There Is Nothing Outside the Text: Taking Derrida to Church

In his book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church, James K. A. Smith examines three primary postmodern philosophers and their catchphrased lines that have, in a sense, come to define postmodernism.  When I was in Bible college, the consensus was that postmodernism means that everything is relative, there is no such thing as objective truth (and thus truth at all), and that everyone can just believe whatever they want, meaning that Christianity has no authoritative position on reality at all.  There was one prof who was all about postmodernism, and we all thought she was crazy (sorry Karen, but we surely did).  With that background in mind, I’m quite excited to read a book that actually explains what those  philosophers actually meant when they said these infamous lines.  It’s quite possible that postmodernism isn’t the devil after all!  I’ll start with Derrida today, Lyotard next, and finish up with Foucault.

Derrida’s deconstructionist philosphy somehow has been brought down to a single (supposedly defining) line: “there is nothing outside the text.”  Many Christians hate this notion, as I have come to discover, not because of what it means but because of what they think it means.  Many people, and not just Christians, thought Derrida was talking about some kind of literary idealism – the notion that reality only exists as a story in the mind of God, like we’re all stuck in the Matrix but without any form of existence outside of it.  That thought has come up before, but that’s not at all what Derrida is talking about.  If that was what he was saying, we’d be right to reject it; if all reality were just a story in the mind of God, then what would it mean for the Word to take on flesh?  If flesh was just another word in the cosmic story, then the Word would take on…another word?  Basically, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ would mean nothing – no human action in history would mean anything either, because none of it actually happened.  But that’s not at all, even remotely, what Derrida is saying.

What he’s actually saying is that there is nothing outside of context.  Like a “text” or book which must be interpreted, we are actually actively interpreting all of reality.  There is nothing that you know or see that isn’t affected by your own interpretation of it.  Smith uses the example of Disney’s The Little Mermaid.  Ariel, being a mermaid, doesn’t know what a fork is; when it is brought to her by a seagull, she finds it strange and interesting.  The seagull tells her that it is called a “dinglehopper”, and is used for combing hair.  Later, Ariel is seated at the table of the human prince, and sees a “dinglehopper” on the table in front of her; excitedly, she picks it up and starts combing her hair with it – a scene that is totally bizarre to us (and to the handsome prince).  Ariel and the prince had very different concepts of what a fork is, because they both experienced forks in totally different contexts.  In Ariel’s context, there are no forks; there is only a dinglehopper, which is for combing hair.  Her dinglehopper came to her in the open sea by a seagull, not in the context of a meal.  For the prince, who has seen forks used and named all of his life, there is no use for a fork outside of the context of a meal.  Both of their previous experiences and presuppositions had helped them to interpret the name and use of this metal instrument – this part of reality.  Everything – even forks – is interpreted.

That’s much, much less whacky than saying that all reality is a story in the mind (or book) of someone else (or God), right?  But still, many Christians have a serious problem with this.  If everything is interpreted, then that implies that there are other interpretations of everything as well – things like the Gospels, for example.  We don’t like that, because we have so many doctrines and notions that limit our story to a few authorized accounts (we don’t even like to call them ‘interpretations’), and we don’t allow other interpretations for the sake of orthodoxy – not a bad idea, in my mind.  In Bible college I was taught (and rightly so, in the right context) that there is only one interpretation (of a Biblical text) and many applications.  Of course, what they meant by that is that there is only one correct interpretation, because there are clearly many interpretations (otherwise we wouldn’t have different denominations, we wouldn’t have words like “heresy” or “orthodoxy”, etc, because everyone would see it the same way).  To a certain, small extent, there probably isn’t anything that any two people in the world fully agree on, because we don’t even know to what extent we differ in our understanding of things; so even if we agree that God is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, the notion of God as a father makes some people laugh and some people cry, even if they agree that it is a valid desription of God.  There are, actually, as many interpretations of a Biblical text as there are people to read it, because we all read it through the lens of our past experiences and understandings of everything we’ve ever known.  When we say “there is only one interpretation” we mean that truth exists, and we all try to make sure that our interpretation of events is as close to the truth as possible.

A problem here is that we (the Church) don’t really understand just how modernist we are: our notion of truth is tied entirely to the notion of objectivity, which is basically that something can be known or accessed by all people everywhere.  To many of us, the only real truth is objective truth, truth that exists regardless of what anyone else thinks about it and is available to or discernable by all.  But if everything is interpreted, then there is no objective anything; reality as it truly exists is not accessible to us without interpretation, and thus it is not equally accessible to everyone everywhere because we all interpret it differently.  To a modernist who ties truth to objectivity, that means that there is no truth, or at least no truth that can be known, and this is a really big problem!  If we can’t know the truth, then we can’t know God and we can’t trust the Bible, because even it must be an interpretation, and so when we read it were are interpreting an interpretation of an event.

Smith brings us back down to earth a bit though, with the calming notion that just because something is an interpretation doesn’t mean it isn’t true; there are some interpretations that are much closer to the truth than others, and some interpretations (like the Bible) are fully trustworthy and true.  It’s okay if we recognize that the Bible is only one interpretation of events; the Bible itself recognizes that fact, as we see Jesus going head to head with the Pharisees over interpretations of scripture, telling us that there were many interpretations, but some were more true than others.  Many Jews living in Jerusalem saw the execution of a political prisoner from Nazareth, and in a sense they were right; others saw the Son of God, and they were even more right – closer to the actual fact, perhaps even bang-on, depending on their level of understanding.

This view has some important benefits for us.  If we recognize that every view in the world (even other religions) are merely interpretations of reality, this means that every view is on an even playing field.  Many Christians don’t like this notion, because we think that our view is best; what I’m saying is that recognizing that all views are interpretations allows us to assert that our interpretation is best – because if we stick with the modernist notion that says that real truth is objective, then we have to assume that everyone who doesn’t agree with us is crazy, and most of the time that means that other people think that we’re crazy.  If we take a little bit of humility and admit that there are many interpretations other than ours, and that these interpretations exist because they make good sense to other people, when we share information with each other we’ll all be more inclined to listen and apply that information and interpret it rather than simply dismissing it as wrong.  To put that another way, postmodernism gives the Church a voice – i.e. people can pay attention to us without immediately dismissing us as crazy and wrong simply because our interpretation of reality is different.  On the other hand, we need to be willing to give the same voice to others, hearing out their interpretation of reality (but not necessarily appropriating it!), and this will improve our relations with…well, with everybody else that we’ve traditionally polarized and demonized as being unbelievers, pagans or heretics.  These improved relations also strengthen our voice, allowing us to make a stronger case for the truth of our interpretation of reality.

Another huge benefit of this deconstructionist view is that it reminds us that we see all of reality through our own lens, a lens made up of all of our previous knowledge and experience – including the revealed Word of God.  To put it another way, if we acknowledge that we see all of reality through our own presuppositions, that means that absolutely everything in our life is interpreted through our knowledge of God as revealed in Jesus Christ – with Paul, we can say that we know nothing except Christ Jesus, because that fundamental knowledge changes the way we see all of life.  There can be no separation of your ideas about God and the way you live your life, because if you take the Gospel to be the truth then it changes everything.

And finally, this view should help us respect other denominations and interpretations of the Bible.  African Christians often see the world, reality and God in a very different way than I do, but when I recognize that they do so because their interpretation of the Bible is affected by a very different set of experiences and perspectives, that they interpret the Bible a certain way because it makes sense in their context, and that they have the very same Holy Spirit that I do (and that inspired the Bible in the first place), I can embrace them as brothers without the pre-requisite of making sure they see things exactly the same way as me.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for criticism (there always is!) but merely that I don’t need to make everyone else in the world just like me in order to point them to Jesus Christ – because after all, it’s not my view or interpretation of Jesus that saves people, but Jesus Christ himself.

And, as always, please read Derrida (and everything else) critically; not all of his interpretations are accurate.


“You’re Going to Hell” and Other Great Evangelism Strategies

Sometimes being a Christian makes me sad.

An old friend of mine recently commented on a run-in he had with a “Christian” at a public event; this person, who did not know my friend at all, tried to give him a Christian-themed pin, and when he refused by saying “sorry, I’m not religious” told him “you know you’re going to Hell, right?” and proceeded to tell him how she was once like him, had gone her own way and committed every sin, etc. etc. until someone showed her the errors of her ways and she began to cleanse her soul of sin…or something of the like.  My friend is an atheist, and if he were to base that choice off of interactions like these, I really don’t blame him.

Then there’s the by now cliche Westboro Baptist Church antics: waving signs, as if protesting, at public events such as the weddings and funerals of homosexuals, or the funerals of soldiers, or even corporate offices.  These people simultaneously draw pity and disgust from me; I want to reach out to them, and teach them something true about God, and simultaneously call them all sorts of names.  Apparently I’m not the only one.

So rather than simply rant about it, I thought I’d do something constructive and actually look at the theology that’s being presented by such people; maybe someone will read this and realize that what they present to others either isn’t what they actually believe or else it isn’t good news and doesn’t present a real relationship with a good God.  I sincerely hope that nobody takes offense to this; if your evangelism strategy is currently to tell people all about the dangers of Hell, please reconsider your strategy.

First of all, I’d like to address what evangelism means. has it as “the preaching or promulgation of the gospel.”  Gospel, in turn, means “good news” in Greek, but is also associated with the entire message of the Gospels, that is, the four written works about the earthly life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who brought the good news in the first place.  Let’s start with the first sense, then: good news.  Jesus brought good news!  It usually said “the Kingdom of Heaven (or God) is at hand”, occasionally prefaced by “repent, for…”.  Interesting, that he doesn’t mention Hell there at all.  It may be implied by the call to repentance, but you really have to read it into the statement.  The idea is that God is the King of the Cosmos, of absolutely everything, and His Kingdom is coming to Earth, indeed, is already here!  Repenting, then, is making sure that you’re on the same side as the returning King; make sure you’re not caught partying when you thought your parents were away.  If the world has been in rebellion (which is the message of just about the entire Old Testament) then this is a chance for us to side with the victor.  This is good news – we’re all off the hook.

Interestingly, though, Jesus doesn’t spend much time even talking about repentance.  He sort of throws it out there, almost casually, and only when something pretty incredible has happened.  Take the woman caught in adultery, recorded in the Gospel according to John; Jesus frees her from the religious leaders who are about to stone her, and then after he’s saved her life he says “go and sin no more.”  He doesn’t lecture her, though he certainly could have.  He could have said “Look at all the trouble you’ve caused!  Look at the position you put me in!” (the religious leaders were trying to trap Jesus ethically).  He doesn’t say anything about her guilt, doesn’t bring on any shame at all – nor does he need to.  She knows what she’s done, and she knows that he got her off the hook; the only response that makes sense is to “go and sin no more.”  Nope, Hell isn’t a big part of Jesus’ proclamation of the good news.

But what if evangelism is about proclaiming the entire message of the Gospels, and not just the message that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand?  Surely Jesus mentioned Hell throughout the Gospels!  Well, he did mention it – but only about 1/10th as much as he talks about heaven, and of the few references to Hell there really isn’t any clear picture of what or where it is, or what it takes to get there.  It’s almost always mentioned in the context of parables, and most of the time uses the word gehenna, which refers to the valley of Hinnom just outside Jerusalem, where they dumped and burned their garbage.  It’s a metaphor (unless you think that all of the people who reject God will be dumped in the middle of modern-day Jerusalem), and what it’s referring to isn’t crystal clear (see a previous post about Hell, Hades and Sheol).  What is clear is that Jesus never, ever talked about Hell with “sinners”, except to warn them against becoming like the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders who were trapped in legalism and arrogantly exploiting the common Jews.  If you disagree about the context of Jesus’ warnings about Hell, reply here and we’ll examine it – but so far, it’s pretty clear that talking about Hell is not a major part of the Gospels as a whole, and certainly not a part of Jesus’ or his disciples’ evangelism.

What about the rest of the New Testament?  Well, I can’t really recall much mention of Hell anywhere else except Revelation, and if you understand Revelation enough to use it in evangelism to the unchurched, then you’re much smarter than I.  There’s a reference in Peter to Jesus preaching to the souls in prison, which many people think is a reference to preaching to the dead, perhaps in Hell.  Maybe.  But hey, I guess that’s talking about people in Hell getting saved, so it’s not really being preached much.

So we’ve established that it’s not really Biblical to preach at people about going to Hell (if you’re still not convinced, read all of the recorded sermons in Acts and count how many times they say “hell”).  What is it about then?  Why do people do it?  Well, some people have what is sometimes called “fire insurance faith” in which they adhere outwardly to “christian” forms (they go to church, don’t cuss on Sundays, etc.) simply out of fear of Hell, lacking any real relationship with God or any meaningful lifechange (repentance).  For those folks, telling someone they’re going to Hell is sharing the same “gospel” they received: a message of fear.  Perhaps they really do mean well.  Others really do mean well, but for them Christianity is broken down into the following metanarrative: people are evil, God is good; God destroys evil people, but saves the souls of the ones who believe in Jesus for an eternity in a city on the clouds, because Jesus died for their sins.  It may not be fearful (because once you’ve said the sinner’s prayer you’re saved) but it certainly is divisive, as it breaks all people into two categories: saved and unsaved, and we can tell who’s who (because we know who’s said the sinner’s prayer and who hasn’t).  In this case, telling someone “you’re going to Hell” isn’t warning them to get “fire insurance” as much as it is telling them that you’re in the ‘in-crowd’ and they’re not; i.e. “you’re not one of us.”  But if your life is about going around telling other people that they need to be more like you, or scaring them into saying a prayer, who wants to be in that crowd?

Let’s look at it from a different angle.  How would you feel if an insurance salesman showed up at your door, or beside you on the street, and started telling you what will happen to your family if you got hit by a car today?  What if they really poured on the guilt tactics, telling you what a bad parent you’d be if you left your children without adequate support, and then started listing ways that you could die unprepared?  What if he showed up at your door, day after day, with signs telling you that your poor diet is killing you, and you haven’t made proper arrangements to protect your family?  I mean, it’d be one thing if your doctor kept telling you to fix your diet, and even if he recommended insurance, but you already have a close relationship (of a sort) with your doctor; this guy is some stranger off the street!  Even if he’s right, you probably don’t want to hear it from him, and won’t sign up to meet with him weekly to talk about it and sing songs.  Especially if he were to tell you that his boss is arranging for your death and eternal torment unless you buy a policy.

I’m not even going to touch Westboro Baptist Church; there’s absolutely nothing Biblical about their “protests”, and I think the pictures really speak for themselves (all of the pictures above are of members of this “church” and their children).  Let them serve as the extreme example of what not to do.  If you’re going to evangelize, at the very least ask yourself if you can even be remotely compared to them, and if so, stop it.  In this, I think Penny Arcade actually has a better grasp on God than many Christians:

3PS and the New Visibility of Religion

In his book The Poilitics of Discipleship, Graham Ward explains that a new visibility of religion exists, citing the explosive popularity of Harry Potter as an example.  Religious themes and supernatural imagery are everywhere these days, but rarely conform to any existing religion, usually borrowing heavily from them in an attempt to express some other-ness.  To put it another way, people are seeking or sensing that there is more to this world than we can see and touch, and they’re talking about it, but not in Church.  When I try to make sense of theological themes in popular culture, it’s usually quite difficult to say that they’re Christian even if they borrow extensively from Christianity.  I picked up a cheap book about the Gospel of the Matrix (though I never did read it), but even if the Matrix is actually alluding to Christianity, it’s Gnostic Christianity; more likely, it appropriates Christian themes and images to tell the old-as-time story of a messiah or hero who overcomes all boundaries to set us free.

Sometimes, the new visibility of religion deliberately interacts with Christianity; however, Biblical illiteracy and a widely unchurched population means that the Christianity they interact with is (deliberately or unknowingly) a folk Christianity built on centuries of custom and (often mis-) understanding rather than on firm doctrine or biblical teaching.  I’ve had my first blog request: an old friend suggested I talk about this comic by Three Panel Soul (

The accompanying blog post is entitled “Judeo-Christian motifs in “Where on Earth is Carmen San Diego”, and knowing the comic it’s supposed to be funny (and is!) rather than factual, but it does serve well to showcase this phenomenon of the new visibility of religion and the old phenomenon of folk religion and poor doctrine.  Let’s look at their comparison between the children’s cartoon and God.

The obvious place to start is the image of God as playing a game, with all the world as the characters within the game.  Many Christian theologians have concluded that all of creation exists for God’s pleasure alone (Calvinists, anyone?), but the notion that it’s a game is just as much (or more) a pagan notion, like something out of Greek mythology.  The next point in the first panel is that God, the player, could presumably resolve all conflict in the “game” by his will alone, yet for his own reasons chooses not to.  This is a play on the problem of evil, which some have taken to be the biggest apologetic challenge for Christianity; “if God is good, why does he let bad things happen to good people?”  The answer to that, as I understand it, is that God cannot make everyone get along and do right by one another without robbing us of free will; without our ability to choose the good, the good loses its meaning and our love ceases to be love, being only programming from on high.  This is not because God is limited, but because we are.

The second panel is remarkably more accurate than I initially gave it credit for: Satan is created, and thus entirely at God’s mercy, but is allowed to serve a function (the word “Satan” means “accuser”).  The problem in this panel is the dualism implied in the next sentence: Satan does not, nor has ever, communicated with God as an equal (even in a relationship established at God’s pleasure).  Christian history is full of legends of the fall, taken from a few vague verses in Isaiah and Revelation, about wars in heaven and the like, which have grown into a dualism (yin-yang, if you will) that comes straight out of Zoroastrianism and a few other eastern or pagan religions.  Judeo-Christian theology does not include a dualism or equality between good and evil, darkness and light; a recurring theme of the Bible is God’s triumph over evil and chaos, his creation of light and banishment of darkness.

The last panel, I assume, is talking about Catholicism, suggesting that God does not communicate directly with his followers but only through a hierarchy headed by the “Chief” (Pope?).  It’s a fun parallel, but I’d like to point out that even Catholicism does not hold that the only way to hear from God is through the Pope; prayer is, and has always been, our method of communication with God.  Further, ancient methods of prayer include much more listening and meditation than we are prone to these days (we usually just talk talk talk at God), and so it’s been a norm throughout the centuries of Christianity to hear from God directly – a concept that had a dramatic reawakening in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements throughout history but particularly in the past century.  The comparison between God and the game breaks down when you see God as trinitarian (perhaps why the first panel refers to God as being an “Old-testament God”), because the player (God in Christ) would have become one of the detectives and defeated Carmen San Diego once and for all, and then indwelt (the Holy Spirit) Zack and Ivy and helped them to build a new society without crime.

The comparison is good enough to stick, it’s funny, and it shows how one can find traces of religion and religious concepts in just about anything.  There is actually an institute running from my school that studies the interaction between religion and pop culture; I attended seminars about religious themes in Joss Whedon television shows (particularly Dollhouse, Firefly and Buffy), Zombie movies (resurrection, anyone?) and heavy metal music, among others.  Christians often get freaked out by representations of religion in culture that doesn’t conform to our doctrines (see the reaction to Harry Potter); perhaps it is much better for us to recognize this new visibility of religion as a positive thing and provide the knowledge to fill in the metaphors, making all truth (as it always does) point to Christ.

The Most Important Question in Theology

For our next assignment, my class has been asked to write about what we think is the most important question in theology.  The basic idea is that asking the right questions is the key to getting the right answers, and it probably serves to give us more focus in our theological formation.  It also serves as a wide-open assignment which allows us to think for ourselves rather than paraphrasing what we’ve been reading or explaining specific points from older theologians.

By that same token, there are no wrong answers in this paper; there are an awful lot of good questions to ask, and all of them are very important.  After all, God created reality, and so theology deals with all parts of reality in one way or another.  For many people, the only things in life that are truly important are the things that directly affect us – or the things that we can directly affect; for them perhaps the theological question of “who are we?” or “what must we do/how shall we live?” are the most important.  But of course, those questions will be affected by the answers to larger questions, such as “what is reality” or “who is God?”  Many people seek the bigger picture, and there are many different ways to see such a big picture; the person who asks “what is reality” will learn more about God because he is the creator and sustainer of reality, while the person who asks “who is God” will learn more about reality because of that same relationship.

This assignment really makes me realize just how differently people see reality, and understand God.  A prof recently mentioned that when we preach, we should remember that for every person in the congregation in front of us there is a different understanding of God.  Most of the time the differences are fairly small – thanks to the concept of orthodoxy for that – but postmodernism has certainly taught us that perspective counts for an awful lot, and no two people see the world in exactly the same way.  Subtle differences in belief will always exist, even if they cannot be noticed in the way we talk about God.  Even within a denomination, within a particular church within a particular denomination, there is no such thing as complete uniformity in belief – and that’s sort of scary for some people.  For others, it’s fairly exciting; I hope you’re one of the latter (and I hope that I am too).

So what do you think is the most important question in theology?  Your answer to that question will undoubtedly reveal more about you than it will about God.  Personally, I’m loathe to even start the assignment, because I can’t narrow the all-encompassing nature of God to a single question – so I’m left picking one that’s most important to me, or at least to me right now, and sticking with it even though I know it’ll probably change even before the paper is done.  Perhaps the topic of the paper itself is its own answer.

Who is God?  What is reality?  How then shall we live?  What is love?  (Baby don’t hurt me…don’t hurt me…no more…).  These are all hugely important, broad questions – but broad questions tend to only inform more basic questions, and those basic questions tend to be more immediately important.  So assuming some knowledge of reality, my own existence, and the existence of God, perhaps the most important question in theology for me personally is: where do I stand with God?  Once again, this is a question that will tell me just as much about myself as it will about God – but I guess that’s the nature of a relationship, isn’t it?

Psalms as Torah, and Torah as Instruction

I’m cringing right now, bracing myself for the shock and awe that’s about to be hurled towards me when I make this confession: I hate the psalms.  I can’t stand them.  I must be the only person in history who feels this way, for all of the praise these songs seem to accrue.

I think it was Luther who called the Psalter the “book of all Saints”, and the book was once such a large part of everyday life that people made allusions to psalms in their daily speech.  There have been many different ways of interpreting the psalms over the centuries, from allegorical to historical-critical to form-critical to canonical.  For most of the past century, historical-critical methods have ruled the day; this means that scholars try to figure out who wrote each writing, trying to find the specific context of the writing in order to understand it better.  This is pretty much impossible with most books, but I’d say especially with the psalms, and it leads to a very individualized view of the psalms – the view that I grew up with.  The basic idea is that the Psalter is a collection of individual poems or songs or laments by individual authors (often simply attributed to David), and represent a personal expression of a personal faith in a personal God – exemplifying the personal relationship I’m supposed to have with God.

Here’s the problem: I do not relate to 98% of the psalms.  That means that, out of 150 psalms, I relate to three of them (or so).  I find half of them to be whiny (and I used to be incredibly emo!) and the rest to be quite touchy-feely (and I’m a Spirit-filled pentecostal!).  You’d think psalms would be right up my alley, but as far as personal expression of a relationship with God goes, they seem to be incredibly over-the-top and unrealistic (I always preferred Ecclesiastes).

Suffice it to say I had plenty of reasons to be pleased this week to write a summary of A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms by J. Clinton McCann, Jr. for my Hebrew Poetry class.  The basic premise of his introduction to the psalms is that they should be recognized as what they really are: torah, or instruction.  They are directly linked to the 5 books of Moses in the introduction (psalm 1 and 2) and throughout the entire collection; even structurally, they are divided into 5 books.  If the Psalms are actually instruction, then I guess they’re not saying that I need to feel the same things that they speak about, but merely that these prayers and praises are instructional about how to praise and pray.  They reveal a lot about the identity of God and the identity of human beings, as well as the appropriate responses and interactions between the two.  They also show a lot about the cult practices of Israel, which gives us a window into the religious life of Jesus and his ancestors.

So I’m enjoying the psalms a bit more now, which is great because I’ll spend the rest of the semester translating a few of them (1 and 2 today).  Also, they’re more interesting to read in Hebrew (though quite difficult – stupid hapax legomena!).  And speaking of Hebrew, I want to make a point about torah before I start watching Lost (I finally got into it): torah does not mean “law”!  It does in a sense, but not in the sense that we use for the term “law”.  It actually means “instruction”, and is not a code of law at all.  We run into trouble when we look back to the Septuagint and see that it translates “torah” into “nomos”, the greek term for “law” almost every single time.  Because of this, we see it come up all over the place in the New Testament, because at that point in history the Septuagint was the Bible they used.

The Hebrew rendition of “law” comes from torah, which means instruction: the Law of Israel comes from the instructions of God.  The Greek termm for “law” comes from nomos, which basically means “customs” or “how we do things” – and thus it is a social construction (much like the rules of the Pharisees).  So the next time you read Paul, remember that he’s contrasting a few different types of “law”: the Law from God (torah) and rules made up by men (nomos), both of which are spelled nomos in Greek!  He plays with the word throughout his writings, particularly in Romans and Galatians.

So for all you legalists out there, remember that instructions are not an inflexible code of law.  And for all of you touchy-feely folks out there who love the psalms: don’t be haters, I’ll get there someday.  And don’t just empathize with the emo-kids who wrote them; learn something from it!


Maybe it’s just my background talking, but when I think of holiness the first thing that I think of isn’t God; I immediately think of moral purity, and the importance of being holy as our God is holy so that we can show that we are “set apart” for him.  AKA, don’t swear, smoke cigarettes, or hang out at dance halls or pool halls – and most importantly, don’t ever, EVER, even think about sex!  Because the value of my witness – nay, the very evidence of my salvation! – rests upon how well I exemplify the “regenerate life”, or “holiness”.  I’ve always struggled with this, because it’s exceedingly obvious that the lives of Christians do not instantly become spotless and morally pure the moment they are saved, or even when they start speaking in tongues.  I find it interesting that we can put such emphasis on the total depravity of man on one side and then still emphasize complete holiness (in the sense of personal morality) on the other side, all the while repeating that salvation is by grace through faith (and therefore paying little attention to social justice, which falls under “works”).

To repeat: On one hand, we recognize that we’re totally sinful, and that no works we can do will make up for our inherent, unavoidable sinfulness.  Because of this, we rejoice that our salvation is based on faith alone.  We’re so partial to faith alone as the means of our salvation that we dare not exhort people to good works, because they might become legalistic and think that feeding the poor has earned them their salvation (though as we noted last week, when Jesus talked about “works” he meant the Torah – i.e. empty religious observance).  But when it comes to personal morality, we like to expound on the necessity of holiness, with holiness defined as “not sinning”.  It’s a reverse-works system: we’re discouraged from doing good works because we don’t want to think that we can earn salvation by them, but at the same time highly discouraged from doing evil works, which could cost us our free salvation!  All in all, we’re discouraged from actually DOING anything at all, which is generally quite…discouraging.

So let’s look at holiness.  Holiness people love to talk about how being holy means to be “set aside for God”, or “separated”, and it’s true that there’s an element of that in there.  In Hebrew there are three terms that we translate as either “separated”, “holy”, or “devoted”.  The first term, badal, roughly corresponds to our term “separate”: it refers to things that are physically separated (e.g. in creation God ‘separated’ the light from the darkness, the waters above from the waters below), relating to space between things, and there is a more theoretical sense in which things can be separated, like when you make a distinction between two types of things (e.g. oil and water in the same jar will ‘separate’; a divorced couple is separated even if they eat dinner together at the same table, etc).

The second term, kadosh, also can mean to separate.  However, it never refers to physical or spatial separation.  It is used to talk about something separated in a non-physical way (like the second example above – e.g. to make something stand out, heterogeny, distinction), but also with a sacred sense – something that is set aside, or separated from the common, for God.  God is holy, in that he is separated (not spatially or physically, because God is not physical) from his creation – he is other, uncreated, uncommon.  In a similar way (and this is the one that holiness people love to talk about), Israel (and now the Church) is separated or set apart from the rest of the nations, for God.  Holiness people will point to all of the regulations in Leviticus and Numbers as physical, outward signs that make Israelites stand out from Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians, etc. – like circumcision, and not cutting your hair above the sideburns, and all of these things.  Today, they say, a Christian is to stand out, or be noticeably different from the rest of the world, because of the righteous lives we live (as if non-Christians are never righteous?).

The third term, herem, describes things that are irrevocably given over to God, or ‘separated’ to God.  Something that is made holy, or has been devoted to God in the sense of kadosh above can also be made common again; if you dedicate your house to the Temple, it is kadosh, but if you buy it back it goes back to common.  When something is dedicated irrevocably to God, it can’t become common again; this means that the things that are dedicated this way are completely destroyed, often burned – given irrevocably to God.  This is what happened to Jericho and all of its spoils (usually translated as “ban”), and what happens to those who are put to death for capital offences.  So in a sense, the ‘unholy’ actions of someone who commits murder or adultery were the grounds for their complete and utter dedication to God (their death), in which they are made ‘holy’ (herem).  But holiness preachers never preach that kind of holiness, so we’re left with option #2: kadosh.

The thing that I want to emphasize about kadosh is that Israel was not just separated for God, but they were separated from the surrounding nations by God.  In Exodus 19:3-6, God makes a covenant with Israel, and this is what he tells Moses to say to them: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.  Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.  Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  At first glance (and if you only read this passage and ignored the rest of the book) it looks like it is the people’s obedience to God that makes them a holy nation, or holy.  But keep in mind the context: God has initiated covenants with Israel that he does not go back on, regardless of whether Israel follows the covenant or not; remember that the ultimate covenant curse is not the end of the covenant.  The covenant is a relationship that is witnessed to by the values of the covenant, as expressed in the 10 Words of Exodus 20.  It is this relationship with God that defines the nation of Israel, that sets it apart from the other nations, whether or not they represent that relationship through their personal morality.  This relationship with God is initiated by God and upheld by God, not by Israel’s actions.  Purification and consecration rituals serve to call the people back to their covenant relationship with God; there is no magic holy water that actually washes sins away, but such rituals rededicate someone to their covenant relationship with the God who forgives and redeems.

All of that to say that it is God who made Israel holy, and it is God who makes Christians holy, entirely by our relationship to him.  What we do does bear witness to that holiness, even in a way serving as evidence of our relationship with God, but it doesn’t have anything to do with our salvation, which rests entirely on the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  You see, when Israelites sinned, hurting their covenant relationship with God, they had purification rituals that could renew that relationship (or else were subjected to complete relationship with God through herem), but eventually those purification rituals lost the effect of calling people back to true relationship with God, and holiness was lost (because relationship was lost).  In the New Covenant, Jesus made sure that that relationship could never be lost.  Jesus, acting in our place, was put to death, fully devoted to God (herem).  Now by virtue of his devotion to God, you are fully and irrevocably devoted to God, only without the physical death that accompanies it.  We are no longer just kadosh, we are also herem, and no amount of sin on our part can revoke that status.

So Christians: stop trying to be holy.  Instead, recognize that you ARE holy, irrevocably and by no fault of your own – and then live like it.  A subtle distinction perhaps, but a beautiful one.  Holiness, like salvation, is a gift of grace in Jesus Christ, so stop trying to earn it.  Instead, as it’s been said, “love God, and do what you want.”

Social Justice

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted; I hope my previous post wasn’t too alarming, particularly when combined with my silence since.  It’s taken a while to get going this semester, particularly in my theology class, which was cancelled once for a blizzard.  Also, without Bonhoeffer to drive me to new thoughts this semester, I simply haven’t had much to say – until today.

You may have noticed that my journey thus far has been one that veers away from my spiritual upbringing, as I discover the wide world of theology outside of the Pentecostal and even Evangelical world.  While I am deeply aware that every denomination and tradition has its faults, the faults of my own tradition have become underscored by comparison to some other views I am now discovering.  One thing that stands in stark relief to my background is the relationship between Christianity and social justice.  I’ve always been aware that there is some connection – it’s hard to miss all references to social justice in the Bible, for there are many – but my tradition has long been focused on personal salvation that comes through personal faith in and personal belief in a personal God.  It’s all very internal.

Evangelicals have taken the personal and internal nature of this salvation quite far.  I was shown an advertisement today that depicted an obviously destitute, barefoot child, probably in a third-world nation, crouched in the street; it said “we give Bibles to people who can’t afford shoes.”  While I think it’s wonderful that they give people Bibles, I seriously doubt that poor little girl can read – and it’s already been established that she can’t even afford shoes.  Give her some shoes, for crying out loud.  I agree that it’s very important for people to hear the gospel, and I think it should go hand-in-hand with practical aid, but after spending a school year working in a homeless shelter where people must listen to a sermon before they get a meal, I can honestly say that a hungry homeless person rarely gives a hot damn about the gospel – all they want is a hot meal.  What on earth makes us think that the poorest people of the world will be satisfied with a storybook about a guy who can multiply bread?  They don’t need a story about multiplied bread nearly as much as they need the real thing, and I don’t doubt that many of these Bibles have been traded for food.

Also (and this is an aside), what type of Bible would you give her?  Our personal faith is so personal that there is a different Bible aimed at every demographic you can think of.  While searching for this ad online (I can’t find it), I came across Holman Publishing’s newest edition: The Golfer’s Bible.  Because some truths can only be discerned by analogy to Tiger Woods.

We come from a tradition with a specific eschatology: premillennialism.  While I think it has been poorly represented by Tim LaHaye, he still gets the gist of it: the earth will be totally destroyed any minute now in an epic battle between God and Satan for the souls of humanity – but don’t worry, because us Christians won’t even have to endure these hard times; we’ll be whisked away in the “rapture”.  I hope I don’t sound too cynical about this; this doctrine is based on a particular interpretation of prophetic and apocalyptic texts that are notoriously difficult, and I haven’t as yet been able to come up with a better interpretation altogether, and a lot of very intelligent people for whom I have the utmost respect adhere to it.  But I despise what this doctrine has done to us and our theology, causing us to devalue the physical world (including our own bodies, and the bodies of every person on the planet), because it will all be done away with very soon.  It discourages compassion, because it teaches us to view all humanity in light of the judgment, in which all people are separated into the sheep and the goats, and we don’t approve of goats.  It puts an awful lot of pressure on us to save souls, because after all, that’s the only thing that’ll survive the coming apocalypse – which means that the physical needs of the poor, if they register at all, only come after we ram our so-called ‘good news’ down their parched throats.

Today, Isaiah 58:1-10 was read to me.  To sum it up, God is condemning the returned exiles even though they seem to be doing everything right: they’re rebuilding the temple, they’re fasting, they have no other gods, and they’ve gotten rid of their foreign wives, yet still He’s not happy with them.  Why?  Because they’ve failed to grasp the essential fact that despite all of their efforts to perform the proper tasks of worship and to give charity to the poor, they’ve failed to address the unjust system that made the poverty in the first place.  What was needed was not more fasting, but real justice: to set the captives free, to feed the poor – essentially, to bring justice.  Deuteronomy 16:20, talking about what it takes to live in the land, says “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue…”  Ezekiel 16:49-50 identifies the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah – not that they practiced homosexuality or other sexual sins, but that they were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; there was a lack of justice.

Righteousness means “right relations” – with God, self, others, and the earth.  Surely justice is implied in right relations between yourself and others, and with the planet.  In the Old Testament, the word “justice” occurs 152 times, while righteousness (which we in the holiness traditions so often like to preach) occurs only 115 times – and they quite frequently occur together, the natural pairing of “justice and righteousness”.  It’s a pretty big theme of the OT, and quite central to the Torah, which constantly talks about proper treatment of the orphan, the widow and the sojourner.  Justice is certainly the prevailing theme of Amos’ prophecy.  It’s also quite central to the New Testament as well: when Jesus began his ministry, he chose to describe it by quoting Isaiah.  He came to declare good news to the poor, declare the release of the captives, and declare the year of the Lord’s favour (i.e. a year of Jubilee, when slaves are released and debts are cancelled).

It is interesting to note that in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) there is no notion of salvation by grace through faith.  When people ask Jesus how they can be saved, he says “follow me”, i.e. do what I do.  When Jesus gives the famous Great Commission in Matthew 28, he says to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them…and teaching them to obey all of my commands.”  He doesn’t say that we should teach them all about him, so that they can have a private and saving belief in him – he says we should teach the world to obey him, and do what he did.  He didn’t send the apostles to individuals within the nations, but to the nations themselves: this is not a private thing, and individual people are not the only parts of a nation that need to be redeemed.  All of this is not to say that we are not saved by faith, but as our friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Faith is only real when there is obedience.”  It is also interesting to note that in the sheep & goats judgment that we evangelicals place as so central to our theology, the people are separated not by their belief but by their actions – or more specifically, by their lack of actions: they did not enact justice.  It’s not that we’re “saved by works” – but please recognize that when the New Testament talks about how we’re not saved by works, they’re talking about “works of the Law”, i.e. the code of laws and traditions that were built up around the Torah that Jesus so criticized the pharisees for.  There is definitely such a thing as “good works”, and they are the lived expression of the faith that we have in Jesus Christ, the proof that we actually believe him and take him seriously, the proof that we have been redeemed and renewed.

But of course, anyone who’s read James knows that much.  Then why is it that Evangelicals are always the least involved in social justice?  We’re named after our desire to evangelize, but we’re drastically underrepresented in the Christian efforts toward social justice.  The Catholics, mainline protestants, and anabaptists definitely have us beat.  Do we really “love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with our God”?

I should mention that this was inspired and informed by a presentation by my friend and teacher Dennis H.