There is a horrific irony that the iconic Notre Dame cathedral went up in a hail of flame and ash at the very start of Holy Week.
Holy week, of all times.
Nearly two millennia ago, Christ began this week with some similarly shocking actions in the temple of his day.
He walked into what was arguably the world’s most impressive house of worship, and pronounced judgment by turning over tables and condemning what had become a “den of [leston]” (brigands, robbers, revolutionaries). The event leads to a variety of interpretations, but both liberal and conservative scholars agree that Jesus’ actions in the temple led quickly and directly to his death.
It was the straw that broke the devil’s back.
At his trial, the false charge was that Christ had threatened to destroy the building:
“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58).
But the “temple” he had spoken of was his body (John 2:21).
In the years that followed, the early church developed a strange new view of earthly sanctuaries. It was not that they had disdain for buildings. But for them, the body is the only true temple (1 Pet 2:5; 1 Cor 6:19).
God’s Spirit dwells not in brick and mortar but in flesh and bone.
The Spirit resides in the frail frame of an Indonesian teenager, trafficked for her sexual value. The Spirit rests in the elderly man, who suffers from dementia, and is forgotten by his family. The Spirit blows upon the fetus with Down Syndrome, the convict in the county jail, and the CEO in her corner office.
The body is our only temple.
This does not mean, of course, that earthly buildings are either bad or unimportant. Far from it! I feel sickened watching the famed spire of Notre Dame go tumbling into oblivion. What a loss! (And I have written similarly of even ancient, pagan shrines.)
Still, the message of Holy Week is that though our earthly dwellings (of all sizes, shapes, and skin colors) may be stripped to their very foundations “more can be mended than you know.”
“Excessive zeal for justice always becomes satanic.”
That line comes from Walter Wink’s landmark study of the demonic: Unmasking the Powers. His point is not to disparage our need for justice but to season it with mercy, lest “Lady J” transform into, simply, “the accuser” (ha satan).
“Justice” often turns, like sour milk, to vengeance.
A similar theme exists in this provocative claim by Alan Jacobs:
When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness.
The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness.
Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.
I’ve written on this before (here); but a similar point has now been made by a third and final figure: the famous atheist/neuroscientist, Sam Harris.
In reference to a recent spate of social media mobs that have called for the names, addresses, and (practically) the firstborn children of perceived offenders, Harris laments the fact that our modern culture has lost its ability to forgive (or even hear the evidence) amid its fervor for “justice.”
“We have to have a way back,” said Harris in a recent interview, regarding how the social media mob descends on certain persons with seemingly no mercy and no possibility of repentance or forgiveness.
Is there a lesson here from these three statements?
If anything, it is that a thirst for “justice” is not always an unalloyed good. We need mercy too. And humility (Mic 6:8).
And while that means many things, one practical result is that today, of all days, we are more likely to see a plethora of King quotations sprinkled through our Facebook news feeds–if only to show friends that “I” am not a racist jerk.
There are many excellent MLK quotations; yet this is the one that I’ve been pondering:
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” (The Trumpet of Conscience, Steeler Lecture, 1967)
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice […]
Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
In other words: The taunts of enemies are less crushing than the silence of “friends.”
Which brings me to me.
A MESSAGE FOR THE SILENT
On what injustices am I tempted to be silent over?
How am I prone to be like that “white moderate” described by King, who was, in fact, a greater stumbling block to justice than the KKK?
1. The resurgent racism of our MAGA moment
One area that I am sorely tempted to be silent over has to do with the rise in nationalism (and sometimes outright racism) that has accompanied our current MAGA moment.
By any metric, certain segments of America have been made more of a “safe space” for white nationalism, as evidenced by a sitting congressman who recently implied that terms like “White supremacist” and “White nationalist” should not be seen as offensive. (Along with a litany of lesser, though related, statements.)
Then, we watched in shocked sadness as an aging Native American man (who was also Vietnam vet) was jeered by a crowd of “Pro-Life” high schoolers as he chanted a peace song during an indigenous peoples march in Washington, D.C.
“Build the wall!” they shouted in his face.
[*See below for update]
For the past week, I’ve said nothing about either. Why?
It’s simple: I’m a silent friend.
2. The un-cool connotations of the Pro-Life cause.
My second temptation (like that of Christ) is related to the first.
After all, those ignorant teenagers (a redundancy we should all remember before permanently crucifying them) in MAGA hats were in Washington for the “March for Life.” This is an annual event designed to raise awareness over the atrocity of legally slaughtered babies in America.
It takes place near the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
And I said nothing about that either.
I’m busy. Obviously. But another reason is that the same crowd that praises me for writing occasionally about the resurgent racism of our MAGA moment, often doesn’t think it cool when I talk about the evil of abortion.
And when you’ve already alienated one pre-fab fan-base, the temptation is to keep the other group happy.
Based on our current (nonsensical) partisan arrangement, we are told that we cannot speak out about both problems (#1 and #2). We must either choose everything from “column A” or everything from “column B.” And if you refuse to bundle your issues in a way that fits the Cable News silos, you will face hostility from both sides.
3. The stuff that doesn’t qualify as “news”
A third and final area on which I’ve been too silent involves that enormous, cloud-covered mountain of important stuff that doesn’t fit the category of “shiny objects” in our news feeds.
If a tree falls in the forest and it has nothing to do with Trump or Kanye or the NFL playoffs, does it make a sound? Not usually.
A friend was telling me this morning about the horrendous surge in persecution toward Christians in the world’s two largest countries: China and India. I’ve known about the former, but have I even prayed about it, much less write a blog post?
It isn’t shiny enough.
There aren’t many “cool points” there.
I’m a silent friend.
“The root cause of this persecution,” he said, “is actually the same thing we’re seeing all over the world. The rise of nationalism.” It’s an anger towards “outsiders” in an effort to make China more Chinese again; or India more Hindu.
The result is a metaphorical mob of chanting nationalists, surrounding Chinese Christians, as they sing their peace songs.
Will anyone say anthing?
Of course, it isn’t possible to speak up on every issue. The world is too big. And “outrage fatigue” is a real thing.
In addition, speaking up is no guarantee of speaking well, since some self-styled “prophets” are just demagogues in church clothes (see here on trying to sort out the difference).
Nevertheless, these are the words that I am pondering today, spoken to me if no one else:
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
Update: After posting this story, new videos and firsthand accounts surfaced that call into question the earlier reports regarding the MAGA high school students in D.C. See here . If these reports are accurate, then it appears that these students are owed an apology from myself and many others.
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Hurtling through the sky at 30,000 feet can give you a chance to do things you don’t normally have time for – like listening to a long-forgotten album.
On a recent flight to Orlando, I gave a re-hearing to David Bazan’s anguished recording from 2009: “Curse your Branches.”
The whole thing is fantastic. And terrible.
It was written, according to Bazan, as a breakup letter to God (since he now considers himself an atheist). Yet I learned in a recent interview that Bazan was astonished that Christianity Today named “Curse your Branches” one of their best albums of the year.
They weren’t wrong.
As Bazan admits, the manifesto that he had originally penned as a giant middle finger to God, turns out at key moments to sound almost like an early stanza from the Psalms or Lamentations (with, sadly, no resolution).
And the irony is that for someone who doesn’t believe in God, Bazan spends an awful lot of time talking to him. In this way, he sounds somewhat like the honest atheist described by Francis Spufford, who says of God: “He doesn’t exist, the bastard.”
To use the imagery of the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, the album is “haunted” by Transcendence. This, says Taylor, is the true mark of a Secular Age. It is not that belief has been vanquished or that most people now sit neutral to the question; it is rather that faith seems so fraught for many tortured souls that they end up like the novelist Julian Barnes, when he writes: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”
That is precisely the attitude of “Curse Your Branches.”
Even Bazan’s (past) descent into alcoholism is linked to his God-haunted memory. As he puts it:
All this lethal drinking is to hopefully forget about You…
And the last word trails into a plaintive wail that betrays a capital “Y.”
The most evocative stanza of the album follows:
I might as well admit it, as though I had a choice / The crew have killed the Captain but they still can hear his voice. A shadow on the water / A whisper on the wind / On long walks with my daughter who is lately full of questions about You…(“In Stitches“).
While Bazan is clear that he now rejects all forms of theism, one senses that it is certain kind of theology that seems especially untenable to him: a form of deterministic Calvinism in which God sovereignly causes everything and then blames us. “Curse your branches” is itself a play on Paul’s metaphorical olive tree from Romans 11, in which some limbs (peoples) have been broken off and others grafted in.
Given this deterministic assumption (God causes everything), the conclusion follows naturally:
“All fallen leaves should curse their branches / For not letting them decide where they should fall / And not letting them refuse to fall at all”
If this were what Paul meant, then I would not disagree. For in view of David Bentley Hart, determinism does seem to have the strange result of rendering the universe morally intelligible at the cost of a God who is rendered morally loathsome (see here for my most widely read post on that topic). Or as Bazan asks: “Did You push us when we fell?”
Despite his bitterness toward Christianity, Bazan is open about a recurring “temptation” to doubt his doubts and to recant from his “repentance”:
Though I have repented, I’m still tempted I admit / But that’s not what bearing witness is (“Bearing Witness”).
In other words: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”
Why write about this album?
Aside from the fact that good art needs no utilitarian justification, I have three reasons:
Christian leaders should listen to “God-haunted” deconversion stories.
For pastors and professors like myself, truly listening to voices like Bazan’s should be a requirement in an age where more and more people find themselves in the “haunted” position that Charles Taylor describes.
Listening well is a pre-requisite for pastoral sensitivity. But sadly, a survey of our social media feeds shows that many so-called apologists are more known for their ability to “demolish” and “destroy” the opposition.
And to quote Bazan, “That’s not what bearing witness is.”
Ask: “What kind of god don’t you believe in?”
Second, Bazan highlights, at some points, a kind of divinity (and Christianity) that thoughtful believers should be quick to disavow—and not just on the question of determinism.
On this subject, I recall the words of N.T. Wright as he met with UK college students during his time as a university chaplain. Upon hearing that many did not believe in God, his next words were not a rebuttal but a question.
“What kind of God don’t you believe in?”
The question is important, since Christians sometimes assume that the word “God” has univocal meaning. It doesn’t. And upon listening to the student’s answer (See #1), Wright tells how he would often respond with “That’s very good; I don’t believe in that God either. The God I trust is the one embodied perfectly by Jesus Christ.”
Preach to and for the “haunted.”
Lastly, I’ve been incorporating more quotes from folks like Bazan in my sermons (e.g., David Foster Wallace, last Sunday)—not as “strawman” foils to be quickly dispatched, but as opportunities to acknowledge questions, doubts, and fears that are present in the minds of “the faithful”–not just “out there” in the big, bad world.
“Maybe you’ve felt like that,” I try to say.
“Maybe you’ve wondered why an invisible God would even care if humans believed in him, rather than the competition.”
As Bazan asks:
Red and orange; or orange and yellow? / In which of these do you believe? / If you’re not sure right now; please take a moment / ‘Cause I need your signature, before you leave (“Curse your branches”).
In the view of Tim Keller, the ability to anticipate these unvoiced questions and fears is crucial to empathetic preaching (Though I don’t pretend to do it perfectly)–especially when coupled with the “haunting” of the Holy Ghost.
Toward this end, albums like “Curse Your Branches” can actually serve the church, like an Eloi, Eloi… wafting up to 30,000 feet, awaiting answer.
If you’re interested in an accessible book for anyone feeling baffled by the Bible, check out my new book, Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple movements (here).
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John Chau, Jim Elliot, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
As it happened, when news broke that John Allen Chau had been killed while trying to evangelize an isolated tribe far off the coast of India, I had been re-reading one of my favorite works of fiction: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
The story, written around 1899, is among the most famous critiques of colonialism in its ignorant and damaging forays into tribal cultures. Conrad wrote it from experience. He had gone to the Congo in 1890 to serve as a river pilot. Long before that, at the young age of nine, he had placed his finger on the blank space of a map that represented Africa, and proclaimed: “When I grow up I shall go there.”
The reality did not live up to his hopes.
Near the beginning of Heart of Darkness, the narrator (Marlow) recalls a scene that functions as a kind of allegory:
Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.
Blindly firing into a continent.
For Conrad, this was a metaphor for western meddling in tribal cultures. It was a wasteful farce; a mix of ignorance and arrogance. And it resulted in unnecessary death.
But what does this have to do with John Allen Chau?
MUST MISSIONS BE COLONIAL?
For many, Chau’s decision to evangelize an unreached tribe on North Sentinel Island bears a resemblance to Conrad’s vessel. In Chau’s defense, his aim was not to pillage, colonize, or do violence. His goal was to minister or die trying.
Yet he did so with a frightful ignorance of the harm that he could bring—and not merely to himself. Even the slightest exposure to the germs Chau carried on his person or his gifts could wipe out the people that he sought to save. Yet “there [he] was, incomprehensible,” firing himself into an island.
JUST FATAL, FUTILE THEATER?
While many have been critical of Chau (and rightly so at points), it is the incomprehensibility of his act that interests me. That same word appeared in Conrad’s quote (above).
And in some ways, Chau’s thinking is as incomprehensible to the secular mind as is that of the islanders that killed him.
But it wasn’t always.
As Thomas S. Kidd notes, there is a striking difference in how journalists covered the death of Jim Elliot, the Christian missionary who was speared to death when he and others attempted to evangelize an unreached tribe of Ecuador in 1956. At that time, Life Magazineoffered almost fawning coverage of Elliot’s noble attempt to “civilize” the “Stone Age savages.” (Yes, they used those words.)
Are Chau and Elliot so different?
In some ways they were. It seems that Chau was more of a rogue actor. He was more naïve; more careless with the health of those he sought to help. And undoubtedly, there are differences between the Ecuadorian Huaorani and the tribe that Chau sought out.
Still, note how a recent column in The Wall Street Journalspoke of Chau’s death, and then contrast that with Life Magazine, 1956:
there will be those who ascribe nobility to Chau, and courage. . . But go easy on the romance of Chau and his messy, martyred end.
He broke Indian law by entering the country on a tourist visa while pursuing an evangelical mission. Chau’s application would have been refused if it so much as mentioned the words “North Sentinel Island.” . . . What we had in the end, was one man’s futile—and fatal—theater.
An adventure tourist. A theatrical fame-seeker who broke the law. Don’t cry for him.
But is that fair?
Enough context. Now for my own imperfect takeaways from this odd mashup of
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)
Life Magazine (1956)
The Wall Street Journal (2018)
First, it seems quite clear to me that not all missionary efforts are praiseworthy. Despite good intentions, Chau was terribly naïve about the dangers that he brought to North Sentinel. When a couple of the islanders were kidnapped by a 19th c. British naval officer (Not Conrad), they died almost immediately for lack of an immune resistance. This matters; and especially given that far more indigenous people (in North America) were killed by germs from white conquerors, settlers, and missionaries than by anything else.
Would you go evangelize your neighbors and their children if you knew you carried the equivalent of Ebola?
If the apostle Paul was right that “Love does no harm to a neighbor” (Rom 13:10), then Chau was either terribly ignorant or terribly cavalier about the result of “firing” himself like a human bomb into a very vulnerable culture.
Second, thank God that many westerners are now more sensitive in the way they think of what Life Magazine called uncivilized “savages.” Not even Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is immune from these stereotypes (see Achebe’s famous, if overdone critique).
But neither Elliot nor Chau would have thought of indigenous communities in this way. Whatever other flaws they might have had, Chau and Elliot would have thought of such tribespersons as fellow image-bearers who deserve the gospel as much as anyone else. That’s not colonialism; it’s Christianity — even if Chau was wrong to go about it as he did.
Third, a final lesson from this whole sad tale is just how inscrutable it is for modern folks (e.g., the fairly conservative Wall Street Journal) to understand the historic Christian idea that neither “law” nor threat of “death” should stop one from sharing Jesus. Yes, this can be done badly (as it likely was in Chau’s case). But it can also be done with great care and bravery.
MY NEXT DOOR NEIGHBOR
Allow a final example: Right next-door to my office sits a PhD in Linguistics and Cultural Anthropology: “Dr. Mike.” He is a legend around campus for his open door, open ears, and oft-imitated-but-never-duplicated laugh. Students love him.
He also lived in the jungles of New Guinea for ten years as a missionary with a VERY isolated tribal culture. He learned their language, customs, and their names. He was sensitive to many things that white missionaries often take for granted, and he teaches this to students.
It was quite possible, of course, that Mike too could have been killed as were Chau and Elliot in a tribal region prone to violence.
Why then did he go? And why especially with a wife and two small children born during his decade in the jungles?
Was it all “futile, [nearly] fatal theater”?
I don’t think so.
But I don’t doubt that it seems incomprehensible – to all except the tribal people that he came to know and love.
UPDATE: The always-thoughtful Ed Stetzer has a piece out now at The Washington Post that debunks some of the early news reports on Chau (see here for that). While Chau may well have posed grave dangers to the tribe he sought to reach, it also appears that initial news reports were not working (or caring) with all the facts.