Personal Days: Watching a Basketball Game with St. Augustine

Brenden, my oldest son, is in the middle of basketball season. It's been an interesting year in the stands. Our fans have been particularly--Hmmm, how to say this?--vocal and enthusiastic this year. And not in a good way. And the most mortifying thing about this is that we are a Christian school. Christian text and mottoes fill the gym and we start the game with a word of prayer. And still, despite all this, the behavior from our fans is abysmal. Last week our Athletic Director sent an email to the parents of the school reminding them to tone it down. It's sad.

As I still in the stands, as yelling takes place all around me, my mind tends to drift to Augustine.

Our desires are good but disordered. As I watch parents I can't but affirm the goodness of loving your child and wanting the best for him or her. Nor do I fault the love of excellence and effort in the struggle to win in a competition. All these desires are good and loving these things is godly, healthy and appropriate.

But these desires--the love of a child, the desire to win--become disordered when elevated to the highest place. The love of a child becomes disordered when we begin to yell at other children and cheer their failures. The desire to win becomes disordered when we begin to despise the other team and dehumanize the referees.

So, wish us luck this evening. Brenden as a game tonight. That's where I'll be.

Sitting in the stands. Cheering Brenden and the Panthers. Thinking about Augustine.

The Circle of Our Affections

Two weeks ago I wrote about the famous social psychology study From Jerusalem to Jericho. Conducted by John Darley and Daniel Batson the study found that hurry and time pressure reduced helping behavior among seminarians on their way to preach a sermon about the Good Samaritan.

In case you missed it, in the comments of that post Julie shared a personal story that really moved me.

I've read Julie's story now to a few different audiences at church as an example of the Little Way of hospitality, an example of how through small acts of kindness we welcome people into the warm circle of our affections.

Julie's comment and story:
I heard of this study [From Jerusalem to Jericho] many years ago (probably at ACU) and was just telling a friend about it yesterday. I was reminded of it when I headed out in a snowstorm for my MSW class on death, dying and bereavement on Monday. My neighbor, an elderly Cambodian man with schizophrenia and terminal cancer, was walking to the bank and asked if he could accompany me. I knew it would make me late for class and keep me out longer in the storm, but I also realized that it was a good thing to do. We had a lovely chat and he sweetly bowed to me as we parted. I was late for class. The next day he died of a heart attack while receiving his chemotherapy treatment. I am grateful for our walk together.

The Perfections of Grace in Calvinism, Arminianism and Universalism

In the series of posts I just finished reflecting on John Barclay's book Paul and the Gift I used Barclay's perfections of grace to comment on different soteriological positions, mainly comparing and contrasting Calvinism and Arminianism, but also mentioning Universalism.

What I'd like to do in this post is show how Barclay's perfections of grace map onto Thomas Talbott's propositions as described in his book The Inescapable Love of God and his essays in the edited book Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate.

Long time and regular readers will have seen Talbott's propositions before, but if you're new to them Talbott has us consider the following three propositions:
  1. God’s redemptive love extends to all human sinners equally in the sense that he sincerely wills or desires the redemption of each one of them.
  2. Because no one can finally defeat God’s redemptive love or resist it forever, God will triumph in the end and successfully accomplish the redemption of everyone whose redemption he sincerely wills or desires.
  3. Some human sinners will never be redeemed but will instead be separated from God forever.
We start by affirming that each proposition has ample biblical support. But as Talbott points out, you cannot logically endorse all three propositions. You have to accept two of the propositions and reject a third. And depending upon which propositions you either accept or reject you end up with either Calvinism, Arminianism, or Universal Reconciliation.

Following Talbott, the various soteriologies end up looking like this:
  1. Calvinism: Adopts Propositions #2 and #3. God will accomplish God's plans and some people will be separated from God forever. This implies a rejection of Proposition #1, that God wills to save all humanity. (The limited scope of salvation is implicit in the doctrine of election.)
  2. Arminianism: Adopts Propositions #1 and #3. God wills to save all people and some people will be separated from God forever. This implies a rejection of Proposition #2: God will fail to accomplish something God wills, to save all people. (An appeal to human freedom is usually used to explain this failure.)
  3. Universal Reconciliation: Adopts Propositions #1 and #2. God wills to save all people and God will accomplish God's purposes. This implies a rejection of Proposition #3, that some people will be separated from God forever. (Opinions differ in how this happens, but often a purgatorial view of divine justice is posited.)
So how does Talbott's propositions map onto John Barclay's perfections of grace?

Recall one of the main arguments of Barclay in Paul and the Gift. All of these soteriologies believe in grace. The differences between the soteriologies are found in which perfections they include in their theology of grace.

To recap, Barclay argues that grace can be perfected--as a vision of "pure" grace--in six different ways:
1. Superabundance
Grace is "perfected" if it is lavish and extravagant.

2. Singularity
Grace is "perfected" if it flows out of a spirit of benevolence and goodness.

3. Priority
Grace is "perfected" if it is unprompted, free, spontaneous and initiated solely by choice of the giver.

4. Incongruity
Grace is "perfected" if it ignores the worth or merit of the recipient.

5. Efficacy
Grace is "perfected" if it accomplishes what it intends to do.

6. Non-Circularity
Grace is "perfected" if it escapes repayment and reciprocity, if it cannot be paid back or returned.
And in my series I made an argument for a seventh perfection:
7. Liberality
Grace is "perfected" if it is given to more rather than fewer recipients.
As should be obvious, Calvinism, Arminianism, and Universalism all believe that grace displays the perfections of superabundance, singularity, priority and incongruity. God's grace is lavish (superabundant), loving (singularity), unprompted (priority) and poured out upon sinners (incongruity). All four of these perfections are found in Calvinist, Arminian and Universalist theologies of grace and salvation.

Where the views differ, as hinted at in Talbott's propositions, is in how each theology various perfects efficacy and liberality. Summarizing:
1. The Perfections of Grace in Calvinism
In Calvinism efficacy is perfected but not liberality. Grace accomplishes what it sets out to do (perfection of efficacy), but saves only the elect (no perfection of liberality).

2. The Perfections of Grace in Arminianism
In Arminianism liberality is perfected but not efficacy. Grace is given to all of humanity (perfection of liberality) but the gift of grace fails to accomplish its goal in saving all of humanity (no perfection of efficacy).

3. The Perfections of Grace in Universalism
In Universalism both the efficacy and liberality of grace are perfected. Grace is given to all of humanity (perfection of liberality) and grace will, eventually, accomplish the goal of saving all of humanity (perfection of efficacy).
If you go back to Talbott's propositions you can see how they are teasing out how efficacy and liberality are being variously perfected (or not) by the different soteriological positions.

Grace abounds, but is perfected in different ways.

Paul and the Gift: Part 6, The Obligations of Grace

This will be our last and final post about John Barclay's book Paul and the Gift.

Again, as I said in the first post, these posts are not attempting to be a full and scholarly review of Paul and the Gift. I'm simply using these posts to collect insights from Paul and the Gift that I found interesting, helpful or important. So reader be warned, Paul and the Gift is an academic tome of modern Pauline scholarship. Personally, I got a lot out of Paul and the Gift, but I like reading Pauline scholarship. But not everyone does.

So let's wrap this series up with a final takeaway from Paul and the Gift.

Recall Barclay's argument that grace can be "perfected" in one of six different ways (and I've suggested a seventh). Recall also that many of these perfections don't come from Paul but come, rather, from the debates of church history.

Non-circularity was one of the perfections that emerged out of the Protestant break with Catholicism. Non-circularity is the perfection that for grace to be "perfect" it has to escape the cycle of reciprocity and repayment. As Protestants know, God's grace--as a perfect gift--cannot be repaid. To attempt repayment is foolish and impossible. And to even think that you could repay the gift is an act of sinful pride, the hubris of "works-based" righteousness. Grace, in the hands of Protestants, is non-circular. Repayment is impossible.

But as Barclay points out, the perfection of non-circularity is foreign to ancient notions of gift-giving. And more than foreign, nonsensical. The gift-economy of ancient patronage assumed that gifts obligated recipients to make a repayment of some sort, if not materiality then in gratitude and loyalty. And as Barclay goes on to point out, Paul's treatment of grace adopts these ancient assumptions. Grace creates covenantal obligations. Grace expects gratitude, fidelity and righteousness.

So where did the perfection of non-circularity come from?

Simplifying greatly, non-circularity emerged out of the debates between Protestantism and Catholicism regarding the role of "merit" in salvation. In the debates about sola fida and sola gratia the notion of non-circularity was perfected, pushed to its logical and rhetorical extreme through the fires of debate. We've inherited this distortion--the perfection of non-circularity--which distances us from Paul's more ancient understanding that grace creates bonds of obligation, fidelity and reciprocity.

There are many important implications about this development that I'd like to unpack in this post.

First, the quality of gift-giving is always assessed against its ideal, "perfect" manifestation. For Christians, then, our gift-giving is always going to try to mirror God's gift-giving. So if God's gifts are perfect in being non-circular, according to Protestants, then our gifts are perfect insofar as they are also non-circular. That is to say, our gifts are "perfect" if they escape repayment.

And I would argue that this notion--that our gifts are perfect in how they reflect the non-circularity of God's gifts--has been one of the most toxic and damaging ideas in all of Protestant theology and ecclesiology.

Let me be specific.

If you've spent any time at all in Protestant churches you'll have noted one of our neurotic patterns: We're happy to serve but very, very uncomfortable being served. Protestants are very servant-hearted people. We'll work ourselves to death serving people. But you cannot serve a Protestant. To be on the receiving end of service makes us very, very uncomfortable.

And the reason for this, following Barclay, is our inherited theology of grace, a view of gift-giving that perfected non-circularity. Service--and gift-gifting generally--cannot and must not ever be reciprocated. Because if it were to be reciprocated, in this theological scheme, then it is no longer a gift, no longer grace. According to the perfection of non-circularity, reciprocity contaminates the gift. Thus, we are very, very happy to serve, but that service must never be reciprocated.

You see the sad outcome here, right? In the community of faith we are happy to give but can't ever receive. We are happy to serve but can't ever be served.

Driven by the perfection of non-circularity the economy of love is sacrificed for charity.

Charity is a one-way, non-circular gift, something I give to you that you must never, ever repay. Economy, by contrast, is circular, bonds of mutual sharing and obligation, gifts given back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

In sum, by perfecting non-circularity the Protestant theology of grace ruined our ability to form Christian community, a community rooted in covenantal bonds of mutual affection and shared obligation.

Making matters even worse, the Protestant theology of non-circular grace perfectly suited the individualism of modernity. Non-circular grace--grace as charity--is a one-sided model of love that is perfectly suited to individualism. I, the benevolent giver, give a gift to you, the recipient. Just like God.

Just like a god.

You can see the toxic effects of this notion upon Christian community. But consider also the toxic effects upon Christian service and mission in the world. Because grace must be non-circular when we go into the world we are always placing ourselves in a god-like position: Here we are, as Christ's representatives, to serve you. You cannot do nothing for us. We want no repayment.

And while that sentiment seems noble, you can see how problematic it is. Again, our imaginations about grace have been so distorted by the debates of church history that can't see how twisted our notions of grace have become.

In our twisted imaginations it seems perfectly obvious that grace expects no repayment. And yet it is also perfectly obvious that when we go into the world on mission and service trips that this one-sided model of grace creates enormous problems: Here we are to serve you, and you shall do nothing for us. In fact, you can make a good argument that the colonialist, savior-complex that infects missionary and service efforts in the church is rooted in the Protestant theology of non-circular grace.

Of course I'm not suggesting that we expect payment for the gifts we give. We can't let our notions of grace get captured by modern economies of capitalistic exchange, something far, far from the ancient imagination of gift. What is needed is a recovery of the ancient imagination that gifts connected people in bonds of mutuality.

And of particular importance here is how, in the early Christian communities, these bonds of mutuality broke with the patronage of Greco-Roman culture. Again, in the ancient gift economy gifts created obligations, often suffocating and oppressive obligations, between the rich and poor, between the powerful and the weak. So while Paul assumed that gifts flowed through bonds of mutual obligation, Paul was keen to dismantle the hierarchical nature of ancient patronage and gift-giving. This is the big battle Paul is fighting in the book of 1 Corinthians, where the hierarchy of Roman patronage was leaking into the church.

Paul combats this in a variety of ways. First, any obligations we feel in the church aren't toward each other. Our gifts to each other flow out of gratitude for God's gift in Christ. Second, the gift we give to each other is primarily the gift of love. Finally, connecting back to the last post, our love mirrors the love of God's incongruous grace by nullifying and reversing the honor culture of the world. That's the big take home message in 1 Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 12.24b-26
God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
In the church we practice what I've called rehabilitative honoring, giving greater honor to those who have been shamed by the world (i.e, "giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it").

And what is key here, to return to the point above, is mutuality, that the parts of the body "have equal concern for each other." In the body we are covenantally connected. If one part suffers, we all suffer.

And it's that interconnectedness, the entire motif of Paul's body metaphor, that is cut off by the non-circular Protestant theology of grace.

We could put the matter this way. When it perfected the notion of non-circularity the Protestant theology of grace lost its covenantal imagination.

Which is a point that helps connect us back to the last post.

Recall that Paul's gospel of incongruous grace nullified ("crucified") systems of honor and worth in the world so that the "walls of hostility" could be dismantled in the formation of new and revolutionary social arrangements.

Grace wasn't an abstract metaphysical theory of atonement.

Grace wasn't an internal psychological experience of guilt and gratitude to prompt an altar call.

Grace was a social revolution.

So when we talk about the covenantal obligations of grace we aren't talking about merit and works-based righteousness--pietistic moral efforts trying to be a "good person" to pay back or say Thank You to God. No, for Paul grace was a sociological phenomenon. "New creation" for Paul was the church, the new humanity called out of the world where there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female.

In short, grace for Paul was a lived, social reality. Therefore, to experience and participate in grace was to create and participate in this new social reality. Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. There is no salvation outside the church. This was true for Paul. The reconciled new humanity of the church simply was salvation.

The incongruous grace of God--poured out upon Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female--formed this new humanity, began this new creation. To fracture this humanity is to step out of the church and back into the world, to step out of life and back into death. This is the covenantal obligation of grace, to participate in God's grace by living reconciled in Christ as the new creation.

Thus it is impossible to say you are living in God's grace if you don't love your brothers and sisters. Ecclesiology is soteriology.

So, yes, grace has strings attached. Grace obligates us to live as the reconciled new humanity, as the new creation. There is no grace outside that social reality. No life outside in the dominion of death. As Barclay summarizes (p. 442):
The good news is first and foremost the act of God-in-Christ, but if it is not enacted in the social practice of believers, it ceases to be existentially real.
Or even more succinctly, (p. 444, his emphasis):
[C]ommunal practice is integral to the expression of the good news.

Paul and the Gift: Part 5, A Radically New Foundation for Community

As I pointed out in my last post, according to John Barclay in his book Paul and the Gift Paul's great theme concerned the incongruity of grace, that God gave the Christ-gift to the unworthy.

And as I noted in my last post, this was a revolutionary idea. The incongruity of grace was Paul's great theological innovation.

In fact, Paul was so successful in preaching this message that he completely flipped the ancient understandings of grace and gift-giving. Nowadays we simply assume that grace--to be grace--has to be bestowed upon the unworthy. But this is the exact opposite of the ancient understanding!

But it's hard for us, thousands of years after Paul, to recover the shock of what he was saying.

But there's a deeper problem here. Although we've deeply appreciated the incongruity of grace, we fail to attend to the social and corporate implications of grace and have, instead, turned grace into a private, psychological experience.

For example, when you hear the message of incongruous grace preached from the pulpit the message tends to be about how you, as a sinner, are unworthy to have merited such a gift. The focus is upon your own personal unworthiness--your sin and guilt. In the hands of contemporary Christians the incongruity of grace is often used to shame us: You didn't deserve it, you were unworthy, but Christ died for you anyway.

We can appreciate why we've used the incongruity of grace in this way. Rhetorically and psychologically, the story about how God loved you in spite of your personal sin, guilt and unworthiness is a potent emotional tool for evangelistic efforts.

But as Barclay argues in Paul and the Gift, Paul's message about the incongruity of grace is less about psychology--stirring up feelings of guilt and gratitude in our hearts to prompt an altar call--than sociology. As we pointed out in the last post, Barclay wants us to appreciate how Paul's gospel of incongruous grace functioned in his mission to the Gentiles.

Specifically, God's incongruous grace justified Paul's mission to the Gentiles. Grace had been poured out upon the unworthy, upon the Gentiles as Gentiles. Further, Paul's message of incongruous grace was the supportive theology that allowed Jews and Gentiles to come together in table fellowship, the first, tentative social experiments on the road to becoming the church (see: Acts 11.19-26; Gal. 2.1-21).

But how, exactly, did the gospel of incongruous grace facilitate these social experiments? The answer to that is what I think is the most fascinating and important takeaway from Paul and the Gift.

According to Barclay, new and revolutionary communities were able to form as the fruit of Paul's gospel because the message of incongruous grace displaced social and cultural standards of value and worth, standards that had previously separated people. In the face of the cross all those standards of social evaluation, significance and worth had been "crucified" and thrown away. Freed by these systems of social and cultural worth, the Christian community was able to extend fellowship and love across social lines that had been taboo.

As Barclay writes (p. 394-395):
The cross shatters every ordered system of norms, however embedded in the seemingly "natural" order of "the world"... the cross of Christ breaks believers' allegiance to pre-constituted notions of the honorable, the superior, and the right...Paul parades the cross as the standard by which every norm is judged and every value relativized...

[As used by Paul in his argument in Galatians] The enormous creativity made possible by this vision of reality is immediately obvious: "For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but new creation."... Paul announces the irrelevance of taxonomic systems by which society had been divided in subtly hierarchical terms: old "antinomies" are here discounted in the wake of a new reality that has completely reordered the world..[I]n context the primary focus is the social novelty of communities that disregard former boundaries by discounting old systems of worth. The "new creation" is indifferent to traditional regulative norms and generates new patterns of social practice. 
We can clearly see the social effect of grace in Paul's famous declaration in Galatians 3.28:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 
For Paul these distinctions remain. Paul is a Jew and he is a man. But what has been "crucified" in Christ, to quote Barclay (p. 397, emphasis his), is the "evaluative freight carried by these labels, the encoded distinctions of superiority and inferiority." Thus, continuing with Barclay, "baptized believers are enabled and required to view each other without regard to these classifications of worth."

The heart of Galatians 3.28 isn't an abstract call to "justice" or "equality" but the introduction of a whole new paradigm of social evaluation and honoring. Barclay writes (p. 397):
All forms of symbolic capital not derived from "belonging to Christ" now lose their ultimacy. Baptism "into Christ" provides a radically new foundation for communities freed from hierarchical systems of distinction, not because of some generalized commitment to "equality" but because of the unconditioned gift of Christ, which undercuts all other reckoning of worth.
In all this we can appreciate the sociological impact of Paul's gospel as he attempted to plant Christians communities that violated social taboos throughout the Greco-Roman world. Jews and gentiles, slaves and masters, men and women crossing taboo social boundaries and discarding hierarchical systems of social capital. All these systems of social valuation, distinction and worth were rendered null and void, crucified with Christ in baptism, so that a new creation, tangibly incarnated in the new social reality of the Christian church, could be realized and enjoyed. As Barclay summarizes toward the end of Paul and the Gift (p. 566, emphasis his):
Paul's notion of the incongruous Christ-gift was originally part of this missionary theology, developed for and from the Gentile mission at the pioneering stage of community formation. Since God's incongruous grace dissolves former criteria of worth, it forms the basis for innovative groups of converts, by loosening their ties to pre-constituted norms and uniting them in their common faith in Christ.
Now, to return to our reflections, what Barclay is describing isn't typically how God's incongruous grace is preached in our churches. In most churches the gospel of incongruous grace is not used to "dissolve former criteria of worth" to form "innovative groups of converts." In most churches incongruous grace--gifts given to the undeserving--tends to devolve into what many call "worm theology," a phrase taken from Isaac Watts' hymn Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed: "Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?"

In most churches to appreciate incongruous grace you must appreciate your lowly, worm-like status. And Christian preachers have been extraordinarily creative in communicating this message, with Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" being the classic prototype of this genre.

What has been lost, according to Barclay, and this is what I think is the most potent insight of Paul and the Gift, is the practical sociological thrust of grace, the formation of communities that throw away cultural and social systems of worth to realize "new creation" in their midst through surprising, boundary-crossing communities. As Barclay writes (p. 567):
Ancestry, education, and social power are subordinated to a common "calling" that disregards previous assumptions of worth (1 Cor. 1:26-31). Novel communities are encouraged to relativize the differences in culture, welcoming one another on the unconditional terms by which each was welcomed in Christ Jesus (Rom. 14-15).

Personal Days: Wall Rosaries

When it comes to Christian aesthetics my tastes tend toward the Catholic. Perhaps because I went to a Catholic school from 6th grade through High School. Something of the Catholic aesthetic might have rubbed off on me during those years.

By contrast, the aesthetic of your average Christian bookstore, Mardel or Lifeway, leaves me cold.

But when I walk into a Catholic store, the spiritual resonances within me start to hum.

Jana and I love antique stores that tend toward the thrift and junk shop end of the spectrum. We like old and vintage stuff at a good price. When we visit my hometown in PA during vacations we love exploring these stores.

My hometown is heavily Catholic. So these shops fill up with vintage Catholic articles. The estate sales from these old Catholic families are just full of vintage rosaries, medals and crucifixes. You can't find this stuff down south. Too many Protestants. So the shops back home are a gold mine for someone who, like me, loves a Catholic aesthetic.

Two years ago in one of our favorite shops I found this massive wooden Rosary. It was huge. I asked what it was.

"It's a wall Rosary," said the owner. "You hang it on your wall. That one is from Italy."

Thank goodness you hang it on a wall, I thought. I couldn't imagine anyone carrying it around in their pocket.

I'd been collecting vintage rosaries and had never seen a rosary like that in any of the shops. You can by new wall rosaries online, but I'd never come across a vintage one in a shop. It was so unique I bought it and displayed it on my office wall.

This last Christmas I found another one. Looking through a large collection of old rosaries I found a huge one made of class and medal. I stretched it out, feeling the weight of it in my hands. Another wall rosary. Again, I'd never seen anything like it.

So if you ever visit my office you'll find two of my very favorite things. My two wall rosaries framing a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe (a Christmas present from Jana). All pictured above, the wooden rosary on the right and the glass one on the left.

Paul and the Gift: Part 4, Paul's Incongruous Grace

As we've been discussing in the last two posts, John Barclay has argued in his book Paul and the Gift that grace can be "perfected" in six different ways. (And I've suggested a seventh perfection.)

And as we've noted, this list of perfections is handy because it helps illustrate how most debates about grace aren't really about grace but are, rather, about the centrality or importance of a particular perfection or component of grace. For example, Calvinists and Arminians agree that grace is incongruous--poured out upon the unworthy--but they have fierce debates about the perfection of efficacy.

Barclay makes a lot of interesting observations about how these debates about the perfections originated and have played out in church history. Specifically, one of the reasons grace gets "perfected," Barclay argues, is through the process of debate itself. As we debate positions the give and take of analysis tends to push our definitions and positions to the limit cases, if just to achieve logical and rhetorical clarity. Ideas get isolated and "purified" and, thus, more extreme. Positions start boiling down to either/or.

You can detect the legacy of these debate in our contemporary skirmishes. Faith vs. works. Justification vs. sanctification. Bondage of the will vs. free will. Monergism vs. synergism. Why these extreme, either/or positions? Why these polarities?

As Barclay shows, we argue about these polarities because we've inherited the debates of the past regarding the various perfections of grace. These debates forced the theologians of old to take extreme positions. And we've inherited those extreme positions.

For example, as Barclay points out, early on Augustine didn't seem all that worried about human agency being involved in responding to God's grace. But later on, in his debates with Pelagius and his followers, Augustine began to perfect the efficaciousness of grace. As these debates evolved any bit of human agency was increasingly deemed to be theologically problematic. Consequently, the debate between Augustine and Pelagius latched onto a particular facet of grace and the debate "perfected" that component, pushing the participants in the debate toward increasingly contrasting, and therefore more extreme, positions. And those extreme positions then cascaded down through the ages. We continue to debate these same either/or polarities.

All of which allows Barclay to make a pretty potent observation. Our understandings of grace have been warped by these church-historical debates. These debates have deformed grace, pulling grace this way and that-a-way, like a lump of taffy, with generations of debate tugging the facets of grace toward extreme, "perfected" viewpoints. The view of grace we've inherited from these debates is sort of like our reflection in a fun house mirror. The vision of grace reflected in the mirror of church history is deformed and distorted.       

And that sets up the main part of Barclay's project in Paul and the Gift. Yes, of course, we can't return to an unbiased and "objective" reading of grace as found in Paul. But we can try to discern, as Barclay does, which perfection (or perfections) of grace seemed to be on Paul's mind.

And one of the tools that can be used here in making this assessment is the tool Barclay uses: When we look at Paul's treatment of grace how did he compare to his peers, Greek and Jewish, in speaking about grace? More specifically, was there anything particularly novel, creative, innovative or shocking in the way Paul spoke about grace given his time and place?

According to Barclay, many of the perfections invoked by Paul were common among his contemporaries. For example, according to the ancients good gifts, given by humans or the gods, displayed perfections like superabundance. Lavishness and extravagance has always marked the best and greatest gifts.

But some of the perfections Christians have focused on when it comes to grace are notably lacking among the ancients in their conversations and conventions regarding gift giving. For example, in a point we'll come back to in a following post, the ancients didn't perfect the notion of non-circularity. Among the ancients, Greek and Jewish, when patrons gave gifts there was always some expectation of return, if only loyalty and gratitude. This expectation of return was the raison d'être of the ancient "economy of gift" and the practices of patronage. And this applied to the gifts given by the gods as well.

And interestingly, we don't see that expectation of return challenged in the letters of Paul. Again, this is a critical point I'd like to return to, but for now we can simply note, following Barclay, that throughout Paul's letters he assumes that God expects a return for the gift of grace. Gratitude, fidelity, righteousness. As we all know, after Paul's magisterial disquisitions on grace in the first parts of his letters there always comes the predictable pivot: "Therefore."

Grace has been given to us...Therefore. And what follows Paul's Therefore is a list of obligations and expectations. Like his contemporaries, Paul assumes that grace implies a return. Grace obligates us. Gifts--even God's gifts--have strings attached.

In short, when we look at Paul's treatment of grace he often looks more like the ancients than many modern Christians who have perfected attributes of grace like non-circularity, where human moral effort as a response to grace is deemed perverse, illegitimate and impossible. According to the perfection non-circularity, grace cannot be repaid. To even try is foolish. To think you can is prideful and therefore sinful. What we see in this is how in perfecting non-circularity we create the "faith vs. works" and "justification vs. sanctification" debates that are hard to map onto Paul's writing.

Again, when it comes to grace Paul didn't perfect non-circularity. We did.

So in many ways, when it comes to grace Paul looks more like the ancients than modern Christians. But that raises the question, in what ways, if it all, did Paul break with his contemporaries on the subject of grace?

According to Barclay, in his close reading of Galatians and Romans, Paul did make a distinctive break with his ancient context when he came to emphasize the incongruity of grace. On this point, that God poured out grace upon unworthy recipients, Paul's gospel made a radical break with his culture, making the gospel shocking and scandalous.

Specifically, both Greek and Jewish sources were in agreement that gifts should only be given to the worthy. This notion was related to the issue of reciprocity. If you expect a return on your gift it makes sense to give that gift to people who can, in fact, make that return. According to the ancients, gifts should be given to worthy recipients, people who merited the gift in their ability to respond. That's what made the patronage and the gift economy work.

And critically, this was also believed to apply to the gifts given by God. As shown by Barclay, there was broad agreement among Second Temple Jewish sources that God is gracious to the righteous in the land, to the faithful, to the loyal remnant. To the worthy.

As a theologian of grace Paul's shocking break with both Greek and Jewish culture was to insist that grace was incongruous, that God gave the Christ-gift to those who were not worthy. And while that notion is commonplace to us, in Paul's day that idea was totally out of left field.

As Barclay goes on to point out, Paul's surprising gospel of incongruous grace was critical to his mission to the Gentiles. The distinction between Jew and Gentile was a distinction of moral worth, the Jews being worthy and the Gentiles being unworthy. Paul's scandalous message was that God's grace had been poured out upon both Jew and Gentile, irrespective of worth. In being given to the Gentiles, to the depraved and unworthy, in Paul's gospel proclamation grace was declared to be incongruous.

Now, like I said, the fact that grace is incongruous, that we are unworthy of grace, is a banality for us modern Christians. What was once a scandal has become tame.

But before we yawn at Paul we have to reckon with what I think is the most powerful part of Barclay's Paul and the Gift, what I consider to be the most profound argument of the book.

Specifically, Barclay argues that we have to understand the missionary context of Paul's gospel of incongruous grace.

Paul's gospel of grace wasn't an abstract theological argument about God's universal love. Paul's gospel had a revolutionary sociological objective. In Paul's hands grace was a destructive force that demolished the "wall of hostility" that had existed between Jews and Gentiles so that new social arrangements could be imagined and realized, Jews and Gentiles living in community together. Grace had sociological implications. Grace brought new modes of community into existence. Grace changed how people treated and lived with each other.

In short, we have to understand the missionary thrust of Paul's gospel of grace, how grace facilitated the unprecedented formation of Jewish and Gentile communities. Exactly how grace created these novel social experiments will be the subject of the next post, and it's the part of Paul and the Gift that I think has the most contemporary and practical relevance for us today.

And lastly, the other reason we need to attend to the primacy of incongruity in Paul's gospel of grace is how Paul ignores or assumes things about grace that just don't jibe with the perfections of grace that have preoccupied Christians for centuries. For example, as Barclay notes, Paul just doesn't seem interested in the details about how human and Divine agency work together in salvation. The debates we inherited from Augustine and Pelagius were not on Paul's radar screen as he contemplated practical social problems like Jew/Gentile table fellowship. Paul simply wasn't interested in perfecting the efficacy of grace the way we have been.

In addition, and of even greater practical relevance, is how, as I mentioned above, Paul didn't seem interested in perfecting the non-circularity of grace. Where Paul rejected the views of his contemporaries in preaching incongruous grace, Paul agreed with his peers that grace obligates us and demands a return. As I read Paul and the Gift I found this insight to be very important. So I'd like to devote a post to this as well.

So, to conclude this series there will be two more posts. On Monday (Part 5) we'll talk about how Paul's gospel of incongruous grace facilitated social experimentation. And on Tuesday (Part 6) we'll end with a discussion about how our inherited tendency to perfect the non-circularity of grace has created enormous problems for the modern church.

Paul and the Gift: Part 3, Liberality as the Seventh Perfection of Grace

In his book Paul and the Gift John Barclay suggests that grace can be "perfected" in six different ways.

Many reviewers of Paul and the Gift have said that this list of perfections is the most helpful thing in the book, worth the price of the book, as the list helps us focus on what, exactly, we mean by grace. Specifically, most of our debates about grace aren't about grace per se, but about a specific perfection of grace and if that perfection is central to the biblical vision of God's grace.

In the last post I gave a summary list of Barclay's six perfections of grace:
1. Superabundance
Grace is "perfected" if it is lavish and extravagant.

2. Singularity
Grace is "perfected" if it flows out of a spirit of benevolence and goodness.

3. Priority
Grace is "perfected" if it is unprompted, free, spontaneous and initiated solely by choice of the giver.

4. Incongruity
Grace is "perfected" if it ignores the worth or merit of the recipient.

5. Efficacy
Grace is "perfected" if it accomplishes what it intends to do.

6. Non-Circularity
Grace is "perfected" if it escapes repayment and reciprocity, if it cannot be paid back or returned.
As I've watched YouTube clips of John Barclay present this list to various audiences he's mentioned that he's open to people suggesting additions to this list. So in this post I want to argue for a seventh way grace can be perfected.

Here's my addition of the list:
7. Liberality
Grace is "perfected" if it is given to more rather than fewer recipients.
I'd like to suggest that liberality is a distinct idea from superabundance and incongruity, though there are relationships.

Specifically, where superabundance focuses upon the size of the gift liberality focuses upon the number of recipients. True, giving gifts to many people implies some abundance, you have to have more if you want to give to more people. But the two perfections are distinct. I can give an extravagant gift to one person (superabundance with no liberality). Or I can give small gifts to many people (no superabundance but much liberality).

God's grace, therefore, is perfected in that it is both superabundant and liberal, extravagant and given to many.

But just how many?

That question is why I think we need to introduce liberality as a perfection to Barclay's list. For example, when Arminians debate the doctrine of election in Calvinism their most passionate objections aren't about the perfections of efficacy and non-circularity (issues we discussed in the last post). The most passionate objections to Calvinism are about liberality, about how in Calvinism God's superabundant and incongruous gifts are poured out upon so very few--just the elect. Arminians, by contrast, argue that God's grace is liberal--universal in fact--poured out superabundantly and incongruously upon all of humanity.

As John 3.16 declares, for God so loved the world. As in, the entire world.

Liberality can also be contrasted with incongruity in the debates about universal reconciliation. If all of humanity is depraved and rebellious God's grace given to any one of us is incongruous. But that incongruous grace can be poured out upon few, many or all of humanity. By itself, as with superabundance, the perfection of incongruity doesn't get to the scope of grace. Incongruous grace can be given to the few or the many. Another perfection--liberality--is needed to get at this issue.

But there is a relationship between liberality and incongruity. If the gift of grace is incongruous when given to a single depraved human then that incongruity grows as that grace is poured out on more and more unworthy recipients. That scandal of grace grows with each new addition. And it's that scandal of liberality that many find objectionable to theologies of universal reconciliation. Is grace so liberal that it incongruously includes all of humanity? There has to be a limit to grace, right? A line in the sand where no more will be included, with the very worst of sinners left outside? Such questions are not about the incongruity of grace, but about the perfection of liberality.    

So, this is my suggestion for Dr. Barclay. There is a seventh perfection of grace--liberality--that captures the way we perfect grace by expanding its scope and universality.

Paul and the Gift: Part 2, The Six Components and Perfections of Grace

In the last post I pointed out that John Barclay argues in his book Paul and the Gift that grace is a complex and multi-dimensional construct. Consequently, when we talk about grace we have to be specific about what part of grace we are talking about. Because you and I both might be using the word "grace" but mean very different things by it.

So what are the components of grace?

According to Barclay, as he reviewed biblical and historical sources, grace involves six components, what Barclay calls "perfections."

Barclay uses the word "perfections" because that's how he identified the six components of grace. Specifically, as the ancients and the church debated the nature of grace and gift-giving they would latch onto a particular aspect of grace and gift, identifying this feature as the essence. This essence was undiluted, pure grace. The perfection of grace.

Surveying these historical sources Barclay has identified six different ways grace has been "perfected," features believed to be the essence of grace.

Here is a summary of Barclay's six perfections of grace:
1. Superabundance
Grace is "perfected" if it is lavish and extravagant.

2. Singularity
Grace is "perfected" if it flows out of a spirit of benevolence and goodness.

3. Priority
Grace is "perfected" if it is unprompted, free, spontaneous and initiated solely by choice of the giver.

4. Incongruity
Grace is "perfected" if it ignores the worth or merit of the recipient.

5. Efficacy
Grace is "perfected" if it accomplishes what it intends to do.

6. Non-Circularity
Grace is "perfected" if it escapes repayment and reciprocity, if it cannot be paid back or returned.
As you read through this list you likely felt a lot of it as familiar. Obviously, if God is giving the gift we expect that gift to be "perfect." Consequently, we expect a lot of these perfections to be applied to God's gift of grace. For example, God's grace is extravagant and a product of God's love for us. That is, God's grace displays superabundance and singularity.

We also believe that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. In this grace displays priority (God loved us first) and incongruity (while we were undeserving sinners).

You don't get a whole lot of debate about the first four perfections. By contrast, there has been a lot of debate about the last two, the perfections of efficacy and non-circularity.

For example, does grace accomplish what it sets out to accomplish?

That perfection--efficacy--is at the heart of the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. In Calvinism God's grace can't be resisted or renounced. God's grace is perfectly efficacious: if God decides to save you you're going to be saved. God elects you and you can never fall from grace.

Notice how the perfection of efficacy is at the heart of debates regarding election, irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints.

Notice also how debates about the perfection of non-circularity fit into these same debates. Does grace demand a human response? If just our free will assent? According to some Calvinistic positions any response at all from the human person--even the assent of free will to "accept" the free gift of grace--contaminates the perfection of non-circularity. According to these Calvinistic views, even the act of accepting grace must be the initiative and act of God (a view called monergism). No human agency whatsoever is allowed at any point. Not even the choice of a free will.

The debates between Calvinism and Arminianism about the perfections of efficacy and non-circularity are just one example to consider. As Barclay points out in Paul and the Gift, many of our famous church-historical debates have been debates about one or more of the six perfections.

But here's the super important insight, the same point we made in the last post: Everyone in these debates believes in grace.

To stay with our example, both Calvinists and Arminians believe in grace, they agree that grace is extravagant (superabundance), free and unprompted (priority), loving (singularity), and poured out upon a rebellious, depraved and undeserving humanity (incongruity).

Again, both Calvinists and Arminians believe in grace.

Now it could be argued here that in accepting all six perfections that Calvinists have the more perfected vision of perfect grace. And I guess you could make that argument. Except for two things,

First, when it comes to a perfection like non-circularity, did the ancients--Jewish and Greek--perfect their notion of gift in this way? Specifically, when the ancients talked about the practices of gift giving did they praise and elevate gifts that couldn't be repaid or reciprocated?

This issue is important because, to our second point, how did the apostle Paul perfect grace is his gospel? That's what Barclay is really after in Paul and the Gift. How did Paul perfect grace?

So the historical backdrop is important here as Paul was working with ancient Jewish and Greek notions of grace and gift and working out his own vision of perfection.

So what perfection or perfections did Paul focus on? And are these the same perfections that we moderns focus on in our contemporary debates about grace?

To be specific about it, while Calvinists might insist upon the perfections of efficacy and non-circularity did Paul? How biblical are the six perfections? How central are the six perfections to Paul's gospel of grace?

So that's the big question in Paul and the Gift. The question isn't all the different ways grace can be and has been perfected, but about how Paul perfected grace.

We'll take up that issue shortly--Paul's perfection of grace--but before we do that I'd like to suggest in the next post that Barclay consider adding a seventh perfection.

Can you guess what it is?

Paul and the Gift: Part 1, The Personality of Grace

One of the books published in 2015 that got a lot of attention and praise in theological and biblical studies circles was John Barclay's book Paul and the Gift. Paul and the Gift is a book of Pauline scholarship that analyzes Paul's understanding of grace.

Obviously, grace is a hugely significant doctrine for the Christian faith. Everything in the faith rests upon what we mean by "the grace of God."

Because of the attention the book received and the importance of its subject matter, I thought I'd devote a few posts to share what I found helpful, interesting and important in Paul and the Gift. These posts aren't intended to be a thorough book review but a gleaning of insights from the book that I want keep and share.

To start, one of the big, central ideas behind Paul and the Gift is easily stated: When we speak of grace we aren't just naming one, simple thing. Rather, grace names many, many things and you have to keep track about what you're talking about.

As a psychologist I appreciate this point. Whenever psychologists seek to assess and study a construct in the world the first thing that has to be decided is if the construct in question is uni-dimensional or multi-dimensional, whether the construct is one simple thing or a composite of many different things.

Consider personality. We tend to think of personality as a multi-dimensional construct, a composite of many distinct traits. Consequently, to assess personality we have to assess each personality trait separately. Traits like extroversion or conscientiousness.

The traits themselves we tend to think of as uni-dimensional. We don't usually break a trait like extroversion down into component parts. We tend to measure extroversion as extroversion, with a person being "high" or "low" on that single dimension.

One of Barclay's big points early in Paul and the Gift is that grace is less like a trait and more like personality. Grace isn't one simple thing, grace is a composite of many different things.

It's a simple idea, but one rarely recognized, often with sad results.

As Barclay describes in his book, many of the historical and on-going debates about grace are rooted in ignoring the fact that grace is multi-faceted and complex. For example, Barclay points out, to say that Augustine believed in grace whereas Pelagius did not misses the point that Pelagius very much believed in grace. In a similar way, to say that Luther believed in grace and that the Catholic Church did not misses the point that the Catholic Church has always believed in grace.

What's going on in these debates, Barclay points out, isn't a debate about who does or does not believe in grace. These are debates, rather, about a particular feature, part, facet, dimension, piece, or component of grace. More specifically, these aren't debates about grace per se, but about what facet or feature is believed to integral to grace or, at the very least, what features should be included in the personality profile of grace.

In the next post I'll review the various features and components of grace that Barclay describes. You can think of these as being the "traits" that combine to make up the "personality" of grace.

But for this post let's simply appreciate the important point Barclay is making right out of the gate, a point that can help us in our debates about grace. If grace is many things rather than one thing then when we debate grace with people--and a debate about grace sits at the heart of a lot of our arguments, from total depravity to election to merit/works to the perseverance of the saints--the debate isn't about who does or does not believe in grace. Catholic and Protestant. Augustinian and Pelagian. Calvinist and Arminian. Everyone in these debates believes in grace.

The debate is actually about what traits we think should or should not be included to make up the personality of grace. The personality of grace varies from theological tradition to theological tradition, but everyone has a relationship with grace.

Personal Days: Christmas Presents

So, what did Jana and I get each other for Christmas?

We got each other many different things, but here were the big presents.

Last year Jana and I started collecting vinyl. Jana hunts for Broadway musical albums, the classics, to play in her drama classes and to use the album covers as artwork for her classroom walls.

I hunt for Johnny Cash.

To date my most happy finds are original pressings of At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin.

A couple of months ago Jana was at our local record store--Record Guys--buying some albums. As she was checking out the guy at the register was starting to go through a big stack of records that had recently been dropped off.

As he flipped through the albums Jana saw a cover.

"Is that what I think it is?" Jana asked.

He pulled the album out of the stack and looked at it.

"I think it is."

"Well," Jana said, "I know you haven't priced it yet, but I want to buy it."

And she did.

The album is pictured above. It's an original pressing of Johnny Cash With His Hot Blue Guitar. Released on October 11, 1957 by Sun Records, this was Cash's very first LP, collecting many of his early hit singles with Sun, iconic songs like "I Walk the Line," "Cry! Cry! Cry!" and "Folsom Prison Blues."

Incidentally, for music history buffs, With His Hot Blue Guitar was the very first LP put out by Sun Records, the Memphis studio that gave birth to Rock & Roll in the '50s with artists like Elvis, Carl Perkins (he of "Blue Suede Shoes" fame), Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison...and Johnny Cash.

So, Johnny Cash's first album, pretty awesome present!

For Jana I got her an original piece of artwork from one of Jana's favorite artists, our friend Polly Jones (Polly's website here). Jana loves color. As in, loves it. Which is why Jana loves Polly's art so much. The color and Polly's use of mixed media. Polly often incorporates printed text in her art.

In trying to find something for Jana from Polly's collection Polly offered to paint something original and just for Jana. Polly asked what I wanted. Most definitely flowers, I said, and lots of color. Obviously. Plus, I said, Jana loves tea, and sharing tea is something we love to do together. So if a tea cup or a tea pot could be added that would be quintessentially Jana.

And this is the painting Polly did, Jana's Christmas present:

Jana loved it. The text Polly incorporated were the Psalms, the hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," and a love poem.

And most importantly, there's that tea cup.

A Jesus Hobbyist

Every semester I lecture over a famous study in social psychology entitled From Jerusalem to Jericho.

The study was done in 1973 by psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson and was a sort of modern-day reenactment of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

The participants in the study were seminarians preparing for the ministry. The seminarians were randomly assigned to one of two groups, the first group asked to prepare a sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the second group asked to prepare a sermon on a non-helping subject. The seminarians were then scheduled to deliver this sermon at an appointed time and place.

Upon arriving at the designated place the seminarians were told that the location of the sermon had been changed and that they were to go to a new location.

At this point the seminarians were randomly assigned, a second time, into three groups. A third of the seminarians were put under heavy time pressure, told that they needed to get to the new venue in a hurry (the high hurry condition). The second third was put under moderate time pressure (the intermediate hurry condition). And finally, the final third was told that they could take their time getting to the new venue (the low hurry condition). After this hurry manipulation the seminarians were pointed to the exit and directed to proceed to the next venue.

Along the route (an alleyway) to the next venue Darley and Batson had placed a person who showed signs of distress. Specifically, they were sitting slumped against the wall, head down and eyes closed. As the subject passed, the confederate would cough twice and groan. Basically, they showed signs of abdominal pain. As the seminarians passed the key variable was recorded: Would they stop to check on the groaning person?

In short, as I noted, the study was a controlled simulation of Jesus's parable. We even have seminarians standing in for the priest and Levite.

So who stopped to help? Those on their way to preach a sermon about the Good Samaritan? Or those who had the time to help?

Overall, the results of the study revealed that the biggest factor in helping was having the time. The relevant statistic from the study was (% who stopped):
The Low Hurry Condition: 63% offered aid

The High Hurry Condition: 10% offered aid
And, incidentally, some seminarians in the high hurry condition literally stepped over the groaning person on the way to deliver their sermon on the Good Samaritan.

When I lecture over this study the point I make is this: Most of us Christians are Jesus hobbyists.

Hobbies are what we pursue during our free and leisure time. And the results of Darley and Batson's study suggest that this is how many of us approach our faith. We approach Christianity as a hobby, as something we do if we have the time.

And so that's what I challenge my students with.

Are you an actual follower of Jesus? Or are you a Jesus hobbyist?

The Cleansing and Contamination of Baptism

To be able to say, ‘I’m baptised’ is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps you separate from and superior to the rest of the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people. It is to accept that to be a Christian is to be affected – you might even say – contaminated – by the mess of humanity. This is very paradoxical. Baptism is a ceremony in which we are washed, cleansed and re-created. It is also a ceremony in which we are pushed into the middle of a human situation that may hurt us, and that will not leave untouched or unsullied.

--Rowan Williams, from Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist and Prayer

A Bruised Reed He Will Not Break

One of my favorite images of Jesus comes from Matthew 12.

In Matthew 12.15 we read that "a large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill." The text then goes on to describe how Jesus' care for these people was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 42:
Isaiah 42.1-4
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.

He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;

he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.” 
This prophecy is used to highlight the gentleness and compassion of Jesus:
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. 
The people were broken and fragile. Hanging by a thread. Life about to be extinguished. Bent and bruised. A weak, tenuous and fading flicker. And Jesus cared for and healed them. He did not break them and snuff them out.

It's a model for how we should move through the world. All around us are broken and fragile people. Bruised reeds and smoldering wicks.

Let us not break people and snuff them out. 

Let us move through world as Jesus did.

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
       For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
        And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
    Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
        With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                         Praise him.

--"Pied Beauty" by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Praise God for things that are counter, original, spare and strange.

Like maybe me. Like maybe you.

Personal Days: Toilet Paper and The Choice Paradox

I had noticed that we'd run out of toilet paper. Driving past Walmart Monday night on the way home from the prison bible study I pulled in to get some. I found the toilet paper aisle. And then I saw this:

There is a whole, two-tiered row at Walmart--end to end--filled with a bewildering array of toilet paper choices. Different plys. Tons of different adjectives for the word soft. Infusions of Aloe and Vitamin E. Quilting and ripples.

Incidentally, as I peered at the packaging for the ripples it kind of grossed me out:

Removes more! I really didn't want that image in my head.

I dialed Jana.

"Hey Sweetie, we were out of toilet paper so I pulled into Walmart to get some."

"That's great!"

"Yeah, but I'm standing here in the toilet paper aisle and there are like 10,000 choices. Is there a brand or type that you usually get?"

"Just get anything that is 2 Ply."

I scan the aisles. "Most of these are 2 Ply. Would you like anything else? Aloe infusion? Quilting? Ripples?"


"Yes, ripples. They remove more."

"Just get Great Value, the generic brand."

"That should narrow it down."

I look and find the Great Value toilet paper, thinking my choices are over. But then...

Soft or strong? No!!!!!!!

Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted

As I mentioned in my New Year's day post, my fourth book will be appearing this year. Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted is coming out this May with Fortress Press.

It was nice to see Reviving Old Scratch making Christianity Today's list of 7 Anticipated Books of 2016.

Head on over to Fortress Press to see the cover of the book along with its description.

The Great Experiment

I was visiting my home congregation over the holidays and was scheduled to lead the adult Bible class and preach the sermon. Since we were traveling I didn't bring a Bible with me. I planned to use a Bible from the church for the things I was going to read.

Before the Bible class I popped into the room that served as the church library to scan what translations were in stock. As I scanned the shelves I saw this old, maroon, beaten up, Gideon's New Testament. The cover is pictured here.

I'm not sure what drew me to this old New Testament. I think it was simply its age. I took it down from the shelf and opened it.

On the inside cover I saw the name of the previous owner. In very faded pen marks I read that this New Testament had belonged to Miss Gloria. My heart leaped.

Miss Gloria was my very first Sunday School teacher. Or, at the very least, the very first Sunday School teacher of my memory.

Standing there, looking at Miss Gloria's signature and holding her Bible, the memories came flooding back.

Miss Gloria, African American, light skinned with curly hair. I remembered her horn-rimmed glasses and red lipstick.

But most of all I remembered her heart. A cherub of kindness and grace. We all loved her.

There was something spiritually profound about holding Miss Gloria's Bible. I felt the tether of faith connecting us--all the saints in that small church--from generation to generation.

I flipped through the pages, noting where Miss Gloria had underlined verses in a red ink pen. And then I found a note she had left for herself on the page facing the first chapter of Matthew.

I slowly read the words Miss Gloria had written to guide her Bible study, and her life in Christ:
Read expectantly! God reveals!

The life with God = the Great Experiment, full of surprises and the greatest joys!
I just stood there, marveling.

People often ask me, why are you a Christian? Why do you love the Bible so much? Why haven't you given up on church?

One of the answers to those questions is very simple.

Miss Gloria was once my Sunday School teacher.

A Progressive Vision of the Benedict Option: Part 6, The Limits of Liturgy and Becoming a Franciscan Community

I love liturgy as much as the next person, but liturgy is way, way overrated.

On Christmas eve when Jana and I were home visiting my family in PA we drove down to the Catholic cathedral for the midnight mass. I'm not Catholic, but again, I love liturgy and the liturgical calender. So I really look forward to Christmas eve liturgical services. These experiences are important to me.

As Jana and I were listening to the pre-service readings and music before the mass started a family entered and sat in front of us. They were very, very dressed up and you could tell that this was a part of their Catholic family Christmas eve ritual. Dress up, go out to a late night dinner and then go to mass.

As the family settled into the pews you could tell they were a bit tipsy from dinner or after-dinner drinks. And once the mass started they ignored the proceedings and whispered among themselves.

I'm not judging the family. I mentally check out of worship services all the time. I bring up this Christmas eve experience just to make a simple point: liturgy is over-rated when it comes to spiritual formation.

A lot of evangelicals find liturgy exotic and mysterious and therefore filled with spiritual potency. There is nothing more irritating than talking with an evangelical who has just discovered liturgy. Liturgy is the solution for what ails everything in the church! Liturgy is the answer to everything! Especially spiritual formation.

It's all total hogwash.

If you've spent any time at all in liturgical communities you know those communities aren't creating committed followers of Jesus any better than non-liturgical communities. In fact, if you look at the rates of the religiously-unaffiliated and where they are originating from, many of these liturgical traditions are struggling more than their non-liturgical evangelical counterparts.

Again, let me be very clear. I love liturgy and liturgy plays a central part in my own spiritual formation. There's a reason Jana and I were at that Christmas eve mass. Everyday I say Morning and Evening prayers with either the Book of Common Prayer or the Liturgy of the Hours.

But you only get out of liturgy what you put into it. You can go to Christmas eve mass tipsy and bored. Or you can go to mass expectant and full-hearted. It's a Chicken and Egg problem. You get out of liturgy what you put into it. Which implies that liturgy, as a spiritual formation tool, assumes some prior, extra-liturgical spiritual formation.

You have to care about liturgy to get anything from it. But that leaves open the question, where shall that caring come from?

I'm being hard on liturgy because I think an overly nostalgic and optimistic view of liturgy infects a lot of the Ben Op discussions. James Smith's book Desiring the Kingdom is a huge hit among Ben Op proponents. Desiring the Kingdom is a great book, one of the best I've read in the last ten years.

But one of my criticisms of Desiring the Kingdom is its overly optimistic vision of liturgy as a tool of spiritual formation. The impression of you get from Desiring the Kingdom is that liturgy has this profound ability to shape and direct your disordered desires. No doubt liturgy does do this. It does it for me. But again, that's because I have desires that I carry into the liturgy. And it's those extra-liturgical and pre-liturgical desires--those aching, expectant desires to seek the kingdom of God as I attend a Christmas eve mass--which are decisive.

It's like that joke about psychologists changing a light bulb. How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one. But the light bulb really has to want to change.    

Liturgy is like that. Can liturgy help you desire the kingdom? Yes it can. But you have to desire the kingdom first if liturgy to be of any help.

So what we need, in addition to liturgical practices that help us desire the kingdom, are practices that help us become the kingdom.

In sum, I think the Ben Op has to be a pincer movement. On the one hand, as I described in my last post, we need liturgy to practice "sabbath a resistance." We need liturgy to help sustain our desiring the kingdom, especially in the face of the social shaming we will face as we opt out of the American way of life to live into the foolishness of the cross.

The second part of the pincer movement is creating a community that practices and incarnates the kingdom of God in their midst. The kingdom of God practiced intentionally, intimately, and locally.

Obviously, there is going to be some debate among Christians of various stripes about what practicing the kingdom of God should look like. As I argued it in Part 2 of this series, progressive Christians will reject a Pharisee-oriented Ben Op, an expression of the kingdom that focuses on monitoring orthodoxy and enforcing moral codes. As we've discussed, progressive proponents of the Ben Op will practice the kingdom through radical hospitality and the works of mercy (Matthew 25). Progressive exemplars here are the Catholic Workers, the new monastic movement, and Jean Vanier's L'arche communities.

In sum, a progressive Ben Op isn't just a liturgical community, a progressive vision of the Ben Op will be a Franciscan community.

We're all familiar with how Saint Francis opted out. How Francis stripped himself naked and renounced his family's wealth to live in poverty. That's part one of the pincer movement. But the second noteworthy thing Francis and his followers did, the second part of the Ben Op pincer movement I want to draw our attention to, is how Francis and the early Franciscans were known for their care of lepers, living among and caring for that ostracized, unclean and marginalized community.

When the Franciscans lived with leper colonies they were doing more than liturgically desiring the kingdom, they were becoming the kingdom.

And it's this second part of the Ben Op--the Franciscan impulse to embrace leper colonies--that keeps the Ben Op looking like Jesus, keeps the Ben Op outward-looking and oriented toward hospitality, helps the Ben Op incarnate Jesus' embrace of the unclean in table fellowship.

It's this Franciscan impulse that moves the Ben Op community away from lighting candles and incense in churches to washing the feet in the world. It's this Franciscan impulse that grounds the life of the Ben Op community in Matthew 25 and practicing of the works of mercy.

And again, it's this Franciscan impulse--caring for the "lepers"--that characterizes the progressive Ben Op communities we've pointed to: the Catholic Workers, the new monastic movement, and Jean Vanier's L'arche communities. Each of these communities illustrate both parts of the progressive Ben Op pincer movement, a Franciscan lifestyle of caring for and living for others along with being a richly liturgical community to sustain spiritual vibrancy and identity as we walk an ignoble, foolish path in the world as a community of the Cross.

So that's the heart of the progressive vision of Benedict Option. A progressive Ben Op is a liturgical, Franciscan community. And by liturgical I mean a community that practices sabbath as resistance, opting out of the American Dream to create the space and margin in our lives necessary to live as Franciscan communities, communities that exist to wash the feet of the "least of these" in our local contexts.

And yet, all this raises the million dollar question. How are we going to pull this off? The complaint will come: the local church is filled with families and busy people with mortgages and day jobs! You're not going to get bourgeois American Christians to adopt Catholic Worker and new monastic lifestyles!

You're totally correct. It's very, very hard to detox from the American Dream. So let me conclude these posts with some practical suggestions. Franciscan baby steps for bourgeois American Christians.

Again, the impulse of the Franciscan community is to be an outward-looking community committed to a lifestyle of hospitality.

And if you make a study of some of the great modern practitioners of Christian hospitality, people like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, they tell us that they were followers of the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux.

As I've gone around telling churches about the Little Way I've framed the heart of the Little Way as a practice of hospitality. Here's how I recently described the Little Way:
When you hear the Little Way described it's often described as a practice of self-mortification, of putting up with people when they frustrate and irritate us.

But that's not how I see it. For my part, as I teach the Little Way, I see it as a practice of approaching people, moving toward people in love. As I explain it, the Little Way is a practice of welcome, embrace and hospitality.

For example, in the Story of a Soul an overriding theme in Thérèse's descriptions of the Little way is that of approaching others with small expressions of warmth, welcome and kindness. Thérèse describes how the Sisters in her convent were variously popular or shunned. And having noted these distinctions--the socially rich versus the socially poor--Thérèse goes on to describe how the practice of the Little Way is a practice of hospitality, of welcoming the Sisters who were shunned and marginalized
The Little Way of hospitality is welcoming others, especially the most marginalized persons, with small acts of kindness and inclusion. As Thérèse wrote, "a word, an amiable smile, often suffice to make a sad soul bloom."

Small things, yes, but hugely difficult to do. Imagine how your life would change if you started daily and intentionally seeking out the most difficult to love people in your life to welcome them with a bit of warmth and kindness. Think, even, of how you might practice the Little Way on social media with hard to love people!

The Little Way may be little but, in the words of Dorothy Day, it is a harsh and dreadful discipline.

And here is the critical point: the Little Way is a discipline of hospitality that anyone can do, anywhere and at anytime. Day job or not.

So that's the first Franciscan baby step. Progressive Ben Ops will be communities that will place the practice the Little Way at the center of their lives, individually and collectively. Thérèse of Lisieux will become the patron saint of Ben Op spiritual formation.

And I think Rod might agree with me about that.

Beyond the Little Way, another Franciscan baby step is simply to take a cue from St. Francis.

Share life with a leper colony.

And by a leper colony I mean find people in your local community who have been abandoned by the American Dream. Look around your city and adopt a place and community that has been abandoned by empire, a place where people are lost and lonely. Here are some ideas:
  • A prison or jail
  • A poor school
  • A housing development
  • A city mission
  • A hospital
  • A local laundromat
  • A neighborhood or zip code
  • An assisted-living facility
  • A state school
  • A senior-citizen home
  • A local non-profit serving a marginalized group (e.g., refugees, domestic abuse victims, the homeless)
The list can be expanded and expanded. But the goal in each instance isn't to create a program or ministry to "save" or "rescue" or even "help." The goal, to take a cue from Samuel Wells (PDF), is simply to be there, to accompany, to share life there. To be sure, you will likely serve, help and work for people in all of these locations. But like the Franciscans and their leper colonies, the goal is simply for the church to share life in an abandoned nook of empire.

No one in the church has to sell their home or quit their job or live in voluntary poverty. But there will have to be some opting out of the American Dream, some sabbath as resistance, if we are to make margin in our lives to share life with others. Being with others mostly means simply showing up. Everyday. So the members of the church have to make margin for it. Sharing life in a leper colony, being with others in an abandoned outpost of the American Dream, isn't a program or ministry. It's a lifestyle the church takes on as her core identity.   

You'll know you're heading in the right direction when there is absolutely no budget for this endeavor. When all you do as church is just show up for people. What William Stringfellow calls the sacrament of mere presence and Jean Vanier calls accompaniment.  Being with those abandoned by the American Dream. You know you're on the right track when the entire church is able to say, to a person, we live there. Everyday we are there--in that school, in that jail, in that cancer ward, in that mission, in that assisted-living facility, in that apartment complex--we are there, as a church, everyday.

We, all of us, our children and our elders, our clergy and our laity, our CEOs and our janitors, in one way or another, all of us, are there, everyday.

Being with. Sharing our life together.

Do this and God will do the rest.

For in that leper colony, in that abandoned wasteland of empire, we will find our church, our Christ, our God and our salvation.

A Progressive Vision of the Benedict Option: Part 5, Sabbath as Resistance

If you ask my friend and colleague David McAnulty about the biggest obstacle facing American Christianity his answer might surprise you.

According to David, this is the church's biggest obstacle:

Youth sports.

I think David has a point. Growing up in my faith tradition we went to church three times a week. On Sunday morning we'd attend Sunday School and worship. Then we'd return to the church for a Sunday evening service. And then we'd gather midweek for Wednesday evening bible classes.

Those days are fading fast in our faith tradition. Our churches are dropping the Sunday evening gathering and attendance for the Wednesday evening bible classes has plummeted. And if you inquire about these changes what you mainly hear is that families are just too busy. And a huge part of that is youth sports. Traveling and games on the weekends. Practices during the week. With families so busy evenings are precious, and so the Sunday and Wednesday evening church gatherings get dropped.

Families just don't have time for church anymore.

Well, families do have the time, but families today value sports more than the assembly of the saints. 

I grew up in a very sports-oriented family, but when I was young a sport was a seasonal investment. Nowadays, if you want your child to be successful in a youth sport it is now a year-long investment, mainly with camps and traveling teams that compete for most of the year.

I bring all this up to frame a conversation I recently had with a friend who was lamenting how his family church attendance had suffered because of their involvement with soccer. Soccer had become an all-consuming, year-round investment. "But we have to do it," my friend despaired, "if our kids are to have any chance at being successful. If your kids don't compete year-round they'll get passed by all the other kids who are doing all the camps and traveling teams."

"You're right," I said, "you have to make that commitment if you want your kids to be successful at soccer. But the question I keep thinking about is why we don't care as much about our kids becoming successful Christians?"

This conversation about the impact of youth sports on church attendance, at least in my faith tradition, might seem to be a strange approach to the Ben Op. But I think it's a great illustration about why we need the Ben Op and the various obstacles the Ben Op will face. 

Recall from my last post how I described what I've called "the scarcity trap," the way our neurotic pursuit of self-esteem, success and significance emotionally and physically depletes and exhausts us. The felt scarcity of not "being enough" causes the scarcity of not "having enough," like enough time or energy.

The discussion about how youth sports affects church attendance is a perfect illustration of this dynamic. Wanting our kids to be successful and fearing that our kids will fall behind their peers, we push our families to a point of exhaustion where we no longer have the time or energy for Christian community and spiritual formation.

And beyond illustrating the need for the Ben Op, the case of youth sports also helps us address some of the criticisms of the Ben Op by specifying how, exactly, the Ben Op is supposed to help us.

The biggest criticism of the Ben Op is that it calls for a withdrawal from the world, a turn inward. While a withdrawal from the world makes sense to Christian fellowships with monastic traditions, it's a tougher sell for evangelicals who prize engagement with the world. Evangelicals have always prized social action and evangelism, two things that are hard to do if you withdraw into an spiritual enclave.

To be sure, many conservative evangelicals have withdrawn and turned inward. You see this especially with the home school movement. That's not a criticism of homeschooling, just an illustration about how the Ben Op occupies a contested place in the evangelical imagination, with many evangelicals drawn to the notion of cultural withdrawal and other evangelicals arguing that cultural withdrawal is antithetical to Christian witness and mission.

So what shall we mean by withdrawal? And is withdrawal a critical feature of the Ben Op?

Again, I think our discussion of youth sports is helpful here.

At the end of my last post I said it's time for Christians to start opting out of the rat race of modern, capitalistic societies. And that's what I think should be at the heart of a Ben Op "withdrawal." By withdrawal we mean opting out.

When we are talking about a progressive vision of a Ben Op we aren't talking about physical, geographical withdrawal. Again, in contrast to the Ben Op of the Pharisees, that's exactly what Jesus didn't do. Jesus was radically in and available to the world. And, thus, any Jesus-shaped Ben Op will look exactly like that. More on that in the next post.

So the withdrawal we are describing here isn't geographical, the withdrawal is psychological.

Theologically, a better word might be renunciation. If Christianity is going to become a locus of resistance to Empire we have to be formed into people who renounce--opt out, psychologically withdraw from--the way Empire defines success and significance. In the empire I live in that means opting out of the American Dream.

For example, a family opting out of youth sports to make room and margin for a different kind of family and church life.

Consider another example. In the sermon I gave at ACU's Summit last year, I shared the story of a young man who left a prestigious educational institution to teach history at a poor, inner-city high school. That's opting out of the American Dream. That's resisting empire, pursuing a very different path toward success and significance. 

And notice how the opting out in these two examples--youth sports and career choices--face the exact same challenge: social shaming and stigma, the fear of "falling behind," the neurotic anxiety about not being successful. If we opt out of youth sports we fear that our kids will not be successful or will fall out of step with their peers, making them odd and weird. If we say no to a prestigious career opportunity to pursue more servant-oriented work we fear looking like a loser or a failure to our peers, neighbors, colleagues, families, and even, in our heart of hearts, to ourselves.

In short, to opt out of empire is to experience shame. Which means that we have to become shame-resilient if we want to resist empire, individually and collectively.

And that's why we need the Ben Op. Shame-resiliency.

Proponents of the Ben Op often speak of the need to develop richly liturgical communities as the loci of Christian resistance to empire. And I wholeheartedly agree. But when you hear Ben Op proponents describe liturgy they often seem more interested in nostalgia than resistance, idolizing and fetishizing medieval and monastic liturgical expressions and practices. Don't get me wrong. I'm as nostalgic as the next guy. I have a prayer kneeler in my office and Orthodox icons fill my walls. I use prayer ropes and prayer beads. But as a progressive I don't fetishize the past. I'd rather live in a modern, liberal democracy than as a medieval peasant. And not just for the technological advancements, the moral advancements as well. Again, as many historians have argued the moral advances of liberalism are rooted in Western Christianity. I applaud those moral achievements.

And yet, I embrace liturgy, prayer kneelers, prayer ropes, icons, and prayer books because it is psychologically and socially difficult to opt out of the American Dream. Consequently, I need to practice what Walter Brueggemann has called "sabbath as resistance." As Walter writes:
In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.
Living in empire we embrace liturgy to cultivate shame-resiliency, to remind ourselves that we aren't insane in the face of the shaming we experience in the world when we opt out, when we seek first the kingdom of God rather than the American Dream. Liturgy reminds us that it's the world that has gone insane. Liturgy is where we cultivate the social and psychological antibodies necessary to live counter-culturally in the world.

To be sure, liturgy has its limits and its own attendant temptations. More on that in the next and final post. But liturgy has to be a critical component of any progressive vision of the Ben Op.

Why? Because the cruciform way of Jesus will always be an ignoble path in the world. The Way of the Cross will be shamed as foolishness, by liberals and by conservatives.

Which is why we need a Ben Op, an intentional community practicing sabbath as resistance so that we can develop the shame-resiliency necessary to live ignoble, foolish and cruciform lives in the midst of empire.