Our Script Matters
In the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus speaks with a woman when they find themselves alone at a well at midday. We can learn a lot from what he says to her, and from what he chooses not to say.
Jesus tells the woman, “Go, get your husband, and bring him here.” She replies, “I have no husband.” Jesus tells her “That’s right. You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re now with isn’t your husband.”
These could have been shaming words. In her culture, to be without a husband is to risk economic ruin, and to have been divorced by your husband is to be shamed.
Had he wanted to, Jesus could have scored some serious points here: I’m a prophet, and you’re a sinner. I’m celibate, and you’re promiscuous. You are living in sin by living with a man who is not your husband.
Evidently, he didn’t want to say those things.
It’s one of the deepest and most enduring themes of the Bible; from Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, and many more — the two sons, with jealousy, strife, and even murder between them, and almost always, the younger brother takes the glory – or the blame – for the acts of the older brother.
We see it again in the Boston Marathon bombings – the elder brother portrayed as cynical and brutish, while the younger brother, taking the blame, is shown as charming and innocent.
The heart of our faith calls us to attack poverty, the "cruel thief of dreams."
(The Controversial figure Rob Bell has created another firestorm with his latest provocative book What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Raven Foundation Education Director, Adam Ericksen and Tripp Hudgins will share our thoughts on the book in this blogalogue. We invite you to join the discussion by leaving a comment below.)
Tripp Hudgins always gets me thinking. He is right that Rob’s chapter “Open” in What We Talk About When We Talk About God is about science and religion but that it’s also not about science and religion. This is the longest chapter of the book, and it’s full of scientific information that points to the mystery of the material world. What’s the point? As Tripp states, Rob is “asking for a little humility. He’s asking for a little poetic imagination. He’s asking for curiosity.”
That’s the point of the next chapter, too. Titled “Both,” in this chapter Rob points out a major problem we have with “God-talk.” That problem is language. Tripp set me up for this at the end of his post by asking, “Are words actually enough? Ha! Write about that. Words. Words. Words.”
When I was in seminary I learned about apophatic theology, or negative theology. It tries to define God by what God is not. A 9th century apophatic theologian named John Scottus Eriugena asserted, “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally, God is not because He transcends being.”
The first Christians confessed that Jesus is "God from God, light from light, true God from true God." Jesus is, they finally confessed after centuries of dispute, who the Gospels and the apostles plainly tell us: God without qualification. Bethlehem's baby boy grew to be the man from Nazareth, who is also from before time and forever the only begotten Son.
Jesus tells Philip that he and the Father are one; that if Philip has seen Jesus, then Philip has seen the Father. Paul tells the Colossians that Christ is the visible image of the unseen God. The Hebrews are taught by their apostle that Jesus bears the very stamp of God's nature.
If anything we think we knew about God before Jesus arrives in Mary's womb contradicts what we see and hear of Jesus in the Gospels, then we are the ones who are mistaken, the ones who weren't paying close enough attention before he came (yes, Jesus reveals the same relationship-initiating God of holy love we encounter in the pages of the Hebrew Bible); we are the ones who have, since his decades of extravagant humility among us as one of us, forgotten the Christ.
I try to be a diplomat, to err on the side of patience, when it comes to theological differences between Christians.
Reconciliation and peacemaking come natural. My wife says I stop sounding like myself when I'm hard-nosed or critical.
But recently, sitting across from a young man who heroin ("that boy") very nearly got the better of just days before, I lost at least a layer of my irenic self, lost a bit of my cool. When it comes to certain teachings, I'll not be as diplomatic in the future.
When are we going to stop teaching that the Father has to look on Jesus to love us? Why do we teach that the Father turns away from us, abandons us because of our sin? When are we going to stop teaching that the Father is angry with men and women or hates us (or stop projecting any other merely human emotion on to God?), conveying by our messages (verbal and nonverbal) that God despises that which he gloriously made in God's image?
The message we too often send is that Jesus must persuade the Father to love us, must plead with his Father not to forsake us.
At the center of Christianity is a weird claim: that we have been saved by sacrifice. And it was a gruesome sacrifice at that, a snapshot of humanity at our worst, for the Christian claim is that what saved us was the torture and putting to death on a cross of an innocent man falsely charged as a criminal. Weird doesn’t begin to describe the strangeness of this idea. The talented and thoughtful writer, Colm Toibin, has taken the church to task regarding this claim. As quoted by Maureen Dowd about his one-woman show opening soon on Broadway, The Testament of Mary, Toibin says this: “The idea that we were somehow saved and redeemed by a crucifixion seems strange to me. The idea of human sacrifice is something we really have to think about, even people who are practicing Catholics, the idea of taking a single individual for the sake of any cause.”
I have been thinking a lot about the idea of human sacrifice lately. In fact, I’ve been up to my eyeballs in it because I’ve been editing a new introduction to Christianity by the Catholic theologian James Alison. At the center of his course is an insight about how a death on a cross could have redeeming qualities. Here’s how Alison understands what happened at the cross: Jesus did not invent human sacrifice and going to his death on a cross was not an endorsement of the torture and murder of innocent victims. It was an exposé. What we have in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Passion is a fairly complete picture of how human beings, without any assistance from God, have saved our own necks by crucifying someone else. We commit sacrifice when we scapegoat, demonize, marginalize, expel, persecute or kill others in the name of our own safety and security or to bolster our belief in our own goodness. As the Gospels tell us rather directly, enemies become reconciled when they can find a common enemy to unite against: “That same day [the day of the crucifixion] Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.” (Luke 23:12)
Deep with one savior’s death, how many more?
In observance of which, the Dresden burghers
as usual held Shrove Tuesday circuses
around Our Lady’s Church, the Frauenkirche,
eating pancakes before their fast for Easter.
At midnight, Allies drew ash from their firestorm
on a hundred-thousand heads. Remember,
the Good War’s firesticks on Dresden’s timbers
in revenge for Coventry, where in embers
Ash Wednesday passion plays were once performed,
Theological considerations should frame the Christian response to capital punishment.