Category Archives: theology

lecture on genesis

Given at University of Portland, Sept. 5, 2012.


markets and morality

Not only has the dominance of the market had a corrosive effect on the social landscape. It has also eroded our moral vocabulary, arguably our most important resource in thinking about the future.[…] In the public domain, the two terms that dominate contemporary discourse are autonomy and rights, which share the mentality of the market by emphasizing choice while ruling out the possibility that there might be objective grounds for making one choice rather than another. This has made it very difficult for us to deliberate collectively about some of the most fateful choices, environmental, political, and economic, humanity has ever faced.

Chief Rabbi of Britain Jonathan Sacks, in The Dignity of Difference, p. 32.

(Just how pervasive is the market mentality may be seen in how seamlessly Rabbi Sacks praises “the spread of birth control techniques” as an unqualified good which will “remove the danger of overpopulation” only eight pages previous.)

was jesus a hipster?

OK, I’m not really after that question. What I really want to ask is “Was Jesus ironic (/satirical/sardonic/rhetorically savvy in any fashion)?”

Most Christians (and, regrettably, most pastors) assume that Jesus always spoke directly and literally–with no hidden meanings or nuance. This assumption stems from two deeper assumptions. The first is quite understandable, while the second betrays a modern association:

1) If the Gospel message is accessible to even the uneducated and children, then Jesus’ words must not require any special knowledge or expertise to decipher. 

2) All spiritual knowledge and understanding is created equal. (In other words, we want theology to be democratic.)

Let me deal with the second briefly. Until the Reformation, the church was quite comfortable with the idea that there were “levels” of spiritual understanding. Early catechumens were allowed to hear only a portion of the Scriptures, being led outside during the reading or more difficult and mysterious passages, because the elders did not want them to form heretical opinions. (Of course, after the completion of their catechism and confirmation into the body of believers, they were allowed to participate in the entire service.) Origen uses 1 Cor. 3:2 to construct an entire hierarchy of spiritual reading–the codification of which entered Scholasticism as the “four senses of Scripture–with the spiritually immature reading on a level “according to the letter” (literal sense) and the most enlightened reading on a more symbolic or mystical level (anagogical sense). 

Now, far be it from me to deny Luther’s insight that all believers should participate in reading God’s word. But does that entail that all will interpret correctly? No, certainly not.

Our American sensibilities rebel against anything that smacks of elitism and hierarchy, but let us not allow these sensibilities to highjack our theology. 

Take, for instance, the Parable of the Dishonest Manager: 

Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

(Luke 16: 1-9)

Most pastors will try and cram the obtuseness of this parable into an interpretation that accords with what Jesus said about money elsewhere. And I admit that Luke’s placement of another saying of Jesus (which we do not know if it had any original connection to the parable; it may be an instance of editorializing by Luke) in v. 9 influences one in the direction of a literal interpretation. 

But what if Jesus is being sarcastic? What if he’s giving us a picture not of what we ought to be like, but of what we ought not to be like? (Jesus certainly used negative examples in other instances: Matt. 18: 23-34 and Luke 12: 13-21 are two great examples.) Or what if it’s even more subtle than that? What if Jesus is doing something much more rhetorically complex than either of these options?

My point is simply that we don’t give Jesus enough credit. Jesus was clearly a gifted speaker, and used a variety of oral conventions to communicate. He even regularly stumped the more educated members of Galilean society–the Pharisees, who (like Paul) likely attended Greek institutions with classical curricula such as rhetoric, philosophy, and logic. So why wouldn’t he use subtle forms of communication? Why must everything be plain-speech? 

Now it’s time to get around to the first assumption: if the Gospel is to be accessible to everyone, Jesus’ words must be simple and straightforward. 

As I said, this assumption rests on very healthy instincts. But is it necessarily true? It depends, for one, on Jesus’ every word being an utterance of the Gospel in its entirety. Did Jesus never talk about anything else but the most core truth of the Gospel? Hardly.

Secondly, does occasionally misinterpreting Jesus amount to missing the Gospel message? Nope. Origen would have admitted that the basic Gospel truth is accessible to everyone–even to those unaware of the “higher sense” of a passage. This is because Origen and contemporary Evangelicals (to take just one subgroup who tend to interpret exclusively according to the literal sense) subscribe to different imaginaries of the Gospel. If you were to diagram how the Gospel looks to Evangelicals, it would be a square, like a fortress, with clear boundaries and a formulaic password to gain entrance. It is also uniform: every element inside the fortress equally signifies the Gospel and is equally important for salvation. 

The other half of the Western Christian tradition (in which Origen and lots of others stand) imagines the Gospel as a series of concentric circles: in the center is Jesus, and on the outside are other truths and doctrines (doctrines about Mary or the angelic beings, for instance), which bear relation to Jesus but might be less essential for salvation. 

Which view do you think is better equipped to handle development and change within the tradition?


the truth shall set you free

PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death and God from Frank Warren on Vimeo.

salvation means healing

Show us your mercy, O Lord,

and grant us your salvation.

(Ps. 85:7, BCP)

Will long life will I satisfy him [who dwells in the shelter of the Most High],

and show him my salvation.

(Ps. 91:16, BCP)

Salvation is a healing. Most schoolchildren will remember only one word from Latin I: “Salvete!” (Good health to you! It doubles as “hello.”) To salve a wound is to treat it with balm and bandages.

So what does it mean for Christians to talk about God’s “salvation”? Pop theologians of the later 20th century have made entire careers out of the insight that “salvation” doesn’t only mean “eternal life in Christ.” So I won’t belabor that point. Instead, I want to ask after what change it makes to Christian conduct in the messiness of the world that our orientation to sinful life stems from the idea of healing.

Let’s get controversial: we’ve all heard pro-choice* arguments that rely on the assumption that the unborn child is manifestly not a human–or, at least not so manifestly human as the mother. Ergo, says this logic, the mother’s rights or “freedom” trumps the fetus’s.

But I’d venture that this reasoning is secondary to a deeper assumption, which hinges on the label of the baby (or, as the literature has it, the “pregnancy”) as “unwanted.” So in the pro-choice logic, this is the fundamental problem which must be solved: someone is carrying a fetus they do not want (for whatever reason).

Here’s where the pro-choice solution differs from the (in my view) Christian solution. In short, pro-choice logic demands an undoing–or, if that is not possible, an erasure–of the wrong that caused an unwanted pregnancy: poverty, rape, etc. It claims that “reproductive rights” will give women more power over their own destinies, and if a terrible and tragic event led to this unwanted pregnancy, then the women should not be responsible for bearing its enduring memory as a scar.

On the other hand, Christian logic recognizes the insufficiency of all solutions. All healing leaves scars (see Jesus’ hands and side: John 20:27). Unwanted babies are not “problems” to be “solved” (this terminology is increasingly used by pro-choice pundits on a macro level, where public policy is being debated), but wounds to be healed. And what sort of healing requires more violence and death?

As Sam Well’s says, Christian ethics is the transformation of the apparent givens of life into gifts.** While sin is not technically a “given,” it has woven itself into the fabric of reality such that God’s redemption must get creative (e.g., the incarnation) to overturn it. That’s the beauty of the gospel: we mucked the whole thing up, but God deigned to meet us in the pit and raise us up. Christian salvation isn’t therefore an undoing of sin, but rather an integration of the tragedy of sin into a larger, more expansive narrative–one that transforms tragedy into comedy.

I’m not saying all this is easy. Far from it. We cannot undo the tragedies we face, but we can deny the faux balm of unlimited individual freedom.

This applies to both men and women. The pro-choice claim since Roe v. Wade has been that more “rights” and “power” for women will counteract the wrongs that men inflict. We must recognize this as a myth of the state. Instead of increased freedom, we ought to learn increased restraint. Our common life imposes certain indelible limits: all human behavior entails consequences, and no medical or social advancement can neutralize them.

The Christian response is two-pronged, then: on the one hand, we cannot accept abortion as a solution to unwanted pregnancies. On the other hand, we cannot accept the conditions of the possibility of unwanted pregnancies, including the irresponsibility and recklessness of men. Though these conditions may be always with us (like the poor, as Jesus said: John 12:8), it is our charge to transform these givens into gifts, and practice healing on all occasions, that the world may see the salvation of God.

*Note: I’m using the terminology “pro-choice” and “fetus” instead of “pro-abortion” and “baby/child” as often as possible to avoid sounding polemical.

 **Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, as quoted in William Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy, p. 86.


Thus the soul’s primordial appetite for truth in itself, it’s orientation toward a horizon of perfect understanding and immediacy, has here only shadows–though often golden shadows–to feed upon. I suppose that is why perhaps the loveliest and most absorbing promise in Paul’s letters is that one day we will not only peer into a glass, darkly, but see face to face: The original author, having translated himself into a human idiom, will translate us into the idiom of the divine, without loss, confusion, or separation; and the restless human desire always to understand more (of which the imperfect art of translation is one small manifestation) will at last understand even as we are understood.
(David Bently Hart in the August/September 2012 First Things)


My dad and I went to see the new Ridley Scott film, Prometheus, last night in Aggieland. The film purports to be a “prequel” to Scott’s 1990s Alien series–but the only sign of this is the last thirty seconds, wherein is spawned a recognizably Alien-like alien from another (more human or Titan-like) alien.

Apart from this brief reference, the film stands alone as an allegorical sci-fi drama.

The first thing to note is that Mr. Scott has disdained to evolve with the industry, preferring melodramatics and an orchestral soundtrack befitting 2001 or Jurassic Park to more interesting sci-fi filmmaking like that recently undertaken by younger writer and director Brit Marling. (See Marling’s Another Earth if you have not already. I am still waiting for her new flick, The Sound of My Voice, to be released in Portland.)

Leaving those superficial elements, note must certainly be made of the plot’s obvious allegorical implications. The main character, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), is a scientist determined to meet her makers (which, going off of various cave paintings, she believes to be the aliens) yet also persisting in the Christian faith of her father. The lion’s share of the allegorical import lies in the (rather ill-performed) anguish over the dual facts of humans’ having been made by the Titan-aliens and the Titan-aliens’ intent to destroy Earth.

(SPOILER ALERT: The film’s main twist comes when the Titan-aliens are revealed to be mortal, thereby raising the question of their having been made by another, more titanic, Maker. Thus, Shaw’s faith in a divine creator over and above the Titan-aliens is not so much vindicated as left untouched. Such a “back to square one”denouement imitates many other sci-fi films–perhaps most famously the Planet of the Apes movies.)

In addition to being shallowly allegorical, the plot leaves the viewer guessing as to why the Titan-aliens might wish to destroy humankind. To Mr. Scott’s discredit, the possibility of humanity’s corruption (what theological parlance might call “sinfulness” or “depravity”) as a sufficient cause for annihilation never emerges–despite the obvious references to interpersonal (and intrapersonal) brokenness such as infertility and filial strife.

(Another aside is required here: I have been using the term Titan-alien to refer to the large white human-like aliens the film features, but the film itself leaves them unnamed. They seem to represent the mythical Titans in the sense that they “stole the fire” of creating from the gods (or God). But the humans in the story also seem to stand-in for the Titans, insofar as they hope to plunder the divine treasury to discover the truth about human existence–a hope the name of their ship, “Prometheus,” serves to confirm. Perhaps these coincidences are hints of deeper complexity than I have heretofore recognized…)

All the above brings us to an important observation about the cultural significance of Prometheus. If the humans are to represent the mythical hero Prometheus unironically, and if Dr. Shaw’s faith is not stripped from her but in some small, indirect way affirmed, then Ridley Scott can be said to be Hollywood’s idealistic pundit. Not idealistic in the common sense, mind you, but in the philosophical sense. Specifically, Scott seems to wish to continue the projects of the great German idealists of the 19th century.

Here’s Jürgen Moltmann on the nature of this project:

For Goethe, Schiller, Ranke, Karl Marx and many others, Prometheus became the great saint of the modern age. Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, stood in contrast to the figure of the obedient servant of God. It was possible to transform even Christ into a Promethean figure. Along with that there frequently went a philosophical, revolutionary millenarianism which set itself to build at last that realm of freedom and human dignity which had been hoped for in vain from the God of the divine servant.
(Theology of Hope, p. 24)

In contrast to both this idealistic presumption and the postmodern despair (epitomized in Camus’ “thinking clearly and hoping no more”), Moltmann proposes a thoroughly Christian attitude of hope. Only hope, he maintains, is life-giving. Further, hope–and neither presumption nor despair–is really realistic.

As our generation enters an era disillusioned by scientific knowledge (even as scientific discourse marches onward as the only permissible discourse in public reasoning; Ridley Scott obviously got only one of these memos and not the other!), we would do well to remember that the Gospel alone provides the hope necessary for authentic existence.