Saturday, February 26, 2011

Rob Bell, Love Wins, and Karl Barth

UPDATE: I don't want to add another post to the phenomena, but if you do want to see the latest comment I've put on one of the blogs of Bell's detractors, see comment 20 below. I'm happy to talk about this more in the comments if anyone wishes.

Rob Bell has a book coming out March 29th called Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. It has already met with considerable suspicion by some prominent evangelical figures. You can see the video teaser for the book and a (what I consider to be rash) blog reaction here.

First of all, come on. We are none of us perfect, but we can do better than this blogger. Based on the trailer we ought to have questions, not condemnations. Let's stay out of the pre-emptive anathemas and ism-hunting and hear the brother out.

Secondly, Bell's teaser is provocative, no doubt, but none of the theological questions asked in it are new. In fact they are important enough that they have been discussed and debated with varied results within Christianity for centuries. Bell may be worthy of critique, but we will have to see. And "worthy of critique" is a far cry from "servant of Satan" (a charge made explicit in the first run of the blog post and then amended to be merely implicit).

Thirdly, this reminds me so much of what I've been researching in Karl Barth the last couple weeks it is uncanny. Readers may recall the letter I posted a little while back in which Barth was responding to a request from Christianity Today (put to him through a friend) to defend himself against theological suspicions. What were they? You guessed it: He had been labeled a "universalist". I'll re-excerpt the letter below (and give something of Barth's actual, theological reply below that), so you can see how Barth responded to this blogger's ilk in his day:

Dear Dr. Bromiley,

Please excuse me and please try to understand that I cannot and will not answer the questions these people put. To do so in the time requested would in any case be impossible for me. The claims of work in my last semester as an academic teacher (preparation of lectures and seminars, doctoral dissertations, etc.) are too great. But even if I had the time and strength I would not enter into a discussion of the questions proposed.

Such a discussion would have to rest on the primary presupposition that those who ask the questions have read, learned, and pondered the many things I have already said and written about these matters. They have obviously not done this, but have ignored the many hundreds of pages in the C.D. where they might at least have found out — not necessarily under the headings of history, universalism, etc. — where I really stand and do not stand. From that point they could have gone on to pose further questions.

I sincerely respect the seriousness with which a man like Berkouwer studies me and then makes his criticisms. I can then answer him in detail. But I cannot respect the questions of these people from Christianity Today, for they do not focus on the reasons for my statements but on certain foolishly drawn deductions from them. Their questions are thus superficial.

The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness.

Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.

Dear Dr. Bromiley, you will no doubt remember what I said in the preface to CD IV/ 2 in the words of an eighteenth-century poem on those who eat up men. The continuation of the poem is as follows: “… for there is no true love where one man eats another.”

These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a “better mind and attitude” as I once hoped. I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all.

With friendly greetings,
Yours,
Karl Barth

P.S. I ask you to convey what I have said in a suitable manner to the people at Christianity Today.
To be sure, I think this debate is closer to home for Bell and so he will probably be best to carefully and gracefully enter the fray - but I wouldn't blame him for finding some resonance with Barth's feeling at this point!

Now, of course, Barth did answer the questions about his seeming "universalism", and he did so in print. The question was put to him best by G.C. Berkouwer, in a book called The Triumph of Grace. Here is something of Barth's reply:

‘If I am in a sense understood by its clever and faithful author, yet in the last resort cannot think that I am genuinely understood for all his care and honesty, this is connected with the fact that he tries to understand me under this title....

Grace is undoubtedly an apt and profound and at the right point necessary paraphrase of the name Jesus,’ but ‘the statement needed is so central and powerful ... it is better not to paraphrase the name of Jesus, but to name it’ lest we become concerned with a principle rather than a living person at precisely the place where that person matters most (Church Dogmatics IV/3.1, 173). God is love, but ‘love’ is not God.

Furthermore, 'universalism' is an -ism that doesn't get us very far. You have to say more. Barth didn't go in for a lot of -isms and neither should we. In fact, he quite famously and aptly remarked: "I don’t believe in universalism, but I do believe in Jesus Christ, the reconciler of all."

Undoubtedly this is one of the more difficult questions in theology. I am not sure if I admire Bell's boldness or find his promotional teaser a bit flippant. Regardless, this is not an open and shut theological issue - it deserves careful consideration and gracious dialogue, and I imagine that is what he'd hope for. Please let's not reduce everything to principles, label everyone by those principles, and then proceed as if we are protectors of a point of view rather than persons in communion with faith seeking understanding.

At this point Bell raises questions, but does not merit condemnations. If anything, the main question we might ask is why it isn't called "Jesus is Victor"? But we aren't going to be legalistic about book titles. The least one can do is read the book before leveling a full-bodied critique (let alone anything worse).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Barth on Christian Knowledge of God

One of the things you have to know about Barth is that he will rail on this point time and time again: That God could only be known if God revealed Godself to humanity. This is precisely what the Christian believes is happening in the incarnation; in Jesus.

What I think is really interesting about Barth is how he goes on to talk about the nature of Christian knowledge of God in the time after Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension, when He has promised to send His Spirit into the world and called the church to be his witnesses; to testify to His accomplishment and His revelation.

What does that mean? What is the character of that witness? What does it look like? This is where Barth really corrects some of our attitudes, both in and out of the church setting:

We can never control our knowledge of this fact and therefore our authority to speak of it. It is not our own product, but the work of that fact in its character as revelation. It does not become our possession. We cannot put it in our pocket and carry it round with us. We can only use it at once as its work takes place in its character as revelation. We are not to hoard it, any more than the Israelites could hoard the manna in the wilderness.

We can and may know that fact when it is revealed - and know it with the self-grounded certainty which corresponds to its self-grounded being and occurrence. But we should be fools - real fools in the biblical sense of the word - if either to ourselves or others we pretended to be the expert bearers of revelation, appealing for our authorisation (in our own eyes and those of others) to a knowledge of revelation which is either transmitted to us institutionally or infused personally, like the Roman Catholic to the authority of his Church, the 'Fundamentalist' to the biblical texts, and the sectarian to his inner voice.

We can and must act as those who know. But we must not claim to be those who know. For if our knowledge of this fact from its self-revelation is not new every morning, if it is not newly received from it, with empty hands, as a new gift, it is not this knowledge at all.

And its flimsiness will be quickly and radically enough exposed. Its power consists in the divine act of majesty in face of which those who really know will always find and confess that they do not know. The attitude of those who know in this power can only be one of the greatest humility. It is the necessary converse of the resoluteness with which they make use of their knowledge. It distinguishes this resoluteness from the arrogance and timidity of mere opinion and hypothesis. It respects the freedom of God, and is therefore the root of the freedom in which they make actual use of their knowledge. It leads them to pistis [faith], and therefore to gnosis [knowledge], to unceasing prayer and therefore to knowledge.

It is just because they can have no doubt as to the liberation which is quite outside their own control that those who are really free to know this matter can never lose a sense of humour in relation to themselves.

Church Dogmatics IV/2, 124-125

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Indie Can Be Popular. Meet The Walkmen.

Hailing from New York City,

Hamilton Leithauser (vocals, guitar)
Paul Maroon (guitar, piano)
Walter Martin (organ, bass)
Peter Bauer (bass, organ)
Matt Barrick (drums)



As a relatively new but hugely appreciative Arcade Fire listener, it was somewhat gratifying to see them receive widespread public recognition at the Grammy Awards last week - even though a Grammy is pretty much meaningless to me as an indicator of good music. It was ironic to see them play their 'corporate-angst' rock - complete with the line 'businessmen will drink my blood' - while a voice-over for Delta airlines took full advantage of the high viewership moment. It was also interesting to see how at peace the band seemed with such irony. Whatever other trappings there are, they seemed genuinely pleased.

Surely music can in some way be subversive of the very medium in which it is shared, and one can be glad that people are connecting with it. Period. I think it is a bit disingenuous when a band pretends it doesn't care whether anyone likes it or whether, indeed, a lot of people like it. Sure, I like bands that aren't caught up in such efforts at popularity, but there is no sense denying that you make music to be heard.

In that vein, I find the Walkmen interview below pretty insightful as well. They talk about wanting lots of people to like their music, wanting to play bigger and better shows, and so on - but they also (clearly) think it really important to themselves also like the music they play (see 13:50). Implicitly, they are saying that this would go away if they were simply making music for a broad appeal. Such is the bind of an artist.

I think The Walkmen are one of the most gifted bands around. The vocalist can soar, the guitar and bass are unique and yet not inaccessible, and the drummer is amazing (and entertaining to watch). Recently we were going around the table naming our top 5 musicians of all time and The Walkmen made my list. I was surprised that several had not heard of them (of course, neither would I if not for my brother). So I invite you to become familiar with them.

Here they play some stuff from the 2010 album Lisbon and answer a few quick questions:



Here they play a song from the 2004 album Bows + Arrows called "The Rat" - maybe one of my favourite songs of all time:



And here is a really cool video for the song "Four Provinces", from the 2008 album You & Me (which I think is their best):

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Barth: Cannibalistic v. Communion-based Theology

In the personal notes that follow I think we get a great insight not only into Barth's personality but also into his approach to theology as an open and communal endeavour. I'll come back to some of the more telling lines in that regard below. In the meantime, enjoy these (by now rather famous) remarks from the pen of Karl Barth, first from the 1955 preface to volume IV/2 of his Church Dogmatics, and then from a 1961 letter written to one of their translators, Geoffrey Bromiley.

As I hurry to the end of this Preface, I must not forget to make some necessary amends. I am not referring to the strange (but not entirely novel) confusion which caused me (somewhere in IV, 1) to transport the land of Israel to the western shores of the Mediterranean. I am thinking rather of the fierce attack which I made on Dutch Neo-Calvinists in globo in the Preface to III, 4.

The wrath of man seldom does that which is right in the sight of God, and never when it is in globo. I have to acknowledge this now that I have come to know the great book on myself and the Church Dogmatics by a representative of that group, G. C. Berkouwer (De Triomf de Genade in de Theologie van Karl Barth, 1954). For all its reservations and criticisms this work is written with such care and goodwill and Christian aequitas [fairness] that — in the hope that there are others like its author — I should like to withdraw entirely the generalised and therefore ill-founded words which after many years of provocation I then suddenly unleashed.

There are obviously “Fundamentalists” with whom one can discuss. Only butchers and cannibals are beyond the pale (e.g., the one who summarily described my theology as the worst heresy of any age), and even they only provisionally, for there is always hope that they will attain to a better mind and attitude. Those who were wounded then can take comfort in the fact that I myself have now come under the charge of “Fundamentalism,” and indeed of an “existentialist Fundamentalism” (whatever that may be).

And if in the future they do not say any more unseemly things about Mozart, they need have nothing to fear from me (CD IV/2, xii).

Five years later, Barth was contacted by his friend Geoffrey Bromiley with a request from Christianity Today that he respond in the pages of their magazine to some of the charges that had been levied against him by prominent evangelical theologians (one of them the heresy-hunter referred to above). As it turns out, the harshest critics of Barth's theology were going to be given the last word. Again, I find Barth's letter of reply as insightful of his approach to theology as it is of his personality.

Dear Dr. Bromiley,

Please excuse me and please try to understand that I cannot and will not answer the questions these people put. To do so in the time requested would in any case be impossible for me. The claims of work in my last semester as an academic teacher (preparation of lectures and seminars, doctoral dissertations, etc.) are too great. But even if I had the time and strength I would not enter into a discussion of the questions proposed.

Such a discussion would have to rest on the primary presupposition that those who ask the questions have read, learned, and pondered the many things I have already said and written about these matters. They have obviously not done this, but have ignored the many hundreds of pages in the C.D. where they might at least have found out — not necessarily under the headings of history, universalism, etc. — where I really stand and do not stand. From that point they could have gone on to pose further questions.

I sincerely respect the seriousness with which a man like Berkouwer studies me and then makes his criticisms. I can then answer him in detail. But I cannot respect the questions of these people from Christianity Today, for they do not focus on the reasons for my statements but on certain foolishly drawn deductions from them. Their questions are thus superficial.

The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness.

Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.

Dear Dr. Bromiley, you will no doubt remember what I said in the preface to CD IV/ 2 in the words of an eighteenth-century poem on those who eat up men. The continuation of the poem is as follows: “… for there is no true love where one man eats another.”

These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a “better mind and attitude” as I once hoped. I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all.

With friendly greetings,
Yours,
Karl Barth

P.S. I ask you to convey what I have said in a suitable manner to the people at Christianity Today.

Although I read these for the first time a year or two ago, now that I've spent some time deeply considering Barth's approach to Christian community and the theological endeavour, at the risk of making too much of these off the cuff remarks I do wish to utilize them in highlighting some things that I think are pretty indicative.

  1. There is a difference between expressing "reservations" and making "criticisms". In either case one should be "fair" and with "seriousness" try first to understand the other person and second to communicate one's critiques clearly.

  2. By his own confession Barth considers the words of his prior "generalizations" to have been "ill-founded". Time might have told whether his generalizations would have rung true, and so perhaps Barth isn't apologizing for them. But he leans toward a more cautious approach when he withdraws those comments and mentions that he only levied them after much provocation. Even then, of course, he confesses that they were "unleashed" more on a "sudden" impulse than a thoughtful desire for mutual edification. This is pretty relevant today, where we love to characterize "the church" or "evangelicalism" or "conservative" or "liberal" in globo rather than speak about the issues at hand. I've been guilty of this myself and have been consciously trying to be more pointed than blunted.

  3. The reason Barth will not respond to the questions lobbed at him is because he feels they are hand grenades and not communiques. The critiques from these prosecuting attorneys, these protectors of the truth, have shown that they have been more intent to deal with Barth under predetermined "superficial" labellings rather than actual interaction. To be fair, in cases where we don't understand each other we probably have to come at each other with our prior categories open on the table. But if we aren't listening to the way the other person wants to explain things, we are head-hunting rather than truth-seeking together. Barth might recommend we be willing to work through such blockages if the context is our own local church, but in this case he is too tied down locally to play this game with those people across the pond who have shown no willingness even to meet him halfway.

  4. Even the harshest fundamentalist can be considered "beyond the pale ... only provisionally, for there is always hope that they will attain to a better mind and attitude." By this Barth does not mean we talk to them again once they share our point of view. He is referring to the lack of openness to discussion. While there is no writing anyone off completely, sometimes for the sake of discussion one must actually end the discussion. The first thing one has to do when one is in a pretended discussion is call a spade a spade and ask that the person come back when they are willing to actually discuss. Until this is confronted, "neither an angry nor a gentle answer" will be much help.

  5. When Barth calls for people to be open rather than closed, is he simply a pluralist preaching a shallow gospel of wishy-washy tolerance? What would he think of Chesterton's adage that the purpose of an open mind is to close it on something solid? I think he'd agree that there is at the goal of thought and dialogue a certain conviction about what one considers true. However, here Barth isn't talking about an "open mind", he is talking about people being closed to other people. This is about a posture for discussion that actually allows someone to speak and actually endeavours to understand and seek commonality.

  6. 6. But how can there be such a thing when we have no reason to believe we will find commonality? Is such openness merely naive? Perhaps this is the case under other belief systems (or lack thereof), but it should not be so in Christianity. Our discussions stem from a common faith that there is a "truth that is greater than us all" and that He actually wishes to be sought! Barth made quite famous the old phrase about Christian theology as "faith seeking understanding", but here I think we get a window into the fact that he really believes in "communion seeking understanding". One can take the "faith" platitude quite individualistically, thus easily taking "the stance of those who happily possess" understanding and are simply "proving to themselves" that they are on the right track. But Christ calls people into communion in order to seek truth together. With the Word in the church the Spirit guides us into truth together. And since the Spirit can be heard in the world we are best to be listeners. Christians do not believe that understanding establishes peace, they believe in a peace that surpasses understanding and guides us into truth from that peace which is already there. It may be this peace and not some shirking of the question which leads Barth in his P.S. to entrust to his friend Bromiley the "suitable" communication of his answer.

  7. And though I've used a picture of Daniel in the lion's den to depict this, it is interesting that Barth chooses the metaphor of cannibalism. This isn't a redrawing of battle lines on an in/out distinction, but the recognition that it is possible within a false unity to begin to eat our own.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Solzhenitsyn's Speech and Our Fragmented Stories

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian writer whose two most famous novels exposed the Soviet Gulags (state labour camps) and revealed something of the lives and pains of the people forced to work within them. I have been meaning to read him for quite some time, and have already told you the extent of my knowledge of the man. But at a used book sale this week I picked up a copy of the speech he gave upon reception of his Nobel Prize for Literature, and am finding it fascinating. Here's an excerpt:

I have mounted this platform from which the Nobel Lecture is delivered - a platform made available to by no means every writer and that only once in his lifetime - not by means of three or four well-carpeted steps, but by climbing up hundreds, even thousands of steps, unyielding, steep, slippery with frost, steps leading up from the darkness and cold where fate decreed that I should survive, while others - perhaps more gifted and stronger than I - perished. Of those who perished, I myself me only a few in the Gulag Archipelago, a scattered, fragmented multitude of islands; under the millstone of surveillance and mistrust I could not speak freely with everybody, some I only heard about, others I only guessed at.

Those who already had a literary reputation when they sank into that abyss are at least known - but how many died totally unknown, never once publicly named? And hardly any of them ever returned. A whole national literature has been left there, buried without a coffin, without even any underclothes, naked, just a name-tag tied round one toe. Russian literature continued its uninterrupted flow, while from outside it appeared a desert. Where a healthy forest might have grown, after all the felling nothing remains but a couple of trees overlooked by accident.

And how am I today, accompanied as I am by the shadows of the fallen, bowing my head as I stand aside to let those other men who deserved this honour before me take their place on this platform - how am I today to guess and put into words what they would have wanted to say?

This obligation has long lain heavy on us, and we have long known it. In the words of Vladimir Solovyov:

But e'en in chains, ourselves we must complete
That circle which the gods have fore-ordained.


During the painful marches of our camp life, in the convicts' column, in the midst of the evening frosts with the strings of lights shining through, the words we would have shouted for the whole world to hear, had the world been able to hear a single one of us, often rose to our throats.

At that time it seemed self-evident what our lucky ambassador to the world outside would say, and how the world would immediately respond in sympathy. Our field of vision was peopled with distinct physical objects and distinct spiritual forces, and in an unambiguous world we saw nothing to counteract them.

Those thoughts did not originate in books, they were not selected for their attractiveness: they were born in prison cells and by camp-fires in the forest, in conversation with people now dead; they have stood the test of that life, they grew in that environment.

But when the external pressures slackened, my horizon and all our horizons widened, and gradually, if only through chinks in the fence, we saw and got to know the 'world outside'. And we were startled to find that the 'world outside' was quite different from what we had hoped: it lived by the 'wrong' rules and values, it progressed in the 'wrong' direction; it exclaimed 'What an enchanting lawn!' at the sight of a boggy swamp, and 'What an exquisite necklace!' on seeing the concrete stocks imprisoning people's necks; and while tears ran unchecked down the faces of some, others tripped along in time to a carefree hit-tune.

How did this happen? What caused this yawning abyss? Were we the insensitive ones, or the world? Or was it all due to the difference in our respective languages? Why are people unable to understand every word distinctly spoken by others? Words die away and run off like water - tasteless, colourless, odourless - without trace.

As I came to understand this over the years, the content, the sense and the tone of my potential speech - my speech of today - changed. And now it scarcely resembles the one originally drafted during those freezing evenings in the camp.

This reminds me of the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel, in which the world is fragmented into languages (and thus cultures) by God in order to restrain its own unified plundering of earth and heaven for personal gain. Unsure whether to consider Babel a blessing or a curse, I imagine we see in globalism the opportunity to reverse Babel, retreat from it, or find some other resolution to its fragmentations.

To my mind it seems that from Prophets to Pentecost to Revelation we are getting a vision of a reconciliation which celebrates and understands diverse communion under the bonds of a peace which surpasses understanding but comes to the world nonetheless. Stirred by this the Christian imagination ought neither to presume itself capable nor cease to pray (and strive) for the kingdom of heaven to come on earth.

Solzhenitsyn's speech reminds me of the complexities of all this in an as-yet broken world. And yet it also tells me of the importance of telling and retelling and listening to and reflecting on one another's stories. It is here that we not only encounter the other but also begin perhaps to understand ourselves. As Solzhenitsyn indicates, we can imagine this, often only vaguely, only to be frustrated when we try. But I do think that when our stories are enfolded in Christ's we have more hope in that regard. In fact I think it is at the heart of the Christian imperative to greet, and really meet, one another in Jesus' name.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Why Violent Video Games?

When I was a kid I used to play video games where 'killing' was involved, and they ran the spectrum of 'innocence' from Super Mario Brothers (where you are simply squishing mushrooms and strange creatures into invisibility) to James Bond (where the whole game is geared around shooting people for some reason that you have bought into for the purposes of the adventure). Probably there are extremes further on the spectrum on either side, but that's my range of personal experience. I don't recall that these made me particularly more violent than I would have been otherwise (although I'm not sure), nor do I remember being all that cognizant of any moral issues involved in what I was doing (but perhaps it is because no one prompted me to). All in all, it was fairly 'innocent', I suppose.

Nowadays I simply don't play video games at all anymore. There came a point where I couldn't keep up with the gamers and simply wasn't good enough for it to be fun. Fine. This isn't about me.

We have a seven year old and a six year old who play video games and who are increasingly aware of the options available to them. More and more the attractive options are the games their friends talk about at school, and more and more these involve violent scenarios where the player is mainly interested in shooting others.

What I want to know is this: Does anyone actually consider this a good thing? Does anyone think about it? Or has everyone thought about it and come up with a better rationale for it than I have been able to come up with?

Now, to be clear, I am not a Luddite nor a home-schooler. If you want to argue for something in that direction I'm open to hear it, but you should know that (while I imagine there are scenarios where home-schooling is the best option) I am heavily resistant to the general idea that Christianity recommends we shield our kids at all costs from the messiness of their societal context. As the kids grow in discernment I want to give them an increasing range of freedom to meet the world and to exercise those muscles of (preferably Christian) discernment further; even to be positive influences in their respective realms. Thus, while I can't think of any good reason for the existence of Lego Star Wars on the Nintendo, I have been able to come up with good reasons to allow our kids to play that game (albeit not others).

They know we don't think violence is the answer. They know we think shooting is a very-worst-case scenario. I think they even know why we think that. They know we let them play this particular game if they want to because it is fictional robots and lego characters rather than real people. They know that the moment we get the sense that it is transferring into a violent approach to real people they will have to take some time away from the video game to restore some sanity.

They know all this, I think, and we haven't even had to nag them (much) - just return to it from time to time. We are making a concession, but I hope we are doing so in a potentially redeeming way that turns it into as a discernment exercise and a teaching opportunity (hopefully without being overbearing).

Of course, I am fully aware of the fact that when I was a kid I didn't really think much about the killing that was going on in video games so I should probably not make a big deal out of it as if the kids are bloodthirsty for wanting to play them. There is, admittedly, a kind of innocence about kids that can actually make the games themselves sort of innocent.

But, let's face it, we'd be pretty naive if we dismissed the possibility that the movies and video games that children spend hours on may in some way effect reactive and instigative outbursts of violence in child-play and relationships. We'd also be pretty naive if we pretended that the hours they spend now aren't in some way shaping their worldview.

Certainly, 'rough-housing' and so on is probably a natural part of growing up, and so I think there is a mode and an extent to which this is appropriate on the playground and maybe even on-screen. But how we could then turn around and argue that a shoot-em-up video game is healthy in that regard is beyond me. And what unhealthy habits and approaches are spurred on unnecessarily and undiscerningly by such brain-feed?

I don't mean this as a criticism of other people's parenting decisions. I am asking an open question. Is there something good (or neutral) about violent video games that I am completely unaware of? Let's not pretend this is just a parenting question, either, even though in my case that's all it is. I know plenty of adults play these games.

My question is: Why? Without going all the way back to moral viewpoints and Christian values and such (since I imagine you can guess what they are), I've given some perspective on where I'm coming from and what my concerns and my leanings are. But I do want to make it an open question and hear out the possible answers. How is it enjoyable in the least to commit 'virtual murders'? And even if it is mildly enjoyable, how is it good? Is it neutral, harmless, or otherwise justifiable?

To be fair, I watch plenty of films and read plenty of books that contain violence. To me discernment means avoiding those films which are more interested in glorifying violence than telling a story that involves it (even depicting it rawly and brutally where necessary). My greatest respect goes to those films that can capture the disturbing effects of violence and the complexities of conflict without showing us every drop of blood and passing sword-swipe to the gut. But I've seen some garbage, I'll admit. I'm open to rebuke in that regard.

But I do think the discussion happens on another level when we move from hearing/seeing/reading a story and actually playing a part in it - in the role of a violent aggressor no less. Thus I raise the question. I don't know if anyone wants to help me with this or not.

(By the way, I've had this question in mind for a long time. Nothing has really triggered it for me recently other than the fact that what was a moot point for me personally has through my children become a live issue to think about again.)

give your cloak as well

It's not very often where I spend a post simply linking elsewhere, but this blog on 'turning the other cheek' is absolutely fascinating.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

How to Treat People Like Tax Collectors

It is probably more indicative of my interests than anything else, but I come back to two passages in the Bible more often than any others: Genesis 1-3 and Matthew 18. In the latter passage we have what I think is one of the most important pieces of practical and ideological ecclesiology going - straight from the mouth of Jesus.
Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones [lost sheep] should be lost. If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them (18:14-20).

Right in the middle of all that, but not to be separated from the rest of what Jesus was talking about, is this bit about what one does after attempts to make things right have failed. When every attempt has been made and a person "refuses to listen even to the church," at that point, Jesus says, you "treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector."

This raises a question, and I'm not convinced that the oft-assumed answer is the right one: How does a Christian treat a so-called "pagan" or "tax collector"?

In his Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists (vol. II, pp. 357-358), John Calvin figures that Jesus is here borrowing a Jewish "mode of expression" - meaning that "we ought to have no intercourse with the despisers of the Church till they repent."

This seems a bit off to me, but maybe it is because I am born in an age leaning back from a perceived over-emphasis on accountability and leaning into an emphasis on tolerance. But as much as I prefer it to legalism, tolerance has been searched and found empty. Surely there can be some other option between strictly asserted self-righteousness and a socially shallow live-and-let-live?

A sympathetic reading of Calvin hears him saying simply that one does not make an ally out of someone that does not share one's goals and concerns. Refusing those who refuse is, for him, like calling a spade a spade. If someone refuses the church, why pretend you are on the same page? Makes sense.

Problem is, we get it in our head that the scenario Jesus speaks of involves someone who is 100% right and someone who is 100% wrong on some obvious sin or doctrinal issue. Surely there are those. But more often it is quite simply not that cut and dry. Even where there is a clear victim and a clear offender, we know that a third party and a discerning church leadership will often be able to tackle the trickier interpersonal squabbles and not only (a) help the offender to see and repent of the wrongdoing but also (b) help both victim and offender face some of the complicating issues of their relationship or their past or what have you.

Jesus' instruction seems built for way more than just the drag-an-offender-into-admitting-his-guilt scenario. It seems built to handle a dynamic of both truth-seeking and reconciliation-seeking!

In fact, Jesus goes so far beyond either strict legalism or banal tolerance that, properly applied, these verses alone should make the Christian church stick out in our Western society like a sore (but uniquely healing) thumb.


But am I just twisting Jesus' words for a more nuanced piece of sociological psycho-babble? Am I usurping a black and white Jesus for a church community of my own design? What if that's not what He meant? And who am I to disagree with Calvin's interpretation? Let's deal with them one at at time, starting with Calvin:

(1) Elsewhere in Calvin's comments on this passage he is clear that this refusal of "intercourse" with pagans or tax collectors does not mean either the extreme of "hatred" or the more passive-aggressive "avoidance". This is not about shunning or resentment. Calvin is not asking Christians (who in some cases will have been deeply offended by the wrongdoer) to cease and desist from amicable conversation, public association, friendship or even debate with those in question. His concern really does seem to be for the integrity of the church's communion.

Now, notice that I said the integrity of its communion, not of its moral appearances. The offender is not shuffled quietly aside in Jesus' church, but is embraced in a confrontation that aims at stronger union. The goal is to abide properly with God's calls on human life, and to do so as a community. This does mean confronting particular sins. Those that want a shallow tolerance will have to look elsewhere (and will have no problems finding it). This is about moral integrity. But the road to moral integrity is communal integrity.

So if a communion can't speak truth in love to one another in the common goal of discerning the way of Christ then they might as well admit they are no longer in a Christian communion. It is one thing to have wronged somebody. It is another thing for the ministry of reconciliation and the community itself to be refused. At this point (and not before) the church is no longer the church! The one who refuses the church in this way should not be considered a part of it. The presence of sin does not compromise the church, but the absence of togetherness on the road to reconciliation does. Resisting this makes one a non-participant.

Now, it would be easy, I'm sure, to fill our heads with examples where it has not been the offender but the leadership of the church that has failed in this regard. No doubt that adds a complexity to the scenarios which Jesus' teaching addresses. But Jesus' teaching does still address them, I believe.

(2) So now we come back to the question of what we think Jesus was recommending as far as "treatment of pagans and tax collectors" goes. And here, even though I've given Calvin a pretty sympathetic reading, I wonder why on earth Calvin would insist on interpreting that expression in light of typical 1st century Jewish thinking rather than Jesus' own prevalent displays about how to treat pagans and tax collectors?

After all, what book are we reading this story from? The gospel according to Matthew! Matthew was a tax collector befriended and called forth by Jesus - much to the disgust of the religious teachers of his day (Matt. 9 & 11). Matthew's is the gospel in which we see Jesus tell Peter not to revolt or resist but to pay his tax even though he does not live merely as a citizen of an earthly empire (Matt 17 & 22). Matthew's is the gospel in which Jesus says to love one's enemies and turn the other cheek (Matt 5). Matthew's is the gospel in which Jesus tells the story of the workers in the vineyard - and clinches it as follows:

"What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.'
'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go. 'Which of the two did what his father wanted?'
'The first,' they answered.
Jesus said to them, 'I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.'
(Matt. 21: 28-31)

I think we need to hear what Calvin has to say about who we take as allies (i.e., intercourse with). This seems a proper interpretation of the passage's ramifications. But I think when it comes to how we treat the church's refusers, we have to be extra careful not to get this wrong.

Jesus did not pretend that the pagans and tax collectors were yet in full fellowship with him, but he did treat them as friends.

I mean, just look at the parable which follows the passage we started with in Matthew 18: The parable of the unmerciful servant. It ends with the king imprisoning the servant whom he had previously forgiven because the servant refused to forgive others! Jesus' conclusion was this:

This is how my [not our] heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.

I don't take this to mean that we can copy the Father in binding people up and tossing them away. We can't judge like that. (And when churches do make decisions about their integrity as a community they are not passing judgment but trying to call it as they see it when all roads have been explored and there can be only one route forward). I take it from here and other passages (Matt 6, John 20, Eph 4, Rom 7) that God is judge and we are showers of mercy.

Thus I am not sure how far we need to be concerned with Calvin "that our forbearance and meekness ... may not become the subject of ridicule" (p. 366). In asmuch as Calvin meant that the church should not allow itself to be a laughing-stock of waffling disregard for integrity or ethical discernment, I'm with him. But I do think that in Christ we should probably expect to be the subjects of ridicule. We should expect that vindication comes in the judgment of God and not in our own efforts to exact revenge or restitution or self-righteousness.

It is one thing to suggest that the church does not take refusers of Christian community as allies, but another thing altogether to suggest that one treats such refusers any other way than lovingly and mercifully - just as in Christ God has done so with us. There is no in/out here. It is all in. Let the refusers refuse. Ours is a posture of embrace.

Of course, what one does when it is one's particular local church which is refusing the ministry of reconciliation is a whole other story. But in that case one is better off confronting that church with their own gospels in hand than retreating to the safe confines of a meaninglessly tolerant society and firing potshots at the Church from a supposed place of moral superiority. That would be the way Pharisees treated pagans and tax collectors, not Jesus. And today I think there are as many Pharisees outside the church as in it.

We could all stand to hear Jesus' rallying cry to the communal ramifications of the gospel that saves. In the sculpture seen here we have three figures, and I imagine we all fancy ourselves the one hurt and kneeling and balk at the idea of being either of the other two. We are pretty happy to talk about the parable of the lost sheep (which precedes the passage I've focussed on here) and thinking of ourselves as the one sought out and brought into the fold, but how often we retreat into an individualistic concept of salvation when Matthew seemed to want to turn our attention to the new reality that this creates: The life to be lived by the 99+1.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

This is what it looks like

A friend recently passed on to me this excerpt from N.T. Wright's The Challenge of Jesus, which began as a series of talks in 1999 that were then compiled into the book. It is excellent. Those of us wondering where to look for the visible church should probably consider this before looking in all the wrong places:
But if we are to be kingdom-announcers, modeling the new way of being human, we are also to be cross bearers. This is a strange and dark theme which is also our birthright as followers of Jesus. Shaping our world is never, for a Christian, a matter of going out arrogantly thinking we can just get on with the job, can reorganize the world according to some model that we have in mind. It is a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world, so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world at exactly that point. Because Jesus bore the cross uniquely for us, we do not have to purchase forgiveness again; it's been done. But because, as he himself said, following him involves taking up the cross, we should expect, as the New Testament tells us repeatedly, that to build on his foundation will be to find the cross etched into the pattern of our life and work over and over again.
We would rather this were not so, and we twist and turn to avoid it. We find ourselves in Gethsemane, saying, 'Lord, can this really be the way? If I have been obedient so far, why is all this happening to me? Surely you don't want me to be feeling like this?' Sometimes, indeed, the answer may be, 'No'. It is possible that we have indeed taken a wrong road, and must now turn and go by a different way. But often the answer is simply that we must stay in Gethsemane. The way of Christian witness is neither the way of quietist with­drawal, nor the way of Herodian compromise, nor the way of angry militant zeal. It is the way of being in Christ, in the Spirit, at the place where the world is in pain, so that the healing love of God may be brought to bear at that point (my emphasis).
This perspective is deeply rooted in New Testament theology, not least in Romans 8. There, Paul speaks of the whole creation groaning together in travail. Where should the Church be at such a time? Sitting smugly on the sidelines, knowing it's got the answers? No, says Paul: we ourselves groan too, because we too long for renewal, for final liberation. And where is God in all this? Sitting up in heaven wishing we could get our act together? No, says Paul (8.26-7): God is groaning too, present within the Church at the place where the world is in pain. God the Spirit groans within us, calling in prayer to God the Father. The Christian vocation is to be in prayer, in the Spirit, at the place where the world is in pain; and as we embrace that vocation we discover it to be the way of following Christ, shaped according to his messianic vocation to the cross, with arms outstretched, holding on simultaneously to the pain of the world and to the love of God.
Paul, we should note carefully, is quite clear about one thing: as we embrace this vocation, the prayer is likely to be inarticulate. It doesn't have to be a thought-out analysis of the problem and the solution. It is likely to be simply a groan, a groan in which the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ, groans within us, so that the achievement of the cross might be implemented afresh at that place of pain, so that the music of the cross might be softly sung at that place of pain, so that the foundation of the cross might support a new home at that place of exile.
So if you work in government, or foreign policy, or finance, or economics, or business, you will be aware right now that the world is in pain and fear. What's happening in south-east Asia? What should we be doing in the Balkans? Is the world's financial system going to break down altogether? Are we heading for another major recession? And what can we do about the problem of major international debt? As I have argued elsewhere, I believe we are called to support the Jubilee project, which seeks to write off the huge unpayable debts of the world's poorest countries. That, I believe, would be the single best way of celebrating the Millennium, and if you haven't caught up with the Jubilee movement I urge you to do so. But this project can never be a way of Christians imposing a solution on the world from a great height. It will be a matter of Christians who are involved with finance and economics, with banking and business, with foreign policy and government, wrestling with the issues, often in a Gethsemane-like anguish in which the pain of the world and the healing love of God are brought together in inarticulate prayer.
How much easier metaphorically to escape to Qumran and say you're just a private Christian not wanting to get involved with inter­national finance; or to compromise with the present system and hope things will work out somehow; or to embrace a shrill and shallow agenda which hasn't taken seriously the depth of the problem. Some readers of this book will be called to live in that Gethsemane, so that the healing love of God may reshape our world at a crucial and critical time.
Or maybe you're a student in a faculty, or a sub-discipline, which right now is facing a major split, which causes people to stop speaking to each other and to refuse to transfer each other's candi­dates to PhD status, or to fail them when they submit their dissert­ations. I have known economics faculties, and history faculties, and others too, where half the professors are Marxists and half aren't, or where half are committed postmodernists and half aren't. Where should the Christian be in such a case? You may well believe that the gospel commits you to one side in the debate, though these things are rarely that easy. But my suggestion is that you see it as a call to be in prayer where your discipline is in pain.
Read the scriptures on your knees with your discipline and its problems on your heart. Come to the Eucharist and see in the breaking of the bread the broken body of Christ given for the healing of the world. Learn new ways of praying with and from the pain, the brokenness, of that crucial part of the world where God has placed you. And out of that prayer discover the ways of being peacemakers, of taking the risk of hearing both sides, of running the risk of being shot at from both sides. Are you or are you not a follower of the crucified Messiah? And of course this applies in many other areas as well, in families and marriages, in public policy and private dilemmas.
N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 145-148.

At the critical prodding of one of my friends, I want to be clear that I don't think the references to "inarticulate groaning" and prayer here mean that Christianity will utlimately always be formless and void, internalized and cloistered in reformations that never strike out at revolution. I actually think the opposite (and I think NT Wright is alluding to it as well in closing) - that this groaning and prayer, when lifted to God and joined with attentiveness of heart, mind and strength, result in God's commands and articulations coming back on times and places and pointing for particular action and specific involvement in the affairs of interpersonal relationship, community, and world.

The main point I think I'm on about in these last two posts, however, is that this particular manifestation of Christian action is less likely to be measurably successful on the terms of capitalism and consumerism. Church action is not answerable to the immediate realms of efficiency or visible growth, even if it does desire those things the same way it desires God's Kingdom come. Rather, there is a cruciformity to the ministry of reconciliation that finds conviction in the commands of God for our time and goes on with them come what may. We desire palpable communion, undoubtedly, but we are not looking at the stats every minute to see how well that communion seems to be either catching on or offending the masses (whatever our fancy happens to be).

Thursday, February 03, 2011

A Revolution Not Likely To Be Televised



We are inundated with the notion that the church is on the verge of a huge and necessary paradigm shift. In the church we often get the impression that not only can we make this happen but that its results will be measurably manifested. Some insist that this will be marked by a stout return to "foundations" or "roots" which will noticeably offend the world. Others look for marks of growth that will be impressive and thus God-glorifying in that world. I don't know. I tend to think of ours as a paradigm-shift era as well, but I think this will be more like what Gil Scott-Heron was on about in this classic song than what the authors and preachers seem to be on about in their best-sellers and web-portals.

By that I don't mean to suggest that God is bound to work in a way that brings no numerical growth or widely-noticed success. However, I do tend to think that when the paradigm you are shifting from has based itself on those things then you might be wiser to look for the signs of revolution elsewhere. Perhaps the revolution is not in those things but in the real work of patient, plodding reformation and daily reconciliation that has been the heart of the church all along (and still is, visibly noticed or not, wherever the church is alive).

This is the daily revolution of Christianity as it is new every morning in the hearts and lives of Christians and the motions and actions of church-communities. It is not often sexy, and when it is sexy it is often exploited. But God keeps with us, doesn't he? And so, televised or not, we put our trust in him for the changes and reforms and mutual communion that he brings among those who - noticed or unnoticed - believe and seek the Father in Jesus' name and not their own.


(incidentally, Gil is probably best understood here as illustrating a truth, not taking sides in a race comparison)
(see here for some background to the culture references employed in the music video)


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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

A Bright Eyes-View of Redemption

The new Bright Eyes album, entitled "The People's Key" has come out and is streaming free for a while here on National Public Radio. After a few listens I have to say I do like it. It hasn't grabbed me quite like I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning but it is certainly an enjoyable album I may well purchase. There is a slightly annoying narration that plays at the beginning of the album, however. Sounds like some guy tripping a little bit and waxing poetic about the meaning of life and so on. Not all bad, but I hope a person who buys the album can skip it to get to song one because it could get real old real fast.

The narration pops up sporadically throughout the album, of course, complete with nearly nonsensical ramblings about "pomegranate" and "syllables" - but like my friend said it seems to show that Conor Oberst has an artistic philosophical proclamation of sorts that he wants to intertwine with his music. I do tend to like such a mixture, as long as it is done subtly and smartly, and in this case although it is a bit overt and a bit "out there" at points I do have to say that I enjoy the way it ends.

Best I can transcribe it, what follows is the final narration of the album. The man is coming to the climax of his monologue, but it is up to someone nearby to fill in the final word:
Well the transitic [?] is to love. You go back to love again. You understand when somebody has a problem with your trip, or whatever trip they're having a problem with, and you try to bring it together, you try not to cause division. You try to make it as a cosmos, it's a cosmos and yet it unfolds like a flower - it just keeps unfolding. Time keeps moving on - instead of someone saying 'no man, we're moving on, we're gonna become fascists [?], we're gonna do it this way' you say 'no we're moving on and I hope to see you again when everything's okay.'

And that's the human race. When there's total enlightenment, there will be peace, there will be bliss, there will be total enlightenment. So enlightenment is knowledge, as much knowledge as you can get, people, to seek and to understand, you know? And it's mankind, it's men, it's me and you, it's us that do it. But we have to call it to the light. We say 'you know, I'm not going to kick that guy's @$£, his opinion is different.' That's love, compassion, ar, what do you call it, that's...

"mercy" [says someone nearby]

"What's that?"

"mercy" [he whispers]

"Mercy."

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