Thirty-Three Propositions from Eph. 2:1-10

Eph. 2:1-10 reads as such:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

There are some things to be derived from this passage. These are thirty-three of them:

  1. Paul’s readers were previously “dead” in their “trespasses”.
  2. Paul’s readers were also previously “dead” in their “sins”.
  3. They used to “walk” in their “trespasses” and “sins”, but not anymore.
  4. When they “walked” in their “trespasses” and “sins”, they did so “according to the ways of this world”.
  5. When they “walked” in their “trespasses” and “sins”, they did so “according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens”.
  6. The “ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens” is “the spirit now working in the disobedient”.
  7. Both Paul and his readers previously lived among “the disobedient”.
  8. When they lived among the disobedient, they “in our fleshly desires”.
  9. When they were living “in our fleshly desires” among “the disobedient”, they “carried out the inclinations of their flesh.”
  10. When they were living “in our fleshly desires” among “the disobedient”, they also “carried out the inclinations of our … thoughts”
  11. During the time when they lived “in our fleshly desires” among “the disobedient” and carried out the “inclinations” of their “flesh” and “thoughts”, they were “children under wrath”.
  12. When they were “children under wrath”, they were so in the same way “as the others were also”.
  13. God is “rich in mercy”.
  14. God had “great love” for Paul and his readers.
  15. God “made us alive with the Messiah”.
  16. God did this even “though we were dead in trespasses”.
  17. The reason that God “made us alive with the Messiah” is “because of His great love that He had for us”.
  18. Paul’s readers “are saved by Grace”.
  19. God raised Jesus “up and seated” Jesus “in the heavens”.
  20. God raised us up “together with Christ Jesus” and “seated play the immeasurus in the heavens”.
  21. He did this to “display the immeasurable riches of His grace.”
  22. The “immeasurable riches of His grace” are displayed “through His kindness to us”.
  23. The “immeasurable riches of His grace”, which are displayed “through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus” will be displayed “in the coming ages”.
  24. Paul’s readers are saved by grace “through faith”.
  25. To be “saved by grace through faith” is something that “is not from yourselves”.
  26. To be “saved by grace through faith” is “God’s gift”.
  27. Paul’s readers are not saved “by/from works”.
  28. The “faith” through which Paul’s readers are “saved by grace” is not, itself, a work.
  29. Because Paul’s readers are “saved by grace through faith”, which is “not from yourselves” and “not from works” but is “God’s Gift”, thus “no one can boast”.
  30. Paul and his readers are “God’s workmanship”.
  31. Paul and his readers were “created in Christ Jesus”.
  32. “Good works” is that for which Paul and his readers were “created in Christ Jesus”.
  33. The “good works” for which Paul and his readers were “created in Christ Jesus” were “prepared beforehand that we should walk in them”.

Most of my posts are extended comedy routines about things I find important, but not this one. I could write for ages about why Eph. 2:1-10 is funny, and important, but today it can speak for itself. Go do some good works that God prepared beforehand.

Jack and Mr. Rogers vs. Widening Gyre of World History

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When asked about an event a long ago in her life, my grandma sometimes shakes her head. “I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast this morning,” she’ll say (proverbially, of course, because it is a well-documented fact that the lady loves cinnamon toast). Many of her stories are lost to us now. For her, history is difficult to conceptualize. Along with most of my older relatives, she assures me that my own memory will only grow worse. And it’s true: my own sense of time actively decays, as evidenced by all of my lost pencils, my surprised delight at family photo albums, and my inability to exactly retrace the routes to my old haunts in the cities where I’ve lived.

And those are just my own experiences. Learned history is so much more difficult. I loved my 12-credit-hour, 2-semester-long Western Civilization course in my undergrad, which emphasized history and literature from the Romans to the present day. (Nerd alert.) Of course, it’s impossible to fit so grandiose a subject as “Western Civilization” into a single course, regardless of copious credit hours; it’s impossible to fit it into a single lifetime. Instead, we focused on overarching themes, influential philosophies, and traceable patterns based on events and literature considered important. The pattern that emerged to me, and many others, wasn’t exactly optimistic. The sometimes romantic, often nationalistic, and always mystical William Butler Yeats helps me in expressing some kind of philosophy of time in “The Second Coming” where he famously writes,

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

. . . .

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

History, to post-war Yeats, is a recurring spiral. But that spiral widens like the falcon, furthering itself from order, from the center, from the thing it is. History (not to mention the cosmos), moves toward disintegration rather than order. It does repeat itself, but in ways more mysteriously horrifying than what has come before: a rough beast instead of a holy infant in Bethlehem.

This vast image out of Spiritus Mundi was handed down to me from a very certain time period after a very certain war. This, I learned, was the mood of the twentieth century, creating the Lost Generation (and spiraling into endless other lost generations), strange artistic movements, and a general loss of faith. And who was I to blame my predecessors for the ennui, the alcoholism, all of the broken coping after World War I? Wilfred Owen assures me that if I could see for myself gas in the trenches, “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest, / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” Cause and effect. WWI and modernism. Inevitable. It all fits nicely in the 16-leaf blue book I wrote my exam in.

This simple, entropic vision–my helplessness in Yeats’ gyre–is what I believed as I walked out of my Western Civ final. It was hard not to, there in the wake of other rocking classes, in the midst of important people leaving my life, and with a long summer of serving coffee ahead of me. I read books, when I could, with new knowledge of my place in a world I had just discovered. I quietly observed where writers wrote as expected, staying true to their place in the gyre and perpetuating the falling apart of all things. History grew darker, and predictably so. I had no right to feel happy—especially not when insignificantly good things happened—because happiness had no place. It doesn’t fit in the gyre.

Of course, that isn’t everyone’s experience with the very same material: another reason why history is difficult to conceptualize. Just opening Facebook shows me how different people interpret the same stories, arriving at opposing conclusions. Political discourse, academic essays, and even just conversing with others reinforces the same. And I like to think that courses like Western Civilization don’t simply exist to crush overly-sensitive wanna-be intellectual types. There’s something to be said for the knowing of things, and not all of us walk away with quite the same feeling.

One day in the noisy heat of that summer, I picked up C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy from where I’d left off after one distracted Christmas break. In the spiritual autobiography, Lewis traces the story of his conversion. For him–and probably for all of us, if we can see it–that narrative begins in childhood (probably before) and bleeds over into his adult life. So, begrudgingly, he dedicates a chapter to his own experiences in the Great War: the very same one that I had written about whirling like the lost falcon. And while Lewis’ is not the grittily realistic account I anticipated (it actually rings of repression), it stunned me. He, too, had holed up in trenches and lost a generation of peers. He had also seen the unimaginable. Participated in it, even.

But somehow there was goodness. Something good had come out of the Great War and out of the gyre. True, his works are hardly the zeitgeist. But even if it was just Jack Lewis with his myth of a Lion that had carried me through childhood, there was something. And so, I wondered: if one good thing could come out of an event so systemically and deeply horrific, could two good things, or even three good things, come out of the gyre too?

The summer before preschool began, my grandma babysat me in a hedge-enfolded blue cottage at the end of a cul-de-sac. Neither of us recall that time very well anymore, but I do remember sitting at a tiny table with a glass of chocolate milk. As Grandma cut the crust off my peanut butter sandwiches in the kitchen, I was transported to the Land of Make Believe. Admittedly, the puppet Lady Elaine Fairchilde did scare me, but despite my fears, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was there in that cottage, too. Like it had been for my mom as she pretended that the quiet, cardiganed host with his kind attention was her father. Like, I imagine, many of us did.

Fred Rogers, emerging from the context that my Western Civ course told me was full of mistrust of authority, fear of the Other, wartime anxiety, mass media frenzies, and depleting morals, is another anomaly in the gyre. Instead of angry protests, he kindly requested funding from Congress for public television. Instead of inciting fear, he showed children how to learn from the stranger. Instead of telling us how not to feel, he taught us the power of self-control. Instead of buying into the commodification entertainment–the way television began to strip individuality–he saw an opportunity to humanize, to educate, to express.

How Mr. Rogers could exist in the widening trajectory of civilization is, I think, more than mystical.

Jack Lewis and Fred Rogers, like I said before, are hardly the norm. They are marginally known by the masses, celebrated passionately by tiny pockets of society, and not studied nearly as much as they should be. And why should they be, when they represent the opposite of our great historical narratives?

But it’s anomalies like these that convince me that my historical constructs aren’t necessarily real. Not that these figures have no faults (I’m well aware of Lewis’ misogyny–what some, incidentally, dismiss as a product of his times), but they are without some of the common faults of those we hold up as representations of an entire era. Or at least those vices are less evident. Or at least there was some act of grace along the way.

These ought to be remembered as we attempt to contextualize, to educate, to encapsulate. Because, I pray, if the gyre is true, there will at least always be anomalies that point toward the forgotten center. Because whatever my own construct of history, whatever way I make meaning out of the chaos, the Logos is truer and realer and creates more goodness than my tendencies toward oversimplification care to notice.

Said Fred Rogers himself,

A high school student wrote to ask, “What was the greatest event in American history?” I can’t say. However, I suspect that like so many “great” events, it was something very simple and very quiet with little or no fanfare (such as someone forgiving someone else for a deep hurt that eventually changed the course of history). The really important “great” things are never center stage of life’s dramas; they’re always “in the wings.” That’s why it’s so essential for us to be mindful of the humble and the deep rather than the flashy and the superficial.

Humble. Deep. This is the way anomalies appear: a veteran who envisions a faun in the woods, a seminary student fascinated by television, a grandma who doesn’t remember her kindnesses, a child born in Bethlehem; I pray, too, a kid who read Narnia, watched Mister Rogers, and cried in her Western Civ class.

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.

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‘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.

But really, what does it mean to speculate?

It is funny to me how our culture feels about the noun, “speculation,” and the verb, “to speculate.” It has the same roots as words like, “spectacles, spectacle, spectators, spectacular,” etc., which means that it derived from the concept of sight, of seeing something. But if it derived from sight, and we as a culture like to talk about and uphold sight, then how did it come to mean something ungrounded, essentially something you couldn’t see? I am pretty sure that this is from modern responses to about two thousand years of philosophical and theological history, in which much of what was practiced was called “speculation” in a positive sense – basically “sight.” Sure, it referred to sight of the mind’s eye, in many ways. But at the same time, often enough we use and refer to the same kind of sight regularly at least in popular America. Much of American culture is made up of speculations – sights justified because they are the sights of the mind’s eye (we make mistakes about these sights, but such sight is still how we justify many beliefs and actions – and even scientific thought is a history of mistakes, hopefully being corrected, but still a history of mistakes – and so is philosophical history).

The elite and some people who pride themselves on their scientific education will probably object to this precisely on the grounds that only the scientific is reliable. But then the grounds of scientific method are non-scientific. In fact, they are speculation. How do we know that nature obeys laws and will continue faithfully to do so? Well, “sight” of the speculative kind, is what justifies such belief – the specific speculative kind which also happens to be extremely unique since most of the 6 billion people on the planet do not share that exact speculation. This is important because people who talk about science in America commonly assume that the bases of science are self-evident – but if they are self-evident why did we not come to them sooner? And why don’t most people hold to them regularly today? In fact, they are speculation. They may be good speculation – a lot of medieval speculation was good speculation. But they’re still speculations, to be held up or knocked down on those grounds, not as self-evident authorities. It is also the case with the belief that we can consistently and coherently observe, theorize, and experiment in the natural world – this essential belief of modern scientific method is speculation which is not held universally or by the majority in history or the present, and it is not a self-evident authority. It falls or stands on speculative grounds – on the sight of the mind’s eye, and our reasoning about such sight.

‘Disinformation’ and the Death of Romulus

*

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.

Trying (Not) to be Jesus for Others: A Remarkable Thing to Consider

jaroslav_spillar_altenteil_1904_domazlice2c_galerie_spillar

Like many of the Christian NF-types I know around my age, I (finally) picked up Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. I’d heard a lot of high praise for this epistolary novel of a dying father writing to his young son. And the more I read (and reread) the final pages, the more I realized I was not disappointed by the hype. We could devote an entire series of blog posts to Robinson’s glowing coal of a novel—shining forth, Hopkinesque, with the grandeur of God—and an undergrad course I took actually intended to spend three or four class periods over it. Sadly, that class ran out of time by the end of the year; I suppose I don’t have the time to blog all of my thoughts about it, either.

In those last pages, the ones I relish rereading, John Ames imagines his son as an old man. He cherishes the thought of his son filled with wisdom and experiences and evidence of having loved creation. He blesses the body parts that will trouble him in forty or fifty years—the very same parts that trouble Ames as he imparts his novel-length goodbye. “I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years,” he writes. “But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction.” The gap after this sentence in the book, marking the end of the section of text, literally underscores Ames’ impending absence.

Even though this is a passing thought (most of Gilead is, actually), I can’t help but find it a “remarkable thing to consider,” to use Ames’ oft-repeated, almost liturgical, phrase.

I’ve lived most of my life in a way that encouraged dependence. Maybe it stemmed from sibling interactions or loneliness or grade school expectations or pride. Maybe it’s just human depravity. I remember realizing in middle school that while being friends with popular kids was a lost cause, I could easily get other (obviously) lonely people to like me. It became a game in high school. A mode of survival in college. It bled into friendships where I could tell myself I was being loving: listening (a lot), offering advice, giving gifts. And it seemed to start with love.

Soon, the object was not so much loving another person—which involves, of course, another person. The object was myself. Seemingly loving behaviors became vehicles for my feeling affirmed, feeling wanted, feeling needed. None of those feelings are inherently bad, of course. But if, like I did, I preyed on other peoples’ loneliness for the sake of my own gratification, then I really couldn’t call that love anymore.

And the worst thing for those who squandered their dependence on me: I, like every other human, am imperfect (in case the previous paragraphs of my predatory predilection didn’t already make the point). Admitting that sets my teeth on edge almost as much as admitting my mercenary desire to be affirmed. I, even the wizened and bright and compassionate and obviously-humble individual that I am, will let down every single person I happen to come in contact with. I will disappoint. I will say the wrong thing. I will hurt.

I will not be able to provide for their every need. Even on my best day, with the best intentions and all of my resources available, I will be insufficient for even one single human soul.

If only this realization about my own sick self was just one of those cool metaphorical dream sequences in a movie. If only I woke up from it, whistling, and hastily changed my ways. But I think the realest lessons have to come from the realest part of our experience: the part where our hands are lacerated by even the dirt we fall down in, and we can’t look away from the fact that it’s our own damned fault. Over the course of a couple of months, I saw that I had let people down not just by my absences and mistakes—the ways that were immediately apparent—but because I simply and ravenously encouraged dependence on me.

The dying John Ames rightly admits that he can’t bear the burden of years for his son. I think he would have realized that even if he had lived to see his son become an old man himself: he writes only of helping carry, not carrying for him. And so he wisely does not express a desire to somehow absorb his son’s struggles, even if it would make Ames feel the essentiality that I crave. And how can he, when he will be gone?

He writes instead of God having “that fatherly satisfaction.” And in two sentences, he does what has been so difficult for me: he entrusts someone he cannot help to the care of someone who can. Someone transcendent and sufficient. Someone who provides the only rest for hearts that fundamentally seek an object upon which to heap their dependence. Someone who gives meaning to the term “fatherly” and, in fact, “satisfaction.” Someone perfect.

Along with Ames, I must also confess that I can’t bear the weight of many years. I can’t do it for myself, much less another human. I can’t fill those deepest wounds because I’m not meant to be Jesus. (And, sweet freedom, I truly thank God for that.) But because I am meant to be like him, I am not excused from caring for others. The way I imitate him is not by pointing dependent hearts in the direction of myself (the listening, sage, meek, and deeply predatory self). It is by turning my attention, and others’, toward the only Person who deserves the fatherly satisfaction of holding all of the aches in our aging bones and aging souls.

A remarkable thing to consider, indeed.

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.

* * *

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.