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!