“Go, little book…!”

“Go, little book…!”

It’s a weird feeling to launch a book.

On the one hand, you’re afraid no one will read it. On the other, you’re afraid they will.

Unlike my prior books, which have focused exclusively on either Bible or theology, this one crosses boundaries. It is academic–but not heavily. It marries fiction with theology and cultural critique. It even lodges a qualified endorsement of a term that functions as a shame word in the academy: “speculation”–or what I call “faith seeking imagination.”

It is starkly critical of many currents within American evangelicalism; yet it also stubbornly refuses to defect from historic Christianity because of sheer embarrassment.

In other words, some will like it; others won’t.

That is as it should be. I hope it finds the audience that needs it. And specifically, I hope it finds those exhausted and disillusioned souls (like the “Eliza” character within the book) whose faith is hanging by a thread.

As I put it in the Introduction:

“The importance of what I define as ‘faith seeking imagination’ increases in a cultural moment when the church is torn by two unsavory extremes: the force of crippling secular doubt and the zealotry of partisan religious dogmatism. Rekindling a gracious theological imagination—rooted in orthodoxy, Scripture, tradition, community, and great works of art—is essential to confront the ‘resounding gong[s]’ (1 Cor 13:1) of our day with something better than pervasive skepticism or abrasive certainty. In this blank space between unchecked doubt and dogmatism, Christians must relearn how to say ‘perhaps’.”

I’ll blog a bit more about the book in weeks to come, but for now I’ll end with the words of Robert Southey,

Go, little Book! From this my solitude
I cast thee on the Waters,–go thy ways:
And if, as I believe, thy vein be good,
The World will find thee after many days.
Be it with thee according to thy worth:
Go, little Book; in faith I send thee forth.

See here to purchase a copy of Perhaps: Reclaiming the Space between Doubt and Dogmatism.

Or see here for the audio version (*not read by me…).

To learn more, here’s an old blog post that became the basis for Perhaps, several years ago.


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Gen D

Gen D

On religious doubt in younger generations

“Well, I guess I picked the right topic.”

That was one of my thoughts when I first saw this research from Ryan Burge on the rise of religious doubt in younger generations. But it’s hardly the most important one.

My next book (out this Fall) deals partly with that very topic: the crisis of faith experienced especially by young adults within our polarized times. Though I argue that some of the ways both doubt and faith are spoken of in Christian circles can do more harm than good.

Coming back to Burge, respondents were asked whether they believed in God’s existence “with no doubts.” (I could go on here about how this is not a question that the Bible cares much about, but let’s skip to the results.) Older generations remained relatively stable and certain across time. Meanwhile, millennials and Gen Z showed a significant decline.

Now, if you’ve followed this blog very long, you know I dislike sweeping generational generalizations (e.g., Millennials are like this… .”), especially when those claims are used to cast aspersions on a diverse swath of humans across different cultural, economic, geographic, and ethnic backgrounds. (See here for one of my old rants on the subject.)

But Burge isn’t doing that. And the research raises some important questions. Of course, for one segment of the evangelical internet (aka: where fun goes to die), it might be used to justify the kind “hell-in-a-handbasket” fear-mongering that is used to fuel the culture wars and generational superiority: People better wake up, etc., etc., something about participation trophies…

But to be honest, I unfollowed those people a long time ago.

Here are few random queries I had after seeing these statistics:

1. What percentage of supposedly “doubt-free” belief amongst older generations connects to a confusion between saving faith and the profession of mental certainty?

In Perhaps, I write about a misunderstanding regarding what the Bible means by “doubt”—at least as it appears in our modern English translations. In most cases, the Scriptures don’t decry honest questions or uncertainty. Rather, they confront the cultivation of divided loyalties and allegiances in those passages that are seen to speak of “doubt.”

I don’t have time for all the biblical data here, but suffice it to say that some Christians have been led to believe that if we admit to doubts, we are essentially saying that we don’t have “saving/healing/bank-account enriching faith.” Not so. This idolization of absolute certainty probably has more to do with the Enlightenment and folks like Descartes than it does with Jesus and Bible.

What’s more, a conflation between faith and certitude leads to a whole host of problems including gullibility, arrogance, and dishonesty. After all, to say that one has no doubts about a mysterious and unseen God is to risk violating the command that says, “Thou shalt not lie.”

A better option, as A. J. Swoboda rightly notes, is that doubt should be neither vilified or valorized in and of itself.

2. What percentage of youthful doubt is resolved with laugh lines and male pattern baldness?

In other words, do humans (on average) tend to progress from a season of unsettling doubt to more firm convictions?

It seems possible that some of us undergo a period of more intense questioning (say, between our teens and middle age), while gradually moving to more settled opinions around the time we start getting wrinkles, bald spots, and colonoscopies.

I don’t think this “ageing out” interpretation accounts for all (or even most) of Burge’s data. Still, it would be interesting to know more about some of these older respondents in, say, the 1960s or 70s. Last I checked, Woodstock wasn’t an apologetics conference.

3. How much doubt amongst millennials and Gen Z is driven partly by the partisan dogmatism of certain evangelicals?

In Perhaps, my subtitle speaks of “Reclaiming the Space between Doubt and Dogmatism.”

By that latter term, I describe a confluence of characteristics among many of the most visible evangelical spokesmen (I almost changed that to “spokespersons” but that would be inaccurate). Namely,

  • A tone of partisan shrillness
  • A posture of false certainty

From Jerry Falwell Jr., to Mark Driscoll, to whatever small-time COVID-denier pastor that CNN loves to elevate—doubt is often driven as a reaction to an un-Christlike dogmatism. In Perhaps, I speak of this as “fringe revulsion” and “team shaming.”

To be clear, religious fundamentalists haven’t cornered the market on dogmatic shrillness and false certainty. There are dogmatic forms of secular Liberalism that are every bit as strident. For that reason, I suggest that one of the best ways to wrestle through seasons of doubt is NOT by binge reading a stack of New Atheists in the morning alongside some simplistic or rationalistic apologetic literature at night.

Rather, the Spirit often works on our “split brains” (more on that in the book…) by virtue of embodied habits, healthy community, ancient voices, and a willingness to cling to Jesus in spite of our many questions. In that way, folks of all generations can pass through the wilderness doubt rather assuming “deconstruction” is a destination.

You can pre-order my new book here; but just to prove that I’m not merely hocking my own “products”—here is another excellent one by A. J. Swoboda. (I’ve got a podcast interview with him coming soon; so stay tuned!)

Grace and peace.


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You don’t have a “sin nature”

You don’t have a “sin nature”

Admittedly, we theologians can sometimes be annoying.

We often nit-pick over just the right way of phrasing a particular doctrine—and to non-academics especially, the habit evokes images of Hermione Granger pedantically correcting her classmates: “It’s Leviōsa, NOT Leviosar.”

Behind this concern, however, is a belief that language matters, and some words are simply better than others when gesturing toward Christian truth.

Case in point: “sin nature.”

More than once lately, I’ve read a book by a major evangelical publisher that makes reference to the allegedly foundational belief that all humans possess a “sin nature.” This claim is then taken to be so universally accepted—so basic to Christian theology—that it does not merit any evidence, explanation, citation, or supporting argument.

Our “sin nature” is taken to be a “Duh doctrine”—except it’s not.

The problematic phrase is partly the fault of contested translation in the original NIV (corrected in 2011), which rendered “flesh” (sarx) as “sinful nature.” Admittedly, Paul’s use of sarx is not easy to boil down for first-time readers. But the fact remains that neither Scripture nor the vast majority of Christian tradition ever claims that humanity has something called a “sin nature”–even as they remain insistent that our sin problem is indeed catastrophic.

AGAINST GOD AND NATURE

Tom McCall has a helpful critique of this phrase within his book-length treatment of the doctrine of sin, Against God and Nature (here). McCall is clear that all humans, with the exception of Jesus, are sinners. And he offers a robust account of original sin that would make even a strict Calvinist nod gravely in approval. We can’t save ourselves. “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Rom 3:23). Pelagius was wrong.

But McCall also explains why it is problematic to assert that humans have something called a “sin nature.” Parts of the argument are too technical for a brief blog post, but others deserve attention outside of academia–since that’s where the phrase often appears.

Chiefly, to speak of all humans having a “sin nature” implies that sin is a concrete substance rather than a twisting or corruption of something good. To speak of our universal “sin nature” makes sin sound like a constitutional part of our anatomy—like a heart or brain—a physical thing that all humans have by virtue of being members of the fallen human race.

Unfortunately, this causes big problems for Christian theology.

It smacks of Gnostic heresy to imply that some constitutional part of our shared humanity is inherently sinful. That would seem to mean that at least one of the following is true:

  1. God authored sin or our sin nature.
  2. Sin or a sin nature existed eternally.
  3. Satan created this sin nature and placed it within us.

Christianity has long rejected all these options while maintaining that humans are indeed enslaved to sin in ways that require God’s gracious rescue. To disavow the concept “sin nature” is not therefore to reject concepts like original sin or even total depravity. On those points, Christians have long held that we are utterly incapable of saving ourselves.

That’s why someone as conservative as the late, great J. I. Packer (the OG of kind-hearted Calvinism) wrote that the “widespread but misleading line of teaching” regarding a “sin nature” should be rejected. Better options include the language of human fallenness, original sin, depravity, or as my Aussie comrade Michael Bird suggests: “‘suckiness’ unto death.”

In saying all this, I am at all not implying that those speaking of our “sin nature” are somehow unwitting Gnostics. Far from it! In fact, they surely think they are uttering the same doctrine of fallenness that Christians have held throughout the centuries. They’re just wrong.

In other words, it’s “leviosa”—even if Hermione’s tone can be a bit annoying.


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WWJV?

WWJV?

WHO WOULD JESUS VACCINATE FIRST?

As the first precious drops of the COVID-19 vaccine roll out across America, a pressing question swirled in prior weeks: Who gets them first?

In my state, as in most others, the majority of those doses will go to extremely vulnerable residents in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. (Though front-line workers will deservedly get some too.)

After all, nursing home residents are amongst those most likely to die from COVID-19. So we might be tempted to think that putting them first is nothing more than a common sense deduction that any civilization would make.

It is not.

And we should take a moment to recognize that fact—and then give thanks.

CRATERS ON THE MOON

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes the lingering influence of Christianity on Western culture like craters on the moon.

What he means is that the impact marks of the gospel are still visible, even if the theological beliefs which formed them are no longer so widely held. We are seeing one of those “impact marks” now in the decision to give our first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to people who may have little time left to live, even without it.

After all, one study showed that the average length of stay in a nursing home before death was about five months (here). Other studies differed slightly (here).

But by any tally, it’s not long.

So is our distribution plan “correct” by a purely utilitarian metric?

THE COUNTER-ARGUMENT

I listened recently to the Yale scientist, Nicholas Christakis, as he explained why giving our limited supply of COVID-19 vaccinations to those in nursing homes might NOT be the best approach.

He suggested that it could be better to distribute the vaccine “upstream” amongst citizens who are more likely to spread the virus, and thereby yield an exponential case-load reduction.

I have no epidemiological opinion on which approach is best; and even if I did, you shouldn’t listen to it (because getting your science and medical “takes” from unqualified people on the Internet is like calling a plumber for an appendectomy).

My point is NOT to say who SHOULD get the vaccine first, from a medical standpoint.

My argument is that our culture’s default assumption that “The last should go first” is influenced by theological factors that go beyond utilitarian ethics, economics, or default human behavior across millennia.

And I give thanks for that.

A HISTORIAN WEIGHS IN

Historian Tom Holland argues that one of the most enduring marks of Christianity has been the elevation of individuals who would have previously been seen as “less than” or disposable.

As an atheist himself, Holland does not believe the theological claims of Scripture, yet he admits that Christianity is the biggest reason “why we [in Western culture] assume every human life to be of equal value.”

When studying the ancient Greeks or Romans, he notes:

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 those assumptions].

Tom Holland, Dominion, 16-17.

Of course, both Christians and secularists have often been terrible in consistently applying this ethic.

To choose just two examples: On one extreme sits a naked refusal by some to recognize the full humanity of brown-skinned kids in cages at the southern border. And on the other rests a stubborn inability to condemn the killing of unborn babies in the womb. Hypocrisy abounds.

Nonetheless… the assumption (at least in theory) about the intrinsic value of the vulnerable has seeped into the cultural groundwater.

And at the end of that long historical trajectory sits someone like Margaret Keenan—the 91-year-old British woman who was the first person in the UK to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.

CONCLUSION

What was the reaction to the choice of Margaret Keenan, and others like her?

Not a single person I heard said, “Why save her? She’s going to die soon anyway.” Not a single person said, “Give the first doses to the powerful, the top-earners, and the ‘old-but-not-THAT-olds’.”

To be clear, I have no doubt that there will be inequities in vaccine distribution, especially in underdeveloped countries and underserved communities. But the very fact that we have chosen (in theory) to prioritize those who, by worldly standards, can contribute least to our economic and materialistic future shows a small glimmer of grace in a dark year.

That grace comes, as René Girard noted, from a Light that “has revealed so many things for so long a time without revealing itself that we are convinced it comes from within us.”

It’s a ray of sunlight on the craters of the moon.


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Jesus, holy contagion

Jesus, holy contagion

What is Jesus’ R0 factor?

In this time of COVID-19, we’ve all learned some new words; words like spike proteins, viral load, and hydroxychloroquine.

One of these new concepts—the R0 factor—measures contagiousness. How close must one be to an infected person to “catch” what they have? Is the contagion passed primarily by blood, saliva, or has it been aerosolized? Can it live on surfaces?

In the early days of the pandemic, while my asthmatic son was dealing with some breathing trouble—I took the extreme step of constructing a cleaning station in our garage where I would wipe down our groceries (and mail) before they entered the house.

But what does any of this have to do with Jesus?

JESUS AND THE FORCES OF DEATH

One of the best books I’ve read this year was Jesus and the Forces of Death, by Matthew Thiessen. The text focusses on the Gospels’ portrayal of ritual impurity–and it argues, in line with scholars like Jacob Milgrom, that the Jews associated these impurities with forces of death.

Baker Academic, 2020

The Law of Moses taught that certain substances rendered one ritually unclean. These contagions included genital discharges, skin diseases (lepra), and corpses. To be ritually impure was not sinful. But it meant that one was barred from approaching God’s presence (for instance, in the temple) until one had undergone purification.

Ritual impurity comes up repeatedly in the Gospels:
• Jesus touches lepers and they are cleansed.
• Jesus encounters corpses and they rise.
• Jesus faces impure spirits and expels them.

But there is one story for which Thiessen’s work is particularly illuminating: Jesus and the bleeding woman (Matt 9:20–22; Mark 5:25–34; Luke 8:42–48).

JESUS AND THE ZAVAH

In Hebrew, the zavah was a female “discharger”—a woman with chronic flow of menstrual blood.

As with other bodily discharges, Jewish Law maintained that no one could touch the zavah (or even her bedding) without being rendered impure (Lev 15:25–27). Even one’s clothing must be purified if it had potentially been contacted by such a woman.

Then in Mark’s Gospel, we read of a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years:

27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” (Mark 5:27-3)

THE HOLY CONTAGION

In Thiessen’s words,

“The story implies that Jesus’s body can function like an unthinking force of contagion that inevitably destroys impurity” (7).

Instead of Jesus being made unclean by the woman’s touch, the opposite happens: The source of her impurity is healed, because Jesus embodies a contagious form of holiness and purity.

Incredibly, Jesus never decides to heal the woman. He merely notices that power has gone out of him, and then inquires, “Who touched my clothes?” (v 30)

So I ask again, what is Jesus’ R0 factor?

HOLINESS BEYOND SEGREGATION

We often think of holiness as something that is maintained by separation: “social distancing” if you will. For indeed, to be holy meant to be “set apart” by God for special use.

But Jesus’ holiness challenges the exclusivity of this notion. Christ’s holiness is contagious; it is not merely a fenced off and fragile status. Jesus’ holiness goes on the offensive. It heals the sources of impurity, and yet (apparently) without itself being defiled.

Never is this truer than in Christ’s crucifixion—in which the forces of death come calling for his own body. Yet even in death, Christ’s corpse emits a purifying power.

This point is seen most notably in the strange passage from Matthew that describes how Christ’s final breath brought the corpses of many holy ones to life within their tombs (Matt 27:50-53). (See here for my post on that unusual passage.)

There is some prophetic precedent for this kind of holiness. But not much. Elijah raises a widow’s son after laying his own body atop the boy’s (ritually impure) corpse. And Elisha unwittingly raises another dead man after the man’s corpse is thrown into a grave containing Elisha’s bones. (Happy Halloween!)

Still, Thiessen’s claim is that Jesus’ contagious holiness is unequaled in the Scriptures.

CONTAGIOUS HOLINESS TODAY

As a work of biblical scholarship, Thiessen’s book does not intend to make the turn to contemporary or pastoral application. But I’d like to gesture in that direction: What does Jesus’ contagious holiness mean for us today?

Incidentally, I come from what is often called a “holiness tradition”—and specifically, from a denomination that has roots in the revivalism of John Wesley, in abolitionism, and in women’s suffrage. I’m proud of that.

But in my own holiness tradition there has sometimes been a failure to learn the lesson of Jesus’ R0 factor. We saw holiness as something “set apart” and fragile—but not as something that is powerfully contagious.

In fact, holiness is both.

Elements of the holiness tradition propounded legalistic and extra-biblical rules on everything from wedding rings, to hairstyles, to alcohol—but we did not always grasp that Christ’s holiness is something that was spread by CONTACT with an unclean world, rather than by mere segregation from it.

This point requires discernment.

SET APART FOR SERVICE

There are times in which separation is required.

Moral impurity is not healed by uncritically immersing ourselves in environments where it is glorified. When we cozy up to wicked leaders and excuse their abusive and arrogant behavior in the attempt to gain “influence”—we deceive ourselves. Holiness doesn’t spread like that.

And yet, to be Christ’s body—filled with his Spirit—seems to imply that we might also view holiness in contagious rather than defensive terms.

Christians are, as it were, “set apart” for service.

In the holiness tradition, the group that most clearly embodies this holiness-on-the-offensive posture has been the Salvation Army. But it is a shift in perspective that is important for all Christians.

Impurity isn’t cleansed by pretending it does not exist (Liberal relativism). Nor is it healed by mere separation (fundamentalist escapism). Whether it is ritual or moral impurity, the solution comes by transformative CONTACT with the Holy One of God–or at least the fringes of his garment.


Get Matthew Thiessen’s excellent book here–and stay tuned for an upcoming interview with him on my podcast, Outpost Theology.


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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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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. 🙂

 


 

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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“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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