Aronofsky’s Demiurge (A Spoiler-y Reflection on ‘Mother!’)

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As the credits began to roll, the audience with whom I saw Darren Aronofsky’s newest film, Mother!, reacted with hushed groans and awkward laughter. This was not the film anyone expected to see. I freaking loved it.

The trailers were vague, but suggested that the film, which stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as an unnamed couple whose home is gradually invaded by an ever-multiplying family of belligerent troglodytes, was going to be a horror film, or at least a thriller or some sort. And it was, although one so oblique that it hardly counts as a film at face value, let alone a genre film.

My roommate turned to me and barked, “What did you bring me to?” before rubbing his beard pensively and continuing, “I’ll be thinking about this movie for a year.”

If you’ve seen, like, anything Darren Aronofsky has released in the last decade or so (and, really, anything he’s ever released) it will not be surprising that his new home-invasion thriller is actually a spiritual meditation.

There are, I imagine, plenty of articles that will lay out precisely how each of Mother!‘s jarring, phantasmagorical images correspond to this or that passage from the Bible, or the Talmud, or the great works of Hebrew Pseudepigrapha, but I want to zero in on a handful of specifics, and the implications thereof.

There will be spoilers ahead. Actually, all of them. If you have not seen the film and aren’t planning on it, I have included a fairly detailed synopsis below. If you have not seen it and plan on seeing it, read no further.

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Not unlike his 2014 retelling of the biblical story of Noah and the ark, Mother! is an eco-parable. Rather ingeniously, he dramatizes the biblical story of creation and the Fall – and of multiplying and filling the earth, and, finally, of the flood – from the perspective of Mother(!) Earth.

Jennifer Lawrence is Mother Earth, envisioned here as the nameless bride of a nameless Javier Bardem – a poet, and an illustrious one. They are in the process of rebuilding their house, a beautiful mansion situated on the quiet countryside. It burned down before they met, and our heroine has taken it upon herself to restore it to its former glory.

Soon, a strange man (played by Ed Harris) arrives at their doorstep. He is new in own, and had been under the impression that their idyllic mansion was a Bed & Breakfast. Javier Bardem forgets that hotels exist and invites him to stay the night, much to his young bride’s annoyance. Their unexpected visitor manages to traverse one boundary line after another – he smokes in the house, even after the woman of the house requests that he stop, he pries into their personal life in ways that anyone marginally versed in etiquette would know to be inappropriate. And he is sick, quite so: before retreating to bed, Lawrence witnesses her husband assisting  their guest as he expels the contents of his stomach into their toilet. In a blink-and-you-miss-it shot, we catch a glimpse of the strange gash in Ed Harris’s side.

The next morning, his insufferable wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, also unannounced. Lawrence discovers that while she slept, her husband gave Harris permission to invite his wife to stay with them “for as long as they need”. Naturally, she is not pleased, as their guest’s wife proves to be even more prying and unsavory than he. More than anything, she presses – and presses some more – as to why the couple does not have children. Noticing Lawrence’s reticent body language – as these types always do – she corners her while the men are out exploring and reframes her question: Why doesn’t she want to be a mother?

Noticing the terror in her eyes – as these types always do – Pfeiffer realizes that she does want children.

Almost on cue, Harris and Pfeiffer’s own children show up uninvited, barging into the house to have a shouting match, which ends with the elder son bludgeoning his younger brother to death in the den before fleeing the scene of the crime.

Bardem leaves Lawrence alone to follow the family to the hospital. A few hours later, he returns alone. Finally, she thinks, things may return to normal.

They won’t, of course. Without warning, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer return to the house – with their entire extended family. Our heroine is horrified. Her husband welcomes them with open arms and invites them to make themselves at home. Without mentioning it to her, he had invited the family to hold a funereal gathering in their kitchen.

More friends and family arrive by the minute in full funeral dress, with baked goods wrapped in tin-foil and absolutely no sense of restraint toward their host’s property: While Bardem delivers a speech in honor of the deceased son, rowdy guests co-opt the master bedroom to have sex while others dislodge a washroom sink from the wall, breaking the water main and flooding the house. Bardem doesn’t mind, but Lawrence finally snaps, expelling the guests from her house in a rush of fury so commanding that even her husband counts the cost and opts against gas-lighting her again.

After the dust settles, they are alone again. Still riding the adrenaline rush of the evening, She breaks again from her passive disposition and challenges him to have sex with her. He obliges, and she conceives.

We jump forward approximately nine months. The house is finally complete, and the baby is almost due. Bardem has finally completed his magnum opus, which he gives to Lawrence to read. “It’s perfect,” she says, “It’s beautiful.” His publishers agree. And so do his readers. It sells out nearly immediately.

As she sets the table for dinner one night, there is a knock at the door.

It is a group of devotees. They have come from far and wide to meet the poet. Lawrence asks him to send them away so that they can dine together in peace, to which he agrees. After a few moments, he has not returned. She checks on him to find that the group has multiplied, and he has done nothing to deter them.

Several devotees enter the house through a side door and begin using her appliances. She tries to kick them out, but they inform her that “the poet says that his house is our house.” More devotees force their way inside, and his publicist spots her. Gleefully, she clutches Lawrence’s face, “It’s the inspiration!”

The devotees begin tearing the house apart. One steals the phone while Lawrence tries to call the police. “That’s my phone!” She cries. “I have to have something of the poet’s!” the devotee snarls back, and then hobbles away.

Police arrive and begin shouting at the guests through a megaphone, followed by a swat team in riot gear. They open fire on the devotees, who scream in terror and become even more destructive as they scramble. The pregnant Lawrence runs for safety, looking for her husband. She happens upon his publicist, who warmly greets her as she fires rounds into the covered heads of several hostages. “Close the door,” she says.

The house becomes a war zone – literally. Grenades go off in the corner of the screen, and the house is filled with dust and ashes. A friendly soldier grabs Her and pulls her to safety. As he instructs her the way to the safe zone, his skull breaks apart from the impact of a sniper’s bullet. She screams and flees, now bloodied from the commotion, up the stairs, which are lined with guest reaching out their arms in religious devotion to her pregnant stomach. They’re awaiting the coming of the child inside her. She begins to go into labor.

At the top of the staircase, she finds her husband. He hugs her and brings her into the master bedroom to have the baby. is born, healthy and strong. Bardem hands him to Her. The commotion in the house has died down. “Send them away,” she entreats her much-Beloved husband. “They’ll listen to you.”

He ignores her, and asks to hold his child. She refuses until he sends them away. “I could not get them to leave even if I tried.” He replies, and asks again for his child. “That’s not true,” She snaps, “And you know it.” She holds her ground.

“I do not want them to go.” He finally admits.

She clutches her baby desperately while he menacingly scoots his chair closer. “Give me my son.” He growls. She doesn’t.

Hours pass by, and she has fallen asleep. When she wakes, her baby is gone. Rushing out the bedroom doors, she sees the crowds passing the baby amongst themselves, touching him with their hands, oooh-ing and ahhh-ing. She screams. “They just want to touch him!” Bardem laughs, enraptured at the love that enlivens the crowd.

As they pass the child along to one another, its neck breaks.

Lawrence screams in terror and sprints down the stairs to take back the corpse of her baby. When she arrives, it is on a platter, half-eaten. The devotees have baby in their teeth. She falls over, sobbing uncontrollably. Bardem picks her up. “They killed him!” she cries. “I know,” He whispers gently, “But we must find a way to forgive them.”

This is the last straw for Mother. Calmly, she lifts herself to her feet, makes her way to the basement, and opens the furnace. Pouring oil all over the floor, she lights a match, and sets the mansion and all of its occupants ablaze.

Except for her husband, who comes out unscathed.

He carries her back up the stairs and into the ruins of their home.

“What are you?” She asks, as she begins to draw her final breaths.

“I am I.” He smiles.

“Where are you taking me?”

“To the beginning.” He whispers. “We must start over again.”

“Why? Why am I not enough for you?” She protests.

“Nothing will ever be enough.” He says. “Or else I could not create.”

She gives him permission to use what is left of her love for him to create the mansion afresh. It begins to reanimate around them. We watch as the first frames of the film play out before us again – the burnt house becomes new again, and a new woman appears in His bed. The events of the film will play out again, apparently, as they had before the events of the film, perhaps forever.

*

The subtext is fairly on the nose: We are guests in Mother(!) Earth’s house, and She can expel us, infinitely, on loop, if she so desires, as we see in the Bible.

Indeed, the first eleven chapters of Genesis narrate a cyclical expulsion and recreation narrative: In Genesis 1-2, God creates, and in Genesis 3, humanity is expelled from the microcosm of Eden. In Genesis 4, Cain is expelled from ‘the land’ for Killing his brother. Finally, in Genesis 6, the Earth expels humanity once and for all: God opens the floodgates of heaven, and the world is flooded, killing everyone, save for the ‘righteous’ family of Noah.

But the ‘righteous’ ones whom God preserved to create the world afresh are a cancer, too, and Noah’s son Ham is expelled from ‘the land’, and Noah becomes a drunkard, and their descendants build the Tower of Babel in a strange campaign to dethrone the gods. They’re expelled, too. Around this point, the reader gets the sense that there’s not going to be a version of this that doesn’t end in expulsion.

Which leads the reader to pose the question: Why did God create, instead of not create?

And here lies the – perhaps unintentional – subtext beneath the subtext.

Aronofsky’s Mother! offers an answer to the reader’s question.

Why did God create – why does He invite guests into His home whom He knows will destroy it? Because His appetite for love is insatiable, and they will love Him. ‘Mother Earth’ is not enough. His capacity is bottomless. He craves the affirmation of His creatures like the Poet craves the admiration of his devotees. He is like an artist who creates from neurosis – to be understood, to be loved, to be wanted by multitudes. Nothing, and no one, is enough.

And so, embedded within Aronofsky’s eco-parable is a kind of theo-critique. That is, intentional or not, the message of the film is that ‘Father God’ puts ‘Mother Earth’ through endless cycles of abuse to oblige His devotees, ultimately, because He treasures the love that they pour out upon Him.

*

I remember a dreary Sunday morning, sometime during the latter Bush’s Presidency, when I asked my Sunday School teacher if God was lonely, if that was how come He made everything and everybody. She cocked her head and said, “What do you think?” I said, “I think I’d be lonely if it was just me up there in heaven all those years with nothing to do.” Another kid chimed in, “That sounds boring.” And another, “I’d make everything football. And then it would all be football. Then I’d never be bored, ’cause it would all be football.”

One little girl was the theologian of the group, though I am not sure for which religion: She raised her hand and said, “Maybe ’cause he wanted somebody to love Him.” The teacher nodded her head and said, “Ahhh,” before writing on the board: “GOD CREATED MAN TO HAVE FELLOWSHIP WITH HIM.” She went on, “Imagine if you didn’t have aaaaaanyone who loved you. You wouldn’t be very happy then, would you?” She underlined the sentence that she had written. “God made everyone so that eeeeeeveryone would love Him.”

We ohhhh‘d in unison. That was the day that I learned that God is a parasite who creates people because He’s lonely and wants to be loved. Now, it sounds pathetic when you say it in a sentence, and Mother! will be lambasted by Christian talk show hosts and culture warriors for implying it, but it’s probably what most people believe, at least implicitly.

And so, Mother! does not amount to an ‘attack on the Christian faith’ (as several more uppity critics have have clamored) so much as an ecological critique on what is probably one of our culture’s standard assumptions about God. The offense of Mother!‘s ending, one hopes, will be jarring enough to shake the public loose of this vision of God as sycophant and God as leech. 

Indeed, Bardem’s Poet bears no substantive resemblance to the Trinitarian God at the center of the Christian story. He is more like a demiurge, perhaps, even, Marcion’s demiurge. He’s an antigod, who drinks people dry to satiate what’s lacking in Himself, for the love they can give Him, who enlivens worlds to crucify them for His iniquity.

This is as good a starting point as I can think of to introduce people to the God who really did create the world from Love – not Mother Earth’s Love, which He takes out on loan, but His own Love, which He pours out, to overlay the vast nothing that covers the face of the deep, to create beings who are not Himself, not to plumb their depths for the Love that they can feed Him, but to spill the Love from His own veins into theirs, to multiply His own contentment into them, to build a cosmos out of people He does not need, with Love He does not lack, to propagate His own joy into creatures He will not forsake.

And, as such, this view of God – the Christian view – changes how we answer the questions that the expulsion narratives in the early chapters of Genesis pose to us. Like Bardem’s Poet, He offers His son to be torn apart and devoured by the masses. But the two couldn’t be further from each other: The Poet gave His son as a sacrifice to appease his devotees – to wring more affirmation from their weary bodies, to enjoy their awe. The  Trinitarian God at the center of the Christian narrative, however, gave up the Son so that He could create the world. The Godhead – Father, Son, and Spirit – knew, like the Poet, that His creatures would destroy each other and destroy His ‘house’, and more – they would grow so destructive that  they would necessitate their own destruction. And so the Godhead – Father, Son, and Spirit – determined together before creation, that the Son would present Himself as a sacrifice to redeem God’s creatures. The God whom we meet in Jesus is everything Javier Bardem’s demiurge isn’t.

*

Mother! is a better film than Noah, although Noah has better theology. Whereas Noah saw God Batting in Mother Earth’s corner against a belligerent Humanity,  Mother!   breaks ‘Father God’ and ‘Mother Earth’ apart without warrant, as though each have conflicting agendas.

Nevertheless, like Noah before it, Mother! proves itself to be a near perfect jumping-off point to share the gospel with filmgoers jostled enough by Aronofsky’s provocative suggestions that they are moved to search the scriptures.

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I Love Bultmann, and He’s Terrible

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Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afar, as in Numbers 27:12, by James Tissot

Rudolf Bultmann is a welcome headache. Drawing a hard distinction between the kerygma – that is, the gospel itself, in its most irreducible form – and the mythic cultural adornments within which it was ‘buried’ in the scriptures, he pioneered a rather scintillating new movement in the twentieth century.

As young Rudolf saw it, the virgin birth, Resurrection, miracles, etc. were not just primitive oddities emanating from the imaginations of the ‘ancient unsophisticates’ who saw and spoke with Jesus (and touched him with their hands), but, in fact, are the gospel, given to us in words inexpressible, to be imbibed and believed, transformed by, and saved by, albeit ensconced in the mythic worldview of the Second Temple Jewry, adorned in the language of ‘proto-Gnostic redeemer myths’ and colored by the flamboyances of the fabled mystery cults. Dizzy yet?

The images by which we receive the gospel are not, themselves, the gospel, he would say. Well, all theology is anthropology, as he’d also say, and Bultmann’s hermeneutic of demythologizing says more about the dangers of modernism’s presumed objectivity than it does about the New Testament. Scientism makes for bad theology.

I should mention here that I like Bultmann. And I look forward to talking these things over with him. One thing I venture to imagine is that the cavernous futures accompanying kingdom come are filled with theologians who never tire of saying “This is greater than I imagined.” So Barth will get his “I told you so,” over Harnack, and J. Gresham Machen, probably, will get his “I told you so,” over the whole lot of them (or maybe Ratzinger). And somebody will get their “I told you so,” over me. I hope it’s Chris Thrutchley.

In any case, Bultmann spent his career expositing what he saw as the gospel in the Gospels. That is, a sort of existentialist  soteriology in which ‘believers’ are ‘saved,’ by faith in Jesus, from something like the existential void, here and now. “The only way to find peace with God, yourself, and others,”he might say,”is through Jesus.”

If he sounds like an embodiment of the worst in contemporary ‘evangelicalism,’ it’s because his ideas – at least, their ghosts – have seeped into the thought and writings of their more widely read authors. If your hip, nondenominational pastor has preached a ghastly sermon from Mark 4:35-41 on how Jesus can calm the storms in your heart, blame Bultmann. (And William Barclay).

I should mention again that I like Bultmann. Actually, a lot. As I said earlier, he suffered from captivity to 20th century’s native scientism. But I have often wondered what he might do given access to the merciful obfuscations provided by modern quantum physics. Dawkins can shrug it off if he wants, and so can John Shelby Spong, but the days are over when we could pretend we were hot on our way to grasping the secrets of the cosmos. For the moment, at least, quantum physics, for one, has so muddied everything that the universe-slash-multiverse seems more arbitrary than ever.

If course, there seem to be something like laws, some sort of consistency. Mankind is still subject to the whims of ‘creation,’ but ‘the whims of creation’ isn’t just a figure of speech anymore. Creation really is whimsical. How great and terrible.

I suspect, then, in ages future, that our centuries long sojourn in ‘Rationalism’ will be a curiosity studied in classrooms, mocked by too-confident students, before they are reminded by their teachers that they, too, hold presuppositions, most of them probably errant, that they assume to be bulletproof. Bultmann was an entrenched genius – both ahead of and indebted to his generation’s worst presumptions. Were Bultmann with us now, he might be less inclined to demythologize. After all, gravity ought to crumple us. Time is inexplicably unidirectional. Some of that Interstellar movie was scientifically accurate. Given the whimsy of everything, a virgin birth is pretty pedestrian.

Resurrection, too. It is out of the ordinary, yes. Certainly noteworthy. We should call it a miracle. But it’s quite arbitrary to take vivification as a given but revivification as a puerile fantasy. Bultmann erred in assuming that the ‘Resurrection’ of Jesus meant only an impossible resuscitation. And it did mean that. But the miracle of it was that nobody, not Rome, not hell, not a garden tomb, could keep the incarnate Son from carrying out the redemption He’d colluded with the Father and Spirit to carry out from the foundation of the world.

I’m speaking figuratively here. Of course the dead don’t rise, as far as we know, or can know. Of course it’s a miracle that one did. But its historicity is no more implausible than abiogenesis itself, which Christians also believe was of divine inauguration. Whether or not Bultmann’s kin want to admit it, the floorboards have dropped out from beneath the demand for ‘demythologizing’ the scriptures – at least, in theory. 

Bultmann imagined himself to be an apologist, and he was. And, to a certain extent, he was a good one. Having first encountered his work as a sophomore  in college, his ‘redeemed existentialism’ struck a familiar chord with me. I still remember the days when I wasn’t sure why I shouldn’t kill myself. I still remember the void. I didn’t climb my way out of it. My emotions never started working right, and things never started being okay. I never pulled myself up by my bootstraps. At risk of sounding nauseatingly saccharine: Jesus did that on my behalf. Bultmann, love-struck Modernist that he was, theologically shoddy but hijacked nonetheless by divine mercy, was always eager to insist that Jesus alone, be grace alone, through faith alone, can make your not-okayness strangely livable.

Getting the Egypt out of Israel (and Us)

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The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, by John Martin (1852)

God exists or doesn’t, and everything takes shape accordingly. Our expectations should change given the reality of God or lack thereof – and our values.

Of course, most of the folks I know who think there’s probably no God also think quite Christianly. One of my best friends in early high school became an atheist after I introduced him to Marilyn Manson. The challenge Marilyn posed to our Bible-Belt Christianity was more than it could bear, and he jumped the boat, though I stayed nominal, for the most part. But damage done is damage done.

After Marilyn and company poked holes through his loosely enculturated religious mores, his politics changed as well. Fifteen-year-olds rarely nurse well-developed political convictions, but the inherited conservatism that he’d brandished uncritically up to that point evaporated and within a few years he was a progressive Democrat with a fairly robust social ethos. It took losing his grandma’s religion to come ’round to Christianity’s obstinate conviction that the measure of a society is its benevolence toward its poor. Our damnation will be that we churn out ‘destitutes,’ which Marx understood, and now so does my old friend.

Though I’m not to the left-of-center politically, those who are understand what most of us deny – that no culture that tramples the poor underfoot can be worth its salt; that the best of societies should be on guard for raining sulfur if their political machinations match what the prophet Ezekiel said about Sodom and Gomorrah:

“As I live,” declares the Lord God, “Sodom, your sister and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it.” (Ezek. 16:48-50)

So if, perhaps, their policy proposals are hasty or uncreative, the progressives among us nevertheless have a significant overlap with Christianity’s social vision. I don’t, of course, mean that political progressivism is somehow synonymous with atheism, because it isn’t. It can’t be, actually, and I think something closer to the opposite is the case.

There is, rather, something inherently atheistic about most political Conservatism. This is not derogatory, but it is a diagnosis. Much contemporary Conservative thought begins with “There is no thread that runs through humanity, and I owe no one anything.” Consequently, underlying much mainstream Conservatism is the notion that the status quo, the power structure, is basically kosher. If God exists, that’s not true.

The book of Leviticus, for example, ought to be plenty evidence that, no, things as they are cannot be accepted, embraced, or even escaped – only redeemed. On the other hand, mainstream Liberalism is undergirded by the notion that progress/justice is natural, or somehow self-evident. Moses suggests it’s the opposite – namely, that what’s common is unclean and we’re all guilty, communally, for everything. Justice is unnatural and we’re called to it, together.

It is easy to get lost in the weeds as one peruses the strange middle book of the Mosaic saga. The sacrificial system itself is convoluted and many-splendored, and embedded at the halfway point of the Pentateuch – which, more than any other section of scripture, weaves an almost Dostoevskian yarn. The natural assumption to make if you’re a disinterested reader with a somewhat-less-than-cursory knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern cultures is that the Hebrew sacrificial system was chiefly an exercise in satiating an irascible deity, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, though you’d be close. What emerges on a close reading of Leviticus is God’s slow struggle to ‘desecularize’ nomadic Israel’s communal life and, gradually, to deEgyptianize the Hebrew consciousness.

All of this sounds rather ethereal, and it is. We are not used to reading what appears to be a laundry list of sacrificial regulations as a slow-burning sacrament whereby Israel translates the holiness of God into day-to-day life and, in doing so, inculturates the humaneness of God. “The idea of sacrifice was not unique to the Hebrews in the ancient world, as animal, grain, and drink offerings were common to the religious cults of Mespoptamia and Syro-Palestine,” writes Andrew Hill, “While the parallels between Israelite and ancient Near-Eastern sacrificial practices attest to the universal need for humans to placate the gods, the Hebrew sacrificial system was distinctive in that it was directed toward the goal of personal and community holiness.”

If the ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ divide laid out in its pages seem arbitrary, it’s because it is. Offerings are made to impute ‘cleanness’ on things ‘unclean,’ and to ‘sanctify’ clean-but-‘common’ things and impute ‘holiness’ onto them. If a ‘clean’ or ‘holy’ thing makes contact with an ‘unclean’ thing, – a dead body, for example – it becomes ‘polluted’ and must begin again. I recall playground games that weren’t entirely different. It is tempting to assign moral weight to ‘uncleanness,’ but you’d only be half-right to do so, because ‘sin offerings’ are a different animal – pun regrettably intended. They were not, as it is sometimes assumed, a stand in for good character. Curiously, they seem to have done more to shape good character – or, even, to define good character to a people who consciences were being recalibrated – than anything.

They are never prescribed for premeditated wrongs. One could not, for example, set aside a choice animal on Tuesday to sacrifice on Thursday as recompense for his scheduled visit to the whorehouse on Wednesday. There is no sacrifice laid out for those who plan atrocities – which is interesting, because that leaves only ‘unintentional sins’ to be atoned for by sacrifice. This ought to jostle us at least a little bit, since most of us assume we can’t be held accountable for wrongs we didn’t even know we were participating in.

What this testifies to is that although the division of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ foods, and objects, and bodies may be arbitrary, the concrete division between cleanness and uncleanness is not. That is, to be declared ‘unclean,’ or ‘clean,’ is a formality to be abided by, but hardly the end-goal in itself. It is an exercise of sorts directed at awakening the Hebrews to something deeper: Namely, that ‘uncleanness’ is the norm. That long-discarded Augustinian trope, ‘inherited guilt,’ gets something right – that everything that is, is unacceptable by virtue of being. It is not, in truth, that the neighbor became unclean by waking up with his arms around his wife who died in the night. He was already polluted, because he is himself. We are not made unclean through carousing or debauchery, as though our default mode was ‘love thy neighbor.’ We are unclean because we are ourselves, and given time we will grow up into the mongrels we were born to be. We rarely sin on purpose, as Leviticus seems to realize, and we don’t need to. We victimize because we’re ourselves. It’s our nature.

*

‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’ the eighth Psalm goes. One is rightly confused when, in the middle of a quaint service at cozy bible church, this particular line is preached in such a way as to denigrate mankind, to imply that it is somehow surprising that God is mindful of humanity. We are what He made, after all, and He did not seem displeased at the outset.

The tone with which the verse is read affects the meaning more than one might imagine. If, for example, it were read from the pulpit as ‘What is man that You are mindful of him?” then our impression might be that the Psalmist cannot fathom why the God he addresses might treasure a humanity so dingy and commonplace. This is certainly the reading with which I am the most acquainted. If, however, the verse is read as such: “What is man, that You are mindful of him?” – then the meaning changes.

Not, of course, that some new doctrine arrives out of it. It only reinforces what is already well attested throughout the scriptures: We are, somehow, the image of the God who made us, which Jacob took to mean that when we see the face of our neighbors we really see the face of God. Calvinists of old took this to an extreme: We should not depict the Lord in any artwork, they said, not because He isn’t worth depicting, but because He has depicted Himself already – inerrantly, we might say, in Jesus of Nazareth, the ‘true Human,’ the ‘firstborn of many brothers’ in the ‘new Creation,’ who is, Himself, the ‘radiance of God’s glory, and exact representation of His being’ – but, also, in humanity at large. To make images of the Godhead is idolatrous, they believed, because it usurps not only the risen Jesus, but also humanity itself as the image we have been given of the Lord.

So when I say that we are polluted because we are ourselves, I do not mean this like the Gnostics mean it. Our body – ‘this mortal coil’ – is not the problem. Rather, we have bad souls in broken bodies and the product is disastrous. This is not by design; it is devilry. We bear the image of God in ourselves by virtue of existing, and not one inch of us does not exist to glorify the God whose face we see in one another. We are God’s glory and joy, overlaid with muck and mire so thick we’d be irredeemable if not for the insanity of the cross. We are exactly as repulsive, as we are, as we would need to be to move God to crucify Godself in a move to redeem what’s mad in us. We are precisely the sort of folks who would nail the incarnate Lord to a tree and sell his clothes for petty cash.

And, of course, we are ‘society.’ The ‘institution’ is us. We’re the stuff ‘the System’ is made of, and – not unrelated – we’re the stuff holocausts are made of. The decent folks down the street are well equipped to transform their city into a quiet dystopia, and, since we’re already suspending our disbelief, they already have, and you helped. We are unclean, and we are our cities. And our cities are unclean. And we are unclean, and we are the government, and we are the cops, and we are the prison system. We are the world you ought to expect given the fact of depravity.

Regrettably, white-knuckled denial of this fact is what underpins the better part of Conservative thought today. The norm, the structures, ‘the System,’ is fine, we are told, and whoever is trampled underfoot ought to reflect on how they went and got themselves underfoot. In any case, they’re certainly not entitled to anything like charity, we are told, or if they are, they certainly aren’t entitled to mine.

Well, that may be. Assuming, of course, that there is no debtor’s thread that runs through the whole of humanity, binding us together and obligating us to see to one another’s wounds. If there is no such thread, it is because there is no God – such a thread could not emerge arbitrarily, or even be unfurled at random, suddenly enjoined at the whims of a ‘Lawgiver.’ If there is a thread of sorts that runs through humanity, indebting each one to her neighbor, demanding kindness, or empathy, or even something so flamboyant as dignity, it can only be that it emerges from the nature of the God upon whom the drama of existence plays out. It must be that, as beings, we participate in Being itself in part by carrying on with one another according to a moral thread that transcends our mores and flows out from the very nature of Being. And we cannot participate in Being if there is no Being in which to participate, nor can we be obliged to anything.

If, however, there is a God, then the thread is real, and I am bound to its demands simply by existing. Not, of course, that someone can be entitled to another’s income, or to their space, or property. But the God who ‘owns the cattle on a thousand hills’ (Ps. 50:10) certainly owns mine, and is free to distribute His property however he pleases. By participating in Being at all, I noose myself to everyone I know and do not know, and so become their debtor, and there is no end in sight – we owe everything, to everyone, forever, not least to work alongside them for their liberation from the cycle of oppression.

 

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Recommended Reading:

A House for My Name by Peter Leithart, 2000, Canon Press
A Survey of the Old Testament by Gleason L. Archer Jr., 1964 (rev. 2007), Moody Publishers
A Survey of the Old Testament by John Walton and Andrew Hill, 1991 (rev. 2009), Zondervan
The Politics of Yahweh: John Howard Yoder, The Old Testament, and the People of God by John C. Nugent, 2011, Wipf and Stock
The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin, 2013, Oxford University Press

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Originally published at Misfit Theology.

‘Disinformation’ and the Death of Romulus

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All is not well as Paul and his cohort Silas write to their converts in Thessalonica. The churches into which they had formed have made quite the impression on their city, which is glorious enough, but the result has been blowback.

If every church is a microcosm, they’re a microcosmopolis, where Jew and gentile share bread and wine like brothers, and pool capital like countrymen, entombed beneath the concrete walkways of an empire that does not co-mingle and will not change. Their affront to the norm has not gone unnoticed. The gosh-dang world is upside down.

Neither has it gone unnoticed by the Synagogue leaders who do not appreciate the threat these early Pauline communities pose to the continued livelihood of their faith community. None too pleased to lose a portion of their Jewish attendants and perhaps the bulk of their “God-fearers,” – (gentiles drawn to the monotheism of the Jewish religion who had attached themselves to the synagogue worship) – they found these egalitarian cultists troublesome. Worse, “not a few of the leading women,” drawn by the teaching of these new missionaries, departed from their assembly. Their influence and financial resources departed with them. The Pauline mission robbed the synagogues of attendants and hegemony, and power, and prestige.

Of course, none of these issues couldn’t be resolved with a smear campaign. Paul and his cronies had constructed a message, said the synagogue leaders, that would naturally appeal to ‘God-fearing’ Gentiles. Like all theological novelties, they went on, it was really a ploy for financial gain. The missionaries who brought the message are, after all, chasing prominence and glory. And they fled the scene once they met opposition – hardly behavior that denotes sincerity.

Well, smear campaigns are never really about misinformation. The particulars of propagandist blather never really have to take root in order to undermine the stability of its target. And the synagogue leaders, having saturated the public square with slanderous accusations, at the very least destabilized what the missionaries had built. Misinformation is an understatement. This was disinformation. 

Unsurprisingly, their claims were baseless. In reality, the missionaries had come to teach in Thessalonica on the heels of ‘shameful treatment’ in Phillipi for having preached the same ingratiating gospel, having stirred up the wrath of some of the same ingrate Synagogue leaders. Someone is incapable of handling resistance, but it isn’t the missionaries – who, by the way, the Thessalonians may remember had insisted on working side jobs to support themselves during their stay. In truth, they didn’t make any demands on their converts, although they were certainly entitled to. If they’d been thirsty after renown, they would have acted a bit more like their interlocutors.

As the Thessalonians will also remember, they were “gentle among them, like a mother taking care of her own children,” or “a father with his children, exhorting each one of them.” They had been “holy and righteous and blameless in conduct toward them,” and the only explanation was that “being affectionately desirous of the Thessalonians, they were ready to share with them not only the gospel of God but also their own selves, because they had become very dear to them.” Having been “torn away” geographically, their hearts remained in Thessalonica. These new believers were their glory and joy.

So there was a different reason behind the opposition they had faced. The clergy isn’t what it was. Thoroughly domesticated by an empire that shuns them, this group of foolhardy prigs are the same sort that killed the prophets and crucified the Lord, and in “hindering Paul and Silas from speaking to all the gentiles,” they demonstrate their inability to envision gentiles as full participants in the coming kingdom to be established by the Messiah. Synagogues had amassed a large multitude of ‘God-fearing’ gentiles as partial participants in the life of the community, and they were happy with it that way. Behind their visceral opposition to the missionaries was a Jim Crowesque separate-but-equal-ism in which Greeks and the like, however devout, were best relegated to a second-class citizenship. These punks were at least as reprehensible as the hecklers at Galatia.

In any case, the missionaries had sent Timothy to serve as a temporary overseer, and were delighted to learn that although the new believers in Thessalonica buckled somewhat in response to the onslaught of their antagonists, they weren’t ‘bewitched’ like the Galatians had been.

So, concluding their prayer of exhortation, the missionaries entreat God to reunite them with the churches in Thessalonica, and to knit the new believers together in holy love, and to “establish their hearts blameless in holiness” so that they will be prepared for the return of Christ. They’ve issued a renewed call for holy living, a warning against disregarding God’s call to purity, and a command to remain “in the world.” Faithful as the Thessalonian Christians have remained thus far, one wonders why the missionaries thought this necessary.

As it turns out, the Synagogue leaders – horrified at the thought of losing their relative hegemony over Jewish practitioners and Gentile seekers – sought with some success to turn both the city-folk and government against them. Their brutal treatment of Jason and his household, recorded in Acts 17, was hardly an isolated incident:

“Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”

And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the synagogue leaders were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd.

And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”

And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.” (Acts 17:1-9)

It would have been tempting for a relatively new Gentile believer to quietly slide back into her old habits to avoid meeting the same fate. Others, rather than buckling under the pressure of religious and governmental opposition, grew zealous to the point of withdrawing altogether from the life of the city. That the missionaries even needed to remind Thessalonian believers to “aspire to live quietly, and mind their own affairs, and work with their hands…so that they may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one,” is amusing in hindsight. Timothy had encountered a number of well-intentioned believers who, overestimating the imminence of the second coming, had abandoned their jobs and become dependent, quite gratuitously, on the charity of others.

On top of it all, there was concern about whether those who had died would be included in the messianic kingdom at the coming of Christ. The missionaries typically drew out their instruction over the course of several days and weeks, and the religious elites had successfully driven them from the city before they could properly furnish the imaginations of newly proselytized with an accurate conception of how the resurrection of the Son of God would pave the way for their own resurrection.

Further complicating the matter, the proselytes had likely been connected to a strand of Judaism that placed minimal emphasis on the final Resurrection – or ignored it outright – so that when Paul and Silas were prematurely ejected from Thessalonica, the infant churches were left with an incomplete puzzle of sorts. In general, Palestinian Judaism was ‘earthier’ than the acutely Hellenized form that flourished in Alexandria and elsewhere, and whose general impulses would have trickled down into the synagogues of Thessalonica.

Hence, the form of Judaism in which the new converts were versed probably emphasized immortality over resurrection and downplayed the messianic hope, at least tacitly, on the grounds that “the dynamic personality of a messiah has no proper place in such a serene, eternally ordered world,” to quote the celebrated Jewish historian Salo Baron. Having been convinced by Paul and his team that Jesus was God’s messiah, they walked into the new faith carrying over anticipation of a coming “Golden Age, unrivaled in glory, when all peoples would abandon idolatrous practices and join the Jews in the worship of the one God in Jerusalem.” Yet untaught regarding the ‘final Resurrection,’ more than a few among them were concerned about whether those who had died already would be included in the ‘Golden Age’ established at Christ’s return.

As it turns out, they needn’t worry. Just as Christ was resurrected from the dead, Paul insists, so also will those who have died be resurrected at His return. In fact, his whole gospel hinges on it. “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven,” sooner or later, and “the dead in Christ will rise first.” For Paul, this meant the families he’d set ablaze at the height of his career in barbarism, and Stephen, from whose eyes he’d watched the vitality drain with the coats of his murderers strewn across his arms. For myself, it means my grandfather, Homer Chalmus Ellington, and Johnny Cash, to whom I’m supposedly related by marriage. After all this, says Paul, “We who are alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” The imagery is strikingly reminiscent of a pivotal episode in the second book of Samuel:

“Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh. In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the Lord said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd over my people Israel, and you shall be leader over Israel’” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. 

David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.

And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David. And David said on that day, “Whoever would strike the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack ‘the lame and the blind’ who are hated by David’s soul.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”

And David lived in the stronghold and called it the city of David. And David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.

And Hiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David, and cedar trees, also carpenters and masons who built David a house. And David knew that the Lord had established him king over Israel, and that He had exalted his kingdom for the sake of His people Israel.” (2 Samuel 5:1-12)

That’s to say, when the Thessalonian Christians meet Christ in the air, it will be like the tribes of Israel ‘meeting’ David at Hebron. They will say, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh,” and welcome Him back for good – “and so we will always be with the Lord.” Soon enough, the fermenting churches will meet their loved ones afresh, and their Savior – no longer as an itinerant healer, but as the promised Messiah – King Jesus, come to take the blood bought world back for Himself.

One couldn’t be blamed for missing that emphasis, though. Two millenia after Paul, disinformation abounds – from the press, certainly, and the academy, probably – and, regrettably, the pulpit.

If you grew up Protestant in the United States of America, you might be under the impression that Paul and his colleagues applied for a grant from the Jerusalem council, built a medium-sized rectangular church building with an impressive white steeple, and prepped their converts with the basics of Christian theology to tide them over while they waited out the rapture. This is taught nationwide in pulpits occupied by Spirit-filled ministers with good intentions and poor theology.

In reality, these Pauline communities remade the world. Apparently his exhortation to live quietly and do honest work for honest wages was sufficient to rouse them out of their retreatist stupor because, together with the scattered Church the world over, the Christians in Thessalonica quietly ushered in the death of the old West where ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were functions of power and little else, people were only acknowledged as human insofar as they were useful to the State and properly assimilated into the bloody machinery of imperialism, and the order of the cosmos endorsed a thickly stacked caste system whereby the poor and others were resources to be consumed by the nobility – as labour, or entertainment, or, more commonly, as sexual playthings to be brutalized and drank to exhaustion. It is hard to oversell how Paul’s gospel toppled the empire that Aeneas built, but it did exactly that, as generations of his disciples lived together in embodied glory – a communitarian compassion that enfleshed the bones of Moses in their midst. As it turns out, all Christian theology is ‘liberation theology’ if you understand where we came from and toward what we are continually blooming.

So the churches in Thessalonica were a counterculture, so to speak – one so thoroughly contagious that it spread through the streets of Rome like a ravaging disease and devoured the ethos of strength, of ‘manly vitality,’ and sowed the egalitarian spirit that continues in each generation to give birth to itself, each time more mature than before.

Depredation was the rule in the world that crucified the Son of God, and the ages were long, the norms static – it was a world that did not change. Armed with the gospel of the crucified God, the scattered church in Rome and abroad broke apart the pavements and tended the Edenic gardens buried well beneath. Consequently, they grew, albeit slowly, into the world that is, and as we, too, see to these gardens, they will grow, perhaps, somehow, into the world to come. And we will meet the Lord in the air, and say “We are your bone and flesh,” and we will always be with the Lord, because the Resurrection of His blood bought world cannot be undone.

The Omnipresence of Suffering (and the Image of the Bloodied Christ)

Anonymous Byzantine illustration: The pre-incarnate Christ speaks to Job.

One can rarely be sure how to go about paraphrasing Calvin. He’s an almost bottomless pit of nuance – so much so that it’s nearly impossible to summarize his thought without burying each sentence in qualifications. There is a tacit existentialism to him – especially in The Institutes – and he’s well-pleased when a thought stream grows dizzying and the fragile tensions he has drawn together become insufferable. The result is that Calvinism, in the broadest sense of the term, is a magnet’s coil – always, evidently, liable to burst at the seams, and yet, consistently, holding together. It’s ‘head in the clouds’ theology, to paraphrase a much-easier-to-summarize John Piper. The unfavorable appraisals that he has obtained in recent years seem, at best, reductive.

There’s a certain poetry to the disfavor into which he has fallen of late. Calvin spent his life swinging at enemies real and imagined. He is, in fact, a prime example of the demonic perils of demanding to be proven right. The man nursed an appetite for vindication. At every turn, his words were twisted by adversaries and misinterpreted by troglodytes. He longed, sometimes violently, to be understood. And now, more than ever, he isn’t.

He is know for his rigidity and supposed authoritarian bent. Fair enough. He was insufferably rigid. And rather heavy handed in governing Geneva. These facts are unremarkable. It shouldn’t surprise us that a 16th century intellectual was vociferously combative, nor that he ruled his Protestant theocracy with a half-clenched fist of iron. It should astound us that he was as remarkably flexible as he was – both as a theologian and politician. This flexibility makes him a complex read – not that any of his writings are terribly complicated, but his willingness to tease out possibilities and to take his readers along with him as he plumbs the depths of the transcendant beauty at center of the universe makes him an author who defies systematization. It is not that his thoughts are disorderly; they aren’t. And yet, no summary of Calvin has ever captured his many-layeredness. His nuances must be felt, not simply assented to. Calvinism is a lived-theology, and, as such, can only really be understood in hindsight, and from the inside.

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There are no good theodicies. As Austin Farrer observed half a century ago, nothing in the world can quite make up for the fact that the universe runs on suffering. There are also no pacifists. Not unless we so thoroughly restrict the term as to render it meaningless: Research has suggested that plants can feel pain and think thoughts, recognize relatives, and support one another by sharing photosynthesized sugars through a rather complex entangled-roots system. A rapidly multiplying group of animals have proven to be more nearly ‘sentient’ than we ever previously imagined. The boundaries between human and beast, and beast and plant are ever-narrowing. And no creature, human or otherwise, can exist without inflicting suffering on other creatures. One is reminded of a Noah and the Whale song:

When the baby’s born
Oh, let’s turn it to the snow
So that ice will surely grow
Over weak and brittle bones

Oh, let’s leave it to the wolves
So their teeth turn it to food
Oh, its flesh keeps them alive
Oh, its death helps life survive
Oh, the world can be kind in its own way

To understate: The classic ‘Problem of Evil’ is a bit passé. And in light of the sheer brutality of existence, so are theodicies. How can life be meaningful – or, even tolerable – in the face of such horrors? Can anyone stay sane who takes seriously the fact the the world literally runs on the suffering of creatures? It is not simply that unnecessary suffering pervades the goings-on of the current milieu. The ecosystem mainstains itself and adapts as creatures, some microscopic and others magnificent, fight and claw for resources. And there is no rest, no escape route: If creatures did not kill each other on purpose for resources, some would kill others by accident. Larger creatures would still crush smaller creatures by no fault of their own. Sizable creatures would still crush those too small to be seen by the naked eye. And worse yet, if creatures did not kill each other on purpose, even more would die than before. Plants are alive, but herbivores have to eat them. Trees feel the pain of losing bark to hungry herbivores – they emit an ultrasonic noise when feasted upon. Trees scream in horror when predators sink their teeth in and fungi drink them dry from the inside out. And even if plants did not think and feel and scream in pain, there would be unspeakable animal suffering if creatures stopped competing for resources. It is the bloody struggle for survival that guarantees that as few creatures die as is necessary. If they stopped killing each other, there would still be such a scarcity of resources that most of them would starve to death – a worse fate, even, than being mauled. No creature, anywhere, can exist, in any sense, without inflicting senseless suffering on other creatures.

How does one keep from going insane in this world? Interestingly enough, Calvin – who did not have access to the findings of modern science and had not read The Hidden Life of Trees – was remarkably in tune with the absurdity of the universe. I don’t, of course, mean that he grasped the particularly sordid depths of animal suffering. And yet, he grasped, long before it had become self-evident, that the world is precisely as fleeting, as cruelly indifferent, you might say, as Solomon had posthumously warned, and Job had (rather repetitively) chronicled. And yet – he was also the man who, long before Edwards, had declared that ‘there is not one blade of grass that does not exist for the glory of God.’ The world is a horrifying factory of barbarism that somehow, still, is an indefatigable repository of transcendant beauty. If you can accept it, the horrors that travel the veins of everything are a characteristic absurdity, which, though omnipresent, contradict the very fabrics of reality. God is love, and God is the Ground in which we have our being, and yet, to be at all is intolerably painful, and yet, the transcendent beauty at the bottom of everything beckons us onward into the absurdity in pursuit, we hope, of transcendence itself.

And so Calvin eschews theodicy, instead goading his readers on to something less clear and more satisfying. Endlessly qualified and characteristically dizzying, he says to the downtrodden – and, my paraphrase will be unsatisfactory here – ‘You will suffer, and often, perhaps unthinkably so, and others will suffer worse, too, unbearably. And God’s hand is in it, somehow – like all things, your suffering, seemingly needless, traces back to God’s eternal decree. And you have no grounds for protest, because He is the very Ground you stand on. But you can endure it and, by grace, find yourself hammered more nearly into the image of the bloodied Christ.’

On Lemuel Haynes and ‘Late-Night Talk-Show Liturgies’

‘The Lonely Ones’ by Edvard Munch (1899)

​I’m not sure America’s that much less religious than it used to be. Television is more common than it was half a century ago and we shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which religion can function as entertainment. ‘Nominal’ religion, of course, is certainly evaporating. There are less ‘religious in name only’ folks these days. Our ‘liturgy fix’ is easily attainable in our media saturated culture, and many who might have sought to quiet the pangs of utter hopelessness in a Church building a few times a week a century ago can self-medicate more economically by tuning in to The Late Show.

In the absence of other accessible forms of entertainment, previous generations were more apt to attend seasonal revivals, involve themselves in religious activities, etc. I’m talking about the way in which things like television and other now  accessible forms of cheap entertainment have come to fill a gap that previously religion filled for large subsets of the population: the desire to be entertained.

In centuries past, when Christianity – usually, some form of Protestant Christianity – was simply assumed to be true by most of the public, and there were fewer forms of widely accessible entertainment available as competition, involving oneself in Christian activities (such as bible studies, revivals, etc.) was one of the most common ways to pass the time.

This could give the sense, then, that America was more devout than it was. By circumstance, we were ‘more’ religious, but the roots weren’t particularly deep. Now that there are numerous alternatives by which we can entertain ourselves, religion’s hegemony in American life has predictably waned.

My question, then, is to what extent we can truly say that America is substantively less religious than it was, when previously the truth of the Christian story was merely assumed, rather than embraced, and the function of religion for a sizable portion of the population was chiefly its ability to fill a certain universal human need – that is, to pass the time in the absence of accessible competition, like television, etc. If my suspicions are true, America is as ‘religious’ as ever, we’ve simply reallocated our devotions.

I’m not being cynical. I certainly don’t think that hope is lost. None of this means that the gospel will no longer take root on American soil, or that the Great Commission is somehow out of reach. It simply means that we no longer have some of the crutches that our great-grandparents’ generation had.

But, as Lemuel Haynes was always quick to remind his cohorts, everything – everything – that happens, happens in order to further along the Triune God’s eternal plan to reconcile the world to Himself. If we face unprecedented challenges because there are infinitely more opiates from which the average person can choose, then so be it. As Lemuel would also have pointed out, true religion – at least, the religion of Jesus, is a balm for the wounded but is hardly an opiate for the bourgeoisie. If it is anything, it is a merciful buzzkill, jostling us awake and demanding our submission to the strange moral vision of the gospel of grace.

So it may be a good thing that television has taken away our hegemony. Bad for numbers – at least for now – but good for the world. To paraphrase David Bentley Hart, the Church has only ever been half-Christian (at best) when we’ve run the world. And to paraphrase Rod Dreher, we’re well on our way to becoming a minority religion in the West. To paraphrase Anthony Bradley, though, the majority of the Christians in the United States have never, actually known what it is like to be the ruling class – the historic Black church has always been a marginalized Christian group, from the colonial days to the Civil Rights movement to the modern era, where culturally dominant Evangelical institutions send missionaries into black neighborhoods to plant their own churches without involvement from the long-standing, theologically conservative Black Churches that have been there for decades (or centuries). And that’s only one example. We’ll survive like they’ve survived, and in-season we’ll multiply like they’ve multiplied – in season. The predominately white churches that make up what was the most culturally influential player in America’s religious landscape will soon enough occupy a similar position to the ethnic churches that past generations explicitly marginalized and current generations largely ignore. And we can learn from their historic witness. And, perhaps, in joining them in the society’s lower wrungs, we can learn to identify, explicitly and implicitly, with them as one Body, transcending our cultural divides without erasing them, and in doing so, become a common Church in America that begins again to turn the world upside dowm – even in the television age.

Paul, on Moses (and the Scumbags Who Misquote Him)

The Lover’s Whirlwind, William Blake (1827)


“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, pederasts, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” (1 Tim. 1:8-11)

Paul is funnier than the folks who preach him. His first letter to Timothy opens with a pun: “we know, after all, that the Law is good – if you use it lawfully.” 

He’s getting at something, here. Depending on the context, says Lawrence Boadt, the term ‘The Law’ can refer to the Decalogue, – that’s the traditional name for the Ten Commandments – or the entire ‘Mosaic Law,’ – that’s shorthand for the whole 613 laws given throughout the Pentateuch – or, even, the Pentateuch itself – which is the traditional name for the first five books of the Old Testament, traditionally attributed to Moses. 

It’s not immediately clear which meaning of ‘Law’ he’s alluding to in this passage. It comes from a letter sent to his friend and ministry partner, Timothy, who was struggling to lead a group of churches in Ephesus while a troublesome pack of false teachers sought to lead his congregations astray. To be specific, they were trying to undermine the missionary work of Paul and others by reinterpretting the ‘Law’ to for their own ends. In Paul’s words, they “desire to be teachers of the Law” and were “devoted to endless myths and genealogies.” 

Apparently, fetishizing the Law didn’t do much to make them holier. They were as immoral, evidently, as your congressman (1 Tim. 1:13;15;19; 3:1; 4:2; 5:6;11; 6:5-10), and superstitious, too (1:4; 4:7). There were others, in and before Paul’s time, who were fond of ‘myths and endless geneologies.’ To heavily ‘allegorize’ the Old Testament, scholar W.D. Mounce noted, was to tap into a popular – and, probably, profitable – trend among certain groups of second temple Jews. There was a tendency within post-exilic Judaism to imaginatively retell “the pedigrees of the patriarchs,” writes J.N.D. Kelley. But whereas Philo and others taught from genuine love for God and faithfulness to the scriptures to creatively allegorize their content, – a practice soon after adopted by early Christian theologians – the charlatans stirring up trouble in Timothy’s congregations did so in reckless disregard for the holiness of God. Between their obsession with the more extravagant forms of rabbinic Midrash and their flagrant immorality, it’s unlikely that they meant well (1:7).

Their zeal for the Law led them to “wander away into vain discussion” (1:6) but did not prevent them from indulging in greed, sexual immorality, and divisiveness. They saw it, in other words, as a ‘roadmap’ to the ‘secrets’ of the ‘heavenly realm’ – think Left Behind, or Blood Moons. In much the same way that some modern teachers use the Old Testament prophets and the book of Revelation as springboards from which to make dubious predictions about the end times but don’t heed their rather unambiguous ethical imperatives, so also the troublemakers at the churches in Ephesus allegorized the Pentateuch in an effort to uncover the “secret meaning” beneath the text and obtain “higher” knowledge (6:20). 

This wasn’t uncommon among post-exilic Jews, especially in Alexandria – but these false teachers went further. They were not just churning out the sort of helpful folklore found in extra-biblical works like Jubilees and Biblical Antiquities. They were indulging unfounded fantasies about the patriarchs with the ‘Law’ as their inspiration, but neglecting – or rejecting – its moral boundaries. In doing so, they side-step its primary function: to be a ‘restraint’ or ‘guardian’ for the people of God (Gal. 3:24-29). 

It wasn’t just the the 613 literal ‘laws’ that were meant to serve as a ‘guardian’ over the covenant community of Israel, but the whole Pentateuch. The whole Torah was meant to be their ‘guardian,’ their ‘restraint.’ So Paul’s indictment is against an abuse of the Pentateuch – especially the ‘law’ portions. There is not, after all, much material to allegorize in the Ten Commandments alone, and although it is possible to produce a system of ‘mystical allegorizations’ of the Levitical and Deuteronomical Laws, the product would, almost certainly, be of a distinctly ethical nature. The scumbags heckling Timothy and his churches were scumbags, though, whose allegorizations were little more than “irreverent, silly myths” (1 Tim. 4:7), so that’s unlikely. Since their error consisted in “false knowledge” in the form of mythical stories surrounding the patriarchs but not rigid adherence to an upright lifestyle, their more flamboyant allegorizations probably dealt with the narrative portions of the Pentateuch along with the more pointed “law” sections. In other words, they did damage to the whole of Pentateuch. 

But “the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully.”  That’s essentially a wise-crack on Paul’s part, but it’s a remarkably rich one: noting the connection between v. 9 and Galatians 5:13-26, J.N.D Kelley suggests that the legal aspect of the Law “applies only to those who are under the influence of the flesh and who in their lives follow its promptings.” That’s why earlier, Paul says:

“Why then the Law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made   . . .  before faith came, we were held captive under the Law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the Law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God through faith.” (Gal. 3:19-26)

So Paul’s insistence that “the Law is not laid down for the just but the unjust” assumes what he had previously taught in the epistle to the Galatians. There he writes that inclusion into the ‘covenant community’ of Israel precedes binding under the law (Gal. 3:9;17;18-19;21), and that the Law itself was, in fact, a gift to those who belonged to God’s covenant commumity of Israel (3:19-22). The argument would go as such:

‘Human nature is insatiably self-destructive (5:17) and, consequently, people have an inescapable bent toward enslaving themselves to sinful practices (4:3;8). The moral, ceremonial, cultic, etc. stipulations of the Law were intended, specifically, to enslave God’s covenant people instead to an ethical system consistent with God’s character (3:23;5:16;24-25). Communal adherence to the Law would, among other things, prevent God from having to pour His wrath out on the people whom He had rescued from Egypt for Himself. Although the Law was gifted to the covenant people of God for their protection, the redemption brought about in Christ means that the covenant people no longer need to be enslaved to the Law, but set free in Christ (4:1-7).’

So in Paul’s eyes the Law is good and holy, but must be used as it was intended to be used. It cannot be used as a means to enter God’s covenant – that is, following the Mosaic Law can’t save you, because the Law is only for the ‘already-saved,’ so to speak – or as a ‘pathway in to a higher realm of knowledge’ – that is, recklessly allegorizing the Mosaic Law (or the prophets, or Revelation) will not make you wiser, help you predict the future, or give you significant insight about the end-times, but it might turn you into a heretic.

Rather, the Law was given to people who were already in the covenant, it ‘protected the already-saved’ against becoming like the Canaanites again. Gleason Archer Jr. sums it up well: “grace reigned supreme in the Sinaitic covenant just as it truly did in the Abrahamic. The whole body of Law revealed to Moses and his people from this point on was a testament of grace, although mediated through a different economy from that of the gospel.” The legal portions of the Pentateuch, when originally given, were about ‘taking captive’ those who were already captive to sin. To put it another way, it was a glorious bit of divine pragmatism.

Now, though, in the ‘new covenant,’ the time has come to be set free from both ‘Law’ and sin. Don’t misunderstand – the Law is still for ‘new covenant’ people because it reveals the heart of Yahweh. When one has received the Holy Spirit, the Law becomes a tool in His hands to conform them into the image of Jesus.

A proper understanding of the Law was, in Paul’s mind, a non-negotiable component of that process. God gave the Law to Israel immediately after freeing them from slavery in Egypt. They were brought from the bondage of a cruel Pharaoh into the covenant bondage of a gentle Lord- literally, a feudal Lord, a suzerain – so that when the time would come, having been preserved by the grace of God by the boundaries set up in the Law, they could be set free from all bondage in the Spirit, whether to sin or to the Law.

So today, the violent need the Law because they are enslaved to their destructive appetites; the sexually immoral need the Law because they are slaves to their ‘animal urges’ – or, perhaps, their desire for approval or intimacy; enslavers need the Law because they themselves are enslaved to the human propensity to conquer and dominate. On this side of the Christ’s resurrection, the Law is ‘lawful’ when believers allow it to reveal in them what is not consistent with God’s heart for the world so that the Holy Spirit can recreate in them what has been broken.

Stewarding Creation Well, (and Other Things That Aren’t Negotiable)

A friend recently posed the question: “Should we be more focused on saving our Humanity or saving creation.”

He clarified what he meant: “By ‘humanity’ I mean, our civilization – our ability to be compassionate, to be kind, just, and peaceful. Our creativity, our expression, and our pursuit of truth. It seems like we are having a global ‘cultural’ crisis. We are also having a global ‘material’ crisis: the destruction of our planet. Which do we solve – or do we solve first? Or, which is the most important?”

Ellen Davis touches on the question in her book ‘Getting Involved With God.’ She offers a few relevant considerations:

First, the concept of ‘stewardship’ actually subordinates humanity to nature, in a way. We rule over it by serving it. Ignoring needs of the creation over which we were placed to steward is an abdication of our God-given responsibility. Our being stewards did not cease because of ‘the Fall.’ We should conduct ourselves – our families, and our churches – accordingly.

Secondly, our ‘subordinary’ rule over nature is woven into our humanity, and all the components of our humanity intersect, so embodying our role means integrating environmental and humanistic concerns. They both emanate from our role as stewards of God’s rule over the natural world. This is true of all humanity – again, we did not cease to be responsible for the well-being of creation because of the Fall. But it is especially true for those of us in the Church. Not only are we divinely charged with stewardship over creation, but we are actually aware that we are charged. 

That’s to say, irreligious environmentalists do instinctively what Christians ought to do out of obedience. How to properly care for the environment in an increasingly Globalized world is its own conversation. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m tend to advocate for limited government, and the avenues that I would suggest toward more faithful environmental stewardship will inevitably reflect that. I’m under no delusions that GMO foods are inherently “dangerous,” and I’m far more interested in what the farmer who goes to church with me has to say about stewarding the earth than I am with the blogger from New York. There are, of course, others better suited than myself for making the case for one avenue over another. As an expositor of the Bible, though, my concern is pointing out that we do, indeed, have that responsibility. Complacency regarding the environment is a theological error.

To be specific, we are subordinate, by nature, to Christ. We serve Him as our King, our God. We ‘steward’ creation, together, as God’s image. That means that we subordinate our self-interest – say, industrial productivity, for example – to the needs of creation. It doesn’t mean that we are hierarchically subordinate to creation, or that we ‘serve’ it like we serve Christ. But it does mean that we serve Christ by ruling over nature in such a way that we care for its well being. And, there’s no way around it, stewarding creation faithfully has to take shape as protecting animals and environments threatened by certain human practices. In other words, ‘serving’ nature as its stewards, we serve Christ as His subjects.

The obvious contention – and a convenient one, might I add – that could be raised is that one day, we’re told in scripture, there will be ‘a new heavens and a new earth’ – presumably, one without an ecological crisis – and so we don’t really need to worry ourselves with maintaining the creation over which God placed us as stewards. 

And the obvious response – and an inconvenient one, might I add – is that we don’t, in any scenario, have the right to disregard our role, given to us by God at our inception, simply because He’s going to fix it all one day anyway. Again: inconvenient, but painfully obvious. And, like a lot of problems that ravage contemporary Protestantism, it can probably be traced in some way to the antisupernaturalist liberalism that trickled down from Berlin in the 19/20th century. 

I can’t draw a direct connection, because the ecological crises we face today were, for the most part, unknown at that point. Contemporary research has illuminated the extent to which human civilization has debased the environment. We have made ourselves, in a way, antistewards. As recently as a century ago, this was not so clear (or pronounced). 

But now it is, and our response has been tepid, noncommital. More than a few have denied outright that we have any responsibilty to rectify it – either because they disbelieve in stewardship, or believe it amounts to a license to consume the earth’s resources however we desire, or believe that the eventual redemption of the cosmos gets us off the hook from having to obey God by seeing to the earth’s well being to the extent that we are able. In any case, this is likely the result of the classic liberal Protestant notion that, with the coming of Christ, we ceased to have concrete social responsibilities outside of the necessary practical concerns that occupy everyday life. This notion permeated every corner of Western Protestantism, as the dubious pronouncements of the European intelligentsia took hold both in elite metropolitan cathedrals and remote country churches. Consequently, when the data began to suggest that creation had been suffering under humanity’s antistewardship, we were umoved.

So it’s ironic that Ellen Davis, of all people, would best articulate what was, until fairly recently, quite obvious. As an Episcopal priest, she is a mainline Protestant. Her theological heritage is closely linked to the earliest forms of this particular theological problem. More than is the case for any ‘evangelical,’ she is, at least in theory, the intellectual grandchild of the 19/20th century liberalism that subtly conditioned modern Protestants to approach environmental issues callously. Kudos to her for being ahead of the curve – or, perhaps, mercifully ‘behind the times.’ 

She’s not, of course, the only one. Richard Bauckham, a conservative Anglican Priest, authored ‘The Bible and Ecology‘ wherein he suggests, similarly, that our given role as ‘stewards’ over creation is, to say the least, primarily a charge to conform our own communities to the needs and rhythms of creation. 

He is not, like Wendell Berry, advocating a kind of large-scale return to an agrarian economy. But he does suggest that we, as Christians, ought to understand ourselves as part of the community of creation, rather than as distinct from it. That is, we’re not quite the mediators between creation and God so much as fellow members of creation alongside whom there is only one Mediator: Christ. As fellow members of the community of creation, we have a special role. But our role, which has us ruling over creation as God’s images, renders us creation’s servants, so to speak. We’re made to be cultivators, not simply consumers. Our stewardship is more of an albatross than a license.

A happy albatross. That is, it is good that we are commisioned with caring for creation, not bad. It’s a joyous ball-and-chain. There is no freedom from the stewardship we’re charged with. There is only a satisfying faithfulness and a draining abdication thereof. As we’ll remember from the book of Haggai, God responds to our abdications by taking the joy away from the comfort and ease that comes with it. 

So, to quote Davis again, it would be in our interest to ‘get involved with God.’ One day, all the bad we’ve done – to each other, to ourselves, and to creation – will come untrue. In the meantime, our responsibility to care for the earth has not been retracted. Though I doubt we’ll ever produce a ‘scarcity-free’ world, nor will our efforts ever undo the effects of the Fall, I would be remiss to ignore the other large, looming reality that Haggai points to: that faithfulness is remarkably powerful. And, to answer my friend’s question, it would also mean retrieving at least one component of our humanness. Whatever corruption has been wrought by the Fall, and however voluminous the ecological crisis, the power of God to bring about a new heavens and a new earth is, as always, beyond the scope of imagination. 

Surprisingly Enough, Jesus Is What God Is Like (Happy Easter)

The above image has the high and holy King washing the feet of His rowdy disciples. It ought be surprising that this is what God’s like. 

You’ve probably noticed that Jesus as we meet Him in the four gospels not just an amplification of whatever we already thought was right. ‘Good‘ as exemplified by Christ Himself was not, it turns out, just common sense baptized in Godness. Counterintuitively, He was something else entirely – something which often grates against what we call conventional wisdom. As a man, Jesus began the divine project of turning the world upside down. As the Creator of the universe, He began the project of bringing His creation into conformity with Himself. As both God and man, He bore the weight of humanity’s sin, and His own wrath against it. 2000 years later, we’re familiar enough with the story to miss the point. 

There was no reason to expect Good Friday. No reason to anticipate Holy Saturday, Christ’s descent into Hell. And no reason to count on Resurrection Sunday. And yet they happened.

These things are beyond the parameters of human creativity. Folks who imply a parallel between Jesus and the old myths of ‘dying-and-rising-Gods’ miss the point by a few degrees, like folks who can’t see much more than a ‘tribal deity’ in the Old Testament’s image of the God who sprung Israel out of Egyptian slavery. Whatever peripheral similarities exist are eclipsed by the sheer insanity of this God character who defies expectation.

There was no reason to expect the Creator of the universe to wash the feet of His disciples. There was no reason to expect the God who commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites to preach the Sermon on the Mount. There was no reason to assume that the God who vanquished Pharaoh would submit to a cross to redeem the crowds of people screaming for His blood. 

But on this side of His resurrection, it makes perfect sense. All this time we’d read our own motivations into the Yahweh character. We’d given Him our own psychology, assumed our own values in His every move. But God is different than we thought we knew. Everything He’d ever done, somehow, is part of the project of redeeming the world. 

The hasty meet Jesus in the gospels and assume that the Old Testament got God wrong. But the truth is that the Jesus we encounter there shows that we’d read the Old Testament wrong. God has always been like Jesus. The Father, Son, and Spirit has always been, as John writes, love. And now we know, on this side of the Resurrection. 

The Old Testament Wasn’t a ‘Works Religion’

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Temple of Juno in Agrigento by Caspar David Friedrich

The idea, ever popular, that the Old Testament was a ‘works religion’ but the New Testament is all about ‘your personal walk with God’ didn’t come from Luther or Calvin or Melanchton, or the old Baptists (or the Apostles). It does, however, show up in Adolf Harnack, a theologian that the churches teaching this nonsense probably have no love for. Of course, the idea didn’t originate with him. But he certainly helped popularize it, and it was a long time coming. The century leading up to his meteoric rise to prominence in the field of academic theology was a kind of seedbed for the growing hyper-individualism that overtook much of Western Christianity and produced the parched landscape in which we find ourselves.

Against their usual caricatures, it turns out that Luther’s a lot more nuanced about Law and Grace than is typically represented, and the Anabaptists/early Baptists found far more in the Old Testament than Law to be liberated from. Calvin, too, scoffed at the notion that the New Testament Religion was primarily about your ‘soul.’ The Patristic authors wrote often against an idea not unsimilar called ‘gnosticism’ (Google it for a fun afternoon). And the Apostles wrote the New Testament, which has an awful lot more on its mind than our ‘personal salvation.’

You do, however, see that idea fermenting in liberal academic circles throughout the 19th/20th century, and came to a head in pre-war Germany. At that point in time, mainstream theology trickled down from Berlin, alongside a few other elite academies. As goes the scholarship, so goes popular preaching, and both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Protestant churches were penetrated by the novel ideal that the Old Testament had brought about a ‘public’ religion, where people in a community work for their salvation in a shared domain of people separated from the rest of the world by God, but the New Testament had brought a ‘personal’ religion, where people were saved, either by assent to certain doctrines (as some ‘conservatives’ might have said) or by some sublime emotional experience of God (as some of the ‘liberals’ might have said).

Naturally, these are both wrong notions, because the ideology behind them is wrong. There is not a hard separation between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ testaments. Some early Church Fathers were concerned that separating them as such in the canon would create an unbiblical disjunction between them in the minds of future congregations. It turns out their concern was prophetic, and the prophecy is fulfilled.

Over the following century, the line between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Protestantism blurred. New denominations emerged, old branches withered away, Fundamentalism was born, and proved to be a powerful evangelistic force. But it soon splintered off and became so varied and diverse that it’s hard to identify any ‘one’ thing that ‘Fundamentalism’ might mean today. But amidst the diversity of contemporary Protestantism, there is at least one common feature that we share.

Namely, that ‘conversion’ is framed chiefly as an individual’s personal experience with God, which is inaugurated by an emotional rush and then cemented by an intellectual assent to a (varying) set of doctrinal standards. Modern Protestants didn’t invent conversion – the Holy Spirit did that – but we did invent the ‘conversion experience.’

Formerly, a convert was someone ‘grafted into the existent community of the risen Jesus.’ There was an extent to which the convert ceased to be simply themself and became instead a ‘member’ (read: appendage) of Christ’s ‘Body.’ This was true across denominational lines. The ‘Great Awakening’ and other primordial revivals were not, chiefly, about saving souls, but about grafting wild olive branches into the Tree of Life, so to speak. Of course it dealt with individuals. Of course, every woman or man was responsible to respond to the Holy Spirit with submission rather than rebellion, but it was unthinkable that this was all somehow part of a puerile scheme by which God was turning people from damned to not-damned by charging people to talk them into belief and inspire them into spiritual euphoria.

Revival, back then, was more like enlistment. Jonathan Edwards, who championed the Second Great Awakening, preached ‘Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God‘ not to people he hoped merely to turn into private believers, but to crowds of God’s enemies, whom, by grace alone, through faith alone, he hoped would be transformed through hearing the gospel word, into contagious gospel communities.

And they would, by carrying out the same mission that God’s people have always had, from Noah to Abraham to Moses to Nehemiah to Jesus’s disciples and their disciples and so on, multiply and fill the earth, as members of the ‘Redeemed’ community, so that over time, their neighbors would seek out the same Jesus in whose Resurrection they now found their life, and one day the whole world would look like love.

This fell by the wayside, however, because future ‘revivals’ were carried out under presuppositions unfortunately bestowed on us by liberal protestants from Berlin and Tübingen, and so on. Books like The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman have done some great work toward recasting the original vision, but as it stands, revival in the West would first mean changing the consciousness of an entire generation.

There was, it seems, a rather direct line from the hard separation of ‘Law’ and ‘Grace’ to the artificial distinction of the ‘public, works-based‘ religion of the Old Testament from the ‘personal, spiritual’ religion of the New Testament, to the strange and inorganic framing of conversion as ‘saving your soul‘ rather than ‘being grafted into the earthly body of Jesus, as exclusive subjects of His kingship, who (incidentally?) share in His inheritance.’

This article is filled with generalizations. It’s hard to cover large swaths of history and interact with broad concepts without doing so. History is always more nuanced than is apparent in the books, articles, and dumb blog posts. Generalizations have to be read as such, and that is what these are. But generalizations are only untrue if they’re untrue, and these are not. And to summarize the sweeping statements thus far: We have inherited the notion that there is a distinction to be made between our spiritual lives and the rest of our lives. It was not the old Baptists, nor Luther nor Augustine nor the Apostles who told us that Jesus came round to save our souls so we could carry on with business as usual in the knowledge that we’ll go to heaven when we die. That was some German liberals from back in the day. Adolf Harnack and friends didn’t mean to derail the Protestant church in the process, but they largely did. Today in the West, even if you fancy yourself a ‘fundamentalist’ or an ‘evangelical,’ liberals probably wrote your theology.

Most of Harnack’s colleagues didn’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Mercifully, they never did get religious conservatives to abandon that central doctrine of the ancient faith. But their theology did trickle down, not only to the towering Episcopal church on the corner of 4th and Dunmeier, but also to the Independent Baptist Church across the street. The result is that an awful lot of our churches carry on like the Resurrection didn’t happen, and Jesus isn’t King.

Because if the Resurrection did happen, and Jesus wasn’t just a spiritual guru, as Harnack taught, who died for our sins but left His throne unoccupied until the end-times, as too many to count have taught, then everything – literally everything – is different. If the crucified Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to His throne, then He rules the Church in a particular sense, even as He rules the world in a general sense. He said to Pilate, ‘You could have no authority over me that is not given to you’ (John 19:11), and Paul affirms as much when he exhorts the Christians in Rome to honor the Emperor (Rom 13:1-7). The rule of Christ over the whole earth is not expressed through political dominion. There can be no ‘Christian Nation,’ no legislated Christendom. He rightfully rules the whole world, but its thrones and dominions are occupied by usurpers. ‘David is anointed but Saul remains.‘ (1 Sam. 15 – 2 Sam 5).

And yet, Jesus is taking claim over the world that belongs to Him. Not from the throne, but from the trenches. He reclaims His world as He colonizes the countries of the usurpers – the gospel is taken from city to city, house to house, and people are grafted into His own ‘resurrection Community.’ They live on the terms of the Kingdom of God, together, in the midst of cities that cannot understand them. They don’t blend in to their surroundings, because their lives are strangely Jesus-shaped. The gospel has permeated every corner of them. Their politics are weird, because they serve a King who crucified Himself for His enemies. Their marriages are weird, because each member is married to a ‘Husband‘ who crucified Himself rather than retaliate against them. 

Their finances are weird, and their sex lives are different, because they worship a man who died a broke 33-year-old virgin (to paraphrase Derek Webb). They run their businesses strangely because they see the face of Jesus in every employee. And they make remarkable employees, because they work as though they work for Jesus Himself, rather than the CEO of Highland Ventures Inc. They haven’t simply had their ‘souls’ saved. They have, literally, become members of a ‘Body‘ other than their own, and the subjects of another Kingdom, who live out its principles in the midst of this one. And this one is passing away – not into nothingness, as though God were going to destroy the world. No, this world is passing away and becoming – slowly, painfully, and certainly – the kingdom on whose terms they already live. Half the work of an ‘evangelist’ is to live Christianly.

* * *

And so, to understate the point, Harnack and his colleagues were wrong. Long dead, he knows that now, and I like to think he’s happier for it. There has only ever been one mission of God, and Noah was a missionary, as was Abraham, and Moses. The ancient Law was not a pathway to salvation. The whole of scripture knows nothing of ‘works-based salvation’ – with the notable exception, perhaps, of some heretics in Galatia who didn’t understand their own Torah. The Law of Moses, perhaps counterintuitively, was a missionary endeavor. It carried forward the missionary work of Yahweh by shaping the already-saved‘ community of Israel around a ‘moral government‘ that reflected the unnatural compassion of the Triune God. Had they carried out their mission to the nations, they would have introduced world to the God who had chosen them, and waited together for the redemption that was to come.

The mission is not fundamentally different in the shadow of the cross. Abraham was saved through faith, if Paul is to be believed, and the ‘righteousness’ of Christ was ‘credited to him’ (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:2-5) – and he was given a mission for the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). We are saved through the same faith – our faith is Abraham’s faith, and vice versa – by the same grace, too. It was the Cross that saved the Israelites – time is linear, but grace is not.

What is different is that because all of us are included in the resurrection of Jesus, now we really are a royal priesthood. The Kingdom of God really is a kingdom of priests. That is to say, Jesus exercises both His royal and priestly functions on earth, today, through the Church. Scripture is the eyes through which we see the world – past and present – and we, the Church, are the hands by which Jesus writes the future.

There was no place for this in Harnack’s theology. He had faith in the world to work itself out. Religion, of course, was a good emotional crutch, so his Jesus needn’t do much more than abolish the old religion and instead create a new, ‘private’ religion, suitable for the modern man. Again, generalizations. Harnack and others were considerably more nuanced than I can do justice to here, but the point stands that we’ve absorbed more of him than is good for us, and it’s only stifled our usefulness as appendages in Christ’s body.

We would, conversely, benefit from relearning scripture. For too long, the lingering ghosts of German liberal Protestantism have haunted our preaching, writing, and discipleship. We will continue to self-marginalize if the modernist conception of New Testament faith is allowed to remain a very real fox in our imaginary hen-house. Conversion, irreducibly, is a transfer of citizenship. The Church is a kingdom of priests, overcoming the world as is by contagiously living on heaven’s terms in a world that foreshadows hell. The gospel doesn’t begin in Matthew, but in Moses. We share the mission of ancient Israel, because we’re the same Community.

There is help to be had here. The problematic trends  have described above are not true of all Christians everywhere. They are not even true of all Western Christians. Or even the American Church at large. These trends are prevalent in predominately white churches in the United States more than others. It has been less common, for example, in the black church. For whatever reason, they were less inclined to absorb the novel theological musings of the elite anglo-theologians working out of the European academy. (It’s almost like the heavy liberalization of the Ancient faith is a form of colonialism, or something.)

Of course, there’s no use romanticizing the black church. From what I’m told, they have problems of their own. But privatizing faith is not one of them, and a cursory study into the historic black church in America reveals, for one, a vibrant faith community that seeks to reconcile ever corner of itself to the gospel. Unlike the predominately white masses of mainstream American Christendom, they have not hammered a wedge between the private faith of the individual and the potent social force of the subversive gospel community. To put it another way, the black church is more ‘conservative,’ theologically speaking, even if their politics are more liberal.

Naturally, there’s nothing special about predominantly ‘white’ churches. We could disappear for centuries and the mission of God would not be threatened. But, you know, hopefully we won’t, and we would do well to learn from their example as a community of ‘gathered social engagement,’ ‘tightly-knit communal identity,’ and ‘deep scriptural engagement.’

Again, there’s no reason to paper over their own persistent ills. But they can remind us, for example, that Moses preaches the gospel. And part of Moses’s gospel is the transformation of society by the gathered community of Yahweh in the power of the Spirit. It’s part of Moses’s gospel because it’s part of Jesus’s gospel. Thanks largely to the corrosive influence of 19th/20th century liberalism on the white church, you won’t find much of that in the predominately Caucasian churches in the United States. We’ve been the ‘ruling class’ for so long that it’s ingrained in our psychology that this world doesn’t need to be turned upside down. Coupled with the trickle-down liberalism from Harnack and friends, this has rendered us a largely impotent force for the kingdom here. Again, generalizations have to be read as such. But these are not untrue generalizations. So we can learn from the black church what our own history has engineered us to forget: that the gospel turns the whole world upside down, and – as we ought to recall, but lately have not – that we are the ones to upend it (Acts 17:6).