Tentatio

struggle, spirituality, absurdity

Tag: Jesus

A Response to Rachael Slick on ‘The Friendly Atheist’

Yes, that’s the best title I could come up with.

Rachael Slick, daughter of the founder of Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, recently wrote a guest post on “The Friendly Atheist.” In it, she shared what it was like to grow up in a household that obsessed over apologetics (defending the Christian faith). She writes courageously, and, as I post my thoughts, I don’t want to take that away from her.  Growing up in the shadow of CARM sounds like it was absolutely bonkers, and I sense that her writing comes from a place of pain and struggle.

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Rick Warren, His Detractors, and the Body of Christ

The news that Rick Warren‘s son had passed away by suicide will undoubtably continue to be international news for some time, because the combination of tragedy and celebrity tends to be so tantalizing in our culture. Not that that’s healthy, but there isn’t much I can do about it.

Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church.

I did notice one oddly uplifting trend as the news spread… and I say “oddly” because it came from social media, which basically draws its dark life-force from vitriol, ignorance, and hate.

Among Warren’s many critics from within the Christian world (and any supremely public figure within Christianity will, by definition, draw a zillion critics), I have yet to find one that does not consist of pure grace and empathy. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I’ve yet to find one (Westboro, I’m looking in your direction).

And there is a special beauty in that observation. Ever since the advent of Christianity, even in the months following Pentecost, disagreement and dissent has been a mark of Christian life. Dissent, regardless of appearance, is not a sign of weakness, but, rather, it indicates strength. Whenever an organization exists without any conflict, it is reasonable to assume that something unhealthy and dangerous lies beneath its surface.

In the wake of tragedy, we put aside the differences, theological disagreements, frustrations, jealousies (the guy sold, like, a billion books), and squabbles, to come together to offer support for the Warren family in the unifying center of who we are: Jesus. And if I know anything about Jesus, he does not shy away from tragedy, loss, and suffering. Actually, that is sort of his thing…

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Superhero Jesus

Everyone knows Spiderman. He flips around with web shooting out of his hands and beats up bad guys. But…if you ask how he gained all those superpowers, you might get different answers depending on the generation of the person you are asking. The older crowd knows that he was bitten by a radioactive spider, which, rather than giving him leukemia, made him a hero. However, the younger generations would answer that he was bitten by a genetically modified spider. Why the difference?

Stan Lee created Spiderman in the early 1960s. In the cold war era, when it seemed like nuclear war was both inevitable and imminent, radiation and nuclear fallout had Americans shaking in terror. Spiderman being bitten by a radioactive spider spoke to an underlying fear that resonated with many.

Spiderman’s popularity experienced a resurgence in 2002 with a new series of movies. This time it wasn’t radiation. A genetically altered spider bit Peter Parker, which makes perfect sense. In 2002, the Human Genome project was about a year from being completed, with rough drafts of the entire human genome already being disseminated. It was an amazing accomplishment. At the same time, our culture was becoming more aware of the possibilities and dangers involved with genetic modification. It wasn’t the radiation of the 1960s, in part because we were doing it to ourselves (and our food).

This is a small example, but it shouldn’t be too surprising. Artistic expression often works with themes that resonate in culture, even when those themes aren’t obvious. In fact, I have a hunch that literature (and I use this word very, very loosely) often speaks to a culture most powerfully when it works with themes that are under the surface. When an unexpected nerve is hit, it hurts worse.

Aside from interesting cultural analysis, the kinds of stories that our culture finds compelling can also tell us a lot about ourselves. Consider the biggest blockbusters over the last few years. What do they have in common? Have you noticed that there have been nauseatingly large quantities of superhero movies? You haven’t? Oh…I see. You live in a cave.

What kind of hero do we want? Let’s leave Spiderman behind and look at two of the biggest superhero franchises over the last few years: Ironman and Batman. Both movie franchises made gobs of money, and most of the movies were fantastic (except for Ironman 2 – that was awful). There are some eerie parallels between these two.

Both are the alter egos of wealthy billionaire playboys who use technology to gain an advantage over their enemies. And both commit acts of subjective violence, underscoring our deeply held belief that violence really can solve the world’s problems. This isn’t a commentary on violence per se, but it does show perhaps who we really trust in our society. We look to the billionaires and entrepreneurs, and especially to science and technology, to solve the problems that we face every day. We hope that through the use of money and technology we can actually even address the great evil that works its way through our world.

This really makes a lot of sense. To whom does our culture look up? We idolize people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, those wealthy, brilliant innovators at the forefront of technological advancement, and we hope that through their innovation our problems will be “solved.”

I’m not intending simply to browbeat our culture and tell them that they’re putting their trust in the wrong thing. In fact, humans of been doing that for as long as there have been humans. But I do see some interesting parallels between our desire for a superhero and Jesus’ experience of the people he encountered in the Gospels. Everybody was looking for a hero to save them from the Romans (they called that hero “Messiah”). And so Jesus had to confront the people’s expectations while at the same time reshaping their desires. God was going to do something very unexpected.

The kingdom of God, after all, was not something that was going to be achieved by military force. Instead, a new reality invaded the world, bringing God’s presence in and through the work of Jesus himself. Or, to put it another way, God’s presence was returning to Earth. While I’m sure nobody would have objected to God’s presence, it’s hard to imagine that this is what the people thought they really wanted.

The same goes for us in the modern 21st-century. Our culture desires billionaire superheroes to bring innovative technology and scientific advancement, and we think this is going to actually save us from both ourselves and the evil that we encounter in our world. However, that hasn’t worked so far, and I really don’t think it’s going to work in the future.

Jesus is not a superhero that is here to solve all our problems. Instead, he is God’s presence that has come to confront evil and actually take the full force of that evil onto himself. This goes far deeper than merely solving problems. It actually cuts right to the core of who we are as individuals and as communities. The problem is that the line between good and evil is drawn down the middle of each of us. Neither a superhero nor Google can save us from this reality.

Theological Reflections on the Death of bin Laden

For starters, I’m irritated with the fact that it was under Obama’s command that he was killed. This isn’t a political statement or a revelation of my allegiances; It all comes down to grammar. About 6 times now I have been in conversation with someone about the death of Obama, at which point I feel like an idiot. I seem to remember John Stewart joking about the same mistake.

On a more serious note, I feel very ambivalent about the whole thing. One the one hand, a dangerous man responsible the deaths of thousands of people all over the world is now dead. That is justice.

But a Christian is called to forgive. We believe that all humans bear God’s image (Imago Dei is the fancy-pants term), and thus we affirm the sacredness and dignity of all human life. I think this applies to issues of war, sexuality, human trafficking, business practices, ethics, and everything in between. The more I think about it, humans-as-imagesbearers is a pretty deep rabbit hole that too few venture down. That’s a different matter, I guess.

It particularly disturbs me, though, when the killing of bin Laden is labeled a victory. The taking of life is not a victory; at best it is a necessary evil – and I use that word specifically.

Jesus made a cryptic statement when he was on trial before Pilate, the governor, who was attempting to assess whether Jesus is a threat to the peace and security of Roman interests in Judea. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would have been fighting…” Sounds simple, right? It is, but it also goes very deep into the heart of the matter for today.

Palestine had a reputation of violence for hundreds of years before and after Jesus’ life. Jewish revolts were relatively common, often beginning in the context of the great Temple in Jerusalem. Or to put it another way, the many revolts that took place against the Romans were messianic in nature. The Messiah, it was thought, would lead the great war to kick the Romans out and reestablish an autonomous Jewish nation. These were incredibly bloody affairs, and they rarely ended well for the Jews, especially around the 1st centuries BCE and CE.

So Pilate had to decide whether Jesus was yet another violent revolutionary leader. As it turns out, he was not. Jesus recognized the futility and evil of violence and taught his disciples the same – not that they always understood. His kingdom was not of the world because it operated under a different set of values, but it was still very much for this world.

And this is where we get to the heart of the matter. If read with this background in mind, we can come to understand a deep truth regarding the nature of evil. Namely, that one of the tools of evil is violence, and fighting will never really eliminate the problem. It might contain it, but it will always resurface. This is why thoughtful and courageous non-violent resistance can be wildly successful, especially when the enemy is much more powerful: it strips them of their power.

Giving into violence might make the situation better for a time, but it will never make evil go away. Since all human life is sacred, even those responsible for incredible evil, Osama’s death is still a tragedy. Necessary, but tragic. It is better that he is dead? Probably. Is it a cause for celebration? No, never. We defeat our enemies through forgiveness, not by killing them, and we do not celebrate the death of anyone.

A Musing on the Resurrection

I read somewhere that you don’t beat the Reaper by living longer. Instead, you beat it by living well. That makes sense, of course, and living life to the fullest is important to me, even though I find I am terrible at it. But while it is both inspiring and good advice, I can’t help but think that there is more to it. I’ve been reading “Surprised by Hope,” by N.T. Wright, and it has me thinking about the whole death/living thing. Actually, I’m kind of amused by how tritely I just wrote that, but oh well.

The way I see it, we can’t defeat the Reaper because it has long been defeated. When Jesus was resurrected from the dead, it was not some hyper-spiritual type of resurrection I think I had inherited from an evangelical heritage. If Jesus’ resurrection was physical, which is the thrust of Wright’s book, then so will mine. After all, Baptismal theology says that I will get what Christ got – resurrection from the dead and a glorified body.

All that to say, the reaper is already defeated. Yeah, I’ll die. So will you. But it will be only temporary. I’m not sure I understand why, but that makes it somewhat easier to live a full life, and live it well.

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