Flu Vaccines and Critical Theory

I went back and looked and am surprised that I have not written about Critical Theory here on the blog. It is the child of Marxist theory. After Marxism was finally thoroughly discredited, the Marxists on campus changed a few words here and there but kept the centerpiece idea that truth has no practical reality, all ideas that seem true are rather rooted in power. For those who espouse Critical Theory, it is incumbent on them to either condemn or desconstruct all ideas that are rooted in power. That would include white male professors and their acolytes (this is primarily a university phenomena, after all), government officials (although in practice we should be more specific and here in the U.S. say Republican government officials – I never did see a take-down of either Bill Clinton or Barak Obama using Critical Theory, although they might exists), corporations, etc.

Critical Theory, with its Marxist roots and rejection of truth in favor of power, has primarily been the playground of liberals and radicals. More recently it has become more mainstream and C.T. analyses can be found in the Black Lives Matter movement, Antifa writings, and more surprisingly, in various alt-right writings. It is the latter that was a wake-up call for me. Given the pervasiveness of what might be called sloppy Critical Theory (that is, using C.T. principles in an amateur or armchair manner, without understanding the theory in and of itself), it turns out all of us fall victim to using it without understanding precisely what we are doing.

My work environment is often quite uncomfortable – I might even say hostile, if I wanted to make it a political issue. This is not surprising because it is located in Northwest Iowa where Congressman Steve King reigns supreme. I have always considered myself a conservative, but I find that sort of bile reprehensible, but it is the pervasive attitude of the region. So by the standards of the office I’m a raging liberal.

A month or so ago the anti-vaxers were on the war path. Our insurance company provides flu shots for free and strongly encourages all of us to get one. (For the sake of my survival in the office, I will neither confirm nor deny the presence of vaccine in my blood system.) Turns out that flu shots are an epidemic, the dangers of which, to be understood, should be compared to Zika and Ebola. (At least that’s what I’ve heard with great authority on the other side of the cubicle.)

I will grant that there are potential side effects to flu shots and if I had read the disclaimer that a person receiving a flu shot had to sign, I would have seen that in a very tiny percentage of people receiving the shot, side effects, some of them serious, possibly even requiring hospitalization and long term health issues, might occur. Historical studies show that the side effects affect far fewer people than the 5,000 to 49,000 people (on average) a year that die of influenza related issues (according to the CDC).

The anti-vaxer sensibility is rooted in a profound distrust of corporate America. Anything that Monsanto, or AstraZeneca, or Wal-Mart (corporations possessing power) do is highly suspect. Any research or science that they have a hand in is automatically rejected as false, rooted in a naked grab for money or power. There is a grain of truth in this sensibility. (I admit that I have a deep distrust and dislike for Monsanto, for instance, because they have record of abuse that rivals the likes of Enron, Wells Fargo and Robert Mugabe.)

But being wary of things a drug company or chemical company says and does is different than allowing that wariness to devolve into an outright rejection of science. (And granted, science is far from perfect. Pasta, butter, meat, wine, coffee, aerobics: the list of scientific flip flops could go on for a long time.)

But back to the anti-vaxers. The ones I know (and there are, frighteningly, a lot of them), have reduced the whole difficult and muddled problem of scientific discovery down to analyzing the whole scientific endeavor with Critical Theory (even though they may never have heard of CT – it seems to been the air these days). Drug Companies make a profit on flu vaccines. Drug Companies are huge, powerful, and spend a lot of money lobbying congress. The inescapable conclusion is that the flu vaccine is an epidemic every bit as bad as Zika and Ebola.

Karl Marx and the 5,000 to 49,000 or so people who died of influenza must be rolling over in their graves.


Is Evangelicalism Introverted?

So the inevitable question from the previous essay has come up. I proposed, using Neumann’s categories, that mainline Protestantism espouses an extroverted version of the Gospel while Orthodoxy espouses a centroverted version. This week someone said, “Well then, that must mean that Evangelicalism is an introverted version of the Gospel.”

I didn’t even have to think about it. “Nope.” (I need to note that I have been out of touch with Evangelicalism for a couple of decades and now only look in from the outside, so my perceptions are possibly out of date.) Evangelicalism is not structured to interact with world (which is what extroversion, introversion, and centroversion explore). It is implicitly (and often explicitly) anti-world. Within that tradition one engages the world primarily through evangelism which is a mode of getting those in the world to move from the world to the church.

That could be read to say I look down on evangelism. I don’t. The issue (and there is an issue) is not the practice of evangelism, but rather its motive. In my (admittedly out of date) experience the energy for Evangelical evangelism grows out of an assumption that the world is a bad place and that we need to get people out of the world as soon as possible. The line between that and believing creation is also to be distrusted is a fine line indeed. My bias in this direction comes from a book that had a profound influence on me. In Against the Protestant Gnostics, Philip J. Lee argues quite persuasively that Evangelicalism is Gnostic of the Manichean variety and much of the effort during the conciliar age (3rd and 4th century) was aimed precisely against this sort of thing.

While standing against the world, Evangelicalism at the same time appropriates, or borrows from the world. Take music and architecture as an example. There are a half dozen or more Orthodox musical traditions. There is also a few Roman Catholic traditions and arguably also a Continental European Protestant musical tradition. Roman Catholics and Orthodox, as well as Swedish and Finnish Lutherans all have their architectural styles that are an application of their belief system. Evangelicalism does not have that. The music style is borrowed from Nashville and the architecture comes straight from the theater. This is a very specific outgrowth of the Evangelical distrust of creation. There is no true habitation of the faith inside the created order because the focus is on heaven on not on earth.

Frank Schaeffer, artist, film maker, and one time Evangelical, was exceedingly shrill on this point. As an evangelical he both intellectually understood and experienced the reality that there is no room for true art within Evangelicalism. He had no home there beyond the a small space granted him in the memory of his father.

Circling back to Neumann, there can be no Jungian hero whatsoever without serious and authentic interaction with society. The introverted hero (to return to the original comment) does not reject the world, he or she studies it, embodies it, and ultimately understands it and then imbues it with new meaning and a new telos, and in the process overthrows the old order. This is nothing like the Evangelicalism I grew up in and have interacted with in the last couple of decades.

What are the implications of this? Neumann explores that in some detail (although not in relation to Evangelicalism, which wasn’t really a thing in 1940s and 1950s Germany). If a social or religious movement fails to emerge with hero sensibilities (whether extroverted, introverted, or centroverted), it historically almost always settles into the pattern of the ancient mystery religions, according to Malinowski (who wrote in the 1930s and, to be clear, I haven’t read – I’m taking Neumann’s word for it). Gnosticism is one flavor of mystery religion, and so, not surprisingly, even though Neumann in the 1950s and Lee in the 1970s comes at the question from completely different angles and different intellectual sensibilities, their conclusion is the same as Malinowski’s. Evangelicalism is inoculated from developing any hero sensibility at all because the only hero allowed is an “outsider” and rescuer, the heavenly Christ who will return (and in the particular sect I grew up in, won’t even return all the way to earth but only to the sky) and snatch up those who are faithful to him to take them up to heaven. The world and created order is so beyond repair there is no room for a hero, only an escape.

I want to finish by stating unequivocally that Evangelicalism is not a form of Gnosticism. Just as Orthodoxy was heavily influenced by Greek dualism, so Evangelicalism has been heavily influenced by Augustine’s Manicheism (that he was never able to completely free himself from). Even though Orthodoxy is not dualistic, it has certain characteristics of Greek dualism and Orthodoxy needs to always be aware of that danger. Similarly, Evangelicalism has several characteristics that look like Manicheism (a very close cousin of Gnosticism) and Evangelicals need to be vigilant of the Gnostic danger.

Social Justice: Some Thoughts

I’m reading Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness. It is a summary of Carl Jung’s work, and Jung (who wrote the Foreword) sounds a bit jealous of just how well Neumann brought all of Jung’s disparate thoughts together into a single whole.

In the second part of the book Neumann explains the idea of “centroversion.” He mentioned it at the very beginning of the book also but not knowing its significance, I missed the reference completely. (Thank goodness for a good index.) On p. 37 he says centroversion is his term for “self-formation,” which, when I read it, was quite meaningless to me. In the same chapter, describing the psychological processes that occur in the transitions from childhood to adulthood, he says that fear of the all-encompassing embrace of childhood (with its dual sense of being cared for in such a manner that one has no responsibility but at the same time that all-embracing care being an act of smothering) “is the first sign of centroversion, self-formation, and ego stability” (p. 87).

Neumann’s primary argument is that what happens in societies as they move from primitive groups primarily interested primarily in the natural world (ie, hunter/gatherers) toward established, and then developed, cultures is the same process that occurs in individuals from birth to adulthood. He relies heavily on the work of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. (If you’re not acquainted with the name, he is arguably the most significant anthropologist of the 20th century.) As an aside, the technology to make neuropsychology possible had not yet been developed when Neumann wrote, but his marriage of Jung and Malinowski, of psychology, anthropology, and sociology has been vindicated by neuropsychology. It turns out that these “mythical structures” that guide all cultures (and all children!) through, as Neumann contends, “transpersonal process” are also physical and can be found and mapped in the brain. (This map is the homunculus that neurospychologists are so fond of going on about.)

And this brings us to Neumann’s exploration of the Hero myth and it’s relationship to culture. According to Neumann (and I assume Malinowski – I haven’t read him), both nature and culture can be nurturing and fruitful or destructive and oppressive. When either or both become destructive and oppressive a hero or heroes rise up to throw off the shackles of culture (for my purposes I will focus on culture rather than nature). The heroes can take one of three forms: the extrovert, the introvert, or the centrovert. The extrovert hero is the sort that overthrows an old oppressive culture by establishing a better alternative. The introvert hero (often a second generation hero) is the sort that thinks deeply and imbues the culture with meaning, importance, and significance. In American mythology, George Washington was the extrovert hero and Thomas Jefferson and the writers of the Declaration of Independence were the introvert heroes.

But dealing with culture by overthrowing it (extrovert) or redefining it (introvert) is almost always destructive (i.e., the Haitian, French, American, and Russian revolutions) because much or more is lost as is gained. Ultimately culture moves forward to a new phase but it takes the form of one or two steps backward and two or three steps forward (or in the case of the Haitian revolution, one step forward and two or three steps backward).

I have been hanging around with Protestants for the last year and more specifically, the sort of Protestants that are disparagingly referred to as Social Justice Warriors (SJWs). These are the flavor of Christians who believe their highest calling is to fix the world. They march, they have book groups designed to raise awareness, they hold symposia, they talk endlessly about poverty, racism, and other social injustice. I am intimately familiar with this flavor of Christian faithfulness because it was common, and arguably even normative in the Presbyterian Church, where I was a pastor for over two decades. So my recent experience with Protestants would be unremarkable except for the fact that the Orthodox are certainly not SJWs. They are anything but. And this has left me wondering, do the Orthodox have no social conscience? Are they lacking in some fundamental way in how they relate to the world?

This has been the big spiritual struggle for me in the last year.

And then I read Neumann on the role of the mythical hero, not as extrovert (SJWs), or introvert, but as centrovert. Centroverts neither try to overthrow societal structures nor do they try to redefine them. Rather than fix society, they fix themselves so that they can live authentically and faithfully in society as it exists leading ultimately to fundamental and sustainable changes in society and culture itself. Malinowski argues that whenever extroverted and introverted Heroes arise, society becomes unstable and the danger of destructive forces rise dramatically; but centroversion is a stable and far more sophisticated process. While change brought about by the centroverted hero is much slower and far more subtle, it is sustainable change.

To use the language of justice, of which the mainline Protestants are so fond, societal change brought about by an extroverted hero mentality (the SJW) may ultimately lead to justice, but the path it takes is inevitably through quite a lot of injustice, destruction, pain, and suffering. When an extroverted hero is the change agent there are as many losers as there are winners.

The centroverted hero, by focusing on improving him or herself rather than improving the world, also brings about change, but (according to the theory) without much of the injustice, alienation, and loss that inevitably comes at the hands of the extroverted hero.

Social justice (or we might call it the social component of salvation) is extroverted in mainline Protestantism. It is centroverted in Orthodoxy. I suspect this is precisely where my recent discomfort with the Protestants lies. Over the last decade I have unconsciously embraced centroverted social justice and now, as I rub shoulders once again with the Protestants, I am overwhelmed with the potential and actual injustice and destruction of extroverted social justice.

Let me be clear. This clarification in my thinking is a first step, and a baby step at that. I still despair at the lack of social conscience among the Orthodox. In my rational brain, extroverted social justice is necessary because I am not wise enough, I am not mature enough, (I am not Orthodox enough?) to understand how the centroverted hero myth actually works in real life and contemporary society.

But this is a first step toward integrating my Christian faith with a more authentic meaning of justice.

In the Fullness of Time

Over the last several months I have gone kinda crazy for Tuareg guitar rock. (No idea what I’m talking about? A couple of examples would be the venerable band Tinariwen and the relative newcomer Tamikrest.) The history of this genre of music is curious and offers a metaphor that I want to explore a bit. Prior to the 1970s the music of this region was what Western ears might think of as traditionally Arabic or Moroccan. (Mali is directly south of Morocco, with a corner of Algeria in between them.) But in the 1970s a civil war broke out and by the 1980s many the Tuareg people ended up in refugee camps that were more akin to prison camps.

At the same time far north in Scotland, Mark Knopfler formed the band Dire Straits. For whatever reason (although music scholars think they know why) Dire Straits became wildly popular in the camps. According to Christopher Kirkley, the founder of Sahel Sounds and the producer of the wonderful and quirky “Music from Saharan Cellphones” vols. 1 & 2, the most common music track found on cell phones in this regions is Dire Straits’ 1985 hit, “Money for Nothing.”

South of Mali, in the coastal countries stretching from Guinea to Benin traditional music was based on drumming. When rock and roll arrived in this part of Africa, music with a strong beat thrived. Artists such as Jimi Hendrix and James Brown became both popular and influential, shaping the musicians for a generation. But the sometimes frenetic sound of drumming as the musical foundation did not stretch north into the Sahel (ie, Mali, Chad, and Algeria). That music was much more sparse and simple and was typically based on two equal beats (that give me the sense of a camel rocking back and forth as it walks) rather than emphasizing the offbeat, or other complex rhythm systems, as found in both African drumming and Western rock and roll.

That unforgettable guitar riff that starts Money for Nothing (about 30 sec. into the linked video) is not traditional rock. Tap your toe to it and you’ll discover its foundation is two equal beats. (The subdued bass drum relegated to the background is hitting on the off beats, making it classic rock, but the prominent sound is the beat created by the guitar itself pounding on the two primary beats.)

Compare this track with Tinariwen’s Sastanaqqam. The basic Tuareg two beat pattern is there. The influence of African drumming from farther south is also apparent in the first 30 seconds, but the guitar riff (starting at the 40th sec) is very Knopfler-esque. Dire Straits offered the perfect combination of Western sound (rock and roll), simplicity (something the budding guitar players in the prison camps could actually copy and learn to play), and cultural identification (the swaying two equal beat sound that is common in Dire Straits music), that the popularity of this music exploded, and it became the foundation of a whole genre of music that almost immediately swept the Sahel and Sahara.

Earlier this week I went to the cigar lounge to puff on my pipe. Two pastors were there smoking cigars and trading bitter and dark stories about the state of the church, the gospel, and their uncommitted flocks. This dark outlook is a common malady among clergy but these two seem to revel in their despair in a manner uncommon even among clergy. God has failed! The gospel has failed! Or, in the words of Mundo Cani, the dog in Book of the Dun Cow, “Ooooooooooooh, woe is me!” (God wasn’t particularly amused by Mundo Cani either and smote him with skin problems.)

The two aforementioned clergy suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of the Gospel. It is a widespread misunderstanding and thus I mention the incident at the cigar bar. But I want to put it into the context of the Tuareg prison camps and “Money for Nothing.” Rock and Roll had been around a long time before 1985 (the release date of the album Brothers in Arms). Throughout the 70s it transformed West African music but it had never penetrated Tuareg culture. And then something came along that was compelling, culturally appropriate, and simple enough that the musicians could (and did!) latch on to it. From that moment when Dire Straits music reached the camps, it spread like wildfire and within months changed the face of Toureg music.

Similarly, that’s how the Gospel works. For the most part the Gospel is ignored or domesticated so that it fits comfortably into our lives lived by our rules and our standards. Jesus told us this was the case over and over during his ministry. And then … “in the fullness of time” … something happens. It’s an unpredictable confluence, such as civil war in Mali, the release of a rock and roll album in Glasgow, a culture where women always used to make the music, but now the men were thrown together in a men’s only prison camp and had to make music without the women, and some well meaning aid worker who brought the brand new Dire Straits album to the camp.

To be a minister of the Gospel (and here I’m not referring to ordained clergy but to all of us who are God’s ministers to the world) is, the majority of the time, just being faithful without much happening. The world goes on as it always had. The congregation we are a part of goes on as it always had. And then … “in the fullness of time” … there’s a confluence.

Complaining about the dire straits of the modern church is both a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Gospel works and a confession that we believe God is untrustworthy to handle it. Instead of howling miserably like Mundo Cani dog, we need to get on with life and be faithful to our small task.

And maybe listen to some Mdou Moctar, Tinariwen, Toumast, or Tamikrest along the way.

Tripping Over God … (then blaming God for it)

We suffer from illusions of an angry God. I will grant you that much of the church is quite angry and they paint angry make-up onto their image of God’s face. But an angry church justifying itself by speaking of an angry God, doesn’t make it so.

It mostly has to do with that biblical word “wrath,” which we too often assume is a synonym of “anger” (as we use that word today). That’s just sloppy thinking. It also has to do with Old Testament experiences, when God had not yet revealed himself personally. From time immemorial everyone assumed the gods were angry and taking it out on us. Is it any surprise that ancient people, encountering the living God for the first time, layered some of those assumptions over their experience? But when God came to us as a person we began to discover just how wrong we were.

Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 21:33-46, is the springboard for my thinking about divine anger. Karl Barth described divine wrath as follows (and yes, I know I have cited this passage many times in this blog; I’m not that forgetful, it’s just that good). Referring to judgment that Jesus Christ was under, he said, “He stands under the wrath and judgment of God, He is broken and destroyed on God. It cannot be otherwise” (CD, IV;1, p. 175).

Barth never says where he got that image expressed in the words, “he is broken and destroyed on God,” but I suspect he got it from Mt. 21:44. “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

In this text Jesus tells one of his vineyard parables and in the telling explains why the religious leaders of the day and the religion of that day will be set aside and replaced by something of God’s own making. It is a classic judgment text, and by implication it is a “wrath of God” text. But it’s not an angry God text. Far from it!

This wrath is not something God does, it is something we do to ourselves. We steadfastly refuse to go along with reality. We “create our own reality,” to loosely quote the pop psychology of the day. But the rock that we are heading for is actually real and when we – reality deniers that we are – run directly into it and destroy ourselves in the process, we experience exactly what Jesus is talking about.

In verse 42, Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” This is an amazing thing! The Greek word used here means “worthy of admiration.” That God uses stuff that our world simply discards and turns it into a beautiful building is the essence of Good News.

And then we go and trip over it, and in our vulgar blindness insist that God is really pissed. Divine Wrath is a frightful thing and something we need to pay attention to. Insisting that this is the same thing as God being mad at us? Well that’s just plain old unbelief.


The Usual Daily Wage

Exodus 16:2-15 / Jonah 3:10-4:11; Phil 1:21-30; Mat 20:1-16
(for Sep. 24)

We modern Christians get hung up on the whole salvation by works vs grace thing. On the one hand while Ephesians says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8f). On the other hand there are over two dozen passages that say that in the end, God will judge us by our works, including that rather amazing passage in James 2:14-24 that appears to be an explicit corrective to how Paul’s teaching on grace and works was understood by the church.

The process of salvation is a far more rich and nuanced issue in scripture than our binary of grace and works allows for. This week’s Gospel lesson is a wonderful example of this richness. A landowner needs workers, so he goes to the workers’ market early in the morning to hire a van load of workers. He returns to the workers’ market a few more times, the last trip being around 4:00 pm to pick up his final load of workers for the day. At 5:00 pm, when he pays everyone for their day’s work, everyone gets paid the same, no matter if they worked 8 hours or one hour.

“How’s that fair?” complains the group who worked all day. And indeed! How is this fair at all?

And of course, isn’t this rather the point about the Gospel that Jesus is making. The Gospel isn’t fair nor is it just, it is instead excessively good for everyone involved.

Back to our original question of grace and works, we must start with grace because that is where the New Testament starts. But once we have been given new life in Christ, totally by divine grace, then we have responsibilities to use the gift wisely. What do you suppose would have happened if one of those workers who was hired at 8:00 am just sat around all day instead of doing the work assigned to him? Getting the job implies the responsibility of doing the job. Similarly, receiving the gift of new life means we have several responsibilities: being “a workman who is not ashamed” (2 Tim. 2:15), “enslaving” our bodies (1 Cor. 9:27), “growing up in every way … into Christ” (Eph 4:15), etc. Paul goes as far as to say that if he failed to do these things he feared that he would be “disqualified” (NRSV) or “a castaway” (KJV) (1 Cor. 9:27).

At this point – the point of being good stewards of the new life that has been graciously given to us – the grace/works binary breaks down and ends up being more harmful than helpful. Work is not what you do or don’t do, it’s a frame of reference. Instead of a binary of opposites (grace/work) which James clearly rejects in ch. 2 of his letter, we need to think in terms of complimentary responses. Divine grace draws out human gratitude. God’s mighty work draws out my own labor.

Furthermore, work (in the positive context) has less to do with actions and more to do with expectations. True love expects nothing in return. Like grace drawing out gratitude, so our work in God’s vineyard should be the result of God’s love for us. As soon as we begin to think that we’re becoming a special Christian, or even, God forbid, someone that God simply can’t do without, then our expectations have misled us and we end up being like the laborers who worked all day. We think that God needs us and fail to understand (as the landowner says in the parable that God is simply generous. (“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Mt. 20:15)

The parable ends with a common theme in the parables: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We must always remember that there is nothing fair about the kingdom. Everything is upside down. If you go about your life seeking justice, then you are not seeking God. God’s generosity (the word from the parable that is a synonym for divine grace) is not fairness; it is not payment for what is owed. Thinking about life in terms of fairness, justice, and becoming a powerful Christian because of how my life has been transformed will get you nowhere in the Kingdom of heaven.

Can we delight in God as God delights in us or will we fall back into the trap of expecting even more for all the “good” things we have done?

Both Discipline and Forgiveness

Sep 10 Gospel – Matthew 18:15-20; Sep 17 Gospel – Matthew 18:21-35

I was the Associate Pastor at a congregation that had previously had a pastor who was both a crook (literally – he dared not go to Florida because of pending fraud charges connected with skimming church funds) and a sexual predator. Not surprisingly he was smooth and very convincing. He still had a strong following in the congregation. Part of the difficulty in removing him was the denominational disciplinary system was not set up to deal well with a person who was that deceitful and convincing and unrepentant. Despite the wickedness, he was a good fund raiser, so tragically, another denomination gave him credentials and allowed him to serve a large and very prosperous congregation after he had been fired and defrocked by the PC(USA).

This is not a hard case. Someone like this needs to be both disciplined by the church and prosecuted by the state. But the starkness of the case highlights the difficulty of Jesus’ teaching in the two lectionary readings from Mt. 18. This week’s lesson about forgiveness is the second half of last week’s lesson about church discipline. This is Matthew writing toward the end of the first century looking back on Jesus’ teaching and recognizing that Jesus knew where this whole “church” thing was going. It was going to get organized, there would be bad apples, and eventually there would be problems.

Jesus’ solution is best describes as progressive discipline. There is need to work with the sinner in stages. Restoration is at first personal (“point out the fault when the two of you are alone” v. 15) and then discreet (“take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses” v. 16). If this informal approach does not work, the process of restoration becomes formal and ultimately public (“tell it to the church …” vv. 17f).

But in order to avoid this process becoming a series of witch hunts, this is immediately followed by the teaching on forgiveness. Peter asks, “How many times should I forgive” (v. 21)? Jesus’ answer, told in parable form, assumes that we are to forgive as we are forgiven. The specific teaching is that if I refuse to forgive as I have been forgiven then I am “a wicked servant.” When the forgiven servant refused to forgive others, the master sent him to jail until all his debts were paid. The last verse is chilling. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (v. 25).

This is typical of the normal pattern of Jesus’ teaching. Rules and regulations are not dismissed as unimportant but are placed in the context of our heart, that is, our affections, attitudes, and desires. Trying to find that narrow path between being rule-bound and ignoring problems is delicate and difficult. Returning to the opening story, the pastor was fired and defrocked without a lot of information given to the church. His predatory sexual exploitations were not revealed because of the privacy of the victims. The possibility of fraud was not explained in detail because a thorough audit had not yet been completed and the Presbytery didn’t want to damage any possible case the state might have against him.

Because all the details were, for what seemed good reasons at the time, not made public (in contrast to “tell it to the church” v. 17), the gossip exploded and a significant portion of the congregation took his side (he was a smooth talker after all!) and opposed the presbytery. They accused the Presbytery and those who sided with the Presbytery of not being willing to forgive. In the rough and tumble context of real life, the proper application of Jesus’ teaching is not so obvious.

Successful application of both sides of this process (forgiveness and discipline), whether in an individual context or the formal context of church structure, requires the ability to discern the heart of both parties. While this passage is about the structures of our corporate church life, Jesus is saying less about that and more about the state of each of our hearts. (Again, this is the typical and normal pattern of Jesus’ teaching.) The implication of this text is that any criticism I have of another Christian, or another person in general, is a mirror revealing and then reflecting my hidden heart back to me. As individual Christians or more formally as congregations, any actions we take to “encourage,” “correct,” or “improve” others is as much about us as it is about them. Our salvation is not so much a thing that resides within me, it rather rides on interactions and relationships I have with others.

Secondary Education

Jer. 15:15-21 (Ex. 3:1-15), Rom. 12:9-21, Mt. 16:21-28 (for Sep 3, 2017)

We have come to the great turning point in Matthew in the Revised Common Lectionary. We might think of it as the end of primary school and the matriculation to secondary school. So far the message has been the Kingdom of God but now we move to the Cross of Christ. We might summarize Jesus’ message as follows:

  1. Virtue will ultimately win (the message of the Kingdom of God)
  2. Virtue can only win by losing (the Cross of Christ)
  3. Virtue is not incremental (the process of getting better and better) but emergent.

The hard part of this lesson (the thing that makes this secondary education rather than primary education) lies in the question, “But why does evil have to win?” The answer is that it’s not precisely accurate to say that evil has to win, rather it has to reveal itself for what it is. This goes back to the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. One dare not remove the tares from the wheat until they are both mature or the harvester will inevitably confuse the two. There is a catch: a tare, being a tare, will grow more aggressively and it will appear that the tare will squeeze out the wheat. In other words, it will appear that evil is winning.

With this in mind, let’s return to the third point above. Not only is virtue emergent, evil is also emergent. Prior to the most recent election cycle there was a predominant (barely predominant, but predominant nonetheless) consensus that liberalism was virtuous and conservatism was not. The conservative tendency to hold on to “outdated” ideas (and for this consensus to hold, the questionable assumptions must be made 1. that it is outdated and 2. that which is outdated is less virtuous) made it “obvious” that conservativism is mean (which literally means “small minded”). When Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, there was a great deal of fear (driven by the predominant consensus) that a great deal of meanness and evil would result when (not if, but when) Hillary Clinton won the election.

We will never know whether the Republicans would have lost graciously, but what was revealed was a shocking level of malevolence and evil on behalf of supposedly virtuous liberal culture toward conservative culture. “Sore loser” doesn’t even come close to describing it. The media, rather than just analyzing the loss, began to systematically dehumanize Donald Trump and his supporters. (This is, by the way, when I canceled my subscription to the Washington Post. They had by far the best post-election coverage, but mixed in with that outstanding coverage was a malevolence and dehumanization of the perceived enemy that sunk to such depths I couldn’t read the paper without being dragged down into the muck.

This is not to say the conservatives were virtuous. Tit for tat, they were busy dehumanizing the liberals and also participating in the same evil the liberals were enslaved by and American society sunk to a new low of dehumanization and evil that has led many intellectuals to seriously wonder whether this is the beginning of the end of democratic experiment of America that was begun some 250 years ago.

And this brings me back to the Gospel lesson. In the midst of this emergent evil I try valiantly to not become a Peter. In Matthew Jesus said that he must be crucified at the hands of the religious leaders. Peter said it absolutely would not happen, and Jesus immediately and with no equivocation said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” To use a football metaphor, it’s the third quarter and virtue is losing badly in this quarter. (The leader of the apostles just got called satan!) To return to the parable, this is the quarter where the tares grow madly like weeds (which they are) while the wheat continues its steady pace. But it’s only the third quarter and the victory of losing (the victory of the cross) will only be revealed at the resurrection. The end game is not yet afoot.

But Jesus has now turned to our secondary education. We must learn that what we thought was virtue must die so that a new and even more glorious virtue can emerge. Virtue is not the good stuff we used to do made even better; virtue is a divine gift that can only be received when we recognize that the stuff we were holding on to is rubbish. The Kingdom of God is the first half of the game. The Cross is the third quarter (where we are now), but victory only comes in the fourth quarter.

This doesn’t mean that I believe the United States will come out of this stronger and better. (This isn’t about the U.S., it’s about the Kingdom of God and we ought not confuse the two!) The United States as a leader in democracy, human rights, and what we thought to be virtuous, might be in its final death throes (although I actually doubt that is the case). What we do know is that we need to let our old virtue die. We need to recognize that the whole myth of a Christian nation was not wheat but tares. We need to recognize the tares, the evil, for what it is. Only when we let go all those values we held so dearly … only when we die, will it be revealed what actual victory looks like. “Get behind me Satan!”

Commenting on God’s promise to Abraham that his offspring would be slaves for 400 years before they became a great nation (in Lecture X of his “Bible Series” on YouTube), Jordan B. Peterson observed that tyranny precedes freedom. “All people are subject to the tyranny before freedom.” The only way to throw off the shackles tyranny is to die, and so the path through is the path of the Cross. To deny this is satanic and to that Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan!” As Peterson would probably say to this, “Yeah, that’s one hell of a deal, man.” But that’s the way it is. Welcome to your secondary education.

St Isaac the Syrian on Temptation (via Michael Gillis)

An extended quote from Michael Gillis. It can be found in text form here or in podcast form here.

Whenever we suffer in any way, “from men, from demons or from the body,” as St. Isaac puts it, we are tempted. And how we deal with that temptation makes all the difference. Do we turn to Christ or deny Christ (perhaps not so much with our words, but with our actions)? Do we continue to love others or begin to blame, accuse and condemn others. Do we thank God for all things, or do we grumble in our hearts? It is a temptation. Every difficult and painful circumstance in our lives is a temptation.

And because such suffering is a temptation to sin, it is also an opportunity to deny Christ.  It is an opportunity to curse God or curse man made in the image of God.  It is an opportunity to become lost in self pity and never-ending introspection.  It is an opportunity to become engrossed in the immediate human or demonic or biological causes, and to ignore God almost completely, as though our suffering and difficult circumstance were happening behind God’s back.

The same difficult or painful circumstance becomes for us the means by which we either grow in Christ or in some way deny Him.  And of course what is happening to us never makes any sense in the midst of the suffering.  That’s part of the temptation.  We don’t know why God is letting this happen.  We don’t know what God is doing.  It just doesn’t make sense.  And at that point of confusion, that dark night of the body and soul, all we have left is naked trust, naked hope that God is still God despite all of the evidence to the contrary, despite the pain and confusion and injustice of the situation.  Can we say with Job, “Even if He slay me, yet will I trust in Him”?

The Embrace of Peter and Paul

This is a lectionary reflection on this week’s Gospel lesson, Mt. 16:13-20, the story of Jesus giving Peter the keys to the kingdom, but once again I want to get at it through an icon. One of the popular icons in contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy is the icon of the Embrace of Saints Peter and Paul. Putting these two apostles together goes back in church history as far as we can go. They are unique among the apostles in that they are commemorated together rather than individually. Their Feast is June 29, which is the culmination of the Apostles Fast, beginning immediately after Pentecost. That fast and feast is ancient, but this icon featuring an embrace is a recent development, first showing up in Crete in the 15th century.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has always seen Peter and Paul as inseparable. Peter was the Apostle to the Jews while Paul was the Apostle to the Greeks. Peter was the first bishop of Antioch, the congregation that first accepted Paul as a Christian and then sent him out as a missionary. Many years later the Paul travelled to Rome and essentially gave that congregation apostolic approval. Shortly after, Peter became Rome’s bishop.

The Western church was initially (and has always remained) very Greek in its sensibilities, and this was Paul’s gift to the church – reframing a Jewish sect so that it made sense to the world of Greek culture. (This is the meaning of the phrase, “They were first called Christians in Antioch.” Prior to this the church was simply considered the Way of Jesus. It was essentially a sect of Judaism. That Greek word “Christian” marks the beginning of this reframing of Jesus’ teachings into another culture.)

It is ironic that the Roman Catholic Church is often called the church of St. Peter because Peter never did manage to embrace this reframing of Christianity that Paul oversaw and Rome represented. That was a Pauline thing. Peter was and is far more representative of the church along the Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem, Antioch to the north, Crete to the west and Alexandria to the south). These were and are churches that maintained a strongly Semitic outlook, and that was Peter’s thing.

But Peter is first among the apostles, it was to Peter that Jesus gave authority (Mt., 16:13-20). As the power of the Roman bishop grew and as Rome grew increasingly alienated from the rest of the church, it was politically necessary that Rome cement its connection with Peter even though their soul was far more Pauline.

It had been coming for centuries but the official break of the Roman bishop from the larger church occurred in 1054. Historically there was an inevitability to the break, especially after the imperial capital was moved from Rome to Constantinople. But no one was happy that the Roman Bishop had fallen out of fellowship with the Bishops (by this time called Patriarchs) of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople.

In the 1438 the fall of the imperial city of Constantinople was still in the future (that happened in 1453), but the demise of the Eastern Roman Empire was already obvious. There was an opportunity for rapprochement between east and west and this was addressed at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438-39. The reconciliation failed, but out of that effort grew an idealized memory of the past.

Much of the Byzantine court (particularly, worship specialists, as well as the art, music, and documents) had been moved from Constantinople to Crete in order to save it from the inevitable sack of the city. It was in Crete (Constantinople in exile) during the period of the council that an iconographer named Angelos first painted the Embrace of Peter and Paul. It is almost certainly historically inaccurate, but it expressed the hopes of the future as well as the rosy memories of the past for much of the church in the 15th century.

In one sense this story has nothing to do with us because that moment, the possibility of reunion envisioned by Ferrara-Florence is no longer feasible without unimaginable changes. But this icon from this period has much to do with Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox, if we but choose to see it. Matthew 16:13-20 is a touchstone of deep division, given that this text has been co-opted (in the Protestant and Orthodox view) by the Catholics to bolster their vison of a universal pope to rule them all.

The icon has an odd feature that makes it quite precisely our story. Peter and Paul may be embracing, but they’re not looking at each other, they are looking past each other. (I personally have a hard time seeing this, but both art experts and icon experts have commented on this, so I’m taking their word for it.) One wonders if Angelos, while expressing his hope for union in the embrace, didn’t also express his expectation of failure in his depiction of the eyes. While the embrace almost certainly never happened, the not seeing eye to eye certainly did. Peter and Paul never did fully reconcile and James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, finally separated them, sending Paul to evangelize out west and (from the silence of scripture, I assume) allowing Peter to stay put in the Jerusalem to Antioch corridor on the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

Looking back over history, I would argue that one of the strengths of the church is that east and west has never seen eye to eye. Those terrible Judaizers that ran around Asia Minor and Greece were almost certainly the everyday Christians of the eastern Mediterranean coast. That Judaizing debate was the disagreement between Peter and Paul writ large. Paul thought the central issue was works (and this is the side of the story that is recorded in Paul’s letters). The Eastern Christians thought the issue was how we go about incorporating the Gospel into our everyday lives (more reflective of James and the Petrine letters). When Peter and Paul (East and West) were in the same room they fought and misconstrued each other, but when given a degree of separation they tended to bring a balance to each other in the first millennium before the great split in 1054. That was the wisdom of James, the Bishop of Jerusalem and the effect of that first Jerusalem council.

Now there are three siblings (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) who can’t get along. Like Peter and Paul, even in their embrace, we’ll probably never see eye to eye, but we should at least be embracing each other. Behind our embrace is the profound wisdom of James who understood that the Gospel is simply too big for any one of us to grasp the whole thing.