gospel

Unexpected Grace in Les Miz

Movie poster for "Les Misérables" from Universal Studios, Christmas, 2012
Movie poster for "Les Misérables" from Universal Studios, Christmas, 2012

For many centuries Christmas Day worshippers have been hearing these words as their New Testament reading: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11). Grace, everyone used to know, is foundational to the Christian Gospel.

But this Christmas I’m noticing the surprising version of grace in Les Miserables, already seen by 60 million people as a musical and now as a film. Victor Hugo’s novel may be seen as a story of grace transforming in the life of the common man Jean Valjean and grace rejected in the life of the rigid functionary Javert.

As the story begins, Jean Valjean is being released from 19 winters of imprisonment for having stolen some bread to save his sister’s son from starving. But in the eyes of Javert, Valjean will always be a thief, which is his nature, because he has not learned the meaning of the law. Crushed under this ideological overlay, Valjean sees himself as a slave of the law — in a way remarkably similar to that of St. Paul, who makes grace and law antithetical. The chorus confirms it: “Look down, you will always be a slave.”

In his first job after prison, Valjean is deliberately underpaid. When he objects, the boss says: “Why should you get the same as honest men like me?” (Jesus once told a parable about laborers in a vineyard to open people’s eyes to grace.) Valjean concludes that society has closed every door to him. When he is refused lodging, the innkeeper says: “We’re law-abiding people here. Thanks be to God.” The conservative identification with the law is commonly made in alliance with God, while Victor Hugo seems to understand that the Christian vision identifies grace, not law, with God.

The Objective Gospel For Suffering Christians

I am the way background, Genotar / Shutterstock.com
I am the way background, Genotar / Shutterstock.com

“The prevailing view in much of contemporary Christianity is more subjective. It tends to be far more focused on the happiness and moral performance of the Christian than the object of faith, Christ Himself.” –Tullian Tchvidjian

Personally I tend to always focus more on my problems when I am going through trials. I am sure that some of you reading can relate to this. It seems normal to focus on ourselves during seasons of suffering. When I look back at the most difficult time of my life, I realize how self-absorbed I was with everything that I was going through. I felt that no one could understand or relate. I felt alone and isolated. My focus was on trying to figure out a way that I could fix myself.  

The days and weeks passed by and eventually my suffering faded away with time. But when I look back and remember those days it amazes me how internally focused I was! The reality that strikes me still today is the fact that there was nothing within myself that could make my suffering go away. I read my Bible and read some self-help books, but nothing could alleviate my pain. Was I doing something wrong? Did I not have enough faith? Was God punishing me for my sins? It angered me that I did not have the power within myself to just “make life all better”. I was helpless and hopeless during that season of life. There was nothing that I could do. I was a sinner in need of a Savior (1 Timothy 1:15). 

A Sermon on Hacking Off Our Own Limbs for Jesus

Axe image, Pikoso.kz / Shutterstock.com
Axe image, Pikoso.kz / Shutterstock.com

Were I one for object lessons I’d have brought a nice sharp axe with me into the pulpit today. Because it’s only once in awhile that we get to hear Jesus talk about brutal self-mutilation as a sign of discipleship.

Growing up I was terrified of those verses in Mark’s Gospel that we just heard – the ones where Jesus suggests that if your hand causes you to sin cut it off, and if your foot causes you to sin hack that off too, and if your eye causes you to sin gauge the sucker out. I remember the summer I was 11 years old when I stole candy from KMart and then hid it in the heat duct in my room.  And I remember hearing this passage soon after that and thinking how my hand had indeed caused me to sin. And then and there I decided to never steal again lest Jesus insist I hack off my own limbs.

The problem, of course, is that my hand has never caused a darn thing.  My eye doesn’t cause me to sin.  My foot can’t be held accountable for my missteps. If you want to find the culprit behind my sin don’t look at my hand. Look at my heart. My poor feet just do what they’re told.

A Hip Hop Gospel?

Holographic image of deceased hip hop icon Tupac Shakur "performs" at the 2012 Coachella Festival.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Hip-hop's all the rage at universities and seminaries these days.

Scholars parse its angry and often violent language. They sift out refrains of religious redemption or clever critiques of modern culture. In some traditionally African-American divinity schools, the rise and fall of response and call, old-school black preaching, is giving way to intricately rhyming rap.

Dozens of pop culture books have been written about using hip-hop to evangelize young people, to relate to their lives and bring them into the organized church. But Monica R. Miller, a visiting professor of religion and popular culture at Lewis & Clark College, warns that looking for religion in hip-hop is a risky proposition.    

"Seeing isn't believing," she says. Listeners who point to religious words in lyrics and assume their meaning, or those who spend hours trying to discern some artist's systematic theology, may be wasting their time and effort.    

Her new book, Religion and Hip Hop, argues that shared vocabulary doesn't equal shared meaning, and religious language sometimes sells rather than saves. In an interview, Miller talks about religion, hip-hop, and whether and how they overlap.

The Ethical Opportunity of a Video

 Romney speaks to the press in Costa Mesa, Calif., on Tuesday.
Romney speaks to the press in Costa Mesa, Calif., on Tuesday.

The recently revealed video of Gov. Mitt Romney at a fundraising event last May is changing the election conversation. I hope it does, but at an even deeper level than the responses so far.

There are certainly politics there, some necessary factual corrections, and some very deep ironies. But underneath it all is a fundamental question of what our spiritual obligations to one another and, for me, what Jesus' ethic of how to treat our neighbors means for the common good.

Many are speaking to the political implications of Romney's comments, his response, and what electoral implications all this might have. As a religious leader of a non-profit faith-based organization, I will leave election talk to others.

Healing the Gospel: Did Jesus Die to Save Us From God?

Photo: Statue of Jesus on the cross, HUANG Zheng / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Statue of Jesus on the cross, HUANG Zheng / Shutterstock.com

Why did Jesus have to die? Was it to appease a wrathful God's demand for punishment? Does that mean Jesus died to save us from God? How could someone ever truly love or trust a God like that? How can that ever be called "Good News?"

It's questions like these that make so many people want to have nothing to do with Christianity.

Countless people filling our pews have adopted this hurtful view of God and themselves. It has led many to internalize feelings of shame and self-loathing, thinking this is what God desires. Others have lost their faith entirely because of it, unable to worship a God who seems to them to be a moral monster. Faith motivated by fear, threat, and feelings of worthlessness. How could things have gone so wrong? 

When did the good news become bad news?

Gender Equality: Why The Gospel Coalition Misses the Gospel

Egalitarianism illustration, Nuno Andre / Shutterstock.com
Egalitarianism illustration, Nuno Andre / Shutterstock.com

I was watching this recent video where Tim Keller (along with Don Carson and John Piper) addresses why The Gospel Coalition is explicitly complementarian (a nice way to say that they don't believe in gender equality). Why do they see this as something that a group that is supposed to be focused on the Gospel would need to stress? 

Keller begins by saying that he does not think the issue of gender roles are directly part of the Gospel, and acknowledges that bringing it up in the context of answering a person's questions of what it would mean to be a Christian could "certainly muddy the waters."

So why the focus then? He says it has to do with how we read Scripture.

Social Location at the Goose

The author speaking at Wild Goose. Photo by Dale Lature.
The author speaking during an Occupy Theology session at Wild Goose. Photo by Dale Lature..

At Wild Goose, I was humbled to be among justice-seeking Christians seeking to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

I see a deep connection between the personal practice of simple living and activism for social change. While I struggle to live justly, particularly in my everyday purchasing decisions (as Julie Clawson advises!), I often don’t live as simply as I could. Sometimes I take shortcuts, going out for lunch, driving my car to work, or buying something to solve a problem that actually requires time I lack because of overcommitment.

As Mark Scandrette points out, for many of us, our slavery to time and money is a choice. We could cut much from our lives and live more simply. We are the global 1 percent.

It’s this voluntary reconsideration of wealth and rediscovery of our Christian justice tradition that made Wild Goose such an amazing experience.

Bare Feet and Dolphins: Rob Bell's Return

Rob Bell in Southern California Tuesday. Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners.
Rob Bell in Southern California Tuesday. Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners.

“Oh, a dolphin.”

The speaker, dressed in khaki jeans, a blue t-shirt and flip-flops, interrupts his train of thought about spiral dynamics and the church when some movement in the ocean a few hundred yards away on the other side of the beach house’s open briefly catches his attention.

The audience of 50 — mostly 30- and 40-something-year-old pastors, the vast majority of them men, but with at least a few young clergywomen too (a refreshing change from most evangelical gatherings of this kind) — laughs heartily and more than a few attendees crane their necks to try to catch a glimpse of a dorsal fin in the distance.

The sounds of the Pacific crashing on the shore mix with a reggae tune playing on the outdoor stereo of the bar next door as the speaker, a 41-year-old former pastor and bestselling author, resumes his riff on categories of consciousness and the spiritual practice of meeting people exactly where they are.

Rob Bell isn’t in Kansas … I mean Michigan … any more.

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