Journal Week 21: Starting to Write

As I've mentioned here on the blog and on podcasts, my next book with Fortress Press is a book about Johnny Cash. The working title is Trains, Murder, & Jesus: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash. The publisher has always changed my working titles, so we'll see if that sticks.

I was a bit worried about this book. For the book to work I have to be a biographer, narrating much of the story of Johnny Cash, not just to make theological connections, but for readers who know very little about him. Having never done biographical writing before, I was anxious about pulling that off. But over the last two weeks I've finally gotten down to writing and the chapters are coming together well. I'm excited about the book!

People ask me a lot about my writing routine. I don't really have one. It's mainly a two part process. The first part is that I think and think until I have the book in my head. During this time I sketch out in my notebook various chapter ideas and outlines. Eventually the book comes into focus. Once it's in my head, I then, in whatever gaps I have during the day, start to write. I write in the morning. I write before bed. I write in a spare hour I have. There's just an intense month or so where I write the book during all the scraps of time I have. There isn't any routine or set writing time. Just a paragraph here, a page there, until it's all done. Since I have the book in my head, I can pick it up and lay it down as the day demands.

That said, the writing period is a pretty focused time. Jana knows when I've started to write because, suddenly, every spare second I'm intensely typing. She can always tell when I've hit the writing phase because my focus and intensity at the keyboard varies from surfing the Internet, to writing a blog post, to writing a book.

The big spiritual issue for me during the writing period is to not let my focus get in the way of being present and responsive as a husband and father. That's hard, because when I get focused I can shut the world out, even when sitting in the same room with you. That's a blessing in many ways, as I don't have to leave home to write. I don't need time away or a sabbatical. I can write in the middle of noise and chaos. But it does mean I can be physically but not mentally present. That is something I'm working on.

All that to say, I've started writing my Johnny Cash book. It's due to the publisher by January 1. So I should get back to that.

Love is Science

1 John makes two big statements about ontology and epistemology.

Ontology involves statements about existence, being and reality. Ontology concerns itself with what is.

Epistemology, by contrast, is about knowing. Something might exist, but how could we come to know anything about it? How can we test or verify what we think we know about existence and reality?

Regarding ontology, the ground and nature of reality, 1 John makes this statement: "God is love."

Regarding epistemology, about how we can come to know reality, 1 John makes this statement: "The one who loves knows God."

Love, therefore, is a way of knowing, a way of investigating reality. God is love (ontology), and the one who loves knows God (epistemology).

In short, love is a science. Love is as rigorously factual and empirical as any test tube or controlled experiment.

Love is a technology of knowing. Love uncovers facts about the cosmos. Love reveals the truth.

Love is as scientific an instrument as a telescope, microscope, petri dish or particle accelerator.

Love is science.

The Civil War

One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. The difference is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.

Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening—in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery. I know someone will ask me, ‘Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil—hoofs and horns and all?’ Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects my answer is ‘Yes, I do. I do not claim to know anything about his personal appearance. If anybody really wants to know him better I would say to that person. ‘Don’t worry. If you really want to, you will. Whether you’ll like it when you do is another question.’

--C.S. Lewis, from Mere Christianity, articulating what Greg Boyd has called the "warfare worldview" of the Bible, a critical part of the argument in Reviving Old Scratch

Our Problems With the Sermon on the Mount

Awhile back we were going through the Sermon on the Mount in our adult Bible class. For the first class, before wading into the Sermon, I took some time to outline three major problems we have with the Sermon on the Mount.

Specifically, at various times and places, and from within certain faith traditions, three problems have been noted about the Sermon on the Mount.

1. Practically Impossible

Jesus' demands in the Sermon seem so high that the Sermon appears to be practically impossible to obey. Consider:
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.

I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. 
No anger. No lust. Non-retaliation in the face of physical assault. Loving our enemies. Most people don't think they can obey these commands. At least not with any consistency and regularity. If you try to obey the Sermon you'll live a life of chronic failure.

But maybe that's exactly the point, theologians like Martin Luther have argued. Maybe the Sermon was intentionally made to be practically impossible in order to humiliate and expose any attempts at works-based righteousness.

I don't care if you agree with Luther or not, his teachings about the Sermon illustrate my point: we object to the Sermon because we think it's practically impossible. It just can't be obeyed.

2. Theologically Problematic

We also object to the Sermon because we find it to be theologically problematic. Specifically, Jesus seems to be a legalist. Even worse, there is no atonement theology in the Sermon. Salvation in the Sermon is earned through obedience. Consider:
For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.
3. Politically Irresponsible and Immoral

Finally, it is argued by any Christian who is not a pacifist that the Sermon is just not politically responsible. Many point out that Jesus' call to non-violence in the Sermon could never be the ethic of nation states.

Further, it is argued, in the face of evil Christians must resort to violence. To obey the command "do not resist an evil person" isn't just hard to do, it's immoral.

...

And yet, all these objections are eternally haunted by Jesus' final words and warning:
"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.

And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

Cycles of Victims and Violence

This is a reworked post from many years ago that I had a recent discussion about:

Where does violence come from?
 
A surprising answer is that much of the violence in the world comes from feelings of victimization. Violence creates victims, and those victims can create more violence in a vicious feedback loop. And once the feedback loop gets started, it's hard to get off the carousal.

This is the argument made by social psychologist Ray Baumeister in his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. In this book Baumeister takes on what he calls "the myth of pure evil." According to Baumeister, we tend to think that evil is produced by sociopathic sadists. But if you really look at the violence in the world you quickly realize that very little of it is caused by purely evil people. The vast majority of violence comes from normal people like you and I. Consequently, if we stay fascinated by the myth of pure evil, and Hollywood helps greatly with this, we'll never come to grips with where violence comes from.

Take, as the paradigmatic case, Nazi Germany. No doubt Hitler was a sadist. But Hitler couldn't kill six million people all by himself. Hitler needed the cooperation of his Christian nation. How'd he get that cooperation? Well, he got it because Germany felt victimized in the aftermath of World War I. A narrative of injury allowed for the rise of the National Socialist Party.

Take, as a second example, the Rwandan genocide. The majority Hutu had a longstanding grievance of injury toward the Tusi who had ruled Rwanda for many centuries (backed, in the modern era, by Germany and Belgium). That narrative of injury drove many to the Hutu Power ideology that fueled the genocide.

And the examples can get more local and personal.

Take, as a third example, the research Baumeister cites in regard to domestic abusers. Why do these men beat their wives or girlfriends? Shockingly, these men tell narratives of injury. They believe they are the real victim. Think about that: abusers think they are the real victims. How so? The stories vary. Maybe she was flirting with a guy. Maybe she disrespected or demeaned him. The point is, even if we see all this as self-serving and ridiculous, the guy sees himself as having a reason, a reason that comes from a sense of perceived injury.

Finally, one more everyday example is the increasingly hostile and hateful tone of our political discourse. As James Hunter has pointed out, narratives of injury have come to dominate American political discourse. Everyone claims the position of victim in order to use moral leverage against opponents. This shifts politics away from a pragmatic, problem-solving posture into a moralized Good vs. Evil battle that quickly spirals into dehumanization and hate.

In sum, a great deal of violence in the world comes from feeling victimized. And these narratives of injury allow us to aggress against others in a way that feels right, moral and justified.

True, we spend a lot of time calling out the narratives of injury we find ridiculous or implausible. Is there really a war on Christmas? That sort of thing. But psychologically speaking, it is difficult to reason with a person who is, rightly or wrongly, clinging onto a narrative of injury. I think that's one of the main reasons our political discourse has become so ineffective, that we are trying to use rational arguments to challenge or change feelings of victimization. That's just not going to work. When people feel hurt telling them they are not hurt isn't very effective. 

Is there any way to stop this cycle of violence?

One way would be to recognize and confess my own violence. This is the moral genius of the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." The first thing I confess in the Lord's Prayer is my own sin. And in making this confession, in facing my own violence before anything else, I step away from narratives of injury and the cycles of violence they perpetuate.

Journal Week 20: A Unique Pastoral Skill Set

Readers of Reviving Old Scratch and Stranger God will know that on Wednesday nights I worship at Freedom Fellowship, a mission church that serves a meal each week to poor and homeless neighbors followed by a worship service.

You have to have a unique pastoral skill set to serve at Freedom. This week a fight almost broke out, twice, in the the dining room. Darrell was in the middle of both yelling incidents, at one point he and a guy I'd never seen before squaring off to "take it outside." Darrell has cognitive disabilities and was pretty agitated. Joe and I inserted ourselves between the men, focusing on soothing Darrell. Terry led the other guy out of the dining room.

I admire our leaders at Freedom. They are leaders because they have a range of pastoral gifts. They can teach and administrate. They are pastoral and people of deep prayer.

And they also know how to break up fights.

A Peculiar People: Emotions and Spiritual Formation

When Aidan was in the eighth grade our family was a part of a parent/child bible class at our church. During that class I was a part of a discussion with some of the parents about the spiritual formation of our children and how that has changed over the years.

One of the things that we talked about is how our children don't seem to have the same loyalty to the church that we, as parents, do. Why is that?

There are lot of reasons that have been discussed about the drift of young people away from the church. But one of the things I talked about that night are the changes that have occurred in our faith tradition and how those changes have affected spiritual formation.

I'm a member of the Churches of Christ and I grew up in the North where Churches of Christ were scarce. In my hometown there was only one congregation of the Churches of Christ, a fellowship of about one-hundred members.

What this meant was that I was the only kid in my high-school who was from the Churches of Christ. So my whole life I felt weird. Whenever church affiliation came up I was always asked, "Church of Christ? What's that?" It always felt that I was from this strange, obscure church. And where I lived it was strange and obscure.

And we did strange things as well. In a Catholic town where most of my friends went to Mass on Saturday night I went to church twice on Sundays, once in the morning and once at night. I also went to church on Wednesday nights. Over time I couldn't hide the fact from my friends that I went to church three times a week. And what sort of freak goes to church three times a week?

All that to say, I grew up feeling peculiar and different. And that feeling of peculiarity affects you. Your distinctive identity is made salient in relation to others and you start to own that identity. And in owning that identity you develop some emotional antibodies to defend yourself against feeling self-conscious and odd. You get practiced at being peculiar.

All of which marks you deeply and emotionally. Being "Church of Christ" becomes etched into your limbic system. When you've worked through emotions of awkwardness as a child and adolescent you're not simply a member of the Church of Christ intellectually, you're a member emotionally. That identity goes very, very deep.

Why are young people walking away from church? Here's one provocative thesis. Christian kids don't feel weird or peculiar being a Christian. With youth ministries and the insularity of Christian culture--the evangelical bubble--Christian kids can be popular and cool while being Christian in those contexts. And as Søren Kierkegaard said, where everyone is a Christian no one is a Christian.

Yesterday two young men from the Church of Latter Day Saints knocked on the door. You know how Mormon youth spend two years in mission work. And whatever you might think of Mormon practice and theology you can't help but marvel at how formative those mission years are for those involved. Talk about being emotionally etched by feeling peculiar and different.

I don't want to say there aren't risks here. Peculiarity for the sake of peculiarity isn't the goal. Nor should peculiarity be prized when it's connected to toxic practices and communities.

All I'm pointing out is how if spiritual formation doesn't affect us emotionally and affectively--if faith never gets deep into our limbic system--then it's pretty easy to leave behind.

And for me at least, feeling weird is the experience that shaped me.

Seeking the Place Where Justice and Peace Will Kiss

Simple answers are often hard to find. A lot of life is about balancing tensions.

Any ethical dilemma is a dilemma because you are choosing between two good things. Any political debate is a debate because values we all care about are being pitting against each other and we're being forced to choose.

Most of life is both/and rather than either/or.

The same goes for the relationship between peace and justice. Wanting peace without justice is wanting a world where no prophet can rock the boat. Peace without justice is reduced to niceness and politeness. On the other side, a justice that is unconcerned with peace and reconciliation will become a purely destructive force.

A similar tension exists between forgiveness and telling the truth. 

So we are always managing the tensions. Mercy. Truth. Justice. Peace. And in Psalm 85:10 there's a beautiful image of this:
Mercy and truth have met each other: justice and peace have kissed.
The translation here is from the lesser known Douay-Rheims Bible. Most translations translate "justice" as "righteousness." But the point is still clear as "righteousness" involves standing in a right relation before the law, being declared "just" or "justified."

Translations aside, I love the the imagery of managing the tensions in Psalm 85.

We are seeking that place where mercy and truth come together, the moment where justice and peace will kiss.

Non-Violent Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Yes, you read that title right.

Penal substitutionary atonement continues to be debated. As I've mentioned before, the belief that Jesus' death on the cross was substitutionary is increasingly recognized. The debate tends to focus on the word penal, upon a crime/punishment framework for the atonement.

The problems with the penal framework come from how it implicates God in violence. The punishment for sin in this view is a death-sentence, and that involves God requiring the killing of Jesus.

And yet, my title says that there's such a thing as non-violent penal substitutionary atonement. What might that be?

To be sure, there are people who preach and teach a violent penal substitutionary atonement, the vision many of us find so problematic. However, punishment doesn't always have to involve violence and killing.

For example, God's punishment can be divine withdrawal. Greg Boyd uses this notion of punishment-as-divine-withdrawal extensively in his recent opus on God and non-violence Crucifixion of the Warrior God.

Behavioral psychologists are also very familiar with the distinction between positive punishment (adding something negative, like a spanking, to punish behavior) and negative punishment (removing something positive to punish behavior, like in a timeout).

All that to say, there is a version of penal substitutionary atonement that is non-violent. If the just punishment of sin by a holy God is divine withdrawal, then what happened on the cross wasn't God killing Jesus but God abandoning Jesus. And Jesus cries out in that moment, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The framework here is still penal, this is still a punishment for sin. But the punishment is non-violent.

What, then, about all the violence associated with Jesus' torture and crucifixion?

Here's where a Christus Victor frame is helpful. On the cross God surrenders Jesus to the forces of chaos and evil. Separated from God, Jesus descends into the nightmare of violence, into the hellscape governed by demonic, destructive forces. But again, Jesus is surrendered to those demonic powers, God isn't the one being violent. And still, there is a penal framework here, where the punishment of sin is being abandoned by God, handed over to chaos and the demonic forces.

To be clear, I'm not defending penal substitutionary atonement. I don't defend any doctrine of the atonement. That's sort of like defending poetry.

My point is simply that the contested word penal doesn't necessarily imply violence. There can be a non-violent punishment for a crime.

Thus, in these debates we might start needing to distinguish between violent penal substitutionary atonement and non-violent penal substitutionary atonement.

Twin Beliefs About Love

One of the reasons I frequently find myself caught in the middle of evangelical and progressive Christianity is how I've come to think about love.

As a progressive Christian, I lead with love. Because I lead with love, my theological and political positions tend to skew liberal.

That said, I also believe that love is very, very hard. Because I equate love with cruciformity, I don't think anyone--progressive or evangelical--loves very well. Especially not their enemies. Basically, love runs aground on human sinfulness and depravity. It takes training and discipline to become a human being.

Those twin beliefs--the primacy of love and that love requires training in the face of human sinfulness--keeps me suspended between progressive and evangelical theologies.

Journal Week 19: (Not) Minding the Gap

A few years ago a friend asked me, "If you could do anything with your life, what would you be doing?"

The purpose of the question was to suss out my dreams and aspirations, what Carl Rogers called "the ideal self"--the self I want, desire, or aspire to be.

But I resisted the question. I really don't like to think of an idealized life--my dream life--and compare it to my present life.

The reason for this, as I describe it to my students, is that I don't want to live out of "the gap," that space between the life I have and the life I want. Carl Rogers calls "the gap" incongruence, the discrepancy between your self-concept--who and where you are right now--and your ideal self.

True, some incongruence is helpful and motivating, it gives you goals, dreams, and things to work toward. But if you live out of the gap your current life is always going to be haunted by dissatisfaction and frustration. You'll never love the life you currently have.

And yet, it's also true that I'm working from a positive situation. I'm happy with my life right now and feel a lot of gratitude for what I have and where I am. So contentment is easy. That said, I still confuse people a lot about what can come off as a lack of ambition. I don't dream of moving to a more elite academic institution. I don't care about penning a best-selling book. I like the size of my life as it is.

But I refuse to live out of the gap in other ways as well. For example, last week I was out in Malibu speaking at Pepperdine's Harbor conference. Prior to leaving people here in Abilene were always asking, "Are you looking forward to being in Malibu?"

And I also resist that question. And who does that? What sort of a person turns a simple question about visiting a very beautiful location into an existential test of contentment? Me, apparently.

Because I hate living out of the gap. I will admit no gap between Abilene and Malibu. I will not name, dwell upon, talk about, or cultivate that gap. Now of course I was was looking forward to being in Malibu. It's a really beautiful place. But I resist any question that creates a happiness gap between where I am and where I'm going, between the life I have and some other life.

It's all very strange and makes me hard to talk to. But I truly think I'm close to the secret of happiness, gratitude, and joy.

Live your life not minding the gap. 

Beyond Social Justice: The Intimate Arena of Exorcism

In the first part of Reviving Old Scratch I describe how liberal and progressive Christians tend to demythologize "spiritual warfare" by equating it with social justice.

According to progressive Christians, "spiritual warfare" isn't about battling malevolent disembodied spirits (demons) than it is about fighting against systemic injustice in the world.

In Reviving Old Scratch I include fighting against oppression as an instance of "spiritual warfare," but I also go on to describe how there is more to "spiritual warfare" than just political activism.

Specifically, reducing spiritual warfare to politics tends to ignore the personal and intimate ways people suffered from demonic possession in the Gospels. Jesus' ministry of exorcism wasn't a ministry of political activism, it was a ministry that brought healing into a very particular biography.

To be sure, there was a social aspect to exorcism. The demonically possessed were considered to be "unclean," and were, thus, cut off from the social fabric of Israel. As a form of cleansing, exorcism restored individuals to community. Exorcism mended tears in the social fabric.

And yet, a purely sociological account of exorcism--restoring the ostracized to community--ignores the particular and private suffering that demonic possession caused in the lives of those who sought out Jesus as an exorcist. Seeking release from that personal pain and suffering, for themselves or for a loved one, was the main reason people approached Jesus for an exorcism.

When we reduce "spiritual warfare" to political activism we miss the intimate arena of exorcism, the pain in the private lives of specific individuals. A purely sociological approach to "spiritual warfare" that focuses upon "the principalities and powers" misses this suffering.

This isn't to say that our battle against the devil shouldn't focus on systemic evil. Just the observation that the devil causes us to suffer in private and particular ways that shouldn't be ignored or minimized.

If Jesus' exorcisms were anything, they were intimate acts of compassion that soothed the pain in the hearts and minds of suffering people.

Self-esteem Is a Religious Problem

Recently, I wrote about how we have a choice in life, to live neurotically or to live out of grace. Our value and worth is either something we have to perform, achieve, or work for, or it is given to us as a gift.

Brené Brown points out that the people who risk vulnerability in seeking connection are those who feel that they are worthy of love and belonging. Those who don't feel worthy of love and belonging experience shame, which leads to disconnection.

That's great to know--feeling worthy of love and belonging gives you the courage to risk vulnerability--but it raises the question: Where does this sense of being worthy of love and belonging come from?

It's a chicken and egg problem. There's a negative feedback loop in play here that seems impossible to escape. I experience shame and disconnection because I don't feel worthy of love and belonging. And I don't feel worthy of love and belonging because I experience shame and disconnection.

How are we to escape this neurotic pattern?

The only way to break out of the neurotic feedback loop is that worthiness has to come to us metaphysically and religiously, from the "outside." Worthiness isn't something you work for and earn, it is something you receive as a gift. This is the eccentric identity I describe in The Slavery of Death

In short, shame is a metaphysical issue.

The problem of self-esteem can only be resolved religiously.

God Is Love: Divine Impassibility Has a Branding Problem

I've never been a huge fan of God's divine impassibility.

To catch everyone up, the belief that God is impassive means that God does not experience emotions in response to human actions and events. God cannot be angry or sad.

The debate here is about necessity and contingency. God is a purely necessary being. As such, God cannot be acted upon. In any chain of cause and effect, God can never be an effect. And emotions, from a human perspective, are effects. Something happens (cause), and I have an emotional response (effect). Thus, if emotions are effects then God cannot experience emotions. God is impassive.

Many of us recoil at this notion, for a variety of reasons. For some of us it makes God seem distant and cold. Others point to the Hebrew bible and the wild, passionate, emotional God revealed on its pages. Some point to the Incarnation ("Jesus wept"). And so on.

For my part, I get the technical point being made in arguments for divine impassibility. Logically, I appreciate the problems that emotions pose for our doctrine of God. My problem is that when it comes to theology I tend to go with my heart rather than with my head.

But here's my olive branch to classical theism and divine impassibility.

I think the problem is with branding. The word "impassive" is just godawful. Here are some of the synonyms of impassive: apathetic, callous, cold, cold-blooded, hardened, heartless, indifferent, nonchalant, spiritless, stoical, unconcerned, unfeeling, wooden.

The problem with the brand "impassive" is that it implies blankness, a vacuum, a negation. But we know that God isn't blank, callous, heartless or cold. God is love.

The problem with the brand "impassive" is that it doesn't invoke the positive background of God's love. God emotions are unchanging in the sense that God never ceases loving you. God is unmoved in the sense that nothing you can do can cause God's love to waver or decrease. God is impassive in the sense that God is love and never, ever, falters from that love. God's love is faithful and true and sure and unchanging and eternal.

Thus, the "emotions" of God are more relational than emotional. Given how I stand in relation to God's love God's relationship to me can be described as joyful, sorrowful, or wrathful. Not in the sense that God is "reacting to me," but in how my actions against the backdrop of love creates shadows of contrast.

The framing here isn't that God is emotionless, but that God is unwavering, eternal, unchanging love.

And given that God is love, no matter what I do God will not "feel" toward me anything but love. 

Covenantal Versus Penal Substitutionary Atonement

The debates about penal substitutionary atonement continue, but over the years we've seen a shift in the debate.

As I read the emerging consensus, the notion of "substitutionary" atonement is increasingly, if begrudgingly, recognized as an important part of the biblical understanding regarding the death of Jesus. In some very important way, Jesus' death is a substitute for us. The bible seems clear on this point.

The debate swirls now mostly around the word "penal." Is the substitution of Jesus best framed in terms of crime and punishment, Jesus taking the punishment of our crimes? More specifically, the issues increasingly focus upon if the "wrath of God" is being "satisfied" in meting out punishment.

All that to say, there seems to be an emerging consensus in the debate that Jesus does act as a substitute on the cross--something happens to him so that it won't happen to me and/or he does work for me that I am unable to do for myself--but continuing debate about if Jesus is absorbing the wrath and punishment of God.

I've just finished reading the book of Deuteronomy, and it put me in mind of a post I wrote in 2012 as a way to thread the needle in the atonement debates. In that post I coined the phrase "covenantal substitutionary atonement."

You'll recall that Israel's problem at the end of the Old Testament were the Deuteronomic curses, which culminated in Israel's punishment/exile. It seems clear in Paul--to the  degree that Paul is ever clear--that these curses ("the Law") remain a problem. On the cross, as Israel's king and representative, Jesus substitutes himself for Israel, bearing the curses and breaking the Deuteronomic impasse once and for all.

Phrased in the imagination of the book of Hebrews, Jesus is a Deuteronomic sacrifice so final and huge that the curses are permanently set to the side. On the cross a sort of permanent gateway was forged through the Deuteronomic curses into the Presence of God and the land of Deuteronomic promise and blessing.

In Jesus, the exile of Israel finally and fully comes to an end, allowing the Abrahamic promise of blessing to break forth for all the nations.

What I've just described isn't new. What's new is the phrase "covenantal substitutionary atonement" to highlight a contrast with penal substitutionary atonement, a way of keeping the important notion of substitution while replacing the penal with a covenantal framework

Love, This Alone Can Open the Door of Truth

In the long run, no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him. So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate where he is right. And we can never accept his judgment on our errors until he gives evidence that he really appreciates our own particular truth. Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door of truth. As long as we do not have this love, as long as this love is not active and effective in our lives (for words and good wishes will never suffice) we have no real access to the truth. At least not to moral truth.

--Thomas Merton, from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Inside the Classroom

From time to time during my teaching career, students have spent a course writing down quotations from the class and then sharing them with me at the end of the semester. Depending upon the student and the quotes that grab them, the quotes they capture from me can range from the random, to the silly, to the serious.

Yesterday, Kelly sent me some quotes of mine from our Psychology and Christianity class. Here are a few:
"Jesus broke our hearts open so we could feel even the slightest pain of this world."

“If the crucifixion happened--we took love and saw hate, took goodness and saw evil--then how can we trust ourselves to judge others? We killed our own savior, so why would we even risk condemning others after that?”

[Describing the Little Way:] “You are climbing the mountain of holiness right there in the Walmart checkout line.”

“If you just open your heart to people, God will surprise you.”

The Church and the State: The Martyrological Demand and a Contrast in Moral Authority

American Christianity is being increasingly revealed to be a tribal, nationalistic religion. And much of this is due to how military service and sacrifice sacralizes the nation state. As we often say, service men and women are willing to make--and often do make--the "ultimate sacrifice." As there is no greater price one could pay than the "ultimate sacrifice," military service becomes our highest moral authority.

American Christianity gives allegiance to the nation state because the church makes no equivalent demands to those made by the military. To be a solider means being willing to make the "ultimate sacrifice" for the state. There is no similar demand made in order to become or be a Christian. Consequently, soldiers have greater moral and religious authority than Christians, in that they are willing to sacrifice more, and actually do sacrifice more. Moral and religious authority will always tip toward the blood of the martyrs, and military service is the only martyrological option available to Americans.

In America, the weight of blood tips the scales of sacred authority toward the state and away from the church. The nation state is elevated above the church by the sacred authority of the ultimate sacrifice. Lacking its own, countervailing martyrological option, being willing to die for refusing to kill, the church is impotent in thwarting the sacred pretensions of the nation state. Without martyrs, and failing to demand potential martyrdom as a requirement of membership, the church lacks the moral authority for potent and sustained prophetic rebuke of the state.

To be very clear, none of this is written to diminish or demean military service. Far from it! Military service, as I've said, is an example of the ultimate sacrifice, giving your life in the service of others. The point to be understood here is the failure of the church to make a similar, countervailing martyrolological demand for its membership.

Because without that martyrological requirement and demand, the church will perennially lack the moral and sacred authority to combat nationalistic idolatry.

Without a martyrological demand, the church will never win a sacred argument with the state. Let me be absolutely clear: Theology cannot combat nationalism. In the face of the sacralizing power of military sacrifice, sermons, books, and Twitter are wholly impotent. Theology is just words, and this debate will not be won or lost with words. The argument will be won in hearts and minds by those who claim greater moral and sacred authority.

And in that debate, the solider will crush--absolutely crush--the theologian.

Advice for Progressives in Conservative Churches

In my recent posts about progressive Christianity and our longing for a tribe, a close knit faith community, I discussed why it can be hard for progressives to build, maintain and grow a church.

One solution here, that a lot of progressives take, is to worship with a community that is more conservative than you are.

There's an art form to pulling this off. So let me offer some recommendations.

First, by "more conservative than you are" I don't mean a conservative church. That may not be tenable. What you are looking for is something that might be described as "moderate." If you can't find a local progressive church, find the most moderate church you can. 

Second, your bond to the church can't be based on agreement. Obviously. But that's hard for many of us since our default--among both progressives and conservatives--is to think that "being a Christian" means being right, possessing all the correct ideas. More and more it seems that Christianity is becoming an issue-based religion, an ideology, having the right views on a suite of issues, progressive or conservative.

If you can't let this go then you'll spend all your time at church thinking, "That's wrong, that's wrong, that's wrong..." Maybe it is all wrong, but as Jesus said, people will know we are Christians by our love. You have to build your relationship with the church on something more than intellectual assent. Don't just sit in the pews spinning theological plates in your head. My recommendation would be to throw yourself into a ministry you are passionate about. Make that service and the people in that ministry your tether to the faith community.

Third, try not to be a theological snowflake. You're worshiping in a more conservative context, so some people are going to hold and proclaim traditional, conservative beliefs. Don't fall to pieces if someone mentions hell or penal substitutionary atonement or a problematic theodicy.

Of course, every situation is different. Some churches are toxic. And you have to be wise about how you share your progressive beliefs. It's all very complex and delicate. Still, my main point is that if you choose to worship with a more conservative church you need to have some thick skin, theologically speaking. You can't be fragile or brittle every time you hear something you disagree with. Again, it's related to the point above, you have to build the relationship on more than theological agreement.

Journal Week 17: The Brothers Karamazov

A few months back I mentioned in one of these Friday journal entries that I don't read a lot of fiction. More precisely, I haven't read a lot of fiction outside of Flannery O'Connor over the last few years.

I did, however, manage to read The Brothers Karamazov last summer. It took me forever, but I finally read the whole book.

And goodness, how it has stayed with me. I carry so much of that book with me. I think about it all the time. Book IV, the teachings of the Elder Zosima. Alyosha's whole way of moving through the world, especially how he mends and heals all the way through Part 4. The moral choice presented by the book, Ivan's "everything is permitted" versus Zosima's "make yourself answerable for all men's sins."

Encouraged by how much the novel has affected me, I'm going to read another novel this summer. I'm going to stick with the Russians. I have Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina on my shelf and plan to tackle one of them this summer.

The Bible Project: The Read Scripture App

I'm a big fan of The Bible Project. They make very good videos for Bible study, brief overviews of all the books of the Bible, along with thematic videos. If you teach Bible classes at all, be sure to check them out.

Today I'm writing to share how pleased I've been with The Bible Project's Read Scripture App. I've always wanted to read the Bible through in a year, but I always end up getting stuck in the middle of Leviticus. But with the Read Scripture App, which I started the first Sunday of Advent, I'm just humming along. What is nifty about the App is how the reading plan follows the story of the Bible and how they use The Bible Project videos to set up, guide and orient you through the books. All that helps give you a narrative GPS when you feel lost in the middle of a book like Leviticus or reading an obscure prophetic book.

You can see the whole reading plan here (PDF). And the App is free.

All that to say, if you've ever wanted to read the Bible from cover to cover, in a year or at your own pace, you should check out the Read Scripture App.

Neurosis Or Grace

The argument I make in The Slavery of Death is that there are two paths set before us, neurosis or grace.

One path is the path of self-esteem, striving to build, perform for, achieve, and secure sense of significance and self-worth by participating in a "hero project."

The phrase "hero project" comes from the work of Ernest Becker who described how cultures give us a pathway to achieve a "heroic" identity. Cultures help us know if we are winning or losing in the eyes of those around us. How we divide up the successes versus the failures in the world around us--within families, in our workplaces, in the larger American culture--is evidence of the "hero project" at work.

You can be either winning or losing in the hero project. But either way, you'll be trapped by neurosis. The winners will be vain, self-absorbed, workaholics, competitive, selfish, egoistic, judgmental, smug, driven, contemptuous, perfectionistic, and haunted by the possibility of loss and failure. If you're losing in the hero project you are insecure, shamed, envious, depressed, and self-loathing.

Again, either way, winning or losing, you're doomed to a neurotic existence.

The other path, as I describe in The Slavery of Death, is to renounce the hero system and receive your identity as a gift. Baptism is the sacrament of this identity, we are crucified to the hero project--considering it all to be "trash" in the words of Paul--to be reborn into our identity as "Beloved," just as Jesus experienced at his baptism.

This "eccentric identity," to borrow the phrase from David Kelsey, is located outside of the matrix of self-achievement and self-esteem, outside of vanity and shame, beyond winning and losing. Buffered and immune from the evaluations of the hero system, our identities are "hidden in Christ." Neurosis is replaced by peace and grace.

As best as I can tell, those are the two paths set before us. The two ways you can live your life.

Neurosis or grace.

Building and Breaking Down Walls

A few months ago I was leading our adult Bible class at church in a study of the book of Jonah. Did you know that Jonah is mentioned in the Bible in one other place outside of the book that bears his name?

That mention occurs in 2 Kings 14:
2 Kings 14.25
[Jeroboam II, King of Israel] was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher. 
According to 2 Kings, Jonah son of Amittai was the prophet to helped Israel restore the northernmost border of Israel. This border would have been the boundary between Israel and an invasion from Assyria.

Given this history we can understand a bit about why Jonah ran from God's call, and perhaps even why God selected him in the first place.

Here was a prophet who had built a wall being sent to extend grace to the very people that wall was intended to keep out.

I suggested to the class that Jonah's call would have been like a Trump-supporter who was fired up about the border wall between the US and Mexico getting called to a ministry with illegal immigrants.

That cognitive dissonance may have between too profound for Jonah to tolerate. So he ran.

Because I Am In the Way

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.

--Flannery O’Connor, from her prayer journal

Journal Week 16: Why Am I Still at Blogspot.com?

From time to time I'm asked by people savvy into issues of branding and brand-building, "Why is your blog still at blogspot.com?"

Back in the early day of blogs, jumping onto Google's blog hosting platform--Blogger--was a simple and easy thing to do. Wordpress was just getting started and was Blogger's main rival in those early days. A lot of people who started with Blogger switched to Wordpress because the templates were cleaner and more professional. But I stayed on Blogger.

Eventually, as the readership of this blog grew, people began to inquire about when I'd be taking the next step in blogging professionalization, moving to a new, branded web address like "experimentaltheology.com" or "richardbeck.com." Over the years I have also been invited by Patheos and Christian Century to be hosted on their sites.

But as you can see, I've declined those opportunities and have just kept blogging away here at the original site on blogspot.com.

Why? Three reasons.

First, it's free. Moving to my own branded address would involve paying for that hosting service. And I refuse to pay money for something I can have for free. Image be damned.

Second, about that image. I don't know if you've noticed, as I mentioned last week, but I intentionally handicap myself on social media when it comes to building a brand. I don't use Facebook or Twitter to promote the blog across social media platforms. People also email me all the time about how they can get email notifications about my posts. And I have no idea, and have put zero work into figuring it out.

All that to say, I make it hard to find me and follow me.

And that's intentional, a practice in humility. I want to spend zero time pondering how to get "bigger." Such thoughts are just not spiritually healthy. Keeping with Blogger is a similar practice. A move to a web address like "experimentaltheology.com" would be a spiritual shift for me, a shift away from being a person who loves to blog to becoming a brand. I keep on Blogger to mortify the branding temptation.

Third, Blogger helps keep me away from advertisements. One of the reasons I didn't shift to Wordpress was that if you use their free service you have to have ads. Blogger is both free and allows me to remain advertisement free.

I've resisted monetizing my blog because I blog for fun. This is also connected to keeping with a free service. If I had to pay for blog hosting then I'd have to think about monetizing the blog to pay for those expenses. And I really don't want to go down that rabbit hole. If I stay here on Blogger I can blog for free and I don't have to hit you with advertisements or requests for financial support.

So, there's your answer. That's why I'm still here at blogspot.com.

Love and Death on the Road

In my Psychology and Christianity class here at ACU, we've been having some conversations about death anxiety and love. Those conversations reminded me about a post I wrote a few years ago (to follow and lightly edited), about about how my argument in The Slavery of Death intersects with The Road, Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

If you've not read The Road or seen the 2009 movie based upon the book, what follows is a quick summary highlighting the aspects of the plot that are relevant to the argument in The Slavery of Death. Spoiler alerts ahead.

The Road follows "the man" and "the boy"--a father and son--who are traveling down a road in a post-apocalyptic American wasteland. We're not sure what has happened, but everything is covered with ash and food no longer grows. Most of the book follows the man and the boy searching for canned goods as they pass through empty towns pushing a shopping cart carrying all their belongings. A couple of times in the book, because they cannot find food, they come to the edge of starvation.

Beyond starvation, the other danger the man and the boy face are roving bands of cannibals. Because of the food shortages it appears that humanity has taken one of two moral paths. The man and the boy call themselves "the good guys" because they have chosen not to resort to cannibalism in the face of starvation. However, some others--whom the man and the boy call "the bad guys"--have resorted to finding and keeping people for food sources. They even, it seems, use pregnant women as food sources to eat their babies.

Consequently, much of the suspense in The Road is the man and the boy trying to stay clear of or having encounters with the bad guys, the people who have turned to violence in enslaving others to use them as food. The man carries a revolver with a single bullet. He is saving it to kill the boy should he ever be taken by the bad guys. And he also shows the boy how to shoot himself so that, should the man ever die, the boy can kill himself if he is ever about to be captured. In The Road it is better to shoot your child rather than have them eaten. Or to have your child preemptively commit suicide.

Depressed yet? Clearly, The Road isn't a happy book.

With this much of the plot in hand, let's turn to to discuss why I consider The Road to be a sort of laboratory for the thesis of The Slavery of Death.

In The Slavery of Death I make the following argument. We are biological creatures prone to anxiety in the face of death. As animals we have to be concerned about our survival. This makes us selfish and self-interested. As I argue it in the book, this biological need and vulnerability exerts upon us a constant moral tug causing us to put our needs above the needs of others. It's this inclination that sits at the heart of our "sin problem." It's this tendency--rooted in basic survival anxiety--that causes us to be incurvatus in se (curved/turned inward upon the self).

In short, we are not intrinsically wicked. We are anxious. And that anxiety--the biological imperative to survive--is what causes us to become sinful in how we come to reduce human life to an animalistic, Darwinian game of survival.

Now, the argument of The Slavery of Death is that this basic survival anxiety can be overcome by love. Love can, in the words of 1 John, "cast out fear." Love can replace our selfish survival concerns with concern for others. We can, in love, "lay down our lives for others." Love transforms fearful animals into human beings. Instead of fear causing us to be incurvatus in se we can become excurvatus ex se, curved outward in love toward others.

But there is a problem with this formulation and I wonder if you noticed it when you read The Slavery of Death. Specifically, love is being built upon a very shaky moral foundation: the survival needs of a biological animal.

These were the issues we were discussing in my class.

Specifically, all this conversation about love is all well and good when we have enough food, clothing and shelter. After we have met our basic needs we can share our surpluses with others. But what happens in the limit case? What happens in the face of a Malthusian catastrophe when there is not enough food to go around? Will not all this high talk about love collapse in the face of massive biological need?

Stated starkly, is not love a sort of moral luxury? Something we can spare until life become truly desperate?


I hope you can see in these question how The Road is an examination of the psychological issues as work in The Slavery of Death. For while The Slavery of Death is largely about our neurotic anxiety in the face of death (our worries about self-esteem and significance), The Road sweeps past neurosis to focus with laser-like intensity upon the relationship between love and basic anxiety, a fear not about being "significant" but about literal survival. It seems relatively easy to show how love can overcome neurotic anxiety, how I can forgo self-esteem enhancement to wash feet and serve in unnoticed locations, not letting my right hand know what my left hand is doing. But is it possible for love to overcome basic, survival anxiety in the face of something like mass starvation?

That is the moral question at the heart of The Road. Is love possible in the world envisioned by The Road?

Because if love cannot be found in The Road then biological need and vulnerability would be revealed to be the moral singularity of human existence. Love and humanity would be the moral luxuries of "civilization," useless surplus goods like a diamond ring. At root, we'd be revealed to be animals. Nothing more.

And so, with that as backdrop, let's return to The Road looking for love in a world of starvation and cannibalism. Looking for love in the limit case.

In this search I think we can find love in The Road in four places.

First, and most obviously, we find love in how the man loves the boy. If The Road is anything it is a prolonged meditation on the love the man has for the boy. This love also undergirds the spiritual themes of the book. In a widely quoted passage from early in the book:
He knew that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.
So the love the man has for the boy is the primary story of love in the book. And throughout the book this love is described as the inbreaking of the divine. The boy is the "word of God" speaking to the man. And late in the book the boy is described as the tabernacle, the container of God's presence:
He coughed all the time and the boy watched him spitting blood. Slumping along. Filthy, ragged, hopeless. He'd stop and lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he would raise his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle. 
If I were being bold I'd argue that The Road is a prolonged meditation on the notion that "God is love." There is discussion of God in The Road. Prayers are offered to a grey, ashen sky. But God is absent and silent. God is, rather, found in the love the man and the boy have for each other. God is found in that love. God is that love.

A second place you find love expressed in The Road is the distinction made frequently in the book between the bad guys and the good guys, those who have turned to cannibalism and those who have not. And to be clear, the cannibalism isn't the eating of those who have died of natural causes but the enslaving or killing of others in order to use them as food.

This is a very bleak scenario, and The Road posits this vision as the inevitable moral outcome in a world of mass scarcity. In The Road the Darwinian survival of the fittest reaches this, its logical conclusion.

Morality here boils down to its final, ultimate question. The moral question behind all moral questions. The question you reach in the end if you push hard and far enough on a biological creature: In the limit case, would you kill and consume others?

Like in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy The Road posits two paths, one path is the path of virtue and holiness, the path of "the good guys." The other path is the path of depravity and wickedness, the path of the "the bad guys." Like Moses did with Israel, The Road presents a stark choice: Choose which way you shall go. Will you shed blood to live or will you refuse to kill even though you may starve? According to The Road this is the question that sits behind all ethics. This is ethics in the most extreme situation imaginable, the limit case.

And as we see in The Road there are "good guys." True, while many have been reduced to bestiality under the Darwinian pressures, there are those in The Road--the "good guys"--who refuse to kill others. The "good guys" retain their humanity. The good guys are not animals, they are human beings who see others as human beings. I count that as a form of love.

Let us now return to the love the man has for the boy.

At this point, a cynical, Darwinian reader might be saying, "I understand how the father loves the son. But this is familial, even mammalian, love. The love of a parent for his or her genetic offspring. Emotionally, yes, this is love. But is it true altruism? For is it not the case that all biological creatures selfishly benefit by ensuring the survival of their genetic offspring?"

This question brings us to a third location of love in The Road: the love of the boy for others.

True, in The Road the love of the man is almost fanatical in its focus on the boy. For the man, only the boy matters. All others will be sacrificed, must be sacrificed, in order to protect and ensure the survival of the boy. This mainly manifests in the book as the man's refusal to share food with anyone else other than the boy.

But throughout the book the boy--the "word of God"--begs and begs the father to share. And the boy is often successful in this. The father is constantly pulled out of his moral tunnel vision that only the boys matters. Where the father is blind the boy sees the needs of others. And so the boy and the man, in the face of scarcity and starvation, do share with others. This is altruism.

Finally, we come to our fourth example of love in The Road, the example that comes at the very end of the book. Remember, spoiler alerts.

Again, The Road is a prolonged meditation on the heroic sacrifices the man makes for the boy. If The Road is anything it is a portrayal of the endurance and fierceness of a father's love.

But is this the limit of morality, the best that love can do? In the limit case, is this--parental love--the zenith or morality? Or is there something that transcends this love?

The Darwinian critique noted above returns: Is the love of a biological parent for their child truly the highest form of love we can aspire to?

Is familial love the limit of love?

The Road answers no. There is more love in the world than a parent's love.

At the end of The Road the man dies. The boy is left alone and must now fend for himself in a world of bad guys.

The boy is soon approached by a man. Is this man a good guy or a bad guy? We find out that he's a good guy. He is also father, he has a wife and two boys. They are a family, something the boy has been longing for. And concerned about the fate of the boy now that the man has died this family welcomes the boy.

And the woman who adopts the boys speaks of God. The final scene in the book with the boy:
The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best  thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn't forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.
Again, the divine love on display in The Road is very much the immanent love between persons. The boy can't talk to God, but he can talk to his father, the one who loved him so passionately. And the woman who speaks of God compares the Spirit of God to the breath of humans--"the breath of God was his breath"--passed "from man to man through all of time." Again, I could argue that the theological theme of The Road is the notion that "God is love."

For our purposes, I'd like to draw our attention to how the adoptive love of the family for the boy transcends the biological matrix. The love of the man for the boy in the book is heroic and divine. But it's not the final or even highest act of love in the book. The final and highest act of love in The Road is when the family welcomes the boy--who is not one of their own--into their family. The family, in love, is willing to carry this extra survival burden. This is a love--a love associated with God--that transcends the Darwinian, biological struggle.

To conclude, let me say that this analysis of love in The Road does not exhaust the spiritual themes in the book. And many of these other spiritual themes are not as rosy and the themes I've pointed out here.

But I do think it clear that love is found in The Road and that love functions in the face of death very much as I describe in The Slavery of Death. I was gratified to find that the vision I articulated in The Slavery of Death was found on The Road. In The Road, when life is pushed to its absolute limit and placed under the severest Darwinian pressure, love can be seen triumphing over death. Love can be seen making us human in the face of death. In the love of the man for the boy. In the refusal of the "good guys" to kill others in order to survive. In the love of the boy getting his father to share with others. And in the final adoption of the boy into a family speaking of God.

The Road depicts the Fall at its absolute, apocalyptic worst. William Stringfellow says that the goal of the Christian life is to walk humanly in the Fall. And in The Road, despite all odds, we see this happen. We see in The Road love conquering death. Love making us human. In the end, we don't have to become animals. We have a choice in the face of death.

We can be human.

We can love.

The Moral of the Sneetches: On Neurosis and Capitalism

I was sharing in one of my classes about the relationship between neurosis and capitalism.

"Neurosis," I said, "is the fuel for the engine of capitalism."

Other theologians have described how capitalism is an economy of desire. To keep the engine of consumerism humming along, capitalism creates, fuels, and feeds off of desire. But I like focusing on neurosis rather than desire. Because the desires capitalism exploits are rooted in feelings of inadequacy. Consumerism is driven by how we purchase our way toward status and significance. We buy our way toward self-esteem.

Neurosis is what we're pointing to when we talk about "keeping up with the Joneses." The Joneses have a bigger house or a nicer car or a new pool. Those things make us feel inadequate and insecure, like we're falling behind. And all these feelings are examples of neurosis.

Describing all this to my class, I said that Dr. Suess' story about the Sneetches is the best commentary I've ever seen about neurosis fueling capitalism. Notice how, in the story, neurosis--feelings of inferiority and superiority--create and fuels consumer demand, and how Sylvester McMonkey McBean makes a fortune off the neurosis.

That's the moral of the story of the Sneetches (full video here).

Neurosis is the fuel for the engine of capitalism.

Living Within a Sacred Matrix

Here's something else about Leviticus.

While modern readers tend to get hung up on the archaic strangeness of Leviticus, the overall logic of the book makes sense. Whatever we might think of its particulars, the Levitical code embedded life within a sacred matrix. The code tangibly imbued life with sacred weight and texture.

Again, whatever we might think of the specifics of the Levitical code, we do need sacred weight and texture. We need seasons and rituals to hallow time, events, people, promises, values, places, life transitions, tragedy, and loss. Even atheists hallow funerals and marriages and light candles at sites of national tragedy. 

And yet, in the day to day grind it's hard to hallow in our secular, disenchanted age. We don't have a sacred matrix. And this is one of the reasons why I think faith is so hard for many of us. Instead of living within a sacred matrix that gives our lives holy weight and texture, we experience belief as a choice to be made moment by moment, day after day. Faith is in our heads, an intellectual thing, rather than as the sacred texture filling our lives.

This is one of the reasons that, as a Protestant, I'm so attracted to Catholic aesthetics. The sacramental aesthetics of Catholicism--the candles, statues, beads, icons, incense--helps create a sacred matrix. I think Protestants who struggle with faith can learn something from this.

If you struggle with faith, think levitically. Get out of your head and live within a sacred matrix.

Wave Offerings

As I describe in Reviving Old Scratch, Freedom Fellowship, the mission church I attend, has a charismatic worship style. Hands are raised and waved.

We also have praise flags, made of colorful fabrics with "Jesus" written on them. When the Spirit moves them, worshipers at Freedom will go pick up a flag and wave it during our praise service.

Charismatic worship, all the hand and flag waving, isn't my comfort zone. But I embrace how my friends worship.

And in reading through the book of Leviticus recently I found a bit of biblical warrant for all the waving. As a part of the sacrificial system there were what are called "wave offerings," where grain or a part of an animal sacrifice was literally waved before YHWH.

Admittedly, there is some distance between the Levitical wave offerings and our Jesus praise flags, but the whole notion of waving to God as a sacrifice of praise is rooted in the Bible.

And while I'm not keen to wave a praise flag myself, I'm happy to help my church family with any biblical justification they might need to lift those praise flags high.