Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Rousseau on Christianity, the State, and War

From "The Social Contract:"

"But I am mistaken in speaking of a Christian republic; the terms are mutually exclusive. Christianity preaches only servitude and dependence. Its spirit is so favourable to tyranny that it always profits by such a régime. True Christians are made to be slaves, and they know it and do not much mind: this short life counts for too little in their eyes.

"I shall be told that Christian troops are excellent. I deny it. Show me an instance. For my part, I know of no Christian troops. I shall be told of the Crusades. Without disputing the valour of the Crusaders, I answer that, so far from being Christians, they were the priests' soldiery, citizens of the Church. They fought for their spiritual country, which the Church had, somehow or other, made temporal. Well understood, this goes back to paganism: as the Gospel sets up no national religion, a holy war is impossible among Christians."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Fear and Politics

Any survey of American political discourse will quickly how widespread and powerful fear is as a motivation. An enemy is identified( a nation, ideology, statistic, legislative bill, etc.) and people are taught to fear this enemy because it threatens an accepted common good (democracy, freedom, the elderly, world peace, life as we know it, etc.). Once a fear is created, politicians try as hard as they can to attach their opponents to to that fear.

In health care we either fear "death panels," socialism, and the loss of individual autonomy, or we fear insurance companies that exploit the little guy. In environmentalism we either fear no less than the end of the world or the collapse of the economy. In national security, we fear Islam/terrorism/Osama bin Ladin, fascism, and nuclear weapons. In nominees for the Supreme Court, we either fear the overturn of Roe v. Wade or activists judges who will publicly burn the Constitution. In economic debate, we fear losing our jobs - especially to foreigners. On ethical issues, we either fear the moral and religious decline of Western Civilization or we fear a rebirth of Nazism (a point recently made on an episode of "Family Guy").

Whether left or right, the trend is the same: people are manipulated into fearing the opponent as the harbinger of the apocalypse in order to win an election (see also: "Daisy") or pass legislation. If people fear that an accepted common good of society is threatened, they will fight tooth and nail to preserve their way of life. Each policy and politician promises they they can assuage our fears, while simultaneously provoking them. In the end, such promises are found to be empty as one fear gives way to a new fear.

Consequently, within Christianity it is right to debate how we understand the common good (Does the Bible affirm our values of individual autonomy, freedom, or inalienable rights? What does the Bible say about creation and the environment? etc.) It is right to debate the various means by which those goals are to be accomplished. But it seems to me that all use of fear as a motivational tool is directly contrary to the heart of the Gospel and thoroughly un-Christian.

As I understand it, Christianity is vehemently opposed to fear. In fact, Christianity is the true solution to fear. While the fearful "turn or burn" sermon never seems go away, it is not the good news of Jesus. As St. Paul says "you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!'" (Romans 8:15). Or as St. John says, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because He first loved us" (1 John 4:18). Since we have now peace with the Father we have nothing to fear. Since we are loved unconditionally by God, we are free from the fear that drives political discourse and can live (and vote) confidently in love.

Green Day - 21 Guns and the Gospel

Do you know what's worth fighting for,
When it's not worth dying for?
Does it take your breath away
And you feel yourself suffocating?
Does the pain weigh out the pride?
And you look for a place to hide?
Did someone break your heart inside? You're in ruins

One, 21 guns,
Lay down your arms, Give up the fight
One, 21 guns
Throw up your arms into the sky,
You and I

When you're at the end of the road
And you lost all sense of control
And your thoughts have taken their toll
When your mind breaks the spirit of your soul
Your faith walks on broken glass
And the hangover doesn't pass
Nothing's ever built to last, You're in ruins (Chorus)

Did you try to live on your own
When you burned down the house and home?
Did you stand too close to the fire?
Like a liar looking for forgiveness from a stone

When it's time to live and let die
And you can't get another try
Something inside this heart has died, You're in ruins (Chorus)

At first glance, such a song seems to be quite opposed to Christianity. Those who look for forgiveness (a crucial tenant of Christianity) are called liars. Yet on a more basic level, Green Day speaks honestly of what it means to be truly human and in doing so has coincidentally struck to the core of Christianity.

First, those who live by their own strength do not find life, but death and destruction ("Did you try to live on your when you burned down the house and home?"). Autonomy is a false hope, as St. Paul says, "For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out" (Romans 7:18). Or as Jesus said, "Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). Within the album as a whole, it could be said that the wreckage of Christian's life is cause by his struggle for independence.

And more clearly, Green Day sees death and inaction as the birth to love. The verses describe a life that is marked by disappointment, loss, and despair. And yet in the ruins of life Armstrong does not advocate trying harder and pressing on, but giving up the fight and dying -- "one, twenty-one guns, throw up your arms, give up the fight"). Such a passivity in face of death is the confession: "There is no health in us." This does not breed more despair but love -- "one, twenty-one guns, throw up your arms into the sky - you and I." In death, one passively finds love.

Similarly, Christianity understands humanity as caught within the matrix of death as produced by sin and its servant, the law (1 Cor. 15:56). In the face of death, the solution is not to fix what is wrong (self-help, etc.) or find comfort in the supposed pleasures of life (fantasy football, iphone apps, a good book, being nice etc.) -- all of which are projects of self-justification. Instead of fighting death, we passively accept death as the just penalty we deserve. Paradoxically, this confession is the birth of faith and love because of Christ's death and resurrection. As St. Paul says, "through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:19-20).

Friday, August 7, 2009

So You Want to Read Rudolf Bultmann?

The following is a list of readings by Rudolf Bultmann that serves as an introduction to his theology...

1. "This World and Beyond: Marburg Sermons" - The sermon is the heartbeat of Bultmann's theology. In this book you will find a pastoral introduction to his understanding of the kerygma, as well as prime example of demythologizing put into practice.

2. "Primitive Christianity in its Contemporary Setting" - Written later on in Bultmann's Career, this was meant for non-theologians as a comprehensive introduction to his scholarly work.

3. "Essays Philosophical and Theological" - This is a collection of essays that includes the MUST reads: "Christ as the End of the Law" is an expounding of the doctrine of Justification and its relation to the law. "The Question of Natural Revelation" is one of the few articles that clearly demonstrates Bultmann's high view of Revelation. "The Significance of Jewish Old Testament Tradition for the Christian West" explains Bultmann's understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Finally "Grace and Freedom" articulates Bultmann's ethic.

4. "The Theology of Rudolph Bultmann" - While not technically written by Bultmann, this is an invaluable resource is a book edited by Charles Kegley. This book boasts articles by Bultmann's students summarizing and critiquing their former teacher. But the gem of this book is found in the final 20 pages or so when Bultmann responds to each of his pupils' criticisms!

5. "Existence and Faith." specifically the essay "Jesus and Paul" - Written in the 1930's after the publication of his two books on Jesus, this essay is meant as a corrective to a misinterpretation of his earlier work by demonstrating the similarity between Jesus and Paul. "A New Approach to the Synoptic Problem" summarizes Bultmann's understanding of Form Criticism. "Paul" sketches the theology and history of the apostle. "The Historicity of Man and Faith" provides and extended discussion on the relationship between philosophy (read: Heidegger) and theology.

6. The two volumes of his "Theology of the New Testament" are Bultmann's crowning achievement. Published just before and after his retirement, they represent Bultmann's complete exegetical work. Volume One is by far much better, as it focuses on Pauline Theology, while Volume Two explores the theology of John.

7. "New Testament and Theology" - features a lecture given by Bultmann that explains his famous demythologizing program. Though a great introduction, true understanding of Bultmann's position must read the Kegley book above and Bultmann's response to John Macquarrie.

8. "Commentary on the Gospel of John"... Widely considered one of the best commentaries in the 20th Century. This demonstrates more specifically the results of form criticism and an existential hermeneutic as applied to John.

9. Finally, "Karl Barth- Rudolf Bultmann Letters: 1922-1966." A fascinating study on the relationship between Barth and Bultmann provides a clear sense of the history of the dialectical theology movement.

NOTE: I have not included "History of the Synoptic Tradition," Bultmann's seminal form critical work on Jesus. This is not due to theological issues, but rather due to the lack of a good translation available. Bultmann's updates in edition two are all place at the end of the book without in-page references!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Identity and clothing?

I recently read this article from the NY Times describing recent changes to the laws of Riviera Beach, FL banning low-rise pants that "reveal skin or underwear." It seems to me that the entire process is marked by absurdity on all fronts.

It is absurd that a town would feel it necessary to write a law banning how one wears their clothing. The question is, why outlaw low rise pants? Are they sexually suggestive? Do such pants frequently fall down? Are the pants offensive? .... But the real question is, why stop there? Why not ban short shorts, low cut shirts, tank tops, baggy pants, flip-flops and all such offensive clothing? Why not write a law mandating uniforms? No matter how one slices it, any such laws concerning clothing are culturally bound and therefore arbitrary (the article suggests it might be racist as well). In the not so distant past it would have been considered scandalous for a woman to wear pants.

It is equally absurd that the men charged with the absurd crime vehemently argue that their clothing is an expression of their identity. In the same way that laws prohibiting low-rise pants are bound by arbitrary folkways, so too are norms for what is fashionable.

Is it truly possible to wear clothing that is able to express the depths of who you are? If I wear jeans, does it say that I'm uncaring casual, or sloppy, or nothing at all? If I wear a novelty T-shirt with a joke on it, does that make me a funny person? To what extent is one's fashion really the product of their individuality? The absurdity of it all makes me think of this quote from the movie "The Devil Wears Prada":

"You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff. "

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday/Easter according to Jon Foreman of Switchfoot...

It takes a long time to kill a man
Fifty-five years at least
Until he breaks down
Starts to look underground
And go off and get him some peace

I want to die a lot quicker than that
If it's my only way out
I've been counting up the cost
Getting up on that cross
Wanna know what this is all about

Father time Steals our days Like a thief
There's no Price That I wouldn't pay To get some relief
I've become The empy shell
Of a man I like so well
I am a living, breathing hell
Come on and resurrect me

I tried to drown the pain with a friend of mine
It didn't seem to help
Oh, she's got a pretty face with a wedding lace
But I'm still waking up with myself

I know what it means to choke it down
Driving 'til your legs get weak
I know what it's like on a Saturday night
To be alone in a crowded street

Father time Steals our days Like a thief
There's no Price That I haven't paid To get some relief
I've become The shell of a man
I can't begin to even understand
Have I forgotten who I am?
Come on and resurrect me...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

For my Safety??

Recently, my town installed a large decorative fountain in the local park in an effort to spruce up the neighborhood. About a week after the fountain was built, this sign appeared next to the fountain.

I believe this sign is a strikingly honest reflection of the nature of the law. The law presents itself to me under the guise of safety ("Please keep off the fountain"). The law says that I would be happier and less stressed if I were to follow it. I would be a better person, I would no longer have any strained relationships, I would have career success, etc. The law says it's simply looking out for me.

But beneath this veneer of charity always lies the curse of conditionality ("Violators will be prosecuted"). Were I to falter in any way, were I to violate the simple statutes in place for my benefit, then I cannot expect to get off with a warning. No, transgression of the law demands prosecution.

The same thing is true when one offer a simple suggestion or piece of advice to a friend. It may be that such advice is told to them for their own good. That new girlfriend may be totally wrong for him, that tie may not go with his shirt and that college may be worst place she can go. But when one's advice is not followed, anger, indifference, passive-aggressive manipulation, or the self-righteous “I told you so” will always follow.

All this demonstrates that what seems to be given for my good (advice) only leads to destruction. Or as St. Paul says: "for if a law had been given which could make alive , then righteousness would indeed be by the law" (Galatians 3:21).

Monday, February 16, 2009

Guitar Praise for Kids!

Reformed writer Doug Wilson once said, "Whatever the world can do, we can do five years later and not as well." It seems that the Christian sub-culture is always trying to mimic secular pop-culture.

When the Bosstones were popular, American Evangelical Christianity offered the Supertones. When Disney's "Remember the Titans" was popular, evangelical Cheesianity offered "Facing the Giants." Instead of Bon Jovi, try Stryper... (A full comparison list can be found here)

Now, it seems instead of "Rock Band" or "Guitar Hero" I introduce to you....

It's not that I'm against Christian art (so long as it's good...), but much of Christian art exists as an alternative to secular art. As one reviewer of "Guitar Praise" wrote, "This was the game I wanted my kids to have, since I gave their guitar hero away." All such attempts are marked by by self-contradiction: in attempting to isolate oneself from secular culture by providing a Christian alternative one is still influence by secular culture.

More importantly, the creation of a Christian sub-culture as insulation from secular culture is founded upon a high anthropology. It says that moral problems happen because of all the "bad influences" of secular society. So if one can eliminate the bad influences, then life would be fine. Yet Jesus said that "nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.' (Mark 7:15)" Society is not a scapegoat for one's problems.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Interesting Lyrics

This is from a favorite band of mine for years now. They're an austrailian punk band called "The Living End"...

I may not believe in God,
It doesn't mean I'm a lesser person.
I still have a heart,
And I know what it feels like to be broken.

I may not believe in Jesus,
But I believe in sacrifice.
Life doesn't always stand a reason,
And no one ever gets a chance to live it twice.

But I'd rather risk my fate,
Than to lose my faith,
In the lovin', the hatin',
The constant debatin',
The chaos, the calm.
Raise the alarm.

The living that die,
The constant deny,
The chaos, the calm.
Raise the alarm.

I may not believe in regrets,
But I believe in salvation.
Some things I'd rather forget.
We choose what we see, And we see what we choose to believe.

In the name of the father, The son, and the holy ghost.
I'm not concerned with religion,
After all it's what's inside that matters most.

But I'd rather risk my fate,
Than to lose my faith,
In the lovin', the hatin',
The constant debatin',
The chaos, the calm.
Raise the alarm.

The living that die,
The constant deny,
The chaos, the calm.
Raise the alarm.

Two things jump out at me from this:
1- Though he does not believe in a God, he still wrestles with his existential angst born out of his brokenness and past. It is from this angst that he hopes for and believes in salvation, sacrifice, etc.

2- The chorus characterizes his understanding of religion. For him faith is good, while religion is marked by an oscillation between the extremes of chaos, calm, love, hate- all marked by recidivist debate and denial. I, for one, agree with him on this point. Religion is an awful thing, yet Christianity at its core is not religion per se, but it is a message of forgiveness and peace.

the past...

A few weeks ago my parents moved from the house I grew up in to a smaller apartment in New York. And through the bustle of a family Christmas amid boxes and paper plates I was given several boxes full of my old things to look through and keep/throw away. The boxes were an accumulation of mementos dating back from before I can remember. As I read the yearbook notes and birthday cards and as I looked through all the old pictures I was filled with conflicting emotions as I relived what seemed to be my entire life.

I was specifically struck by how much my past still simmers beneath my consciousness, so easily stirred by a single photograph.

While I had many favorable memories stored in all those boxes, I also had many more memories that I wished could be left behind. Memories that I know I still carry with me and affect how I live today. The specter of past sorrows, embarrassments, and fears still echo today. Or as the Allman Brothers say, "What's done is done, ... and now I'm runnin' from a man with a gun"

It seems we always carry our pasts with us. In psychologist Clotaire Rapaille's book, The Culture Code, he postulates that people make their present decisions strictly based upon their past experiences. He says, "The combination of the experience and its accompanying emotion create something known widely (and coined as such by Konrad Lorenz) as an imprint. Once an imprint occurs, it strongly conditions our thought processes and shapes our future actions. Each imprint helps make us more of who we are. The combination of these imprints defines us."

Said another way, while each new day seems to offer an infinite number of possibilities, even the possibilities themselves are limited by past decisions and experiences. One's career, family, medical history, etc. all influence the number and amount of possibilities available. Even worse, the very decisions that I make now are, according to Rapaille, influenced by a past that is ever-present with me. My genetic make-up, social conditioning, family history all seem to dictate my eventual course of action. Though I wish I could simply "put the past away" (Third Eye Blind), I am never truly free from my past - I am bound by it!

One may (and should) ask: is it possible for one to be rid of their past and live in freedom? It is really possible to begin again? Can the "old man" die and be reborn as a genuine new creation?

This radical freedom from the past is only available by the grace of God through the forgiveness of sin. In faith the past and its folly is taken away as far as the East is from the West. When I'm loved as if that history never happened, then that past is gone. When I'm loved in the midst of the brokenness of the past, then I am given true freedom.

Friday, January 9, 2009

losing everything...

Yesterday I saw an article in BBC news reported that Adolf Merckle, a 74 year-old German billionaire, took his own life after losing over 600 million dollars last year alone. It seems that he lost everything he held dear: power, prestige, influence, the high regard of peers, etc. In losing everything, he despaired to the point that his own death seemed like the best option. With the US losing over half million jobs last month alone (raising the unemployment rate to a staggering 7.2%) I've been wondering a lot about the meaning of loss.

This brings me to the paradox found in Jesus' teachings when he says: "Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life will gain it." This phrase occurs 4 times in the synoptic gospels and once in John. It seems to be central to Jesus' teaching. It should be said that he is not talking about martyrdom, or death as a consequence of a noble war. He is instead talking about the death of the self and the loss of all that one holds dear. This is explicitly found in the parable of the seed of grain when Jesus says, "unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds."

One must beg the question, how is life to be found by losing it?

In losing our power, prestige, influence, celebrity, etc. we lose everything that has meaning to us. We lose all the devices that we've constructed as substitutes for God so that all we have left is God. As St. Paul said, "Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (II Cor. 1:9)"

When we have nothing left to hold on to, we find God. This is not some God of fanciful dreams, but rather is a God who himself lost everything for our sake. Death and loss is not a sinking into nothingness, but God is one who meets us in our death.