Friday, August 31, 2012

Party of Strivers by DAVID BROOKS
Published: August 30, 2012

America was built by materialistic and sometimes superficial strivers. It was built by pioneers who voluntarily subjected themselves to stone-age conditions on the frontier fired by dreams of riches. It was built by immigrants who crammed themselves into hellish tenements because they thought it would lead, for their children, to big houses, big cars and big lives.

America has always been defined by this ferocious commercial energy, this zealotry for self-transformation, which leads its citizens to vacation less, work longer, consume more and invent more.

Many Americans, and many foreign observers, are ambivalent about or offended by this driving material ambition. Read “The Great Gatsby.” Read D.H. Lawrence on Benjamin Franklin.

But today’s Republican Party unabashedly celebrates this ambition and definition of success. Speaker after speaker at the convention in Tampa, Fla., celebrated the striver, who started small, struggled hard, looked within and became wealthy. Speaker after speaker argued that this ideal of success is under assault by Democrats who look down on strivers, who undermine self-reliance with government dependency, who smother ambition under regulations.

Republicans promised to get government out of the way. Reduce the burden of debt. Offer Americans an open field and a fair chance to let their ambition run.

If you believe, as I do, that American institutions are hitting a creaky middle age, then you have a lot of time for this argument. If you believe that there has been a hardening of the national arteries caused by a labyrinthine tax code, an unsustainable Medicare program and a suicidal addiction to deficits, then you appreciate this streamlining agenda, even if you don’t buy into the whole Ayn Rand-influenced gospel of wealth.

On the one hand, you see the Republicans taking the initiative, offering rejuvenating reform. On the other hand, you see an exhausted Democratic Party, which says: We don’t have an agenda, but we really don’t like theirs. Given these options, the choice is pretty clear.

But there is a flaw in the vision the Republicans offered in Tampa. It is contained in its rampant hyperindividualism. Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual. There was almost no talk of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.

Today’s Republicans strongly believe that individuals determine their own fates. In a Pew Research Center poll, for example, 57 percent of Republicans believe people are poor because they don’t work hard. Only 28 percent believe people are poor because of circumstances beyond their control. These Republicans believe that if only government gets out of the way, then people’s innate qualities will enable them to flourish.

But there’s a problem. I see what the G.O.P. is offering the engineering major from Purdue or the business major from Arizona State. The party is offering skilled people the freedom to run their race. I don’t see what the party is offering the waitress with two kids, or the warehouse worker whose wages have stagnated for a decade, or the factory worker whose skills are now obsolete.

The fact is our destinies are shaped by social forces much more than the current G.O.P. is willing to admit. The skills that enable people to flourish are not innate but constructed by circumstances.

Government does not always undermine initiative. Some government programs, like the G.I. Bill, inflame ambition. Others depress it. What matters is not whether a program is public or private but its effect on character. Today’s Republicans, who see every government program as a step on the road to serfdom, are often blind to that. They celebrate the race to success but don’t know how to give everyone access to that race.

The wisest speech departed from the prevailing story line. It was delivered by Condoleezza Rice. It echoed an older, less libertarian conservatism, which harkens back to Washington, Tocqueville and Lincoln. The powerful words in her speech were not “I” and “me” — the heroic individual. They were “we” and “us” — citizens who emerge out of and exist as participants in a great national project.

Rice celebrated material striving but also larger national goals — the long national struggle to extend benefits and mobilize all human potential. She subtly emphasized how our individual destinies are dependent upon the social fabric and upon public institutions like schools, just laws and our mission in the world. She put less emphasis on commerce and more on citizenship.

Today’s Republican Party may be able to perform useful tasks with its current hyperindividualistic mentality. But its commercial soul is too narrow. It won’t be a worthy governing party until it treads the course Lincoln trod: starting with individual ambition but ascending to a larger vision and creating a national environment that arouses ambition and nurtures success.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Nicholas Lash on "Spiritual but not Religious"

‘When people say (as they do, it seems, with increasing frequency) that they are more interested in “spirituality” than in “religion”, they usually seem to mean that they prefer the balm of private fantasy, the aromatherapy of uplifting individual sentiment, to the hard work of thought and action, the common struggle to make sense of things, to redeem and heal the world. When church leaders are exhorted to concentrate on “spiritual” affairs, the implication sometimes seems to be that these things are different from, and loftier than, such mundane matters as proclaiming good news to the poor and setting at liberty those who are oppressed’. – Nicholas Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 92–3.

On Getting (Part of) the Story Straight

The challenge of becoming Christian can be described in these three interrelated +mandates:

-get the Story straight
-get the Story in
-get the Story out

In today’s world “getting the Story straight” has been significantly devalued (Diana Butler Bass’s narrative in Christianity After Religion is one exemplification of this trend). Yet, in truth, it remains as important as ever. How we construe the biblical Story funds the way we internalize and seek to share our faith with those around us.

The part of that Story I want to focus on today is a part the Apostle Paul also struggled to help his people get straight (not to mention Jesus!): the love of God, specifically the reality and impact of the love of God in our lives.

1. The love of God has triumphed over sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Karl Barth puts it memorably:

“The Easter message tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse and death, are beaten. Ultimately they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them anymore. If you have heard the Easter message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humourless existence of a man who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one things is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor. A seriousness that would look back past this, like Lot’s wife, is not Christian seriousness. It may be burning behind - and truly it is burning - but we have to look, not at it, but at the other fact, that we are invited and summoned to take seriously the victory of God’s glory in this man Jesus and to be joyful in Him. Then we may live in thankfulness and not in fear.” (Dogmatics in Outline, p. 123.)

2. The destruction of sin, the forgiveness of sin, is complete, total, forgotten by God.

Psalm 103:12; Micah 7:19; Jeremiah 31:34 (quoted in Hebrews 10:17); 2 Corinthians 5:17 are among many witnesses to this.

3. Sin is no longer an issue between God and humanity – Jesus Christ is the only issue between God and us now.

2 Corinthians 5:19: In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.

Did you catch that - “not counting people’s sins against them”! As I said, sin is no longer an issue between God and us. If we are burdened by our sin and feel guilty and unworthy, it is NOT God’s Spirit who is accusing and questioning your acceptance with God. It is the one we call “the Accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them day and night” (Rev.12:10), Satan, the devil.

4. The only thing that stands between you and the person both you and God want you to be is simply this: we forgotten we are forgiven!

3 By his divine power the Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of the one who called us by his own honor and glory. 4 Through his honor and glory he has given us his precious and wonderful promises, that you may share the divine nature and escape from the world’s immorality that sinful craving produces.

5 This is why you must make every effort to add moral excellence to your faith; and to moral excellence, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, endurance; and to endurance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, affection for others; and to affection for others, love. 8 If all these are yours and they are growing in you, they’ll keep you from becoming inactive and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 Whoever lacks these things is shortsighted and blind, forgetting that they were cleansed from their past sins.
(2 Peter 1:3-9)

5. The power of forgiveness in breaking the hold of sin on us is so profound that the New Testament can even envision the possibility that sin is no longer inevitable for us! In other words, we don’t have to sin anymore.

“My little children, I’m writing these things to you so that you don’t sin. But if you do sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one.” (1 John 2:1)

Did you hear that? “If” we sin, not “when” we sin!

Jesus admonished the woman caught in adultery to “go, and sin no more” after he forgave her (John 8:11).

Forgiveness is far more than a declaration of acquittal. It is, in fact, entry into new life itself. Our status has changed but we have been changed as well.

“So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

The literal translation is perhaps the most powerful – “If anyone is in Christ – new creation!” Forgiveness heals the relationship with God we have broken and reestablishes it. Hence, “new creation.” That’s you and me, friends!

That’s why sin is no longer an inevitability for us.

6. Thus we live in a world where sin in so longer the focal and primary reality. The new creation we are now a part of is our new reality. It is the world of God’s future coming into our present upending and reordering everything in our lives. Setting them right side up, as it were, for the first time. We seek to discern the signs and outposts of this new creation rather than focus on the sin and evil that has already been defeated (a la Barth in #1 above. We approach others, both within and without the Christian community as those for whom sin is no longer an issue but rather need first and only to meet the One who has removed their sin and wrapped them in his love – Jesus.

7. This is not pollyana-ish denial, however. Jesus sends us into the world to do battle with these beaten but not fully vanquished foes – only these foes are not other human beings but the spiritual powers that lie behind them and agitate and entice them to do their bidding. We see other humans as victims of these powers, even as they engage in victimizing others. Their hope lies in meeting the One who alone can pronounce them forgiven and reconcile them to himself and to their victims.

8. Finally, let’s look at Revelation 12:11.

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.

Forgiveness (“the blood of the Lamb”) is the basis for faithfully resisting and overcoming the evil one and his work in the world. Our witness to this forgiveness and the freedom it gives us to live fearlessly for God are the form this resistance and victory take for us.

I hope you see now why it’s so crucial to “get the Story straight” on forgiveness. Fear is what derails us more than anything else in this world. And it’s the devil who brandishes this fear against us (Hebrews 2:14-15). Whether it be the fear that God will reject us because of our sin, fear over our certainty of our future, fear over becoming the faithful witness Jesus calls us to become, or whatever, only the certainty that we are forgiven “once for all” (as the writer of Hebrews likes to remind us) and with such thoroughness and depth that God does even remember our sins can fortify and free us for life in and as God’s new creation!

On violence and children's stories
by Ben Myers

My children love adventure stories, and in their games together they often recreate scenes from their favourite stories. In the comfort of the living room, in the darkness of the bedroom, or in the eerie twilight of the backyard, they have been Peter Pan and a lawless crew of pirates, Bilbo Baggins and a ferocious dragon, Aslan and the white witch, a scarecrow and a tin man and a cowardly lion; they have slain giants and battled dwarves and roamed beneath the earth and peered down on tiny cities from a soaring carpet.

There are people – mostly people with PhDs who have never met a real child – who say the old fairytales and adventures are too violent. For my part, I tend to avoid contemporary children’s writing because it is, for the most part, not violent enough. Only an expert could think that what children really need is stories about tolerance, multiculturalism, sensitivity to difference, and all the abominable boredom of what is called ‘life skills’.

Anyone who has ever met a child will know that they inhabit a world of magic, monsters, and mayhem; that their freedoms and fantasies are rambunctious, loud, bright and brutal as an army with banners; that what they really need are tales of giants and dragons, cruel strangers and enchantments, evil fairies and magnificent hordes of treasure, animals that talk and children that thwart their wicked stepmothers. They do not want to know how to be nice to a lonely old woman in the woods: they want to know how to trick her and shove her in the oven. Or if I may speak biblically: they don’t want stories about obeying your parents and respecting your elders; they want a story about the youngest son who sneaks away from home and slays a giant with his trusty sling and five small stones. That is how children learn to navigate the dangerous rocks of that other country, that unimaginable foreign place where adults dwell; that is how they practise their moral agency, how they learn to be free.

Our handwringing educational moralisers not only misunderstand childhood, they also misunderstand the relation between stories and morality. The teenager who brings a pistol to school one day and guns down all his classmates was not reared on the good honest violence of the old adventure tales, but on computer games where acts of violence occur devoid of any human context or any narrative of friendship, bravery, and noble deeds. He was also reared, let us not forget, on a steady diet of sententious animated films, with their paralysing niceties of environmentalism, postcolonialism, tolerance, and Being True to Yourself. Our culture is blighted by the unprecedented mass production of such children’s stories – not by people who know or like children, but by film corporations with their focus groups, their market research, and their cynical cold statistics about what parents want and what they are willing to pay for.

Lately my children and I have been reading The Silver Chair, the sixth book in C. S. Lewis’s thrilling Narnia series. It is a very good children’s book, because it has all those things that children really love: fantastic talking animals, a strange unvisitable country, an unthinkably evil witch, a hideous reptile, ghastly great giants that cook and eat children, brave knights in glistening armour, enchantments of blackest magic, and, most important, the exhilarating absence of adult supervision, adult instruction, adult moralising. It is a good children’s story because it gives you not what children ought to like, but what they actually do like.

Today we read the chapter where the witch turns herself into a gigantic serpent, green as poison, with flaming eyes and flickering forked tongue. The loathsome creature coils its body round the prince, ‘ready to crack his ribs like firewood when it drew tight’. But our heroes rush at the snake with their swords. They strike its neck, and with repeated blows hack off its head. ‘The horrible thing went on coiling and moving like a bit of wire long after it had died; and the floor, as you may imagine, was a nasty mess.’

After we had read this bracing and edifying narrative, my little boy wandered off to talk to the dog, while my two daughters set about re-enacting the scene in the living room. My older daughter dressed up like an evil serpent, while her sister and I took up our swords and pursued the vile creature across the room. The house was soon filled with all the blood and clamour of battle: the serpent’s horrible hissing, the flashing of noble weapons, the appalling sound of that evil neck being hacked in two, the bitter cries of triumph and defeat.

That was when my little boy sauntered back into the room, carrying a handful of sticks and chewing on something he’d picked up from the ground outside. Amid the wild brutality, the vicious hissing and thrashing about, the bloodcurdling shouts and warlike screams, he scratched his head and remarked idly, ‘Oh, are we playing Mums and Dads again?’

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary - 22nd Ordinary (Day 3)

James 1:17-27

17 Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. 18 He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.
19 Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. 20 This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you.
22 You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. 23 Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. 24 They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. 25 But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.
26 If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless. 27 True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.

It’s hard to avoid the thrust of v.19 this election season. James addresses the Christian community (“everyone,” v.19) with three admonitions.

-“be quick to listen”

-“slow to speak” and

-“slow to anger”

It is difficult to gainsay the pertinence of these admonitions for American Christians at this time. Closed earlids and open mouths almost assure the miscommunication or talking past one another that leads to anger. And anger we have in spades this election season. Rage. Irrational commotion. And none of that, James tells us, can lead to “God’s righteousness” (that is, the right ordering of lives and relationships that God desires).

The remedy James provides is, perhaps surprisingly, not self-help or moral strenuousness. We won’t better our capacity to listen, refrain from speaking, and avoid anger by trying to do these things. No amount of “should-a, could-a, got-a” will get us where God wants us to go!

Rather, James advises that we stop looking at ourselves and our capacities (“humility”) and turn our attention instead to God (“welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you,” v.21). This and this alone is the way to the freedom (v.25) God intends for us. No “should-a, could-a, got-a” here; only “you are, you can, you shall” that comes from the “implanted Word” which alone can save us (v.21), set us free from ourselves to live for others.

Humility – seeing ourselves as we really are, de-centers us, while welcoming God’s Word re-centers us where we need to be. This is, of course, where the struggle lies for most of us. We keep moving back to center, rejecting God’s gracious presence and provision for ordering our lives. The group Tenth Avenue North sings this struggle well in their song “By Your Side.” Give a listen.

We are forgetful observers of who we are in God’s eyes. We see what his Word says about us, and then re-center ourselves, forget what that Word has made known to us and blunder about in our self-centeredness, failing to control our tongues and giving the lie to our devotion (v.26). When we remember what God’s Word has shown us, however, that is, if we practice what we have seen and been told, we demonstrate our freedom by genuine concern for others, especially the last and the least in our world. This is how we escape being shaped by the world rather than escaping its influence and serving those in need (v.27).

This is true devotion - a centeredness on God that produces in and through us the fruit of lives lived in gratitude to God and service to the needy of his world. May this be true for us this day, tomorrow, and every tomorrow God grants till kingdom come!

The church is our best hope against the zombies
Rachel Mann, Tuesday 28 August 2012 05.16 EDT

Zombies unlike vampires, or even werewolves, have no glamour. Since George Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, zombies in popular culture have been understood as the dead returned to life with an insatiable desire for human flesh. They are slow-moving, ugly, relentless and mindless. I have always been especially scared by them because, more than other monster, they represent our most unthinking and relentlessly hungry selves. They are interested in one thing only: consumption. And they can never be filled.

George Romero's later film Dawn of the Dead is set primarily in a shopping mall. Many of the zombies continue to push shopping carts around the mall and act as if they are still alive. Their prime remaining instinct is to shop. Though made in 1978, its vision of basic human instinct as "shop till you drop" – even if you're undead – was prescient, and troublingly accurate about rapacious consumerism.

I sense that part of the reason for the current fad for zombie walks, lies in an unconscious recognition of the way in which post-industrial, consumerist culture wishes to reduce us to narrow modes of identity. Yes, the zombie walkers want to have fun, but they also want to expose the ways in which society damages our sense of self. In an age where many lives, especially those of the young, are constrained by long-term unemployment, and many who have a job find it unchallenging and routine, the zombie metaphor has genuine power.

Words are one of the defining characteristic of our humanity. Zombies are wordless yet constantly moan and make noise. Our consumerist age seems to make words – the very things that should enrich us – become empty, untrustworthy and unsatisfying. They do not nourish us. An ad campaign tells us that vegetables are "flavour-fresh" or invites us to "live the dream" by owning a pair of expensive trainers. But the "flavour-fresh" apple turns out in our mouth to have no more flavour than the trainers.

A mark of our zombified age is the extent to which our words are dust in our mouths and do not nourish us. We multiply words hoping that we will be satisfied. As Barbara Brown Taylor once put it we have a "famine of excess" – we have an excess of words, and yet because they contain no nutrients, no matter how much we seek to feed on them we are not satisfied. Like zombies, we are never satisfied and hunger after the next "meal".

Insofar as we are living in an age which seeks to zombify us and make us relentlessly hungry, the church – seen so often as wilfully obscure and out of touch – clearly offers the promise of new life and hope. For at the heart of the Christian hope is fullness of life. The "bread of life" is precisely the food which satisfies; Jesus is the "living water" which fills us with a spring to eternal Life. The very nature of the kingdom – which prioritises the poor and the vulnerable and invites us to be our true selves in Christ – is a work of resistance against the emptiness of rapacious consumerism. This is good news in its rawest form.

One of the silly questions asked by those who enjoy the zombie trope is, "Where would you go if the zombie apocalypse happened? What would you do to survive?" Inevitably, many of the answers involve heading to the kind of places that might ensure one has sufficient weapons and supplies to stave off attacks. Equally, many folk would aim to get in the sturdiest, fastest vehicle they could find and head off to the wilderness. No one heads to church. And yet, insofar as the zombie metaphor has purchase on what modern society does to people, the church may yet be precisely our very best hope and also the kind of refuge it often historically has been.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Have We Become So Sophisticated and Suspicious that We Can No Longer Read the Bible Like This?

This is an excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter he wrote to his brother-in-law Rudiger Schleicher:

“First of all I will confess quite simply — I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we need only to ask repeatedly and a little humbly, in order to receive this answer. One cannot simply read the Bible, like other books. One must be prepared really to enquire of it. Only thus will it reveal itself. Only if we expect from it the ultimate answer, shall we receive it. That is because in the Bible God speaks to us. And one cannot simply think about God in one’s own strength, one has to enquire of him. Only if we seek him, will he answer us. Of course it is also possible to read the Bible like any other book, that is to say from the point of view of textual criticism, etc.; there is nothing to be said against that. Only that that is not the method which will reveal to us the heart of the Bible, but only the surface, just as we do not grasp the words of someone we love by taking them to bits, but by simply because they are the words of a person we love; and just as these words reveal more and more of the person who said them as we go on, like Mary, “pondering them in our heart,” so it will be with the words of the Bible. Only if we will venture to enter into the words of the Bible, as though in them this God were speaking to us who loves us and does not will to leave us along with our questions, only so shall we learn to rejoice in the Bible. . . .

If it is I who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not immediately pleasing to my nature and which is not all congenial to me. This is not according to our nature at all, it is entirely contrary to it. But this is the message of the Bible, not only in the New but also in the Old Testament. . . . .

And I would like to tell you now quite personally: since I have learnt to read the Bible is this way — and this has not been for so very long — it becomes every day more wonderful to me. I read it in the morning and the evening, often during the day as well, and every day I consider a text which I have chosen for the whole week, and try to sink deeply into it, so as really to hear what it is saying. I know that without this I could not live properly any longer.”

-From Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. The Third Reich by Eric Metaxas (p. 136-7)

"Remember the Titans" and the Marks of the Church

Over at “Jesus Creed” today Scot McKnight revisits the perennial question of the “marks of the church.” Probably the most widely used set of such “marks” is that found in the Nicene Creed: “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” Unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity – these characteristics make a church “church.”

While the church is these things in Christ, it has a long way to go to realize them in practice. Therefore, we confess them in hope, trusting that by God’s mercy and grace, we will be what we already are as Christ’s church.

We cannot, therefore, but treat these marks as works in progress in the church. But what might this 4th century language – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – signify for us today? I think we get a big assist in discerning this significance from the wonderful movie "Remember the Titans." A northern Virginia high school football power is entering its first year of desegregation. It hires a black head coach to replace its popular head coach. The coach faces the difficult job of shaping his squad of white and black players into a team. As they prepare for the first game, the coach leads them in what would become their motto.

“Who are we?” the coach asks.

“The Titans!” the team answers back.

“What are we?” he asks.

And the team responds: “We are mobile, agile, and hostile.”

Mobile, agile, and hostile – I like that. And if we add “fragile” to them we have a fresh dynamic way of understanding who we are and what we are to be about as God’s people.


We are a people:

-ready to move into a new future with the Lord, participating in his mission in the world;
-on the way, who do not ultimately draw our sense of identity or vocation from kith and kin but from the One into whose name we are baptized and into the diverse community he calls to follow him;
-willing to forgo our own security for the sake of the Jesus we are following, the One who had no place to lay his head.


We are a people who:

-seek relationships, both within the community and with the world around us;
-accept and even embrace change and seek to ride the front edge of the wave;
-resist the lure of the spectacle which often renders us unable to act in meaningful ways as well as the token, often media-driven “actions” that yield little effect;
-like our Lord, are willing and able to bend the knee, take up the basin and serve all others by washing their feet.


We are a people who

-serve a Empire that “comes violently” (Mt.11:12); and a Lord who came “not to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt.10:34);
-live and tell the truth, which, in a world built on lies and illusions cannot help but disturb the peace (we tell the truth especially about ourselves, thus we are a humble people);
-practice the “violence of love” (Oscar Romero) and are equipped by God with his own “armor” for the struggle (Eph.6:10-20) and overcome the enemy (spiritual forces of evil, not human beings) by Jesus’ victory at the cross, our own faithful testimony to him, and our willingness to even give up our lives serving him, and
-are called to be part of Jesus’ subversive Counter-Revolutionary movement, to live out a different life as we play our roles in God’s Empire struggle.


We are

-a broken people who have found healing in Jesus Christ;
-continue to be a broken people who keep on finding healing in Jesus Christ (this vulnerability to owning our brokenness and receiving Jesus’ healing touch enables us to offer others that very same comfort and healing as they face their own brokenness);
-are called to “bear our cross,” to live as suffering servants, indeed even “Silent Servants of the Used, Abused, and Utterly Screwed Up” (from Thomas Klise’s The Last Western).

Such a community - mobile, agile, hostile, and fragile – is that one, holy, catholic, and apostolic community that both reflects the will and way of the God it serves and stands in solidarity with the world around it, caring for them, receiving the gifts they bring to us, and, in prayerful solidarity, bear them into the reality of God’s love even if they do not acknowledge or embrace that love.

The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – 21st Ordinary (Day 2)

Psalm 84

84 How lovely is your dwelling place,
LORD of heavenly forces!
2 My very being longs, even yearns,
for the LORD’s courtyards.
My heart and my body
will rejoice out loud to the living God!
3 Yes, the sparrow too has found a home there;
the swallow has found herself a nest
where she can lay her young beside your altars,
LORD of heavenly forces, my king, my God!
4 Those who live in your house are truly happy;
they praise you constantly. Selah
5 Those who put their strength in you are truly happy;
pilgrimage is in their hearts.
6 As they pass through the Baca Valley,
they make it a spring of water.
Yes, the early rain covers it with blessings.
7 They go from strength to strength,
until they see the supreme God in Zion.
8 LORD God of heavenly forces,
hear my prayer;
listen closely, Jacob’s God! Selah
9 Look at our shield, God;
pay close attention to the face of your anointed one!
10 Better is a single day in your courtyards
than a thousand days anywhere else!
I would prefer to stand outside the entrance of my God’s house
than live comfortably in the tents of the wicked!
11 The LORD is a sun and shield;
God is favor and glory.
The LORD gives—doesn’t withhold!—good things
to those who walk with integrity.
12 LORD of heavenly forces,
those who trust in you are truly happy!

The Message (Psalm 84)

1-2 What a beautiful home, God-of-the-Angel-Armies! I've always longed to live in a place like this,
Always dreamed of a room in your house,
where I could sing for joy to God-alive!
3-4 Birds find nooks and crannies in your house,
sparrows and swallows make nests there.
They lay their eggs and raise their young,
singing their songs in the place where we worship.
GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies! King! God!
How blessed they are to live and sing there!
5-7 And how blessed all those in whom you live,
whose lives become roads you travel;
They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks,
discover cool springs and pools brimming with rain!
God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and
at the last turn—Zion! God in full view!
8-9 GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies, listen:
O God of Jacob, open your ears—I'm praying!
Look at our shields, glistening in the sun,
our faces, shining with your gracious anointing.
10-12 One day spent in your house, this beautiful place of worship,
beats thousands spent on Greek island beaches.
I'd rather scrub floors in the house of my God
than be honored as a guest in the palace of sin.
All sunshine and sovereign is GOD,
generous in gifts and glory.
He doesn't scrimp with his traveling companions.
It's smooth sailing all the way with GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Wise Words from Lee Camp on Christians and Politics


I had lunch this past week with one of the elders of my church; it was a great conversation, very enjoyable and lively. He had been a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War, based upon a selective Just War position, and so we shared some of our experience and convictions with one another.

Along the way he mentioned to me that his wife had had a meal recently with the mother of one of my university students. The mother said she was very upset with me: that I had turned her daughter into a pacifist, socialist, and a communist.

I laughed and told him that I hoped that I had in fact made the student into a pacifist, but not a socialist or a communist. I further conjectured that perhaps the student was not really a communist. Perhaps the mother had wrongly concluded that her daughter was now a communist due to the sharp partisanship that characterizes American culture these days: everything is so very polarized that it seems, at worst, that there are only two possible positions, or at best, that there is only a single continuum between two possible positions. If the daughter comes home talking about non-violence, and the mother is a supporter of her government’s wars, then the daughter must be a damn communist, too.

Thanks to Jim Wallis, it has been noted very often in the last few decades that “God is neither a Republican nor Democrat.” I have my suspicions that sometimes this mantra is actually a cover for self-righteous Democrats: “God is not a Republican, and all of us clear-headed Christians are Democrats; and I cannot see how a Christian can be a Republican.” Whether my suspicion is fair or not, it does seem to me that we need some helpful pegs or constructive theological starting points at which to critique both Republican and Democrat, or better, to provide a constructive alternative to them both.

The constructive alternative, of course, is “the church”—a real community that is characterized by a voluntary commitment to the way of Christ, including sharing, reconciliation, and non-violence. This is, obviously, neither Republican nor Democrat. What might such a community want to say to Republicans or Democrats or Socialists or Communists, then?

Increasingly, I tend to think that it is the New Testament notion of the “principalities and powers” that provides ground to say important things to such partisans. As has been increasingly noted in New Testament studies in the last half-century, the “powers” and “dominions” and “thrones” and “principalities” are an ever-constant element in the Pauline writings. Our enemies are “not flesh and blood” but the “powers of this present darkness.”

And as the theologians have increasingly explicated, “the powers” get made manifest in a variety of institutions, -isms, systems, and structures. “The powers” are created for good (per the letter to the Colossians) but overstep their bounds, and rather than serving humankind, get “hell-bent on their own survival” (per Walter Wink) and thence begin to enslave and oppress.

With this sort of starting point, we take an altogether different approach: our task, short of the full in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, can never be any partisan agenda. This is because anything short of the full consummation of the Kingdom of God will necessarily still be tainted, or worse, corrupted, by sin. All political activism then—in the sense of being active in talking to the contemporary powers-that-be in western culture—is always and necessarily ad hoc, never utopian, and never idealistic. We deal with each concrete question and issue as it arises, and seek to bear faithful witness as best we are able.

For example, to those who foolishly idealize “the free market,” we insist that the powers of darkness are cunning, baffling, and powerful, and that they do in fact co-opt the supposedly free market for purposes of greed and grasping which corrupts and controls as much as any tyrannical dictator. Or to those who foolishly idealize “the welfare state,” we insist that the powers of darkness are cunning, baffling, and powerful, and that the over-weening bureaucratic mechanisms of control do in fact limit creative human creativity, and create dependence.

This does not necessarily entail “withdrawal” or a “refusal to vote,” though such stances could be an exercise in faithful witness. Sometimes it seems to be a genuine human good when the government limits the power-hungry greed that drives the quest for monopolies—a quest as old as capitalism. But then, of course, such legitimate limits, before we know what hit us, can overreach and become a stifling even oppressive practice. And then will be good to call the powers-that-be to let go some of its control-freakishness.

The centralization enacted by Joseph for the good of the starving Hebrews provided the very bureaucratic tyranny that served to enslave those same Hebrews. History never sits still. Thus neither can our politics. If we find ourselves lumping together into one mass group of political enemies anyone who disagrees with us (as in the irrational conclusion that the pacifist must be a communist), then perhaps we have become enslaved to the powers which use a binary, polarizing view of the world to create enemies, stratify communities, and breed hostility, precisely for the good of the corrupt powers, but never for the true good of humankind.

--Lee C. Camp, Professor of Theology & Ethics at Lipscomb University, in Nashville, Tennessee, is the host of, and the author of Who Is My Enemy?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

“Historians Have to Make Things Up” says Thucydides.

August 26, 2012 By peteenns (

Over at Mere Student, John Oliff posted on the Greek historian Thucydides’s (c.460-c.395 BC) take on the nature of historiography.

Sounds like a real snoozer, but grab a cup of coffee if you have to and read this quote from The History of the Peloponnesian War .

In this history I have made use of set speeches some of which were delivered just before and others during the war. I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.
Translation: When recording speeches, Thucydides made things up that he felt fit the overall picture.

Remember, Thucydides is famous for his attention to detail and desire to get things right. But even anal-retentive Thucydides and others who were witnesses to speeches had difficulty remembering the words, and who can fault them (I can’t reproduce a sentence I spoke half an hour ago).

In order to write his history, therefore, Thucydides had to make stuff up that he felt adhered closely to the “general sense” of what was said, what he thought was “called for by each situation.”

What Thucydides says here can be extended to include events as well. Different witnesses remember events differently–particularly complex events that extend over lengthy periods of time.

In fact, we all do this. Every time we “remember” the past we are in a sense inventing it, not out of whole cloth of course, but by filling in portions, leaving things out, etc., in keeping with what we think (often unconsciously) is “called for by each situation.”

It doesn’t take much effort to extend this to another piece of ancient historiography, the Bible, both the Old or New Testament–and the matter is complicated by the fact that eye witness accounts in the Bible are few and far between (even if reporting of other peoples’s eye witness accounts may be more frequent).

The Bible exhibits the same kind of thing that Thucydides bluntly confesses: dialogue is invented and events are reported in a manner that is in keeping with what the writers felt was “called for.” That’s what we see in the four Gospels, the accounts in Acts, not to mention Israel’s extended narrative account of its history, which includes two very different versions of the monarchic period (the Deuteronomistic History of Joshua through 2 Kings and the later revision of that history in 1 and 2 Chronicles.)

When we speak of the Bible as “historical,” I say “sure”–as long as we keep Thucydides’s words in mind.

Thanks to Oliff for highlighting this quote.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What’s Forgiveness Got to Do With It?

A middle-aged pastor was tormented by the memories of a heinous sin she had committed many years before. Finally in desperation she sought out a spiritual director. She told him how her memories and dreams had been poisoned by this particular event. After a few moments of silence, the spiritual director told this woman that she often met and talked with Jesus in her dreams.

“Would you like for me to ask him anything next time we meet?”

“Ask him about my sin, please, please!” the woman replied.

Several weeks later the spiritual director called this pastor and made an appointment to see her. “I met Jesus in my dreams a couple of nights ago and asked him about your sin.”

“What did he say?” she asked nervously.

“Well, he furrowed his brow, paced around a bit, then shrugged his shoulders and said ‘What sin? I can’t remember any.’”

This is the covenant that I will make with them.
After these days, says the Lord,
I will place my laws in their hearts
and write them on their minds.
And I won’t remember their sins
and their lawless behavior anymore.
(Hebrews 10:16-17)

Rape & God’s Solidarity with the Violated

Faith Improvised
August 23, 2012

By timgombis

Rep. Todd Akin’s comments about rape last week ignited a firestorm. His ignorance of female anatomy and human reproduction, and his insensitivity to rape victims caused great offense.

There is much I’d like to say about many aspects of this discussion, but I’ll make just this one point: If I were a policy-maker in power who claimed to be Christian, I would tread very carefully on issues like this so as to avoid God’s judgment.

I say this because those who are violated and treated with extreme injustice have a place near and dear to the heart of the one true God.

Christians confess that in Jesus God himself became a victim of abuse and injustice, his body being violated.

The New Testament is explicit that in being so treated, Jesus was the ultimate and clearest possible revelation of the God of all creation (Mark 15:39; John 17; Phil. 2:5-11).

If, then, God intentionally became a victim and one of the violated, and Scripture clearly indicates that the heart of God is for the weak, the powerless, the mistreated, the violated, then I would avoid making policy that did not take them seriously, or that left them unprotected or caused them to suffer further mistreatment and humiliation.

Israel’s Scriptures teach the sobering reality that when God’s people do not embody God’s care for the vulnerable, they are subject to God’s militant judgment.

In Isaiah 59:16-19, the God of Israel took up his armor and went to war against his people. God did this because Israel, while maintaining the practices of piety and the rhetoric of righteousness, exploited the weak, oppressed the poor, neglected the hungry, and ignored those who were in need (Isa. 58).

Rather than minimizing the anguish and pain of the violated (a group of which Jesus is a member and for which God cares deeply), policy-makers who claim to be Christian would do well to consider the character of the Just Judge who sees through the rhetoric of pious pretension and who judges fiercely and without partiality.

The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – 21st Ordinary (Day 4)

John 6:56-69

56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
60 Many of his disciples who heard this said, “This message is harsh. Who can hear it?”
61 Jesus knew that the disciples were grumbling about this and he said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 What if you were to see the Human One[a] going up where he was before? 63 The Spirit is the one who gives life and the flesh doesn’t help at all. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 Yet some of you don’t believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning who wouldn’t believe and the one who would betray him. 65 He said, “For this reason I said to you that none can come to me unless the Father enables them to do so.” 66 At this, many of his disciples turned away and no longer accompanied him.
67 Jesus asked the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
68 Simon Peter answered, “Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We believe and know that you are God’s holy one.”

I like the following meditation on this passage from Rick Morley (

“Jesus told the people that his flesh was real food and that his blood was true drink—and to eat his flesh and drink his blood meant eternal life.

And people stopped following him.

The disciples grumbled about how hard a teaching this was. Jesus had to ask the disciples if they wanted to walk away too.

So, what was the big deal?

The answer (to their disgust), and the point Jesus was making, lies deep in the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus chapter seventeen contains a forceful and simple law about how the People of God were to handle blood:

Leviticus 17:10-14
If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel: No person among you shall eat blood, nor shall any alien who resides among you eat blood. And anyone of the people of Israel, or of the aliens who reside among them, who hunts down an animal or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.

Do you notice that when God lays down this law there is no wiggle room whatsoever?

You don’t eat blood. End of discussion.

There was no circumstance where that law can be broken or swept aside. To ignore this law means that you are cut off from God forever.

This divine commandment was deeply ingrained in the daily life of the Israelite. In fact, this commandment governed what was possible for lunch, and what wasn’t, for every day of their lives. It was such a basic law, and so much a part of the ancient Jewish people, that it’s still a cornerstone of modern Jewish eating. A slaughterhouse in America that produces meat that bears the identification as “kosher” still follows the basic laws of Leviticus 17.

So, when Jesus said that in order to inherit eternal life you must drink his blood, he was using incendiary language that seemed to go against a millennium of biblical teaching. In other words, this teaching was like nails on a chalkboard for an ancient Jew.

In their minds it would have put Jesus’ religious credentials into serious question.
It would have made some of them question whether they could still follow him. Could they subject their children to this blasphemous, anti-biblical teaching?
And so many turned away from Jesus. Even Jesus’ closest followers did a double-take.

However, today, for most Christians, these words don’t have the same sting.
Some Christians, and especially those from the more “Sacramental” and liturgical denominations (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox, etc), hear in Jesus’ words a direct reference to the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion. For Christians who participate in the breaking of bread and sharing of a cup of wine each and every Sunday, this teaching from the sixth chapter of John is an obvious allusion to the Sacrament they know so well.

As an Episcopal priest myself who stands at an Altar each Sunday celebrating and consuming the Eucharist, this teaching strikes a deep chord.

And yet, I seriously doubt that what Jesus is saying here is akin to this: merely receive Holy Communion and you receive eternal life.

Mostly because of this passage, many scholars and theologians identify the Gospel of John as the “most Eucharistic” of the four gospels. Between the Bread of Life discourse and the feedings of the multitudes, there’s enough evidence here to make their claim ring true. However, it is helpful to know that there is no story of the Last Supper in John. On the night before Jesus’ death, he gets up from the table to wash his disciples’ feet. We might assume that the table Jesus got up from had the remains of the Last Supper on it, but John doesn’t say anything of it.

And, with all the emphasis on faith and belief in the Gospel of John, I have a hard time believing that Jesus is saying that participating in a liturgical action is the doorway to Heaven here.

The source of disgust in Jesus’ listeners is God’s clear prohibition of consuming blood in Leviticus 17.

And I believe that Leviticus 17 is exactly what Jesus was getting at, just by a different route.

Leviticus 17:14
For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.

Blood wasn’t forbidden territory for being dirty, but for being holy.

A good portion of the Book of Leviticus concerns itself with what to do with the blood and body parts of sacrificial animals. When animals were sacrificed to God in the rituals that are carefully laid out in Leviticus, various portions of the carcass were given back to the person making the offering, given to the priests to consume, or burned on the Altar and totally given over to God.

But, the same thing always happened with the blood: it was always given to God. Usually it was poured onto the Altar directly. Why? Because God considered it holy. And God considered it holy because it was the blood of the animal that embodied its very life.

The life force of the creature is its blood.

Because God is the giver of all life, life is holy. Life is sacred. And it’s not to be misused or mistreated—and certainly not consumed.

It belongs to God, and God alone.

So, when Jesus says that his followers are to drink his blood, what he’s saying in the ancient biblical language of Leviticus is: take my life, and pour it into your bodies, your lives, your souls.

And by pouring his eternal-life-blood into our life, we then are the recipients of eternal life ourselves.

Because Jesus’ life is coursing in our veins.”

The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – 21st Ordinary (Day 3)

Ephesians 6:10-20

10 Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and his powerful strength. 11 Put on God’s armor so that you can make a stand against the tricks of the devil. 12 We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens. 13 Therefore, pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day and after you have done everything possible to still stand. 14 So stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate, 15 and put shoes on your feet so that you are ready to spread the good news of peace. 16 Above all, carry the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word.
18 Offer prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers. 19 As for me, pray that when I open my mouth, I’ll get a message that confidently makes this secret plan of the gospel known. 20 I’m an ambassador in chains for the sake of the gospel. Pray so that the Lord will give me the confidence to say what I have to say.

In this well-known passage Paul reaches the rhetorical climax of Ephesians. It is “the” point of the letter. Everything else in the letter points to this passage.
Ephesians is organized by three posture images: “sit” (ch.1-3), “walk” (4:1-6:9), and “stand” (6:10-20). Paul tells us we “sit” due to Christ’s victory, luxuriating in the lavish grace and gifts of the God who intends to bring all things together in Christ. We immerse ourselves in the “mystery” (ch.1) of God’s unfathomable and gracious plan to center everything in Christ. We then “walk” in the community of the faithful, learning and practicing the skills and dynamics which strengthens us to “stand” in the struggle against the spiritual forces of evil, who, though defeated by Christ, are not yet completely pacified.

We “stand” by God’s power and are suited out in God’s very own armor (isa.59)! And by “we,” Paul means the church, not individual Christians. It’s not that each of us are individually outfitted with each of this pieces of armor. Rather, it is that the church as a community is outfitted with this suit of divine armor for it is through us as his people that God continues as Divine Warrior to wage battle against all that opposes or hinders his will and way in the world.

Truth, justice, peace, faith, salvation, and God’s Word – it is interesting to note how this “full armor” of God is designed to reflect the fullness of what creation was intended to be.

Truth – rather than the lies of the serpent

Justice – rather than the cacophony of injustice and oppression after the fall

Peace – rather than the violence that pervaded the world

Faith – rather than distrust and suspicion of God and each other

Salvation – rather than a hopelessness of either despairing resignation or activism

God’s Word – rather than our reason as the standard of meaning and significance

Prayer - rather than self-assertion

This is the kind of people we are now to be in the world – a “new creation” people. We are to live the way God intended humans to live in the beginning amid the debris and disorder of a world gone awry. That’s why Paul pictures us in military imagery. To live God’s way now will necessarily be conflictual. The world is still not yet fully pacified; we are the people through whom God has chosen to implement and extend Christ’s victory at the cross and resurrection, thus we are in a struggle. As Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, and martyr for Christ, puts it:

“The church must suffer for speaking the truth, for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin. No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted.”

It’s a struggle already decided as to its outcome, but like the Allied forces in World War II who lived between D-Day (when the outcome of the war in Europe was decided) and V-Day (when the fighting actually stopped), the struggle continues and we must carry on the battle until the full pacification of the world occurs at Christ’s return.

These battles, as Paul has made clear, are a nonviolent struggle against the spiritual forces that oppose God and refuse to admit defeat even though they are in their death throes. While it is, tragically, easy to forget that the fight we bring to the world is, as Archbishop Romero says, the “violence of love,” neither Jesus not Paul can reasonably be blamed for that.

“We must overturn so many idols, the idol of self first of all, so that we can be humble, and only from our humility can learn to be redeemers, can learn to work together in the way the world really needs. Liberation that raises a cry against others is no true liberation. Liberation that means revolutions of hate and violence and takes away lives of others or abases the dignity of others cannot be true liberty. True liberty does violence to self and, like Christ, who disregarded that he was sovereign becomes a slave to serve others.”

And again,

“We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.”

Herein we see the point and purpose of our lives as God’s people, just as Paul intended when we penned this concluding and climactic paragraph to the body of his letter to the Ephesians! May we hear and heed God’s Word to us today.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ten Things You Never Hear in Church

1. Personally, I find witnessing much more enjoyable than golf.
2. I’ve decided to give our church the $500/month I used to send to TV evangelists.
3. I volunteer to be the permanent teacher for the Jr. High Sunday School class.
4. Forget the denominational minimum salary. Let’s pay our pastor so he or she can live like we do.
5. Nothing inspires me and strengthens my commitment like our annual stewardship campaign.
6. I was so enthralled, I never noticed your sermon was 25 minutes too long.
7. Pastor, we’d like to send you to this Bible seminar in the Bahamas.
8. Hey! It’s my turn to sit in the front pew!
9. I love it when we sing hymns I’ve never heard before.
10. Since we’re all here, let’s start worship early.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What about the Holy Spirit?

Without the Holy Spirit God is far away.
Christ stays in the past,
The Gospel is simply an organization,
Authority is a matter of propaganda,
The Liturgy no more than an evolution,
Christian loving a slave morality.
But in the Holy Spirit
The cosmos is resurrected and grows with
The birth pangs of the kingdom.
The Risen Christ is there,
The Gospel is the power of life,
The Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
Authority is a liberating science,
Mission is a Pentecost,
The Liturgy is both renewal and anticipation,
Human action is deified.

-Patriarch Ignatius, address to the Assembly of the World Council of Churches, 1968.

Wonderful Reflection on George Herbert's Poem "The Altar"

Monday, 20 August 2012

Ben Myers posted this first reflection (of a hoped for 20) on the magnificent and theologically rich poetry of George Herbert.

Dear Mister Herbert: The Altar (1)

A while back I had the idea to write a small book titled Dear Mister Herbert – a series of letters to the English poet George Herbert. Herbert's collection of poems, The Temple, offers a whole theology of the Christian life. My idea is to sketch out his view of the Christian life through a series of short chapters, each responding to one of Herbert's poems. I thought I'd post some of them here – this is the first one, on "The Altar". Do you think this could work as a little book? I've planned for about twenty of these letters, tracing the broad outlines of the Christian life, from "The Altar" to "Love III". (And if any of you publishers out there are interested in a book like this, please get in touch with me!)


A broken A L T A R, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with tears:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch’d the same.
A H E A R T alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy Name;
That, if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed S A C R I F I C E be mine,
And sanctify this A L T A R to be thine.

Dear Mr Herbert

We've never met, but today I read your poem about the altar, and I was moved to write you a few lines.

First I should tell you something about myself. I am one of those people who grew up singing psalms and hearing Bible stories and going along to worship and sleeping on the church floor while the women bashed their tambourines and prayed and clapped and sang. I suppose I was chewing on communion bread before I had any teeth in my head. I listened to sermons before I knew how to speak. I knew King James English before I could say the alphabet. I have religion in my blood; if you prick me, religion comes out. One way or another, I guess I have been trying to come to terms with the Christian faith my whole life, but I have never quite known how to make sense of it all.

There was a time in my life when I repudiated the lot of it, or tried to, though it caught up with me in the end. Then I returned, full of youthful zeal, to the faith of my childhood, and for a while I was pretty sure I'd found the answer to everything. But more familiar to me now are those times when I feel neither wholehearted rejection nor wholehearted acceptance of my faith. I am in another place instead, a place of uncertainty and hesitation, a sort of faltering cautious trust. Sometimes I feel shy of my own faith, shy because it is so strange to me and I don't quite know what it all means.

Don't misunderstand me, Mr Herbert. I believe in God and Christ and the Holy Ghost and all of that. My problem is not that I don't believe but that I don't know what to do about it. I guess there were times in my life when “giving myself to God” seemed the most natural thing in the world. What could be simpler? As though I could direct myself to God just by an act of will. As though all it takes is dedication.

But that was a long time ago, and I don't feel quite so optimistic about myself anymore. All that business of choosing and willing and deciding: what does it amount to in the end? More often than not my will seems like the problem, not the solution. I can't see how I could change my life just by resolution – even if that resolution was very pious and correct. Is life really the sort of thing you can just make up for yourself? By sheer force of will I can't add a hair to my head – didn't Jesus say something like that? Let alone “giving myself to God” through some kind of pure religious exertion.

Even if I could do it – even if I could present myself to God as a perfect sacrifice, a total offering of myself – how would I ever know if I'd performed the sacrifice adequately? What does God really want from me, after all? What if I brought my best offering to God and – like Cain – God took one look at it and said, Sorry, that wasn't quite what I had in mind.

And so to your poem, Mr Herbert. It is quite pretty, the way you've made the words into a picture. But it's a bit misleading too, if you don't mind my saying so. The picture looks quite solid, quite stable, quite sure of itself. A perfectly formed altar. That discouraged me at first. It's a poem about sacrifice, and I was expecting all the usual blather about committing myself fully to God, offering myself to God, that sort of thing.

But you caught me off guard. The first thing you say is that your heart is “a broken altar”. That each brick is a fragment of your “hard heart”. And that these pieces are held together not, as I expected, by dedication or resolve, but by tears. Why are you crying, Mr Herbert? You make it sound as though dedication to God is not a religious achievement but a kind of misfortune, a failure. As though the real question of life were not how can I succeed? but instead, what should I do with my failures?

I think I can see, Mr Herbert, what you have done with your failures. You have brought them all together in this “frame”. You've arranged them in the shape of an altar, brick by lonely brick, just as the words of a poem are arranged on the page.

Is that how it is? Is dedication to God, the worship of God, a frame that assembles all my flaws, my failings, my stubborn hard-heartedness, and turns it all into something God can use? I thought about that for a while, and I started thinking about the sacrifice I could make to God if only I was completely honest about my own shortcomings. I assumed that this is where your poem was trying to lead me: to a point of penitent renunciation, the point at which I would be able to lay myself bare as an offering to God.

But that's where you surprised me most of all. Instead of presenting your own life as the sacrifice, you say that your life is the altar. The sacrifice is God's. The gift is God's. The devotion is God's. The dedication is God's. And the divine sacrifice is offered on this altar: the flawed, hard, broken altar of a human heart.

Dear Mr Herbert, when I saw this in your poem, I felt that my whole picture of the Christian life had been one great misunderstanding after another. It's not that I need to dedicate myself to God, but that God is dedicated to me. It's not my devotion to God that counts, but God's devotion to me. The secret of life is not my commitment to God but God's commitment to me. God is the sacrifice, my heart is the altar. And it's just my flaws, my hard-heartedness, my brokenness, that make me suitable as a venue of God's sacrifice. A broken altar. Sometimes my life really does feel like little more than a pile of old stones. Yet God has brought a gift to lay upon those stones. God is that gift.

Thank you, Mr Herbert, that’s all I really meant to say. Thank you for understanding me so well and for describing it so clearly. And thank you for reading this letter, even though I'm sure you have much more important things to be getting on with.

Yours sincerely, etc.

The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – 21st Ordinary (Day 2)

Psalm 84

84 How lovely is your dwelling place,
LORD of heavenly forces!
2 My very being[a] longs, even yearns,
for the LORD’s courtyards.
My heart and my body
will rejoice out loud to the living God!
3 Yes, the sparrow too has found a home there;
the swallow has found herself a nest
where she can lay her young beside your altars,
LORD of heavenly forces, my king, my God!
4 Those who live in your house are truly happy;
they praise you constantly. Selah
5 Those who put their strength in you are truly happy;
pilgrimage is in their hearts.
6 As they pass through the Baca Valley,[b]
they make it a spring of water.
Yes, the early rain covers it with blessings.
7 They go from strength to strength,
until they see the supreme God in Zion.[c]
8 LORD God of heavenly forces,
hear my prayer;
listen closely, Jacob’s God! Selah
9 Look at our shield, God;
pay close attention to the face of your anointed one!
10 Better is a single day in your courtyards
than a thousand days anywhere else!
I would prefer to stand outside the entrance of my God’s house
than live comfortably in the tents of the wicked!
11 The LORD is a sun and shield;
God is favor and glory.
The LORD gives—doesn’t withhold!—good things
to those who walk with integrity.
12 LORD of heavenly forces,
those who trust in you are truly happy!

The Message (Psalm 84)

1-2 What a beautiful home, God-of-the-Angel-Armies! I've always longed to live in a place like this,
Always dreamed of a room in your house,
where I could sing for joy to God-alive!
3-4 Birds find nooks and crannies in your house,
sparrows and swallows make nests there.
They lay their eggs and raise their young,
singing their songs in the place where we worship.
GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies! King! God!
How blessed they are to live and sing there!
5-7 And how blessed all those in whom you live,
whose lives become roads you travel;
They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks,
discover cool springs and pools brimming with rain!
God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and
at the last turn—Zion! God in full view!
8-9 GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies, listen:
O God of Jacob, open your ears—I'm praying!
Look at our shields, glistening in the sun,
our faces, shining with your gracious anointing.
10-12 One day spent in your house, this beautiful place of worship,
beats thousands spent on Greek island beaches.
I'd rather scrub floors in the house of my God
than be honored as a guest in the palace of sin.
All sunshine and sovereign is GOD,
generous in gifts and glory.
He doesn't scrimp with his traveling companions.
It's smooth sailing all the way with GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Veil of Opulence


The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.

More than 40 years ago the philosopher John Rawls, in his influential political work “A Theory of Justice,” implored the people of the world to shed themselves of their selfish predispositions and to assume, for the sake of argument, that they were ignorant. He imposed this unwelcome constraint not so that his readers — mostly intellectuals, but also students, politicians and policy makers — would find themselves in a position of moribund stupidity but rather so they could get a grip on fairness.

Rawls saw clearly that principles of justice like the golden rule or mutual benevolence, are subject to distortion.

Rawls charged his readers to design a society from the ground up, from an original position, and he imposed the ignorance constraint so that readers would abandon any foreknowledge of their particular social status — their wealth, their health, their natural talents, their opportunities or any other goodies that the cosmos may have thrown their way. In doing so, he hoped to identify principles of justice that would best help individuals maximize their potential, fulfill their objectives (whatever they may happen to be) and live a good life. He called this presumption the “veil of ignorance.”

The idea behind the veil of ignorance is relatively simple: to force us to think outside of our parochial personal concerns in order that we consider others. What Rawls saw clearly is that it is not easy for us to put ourselves in the position of others. We tend to think about others always from our own personal vantage; we tend to equate another person’s predicament with our own. Imagining what it must be like to be poor, for instance, we import presumptions about available resources, talents and opportunities — encouraging, say, the homeless to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and to just get a job, any job, as if getting a job is as simple as filling out an application. Meanwhile, we give little thought to how challenging this can be for those who suffer from chronic illnesses or disabling conditions. What Rawls also saw clearly was that other classic principles of justice, like the golden rule or mutual benevolence, are subject to distortion precisely because we tend to do this.

Nowadays, the veil of ignorance is challenged by a powerful but ancient contender: the veil of opulence. While no serious political philosopher actually defends such a device — the term is my own — the veil of opulence runs thick in our political discourse. Where the veil of ignorance offers a test for fairness from an impersonal, universal point of view — “What system would I want if I had no idea who I was going to be, or what talents and resources I was going to have?” — the veil of opulence offers a test for fairness from the first-person, partial point of view: “What system would I want if I were so-and-so?” These two doctrines of fairness — the universal view and the first-person view — are both compelling in their own way, but only one of them offers moral clarity impartial enough to guide our policy decisions.

Those who don the veil of opulence may imagine themselves to be fantastically wealthy movie stars or extremely successful business entrepreneurs. They vote and set policies according to this fantasy. “If I were such and such a wealthy person,” they ask, “how would I feel about giving X percentage of my income, or Y real dollars per year, to pay for services that I will never see nor use?” We see this repeatedly in our tax policy discussions, and we have just seen the latest instance of it in the Tax Policy Center’s comparison of President Obama’s tax plan versus Mitt Romney’s tax plan. “He’s asking you to pay more so that people like him can pay less,” Obama said last week, “so that people like me pay less.” Last Monday he drove the point even harder, saying that Romney’s plan is like “Robin Hood in reverse.” And certainly, Romney’s selection on Saturday of Paul Ryan as his running mate will keep this issue in the forefront of our political discourse.

Of course, the veil of opulence is not limited to tax policy. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia advanced related logic in their oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act in March. “[T]he mandate is forcing these [young] people,” Justice Alito said, “to provide a huge subsidy to the insurance companies … to subsidize services that will be received by somebody else.” By suggesting in this way that the policy was unfair, Alito encouraged the court to assess the injustice themselves. “If you were healthy and young,” Justice Alito implied, “why should you be made to bear the burden of the sick and old?”

The answer to these questions, when posed in this way, is clear. It seems unfair, unjust, to be forced to pay so much more than someone of lesser means. We should all be free to use our money and our resources however we see fit. And so, the opulence argument for fairness gets off the ground.

It is one thing for the very well off to make these arguments. What is curious is that frequently the same people who pose these questions are not themselves wealthy, nor even particularly healthy. Instead, they ask these questions under the supposition that they are insisting upon fairness. But the veil of opulence operates only under the guise of fairness. It is rather a distortion of fairness, by virtue of the partiality that it smuggles in. It asks not whether a policy is fair given the huge range of advantages or hardships the universe might throw at a person but rather whether it is fair that a very fortunate person should shoulder the burdens of others. That is, the veil of opulence insists that people imagine that resources and opportunities and talents are freely available to all, that such goods are widely abundant, that there is no element of randomness or chance that may negatively impact those who struggle to succeed but sadly fail through no fault of their own. It blankets off the obstacles that impede the road to success. It turns a blind eye to the adversity that some people, let’s face it, are born into. By insisting that we consider public policy from the perspective of the most-advantaged, the veil of opulence obscures the vagaries of brute luck.

But wait, you may be thinking, what of merit? What of all those who have labored and toiled and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to make their lives better for themselves and their families? This is an important question indeed. Many people work hard for their money and deserve to keep what they earn. An answer is offered by both doctrines of fairness.

The veil of opulence assumes that the playing field is level, that all gains are fairly gotten, that there is no cosmic adversity. In doing so, it is partial to the fortunate — for fortune here is entirely earned or deserved. The veil of ignorance, on the other hand, introduces the possibility that one might fall on hard luck or that one is not born into luck. It never once closes out the possibility that that same person might take steps to overcome that bad luck. In this respect, it is not partial to the fortunate but impartial to all. Some will win by merit, some will win by lottery. Others will lose by laziness, while still others will lose because the world has thrown them some unfathomably awful disease or some catastrophically terrible car accident. It is an illusion of prosperity to believe that each of us deserves everything we get.

If there’s one thing about fairness, it is fundamentally an impartial notion, an idea that restricts us from privileging one group over another. When asking about fairness, we cannot ask whether X policy is fair for me, or whether Y policy is fair for someone with a yacht and two vacation homes. We must ask whether Z policy is fair, full stop. What we must ask here is whether the policy could be applied to all; whether it is the sort of system with which we could live, if we were to end up in one of the many socioeconomic groupings that make up our diverse community, whether most-advantaged or least-advantaged, fortunate or unfortunate. This is why the veil of ignorance is a superior test for fairness over the veil of opulence. It tackles the universality of fairness without getting wrapped up in the particularities of personal interest. If you were to start this world anew, unaware of who you would turn out to be, what sort of die would you be willing to cast?

We already employ this veil of ignorance logic in a wide range of areas, many of which are not limited to politics. An obvious case is in the game of football. During draft season, the N.F.L. gives the losingest team the opportunity to take first pick at their player of choice. Just recently, the Indianapolis Colts, the worst team last year, selected as their new quarterback the aptly named Andrew Luck, arguably the most promising player in recent memory. In the interest of firming up the game, in the interest of being fair, the N.F.L. decided long ago to give the worst teams in football the best shot at improving their game. At the beginning of the season, nobody knows who is going to be the worst off, but they all agree to the draft rules.
As a result, football is better for it. It is both more exciting, because the teams are better matched, and it is fairer, because there is no tyranny of one or two successful franchises over others. It’s a game that even die-hard fans recognize as fair. It doesn’t inspire the same sort of grumbling that has so many baseball fans thumbing their noses at the New York Yankees. It is true that in some instances, such a policy may encourage some to game the system, but on the whole it is an important policy, and most teams continue to play to win.

As this election season wears on, we will likely be hearing a lot about fairness. Romney recently signaled as much. Obama has been doing so for months. Far from a mere rhetorical concern, our two presidential candidates are each representatives of one of these views.

The question of fairness has widespread application throughout our political discourse. It affects taxation, health care, education, social safety nets and so on. The veil of opulence would have us screen for fairness by asking what the most fortunate among us are willing to bear. The veil of ignorance would have us screen for fairness by asking what any of us would be willing to bear, if it were the case that we, or the ones we love, might be born into difficult circumstances or, despite our hard work, blindsided by misfortune. Society is in place to correct for the injustices of the universe, to ensure that our lives can run smoothly despite the stuff that is far out of our control: not to hand us what we need, but to give us the opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness. The veil of ignorance helps us see that. The veil of opulence keeps us in the dark.

Benjamin Hale is an assistant professor of philosophy and environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a co-editor of the journal Ethics, Policy & Environment.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Whither Evangelism in 2012?

For some time now I have been pondering what the presentation of the gospel to the world might look like in light of some of the changes in biblical and systematic theology over last several decades. I don’t intend to rehearse those changes here. Others can and have done that better than I ever could.

However, how to articulate the gospel as an evangelistic message in light of these changes has received less and more piecemeal attention. I will attempt here to draft a sample of what such proclamation might look like today. Most of us realize that simple formulaic approaches to sharing the gospel (e.g., The Four Spiritual Laws, The Romans Road) no longer suffice (for a variety of reasons I’ll also forgo exploring here). Theology has made a decisive turn to a narrative or dramatic mode, and evangelistic proclamation must follow suit. Biblical theology has reshaped our understanding of the “story” the Bible tells in its many moods and modes. Thus, the evangelistic message must retell that “story” as the narrative of our lives in 2012.

I imagine myself invited to explain the biblical message for a group of interested seekers open to hearing a fresh rendition of the gospel. I would tell that story like this:

I’m no fortune teller or the son of a fortune teller, but I do know who you – each of you – are intended to be! And that’s the story the Bible tells us.

Before I start with that, though, I’d like to apologize for all the ways Christians like myself have made it difficult for you to hear the truly good news of the Bible because of our missteps and misdeeds. Our profession has so often been undermined by our practice. We’ve made it hard for you to hear with a straight face our claims of God’s love for everyone. And I am very sorry for that! All we can do is acknowledge what has been and try to make a different future. Part of that starts with getting the Bible’s story straight and that’s what I’m trying to do here.

The Bible’s story begins with God creating a world he intends to be a temple palace. That’s right, a temple palace. A temple is a place for God, the King, to dwell with his people. That’s what this world was, and is to be.

If this world is a temple, somebody has to be the priests, even royal priests, because we children of the King. Priests are the folks who staff the temple and perform its two major tasks: representing God to the people and representing the people to God. Who are these priests? You guessed it! Adam and Eve - who in the story are the symbols of the human race to whom God has given the extraordinary dignity and calling to serve him as priests in his garden temple. When the Bible says we’re created in God’s “image,” this is what it means.

You may never have thought of yourself as a priest. Priest may even be a negative image for you depending on your experience. Yet, try to see it in terms of the Bible’s story we’re exploring. God created you, man or woman, to together reflect his will and way to the world and protect and nurture this creation to its full flourishing.

That’s who you are – your primal dignity – and what your life is all about – your vocation.

Adam and Eve (us!) rejected this dignity and calling, choosing instead to tell God to buzz off with words I hear my two year-old granddaughter say: “You’re not the boss of me!” This inexplicable, irrational, and heinous rejection of our royal priesthood in favor of wanting to be ourselves “God” turned out to be a bad deal – a really bad deal. You see, we’re just not up to the job.

Before you know it, God’s creation came apart at the seams. Things just didn’t hold together after we started to act as “gods” instead of God’s royal priests. We are no longer at one with ourselves, with each other, or with the creation itself. Everything now is fight and struggle, compete and conquer, a zero-sum game of scarcity and hoarding. In short, the exact opposite of what God offers to us as his royal priests!

But God does not give in, give up, or give out in working to make his world the way he intended it. He doesn’t clear the decks and start completely over again (though he was sorely tempted by this option in the Flood story in Genesis!). He doesn’t change his plans and opt for a different result (that we live with him in heaven forever as “spiritual” beings while the earth and our earthly lives disappear, disapproved of in judgment). No, God plugs on with renewed determination and creativity to have his creation as he envisioned it no matter the obstacles or cost to him of doing so.

God chooses Abraham and Sarah, nobodies from nowhere, and calls them to parent the people God will claim as his own, and gift and equip to show the world how things are supposed to be and invite all other peoples to join Israel as God’s royal priests in building God’s temple-palace all over the globe.

Israel too, like Adam and Eve failed to be faithful royal priests. Finally God did what he had intended to do all along – become a human being like us. He too became a royal priest! Instead of coming in flesh just to deepen and enjoy fellowship and communion with his creatures in the most intimate way possible, his agenda was now more complicated. In addition to leading us in reflecting God’s character in ever clearer ways and nurturing the creation toward its fullest flourishing, Jesus had also to renew and reestablish humanity’s relationship to God as its very source of life.

From the side of God (the eternal Son), Jesus lived out God’s love seeking his erstwhile royal priests no matter what the cost (to cross); from the side of humanity (the Incarnate Son), Jesus offers to God the life of utter fidelity and indefectible loyalty he desired from his royal priests (leading again, to the cross).

God raised Jesus from the dead. This act was God’s great “Yes” to the way Jesus lived and died and signaled God’s triumph over all that hindered and opposed his will and way in the world. The risen Jesus means “God wins!” Jesus had come as one of us, lived as one of us, lived faithful and loyal as God’s royal priest as none of us had, died and was raised for us so that through him God could reclaim us (by forgiving us and reconciling us to God) and restore us to our primal dignity and vocation as royal priests.

Thus we can begin anew (for the first time) to use our talents, gifts, and resources to reflect God’s character and shape the creation as the royal temple-palace God always intended it to be.

Indeed, that’s just where the biblical story ends! Though we cannot build this royal temple-palace by our own resources, we can use the gifts and abilities God has given us to do the best we can, assured that what of our work is done out of genuine love for God and humanity as faithful royal priests will be purified and preserved by God as part of his finished glorious temple palace! The Bible’s image of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to God’s new creation pictures this reality. This new city covers the globe and – surprise of surprises! – the city itself is not a building but the whole of this new world covered by faithful royal priests in unhindered fellowship with their great royal priest – Jesus, and through him, with God himself. And the very last word the Bible says about human life and destiny is this: “Night will be no more. They won’t need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shine on them, and they will rule forever and always” (Rev.22:5).

Basking in the light of God and “ruling” forever – that’s what God always wanted. And that’s what God through Jesus has gotten - a whole host of royal priests caring for one another and the creation around them. A second century theologian described it well: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive, and life is beholding God.”

Well, that’s the story as I understand it. I realize it’s perhaps a good bit different than what you’ve heard or experienced. That’s why I wanted to share it with you. In a sentence, God dearly loves us, created us to be his representatives in protecting and caring for this world, and has done all that love could do to reclaim and restore us as his royal priests.

Notice how “secular” or non-religious all this is! It has nothing to do with a “spiritual” realm apart from the physical, material world or an “inner” life distinct from our life in the world. Living as royal priests is not a matter of going somewhere to do “religious” things nor of a set of practices to do in a certain way or at a set time. Rather, it is a matter of living life in the world in God’s way, that is, by people-keeping and creation-keeping out of love and gratitude to God for the gift of life. Nothing more or less than that!

I hope we can keep on talking about any of this that piques your interest. I do believe that this is the true story of why we here and what our lives are all about. And maybe through my telling the story in this way, you’ll discover that and embrace it as your story too!

There’s my attempt to tell the Christian story in today’s North American setting. This is what I would say to a “naked lady.” Doubtless it has many flaws and needs much refining or correcting. But it is a start to try and articulate the gospel in light of the some recent developments and gains in understanding the Bible and of the situation of the church in our culture today. I’d appreciate to hear what you think!

Further Thoughts on How the Bible “Becomes” the Word of God

In Michael Ende’s wonderful fantasy tale The Neverending Story, Bastian is a young boy at loose ends. His mother has recently died, both his dad and his schoolmates bully him, and he finds himself alone and isolated at school. In a word, in a world full of loss and pain Bastian feels hopeless and helpless to do anything about his plight.

The one refuge he has is an old bookshop and its cranky proprietor, Coreander. Bastian loves to read great adventure and fantasy tales. One day, while talking to Coreander about these great stories, Bastian’s spies a special looking book the old proprietor holds in his hands.

Here’s their conversation:

Bastian: What’s that book about?

Coreander: Oh, this is something special.

Bastian: Well, what is it ?

Coreander: Look. You’re books are safe. While you’re reading them you get to become Tarzan or Robinson Crusoe.

Bastian: But that’s what I like about them.

Coreander: Yes, but afterwards you get to be a little boy again.

Bastian: What do you mean?

Coreander: Listen (he motions for him to come nearer.) Have you ever been Captain
Nemo, trapped inside your submarine while the giant squid was attacking you ?

Bastian: Yes.

Coreander: Weren’t you afraid you couldn’t escape ?

Bastian: But it’s only a story.

Coreander: That’s what I’m talking about. The ones you read are safe.

Bastian: And that one isn’t ?

“Your books are safe,” says Coreander. Why? You remain in control of them. You read them for your own purposes (entertainment or diversion). You might identify with this or that character at various moments in the story but it never quite becomes your story. Our books allow us to escape to some different place where we may play a hero but we return to our world no different than when we left it.
Coreander’s book, however, is not like these other stories. He implies that it is not safe. Bastian is intrigued. And when Coreander is busy with other customers Bastian makes off with his book and retreats to the school’s attic to read it.
The story is indeed different, Bastian discovers. It grasps him and gradually he cannot neatly separate the “real” world from the increasingly “real” world of this story. At a critical point in the plot of this story, Bastian himself is summoned by one of the characters to join in the struggle to save their land from the threat of Nothing. He does so and discovers all the ways in which he is gifted and able to deal with difficulties that appear insurmountable.

The Bible is the same kind of story. We can, and do, try and read it as a safe story all the time. We read it for moral instruction, life skills, inspiration, history, theology in ways very sophisticated to quite na├»ve. And in all these ways we read it as a safe story. We want it to answer our questions about our lives and agendas and thus remain in control of this book. Truth is, the Bible doesn’t answer these questions very well (which probably accounts for people’s decreasing interest in reading it) though we continue to work industriously to do so.

The Bible is a story whose characters and Author (God) summon us into another world, a world more real and authentic than the sin-shaped and scarred parody passed off to us as reality. This is the world of God’s new creation, opened up to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He calls us to live, love, and live lovingly the life of this new creation even amid the rubble and debris of “reality” (so-called), otherwise called the normal or the ways things are.

The Bible has no interest in making it possible for us to get along better or more successfully in this sinful reality. Rather we are to live in ways that subvert it in the direction of God’s original intent for creation. Living “new creational” lives amid the “old” creation will necessarily be conflictual. We will fight within ourselves, among ourselves, with the world around us, and even with the devil himself to so live. As we do so faithfully we implement and extend the victory Christ won at his resurrection and we do it by “taking up our cross daily” (which paradoxically has become through Christ the very instrument of God’s victory in his life and in ours).
It is to this story, and the way of life it engenders, that the Bible calls us.

Follow Jesus, the crucified and risen One; allow him to become your definition of reality; reshape your church to become such subversive counter-revolutionary movement – this is what the Bible is about. And it is to these things, the divine neverending story, that God summons us to embrace through the Bible! It is not a safe book!