Charlottesville and Revelation

My church’s Pub Theology crew wanted to discuss the doctrine of Revelation. As is my custom, I created a worksheet to help start our conversation:

Working Definition: Revelation unveils the Unknown. 

What is it:
An experience, an event, an inspiration that moves one beyond the vision of the ordinary. 
Transcendant 
Transformative 

What is it not
Revelation does not provide us with all that there is to know about God. 
It does not speak against Biblical theology, i.e. it will never tell you to hate your neighbor.
It is not new information.

Sources and Sites of Revelation:
Scripture
Jesus Christ
Preaching
People
Music
Animals
Campfires
Creation
Protests
Soup Kitchens

Thomas Merton Plaque
A plaque of Thomas Merton’s famous Revelation

The Intersection of Revelation and Charlottesville 

“Flannery O’Connor depicts an event of “revelation” in a way that points to the deeper theological meaning of the term. She tells of the story of Mrs. Turpin, a hard-working, upright, church-going farmer’s wife, who is unexpectedly accosted by a mentally disturbed teenage girl in a doctor’s office. After bearing Mrs. Turpin’s superior attitude and demanding remarks about white trash and black people as long as she can, the girl suddenly throws a heavy book at Mrs. Turpin, begins to strangle her, and calls her a “wart hog from hell.” When Mrs. Turpin returns to her farm, she cannot get the girl’s words out of her mind. Standing beside her pigpen, she is outraged by being called a wart hog. She knows she is a good person, certainly far superior to white trash and black people. She reminds God of that, as well as of all the work she does for the church, “What did you send me a message like that for?” She angrily asks God. But as she stared into the pigpen, she has a glimpse of “the very heart of mystery,” and begins to absorb some “abysmal life-giving knowledge.” She has a vision of a parade of souls marching to heaven, with white trash, black people, lunatics, and other social outcasts up front, and respectable people like herself at the rear of the procession, the shocked expressions on their faces showing that all their virtues are being burned away. Mrs. Turpin returns to her house with shouts of hallelujah from the heaven-bound saints in her ears.”

“Revelation is an event that shakes us to the core.”

“Revelation compels momentous decisions about who God is and how we are to understand the world and ourselves.”

The previous quotes are from the tremendous book Faith Seeking Understanding by Daniel Migliore (p. 22)


Our conversation was complicated by the group constantly arguing for what I deemed as little “r” revelation. They described events that shaped new ways of visioning the world, but not necessarily with the consequences of material change. For example, someone mentioned walking in the park, feeling awestruck, and not being able to see a leaf again without thinking of God’s handiwork. This is lovely, for sure, but is not capital “R” Revelation. 

When Biblical Revelations occur, which seem to only happen to men, the recipient’s  lives are transformed. After Moses encounters God in a burning bush, he changes his path, goes back to Egypt, and joins in the liberation of the Hebrew People. Paul’s revelation of God knocks his life out of control, no longer does he kill Christians, but now he preaches a Gospel for both Jews and Gentiles. According to these Biblical Revelations, they happen when they’re least expected and one is persuaded towards a way of life-giving love. 

And oh how I pray for Revelations for politicians, CEOs, & white supremacists that they may change their ways. Often I think that people could help foster acts of Revelation. Like the teenage girl in the Flannery O’Connor tale and help others to see that their vision of the world is destructive.

I ended the conversation at Pub Theology saying that if a Revelation does not create a material change, not just a spiritual one, then you should’ve been paying closer attention.

Theology, the future, and pop culture

The abstract for my paper, “The Eschatological Lens of Saga,” has been accepted at the Mid-Atlantic Pop and American Culture Conference in November. I’ve been so excited for it that I even started to re-read one of my sources for the paper, Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope.

One quote struck me tonight, it reads,

“Theological concepts do not give a fixed for to reality, but they are expanded by hope and anticipate future being. They do not limp after reality and gaze on it with the night eyes of Minerva’s owl, but they illuminate reality by displaying its future. Their knowledge is grounded not in the will to dominate, but in love to the future of things” (36).

giphy.gif

According to Moltmann, it’s not necessarily the historical relevance of how a theological concept came about, but what the concept is pointing towards. For example, to assume that everyone deserves hell because of original sin presents a certain future, which one can act out in the present by being selfish or only enjoying the company of fellow-heaven goers. Rather than actually caring for those around you who are in need. Our theology shows us what we want the future to be like through our present actions. For a similar reason, I love reading Saga. Unlike other futuristic sci-fi films, such as Her and Lucy, which only white people are represented, Saga writer Brian Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples construct a future-universe much like the present: full of diverse populations, creatures, and hopes. A world I love being in living in New York.

I guess my conclusion is: theological concepts and visioning another world are not so different after all.

Overthinking my Iraqi Kurdistan Delegation in Hopes for Transformation

Intrinsic to fundraising is how one sells it. This certainly was true when I told others about my upcoming delegation to Kurdistan with Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Either people have never heard of Kurdistan or understand it as being an ally for the US. I usually had to explain how Kurdistan is situated between Turkey and Iraq. That many Kurds are non-violently resisting against several opposing forces: the Turkish and Iraqi military,  Daesh/ISIL, and US forces on the ground. Then, I’m usually asked, “Why do you care?” With urgent fervor, I respond by saying, “I’m going as a global citizen. I’m going because the voices of the poor and those acting nonviolently around the world are forcibly silenced. I’m going to come back and testify at the Presbyterian General Assembly to what I saw. To witness to their struggle for peace.” Usually at this point, I get a smirk and nod which fades deadpan. The conversation moves on.

Maybe too much.jpg
Self-reflecting on the upcoming delegation, a question keeps creeping into my mind: what if I go and I’m not transformed? That I come back to the States and I continue to live as if I had never left. Maybe it’s just those blasted Derridan ethics that continually haunt me, that says over and over, if you think you’re acting responsible, you’re edging on carelessness; if you’re not anxious, then you’re comfortable being apathetic; IF YOU’RE NOT STRUGGLING FOR PEACE, THEN THE WORLD WILL PERPETUALLY BE IN WAR. Honestly, these ethics are impossible. And that’s the point. Until heaven meets Earth, global utopia is more than farfetched, but that doesn’t mean I do nothing. All this overthinking has made me cautious about what I will bring with me. I want to be in the moment and least distracted.

For this delegation, I’m praying and hoping to be hospitable in action and in listening. I am not fully sure of what to expect. I’ve never been across the Atlantic or have even thought about going to the regions near Iraq or Turkey. I covet your prayers for our delegation that we may be faithful peace witnesses, nonviolent in speech and heart. I hoping for a safe journey, but not a comfortable one.

Salvation: Theology and Theopoetry

Someone gave me some insight once in how to read theology: theologians only answer the questions asked. Augustine answered certain questions that we’re not asking today. The same is true for Death of God theologians and many contemporary theologians do not incorporate #BlackLivesMatter or push against transphobia in their theologies.

So why do we hold onto an outdated salvation narrative, when clearly we are not asking these same questions?

Jesus would have not understood this way of thinking about salvation.
Jesus would have not understood this way of thinking about salvation.

As Americans, we have been trained to hear a particular salvation story. God created the universe, placed people in a Garden, and had a close relationship with them. They sin by not obeying God and are cast out of the Garden and into the world, away from God. Because of them, the cosmos became tainted with sin and humanity totally deprived. Consequently, we cannot do anything good, unless God does it through us. To rescue us from this plight, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ and dies on a cross for our sins. And with this action, God’s anger is appeased and God loves us once again. If we recognize that Christ died for us, then we are forgiven, and will live with God forever after we die.

This is a nice logical framework, if one can call it that.

When church folk start to question this narrative, they either give up Christianity or are kicked out of the church. This happened to many of my friends in undergrad.

There are theopoets, like Catherine Keller, who present us with a possible alternative formulation: Jesus as a Parable and Deconstructor. Jesus does not allow our logic to be the final and last word, but disrupts theo-logic with parables and stories that reset our way of thinking, again and again. The common salvation narrative that I described above is not found on the lips of Jesus. Jesus preached that the basileia (commonwealth or kin-dom) of God was crashing to Earth and we should be ready. Not that Adam and Eve were the first sinners or that he would die on a cross to appease the FATHER’s anger.

Dr. Keller also writes elsewhere in On the Mystery, that salvation is rooted in the word ‘salve’ meaning ‘an ointment to promote healing’ or to ‘soothe.’ If understood like this, salvation is not found away from the world, but in it. Salvation happens when relationships are mended, when prisoners are released, and racism eradicated.

Christ’s life was full of salvation moments, not just his death and resurrection.

Ethiopian Jesus healing

The Baptism of Jesus and a tree tornado (sermon)

Baptism of Jesus

Mark 1:4-11 (NRSV)
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Psalms 29:1-11 (NRSV)
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of God’s name;
worship the Lord in holy splendor.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
God makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in God’s temple all say, “Glory!”
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to God’s people!
May the Lord bless God’s people with peace.

Everyday we hear many voices. We hear intercom announcements from the MTA telling us that we need to hold onto our personal belongings because there is always someone willing to take them. Or that we need to be on the lookout for suspicious looking people and packages and if we see something that we need to say something. We hear weather reports that inform us in what to wear that day. And we hear and see advertisements telling us that we are inadequate in our dress and that we should buy this piece of clothing to be with the in crowd. And on top of that, we have our own internal voices that compete. Arguing with ourselves with where we should go, what we should watch, what we should order to eat, or if we should call this person because the last time we talked with them they had me so upset, but right now we know that they are struggling with some big.

Needless to say we are bombarded with voices.

In our text today, we hear three voices. The first is the narrator, the Gospel writer. The other two voices are John the Baptizer and God.

The narrator sets the scene. We are in the wilderness, near the Jordan River. We hear this man making proclamations, but he’s clothed, not like us. He’s wearing camel’s hair with a leather belt. This man is John the baptizer. He’s performing a baptism of repentance.

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. It should be understood as the changing of one’s heart and mind. Or as one commentator puts it, “to be transformed and turned around; to have your heart made over; to now be playing a new tune, returned.”

And with the rest of the people from the Judean countryside and all of the people of Jerusalem, we confess our sins and are baptized in that Jordan River.

Then John, with excess honey dripping from his beard, shouts out for all to hear, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The wild man has spoken.

Out of the crowd comes Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee and he too is baptized by the locust-eater. But he doesn’t say a word. He could have declared then and there that he was the one who John was just talking about. He could’ve pointed to himself or raised his hand showing to the crowd that it was him who John was not worthy enough to untie his sandal. But he doesn’t.

When Jesus was coming up from the water, the heavens tore apart and like a dove the Spirit descends on him. And a voice came from heaven declares, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

When this baptism narrative sits next to our Psalm reading, they seem to have a similar landscape. Both reference the wilderness. In the Psalm, God’s voice is powerful, strong, and can break the cedars of Lebanon. God shakes the wilderness, even the wilderness of Kadesh. God causes the oaks to whirl and leaves the forest bare.

With some biblical imagination, I wonder if this is what God’s voice sounded like. As the heavens were being torn open, the cedars were being uprooted creating a tree tornado around the crowd. God’s proclamation about Jesus would’ve been impossible to miss.

tree tornado

But with the many voices that we hear on a regular basis, sometimes it’s easy to be distracted from God’s voice. It’s not an everyday occurrence that the heavens tear open or God’s voice becomes audible for all to hear. Thankfully, we have services like this one to quiet the voices inside ourselves and to listen deeply for God’s voice. But quieting those internal voices takes practice and discipline.

Let me finish with this, God tells Jesus that he is beloved and that God is pleased with him. There’s not much context for it. It comes out of blue, since in Mark’s Gospel, this is Jesus’ first scene. He hasn’t done much. In this way, God is proclaiming, unlike the advertisers, that Jesus is adequate. I believe God comforts us those same words too:
we are God’s children,
we are beloved,
and God is well pleased with us, just as we are.

(This was originally preached at Riverside Church, NYC at the Morning Light Service)

Theologically Imagining via Comic Books

Typically comic books and theology sound odd together in conversation. They represent two separate camps; one’s stationed beyond the trees in the land of pop-culture and superheroes. While the other is found amongst the cloud-covered mountains. And never the twain shall meet. This summer I sunk my teeth deep into the comic book cosmos. And after some exploration, I understand comic writers, artists, and producers as theologians. Comic books construct theology with intricate eschatologies, varying cosmologies, and present us with new paradigms to fathom the divine.

But before I dive into some detail about comics, I must confess I am not a fan of the comic philistines, Marvel and DC Comics*. Their ontological and eschatological perception is shallow, to say the least. Rather, I hone in on comic publishers, which allow for creator ownership, i.e. Image, Dark Horse, and Boom!. These publishers allow for artists and writers to go their own creative direction. This also allows for variance in styles, characters, and universes, unlike Marvel and DC.

SagaMy absolute favorite series is Image Comics’ Saga. It takes place during a galactic war and recounts the story of a little mixed-breed girl (a horned head and a wingéd back) named Hazel and her family. Her parents, Alana, who is part of the wingéd colonizer planet, fell in love with Marko,  a colonized magical horned moonie.** The first issue, Alana, beautifully, bearing all, gives birth to Hazel. And thus begins the journey of this sci-fi Romeo and Juliet hiding from their respective planetpeoples. Along the way, we meet bounty hunters, a planet of sex-workers, and creatures with computer monitor as heads. This is certainly not your parent’s comic book.

At the 2014 San Diego Comic Con, Saga not only won 3 Eisner awards, which is the highest achievement in the comic book world, but they hosted a stellar panel. The writer Brian Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples discussed how Saga began. During Brian’s first discussion with Fiona about the characters, he objected to another redhead in space claiming there are just too many in science fiction. Fiona replied by asking why do the characters need to be white? The outcome of that conversation is the current series with the majority of the cast with darker skin and an array of hair and body types. For Fiona, the future is not made up of only white people like such recent sci-fi films as Lucy or Her portray. Rather, the future, like the present, is full of many diverse populations, creatures, and hopes.

MoltmannSimilarly, Jürgen Moltmann claimed in his magnum opus, Theology of Hope, “Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present” (pg. 16). Or simply put, “Who controls the past now, controls the future. Who controls the present now, controls the past,” as sung by Rage Against the Machine. The ways in which we construct our eschatology determines how we treat others and the Earth now.

For instance, premillennial dispensationalists believe God will one day rapture those who declare Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, and for the next seven years God will torture those left behind and torch the Earth. For them, if God is already going to destroy the Earth, then they should not be concerned about her fate today. Sadly, many congresspersons and businesses have jumped on board secularizing and Americanizing this idea allowing them to destroy our Earth. But we cannot give up hope!

Because science fiction, normally, orients future-forward, they have the opportunity to breathe new life and vision. The question for religious institutions, then, is how can we understand a beautiful future and participate in that future now? And this is where comics can lend a hand. Comic artists and writers can guide us in broadening our theological imagination.

Here are a few tips for theologically imagining:

There are no theological crossing guards!

In the Christian Scriptures we read “with God all things are possible.” And this phrase is found in different contexts throughout the Gospels (Matt 19:26, Luke 1:37, Mark 10:27) that it can be a broad framework for how it was being used. Could this mean that all things are possible with God including disrupting the laws of physics? Possibly. Or it could also mean a world where no one is hungry or has to live on the streets? I sure do hope so. Unfortunately, our religious institutions have not stretched their theological imagination. Many of the same cataphatic dogmas have not changed for centuries. Yet, no one is stopping us from crossing into new theological territory.

Humans are part of creation, not the end of all creation.

Genesis 1 beautifully describes that when God had finished creating, God saw that all of creation was very good. This does not mean that it was humanity that made creation especially good, rather its fullness made it very good. This breaks a crack in our normalized anthropocentric theology and helps us to imagine and include non-humans. We can start to imagine new theologies of tigers, otters, and iguanas. We can theologize with clouds, volcanos, and bumblebees. Or even soaring in the Milky Way and beyond with planetary theologies of galaxies, black holes, and quarks. No-thing is the limit!

We are shaped by our surroundings, and shape our surroundings.

Our mere presence changes group dynamics, neighborhoods, churches, and the room. This gives us the chance to inspire new thoughts, to sing new songs, and change ourselves and the world for the better. Although, we need be conscious in our participation in creating these spaces within ourselves for transformation.

Better futures could arise with dialogue between comic books artists/writers and theologians.

I’m ready!

space

*There are exceptions including Ms. Marvel (2014) and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
**He lives on a moon colony adjacent to the colonizing planet.

People’s Climate March and Hermeneutics

I’ll admit it: I’m a hermeneutics fanatic. Whenever I enter a bookstore, I head straight for the literary criticism section. There is something enthralling thumbing through Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, Edward Said’s postcolonial criticism of Jane Eyre‘s madwoman in the attic, and the overweight, almost 3,000 page, Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. I am fascinated about the different ways one can read a text and the world.

And it’s not like this is a new phenomena. Writers and critics alike have been reading and re-reading texts for centuries coming to different conclusions. For instance, in my Sunday School class, ages 6-13, I wanted to give them a hermeneutical key to read Scripture. I offered what I called a good news model, i.e. looking for good news in every passage. After explaining it, the first question posed was why we think Jesus’ death on the cross is good news? This third grader said that it sounds like bad news. I couldn’t help but agree. A man dying/dead on a cross plastered all over our churches is not good news. The good news, I explained, is God raising Jesus from the dead. God redeemed what was made deplorable. God transformed the pitiful and made right what Roman Empire deemed wrong. That’s Good News. And in a different context, I would have explained something more nuanced.

This weekend I participated in the People’s Climate March in NYC. It was hermeneutical heaven. Everyone with a sign, unless it was massively reproduced, had a varying lens in which to approach Climate Change.

fracking: little economic gain counts for nothing if you’re destroying the Earth and you can’t drink the water.

veganism: against factory farming, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest for grazing land for cows

anti-capitalism: Global Capitalism casts a deadly shadow across the whole world. it will take, borrow, and steal anything, and re-directs climate justice discussion to neo-liberal laws

personal reasons: guilt for voting and registering as Republican (saw a sign reading, “Ashamed Republican”), concern for one’s grandchildren

Climate change

It’s these various anthems that make marches great. And even if we don’t have the same platform, we can still chant, sing, and march together. And this happens everyday and is concentrated in religious worship services. Not all United Methodists congregants interpret Scripture or even the hymns the same way. The same can be said for Muslims reciting the Qur’an, Jews singing Torah, or Hindus interpreting their sacred texts.

So what can we take away with different hermeneutical perspectives? First, that we shouldn’t make sweeping assumptions about groups of people or even individuals about the way they view the world or read. Second, humanity and the cosmos are full of contradictions, blind spots, and missteps. No one approach will be perfect, it may be complete, but never perfect. Lastly, that one should explore other traditions, while at the same time going deeper in their own. In this way, one can show respect toward others and are able to articulate their own hermeneutical lens.

Interpreting texts and the cosmos should life-giving and not a burden.

the necessity of inclusive religious language and new metaphors

Seminaries, unless on the conservative end of the theological spectrum, require students to use gender neutral language concerning God in papers and sermons. Although, not having a pronoun for God makes for extremely awkward sentences in English. For example, “God in God’s self,” or “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten child,” etc. Most churches, of course, do not follow inclusive language guidelines. Doxologies are riddled with masculine language and you cross yourself “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Working at a church this summer, I am slowing de-gendering the language in the service. You see, for me, inclusive language is a must. I believe the use of inclusive language for divinity challenges religious institutions, theology, and our concept of justice.

Using masculine language binds God in a theological box.
When the pronoun “He” or “His” is used to describe God we are bound to certain metaphors and analogies. God can only be the “Father” and we are “His” children. The “Father” takes care of us, knows what’s good for us, and unconditionally loves “His” children. Yet, these metaphors start to dissolve with one’s experience of fathers or other male parental figures.* People usually shoot back that God’s a different kind of father, but this still holds up patriarchal values. If “Father” always knows what is good for us, this makes for bad theology and allows for continuing cycles of sexual and physical abuse. There must be other imaginative ways to think of God!

Before the Christian Testament was canonized (4th century) or even finished (early 2nd century) other writers were forming theological ideas.
The apocryphal* texts and other early Christian writings, including 1st Clement, the Acts of Thecla and Paul, and the Secret Apocalypse of John, demonstrate that there were many theological ideas present in the first four centuries. Some of these texts inspired the theologies of Augustine and Origen. For example, Justin Martyr believed that the followers of Christ were fulfilling prophecy by resisting to join the Roman military. Theology was open to the imagination and it still can be.

God was experienced before anything was ever written and will be after.
Through the evolution of Scripture, we understand that the divine has been experienced through various venues. In the early texts of the Hebrew Bible, God was experienced through nature, victory in (non)violent battles, and communal myths. Today, the divine is experienced through different technologies including yoga mats, music, reading Scripture(s) or nature. Experiencing the divine ever changes, so should the way we preach, the way we conduct our services, and the metaphors we use! 

God does not write theology.
Dr. James Cone taught us that God is not a theologian; rather, it is humans, who are the meaning-makers and theology-creators. It is lazy to proof-text and decide that there is only one theology! God is not only creator because we read it in Scripture. God creates continually. 

Scripture is inspired, interpretation is not. 
Clearly Scripture believes itself to be God-breathed, inspired (2 Timothy 3:16). This does not grant authority to interpretations though! Until the Enlightenment and afterward, the concept of a plain-reading of Scripture has been the norm. Up until the Enlightenment, there was a range of interpretations and one was not always over another. Until churches, ministers, and laypersons read the history of Christian theology, they will be caught in a modernist trap of plain-reading!

“Mankind,” “kingdom,” and “Lord” neglects entire social groups
Linguistically and historically, many social groups have been left out of the conversation in regards to theology. With the use of draconian language, we continue to disregard others. Language shapes who we are. It shapes how we think about the world. A great resource for how this works is Lera Boroditsky’s “How Language Shapes Thought.” Using gender-neutral language will not be easy at first, but it will be better in the long run for our churches and society. It will set up avenues for other voices and constantly remind us of others.

I am not interested in inclusive language because the liberal agenda has caught hold of me. It should be used because white men are not the only ones in the world (1/4 of the world’s population is made up of Asian women!). White men may have most of the power in the world, but they are not the end all be all. God is certainly not a white man or, I believe, even wants white men to have the power! Instead, God is the disrupter. Inclusive language is necessary for the global church and for all religions in that matter. Thankfully, many theologians have taken up the call for more inclusive theologies.

The list includes Jea Sophia Oh, Marcella Althaus-ReidWonhee Ann JohEmilie Townes, Laurel Schneider, Namsoon Kang, Andrea C. White, J Kameron Carter and Catherine Keller.

To a more inclusive language and theology!

 

PAIC

 

*I am not ridiculing fathers as much as showing that it is not necessary for God to be a parent.

**This antiquated term has become as meaningless as gnostic and no longer helpful in common biblical discourse. How can something be hidden anymore, when we know that ancient communities were using these texts as Scripture? Or how can we label texts as gnostic when many of them are as different from one another just like the Christian Testament texts?

Hoping against hope: God, weak-bodies, and Pentecost

“Hoping against hope … [Abraham] did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” (Romans 4:18a, 19 NRSV)

Few body theologians consider Paul’s contribution to a theology of the body. When surveying the Pauline corpus, several texts prominently construct a theological anthropology focused on the body. In Paul’s letter to Galatia, he informs believers of three gospels, “the circumcised,” “the foreskin,”(2:7) and a “contrarian gospel” (1:8). In this way, Paul associates the Gospel message with the body–whether one is a circumcised Jew who still practices the Law or a Gentile believer following Christ–these Gospels cannot be separated from one’s body. From bodies, communities develop, and with it, a new ethics of eating and relating to neighbors. Bodies must be the genesis of any theology.

Controlling bodies is fundamental to all Empires. These dominant forces enslave bodies, transplant bodies, and control weak-bodies through the use of militarized strong-bodies. While the Romans were Empire-building, propagandists wrote the Priene Inscription concerning Caesar Augustus. The inscription transcends body-talk and depicts a hope that the Emperor has brought to all people of the Empire. It commends Augustus for putting an end to war and bringing order to chaos. Moreover, it explains that all people shall find hope in Caesar Augustus, even after his death. Roman imperial theology supported Caesar in making himself a god through stealing bodies to conquer the world.

In this context, Paul, a missionary to the Gentiles, wrote to the early followers of Christ in Rome. In a particular re-working of the Abrahamic narrative in Genesis 18, Paul discusses a hope beyond hope found in Abraham’s faith. In the Hebrew text, when the mysterious men told Abraham that Sarah would conceive a child (Gen. 18:10), Sarah laughs at the prospects of bearing a child at her old age (18:12). When Paul describes the scenario, Abraham’s body is first introduced. Although, his body was “as good as dead,” his body was not yet rotting, life was ready to spring forth, and his faith was strong.

In this way, Paul points against and beyond Augustus’ “hope.” God works with/in/through the weak-bodied and marginalized. Paul used the example of Abraham for his readers to embrace a theology of weak-bodies. If even the founder of their faith trusted in God’s promise, why can’t the communities who find themselves on the margins of the Empire, find the same kind of hope? This is in complete contrast to the hope perpetuated by the Roman Empire, which was founded on the false pretenses that Caesar Augustus created peace and order. With this false narrative in mind, readers and hearers of the epistle were encouraged to hope against the very hope they were told to believe in and to dismantle the Roman Empire’s theology, for a theology in which God is on the side of the downtrodden.

Transplanting the letter to the Romans into our context, followers of Christ ‘hope against hope’ in the face of global capitalism and amidst ecological crisis. Recently, new studies report on the dire health of the Earth. The future looks worrisome for the creatures of Earth because of humanity’s overconsumption of natural resources and pollution. Over the past twenty years, the effects of global warming have landed on the shores of the Third World with more famines, tsunamis, and hurricanes. These “acts of God” were caused by the Rich’s idolatrous god, Almighty Capitalism. But how can the Christ community keep “hoping against hope” when the future’s only horizon consists of the globalization metanarrative? Since we are entrenched in the wiles of capitalist ideology, where could there be new breakthroughs of alternative economics, politics, and social structures?

The answer to these questions, I believe, is found within this verse. When faced with overwhelming devastation, we must hold onto a hope that shatters beyond all hope. We must belong to communities that strive for alternatives to the metanarratives that cast a long shadow across the world. Since God sides and works through weak-bodies, we too must side with the abused, the neglected, those without a voice, and the downtrodden. God’s power  pulsates hope through weakness throughout the world.

Lastly, and most important for celebrating Pentecost, it was the weak-bodies who uttered the radical grace found in the Gospel. It was not the most powerful! The listeners in the narrative even made fun of the social location of the tongue-speakers and believed they were drunk. After all, isn’t the bible full of rejects, losers, and weak-bodies? Even when characters gain power, they use it for the wrong reasons, e.g. David and Solomon. It’s not in the wealthy-plump-bodies that we find salvation, for one day they will be hungry (Luke 6:25).

God chose (and chooses) what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to no-thing things that are (1 Cor. 1:28).

 

The Holy Spirit Arrives

 

God’s Not (Not) Dead

American Christians are flocking to the movie theaters to watch the latest in Christian pop culture. This year, three overtly Christian films flashed across our movie screens: Son of God, God is not dead, and the upcoming film Heaven is for real. They exhaust contemporary American Christian metanarratives, i.e. penal substitution, God is our friend, the desire for an afterlife over the present one. Moreover, these films are apologetic tools for Christians to witness to their family and friends. But some questions come to mind: Are the producers of these films, knowing that Christian subculture is plentiful in the US, motivated by money (manna) or the gospel? Are they using capitalism to subvert it for God’s kin-dom or merely perpetuating capitalism to keep the subculture afloat to eventually make more money later?

NietzscheI assume the producers, directors, and all those in the films really just want the money. Sure, if it has a positive message, that’s good too; but it is really about the bottom line. Here we could use Nietzsche’s parable of the madman to help us understand how American Christianity is more of a marketplace, than a religion. Nietzsche famously pens, “God is dead.” Sadly, too often, this line is taken out of context and quoted on church signs saying things like “”God is dead” – Nietzsche” then underneath reading “Nietzsche is dead” – God.” Kinda funny, but not entirely true.

In Nietzsche’s parable, the madman runs into the market-place in the early morning. He carries only a lantern to light his path. He cries out that he is looking for God. The people, who have no regard for God, ask him mockingly, whether God is taking a vacation or maybe in the bathroom. The madman eventually declares in a long speech that God is dead and that we are God’s murderers. Once the speech ended, the madman throws his lantern on the ground, and declares,

“I have come too early, my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.”

The madman’s words resound truer today than ever: what should shock us is not the phrase “God is dead,” but that we are the ones responsible.

We drag out God at gunpoint to the middle of the woods with our Christian subculture that speaks to fashion more than any kind of reflective theology.

We murder God when communities are built on trigger points rather than grace.

We put a nail in God’s coffin every time we financially support a subculture than actually caring for those in our community.

We are God’s coffin bearers and spit on God’s grave when we forsake our call to love without distinction to only find strength in our ideology.

Thankfully, we have a chance to abandon the giant sinking ship of subculture and ideology for something more authentic–where we can get our hands dirty, understand the world as chaotic, yet beautiful, and ride in small boats, really toughing out the waves. Christianity, or for that matter any religion, should not be simple. Faith should not be only one prayer, or a ten-step program, or a sermon series that solves it all; it’s about the journey with the Divine and one another. We need to take responsibility for who we are in our neighborhoods and our family. Let’s not bury God with our pitiful ideologies, but participate in a life imagined by God through our rituals, Sacred Texts and experiences together.

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