Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Spirit of the Lord, §10.3: Political Pacifism

Third, the vision of the New Jerusalem is politically pacifist. The term “politically pacifist” combines two ideas—political and pacifist. Each one is worthy of discussion in its own right, but in the passage from Micah, the two terms cannot be dissociated. The passage is political precisely in that it is a vision of peace. Peace is portrayed in fundamentally political terms—“nation shall not lift up sword against nation”—so that it becomes impossible to discuss the political nature of Micah’s vision without also discussing its radical vision of peace and justice. To place a wedge between the two ideas would be to distort the text. Peace throughout Scripture is a sociopolitical reality which has dramatic ramifications for everyday human life. No aspect of our creaturely existence is untouched by the reign of peace.

That said, Micah boldly proclaims a politically charged vision of a community of peace (communio pacis). The eschatological New Jerusalem will not be an inner kingdom of the soul but a sociopolitical kingdom of reconciliation in which the many nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Mic. 4:3). Micah presents the vision of a new world in which the bellicose become pastoral, in which weapons become agricultural instruments, and in which Armageddon becomes Arcadia. It is a vision of the impossible possibility that war shall be no more, that nation shall not lift up sword against nation, that no one shall learn the way of violence (via violentiae) any longer but instead learn the way of peace (via pacis). It is a vision which fundamentally alters the horizon of reality, which subverts the actual in favor of the possible, which transforms the very contours of a creation enslaved to violence, a creation in bondage to being incurvatus in se. It is a vision anticipating the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer: “your kingdom come; your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10; Lk. 11:2b). To paraphrase Gal. 6:15, according to Micah’s prophecy, neither war-making nor agriculture is anything; what matters is a new creation.

In the statements above, I should really say that the creation is only seemingly in bondage, because the event of Jesus Christ is the true cosmic reality which definitely liberated creation from its enslavement through his death and resurrection. At the eschaton, the bondage of creation will be revealed as the nothingness that it actually is, and God will be “all in all.” However, here and now, such bondage to sin and death is a palpable reality which enshrouds our lives in shadow, even though we know the Light has already come in Jesus Christ. For now, however, we await the day of the Lord when this Light will shine in fullness of glory, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11).

The reign of God is a reign of peace. The messianic prophecies proclaim peace as the mark of Christ’s reign. Isaiah not only declares that the messiah, the promised child, is the Prince of Peace, but just prior to this announcement the prophet proclaims: “For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire” (Isa. 9:5). The righteous reign of the messianic king will result in the annihilation of all instruments of warfare. As a result of his reign, “there shall be endless peace” (Isa. 9:7); in the presence of Christ, the very possibility of one nation rising up against another will be definitively destroyed. The Deus pacis declares a clear No to any human attempt to say No to a fellow human; God’s definitive No renders the No of one human against another utterly obsolete. God’s No is also for all the nations. The messiah not only demilitarizes the enemies of Israel; rather, all people are stripped of their weapons. No one is exempt from the divine judgment against violence.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech. 9:10)
God’s No is, of course, entirely in service to God’s Yes. The judgment against violence and warfare serves the establishment of human solidarity in peace. God denies the use of swords and battle bows—not to mention the use of machine guns, ballistic missiles, and the latest Future Force Warrior systems—in order that humans might serve their neighbors instead of subjugate them and love their neighbors instead of ignore them. God says No to the oppressive domination of nation against nation and neighbor against neighbor, and Yes to the universal liberating domination of the messiah who “shall command peace to the nations” and whose “dominion shall be from sea to sea.” God says No to human enslavement to the powers of death and Yes to human liberation for life in correspondence to the Word. God says No to homo incurvatus in se and Yes to homo extra se: No to humanity curved in upon itself and Yes to humanity outside itself. Humanity curved in upon itself is a humanity content with denying life and love to others; only humanity outside itself is capable of serving the other as Christ served us by taking the form of a servant and submitting to a violent death on a cross for the sake of a world lost in a maelstrom of violence.

The heart of the pacifist vision of the prophets is the covenant of grace. The prophet Zechariah follows the proclamation of God’s righteous and peaceful reign “from sea to sea” with the important declaration: “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double” (Zech. 9:11-12). The Lord liberates on the basis of the covenant. The deliverance of the captives which we find in Isa. 61 is here rooted in the covenantal relation between God and the people of God. As a result of the covenant of grace established and maintained by the Lord, those who are presently imprisoned are paradoxically called “prisoners of hope.” A true “theology of hope” thus depends on a robust theology of the covenant: eschatological hope is covenantal hope, eschatological peace is covenantal peace.

The path of peace remains an impossibility. We cannot forget this. We cannot forget that no amount of ethical striving and political manipulation will make such peace a human possibility. There is no way from ‘here’ to ‘there,’ so to speak. But because it is the Lord alone who judges between nations, such peace is indeed an impossible possibility. Micah is quite clear: the Lord God “shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away” (Mic. 4:3). Micah’s vision is no social program or political platform that only awaits the human will to implement it. On the contrary, it is an eschatological vision, which is to say, it is a vision of divine possibilities. Micah speaks not of what humanity can accomplish through its own resources, but rather of what God alone can accomplish as the Judge and Arbiter between peoples. God alone is the source, preserver, and finisher of peace. The God who liberated Israel from bondage is the Deus pacis, and only as the community shaped by God’s covenant of grace can humanity flourish as the communio pacis. Only because we are judged by the Lord is true justice possible. Only because we are liberated by the Lord is true freedom possible. Only in light of the reconciliation accomplished by the Lord is there a message of reconciliation for all peoples and life everlasting in the eternal kingdom of Christ.

The epistle of Jude makes a striking connection between Israel’s liberation from Egyptian oppression and the person of Jesus Christ. In Jd. 5, the author writes: “Now I desire to remind you, though you are fully informed, that the Lord, who once for all saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.” Here Jude explicitly says that the Lord is the one who delivered Israel from the hands of Pharaoh. That “Lord” refers specifically to Jesus Christ is made clear in the previous verse, in which Jude denounces the false teachers (“intruders”) who have “stolen in among you . . . and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (v. 4). (Not to mention the fact that a number of ancient authorities replace “Lord” with “Jesus” in v. 5.) In these two verses we thus have a brief glimpse of an early christology, which confesses Jesus Christ himself as the one who freed Israel from slavery. Like Paul, Jude affirms Christ’s preexistence, but whereas Paul speaks of Christ’s activity primarily in terms of election (Eph. 1:4-5) and creation (Col. 1:15-16), Jude goes a step further and establishes Christ’s involvement in the events narrated in the Old Testament. Christ is not only involved in pre-temporal eternity or in the origins of creation; he is also the active agent throughout salvation history. Jesus Christ, the one who definitively liberated humanity in his death and resurrection, is also the one who liberated Israel as a proleptic realization of what he would later accomplish on the cross. On the basis of this christological insight, we can supplement the exclusionist reading of the exodus put forward by Jude with a more christocentric account of divine reconciliation. While Jude is correct to point out that Christ is the one who liberates—in the past events of exodus and crucifixion, in the present event of the word proclaimed, and in the future events of redemption and glorification—we must remember that Christ’s saving work encompasses even those who were “destroyed” in the event of Israel’s deliverance. Jude denounces the “intruders” as the “ungodly” (vv. 4, 15), but we must confess along with Paul that “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6).

Thursday, June 28, 2007

2007 Karl Barth Conference Recap

The second annual 2007 Karl Barth Conference finished yesterday here at Princeton Seminary. The title of the conference was “Karl Barth and American Evangelicals: Friends or Foes?” There were excellent papers by some of the top evangelical and Barthian scholars in the world. In lieu of a thorough summary of each paper, I will simply identify the best papers.

Best Paper: Keith Johnson, “The Being and Act of the Church: Barth and the Future of Evangelical Ecclesiology”

Keith Johnson’s paper got everything right: it was a thorough engagement with Barth’s ecclesiology (focusing on the concursus dei) that addressed a contemporary problem (Francis Beckwith’s conversion) in light of a recent critique of Barth (Reinhard Hütter). Johnson succeeded in showing why Hütter’s critique misfires and why Beckwith’s reasons for conversion to Catholicism indicate the failure of evangelicalism to develop a robust ecclesiology. Johnson shows that Barth’s theology of the being and action of the church, rooted in the relation between divine and human action, refutes Hütter’s criticisms and undermines Beckwith’s reasons for leaving Protestantism.

Most Ambitious Paper: John Hare, “Kant, Barth, and the Predisposition to Good”

John Hare shot for the moon and hit the target! Barth’s appropriation of Kant’s philosophy is well known, but until this paper, I had never heard a detailed examination of Kant’s philosophy in connection with an examination of Barth’s reading of Kant. Hare began by examining the criticisms that Cornelius Van Til leveled against Barth in terms of his reliance upon Kant. Hare proceeded to offer a rigorous interpretation of Kant showing how Van Til’s criticisms of Kant were entirely off the mark. Then Hare analyzed Barth’s own reading of Kant in Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century and demonstrated that Barth criticized Kant for the very same reasons that Van Til criticized him. Barth and Van Til, according to Hare, were actually allies in their opposition to Kant, not enemies. The problem, he went on to say, is that they were both wrong about Kant! In the end, Barth’s limited Yes to Kant in this essay anticipated the new interpretations of Kant that have recently recognized how favorable Kant’s philosophy actually is to theology. Hare thus concluded by praising Barth for understanding Kant better than anyone else of his time, but he stressed that Kant was a better theologians than either Barth or Van Til gave him credit for being.

Most Helpful Paper: Kimlyn Bender, “
The Church in Karl Barth and Evangelicalism – Conversations across the Aisle”

Kimlyn Bender presented the most accessible and helpful paper at the whole conference. He was the only one to offer a succinct description of American evangelicalism, and it was probably the best I have ever heard or read. He then proceeded to identify the central features of Barth’s ecclesiology in terms of where Barth would critique evangelicals, where Barth might contribute to evangelical understandings of the church, and where Barth is in agreement with evangelicals. His paper was beautifully
organized and very well presented. If I had to recommend one paper to a general audience, it would be this one.

Most Promising Paper: Bruce L. McCormack,
“That He May Have Mercy Upon All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism”

McCormack’s paper is the most promising for a few different reasons: (1) he did not have a chance to read it all because of its length, so it will likely be a much better paper in print; (2) a large majority of the paper was devoted to his own constructive exegesis of Paul rather than exegesis of Barth, in which he explained how Paul’s own letters have a clear universalistic horizon that classical theologies (whether Reformed or Arminian) generally silence; and (3) his paper had one of the more interesting theses. His thesis had a few different levels: first, the Bible is much more universalistic than past Christians have been willing to acknowledge; second, the tension within Scripture is a divinely ordained tension that must be maintained in church dogma (thus churches go too far if they present limited atonement or universalism—the only real options—as dogma); and third, theologians who seek to explicate the doctrines of the faith in a more logical way should be allowed to smooth out some of these edges in a direction that favors universalism. He spent the most time arguing for the first part of his thesis. In the second part, he explained that the tension is divinely ordained because we are sinful humans. If the Bible definitely told us that all would be saved, we would fall into complacency; and if the Bible definitely told us that only some would be saved, we would fall into despair. Instead, the biblical witness presents an eschatological vision that has a clear universal horizon but refuses to determine the end of the story for us in advance of Christ’s return. For now, we must live within the biblical tension while allowing universalism to be a real theological option that actually makes better sense of Scripture than the alternatives. In the long run, I think this paper may prove to be the most important, but McCormack gave it in an incipient form that awaits further expansion and development.

Most Exciting Paper
: Kevin Hector, “
Ontological Violence and the Covenant of Grace: An Engagement between Karl Barth and Radical Orthodoxy”

Kevin Hector went for the jugular in his criticism of R.O., and it proved to be a theological tour de force. His paper had two parts: the first explored the problem of R.O.’s ontology and the second demonstrated how Barth’s covenant ontology accomplishes what R.O. seeks to do without committing any of the problems that R.O. inevitably does. According to Hector, R.O. seeks to ground ontological peace in the particularity of the Christian account of the world, specifically in the triune being of God as the source of a non-totalizing, non-nihilistic, original peace. Any reality or narrative not directly grounded in this explicitly Christian account is considered totalizing and nihilistic. R.O. holds three main views, according to Hector: (1) Christianity alone overcomes violence; (2) there is no grace not mediated by the church, nothing good outside of a direct reference to the Christian gospel; and (3) the church must universalize its narrative and thus out-narrate all competing narratives. As a result of these views, in its pursuit of ontological peace, R.O. ends up committing great violence to all competing narratives. Hector identifies a common pattern in R.O.: (a) identify a competing narrative, (b) assert the nihilism inherent in this competing view, and (c) bring in Christian neo-Platonism to save the day. R.O. thus consistently reduces all other views to the category of non-being; it is an inherently violent theological framework that disaffirms all competitors, reducing otherness to sameness, and removes difference in order to pursue peace. R.O. ends up becoming the totalizing force which it disparages. Hector thus argues that R.O. must either (i) abandon its violent approach to otherness, or (ii) abandon its claim to harmony. Against R.O., Hector argues that Barth provides a covenant ontology which (1) avoids the abstraction which forms the basis for R.O.’s ontological violence, and (2) harmonizes difference in a non-totalizing way, thus fulfilling what R.O. intends to accomplish but fails to in the end due to a flawed ontology. Barth posits a created sphere in which there is no secular space abandoned by God, no realm not graced by Christ. For Barth, unlike for R.O., we cannot assume that non-Christian narratives are not in some way referred to God. We cannot assume that alternative stories are by definition nihilistic. One’s action need not explicitly reference the triune God in order to be “good,” and even those actions and views that oppose God are themselves harmonized by the reconciling covenant of grace. In the end, while R.O. approaches difference with an a priori rejection of what opposes the Christian narrative, Barth’s covenant ontology approaches difference in the light of the covenant established by Jesus Christ.

Most Polemical Paper
: George Hunsinger, “Trinity and Election: Twelve Theses”


Hunsinger was unable to put together a paper for this conference (apparently because he was sick), so instead he offered his first public refutation of McCormack’s position on Trinity and election—a debate that has raged between McCormack, Molnar, Hector, Van Driel, and now Hunsinger. These theses were helpful in moving the debate forward somewhat, but they also highlighted where McCormack fundamentally disagrees with Hunsinger regarding Barth. These theses will supposedly appear in SJT next year along with a response from McCormack. I will refrain from comment until that time.

Most Disappointing Paper: Michael Horton, “
Does the Covenant Have a History? The Logos Asarkos in Karl Barth’s Christology”

I was expecting much more from Michael Horton. I knew he was going to be very critical of Barth, as an advocate for an infralapsarian double-predestination Reformed orthodoxy. But the paper came off as a rather inchoate attempt to understand Barth rather than a careful engagement with Barth’s theology. Horton’s basic criticism is that Barth’s theology collapses various realities into a singularity—time and eternity, election and reprobation, etc.—and thus fails to respect proper distinctions in theology. Horton’s paper was not very coherent, and he failed to provide a clear understanding of what Barth or evangelicals mean by the covenant or the Logos asarkos. Instead, he talked about these terms as if they were already defined on both sides and thus proceeded to discuss where he thinks Barth went wrong. During and after his talk, Horton made it very clear that he did not know if his reading of Barth was accurate, and afterwards McCormack and Hunsinger explained some areas where Horton was confused. I respect Horton a great deal as a theological thinker, and in light of his own work on covenant and Christology, I really expected much more from this paper. I certainly hope that the published version will be a substantial improvement in light of further dialogue with others on his paper.

Most Conspicuously Absent Paper: “The Word of God Is Living and Active: Toward a Renewed Understanding between Barth and Evangelicals on Inerrancy and the Threefold Word of God”

Surprisingly, at a conference on Barth and American evangelicals, there was no session or paper on the conflict between the two sides on the doctrine of Holy Scripture. The historical conflict arose in D. G. Hart’s paper, but there was no dogmatic attention to the question in light of Barth’s theology and the recent developments within evangelicalism on Scripture. The paper title above is just one of many that could have been given and probably should be given at some point. Perhaps the conference organizers avoided the topic in light of last year’s conference on reading Scripture with Karl Barth, in which the presenters examined how Barth views and exegetes the Bible. Even so, the omission of a paper comparing Barth and evangelicals on the Bible is a major gap in an otherwise superb conference.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Psalm 15: divine immutability reconsidered

The psalm in today’s lectionary reading is from Psalm 15, and while I was reading it I was struck by the resource it offers in understanding divine immutability. Here is the passage with emphasis added:
Psalm 15:1-5

[1] O LORD, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
[2] Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
[3] who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
[4] in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the LORD;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
[5] who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved.
The Psalmist states very clearly that the one who is righteous “shall never be moved.” Certainly, this is not to be taken literally. It does not mean the righteous person is static or immobile. Nor does it mean the righteous one does not change, experience true emotions, or occasionally feel passionate about something or someone. What it means is that the righteous person is constant, never wavering in her adherence to the law of God or hypocritical in her life and actions. In other words, the righteous person is faithful to the covenant established between God and humanity. I think this holds true for the statements about God as well. We see in Scripture a God who is incredibly engaged with the world, full of emotion and passion (cf. Hos. 11:8). But we also have passages which say that God cannot be changed (1 Sam. 15:29). I think Ps. 15 offers us a picture of what divine immutability is really all about: clearly not a God who in fact never changes, but rather a God who is never moved from the divine determination to be God for us, i.e., to be faithful to the covenant of grace. Divine immutability is really divine constancy—God’s unwavering faithfulness to the people of God.

As an aside, I think Exod. 32:12 and Num. 23:19 offer an interesting test case for divine immutability. Exod. 32:12 reads: “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” Here we see a plea on the part of Moses for God to change God’s mind. The fact that God does act differently must have been evidence to Moses that God in fact changed God’s mind. Later Christian interpreters had no problem with saying that God did not change God’s mind because the final outcome is what God intended all along. I will bracket this passage for now and turn to the other passage.

Num. 23:19 reads: “God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind. Has he promised, and will he not do it? Has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” This is one of the classic texts to support divine immutability. But notice what the verse actually says: God is not immutable in any abstract sense, but rather God is immutable in the concrete sense of the covenant. God does not have a change of mind simply because God is never unfaithful to the covenant. If God promises something, God will do it. When we return then to Exod. 32, we see that Moses is really asking for God to be faithful to the covenant. (Similarly, when Hosea writes the words of God—“my heart is changed within me”—we see again that God changes only to remain faithful to the covenant.) Of course, God is by nature always faithful to the covenant of grace; the later interpreters are then correct to say that God always intended to be faithful to Israel in Exod. 32 and elsewhere, but they are not right to say that this then supports an abstract understanding of immutability. As these two passages (and others) show, God is immutable in relation to the covenant of grace. God’s immutability can mean no more and no less than this: that God is faithful to Godself in that God is faithful to humanity.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Mount of Olives: a poem

I have been writing poems since the age of nine. Moreover, as an English literature major and creative writer, I composed many, many poems. Heretofore I have kept these under wrap, but starting today I will publish some of the best (at least in my judgment). I have no illusions about my ability as a poet, so these are simply literary experiments, nothing more.

Mount of Olives

I.

Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. — John 18:10a

What the historian forgets to mention—perhaps out of embarrassment—is that Simon Peter never aimed for the ear. His mind, as impetuous as ever, would never have settled for a wedge of cartilage or even a dangling digit. In that darkest of nights, our petulant apostle desired a fight, not a petty ear-slicing. (Consider the Teacher’s challenge, “Will you really lay down your life for me?”) But in the torchlight mingled with a saline glaze, Simon Peter put an end to his confused maundering, mustered up his fervent bravery, and missed.


II.

(The servant’s name was Malchus.) — John 18:10b

How could Malchus have known that someone much greater than the high priest called him out of bed that evening? Weary and perplexed, he was awakened by the split-second flash in a man’s eyes, the red glare of torchlight glinting off the edge of a dagger. A second later, while his severed ear lay senseless in the dirt, a trembling hand reached to retrieve it. (Could Malchus have overheard the high priest whisper, “He claims to be the Son of God”?) Though his name receives only parenthetical treatment, young Malchus returned to his bed, felt the contours of healed cartilage, and believed.

—D. W. Congdon, 4/17/03

Monday, June 25, 2007

Out of the Closet: Theological Confession Meme

Taking my cue from Ben Myers, here are my “theological confessions”:

I confess: A majority of the books that I own I have not read.

I confess: I really do think universalism is integral to the gospel. I don’t know if I could believe the Christian faith without it.

I confess: I was first captivated by theology when I read Eberhard Jüngel’s Theological Essays in the fall of 2004.

I confess: I feel more comfortable explaining Barth’s theology than I do explaining the gospel to an unbeliever.

I confess: I often think the best theology can be found in poetry and film.

I confess: I get an inordinate amount of pleasure out of using academic lingo.

I confess: I often lean more in favor of gay marriage and gay ordination than against—always swinging back and forth while never able to take a position.

I confess: I doubt the existence of God on an almost weekly basis, it seems. The prayer of the father in Mark 9 has existential significance for me: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

I confess: When Bruce McCormack came to Wheaton to speak on justification in 2003, I justified skipping one of the lectures by saying to my roommate, “I don’t see the significance of the doctrine of justification.”

I confess: I wrote my very first theological essay in 2001 on the doctrine of the Trinity and perichoresis in response to a lecture by Paul Louis Metzger. I had no idea what I was talking about.

I confess: I often would rather watch movies all day than read theology.

I confess: I think Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, Colin Gunton, and Jürgen Moltmann are the four most overrated theologians of the 20th century.

I confess: I think “postmodernity” is both a complete waste of time and an illusion.

I confess: I often wish I could be Eastern Orthodox, but if I had to pick a denomination today, I would be Anglican.

I confess: I have seriously considered dropping out of grad school and becoming a bartender.

See other memes here, here, here, and here.

The 2007 Karl Barth Blog Conference

The first annual 2007 Karl Barth Blog Conference at Der evangelische Theologe has come to an end. Below you can find the index to the complete series of guest posts on chapters from Karl Barth’s historical survey, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century.

1. Introduction - WTM
2. Protestant Theology in the Eighteenth Century - WTM
3. Rousseau - Michael J. Pailthorpe
4. Lessing - Chris TerryNelson
5. Kant - Shane Wilkins
6. Herder - WTM
7. Hegel - D. W. Congdon
8. Schleiermacher - WTM
9. Baur - Andrew Guffey
10. Feuerbach - Daryl Ellis
11. Strauss - Andrew Guffey
12. Ritschl - Jason Ingalls
13. Concluding Remarks - Ben Myers

Hans Frei: on hell

In a book on the thirty-nine articles, Hans Frei wrote three articles, one of which (on the resurrection) was published elsewhere. Two are available through Yale Divinity School, one on the descent into hell (Article III) and another on the Holy Ghost (Article V). His discussion of the former includes a marvelous statement on the relation between Jesus Christ and hell, in which he powerfully affirms that “there is no reality ungraced by Christ.” Here is a selection from this article.
Hell is not a very vivid doctrine or reality to many modern people to whom unjust and anonymous suffering, the eternal silence of the grave, or the irreversible scattering of one’s own and other people’s ashes after final illness and cremation are far more hellish and real. No matter. World pictures and myths change, though the dread embodied in them may not. In Christian confession what remains constant through all such changes is that all reality – whatever its shape – imaginable and unimaginable, good and evil, is referred to Jesus, God’s own Word, whose life and death on our behalf are adequate to protect us from the abyss. He is not only the representative but the inclusive human being into whose destiny we are all taken up, and as such, he is the all-embracing presence of God. ‘For from him and through him and to him are all things’ (Romans 11:36). In Christian confession there is no reality ungraced by Christ, no terror which he does not face on our behalf.

What is important is not that there be a real location called hell, so that someone could descend into it. Rather, Jesus Christ is so real – and therefore his cross so efficacious that he defines, undergoes, and overcomes whatever it is that is absolutely and unequivocally hellish.

—Hans Frei, “Article III: Of the Going Down of Christ into Hell,” YDS 12-186.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Jüngel: theses on eternity

In the Toronto Journal of Theology 22/2 (2006), Christopher R.J. Holmes discusses the theology of Eberhard Jüngel and Wolf Krötke by offering a translation of a recent set of theses by Jüngel and a review of Krötke’s most significant theological work. The article is entitled, “Eberhard Jüngel and Wolf Krötke: Recent Contributions toward a Trinitarian Doctrine of Divine Attributes.” The two central works for each theologian regarding the divine attributes are Gott als Geheimnis der Welt (Jüngel; ET 1983) and Gottes Klarheiten: Eine Neuinterpretation der Lehre von Gottes “Eigenschaften” (Krötke). Holmes reviews the latter in the second half of his article, while many of the former’s insights are evident in Jüngel’s theses, entitled “Theses on the Eternality of Eternal Life.” (I have learned third-hand from a source close to Jüngel that he has abandoned his latest project on eternal life, so I surmise that these theses are the remains of that recent attempt.)

Jüngel’s theses on eternity are a sustained criticism of classical metaphysics and an attempt to apply the radical insights of the later Karl Barth to the topic of eternity. Barth began the radical rethinking of the divine attributes with Church Dogmatics II/1, but the revolution took full form with II/2 and the marvelous fourth volume. Jüngel credits Barth in his theses for challenging the metaphysical captivity of the divine attributes (though he cites statements from the work of Boethius and Thomas that show seeds of this later revolution). But while he says (in thesis 3.7) that both Barth and Pannenberg pointed theology “in the right direction” by establishing “the denial of the timelessness of eternity with reference to the Trinity,” he also says that this is as far as they got. In these theses, Jüngel seeks to go a step further.

I would like to offer an extended engagement with these theses by Jüngel at some point in the future. For now, though, I will print some of the highlights (skipping most of the sub-theses) for the sake of discussion.


Theses on the Eternality of Eternal Life (trans. C.R.J. Holmes)

1 Eternity is God himself in the fullness of his existence as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. ...

2 What eternity is and what deserves to be called eternity can only be appropriately defined on the basis of the revelation of the triune God through a detailed exposition of his self-revealing life.

2.1 All efforts to define through contrasting images, on the basis of human experiences of lack—via negationis—what eternity is and what deserves to be called eternal, run the danger of missing the actual meaning of eternity as a predicate of God. Therefore, such efforts are probleinatic because in no way is it determined what experiences lacking eternity should constitute or form the contrast: e.g., the experience of the non-lingering moment, the experience of lacking a stabilitas loci (“homeless and fugitive on earth”—Gn. 4:12), the experience of physical transitoriness, the experience of intellectual limitedness, the experience of spiritual and moral powerlessness and so forth. ...


3 For the metaphysical concept of eternity which has become widely dominant in philosophy and theology—a concept not gained through an exposition of the self-revealing divine life of God—dialectical contrast to the concept of time is characteristic. Accordingly, it is surprising that eternity is not conceived as a contrast to space and time but rather only as a contrast to time. What eternity is, then, is defined through a dialectical contrast to time: “in cognitionem aeternitatis oportet nos venire per tempus,” i.e. “we arrive at the knowledge of eternity only through the knowledge of time.” …

3.8 A trinitarian definition of the concept of eternity would have to renounce classifying eternity as an attribute of the divine essence or—and this would be better—to define all the attributes of God’s essence in a trinitarian way.


4 As Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the one divine essence exists in trinitarian self-relatedness, which includes the still greater selflessness of the loving turn to the human and the world created by him. As one intensively related to himself, God’s triune existence is self-concentrating life and is as such eternal.

4.1 Eternity is the consummate form of the trinitarian existence of God (opera trinitas ad intra)—just as space and time are the form of the divine action toward his creature (opera trinitas ad extra). …


4.2 God in his original self-differentiation knows himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and exists as a trinitarian community of reciprocal otherness. As such, God is a relationally rich essence. The concentrated and intensive fulfilment of his trinitarian relational richness is his eternity. …


4.3 Inasmuch as God differentiates himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in such a way that the trinitarian persons, existing as relational subsistences, refer to one another most intensively and so to speak live concentratedly, God is eternal. …


4.5 As the intensity and concentration of the divine life and being, God’s eternity is his constancy which is rendered problematic by nothing and no one, and which shows itself in contrast to his creature to be fidelity. …


4.6 The intensity and concentration which is characteristic for the triune eventfulness of divine life, and which includes in itself the duo maxime contraria of life and death, shows eternity to be the peace of the divine life of the Spirit which bears the tension of life and death. Eternity is peaceful existence.


4.6.1 “Not the life which shies away from death ... but rather the life which endures it, is the life of the Spirit.” G.W.F. Hegel’s statement is valid as well, and is especially true of eternity conceived as the peace of the divine life of the Spirit. …


4.7 As the concentration and intensity of divine life, eternity is the original unity of reality and possibility.


4.7.1 In opposition to the metaphysical (Aristotelian) tradition, it is to be contested that eternity excludes from itself the mode of being of possibility. Rather, God’s reality is eternal precisely in the fact that it reveals possibilities and preserves possibilities instead of uprooting them through realization. …


5 Jesus Christ risen from the dead promises and guarantees to mortals an unrestricted communion of life with God and to that extent participation in God’s eternity.

5.1 As a gift of sharing in God’s eternal life, participation in God’s eternity which has been guaranteed and promised to the mortal human creature is the creaturely immortalization of human life. In the event of taking part in God’s eternal life, the creature is the living subject.


5.1.1 Immortalization is therefore something completely different from the antiquation or archiving of lived life.


5.2 The immortalization of human life concentrates this lived life in its entirety and intensifies it to his glory.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Spirit of the Lord, §10.2: Universality

Second, the vision of the New Jerusalem is universal. According to Micah, the eschatological
community includes people from “many nations” who are all gathered together in solidarity around the mountain of Zion (Mic. 4:2). God’s covenant of grace forms the center around which all humanity gathers in worship. No longer does the covenant define one people and one nation; in the eschatological vision of Micah, the covenant defines all people and all nations. The covenant is given to Israel that it may extend to all people. All peoples stream to the mountain of Zion to hear the word of the Lord—a word of grace which includes the “many nations” before they even arrive at the “highest of the mountains” (Mic. 4:1). What is historically particular becomes cosmic and universal. Or, rather, the covenant of grace is both a particular historical reality and a universal cosmic reality: the covenant is given to a particular people for the sake of all people; established at a particular time for all time; located within a particular space yet extending throughout the cosmos.

The dialectic between particularity and universality is not limited to the covenantal relation with Israel. In fact, this dialectic finds its fulfillment and center in the perfect embodiment of the covenant, Jesus Christ, who is the historical and particular representative not only of Israel but of all humanity—and he is this in virtue of the fact that he unites in himself deity and humanity, the eternal assuming Logos and finite assumed humanity, the Creator and the cosmos. Jesus Christ is simultaneously and for all eternity the giver of the covenant as the electing Son of God, the receiver of the covenant as elected humanity, and the covenant itself as the locus of reconciliation between God and the world. As the one mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim. 2:5), Christ is both entirely particular, exclusive, and unique and for this very reason also universal, inclusive, and encompassing of all created reality. His exclusiveness is the basis for his radical inclusiveness. As the uniquely exclusive Savior, he is the uniquely inclusive Mediator. When we confess that are saved solus Christus, in Christ alone, we confess precisely that this dialectic between particularity and universality, between exclusivity and inclusivity, is located in Jesus Christ alone as our Lord and Savior.
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. The possibility of such an exclusive inclusiveness consists in Jesus Christ being at the same time true man and true God. (Eberhard Jüngel, Justification, 150-51)
Jesus Christ himself is the covenant of grace, and since we are united with him in his assumptio carnis, the covenant of grace extends to us as the covenant people of God. Jesus Christ is the substitute, the mediator, the one who exists pro nobis and pro omnibus, in our place and on our behalf. The mission of God in Jesus Christ is unique and exclusive, definitive for all human existence and encompassing the whole realm of created reality. The ecclesial community is thus called into a new existence shaped by this christological event—a new existence which God does not limit to the life of the individual believer or to the church community, but rather seeks to extend to all humanity. The peace of the gospel must radiate from a center in Jesus Christ—through the witness of Holy Scripture and the proclamation of the gospel by the ekklesia—out into the wider realm of culture, politics, and economics, as well as into the realm of the mundane and ordinary affairs of human existence. “God with us” must imply “God with all,” and not merely with one particular religious community or one particular ethnic group. “God with us” means God with our neighbor. “For God so loved the world …”

Friday, June 22, 2007

Pan’s Labyrinth

Tonight, in the bimonthly film group that I lead at my church, we are watching and discussing the great 2006 Mexican film, Pan’s Labyrinth. This movie continues to amaze me, and in honor of what Guillermo del Toro accomplished, I am republishing the review of the movie that I wrote several months ago.

Film Review: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Spoiler alert: This review gives away major plot details—including, especially, the end of the movie—that some may wish not to know before seeing the film. If this describes you, bookmark this page and come back after you have seen the movie. Otherwise, keep reading!

The tagline of last year’s “fantastic”—in more ways than one—film, Pan’s Labyrinth, is: “Innocence Has A Power Evil Cannot Imagine.” And this is quite apposite.

Guillermo del Toro, the director of Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno or The Labyrinth of the Faun), is deeply interested in the themes of innocence, power, and responsibility. His comic-book adaptation, Hellboy, is about a demon who is brought to earth by Nazis but ends up turning against his hellish origins and fighting against evil. His otherworldly powers become the occasion for the victory of good over evil. Moreover, Hellboy chooses to take on human form out of love for humanity in his heart. Rather than an incarnation of evil, Hellboy is an incarnation of good. In a way, Pan’s Labyrinth must be understood in relation to this prior artistic project.[Fn1] However different the two films are, both are deeply concerned with the relation between innocence and guilt, good and evil. While both films are, in the broadest sense, mythical adaptations of the cosmic conflict between Good and Evil—and thus stand in a long line of artistic renditions of this primal story—Pan’s Labyrinth stands apart as a specifically Christological retelling of this salvific mission.[Fn2]

Pan’s Labyrinth is set in Spain in 1944, right after Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, and at the height of Fascist repression of resistance forces. A young girl, Ofelia, comes with her pregnant mother to live with her mother’s new husband, Captain Vidal, the leader of the Fascist forces. The ruthless Captain is stationed in a remote area in northern Spain where the last vestiges of the resistance remain. The area is lush and verdant, but for the imaginative Ofelia, it is also ancient, magical, and full of foreboding mystery. From the moment she arrives, she encounters a harsh world of sickness, deception, and death in which the Captain reigns as the violent lord of evil. There, in the midst of hell, Ofelia discovers a second world—one in which she is a princess, in which she has a unique origin, and in which she has a mission to accomplish. I say “discover” quite deliberately. The second world is not a creation of her imagination; it is a world into which she stumbles as an innocent, wide-eyed little girl.

The film deftly transitions between narratives: the story of her mother’s troubled pregnancy, the story of the Captain’s attempt to rout the resistance forces, the story of those who work for the Captain but remain loyal to the resistance, and finally—woven throughout these stories—the magical narrative of Ofelia’s mission to establish her identity as Princess Morana. The last of these narratives begins when Ofelia stumbles into a labyrinth behind the home of the Captain. At the end of the maze, she meets a mysterious faun who tells her that she is a princess—or, at least, that is her proper identity. Her immortal regality remains, however, a potentiality that requires actualization—or, more properly, confirmation—through the accomplishment of three tasks. To this end, the faun gives Ofelia a magical book to guide her on our journey. And with this cryptic introduction, the adventure begins.

The particulars of each task are finally not all that significant. Each task sets up the next, culminating in the final, climactic end. Moreover, each task becomes more and more dangerous, paralleling the growing menace in the “real world” (the “scare-quotes” are quite deliberate). As the Captain continues to expand his inhuman reign of evil, and as the resistance fighters grow stronger and more confident, the ominous events in human “reality” compel Ofelia to pursue a deeper Reality—full of its own evils, yet with a telos in mind.

We would greatly misunderstand this story, however, if we were to impose an artificial dichotomy between the “historical-real” world and the “magical-fantastic” world, between an objective world and a subjective world.[Fn3] Pan’s Labyrinth is entirely unlike Finding Neverland in this regard. Ofelia’s adventures are not at all comparable to the daydreams of J. M. Barrie. Her tasks have ramifications for the historical world. The world of the faun is not simply a concoction of her young, imaginative mind. Pan’s Labyrinth presents no real-unreal dualism; rather, the distinction is between real and Real. The “second world” is the Real world. As one reviewer aptly states, Pan’s Labyrinth is “realer than reality itself.” According to del Toro in an interview with Terry Gross, “what [Ofelia] sees is a fully blown reality. … I believe her tale not to be just a reflection from the world around her, but to me she really turns into the princess.”

In an important sense, therefore, the film is a criticism of the finality that we associate with our reality. Part of this critique involves the all important insight—which del Toro stated in the aforementioned interview—that all reality is, in a very real sense, imagined:
The entire world we live in is fabricated: Republican/Democrat, left/right, morning/night, geography and borders—all these things are conceits. Borders are not visible from a satellite picture. The fact that you can have a civil war where two sides kill each other, and essentially from afar they look exactly the same. They are both the same human beings; they share the same taste for food; they sing the same songs. This imagined conceit can create such horrors.
According to del Toro, our entire existence is compassed with imaginary constructs: national borders, political divisions, economic trade, time, traffic, etc. Of course, as we act on our imagination, these things take shape in the world. The tangibility of reality, however, does not negate the imagined character of so much of our lives. In other words, what we experience objectively with our senses is not, by definition, unimagined, and conversely what we imagine is not, by definition, simply a subjective idea in our heads. The very structures of our everyday existence require a kind of imagination. The genre of fantasy, especially in the case of Pan’s Labyrinth, exposes the artifice of our everyday lives through the unfolding of what del Toro calls “spiritual reality,” which is not opposed to our embodied reality but rather transcends it. Del Toro’s thought on this matter bears a close affinity to the theological work of William Cavanaugh, who opens his book on Theopolitical Imagination by stating: “Politics is a practice of the imagination.” Cavanaugh stresses many of the same points about the imagined nature of national borders and our notions of space and time. But he, too, wishes to posit a spiritual reality—in this case, the reality of the Eucharist which “overcomes the dichotomy of universal and local.” The Eucharist, like Pan’s Reality, transcends the finite divisions and imagined conceits that define our imagined human existence.

As a “spiritual reality,” fantasy is also a critical reality—a Reality that critiques reality. In the same interview, del Toro said that there are two kinds of fairytales and two kinds of horror films: those that are in favor of the present world—“the Establishment,” as del Toro calls it—and those that are against it.[Fn4] One kind uncritically affirms our present reality; the other kind, the better kind according to del Toro, criticizes it with “a beautiful anarchy.” Along with his other films, Pan’s Labyrinth falls in the latter category. His films, del Toro said, are attempts at grappling with the brokenness of our world. Rather than romanticizing our existence, del Toro admitted that he prefers subversive art which stands radically apart from the world as we see it by means of “a destructive, iconoclastic, liberating sense of anarchy.” Liberation, rather than uncritical affirmation, governs the way his films interact with human existence. In a lesser way, this is true of Finding Neverland as well—in fact, of any story which presents the common impulse to escape the confines of our fallen human existence. Pan’s Labyrinth, however, does not rest content with mere critique. Beyond anarchy, del Toro’s films offer an even more radical alternative. Pan’s Labyrinth stands apart from critical-escapist narratives by positing a constructive alternative, in which reality is not only condemned but overcome by true Reality. We might classify Pan’s Labyrinth thus as a critically realistic fable of redemption[Fn5]—one which takes its basic contours from the biblical narrative of Christ’s mission of redemption.

While Pan’s Labyrinth is no allegory, it is nevertheless a creative retelling of the Christian narrative. Such an interpretation may seem at first glance an unfaithful reading of the film, but del Toro already demonstrated in Hellboy that he has an interest in biblical themes. Moreover, del Toro grew up as a Catholic and has carried with him the religious sensibilities inculcated in his youth. Here, in Pan’s Labyrinth, he adapts a more specifically Christian framework for the purposes of telling the story of Ofelia. In order to appreciate the story properly, we must be careful not to read more into the film than we are given; at the same time, we must also recognize the multiple levels on which del Toro is working, which often lead to surprising discoveries.

The film begins by setting up the mythical narrative within which Ofelia lives. The narrator tells of a princess who incarnates herself as a young girl in order to complete a particular mission; if it is left incomplete, then the princess will return at another time and another place. (For this reason, the historical setting of the film is finally unimportant; del Toro happens to have a special interest in the period encompassed by the Spanish Civil War and WWII due to his conviction that this is a period of our history neglected to our shame.) In Pan’s Reality, therefore, Ofelia is the incarnation of this princess who descends from her transcendent origin to enter the hellish reality of Fascist Spain for the purpose of fulfilling a regal mission. The nature of this commission is unclear until the final moments of the film, in which reality gives way to Reality. Ofelia’s three tasks lead her to a point of crisis: the faun declares that her final task requires that he take blood from her infant brother, since only the blood of an innocent will complete her mission. Ofelia must then choose between sacrificing the life of her brother for the sake of her own immortality or sacrificing her immortality for the sake of her brother. Ofelia chooses the latter. She relinquishes her own regal-divine identity for the sake of another. She denies glory and power for herself in order that her brother may live. In other words, she chooses the cross in his place and on his behalf. Ofelia elects death that life might come to others.

Ofelia’s death at the hands of the Captain is a tragic and deeply unsettling event.[Fn6] Like the crucifixion of Jesus, her death appears to be the victory of evil. She seems to have failed her final task, and her horrific death only compounds the already great sense of devastation. And yet it is her blood that becomes the innocent sacrifice. Her death is the completion of the mission. What seems like failure turns out to be, in fact, her greatest victory. Ofelia’s apparently senseless death is in fact the occasion for her brother’s life and her own ascension to the right hand of her father. With her death, Ofelia enters the throne room of the Real, the place where her father and mother sit in heavenly splendor, and where she takes her place as the princess she truly is. And as if the biblical allusions were not strong enough, Ofelia hears from her father what essentially amounts to, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

As that final scene indicates, Pan’s Labyrinth can also be interpreted from another angle entirely, in which Ofelia is not the princess-savior but the princess-pilgrim. Her pilgrimage begins not because of some wild imagination, but rather because of her childlike faith. She embarks on a journey that reveals itself to her due to the pure receptivity of her faith. But Ofelia, like any true human, is not perfect; like any other person, she makes mistakes and even falls to temptation in the second task. Ofelia is thus a kind of Everyman or Everywoman, and her life is in movement toward a telos that comes to her, finally, as a gift. When, at the end, she is reunited with her mother and father, we see that the three of them are connected both by a blood relation and, most importantly, by a kind of spiritual relation. All three of them gave up their lives in sacrificial love—the father as a tailor for the army who received no honor, the mother in giving birth to Ofelia’s infant brother, and finally Ofelia herself also giving away her life for her brother. The three are united in regal splendor because all three were “good and faithful servants.”

The film sharply contrasts the way of life characterized by Ofelia and her family and the way of life characterized by the Captain. Not only are the former marked by sacrificial love, they are also marked by a radical commitment to peace in the midst of war and violence. According to del Toro, “Everybody else here or there [in the film] chooses violence; the girl chooses not to exert [violence].” The contrast is not simply limited to peace versus violence, though this is a central motif throughout the film. The larger dialectic in the story is between “the way of life and the way of death” (Jer. 21:8). Ofelia chooses life, while the Captain chooses death (cf. Deut. 30:19). Ofelia is defined by bringing life to others (her first task involves bringing a dead tree back to life), while the Captain takes like away from others. Ofelia seeks peace for all, while the Captain seeks bellum totum—total war. Ofelia chooses to affirm the humanity of others, while the Captain chooses to dehumanize his enemies, which includes even Ofelia and her mother.[Fn7] For the Captain, all things in the world are means toward some other end: Ofelia’s mother is a means toward having a son, the captured rebels are tortured as a means toward military victory, and those who work for the Captain are means toward building his power and reputation. However, the film graphically and profoundly portrays the Captain’s proclivity for murder as the one act which has no rationale. Murder is utterly senseless, and the fact that Ofelia’s murder is really a life-giving self-sacrifice changes nothing about the Captain’s irrational brutality. Her sacrifice is simply a testament to the way Reality works in and through everyday reality, transforming violence into peace and death into life. In light of this tension between Ofelia and the Captain—between the way of life and the way of death—it is particularly interesting to note how insistent the Captain is that she call him “father,” and how persistently Ofelia denies him that title.

If we look at this film as a fantastical portrayal of Christian existence—that is, truly human existence—then we have in Ofelia a portrayal of what it means to live in obedience to one’s calling. Her life was entirely shaped by her mission—a peaceful mission of sacrificial, life-giving love. In the midst of a world crashing down around her, Ofelia pursued a new world: one in which the monsters of the underworld are both more real and more significant than the monsters of the human world; one in which she has a valuable role to play and her identity is affirmed as having inestimable worth; one in which she can truly bring about a change from evil to good and from death to life. This “new world” or Real world is not the perfect paradise we might secretly desire when we are caught in the midst of an earthly hell. On the contrary, the Real world Ofelia discovers is full of its own horrors and imperfections and dangers. It is not the world that she wants, but it is the world that she has. Similarly, in Gethsemane, Jesus comes to grips with the fact that the way of the cross may not be the world that he wants, but it is the world to which he is called. Ofelia discovers a world which is neither a dream nor a nightmare but simply a Reality that comes to her, unannounced and unexpected—a world in which she must find her way as a pilgrim who knows her true identity despite all appearances to the contrary.

In both my Christological and anthropological readings of Pan’s Labyrinth, the nature of identity thus remains the central emphasis. At the beginning of this reflection, I referred to Ofelia’s mission as an attempt to establish her identity, but the story is actually more complex than this. Before she even begins the first task, Ofelia discovers—based on the faun’s suggestion—that she has the mark of the moon on her shoulder. Her very identity as the princess is secure long before she completes the final task. In other words, her life is ordered toward a particular telos prior to and apart from the actual confirmation of this identity through her own actions. Ofelia is set apart for a mission that comes to her from without and does not depend solely upon her response. Ofelia’s identity is a gift, and as she discovers this new world unfolding before her, she also discovers herself.

If Ofelia is marked from the start in terms of her regal identity, she is also marked in terms of her mission. Here the film uses classical irony, meaning the audience knows something the character does not. The film actually begins, presumably, at the end; the opening scene shows a young girl dead, blood running down her nose. Much like the opening of Memento, time runs backwards and the blood returns to her body as the scene cuts and the narrative of Ofelia begins. One might read this opening scene in two ways: either this is the end of Ofelia, the girl that we meet subsequently in Pan’s Labyrinth, or this could be a previous incarnation of the princess which then sets up the story of Ofelia. Either way, the tragic death of the innocent encompasses the story. We begin and end with a horrific death. To draw another Christological parallel, in the same way that Jesus’ life is ordered from the moment of incarnation toward the cross, so too in Pan’s Labyrinth, we know from the very beginning that Ofelia’s life is ordered toward a terrible end. Her identity as Princess Morana comes with a mission that ends with her own cross.

I return now to the movie’s tagline: “Innocence Has A Power Evil Cannot Imagine.” The relation between Ofelia and the Captain is clearly the central protagonist-antagonist or thesis-antithesis relation in the film. Ofelia represents goodness and innocence and love; the Captain, evil and guilt and hate. In our everyday human world—a world thoroughly shaped by Nietzsche and the “will to power”—the Captain seems to be the one who wields power and influence. Ofelia seemingly represents weakness and impotence. And yet, contra Nietzsche, Pan’s Labyrinth reveals the subversive power of love. If one had to pick another tagline, it would have to be 1 Cor. 1:27-28:
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.
This passage from Paul’s letter refers most directly to the proclamation of “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23) which demonstrates that “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (v. 25). Again, the analogy between Ofelia and Christ is important. Ofelia, like Christ, is foolish and weak and despised in the eyes of the “real” world. She has no apparent power to alter the course of reality. Her subjugation to the Captain seems complete and her failure seems final. Her death, like the death of Christ, appears to be the victory of evil and the confirmation of Nietzsche.

Yet, according to Paul, it is precisely the crucified Christ who is the Lord of glory. The ignoble cross is the axis of history and the center of human existence. In precisely this way, Ofelia’s death is the event in which the weak shames the strong, in which innocence triumphs victorious over evil. Even more significantly, Paul writes that God chose “things that are not to reduce to nothing things that are.” Is this not exactly what we see in Pan’s Labyrinth? The fantastical world of “things that are not”—at least, according to the standards set by the human-historical world—is what reduces to nothing “things that are.” What seems to be nothing ends up changing everything. This is precisely how the film is a critically realistic narrative: the film does not merely criticize human strength, human violence, and human dehumanization; the film reduces such things to naught through the subversive victory of the new world—the spiritual, Real world—actualized in the life and death of Ofelia.

In conclusion, though Guillermo del Toro grew up as a devout Catholic, he eventually left the faith. He explains the transition from faith to doubt as follows:
I was a choir boy. I was a member of the Virgin Mary Society. And I was this and I was that. And then, when you reach your teenage years, I discovered that the world was much wider. I started working in a place where I had to go through the morgue. One day I saw such a horrifying sight at the morgue that instantly showed me there was no real order in the universe, at least not a conscious order dictated by a guy in white robes and a long beard. It really shook me. [Terry Gross asks: “What did you see?”] I saw a pile of fetuses that was about five feet tall. There was such a harrowing variety of things going on there on every level [at the morgue]. I just realized, I guess we are on our own, so we better make the best of it. It’s this world that I saw that made me love with a passion the world that I was creating.
What changed del Toro was the problem of evil.[Fn8] The haunting reality in which we live was simply too anarchic to be the domain of a loving, all-powerful God. And consequently he began to make films that were themselves anarchic in character, stories that were in rebellion against the rebelliousness of this present world. As he admitted, “horror and fantasy saved my brain” and “allowed me to survive” in the midst of such a difficult, violent, and confusing adolescence.

In the end, how did del Toro get so much of the gospel right in Pan’s Labyrinth, even though he got so much of the gospel wrong growing up? Del Toro has the mistaken view that Christianity is simply a religion that protects you from hell and conforms a person into a particular religious mold. And he is not alone in holding such a view. Christianity was and often still is part and parcel of the Establishment. As part of the cultural-historical framework, Christianity said Yes to the world; it was an uncritical faith that adapted and conformed to reality. Christianity blessed the world’s injustices rather than rebelling against them. All of this is still too often true today. Thus, del Toro feels compelled in his own artistic works to carry out the rebellion which religion failed to do. In doing so, he ended up discovering the gospel.

Pan’s Labyrinth is thus, in many ways, a testament to what the gospel truly is—a gospel of anarchic liberation. Christianity is properly a religion of rebellion and revolution. The Christian faith subverts the Establishment in the event of the cross and actualizes a new world in the event of the resurrection. Like the film, the Christian faith is a critically realistic narrative of redemption. The gospel does not uncritically affirm this world but instead looks wholeheartedly toward the eschatological coming of true Reality. As Karl Barth emphatically stated, “Christianity which is not wholly and completely and without remainder eschatology has nothing whatsoever to do with Christ.” The gospel of liberation says No at the same time that it says Yes: No to the old Establishment and Yes to the new world, No to injustice and oppression and Yes to righteousness and freedom; No to dehumanizing violence and Yes to rehumanizing peace; No to life-denying death and Yes to death-denying life. We find the same gospel of liberation in Pan’s Labyrinth: No to the world of the Captain and Yes to the world of Ofelia.

Pan’s Labyrinth is finally a testament to the power of art. The old adage, “All truth is God’s truth wherever it may be found,” is nowhere more evident than here. If there is anything this profound film demonstrates, it is that when we delve wholly into story, we discover the Story; when we seek reality, we discover Reality; when we pursue truth, we discover Truth. All of this, of course, is the gift of grace. And that is precisely what Pan’s Labyrinth is: a taste of grace in an often graceless world. For this, we should be truly grateful.

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Fn1. Del Toro’s other film, The Devil’s Backbone, sets up Pan’s Labyrinth historically because of its setting in the Spanish Civil War.

Fn2. The Christological parallels in Hellboy are obvious as well, but they are less developed and the incarnation is of a very different sort. Pan’s Labyrinth is more fully and profoundly a re-telling of the gospel in fairytale form.

Fn3. This false distinction between objective and subjective is precisely what Terry Gross of NPR consistently applied to the film in her interview with Guillermo del Toro—which he had to correct. Gross spoke of the conflict between the Captain and the rebels as the “reality part of the film,” and later, when del Toro rejected this statement by speaking of “the girl’s reality,” she continued to misunderstand him and talk about how we often feel the need to fabricate stories in order to get through life. This forced him to make much more explicit his rejection of the hard and fast distinction between reality and fiction. Del Toro also made the especially fascinating statement that whereas an adult “invites Jesus into her heart,” a young child “invites monsters into her heart.” There are two ways of reading this statement, as del Toro intimated. On one hand, you can view Jesus as just a subjective figment of the imagination. On the other hand, you can affirm monsters to be as real to children as Jesus is to adults. Del Toro prefers the latter interpretation.

Fn4. According to del Toro, the critical fairytales and horror films are ones that show the monsters in a favorable light and show the humans as the real monsters. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the Captain is the true monster.

Fn5. Another notable, though often unrecognized, film in this genre is In America. Finding Neverland is critical, but not realistic; that is, it posits the need for an alternative but cannot finally sustain such an alternative vision. The point of Peter Pan is that Neverland is not paradise but hell. A land where you cannot grow up is a land where you cannot mature; and thus it is finally a land where you cannot be truly human. The Narnia tales by C. S. Lewis reside somewhere between Pan’s Labyrinth and Finding Neverland—more realistic than the latter, but more escapist than the former. Compared to these other two stories, Narnia offers a truly dialectical alternative; that is, Narnia has its own autonomous existence. The world of 20th century Britain and the world of Narnia exist side-by-side with no necessary interrelation. Narnia is critical of the modern human world, but it is not realistic enough to impinge upon this world. That is, Narnia is more of an escape from the confines of modern social propriety rather than a constructive alternative which could conceivably impact how one ought to live in the world of humans. If there is such an effect, it is more accidental than necessary. Evidence of this strictly dialectical relation is confirmed by Lewis’ own admission that Narnia is not a retelling of our own world but rather an imaginative attempt to conceive of a separate autonomous cosmos in which Christ is a Lion rather than a human.

Fn6. From a theological standpoint, it is perhaps unfortunate—when reading this film Christologically—that the man who kills Ofelia, the Captain, is the very one who calls himself her “father.” For this very reason, we should be cautious about drawing the parallel too closely. Not only will do an injustice to the film; we will also do an injustice to the Christian faith. That said, we should point out that the Captain is not actually Ofelia’s father; he only claims the title, though Ofelia refuses to affirm it. We finally meet Ofelia’s father at the end of the film. An equally justified Christological reading of the film would be to see the Captain as a fictional embodiment of the Devil. Here the analogy to the Christian faith is not ideal, but it is at least a model of the atonement that finds some support in the ancient tradition.

Fn7. Del Toro: “That type of obedience, where you find refuge in the corporate, or when you find refuge in the political or religious majority, is such an absolutely despicable cowardice—the cowardice that the Captain displayed by making the others non-human so he can torture or kill them.”

Fn8. There was also a positive side to his experience of violence and evil: “[Violence] made me very conscious of dying, decay, and fragility. I think we live our lives sometimes believing we are immortal, and we’re not. And our lives actually gain more sense when we believe in pain and when we believe in mortality. I believe that it makes us better to connect with this dark side of life.”

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Fashion show at The Well

The church that my wife and I attend is putting on their second annual fashion show on Saturday, June 30. This year, in addition to providing a place for local artists and designers to showcase their work, we are raising money for International Justice Mission. Below you can see a video from last year’s show. It was an amazing night with over 300 people packed into our church. Hopefully, this year will prove to be just as exciting.

Review: Apocalypto (2006)

Mel Gibson’s Mayan epic begins with an epigraph from historian Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” Gibson’s latest film focuses on the self-destruction of the Mayan civilization from the perspective of one man’s attempt to save his family. Like his Scottish epic, Braveheart (1995), Apocalypto has only the most tenuous of connections with the actual history of the Mayan race, but this does not deter him in the least. When it comes to film, Gibson has never been interested in history. As one can see most clearly in The Passion of the Christ, what drives Gibson is not historical reality but rather a particular kind of vision—a kind of aesthetic sight that gives him the liberty to distort reality in order to tell the story he wishes to communicate. For all his myriad faults, Gibson at least understands that art is not a textbook about reality but an encounter with it.

In Apocalypto, again as with Braveheart and Passion, Gibson tells the story of one person, one family, in place of many people and many families. Here it is Jaguar Paw, a young leader in his tribe. Jaguar is clearly parallel to William Wallace and Jesus of Nazareth in Gibson’s other films, and it becomes clear in Apocalypto that he is simply telling his own version of the Christ story in different forms. As with his past movies, the story of Jaguar Paw functions as a kind of metanarrative: it is a narrative snapshot that seeks to give an iconic window into a much larger story. The epic narrative of Wallace is representative of the broader struggle for sociopolitical freedom not only in Scotland but in other countries as well, including the United States (hence Gibson’s involvement in The Patriot). The story of Christ’s passion is obvious and serves as a kind of leitmotif throughout all of Gibson’s films. Finally, the story of Jaguar Paw is a very focused narrative (the film rarely strays away from him throughout the 158 minutes) which is representative of societal self-destruction. Just as Braveheart is about more than simply the freedom of Scotland from English rule, so too Apocalypto is about more than simply the collapse of the Mayan culture. Gibson uses these individual men (they are always male) to tell much grander stories about national freedom, cultural collapse, or humanity’s salvation. What Gibson does right is convey something very abstract through localized and concrete imagery.

Where Gibson goes wrong, however, is another story altogether. If there is anything that holds these films together apart from the Christ complexes of each main character, it is violence. Gibson, it seems, is incapable of telling a story which is not replete with exceedingly violent images. One almost gets the sense from Passion that he makes up for his nonviolent lead character by escalating the violence perpetrated by the Roman soldiers. Apocalypto stands much closer to Braveheart in terms of its story and replicates a storyline that has become boringly standard fare in Hollywood today: one man fights off dozens of other men in an attempt to rescue his family. We’ve seen this kind of story elsewhere, but Gibson just happens to excel at making this kind of film. When it comes to unnecessarily violent epics, Gibson is in a league all his own.

The question is: who in their right mind would seek to join him? Gibson may be the best at making blood-and-gore epics, but being the best does not make it right or even worth watching. He turns every aspect of human existence into a matter of warfare: a story about national politics is about warring nations; a story about cultural collapse is about cultural warfare and violent self-destruction; and a story about human salvation becomes a story of spiritual warfare. At every turn, Gibson militarizes human existence. He makes the violent struggle between life and death paradigmatic for all other human struggles. In a sense, his films dramatize the logical fallacy of the false dilemma: kill or be killed, there is no other option. Gibson’s “gift,” it seems, is the ability to make this logical fallacy not only seem plausible but justifiable. Whether this is indeed a gift or a mark of human sinfulness I will leave to others to decide.

In the addition to the violence, the film is marred by an ironic religious-cultural subtext. On the basis of the epigraph, we are led to see the story of Jaguar Paw as representative of the Mayan culture’s self-destruction—a self-destruction which provides the basis for Mayan defeat at the hands of European settlers. The events in the film preceding the arrival of European settlers—viz. the violent episodes involving Jaguar Paw and his family—are thus meant to flesh out (pun not intended) the epigraph. The Mayan civilization is conquered from without only because it has destroyed itself from within, and according to the film, the Mayan self-destruction consists of pillaging, murdering, raping, enslaving, and finally sacrificing fellow humans—even people from neighboring tribes—for the sake of their pagan religion. One might say that Apocalypto is a film about the clash of two religions, one pagan and the other Christian, whose outcome is determined by the internal clashes within the pagan culture. Its “thesis,” if I can be allowed to speak this way, seems to be that the Mayan civilization collapsed because of a religiously motivated disregard for human life. The Mayan gods are ruthless and bloodthirsty, and apparently they demand the hearts and heads of fellow Mayans in order to be appeased.

On the basis of the foregoing, one might naturally conclude that Apocalypto presents the European colonizers as a superior culture. Perhaps the Mayans even deserve their defeat because of their pagan religious practices. Such a subtext is really not all that surprising, coming from Gibson. His adherence to a Eurocentric Catholicism no doubt colors his approach to historical epics. In the end, Apocalypto comes off as an attempt to justify the European colonization of Latin America by showing how the Mayans had already brought about the disintegration of their culture. They were going to fall apart anyway; the Europeans just continued what the Mayans already began.

There is, of course, some ambiguity. Gibson does not make it entirely clear what constitutes the cultural self-destruction of the Mayans. It could be the massacring and enslaving of fellow Mayans; it could be the practice of human sacrifice; it could be the worship of pagan gods. In the end, these are all aspects of the same thing: a worship of pagan gods that demands the taking of human life. The irony is that Gibson seems to have no qualms with taking human life, as long as it is not part of pagan religious rituals. Killing to free your country (Braveheart, The Patriot) and killing to save your family (Jaguar Paw) are perfectly acceptable, but not cultic sacrifice. A theological question immediately arises: on what basis can one so easily distinguish between right and wrong killing? How does one not end up applying the ten commandments arbitrarily? And how is nationalistic killing not itself worship of an idol—the idol of one’s country? Did not Jesus say to hate one’s family and even life itself in order to follow him? Would this not entail the refusal to kill in order to save one’s family? Is this not the kind of sacrifice we must be capable of making in order to follow Christ? And, finally, does Gibson truly escape the obvious criticism that he turns the Christian God in Passion into a bloodthirsty deity who demands the taking of human life in order to be appeased?

Mel Gibson is certainly capable of making exciting films, and his refusal to turn movies into historical documentaries is something I find admirable. But I cannot help coming to the conclusion that his conceptions of God, foreign cultures, and humanity in general are fundamentally flawed. I have always strenuously argued against any attempt to use morality as the basis for judging the quality of a work of art, but when it comes to Gibson’s films, I am sorely tempted to change my position.