The Radical Incarnation

It’s the late 100s CE. A century has passed since Roman troops have destroyed the Jerusalem temple and crushed the Jewish revolt, unwittingly scattering a sect of Jews who followed an itinerant preacher whom the Romans had crucified some decades earlier.

Over the decades, that sect had separated from its parent faith; its followers were known, perhaps derogatorily, as Christians, claiming the crucified preacher they followed had in fact risen from the dead and was the son of God, if not actually God in some way. Subject to occasional persecution by various local officials in the Roman Empire, the Christian movement nevertheless had grown to a size and influence that it reached the notice of a Greco-Roman philosopher named Celsus.

We know very little about Celsus, except that around this time before the end of the second century, he felt compelled to respond to the Christian claims – the earliest known attack on Christianity. Called The True Discourse of Celsus the Epicurean, his work is only known insofar as it’s quoted by the famed bishop of Alexandria, Origen, in his apologetic work Contra Celsus, written around 247.

Image result for the interpretation of the old testament in greco-roman paganism

In his The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism (Hendrickson, 2000), John Granger Cook writes: “Celsus was something of a social conservative who viewed Christianity as a departure from everything that was ancient and true in the Hellenistic tradition.” (p. 17)

To the extent Origen fairly caricatures Celsus’ argument – and to his credit he does seem to quote Celsus at length without apparent modification, though you can’t really be sure about that sort of thing – what jumps out at me, especially in this season, is how much Celsus hated the notion of the incarnation.

The bulk of Celsus’ argument against Christianity could be boiled down to just one sentence: Gods don’t do that.

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Kill the Beast: Disney Musicals, the Book of Revelation and You

Image result for beauty and the beast musicalBeauty and the Beast is probably my all-time favorite Disney musical.

My aunt took me to see the theatrical version on Broadway for my 14th birthday, and that sort of experience tends to be pretty formative (my 13th birthday was Phantom of the Opera, and I can still basically recite that play by heart without needing the music). But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the depth of the story:

  • It’s a call for open-mindedness and diversity that was pretty unusual for its day (1991) and remains relevant today.
  • Its heroine, Belle, is a much stronger woman character than had been typical to that point (only Jasmine is comparable until we hit the Tangled/Frozen era)
  • And its climactic song, unimaginatively titled “The Mob Song,” is a rousing and chilling exploration of how fear turns people into the beasts they so despise and war against.

I’ve been thinking more about this song lately, especially its 2017 live-action version, which makes the subtext more explicit when Gaston’s sidekick, Lefou (played by the wonderful Josh Gad), mutters to himself: “There’s a beast running wild, there’s no question/But I fear the wrong monster’s released.” Continue reading Kill the Beast: Disney Musicals, the Book of Revelation and You

How a Little Deceit Could Rescue the Atonement from Christian Violence

WEST-WING-ZIEGLER_458In Season 4 of the West Wing, White House communication director Toby Ziegler is rehashing the circumstances that led to the defeat – and subsequent unconfirmability – of a Democratic ally in Congress, Karen Kroft. In his conversation with the former congresswoman, he admits he knew a gas-tax bill she championed was doomed to fail, making her unpopular both with her constituents and the Republicans who would block her potential nomination to a parks service position.

“It was a loser,” he tells Kroft, “and I pushed to have you introduce it anyway.”

Kroft smiles at him warmly and reassures him: “That doesn’t make any difference.”

“I came out for the gas tax because someone from Michigan had to,” she goes on to explain. “Gas prices are too low. It’s why the air is polluted. It’s why no one wants alternative fuels.”

Toby gives that little smirk of his and retorts: “And clearly that argument took the nation by storm.”

And here’s where the conversation gets interesting:

“In my religion,” Kroft says, “the whole symbol of the religion ended in crucifixion and condemnation. That wasn’t the measure of the experience. It’s just the way it ended.

“But I’m the Romans,” Toby remarks.

“It’s in the living, Kroft replies. “It’s in the campaigning that you make your mark.”

It’s a fascinating exchange, filled with deep theological meaning – perhaps deeper than even writer Aaron Sorkin intended. Setting aside the notion that the Jesus experience ended with the crucifixion and not the resurrection, what is perhaps most striking about this conversation is how Kroft, a Christian, de-emphasizes the cross in favor of Jesus’ life. The crucifixion is “just the way it ended,” she says. “It’s in the living … that you make your mark.”

deceiving-the-devilThe statement struck me because the night before I saw this episode I had just finished tearing through Darby Kathleen Ray’s amazing Deceiving the Devil: Atonement, Abuse and Ransom (1998). In it, Ray argues the crucifixion has been misrepresented, misappropriated and misused for too long. The violence-filled atonement theories accepted by the church as “traditional” have been used to perpetrate, justify and ignore abuse and exploitation of women, children, the poor and the environment; their fruits are so toxic, these theories must be jettisoned for Christianity to recover its mission in the world, and a new one must be formed if the cross is to retain any meaning not just for the holders of power but for the oppressed and powerless, as well.

In a way, Ray is addressing the same questions that have been circling in my mind for several months: If a given doctrine contributes substantially to a toxic view of God, don’t we as Christians have a duty to renounce and remove that doctrine? If so, how do we determine which of these doctrines should be eliminated and which should be reworked? And who determines whether a given view of God is toxic anyway?

I’m not sure there are any good answers to these questions. Nevertheless, Ray’s approach is a challenging one to this white male who is surely oblivious of many of the issues Ray raises in her book. Some of these atonement doctrines are entrenched, and many – including myself – see them as crucial to the notions of redemption and salvation. Yet, as Ray hammers home again and again, the point is not that those of us western white males do not find certain passages or theories abusive; the point is that the abusive fruit is there for women, children, minorities, the developing world, indigenous cultures and the nonhuman creation.

This doctrine is based on assumptions about the nature of sin, God and salvation that together actually create and sustain what many today recognize as evil. Ironically, the very doctrine whose job it is to attempt to understand and articulate God’s response to evil perpetuates evil in the lives of many women, men and children. … This revered discourse on evil has come to mirror its subject matter and hence should be rejected.

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Moore, Oklahoma

Oklahoma_Moore_TornadoI was thinking a lot last night about this most recent tragedy to befall the innocent. We had Sandy Hook, and Boston, and West, and now Moore. And those of us “winter Christians,” who tend to struggle with the problems we see in the world around us – this is our time. The summer Christians who perhaps tend to downplay suffering and tragedy must sit up and take notice, and for once, everyone is on the same page. Our page.

But I’m also a person who in the past year has learned that not only do I love the physical world around me, but that it’s OK for me to love it. And not only that, God loves it, too. He loved it so much, he took on flesh and allowed himself to experience the physical world for himself – or at least as much as he could. He even suffered and died so that he could restore it to himself. For whatever reason, God loves the world and the people in it that much.

So I recoiled a bit as I heard some of the same old reactions to the Moore tornado that we hear after every tragedy – reactions that sound uncomfortably close to the lyrics from some classic hymns: “Just a few more weary days, and then I’ll fly away.” Or, “This world is not my home; I’m just a-passing through.”

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Before the First Day of Creation

ImageIn the great debate between creationism and evolution, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is the notion that God created the world in seven days with the power of his word, which would preclude a billions-year-long process of evolution.

This notion seems to come from two misunderstandings – 1, how the key text of Genesis 1 actually describes creation, and 2, how creation narratives work in ancient texts like the Old Testament. Clearing up these misunderstandings could help creationists come to grips with evolution – in fact, I would argue the creation texts of the Old Testament fit the world described by science quite well. There is, in fact, much less contradiction between the Bible and science than many assume.

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Boston

boston_public_libraryI returned from Boston yesterday; my week was mostly a business trip, but I made sure to carve out some time for sightseeing. Boston has long been my favorite city, and it did not disappoint last week.

One of my new favorite places is the Boston Public Library, with its arching ceilings and omnipresent murals – and, above all, its cavernous study room, complete with dozens upon dozens of green-shaded lamps. If ever a monument has been built to the notion of learning, expanded horizons and the acquisition and beneficial use of knowledge, this is it.

I went to the library Thursday. Across Copley Square, workers were finishing up construction of the grandstand at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. And, of course, across the street from both the library and the grandstand, two bombs exploded during Monday’s marathon.

So many people I encountered in Boston, natives and tourists alike, were friendly, kind, helpful and – perhaps I was projecting a bit – seemingly thrilled to be in one of the world’s great cities. It’s hard to imagine how twisted by darkness one must be to experience what I experienced this weekend and remain committed to turning it into tragedy.

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Hell, Doubt and Easter

Well, once again I violated the cardinal rule of blogging by disappearing for a week. Sorry about that. I was out of town, and then it was a holiday weekend, and there you go.

To make it up to you, here are a couple of Easter-related things that caught my eye this week, and some comments I had on them:

Continue reading Hell, Doubt and Easter