As Rene Girard points out in the first chapter of his masterful ‘I See Satan Fall Like Lighting’, the 10th commandment is often given short shrift in comparison to the others – a blanket afterthought to the clearly more terrible sins listed earlier (murder, idolatry, etc.).
But don’t we know that often the last word of a written work is the most important? Commandments 6-9 are very to-the-point and require no commentary. They descend in severity of violence from murder, to adultery, to theft, and then lying. And foreshadowing Jesus and the sermon on the mount, (“Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer.”), the final commandment prohibits not an act, but a desire.
Envy is shown to largely be the root of all that preceded it in the list. Desiring leads to lying and taking, and even killing to take. Blessed is the man who is content with what he has and does not want what the other guy has. Or, more to the point, blessed is the man who is content in who he IS and does not want to BE the other guy.
I believe Girard is completely right here. Unfortunately, I am troubled by how I see this insight sometimes applied in the modern west by Christians aiming to defend a certain theory of capitalism at all costs.
So the story goes, the poor have little and the rich have plenty and the poor are envious of the rich and wish to “stick it to those fat cats” and get some cheddar for themselves. From political revolutions to the robbing of Peter to pay Paul via socialist welfare programs, this is supposedly the underlying narrative for virtually all, nay, ALL efforts to “redistribute wealth”. What does God want apparently under the ideal model? For the poor to shut their mouths and be happy and for the rich to have a change of heart (exclusively by the Holy Spirit of course) and to overflow with tangible generosity. Justice in questions of worldly possessions is supposed to be, exclusively be, an outworking of the Gospel in the long run. Any effort by the king or the electorate step in and yank some of this wealth around by force is the fruit of sinful thinking and can only ever lead to more trouble. The invisible hand of the free market, redeemed along with the rest of creation on Easter morning, is apparently our new rest until Christ returns. The millennial rule of the Church is mostly indistinguishable from Reagan-era economic policies, only with less sinning and greed.
Yes of course I’m overstating things and painting with a broad brush, but perhaps you recognize some of this caricature as being close enough to the mark to be unsettling. This rhetoric of “That must be rooted in envy! Screw it!” seems to come up a lot whenever any forced (ie. government enacted) redistribution of wealth is proposed. The liberals of course want to rob from the rich until there is nothing left, resulting in a short term gain that is utterly unsustainable. This is the thing bubbles are made of. The communists had their own theory about how to jiggle all the property around. It turned out to be an unmitigated slaughterous disaster. The form that still lives on in China has had to reinvent itself as mostly capitalism with a heavy-handed ruling elite. The distributivists with their commentaries by Belloc and Chesterton are shouting to be at least considered. “Here is a way of shifting the wealth around that really could be helpful to everyone involved! No we’re not kidding and it’s very Christian too. More than you realize!” But of course nobody in western orthodox circles is listening to them. “Smells like envy! Who’s going to do this ‘distributing’, hmmmmm? Hands off my stuff!” as they back the closest Laissez-faire candidate they can find.
In 1 Samuel 8, Israel is warned that a king will take all our best stuff (including our sons and daughters) and do something else with them – so don’t say I didn’t warn you! We read scripture so the same warning has been given to us. But they wanted a king regardless and so do we, so we get one and all the baggage that goes with one. No point in complaining about the mechanics.
The king (or the conglomerate pseudo-representative king of the republic) gets to take money from the people and do stuff with it. And the good king does this in a wise and careful way, the bad king in a ruinous way. Throughout the proverbs, we are told that the people rejoice and are refreshed when the king is good and groan when he screws everything up. What if God were running the nation though? I wonder what kind of laws about money and property He would make. He would do it up right for sure. That might be really helpful and informative to know so that maybe we could rule a little more justly like God. Well, it’s not a thought experiment. It’s all right there in Leviticus.
The different tribes of Israel were allotted land they didn’t deserve up front and they weren’t allowed to sell it outside of the family. Someone from Judah couldn’t sell the family farm to someone from Benjamin. Inheritances were not liquid assets, but locked-in, temporary holdings.
The 50-year Jubilee is often brought up – as it should be. I’ve head people say we shouldn’t take it seriously as a model because it was probably not ever enforced. Who cares! It was SUPPOSED to be enforced. Slaves go free, people’s crushing debts cancelled. Who had the debts? Besides some who were just unlucky, there had to be many who just flat out made bad decisions. Who cancelled them? The rich people. What were they after the debts were cancelled? A lot less rich. What did the wealthy land owner have after he was compelled by law to let his indentured workers return to their homes? A heck a lot less wealth. And the poor had joy. By whose hand was this? The worthless politician only good at spending other people’s money? No, but by the dictate of our creator – who knows a thing or two about what it takes for us humans, his precious children, to get along with each other.
What does he know? That envy is toxic. That’s why he put it right there at the end of the summary of the law, in the place you won’t forget. What exacerbates envy? Yes, I know the root of it is lying right there in our own hearts without any outside help, but what makes it a lot worse? Inequality.
When your boss makes twice as much as you – that’s one thing. When he makes quite literally a hundred times more than you – that is quite plainly harder to ignore. Something feels wrong. You and your six kids live in a dumpy trailer park and your boss lives in a modest house in the suburbs. You can probably handle that. You can be friends. You can hang out together – chat at church, have your kids on the same baseball team, etc. But what if you still live in the trailer but he lives in a 15,000 square foot mansion up on the hill and spends the weekends on his yacht? Your kids don’t play on the same baseball team of course because his attend an expensive private school and you’ve never talked to the guy at church because he sits in the front surrounded by important people and elders and doesn’t mix with the riff-raff in the back.
But you don’t really know that guy do you? The CEO of your company may make 100x more than you, but your immediate supervisor doesn’t. What is protecting you? Proximity. Distance. Girard tells us that rivalry is caused by proximity and similarity. This is why, when you were on the high school basketball team, you could have a bitter rivalry with your classmate or perhaps with the team on the other side of town, but you didn’t have one with Michael Jordan. He was too distant. Your relationship with him was safe. You didn’t “envy” his skills in the same way you envy the success of the guy you knew first hand. You could look up to him without hating him. In contrast, this is also why feuds are often the most bitter between brothers – they are the most alike and live together. Along the same lines, throughout history it’s been OK for the king to be rich. He wasn’t just some guy you knew on the street or sat next to at Starbucks. He was far away and you maybe only had a vague idea of what he even looked like.
So what in our modern age has broken down this effective and protective layer of distance from the rich and the poor? Mass digital media of course. We now see Larry Elison tweeting selfies on his yacht right next to that picture from your coworker’s BBQ. (Hint: Unfollow Oracle.) The 24-hour news cycle is filled with in-your-face talk from these billionaire Wall Street moguls who you never would have ever met or thought about otherwise. Your plain-looking local high-school crush seems dreamy until you turn on the TV and are assaulted by a barely-clothed Beyonce or Scarlett Johansen or whoever. Ah, but they are probably still distant enough to be of little consequence.
Much more potent is that coworker (who actually makes the same amount of money that you do) but whose Facebook profile is carefully curated with professional photos and only staged snapshots of fun activities – no blemishes or bad news. On the flip side, it’s one thing to know there are “starving children in Africa” – it’s another to travel there and meet them (modern airfare), or see them close-up (modern video journalism) or even develop a relationships with one through exchanging letters through a sponsorship program. On both sides of the equation, we are more potently aware of economic inequality. We are hedged in on both sides by the extreme poor and the ridiculously wealthy in a more far-reaching way than for any people in history.
What has this done? Exacerbated envy. It’s also made us angry. Is this completely OK? It sure the heck doesn’t feel OK. So if I’m a follower of Christ, what am I supposed to do? Just take my complaints to God and keep my mouth shut? You don’t have to be a genius to come to the conclusion that some of this mess is fueled by our corrupt rulers – in bed with lobbyists and lawyers from corporations (no-people) run by shadowy and abstract “shareholders” who do not fear God in the least. Perhaps if better laws were put in place, some of this wouldn’t be so ridiculously bad. So let’s talk about policies or taxes. “No no!”, the shepherd tells us. Just vote libertarian and tithe more. What would Jesus do?
What would Jesus have us do? Like friends given crowns, I think he would have us wisen up, learn from the past, and rule as best we can. And maybe, just maybe, that might look like shuffling some money around so just like back in theocratic Israel, every once in a while, the wealthy had their slaves torn from them by fiat and sent back home. No it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t ‘smart’, but it was good.
This is only a suggestion of course. I have no serious theories or ideas worked out toward this end like the world’s hairdressers, cab drivers, and pastors do. But I think they are worth thinking through carefully. I am disheartened when I see good people trying to honestly work them out (with the Kingdom of God in their sights) only to have them quickly dismissed.
“When the king is concerned with justice, the nation will be strong, but when he is only concerned with money, he will ruin his country.”
- Proverbs 29:4 (Good News Translation)
I can’t help but feel the hard line distinction between personal and professional is contrived and oppressive – as if they are sealed off from each other and we must have split personalities (and even multiple phone numbers, email addresses, clothes, jargon, etc. to operate in them.) In visiting Africa what I found was that nearly everyone I met ‘worked’ ~16 hours a day, every day of the week, but that the distinction between work and home life was often blurred beyond recognition. Mothers had their kids with them, from nursing babies to pre-teens, on the job. People constantly took breaks, sometimes for several hours at a time, to have coffee with friends. At a glance they might look like slackers, drifting down the slow river of Africa Time and going nowhere. But I didn’t meet a single person on my trip who wasn’t hard working, and many as competent and kind (or more) than any I’ve encountered in the West. I suspect one could squeeze a bit more GDP out of them by chaining them to a clock and punching in and out, but only at terrible cost.
This cost has been with us sharply for a good century like a cilice that’s been strapped on so long, we no longer feel the spikes. People from nearly every quarter have realized this is a problem and talk of “work-life balance” is frequent now. The problem with much of this talk is first, that it assumes the two things are finite and distinct, and second, that one has the ability to ‘balance’ these by an exertion of will. Probably the only thing that can abolish this toxic relationship between servant and master is trust – trust that can grow into friendship. This is still possible on a small scale today, but quickly become impossible when the masters are beholden to shadowy ‘shareholders’.
I could develop this some more, but I don’t have a particular place to go with it at the moment. I guess it will have to stand as an anecdote.
No, I’m not going to try to answer that one tonight. For an earlier attempt see here.
However, a really good place to start (or end!) could be this ancient Gaelic poem, translated here:
What is Love?
A love much-enduring through a year is my love,
It is grief in the heart,
It is stretching of strength beyond its bounds,
It is the four quarters of the world,
It is the highest height of heaven,
It is breaking of the neck,
It is battle with a spectre,
it is drowning with water,
It is a race against heaven,
It is champion-deeds beneath the sea,
It is wooing the echo
So is my love, and my passion
And my devotion to her to whom I gave them.
About five years ago, Michael Spencer wrote a piece titled The Coming Evangelical Collapse that received national attention. In it he, articulated how the health of the evangelical church in America is utterly unsustainable and that its winter will quickly be upon us. Around the same time, he was also saying things like, “Come on evangelical Anglicans and Lutherans! This is your time to shine! You actually have a lot of what will fix all this right under your nose!” It was him who turned me on to Robert Webber, and N.T. Wright, but most of all to his own writings longing for an end to ‘circus’ ecclesiology, ‘wretched urgency revivalism’, and a connection to the worldwide historical church.
In the years since he was writing like this, before he tragically succumbed to cancer, I’ve seen many people walk these existing pathways out of the hyped-up American wasteland. We’ve seen a lot of people ‘swim the Tiber’ (a metaphor that is getting tired) and join the Roman Catholic church to find some rest. How many people? Enough that it is now a frequent concern on the minds of many Protestant pastors these days. Nobody saw that coming in the 1990s. Michael’s own wife was even compelled to do this. I’ve had friends ‘swim the Bosphorus’ (an even worse metaphor) to throw their lot in with Orthodoxy. I can’t blame them. They’re trying to find a way out of a form of Christian practice that is terminally ill.
A bit more visible has been the rise of the Neo-reformed. The same time Justin Timberlake was bringing Sexy back, Justin Taylor, Justin Holcomb, Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll and friends were bringing heavy theology back to light-weight non-denoms. Now we have John Piper pushing Calvinism in-between sets at Passion music events. Whodathunk? The way I see it, this has patched up one major problem, but left others (liturgy, cult of personality, parish stability) largely untouched.
I’m still waiting for the evangelical Lutherans to get their act together. I hear they have in a few isolated cities. But who really DOES have a healthy and balanced church tradition, preaching Jesus clearly and presenting Word and Sacrament every week, right on the dot? The Anglicans. No, not your grandma’s Episcopal Church folks – stop and listen for a sec. This is the theologically orthodox, conservative, sometimes charismatic, evangelical, Anglican church. Never heard of them? Well there are over 50 million of them in Africa. In fact, some of them came over hear to help a new province get started. Since then the Anglican Church in North America has been successful in uniting a number of disparate Anglican denominations all over the U.S. and Canada under one banner. In addition to the ones they already had, they’ve planted over 700 (mostly small) churches in just the past few years.
Might you be interested in this movement, their orthodox yet Reformed theology, their ancient yet contemporary form of worship, and their charismatic fervor yet stable organization and leadership? Well, until now if you wanted to read something substantial on the topic, you’ve pretty much been out of luck. The handful of introductory books out there were often written to an audience of ex-Episcopalians or other people already largely familiar with the wider state of global Christianity. Someone coming from a Baptist church or Assemblies of God would just have to be thrown in the deep end or forget it. But now there is a much more excellent way.
My friend Thomas McKenzie has written a wonderful introductory guidebook to evangelical Anglicanism. It’s concise, easy to read, full of good examples, and aimed at an American audience that doesn’t need to know all the jargon. It’s also gracious and includes virtually no polemics while at the same time never being mushy about important contemporary issues. He makes it clear what the stance is on the historic resurrection of Christ, as well as the unacceptability of homosexual behavior. But when is the last time you read a book where the authors says, “Hey, if there isn’t an Anglican church where you live, go try out the Reformed or the Catholic church instead”? Who is deeply committed to their tradition but also ecumenical enough to say that? Not many, but Father Thomas is.
What’s all in here? Well rather than try and give a summary, I’ll copy down the table of contents:
- Welcome to the Anglican Way
- A Brief History of the Anglican Church
- The Compass Rose
- Anglicans are Evangelical
- Anglicans are Catholic
- Anglicans are Charismatic
- Anglicans are Orthodox
- Anglicans are Activist
- Anglicans are Contemplative
- Anglicans are Conservative and Liberal (old meaning of these words, not current loaded political definitions)
- Anglicans are on a Mission
- Walking the Anglican Way
- The Four Hours
- The Daily Office
- The Anglican Home
- Saturday Evening
- Liturgies for the Four Hours
- The Church Calendar
- The Anglican Church
- The Theology of the Church
- The Sacraments
- Sacramental Acts
- Introducing the Eucharist
- The Liturgy of the Word
- The Liturgy of Communion
- Organizing and Leading the Church
- Who is a Priest?
- Anglican Help Desk
- Timeline of the Anglican Church
- Anglican or Episcopal?
- Finding a Church
- Women in Clergy
- The Catechism of the Anglican Church
- A Glossary of Anglican Terms
So if you are from a non-denominational, baptist, or pentecostal tradition and are curious what this older and more traditional way of “doing church” and the Christian walk might look like, this book is for you. Alternately, if you grew up Roman Catholic but am feeling led by the Lord in a more evangelical direction, but you can’t stomach the worship rock band down the street, the guidebook might strike the right note with you. If you have been hanging with the neo-Reformed for the past decade but would like to be a part of something a bit more (but not too much of course) open-ended and ecumenical, then take a look. Also if you are a brand new believer but are wary of the bait-and-switch tactics frequently found in American churches – get the straight dope about this tradition up front. It’s a good one with a lot of potential and a lot of Jesus.
The book is available on Amazon and elsewhere, but the PDF version (under 300 pages) is available entirely for free online. Go here for a variety of options.
Disclaimer: I financially supported Thomas’s campaign to get this published.
As I drew attention to in this previous post, early on in the gospels and in Acts, we see barriers to the spread of salvation demolished in Christ and the apostles. The bloodline of Abraham is made irrelevant (God can raise them up out of rocks lying around.) The laws of the Torah are cast aside, making all food clean. Pentecost shows that no special language exists as the gospel crosses cultural and linguistic boundaries in many tongues at the drop of a hat. Even circumcision is rendered irrelevant. Along with this, we see the fear of the ocean taken away, opening up a straight highway and pushing the boundaries of the new Jerusalem to encompass all the earth.
In considering all this, it seems to me that Islam is largely a reversal of this at almost every point.
- Islam claims a decendency from Abraham through Ishmael. Even if Muslims understand they may not technically be the genetic children of Ishmael, they are ‘adopted’ or ‘grafted’ into the family. In this way it is like Christianity, but the focus is on bringing men in, rather than spreading out.
- The old food and worship laws are still very important. The details are debatable of course, but the underlying force is one of conformity to the rule, not freedom.
- In high contrast to Pentecost and to the massive worldwide translation of the canon of scripture, the Koran is ONLY valid in old Arabic. Translations exist of course, but they are invalid for use in worship.
- Circumcision is still a must and fully intact nethers are entirely unacceptable – even for women in some places.
- A special geographic place, Mecca, is still at the heart of worship. Everyone must travel there if at all possible. It is the focal point and the House of Islam gathers people to its center, rather than send to the outer edges to stay.
- Not a long-range sea-faring type, it has failed to ever spread far from it’s homeland in the near east. Muslim Indonesia could arguably be an exception to this, but after 1400 years, there is still no stronghold in the new world. It’s dynamic is wholly different.
Here, Leithart legitimately wonders, “Where are the fish cherubim?”. Israel is a nation of land-lubbers and later the gospel goes to the sea-based gentiles. As the day of the Lord draws near though, we see reversals. Behold my amateur ad hoc attempt to interact with this idea:
Jesus walks on the water as if it were ground, and Peter yearns to do so too, though he falters. Jesus also causes fish to all but leap into Peter’s boat, bring them onto his “floating land-gardens”. A storm shipwrecks Paul – seemingly certain death, but instead not one sailor or passenger is lost. For old Israel, the depths of the ocean are to be feared (see many of the psalms), but for Jesus and the new Christians, they are a highway to be tread for the spread of the gospel, rather than a deadly barrier. Over the Atlantic it comes to Ireland before any could walk across France.
On all the seas, what more is to be feared than old Leviathan? Yet we are told his head is crushed and his body given to be food for the land-dwellers (Psalm 74:14). We could not draw him out with a hook (Job 41:1), but it turns out we don’t need to because our Lord has subdued him and calmed our anxieties. So much so that Saint Brendan even camped out on something like the old monster, now a toothless servant to it’s maker.
It seems that perhaps the waters were another constraint that had to be cast down to bring salvation to all mankind. Jesus demolished the requirement for the chosen people to be of the blood of Abraham. Then Peter is shown that “unclean” food is no obstacle, as well as circumcision. Pentecost blows any claim to a special language out of the water. Then the subjection of the sea is brought out of our fears and into our imaginations. Even though the motivations of Columbus were greatly tainted, he was nonetheless following in a long tradition of spreading the Word outward from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth in an adventuresome fashion.
Though I believe I am a Christian because God himself has laid out the way for me to follow and caused my steps to walk in that way, from an outside perspective, I’ve often told people that one of the main reasons I am a follower today can be traced back to a handful of highly influential summer camps. These were the camps up in the woods with chapel twice a day for an entire week with games of capture the flag every night. I was in a room of about 150 kids singing Shine Jesus Shine about a hundred times along with an overhead projector and some college guy with a guitar. Icy cold showers., foosball, and making new friends, some of them even girls (which was unprecedented for this awkward teen), and being surrounded by young adults who talked incessantly about Jesus, scripture, and missionary work rather than politics, cars, and the NBA playoffs – all these things were like living on another planet – a better planet.
Summer bible camp showed me a glimpse of what a vibrant community could look like, at least on a good day, and even on a bad day it was still better than anything else I typically experienced the rest of the year. Around the age of 14, I remember getting up early one day to go to the early prayer meeting that only some of the staff ever made it to. It was here I was first exposed to some of the back-channel chatter concerning how the camp was run. This didn’t disillusion me, but rather gave me a deep internal sense of ownership that was part of a growing love for the church, despite all it faults. I remember still loving camp even the year the music was bad, or the other year when the food was bad and the preacher was boring. Somehow it didn’t seem to upset me too much because this was MY camp, and besides, God was still the same whether being represented by cool people or dorks. Over time, some of this sense of ownership transferred back home.
A lot of folks, when they find out “how the sausage is made”, it’s a huge disappointment that causes them to seriously question their involvement. It makes sense. I’ve had negative experiences along these lines with regards to politics, as well as teaching in the public schools and some aspects of my career in computer programming. Somehow though, seeing the underbelly of the ecclesia at a formative age caused me to want to nurture and take care of it rather than dismiss it. Perhaps relatively early exposure to service, be it in playing music, leading bible studies, cleaning toilets, building projects and just plain old showing up without exception made a dent in my psyche somewhere.
Now, what I think about this most – as a hobby you could say – is not how to get out of church express my annoyance about this or that, but how to improve it’s health. The preaching is moralistic – how can we read and preach the bible to make the gospel clearer? The music is shallow – how can we deepen it without making it too hard on the congregation? Our counseling and pastoral care is sometimes lousy – how can we do a better job assuring people of Christ’s love in their despair? What can we learn from history and theology to help us with these things? How can we get along better with our brothers and sisters from other traditions?
This is why I stick with the institution of the church despite it’s numerous ongoing and various problems. In the end, Jesus is present there – where else can I go? You always hear people articulating why we should ditch traditional forms of parish ministry or religion entirely. Sure they have some good reasons. I’ve got some good reasons too. But I also don’t care. It’s mine.
In his opening statement in the Protestant Future debate/conversation last week, Carl Truman made this observation about Christianity in the west, especially in the United States.
Christianity, at least in its traditional, orthodox forms, is about to see itself politically and socially marginalized in America in a way unprecedented in history. Central to this is the way in which same sex marriage has come to function both culturally and legally. Recent judicial rulings and the appropriation of the idioms of the Civil Rights movement have effectively shut down intelligent discussion on the issue in the public square. This will change everything for Christians. It is one thing to be regarded as intellectually foolish for believing in the resurrection of the dead; it is quite another to be regarded as morally dangerous for believing that marriage is to be between one man and one woman. Societies generally tolerate idiots, allowing them to go about their daily business unhindered. Peddlers of hate typically have a harder time. Conservative American Christians must realize not simply that they are no longer kingmakers in election years; they might soon not even be regarded as legitimate members of society in many quarters.
Though this still has a ways to play out, I completely agree with his analysis. And what do times like this call for? Among many other things, they call for the psalter. They call for songs that do not shy away from trial and heartache in the seemingly forsaken land, time, and culture we live in. We’ve had plenty of stadium praise anthems produced in the last decade. As others have pointed out, we need songs of lament and songs of hope that come from a dark place, not a shiny and easy place.
As I’ve been contemplating this over the past week, I’ve been listening to a newer collection of worship music put together by Robin Mark. Many people are familiar with his successful Revival in Belfast album and songs from about 15 years ago, but he’s largely dropped off the map since then. So much so that after extensive Googling, I could not actually find the lyrics online to most of his newer songs. This one in particular, titled ‘At the Dawning’ is an especially good example of what I’m talking about. The chorus draws on Habakkuk 3 and declares trust in God and hope for the future in spite of apparent death around us.
At the dawning of the day
and when evening shadows fade
I’ll raise my song of praise
May you number me among
Those whose faith and hope were strong
and declare your name in trial
For you said these days would soon draw near
when the hearts of men would fade with fear
And you call your servants to stand firm
and gain eternal life
Though the blossom on the fruit tree fails
Though the fields and vines lie barren still
Yet will I rejoice in you oh God
For you are my delight
Hope when the fields are barren around you is something that doesn’t come from worldly wisdom or reasoning. It comes from the Holy Spirit. This is what we have and this is what we can ask for more of when it seems not enough. Things might not be so easy for us as Christians in the west in the coming years, but our hope is in the Lord, not in our own ability to affect change through our resources or cleverness. I think we as evangelicals will need more songs like this.
I was just listening to this again today. About eight years ago I fell in love with this piece, and this was the beginning of its writer and performer becoming a favorite of mine. This piece is SO GOOD. It has all the energy of an improvisation, but with as much compositional intricacy and development as any piece of classical music. It’s not quite accessible on the first take. Listen to it four times or so at least.
I wrote the following post over 4 years years ago, but then didn’t publish it because it contained some negative conjecture. My thoughts on this were not very well-developed back then. They still have a ways to go in fact, but I saw this gathering dust in the draft folder tonight and decided ‘what the heck?’
If you’ve been reading my posts for the last few weeks (early 2010), you might think that I really diggin’ James Alison’s theology. Well, this is true when it concerns his extension of Girard’s work. I’ve discovered a few other gems as well! Some of his other work though, such as his completely ridiculous handling of Romans 1 is enough for most people to throw out everything else he has written. This is so disappointing. For years Christians haven’t taken Girard seriously because he wasn’t a proper theologian (or megachurch pastor). Now they won’t take some of his best disciples seriously either because they are Catholic (Gil Baille), or gay (Alison), or don’t hang out it seminaries. It’s an uphill battle.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to James on the phone. He graciously answered some questions I had about Raising Abel and gave some helpful suggestions and encouragement. I intend to read a lot more of his work. Frankly, the Girardian reading of scripture (that Alison does really, really well) is probably THE thing that is finally returning me to read and love the scriptures again after quite a few years of complete boredom with them.
Homosexual issues are hot, hot topics in the church these days. What is their relation to the latest abuse scandals bothering Rome? I saw that Christian musician Jennifer Knapp just came out as a lesbian yesterday. (Always liked her stuff. If she would sing blues instead of pop/country she could blow the paint of the walls). Last year, Ray Bolts (whose concert was the first I ever attended as a child and the first tape album I ever owned) did the same thing. The year before that, megachurch pastor Ted Haggard was humiliated and dethroned after messing around with a male, um, message therapist. Someone asked me the other day what I thought of same-sex unions. I’m not entirely sure. On one hand, I think calling it “marriage” is silly and undermining. Christians are right to point out that it is subversive. I’m not for institutionalizing a distortion of the created order, though we do it all the time. On the other hand, I have a libertarian bent and I don’t like the government telling everyone exactly how they are allowed to (for example) purchase health insurance. Why can’t I buy health insurance for anyone I want to? I can make a good case they are a dependent. So I’m of two minds about a lot of the particulars.
My friend Josh goes to an Episcopal church in Portland where gays are welcomed and nobody asks them to even consider changing. I can’t be in that crew for all kinds of reasons, but part of me is glad that those people have somewhere to go to meet Jesus. I know Machen said that Jesus isn’t really there in liberalism (and it can get pretty hokey at times), but I still think it’s a lot better than nothing. And that’s what we have to offer gay people in a lot of places: nothing. Sure we have the gospel, which rocks, but it gets too obscured. We have trouble stomaching the sin that we have no temptation to. We’re better at being graceful toward people with our own sorts of problems.
Doug Wilson talks a lot about how Sodomy and Infanticide are the two holy sacraments of the world. A lot of that rings true. What doesn’t sit will with me is – what then do you do with real people in the church? How do you still show them grace and not just hand them a heavy pack and send them on their way?
Alison uses some of Girard’s tools to justify an acceptance of homosexuality. It starts out really good, but he ends up taking it way too far. He is not coming at it from the traditional liberal position, which is rather interesting. He is still pretty darn conservative about a lot of things. He also draws a lot on the Pope’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which most protestants don’t actually care about. I am not familiar with it enough to really discuss it. Yes, he (Alison) was kicked out of the Dominican order back in the early 90s. I’m still a big fan of his good stuff, and I am not really that interested in the weak stuff.
The deeper you get into scholarship, the more you are going to encounter people that you don’t agree with, but who need to be read anyway. I talked to two different pastors lately who admitted that, hands-down, the very best Old Testament scholarship out there is done by some Jewish guys. Remember, these guys completely reject Christ! But when it comes to old Hebrew, they are the smartest guys in the room. Ignore them at your own peril of ignorance.
For the past 100 years (and longer depending on where you are), a lot of protestants have been seriously allergic to anything Roman Catholic. And there are all kinds of reasons I’m not Catholic (the Marian dogmas for starters), but that’s OK. Some of the best _____ (fill in the blank) are RC. Some of the best books in my library are Merton and Chesterton. Where would we be without Augustine or St. Francis? I like Pope B16 too, for what it’s worth.
So I’m going to keep drawing what I can out of Alison. It loaded with good stuff. I haven’t gone Brian Mclaren on anybody. Just to prove it, see Orthocuban’s post on denying communion to church members facilitating abortion. I find little to add to this. It goes along with what I posted a couple days ago about grace.