Things Are Different Now.

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The Israelites’ Cruel Bondage in Egypt, by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733)

Exploiting areas of moral overlap between the bible and contemporary culture is always a good principle. Contemporary America is essentially a culture-in-transition, so there’s a lot of ambiguity present in our national consciousness, but there’s plenty there to be taken advantage of.

It’s common to read melodramatic laments from the John Hagees and Robert Jeffresses of the world about how far America has drifted from Christian principles it used to cohere to. In reality, there was a time when our nation’s basic moral framework overlapped with the moral vision of the Christian faith in certain areas and not so much in others. We came to hold those areas of overlap very dearly and ignore the areas where the American moral framework fell dreadfully short of the biblical worldview.

But much of the angst that American Christians feel today about the nation’s supposed drift away from biblical values is actually a misplaced panic at the fact that the cultural shift we are experiencing is shaking things up so that the specific points of overlap between the American mindset and the biblical mindset are different. Top that off with the fact that America no longer pays institutional lip-service to the Christian religion, and we’ve got a new cultural situation that, although not worse than the one our grandparents grew up with (even in the good ol’ days, America was a kiddie pool of sin), is distinctly different, and we have to engage the culture accordingly.

For example, the contemporary America is not, like the America of yesteryear, consumed to a fault with questions of personal moral piety. Every culture inherits a doctrine of sin even if they do not, strictly speaking, have the necessary vocabulary to identify it. While sin is what it is, because truth isn’t relative, it has been uniquely understood through the ages.

The contemporary American doctrine of sin, if any such monolithic agreement can be clearly identified, is concerned primarily with sinful systemic structures. Never before has Total Depravity been an easier concept to sell. In the last several centuries, our notions about right and wrong have been torn asunder and then stitched back together by Darwin, Derrida, Nietzsche, Heidegger and other heavy-hitters. We’ve watched totalitarian demagogues rise and fall while honest, God-fearing citizens marched along to the rhythm of Apocalypse. We’re not really sure what evil is in the abstract, and we’re not entirely convinced it exists. But rarely do we fail to identify it when it appears in concrete form. There has not previously been a generation more sensitive to the pervasiveness of coercion in human behavior, and the contemporary western doctrine of sin deals extensively in the difficulty associated with preventing coercion without stifling human freedom.

The subtle suspicion that our collective moral convictions are environmentally conditioned has led those with sufficient influence and vested interest in maintaining the ideological status quo to forcefully suppress those who would pose a threat. Society has caught on to this trend and responded by trying to undercut the militarizing influence of moral uncertainty by privatizing convictions. In the absence of a clear-cut pathway to discerning non-partisan truth, we have shifted the emphasis away from conformity to a common moral standard in favor of conformity to a common commitment to “pursu[ing] our desires fairly—that is, in a manner that does not impinge on anyone else’s freedom.” (Quote by Stanley Hauerwas).

But privatized convictions are their own worst enemy. They actually bolster the culture of coercion by undercutting their own commitment to mutual non-coercion. Because the hyper-individualization wrought by contemporary society’s “live-and-let-live” ethic devalues the actual truthfulness of moral convictions we are left with no actual basis on which we can bravely oppose violent coercion. Having been overwhelmed by the pervasive role of power-plays in institutional morality, contemporary people take for granted that no alternative exists. “As a result of our self-deception, we have become unrelentingly manipulative,” Hauerwas laments. Thinkers both religious and secular have sought all the more rigorously a social ethic built atop a “universal” foundation–that is, a non-religious basis for doing right by others. That didn’t work out either.

“The attempt to secure peace through founding morality on rationality itself, or some other “inherent” human characteristic, ironically underwrites coercion, [because] if others refuse to accept my account of “rationality,” it seems within my bounds to force them to be true to their “true” selves.” quoth Hauerwas.

All of this means that we can no longer expect those outside the Christian community to share even the basics of the Judeo-Christian moral framework. This has staggering consequences on efficacy of what had been tried-and-true aspects of gospel preaching. Until recently, the forcible Christianization of the western world remained largely intact. The American consciousness was (to use a term coined by Jonathon Martin),  “Christ-haunted”. As a result, we did not need to define our terms. We could assume that there was, at the very least, a basic agreement about what was and was not kosher. Even those who reveled in debauchery either did so in secret or conceded that the debauchery in which they reveled was indeed debauchery and that they reveled in such debauchery because they were debauched.

The America in whose midst we stand as the Body of Christ, however, is undergoing the probably overdue process of dechristianization and correspondingly the points of contact it does have with the Judeo-Christian ethic are both fewer and different than before. One such example is that while the biblical push toward monogamy is no longer a considered viable in the American consciousness, the Old Testament’s ambivalence toward unregulated economic systems is unprecedentedly welcome. Monogamy is now seen as stifling and probably coercive, but laissez-faire capitalism is no longer accepted uncritically as the paragon of individual freedom. We are more conscious than generations past of the oft-hidden wheels that turn in the background, rendering a wholly autonomous class of big-business figureheads nightmarish for those (read: the labor force) under the thumb of their unmitigated sovereignty.

My own colors will show here (I’m politically conservative and I happen to like Capitalism), but what makes the American experiment work (in theory) is the presence of communities who prophetically push for justice in an arrangement in which the government’s role is not to coerce individuals and businesses into doing right by others. It’s true that there can be no such thing as a morally neutral government, but in a non-invasive arrangement such as the American republic is meant to be, the Church is one example of a community that helps make capitalism possible. There will always be a power struggle. There will always be a coercive sovereign–whether it is the Federal government or the corporation. And the culture is now more acutely aware of this than ever before.

So although the Church and the culture are no longer on the same page regarding sexual ethics (amongst other things), ambivalence about what we might call corporate sovereignty has become a point of convergence between the two. The difference is that our ambivalence is shaped by the Old Testament narrative, which paints a picture of a monarchy whose tumultuous politics gave birth, at points, to economic arrangements that left common folk at the mercy of Pharaohesque employers – a situation roundly condemned by the prophets, perhaps not because they opposed hands-off economic policies (to apply modern economic vocabulary to ancient Near-Eastern culture would be a bit anachronistic) but because no checks-and-balances existed to protect workers from abuse.

Such focal points are the jumping-off points on which we ought to zero in. You can no longer assume that your next door neighbor has a moral commitment to monogamy, but they’re probably appropriately ambivalent about Wall Street cacophony and corporate corruption. They’re probably anxious about systemic forms of injustice – police brutality,  the disproportionality with which minorities are sentenced to death for the same crimes as Caucasians, militaristic Bush-era empire building, etc.: concrete examples of authoritarianism revealing the cracks in its own asphalt. Those who are only now becoming concerned about such issues are, in a sense, finally catching up to the Bible. These are only a few examples.

As in all generations, the Bible ought to direct our gospel proclamation. But the points of convergence between the Bible and the culture are the in-roads by which we effectively witness. And as the culture has changed, so have those points of convergence. Let’s exploit them well.

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Humans Are Seekers, Not Survivors

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Tower of Babel, by Lucas van Valckenborch, 1594, Louvre Museum

Human history is haunted by variegated expressions of religious faith, which is fascinating. To the best of our knowledge, humans are unique in the universe inasmuch as we are genuinely sentient. We have the capacity to make moral decisions both as individuals and as communities that are not fundamentally oriented around the survival of our species. Of course the macroevolutionary model is true, but it’s also the case that we operate on terms irreconcilable with a purely materialistic understanding of the evolutionary process. We are not chiefly survivors; we are chiefly seekers.

The Austrian-Jewish neurologist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, devoted his post-WWII years to popularizing his theory that, rather than survival (as some Darwinists might have taught) or pleasure (as some Freudians certainly taught), meaning was the dominant pursuit of mankind. He argued that the search for meaning unconsciously motivates the decisions that we make, from Abraham’s desire for children to Jacob’s desire for blessing, to Paul’s desire for redemption.

Reductive though it may be, it is a helpful paradigm. Whatever we are, we are not merely the next step in the evolutionary meta-narrative (and it is a meta-narrative). We are creatures who seek out meaning and find it in places where it may or may not exist. Inevitably, then, we are creatures who seek God. Not only do we seek Him where He is (e.g. Noah, and Enoch), we also seek Him where He isn’t (“Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Rom. 1:22-23).

As far as I know, chimpanzees, who share approximately 98% of our DNA, are neither religious nor superstitious. Something is abnormal about humanity, and it probably comes down to more than simply something maverick in that remaining 2%. Plenty of theories have been put forth to explain them, and they’re not boring. But they’re also not terribly convincing. The various secular attempts to account for mankind’s insatiable religious bent are no more persuasive than the hypothesis, put forward by all cultures everywhere until relatively recently, that humanity was created by a personal being (or beings) who intends to have a relationship of sorts with us.

I’m a big fan of Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi. I originally read it as a freshman in high school, about a year before becoming a Christian. And I totally didn’t get it. On this side of the faith line, it’s much more resonant, and it provides about as good an apologetic as can be made for the existence of the divine. Granted, there is plenty to be said for classical apologetics. Despite the impassioned “Nuh-uhs” of the New Atheists, the Cosmological argument really, really is weighty. As are most of the arguments that occupy the arsenal of the average apologist.

But as a human on planet earth, living a life that takes place chiefly outside of an office with a desk, Martel’s “story to make you believe in God” really is all that. In the book, the narrator tells two stories, both of which bring about the same conclusion by all empirical evidences. One features his narrator surviving 277 days at sea on a life raft with a hungry Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, stumbling onto a “a floating island network of carnivorous algae,” and crossing paths with a cannibalistic survivor from another shipwreck. The second story has none of the more fantastical elements. He then poses the question: with both stories satisfying the empirical data, which was the better story?

It is conceivable that humanity’s seeker bent is somehow conducive to our flourishing as a species. But it’s equally conceivable, and bloody well more intuitive, that something more is at play.

God Gets His Hands Dirty

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The Seventh Plague: John Martin’s painting of the plague of hail and fire (1823)

“Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.'”  So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men, and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. Still, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 7: 8-13)

A consistent, though rarely dealt with, theme throughout the Pentateuch  is that, for the sake of redemption, God gets His hands dirty.

The Hebrew scholars tell me that the word used for ‘serpent’ in this passage is tannin, which is interesting because it differs from the word nachash used in Exodus 4:2-5 when God initially explains the signs to Moses. The significance lies in the connotations that each of the terms carry. Nachash is the term used in Genesis 3:1 in reference to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Tannin, on the other hand, was more commonly used in reference to the sea monsters that pervaded ancient Canaanite, Phoenician, and Hebrew mythology. More specifically, the sea dwelling tannin were (generally) understood as the creaturely personification of chaos and evil.

Aaron’s staff is turned into a serpent (tannin), a feat that is then copied by Pharaoh’s magicians, and the serpent (tannin) that God produced out of Aaron’s staff devours the serpent (tannin) produced by the magicians. If the tannin described in this passage elsewhere refers almost universally to the anti-creational forces of chaos that oppose the rule of God, then it’s unlikely that the passage at hand is an exception. The initial showdown described in Exodus 7:8-13 is not, theologian Peter Enns has pointed out, merely a showdown between Pharaoh and Moses/Aaron. Nor is it a showdown between Pharaoh and Israel. At one level, it is a showdown between Pharaoh and Yahweh. But even that is too myopic a reading. What we witness in this passage is foreshadowing of the drama that will ensue throughout the rest of the Pentateuch, and the rest of the Biblical narrative as a whole: the Creator of the universe overcomes the chaotic forces of darkness (tannin) that have usurped the world on their own terms. He will overcome tannin, sometimes, inevitably, by employing tannin.

God is not Deistically removed from the plight of creation, looking down in stoic disapproval at the mess we’ve made; He is Theistically active in the redemption of creation, to the point that He will work within the bounds of the fallenness of the world to rescue it. Hence, God will spill blood in the process of bringing about the end of blood-spilling. God will bring about an end to human violence, sometimes, inevitably, through Divine violence. Throughout the scriptures, and especially the Old Testament, God wears the warrior hat, not because He is fond of violence, but because He is bringing about its end. In the pages of the Torah we watch Yahweh crush a thousand Pharaohs in order that one day the may never be another Lamech. (Gen. 4:23-24)

That is why the satisfied God, who created all things to share in His own satisfaction, will enact plagues on Egypt (Ex. 7:14-11:10, 12:29-32): in order to further His redemptive operation. It is true that Egypt was met with the consequences of their communal oppression of the Israelites. But at a more foundational level, God’s act of vengeance on Egypt was driven by His love for the world – a love that moved Him to get His hands dirty. I’m about to cross the line with some people’s patience here: this is why the same God revealed in Jesus Christ (Col. 1:15; John 1:18; Heb. 1:3), the God who is Love (1 John 4:8,16), ordered the slaughtering of the Canaanites and others (Deut. 20:17; Josh. 6:21). This is why the God who “desires that all would repent and be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9) would harden the heart of Pharaoh and bring him to his knees (Ex. 11:8-10).

The horrific violence performed and sanctioned by God throughout the biblical narrative, far from being a break from character, emanates from His own faithfulness to His promise to bring about redemption to a sin-shattered world. It is, in fact, a deeper, warmer love than is intelligible to us that prevents Yahweh from being deterred from His project of reconciling the world to Himself by His own innate desire to preserve the lives of those who would prevent Him. In the endeavor to bring about a kingdom that operates on love, He cannot tolerate those who persist in hate. What the story of the Torah teaches us, amongst other things, is that God so loved the world that He was willing to work within the bounds of its fallenness to rescue it.

“Whose Rage Might Be Bottomless”

Ryan Ellington

Rembrandt_Christ_and_the_Woman_Taken_in_Adultery Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Rembrandt

All who held stones,
heavy, thirsty after blood,
felt well that it was time to depart–
dropped what treasure lay
sinister in their grip.
Ashamed at what?
God knows.
Set forth to where?
Even God knoweth not.

Moved incurably by one statement
no one should even make sense of:
“He who is sinless among you,
let him be the first to throw a stone upon her,”
a non-sequitur, to be honest.
Is she less guilty if the high priest has a penchant for buggery?

But all the men with their girded up loins
knelt low, from humility or necessity,
(who knows? What even became of them?)
picking up their cloaks to return to their wives
till only one remained,
one without sin
whose rage might be bottomless,
as far as she knows,
that temptress, or devil, or victim, or kid.

There…

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There’s a Place At the Table for the “Faithless”

Ryan Ellington

SaintThomas The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

I am not God. That is ultimate reality. But only because it contains so much in so few words. “I am not God,” means that God exists. I can reason my way into an explanation for the universe that does not require a creator, but that isn’t the point. God is present in the statements, “God does not exist,” and “There is no God.” I think that you can commune with God, live with Him and love Him with the best part of yourself if you struggle and even fail to believe with your head and your gut that He is real.

The Christian religion recognizes the contradictions in man. We believe, and walk against the grain of our defining beliefs. God promises rest to people who need it. The God revealed in Jesus, who is Jesus, invites one and all to His table…

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Sunday Sermon: Feeding The Multitudes

Ryan Ellington

FeedingMultitudes_Bernardo Feeding the multitudes by Bernardo Strozzi

“Now [the disciples]  had forgotten to bring  bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And [Jesus] cautioned them, saying, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread and Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see or having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to Him, “twelve.” [And He continued,] “and when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken…

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Stop Looking For A ‘Better Offer’

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Burning Bush by Sébastien Bourdon

“Y’know, the internet has kind of jacked us up.” said the sage-like 30-something year old whom I overheard at Starbucks, “People won’t commit to anything anymore. It’s like they think they’ll get a ‘better offer’ at the last minute. You’ll say, ‘Do you wanna meet at McDonald’s sometime and catch up?’ and they’ll be like, ‘That sounds great. So, maybe.'”

Those words hit me like a welcome punch in the mouth. They’re so relevant – for me, at least.

Humans are inclined to be noncommittal with personal relationships. In  my experience, it’s because (among other reasons) we believe that there must be something better to be had elsewhere, with someone else, and perhaps for some people, as someone else. As though we’re hanging on for dear life to the idea that our life might be better if only we were connected to a different community, had a different set of obligations, etc.

But it’s a cover. It’s a sneaky sort of blame-shifting technique. And it’s convenient. It gives us a tail to chase that can occupy us for life and get us off the hook from admitting to the fact that our reluctance to grow close to people, to commit to a certain life course, to really live our lives is rooted in the fear that we’re gonna get life wrong.

A lot of people are terrified of real relationships and struggle to make basic life choices. They have trouble committing to any path in particular because they have no idea who they are or what they are doing. They feel as though they have been thrust into adulthood with no real preparation, like somebody signed them up to be a grown up but never bothered to teach them quite what that meant. Most of us have felt the pangs of this, but have struggled to find the words to describe it.

Although I generally try to forget my Junior High years, I have at least one vivid memory from my days as an awkward, pimpled-faced teenager:

The year was 2008, and I was sitting in a certain teacher’s classroom (whose name will be changed to protect the innocent). We were doing a practice TAKS test. Now, or those of you who didn’t grow up in the Republic of Texas, the TAKS test was an end-of-year test that that a lot of kids could take with their eyes closed (I wasn’t one of them) which measured the student body’s comprehension of the core materials for the year. And since state funding for each school was partially tied to their TAKS scores, my school made sure to put us through a couple of grueling practice tests throughout the year before the real thing came around each April.

So I was relaxing at my desk in a classroom filled with students whose last names began with letters that show up early in the alphabet: Ellington…Delgado…Gately…etc. A little timer on Mrs. Cruella Deville’s desk went off, and she told the class to put our bubble sheets into our test booklets and pass them up to take a 5 minute bathroom break. I did not hear this, because I was spaced out, thinking about frisbees or something, and I tucked my bubble sheet and booklet into the small cubby under my desk.

After the break was over, Mrs. Cruella Deville picked up the booklets and began passing them back out to each student. When she had passed out the last booklet, she noticed that my name had not been called.

“Did you not pass your booklet up?” She asked.

“Oh…uh, no.” I replied, a little embarrassed.

She paused for a moment, as though unsure of what to say. She was a sarcastic woman, and generally had a clever quip for each situation. At this moment, however, her wit failed. As she turned around and walked back toward her desk, she said to the whole class, “Have you noticed that when we have to do something as a class, Ryan is always the one doing it wrong?”

The class laughed. I joined, half because I’ll laugh at almost any joke ever (that’s still true today) and half because I figured that I’d rather laugh with them at my own expense than be laughed at. But beneath my happy-go-lucky disposition, her words stuck. Not because I especially valued her input, but because it was something I was used to hearing. All throughout the earlier years of my life, I was told by teachers and other grown-ups that I couldn’t do anything right. Eventually, I started believing it.

And so a pattern sprouted up: nearly every time something I was involved with really began to require me to commit, to lock-in, I would bail. I would keep everything – friends, commitments, goals – at arms length, because I was convinced that if I ever got deep into anything that I would mess it up. I fundamentally believed that I was a screw up.

Now, I’m not recounting this story to have some kind of pity party. The point is this: for the longest time, I was horrified to commit to anything, or anyone, and I thought that I was the only one who lived this way. As far as I could tell, everyone else had their lives together, and that I was the odd one out. But as the years went on I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who had let my insecurities run my life – not by a long shot.

I’m an introvert, but I’m your friendly neighborhood introvert, so I have a lot of one-off conversations with people that I meet in coffee shops and bookstores. One thing I try to gather in each of these chance encounters is how does this person see the world? What I’ve found is that although every person that I meet is unique and vibrant, many share one thing in common: terror. Most of the people that I meet seem terrified to be alive. Just the other day, I asked a guy what time it was and you’d think I was interrogating him at gunpoint.

I don’t blame them.

A lot of people, like the guy I quoted at the beginning of this post, blame the internet for my generation’s anti-social, anti-commitment bent. I don’t. I’m not convinced that having all of this technology and information at our fingertips has made us more anti-social and noncommittal; I think it’s given us an outlet to retreat into a “safe” place. A place that isn’t real. A place where nobody judges us, and we can’t mess up our lives. The Facebook versions of us are stable, funny, and safe. Even when the Facebook me ‘can’t even’, he’s doing just fine. Not so for real life.

And it’s in this fear of marching on into the future, this uncertainty of whether we can handle the weight of being present in our own lives as adults, in the messiness of community with other, equally uncertain people, that most folks collapse, and choose to retreat into themselves rather than muster up the courage to be. 

Stop looking for a better offer. Take hold of the life that you have, the family you have, the you that you are. Stop looking for an escape route. Commit yourself to be an active participant in the life that is happening around you. Don’t retreat into yourself, or your smart phone, or your books. This is all there is. Reject the urge to sleepwalk through everything. Be present in your own life. “Do not be afraid.”