“The Theologians”

NPG D24005; Leading Theologians of the Middle Ages published by John GarrettIn the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity to associate with more church people than usual who have never met someone who takes the academic study of theology seriously. As I’ve attended Bible study classes with these groups, I’ve noticed a phrase that comes up repeatedly – “The Theologians”. The phrase is always used as a dig against those who spend way too much time studying and thinking about theology, and as a result don’t “get it” the way normal people do. It’s a phrase that almost always refers to those academic types who would lead you astray from clear and common-sense teachings, and instead fill your minds will all kinds of things that muddy the water. It’s used in sentences like, “The theologians believe x, but we all know that’s not right.”

I find this really strange. You’d certainly not say that “the master electricians”  just “muddy the water” with all of their talk about “following code”, and doing things the proper way. You might think what your plumber or electrician is doing is overkill, but you’d certainly realize that their services are valuable. Similarly, academics who work in the field of medicine, or quantum physics, or molecular biology might be so technically inclined that they have a hard time talking to people outside of the field, but most people don’t just discount their work as leading people astray from common-sense teachings. Usually, people believe the work of academics has value, even if it doesn’t immediately apply to their day-to-day lives.

But when I sit in a church service or a bible study class and hear the phrase “The Theologians”, it’s almost universally in distrust. I’ve even encountered several Bible study teachers who refuse to consult commentaries or books about scripture that aren’t the Bible. Sometimes it’s because these teachers don’t know who to trust, but more often it’s because they fear that reading more than just scripture will just muddy the water. They believe that “The Theologians” might believe something different and lead away from clear Biblical teaching. “The Theologians” can’t always be trusted. “The Theologians” believe that everything is negotiable.

Good theology will often challenge long-held notions, which might create some mental chaos for a time – this is a GOOD thing. The goal of theology, just like with medicine or physics, is to get beyond the chaos to the truth of how things work. Just because you believe the same as your parents or grandparents or denomination about God or the Bible or Christianity doesn’t mean that each of you are correct. Similarly, just because you’ve landed on something different than your parents or denomination doesn’t make you right. Theologians, of various stripe, can help us consider things that make us better, more flexible, and more responsible people of faith. They might even affirm some long-held beliefs in ways that surprise you!

That’s not to say that there aren’t theologians who might lead astray; there certainly are. But there are also bad electricians. The good news is that your house won’t burn down if you read a book by a wrong-headed theologian. Thinking that your soul will burn just because you read some bad theology reveals just how fragile your personal beliefs might be. By reading theologians you can gain perspective, and weigh that perspective against your own. But this takes work. My fear is that “The Theologians” is a phrase that denotes laziness in the face of the daunting task of owning and understanding your faith. Instead of people of faith engaging their faith in deep ways, stretching themselves in the quest for truth and purpose, they just chalk up all additional work as “dangerous”. As a result, their faith becomes superstitious and fragile. It’s the “folk theology” that believes Russians dug a hole all the way to Hell. It’s the kind of theology that believes the Bible unambiguously says Satan is a fallen angel. And it’s just as dangerous, if not more so, than the academic stuff.

I think my point is that if you use “The Theologians” as a blanket term to describe something dangerous or irrelevant or muddies the water and don’t consider your own theological constructions the same way, then you might want to rethink how serious you are about your faith. If you surround yourself with people who all agree that “The Theologians” are bad, then you’ve stopped being iron sharpening iron. You’ve turned into a monolith – a block of stone that cannot be moved. People of faith should be living creatures.

Make no mistake, faith IS dangerous stuff. I want to treat it with the gravity it deserves, and am thankful to the theologians who have helped me along the way.


You’re so vain, you probably think this election is about you. (Or, When God Shows Up)

simpsons-godOn November 10th, just after the 2016 presidential election, Franklin Graham was interviewed by the Washington Post about the outcome of the election, and in it he stated that he believed “God showed up”, something he also posted on Facebook. Since then, I’ve seen a few other uses of the phrase “God showed up” in various contexts.

There are a few things I’d like to point out about that phrase, and why I don’t think it appropriate to use in this context:

1.) God is everywhere
This is a no-brainer for those who believe in the “omni”s about God. He’s omnipresent. That means that he ALWAYS “shows up”, because he’s never absent from a place. That means that with every crime that has ever been committed, with every lie that a teenage girl has told her friends about another girl, with every act of adultery a husband has committed against his wife, with every rape or genocide or act of injustice, God was there.

That’s what makes the Christian conception of sin so heinous. Every time someone uses the gifts that God has bestowed upon them – gifts of personal agency, or of power, or of choice – and uses them to do evil, an infinitely holy God is desecrated. It’s not that God wasn’t there when evil things happened, it’s that he was there with you, suffering in every act of evil.

So, when those like Franklin Graham say that “God showed up”, it needs to be clear that God was always going to be there. God didn’t forget about election day in 2000 when Bush beat Gore, or in 2008 when Obama beat McCain, or in 2016 when Trump beat Clinton. God doesn’t just show up when your side wins, and wasn’t absent because your side lost. God always shows up because he’s trying to call all people everywhere to His side.

2.) God’s presence intensifies and rarefies

If God is omnipresent, then what do we do with scenarios in scripture where He seems particularly present or absent? There are stories of him coming to visit Abraham (Genesis 18), or leading the nation of Israel through the desert with a pillar of smoke or fire (Exodus 13), or when His presence filled the temple during its dedication (2 Chronicles 5), or when Jesus walked the earth as God-with-us.

There are also stories about God hiding Himself from people. The Psalms are full of references of God “hiding his face” (Ps 17, 39, 55, etc). The prophets proclaim that God had hidden his face from Israel and Judah because of their evil (Jeremiah 33, Micah 4, etc.), and scripture even says that God divorced Israel (Isaiah 50:1, Jeremiah 3:8, Hosea 2:2)! God’s presence is withdrawn from the temple in Ezekiel 10.

Not to mention, we have to contend with the problem of Christians being indwelled by the Holy Spirit. If God is everywhere, in what sense can Christians claim that they have the Holy Spirit when others don’t? Isn’t God’s Spirit everywhere?

The reality is that God being omnipresent doesn’t imply that His presence in every place is equal. God’s presence intensifies where he specifically wishes to work, and it rarefies where the people are far from him. When people draw near to God and purify themselves, God draws near to them (James 4:8), and his presence – which was always there – intensifies.

It makes sense to say that “God showed up” when his presence intensifies, but it is really appropriate to say that about this election? John Calvin wrote “a wicked ruler is God’s wrath upon the earth”. Since both of the candidates are deeply problematic (though in different ways), I think it wise to refrain from saying that God’s presence particularly intensified on election day, at least in any positive way. Trump has encouraged violence at his rallies and coyly suggested the same against his opponent. He has appealed to racism, been accused of sexual assault, bragged about his sexual advances on women, and suggested domestic and foreign policy that can do no less than provoke violence between people and nations. I’d have similar, though different, words if Clinton were elected. Are Christians really willing to celebrate that “God showed up” on election day just because Trump won? Or it just as possible that God might be hiding his face?

3.) God’s presence brings justice and judgement

Habakkuk isn’t the most popular book of the Bible, but it does tell us something interesting about what happens when God shows up – he brings justice with him. Habakkuk, it seems, is surprised that asking for God to bring justice has implications for him as well. Every one of us should pray for God’s justice to come, but each of us, whether we voted for Trump or not, should consider the ways in which we’ve been tangled up in evil, and what it means for God to come to judge. Justice just might mean that those who believe they are right and righteous because their candidate was elected (or wasn’t elected!) will find themselves in an uncomfortable spot. I’ve found that Christians, in general, tend to believe that God is on their side because they are Christians. But God doesn’t work that way. God isn’t on the side of Christians. God is on the side of those who weep and mourn, those who are poor in spirit, those who are peacemakers, who are merciful and pure in heart. Inasmuch as Christians find themselves identifying with these characteristics and embodying them, they are on God’s side, not the other way around.

The upshot is that asserting that God has shown up, without substantial ways to point to justice, is moving towards false prophet territory. Just because we like what happened doesn’t mean that God did it, any more than the Cubs winning the World Series means that God “showed up” for Chicago. That’s almost the definition of vanity.

Reflections from a “NeverTrump”

I’ve been “NeverTrump” from the beginning, even when he ran for president back in 2012. Denny Burk does a fair job summing up my thoughts on Trump, from both a Christian perspective and as a US citizen. But now that he’s been elected, I’ve been reflecting on where I go, and watching and listening to what others are saying and doing.

Overall, post-election behavior in this country is largely the same as the pre-election behavior, which is to say that people aren’t listening to each other. Here are my reflections in the aftermath.

  1. Trump wasn’t elected because Republicans are racist.
    I know this is a common talking point by those on the left, but it doesn’t hold. Talking to people who voted for Trump, and looking at the overall numbers, it’s evident that the working class in the majority of this country feel abandoned and marginalized. The manufacturing and other high-quality jobs that used to pepper the rural areas of the country have been moved elsewhere, resulting in the middle class and working poor having grave economic concerns. Trump was able to speak to those concerns, and build a movement around it. He has been an outspoken opponent of NAFTA, of shipping jobs overseas, and of the TPP, each of which are considered to take jobs from working-class Americans. Those who voted for Trump aren’t some sort of secret racists just biding their time to take over the country. They are people who have felt their concerns have been ignored, and were willing to overlook Trumps racist, misogynist, and immoral tendencies in order to be heard.Similarly, these same middle-class workers – you know, those who are being economically overlooked – are being further drown by the mandates of the Affordable Care Act. There are things about the ACA that I like, and I think were necessary, but the resulting spike in mandatory healthcare premiums threaten to bankrupt many families, even with federal assistance. The fact that open enrollment started on November 1st, and families saw a 50-100% increase in their premiums certainly affected the election.

    These working class families also tend to be more traditionally religious than the working class in urban areas, and they were afraid for their religious freedoms. They were afraid their churches would be forced to perform homosexual marriages, or that their businesses would be shut down because they didn’t provide abortion coverage. And they believed that their deeply felt religious convictions were being ignored in Washington. Once again, Trump supporters were willing to overlook Trump’s inconsistency on topics of religious freedom because he spoke to those concerns in a way that connected with people.

    As I read about those who voted for Trump, and as I talk with those who voted for him, most cringe at his inconsistencies and racism, but basically say that they had no other choice. To accuse the majority of his supporters of being racist just doesn’t bear out.

    That being said…

  2. The Republican party tends to attract racists.
    There has been a spike in hate-related crimes since the election, many of which bear the name of “Trump”, though most of them seem to be perpetrated by children, and no official numbers have yet been published. Nevertheless, this indicates what the Democrats have long asserted – that the Republican party tends to attract the racist fringe. Donald Trump was endorsed by the KKK, David Duke is a Republican, and it’s fair to say that those with similar leanings tend to vote republican. These events reinforce in the minds of Democrats that the entire Republican party is racist.The irony is that liberals have tended to come to the defense of Muslims, stating that just because the radical fringe of Islam is violent doesn’t mean that all Muslims are violent, while the far right has argued otherwise. In this post-election season, it seems that those same liberals paint the Republican party with the same “racist” brush, while Republicans argue that a few isolated cases shouldn’t apply to everyone.

    Since many who voted for Trump did so for reasons of economic and religious conviction, there has been a call for Trump supporters to denounce Trump’s racist, sexist, violent statements. With only some exceptions, I’ve found most Republicans either baffled by this call, or unsure how to do it. I’m pretty convinced that’s where the safety-pin movement has come from. But in the meantime, those opposed to Trump’s invective are taking to the streets, using social media, and shouting as loud as they can muster.

  3. The protesting democrats aren’t “spoiled brats”.
    I see this thrown around a lot these days – that the protests are ineffective, that only those who have no jobs can find the time to protest, etc. The first time I remember hearing of this was during the Occupy Wall Street protests, and later during the Black Lives Matter protests. Then, doing some research, I found that it’s an accusation almost as old as protest itself in the US. I’ve encountered a lot of people who just want to chalk up the protest to being a tantrum by people who are unemployed and sponging off others.The protesters, though, are a mixed bag. Let’s all agree that destruction of private property is wrong, just as wrong as the vandalism and intimidation that appears to be emerging from the Republican fringe. The real issues at stake with the protesters are solidarity with those who fear the policies of the new president, policies that may tear families apart due to immigration reform, or force Muslims register with the government in order to live in the US. They’ve taken to the street to show that they won’t be silent about such things if they become reality.

    But they’ve also taken to the streets to show solidarity with each other over shared economic concerns. Millennials graduate college with an average of $35,000 unforgivable of student loan debt, will likely be underemployed through their first several years out of college, and unlikely to find a job in their field. The economics of healthcare in this country make it out of reach for most Millennials, and the widening wage gap threatens the existence of the middle class – not only for Millennials, but for everyone. Yes, they are in the streets because they are underemployed and don’t see how the system is set up to help them. Trump seems like a step in the wrong direction, and they want to see change that matters to their future. People can argue about whether or not it’s effective, but diminishing the struggle is equally as ineffective.

    Most conservatives, especially of the Boomer-era, have mostly forgotten these sorts of concerns, and have also forgotten how to peer into protest to humanize the protester. Far from being a tantrum thrown by spoiled brats (though there are probably a few), the protests are a way to show solidarity around a shared set of values and concerns. I wish both parties would listen to this more closely. If they had, maybe Trump would have faced a better democratic opponent.

Of course there’s more that could be said on these topics and a number of others, but one thing is an important takeaway. Let’s not let an elected official, regardless of whether or not you voted for him, get away with things that go against our values. If we really are a country that wants equality for women, equal treatment for all religions, and a healing of the racial divide, and I think we are, then we ALL need to stand against anything that threatens those values. Let’s figure out how to redirect anger at our personal values being violated to action, and not mere acceptance. Let’s find and back those people who effect change in ways that are meaningful to us. And let’s never forget the power of our voice to divide or raise up, to pray or to curse, and to change reality.

Voices in the Hall

Sometimes, the lyrics from songs get stuck in my head as especially applying to a situation or event. The blog posts entitled “Voices in the Hall” will be the echo of what’s going through my head.

You’d teach me of honest things, things that were daring, things that were clean
Things that knew what an honest dollar did mean

I hid my soiled hands behind my back
Somewhere along the line, I must have gone off track with you

– “Foolish Games”, by Jewel


fight_club_building_explodeToday, a good chunk of the country is in mourning. The 2016 election didn’t go their way, and the forces of chaos have won. People are wondering how it could have happened. Maybe the losing party didn’t get out the vote like they should have. Maybe, the losing party might be thinking, too many people in the country are not fit to vote, since they obviously made the wrong choice. Maybe, the losing party might be thinking, someone rigged the election. Maybe you didn’t help your candidate enough. And as a result, some believe, the future – well beyond the next 4 years – is in question. The lament, which started months ago, is now in full effect.

Lamentations is a little Old Testament book nestled right between the mammoth books of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel that I never paid much attention, until about 2 years ago. The premise is that the Jews have been conquered by the Babylonians, and have lost their ancestral homeland, which they believe God had given them. The Babylonians have come in and taken all of the good-looking and smart people back to their capital, pillaged the major cities of Judea, and torn down all of the buildings of note. Anything that could be used as a stronghold or a rallying point was destroyed. People starved in the street. Mothers ate their own children. Young men were maimed so that they could no longer work or fight. The conquest of Judea was total and complete.

jerusalem-destructionThe book of Lamentations is a reflection, from their perspective, of how the Jews ended up in the situation of being a conquered people. As you’d expect, it’s full of mourning, finger-pointing, self reflection and condemnation, and apprehension – much like a good chunk of our country is doing today. As modern Americans, it’s hard to understand how the Jews could dwell on their tragedy by memorializing it forever in a book of scripture. We Americans have tons of stock phrases to deal with these sorts of situations – “Water under the bridge”, “Time heals all wounds”, “Shake it off”, “Move on”, “Don’t cry over spilt milk”, “You win some, you lose some”, and on and on. As western Christians, we don’t pay much attention to Lamentations because we don’t get it. We’d much rather “suck it up” and move on. That’s what strong people do.

But as I’ve studied the book of Lamentations, I’ve come to realize that embedded within the communal lament the Jews are sharing is a very important shared experience  – that of picking up the pieces. There is a difference between the hurricane coming and leaving, and everything getting put back together in the aftermath. If the hurricane is the lament, the cleanup effort is the shared work. If the lament is about the earthquake, picking up the pieces is the rescue effort.

And that’s what we can take away from Lamentations. Americans are great at “blooming where you’re planted”, but that’s only because we’re mostly planted in a pretty great place. For the Jews, the very soil had turned bad. For Americans, we seem to feel the most uncomfortably planted when our least favorite political party is in power. Politics are the earthquake that causes the deepest lament – the mourning, finger-pointing, self-reflection and condemnation, and apprehension. But since we Americans don’t understand the genre of lament, we don’t know how to progress while properly attending to our displeasure. We “move on” and forget the pain. Or we don’t move on at all, and let the pain define us. That way of dealing with lament leaves our shared work on the table. Let’s not let our ways of dealing with lament mask our resolve to share in the labor, because no matter who’s candidate won, we still have work to do. Let’s use our shared experience to push forward, neither gloating in victory nor being cynical losers, and seek a way to share the work of moving forward. Let’s recalibrate, seek truth, learn from our past mistakes, and strive for unity.

For the Jews, that meant working with Babylon. For those Jews left in Judea, it mean serving the the very people who implemented their destruction and pain. For those taken into exile, it meant being pampered, trained, and assimilated into Babylonian (and later, Persian) life while their brethren suffered.

What might that mean for us in times of victory or defeat?

Reading with Genre, not Anxiety

dracula1stThe classic novel Dracula follows an interesting format, outlining the story of the vampire through clippings from newspapers, letters sent between people, diary entries, and the like. They are roughly arranged by date, in an effort to cobble together a fantastic tale about the evil and supernatural Count. The book ends with Johnathan Harker, a character in the story, talking about how hard it is to prove that the events that are chronicled in the book are actually true, since many of the sources originally gathered in evidence have not proven to be authentic. The novel ends in resignation about concrete evidence, but instead roots proof in the life of those who survived the event. The implication, of course, is that the story of Dracula is true, even though the story is wild and the evidence is elusive. So, is the book fiction or non-fiction? I think we can all easily agree that it’s fiction.

Over the years I’ve taught a number of courses on Biblical interpretation, from lay-level courses to for-credit courses that apply to a certificate. As I’ve taught these courses, there are always some who have trouble coming to terms with how to read scripture. They tend to think that, with only minor exception, everything in the Bible is meant to be taken literally. The Bible, they believe, is a book of important history, with little time for communicating in ways other than “the facts”.

There are tons of examples I could give to demonstrate this, but it has become obvious that the usual rules people apply to things they interact with in the world often go awry when talking about the Bible. Certainly, the Bible is a special book with some of its own rules, but many of the usual rules still apply. Specifically, I think people get fouled up over the category of genre.

stop-signAn example of a stop sign should suffice. If you are driving along and you see a stop sign on the end of a pole about 8 feet off of the ground, you’ll probably stop. But what if you see one on a billboard? Will you stop then? How can you tell the difference? What if you see a stop sign on the side of a city bus? My guess is that you’d be unlikely to stop. But what if it’s on the side of a school bus? Hopefully, you’d stop.

The point is that a stop sign has special rules for us to follow. We need to do something particular when we see one, and there can be consequences if we don’t. But, we also bring to bear the concept of genre when we look at a stop sign. Stop signs have to follow certain rules and be in certain places before those special rules can engage. Most people are adept at telling the difference, and can make the decision about how to appropriately categorize any stop sign in a snap.

Genre is a lot like figuring out a stop-sign. Books like Dracula might try to fool us, but, somehow, we know better. Many portions of The DaVinci Code make a claim similar to Dracula; Brown admits that there is some invention in his book, but that all of the practices and organizations and rituals described are completely accurate. Nevertheless, most of us recognize The DaVinci Code as pure fiction. If I was adventurous enough to peruse my bookshelf I could list others (I think there is a C.S. Lewis book that claims to be real while being a story about an extended conversation between demons) but the point is clear – even when literary works insinuate otherwise, most readers are able to discern the appropriate genre with ease.

The problem occurs when readers believe that the BEST way to take something seriously is to read it as it if ACTUALLY OCCURRED. Within this view, there is no room for myth or satire. There is little room for morality plays or hyperbole. Entire limbs of human communication are cut off in service to the anxiety of taking things seriously.

For most Christians the Bible falls squarely within this category of “serious”. We read its words as literal because we’re trying to take it seriously. But the BEST way to read scripture seriously is to read it the way it was intended to be read. As the Old Testament scholar John Walton says, “Taking the text seriously is not expressed by correlating it with modern science [or any other systems we consider the most serious]; it is expressed by understanding it in its ancient context.”

Genre is the the fundamental unit of this context.

So, how do you know if you tend to ignore genre when reading scripture?

  1. You believe Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation should be read literally.
    I’ve met people who spend time wondering how Ezekiel could spend full chapters describing the temple of God in the new Jerusalem, while Revelation says that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem. They believe that BOTH are LITERALLY true. If you are actively looking for things like a meteor to crash into the sea, or a worldwide earthquake, or genetically engineered locusts with the face of a woman and scorpion stingers to be unleashed on the general population, you might be reading scripture without attention to genre.
  2. You’re not familiar with the concepts like “Apocalyptic Literature”, or “Polemic”, or “Wisdom Literature” when referring to the Bible.
    Let’s face it, our Bible teachers have often dropped the ball on this. In order to identify genre, we have to be aware of our options. If we’re never taught what Wisdom Literature is, how it functioned in ancient times, and its key features, how can we be expected to use those ideas when reading scripture? If these concepts seem new or scary to you, you might be reading scripture without attention to genre.
  3. It bothers you when someone says “it’s just a parable”.
    If it bothers you when someone doesn’t think that the parables of Jesus accurately describe things like how to plan for the future, Heaven and Hell, or how to tend to the weeds in your garden, then might be reading scripture without attention to genre.

What would happen if we read Dracula as being a literal account of supernatural terror? We’d end up with the wrong beliefs about things. We’d be panicked by things that don’t matter, and we’d ultimately be shown as fools. I’m reminded of the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast in 1938, which, as legend has it, many took to be a literal invasion by space aliens. But not only would we show ourselves to be fools, we’d miss the beauty of the story about the sacrifice of heroes in the face of indomitable evil. We’d fail to read between the lines of the relationships and see the emergence of strong women, and how Dracula’s lack of participation in the “civilized” world robbed him of the true power he sought.

So, what about the Bible? I’d argue that reading scripture without genre sensitivity has the same problems as reading Dracula as non-fiction. Namely, we lose the beauty of much of what’s going on. Instead of reading Genesis 1 as a literal, 7-day account, reading it as myth – as a an attack on the gods of the ancient near east – orients us to the beginning (genesis) of God’s interaction with humanity, and it opens the door to non-anxious interaction with modern science about origins.

What about Job? Taking Job as strictly historical turns the righteous Job into the object of a cruel cat-and-mouse game played by God and Satan. They carelessly torture Job through painful health conditions, the loss of his wealth and stability, and with the death of his children. Is it really wiser to read such a story as literal, rather than as a particular genre? Reading Job as wisdom literature means that Job is probably not “real” in the sense of him actually existing. Instead, he’s “real” in the sense that the trials and tribulations he, as a fictional character, experiences can teach us “real” things about the nature of God, evil, and the seemingly moral chaos of creation. As such, God is also a character in the book of Job, being manipulated by the author to teach us important things. Reading the book in a genre-sensitive way helps open up what the book is trying to teach, and is a more respectful way to honor scripture.

More could be said about the various ways genre can be brought to bear on scripture. What about Jonah, or the parables, or Proverbs, or Revelation, or even mixed-genre books like Genesis, Ezekiel, and Daniel? What might happen if we open ourselves to the possibility that we’ve interpreted them using the wrong genre? I’m willing to argue that we reduce anxiety and open up a world of meaning by taking these books as “real” only as far as the genre allows for it.

In conclusion, my suggestion for Bible readers is this: Respect scripture by approaching it with integrity and common sense. Figure out the genre and then use the images and statements in the text within the bounds of its genre. Read between the lines where appropriate to figure out what the author is trying to say. Over time, learn to have as good of an intuition about the Bible as you do about stop signs. And THEN apply the special rules of the Bible (such as infallibility) to give it the gravity it deserves as the rule of Christian faith. But never neglect genre.

Does this challenge your view of how to read scripture?

Where would you agree or disagree with this proposal?

Inside the Fire

Notes from the archive:

fire_spinI’m a mystic mudblood. I come from a family, a faith tradition, and a career that, at best, frowns upon mystical talk. Yet, I remain convinced that there lays a way of knowing beyond what is apparent to the senses or the intellect.

Some time ago, I was thinking about Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. This bush burned, but was not consumed. Moses found this strange, and ventured over to this thing to see what was going on. In the process, he experienced something life-shifting.

As I thought more about this story, the idea of the “holy ground” around the bush began to intrigue me. Pretty much every day of the week, this ground around the bush was normal earth – nothing special. But in the Moses story, the presence of the bush and the ground were superseded by the presence of God in that place, making the land Holy Ground. And, as Moses approached this Holy Ground, he encountered God in a way that put his checkered past into perspective, and defined his trajectory into the future. Being in the very presence of the fire changed Moses.

Yet despite the fire, the bush was not consumed. Even though the fire and the presence of God superseded the presence of the bush, the bush still remained. The union of the bush and God left the bush still bush-like, and God still divine.

It might not seem like much, but this was a bit of a breakthrough for me. Let me explain.

Very often I struggle with how to describe the way in which God, through the Holy Spirit, changes those who encounter him. The tradition in which I was raised seemed to focus on a more demanding or crushing action. God demands submission, and if he doesn’t get submission, he punishes and crushes the resistance by sending the Holy Spirit to “convict” people. This action on the part of God drives those fearful of Him into behaviors that purge whatever they feel is evil, not worthy, or unholy. This purging takes many forms – from throwing away “secular” music, to prohibiting kids from reading or watching “magical” material, to general withdrawal from culture. Sometimes the end result of this type of purging is legalism, in which the way we avoid God’s crushing activity is by doing things tied directly to the Bible. Sometimes the end result of this type of purging is self-loathing that stems from never being able to be “right” before a Holy God.

But the image of the burning bush seems to shift this view of God. Instead of crushing us, as He could have done with that bush, God woos us- He calls us and encounters us. Normal as we are -normal as the bush was – His presence on us in the Holy Spirit, through faith in Christ, changes our normalness, our unworthiness, and our unholiness into Holy Ground. In the process, it shifts us – it ignites us, just as it seems to have ignited something in Moses.

So, God’s presence brings me fire, yet does not consume and crush me. Yet for those who find their center in the One Who Is True, the presence and thoughts of God fill their every breath. In this manner (here comes the mystical part) “I” am consumed, but I am not consumed. My thoughts and anxieties shift from selfishness and self-preservation – the “I” – to something outside of myself. As the reality of being found in God – of being a brother of Christ, of realizing that true power gives itself away – begins to sink in, “I” is no longer the focal point of my interaction in the world. Instead, I become consumed with the work of God, which gives itself sacrificially in love towards others. My thoughts are still my own, but no longer focused on me.

This way of thinking has led Paul to make a lot more sense to me:
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Paul, it seems, speaks of himself as not living, yet living. It seems these are the peculiar thoughts of those who find themselves inside the fire of God’s work, but not consumed. In a mystical way, we become the burning bush.

Being consumed with the work of God in the world leads to what appears to be some strange behaviors. But just as the bizarre behavior of the bush attracted attention, and led to an encounter with God that changed the trajectory of those who approached, I find myself wondering if the bizarre consummation of Christians should accomplish the same thing.

I also wonder how often we, as Christians, choose to find ourselves outside the fire, looking from a great distance at those bushes that burn, but are not consumed.

Interacting without (non-clinical) Anxiety (or, how to not be a troll)

The other day I came across an article entitled “Holy Trollers: How to argue about religion online”. An excerpt:

When I first started writing about religion for an online news site, I eagerly turned to the comment section for my articles, fishing for compliments and wondering if I had provoked any thoughtful discussions about faith.

I don’t wonder anymore.

When I look at the comment section now, I see a whole lot of “yo mamas” being tossed about. Readers exchange juvenile insults, condescending lectures and veer off into tangents that have nothing to do with the article they just read.

The author then goes on to list and discuss the different types of commenters he’s encountered over the years. It’s an entertaining, if not completely accurate, article.

calvinsuzieAs our nation has polarized, and especially in this contentious political season, I see a whole lot of “yo mamas” being thrown around, and, ultimately, a whole lot of (non-clinical) anxiety. I’m reminded of some theological work done by LeRon Shults on a matrix for theological inquiry. In this matrix, he formulates that the ways people behave and perceive the world are based on how they deal with certain kinds of desires, which produce anxiety, as outlined in the following table:

A Matrix of Theological Inquiry
(from Transforming Spirituality: integrating theology and psychology, 2006; p.63)

Desiring Truth Desiring Goodness Desiring Beauty
Human Knowing and Personal Identity Human Acting and the Doctrine of Sin Human Being and the Image of God
Epistemic Anxiety Ethical Anxiety Ontological Anxiety
Omniscient Faithfulness Omnipotent Love Omnipresent Hope

While this isn’t always the case, most of the time people tend to act and respond to anything they truly care about out of a place of anxiety. They’re worried that they won’t be able to secure whatever good thing that is the object of their desire. Maybe they don’t know enough to defend their views on something they are passionate about, or are afraid of what will happen to their standing in the community if they don’t behave properly, or who they’ll become if they don’t hold to some personal belief about who they are. These anxieties, unfortunately, tend to run amok in the human psyche and drive many of us to behave badly. Anger, name calling, stonewalling, hate, refusal to interact, and even depression are all signs of this everyday anxiety getting the better of us.

Interacting with anxiety-producing things that are “out there” in the world requires us to handle our anxiety in productive ways. In this political season, we, as a nation, have done this pretty poorly. The democrats accuse the republicans of things like supporting a misogynist, racist, homophobic idiot. The republicans accuse the democrats of supporting a deceitful, corrupt, evil politician. This name-calling  is driven by a desire for truth, goodness, and beauty, as our communities (aka, political parties) have defined it, but the anxiety around obtaining truth, goodness, and beauty gets in the way of us actually being able to achieve it. In short, we’re all prone to being trolls because it makes us feel better, and because we believe it will secure good things for us, but is actually counter-productive. 

Shults (and his writing partner, psychologist Steve Sandage) argue that, in our pursuit of good things, anxiety will often turn us into grotesque, inwardly focused versions of what we are trying to become. And when “the other” holds a mirror up to us, and we see that we’ve become something other than good, true, and beautiful, our self-loathing and shame causes our desires to become more acute, making us even more prone to the harsh demands of anxiety. In this grotesque state we justify the unjustifiable, and entrench ourselves in our mistakes, because we can’t stand facing what we have become in our effort to be good.  Kierkegaard describes this as standing at the edge of a cliff, filled with fear that we might fall in, but also strangely thrilled at the thought of jumping off.

Anxiety has the ability to be both the precursor to sin, and to be the thing that awakens us to who or what we really are. Anxiety can be the path to either choosing wisely, or to becoming that grotesque creature. It all hinges on how we deal with our personal anxieties. Do we let them define us, or do we find avenues to deal with them productively?

With that in mind, here are some Christian suggestions for interacting with others while keeping (non-clinical) anxiety in check:

  1. When you find yourself getting riled up, ask yourself, “Why?”
    Asking yourself why you feel the way you do can help you identify what anxieties you are dealing with. To use examples from current political topics, maybe you are anxious that Hillary will raise your taxes and appoint judges that will curtail religious freedom. Maybe you are worried that Trump will further income inequality and drag the nation into unnecessary international conflicts.But why are you REALLY anxious? In the case of Hillary appointing judges, perhaps you are afraid for your own personal safety because you are a person of faith, and you think that being a Christian in such an environment will make you an object of persecution, and you fear persecution because you live a comfortable life. In the case of Trump furthering income inequality, maybe you are concerned about your own economic stability, and believe that income inequality has reduced your value as a human being, and you believe that your value needs to be recognized.There is a technique used in many industrial quality assurance departments called “5 Whys”. The short version of this practice is that you ask the question “Why?” five successive times in an effort to get to the root cause of the quality problem. This practice can be useful in determining the root cause of anxiety as well. And being able to speak truthfully about your own anxieties, and realizing how they are affecting you, is an important part of seeking truth, goodness, and beauty. I’ve found that most of the time, the issues people talk about are smoke screens for a deep, personal insecurity.
  2. Associate with those who produce the results you want to see in yourself.
    I’ve read plenty of commentators in this political cycle to regress to name calling and fear mongering to get their point across. But on substantial topics, people don’t change their minds when pressured. People change their minds after prolonged, non-anxious contact with ideas that they eventually come to see as better. Some studies even suggest that a person changing their mind is linked with a change in that person’s perception of their identity. But any way you slice it, changing your mind about issues that produce anxiety simply takes time. Most of our communities are used to shouting their stances in angry terms, and then being shouted at by the other side. That’s a waste of time, and doesn’t produce results beyond self-flagellation. If you just want to shout, you’re doing the right thing. If you want to interact productively in the world, you need to find a different path. People need to find those in their communities (or sometimes, outside of it) that can speak the language of persuasion. It could be someone you know personally. It could be someone you know from Facebook or from a blog, or off of YouTube. It could be an author, living or dead. Just find someone who can speak the language of persuasion. Not cheap or manipulative persuasion, but the kind of persuasion that meets people where they are, invites them into a world where change is possible, and joins new and better ideas with personal identity.  This sort of magic isn’t common in our polarized society, but associating with those who have practiced this skill is crucial to the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness, and to interacting with anxiety in check.
  3. See those you disagree with as also pursing truth, goodness, and beauty. Humanize them.
    When I was a kid, I would walk away from conflict over topics I was passionate about secretly happy that God would one day punish or “show up” my conversation partner(s) for their errors. Maybe this was something I was taught in church, but maybe not. In any case, I’ve become convicted that this is a desire for revenge, and it has no place in the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. It’s a sin.Instead, I’ve come to realize that, as warped as people might be, they are all trying to secure good things for themselves. It’s just that they have been vandalized by their experience, the lies they’ve been told, and their understanding of what “good” even is. They are human, and looking for the same faith, hope, and love that I’m looking for. Thinking of those with whom you disagree with contempt – as dirty or evil or especially deserving of heinous punishment – is an evil in itself. For Christians, all humans are made in the image of God and are sacred spaces, vandalized by the powers of the world. Let’s all work on realizing that we are warped in our pursuit of good things, and have grace with each other as we work through how to find truth. Those of us who are Christians need to be about the message of reconciliation, not condemnation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). How can we do that when we can’t even have a conversation about the price of gasoline without conflict?
  4. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.
    At the risk of irony, I’ll say more about this. We talk too much, and don’t listen enough. On my Facebook feed, I’ve been fortunate to have people on both sides of the Black Lives Matter movement, some condemning it, some praising it. I’ve been able to ask questions of each side and listen to the answers. Sometimes, the answers rile me, so I have to go back to suggestion #1 and figure out my anxieties. But at the end of the day, listening to both sides and talking to real people who represent them has been worthwhile. Most of the time when there is conflict each side is looking for truth, goodness, and beauty, but they don’t understand each other. I personally believe that most people who condemn the Black Lives Matter movement haven’t calmly dialogued with a single person in the movement, humanizing them as they listen to their story and their goal.  I also believe that most of those who are part of the Black Lives Matter movement haven’t spent enough time understanding the opposition. They just chalk up the opposition to “privilege”, when most people I’ve talked to who are against BLM are bewildered by the term. Nevertheless, supporting one side or the other in any debate (or choosing a third option) must be a deliberate choice based on listening non-anxiously to others. I admit that sometimes, this can be challenging. People tend to have pent up frustration over long-standing issues, and their voices and attitudes reflect anger or depression. Sometimes this emotional response or challenge to the status quo is justified, but even if it’s not being able to listen through the anger is valuable.
  5. Learn to live with anxiety as a human condition, with its dissipation in God.
    Everyone’s desire is that, after they do all of these things, their (non-clinical) personal anxiety will be vanquished, and they’ll live happily ever after. I wish that was the case. Anxiety is part of the human condition. In Christian anthropology, anxiety is what all humans feel as we navigate the world separated from God, who is the source of all truth, goodness, and beauty. Until the day comes when we see Him face-to-face, we will continue in this state of anxiety about how to know, do, and be “good”. Even when Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, we see him struggling with anxiety when he calls for “this cup to pass” from him. But in response to his anxiety, Jesus turned his face towards God and continued on the path set for Him, even though that path led towards a gruesome death. Jesus shows us that anxiety is part of humanity, but that it finds its dissipation when the God of all creation welcomes us into His omniscient faithfulness, omnipotent love, and omnipresent hope, which can give is the confidence we need to interact with the world with our anxiety in check, producing fruit in our question for truth, goodness, and beauty.

For me, at the end of the day, interacting without anxiety is about finding God’s peace in the midst of what seems like chaos and purposelessness in the world (see the previous post). In the last two generations, too many christian communities have been doing a poor job of realizing that truth, and have instead been consumed with anxiety over doctrinal debates, sexual purity at the expense of personal holiness, and a fusion of US American political ideology with faith in Jesus. The ways in which we’ve attended to our anxieties have caused us to be known as grotesque creatures that lack grace but claim faith in the author of grace. God provides shelter for us, despite the vandalized and warped ways in which we seek him, and offers transformation out of the chaos of our anxieties into beings with a purpose. In Him we are invited to (non-anxiously!) live and move and have our being.