Lent is a season of justice – it is a season of deep reconciliation, of bare bones truth-telling, a redirecting of hungers and longings that have gone astray, but it is essentially a season of justice.  As I will tell students as we enter Ash Wednesday that they are called to remember along with Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:19 that they too will “return to the ground from which they are taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Yet going back to the beginning of things – our dustiness – also means that we can allow new things to take root, to grow into full bloom, and perhaps bear fruit in ways we never would have expected.  As an exercise of justice, I challenge students to remember that Lent is a call to justice in three vectors:

– justice within ourselves,

– justice in relation to our neighbor,

– and justice with God.

Much of the focus in contemporary Lenten practice revolves around the first turn of justice as a move within ourselves and challenging the priority of the hungers/distractions that have taken us away from our true nature.  This is the call to fasting – be it from food, coffee, alcohol, Facebook, television, what-have-you – that people will take on board as a way to refocus on who we truly are before God and others without these things.  It is a good practice and an important spiritual discipline to be sure.  However, without the call of justice to and with our neighbor (found in renewed acts of generosity, service and hospitality) and in relation to God (found in renewed commitments to deep reading of Scripture, prayer, community worship and fellowship) then merely fasting from caffeine or American Idol doesn’t really amount to much.

One area that I have challenged myself with during Lent has been to scroll through my CCM back catalog and see where God might show up in ways I just don’t expect.  For those who know some of my journey, I have had a strange relationship with CCM – the genre known as Contemporary Christian Music – and have come to the point of closing off my imagination to the possibility that God even speaks (let alone stutters) in anything found in the racks of Christian bookstores.  I make a point of ‘heresy hunting’ in CCM lyrics as I sit in worship services and struggling constantly with the poor theology found in much of what passes as ‘praise music’.  But this year I was confronted by the reality that perhaps my heart, akin to the Grinch, was three sizes too small and when I hear the Whos down in Whoville singing to Chris Tomlin, Stuart Townsend, Matt Redman, TobyMac, David Crowder or whomever, I need to explore what is behind this joy rather than steal all the Hillsong CDs from under the trees in the dead of night.

So I have gone back to my CCM tunes in the dusty recesses of my iPod (filed under ‘Gospel and Religious’ or ‘Religious’ or ‘Inspirational’ genres) and started to listen a bit each day as a form of penance, of desert wandering, and a form of reconciliation.  True, some of the music I am finding is fairly cringe worthy in both form and content – the 80’s electronic strings that soar in the third verse is an example – and yet there is still something going on that I have to admit is striving after God in ways I have dismissed.  Perhaps is it a sign of my age, but I actually am finding that some of the old Jesus Music stuff from the mid 1970s (Larry Norman, Keith Green, Randy Stonehill) and the Gospel numbers from the early 1980s (Mighty Clouds of Joy, Mavis Staples, Shirley Caesar, Fairfield Four, Blind Boys of Alabama) hold up and frankly musically bury a lot of what is being sold today.

One gem that I had completely forgot about was Larry Norman’s “The Great American Novel” from his 1972 album Only Visiting This Planet. On the song, Norman plays the role of the 60s flower child wandering through 20th century history and watching as history turns a blind eye to justice in favor of the complacent and the powerful:

And when I was ten you murdered law with courtroom politics,
And you learned to make a lie sound just like truth;
But I know you better now and I don’t fall for all your tricks,
And you’ve lost the one advantage of my youth.

You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter,
Then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water;
And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on,
At every meal you say a prayer; you don’t believe but still you keep on.

And your money says in God we trust,
But it’s against the law to pray in school;
You say we beat the Russians to the moon,
And I say you starved your children to do it.

The song pulls no punches and has a ferocious, all-consuming commitment to seeking real justice and reconciliation in the realm of lived politics – things that effect real people in real life.

As I scroll through CCM recorded in the 80s and 90s let alone the first decade of the 2000s, I will admit being struck with how… dare I say it… bland… the music seems to be.

Where is the strong, clear, pointed concern for the poor and marginalized?

Where is the longing for justice and the seeing of Christ in the face of the downcast?

Lent is indeed a season of justice.  It is a season of reconciliation.  It is a season of going back to beginnings and finding what might have been overlooked and needs to be attended to. Sometimes, it means finding in CCM… of all places… a calling to justice and seeing the world anew.

As a theologian who works in areas of media culture and youth ministry education, it should come as no surprise that I have had a number of people encouraging me to comment on the latest MTV program Skins. For those not familiar with this latest attempt by MTV at capturing the coveted teen viewing market, Skins is a scripted TV show that first aired in the UK and surrounds the drug and sex fueled lives of teens where each episode casts the core characters in increasingly questionable scenarios: drugs and booze flows freely, kids regularly jump into bed together, take erectile dysfunction pills and spend the show with erections openly displayed, and parents leave for days at a time whereby teens hold parties with no boundaries and no end in sight. And this is only the first three episodes.  One of the things that has caused a bit of a media firestorm is that the show is not employing older actors playing teens like other teen dramas in the past where teens we put in explicit and questionable scenarios (think: Fame and Saturday Night Fever).  Here the youngest actor is 15 years of age and given the legal definition of child pornography puts MTV into some dangerous legal waters.  The public outcry has been significant enough that some major corporate sponsors such as Chevy Volt have pulled out of MTV entirely over the show.  However, the show is a huge hit thus far for the network with some 3.3 million tuning in to its première which has set a new first-episode record for MTV viewers ages 12 to 34.  The show is rated TV – MA which means that in order to view the show online via MTV.com, you have to enter your birthdate testifying that you are over the age of 18.  One can only wonder how many of the 3.3 million within the 12 to 34 range have shifted their birth date to mirror not their chronological age, but the maturity level that see themselves at. In a recent New York Times article in relation to the show, MTV spokeswoman Jeannie Kedas made the following statement assuring concerned adults that the show will continue to focus on key standards that are important to viewers:

“ ‘Skins’ is a show that addresses real-world issues confronting teens in a frank way.  We review all of our shows and work with all of our producers on an ongoing basis to ensure our shows comply with laws and community standards. We are confident that the episodes of ‘Skins’ will not only comply with all applicable legal requirements, but also with our responsibilities to our viewers.” (emphasis added)

One has to wonder how MTV understands *what* their responsibilities are to their viewers.  MTV is a network owned by Viacom, that major cable giant who also gave the world Jersey Shore which is not show that has announced a return to Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best by any means.  As a network that has struggled with its brand for quite a while, this move in ‘reality child porn’ seems to be hitting a nerve in many ways – people are buzzing about MTV as a cultural force again, seeing the network as beyond edgy and willing to even face censorship and pornography charges for the sake of ‘real television’ about ‘real teens’.  What Skins announces for me is the apogee of Western cultures’ ultimate goal of taking children out of the equation all together as responsible, caring soon-to-be adults in the making and sell them to themselves as mere products of flesh without souls.  As such Skins is a true nexus point of teens as both product and consumer, nothing more and nothing less.  Akin to the horror porn films such as the Saw series and The Human Centipede, it is another instance of a case study whereby we sit and watch young people devour each other in a supposed Dionysian frenzy of liberty and self exploration as something we tell ourselves is simply “seeing kids as they are” but that in the pit of our stomach we know that we are watching youth who only want to be admired and liked then destroyed for our momentary escape from our malaise.  I may sound prudish in my comments here, but I suppose it is also the sound of lamentation.  As much as we are told this is a show showing us “the real deal” of teens in our culture, it is also a wish-fulfillment decades in the making. As far as I can tell, Skins is ultimately a sick indictment of Western cultures’ fetishistic, pornographic and deep hatred of youth (yes…hatred… not idolatry) as something that is forever lost in all its innocence and optimism in the wake of a culture utterly lost east of Eden without a compass, without hope, and therefore must destroy anything that reminds us of what we sacrificed in our gluttonous self-indulging of the bloated ego.  As Troy Patterson at Slate.com noted in his review of the show, perhaps the show is really just showing us how we wish teens would act:

I think I’m paraphrasing a Don DeLillo character when I say that Skins is not created as pornography about children but as a kind of cultural pornography for them. As such, it belongs to a tradition dating back at least to Blackboard Jungle. The show—a sporadically excellent adaption of a British teen drama—is superlative teensploitation, enabling youth to rejoice in the fantasy of their corruption, among other things. (Chief among those other things: To celebrate their music as if they invented the concept of dancing alone in their rooms?) Pissing off people’s parents is among the functions of its existence and the indices of its success. The audience is decorating its space on the far side of a generation gap.

To this I think Patterson is probably correct, but not for the reasons he gives in his review.  True, the show does take care to allow teens to see that ‘pissing off your parents’ is probably just part of being a teenager, but what I don’t agree with Patterson is that the so-called script that Skins is offering is not a descriptive script (just showing us what teens are like) – but rather a blatantly prescriptive one (how culture wants teens to be).

The “Animal House factor”

It is this prescriptive emphasis that is not-so-subtle and a raging current throughout teen focused media which I call the “Animal House factor”.  Movies like Risky Business and Animal House provide a prescriptive script for teens to fulfill, offering a road map for coming-of-age that has little to no spiritual or psychological grounding and results in teens merely acting these scripts out in hopes of finding the yellow brick road to the Wizard’s door after all the sex and drugs are over and perhaps given a chance to just go home at long last.  What we as consumers of shows like Skins are telling teens is that this is a way forward down that golden path.  What we *don’t* tell them is that we blew up Oz long ago, the ruby slippers were gambled away with other dreams that died with our innocence, and no one wakes up to find family – be it Auntie Em or Toto – around your bedside welcoming you home anymore.  No, what we have left are the moment-by-moment distractions, the entertainment machine that needs more young bodies poured into it daily, and the deepening sense that if we don’t turn up the soundtrack a little louder, the High Def a little crisper, the jump cuts and fade outs a little quicker, then we will see the angel with the flaming sword marking yet again how far we are from Eden and just how hopeless and lonely we truly are.

If our children are destroying themselves, then perhaps they won’t be able to see our true faces either.

Ever have that experience when you are listening to the radio or watching a television show and you know you are in the midst of a serious ‘water cooler’ moment?  Back in the 90’s, episodes of “ER” and “Friends” evoked such ‘water cooler’ moments: entertainment that was sold as pop entertainment yet hit some nerve in the collective zeitgeist that once you got to work the next day everyone was buzzing about it at the proverbial water cooler (or coffee pot, copy machine, to whatever collective gathering place you have in your cube farm).  For those of us working with teens and looking at the question of how teenagers are making meaning , this week’s episode of Glee entitled “Grilled Cheesus” was a water cooler moment .

[If you haven’t seen the episode – click here to watch it on Hulu.com ]

I have blogged about Glee here in the past to the way the show is lifting up the importance of anthems and ballads as theological forms for a new generation.  Already the blogosphere is a-buzz about this episode and some great discussions are occurring as to how the various teens discuss what faith is for them and showing that teens represent a large spectrum – from Christian fundamentalism to cultist wish-fulfillment  vis-a-vis a grilled cheese sandwich as an iconic cipher for the Divine to reformed and orthodox Judaism (who would have thought that Chaim Potok’s The Chosen would find a 21st century revival in the Glee characters of Rachel and Puck?) to atheism and all points in-between.   Dr. Kenda Dean at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of the great new book Almost Christian has posted a wonderful reflection on the “Grilled Cheesus” episode with some useful questions to reflect on with teens and parents – click through here for her reflections and helpful points of dialog with the show.

One of the points in the show that I found a bit disconcerting was the perpetuation of a view that public schools have somehow banned discussion of religion of any type and that teachers are being told to (in the words of Glee’s cheerio coach Sue Sylvester) “keep the separation of church and state sacred.”  This is a view that is continuing to threaten how public schools are viewed by people from religious communities and a point that needs to be challenged.

For starters, there is a sharp distinction to be drawn between (unconstitutional) indoctrination, proselytizing, and the practice of religion on the one hand and, on the other, (constitutional) teaching about religion, which is objective, non-sectarian, neutral, balanced and fair.  In the episode, the New Directions glee club is told by the Principal that they cannot sing anything that is religious and to do so will be in violation of the law separating church and state.

Unfortunately, the writers for Glee didn’t look at the law at all…

For example, looking at the Supreme Court’s 1963 Abington Township v. Schempp decision which continues to be upheld  in which the Court affirms the constitutionality of teaching about religion in public schools when done “objectively as part of a secular program of education” means that Sue Sylvester doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on – whether in a track suit or not – if teens are singing songs found on the radio and part of our culture whether in the Gospel tradition or CCM.  True, what it means to be “objective” is not uncontroversial as many would argue that there is no such thing as true objectivity and every curricular item has some bias to it.  Fair enough.  That said, what *is* clear from Schempp is that the Court’s places a high value on neutrality…. not silence. Teachers and texts in our schools must be neutral in dealing with religion which is to say that they must be neutral among religions, and they must be neutral between religion and nonreligion.

So yes, Mr. Schuester, you can have the kids sing Joan Osborne’s “(What if God were) One of Us” if they want to and the Supreme Court is there in the audience swaying along.  (By the way – I will admit an emotional tie to that song in that Joan Osbourne’s “One of Us” was sung in my ordination service along with U2’s “40” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” so there *is* bias on my part as well 🙂 )

On the other hand, one of the things the “Grilled Cheesus” episode did that was spot on is showing that in order for this neutrality to occur, we must cultivate a spirit of diversity and hospitality for all voices to be heard.   To be educated about religion and morality is to understand something of religions in its diversity. It is not open to public school educators  to include only one religious tradition in the discussion to silence the reality of others and this is something that the Glee writers could have teased out a bit more but was thankful for what they did. One of my grand laments in youth ministry education is that most programs – both undergraduate and graduate programs – offer no room for students to take course in World Religions nor alternate worldview courses unless these course are with a missionary bent.   If there is to be an honest assessment of faith, then all faiths must be discussed on their own terms and not as a strawman argument filled with stereotypes and ill-informed bias to be shot down without honest, deep assessment.  One of the points the teens in Glee make over and over is that part of what helps them understand their own identity is taking seriously the identity of others.  In one of the most poignant scenes in the episode, Mercedes confronts Kurt about his ‘arrogance’ at refusing to discuss faith with her given that she is his best friend at school.  She accepts that he is choosing to be an atheist and has listened to his reasons for not believing in a God, but as she confronts him and challenges him to at least come to a worship service at her church, she reminds him that to really be friends, they have to honor each other and not merely dismiss each other.  Great reminder to us all…

Time to make a grilled cheese sandwich and see what comes of it…

In my classes this week I have reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan and have to admit being a bit taken aback that what I am offering as a reading of the text seems foreign to students.  As such, I thought I would put some of these thoughts out here in the Theology Kung Fu dojo and let you reflect on this reading.

This text beginning in verse 25 of Luke 10 comes after Jesus has thanked the Father for hiding “these things” from “the wise and the intelligent” (10:21), and now a “lawyer,” whom we would think is wise and intelligent, comes to test Jesus. Will he “get the picture” or will it be hidden from him? Just before the lawyer arrives, Jesus has blessed his disciples for seeing what they have seen and hearing what they have heard. In the parable, both the religious leaders and the Samaritan “see” the man in the ditch (vv. 31, 32, 33), but who really “sees” him?

This text should not be studied in isolation from what follows — the story of Mary and Martha (10:38-42).  An interesting contrast is presented with these two texts. The lawyer asks, “What must I do? (v. 25) and he is told twice to “continually do this” (vv. 28 & 37 — present tense in Greek — all poieo – the same word used by Jesus in the call to the Lord’s supper). This emphasis on “doing” could easily become the “busy-ness” of Martha, even though “poieo” is not used of her work, but more “religious” words for “service” or “ministry” — diakonia/diakoneo both used in v. 40 (“tasks” and “do work” in NRSV). This “doing-ness” is in contrast to the “continual listening” (imperfect in Greek) of Mary (v. 39). In both stories there are unexpected actions — a Samaritan who cares and helps a Jewish man; and a woman who sits as a disciple and listens and learns. The Samaritan is told to “go and do likewise,” while Mary is praised for not going and doing. The Samaritan shows us about loving our neighbor. Mary shows us about loving our Lord. Both are vital in living our lives Christianly.

In 10:25, Luke uses a more technical term for “lawyer” (nomikos, related to the word for “law” = nomos) rather than “scribe,” who were also considered experts in the law. Six of the nine times this word for lawyer is used in the NT they are in Luke. The only time it is used previous to our text, we are told: “But by refusing to be baptized by him [John], the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (7:30). The image of “lawyers” does not improve through the gospel (11:45, 46, 52; 14:3). The reader would already be a bit suspect of a “lawyer” coming to Jesus.

We are also told that he comes “to test” (ekpeirazo) Jesus. The only other time this word is used in Luke it is Jesus’ quote to the devil: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (4:12).  What is this lawyer doing to Jesus? If we take seriously the image of inheriting, we may think that the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is ridiculous. It is akin thinking that there is something I could do to inherit some of Bill Gates’ fortune — or even the fortunes of a less wealthy (but much older) person. An inheritance is usually determined by the giver, not the receiver.

Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with two questions of his own. “In the law (nomos), what has been written? How do you read?” I have discussions with my students at SPU where it has been easy to agree on “what has been written,” but the interpretive question, “how do you read?” or “how do you interpret?” has caused great differences. In looking up the Greek word for read (anaginosko), the lexicons suggest that reading was always done aloud and generally publicly. Jesus does this in the synagogue at Nazareth (4:16). Jesus’ second question might mean “How do you understand it?” but it may also go further and imply, “How do you interpret the law to others?”

The lawyer answers with the twice-daily repeated shema from Dt 6:5 which is the core law of the Torah — except that he adds “mind” or “understanding” to the Hebrew text “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”– and he includes a command from Lv 19:18 about loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. (See also the “great commandment” passages: Mk 12:28-34 and Mt 22:34-40 where the question is asked by a nomikos) According to most sources, these two commandments were not combined prior to the time of Christ.

Jesus first responds with a very mainline denominational answer, “You answered rightly (orthos from which we get ortho-doxy). The lawyer knows the right answer. He has “read” the Torah rightly.  Jesus then responds with a very unPresbyterian answer, “Keep on doing (here we have the use of poieo again, this time in the present tense = denoting continuous or repeated actions) this and you will live.” Does this imply that one can inherit eternal life by “doing” the law — by loving God and neighbor as one’s self? Do works count?

The short answer is “Yes, works count” — if one is trying to “justify one’s self,” which is what the lawyer is seeking to do. First of all, by asking what he might do to inherit eternal life, and secondly, by the comment in v. 29 and the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Fuller NT scholar Joel Green in his commentary on The Gospel of Luke interprets the question this way:

Whereas Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Plain had eliminated the lines that might be drawn between one’s “friends” and one’s “enemies,” this legal expert hopes to reintroduce this distinction. He does so by inquiring “Who is my neighbor?” — not so much to determine to whom he must show love, but so as to calculate the identity of those to whom he need not show love. By the end of the story, Jesus has transformed the focus of the original question: in fact, Jesus’ apparent attempt to answer the lawyer’s question turns out to be a negation of that question’s premise. Neighbor love knows no boundaries. [p. 426]

Another way of phrasing the question posed by the lawyer is this:  Lawyer: “What is the limit of my responsibility?”  Jesus’ answer: “Think of the sufferer, put yourself in his place, consider, who needs help from me? Then you will see that love’s demand knows no limit.”  A sin of the lawyer is that he is only concerned about himself. What I do to get myself ahead religiously? This is in contrast to the (despised) Samaritan in the parable who expresses his concern for the other person.

In this text to take literally the meaning of “neighbor,” which in Greek (as well as Hebrew and English) has the basic of meaning of “to be near”.  “Neighbors” are those people who live next door — the nearest people in the “neighborhood.”  Looking then at the three responses to the man in the ditch, the Greek verb used of the first two is antiparerchomai, (vv. 31, 32) which literally has three parts:

erchomai = to go; par(a) = by; anti = on the other side

In contrast, the verb with the third man is proserchomai (v. 34) which literally has two parts:

erchomai = to go; pros = to

Also, drawing near to someone is not the sole definiation of neighbor.  Another form of erchomai is used of the robbers “falling upon” the traveler. Both the robbers and the Samartian “draw near” to this “certain person”.  What is different is how they draw near and for what reason.   Clearly, the answer to the question, “Who is the one who comes near (or is neighbor)?” It has to be the third person. The other two widened the distance between themselves and the man in the ditch. They would not come near to him. They would not be neighbor to him. The third comes near.

“KEEP DOING LIKEWISE” — Towards a Constellation of Hospitality

Probably the most common understanding of this text is that we are to act like the Samaritan in the text, rather than the priest or the Levite. He “sees” and “has compassion” (splagchnizomai) on the needy person in the ditch. He “cares” (epimelo – v. 34) for the man in the ditch. He also asks the innkeeper to “care” (epimelo – v. 35). The Samaritan doesn’t provide all of the direct aid to the needy man. He is also described by the lawyer as the one “doing mercy” (poieo to eleos). The verbs used with the Samaritan are worth emulating: to have compassion others; to come (near) to others; to care for others; to do mercy to others. It is not enough just to know what the Law says, one must also do it. To put it another way, it is not enough just to talk about “what one believes,” but “what difference does it make in my life that I believe.”

In addition, the description of the robbers’ work on the dead man indicate that there would be no identifying marks about his status, his occupation, his race. How would the lawyer (or the Samaritan) know if this half-dead man was a neighbor or not? He is a person who needs a neighbor.

Who will respond? Who will come near?

Note also that the Samaritan acts not to receive anything for himself (like self-justification). He responds to the needs of the man in the ditch and his actions cost him — time and money.

A question that needs to be asked, especially with this interpretive approach to the parable, is “Why a Samaritan?”

The idea of being a “Good Samaritan” is so common in our culture, that most people today don’t realize that “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron to a first century Jew. Briefly stated, a Samaritan is someone from Samaria. During an ancient Israeli war, most of the Jews living up north in Samaria were killed or taken into exile. However, a few Jews, who were so unimportant that nobody wanted them, were left in Samaria. Since that time, these Jews had intermarried with other races. They were considered half-breeds by the “true” Jews. They had perverted the race. They had also perverted the religion. They looked to Mt. Gerizim as the place to worship God, not Jerusalem. They interpreted the Torah differently than the southern Jews. The animosity between the Jews and Samaritans were so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid walking on Samaritan territory. Previously in Luke 9, the Samaritans had refused to welcome Jesus — the “bad” Samaritans. Note that the lawyer never says “Samaritan.” He can’t call him a “good Samaritan” (a phrase that doesn’t occur in the text). Anyway, we are still left with the question, “Why a Samaritan?”

If Jesus were just trying to communicate that we should do acts of mercy to the needy, he could have talked about the first man and the second man who passed by and the third one who stopped and cared for the half-dead man in the ditch.

Knowing that they were a priest, Levite, and Samaritan is not necessary.

If Jesus were also making a gibe against clerics, we would expect the third man to be a layman — an ordinary Jew — in contrast to the professional clergy. It is likely that Jewish hearers would have anticipated the hero to be an ordinary Jew.  If Jesus were illustrating the need to love our enemies, then the man in the ditch would have been a Samaritan who is cared for by a loving Israelite.

One answer to the question: “Why a Samaritan?” is that Christians might be able to learn about showing mercy from people who don’t profess Christ.  Can we learn about “acting Christianly” from AA for example?

This approach highlights some of the Luke’s themes: Since the man in the ditch had been stripped of anything that might identify him by social class, or perhaps even nationality; he is helped simply because he is a person in need. There should be no distinctions about whom we are to help. In addition, the help involved the use of one’s resources. For Luke, wealth is not necessarily evil, it depends upon how it is used.

Another answer to the question: “Why a Samaritan?” and the biggest challenge in this text for me is that – in the end –  we are not to identify with the Samaritan as the only person Jesus is pointing to for the listener to emulate.   This is probably the biggest challenge to most readings of the parable I think needs to be reflected upon.  A Jew would find that so distasteful that he couldn’t identify with that person. He wouldn’t want to be like the Priest or Levite in the story, so that leaves the hearer with identifying with the man in the ditch as well as see the role that the innkeeper plays in creating a space where hospitality can and does take place.

When Jesus tells the Lawyer to “do likewise” at the end of the parable, he does not exclusively identify the Samaritan.  Rather, the Lawyer says that the one who exhibits mercy is the one we are to turn to.  To that end, we have a constellation of three – the Samaritan, the one in the ditch, and the innkeeper – to point to.  The Samaritan outreach, the one in the ditch who received care and allowed himself to be cared for, and the innkeeper who open a space for reconciliation and healing to forge in grace.  To point only to the Samaritan is to support the move of most Americans who see mercy coming in a one-to-one correspondence without the assistance and support of others.  Also, if we do not see that in some capacity we are also called to be willing – like the one in the ditch – to receive support from another person… perhaps even perhaps offering the face of salvation in a form that is from a racial, cultural dislocating place and will we be willing to receive help and healing from one that is not ‘one of us’.  Lastly, we need to see the role of the innkeeper – the one who opens space for this community building moment to take place – as vital for mercy and grace to awaken and be seen in the world.  At any given time, we are called to these three roles and all are part of discipleship in the world.

The parable can be summarized as follows: to enter the kingdom one must at times get into the ditch and be served by one’s mortal enemy – Grace comes to those who cannot resist, who have no other alternative than to accept it. To enter the parable’s World, to get into the ditch, is to be so low that grace is the only alternative. The point may be so simple as this: only those who need grace can receive grace.

Think back to Jesus’ most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5 – 7 and the Sermon on the Plain earlier in Luke chapter 6.  Jesus makes a list of all those who are blessed – Markarios – in the Kingdom of God.  Those who are hungry, those who weep, those who are poor.  What ultimately makes them blessed is that they know they need someone other than themselves to live.  They are in need – therefore they can allow someone into their lives at a deep and profound level.  This is what Jesus is pushing the lawyer with by putting the view of the Kingdom from the ditch.

A Jew who was excessively proud of his blood line and a chauvinist about his tradition would not permit a Samaritan to touch him, much less minister to him. In going from Galilee to Judea, he would cross and recross the Jordan to avoid going through Samaria. The parable therefore forces upon its hearers the question: who among you will permit himself or herself to be served by a Samaritan? Who among you is ready to open your home as the Innkeeper to allow reconciliation to happen for others? In a general way it can be implied that only those who have nothing to lose by so doing can afford to do so. But note that the victim in the ditch is given only a passive role in the story. Permission to be served by the Samaritan is thus inability to resist. Put differently, all who are truly victims, truly disinherited, have no choice but to give themselves up to mercy. The despised half-breed has become the instrument of grace: as listeners, we should choke on the irony.

The parable of the Good Samaritan may be reduced to two propositions:

– In the Kingdom of God mercy comes only to those who have no right to expect it and who cannot resist it when it comes.

– Mercy always comes from the quarter from which one does not and cannot expect it.

One might attempt to reduce these two sentences to one:

In the kingdom… mercy is always a surprise.

The problems with the lawyer is that he couldn’t see God as possibily coming in the form of that whom he perceives to be his enemy, or that he was so weak as to need saving, or would even be called to offer hospitality to those who would be beyond saving. He hadn’t recognized the depth of his own sinfulness. (He wants to justify himself and probably had a bit of pride that comes along with that.) He was too strong and healthy. He assumes that he has the ability to do something to inherit eternal life. He assumes that he can do something to justify himself. He is not helpless in the ditch. He doesn’t need God’s grace.

When the lawyer realizes that “the one who had mercy on him” is the true neighbor – Jesus tells him to “Go and do – pioete – likewise”.   Don’t merely live your life as a checklist of the Law, rather – live your life as poetry – with passion and depth and humility as the unique, unrepeatable miracles you are.  This challenge, to live with a view from the ditch – that although we have been battered and bruised in this life there is One who offers compassion – but are we ready to accept all that this entails?

Jesus will draw this together as he challenges his disciples, on the night that He was sentenced to death, to remember him by “doing – poiete – this in remembrance of Him.”

In my new book – Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity and Mission at the Crossroads – I outline an argument to move away from the posture of consumerism and into what I call “the Kenotic Self” based on Philippians 2:5-11.  In the book I track the forgotten path of the Kenotic self in philosophy dating back to Aristotle and Augustine through to Derrida, Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion and theologians such as Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Graham Ward.  In light of this move toward the Kenotic self for 2010, here are 5 things to consider for ‘twenty-ten’ and 5 questions to ask yourself in making economic decisions in the new year drawn from the latter half of the book where I spell out the lifestyle choices of the Kenotic self:

1. God owns all things. As we hear in Ps 24: 11 and Job 41:11, the notion of personal and corporate ownership is an illusion. We have a lease relationship with this life. The fact that people in the U.S. speak of “owning” a home when the truth of the matter is that a vast majority of so-called “home owners” are tenants in a residence “owned” by a mortgage company or bank shows how far we have come as a culture into the illusion that “debt” can be equated with “ownership.” This mentality has seeped into the marrow of our understanding of God’s ownership of creation and all that dwells in it. Regardless of stance on free will and human ethical agency, it is central to the Christian story that God is the not only the sustainer of creation, but the owner as well. We are “stewards” of the garden, not owners. As John Taylor points out in his book Enough is Enough: “Only in his unbroken awareness of God is man’s technological mastery safe. Only in his acceptance of creaturehood can his dominion [over creation] be prevented from becoming raw domination. For being answerable to God, man remains answerable for his fellow creatures and for the soil of his earth.”

2. God provides all things. As the Bible reminds us, there is no need for anxiety: Matt 6; Luke 12: 22–31; no need for love of money: Heb 13:5; no need to serve two masters: Matt 6:24; no need to seek secondary treasures: Matt 13:45. In short, what is needed is provided for—all the rest is fuel of fear at best. Part of the concerns surrounding economic flux in the global market and the rash responses—from Y2K paranoia to increased interest in Middle East oil reserves—has to do with a need to manage and control those things we need due to our deep lack of faith. In short, we pay lip service to God’s providence the more we hoard goods and services unto ourselves at the expense of others. The notion that we are to “focus on our family” as a “primary concern” only exacerbates the divide between our nuclear family and the “widow and orphan” whose caring is not additive, but central to our understanding of what the Kingdom of God looks like.

3. We release all things. Henri Nouwen spoke prophetically in regard to the only true prayer is the prayer offered with open hands. Jesus’ ministry was one of freedom for hospitality through our availability to others. In this way, the extreme is the normative—we are to sell all, give all, and ultimately receive all and pure gift as we hear in Luke 12:33–34 and Mark 10:21, 29–30. To “hold on” and grasp things is harmful—both to relationship with God (i.e. “Eye of the Needle,” Luke 18:18–24) and to one’s own identity and relations with others as we hear in 1 Tim 6:8–10. It is important to remember that the judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah was a judgment primarily based upon a lack of hospitality—they had become so consumed with feeding their own lusts and desires that they had no time nor vision to acknowledge the needs of others. In this notion as Americans do not stand apart from Sodom, but in the Sodom town square.

4. We are called to desacralise all things. Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society argued that money in and of itself when we imbue it with idol-like mission—in this way money qua money has power in itself and we need to act counter to this temptation and set people and relationships in primary consideration as having priority over things. In this way we need to work toward a redefinition of the Good Life: not quantity of things but quality of relations. As we are challenged under the divine command ethics of the ten commandments, we are not to mission any other God than God, period. To hold things and the monetary value we have placed upon those things above drawing people close in relationship with ourselves and their Creator is to choose graven images. This goes for the notion of usury or putting interest upon money borrowed from others. As we hear in 2 Cor 8, we are challenged not to coerce more money from people but liberate people from addiction and release people from debts. The work of DATA and Jubilee 2000 is not merely fad, it is a mandate. As we learn from liberative and emancipatory theologies, God’s concern for the poor is primary throughout scripture. The “new poverty” is the poverty of ignorance to the cry from the margins. Theologian Ron Sider reminds us: “Are the people of God truly God’s people if they oppress the poor? Is the church really the church if it does not work to free the oppressed? [Regarding Matt 25:41] The meaning [of Matt 25] is clear and unambiguous. Jesus intends that disciples imitate his own special concern for the poor and needy. Those who disobey will experience eternal damnation . . . Regardless of what we do or say at 11am on Sunday morning, affluent people who neglect the poor are not the people of God . . . God is not neutral. His freedom from bias does not mean that he maintains neutrality in the struggle for justice. He is indeed on the side of the poor.” What are some of the challenges that remain before us in striving toward an authentic and humble biblical economics? We are reminded of the Lausanne Covenant:  “All of us are shocked by the poverty of millions and disturbed by the injustices which cause it. Those of us who live in affluent circumstances accept our duty to develop a simple life-style in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism.”  In many respects, little has changed in the 30 years since the Lausanne Covenant was drafted, but the challenge before us as people of integrity is still there.

5. Create communities of loving defiance. Ron Sider puts it this way in Rich Christians in An Age of Hunger: “The church should consist of communities of loving defiance. Instead it consists largely of comfortable clubs of conformity. A far-reaching reformation of the church is a prerequisite if it is to commit itself to Jesus’ mission of liberating the oppressed.” There is a need for intentionality among the faithful to form a new vision of the church as “communities of loving defiance” is a world moving with the inertia of consumerism and an ego-born appetite that shows no natural hope of slowing. The time for a spiritual reassessment of economics and the “new poverty” where the deficits of the soul are acknowledged on the balance sheet alongside the deficits of the check book in now needed. Bonhoeffer made this all too apparent as a factor for authentic discipleship: “Earthly possessions dazzle our eyes and delude us into thinking that they can provide security and freedom from anxiety. Yet all the time they are the very source of anxiety. If our hearts are set on them, our reward is an anxiety whose burden is intolerable . . . When we seek security in possessions we are trying to drive out care with care, and the net result is the . opposite of our anticipations.”

Here are five more resolutions to ask yourself for ‘twenty-ten’ form Ron Sider in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger:

6. Does this purchase I am about to make move toward a globally sustainable personal lifestyle? Are the choices you are making sustainable outside of the US?  Can someone from different economic system live into the life you are surrounding yourself with?  If making high end purchases – clothing brands, technology upgrades – are not attainable by others then why are you binding yourself to such a lifestyle?

7. How am I distinguishing between necessities and luxuries in my economic priorities? One of the best ways to life into this is to surround yourself with a community of discernment who have permission to speak into your purchases and economic decisions.  Remember, what becomes normative is what we spend up to.  Find friends who share a lifestyle you wish to hold as normative and then give people permission to hold you to it.

8. Work toward eliminating “status expenditures”—can a basic Mp3 player do the job that the iPod can? On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I was amazed that most of the brand clothing lines (think: ‘7 for all mankind’ jeans) merely have labels attached to them where as the same jeans in a discount store do not. Same jeans sans the label.  Another thing I advise college students to do – wait 1 day for every dollar you are thinking of spending on entertainment items.  If a new CD or download costs $12, then wait two weeks before buying it.  I have often found that the “need to buy” and the “need to have” diminishes merely by waiting to see if you really want and need it. I still have that stupid T’Pau CD that if I had waited a few days I would have released how lame it was...

9. Work toward distinguishing between expenditures for creativity and recreation and excessive self-indulgence. People spend often when they are bored and as a way to alleviate loneliness and boredom.  “I don’t have anything to do, I will go shopping.”  If the chief question is community and connection, then begin with people and have spending follow.  Additionally, you do not need to spend money to spend time with people – i.e. you do not need to buy food as an excuse to spend time together.

10. Strive toward severing the connection between what you earn and what you consume. This is by far the most difficult task for many. The reality that “downsizing” is incredibly difficult shouldn’t surprise anyone—but the call to do so is certainly central to what it means to life selflessly and self-fully rather than selfishly.

Let me know what you think.  Since I am in the final stages of editing Freedom of the Self, your comments may make it into the final book!

well… last week I started my top 9 list for 2009 spelling out the first five downloads and streamings for the year.   This week will round off the final four for 2009.  So… without further adieu…

4. Mark Knopfler, Get Lucky – As I have said in other postings, I have had the privilege of attending schools with great music alumni – Garfield High School (Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones) and University of Glasgow in Scotland (Eric Clapton went to the Glasgow School of Art for a spell).  Glasgow is a city of great musical heritage – whether being the port from which Johnny Cash’s grandparents set sail from for America or the emo arthouse stylings of Belle and Sebastian it is a rich place to be from.  Mark Knopfler is certainly no exception.  Born in Glasgow and later to be the lead singer/songwriter for Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler is simply one of THE great rock guitarists out there.    With the release of Get Lucky this year, Knopfler has now released equal amounts of music as a solo artist as well as the lead for Dire Straits which makes this release an important shift.  Many reviewers are luckwarm to brazenly thumbs down about the album, but I frankly find Knopfler’s storytelling only growing more grounded with every release.  From the opening strains of pennywhistle, brushes rapid fire on the snare and rabid fiddle playing wrapping around the opening line “Southern bound from Glasgow town, she’s shining in the sun/My Scotstoun lassie, on a border run…” on the lead track “Border Reiver” you know this is a supreme Celtic shout out through and through.  The album rounds off with “So far from the Clyde” and “Piper to the End” in the event that you didn’t pick up the post code of this release and is a strong CD all the way through.  As always, Knopfler’s guitar technique is front and center on a number of tracks, but it is the sage-like musings of the seasoned storyteller that takes you back in this CD. The lost soldiers on “Remembrance Day” recalls the bitterness of loss amidst war that “Brothers in Arms” did in the Reagan era, the track “Before Gas and TV” opens wide the storyline of “Money for Nothing” without the irony – a working class outside the stream of change and not included in the vision of upward mobility that continues to frame a consumer culture.  It is unfortunate that the reviewers didn’t catch the Glasgow vibe – many simply wishing for another “Sultans of Swing” or “Money for Nothing”.  But standing against the artists out there, Knopfler is a giant and the waters of the Clyde flow through words and finger picking…

3. mewithoutyou, it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright – I mentioned this in an earlier posting on my facebook page, but I once again will admit to being very, very late to this party.  I had the privilege of working with a student on her honors project this past term and through her reflections she introduced me to mewithoutyou. Yes, there is a debt Aaron Weiss (singer, chief wordsmith and religious vagabond for the band) must pay to Sufjan Stevens, The Polyphonic Spree and the Handsome Family for kicking open the door for this “hey, let’s play crazy music with whatever we find laying around but make it so compelling that people will listen deeply rather than run away” genre.  But what separates mewithoutyou from the fray of Sufjan Stevens wannabes is the depth and integrity with which Aaron Weiss had been willing to go in his creativity and seeking after the muse regardless of what religious camp they may find themselves.  Having signed with Tooth and Nail a few years back, the band flew a distinctive alternative Christian band flag with the proper noun in their band title – mewithoutYOU.  These days, Weiss considers himself to be a theological freegan polyglot finding hybridized meaning in his readings equally of a Greek morality play rendered by a Sri Lankan teacher named M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen from a children’s book (click on this hyperlink to see the video to the song “The Fox, The Crow and the Cookie” which bears a striking resemblance to Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” aesthetic), Christian traditions as seen in the revisioning of King David in “The angel of death came to David’s room” to the turning to Sufism with his anthem that anchors the CD entitled “Allah, Allah, Allah”.  In this move toward seeking wisdom from such seemingly polarizing sources has left many scratching their heads – some calling Weiss a “backslider” and betrayer of the Christian faith to those who denounce this theological journey as merely a play for a wider audience.  It takes courage to journey into such waters and for fans of a certain stripe it will take more than courage… it will take faith.  And perhaps that is what mewithoutyou is offering their audience after all is said and done.

2. Bob Dylan, Christmas in the Heart – of all the releases this year, this has probably been met with more befuddlement mixed with rage and disappointment than any other.  This is of course due to His Royal Bobness ‘(HRB) rabid fan base  coupled with Dylan being the closest thing to a living legend that American popular music has still recording that existentially stems from the folk revolution of the late 1950s.  As a bearer of a legacy, Dylan’s every move is watched and turned over and over.  On a recent Kindlings Muse podcast we tackled the question of Dylan and his legacy through such artists as Fleet Foxes and Sufjan Stevens.  During the Q and A portion of the show, one of the audience members asked bottom line question – “So, where is Bob Dylan going?” It seems that he has gone right to the heart of American chestnuts – the Christmas song – and played it straight up.  Some reviewers think that this project is nothing more than a joke – basically an ironic mockery of the Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, et. al.  industry of tree-trimming carols that assault shoppers in malls and become the stuff of disdain for children as their parents remember their past.  These are people – IMHO – who still think that irony and sarcasm are the twinned voices of the generation.  No, I listen to these gems and hear nothing by honor and a tapping into something so much deeper than irony.  To his credit, I think the home and hearth that HRB is crowing on about in these standards is a home that the man who sang “Like a Rolling Stone” would like to come to rest in.  Like George Bailey in the finale of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I think HRB is tired of singing alone and would love a singalong.  Mark my words all you naysayers… this is a recording that will be with us… and we will be better for it.  And of the nine downloads I have listened, this is as guilt free as it gets – all proceeds from the sales of the CD will provide 500,000 meals to school children in the developing world through the World Food Programme, 15,000 meals to homeless people in the United Kingdom through Crisis and more than 4 million meals to 1.4 million families in America through Feeding America.  Take that you cynics…

1. U2, No Line on the Horizon – Sure, they are the biggest band in the world and may be the biggest band in the short history of rock and roll (the jury is out) – so why can’t they have the biggest and best release of the year?  Yes, perhaps there is no surprise here for those who follow Theology Kung Fu (which one friend called a “U2 lovesite”), but when I heard the first single “Get On Your Boots” I honestly thought “so, this is it, isn’t it?  U2 are trying to re-capture some energy but this feels all wrong.”  But then the album was released and the digging into the album began and as I have written in many venues (my theological reflections on No Line on the Horizon were published as an article here)  this is yet another masterpiece of production, songcraft, and zeitgeist ready-at-handness hitting hard on questions of faith, war, poverty, racial discord, and what it means to be human.  The current 360 tour only seals it for me – this is U2’s year yet again and it is… wait for it… “magnificent” (click here to watch the boys perform “magnificent” during their weeklong stint on David Letterman… to see is to believe).

Well friends, that is the list.  Let the dogs of war loose – what did I miss?  where did I hit the nail on the head?  Where would you put these?

Like most people I both love and detest “best of” lists – I often gawk at what people choose (I mean, do the Oscars EVER get it right?) but at the same time can’t keep myself from pouring over them.  With that, I culled through my downloads and streaming for the year and akin to past Theology Kung Fu lists, have let the year set the number.  So here are my nine recordings to consider for download and streaming (you will see why I make this designation as you look at the list) before singing Auld Lang Syne at your New Years party:

9. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse with David Lynch, Dark Night of the Soul

One of the marks of this decade was the move of artists to (in the words of the Flobots) ‘fight with tools’ such as Garage Band, Facebook and MySpace to subvert the industrial strangehold on music distribution to varying degrees of success.  In the vain of Radiohead releasing ‘In Rainbows’ for ‘donation only’ via the web, Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse teamed up with a bevy of artists to record an amazing album true to its Carmelite title –  a homage to St. John of the Cross’ passive purgation into the ‘dark night of the soul.’  Filmmaker and auteur David Lynch (he of Mulholland Drive and Eraserhead fame) joined in to create filmic versions of the project as well as producing a photo journal.  The entire project was slated to be released with EMI this Fall but the project was pulled.  But if the move to the ‘computing cloud’ has taught us anything it is that no power on heaven or earth can stop the world wide web.  The album can be heard in its entirety via NPR’s First Listen site here.

My favorite track: Suzanne Vega on “The Man who would play God” and Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals on “Just War”

8. Fanfarlo, Reservoir

Lovers of Hey Marseilles, Arcade Fire, Beirut will find a home with Fanfarlo’s bookishly twee graduate student  aesthetics.  Similar to the Decemberist’s Victorian revisionism, the London sextet took their name from, of all places, from a book by the 19th century French critic Charles Baudelaire. As lead singer Simon Balthazar said in an interview on NPR “I was reading French symbolists at the time, and I sort of just reached out on the table and there was this book [by Baudelaire].”  Keeping with Baudelaire’s romantic sensibilities, Fanfarlo blend cello, violin, trumpet and mandolin into literate reflective flow that feels both at home at the circus and the critical theory post grad seminar.

7. The Flaming Lips/Stardust – “Borderline” off the Covered: A Revolution in Sound compilation

It probably isn’t fair to put just one song… let alone a cover song… let alone a cover of a Madonna hit from the 1980’s… in a list of “best of” releases at the end of the 21st century, but what can I say?  Wayne Cody, frontman for The Flaming Lips teamed up with Stardeath and White Dwarfs (which is fronted by his nephew Dennis Cody) to record this freaking AMAZING revisioning of this Madonna chestnut of yore. Like Madonna – while the songs made for great fun on the dance floor, it was the visuals with the dawn of MTV that grafted music to image for all time and this isn’t missed by the Lips.  As with all things Flaming Lips, there is the tinge of spaceman irony in their aesthetic – to hear them is to see them as it were with the big bunny suits and huge plastic beachballs. As the Lips toured this year they threw this cover into the mix to roaring acclaim and you can see why in the video of the song.  As the song builds, watch Wayne Cody in the background with his Emo puffy coat banging the large gong while his nephew in the argyle vest throws his hair around like Kurt Cobain at prep school and think “I bet Thanksgiving is a riot at their place…”

(btw – the Covered compilation that has this track also has a cover of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” by… wait for it… Adam Sandler. Yes… THAT Adam Sandler.  He sings it straight up and it isnt that bad…)

6. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone

When Fox Confessor Brings the Flood came out, the days of Neko Case being the secret crush of KEXP and NPR listeners was over.  With that CD, the sometime-singer in The New Pornographers whose pure voice channeling Patsy Cline, swirling lyricism of a bookworm, and non-sequitur arrangements forged by someone who spent too much time on craigslist (she bought up 100 pianos on craigslist and stored them in her barn… go figure) came to roost.  While the 2009 release of Middle Cyclone wasn’t quite the level of genius that was Fox Confessor, it still stood head and shoulders over many of the releases this past year.  Her cover of “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Nature” stands in the middle of the playlist as a tent pole for the eco-centric themes running throughout – whether it is the fact that Killer Whales get their name for a reason in “People Got a Lot of Nerve”  to the 30 minute plus (yes… 30 minute plus) ending track “Marais la nuit” which is just the sounds of her backyard at twilight (I wonder how many people just download that single…) it is really a tour d’force.

5. The Mountain Goats, The Life of the World to Come

I first came across the Mountain Goats (the band fronted by John Darnielle) with their release “The Sunset Trees” a few years back and especially the single “This Year” which is a rousing singalong that I usually play every year now on my birthday and love the “maybe this year in Jerusalem!”

There is a level of irony that so-called Christian bands will try to reach their audience by making their songs as abstracted and removed from biblical references as possible with not so much as a fish symbol on their CD cover art, yet a deeply ‘secular’ band like the Mountain Goats will release an album of songs whose titles are all direct biblical citations.  To read the linear notes and track listing in “The Life of the World to Come” is to get more engagement with the Bible than a year of Sundays in half the rock band churches popping up in warehouses everywhere.

Yet rather than either dismiss the project as the work of a cynic or disregard the songs as having no hermeneutic relation to the texts cited in the title, take a moment and just listen to the stories that Darnielle spins forth in each track with a Bible in your lap.

“Matthew 25:21” takes the parable of the Sheep and the Goats into the room of Darnielle’s mother-in-law as she is dying of cancer.  When you think of his chosen text as a rendering of promise for the “good and faithful servant to go into the joy of the Lord” it puts irony out in the hallway.   For U2 fans, Psalm 40 is considered almost untouchable since the definitive version anchored their “War” LP in 1983.  That said, the Mountain Goats take in “Psalms 40:2” is a kicker with a pulsing bass line fronted with Darnielle’s charistmatically frantic voice proclaiming “He has fixed his sign in the sky / He has raised me from the pit and set me high” that he is seeming to dare God to save him.  In “Genesis 30:3,” Darnielle sits at an old beaten piano singing about a kind of love few songwriters have the courage to reflect on let alone sing aloud.  Here Rachel, the beloved of Jacob, offers her maidservant Bilhah to her husband so that they can bear a child: “I will do what you ask me to do / Because of how I feel about you” sings Darnielle with a weight to his voice that speaks of love, understanding and pain in ways that much of what is called CCM could learn from.

I will upload my top 4 downloads tomorrow… any guesses what will make the number 1 spot? 🙂

In a recent article by Tom Matlack in the Huffington Post entitled “Tiger Woods and the State of Modern Manhood”, Matlack zeros in on this latest account of fallen sports icons as an accounting for what he sees as the demise of manhood in America.  As he surmises in the article:

Guys we are at a crossroads. You can go back into the cave if you want to but it isn’t going to do you, or your family, any good. The guys I know, from investment bankers to Marines, are asking themselves how they can possibly be good fathers, sons, husbands, and workers at the same time. In a way its what women have struggled with for decades but us guys are just facing into as the challenge of a “he-cession” at work and increased expectations at home have us reeling.

Does Matlack have a point worth considering?  Is he just a whiner who needs to ‘man up’, get to work, and stop watching Dr. Phil?  As the author spins his story of overindulgence in the consumer ideals of the so-called American dream that lead to his marriage falling apart and his identity collapsing around him, you do feel a level of sorrow and wonder what is indeed happening to our culture as it concerns men.  The question interests me as well as a teacher who works with young adults in their college years – what developmental theorist Erik Erickson calls the “moratorium from adulthood” and a period of life Cat Stevens mused as being “on the road to find out.”  I work alongside young men in their early 20s who continue to choose essentially two paths:

(1) entwine themselves with charismatic 21st century Robert Bly/Iron John/’Wild at Heart’ types who spin tales of manhood as a thing forged in the Black Forest amidst the terror of hordes of Orcs, framed in the flickering light of epic battles of yore, and promise mentorship in exchange of unswerving allegiance.  In short, many of the neo-Calvinist church plants catering to middle class America who see manhood as certainty of strength through force of will rather than faith, hope and love and as the mark  and virtue of a true man fall into this camp.

(2) The disenfranchised/misunderstood/maligned socially aware social justice artist who sees the role of manhood framed as the critic par excellence.   These young men fall into the hippie cum grunge cum slacker cum ‘have-hoodie-and-iPod-will-travel’ aesthetic that dance on the edge of things often journaling in the coffee shop while the world burns around them.  This is the underachiever who is the overly idealistic and tells all who listen what is wrong and how things should be yet won’t step out to change things beyond the sphere of their shaker snow globe of well-meaning egalitarianism.

Is there another model?  Is there some option beyond these polar extremes?

Some of you know that I have been working on a book project looking at the nature of “kenosis” in Christian identity formation.  “Kenosis” is a Greek term taken from Phil. 2:7, where Christ is spoken of as having “emptied himself” (NRSV) as the true mark of what constitutes humanity. There has been much discussion about this entire crucial passage (2:6 – 11), and the scholarship surrounding the exegetical history of the Carmen Christi of Philippians 2 is expansive.  While I will be referring to a number of key works, this book primarily explores the philosophical and theological questions that arise from the Kenotic tradition as they inform theological anthropology or the question of ‘being human’.  In addition to the many texts that will be cited throughout the book, recent texts that have  particularly informed this study are C. Stephen Evans’ recent edited volume Exploring Kenotic Christology: The Self Emptying of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Michael Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Soteriology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), and Kevin Cronin Kenosis: Emptying Self and the Path of Christian Service (London: Continuum, 2005).   The chapters in the book offer readers new conversation partners from the breadth and width of human reflection on what it means to be human and with these conversations partners I will offer a theological method for kenotic identity formation – a means and discipline to remain aware and open hearted to what the Kenotic life can be reimagined as.  The contours of this reimagined life will look at the re-framing of the deeply lived life by both internal (seen in the model of St. Augustine) and external (as seen in the work of Aristotle) concerns, radically decentered in location (as seen in the challenge of French theorist Jacques Derrida), found in the face of the other (seen in the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas), and ‘given’ rather than taken (as seen in the Catholic theologian Jean Luc Marion).

The challenge of writing a book is more than the research and putting proverbial pen to paper… it is knowing who you are writing for and speaking in a way that can be grabbed onto by the intended reader.

One of the things that has been difficult is finding this perfect pitch given the subject matter.  I have called the book “The Kenotic Self”  but have found from those who have looked at a draft of the proposal that the jargon may be off-putting.

My latest title:

k(no)w (you)r(self): The Missing Art of Being K(no)wn in Christianity

Thoughts?

Recently I was poking around on wordpress.com (the new home for the blogsite) and checking out other blogs about religion.  The introduction to the ‘blogs about’ section on wordpress.com for ‘religion’ has the following statement of purpose:

One of the many gods and goddesses the ancient Aztecs of Mexico worshipped was Cihuacoatl. Her temple was dedicated to soldiers and mothers who died in childbirth, which makes sense — both are warriors, in their own way. While the world’s most common religions tend to get most of the media’s attention (often for political or even violent reasons), the diversity and creativity of human spirituality is incredibly challenging to suppress. Our beliefs form our identities; therefore, we hang on tenaciously.

I like the emphasis on ‘identity formation’ as a core concern for what constitutes religious faith, but the emphasis on human beings is what I find increasingly troubling.  I mean, is the only reason (even the primary reason) that people have a religious faith is to figure out who WE are?

I suppose this brings us back to Immanuel Kant and his grand reversal of the subject – object.   Prior to Kant, human beings were the object of consideration of God what is the subject of all things – that which gives and sustains meaning.  Kant argued (rather successfully) that this the roles are reversed:  we as human beings are the subject that consider and ultimately sustain the reality of objects in the world of which God is one such ‘object’.  In this way, as with the definition above, we ‘hang tenaciously to the objects such as ‘God’ only for the sake of our so-called identity.   I just think there is more to it than that.  Sure, I am as much an egotist as the new person, but I have been awakened to a world much larger than myself and certainly larged than I can adequately reason and ‘even imagine’.

In the Hindu scriptures, there is a wonderful story of  the demon of egotism (Mamāsura) who had attacks Gaṇeśa Vighnarāja (the elephant headed God familiar to many).  In order to defend and overcome the onslaught of Mamāsura, Gaṇeśa Vighnarāja throws his lotus blossom at him. Unable to bear the fragrance of the divine flower, the demon surrenders to Gaṇeśa.

Perhaps we need to ‘consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air’ (Matthew 6: 25-33) as Jesus suggested in the Sermon of the Mount. a bit more time outside of OUR heads and perhaps we can realize that who WE are isnt nearly as important nor foundational as we think.