Karl Barth on Aaron and the Golden Calf

Karl Barth has a most interesting and provocative exegesis of two Old Testament stories in two excurses in Church Dogmatics IV/1. The first one concerns Aaron (Exodus 32) on pp. 423-432. The second is about the rejection of Samuel and the rise of Saul as the first king of Israel (1 Sam. 8-31) on pp. 437-445. The exegesis has to do with the culpability of leaders and organizations in contrast to the culpability of the people the leader is leading. In both he circles around the subject of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. I am surprised I did not notice this passage when I read it back in the late 80s or early 90s, but it could be that Barth’s insight may require the perspective of an old guy looking back rather than of a Young Turk just looking around.

Barth was no fan of the papacy. In these two excurses he manages both to critique the institution quite harshly while at the same time provide a way of being Roman Catholic while remaining faithful to the deeper call of the Gospel. His critique is not only about the papacy, but about all systems where power (or possibly more accurately, authority) is concentrated in a small group. He never mentions Hitler by name, but his life context of the Third Reich and the German church whispers throughout this whole section of the Church Dogmatics. (It’s entitled, “The Pride of Man.”)

Exodus 32 is part of the story of the giving of the Law. Moses is on Mt. Sinai and has been gone a very long time. There is concern, then grumbling, then an assumption that he’s dead and never returning. The people talk Aaron, Moses’ brother, into forming an idol, the Golden Calf, which they can worship in place of Yahweh. Moses does eventually come down the mountain, is horrified by what he sees and breaks the tablets of the Law. God tells Moses that the people have broken the covenant they promised to keep and they therefore will be destroyed. Moses intercedes on their behalf, and even though many people die and everyone suffers, ultimately God forgives the breach of covenant and things return to as normal as it can be after such an apostasy.

Barth argues that the respective roles of Moses and Aaron (in relation to God and the covenant) are important if one is to understand the story. Moses is the prophet and is thus the one who has been appointed to be the mediator between God and the people. Aaron, on the other hand is the priest and is not a mediator. He rather speaks on behalf of the people and organizes the religion.

[Note: This association of “mediator” with prophet and not priest might be hard to defend on exegetical grounds. I haven’t studied it a great deal. But if there is a problem, it is not in the idea but rather in the manner which Barth expresses it. His analysis of Moses and Aaron is indeed what Exodus describes. Moses is the one who talks with God, after all, not Aaron. Barth’s motivation becomes clear when we get to the second excursus. Samuel, and all the prophets who proceeded him (that is the Judges), are clearly the mediators between God and the people. But the people wanted a king who served them, not a prophetic Judge who served God. Barth is making a parallel between the two stories. On pp. 438ff, Barth proposes that Samuel’s function is parallel to Moses while Saul’s function should be more or less parallel to Aaron.

The part of the Golden Calf story that is so striking to Barth is what doesn’t happen to Aaron. About 3,000 people died that day (Ex. 32:28) but Aaron, the high priest of the new religion, is not among those who died. Moses’ rebuke of Aaron is shockingly mild. “What did this people do to you that you have wrought so great a sin upon them?” (v. 21). It’s as if Aaron is not responsible. “What did this people do? not, “What did you do?” This is where Barth observes that Aaron’s role is to speak on behalf of the people and thus do their will (in contrast to Moses who speaks on behalf of God). “The one who receives and mediates the divine revelation, the friend who speaks with God as an equal, is Moses himself. Aaron and all the others are only witnesses” (p. 428).

What is Aaron then? He is “a type of the institutional priesthood” (p. 428). “He is the man of the national Church, the established Church. He listens to the voice of the soul of the people and obeys it. He is the direct executor of its wishes and demands. He shows the people how to proceed and he takes the initiative” (p. 429). The problem is not with Aaron, it is with the people. The institution can and should certainly play a role in teaching and guiding the people back to the truth, but ultimately when things go wrong, it is not the fault of the institution, it is the fault of the people. (And this sentiment is the heart of Barth’s nuanced critique of the Roman Catholic Church; it is what the people want.) “The priestly art as such—building altars and celebrating liturgies and ordering and executing sacrifices and proclaiming feasts of the Lord—is a neutral activity which can turn into the very opposite of all that is intended by it. The priest as such can always be a deluded and deluding pope” (p. 429). In Barth’s mind, “Aaron (and any priest or pope for that matter) is not without blame, but because the institutional priesthood (of which Aaron is a type) faces the people and reflects their wishes. It is the prophet, on the other hand, who guides them.”

[Note: at this juncture it is well worth noting that in the classic Reformed tradition of which Barth is a part, clergy should not be thought of in the priestly role because Jesus Christ is our priest, clergy are rather modeled on the prophetic role. It is, I suspect, why proclamation of the Word tends to overshadow administration of the Sacraments although they are technically equal activities. Ministers are not “priests” but “Ministers of Word and Sacrament.”]

The relationship between Samuel (the last prophet leader, or Judge, of Israel) and Saul (the first king of Israel) is similar to that of Moses and Aaron. Samuel is the prophet and thus the mediator between God and the people. Just as with Moses and Aaron, Samuel serves God on behalf of the people while Saul, as king, should serve the people on behalf of God. This pattern is not God’s ideal because the institutional side (ie, Aaron and Saul) can become overbearing as they cease to serve the people’s will and begin to lord over the people. That tendency is much more clear in the story of Samuel and Saul and will be explored in the next essay.

 

Advertisements

A Brief Introduction to the Prayer of the Heart

When growing up I was taught that God wasn’t Santa Clause and prayer wasn’t just asking God for stuff. In order to avoid the pitfalls of just asking for stuff I was taught to pray the ACTS way: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. As my sense of prayer grew more sophisticated I realized that all prayer, no matter what sort, was consciously entering into the presence of God. It wasn’t just asking God nor was it just talking to God, it was being with God. (Just as when we get to know another person we eventually develop the ability to be with that person in silence.)

The Orthodox ascetics (literally, the spiritual athletes, that is, the Christians who explored prayer very deeply) argued that all of the above, while the necessary place to start, was simply an exercise of the mind. In Orthodox sensibility the mind (and our thoughts) are part of our physical being and need to be distinguished from our inner self or heart (Greek nous). Beyond the activities of the mind, prayer can become a movement of our awareness from the mind down to the heart. When this happens we move beyond talking with God and even just being with God and begin communing with and uniting with God being to being.

[Excursus: in case that last sentence is making you nervous I will offer a technical clarification. “Union” is a loaded term, and by saying we can unite with God, I am not saying that our nature (Greek physis) unites with God’s nature (Greek ousia). Rather, to use the langue and distinctions that are typically used in the east (from the earliest days including Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory of Cyprus, Maximus the Confessor, but most especially associated with Gregory Palamas), our heart is united with God’s energies. What’s the difference between essence and energy? Divine energies (often called “the Uncreated Light”) are God, but they are not God’s essence. That’s one of the most important distinctions in Orthodoxy and Edward Siecienski’s book, The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy, gives a nice overview in ch. 7. To be fair to those who remain uncomfortable, this whole area remains a point of contention between East and West.]

As we commune with God in the heart rather than in the head we open up the very core of our being to the Holy Spirit and we also begin to unite with God. In this way prayer and the Eucharist work together to unite us in the different aspects of our physical being (heart and body) with God. This is the true meaning of communion, not just as fellowship, but as “union with,” or joint participation. As I describe it here, the prayer of the heart sounds kind of easy. Those experienced in these matters say it is remarkably difficult. It’s not just praying in a different way nor is it praying without words. It is a spiritual movement away from the physical (the mind) and down into the true self (the heart). The ascetics say, based on centuries of experience, that it is something that typically can only be fully accomplished through the guidance of someone who already has experience in this area.

Why is it so hard? One of the consequences of original sin is the dissolution of our unity. Our connection with divine life was dissolved, leading to our immediate spiritual deaths and our eventual physical deaths. Our connection of our inner being (heart) and our physical being was dissolved, as a result of that our awareness of human nature, that is, our connection with other people faded, and for the most part, disappeared. Christian theologians most often speak of this in terms of the crisis of personhood (which, not surprisingly parallels historically Neumann’s crisis of the collective unconscious). Our personhood is not only us, it is us in proper relationship with other persons. Personhood presumes the human spirit (physis) which is shared by all of us and connects us. Because we are not aware of this collective spirit we ignore or deny it and think of ourselves as individuals. Reducing a person to an individual is a reflection of sin which blinds us to our true nature. Sin alienates us from our shared nature, but it does not annihilate it. Paul’s doctrine of the Body of Christ and John’s doctrine of the Vine and the branches assumes the reality of a shared human nature revivified in the victory of Christ and enlivening presence of the Holy Spirit.

Prayer of the head (the ACTS process being one example) is our disunited self trying to talk to God. Prayer of the heart is a step toward reuniting the disunited parts. It starts with reuniting ourselves (the movement down from head to heart) which in turn makes it possible to begin the process of reuniting with God and with others. Furthermore, this process, the prayer of the heart, makes our heart alive and pliable thus making it possible to expand the heart (an image drawn from the parable about the new wine and wine skins). The more our heart expands, the more God is able to enter in, the deeper, broader, higher, and more profound our communion – or union – with God becomes.

Because of a 700 hundred year history of individuation (according to Jung) we have lost touch with and have become profoundly alienated from our human nature. The tragic effect of this reality is that as we enter into the prayer of the heart, we’re not even aware that we are reconnecting with our nature. We get all excited about God (which is certainly a good thing!) but remain oblivious to humanity (and if the ascetics are right, with all creation) that we are being reconnected to all because of a living and expanding heart.

Ironically, even as we pray without being aware of its social implications, social justice becomes yet another tool of alienation. We pursue it because in our binary thinking it is active (and not escapist). We participate in it because we think that in this way we participate in God’s salvation of the whole world. But salvation, including the salvation of the world, only comes as the world participates in the life-giving divine energies. And those energies are available to the world, both people and creation, through our hearts that are expanded by true prayer.

But what does this sort of prayer of the heart, with our neighbor or enemy specifically in mind, look like? I will explore this further in the next essay.

Next essay: My Neighbor, Myself

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.

 

The Schism of the Systems: Culture in Crisis

In the final section of The Origins and History of Consciousness, Erich Neumann offers an explanation of one of the great concerns facing modern society: the breakdown of civil discourse and the apparent accompanying breakdown of culture itself. The original German version of the book was written in 1949, so the context of his ideas is Germany between the wars, the rise of Hitler, and the world immediately after World War II. In short, our current crisis is not new but rather a further maturing of forces that need to be understood in terms of decades and centuries, not election cycles.

Neumann’s concern has to do with what he calls “re-collectivization.” Drawing on Carl Jung’s theories of the “collective unconscious” as a trans-personal connection between individuals within a tribe or culture, and to a lesser extent, among all humanity, Neumann argues that we have lost our connection to the collective unconscious. The Renaissance is a convenient signpost marking a transition away from societies (or more accurately, tribes) with a strong collective connection toward more individuality. As people became more individuated, they slowly lost awareness of the collective unconscious and its guidance became unavailable to them.

Neumann argues (pp. 381ff) that humans are really quite bad at being individuals. Without the structure of the collective unconscious giving us foundations for our thinking and parameters for what is acceptable, we inevitably seek re-collectivization by joining “mass collectives” which provide us with “participation mystique” (p. 383). This is not participation in a true collective unconscious (thus it’s a “mystique” and not a reality, in his terminology); it is more akin to the joy or “mystique” of joining a bandwagon. But because the foundations of these mass collectives are arbitrary to anyone outside the collective (for instance, the Tea Party in 2008 or Bernie Sanders’ appeal in 2012), different collectives mass together but inevitably disagree with each other, often violently.

Being American, I will illustrate with the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It’s a fine historical document, but today we wonder just what is so self-evident about these truths. We wonder because they are no longer so self-evident. In fact there are competing sets of self-evident truths. Alongside these truths of American civil religion, there are the self-evident truths of Islam. Many Americans have been scandalized by certain members of the Trump administration who are trying to institute the self-evident truths of a certain flavor of fundamentalist Protestantism that is utterly foreign to people living on either coast. There is also the rise of Putin’s Russia and the newly reminted China and the self-evident truths of these two cultures are as frightening as the self-evident truths of Islam or Christian fundamentalism.

This also occurred a couple of generations earlier (as Neumann observed) in Europe. Germany, France, and Italy were deeply divided with differing mass collectives that broadly broke down into Communist, Fascist, or Capitalist collectives. The result was the two World Wars. Being isolated, North America was not on the cutting edge of this process and the center held for a couple more decades. To an extent with the Korean War, and certainly by the Viet Nam war, a similar process, but with different collective sensibilities, occurred in the United States.

Europe recognized the terrible consequences of this “schism of systems” and was able to unite under a new mass collective banner represented by the European Union. But it is now clear that the values that underlie the EU while widespread, are still perceived as arbitrary, and not everyone has bought in. The result is schism, many of them violent, both on the national level (Greece and Britain chafing under th EU, for instance) and also internecine conflict, illustrated best in France where the North African French and francophone Africans have not bought into the collective assumptions of the majority of French people.

In the United States this schism of mass collectives is jumbled, the divides cutting in different and sometimes seemingly contradictory directions. There is a race divide. As the old mass collective began to break down in the 1950s and 60s racial tensions between Blacks and Whites as well as Native Americans and Whites shattered the illusion of a true collective consciousness. In my childhood memory, the Black Panthers and Wounded Knee were the exclamation marks of this deep divide.

Today, alongside the racial tensions, we have a mass collective that seeks security (build a wall) and a different mass collective that seeks openness (we are a great country because we are a country of refugees). Each collective interprets the fundamental social problems differently. Neumann describes it as follows (referring to 1940s Europe, and not contemporary America):

The disintegration of the old system of values is in full swing. God, King, Fatherland, have become problematical quantities, and so have Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, love and fair play, human progress, and the meaning of existence. This is not to say that they will not continue to influence our lives as transpersonal quantities of an archetypal nature; but their relation to one another is questionable, and their old hierarchical order has been destroyed. (p. 390)

I find Neumann’s argument completely convincing and very well documented. It is even more so because of how his predictions have played out in the sixty-five years since he wrote the book. And since this is the case, it is also clear that the manner in which the church has set its priorities (aligning itself with one mass collective against another) actually supports and furthers the “schism of systems” rather than healing it.

Extroverted means of dealing with social crises (that is, the social justice sensibility of most Protestants and many Catholics) actually pits the varying mass collectives against each other. Neumann worried about this also. “[T]he individual who lacks the support of a compensatory movement inside himself [ie, a strong identification with the predominant mass collective] drops out of the ordered fabric of civilization.” The result is “a shrinking of world horizons and the loss of all certainty and meaning in life” (p. 390). This is a near perfect description of the nihilism that underlies the random American violence from Oklahoma City (1995) to Las Vegas (2017).

But as dire as Neumann’s description is, he does not despair. This isn’t a static state in his view, it’s a necessary process we are in the midst of. This is the inevitable consequence of the rise of the individual that began with the Renaissance. But we now have to move beyond it. The knee jerk human reaction to the rise of individual consciousness is the inevitably destructive and cruel mass collective. The actual next step (redeveloping and rediscovering a true collective consciousness) is exceedingly difficult and so we had to be faced with the terrible consequences of individual consciousness in order to motivate us toward the next step.

Returning to his field of expertise, he compares our situation to adolescence (pp. 392ff). The terrible necessity of adolescence is that they have to go through a disintegration of personality (the one given to them by their family unit) in order to begin the process of reintegration of personality so that the adolescent can become a true individual. Similarly, we have experienced a disintegration of tribe and culture in the last 500 years. The key task now is not primarily to help the poor and oppressed, but rather to reintegrate disparate groups into an authentic society so that the poor and oppressed are no longer marginalized.

I will argue in the next essay that the Church is uniquely qualified to lead in this process. I will further argue that the specific gift we have to offer is not the work of social justice but rather authentic prayer centered in the Eastern Christian sensibility that the whole point of salvation is union with God.

Footnote: Jung’s and Neumann’s idea of the collective unconscious is similar, but not identical, to the Christian doctrine of shared human nature (Greek physis). The fact that the collective unconscious sounds so wacky to us is simply an indication of how deeply the alienation growing out of our emphasis on individuality, affects us, even in the church where we have a doctrine for that.

Next essay: A Brief Introduction to Prayer of the Heart

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.

 

Utopia, Dystopia, the Social Gospel, and the Return of Christ

Just as our concept of mishpat and tzedakah is flawed (see the previous essay), so our concept of social justice has been twisted by historical trends, and as a result, our confidence in its efficacy is flawed. This twisting of perceptions can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution which not only led to change but also to a change in the pace of change. Things happened so quickly that negative unintended consequences overwhelmed societal structures and norms. These unintended consequences were addressed under the name of social reform and life got better for most people. We now think of social reform (and later, the Social Gospel, and after that, Social Justice) driven by ordinary citizens as normative. But historically this conclusion is hard to defend.

The 19th and early 20th centuries were a time of previously unimaginable change. The pace of change and the creation of wealth (both results of the Industrial Revolution) so far exceeded anything that had come before that people’s experience were outpacing their imagination. On the one hand the level of human horror that was created in places like industrialized London was beyond anything we thought possible prior to the Industrial Revolution. At the same time the achievements that were occurring which led to wealth creation and human comfort were also beyond anything we thought possible. So it is that a single reality that was beyond reasonable explanation was understood as simultaneously dystopian and utopian.

The Industrial Revolution also interconnected society and societies across Europe and North America in a manner not seen before. Change in London and Manchester led to change in rural England. Change in Europe resulted in change in the Americas. Increasingly nothing was viewed in isolation. Grand systems (either utopian or dystopian) were created to explain what was happening.

These utopian sensibilities shaped the politico-economic philosophies of the day (both Adam Smith’s invisible hand on the right and Karl Marx’s Communism on the left are typical of this tendency). The same forces led to millenarian religious movements (Adventism, Dispensationalism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormonism). The millenarian movements all tended to be escapist. As the whole world became intertwined there was an increasing despair that the world could not be fixed. (This is the dystopian side of the new cultural sensibility, more Marx and less Adam Smith.) The only “solution” was to await Jesus Christ’s return and his rescue of Christians from the terrible conditions and terrible world in which they found themselves.

On the utopian side of the coin, this new world also brought about aid societies the sort of which had never been seen before. Some simply sought to provide relief to the destitute, but for the most part, these new movements also tried to understand their role in terms of the intertwined world. This was the era of the Social Gospel (Walter Rauschenbusch being its most famous proponent). It was also the era of utopian communities such as Brook Farm, New Harmony, Oneida, and the Amana Communities which began popping up seemingly everywhere. The early days of reform were remarkably successful. Even the powerful industrialists recognized that the system could not continue in its present state and so it took little urging from the reformers to bring about massive change. The reform was so successful that it became the model of Christian activism. Thus contemporary social justice is a continuation of the Social Gospel and the sensibility that we must address problems systemically rather than individually.

Whether the early success of these reform movements continued is a matter of significant debate. Industrial society outpaced our political system by many decades, but eventually governments caught up and established laws, rules, and guidelines to protect their citizens. Labor unions were created. A new relationship between business, government, and labor evolved that reflected the new reality of an industrialized world. In the United States this new relationship was consummated with the Great Society legislation of the 1960s. Efforts for reform have continued since then, but the necessity of reform is not as obvious and so there is an ebb and flow of regulations.

What is clear in the last half century is that while there is a minimum standard of decency which society demands beyond which there is outrage, the fundamental reality of poverty and oppression has not changed. Those inclined to take advantage of others (whether in the camp of business, labor, or government) will, given the chance, continue to take advantage. Unless things pass beyond that ill-defined minimum standard of decency, most people are inclined to look the other way. New legislation is always accompanied by new loopholes. New protections always result in new ways to take advantage of the disadvantaged. It’s the same chess board, the pieces merely get rearranged.

This leaves us with some hard questions. Was the success of efforts toward systemic change in the previous century a fluke? Were those changes largely inevitable as the industrial revolution matured into a newly ordered society with far more powerful central governments and brand new labor unions to balance out the power of industry? Or, was this new societal order not at all inevitable and instead the result of reform movements that focused on systemic change? The history of social movements (from initial success tied rather specifically to fast-paced societal change to more recent stagnation) indicates that such systemic reform movements are not normative. Rather they are as much a product of the Industrial Revolution as the squalid conditions and terrible injustice that brought about the reform movements in the first place.

One of the results of this history is that we now see social justice through a binary of escapism or activism. Either we get involved in social justice efforts or settle for a private morality where one walks in the garden alone with Jesus, not letting the cares of the world intrude. The second effect of this binary thinking is that we tend to assume that the only way the world can change is through (binary 1) a world ending climax (the return of Jesus Christ or a nuclear war, for instance) or (binary 2) social reform and social justice movements that will improve the plight of the oppressed and bring the oppressors to justice.

Like all binaries, this one blinds us to both the challenges we face and the opportunities that we have. I will come to the opportunities in a later essay, but the next essay will take a close look at the challenges that face us and why the social justice model is ill equipped to face those challenges.

Next essay: The Schism of Systems: Culture in Crisis

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.

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.

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.

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”?

Canaanites, Dogs, and St. Christopher

NOTE: Because of an unexpectedly busy week (ah, the tyranny of the urgent but pointless!) I didn’t get this essay edited to post in a timely manner. Sunday’s Gospel lesson is at the center of one of my current fascinations, so I’m posting it anyway; better late than never.

I want to approach this Sunday’s lectionary Gospel lesson by way of a bizarre Eastern Orthodox icon that I just recently discovered when listening to this video by iconographer and medievalist Jonathan Pageau. He explains the icon in far more depth in this article in the Orthodox Arts Journal.

This is how St. Christopher was traditionally represented in Eastern Orthodox iconography. In the West, St. Christopher typically appears as a giant carrying a traveler on his shoulder. And not just any giant! He was said to be a “Cainite” (offspring of Cain) and Nephilim, the half angel, half human creature that was the primary cause of the flood, according the standard medieval interpretation of Genesis.

The reason he is shown with a dog’s head is that the Eastern tradition says he was a Canaanite. Canaanites were a particularly despised people group in the near east at the time of Jesus and the early church. And this brings us to this week’s Gospel lesson (Mt. 15:21-28), where a Canaanite woman pled with Jesus to heal her daughter who was tormented by a demon. Jesus initially ignored her and called the Canaanites dogs (as everyone did). Eventually he did heal her, but the Gospel story leaves a sour taste in our modern mouths.

By today’s standards Jesus’ words would probably be considered hate speech. For the followers of Jesus, the scandal was not that Jesus referred to the Canaanites as dogs, but rather that he relented and delivered the woman’s daughter.

The Canaanite woman and Christopher, the Canaanite saint, are examples of how the Gospel reaches beyond the borderlands of culture into chaos. They are uncomfortable edge cases which punctuate our prejudices that often dehumanize the person who is completely other, whether it is a person of another culture or skin color  or are different in other ways, such as deformities, deficiencies, or simply lack of good taste or proper politics.

But this is why Christopher has endured as an honored saint. Of course pure people (that is, us in our self-perception) can be Christ-bearers. We also affirm that foreigners can be Christ-bearers, because Jesus sent the apostles to spread the Gospel to the whole world. But the world is also populated by things that are simply “unnatural” and otherwise beyond. It’s too easy for us to see certain people and think that they are beyond redemption, like dogs.

Jesus could have done the correct thing and welcomed the Canaanite woman with open arms, but if he would have done that, an important lesson would have been missed. In order to emphasize the surprising inclusivity of the Gospel he began by emphasizing the exclusivity of polite society. He started with that which people required, and from there he moved to including the unnatural and unredeemable under the umbrella of the Gospel.

In the Western tradition, according to Pageau, Christopher never entered the nave of the church only coming in as far as the narthex. This is a very interesting bit of the story. The church has rules. In all except the most liberal of churches (which are most of the Protestant churches of today especially in America, but both worldwide and historically, this is an outlier) the Table is “fenced.” Not just anyone can receive communion because, to speak metaphorically, the Cup is like a raging flame, and if one is not prepared by God, the Cup might be experienced as judgment rather than an internal enlightenment.

The one who is recognized as a saint that isn’t fully a part of the Body of Christ (entering the church only as far as the narthex), embodies the self-imposed quandary we find ourselves in. Historically, with a handful of exceptions (modernity being one of them), the church has felt strongly that rules are required in order to be faithful to Christ. But as soon as we make rules we discover that the Gospel can extend beyond the rules. Rules always look backward while the Gospel looks forward and outward. Rules, while required, always end up being complicated.

The other problem, and this isn’t a quandary, this is just plain old wickedness hiding in the form of high sounding rules, is that we often want to exclude certain people, and even worse, certain classes of people just because they are our “Canaanites.” In Sioux City it tends to be Native Americans, in South Sioux City it might be Hispanics or refugee immigrants. Elsewhere it more likely to be blacks, while in a small town thirty miles from where I taught high school, it was whites. When I was in college it was Democrats; in seminary it was Republicans (and that was over thirty years ago … it is far worse now).

Those whom God recognizes as saints might appear to us to be dog-headed men, just as in the icon. In the 18th century the Russian Orthodox Church disallowed icons including any dog-headed men. I suspect that decision had to do with the werewolf traditions throughout that region. Today such icons are nearly impossible to find simply because we fancy ourselves too polite, and such an icon seems utterly gauche. (It’s the same reason we shrink from today’s Gospel lesson.) This is a pity. Having holy objects that included dog-headed men, and especially beloved St. Christopher, presented as a dog-headed man, would be a constant reminder that for us the Gospel rarely includes everyone. Each and every one of us have someone that we would rather remain in the narthex. Each and every church communion has someone who doesn’t fit their standards of life-style or belief. And those dogs?

Far away from us, hanging around with St. Christopher at the very margins warming their hands on the divine glory.

Passions, Tyranny, and Joy: The Struggle of the Christian Life

This week we have watched, and possibly participated in, one mob seeking to defend what they euphemistically call their way of life, and a second mob seeking to destroy and banish the first mob. The white supremacists are certainly contemptible both because of their willingness to act on their prejudices and the violent way in which they do it.  But mobs in general are contemptible.

I find them contemptible because mobs are reduced to their animal natures. Once a person gets swept up into the mob (whether it’s a legal march in a city park and the quasi-legal other night marches with torches intentionally designed to terrorize and intimidate or an online response via social media which reduces everything to either/or and black and white, the person begins to lose their sense of self and is reduced to their animal instincts, or what Maximus the Confessor called “the unnatural passions.”

What is a passion? Maximus says

  • Passions are impulses that move us to action by overcoming our will. Because of this these passions enslave us.
  • Passions are powerful because they cannot be satisfied. (This is because the root impulse that drives the passions is the desire to be one with God, but the effect of sin is that this drive misses the mark and gets attached to things that are not God. This might be recognizably bad things, such as a desire to be recognized and the center of attention, or seemingly good things, such as the desire for social justice. The inability to find satisfaction is at the heart of mob mentality.)
  • Passions are forces that go against what we know to be the proper action and lead us to actions which are counter to the commandments of Christ. But passions also have the ability to self-justify, so often in the moment, we believe we are doing the right thing. It is only with some emotional space that we can step back and recognize that the actions are improper.
  • Passions are also distinguished by “natural passions,” such as hunger, fear, and sadness, and “unnatural passions,” which are the unhinged natural passions that lose focus, miss their mark, or even get captured in a mob spirit. The desire to stop bigotry and hatred, for instance, when seized upon by a mob and by our animal instincts of fight or flight, quickly expresses itself in hatred and generalizations – everyone marching in defense of a Gen. Lee statue is, in this particular generalization, a racist and/or white supremacist.

Fortunately there have been a great number of people who have managed to avoid getting caught up in either mob and have recognized that these generalizations are both false and dangerous. My purpose here is not to enumerate the falsehoods or the dangers of the two mobs because others (and here I think particularly of Jemar Tisby and others with his wisdom and local experience) have done this far better than I could, living the insulated life I live in the Midwest.  Rather, my purpose is to put the Charlottesville affair into the context of what the church fathers consider the fundamental battle of our salvation.

We can become enslaved by evil by embracing evil. We can also become enslaved by evil when fighting evil. This is not to say we shouldn’t fight evil (although St. Porphyrios did say just that as I’ve mentioned here, here, and here), but when we do battle we must be ever vigilant of both the outward physical battle (in this case, racism) and the internal spiritual battle against the unnatural passions that an outward battle can always stir up.

I will conclude by proposing that the greatest weapon we have against tyranny and evil is joy. (Remember the 1997 movie Life is Beautiful?) When we are joyful, the unnatural passions have great difficulty in finding root in our hearts. Joy also tends to unmask the pretense of the enemy. (Go look at the work of Rachel Fulton Brown for profound analysis on this point.) Finally, true joy chases away the anger and replaces it with sorrow. I doubt there can be true joy that is not coupled with deep sorrow. When that happens we can recognize that the supremacists are not the masters, but slaves of their passions. When we recognize that we can authentically pray for them even as we struggle against their tyranny.

Why no Outrage?

This morning I was asked why I haven’t written something condemning white supremacy in the United States and saying something about the Charlottesville march, the General Lee statue, etc. There’s a very good reason for it, imho, but before I get to that I will say that I find the state of affairs to be abhorrent. It says bad things about us as an American society when self-professed neo-Nazis feel comfortable marching without the anonymity of the white sheets they used to use … And we’re still not doing much about it!

I also suspect that there are a whole bunch of angry but ignorant young people who were never properly taught history who are caught up in the alt-right movement without any real understanding of how dangerous and abhorrent the larger impulse is. So I am more saddened than angry by the current state of affairs.

But social media is not the appropriate forum for this condemnation. For most of us it is easy to express outrage in the relative anonymity and safety of the internet. (I am well aware of trolls and the psychic terror they can cause. Before social media was around I received death threats aimed at me and my family through the mail at the church, so I do have a sense of the violation and fear that these sort of activities create, but that is the exception rather than the rule.) For most of us, expressing our online outrage costs us nothing and accomplishes nothing while simultaneously making us feel morally superior because we merely expressed our outrage.

Expressing outrage is not the purpose of this blog. If I do express outrage about Charlottesville, shouldn’t I also express outrage about Syria and Egypt where they pick up random Christian clergy and jail them or torture them simply because they can? And if I express outrage about Charlottesville, Syria, and Egypt, shouldn’t I express outrage over the child abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Guam? And if I do that, shouldn’t I also do the same about Canada where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has fallen far short in its duty to address the abuses of native people over the years?  … well, you get the idea.

If it’s local and I have some insight that others may not have, I do use this blog as a forum. I recently expressed outrage again at ABC when they essentially admitted their culpability in the smear campaign against Iowa Beef Products. I have personal experience and knowledge about how damaging that so-called news reporting was, so it seemed okay to express my opinion. But that is the exception that proves the rule. If I lived in Virginia or was still teaching in Mississippi then Charlottesville would be the exception that proves the rule, but that’s no longer my context.

So enough outrage on this forum for now. I’ll get back to the lectionary, Karl Barth, and the occasional Zombie Apocalypse news flash.