Instead of “I’m the king of the world if I win, and a failure if I lose,” and the crushing pressure that entails, the spiritually rewired athlete’s internal logic is this: I’m a child of God; that’s my primary identity.  God loves me regardless of what happens in this competition.  God has given me these talents, these amazing gifts, and it’s my responsibility to use them as best I can, to perform and succeed to the utmost of my ability.  But it’s not for personal glory, or to feed my towering ego.  Rather, every burst of speed and power is a testament to a higher power whose love transcends any kind of earhtyly success.  The competitive results are not part of that higher reality.  But the effort is.  The leap toward perfection of effort, a kinetic hymn, is a connection to God.  It’s sacred, the way prayer is sacred.  And at the same time it is exquisitely concrete.  It has mass, speed, position, trajectory, in the now of a throw or a catch or a weight that needs to be lifted.  It’s where physics meets the soul.”  – J.C Hertz, Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of Crossfit and the Primal Future of Fitness (New York, NY: Crown, 2014) 248

This month marks my two year journey with Crossfit. It has been quite a ride to say the least. I have always been a pretty active person though never someone who would be seen as having ‘athlete’ as an identifier. No, I bought into the world of ‘working out’ in my adult life which is to say I viewed exercise akin to exorcism: something you do to prevent bad things from happening like death or weight gain. While I was a cross country runner and swimmer in high school, I just never saw myself as athletic. Being a bookworm seemed to be a different and distinct role to play in “The Breakfast Club” and for the most part I was fine with that. So I dabbled with various gym memberships in my late 20’s and ran miles on treadmills, went to occasional classes, read “Born to Run” and thought the key was going barefoot and took up more recreational running including running a couple of half marathons. But I was never an athlete, I was ‘working out’ and ‘exercising’. Into my 40’s in addition to the typical ‘life is busy’ mantra I started having knee problems resulting in a torn meniscus which sidelined me from running for a while.

At this point let me say out loud that I ‘get’ all the push back from folks who both hate the ‘Crossfitters won’t shut up about Crossfit’ meme as well as the argument that it is simply one form of fitness among many. Akin to different favorite hymns at Christmas time there are many, many wonderful ways that adults are finding new levels of fitness: adult crew teams, running groups, yoga and ultra trail running have their adherents and I am not part of those groups but also celebrate them from afar. But something clicked with my journey into a Crossfit box that somehow just made sense in ways I am still trying to put together. Like the line from the block quote I started with from JC Hertz’s wonderful book, there is something in me that was search for a ‘kinetic hymn’ – a way to sing praise with all that I am, to abandon myself and still strive for reaching for yet another horizon. About 6 months into my time with the community of Stoneway Crossfit I realized that part of what was missing was that I was eternally frustrated with ‘exercise’ and ‘working out’ for the simple fact that it wasn’t what we were put on the earth to with our bodies. No, as in all things of excellence it can’t merely be a sidelined aspect of my life. If it is to be transformative then that mean it effects everything. I was not to be ‘working out’ for a fear of death nor ‘exercising’ some demons of fat from my body. No, what I woke to was that I was an athlete who needed to train. I eat food for the sake of performance not sitting around worrying about what calorie count it has. I look at excellence and mental toughness in a new way in all aspects of my life but in a wholistic way. It is hard to get your mouth around the word ‘athlete’ without seemed incredibly pretentious especially as a rather out-of-shape male approaching 50 like a bullet from a gun. But when I made the mental shift and realized that I was an athlete who was training, setting goals, reaching for more as the singing of a ‘kinetic hymn’ then I forgot about the grind of lifting weights, running, rowing, etc. Everyday has become a liturgy of sorts, a lectionary of movements that are about liberation, freedom, and sanctification of the body, mind and soul.

As I sit back now after my two years I am thankful for this kinetic hymn I am still learning to sing and for the choir of other athletes at Stoneway CF as well as other Crossfit boxes around the world I have stepped into and been welcomed, challenged, and confirmed as an athlete who is training and transforming all the time.

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Either you only follow tweets for TMZ.com or ESPN Sportscenter or live under a rock away from the din and clang of the blogosphere if you haven’t heard the rumblings about Rob Bell’s upcoming book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011) which will hit bookstores on March 29th.  For those following the flurry of activity, the basic issue that arose this weekend started when Justin Taylor posted a blog posting entitled Rob Bell: Universalist?  and later John Piper, the grandfather of neo-Calvinism, Synod of Dort extreme sport TULIP revivalism mentor for Mark Driscoll, and author of Desiring God, offered a rather snarky and damning (pun intended) tweet that simply read “Farewell Rob Bell” in relation to claims that Bell’s new book espoused a universalist view of salvation and Bell has finally been shown to be in league with the devil.   There have been claims from neo-Calvinists for a while that Bell and his NOOMA videos were merely drawing people away from orthodox Christian faith.  Swords began to rattle and the blogosphere exploded.  As reported in Christianity Today’s blog this weekend, Rob Bell was in the top 10 trending topics on Twitter Saturday… that is the top 10 trending of ALL Tweets globally. As of Saturday evening, about 12,000 people had recommended Taylor’s blog post on Facebook, which posts the article on readers’ personal pages. The article had about 680 comments as of this morning.  Taylor, who is a VP for Crossway Books which publishes some of Piper’s work, has since revised his article, softening the blows he delivered originally including aligning the fate and character of Bell with II Corinthians 11: 14-15 –  “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” [to be expected, this is from the ESV which is the authorized version of neo-Calvinist Piper fanboys (yes… boys) everywhere since, as we have been told, other translations such as the ill-fated TNIV are too “gender-inclusive” and leading to the feminization of the Bible].  As many have pointed out, Bell’s book has yet to be released and these comments are coming from people who have either only seen the book jacket copy or a promotional video that Harper Collins has begun to circulate in promotion of the book.  In short, the blogosphere is offering a premonition of things to come akin to the movie “Minority Report” where people are charged and convicted of crimes they haven’t committed but *might* in the future – taking them out now will save collateral damage.

Some passing thoughts on this bit of cyber rumbling:

1. At its most base level, these type of fist fights in Christianity only serve to remind the world that Christians are seriously wounded, angry people with too much time on their hands to muse about this stuff, are more interested in winning fights on grounds of certainty rather than faith (the fate of souls can be known with certainty?!) and seeming lack of critical faculties in regard to self-reflection so as to see how much damage this type of snarking does in the name of Christ.

2. As Scot McKnight recently noted in a recent Christianity Today blog, this type of activity serves the book publishers best – in this case Crossway and Harper Collins are the winner –  as the church burns itself to the ground and should be a warning to leaders who choose flippancy rather than true compassion and reconciliation as their response in the very public age of social networking:

I’ve not seen anything like it. And, yes, the quickness of social media have made this such a big issue … today … and in a week it will all be gone. Justin Taylor once generated almost 100 comments by quoting a blurb of mine that was on the back of IVP’s book by Tom Wright on Justification.

Justin may be right about what Rob believes, but if he is wrong then he owes Rob Bell a huge apology. I want to wait to see what Rob Bell says, read it for myself, and see what I think of it. Rob is tapping into what I think is the biggest issue facing evangelicalism today, and this fury shows that it just might be that big of an issue.

The publicity approach of HarperOne worked perfectly. They got huge publicity for a book. They intended to provoke — and they did it well. I think it is wiser to wait to see the real thing than to rely on publicity’s provocations. Justin bit, and so did many of his readers.

Frankly, John Piper’s flippant dismissal of Rob Bell is unworthy of someone of Piper’s stature. The way to disagree with someone of Rob Bell’s influence is not a tweet of dismissal but a private letter or a phone call. Flippancy should have no part in judging a Christian leader’s theology, character or status.

3. I will ‘out myself’ as someone who respects what Rob has done, how he thinks, and frankly his deep and abiding concern for the well-being of all people who Christ died for – and I do mean *all* people as testified to in Romans 5:18.  True, I don’t find all his theology to be my cup of tea, but that is what makes him real to me… Rob actually has the humility to say he doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t try to offer a one-stop shopping for everything.  Quite refreshing actually.  I will certainly read the book and look forward to seeing what Rob actually says… not what people who haven’t even read the book think.

4. On whether universalism is something worth a theological fist fight about, I suppose it matters as far as our dialogues move us toward humility before a God who is as mysterious and unknowing as He is revealed and apprehendable.  As a theologian I work with students who struggle with the final end of things all the time.  As a pastor who has performed many funerals for children, adult suicides, and family members who are atheists and well as asked the ultimate fate of those who don’t profess a faith in Christ nor have prayed the sinner’s prayer per our traditional understanding and therefore I get asked the questions of heaven and hell quite a bit.

Where we put the cross matters…

My short hand answer begins with where we have put the cross in our midst. For many the cross is iconically viewed every Sunday in church sanctuaries as something bolted to the wall at the end of the sanctuary, high above the ground and therefore beyond our grasp:

In this view there is only one way to approach the cross – it is a 2D thing in our 3D world that is unmovable, without blemish, and only reached through our reason since we cannot touch it or experience in any way that is existential.  There is a front door and no back door to this cross and there just one way to get there.

But what if we consider the cross as something that is truly in the center of our lives and not merely bolted to the wall? What if the cross that Christ died on and made the way forward for overturning the pattern of Adam as we hear in Romans 8 actually offers a new way, a new path, a new centerpoint for our lives that is truly 3D and in our midst:

Golgotha was a real place in the three-dimensional world with a cross planted in the midst of everything and in the presence of and for all people (Romans 5:18) that could be approached from all directions for this was a death offered for all the world (John 3:16) and not merely those who find the one aisle or doorway our small tribes might conjure as essential in phrase or practice.  This is a cross that is in the middle of everything we are about and everything God wishes for us.  What a shame to bolt that gift to a wall like a prized trophy head captured and preserved safely above all the muck and mire of real life.

Now, am I advocating for an essential universalism whereby everyone is saved and taken to paradise whether they like it or not?

No.

I stand on the belief that my ability to choose is something God counts as so precious as to give me a choice to love or not and thereby I can opt out of relationship with God, deny the offer of paradise, and build my own Hell whether on earth or in the afterlife akin to Satan’s famous aphorism from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “For it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”  I say this with all the Reformed theology in my bones as one who affirms God’s sovereignty in all things, understands depravity as the result of being deprived of God’s grace in a broken world and twisting that which is good into a disordered and not ordered form of love.  To put it even more bluntly, if Heaven is akin to a junior high lock-in night where you can’t leave and I am locked in, then love doesn’t matter does it?  But if I am choosing to be embraced by the love of God as God is choosing to embrace me through the grace and mercy of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, then the last thing I am looking for is the proverbial door.  To put it bluntly, eternal security and damnation are code in neo-Calvinist rhetoric for simply not trusting in God’s ability to continually choose us and would rather have a once and for all “yes” that is final and ends the conversation so the relationship is always submissive to certainty in our own doctrine rather than God’s sustaining providence. Put that in your Piper and smoke it…

Is there Hell? Scripture and the tradition of the Church says that this is as real as the world in which we live.  In fact, Christ is fairly pointed in declaring that perhaps Hell is already here and we have a chance to do something about it for folks who are living in this very real and not imagined Hell everyday… and not merely blogging about it.  In this regard I believe in Hell because I can see, taste and touch its stench all around me in the lives of the marginalized and down-trodden, the broken hearts and afflicted, the ironic and the nihilistic.  To that end my thoughts on whether Hell is real have more to do with the hope and prayer that by the time we catch up to the action of Revelation 20 that God has already put into play that Hell will be as empty as freakin’ possible and that Satan and all the demons will be left alone and tormented by the reality of a cross that stands in their midst as well… a cross that is not impotently framed on a wall like an IKEA wall hanging but holds the door open for all time so that all who seek entrance to this place of separation have to try and get by it first.

As Scot McKnight wisely stated, this whole cyber spat will probably just blow over by the time we go to work on Monday and that is a shame in some regards since what we believe does matter… and it certainly matters more than making arguments about a book nobody has even read yet.

So… what are your thoughts on all this? Does it matter? Why or why not?

Artist Dan Meth recently posted a map of the ‘fantasy world’ that pulls together over 30 different fictional/fantasy worlds into one glorious landscape – Narnia, Middlearth, Earthsea, Wonderland, Never Never Land, Oz, Whoville, Florian, the Land of the Lost, you name it.  What I love about the map is how by glancing at it I am drawn back into the narratives, characters, plotlines and epic grandeur of these places that are so very remote from the so-called ‘world’ in which we live day-to-day yet so real in deep and abiding ways.

One of the things that fiction does is allow us to see the imagination as a necessary part of what it means to be human.  More than mere escapism, fantasy literature draws readers into a world that pushes us to wonder ‘what if’ rather than ‘what is’ and it is shift into the possible (albeit improbable) that allows to live into a life that pushes against and even challenges the all-too-readily accepted way of things.

As I have argued in many ways throughout my writing over the past decade and most recently in Freedom of the Self, one of the most important moves in the Christian narrative is when Jesus framed the way for the community to remember him was to be ‘poetic.’   In Luke 22: 19, Jesus caps off the directive to celebrate the Eucharist with the now famous injunction to ‘do this in remembrance of me.’   The directive of Jesus for this remembrance is a creative act as seen in verse 19 where the ‘do this’ (poieite) of remembrance recalls poiesis, the root of ‘poetics’ or what we term ‘poetry.’  To ‘be creative/make poetry’ in remembrance of Jesus is a threatening move for many people.  Much of Christianity is hemmed in by a commitment NOT to be imaginative – that somehow the drive and focus of the Christian story is to never change, to hold fast to well-worn narratives, to guard the past and not seek any voices or advice that could suggest that perhaps there is a new day dawning and new voices to add to the choir.  As congregations dwindle in numbers, as younger generations leave communities of faith in droves, I wonder if some of this is that Christianity lacks the imagination to see these young people as unique, unrepeatable miracles of God – voices that will certainly challenge, renew and yes, reimagine what it means to live into a world that seems to have gone mad.

When we journey to Middlearth, Narnia, Earthsea and many of these other so-called fantasy lands we celebrate the impossible made possible and feel a leap of purpose and conviction that was once the animating factor in faith for the early church.

To this end I continue to feel that we need more fantasy in our theological diet today.  People need to read the fantastical and strange in order to release our hearts and souls from the predictable and staid so that the faith and hope ‘for that which is not seen’ can be believed and faith can once again rise like the roar of a lion and the song of a mere Hobbit.

What fantasy books do you think create a space for faith to arise?

What have been those grand narratives for you?

Today Marvel Comics released Fantastic Four #587 which continued the story that began some 50 years ago with four people whose life was changed forever by a gamma radiation blast in space which changed them into the comic book heroes known as The Fantastic Four.  Yet issue #587 is a game changer of sorts.  Over two years in the making, the storyline for the Fantastic Four has come to an end with the death of Johnny Storm (The Human Torch), the brother of Sue Storm (The Invisible Girl) and brother-in-law of Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) and BFF of Ben Grimm (The Thing).  Death is something that is not uncommon in the world of comic book superheroes, even the most overtly messianic superhero Kal El – better known as Superman – has died.  Yet death in pop culture is rarely death as we who live in the so-called real world experience it.  In an interview on CNN, Marvel Editor-in-chief Tom Brevoort didn’t even deny that the possibility of rebirth stands over the newly deceased Human Torch:

“It’s very easy to develop cynicism about the stories we tell,” Brevoort added. “The only way to combat and conquer it is to have a story that touches on the humanness of people that has emotional resonance and truth to it. The fact of death is something every human being can relate to. I would argue that a well-told story of a character’s demise is not necessarily undone by them coming back later.”

In pop culture there is always this playfulness with the life cycle given the fantastical way in which life can be expanded beyond the limits of mere mortality – people change into superheroes, learn to become wizards, transport through time and space, and meet talking animals on the other sides of wardrobes.  So battles occur, people die, and death takes for some but not all and not for all time.  We cheer when our hero leaps up and saves the day in the darkest hour as we munch our popcorn.  Then we blink at the light of day as we leave the movie theater and get into our car and have to face a world that is seemingly random, often painful, and rarely just in regard to who dies and who lives.  And when people die… they stay dead.  But life does go on, and we remember those who have passed from this mortal coil, living from our memories and continuing their life as a legacy of our own.

So will the Human Torch appear again in some distant new comic book?

It is pretty likely.

Does the knowledge of this cheapen the death scene in issue #587?

Yup.

 

Don’t get me wrong – I love comic books, anime, manga and think that, along with the character Elijah Price/Mr. Glass from M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable, that they are indeed telling stories – albeit fantastical – that are more ‘true’ than we care to realize.  But the comic nature of death is not something that I can believe in anymore.  Yes, as a Christian I belief in a life that extends beyond the temporal but this everlasting-ness of life is also rooted in the death and life around us everyday.  Death is a very serious thing and an ugly thing.  There is no rhyme nor reason to it.  It is indeed a release from pain and suffering, but it is also a loss of life pure and simple – it is a loss of loved ones, of beauty we behold everyday, the stillness of water on a clear lake, the sound of children’s laughter and the feel of morning sun on your face.  It is as Hamlet mused ‘the final frontier’.

 

So… what do you think?

Does the promise of rebirth in comics help us expect a rebirth as well and therefore take away ‘death’s sting?’  Or does this pop culture cheapening of death distract us from the reality of death?

 

Doug Gay, a colleague who teaches Practical Theology at University of Glasgow, recently posted a citation on his Facebook page from Alastair Gray’s stunning 1981 novel Lanark that gave voice to much of what I been wrestling with for the past two weeks. For those not familiar with Lanark, it is reminiscent of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses with echoes of William Blake’s poetry, Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the Looking Glass, and George McDonald’s Lilith and splashes of Irvine Welch and David Foster Wallace. Like Joyce, Gray is tearing away the facade of society and looking deep beneath the images toward a deeper notion of what is really animating life. Like Joyce’s Dublin, Gray sets much of his wanderings in an unsympathetic repose of Glasgow in all its decay and longing. Rather than trying to universalize humanity in abstraction, he instead drives us to the particular, the intimate and the real. The central character in the first two books is named Lanark who akin to Joyce’s characters is a persona in constant transition. Lanark’s name changes to Thaw in the second two books for no explicit reason but this further goes to illustrate the liminality of identity. In this passage, Thaw ponders the lack of imagination for people in the city of Glasgow and the cost of this lack of imagination

“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”

“Because nobody imagines living here,” said Thaw. McAlpin lit a cigarette and said, “If you want to explain that I’ll certainly listen.”

“Then think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in painting, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. what is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or a golf course, some pubs connecting streets. That’s all. No, I’m wrong, there’s also the cinema and library. And when our imagination needs exercise we use these to visit London, Paris, Rome under the Caesars, the American West at the turn of the century, anywhere but here and now. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.”

While I had visited Glasgow prior to moving there, I didn’t imagine life in Glasgow nor how I would reimagine the world because of that city and its people. Yes, I thought about my life in the university as a research student, serving in the Cathedral as an Assistant Minister, and relationships we would be establishing. But I never considered how this city with its poverty, its joy for living, its working class and upper class sitting side-by-side in the Tinderbox on Byers Rd. or singing the same songs at a Partick Thistle game would cause me to reimagine how I was to live, to serve, and even to believe. Over the six years we lived in Glasgow, my imagination shifted in ways both subtle and dramatic. Seismic shifts in how I saw faith, life and the resources I would draw from to make meaning in the world. Like Lanark’s Thaw, I only allowed myself to consider Glasgow as a parody of sorts – a place Belle and Sebastian made music, where AL Kennedy wrote her novels, and launching pad from which to see the Highlands and Islands of the Celtic twilight. What I didn’t take into account was that I would grow to see that much of what I learned was deeper than a renewed reason and was really a transformed heart. But this always comes with a cost and part of that cost was seeing and listening to the world in different ways, seeking out conversation partners that would not be valued (read: not authoritative) by some, and even dreaming of a world that was not the world of others.

This morning our church reflected on the stoning of Stephen in the book of Acts. In chapter 7 Stephen, one of seven deacons of the followers of Christ, is charged with sedition and treason (“We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God” – Acts 6:11) and as such is sentenced to death before the Sanhedrin. Chapter 7 of Acts is Stephen’s grand sermon where he challenges the lack of theological imagination of those who consider themselves stewards and guardians of the faith. He rolls back time to recount from the very foundations of the faith that there is an expansiveness and wideness to God’s working in the world that is now ushering in a new way and depth that not only continues on all the God has been doing, but will increase it even further to the very ends of the earth. Stephen is so passionate about this vision he has that he essentially turns to the so-called guardians of the tradition and utters these words:

“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” – Acts 7: 51 – 53

With this Stephen is put to death with stones emblematic of the cold, hard, unchanging and unbending hearts that surrounded this first martyr of the renewal movement now called the Church.

I find a lot of commonality in Stephen and Thaw and will admit that after the past few weeks wondering whether we live in a world where renewal and change will ever come to the venerated institutions that guide and manage our public discourse, our view of the Good, our vision for humanity and even the so-called orthodoxy as to what passes as true faith and right belief. I wonder with Thaw if all that we sometimes truly offer the world around us is more of the ‘same’ – the repeated refrain of old sayings that are safe and don’t cause mischief, the repose of the theologically rigorous yet little of the prophetically bold, the caution of partial activism that only serves to justify my life yet offers little enduring justice for others, and an economy of sacrifice that is measured carefully and with restraint and therefore costs me so little as to seem like a fad rather than faith. And yet here is Stephen, pounding out the faith story to the point of death and taking no prisoners along the way. Here is Stephen, caring so much for the future to be realized in the now that he will stand at the gates of power and no longer be silent. Here is Stephen, not even an apostle of the Church and merely a deacon, willing to engage the collected powerful and remind them that faith is only seen in what we release from our grasp and not in what we guard and protect at all costs.

There are times when people need to reach ever deeper into their hearts and ask with all sincerity whether the world is truly that which they ultimately desire and for those that we call our neighbors.

Is this all – as Alastair Gray’s Thaw muses in relation to Glasgow – that we offer the world and ultimately all we offer ourselves? Are we so tied to the way things have been that we cannot hear the worlds of prophesy when they knock on our door and preach to us truth?



As some of you on Facebook might know, I am now at a conference in Oxford where I presented a paper on continental theorist Slavoj Žižek.  For some, the name Žižek is unknown and yet in the philosophical community he is causing vibrant conversations that both infuriate and enliven debates on, well, just about everything.

My interest with Žižek is that as a leading Leftist theorist he seems to be one of the most astute defenders of Christianity working today.  Granted, as a Lacanian Marxist some might expect a neo-Nietzschean or typical post-Marxist critique of Christianity. But Žižek doesn’t crush Christians with a Twilight of the Gods pounding of the Nietzschean hammer by dismissively erecting a straw man argument through neo-marxist rhetoric subscribing to Christians a ‘slave morality’ or becoming addicted to an ‘opiate for the masses’ then dismissing ‘faith’ with a wave of the hand (although he does do a lot of hand waving!).  No, true belief is something Žižek is concerned about (more about that later).

According to Žižek, the misguided ethical convictions and corresponding lack of political courage to do what is good and right that forms the trends with today’s Western intellectual elites have facilitated the spread of a global corporatism that benefits a relatively small economic élite at the cost of the world’s oppressed masses. With a decidedly ironic twist, Žižek declares that the pharmacon (the Derridian cura anima that gives both life and death) needed to combat this exploitative New World Order is found in what (in The Puppet and the Dwarf) he calls “the perverse core of the Christian faith” which provides the remedy for the cultural malady that is postmodern ethical relativism.  This perverse core is a deep concern for the material and the particular as the place of the universal ground for meaning.  He essentially sees much of the crisis in our culture today as a crisis of true belief.  As he puts it:

“What we are getting today is a kind of suspended belief, a belief that can thrive only as today is a kind of “suspended” belief, a belief that can thrive only as not fully (publicly) admitted, as a private obscene secret.  Against this attitude, one should insist even more emphatically that the “vulgar” question “Do you really believe or not?” matters – more than ever, perhaps.  My claim here is not merely that I am a materialist through and through, and that the subversive kernel of Christianity is accessible also to a materialist approach; my thesis is much stronger: this kernel is accessible only to a materialist approach – and vice versa: to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience.” (Puppet and the Dwarf, p. 6)

Žižek identifies various contemporary methods of what some may consider belief in the 21st century – grounding concerns that range from Western forms of New Age paganism to deconstructionism – and sees many of these as merely flaccid and fainting wanderings that have little to no effect on how one lives in the world with courage and resolve and that fact that ultimately most people in Western culture believe in nothing except free market capitalism remains what he states in The Puppet and the Dwarf as a “private obscene secret” of our age.

One of the reasons for this “private obscene secret” in Western culture stems from the repose of Postmodern culture to keep everything at a distance and commit ourselves to only considered reflections of so-called belief not a material, embodied enactment that animates in lived experience. Žižek’s examples of this range from post-structural thinkers in the academy out of the Derridian and Levinasian schools who take the burden of belief off of themselves and place it on the never-ending search for “the Other” to those people in big popular media (think: television personalities with white boards ), mega church pastors of a certain stripe, and those privatized Bohemians at the coffee shop who frame the world with bracketed comments within scare quotes that feigns objectivity .  Such groups, differing though they may seem,  are in fact sharing a deep virus that has spread to both conservative and liberal wings.  This is an inability to truly and completely live into belief. Although the groups will say that they are deeply self-reflexive and therefore needing to hold an objective view, Žižek zeroes in especially on the intellectual elites (yes… he is targeting the academy within which he receives large paychecks… but the man is not without irony) for an anti-foundationalism that constantly resists positing a conceptual totality on the grounds that such thinking risks becoming totalitarian. In short, people talk a lot, blog endlessly, fill our ears and eyes with media and after the tidal wave of information overload most people still lack a belief in anything that substantially effects their day-to-day lives other than the desire to shop.  As a result of their supposed open-mindedness and egalitarian spirit, those in Western culture from the intellectual élite to the reality show celebrity to the Barista pulling your cappuccino this morning (these, by the way, are not mutually exclusive categories) neglect to take into account their unwillingness to subject themselves to a grounding fundamental belief.

Žižek cites New Age paganism in the Puppet and the Dwarf as merely seeing the universe as a ‘primal abyss in which all apparent opposites ultimately coincide’ – a view that offers no accountability for how one is to live in relation to other human beings nor the responsibility to do so. Those he calls ‘Deconstructionists’ after Derrida and Levinas are similar in that this class of intellectuals “has become almost the hegemonic ethico-spiritual attitude of today’s intellectuals… [grounding their views in] the assertion of Otherness leads to the boring, monotonous sameness of Otherness itself.”  The so-called tolerant resolve whereby ‘otherness’ is held up as an unknowable alterity is a blanding of the particular and leaves people kept at arm’s length rather than embraced and results in all particular instances of the so-called other that arise in our day-to-day interactions with increasing globalization are just variations sameness, a Lockean tabula rasa that is beyond our comprehension to master and therefore we cannot offer opinion nor deep connection.  In particular for Žižek is a concern for those who espouse multiculturalism as the highest ideal which when enacted as a call to stay open to a radical Otherness merely encourages passivity in our encounters with others that ultimately translates into political apathy or inaction.  This, Žižek states in no uncertain terms, is about as far from true belief as we can get.

Where to I go with Žižek on all this?  Well, probably to places he would find a bit too ‘touchy feely’ but still in line with large parts of his attempt to revive lost aspects of the Christian narrative.  What the perverse core of Christianity as he describes it offers is a grand counter measure to these tendencies to abstraction and is a call to true belief that seeks after the particular to know the universal – that is to say, to have courage to live in relation to marginalized, the disenfranchised, the person who is our neighbor which purpose and resolve in a deeply real way.  It means getting involved with each other, knowing our names, and drawing dangerously close in ways that can break our hearts and shatter our precious beliefs from time to time.  In keeping the world abstracted and objective, we keep God at bay as well.

My goodness how time flies!  Seems like yesterday that I started blogging on various topics and connected with many of you in this space to reflect on ways in which contemporary people were meaning sense of their lives in the high, low and middle brow culture.  When I first started blogging in 2005, the medium was still in its infancy: people who grew up on TRS 80 (seen in the picture insert) or Commodore 64s were finding out about “the Cloud” in new and exciting ways and communicating with each other in more fluid mediums.  Blogging was essentially a form of journaling for a larger audience back then and has become a critical part of how people share ideas, try out new views and opinions, and solidify relationships across barriers of place, culture and context.

As we crest into the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it is a good time to take stock of where we have come from and where we are going.  It is interesting to note that when I started this blog, my youngest daughter Miriam was born.  She is now in school full days as a Kindergärtner.  Similarly, this blog has grown up and so (hopefully) have I.  In taking stock of the many threads that I have posted along with other friends and professional colleagues over the past five years, it has become clear that we needed a name change if we were going to move this conversation format into the next decade.

So… why the name change?  When I started the blog, the name “Theology Kung Fu” seemed like a fun, playful way to frame what would happen in this space – putting discussions of creativity, culture and God stuff in a space of respect, discipline and constant movement that was not adversarial but honoring and complementary.  Hopefully some of that has taken place. That said, sometimes even the best intentions aren’t always enough especially if one is to grow beyond mere intentions and into wisdom.  On one level the name, while attempting to be a bit clever, has also become strangely juvenile and goofy akin to acid washed jeans and Gumby T-shirts at your grandmother’s funeral – something that at times cheapens and detracts from the issue at hand.  On another level, the phrase can be seen as promoting a type of cultural parody that while has never been my intention yet can be taken as ignorant and even worst engendering stereotypes.  To be frank, even the most well-intentioned and seemingly benign things need to be looked at from a larger context and here my thanks to a friend of mine who challenged me on this point on how this could be seen in some circles and he made a great point.  I am thankful for having my eyes opened to the wider conversations in our culture which is ironically what this blog is about.

In addition to the name change, the blog needs to grow up a bit more and settle on making more constructive reflections on culture and theology and not merely flagging the odd and kitschy without some redemptive suggestions.  As I move forward I hope to do this.

So… welcome to Theology and Culture: a theoblog for conversations on creativity, pop culture and God stuff. A new blog that is now five years old, ready to move beyond diapers and potty training and get on the big Yellow school with the others in the marketplace of ideas.  I want to thank those of you who have chimed in from time to time over the years and hope that you will continue to visit and add Theology and Culture to your RSS feed.  I will be striving to blogging about once a week – sometimes posting links to things you might find of interest, sometimes generating commentary, sometimes just offering some existential musings in the moment we find ourselves in.  I would love to hear your suggestions for discussion threads, topics of reflection, or merely what ways a blog like this can encourage and help you.  Let me know!

Blessings and peace to you all and looking forward to this next chapter together!

Jeff

As I have begun to receive comments on my recent book Freedom of the Self, one of the questions I have had is for follow-up reading – people who are tilling the same soil I am seeking to work in bringing together continental philosophy, Christian mysticism, and a deep concern for the contemporary accelerated culture within which live in Western culture.  One of the books I point people to right away is Peter Rollins’ 2006 book How (Not) to Speak of God. It is a dense wee book filled with amazing insights from Rollins work in the academy as a research associate at the Trinity School of Ecumenics in Dublin (he holds a PhD in Post-Structual Thought from Queen’s University, Belfast) and has kept that scholarly reflection in tension alongside faith communities such as a collective in North Ireland  he founded called ‘ikon’ that in true Emergent spirit is a blended presence of live music, visual imagery, soundscapes, theatre and ritual in an act of what Rollins terms ‘transformance art’.

One cannot read Rollins’ book without seeing the role that irony has played and currently plays in contemporary thought be it theological or culturally embedded.    It has been said that irony is the final trope of theology – that the literal assertion of any theological proposition be it creedal, hermeneutical, or

experiential is ultimately radically undone in the face of its practical outworking given the inherent limits certainty has on things of faith.  Kierkegaard’s famous aphorism that “it is the objective label ‘God’ that ultimately negates the subject” or Martin Heidegger’s grand pronouncement “Das Heilige läßt sich überhaupt nicht ‘theologisch’ ausmachen, denn […] immer dort, wo die Theologie aufkommt, [hat] der Gott schon die Flucht begonnen” (“Wherever theology comes up, God has been on the run for quite a while”) both resonate with the notion of irony as a grand theological trope.  In short, you can’t box up the gift you really want after all…

In Rollins’ book, the place of theological irony is not overtly labeled per se but (rather ironically I might add) is deeply implied throughout.  Rollins lays claim to this tradition in his introduction (ironically subtitled “the secret” given that Rollins quickly notes that there is no secret) by citing Wittgenstein’s final sentence in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” (xiii)    As Rollins further argues throughout Part 1 of the book, the tradition of ‘naming’ God has de-evolved into a practice of ‘heretical orthodoxy’ where authenticity in relation to God is falsely boundaried by theoretical constraints born after the Enlightenment where God is only apprehended ideologically vis a vis a disembodied theology.   Here Rollins chooses conversation partners amidst the ‘Masters of Suspicion’ (Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx) and seeks to embrace a way of approaching God that acknowledges that “one of the central elements of the postmodern critique, namely the recognition that relativism (i.e. the claim that there is no meaning) is ultimately self-contradictory, for to say there is no meaning to the universe is itself a meaningful statement, as it makes a meaningful claim about the way that the universe really is.” (11) The path upon which Rollins ventures is a contemporary recovery of the apophatic tradition.

Rollins appeals to the work of Pseudo-Dionysus, Meister Eckhart and other mystics within the Christian faith by noting the challenge of naming God is perpetually bounded by kataphatic or positive language that would correspond with the procession of the divine out of itself into its manifestation in and as the cosmos, as opposed to apophatic or negative language would articulate the path of the created soul’s return to the unmanifest divine transcendence.

Simply put, kataphasis for Rollins has given way to what he terms ‘the idolatry of ideology’ where the primacy of validity given to ideological renderings of God is comparable to fashioning idols.  Conversely, the road of apophasis leads to a silence that continues to be anything but quiet since God desires to be known.  As Rollins concisely states, “revelation [of God] ought not to be thought of either as that which makes God known or as that which leaves God unknown, but rather as the overpowering light that renders God known as unknown.” (17)   What Rollins advocates as the via media – the middle way – through the constraints of kataphatic and apophatic extremes is what he terms “the third mile” or what philosopher and ethicist Emmanuel Levinas terms the way of eminence, where ‘naming God’ would bespeak the completion of the created soul’s return to God as the unmanifest source of the manifestation which the creature is.  This ‘third mile’ of eminence is for Rollins the way of orthopraxis (right action) in fulfillment of orthodoxy (right belief) .  Referring to Jesus’ teaching that “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles, this way of God is a movement of procession where the transcendent cause shows itself transcendently embodied in the cosmos whose procession it is.  As Hans von Balthasar has put it long ago, in the kataphatic mode of theology, emphasis is placed on the “manifestation of the unmanifest.”   As immanent to all creation, God “has the name of everything that is” and “the theologians praise it by every name”.   In this regard Rollins agrees yet calls our naming/theology to be incarnate/praxiological.  Rollins makes clear that it is only in going this ‘third mile’ – which he reframes later as going from ‘knowledge’ (orthodoxy) to ‘love’ (orthopraxy) – fulfills the meaning of theology into superabundance.  In this way the Christian path is one that moves beyond mere ethics “[f]or ethical systems allow us to follow rules whether we love or not.  While ethics says, ‘What must I do in order to fulfill my responsibility?’ love says, ‘I will do more than is required.’  (65)  Rollins concludes his book with a number of rituals and liturgies that provide typologies for performing this ‘third mile’ in the midst of marginalized and silenced communities.   As I mentioned earlier, there is a level of irony in the writing of this book – the seeking to unname God in order that God may be made known as a project that ‘names’ the unnaming as such in print.  That said, I commend How (Not) to Speak of God to those seeking a confessional approach to this deep tradition of theological irony and apophasis and perhaps finding means to (re)new ways for services of worship that give voice to those silenced as well as those seeking the name of God as one ‘unnamed’.


There are just some things that when you encounter them, you go “Oh…yeah… that is just so weird that it must be divinely inspired.”  For me, those things include the Smokey Bacon Maple Bar at Frost Donuts in Mill Creek, genre defying movies such as Repo Man, The Big Lewbowski and The Princess Bride to name but a few, and anytime either a banjo or ukulele gets some serious truck in a song.   To the latter point, Amanda Palmer’s recent announcement in Paste magazine that she is slated to release an EP of Radiohead covers played on… wait for it… the ukulele (!)  just warms the heart of this 60’s boy from Honolulu to no end.  On her blog post for February 22nd she put it rather missionally:

“A Radiohead ukulele cover album might just have to be what I do to Shed The Past and Find God… Some people ACTUALLY find god and record christian albums. I just find Radiohead.”

(For a sample, here is Amanda Palmer covering “Fake Plastic Trees” during an in-store performance via YouTube.)

To all you CCM refugees… I hope you are listening…

There is a line in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wee 1943 book The Little Prince that caught my eye the other day: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”  It is such an interesting term this notion of taming.  The tension surrounding what it means to be human is ultimately bound up (pun intended) in this notion of whether we are to be tamed or allowed to go native if you will.   From the Age of Reason onward, this tension is framed by a longing for recovering that which is lost as Western culture moved further into a technological dependence. In his 1734 “An Essay on Man”, Alexander Pope romanticised his view of the Native Americans this way:

o, the poor Indian! whose untutor’d mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
His soul proud Science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk or milky way;
Yet simple Nature to his hope has giv’n,
Behind the cloud-topp’d hill, a humbler heav’n;
Some safer world in depth of woods embrac’d,
Some happier island in the wat’ry waste,
Where slaves once more their native land behold,
No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold!
To be, contents his natural desire;
He asks no angel’s wing, no seraph’s fire:
But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
His faithful dog shall bear him company.

While there was this eighteenth century longing for a seemingly simpler age, as Western culture entered the twentieth century, the call was to be more than merely civilized as seen in Frederick Nietzsche’s calling forth to humanity to embrace the Übermensch (Superman/Overman). In his 1896 masterwork, Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche sees the call of the Übermensch as merely our destiny in that all things seek to transcend their natural state as humanity leaves behind the Victorian age and embraces the twentieth century:

“I teach you the overman [Übermensch]. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? … All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood, and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is ape to man? A laughing stock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to overman: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape…. The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth…. Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss … what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.” – Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Prologue, 3–4)

And yet Western culture has become deeply suspicious of taming.  If you are a naturalist, taming evokes snuffing out the carnality and majesty out of something: powerful Elephants reduced to mundane circus tricks, horses that once ran free now walking in slow circles at children’s petting zoos, dogs shackled to leashes and trotted around paved sidewalks while suburbanites yak away on cell phones.

Going back to The Little Prince, taming is something of another order than what Pope and Nietzsche are fixated on.  Taming is making a tie to something, a tether, a bond.  It is way to give boundary to our life so that we can not merely walk away from our commitments and choose to stay put, be present, and ultimately to love.  Taming in not taking the divine spark out of something, but rather releasing ourselves to the imaginative possibility that goes beyond what we can see with the naked eye.  In The Little Prince, a downed Aviator encounters the little prince in the Sahara desert.  the Aviator is asked by the little prince to help him find his lost sheep.  He fears that the sheep will be eaten if he is not cared for and pleads with the Aviator to ‘draw’ his sheep so he can see it and know that it is cared for.   After some failed attempts to draw a ‘real’ sheep, the Aviator finally draws a simple box, which he explains has the sheep inside – that the sheep must be seen with imagination and not mere realism.  The prince proclaims that this is perfect and feels that the sheep is now indeed safe.

To be tame is not a bad thing. It is a commitment to being with each other rather than being wild for the sake of ourselves. In a nutshell, this is my deep concern with the neo-manhood movement that is going on after John Eldredge and Mark Driscoll.  This push to find our humanity in beating our chests, buying vintage 4×4’s, and taking the world on through power and will is certainly something that Nietzsche hoped humanity would embrace and many Evangelical males have – think  Übermensch with hair gel, soul patch, and screamo CCM blaring out of the tricked-out Tahoe.  Rather than being “Wild at Heart”, can we find some hope in binding ourselves in full presence with those we are called to care for, to embracing rather than running wild, and waiting for what God has to show us in imagining a new way of life rather than seeking a savage realism?

Just askin…