Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Now in Print: Barth in Conversation

Quite some time ago I was privileged to take part in a Karl Barth Blog Conference over at Die Evangelischen Theologen by contributing an imaginative theological essay bringing Karl Barth into conversation with the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men.

Well, I'm happy to announce that material from that conference, edited by David Congdon and Travis McMaken, has now been assembled and published with Wipf & Stock (Pickwick).

You can buy the book here, peruse the table of contents here, and read its endorsements here.

This is, for the record, my first time appearing in a book-length publication. Special thanks to David and Travis for all their work, to the other contributors for raising the bar, and to Brad East for the excellent response!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Law & Disorder: Samson the Superman [sermon excerpt]

It is not a happy ending. Samson is the last of the Judges. His death is a tragedy. And it is the tragedy of the human race. In John Milton’s telling of the story the Israelites are singing to Samson and they lament him as a “mirror of our fickle state.” As we conclude today I want us to reflect on how this is so to this day. To do that I want to talk about Superman.

Samson is superman. He's Superman in the sense meant by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was German so the word he used was Übermensch, meaning Overman or Superman. Nietzsche’s basic claim was that God was dead and it was time for humanity to take it to the next level. To outdo itself.

Nietzsche wasn’t unappreciative of God or religion, in fact he felt that belief in God had done a lot of good. This was how humanity reached for the stars. But now that civilization was coming of age religion had reached the end of its usefulness. The death of God would be good for us. Instead of leaning on religion we should put faith in the human race and reach for our real potential. By force of will we could be Super-humanity. Our dreams of God it will only hold us back.

I suspect this idea lies behind the popularity of superhero stories these days to some degree—telling us more about our fundamental beliefs than we’d like to admit. Our superhero stories sustain the myth that we can be whatever you set our minds to be. For Nietzsche the key was the human will. Accepting the death of God might hurt for a while, but if we could break the shackles of faith in God and put faith in the power of self-belief—we could outdo ourselves.

Of course, there are other interpretations of the power of the human will. A philosopher who touched on this was Arthur Schopenhauer. He also thought that human willpower was a powerful thing, but he thought that the will of man was its kryptonite, so to speak. He thought that human will was an evil power that would take us down at the peak of our desire. Both Nietzsche and Schopenhauer talked about the power of the human will, one thinking it the key to greatness, the other thinking it our ultimate demise.

Which story does Samson tell?

To be honest I think he tells both. Yes, cut loose from the God who would hold us back from building our Babel Towers, cut loose from the God who would hold Samson back from the donkey’s jawbone, we humans are capable of immense and incredible things!

"If you pull yourself up by your bootstraps (and if you are cut from the right cloth), you too can find the success of a self-made man."

"If our intentions are right we can build a relatively benevolent global empire on the strength of our goodwill."

Nietzsche was partly right. But history has shown: so was Schopenhauer. And Samson tells the story that Superman is an overreach on our part: our will to power brings self-destruction. We’re still telling Samson’s story to this day. He’s a mirror for our broken souls; a reflection of our disordered world.

The Judges are a mirror held up to see our fickle state. We’re fickle because we swing on the pendulum between optimism and pessimism; between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, between dreams and despair. And the pendulum swings on the myth of Superman---a myth Jesus came to destroy.

You wouldn’t know it from those Jesus films with the blue-eyed hunk of a carpenter’s son who goes to the cross like William Wallace, but the Jesus given us in the gospels is one who steps into the shoes of Samson at the end of his rope and at Israel’s bottom line, and who dies in our place to put to death our myths of the self-made man.

Jesus is not self-made but self-giving. Of all the people to live a life of total submission to the strength of God, you wouldn’t think it would be the Son of God himself, but he does. At every step Jesus lives from the love of the Father, drawing strength each day rather than relying on himself. And Jesus gives himself to the people around him too. He’s not self-made but self-giving---giving himself to us even to the point that he lets us take him down.

"God's Hand is in the World" by Yehuda Amichai
(thanks Dave McGregor for showing this to me)
In Jesus the Son of God throws his lot in with us and ends up standing there with Samson, a mirror of our fickle state, dying with us as well. It's Nietzsche's death of God and Schopenhauer's death of man!

And if you’ve never stared into the depths of it you’ve likely not taken seriously the words of Paul, who said: “If Christ is not raised our faith is futile and we are dead in our sins.” If Christ is not raised then Samson’s end is our end too.

No matter how many sappy-ending superhero movies you watch it doesn’t change the fact that, left to ourselves, Samson’s end is our end too.

But Paul wasn’t done, and neither is Scripture. There’s a long epilogue to the story of Samson and in a very real sense we’re still involved in its writing. Gratefully, the conclusion has already been written for us in Christ, as is spelled out for us by Paul:

“If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins and all of the dead are lost. And if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we of all people should be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep..."

Monday, February 03, 2014

Law & Disorder: Gideon Settles [sermon excerpt]

"And turning to his oldest son Gideon said, ‘Kill them!’ But Jether didn’t draw his sword because he was afraid and was just a boy. But Zebah and Zalmunna said, ‘Come on, do it yourself. As is the man, so is his strength.’ So Gideon stepped up and killed them, and took the ornaments from their camel’s necks."

This is the part of Gideon’s story that we tend to hear less about—isn’t it?

It’s no doubt that with Gideon God uses violence to free Israel from oppression, and that Gideon is one of the good guys—but we make both our reading mistakes at once if we conclude that, because Gideon was used by God, everything he did is blessed and he’s a model for us to follow. Far from it, I’m afraid.

As it turns out, Gideon ends up being one of the most disappointing Judges. He's certainly the most overrated.

I’m not saying Gideon gives us nothing to look up to. In Hebrews chapter 11 he is listed along with Moses and David and Daniel and Samson in the “Hall of Faith”—held up as an example of God using people to do great things not by their might but by their faith. The thing is—like Samson after him—Gideon’s on that list mostly despite himself! And that shows us something about the grace and the patience of God.

Time and time again in the book of Judges the people do as they see fit and God has to save them from themselves, and God does it through one of the least of them. Ehud is the unlikely lefty, Deborah the unlikely woman, and Gideon is unlikely because he just might have the weakest faith of them all.

I'm not suggesting we sit here and wag our fingers at Gideon. In fact, most of us can hardly blame him for testing God. Many of us have “laid out fleeces” for God and found God patient with us to reassure us with some kind of sign. The word of a trusted adviser or a sense of peace in prayer. A door opened at the right time or a series of reassurances that we’re walking in step with God. These are good graces of God and we’re thankful.

But let’s not kid ourselves. This isn’t exactly the Bible pumping Gideon’s tires, either. This is the Bible telling us: "See? Look at his faith. Tiny as a mustard seed. And that’s all God needs."

Just to make the message painfully clear, Judges takes us to the army camp of Midian, where we’re later informed there are 120,000 swordsman in Midian’s camp, and 32,000 men in Gideon’s. And this time it is the Lord testing Gideon, saying in verse 2—wait for it—"You have too many men for me to deliver Midian to you." A couple rounds of this and Gideon ends up with 300 soldiers to Midian's 120,000. That's 400 to 1.

(And by the way if you want to talk about the place of war in the Old Testament you’ve at least got to notice how many times it is God sending weakness up against strength).

As the story goes, against all odds Gideon slays the oppressors and comes back to his land as the saviour of Israel. In the book of Judges this is usually where we'd get the announcement of peace. In Gideon's case, however, we get this epilogue where he refuses the call of leadership and takes the spoils of war instead. He ends up with a 43 pound golden Ephod he can’t possibly wear; so he sets it up like a shrine in his home town, where we’re told it was a snare to him—and by extension to Israel—the rest of his days.

We see the seeds for this back in the crime scene where we began. It isn’t a crime, in God’s eyes, that on this occasion Gideon struck down these oppressive enemy kings. The Lord had all but ordered it to be done. In the author's presentation the real crime is that after all that, here on the cusp of deliverance and a fresh start in faith, Gideon tries to bargain and puff chests with Zebah and Zalmunnah. He only kills them when they taunt him to be a man. Just look at the words these bully-kings use:

"As is the man so is his strength," they say.

Is that a Christian proverb or a threat to Christianity?

Curiously it echoes some of Moses’ last words to Israel, as they sat on the edge of the Promised Land to receive the blessing of his final song. In Deuteronomy 33:25 Moses said: “as are your days, so is your strength.” Not as is the man, but as are your days. What does that mean?

Remember that it was with Moses and the manna that the people had learned to rely on the Lord for what they needed each day, nothing less and nothing more. Remember, too, that Deborah’s song echoes this line: praying for strength that would rise afresh each day like the sun....

In the early aftermath of his obedience of faith we see Gideon falling for an awful parody of Moses' words, taunted to bravado rather than faith; to human powers rather than God's.

So Gideon’s legacy is a divided one. Power and honour and bravado are Gideon’s Delilah. What does it tell us if we give Samson a hard time and are quick to give Gideon a pass? In one sense Gideon is one of the greatest Judges of all since his name—Gideon, Mighty Warrior—would always recall the time God’s army beat 400 to 1 odds, thus redefining what we mean by Mighty.

But Gideon is known by another name as well—Jerub-Baal—which refers to his contention with other gods. It’s a nickname that sticks, I think, because at the end of the day his success has more to do with what he was against than what he was for.

Gideon's story concludes with the implication that oh, they had their forty years of peacebut the land enjoyed it more than the people did. For the people—if I may paraphrase MLK—it is peace in the sense more of the absence of conflict than the presence of the reign of God.

It is pretty common for us Christians to be known more for what we’re against and less for this different kind of life that we’re living for. It is all the rage as Christians to say the sinners prayer and get saved, and live the rest of our lives on our own, as the self-made men and women that our culture asks us and dares us and demands that we be. But if Gideon’s epilogue reveals to us anything it is that, left to ourselves, we might coast along for decades on a half-peace rather than lean into the daily grace of life in a God-guided Christian community.