Monday, June 13, 2011

On LeBron James, Psychoanalyzing Sports, and the Dangers of Expecting Gods in Flesh

LeBron James played terribly in the NBA Finals. Which tells us, umm, that LeBron James played terribly in the NBA Finals. But since I keep hearing people psychoanalyze that to invent some kind of character defect or fourth quarter allergy or "unclutchiness", here's a reminder: The man who can't close games (so we're told) scored 29 or his team's last 30 points in a playoff victory. Here's the tape:

I'm not a "fan" of LeBron James. I don't know him personally, and have nothing invested in his success or failure. But I'm even less a fan of psychoanalyzing sports, especially since, from such a distance, there's so much information we don't have access to.

I think that much of what I call LeBronophobia is both misinformed and misguided, driven less by some great insight into either his character and the game of basketball and more by a cultural dynamic that must build up mythic heroes only to tear them down. Simply put, whatever you think of the man himself (and, since I don't have access to the man himself, I try not to think anything of him), LeBron James is one hell of a basketball player. One of the best ever. He's also arguably the most scrutinized (and often irrationally and inconsistently - the man simply can do nothing right) 26 year old athlete in history.

So, now that we have seen him "fail" in the fourth quarter (which has nothing to do with his teammates, and nothing to do with the opposition, right? Because he has to be either a god who is untouched by circumstances or a tragic failure; he can't simply be a human being who is really, really good at basketball), we have a new narrative: LeBron James can't come up clutch when it matters. He simply doesn't do fourth quarters. I don't need facts. I don't need data. I know what I saw.

So, see this: 29 of his team's last 30 points. In a crucial playoff win.

Why did we forget this? How was it so easily dismissed?

Or, perhaps, deep down inside we remember this and expect him (or anyone else) to be able to do it again, on command, in any situation. Perhaps this improbable feat became the new normal, the standard by which he would always be judged, and failing to ever do it again marks him such a failure that we can dismiss all of his past, present, and future accomplishments and dismiss him altogether.

No matter how much our mythos wishes it were so, there are no gods walking this earth in sweaty shorts and sneakers. When we expect deities (and divinize a past that didn't happen the way we remember it: Michael Jordan missed more shots with the game on the line than he made, and like LeBron James he often passed to his teammates in crunch time, which didn't used to be a character defect) we too easily dismiss the remarkable human feats in front of us. So LeBron James must be a god. And LeBron James can't be a god. And somehow I've learned something from his failure to be a god.

This way of analyzing sports matters, because it both reflects and creeps into our daily lives. How much personal conflict comes out of our expectation that those we love will be quasi-deities, perfect beings capable of reading our minds and conforming to wishes we haven't even learned to express to ourselves, much less our loved ones? And, when they fail to be gods in the flesh, how often do we cast our loved ones the way we cast LeBron James, the fallen angel who has become a devil, best understood through their tragic flaws and not the grace that first drew us to them?

How much self loathing is privately rooted in the expectation that we must be perfect, we must be gods in flesh? How much of my own misery is rooted in the fact that I am not, and never will be, who I wish I were? Because who I wish I were is an impossible standard. I wish I were a god, perfect in power, perfect in understanding, beyond reproach, above critique. And if I cannot be who I wish I were, then I must confront who I am afraid I am, someone unworthy of love, of affection, even of life itself.

When our options are perfect or worthless, we will always be worthless. But we are not who we wish we were, and we are not who we are afraid we are. I am not, and never will be, who I wish I were; and I am not, and never have been, who I am afraid I am.

And LeBron James is not a god. He is a basketball player. And a very good one, who has been to the NBA Finals twice, only to see his team come up short of winning the title. He has played some good games, and he has played some bad games. And some of his bad games have come in the NBA Finals, in the last 6 games.

And, lest you forget, one time he scored 29 of his team's last 30 points. Which tells us just as much about him as his recent failures.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Resurrection is an Affirmation of Death, Not a Denial of Death

Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

In his classic The Denial of Death, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argues that the fear of death is the single universal human trait. That is, humans, as humans, are characterized by knowledge of our mortality, and fear of that mortality. From this starting point he weaves a both creative and insightful synthesis of psychology and religion, arguing that what both ideas of mental health and religious beliefs and practices have in common is a bolstering of the human in the face of mortality by appealing to what he calls the heroic.

The heroic is the drive to be a part of something greater than one's self, something that will survive the death of the body. Becker sometimes calls this an "immortality project," something that allows us to affirm life in the face of the existential crisis created by awareness of the inevitability of death. This awareness - which entails both knowing that I will die and that death is an extinction of myself and not some transferring of my personality to some other reality - hangs over humanity in the "age of reason," in which science has displaced religion and rendered it impotent as a "hero-system" (that is, as a system that builds up the heroic in the face of death, that allows people the freedom to live despite awareness of their mortality). When religious narratives, beliefs, and practices can no longer be believed, lived out, and trusted, a crisis of meaning is created. Death can't be denied, but hangs over all of life, rendering it utterly meaningless.

It is through this lens, as well as through the lens of the apostle Paul's words to both death and the church in Corinth that open this post, that I wish, for a moment, to view the relationship between life, death, and resurrection. My thesis is that Becker is basically right about the collective psychological implications of both the specter of death and the figurative death of religion - one of the reasons why, since Becker's own death in 1974, we've seen a "turn to religion" in sectors like continental philosophy. In that "turn to religion" characterized by, among others, Slavoj Zizek and Gianni Vattimo, however, the problem of the loss of religion as a "hero-system" is not solved because of the ironic detachment from belief. It is not an accident that, despite their great insight into the relationship between Christianity and Western Culture (whatever can be meant by those two words, which point to monoliths that can and should be toppled, torn apart, and scattered into a plurality of "Christianities" and "cultures"), neither Zizek nor Vattimo address the traditional Christian doctrine of resurrection.

This brings me to the second part of my thesis here, which is that resurrection, understood in the Pauline sense, is not quite a "denial of death," and in fact involves an affirmation of the reality and power of death, which is then overcome by resurrection. That is, in order for one to be resurrected, one must die - really die. This is partly what is meant by the enigmatic scene we find in the 11th chapter of John's gospel, were Jesus stands outside the tomb of Lazarus, who he is about to call out of the tomb, weeping for his friend. For, in that moment, Lazarus was dead, really dead.

In this sense resurrection and immortality have nothing in common. Someone who is immortal is someone who, by definition, is not mortal, not subject to mortality, to death. In resurrection, however, this is not the case. Mortality is a must. To be resurrected one must not only be subject to death, one must actually die, and really die. (This emphasis on really die is part of what is reflected in credal language of Jesus's descent into hell, a poetic way to say that Jesus really died in the face of heresies that claimed that Jesus' death was not really a death, but only seemed like one. Such language was later literalized, resulting in some beautiful stories of Jesus, on Holy Saturday, going into hell and freeing the dead held there.)

Paul is very clear on the relationship between death and resurrection, noting that resurrection presupposes death. "What you sow," he writes in I Corinthians 15:36, a few verses before the quote that opens this post, "does not come to life unless it dies." This is a metaphorical way to speak of the necessity of death preceding resurrection. And, in fact, for Paul both death and resurrection are understood both metaphorically and literally, with the pattern of death and resurrection being imposed on life both prior to and following bodily, biological death. "I die every day!" he writes, speaking both to a kind of psychological death to the claims of self and to a willingness to endure danger and hardship in the service of the gospel.

This boast, "I die every day!" points to part of what Becker means by the heroic. By being swept up in a cause greater than himself, a cause that will outlast his mortal body, the apostle Paul secures for himself a kind of immortality. This kind of materialistic psychologizing of faith employed by Becker is the kind that Slavoj Zizek is comfortable with. It steers clear of the content of Paul's faith, and instead analyzes its function. But, in doing so it risks collapsing immortality (understood here, of course, with a kind of ironic detachment, for of course we don't mean a literal immortality, but rather both a social immortality and an illusory, even delusional immortality - Paul really will die, but is able to behave as though he won't, affirming his life in the face of the inevitability and meaninglessness of death) and resurrection.

This ignores the fact that Paul has no interest in immortality. He is not articulating a doctrine of immortality, a doctrine of the denial of death. Rather he preaches both the reality and the necessity of death. To gloss this over is to miss the whole point, and thus to construct a very un-Pauline Paul.

Of course, in minimizing the extent to which death, in Paul, is understood metaphorically rather than literally, I also run the risk of constructing an un-Pauline (or even anti-Pauline) Paul. After all, the same Paul who speaks (both metaphorically and literally) of the reality and necessity of death is also the Paul who, wrestling with the implications of his understanding of an immanent parousia writes, in I Corinthians 15:51, "We will not all die.":

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

This passage may read like a denial of death, the hope of an escape from death. And it is tempting, but far too easy, to dismiss that implication by saying that Paul is here speaking/writing metaphorically, even poetically, painting a beautiful linguistic picture of something that is not to be taken literally. But, as seen above, for Paul the metaphorical, the poetic, does not rule out the literal. The two are often not either/or but both/and, with the metaphorical implications of a passage reinforcing the literal. This is, of course, true with his language of death, in which the deaths died daily reinforce the literal truth that death precedes resurrection; that one must die, really die, in order to be raised from the dead.

So, is Paul here contradicting himself? Or, perhaps better, is he missing the most powerful implications of his own understanding of the relationship between death and resurrection? Yes. Like the rest of us, Paul is only human, and might be shocked - whatever healthy opinion he had of his understanding of the implications of the Christ-event - that his words have since his death been ascribed to God.

In any event, it strikes me as significant that after this rather than denying death Paul gives death enough credence to taunt it. The letter may be addressed to the church in Corinth, but the words that open this post are addressed to death itself. "Where, O death, is your victory?/ Where, O death, is your sting?" These words are a rough quote of Hosea 13:14, but used here in a distinctly Pauline way. They have been taken out of their context both within the Hosea text and within that text's anxiety about the fracturing of the covenant between the Northern Kingdom and God and the impending destruction of the Northern Kingdom. In Hosea the text is concerned with the survival of a nation - another "hero-system." The plagues of death, the destruction of Sheol, are coming to the Northern Kingdom. But in Paul these words take on a new meaning. Rather than being death's taunt to a nation about to be destroyed, they become our taunt to death itself. Rather, then, than trembling in the face of death, Paul's words address death directly, speak into the face of death, and render death something not to be feared, but rather embraced.

This functions much like a "hero-system" in Becker, but again it is not quite a denial of death (though Becker's thesis does not depend on understanding "denial" in the way that I do here). Death is real, even if for a moment, swept away by his own words, Paul forgets this. But the reality of death, rather than hanging over every life, robbing it of meaning, actually confers meaning to life by opening up the possibility of resurrection.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Saturday reflection

A brief reflection for a day that is, to me, so holy because it is - unlike the rest of Holy Week - so common.

Holy Saturday, for me, crystalizes this life, lived as it is somewhere between the fear of death and hope in the resurrection. The God who was near is now far; the God who was alive is now dead and buried, and may never have been God at all. Easter is coming, but how would we know, how would we dare to hope?

Holy Saturday is a day for doubt, for who, on it, could help but doubt, save those without enough faith to even bother to doubt?

Doubt is not the absence of faith. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt is wrestling with faith, like Jacob wrestling with the stranger, like Jesus forsaken and alone, like Mary and Martha, mourning instead of rejoicing, that the stone had been rolled away.

But today the stone sits, both guarding and hiding the tomb of Jesus, eclipsing all hope, giving no reason for us to suspect it might move, save for by another cruel trick of a world that snuffed out the only hope we ever dared to have. Today we hide. Today we cower. Today we deny we ever had faith, ever had hope, ever had love. For today it seems better to have never been touched by the God who is dead than to have our God lay silent in a tomb, never having been God at all.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Don't Rush Miracles: A Lenten Reflection

This is a sermon that I will be preaching this Sunday at Community Church of Wilmette, in Wilmette, IL. It is based on a sermon I preached last year during Lent at Fourth Ave United Methodist Church in Louisville, KY.

I often hesitate to publish the text of my sermons, because they are meant to be heard rather than read, but from time to time I make exceptions, and this is one such case.

Scripture 1: Genesis 32:22-32
Scripture 2: John 11:30-35

On December 30, 2009, at about 3 o'clock in the morning, my cousin Michael's pickup truck careened out of control and stuck a tree. He was killed instantly. His mangled body had to be cut out of the wreckage. If anyone who knew him had been allowed to see it, they would not have recognized him. He was only 22 years old. I know that in family you're not supposed to have favorites, but I'm not very good at following rules. With all apologies to everyone else, Michael was my favorite cousin.

He was born just before my eighth birthday, and he was not only my first cousin; he was also the first baby I can ever remember holding. Though as a young adult he grew up to love punk and indie rock, I'll never forget that as a toddler his favorite song was Billy Ray Cyrus's “Achy Breaky Heart.” And don't think that I ever let him forget that.

Like all of us, Michael was a complicated person, with a complicated relationship with God. The child of missionaries, he grew up as an American in Eastern Europe, living first in Romania, and then in Hungary. He was surrounded by powerful examples of faith, but as happens to all honest people he long harbored fears and doubts. He wasn't one to shy away from the dark corners of the life of faith, often mirroring Jacob's wrestling with God.

Our first scripture reading this morning is that story from Genesis. In it we find an anxious Jacob about to meet his brother Essau for the first time since robbing him of his birthright. After sending gifts ahead to appease both his brother and his own guilty conscience, Jacob sent his entire camp; his wives, his servants, his children, and all his worldly possessions across the stream to the other side, where he will eventually have to follow. But not yet. Not yet.

The text doesn't tell us why; perhaps he was nervous, perhaps he was afraid, perhaps he simply needed to take a moment to help him face up to what was about to happen, but after helping his entire camp ford the stream, Jacob returned for a moment. Alone, all of his companions and all of his belongings, everyone he could turn to, every thing he could hide behind on the other side of the stream, he wrestled with an unnamed man all through that night.

Scripture tells us that they, Jacob and his unnamed opponent, wrestled until the break of dawn, locked in a clench with no clear winner, neither able to shake off the other, neither able to triumph in their struggle. Who the man was, as well as why the man is wrestling Jacob is never made clear. And, I'd say, it doesn't matter. What matters is the struggle itself, which wrenches Jacob's hip from its socket, giving him a limp for the rest of his life, and which even changes Jacob's very name.

“You shall no longer be called Jacob,” the man told him. “You shall now be called Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

A rabbi friend tells me that in this story it is the name that Jacob is given, “Israel,” that is the most important part of the story, not just because it shows us that this story is part of the creation myth of ancient Israel, but also and especially because of the meaning of the word “Israel” itself. It is a two-part word. The easy part is the second half, the suffix, “El.” “El” is simply a Semetic word for “God.” The first half, however, the prefix, is a bit more tricky. In Hebrew, the prefix “Isra” has a couple of different meanings. As fits this story, it can mean “to wrestle,” “to struggle,” “to fight.” But my rabbi friend also tells me it has another meaning, “to live with.”

These meanings – “to wrestle with,” “to struggle with,” “to fight with” on the one hand, and “to live with” on the other – taken together mean that there is a close relationship in the life of faith between living with and struggling with, or fighting with. Ultimately, in the life of faith – and, I might add, in family life – to live with is to wrestle with, to struggle with, to fight with. To live with God is to struggle with God. The life of faith is a life lived in the tension between living with God and struggling with God, living with God and fighting with God.

Jacob may have been standing alone, wrestling in the dark with a strange man in the tense moments before confronting his own betrayal of his brother, but he was also and especially learning something valuable about the nature of faith. To have faith is to live in the midst of struggle. It is to wrestle with God, to sometimes fight against God, but always, always, to live with God.

Faith is grappling with a stranger. Faith is groping in the dark. Faith is staggering alone in a deep and nearly endless night, praying for a dawn. Faith is being seized, being squeezed, by a mystery that wrenches your hip and wrests your name. And faith is living with God.

The year before he died Michael came to stay with me and my family in our home in Louisville, KY for a little bit, and gave me a glimpse into his complicated faith. Just as to live with God is wrestle with, struggle with, fight with God, so too my appreciation for my cousin's adult faith came in the midst of conflict. Sitting across from each other at RichO's Public House, a pub in New Albany, IN, just across the river from Louisville, we argued late into the night about how to read and interpret the Bible. As the night dragged on our volumes increased, each trying to shout down the other until Sami swore that she'd never be seen with either of us again.

I don't think we agreed on a single thing that night; and it was wonderful. We gave each other permission to disagree, and to disagree passionately, about what was most sacred to us, arguing with equal parts heat and love. His willingness to stand up for his understanding of the Christian faith, even to his older and much more formally educated cousin, taught me that while we may disagree on the particulars of faith, we each shared a common faith, a common passion for theology that bound us more closely to each other than any agreement could have.

In that moment we both wrestled with each other and lived with each other, just as in our respective faiths we each wrestled with and lived with God.

One of my favorite songwriters is a man named Terry Taylor, who in one of his songs asks of those of us who easily profess, and, I might add, profit from our faith, “How did this get/ How did this get/ So easy for you?” His message is this: If it's easy, if it comes easily, whatever it is, whatever you call it, you can be certain that it isn't faith.

Another great songwriter, Steve Taylor (no relation to Terry Taylor), makes roughly the same point as he echos Flannery O'Conner in his song “Harder to Believe Than Not To”:

Nothing is colder than the winds of change
Where the chill numbs the dreamer 'til a shadow remains
Among the ruins lies your tortured soul
Was it lost there, or did your will surrender control?
Shivering with doubts that were left unattended
So you toss away the cloak that you should have mended
Don't you know by now why the chosen are few?
It's harder to believe than not to
Harder to believe than not to

Too often Christian discourse steers itself away from the dark places. We are, after all, afraid. Afraid of the darkness of doubt. Afraid of the shadow of death. We are afraid, I suppose, that admitting our doubt will drive out our faith, that admitting our darkness will drive out what remains of the light. And so we retreat from our fears. We deny our own doubt. We flee from the shadows, pretending they aren't there. But such fear, such denial, such retreating from the shadow of doubt, the shadow of death, is neither faithful, nor, I would argue, Christian.

Faith cannot be afraid of doubt, lest we admit that doubt is stronger than faith. Light cannot be afraid of darkness, lest we admit that in the end the shadows have power over the light that, in fact, creates them. And Jesus stood next to the tomb of Lazarus and wept for his friend.

So the Gospel of John tells us in our second scripture this morning. Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had been sick. Word was sent to Jesus to come quickly, but by the time he reached the village of Bethany Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. Dead. Grief, and the accusations that so often accompany it, abounded. Echoing the words of her sister Martha just before the passage we read this morning, Mary confronted Jesus. “If you had been here,” she said, “my brother would not have died.”

“You could have saved him, Jesus,” she might have added. “You could have saved him, but you took your time. And there he lies in his silent grave, pawing the dust and awaiting the end of time.”

Grief. Accusation. Rebuke. Anger. Fear. Despair. The air must have been thick with these things as Mary's words reverberated in Jesus' ears while he walked slowly to his friends' tomb. And when he got there, what did Jesus do? He wept. Jesus wept. He mourned for his friend.

Surely Jesus needed no one to tell him about the resurrection. Surely Jesus needed no one to tell him that death would not have the final say. Surely Jesus needed no one to tell him of the coming Easter, which would shatter the power of death, which would rob it of its sting. And surely Jesus needed no one to tell him that in his hands, in his hands were power of life. Surely Jesus knew that in a few short moments he would call out to his friend, and from within the grave, and beyond the grave, receive an answer. Yet in that moment, at that place, Jesus wept, Jesus mourned with the others the death of his friend Lazarus.

I thought about this passage as I stood at Michael's grave after his funeral. The words “Jesus wept” repeated themselves endlessly in my mind as I too shed my own tears for the dead. And as I watched the casket holding his body lowered into the ground, draped in flowers and in final farewells, I needed no one to tell me of Easter. I needed no one to tell me of the resurrection of the dead. I needed no one to tell me that he was in a better place. I needed no one to tell me to rejoice for and with the dead. For my cousin's truck careened out of control, and traveling far, far too fast, hit a tree, robbing parents of a son, robbing siblings of a brother, and robbing me of my favorite cousin.

Jesus weeping outside the tomb of Lazarus, knowing fully that in a moment he will call, “Lazarus, come out!” and to everyone's surprise be met with an answer from the man himself; that is the best metaphor for this season of Lent that I can think of. Lent calls us not to be afraid of the dark moments in the life of faith. Lent calls us not to be afraid of the quiet spaces that are too often punctuated by our tears of mourning, by our silent weeping for loves long lost. And, Lent tells us that the denial of death is one of the most powerful expressions of the fear of death; that the denial of doubt is really a lack of faith, a belief that doubt will ultimately prove stronger than faith.

Lent calls us not to skip ahead to Easter, but to fully experience this quiet season of self reflection, where in the darkness of doubt and death the seeds of resurrection are planted and watered. Lent tells us to be patient. Lent tells us not to rush miracles, for in the immortal words of Miracle Max in the Princess Bride, that always produces rotten miracles.


Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Living Love for Lent

For some reason (perhaps because I'm reading John D. Caputo's The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion) this question from Augustine comes to mind for Lent: Quid ergo amo, cum deum meum amo? What do I love when I love my God?

I've decided that for Lent, rather than giving anything up or taking anything up, my discipline will be to seriously reflect on this question and its implications. What do I love when I love my God?

"God" and "love" are given, but as given they are also undefined. Both the love of God and my love for God (as well, 1 John 3 would have me know, my love for others, which is an expression of my love for God - the only expression it may ever have) remain mysterious. Open ended.

This is a question, then, like a Zen koan, without a rational answer. A question that defies rationality, and in so doing refuses to allow either "love" or "God" to be fixed. But perhaps meditating on the question will allow me to somehow live in the love of the God who 1 John (again!) says IS love. To live in love, and to live out love. To love this Lent. To let love - unfixed and undefined - become my habit.

There's no certainty in this. First, I am finite. Worse, I am a sinner, a selfish bastard in love with himself and thus incapable of love in any true and meaningful sense of the word (and yes, there's a certain irony to using "true" to describe a word that resists and resents all definitions of it). Beyond that, "love" itself, as well as the "God" who "is love" cannot be satisfactorily defined. There is thus no real test of either "love" or "God," no way for me to be certain either that I am loving or when I am loving that I am both loving God and loving as God would love.

But life is not without risk, and Lent is a time to meditate on, among other things, not just the possibility or even probability, but rather certainty of error. So I am certain that I will err in love, and so I beg that you reading this will in love forgive me when my love errs. Then perhaps we will live out in our lives what cannot be defined in our language; that is, live out the love of God.

Quid ergo amo, cum deum meum amo? What do I love when I love my God? Augustine's question, like all good questions, is unanswerable, if by "answerable" we mean can be answered in some definitive sense, with an answer that we can somehow deem "true" or "false." But this Lent it is my hope against hope that it is a question that can be lived.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review of Ann W. Astell's Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages

Ann W. Astell's Eating Beauty is, as one might guess, not accidentally titled. It is a play on words that works in multiple directions. First, it is jarring in light of the fact that food was never a subject in Medieval aesthetics. It made no sense to speak of the beauty of food (despite Augustine's famous ode to the taste of a stolen apple). Beauty may reside in the eye of the beholder, but not in the beholder's taste buds. So, in a work that deals with Medieval aesthetics, there's something delightfully jarring about the phrase “eating beauty,” which in asserting that beauty can be eaten challenges the absence of the culinary arts in the Middle Ages.

But, as both a title and a phrase meant both to jar and to play with readers, “eating beauty” is much more significant than that. Because, when you eat beauty, you consume it. Destroy it. Exhaust its capacity for beauty. The beauty is spent. But, not just spent. It is also transformed. Not just ground between your teeth, but digested in your bowels. And, as it is digested, it becomes a part of you. When, in other words, beauty is eaten, not only is the beauty itself transformed, but the eater is, in taking beauty into their body and making that beauty a part of themselves, transformed as well.

This play on words serves, then, as the starting point for a Eucharistic theology. In laying out that theology, Astell pits two foods against each other: the apple, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, and the Eucharistic host, the bread which is also the body of Christ, eaten in holy communion. Just as sin came – at least in a mythic sense – into the world through an act of eating, the ugliness of that sin is transformed in the very body of those who eat the Eucharistic host. Eating beauty is thus a Eucharistic act, taking the beauty of Christ into the body through the eating of the bread. This is a magnificent metaphor, and it alone – even if there were no other virtues in this work – is sufficient to reward the reading of Astell's book.

From here, however, she takes the reader on a whirlwind tour through Medieval aesthetics. And on that tour, I must confess, she lost me. She strikes me as a more than competent Medievalist, deftly narrating the thoughts of Bernard of Clairvaux, Gertrude of Helfta, St. Bonaventure, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and even, in an unexpect twist given her subject matter, Simone Weil. But, as a theologian and not a historian, it was what she offered to Eucharistic theology at the beginning of her work, that powerful metaphor of eating beauty in the Eucharistic host, that most struck me. I kept wanting her to draw that metaphor forward, unpack its significance for those who, whether consciously or not, eat beauty as they draw the Eucharistic host into their bodies at the table of Christ. But, by and large, she didn't do that.

That Astell – who at the time of publication was a Professor of English at Purdue University, and is now a Professor of Theology at Notre Dame – did not do this, is, perhaps, unsurprising. She is, after all, a Medievalist, and all of her previous works narrate Europe's Middle Ages. But still, I couldn't help but wonder if Astell wasn't hiding her own voice too much behind the great voices of the past, whose thought she rightly points us to. In that sense, though Eating Beauty is, on its own terms, a success – even if a success that, as a theologian and not a historian, I'm not entirely equipped to judge – I can't help but view it as a missed opportunity. Or, perhaps, an opportunity that has not yet been missed. After all, one great metaphor can serve as the foundation of an entire work. Dr. Astell should know that; that's what she just did. And if she can, perhaps someone else can, too. So, who wants to explore what it means to “eat beauty” in the Eucharistic host today?

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


I'm thinking about rebooting this blog. It has been sitting in cyberspace, long neglected by its less than loving parent. There's some good stuff here, and there's also a great deal here that I'd like to revisit as my theology changes. And change it has and change it must, for change is part of the nature of life and faith, and should be expected in the life of faith.

I'm especially struck by how little this blog interacts with post-colonial theory, and how it uncritically falls into the pattern of constructing race in a binary way, with "black" and "white" as the normative categories, not allowing for any diversity in those camps, much less allowing for the existence of other camps.

I'm also struck by how much of a "post-evangelical" blog this is. And that't what it should be, as it wrestles with my move away from Evangelical Christianity (which is distinguished from the fundamentally evangelical drive of Christianity, that is always looking to bring people into the Kin-dom of God).

I haven't posted in a while because I haven't had anything to say in a while. I've also been busy with duties in church (I re-entered pastoral ministry for a year, though I'm now back in the familiar position of being principally an ex-pastor not employed by any congregation but still thinking and acting pastorally in my daily life), school (I've moved to Evanston, IL, and am in a PhD in theology program here), and family (it is not a coincidence that my writing here tapered off around the same time my daughter was born).

I also began to despair about the ability to sufficiently converse in the blogosphere, which has become a very coarse place indeed. Or, perhaps its always been coarse, and mean, as cowards hide being the mask of anonymity to say here what they wouldn't dare say to your face. Except, perhaps now they would. Conversations seem to be coarsening everywhere, as American culture (sorry, but as an American I write as and American, uncritically placing the United States at the center of the universe, because for better and for worse it is the center of my universe) divides itself into two camps eternally pitted against each other. Political Zororastrianism, you might call it, though who gets to be Ahura Mazda and who gets to be Ahriman depends on which side you're on.

Thoughtful critics will say that there has never been a Golden Age in American history where we've all just gotten along, despite our differences, but whatever the long lens of history says the short lens of my life says that in the past decade things have really changed. Civility belongs in a museum, next to all of the other quaint and curious extinct animals, for us to marvel at, not live with.

That atmosphere is, frankly, exhausting. And in it, people like me don't have much to say. Life itself is struggle enough without the added struggle of clumsily wading into public discourse. That's why I took a brief excursion into music blogging, though I didn't really have the time or the drive to keep that up. After you've said what you like about music, and what kind of music you like, what else is left to say? You can get into theory, but I don't know any of that. You can wade into philosophy, but having done that I just want to smack myself and scream "Just listen to the damn music, and stop analyzing it!" Who cares if a particular musical expression reminds you of Derrida, or Kierkegaard, or of some obscure Zen master whose work you never understood in the first place? Who cares about the constant struggle between chaos and order, between building up and tearing down, constructing and deconstructing? And, what's the point of saying that something can only be understood "non-rationally" - even if you're right about the limits of reason, you still have to use it to say why it doesn't work here, which creates its own absurdities.

My point in all this is confessional: I ran into the limits of blogging. Or did I?

I guess we'll find out, because I've started writing again. What, if anything, makes it here is a matter of speculation. If anything does, I hope it is better than this self-indulgent stream-of-consciousness. But, that's also the point of blogging, isn't it? To indulge yourself in the delusion that you have something to say, and something worth hearing. Or, in this case, reading, because the art of reading to yourself has been around at least since Augustine's mentor Ambrose. And I guess, to the extent that I have a point, that's my final one. Something is lost when reading becomes the intellectual activity of decoding words for yourself, and not a way to both represent and reproduce speech.

That something is the communal nature of literature. What's lost is the sense of reading together. Reading in community. The community, by the way, places important checks on interpretation, acting together to understand common symbols. Without an interpretive community, symbols don't function. They have no meaning. They don't point at anything beyond themselves. They have been vacated, emptied out. They are no longer symbols, but mere scribbles with no one to decipher them.

These words, signs and symbols themselves, will sit on your computer screen if you so desire. But, what community is in place to read them, together? To decide - with me and also against me, for the meaning of words goes well beyond authoral intent - what they mean?

I've got some ideas about that, but they will have to wait.

For now I'll say this: the blogosphere ain't church, and that's one of the reasons I've been in church and not here. Church is that common interpretive community that helps me make sense out of my experience of God, and helps me unpack the symbolic nature of God's self-disclosure. The fragmentary nature of the blogosphere, however, is very much like the fragmentary nature of church. And, the consumeristic mentality of the broader culture permeates both the blogosphere and the church. So I read a blog because I know that the author already agrees with me, and I go to church because I know the pastor already agrees with me. And I don't have to take seriously those who disagree with me, because my reading habits and my worship habits reinforce in me what I already believe, while helping me turn my enemies into straw, to be, I suppose, ultimately not just torn down but set on fire.

I'm not arrogant enough to think that I have any solutions to the problems so clumsily alluded to here. That's one of the reasons I haven't been writing. But, whether I have any solutions, it may soon be time for me to reenter the struggle.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

New Blog

I'm now blogging at a new blog devoted to music and culture, Yes, I Am Cheesy Enough. My first contribution to this emerging group project is (loosely) on Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin's 1973 album Love Devotion Surrender. You can find it here.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

On the Use of Hell as a Moral Enforcement Mechanism

A friend of mine has been asking an interesting question lately: "What is killing the church?" I'm not entirely sure that I accept the premise. It's not entirely clear to me either that a.) the church is dying (though it is certainly in decline in the West - whatever is meant by "the West"), or that b.) if it is dying, its impending death is not from natural causes. That said, the question is a very interesting one, and it has produced some good conversation.

I've appreciated many of the answers offered - including my evil twin's contention that if the church is dying it is because, at least in evangelical circles, it has been more concerned with making converts than with making disciples, offering up salvation as a cheap good to be purchased as a form of fire insurance, bought with the price of a single, rote prayer, affecting only one's afterlife, and not one's life.

Some offerings, however, have bothered me a little. One of them - which was also commonly offered as a source of the decline of the small country church I briefly pastored - is roughly this:

In our collective rush to theologically accommodate a culture uncomfortable with "Biblical truths," we have abandoned language and beliefs concerning hell, which has in turn caused us to lose all sense of accountability.

There are a number of contentious premises in this kind of argument. The first - a not-at-all-uncommon one, which is by no means unique to this kind of argument - is that it makes sense to speak in monolithic terms of "the church" and "culture." There are, of course, good theological reasons to speak of "the church." Christian unity - while rarely if ever existing in history - is an important theme in the Christian tradition. Just because there is no single historical entity called "the church," which has a single population unified by a single set of beliefs and practices, does not mean that it is entirely nonsensical to speak of such an entity. We should just understand that such an entity has not yet come into existence in history, and may never do so. It is a kind of eschatological vision - a vision of what might be God's ultimate intention - and not a statement of what is.

Monolithic language of "culture" is more problematic, because it doesn't even point to some eschatological reality out there on some distant horizon. Simply put, there is no single entity called "culture." It does make sense to speak of "cultures," but even there we must be careful, for there is no pure distillation of any single culture. Don't believe me? Fine. Try this: What are the defining attributes of, say, American culture? Do you think you could find any two people to agree on some comprehensive list? I don't. But perhaps that's because the category is too big. What about a subculture within American culture? OK, you could divide by geography, and pick a state, or even a city. Or perhaps a neighborhood within a city. But you still would have an almost impossible time coming up with a list of attributes that everyone within the "culture" in question could agree on.

Or, perhaps, you could find a subculture within "American culture" that is divided by some kind of common interest rather than by geography. What, then, might be the defining attributes of, say, "punk culture," or "hip hop culture"? Could you ever find common agreement on those, or on any other identifiable subculture? I sincerely doubt it.

That doesn't mean that all language concerning culture should be abandoned as nonsensical. It just means that great care should be exerting when discussing culture. There are aspects of American culture that have been heavily influenced by the Christian faith. There are aspects of the way that the Christian faith is often practiced in the United States and elsewhere that have clearly been shaped by aspects of American culture. The relationship between the Christian faith and whatever conglomeration of cultures it finds itself surrounded by in any given region is a very complex and mutually interdependent one. A great many books have been written on the subject, including Lamin Sanneh's excellent Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture.

It just doesn't make sense to say that "the church" has totally given in to "culture." It certainly might feel true - especially in the midst of theological disagreement. But that doesn't mean that it is true. There is no single entity, existing in history, called "the church"; there is no single entity existing either in history or anywhere else called "culture"; and the relationship in any location between the practice of the Christian faith and the various cultures surrounding said practice is never a one-way street.

But that's a trivial concern. The real concern is the use anywhere of hell - or, rather, the fear of hell - as a kind of moral enforcement mechanism. This is not uncommon, and I have no interest in picking on any particular person. This is a pretty common move, made not just in the conversation my friend hosted on the causes of the impending death of the church, but really almost anywhere the practice of the Christian faith feels threatened. And, no doubt, more than a few places where it isn't. The notion here is that hell - or, at least, the fear of hell - is a good and proper motivator of moral behavior. If only language concerning hell were employed more, people would behave better.

This is often connected - as in the case of the church I once pastored - to some telling of the Myth of the Golden Past. The Myth of the Golden Past can be found almost anywhere. It simply points to some generally undefined point in the past, and says, roughly, that things were so much better then. If only we - whoever and wherever "we" are - could return to that point - or, at least, the values of that point - we would be so much better off.

This myth is a naive telling of history, glossing over all of the problems of whichever period has been idealized, and using it as a critique of what is wrong in the present. Insofar as it identifies real problems in the present it does have some use. But, because the idealized past it presents has no real reality to it, but is rather a fiction created by a naive remembering, the solutions offered in the telling of this myth are rarely if ever helpful. Usually this myth is wielded as a weapon against progressives in any context, who are moving a particular group away from the sins of the past. (See, for example, the way political and social conservatives in America use an idealized retelling of the 1950s as a critique of both present social problems and the liberals who they blame for said social problems.)

So here the solution to the present problems faced by the church is to return to an age of doctrinal purity when the faith did not just cave in willy-nilly to a culture more concerned with making everyone feel good than with telling God's hard truth. If only we - whoever "we" are - hadn't jettisoned our doctrine and language of hell (though it is by no means clear to me that beliefs concerning hell are really in decline - hellfire and damnation preachers still abound, if not quite in the force they had in the first Great Awakening when Jonathan Edwards penned his famous "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"), then we would have the kind of moral accountability that would eliminate the various social, cultural, and personal sins that have relegated the church to the margins.

Hell is thus offered up as both an effective and appropriate moral enforcement mechanism. A means by which to control behavior and to impose a code of behavior consistent with a particular Christian theology.

Before I say what I think - from a Christian perspective - is horribly wrong with this kind of argument, I should note what is right with it. It is connected to the historical development of beliefs about the afterlife. Notions of good and bad afterlives are found in at least some strands of almost every religious tradition, and they generally (though I'm painting with a really broad brush here) begin as a kind of theodicy, a kind of defense of God's or the gods' justice.

One of the great scandals of life is that moral behavior seems so disconnected from outcomes in life. The righteous often suffer. The wicked often live lives of lavish luxury. This calls into question the fundamental justice of the universe. And, while there are some subtle moves available - like my argument here - concepts of heaven and hell are a neat and tidy way to recalibrate the moral scale of the universe. It may, such beliefs argue, seem as though wickedness is too often rewarded, and righteousness too often punished. But, things only seem that way. There is a-whole-nother layer to reality, another life or lives beyond this one. And the one's moral activity in this life impact one's fate and standing in the nest life or lives.

But is such a move - appealing to hell as a kind of moral enforcement mechanism, with the fear of hell serving as a motivator for moral behavior, and hell itself balancing the universe's scale of justice - a Christian move. One the one hand, insofar as the move is made by many Christians, my from-the-ground-up view of religion compels me to say that it is, in fact, Christian, in the sense that it is a belief that many Christians hold. But, is it properly Christian, motivated by Christian theology. I'm not so sure that it is. And I am sure that, whether it can be described as "Christian" or not, positing hell as a moral enforcement mechanism is a bad move.

And that (finally!) brings us to the point. Here, in list form, is what I think is wrong with using hell as a moral enforcement mechanism (sure took long enough to get here!):

1. Fear of hell - like fear of any punishment, and contrived consequence for misbehavior - is a poor motive for doing good and avoiding doing bad: One who behaves in a particular way simply out of fear of punishment can hardly be called a moral agent at all, much less a good moral agent. A good moral agent is someone who wants to do good for the sake of doing good. The good itself has a kind of positive appeal. Claiming that hell - and only hell - presents us with moral accountability in a way that eliminates bad behavior is not only manipulative, crippling moral agency; but also sells the good itself short, as though it has no appeal on its own.

Fear of hell, in other words, creates moral infants who can never understand the positive appeal of the good.

2. Connecting hell - and damnation, the opposite of salvation - to moral behavior - while consistent broadly with the history of negative afterlives outside the Christian tradition - fails to understand and appreciate the distinctive role of grace in the Christian doctrine of salvation: Broadly, Christianity asserts that Christians are saved by God's grace, through the saving act of Jesus Christ, and NOT through our own effort and moral behavior. Even most pietistic theologies, which do connect salvation with moral behavior, do not assert that moral behavior causes or prevents salvation, but rather that good moral behavior results from and gives evidence to salvation already caused by grace.

Thus, where hell is a stand in for the opposite of salvation, the true home of those who stand outside salvation (a problematic doctrine in its own right), connecting moral behavior to fear of hell - where behaving morally both results from and alleviates said fear - is a denial of the saving role of God's grace. If hell is in fact an option, and the opposite of salvation, then still, in a Christian understanding, it is not moral behavior that would save one from hell, but rather God's grace.

3. Hell itself makes God a cosmic tyrant and a bully: John Wesley famously said of the Calvinist understanding of God (as he understood it), "Such a God would be unworthy of worship." That is exactly how I feel about a God who creates and sends people to hell, a place of eternal torment without any hope of relief. No properly functioning moral agent would create unrelenting suffering for anyone or anything. Such suffering - without the possibility of any redemptive value - is the very embodiment of evil. Yet those who posit hell as a moral enforcement mechanism offer an understand of God as the cause of eternal torment.

Oh, sure, there are subtle moves available to try to move the cause of the suffering from God to the one suffering, but that calls divine sovereignty into question. If God created hell, and if God ultimately decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, then it is, in fact, God who is the agent responsible for creating eternal suffering in those that God also created. God thus ultimately created them for suffering, which makes God morally worse than the child with the magnifying glass frying ants in the backyard on a hot summer's day, for at least the ants' suffering has some end - even if said end is only death - and at least there is some hope that the child will one day grow up and cease being so callous to the suffering that s/he creates in other sentient beings.

I know that was a lot of words to say only a little, but hopefully it spurs at least a little thought concerning the use of hell as a moral enforcement mechanism.

Friday, July 10, 2009

But what's it all MEAN, man?

[Note: I wrote this bit of absurd randomness as a Note on Facebook - look me up if you Facbook. That's where I waste most of my Internet time these days.]

I'm beginning to learn why Zen masters are so reticent to share their accumulated wisdom.

I've got degrees in philosophy and theology, and have spent my adult life either working in or rebelling against churches. On top of that, I've spent most of my life neurotically asking questions that emerge from anxiety but pretend to be deep. I've been locked in a relentless struggle to wrestle meaning from the universe.

So, if you're having some kind of existential crisis, and you either know me or know someone who knows me, I'm the guy you go to. I'm the guy you bring your deepest, darkest questions to.

And I love it. I really do. It is an honor to be of some use to someone who is wrestling with whatever it is we wrestle with from time to time. That divine being who was locked in combat with Jacob, wrenched his hip out of socket when he wouldn't let go, and then gave him a new name: Israel. "Isra" "El," one who "wrestles" with "God."

Interestingly, that prefix, "Isra," has multiple meanings in the Hebrew. In keeping with the strange story of Jacob and the divine being, it means "to wrestle," "to struggle," or "to fight." And so, Israel is the one who wrestles with, who struggles with, who fights with "El," a generic Semetic word for God. But, "Isra" also means "to live." Israel, "Isra" "El" is thus not only the one who wrestles with God, but also the one who lives with God, who shares space with God.

That "to live" with and "to struggle" with are the same word isn't a huge shock, perhaps, for those of us who have ever tried to live with someone. Perhaps not a shock, either, for those of us who have even tried to live, which I hope is all of us. Life is a struggle, a fight, a giant wrestling match that is both interminably long and over in a blink.

But what is it that those of us who live, and who struggle, are fighting with? God? Ourselves? Some bad pizza we ate too late last night, chased by too many beers?

I can't answer that question any more than I can answer the stoner's question that serves as the title to this hastily assembled "Note" or "post" or whatever the hell this random scribble is supposed to be. And that brings me back to the Zen master who won't divulge what she learned in her moment of Satori, her point of enlightenment.

Well, it kind of does. It actually, first, brings me to movies.

Movies often point to a disaffection with life that also shows up in too many works of philosophy or theology. Movies like the Matrix, or the Thirteenth Floor, or Vanilla Sky, or Dark City (my favorite of the lot, which my friend Chappy once described as the Matrix on a bad acid trip with a baseball bat crying out "here kitty kitty kitty") follow a similar pattern, not in their plot so much as in their psychology. They begin with a sense that things are not as they seem. That something is fundamentally wrong. The normal, the mundane, is not only empty, but in its emptiness somehow sinister.

But(!) as the plot unfolds there is a kind of answer to the existential problem, the fundamental wrongness of the here and now, the given. That answer is the Other. The unveiling of some hidden reality, that then mysteriously enters the wrong given and somehow rights it.

As a Christian, that appeals to me. But, as a human being, it sometimes leads me astray.

I've spent my whole life wrestling with, searching for, trying to uncover that Other, that hidden reality that will then swoop into my fucked up current situation and miraculously make it all make sense. And, there have been moments when I think I may have peered behind the curtain, sometimes translucent, sometimes damn near opaque, that divides the here and now from the Other, the - to use the terms employed by Mircea Eliade and others - "profane" from the "sacred."

So where has that gotten me? I'm not sure. Distracted, perhaps, more than anything else.

There's a book sitting in my library - I won't bore you with the details of it, because it isn't worth reading - titled "Quest for Meaning." That title sums up the whole enterprise. Life is some sort of a puzzle to be solved, a riddle whose meaning is to be teased out, a mythic quest that ends at some concrete point, some grand destination. Except that, the longer I life and the longer I wrestle, the more I think it isn't.

"What's it all mean?" I often get asked. "What's this all about?"

I don't mind the question, but more and more I feel like that Zen master who, when faced with that great existential question responds with "just breathe."

"What's the point?" To live. To breathe in and out, each moment of each day.

"What's it all mean?" Who says it has to MEAN anything.

Life is life. Plain and simple. And while I don't mind asking those great unanswerable questions (I've already got two degrees for doing that, and am hoping to start working on a third next year) I wonder if those questions aren't used lazily. It is, after all, far easier to ask a question and expect an answer than it is to live life each day, every day.

My advice to anyone who wants to know the meaning of life is to sit down and breathe. Or go look at a tree. Or follow the flight path of sparrows. Or watch grass grow. Or stare into the eyes of a child. Or cook a decent meal. Or really, do ANYTHING, so long as you are fully present, fully engaged in the activity.

Because that breath you took doesn't mean anything. And that tree you stared at doesn't mean anything. And the flight of the birds doesn't mean anything. And the grass doesn't mean anything. And the child's eyes don't mean anything. And the great meal doesn't mean anything.

Not anything you can say out loud, anyway. Not anything you can write down in a book. Not anything you can even think. Not rationally, anyway. Life can't be reduced to meaning. And human beings can't expect to be happy constantly looking away from life to find the meaning in life.

And the Zen master can't tell you what she learned in her moment of Satori. Because she didn't learn anything. She was just sitting there, breathing in and out. Living.