Derrida and the gospel as haunted seed

Sometimes, post-modern boogeyman Derrida asks a really good question or two:

“Every sign, linguistic or non-linguistic, spoken or written (in the current sense of this opposition), in a small or large unit, can be cited, put between quotation marks; in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable. This does not imply that the mark is valid outside of a context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center or absolute anchoring. What would a mark be that could not be cited? Or one whose origins would not get lost along the way?”
– Jacques Derrida, Signature Event Context, p.185-86

What would a mark be that could not be cited? What idea would be impossible to rip from it’s context? Or, conversely, what thing COULD you rip from it’s context and find that it remained intact – that it brought the kitchen sink along with it – everything you needed to keep it’s meaning alive even when transplanted?

I’m not sure, but these sound like divine things to me. Has this ever been done? Perhaps in the incarnation of Christ. Perhaps at Pentecost when everyone heard Peter speaking of Jesus in their own languages. They went back to their homes in nations all over the earth, but though they only had a little new knowledge in their head, it flourished and became something much more – colored by local languages and culture, yes – but still consistent with the origin. It’s like they carried home a seed – a haunted seed with an invisible gardener attached to it. The linguistic sign was verbal and ripped from it’s context in Jerusalem, but somehow survived the journey intact through the work of an active agent, the Holy Spirit.

I know these probably aren’t anything like the categories Derrida had in mind, but they are what I have in mind when I hear his questions and I think the Gospel is the closest thing to an answer.

Misc notes on Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch

It’s not often I read a book by someone on the “liberal” side of Christianity, but I’ve enjoyed a lot of Richard Beck’s blog posts in the past and I find the study (or overt ignorance) of the devil perennially fascinating so when I saw his relatively recent book Reviving Old Scratch for sale at Powell’s in Portland, I had to grab it. Here are a few passages I found of interest along with a brief notes.

Critics of spiritual warfare have got it backwards when they say that talking about demons will cause you to demonize other human beings. The truth is that it’s the exact opposite: it’s our REFUSAL to talk about demons that causes us to demonize other human beings.
The reason for this should be pretty obvious. If there isn’t a spiritual dynamic at work in the struggle, if the struggle for social justice is thoroughly disenchanted, then it’s destined to be a battle against other human beings, against Bad People – the Good People trying to wrest power away from the Bad People. When spiritual warfare loses its spiritual component our battle can’t help but become against [only] flesh and blood.

This is an especially helpful word in the era of Facebook and Twitter arguments. The more we fight each other in abstract media spaces, the more likely we are to dehumanize those we (think we) disagree with. Awareness of the devil helps keep this in check. We might also do well to see if he’s stirring up our own unholy desires.

Community is the place where our limitations, our fears and our egotism are revealed to us. We discover our poverty and our weaknesses, our inability to get on with some people, our mental and emotional blocks, our affective and sexual distrubances, our seemingly insatiable desires, our frustrations and jealousies, our hatred and our wish to destroy. While we are alone, we could believe we loved everyone. Now that we are with others, living with them all the time, we realize how incapable we are of loving, how much we deny to others, how closed in ourselves we are.
Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, p.26, quoted in Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch, p.75

This reminds me of Kathleen Norris’s comments in her memoir Dakota about how when you live in a small town you have to learn to get along with all kinds of weirdos. When you live in a big city though (or on the internet), you can hang out with just a tiny subculture and seriously fool yourself into believing that you would be a nice guy around all the other people too, in theory.

The Bible is notoriously uninterested in providing us a theodicy – that is, a theological account of why evil exists. Evil is simply taken as a given – a given to be resisted. [Greg] Boyd calls this a theology of revolt. The biblical response to evil isn’t philosophical but behavioral. We might phrase it this way: The only theodicy we find in the Bible is resistance. A theology of revolt trades in philosophical bafflement for boots on the ground.

That scripture does not give us an obvious theodicy is a bit of honesty I wish more theologians would admit up front.

Who would weep for Babylon? A heck a lot of our heroes.

Regarding Revelation 17:19:
The oppressive and exploitative aspects of Babylon are highlighted by who mourns for Babylon when she falls. Who weeps for Babylon? The kings and the merchants because they “grew rich” form Babylon’s economic and political exploitation of the world (Revelation 18:3, 11-13).

Some healthy push back to contemporary talk of sexual “consent”:

The Bible has always linked sex to covenant rather than consent because the writers of the Bible understood that sex is political, relational, and social. Consent is contractual, two isolated individuals negotiating and then reaching an agreement about a sexual transaction. Consent is the child of capitalism. Covenant, by contrast, is a promise to care for and protect, tonight, and more importantly, tomorrow. The problem with consent is that while we might voluntarily agree to a sexual transaction, and this does protect us from rape and abuse, we might be radically unprepared for how the experience will leave each of us exposed, vulnerable, and needy in ways we hadn’t anticipated. Covenant is the promise to care about these exposures, vulnerabilities, and needs.

Some nice analogies here:

“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 to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”
There is is, the whole vision of spiritual warfare, the apocalyptic and tactical elements of our theology of revolt. In Jesus the kingdom of God has apocalyptically invaded the world, and as this is an invasion of love it’s a tactical engagement. Love is guerilla warfare. A great campaign of sabotage.

Finally here, Beck (quoting Wright) notices the curious modern tendency to speak of impersonal powers even while technically denying their existence.

The modern world divides into those who are obsessed with demonic powers and those who mock them as outdated rubbish. Neither approach… does justice to reality… Despite the caricatures, the obsession, and the sheer muddle that people often get themselves into on this subject, there is such a thing as a dark force that seems to take over people, movements, and sometimes whole countries, a force or (as it sometimes seems) a set of forces that can make people do things they would never normally do.
You might have though the history of the twentieth century would provide plenty of examples of this [i.e., a dark force taking over people, movements, and countries], but many still choose to resist the conclusion – despite the increasing use in public life of the language of “force” (economic “forces,” political “forces”, peer “pressure,” and so on).

Friendship Evangelism and St. Columcille’s Taco Truck

I finally got around to reading The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George G. Hunter. I’d seen the book recommended in various circles for the past decade. I enjoyed reading it as I do most things related to the history of the Celtic church. What the heck IS the “Celtic way of evangelism” though according to Hunter? Well, it mostly boils down to some variation of “friendship evangelism”. Sounds great on paper, but unfortunately I’d already had my own extended first-hand experience with the methodology and it wasn’t exactly positive.

I experienced a great deal of “friendship” Evangelism first-hand in college and I can’t put it any softer than to say it was false friendship. I was invited over for dinner, movies, games, out for coffee, etc. four to five times a week my entire first year of college. It was great! Enter second year. Where did all the friends go? Surprise! They no longer have time for you. They are courting the next crop of freshman. You are a sophomore now. Now it’s YOUR job to be the false friend and get another round of misfits to show up at church on Sunday. Congratulations! You’ve graduated from receiving to giving. Now, you’re on your own to build your own friendships on the side among the other people that are busy pretending to be friends with the new kids. Do it together and you might make some real friends by accident along the way. Or not.

Some might argue that what I experienced was just “friendship evangelism” poorly executed, but I think it was executed well. I think the underlying idea was broken. I think it was broken in a variety of ways, but for now I’ll just suggest one key way in which I think it probably differed greatly from whatever Columba and his monks did in west Scotland all those years ago. I think it has to do with time and expectations. We live in a frantic and fast-paced age. A college town full of transitory young people is especially so. Few people are settling down. They are just passing through. Evangelism in this context is amped up on urgency like someone who slammed far too many Red Bulls. Everything had to happen in less than 9 months or it would seemingly fail and these high-energy middle-class 18-year-old college kids would slip through the cracks! But Colomba lived in and around Iona for well over 30 years. He built slow gardens, slow houses, slow friendships and slow institutions. If he built any trust at all with his pagan neighbors (and he obviously did!) it must have been over the course of many years as they farmed and raised their families.

Modern Western economics and living condition expectations make virtually everything about how Columcille did things a complete non-starter. Health care? Forget it. Building a monastery on some nice land nobody was using? Uhhh. Raising a family? Maybe out of a VW van. Nope. This is Christianity for the poor. We are gluttonously rich and want everything yesterday or at the latest by this time next year. Let’s not fool ourselves! We wouldn’t want any part in this old, slow way.

I wondered aloud what St. Columbcille would do today if his coracle had landed on the shores of the Pacific Northwest in 2018. My wife brilliantly suggested that perhaps he would have opened a taco truck. I think she could be right. And the taco truck would be known not for handing out tacky gospel tracts with the food, but for being run by really kind people who made especially delicious tacos.

Making fun of technology as an exercise toward not taking ourselves too seriously

I few months ago, I visited a retro video game convention in Portland with my oldest son. It was a lot of fun and seeing this canvas (which I loved) caused me to reflect on why I enjoyed it so much.

One of the things I find consistently funny is making fun of computers. I love how old computers allow us to do this while new ones, somehow, do not. They are too proud. The old computers were proud too, but also completely ridiculous. In hindsight, their shoddiness or tackiness is blaring and obvious.

I think our current technology is not different, yet we talk about it as if it were the fruit of the gods. Scan any recent headlines regarding Google, Facebook, Apple, Uber, VR, AI, for examples. We take them so seriously but are many of these things any less dumb than the Power Glove or some ill-conceived and buggy Atari game from the early 1980s? I think in thirty years we’ll be able to say they were the same sort of thing.

Roads to peace

I’m sitting on a bench in the town square while my children play in the fountain. Across the street is the weekly Vigil for Peace rally. I’m reading a collection of prayers for peace by Thomas Merton while I wait. The topic is the same but the messages are different. One proclaims that if we just try really hard, and shuffle enough money around to the right politicians, peace will follow. The other says that when Christ comes to redeem violent men, peace will follow.