just done. Disciples have only to trust God in prayer. He generalizes from this event to “So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

“One more thing. In encouraging his followers to pray with confident boldness for the present order to be replaced by God’s new order (‘this mountain’, in context, almost certainly refers to the Temple mountain), Jesus is quite clear that there can be no personal malice or aggression involved in such work. Even at the very moment where Jesus is denouncing the system that had so deeply corrupted God’s intention for Israel, his final word is the stern command to forgive. Perhaps only those who have learnt what that means will be in a position to act with Jesus’ authority against the injustice and wickedness of our own day” (Wright, Mark, 193).