See You at the Pepperdine Lectures

If it's not already on your radar screen I hope to see you in a few weeks at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures held on the Pepperdine campus in Malibu, CA May 5th-8th. Some of the people speaking at PBL this year are David Kinnaman, Scot McKnight and Nadia Boltz-Weber.

As for me you can catch my act in a few different places. At night I'm co-hosting two evening sessions (Wednesday and Thursday nights) with my friend Mark Love. The Wednesday night session is entitled "Whirlwind in a Thorn Tree: The Music and Theology of Johnny Cash."

On Tuesday morning at 9:30 I'll also be a part of the "Lost in the Right Direction" conversation being hosted by David Todd Harmon from Mana Nutrition.

Finally, my most in-depth session will be on Friday morning as one of the 8:30 In-Depth Tracks. The title of the session is "Angelic Troublemakers: Spiritual Warfare for Progressives and Doubters" which is also the title of my fourth book (due out next year).

You can find out more and register for PBL here. Hope to see you there!

Where No One Stands Alone

Recently I was in Germany teaching some classes for missionaries from the Churches of Christ. It was a wonderful time.

And given that this was a Church of Christ gathering there was a lot of a cappella singing. There is nothing quite like singing hymns with people raised in the Churches of Christ. Song after song the four-part harmony was beautiful.

Anyway, during the singing there was one hymn that I had never heard before. And I was immediately smitten with it.

Yes, I get smitten by gospel hymns.

The song was "Where No One Stands Alone" written by Mosie Lister in 1955. 

The lyrics (which vary a bit from version to version):
Once I stood in the night with my head bowed low
In darkness as black as the sea.
And my heart was afraid and I cried, "Oh Lord,
Don't hide your face from me."

Hold my hand all the way, every hour every day
From here to the great unknown.
Take my hand, let me stand
Where no one stands alone.

Like a king I may live in a palace so tall
With great riches to call my own.
But I don't know a thing in this whole wide world
That's worse than being alone.

Hold my hand all the way, every hour every day
From here to the great unknown.
Take my hand, let me stand
Where no one stands alone.
I just love the tune and especially the lyrics. I love the vision of a place where no one stands alone.

You can hear versions of the song on YouTube from Alison Krauss and The Cox Family and the Peasall Sisters.

I've been singing and practicing this song so that I can introduce it to the guys out at prison on Monday nights.

All around the house and at work you can hear me singing to myself...

Take my hand, let me stand
Where no one stands alone...

The Stations of the Cross

I've shared my story before on the blog, about how when I was in the 6th grade I started going to a Catholic middle school and from there went on to a Catholic high school.

Of course, I was a Church of Christ kid attending these Catholic schools and I was amply warned about all things Catholic. So while I was being exposed to Catholicism during these years I was wary and critical of it. I didn't have an open, inquisitive spirit.

Except when it came to one particular thing. The Stations of the Cross.

My first exposure to The Stations of the Cross was eye-opening. I found it profoundly moving. And disconcerting. I remember feeling shaken when the service ended with Jesus dead and laid in the tomb. Ending on that somber note was extraordinarily powerful and profound. I'd never been to a church service that ended in such darkness. And then we did it again. And again. And again. Each Friday of Lent my classmates and I would walk to the sanctuary go through the Stations of the Cross.

That repeated visitation of darkness marked me, deeply and emotionally.

In my experience, there is nothing quite like The Stations of the Cross in evangelicalism or low-church Protestantism. And I think we're the poorer for it. I know a lot of our churches are experimenting with Ash Wednesday and "giving up" something for Lent.

But for me, The Stations of the Cross are the heart and soul of Lenten observance.

They Shall Take Up Serpents: On Snakebite, Fear and Love

My friend Andrew Boone is going to be playing the role of a snake handling preacher in the show Holy Ghosts. To help Andrew prepare I suggested that he read the book Salvation On Sand Mountain, a favorite of mine.

Andrew and I also revisited my blog series about the snake handling churches of Appalachia (see the sidebar).

Of course, the theology of the snake handling churches seems bizarre and esoteric. But in 2012 I tried to summarize some theological insights about how the snake handling churches handle the theological problem of snakebite and how that experience might have broader relevance. The point I argued is that the theological problem of snakebite is a problem that many Christians share, even if they don't handle snakes:

To start, some background.

Sometime around 1910 George Went Hensley walked down from White Oak Mountain in Tennessee convinced, because of his experiences on the mountain, that one of the signs accompanying believers baptized in the Holy Ghost was power over deadly serpents. Since the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 the main sign of Holy Ghost baptism had been speaking in tongues (along with other miraculous signs such as healings). But because of his literal reading Mark 16, Hensley became convinced that handling poisonous serpents should be added to these signs. Mark 16.17-18 from the King James Version of the Bible:

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
Hensley descended White Oak Mountain, snake in hand, and launched his first snake handling revival meeting in the community of Grasshopper Valley. So powerful were these revivals in their demonstration of the Holy Spirit that snake handling began to spread throughout the Appalachia region and, for a brief time, was endorsed by the Churches of God.

In the early days of the movement the message was triumphalistic. The Holy Ghost would allow "them that believe" to handle serpents and not be bitten. But over time people were bitten. In the face of snakebite the witness shifted to protection from death by snakebite rather than from snakebite itself. But people eventually also died from snakebite. In fact, Hensley himself, having survived 446 snakebites, eventually succumbed in 1955. Hensley died at the age 75 after being bitten on the wrist by a five-foot rattlesnake during a revival in Florida.

According to researchers Ralph Hood and Paul Williamson (see Appendix 1 in their book Them that Believe), from 1921 to 2006 there were 90 documented deaths associated with snake handling worship. That averages out to about one death per year. Which might not seem like a lot, but these are very small and tight knit communities. One death a year is pretty significant.

All this presents the snake handling church with a theological problem. But the problem has less to do with snakebite than it has to do with a victory over the fear of death.

The central theological experience of snake handling is a victory over death. As the people in the church move toward the snakes and reach into the boxes they report a keen awareness of death. As their preachers repeatedly say, "There is death in these boxes." Snake handling is an eschatological act, a demonstration of a victory over death. Death is the real enemy being confronted. The snakes are just manifestations of Death.

The practice of snake handling, then, sits within a Christus Victor frame where a victory over death is at the heart of the soteriological experience.

But the trouble is, people do die in snake handling churches. How is "victory" experienced in those instances? And it's not just about death. Many snakebites are extraordinarily painful and lead to lasting tissue damage. Practitioners survive but they may go through hours and days of excruciating pain. How do they make sense of that pain? More, how do they experience victory over death when they annually witness or hear report of a death within the church? That's a theological puzzle.

In response, the snake handling churches eventually abandoned a triumphalistic stance toward snake handling. It became clear that "the anointing," the prompt of the Holy Ghost to move forward in worship to take up serpents, did not confer immunity to snakebite or snake venom. People got bit, people suffered from the venom and some people died. So the "victory" could no longer be associated with miraculous immunity. So then where was the victory to be found?

Perhaps surprisingly the answer was found in a close reading of Mark 16.17-18. Go up and read that text again. Notice anything?

There is no promise of immunity. All the text says is that them that believe shall "pick up snakes with their hands." That's it. And that, it was concluded, is the sign. The sign is not immunity. The sign is in simply picking up the snakes. Even if you get bit. Even if you die.

The victory here isn't immunity but fearless obedience. The sign to the unbeliever is the act of faith and obedience--the sign is an eschatological fearlessness in the face of Death.

Overall, then, the theological evolution of the snake handling churches is an interesting illustration of how the fear of death is revealed to be our primary spiritual predicament, the predicament described in Hebrews:
Hebrews 2.14-15
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
Salvation is found in being set free from the slavery to the fear of death. Snakebite is a symbol of this fear in the snake handling churches. Thus taking up snakes becomes a "sign" of salvation.

Does that mean we should take up serpents? Well, feel free to bring that up at your next worship committee meeting. Holler back about how that works out.

For my part I think snake handling, though well intended, misses a critical point about fearlessness. This is a point I bring up toward the end of The Slavery of Death. Fearlessness in the face of death isn't an end in itself. Fearlessness is a means to an end and if that end is lost then fearlessness can become pathological and quasi-suicidal.

The problem of fear is how it handicaps our ability to love, how fear inhibits our willingness to open ourselves up to the messiness and risk of welcoming others. The goal isn't simply to display courage, but to display a courage for. A courage for love. "Perfect love casts out fear."

So there are "snakes" out there. And they are everywhere. Everyone is facing something, some "snake," where the fear of death is felt acutely. The world is snake-infested, filled with fears large and small that inhibit our ability to love others.

Thus "taking up" these "snakes" is an act of courageous faith. Loving others sacrificially and fully is an act of eschatological fearlessness in the face of death

It is a sign of them that believe.

Zach Lind on "The Gospel According to Phil Collins"

A couple of months ago I heard Zach Lind, the drummer of Jimmy Eat World, give a presentation about "The Gospel According to Phil Collins." You can hear Zach discuss some of the thoughts he shared during that talk in his podcast with Luke Norsworthy.

I've been thinking about Zach's talk ever since I heard it. The point that sticks with me was Zach's observation about shame and creativity.

To get that point you need a little background about Zach and Phil Collins.

(BTW, the photo here is of Phil Collins, the same photo Zach used in his presentation.)

As a drummer in the indie music scene Zach and the crowd he ran with was fiercely dismissive of pop music. Pop music was "selling out."

And then one day a few years ago Zach was driving down the road with his kids and a Phil Collins song came on. And for some reason the song captured Zach's imagination. That day Zach became the fan of a pop music icon. Phil Collins.

It was incongruous. On the surface, as a pop star, Phil Collins represented everything Zach was artistically opposed to. But the more Zach pushed past his prejudices and began exploring Phil Collins as an artist the more of a fan he became.

But given the music scene Zach was associated with being the fan of a pop star came with a cost. And that cost was social shaming, good natured no doubt, but Zach did get made fun of by peers for his enjoyment and admiration of Phil Collins.

Which brings us to one of the points Zach made during his presentation about "The Gospel According to Phil Collins."

Specifically, Zach said don't let anyone shame you for liking what you like. Especially if liking what you like is associated with your own creative expression, exploration and inspiration.

So if you like Phil Collins, like Phil Collins. Ignore what everyone else thinks about Phil Collins. Like whatever it is that gives you joy. Even if it's pop music.

Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly talks a lot about the relationship between shame-resilience and creativity. Creative expression involves a lot of risk, mainly the risk of being shamed by others. So if you lack shame-resiliency you'll struggle to take the risks you'll need to take to be truly creative. This is the exact point Zach was making.

And the reason Zach's lesson has stuck with me is because I find living as a Christian to be a highly creative and artistic activity. Which means that living as a Christian means cultivating shame-resiliency so that you can take the risks you need to take to creatively and artistically explore the shape of Jesus in our world. In living artistically in how you creatively express the life of Jesus in your own life you'll have to take risks in what you say or do, things that might cause shame or embarrassment.

I'm reminded of the woman who crashes the party to anoint Jesus. What a risk! What shame-resiliency!

And the woman does get shamed.

But Jesus says, "Leave her alone, she has done a beautiful thing."

A beautiful thing. Not a good thing or a religious thing. A beautiful thing. A creative, artistic thing.

That woman took a risk, faced the shame and did something that was creative and beautiful.

That's "The Gospel According to Phil Collins" according to Zach.

Taking the risk to do the beautiful thing. Taking the risks to live a beautiful life.

Unpublished: The Small Politics of the Church

If you read a lot of Anabaptist theology you know that a key insight regarding the social and political witness of church is this:
The social and political witness of the church is simply being the church.
That's it. The church should be the church. That's Christian political engagement, being the church. Or, at the very least, having political activism flowing out of the life of the local church.

This imperative distinguishes the church from conservative and liberal/progressive Christian politics, which can be tempted by theocratic impulses and, thus, contaminated by Constantinianism and the temptations of Empire.

Being the church--really being the the church--is a political intervention, the church is a counter-politics to the politics of the State. Which means that to think politically in the church is to think locally, focusing on addressing our social and moral ills within the common life of the local congregation.

For example, the goal of the local church is to "have no needy person among you" (Acts 4.34). We are to address poverty locally in our communal sphere of influence, among ourselves. To have no needy person among us.

Relatedly, we also deal with issues of work locally. Paul says that "the one who doesn't work shall not eat" (2 Thess. 3.10). Importantly, that statement has nothing to do with the welfare state and entitlements. Paul is speaking to a local, congregational, and relational issue. The conversation about work is between people who know and love each other.

For example, at Freedom Fellowship we serve a weekly meal. And sometimes you hand a mop to someone and say, "Hey man, it's your turn to clean up."

The point here is that the Christian approach to poverty and work is inherently personal, relational and local. Christians practice a "small politics." These aren't laws being passed by the government but a common life being negotiated among friends.

The State is no substitute for the church. The call, then, isn't to give up the church for political activism but to invest more radically in becoming the church.

I'm put in mind of a quote by G.K. Chesterton that I'd like to tweak:
"The church has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried."
--from an unpublished post contrasting the small, relational politics of the church with the political engagement found among evangelical and progressive Christians

Brian Zahnd on Praying Well

Many of you know Brian Zahnd, author of the recent book Farewell to Mars. Recently Brian did a second podcast with my friend Luke Norsworthy on the subject of prayer. (The first twenty minutes is mainly a discussion of the impact of the work of NT Wright, the part on prayer picks up at the twenty-minute mark.)

I struggled with prayer, well, for most of my life. Mainly because I don't think I ever really learned to pray, not in a way that made sense or resonated with me. But for the past few years I've figured out some stuff about prayer. I've prayed every day, often a couple times a day, for a few years now. And the lessons I've learned are many of the ones Brian discusses. Especially using a "liturgy that will form us in prayer" and the church "devoting itself to the prayers." Devoting not to prayer, but to the prayers.

If you struggle with prayer give the podcast a listen.

The Prayer of Manasseh

The Prayer of Manasseh is one of the most beautiful penitential prayers in the bible but a lot of Protestants are unaware of it as it is a part of the Apocrypha.

2 Kings and 2 Chronicles describe Manasseh as one of the most idolatrous of the kings. Because of this Manasseh is taken captive by the Assyrians (2 Chronicles 33.11-13). There in Babylon Manasseh prays:
2 Chronicles 33:18-19
The other events of Manasseh’s reign, including his prayer to his God and the words the seers spoke to him in the name of the Lord, the God of Israel, are written in the annals of the kings of Israel. His prayer and how God was moved by his entreaty, as well as all his sins and unfaithfulness, and the sites where he built high places and set up Asherah poles and idols before he humbled himself—all these are written in the records of the seers.
2 Chronicles doesn't give the words of the prayer, mentioning only that the prayer is recorded in "record of the seers."

The words of the prayer are contained, however, in the Apocrypha. The Prayer of Manasseh (NRSV):
Prayer of Manasseh

Ascription of Praise

O Lord Almighty,
God of our ancestors,
of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob
and of their righteous offspring;
you who made heaven and earth
with all their order;
who shackled the sea by your word of command,
who confined the deep
and sealed it with your terrible and glorious name;
at whom all things shudder,
and tremble before your power,
for your glorious splendor cannot be borne,
and the wrath of your threat to sinners is unendurable;
yet immeasurable and unsearchable
is your promised mercy,
for you are the Lord Most High,
of great compassion, long-suffering, and very merciful,
and you relent at human suffering.
O Lord, according to your great goodness
you have promised repentance and forgiveness
to those who have sinned against you,
and in the multitude of your mercies
you have appointed repentance for sinners,
so that they may be saved.
Therefore you, O Lord, God of the righteous,
have not appointed repentance for the righteous,
for Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who did not sin against you,
but you have appointed repentance for me, who am a sinner.

Confession of Sins

For the sins I have committed are more in number than the sand of the sea;
my transgressions are multiplied, O Lord, they are multiplied!
I am not worthy to look up and see the height of heaven
because of the multitude of my iniquities.
I am weighted down with many an iron fetter,
so that I am rejected because of my sins,
and I have no relief;
for I have provoked your wrath
and have done what is evil in your sight,
setting up abominations and multiplying offenses.

Supplication for Pardon

And now I bend the knee of my heart,
imploring you for your kindness.
I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned,
and I acknowledge my transgressions.
I earnestly implore you,
forgive me, O Lord, forgive me!
Do not destroy me with my transgressions!
Do not be angry with me forever or store up evil for me;
do not condemn me to the depths of the earth.
For you, O Lord, are the God of those who repent,
and in me you will manifest your goodness;
for, unworthy as I am, you will save me according to your great mercy,
and I will praise you continually all the days of my life.
For all the host of heaven sings your praise,
and yours is the glory forever.
The words of this prayer are used by both Catholics and the Orthodox in their penitential confessions. The prayer is also used in the Book of Common Prayer--Canticle 14 in the Daily Office--as "A Song of Penitence" described there as being "especially suitable for Lent and on other penitential occasions."

This is a prayer I've used many times.

The Purity Psychology of Progressive Christianity: Scrupulosity

After my posts from last week I continue to have a lot of conversations about how purity psychology affects various impulses within progressive Christianity. My original post is here which has a link at the bottom to some follow-up reflections.

In light of the analyses I shared in those posts, a very interesting connection with Catholic moral theology was pointed out to me yesterday by Leah Libresco who blogs at "Unequally Yoked" for the Patheos Catholic channel.

Specifically, Leah pointed out some similarities between my descriptions of the purity psychology at work among progressive Christians and the Catholic notion of scrupulosity.

According to Catholic moral teaching scrupulosity involves persistent worries about being in a state of sin. These worries can be due to a lot of things, from being extraordinarily conscientious to having a very sensitive or tender conscience to something that is more pathological (like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or Generalized Anxiety Disorder).

Psychologically speaking, I think Leah is right in connecting scrupulosity to intrusive thoughts and even to what the Eastern Orthodox call logismoi, evil or tempting thoughts. For the Orthodox logismoi are intrusive mental temptations such as lust and greed and pride. In scrupulosity the intrusive thoughts are persistent and nagging worries that we've done something wrong.

In Catholic moral teaching scrupulosity has generally been connected to worries about committing a mortal sin and falling out of a state of grace. Mortal sins are, generally speaking, severe or chronic failures of piety.

But what is interesting for our purposes is how Leah has observed scrupulosity at work in issues related to altruism. That is to say, among compassionate Catholics scrupulosity can manifest in worries about how to do the right or best things for others. Paralleling my analysis, Leah traces this wanting-to-do-good scrupulosity to a purity psychology.

In her post "Purity, Anxiety and Effective Altruism" Leah focuses on the worries many of us feel about making sure the monies we send to charities are being used effectively and with minimal waste. We want our money, most if not all of our money, to get into the hands of those who need it. But when we start evaluating the effectiveness of charities and how best to use our money in alleviating suffering worldwide we can fall down a rabbit-hole. In wanting to do the right thing and the best thing we can encounter, to use Leah's words, "analysis paralysis." Regarding all these worries about trying to do the right thing Leah writes:
...I came up with a speculative hypothesis about what might drive this kind of reaction to Effective Altruism. While people were sharing stories about their friends, some of their anxious behaviors and thoughts sounded akin to Catholic scrupulosity. One of the more exaggerated examples of scrupulosity is a Catholic who gets into the confessional, lists her sins, receives absolution, and then immediately gets back into line, worried that she did something wrong in her confession, and should now confess that error.

Both of these obviously bear some resemblance to anxiety/OCD, period, but I was interested in speculating a little about why...
Taking a cue from the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Leah traces this altruism-related scrupulosity to purity psychology: "My weak hypothesis is that effective altruism can feel more like a 'purity' decision...". Wanting to optimize our altruism, to make it more effective, can, in Leah's words, "trigger scrupulosity."

What is interesting here is how Leah is connecting scrupulosity less with a fear of doing a bad thing (committing a mortal sin) than with the keen desire to do a good thing, the desire to reduce suffering in the world. And as the scope of this scrupulosity expands from domain to domain, to eventually inhabit every facet of existence, we begin converging upon the "everything is problematic" mindset and a sort of moral paralysis sets in.

Of course, the objections here are now familiar. While scrupulosity is definitely an unpleasant neurotic experience, scrupulosity is still focusing upon the actions of individuals and is still centering feelings, generally the feelings of privileged people.

But the answer here wouldn't be for those privileged people to have less scruples or to check their scruples or de-center their scruples. Without scruples the privileged people wouldn't really care or worry about being privileged. Without scruples you'd never check your privilege.

So the scruples are necessary, vital even. The trick, it seems, is having those scruples--and in spades--but rejecting "the will to purity" that curdles into scrupulosity.

Leaving Selma

Having visited Selma last week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" and the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights march lots of friends have asked us "How was it?"

As I shared last week, our family had a wonderful time. The whole experience was powerful and moving. But we also left Selma with a lot of complex feelings.

We wanted to be in Selma. We wanted to bring our two sons. But we also didn't want to become self-congratulatory or pat ourselves on the back for making some big statement about race relations. Selma was a historical gathering and commemoration. An event. And as an event it was amazing and impactful. We'll carry this day forward in our hearts.

But attending an event is a far cry from change.

We were also haunted by other thoughts.

As I shared last week, for most of the morning before the march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge we were gathered out in front of Brown Chapel where many visiting dignitaries, among them Attorney General Eric Holder, were speaking during the Sunday morning service. We were a part of a huge crowd that filled the neighborhood around Brown Chapel, watching the service on a large Jumbotron set up on the street.

As I stood there watching the dignitaries arrive and then speak my eyes looked up at the spires of the chapel. The white paint was flaking off. Slats were broken and birds had set up a nest. This chapel, so significant in Civil Rights history and on this Sunday the subject of worldwide media attention, was in a state of disrepair.

We also began to look around the neighborhood. We were with a huge crowd standing across the street from the Chapel. Across the street were low-income housing apartments. Our huge crowd was basically standing in their front yard. Laundry was hanging on lines. Many of the residents sat out on their concrete stoops, looking at the crowd who was straining to catch a glimpse of famous people being escorted by Secret Service agents from black SUVs or being interviewed under lights in front of TV cameras.

As the time passed Jana and I started looking less and less at the chapel and more and more at the neighborhood.

Many hours later, after having crossed the bridge, we walked back through the neighborhood toward the chapel where our car was parked. The crowds were gone. People were leaving and heading back home.

And what we noticed was the trash. All the trash the crowds had dropped and left behind.

We also looked more closely at the poverty of the neighborhood, passing abandoned house after abandoned house scarred with broken windows.

For two days--Saturday when the President visited and the march on Sunday--the world was focused on Selma. But now the crowds were leaving Selma, us among them.

Sunday had been a glorious, historic day. But what would Selma look like on Monday morning?

Empty streets filled with trash.

And that realization struck us hard as it seemed emblematic of how we often approach the struggle for justice. Crowds showing up. Voices raised in protest. Banners waved. Outrage and solidarity expressed.

And then it's Monday morning in Selma. Nothing has changed except the trash the crowds have left in the street.

Leaving Selma both Jana and I were working hard to process our thoughts and feelings. We loved Sunday in Selma, but we kept thinking about Selma on Monday morning.

To help herself process her own feelings and share them with the boys Jana jotted down a prayer in the car as we drove back to Abilene. When she had finished she read her prayer to Brenden and Aidan. I asked her permission if I could share the words she shared with her sons. Jana doesn't fancy herself a poet. I told her that's not important, it's more a stream of consciousness than a poem. Her words captured some of our feelings upon leaving Selma.
"Leaving Selma" by Jana Beck

We swept in on our white horses armed with placards and iPhones.
The world showed up in your yard.
Stood next to your laundry drying on the line.
The same line it hangs on today.
Only there's a lot more garbage on the ground now.
Hopefully we left behind more than our trash.
Perhaps we left you with the hope that thousands still care, still remember, still see?
Are you the sparrow?
The one His eye is on?
The world peaked through your window yesterday.
We sat on your porch.
Is it quiet this morning?
Do you feel like a sparrow now?
God saw you before we came.
He sees you today.
Maybe we caught a glimpse of what God sees while you let us lean our weary backs on your gate.
He still sees you.
But do we?
We drive back home in our shiny cars.
Are you still sitting on your cracked front steps watching your laundry slowly dry?
The world remembers Selma from fifty years ago.
The courage, the bravery, the fear, the hope.
I remember the Selma from yesterday.
The broken window panes, abandoned houses, boarded up doors and windows.
Bird's nests filling the broken shutters of chapel spires.

Lord, give me you eyes.
Show me the sparrows.
And let me leave hope in their front yards and not just empty water bottles and trampled flyers.
Put my eyes on the sparrow.

Am I leaving Selma with new eyes?
Where are the sparrows?
There are so many.

And yet you care for them all.

The Purity Culture of Progressive Christianity: Dissents

I'm not on Twitter so it is difficult to interact with me in that space. But on Twitter my two recent posts on the purity culture of progressive Christianity (original post here and additional reflections here) received a few dissents.

I've collected a few here:

I think there are some misreadings here of what I wrote. And Sarah and I may have to agree to disagree on if the ideology of the Nation of Islam in Malcolm X's early days with its emphasis upon racial separation--remember that the Nation of Islam was an ally with the KKK on this point--was an example of purity psychology at work.

But dissents like these do make me concerned if my choice of the phrase "purity culture" was ill-advised given how that term functions as a term of art in the fight against various oppressive and intersecting systems at work within certain Christian circles.

That is to say, I can see why many would feel very strongly about keeping the term "purity culture," as a term of art, focused squarely upon those oppressive systems. And, thus, how any appropriation of that term and application of it to those fighting against "purity culture," often because they themselves have been harmed by that culture, would be deeply problematic. The dissents above make that point well.

To be clear, I do think there is a purity psychology at work among progressive Christians. And I believe that this purity psychology creates a culture among progressive Christians. And I believe that this culture, because of its will to purity, is tempted toward various forms of toxicity.

Empirically speaking, I think everything I've described about the purity dynamic at work among progressive Christians is both accurate and amply attested to. There is a "purity culture" among progressive Christians, the contours of which are easily and readily discerned. Examples abound.

However, calling this purity dynamic among progressive Christians a "purity culture" might not be wise or effective given how that phrase is used as a term of art in the good fight to lift up many who are being oppressed, marginalized or abused. Dissents like those above, and especially the generous readers I have here who weighed in, have helped me think about the problems related to the labeling issue.

So thanks for all your feedback, both here and on Twitter.

Unpublished: Beholden to the Principalities and Powers

In my most recent book The Slavery of Death I provide a psychological and theological analysis of how we become beholden to and practice idolatry in relation to the principalities and powers of the world, the various nations, organizations and institutions we are a part of.

Specifically, institutions help us in two different ways. Institutions (1) aid us in survival and (2) they help us achieve a sense of significance and purpose.

For example, your workplace provides you with (1) a paycheck and (2) a way to achieve self-esteem by becoming "successful."

Driven by these fears--survival and self-esteem--we become beholden to these institutions and organizations. We come to idolatrously serve the principalities and powers because they address and reduce our deepest anxieties about material survival and our quest for success, significance and self-esteem. Thus service to the principalities and powers makes us feel that we can escape death.

And yet, as William Stringfellow notes, the principalities and powers are also enslaved by the power of death. We can't escape the power of death in idolatrously serving institutions as institutions are also driven by death anxiety. At root the motive force behind all nations, organizations and institutions is survival. The principality and power will do what it has to do to survive. Which means that nations, organizations and institutions are driven by death anxiety as much as any person.

So what happens when we are a part of an institution or organization is that our personal fears of death become entangled with institutional and organizational fears of death. In fact, as I describe it in The Slavery of Death, our personal fears of death--worries over material well-being and self-esteem--are exploited by institutions and organizations to secure and ensure their own survival.

What happens when your material well-being and self-esteem get tangled up with the survival of an institution?

What happens is that you are tempted, in quite powerful and profound ways, to sacrifice your personal moral integrity to protect and save the institution.

And for good reason, as both material livelihood and a legacy of success are at stake.

The associated and very legitimate fears here sit at the heart of idolatry.

--from an unpublished post trying to explain why Christians in institutions--even in Christian institutions--become morally paralyzed by their service to the institution

The Purity Culture of Progressive Christianity: Additional Reflections

Monday's post "The Purity Culture of Progressive Christianity" generated a lot of discussion so I wanted to follow up with some additional comments and clarifications.

To start, some concluded that I was saying that progressive Christianity, because a purity psychology is a work in how we reason about righteousness, is "just as bad as" conservative Christianity. So a pox on both their houses.

But I'm a progressive Christian writing, mainly, for other progressive Christians. Which is to say I think progressive Christianity is getting right some fundamental things about Jesus and the church in a way conservative Christians are not. Yes, I was describing psychological similarities about how both conservatives and progressives reason about righteousness in the idiom of purity. And about how this "will to purity" creates similar problems for both camps. But at the end of the day, as a progressive Christian I'm oriented to see purity/righteousness the way progressives see it. That's what it means to own the label "progressive" after all. (See my book Unclean for how I argue that Jesus reworks purity to align it with justice.)

So to be clear, the point of the post wasn't to say that progressive and conservative Christianity are theologically "the same." I don't think that. But I do think that a purity psychology works among both groups and that this psychology, given that it's a purity psychology, creates similar sorts of temptations.

A second concern raised about the post is that it was centering the feelings (e.g., burnout, exhaustion) of privileged progressives rather than the feelings of the oppressed and victimized. I think this is a potent observation.

I think many privileged progressives do use social justice as a route toward self-justification, as a way of overcoming liberal guilt. Especially if you've come out of fundamentalism or evangelicalism where a purity-driven moral performance has been inculcated into you, where you learn that you are good because you are being good. For many progressive Christians who are post-evangelicals it's very easy to import that same purity psychology--I am good because I am being good--into the progressive fight against injustice and oppression. And the tragic aspect to this pursuit is that, as with all attempts as moral self-justification, we can't ever fully get clean. Not in the evangelical way, nor in the progressive way.

So, yes, there is a legitimate concern that such efforts at moral self-justification in progressive Christianity do unwittingly center the needs, feelings and goals of the person fighting for justice rather than upon the needs, feelings and goals of the marginalized and oppressed.

I think that observation deepens the analysis of Monday's post, that one of the pernicious effects of the purity culture of progressive Christianity is the way it centers the feelings of the privileged rather than the oppressed.

But that doesn't mean that this purity psychology is limited to privileged progressive Christians. Because even among the oppressed who are fighting for justice this purity psychology is also at work.

For example, I was in Selma on Sunday for the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" and the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March. And in Selma there were lots of examples of this. For instance, at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge there was a young African American man screaming at other African Americans calling their lives and alternative forms of activism into question. He rebuked them, saying things like "Ya'll are going home back to your plantations!". What I was witnessing was an intramural squabble between African Americans. And a purity psychology was at work. The same purity psychology that was at work when Malcolm X called Martin Luther King, Jr. an "Uncle Tom" and a "House Negro."

In short, there is a purity culture among progressive Christians and it is at work among both the privileged and the oppressed and, perhaps especially, at the intersections between those two groups. So if you can't see the "purity culture of progressive Christianity" then you're just not paying close enough attention.

Either that or you've weaponized the phrase "purity culture" so that it can be wielded solely against evangelicalism with the assumption being that progressive Christians are too enlightened or "pure" to ever be "contaminated" by that sort of thinking...

The reason for the ubiquity of "purity culture" is simple: purity is one of the ways humans--all humans, progressives and conservatives, privileged and oppressed--reason about morality. Purity is just a piece of our innate moral software. We can't help but think of morality in the idiom of contamination. Progressives as much as conservatives. (Psychologists have called this "the Macbeth Effect." For more again see Unclean.)

Finally, let me end with a few comments about how to deal with exhaustion in the fight for justice.

Some readers felt that I was arguing that because purity psychology creates exhaustion (or free-floating rage, what might be dubbed "generalized anger disorder") that this was warrant to opt out of progressive Christianity. That I was arguing that exhaustion could become an excuse for inaction and complicity. 

That wasn't my point. Again, I'm a progressive Christian. My faith orients around lifting up "the least of these." That's what I think Jesus was doing. That's why I think the progressive vision of Jesus is more biblical. That's the reason I work in a prison. That's the reason I was in Selma. That's the reason I visit differently abled friends at an assisted-living facility. That's the reason I share meals each week with the poor and homeless. That's the reason LGTBQ students know they can come out to me. The post I wrote wasn't about giving up any of these things. The post was about giving up the exhaustion that flows out of an "everything is problematic" mindset that haunts progressive Christianity.

And where does that mindset come from? I am arguing that it comes from a purity psychology--the purity culture of progressive Christianity--that grounds moral performance in freedom from complicity.

To be sure, this is a worthy and noble goal. But this is a vision that we--oppressed and privileged alike--come to experience as both impossible and unsustainable. And if we are not attentive to the temptations related to the purity culture of progressive Christianity our pursuit of justice--for both oppressed and privileged alike--can fall into exhaustion, schism and anger.

So the point of my post wasn't an excuse to give up on justice for victims. The point was to give up on the toxicity rooted in the pursuit of purity.

The call was for progressive Christians to become a little more self-reflective in how they are affected by "the will to purity," in how they both view themselves and others. 

We are limited and finite creatures. We have to pick and choose our fights. We will, inevitably, fight harder and more passionately for some things rather than for others. You might care about food justice and sustainability. You might care about animal rights. You might care about race. Or LGTBQ issues. Or sex trafficking. Or mass incarceration. Or immigration. Or wage and income inequality. Or capital punishment. Or sexual abuse. Or universal healthcare. Or exploitative labor practices. Or woman's rights. Or the plight of indigenous and native peoples. Or war. Or education. Or the treatment of the differently abled. Or the mentally ill. Or clean water. Or world hunger. Or global warming. Or homelessness.

Or even things many conservatives care about, like the global persecution of Christians or abortion.

To say nothing about all the debates regarding how these various ends are to be achieved. When does helping hurt? We might agree on the ends but come to blows over the means.

You care, I'm guessing, about many if not all of these things. But if your vision of being a Christian is rooted in a progressive purity culture--I am good because I am being good--you'll find that you can't fight all these battles with equal passion and investment.

So when the inevitable moment arrives when someone calls you out for how you're slacking in a given area--because there will always be a person who cares 10% more than you in a given area--you end up feeling like a piece of shit. Like a hypocrite. Like a bad person. And it's not just White people who struggle here. After the victories in '65 when Martin Luther King, Jr. turned to the issue of war and the military-industrial complex he was harshly criticized by his Black peers for turning his back on Black people.

Even MLK found it hard to care about everything.

So the takeaway here isn't to give up giving a damn. The goal is to reject the "will to purity" and learn to extend grace to yourself in the midst of the fight. And then, in turn, to extend grace toward others. Because we're all complicit. No one is pure. This is the progressive version of Original Sin.

And that's not an excuse to give up fighting. Nor is it an excuse to sin so that grace may abound.

It is simply the recognition that the purity culture of progressive Christianity--for privileged and oppressed--will be perennially tempted to marginalize joy, love and grace in its pursuit of the Kingdom of God.

Which means that great effort must be exerted to gather grace, for yourself and for others. Daily, like manna. Over and over.

The Lord Saw That She Was Not Loved

The genealogy of Jesus found in Matthew 1 lists five women. And as many have pointed out before, these women are interesting in that they are either Gentiles or are implicated in sexual scandals. Thus, in the highlighting these women Jesus's genealogy tells a tale of grace

But there is another women in this story, one not mentioned directly, and her story is also a story of grace.

In Genesis 29 we get the love story of Jacob and Rachel. And it seems to have been love at first sight. Upon seeing Rachel Jacob kisses her and weeps aloud (29.11). We're told that Rachel had "a lovely figure and was beautiful" (29:17). And the text just directly comes out and says in 29.18: "Jacob was in love with Rachel."

In short, this is the very first love story in the bible.

So in love with Rachel was Jacob that his seven years of labor to earn her hand in marriage flew by (29:20): "So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her."

It's all very, very romantic.

But as we know, Rachel's father Laban pulls a trick on Jacob. Instead of marrying Rachel after seven years of service Laban sneaks Leah into the bedroom, Rachel's older and less attractive sister. Discovering he consummated a marriage with Leah instead of Rachel Jacob finds out that he has to work for Laban another seven years to win the hand of Rachel.

So that's what Jacob does. And finally, seven years later, the love story reaches its fitting consummation. Rachel and Jacob are wed.

Hollywood ending. Rachel and Jacob ride off into the sunset. The most romantic love story in the bible.

But the underside of the story is that Leah is kicked to the curb. As the text says, Jacob's "love for Rachel was greater than his love for Leah."

So then what happens?

When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive, but Rachel remained childless.
Interesting, isn't it?

The Hollywood script would have privileged the love story, right? Think about it. This is the very first love story in the bible. And what happens?

God loves the one not loved. This is, suddenly, a very different and unexpected sort of Love Story. The script of the Hollywood romance is turned upside down.

Grace interrupts the Cinderella story. Or, rather, grace begins a new sort of Cinderella story in picking and privileging the ugly one, the forgotten one, the unloved one.

God's love fills the space in the heart that human love leaves empty and aching.

The Lord saw that she was not loved.

The Lord sees those who are not loved, all those left out of the Cinderella story.

Which brings us back to Jesus's genealogy, a family tree where the stories of women tell a tale of grace. The genealogy starts of this way:
A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham:
Abraham was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah...
And who was the mother of Judah? Rachel, the beautiful one loved by Jacob? Rachel of the Hollywood love story script?
Genesis 29.35
Leah gave birth to a son...

she named him Judah.
It was Leah, the ugly, unloved one.

It was the woman unloved by a man but loved by God.

It was Leah who was the mother of Judah.

It was Leah who was the Mother of the Kings.

Selma 50th Anniversary 1965-2015

On Sunday Jana, Brenden, Aidan and I were in Selma, Alabama for the 50th Anniversary commemoration of "Bloody Sunday" and the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March.

We started the day by going to Brown Chapel for Sunday morning worship. Brown Chapel was Ground Zero for the action in Selma. It was at the chapel where the "Bloody Sunday" marchers started out on March 7, 1965. Brown chapel was also where the marchers returned to recover and receive medical attention after the attack.

We didn't get to go inside for services at Brown Chapel. Given the dignitaries who were speaking only invited guests were allowed inside. Outside we were a part of a huge crowd (pictured here) that watched the service on a large screen out on the street. In the national news it seemed that Eric Holder's remarks during the service received the most attention, but there were other speakers as well, among them Martin Luther King III, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The final part of Rev. Sharpton's sermon was rousing, call and response preaching at its finest.

Out in the crowd we got to meet some great people. A sweet woman who was a Sunday School teacher from Birmingham. A gentlemen who had driven down from Harlem who was a member of Abyssinian Baptist Church.

The Brown Chapel service lasted over three hours. We had to leave for a bit but returned to the Chapel for the march which was scheduled to start at 2:30.

Downtown at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge a huge crowd had gathered--with CNN helicopters flying overhead. That crowd started across the bridge around 2:30. Soon after the large crowd gathered by the chapel set out on our march, the two crowds meeting in downtown Selma creating a sea of people heading toward and over the bridge.

It was quite a human traffic jam. We'd never been in a crowd that size before. Banners were being carried. Flags were waving. Drums were being beaten. And all sorts of groups were chanting. And despite the crush of people everyone was, in our experience, patient, conscientious, nice and happy. Below is a picture of and from the crowd moving toward the bridge, along with a Beck family selfie:

All through the day there was a lot of conversation--from the speakers we heard, to the conversations we had with fellow marchers, to the protests/demonstrations that were going on, to the petitions being passed--about then and now. Selma and America in 1965 and in 2015.

Obviously, there was an emphasis in honoring the past, especially those who gave their lives during the struggle in Selma--Jimmy Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo and Jonathan Daniels--and those who shed their blood on "Blood Sunday." And as John Lewis noted during his introduction of President Obama on Saturday, because of these sacrifices important progress has been made since 1965.

And over and over it was said that the most important way we can honor those who sacrificed is simple: Vote.

People died--they died--and were beaten to obtain and give others the opportunity to vote. So voting is the way we best honor their sacrifice.

And yet, while the day honored the past much of the conversation focused on the challenges ahead.

The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were still very much on everyone's minds. "Hands up, Don't Shoot," "I Can't Breathe," and "Black Lives Matter" ran through the speeches, conversations, crowds, protests and demonstrations. All day Jana and I had great conversations with the boys about the events in Ferguson and Staten Island.

There was also a lot of conversation about the disenfranchisement of six million Americans who have felony convictions, even after these citizens have paid their debt to society. Statistically, this disenfranchisement disproportionately affects African-American men, a part of "the New Jim Crow."

Finally, there was also a great deal of concern expressed about how the 1965 Voting Rights Act itself is being weakened, by the Supreme Court striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act (federal supervision of states with a history of racial discrimination) and states passing voter suppression legislation.

So the mood in Selma was mixed. A whole lot of joy and gratitude. But also a lot of worry, anger and determination for the struggle ahead.

After a few hours the Beck family finally made it over the bridge. Standing in front of a memorial to John Lewis on the other side I was inspired by an African proverb written there:

"When we pray we move our feet."

Fifty years ago a bridge was crossed in Selma. And there are bridges still out in front of us.

May we pray. And keep moving our feet.

The Purity Culture of Progressive Christianity

We've all read about the problems related to the purity culture associated with evangelicalism. But recently I've been thinking about the purity culture that is found in liberal, progressive and/or radical Christian circles.

My thoughts here were spurred by the essay written by Aurora Dagny entitled "Everything is Problematic."

As someone who identifies as a progressive Christian I found Aurora's essay to be very thought-provoking. The essay describes Aurora's journey into radical, leftist activism and the reasons she eventually stepped away. If you're a progressive Christian like me I encourage you to read the whole thing.

The one thing I want to draw attention to his how a purity mentality ran through the leftist and radical groups Aurora worked with. Interestingly, this purity mentality was oriented around a set of "sacred beliefs"--an "orthodoxy." This is exactly what you see among evangelical Christians. More, this orthodoxy is used to separate "the good guys" from "the bad guys." Beliefs create warrants for social exclusion, expulsion and scapegoating.

Aurora describing this:
One way to define the difference between a regular belief and a sacred belief is that people who hold sacred beliefs think it is morally wrong for anyone to question those beliefs. If someone does question those beliefs, they’re not just being stupid or even depraved, they’re actively doing violence. They might as well be kicking a puppy. When people hold sacred beliefs, there is no disagreement without animosity. In this mindset, people who disagreed with my views weren’t just wrong, they were awful people. I watched what people said closely, scanning for objectionable content. Any infraction reflected badly on your character, and too many might put you on my blacklist. Calling them ‘sacred beliefs’ is a nice way to put it. What I mean to say is that they are dogmas.

Thinking this way quickly divides the world into an ingroup and an outgroup — believers and heathens, the righteous and the wrong-teous. “I hate being around un-rad people,” a friend once texted me, infuriated with their liberal roommates. Members of the ingroup are held to the same stringent standards. Every minor heresy inches you further away from the group. People are reluctant to say that anything is too radical for fear of being been seen as too un-radical. Conversely, showing your devotion to the cause earns you respect. Groupthink becomes the modus operandi. When I was part of groups like this, everyone was on exactly the same page about a suspiciously large range of issues. Internal disagreement was rare. The insular community served as an incubator of extreme, irrational views.

High on their own supply, activists in these organizing circles end up developing a crusader mentality: an extreme self-righteousness based on the conviction that they are doing the secular equivalent of God’s work. It isn’t about ego or elevating oneself. In fact, the activists I knew and I tended to denigrate ourselves more than anything. It wasn’t about us, it was about the desperately needed work we were doing, it was about the people we were trying to help. The danger of the crusader mentality is that it turns the world in a battle between good and evil. 
What is fascinating to me is how this is the exact same psychological dynamic at work among conservative, evangelical Christians. It's just the progressive version of it. 

And this "will to purity" doesn't just manifest in protecting sacred beliefs, it manifests in behavior as well. Both evangelical and progressive Christians doggedly pursue a vision of moral purity.

For evangelical Christians moral purity will fixate on hedonism (e.g., sex, drug use).

For progressive Christians moral purity will fixate on complicity in injustice. To be increasingly "pure" in progressive Christian circles is to become less and less complicit in injustice. Thus there is an impulse toward a more and more radical lifestyle where, eventually, you find yourself feeling that "everything is problematic."  You can't do anything without contaminating yourself.

To be clear, I'm not judging any of this. I'm simply trying to trace out the contours of the purity culture at work among progressive Christians. Mainly because I think many progressive Christians have become burnt out by this psychology. Progressive Christians have become burnt out by the chronic anger produced by the "good vs. evil" Crusader mentality and burnt out by the chronic exhaustion of living in a world where "everything is problematic."

For most of us, the vision of progressive Christianity--as we took up the banner of social justice--started out so hopeful and joyous.

But for far too many, in the words of Aurora, the purity culture of progressive Christianity caused it all to "metastasize into a nightmare."


For a follow up post about the purity culture of progressive Christianity, responding to the conversation here and elsewhere on social media about this post, see The Purity Culture of Progressive Christianity: Additional Reflections.

The 50th Anniversary of "Bloody Sunday"

Fifty years ago today, on March 7th, 1965, was "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Alabama. This was the day when Civil Right activists were attacked by police officers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The marchers were planning to walk to Montgomery, the state capital, to protest the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson and to continue their demands for voting rights legislation.

I've walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge twice. Once with my family and once with ACU students on the ACU Freedom Ride. Click on those links for pictures and more history about "Bloody Sunday."

Tomorrow I'll walk the bridge for a third time. Jana, the boys and I are driving to Selma today to participate, with thousands of others, in the bridge crossing on this the 50th anniversary weekend of "Blood Sunday."

While we are sad to miss today, because we're on the road, the speeches of Presidents Bush and Obama in Selma I'd rather catch a glimpse of John Lewis who is leading the march on Sunday.

John Lewis is a hero of mine. 

And the struggle continues...

Unpublished: The Biology of Sex and Gender on the Left and Right

There is a weird disjoint between how biological science is used on both the right and the left in regards to sex and gender.

Concerning the biological science regarding same-sex attraction, the findings that same-sex attraction has genetic and other non-genetic/biological foundations is generally taken to be helpful to liberals and unhelpful to conservatives. Framed other way, the scientific conclusion that same-sex orientation is "natural" is welcomed by liberals but is worrisome to conservatives.

By contrast, concerning the biological science regarding gender "differences," the findings that (statistical) differences between men and women have genetic and other non-genetic/biological foundations is generally taken to be helpful to conservatives and unhelpful to liberals. Framed other way, the scientific conclusion that (statistical) gender differences are "natural" is welcomed by conservatives but is worrisome to liberals.

--from an unpublished post exploring the use of science in debates about gender and sexuality

Traces of Polytheism in 2 Kings

Preparing for my bible study out at the prison I was reading through 2 Kings and came upon this really curious passage in 2 Kings 3. There seems to be the shadow of another god in the biblical text.

In the story the Israelites are attacking their perennial enemies, the Moabites. And the Israelites get the upper hand:
2 Kings 3.24-27 (NRSV)
But when they came to the camp of Israel, the Israelites rose up and attacked the Moabites, who fled before them; as they entered Moab they continued the attack. The cities they overturned, and on every good piece of land everyone threw a stone, until it was covered; every spring of water they stopped up, and every good tree they felled. Only at Kir-hareseth did the stone walls remain, until the slingers surrounded and attacked it.
Facing defeat the Moabite king does something desperate. He offers a child sacrifice--To whom?--and that sacrifice saves Moab. After the sacrifice the NRSV reads "and a great wrath came upon Israel" causing them to retreat:
When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom; but they could not. Then he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.
Where did this wrath come from? The text doesn't really say. Some translations leave in the ambiguity while others tilt toward a human origin:
And there came great wrath against Israel

And there was great indignation against Israel

And there was great wrath against Israel

The fury against Israel was great
The ASV, NRSV, and the ESV keep the source of the wrath vague. The KJV and the NIV seem to suggest that the wrath comes from the onlooking Moabites. That is, seeing their king sacrifice his son fills the Moabites with "fury" and "indignation" which rekindles their fighting spirit to throw back the Israelite advance.

But the text doesn't actually say that. It doesn't say that the Moabites got angry or that they rose up against the Israelites in anger. It simply says that in response to the child sacrifice a "wrath came up against Israel" and that "Israel withdrew."

Basically, if you read between the lines the god of Moab--Chemosh (Num. 21.29; Jer. 48.7, 13, 46)--seems to be implicated. First, a child sacrifice is made by the king of Moab. This wouldn't have been to YHWH but to Chemosh. And after the sacrifice to Chemosh a "great wrath" comes upon the Israelites, causing them to withdraw. It seems reasonable to assume that Chemosh found the sacrifice acceptable and moved against Israel.

Of course, Chemosh isn't directly mentioned. One wonders if a direct mention of the Moabite god was removed from the original story in light of the developing monotheism of Israel.

If this story contains a trace of Chemosh it is one of the few stories, and the only one I'm aware of as I consult my memory, where a god other than YHWH has a causal impact on human events in the Old Testament.

Eclectic Theology

I approach theology as a psychologist. Which means that I approach theology eclectically. Theology, as I see it, is a tool. My main criterion for picking up a bit of theology is utilitarian and pragmatic in nature. The question I ask of theology is this: Will it do the job?

And this approach to theology is, I've discovered, a bit unique.

Theoretically, psychology is a diverse discipline. You have Freud and all the thinkers from the psychodynamic tradition, people like Jung and Adler. You also have humanistic approaches like Carl Rogers. Or existential orientations like Victor Frankl. To say nothing of the behaviorists. Or the cognitive approaches pioneered by Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis.

There are so many theories in psychology that classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels are devoted to surveying and investigating all these theories.

So when it comes to practice, then, counseling and clinical psychologists have to make some choices. Which theory--we call it a "therapeutic orientation"--will guide how you approach therapy? Because these various theories have very different thoughts about what ails us and what might be done about it. A psychodynamically orientated therapist will be very, very different from a behavioral therapist.

Some psychologists pick a particular orientation and get really good at that approach. But most psychologists describe themselves as eclectic in therapeutic orientation. Eclectic psychologists pick and choose among the various theories and techniques depending upon the presenting problem of the client. They might pick cognitive-behavioral techniques if the presenting issue is depression or opt for a psychodynamic approach it the issue is rooted in family dynamics or past trauma.

And even among those psychologists who specialize in a particular approach an eclectic and utilitarian sensibility reigns. Few psychologists are purists. Techniques are routinely borrowed from other orientations. You grab anything that might help a client. And given that clients are human beings and not machines you often have to experiment with techniques to see what works.

In short, as a psychologist I was trained to see theories as tools. I was trained to pick up theory, use it, drop it, and pick up another one. Psychologists don't get overly attached to theories. We treat theories the way a surgeon looks at a table of scalpels and surgical implements. You reach for the one you need at the moment. You reach for the tool that does the job.

As best I can tell, theological education is a bit different in this regard. Theological education appears to be more polemical, an identification with a school of thought which involves noting the various failures or problems of alternative or rival theological approaches. Standard putdowns of various theological thinkers or positions are practiced and repeated.

In contrast to psychological clinical training, theologians do not seem to be encouraged to pick up  and drop theories--that is, the writings of a church father or theologian--in an eclectic, disinterested and utilitarian fashion, mixing and matching them to solve a problem. I've rarely seen, for example, Aquinas or Augustine or a church father picked up or, most diagnostically, dropped from a discussion in this way.

I'm generalizing of course. For example, graduate schools in psychology do lean toward certain approaches. And practicum supervisors may have a very distinctive approach. Still, in the course of your graduate education in psychology you'll get exposed to, trained in and experiment with a variety of therapeutic approaches. Which is why most practicing psychologists describe themselves as eclectic rather than as subscribing to a particular school of thought.

All this has affected how I approach theology. Theology, as I see it, is a collection of theories and I've been trained to handle theories in a pragmatic, utilitarian manner. I have a what'll-do-the-job approach. Theology is a tool. So if one theological approach isn't particularly good at something I set it down and reach for something that seems to work better.

For example, there are things that, say, a Tillich can do better than, say, a Hauerwas. And there are things a Hauerwas can do that Tillich cannot. For some things I think Augustine is a great tool. For other things I think liberal theology is a better tool. Sometimes I think Niebuhr is more helpful than Yoder while at other times I think the reverse. I'll reach for Barth if I need him but I'll also grab death of God theology. Sometimes I'll reach for a high Christology. Sometimes a low one. Today I might preach the doctrine of Original Sin. Tomorrow I might denounce it.

I'll use anything that'll do the job. Just like an eclectic psychologist will reach for any technique or approach that they think will be helpful.

All this explains why I can be so breathtakingly quick to dismiss certain theologians or theological systems that others deem sacrosanct. Let's say, for example, your theology is rooted in Thomas Aquinas and you love theologians like Herbert McCabe. Well, I'll be quick to drop McCabe and Aquinas when I don't find them useful in the same way I'm quick to drop Sigmund Freud. For lots and lots of things I think Freud and Aquinas are useful and helpful. But Freud and Aquinas are tools.

To be sure, treating someone like Aquinas as a tool will be shocking for some theologians. But that's how we treat the giants in my discipline. What I'm trying to describe here is that my quickness to drop someone like Aquinas (or any church father or theologian) isn't due to arrogance but is, rather, a disciplinary habit inculcated by my training in psychology where theories are picked up and dropped for pragmatic reasons with startling speed and regularity. I bring those social science habits to the work of theology.

Of course, I could be wrong about how I've characterized theological training. I'm an outsider looking in. Theologians may be trained to be as eclectic and utilitarian as psychologists. To be sure, in theological education budding theologians are exposed to theological history and the various theological systems. But I don't know if they are trained to mix and match theories in their work as indiscriminately as psychologists are trained to do.

Basically, I don't tend to think about a theological position as being "right or wrong." My focus is on usefulness. Every theological position has strengths and weaknesses, and noting the weaknesses doesn't mean the theological position is "wrong." It just means that it's useful for some things and not for others.

Which is right, penal substitutionary atonement or Rene Girard? Liberal theology or Barth? Yoder or Neibuhr? Thomas Aquinas or death of God theology?

Goodness gracious. I don't know.

But I find them all very useful. 


I was freezing. Sitting in a cold metal folding chair. My feet on a carpet soaked with icy water. By all accounts I should have been miserable.

It had been freezing in Abilene for the last two weeks. And for some reason the heating system in the prison chapel had been turned off. In fact, the system seemed to be blowing cold air. And it was below freezing outside.

To make matters worse leaks had sprung up all over the ceiling. Buckets everywhere catching ice cold water dripping from the ceiling. Huge portions of the carpet soaked with water, almost forming puddles. My chair was in the middle of one of these heavily soaked areas.

And those folding metal chairs aren't too cozy in cold damp conditions.

Such was the state of the chapel out at the prison for our Monday night bible study.

And we couldn't have been happier.

Because of staffing shortages and the weather our study hadn't met in a few weeks. So this night, all back together again, felt like a reunion. Hugs, smiles and laughter all around. It was good to be together again.

To sing together. Pray together. Talk about Jesus together.

We were in a freezing cold, soaking wet room inside a maximum security prison. You could hear the drip, drip, drip of buckets collecting icy droplets. And guess what we talked about?

We talked about joy.

A Lenten Reflection: On Sin and Self-Deception

In thinking about Lenten observance, this season of self-examination, revisited my review of Gregg Ten Elshof's book I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life.

We don't talk about self-deception much but the bible does warn about it in many places:
Jeremiah 17.9
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

Obadiah 1.3
The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks and make your home on the heights, you who say to yourself, 'Who can bring me down to the ground?'

Galatians 6.3
If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
In the past warnings regarding self-deception were common. However, in his book Ten Elshof argues that self-deception has faded from our view, particularly in Christian communities. Christians worry about a great many vices but we rarely warn against self-deception.

Which is odd because we know self-deception is everywhere. Ten Elshof cites studies that show how 94% of us think we do a "better than average job" in our places of work or how 100% of us think that we are "better than average" in getting along well with others. Clearly there is some self-deception at work in all this. Think about the people you will encounter today at work. All of these people think they are "better than average" in getting along with their coworkers! Obviously, some of these people are seriously deluded. But I, of course, actually do get along really well with others...

So self-deception is everywhere and it affects our ability to be honest with ourselves. But we have trouble following the advice of the ancients. We have trouble admitting we might be self-deceived. Why is that?

Ten Elshof argues that when vices get promoted in severity we have a more difficult time admitting that we engage in such practices. The more severe the vice the greater the social and emotional cost to recognize its effect upon us. Ten Elshof has us consider the case of racism:
Now a remarkable thing happens when a vice gets a promotion, when it is perceived as having greater negative moral weight than it once had. Consider racism. Many of us, myself included, have a hard time these days admitting that we correlate the significance of a person's existence with the color of his or her skin. This hasn't always been so. There have been times and places--in fact, there are places now--where people would have no trouble at all recognizing they correlate the significance of a person's existence with the color of his of her skin. They may or may not use the word, but they have no trouble with the idea that they are, themselves, racist.

In the recent history of developed western society, though, racism earned a well-deserved promotion in the ordering of vices. This is all to the good. But with that promotion came an increased emotional cost in the recognition, "I am a racist." If racism is worse than we thought, then it's harder than it used to be to admit to yourself that you're a racist. And it is at this point that life offers us the self-deception deal. You can experience the satisfaction that rightly belongs to the person who steers clear of the vice of racism if you can but convince yourself that you're not a racist. Unsurprisingly, a great many people take the deal.
To illustrate this, Ten Elshof has us consider a fictional (but all too real) example:
Consider a person with racist beliefs. Lucille is a dear Christian woman in her eighties. Suppose Lucille is answering a series of True/False questions and comes upon the following:

True or false: People of all ethnicities are equally valuable, equally loved by God, and equally to be respected.

Lucille would circle "true" without hesitation. It would strike her as a truism--something you'd have to be a moral wretch to disagree with. Of course she believes this! Were you to seriously raise this question in conversation, she might well be offended by the mere suggestion that it should be treated as an open question. But you need spend only half a day with Lucille to see that she believes no such thing. Her language and behavior exhibit a clear and habitual disdain for African-Americans in her context. She does not believe them to be equally valuable, equally loved by God, and equally to be respected. It's not quite that she's being hypocritical or dishonest. She sincerely thinks that she believes this. But she doesn't.
These observations are, I think, extraordinarily important. Especially during Lent. Self-deception of this sort is rampant within the Christian community. And it's not that people are being hypocritical (although many are). People really do believe they aren't afflicted by a variety of vices, racism included.

But, as we have noted, it is very hard to admit these things about ourselves. Why? It goes back to the promotion of vices. The more severe the vice the greater the cost in its recognition.

Interestingly, Ten Elshof goes on to suggest that self-deception itself has increased in severity in a way similar to racism. This makes it doubly hard to see through the lies we tell ourselves. Before we can admit we have racist attitudes we also have to confront the ways we've deceived ourselves about having racists attitudes. Being doubly convicted in this way--admitting you're self-deceived and racist--is a hard hill to climb.

How did self-deception itself get promoted as a vice?

Ten Elshof argues that we moderns have become increasingly concerned with issues of authenticity or "being real." This shift, he argues, was largely due the rise of existentialism. We have traded in being good for being authentic. And with that shift the sin of self-deception got a promotion. In a culture of authenticity being self-deluded or self-deceived is now one of the greatest sins we can commit. Thus, we just can't admit to ourselves that we might be self-deceived. Ten Elshof on this point:
...beginning with Kierkegaard, the existentialists (including Sartre, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others) elevated authenticity to a place of primary importance in their understanding of the virtues. Due to the writings of the existentialists and other cultural trends, the "Good Person" was increasingly understood to be the "Authentic Person." Being true to oneself became a--or, in some cases, the--chief good. Self-deception, then, was given a promotion in the ranking of vices. What was once a derivative vice--one whose primary importance was found in its ability to facilitate other, more serious, vices--became itself the most egregious of all sins.
And in the face of this pressure to be "authentic" and "real" we simply cannot admit we are self-deceived and self-deluded. Despite massive and catastrophic evidence to the contrary.

Consequently, if Lent is to be a season of self-examination and repentance then Lent must be increasingly involved in the work of penetrating our self-deception.

Lent must be the hard work of exposing the lies we tell ourselves.