The Bankrupt Politics of ‘Again’ (& Why I Voted in the 2020 US Election)

‘Make America Great Again’. While this slogan has become synonymous with the political rise of Donald Trump, he is not the first to have used it. During the Third Session of the 76th United States Congress (1940), Republican Senator Alexander Wiley (1884-1967) said it in a speech. It featured in some campaign materials for the 1964 presidential campaign of Republican Barry Goldwater (1909-1998). In his 1980 campaign for president, Republican Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) used the phrase, ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’.

This slogan has not been limited to Republican use. In his 1992 presidential campaign, Democrat Bill Clinton used the phrase in several speeches and reiterated the phrase during Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

When I think of the politics of ‘again’, I am compelled to reflect on its meaning. If someone is proposing to make America great again, the question arises, ‘When was America great?’

When considering America’s historical greatness, a return to the ‘Founding Fathers’ has become a conservative rally cry. If we are going with the Founding Fathers, we might ask, ‘Who were these people?’ For a start, as the name implies, they were all men. Additionally, they were all white men. Oh, and they were all Protestant (or at least, non-Catholic) white men. Also, they were all Protestant white men from the upper echelons of society.

According to notable American historian Richard B. Morris (1904-1989), the most significant and influential of these white Protestant upper-class men were John Adams (1735-1826), Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Alexander Hamilton (c. 1755-1804) John Jay (1745-1829), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), James Madison (1751-1836) and George Washington (1732-1799).[1] Of these seven men, five owned enslaved people at various points. Of those five, Franklin’s views tended toward abolitionism by the mid-1760s. In later life, Washington also expressed unease with the institution of slavery. Jay and Madison were owners of enslaved people and Jefferson was perhaps the chief slaver among the Founding Fathers, owning more than 600 enslaved people throughout his lifetime.


A brief aside on the United States Constitution: In short, the United States Constitution is an oddity. Brilliant and revolutionary as it might have been when it came into force in 1789, it is very much a document of the late eighteenth century, warts and all. The opening words, ‘We the people…’ Of course, this really means ‘We the white men…’ The United States Constitution is the oldest national constitution still in use. Some might see that as evidence of its strength. Some might argue that subsequent amendments have made up for any of its weaknesses. A look at the 27 amendments that have been passed by congress and ratified by the requisite number of states demonstrates how insufficient this procedure is. Between 1971, with the passage of the 26th Amendment (‘The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age’) and the present day, only one other amendment has passed. The 27th Amendment (ratified in 1992) states simply, ‘No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened.’ The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was passed by Congress by 1972 and sent to states for ratification. This amendment includes the following three sections:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Sec. 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Sec. 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

Although the requisite number of states (38) approved the ERA in January 2020, two deadlines had already passed (1979 and 1982) and the amendment now resides in legal Limbo. Has society changed so little since 1971 that the 27th Amendment has been the only revision suitable for ratification? Maybe the whole project of the United States Constitution requires a revisit…


In the decades between the founding of the United States and the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), political stances concerning the institution of slavery depended largely on economic interests and not on genuine regard for equality. Of course, there were small groups of passionate abolitionists, especially among communities of Quakers. For their part, both Adams and Hamilton abhorred slavery. But it can be argued that the abolitionism of many (if not most) Northern politicians was fuelled by the desire to weaken the power of the Southern states, whose economies depended on the labour of enslaved people.

There seems to be a common myth among conservatives (especially among Confederate sympathisers) that the Civil War was about the rights of states. While this may have some truth, the primary ‘right’ for which the Southern states fought was the ‘right’ to own other human beings. There is no getting around this reality. I argue that the political tensions between the North and the South leading up to the Civil War were, by and large, issues concerning economics and power and at the heart of that, the institution of slavery. I would have to spend hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of words outlining these tensions, but I will just point to the Three-Fifths Compromise (1787) and Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) for now. And I have not even mentioned the horrific treatment of Amerindians.

So can we argue that America was great when it was founded? If you are a Protestant white man with economic power, then yes. It is possible that these would have been great times for you.

Still, there are others who wish to show some sensitivity, awareness or at least, nuance and will argue that America was great after the Civil War. Of course, this ‘greatness’ would only be experienced by a select few, namely, white men. It was not until 1870 that black men were given the right to vote. This is not to say that black men were able to vote. Voter suppression has a long and successful history in the United States. This does not even begin to scratch the surface the institutional oppression of people of colour and of women in the United States (de facto institutional segregation endures today). If you, like Donald Trump, Mike Pence, et al, believe that institutional racism in the United States does not exist, consider yourself very fortunate – you have not experienced that reality. But simply because you do not believe that to be born as a person of colour does not place one at a significant disadvantage does not dismiss this reality for tens of millions of residents of the United States. Maybe it would be enlightening to listen to their stories.

What if we fast-forward to passage of the 19th Amendment (1920)? This gave women the right to vote in the United States. Well, not all women. This was a better time for white women. It was not until the landmark Voting Rights Act (1965) that voting became universal, in theory. Believe it or not, voter suppression continues to this day. It is even touted by the Executive Branch of the US Government: if the Trump Administration is harping on about ‘widespread voter fraud’ concerning to mail-in ballots (a proven myth), why have both Donald Trump and Mike Pence encouraged their followers to turn up at polling stations (where people vote in-person) to intimidate voters?

So when was America great? This seems to be where reasonable discussion really starts to break down. There are plenty of other key political moments before which one might call the greatness of America into question. I am thinking of things like the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973), granting women the right to choose what to do with their bodies and of the long road to the legalisation of same-sex marriage. The issues of women’s rights and the rights of queer people seem to be split right down party lines between the Democrats and the Republicans.

For those who want to ‘make America great again’, is America less great when individuals are afforded the rights to choose what they want to do with their own bodies and the freedom to embrace who they are? Perhaps you are a staunch feminist (one who believes that all genders should have equal rights in society) who also believes that a foetus is a living human being and should be afforded all the rights of a human being. I can understand that perspective. That being said, there is nothing in the legalisation of abortion that forces anyone to undergo that traumatising experience against their will. Perhaps if American society cared for people after birth (for example, through proper social and health care), the abortion figures would change. Of course, I am trying to be as sympathetic to the anti-abortion lobby as possible here since I can comprehend some of the philosophical tensions that can come into play. Still, part of me fears that the issue of abortion in the United States is more tied to fanatical patriarchy (which has hijacked religion) than genuine philosophical reflection.

So you want to make America great again? When was America great? I am of the belief that there has never been a time in American history when more human rights and freedoms (I am assuming that this is a suitable measure of ‘greatness’) have been exercised than in this last decade. This is not to say that America is ‘great’ in the present. I will explain what I mean by this in a moment.

When I think of the politics of ‘again’, I cannot help but believe that anyone who holds to the notion that the United States was once a ‘greater’ nation than it has been in this last decade has not lived with true, institutional oppression.

I know that Donald Trump has some supporters who are people of colour, who are women, who are working class. One way I believe that he and others like him pander to lower class people is through accusing other oppressed people groups of inflicting this oppression. Are you a white, American-born man living in relative poverty? Why not blame this on the immigrants who come into the country to ‘steal your jobs’? (This is not even close to the worst things of which Donald Trump has accused immigrants.) Donald Trump and people like him thrive off of blaming others for society’s shortcomings. Perhaps it is not the immigrants who inflict damage to society (speaking economically, it is a fact that immigrants give far more to society than they take). Perhaps we should turn our gaze toward the powerful who have reaped unimaginable riches from the misfortune of others. What about those financiers who grew more wealthy as the housing market collapsed in 2008, forcing more than 2,000,000 foreclosures? What about the more recent example of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose wealth has increased by more than $74 billion while American unemployment has skyrocketed? Neo-liberal capitalistic ideals propagate the myth that if one works hard one will receive just compensation – the ‘American Dream’. In reality, individual economic prosperity is more often the result of the circumstances of one’s birth or of random chance. While this lottery plays out, the gap between the wealthy and the poor in the United States continues to increase.

Now I shall explain what I mean by suggesting that America might not be ‘great’ at present through an brief exploration of my personal faith and how it relates to my political views.

Some people suggest that faith and politics should not mix. While I am in favour of the strict separation of Church and State, this is not because I do believe that faith has nothing to say to politics. On the contrary, one of my theological heroes, Uruguayan Jesuit priest and theologian Juan Luis Segundo (1925-1996) argues that the two are bound together:

Every theology is political, even one that does not speak or think in political terms. The influence of politics on theology and every other cultural sphere cannot be evaded any more than the influence of theology on politics and other spheres of human thinking. The worst politics of all would be to let theology perform this function unconsciously, for that brand of politics is always bound up with the status quo.[2]

By ‘theology’, Segundo is referring to the study of the divine – of God and of religion. The issue he has with the ‘status quo’ involves ideology. The status quo is the way things are, the state of affairs. In order to accept the way things are (or indeed, to hope for the way things were), one’s faith has to cohere with the ideologies of the present. For example, my faith compels me to desire equality among all human beings. Where I see inequality, such as racial, gender or sexual inequality, I am compelled to challenge the status quo.

In essence, this comes down to the person of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. I think of the writings of German philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977). Although an adherent to the Marxism of the Frankfurt School, Bloch took it upon himself to revisit the Bible. In his studies, he did not find the ‘opium of the people’ (‘das Opium des Volkes’) observed by Marx in the Christian religion. While it is an established historical fact that the Christian faith had evolved from its primitive state to adopt an institutional hierarchy (the institution against which Marx railed), Bloch finds within the Bible a Christianity that speaks for the oppressed against the status quo. For Bloch, this Christianity is one of atheism, that is, one in which the ideologies of power are challenged for the flourishing of the oppressed. In his 1968 book, Atheismus im Christentum (published in English as Atheism in Christianity in 1972), Bloch makes this case and concludes that, upon analysing the Christian Bible, the reputed motto inscribed on sixteenth-century German peasant leader, Florian Geyer’s sword—‘Nulla crux, nulla corona’, ‘No cross, no crown’—‘could be the motto of a Christianity free, at last, from alienation. And the far-reaching, inexhaustible depths of emancipation in those words could also serve as a motto for a Marxism aware of its depths.’[3]

In a similar way, I see my faith as one of committed and persistent challenge to the status quo. I turn to Jesus. From his birth to his resurrection, he is the living embodiment of what Søren Kierkegaard calls ‘the Offense’. While being the ‘God-Man’, Jesus is perceived by onlookers ‘as a mere human individual who comes into collision with the established order.’[4] He is a living contradiction to those who have most to lose through his existence.

Jesus’ genealogy as recorded in the Gospel of St Matthew (Matthew 1.1-16) mentions five women (an oddity at that time): Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. Each one of these women would have been viewed with sexual suspicion, especially in the patriarchal, honour and shame culture of Palestine during the first century. Tamar disguised herself as a sex worker to sleep with her father-in-law (Judah). Rahab was understood to have been a sex worker by trade. Ruth was understood to have entered the bed of a man (Boaz) who was not her husband. Bathsheba fell pregnant with one man (David) while she was still married to another (Uriah). Then there is Mary, who conceived before she was married (Matthew 1.18).

From there, Jesus’ life only grows in offense to the status quo. John the Baptist preceded Jesus, preaching a radical message of the coming Messiah and the kingdom of God. But Jesus’ ministry modelled a Messiah that most religious leaders (including John the Baptist) struggled to accept. German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann argues that ‘the appearance and activity of Jesus was a novelty which was bound to arouse resistance.’[5]

Throughout his life and ministry as recorded in the Gospels, Jesus makes speeches and performs actions that outrage the powerful continually. The incident of his cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 21.12-17; Mark 11.15-19; Luke 19.45-48; John 2.13-16) is one of the most well-known. Moltmann observes Jesus’ subversion against the national symbols of Israel and argues that ‘in view of the whole of his scandalous message’ it is the condemnation of Jesus as a ‘“blasphemer”, as a demagogic false Messiah’ that ultimately precipitates his execution.[6]


A brief aside on the crucifixion event: It is a common understanding among at least the Evangelical Christian sect that Jesus was crucified because that was God’s plan to save those who choose to believe in Christ from eternal conscious punishment (Hell). I have issues with seeing God’s ‘plan’ in this way. I also have issues with assuming that belief is a choice (the letter to the Church in Asia Minor, known as Ephesians, describes faith as a ‘gift’). At this stage, I will not get too wrapped up exploring my understanding of the nature of belief or of how seeing belief as a choice is actually a form of ‘earning’ the grace of God – perhaps another time. Elsewhere, my blog-mate Greg has explored at least one alternative to the belief in ‘eternal conscious punishment’. For my part—please do not let this put you, dear reader, off—I believe that the grace and love of God is so enormous that the inheritance of the kingdom of God is for all of us dirty sinners. What I really want to say here is that Jesus was crucified because he opposed the powerful. The build-up to his crucifixion is observed throughout the Gospels. Jesus says or does something, the powerful are offended and seek to have him killed. It happens again and again until, at last, they stir up a crowd in a murderous fervour and appeal to their Roman enemy—another insecure power broker—to send him to the cross. Food for thought.


And yet, Jesus’ subversive work did not end with his crucifixion. His next great affront to the status quo, according to the Gospels, was to subvert death itself through his resurrection.

Please trust me when I express that I could spend a lifetime exploring the profound political implications found in every aspect of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. If you are interested in testing this for yourself, I encourage you to give the Gospels a read (or a re-read with fresh eyes).

The early Christians were similarly revolutionary. They sold all of their possessions and ‘had all things in common’ (Acts 2.44). Their existence promoted equality among all people: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3.28). Their faith was so disruptive to the status quo of the Roman Empire that they became enemies of the State. Their very existence was seen as a threat to the security of the Roman Empire – the preservation of their Roman ‘way of life’ (including patriarchy and its corresponding institutional slavery and sexism). They were forced to gather in secret and faced imprisonment, torture and death for their counter-cultural faith.

The issue of faith and politics, in a superficial and highly problematic sense, seems to appeal to the ‘Make America Great Again’ crowd. I have heard it said that ‘America is a Christian nation’ or ‘America used to be a Christian nation’. These views have been expressed by Donald Trump in one form or another. I have several serious concerns regarding this characterisation because of its association of Christianity with the status quo (whether presently or historically). I do not believe that any country can be called a ‘Christian nation’ as I do not believe that Christianity is bound to any human institution (Christendom ≠ Christianity). I believe that Christianity exists to make the kingdom of God a reality for the flourishing of all people and no amount of legislation can make that happen. In other words, no individual, no society, no institution, no government is so perfect that it evades serious, foundational challenge from the Gospel of Christ. This is not to say that individuals, societies, institutions and governments cannot reach for the ideals of the kingdom of God. But this ideal will never be achieved so long as people are governed by insecurity, selfishness and a lust for power and wealth.

Therefore, I believe that the ‘Christian position’ (if such a thing can exist) is one of perpetual opposition. This is not opposition to reason, justice, equity, sound science, etc. Instead, the Christian position reads the ‘signs of the times’ and, through critical reflection, considers how the Gospel of Christ speaks to the present. The Christian position is one that looks at the bodies of murdered people of colour and shouts, ‘Never again!’ The Christian position is one that looks at mass incarceration and shouts, ‘No more!’ The Christian position looks at extravagant wealth in the midst of obscene poverty and shouts, ‘Not on our watch!’ The Christian position looks at the exploitation of the natural world—God’s world—and shouts, ‘We must all change how we live!’ The Christian position is glad to share. The Christian position does put any one nation ‘first’. The Christian position is desperate for the liberation of all humans from every form of oppression. The Christian position is not afraid of being challenged, of growing, of evolving, because it is self-consciously aware of its own shortcomings, its own inability to get everything right. The Christian position is a perpetual student and servant of the oppressed. The more I expound this ‘Christian position’ the more I see St Paul’s words from his first letter to the Church in Corinth:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.[7]

The Christian position is embodied in the person of Christ, the broken, subversive, oppositional Saviour, the Jesus of Nazareth who is the name of love.

Among people in the United States who wish to discredit my political beliefs, I have often heard, ‘You don’t know – you don’t live here.’ The latter part of that statement is true. I have not resided in the United States for over a decade. Some argue that this puts me at a serious disadvantage with regard to meaningful engagement with the political discourse in the United States. While I cannot discount the possibility that I might not have first-hand knowledge of some contemporary experiences, I did spend the majority of my life in the United States. Although my views have continued to grow and change over the years (thanks be to God), some of my most enduring beliefs took root while I was very much a resident of the United States. Additionally, I believe that as someone who has lived outside of the United States for more than a decade, I have reasonable experience of life elsewhere. I believe that this has broadened my perspective. This is not to say that I believe things are all honky dory where I live now. My oppositional views are not reserved for the United States. I can see both positives and negatives in my adopted country.

On the most basic level, when criticised for living elsewhere, I reiterate that I am a citizen of the United States and I have every right of a citizen of the United States, including the right and civic duty to vote. Having expressed this, my honest admission is that I have not always felt compelled to vote in United States elections since living abroad. This is partly because I was confident in the voting trends of the constituency where I have been registered for more than 16 years. Of course, this is not an excuse, but more of an explanation. If large swathes of society chose not to vote because they believed that their constituency would vote the way they wanted, then very few people would turn up and democracy would be undermined. Mind you, I believe that the Electoral College has already done a stellar job of undermining democracy, at least in terms of presidential elections. The reality that the person with the most representation at the polls is not necessarily the person who wins an election might be quite discouraging for many.

Perhaps one of the most damning realities that I have faced in choosing to participate fully in this upcoming election is the fact that in 2016, Hillary Clinton received 65,853,514 votes, Donald Trump received 62,984,828 votes around 100,000,000 eligible voters did not participate. Two out of every five eligible voters did not turn up. I am but one person, but I am one of those 100,000,000. I have not lost any sleep over it, but those figures are enough for me to step up and battle through the awkward bureaucratic hoops required in order to vote from abroad.

Perhaps, dear reader, you have read this and think, ‘Obvious Democrat’ or ‘Obvious Republican’. Maybe the latter is less likely. For the record, I oppose both parties. That is not to say that my idealism overrides my pragmatism with regard to this election. I did cast what might be considered a ‘protest vote’ in 2012. This was not because I was especially unhappy with the Obama Administration at that time (I was unhappy, but I would have been even more discontent with a Romney-Ryan Administration). I voted for Jill Stein, ill-equipped as she might have been, because I had grown very tired of a two-party system where both of those parties are not so far from one another as they would like to believe. And while I believe that, in general, the Democrats and Republicans are different shades of the same political ideology on a broad political spectrum, there has been a vocal shift to the right in the American political landscape over the last decade or so. This is toward a bankrupt politics of ‘again’.

This shift right is not the result of an increased political literacy. Reactionary right-wing language has become normalised by Donald Trump. He views immigrants, especially those who are also people of colour, with disdain. He demonstrates routine bigotry against anyone who is not like him – namely, women and people of colour. He uses derogatory language and tone against other nations, such as China. He acts like a bully toward anyone who might dare to disagree with him. He threatens the free press. He perpetuates conspiracy theories. He refuses to condemn all forms of white supremacy in no uncertain terms. He rejects scientific consensus when it conflicts with his pandering to the powerful. (This has played out in his dangerous environmental policies as well as his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.) I cannot trust a person who uses superlatives as loosely as he does. Everything he inherited as president was the ‘worst’, everything he has done has been the ‘best’. He has done ‘more’ for people of colour and for women than any other president in history. Is it not the right of these groups to decide who has done the most for them? At best, Donald Trump is an obscene braggart.

Donald Trump cannot be blamed for the whole of this mean-spirited and deluded political climate. With few exceptions, those from Donald Trump’s own party who once opposed him have thrown their support behind him with reckless abandon. They have adopted his language and demeanour. They have ‘sold their souls’ for a seat at his table.

This is not a rally cry to oppose Donald Trump or the Republican Party. I know that the majority of Americans have already decided who they want in office for the next four years. I only hope that in sharing my thoughts here—random and disjointed as they may be—that some people might be encouraged to keep up with the wrestle between politics and faith (or any other ideology).

I have already cast my ballot for this election. I have researched all of the local measures and candidates. I can only say that I have voted out of a conviction that my faith compels me to challenge all forms of oppression and injustice. I hope that people of all faiths and no faith have done or will do the same.


[1] Richard B. Morris, Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

[2] Juan Luis Segundo, The Liberation of Theology, trans. John Drury (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1977), 74.

[3] Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity, trans. J. T. Swann (London: Verso, 2009), 256.

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity and the Edifying Discourse Which ‘Accompanied’ It, trans. Walter Lowrie (New York: Vintage, 2004), 71.

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (London: SCM, 1974), 128.

[6] Ibid.

[7] 1 Corinthians 13 (NRSV).

God & the Dentist

Courtesy of jesus-withyoualways.com
Courtesy of jesus-withyoualways.com

Below is, as it is with all opinion posts, an outline of my opinion on a particular topic.  Please feel free to disagree or to challenge my views, but please also take the care to read all of what I have written.  It is my sincere intention to be a loving, gracious, humble and devout follower of Jesus.  Please forgive me when I fail at this.

Today a couple of minister friends of mine shared the same link on Facebook with the heading, ‘Dentist Says God Doesn’t Exist – Watch What His Patient Says…’  Normally I tend away from these sort of links (my criticisms in this post will probably reveal why that is the case), but for some reason today I decided to click.  Here’s the clip:

I’m not sure how long this ‘God & the Dentist’ idea has been circulating (after a limited amount of research I’ve discovered several videos presenting the same argument), but this one was produced by a group called ‘cvcnow’ who on their YouTube account give this description:

cvcnow produce creative short films, designed to entertain and challenge your thinking about real life.

In amongst all the negativity we face online, we want to be that much needed positive presence online and bring a fresh new perspective on real life struggles – from forgiveness to suicide; we don’t shy away from the big issues.

They’ve got this written in their ‘about’ section on the cvcnow.com website:

All we want is to help you explore those unavoidable questions about life, the universe and everything in it.

After a wee bit of research I’ve discovered that cvcnow is a ‘brand’ under the umbrella of Christian Vision, ‘a UK-based international charity founded by Lord Edmiston in 1988.’  I have yet to watch all of the videos that they’ve produced (and I don’t see myself doing that any time soon), but from viewing this dentist video alone, something tells me that none of their videos will sit right with me.  But why?

Before I explain why I see this sort of thinking as more of a foe than a friend, I want to say that this is no attack on any individuals who find this video inspirational.  Please know that I am in no way doubting the faith, goodness or sincerity of anyone involved in cvcnow or Christian Vision, or even anyone who has enjoyed the video above or has passed it on to friends.  I believe that the folk who produced this video are using their skills, passions and energies to do what they think is the most effective way to follow what they believe God wants for them.  But with that being said, I think that most people (even people who commit acts of great evil) do the same.  For example, I’m convinced that the Tories believe that society will best flourish under their policies whilst Labour politicians believe the same of their own policies (though, some might argue that New Labour’s policies are more Tory than Labour, but I digress…).  I also want to express that I believe that God can use any means to reveal theological truth and convey religious experience (my PhD thesis approaches a small facet of that very belief), as in the old story in the Torah of the diviner Balaam who was intent on cursing the God of the Jews, but this very God corrected him via the mouth of a donkey.  So yes, according to our mythology and tradition, God can speak through various means, but I’d rather be the prophet than the ass.

So what about this video do I find particularly offensive?  Aside from the poor writing, poor acting, poor music, poor production and implausibility of the conversation?  Let’s walk through the ‘script’:

Dentist [after working on a patient’s teeth]: OK, we’re done.
Patient: Yes, thank God for that.
D: God?
P: What do you mean?
D: Who in this day and age still believes in God?

At this point it’s important to point out that I don’t know of any dentist, even a staunchly atheistic dentist, who would take issue with someone saying ‘Thank God’ in a situation like that.  Many of my atheist friends say ‘Thank God’ as often as they say ‘Thank fuck’.  The ‘God’ bit of ‘Thank God’ doesn’t necessarily carry much meaning.  ‘Thank God’ is simply a colloquialism.  But the writers of this piece needed to find a way to put God into a ‘real life’ situation, so we end up with a very rude dentist who decides to challenge his patient on a passing comment.  And to answer this elitist dentist’s silly question, Who in this day and age still believes in God?apparently some 5.8 billion of the 6.9 billion people in the world, or 84% of people.  That in no way proves the legitimacy or truthfulness of belief in God, but at least demonstrates that, even ‘in this day and age’, belief in God isn’t exactly uncommon.  So the patient decides to respond:

P: Well, I do.  Why’s that?
D: Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.
P: Well, I don’t believe in dentists.  If there are so many dentists in the world, then why do so many people have broken, infected and missing teeth?

Oh dear.  Now, despite his unpleasant personality, I’m starting to side with the dentist.  Whether or not a Christian will admit it, there is no simple answer to the problem of evil (expressed so eloquently by the dentist in his condescension: ‘Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.’).  I have some views on how I might approach the problem of evil, but I don’t want to go there with this post.  It’s also important to note that God has been used to justify a great many wars throughout history (even Bush and Blair claim to have prayed to God before the [misleading] war in Iraq).  But that at which I want to get is what the patient has used to argue against non-belief – she has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists.  There are two major problems I have with her decision.

1) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists That’s a very difficult position to maintain when you’re sitting in the chair of a dentist‘s office after your dentist appointment and a dentist is standing right in front of you, speaking with you.  If the Christian God was always so readily tangible the argument might stand up a wee bit better.  But dentists do exist and her assertion that the lack of dental care in the world proves that dentist’s don’t exist is somehow akin to this dentist’s argument against the existence of God by way of the problem of evil is complete and utter nonsense.  In the spirit of this unlikely exchange, this patient’s thanking of God after her dental procedure reveals that she believes that God was somehow present and responsible for the ending of the procedure.  This can be seen as implying that God is capable of being present in many places at one time (omnipresence) and that is powerful enough to bring her through this dental challenge (omnipotence).  The dentist argues that an ever present and all powerful God (who is also a good God [omnibenevolence]) cannot exist in light of the brokenness in the world.  And whilst there are many different conceptions of God, these three things—presence, power and goodness—form part of the general understanding of the concept of ‘God’ in Western society.  ‘Dentist’, on the other hand, does not carry the same weight.  No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipresent.  No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipotent.  Some people believe that dentists are actually evil.  So to argue that dentists, because of their lack of omnipresence and omnipotence (and to some people, their lack of omnibenevolence), do not exist, is quite silly.

2) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists.  I have argued against the concept that we ‘choose’ what we believe in other posts (particularly here in ‘Agnosticism in the Kingdom of God’, from 23 September 2011 and here in ‘Some thoughts on religion and its place in my life’, 9 May 2012), but I’ll attempt to reiterate and expand some of that argument here.  In short, I don’t believe any of us choose what we believe and instead—based upon the information we store in our heads from our experiences—we ‘reason’ to what makes the most sense to us.  It’s not Logic with a capital ‘L’, but it’s some type of existential logic.

For a friend of mine, Christianity made sense until something else—whether that is new information he learned or a new experience or series of experiences—led him to see his Christian belief system as illogical.  I do think that we can cultivate a particular belief via manipulation (like any gay men who cultivate the unfortunate belief that their sexuality is a choice), but ultimately, I think belief is something that happens to us.  This makes most sense in Christianity (as opposed to this idea that we choose our beliefs) because, alongside the broader Christian tradition, the Bible seems to express that faith/belief is a gift:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’  Matthew 16:13-17, NRSV

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  Ephesians 2:8-9, NRSV

Even the account of St Paul’s conversion implies that faith is something that happened to Saul, not something he chose (see Acts 9).  If the element of choice is ever involved in the Scripture, I believe it’s a matter of choosing between that which is in line with the values of the kingdom of God and that which is out of line with the values of the kingdom of God.  As a result of acting upon belief, some people are commended by Christ:

As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.  Luke 18:35-43, NRSV

There are many other similar passages in the Gospels (such as Matthew 9:22, Mark 5:34, Luke 7:50), but as is expressed in the Epistle of St James, faith/belief is a gift from God:

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  James 2:5, NRSV

I didn’t choose to become a Christian.  Perhaps every day I have the choice to follow either that which I conceive of as following Christ or that which I conceive of as not, but the conception of following Christ, being a Christian, believing in God — those things are part of my faith, and my faith is a free gift from God.

This is a good place to look at the concluding lines of the dialogue, which reveal what is perhaps the most important reason why I cannot stand by this video:

D: I can’t help people that don’t come to me to have their teeth fixed.
P: Exactly.  It’s the same way with God.  It’s a bit rich of us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him and instead insist on doing things their own way.
D: And how am I meant to come to God?
P: Just talk to him – he’s listening.

Here the patient tells the dentist that it’s unreasonable for us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him.  Why would I have any problem with that?  Being that we’ve just celebrated the Epiphany a few days ago, the doctrine of the incarnation weighs very heavily upon me.  At the very heart of the Christian faith is the belief that God became human in Jesus.  This divine mystery plants God in the midst of human existence, as a human.  As quoted in the Gospel of St Matthew,

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’  Matthew 1:23 (cf. Isaiah 7:14), NRSV

Christianity rests on the belief that God is the one who comes to us: ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8), ‘We love because he first loved us.’ (1 John 4:19).  It is God’s initiative, God’s move that makes this happen.  God is not sitting, twiddling her divine thumbs, waiting for us to turn up.  God is here, in our midst.  And yet, whilst I believe that this is true, the patient’s response to the dentist’s final question, ‘And how am I meant to come to God?’ poses some other difficulties.

I do believe that God listens.  I do believe that God cares.  But as I have written in a previous post,

I don’t know why some people believe they’ve had a religious experience when they didn’t want one, whilst some people really want a religious experience and have yet to receive it.  I don’t know why the universe is chaotic.  I don’t know why such lovely people die of cancer.  I don’t know why millions of people die of starvation and disease each year.  I don’t know why, if a God exists, that God doesn’t just sort all this out this instant.  These are difficult questions; questions that make the writing of some blog post seem absolutely meaningless.  But even though I cannot give someone a life-changing religious experience, even though I cannot stop a tsunami, even though I cannot feed all who hunger and even though I cannot answer these questions in a neatly-packaged way, I know that this world and the people therein are beautiful and God has called me to give of myself for others in love, despite my lack of love and my lack of ability.

I know that this is not a resolution to the logical challenges facing Christians who maintain that God is omnipresent, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, but in light of the reality of suffering in our world, I believe that those who have faith should tread very lightly when arguing for God’s existence to those who—without us even being aware—have tried very hard to call out and listen for God.  The video above seems to imply that God is just a phone call away, but it does not balance that belief out with the reality that billions of suffering people who have cried out for the aid of a higher power have not received the answer that we of faith so take for granted.  For this reason, someone might see this video and be unnecessarily hurt.  This is why this video rubs me the wrong way.

A life of belief in God is not always cushy.  It’s never easy.  The only concrete thing I believe with this regard is that, through Jesus, God empathises with human suffering and wants people who call themselves followers of Christ to help ease it.  One way we can do that is to train up more dentists in order that they might ‘show the love of Christ by offering dental relief to those in need around the world.’

The World Unchained

DjangoUnchained

WARNING: Contains spoilers

This article was originally published in the February 2013 newsletter for Govan & Linthouse Parish Church, Glasgow.

Last week I had the opportunity to go to a screening of the latest Quentin Tarantino film, Django Unchained.  If you’ve never seen a Tarantino film, they are known for their excessive violence, brutality and coarse language.  Django Unchained is no different.  I’m not suggesting you see the film, that is, unless you’re willing to endure 165 minutes of brutality (but it’s brutality with a point).  If you are planning on seeing the film, I warn you that this article will contain some spoilers.

The film is made out to be a western epic.  It takes place in the pre-Civil War United States.  The main protagonists are Dr King Schultz (played by Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz), a German immigrant and former dentist who works as a bounty hunter, collecting rewards for the bodies of federal outlaws, and Django (played by another Academy Award winner, Jamie Foxx), a black slave who has been separated from his wife, another slave called Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington).  Schultz first ‘unchains’ Django as he is being transported by slave drivers through Texas.  Previously, Django had been a slave on a plantation where three murderous outlaws, the Brittle Brothers, had worked as farmhands.  Schultz wishes for Django to assist him in identifying the Brittle Brothers so that he may collect the reward for their bodies.  Schultz, who throughout the film demonstrates his utter distaste for the institution of slavery, offers Django his freedom, $75 and a horse in exchange for his assistance (and feels awful for not simply giving Django his freedom straight away).  After the slaying of the Brittle Brothers, Schultz asks Django, who demonstrates great skill in the ‘art’ of bounty hunting, if he would join him as his business partner for the winter and Django accepts his proposition.  Django reveals that once he is finished with their winter’s work, he is going to try to find his wife and rescue her from slavery.  Schultz, who has developed a very close friendship with Django, insists that he helps Django, as they discover that Broomhilda is a slave on a large plantation outside of Greenville, Mississippi, a particularly dangerous part of the States for a black man, free or not.

After the winter they come up with and carry out a complicated plan to reunite Django and his beloved Broomhilda.  But after their plan is uncovered, Schultz and Django are given an ultimatum: either they pay the exorbitant amount of $12,000 to purchase Broomhilda or she will be killed by her owner, the ruthless and bigoted plantation owner, Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).  After they comply, Candie proposes that the transaction is not official until Schultz shakes his hand.  Schultz, who has been having flashbacks of an event during which Candie ordered a runaway slave to be torn apart by dogs, refuses to shake hands.  This is the point in the film which I believe carries the most moral weight.  As we, the audience, have been battered with the injustice and brutality of racism and the institution of slavery throughout the film, we feel something of that same moral weight.  Ultimately, Schultz’ refusal ends up costing him his life.

The film continues from there, but it’s at this point that I want to ask a question: what does Django Unchained have to teach Christians?  Our two main protagonists exhibit many Christ-like qualities throughout the film, but the one which I think is most profound, as a result of the build-up of the film, is Schultz refusal.  On principle, Schultz sees shaking Candie’s hand as some sort of approval of Candie, his vicious treatment of slaves and the whole of institutionalised racism that still, even in the age of a black President, finds expression in some parts of American culture.  Although some Americans, particularly the Quakers in the North, were opposed to slavery during the first half of the 19th century, the institution was still regarded as rather normal for most Americans.  Still, Schultz refuses to betray his strong sense of justice, even a sense of justice perhaps rather clouded by his recent career as a bounty hunter.  He demonstrates this passion in his last great speech immediately preceding his refusal to shake Candie’s hand.  After completing the paperwork for Broomhilda, Candie offers Schultz some rhubarb pie, but Schultz declines.

Candie   ‘Are you brooding ‘bout me getting the best of ya?’

Schultz   ‘Actually, I was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today, D’Artagnan.  And I was wondering what Dumas would make of all this.’

Candie   ‘Dumas…?’

Schultz   ‘Alexander Dumas.  He wrote The Three Musketeers.  I figured you must be an admirer.  You named your slave after that novel’s lead character.  If Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would of made of it?’

Candie   ‘You doubt he’d approve?’

Schultz   ‘Yes, his approval would be a dubious proposition at best.’

Candie   ‘Soft hearted Frenchy?’

Schultz   ‘Alexander Dumas is black.’

The weight of the tone of the speech can only be captured if you see the film, but written out here, we can see that Schultz is able to undermine Candie’s ignorant racism with his poignant and authoritative presentation.  Candie, a self-professed Francophile who, although he does not know the language, insists on being called Monsieur Candie, is left stunned and confused.

Schultz’ words here remind me of the Parables of Christ.  Taking something trivial such as the raw materials of everyday life and turning it on its head in order to shift the worldview of his listeners toward that of the truths and values of the kingdom of God.  Unfortunately, Candie did not have ‘ears to hear’ the truth that Schultz uttered.  Do we?

Of course, our context is quite different.  The context of slavery-era Southern United States is a far cry from present day Govan and Linthouse.  I’ll even say that we live in a fortunate part of Scotland with a long heritage of fighting for social justice.  But have we grown complacent?  Perhaps we don’t have slaves in our context, but throughout our congregation and parish there are new battles to be fought.  Among others, the people who suffer in poverty, the people who struggle with addiction, the people who have immigrated from other countries, the people who seek asylum – they all suffer under various institutions of injustice here.  Maybe we’re responsible for some of that with our behaviour.  In Django Unchained, white people are appalled at the scandal of a black man on a horse.  I’ve heard people express their shock about the scandal of a recent immigrant with a bankcard or a mobile phone.

No matter how much we try—and we do try—justice is not the way of Scotland, the United Kingdom or any other nation.  Nations are made up of all kinds of people with very different ideals, some of which propagate institutionalised oppression.  In reality, the Church looks very much the same, and while I am grateful to God that the Church of Scotland and that Govan and Linthouse Parish Church are very much composed of a diverse body of people, I think we can unite in discipleship under the leadership of one man, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The words found within our Gospel readings for the month of February have a great deal to teach us about the way that being a Christian turns the institutions of this world on its head:

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,

for you will be filled.

‘Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh…

‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Luke 6:17-21, 27-31

As Christians, it is our daily challenge, not just in the month of February, but for the rest of our lives, to seek the values of the kingdom of God.  And we are not called to do this simply because we are good people or we think we will get a box of treasure in the future.  We are called to love because God loves this world.  God desires that we ‘unchain’ the world from oppression — what an unworthy honour for us!

May we be inspired by the love and grace of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the works of the kingdom and fight with great conviction, as Dr King Schultz fought, the injustices in our community and beyond its boundaries.  It’s no simple task, but maybe we could keep each other accountable.  Next time you see me, I’d appreciate it if you reminded me to be more like Jesus and Dr King Schultz.

Many blessings,

Elijah

Why I am not a Scientologist

Last spring it was revealed that one of my favourite directors, Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood) was trying to pitch a new film to a studio.  In December of 2009, Variety reported on the new film, possibly dubbed The Master, with the outstanding Philip Seymour Hoffman set to star.  A synopsis of the script was published by The Playlist last February:

‘The Master’ is the story of a charismatic intellectual … who hatches a faith-based organization that begins to catch on in America in 1952 called The Cause.  The core dynamic centers on the relationship between The Master and Freddie Sutton, … an aimless twenty-something drifter and alcoholic who eventually becomes the leader’s loyal lieutenant.  As the faith begins to gain a fervent following, Freddie finds himself questioning the belief system he has embraced, and his mentor.

Essentially the film has been seen as a critique of the infamous L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology.  The Master has encountered several snags since these reports, snags that some connect with Scientology’s influence in Hollywood.  But alas, the film seems to be under way, with Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix potentially set to star alongside Hoffman.

Anderson is a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.  I’m certain that The Master, or whatever it will be called, will be an excellent film – he just doesn’t make bad films.  I suppose that’s why it’s so shocking that he’s gone through such an ordeal to find a studio to back this latest project.  It’s easy to point the finger at the heavily-caricatured Church of Scientology, but in my reflections I’m not so sure that’s fair.

I’ve spent a significant amount of time investigating Scientology for someone who has never considered taking up the belief system.  Growing up in and around Los Angeles, Scientology was always something ‘close to home’.  In the last few years, Scientology has been the target of a significant amount of slander.  I suspect that this can be largely attributed to the erratic behaviour of one of their most outspoken members.  I’ve read a lot of Scientological literature (Dianetics, What is Scientology?, Scientology 0-8, etc.) and have learned a lot of Scientological terminology (‘Thetan’, ‘Clear’, an ‘OT’ = ‘Operating Thetan’, ‘KSW’ = ‘Keep Scientology Working’, ‘LRH’ = ‘L. Ron Hubbard’, an ‘SP’ = ‘Suppressive Person’, ‘Tech’, ‘In-Ethics’, ‘Out-Ethics’, ‘Orgs’, etc.).  I’ve heard many people criticise Scientology for its ‘outlandish’ beliefs, such as the fundamental belief concerning human origins (called ‘Incident II’): that the dictator of the ‘Galactic Confederacy’, a being named Xenu brought billions of beings to Earth and killed them with hydrogen bombs, though leaving their essences to inhabit bodies that are now people, etc…

That bit does seem like a lot to stomach—and I know that the orthodox Christian claims concerning such as the existence of a personal deity, the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus, could be just as alienating—but Scientological ‘cosmology’ is not my primary reason for rejecting Scientology.  The Church of Scientology’s Creed, written by L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, states:

We of the Church believe
That all men of whatever race, color or creed were created with equal rights.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own religious practices and their performance.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own lives.
That all men have inalienable rights to their sanity.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own defense.
That all men have inalienable rights to conceive, choose, assist or support their own organizations, churches and governments.
That all men have inalienable rights to think freely, to talk freely, to write freely their own opinions and to counter or utter or write upon the opinions of others.
That all men have inalienable rights to the creation of their own kind.
That the souls of men have the rights of men.
That the study of the Mind and the healing of mentally caused ills should not be alienated from religion or condoned in nonreligious fields.
And that no agency less than God has the power to suspend or set aside these rights, overtly or covertly.

And we of the Church believe
That Man is basically good.
That he is seeking to Survive.
That his survival depends upon himself and upon his fellows and his attainment of brotherhood with the Universe.

And we of the Church believe that the laws of God forbid Man
To destroy his own kind.
To destroy the sanity of another.
To destroy or enslave another’s soul.
To destroy or reduce the survival of one’s companions or one’s group.

And we of the Church believe
That the spirit can be saved.
And that the spirit alone may save or heal the body.

Perhaps you read this creed and find no fault.  Perhaps you read this creed and see a bunch of convoluted and meaningless language.  When I read this creed something else jumps out at me.  At the very centre of Scientological belief is the view that a person is a spirit, a thetan.  According to their website, and one of their more prominent evangelical campaigns in the last few years, the heart of Scientology lies in an answer to the question, ‘Is Man a spirit?’  The official website states,

Yes.  A short exercise can quickly answer this for anyone: Ask someone to close their eyes and get a picture of a cat, and they will get a mental image picture of a cat.  Ask them who is looking at the picture of the cat and they will respond ‘I am.’  That which is looking at the cat is you, a spirit. One is a spirit, who has a mind and occupies a body.  You are you in a body.

Scientology breaks up the ‘Parts of Man‘ in this way:

First there is the body itself.  The body is the organized physical composition or substance of Man, whether living or dead.  It is not the being himself.

Next, there is the mind, which consists essentially of pictures.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the thetan.  The thetan is not a thing.  It is the creator of things.

Of the three parts of Man, the thetan is, obviously, most important.  Without the thetan, there would be no mind or animation in the body.  While without a body or a mind, there is still animation and life in the thetan.

The goal of a Scientologist is to become an OT, an ‘Operating Thetan’, defined by the Church of Scientology as ‘a spiritual state of being above Clear.’  It continues, ‘By Operating is meant “able to act and handle things” and by Thetan is meant “the spiritual being that is the basic self.”  An Operating Thetan, then, is one who can handle things without having to use a body of physical means.’

In order to achieve this OT state, a Scientologist much engage in a series of ‘gradient steps, each one slightly more advanced than the last and each with its own ability gained.’  The website continues, ‘At the level of OT, Scientologists study the very advanced materials of L. Ron Hubbard’s research.  According to those who have achieved OT, the spiritual benefits obtained surpass description.’

I want to make clear that this is not an attempt to set up a ‘straw man’ version of Scientology.  I could commit many different philosophical fallacies trying to incite hatred of the Church of Scientology, like rumours about conspiracies and brainwashing or the odd lifestyles of the late L. Ron Hubbard or Tom Cruise.  I could also argue that the language employed in these statements is convoluted and meaningless.  But what I am sharing here are things directly from the Church of Scientology’s official website, in the sections that are meant to evangelise to non-Scientologists.  It has been my aim to briefly and accurately express some core beliefs of the Church of Scientology.  At this point I hope to highlight a fundamental disagreement between Christian orthodoxy and Scientological belief, ultimately illustrating why I, as a Christian, am not a Scientologist.

From very early on, the resurrection of the body has been a fundamental tenet of Christian orthodoxy.  In the Creed of Marcellus (a precursor to The Apostles’ Creed) from 340 it is written, ‘… And [I believe] in the Holy Spirit, the holy Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body [σαρκός], life everlasting.’1

The need for these sorts of credal affirmations of the physical body arose from a very early Christian heresy that is labelled ‘gnosticism’.  Within a very watered-down gnostic worldview we find the idea that there is an fundamental antagonism between God and the material world (dualism).  The soul is trapped in this material world and through certain esoteric knowledge the soul can find a way of escape.  From what I have gathered, the Scientological belief system very closely resembles a type of gnosticism.  But in light of their understanding of the resurrection of Christ, early Christians, like the second-century Ante-Nicene Father St Irenaeus, condemned such views.  Indeed, when ‘the resurrection of the body’ is mentioned in early Christian sources the phrase does not mean that Christ (as the ‘first fruits’ of the resurrection from 1 Corinthians 15:23) has figuratively risen from the dead.  Contrary to the claims of critics like John Dominic Crossan and his ‘Jesus Seminar’, what makes the claim of the resurrection in the first-century Jewish context so problematic is that it only ever refers to a physical, bodily, literal raising from the dead.2

Whether or not one accepts that Jesus rose from the dead in this way, the early Christian Church held this view and when we say in the creeds, ‘He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day…’ we mean just that.  While St Paul condemns ‘sin in the flesh’ (ἐν τῇ σαρκί) in Romans 8, he is not condemning the body, but the sinfulness over which Christ has triumphed.  This is the key to the validity of the Christian faith.  It is both our present and future hope.  Part of the beauty of this hope is that it restores value and dignity to the creation, the physical creation, that God has created.  The Christian faith is not some collection of data that prepares our souls for a rescue from our bodily prisons, but it is a submission to the reality that God has begun to rescue and will fully rescue this physical world from its corruption and decay.

In this way we are invited to throw ourselves into the rushing stream of God’s kingdom.  We are asked to take part in God’s story through loving others as we have been loved by God.  We do not fight the oppression of the physical world.  Instead, we declare that this physical world has been redeemed by Christ and demonstrate that redemption through God’s working in our lives; caring for those who have been mistreated; being a beacon of peace in the midst of ongoing conflict; standing up for the dignity all people, regardless of nationality, race, age, gender or socioeconomic status.  We are to be constantly challenging the way that those with power (including those within our own large-and-small-scale ecclesiastical institutions) exercise their oppressive authority over the powerless.  God has come in a body through the incarnation, Jesus met the holistic needs of people during his ministry and in the death and resurrection of Christ God has exclaimed ‘I have redeemed the whole person, not merely his or her “soul” and not merely his or her “body”!’

In Scientological literature we are presented with this: ‘A Scientologist can be defined by a single question: Would you want others to achieve the knowledge you now have?’  In the Christian faith a similar question might be worded in this [admittedly cumbersome] way: ‘Would you want others to receive the present and future, holistic hope that you now have?’

+++++

1. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches, Third Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 23.
2. For a brief, accessible look at this literal concept of the resurrection, see Tom Wright’s Simply Christian (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), 111-6.

Imaging the Kingdom V: Agnosticism in the kingdom of God

This long-overdue installment of Imaging the Kingdom will be focusing on what I consider to be a healthy degree of agnosticism in the Christian faith, and I’d like to begin with a personal story. In my first year as a theological studies undergraduate student I became aware of an interesting issue within American Christianity: the age of the earth and the interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Coming from a more scientific background, accepting the idea that the universe originated with the Big Bang was no struggle for me. Belief in the God of creation and the discoveries of contemporary science were not contentious, unless of course those scientific conclusions depended entirely on an exclusive naturalism, a presupposed atheism that is just as certain of the non-existence of a deity as theism is of the existence of one. Despite claims of the purity and certainty of science and reason, I found these atheistic presuppositions to be more experienced-and-feeling-based, like a religion – but I digress.

Through my late exposure to American Evangelicalism I was confronted with another story, a story that claims with certainty despite strong scientific evidence (proof even!) that the earth alone is some 4.5 billion years old, that argues for a ‘young earth’ model. If the earth is only several thousand years old, then how could biological evolution have happened? Exactly. This view also claims that the ‘theory of evolution’ (as if emphasising ‘theory’ makes it less legitimate straight away) is a fabrication of the godless scientific community. While many evolutionary biologists have presupposed atheism—seeing evolution, as opposed to theistic creation, as a legitimate way of explaining the diversity of life on earth—I still found no significant tension between the concept of evolution and my belief in God. That may simply be a matter of my own ignorance, but indulge me.

So as a first year undergraduate student I was confronted with these ‘young earth’ views and I wasn’t sure what I ought to do with them. I decided to consult someone I trusted, someone whose name was synonymous with ‘wisdom’ in the seminary I attended: Ed Curtis. Dr Curtis was (and still is) a white-haired sagely Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies who specialised in the Hebrew language and Wisdom Literature. On top of this, prior to pursuing theology he studied physical science and worked as an engineer and physicist. I approached Dr Curtis during a theological staff-student lunch and shared my recent confrontation with the conservative Evangelical position on creation. He told me that he found himself confronted with the same tension, but in his gentle Texan-drawl he delivered a profound piece of wisdom that has stayed with me since: ‘If we only concerned ourselves with that which we can actually know we’d have enough on our plate.’

This reality puts a significant perspective on how we approach issues of doctrine, belief and practice as Christians. The ‘that which we can actually know‘ that to which Dr Curtis referred is essentially boiled down to the love that God has revealed to us so explicitly.  In other words, as Christians we know that God loves the world that they created and the incarnation and giving of Jesus Christ in order to upend the power structures of this world is a profound demonstration of this love. Not only that, but in response to this love, empowered by God’s Spirit, we are called to love God and to love our neighbour. In fact, loving our neighbours is very much synonymous with loving God, as we hear in Jesus’ words from Matthew 25:31-40 (NRSV):

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”’

Truly, if we primarily concerned ourselves with caring for the holistic needs of all of those around us we would have plenty with which to occupy ourselves. That all sounds so beautiful, but that still leaves the issue of uncertainty wide open and Westerners don’t like uncertainty, right? A more troubling thing is that these adamant ‘young earth’/’anti-evolutionary’ views are not bound the sidelines of public discussion – the prominent Republican political figures Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry (the latter two are currently competing for the Republican Party’s nomination for president) all hold to and promote conservative Evangelical views on these issues. In our society these people have a right to hold these views, but the general intolerance demonstrated by many who hold such views only seems to promote needless division.

So what happened? How did we get to this point? At one point our Enlightened Western world accepted that through the power of our good science and our right reasoning we can solve anything; we can have certainty. Over the last few centuries, the findings of science and reason began to challenge the way that we understand Christianity, from Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to remove all things supernatural from New Testament in writing The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth in 1820 to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s 2010 book The Grand Design, which asserts that the origin of the universe need not be explained by the existence of God but by physical laws alone. In reaction to these assertions, many Christians (primarily, though not always, those of a more conservative brand) have outrightly rejected science and reason, or have tended toward developing their own exhaustive analytical philosophies and pseudoscience.

While there is no room for half-baked, reactionary ‘science’ in the marketplace of ideas, providing a rational defense for Christian belief/theology is not entirely out of the question. But what I’ve come to appreciate is the freedom to simply not know. In other words, the inevitable transcendence of God (the inability for humanity to know everything about God) means the inevitable ignorance of humanity. The sheer otherness of other people should be enough to help us realise our inevitable, eternal ignorance. Even our inability to know ourselves fully shows us our ignorance.  We don’t need to be insecure about uncertainty and paradox. It’s okay to answer, ‘I don’t know,’ – it’s even okay to answer, ‘I don’t know and I probably never will.’

Over the last few years I’ve engaged with this issue of agnosticism with a close philosopher friend who directed me to the eminent 20th-century Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein stresses the importance of holding onto epistemological humility in Philosophical Investigations (426):

Here again we get the same thing as in set theory: the form of expression we use seems to have been designed for a god, who knows what we cannot know; he sees the whole of each of those infinite series and he sees into human consciousness. For us, of course, these forms of expression are like pontificals which we may put on, but cannot do much with, since we lack the effective power that would give these vestments meaning and purpose.

In the actual use of expression we make detours, we go by side roads. We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed.1

It seems that Wittgenstein is telling us that both our language and our ability to know are significantly limited, thus necessitating a self-reflective hint of humility in how we argue for/hold onto various ideas. I see this fitting perfectly with a healthy Christian agnosticism, as Barth expresses in his Dogmatics in Outline,

Christian faith has to do with the object, with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, of which the Creed speaks. Of course it is of the nature and being of this object, of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that He cannot be known by the powers of human knowledge, but is apprehensible and apprehended solely because of His own freedom, decision and action.2

This is not to say that we stop our pursuit of the knowledge of God, but that while we pursue a better knowledge—a knowledge that, when coupled with action, has the potential to transform lives and deliver those who are oppressed from their oppressors—we must always hold onto that which is most central to the Christian faith: the grace and love of God. We can and should disagree with one another, as diversity is part of what potentially makes the Church so effective, counter-cultural, welcoming and healthy, but we should also take very seriously the fact that none of us will ever know everything.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead. His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.3

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1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953), 127e.
2. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, translated by Colin E. Gunton (London: SCM Press, 1949), 15.
3. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 33.

Returning to the Cloud: Fall/Autumn 2011 Preview

Greetings to our faithful cadre of subscribers & readers…it has been some time since I’ve posted anything on our humble little weblog here (due to a overloaded class schedule at Fuller Seminary & increased summer childcare–all three little angels were home with me– combined with a new job at my church) but I am here to announce that a number of posts WILL BE forthcoming in the next weeks and months.  Here’s a preview of what you can expect on this site in Fall/Autumn 2011:

• A number of my favorite novelists have new books that have recently been or will shortly be published.  Along with a brief review of their latest work, I’d like to begin a new feature called, “The Cloud Rank” where I assess and position the rest of their oeuvre (or as many of their novels as I’ve read) against the new work.  Some of the novelists receiving this treatment will include: David Lodge, China Mieville, Tom Perrota, Julian Barnes, and graphic novelist Craig Thompson.

• You may also expect a response to this article about hell from the Summer issue of Biola University’s magazine.  I’ve largely worked through my issues with Biola, my former employer, so you need not expect a diatribe against the conservative evangelical establishment, and I find that I am generally opposed to the the Rob Bell book on eschatology that the Biola article denounces as well.  Rather, some points that the “expert” author makes about annihilationism are quite ill-founded and need a corrective voice to balance out, which I am happy to provide!

• I am also looking forward to reading the upcoming “multiple-views” volume on the topic of evangelicalism (about which John Stackhouse writes here) and adding some thoughts about the schism that seems imminent in the evangelical consensus and ways that we might avoid committing or being the victim of a “friendly-fire” tragedy.

• I am also hoping to do a Cloud Rank on the albums of The Smiths and Morrissey, hopefully publishing a Top 50 Smiths/Morrissey Songs list in the process.

• Finally, as we draw closer to the end of the year, you can count on Elijah and I to continue the long tradition of our best of the year in music here on Lost in the Cloud.

I offer my deepest apologies for this long absence and hope you will enjoy some of the posts in the days ahead!

Will tomorrow be the ‘end of the world’?

Maybe, but I’m suspecting no. [Greg adds: Suspicion was correct.] Readers will no doubt have heard about a Christian group going around, informing the world that 21 May 2011 is the day that God will issue his divine judgment upon the earth. This is said to include an event called the ‘Rapture’, in which Christians will be taken from the earth before God begins a period of judgment that is called the ‘Great Tribulation’ or the ‘Seven Year Tribulation’. Their efforts have spawned a waves of both curious attraction and intense ridicule (which they expect, going up against the ‘Antichrist’ – see 1 John 2:18). One public Facebook event, ‘Post rapture looting’, has, by this afternoon, amassed more than half a million ‘attendees’ prepared to take full advantage of the potential ‘end’ and illegally acquire new stereos in the event of a ‘Rapture’.

If I was going to even begin to really analyse the many facets of this convoluted and heterodox belief system it would take thousands upon thousands of words and I suspect that out of my own personal frustration I’d actually want the world to end after all. I am not trying to pick on these Christians, as I am certain that they truly believe the things that they are preaching, and that if I was convinced the world was going to end on 21 May 2011 I could only hope to demonstrate the passion and fervency to make that fact known like they are. But I really think they’re wrong.

Where do they get these ideas? Well, without getting into the interpretive and mathematical gymnastics required to extrapolate ‘THE END OF THE WORLD IS 21 MAY 2011’ from the Bible, it’s important to know why these people have been looking for this date.

We must begin our brief exploration of this issue in the Book of Revelation, which is probably one of the most misunderstood sections of Scripture. In American Evangelical Christianity (especially within the belief systems called Dispensationalism and Progressive Dispensationalism) there is a widespread view that the Book of Revelation foretells the end of the world in very literal terms. What is meant by ‘literal’, I can’t quite grasp, but it’s some way of applying a particular interpretive method described as ‘literal’ that is a somewhat willy nilly version of what we might understand as literal-minded (according to the OED, ‘having a literal mind; characteristic of one who takes a matter-of-fact or unimaginative view of things’, the term ‘literal’ being used ‘to denote that [an accompanying noun] has its literal sense, without metaphor, exaggeration, or inaccuracy; literally so called.’).

According to this interpretation (and there are many variations), the Book of Revelation is entirely futuristic and eschatological, that is, something that takes place at the end of all things. I’m not interested in exploring the legitimacy of this view right here, right now, but I will say that some startling insights for the Book of Revelation come from reading 1 and 2 Maccabees (considered apocryphal by most Protestant denominations) help illuminate the Second Temple Jewish context of the New Testament and the Book of Revelation and lead to some dramatically different interpretations of things like the ‘Seven Year Tribulation’ and the ‘Antichrist’.

Either way, this literalistic/futuristic view believes that God will bring judgment on the earth according to a complex set of events and periods of time. One of these events, as mentioned earlier, is called the ‘Rapture’. The concept of the ‘Rapture’ is primarily based upon one reference in Scripture, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18, which states,

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

This passage provides those who hold to the idea that the Book of Revelation informs us that God will judge this world during a period of ‘Great Tribulation’ with a bit of relief: they won’t have to endure this period of judgment. But in light of the Second Temple Jewish context of the Book of Revelation, I don’t believe in this future ‘Seven Year Tribulation’, and my disbelief is not a result of a lack of faith in God or an interpretation that isn’t ‘literal’ enough. I merely believe that the best understanding of this issue within the Bible would indicate that the great tribulation in the Book of Revelation 4-19 is a reference to the occupation and oppression that the Jews experienced in the Second Temple Period (i.e. the ruler of the Seleucid Empire, Antiochus IV Epiphanes is the ‘beast’ from Revelation 13:5-8; see 1 Maccabees 1:20-28).

While I generally hold to this preteristic (as opposed to futuristic) view of Christian eschatology, I do believe that God will bring about his kingdom in its fullness at some point in the future. I certainly wouldn’t say that these doomsday folk are wrong in believing that there is something significant to come, but I do have trouble with their views on what that looks like and how/when it happens. With regard to the pressing issue of time (being that I may only have 24 hours before the end [15 in Australia!]), the time of God’s full bringing of his kingdom, the end of the authorities of this earth, Matthew’s Gospel (24:36) records Jesus as saying,

But about that day and hour [of my return] no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

I do not believe that the arithmetic these doomsday folk have derived from the Bible to draw the conclusion that the end of the world is tomorrow is actually faithful in any way to the content and purpose of Scripture. Even if the Bible was explicitly clear about this date, when tomorrow rolls by without the end of the world, God would not be made a liar. God is not the Bible. The Bible is a result of God inviting his people into his story. St Paul writes that no one will know when the end will come, as it will come as a ‘thief in the night’ (1 Thessalonians 5:2)

I don’t think we should waste our time with conjectures about when the unknowable will come to pass. Every Christian generation from the Apostles to our present generation has anticipated the immanent end, but no Christian generation has ever been the Church that loves and serves in the power of God’s Spirit; the Church that fights for the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised; the Church that extends to all people an open invitation into God’s loving family through the wholly effective death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; the Church that has become what it is called to be. That is our goal and that is our priority. I hope that if tomorrow isn’t the end, these doomsday folk will experience the love and grace of God in a way that will encourage them to divert their incredible faith and energy back to the task at hand.

(Originally posted at Things & Stuff)

Pausing on Good Friday

(This post also appears at Things & Stuff.)

Good Friday marks the day that Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus.  It is a sombre day of fasting, reflection and repentance.  Throughout this week (Holy Week) I have been reflecting on the Passion of Christ with a Palm Sunday sermon entitled ‘Where’s the “triumph” in the triumphant entry?, a short Holy Wednesday homily entitled ‘A cloud of suffering and a cloud of glory‘, and some thoughts on discipleship on Maundy Thursday (the night of the Last Supper).  These reflections were all written with the intention of pointing to the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ and some implications for followers of Jesus.

When it all comes down to it, life is extremely difficult.  Suffering characterises much of the human experience.  Christianity seeks to make some sense of our suffering (and I believe it accomplishes this task) through the cross in that while we toil we look to our crucified God, Christ, who has experienced the bitterness of human suffering on Good Friday.  As I wrote in my Palm Sunday sermon, ‘one fundamental part of our orthodox faith of unparalleled import is the belief in both the death and resurrection of Christ’.   If Jesus had merely suffered, died, and remained dead, we would have no hope.  The Christian faith must look forward to the resurrection on Easter in order to make sense of the present and future annihilation of brokenness in this world.  But it being Good Friday, let us pause in order to more fully mediate on the magnitude of the Passion of Christ.

We read the lectionary Gospel reading for today interspersed with James MacMillan’s settings for the three of Jesus’ seven last words from the cross found in John’s Gospel (performed by the Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble and the Norrbotten Chamber Orchestra).

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John 18:1-19:42 (NRSV)

After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered.  Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples.  So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons.  Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’  They answered, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’  Jesus replied, ‘I am he.’  Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.  When Jesus said to them, ‘I am he’, they stepped back and fell to the ground.  Again he asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’  And they said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’  Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he.  So if you are looking for me, let these men go.’  This was to fulfil the word that he had spoken, ‘I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.’  Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear.  The slave’s name was Malchus.  Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath.  Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’

So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him.  First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year.  Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.

Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus.  Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate.  So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in.  The woman said to Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’  He said, ‘I am not.’  Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing round it and warming themselves.  Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.

Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching.  Jesus answered, ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together.  I have said nothing in secret.  Why do you ask me?  Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.’  When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’  Jesus answered, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong.  But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’  Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.

Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself.  They asked him, ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?’  He denied it and said, ‘I am not.’  One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’  Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters.  It was early in the morning.  They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover.  So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’  They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’  Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’  The Jews replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’  (This was to fulfil what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’  Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’  Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I?  Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me.  What have you done?’  Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’  Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’  Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’  Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, ‘I find no case against him.  But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover.  Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’  They shouted in reply, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!’  Now Barabbas was a bandit.

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.  And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe.  They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face.  Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.’  So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe.  Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’  When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify him!  Crucify him!’  Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.’  The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.’

Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever.  He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’  But Jesus gave him no answer.  Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me?  Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’  Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’  From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor.  Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’

When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha.  Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon.  He said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’  They cried out, ‘Away with him!  Away with him!  Crucify him!’  Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’  The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’  Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha.  There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.  Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross.  It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’  Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.  Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’  Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’  When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier.  They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top.  So they said to one another, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.’  This was to fulfil what the scripture says,

‘They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.’

And that is what the soldiers did.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’  Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’  And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’

A jar full of sour wine was standing there.  So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.  When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’  Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity.  So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed.  Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him.  But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.  Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.  (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe.  His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.)  These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’  And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus.  Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.  Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.  Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.  And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

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The Only Book I Will Buy This Year…

I have made a commitment/resolution not to buy any non-required books in 2011, being that the number of volumes I bought in the last quarter of 2010 ought to provide me with enough reading material for this entire year (you may find my current reading list here) and I was finding that my ongoing Amazon book purchases were becoming a sort of addictive behavior (experiencing a little dopamine hit at the click of “Add to Cart”.)

However, I am going to break my vow for one book that is coming out in June of this year, entitled God Behaving Badly by David Lamb.  I took a course with David this past summer at Fuller Seminary on the book of Genesis that somewhat revolutionized my view of “the God of the Old Testament” and even my approach to Scripture as a whole.  David has a contagious passion to help people understand Scripture (from his days on staff with InterVarsity), but also open-mindedly engages critical issues and theological tensions in the Bible (from his time at a little school across the pond called Oxford University).

In the course I had with David, we were able to read some of the early chapters from this work and the content is outstanding.  You may check out the many endorsements at the IVP page on the book, including ones from Scot McKnight (who is making this required reading for undergrads), John Goldingay, and Alan Hirsch. I’ve included a brochure for the book below that has a pre-order code for 40% off which can be used from now until April 30, 2011.  If anyone wants to do a reading group on the book, I’m game!  Here’s to breaking my vow!!

John Wenham: An Appreciation

Recently, I had the opportunity to read the autobiography of the late British biblical scholar, John Wenham,  entitled Facing Hell: The Story of a Nobody.  I had tracked down this out-of-print book largely because I was under the impression that it focused on the development of Wenham’s  doctrine of hell. For most of his adult life, he was an outspoken (though soft-spoken)  proponent of a view called ‘conditional immortality’, sometimes referred to as annihilationism, to which I also subscribe. This view, in short, holds that those who are not saved by Christ’s work are not punished eternally in hell, but are eventually destroyed there as the consequence for their sin and rejection of God’s offer of eternal life.

Because it is such a minority view in evangelical circles, I was interested in observing how Wenham’s adherence to this position practically impacted his pastoral ministry and I also wanted to learn how he responded to those who held to the traditional Augustinian view of eternal conscious torment.  Alas, Facing Hell turned out to be somewhat falsely advertised.  Though his developing views on the topic of judgment occasionally come up in the course of Wenham’s life story, it is not until page 229 that conditionalism becomes a central focus, and then, the section only lasts for 35 pages.  The author had described the genesis of this book in the preface as arising from the following intention:

I believe that endless torment is a hideous and unscriptural doctrine which has been a terrible burden on the mind of the church for many centuries and a terrible blot on her presentation of the gospel.  I should indeed be happy if, before I die, I could help in sweeping it away.

Sadly, I would say that this intention failed to guide the book that resulted from it, though his short defense of conditional immortality in Facing Hell is quite cogent and well-stated, and will accordingly serve as an asset in the history of theological support for this position.  However, what I did discover in this book is the story of a wonderfully earnest Christian thinker, who played an important role in the history of evangelical movement in the 20th century, and whose example deserves to be commemorated by subsequent generations of Christ followers.

At one point in the book, Wenham says, ‘I have felt at times that I am a forgotten man’ and in the preface, he describes himself as ‘a person of most limited gifts, a mere nobody’, ‘an ordinary person’, and ‘third rate’.  After reading this book, I would disagree with his humble self-assessment, though I do admire the spirit in which he offers it.  In the following post, I would like to highlight some of the many extraordinary facets of the life of John Wenham that I discovered in his autobiography.

At least, 35 pages of facing hell

First, it must be pointed out that it certainly makes sense that he considers himself ‘forgotten’ when compared to some of his friends and colleagues, since he served alongside some of the greatest names in 20th century evangelical thought:

  • Along with John Stott, J.I. Packer, and others, Wenham founded the Latimer House, an evangelical research center near Oxford University, designed to promote conservative Christian views in the midst of the liberal theological intelligentsia and to advance the evangelical voice in the Anglican church (thanks to Dom Vincent for the explanation of the purpose of the Latimer House, which I had a difficult time discovering!).
  • While serving as Warden of the Latimer House from 1970-73, Wenham had the opportunity to influence many students at Oxford.  At one point in his book, Wenham writes, “Tom Wright says that it was I who suggested that he should take up academic work-though I don’t in the least remember the occasion.”  Many readers may recognize ‘Tom’ as N.T. Wright, one of the most influential evangelical voices in our time.
  • Wenham was also good friends with F.F. Bruce and taught at various times with R.T. France, Colin Brown, and Anthony Thistleton.
  • He is also the father of Old Testament scholar, Gordan Wenham, whom Tremper Longman has described as ‘one of the finest evangelical commentators today,’ as well as New Testament scholar David Wenham.

However, though many of these names may be well known, Wenham does not lavish attention on his connection with them.  Rather, he praises a number of men whose names may be obscure to us, but who deserve tremendous recognition for the influence they had on men like Stott, apologist Michael Green, and many others.  For instance, a leader in Wenham’s Inter-Varsity Fellowship, Douglas Johnson, is described as ‘though almost unknown to the world at large was one of the great influences on the church in the twentieth century–perhaps the greatest.’

Another significant figure in Wenham’s life, Eric Nash, who was called ‘Bash’, was characterised by Alister McGrath as having an evangelistic ministry to young men that ‘laid the nucleus for a new generation of Evangelical thinkers and leaders’.  As we have seen in the influence of Wenham on N.T. Wright, I believe that John Wenham is one of these figures who may not be remembered by large numbers of people, but who has had a tremendous influence on Christian history in the 20th century.

Some of Wenham’s writings are still held in high esteem within the evangelical community, including his Greek textbook, The Elements of New Testament Greek; his conservative defense of Scripture, Christ and the Bible (which was recently touted by Thomas Schreiner as being a “classic work on the authority of Scripture”); his harmonization of the gospel resurrection accounts, Easter Enigma; and Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke, which supports patristic views on the authorship of the gospels and a very conservative dating of their order of composition.

This man was a classic conservative Bible scholar, well-regarded by some of the most traditionalist Christian thinkers, yet when he diverged from the party line on the subject of hell, somehow all of those conservative credentials and his profound understanding of Scripture vaporized into thin air and he became an antagonist against authentic evangelicalism, which is how he is portrayed in Al Mohler’s article in Hell Under Fire (where Mohler calls Wenham’s views on hell “hysterical”).

“My ability to view others charitably is THIS big.”

There, Mohler quotes from an article by John Ankerberg and John Weldon that lists out a number of annihilationists, such as John Stott, Philip Hughes, and Wenham, and follows with the tag: “and other well-known and reputedly evangelical leaders.”  These writers actually claim that “the doctrine of eternal punishment is the watershed between evangelical and non-evangelical thought.”  I’m not sure who elected these individuals to be the border guards of evangelicalism, but maligning men like Stott and Wenham as being “reputedly” evangelical in light of all that they have done for conservative Christian thought is a tactic that is not worthy of any true believer (see how I can use the same insinuating maneuver that they have?!).

Given what I have learned about John Wenham, his status as an evangelical is undeniable, his contribution to contemporary Christianity is invaluable, and I hope that his memory and influence will be lauded long after the Mohlers and Ankerbergs of Christianity have been revealed as the Joe McCarthy’s of a sad era in evangelical history.  I am proud to keep Wenham company in the ranks of a minority view on hell and I hope that I may in some small way help to contribute to his goal of sweeping away the traditionalist view of eternal conscious punishment in honor of the deeply thoughtful and fearlessly honest life that this man led for Christ and the truth.

UPDATE: I just came across an excerpt from John Stott’s biography which reveals a bit about the influence of John Wenham on Stott!