Will you chase or let me go?

Question One:

Do the parable of the Lost Sheep and the parable of the Prodigal Son reveal two different, even opposing images of God? In our blind wandering, does God chase after us or does he let us go? Or to put it in the parlance of apocalyptic, does God invade our cosmos and liberate us from the powers and principalities; or does he offer us a path, at the end of which he waits for us to find our way back to him?

Question Two:

Which of these parables should be normative for how we treat one another?


The Scandal of (Not) Recognizing Jesus

Last spring I had the chance to spend a month immersed in Luke 7 as part of an extended study our church was doing on forgiveness. As I’ve often experienced when spending an extended amount of time focused on one passage of the text, things in Luke 7 opened up in surprising and rewarding ways.

For the sake of orientation, here is a quick overview of the chapter:

  • Jesus is amazed at the faith of a Roman Centurion, and heals his dying slave.
  • Jesus has compassion on a widow outside the city gates of Nain, and raises her son to life.
  • The disciples of John the baptist are sent by John to query Jesus as to his identity: “Are you the one who was to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answers: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”
  • Jesus talks to the crowds about John, a message that is particularly condemning of the rich and powerful.
  • Jesus gives a parable about this generation: they are like children in the market place crying out “we played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.”
  • The chapter ends with a poignant story of a woman, who was a sinner, embracing Jesus’ feet, anointing his feet with expensive ointment and her tears while Jesus was dining at Simon the Pharisee’s house.

The overriding question of this chapter (as has been the question from the start of Luke’s Gospel) is, who is Jesus? Specifically, the episodes in chapter 7 ask whether or not Jesus is a prophet. The first two episodes position Jesus within the line of Elijah and Elisha (Elisha through whom God cleansed the leprosy of the foreign military commander, Naaman, and Elijah who kept alive the widow and her son at Zaraphath in Sidon—two stories invoked by Jesus in his inaugural address in Nazareth). This is further substantiated when the people in Nain proclaim that “a great prophet has risen among us!” Later, John’s question points to Jesus being the one that Moses promised was to come. And in the final episode, Simon the Pharisee questions Jesus’ identity as a prophet of God due to his association with a woman, who was a sinner.

But an interesting thing happens in the middle of the chapter. At the end of his response to John’s disciples, Jesus offers a beatitude—blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. The word here translated as offense is scandalon, which is used in other contexts as both to scandalize and to cause to stumble. It is the same root used in Matthew 18:6: “. . . but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” In the context of Matt 18, Jesus is talking about others causing those who follow him to fall astray. But in Luke 7, Jesus says blessed are those who don’t allow he himself to be the cause of their stumbling.

I believe Jesus is talking about our categories, the frames of reference we use to get a handle on things. As humans, our ability to perceive and recognize what is before is bound to our past experiences and knowledge. This is a basic. And we see this being played out in Luke 7: Jesus does wondrous deeds that echo of past events done by Israel’s great prophets. The people thus hail him as a prophet. And yet, Jesus violates that category, which is seen most clearly in the home of Simon the Pharisee, who therefore concludes that Jesus can’t possibly be a prophet.

Thus at the heart of of the question, “Who is Jesus?” is the counter question, “Do you have eyes to see him?” Can you recognize who it is that is at hand this very moment? Christopher Morse puts the matter well:

[W]hat is near at hand on earth as God’s basileia from heaven taking place does not approximate, or conform to, any state of affairs that may be said to be already in hand, or in place. A whole history of philosophical empiricism is thereby called into question. Apparently included is any capacity we have as flesh and blood creatures to approximate this basileia conceptually by means of some prior frame of reference . . . No antecedent from this world can accomodate the heavenly balileia’s coming.*

Morse helpfully draws the distinction between that which is at hand (that which is being encountered) and that which is in hand (our ability to comprehend what we are encountering). We are used to things being “in hand,” having a “grasp” or a “hold” on things. This is based on our ability to place things into our already held frames of reference. Without this ability we would never successfully learn to drive a car or work a job. But with the advent of Jesus our prior frames of reference are insufficient, we cannot have in hand the presence of Jesus that is on hand. If we are fortunate, our dependence on our prior frames of reference will not foreclose on the possibility of our being able to recognize Jesus when he does come to us. Which is to say, I pray that I have the grace to not be scandalized by Jesus.

*Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel as News (New York: Continuum, 2010), 21–22.


To Share in the Body

This is the first paragraph in the first chapter of Craig Hovey’s To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today’s Church. I’ve re-read this five times now, and am struck by how well he explicates what exactly (I understand) that it means to member oneself to a particular and local portion of Christ’s body.

“To share in the body is to enact and declare membership with a martyr-church. It is to relate one’s identity to a determination that exists beyond oneself without excluding oneself. It is to entrust one’s future to God and to others who likewise entrust their future to God. It is to subject one’s loves and fears to an overriding mission in which both love and fear are transformed and redeemed. To share in the body is to reassess the primacy of the individual body in view of the new body God is creating through the salvation of  the world in Christ. It is to proceed on the basis of trust in promises. It is not to assess risk and safety on the basis of reason but to hope for presence on the basis of faithfulness.”

I have found that one of the great tensions inherent in fully giving oneself to God, and thus to the church, is the fear of losing one’s self, one’s particular identity, within the whole. There is certainly cause for such fears, as churches have done a great job of forcing individual people to fit within a narrowly defined set of ideological parameters. And yet, if the basis of such a giving is trust in promises rather than calculated risk management, if Hovey is right, that as I entrust myself to God and others as they too are in turn entrusting themselves, then such fears can indeed be transformed and redeemed, as one’s identity is taken up and transfigured, not obliterated or merely subsumed as a cog within a machine.

Hovey here does not offer a “solution” to overcoming this fear, though. Rather, he  states that what ought to motivate our movement into such membership is God’s promise. There will always be reason to fear. The church will always be filled with people, who even in their best moments, will let one another down, take one another for granted, or hurt one another. What sets the church apart from other social institutions is not the absence of such failures, but is the promise that God will transfigure, that God will redeem, and God, even now, is at work making all things new. It is for this reason that we dare to risk the cost of a life together, sharing in the body.

Therefore, perhaps we ought to be wary of our membership to church if it lacks real risk. Being bound to God and to others is very risky business, and there are not guarantees that we will get out alive (in fact, if anything, we are promised that we will lose our life). Thus, sharing in the body should feel inherently risky and must require that we do, indeed, place our trust in a promise that we cannot fully account for.


Three from Belloc

“The idea that Capitalism arose of itself, and necessarily, from the mere institution of private property, is the fruit of bad history pressed into the service of bad philosophy.”

~ An Essay on the Restoration of Property, 40

 

“Had Capitalism not been present before the Industrial Revolution, that revolution might have proved as beneficent to Englishmen as it has proved maleficent.  But Capitalism — that is, the owenership by a few of the springs of life — was present long before the great discoveries came.  It warped the effect of these discoveries and new inventions, and it turned them from a good into an evil thing.  It was not machinery that lost us our freedom; it was the loss of a free mind.”

~ The Servile State, 53-54

 

“It has been found in practice, and the truth is witnessed to by the instincts in all of us, that such a widely distributed property as a condition of freedom is necessary to the normal satisfaction of human nature.  In its absence general culture ultimately fails and so certainly does citizenship.  The cells of the body politic are atrophied and the mass of men have not even, at last, an opinion of their own, but are moulded by the few who retain ownership of land and endowments and reserves.”

~ An Essay on the Restoration of Property, 27-28


The Truth Shall Make You Lie

[Warning: This post assumes readers have seen the movie.  Spoilers have been observed.]

 

All who experience the world as a safe and secure place tend to assume that has been so always and is so for everybody.  When familiar sources of security fail us, we are left adrift in a meaningless void until we can latch onto other idols.  And then the never-ending cycle of optimism and despair is reenergized once more. In the absence of biblical hope, which is grounded neither in futurology nor in romantic utopias but in the promises of God, entire societies are held captive to the merchants of fear and death.  

~ Vinoth Ramachandra, Subverting Global Myths 

The word that has been repeatedly used to describe Christopher Nolan’s second installment of the Batman franchise is dark.  My local film reviewer, Shawn Levy (although a bit of a hack),  commented that The Dark Knight is many things, “But most of all it is dark.”  And this is true.  But my friend Adam offered a much more precise adjective.  When I asked him if the movie was dark, he answered, “Yeah… and devastating.”  

Adam was right.

Even on the surface, this is no mere comic book movie; the film is too real.  From the opening scene the viewer is suspended by a tightly shot sequence of crime, violence, and anarchy.  This is added to by a sparse musical score reminiscent to the single piano key struck in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Furthermore, the playfulness of most other comic book films, which works to remind the viewer that, “after all, this is just a work of pulp fiction,” is noticeably absent.  So much so, that at times it seemed oddly out of place to have a man in a bat costume suddenly appear in the frame.  

But this was not at all so for The Joker.  Heath Ledger brought a starkness to this character that deepened both the complexity and the realism of the film.  And this was most poignantly stated as The Joker — shoulders perfectly stiff and with a light and labored stride — walked from Gotham General Hospital dressed in a nurses uniform and capped with a red wig.  It was at this point where the film seemed to fully reverse the interplay of fiction and reality: The Joker was no longer a comic character; he was real person whose psycho-pathology had turned his world into a comic book.  

And like all good comic book characters, The Joker had a mission: Set the world on fire to watch it burn:

“It’s not about money, it’s about sending a message. Everything burns!”

The Dark Knight soars above so many super-hero movies because it refuses to pander to the shallow formula of good against evil.  Instead of pitting a good hero against a bad villain, and then having them duke it out until order is finally restored — thereby reinforcing our commitments to the myth of redemptive violence — Nolan takes his viewer to the heart of a clash between rival myths.  (I’m tempted to say that this is a clash between Christianity and Nihilism, but that would not be true, as I hope to demonstrate in what follows.  However, it is certainly a clash between Nihilism and Goodness.  Whose goodness will need to be discerned, though).  And the reason this is a clash of myths rather than a clash of good and evil is that both The Joker and Batman are making claims about the way the world really is.  Batman is staking his life on the claim that life is inherently beautiful, orderly, and good.  The Joker, however, insists that all such things are a facade masking a murderous self-interest latent within the soul of each and every person, a self-interest that only needs to be nudged in the right direction to be unleashed in its fullest and most depraved form. “Madness, The Joker quips, “is like gravity… all it needs is a little push!” 

This clash of myths is made overt as Batman attempts to beat out of The Joker the whereabouts of Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent.

Batman: You wanted me? Here I am.

Joker: I wanted to see what you’d do. And you didn’t disappoint. You let 5 people die. Then, you let Dent take your place. Even to a guy like me, that’s cold.

Batman: Where’s Dent?

Joker: Those mob fools want you gone. So they can get back to the way things were. But I know the truth, there’s no going back. You’ve changed things…forever.

Batman: And why’d you wanna kill me?

Joker: I don’t wanna kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No. No…no. No…you complete…me.

Batman: You’re garbage who kills for money.

Joker: No, don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them you’re just a freak–like me. They need you right now. When they don’t…they’ll cast you out. Like a leper. See, their morals, their code: it’s a bad joke. They’re dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show ya. When the chips are down, these, uh…civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster; I’m just ahead of the curve.

And having all the, uh… civilized people eat each other is exactly what The Joker sets out to do.  Through a intensifying series of utilitarian dilemmas (the sort of moral quandaries that Introductory Ethics teachers love to employ) the citizens of Gotham find themselves betraying any sort of code of conduct in favor of self-preservation and security.  In other words, The Joker, not unlike his philosophical predecessor, Fredrick Nietzsche, reveals that the utilitarian morality of our social order is merely a veneer, behind which lies a naked and ruthless self-interest.  And so Ramachandra is correct: When our gods fail, we become captive to the merchants of fear and death.  

The Dark Knight is devastating because of its unflinching drive to expose this reality in full.  And one this route the viewer is taken along this death drive to discover another truth: Those who do choose to stand for good will most likely lose, and lose mightily.  Bruce Wayne not only allows several people do die in the first of The Joker’s utilitarian schemes, but he loses his love (Rachel Dawes) and his hope (Harvey Dent). The seeming impotence of goodness to overcome this ravaging destruction may well lead the viewer to find a connection between the suffering of Batman and the kenotic theology of Good Friday.  And this might have been the case, if it were not for the twist at the very end.  After capturing The Joker and putting an end to (an all too short-lived and unconvincing) Two-Face, Batman decides to take upon himself the guilt of Dent’s crimes, turning himself into what the city needed, a scapegoat for the crimes it cannot bear to face.  This ostensibly altruistic act was done, we are told, because the city of Gotham cannot find out the truth that its White Knight had been corrupted.  This knowledge would simply be too much for the citizens to bear, that remaining semblance of goodness and order would crumble, and thus ensuring The Joker’s victory.  In perhaps the films most heavy-handed moment, we are told that, “Sometimes people deserve more than the truth.”  The truth, it turns out, is not enough to set us free.  

In the end, Batman’s true identity is finally revealed: He is yet another merchant of fear and death.  Because the truth is not enough to keep the citizens of Gotham from spiraling (back?) into a state of primordial chaos, the ultimate winner in the clash of myths is The Joker.  If the truth must be concealed in order to preserve the beauty, order, and goodness of civilization, then such things are a mere facade.  Thus, it is The Joker who has the last laugh, as the old idol which preserved the social order was torn down only to be replaced by another, new idol for the citizens of Gotham to latch onto.  While Harvey Dent became Gotham’s martyred hero, Batman becomes the sacred sacrifice — “The hero that Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”  

In the dark and devastating world of Christopher Nolan’s Batman, even when you win you lose.  And the gods of The Nothing called forth their next sacrifice. 


Subverting Global Myths

I don’t know that I’ve plugged a book on here before.  I’m sure I’ve not plugged a book I’ve not yet read.  So here it goes. Halden ordered me a copy of Vinoth Ramachandra’s new book, Subverting Global Myths.  I’ve read the prologue, and it is amazing.  Here is a snippet from the prologue that I hope offers a taste of what is to come:

“Christian theology is more than a set of doctrinal beliefs or systematic arguments.  It is a way of seeing, of so dwelling in a particular language and doing new things with that language so that its revelatory and transformative power is manifest in the world.  That language arose out of specific historical events that both constitute us as the ekklesia of Christ and call forth characteristic social practices such as thanksgiving, forgiving, exposing evil, truth-telling, welcoming the broken and the hopeless, and bearing testimony to grace.  Such a theology seeks comprehensiveness, because it seeks to bear prophetic witness to One whose speech-acts heal, renew and transform the world in its entirety, but its own speech is always broken, sharing in the not-yet-redeemed character of the world.”


The Vision

Let us not forget that we want to make the individual, and not the collectivity, the supreme value. We want to form whole men by doing away with that specialization which cripples us all. We want to give to manual labour that dignity which belongs to it of right, by giving workmen the full understanding of technical processes instead of mere mechanical training; and to provide the understanding with its proper object, by placing it in contact with the world through the medium of labour. We want to make abundantly clear the true relationships between man and nature — those relationships that are concealed, in every society based on exploitation, by “the degrading division of labour into intellectual and manual labor”. We want to give back to man, that is to say to the individual,the power which it is his proper function to exercise over nature, over tools, over socitey itself; to re-establish the importance of the workers as compared with material conditions of work; and, instead of doing away with private property, “to turn individual property into something real, by transforming the means of production… which at present serve above all to enslave and exploit labour, into mere instruments of labour freely and co-operatively preformed.

~ Simone Weil, Oppression and Liberty


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