My Sojourn with the Social Justice Warriors

In the previous essay I opined that we need to broaden our face-to-face community and interact socially with a broad range of people. In truth it is surprising how difficult that is. Our social networks, our churches, and many of our social groups are “silos of conformity” where no real dialog with those who are different is possible. There’s a reason for this; being with those who are different is hard.

This year I took part in an Advent book study that extended out through winter and Lent. Over time the group inexorably veered toward social justice issues, not by design, but because the most outspoken members were focused on social justice and seemingly quite dismissive of disciplines focused on personal spiritual growth (except for prayer: prayer is good … as long as it leads to social justice; and worship and the Eucharist are good … as long as we understand that the Eucharist is about feeding hungry people). I hadn’t been intimately involved with the social justice wing of the church since my days as a Presbyterian pastor, so this turned out to be an adventure in community with people of quite different perspectives and thus an illustration of that which I was speaking in the previous essay.

I was unimpressed (to put it mildly) by the social justice movement of the 90s which was long on talk and short on action (except for protests, public meetings, and bulletin inserts – in other words, long on action that made us feel good but short on action that actually led to social justice). Over the years I have come to realize that the systemic change the social justice movements of the 80s and 90s were seeking were beyond the scope of anything that movements could significantly influence. For the most part systemic change occurs in spite of, and not because of, social justice movements.

My new experience with social justice was the same as two and three decades ago. We read books and repeated the same conversation we had back then. The characters had changed (Latinos instead of Somalis, for instance; Donal Trump instead of Ronald Reagan) but angst and anger were all pretty much identical.

It was at this point that I began to disengage in the book study. My memory of my Presbyterian days was that it was the anger that propelled the movement forward and the angst that made it feel righteous. We felt bad and a righteous anger burned against those who did bad. But is it righteous?

Righteous anger is a very rare thing because it needs to be constructive rather than destructive. For me, in my very short time with this justice focused group, there was very little that was constructive. (Conversation for conversation’s sake, for instance, is not constructive; going to a meeting about immigration is not constructive.) It was destructive because it left a slow burn in my soul. Righteous anger, in order to be constructive, cannot be the slow burn variety. “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26).

Anger that you sleep on, that you mull over in your head, transforms itself into a variety of spiritual problems. It drowns out the silence of God that transforms the heart into the image of anger rather than love. St. Porphyrios said, “You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look towards Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love.” Abiding anger is antithetical to the life of love that Porphyrios is talking about.

But when I disengaged from the book study I did not engage the group in a discussion of these issues, or only did so at the surface level. Is this not a contradiction to what I said should happen in the previous essay? As I said at the beginning of this essay, my experience illustrates the difficulty of authentic engagement with those one disagrees with.

The Orthodox vision of salvation is radically but subtly different than the Western vision of salvation. It took me years to begin to understand and embrace the difference. One of the key differences is that the Orthodox recognize that social justice is inherently futile.  The world is broken; we are broken. The result is that when we try to fix the world, we inadvertently break it more. The very idea of changing the world (every college kid’s dream, if you believe the commencement speeches) is triumphalistic and thus , to a degree, idolatrous. Only God can change the world.

My role in that primary grand divine process of changing the world is to participate in changing myself. Changing myself is extremely difficult. In fact, it is far easier  to put that aside and go about trying to do social justice and hope that others and social systems will change. In this Orthodox framework, social justice is similar to co-dependency.

But the other people in the group didn’t sign up to have a conversation about Orthodoxy and how it is radically different than the liberal Protestant vision of what we need to do in the world. They didn’t come to me, I came to them. It would have been impolite to force the conversation in that direction.

Instead, I’ll hang around and wait. Maybe at some point down the line there will be an opportunity for such a conversation. But before that is truly possible I need to spend more time listening and being … and allowing myself to fully appreciate their personhood and ideas without (1) merely demeaning their ideas, and (2) not allowing their ideas of social justice to create a slow burn in my own heart. The time is not full, the opportunity is not yet fully ripe.

Nowhere for Me to Get Out To

From Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. Setting: Ivan is in an insane asylum because of a misdiagnosis (in his opinion); he saw the transcendent world. There are bars on the windows, but another patient has just entered Ivan’s room by unlocking the bars and opening the window. They are now talking:

“But if you can go out onto the balcony, you can get out of here. Or is it too high up?” queried Ivan.

“No,” was the guest’s firm reply, “It’s not because it’s too high that I can’t get out, but because there’s nowhere for me to get out to.” After a pause he added, “So, we’re stuck sitting here?”

“Yes, stuck,” replied Ivan, gazing into the new-comer’s anxious-looking brown eyes.

Ah … but isn’t that the plight of humanity! Nowhere for me to get out to.

Note: If this doesn’t make a lot of sense, the novel is a critique of Russian atheist culture.

What I learned from Tolstoy (That Tolstoy did not intend for me to Learn)

I am quite ignorant when it comes to Leo Tolstoy. Like most people with a passable liberal arts education, I have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but I know little of his life. I had assumed that, like Dostoyevsky, he was Orthodox; although in fact he was an anarchist with what seems to be vaguely Christian tendencies (a Christian in general but believes whatever he wants to pull out of the Bible and ignores the rest) and dismissive of not only all Orthodoxy, but seemingly all organized Christianity.

I came to this realization reading his book The Kingdom of God Is Within You is his explanation and defense of his anarchist position, drawn largely from two American writers, William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou. It was an influential volume. Gandhi said it was one of the books that taught him the value and process of non-violence. But it is a thoroughly 19th century book that embraced most of the weakness and few of the strengths of the era. I’ve managed about a third of the book but doubt I will finish it.

Tolstoy says he embraces “non-resistance,” but his understanding of the idea is so comprehensive it must necessarily be identified as an anarchist philosophy. Along with pacifism, Tolstoy argues that the Christian cannot serve in any government office, cannot vote, cannot willingly pay taxes (although one shouldn’t object if the government takes it by force). He also is open to the possibility that the Christian cannot be a land owner.

As alluded to above, the book is a product of the some of the least tenable ideas of the 19th century. It is thoroughly rationalist and considers Christianity, not as a living relationship with God, but rather as a philosophy or a collection of ideas (or in the case of this book, a singular idea from the Sermon on the Mount) to shape his thinking and live by. It also elevates his own private interpretation above all others that have gone before. The depth and breadth of his hubris is quite frankly a bit frightening. That someone could be that absolutist and sure of his own ideas in the context of the Stalinist regime is unimaginable to me. But I suspect that sort of triumphalistic rationalism was the air the 19th century breathed because those same sensibilities were also built into American Protestantism and still largely infect conservative American Christianity.

If Shashi Tharoor is correct in his analysis (and most Indians think so, if not Britons) Winston Churchill committed genocide on a scale near to that of Stalin in his dealings with India. Tolstoy was essentially responding to Stalin and his genocide in this book, and it could be that context in India was similar enough that Gandhi found, in Tolstoy, a comrade who was horrified by the evil perpetrated by the government.

I mention Stalin and Churchill because we too live in an age of demagoguery. Brexit, the American and French elections, along with similar sentiments in Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and elsewhere, indicate that the neither Brexit nor Donald Trump are outliers in the modern Western world. The sort of violence expressed in acts of genocide have not been seen, but the attitudes that underlie such actions should be recognized.

But if I dislike the book so much, why am I writing about it? Because it reveals the disconcerting ways in which we are living in similar times. First it is rooted in the idea that a relatively simple idea will fix everything. (For Tolstoy it was anarchism. Today it is, among other things, nativism, which is at the root of the Brexit vote, the Make America Great Again campaign, and the le Pen campaign.) Second, it is rooted in a personal version of truth that rejects a broader understanding of reality. (In this sense, Tolstoy’s interpretation of the Bible is similar to the modern phenomenon which is currently called “fake news.”) Third (and this is closely related to the first), is inherent triumphalism of such ideas. Some things are simply too big to fix with an overarching plan. The problems need to be chipped away rather than swept away. Trying to sweep them away will lead to unimagined consequences that are almost always bad. India was left with staggering poverty (although that was almost certainly the result of British policy more than Gandhi’s response), Russia was left with the police state that we called Communist Russian and the modern world … well, what knows what will happen with the modern world.

And this has led me to think at length at how we chip away at world that seems to be spinning madly out of control. Tolstoy didn’t have a clue. Dostoyevsky understood the problem very well it seems. Gandhi was immediately successful, but his revolution has been a long-term spiral downward. It’s hard to find true modern success stories.

This essay is designed to set forth some very broad ideas. I will propose the following:

  1. The problem isn’t fake news, or more fundamentally, the problem is not truth and our lack of commitment to it; rather the problem is relationships, and our lack of commitment to them.
  2. We can solve very little by focusing on the victims. They do not represent the core problem, but rather the effects of deeper problems.
  3. Most problems cannot be fixed in an acceptable way. Rather than fix them, we need to learn to live with them and through them.
  4. The biggest problem is not the government nor radicals nor the unengaged, it is rather us. If we learn to focus on our own issues rather than other peoples issues (Jesus described it as the log in my eye and the speck in the other person’s eye), we can seriously begin to address #3.

These are some rather broad ideas that I hope to flesh out in the next months. I am curious how much headway I can make. I invite you to follow along.

Joseph’s Story

The three lessons for the 4th Sunday of Advent are each about the nature of the Messiah: his humanity his sinlessness, and his deity. Isaiah 7:10-16 deals with it in a prophetic/poetic voice. Paul comes closest to what we might call a theological statement on the subject with his utterance of praise in Rom 1:1-7. The Gospel (Mat 1:18-25), deals with it as a story.

Historically the church has tended to focus on the theology of the incarnation. And for good reason, because, as seven ecumenical councils and hundreds of years testify, getting the doctrine wrong on these matters leads to seriously bad consequences.

The story itself, on the other hand, has much to tell us about the effects of “God with us” (the meaning of the name “Immanuel”) rather than its meaning, and I’ve been thinking about that this week. For those involved God’s direct involvement with humanity led to inconvenience, chaos, doubt as to how to proceed in life, etc.

Joseph was a righteous man and betrothed (a state of affairs that doesn’t exist in modern culture – pretty much all the legal entanglements of marriage without the “benefits”). Furthermore, the woman to whom he was betrothed was pregnant. He knew he didn’t do it, so he began the process of a quiet divorce. The law suggested he might want to have Mary stoned to death in the city square but he chose to spare her life, and to the degree possible, save her family from shame.

This is the immediate effect of the incarnation: utter chaos in the fabric and family and community life.

The second effect of the incarnation is God’s secondary involvement in life. God comes to Joseph in a dream an explains the situation: the baby’s not illegitimate, the child is from God. Go ahead and marry her.

Notice that this secondary divine involvement in the lives of the people involved doesn’t solve many problems and essentially creates more for Joseph. It saves Mary’s life and makes the baby sort of legitimate, but it doesn’t solve any of the disruptions in the family and social fabric.

We overlay our Christianity with religion. Religion is awe-inspiring, comfortable and predictable, and we use it to solve a lot of our problems. Christianity, on the other hand, is anything but. Since we’ve had Christianity around for two millennia, we’ve settled quite comfortably into it’s religious façade. In this text the façade is torn away and we are reminded of the real thing, of what actually happens when God chooses to dwell among us.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of choosing a congregation because the preacher is really good and then to stay there because it meets our needs. That doesn’t exactly line up with Joseph’s story in Mat. 1. So as Christmas approaches, I wonder … are we going to celebrate the actual chaos of Christmas, escape into the false comfort of the gentle Christmas celebration at Church, or dive into the alternative chaos of consumerism?

Three alternatives. Joseph’s story shows us a glimpse into the best of the three.

Oppressed-a-non

‘Tis the season to be reminded of the poor and oppressed. We hear it every week in the Advent scripture readings at liturgy. We are asked to give financially to a whole host of charities during this season. And inevitably, we hear some harangue about how “we” (the “we” in this harangue may be aimed at one’s local congregation, or denomination, or city, or nation, or even the U.N.) are simply not doing enough to help them.

My thesis today is that such harangues are likely a product of what those in recovery call an “enabling” or possibly a “codependent” relationship. At the heart of codependency is the reality that both parties are broken and use the relationship in order to either cover up or pass blame for their own brokenness. As long as I am helping the addict (no matter how inappropriately), I can avoid dealing with my own issues and deny my own brokenness.

So it is with the poor and oppressed. Jesus said we ought to help them, but oddly he never told us to fix the problem. The Old Testament prophets certainly went after kings, nobles, and governments for allowing these conditions, but fixing poverty seems to have never been high on the agenda of God’s commission to the Church. In fact Jesus said that the poor would always be among us. As a result almsgiving – helping – (in  contrast to social justice – fixing) is given a high priority.

I propose the reason for this is that poverty and oppression are not the problems; they are rather symptoms of a much deeper problem. The deeper problem is sometimes called “sin” and sometimes called “injustice” in scripture, but both terms are notoriously vague and difficult to pin down. Paul even calls it “death,” which seems a bit weird given what we mean by that term today. Within a couple of generations after Christ the Church began to identify this part of the sin problem specifically as “corruption.”

Because of their initial sin, Adam and Eve “died” and passed death on to their offspring. In this context death refers to our separation from God, who is the source of Life (because he is Life itself). Like a Christmas tree that begins to dry out, fade and lose needles, even though it’s kept in water chock full of nutrients, cut off from the root, the tree begins to die. For us humans that death manifests itself as “corruption.” Our bodies don’t work right, our social systems don’t work right, etc.

In Christ we are joined back to true Life and in the Holy Spirit true Life begins to once again flow. The Spirit is the Source of Life and we (the Church in its grandest mystical meaning) are, in a sense mediators (or as Peter calls us, “priests”) of that Life to all creation. (Don’t ask me exactly how it works; this point clearly falls under the category of “ineffable.”)

But we can cut off the flow of this true Life because our sin (either our ignoring of the effects of the corruption on others – the poor and oppressed – or the outrage and anger toward all those people and institutions that aren’t fixing the problem) is not dealt with. We must become vessels that can hold true Life before we can effectively be the priests and mediators through which that Life enters into the world.

But dealing with our outrage and anger and a whole host of other sins, from pride to miserliness, to lust, to laziness, is extremely difficult. It requires humility and discipline and the gentle help of those around us (whether confessor or friend or person who sits in the pew directly behind us). It’s far easier to become an “advocate” and rage against the system that has failed the poor and oppressed than it is to deal with the rage.

Helping the poor and oppressed and enacting systemic change so that the oppressed get a fair shake is not a bad thing, but rather than rage, it must grow out of our joy and wonder of God. Just as oppression is symptomatic of a much deeper issue, so is our rage against the system is symptomatic of our own codependency and denial. Instead of joining an advocacy group, maybe we need to first join Oppressed-A-Non so that we can become the priest and mediator of true Life that we are called to be. Only then will our almsgiving and advocacy become truly transformative, both for me and for those being helped.

The Trinity as Life instead of Doctrine

There’s currently quite a little tempest going on among Evangelicals about Trinitarianism. Certain high profile Evangelical professor types have gone astray of Trinitarian orthodoxy (specifically in relation to the doctrine of subordinationism) and are seemingly unrepentant. Of course, Evangelicals have no disciplinary structures to speak of, so all that remains for the remaining orthodox Evangelical sorts is to huff and puff with little consequence … oh and offer that little 33 question “Are You A Trinitarian?” test that Tim Challies put together.

A relative of mine posted it on Facebook. I took the quiz because I figured I might flunk it, since I confess and believe the Nicene Creed as it was written and approved by the ancient councils, and not with the “and the Son” phrase that the Western Church has added in order to defend the double procession doctrine. Turns out this little test didn’t touch on the subject of the procession of the Holy Spirit, so I am safely Trinitarian according to this little quiz. (Whew! You can’t believe how relieved I am!! Winking smile)

Beyond the “Are you a Trinitarian?” question is the follow-up question of “So what?” Here is Challies “So what?” answer (from Q31):

Redemption is illogical and impossible without Trinitarian distinctions. For example, in order for the Father to pour out his wrath on his Son and for the Father to accept Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, the persons must be distinct. That the Son is infinite God also explain how his death can be infinitely valuable and thus able to pay the just penalty of eternity in hell for all those he redeems.

I used to be Presbyterian, so I get that a Presbyterian is going to put emphasis on a juridical framework for salvation, but I was left wondering, “Is that actually all you’ve got?” This is certainly not why Trinitarian doctrine is vital to salvation. I will explain:

We are spiritually dead and Trinitarian doctrine, with all it’s arcane details about oneness, threeness, Jesus’ full humanity and full deity, procession, etc., explains how it is possible for Creator God to enter into creation and offer spiritually dead humans the Source of True Life for now and eternity.

Our physical life is not unlike a cut flower which is beautiful and seemingly alive for days and even weeks. But since it has been snipped from its source of life, it will eventually wilt and die. We too are cut off from our only possible source of life, which is the life-giving Trinity.

Trinitarian teachings show us that it is possible for us to be united, or “made one” with Christ through the Holy Spirit, and thus to be made one with the life-giving Trinity because Christ is actually and truly God. Christ, fully God and fully human, participates in our life even to the extent of dying a humiliating cross death. This participation by God with us and as us in turn allows us to participate in God’s life. All of this talk of judgment is certainly biblical, but it is a side-bar to the content of the Gospel: the mysterious life-giving power of the life-giving Trinity who, in Christ, is fully united with humanity, thus giving humans the gracious opportunity to drink deeply and forever of the actual source of life.

To reduce the doctrine of the Trinity to a riff on divine wrath, divine judgment, and Christ’s sacrifice as a solution to judgment rather than as the more fundamental issue of how we actually access the life that is offered to us through Christ’s participation, is a pyrrhic Trinitarian victory. It is the essence of what we find in 2 Timothy 3:5. “… holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power.” It is the conceit of knowledge (v. 4) without proper application of that knowledge to the actual problem: we’re dead … still pretty as we stand tall in the vase but decaying and wilting fast. If we don’t want to get thrown out and replaced by tomorrow’s bouquet (ie, judgment), we need to “put off [the] old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts and to be renewed in the spirit of your [nous] (not “minds” as intellectual endeavors, but our true inner being). Eph. 4:22f.

Good doctrine either improperly applied or only partially applied is not a lot different than bad doctrine. Even the demons believe, as James reminds us (2:19). Being a Trinitarian Christian is not a matter of good doctrine, it is rather a matter of understanding how to properly apply it and the will to do so (ie, the putting off) and the humility to allow it to be done to us (ie, the being renewed in the spirit of our nous).

The Desolation of Smug

The juxtaposition of Sunday’s daily lectionary Old Testament and New Testament readings is striking. In the Old Testament Job is getting his lecture from God in Job 38. God is telling him that Job does not know God’s ways and neither could he accomplish God’s tasks if he did.

  • Do you know the dwelling place of light and dark?
  • Have you entered the storehouses of snow and hail?
  • Oh yeah, and thunderstorms, do you understand them?
  • Etc.

I had just paged through the trending podcasts on my pod catcher prior to reading these texts and one that I had never heard of was high the list. Its list of guests includes Brian Cox, Susan Jacoby, Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott (I know, she’s dead, but that’s what it said), Bill Nye, etc. That’s a who’s who of atheist intellectuals who are so utterly self-absorbed in their own grasp of the truth it’s mind boggling. At least Brian Cox has the grace to be amusing about it. But my immediate thought was, “Wow, that must be one of the most smug podcasts going today.”

As I read the Job text I couldn’t help but think that this group would have had the arrogance to answer God on each of these points, because, after all, this group actually understands all this stuff.

In contrast to this text is the reading from Revelation 18:1-8. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” Babylon is the symbol par excellence of the hubris and excess of the world system.

There’s a long history of empires fading from the scene. In the case of Babylon, it practically happened overnight. Rome, on the other hand, and the Ottoman empire faded over a very long period of time. As is discussed in many places, not the least being Isaac Asimov’s brilliant and fifty year old Foundation series, the American Empire is showing alarming signs of wear and there is no clear indication what may replace it. We may be looking at yet another “regime change” in the not-so-distant future.

In contrast to this, I was on the phone this week with a now retired representative of the Antiochian Archdiocese (sort of like my denomination). The occasion was the aftermath of the centennial of St. Thomas Orthodox Church, which was celebrated last weekend. The subject of some recent trouble in the Archdiocese came up, but the person I was talking to dismissed it out of hand. “We’ve weathered this stuff for 2,000 years and we’ll weather this too,” was the comment. There is some real meat in the comment. Antioch, after all has been an important Christian center for all of Christian history. The first Bishop of Antioch was Peter. The second was Evodius, who is less well known, but the third Bishop, who served that office from 70 to 107 was the well known Ignatius, who was martyred by the Romans. There is an unbroken line of bishops (some of them outstanding, some of them traitors, some of them heretics, but an unbroken line – with schisms and plenty of weirdness mixed in) from Peter to John, who has served since 2012.

On the other hand there was certainly a sense of smugness in the 2,000 year comment, but there is also a sense of history that says, “God will remain faithful to the church, even when the church is not faithful to God,” when you look at the history of Antioch, the place where followers of the way of Christ were first called “Christians.”

Babylon: a symbol of the ephemeral that looks permanent. Antioch: a symbol of obscurity which has actually endured.

I confess that I am generally a huge fan of the current crop of radical atheists, although many of my favorites are now dead. Richard Feynman is hands down my favorite physicist and world traveler. I am also an unabashed fan of Douglas Adams, who regularly used his fame associated with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to bash Christianity and other religions. I find Richard Dawkins to be an utter bore – an unforgivable sin if you are going to be an outspoken critic of the cultural norm. On the other hand, I’m an avid listener to The Infinite Monkey Cage, Brian Cox’s podcast and bully pulpit to tear down Christianity when he doesn’t have his handful of clerics on as guests.

I like these guys because in all their smugness they seem to recognize that they are also court jesters (with the obvious exception of Dawkins and certainly the once utterly earnest Eugenie Scott) pointing out in amusing ways that the emperor has no clothes.

But in reading the Daily Lectionary today it occurred to me that it is a dangerous game to actually laugh at the jester because they play a dangerous game. I will continue to listen to Monkey Cage and grin with the rest of the audience, but ultimately these people really don’t know what they’re talking about because they are only dealing with a small slice of reality, and one day, this whole world system that has given us smart phones to listen to podcasts, the unimaginable wealth to afford these shiny toys, and the leisure to even bother with it, is going to come crashing down. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”

“And then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (Rev. 18: 4f).

Someday there will be a Desolation of Smug. Both the church and our culture will one day reap the consequences of our sins. It’s an excellent reason to take the earbuds out, turn off the podcast, and get down to the business of the life of repentance that we’re called to.

Baby’s Got the Blues

It’s been a long time since I listened to Larry Norman’s Stranded in Babylon album. It’s a hit you in the face sort of reality check and one of the most fascinating songs is “Baby’s Got the Blues.” If you’re not familiar with it you can find it here on YouTube with lyrics.

Many albums of this era were not simply a collection of songs, the album as a whole was an entity with each song adding a facet to that whole. This was just such an album. As an album it is profoundly Christian although not every song is (outside of the context of the whole album). “Baby’s Got the Blues” certainly fits into this category. It doesn’t even explicitly mention God, but instead uses euphemisms. The bridge is a prayer that begins, “Mercies and angels up above, / Heaven please help the one I love.”

But in the context of the song this sentiment is profoundly Christian if we use the term “Christian” to refer to the actual manner in which we live our lives down in the trenches. In the song Norman is watching “his baby” (wife? girlfriend? sister?) struggle with depression. He has no words to offer her and he has no words to offer God. When life hurts and the heavens are brass, it is often hard to fully believe in a caring God. In those moments it might be the only option to address “mercies and angels up above.”

Paul the apostle also understood this depth of despair. He said that at such times the Spirit “groans” on our behalf. No words here. No words needed. Such a groan no doubt says more than a whole collection of essays. And God hears the groan and understands what it means.

I confess that I despise Christian radio because the station manager – or whoever it is that puts together playlists these days – don’t seem to have the courage to play the music that comes from the trenches. Mostly its worship music. And I would argue that worship music, when that’s all we hear, paints an utterly bleak and depressing view of the world. … Not because the music is depressing but rather because it’s mostly a reminder of how short I fall from that mark set by the perky DJ who is praising God and gloriously happy, no matter what’s happening around them.

To hear a wordsmith like Larry Norman put his finger on the pain that is so deep and so confounding that there are simply no words is liberating in a way an old standard like “I Can Only Imagine” can never be. It’s a reminder that when the Son of God became human he suffered in the manner that humans suffer. His life was not a set of praise choruses! On at least one occasion he told the Father to just remove it all … if it was the Father’s will.

Given the fact that most Christian Contemporary Music is written by praise bands who got their start accompanying contemporary worship services, this sort of “down in the trenches” music is almost non-existent anymore. (No doubt there’s some out there, but it’s quite hard to find.) As a result I find myself increasingly dredging up the old stuff: Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill (the old Randy Stonehill, when he was young and outrageous and hadn’t yet grown into “Uncle Randy”), Daniel Amos, Randy Matthews, etc. In my album collection I had two or three Normans, a Matthews, three DAs, and a couple of Stonehills.

Music streaming services have been a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I am hearing all the other music these folks did (along with other similar artists) that I never heard before because I couldn’t afford all those albums. A curse because I’m not hearing the songs in the context of their albums. I’m missing the gestalt while getting all the particulars.

So for those of you who are ready to move beyond the froth of CCM, I commend to you the above artists. Daniel Amos’ best albums were New Wave which is probably not everyone’s taste. (For instance, “Hollow Man,” on the Doppelganger album features their previous very strange song “Ghost of the Heart” (from Alarma!) played backwards, but with new lyrics over the top. I think it’s awesome … My wife? Not so much. But with that caveat in mind, dig in.

As a special recommendation I commend Larry Norman’s Something New Under the Sun (or SNUTS, as it was lovingly referred to). I love blues and it is, in my opinion, one of the five or six best blues albums ever put together. I love this album so much that twenty five years later, I named one of my dogs Snuts in honor of the album.

What Is Death?

In the end death is one of those things we’ll never fully understand. It is inscrutable. From a theological perspective we can say that death is separation from God. This is one of the main points of the second creation narrative. God says, “If you eat of this tree you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:17). Adam and Eve ate of the tree and they were sent out of the Garden (a picture of the presence of God) and thus separated from the Tree of Life. Since God is the source of life, to be separated from God is to be dead. In this sense, Adam and Eve were already dead.

From both a biblical and scientific perspective, death is corruption. Once we pass the prime child bearing age our bodies begin to break down. Many functions actually begin to break down long before that, but they are robust enough that they remain hardy and fully functional through the height of child-bearing age. Our telomeres become shortened. The gummy and elastic connectors of everything to everything begin to harden and dry up. Neurons begin misfire. Eventually all these tiny things begin to manifest themselves in a variety of ill health: sore joints, non-pliable skin, lengthened recovery time. Sometimes wires get crossed and things grow that ought not (cancer) or things that ought to be fully functional cease to function (brain function or cirrhosis).

These two things (separation and corruption) come together at an end point for living creatures when the corruption or destruction of the body becomes so extensive that the life force (the soul or spirit or just life) separate from the body. When that occurs corruption of the body (sans spirit) enters a radical new phase better described as decay. Microbes enter in and the dead body can no longer fend them off. They process the dead body and it eventually is turned back into earth.

But for everything we know about those processes, we still don’t really know what death is. We can postpone it, but we cannot prevent it. We don’t know know (on a scientific level) what happens to consciousness after death. If we’re honest there are far more questions than answers for the scientist when it comes to death.

This is also true on the theological side of things. Theologians have never come up with an adequate definition or understanding of death. Scripture often describes it as an active power, but none of us know precisely whether that is really true or only a metaphor.

The greatest of paschal hymns says, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the grave.” That is a rousing hymn to sing on a black and cold Easter night marching around the outside of the church with candles burning against the gloom, but it doesn’t actually tell us much about death itself, although it tells us much about the Victor!

I suppose this next thing will tell you more about me and the fact that I am situated in the post-modern world than it will actually tell you about death, but it is Karl Barth’s description that speaks to me more deeply than anything else. He says death has no reality. It is “nothingness.” It is not merely the absence of light and life, it is the negation of light and life. That definition doesn’t actually tell me any more about death than the other descriptions I have offered, but it does speak to me at a very deep level.

It is therefore with a great deal of humility that I make the following observation: I believe that Martin Luther simply went too far in his description of death and how Christ relates to it. In my opinion he is wrong. (He certainly went beyond what the historic church has had to say, and that gives me some confidence in my critique.)

It is characteristic of the divine majesty to annihilate and to create. Therefore scripture says that Christ destroyed death and sin in himself and granted life. [Luther’s Works 40/1:44, 1-12. As quoted by Tuomo Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith, p. 19.]

That I agree with. In Christ sin and death are destroyed. But Luther goes much farther than this:

Therefore where sins are noticed and felt, there they really are not present. For, according to the theology of Paul, there is no more sin, no more death, and no more curse in the world …” [Ibid., p. 45. p. 18 in Mannermaa]

Here and elsewhere in his Lectures on Galatians, Luther states that sin and death have been destroyed … no, annihilated … in the world. That’s a bridge too far. Death’s sting has been removed. Sin and death have been conquered. They have been destroyed in Christ, but that’s rather different than Luther’s idea that they are destroyed in the world.

So why do I bring this up? So what if a pastor-theologians some 600 years ago said something a bit off the mark? Why pick on Luther instead of Calvin or Melanchthon or Aquinas or Joel Osteen, for that matter? Well, first because Luther is Luther, the first Protestant reformer who’s reform efforts actually took hold in Europe. Second, because Luther doesn’t need to say this. His theology of justification by faith (as expressed in the Lectures on Galatians) does not require this radical proposal. Karl Barth really needed for sin and death to be nothingness in the larger scheme of his theology; he was compelled by logic to take that position. Luther, on the other hand, didn’t have to go this far.

Let’s return to our initial point. None do or can actually understand sin or death. They are inscrutable. Even with his remarkable insights, Luther did not understand them either. But he did understand that (1) Christ truly and actually defeated them, and (2) because we are in Christ – truly and actually in Christ just as he is in us – then sin and death no longer have any hold on us.

How do you explain (1) something that we can not understand and (2) and that utterly ravages creation, but (3) no longer has any hold on us? I proposed that Luther, in his exuberance over this amazing reality, simply overstated it. You have to admit that hearing him say that death and sin are already annihilated is pretty breathtaking. It is certainly an exclamation point on Christ’s utter victory on the cross, in the grave, and upon his ascension.

So, even though I want to say, “Now hold on just a minute, Pastor Martin! …” I think I’ll forgo that and simply revel along with him his his exuberance for the moment.

The Bondage of the Will & Christian Liberty

I’ve been reading parts of Luther’s Bondage of the Will again to make sure I’m not misremembering his argument. Luther’s argument is quite similar to Calvin’s later argument that gets filed under “predestination,” although there are differences. In both cases I have no doubt that the Reformers are trying to figure out things that are simply beyond figuring out. They reached a bit too far.

The Reformers are certainly in line with classic Christianity when they declare that our will is in bondage. We do need to keep in mind that when we consider these ideas today there are a cluster of words which we tend to jumble together as vaguely synonymous that need to be distinguished when speaking of this bondage.

Choice, for instance still exists. I can choose to follow God or not to follow God. At the end of the giving of the Law in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people they have to make a choice. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19). But just because the people chose God and thus chose life did not mean that they were actually able to make good on that choice. They failed over and over because their wills were in bondage. Being free to choose for or against God in principle is far different than the ability to actually follow God’s paths and do what God wants us to do.

Liberty is another one of those ideas that tends to confuse us. Paul says, “[C]reation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). A cursory reading of this verse might lead one to think that bondage and liberty are opposite and if my will was once in bondage (reading Luther back into Paul) then in Christ my will is no longer in bondage but now has liberty (or “freedom” in the NRSV) to do what it chooses (reading pop culture back into Paul). But that reading misses the point.

Many years ago, in my first steps out of Dispensationalism, I discovered R.J. Rushdoony, a “theonomist” who believed that civil law should be based on Old Testament law (a Christian version of sharia, to put it into a contemporary context). In spite of his misguided attempts in this direction, he was a pretty good historical scholar. In a monograph entitled, “The Changed Meaning of Liberty,” he wrote the following: “Liberty as a privilege had reference to a religious fact of immunity from civil controls and regulations. Thus, the ancient privilege of the church is its freedom from the state because it is Christ’s personal domain and body and hence subject to no controls but those of His law.”

Rushdoony is putting it into the civil context between the Christian church and the Roman empire, but originally this is what Paul was talking about in relation to the Old Testament law. As Christians, who are dead to the Law and alive to Christ, we have “liberty” as an immunity to the Law. We can no longer be charged as lawbreakers because those laws don’t apply to us in our new context. This is how the U.S. Navy uses the term. When a ship enters port most of the sailors are let off duty to go wander the town. They are “at liberty.” This means they are no longer under the strict rules of life on the ship, although they are under obligation to follow local law and if they are in uniform they still have to salute a uniformed officer, etc.

This sort of “liberty” is very different than actual freedom as we think of it today. Comedian Ron White, in his well known “They Call Me Tater Salad” story, said that when he was talking to the cops after a bar brawl he had the right to remain silent but he didn’t have the ability. Christian liberty is like that; it doesn’t imply we have the ability. Even with our Christian liberty, our wills are still bound. We can choose to follow God, but, like Ron White, we don’t have the ability.

Christian transformation is a mysterious process where Christ’s will operates through us to transform us in spite of our best efforts. Transformation requires our cooperation. We have to choose God on the level of choosing or rejecting that Moses spoke of in Deuteronomy, but our wills are unable to follow through with our choice, so we keep on doing what we don’t want to do (Rom. 7). But in spite of all this bondage, Christ works in us to do that which we cannot do and transformation actually happens.

There is also a lifelong process of taking back the will and turning it to the purpose that God intended when he instilled it in human beings. But that process is not what you might think. Once Christ is at work within us, his will guides our hearts and directs us in what we should do and how we should think. (This is the ultimate goal, anyway.) So the correct way to battle our own stubborn will is to ignore it. Of course this is easier said than done. We will never win an outright fight over our wills. We can, in contrast, learn to ignore its insistent directions, and over time it becomes more and more quiet. The will lies at the center of what we must put to death in our Christian struggle, and the way we do that is to starve it by ignoring it. And as it dies, it simultaneously comes to life, but in this new life, it imprints on Christ’s will within us, and thus is tamed. Although throughout our earthly life, it will no doubt always have a tendency to rise up and say, “My will, and not yours be done.”

So freedom, as we think of freedom in the modern world, is never possible. We humans were not created to be free and we quickly get out of control if we try to act on our supposed freedom, like a balloon zipping around a room when we let go of it. We were created with the purpose of allowing God to drive, not us. Luther describes this as bondage to Christ (hearkening back to Paul’s imagery of the bond slave). That’s imagery that we naturally shrink back from, but it is there that we find true liberty – like sailors on shore liberty: freed from the concerns of the ships rules and free to truly joy in God.