Thursday, November 23, 2017

The NFL’s Thanksgiving games are a spectacular display of America’s ‘God and country’ obsession

By James K.A. Smith November 23 at 6:00 AM

Thanksgiving has always been one of the high holy days of American civil religion.

Its rituals are surprisingly widespread — pilgrimages home through packed airports; gatherings of family and friends (and attendant tensions that are the stuff of Hollywood rom-coms); the dining room altar on which the turkey is supped, then a long day of drifting in and out of consciousness while hours and hours of football flicker in our darkening dens.

Our Thanksgiving traditions reflect the country’s mix of secularization and religious fervor — what theologian William Cavanaugh calls “migrations of the holy.”

In a secular age, our religious impulses aren’t diminished; they just find new devotions: consumption, the self, the nation. Now, the NFL — in all its popularity and current controversy — sets the script for our Thanksgiving Day litany. It gives us something to worship.

Of course, the typical symbols and traditions of Thanksgiving have their own vague history, which has become both assumed and contested. Those who observe the holiday maintain a baseline spirit of gratitude and pause to “give thanks.” But to whom?

Historically, this gratitude was expressed to God, to the Creator, the Lord of the Harvest, the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Establishing our national observance, Abraham Lincoln commended the nation to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”

But in a secularized, naturalized world where we are at least officially agnostic about such a being, to whom shall we give thanks? Here’s where the liturgies of football on Thanksgiving provide an alternative.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

40. Mark 10:1-12: Divorce

Another “test” for Jesus arises as he journeys to Judea and beyond the Jordan. A crowd gathers and Jesus teaches as per usual. What is this “test” or trap?

Jesus is at the place where John the Baptist launched God’s New Exodus movement. And John got in trouble with Herod for criticizing his marital unfaithfulness. Can the Pharisees get Jesus to say something about marriage and divorce that would undermine his messianic movement? Further, in Mark’s day, under the pressure of the impending war with Rome, families were divided and torn apart (Mk.13:12ff.). What would Jesus say to those in this crisis?

This is clearly not a straightforward doctrinal discussion!

Jesus answers their question with one of his own: “What did Moses command you?” (v.3). Here he unearth’s the real issue at stake: authority. Moses is the Pharisees’ authority. And they present his teaching accurately: he allowed divorce with the husband’s penning a “certificate of dismissal” (v.4). Or do they? Moses did not “command” divorce. It was a concession to the hardness of the people’s hearts, as Jesus goes on to point out (v.5). However, this was not the divine command that Moses reported in the Genesis narrative where we find God’s original and ultimate intention for marriage. There we find that a man and a woman in lifelong union, “one flesh,” is the Creator’s will. This is what Moses commanded God’s people. Jesus thus sides with God’s original intent for marriage rather than his concession about divorce because of the people’s lack of faith.

Here we have a microcosm of what Jesus’ New Exodus movement is all about. Like a prophet Jesus is cutting behind and beneath all the ways Israel found to disobey God’s creational intentions. He is not here serving up pastoral advice on marriage. He is declaring and siding with God’s intent and calling Israel to a new and better obedience. His private comment to the disciples in vv.11-12: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery,” tying divorce to adultery makes this clear.

The thrust of this story then is Jesus’ reaffirmation of God’s intention for marriage in and from the beginning. And this against the Pharisees’ too easy indulgence of the Mosaic concession of divorce. This is his point.

Obviously, though, this divine intent has not been fulfilled in Israel (or in God’s people since). Jesus’ declaration here condemns this unfaithfulness with unyielding prophetic clarity. “Unlike the modified and moderated versions in Matt. 5:31–32; 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:10–13, this saying represents Jesus’ absolute prohibition of divorce. Like the Old Testament prophets, Jesus does not temper his command with situational conditions, but announces the absolute will of God” (Boring, Mark:8082).

But there is good news here too.

“But this means that, for Jesus’ comment to make sense, he must be offering a cure for hardheartedness. If he is now articulating a rigorous return to the standard of Genesis, to God’s original intention, he is either being hopelessly idealistic or he believes that the coming of the kingdom will bring about a way for hearts to be softened. The fact that debates about divorce have concerned the church ever since indicates that this cure doesn’t work automatically or easily. Equally, though, the fact that millions of Christians have prayed for grace to remain faithful to their marriage vows, often under great stress, and have found the way not only to survive but to celebrate as ‘one flesh’, indicates that the implicit promise is true” (Wright, Mark, 167).

I noted above that other texts provide a more nuanced and pastoral look at marriage and the possibility of failure. Jesus does not void the concession for divorce, for we remain hard-hearted and divorces will happen. And sometimes they should. Sadly, marriage is a fertile ground for all manner of destructive forces. And no one is required to remain in such situations. Better admit failure, cut your losses, learn, and live to serve God more faithfully, single or remarried. Divorce is always a failure. It should be mourned, not celebrated. Repented of, not rejoiced over. But like other sins, divorce can be and has been forgiven by Jesus Christ and the new life he has won for us may well include another marriage. All this requires careful discernment along with trusted friends and mentors. Jesus strong reaffirmation of one man-one woman lifelong union as God’s intent in this polemical situation is its contribution to our understanding of marriage. Other passages need to be considered for a fuller and pastorally sensitive treatment. Just proclaiming God’s intention is not adequate. Necessary, but not adequate.

Monday, November 20, 2017

39. Mark 9:33-50: Life Together

I borrow the title “Life Together” for this section from Larry Hurtado who observes that it begins with the disciples arguing with each other (v.34) and closes with an admonition for them to be at peace thus bracketing this section as communal relations.


Jesus notices the disciples talking among each other on the way to Capernaum. They probably cast furtive glances in his direction from time to time. He knew something was up. “What were you all talking about on the road?” he asks. No response. But Jesus knew they were trying to one-up each for top-billing in this New Exodus movement. He kills that one with a shot right between the eyes: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all (v.35).”

This shocking reversal of all cultural shibboleths and common-sense notions of appropriate behavior is too well-known and surrounded with rationalizations and reasons that Jesus can’t be taken seriously for us to feel its astonishing force. But it remains the truth: in a “Looking out for #1” world, Jesus says this is not the way, not his way.

To reinforce this truth Jesus calls a child and has them stand in the midst of the twelve. Now this too has been surrounded with sentimentalizing mystifications about the innocence or defenselessness or cuteness of children so that when Jesus bids us welcome them we feel a certain rightness about it. But that does not comport well with what the first saying enjoins on us: to be the last and servant of all.

“The distinctive thing about children was their lack of any rights. A father could put a newborn outside to starve to death if he had wanted a boy and got a girl or if the baby seemed weak or handicapped. Children existed for the benefit of their parents—really of their fathers. In the Aramaic that Jesus was presumably speaking, the same word (talya) can mean either “child” or “servant.” Welcoming children means helping the most vulnerable. Jesus is thus not urging childishness in any form on his disciples but telling them to stop competing about who will make the top and make sure they care for those on the bottom” (Placher, Mark:2700-2701).

That means, to put it as provocatively as I can, to welcome the “undeserving” poor, the illegal immigrant, the hungry, homeless, drug-addicted, powerless, the lonely and loners, the unlikeable, those who can’t or won’t help themselves, and (you fill in the blank), is welcome Jesus and his Father!

Why we don’t and don’t want to assume this posture is the place this story rubs most of us. And well it should! So let the truth of this text sting today and prod you and I for the reasons we withhold ourselves from him in this most fundamental of ways, the downward nobility embodied by Jesus Christ himself.


Not only were the disciples trying to one-up each other, they wanted to keep their movement (“he was not following us,” v.39) pure too. Not Jesus’ movement, their movement. Another exorcist is working in the area casting out demons in Jesus’ name. John takes umbrage and tells Jesus they tried to stop him because he wasn’t a part of their disciple group.

Jesus upbraids them by saying that others who do good works in his name are to left to their labors. “For no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me” (v.39). Wright is correct, I think, to see this not as a matter of being inclusive or exclusive in a general sense, but of not realizing there is a battle going on (the New Exodus) and they need all the allies they can find. No one working in Jesus’ name is against him but rather for him (v.40). We can ill afford to neglect or reject others working for Jesus in the midst of the struggle he has called us to join.

9:42-48                                                                                                                                   (vv.44 and 46 are missing from the best manuscripts of Mark)

Next Jesus warns against harm to “little ones who believe in me” (v.42). The harm he intends by using the verb skandalis─ô, “put a stumbling block before” is to cause someone to abandon the faith (Boring, Mark:7982-7983). The extremity of the images Jesus uses here makes this clear. The “little child” of the first section has morphed into an image of the Christian community.

          Everyone takes the images of drowning oneself in the sea and bodily mutilation as hyperbolic and not literal counsel. That we are dealing with Christians influencing other Christians is clear by Jesus admonishing the scandalizers that it is better to enter the Kingdom of God maimed than to be cast into “Gehenna” (vv.43,45,47). In Mark’s New Exodus imagery the scandalizers are serving the cause of the enemy rather the forces of Jesus.

Gehenna is not hell in a traditional sense.

“Gehenna was a valley south of Jerusalem where in ancient times babies were sacrificed to the Canaanite god Moloch. In the reforms under King Josiah (7th century BCE) such practices were brought to an end, and the area became a garbage dump, where refuse was continually smoldering. Gehenna was a horrible place, full of fire, smells, maggots, rats, and things in decay. Its history as a locus of child sacrifice further evokes the context here, where Jesus is singling out for condemnation those who “put a stumbling block before” or “trip up” any of the “little ones who believe in me” (Placher, Mark:2739-2743).

It was the place of historical punishment for disobedient Israel in its career as God’s people (see Jer. 7:32; 2 Kgs. 23:10; Jer. 7:31,33 19:7-8). Further, the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus describes the Roman siege on Jerusalem in just such terms. Therefore, I believe that “when Jesus speaks of unrighteous Jews being thrown into the “Gehenna of fire”, what he has in mind is not eternal punishment in a post mortem “hell”, as traditionally understood, but judgment on Israel in the manner imagined by Isaiah and Jeremiah” (Andrew Perriman, “Was Gehenna a burning rubbish dump, and does it matter?” at

This means that Jesus is not thinking about eternal destinies here, but rather the consequences of continued disobedience on the part of the Jews. This judgment was meted out in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 a.d. Those who subvert the faith of Jesus’ followers received this treatment.


These curious sayings about “salt” conclude this section. “For everyone will be salted with fire.” The best guide for interpreting this may be the early marginal interpretation by a copyist that took it as a reference to persecution.

Under persecution it is essential that the “salt” remain salty. That is, Jesus’ followers must retain their distinctiveness as his New Exodus people. Loss of this distinctiveness is irreparable and irreplaceable.

David Garland explains the last salt saying this way:

“The second half of the saying, ‘Have salt among yourselves [not in yourselves] and be at peace with one another” (9:50b), is in synonymous parallelism. To have salt among yourselves means to share salt, a reference to having meals together in the context of fellowship and peace (Ezra 4:14; Acts 1:4). When people share meals together, they are at peace with one another” (Mark:7294-7302).

From internal squabbling about status, to welcoming all who work for Jesus’ sake, to warning about the dangers of tripping up the faith walk of other believers, to enduring persecution as a community at peace with one another, these are the matters Jesus deals with in this section. These matters are essentials to faithful performance of our responsibilities as God’s New Exodus people, yesterday and today.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Is the world really better than ever?

By the end of last year, anyone who had been paying even passing attention to the news headlines was highly likely to conclude that everything was terrible, and that the only attitude that made sense was one of profound pessimism – tempered, perhaps, by cynical humour, on the principle that if the world is going to hell in a handbasket, one may as well try to enjoy the ride. Naturally, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump loomed largest for many. But you didn’t need to be a remainer or a critic of Trump’s to feel depressed by the carnage in Syria; by the deaths of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean; by North Korean missile tests, the spread of the zika virus, or terror attacks in Nice, Belgium, Florida, Pakistan and elsewhere – nor by the spectre of catastrophic climate change, lurking behind everything else. (And all that’s before even considering the string of deaths of beloved celebrities that seemed like a calculated attempt, on 2016’s part, to rub salt in the wound: in the space of a few months, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Carrie Fisher and George Michael, to name only a handful, were all gone.) And few of the headlines so far in 2017 – Grenfell tower, the Manchester and London attacks, Brexit chaos, and 24/7 Trump – provide any reason to take a sunnier view.

The headlines have never been worse. But an increasingly influential group of thinkers insists that humankind has never had it so good – and only our pessimism is holding us back


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

“The Lord Jesus Wants You!”: Evangelism as “Military” Recruitment

In my book The Incredible Shrinking Gospel I proposed that we re-imagine the church as God’s “subversive counter-revolutionary movement”, the gospel as God’s announcement of his decisive victory over the powers of division, death, the devil in, through, and as Jesus of Nazareth. Evangelism, then, is God’s call to humanity to enlist in this subversive counter-revolutionary movement whereby Jesus is setting humanity and creation on the path to God’s primal design for them.

Thus evangelism has a number of similarities to “military” recruitment. Jesus doesn’t so much “offer” the gospel to religious seekers as call people to “follow” him and serve in his Kingdom (= God’s subversive counter-revolutionary movement). Baptism serves as an “induction” ritual into this service and their training (“Boot Camp”) in acquiring the skills and weapons of the “violence of love” (Oscar Romero) is their apprenticeship to Jesus as he makes his ways through Galilee and on to Jerusalem.

As with every recruit who enlists with the military there is much to done to whip him or her into “fighting” shape, many rough edges to be smoothed out, a civilian identity to erase and a new one to inculcate, bad habits to eradicate and new ones to grow, and so on. But the goal of their enlistment is not this character upgrade or personal improvement. The goal is to produce a viable military unit to serve and protect the national interest. In other words, recruitment focuses not on who potential recruits are at the moment, but on who and what
they can and will be under proper tutelage.

The appeal of military recruitment is finally to one’s sense of honor, pride in being a citizen of one’s homeland, and duty in serving something larger than themselves.

I think we can learn something important from this analogy. We should have learned this from our theology, but for a variety of reasons have not. The gospel we have embraced and the evangelism we have practiced have looked far more like a call to turn to God for forgiveness (thought of as personal transaction between God and each individual) and, hopefully that character upgrade and personal improvement than a gospel announcing Jesus’ victory over the powers of sin and evil and an evangelism “recruiting” women and men to become now what God intended they be all along – his “image-bears,” that is, those who bear the dignity, duty, and destiny of being God’s royal representative’s to protect and nurture the creation to its full flourishing.

I believe we must learn to do evangelism in the key of recruitment. We are not so much offering people something we have to convince them they need (though they do need the forgiveness and grace of God). Rather, we call them (“The Lord Jesus wants you!”) to embrace the dignity, duty, and destiny for which they were created. This means approaching others not primarily as sinners in need of individual forgiveness but as those who are called to embrace the dignity they forfeited, the duty they avoided, and the destiny they shunned - which, ironically, constitute their genuine humanity – as God’s free, unconditional, gracious gift.

At its core, my proposal is that the gospel calls us to become who we are created to be rather than focusing on what we have become. Of course, what we have become must be dealt with, and is – decisively, once and for all as the writer of Hebrews never tires of repeating – by Jesus but this is only a part of the gospel. We must be reclaimed (forgiven, accepted) but the gospel reaches further embracing also our restoration to the dignity, duty, and destiny for which we were created. This restoration is ultimately what the gospel calls us to, which means in a still-not-yet-fully-redeemed world that we are called by Jesus to join his subversive counter-revolutionary movement to participate in God’s work to set all things right.

In an age when people in our time and place seem more attuned to issues of shame and alienation more than sin and guilt, the vision of evangelism I see growing out of the gospel ought to be able to meaningfully address them. “The Lord Jesus wants you!” Thanks be to God!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Why do I have a hard time understanding liberal arguments on a lot of issues?

Mike Rightmire

I’ve found one of the major differences between conservative and liberal viewpoints is; that liberals often (not always) try to drive legislation based on how humans tend to react to stimuli, whereas conservatives (often but not always) tend to drive legislation based on how they feel humans SHOULD respond to stimuli.

For example; trickle down. It makes sense that if a person growing a business gets to keep more of their money (lower taxes) they would invest that money in the business (making more jobs) so they can make more money.

That makes total sense!!

The problem is; the evidence suggests they don’t (or at least not after a certain point. Once a person has reached a “certain level” of wealth, speculation tends to be more profitable than trying to sell/ manufacture more widgets. Speculation does not create jobs…just wealth.)


Sunday, November 12, 2017

38. Mark 9:14-32

Mark 9:14-31

Four scenes comprise this section: 9:14-19/9:20-24/9:25-27/9:28-29


Jesus and James, John, and Peter come down the mountain to demon-possession and debate with the scribes. Their arrival moves “the whole crowd” to “awe” (v.15). Why? Mark doesn’t say specifically. But this “awe” creates an expectation that Jesus’ presence will transform the situation for the kingdom of God.

Jesus wades into the fray. A father has brought his possessed son, driven by a spirit that renders him mute, physically harms him, paralyzes him, and causes him to foam at the mouth and grind his teeth (v.18). The description leads us to believe that this is the most difficult exorcism he has faced thus far. Maybe that’s why the disciples, who previously had effectively exorcised demons (6:13), failed here. And their failure is symptomatic of the nation’s failure (v.19). The great crisis of Israel’s existence and Jesus’ life loom right ahead and he feels the pressure of this acutely.

He has the boy brought to him and sets up the second scene.


The demon puts the boy through his demonic paces in front of Jesus (v.20). Jesus learns the boy has been afflicted since childhood (v.21). The situation is dire and the boy’s life is in danger. “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us” (v.22) – is the cry of the heart of this father. “If you are able” – Jesus’ response dismisses the father’s uncertainty over his ability. He zeroes in on the real issue: the father’s faith “all things can be done for the one who believes.” This means according to Hurtado: “The everything that is possible in 9:23 does not convey that believing will magically produce anything one might desire but rather means that Jesus’ power is available by faith to meet any need that arises in the course of ministering in his name(Hurtado, Mark, 225).

“Immediately”(Mark’s favorite word again), the father declares his uncertain faith. That’s what is at issue here. This declaration, so characteristic of most of us in the many times of crisis in our lives, proves sufficient even its uncertainty. That’s the good news here. On to the third scene.


Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit and banishes him from his by forever (v.25). After the exorcism, however, the boy seems dead. That’s usually the way it works with Jesus. What we have become and even want to be has to die. Really die. Real losses and pain. Paul says we are baptized with Jesus into his death and burial (Rom.6:3-4). That’s what happens to the boy here.

But death and loss of what we have been and want to be is but the prelude to resurrection. Paul continues in Rom.6 that our death and burial with Christ is “so that” (6:4) we may be raised to new life with him. So when he takes the boy by the hand and lifts him up, the boy is able to stand – resurrection!

Mark 9:28-31

Once again, in private, the disciples ask Jesus what had gone wrong with their efforts to exorcize the demon. His answer: “This kind can come out only through prayer” (v.29). This is a little odd, since Jesus himself offers no prayer during his exorcism. What do we make of this? Garland’s comment is apt:

“Since Jesus did not offer up a prayer to exorcise the unclean spirit, the prayer that he has in mind is not some magical invocation but a close and enduring relationship with God. Mark hints that Jesus regularly engaged in intense prayer. He went out alone to pray (1:35; 6:45–46), but the disciples interrupted him because they were preoccupied with their own agenda. The one time he specifically asks them to pray with him they sleep instead (14:37– 40). The readers therefore can learn from the disciples’ negative example what happens to those who neglect prayer and try to operate on their own steam. Jesus’ positive example reveals that only a life governed by faith and prayer can repel the threat from the evil spirits.” (Garland, Mark:7021)

A little later as they travel through Galilee Jesus announces to the disciples a second time the fate that awaits him: betrayal, death, and resurrection. And a second time they do not understand. Whether they don’t want their ignorance exposed or just can’t face this horrifying truth (especially since they especially don’t get the bit about resurrection), they are afraid to talk to Jesus about it anymore.

From this point on in Mark fear dominates the disciples (14:50–52, 66–72; 16:8; Garland, Mark:7217).