February 20, 2003

Three real treats yesterday: Finished grading a batch of essays that were better than I expected; listened to Queen's Night at the Opera on a lark and rediscovered how much rockers in the seventies could get away with compared to today; and began Philip Jenkins' The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.

More on the last, probably, in the days ahead.

8:13 AM

February 17, 2003

Martin Roth wins the "leave Telford Work speechless" award for the day:

Jesus, the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Rev. 5:5) called for justice. In the face of Saddam Hussein’s continuing genocide would He have done nothing for years and years, then joined a silent protest vigil outside a church when a war to stop the genocide seemed imminent? That’s been the posture of some church leaders.

For that matter, what would He have done in World War II? Would He have been a conscientious objector? Or might He have joined Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in trying to stop all the slaughter by assassinating Hitler?

Actually, we don’t know.

Other things we don't know about Jesus:

Would he have played Powerball?

Would he have held stock in Philip Morris (or, at any rate, in The Tobacco Company Formerly Known as Philip Morris)?

When would he have stopped buying Michael Jackson albums?

Would he have taken the Social Security exemption for pastors?

Would he have spiked redwoods?

Would he have watched Joe Millionaire?

Apparently Roth got one of those WWJD bracelets that doesn't include the user's manual. So let's apply some analogical reasoning and make an educated guess.

Hmmmm. I'm having a pretty tough time envisioning Jesus at either a candlelight vigil outside Pilate's offices or involved in a Zealot conspiracy to kill him and overthrow Roman rule, and it's not because I don't have a vivid imagination. It is because the Messiah overturned the tables at the Temple, enacting a coming political and spiritual revolution and painting a big target right in the middle of his movement. More than any other, that act got him killed. It was just, it was treasonous, and it was nonviolent.

It was also apparently too enigmatic for his twenty-first century American followers, if by that act he meant to give us a guide to understanding the powers of this age and interacting with them.

Candles or guns? Answer: False dilemma. Go look it up.

Good grief.

8:02 PM

February 16, 2003

It's been another clarifying week as the world turns!

Much of my joy in the last ten years has been from my growing awareness of how rich true Christian faith actually is. Much of my pain in the last two years has come from my growing awareness of how truly post-Christian my world actually is. Yet the pain is ultimately good. It enables me to name the malaise that has long afflicted my world, and discover ways that a more thoroughly evangelized culture could be healed. I know more this week about the mission field that is the modern world than I did last week. That is a blessing, though I wish it were a blessing I hadn't needed.

Lecturing in my church history class this week about the transformation of Ireland after the island's evangelization under Patrick, I remembered a passage in Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization on how the good news gave the Celts both a new way to express their cultural riches and deliverance from the overpowering fear that characterizes so many prechristian societies. It struck me then that the politics of the post-christian twenty-first century are the politics of overpowering fear.

The Celts have left us two cups – perhaps the two most famous cups in all of history – which beautifully reveal the story of the transformation of Irish imagintion from its fearful and unstable pagan origins to its baptized peace. The first cup is the Gundestrup Cauldron, found in a Danish swamp where it was thrown as a votary offering by a Celtic devotee a century or two before Christ. We know it was intended as an offering because it was newly forged and, in accordance with Celtic custom, broken into pieces before it was offered: it was never intended for normal, human use. (All sacrifices, even the communion bread, must be set aside and somehow broken, consumed, or transformed in order to be authentic. This is part of the "logic" of sacrifice.) The Cauldron is a dazzling feat of silversmithing, its panels alive with gods and warriors. Several panels refer to sacrifice, both animal and human. One panel depicts a gigantic cook-god who drops squirming humans into a vat as we might lobsters. Another, though, depicts a horned god – a figure often referred to as Cernunnos,a god found on coins from India to the British Isles – a lord of animals, surrounded by goat, deer, snake, dolphin, and other members of the animal kingdom, as well as by trefoils of plants and flowers. Against the violence of the warriors and the carnivorous, cannibal gods is set this prehistoric Saint Francis, ruling his peaceable kingdom. The image serves almost as a bridge between the angry Celtic gods, demanding sacrifice, and the Christian God, who offers himself.

The other cup is the Ardagh Chalice, found in a Limerick field and dating to the end of the seventh or the beginning of the eighth century.... It is the most extraordinary metalwork of the early Middle Ages, both barbaric and refined, solid and airy, bold and restrained. Like the Cauldron, it was forged for ritual, but it makes a happier statement about sacrifice, for the God to whom it is dedicated no longer demands that we nourish him and thus become one with his godhead. The transaction has been reversed: he offers himself to us as heavenly nourishment. In this new "economy," we drink the Blood of God, and all become one by partaking of the one cup, the one destiny. The silver Cauldron was made in thanksgiving for some great favor: it was not meant to be seen by human eyes but was made the sole delight of the swamp god. The silver Chalice, on the other hand, was meant to delight and refresh the humans who drained its mystical contents. Its elegant balance, its delicate gold filigree interlacings, its blue and ruby enamels beckoned from afar. As the communicant approached the Chalice, he could admire more fully its subtle workmanshipl; and as he lifted it to his lips, he would be startled to see, debossed in a band beneath the handles, the almost invisible names of the Twelve Apostles. As he drank the wine – at the very moment of Communion – he would briefly upturn the base toward heaven and there would flash skyward the Chalice's most thrilling aspect: the intricate underside of its base, meant to be seen by God alone. This secret pleasure connects the Chalice to the Cauldron and to all the pagan ancestors of the Irish. But the pagan act of pleasuring the god is now absorbed completely into the New Imagination and to all that will follow. The smith is still a "man of art," a poet or druid, but he is no longer one of those whose evil craft and power Patrick had to protect himself against:

Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul.
For God's pleasure and man's are united, and earth is shot through with flashes of heaven, and the Chalice has become the druidic Christian smith's thanksgiving, his
deo gratias.

And that is how the Irish became Christians.

And that solidarity of heaven and earth, this freedom from fear even in a world of hurt, is what Europe has lost – at least for the time being.

The spectacle of nations at the United Nations Security Council dithering, agreeing together that inspections are all working much better now, and invoking the magic words "cooperation" and "peace" and all the rest of their talismans was dispiriting, to say the least. The photos of millions saying the same things were downright unbelieveable. They can't really believe it, can they? Can they really believe that an Iraqi change of heart is on the way? Some of them are parents; they know the logic of intervention that alone breaks patterns of disobedience. They are citizens and partners in domestic politics; they know that police forces who follow this logic are nothing but facilitators of anarchy. Can they really believe their own words?

Some are probably lying, but I think a lot of them really believe it – in a same way that a parent beaten into submission by spoiled kids can abandon discipline once again and capitulate to the quick fixes of bargaining and leniency. Appeasement doesn't begin as cynicism (though it soon breeds it). Appeasement begins in fear: fear of retribution, fear of being unloved or even just disliked, fear of discomfort. In desperation, fear gropes for justification, and finds the gamble that appeasement might succeed in placating the adversary and bringing peace.

Europe ("Old Europe" anyway) is afraid. It abandoned the way of the cross centuries ago (and in some aspects it never embraced it in the first place) and embarked instead on a project to construct peace through other means: compulsion, then tolerance, then liberation, then conquest, and now mere fraternity. It paid dearly for every failure, and now it faces failure again.

Its fellow travelers are afraid too, and some of them are in the Bush Administration. The last great experiment in internationalism was George H.W. Bush's post-Soviet "New World Order" in which the then-moribund UN would become the staging ground for decent states from both sides of the former Iron Curtain as well as the Third World would cooperate in policing each other. (Yes, I really think Bush 39's Wilsonian ideals and not just his pals' oil-industry interests were behind the effort.) Between history's failure to end with the fall of Communism and the nations' failure to drop their own interests and pursue American-led global democratic capitalism, that novus ordo seclorum was doomed. We all should have known. It was all so early 90's.

Maybe Colin Powell was the last to figure it out. His frustration is real, and he has my sympathies. He has worked harder than any other American to keep alive the promise of the early post-Cold War era, only to find out he was the pansy at the poker game. Now it's over. The post-post-Cold War era has begun.

Yet it is not resurgent local nationalisms or vestigial imperialisms or honest suspicions of U.S. motives that make the international convulsions of the last few months so remarkable. The actions of the weasels and protesters and human shields and UN delegates are more than just responsible dissent or rowdy minor-league rivalry against the United States. It is appeasement born of a fear too profound to be anything but pagan. It is a desperate attempt to placate the spirits of the status quo. It is a struggle to conjure protection against threats to the tenuous comfort and stability that have made secularistic existence bearable.

Europe no longer drinks from the Chalice, and so it is back to forging Cauldrons.

Just look at the faces and costumes and slogans of yesterday's marchers. They say it all. (Actually, they give real paganism a bad name.)

Worst of all, Christians are playing along! Mainline denominations who long ago surrendered to liberalism are now vesting their hopes in the god of 'peace' rather than the peace of Christ. Many of their functionaries are now basically indistinguishable from leaders of the sixties anti-war left. They have been assimilated, just as profoundly (but without the public furor) as sectors of the Christian right have been assimilated into American-led global demographic capitalism. And the Kingdom that faced down Herod and Pilate and forever defeated death and the grave seems farther away than ever.

(I have no idea how to interpret the meeting between the pope and Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister of a Ba'athist, secularist, fascist, corrupt, terrorist regime. A stern papal message would be welcome, but a handshake and photo-op hardly seems like a good sign.)

My friend Stanley Hauerwas became infamous in the blogosphere a year ago for commenting that a significant difference between Al-Qaeda and the west is that the west doesn't have anything worth dying for. His diagnosis is right, but overly broad. I think he is right about the American left (which, to be fair to him, dominates in his own United Methodist Church).

The American right and center are far readier to sacrifice American life – not just for prosperity (i.e., ooooiiiiillllll), but for self-defense (yes, some of them really think Ba'athist Iraq endangers American security), for others' lives and freedom (specifically the innocent Iraqi adults and children who suffer oppression and impoverishment), and for an Arab future beyond postcolonial tyranny and Islamist totalitarianism. Yes, there is fear here too, and arrogance, and a misplaced faith we Christians call idolatry; but there is a nobility I find utterly lacking in the appeasers and conjurers.

(In a way the American center-right is a lot more like its Islamist opponent. The two sides share some of the same virtues, and some of the same vices. The same can be said about the (now nearly extinct) old left. All are modern utopian ideologies. All are, in their own way, as inspiring as the craven fear of the new left is disgusting.)

What this week brought home to me is that the new left is not just "idiotarian". It does make sense, quite a lot of sense – once one backs away from a world in which God has triumphed over the powers and principalities and sees it as a pagan or animistic universe where the powers still dominate.

If Christian capitulation to the anti-war left or the pro-war right has been confusing you, then let me make something clear once again: Christian peace is not the new left at prayer. Nor is Christian spiritual warfare the American center-left during quiet-time. Nor is the Reign of God fundamentalism's Christian counterpart to Islamism. The Way is a radical alternative to all of these ideologies and their corresponding idolatries. It does not reduce to anything else.

If only we can get the leaders of our churches to stop worshiping false gods and following false messiahs and appreciate what it is they are supposed to stand for, maybe they will get out of Christ's way and help his missionaries dissolve the world's crippling fear once again, as Patrick did fifteen hundred years ago.

Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul.
As the preacher said at church today: The question is not whether there will be victory, but who will be among the victors. Have a joyful Lord's Day!

3:34 PM

February 7, 2003

Posting will be (and has been) light for a while. It's grading season again, and I have an especially busy week coming up.

It's been interesting to watch how Colin Powell's speech at the UN has been received. Those who (like me) were already convinced that 1441 needs to be enforced militarily if it will be enforced at all are more convinced than ever. Most of those who were convinced that war is inappropriate are still convinced, though their justifications seem more desperate than usual to the pro-war crowd. The fence-sitters are fewer (in America at least), and many more have jumped onto the pro-war side than onto the anti-war side.

Nevertheless, each group is still generally standing firm on its prior convictions.

Warbloggers are charging as usual that the anti-warriors are idiots, or at least idiotarians. I think that charge comes too easily. I had lunch with a colleague yesterday who has a poster mocking the Bush 43 administration's war effort, and asked him what he thought of Powell's speech. In reply he affirmed that Saddam is immoral, and troublesome, but also that he seemed pretty well contained regionally, and certainly incapable (and uninterested) in endangering Americans at home. War, he said, is not a necessity in order to contain the threat.

That isn't idiocy. It isn't idiotarianism. He isn't anti-American – or rather his suspicion of idolatrous American ideology seems no more fundamental than my own. Nevertheless, he and I fall on different sides of this particular fence. I generally trust Bush 43 to know what's in American interests here (though as a Christian pacifist I still think discples of Jesus are called to do things besides fight in the wars of nation-states). He doesn't.

The pro-war crowd, the anti-war crowd, and the undecideds interpret the same speech in different narrative worlds. While there is some convergence toward the pro-war case, our narrative differences – the forests of judgments we have already made about the United States and other nations – still profoundly influence our reception of the same information.

If there is one quality distinguishing our positions, it is trust.

Trust can be earned, and trust can be betrayed. Sometimes it comes and goes in an avalanche, but more often it comes and goes a little at a time. Each of us has many reasons for trusting and distrusting in the ways we do. Powell's speech earned enough trust to sway some undecideds and even some opponents of war over to his position. It certainly hardened the convictions of the already convinced. But some are so profoundly distrustful of this administration that they can't bring themselves even to believe the official they were praising only months before. Likewise, if war goes poorly, its evidence will work in the other direction, causing some (but not all) warriors to waver and some waverers to firmly join the ranks of the distrustful.

In the months since Camassia and I have been corresponding (both on and off the web), one of the most common causes of friction and misunderstanding has been our location in different camps of trust. When she asks a question or poses a problem, it comes out of a different narrative world. It arises in a different quality of trust.

In a sense her agnosticism is a gift. It can more easily spot weaknesses. These are not just imaginary problems or arbitrary contentiousness, but really need clarifying to believers as well as skeptics. Her insights have blessed me.

My faith is a gift too. It can more easily offer answers. This is not just rationalization, but really envisions solutions to the dilemmas.

The trouble is that I am not well equipped to appreciate all the reasons for her lack of trust, and she is not well equipped to appreciate all my reasons for trust.
Each of us faces enormous challenges in trying to understand each other. We do not live in one ideological world where the same information has the same significance.

Nonetheless, our ideological worlds are still related. Her issues mean something to me, and my answers mean something to her. (Not necessarily what each of us may have intended; but not something random or merely coincidental.)

Dialogue is not as easy as modernistic absolutists would like to believe. Nor is it impossible, as modernistic relativists would like to believe. It is messy, frustrating, inefficient – and incredibly rewarding. For the people who invest in dialogue, who really invest rather than just speaking past each other or remaining at the level of shallow "agreement", have achieved awareness of a whole different mindset and done the hard work of bringing awareness of their own to people who could not understand it before.

Powell and his boss have neither the time, the ability, nor the interests to do this for their hardest critics. They will be satisfied to win over enough fence-sitters and loosen up enough opposition to firm up the political case for what they are already convinced is the right thing to do. Christian witness is another matter. We don't just find the 'lost sheep' who are easy to find, standing five feet away and facing the fence. We go out, because our Lord went out for us. We search and search, because Jesus assured us that his good news would go out to every tribe and tongue and nation, every camp of varying trust, until the mission reaches its promised success.

Sometimes when Christians lose our patience we fall back on the notion of election to explain the failure of our efforts:

And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables. And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God,but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven" (Mark 4:10-12 quoting Isa. 6:9-10).
In circles where election is theologically incorrect, this takes a different form: "You just have to have faith!" But it comes down to the same argument: Either you get it, or you don't.

Now in a way this is an appropriate appeal. Yet in the way it is often used it is merely a cop-out. It is true that to be outside the community of discernment is to be unable to hear the good news for what it is. Moreover, many are coming from such hardened narratives of differently placed trust that no testimony will be persuasive, not even with PowerPoint and satellite photos and transcripts of intercepted communications. Furthermore, when these opponents (like the opponents of Jesus' day) are actively working against the success of that good news, it is wiser to couch the message in a form that will be received by those who will receive it best, but go over the heads of those who aren't ready to hear it anyway. It's better not to make every argument one possibly can if one already knows that even the best arguments cannot yet be appreciated.

It is also right that "having ears to hear" is something like being chosen. It puts one within range of the message, and therefore in its intended audience.

But it does not follow that outsiders must always be outsiders, or that insiders get it right from the beginning. The disciples that hear these Markan parables fail to understand them! The only one who sees Jesus' innocence is a centurion who is participating in his execution! Yesterday's enemies are tomorrow's fellow workers!

Not to understand is not to understand yet. The same gospel once encoded only for insiders is soon preached to all nations (Mark 13:10). Many will understand who cannot yet understand. The messianic secret is a messianic strategy not for keeping a world out, but for bringing a world in. Copping out by pleading 'election' is a failure to understand election. (Lesslie Newbigin has a lot more to say about his if you are interested. Take a look at The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and The Open Secret.)

Yet ultimately the messianic strategy is not judicious target marketing; it is judicious targeting. Even those who initially side with Jesus fall away when things go poorly in Jerusalem (Mark 14-15). When one really understands the cross, no argument is eloquent enough to make it attractive. Human beings have built up an arsenal of mistrust in God's ways. Even when we have not stopped calling on God, we have often crafted his image after our own expectations. So to earn the trust of an untrusting world, Jesus has to do more than plead his case. He must offer something else entirely – the presence and proclamation of his own risen self – to create a community of lasting trust (Mark 16).

This is what starts the avalanche that turns skepticism into faith. Nothing else but this.

Keep objecting, Camassia. Keep responding, class. Keep investigating, skeptics. God hasn't given up on you, because God hasn't given up on anyone. There is just a lot of work to do. We witnesses really appreciate your patience, and we will do our best to respond in helpful ways to your precious insights and observations.

Just keep in mind that the answer that finally changes your mind might not be for the question you were asking.

Shabbat shalom.

2:59 PM


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