Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Jesus Had a Twin: Coupling Faith and Doubt During Holy Week

Jesus had a twin.

His name: Thomas.

Syrian believers knew the name alone connotated this disciple as one who was not the only one to take up residence in his mother's womb.

Greek speakers knew him by another name, "Didymus," for the same reason.

Thomas or Didymus, both mean twin.

We are not certain of the identity of Thomas' gestational roommate, but the early Gnostics had a theory. Thomas was Jesus' twin whose birth-story went untold. That's right, while innkeepers may not have been able to squeeze the Holy Family into their shelter, Mary's womb apparently had room for one more.

I guess being betrothed to a virgin carrying the Messiah was not enough of a shocker for Joseph.

It's also a minor element of the incarnation the angel left out of his Advent declaration.

Details.

I am not sure if Jesus and Thomas really were womb-mates (sorry for the parent of twins joke). Actually, as much as it would make for a great story and build on the Jacob and Esau motif within the Jewish narrative, I doubt this was Thomas' identity.

Pun intended.

Regardless of the legend, Jesus did have a twin within his cast of followers who was doubly perplexed and coupled both extradordinary faith and raw skepticism.

We are more than familiar with Thomas' hesistancy to believe in Jesus' resurrection, demanding to see evidence before trusting the Messianic mission for even one more day.

"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe." (John 20: 25)

We are not as familiar with Thomas' zeal and willingness to actually die with his beloved Teacher, who was about to return to hostile territory in efforts to resurrect his friend, Lazarus. You can say that before "Doubting" Thomas, there was Didymus, the purest proclamant of unfading and radical obedience.

"Let us also go; that we may die with him." (John 11:16)

This sort of bold declaration is not recorded anywhere else by any other disciple. Yet no other disciple is labeled as a doubter.

So, which is it?

Skepticism or trust?

Fear or obedience?

Doubt or faith?

Maybe they are meant to be paired together.

Maybe our spiritual gestation couples both within the womb of discipleship.

Maybe Thomas is us. Maybe we are Thomas' twin. Doubly willing and yet doubly perplexed.

As Holy Week begins, may we both confront and embrace our dual identity as believers and doubters. May we trust God's ability to work through our darkest doubts. May we give thanks for how the Spirit propels us towards faithful obedience.

May we hold on hope and believe just enough that God will once and for all reveal to us not only the resurrected Christ, but also a world made new and right.

Thomas did. That's why he went to India.

But you have to look that up for yourself.

"We often think that if we have doubt, we don’t have faith. In reality, they are inextricably tied to each other in the human experience, each one helping make the other more real. The presence of doubt doesn’t mean we’ve lost our faith. It creates the space to actually find it...Doubt and faith need each other; any faith that can't hold up to doubt isn't faith at all."

Kathy Escobar, Down We Go, pp. 138-139

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**Here is an intriguing excerpt from Bart Ehrman's, Lost Christianities. I say intriguing, but I am not sold :)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Noah Movie: The Most Faithful and Biblical Interpretation of the Ancient Myth?

If the church wants to learn how to get a generation of skeptics, cynics, and postmodern critics to engage the narratives of Scripture, I suggest we consult Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel. The director and screen writer (respectively) of the recent box office smash, Noah, have reminded us flat and reductionist approaches to the Bible have grown tired only for the prophetic, existential imagination to be awakened by seasoned and novice readers alike.

The recent work of Aronofsky and Handel has also refreshed the ancient story and enabled one of the greatest and most familiar religious and cultural myths to jump off the pages of sacred texts with renewed energy and zest. Noah challenges viewers to surrender the great "arkey, arkey" of children's folklore and instead consider a wide variety of ecological, ethical, religious, and basic human questions provoked by the flood fable.

These are all good things. This is a very biblical shift, better said, return to how Scripture has been and maybe was originally read for generations.

So the best thing I can say in light of Noah, "thank you."

While Aronofsky has suggested this film is "the most unbiblical biblical film," his self-critique is an inaccurate overstatement. Instead, Noah is both an example of cinematic brilliance and Scriputural fidelity. This is not to say his Watchers, i.e. Nephilim gone ancient Transformers, or a stowe away descendant of Cain who attempts a mutiny onboard the ark are consistent with every jot and tittle of the Genesis motif.

They probably are not.

But the viewer is challenged not to be distracted by these directorial adaptations and expansions. On the contrary, we are invited to take notice of how Aronofsky has allowed the story to reside within his person and be birthed afresh as he not only retells the story but also brings the story to life.

That's exactly what Biblical stories were inspired to do from their earliest beginnings.

It's as though Aronofsky has joined a host of other great teachers and storytellers by crafting his own midrash of the biblical account.

The Bible and all related narratives were never intended as specimens awaiting dissection, formulas holding out for solution, or even rigid theological insights breading absolute certainty. The biblical narrative was and is a grand collection of illustrative questions to be engaged, wrestled, confronted, inherited, beheld, treasured, critiqued, contextualized, and awakened as God's living and active word to us and the whole world.

The Bible is ultimately to be practiced and reenacted.

Barth said it this way, “[The Bible] must not speak and think in the manner of a timeless Church discipline, but with full participation in the energies and hopes, the cares and struggles of the Church of its own age.”

Walsh and Middleton take it one step farther with what they term faithful improvisation:

"The church's praxis or 'performance' must be faithful to the thrust, momentum, and direction of the biblical story...But if our praxis is to be faithful to the story, this requires taking the risk of improvisation that is creative, innovative and flexible. It is important that our performance not simply repeat verbatim earlier passages from the biblical script. That would nnot be faithfulness for the simple reason that these earlier passages are not a script intended for our performance in a postmodern world but are the record or transcript of past performances of God's people. While we can see how our ancestors in the faith responded to God with varying degrees of faithfulness in a variety of circmstances, much of our difficulty in living as Christians today is that the concrete shape of our lives in the world is quite literally unscripted."

Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age 183*

We have, for far too long, done violence to God's story and stories, scavenging them for this or that agenda or claim to modern certainty. We have forsaken the reality of the Bible as drama in favor of dogmatic idolatry.

We have dilluted the Bible in favor of more palatable and controllable document void of questions, ambiguity, paradox, and struggle about what God is really up to in the past, present, and future.

What Noah has done, and what many other readers and adherents to Scripture have been doing for years, is lift the text above these chaotic waters of modernity and liberate the sacred motifs as great conversation partners in practical and public theology discourse. The conversation: what do these stories mean for us TODAY as God's people who dwell within a world caught between beauty and devastation, good and evil, God's all-encompassing dreams and God's greatest despair.

What do stories like Noah reveal to us about present-day tensions between justice and mercy?

How do aged biblical stories like Noah propel us into faithful improvisation of the kingdom of God in the twenty-first century?

How do these epics confront our environmental and ethical consciences in the midst of so much negligence of both the earth and our most vulnerable neighbors around the globe?

What new questions does Noah raise in the here and now as we all wait for the return of Eden and God's new creation?

Aronofsky has received a large share of criticism for Noah, mostly from tweets, blogs, and pulpits of conservative Evangelicals who fear the director and screen writer have been unfaithful and unbiblical to such a beloved story hedged within a mere four chapters of the book of beginnings.

Actually, I think Noah's critics and all who have tamed this ancient epic may be the ones who have missed the boat.

But it's not too late to jump on board.

The world around us is already there.

 

A few questions raised for me by Noah:

How have we corrupted the world around us through our obsession with power, technology, convenience, and misappropriated quests to dominate creation versus care for and serve the world God made as good?

What would it mean if we began to foster intimacy with creation and valued every created thing as though it served a valuable purpose within God's world and ecosystem?

How can we begin to reclaim a sacred imagination that views the world as enchanted and interconnected versus static and serving all-purposes human? (See Bo Sanders below)

What do we make of God actually sending a flood to wipe out corrupt humanity? When we hear people use this rationale today we, rightly, reject such "natural" theology. Then there's this story. I would have, like Noah's family, wondered why we could not lower ropes to drowning victims. Further, I grieve how God's people today, myself included, often isolate ourselves from suffering that surround us on all sides.

How does the fatalist mentality of Noah, convinced God is finished with humanity altogether, leak into our own psyche and leave us cynical, jaded, and apathetic at best?

How are we any better today than the violent world that God wiped out ages ago? When will the violence of today be wiped out once and for all?

Should I be a vegetarian? If not, should I at least have a better awareness of where my food comes from and the life taken to nourish my body?

What seeds am I planting today that can be a part of Eden's return? How am I living out my responsibility and call as God's image bearer and caretaker of all God made?

What bitterness do I harbor, like Ham, that pushes me to isolate myself from others or wreak havoc as a means of self-preservation?

Where was Jesus in this film? (just kidding)

I could go on...

 

Related Resources

*Scripture as Missional Narrative

Podcast: Movie and Conversations with Aronofsky and Handel by Homebrewed Christianity

Noah: Inhabiting a ReEnchanted World by Bo Sanders

Noah: The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative by Bo Sanders

Relevant Magazine: Movie Review

Noah: the Beautiful and the Haunting by J. Ryan Parker

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Youth Ministry, Wild Geese, and God's Spirit as Uncaged Bird

Celtic Christians have a unique image for the Holy Spirit: the wild goose.

Yep, the honking, flapping, nipping-at-your heels bird who refuses to be tamed has framed the theological imaginations of believers for generations in regions surrounding Ireland and Scotland.

The imagery is spot on and brilliant.

Like a wild goose, God nips at us and provokes us to travel to obscure places as a collection of practitioners of the kingdom unconfined by convention. God’s Spirit, like these obnoxious long-necked creatures, can even be somewhat aggravating and difficult to ignore when pushing us to defy logic and comfort. The nudging of the Divine Presence is not always graceful or welcome either, disrupting our conscience and disturbing our assumptions about what is good, right, just, and biblical.

The Holy Spirit, like our feathered friends, lives in freedom and refuses to be contained and controlled by even the most astute theologian:

"Theology must describe the dynamic interrelationships which make this procession comparable to a bird in flight, in contrast to a caged bird" (Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology)

Still more, beauty is in the flight of these strange birds. They refuse to travel alone and instead fill the skies in gaggles shaped like the letter "V." This provides yet another seemless symbol for individuals and gaggles of God's people who trust the whims of the Spirit as they follow Jesus as the head of rather rambunctious flock.

There have been books, legends, intentional communities, and music festivals developed via the inspiration of the wild goose.*

I have also adopted and extended the metaphor for the youth worker.

That's right, the wild goose is likely a teenager.

Youth frequently gather in clumps, are often dismissed as pesky and somewhat rambunctious, and adults are accustomed to head for cover whenever they see a gaggle of teenagers headed their way.

I am also pretty sure these noisy birds and middle school boys on retreat share a similar fragrance.

Wild Goose by Axe Body Spray.

Youth are also beautiful to witness in flight. Their questions nip at the heels of religious absolutes. Their desires to move to new and uncharted territories challenge settled assumptions about where the church exists in the world. The adolescent desire to take risks and listen to the sounds of their neighbors, including those frequently dismissed as distasteful, causes youth leaders to wonder where we have missed opportunities to love God as we love and give voice to others.

I have been in youth ministry for over a dacade and have had my share of crap thrown my way, another uncouth characteristic of geese. There have been moments when I have cursed under my breath God's strange and beloved creatures and questioned why God made the teenage years last for so long.

I have even pondered fleeing from the presence of youth ministry all together.

Then I watch teenagers soar. I see them spread their wings and follow the Spirit's movement in their lives. I am instantly drawn back into my vocation as though I was just beginning.

Youth ministry is hard, being an adolescent is even harder.

The Holy Spirit is difficult to comprehend, containing God's Spirit is an impossible task.

Still, whenever I follow Jesus alongside some of the youngest members of God's flock, I sense somehow the Holy Spirit is there, in the middle, drawing us closer and closer to what it means to be a part of God's dreams for the world.

Maybe that's because, like God's Spirit, youth are wild geese.

May we never try to tame them, only fly alongside them.

 

Notes:

*Consider the Iona Community and the book about their existence, Chasing the Wild Goose. Also, a festival I hope to attend one day, The Wild Goose Festival.

**A great interview from a friend of Westminster, who tells a story about The Wild Goose with shere brilliance: http://westminsterpc.org/filerequest/8630

***Photo above is from the cover of Chasing the Wild Goose.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

World Vision, Gay Marriage, and Trinitarian Theology

In the name of the Father, Son, and Marriage Between a Man and a Woman, Amen?

While I have been known to swim within the gray waters when it comes to the same-sex marriage debate, one thing I can say with confidence: neither gay nor straight marriage are central to Trinitarian theology.

That said, when World Vision decided to welcome and employ those who were in same-sex marriages, I was impressed by a large Christian NGO's willingness to move beyond the debate and work to rally around Jesus' invitation for peacemaking and advocacy on behalf of our poorest and hungriest neighbors. There were brilliant and beautiful articles written in efforts to underscore how it was possible for an Evangelical Christian organization to move past partisan divides and differences in theological opinions as we together labor on behalf of our most vulnerable and malnourished brothers and sisters, many who are children.

"It's been heartbreaking to watch this issue rip through the church," he said. "It's tearing churches apart, tearing denominations apart, tearing Christian colleges apart, and even tearing families apart. Our board felt we cannot jump into the fight on one side or another on this issue. We've got to focus on our mission. We are determined to find unity in our diversity."

Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, U.S.A (cited in interview by Christianity Today)

World Vision was taking an ethical, financial, and pragmatic risk. That is, until they decided they would not.

One of the most well-known Christian relief organizations recanted after being confronted by numerous individual and denominational donors who expressed distain for their supposed open and affirming stance. As a number of bloggers, journalists, and grassroots advocates rightly expressed, the poor and hungry became pawns within yet another spite-filled and slanderous debate. Conservatives and progressives are both at fault.

I cannot say I am surprised by World Vision's flip-flopping, but I am grieved by how quickly they caved in response to financial backers and child sponsors who cannot handle the employment of those whose sexual orientation they disapprove.

Let's be clear, World Vision is doing incredible things all around the globe and I remain grateful for their witness to the good news of Jesus.

Nonetheless, World Vision's rationale for their 180° belly flop is sadly flawed and simply wrong.

"What we are affirming today is there are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian faith that we must take a strong stand on those beliefs...We cannot defer to a small minority of churches and denominations that have taken a different position."

Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, USA (48 hours later in another Christianty Today interview)

Definition of marriage as core to orthodox, Trinitarian confessions is an unfortunate and illogical theological union by those who should know far better. Trinitarian theology is about God and how God relates to the world: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Yes, same-sex marriage is an important, relevant, even a theological conversation for both church and state, individuals and denominations. No, gay or straight marriages are not core matters of what makes for uniquely Trinitarian theology.

Despite belief to the contrary, Scripture does not paint a black and white portrait of marriage. One does not need to read far into the pages of ancient narratives to discover the plural nature of marriages by our biblical heroes, the leniency related to how far up the family tree it was permitted to marry, or even what happened when your spouse passed away.

Answer: marry your husband's closest male relative. Yikes.

This is not to suggest the aforementioned as appropriate biblical models, it's simply to note marriage as a contextual witness of covenant fidelity that God has allowed to evolve over time. Moreover, when Jesus was confronted about marriage, a mind-boggling trap by antagonistic Sadducees opposed to a theology of resurrection, the Messiah's retort down-graded the institution as superfluous compared to the redefinition of relationships within God's kingdom.

"For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage" (Matthew 22:30)

It's as though Jesus was saying, everything's about to change so quit your bickering. Your marriage debate is causing you to miss the point of the economy of God and God's coming kingdom.

When we lump the definition of marriage into our core Trinitarian confessions, we are guilty of just the same. We may need to be reminded of what the triune nature of God is really about:

"Trinitarian doctrine describes God in terms of shared life and love rather than in terms of domineering power. God loves in freedom, lives in communion, and wills creatures to live in a new community of mutual love and service. God is self-sharing, other-regarding, community-forming love."

Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding 73*

Again, Trinitarian theology is about God and how God relates to the world: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When this becomes our core, versus any stance on marriage, then and only then can we set aside both conservative and progressive positions on marriage and draw back to the forefront of our witness a unified concern and incarnated love for God's children who live on less than $2 a day.

This kind of love is to be our primary orientation.**

This kind of love is deeply Trinitarian.

This is the love of which we need to be known by the world.

 

Notes:

*See God as Unified and Missional Theology: Trinitarian Theology as Missional Theology

**A great read: Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community by Andrew Marin

Great Pieces by Thoughtful Bloggers:

Let's Talk About What Happened Yesterday at World Vision by Tony Jones

Rachel Held Evans on World Vision

Kristen Howerton on World Vision

Jen Hatmaker, "Where I Stand"