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So why do we hold onto an outdated salvation narrative, when clearly we are not asking these same questions?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

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.

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

 

“Remember You Are Compost, and to Compost You Shall Return”: Ecotheology and Ash Wednesday

My theology professor asked the class, “Will composting be necessary in the new heavens and new earth?” My hand shot up immediately and I answered with an enthusiastic “Yes!” Of course, I knew that compost was made of rotting, decomposing earthy matter. Yet, at the same time, I believed composting to be an integral part of God’s realm because it brings forth life out of rotting matter. The professor seemed to agree with me, but my peers were not impressed. For them, life eternal required no work, rather full praise toward God and God’s goodness.

We first find compost in Genesis 2, when God plants a garden on the east side of Eden and creates humanity. As well, God causes animals, trees, and shrubs to be birthed from this same ground. In this second creation narrative, humans work with the ground and care for the garden. Composting was involved in their very practice of creation-care. They didn’t have the means to develop landfills, or even the desire for non-recyclable plastic products. Instead, they gave back to Earth what they couldn’t use and the Earth reused it for something new.

Compost occupies an in-between stage. Sort of how plasma is not necessarily a solid or a liquid; or even Derrida’s late obsession with ghosts, understanding them as not quite human and not quite rotting flesh. Without compost, life would not subsist. In a sense, everything is compost. Our very ontology is in-betweenness. Though this is not the same as when preachers talk about the “dash on your gravestone.” Our in-betweenness is rather much more. Our bodies, along with the world, are constantly changing, either through the shedding of our skin, or dying cells, or having organs taken out. We are never static creatures, just like compost.

In Revelation, we read of the new earth, where one can see signs of composting. The River of Life flows through the middle of the New Jerusalem and on one side is the Tree of Life, which “provides healing for the nations” (22:2). “Healing” in this passage is in the present and continuous sense. In other words, even with everything renewed, everything is not yet fully healed or whole. Thus, could we not imagine that at the bottom of the Tree of Life, us partaking of food and composting it for new life, healing, and wholeness? With this reasoning, the New Jerusalem will not have landfills. What a beautiful vision of God’s realm!

On Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent, we recognize our faults, our sins, and those regretful acts we commit. We walk to the front of the church and receive a sign of our sinfulness with an ashed compost cross on our foreheads. Our bodies will become compost again after our death, at least until the resurrection. Yet, we should recognize our in-betweenness as hopeful. As Paul writes in Romans about Abraham on the resurrection, that he was and we are “hoping against hope” (4:18). Within us is the power of transformation. We have the capability to bring forth goodness, love, and hope.

Living into our compostable lives, let us make the most use of our in-betweenness for positive change in our relationships, neighborhoods, and world.

Composting