Quarantined on Easter Weekend

Quarantined on Easter Weekend

Thanks to The Wesleyan Church for publishing a new piece I wrote for Easter weekend.

It’s about the strangest (and perhaps most relevant) example of “physical distancing” in the whole New Testament.

You can read it here.

In addition to “going” and “showing, part of the Christian vocation is to engage in holy quarantine. We wait alive in Death’s shattered house. “Walled in” but not defeated.

 


 

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Christendom, the coughing ghost

Christendom, the coughing ghost

“Christendom,” says Mark Sayers, “is like Hamlet’s ghost; it may be dead, but it still acts in the play.”

That line could form a summary of the book I’m reading during this time of global tumult: Dominion, by the British historian Tom Holland.

Dominion

The subtitle is “How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.” And the work represents a shift from Holland’s early scholarship. Having written histories of Julius Caesar (Rubicon) and the Persian empire (Persian Fire), Holland once claimed a fairly negative view of Christianity.

He remains an atheist.

But he eventually arrived at an unsettling conclusion: The values he held most deeply were the product of a faith he could not hold. To quote Sayers again, the secular project is itself an attempt to have the Kingdom (values, or at least some of them) without the King.

Dominion is Holland’s long attempt to trace how that happened.

The dust jacket tells the thesis:

Christianity is the principal reason why, today, we think it nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering; why we assume every human life to be of equal value.

From Babylon to the Beatles, Moses to #MeToo, Dominion tells the story of how Christianity transformed the world.

GHOSTS ON VENTILATORS

Meanwhile, down in Texas…

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick stuck his cowboy boots in his mouth last week when he seemed to suggest that America should value the economy over the potential death-toll on the elderly by COVID-19.

“Let’s get back to work,” Patrick proclaimed, “let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”

After a media firestorm, Patrick sought to “clarify” his comments by adding the “at some point” qualifier–a move that is about as bold and specific as suggesting that “at some point” we should restock our national supply of toilet paper.

It’s easy to make political hay of such soundbites. I’ll let others do that.

My goal is merely to relate Patrick’s original faux pas, and the related ones of many others, to Holland’s Dominion.

ECONOMIC PAGANISM

Holland’s claim is that we now call callous and barbaric viewpoints are actually the more common ones in world history: a lack of concern for the weak, the sick, the poor, the old, and those with disabilities.

The very need for the Lt. Governor to “clarify” his comment signals something strange in world history.

Holland writes this of the ancient Greeks and Romans:

It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value.

Why did I find this disturbing?

Because, in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be Christian [in terms of ethics].

Of course, Holland is focusing on only one set of Christian values—an error that is common amongst both liberals and conservatives. Yet the atheist historian and the Lt. Governor bring us to a final, unsettling question:

What if the ghost of Christendom is getting “sick”—not just in the secular cities of New York, London, and Los Angeles, but in the Bible belt as well?

“Christendom” is not the same as “Christianity.” The former has more to do with cultural power and privilege. The latter is about worship, service, and mission.

Still, the former is not unimportant–and especially for the way our culture treats the least of these (the elderly, the poor, the unborn).

This is what it sounds like when Hamlet’s aging ghost begins to cough.

 


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You’re being programmed

You’re being programmed

“You don’t realize it,” states a former Facebook executive, “but you are being programmed.” And the programming is making us more scattered, shallow, angry, and anxious.

That’s from Nicholas Carr’s bestselling book: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. I’ve been reading it. The updated edition offers a cache of new data on how exactly our smartphones are transforming us.

Spoiler: it’s mostly bad.

And it raises a question Jesus never answered: Can a person serve two (competing) algorithms? Must he or she love one and hate the other? (Matt 6:24)

INVISIBLE “FORCE FIELDS”

Since I’m a teacher, I found the following studies fascinating.

A 2017 experiment from the University of Arkansas showed that college students who brought their phones to class scored a full letter grade lower on exams. Surprisingly, it didn’t matter whether they looked at the device or not. The mere presence of a smartphone correlated to lower scores.

Another 2017 study, entitled “Brain Drain,” showed similar results.

As the phone’s proximity increased, brainpower decreased. It was as if the smartphones had force fields that sapped their owners’ intelligence.

I’ve sensed this in my own life.

Several years ago, I completed a research PhD in theology, which entailed hours of dense reading. I’m good at it—unlike my abysmal aptitude for math, science, and mechanical tasks.

But even I have noticed how the smartphone has changed my ability to focus. If my iPhone is within reach, it is just too tempting to set down the book every few minutes to scan Facebook or Instagram. It’s like placing a drink in front of an alcoholic.

Studies bear this out. When the elderly are taken out of the statistics, daily reading time (outside of one’s smartphone) has plummeted to an average of six minutes. In Carr’s words,

Curling up with a book is losing its place in the general culture. It’s becoming a quaint pursuit, like ballroom dancing or darts.

The claim reminded me of a troubling observation of the English Professor Alan Jacobs. A colleague asked him, “What are the most influential Christian books of the past decade?” Jacobs responded this way:

the answer to that question is: There aren’t any. In our moment, Christians are not influenced by books at all.

REWIRING OUR BRAINS

The problem is deeper than habit.

Neurologists suggest that our brains are being rewired by technology. The troubling effects are evidenced by the high percentage of Silicon Valley designers who keep their own children FAR away from the very products they create.

Carr’s research shows how complex algorithms have zeroed in on what grabs our attention (a neural system called the “salience network”) in order to bombard us with “supernormal stimuli” that hijack attention.

Sadly, we are far more likely to be “hijacked” by things that aren’t true or good or noble. A 2018 MIT study of Twitter showed that fake or grossly misleading stories were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than factual ones.

ESTABLISHING GUARDRAILS

Of course, technology has upsides.

My research time—say, when looking up a quotation—has been reduced dramatically. My “memories” feed sends daily reasons to be grateful as I look back at pictures of my children. And platforms like blogging have allowed me to connect with larger groups than I could have otherwise.

“[O]nly a curmudgeon would refuse to see the riches,” Carr writes.

But. But. But.

We need some guardrails. Here are three of mine:

1. Set “App limits”

Under “Settings” and “Screen Time” I’ve been progressively lowering the amount of time my phone will allow me to use Facebook and Instagram (I’m not on Twitter). I’m down to a combined total of thirty minutes per day—but the catch is I have to actually hit “Okay” when it tells me my time is up in the evening.

2. Quarantine the iPhone (periodically)

For awhile, I kept my iPhone nearby in the evenings so I could see the time. (I am on a very strict schedule, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rainman.) But I’ve found that this is just too tempting.

Now I’ve started leaving the phone in another room and simply wearing my traditional watch.

3. Give extra credit

Since carrots beat sticks (no pun intended), I’ve started offered extra credit to any students willing to part with their smartphones during class.

(I was going to make a fancy box to put them in, but, you know… coronavirus.)

Rather than rant about how “narcissistic millennials” are addicted to their devices, it seems best to present the research and give them a chance to score some easy points. (Besides, some of the worst phone addicts I’ve known are older Americans, who use their devices to rant narcissistically about “narcissistic millennials.”)

CONCLUSION

If you’re interested in the research, or in making meaningful changes, check out the updated edition of The Shallows (here).

Here’s to rediscovering the deep end.

 

 


 

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Houston, we have a podcast!

Houston, we have a podcast!

Houston, we have a podcast!

Since almost no humans have podcasts, I decided to start one.

It’s called Outpost Theology, and it’s sponsored by Oklahoma Wesleyan University.

The show is located at the “frontier” of theology, culture, and the church. The plan is take some of my favorite books and authors and allow them to speak to a broader audience. I might even do some solo episodes on particular topics.

ot_logo

The first episode is a big one, especially since my guest’s new book (Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women) was just chosen as Readers’ Choice Book of the Year from IVP Academic (woo hoo!).

Readers' choice

Dr. Lucy Peppiatt joined me in person at the Los Angeles Theology Conference, where we talked about the Bible, women in leadership, and which dead theologian she would prefer to “haunt” her.

outpost cover lucy-02

Lucy is one of the most winsome and interesting voices in theology today. She loves Scripture, the church, and providing innovative theological training in her context of the UK. She was a delight!

Check out the episode wherever you get podcasts, including Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.

If you’re feeling generous, please give the show a good review on whatever platform you use. That will help a ton.
**Special thanks to my student, John Merritt, for his tireless work on the technical side of things. The audio quality is immeasurably greater because of John’s hard work, and I hope to improve it in the coming weeks as I figure out what I’m doing. 🙂

 


 

Reading Revelation on the verge of a pandemic

Reading Revelation on the verge of a pandemic

It sounds strange, but I teach an entire course on the Apocalypse.

That’s the Greek word (apocalypsis) for the Book of Revelation.

To be clear, I’m not the kind of Christian who owns detailed charts on the “end times.” I don’t watch prophecy shows on Christian Cable (except for the hair and makeup). And I don’t have a backyard bunker filled with firearms, homemade scrolls, and MREs.

But I am a dad, and the threat of a coronavirus pandemic has made me a little nervous.

Last night, I foolishly read a blog post entitled, “The Pandemic is Coming!” and then dreamt that I had to protect our children from the viral equivalent of Season One of The Walking Dead. (I was Rick Grimes, in case you’re wondering.)

THE APOCALYPSE OF ANXIETY

One might think teaching a course on the Apocalypse would prepare me for such times. But alas, I can sometimes be as prone to catastrophizing as the next person.

When I walked through the Los Angeles airport last week, my wife smiled at me for holding a bottle of hand sanitizer like it were a vial of holy water.

Should the book of Revelation help with these anxieties?

Or is its function primarily to scare the holy Hades out of us?

Unlike some purveyors of Christian fan fiction, I do not think the Apocalypse is primarily a code to be cracked about the end of the world, a still-future “Antichrist” (a word that never appears in the text), the rapture, or the founding of the United Nations.

Revelation is written to seven first-century churches in Asia Minor, each wrestling with the affluence, idolatry, political upheaval, and (impending) persecution of the Roman Empire. (See here and here for an accessible introduction.)

John’s message is not that these churches will escape tumult, but that the way forward involves the posture of the Lamb rather than the way of the Dragon. Some parts of the book are scary, or just strange (Chapter 17 includes a drunken prostitute riding an amphibious assault beast tattooed with naughty names [vss 1–3]).

Although John isn’t taken physically “out” of the world of fire and plague, he is taken spiritually “up” to glimpse the heavenly throne. A powerful worship service ensues (ch. 4), but as the choruses conclude, John’s worry returns (sound familiar?). He weeps and weeps when confronted with a “scroll” associated with the events of the future:

no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it (5:3).

John’s anxiety is our anxiety—especially in times of global uncertainty.

We wonder what will happen next. Will peace be taken from the earth? Will the church be swayed by political idolatry, affluent pride, or the threat of persecution? Will kings and paupers be laid low?

Uncertainty over the future makes John weep.

Then comes an answer:

one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne… (5:5–6).

DON’T WASTE THE APOCALYPSE

Many things in Revelation are unclear. Which prophecies were fulfilled “soon” after the book’s writing (1:1), and which ones await the future? The Apocalypse does not come with a decoder ring.

Still, I agree with Dennis Johnson, who authored an excellent introductory commentary on the book:

Our interpretation of Revelation must be driven by the difference God intends it to make in the life of his people. If we could explain every phrase, identify every allusion to Old Testament Scripture or Greco-Roman society, trace every interconnection, and illumine every mystery in this book and yet were silenced by the intimidation of public opinion, terrorized by the prospect of suffering, enticed by affluent Western culture’s promise of “security, comfort, and pleasure,” then we would not have begun to understand the Book of Revelation.

Our only safety lies in seeing the ugly hostility of the enemy clearly and clinging fast to our Champion and King, Jesus.

To ignore this takeaway is to waste the Apocalypse–and to miss the forest for the flowcharts.

CONCLUSION

I have no idea, of course, whether fears of a global pandemic will come true, or whether this year’s flu will kill more people than the coronavirus. (Thankfully, it does seem that the mortality rate is not as bad as it could be.)

But if there is a benefit to teaching Revelation during times of global anxiety, it is the reminder that God’s people have been here before.

It is a modern myth that health and prosperity are guaranteed by science, medicine, prosperity, technology, and military might: Just ask Babylon the Great (18:2).

Regardless of the viral spread of fear and other pathogens, the overriding takeaway of Revelation is that the final “face covering” is not a medical mask but a wedding veil:

the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (21:1-2).

 


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Mestizo Christianity

Mestizo Christianity

A “mestizo,” writes the historian Justo González, is a person who belongs to two realities simultaneously—and by virtue of this “both-and-ness” does not feel entirely at home in either of them.

He explains:

A Mexican-American reared in Texas among people of Euro-American culture is repeatedly told that he is a Mexican—that is, that he does not really belong in Texas.

But if that Mexican-American crosses the border hoping to find there his land and his people, he is soon disappointed by being rejected, or at least criticized, as somewhat Americanized—or, as Mexicans would say, for being a pocho.

The passage comes, of all places, in a book about Augustine of Hippo, the fourth-century church father (here).

Augustine

For González, Augustine’s youthful restlessness

was due not only to his distance from God … but also to the inner struggles of a person in whom two cultures, two legacies, two world visions clashed and mingled—in short, of a mestizo.

WHAT DOES HIPPO HAVE TO DO WITH TIJUANA?

This may seem like a strange description.

Saint Augustine, after all, was a Latin-speaking citizen of the Roman Empire, steeped in neoplatonic philosophy and converted to Christianity before becoming the most influential theologian after the apostle Paul.

How is he “mestizo”?

González’s point is that despite his classical (Latin) learning, Augustine was born and raised in Africa.

Thus when he finally made it as a rhetorician in the emperor’s court, he never belonged entirely. The accent gave him away, says James K. A. Smith, like “a stubborn hayseed halo around his eloquence.” And when he returned to Africa to live as a monk, the Berbers and the Donatists could see him only as an uppity “Roman” who was too big for his britches.

I encountered these passages in Smith’s new book on Augustine (here), and they made me consider how all of us feel this restless in-between-ness in one way or another.

Take me, for example.

In many ways, I am the ultimate “insider.”

I am a white Christian male in the buckle of the Bible-belt, residing in the same town where I was born. As a theology professor, I couldn’t be more “basic” if I drank coffee from a handmade mug, wore sport coats with elbow patches, and listened to U2 past 2004 (which, I do).

Yet even I feel caught between “tribes” in certain ways: Neither fundamentalist nor Liberal; neither Republican nor Democrat; neither OU nor OSU. 😉

MESTIZO SPIRITUALITY

For González and Smith, it was precisely Augustine’s “mestizo” status—that is, his painful awareness of his restless hybridity—that helped him grasp a crucial insight. Neither Rome nor Hippo Regius was the “City of God” (civitate Dei). To be a Christian is to be a pilgrim and a foreigner, and the civitate Dei is, for now, a tent city that is closer to a refugee encampment than the hulking cathedrals made of stone.

Smith writes,

The Christian isn’t just a pilgrim but a refugee, a migrant in search of refuge. The Christian life isn’t just a pilgrimage but a journey of emigration.

This is not because our greatest hope is leave earth (though Augustine flirted with that error on occasion). Rather it is because we were made to find our rest in God, rather than in the things God made.

Much of our restlessness and disappointment is the result of trying to convince ourselves that we’re already home. The alternative is not escapism; it is a refugee spirituality—unsettled yet hopeful, tenuous but searching, eager to fine the hometown we’ve never been to. … God is the country we’re looking for.

In the face of Rome’s decadent decline (sound familiar?), González sees Augustine’s mestizo mentality as a saving grace.

he, who was both African and Roman, and therefore both and neither one nor the other [could] develop a philosophy of history, a vision of God’s action, that did not depend on Roman civilization… .

If American evangelicalism is to survive, it will have to embrace this mestizo mindset, along with Augustine’s famous line from the Confesssions—the book Smith describes as “a hitchhiker’s guide to the cosmos for wandering hearts”:

“You made us for yourself, O God, and our heart is restless till it finds its rest in thee.”

 


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On feverish excitement

On feverish excitement

I’ve had this quote from Oliver O’Donovan saved in my phone for months now.

Every once in awhile I look at it to keep from saying things I will later regret.

“Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities.

The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.”

But wait, “wait!” you say…, doesn’t that posture mean a kind of silent complicity in the face of corruption, childishness, and criminal injustice?

I mean, wasn’t Bonhoeffer right to say that

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak.
Not to act is to act.”

Well, no.

First, because Bonhoeffer never said that.

I mean… , so there’s that.

No matter how many times the quote appears on “Goodreads.com” (usually next to a picture of Bonhoeffer with his arm behind his head, courtesy of Prussian Glamour Shots), it doesn’t change the fact that the German pastor never uttered, wrote, or Tweeted the line—at least so far as anyone knows.

It seems to be a fake quote.

Thus it boasts the same historical support as “I invented the internet,” remarked Abraham Lincoln.

Second, talking about something else is not the same as silence–and it doesn’t always mean complicity.

There are certainly times when Christians must speak up in the face of political and social injustice.

I’ve even done my fair share of writing on issues like abortion, racism, and sexual assault. I come from a Wesleyan tradition, after all, that (despite her many faults) was birthed in abolitionism and raised on women’s suffrage.

Still, I think O’Donovan is right to note the dangers of a church that gets too caught up in the “feverish excitement” regarding the raging dumpster fire of American politics.

At points, I’ve agreed with Brian Zahnd when he notes that

Part of why many Christians bring so much energy into their politics is due to a low or non-existent ecclesiology. They can in no serious way regard the church as an agent of change, so all their energy goes into politics. There is no alternative way of the church, only R vs. D.

This can happen on either side of the aisle.

To follow O’Donovan’s advice in avoiding some forms of “feverish [political] excitement” is not to commend silence or withdrawal—it is rather to acknowledge with humility that the thing holding us all back from the abyss at this moment is probably not my personal Twitter account. (Especially since I don’t have one.)

The road back to civil discourse is more likely to lead through your backyard than your Facebook Newsfeed.

(Oooh! I like that line, I will now post it unironically to Facebook, heal our national wounds, and generate new ads for lawn care products.)

CONCLUSION

In the end, it requires discernment to know which “wave” of societal and political outrage deserves comment, and which “wave” should be allowed to pass in the knowledge that there will be another one in approximately five seconds.

I haven’t mastered that art.

Still, I am working hard this season to refuse the “principalities and powers” (the Greek word there is “algorithms”–or it should be…) the posture they desire in some moments of political upheaval—the posture of feverish excitement.


 

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