“Perfect love casts out fear.” “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind.” “Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid.” There was a point in my life – not … Continue reading
When I went through a faith upheaval a couple of years ago, one of the concepts that helped me retain my willingness to remain a Christian was a redefinition of what it means to have ‘faith’ in something. Prior to … Continue reading
In previous posts, I have indicated that I accept the scientific fact of evolution, and that I don’t think this necessarily precludes orthodox Christian faith. I think there are other ways to read the creation accounts in Genesis than literally, because I don’t think the original authors were attempting to give us a pure, empirical account of what happened at the beginning of time. I could go into all the reasons why, but the information is easily accessible, and the science is clear.
Evolution presents a major problem. The boiled down, succinct version of (western, evangelical) Christianity is that humans are in a fallen state (and this is a bad thing — it was not supposed to have happened) and we are in need of saving. In the beginning, God created the cosmos and originally called it ‘good,’ and the problems — death, famine, immorality, and so on — we see in the world are due to the fallen state, both of humanity, and of nature.
For theistic evolutionists (or evolutionary creationists, or whatever other name we have come up with for ourselves), the tension between this theological premise and the truth about evolution can be overwhelming. The essential problem is that evolution requires death. It requires struggle, conflict, pain, and mortality. It necessarily includes what Darwin called the ‘survival of the fittest.’
Do you see the problem?
How can God have created the world and called it ‘good,’ while at the same time building evolution into the fabric of life? We see death and conflict and pain as problems, as wrong, as the way things shouldn’t be. Yet death is built into the evolutionary ‘system.’ One could say death is the very engine of biological evolution. Evangelicals see original sin as the root of death. In fact, Paul says this same thing in his letter to the Romans: “The wages of sin is death.” If, however, evolution is the method by which God moves life forward, this cannot be true as it is traditionally understood.
As Christians, how can we reconcile this issue? How can one say that what God created and sustains is good, but the very essence of what God created requires death? How can we need saving from sin and death if God set up the system that way?
I don’t have an answer.
[HOUSE OF CARDS SPOILER ALERT THROUGH SEASON 3, EPISODE 4] Have you seen House of Cards? It’s not a show for the faint of heart. While some of its portrayal of American politics is fairly outlandish, watching Francis Underwood, the … Continue reading
Last week, Elaine and I watched a movie called Take Shelter, which has been roiling in my mind since we saw it. The plot follows a father and husband named Curtis who, from the beginning of the film, has increasingly … Continue reading
Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of helping serve and talk through Communion with our small group that we attend weekly. I am by no means a preacher (actually, I’m really bad at it… just ask my former Biblical Preaching professor!). But Communion, as a physical space where we meet grace in unison, at the Table, has been one of the few practices that helped keep my faith intact, even in the darkest times. Below is what I said before we ate the bread and drank the juice:
I am something of a coffee snob. Not in the “I’ll only drink Starbucks” sort of way – oh no. More like an “I look down my nose on anyone who might think Starbucks is good coffee” sort of way. Anytime someone offers me coffee at a party or gathering, I politely refuse, secretly (or not-so-secretly) thinking myself superior for not stooping down to the level of automatic dripper/Folgers/Keurig swill. I roast my beans at home, roughly once every five or six days. I only drink about one to two cups per day, but I have six different coffee contraptions at home because I have deluded myself into believing that they each provide a slightly different flavor profile on the coffee I have roasted for myself. I’m as meticulous as possible, in that I use a food scale to measure out exactly the right amount of coffee and (filtered!) water. I use an electric burr grinder for as much precision as possible, just so I can get repeatable daily results.
Surprisingly, I’ve convinced myself that, at least on some level, this whole daily coffee thing is good for me.
Surprising, because here’s the thing: I’m a Pentecostal Protestant Christian. (Didn’t see that coming, did you?)
I’m a Pentecostal, born-and-raised. Or at least, I grew up in some VERY charismatic churches for most of my childhood. Speaking in tongues, spontaneous prayers, prophetic utterances, and ‘tarrying in the Spirit’ have all been a large part of my faith and upbringing. Spontaneity is highly valued in the Pentecostal and charismatic traditions. The idea is that the spontaneous prayer or worship that comes from the heart is more valuable, because if it’s spontaneous, then you must really mean it. Ritualized prayer, ancient liturgies, and ceremony are often treated with disdain because, well, you just can’t be as passionate about someone else’s words as you can about your own!
Over the last couple of years, my daily coffee routine has taught me to look at ‘ritual’ in a different light. I make a cup of coffee every single morning. It’s usually about a ten or twenty minute process, and most mornings I brew with a Chemex; while the water boils, I measure out the coffee beans, grind it (bonus points for doing so with a hand burr grinder), wait for the water to cool to roughly 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and slowly pour the water over the grounds. I then allow the coffee to cool a little more, and try to patiently enjoy the aroma and flavors presented to me. I engage in this beautiful process in the same way every day.
This daily coffee brewing ritual has become a sort of ‘centering’ practice for me. I have a good, beautiful process to look forward to every morning. Regardless of how difficult the day ahead may be, or how tired I am from not sleeping much the night before, I have a daily ritualized practice in which I can participate. Somehow, mysteriously, it grounds me (pun definitely intended). This coffee ritual, as silly and temporal as it might be, is a simple reminder that just like the sips of coffee I am taking are a gift, so to is this day and this moment. Not only that, but lots and lots and LOTS of people drink coffee every morning. Not only am I engaging in a personally meaningful ritual, but I’m doing it with a large subgroup of people that also find something beautiful about a well-crafted cup of coffee.
This is something we miss in the charismatic and Pentecostal traditions. While it may be true that ritual and liturgy can become dry and lifeless, we miss the point if we don’t even attempt to participate in them just because they might be boring (in some cases, many of us haven’t even tried them – we’re simply assuming our experience of common liturgy will be the same as someone else’s).
What if, like my daily coffee ritual, common liturgy during a church service, and common prayer in the morning could become centering practices for Pentecostals and charismatics? Perhaps over time we would begin to see the beauty in participating with the Church at large in praying and reading the same thing. And perhaps, while spontaneity may be good on occasion, it is the routine, ritualistic, centering practices like common prayer and liturgy that can provide the foundation for sound doctrine and viewing life as a gift. Spontaneous prayer and worship are often subject to emotions, but common prayer isn’t. I can participate in common prayer without having other words to say, because the routine has already been laid out. Pentecostals think of themselves as people of the Spirit, and we believe that Spirit reconciles and unifies the Church. If this is true, we should be willing to engage in these common rituals in order to participate in the work of the Spirit.
There are lots of resources out there for starting to engage in practices like using the Book of Common Prayer. One of my favorites recently is Morning Prayer. It’s a webpage optimized for mobile, so you can use your phone to pray. Try it out for a week and see if you like it. This particular method was one of the ways in which I came back to prayer after a faith crisis a few years ago.
This is my final post in my atonement series. Previously, we discussed how humans are bound, both systemically and individually, and how Jesus’ death and resurrection saves us on both levels.
Why is this important? Why should we care about how exactly Jesus’ death and resurrection are necessary for our salvation? Can’t we just go about believing Jesus died and rose again for a reason without wondering why it had to happen that way? Or perhaps we could chalk it up to God requiring sacrifice in his wrath toward sin and leave it at that?
I don’t think so.
Not long ago, I was participating in a Bible study with a group of people whom I love dearly. We were discussing the role Scripture ought to play in the life of the believer (i.e., How does it hold authority? Is it the word of God? In what way is it the word of God? What do we do with violence in the text?). Mine and my wife’s answers to these questions differed significantly from virtually everyone else in the group. At one point because of our answers to these questions, I was asked, “So do you have a problem with violence?” (as if this were a scandalous thing to ask!). My answer was, “Of course. I think violence in particular is anti-Christ.”
The conversation could not go much further. Before I could answer one question about a particular verse in the Old or New Testament (Revelation was brought up several times), I was given another verse to which I was expected to have an answer. Overall, I was not given enough time or space to give a reasoned, thoughtful, answer to either the Bible verses that seem to paint God as violent or why I thought we, as Christians, ought to denounce violence in general.
In general, I find the problem to be that, as humans, we don’t just desire justice via vengeful violence—we crave it. We honestly believe punitive action toward someone is the only way to gain justice for a wrong. What we don’t see is that we impute this desire onto God, believing God to work the same way. God couldn’t just simply forgive us without first calculating the cost of our wrong, rebellious actions. Someone needs to pay, we think. That is why we read the book of Revelation and assume Jesus is coming to smite his enemies and it’s all blood and vengeance and “wrath.” Surely, Jesus must give to the world its due. Then everything will be put right.
We then take that assumption about a book like Revelation (which I believe is wrong on multiple levels) and backtrack and say that God’s violent, genocidal commands in the Old Testament are justified because, well, that’s justice! God can do whatever God wants!
And then we radically re-interpret Jesus’ words in the Gospels, be they “Love your enemies” or “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye,’ but I tell you…” and assume those things didn’t quite mean that, or that God expects us to act that way but doesn’t act that way himself, or of course Jesus knew that’s not really a practical way to respond to violence, he was just using hyperbole. All because, deep down, we want vengeance and violence and “wrath” to be justified. Retaliatory vengeance is the only way we know how to make things right.
That’s the real scandal of grace. Grace and forgiveness do not demand a payment. On the cross, Jesus doesn’t say “Father, forgive them, but only if they do x, y, and z.” He simply looks at his accusers and murderers, and says “Father, forgive them.” When he comes back from the grave, he doesn’t bring a word of vengeance to his enemies (Jesus, of all people, would have been “justified” in doing so!), but says “Peace be with you!” And by doing so, he frees us to love unconditionally, forgive freely, and serve the world in a newly found absence of the fear of death.
Books and articles that I referenced in this series:
“Some Thoughts on the Atonement” – James Alison (August 2004)
The Slavery of Death – Richard Beck
I See Satan Fall Like Lightning – Rene Girard
Saved from Sacrifice – S. Mark Heim
“Please Give Me Freedom from the Pursuit of Happiness” – Peter Rollins (October 2011): http://peterrollins.net/2011/10/please-give-me-freedom-from-the-pursuit-of-happiness/
Beauty Will Save the World – Brian Zahnd
“God is Like Jesus” – Brian Zahnd (August 2011): http://brianzahnd.com/2011/08/god-is-like-jesus-2/
Yesterday’s post discussed Jesus’ role in saving us systemically from our inherent tendency to scapegoat and victimize others. In today’s post, we are address how Jesus saves us individually.
Remember, Beck’s argument about the human predicament is that we are enslaved, or in bondage, to the fear of death. This neurotic fear produces sin in our lives – namely, we can trace much of our “individual” choices to sin back to our neurotic fear of death. When we participate in greed, violence, hatred, lust, laziness, gluttony, and so on, we do so as a response to our enslavement to the fear of death.
Our fear of death also causes us to give ourselves to institutions and “higher causes” in order to somehow preserve our own legacies, pursue “success,” and fight against our own mortality. These institutions and causes we give ourselves to can be thought of as “principalities and powers.” This is idolatry in its highest form.
Along with this, the neurotic anxiety we experience actually hinders humanity from expressing genuine love. We are, in some sense, incapable of love. Love requires sacrifice – sacrifice of our time, our energy, our desires, our (perceived) freedom. Love is an act of giving, but giving requires loss. The problem is that the anxious part of our selves doesn’t want to sacrifice anything. In the face of death, our pursuit is possession, mastery, legacy, and a (false) sense of immortality. These pursuits are often acquired by pushing ourselves to the “top” by way of aggression and manipulation. This leaves no room for genuine love and sacrifice, which is the command of Christ.
The Christus Victor theory is extremely helpful here. The basic view in Christus Victor is the assumption that humans, rather than choosing to sin and God requiring a sacrifice for rebellion, are in bondage to systems of sin. Many versions of this theory often use terms like “satan” and “demonic powers” to denote who or what is in control of these systems of sin and how they might function. Regardless of what we might call them, the premise in this view is that God, rather than requiring a type of punishment or sacrifice for our individual sins, comes into the world to break us free from bondage to systems we have little to no control over. God—in Jesus—submits himself to these “demonic” powers, and breaks them for us by dying to them and resurrecting again, which gives us a new path forward. (This is only a simplified version of the many ways we can understand Christus Victor. However, we can use this going forward to understand how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection save us from the anxiety brought on by our fear of death.)
So, how exactly does this work? How can we connect this view of anxiety over death that leads to sin and the work of Jesus that saves us from our enslavement and bondage to principalities and powers? I think we can do so in three distinct but connected ways:
1. First, the crucifixion provides a specific picture of genuine love from Jesus. Rather than fighting for his life, and running away from death at the hands of humanity, Jesus freelygives up his own life for the sake of others. The symbol of the cross is the ultimate symbol of love because it is a radical departure from the usual human response to fear and death, which is to protect that which we feel we possess and fight for our own lives.
Jesus’ willingness to submit to our violence and our systems of victimization is a picture of a life not bound by fear of death, but a life committed to self-expenditure and sacrifice in the name of love. Jesus does not cling to life for fear of losing it, but loses it freely for the sake of humanity. The only way forward, the only way to genuinely love and move past our anxiety about death is to follow the example of Christ. (To borrow some biblical language, we are to “take up our cross.” Further, we know what love is because Christ showed us what love is by laying down his life, so we ought to do the same [1 John 3:16].)
The imitative, mimetic nature of humanity overlaps with this theme here. Our inherent tendency to imitate doesn’t simply stop when we believe in and are saved by Christ’s death and resurrection. Rather, in the call to follow Christ, we are given someone new to imitate – not someone with whom we could become rivalrous, but the very person who shrugs off rivalry and the pursuit of self-preservation. Jesus serves humanity, sacrifices for humanity, empties himself for humanity. In calling us to “take up our cross,” Jesus says we ought to “follow” (or imitate) him in serving, sacrificing, and emptying.
2. Second, the bodily resurrection of Jesus gives hope to humanity, which pushes us past our fear of death to an embrace of life. By defeating death, and being what Paul calls the “firstfruits” of those who have died and will die, Jesus brings hope for a resurrection of humanity and the world. In the resurrection, we are promised a reconciled, revived, new world – one in which the kingdom of heaven reigns. If that is true, then enslavement to the fear of death (which breeds sinful, selfish action) should no longer reign in our lives. We can love freely because we have been given hope for the future of the world.
3. Third, in his life, Jesus models and teaches what this life given to love ought to look like. Parables, the Sermon on the Mount, and other teachings serve as direct ways of teaching us how to love and serve. Further, Jesus’ inclusiveness (both with religious leaders and with “outsiders”), whether in eating or spending time with or healing, gave us specific ways in which we could imitate him. He loved and served those who were victimized, oppressed, abused by the system; he also loved those who were in power – the victimizers, the oppressors, the abusers. It may not have looked the same, but it was an inclusive love that he modeled nonetheless. His identity was not rooted in selfishness and he did not seek to defend his place or possessions in this world. He freely gave because he did not experience enslavement to the fear of death.
In the previous two posts, I laid out a different understanding of original sin, both systemically and individually. Today, my attempt is to address how Jesus saves us from the sacrificial scapegoating mechanism, addressed on Friday.
[Side note: From this point forward, I run the risk of distilling the story of Jesus and de-contextualizing it to the point of unrecognizable distortion. That is not my intention. The events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are beyond multi-faceted. While I sincerely believe in the particular narrative I am laying out, I am also aware that this does not tell the whole story; I am surely missing large sections of Israel’s history, the story of the Gospels and the early Church, and so on. Nonetheless, I believe the narrative I am attempting to weave is a broad, sweeping view of humanity’s brokenness, why humanity needs atonement, and how that atonement is obtained by and through Jesus of Nazareth.]
First, let’s take a look at how Jesus saves us from mimetic rivalry and the sacrificial scapegoating mechanism. Again, I cannot take into account every verse found in the Gospels, but we can look at a few in the hopes of pointing to the places where this view of atonement makes sense.
In Luke 11, when Jesus is conversing with a group of lawyers and religious teachers, he mentions that it is the “blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah” was “shed from the foundation of the world.” This is of extreme importance – particularly Jesus’ mention of Abel. The story of Cain and Abel is the story of the first murder (due to mimetic rivalry!). And after Cain kills Abel, what happens? Cain ventures out and begins the building of a civilization! The very first murder is not only the murder of a marginalized victim, but one that serves as the foundation for a society. And it is this for which Jesus condemns his present generation. They are just as guilty, he says, of the blood of the prophets (and victims!) – from Abel to Zechariah.
In John 8, Jesus is again talking to a group of teachers, and says “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.” Again, we can see the reference to desire as mimetic (imitative of how their “father” acts). Further, it is important to point out that another word for “satan” is “accuser” (i.e., the one that blames the victim for causing conflict, perhaps?) And again, we see the reference to being a murderer “from the beginning.” Girard explains this well: “The ‘origin’ or ‘beginning’ must have to do with the first human culture… they indicate that between the origin and the first collective murder there is a relation that is not accidental. The murder and the origin [of human civilization] are the same thing” (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 86). Here, Jesus claims that the religious leaders are actually followers/imitators of the accuser, guilty of the blaming and murdering of innocent victims for the function of their civilizations and cultures.
There are a multitude of other examples found in Jesus’ teachings, and even littered throughout the remainder of Scripture. The passages in Isaiah about the ‘suffering servant’ address the scapegoating mechanism. The entire book of Hebrews, with all its talk of blood sacrifice, can actually be seen to show Jesus’ sacrificial death as a move past the sacrificial system set out in the Old Testament. Acts, in its recording of the first sermons about Christ, addresses the mimetic cycle and how it has affected the people of Israel. The most poignant and important example, however, is found in the Passion narratives.
The stories in the Gospels about Jesus’ death (and resurrection) are especially unique in the long line of these stories in the history of humanity. Often, humans have used “myth” to obscure what actually happens when the scapegoating mechanism takes place. We can look at pieces of literature from Oedipus to old creation myths to find stories that affirm the “rightness” of our collective violence against individuals. These stories preserve the goodness of the crowd and the integrity of scapegoating in general.
The uniqueness of the Passion narratives, however, is that they clearly show a victim who was wrongly accused. The community that condemned Jesus was experiencing tremendous conflict and upheaval (Roman occupation being the primary driver here), and a mob formed that needed to vent its tension upon a singular individual; in this case, it is Jesus. The Gospels, however, tell this story in a unique way. Instead of hiding Jesus’ innocence, like all other myths about sacrifice do, they expose the guilt of the mob! Jesus’ death is very obviously unjust and should not have happened. However, by submitting himself fully to the scapegoating mechanism, Jesus directly exposes its inherent wrongness. God himself gives himself over to our evil, sinful, victimizing, oppressive cycle in order to expose it for what it is.
The mechanism’s temporary ability to dissolve conflict in a community can no longer function because God reveals it (first by the very act of submission to it, then through the Gospel narratives) as unjust. Further, Jesus is resurrected from the dead after submitting to death by scapegoating. And what are his first words? “Peace to you!” If anyone could have justly exacted vengeance for his death, it was Jesus, the sinless victim, the lamb who was slain. Nevertheless, after his resurrection, he only gives a word of forgiveness, a dispelling of fear for those who participated in his killing or turned their backs on him!
This is the good news: In the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus reveals our evil tendency for scapegoating and victimizing by submitting to our violence, and then he subverts our expectations further: he forgives us. By doing so, he is commanding the end of our victimization of others.