We, my Jesus community and I, have been doing two things the past three weeks or so that have already begun to change the way I view faith. First, we (whoever decides to get up and come, we are militantly non-militant about people coming) are meeting every morning (including Saturday and Sunday) at six to pray. A different person leads prayer each day, and so it looks a bit different depending on the day. Between four and twelve people show up on any given morning. This has taught me that faith is a communal thing. It lives and breathes as a community lives and breathes.
The second thing we have been doing is reading the Gospel of John every Sunday afternoon. Whoever shows up, and everyone who wants to show up can, sits in a circle and takes turns reading a chapter. This has demonstrated what my classes have taught, that the Gospels are holistic literary units meant to be taken in all at once. It has also taught me that the community of faith benefits tremendously from knowing the story that gives rise to its existence. In fact, it has the same claim on the Jesus story that the apostles had. John seventeen, in which Jesus prays the same prayer of protection over those who would believe because of the testimony of the apostles, grants us the same claim to discipleship that the apostles had. The academic and the poet can appreciate and maybe even understand some of the biblical witness, but only the disciple is an heir to it.
I have also been reading David Dark and Rachel Held Evans, listening to Richard Beck and Ray Vander Laan, and watching N.T. Wright. What a pantheon of modern literary and theological saints!
Essentially, the above people inform the blog post that follows in one way or another
* * *
Almost universally, our churches embrace a reductionist Gospel. This is no surprise. I’ve blogged in a few different posts, here and here, about the narcissistic soteriology we tend to embrace. I have tended to stress the alternative to this is understanding our salvation as communal, which is true. But, this time, I want to take it another direction.
As stated in earlier posts, we have reduced the Gospel to individual sin and forgiveness. As long as you’re sure that God has forgiven your sins, which are just a list of things that piss off God, by you accepting Jesus into your heart, and that you are bound for Heaven when you die, then you are set. Because you are compassionate, you go out to warn everyone else that if they too just let Jesus start living in their hearts, then they will get saved from Hell as well.
This understanding of salvation is problematic enough with its weak characterization of faith and its poor understanding of Heaven, Hell, and evangelism, but it’s real problem lies with it’s complete misunderstanding of what Jesus is saving us from and for.
* * *
I’m a peer leader for a group of freshmen who are taking a course called “The Question of Truth” in which ways of knowing are investigated critically. Specifically, the class is looking at the importance of understanding multiple perspectives and thinking outside a rigid box. I go to all the class meetings and so was able to hear, on Wednesday, Dr. Richard Beck teach on the importance of thinking. If you have never heard Dr. Beck teach, then you are seriously missing out. His blog is good, but the man in person is astounding.
His argument is that a Core Education, such as being offered by ACU in the form of five “big questions” classes and various literature, communication, Bible, and science classes, is very important to every person. He said that the freshmen may be wondering how this interdisciplinary education is preparing them for careers. His answer came in two parts. The second part addressed the importance of thinking outside the box because, otherwise, you end up as Adolph Eichmann who engineered the Holocaust while simply “following orders.” The first part, though, had a much deeper implication than merely learning to think. It got to the core of what we are being saved from in Jesus. It primarily drew from Dr. Beck’s work on purity psychology and can be found, in a much more fleshed out version, in his recently released book titled Unclean. You can also watch the lecture here.
Dr. Beck did four demonstrations involving two students. I have neither the time nor the space to detail all of the demonstrations, but I do want to talk about one of them. He took an apple, touched a piece of dog poop to it for a few seconds, and then asked the students if they would eat the apple. Their answer was a resounding no. After a bit they decided that they might could eat the apple if they consciously thought about it. What they meant, of course, is that their brains knew that the apple wasn’t really contaminated by that one touch of poop, and if they told their bodies to ignore their natural psychology, then they could eat the apple. This assumption that pure things become impure by contact with something impure rather than the other way around (the apple become gross; the poop doesn’t become good) is called negativity dominance.
Dr. Beck’s argument is that negativity dominance makes sense regarding food, but that we have taken it beyond its logical borders and expanded it to include people as well. The result is a pharisaic like understanding of some people as impure—because of sin or illness—and therefore a mindset of setting one’s self apart so as to avoid contamination. Because Jesus associated with prostitutes, tax collectors, addicts, gluttons, drunkards, lepers, blind people, deaf people, lame people, stupid people, etc, the assumption was that he had absorbed their impurities and become impure himself. That answer, however, could not be farther from the truth.
You see, Jesus never sinned. But, more than that, his purity rubbed off on the people around him. Remember the time that woman who had a chronic period touched the hem of his garment and was instantly healed? Remember how he touched the blind, deaf, the leper and they were all healed? Remember how he just instantly forgives sins? Jesus, it seems, embodies positivity dominance.
And guess what? We, as his people, are invited to do the same. We are invited to exude positivity dominance. We are called to eat with sinners, hang out with sinners, befriend the annoying, ugly, and homeless. We are to consciously think about it and, thereby, overcome our naturally fallen psychology.
Jesus saves us from sins and heals our wounds, but he also saves us from a psychology of negativity dominance and replaces it with a redeemed psychology.
* * *
You see, God is concerned with a lot more than our personal morality. He is concerned with creative thinking. Creative thinking
that gets us out of boxes
of systematic poverty
that gets us out of boxes
that gets us out of boxes
of life denying words
of life sucking art
of life destroying movies
of life mauling music
Randy Harris once said, “Cynicism is the failure of the Christian imagination.”
We desperately need a Christian imagination. An imagination that sees God’s glory in a cup of coffee as well as in a star; that sees joy in doing laundry with a friend as well as in going on a skiing trip; that asserts an amen in response to a conversation as well as to a well-timed prayer; that sees every creative act as an act of worship—not as an explicit act of declared theology—but as a movement of the soul toward the sacred.
God is saving us from negativity dominance and saving us for creative thinking. For “the renewing of [our] minds” (Romans 12).
* * *
N.T. Wright has made clear in his book Surprised by Hope that God is on about saving the whole world. His rescue mission includes individuals, but it gets bigger. And, it includes families and communities, but it gets bigger. It includes all “nations, tribes, and tongues,” but it gets bigger. You see, as the reverend doctor has pointed out, Paul notes that all creation is groaning for renewal. I think I may have stolen this next line from Josh Graves, but I can’t be sure. Anyway, I doubt that he made it up. It sounds too much like Wright from whom, I suspect, this line of thought proceeds anyway:
If you read Romans asking “how can God justify a sinner?” then you will find some good, but you will end up with the previously described reductionist Gospel but, if you read Romans asking “how will a loving creator restore all of creation?” then you can rightly place individual salvation down as a subset of the outworking of God’s redemption for everything. But, and this is key, it allows people to be agents of redemption. As followers of Jesus, we get to help bring redemption to our own local bits of creation.
You see, I suspect that when we pray “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven” we invite the rule of God to break into our present reality. But, more importantly, we ask to be the ones bringing the Kingdom. As mentioned in an earlier post, Dr. Stephen Johnson, dean of the Honors College, told freshmen honors students that their class would have the best opportunity yet to take their gifts, meet Jesus at the cross, and then apply those gifts to the world’s biggest problems. That’s positivity dominance; that’s creative thinking.
* * *
Dr. Ray Vander Laan, whose resources you can find here, has done a fascinating piece of midrash for Matthew 16:13-28. He notes that Caesarea Philippi was 28 miles from where the disciples were previously. It had a massive river coming up out of the ground from beneath a hill called the Rock of the gods. The place where the river came up was called the “Gates of Hades” because it looked like it led to the underworld. Caesarea Philippi was also the center of Pan worship. Pan was a Greek fertility god whose massive penis was revered by his worshipers. Rain was viewed as his semen, the fruit of which were new crops and baby animals. The sacrament of the god involved the entire congregation being engaged in a massive sex orgy, along with the sacred goats, in the mud in front of the temple to Pan.
Jesus took his disciples there and had them stand on the Rock of the gods. The Rock of the gods is a hill which has one sheer face. In the face of the cliff are the various idols of Pan and his mistresses. Jesus asks his disciples who people are saying he is. Peter responds with the confession that Jesus is the messiah, the son of the living God. Jesus affirms that confession and then declares that on “this” rock he will build his church. Which rock? Peter? The apostles? Peter’s confession? Yes, all of those are true. But, according to Vander Laan, Jesus is referencing the rock on which they are standing: the Rock of the gods. And, seemingly to confirm this point, Jesus mentions that the Gates of Hades, which are in plain view, will not overcome it.
Vander Laan’s point is that Jesus is arguing that the Church is not modeled after a castle—easily defended and secluded—but is on the offense. It is knocking on Hell’s gates. It is built on the Rock of the gods—upon people who were trapped in the mud with the goats and find a way out. The Church is not sanitary, protected, or pretty. It engages the hurt and the dirty. It says to the person in the mud with the goat, “What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?” Jesus commands his disciples to fix THIS; to creatively re-imagine what is possible in the world; to hug the hurt, broken, destitute, sick, and addicted; to get down in the mud with the people and the goats and begin ordering things as they are in Heaven.
* * *
Our Gospel can be more robust than “God forgives us and we go to Heaven.”
It can be re-imagined.
It can be more creative.
It can, I think, be expressed in terms of Faith, Hope, and Love.
Faith that God has done business on the cross.
Hope that the Kingdom is coming fully.
Love that sacrifices everything for others.