Unqualified Condolence

Unqualified Condolence

Like many people, I was shocked and saddened to learn late last week of the sudden death of the popular Christian writer, Rachel Held Evans.

She was only thirty-seven, and she left behind a husband and two young children.

I didn’t know Rachel personally. Still, it was obvious that she was an incredibly gifted writer who gave voice to the nagging questions and concerns of many (former) evangelicals.

She was both kind and controversial—and that rare combination brought forth an unsettling tendency in the outpouring of condolences and sadness.

Let us call it the “qualified condolence.”

As I began to comment on several posts that mourned Rachel’s passing, I noticed a certain worry creep into my head that expressed itself in sentences that began something like this:

“I didn’t always agree with Rachel, but…”

“We didn’t see eye-to-eye on many issues, still…”

“Despite our differences, …”

In some cases, the “qualified condolence” may be benign. It may merely flag the possibility of having real affection for someone with whom you disagree.

But at least in my own heart, I sensed that these sorts of statements were a sign of something sad, and scared, and broken in me: a need to “signal” to my tribe that my grief did NOT equal a full endorsement of all Rachel’s views.

And that is to my shame.

We should not need to qualify our mourning at the loss of such a vibrant voice.

We need not mingle our condolences with fearful “smoke-signals” to the tribal border police as a way of reassuring others that we are still quite aware of “just how wrong she was” on this or that issue. To do so can betray the tragic reality that, in such polarized times, the only thing more sacred than life itself is our tribal affiliations.

An expression of solidarity and sadness should be enough.

Rest in Peace Rachel; Eshet Chayil.

“Tear this temple down”

“Tear this temple down”

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.”

 


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*that last line is one of my favorites from Francis Spufford, in his work, Unapologetic.

Justice without mercy

Justice without mercy

“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).

 


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Prophet or punk? (Pt 3)

Prophet or punk? (Pt 3)

Here’s the final installment of my “Prophet or punk?” series over at The Wesleyan Church website.

These posts explore the difference between prophetic boldness and dogmatic shrillness in the age of social media.

While part 2 dealt with recovering “lament,” this one deals with the prophetic hallmark of “persistent hope” expressed (perhaps) in some exuberant dances moves.

After all, the first named “prophetess” was Miriam (Exod. 15:20). And when she first steps foot upon the biblical stage to lead God’s people, it is with “with tambourines and dancing.”

Hence:

One is tempted to say that an imperfect litmus test to separate the prophet from punk is whether you can picture that person dancing.

Read the whole thing here.


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The silence of our friends

The silence of our friends

Today is MLK day.

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)

The statement dovetails with an insight from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where he spoke of what he called the “white moderate.”

There he admitted that

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]

chantrally

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.

Why?

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.

“Abracadabra: silence.”

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?

Not really.

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?

CONCLUSION

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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The haunting of David Bazan

The haunting of David Bazan

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.

bazan album cover

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.”

SOME TAKEAWAYS

Why write about this album?

Aside from the fact that good art needs no utilitarian justification, I have three reasons:

  1. 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.”

  1. 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.”

  1. 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.

———————

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Prophet or punk? (pt 2)

Prophet or punk? (pt 2)

“Cynics smirk, pundits rant, prophets weep.”

Thanks to The Wesleyan Church for posting part two of my series examining the difference between prophetic boldness and dogmatic shrillness.

This one examines the importance of receiving the language of “lament” over and above lambasting opponents.

Access here.


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