Advent Reflection

As I did during Lent, I am here posting a brief reflection on the season of Advent that I wrote for my church’s newsletter. I hope that it is helpful for you.

We are beginning to see a lot more sky around east Tennessee. The canopy of leaves, recently ablaze with reds, yellows and oranges has now largely fallen to the ground, leaving limbs naked and providing us with an unobstructed vision of the blue-grey above. Perhaps it is one of God’s many small gifts to us that during the season when the sun seems to sprint from one horizon to the other we have the clearest vision of it. At first brush, it seems strange that Advent and Christmas fall during this dark season. Why do we remember the mystery of the Incarnation, that most joyous event, at a time when the earth is barren, dark, and cold? Does not summertime with its flowering life seem like a better time to celebrate the birth of the life-giving Christ?

The birth of Jesus is good news—indeed the best of news. Yet, this good news comes in the midst of all of the bad news of creation. The death of a friend. The illness of a spouse. The stress of financial instability. The heartsickness of loneliness. It is in the middle these, our coldest nights, our darkest days, when the sun seems to withhold its warmth, that Christ comes. Christ, the light of the world, brings brightness to the deepest recesses of this barren world. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Advent is a season of preparation for the observance of Christ’s birth. It literally means coming or arrival. During the four weeks before Christmas, we ready our hearts and lives to receive again the good news that God reconciles the world to himself through the child of a virgin peasant. This Advent, we at Hopwood are reflecting on the theme “Divine Interruption.” We are remembering the loud as well as the quiet ways that Christ interrupts our every day existence. We pray that once again Jesus breaks through the hard, frozen soil of our life and plants a seed of new life, a seed of hope.

Image: Theotokos and Son, linocut print, 2011
W. Andrew Gibbens,



Well, it’s that time of the year again. Thousands of academics donning earth-tones are once again going to descend upon an unsuspecting American city armed only with phonebook sized programs and tote bags. The legions of pant suits and sweater vests will aimlessly squirrel about downtown for a couple of days before ending this yearly ritual with a return to their pedagogical hibernation. If all goes well, this feast will sustain them through the harsh winter of teaching freshmen. It is the circle of academic life.

Of course, I am referring to the annual joint conference of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. This year, which is actually my first year, Chicago is the landing zone.

I was going to give you my personal recommendations for which sessions to attend. But then I realized:

1) You probably don’t care.
2) Knowing that I can’t possibly attend everything that interests me, I am going with the “wing it” method.
3) The meticulous Andy Rowell already made a mighty fine list.

So, if I am not going to tell you what sessions you should attend, why am I writing this post? Excellent question. I thought it would be worthwhile to sound the call for getting together.

Is anyone else going who would like to meet up and share a beverage derived from the bean or the hop? Shoot me an email (lawson DOT Stephen AT gmail). Alternatively, just look for the vagabond hanging out by the discounted theology books hoping that one falls to the floor (because then it is free).

We should hang out. I’m great fun.

The Hope for the Earth: A Triptych

This nation is the hope of the earth. We’ve been blessed by having a nation that’s free and prosperous thanks to the contributions of the greatest generation. They’ve held a torch for the world to see — the torch of freedom and hope and opportunity. Now, it’s our turn to take that torch. I’m convinced we’ll do it.

Mitt Romney, 22 October 2012.

We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that — for that is the story of human progress; that’s the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.

Barack Obama, 10 December 2009.

Hope finds in Christ not only a consolation in suffering, but also the protest of the divine promise against suffering. If Paul calls death the ‘last enemy’ (1 Cor 15:26), then the opposite is also true: that the risen Christ, and with him the resurrection hope, must be declared to be the enemy of death and of a world that puts up with death. Faith takes up this contradiction and thus becomes itself a contradiction to the world of death. That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.

Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 21.

Church as Crater

I’m doing some travelling this week and next. If you’re at or near my undergraduate alma mater, hit me up sometime early next week. Especially if you are interested in talking to me about the benefits of graduate theological education (especially from one of the best places to study).

And here is Barth that you all are expecting. It’s an absolutely fantastic quote.

The assumption that Jesus is the Christ (Rom 1.4) is, in the strictest sense of the word, an assumption, void of any content that can be comprehended by us. The appointment of Jesus to be the Christ takes place in the Spirit and must be apprehended in the Spirit. It is self-sufficient, unlimited, and in itself true. And moreover, it is what is altogether new, the decisive factor and turning-point in man’s consideration of God. This it is which is communicated between Paul and his hearers. To the proclamations and receiving of this Gospel the whole activity of the Christian community—its teaching, ethics, and worship—is strictly related. But the activity of the community is related to the Gospel only in so far as it is no more than a crater formed by the explosion of a shell and seeks to be no more than a void in which the Gospel reveals itself. The people of Christ, His community, know that no sacred word or work or thing exists in its own right: they know only those words and works and things which by their negation are sign-posts to the Holy One. If anything Christian (!) be unrelated to the Gospel, it is a human by-product, a dangerous religious survival, a regrettable misunderstanding. For in this case content would be substituted for a void, convex for concave, positive for negative, and the characteristic marks of Christianity would be possession and self-sufficiency rather than deprivation and hope. If this be persisted in, there emerges, instead of the community of Christ, Christendom, an ineffective peace-pact or compromise with that existence which, moving with its own momentum, lies on this side resurrection. Christianity would then have lost all relation to the power of God. Now, whenever this occurs, the Gospel, so far from being removed from all rivalry, stands hard pressed in the midst of other religions and philosophies of this world. Hard pressed, because, if men must have their religious needs satisfied, if they must surround themselves with comfortable illusions about their knowledge of God and particularity about their union with Him,—well, the world penetrates far deeper into such matters than does a Christianity which misunderstands itself, and of such a ‘gospel’ we have good cause to be ashamed. Paul, however, is speaking of the power of the UNKNOWN God, of —Things which eye saw not and ear heard not, and which entered not into the heart of man. Of such a Gospel he has no cause to be ashamed.

Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans sixth edition (New York: Oxford, 1968) 35–6.

Tolle, Lege! Take, and Read!

Occasionally, people ask me for a list of books to read. I’ve sent out two such lists this week. So I thought I would post a list here. Here is a list of books (limited to modern theology) that I believe every seminarian and minister should read. This began as a pre-seminary reading list for a student who is already pretty well-versed in Christian theology. So, consider this pre, during, or post seminary reading. Any way you have it, you should read these books. At least, I am of the opinion that you should. They are in (a very rough) order of importance. For those with multiple books listed, I would recommend reading the first applicable one and then move on through the list (revisit the other books later).

This is not a list of books that will give you a broad and comprehensive understanding of modern theology. Rather, this is a list of books that, in my humble opinion, will form you into a better theologian.

1) Read Karl Barth
Read: Evangelical Theology: An Introduction
If you’ve already read that read: Dogmatics in Outline
If you’ve already read that read: The Word of God and Theology
If you’ve already read that read: Epistle to the Romans

2) Read Stanley Hauerwas
Read: Resident Aliens
If you’ve already read that read: After Christendom?
If you’ve already read that read: The Peaceable Kingdom
If you’ve already read that read: The Hauerwas Reader

3) Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace

4) Alasidar MacIntyre’s After Virtue

5) Read William Cavanaugh
Read: Theopolitical Imagination
If you’ve already read that read: Torture and Eucharist
If you’ve already read that read: Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

6) Read William Placher’s Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation 

7) Read Alan Lewis’s Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday 

8) Read Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God

9) Read Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations
(This is not a theology book, but philosophy. It is still one of the most important texts of the last century. It’s also quite readable for a philosophical text. Many of the theologians on this list go about their theological projects in conversation with this text.)

10) Read Lohfink’s Does God Need the Church?

11) Read John Howard Yoder
Read: The Original Revolution
If you’ve already read that read: The Politics of Jesus
If you’ve already read that read: The Priestly Kingdom

12) Read Rowan Williams’s Ray of Darkness

13) Read Hans Urs von Balthasar
I’d say read: Love Alone is Credible
If you’ve already read that read: Engagement with God

14) Read Gustavo Gurierrez’s A Theology of Liberation

15) Read William Robinson’s The Biblical Doctrine of the Church
(This book is especially important if you are coming out of the Stone-Campbell tradition. Robinson represents the best of our tradition, in my opinion.)

16) Read Louis-Marie Chauvet’s The Sacraments: Word of God at the Mercy of the Body

17) Read James Allison’s Raising Able: The Recovery of Eschatological Imagination

18) Read Clark Pinnock’s Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit

19) Read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together 

20) Read George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age 

This is not everything that you should read. You should supplement this list in at least three ways.

1) Read good poetry and fiction. This will make you a better minister and theologian. I highly recommend the work of Flannery O’Connor (start with her short stories (esp. “Revelation” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find”) and then move on to Wise Blood. Also, you should read plenty of T. S. Eliot, Wendell Berry, Dostoevsky, and Graham Greene. Also, Tolkien should always be within reach of your desk.

2) Read good biblical studies. It wasn’t that long ago that biblical studies and theology were a single discipline. Regrettably, that is no longer the case. However, it is true that the best theologians and pastors are conversant with biblical studies in addition to church history and theology (e.g. Yoder and Lohfink). So, you should stay abreast with what is going on in biblical studies. Begin with the work of Brevard Childs, Christopher Seitz, Jon Levenson, and Walter Brueggemann (Old Testament) and Richard Hayes, Ed Sanders, N.T. Wright, and Larry Hurtado (New Testament). Also, a little Hans Frei is always a good idea. I could give specific texts here, but I trust you to figure it out. Begin with the shorter ones and go from there.

3) Read primary sources in theology and philosophy. This is crucially important for both academic and pastoral work. I’d recommend as a starting point something like McGrath’s Theology Reader or something more specific to your interests (e.g. From Ireanus to Grotius: A Sourcebook of Christian Political Thought. They also have readers on other issues like creation, disability, The Holy Spirit, etc.). Eventually, you should move on to reading more extended works from single theologians from history. To this end, I highly recommend the Popular Patristics series from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. This series is full of affordable, readable texts from patristic theologians. Pastors and theological scholars of all types need to be taking advantage of this significant resource.

The best advice that I have is: READ. Don’t just read blog posts, news articles, facebook updates and tweets. Read carefully and patiently difficult texts that struggle with significant questions about God, Christ, and how we are to live in the world. We are inundated with sensationalistic and impressionistic texts that too many readily accept as sources or targets for their Sunday Sermons. In this milieu, it is vitally important for Christian pastors and theologians to read.

Otherwise we might find ourselves in the position of having an extremely loud voice with which we are convicted to say nothing in particular.


I skipped a number, so I was able to add one more book! I followed Jordan’s keen insight and added Williams.

I also added Tolkien. You’re welcome, Alex.


Moltmann, Hauerwas, and Barth on the Relationship Between the Church and “the Political”

Okay, so I need a better title for it. But here is my proposal for my Master of Divinity thesis. I was given approval to begin working on it. Questions, comments, critiques, resource suggestions, ad hominem attacks, or title suggestions are welcome. Especially that last one. I’ll never get this thing on the New York Times bestseller list without a catchy title.


Karl Barth’s theological location of the church vis-à-vis the political has special relevance for contemporary theology. I believe that his approach, offering the dialectic of divestment and investment of the church in the political, opens up an alternative to the dominant and emergent traditions of Christian theological reflection on the political as described by Daniel Bell. Despite the benefits present within both traditions, both are hindered by their placement of the political before the theological. In the dominant tradition, this tendency manifests itself by the susceptibility of theology to ideology. In the emergent tradition, this tendency is manifested by ecclesiological idealism and a latent nostalgia for Christendom. For the sake of space and clarity, Jürgen Moltmann and Stanley Hauerwas are taken as representative of the dominant and emergent traditions, respectively. I argue that the primacy of Christ within Karl Barth’s theological project allows for a third option regarding the theological location of the church vis-à-vis the political. This primacy of Christ within Barth’s theological understanding of the church as well as the world results in a theological politics capable of safeguarding the church from being co-opted by ideology on the one hand and an idealistic ecclesiocentrism on the other hand.

Daniel Bell, Jr. notes that the greatest division within contemporary theological reflection on politics and the church is not, as one might expect, between conservative and liberal political ideological commitments.1 Rather, Bell argues, the division is actually the result of significant theological difference between those theologians who see the church as fundamentally apolitical, entrusted with the safeguarding of abstract values and limited to political action through the avenues made available by statecraft and those who see the church itself as irreducibly public, rejecting what they see as the anemic politics of statecraft. The former category, which Bell labels “the dominant tradition,” is by far the most common perspective in Christian theology in the 20th century and encompasses the various types of political theology, liberation theology, and public theology. The latter category, termed “the emergent tradition” by Bell, is a smaller group of recent theologians loosely identifiable as postliberal. I contend that these traditions are at a theological impasse and the resources for navigating and overcoming this division are not readily available within either tradition. To argue this, I take as representative one theologian from within each tradition and critically survey their position before offering a reframing informed by the theology of Karl Barth.

Jürgen Moltmann is one of the best articulators of the dominant tradition in recent theology. Through his voluminous writings, Moltmann consistently offers an impassioned plea for the church to engage with the world by calling the world to justice, liberation, and environmental stewardship. Moltmann has been a staunch advocate for Christian engagement with political structures to accomplish this aim. While many of his works contain these pleas, his two most sustained dealings with the theology that undergird his understanding of Christian political engagement are two of his lesser known works, the 1984 essays On Human Dignity and the 1997 book God for a Secular Society. I primarily focus my analysis of Moltmann’s political theology to these two works.

Stanley Hauerwas is undeniably one of the most able proponents of the emergent tradition of Christian political engagement. He posits a radical distinction between politics of the world and the politics to which the church is called. This is evidenced in his oft-repeated claim that the “first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world.”2 Hauerwas holds that the concrete embodiment of the gospel in the practices of the church is the church’s political engagement. The church’s politics is not in need of being translated into a neutral, secular argot. Indeed such a translation is impossible both philosophically and theologically. Hauerwas’s favorite form of writing is the occasional essay. This makes the necessary task of narrowing his substantial corpus for the sake of a clear analysis in a limited space somewhat difficult. My attention is primarily focused on his 2000-2001 Gifford lectures published as With the Grain of the Universe and several other select essays.

Karl Barth’s position of the church’s relationship to the political does not fit neatly within Bell’s typology. It is for precisely this reason that his project is relevant today. While Barth’s position is not without its shortcomings (indeed both Moltmann and Hauerwas have helpful critiques to make of it), it has within it resources for navigating past the impasse between the dominant and emergent traditions by challenging the assumptions of both regarding what is foundational. Substantial engagement with Barth in a study as limited as this demands that his massive oeuvre be narrowed. I draw primarily upon two distinct sections of Church Dogmatics, § 36 “Ethics as a Task of the Doctrine of God” (II/2 pp. 509–551) and § 72 “The Holy Spirit and the Sending of the Christian Community” (IV/3.2 pp 681-901), though I supplement this material with additional texts (primarily essays).

1Daniel Bell Jr., “The State and Civil Society” 423-438 in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, eds. Peter Scott and William Cavanaugh (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).
2Stanley Hauerwas, A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and Postmodernity (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2000), 157.

Suffering Determines the Meaning of History

It’s been a month since my last post. Perhaps this makes me a bad blogger.

I have been busying myself with church work, school work (I am taking my final course for my MDiv), thesis-ing, teaching, learning German, and (the far from simple process of) applying to PhD programs. So, that’s my excuse.

I do hope to post some of what I’ve been working on soon. I am beginning the work on my thesis in which I will compare the church’s relationship vis a vie “the political” in the theologies of Jürgen Moltmann, Stanley Hauerwas, and Karl Barth. It is my contention that Barth helpfully reframes the discussion. I’ve submitted the proposal and perhaps I’ll post some of my preliminary thoughts here soon.

The anniversary of 9/11 this past week has turned my attention to how we, as Christians, view the history of the world. I remember Stanley Hauerwas writing something along the lines of, “Christians don’t believe that the world changed forever on 9/11. We believe the world changed forever in AD 33.” He has similar sentiments in an article that he wrote on last year’s 9/11 anniversary in which he tries to convince Christians that they believe that war has already been abolished. All that brought to mind a some what famous Yoder quote that has always been one of my favorites.

“The lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power!” John is here saying, not as an inscrutable paradox but as a meaningful affirmation, that the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history. The key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience (Rev 13:10). The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and other kinds of power in every human conflict. The triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause an effect but one of cross and resurrection.

John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster second edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 232.

Whither Politics?

The emergent tradition’s rejection of the modern mythos of politics as statecraft in favor of a distinctly theological politics is founded on the conviction that God is active in history now bringing about a new age, the contours of which are discernible not in Western liberalism, democratic socialism, or the Pax Americana but in Christ, in the work of Christ’s Spirit as it gathers Christ’s body, the church. There, in that space where humanity is eucharistically joined once again in communion with one another and with God, we see the true community, the true polity, the true politics—a politics that modern statecraft, embedded as it is in the (dis)order of dominion and the endless conflict of self-interested individuals, cannot even dream of, but only mock.

Daniel M. Bell, Jr., “The State and Civil Society” pp. 423-438 in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology William Cavanaugh and Peter Scott (eds) (Blackwell: Oxford, 2004), 436-7.

A Theological Critique of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ

In a review that I was working on for The Englewood Review of Books I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As I was searching my own hard drive for the citation of that quote, I came upon this little essay. I wrote it for a class on Christology over two years ago. I thought that there might be some interest in it. It is a theological analysis of the film The Last Temptation of Christ. Besides the occasional embarrassing typo, I have refrained from editing it.

Any film that seeks to portray the life of Jesus of Nazareth is bound to have some level of controversy surrounding its reception. When a film is made that attempts to interpretively portray Jesus, who is an object of faith for so many, such controversies seem inevitable. When the interpretation greatly differs from the gospel accounts, or creatively fills the gaps which the gospels so carefully construct, the controversy has the potential to become a full-fledged hostile reaction. This has been somewhat true in all the portrayals of Jesus in twentieth century film, but especially with Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, released in 1988. The film, inspired by Nikos Kazantzakis’ influential novel, encountered this controversy from the very beginning. The Paramount film corporation originally approved the film, but abandoned the project in response to an intense letter-writing campaign initiated by The National Federation for Decency. Three years later, the project was picked up by Universal Pictures. Upon its release, Christians, especially Evangelicals, labeled the film as blasphemous and called for its boycott.

In response to the gathering storm of indictment against his film, Scorsese included an epigraph and a disclaimer, both of which appear on the screen before the title. The epigraph is a quotation from the Kazantzakis novel:

“The dual substance of Christ–
the yearning so human,
so superhuman,
of man to attain God…
has always been a deep
inscrutable mystery to me.

My principle anguish and source
of all my joys and sorrows
from my youth onward
has been the incessant,
merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh…
and my soul is the arena where these two armies
have clashed and met.”

This is followed immediately by the disclaimer, the addition of which was surly an attempt by Scorsese to somehow quiet the gathering controversy. It reads:

“This film is not based on the Gospels, but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.”

Tatum posits that this disclaimer disclaims too much. “As with the Kazantzakis novel, the film is based in some sense on the story of Jesus as narrated in the four gospels.”1 While this observation is correct, it misses the point of the disclaimer. The point of Scorsese’s disclaimer is not to states that the film is not influenced by the accidents of the encounters and teachings of Jesus as recorded in the canonical gospels. It is a matter of course that Jesus is shown in both the book and film as doing and saying many of the same things as the Jesus of the gospels. Rather, Scorsese is distancing himself from the aims of the gospel writers. Instead of telling these stories in such a way as to highlight Jesus’ mission or identity, Scorsese seeks to use these stories to highlight the ‘eternal spiritual conflict.’ Here, Jesus is meant to be the everyman who undergoes the same struggles between spirit and flesh with which all humanity must grapple. Because of his unique divinity, Jesus is able to be flesh and choose spirit. The difference between the struggle of Scorsese’s Jesus and the rest of humanity is one of vocation, not one of kind.

For Scorsese, Jesus is a tragic figure. Jesus himself, and not the later church councils and dogmas, is the battleground between the two natures of Christ–humanity and divinity. Scorsese recognizes that if Christ is at once fully God and fully man but only one person, then that person is full of doubt, of questioning and uncertainty. Scorsese is able to portray this oscillation and questioning by showing the inner life of Jesus. From the opening scene onward, Scorsese makes consistent use of voice-over to demonstrate this struggle. The audience hears the inner dialogue of Jesus himself. Jesus is aware that voices are telling him that his life is to be significant in a unique way, but he is unsure of whether these voices are coming from God or the Devil. Throughout the film, and particularly as Jesus attempts to discern his mission in the desert and through his encounter with John the Baptist, it is clear that Jesus is searching for how this significance should be enacted. He oscillates between proclaiming a message of love and a message of revolution and concludes with the understanding that he himself must choose death to bring about real salvation from the flesh.

All the while that Jesus is struggling with these questions, he is longing to embrace his humanity. He encounters Mary Magdalene early in the film. She is a prostitute and Jesus goes to her for conversation instead of sex. It is clear in this encounter that Jesus and Mary are childhood friends. Jesus has failed to marry Mary and is therefore to a certain extent responsible for her current position. Jesus obviously cares deeply for her, but is prevented from being with her by his own deepening understanding of his vocation. Here, it becomes apparent that for Jesus to fulfill his mission in the world, he must forsake his humanity. For Scorsese, Jesus is fully human, but that humanity is must be quelled in order for him to embrace his true calling—divinity.

Therefore, Jesus’ increasingly clear mission is shown as some kind of ethereal embrace of spirit and forsaking of flesh. Humanity, it seems, is entrapped in a cycle of following after the flesh and seeking ‘fleshly’ things such as family (seen in the temptation to marry Mary) and political power (seen in the temptation of zealotry offered by Judas). While Jesus affirms that the physical is good and comes from God he is unsure how that goodness can be reconciled with the call to embrace the spirit over the flesh. At one point of the film he prays to the Father,  “Father in heaven, Father on earth, the world that you’ve created that we can see is beautiful, but the world that you have created that we can’t see is beautiful too.  I’m sorry, Father, but I don’t know which one is more beautiful.”

In some way, Jesus’ internalized struggle is his mission on behalf of humanity. Jesus is the Messiah which means that he brings some kind of salvation. The battle where Jesus fights for this salvation is not against the Romans, the Jewish leaders, or even the sin of the people. Rather, it is in himself. Somehow, in choosing spirit over flesh (which he does at the end of the film), he offers salvation to people. Since humanity is portrayed as entrapped in feeding their flesh, Jesus’ conquering of this enslavement somehow provides a way of salvation for the whole of humanity. This is one of the vaguest notions of the film. Somehow, in the midst of a monologue-esque portrayal of Jesus, he opens a kind of salvation for the world.

The Garden of Gethsemane and the crucifixion scenes dominate the film, taking about 51 minutes. Jesus had already coerced Judas (his best and most faithful disciple, according to the film) to betray him. He goes to the garden, awaiting his imminent arrest in prayer. It is here that Jesus’ own angst concerning his mission is the most apparent. In the garden, he accusatorially prays to the Father, “I never asked you to choose me.” Judas arrives with soldiers to arrest Jesus, who accepts what is to come by praying, “take me with you, I’m ready.”

There is no trial scene before the Jewish authorities, only a brief scene of questioning between Jesus and Pilate. This further underscores the point that the real battle is not between Jesus and the Romans or anyone else, but between Jesus’ divinely orchestrated purpose and his own unwillingness to submit to it. This is followed by the crucifixion scene which is violent and realistic. Jesus is bleeding and defeated. He is crucified naked and derision is added to the equation as he hangs humiliated before a small jeering crowd. He cries out here, “Father, why have you forsaken me?!” This cry of godforsakenness silences everything. Jesus looks down and sees an attractive young girl who approaches Jesus and reveals that she is his guardian angel. She tells him, “Your Father is the God of mercy not punishment. He saw you and said, ‘aren’t you his guardian angel? Well go down and save him. He’s suffered enough.’” She then assists in bringing Jesus down from the cross, revealing to him as they walk away that he is not the Messiah, a revelation that brings great relief to Jesus.

Jesus follows his angel who leads him to a normal human life. Jesus marries Mary Magdalene and is shown having sex with her (this is understandably the most controversial scene of the film) and fathers children. After this, Mary dies, and the angel tells Jesus to marry Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. He is shown happily walking with his family when he hears Paul the apostle preaching. Jesus approaches Paul (who, earlier in the film, killed the raised Lazarus who was the primary evidence of Jesus’ power) and hears him preaching the good news of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus calls him a liar and denies that he is the Messiah. Paul responds “I’ve created the truth out of what people needed and what they believed. If I have to crucify you to save them, then I’ll crucify you. If I have to resurrect you, then I’ll do that too.” Tatum notes, “Although this exchange between Paul and Jesus may be negated in the mind of the viewer by the realization that it occurs only in the imagination of the dying Jesus, the question of the relationship between the Christ of faith as preached by the church and the Jesus of history has been raised more explicitly here than in any other Jesus story film to this time.”2 Furthermore, this is the only reference to the resurrection in the entire film. So, while it could be argued that this encounter is later negated, the exchange does point to the resurrection as some kind of internal spiritual truth.

Jesus continues to live out his life in happiness. On his deathbed, the disciples come to visit him. As Jerusalem burns in the background, Judas calls Jesus a traitor, saying that the disciples did what they were supposed to do and Jesus failed to do what he was supposed to do. Jesus comes to the realization then that he actually is the Messiah and that his ‘guardian angel’ is, in fact, Satan. He repents of his selfishness and crawls through Jerusalem, making his way to Golgotha. Here, he prays to the Father, begging for him to listen to “a selfish and unfaithful son.” He tells God that he wants to be crucified, that he wants to be the Messiah. Then it is revealed that he is still on the cross. He smiles and cries out, ‘It is accomplished’ and dies.

It seems that for Scorsese Jesus is most clearly seen as a manifestation of God when he truly struggles with, and ultimately submits himself to, the will of the Father. It could be fairly said that the prayer “not my will, but yours be done” is for Scorsese what makes Jesus both fully human and fully divine. This is an intriguing perspective on Jesus not least because it demonstrates a confluence of desires (which is utterly human) and a humble submission of those desires (which is utterly divine). Therefore, for Scorsese, Jesus’ “last temptation” is really the only temptation he ever had, to pray ‘not your will, but mine be done.’ It does not matter if this struggling between wills is manifested in the temptation of self-preservation, sex, family, or political power. They are all the same temptation.

What makes Scorsese’s Jesus compelling is that he actually attempted to do what few have attempted. That is, to portray Jesus as one person with two natures. It is understandable then, why Scorsese’s Jesus seems to border on insanity, because he is constantly torn between himself. His temptation is not to embrace something outside of himself, rather it is to fully embrace his own human identity. His refusal to acquiesce to this temptation is a sign of his divinity indeed. But that divinity does not cancel out his humanity, because his humanity is manifested in his own struggle to choose it. Nothing is more human than a questioning Jesus. His refusal to fully embrace his humanity (and therefore satisfy the human desires) is his refusal to sin. Therefore, Scorsese’s tries to portray a Jesus that “was like us in all ways but sin.”

Despite all that is commendable and intriguing about Scorsese’s Jesus, there are still several significant theological problems with him.

One of the most significant problems with Scorsese’s Jesus is that his struggle is internalized. Yes, he has critiques to make of sin, of legalism, and of Rome. But these critiques are peripheral. Jesus’ most challenging interlocutor is himself. Since this is is biggest challenge, to quiet his own fleshly desires, it is unclear how he offers salvation. What Scorsese seems to imply is that Jesus paved the way for humanity to follow after him and choose spirit over flesh. Therefore, Jesus is kind of a vague numinous spiritual guide whose way we can follow to be freed from the flesh. This quasi-gnosticism takes the shame and disgrace of the cross and sanctifies it.

The battle between spirit and flesh can only be won when flesh has been crucified. Therefore, Jesus’ self-abnegation on the cross is actually a victory in and of itself. There is no need for a resurrection, because the cross is victory in its own right. Scorsese does this by juxtaposing Jesus’ cry of godforsakenness with the Johannine cry of “it is accomplished.” Whereas John’s cry is a statement in the present in light of the coming resurrection, Scorsese’s Jesus cries this after his own victory over the ‘last temptation.’ Because of this, Jesus was not truly and actually dying in godforsakenness. Rather than the cross being a sign of defeat and shame, it is a sign of victory, and not the retroactive victory that the resurrection gives it, but victory in itself. This identification of the cross with glory is most troublesome, it is nothing short of calling darkness light. God is not crucified. God does not die. God is not laid to decompose in a tomb. Therefore, God is not raised. What we are left with is not a Jesus who brings life out of death, but a Jesus whose glory comes in bringing of death to life.

What is absent in Scorsese’s Jesus is absence. There is no day of death. No Holy Saturday, when God lies rotting in a tomb. For Scorsese, the cross confirms Jesus’ identity, whereas for Christian theology, the cross is central precisely because it negates Jesus’ identity. This negation is itself negated by Easter resurrection, but if there is no negation of Jesus, of his mission, his teaching, and his work, then there need be no resurrection. Truly, what is missing is the connectivity between the cross and everything else. For Scorsese, the cross is exactly what makes Jesus, Jesus. It is a stand alone event, encapsulating the great spiritual struggle between spirit and flesh. However, Christian theology stubbornly holds that the cross is the last day of Jesus, utterly negating all of his life, his very identity (hence the Emmaus disciples despair: “we had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel”). At the same time, however, the cross is the first day of the great Paschal Triduum, culminating in resurrection. The absence of Holy Saturday must come. For it is in Holy Saturday that “resurrection is not permitted to verge upon the cross, instantaneously converting its death into new life, still less to trespass death’s own borders and thus to identify the cross with glory. Instead, death is given time and space to be itself, in all its coldness and helplessness.”3 This absence is absent from Scorsese’s film, and because it is absent, there need not be any presence (resurrection) that follows it.

If the salvation that Jesus offers is the same as the salvation that Scorsese’s Jesus offers, then the only hope for those dying in godforsakenness is to embrace their death and somehow spiritually transcend it. In so doing, nothing is changed. The only thing that has happened is that despair has been called hope. If the hope of the world is the hope that Scorsese’s Jesus offers, then suicide is a virtue and suffering is divine, for it is the ultimate distancing of flesh from spirit. To those dying in godforsakenness, they are without hope unless God truly suffers himself. As Bonhoeffer said, “Only the suffering God can help.”4

1 W. Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Moives: A Guide to the First Hundred Years, (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2004) 182.
2 Ibid., 184.
3 Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001) 37.
4 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Updated edition, (New York: Touchstone, 1997) 343.

Giving and Receiving: A Sermon (with audio)

Here is a sermon that I preach at my church during Lent. You can listen to the audio here.

Sermon for Hopwood Christian Church
March 18, 2012 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21 

There are few who will dispute that J. R. R. Tolkien was a genius story-teller. One of the reasons his famous fantasy series The Lord of the Rings, has had such an enduring influence is his unwavering attention to detail. He didn’t just create a story, he created a whole world in which a story could take place. All of the fantastical creatures found within the pages of his books—whether Orc, wizard, or elf— have different histories, different customs, and speak different languages. One of the most intriguing of these creatures is the unassuming hobbit, four of whom become main characters in the books.

Hobbits are small human-like creatures who generally enjoy gardening, eating, drinking ale, and pipe-smoking. They usually prefer to stay at home in the quiet familiar hills of the Shire.

Much like humans, they celebrate birthdays. But, because they enjoy receiving presents so much, a custom evolved among them that on your birthday you do not receive presents, but rather give presents to the guests at your party. That way, hardly a week can pass during the year that you do not receive a present from a friend. The first book in the series begins with one of these birthday parties hosted by Bilbo Baggins. Later in the book, we are told the tale of Smeagol, a hobbit who long ago refused to give on his birthday, and instead stole the ring of power and murdered his friend. This radical inversion of the proper order of giving and receiving corrupts Smeagol, eventually exiling him from the community and turning him into the grey cave-dwelling Gollum. Gollum ends up completely possessed by the birthday present that he has stolen.

And when the order of giving and receiving is broken, evil gains a foothold in the world.

One of the most foundational things to say about God—perhaps the most foundational— is that God gives. The pages of Scripture are bursting with records and recollections of God’s continual giving to his creation and to the people he has called to himself. In the opening chapters of Genesis, we are told a vivid story of God giving many good gifts to the crown of his creation—humanity. He gives them a lush garden full of every kind of food that they could ever need or want. He sets them as stewards and caretakers of that place. As with all gifts, there is a proper way to receive it and an improper way to receive it. And, as we remember, it does not take long for the gratitude of newly-created humanity to fade into presumption. Soon, the order of giving and receiving is broken. Adam and Eve move their hands from open to clenched—from receiving to taking.

When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they cried out to God to give a good gift. They were hungry and thirsty so they turned to the giver of good gifts and asked for help. And God responded by giving them manna that they only had to pick up to receive. He gave it not just once, but continually. Every morning brought with it new manna from the Lord. The proper way to receive it was simply to take what you needed and eat it with thankful hearts.

And yet, we all know the story. In the face of God’s continual daily provision, the Israelites first try to hoard the manna. They try to steal what was freely given. They try to take advantage of God’s free love. They turn a gift into a commodity to be hoarded and guarded. By doing so, they break the very nature of the gift as gift. As a result, they corrupt God’s it—they spoil the manna.

Eventually they learn that a gift cannot be hoarded, but can only be received. And, once again, God’s mercies arrive every morning to sustain the community. Manna for the people of God. But, once again, it does not take long until the gift is rejected. After days, weeks even years of God’s provision, the people of God grow to hate the bread from heaven. They complain to Moses,

“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

They detest it. They are so sick and tired of the manna of God that they very thought of it makes them viscerally ill. When they think about manna, they gag. They hate it so much, that it’s like having no food at all.

And so, once again, the divine order of giving and receiving is broken. The people of God refuse to live gratefully as receivers in God’s creation and it’s God’s very creation in the form of snakes rises up against them.

Reading this story several thousands years removed can make us feel proud and self-important. If God only gave us manna from heaven every morning, we wouldn’t do what our ancestors did. We wouldn’t hoard it. We wouldn’t grow detest it. We would gratefully receive it. We would praise God for it.

And yet, every morning, to us is given the creation of God anew.

The psalmist (104) praises God, testifying that everything that has breath is sustained only by the Spirit of God. Every morning, God’s Spirit goes forth from him giving life to us and to his good creation. These are his gifts to us.
Do we receive them properly? Do we view the good things that God has given us in creation as gifts to be gratefully received or as commodities to be hoarded?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that “Earthly goods are given to be used, not to be collected. In the wilderness God gave Israel the manna every day, and they had no need to worry about food and drink. Indeed, if they kept any of the manna over until the next day, it went bad. In the same way, the disciple must receive his portion from God every day. If he stores it up as a permanent possession, he spoils not only the gift, but himself as well, for he sets his heart on accumulated wealth, and makes it a barrier between himself and God. Where our treasure is, there is our trust, our security, our consolation and our God. Hoarding is idolatry.”

But perhaps our problem is not that we hoard creation, but that we are ungrateful for it. Perhaps we grow to detest it. Perhaps the world of screen and monitor is more appealing to us and then thought of God’s abundant creation. Perhaps we are not so different from the children of Israel. Perhaps we commit the same sins that they did, exchanging the gift of God for a lie.

The Israelites receive another gift. They are repeatedly given God’s saving help. 

When they were enslaved in Egypt, the Israelites cried out to God for this gift—for salvation. And God gave it to them—freeing them from the yoke of oppression with his own divine hand. He then gifts them with festivals and laws to remind them of this salvation. By his own hand, he orders their community in the way of his gifting economy. Through the regulations guarding the way the Israelites were to worship he instills in them the need for a proper response to his gifting—gratitude.

And yet, despite these safeguards, the gift of God’s saving help eventually stops being received in gratitude and begins to be hated. Even while the cloud of God’s direction rests above the Tabernacle as a testimony, the Israelites cry out “Why did you bring us out into this desert to die?! We wish that we had stayed in Egypt!” In their ingratitude they break the order of God’s gifting economy. So God’s creation, snakes, rise up against them.

And so, the people cry out to God for another gift. “Save us from the punishment that you have wrought upon us!” And, our eternally patient and always-giving God listens to them. He again grants his people saving help through the strange means of a bronze snake. All they had to do was look upon it to be healed. The people of God repent from their ingratitude and accept this gracious gift.

And, yet, the Israelites, like us, seem not to be able to rest content in receiving a gift from God. They, like us, feel the pull to possess it, to grasp it—to steal what has been freely given. We shouldn’t be surprised then when read in 2 Kings that by the time Hezekiah ascends to the throne, the very bronze snake through which God gave salvation to the people has become itself an object of worship—an idol.

We, like the Israelites, have been given a way of salvation from God. We have been called out of darkness into his wonderful light. We have been taken from isolation and alienation into friendship and community. We were once counted among the enemies of God and now we are counted among of the people of God. We have been given new life as members of the very body of Christ. God has given us this gift out of his own graciousness and not because of any merit or condition on our part.

And yet, as we are wandering the the wilderness that is the world, we make the same mistake that the Israelites made. We refuse to receive with grateful hearts what God has given. We can look at the people to whom we have been added and seek to possess them, to grasp and steal what has been freely given to us—the church.

We have been blessed by being placed inside of the people of God. And yet, over time, if we are not careful, we can look to our sisters and brothers and see miserable food that we have grown to detest.

God has saved us from ourselves to his community and we refuse that gift when we view the church—the worshipping people that we are a part of—as something other than a gracious gift to be received and enjoyed. The brothers and sisters on our left and right here in this place have been given to us, are we are to receive them as though they were Christ himself. As the famous morning prayer of St. Patrick says, “Christ on my right, Christ on my left, (…) Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.”

Or in the words of Bonhoeffer, “We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we really do have one another. We have one another completely and for all eternity.”

Let us resolve to repent from our ungrateful and selfish spirits and embrace the gift of God in the others around us.

Our God is a giving God. James tells us that every good and perfect gift comes from him. There is no greater giver than him. Today we have heard John testify to the greatest gift of God: his only begotten Son, given to the world out of the abundance of his love. Martin Luther, when preaching on this verse exhorts his congregation to

“consider the gift itself. It must, without doubt, be something excellent and inexpressibly great, that such a rich Giver gives us, with such sincere and generous love. What does he give? Not great kingdoms, not one or more worlds full of silver and gold, not heaven and earth with all they contain, not the entire creation, <pause> but his Son, who is as great as he himself. That is an eternal, incomprehensible gift, even as the Giver and his love are incomprehensibly great. He is the fountain and source of all grace, goodness and kindness; yes, the very essence of the eternal blessings and treasures of God. That is love, not with words, but in deed, in the highest degree, proven with the most precious goodness and wonderful work of which God himself is capable.”

God has given himself to us through Christ. Some receive this gift. Others hoard it and distort it—harnessing Christ to promote their own theological, political, or personal agendas.  Like the Israelites, they end up worshipping an idol that needs to be smashed.

Others receive the gift of Christ but grow weary and ungrateful. Through the long wilderness journey that is our lives, the self-giving way of Jesus exhausts us. We grow tired. We grow ungrateful. And if we allow this ingratitude to take root, we will end up detesting the very bread of life—Christ himself.

We gather here for worship because we believe that God is a giving God. We gather here because we need to receive—and to learn to receive. We have stolen, hoarded, and detested what was always a free gift. But we come here, gathering around this table, to ask God to give again. And, as theologian David Bentley Hart reminds us, “In God, nothing is lost, and the substance of hope lies in the knowledge that God has given—and will give— again.”

Jesus promises us that God is always ready to give us good gifts (Matthew 7) “Is
there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

That is why we are here. To ask. and to receive.

We are here because when we ask for Christ to be present in us, among us and in the Bread and wine we offer, we believe that we are not given a stone or a snake, but Christ himself.

The bread that we will break—it is communion with the body of Christ. The cup we take—it is communion with the blood of Christ.

It is in this gathering, through word, fellowship, and communion, that we receive our manna, our salvation—Christ himself.

These are the gifts of God for the people of God let us resolve to receive them well.