May you fail…

May you fail…

An unconventional benediction.

A few folks asked for a copy of the “unconventional” graduation blessing that I delivered for our December commencement yesterday.

Here it is:

I left out a couple stanzas on the spot (remembering something Jesus said of wordy prayers from podiums).

Nevertheless:

Class of 2017, hear these words:

May you fail  [long pause] … to seek significance in the plastic trinkets of this world / things like money, power, and fame. / And may you find significance in this: / that you are a beloved child of God / Etched in the image of Jesus Christ.

May you have enemies / So that you may love them just as Jesus did / and thus turn some of them to friends.

May you be disloyal citizens / to rival kings and rival kingdoms / So that you may prove true to good king Jesus / And see his Kingdom come.

May your life not go (entirely) as you have planned it / And in those moments, may you come to see that, alongside fidelity, God’s other name is “Surprise.”

And most of all: May you know that we, as your faculty, cannot wait to see you go / Not because we want to be rid of you / But because through your lives, our little ministries will multiply a hundredfold.

We love you; Godspeed.

 

 

+ Credit to Neil Plantinga for the idea that “God’s other Name is Surprise.”

On Protests

On Protests

In recent weeks, social media has been ablaze with opinions over what does or does not constitute an “appropriate” protest.

This piece, however, is about a much older controversy.

Exactly five hundred years ago (this month) an act of dissent began that was far more incendiary than a few athletes kneeling for an anthem.

In the heart of Germany, a young monk named Martinus Ludher (Martin Luther) felt compelled to speak out against the abuses of his church—and particularly, against the unjust selling of indulgences.

Yet while many celebrate Luther’s legacy this year, it bears noting that he was hardly a hero to many at the time.

Protests, it seems, can be variously interpreted.

MEDIEVAL MEMEs

Thanks to J. Gutenberg’s 15th century invention of “social media,” one can still access a plethora of medieval memes depicting the Reformer in all manner of unflattering ways.

There was Luther as the beast of Revelation; Luther as the devil’s bagpipe (below); and Luther as a sex-crazed infidel who wanted only to satisfy his lust and break his vow of celibacy.

Lutherdevil

Like and share if you agree!!! –proclaimed the Hapsburg troll farms.

On the other side, the pope was also lampooned in a variety of viral .gifs, er… pamphlets.

The holy father was here depicted as a bare-breasted dragon with the head of an ass; and  as a decrepit pseudo-Jew riding a pig while holding a pile of steaming excrement.

Popeonsow
In the period, Jews were often erroneously slurred as riding pigs.

Apparently, the poop emoji is hardly new.

Nor, sadly, is anti-Semitism.

IMPERIAL REBUKE

In response to Luther’s protest, the Holy Roman Emperor himself decided to weigh in.  And in 1521, at the Diet of Worms (not a .gif), Charles V pronounced a somber “SAD!” over the idea of justification by faith alone.

Oddly, however, the interjection of a world leader only fueled the fire.

Luther’s protest spread.

BLOOD AND SWORD

In the wake of such polarization, one might hope that the following decades would bring a return to civility between the factions—both claiming to be Christians.

It did not.

So while the fruit of the Reformation is now seen in ideas like sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura (grace alone; faith alone; Scripture alone)—the more immediate fruit was  the Thirty Years War: the deadliest religious conflict in European history.

Many cite this bloodshed today as a reason why Europe became aggressively post-Christian in the years to follow.  The idea was that strong theological commitments invariably bring bloodshed.  And while the twentieth century would show that atheists can wage jihad even more effectively (#Marxism), the damage was done.

WORTH THE TROUBLE?

So was Luther’s protest worth it?

I think it was–although I don’t agree with all his tactics.

As a Protestant myself (though one with great respect for Catholicism, and for my Catholic brothers and sisters), I tend to think that the Reformation was necessary, not least because the gospel badly needed a retrieval from the tentacles of medieval tradition.

Even so, Martin Luther was a terribly imperfect activist.

IMPERFECT ACTIVIST

Believing that all his adversaries were literally in league with Satan, Luther often chose the most profane words and images imaginable.  (I’ll let you Google it.)

He had seemingly never met an ad hominem—or a reference to the human G.I. tract—that he disliked, and he shared more than his share of “fake news” stories, especially against the Jews.

His treatment of “law” and “gospel” sometimes verged toward anti-nomianism.  And his anti-Semitism made the Holocaust more possible in modern Germany (though most of the blame for this lies elsewhere).

Partly to shore up political connections, he once commanded that the “murderous, thieving hordes of peasants” be slaughtered in the most inhumane of terms.  And while some of these peasants were indeed both murderous and thieving (see Münster), others were just poor farmers who had been frightfully oppressed by local lords.

Apparently revolts against an over-taxing monarchy can also be variously interpreted.

LESSONS LEARNED

What then is the point of this history lesson?

To be sure, every act of protest is unique–as is every “protestant.”

Thus it would be wrong to equate any of them, just as it would be wrong to declare every protest praiseworthy. Some are not.

Even so, we fool ourselves if we think that any act of dissent was ever deemed “appropriate” at the time.  That’s just not how it works.

Just ask the other Martin Luther. In 1966, Gallup registered MLK’s disapproval rating at 63%, while only 32% of Americans approved of him. Yet in 1999, MLK ranked #1 amongst U.S. citizens to be voted on.

Apparently it takes more than flash polls or “gut feelings” to discern morality.

And perhaps in one instance, it took a chronically cussing and perpetually constipated monk to get a needed conversation going.

Happy (early) Reformation Day.

The LORD was (not) in the storm

The LORD was (not) in the storm

It can seem a cruel twist that hurricanes are called “acts of God.”

Yet it is crueler still when the label is confirmed by careless statements from both televangelists and secular celebrities alike (This sentence may contain redundancies).

Recently, the actress Jennifer Lawrence remarked (omnisciently) that the devastating hurricanes assailing Texas and Florida are Mother Nature’s “wrath” toward a nation that elected Donald Trump.

And while conservatives rightly decried the “word of knowledge,” it bears reminding that certain fundamentalists have long been making similar pronouncements. Pat Robertson blamed Haiti’s earthquake on their “pact with the devil”; Jerry Falwell attributed 9/11 to “gays and lesbians”; and John Hagee blamed Hurricane Katrina on the wickedness of New Orleans.

Why do people do this?

The problem, it seems, is not exclusively a liberal or a conservative one, but a tendency of human nature.

Despite our talk of grace, we often find karma more appealing.

There is something comforting about rendering disaster meaningful as retribution.  Retribution implies simplistic telos—and telos gives us consolation.  After all, it is always “the other side” that is to blame.

WERE THEY WORSE SINNERS?

Jesus faced this fallacy as well.

In Luke 13, Christ is approached by the ideological ancestors of “Katniss,” Hagee, and Robertson.  A tower had fallen in Siloam and there were casualties.  The natural assumption was therefore that the event was God’s judgment on the victims’ egregious sins.

But Jesus isn’t buying it.

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!” (Lk. 13.2–3).

The problem, it seems, is not with the notion that God sometimes judges sin dramatically; scripture says he does. Rather, the fault lies in the presumption that one can easily peer behind the veil to parse out when and how this happens.

When we do this, our statements usually become a kind “Rorschach test for prophets”—telling a lot about the speaker, but virtually nothing about Ultimate Reality.

When this happens, whether with J-Law or Pat Robertson, we often end up with a “God” who conveniently hates all the people we do.  And this move manages (impressively) to break both the first and second commandments simultaneously: we kick God off the throne of judgment (#1), and we remake him in our camera-ready image (#2).

For such reasons, the majority of Christians–not to mention past Hunger Games champions–resist the urge to openly attribute hurricanes to divine anger at specific targets.

THE HARDER QUESTION

Yet this hardly quells the questions posed by such disasters.

Especially to theists.

Case in point:

A few years ago, I was introduced to a new colleague of mine, named Mark. In telling me about his life and family, he mentioned that his boy had been struck and killed by lightning.

While the conversation continued, I did not.  I had recently become a first-time father myself; and my question was a blunt one:

Could I be Christian after that?

REDEFINING “ACTS OF GOD”

Are such terrible events really, as the insurance papers tell us, “Acts of God”?

One strand of Christianity says “Yes.”

While “Deism” views God as entirely detached from earthly affairs, “divine determinism” claims that every creaturely occurrence has as its cause God’s active will.

As David Bentley Hart explains it, in his excellent response to the southeast Asian tsunami (The Doors of the Sea):

Some theologians – Calvin, for instance – have denied that the distinction between what God wills and what he permits has any meaning at all.

Yet Hart finds this “unhealthy fascination” with God’s “dread sovereignty” unacceptable.

Thus he resists the urge to attribute every lightning strike on a suburban soccer field, every Indonesian child drowned in a tsunami, and every flattened Caribbean village to a simplistic “act of God.”

As he concludes:

It is a strange thing to seek peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.

What though is the alternative?

THE LORD IN THE STORM

Between Deism and determinism lies the majority Christian position—and it is one that I share as a Wesleyan theologian.

God sometimes permits terrible disasters. We don’t know why entirely. (Perhaps grasping for the “knowledge of good and evil” is as troublesome now as it was in Eden.) Yet we trust that God is present in the suffering. Jesus proves this.

The claim here is that while the LORD is in the storm, he is not there as a sadistic force of retribution against the afflicted—much less his people.

Hart says it this way:

I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean [or elsewhere] and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.

For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy.

CONCLUSION

The point here is that Christians should resist naming horrific natural disasters as “acts of God,” just as we should resist the urge to blame them on whatever persons we find disagreeable.

When we fall victim to such errors we are more likely to be distracted from the final way that God is in the storm—not as a vindictive force of carnage, but as a healing presence in the hands and feet of his people.

In the end, the LORD is in the storm most palpably when we stop blaming long enough to pray and give and help.


For those interested in giving to those affected by Harvey and Irma, here is an organization that I trust (World Hope – Texas/Harvey). (World Hope – Irma Relief).

13 Reasons Why Not

13 Reasons Why Not

There is a danger in decrying certain elements of pop culture.

In many cases, the very breath that’s used in criticism serves only to fan the flame you’re trying to extinguish.

Boycotts build bestsellers.

And the best way to ensure the popularity of a book or movie is to try and ban it.

So this is not a move to ban or boycott; but it is a note of quiet resistance to what is now the most controversial show on television: 13 Reasons Why.

THE STORY

The series is an adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel chronicling the tragic life of Hannah Baker, a high schooler who kills herself after leaving behind 13 tapes to explain why she did it.

Each tape is devoted to a different person in Hannah’s life, and together they plot a path of bullying, betrayal, and most horrifically–a brutal rape.

At points, the series is poignant and heartbreaking.

The characters of Hannah and Clay (her love interest) are well cast and well acted. The soundtrack is fantastic, and the buzz around the show proves what has been obvious for some time: network television has long-ceased to tell stories that folks under fifty even remotely care about. (This too was a suicide of sorts – but less lamented.)

At other points, however, the show is badly broken.

And not just for moral reasons.

ONLY THE CLICHÉS EMERGE UNSCATHED 

With all the talk of death in 13 Reasons, one thing that lives eternal are the wooden stereotypes.

Indeed, most episodes could have come with a disclaimer that despite appearances, “No clichés were harmed in the making of this mixtape.”

“The popular kids are always mean,” says Hannah. “That’s how they get popular.” No lack of nuance there.

The assessment is fairly simple:

  • Athletes are dumb and despicable.
  • Rebels are kind, though misunderstood.
  • And if you own a letter jacket, you’re half Nazi, half Neanderthal.

While acknowledging that there is some truth to the Darwinian dictum that “the strong eat the weak” within the wild of high school, these sorts of oversimplified clichés are enough to make Saved by the Bell seem complex by comparison.

The real problem, though, runs deeper.

THE BACKLASH

While the show’s intent is (ostensibly) to shine a light on the terrible effects of bullying behavior, many experts say that it will have another consequence: more suicides, not less.

In the view of Trevin Wax (here):

In trying to fight bullying, this show lifts up suicide. It gives the main character a noble way out, a martyrdom of sorts, a tragic but glamorous finale (displayed in graphic detail) that goes against virtually every best practice for addressing suicide responsibly.

For Hannah, suicide is a weapon to be wielded against a culture of shame and brutal violence.

Yet what may escape the audience is that this selfish act merely perpetuates the problem. It continues the graceless cycle of violent shaming. And it ends up valorizing the very beast that devoured Hannah in the first place.

To be sure, Hannah’s predators deserve to be punished—severely. Yet the road she chooses merely reiterates the rapist’s verdict: Some lives are expendable; some bodies are mere means to a vindictive end.

In Wax’s even harsher judgment:

Most people think that 13 Reasons Why is about a group of teenagers, who in their selfish actions and inaction, are responsible for killing a fragile young girl. No. This is a show about how a girl, beyond the grave, kills her classmates.

And I’d add: her parents.

While suicide is complex—with contributing factors like mental illness, clinical depression, and even chronic brain injury—13 Reasons gives little hint that such forces account for Hannah’s choice. She’s just a happy girl who was driven to this end by bullies. What choice did she have?

And that’s a dangerous depiction.

THE OTHER HANNAHS

If there is a silver lining to the show, it is the conversation that it may spark (in places like this) regarding how we ought to deal with bullying, sexual assault, and suicide prevention.

And we must.

The very title of this post was stolen from a message by my friend Aaron Stroman as he preached hope to the high school students in his own youth group.

Instead of 13 Reasons Why, he gave “13 Reasons Why Not.”

Because the Gospel claims that even the darkest moments can be made new.

13whynot

As a ministry professor, one thing I never expected was the number of students—even from Christian families—who would eventually recount for me a tale that sounds a bit like Hannah’s.

“I was bullied terribly.”

“I was raped in high school.”

“I thought no one would believe me.”

Or worse yet: “No one did.”

Yet unlike Hannah, these women did not take the violent way out. They pursued help and hope and healing.

For such reasons, they are the far more interesting case studies.

They are the ones who deserve an audience.

And I’ve learned far more from them than Hannah Baker.

A year of blogging

A year of blogging

My wife informed me last week that it’s been one year since I started this blog.

Given that, I wanted to take a moment to say thanks to all who’ve read these posts!

It’s been a lot of fun for me and though we’ve now surpassed the one year birthday, I’m still “young, scrappy, and hungry.”

I enjoy academic writing and have slowed my blogging just a bit in order to finish a book-length project, but this site has allowed me to speak to more than just fellow academics, and for that I’m grateful.

Here were the five most popular posts from the past twelve months:

5) The House of Mourning: A piece on grief

  • I wrote this to mark the one year anniversary of the passing of my brother-in-law, Daniel Berg. Yet despite that specific reason, I’ve been touched by how universal are these sentiments. As Nick Wolterstorff writes: “Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved. That worth abides.”

4) How Genius Happens: The untold story of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

  • On a daily basis, this post gets more reads than anything I’ve written (probably because it was picked up by a Leonard Cohen fan site). It’s about how good work happens over time, and it attempts to dispel some myths about how easy it is for truly gifted people to make good art.

3) The trouble with millennial bashing (a response to Simon Sinek)

  • This piece weighed in on a favorite punching bag of contemporary culture: the so-called millennials, and it attempted to challenge some (I think) silly assumptions about why we’re all so terrible. It’s about questioning statements that sound smart at first even while they lack solid evidence to back them up. Yes! and Boom!

2) When patriotism goes too far

  • Here I relived my childhood fixation with Lee Greenwood and considered some ways that Christians should and should not be “patriotic.” There was even a saxophone solo.

1) Evangelicals and Trumpism: 

  • My most popular post (by far…) had to do with the biggest item in the news–the 2016 election (surprise, surprise). While I wrote on evangelicals and the election more than once, this piece resonated most and was even picked up by a national news site. Many kind words and some hate mail followed–parts of which even contained punctuation. We all survived.

SOME OTHERS

While the above posts were most popular, I also enjoyed thinking about these issues as well:

  • A post a about Jesus and pagan god of revelry: “Saving Bacchus: How C.S. Lewis redeemed the pagan god of wine and wild parties” (here)
  • A triad of posts on race and policing: (here), (here), and (here).
  • A piece on body image: “The Naked God: The cross and body shame” (here)
  • And a piece on the middle ground between doubt and certainty (that I hope to expand into a book eventually): “Christian, learn to say Perhaps” (here).

Thanks for reading over the past twelve months and I look forward to writing more in the year to come.

~Josh