Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In Search Of A Shameless Christmas

In general I find Christmas stuff irritating. I am able to deal with the black friday, buying spree aspect of it by placing it in the same sort of class as prostitution: an abusive cycle that in a diabolical synergy falsely promises to fill a void while making us more dependent on that void and blinding us to the void's very nature and existence. That is an easy one, addiction, brokenness and idolatry is so commonplace that it takes an effort to get worked up about it.

I don't care that the tree comes out of Roman paganism. I don't care that the date has far more to do with pagan fertility rituals that with the likely historical birth of Jesus of Nazareth. I am not an advocate of nor am I a critic of Christian observance of Chanukah (the celebration of a miracle of lamp oil lasting days longer than it should have in a temple that never saw the presence of God and housed a hypocritical and vilely corrupt group of covenant breaking religious leaders.) What gets me about these traditions is that they effectively distract from what is the point. But they are nowhere near the core so they are somewhat innocuous. These are traditions that mean whatever they mean to the observer.

The most insidious and blatant assault is the baby Jesus stuff. Coming so close to the core portraying the infant in Kinkadian sap. All tame and nice. Like an inoculation that tricks your mind into thinking it has the point while actually shifting your view just enough askew to miss it. The cards and cutouts and ornaments and plays and creches portraying a nice happy bright little tame baby. It makes me a wee bit sick.

Baby Jesus, yes. The cute babyness, no. What is going on in the Baby Jesus is the sort of thing that makes your bowels turn to liquid, that makes your breath stick in your throat, that deafens your mind with its immensity. In the Baby Jesus, the creator of the universe crammed himself, covered in shit and blood, through the cervix of a palestinian teenager. In the Baby Jesus, God absorbed humanness into himself. By taking up existence as a real, tiny, human person God took humanness itself into himself with the result that all who share in that humanness got taken up as well. In that little baby, the fire that formed galaxies, we lose the ability to be separated from God.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Long Silence

This is what concerned me about starting a blog: The Long Silence. It is not that I have given up the search, it is just that the rest of my commitments (family, work, The Charis Project) have suddenly taken up all my time and energy so now all I can do is experience the reality of the gospel in midst of my life or not. It is kind of a spiritual "put up or shut up" situation. If the gospel is for real and something that is without shame it needs to keep being real even when you are not looking at it. That is, if the gospel doesn't continue to make a real difference in your life even when you are not thinking about and meditating on it then the gospel you are dealing with is a load of dingo's kidneys and you should start looking for a different one.

Life is the original research of theology.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Running From a Shameful Gospel: Part 3

Been super busy for the past week with work and travel. Headed to Thailand in a few days to do my job with The Charis Project. I have been a bit delinquent here and may be again for a bit but I have both time and energy so here we go with another installment of well meaning theological insurgency.

That is what I wrote a few days ago and was too tired to continue and just too slammed to get back at it. Now I am in the Bangkok airport waiting for my flight up to the north and surprisingly feel up to producing. So here goes.

Once again, if what I say here seems way too harsh please read my Prolegomina before your blood pressure gets too high.

In Part 1 I stated in "blunt" language how the standard formulation of the gospel comes across to those who don't already know what it is supposed to mean. In Part 2 I asked "who cares?" about this standard gospel and I think the cultural trends indicate that fewer and fewer people do care. These are "watching world" criticisms and could be argued to therefore be irrelevant to the truth of the formulation of the gospel that I am discussing: "If the blind are unable to see, does that make the picture wrong?" I would agree with such arguments. I do not intend for the little I have said so far to show the gospel wrong, only more-or-less irrelevant or mildly irritating to the surrounding culture. It doesn't even present a challenge, since in order to challenge someone they need to already be at least provisionally invested in what you are saying

pet peeve: speakers, and it is far and away Christian speakers who do this, saying "I want to challenge you" and usually following this is something they want me to do. I always think when someone says this that they don't believe what they are saying deeply enough for it to have truly affected them sufficiently for them to speak convincingly about it and so they use the "I want to challenge you" sales script. My response is, "Then get on with it and actually challenge me."

These have been missiological criticisms, if you will. Criticisms that a Shameless Gospel will address and I believe dismiss. The next two criticisms are more theological and thus internal to the structure of the Christianity that formulates the gospel as I have been discussing it. We can look forward to these as having to do with sin management and gnosticism.

I will really try to get something out sooner rather than later but I will be in the jungle for the next two weeks and may not be able to round up the technology or the health/energy/mental fortitude to get this up while doing all the teaching and other work that I must do here.

I am looking forward to moving through these basic criticisms and getting into the positive work of progressively finding a Shameless Gospel.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Running From a Shameful Gospel: Part 2

In Part 1 I stated the what I understood the gospel to be as it sounds to one who doesn't already know what the Christian words are supposed to mean. It is hard words and I mean them as bad as they sound. If you have a problem with this please read this. I don't for a moment think that the fix, and I really believe that we need a fix, is to change the words so that they are nicer. I believe we need to look at the words and take them seriously and then look at the content that they communicate. I believe that the so-called gospel that they proclaim is not the gospel.

To quickly restate:

God is good
You are bad
God and bad can't relate
God sent Jesus to die
Jesus death took away your bad
If you believe this then you and God can relate

My first critique of this "gospel" is admittedly shallow. It deals with

Who cares?

If I don't already believe this why should I care? I have to already believe that there is a God to be able to believe that God is good. I have to already believe that I am bad to believe that my badness is a problem is a problem for my relationship with God. How does it even make any sense at all that God sending someone to be executed in a backwater of a Roman province 2000 years ago makes him able to hang out with us?

I happily grant that many people care. The popularity of The 4 Spiritual Laws tracts seems to indicate that there are quite a few people who care (now, at the risk of being horribly ungracious, I am honestly not sure whether the popularity of these tracts is because of their "effectiveness" or because they agree with the position of those who distribute them.) My critique here is in light of those who really don't care. Those who don't feel the need that this proposes the fulfillment of.

There are many Christians who decry the cultural trend toward postmodernism with its strong position of relativism. Part of this concern comes from the realization that that the "who cares?" critique comes out of it. Relativism is a reality in our world and is growing in strength. As a result the "who cares?" critique is becoming stronger as well. It has always been a strong critique among those who are quite pleased with their own worldview's dealing with it's own understanding of the issues. The response of this gospel is to simply say that they are wrong and because they are wrong they are going to hell and their simple response is "well I guess that is what you believe, who cares?"

Now, please don't get me wrong, believing this version of the gospel does not by any means exclude you. That is not what I am saying at all. God is way bigger than that. I am pointing out problems because there are problems. If this critique does not speak to you at all simply be aware that this is a critique that this gospel succumbs to and it is a critique that is growing in the culture.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

This is a Life of Epic Beauty

I want to better see and articulate the epic beauty of our situation.

We have been made, called and empowered to make concrete God's subversive redemption in the very middle of this world. Experientially our participation in this redemption comes in the form of a struggle, a struggle that we quite literally embody. Being in the world but not of the world,we have within us both life and death where as the world only has death.

Our recognition of and conscious participation in this struggle that we embody is the core of our witness in the world. It is in this struggle that we discover (and I really do mean discover just as much as if we were to discover a new continent) our creative participation in that redemption. It is not that we conquer death in ourselves but that we recognize our actual place as the nexus or the point of contact between life and death in this world. In this conflict we constitute the presence of God in this world.

Wounded soldiers who experience the injury as well as the healer's power, healing us and healing the world through us.

It is an existence of radical freedom and flux out of which we are truly empowered to act in this world; not according to the logical historical progression of things but rather as the meeting place between here and eternity.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Running From a Shameful Gospel: Part 1

This post is probably going to sound pretty harsh to many people and probably not very uplifting to the rest. Please read my Prolegomena before you get too hacked off.

My search for a shameless gospel started here. One of the first things I did after this event was to critically look at my preconceptions. To get clear on what it was about the gospel as I understood it that I found shameful. I had given up the assumption that I already knew what the Christian words were supposed to mean. I asked Christian after Christian what the gospel was. The replies were leverage words, that is words that leverage a much greater store of meaning than they actually in themselves mean. This just failed to work for me since, as I just said, I had given up pretending that I already knew what the words were supposed to mean. I eventually pieced something together, and wouldn't you know it, it pretty much sucked.

This is the popular gospel stripped to it's structure removed of its pretensions and semi-theological doublespeak. This is what it sounds like to someone doesn't already know what the Christianese is supposed to mean.

God is good and he loves us and he is really bummed that he is stuck with torturing most of humanity for all eternity in hell (unless we are of a more divinely deterministic mindset, in which case God is totally all right with torture and in fact planed it that way so that he could see how cool he was.)
However, fortunately for some of us he tortured Jesus, who is his own son, to death so that he could have the company of at least the few of us who get off the hook for hell by doing the mental gymnastics of believing this story.
Now those of us who believe this stuff need to hold out till we die, trying not to disappoint God so much that he kicks us back onto the hell hook, so that we can eventually hang out with him for ever and ever.

If you believe something like this, don't worry, the truth is so much better.

Friday, September 16, 2011


There are some things that I will say in this blog as well as in real life that come across as really very harsh. In real life conversation and teaching I normally have the time to explain a few things that the blog format does not really allow for. I am going to say those things here.

1) Criticism of an idea is, in itself, not criticism of a person. This is an important distinction because I am often very critical of ideas, even ideas that many people hold very dear. If I intend to criticize a person I will make that amply clear. Otherwise take it as going after an idea. Good people can easily hold goofy ideas. I may or may not be good but I am pretty sure I hold some goofy ideas. I try to find them and to the best of my ability root them out but there are good betting odds that I still hold plenty. So, if I criticize or attack and idea you are committed to please know that I am not attacking you personally.

2) Right theology or doctrine is important but it is not everything, it is not even fundamentally vital (this one will require a post unto itself, here I just state my point.) This links to the above distinction. Good and even righteous people can have goofy ideas, even goofy ideas about God. Those goofy ideas do not make God love or like them any less. However, right theology or doctrine make a big difference to the quality of a person's and a community's life as does right thinking in any other area. I may deeply criticize theology or doctrine you hold very dear, know well that such criticism does not indicate that I am placing you beyond the pale of redemption.

3) I may be completely wrong about everything. There are limits to human knowledge and one of those limits is that we are unable to be sure of where the limits lie. Now, the last time I checked I think I qualify as a human. However, I think I am right. There are some things that I am more committed to than others and that variation in commitment come from my assessment of both the importance of the issue and my confidence that I am in touch with reality. Nevertheless, even when I am most committed I know I may still be completely wrong. The corollary of this is that I am entirely open to the ideas of others being completely wrong as well.

4) I fundamentally believe that the truth is far better and more beautiful than any of us can comprehend. With this in mind, I don't have a problem being wrong because the truth is even better than what I happen to currently believe.

5) Honestly, I don't take myself particularly seriously. It always surprises me when others do take me seriously. I am just an explorer searching my way through the world. I am curious and find reality in all it's complexity immensely interesting.

I may need to add to this, but for now what I have here should do.

Monday, September 12, 2011

God Gets Everyone

I was planning on doing this as a 9-11 post but didn't have the time to finish it off yesterday. So here it is today.

Yesterday in particular there were many Christian people talking about being open and accepting to Muslims. Mainly the admonitions come across as classic liberal ideals and I am left wondering if there is any manner of theological basis beyond, "Jesus wants us to be nice."

In a sermon I heard yesterday we learned that Muslims are not so different, actually they are just like us, very few of them are truly dangerous and we ought to show them the love of Jesus. Not only that, but we were reminded to let go of anger against Muslims for 9-11 because "Jesus tells us to forgive our enemies." (how many problems can you find in this? Hint: more than 2)

So, what is the foundation of our relations with people of this world? "Be nice" just doesn't cut it for me and though I like the classic liberal ideals they just seem to be missing something......like a foundation.

First, really, Muslim/Christian it makes no difference. Granted, there are variations in style, but religion is religion and to put it bluntly, I am no longer able to convince myself that God is a gnostic, kicking the shit out of us unless we discover and give mental assent to a specific and precise set of truth claims. Religion is about how we make good with God. That is the point and thrust of all religion. Everyone is playing the same game with the same basic rules but with some slight variation in their playing style. They are all on the same field.

Second, this Jesus thing is about participating with the empowerment of the Spirit of the Living God in his plan for redeeming this world. This participation looks like Jesus on the cross.

Third, in the end God gets everyone. I have lost the ability to insist that God lacks the love or cleverness to get what he wants in the end. (Or was Jesus a liar, or Yahweh a foolish weakling?)

So, yes, forgive evil doers because that is participation in the Spirit of Christ (if in fact that Spirit is in you.) Yes, be open and accepting to Muslims because their religion has just as little to do with the actual gracious structure of redemption as yours does. Yes, find the value in other cultures because the more colors, the more better. Yes, love your neighbor because God loves all his children.

God is not on our side. God is on his own side, doing his own thing, making and executing his own plan. The question is, are we on God's side? That is a question we do not get the answer to till it is too late. So, show some humility, do some good, pray that God would fill you with his Spirit to give you life and the power to participate in his plans.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Gospel: The Word in Use

People will often begin talking about a concept by giving a dictionary definition. I have always found these definitions marginally helpful at best. They are normally shallow and wooden. Language doesn't actually work based on definitions, it works based on how the terms are actually used. So I will not give a dictionary definition of "gospel," rather we will take a very brief inductive look at what it seems meant to communicate.

In the New Testament “gospel” translates the Greek word evaggelion. This word simply means “news that brings joy.” In the Roman world the gospel was the announcement of the ascension of the emperor that went out to all the provinces to assure the people that the universe was intact and that the wonders and joys of the Pax Romana would flourish ever more under the bountiful grace of the newly reconstituted heavenly realm of Rome. The people were to be overjoyed at the good news that the great savior has come.

 Incidentally, this news was not on the whole joyfully accepted. Though there were benefits and advances that came from the Romans, the experience of most people was that Rome came promising peace but all they saw was a bloody sword.

So when someone in the Roman world claims to declare evaggelion they expect what they are saying to bring joy. They are indicating that what they are saying deals with things of universal import. They are declaring something that has been accomplished. Jesus and the New Testament authors believed that nothing short of this was going on.

But what was going on?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Light in the Skeletons

Salvation comes to us when we believe? We are saved two millennia ago in the work of Jesus? I tell you the truth, the heart of salvation for all humanity is the same fiery core that that threw this universe into being.

That divine fiery core pursues humanity with the fierce love of a parent bent on rescuing a broken-minded, willful, lost child bent on suicide.

So many of us see God as a pissed off stepfather or a disappointed crusty old grandfather. Our existence in this fractured world thrusts this view deep into our collective psyche. When I reflect on the stupidity and futility of existence in this world it looks like we are children lost in a house of horrors where we run to escape or cover our faces to try not to see. In this darkness filled with things we know should not be The Ancient of Days, our loving Father, chases us, follows us, tries to take hold of us. However, terror-striken as we are, we mistake Him for yet another specter and run down another dark hallway. He would embrace us, take our hand, point out the peeling rubber on the mannequins, walk us through the house, show us how to turn on the lights and make the place a joyful place to live.

The joyful, loving light of the universe is loose in the house of horrors and he is out to get you.

Friday, September 2, 2011

What is the Gospel?

Cut to the chase.

One thing that has come clear this far on the search is that in that passage in Romans Paul gives a huge gigantic clue. The reason he gives for not being ashamed of the gospel is that "it is the power of God."

For some reason I never caught this clue before. I always thought that Paul was saying something about the  gospel, like I might say, "the apple is good for your health." "Good for your health" is something about the apple, it is not what the apple is. It says something about the appearances of how the apple interacts with things. It is, as it were, external to the apple. The apple is a tasty, sweet-tart fruit that grows on trees. I took Paul to be saying that the gospel, whatever that is, does God power stuff.

I have come to believe that the gospel is the power of God. The power of God is what the gospel is. The power of God is internal to the gospel like sweetness is internal to the apple.

But this isn't saying much, if it even makes sense. The beauty and hugeness of this clue really comes into focus when we come to see what it means in the context of the rest of what the gospel is.

So....what is the gospel?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Where It Started

Many years ago I was sitting in my room in the attic of the office I built for my father reading the apostle Paul's letter to the Romans. Near the beginning he declares that he is "not ashamed of the gospel." It dawned on me that I was ashamed of the gospel. At the same time I realized that a very large proportion of other christians seem to be as well. This realization came from looking at how that passage is often preached and accepted as a demand to stop being ashamed of the gospel and to go out on the street corners (proverbial or otherwise) and "witness" or proclaim that gospel. This was particularly prevalent at youth conferences and meetings.

Something new happened that evening as I wondered about this. For the first time I looked at what Paul said, took seriously the obvious intelligence of the man and realized that he must be talking about something other than what I thought the gospel was. I realized that I didn't know what he was talking about.

Now, the gospel is central to the meaning of Christianity.

I grew up in the church. I could preach and pray and debate. I could use all the words. It hit me that if I didn't know what the gospel was how could I think I had any clue what this christian thing even meant. I could use the words but I didn't really know what they meant, I didn't know the actual content of the terms.

I had to start from scratch.

All I had was, "I wonder what Paul was on about."
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