The Cosmic Cathedral

Understanding God in the Word and the World


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The Duplicity of Pi

life-of-pi-5133c8456a706-1Spoilers to Life of Pi to Follow.

ConversationalAt the end of Life of Pi, Pi Patel sits in a hospital bed in Mexico and tells two stories. The first we hear long before we ever know he ends up in a hospital at all. It is the story that takes up the bulk of Yann Martel’s novel and leads us from Pi’s home in Pondicherry, India; through a harrowing shipwreck; across endless oceans in a small lifeboat accompanied by an ever dwindling zoo population until finally he is left alone with only Richard Parker, an adult bangle tiger; by an uninhabitable carnivorous island; to a sandy beach; until Pi is finally found by two Japanese insurance representatives in this hospital bed, his extraordinary tale’s telling situated for us in that room via Chapter 97, the sole contents of which are the words “The Story.”

Pi’s second story is a much simpler, if a much more brutal, version. No majestic, albeit ferocious, animals. No carnivorous island of meerkats. No Richard Parker. Just a sailor with a broken leg, a disgusting cook turned cannibal turned murder, Pi’s mother turned victim, and Pi turned Richard Parker — the violent beast within — when his revenge lashes out at the cook who took the only thing he had left in the world from him, his mother. In a single monologue — stark, bleak, forceful — Pi tells the insurance representatives a story much more believable than Pi’s floating zoological ark but no more desirable.

At the end Pi asks the only question that makes sense — “Which is the better story?”

And in this question lies also the duplicity that runs down the center of my faith.

Duplicity and ambiguity lie at the heart of Pi’s twin stories. It lies at the heart of my faith as well. It runs down the center of how I read the bible, how I think of history, go to church, how I pray, and how I doubt. And, as does the gospel, this duplicity centers ultimately on the person of Jesus the Nazarene.

Sitting at Parisi following church with two friends we began to discuss the nature of Jesus’ self-knowledge. Just how much did that Jewish man who walked Palestine two thousand years ago know he was God. On the one had I argue that Jesus’ self-understanding must be more like ours than unlike ours. As I read the gospels, beginning with Mark, I find a Jesus bearing up under the weight of a calling he does not fully understand, determined to fulfill the role in Israel’s long and torrid history and finding himself facing an ultimate death he cannot see beyond — God forsaken, abandoned by disciples, committing, per Luke, his spirit into the hand of a God he hopes will vindicate him but breathing his last not knowing if his prayer will be answered.

My friend argued for another reading of Jesus. A Jesus aware of his deity. A Jesus whose memory swam with the images of his life before incarnation. A Jesus who knew, though he was human, he was God as well. A Jesus unlike any other human. He knew he was God and his teaching, miracles, and resurrection were all foreknown and expected and embraced. A Jesus whose experience was more unlike ours than like ours.

I on the side of historic plausibility and Anthony on the side of ecumenical tradition, we teetered back and forth over the divide, trying to understand the fundamental disagreement which stood at the center of our discussion. And it was here at this crossroads that the statement that explained the divide came. Anthony said “I just can’t believe in a Jesus whose death transformed creation and inaugurated God’s kingdom and who is present with us each week in the Eucharist, yet whose life leading up to that death was completely as our own, devoid of any form of magic.”

And here I found my duplicity. On one hand, I believe in a Jesus who inaugurated God’s kingdom: breaking the power of sin and violence with his death and beginning a new creation with his resurrection.

On the other hand, I believe in a Jesus who threw himself on the wheel of history and was crushed by it, his mangled body hanging there still. A powerless Jesus pushed out of the world and onto the cross .

albert-schweitzer2I think of Albert Schweitzer whose influential Quest of the Historical Jesus effectively ended the First Quest to understand Jesus as a historical figure. His final picture of Jesus was one who came as an apocalyptic prophet preaching the imminent in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Yet the vision failed, the kingdom did not come and when Jesus tried to, as it were, force God’s hand, the lashes of Rome came down, the envy of the Jews reared up and brought the career of yet another failed messiah to a bloody and violent end. Yet it was this failed Jesus, this Jesus who could not bring the kingdom and whose death could not be avoided, who Schweitzer ultimately followed from his life of philosophy, theology, and music to accept a call to the heart of Africa as medical doctor. At the age of 30 he gave up all the prestige in order to go to Africa as a doctor and a servant to the weakest of these my brothers.

NT-WrightI think of N.T. Wright whose work on the historical Jesus, most fully laid out in his volumes Jesus and the Victory of God and The Resurrection of the Son of God, have effectively invigorated the so-called Third Quest for the historical Jesus by attempting to understanding him fully in the context of first century Jewish apocalypticism. He pictures Jesus knowing he is God like one might know they are in love, bringing the message of the Kingdom of God soon come to Israel, announcing the end of exile, a new exodus from the bondage of sin. He comes to Jerusalem, doing for Israel that role which YHWH alone was meant to do. In his death and resurrection he inaugurates a new creation. In Jesus, God’s future of is rushing towards us, bubbling up into the present. As the Church, we are a part of the ongoing story of this new creation advancing in eager expectation of its final consummation. It is this Jesus which has driven Wright to devote much time to his writing and speaking work aimed to equip Christians to live out a vibrant faith fully integrated with their cultural and social milieu in order to bring God’s kingdom into their present. It is this Jesus that drove his clerical work as Bishop in the diocese of Durham and has energized his role in the life of the church to address the deep social issues facing those who are weak and in need.

Life-of-Pi_3D_scanning

With Pi, my faith finds me on the lifeboat cast off the sinking ship. Like him, neither of my stories can answer the question of why the ship sunk. Nothing Pi says could satisfy the real thing the insurance representatives had come to discover. I cannot find those answers. I have two stories — I could have thousands more. A thousand narratives to deconstruct, critique, tell, wonder, and doubt yet these are the two stories I have to tell in the hospital room of my faith. In the boat with my zoological friends or my murderous companion — and always Richard Parker — it is these two stories I have to tell. One is full of magic and mystery. In the expanse of space the angels sing hallelujah and the eternity and now are pierced through with light and wonder. One is set in a world where a helpless man-maybe-god is caught is a tide of history and swept to his death, joining us in the darkness to scream with us in our god-forsakenness. Both stories are for me significant, poignant, and ultimately deeply moving.

I am in the lifeboat with Pi lost at sea. I am foraging on the island promising safe haven proved carnivorous. I am cornered by the tiger. And I am Richard Parker. I am mourning my inability to take a moment to say goodbye as I am forced to let go. I am sitting in the hospital bed. And I am telling two stories: one unbelievable but full of animals and magic, one believable but stark and haunting.

And I am asking you, “Which is the better story?”

life of pi5


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David Drifts from Biblical Orthodoxy

gungor-7865finalMusic

With Apologies to Gungor

Conversational

Renowned Bethlehem harpist David, who’s hit tracks “Planted by Streams of Water” and “The Lord is My Shepard” have ran across the land of Judea, is known for his melodic transcendence of pastoral ditties and full tabernacle worship style while remaining rooted in worship of Israel’s God. Yet as good as the tunes are, his latest efforts reveal that he is developing more than just musically. In his latest works he is also beginning to transcend religious themes as well — wandering away from Torah defined Judaism to a land twixt and tween.

46bDavid’s early hits of have been a great success within the worship life of Israel “As a deer longs for flowing streams/ so my soul longs for you, O God” rings clear on some of his favorite tracts. His Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want/ He makes me lie down in green pastures/…/ he restores my soul” speaks clearly of the Lord’s continual presence within the life of Israel and his faithful guidance and ability to take care of every need.

Yet David’s newest tracks begin to reveal that something else is going on in the tormented young musician. Now instead of a proclamation of The Lord as Israel’s help, he begins his psalm “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” And in his newest Psalm 77 he says “And I said, “My grief is this:/ the right hand of the Most High has lost its power.” It is clear that this great musician once anointed by the Prophet Samuel has in his fleeing across the Judean countryside begun his own meandering journey away from his long-held Jewish religious beliefs. While his songs sound more complex and elegant than ever, the lyrics betray a deep murkiness.

There seems to be at the heart of David’s new material a deep dissatisfaction and critique of the traditional understanding of the temple. Where in David’s earlier work he says “One thing I asked the Lord/…/ to live in the house the Lord/ all the days of my life,/ and behold the beauty of The Lord” David no longer seems able to uphold these basic tenants of faith. Now he expresses a more murky and unsatisfactory picture of the Temple system. He deviates from the Law of Sinai which gives specific instructions for the need for temple sacrifice for the pardon of sins. In his newest Psalm 51, following a time of significant personal struggle and loss, David says of The Lord “you have no delight in sacrifice/ if I were to give you a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.” In the past David has held to orthodox Jewish beliefs yet he now wanders away, making a religious system in his own image that will please him and fits to his desire for a God who does not want bloodshed.

psalmistIn David’s newest work his picture of the Lord becomes even more desperate and disjointed. In Psalm 88 he says “oh Lord why do you cast me off?… I suffered terrors, I am desperate.” No longer the peaceful shepherd of the countryside, now the Lord has “caused friend and neighbor to shun me” and his “companions are in darkness.” At the same time David’s image of God begins to radically shift. No longer satisfied with the Father and the King imagery of Orthodox Judaism, David begins to experiment with imagery of God as a mother hen that is taking care of their young as in his Psalm 91. And in his Psalm 90 he talks of those who “live in the shelter of the Most High/ who abide in the shadow of Shaddai,” a term clearly referencing the idea of a breasted mother caring for her young. David is clearly moving beyond the Torah formulation of God as Father, since he finds the imagery limits an appreciation of God’s fullness.

David is still clearly animated and inspired by the trappings and festivities of Judaism. But in all his desire to be expressive and grow in his musical prowess he has strayed away from the Judaism whose strict tenets were upheld at Sinai when The Lord came down from heaven to give the Law in clear terms: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt… You shall have no other gods before me”

***

Satire in response to the decrying of Christian band Gungor’s supposed deviation of from biblical Orthodoxy — a bidding farewell which has become far too hasty and tempting in the the blogosphere of late.


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6 Issues To Address When John Piper Tells You Not to Watch ‘Game of Thrones’

daenerys_targaryan__game_of_thrones_wallpaper_by_darkelektra-d592zg3Conversational

When John Piper published his article “12 Questions to Ask Before You Watch Game of Thrones” the internet went astir with discussion: those who watched the show coming to its defense and those who don’t finally having the definitive word that those who do shouldn’t. An article that could have spurred on a much-needed conversation about how Christians consume media, especially media featuring nudity, was cut short with the fiat of Piper. Piper’s own position is absolute; “I resolve never intentionally to look at a television show or a movie or a website or a magazine where I know I will see photos or films of nudity. Never.”

The position is admirable in its refusal to be hypocritical. Game of Thrones fans cannot claim he is just picking on them, he’s got National Geographic pegged too. Yet for many readers this black-and-white worldview is troubling. The argument precludes a whole host of ideas and question about film, art, nudity, lust, sin, etc. which are begging to be discussed, evaluated and considered. By supplying a black-and-white position of “radical abstention” Piper effectively ends a conversation which should rightly be full of ambiguities, nuance, and a variety of views. The radical “Never” ends the discussion, potentially alienates the voice of dissenting   viewpoints and keeps the individual arguments which make up Piper’s position from being subjected to closer scrutiny.

Upon reading many of Piper’s arguments one is struck by how simplistic and confident they are. Piper has no problem making strong, definitive rulings on a variety of subjects. Regardless of what one decides concerning his conclusions, it is important to examine the underpinnings of his position and determine if these arguments are robust enough to support the radical conclusions Piper endorses. As such we need to take a step back from the immediate question of Game of Thrones and examine more generally some of the issues with Piper’s arguments. What to do with the pesky HBO show will wait, we’ve got a whole year to go till the next season anyway.*

1. The Cultural Relativism of Modesty

Perhaps the first point of questioning concerning Piper’s points is one of cultural relativism. Piper makes several arguments in which he either says or assumes that to appear nude before others is a sin (i.e. “They disobey 1 Timothy 2:9, and we say that’s okay.”). Yet to call this behavior sinful without qualifier raises a host of questions. Is nudity sinful all times and in all places? Is it sinful because of our cultural approach to nudity? Is it sinful in and of itself? Is it sinful because it is causing other’s to lust?

Piper’s statement is complicated because standards of appropriate dress and nudity have varied from time and place throughout human history. We are all familiar with the tribes of the Amazon rainforest, African plains, and southeast Asia where toplessness is a standard practice. During the pioneering days of the American west it was not uncommon for all the field-hands to bath together nude is a river or lake. In much of Europe it would not be uncommon at a pool or beach for someone to change into his or her swimware there on the beach without a single turned head.

Both from place to place and at different points in history there have been a wide variety of approaches to nudity. To say that such nudity is at all times sinful is to be insensitive to the variety of expressions throughout culture and history. There is not a one size fits all ethic towards nudity in our culture. There must be an element of relativism involved. This does not mean there is not a restrictive ethic of sexual propriety within Christianity but it does mean that perhaps it is problematic to say it is at all times in all place in all ways it is sinful to be nude in front of other people. It raises the question that perhaps more needs to be understood about the nature of the nudity being presented than just the very fact that there is nudity presented.

2. The Problem of “Daughters” and Patriarchal Ownership.

A common argument Piper uses within his article is “that girl is somebody’s daughter” or “that girl has a father.” This line of thought is often used to cause the viewer of nude images to realize that the woman whose body they are looking at has a father who cares about them is the same way the viewer cares for their own daughter, girlfriend, or wife. On the surface this seems like a humanizing argument, yet on close examination there are a few problems that present themselves.

There is a problem at the heart of Piper’s argument. It is not so much manifest on the surface but in a more subtle undercurrent of his position towards woman. Not being an egalitarian, Piper’s argument subtly supports a patriarchal approach to the subject of nudity in the arts. Piper’s theological position of the need for women to submit to their husbands and never have authority of a man cannot be ignored when we talk about the issues of female nudity. Once again, this may not effect ones ultimate decision about Christian consumption of media containing nudity, but it does have implications for the appropriateness of the arguments used in coming to these conclusions.

A significant issue underlining Piper’s arguments is that it ultimately supports a narrative of men telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies. The problem with the “that actress is somebody’s daughter” argument is that it reinforces a narrative where the sexual prospects of the woman are the possession and right of the father. That her sexual conduct somehow reflects the status and economic vitality of the father. This model of the father as owner of his daughter’s sexual rights has been a patriarchal model of much of the western world. It is significantly important that as individuals living in a post-patriarchal society to recognize the inappropriateness of arguments and positions which continue to support this narrative.

In Piper’s article patriarchal ownership is not made explicit but rather serves as a subtle undercurrent within his framework. A woman’s sexual identity exists independently from the father and his concerns must take a back seat to that woman’s own decisions concerning her sexual identity and the use of her body. The “daughters” argument evokes a childishness, demoting the woman from being an autonomous individual and subjugating her to being a child under the protection and care of the patriarchal head. Once more, this does not mean that at Christian ethic of sexual propriety should not govern how woman conduct themselves, no less than how it governs how men should conduct themselves. Christian men and women are called to make ethical choices and ethical actions, to follow a Christian ethic in response to sexual expression, yet those choices and actions are each individual’s own, reflecting their own identity, rather than the extension of some patriarchal figure whose prospects carry more weight than that of the individuals themselves.

3. Victim Narratives and Autonomous Self Identity

This issue of patriarchy leads into another issue involving the use of “victim narratives” within Christian subculture. In both the “daughters” argument and when Piper says “Underneath all of this is male sexual appetite driving this business, and following from that is peer pressure in the industry and the desire for ratings that sell” there is a subtle narrative of victimization at work. It this thought form the actresses are cast as victims in the story. We imagine that on some level they much be being asked to perform and expose themselves against their will. They must have been coerced to do so in such a way that their fathers, mothers and closest relatives would desire them to be rescued from such a humiliating plight. This narrative is powerful because it allows those who oppose such forms of media to take on the role, ever so subtly, of the hero or rescuer who will save the weak victims of abuse from their plight.

Yet within the professional environment of HBO and Hollywood we have no reason to believe this to be the case.** For many of the actresses on Game of Thrones this role represents the pinnacle of their acting career thus far. They have worked much of their life and devoted much of their professional careers to reaching this level of success. In all my reading and watching of interviews — and this in a culture inundated with individuals coming forward to report misconduct — I have not come across any evidence of the filming of these nude scenes or any others being anything but professional. I have not heard stories of Emilia Clarke retreating to her dressing room after a shoot, breaking down in tears or having a panic attack because she was so mistreated and manhandled by the director, cast, or crew. Whatever judgment we finally make about Christian consumption of such media, we cannot use an argument of victimization to establish it. These are autonomous individuals making mature decisions about what they want to do with their bodies and to make them victims is to dehumanize them by imagining our own superimposed narrative for their lives trumps their own narrative and autonomous self-identity.

4. A Culture of Female Blame

Almost antithetical to the previous point above is the paradoxical issues of female blame within Christian subculture. While not directly addressed within Piper’s article, there is an underlying problem in the conservative Christian argumentation about nudity were women and their bodies are blamed for male sexual impropriety. In a Christian conservative culture where rape victims are told to repent and find their root sin that cause their assault and where the conversation of modesty is routinely framed as women needing to change their dress and appearance just at the mere possibility of ‘leading their brothers into sin’ we need to have resolve to refuse to entertain arguments which rely on unjust female blame. This culture of blaming women for the lack of integrity of Christian males is significantly problematic for discussing the issues of nudity in the arts.

This does not mean there are not guidelines for being modest. This does not mean that Christian men and women should not choose to embrace an ethic of modesty. Yet it means that modesty is not the gatekeeper of sexual propriety. A woman is not to blame for the sexual misconduct of those around her based on her dress or appearance. A woman is not responsible for her abuse or rape regardless of her personal attire. A culture where men are seen as not being able to “help themselves” and women are held responsible for male sexual impropriety makes it considerably difficult to have a measured and nuanced conversation about the issues surrounding nudity in art. If nudity itself is seen as the problem, or if the female form is ultimately blamed then we have inadvertently made a large leap from finding sinful actions the problem to finding physical forms the problem. This does not ultimately mean we should not be mindful of the things we choose to view but that we should be careful in how we articulate these choices.

5. Stories That Matter

Moving past some the problems in Piper’s arguments, it is important now to turn to what I believe to be the more fruitful element of discussing the broader question of nudity in art. Piper is quite dogmatic on the issue, saying, “There is no great film or television series that needs nudity to add to its greatness. No. There isn’t.” To many readers this clear black-and-white response is significantly problematic. It is a subjective judgment on the quality of art that raises a host of questions. Rather that being a nuanced discussion of nudity in art it is a clear conversation-ender. One wonders if Piper feels the same about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment or Michelangelo’s David, not to mention Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus or Ruben’s The Judgement of Paris. To say all nudity in art is created equal, and equally unnecessary and wrong, collapses the rich conversation into an overly simplistic black-and white declaration.

Piper uses the word “entertainment” multiple times within his article, and often in discussions surrounding this topic the word “entertainment” is used to describe the media which is being talked about. The problem with this word is that it overlooks the variety of ways in which media and art function within our culture. To entertain means to “provide (someone) with amusement or enjoyment.” When used to refer to the media in question the word carries a derogatory connotation, where the media is seen as something with no more significant purpose then to delight and amuse. Yet human beings have been telling stories for thousands of years. These stories function powerfully within cultures and serve much more than for mere entertainment. While entertainment is a function of some stories it is not the function of all stories — some stories are designed not to be enjoyed. And even among stories that are entertaining, this does not mean that entertainment is the primary function of these stories. Stories establish identities (founding myths), identify taboos, reinforce prejudices, reestablish community boundary lines, identify community values, reinforce common experience, reenact shared history, unify over common plights, reeducate around new information, defend existing worldviews, explore alternate worldviews, challenge shared assumptions, and on and on.

Within this wide variety of functions stories can serve within our culture we need to be careful in how we talk about nudity within the arts. Of all the subjects within these stories is the female form the one which is off limits? Within the spectrum of stories, from those who force us to watch things we would rather ignore to those which celebrate all the beautiful elements of life with its joys and delights there is surely a place to discuss the appropriate use of nudity. If we are to be mature and discerning in the stories we consume than we should consider there is art and film which features nudity in a variety of forms and explores topics and stories which are vitally enriching for the human experience. It is troublesome that our sexual urges would be so unchecked as to not be able to appreciate these forms of art without acting out sexually or becoming caught up in sexual fantasy.

Take for example last year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave. The film is a work of art and tells in brutal realism tale of a man enslaved in the American South, and it features a rape. While we could split hairs on how graphic is too graphic, whether the director ‘had’ to show what he showed how he showed it, all these questions do damage to actually experience the brutality of the story which is being told. A story that should be told. It is not just entertainment but a story that confronts us with the reality of what happened, of the problem of dehumanization, the tragedy of sexual assault. It is a story that matters. A story which should be told. Likewise, in Shindler’s List we see multiple shots of the prisoners being physically examined as they are herded like cattle, nude, into concentration camps. Struck with the atrocity of the scene we are forced to address the horrendous way humans have treated others when willing to dehumanize them on the basis of race. Once again it is a story which needs to be told and we should be mature enough to consume despite the presence of nudity.

I recognize these two examples cannot form a full picture of the use of nudity in film. Both these examples both feature nudity in a negative context, that of rape and abuse. They are both stories from tragic parts of our history which should not be forgotten. Yet there is another end to this spectrum. There are pieces of art and film where nudity exists to point to be beauty of the human condition and to celebrate to human experience. Within the world of dance, something with which I am woefully unfamiliar, the human form is a canvas with which a story is told with form, poise and movement. In this context nudity can be used to indicate life and growth, to remove the distraction of costume and clothes. Nudity can point to the innocence of Eden, as in Darren Aronofsky’s graphic novel The Fountain, or to the joys of love. To imagine that every appearance of nudity must be sexualized or result in some form of sexual impropriety is to read our own shortcomings onto something does not necessarily carry those faults.

This does not mean our culture does not have a problem with over sexualization in film and media. This does not mean our culture does not have a problem with its treatment of women. There is a rich conversation to be had about the ways in which sexuality, women, and nudity are treated within our culture. Yet by shutting down the conversation entirely by saying “There is no great film or television series that needs nudity to add to its greatness. No. There isn’t” halts the ability to consider the nuances at work with nudities portrayal in art and media. While there is certainly some, if not a large section, of nudity within film that exists because there is, as Piper says, a “male sexual appetite driving this business…and the desire for ratings that sell.” But it is overly simplistic to imagine this to be the only reason a storyteller might have for including nudity within their work. Stories should be evaluated by their significance to the human experience, their ability to speak truthfully about the world, the craft they demonstrate, and the messages they communicate. We should think critically about stories, what messages they communicate and how they function within our lives. There are stories that matter. Stories that change people’s lives. Stories that inform our worldview or challenge it. Stories that need to be told. Stories that mean things. And some of these stories include nudity.

6. Why Piper May Be Right Despite His Arguments.

Having gone through the above points I would hope I have highlighted some of the significant problems with Piper’s arguments and some of the issues which underlie his black-and-white declarations. I have not dealt with some of the other issues which I see at work in the article — heavy-handed religious language, shame based discipleship, overt dogmatism to name a few — which I find troublesome. Yet I would hope that those points I have been able to address would cause us to think more complexly about these issues, and to speak with more nuance and ambiguity when discussing them.

And I do think they should be discussed. At length and knowledgeably and with nuance, ambiguity, and grace. People who know me know I don’t jive with Piper. Both his Calvinism and his complementarianism place a large gulf between him and me. That said, I am glad that Piper was willing to raise a question it seems few others have been willing to touch. Reading his article I very much wanted to disagree with him yet I could not disagree that this was a discussion which needs to happen, regardless of what conclusions we come to. If we are so sensitive that we cannot have a conversation of the appropriateness of Christian consumption of certain media then perhaps we have bigger problems than just the nudity in Game of Thrones. It is important to think about these things, to think about the reasons we participate in them, to consider that maybe we should reevaluate our actions or preferences. It is unfortunate that Piper’s article was so dogmatic that rather then inviting conversation it shut conversation down. And it is unfortunate that many who read the article responded so defensively that they could not have a conversation about the merits of questioning watching the show.

I have not watch Game of Thrones. I thoroughly enjoyed the first book and am somewhere in the A Clash of Kings and am very much looking forward to finishing the series. The intrigue and characters and world and back-stabling, betrayal, and writing are all wonderful. My intention was always to watch the show after I had finished the book series (I’m a purist like that) but having considered this discussion I’m wondering if perhaps it would be better not to. I think there is a lot of nuance in the discussion and a variety of viewpoints but when I consider the specifics of Game of Thrones I wonder if perhaps abstaining may be a good decision. From all accounts it is a masterful show, one with rich characters, well told, intriguing, adventurous and the height of epic television. Yet as I have seen it discussed and with my knowledge of its mythos I am not sure if it is really a story that matters. In all the discussion of the show I have not heard anyone make a real defense of the value of the show or its commentary on the human experience or its worth as art. This is not to say such an argument could not be made. I’m sure it could be. Yet even then it would have to be weighed against the content of the show. Perhaps Game of Thrones is just entertainment. And maybe, despite the problems and weakness of his arguments, John Piper might be right and maybe I will read the books and stick to not watching Game of Thrones.

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*For the sake of this article let us assume that television and film are a valid form of artistic expression. That they have the ability to rise to the level of high art, that some day there will be classic television shows on par with great novels, and that the consumption of television is, regardless of its artistic merit, a part of the modern human experience akin to how listening to radio drama was to a previous generation or oral storytelling or reading has been throughout much of human history. For the sake of this discussion we are not going to entertain the idea that television is a complete waste of time.

**If there is information to the contrary on this point I would be very interested in hearing of it.


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Self Serving? Towards a Theology of Waiting Tables

Selfserving

Click view all "Conversational"“If you can’t afford to tip your server, you can’t afford to go out to eat… period!” Molly said, attempting to justify her refusal of taking a table of three African Americans that were sat in her section.  “They are going to gripe about everything and stiff me!  Don’t they know I have to pay bills?”  Our manager refused to hear Molly’s complaint and told her to take the table anyway.  Like any other self-fulfilling prophecy, Molly was poorly tipped, which only strengthened her resolve to refuse service to the restaurant’s future clientele that appeared unlikely to tip.  I’ve been a server for the better part of ten years across five different states and the discrimination towards “poor tippers” is the same.  One may call this “racism” but I suggest that it is really “classism.”  It not merely black Americans that are treated this way.  High school or college students (who usually cannot afford much), internationals (who are unfamiliar with this culture’s tipping scheme), or those that may appear underprivileged or poor are all treated in like manner.  Before we label my fellow servers as “racists” or “bigots,” I think it would be wise to analyze the logic of their complaint.

As far as I can tell, this logic relies on a hypothetical syllogism where (x) refers to our lower class patron:

Premise 1:  If I will not make money on (x), then I will give poor service to (x)
Premise 2:  I will not make money on (x)
Conclusion:  Therefore I will give poor service to (x)

ced7cfd102542b0bd1b0930cc8b1e618In simple logic this is called modus ponens and is one of the most common logical arguments.  When most people argue against discrimination caused by tipping, they argue Premise 2 (ex. If a server refuses to pre-judge their patrons, maybe they will give adequate service and deserve a better tip).  I think there can be fruitful discussion over Premise 2.  However, regardless of how many times one may try to convince a server that they will make more money if they grit their teeth and work harder; every server has stories that beg to differ.  Tales can be rehearsed about near flawless service, coupled with “you are the best server we have ever had,” and calling for a manager to tell him about the amazing experience.  This is followed by $2.50 tip on a $70 tab.  It happens… Often.

Self-Serving[1]

Rather than attempting to persuade servers that Premise 2 is wrong, I wish to address Premise 1.  Positively stated, Premise 1 says, “I will work only if I make money.”  Why is money the primary (or perhaps only) motivation?  Because money is the means which affords us to live with as much ease as possible.  In short, it pays the bills and allots us power to live the life we wish.  It would seem, then, that work in the present is directly related to the amount of potential ease we will experience in the future.  Give up ease now so that you can have pleasure then.  If you are familiar with various understandings of work, you will notice that this is the view laid out by Adam Smith, the father of Capitalism.  In his view, work is something that is wholly negative to the worker.  When someone works, according to Smith, a person must relinquish “a portion of his ease, his liberty, and his happiness,” and will only do so for some sort of recompense or future ease.[2]

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Discrimination is almost ubiquitous in the restaurant world.

This pursuit of this future ease is what Smith calls “self-interest.”  To Smith, the self-interest of individuals is the “general principle which regulates the actions of every man.”[3]  However, in the economical world, this selfishness ought not be hijacked or repented of- chiefly because it is this self-interest that causes us all to flourish economically.  When humanity is most focused on self-love, in Smith’s view, we all prosper the most by what Smith calls “the invisible hand” (unintended consequences of each individual’s self-interest).  It is these unintended consequences which cause all of society to flourish.  If society needs candles, and I need money, I will become a candle-maker and meet my needs by meeting society’s needs for candles.  That is an example of the invisible hand.

Even commenting on the role of the food industry, Smith famously said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker [insert server], that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”[4]  That is how Capitalism has and does influence the service industry.  It is not about service to society or the greater common good, but is merely to line our own pockets.  The anchor that undergirds Premise 1 (I will work only if I make money) is found in modern-day Capitalism.  More, if the work of servers and waiters is primarily motivated by their own self-interest, different social groups will be judged according to the dollar amount they can provide their waiter- since it is the dollar signs that most interest the server.  This takes us full circle to Premise 1, which encourages, emphasizes, and justifies discrimination of patrons from their respective servers.

Working In The New Creation

The genesis of Christian theology was never formulated in an ahistorical vacuum but was birth in history as the God of Creation raised Israel’s Messiah from the dead and inaugurated the new age of the restoration of all things; when the injustice and malfeasance of humanity would forever be ended and peace, justice, and charity reigns supreme.  If Christian theology began there, then any true Christian theology of work must also begin there- working in the Spirit towards the consummation of the new day, whose colorful dawn has already broken in at Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  It is not enough to simply live with abstract morals in the workplace: not lie, cheat, steal, curse, gossip, etc.  Rather, the Christian worker places herself and her job into God’s grand story and works with the Spirit to bring reconciliation, righteousness, and resurrection to those around her.

But what does this mean for the Christian server?  James sets the scene strikingly well:

“If a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly [insert restaurant], and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?  Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?”

Lazarus and the rich man

Lazarus and the rich man

Though reading Capitalism into James is obviously anachronistic, the same self-interest that, according to Adam Smith, “regulates the actions of every man” is noticeably in play during the Jamesian scenario.  The congregants flock to the rich man solely because he can provide economic, political, or social influence that the poor man apparently could not, thus, the subsequent regard and disregard for the rich man and the poor man, respectively.  Here, James views the self-interest of the congregants as logically leading to their self-interested discrimination, which he calls “evil” and “dishonoring” to the poor (2:5-6).  Furthermore, by placing these actions of self-interest in the narrative of God’s coming Kingdom, James demonstrates how utterly incongruous they are with any Christian eschatology and the future of God’s world.

In this way, and from what I can tell, economic self-interest, which is so fostered and reinforced by modern Capitalism, serves to exacerbate discrimination between social classes – this has become apparent to me as a server.  The discrimination I outlined above is fueled and reinforced by the same economic self-interest that Adam Smith lauded and that James denounced.  When I pander to get “better tippers” to sit at my table, how have I avoided the designation “judge with evil thoughts?”  If I roll my eyes, complain, or gossip about the restaurant goers who are from a lower social standing and will be, perhaps, less economically advantageous to serve, have I not dehumanized them by making them merely a means to my own end?

A major theme throughout the New Testament is the breakdown of existing social stratifications in the Messiah.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).  From the inception of His ministry, Jesus routinely subverted the existing social structures of discrimination by eating with the culturally unclean and outcasts and commanded others to do likewise (Luke 14:12-14).  The Spirit too engulfs all flesh, both young and old, irrespective of existing social divides (Acts 2).  By placing oneself in the narrative of God’s coming Kingdom, the Christian server must also disavow themselves from the discrimination that stems from our self-interestedness because God’s future world is antithetical to such self-interest and subsequent discrimination.

A Humanizing Endeavor

First of all, I am not saying that servers ought not care about paying our bills or taking care of our responsibilities.  The New Testament stresses that people ought to work for their own sustenance (2 Thes 3:12) but are also work to “share with anyone in need” (Eph 4:28).  I have recently come to the realization that my sharing “with anyone in need” is not limited solely to the money earned from waiting tables, but also my humanizing endeavors while waiting tables.  Allow me to explain.  A few weeks ago it was prom night.  And, if anyone has been a server during prom or homecoming, they would know that prom dates typically do not tip almost anything.  It becomes very easy to discriminate against these kids.  However, rather than perpetuating the Jamsian scenario above, I decided to give these kids the best possible service I could – not because they just might tip me – but because they belong to the human family and, according to God’s new world, are no second class citizen irregardless of the gratuity directed towards me.

While taking part in these humanizing endeavors towards all underprivileged or lower-class patrons, I have noticed much more enjoyment at my work place.  Why?  Financial obligations are no longer the only reason I report for duty.  While at work, the narrative of my personal financial woes and weals has been subverted by God’s story of redeeming, reconciling, and bestowing honor on those previously stripped of it.  By supplying it with this purpose, work ceases to be a negative ordeal that I must grit my teeth to endure and is returned to the place of dignity that it was always meant to have in human life (Gen 2:15).  I entrust God with my finances that I tally at the night’s end, but I go out of my way to make each guest feel like persons that are important and whose lives are worth being celebrated.  This, I believe, is one small way I can be an agent of God’s future world while also engaging in my duties.  But, perhaps I am enjoying work more because self-donation brings forth more happiness than self-interestedness.  After all, Jesus did say, “it’s better to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

[1] The following section was influenced greatly by reflecting on: Volf, Work in the Spirit, 46-61

[2] Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 297

[3] Adam Smith, Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenues, and Arms, 253

[4] Adam Smith, The Wealth of the Nations, 14


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Holy Week: The Stations of the Cross

The Isenheim Altarpiece Matthias Grünewald

Last year, the Cosmic Cathedral wrote about the fourteen Stations of the Cross. We encourage you again, during this Holy Week, to use these posts to help you reflect, observe, and participate in the passion of the crucified Messiah. We advise you not to read them all in one sitting. Perhaps read three each day. May you be blessed this week as you observe this most Holy Week.

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1.  Jesus in Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane
2.  Jesus Betrayed by Judas and Arrested
3.  Jesus Condemned by the Sanhedrin

Rembrandt- Peter denies Jesus
4.  Peter Denies Jesus
5.  Jesus Judged by Pilate
6.  Jesus Scourged and Crowned with Thorns
7.  Jesus Carries the Cross

Simon the cyrene Vecellio di Gregorio
8.  Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus to Carry the Cross
9.  Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem
10. Jesus is Crucified
11. Jesus Promises the Kingdom to the Penitent Thief

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12. Jesus Speaks to His Mother and Friend
13. Jesus Dies on the Cross
14. Jesus Laid in the Tomb


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Pseudepigraphical Darkness: The Apocalypse of the Cross: Part 14

Apocaylpse of the Cross

Essay Posts

In the last few post I have examined the way the Old Testament stands behind Matthew’s crucifixion narrative and gives a contextual lens through which to understand the use of darkness within the Gospel. The Old Testament stands as the primary source outside of the Gospel from which the Evangelist drew, most notably Exodus and Amos. Yet there is a gulf of time and interpretive distance that lies between the writer of Matthew and the Old Testament texts from which he drew. It is important then to examine those texts which served as closer contemporaries to Matthew’s gospel — texts from the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and from Roman histories.

In this post I am going to focus on the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, a loose collection of Jewish texts written between roughly 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E.. While these texts span a wide range of subjects, genres, and theologies, they help us to understand the way in which the Old Testament functioned in the thought-world of Second Temple Judaism. It is important to see how the same imagery which is used in Matthew was used within the broader Jewish writings of the time. In examining these texts we will see how they draw on the Old Testament text while shaping its imagery in unique ways. Important to this investigation is noting the way in which the Pseudepigraphal texts develop the Old Testament imagery in ways similar to that of Matthew’s Gospel. These texts will give us important insight into seeing the hermeneutical possibilities of Matthew’s darkness.

Pseudepigraphic Allusions

Pseudepigraphic texts frequently feature darkness in relation to divine judgment,[1] as in the case of the Sibylline Oracles where:

There will be dark night in the mid-hour of day;
the stars and the circles of the moon will disappear from heaven;
The earth, shaken by the turmoil of a great earthquake.[2]

Even more commonly, darkness occurs within the context of eschatological judgment. Since there is a wide range of texts, I will only survey some of the most common ones, acknowledging that they all draw from a similar pool of Old Testament imagery which was widely in use during this period. Most notable is T. Moses:

and the earth will tremble, even to its ends shall it be shaken…
The sun will not give light
And in darkness the horns of the moon will flee.
Yea, the will be broken in pieces.[3]

and the passage in 4 Ezra:

and the sun shall suddenly shine forth at night,
and the moon during the day.[4]

Similar expressions can be found in Sib. Orc. III, 801-802; V, 344-50; T. Levi 4.1; 2 Bar. 10.12; 18.2; 46.2; 77.14; 2 En. 34.3.[5] In all these instances darkness and cosmic upheaval accompanies a time of distress and tribulation within an eschatological context.

In somewhat different usage, Davies and Allison mention both Liv. Pro. Hab. 14 and 4 Ezra 7:50 in reference to a connection between the darkness at the creation paralleling the darkness of close of the eschaton. As stated previously, some connection existed between the darkness of the end of the age and that of creation, as seen here in Liv. Pro. Hab. “they will illuminate those who are being pursued by the serpent in the darkness as from the beginning.”[6] and 4 Ezra where at the end:

…the world shall be turned back to primeval silence for seven days, as it was at the beginnings; so that no one shall be left

Also worth comment is Allison’s mention that “the sun and moon were darkened, and there was thick darkness for seven days”[7] upon the death of Adam recorded in T. Adam, a 4th or 6th century CE text of Christian redaction. Interestingly though, the tradition appears also within Adam and Eve, an earlier text of the first century CE which is free from Christian influence.[8] Only moderately related, darkness also accompanies the ascent of Enoch to the highest heavens in 2 Enoch 67.[9]

These mentions of darkness serve to illuminate the wide usage of cosmic upheaval, in particular darkening of the sun and moon, within texts at the time of Matthew’s composition. This pervasive use of darkness throughout eschatological texts, many featuring the type of eschatological tribulation previously discussed, strengthens the eschatological context for the darkness at the cross. While there is no dependence of Matthew’s Gospel on these texts, it shows that the darkness, in an eschatological sense, was a common theme within the writings of this period.


[1] Keener, Matthew. 685.

[2] Sib. Or. 4.56-58 OTP

[3] T. Mos. 10.4-5

[4] 4 Ezra 5.4-5

[5] Allison Jr., End. 29.

[6] Liv. Pro. Hab. 14

[7] T. Adam 3.6

[8] Ibid. 28.

[9] Ibid. 28.


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Ash Wednesday- Healing Our Anti-Love

237365-ash-wednesday-faces-of-the-faithful-photos2

Church YearToday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  Lent is a period of 40 days (six weeks) where, through prayer, fasting, repentance, and self-denial, believers around the world prepare themselves for Holy Week and the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It is during this time that, in our lives, thoughts, and prayers, we embody the disciple’s call of “let us go with Him, that we may die with Him” (Luke 11:16).  But Lent isn’t merely about sin, brokenness, and the separation of death; rather, it is about healing, forgiveness, and restoration.  With that said, there can be no forgiveness without repentance, no healing without acknowledging we are fractured, and no restoration without a felt separation.  The prodigal son can never come home if he refuses to see that he no longer dwells there.

Today I am reflecting on the question, “What is sin?”  Throughout my life I have been told that sin is the chasm that separates God and humanity.  Though this is true, I do not think such statements go far enough.  One of the most significant verses on humanities plight is Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”   This glory is something God intends to share with His creatures (cf. John 17:22; Rom 8:18-21; 1 Cor 2:17).  The “glory” is not simply an abstract moral ideal but, as taught in the Christian tradition, is found in the unending and transformative love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (cf. John 17:5).  In fact, when God created corporate humanity, He did so “in His image” as sharers in the transforming love of His glory (Gen 1:26-27; cf. Psalm 8).  The glory of God, then, is deeply relational and intrinsic to our essential makeup.

garden_of_edenWhen humanity fell short of God’s glory, it did not simply separate God from humanity, but fractured every relationship they had.  Rather than harmonizing companionships and tasks, Adam was set at odds with his wife, his vocation, the soil under his feet, and, most poignantly, the very life given to him would culminate in death (Gen 3:17-19).  Eve too would destroy the very familial relationships she was created to assist (Gen 3:16).  The core of sin is anti-love.  Rather than serving the other, it lusts after power and stoops conquer.  Rather than giving, it steals; rather than bearing the truth, it lies; rather than fidelity, it forsakes.  When sin has its way, humanity is divided, manipulative, and seething with anger.  Rather than reflecting the eternal self-sacrifice of the Triune God, a sinful humanity selfishly and compulsively demands its own way, sacrificing others along the way.  Sin keeps our lives from being good gifts to others around us.

The road of anti-love leads to the alienation of individuals.  It is an orphaned and isolated existence that has burned the bridges that led to those that used to be called our family.  It presumptuously labels and refuses to trust even those who prove to be trustworthy.  After all attempts to dominate and subjugate those closest, the lonely existence, which has destroyed and distorted every relationship it has known, eventually ends in death… which stands as the climax of separation and non-relationality of humanity.  Death is the logical end of lives fractured by anti-love and anti-relationships.  In death, you no longer have companions but are forced into the great and mysterious outer darkness… alone.  God, the Trinitarian embodiment of love, life, and beauty, hates sin not because He is a prude, but because sin ends in the systematic breakdown of the very connections we were made for; our connection with the beautiful God and with the human family He has made beautiful.  Created in God’s image, sin strips us of what intrinsically makes us human, namely, the capacity for love, the ability to recognize beauty, and the undreamt hope of life.

lamentLent calls us to face the sin of our shared humanity; the sin that mars God’s image within us.  It bids us to assess our thoughts, our actions, our beliefs, and our relationships.  Within the Greek Orthodox tradition, the Sunday service before Lent is called “Forgiveness Sunday.”  On this day, members of the congregation go to other members and ask for mercy for the sin that they have committed throughout the year.  The members grant forgiveness to them and, in turn, ask for mercy also for themselves.  Forgiveness Sunday, as practiced by the Orthodox tradition, portrays sin not so much as arbitrary offenses that erect a wall between God and man, but as the anti-love that sabotages our human faculties by robbing us of the ability for companionship, fidelity, or trust (whether with God or one another).

In the past when I have observed Lent, I focused primarily on how my sins have separated me from God.  This year, I am focusing more on the actions, inaction, beliefs, and unbelief that have negatively affected me and those around me; the misdeeds that have impaired my ability to love and blinded my eyes to the beauty found in God and His good world.  I invite you also to join me as we journey together in this season of Lent.  May our shared hatred of sin and everything that mars God’s beauty render our lives as good gifts to a dying world.

Righteous God,
in humility and repentance
we bring our failures in caring, helping, and loving,
we bring the pain we have caused others,
we bring the injustice in society of which we are a part,
to the transforming power of your grace.
Grant us the courage to accept the healing you offer
and to turn again toward the sunrise of your reign,
that we may walk with you in the promise of peace
you have willed for all the children of the earth,
and have made known to us in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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