I Am Not A Blessing!: Witnessing and Oversimplified Stories

Too often in the church we dull the horror of people’s stories by our need to appropriate these stories as necessary content for witnessing and blessing toward others. In doing so, we effectively skip to the end of the story without having to experience any of the real horror and truth with these people in the moment(s) of their suffering.

I believe the same can be said about the Gospel narrative, as well. More so than not, Christians attempt to boil the Gospel down to one act: Jesus’ death on the cross. This is apparent in the majority of famous hymns, such as the “Old Rugged Cross” (hymns like “I’ll Fly Away” are equally as guilty, just in their contraction of the Gospel into the singular focus of heaven), and countless sermons directed to the cross of Jesus and its salvific operation for the “damned.”

A fancy name for what happens in these instances is called “metanarrative,” which simply means a grand narrative that simplifies and focuses smaller narrative into one main point or idea, roughly speaking. For example, if you asked me what the Harry Potter books were about, I would say that the metanarrative is that a young boy grows up through several hardships and magical encounters with the infamous Voldemort. In this definition, I have funneled the meaning of the narrative into one big, simplified idea. But, as you Harry Potter lovers will duly point out, there is much more going on in the books than that. This why, and I have personal experience with this, people will often tell you that the best way to sum up Harry Potter, or any other book for that matter, is to read it!

We see this very thing at work in the churches popular notion of witnessing. Churches go out and approach people with a three-sentence catch phrase of the Christian Drama, which often goes something like this: “Excuse me, can I share the Gospel with you? Are you a sinner? If so, (you know you are) Jesus died on a cross for you so you would not have to. Accept Jesus, believe he was raised from the dead, confess your sins, and you will be saved.” (This sentence comes from my personal experience from various churches, and, as paraphrased as it might be, it is a very real and common trend in the church.) The difficulty of this witnessing paragraph is the beginning sentence, that is, the notion that anyone could sum up the Gospel in five minutes on an isle of Walmart, or, more commonly, in one week at a African village. On a side note, I want to argue that this is the reason our churches are dying and that we are not making concrete relationship anymore in the church. Namely, people are looking for something deeper than a sermon trying to save people every Sunday, or a hymn about going to heaven. But that is another post for another day.

Oh, and this is what “witnessing” meant for the early church. Martyr comes from the Greek word for witness.

For the purpose of what I have said above about people’s personal stories and the way the Gospels are often read, I want to reject metanarratives and suggest a more intimate encounter with people’s stories and a more involved notion of reading the Bible. By denying metanarratives, we resists conflating the Gospel story into one moment, however definitive it maybe. There is so much to experience and lament and cry and laugh about in the Gospels, apart from Jesus’ death. The Gospel is not simply the sum of its parts, or paradigmatic of its climax; rather, the Gospel is meant to be read with painstaking attendance to the minor details. Admittedly, one could argue that these minor details are unintelligible without the cross; I am not denying that. But the same can be said of the reverse – the cross is most definitely unintelligible without attention to the details leading up to Calvary in their own respect.

Likewise, listening and interacting with people’s personal stories, especially Christian people, should be experienced along the way with the person; every horror, every happiness should be dealt with on their own accord and not as a means to an end, especially if that end is witnessing to others. So, like the Harry Potter books, the only way to actually know a person’s story is to experience it with them in the moment, to actually read their story with patience and loyalty, and without simplifying it into a sentence or two.

“Take Up Your Guns Daily, and Follow Me”: The Problem with Christian Rights

Let’s be honest, guns are easier to carry than crosses.

Christians across America are taking to Facebook and lighting up the Twitterverse in response to President Obama’s proposal that introduced the most substantial gun control reform in decades. As plagued as social media may be, those who proclaim to follow Jesus have expressed their varied opinions and faithful concerns through intense arguments, devotional writings, and a frenzy of blog posts. Among the pro-gun control plaintiff’s concerns is the argument that they have rights and that a firmer gun control policy will violate their constitutional privileges.

We Americans are always prepared to reiterate the fact that we have rights: you have the right to defend yourself from someone mugging you; you have the legal right to own a gun; there is an inherent right for every human to express their freedom of speech, even at the expense of others. These are your “God-given” constitutional rights, as we like to say. So maybe we should be angry if President Obama is trying to take away, or impose more strict laws upon, your guns.

From a Christian point of view, the talk about “rights” – the right to own a gun, or the right to do this or that – is problematic. First, along the lines of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), Christ beckons us to give up our rights. Christ says when someone slaps you on the cheek, offer them the other one; when someone sues you in court for your coat, give them your cloak also; and when a Roman soldier asks you to walk a mile with their luggage (which was a Roman law imposed upon Jews), sacrifice your right to stop after only one mile and walk with them two. Furthermore, and maybe the most compelling, are Christ’s words in Luke 9:23. After addressing his disciples on his suffering and death to come, Jesus proclaims, “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23; NRSV). In other words, to follow Jesus means to give up the securities of daily life; forgo the riches and give to the poor; to leave your personal convictions behind and to look forward to an inverted world where only love and compassion make sense.

In light of these scriptures and the message of love that makes up the fabric of the entire biblical narrative, rights have little say, if any, in the life of Christian disciples. Christians in the early church had the right to not be fed to lions, but they willfully walked into the coliseum and met death with a kiss. Saint Peter had the right to be crucified like everyone else, but instead he felt unworthy of dying the death of Christ and chose to be crucified upside-down. Christianity urges us to give up our own rights as a witness to others, and as an imitation of our Lord. If anything, Christianity is the voluntary surrendering of rights and the acceptance of the counter-cultural understanding of the first being last, and the last first; of losing your life to find it.

Whereas rights connote a boundary or a zone that citizens possesses and others should not breach, Christianity suggests an openness to relationships that violate and transverse these very boundaries and securities in the name of love. In this way, we can experience what makes someone essentially human, not constitutionally American. When Christianity comes into contact with the political sphere (and it should), it is not that Christianity lives by an apolitical mantra that produces the quietist, “stay where you are and be happy,” mentality. On the contrary, The Christian faith produces another politic, a counter or inverted politic, that engages the real world, which includes real people and deals with authentic problems.

In all the muddiness with the interaction between faith and public life, Christians should always struggle to read the scriptures with sensitivity to the tensions that emerge, while also attempting to remain faithful to the difficult task of following Jesus in our contemporary setting. Certainly, taking into account the situation of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, or the effect the issue of human trafficking has on the discussion of rights, leaves us with more questions to ponder and only deepens the difficulty of being a conscientious cross-bearer. We should always be reminded that the task of theology and discipleship is never finished.

The weight of a gun and the security it brings are far more appealing than being crucified. Guns protect those we love and hold dear to us. It is our American right to own a gun. However, there is no such thing as a Christian right to bear arms.

Eating Jesus: Digesting Christianity or Christianity Digesting us?

I have begun to read Slavoj Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, and I have to say, it is thought-provoking as it is difficult. But as I have gotten about twenty pages deep into Zizek’s breakthrough work, I have come across a section where Zizek references Hegel on the topic of Christianity being digestible. Hegel states:

If the individual human being does something, achieves something, attains a goal, this fact must be grounded in the way the thing itself, in its concept, acts and behaves. If I eat an apple, I destroy its organic self-identity and assimilate it to myself. That I can do this entails that the apple in itself, already, in advance, before I take hold of it, has in its nature the determination of being subject to destruction, having in itself a homogeneity with my digestive organs such that I can make it homogeneous with myself. (Hegel, Lectures on Philosophy of Religion III, 127)

Now, we are not talking about a literal consumption as if we were eating a thanksgiving meal (although Zizek does mention the eucharist in this discussion). Rather, Christianity is consumable in the sense that we take it on and make it a part of our being. However, it is not that we have miraculously changed Christianity into something that it was not before; the apple does not change when we bite into it. Instead, Christianity is intrinsically sublatable: it becomes a part of us. When we grab hold of this Christianity project, when we bite into its sweet bitterness, we make it our own, and there is no separation between how we behave and who we are. Therefore, the apple is not longer and apple, a separate entity, but it is part of our very being.

Paul lets us know that at the very core of Christianity, this idea of total sublation is the case. He says that whenever we become Christian, whenever we consume Christ, there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. In this way, as Zizek puts it, Christianity “swallows up” our entire life, leaving no distinction between the apple and the body that has digested it.

A question to ponder: are we the apple and Christianity is the consumer? Or, do we engulf Christianity? If the latter is correct, Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity may be absolutely right, or, on a scarier note, Hegelian.

Better yet, what happens when we go to the bathroom after digestion is complete?

I would love to know your thoughts.

Backs to the Pulpit

One of the things I hate the most is when the people close to me tell others that I am going to college to be a “preacher.” The reality is, even though I often preach, that I am clear that I want to teach religion as a professor, not as a full-time pastor. However, this does not mean that I am not committed to vocational ministry.

I visited Duke University this weekend and met some very interesting people with whom I am excited to continue my education. While I was there, one conversation stuck out. As I was speaking to a prospective M.Div student, he asked me what I wanted to do with my Master of Theological Studies degree. I responded like I always do: “I want to teach.” He followed with, “So your want to steer clear from the ministry/church side of things, right?”

I am very intrigued by this last statement. It infers that what I have committed myself to is not the work of the church, nor does the vocation of teaching theology fall under the label “ministry.”

To all those who think I have turned my back to the pulpit, maybe you are right. However, to say that teaching and preparing people of all ages is not part of the Christian Ministry insults me. It is also extremely untrue. My pulpit will not be raised on a platform in front of pews and ties necks. Rather, I will be standing amidst students with curious minds (hopefully) who understand that what happens in the classroom is just as much a part of Christian discipleship as what goes on behind the pulpit.

Seesaw

I have just finished Alain Badiou‘s Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism and I have to say that this book has changed my way of thinking, at least as it pertains to Paul. I have found that after reading influential books like Badiou’s or going through a particular life changing event, my theology changes as much as my reading habits. Although a refined theology is something I am proud of, it’s almost as if I am riding a seesaw which in constantly in motion. Sometimes I am high and confident, and sometimes I am at the bottom after the other person jumps off. We all know how that feels.

I have been throwing so many thoughts around in my head lately, questioning my life, what I believe, while still attempting to stay faithful to what I believe to be true. Its like I am an abstract splatter painting, you know, the ones that are all messy because the artist just flicks paint at them violently until it becomes something completely different. In the end though, I have to make the decision whether or not I am just a canvas getting harassed, or if I am more than that: a work of art.

I find myself in the same situation as the man who emerges from Plato’s cave; I find sanctuary in the Christ who steps out of the tomb; the Paul whose world is shattered on the Damascus road. Good company.

At some point in our lives, we all are on a seesaw; in limbo between belief and unbelief, between sanity and lunacy. Luckly, no one can properly seesaw without another. Thank God that I have others to take the ride with me. Collective insecurity is far better.

Love Wins: Kierkegaard’s Thoughts?

I know everyone is getting tired of hearing about Kierkegaard, but who cares; I like him.

With Rob Bell‘s recent release of Love Wins, a book addressing hell and universalism, it is still intriguing to watch YouTube videos of folks trashing his work. Whether Bell is right or wrong in his study is no the point off this post. My point is made through the Kierkegaard quote that follows:

If a man perhaps lacks courage to carry his thought through. . . then it is surely better to acquire this courage, rather than waste time upon undeserved eulogies.

Kierkegaard, Søren. FEAR AND TREMBLING  (p. 21).

As Kierkegaard says, at least he is struggling and speaking out about his uncertainties; at least he is carrying his thought through. Here is a guy who was extremely popular in the evangelical genre of Christianity, and he steps out with what he knew many people would crucify him over. And they did, if you havent heard. That takes courage.

I am aware of many things that I am unsure of, but I will be called a heretic before I give “undeserved eulogies” to doctrines and biblical stories that I am not quite sure of. Kudos to the person who has the courage to carry their thoughts through.