Authority, Politics, and Power

Last night as I was falling asleep I couldn’t stop thinking about authority in its different senses. Of course, when falling asleep my thoughts tend to be basic, half-formed, and repetitive, but I still had a sense that it was an important thought to work through, even though I’m sure I’ve worked through it before. Sorry for any repetition.

There are two main views on authority, that I know of. One is dominant in discussions of theology, and it has to do with correspondence to truth: a view or a witness is authoritative because they correspond with reality, or they are true. The Bible is authoritative because it gives true representation of God, but also because it is believed to be given by God, who himself is trustworthy and true.

The second view of authority is a sociological view, in which authority is something that the people who are under authority bestow upon those in authority. We obey our leaders because they are our leaders, but they are our leaders because we have collectively agreed to obey them. Children grant authority to just about anyone who’s older than them, agreeing that these older and wiser people can tell them what to do; teenagers refuse to grant authority even to those who may have a legitimate claim to it, such as their parents.

Authority in both senses tends to create positions in which that authority is held. Nobles became nobles because they led people through times of trial, and the people granted authority to them; being entrusted with this authority, they took on a role as leader and protector of the people, and passed that role on to their children. Many of those children had no such leadership skills, and flouted their responsibility, but the role or position of lord maintained authority, and people continued to invest authority into that position even if they disagreed with how one particular lord fulfilled the duties of that position (or failed to do so). In the same way, the Office of the Prime Minister began in Canada as the PM’s secretary, and the PM was just the first among peers in the House of Commons; but during wartime, we granted the Prime Minister the ability to give special powers to other MPs and form a Cabinet to help with wartime decision making, as well as expand the staff in his Office. Now the PMO has over 100 people in it, and there are 39 members of the Cabinet, all of whom have more power than a regular Member of Parliament; every successive government has grown the size of these institutions, investing more authority in them in spite of the fact that Canada hasn’t been in active combat for most of its history, and is not currently so. The position remains, and the authority of that position remains, so long as we continue to agree to grant authority to those positions (the sociological definition of authority). We will continue to do so until it has been proven to us that these positions are arbitrary and incorrect – until the positions themselves have lost any sense of correspondence to truth or reality (the correspondence sense of authority).

So here we see how the two positions are connected: so long as we believe that the person in the position of authority has authority in the first sense (that they are truthful and trustworthy), we continue to grant them authority in the second sense by granting them the respect and obedience due their position. The trouble is, when we’re talking about authority we tend to confuse it with power. The sociological definition of authority is “the legitimate or socially approved use of power.” Power itself is the ability the person in authority has to carry out the duties of their position: they can tell us what to do, because we’ve given them the authority to do so in recognition of their trustworthy and reliable nature or character. Perhaps, then, I should call this a third view of authority: that we grant authority to someone in recognition of the power that they hold over us. Because at a certain point, we only obey those in authority (and thereby continue to give social sanction to their use of power) out of fear of their power over us.

As someone who’s keenly interested in both theology and politics, this makes me ask: what kind of authority does God have, what kind of authority does government have, and how do the two exercise the power that comes with that authority?

In the first and third senses, God is the ultimate authority. He is completely and ultimately trustworthy and the only one in existence with access to all of the facts – therefore, he is an authority on everything. And he is also omnipotent, having the power to exercise ultimate control over everything in existence should he so choose. Usually theologians think of God’s omnipotence and omniscience when they think of his authority. The trouble with the theological emphasis on this third form of authority (that is, giving power someone in recognition of their existing power over us) is that it is the weakest or lowest form of authority, and tends to be recognized as illegitimate authority. It is the authority of a tyrant, or a mobster. If we only obey someone because they have the power to destroy us if we disobey, are we actually obeying? Do we owe allegiance to such an authority, or do we simply comply out of a sense of self-preservation?

When it comes to politics, things change a little bit. Politicians claim to have the first form of authority, as they claim to be experts who can guide our nation. We don’t often believe them, and a majority of Canadians didn’t vote for the current government, but they maintain the authority of their position nevertheless because of a combination of senses two and three  of authority: enough of us voted for them that they can claim that the people have granted them authority, and for those who dissent they exercise the power that comes with that authority, arresting and beating peaceful protesters (as in Toronto at the G20 protests a few years back). That exercise of power is widely recognized as being illegitimate use of authority, but so long as enough people continue to vote for them, they can claim legitimacy. We continue to renew their authority, even as they continually undermine any sense of being authoritative (in sense one, of being trustworthy and expert) by their misuse of authority (in sense three, of the ability to exercise power over others).

So, God has a perfect claim to sense 1 (trustworthy, expert), while any politician who claims that has a weak claim at best. God has very little authority in sense 2, in that a minority of human beings acknowledge, trust, or obey him; we tend to ignore him, or at least, ignore his commands. But for politicians in a democratic system, authority in the second sense is the only thing that grants them access to any authority or power at all. And while politicians often rely on authority in the third sense (the exercise of power to maintain authority in the sense of social sanction), their use of it actually undermines any authority they may have in the first sense (of being true or trustworthy) even when they’re successful at using it to shore up public support and authority in the second sense.

It appears, then, that senses 1 and 3 are mutually exclusive. If someone relies upon the use of power in order to maintain their authority, their credentials as a suitable expert whose commands are trustworthy is undermined.

Perhaps this is why, in spite of having all power in the universe, God chooses not to exercise it over the wills of human beings. He’d rather be respected and followed because of his character and correspondence to truth. This is why Jesus, having access to a legion of angels, submitted himself to the illegitimate use of power by the Romans rather than exercise his own, more legitimate  power (more legitimate because of the legitimacy of its source, in God).

Not long later, Jesus told his disciples “All authority [often translated as "power"] has been given to me in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18). What does that mean, when governments and tyrants still hold power over people? What Jesus is saying is that he is the primary authority, and that because he alone is completely legitimate and trustworthy. We still grant authority to governments, but their authority is only legitimate insofar as they conform to reality or are trustworthy, and the benchmark for their legitimacy and worthiness is now Christ. That is, a government is legitimate when it is Christ-like. A ruler is legitimate when they are Christ-like.

Does this mean that all governments should be Christian? It’s not necessary to be Christian by creed or culture in order to act like Christ (though that is difficult for us all). There is no mandate in this statement for Christian culture or worship to be required of all governments or authorities. Christ himself never mandated that people follow him, he only invited – again, because he refused to exercise authority in sense 3, using his power to make people obey. In fact, I don’t think that it’s coincidence that it was after his execution at the hands of unjust authorities, in which he refused to exercise his unlimited power, that he proclaimed that all authority had been given to him. It is because of his refusal to exert power over human beings that he proved his worthiness to hold all authority and power. It is the most powerful person who never needs to use their power, and there is nobody else who can be trusted with that power.

So what does that mean for me, a Christian citizen? I continue to invest authority (sense 2) in my government only insofar as they are proved responsible and trustworthy (sense 1), which can be measured largely by how carefully they use their power (sense 3). When they abuse their power, I speak up and, whenever possible, step up. When a government proves itself illegitimate and must be reformed or removed, it is absolutely crucial that it is done so in a non-violent manner. In a violent revolution, those who recognize that their authorities are illegitimate due to a lack of sense 1 and 2 are just as illegitimate as the existing authorities they attempt to overthrow, as both sides are simply competing for power (sense 3), which undermines sense 1 and therefore sense 2. A true revolution is one in which those who have only power are overthrown by those who have only true authority: those who are right, trustworthy, and true. True authority is given freely, because it is objectively and truly deserved.

What would this mean for a political party or government? Strive for truth, justice, and goodness, and you’ll have authority even if you don’t have power. (I think that the Green Party has authority in sense 1, even where it’s not recognized with the granting of the power to rule as in senses 2 and 3). If you have to sacrifice those things in order to gain senses 2 and 3, then you don’t deserve them and won’t be able to maintain them with any sense of legitimacy. Strive for truth, justice, and goodness, and recognize that this might mean that you won’t get re-elected; do it anyway, and see how people respond. Be a one-term government, and if you do it well, you might get another term. You might not, but it will still have been worthwhile.

Restraint, Constraint, and True Freedom

Freedom is arguably the highest value of Western society. The concept of freedom is built into the very structure of our society, alongside rights as being fundamental to our place as individuals in our nations and laws. We have a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, rather than a Canadian Charter of Rights and Responsibilities. A major theme in most of our media is personal freedom, usually defined as personal autonomy or the ability to make choices on all things that might affect us. Having nobody tell us what to do.

Theologians sometimes talk about this definition of freedom, and call it “freedom from.” The idea behind it is that nobody tells us what to do, and this is what makes us free. We are self-determining. The opposite of this, they say, is “freedom for.” The basic idea here is that true freedom is not just aimless autonomy, but the ability to choose to obey God. While “freedom from” is focused on personal autonomy, “freedom for” focuses on participation in what God is doing and the ability to choose the good, usually because choosing the bad isn’t really freedom at all, but rather servitude to sin. In “freedom for,” it is understood that we’re all always serving someone, and that the only master that gives us freedom is God, making the only true freedom be enacted in obeying God rather than our own sinful natures.

I think I get “freedom for,” and I think it’s a good concept, but I also think that “freedom from” gets a bad rap. Sure, it’s usually used in our society to justify hedonism, irresponsibility, and frivolous lawsuits. Heck, it’s best exemplified in #YOLO, with all of the buffoonery that comes with that. But something I’ve never seen a theologian do in their arguments against “freedom from” is give an actual account of “freedom from.” Why is it that we love the idea of nobody telling us what to do?

This is actually a really easy answer for most people. On paper, I work 37.5 hours/week; in reality, it’s probably closer to 50, if you include time spent at home thinking about work (last night I dreamed about work for what seemed at least six hours). When I come home I have the demands of being a homeowner, a landlord, a husband, and a churchgoer, the combination of which takes up my weekends. I have homework on top of that, and my political involvement takes 2-5 hours/week, more or less. If I want to sleep 8 hours a night (which usually doesn’t happen), then that leaves very little time for…well, anything. My self-care time is basically spent watching TV (usually 45 minutes/day), which I feel guilty for doing, but I lack the mental capacity most days to spend that time more productively. I have no idea how people who have kids, or who work 60+ hours/week (and a lot of people do), have any mental or physical health. But what’s more tiring than simply doing all of these things is the sheer demand to do all of these things: obligations, responsibilities, and other demands all carry weight, and that weight can become palpably heavy and exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, I love everything I do and it’s entirely my fault that I’m as busy as I am, but I just know that I’m pretty normal in this regard. We’re all busier than ever before, and not with contemplative and active practices like farming and gardening, but rather with dozens of fast-paced, mental-heavy commitments.

So I totally get why our society defines freedom as “freedom from”, and why it elevates that concept above most other values. And I have it relatively easy compared to a lot of people. At a certain point, we just want other people to stop telling us what to do, or have a window of time and space where we have no obligations toward anyone. I think that a world in which we are totally free from obligation and the demands of others is a very good world; in fact, I think that this is what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like. But let’s back up a bit for an illustration of “freedom from.”

*****

I watched a clip today of Kevin O’Leary being self-righteous, ignorant, and belligerent. This was nothing new for him, but it reminded me of neo-liberal economics and the “free market.”

You may have noticed that O’Leary’s response to the possibility that he might be wrong about something was to shout louder than everyone else in order to stop hearing what they’re actually saying so that he can more easily dismiss it. People only have this response to ideas or logic that threatens them and their way of life. The thing that he doesn’t want to hear is that the “free” market leads to economic inequality, and that economic inequality is in many ways a bad thing. The reason he doesn’t want to hear this is because if this idea is accepted it will lead to market interventions (efforts by governments to make the economy more fair, such as taxation and regulation), and the “free” market will be no more. O’Leary’s devotion to free markets is probably a result of the fact that he’s made amazing amounts of money off of them, but it’s also an example of our cultural devotion to the notion of “freedom from,” in this case, freedom from regulation.

Regulations are laws and guidelines that are in place to ensure that businesses and industries don’t do bad things in their efforts to do good things. For example, environmental regulations are in place to stop industries from polluting or disrupting the environment, giving those industries guidelines to follow that attempt to ensure the smallest possible environmental impact. The people working in these industries aren’t usually bad people, but if their job is to suck oil out of the ground, and environmental regulations make it difficult or impossible to do so, they (understandably) get frustrated. Sometimes there will be pressures from multiple sides: our society demands more oil, but our society also demands practices and regulations that make obtaining or transporting that oil highly expensive or impossible. For someone like Kevin O’Leary, who cares very much about the economy and doesn’t care at all for the environment, the future, or other people, these regulations (well, ANY regulations) are counter-productive and damaging. He might well point out that those who argue against oil production because of the health issues surrounding pollution may find it difficult to get good healthcare when the government is broke and society is shutting down due to a lack of oil.

While I don’t find him convincing on such points, he’s right in that there’s a time in which any rules can become counter-productive. Regulations and laws are constraints on human behaviour, and they have a fatal flaw: in order to be deemed fair and legitimate, they must be universal. A just law must apply to everyone, and a law that doesn’t apply in every situation has “loopholes” that those who would break the law can use to get away with it. The problem with this is that no rule is able to fulfill its purpose in every situation, and what would be a very good thing in one situation might be the absolute worst thing in another. A good example is the slew of issues surrounding human life and death: we all agree that killing people should be illegal, but what if it’s in self-defense? What if the other person is a criminal, or a soldier, or an unborn child, or someone who actually wants to die? No one law can handle all of these situations, and sometimes the constraint placed on us to stop us from doing something might actually be worse than the behaviour constrained.

The other problem with constraints is that they don’t actually make us into better people. You’re not a good person because you follow the law; you’re just not a bad person if you follow the law. Following the law is effectively just being forced to not do bad things. Gold star.

So constraints are a mixed bag. They may stop us from doing bad things, but not in any way that actually improves or celebrates good character. They may also stop us from doing good things, or make necessary things much more difficult than they ought to be. At best, constraints are a compromise, an acknowledgement that we’re going to screw it up unless someone else makes us do it the right way. Constraints are the answer to our lack of restraint.

*****

A little while ago I wrote about gluttony, and I said that not every day is a feast day. A feast is, by definition, indulging to a greater extent than is normal. If every day was a feast it would be normal, and therefore would not be a feast – it’d be sheer gluttony. I also noted that our society and economy is based on gluttony, and I stand by my statement. We have very little restraint, which is why we have so many constraints.

I’m making a distinction based on a nuance here: constraint and restraint mean more or less the same thing, except that “restraint” has an element of self-control in it. Constraint is a limitation or hindrance, while restraint includes self-limitation. For the sake of my argument here, constraint refers to a limitation on human behaviour imposed from outside (laws, rules, regulations, limitations), while restraint refers to a limitation on our own behaviour, imposed by ourselves from within.

Jesus didn’t talk down constraints, but he definitely subverted them, and he did so by appealing to restraint. When God created the law and government (Genesis 9:5-6), he did so as a concession to human sinfulness. He recognized our lack of restraint, and therefore imposed constraints to help us out. The first law after the flood was simple: if you kill people, people will kill you. That didn’t seem to do the trick, and God gave Israel a whole bunch of laws, which they used as the basis for thousands of laws. But even then, Jesus pointed out that they used obedience to some laws as a way to get out of obeying other laws (Mark 7 – or see my recent post about Corban and World Vision). God gave Israel the ability to divorce because he knew we’d screw up marriage, but Jesus knew that this law could be used to hurt as much as it could be used to help, and appealed to the original purpose behind the law instead. God commanded Israel to observe the Sabbath, and Jesus and his disciples didn’t do so with as much rigor as the law seemed to demand; his response was to say “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.”

We only need constraints when we lack restraint. Constraints limit our freedom, in ways both good and bad, and enforcing constraints requires that they be universally applicable (which they rarely are). Enforcing restraint, on the other hand, requires that we apply wisdom, which allows us to treat every situation and person as the individual and unique things and people that they truly are. Restraint can be just in ways that constraint cannot. Restraint brings freedom, at least in the form of “freedom for,” while constraint impinges on “freedom from” and sometimes even on “freedom for.”

This is why I say that I think that we’ll be without constraints, without regulation, in the Kingdom of Heaven: because when we’re more fully made into the likeness of Christ, we’ll learn to exercise restraint. There’s an old slogan of Christian Anarchists that says something like “he who is ruled by God need not be ruled by any other.” What about when we’re like God? Will we need to be ruled at all? Or will we simply exercise restraint upon ourselves and choose the good of others willingly? That’s true freedom, or “freedom for.”

It’s also what we’re able to live now, to a lesser extent, and we call it “the freedom of Christ.” Paul talks quite a bit about this: because we are under Christ, we are no longer under the Law. The Law is still there, telling us what is right and providing a constraint for when our restraint fails, but as long as we exercise that restraint and follow the greater demands of Christ, we’re not being guided, controlled, or constrained by the Law at all. This is good news! Our obligations to others work similarly: when serving others becomes central to our lives rather than something that distracts us from our own plans and goals, our sense of obligation disappears and gets replaced by joy and satisfaction and compassion. The person who lives to serve feels no obligation to do so, and the person who exceeds the demands of the law and exercises their own restraint does not feel the constraints of the law. So when we’re like Christ, or as Paul says, in Christ, then we’re truly free. Servants of all, but slaves to no-one. May this be true of us all.

*****

So, like Kevin O’Leary, I’m not a fan of regulation or constraints. But people who are incapable of showing self-restraint for the sake of others (or are unwilling to) make constraints a necessity, to limit the destructive power of sin. So to Kevin O’Leary and anyone else who argues against regulation I offer this advice: be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Then nobody will need to constrain or rule over you, and we can get rid of all regulations and have a truly “free” market.

Musings on Gluttony

My name is Jeff, and I am a glutton. Big time.

This is easily my most constant failing, the part of my life in which I most lack self-control. I have a few thoughts on why this is.

Gluttony is not only dismissed as being sinful, but it’s encouraged in our society.

Gluttony is one of the famous Seven Deadly Sins. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what most of the others are, and I don’t even know for sure where that list of Seven Deadly Sins came from. Presumably it’s a Christian tradition, probably still upheld by some Catholics somewhere, but Evangelical kids like me are so completely disconnected from tradition and history that most of us are surprised to hear that there’s anything on that list other than sex stuff. Sex stuff is always the worst sins, right? Who cares about food?

Food is actually one of the biggest issues in our world today, and food companies spend more on marketing than the entire GDP of 70% of the countries in the world, every year. In no other issue is our “consumer culture” more obvious than in what we physically consume: food. I bought groceries today, but then I didn’t want to wait until I got home to eat them, so I sat in the Tim Horton’s drivethru for fifteen minutes so I could eat two bagels on the twenty-minute drive home. I was done in less than five minutes. Why did I get two bagels? Well, they were out of all bagels except for two kinds, so naturally I needed one of each.

Do I deliberately choose to eat too much? Not really; I do it out of habit and conditioning more than anything. Growing up, I was always encouraged to eat more. I’m a big guy, and people have always been amazed at how much food I can eat, so they egg me on. Not that I need them to egg me on (mmmm…eggs), because I eat too much as a matter of (second) course. At the same time, everywhere I go there are images and smells of cheap food, deliberately wafted odours of salt, sugar, and fat, meant to reel me in. Feeling hungry is strange for me, and the slightest hunger pretty much incapacitates me, so as soon as my stretched-out stomach starts to feel empty, I stuff it again; and if I know I’ll have to go a long stretch without access to more food (you know, like three hours), I double up my intake to make it last. Wouldn’t want to get hungry.

So I’m a sucker for the marketing, but for the most part overeating is just a bad habit. How could it be one of the Seven Deadly Sins? Well, I know that obesity can be deadly (it’s behind the biggest healthcare spending the world has ever known), but sinful? The thing about the Seven Deadly Sins is that they’re all habits. They’re habits of thought, behaviour, and attitude. They’re the opposite of virtues, and like virtues, they reveal our fundamental orientation toward God, others, and the world we live in. That’s what makes them deadly.

But gluttony is more than just overeating, it’s overindulgence to the point of waste. I’d say this characterizes almost every aspect of consumer culture, including alcohol and sex (the usual Christian taboos), but also food, gadgets, media and commentary (including blogs), and…well, pretty much everything that we have, we have to excess. Our general orientation toward things is not based on needs or goals, but desires. We are a culture of gluttons, and our basic function in society is to acquire and consume. In fact, our entire economy depends on it.

So how do we define gluttony? What’s the limit? When I overeat at a feast, like Christmas or Easter or Thanksgiving, I’m not necessarily being gluttonous: the feast is celebrating something important, it’s a social event with cultural meaning, and it is by definition a time when you can enjoy more food and drink than is normal or necessary. That said, if I “feasted” until I vomited, it would obviously be wastefully excessive; and if I “feasted” every day, it would no longer be a feast because it would normalize eating more than is necessary, and would be gluttonous. Similarly, it might be super handy to have an iPhone, but surely getting a new one every time they release a new model, or having an iPhone and an iPod and an iPad and a MacBook, is excessive and wasteful. Gluttony is a wasteful excess of anything, but it goes beyond that.

Gluttonous behaviour is not just overindulging, it is an orientation or disposition toward the world around us and everything in it. I’ve already defined this as consumer culture, but I’d also like to define it negatively, because this disposition involves a forgetfulness or ignorance toward the world as well as a desire for it. When I overeat, I do so casually, taking for granted that this food is at my disposal and for my enjoyment or whim. I am not conscious of where it comes from, how far it has traveled, who grew it, processed it, or packaged it, or Who created the seed from which it grew and made it rain to water that seed. Praying before a meal – I mean really, consciously offering gratitude to God – makes gluttony difficult to engage in, because it causes us to reflect on the nature of our food as a divine gift, not to be taken for granted or abused. A glutton takes for granted that this food is for their enjoyment, and by extension that the farmers and other food workers also exist for their benefit; a grateful person sees the true value of the food, and of everyone involved in bringing it to their plate, and recognizes that this gift from God comes with purpose beyond our sensuous enjoyment of it. It’s impossible to honour God and others and recognize the true value and purpose of our food while at the same time treating it so lightly that we ignorantly waste it.

One of the things I realize about gluttony is how easily it’s hidden behind good intentions. I was raised to clean my plate, because there are starving children in Africa who’d love to have my food. This cliche shows a good intention: value your food, because not everyone has as much as you do. In effect, though, it just led to me always eating all of my food, even if I had more than I needed. I’ve recently realized that I habitually take too much food, then justify eating all of it by saying I need to clean my plate. I’ve even cited statistics about how much food is thrown out, shaming people for wasting it. But every time that I eat more than I need, it’s still waste – I’m just indulging in it more, gratifying myself in the waste. Gluttony. It’s wasted if it’s in my body or in the garbage, and if it’s in the garbage at least I won’t be getting extra calories from it and being perpetually overweight. What I need to change is how much food I take in the first place.

So let’s apply this to other problematic areas. Drinking: I don’t think you can make a case from Scripture that getting drunk is in itself sinful; usually the references are to “drunkenness”, and the implication (at least as I read it) is that this refers to habitual or ongoing drunkenness. When Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding feast, the quality of the wine was praised because the party guests had already been drinking long enough that their palates were less refined, which is when most people would break out the cheap box-wine. Jesus gave more top-quality wine to people who were already tipsy, but in the context of a wedding feast, this seems entirely permissible. If, on the other hand, we were to give more wine to someone on the street who is visibly intoxicated, it would be horrendous. Paul suggests drinking wine for medicinal reasons; Jesus encourages it for celebrations; and in neither case is it inappropriate or excessive. So go ahead and drink where and when it’s appropriate to drink, and don’t worry if you get a bit drunk at a celebration. But if every day is a celebration, and you’re drinking without purpose and treating alcohol as an assumption rather than a gift, you’re being gluttonous.

Sex: the purposes of sex are found in what it produces. Procreation, enjoyment, and a deep emotional bond. Casual sex only aims at one of the three, and when the other two happen it creates a lot of problems because the relationship of the people involved can’t handle them. Casual sex treats the other instrumentally, as a way for me to get off; it’s impossible to have a proper relationship with another person if you treat them as a mere instrument of your sexual pleasure, and it’s impossible to honour their humanity and value as someone who bears the image of God. Casual sex is gluttony. Porn is casual sex by proxy, or as is the case with many sex workers, rape by proxy. There is no positive, non-gluttonous version of porn or casual sex. Even for legitimate sex in a loving and monogamous relationship, there can still be gluttony involved: people who use sex to manipulate their partner, have sex out of habit or obligation, etc.

I’ve talked enough about consumer culture here and elsewhere to make the point about gadgets, etc. The point in all of this is that we have legitimate needs, and even legitimate desires. The difference between a virtue (a good habit) and a vice (a bad habit) is that in virtues we are in right relationship to others, whether that’s God, other people, animals, or the natural environment; in a vice, like the Seven Deadly Sins, we cut out or ignore those relationships for the sake of our own ignorant, excessive, and wasteful enjoyment of things and people that we don’t actually have a right to outside of those relationships.

So by all means, enjoy yourself. But not every day is a feast day.

Calvin, Self-Loathing, and the Image of God

I’m currently reading T. F. Torrance’s Calvin’s Doctrine of Man (Eugene, Or: Wipf & Stock, 2001), and I’m coming to the conclusion that I was wrong about Calvin.

You see, I’ve been frustrated with the way the neo-Calvinists love to baste us in a strange self-loathing in their emphasis on the total depravity of humanity. For years, when I bring this up, I’ve been told that Calvinism as we have it today goes much further in many respects than Calvin ever did, and that he probably wouldn’t roll with those guys if he were still here. Total depravity in Calvin’s mind, I’ve been told, refers to the fact that all humans are fallen and in need of grace, rather than some notion that everything we do is inherently evil and sick. So in spite of my frustration with Calvinism, I’ve held out hope for Calvin. I even asked for his massive commentary set for a birthday gift, complete with his Institutes. I want to like Calvin so bad, and I really thought that his thought was different than I feared it was.

I was wrong, apparently.

Here’s an excerpt from Calvin’s Doctrine of Man. I think I’m with him this far.

Because grace implies a total judgment on man, it also implies a total judgment on his possession of the imago dei. It is an inescapable inference from the revelation of grace that Christ is our righteousness, and wisdom, and imago dei, that fallen man is quite bereft of the image of God. He is therefore alienated from himself, and is totally corrupted or perverted. If there is anything left of the image of God in him it is a “fearful deformity.” – p. 86-87

Calvin starts with the concept of grace, and from that he figures that we were in need of saving. This is fine; Paul does the same thing, starting from the cross and deducing that if we were saved, we must have needed saving. Paul also says pretty clearly that Christ is our righteousness, and I’m totally fine with that: we are righteous before God because we identify with Christ (or rather, because Christ identifies himself with us). I’m also okay with saying that Christ is our wisdom, though I’m more prone to identify wisdom with the Holy Spirit. I’m also okay with saying that Christ is the true image of God. What I’m not so sure about is saying that “fallen man is quite bereft of the image of God.”

Here’s another quote, picking up where the last one left off. Tell me if you think he takes it a bit too far.

There can be no doubt, therefore, in the mind of Calvin, that from the point of view of salvation in Christ faith must speak of fallen man in total terms. By the single word of our Lord that we must be born again, he says, “our whole nature is condemned.” “In our nature there is nothing but perversity.” “Our whole nature is so vitiated that we can do nothing but sin.” “The soul of man is totally perverted and corrupted.” Even the natural virtues and the natural goodness of men must be regarded as “wholly iniquity”. Calvin can even say of fallen men: “Their proper nourishment is sin and there is not so much as one drop of goodness to be found in them, and, to be short, as the body receives its sustenance from meat and drink, so also men have no other substance in them than sin: all is corrupted.” “There is more worth in all the vermin of the world than there is in man, for he is a creature in whom the image of God has been effaced.” Again, speaking of man after the fall Calvin says: “And truly, it was a sad and horrible spectacle that he in whom recently the image of God was shining should lie hidden under fetid skins to cover his own disgrace, and that there should be more comeliness in a dead animal than in a living man.” “It is true that our Lord created us after His own image and likeness, but that was wholly defaced and wiped out in us by the sin of Adam. We are accursed, we are by nature shut out from all hope of life.” – p. 87-88

Calvin identifies the image of God as being the relationship between God and humanity. If this is the case, then I suppose there’s a logic in all of this. I’m much more inclined to think of the image of God as being a vocation, duty, or command. We represent God on earth. Image is stewardship, which is the responsibility to represent, and therefore resemble, the One who has charged us with this task. The imago dei is not so much that we resemble God, as it is that we’re made to resemble God. Not in the sense of being forced to do so, but in the sense of being created for this purpose. This is our telos, the inherent goal of human existence, included in us from our very creation and grown into as we grow in Christ-likeness. If this is what the imago dei or image of God is, then I’m willing to grant that it may be a “fearful deformity” in most of us, but it can never be separated from us or extinguished within us. In fact, it is the very obviousness of the image of God in us that makes our deformity of it so fearful: it’s still there, and it’s clear what we’re supposed to be, which makes our deviance from it so grotesque. Seeing a D student write a D paper is a shame, but it’s expected; seeing an A student write a D paper is tragic. Seeing someone get into petty crime is sad, but seeing the child of a spiritual leader or politician or chief of police is tragic. The tragic nature of the Fall is not that we’re bad to the core, it’s that we’re “very good”, even still, and we go against that goodness.

What bothers me about Calvin, aside from the fact that it appears that the neo-Calvinists aren’t exaggerating his views as much as I had hoped, is that he polarizes things so much. Everything is in absolutes with him. It’s not simply that we’re fallen, it’s that everything is as bad as it could possibly be. It’s not just that Christ redeems us, but that everything even remotely good in us is Christ and our only role on this earth is to give God glory for doing everything else for us because we’re so thoroughly evil that even our natural goodness is actually evil.

I find this kind of talk to be disrespectful toward God, and his creation. It implies that, rather than redeeming humanity, God decided to just do it all himself. Remember when you tried to help your dad with a chore or task when you were a little kid, and your “helping” just created more work for him? Sometimes, he’d get frustrated and just do it himself; but when he was being a really great dad, he’d take his time and show you how to do it right. And then watch while you screwed it up a dozen times. Calvin’s God is the one that just decides to do it himself.

There’s a logic in this, too. See, in Calvin’s view the imago dei, the image of God, is something that God sees, not something that anyone else does. In Calvin’s view of the imago dei, God created human beings in order to bring himself glory: we’re the mirror that he can admire himself in. Actually. So when we failed to reflect him well, and showed up in the mirror being dirty and bleeding from the effects of sin, God pushes us out of the mirror and incarnates his Son to take our place, so that he can continue to see his own glory in the world.

If that was his purpose, of course he would get frustrated with our failure and just do it himself! Now, if he actually desired to have creatures who not only resemble him, but would grow up into his image in the sense that they would come to be like him and represent him (that is, help him with his work), then he would be the other kind of dad, taking the time and effort to help us get it right, no matter how much he might get dirty and hurt along with us.

So I get Calvin now. I can even appreciate that our views on the depravity and perversity of humanity are pretty close. I can even get his sense of our utter grossness, when I think about it. But when it comes to why that’s important, and how it relates to our created purpose, we couldn’t be further apart.

Now I gotta figure out what I’m going to do with this 22-volume commentary set…

Noah First Impressions: You Should See It

I saw Noah a few nights ago, and my thoughts are still percolating. In a good way. I had a friend who said he’d seen it four days ago and was still angry; it’s been two days for me, and I’m still excited, and can’t get my thoughts straight enough for a full review. I don’t know where to begin for that, honestly, so I’ll begin by giving my first impressions and answer some of the issues and controversy.

1. The Medium of Film

I used to be a purist – that guy who always sees the movie version of his favourite novels, and then picks apart all of the “inaccuracies.” What I wanted was for someone to make the movie that plays in my head when I read; oddly enough, nobody ever seems to get it quite right! This happens for two reasons: first, because nobody can read my mind (and nobody makes a movie just for me), and second, because a movie just isn’t a book. I’ll give examples from Tolkien movies to help make my point.

First, purists (and I say this with fondness, as a former purist myself), often the biggest reason that the movie is wrong is YOU. We all read a story in a unique way, and imagine the characters and events slightly differently, and there’s no way that a filmmaker could make your version of the story even if they wanted to. This is bad for much-beloved modern classics like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but it’s much, much worse for a millennia-old religious text like the Bible. We form entire communities around certain readings of the text (and have schisms over them!), so when something doesn’t seem right with the text it might be insulting or appear to be an attack on our very group identity. I’ve seen and heard about many reviews of Noah that implied just that, including this one shared by my angry friend: “Noah is an insult to Bible-believing Christians, an insult to the character of Noah and, most of all, an insult to the God of the Bible.” The only way I can see that making any sense is because certain expectations were not met; personally, I found it to be the most honest depiction of that text that I’ve ever seen, and would apply the quote above to all of the watered-down (no pun intended) flannel-graph versions I’ve been told all my life. The version of the text that Evangelical Christians were expecting to see couldn’t have been made by these people: the writers of Noah were both (from what I can tell) from Jewish backgrounds, and they read the story differently. They’re not inside our Evangelical heads, and they don’t have to be – they have more claim to this story than we do.

Second, the medium of film requires different things to stay interesting than a book does. For most book adaptations, the text of the book is simply far too long for a movie, which is why we end up with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. It’s also why purists tend to be upset about movie adaptations the most: things are missing in the movie, sometimes multiple characters are collapsed into one, sometimes they’re missing altogether. It took me years to admit it, but a Fellowship of the Ring movie with Tom Bombadil in it would have been at least an hour too long, and dead boring. Tom Bombadil worked in the book, but it was too much of an aside to waste screen time on it, and Peter Jackson was smart to cut it.

The problem with recent film adaptations is the opposite though: the book is much smaller than a full movie treatment would make it, so the filmmaker has space to flesh out the story with what some people think are inaccurate additions. In The Hobbit, for example, we see three films made out of a single, relatively short book, and full of additions. The additions, however, were taking from Tolkien’s appendices and other books set in Middle Earth. It may seem like a money-grab to have Legolas in a Hobbit movie (he wasn’t in that book), but it makes perfect sense given who his character is, and while Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first and created Legolas for his later books, the film was made in hindsight and can incorporate him. Knowing what we know about who Legolas is, it would have been very odd for him not to be in the film! A very similar argument can be made for Noah: many Christians appear to be upset about the additions, such as the Watchers (rock monsters) and a magic-wielding Methuselah, but we need to be aware that Genesis is not the only ancient text written about this story. Genesis is a very short and bare-bones description of events – the Bible equivalent of a montage – and needs to be fleshed out in order to make a good film; the best way to be true to the text is to flesh it out using the other ancient texts that were written to do exactly that.

All that to say that the writers of Noah did an incredible job of remaining true to the source material – they just used the supplemental material to make it a richer film. Purists will never be satisfied with a film version of their book, and Evangelical Christians are purists with the conviction of hundreds of years of doctrine behind them! Sorry folks, if you’re a purist on this film, you’re really missing out!

2. Themes

For a movie about a global flood, Noah was surprisingly deep…

Seriously though, the depth of this film was absolutely incredible. As I said above, the text in Genesis is pretty bare-bones, but the thematic depth of the Genesis text is incredibly deep. Genesis 1-11 is arguably the most theologically and thematically dense text in the Bible, which also means that it’s probably the most thematically dense text ever written. I found that the film not only faithfully presented the themes of the text, but it enriched them.

I had the privilege of watching Noah with Old Testament scholar Dr. Lissa Wray Beal, who noted afterward that she prefers to read the text because she’s able to read it on a very deep level, but it’s written in such a way that there are many levels that it can be read on; she felt like the film submerged the audience to a deeper level, but lacked the layers that are present in the text. Simply put, though, not everyone reads the text as well as Lissa! I’ve never read the Noah text at this level of depth before, but I certainly will now, and it’s because the film took me there. What would it be like to sit inside the ark and hear the screams of the last humans slowly drowning outside? Suddenly Noah’s drunkenness at the end of his narrative makes perfect sense, and the flannel-graph images of happy animals on a boat seems sacrilegious. I was so impressed with how they portrayed the themes that are in the text.

When I say that they enriched the themes that are in the text, I don’t mean to say that they somehow made the Bible better. The Bible doesn’t need to be “improved upon”, and that’s not what I mean. But the task of adapting an old text into a new film is not just to present the old text, but to do so in a way that makes that text speak to today’s audience. In my opinion, they nailed it.

a) Environmental Themes and Dominion

Genesis is about creation and re-creation, and the theme of environmentalism is definitely present in the original text, but their portrayal of the world Noah lives in makes that theme pop out at us and convict us. It’s wonderfully prophetic.

Adam & Eve weren’t just the first humans, they were the first gardeners. One of the core themes of this film is the different interpretations of what the word “dominion” means. Noah is a steward of the earth, a protector of “the innocent” (animals), and sees his role of stewardship and his exercise of dominion to be simply doing what God commands him and respecting everything that God has made. Tubal-Cain, Noah’s foil (and ours!), sees dominion as ownership and rights, and uses the notion to justify depleting the earth of all of its resources. Both Noah and Tubal-Cain take their theology from Genesis, and Tubal-Cain directly quotes Genesis at times (but then again, so did Satan when he tempted Jesus!). I don’t doubt that this makes a lot of conservative Christians uncomfortable, as it sounds quite similar to Calvin’s take: “The whole order of this world is arranged and established for the purpose of conducing to the comfort and happiness of men” (Commentary on Psalm 8, quoted in T.F. Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man, 23). We’ve used this kind of theology to justify things like the industrial revolution and nearly every environmental compromise since. We’ve come a long way from being gardeners.

So have the humans in Noah. The world Noah lives in is already post-apocalyptic: the human race developed an industrial society, exploited the earth’s resources until every tree is cut down and every mine is depleted, and have reverted to a pre-industrial society by necessity. There are ruins on the landscape: old metal pipes from industrial sites, mechanical parts, welder’s masks. It puts the entire destruction of the earth in a new perspective: God is not destroying a good world because of bad people, he’s finishing off the already dead world that those bad people have killed. This perspective is not only fascinating (and I don’t think it’s in any way untrue to the text), but it makes the story connect to us very closely by taking a theme that’s implied in a millennia-old text and pushing it in our faces. Absolutely brilliant.

b) Creation, and Growing Up

Another central theme of this film is coming of age. This is crucial, so watch for it. Dr. Wray Beal pointed this out at coffee afterward, and we all agreed that it was central. There are several scenes showing a coming-of-age ritual, and this forms the skeleton of the film, which is ultimately about the question of whether or not humanity has come of age. Have we grown up enough to handle the responsibility that God has granted us? What does it mean to “be a man” if not this?

The rest of creation is depicted as having come of age, of having developed to maturity. This may be one of the more controversial elements for some Christians: there’s a breathtakingly beautiful time-lapse depiction of the creation of the world, from nothingness to the universe to the earth to a single cell in the ocean to mammals on land. It’s a stop-motion view of evolution, and it is absolutely beautiful. Even if you’re a creationist, please enjoy the beauty of this scene, and note what it implies: all of the rest of creation has developed into a state of harmony, and harmony implies maturity. Humanity is created special (as beings of light, very similar to the depiction of the angels), but doesn’t find this harmony, and the film is about wrestling with the question of whether or not humanity has come of age. This lack of maturity is shown in how humanity has developed into an industrial society, and then regressed to a very brutish state of survival of the fittest, all within ten generations (though at 700-900 years per generation, it’s a long time!).

c) The Fall, Human Depravity, and the Silence of God

One of the things that struck me the most is how different Noah and Tubal-Cain are from each other, and yet how similar they are. They both quote Genesis (which of course wasn’t written, but the theology of both is on a level), they both acknowledge that they are made in God’s image (though I don’t know if Noah says it outright, but Tubal-Cain says it repeatedly), and they both acknowledge that they’re more or less the same. And they both cry out to God, and get no apparent answer. How realistic.

I can definitely relate, and I think we all can. For that reason, I was very impressed with the silence of God through most of the movie. I think that we Christians would love to see more theophany, especially us Evangelical Christians, for whom God’s nearness and personal interaction with us is a central tenet. But God having an audible voice, or the presence of more miracles, would have cheesed it up and made it more difficult to relate to the film, even if it would have made us feel better. We shouldn’t feel better: this is a dark film about human sinfulness and grim justice. God’s presence is felt, but not heard, and only seen out of the corner of Noah’s eye. When we see God, we see him in Noah, and in Methuselah: in their faith, in their obedience, and even in Noah’s grief and turmoil. I’ve heard that some Christians were upset with how God was portrayed, but I think anything more direct would have been almost blasphemous, and certainly would have ruined the tension, turmoil, and questioning tone that makes the film one that we can relate to.

3. Conclusion: see it.

I’ve already written 3x more than I intended tonight, and it’s late, and a full treatment of this film would take a book or course in itself, so I’ll simply say “Go see it.” See it with eyes of faith. See it as a learning experience (because unless you want to read the hundreds of chapters of the books of Enoch, you probably won’t see the other elements of this story anywhere else, and they’re worth seeing!). See it as a work of art from a master filmmaker, with great performances from a stellar cast. See it as a fun movie, with action scenes and rock monsters and depression and joy and everything in between. But please, don’t let your expectations or purist tendencies ruin it for you.

Corban, World Vision, and Damning Ourselves For the Sake of Others

All of this stuff about World Vision reminds me of what Jesus said in Mark 7.

That Which Defiles

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.[a])

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’[b]

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe[c] your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’[d] and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’[e] 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” [16] [f]

17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” – Mark 7:7-23

Last week, World Vision’s USA office announced that it will no longer discriminate against homosexuals in their hiring practices. That is, they would hire any Christians, including gay Christians who were married. This was a very bold move, particularly as many states are currently having their bans on gay marriage struck down by constitutional courts, or are lobbying to legalize gay marriage, in spite of very outspoken opposition largely from Christian groups. World Vision’s change in policy was a big move for a Christian organization in the US to make, and could have been symbolic of a larger shift toward laws that recognize all humans and their relationships and institutions without prejudice. And given the worldwide persecution that homosexuals are facing, not least in Russia and especially Uganda, where homosexuals are now given life in prison (or are simply being beaten or killed in the street), World Vision’s change in policy gave it some moral authority as it worked to serve the downtrodden around the world.

The next day, World Vision retracted their statement. In 24 hours, or so I’ve heard from multiple sources, 2000 or so people pulled their support from World Vision. Clearly World Vision wasn’t prepared for such a response. They should have been. But that’s not the heart of the issue.

Those who pulled their support did so, or so the internet explained, because they felt that World Vision had betrayed their Christian values. Or to put it differently, “minimizing something as structural as the definition of marriage is a damnable act, and whether or not World Vision suffers financially, it has already suffered, and inflicted suffering, spiritually.” World Vision’s actual statement reversing their decision said “we are brokenhearted over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends, who saw this decision as a reversal of our strong commitment to Biblical authority.” Those Christians who gave to World Vision are the victims here: they were betrayed, experienced spiritual suffering, and were painfully confused.

I’m confused too. I can’t even begin to understand how this decision could inflict pain or “spiritual suffering” (whatever that is), but I’ll give people the benefit of the doubt. I’ve been a bit sarcastic here, but I honestly believe that they’re probably good people who love Jesus. They were hurt by what they perceived to be a betrayal of their values, even breaking an implicit covenant of sorts in which they support World Vision because World Vision represents their values. I suppose that has some logic to it, even if it’s packed full of assumptions and bad theology. I could critique the theology involved here, I could pull out all of the assumptions, and I could point out that none of these people had time to even think it through before they pulled their support, but none of that would get to the heart of the issue either.

At the heart of the issue, I suggest, is that the people who pulled their support from World Vision, the people who railed against them on the internet and accused them of a ‘damnable act’, have allowed their own laws and rules to get in the way of the commandments of God.

The Pharisees Jesus was talking to in Mark 7 (above) had come up with the rule of Corban as a way of structuring their lives in the service of God. The Torah has a few thousand commandments, but the Pharisees had many more, designed to ensure that they kept the commandments of God. In Bible college this is called “building a fence around the law.” The idea behind it is good, but as Jesus points out here, things get complicated quickly when we create our own laws to go along with those we receive from God. What happens when our fence around God’s laws conflicts with God’s laws?

There are laws in the Bible about homosexuality. In spite of what Joe Dallas says about it (above), a lot of people disagree about the exact content and purpose of those laws, or even what’s being talked about in those passages, but let’s even assume that they’re very clear and say that homosexuality in any sense is totally and deeply sinful. Even if that’s the case, there’s no law that says that you can’t donate to a gay charity. There’s also no law that says that you can’t bake cakes for gay marriages, to pick up on another recent controversy. There are no commandments to shun gay people, to discriminate against them in your hiring practices, to keep them out of your churches (unless you get into some creative application of Corinthians), to refuse to participate in worship or charity with them, etc. etc. Those laws weren’t given. All of the ways that Christians have behaved toward homosexuals in North America, under the guise of religious freedom, were not in obedience to any law or commandment of God. They were, instead, things that we felt we had to do in order to defend the idea that homosexuality is sinful.

Pulling support from World Vision isn’t withdrawing finances from an organization. World Vision was not punished by these people. The way World Vision is set up, donors are connected with individual children, who receive (most of) the money that the donors give every month. These children write letters to their supporters, their “family”. Sometimes these relationships can last years, even decades. When people pulled their support from World Vision in response to the news that World Vision will not discriminate against homosexuals in their hiring practices, they weren’t doing it because of a command from God, they were calling their money “Corban” and refusing to give to the children who wrote them letters thanking them for saving their lives. Some of these kids probably live in Uganda, where homosexuals are being imprisoned and killed for simply being gay; do these kids know why their “families” have abandoned them?

I may be being a bit melodramatic here, but not as much as it sounds: these are real kids, and they’re not interchangeable with whatever kids those 2,000 supporters have supposedly sponsored elsewhere. You can’t just pull funding from one organization, and then find another who will allow you to sponsor the exact same child. Real people have been really hurt by this, and they weren’t hurt by World Vision, they were hurt by the people who let their politically charged (electric?) fence around the Law cut them off from the commandment of God to care for “the least of these.”

I’m going to take this a bit further, and say that God doesn’t care half as much about anyone’s sins as he does about their obedience and care for others. I’m going to say that God would rather have a gay person who works at World Vision in this world than 2,000 people who would pull their support because of that gay person. I feel very confident of this, because of a story Jesus told about a good Samaritan.

I’m not going to paste the whole story here, but the gist is: a priest and a levite, both religious leaders, pass by a guy who’s been badly beaten and is laying in a ditch on the side of the road. In fact, they cross the road to stay away from him. What we usually fail to recognize when we hear this preached is that they were following actual commandments of God, which told them that they should stay away from dead bodies. They thought the guy was dead, so they did what they were supposed to do and stayed away for the sake of their ritual cleanness, without which they couldn’t serve God in the Temple. Then a Samaritan, who was a religious outsider who was treated by the Jews very similarly to the way we treat the LGBTQ community and was considered unfit to worship in the Temple anyways (i.e., ritually unclean to the max!), comes along and saves the guy. Jesus commends the actions of the Samaritan over the actions of the priest and levite, in spite of the fact that they were following God’s commands (and not just a fence around the law – actual commands from the Torah!). If we follow what Jesus was saying, he was implying that in order for the priest or the levite to do the right thing, they would have had to be willing to break God’s direct commandments for the sake of a stranger they thought was probably already dead.

Let’s bring this into the issue at hand then: Christians, God would rather have you work with LGBTQ people in your ministry than miss any chance to serve the poor. In fact, God would rather have you hang out at gay bars and rest stops with drag queens and fetishists and show them his love than ignore a single person in need. I can’t say this strongly enough: Christians, God would rather have you be gay, with all of the prejudices and persecution that you would have to suffer for being so, than to have you disobey his command to love your neighbour as yourself. (Gay Christians, God would rather have you be a homophobe who protests funerals but still obeys him by serving others, than an inclusive and kind person who would refuse to help a homophobe. This cuts both ways.)

So don’t blame this on World Vision: they screwed up, but what they did has nothing to do with our responsibility to serve others, or with the relationships that were destroyed for those 2,000 kids. Don’t appeal to Biblical authority, because when it comes to refusing to serve others (for any reason), you won’t find much support there. And don’t even appeal to religious freedom, which is another way we like to use man-made things to help us get away with ignoring the commands of God. No, Christians of North America, we need to own this: the culture wars, the systematic exclusion of LGBTQ people, the endless debates about religious freedom, this is all ours. We’ve made our bed in a white-washed tomb, and we’re lying in it, and we need to get up and start serving the people that God loves: ALL of them.

Unedited thoughts on communities and language-groups

I found out today that I get to give two lectures to a hermeneutics class next week. I’m pretty stoked, but don’t have much time to prepare! So as I sit here in a Chapters Starbucks, waiting to shuttle students home, I wrote down some thoughts. It’s rough, but it’s what I’m thinking about for my first lecture on language groups before Gus takes over to talk about Lyotard. Perhaps you’ll find it helpful; as always, I write here to help myself work out thoughts, because I don’t really understand anything until it’s been put into words.

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We’re all members of several communities. I’m a Christian in the broadest sense, united with people around the world by my confession of faith and some specific practices like Baptism and Communion; but I’m also a Pentecostal, united to a smaller pool of people around the world united by a certain expression of Christianity; and I’m also a member of Kleefeld Christian Community, my local congregation (which is technically Baptist). I’m a Canadian, and though I live in Manitoba I still identify mostly with BC where I was born and raised, and I still maintain connections to Toronto and have experienced life in Northern Alberta. Even being Canadian, my worldview is strongly influenced by America, since I take in so much American media; American culture permeates most of the world these days, and is unavoidable. I went to a Pentecostal Bible college, but now I live among Mennonites and Catholics and attend a non-denominational Evangelical seminary where I learn from Anglican, Baptist, Evangelical-Free, and Mennonite scholars, among others. This academic community is itself part of the larger community of “the academy”, the community of scholarship in its broadest sense, including all of the disciplines. Of all of the disciplines, I am part of the smaller community of Biblical and Theological Studies, and the subset of that community, Systematic Theology, and the subset of that community, Ethics, and the subset of that community, Political Theology; but I also dabble in Sociology, Economics, History, and Political Science. I’m also a member of the Green Party of Canada, a national party, and a member of the Green Party Provencher, the GPC’s local body. Though I haven’t worked as one for quite a while, I’m a trucker and the son of a trucker, and I still identify with other truckers. I’m male, one of the most basic communities in the world yet still with particular viewpoints not shared by females; yet many of my friends are feminists, and I live with a woman (my wife), and try really hard to understand how her perspective differs from my own due to our different social realities. And I’m human, sharing a common bond with other humans that does not extend to animals or plants. I’m not sure how much we can describe mammals as a community, or animals and plants as separate communities with shared viewpoints, but it’s easy to see how community and ecology are linked concepts!
But communities also extend through time, and interact with each other historically. Being Pentecostal, I trace my roots back through Wesleyan holiness movements, camp and revivalist movements, Protestantism, Anabaptism, and through the mystics of Catholic and Orthodox churches all the way back to Acts 2, and through Christ and John the Baptist back to the charismatic prophets of the Old Testament. In the same way, my Canadian culture and Western worldview can be traced back through England and France, through Germanic Christian empires, through Rome, to ancient Greece. This development of worldviews through time is called tradition, with each thread representing its own tradition, and each thread being connected to others or emerging from others.
Each of these communities is an expression of a shared tradition, complete with shared actions and ideas. What divides these groups into individual communities is, as much as anything else, language: each community is also a language-group, with shared terminology and understanding of words. Language itself is a system of symbols with agreed-upon meanings, but what those meanings are shift from group to group, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in huge ways. Different regions have specific terms (in Saskatchewan they call a hoodie a “bunnyhug”), different careers or disciplines have technical jargon (a trucker and a mathematician mean very different things by the term “differential”, which is a term that most of us never use at all), and different groups have different nuances, understandings of, or perspectives on the same terms (e.g., white, middle-class, Christian males in Canada have a very different understanding of the word “privilege” than, say, an Aboriginal woman who lives on the streets of Winnipeg; it evokes very different feelings for these different groups!). Not all of the features of these language groups plays a major role in their worldview or theology; I doubt that people from Saskatchewan have a different worldview based on their unique word “bunnyhug”. But the language we use does affect the way we see the world.
A friend of mine was recently telling me about an episode of Radiolab they heard recently about colour, and they mentioned that in the oldest epic poems the sea was often described as being red. It was suggested that this was because when these old epics were written, that language had not yet developed a word for “blue”, and that members of language groups that don’t have a word for blue would also describe the sky as being “white.” Red is apparently one of the first colour-words that a language develops, as it’s the easiest dye to make, while blue is one of the hardest dyes to make and thus usually enters languages last of all colour-words. I grew up close to a lake that we often describe as being green, but it’s actually more of a teal. We’ve invented words to describe shades of blue and green, and those words allow us to understand those distinctions more thoroughly. Then we can make even finer distinctions, and give those names. Inventing a word for something doesn’t invent the thing itself, but it does invent our concept of that thing, and it invents the possibility for us to understand and agree upon that concept or idea, and then take it further.
Helen Keller described her life before she had language as being animalistic. People with limited language are unable to understand higher concepts – not just that they can’t express them, but because they can’t express them, they actually can’t grasp them on a deep level. Because of this, recognizing the particularities of our language groups is essential to a self-aware and self-critical interpretive methodology.
I am a member of many different communities, and the way I read texts (whether actual texts, or the “texts” of the reality in which I live) is formed by all of them. When I read a story about the Canadian tarsands, for example, my understanding of it (and therefore my opinion about it) is shaped by many different words specific to different communities I have some membership in: the word “oiligarchy” is a political word that actually comes from environmental activists to describe a government corrupted by oil money, but the word “petro-state” is a political word that actually comes from economists to describe the same thing; my understanding of the concept is influenced by my time as a trucker in Fort McMurray, where I drove a “honey wagon” but the real shit was being dug out of the ground; “anthropogenic climate change” is a phrase used by scientists and politicians and activists alike to describe the results of burning fossil fuels, and “anthropocene” is a new word created by scientists and sociologists to describe a new era of history in which human beings are the cause of global ecological change; and while we’re talking about the issue on a global and historic scale, my reading of environmental news occurs within the tradition and narrative of Christian theology, in which human beings were created as stewards of the earth and all creation groans in anticipation of being set free and renewed.
I privilege some of these language groups over others without even thinking about it. I’m more involved in some of these communities than others, not by virtue of how completely I’m a part of that group, but by virtue of my language preferences. For example, I am most certainly a human being – 100%, unavoidable fact that I cannot change. Being a Christian, on the other hand, is much more tenuous: it is a chosen association rather than a fact of life (did I mention that I’m an Arminian, or perhaps an Open Theist, or something in between? More groups!), and there’s nothing physically true or apparent about it. But my dominant way of seeing the world as a human being is as a Christian, because Christianity is my dominant narrative and language group: it’s my community, and it’s from this community that I derive my self-understanding. Rather than my Christianity being defined by my humanity, my humanity is defined by my Christianity. Because of this, I’m more likely to describe environmental degradation in terms of creation, providence, and apocalypse, than I am to describe it in scientific terms, even though I’m familiar with scientific terms and they may be better suited to describing the environmental situation. My theological understanding of stewardship of creation has inspired me to environmental activism, so my activist terminology has a decidedly theological tone; and my environmental activism has prompted me to join the Green Party, giving my environmental jargon a political spin and bite. At the same time, my theological language has recently become more and more intertwined with political language, because I wrote my MA thesis on the concept of the Powers and Principalities as the spiritual aspect of social institutions. My vocabulary grew, and words took on new nuances, and political words became theological words. Because of this, I can no longer talk about politics without talking about theology. So I started with theology, moved through environmentalism, to activism, to politics, and back to theology. This mess of interacting language-groups is how I primarily read a story about the Canadian tarsands. My truck driver sensibilities are pretty forcefully pushed out of the conversation at times because most of my theo-politico-ecological jargon has no place in the language group of truckers; it’s just not on their radar, and further, my experience in the trucker community was characterized by concerns about security in an oil-based economy and diesel-driven jobs. These concerns compete with the concerns of my dominant communities, so they get pushed down. If I were still active in the trucking community, and if that were a primary community for me, I would understand the issue of tarsands expansion much differently!
The issue of language groups and the issue of social context are therefore completely linked and work together to form our perspective as we read, and this perspective has a major influence on our theology. This is why we have black theology, and feminist theology, and Latin-American theology, and why all of these are different variations of Liberation Theology, which is itself a theology of the oppressed and contrasts sharply with health-and-wealth theology and the “prosperity gospel” which represent a very different perspective on social inequality. It’s also why we have so many different Bibles: the women’s Bible, the men’s Bible, kids Bibles, youth Bibles, student Bibles, apologetics Bibles, green Bibles, golfers’ Bibles (yes, the Golfer’s Bible is a real thing); because each of them has notes and highlights metaphors that speak to their particular group or community’s perspective.
Each perspective has the ability to write a meta-narrative, or grand story, a way to explain life, the universe, and everything, all from that particular perspective. A communist metanarrative might be to look at all of life from the perspective of the proletariat, the class of people oppressed by the wealthy aristocratic capitalists; a Calvinist metanarrative interprets every event in history as God’s sovereign act as part of a huge and mysterious plan; an atheistic metanarrative would probably be primarily scientific, explaining everything in life as the result of physical, chemical, and biological processes; and so on. Not every perspective is capable of accurately describing everything though: communist metanarratives tend to be reductive in regard to the rich, assuming their thoughts and motivations; Calvinist metanarratives struggle to explain the existence of evil in a world in which God supposedly controls everything; and naturalistic atheists simply lack the conceptual tools to adequately understand or explain values, meaning, and the sublime.
No one perspective, then, is capable of giving us an accurate picture of the world. Thankfully, we’re all members of many different communities, and therefore our views always amalgamate the perspectives and vocabularies of those communities and help us to have deeper, more nuanced views. One of the features of the postmodern world is that we recognize the validity of these other perspectives more and more. This has a few different results: it makes us more accepting of other communities, and it also allows us to adopt their vocabularies and merge them with our own, which makes finer distinctions and deeper nuances possible. At the same time, it makes us suspicious of metanarratives, because we’re more aware of the perspectives that aren’t represented by a particular metanarrative.
So read your Bible as yourself, but recognize that “no man is an island”, and that you always read it as a member of many different communities. Recognize that you share some communities with the writers of Scripture through your shared tradition, but that you have many other communities from which you draw language and meanings. This is both good and bad, but awareness of it allows us to maximize the benefits and minimize the negative elements as we strive for a self-aware and critical interpretation.