Death and Resurrection: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

**The following is a sermon transcript for a message I preached at Seed Church on October 15, 2017.  You can listen here.

Safe to say that in our American culture, we do not like to deal with the topic of death.  We are really into our materialism and pursuit of pleasure. Distractions are a big part of our lives especially our phones nowadays. Being bombarded with advertising our entire lives that tell us we will be complete with a certain new gadget, that we will have a hole in our lives until we have another possession or that we will have members of the opposite sex around us if we drink a certain beer.

Fumbling around for purpose and meaning in our society, we put o thinking about the inevitable.  Dr. Lawrence Samuel, in an article entitled ‘Death, American Style’, published by Psychology Today writes: ‘Americans’ fear and loathing of death poses major consequences for the future; the fact that our life spans have been dramatically extended over the last century does not make the impending arrival of death any easier. In fact, many if not most of us are dreading the day this most unwelcome guest will knock on our doors, as our youth-oriented society casts death as a threatening foe or adversary. With the biggest generation in history already in or rapidly hurtling toward its sixties, America is on the brink of becoming a death-oriented society, I contend, something that we are not at all prepared for. Baby boomers are especially unready for this day; their individual and collective deaths may become one of the most important chapters in American history. Already a topic few people like to talk about, death is especially alien to a generation priding themselves on thinking and acting young regardless of their age.’ But really any generation in our culture has this fear. Our worship of youth self-evident.

You are all probably not morbid like me but have you ever thought about how many dierent ways you can die in a day? A car accident. Hit by a bus. A disturbing diagnosis from a doctor.

It’s amazing that in American society, we spend so much eort dierentiating ourselves from others. We have our class system- rich, poor and middle class in which we make judgments about people’s character or morality. Look at the person next to you. Maybe this is someone you know very well: a spouse, a good friend, a child or maybe it is an acquaintance or someone that you don’t know very well. And when you look at this person, if you know them at least a little bit, consider all the ways they are dierent from you. Their dierent personality, maybe they are a person of a dierent race or gender, maybe they have completely dierent hobbies.

In spite of all these dierences, these dierent lives we lead and the dierent things that we are into, we all have this in common. The grave. The grave is waiting for us all. An enemy that will defeat us all in the end. No wonder as we approach Halloween that one of our pop culture characters is the grim reaper. A foe that will not be beat that stalks us. One day, we will be overtaken.

Do you remember your first experience with death? I was 7 years old. My dad had called us from Oklahoma where he had gone down because his dad- my grandpa (Art Lester)- was sick with lung cancer. Dad called to say that grandpa had passed away and that he was moving grandma up to Kent where we lived. I didn’t know my grandpa super well being all of 7 but obviously dicult as a kid to realize that someone would not be there anymore.

A year later, I would get an even deeper introduction. My grandma on my mom’s side was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Being 8 years old, this was explained to me as a terrible disease that would cause grandma to forget everything and eventually for her brain to forget vital functions.

Fast forward about 3 years, I’m 11 or 12 and we get a phone call at our house in Kent. Grandpa had called extremely upset because he could not get grandma to go to bed. She was sitting in a recliner in their living room and kept declaring him to be a stranger. This was 10pm at night and mom decided she wanted to go out there and was going to go alone but I declared, ‘I’m going to come with you.”  So we drove out to the Yelm area, way far south of Seattle and arrived to this scene.  Sure enough. Grandma was still seated in the living room recliner. Grandpa was beside himself. Mom ordered me to go to bed rather quickly as it was late and also, I don’t know if they wanted me to hear the ensuing conversation. I did anyway as it was a short hallway down to the guest bedroom from the living room.

The conversation revolved around having to put my grandma in a home and selling their home that he had largely built himself. My grandpa wept. I had never heard him cry before. He was a truck driver, a member of Teamsters and a guy who taught me the love of the outdoors. I remember as a kid wishing I could take this pain away but obviously I could not. Death was coming for people I loved. It had already showed up in a way through this disease robbing my grandma of the memories of their own story, the romance, the raising 5 kids together. All of it was gone. My grandpa was a stranger to her.

Being 11 or 12 years old, one’s thinking is obviously not too sophisticated yet but I still think about these memories and what happened. Years later I saw a movie that struck me. Now, this movie is nothing like my grandparents story but the theme I connected with in what Alzheimer’s did to my grandparents. The movie is ‘About Schmidt’ and maybe some of you have seen it. Jack Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt who is about to retire from an insurance job. A young guy is already going to be taking his place. So he retires and soon his long time wife dies but then he discovers his wife was having an aair with one of his good friends. To top it all o, his daughter is engaged to be married to this furniture salesmen whom he hates. His entire life has unraveled creating an existential crisis in this man’s life. He has a monologue toward the end of the movie, one of my favorites of all time:

Death is approaching for Warren Schmidt but we are not just talking anymore about physical death are we? We are talking about a spiritual death. One devoid of meaning, purpose or hope. Schmidt’s soul is dead. Sometimes, it may take someone a long time to realize that truth. Death is a constant in this fallen world. 7 billion people exist on planet earth today. Did you know there are more people who exist today then who have existed in all of human history (say up to the year 1900)? Of all the dierent cultures, languages, races and everything else that made all these people unique, they all faced he grave and were overcome by it.

Except for this one time with this one Guy…

Background: In the Old Testament was there a conception of resurrection? From  Genesis to Malachi, discussion on resurrection or an afterlife seems severely limited to non-existent. However, there are scholars that argue that Judaism did have a belief in resurrection generally. Jon Levenson is one of those scholars. He wrote a book called ‘Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel’ where he sets out to argue that resurrection had been a common and general belief of Israel’s since the very beginning not just in Daniel chapter 12 which appears to be talking about the apocalypse and resurrection at the end of that time.

Fast forward to Jesus time and a lot of us are familiar with the dierent Jewish groups around Israel under the Roman occupation. The Pharisees believed in resurrection at the end of time after the apocalypse. The Sadduccees, asked on their gospel conversations with Christ denied the resurrection or any resurrection. The Essenes (who many believe authored and copied the Dead Sea scrolls) believed in the immortality of the soul and that they would receive their souls back after death. The Zealots were a more radical political branch of the Pharisees who, of course, wanted to throw the Romans out of the Holy Land by force. They most likely would have shared the Pharisees views of resurrection.

Now, being that we are in Corinth and remember that Corinth was a shipping port so lots and lots of dierent kinds of people would be coming in and out. A diverse crop of people all the time. So the Corinth church had Jewish people who had become Christians or maybe were somewhere along the spectrum of becoming Christians.

The city and therefore the church also had a lot of Greeks. Greeks had been highly influenced at that time by platonic dualism. Plato taught that the physical body was an imperfect copy of an ideal form that existed spiritually. Plato’s philosophy taught that our soul or spirits existed prior to our life on earth. Our physical bodies were mortal. Therefore, at death, people would be freed from there physical bodies which the Greeks at Corinth thought would be a good thing. Now we know why the Corinth church had a tough time accepting the bodily and physical resurrection of Jesus.

One of the main points Paul is making here is the centrality of the resurrection to the gospel and a key component of that is a historic and bodily resurrection.

Let’s dive into what Paul has to say and his apologetic.

15:1- “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand,”

Paul says he makes known the gospel and by this he is not saying he is unveiling the good news for the first time. He reminds the Corinthians they have already received Jesus as Lord and Savior. The language with “received” indicates that it was a decisive act. The overall verse actually strongly implies a gentle rebuke as the Corinthians had received the gospel but were not appreciating it. Paul describes them as standing in the gospel so they had a fundamental grasp of Jesus’ love and sacrifice for them even without maybe a complete understanding.

15:2- “and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”

The people of Corinth are described as saved in verse 2 if they hold fast to the word which Paul had preached to them. ‘Saved’ is present continuous. This is describing their status before God having salvation but this is also a continuing act of redemption that God is working on in their lives. The ‘if’ here is tricky. This is a conditional statement that seems to suggest that someone is saved if they continue to hold to that gospel that was preached. All of this bound to ignite the age old Calvinist and Arminian debate. Can someone lose their salvation? This is not the only place Paul uses the word ‘if’ in relation to salvation. Colossians 1:22-23 is another place and this is the same author as Romans. Rather than rehashing this old debate, let’s have a truce. Let’s bring everyone together. Here is the thing. If you are a Calvinist or you favor Jacobus Arminius, in regard to eternal security, both perspectives agree on the end game. Calvinists would say that a person was never really saved and therefore is lost and needs the gospel. An Arminian will say that a person has lost their salvation and is lost and needs the gospel. So, both scenarios…the person in question needs the gospel. Let’s have a truce.

15:3- “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,”

Paul was the missionary who delivered the gospel to the Corinth Church. Acts 18 has information about Paul’s work in Corinth on his missionary journey. The apostle emphasizes this is not his message. It is not something he made up but something that he is passing on that is of extreme importance. He proclaims: Christ died for our sins. What is implied in this verse is an atoning sacrifice. For the wrongs we have committed against God, Jesus being sinless took those wrongs upon Himself so that we could be reconciled to a Holy God and be forgiven. People say that God’s love and God’s justice meet at the cross. There are people today who are critics of Christ dying for sins. Some thinkers even go so far as to declare this to be divine child abuse. This perspective fundamentally misunderstands the historic Christian position of Jesus being God. God chose incarnation by His own choice. Also, the doctrine of the Trinity illuminates our understanding more of Jesus being a member of the godhead and His relationship to the other persons. Can an innocent, sinless man take upon sins he did not commit? This is a tougher question but ultimately God makes the rules. A big part of how we see God working in the Scriptures is that he interacts with different human cultures and ideas. The idea of an animal without blemish being offered as a sacrifice for sins was the Old Testament sacrificial system. For sins that are committed, there must be justice. We all want justice when someone is wronged. Christ’s death was Him taking justice for us. Paul also writes in Romans 5:8, ‘God demonstrated His own love for us while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ This was literally a huge demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all of us. ‘According to the Scriptures’ Paul is beginning his apologetic. He does not reference any Old Testament Scriptures specifically but he is arguing that Christ’s death was foretold. Obviously, this gives his teaching a huge weight as he is stating that what he is teaching about Jesus had its origins in inspired Scripture. Many commentators think that he could have been thinking about Isaiah 53.

15:4- “that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,”

Paul emphasizes that Christ was buried so he is saying Christ was really dead. They took him off the cross and sealed him in a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimethea. He was buried in this tomb for 3 days and then He was risen. He conquered death.  Commentator Simon Kistemaker writes about the Greek in this verse: ‘The Greek uses the past tense to describe a single action in the past for Jesus’ death and burial. But for the verb to be raised the Greek has the perfect tense to indicate an action that occurred in the past but has lasting relevance for the present. That is, Jesus was raised from the dead and continues his life in the resurrected state.’ Paul again says this was according to the Scriptures. Like the previous verse, he adds the weight of Scripture backing up these truths. He is declaring in this way how vitally important both of the previous verses are. He again does not reference an Old Testament verse that specifically talks about Christ’s resurrection. Given the disciples stunned reactions to the death of Christ, it would be hard to imagine that they anticipated this. There are references to the ‘third day’ in Hosea 6:2 with God raising Israel on the third day. There is also Jonah in the belly of the whale for three days. Isaiah also prophesies a resurrection in Isaiah 53:10-12. Notice the similarities in verse 3-4 and both verses ending in ‘according to the Scriptures’. This was likely a very early Christian creed that establishes to foundational ideas and claims of Christianity we hold to today: the death of Christ for sins and the resurrection.

15:5- ‘and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.’

In verse 5, Paul moves into his apologetic. He describes the appearances of Christ to others including Cephas (Paul’s name for Peter/ Cephas is Peter in Aramaic). Then he mentions that Christ appeared to the 12 disciples in the upper room. Jesus, of course, appeared first to the women going to the tomb: Mary Magdalene, Mary, Salome and the two men on the road to Emmaus.

15:6- ‘Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.’

Paul continues the apologetic. He says that Christ appeared to over 500 brothers post resurrection. There is actually nothing in the gospels or Acts to collaborate this figure. The closest is the meeting of 120 people in Acts 1:15 who gathered to appoint a successor to Judah’s Iscariot. The main point is: Paul is declaring this to potential skeptics or those curious to find out that they at believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection.  This verse is Paul stating that some of these witnesses are alive and someone could go and talk with them or correspond with them. These are those who remain. The ones who have fallen asleep are those who have died. The phrase is a euphemism for someone passing away.

15:7- ‘Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.’

James is probably the half brother of Jesus who was a recognized leader in the church so Paul is maybe name dropping here to bolster his apologetics case for the resurrection. The Corinth church would have heard about James and maybe many had met him. Christ then appeared to all the apostles. Could be another reference to the Twelve as the definition of apostle is a person who was appointed by Jesus himself and witnessed Jesus’ resurrection.

15:8- ‘Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.’

According to Paul, Jesus made his last post resurrection appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus. This was a unique revelation from the Lord which changed Paul’s life as he was a killer of Christians- a zealous Jew who was rounding believers in Christ up. This was an incredibly dramatic change. ‘As one untimely born’ is an unusual phrase in Greek and in a negative connotation it could mean an untimely stillbirth or an aborted fetus. Paul is probably just contrasting himself against the other apostles as he was not an original member of the Twelve.

15:9- ‘For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.’

Paul feels unworthy and gives a little bit of his background and testimony. Relentlessly, he persecuted the church of God. Consider the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 as to which Paul was present and endorsing the act.

15:10- ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.’

Seeing his life as being a testimony of the grace of God, Paul declares that ‘I am what I am’ and God’s grace had not been in vain. Indeed, Paul wrote most of the inspired New Testament and his missionary journeys reached thousands for Christ and established churches in the Middle East, Asia Minor and going up into the southern part of Europe. Indeed, he did a lot of laboring on behalf of the gospel.

15:11- ‘Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.’

Paul or other apostle proclaimed the gospel and the believers in the church (in this case Corinth) believed.

Let’s recap the flow of Paul’s argument here. He declares that the church in Corinth had the gospel but perhaps we’re missing a complete understanding. The incomplete understanding was apparently confusion surrounding the resurrection. Greek philosophy may have led many of the Corinthians to think that Jesus had risen as a spirit or a ghost. Paul rigorously defends a bodily resurrection of Jesus. The apostle makes the case for a re-animated corpse that happened in real time and history. The death of Christ for sins and His resurrection are listed in what may again very well be an early creed which lists these things as central to the gospel and thereby key to life transformation. A key element in beating sin and death (both physical and spiritual).

Thesis: Christ’s resurrection is not merely inspirational but is an empowering force of the gospel that helps us to see and act as redemptive agents with Jesus.

Once you see, you cannot unsee. Sure, people can try to ignore what they have seen or bury it or try and run from it but if you have seen the conquering force of the resurrected Christ in your life, this is the engine of the gospel that brings significant life change.

Look at Paul. A killer of Christians. He bragged in Philippians 3 that he was circumcised on the 8th day of the nation of Israel of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the law, a Pharisee as to zeal a persecutor of the church as to righteousness found in he law, blameless. This was the most religious guy you could ever meet in your life.

And something happens on that road to Damascus. A resurrected Savior speaks to him via a light from heaven in Acts 9 that flashed all around him. ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ An encounter with the resurrected Christ changed Paul because of what he saw on the road to Damascus.

Once you see, you can’t unsee.

The disciples had witnessed the crucifixion and death of Christ and were hiding out in the upper room. Scared for their lives, these tax collectors and fishermen and other common guys, expected Romans to bust in at any moment and arrest them. What happened to them? They went from scared to proclaiming Jesus to some of the very men who crucified Christ in Acts 2. Seeing the risen Savior completely changed the game.

Once you see, you can’t unsee.

Author Philip Yancey explains the significance of the resurrection and how that impacted the mentality of the apostles:

‘There are two ways to look at human history, I have concluded. One way is to focus on the wars and violence, the squalor, the pain and tragedy and death. From such a point of view, Easter seems like a fairy tale exception, a stunning contradiction in the name of God. That gives some solace, although I confess that when my friends died, grief was so overpowering that any hope in an afterlife seemed somehow thin and insubstantial. There is another way to look at the world. If I take Easter as the starting point, the one incontrovertible fact about how God treats those whom He loves, then human history becomes the contradiction and Easter a preview of ultimate reality. Hope then flows like lava beneath the crust of life. This, perhaps, describes the change in he disciples perspective as they sat in locked rooms discussing the incomprehensible events of Easter Sunday. In one sense nothing had changed: Rome still occupied Palestine, religious authorities still had a bounty on their heads, death and evil still reigned outside. Gradually, however, the shock of recognition gave way to a long slow undertow of joy. If God could do that…’

Seeing the resurrection and thereby seeing things upside down from the rest of the world causes a significant change of thought in the life of the disciple and their community.

Yet it is not just about seeing. The resurrection itself is not just a worldview and it is not just inspirational. The resurrection of Christ is an empowering of the individual and the church. Christ rising from the dead is the engine of the gospel. That is why Paul is aggressively defending this historical event to the Corinth church and why he insists on sharing the truth that this was a bodily resurrection, a reanimated corpse. This was the piece that the Corinth church was missing in receiving the gospel from Paul.

The resurrection empowers us within the kingdom of God when we have made Jesus our Lord and Savior. We start to see and act differently.

-We become concerned about the poor, downtrodden, widows, orphans because these are the kingdom values that Jesus taught.

-We begin to see all races and both men and women as children of God. The resurrection has us look forward to the day when believers in Jesus from all nations and races will be together in God’s kingdom.

-We begin to see that God through the resurrection is redeeming everything. Not just people but creation as well.

-We are confronted by the sin in our souls: addictions, hatred and we repent. Jesus’s resurrection put the sin curse in Genesis 3 in reverse. Everything is being reconciled back to him. Sin and death, our enemies- the very things that kept us from God and from righteousness have been defeated.

Even this being the case, the world is still enshrouded in darkness. The resurrection, as we can see did, did not end sin and death in the world but now there is this light shining in a vast abyss of darkness and Christ has empowered us to join His kingdom to help shine the light in this world with the event of his resurrection.

There are some who say in this world that I can be my own light. A recognition that the world is dark but a thought that by someone’s individual spirituality they can be a light. Let me comment on this point of view.  If you are a part of the darkness, you cannot be a light if we have participated in expanding the darkness. We need somebody from outside the system to be the light and then we join with them as they help us to expand the light and bring the light into this world. Jesus is that person who came.

If you have received Jesus as Lord and Savior, do not let the resurrection become something that is dry and stale. A dusty old doctrine like Calvinism or Arminianism. The resurrection is everything. Christ’s work here gives us the foundation to have hope and meaning in this chaotic world.

Some of you here may have never believed or taken Jesus as your Lord and Savior. I urge you to do so and believe in God raising him from the dead.

 

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Make America Read Again: Way Behind Edition

Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to hit my reading goal for the year.  Nevertheless, I still plug away.

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi

This book by Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi seems appropriate for our age a decade beyond the massive financial meltdown of Wall Street saw people lose their homes and retirement savings among other financial calamities.  The focus of Taibbi’s book though is less on the instruments of destruction that paved the way for the Great Recession and more on how a growing wealth gap in America enacts a completely different justice system for the rich and poor.  When we factor in race to that equation, the result is something even more lopsided in our court system.

Frankly, this book is infuriating and it is supposed to be.

As a columnist, Taibbi can be occasionally knee-jerk liberal reactionary to my taste.  The same style and tone is found in “The Divide” but it is a testament to Taibbi how heavily sourced this work is and how much is based on his actual eyewitness accounts in courtrooms as well as interviews with citizens who have found themselves on the wrong end of the law (by a lot of his telling, for dubious reasons).

Taibbi, of course, discusses the financial meltdown, offers evidence of massive amounts of mortgage fraud and tax evasion from top players at banks and other mortgage industry businesses and…hardly anyone went to jail.  Taibbi actually poured through public records where rampant fraud and other crimes by the wealthy are hiding in plain sight.  No prosecutions and little confrontation.  The author’s ire is often turned toward President Barack Obama and attorney general Eric Holder for being too chicken to go after the Wall Street buccaneers who devastated our economy and society.

A reader also gets a street-level inside look at New York City’s “stop and frisk” law which gave law enforcement tools to stop anyone and frisk them seemingly for any reason.  As one can imagine with little effort, this law disproportionately affected African-American citizens as well as Hispanics at very high levels.  Taibbi recounts cases of police officers planting drugs on people so they could arrest them.  The people affected by this law, often times being poor, would not have access to good lawyers and would, most of the time, cop a plea to a judge rather than plead innocent (and they may well be innocent) because this was the path of least resistance in our system.

“The Divide” takes a hard look at our immigration laws and immigration court system to reveal how much of a mess that whole system is as well.

One of the main takeaways from this book is the cultural assumption about rich and poor that Taibbi paints.  The rich are viewed as the moral upstanding citizens in the eyes of the law and being poor is criminalized in and of itself.

I took in the audio book of “The Divide” which was probably good because I could see myself with a physical copy throwing it up against my wall in anger and frustration related to the topics and themes.  The book gets under your skin and yet, on this topic, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“Twenty-six billion dollars of fraud: no felony cases. But when the stakes are in the hundreds of dollars, we kick in 26,000 doors a year, in just one county.”

“Our prison population, in fact, is now the biggest in the history of human civilization. There are more people in the United States either on parole or in jail today (around 6 million total) than there ever were at any time in Stalin’s gulags. For what it’s worth, there are also more black men in jail right now than there were in slavery at its peak.”

“It’s become a cliché by now, but since 2008, no high-ranking executive from any financial institution has gone to jail, not one, for any of the systemic crimes that wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth. Even now, after JPMorgan Chase agreed to a settlement north of $13 billion for a variety of offenses and the financial press threw itself up in arms over the government’s supposedly aggressive new approach to regulating Wall Street, the basic principle held true: Nobody went to jail. Not one person.”

“More and more often, we all make silent calculations about who is entitled to what rights, and who is not.”

“Unquestionably, however, something else is at work, something that cuts deeper into the American psyche. We have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we’re building a bureaucracy to match those feelings.”

“We’re creating a dystopia, where the mania of the state isn’t secrecy or censorship but unfairness. Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty, our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process. Winners get rich and get off. Losers go broke and go to jail. It isn’t just that some clever crook on Wall Street can steal a billion dollars and never see the inside of a courtroom; it’s that, plus the fact that some black teenager a few miles away can go to jail just for standing on a street corner, that makes the whole picture complete.”

Did Jesus Exist?  The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart D. Ehrman 

This is the third book I have read by Bart D. Ehrman, an agnostic who is a chair of he religious studies department at the University of North Carolina.  Like ‘Jesus Interrupted’ and ‘God’s Problem’, ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ is meant for a wide audience.  Ehrman is a scholar and has written collegiate textbooks but switched gears in 2005 when he published ‘Misquoting Jesus’ for a wider audience and became a New York Times bestselling author.

While he has drawn the ire of many Evangelicals and other Christians for his critical takes on the New Testament, he has particularly annoyed me with ‘Jesus Interrupted’ where he presented contradictions in the gospel as discrepancies that, at least in my view, are easy to explain as non-contradictions.  In other words, he greatly over-exaggerates his case.

‘Did Jesus Exist?’ might be viewed as an attempt at bridge building to the Evangelical world.  The main point of the book is proving the existence of Jesus of Nazareth using historical methods that include the gospels.  Ehrman aggressively defends Jesus as a historical figure against mythicists who believe that Jesus is fictional having been conceived from other deity stories or the cult of mithra.  Dispatching various books by mythicists convincing, Ehrman dives into historical methods that determine who Jesus was and what He did.

Now, before Christians get an overwhelming sense of ‘what the hell’ here, Ehrman is still an agnostic and he rejects the miracles in the New Testament.  Valuable to Christians in this work though is obtaining an understanding of how secular historians dialogue and debate about which accounts likely happened in history which is often based on how many independent sources could collaborate an account and how similar they may be in their descriptions.  Ehrman reminds his readers that there are at least 7 different independent accounts of Jesus existing- indeed a staggering collection of records for a homeless Jewish peasant who lived in Palestine 2,000 years ago.  The evidence, as Ehrman goes in to, even goes beyond that.

As a Christian who believes in he inspiration of the gospel accounts and thereby the miracles, I do not share Ehrman’s worldview but I do think his work here is good to have a working knowledge about and to dialogue upon.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“Most televangelists, popular Christian preacher icons, and heads of those corporations that we call megachurches share an unreflective modern view of Jesus–that he translates easily and almost automatically into a modern idiom. The fact is, however, that Jesus was not a person of the twenty-first century who spoke the language of contemporary Christian America (or England or Germany or anywhere else). Jesus was inescapably and ineluctably a Jew living in first-century Palestine. He was not like us, and if we make him like us we transform the historical Jesus into a creature that we have invented for ourselves and for our own purposes.”

“Jesus would not recognize himself in the preaching of most of his followers today. He knew nothing of our world. He was not a capitalist. He did not believe in free enterprise. He did not support the acquisition of wealth or the good things in life. He did not believe in massive education. He had never heard of democracy. He had nothing to do with going to church on Sunday. He knew nothing of social security, food stamps, welfare, American exceptionalism, unemployment numbers, or immigration. He had no views on tax reform, health care (apart from wanting to heal leprosy), or the welfare state. So far as we know, he expressed no opinion on the ethical issues that plague us today: abortion and reproductive rights, gay marriage, euthanasia, or bombing Iraq. His world was not ours, his concerns were not ours, and–most striking of all–his beliefs were not ours.”

“One of Jesus’s characteristic teachings is that there will be a massive reversal of fortunes when the end comes. Those who are rich and powerful now will be humbled then; those who are lowly and oppressed now will then be exalted. The apocalyptic logic of this view is clear: it is only by siding with the forces of evil that people in power have succeeded in this life; and by siding with God other people have been persecuted and rendered powerless.”

God Country by Donny Cates and Geoff Shaw

So refreshing to go from my non-fiction reading to a very good graphic novel published by Image Comics.  “God Country” is a story written by Donny Cates and had a lot of the artwork done by Geoff Shaw.  The books looks amazing and the story is a compelling read.

We find ourselves in rural eastern Texas where Roy is caring for his family which includes his aging father.  The father is Emmett Quinlan whose mind is rattled by Alzheimers.  He will occasionally have violent outbursts which causes a problem for his grandchildren and also the local police.  When a tornado ravages through town, a new Emmett emerges with a sword (Valofax) which restores his mind and turns him into a badass.   Of course, there are other gods who are looking for the sword and obtaining its powers.

This story does what good comic books do.  A lot of comics seem to be a rehashing of elements of Greek mythology- the interaction of gods and human beings.  This story keeps things personal and grounded.  We find clashes of gods here for sure but the center of the story is about a family dealing with a beloved family member suffering from a horrible disease.  As a matter of fact, the tornadoes and gods from other words that come to battle can be interpreted as metaphors of the difficult and painful journey of a family dealing with a crushing disease afflicting their loved one.

My maternal grandma died of Alzheimers disease so much of this felt pretty personal to me.

Lester Lauding Level:  4.5 (out of 5)

 

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Mother!- Reviewing Darren Aronofsky’s Latest

In the most recent Darren Aronofsky film, the audience may find itself becoming more empathetic to the wrath of God.  “Mother!” is a head trip of a movie that is contained to a singular house but reaches for grand metaphysical truth.  A story that is an environmental parable at heart but also well-versed in theology as it explores the nature of God.  An explosive indictment of humanity that centrally revolves around the toxicity in which domineering men treat women and abuse them.  The boiling anger all around the edges of this picture simmers at first until it builds into a mighty crescendo of rape, debauchery, theft and extreme violence.  By the time the fiery apocalypse comes around at the conclusion, a fate that is hinted at from the very first frames of the film, the viewers may well have made their moral peace with this decisive act of judgment.

With these characteristics, “Mother!” probably will be the most controversial film of 2017.  This conclusion will not just be limited to the thematic elements (though considerable) but also to whether or not the movie is good art.  Rex Reed of the New York Observer for instance called Darren Aronofsky a “wack job” and ripped into the film: “But nothing he’s (Aronofsky) done before to poison the ozone layer prepared me for mother!, an exercise in torture and hysteria so over the top that I didn’t know whether to scream or laugh out loud. Stealing ideas from Polanski, Fellini and Kubrick, he’s jerrybuilt an absurd Freudian nightmare that is more wet dream than bad dream, with the subtlety of a chainsaw.  This delusional freak show is two hours of pretentious twaddle that tackles religion, paranoia, lust, rebellion, and a thirst for blood in a circus of grotesque debauchery to prove that being a woman requires emotional sacrifice and physical agony at the cost of everything else in life, including life itself.”  Some other reviews are not kind either but the movie (at posting of this blog) sits at 69% on Rotten Tomatoes with 201 positive reviews.

I bring up this negative critique as a warning that a good number of you reading this will probably hate this movie.  I understand that as I would not characterize this as a movie I *liked* either.  More like appreciated or found thought-provoking in the way that I could not stop thinking about it for days after watching.  Probably a mistake to view this around Christmas time though.

Anyways, “Mother!” is set in a single house that is completely surrounded by a field and trees.  There are no discernable driveways or paths leading up to the house.  In this remote and simple setting live characters identified as Him (Javier Bardem) and Mother (Jennifer Lawrence).  An Eden. The main characters are remodeling this remote home- creating if you will.  Him is a once famous writer whose passion for authorship is waning.

One night there is a knock on the door at this remote house and we are introduced to Man (Ed Harris).  Man has a story and loves Him’s work so Him offers to let him stay the night. The next day, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives.  Mother is hesitant to let these people stay in the house, her conscience offering a stern warning.  From this premise, as seemingly minor as it is, builds an entire cauldron of swirling destruction.

Aronofsky is playing here with creation, fall and apocalypse and then re-creation.  He has also constructed a rather poignant environmental cautionary tale.  To achieve his themes, Aronofsky (who also wrote the screenplay) uses familiar Biblical texts as allegories and metaphors.  It is clear that Man and Woman are stand ins for Adam and Eve.  After these guests overstay their welcome, warring brothers arrive (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) and there is a murder.  Just like Cain and Abel.

So who are Him and Mother?  Well, one interpretation could have this couple be a sort of Trinitarian stand in for the Divine.  MAJOR SPOILERS AFTER THIS:  Him is a Creator and an Author.  Later, He becomes a Father.  Mother is perhaps a conscience or a spirit and later in the film, she conceives a male child (Jesus was “conceived” by the Holy Spirit- Luke 1:35).  The word “Spirit” in the Hebrew Bible is a feminine article.  “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2)  Mother remarks to Woman early in the film that she is desiring to build a paradise.

The arrival of houseguests do not stop with Man, Woman and the two warring brothers.  Soon a steady stream of humanity is arriving and with these masses, all the vileness that comes with the human condition (interpreted here by Aronofsky).

Mother is grief stricken, massively overwhelmed, and wants all of these people out of her house.  She is also pregnant and gives birth to a baby boy.  Wanting to shield the baby from the masses of humanity, she and Him lock themselves in an upstairs room.  However, Him wants to share the child with the masses against Mother’s wishes.  The crowd of people get their hands on the baby and begin passing the crying child around.  In what becomes the epitome of the disturbing and horrific nature of this story, the baby boy is murdered in a sacrifice and the crowd starts eating his flesh.  Sound familiar?  END MAJOR SPOILER SECTION.

While Aronofsky was going for an allusion to the Trinity that doesn’t mean that everything necessarily fits according to the common ancient theology.  The writer/ director is borrowing ideas from the doctrine in order to move his thematic goals forward.  The most obvious interpretation of the Jennifer Lawrence character is that she represents Mother Nature herself.

Another sub-theme revolves around Lawrence’s feminine character.  In his past movie “Black Swan”, Aronofsky crafted a film that used the famous ballet piece, “Swan Lake” to illustrate a feminist message (at least one interpretation but there is a lot going on in that movie).  Culture imposes and demands that women fit into a particular mold and unfairly judges accordingly.  These unattainable demands to perform in a specific way drove Natalie Portman’s character (Nina Sayers) into mental illness.  In “Mother!”, men look to violate women and exercise dominion over them.  In the film, the men grope and grab at Mother feeling entitled to her body.  Obviously, this runs analogous to the larger theme of humanity feeling entitled over Mother Nature. Seizing and taking without any regard to sacredness, respect or responsibility.

Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique have shot this film like a horror movie.  Much of the camerawork is close-ups on the performers themselves.  This style creates a claustrophobic sensation that is used in horror pictures because the audience cannot see a boogeyman jump out from the edges of the frame.  The great tension that people feel while watching “Mother!” is something or someone could jump out at any time.  However, rather then a sadistic slasher, a monster, a boogeyman or other supernatural force the antagonist and source of horror in this movie is humanity itself.

One read of Aronofsky’s career from his first film, “Pi” to “Mother!” is he enjoys triggering people.  His stories are strong thematically and he has passionate rebukes to offer to our culture (especially see “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan”).  He offers no apologies for his tendency to smash the audience in the face with his messaging and to incorporate scenes which push the boundaries of shock.  With “Mother!” he continues his trend of pulling no punches with a furious degree of escalation.

*Other Aronofsky movies I have reviewed:  Noah

**Another review on “Mother!” that I found compelling by Alissa Wilkinson.

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Christmas: A Night of Joy and Darkness

In my life, I cannot think of a time when Christmas did not bring me a deep happiness.  I was incredibly fortunate with no family stresses and other drama during the Yuletide season.   Growing up, my mom used to put out a green calendar with little pouches at the very beginning of December.  Those pouches held a candy a day- the countdown to the celebration.  As a kid, this might as well have been torture as I wanted Christmas to come immediately.  The anticipation of this mid-winter day was more than half the wonder.

My neighborhood friends and I believed in Santa Claus as young kids.  One time, we had a debate about whether Santa was real or if our parents had something to do with those mysterious gifts on Christmas morning, under the tree, in different wrapping paper then the other presents.  I forget who won that debate.

As a kid, the presents were certainly exciting but so was the wonder of believing in a mythical being like Santa Claus and flying reindeer.  These elements as well as having family and friends around contributed to the presence of happiness.  Upon my conversion to Christianity in my teenage years, I started thinking about Christmas in a deeper way revolving the birth of Jesus and the reason while we celebrate as a society (not that I had been unaware of the true meaning before).  The presents were still nice and I was thankful for what people gave to me but the extraordinary truth that this day communicated to the whole world as well as sharing the time with families and friends became of paramount importance.

Every winter, I try to wrap my head around a God that is transcendent to all the reality that we know and don’t know becoming a helpless baby.  I fail every time.  Having two kids myself, I have thought that the Divine was once an infant like my daughter and son.  A member of the Holy Trinity partook in the slow human development (at least slower then other mammals comparatively) of taking a baby to childhood and to adulthood.

Like I mentioned before, I’m fortunate because Christmas brings me a sense of happiness and therefore, an opportunity to contemplate these things.  That is not the case for many people and families who may be overwhelmed by the loss of a family member or friend who is no longer there around the table or the families that fight or are broken up.  Many are lonely around Christmas as well because for whatever reason, they are unable to get home.  An aspect that may interrupt all of our celebrations is the expectations that culture places on us and the stress that attacks us with those expectations.  Crowded malls. The “perfect” gift.  Decorations.

Though we don’t like to consider the fact, there is a dark element to Christmas.  In our current society, consumerism has brought us much of this darkness (I’ve written before about black Friday here).  American materialism becomes the big blinding philosophy, the supreme idol, that obscures the things in life that have deeper or lasting value.

The dark element of Christmas is not only in the sadness that many people try to hide in order to not interrupt the seasonal cheer of others but also in the original story itself.  An out-of-wedlock pregnancy (how many people in that day would believe a virgin birth story?).  A despotic King who felt threatened so he ordered the execution of male children under two years of age (Matthew 2:16-18).  A poor family unable to stay in a guest room so their new baby was laid in a manger.

The God of the universe, a member of the Holy Trinity, being born as an infant in a terrifying world.  One where His people were oppressed and occupied by Rome.  One where the lowly and impoverished were harassed by self-righteous zealots.  Imagine the news of this young Christmas family being pregnant out of wedlock and how that would translate to many of the religious leaders of that day.

The first Christmas would have had a range of emotions for Mary and Joseph like it does for many today.  Bewilderment in the sense of not knowing what is going on or how these circumstances are possible.  Fear at the responsibility of taking care of the Son of God. Terror at the news of a tyrant murdering male children.  Loneliness as they were having Jesus away from their home.  Joy upon seeing their newborn baby birthed into the world in Bethlehem.  Perhaps a hope with messages delivered by angels that a Savior was being born into the world.

Many still discuss Jesus today like my friends and I debated Santa Claus.  There is little doubt that Jesus existed in history and, as recorded in the gospels, made stunning claims about himself.  The awe and wonder that I felt in believing in Santa Claus as a young kid can be recaptured by the Divine wrapped in swaddling clothes while lying in a manger in Bethlehem.  A real life event that encapsulates the spectrum of feelings that people may feel on this day.

Joy intermingled with the darkness and pain of the world.  As true today as it was for the inaugural Christmas.

 

 

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Jesus and Secular Humanism: A Discourse

While coming of age in the 1990s within the realm of conservative Evangelical Christianity, I heard my fair share about the boogeyman.  No, this wasn’t the devil and his henchman although we heard about them too and they are recorded as active in the Scriptures.  The boogeyman I’m referring to was an elaborate conspiracy made up of liberals, Hollywood people, elites, political establishments and especially atheists (although the latter can encompass all of the other categories).  The often just under-the-radar ideology threatened to brainwash children through the public school system (through the teaching of atheistic evolution), mainstream music, film and television.  Parents were to be ever vigilant and there were Christian resources dispensed to aid in recognizing this toxic message that was seeping into our culture.

The boogeyman was secular humanism.

The conspiracies got colorful in a lot of cases and Christian fiction had an opportunity to seize.  Talk regularly involved a globalist agenda that back then was referred to as a one world government.  The anti-Christ, carrying the distinctive 666 marking, would rise to power perhaps by embodying this humanistic ideology to take control.  Secular humanism would seek to destroy God and persecute Christians.  Anyone can check this out in the best-selling apocalypse series “Left Behind” by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.  In the conservative Evangelical world, this was the heyday of premillennial dispensationalism.

Setting up secular humanism as a boogeyman lurking in the subtext of popular entertainment and stalking the halls of academia fulfilled a key purpose.  That purpose was uniting a Christian subculture against the identity of a common enemy.  Us vs them.  An unending culture war that portrayed our side as righteous and good compared with the horrific other side- the forces of evil.

At the present time, some of the seeds of this thinking have come to fruition in the bitter partisan blood feud that is our politics.  Globalism, while having many credible critiques of its effects, has been used to elicit fearful responses from some demographics about a new world order coming or a one world government (by the way, the Bible never mentions anything like this).  Secular humanism is almost always regarded as a driving force toward this goal.

Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist (and one of my favorites by the way), commented on the psychology of the Evangelical movement in America by exploring the ideas of Christian Smith:  “About 20 years ago, the eminent sociologist of religion Christian Smith coined a useful and resonant phrase, describing evangelical Christianity in the post-1960s United States as both ‘embattled and thriving.’  By this Smith meant that evangelicals had maintained an identity in a secularizing country that was neither separatist nor assimilated, but somehow mainstream and countercultural at once.”  In other words, Evangelical Christianity wielded a surprising amount of influence and power and yet was able to communicate a message to those of us within the ranks that we were being attacked.  The assault often portrayed as being carried out by those secular humanists lurking in the shadows and anxious to destroy our sacred faith.

As a result of feeling embattled, many Evangelicals huddled within the confines of our safe subculture-complete with our own music, films and publishing arms- which, in many ways, led to a scandal of the evangelical mind as author Mark Noll has argued.  What happens is we hear about secular humanism from Christian authors and faith-based speakers not from humanists themselves except for a quote here or there (probably often lifted out of context).  This strategy has resulted in cartoonish caricatures and straw man arguments about what secular humanism is and also what an average secular humanist may think about a given topic or issue.

Recently, I ran across a blog on Medium that was written by a social media friend of mine, Kyle Johnson.  I do not know Johnson personally but we both were past attendees at Mars Hill Church and a number of people coming out of that debacle gathered in online forums to hash out our thoughts which is where I first connected with him.   Having an Evangelical background, he is now a secular humanist and wrote a thoughtful post on what exactly he believes.  He also digs into some of the misrepresentations both Christians and humanists may have about one another as well as his basic beliefs.  You really should read the whole thing but here are some excerpts I want to interact with. He writes:

“Christian culture has deeply embedded assumptions about what atheists believe and how atheists view the world. I was a Christian for nearly 25 years and carried many of these same assumptions — generally without realizing they were merely that: assumptions, not based on any informed interaction with the average atheist. That’s not to say the assumptions are entirely useless; “angry atheists” do exist and some of those assumptions apply to such people.”

From there, he lays out his creed:

“I am a secular humanist.  Secular: my outlook on life ignores the supernatural, including gods.  Humanism: the flourishing of human life is of immediate concern.  By the simplest definition of humanism, many Christians are humanists since many Christians seek the flourishing of human life. That is why I add secular: a Christian may look to their god to define what is and is not human flourishing and how best to affect it, while I ignore any commands or desires a god may or may not have.”

The general tenants of his worldview are then presented:

Methodological naturalism holds that — regardless of the existence or non-existence of the supernatural — we should ignore supernatural causes and concerns in how we understand the world. Today, the best tool we have to understand nature is the scientific method and knowledge gained apart from the scientific method tends to be unreliable. Perhaps the supernatural does exist, but we have yet to discover a method of reliably detecting and studying it.”

Consequential ethics rejects any religious notion of divine commands which define right and wrong. Instead, ethics are determined by the outcome and guided by compassion. If we have a goal — the flourishing of human life — and we can observe that goal in the natural world, then we can develop an ethics system based on observable outcomes. No divine command is needed to determine that a low speed limit on a residential street makes for a healthier community.”

I wanted to interact with this blog post and discuss Christianity up against what Johnson has presented.

First off, I like how Johnson went to a commonality between a Christian worldview and secular humanism.  Christians do indeed want to see the flourishing of human life as many secular humanists do.  As Johnson certainly knows, believing in a Creator God has Christians believing that Elohim (the name for God in Genesis 1) formed man and woman in His own image.  The most direct interpretation of “imago dei” is that human beings are God’s representatives upon the Earth (like people representing a king in a monarchy). Many theologians take the idea farther ascribing a sacredness to people’s lives because people have been made intrinsically and specially by God.

Starting from this core belief, Christians value the lives of the unborn to the elderly.  Like our secular humanist neighbors, we want to support our best and brightest scientists in finding cures to the diseases that plague people’s lives. Believers in Christ should also listen to our elite scientists regarding environmental problems, specifically climate change, and participate in trying to alleviate the problem.  After all, the first tasks that God gave to Adam and Eve were taking care of the garden and naming the animals.  These jobs strongly imply an intimate connection with the world and a sacred responsibility for its care.  While a few Christian denominations are pacifist in nature (I’m personally not), all believers should make war and violence an extreme, last resort scenario in our world.  It is encouraging to have secular humanists (as Johnson has described them) share most of these same values for the world we find ourselves on.  Obviously, there are many areas of commonality.

With the commonly described morals above, we would not have a full dialogue without addressing the monumental differences between the perspectives.  Of course, that comes with the “secular” label.  Certainly, there are a cadre of secular humanists who are more aggressively atheistic then Johnson presents.  In his post, Johnson seems to be indifferent to the existence of God (“regardless of the existence or non-existence of the supernatural”) to the point that a theistic belief does not matter.  This is actually a relevant question that I have heard people ask in different forms in our day and age.  What difference does it make in my life if God exists or not?  How would my morals or values be different if I did not believe in God?  From my perspective, belief in God makes all the difference.

I’m aware of Christians (specifically Evangelicals-  my own tribe) using the moral argument for the existence of God in a lazy manner.  The position is defined generally as “if there is no God, there is no ultimate morality therefore people can do whatever they want morally.”  I’ve heard descriptions of this get pretty fanciful including atheists murdering people walking down the street or raping anyone they want or being wild genocidal maniacs.  This is precisely the kind of idea that Johnson seeks to combat and he is mostly right too.

Regarding ultimate morality (a set of principles for all people of all times and all cultures), if God does not exist there cannot be a universal morality.  Martin Luther King, Jr famously proclaimed, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  An arc bending toward justice implies a direction.  A direction implies a Higher Power that is channeling the arc toward a specific future point.  This cannot be reconciled with an atheist worldview which involves chaos and randomness as a tenet.

Let me emphasize that this is not to imply that atheists or non-believers are not moral.  Quite to the contrary I have found in my own experience.  I know atheists who have solid values and who are very ethical people.  There are explanations of why we have human morality, according to secular humanism, which Johnson touched on in his piece.  Being a non-scientist, my understanding is that human beings evolved in tribes and communities thereby needing each other and so rules and laws came out of those arrangements.  Not a universal morality but morality as a construct because those ideas worked to hold together developing human societies.  My point in bringing up the difference God makes is in the acknowledgment that there are moral ideas which transcend the human experience and are beyond a mere construct.

As a Christian, I would emphatically state that what we believe about metaphysical reality does make a big difference in our lives (certainly in mine at the very least).  The Christian worldview, as we learn throughout Scripture but especially in the Sermon on the Mount and the book of James, postulates that what we believe in the innermost part of our being translates into the actions of our lives.  Jesus famously taught, “You will know a tree by its fruit (my paraphrase).”  That is, what we see in a person’s actions is a reflection of what they sincerely believe.  Belief flows to action and the two are interwined.

What difference does it make to believe in a God that is transcendent of time and space and all that we know of as reality and beyond?  In speaking about God, we are not talking about an impersonal force or the god of the deists who wound a universe up and then went away.  Christians have faith in a God that is defined by the Johannine community so long ago in 1 John 4:8:  “God is love.”  One of the fundamental elements of God is unconditional love.

Believing in this God makes a difference.  All of our actions stem from what we really believe deep within our mind and heart.  Jesus taught us that the greatest commandment was to love God and love our neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40).  Jesus was not a figure simply pontificating commands to His followers.  He was guiding them to a place where they can find hope and meaning in a very dark world.  In my view, the goal of the command is not to just a remain a divine fiat but to become a source of joy and peace for those who strive to live it out.

Legendary singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen (who sadly passed away last year) in his song “The Future” which is about the apocalypse sings, “but love’s the only engine of survival”.  The apostle Paul wrote in the often read 1 Corinthians 13 passage:  “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13, NIV)

In a world that everyday seems to be continually spiraling into chaos and an amoral abyss, the invitation to believe in Jesus still is an invitational light to all.  The Son of God is not just an inspirational figure although He is that.  He also seeks to empower us to a higher kingdom and the values the subsequently go along with that kingdom.

Love is the engine that God has given us to attain a higher existence.  A righteous life by His assistance.  A secular humanist/atheist/non-believer can certainly love and they do love others.  Scientists can do a brain scan and show what happens in a person’s brain when they love or are in love.  However, what is immeasurable is the unconditional love- a spiritual reality given by God- that moves people toward altruism on behalf of others.  Altruism is the grand contradiction to survival of the fittest and was profoundly and completely demonstrated by Jesus on the cross.  Believing in the God-man, empowers us toward this kind of love and I pray that all would experience it.

 

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Power Religion: The Religious Right, a year of Trump and the corruption of the Gospel

In the year of the orange-haired hellbeast, chaos and corruption reign supreme.  We are just past the annual anniversary of the election of Donald J. Trump and now have an entire calendar year to look at the mounting consequences of America’s decision.  The damage to American institutions can be considered: the frequent attacks on the press, ignoring of scientific consensus on climate change (even from his own government), threatening former FBI agents on Twitter, assailing our intelligence community, the perverse wishing that he could control the justice department to prosecute his political enemies, or the little matter of his associate’s connections to Russia which more and more are looking like a rather comedic episode of a reality TV show called “stupid criminals”.  Of course there is more considering an almost daily barrage of Twitter nonsense and public comments which, at best, seem to re-imagine English language.  Put that in your “covfefe”.

In spite of the social media tirades, bumbling public interviews, and profane shouting matches directed at Congressional members of his own political party, Trump has still pulled off having a reasonably solid base of support.  Within this loyal following are the white nationalists and other assorted white supremacists led by people like David Duke and Richard Spencer.  Their love for Trump and at least parts of his agenda has been publicly on display even obnoxiously on the T-shirt of arrested white supremacist, Dennis Mothersbaugh, which declared “God, Guns, and Trump”.  Apparently a new American trinity.

Speaking of Trinity, many Evangelicals (religious right) still support Trump as another large block.  I have touched on the religious right before by calling for the retirement of James Dobson from public life.

Many people are still asking all the time how Evangelical Christians can continue to support Trump.  An important question certainly with multiple answers but still, considering the macro level that Trump has eschewed any sense of Christian living, any basic ethical considerations in his business dealings including casinos and strip clubs, one would genuinely wonder at what level Evangelical supporters may start to abandon him.  What would it take to pry Trump from the clenched, death grip of the religious right?  Could Trump shoot somebody in broad daylight in New York City (as he bragged he could) and still have their support?  After all, here is a man who has flaunted in a major interview that he has never asked God for forgiveness.  Apparently, blasphemy is negotiable within politics for some.

Back when I was in high school I was somewhat of a budding member of the religious right. Definitely more politically conservative than I am now.  This was the time when the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and the religious right aggressively and publicly confronted Clinton’s sex life.  The message revolved around the importance of Godly character and how as a leader he should be disqualified (or certainly not trusted) as he had cheated on his wife. In general, the religious right had a message about returning to America’s alleged godly heritage and putting in solidly Christian candidates.  Pseudo historian David Barton was a prominent figure making videos and writing books that seemed to make most of our founding fathers into Evangelical-style Christians.  Clinton obviously didn’t live up to this, according to their argument, and his downfall had the religious right flailing about on how America was sinking into moral degradation.  Not even twenty years later, they would support the candidacy of Trump and still carry his water through the first year of his presidency.

Some of the leaders within the religious right may be taken aback by how many Evangelicals (specifically millennials) have reacted in anger and called foul on the entire enterprise of supporting Trump.  A disillusionment has settled over this part of the Evangelical camp (if millennials are even still in the Evangelical camp).  People who grew up hearing about the importance of character and integrity in leaders and were reminded of the vitalness of these crucial aspects now suspect they had been lied too.  That most of the teaching revolving around this political perspective was a sham.  It is not just me and not just other articles across the web of people expressing their dismay but multiple people that I know and have corresponded with in person or through social media in my circles.

Why again has the religious right thrown in with Trump when his behavior has been so far over multiple lines of morality and decency?  Again, there are varied reasons but I want to focus on one of the reasons which brings me to the central point of this post.

Power.

The seductive allure of power.  Having a seat in the corridors of immense power where a group can have access to fame and money.  Power religion.  Control.  Oh, the people that know that religious faith can be used to manipulate.  Power is tricky because it is so easy to justify the pursuit.  The religious right preaches to itself that they can enact Christian legislation as a representation of their idea of Christ.  Laws, in the minds of the religious right, can coarce people to behave Christianly under threat of government punishment if they don’t.  American can be taken back.  Made great again.  A new flourishing godly awakening can sweep the land according to this delusion.

I was recently in a social media discussion with a politically conservative Evangelical and I asked in his pursuit of bringing theocractic dominion theology to America if pre-marital sex and adultery should be criminalized.  The response came back that this was a debated point.  So, a conservative who allegedly believes in limited government and uses slogans revolving around ‘keeping the government out of people’s lives’ debates the point that a government should have the power to go into the most intimate parts of consenting adult’s lives and dispense punishments if someone is going against the Christian ideal of sexuality?

Now, personally, I reject a lot of the philosophies that have come out of the sexual revolution in the 1960s.  There is tremendous value in holding to a sacred view of sex within marriage.  Isn’t it more powerful to have someone make this choice for themselves though?  What is more meaningful?  If I came home to my wife and stated that I would not sleep around with other women because I was afraid a government bureaucrat would punish me, is this at all meaningful?  Or if I said I would refrain from sleeping with other women because I had made a choice (a personal vow) to love my wife?  The difference is law and gospel.  A subject that all Christians versed in the New Testament should be familiar with.

In a blog post during the run up to the election last year, Dr. Amy Dickey (Breaths of Life) wrote about law and gospel in the context of Trump’s blatant misogyny and questioning how male Christian leaders could support him.  She wrote:

‘You have put your hope for advancing Christian values on your ability to control laws, but laws can only fail at this.  A main point of the Old Testament, as far as the New Testament is concerned, is that laws cannot change people.  Only Jesus can do that (Romans 3:21-26).  Representing Jesus in the way we treat others is the primary way to change culture and to advance Christian values.  You want to protect Christian churches and schools, but if the church is not representing Christ in the way we love others, why not just close them all?  We have already lost.’

The message of Jesus that Dr. Dickey is articulating here is one of internal transformation.  The sermon on the mount was largely Jesus’ message of changing the innermost center of a person.  Murder starts with hatred.  Adultery starts with lust.  Stealing things starts with storing up treasures on earth or embracing materialism as an unsatisfying drug for the soul.  Therefore, the centermost part of a person has to be changed by the gospel.  A law will fall short of this kind of change.

When Lyndon Johnson passed the civil rights act of 1965, did this automatically end racism?  After all, we got a new law in America.  No, tragically racism goes far deeper into a cancerous sickness existing in a person or nation’s soul.  A law, even a good one, falls short of significant transformation.

Loving God and loving our neighbors is the antithesis to power religion. While power religion seeks control and to manipulate using the most sacred message of all, the greatest commandment invites people on their own volition to find meaning and hope in Jesus.  This is not something that can be coerced by the state but rather has to be something that people choose for themselves with the encouragement of their families or faith communities.

The grave concern is a considerable bloc within American Evangelical Christianity has lost the plot.  The truth that they had received has been exchanged for a cynical pandering of delivering votes for powerful politicians- the quid pro quo for a seat at the table of power.  Values and morality that they preached has been exposed as fraud as they have embraced a thrice married real estate developer whose abuses and assaults on women he has openly boasted about in the now infamous Access Hollywood tape.  His racism widely reported (see Ta-Nehisi Coates brilliant article “The First White President”) and seen recently in an Alabama rally, with all of it’s contentious racial history, attacking NFL players (a league that is 66% African-American) for kneeling in protest during the National Anthem.  “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now!”

The American churches support of this will bring a reckoning and sadly, it is already in motion.  Ex-Evangelical and ex-Christian musician David Bazan in a recent interview talked about the growing number of people who were deconstructing their faith especially given this political reality.  He says:

“Until this election I personally had quite a bit of hope that the white American church was not a ‘lost cause.’ I saw it as being capable of maturing and evolving while still retaining its basic form and identity. And even if I couldn’t participate as a ‘believer,’ as I’ve said, I wanted to be a helper in that process if I could. But the fruit that appeared on the tree last November was, for me, the ‘cut the damned thing down and throw it in the fire’ kind of fruit.  So clouded by magical considerations that the vast majority couldn’t see the absurdity of what they were doing (forgive them…). For all the things they claim to believe, the election laid bare the actual, actionable loyalties of most white Christians in a way that one can’t unsee. Far too many of them still don’t even recognize it. They cannot be trusted. They can’t be taken seriously. As a group the correlation between their stated values and their real behavior is worse than random, they reliably champion evil and work against the best virtues of their own faith traditions.  There is simply no way around it at this point; the racism, misogyny, and disdain for the poor are out in the open now. Whatever good Christians are capable of promoting in the larger society is far outweighed by the sea of problems they create with their political gullibility. It’s crushing.”

The perspective of Bazan, someone outside of the church, is crucial to those of us who want to see the gospel held up in a holy place rather than being corroded down into a political tool.  We need to listen to how others see us. Do some still doubt Bazan?  Are there national Christian leaders who still wonder why so many young people are leaving the church?  A big part of the answer is exactly this discussion.

As another disturbing example during the past couple of weeks, the Roy Moore saga in Alabama has continued.  With a groundswell of support from the religious right both in Alabama and nationally behind his Senate candidacy, stories broke about the would be Senator’s past pedophilia.

If one thought this could not get any more outrageous, that is not all.  Alabama Auditor Jim Zeigler told the Washington Examiner, “Take Joseph and Mary.  Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.  There’s  just nothing immoral or illegal here.  Maybe just a little bit unusual.”  So, yes, an individual has literally used the birth accounts of our Lord and Savior as an attempt to justify child molestation.  Where do we even begin with a comment that is so disgustingly offensive and dumb at the same time?

For me and for many, this is a time of solemn lamentation.  The American Evangelical Church is sick.  We have failed to uphold the sacred message of the gospel of our Lord.  We have faltered in our help for widows, orphans, prisoners, minorities and the least of these.  We have acted to cover up and not believe the accounts of women who have been sexually assaulted, abused or harassed.  We have often made these same women out to be slanderers or divisive when they have come forward with credible allegations of abuse of those in power to our great shame.

A repentant course correction is needed immediately.  May all the political doctrines and ideas that we have added to the gospel as an act of syncretism be burned away like chaff.  A return is in order to the beautiful orthodoxy of Christianity:  a loving God, an inspired Scripture, a God-Man named Jesus, a death for sins and a resurrection.  As the book of James says, may it not stop with belief but be harnessed as action in love for our neighbors including those abused, immigrants, refugees and others in our lives.  Evangelical church leadership, which has largely been dominated by white males like me, need to be much more inclusive of others in our communities.  Women and other minorities should be invited into leadership roles to exercise their gifts, passions, callings and also, maybe most importantly, give new/ fresh perspectives on moving the church forward by the grace of God.

There is always hope for redemption with God and this begins with recognizing the grotesque mess we have created.  Let power religion die.

 

 

 

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“Fingers Crossed” Derek Webb’s Uncompromising and Risky Heart Surgery

“Oh God, what have I done/ without Your great permission/ knowing fully of the end at the start/ like a dirty g-ddamn trick/ I either sin as I resist you/ or I do it as I’m doing my part/ so all my empathy/ to Judas and the devil/ they were yours as much in light as in the dark.”  -D. Webb, “Chasing Empty Mangers” from his new album “Fingers Crossed”

Usually I fancy myself as a wannabe movie reviewer or jot down thoughts of books I have read but I figured I would venture into a music album review.  There aren’t many musicians I have followed the entirety of their career (especially 20 years) but Derek Webb is one of the few. Originally, I stumbled across Webb as one of the lead singers (along with Cliff and Danielle Young) of the band “Caedmon’s Call” in 1997.  I was 17 years old and was about to be connected to a love of folk music.  Growing up, Simon and Garfunkel was a staple but as a zealous Christian teenager, I was excited to hear a “Christian” band explore the folksy sound.

That first self-titled debut still holds a place as a life soundtrack at the end of high school and beginning of college.  Same with their followup “40 Acres” (although this was a college release for me) which seemed to cement them as the ultimate Christian college band.  “Caedmon’s” plugged in a little bit more for their third album “Long Line of Leavers” and then did the cliché contemporary Christian music thing of releasing a worship album “In the Company of Angels”.

Many of us Evangelicals who were college-aged latched onto them.  Hell, I saw them 8 times in my collegiate years whether in Indiana (where I went to school) or driving to Ohio, Illinois, and even Liberty University in Virginia which was the last time I saw them (April 2003) and it actually was not a very good show.  They opened for “Jars of Clay” and at that point, Webb had left the band (he would reunite with them later for the albums “Overdressed” and “Raising Up the Dead”).

Of course, Webb departed from Caedmon’s to pursue his own solo career.  The inaugural album was “She Must and Shall Go Free” and this is still a well-regarded folk rock album in the Christian music community.  The launch was immediately met with criticism and some Christian retailers not stocking the album because in the song “Wedding Dress”, Webb calls himself a “whore” and a “bastard child”.  These Christian retailers apparently have never read the book of Ezekiel contained in the Bibles they stock on their shelves.  I digress.  “I See Things Upside Down” followed as the second record which found Webb offering criticisms of the Evangelical subculture (“They’ll know us by the t-shirts that we wear”) and blasting celebrity pastors (the song “Ballad in Plain Red”).

Lyrically, Webb often was among those who existed at what seemed like the forefront of what Christianity Today, Time Magazine and others labeled new Calvinism.  For any listener, it is not difficult to find rather blatant statements in Caedmon’s Call songs and in the early Webb solo records of God electing people, humans being unable to do anything good without divine help (the Caedmon’s song “Thankful” for example), and other ideas that could, at least loosely, be traced back to John Calvin.  I mean, here is one line off Caedmon’s “Long Line of Leavers” album:  “You’re an army in a horse / And you have taken me by force / All the freedom in this world could not resist /The sweet temptation of your sweet elusiveness.” (the song “What You Want”) This one lyric almost encapsulates all of the 5 points of Calvinism either directly stated or implied.

As his solo career continued, Webb took on more social and political issues starting with “Mockingbird”, then “The Ringing Bell” which I consider his weakest solo effort and also  the rather fun “Stockholm Syndrome”.  The Christian faith was a definite thread in these more politically-charged songs.  On “Stockholm Syndrome”, Webb tackled slavery (“Becoming a Slave”), the civil rights movement (“Jena and Jimmy”), LGBTQ rights (“What Matters More”), and immigration (“American Flag Umbrella”).  All of this would be followed with “Ctrl” which is a very underrated record and “I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry and I Love You.”

The third solo record “Mockingbird” featured the 2005 song “A King and a Kingdom” which asked Christians to rethink *which* kingdom they should ultimately belong too.  The song had these lyrics that some may find eerie in their potential premonition:  “But nothing unifies like a common enemy / And we’ve got one, sure as hell / But he may be living in your house / He may be raising up your kids / He may be sleeping with your wife / Oh no, he may not look like you think.”

There are also songs on his first solo record that resonate with the current life situation of Webb being that “She Must and Shall Go Free” is almost exclusively about the church being the bride of Christ.  As a matter of fact, Webb has publicly commented about this on his Tumblr account:  “the tone & spirit of the songs i’ve written over the last decade or so have sometimes been called ‘prophetic,’ a term that i’ve worn with extreme discomfort. but it turns out my songs have been eerily prophetic in my own story…there has always been some measure of distance between me and the content of my songs. there’s a sense in which even the most confessional of my songs, like ‘wedding dress’ or it’s more recent sibling ‘heavy’, felt like they were about someone else. so, the accidentally prophetic sting of those songs is especially acute and painful in light of my great failures. songs like those have never been more difficult to sing, but i’ve never been more grateful to have to.”

The Tumblr confessional brings us around to Webb’s latest album, “Fingers Crossed”.  The personal events that inspired this album came to public light with the announcement that Webb and his wife, Sandra McCracken, were getting a divorce after 13 years of marriage.  The statement read: “While we both acknowledge our own human sinfulness, Derek has taken full responsibility for the events which led to this decision.”

Further clarifying on Tumblr, Webb confessed:  “the truth is, i cheated. i betrayed the trust of my wife. i betrayed the trust of my family, my friends & my community. and i betrayed the trust and support that many of you have entrusted me with for many, many years. what started as a brief, inappropriate, and quickly confessed connection with a very old friend evolved quickly into something more serious, which was hidden from spouses and friends. it continued in secret for a matter of months, was eventually discovered, and set into motion the consequences that i will now live with for the rest of my life.  or, more simply said: i was a fool. i believed lies, which led me to tell lies.”

With “Fingers Crossed” released on September 29, 2017, Webb has commented on social media that the album is about two divorces with one, of course, being from his ex-wife and the second divorce being (potentially) from his faith in God (i.e. the Christian faith).  The new record is, not surprisingly, sad with a regretful melancholy from start to finish but many songs also contain Webb’s signature provocations and a listener can sense an underlying fury to a lot of the work.  A fury that Webb turns on himself but also seems to direct at God.

“Stop Listening” seems an appropriate opening track introducing the new Webb to his fan base.  The lyrics imagine a conversation between Webb and his long time Evangelical Christian fan base where he gives them permission to stop listening if they want too.  The second verse has the fans responding, “and if you stop listening now/ we’ll know we were right/ cause cash can’t buy a jealous eye/ when you’ve betrayed your wife.”  A wink from Webb as those same long time fans will recognize the “cash can’t buy a jealous eye” a misquoted lyric from his first solo album.

In “A Tempest in a Teacup” he describes himself in new terms “it’s an honest to god ironic rebirth/ but it’s a tempest in a teacup/ a verdict with no judge/ it’s nothing and it’s everything to me”.  Irony (or what many of his fans may declare to be tragic irony) surmises a lot of the songs on the record.  “Love is not a choice” seems to find Webb wrestling with the end game of his Calvinism:  “Love is not a choice/ cause I’ve chosen not to love you anymore/ and I don’t have a voice/ that a heart can hear/ when a heart knows what it wants.”

“Love is not a choice” winds up winning the award for being the darkest song on the record (believe me, it certainly has competition).  Surveying what he did to his family, Webb sings: “oh my god/ I came to just in time to watch it burn/ gasoline on my hands and a grave lesson learned” (“grave lesson learned” yet another self-referential throwback lyric to the 1997 song”Center Aisle”).  He continues:  “so I am fantasizing/ getting homicidal/ want to kill the man who did this to you/ cause he’s a thief and killer/ a fucking wrecking baller/ he’s driving wild in my rearview”.  Of course, that man is himself.

“Easter Eggs” seems to use the tradition of hiding eggs on the holiday morning as a metaphor for faith in general.  “but us kids have a thought/ that mom’s been making it up/ so our hearts won’t break like Easter eggs.”  Later he sings, “see, our daddy left/ I never even saw his face/ but mom insists that he was really real/ but we look just like her/ immaculately made/ the truth well-hidden just like Easter eggs.”

The first time I heard the intro to the song “I Will”, I thought my playlist had switched over to Phil Collin’s “I Can Feel it in the air tonight” (a song I actually don’t own) with the 80s sounding, slow beat synthesizer.  Webb here cries out to God that he wants to be taken back to the beginning of he and his ex-wife’s relationship where he has no shame and no regret.

Toward the end of the record, we find the title track “Fingers Crossed” awash in synthesizers and ramping up the intensity even more than it already has been.  “Just because I fucked up/ doesn’t make me a cross/ on which you can hang your sin/ and expect to be forgiven.”  The final verse finds Webb again perhaps letting the audience into his new thoughts on spirituality:  “what if there is no sin, there’s no cross/ there’s no them, there is no us/ there’s just you and what you do/ and how you pay for what you choose/ fingers crossed.”  These lyrics first struck me as one of the biggest tells as to where Webb may be at spiritually.  The act of crossing one’s fingers signifying random luck or a wishful thought that has no weight to really change anything may be analogous to what he now thinks of religious faith.

In an interview on the “Inglorious Pasterds” podcast, Webb opened up about the song actually stating that there is a triple meaning.  “Fingers crossed” could indeed mean crossing one’s fingers and hoping for luck.  It could also signify deception where someone would tell or promise you something to your face while crossing their fingers behind their back.  Finally, according to Webb, the phrase could reflect classic pictures of Jesus crossing his fingers and holding them up in the air.  A plea for help being directed toward God.  He is ambivalent about a final meaning to the song (as most artists would be) but it is fascinating to think about the lyrics through these various lenses.

The album closes with “Goodbye for Now” which doesn’t conclude anything.  There are no final explanations or answers found here.  Even the music at the end of the song does not end on common or predictable chords.  “I still believe in love/ like I believe in just war/ I think it’s possible/ but maybe just not anymore.”  He again continues singing about the divorce from his wife and loss of faith in God with both of these topics so intermingled it is sometimes hard to know which one he is referring too.  “I’ve been looking for the one I lost/ and for eternity in the wrong places/ so either you aren’t real or I am just not chosen/ maybe I’ll never know/ either way, my heart is broken.”

For Evangelical fans of Webb, this will certainly be a tough album to digest thematically.  For those who have been through divorce or a spiritual crisis of some sort, they may find some solace here.  No matter what one thinks of the ideas Webb takes on with this album, it is his best and feels like a substantial artistic achievement in his career.

Call the record a haunting provocation that is eerily beautiful and will certainly further those age old discussions about why people can so strongly connect with art that is nakedly about someone else’s pain and grief.  Webb has a bundle of references to drinking and being hungover on this record including a track that sounds like a modern worship song until he cries out for alcohol at the bridge (“The Spirit Bears the Curse” which I think is the weakest song on the record).  However, the despair may be oddly more intoxicating while listening.  Like an imprecatory psalm or the author of Ecclesiastes trying to get a handle on any kind of sense this fallen world can make.

I wish Webb to find peace with God and peace with his family situation.  As he sings on the second track “The Devil You Know”:  “Good things and bad things always mingle/ no stories are simple.”  One cannot argue with that.

 

 

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