Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sovereign Particularity and Palin's Turkey Pardon

Sarah Palin is in the news again. She exerted her gubernatorial (love that word) prerogative to pardon a turkey. To do this, she went to a turkey farm, a logical place. It was all very folksy and fun. On the way out she was interviewed about the presidential race. The catch is that the interview took place in front of the active dispatching of the unfortunate, unpardoned:

This is equal parts surreal and ridiculous[1]. But the first time I heard of it I couldn't help but think about one of the most difficult and controversial verses in the Bible.

22What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

Now this verse is largely about ethnocentrism. Paul is saying to the Christians of Hebrew descent, what is it to you if God wants to save some of the dirty gentiles? God is all about maximizing his glory by saving the worst of the worst. And the ‘What if’ linguistic structure suggest Paul may not even be fully committed to this idea. This may even just be a rhetorical device.[2] But if we just try to suspend our modern propensity for offense for a minute, and take the verse at face value, that God's mercy is magnified in its sovereign particularity[3], I can’t thing of a better illustration than the stark contrast between Palin's pardoned turkey and those being decapitated before us. We became existentially aware of the benefits of mercy. While I do not pretend to understand Romans 9, there is a ring of truth to this illustration.

[1] The ridiculous part is modern disassociation between meat and death. This is how we used to butcher chickens when I was growing up. We had a bucket with a hole that we stuck the head through and loped it off. Once a gyrating headless chicken bounced out of the bucket and ran at me. Good times.
[2] Like a standard response to the problem of evil that goes like: "I don't know why evil exists but if I could come up with a reason that kind of works, an all mighty God could do far better
[3] The doctrine of ultimate judgment is poorly understood by most Christians and non-Christians. For the best explanation of it I have found check out “Hell: Isn't the God of Christianity an angry Judge?” here

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fragments and Links 2

From time to time I like to post a series of thoughts and reflections without necessarily expanding them to a full essay. This is one of these times:

My friend Mark coined the term 'Sombrero trick' as a reference to for eating Mexican for all 3 meals in one day.[1] Done.

If I played baseball for Seattle I would definitely use a clip from The Decembrists' 'Mariner's Revenge Song' as my batting music. Now choosing a 5 second clip from the nearly nine minute vengeance epic would be a challenge.

Speaking of The Decembrists, they are probably the most original lyrical story tellers I have happened upon in some time.

On the topic of lyricists…It took me a while but I have finally made up my mind about Death Cab for Cutie. I do not generally resonate with their mildly mopey themes...but they sure can write poetry:

The glove compartment is inaccurately named
And everybody knows it.
So I'm proposing a swift orderly change.

Cause behind its door there's nothing to keep my fingers warm
And all I find are souvenirs from better times
Before the gleam of your taillights fading east
To find yourself a better life.
-"Title and Registration"
I have been listening to a lot of Evanescence lately. But I’m not sure I get the central metaphor in their most overtly spiritual song. Tourniquet uses two metaphors to describe God summarized in a late line: “Christ, tourniquet, my suicide .” I get the suicide image in a Galatians 2:20 sense, but just can’t make much out of the ubiquitous tourniquet reference. Here is what I’ve got so far. A tourniquet is a desperate and dangerous attempt to save your life at great risk. I could buy that as a picture of faith.

I thought about using a Nirvana clip the last time I preached. But then I wondered, is an Xer dropping a Nirvana reference on Millennials the equivalent of a Boomer dropping a Bob Dillon reference on Xers?

Christianity Today has a pretty good music page called “Glimpses of God” where they highlight music with redemptive themes.[2] But their review of Ohio[3], by Over the Rhine put me into angry e-mailer mode. The comment that set me off was “There's only one reason (one word really) why Ohio hasn't been featured in our regular review coverage.” They are referring to a singular F-bomb in one of my favorite songs Changes Come.[4]

Changes come
Turn my world around
Changes come
Bring the whole thing down

I wanna have our baby
Some days I think that maybe
This ol' world's too f@#$ed up
For any firstborn son

There is all this untouched beauty
The light the dark both running through me
Is there still redemption for anyone

Here is the e-mail I wrote: Perhaps you should stop promoting the Bible because Paul uses one profanity in describing the uselessness of religion, or tells the Judeizers to cut their balls off, or Isaiah's 'icky' menstrual imagery. If God isn't afraid of occasional strong language, why are you? This is just legalism. Let our best artists express what they need to express. To say the world is so f-ed up that I worry about bringing a child into it is just good exposition of the Christian doctrine of Human Depravity.

My brother Nic is the first person I know to publish a book that is available through Amazon. It is a partly practical partly theological survival guide he wrote for the kids in his youth group going to college. I recommend anything he has written.

My friend Tiffany posted this link to: “How Hemingway might see Palin”. It is perfect. I wanted Joe too.

Speaking of the election, I cried during both Obama’s acceptance speech and McCain’s concession.[5] During Obama’s speech I thought about Ian from my Buffalo youth group who told me that a young black man had 3 options: rap artist, basket ball player, crack dealer. I think Barak is the man for this moment.[6] I smiled while I marked Obama’s box. During McCain’s speech I said out loud, ‘Where the hell have you been?’ THIS was the man I had so much hope for. Where did he go for 6 months? The whole election could have had this tone (and he could have had a better chance at winning).

I happened on this great bit of comedy on the hyperbole that typifies our political discourse.

Regarding Propositions: If you can’t get spending though a very liberal CA legislature, I suspect we cannot afford it.

My friend Corrie suggested a facetious guide to deciding on propositions. Choose the side that uses the least ALL CAPS[7] and italics in the voter guide. They are probably protecting a weaker position with manipulative, emotive rhetoric. She was just kidding but there is a ring of truth to the idea.

Karl Rove said that Obama did 10 points better than Kerry among “frequent church goers.” That’s right Karl. I feel like the appropriate response is that of the Dread Pirate Roberts to Indigo Montoya during their classic duel…”Get used to disappointment”.

I miss Manny. I can’t believe that someone else gets to cheer for him. Bill Simmons captured my feelings about the Manny trade brilliantly: “I can't look at (Jason) Bay and not think of Manny. At least not yet. Bay is like the dutiful, pretty second wife who does everything right … and yet, I can't stop thinking about the soul-wrenching tramp who married me first and broke my heart. I wish it wasn't that way, but it's going to take some time.[8]

A little scatological (not to be confused with eschatological) humor from Bill Simmons’ NFL preview "On the bright side, 'taking the Browns to the Super Bowl' remains my favorite euphemism for making a doody." With the Phillies winning the Series, is Cleveland sports the most jilted Sport’s city?[9] Sorry Astifans.

On the semi-topic of eschatologically, NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope has been a very good corrective to my theology of heaven: “Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of ordinary life – God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever.” Heaven, in this picture, is not a place somehow ‘up there[10],’ but a parallel, invisible, truer reality that we are working to come into line with and will someday be revealed. This does nothing to invalidate classic atonement theology, but it guts a flaccid dispensationalism.

Speaking of heaven: Nevaeh (Heaven spelled backwards) has zipped up to #31 on the Social Security Administration's list of popular names. I have no response.

I love Mars Hill. Driscoll and I have our differences[11], but no one (not even Keller) has had a bigger influence on my preaching mechanics over the last year than Mark. He is theologically sound, relevant, honest, transparent, hilarious and uses media like no one else. Check out their promotional video for his series on Song of Solomon. That is how it’s done.

[1] If this seems far fetched, we had the discussion in Vicksburg after a travel day. Consider the following scenario. Grab a breakfast burrito from the McDonald’s drive through on the way to the airport. Eat lunch at Chili’s at DFW. Then eat Miss-mex in Vicksburg for dinner as the result of a group dining decision. And there it is, the sombrero trick.
[2] Some of the artists are Christians (like OTR) but most aren’t.
[3] Easily one of my 5 favorite albums of all time
[4] A song the say they wrote the evening our tanks rolled into Iraq…the second time.
[5] Though, to be fair, I cry really easily as the result of my hyperthyroid condition. The Prince Caspian film had me in tears at least four times. I even welled up during ‘My Name is Earl’ last night...which is just over the line.
[6] I suppose my emotions can be dismissed as liberal white guilt. But while I do not remotely understand the plight of urban, black youth, I am personally vested in it.
[7] I’m not sure the people who write the positions for the voting guides know that an internet generation considers ALL CAPS yelling and poor form.
[8] Note, my resonance with this illustration is in no way based on marital experience.
[9] This will not be disputed if LaBron flees for a big market contract.
[10] Wright says “there is very little in the Bible about ‘going to heaven when you die’”and that ‘the roots of the misunderstanding go deep into a residual Platonism.’
[11] Mainly his eisigesis regarding masculinity and gender roles.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Freedom and the Great Hospital

So I am working on a number of things but none of them are ready to post, so it is back to the file. Most of my creative energy has been going into preaching. I post the transcripts here. This post is a bit dated (based on a 2004 film) but it is on topic from my last post so here it is.

Hollywood recently decided that a retelling of the Arthur myth would be profitable. To artistically justify their retelling however, (as I am apt to believe that even the most realistic/cynical artists are apt to do), they placed it a thousand years earlier than its standard context, in the far reaches of the Roman empire, the British Isles. This provided a couple of convenient plot points, most notable, matriarchal Gaelic tribes that could be reconstructed to satisfy our enlightened, contemporary, gender role demands upon our female protagonists (read Kiera Knightly in straps of leather). There was another plot device I found more startling, however. By placing the story in the fifth century isles they were able to make Pelagius the boyhood tutor of Athurius prior to the Pelagius’ travel to Rome. This was an intentional facet of a larger theme in which the movie makers attempted to contrast Arthur’s pagan friendly Christian spirituality to the rigid, domineering, and cowardly spirituality of the Roman center. At one point Arthurius states, somewhat defiantly, somewhat innocently, to a deceitful Roman representative[1] that he particularly respects Pelagius’ views on human freedom.

This sounds very good, very American, very Hollywood – rejecting the orthodoxy required by distant, hypocritical potentates because the idea of freedom is particularly compelling. And who could really be against that?

Here’s the problem. They backed the wrong horse. Pelagianism and the stress on human beings as free moral agents, taken seriously, invariably progresses to a fierce rigorism. It is this sort of thought that spawned the monastic movement that was mocked in the movie. It is thought that by throwing off the divine decree we somehow achieve freedom, in the sense of a liberal self determination. What we actually get is the bondage of unattainable responsibilities. It might be popular to assert that we have all the necessary resources for moral uprightness within ourselves, but it is not an empirically robust assertion under the scrutiny of honest self reflection. It was actually Augustine[2] who paints the picture of freedom and a generous liberality. Augustine, not Pelagius, welcomes the weak and desperate sinners. Alister McGrath summarizes this well “(For Pelagius) Only those who were morally upright could be allowed to enter the church – whereas Augustine, with his concept of fallen human nature, was happy to regard the church as a hospital[3] where fallen humanity could recover and grow gradually in holiness through grace.”[4]
The movie’s message that there is freedom outside of the church, self conscious or not, was clearly articulated. But what they did in the name of freedom and liberality was to champion a position of behavioral rigor and moral exclusivism. I’ll take grace, thank you very much. I’ll take the great messy, tragic hospital that is the church and the physician that will hold my bed while I heal.
[1] Who, incidentally is accompanied by a despicable, cowardly monk who serves no discernable plot purpose and appears to only exist to contrast the bravery of pagans against the sniveling cowardice of orthodox Christianity. I seriously hope that he has several scenes on the cutting room floor to justify his existence beyond the shameless perpetuation of anti-Christian stereotypes.
[2] Augustine and Pelagius staged the most significant doctrinal debate of the 5th century. Pelagius suggested that salvation was attained by acting according the teachings of Christ. Augustine countered that we are not free moral agents but hopelessly broken and in need of a complete salvation that rests only on the grace of God. The Church sided with Augustine. Over 1000 years later the reformers (Calvin and Luther) rediscovered Augustine and found his theology in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
[3] His favorite image of the church.
[4] Christian Theology: An Introduction 375