The Cosmic Cathedral

Understanding God in the Word and the World

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Learning to be Afraid- Halloween and the Christian Life



Click view all "Conversational"Today is Halloween.  On this All Hallows’ Eve, thousands of America’s children disguised as witches, goblins, mummies, and Doctor Who will roam the streets in search of candy and fright.  This evening, young adults will seek out ghosts in haunted houses and front yards will, for one night, turn into grave yards where some may encounter the dead or perhaps a few werewolves.  Growing up as an Evangelical Christian, I never really partook in Halloween.  “Halloween is a celebration of death!” I was told, “It is meant to terrorize people!”  To many of my Evangelical brothers and sisters, fear and faith are dichotomized in this way.  One cannot be counted among those of the faith while also learning to be afraid at the same time.  But is that the way the Christian faith has always presented fear?  I do not believe so.  But allow me to explain with the use of some fairytales.

One of my favorite Grimm Fairytales is about the boy who “went out to learn to be afraid.”  He never knew the feeling of dread and then, accordingly, journeyed to find it.  He wanders through terrible woods and all the countryside only to return unmoved and unafraid.  Regarding this fairy tale, Soren Kierkegaard wrote:

“In one of Grimm’s fairy tales there is a story of a young man who goes in search of adventure in order to learn what it is to be in anxiety.  We will let the adventurer pursue his journey without concerning ourselves about whether he encountered the terrible on his way.  However, I will say that this is an adventure that every human being must go through…  The person who has learnt how to be afraid in the right way has learnt the most important thing of all.”[1]

For Kierkegaard, learning to be afraid is one of the most important lessons to be acquired and, according to him, everyone is a pupil and no one is exempt.  But how can a Christian say that the life of fear is anything but a distortion of truth?  “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall not fear” the Psalmist chants.  “Be anxious for nothing” Saint Paul once wrote.  And of course, my favorite, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).  Why would one seek to fear when, so it seems, the bible states that we ought to seek faith?

It is quite clear that the perfection of the Christian life is one without fear.  But who among us wishes to assume such perfection now?  Concerning this, CS Lewis writes:

“Perfect love, we know, casteth out fear.  But so do several other things — ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity.  It is very desirable that we should all advance to that perfection of love in which we shall fear no longer; but it is very undesirable, until we have reached that stage, that we should allow any inferior agent to cast out our fear.”[2]

Until love has been perfected among us, Lewis imagines the Christian life going one of two ways:  either our fears will be fully present to us, or we will find some way to pacify them through “inferior agents,” something he sees as wholly undesirable.  Though Lewis lists several “inferior agents” that could be used to pacify fear (presumption, alcohol, passion, etc), it is of value to remember that at the core of all of these agents is our compulsion to control.  “If I can dominate… if I can manipulate, convince, or force my will,” we reason, “then I don’t have to feel helpless and scared.”  If we can control, we will never feel out of control.

b94b77f91d89A significant way humans have attempted to regulate and manipulate their surroundings is by classification and narrative development, or by “making sense” of the world.  According to Heidegger, we are sense-making beings.  We identify, classify, and analyze.  We construct narratives and assign roles.  If we can properly place certain peoples, actions, and symbols in their corresponding boxes, then life will be safe and free of anxiety.  But what happens the categories we keep the world in begin to break down?  For instance, why is there so much fear concerning minorities in America?  Nationality is an abstract construction referring to geography and land mass- a recent invention in modern history.  Minorities scare majorities because they are “different” and difficult to categorize- there is an abstract purity that needs to be protected and the minorities must be quarantined- so the logic goes.  According to Heidegger, because of humanity’s sense-making compulsion, angst (the German word for fear) is the crisis of meaning; when we can no longer make sense of things or when our rigid categories are proven untrue.[3]

It is in the constant refusal to silence our fears, to exist within the crisis of meaning, that the Christian life is lived.  When Saint Anthony heard the words of Jesus “Go and sell everything you own and give it to the poor…. Then come and follow me,” he took it as a call to escape the “inferior agents” that compulsively seek to substitute themselves for perfected love.  It was in the wilderness that Saint Anthony faced his demons of fear, greed, and anger and overcame them by the love of Jesus.  Mother Teresa wrote about only being able to meet Jesus in the darkness, being unable to feel His presence for over fifty years…  And yet she never turned to the “inferior agents” Lewis spoke of.

Till_We_Have_Faces(C.S_Lewis_book)_1st_edition_cover“Till We Have Faces,” Lewis’s retelling of the classic myth of Psyche and Eros, is about two princess sisters: Psyche (the beautiful younger sister) and Orual (the older and uglier one).  Orual was a manipulative and dominating person (much more so on becoming queen) and, because of her ugliness, she wore a veil over her face to cover herself.  She hated the gods, especially the god Ungit.  She hated him because he was masked himself in darkness, refusing to speak with anyone openly.  Her hatred burned for them even more when they took Psyche away from her, which prompted Orual to write a complaint to the gods.   The story of Orual is about an incredibly manipulative and possessive person that constructs a self-justifying narrative about how she is the real victim and the gods are the ones who are evil.  At the end, she finally gets to stand before the council of the gods and read to them her complaint.  She reads what she had always assumed to be an eloquent response.  However, in reality it turned out to be a few lines of narcissistic blathering about how Psyche belongs only to her.  Upon realizing the lunacy of her complaint, she fell silent and recollected:

“I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

As a sign of control, Orual refused to show her face.  However, this refusal to show her face, to lose control, to maintain vulnerability, meant that she would lose any meaningful connection around her.  In other words, by attempting to cast out fear through control, she made it impossible for love to get to her.  Until she took off the veil that was masking her face, the gods could never speak with her face to face.

Trick-or-treatersWhat does this have to do with Halloween?  Halloween is a time when, like the young man in the fairytale, we can go out “to learn to be afraid.”  When death comes to our door this evening, we have an opportunity to look him in the face and feel our crisis of meaning (albeit while giving him candy).  When we go through our haunted houses, we can be allowed to feel the anxiety that our perceived control on the world is illusory at best and destructive (to ourselves and others, ex. Orual)  at worst.  Our shared Christian life isn’t lived by dichotomizing fear with faith/hope/or love.  Rather, our fear is the avenue down which we will arrive at these virtues.  As St. Isaac the Syrian once wrote, “Just as it isn’t possible for someone to cross the great sea without a ship, so someone can’t reach love without fear.”  Perhaps this All Hallows’ Eve, we can view venturing into the darkness as actually stepping into the light and, maybe, by veiling ourselves with masks and frightening one another, we can, with Orual, learn to take off our masks.  Without learning to be afraid in the right way, we have no hope of love reaching us.  And so I ask you, as we wait for perfect love to cast out our fear, would you learn to be afraid with me tonight?

Happy Halloween!

[1] S Kierkegaard, “The Concept of Dread” pg 139

[2] “The World’s Last Night” in C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, pg 51

[3] Heidegger, “Being and Time”

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The Darkness of City Destruction: The Apocalypse of the Cross: Part 17

Apocaylpse of the Cross

Essay Posts

In the previous post, I began to look at the way the writer of Matthew anticipates the darkness at the cross by alluding to darkness earlier within his gospel. This innertextuality serves to both prepare the reader for the darkness at the cross and to provide an interpretive lens through which to understand the darkness. I suggested that Matthew 24:29 serves as an innertextual allusion meant to both alert the reader to the coming darkness at the cross and the context of which, apocalyptic eschatological discourse, is meant to provide the interpretative lens through which both the darkness and the death of Jesus are to be viewed.

Immediately after the suffering of those days
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
and the powers of heaven will be shaken.
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.[1]

Intertext 4 GospelI attempted to situate this reference to darkness within the broader context of Matthew 24. I looked at some of the differing interpretive matrixes that have been used to understand the passage as a whole. Significantly, I considered whether Matthew 24:29 is meant to describe the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (either with metaphorical cosmic imagery or with the expectation of its destruction being accompanied by cosmic signs) or if it was meant to describe Jesus’ parousia and the end of the age. Yet to better understand this passage, and specifically the meaning of the cosmic darkness imagery, it is necessary to examine those Old Testament texts that Matthew 24:29 is drawing upon. In the same way that my previous posts have examined the Old Testament and pseudepigraphal texts that stand behind Matthew 27:45, it is important to look at the intertextual relationship with the Old Testament that stands behind Matthew 24:29. Understanding these allusions will help us better understand the meaning of the cosmic imagery within the context of Matthew 24 and, more significantly for our aims, how this passage informs our interpretation of the darkness at the cross and the meaning of Jesus’ death.

Old Testament Imagery

Matthew 24.29 is a rather free amalgamation of cosmic upheaval language alluding primarily to two Old Testament texts, Isaiah 13:10 and 34:4,[2] though possibly influenced by Joel 2.10 and 4.15-16 (LXX). In this post I will look at the possible allusions to Isaiah while in my next post I will examine the more dubious allusions to Joel.

Jesus draws allusion to Isaiah 13.10 in the first line:

For the stars of heaven and Orion
and all the ornament of heaven
will not give light,
and σκοτισθήσεται (skotisthēsetai, it will be dark) when τοῦ ἡλίου (tou hēliou, the sun) rises,
And ἡ σελήνη (hē selēnē, the moon) οὐ δώσει (ou dōsei, will not give) τὸ φῶς αὐτῆς (to phōs autēs, its light).[3]

Matthew’s ὁ ἥλιος σκοτισθήσεται (ho hēlios skotisthēsetai, the sun will be darkened) contains both ὁ ἥλιος (ho hēlios, the sun) and the future passive σκοτισθήσεται (skotisthēsetai, will be darkened) found in Isaiah.[4] Matthew’s second line parallels the final line of Isaiah 13.10 closely; καὶ ἡ σελήνη οὐ δώσει τὸ φέγγος αὐτῆς (kai hē selēnē ou dōsei to pheggos autēs, and the moon will not give its light) for Isaiah’s καὶ ἡ σελήνη οὐ δώσει τὸ φῶς αὐτῆς (kai hē selēnē ou dōsei to phōs autēs, and the moon will not give its light). The only difference between Matthew and the LXX is the evangelist’s substitution of τὸ φέγγος (to pheggos, brilliancy, light) for Isaiah’s τὸ φῶς (to phōs, light).[5]

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The broader context of Isaiah standing behind this allusion is an oracle of the destruction of Babylon. Isaiah uses the cosmic language of darkness and celestial disturbance to paint the picture of Babylon’s demise as a climactic event of earth-shattering proportions.[6] The imagery of cosmic darkness fills passages of YHWH’s judgment of Babylon, setting off both YHWH’s victory over the pagan city and the soon rescue and vindication of YHWH’s people who have experienced distress and hardship within it.[7] This text sees not only YHWH’s destruction of the pagan city, but, following close on the heels of its destruction, the divine rescue of YHWH’s people.[8] This follows precisely what would be expected from the model of eschatological tribulation, a time of tribulation often described through apocalyptic language followed by a time of salvation.

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The second passage alluded to is Isaiah 34 in the third line, here with reference to falling stars:

Heaven shall roll up like a scroll,
and all τὰ ἄστρα (ta astra, the stars) πεσεῖται (peseitai, shall fall)
like leaves from a vine
and as leaves fall from a fig tree.[9]

Matthew reads οἱ ἀστέρες πεσοῦνται ἀπὸ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ (hoi asteres pesountai apo tou ouranou, the stars will fall from heaven), drawing from Isaiah’s πάντα τὰ ἄστρα πεσεῖται (panta ta astra peseitai, all the stars shall fall), though the evangelist uses the plural verb rather than the singular of the LXX. The addition of ἀπὸ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ (apo tou ouranou, from heaven) may be drawn from the first line of Isaiah 13.10; ἀστέρες τοῦ οὐρανοῦ (asteres tou ouranou, stars of heaven).[10] The usage of Isaiah 34 is similar to that of Isaiah 13, both being oracles of divine judgment and destruction of pagan cities, in this case, Edom, and both following the pattern of the destruction of an oppressive nation or city followed by deliverance of YHWH’s people.[11]

2014-09-23 02.03.28 pm

As France notes, the darkness imagery accompanying the destruction of pagan cities extends also to Israel, as seen in Amos 8.9 where it is used not of judgment on pagan nations but on Israel’s northern and southern kingdoms.[12] It is not too far a leap to see Jesus evoking this imagery of city destruction in response to the disciples’ question, using the prophetic language to indicate what is to be destroyed is more than merely an important building, but a power structure in step with pagan Babylon.[13] The imagery of tribulation closely tied to vindication is present both within the larger context of Matthew 24 and will be important as we turn to look at how the context of Matthew 24:29 informs our reading of the crucifixion narrative and the darkness at the cross.

[1] Matt 24.29-30 NRSV; Gk. NA27

[2] Ibid. 334.

[3] Isa 13:10 NETS; Gk. LXX

[4] Adams, Stars. 154.

[5] Ibid. 154.

[6] Wright, People. 354.

[7] Isa 48.20; 52.11-12 cf. Jer 50.6, 8, 28; 51.6-10,45-46, 50-51, 57; Ibid. 356-357.

[8] Pitre, Jesus. 336.

[9] Isaiah 34:4

[10] Adams, Stars. 154.

[11] Pitre, Jesus. 334.

[12] France, Matthew. 922.

[13] Ibid. 923.


In Spirit and Truth

Woman at the wellI don’t alwaConversationalys like the Gospel of John. It often seems too detached and “spiritual.” From the beginning Jesus is the Word from heaven and sometimes I wonder if he ever actually makes it to earth in the that Gospel. Some of the extended speeches attributed to Jesus (e.g. John 6 and John 10) can seem hopelessly vague. I find myself quickly reading through them finding little or no connection to “the bread of life” or “the good shepherd” and the “gate for the sheep.”

My struggle with the Fourth Gospel is perhaps typified best in John 4 where Jesus says to the woman at the well, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” What in the world does that mean Jesus? And how does that help this poor woman? God just wants people to be more spiritual? “Woman at the well, God wants you to be good charismatic and evangelical Christian. Devote yourself to the Holy Spirit and sound doctrinal truth.”

As I was in this passage a few weeks ago the broader context began to transform my reading of this verse, and it makes me curious as to what else I am missing in John’s Gospel (I assume the answer to that question is “a lot”). This passage is not about “the woman at the well,” it is about “the Samaritan woman at the well.” In the conversation that precedes the “spirit and truth” verse, it emerges that the woman is living within a socially, racially, and religiously divided world. It is a world of “Jews” and “Samaritans,” a world of “us” and “them.” Each side has tried to claim that God is only present on their piece of holy land. “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” This is the context within which Jesus speaks the truth that “God is spirit.” As spirit God transcends these boundaries and the true worshipers who worship the true God must do the same.

What does it look like to worship God in spirit and in truth? Jesus is enacting it in front of us as he willfully transgresses the social, ethnic, religious, and gender boundaries that separate him from this Samaritan woman. He enacts a unity between all people – one people under one God regardless of the labels they wear. Worshiping God in spirit and truth is not mostly an interior worship in my heart via the Holy Spirit, it is an embodied love for the “other” because of the love of the One God who is Spirit and who is not defined by the things that too often define and divide us. If you do not know who “the other” is, just find a person who everyone at your church “would be astonished” that you were speaking with and begin there to worship God in spirit and truth. The Father is seeking such to worship him.


Zahnd V. Brown: Who’s the Monster?

Bxb5IuJIYAAFbsE.jpg-largeConversationalThis past Saturday afternoon, The International House of Prayer hosted a debate between St. Joseph pastor and author Brian Zahnd and radio talk show host (The Line of Fire) and Fire School of Ministry president Michael Brown. The debate was entitled “Monster God or Monster Man” and sought to address if Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the biblical model of atonement or if the theory presents an image of a “monster God” requiring the death of the innocent to be placated. Michael Brown debated for Penal Substitution Atonement while Zahnd debated that the God found in Penal Substitutionary Atonement is more like a pagan deity, a Monster God.

You can watch the debate here.

The Name of the debate is taken from Zahnd’s recent sermon entitled “Death of the Monster God.” The debate followed a format giving each debater fifteen minutes to present their position, followed by an eight minute response from each. At this point each participant was allowed to ask three questions of their opponent, who responded with two to three minute answers. This was followed by a time of questions from the audience submitted via twitter. The debate end with each debater allowed five minutes to give their closing remarks.


Michael Brown: Founder and President of Fire School of Ministry and host of the nationally syndicated, daily radio talk show "The Line of Fire." Holding a PhD in Near Eastern languages and literature, he is a published Old Testament and semitic writer and a Messianic apologist.

Michael Brown
Founder and President of Fire School of Ministry and host of the nationally syndicated, daily radio talk show “The Line of Fire.” Holding a PhD in Near Eastern languages and literature, he is a published Old Testament and semitic writer and a Messianic apologist. His is the author of twenty-five books, including Can You Be Gay and a Christian?, Hyper-Grace, Authentic Fire, and The Real Kosher Jesus.

 From the outset of the debate, it was clear that Brown was playing on home turf. The moderator, Wes Hall, introduced the debate as one between the “traditional view” of Penal Substitutionary Atonement and the new atonement theories of modern scholarship. Despite this bias toward Penal Substitutionary Atonement, Which Hall called the “classic”view, from the beginning, Hall did a fair job remaining impartial as he mediated the debate, with both participants remaining civil throughout.

The debaters ultimately came off feeling fairly evenly matched. It would be difficult at the end of the debate to say who resolutely won. Brown had the advantage of being able to quote from a list of Bible verses Evangelical Protestants have been use to hearing through the lens of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. This often made it seem as if Brown’s case was much stronger than it actually was. Brown referred to Penal Substitutionary Atonement as “Bible 101″ and regarded his view as the straight biblical reading of the text. At one point, when Zahand stated Isaiah 53 is a difficult text, Brown responded by simply stating “Isaiah 53 is not a difficult text.” These appeals to biblicalism should be understood as resolutely unprofessional to the point of embarrassment. As one viewer said via Twitter

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Yet in this context where the citing of specific scriptures was so central, the big picture nature of Zahnd’s position may have been both his greatest strength and greatest weakness. Rather than verses taken out of context, Zahnd focused on a narrative approach to atonement. For him, the lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world is the system of violence stretching from Cain and Able which has always sought to sacrifice the innocent for the sake of the power of the violent. Zahnd talks of the cross as the moment when humanity violently thrust our sin onto Jesus, that Jesus, and by extension God, subsumed our violence, and in return forgave freely. In the cross, the coronation of Jesus, the world whose axis has been centered around violence and retributive justice is refounded around forgiveness and love.

This is large picture narrative work.

Brian Zahnd Founder and lead pastor at Word of Life Church in Saint Joseph, Missouri. He is the author of three books: Beauty will Save the ORled

Brian Zahnd
Founder and lead pastor of “Word of Life Church” in Saint Joseph, Missouri. He is the author of three books: Beauty Will Save the World, Unconditional: The Call of Jesus To Radical Forgiveness, and What To Do On The Worst Day of Your Life.

In another context, this would have taken the debate. Yet in the context of Brown’s list of scriptures, Zahnd’s inability to point to specific texts to better substantiate his claims came off as a major disadvantage. Zahnd responded to the list of verses Brown cited (without explanation) by saying “I believe all those verses you quoted, I interpret them differently.” Zahnd alluded to the possibility of understanding these verses differently than Penal Substitutionary Atonement has presented them. Yet Zahnd did not have the time or patience to do the type of close work required to recontextualize and understand these texts differently.

Even were Zahnd to tackle one or two New Testament texts, as he did with Hebrews 10:5, Brown was able to cite many more which the audience was conditioned to see as supporting Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Zahnd relied more on the overarching narrative of the Bible than on any specific text. Unfortunately this caused Zahnd to at times seem unable to give clear answers to questions put to him. It was evident, for example, that Zahnd’s own view of the Old Testament differs greatly from that of Brown. I remember in a recent debate on Calvinism how Zahnd made an appeal that we listen to the top scholars in their fields of biblical studies, that we listen to those like Bruggemann. If Bruggemann and other Old Testament scholars like him are a shaping voice in Zahnd’s understanding of the Old Testament, Zahnd is ultimately willing to be critical of the Old Testament narrative in ways which would be unacceptable to Brown.

Brown, on the other hand, embarrassed himself with his inability to present a more nuanced view of the Old Testament texts. When Zahnd brought up the multiple voices concerning the sacrificial system — which is prescribed in the Torah, questioned in the Psalms, and in Hosea the prophet says “I have desired mercy not sacrifice (a quote used twice by Jesus) — Brown responded that Hosea could not possibly have contradicted the Torah or else he would have been a false prophet and would have been executed. When Zahnd similarly pointed out that Jesus both reinterprets the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount and in his teaching at times replaces its commandments with his own radical ethic — Brown similarly responded that it would not have been possible that Jesus would have contradicted the Torah, or else he would not have been accepted as the Messiah and would have been executed as a false prophet. One wonder’s at this, if Brown has not read the end of the story concerning Jesus. How the irony is lost on him is difficult to imagine.

10705222_724083169747_1684956065_nFor Zahnd, a flat reading of the Biblical text is impossible. He cannot give equal weight and authority to every part of the text. For Zahnd, the Jesus seen in the gospels is the ultimate word on who God is. If the Old Testament must be re-understood in light of this, or if our reading of Revelation or Paul needs re-examined than so be it. The ultimate word for Zahnd is Jesus. While Brown may not explicitly reject this claim, he is not willing to be critical in his readings of the Old Testament texts given the radical picture of Jesus in the gospels.

The issue of Church History served a significant dividing point between Brown and Zahnd. Brown openly admitted to being unfamiliar with Church History, a point that makes his claim that the teaching of Penal Substitutionary Atonement goes back to before the New Testament somewhat suspect. Zahnd opened by pointing out that the theology of Penal Substitutionary Atonement was developed by John Calvin 500 years ago during the Protestant Reformation, building on the economic model of Anselm from the 11th century A.D. Brown does not engage with this claim or attempt to show the presence of Penal Substitutionary Atonement in church history earlier than Zahnd claims. When Zahnd asked Brown if it concerns him that Penal Substitutionary Atonement was developed by Calvin or that the Eastern Orthodox Church has never taught Penal Substitutionary Atonement and considers it a heresy, Brown responded, “No.” He believes the church so quickly departed from the Jewish roots of Christianity in the Post-Constantinian era that he is not surprised to find much of the church unaware of these central doctrines to Christianity. This should be deeply troubling, especially as Brown later stated that Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the very heart of the gospel, the good news — a gospel that much of the church, according to Brown, does not know or believe. Here the Evangelical Protestant context once more gave Brown an advantage where a more ecumenical audience would have been deeply troubled by  Brown’s response.

Similarly, Brown and Zahnd found themselves at an impasse on the subject of divine judgement. Brown leaned heavily on verses describing Jesus coming to judge with fire, wrath, and vengeance. With too many passages to draw from, Zahnd could not hope to examine any passage in satisfactory detail to make an exegetic point stick. Once more Zahnd drew on the larger theological and narratival imagery of divine judgement or wrath being the biblical authors’ way of speaking of the natural consequences of sin — the hell created when humanity embraces a path counter to that of God. God’s wrath, for Zahnd, is the sharp shards of God’s love which pierce those who turn counter to love. Wrath is God’s love wrongly received. Yet Brown would not entertain this big picture argument. To him the plain, unnuanced reading of the text supported his argument too well to consider a more complicated, culturally and literarily sensitive reading.

Brown and Zahnd found themselves again unable to speak on the same terms in the way in which their arguments addressed the issue of sin. While Zahnd made a point to talk about the systemic and cyclical nature of sin, Brown made no attempt to deal with this claim directly. For Brown sin is first and foremost an individual’s affront to the justice of God, an affront that must be repaid. Zahnd argues that God is not beholden to some exterior Lady Justice. God can forgive freely. In Brown’s view, someone must pay for sin, must experience wrath, even if the innocent one God chooses to unleash his wrath on is God’s own son. At one point, Zahnd eloquently described the violent function which scapegoating has served throughout human society — the sacrificing of the innocent by the violent to maintain their own power-hungry and destructive world. Brown’s response revealed once more both his unwillingness to follow critical questions about the nature of the Old Testament as well as his unwillingness to deal with the issue of systemic sin. Brown responded that the idea of the scapegoat  is not a human creation but rather God’s.

Zahnd ultimately held his own against Brown. Yet he was not able to bring a decisive victory. Given the context, there was much which Zahnd needed to overcome. The debate format does not allow for the detailed and patient work a thorough investigation of these topics requires. Zahnd’s appeals to the multiplicity of voices in the text of the Old Testament, the progressive nature of God’s revelation, the narrative of God revealed in Jesus as the pinnacle of YHWH’s revelation to humanity, the undoing of the cycles of violence and the refounding of the world in Christ were often fighting to stay afloat in a sea of Bible verses which Brown threw at Zahnd without much exegesis or explaination. Brown relied much on the expectation that his audience would read his premise, Penal Substitutionary Atonement, into those verses out of habit. Zahnd’s appeal to the narrative of the undoing of the violence of the world was both beautiful and bold but it was just enough to keep him level with Brown given the context Zahnd found himself in.

My hope is that hearing Zahnd and Brown would spark new discussions around the issue of Atonement theory. It might be too much to ask but I would be happy to discover that more people would realize how unhelpful throwing out a list of verses and “the Bible tells me so” are to a true discussion. Perhaps we can look forward to a day when it is taken as a given that these are difficult texts. When someone tells you a piece of poetry written in Hebrew over 2500 years ago, in a culture you do not know, in a land in which you do not live, is not difficult to understand I would hope that all Christians would realize they are not being told the truth. These things are difficult to understand. That does not make Brown right. Nor does it make Zahnd right.  Yet this does mean that in the task of the gospel — to announce, as Zahnd said, that Jesus is Lord and Caesar ( or anyone else whose kingdom has at its axis violence and retributive justice) isn’t — we have an obligation to examine these things closely, to listen to our best voices on these issues, and to be bold in listening to these texts and their radical message meant to refound the world.

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Single-Frame Flashes of Darkness: The Apocalypse of the Cross: Part 16

Apocaylpse of the Cross

Essay Posts

How many times did the audience see flashes of a man in a red jacket before Tyler Durden introduced himself to our narrator on that airplane in Fight Club? Maybe the first time you saw it you missed it. Maybe the second time too. Like subtle hints of where the story is going the single-frame flashes of Tyler can be easily overlooked. The story doesn’t necessarily suffer from their absence. The audience can follow the narrative, connect with the characters, be devastated or enthralled by the unfolding action and never register those split second frame flashes. Yet when they are pointed out, when viewers begin to discuss what they are, why they are there, and what they mean the story takes on a richer meaning. We watch it differently.

Fight Club Tyler Durden Flashes single frame

Innertextual Allusion

When we look at the Gospel of Matthew we find something very similar at work. We have spent the last several post looking at the Old Testament and Pseudepigraphal text which play a role in shaping the context of darkness imagery in Jewish thought and the specific textual traditions from which the evangelist may have drawn. Having looked at these intertextual allusions behind the darkness at the cross I will now transition to the innertextual evidence within Matthew’s Gospel itself. Herein lies the crux of my hypothesis: not only can the death of Jesus be viewed as an apocalyptic event of eschatological tribulation through allusions to Old Testament prophecy and Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic literature within the crucifixion narrative, but Matthew’s Gospel itself prepares for this interpretation through his own apocalyptic material. Much like the flashes of Tyler early in the film leading up to his ultimate appearance, Matthew’s Gospel gives us clues, flashes ahead of time, of the darkness at the cross within the context of the gospel’s apocalyptic material.

Intertext 4 Gospel

Matthew’s Apocalyptic Discourse: Exegesis of the Text

The bulk of Matthew’s apocalyptic material is found within his so-called apocalyptic discourse of chapter 24 (||Mark 13), though some material is also found within Matthew 10.[1] For my purposes I will focus on the specific reference to darkness found within Matt 24:29 and the way it prepares the reader for the darkness at the cross and sets Jesus’ death in the context of apocalyptic imagery and eschatological tribulation. Since there are a variety of views about the precise meaning of this passage, many of which would go far afield from my purpose, I will only briefly situate the relevant verses within the larger context of Matthew 24 as a whole.

The passage begins with the disciples’ admiration of the Jerusalem temple complex (Matt 24.1) followed by Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s destruction (Matt 24.2). This prediction incites the twofold question of the disciples found in v. 3: “when will these things happen [the destruction of the temple], and what will be the sign of your visitation.” The ambiguity of this question’s relation to what follows gives rise to the scholarly debate around this passage within which this allusion is found.

The allusion of darkness is situated at the climax of the entire discourse. Having warned of deception by false messiahs (Matt 24.4-5), wars, famines and earthquakes (Matt 24.6-8), the disciples’ being handed over and mistreated (Matt 24.9), the increase of betrayal and interpersonal violence (Matt 24.10-13), the preaching of the gospel in the nations (Matt 24.14), instructions to flee upon the erection of the desolating sacrilege in the temple (Matt 24.15-20), the great hardship which is to follow (Matt 24.21-22), and a second warning against false messiahs (Matt 24.23-28), Jesus describes the climatic moment that will take place:

“Immediately after the θλῖψιν (thlipsin, suffering) of those days

ὁ ἥλιος (ho hēlios, the sun) σκοτισθήσεται (skotisthēsetai, will be darkened),

and ἡ σελήνη (hē selēnē, the moon) οὐ δώσει (ou dōsei,will not give) τὸ φέγγος αὐτῆς (to pheggos autēs, its light);

the stars will fall from heaven,

and the powers of heaven will be shaken.

Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.[2]

The majority of discussion around this text has to do with where Jesus’ response transitions from addressing the disciples’ first question about the timing of the temple’s destruction to addressing their second question about the sign of Jesus’ visitation. More specifically, does (a) Matt 24.29 mark the transition, describing Jesus’ parousia,[3] (b) the transition take place in v. 36 when Jesus begins addressing the “day and the hour”, with v. 29ff describing, in metaphorical and apocalyptic language, the destruction of the temple,[4] or (c) the passage take the duel question of v. 3 to be in apposition and address only the events of the temple’s destruction without mention of a parousia.[5]

2014-09-07 03.45.58 pm

According to R.T. France and Wright, the language of v. 29ff is drawing on Old Testament imagery of sociopolitical upheaval to describe the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Wright argues Jesus takes the Old Testament language of YHWH’s judgment of the preeminent pagan city of that time, Babylon, and uses it to describe the downfall fated YHWH’s own city, Jerusalem, due to their refusal of Jesus’ message.[6] Adams, who presents a pointed argument against both Wright and France, maintains the apocalyptic language here should be taken, while not necessarily literally, as referring to the actual expectation of cosmic catastrophe associated with the coming of God.[7] He argues while the Old Testament text may have used metaphorical language for city collapse, the use of such imagery developed in the first century to refer to the expectation of actual cosmic catastrophe.[8]

The trouble facing Keener and Hagner is interpreting the passage in such a way that the “immediately” of v. 29 can refer to the parousia while still interpreting vv. 4-28 as referencing a first century CE tribulation.[9] Hagner postulates the “immediately” may be a Matthean addition which does not go back to Jesus but rather reflects the (erroneous) belief of Matthew’s community that the eschaton was imminent.[10] Keener considers either Jesus skips in v. 29 from the first century tribulation to the next eschatologically significant event, namely his return, or Jesus views the whole intermediate period from the temple’s downfall to his parousia as being an extended time of tribulation.[11] He also suggests vv. 4-28 blends the first century tribulation with the eschatological tribulation, so the “tribulation of those days” is referencing not a first century tribulation but one of the end of the age[12] This said however, he does not find the minority position of reading vv. 4-28 as being wholly future to the post-70 CE reader a defensible position.[13]

Though I will not arrive at a hard conclusion about the precise referent of v. 29ff, whether a future parousia or the temple destruction of 70 CE, here it will suffice to recognize what can be agreed upon by both sides of the debate: the passage uses apocalyptic language and metaphor,[14] and contains all the hallmark signs of eschatological tribulation — war, famine, earthquake, interpersonal strife and betrayal, violence, and celestial disturbances[15] — examined above. It is this context, to be examined more closely through the investigation of the Old Testament allusions underpinning the text, which will prove enlightening. Like the flashes of Durden by the copy machine or at the doctor’s office, these reference to darkness earlier in Matthew’s Gospel will prove to be significant in understanding how the darkness at the cross functions and what it says about the death of Jesus.

[1] Allison Jr., “Victory” 17ff.

[2] Matt 24.29-30 NRSV; Gk. NA27

[3] Keener, Matthew. Hagner, Matthew 14-28.

[4] France, Matthew. 901.

[5] Wright, People. 330ff. writing on the Markan parallel.

[6] Ibid. 340.

[7] Adams, Stars. 160.

[8] Ibid. 160.

[9] Keener, Matthew. Hagner, Matthew 14-28.

[10] Ibid. 711-712.

[11] Keener, Matthew. 577-578.

[12] Ibid. 577-578.

[13] Ibid.578.

[14] Wright, People. 340.

[15] Pitre, Jesus. 228ff.

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Orientation 301: Liturgy


ConversationalWhere do you encounter Jesus? How you answer this question probably reveals a lot about the “stream” of Christianity you are involved in. Evangelicals typically answer, “In the Bible.” Charismatics, “In a worship service.” Social justice focused Christians, “In the face of the poor, the sick, and imprisoned.” Praise be to God for those who answer, “all of the above.”

There is also another answer, and it is one that has been very foreign to me, but not to the life of the historic Church. Where do you encounter Jesus? Across space and time, many Christians would reply, “In the sacraments, especially Eucharist.” It was the gradual discovery of this sacramental answer, an answer that made me aware that Jesus was present in places I was not, that led me into a more sacramental and liturgical expression of my faith.

Becoming Liturgical
I want to be clear from the beginning that my journey over the past couple of years has not been one of rejecting the evangelical or charismatic aspects of my faith, but neither has it been a simple addition of liturgy to those two aspects. Liturgy reorients the entire life of faith.

church of england

Church of England

By using the term Anglican I refer to the worldwide Anglican Communion, rooted in the Church of England, but spanning the entire globe. In our contemporary American context the word “Anglican” can have polemical overtones meaning, “not Episcopalian,” and while my introduction to Anglicanism began in the more conservative Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), I am not fundamentally opposed to, or am closed off to, the Episcopal Church. Many of my Anglican friends at Candler will be Episcopalian and I hope to hear their stories and explore their expression of Anglicanism while I am here. I plan to attend the weekly evensong and eucharist service led by the Episcopal studies program and will be working with an Episcopal parish in the inner city of Atlanta (Emmaus House) during my first year of seminary.

What draws me to the Anglican Church?
All that said, here are some of the things that attract me, as an evangelical-charismatic, to the Anglican tradition.

(1) Christological center: In my previous posts I mentioned my tendencies to focus on everything but Jesus. In Anglican and other liturgical traditions both the yearly calendar and the weekly liturgy orients the life of the Church around the redemptive acts of God in Jesus Christ. In the church calendar time itself is reoriented around a continual remembrance and celebration of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and a hope for his return. Week by week, as Anglicans gather for worship, the liturgy of the word (the part of the service focused on scripture reading & preaching) culminates in a reading from one of the four Gospels. In more traditional services this is performed with profound symbolic acts. The reader, accompanied by candles, walks into the midst of the congregation and reads the words of Jesus. Jesus is present here, coming once again as a light in darkness, being among the people to speak God’s word.

(2) Historical rootedness: Too often I have felt like I am sitting on a far off non-denominational branch of an ecclesial tree that has no roots. Yet, Christianity did not begin in the 16th century, or even worse, in the 20th or 21st centuries. For two thousand years people have been following Jesus, and woe betide us if we neglect our history and imagine we are going to reinvent the “pure christianity” of the first church. Here is good news. We can be connected to the early church, not by ignoring everything between us and them, but precisely by tending to that historic link. The creeds, the sacraments, the liturgy, the calendar, and the episcopal structure (bishops) of the Anglican Church are all tangible and vital links that can connect us with the ancient undivided church.

Justin Welby and Pope Francis

Justin Welby (Archbishop of Canterbury) and Pope Francis

(3) Via Media: this is a Latin phrase that means “middle way,” and it has been used to describe Anglicanism’s middle path between Catholicism and Protestantism. I very much appreciate the specific application of the Via Media to the Catholic/Protestant divide, but the term also speaks of a general ecumenical openness that tries to hold together Christians from many streams within one river so to speak. In the Anglican church that we are currently attending there is a self conscious “three streams” approach to our common life. We are very aware that Evangelical, Charismatic, and Liturgically focused Christians are all part of the community. In this context the “middle way” looks like valuing and receiving from each stream without being defined solely by any of them. To me the spirit of the via media also manifests itself in a church that is “big tent” in its theological stances. The boundary lines and identity markers are mainstream and historic – the creeds, the bible, the sacraments, and the historic episcopate. This ecumenical openness also embraces all of the Church. There is no small enclave here, no faithful remnant off in the corner of God’s special election claiming exclusive access to truth. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants are affirmed and celebrated as Christ’s Church by Anglicans.

(4) Long-term spirituality: Anglicanism has its own form of spirituality that is rooted in the daily, weekly, and yearly rhythms of the liturgy. The focus of liturgical spirituality is not on an immediate emotional experience, but long-term spiritual formation. I must say that I don’t mind emotional experiences, and I really enjoy experiencing the presence of God, but it is the method and spiritual lifestyle within which we have these experiences that makes all the difference. Non-liturgical spirituality can all too often be an up and down quasi narcissistic pursuit of spiritual experiences for the sake of spiritual experiences. Having ridden the emotional, psychological, and spiritual roller coaster of Charismatic spirituality for the past decade, believe me I know. Liturgical spirituality on the other hand has its goal elsewhere – spiritual formation into the image of Jesus over years. This liturgical framework provides a safe and healthy context within which to experience the mystical and wonderful presence of God.trinity icon

(5) Eucharist as culmination of worship: this is attractive to me for a couple of reasons, one of them I will discuss more below in the theology of Eucharist section. What I want to highlight here is that worship music and preaching all are secondary to the culmination of the liturgical service. In Evangelical churches if you have a bad preacher you are not going to enjoy 30-40 minutes of your Sunday service. In Charismatic churches if you have an unskilled worship leader you are not going to enjoy an hour to two and half hours of your Sunday service (yes, it can go that long sometimes!). The great thing about liturgical services is that they require very little talent to execute well. Nobody leaves the service saying, “Man, did you hear the Lord’s prayer today? It was SO good!” or “Wow, the guy reading the creed nailed it!” Ordinary men and women do ordinary acts of reading, speaking, praying, giving bread and wine, and God is present there in all his unpretentious glory.

(6) Finding God in the ordinary: the sacramental focus and the incarnational theology that really come to the fore in liturgical settings celebrate God’s presence in the ordinary. As stated above, God is present in the ordinary. Being extraordinary in order to be with God is not required. Do you work a 9-5 job? Do you teach at the local elementary school? Do spend your day at home with three little kids? Wonderful! God is present there, and as we take the ordinary bread and wine and believe that it becomes the body and blood of Jesus we are reminded that ordinary is all that is required for an encounter with God.

Censer(7) Symbolism: Looking from the outside many people see charismatic Christianity as the polar opposite of “High Church.” And let’s be honest, in some ways they are. Yet, I have discovered that the rich symbolism that characterizes Anglican worship (especially the more Anglo-Catholic streams) provides a very strong connection point between my Charismatic background and the historic Catholic tradition.  I feel very at home in “high liturgy” settings with the processions, incense, candles, and icons. These symbols are inherently mystical and as a Charismatic I rejoice in the experience of God that is beyond words.

(8) Theology of Eucharist: while the specifics of this theology are still in process for me, I find the “real presence” understanding of Eucharist/Holy Communion/The Lord’s Supper to be both fascinating and deeply satisfying. For Anglicans, Jesus is fully present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Eucharist is not only about remembering, but encountering Jesus. This theology of Eucharist goes back to number one on my list above – the Christological center. Central to the life and faith of Anglicans is a sacramental encounter with Jesus. It doesn’t depend on your mood or effort. Jesus will be there, lovingly available to all who in faith receive him. I am very excited to be taking a “history and theology of Eucharistic worship” class this fall at Candler. I hope to process some of that history and theology here on the Cosmic Cathedral as the semester progresses.

For the first decade of my Christian life I thought denominations or liturgical traditions were a waste of my time. I thought I could just get Jesus on my own. It turns out I did a really bad job of getting Jesus on my own. Discouraged and slightly despondent, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or on the Galilean sea returning to fishing only to cast their nets unsuccessfully through the night, I had almost resigned myself to life in academics without much hope for an ecclesial home. Then someone took bread, blessed it and broke it. They took a cup of wine, blessed it, and I gave thanks.

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Orientation 201: Scripture (part II)


So where aConversationalm I now in my approach to reading and studying the Bible? For the sake of transparency and helpfulness, I thought I would list a few of my working assumptions that I bring to the Bible when I read it. Maybe at the end of my program I will do another list and we can all have fun comparing them.

My current assumptions about the Bible
(1) Scripture is a story. I view Scripture as telling one big story. What this means to me is that in spite of the polyphony (cacophony?) of voices we hear in scripture, there remains a canonical narrative that runs throughout. Hermeneutically this means that we should at least read Scripture like all other grand stories. We should expect complex character formation that is progressive (God and God’s people). We should expect that not all plot lines will end as we thought they would. We should expect dynamic change and development in the storyline and be sensitive to that development and change when we seek to live as a part of that story now. And that is the final point here. We are called to live into this story, to be a part of it and make it our own story. Scripture is our controlling meta-narrative and worldview. On a very practical hermeneutical level this means, to take a phrase from a good friend of mine, “we must read the Bible in the right direction.” Jesus will not make sense apart from the Old Testament narrative (that is what those tedious genealogies in Matthew and Luke have been trying to tell us all along), and ultimately, the Old Testament narrative will not be resolved apart from what we read in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. The two testaments enter into a complex dialectical and mutual interpretive exchange, but it starts by reading left to right – or right to left if you are reading in Hebrew!

(2) Scripture is about Jesus Christ. What this does not mean is that I look for Jesus all through Leviticus and every other obscure place in the Old Testament. It also does not mean that the Old Testament can safely be “put behind us now” as if it is no longer the word of God. What it does mean is that, as stated above, the storyline of Scripture finds its climactic moment, its dénouement, and interpretive key in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Practically I believe this means that we can be freed from our anxieties related to the horizons of Scripture (Genesis and Revelation) in order to orient our life around what is truly central to Scripture and the Christian tradition. I have lived far too long with my worldview anchored in a literal six-day creationist cosmology and an extravagant timeline of end-time events all the while neglecting the center.

(3) Scripture is inspired by God, but written by humans. The Bible bears all the marks of any other document written by humans, namely that it reflects the languages, cultures, and worldviews of the authors who wrote it. Many times the Bible will subvert or challenge the cultures and worldviews within which it was written, but nevertheless the books of the Bible remain closer to their historic and literary milieu than to our contemporary setting. One of the most helpful things I have learned in the last few years about the Bible is that it is written for us, but not to us. When God inspired the author(s) of Genesis to write, or edit, the book into the text we have today, he did so in a way that would make sense and would be immediately meaningful to those who first read the text, not for those of us separated by thousands of years and miles from its time and place of origin. You really only need one word to prove this. Hebrew. The fact that we read translations is proof that the text was not written to us. God spoke to his people in ways they could understand. He didn’t speak over their head. And what else should we expect from the God who takes on our flesh in order to demonstrate who he is by a human life? Practically this means that it will take some thoughtful reading and study in order to distinguish between those things in the Bible that are there because if they weren’t, it would not make sense to the first audience, and the things that are there because we in the 21st century need to hear them and be transformed by them. This distinguishing can be difficult, and it takes a community in conversation and engaged in intellectual and spiritual discernment.

Post-Conservative Evangelical
I am not opposed to labeling myself. Most of the time we need to move beyond the labels we wear, but I think they can also serve as helpful starting points for empathetic dialogue. So what label would I put on myself in regards to how I approach the Bible at this point in my life as I start seminary? I came across the term, “post-conservative Evangelical” about a year ago in a blog post by Roger E. Olson. Here is his list of the traits that characterize post-conservative evangelicals. According to Olson (who coined the phrase some years ago) they have (1) a strong commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture, (2) a strong commitment to the supremacy of Jesus Christ as Lord, (3) a strong appreciation for Christian tradition and even conservative evangelical sources, (4) while at the same time insisting on exercising freedom to offer new interpretations based not on culture, although being sensitive to cultural issues, but on Scripture and especially on Jesus as the hermeneutical key to Scripture, and (5) they breathe an evangelical spirit. I know it is very trendy to be “post” something, and I am fine with being trendy. But I appreciate the succinctness of the label, and I think it gets pretty close to where I am right now in my approach to the Bible.

Want to read more?
Scripture as story: Scripture and the Authority of God – NT Wright, “Reading Scripture as a Coherent Story” – Richard Bauckham’s chapter in The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Davis and Hays

Scripture is about Jesus Christ: The Bible Made Impossible – Christian Smith

Scripture is inspired by God, but written by humans: God’s Word in Human Words – Kenton Sparks, Inspiration and Incarnation – Peter Enns

God speaks to people in ways they understand: The Lost World of Genesis One – John Walton

Post-Conservative Evangelical: Article by Roger Olson, Reformed and Always Reforming – Roger Olson

Other books: The Art of Reading Scripture – ed. Davis and Hays, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy – ed. Gundry



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