Friday, December 30, 2005

Atonement Follies

Adrian Warnock runs a blog. I was doing Google Blog searches and came upon this post of his regarding the atonement. In the last paragraph he writes:

The bible is very very clear, we are saved by Christ from the wrath of God. If you cannot accept that, I am not convinced that you are definitely saved and I would be concerned that you might fall short of the test that we will all undergo on that final day. This issue really is that important.
He's referencing Romans 5:9. One problem with what he says there. In the greek it does not say "wrath of God", it only says wrath. It should be translated as "we are saved by Christ from the wrath". The wrath here is human wrath, not any kind of violent wrath originating from God.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Atonement Theory

There seems to be some controversy in emerging church circles regarding atonement theory. The most popular of these theories is the theory of penal substitutionary atonement. Some people in the emergent movement are finally starting to sense that there might be problems with the very theoretical penal substitutionary atonement theory. When discussing atonement I think we must begin with trying to figure out what the atonement liturgy in ancient Israel represented or was thought to symbolize. I think two writers can help us go back and try to figure out what the idea of atonement is all about. They are Rene Girard and Margaret Barker. Rene Girard should be familiar to some in the emergent movement, while Margaret Barker I think is still pretty obscure. Rene Girard is responsible for bringing us mimetic theory/scapegoat theory. Margaret Barker specializes in the study of the symbolism, liturgy, history, etc of the first temple in Jerusalem and how all that relates to the origins of Christianity. James Alison has attempted a synthesis of the work of Girard and Barker in this very good essay/speech on the Atonement.

There’s an enormous amount of material to go through here. In a very rough and incomplete outline I’ll try to list some of the things I think are important.

  1. Rene Girard has shown that collective community violence/murder is at the foundation of all culture and religion.

  2. Wrath is human wrath. Wrath exists. Human wrath must be controlled or it will destroy everything. A scapegoat must be found in the human wrath war of all against all. A victim which all members of the community can agree. Someone on whom they can place all their sin/violence/evil, allowing them to avert their own wrath and cycle of violence, so as not to destroy themselves. See my posts regarding Achan and the control of wrath. Joshua 7 is an example of an atonement ritual.

  3. The Jubilee and the Day of Atonement are very closely related. You can’t talk atonement without placing it in the context of the Jubilee. Specifically the tenth Jubilee.

  4. The temple represented/was creation.

  5. Isaiah servant songs are crucially important to understand the ancient atonement rite. The High Priest was the servant of the Lord. The High Priest represented/was the Lord. Early on, I believe the King and High Priest were one. Girard has discovered that in primitive societies kingship originated from human sacrifice. Kings were the original human sacrifice to keep the community/primitive society from destroying itself, thus Jesus is referred to as a King.

  6. Atonement is supposed to hold the community together and renew creation. Renew the eternal covenant.

  7. Blood was Life. The high priest emerging from the temple was carrying the life of the Lord, renewing creation, gathering all sinners back into the fold, etc.

  8. Horrible Miracle of Apollonius of Tyana. Pagan atonement ritual.

  9. The goats. Commonly translated, one for Azazel and one for the Lord. Could just as easily be translated as Azazel and as the Lord. The goat as the Lord was a substitute for the High Priest who was/represented the Lord. The other goat was Azazel.

  10. The High Priest took the blood of the sacrificed goat into the temple and in a movement described as “like a whip” sprinkled the blood in places throughout the temple/creation. The leftover blood was poured out under the great courtyard altar. Reference Jesus cleansing the temple with a whip and the souls of the martyrs under the altar, in John’s Book of Revelation vision, their blood poured out as part of the Great Atonement.

  11. Jesus’ miracles were, I think, about the absorbing of sin. The people were placing their sins and illnesses upon him.

  12. He took his own blood into the holy of holies, not the blood of goats or by extension other people. See the Achan and the Apollonius of Tyana stories.

  13. Think of the victim in the Horrible Miracle of Apollonius of Tyana “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Barker has a slightly different translation, “He is the bond of our wholeness, and by his uniting us we are healed.”

  14. See John 10. Notes from a Gil Bailie lecture, found at the Girardian Lectionary:
Internally, the background within John's gospel comes from John 5:2, the reference to the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. Jesus met the paralytic, whom he cured on the sabbath, at the pool near the Sheep Gate, which is the gate in the wall of Jerusalem through which the sheep were led and then held in a holding area on their way to the altar of sacrifice. It was the entry point for the victims of the sacrificial regime.
So how should we understand the mention of sheep in John's gospel? Often, it is as a reference to some form of bleating conformity. We think, "Oh, they're all sheep." No! The most important reference to sheep in the New Testament is sacrificial. Sheep are the sacrificial animals par excellence. (As a matter of fact, sacrifice gave rise to animal husbandry, in the first place. Animals were originally kept for sacrifice. So keeping livestock, in its origins, has never simply been a purely agricultural phenomenon.)
John's gospel introduces us to Jesus through the words of John the Baptist (John 1:29): "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!"
Jesus begins his discourse: (John 10:1) "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit." It is not said, but doesn't the background imply that shepherd (as opposed to the others who Jesus specifies) enters the sheepgate as one of the sacrificial animals?
Jesus continues: (John 10:2-3) "The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out." The shepherd enters into the gate in the same way that the sheep do. The sheep recognize his voice. They recognize the shepherd as one of them.
Who are the thieves and bandits who come in a different way?
If we are correct in suggesting that the ones who come in by the gate are victims, then the thieves and bandits are those who manipulate the system by redirecting its sacrificiality towards more expendable victims.
The word "bandit" has the connotations (in the Greek) of being a revolutionary, or insurrectionist. A revolutionary is one who turns the direction of the sacrificial system. He doesn't transform it; he simply redirects it. The system revolves, but doesn't transform.
Jesus also mentions another who comes in, in addition to the thieves and bandits, who is not the shepherd: the hired man. He says, (John 10:12-13) "The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away--and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep." So we might say that the hired hand is some functionary who tries his best to rehabilitate a certain victim, but only at the expense of another victim on whom he redirects the system. He's just a hired man; he's not really leading people out.
By contrast, Jesus says, (John 10:14-15) "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep." In other words, the difference between the sheep, i.e., the victim, and the shepherd disappear. Here is a shepherd who is himself a victim, and he will lead the sheep out of the sheepfold.

Enormous amount of material to go through regarding this subject. The above only begins to scrape the surface. Entire books could and have been written. I recommend some beginning materials here.

Emerging Church

I really don't know what to make of this so-called emerging church thing. They seem to be groups of people who think they're might be something wrong with traditional conservative evangelicalism, but can't really figure out exactly what it is. Brian McLaren seems to be some sort of emerging church luminary, but it's going to be hard to take anything he says seriously if he hasn't read or studied anything by Rene Girard. I mean come on, I think this is a serious lapse. I don't mean this in an angry way, I just can't believe it. It's difficult work, hard to get started, but if you want a theological basis for your emerging church movement, which really exposes the theological mistakes of conservative evangelicalism, I think you need to study your Girard. Penal substitutionary atonement is radically wrong and it must be attacked and exposed for what it is. Girard can definitely help us to do this. Besides being difficult to catch on to, I can't figure out why Girard isn't more influential in the emergent church movement.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Many Problems of Popular Christianity

There are many problems with popular Christianity. Popular Christianity being the form of "Christianity" that helped to put the Republican party into power. The most serious problem is the understanding or misunderstanding of atonement theology. Here is the very conservative theologian Greg Bahnsen discussing his version of atonement theology.

How can a guilty sinner avert the just condemnation and wrath of God? How can he be set free from the penalty he deserves?
I just don't get this obsession with the idea that the wrath comes from God. I believe in wrath. Wrath exists. Wrath is human wrath.

There's this quite bizarre notion, credited to Anselm, that humanity has sinned and violated God's seemingly arbitrary laws and thus offended God greatly. This sin is somehow of infinite nature, so it requires an infinite penalty. Humanity is not infinite, thus can't pay the penalty to God. So God, deciding that he does in fact need this infinite penalty paid to Him, needs someone of an infinite nature to pay the penalty. According to this view of atonement God concocts a plan by which He sends his son Jesus to die on the cross and pay the penalty for us, dies in our place. Thus all we have to do is "believe" in Jesus and our sins will be forgiven before God. The problems with this theory are enormous. Let me begin a list.

  1. This theory has absolutely no understanding of what the atonement liturgy in ancient Israel represented or was about.
  2. Why are we assuming that God likes to see people die?
  3. Why does the "God" of this theory need human sacrifice?
  4. Why does God need to punish us when we're quite good at punishing ourselves?
  5. Why are so many Biblical passages so blatantly misinterpreted to support this theory?
Atonement was the renewal of the eternal covenant. The covenant was what held creation and the human community together. Atonement was the ingathering of peoples. In the ancient rite of atonement there was no wrathful deity. It was the deity coming forth from the holy of holies carrying His blood to restore all people into community.

Throughout the Bible human wrath is on the verge of breaking out. The war of all against all. An example is Phineas killing the apostate Israelite and his Midianite wife in Numbers 25:10-13. He was given the covenant of peace. He committed an act of atonement. A plague of violence was about to break out, but instead of using his own blood to achieve atonement he used someone else's, but nevertheless he put the sins of the community onto his two victims.

I wish I had more time to fully expound on what atonement means, hopefully I'm giving you little glimpses of what the Anselmian idea of atonement is covering up.

Inerrancy / Literalism

I just don't get the necessity of inerrancy. I just don't think it is an appropriate category. The idea behind literalism I do get though. Literalism is just a way to absolutize current thoughts about the text. Literalism is just a defensive posture. Not defending the Bible, but defending current interpretations of the Bible. In essence the Bible says what the literalist wants it to say. The ultimate standard of truth for the literalist, is the literalist's current opinions. Words, meanings and ideas change, the literalist absolutizes his own group's current interpretations of words and meaning. The Bible is just something on which the literalist can project himself. Feel free to discuss...

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Gospel of Jesus Christ - Beginning to Figure Out What It's All About

According to the Qumran scrolls the high priest Melchizedek would appear at the beginning of the tenth Jubilee and this would end with the final day of Atonement. Margaret Barker has done some incredible research regarding the origins and symbolism of Christianity. She has found striking similarities between Christianity and the symbolism and theology of the first temple in Jerusalem. The Qumran Melchizedek text shows that Melchizedek was the anointed prince of Daniel 9 and the anointed one of Isaiah 61. To understand Christianity we must understand what the Jubilee was and the what the great day of atonement meant and symbolized. Who was this Melchizedek character? He’s mentioned only briefly in the Bible, but the Book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Barker says the “Qumran text speaks of the Day of Atonement at the end of the tenth jubilee (490 years) and Daniel 9 of the Day of Atonement at the end of seventy weeks of years (also 490 years).” In the Qumran text Melchizedek is the one who brings atonement. In Daniel, Barker says, the one who brings atonement is unnamed anointed Prince.

Melchizedek was the great high priest. Barker says that according to the Qumran Melchizedek text that Melchizedek “was the figure who was expected to appear in the first week of the tenth Jubilee and teach about the end of the age, to rescue the children of light from the power of Satan, to set people free from the debt of iniquity, to establish the Kingdom of God and to perform the great atonement sacrifice of the last days”. The thing is Jesus appeared at the exact time that Melchizedek was expected to appear. Ms. Barker calculates that Jesus was baptized in the first week of the tenth Jubilee and she says, “he claimed to have fulfilled the Jubilee prophecy in Isaiah 61 which was associated with Melchizedek. The tenth and final Jubilee was the background of the Gospels. The Jubilee is the “Good News”.

We’re starting at the beginning of Christianity and at all beginnings we need to define our terms. What I’ve written above really is not very clear. It was hard to figure out where to start. I need to answer a lot of questions.

  • What is enacted on the day of atonement? What does it symbolize?

  • What is the role of the high priest?

  • What does the temple symbolize?

  • The goats?

  • The blood?

  • What is the Jubilee?

  • This Melchizedek character what’s up with him? Why is Psalm 110, the Melchizedek Psalm, the most frequently used text in the New Testament?

  • Many more questions…

Reading List:
  1. Violence Unveiled – Gil Bailie - Introduction to Girardian mimetic theory / scapegoat theory. Will help us to understand what is occurring on the Day of Atonement.

  2. The Scapegoat – Rene Girard

  3. Temple Theology – Margaret Barker – An introduction to her fascinating research

  4. The Great High Priest – Margaret Barker

  5. Anything else by Margaret Barker

  6. Anything else by Rene Girard or on mimetic theory.

Margaret Barker on the Day of Atonement.
Interview with Rene Girard
Paul Nuechterlein’s Girardian Core Convictions – point by point theological application of Girardian theory
Excerpts from Margaret Barker’s introduction to Temple Theology
Speech given by Margaret Barker at, of all places, BYU - TranscriptMP3
James Alison beginning to mix Girardian theory with the research of Margaret Barker

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Matthew 25:14-30

Since it was in the lectionary last week and has always caused me some trouble we might as well discuss it.

Here’s a QuickTime audio file of a very good sermon by my illustrious Pastor Russell Rathbun regarding the Parable of the Talents.

Paul Nuechterlein, at Girardian Lectionary, has also been struggling with it.

I think the Rev. Rathbun’s take on the whole thing is quite a bit more illuminating, though. The Rabbinic literature, which is kind of hard to locate, sounds like it would be very useful in interpreting the parables of Jesus. The other parable that has Rabbinic parallels and immediately comes to mind, is the one regarding the mustard seed.

I’ve been reading a lot of Margaret Barker lately so I’m really getting into finding informative parallels between the Gospels and the Old Testament, the Mishnah/Rabbinic Literature and other ancient Jewish writings. I think Rev. Rathbun’s sermon is a good example of how profitable it will be to really return to the historical and religious context of the Gospels. Fortunately for us in the last 50-75 years we’ve been blessed with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the texts at Qumran. (I really don’t know if those are the same things). I’m still trying to get my hands on Jacob Neusner’s translation of the Mishnah. This whole Biblical interpretation thing is a lot of fun, well at least for me. I’ll have to try to acquaint all of you with the research of Margaret Barker. Really good stuff, information overload, but really good stuff.

Achan Redux

I think I’m going to hold off on anymore discussion regarding Achan because I would be heading off into territory entirely too broad for me to handle intelligently right now. I’m learning a lot about the context of the Deuteronomistic History and King Josiah. The New Interpreter’s Bible/Commentary, the section on Joshua, does a good job of explaining some of the theories regarding the composition of the Book of Joshua and the rest of the Deuteronomistic History.

A couple of notes though, in case some of you aren’t aware of these things.
  1. In Hebrew the names Joshua and Jesus are the same.

  2. The sacred lots, the Urim and the Thummim were kept in the breastplate of the high priest. Were these oracles used by the High Priest/Joshua to determine the guilty party?

Old Testament study, really Biblical study in general, is very interesting right now. There is so much to learn about the formation of Biblical literature. The more we learn about the formation and composition of Biblical and ancient Jewish literature, the more we’ll learn about the meaning of stories such as Achan’s.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Innocence of Achan

I’ll wrap up at few things regarding my Achan post. I believe Achan was innocent of the charge against him. The charge being, not so much that he violated the ban, but that he caused the defeat at Ai. I think this text gives us two choices.
  1. Achan, by violating the ban, was guilty of causing the defeat at Ai.

  2. Achan, whether he violated the ban or not, was in no way guilty of causing the defeat at Ai.

The facts as I see them.

1. Joshua made a strategic error. 2000 troops were sent to attack the first time and they were defeated. The second time 30,000 were sent to attack Ai. I believe the author is telling us something very important. You don’t find this kind of candor in pagan myths.

2. The people lost heart. The people began to lose faith in their Holy War. This relatively minor defeat has proven the fragility of the cultural order. As a result of this battle 36 soldiers died, that is out of an army of at least 30,000. Not much of a defeat, at least using ancient standards. Thus the defeat was not so much a military defeat, but a defeat of military morale. “Israel has turned their backs on their enemies…”

3. The initial evidence that the ban had been violated wasn’t the discovery of booty. The “evidence” was that the initial attack on Ai had been a failure.

4. To rebuild military morale, Joshua proposes an Atonement ritual. So Joshua, being the High Priest in this ritual brings each clan before him collecting the sins of the community. Finally the finger points to Achan, and instead of taking responsibility for his own sins, Joshua places not only his sins but the sins of the entire community onto the head of Achan. Achan is then lead off to the proverbial cliff in the wilderness.

5. The casting of lots was a stroke of genius on Joshua’s part. When performing a ritual like this you only want to identify one person. Imagine the intensity of this ritual. Imagine the guilt generated in the community by this ritual. Each member terrified that they may be the one chosen, and then the relief when the finger passes and their sins have been taken away. The mob begins to form as each clan is passed by, the intensity building. Those exonerated quickly begin to close ranks in an ever tighter circle around the “evil one”, because they want to make sure the finger stays pointed at this "evil one". Then Achan is selected after all this life and terrible death intensity. Then in a surprising question and answer session Joshua tells him to “give glory to the Lord God of Israel and make confession to him”, but then Joshua asks Achan to tell him what he has done and not to hide it from him, that being Joshua. Achan, according to the text, rather calmly confesses and gives a full explanation of what he did. Joshua’s messenger are sent to Achan’s tent and bring back the booty and in a great display spread it out before the Lord. (Why would they need to spread it out before the Lord, he would already know. Can’t refrain from asking this. When the text says “Lord”, does it mean Joshua, or the community as a whole?). The mob has formed, the finger must stay pointed Achan, gotta get rid of him quickly. In their hurry they forget that Achan’s sentence was that he was supposed to be burned with fire. They stone him. They stone him good. His entire family, don't want anyway around to feel sorry for this evildoer, just in case the family members begin pointing the finger somewhere else. Everything he owned is destroyed. This Achan dude must not have been very popular or worldly smart. In this world if you’re in his position you learn to point fingers very fast. (Or the passage from Isaiah 53 comes to mind, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth”) Then after the stoning they remember the whole fire thing. Oh yeah, and the pass through fire thing is an old testament euphemism for human sacrifice.

6. A cairn is created where Achan is slain. Then after Ai is decimated, a second cairn is created over the dead body of the King of Ai. These cairns defying all other primitive religions where cairns become religious monuments, do not seem to become sacred. After the defeat of Ai, enjoying an incredible amount of cultural harmony they build a third mound of stones and offer animal sacrifices. Wow. So the system of animal sacrifice, the declining effects of which brought on this whole crisis to begin with has been restored.

So I think I’m concluding that Achan’s death was an act of ritual murder. Like Jesus, Achan was the scapegoat bruised for the community’s iniquity. Joshua was like Caiaphas in the belief that it was better for one man to die than the entire community to be torn apart.


For the literalists out there, where in the text does it say his sons and daughters are guilty. Where is his wife? Anyway what I see happening is that Achan is standing there and his sons and daughters see what is going on. They run to him, crying, weeping, begging the mob for mercy and pity, but all the crowd sees is their own fear of the finger being pointed back at them. So these children, who are standing around Achan, between him and the crowd, must be shut up, their voices must not be heard. All that crying and weeping must be stopped before it becomes contagious and spreads and the Israelites lose heart again and the whole thing becomes an accustorial free-for-all, so one must hurry and throw the first stone, to quiet them. So in a spontaneous mob lynching, a fireball of human anger and fear consumes not only Achan, but all his sons and daughters.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Jesus: The Living Interpretive Principle

The big words in conservative evangelical circles regarding Biblical interpretation are inerrancy and literalism. Even during my most conservative period I could never quite figure why it was so important for the Bible to be inerrant, or what was meant by interpreting the Bible literally. It never made much sense to me and it contradicted reality.

Well anyway, a couple days ago I was reading this post over at Mainstream Baptist, particularly some of the comments. It got me thinking about how we should interpret the Bible, or for that matter any kind of text or situation.

I submit an article by Rene Girard, Are the Gospels Mythical.

Jesus is the “Living Hermeneutic Key” or the “Living Interpretive Principle”. A Bible passage cannot be taken in isolation or separate from the light of Jesus Christ. If you do not interpret the Bible from the standpoint of Jesus, or use Jesus as your interpretive principle, you will come up with some horribly wrong conclusions.

Example: The Story of Achan, Joshua 7:1-26

These two entries are examples of the mythological interpretation of the story.
Example #1
Example #2

It is a testament to how far the Gospel of Jesus Christ has penetrated our culture, that people who don’t call themselves Christians can see the injustice that was done to Achan. (But the corollary of course is the retrogression or neo-paganism of certain segments of evangelical conservatism that must hold on to the idea of Achan’s guilt.)

In summary the story goes like this. The Israelites under the leadership of Joshua are coming off a great victory over Jericho. Immediately following their conquest of Jericho they attacked a nearby Caananite town called Ai, but in this first attack Israel was defeated. They had this whole manifest destiny thing going and this defeat came as quite a blow. Remember the numbers listed below.

3 When they returned to Joshua, they said, "Not all the people will have to go up against Ai. Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary all the people, for only a few men are there." 4 So about three thousand men went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, 5 who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries [c] and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted and became like water.

The story tells us that the reason the Israelites were defeated was because a man named Achan had violated the Ban. Israel believed that their God was invincible and that defeat could only be explained by the assumption that this God had found some kind of fault with His people.

You have to believe that after this defeat Joshua was feeling some pressure. After defeats the competency of the leader is always questioned. There was conflict and turmoil among the Israelites, they were looking for someone to blame.

Joshua decides that what the Israelites need is some kind of sacrificial rite or ritual that would restore order. A scapegoat ritual. A ritual that would transfer all of the community's anxieties and guilt onto a single victim.

Supposedly the lottery is done at God’s command. So through this lottery that Joshua devises Achan is identified as the sole violator of the Ban. Hard to believe that in a large army Achan was the only person to violate the Ban. After Achan is identified he and the rest of his family are taken out and stoned by the angry lynch mob. Very important that his whole family is killed. Don’t want any children talking about the plunder they saw in someone else’s tent. It would destroy the unanimity and the resulting peace. Achan must be seen as totally guilty. He is the scapegoat that carries away the sin of the community. Must also destroy all his property, don’t want anybody fighting over it after Achan has been buried in a pile of stones. After the stoning of Achan the community/Lord turned from their/his anger. Achan was murdered because of the failure of Joshua’s military strategy and the resulting bloodthirst of an angry community. Notice the numbers at the beginning of the next chapter.

So Joshua and the whole army moved out to attack Ai. He chose thirty thousand of his best fighting men and sent them out at night

Who in this story is in the position of Christ? Who represents the precursor to Christ? Who is killed in an act of collective violence attributed to the will of God? The killing of Jesus was murder, and the killing of Achan was murder. Joshua represents Caiaphas, who also understood the idea that it is better for one person to die than that the whole nation should perish.
Biblical passages cannot be taken in isolation. They must taken in the light of Jesus Christ. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is absolute truth. Jesus is the “Living Interpretive Principle”.
I didn’t really go into Mr. Girard’s paper, but I think the above story illustrates the difference between Gospel and myth. Might look at it closer at some later date. Two young children can make running a blog kind of an adventure.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Niebuhr and Desire

I think the main problem I have with H. Richard Niebuhr’s essay, Faith in Gods and in God, is his perspective regarding the individual. I hate to use this word, but I think it’s going to help me express what I’m trying to say. I think his perspective is too consumerist. So, I know I’m being reductionist here, but I’ll do it anyway. I think in essence he views the individual as a rational consumer, moving from product to product, never finding ultimate satisfaction. Each product works fine for a time but always seem to let us down. None of these finite products can “save us from the ultimate frustration of meaningless existence.” Then we meet with this idea of void, the destroyer of all our penultimate products/idols, but I don’t want to go into that here.

I’m going to have some trouble putting my thoughts together here, but I’m going to try anyway. Niebuhr, I think, has the understanding that this consumerist desire originates within the individual. I think we need to look at the idea that desire originates outside of the self, that it comes from an Other. I’m not talking of desire for food or water, etc., but desire on a more existential level. We form our desires in imitation of others. It’s not a coincidence that marketers use celebrities, cultural idols and very attractive people in their advertising. They understand that desire does not originate in the individual. Desire must be created from outside the individual. For the most part people want to be like celebrities, or whatever other role-model happens to be in his/her proximity.

I think if we understand desire as not originating within the individual, but coming from the culture / the group / another individual it’s going to open this essay up quite a bit. It’s going to bring us into a whole new territory that I think will be quite fruitful.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Faith and Becoming

I'm still focusing on the H. Richard Niebuhr essay I've discussed in previous posts.

It seems to me faith is more appropriately defined as allowing yourself to become something. I don't think the idea of faith as reliance and dependence is particularly helpful. We don't rely and depend on gods/models for our being as much as we allow them to create us in their image and to give us whatever being they have. If we make the titanic social-darwinian gods of market capitalism our models we will be created in their image. We will assume their values and their understanding of the nature of reality. We will become a reflection of those gods. Same thing happens when we select one of the permutations of the American Dream to become our model or guiding principal. We begin to look, act and think like our gods and models. Don Quixote and Madame Bovary are excellent examples of this.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Faith and Idolatry

As I mentioned in my previous post I love H. Richard Niebuhr’s essay Faith in Gods and in God, which is a chapter in his book Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, but I think his definition of faith needs some adjustment. We’re not only dealing with the nature of faith here, but the nature of idolatry also. Niebuhr’s definition of faith is “a personal, practical trusting in, reliance on, counting upon something”. He’s getting close to saying something really groundbreaking but can’t quite formulate it, but there are quite a few hints. I don’t think understanding faith as reliance is going to get us very far.

I think before I try to explain the adjustments I would like to make to Niebuhr’s essay we should look at a couple of classics of western literature. Specifically, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I think it is fair to say that both Madame Bovary and Don Quixote are idolaters. What is the nature of their idolatry and thus what constitutes their faith? In these novels faith is not defined as reliance, but I think as becoming, as in they want to become what they idolize.

Don Quixote uses Amadis of Gaul as his model / mediator. (I’m making an obvious use of Girardian terms here). Don Quixote’s actions and understanding of reality are modeled and mediated by the books he has read on chivalry and knight-errantry. Don Quixote sees and understands the world through the eyes of Amadis of Gaul. His relationship with people and things are determined by Amadis of Gaul. Don Quixote’s desires and understanding of reality are dictated by someone else.

Emma Bovary desires through the romantic heroines she reads about in her books. Madame Bovary imitates the exterior appearance and interior thoughts of her models. She has freely chosen a model, but the model chooses her desires. Her desires are given to her by the heroines in the books she reads.

I’ll write more on this idea of faith as choosing and imitating a model / mediator later.

Friday, September 09, 2005

H. Richard Niebuhr

For me H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Faith In Gods and In God” (Google Cache) is a foundational text. Let me first say that I don’t exactly agree with equating faith with reliance. He says, faith is “a personal practical trusting in, reliance on, counting on something” This will not be my definition of faith, it will be similar, but we’ll deal with that later. The idea of faith as reliance on something leads him to some important conclusions. We cannot live without relying or having faith in such things as the safety of roads, food supply, traffic signals, democracy, family, self or any other numerous things and ideas. Everyone, including atheists, live by faith.

He says “reliance on certain centers of value as able to bestow significance and worth on our existence…we cannot live without a cause”. As you will see later I will not use the word “cause”.

“We never merely believe that life is worth living, but always think of it as made worth living by something on which we rely. And this being, whatever it be, is properly termed our god.”

“Our natural religion is polytheistic”. We have many centers of value. Each of these centers of value demand our full devotion. This is a very important point.

This is an incredible essay, I remember my theology professor in college overcome with tears and leaving the room for a few minutes, while reading it aloud. This part is very good:

Yet this is true -- and this constitutes the tragedy of our religious life -- that none of these values or centers of value exists universally, or can be object of a universal faith. None of them can guarantee meaning to our life in the world save for a time. They are all finite in time as in space and make finite claims upon us. Hence we become aware of two characteristics of our faith and its gods: that we are divided within ourselves and socially by our religion, and that our gods are unable to save us from the ultimate frustration of meaningless existence.

“The gods”, Niebuhr says, and this is a very important point, “are divisive socially and as well within the person”. He is hinting at something here, but doesn’t disclose the full meaning of “divisive”.

This is the most beautiful theological essay I’ve ever read.

The tragedy of our religious life is not only that it divides us within ourselves and from each other. There is a greater tragedy -- the twilight of the gods. None of these beings on which we rely to give content and meaning to our lives is able to supply continuous meaning and value. The causes for which we live all die. The great social movements pass and are supplanted by others. The ideals we fashion are revealed by time to be relative. The empires and cities to which we are devoted all decay. At the end nothing is left to defend us against the void of meaninglessness. We try to evade this knowledge, but it is ever in the background of our minds. The apocalyptic vision of the end of all things assails us, whether we see that end as the prophets of the pre-Christian era did or as the pessimists of our time do. We know that "on us and all our race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark." All our causes, all our ideas, all the beings on which we relied to save us from worthlessness are doomed to pass.

Part 3 is powerful stuff, make sure to read it. God is the destroyer of our idols, he is the “undefeatable cause”. I’m not in complete agreement with the language of his conversion narrative at the end of the essay, I would definitely shift the focus, but he is headed in the right direction.

I want to use this essay as a starting point or template to go into my discussions and definitions of sin, faith, idolatry, etc.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Sin and Language

In the conservative evangelical world sin is divergence from the standards / tastes / lifestyles of that community. This is why the so-called “literal” interpretation of the Bible is so important to that subgroup. I think it is axiomatic that language / meaning and the interpretation of symbolism is determined by groups of people. Language comes about by the common agreement / understanding of a community. The conservative evangelical community, through their participation in American culture, are a group of people who have come into agreement regarding language and meaning. Divergence from this language and meaning is sin. The community has determined the language, meaning and the interpretation of reality. Thus, to the people involved in that community, the Bible reflects the language, assumptions and expectations of that community. In this scenario the community is the ultimate arbiter of truth, thus the Bible is viewed through the eyes of the community. Absolute truth lies in the community.

Here is some discussion of the literal interpretive method that I think illustrates what I mean. What I've linked to is, of course, defending the literal method, but I think it pretty much admits my analysis and criticism. Here are some relevant portions:

"The customary, socially-acknowledged designation of a word is the literal meaning of the word."

"The 'literal' meaning of a word is the basic, customary, social designation of that word. The spiritual, or mystical meaning of a word or expression is one that arises after the literal designation and is dependent upon it for its existence. "

"To interpret literally means nothing more or less than to interpret in terms of normal, usual, designation. When the manuscript alters its designation the interpreter immediately shifts his method of interpreting."

The words "customary", "socially-acknowledged", "normal", "social designation" and "usual" are pretty much code words for what I've explained.

With literalism, meaning changes as the community's assumptions and expectations change. So under this method truth resides with the community.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Power of Group Reality

In my continuing progression to some sort of definition of sin I present a quote from Simone Weil. Here she discusses the power of the group:

The power of the social element. Agreement between several men brings with it a feeling of reality. It brings with it also a sense of duty. Divergence, where this agreement is concerned, appears as a sin…The state of conformity is an imitation of Grace

Here’s Admiral James B. Stockdale discussing how agreement and comradeship between people can even get you through the most difficult trials. You can survive by making strong attachments to a group and an ideology or view of reality.

In the end, the prisoner learns he can’t be hurt and he can’t be had as long as he tells the truth and clings to that forgiving hand of brothers who are becoming his country and family. This is the power of comradeship.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Sin and Non-Conformity

I’ve got to develop this further, but as of right now I’m saying that conservative evangelicals equate or define sin as non-conformity with whatever micro or macro community of which they may be a member. I think we all can agree that the sin du jour for our conservative brethren is homosexuality. Homosexuality, of course, transgresses the idealized 1950’s lifestyle, but I don’t think that explains the conservative fascination with it. I think it comes down to the fact that most people are either, at the very least, uncomfortable with it or just downright don’t like homosexuals. There is a strong existing bias in American society against homosexuals. Most people attracted by the right-wing in this country are not homosexual and don’t know any homosexuals, thus homosexuals are prone to demonization. Homosexuality makes a good scapegoat, all other so-called sins dissolve and disappear when they are compared to homosexuality. Divorce and adultery are easily forgiven and forgotten. There are too many divorcees and adulterers in conservative circles for those people to be demonized, other sexual sins are looked down on, of course, but they get no where near the opprobrium that homosexuality gets. The group must agree and be united when they demonize something, there is way too much resistance for the demonization of adultery and divorce. There is a lot of guilt, and that guilt must be placed somewhere, and not just somewhere, it must be placed somewhere outside the community. Denouncing members of your own community will not get you anywhere. The negativity of the community must be placed outside of the group. Homosexuals are a small, and for the most part, non-taboo minority. This is why homosexuality is the sin du jour. It easy to define us and them.

I will definitely be refining and expanding upon this idea and the relationship of sin and group conformity.

Sin and the Ten Commandments

The ten commandments are not arbitrary laws that God gave to the Israelites, they have a very important goal. That goal is peace. The greatest problem of primitive societies, as well as modern ones, is internal violence. The ten commandments are not so much laws as they are a very astute exposition upon the nature of human desire. Human desire is by nature imitative, or as Rene Girard puts it, mimetic. The ten commandments recognize this. Commandments six through ten explain what happens when human desire becomes distorted, or more specifically when humans desire through the eyes of someone/something other than God/Jesus. Here Rene Girard discusses the ten commandments from his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Cigars For Everyone!!!

Simon Ulysses Eschaton arrived in the world today.
Both baby and Mrs. Eschaton are doing very well.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Sin and Difference

I don’t know why I’m picking on Albert Mohler, but a section in this (I know it’s old) column was noteworthy. The section I’m concerning myself with today is actually a quote from someone else. I think it typifies conservative evangelical thinking on the subject of Sin.

Throughout the column, Jewel made her convictions clear, but also insisted that homosexuality is not the only sin of her concern. She made a clear biblical case, drawn from both the Old and New Testaments, and argued that "sin is sin," and that tolerance of sin is deadly to society. "The problem is that people do not recognize this as sin when the Bible clearly states that it is."
Jewel also extended a truly Christian response to those dealing with this sin. "In God's condemnation of any-and-all sin, He does not tell us to condemn the people involved in it. He tells us to hate the sin, but love the sinner. That is exactly what He does with us. None of us is worthy of the gift of salvation that He so graciously bestows upon us, but we do have the choice as to how we live our lives in the choices that we make in accordance to His will."

The clear meaning of sin in this article is non-conformity. No reason given why homosexuality is sin, just that it’s not in “accordance to His will”. “Jewel’s” understanding of sin is that it is some sort of non-conformity to God’s seemingly arbitrary will. The phrase “Sin is Sin” is almost laughable for its meaninglessness, and we’ve all (or at least I have) heard those words many times. Then she goes on, “Tolerance of sin is deadly to society.” There is so much wrong with that phrase that I can’t possibly begin at this point. So she is saying sin, meaning lack of conformity, is deadly to society. Tolerance of difference is deadly to society. How is tolerance, meaning forgiveness, deadly to society. She doesn’t actually say it, but in the end it will lead to the expulsion of people society deems to be sinners. This is not pretty, or really even remotely Christian. This is a very debased understanding of what sin is and how sin affects society, but it’s so prevalent.

I hope later, in what I’m calling “Sin Week”, I’ll have time to go through the ten commandments and at least start to get a better idea, a much more primitive understanding of what sin is and why it is harmful to individual human beings.

Monday, August 22, 2005


I'm really trying to understand what conservative evangelicals mean when they use the word sin.  I realize I'm going to be pretty cynical here.  But what is it that they mean?  Two words come to mind, "Conformity" and "Order". Maybe a third, "Transgression".  “Design” is also another conservative buzzword.  A sinner seems to be anyone who isn't aligned with the cultural expectations of conservative evangelicalism.  Thus homosexuality is a terrible threat to marriage and the Christian way of life, but divorce is relatively benign and really not much of threat to anything, at least if you compare the emphasis put on each one in right-wing circles.  War is perfectly fine and even to be encouraged and reveled in as long as it is waged by the U.S

The conservative evangelical bluster about sin is meaningless.  Inside the box is goodness, outside the box is sin, which leads to Hell.  Hold tight to the popularly elected morality.  Goodness is in numbers and strength/volume.  Sins are the things/lifestyles/ideas which are not popular, which are not approved of by the majority, or against an individual's or group’s particular moral taste or expectations regarding cultural norms and standards.

This column, by Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on deliberate childlessness is an example, I think, of how conservatives respond to any breach in cultural conformity.

Sunday, August 21, 2005


I think if you want to launch any kind of critique of what has become the dominant popular form of Christian theology, at least in America, you have to start with what is at the center of that theology. The main character in conservative evangelicalism is Sin. James Alison says the following:
Sin, not God is the central character...You can tell this by the fact that once sin has come into the story -- at the fall -- all the other characters are reduced to dancing around it, wondering what they should do about it. Well this means that sin runs the story. All the other characters are reactive in one way or another. And of course it is the non-reactive character who is the real god of the story, while the other characters, being reactive, none of them are god. I guess it is no surprise that in a world formed by this storyline, evil should become fascinating, while good becomes boring.
With Sin being such a central character and so important to the whole conservative evangelical storyline I think it would be a good thing to define our terms. What is Sin? Let's begin by describing what Sin is from a conservative evangelical position.

We all know that the "fundagelicals", as one of my beloved Pastors is fond of calling that particular subset of modern Christianity, rely heavily or are the inheritors of the Anselmian doctrine of Penal substitutionary atonement. So looking at Sin through those eyes it can be described as any offence to God's infinite honor and righteousness. Sin is a contradiction of the excellence of His moral character. It contradicts His holiness, and he must hate it. Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude or nature.
Sin is devotion to self
Sin is search for pleasure
Sin is missing the mark (not living up to the mandates of the law)
Sin is man's declaration of independence from God
All sin is a kind of lying
Failure to submit (presumably to God's law)
Sin is want of conformity unto, or transgression of the law of God
Sin disunites God from man
Sin is abuse of human appetites, of human passions and human faculties
There are so many things undefined here. What exactly is the law? What is the purpose of the law? Where did this idea of God's honor come from? How exactly does sin, if it does at all, disunite God from man? Why does sin often seem to be just nonconformity with the cultural expectations of the conservative evangelicals?

This is a huge subject, with many questions and terms/ideas to be defined, and of course I'm only barely even scratching the surface in this particular blog post.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The War On Iraq

Let me put this whole blog project of mine into perspective. It began with the build-up to the War on Iraq. It was at this point I knew that a reformation of American Christianity was needed. I realized something had gone horribly wrong when the most fanatically pro-war segment of society was also the segment that called itself the most Christian. I was shocked that something as wrong as this war could happen and not only that but that the people who should stand up and stop it or speak out against it were the ones most enthusiastically pro-war. But like always when we are most despondent over the killing and futility of all things God comes and begins to gently lead us into the right direction. My great hope is that the War on Iraq will lead to a great renewal and revival of Christianity, especially in America where the need and hunger is so great.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

What is Christianity?

Why did Jesus come to Earth? What is the point of this whole thing we call Christianity? Does it have anything to say to us? What does the Bible say? How do we interpret it? So many questions, I hope to provide, not answers, but even more questions. I'll try to present different perspectives, though probably not in a completely unbiased or scholarly fashion. So I'll attempt to work through quite a bit of material, hopefully improve my writing and communication skills. I'll experiment with different writing styles and perspectives. I hope this will be fun and of course comments are welcome.

Inaugural Blog Post

Christianity in America has some serious problems. It is in desperate need of renewal. This blog will be me trying to work through some things. I'm going to attempt to unravel and rediscover the the meanings of Christian symbols, doctrines and all things theological. I'm not going to do this in any systematic or orderly way, I only have a general idea of the things I want to write about. I hope this will be interesting for somebody.