Sunday, July 30, 2006

Why I Am A Universalist, §7: The Doctrine of Justification (Section IV)


Section IV: Solo verbo

The God of grace, the God who justifies the ungodly is a God who speaks. This very fact, that he is not a silent partner, but speaks as he interacts with us, is grace. (Jüngel 198)
The justification of the ungodly is a word event. Primarily, this is because the justifying grace of God is actualized in Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate. Secondarily, God’s grace reaches us existentially in the “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18), in which the reality ‘there and then’ in AD 1-30 becomes our reality ‘here and now.’ Jesus Christ is the Word of God to us, for us, and with us. In him God has spoken new life through the cross and resurrection. In him God has revealed the No of judgment and the Yes of reconciliation. In him the dialectic of rejection and justification are conjoined and completed. In him we hear the word of the gospel: Immanuel, God is with us.
God has spoken, spoken once and for all, in the person of Jesus Christ, who died for all human beings and was raised from the dead (Heb. 1:2). And he has said what he had to say once and for all in the story of this person. Paul compresses this neatly when he writes: ‘in him it has always been “Yes”’ (2 Cor. 1:19 [NIV]). And this Yes of God’s happened when God gave his grace its due place and thus set in motion the justification of the ungodly. (198)
Justification is a trinitarian dialogical event. We can describe the dialogical theo-drama of salvation in the following way. In the protological first act, the triune God constitutes Godself in triunity by speaking the primal Yes ad intra—the Father speaks, the Son is spoken, and the Spirit unites the divine dialogue—followed by the second act, in which God both reveals this Yes ad extra in the incarnation of the Word in time and space and empowers the Yes of God’s Word through the agency of the Holy Spirit, who welcomes broken humanity into the divine dialogue of grace. The economic work of the triune God is thus an act of self-communication to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, who comes to us now in the “word of the cross,” the gospel of grace, in which we hear the proclamation of our justification and the invitation to respond with thanks and praise. The Yes of God to humanity invites us to respond with our own Yes.

The event of justification in the economy of salvation has a two-fold movement—ontological and ontic, or christological and existential—which begins when God speaks the divine Yes as a judgment on the life and death of Jesus “in the form of a Word that raises from the dead” (Jüngel 199). God’s Yes to Jesus establishes the ontological status of humanity, who are all elect in the incarnate Word, the one mediator between God and humanity. The locus of our ontological identity is found in Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, in which the old self is crucified on the cross and the new self is raised again to new life “for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). The old self caught in the relationless spiral toward the abyss is definitely destroyed ‘there and then,’ opening up a future of new possibilities in the ‘here and now.’

The event of justification is then realized existentially when God speaks the divine Yes to human beings in the kerygma. The human response of faith establishes the ontic status of each individual by allowing the God who speaks in the word to interrupt and displace the hearer of the word. Those who are displaced live ec-centrically; they ex-sist outside themselves (extra se) with God in correspondence to the locus of their identity in Jesus Christ. In the disruptive event of the word, God brings the inner person into correspondence to God. The passive new human responds with her own Yes to God in invocation and thanksgiving through the Eucharistic fellowship of the communio sanctorum. The joy of this Yes overflows to the outer person who is liberated to continue this dialogue in human acts of love. To quote Luther, “nothing happens but that our dear Lord himself speaks with us through his holy word, and we in turn speak with him through prayer and praise.” Thus we do not act on our own power but only out of the encounter with the speaking God who conforms us into Christ’s image, and thus into the imago Dei. The God who is pro nobis graciously communicates to humanity, and humanity—by grace alone—is able to respond.

The divine Yes sums up all we need to know of justification solo verbo, but we must remember that this Yes always includes the divine No. Both the No and Yes of God are brought together in the person of Jesus, who took upon himself the No of judgment against sin and the Yes of pardon from sin: in the Word incarnate we see the word that both judges and pardons. This judgment reaches us in the gospel, the “word of the cross,” and an encounter with God’s Yes to us gives our very existence “a word-shaped structure” (Jüngel 199). As those defined by the word of God, we take on the forma verbi—the “shape of the word”—and the church functions as the creatura verbi—the “creature of the word.”

The drama of the word provides the framework for our analysis of justification by the word alone. We must still investigate what this word is and how it affects human beings existentially in our ontological identity coram Deo. I will do so in the form of numbered theses.

1. The word is both divine judgment and divine creation; the word judges as it creates, and creates as it judges. Justification is a judicial or forensic event, but such judgments must be understood as part of the divine drama of salvation in which the Yes of God connects God’s being and our being in an ontological relation of new creation. This is what distinguishes divine judgment from human judgment: human judges make judgments based on what is already true—a person is innocent or guilty—whereas God’s judgments establish truth—God makes the guilty innocent and the ungodly righteous. What God determines in divine judgment is the truth of life, and what was true prior to God’s judgment is nullified by God. God determines who we are coram Deo, which means that our actions do not decide our identity. God’s creative judgment on Jesus raises him from the dead to a new existence, and God’s judgment on us re-creates us now as new creations that await the consummation of this judgment in the eschaton, when mortality will put on immortality and we too will participate in the resurrection of all things.
If sinners are pronounced righteous by God’s judging Word – which is also pre-eminently creative in its judging power – and thus recognized by God as being righteous, then they not only count as righteous, they are righteous. Here we must again remind ourselves that the Word alone can in this way do both things at once: a judgement and a creative Word – a pardon and a Word which sets us free. (211)
2. The word addresses human beings as God’s dialogue partners in the covenant of grace. The essence of the Logos is self-communication, in which God’s self-disclosure and self-revelation not only find concrete expression in the incarnate Word, but also become words of address that communicate righteousness to the otherwise unrighteous. The Logos is an effective word which not only speaks to us, but also imparts or imputes righteousness to us. In other words, the word of God is both declarative and ontological; the word reveals and transforms, proclaims and renews, judges and reconciles. Human beings are linguistic creatures who are shaped by language. In the event of justification, the word reshapes us so that we are reoriented to the divine Word, and thus our identity is located in the Logos and no longer in ourselves. We are declared righteous, and thus we are righteous. We who once were incurvatus in se—curved in upon ourselves—are now externally reoriented and relate to God, others, and ourselves as those who are interrupted and displaced. We speak a new language. We are part of a new dialogue.

3. The creative word creates us anew by placing us extra nos [outside ourselves]. The Logos of God speaks to us and interrupts us by displacing us from ourselves. We “find ourselves” only outside of ourselves, contrary to all contemporary spiritualities that tell us to seek the source of our identity within ourselves. The one who is justified does not possess righteousness, just as no person possesses the imago Dei. Identity, the image of God, righteousness, and salvation are all located in God alone—solus Deus—who brings us into right relations with others and ourselves by bringing us to God through the divine word. Sin is the opposite of such right relations as the individual descent into relationlessness, which is death. By allowing God to place us extra nos, we allow God to interrupt our endless spiral toward nothingness and give us new life which is found in the abundant riches of God’s grace alone. When we are outside of ourselves, we are with God, affirmed by God, made new by God.
I am always accepted by someone else. I always have to gain my acceptance before a group. So recognition can never be ‘had’ as a possession by the one who is accepted or recognized. Those who are justified must resort to a tribunal outside themselves (extra se). There is nothing about them or in them – not even justifying grace poured into them – which can make sinners righteous. In the reality of the state of the justified there are no concessions to be made. They are righteous purely and simply because they are pronounced righteous. And they are only pronounced righteous because God’s righteousness, which is extraneous to them, is attributed, imputed to them. So in the strictest sense, God’s righteousness comes to them from outside, it is outward. Sinners are righteous externally to themselves: extrinsece Iustificantur semper. Sinners are righteous externally to themselves in the same sense that the Word is an external One, coming from the outside into our innermost being and responding and relating to what has happened outside us (extra nos) in Christ. (206)

[The] justifying Word of God speaks to us creatively. Such a Word can never remain ‘external’ to those addressed. Together with the righteousness of God that brings it to us, it touches us so greatly that it touches us more closely than we can touch ourselves. It becomes to us something more inward than our inmost being: interior intimo meo. However, now we need to emphasize again that the justifying Word that so addresses and touches sinners does not let us remain in ourselves; it calls and places our inner being outside ourselves. If our inner being were to stay put, it would not be justified. This is what creatively defines those who are in concord with God: they come out of themselves in order to come to themselves – outside themselves, among other persons, and above all with the person of the wholly other God. And this is our human sin: that we want to come to ourselves by ourselves – instead of outside ourselves. So, leaving the relational riches of our being, we press forward into relationlessness. The Word of justifying grace essentially interrupts sinners in this urge towards relationlessness as it speaks creatively to us. It calls us out of ourselves as it comes so close to us, as it speaks and relates to what is outside ourselves, to what has been definitively moved by God's righteousness. It speaks and relates to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ as they are outside us. The justifying Word from the cross addresses our inner being in this exterior aspect of our existence so that there we may come to ourselves and thus really, effectively be renewed. ‘Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation’ (2 Cor 5:17). (212-13)
4. The word finds concrete expression as both word and sacrament, as proclamation and Eucharist. With the justifying word that addresses sinners, we have no dichotomy between spirit and senses, between reason and experience, between invisible and visible. The word that proclaims to us the truth of life—the justifying judgment, the Yes to grace and life and the No to sin and death—is a word that also demands concrete expression in our worship as the communio sanctorum, the communion of saints gathered at the cross and marked out for the path of discipleship. We must proclaim and embody the gospel; we must hear, but also take and eat.

5. ‘Solo verbo’ means both ‘solus Christus’ and ‘solo evangelio’—Christ alone, by the gospel alone. The divine word is both the incarnate Word of God in Jesus Christ, and the proclaimed Word of God in the gospel kerygma which declares to us the truth of life: that the ungodly have been declared righteous in Christ alone. The gospel of Jesus Christ “so unites with Jesus Christ human beings who have been named as sinners that they are able conscientiously to have no conscience” (232). In sum, solo verbo, solus Christus, and solo evangelio all state the same reality: freedom.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Last Shakers on Earth

The Boston Globe recently published a rather fascinating article about the last four Shakers on the planet. They live their celibate, rural lifestyle in southern Maine, preparing for the inevitable end: soon, the Shakers will be no more.
These are the last Shakers, living in the world's last active Shaker community, which has survived for 223 years in this idyllic and isolated hilltop village 35 miles northwest of Portland. Here, the four faithful live a life of ascetic simplicity and abide by the three C's: celibacy, confession of sin, and communalism. ... Because they are celibate, the Shakers rely on converts to keep their community going and say they receive up to 70 inquiries a year. ... But if converts don't materialize and the day comes when all the world's Shakers have met their Maker, there is a plan.
What is this plan they have to continue their legacy?
So, five years ago, the Protestant monastic sect initiated a plan, put together by the national nonprofit Trust for Public Land, to sell preservation and conservation easements to two nonprofits, Maine Preservation and the New England Forestry Foundation. These two groups, along with eight other nonprofits and public agencies, are behind the national campaign to raise money to buy the restrictions - about $2.8 million in government grants and private donations has already come in, and they hope to net another $900,000 and conclude the deal by the end of September. The agreement would protect this pristine village of mostly whiteclapboard buildings and the 1,643 acres that straddle the town lines of New Gloucester, Maine, and Poland, Maine, from ever being developed or subdivided. "We can't put up a Wal-Mart. Or a housing development," Hadd says. "The land always has to remain for agricultural and forest purposes."
One has to admire the conviction of the Shakers. They are persistent in their communal celibacy, even though this ensures their eventual demise.
"The Shakers are known for turning their backs on ideals that Americans have always held dear: the spirit of individualism, owning private property, personal autonomy, marriage," says Gerard Wertkin, director emeritus of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and author of The Four Seasons of Shaker Life: An Intimate Portrait of the Community at Sabbathday Lake. "Shakerism strikes at the heart of the American psyche." ... "The whole concept of the Shaker life is to emulate, as fully as we possibly can, the life of Christ," Hadd explains. "So, the reason we're celibate is Christ was celibate."
So I have a couple questions in honor of the Shaker community:
  1. What would you do if you were part of the last religious community in your tradition?
  2. How would you choose to leave a legacy for the ages?
  3. Could the Shakers be a picture of what might happen to other groups that refuse to bend to the cultural norms of western society? Or are they entirely unique?
  4. Is it worth becoming extinct in order to hold to certain ideals?

Friday, July 28, 2006

New Blog: Der Evangelische Theologe

My fellow Princeton Seminarian, Wheaton graduate, theological dialogue partner, Christian brother and friend, WTM, has started up a blog titled Der Evangelische Theologe, which will no doubt be a forum for stimulating theological discussion. You can read his introductory post here. His personal theological interests are in the areas of ecclesiology and, specifically, sacramentology. Expect to see solid theological reflection from a Reformed perspective and top-notch exegesis, as well as some pretentious untranslated German. :)

The Heresies of American Evangelicalism, Part III: Christology


Part III: A Docetic Christ


It follows from evangelicalism's modalistic tendencies that Jesus' full humanity is lessened or suppressed, as if the divinity and humanity of Christ are in competition with each other. To be perfectly fair, this is a problem that has plagued the church from the very beginning (as has been the case for all these heresies). The question for the church in the first few centuries was simple, "What do we do with Jesus?" The answer has not been simple, and it took a few ecumenical councils to hammer out the disagreements.

I have chosen Docetism, because I think this heresy most accurately represents the tendencies in American evangelicalism. Docetism is associated with Gnosticism and states that Jesus only appeared human, that his body was not really like ours, and that his sufferings were an illusion. As with the doctrine of the Trinity, I do not think most evangelicals, when pressed, would deny Jesus' full humanity. But in practice, in worship, and sometimes in cognitive belief, Jesus becomes fully God and partly human. Why is this? I argue two main reasons: (1) Because the scandal of the incarnation remains a scandal, and (2) because contemporary evangelicalism is a reaction against trends in liberal theology. I will begin with the latter.

The Evangelical Reaction: Attacks against the divinity of Jesus have proliferated in modernity, and the 20th century saw some of the most egregious examples—most notably the Jesus Seminar. Biblical scholarship has placed great emphasis on the cultural particularity of Jesus, emphasizing not only his Jewishness but also that he was a human just like any one of us. Liberal theology (a term I apply primarily to those against whom Barth reacted) from the 19th century onward has tended to speak of Jesus as a human who had a God-consciousness (Schleiermacher), one who was more intimately related to God than any other person who has ever or will ever live. In addition, academic biblical scholarship also tested the doctrines of the infallibility of Scripture through text criticism and focused on the historicality of the biblical witness, its rootedness in a particular cultural framework.

American evangelicalism—which I tie to the legacies of Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Cornelius Van Til, and Francis Schaeffer—was in many respects a reaction against the trends that dominated what we might call the "liberal" school of theology, although we might say that evangelicalism in the States is reactionary by nature, as the evolution-creation and pro-choice-pro-life debates make plain. What I wish to suggest here is that the emphasis on historical criticism in the academy resulted in a backlash among conservatives who ended up swinging too far in the other direction. A human, Jewish Jesus no longer looked like God, so evangelicals began to emphasize the divinity of Jesus who came in the appearance of a man.

(I have a suspicion that the emphasis on a divine Christ over a human Jesus, besides being heretical, also encourages the kind of "Jesus is just like me" nonsense. If Jesus is not really a particular Jewish man from the 1st century AD, he can become whomever we want him to be. Jesus no longer has cultural-particular roots. Granted, in the so-called "Third Quest" for the historical Jesus, scholars such as N.T. Wright have tried to stress these cultural factors while at the same time upholding the church's confession in the divinity of Jesus.)

To summarize: We can see in the evangelical stress on Jesus' divinity a reaction against the liberal schools of thought, instantiated in groups like the Jesus Seminar. It directly parallels, in my opinion, the reactions against evolution, text criticism of the Bible, and the various socio-political issues of the present day. The rejection of the creedal tradition by so-called "liberal" groups is surely heretical, but the evangelical reaction is heretical in that it too sheds the creedal tradition in the name of orthodoxy.

The Scandal of the Incarnation: If my historical suspicions regarding the relation between liberalism and evangelicalism are overgeneralized and possibly off-target at points, the scandalous nature of the incarnation is surely on target and unavoidable. Both sides—the liberal and the conservative—are attempts to domesticate the person of Jesus Christ, whether by turning him into a rather unusual prophet wandering around Palestine in the 1st century, or by turning him into a kind of Gnostic demigod or a Docetic theophany who takes on the form of a Jewish man as a mask which God wears on earth. The doctrine of the incarnation is scandalous because it says exactly what both sides do not want to affirm: that this man, this human person, is God. Not that this human person is close to God, or that God merely appears to be human, but that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed God in the flesh.

I will enter briefly into the dispute between potuit non peccare [able to not sin] and non potuit peccare [not able to sin], only to say that the latter is not only where most evangelicals land but is also the most liable to heresy. Obviously there are pious and well-meaning Christians on both sides of the debate, but only one question is needed to decide this debate: What kind of humanity did God assume in the incarnation? First, we know that God assumed our humanity, because only what is assumed is redeemed. Second, what is "our" humanity? It is inherently prone to sin. Thus, the humanity God assumed in Jesus is truly a humanity that is able to sin. Jesus fully entered into the matrix of sinful humanity. He descended into the abyss, though he remained the God who judges our sinful humanity, and thus was at a certain remove from our state of being since he was and is and always will be the imago Dei. But we can have no doubt about Jesus' peccability. If he were not peccable, he would not be human.

Much could and should be said about the incarnation and the person of Christ. In everything that we say, however, we must always return to the central affirmation: the triune God self-determined to be this human, this 1st century Jew and not another. Jesus is not "fully God and partially human" but "fully God and fully human." Our minds cannot comprehend this reality. We affirm according to the creeds that Jesus was entirely human, and as this human, entirely God. This is not what the Jews wanted in the 1st century, and it's not what many American evangelicals today want either. Our natural inclination is toward a messianic hero (à la Superman) or to the powerful, frightening God (à la YHWH on Mt. Sinai). But a simple Jewish man who proclaimed peace, offered love and acceptance to the poor and downtrodden, and was killed in an ignoble and grotesque fashion? This was and is and always will be scandalous. Such a God cannot be socially acceptable, but only accepted by faith alone.

Solution: Preach the Gospel that Jesus of Nazareth was human like us in every way as the sole mediator between God and humanity, as the one who assumed our humanity in order to redeem us and reconcile us to God.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:14-17)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Credo

I believe the earth
exists, and
in each minim mote
of its dust the holy
glow of thy candle.
Thou
unknown I know,
thou spirit,
giver,
lover of making, of the
wrought letter,
wrought flower,
iron, deed, dream.
Dust of the earth,
help thou my
unbelief. Drift,
gray become gold, in the beam of
vision. I believe and
interrupt my belief with
doubt. I doubt and
interrupt my doubt with belief. Be,
belovéd, threatened world.
Each minim
mote.
Not the poisonous
luminescence forced
out of its privacy,
the sacred lock of its cell
broken. No,
the ordinary glow
of common dust in ancient sunlight.
Be, that I may believe. Amen.

—Denise Levertov

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Film Review: Diary of a Country Priest (1950)

Few films, and even fewer directors, can match the depth and profound simplicity of Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest. Bresson is a master of the art, one of the great directors who was a painter turned filmmaker, and his minimalist aesthetic allows the unadorned moments of life speak with revelatory volume. In Diary, based on the book by Georges Bernanos, we follow the priest of Ambricourt through his short ministry in a difficult French parish. The priest is not idealized, and the film uses the diary motif to explore the inner life of a man struggling to minister while never being minister to himself—though he desperately needs it.

A consistent theme is the priest's own faith or lack of faith. Doubt is perhaps the temptation that plagues him. On a cold, rainy night, we see the priest look very downtrodden while his voice reads the diary entry:
I couldn't pray. I know very well that the desire to pray is already prayer, and that God couldn't ask for more. But it wasn't a question of duty. At that moment, I needed prayer like I needed air in my lungs or oxygen in my blood.
Later he writes: "God has left me. Of this I am sure." The film refuses to shy away from the difficult questions of belief and the presence of God. The fact that it does so from the context of a parish priest is all the more striking, particularly as an oblique commentary on the state of piety and religion in continental Europe.

But this is just the beginning of the film. As the priest encounters more people and grows through these various experiences, we see a true man of God develop before our eyes. Once again, not idealized but at least one full of wisdom. This is nowhere more evident than in the pivotal scene of the film. The context is too complicated to explain here, but suffice it to say that he meets with a rich woman who has an unruly daughter that comes to the priest often to complain about her parents. This woman has been depressed and locked up in her pride ever since her young son tragically died. I have transcribed her conversation with the priest, because it is full of profound wisdom and offers much for serious thought. For those who have read C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce—and that should be everyone—this scene in the film is eerily reminiscent of the episode in chapter 11 with the woman who lost her son, Michael, and wants to see him again.

Woman: Anyway, we'll be judged by our acts. What have I done wrong? ...
Priest: God will break you.
W: Break me? He has broken me already. God took my son from me. What more can He do to me? I no longer fear Him.
P: God took him away for a time, but your hardness—
W: Silence.
P: No, I will not be silent. The coldness of your heart may keep you from him forever.
W: That's blasphemy! God does not take revenge!
P: Those are mere human words, with no meaning except for you.
W: Are you saying my son might hate me?
P: You will no longer see or know each other.
W: No sin could make such a punishment just. This is madness. A sick man's dreams! ... Nothing can part us from those we have loved more than life, more than salvation itself. Love is stronger than death. Your scriptures say so.
P: We did not invent love. It has its order, its law.
W: God is its master.
P: He is not the master of love. He is love itself. If you would love, don't place yourself beyond love's reach.
W: This is insane! You speak to me as you would to a criminal. Do my husband's infidelities and my daughter's indifference and rebellion and hatred count for nothing? You might as well say it's all my fault!
P: No one knows what can come of an evil thought in the long run. Our hidden faults poison the air others breathe.
W: You'd never get through the day if you dwelt on such thoughts!
P: I believe that, madam, I believe if God gave us a clear idea of how closely we are bound to each other in good and evil, we truly could not live.
W: Pray tell, what is this hidden sin?
P: You must resign yourself. Open your heart.
W: Resign myself? To what? Am I not resigned? If I weren't, I'd be dead. Resigned? I've been too much so. I should have killed myself!
P: That's not the resignation I mean.
W: Then what? I go to Mass. I could have given up worship altogether. Indeed, I thought of it.
P: How dare you treat God like that!
W: I lived in peace, and I should have died in peace.
P: That is no longer possible.
W: God has ceased to matter to me. What will you gain by making me admit I hate Him, you fool?
P: You don't hate Him now. Now at last you are face-to-face. He and you.
[Pause. She sits down and fumbles with a picture of her son.]
W: Do you swear—
P: You can't bargain with God. You must yield to Him unconditionally. But I can assure you there isn't one kingdom for the living and one for the dead. There is only the kingdom of God, and we are within it.
W: You know what I was wondering a moment ago? Perhaps I shouldn't tell you. I was saying to myself, "If there were, in this world or the other, some place free from God, if it meant suffering a death every second, eternally, I'd carry my son to that place, and I'd say to God: 'Do Your worst and crush us!'" Is that monstrous?
P: No.
W: What do you mean, no?
P: Because I too have felt that way at times. ... Madam, if our God were the god of the pagans or philosophers, though he might take refuge in the highest heavens, our misery would drag him down. But, as you know, ours did not wait. You might shake your fist at Him, spit in His face, whip Him with rods, and finally nail Him to a cross. What would it matter? It is already done.
W: What must I say to Him?
P: Say: Thy kingdom come.
W: Thy kingdom come.
P: Thy will be done.
W: I can't. It's as if I were losing him twice over.
P: The kingdom whose coming you have just wished for is yours and his.
W: Then let that kingdom come!

It is worth bringing out the relation between this scene and the episode in The Great Divorce. In Lewis's great book, a Spirit speaks to the Ghost of the mother, saying, "You're treating God only as a means to Michael. But the whole [process of entering heaven] consists in learning to want God for His own sake. ... You exist as Michael's mother only because you first exist as God's creature." And not much later, the Spirit says, "[God] wanted you to love Michael as He understands love. You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God." Sadly, the mother says later, "No one had a right to come between me and my son. Not even God. Tell Him that to His face. I want my boy, and I mean to have him. ... I hate your religion and I hate and despise your God. I believe in a God of Love."

What the priest communicates so beautifully in Diary is that this God of Love breaks us of our own will, our desire for half-loves and half-truths, in order to bring about God's will and God's kingdom where love and truth reign, where God is "all in all." Once the woman in the film hears this, she understands that praying for God's will to be done may be painful, but it is the narrow path through which she must pass to find true freedom. That God is love is true. But "we did not invent love." It is not our love but God's love which must have the last word, and that may mean breaking us of our own perverted loves. We must relinquish control and bring to God, as the priest says elsewhere, "the miracle of our empty hands."

This film should be owned by every pastor and priest, and it should be required viewing for every seminarian. I would say Christians in general, but unfortunately most would rather not bother with an obscure French film about a pious Catholic. But they would be missing out on something deeply important: a film about grace, and not the cheap grace of most movies these days but the most costly grace of all—the grace of the cross.

At the very end of the film, it is recounted in a letter that the country priest, as he dies from cancer, asks for absolution from his friend and fellow seminarian. His friend hesitates and is not sure if he should grant the request because he left seminary and was not officially ordained, even though everything in his being tells him that he should grant absolution. I will quote the final lines of the film:
He [the priest] did not seem to hear me. But a few moments later, he laid his hands on mine while his eyes entreated me to draw closer to him. He then said, very distinctly, if extremely slowly, these exact words: "What does it matter? All is grace." I believe he died just then.
"All is grace." Indeed, that is the sum of the gospel. While this entire letter is being read at the film's close, the screen shows only a blank wall with a large cross in the middle. For the last several minutes of the film, we see only the cross, as a kind of reminder that it is there that we find grace and absolution and nowhere else. As the priest said to the distraught woman, "It is already done." Yes, it is. Amen, and amen.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Heresies of American Evangelicalism, Part II: The Doctrine of God


Part II: A less-than-fully triune God

Let me be clear about this first problem. I do not think most evangelicals, when pressed, would deny the Trinity. I would be shocked if that were the case. What I am criticizing here is the lacuna in much contemporary evangelical worship when it comes to addressing and speaking about God. The lacuna takes various forms. Many evangelicals seem to have a very limited vocabulary and speak only of "God" or "Lord," while others will speak of "Father" and "Jesus." The Jesus-is-my-boyfriend variety will often use "Abba."

What is the common link between all of these variations? In some sectors, an almost complete lack of emphasis on the Holy Spirit. To be sure, there is a great emphasis on the Spirit in missional-postmodern theologies, but this has little if any effect on evangelicals who will almost always pick up a devotional book over a theological study. Evangelicals speak of the church as the "body of Christ," but rarely will they speak of the church as the community of the Spirit. Those who do, however, tend to swing in the opposite direction. In these sectors of the American church, people will pray to the Spirit, pray for the Spirit, and speak about the guidance of the Holy Spirit. People in this camp are either pentecostal, or they are in the younger age bracket (18-30) and often attend an "emergent"-like church.

The common bond in all scenarios is thus a less-than-fully triune God, i.e., an emphasis on one or two persons of the Trinity rather than all three equally. This usually takes the form of a Father-Jesus binitarianism, in which preachers will speak about the relation between the Father and the Son, as if that exhausts the nature of God. Some churches are even worse, and are solely Jesus-centric. I grew up in this environment, and two proof-texts were always cited to justify this limited language of God: (1) Matthew 6:9-13 & parallels (the Lord's prayer, specifically, "Our Father in heaven..."), and (2) John 14:12-14, which states:
"I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it."
Combined, the two passages have convinced most evangelicals that the only proper way to pray is, "Dear Father ... in Jesus' name, Amen." If the person is creative, he or she might say, "Dear Jesus," or "Lord in heaven," or maybe "Abba, Father." While I am comfortable with people sticking with the Pater Noster, the John 14 passage and the idea that prayers must end with the name of Jesus is far too limiting. It also betrays a biblical literalism at the expense of good theology, because if Jesus Christ is part of the Godhead, we should be able to pray to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and still follow what Jesus says in the gospels.

The issue of prayer aside, I wish to address something more sinister. I sense that part of the problem is a subtle leaning toward modalistic monarchianism. This ancient heresy stressed the oneness of God to the extent that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit became modes of God's one being. They were the manifestations of God's singularity, but not individual hypostases. The point is that evangelicals by and large speak about God with two main metaphors, God as father and God as ruler or master. The former is the comforting, affirming God that is "seeker-friendly," and the latter is the commanding God that separates us from the world and demands allegiance (and often becomes the means by which some Christians enforce their personal political ideologies).

These two metaphorical extremes—father and ruler, friend and master—are not unbiblical, but they do not give a complete picture of God's nature as a being-in-communion. They, in fact, lean towards a monarchal god, in that they present God as a benevolent ruler in the sky. The attraction to monadic metaphors is obvious: they require less creativity in our worship and they are more understandable in terms of worldly, human analogies. So Christians will sometimes say to a child, "God is like the President for the whole world," or "God is like a perfect father for all people." The fact that I have met people at my old church who honestly thought God was male only goes to show that these "analogies" (horrible as they are) often only end up making God in our own image.

Solution: I am not of the persuasion that we should avoid speech about God altogether in order to keep God a total mystery and free from our mistaken metaphors. That would be an even greater mistake. Silence is not permitted by the gospel. The gospel, the "word of the cross," compels us to speech. What we need is to think, speak, and worship using language that is as trinitarian as possible—and, when it isn't cumbersome or distracting, gender-free as well.

If we are going to be truthful in our speech about God, we must insist that our imagery present God as a "communion of mutual otherness" (Jüngel), as the glorious and beautiful triune mystery which is never reducible to a divine monad nor to three individual gods. We must worship the triune Creator as a being-in-becoming, a God who is not static but is dynamically involved in the world and revealed this in the incarnation of Jesus and in the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit who is the deposit given to the church until the consummation of creation at the eschaton. We must affirm the trinitarian rule—opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa—that whatever any of the three persons does, the other two persons of the Trinity do as well. The Son suffered, and thus so did the Father and the Spirit (though not in the same way). The Spirit guides the church, and thus so does the Father and the Son (though not in the same way). The Father created the cosmos, and thus so did the Son and the Spirit (though not in the same way). When we isolate the three persons from the other two, we either wander into modalism or tritheism—both of them condemned heresies. We must hold all three together in our confession of God as Lord.

So as a way of helping the church move forward, I will quote a couple prayers written by the great German theologian, Eberhard Jüngel, that he composed to help churches use trinitarian language. These are from a translated essay, "Trinitarian Prayers for Christian Worship."
We thank you, dear heavenly Father,
That every morning your grace comes fresh and new. Today also you
quicken us with your inexhaustible power of life. Eternal God, we
sing your praise now and forever.

Lord Jesus Christ,
You are the spring that stills our thirst for life. We thank you with our
hearts and mouths and hands.

God, Holy Spirit, come,
Open our hearts, open our mouths, open our hands, that we might
magnify God's name with our thoughts, our words, and our
courageous acts, singing a new song before all the world!
You, we praise; you alone, our triune God. Amen.

Lord our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
We cry to you. See how our world has grown old! Come Holy Spirit
renew the world. And give us, too, a new and confident spirit, able t
withstand the assaults of unbelief.

Lord Jesus Christ,
You are the bright day who expels all our darkness. Come to us now
with your creative word, that we might praise you and the heavenly
Father who sent you.

Dear Father, almighty God,
Through your Son Jesus Christ, you have entrusted yourself to us.
Make us so trust you and one another that we become witnesses of
faith in this world of mistrust and suspicion, demonstrating to all how
much you love them. For this we love you, you eternal God, you
human God, you coming God. Amen.

Lord God, merciful Father,
We thank you that you alone are our judge. You make us hope and
you give us courage, for you judge us with righteousness and
compassion. Lord, have mercy upon us.

Dear Lord Jesus Christ,
We praise you, for you have allowed yourself to be judged on our
behalf. You gave yourself up to judgment out of love for us. You give
us confidence and you make us free, for your love is strong as death.
Your love frees us from our guilt and liberates us from the powers
into whose hands we have fallen Your love leads us to the Father's
side where you intercede for us and rule the world with grace and
mercy. Christ, have mercy upon us.

Come, Holy Spirit,
Speak to us, that we have ears to hear in a world hard of hearing.

Come, Holy Spirit,
Awaken us from the nightmares that oppress us.

Come, Holy Spirit,
Renew us through and through, that, in a world of violence, we
become instruments of peace and, in a time of injustice, we become
witnesses of compassion. Amen.

The Heresies of American Evangelicalism, Part I: Introduction


Part I: Introduction

I confess to being a little hard on evangelicals on this blog, but that is only because I grew up as one. To paraphrase Paul:
Are they Christians? So am I. Are they evangelicals? So am I. Are they descendents of the radical Reformation? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, argued more frequently, been ridiculed more severely, and been exposed to the ideas of Catholics, mainline Protestants, and liberal politics again and again. ... I have labored and toiled and have often gone without finishing my homework ... Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
And as Paul also states:
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from conservative American evangelicalism, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.
It is in light of my own evangelical heritage that I feel a sense of responsibility to speak prophetically against the current state of evangelicalism in America today. The word "evangelical" once meant exactly what the word means: "according to the teaching of the gospel." The German word for evangelical is what identifies Protestants, whereas "evangelical" in the United States designates a subgroup of Protestants. In fact, nowadays it designates its own subculture and a powerful voting bloc that pursues governmental control more actively with each passing day. We are a long ways from the Reformation here in America. In fact, to be more precise, we are a long ways from the gospel.

What I wish to do in this post is outline the major heresies of contemporary American evangelicalism. Many of these have been documented by other scholars and online commentators, but I have not seen all of them addressed at one time. I will address them in the following order:
  1. A less-than-fully triune doctrine of God—often modalistic or binitarian;
  2. a docetic christology;
  3. a pelagian soteriology;
  4. a docetic-dictated-propositional Bible;
  5. a gnostic eschatology;
  6. and a Constantinian doctrine of church-state relations

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Barth: God elected our rejection

For if God Himself became man, this man [Christ], what else can this mean but that He declared Himself guilty of the contradiction against Himself in which man was involved; that He submitted Himself to the law of creation by which such a contradiction could be accompanied only by loss and destruction; that He made Himself the object of the wrath and judgment to which man had brought Himself; that he took upon Himself the rejection which man had deserved; that He tasted Himself the damnation, death and hell which ought to have been the portion of fallen man? ... If we would know what it was that God elected for Himself when He elected fellowship with man, then we can answer only that He elected our rejection. He made it his own. He bore it and suffered it with all its most bitter consequences. [Barth, CD II.2, 164]

Friday, July 21, 2006

Film Review: An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

On Tuesday afternoon I went to see the new documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which is nothing more than the film version of Al Gore's now-famous lecture on global warming. The timing of this film could not be better. With the 2008 election approaching fast, conservatives will no doubt peg this film as Gore's final attempt to rejuvenate support for a potential presidential bid. Whether or not this is true—and I suspect that it is not, based on Gore's own testimonies—has no bearing on the film itself. In the final analysis, the documentary is not about Al Gore but about humanity and the world in which we currently live. An Inconvenient Truth is about us.

As a documentary that brings to life a lecture by a person most people consider to be "boring," An Inconvenient Truth is surprisingly gripping. For the average American who would prefer to be bombarded by CGI and explosions, the latest Pirates film is preferable. But for the responsible person who wishes to learn, to be provoked, to think, to ponder, and to discuss, one cannot do much better than this film. Gore's documentary will make one think in ways that rarely happen at the cinemas these days. And for those who believe that we must be stewards of the earth, I can safely say that An Inconvenient Truth is the most important film of the year.

Gore is not boring; he is convicting. His lecture is not impersonal information which has no direct bearing on our lives. Global warming as he presents it has everything to do with how we live in this world. The "inconvenient truth" is the truth about us: that we are causing radical damage to this planet, and the consequences could be apocalyptic. This is no scare tactic, not like the rhetoric we heard from President Bush when he was trying to convince us that our very well-being depended upon ousting Saddam Hussein from Iraq. Nor is this just some "liberal" ideology in a friendly package and projected on the big screen to corrupt our minds. No, the "inconvenient truth" about global warming is precisely that, a truth which we would rather not hear because it would demand a change in the way we live. The message about global warming is no longer speculation; it is fact, and we characterize it as fiction only to avoid the hard reality of altering our destructive habits. As Gore himself states repeatedly, global warming is not a political but a moral issue. The question is no longer what is true or false, but rather what is right and what is wrong.

An Inconvenient Truth is a movie that all Christians should see. I do not hesitate to state openly that this film resonates deeply with the gospel. The message of the church is that our lives are not our own; this world and its creatures are not ours to manipulate and exploit. We belong to God, and our loyalty is to the Creator of heaven and earth. Out of this arises God's call for us to live obedient lives in which we love others as ourselves. God has ordained a moral framework in which actions have consequences and choices have ramifications. But we are not the master of those consequences; God is always the Lord over us. The gospel proclaims God's abundant and overflowing grace, but at the same we hear the call to discipleship. We are called to follow the way of the cross, to die to ourselves and become "slaves to righteousness." God beckons us to follow the via crucis, but God promises in the end life everlasting.

What does this have to do with global warming? Global warming is, as the film's poster declares, a "global warning." We have exploited and marred this planet for our selfish gain, and we will reap the consequences. If the gospel and the call to discipleship cannot compel us, then perhaps science and the possibility of disaster will—though that is not likely. Al Gore may not realize it, but he is one of the few people functioning as one of our modern-day prophets. Hebrew prophets like Amos and Jeremiah were harbingers of the "day of the LORD," the impending judgment that awaits us. I do not wish to ignore the fact that Jesus Christ has taken this judgment upon himself, but we must never let the Yes of the gospel silence the No of God's judgment. And it is this No which I believe the church needs to hear today with greater clarity than ever before—a No against our flagrant rejection of stewardship and responsible living in community. Not a No apart from the Yes, but a No within the Yes. A No that declares the via crucis with greater force and prophetic power, but also a Yes that declares the resurrection of the dead and the life to come. Al Gore, however, should not be the leader of this prophetic voice; the church should be the loudest proclaimer, the most visible voice decrying the way the First World lives. Global warming, like all environmental issues, has its ground in the doctrine of creation, and thus it is most properly a concern for the church.

We are living in a very difficult time. Our world is heading toward an unknown future, and many people may die (and perhaps have died) as a result of what we have done to this planet. But even if that does not happen, we must let the "inconvenient truth" become a truth that we embrace and take seriously. The church already has the command of God declaring that our lives must be ordered by the call to discipleship. Now science declares that the world is suffering from our exploitation of its resources, and we must act now or face an inconvenient future.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Mediations


And to one God says: Come
to me by numbers and
figures; see my beauty
in the angles between
stars, in the equations
of my kingdom. Bring
your lenses to the worship
of my dimensions: far
out and far in, there
is always more of me
in proportion. And to another:
I am the bush burning
at the centre of
your existence; you must put
your knowledge off and come
to me with your mind
bare. And to this one
he says: Because of
your high stomach, the bleakness
of your emotions, I
will come to you in the simplest
things, in the body
of a man hung on a tall
tree you have converted to
timber and you shall not know me.

— R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

"Jesus Is Not a Republican"

Randall Balmer is upset, and rightfully so. He has spoken twice at Wheaton College, once in 1972 and again in 2002, and now this past month he has written an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reflecting on his relationship with evangelicalism in America. He and I are partners, along with many others, in an attempt to show evangelicals that they are scandalizing the scandal of the cross by subverting the truth and essence of Christianity. It is time the church in America opens its eyes. I urge people to take the time to read this. Hopefully Wheaton will ask him to return.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Why I Am A Universalist, §7: The Doctrine of Justification (Section III)


Section III: Sola gratia

If the exclusive Christological formula excludes our having any other mediator but Jesus Christ (or any other mediatrix), then the exclusive formula of sola gratia guarantees that everything God has done for humanity in, through and for the sake of Jesus Christ is an unconditional divine gift. (Jüngel, Justification 173)
The phrase “by grace alone” conditions the statement “Christ alone” by asserting that God’s love and mercy is not conditioned by anything external to God. The triune God alone is the unconditioned, self-determining God of all grace. Nothing humanity does or fails to do has any impact upon what God accomplishes. The formula sola gratia “clearly excludes human beings from taking an active role in their justification” (175). Any active participation on the part of human beings is excluded by God’s free and sovereign grace. The outworking of God’s love remains free from any creaturely conditions, and thus is not deterred by human sinfulness. As made clear in our discussion of the divine attributes, God’s love must be understood out of itself, out of divine self-revelation, and not out of any comparison with human love. God’s love does something sui generis; it is utterly incomprehensible and yet revealed to us in the person of Jesus. The love of God is grace, and as grace it is creative and replete with possibilities. The gracious love of God accomplishes what humankind cannot accomplish: it brings the dead to new life.
God’s love for us thus flies the banner ‘by grace alone’. A fellowship of love is by definition a fellowship of choice, except that there is an important distinction between a fellowship of love from human being to human being and one of God to human beings. Human love, amor hominis, chooses what is attractive and present. [. . .] The amor crucis, on the other hand, God’s love revealed in the cross of Jesus, discovers nothing attractive, only sin, so that God’s love first creates what is attractive by the act of love: ‘The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it’ (Luther). The love of God, the amor Dei, is directed to the unlovable and the ugly and by the act of creative love makes them lovable and beautiful. That is the difference between human fellowships of love and the loving fellowship of God and human beings which is founded on compassion. God has mercy on those who are totally unlovable. (174)
Jüngel writes at length about the nature of God’s love in God as the Mystery of the World:
Love wants to radiate. As love, it presses to move beyond the lovers themselves. … It wants to radiate out into the realm of lovelessness. … And so it does not fear lovelessness but rather drives out fear (1 John 4:18). … For love does not assert itself in any other way than through love. And that is both its strength and its weakness. Since love asserts itself only lovingly, it is highly vulnerable from the outside, but inwardly it is profoundly indestructible. It remains with its element, and it radiates in order to draw into itself. It cannot destroy what opposes it, but can only transform it. (GMW 325)

God has himself only in that he gives himself away. But, in giving himself away, he has himself. That is how he is. … God is the one and living God in that he as the loving Father gives up his beloved Son and thus turns to those others, those people who are marked by death, and draws the death of these people into his eternal life. (GMW 328)
Jüngel is thus able to extrapolate from the Johannine definition of God as love the further definition of God as the one who “unites life and death in favor of life” (GMW 326). As the self-giving God of love and grace, the triune God who created all life became vulnerable and weak in the person of Jesus Christ, taking on the likeness of sinful flesh, in order to overcome death in the death of the Son for the sake of new life for all people. As the Latin saying goes, “Mors mortis morti, mortem mors morte redemit, et Christi morte est, sic reparata salus,” which, when roughly translated, states, “The death of death by death; death redeemed death through death—through the death of Christ—and thus life has been restored.” The point is that God’s loving grace is such that it indeed overcomes opposition, but it is not omnipotent in the sense of absolute power. Rather, the love and grace of God is the one place where we find power and weakness existing together in a dialectical unity. Only as divine love can God’s cruciform weakness have the power to transform lovelessness. Only because God is the “union of death and life for the sake of life” (GMW 299) can God make what is ugly and unlovable truly lovable and beautiful. Only because God is Love can the expression of love in the cross lead to the victory of love in the resurrection.

Because God is the triune God of all grace, however, we as sinful human beings are excluded from having any “active participation” in our justification. If justification occurs solely by God’s grace, then “sinners simply can do nothing for their own justification” (179). As Jüngel states clearly, “We ourselves can contribute nothing towards our fellowship with God, absolutely nothing. We can only receive. We are in fact involved in our justification in a merely passive way” (181). We are brought into an ontological participation with God, but it is one in which we are taken outside ourselves (extra nos) and made to conform to the image of God embodied in Jesus Christ (conformitas Christi). We have no role to play in making ourselves beautiful; we cannot make ourselves more lovable before God. We must all find ourselves by going out of ourselves, by finding our identity in the person of Jesus, first at the foot of the cross and only then at the empty tomb.

Once we recognize and affirm that justification is by grace alone, that we can do nothing to alter the reality of sin and nothingness that encompasses our lives, only then will we recognize that God has determined to be our God and for us to be the people of God. In other words, when we are extra nos, faith then recognizes Deus pro nobis (God for us) as well as Deus in nobis (God in us). “God is only near to us in that he distances us from ourselves. … When we, in listening to his word, are outside of ourselves, then God is already there for us” (GMW 183). Those who were once marked by death are by the grace of God now drawn into eternal life. The mystery of the gospel is that the mors mortis—the death of death—has already occurred. The reign of sin and death has already been defeated. What we must proclaim now is not that our good works do nothing to save us, but that our good works have already been nullified by the glorious grace of God who came to this world to draw those “who are marked by death” into new life with God. We are all excluded for the sake of being included.

This is the meaning of Immanuel: God is not just with some, but rather God is with all and for all as Love, as the God who did not spare his only Son but came to the world to become both our sin and our death for the sake of a new and glorious life with God for all eternity.

Academic Purgatory

In a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor going by the pseudonym of Thomas H. Benton wrote an essay about the reality one faces in attempting to do graduate work in a subject such as English literature. His essay brings to light all of the complex feelings, thoughts, and emotions which clouded my own mind in trying to discern whether to pursue English or theology for my Ph.D work. A year into my seminary education, I still have mixed feelings. I deeply miss the world of literature. I yearn to read and write poetry, to discuss Bakhtin and Dostoevsky, to ponder post-structural literary criticism, to perform works of Shakespeare on a Sunday afternoon (or in Hay-on-Wye, as the case was in 2003). It's not just nostalgia; it's a physical pain, a sense of emptiness where the inscape of Hopkins and the fragmentation of "The Waste Land" once resided. I can only hope and pray that someday I will recover a taste of what I have lost. And hopefully my own graduate work will never extinguish the love for literature that brought me here in the first place.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Help the Hiestands Adopt

My friend and pastor, Todd Hiestand, and his wife, Melanie, are adopting a child from Guatemala whom they hope to bring home early next year. They have some major financial hurdles ahead, and if you would like to contribute to their attempt to live out James 1:27, you can read Todd's thoughts on the adoption and donate your contributions here. If you would like to follow them on their adoption journey, read more here. At the very least, I know they would deeply appreciate your prayerful support. Adoption is a beautiful and deeply communal act; through adoption people are brought together from different parts of the world. Adoption affirms the life of a child that would otherwise go unloved and uncared for. Adoption affirms the intrinsic worth of a human which, in a society that demands performance and success, offers the world nothing except its naked, needy self. Adoption bestows this unwanted child with the gift of being wanted, the gift of recognition by others without which the child would lose all identity. Adoption is most beautifully summed up in the act of naming, when an otherwise anonymous child is now affirmed, recognized, welcomed, and loved.

Film Reviews & Recommendations

This post will be updated regularly whenever I write a recommendation or review for a film. I have arranged them chronologically, with the most recent review at the top. If there is a film you would like to see reviewed, please let me know in the comments.

Apocalypto (2006)
Babel (2006)
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Diary of a Country Priest (1950)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
Magnolia (1999)
Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Snakes on a Plane (2006)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thank You For Smoking (2006)
V for Vendetta (2006)

Foreign film summary reviews:
  • A Very Long Engagement (2004)
  • Born into Brothels (2004)
  • Fanny & Alexander (1982)
  • The Battle of Algiers (1965)

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Art, Society, and the Christian Church: Part I


Part I: An introduction and a warning


This blog has been far too silent on matters of art and aesthetics. Art is a long-time passion of mine. For most of my life, writing and reading poetry have been my primary pasttimes. I majored in English literature as an undergrad, have played a few different instruments and continue to play music for church today, and am involved in integrating film and theology within the church. So I would like to start a series on art that is simply an attempt to allow for dialogue on the subject of art in society and the church. I do not have a running thesis, except the conviction that Christianity has a stake in the arts which must be cultivated. Along the way I will criticize a number of popular Christian attempts to value art, such as the analogy between God as Creator and human as creator. If the church is going to embrace art, as it should, it must do so thoughtfully and critically. Hanging paintings on walls and showing the occasional icon does not solve the problem. In addition to these essays, I will publish poems by poets such as T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, R.S. Thomas, Czeslaw Milosz, Denise Levertov, and others, as a way of provoking our discussion through interaction with important works of literature. (I only wish music and movies could be posted with such ease.)

In this first post, I want to remind us of what Christianity must work against. There is no better example currently than North Korea. Kim Jong-Il has shaped North Korea into the nation-state equivalent of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village." Their country is closed off to the rest of the world, entirely inaccessible except for special designated places, most notably the Mount Kumgang national park with the usual high security and utter isolation. The Orwellian vision is realized not only in its totalitarian government, but also in Kim Jong-Il's policies regarding art. In the article I linked to, Jane Portal writes:
The subjects originally required by Juche art were limited to such themes as: portraying the General, the relationship of the military and the people, the construction of socialism, National Pride and such like. However, in the 1970s landscape was also approved, when Kim Jong-il instructed: "The idea of describing Nature in a socialist country is to promote patriotism, heighten the national pride and confidence of the public in living in a socialist country." The result has been a huge increase in the production of oil paintings of natural scenes. ... Abstract or conceptual art is forbidden and the subjects and themes of works of art are limited. ...

In fact, there is no uncertainty at all expressed in North Korean contemporary art, no individual hopes or expressions, no mystery. As Kim Jong-il said: "A picture must be painted in such a way that the viewer can understand its meaning. If the people who see a picture cannot grasp its meaning, no matter what a talented artist may have painted it, they cannot say it is a good picture."
The example of North Korea should serve as a warning to the church. Clearly, no church is a totalitarian dictatorship, but Christians have been prone to viewing art with suspicion—and for good reason. If a religion feels the need to impose limits and enforce a certain kind of orthodoxy, free expressions of otherness in novels, music, and paintings are often curtailed in order to maintain a particular cultural framework of thought and action. A suspicion towards art extends at least as far back to the age of Plato, in whose Republic the poets are presented as those who disturb the life of the ideal republic because they give passion too prominent a place in society (i.e., in the human heart). Much of contemporary evangelicalism is neo-Platonic in this regard, in its concern that art threatens the morality of a society by validating lifestyles and ideas presented in books and movies. And now North Korea is simply applying its own ideology to the realm of culture, not unlike the Cultural Revolution in China.

Art is suspicious, because it gives difference and otherness a fair hearing. Art explores the diversity of life by challenging our assumptions and opening up iconic windows into the experiences of others. Art is not just about mystery; it is mystery. Art plumbs the depths of being by refusing to censor reality. Art reveals, uncovers, parades, celebrates, criticizes, proclaims, and enjoys. This carnival of life cannot occur, however, in a society that enforces homogeneity, or in a church that suppresses diversity.

The numerous examples of banned books reveals part of our human nature: to suppress what is unlike us, what we disagree with, what seems unnatural or different or unacceptable. We wish to shield ourselves from what displeases or challenges us to think and act differently. This can occur in small ways, like the refusal to read a book by a certain author or on a certain subject. Or it can occur in large ways, such as in the creation of suburbs so that middle class people could avoid the interaction with racially and economically different communities. The problem people have with art is indicative of the larger societal issue: the problem people have with difference and otherness. Art forces us to grapple with realities outside of our individual experiences.

North Korean authorities want art to function as didactic tools to propagate their patriotic ideology. Many people in the church over the centuries have wanted to make art function in the same way, as tools for teaching morality or doctrine. The overarching assumption is that art is only safe when it teaches what we think is right. As one of my literature professors and published poet said to me, "Most Christians only want to read poems that are black and white. They want the poem to be clear and obvious. Most Christians cannot deal with ambiguity." Kim Jong-Il cannot handle ambiguity either. Why? Because ambiguity does not teach; it provokes. Ambiguity threatens to unravel the careful walls we erect to keep ourselves, our families, our churches, etc. "safe" from alternative ideas and beliefs. Hence the wide rejection among Christians of modern art.

Future posts in this series will address the subject of art from a variety of perspectives. I have much more to say on the subject of ambiguity, didacticism, and the role of art. For now, let North Korea stand as a warning to us. The church need not mimic a totalitarian state that enforces strict views among its citizens. The church has another model: it's own past. The iconic tradition, still embodied in the Orthodox church and in many Catholic and Anglican churches, should be reclaimed. But it is not enough for "emergent"-type churches to imitate the liturgical tradition. Art is not hip, cool, or postmodern. Art must remain mysterious, provocative, and disturbing. If we domesticate art, we become totalitarian all over again.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Anti-American Superman?

I receive the email updates from Books & Culture, a publication of cultural reviews by the evangelical magazine, Christianity Today. (B&C caters to the more high-brow audience within evangelicalism.) Keeping up on evangelical America is an important task which keeps me from thinking all Christians are just like me (a scary thought!). I may disagree with most of what CT's readership thinks theologically, but I was born in that environment and so I owe that tradition my time and energy, even if I spend that time and energy trying to "convert" them.

On the Sunday after viewing Superman Returns, I was approached my someone at my church who asked me, "Was Superman as un-American as they say?" I did not know how to respond. I thought Superman was as American as ever. He still wore red and blue, and he still saved the United States from the evil plots of Lex Luthor. So what was this un-American nonsense? Well, apparently, this guy was in the know among conservatives. Check out the Books & Culture article, which offers a pretty good synopsis of the sentiments among American conservatives (and a decent response). These sentiments include a plea to boycott the film, the declaration that "Superman Returns" is anti-American (by none other than FOX News), and the claim that Superman would be more revelant if he were fighting al Qaeda "Islamofascists" (that's a quote).

Jeremy Lott of B&C did an OK job of refuting these wild and ridiculous claims—and in the case of Debbie Schlussel, offensive, too. But Lott only showed that "Superman Returns" actually is American at heart despite the criticisms. My question is this: Who the hell cares if Superman fights for America? Why is that the basis for whether or not the movie fulfills expectations?

I am just so disturbed after reading these conservative columns. The basic assumption running through the whining of Coulter, Savage, Limbaugh, Schlussel, et al., is that the United States of America is the greatest nation on earth and worth "defending" even if that means wiping off all the other countries from the planet. (The notion of "defense" is a rather ambiguous one, made plain in the War on Iraq and even now in the Israel-Lebanon affair.) Who coined the phrase "truth, justice, and the American way"? That person deserves to be reprimanded for associating truth and justice with a nation (and administration) that subverts such ideals on a daily basis. We live in a scary time, when conservatives have basically made the USA their god, and liberals react against the conservatives by pushing their agendas to the exclusion of careful thought. And all along evangelicals toe the conservative line, lulled into the lie that Bush represents them because he "prays."

Indeed, we should fight for truth and justice, but that would entail fighting for environmental reforms, social programs to care for addicts and the homeless, international aid to places in the Third World, and a whole slew of other issues that need to be addressed. Of course, these are the very issues that this administration and conservatives in general avoid. It is a shame that these pundits wish to conform a superhero figure to their ideological platform. And it's an even greater shame that most Christians in America agree with them.

In other news: Just what we've always needed, a book showing us how the NY Times "subtly promotes a worldview that runs counter to the beliefs of many Americans," by which he means Red-State conservatives who think patriotism, morality, and Christianity are synonyms. Where do these people come from and who supports them?

I will keep saying it until I have no more reason to: Evangelicals are propagating more heresies today than in any other era of the church. These include a Pelagian doctrine of salvation, a unitarian doctrine of God, a docetic christology and Bible, a gnostic doctrine of eschatology, and a Constantinian doctrine of church-state relations—which, by the way, was what led the German church to support Hitler. Do I really need to unpack these in more detail? I am afraid that I will have to, since I doubt most realize how much the American evangelical sector has capitulated to these grave heresies and called it "a personal relationship with Jesus."

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Why I Am A Universalist, §7: The Doctrine of Justification (Section II)


Section II: Solus Christus


The affirmation that Christ alone is our justification begins by identifying the Second Person of the Trinity with the man Jesus, apart from which we can have no guarantee of our salvation. The central text is John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (cf. Acts 4:12, 1 Cor. 3:11, Eph. 2:20). By affirming the uniqueness and exclusiveness of Jesus Christ, we state that in him alone we find new life for the world. No one else can serve as a savior alongside the Son of God; only Jesus is capable of fulfilling this role. By confessing that Jesus alone is Lord and Savior, we confess that we play no role in accomplishing our salvation. We confess that God finished this work in the life, death, and resurrection of the one mediator between God and humanity.
Faith in Jesus Christ implies that only he can stand and has stood in the place of all people. Only he and he alone! But this one alone takes the place of all others and so represents all others. That is the inclusiveness, which is the goal of Jesus’ exclusiveness. Both are fundamentally linked to each other in the concept of substitution. This concept links the element of Jesus’ exclusiveness to that of inclusiveness. It says that this one single person died for all (2 Cor. 5:14f). Therefore in him all are made alive (1 Cor. 15:22). Thus the aim of confessing the exclusiveness of Christ is to decide the status of all people. In him alone all people are included. His exclusiveness consists in the universal inclusion of all people. (Jüngel 150-51)
The statement “Christ alone” takes us back to “God alone,” apart from which we might be misled into thinking that Jesus’ life and death is simply a moral example and not a salvific, substitutionary, sacrificial death on behalf of the world. Jesus Christ—as true God and true human, as the Creator who enters the creation—is alone capable of atoning for the sins of the world, because in him alone both the God who judges and the people who are judged are present. The statement “Christ alone” states “that in Jesus Christ alone, none other than God himself has come into the world and that therefore in this one person the salvation of all people is determined” (153).

The death of Jesus is God’s offering of Godself for the world in order to bring shalom to a broken creation. The cross is the eschatological event that establishes the covenantal foundation for the new heavens and new earth. God's self-offering brings life and freedom to those who once existed in bondage to sin and death: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (Jn. 10:10; cf 1 Jn. 5:20). Just as the sins of Israel were transferred to the animals sacrificed to God in order to restore relations between God and the covenant community, so too our sins—in fact, our very persons—are assumed by Jesus so that his death is our death and his new life brings new life to all people. In both situations, Israelite offerings and God’s self-offering in Jesus Christ, it is never human beings who effect the atoning work. God alone acts to reconcile sinful human beings with the Holy One of Israel. And nowhere is this more pronounced than in the “word of the cross,” in which we hear the astounding news that God became the sacrifice. In Jesus, God took on the very being of sinful humanity in order to atone for sin and establish new relations between Creator and creation.
It is not God who is conciliated [in the sacrificial offering of an animal], but God who reconciles the world. Sinful human beings do not atone for themselves; the Holy God removes the sin from sinful human beings. (159)

Since the eternal God has identified himself with this human being, since Jesus Christ the human being is the Son of God, for that reason the whole of humanity is integrated in his humanness. Thus we are all present in the One, so that it is true to say: ‘One has died for all; therefore all have died’ (2 Cor. 5:14; cf. Rom. 5:12-21). […] Not only was God shown as reconciling the world in him, but this reconciliation was accomplished in him. This did not come about by a replacement, but, if we may use this term, by the ontologically appropriate substitution. Therefore he is the epitome of the perfect sacrifice, sacrificed once and for all. There is no meaningful sacrifice that can follow. (161-62)
“Christ alone,” as “God alone,” means that Jesus Christ does not simply show us how much God loves us but actually accomplishes God’s purposes for the world. Our justification is not only revealed in Christ, but it is realized in him. He takes upon himself our very being in order to judge and kill our sinful natures and establish in himself a new humanity for all people. In Christ alone, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ … that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:17-19).

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

"What happens after death?"

The always profound and poignant Kim Fabricius has posted a hymn on Connexions that he wrote. I will quote it here in full, as it pertains to my series on universalism. Sometimes poetry says in a few words what theology tries to convey in a thousand. Thanks, Kim!

What happens after death?
Will humans live again?
Is nothingness the destiny
that marks our final end?

Does heaven lie above?
Is hell a pit of fire?
Do all get just what they deserve
or what their hearts desire?

What happens after death?
Of course we live again!
From nothingness God spoke his word
of life - and life’s our end.

Yes, heaven is a place,
but not a place above,
it’s found in God’s geography,
located in his love.

And, yes, there is a hell,
a state of black despair,
but Christ assumes what we deserve,
so not a soul is there.

Our hope is Christ alone,
divine humanity,
who lived and died and lives again
for all eternity.

(Tune: e.g. Gildas)

Kim Fabricius

Why I Am A Universalist, §7: The Doctrine of Justification (Section I)


Section I: Introduction to the doctrine of justification


The doctrine of justification, made prominent in the theology of Martin Luther, is in many respects the “heart of the Christian faith” (Jüngel, Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith). Justification is the hermeneutical category through which we grasp the significance of Jesus Christ and the meaning of the Christian gospel. Jesus apart from justification can be interpreted in any number of ways. There is a lot of textual support from the sayings of Jesus in the gospel accounts for a version of Christianity as a purely moral religion—i.e., how we live our lives, whether for good or evil, determines whether we are accepted by God or not. A strong case could be made, divorced of course from the rest of the New Testament, that Jesus brings to the world a message of how to live one’s life in a holy and righteous way. We see this, for example, in the Mormon church. Any interpretation of Jesus along these lines is an interpretation devoid of justification, because justification asserts that Jesus, the Christ of God, came to make righteous those who were otherwise unrighteous and would remain so regardless of how well they lived their lives before God. Justification is the negation of our human efforts at pleasing God for the sake of a greater affirmation brought about by the Son of God incarnate, who lived, died, and rose again for our justification.

I follow Eberhard Jüngel in qualifying the doctrine of justification with the four Reformation particles: Christ alone (solus Christus), by grace alone (sola gratia), by the word alone (solo verbo), and by faith alone (sola fide). As Jüngel points out, the sum effect of these four phrases is the single assertion: solus deus—God alone. “Humans are indeed excluded with the aim of properly including them in their justification” (Jüngel 148). What I will do next is provide a brief overview of justification according to each of the particles while giving extra attention to justification and its relation to faith.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Recent Music

I have added a box listing the tracks that I last listened to on iTunes, courtesy of Last.fm. I would like to invite people to leave their questions and comments here. This post will be available as a link beneath the "Recent Tracks" box. Happy listening!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

One amazing year (and counting)

Today marks the first anniversary of my marriage with Amy. It's been an incredible 12 months: moving across country, working at a Korean church, Amy getting a job at Starbucks, studying for my first seminary courses, finding a new church community at the Well, making new friends, Amy becoming a teacher, establishing a new home, preparing for the future. This has been the busiest and most difficult time in my life, but also the happiest and most exciting. I look forward to many more years with my wonderful, beautiful wife.

Currently Listening & Reading: July, 2006

Currently listening to:
* In the running for the top 10 albums of the year.

Currently reading: