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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When celebrities die

When celebrities die

What exactly is going on within our collective psyche when a very famous person dies under tragic circumstances?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been researching the subject of my next book. Its focus is upon the way “celebrity” and a celebrity-obsessed culture has come to influence American evangelicalism.

My claim is that a fixation on fame and famous people is creating certain problems for the church, despite our claim that only God be worshipped and adored. My argument is that evangelicalism needs to be “de-famed” so Jesus won’t be.

Then, in the midst this research, a helicopter crashed.

AN UNDENIABLE TRAGEDY

Kobe Bryant, his young daughter, and seven others were tragically killed.

The internet exploded.

Like most people, I never met Kobe. I wasn’t a Laker fan. And I wondered (years ago) about the sexual assault charge that was ultimately dropped against him. How do you judge the character of someone you’ve never met?

Still, like everybody else, I was shocked and saddened. A rush emotions followed: His daughter too!? It can’t be. What must his wife and family be enduring!?

I wasn’t alone.

WHAT IS A CELEBRITY?

Then I began to ask another question: How does my strong reaction to Kobe’s death fit with my research into our celebrity culture?

In his book Celebrity Worship, Pete Ward attempts to unpack just what is a “celebrity” and why they matter to us.

A celebrity, Ward says, is a “mediated person.” Celebrities are those persons who have been elevated and magnified by a complex mix of technology, media, industry, and social relationships. Ward’s claim is that our deep connection to celebrities is not actually about them—it’s about us, and the formation of the modern “self.”

To see the young and smiling face of Kobe Bryant, memorialized on CNN, is to be reminded of how fragile our lives are. It is also to be transported back in time to watching basketball with one’s own father or high school friend. It is to place myself in Kobe’s seat in the helicopter (the seat of a father), and to look into my own daughter’s eyes. It is to empathize with a grieving widow and grieving children. It is to relive our own grief and trauma vicariously.

And after that, it is to find a collective outlet for that groan on social media. (This isn’t wrong.)

In Ward’s words, “Celebrities are important, because they are one of the primary resources used in processing the project of the self” (4).

WHEN CELEBRITIES DIE

After the death of Michael Jackson, and in spite of widespread evidence of child molestation, Ward notes how the public reacted with intense grief and deep affection.

MJ’s music had formed the soundtrack for countless lives.

Hence the public was not mourning an accused child molester, or even a phenomenal performer (he was likely both). They were mourning what his music represented in their stories.

A man named Paul put it this way:

“I immediately thought of my brother with whom I held great parties and where we danced like MJ, we were teenagers […] My brother was important to me.”

LISTENING AND LEARNING

These kind of celebrity deaths also provide an opportunity for  us to ask important questions of ourselves. For instance:

1. What am I actually grieving?

Like the young man (Paul) who was thoughtful enough to link the death of Michael Jackson to his past relationship with his own brother—we should ask what our grief over persons we have never met might be trying to teach us.

What are we grieving beyond the individual who has died?

What if the death of Michael Jackson led not to a shrine at his personal amusement park (which, if we are honest, was more a crime scene than a temple), but to conversations with one’s own brother, mother, pastor, friend, or therapist?

We like to run from death and grief. And events like this ask us to connect to the deeper sources of our pain.

2. What about the others?

Here’s another question to be wrestled with: Do I really believe that every person—no matter how famous, beautiful, or powerful—is created equally in the image of God?

Equality is a value in the modern West. But our responses to celebrity raise questions as to how deeply we believe in it.

Is the death of a poor and unnamed Chinese girl every bit as precious in the sight of God as that of Kobe Bryant? Do I actually feel this to be true, despite the fact that the young girl’s death (or that of the unborn baby) will get little personal coverage, in part because a given government has a vested interest in saving face?

Celebrity deaths give us occasion to grapple with these uncomfortable questions about equality and the sanctity of life.

3. Is the ache an echo of a Voice?

The Judeo-Christian tradition has long held that God has placed eternity (or a longing for transcendence) in the human heart.

The ache over mortality is therefore meant to be an echo of a Voice. It is a “dispatch” from transcendence, and even ardent secularists can hear it.

In the words of James K. A. Smith (citing Charles Taylor), the “closed take” on reality (No God, no transcendent meaning, no afterlife)

can’t seem to get rid of a certain haunting, a certain rumbling in our hearts. There is a spectre haunting our secular age, the “spectre of meaninglessness”—which is a dispatch from [divine] fullness.

CONCLUSION

In the end, it is good and right to mourn celebrity deaths. It is good and right because they are people made in God’s image.

Yet these tragedies may also serve as reminders of important truths (or falsehoods) that we would like to ignore.

All life is sacred. All human death is an intrusion into God’s good world. And this mortal ache—while painful—may form a trail of breadcrumbs leading to a Table where we hear the same truths Kobe did at his last worship service, just hours before his death:

This is my body.

This is my blood.

Do this in remembrance of the Christ who conquered death, and who alone is worthy to be worshipped.


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“Looking comes first.”

“Looking comes first.”

Several months ago, I reread my old copy of C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce for a chapter in my forthcoming book on the Christian imagination (Now submitted!).

Lewis’ tale is a creative recasting of heaven, hell, and purgatory—all couched in a dream sequence—that allows him to demur (though not entirely convincingly) that he has no intention of “speculating” on the details of the afterlife. (Nonsense; but I’ll save that for another time.)

One of the more convicting encounters in The Great Divorce involves a famous artist who visits heaven and responds with awe: “I should like to paint this!”

Unfortunately, it is precisely this desire (to depict heaven rather than experience it) that will cause him to depart willingly for hell.

Then the money quote:

Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, deep down Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him (85).

I don’t know about poets, musicians, and artists—but this is darn sure true of preachers.

As proof, I found this note, scrawled in my handwriting from freshman year of college.

Great Divorce pic.jpeg

The command given to the ambitious artist is simple: “Looking comes first.”

There is nothing wrong with painting, describing, depicting Beauty.

Fine. Good. Do it.

But put down your brush, for a moment—Look first.

Let’s not be tour guides for a land we no longer inhabit.

The Kingdom has no need of expats trading legal residence for commentary and holiday excursions.

“…if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.”

“At present your business is to see. He is endless. Come and feed.”

Amen.

 

 


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Of her, not just in her

Of her, not just in her

On Mary and the womb of Christmas

For some Protestants, Advent may be about the only time we think of Mary—kneeling as she often is beside a plastic manger in our church Nativities.

Yet a chorus of evangelical scholars has argued recently (here and here) that a relative silence on Christ’s mother comes at the expense of Scripture, basic church tradition, and a proper view of women in the story of redemption.

Mary and Eve
Virgin Mary and Eve,
~Sr Grace Remington, OCSO.

After all, in the words of Lucy Peppiatt,

“Jesus is made of her, not just in her.”

MORE THAN MERE RECEPTACLE 

We might be conditioned to think of Mary more as a “receptacle” for carrying and birthing Christ, but not as one who actually supplied his humanity from her own body.

The early theologians who hammered out the doctrine of Christ, however, would have nothing of this viewpoint.

Tertullian (c. 155–c. 240) says it this way:

Pray, tell me, why the Spirit of God descended into a woman’s womb at all, if He did not do so for the purpose of partaking of flesh from the womb. […] He had no reason for enclosing Himself [there] if He was to bear forth nothing from it.

To say that Christ’s humanity did NOT come from Mary might seem like a minor quibble, but to go down this road is to sever Jesus from the line of Israel and of Adam—and thus to cut the saving cord that ties him to us all.

Peppiatt goes on:

Mary is not only a receptacle of the Divine [Christ], she contributes [to the baby] from her own body. It is her blood that forms him, her food that nourishes him, her breasts that feed him.

When God chose to come to earth, he chose the hiddenness of a woman’s womb. When God chose to take on flesh, he chose to unite himself to a woman’s flesh.

When God chose to appear, he chose to come as a baby, entrusting himself to a woman’s body to be born.

In the latest cover story for Christianity Today, Jennifer Powell McNutt and Amy Beverage Peeler speak of Mary as “the first Christian”—a prophet, proclaimer, and prototype of every Jesus-worshiper.

The entire Christian life is, in a way, mirrored by the experience of Mary. Each one of us—both male and female—are called to live in Christ and he in us. We are all expected to carry Christ at the core of our being—like Mary carried Christ in her womb—and to labor with him and for him.

The Gospel writers want us to understand how important Mary was, serving from the Annunciation to Pentecost as both God-bearer in her physical body and as gospel-bearer, a faithful witness and proclaimer to the work that God was accomplishing in our Lord Jesus Christ. Both her identities matter […].

LESS THAN CO-REDEMPTRIX

None of this means Mary should be viewed as a sinless “co-redemptrix” who functions as the heavenly “good cop” to God’s judgmental “bad one.” (This has been claimed.)

Nor does it imply that she was free from original sin and “full of grace” to dispense because of her excess merit. (This view is based on a mistranslation of “favored one” [κεχαριτωμενη] in Luke 1:28.)

CONCLUSION

What the prior argument does mean is that in avoiding potential excesses surrounding Mary, Protestants should be wary of throwing the “baby” (or rather, the baby’s mother!) out with the bathwater.

Christ was made “of her” not just “in her.”

So while Jesus is rightly the focus of the Christmas season, Mary’s brave Yes to God’s call provides a model for all believers.

 

 


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A sermon on New Creation

A sermon on New Creation

Here’s message I gave last weekend at Fountain Springs Church in Rapid City, South Dakota.

In it, I explain important theological truths like how I accidentally burned off my hair with a blow torch–and why it matters that the Bible ends with “New Creation” for God’s people.

The message was the final installment in a series over my book, Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements.


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“Old so-and-so”–A post on peculiarity and affection

“Old so-and-so”–A post on peculiarity and affection

Lately, I’ve been reading Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, after Brianna and I put the kids to bed.

It’s a story about the “unique” people one comes to know during a lifetime in a small community.

Jayber

A key takeaway is this: When no one is a “stranger” we see more clearly that everyone is strange.

But far from being merely a cause for mockery or bullying, peculiarity can spark affection.

Case in point: ‘Ol Ab Rowanberry, with his rifle and his chamber pot.

Yet another sight I used to see [around town] was uncle Ab Rowanberry shuffling by, carrying a rifle, a lantern, and a sack containing a chamber pot, a cowbell, a corn knife and a long leather purse tied with a rag string. He would be on his way between daughters.

The paragraph is random and ridiculous—and delightful.

The scene continues:

Ab carried with him all his worldly possessions, the terms of his independence and self-respect: the rifle with which he provided a little meat for the table and with which he could defend himself if attacked, the corn knife in case he needed it, the lantern and the chamber pot to preserve his dignity when he had to get up at night, the cowbell to ring if he fell down and couldn’t get up. […] I observed him carefully and have remembered him always.

The last line is vintage Berry.

EXAGGERATED?

Some would allege that such colorful depictions of human beings amount to “tall tales” that exaggerate the strangeness.

I disagree.

As a case in point, I recall a similar critique as it was levelled at the southern gothic stories of Flannery O’Conner. In defense of Flannery, the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote the following:

Critics who accuse her of exaggeration are quite wrong, I think. I lived in Florida for several years next to [a church like those described in O’Conner’s fiction].

After those Wednesday nights, nothing Flannery O’Conner ever wrote could seem at all exaggerated to me.

CONCLUSION

What’s the point of these forays into human idiosyncrasy?

Since I’m in the middle of a fiction-writing project myself (MS due in about a month!), one reminder is to “Include a rifle and a chamber pot” in my own way (i.e., Don’t be afraid to highlight the peculiar features that make people interesting people).

But there is also a spiritual lesson to be learned.

For Berry (and for O’Conner), the goal is not to mock our strangeness, but to weave a spell around it so that even oddity can become a mark of beauty and belovedness.

As C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves:

The especial glory of Affection is that it can unite those who most emphatically, even comically, are not [alike]. Growing fond of “old-so-and-so,” at first simply because he happens to be there—[rifle and chamber pot in tow!]—I presently begin to see that there is “something in him.”

This realization also connects with another theme from Lewis’ most famous essay (The Weight of Glory): There are no ordinary people. No mere mortals.

We are all odder and more broken than we look; yet more beloved than we dared imagine.

 


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